I was down at the gym with Phil and David. We went there three times a week after work. Phil was a bit of a bodybuilding nut but David and I were just trying to keep the middle-aged spread at bay. Phil was spotting for me as I puffed and grunted my way through the third reps, or, more accurately, tried to prevent the bar from crushing my rib cage. There was the usual early evening crowd of overweight business types plus a few guys from the local Rugby Club. And there was Charles.
As usual, Charles was over by the full-length mirrors doing bicep curls and studying his image in the mirror. He was one of those people you've just got to hate. I would guess he was in his early thirties, extremely good looking, like a male model, and rich. He ran some property development company and had made a killing in the redevelopment of derelict land in one of the scruffier parts of London. Suddenly this grotty patch is fashionable - gentrification, they call it - and our boy Charles is rolling in it. He came to me for legal advice in his early days but I'm no property lawyer so I sent him to one of the big City firms. To be honest, I was glad to see the back of him, there was something about him that didn't sit quite right with me, I don't know why. He accepted my advice with good grace and he later claimed I'd done him a huge favour, describing me as 'a man honest enough to know his own limitations'. Patronising git!
I don't know how he did it but he managed to produce this incredibly toned body with an apparent minimum of work. I saw guys sweat blood in that gym and not achieve half the results. Charles was one of the favoured few. He dressed superbly, drove a new Aston Martin and always had some trophy girlfriend hanging on his arm and every word. I think we could have accepted all of that if he'd the good grace to have some flaw - any old small blemish would have made him tolerable - but no, Charles was perfect. Irritatingly, sickeningly, unendurably perfect.
Phil looked his way and said, "What do you give to the man who has everything?" David gave a wolfish grin as he hoisted the bar off my chest and said, "Syphilis, I hope!" That about summed up our feelings. I know it's petty and admit it's entirely motivated by insane jealousy, but Charles was hard to like. The women in the club seemed to have less of a problem, though. That part didn't bother me so much as David and Phil. Both of them had lost out to Charles in the pursuit of a particularly luscious young lady called Rachel. I have to admit she was gorgeous, even if she wasn't my type. Rachel was a tall, willowy natural blonde who graced the gym for aerobics classes. She ran her own PR Agency, so she was no dumb blonde, but on the odd occasions I'd met her, there was something about her that jarred. I couldn't put my finger on it for ages until I realised that she was a bit too much like Charles. One of the chosen few: beauty, brains and success. Again, there were no obvious flaws.
I suppose I'm a bit odd that way. I like my friends to be more human, more ordinary, if you will. You need a blemish or two to keep you humble, in my opinion. I have enough imperfections to keep me abject but I like being ordinary. The way I see it, if you're too perfect, you can only go one way. All the time I had room for improvement, I could keep trying. There's also a difference between liking who you are and being in love with yourself. One is healthy; the other makes you a pain in the arse. Charles was firmly in the latter camp. He was one smug bastard, in short.
Anyway, the three of us finished our work out and staggered off to the showers. I guess I'm lucky have to friends like David and Phil. We'd met at the Law College in Guildford and hit it off straight away. We all served our time in one or other of the big City firms and had then decamped en masse to set up MacDonald, Harvey and Le Clerc, 'Solicitors to the Gentry' or something. Eight years on and the practice was thriving. We weren't making a fortune, few solicitors in small country towns ever get rich, but we were comfortable and happy enough with our lot. David handled the domestic stuff, Phil was an employment specialist and I kind of swept up with the litigation, intellectual property and bits and pieces. We had a couple of newly qualified assistants for the drudgework and although we worked reasonably hard, we still had the time and inclination to play.
We showered off and headed into the Jacuzzi to ease the aching muscles. It was a bit of a ritual for us to sit in the tub and chat about nothing in particular for a while after we'd worked out. We have an unwritten rule never to discuss business outside of the office. Anyone attempting to breach this rule is immediately set upon by the other two. I think it helps us to stay friends as well as business partners.
That particular evening we were sitting in the tub chatting away about life, the universe and everything when Charles came waltzing in, not a hair out of place, as usual.
"Ah, the Legal Eagles. How are we this evening, gentlemen?"
"Fine, Charles. Just dandy, thank you for asking."
"Good, good. I've been meaning to come to see you, James. I think I can put some work your way."
"That's kind of you Charles. Why don't you give a ring tomorrow? We can fix something up."
"Well, if you have a minute now? It's, ah, a rather delicate matter. If we could meet in the bar in say, ten minutes? You can follow me back to my place and we could have a chat."
