Exactly a week after her interview with Lilian Greeves, Ruth found herself in a rather decrepit taxi, making its way slowly up a winding country lane on the edge of Exmoor, and wondering just what she was doing here. She had decided not to bring her own car, not relishing the long journey into unfamiliar territory, and had taken a train to Taunton. After some little difficulty, she had found a taxi prepared to take her the thirty or so miles to Damocles Priory. She sadly acknowledged to herself that, in the words of Laurel and Hardy, this was another fine mess she'd got herself into and that she would have done better to drive down. The taxi was anything but rapid, and its taciturn driver a far cry from the talkative city cabbies she was used to. Resignedly, she sat back in the seat and did her best to enjoy the ride, thankful that after a week's recovery her bottom was no longer marked with the print of Tony's chastisement and she could at least sit comfortably.Oh, I do hope so, don't you?
Things had moved quickly over the last week. The interview with Lillian had shattered her euphoric mood and Tony's best endeavours had failed to restore her optimism. She had explained to him what had happened and shown him the detailed written instructions which Coral Browne had produced for her, but he had not been able to give her much comfort. She wondered what was meant by the phrase 'Active Learning'. Lillian had used it, and it was repeated in the course introductory notes that she had been given.
Those notes had been singularly uninformative. They told her where to find Damocles Priory and at what time to arrive but very little else. Increasing her curiosity, the notes had contained a paragraph headed 'Dress Code' which had contained an instruction to bring 'track and field athletics kit'. The closing paragraph had also mentioned that all attendees were requested to remember the 'activity-level-code' which their sponsoring employers would allocate to them. In Lillian Greeves immaculate handwriting had been a single sentence, 'Your code is ten.'
Ruth's appreciation of the beauty of the deeply wooded countryside through which they were driving was rudely shattered by the harsh rasp of a motor-cycle engine. The taxi driver cursed and swerved slightly to the left. A dark-suited, helmeted figure on a powerful machine rocketed by, cutting across a blind bend.
"I reckon that mad Harry must be going where we are." The driver broke silence for the first time since the start of the journey. "To tell you the truth, miss, there ain't much else out in these wilds...not for miles and miles..."
* * *
Inspector Stephen Langton, the 'mad Harry' on the motor-bike was, in truth, lost and didn't know where he was going, much less that he shared a destination with the occupant of the taxi he had just rather recklessly passed. The fact of the matter was that he did not want to be where he was, wherever that was, and was only trying to find this damned Damocles Priory because his boss, Superintendent Matthews, had given him no choice.
Matthews was a policeman of the old school, who resented Stephen's rapid promotion through the ranks. Stephen, for his part, bore his chief no great animosity, but found it difficult to respect him professionally and regarded him as a plodder. One of the things on which they disagreed was the new attitudes which seemed to be revolutionising the way people dealt with many of the social problems of the early 21st century.
The treatment of young offenders, in particular, had been heavily re-thought. Instead of locking youngsters up, or giving them equally ineffective 'counselling' for minor offences, it was now legal for magistrates to sentence minor miscreants to the 'short, sharp shock' which had been so effective a century earlier. Superintendent Matthews thought this was a wonderful development and constantly lectured Stephen about the 'good old days'. Stephen, for his part, could see some merit but was far from certain that corporal punishment was a universal panacea.
Things had come to a head when the two officers had been arguing in the canteen after a court hearing. They had been discussing the treatment of a particular young offender who Stephen had apprehended for a minor theft. The Superintendent had then assumed responsibility for making the necessary character report to the magistrate before sentence was passed, and had not done the youth in question any favours.
"I thought you were a bit harsh, sir," Stephen had protested, after the boy had been sentenced to twelve strokes of the cane as well as three months detention. "The lad came from a pretty deprived background and no amount of thrashing will knock that out of him."
"Nonsense, best thing in the world for the likes of him," had been Matthews's curt reply.
"I can't agree, sir. It will just harden him. Now you take someone from a good home, like young WPC Jeavons over there." Stephen had been trying to lighten the conversation, make a joke of things. "If, hypothetically speaking of course, someone like her needed a bit of correction, then I'd be all for it!" He smiled at the pretty brunette WPC across the room, thankful that she could not hear the conversation. "Gorgeous little bottom, very spankable indeed. No doubt do her the world of good. Now I'm all for that kind of discipline!"