I could feel Phil and David getting ready to pounce. There was no need. The bastard assumed I'd jump at the chance. I smiled sweetly. "Terribly sorry, Charles, I'm about to arrange a prior engagement. Call me tomorrow and we can make an appointment." His eyes flickered very briefly. I couldn't say whether it was anger or disappointment. He gave a curt nod and left us. "That will teach him to mind his manners," said Phil, "cocky bastard!" I nodded but there was something nagging at me, something that hadn't been quite right with the exchange. I shook my head, no need to worry about it until the morning. Either Charles would call or he wouldn't. I didn't care too much either way.
Charles did call. He was most insistent on seeing me urgently. I did have a free slot, as it happened, and it would have been churlish to put him off just for the Hell of it. We made a date for 4.00pm. I went through the daily grind without breaking sweat. There was nothing interesting on my plate and, it being just before Christmas, I wasn't expecting too much new activity until after the holidays. On the dot of Four O'clock, Janet, our secretary-cum-receptionist announced Mr Forsythe-Wheeler was there to see me. "Mr Harrington will see you now," she said, or rather tried to say, before she was even half way through the sentence, the egregious Charles was into my office like a long-dog after a rabbit.
"James, good of you to see me."
"A pleasure, as always, Charles."
"I won't beat about the bush. I know you for a pretty discreet sort and it's discretion I most need right now. I'm in a bit of a fix and I need your help."
"Are you sure I'm the right man for the job, Charles? As you know, commercial property is not my forte."
"This isn't a business matter. It's personal. In fact, James, it's highly personal."
"If I can help you in my professional capacity, of course I will."
"James I know that you don't like me very much, which puts you in the vast majority in this town, but I do believe that you're a fair and honest man. Let me explain the situation to you. I hope you will see that I'm not asking you to do anything that would impinge on your integrity or professional ethics."
"Ok Charles, fire away!"
Charles began to explain his problem. It seems that about four years ago he had bought some property, a flat in Caxton Street, Westminster, to be precise. He hadn't put his name on the deeds, for tax reasons, as he explained it. The flat was actually registered to a girlfriend. Unfortunately for Charles, she was now an ex-girlfriend and was cutting up rough. He wanted to sell the property; she had to sign and would get the proceeds. He was prepared to 'see her all right', as he put it, but as matters stood she would waltz off with the whole six hundred thousand pounds. I questioned him some more. No, there was nothing in writing. No, there were no reliable witnesses to the arrangement. Yes, she had turned down £50,000. He didn't seem to have too many legs to stand on.
"I see the problem, Charles. We could hit her with some sort of 'implied trust' thing but it wouldn't stand up if she has a halfway competent lawyer."
"Ah. That's one of the difficulties. You see the young lady in question is actually Sally Rodwell."
I took a minute to absorb this piece of information. Sally was the daughter of Lord Justice Sidney Rodwell - Sid Vicious to the legal profession. Rodwell LJ was one of the most feared Judges ever to sit, even including Judge Jeffries! If his darling was in a legal wrangle, any lawyer with an ounce of brains would be running for cover. Whoever said I have an ounce of brains? I knew Sally fairly well. She was a close friend of my ex-girlfriend, Pippa. Pippa and I were on good terms and still occasionally partnered each other to formal 'dos' if we didn't have a current romance on the go. To tell the truth, I still carried a bit of a torch for her. No one else had come close after we broke up.
"OK, Charles, I'll tell you what I'll do. I will meet with Sally and see if we can resolve this amicably. I'm pretty sure that you've already been advised that, legally, you're dead in the water?"
He grunted but then agreed.
"Right then, you know that I know Sally and you are hoping that I can talk her round, correct?"
Again he nodded. "I'll pay your normal rates, of course."
"No you won't, Charles, you'll pay what I say it costs, because you have no choice."
He looked startled and about to argue but then caved in. "How much is it going to cost me, then?"
"Nothing. Absolutely nothing. At least, not financially. No, I will talk to Sally because she is a friend and I don't like to see my friends involved in shady dealings. No, Charles, hear me out. If you wish to evade tax, that is between you and the Inland Revenue. If you'd done the thing properly in the first place it would have cost you what, £100,000? It could cost you all of that and more to get out of this mess of your own making."
"If you don't want a fee, what do you want?"
"It's simple, Charles. I want you to stop putting us down. I mean, this practice and particularly me. No more of this 'knows his own limitations' stuff. No more 'perfectly competent in their own way' and definitely no more 'adequate for a town this size.' For whatever reason, Charles, people in this town listen to you, especially business people. You're the 'Golden Boy.' I can't prove it but I know you have cost us some good accounts with your damning of us with faint praise. It stops now or you're on your own."
The bastard had the good grace to look uncomfortable for about ten seconds and then agreed. He left shortly afterwards and I sat for a while thinking about how to approach Sally. In the end I decided that the direct approach was best and called Pippa to get her number. A few minutes later Sally answered the phone.
"Sally, it's James Harrington."
"James, how are you, long time no see!"
"I'm fine, Sally, in the pink, in fact. I've just had a very unhappy Charles Forsythe-Wheeler darkening my door. He's asked me to have a chat."
"James! I'm surprised at you! You're not working for that shit?"
"Not exactly, Sally, not working. Look it's a long story but I do think we need to have a chat. It's in your interests as much as his."
"James, ordinarily I'd be delighted to see you but not if you're going to take his side. Anyway, you'd be wasting your time. Daddy says he doesn't have a leg to stand on!"
"And did Daddy also tell you, Sally, that you would be committing theft?
She was silent for a moment. "OK, James, so I didn't discuss it with Daddy." There was an air of resignation in her voice. "When do you want to meet?"
"Look, Sally, this isn't at all formal. What do you say I buy you dinner and we have a chat and see if we can't put an end to this business amicably?"
She sighed but agreed and we arranged to meet at a little Italian restaurant I know in Sicilian Avenue in a couple of days time.
I was early, Sally was late, but at least she showed up. She was bright and brittle and avoiding the subject at first. She loosened up after a couple of glasses of Barolo. When she did start to talk, she rocked me to my foundations.
"Pippa says you're a nice guy, James, one of the 'good ones'. Charles is quite the opposite, but then again, so am I. I'm a party girl. I love to have fun and am a teeny weeny bit short in the inhibitions department. By the way, did you know Charles owns that Health Club you all go to? No? Well, take my word for it, he does. At least, he owns the building. Charles is a Grade A shit, James. I know you have experience of it so I don't mind saying it. However, he is wildly attractive.
"The point is, there is a private room at the back of the Gym. It has a two- way mirror or whatever you call it, into the ladies' changing rooms. Charles watches the girls getting undressed and so forth. That's not really important. The room is also a fully equipped 'dungeon' for S&M fetishists. All sorts of chains and benches and racks, all black leather or rubber or PVC. I'm sure you get the picture. Well, it isn't really my scene but given enough Columbian Marching Powder and a bit of booze I was up for it, well anyway, I agreed to give it to a try.
"Charles also invited three of his cronies so in short order I found myself stretched backwards over something like a vaulting horse with, well to be blunt, a prick in each available hole and another wanking off over my tits. Now, don't get me wrong! I do enjoy a good gang-bang as much as the next girl, especially in my rather spaced-out state. I wasn't objecting at that point, in fact, if I remember rightly, I was in the middle of some screaming orgasms. I was that original 'good time had by all'.
"It started to turn ugly from my point of view when Charles, having just come royally up my arse, started pissing on me and got the others to do the same. He was also slapping me around and calling me filthy names. The cronies did what cronies do and followed suit, and I ended up pretty well roughed-up. I couldn't go out for a fortnight, because of the bruises, and my insides were pretty messed up too. Did I say he shoved this enormous leather dildo everywhere he could? I was bleeding for two days!
"I vowed that I would have the bastard for what he did. I couldn't very well go to the Police - Daddy would have a shit-fit! So I bided my time. When he wanted to sell the flat in Caxton Street, I saw my chance. So now you know what you're up against. By the way, he's done it to quite a few girls over the last few years. We could form a club. Charles's ex-whores!"
To say I was shocked would be an understatement. I'm no prude and if Sally or anyone else got their jollies by being fucked in very hole by a bunch of guys, that's their business. I have never been able to stomach the rough stuff, though. The whole thing made me feel sick and I couldn't eat another thing. There I was thinking it was a case of 'Hell hath no fury'. It wasn't a woman scorned I was dealing with. It was a woman violated. I tried to gather my scattered wits. I managed to pick up the pieces after a while and a couple of hefty swallows of Barolo. That noble wine isn't really meant to deaden one's sense of outrage. I tried to be professional.