Matthews turned puce and Stephen instantly regretted his levity. Too late he remembered that the lovely little constable was Matthews's niece and the apple of his eye!
"That settles it!" Superintendent Matthews roar caused Sally Jeavons to glance across the room. She wondered what it was that her uncle and Stephen Langton were arguing about this time. She liked Stephen a lot, but if he didn't watch his attitude, her chances of ever getting together with him in the back seat of a patrol car one night shift were going to be pretty slim.
"I've thought for some time that I should be sending you on a course to find out just what corporal punishment is really all about, and I know just the place for you, my lad. It's Damocles Priory and, when you get there, tell them your code is eight. I hope they will teach you some sense!"
* * *
Stephen throttled the engine back and the heavy bike slowed to a more pedestrian pace. He had heard some rumours about Damocles Priory and didn't much like what he'd heard. Neither was he reassured when, once it had become public knowledge that he was being seconded for a few days, members of his squad started to make jokes and whisper as he came into the room. However, his sense of duty and discipline overcame his misgivings and, armed with the minimum of clothes and washing kit in the pannier of his bike, here he was. But just where was here?
He pulled into a lay-by and stopped in front of a gateway leading to a long gravel drive. As he extracted the map from his pocket on the tank of the bike, the taxi he had passed a few moments before drew up alongside.
"Lost your way, sir?" The taxi driver gave an insolent grin as he leant across to the open window.
"Well...er...not exactly," Stephen began, then realised he was going to look even more foolish if he didn't come clean. "Well, yes, actually I am a bit uncertain. I'm looking for Damocles Priory. Do you know where that is?"
"Oh yes, I know that all right, sir."
"Well, where, please?" Stephen tried not to let his irritation show, having spotted that the pretty dark-haired girl in the back of the taxi had taken a sudden interest when he had mentioned his destination.
"Why, right there, sir." The driver gave another grin and pointed at the gravel driveway behind Stephen. "You're here, sir, but now you are blocking our way...if you don't mind, sir."
Stephen coloured up. The taxi driver's profusion of 'sirs' had not been in the least bit respectful, quite the reverse in fact. He clicked into gear and gunned the engine, dragging the bike round in a tight circle to enter the gateway first, but he was not quick enough. As soon as the bike began its turn, the taxi slid forward into the gap and Stephen, fuming, was forced to follow it at walking pace for almost half a mile up the narrow drive before the tree-lined path suddenly widened into a crescent and he found himself facing an imposing stone-faced building.
Stephen dismounted and kicked the prop stand of his bike into place. He was stiff and tired after his long ride and not in the best of humour. Even so, he had to admit that the view which confronted him was impressive. The priory was built from a reddish brown sandstone and consisted of two parts: a three-storey section directly in front of him, and a long lower wing stretching off to one side. The three-storey section was virtually a cube and covered in ivy, which ran right up to the mock battlements that his the main roof from view. The lower section of the building seemed to be a single storey, with very tall windows and a steeply sloping slate roof, also with a profusion of ivy. Stephen guessed that it might once have been some sort of refectory or meeting hall, assuming this place ever had housed any kind of religious order.
His inspection of the building was cut short as the taxi door opened and a long and very shapely female leg appeared. He made a performance of removing his crash helmet, while surreptitiously inspecting the owner of the leg as she emerged from the taxi and bent forward at the front window of the car to pay off the driver. She was a tall girl. He judged her to be about his own age and beautifully built. She was wearing a loose bolero jacket over a white satin blouse and a flared miniskirt. Her figure was well proportioned and, although not by any means Junoesque, she was certainly equipped with curves in all the right places.
The girl completed her transaction with the taxi driver, who wasted no time in starting his engine and executing a rather cumbersome three-point turn, forcing the girl to bend down rapidly and grab at the small case which seemed to be her only luggage, to prevent the taxi running over it. The sudden movement revealed a considerable amount of thigh, and Stephen hurriedly attended to the catches on his bike's panniers, hoping to disguise his admiring stare.
"I hope you like what you see?" she observed, and obviously he had not been quick enough. He coloured up, fumbling for a reply.
"Yes indeed, it's an impressive building, isn't it?" was the best he could manage on the spur of the moment. He found himself staring into a pair of deep-brown eyes sparkling with laughter, and was forced to grin sheepishly.
"Victorian, I should say, wouldn't you?" Her voice betrayed amusement at his embarrassment, but she was decent enough to go along with his pathetic attempt at covering up. Stephen wondered if this girl could possibly be something to do with the same course he was destined for. If so, then life was definitely looking up. She had the most striking black hair, cut quite short, in an almost boyish style. With her high cheekbones, firm jaw-line and lightly tanned complexion, Stephen wondered if she had a Mediterranean ancestor somewhere in her family. Her tone and bearing somehow conveyed an impression of quiet authority, and a quality he couldn't quite put words to. Certainly she was no bimbo! He wondered if she was already attached to some lucky man. No engagement or wedding ring in evidence - his trained eye had already noticed that - but that didn't mean much these days.
"Er...um...I'm Stephen Langton," He still felt a little tongue-tied.
She held out a hand. "Ruth Jamieson. I guess you are here for the course - the one run by Reverend Mould?"
"Yes, that's right." He was about to say more, to try to find out more about his attractive course colleague, when the solid oak door of the main building swung open in front of them.
The person who emerged was clearly not the Reverend Mould. Short, very slim, and dressed in a black jacket and skirt, she was obviously of Asian origin, from Korea or Cambodia, Stephen guessed.
"You are here for the punishment course?" The question was was directed to Stephen and phrased in clear but heavily accented English.
"Yes, that's right. Run by the Reverend Mould?"
"He will come later. I am Madam Karabengse. These are my brothers." A stubby finger gesticulated to two Asian men who had emerged from the dark hallway behind the front door. "You would not be able to pronounce their full names." She stared at Stephen with ill-disguised contempt, "So you may call them Kim and Luc. You are to go with them." Again the finger extended in the direction of the men. "The lady will come with me."
The girl he now knew to be Ruth made a poor attempt to hide her mirth at Stephen's discomfiture. Angrily, Stephen detached the pannier's from his bike and followed his guides, leaving Ruth alone with Madam Karabengse. Mentally, he cursed himself for behaving like an adolescent fool and hoped he could recover some ground with the pretty young lady later.
He followed the men up a wide staircase which curved around the central well forming the core of the building. On gaining the gallery which formed the second floor he was shown into a room which could have been part of a good-class hotel just about anywhere. It had all the usual fittings, except a phone or TV, but that wouldn't be a hardship, Stephen decided. After all, he was only expecting to be there for a couple of nights. The furnishing in the room consisted of a bed, a writing desk, two small armchairs and a wardrobe. As with most hotel rooms, a shower and toilet were en-suite.
The two men waited impassively while Stephen completed his brief inspection of the room. Then the man called Kim, clearly the senior of the two, raised one spiky eyebrow. "Room is OK?" His brother, Luc, made no indication that he could either speak or understand a word of English.
Stephen didn't know whether a tip was appropriate, but he wasn't carrying any money in his motor-cycle leathers anyway, so he just nodded and said, "Fine, thank you."
"Reverend Mould say please to join him and other people, of course, for dinner. Six o'clock sharp in dining room. It is at foot of main stair, turn left, down corridor, then turn right, OK?" Stephen confirmed his understanding and the enigmatic brothers immediately turned as one and left the room without further comment.
It only took him a few moments to unpack his personal belongings from the motor-cycle pannier, so he had plenty of time to shower and relax after his long ride. Travelling as light as he did, Stephen already had cause to bless the brief joining instructions, which had given him the same curt dress code that Ruth had received. He donned a tracksuit over his running shorts, settled into one of the armchairs and began to speculate on how many other people would be joining him and the delightful Miss Jamieson on the course.
It did not take long before the warmth of the room and the fatigue of the journey began to make him drowsy. Feeling himself nodding off, he checked his watch and found that he still had an hour to kill. He set the tiny in-built alarm for fifty minutes later and settled deeper into the chair.