"Sally, I don't want to belittle in any way what must have been a horrible experience. My concern now is to find a solution to the present impasse over Caxton Street that satisfies you and doesn't leave you open to criminal proceedings. I understand he offered £50,000. I know he will go higher, we can probably double that, is there any chance you'll settle?"
She almost spat at me, she was so angry.
"Did you understand a word of what I've been telling you? It isn't about money; it's about revenge. I won't even call it justice. It's revenge, for me and the others. That's what I want. By the way, Pippa is another of Charles's victims."
I didn't know what to say. I could see no way out. Hearing Pippa had suffered similar treatment made me feel cold to my core. Pippa wasn't a 'party girl.' I felt close to tears. Whatever loyalty I had felt to Charles as my 'client' up to that point evaporated instantly.
"Hasn't anyone reported him to the Police?"
"Oh, James, come on! We all went in consenting. OK, judgement was impaired by various substances, but can you imagine what Plod would make of it?"
She had a point. Getting a straightforward rape investigated seriously is difficult enough. Given the circumstances, it's hard to see the Met exactly jumping through hoops to get a conviction. Also, girls like Sally and Pippa wouldn't want the scandal. Knowing Charles, it was unlikely that any of the victims would have been anything other than solidly upper-middle class with a lot to lose if things came out in Court.
"What does Pippa say," I asked at last.
"Oh, you know Pippa. She doesn't want to see me in trouble and doesn't want the World and his Wife to know that she got gang-banged and beaten up by that little shit and his pals. Pippa's into 'let's pretend it never happened' mode."
I recognised that. Pippa always shied away from any sort of confrontation. That was the reason we split in the end. Rather than face any difficulty she would sidestep neatly. That's just the opposite of me. I like things out front where I can deal with them. Nothing ever got dealt with, so we drifted apart. I was hurt at the time but recognised it wasn't her fault. I thought for a moment. "Who else got the treatment?" I asked.
"Just about every one of Charles's paramours in the last five years. It's been getting worse, though, more violent. I swear he'll do someone some permanent harm before too long. Rachel is in for this Friday night, although she doesn't know it yet."
"Haven't you warned her?"
"Oh yes, even if she is a stuck-up bitch. Too like Charles in so many ways. But no, we of the sisterhood should stick together. Do you know Penny Atwater? Penny gave her the gypsy's warning but it didn't faze our Rachel one bit. So I called her and told her what had happened. She told me I was exaggerating or must be jealous because I couldn't keep my man satisfied. Imagine! The bitch!"
"OK. I have an idea. It's strictly illegal, wholly unethical but I frankly don't care. I think we can fix Charles's wagon. I'll need your help, a couple of others too. I don't suppose Pippa would be up for it but you might ask her. There is only one condition. If I succeed in sorting out Charles, you agree to settle on Caxton Street for, let's say, a hundred grand?"
She agreed and I told her my plan. Her grin got wider as I explained what I had in mind.
I explained the whole situation to Phil and David; I needed them on my side if the plan was to succeed. I needn't have worried. Once they heard that Pippa had been a victim and Rachel was to be next, they were in like Flynn. We left the office on the dot of Five O'clock that Friday and went straight to the Gym. Sally was there to meet us with Penny Atwater, a pretty redhead, and, much to my surprise, Pippa.
"Right, I need one of you three to clear the ladies' changing rooms for us. Phil and I are going into the glazing business. David, you go with Sally to Charles's private room and set things up there."
Pippa and Penny duly obliged and cleared the changing room. Phil hung a prepared sign reading 'Out of Order, Please use Swimming Pool Changing Rooms' and then we set to work. We took out Charles's trick mirror and reversed it. We could now look into the Dungeon but he couldn't see out. On the other side of the glass, we watched as David and Sally made their preparations. They joined us in the darkened changing room and we settled down to wait. A couple of hours passed slowly. Sally was flirting with David and Phil was showing Penny how the video camera and concealed microphone worked. I sat quietly with Pippa. She reached out and squeezed my hand.
"I only got involved with Charles because we broke up," she said. "I didn't know what he was like, of course. He seemed... exciting somehow."
"Pippa, you don't have to explain."
"Oh, but I do! James, it was horrible. I don't know how it happened but we'd been out for the evening and ended up back here. I hadn't drunk much but I was feeling really woozy. He showed me that Room." She gestured towards the mirror. He started laying out a couple of lines of coke and snorted them. He asked me to give him a blowjob and I don't know why, but I agreed. Then these other men appeared. They literally ripped my clothes off.