* * *
The insistent buzz of the miniature alarm penetrated Stephen's fuzzy brain and he struggled to straighten himself from his slumped position in the chair. It seemed as if he dozed off for only a matter of seconds. Checking his watch he discovered to his annoyance that he must have slept through the first alarm. He had only awakened when his watch had repeated its wake-up call, ten minutes after the first, almost inaudible, chime had sounded. Damn! Not a great start. He was going to be late for the first meeting of the course. Quickly he splashed some water on his face to wash the sleep away, dabbed himself dry, and hastily made for the staircase.
By the time he had located the dining-room, it was fully seven minutes past six. Approaching the door, he could hear a buzz of conversation. Preparing his apologies, Stephen opened the door and went in. He was confronted by a long dining table, already laid for dinner, with an impressive display of silverware. Standing facing him at the far end of the table was a man of about forty years of age. Of medium height and build, he wore a clergyman's dog collar over a plain white shirt and pale-grey pinstripe trousers. On one side of the table sat two young ladies. One had long dark hair hanging straight to her shoulders, framing a rather thin face. The other was plumper, with a figure which Stephen could only think of as 'chunky'. Her blonde hair was plaited into a single tail and, as her eyes met Stephen's gaze, they shone with a sparkle which Stephen instantly interpreted as holding both a promise and a challenge. On the other side of the table sat the attractive dark-haired girl Stephen already knew to be Ruth. All three women were dressed casually, in the sense that they were not wearing evening gowns, but Stephen guessed that each had chosen a dress calculated to make an impression. He had no problems with that - his initial impression was very favourable indeed, and this course looked as if it could be quite fun, after all.
The conversation, which had clearly been in full swing, died instantly as Stephen entered the room. "I'm terribly sorry I'm a little late," he began, feeling somewhat embarrassed as four pairs of eyes swivelled towards him.
"You must be Mr. Langton." The clergyman spoke with a clear and rather pleasant voice, educated, certainly, but with no particular accent that Stephen could determine.
"Yes, but please call me Stephen."
"I am John Mould. Reverend Mould for the duration of your stay here, if you please." He made a sweeping gesture at the women seated round the table. "These ladies are -" He pointed first at the thin-faced, dark haired girl.
"Amanda Price. Pleased to meet you." Her voice did not sound terribly pleased.
"Victoria Plum." The chunky girl spoke next, then laughed infectiously. "It's a dreadful pun, I know, but Mummy and Daddy thought it was sweet at the time." She giggled again and Stephen could not suppress a smile. "Just call me Vicky, everyone does."
The Reverend Mould gestured at his final guest.
"Ruth Jamieson, which you already know, of course, as we met at the door." She had a delightful smile, Stephen thought.
"Please take a seat, Mr. Langton." The Reverend Mould was determined to be formal and Steohen sensed that his late arrival was not appreciated. "I had just begun to outline to these ladies a little of the history of Damocles Priory but, as time is moving on, I would like to use the next hour or so for us all to become more acquainted. The effectiveness of the rest of the course does depend so much on an atmosphere of frankness, so we all learn from each other. I think perhaps we should have dinner served now and talk as we eat. After dinner, I intend that we should begin the preliminary session of the course."
Without waiting for comment from the students, he clapped his hands loudly. Instantly, a door at the back of the room swung open and Kim entered, closely followed by Luc. Each was dressed as a waiter and clearly this was the function they were going to perform; although Stephen sensed that the role was very much out of character for both of them. They looked more like bouncers from a sleazy nightclub, he decided.
Whatever his misgivings about the suitability of the waiters, Stephen had to admit that Damocles Priory served a very good dinner. He guessed that they had Madam Karabengse to thank for that. The food would have done credit to a top London restaurant and was all the more enjoyable for the delightful conversation. The Reverend Mould did not say a great deal, allowing his guests to make their own introductions. The good meal and pleasant company made it easy for Stephen to relax and he soon forgot the feeling of awkwardness that his late arrival...and in a tracksuit...had caused. He learnt that each of the girls had a connection, of sorts, with the other. Vicky was a schoolteacher, like Ruth. Amanda was the personal assistant to a senior official in the Department of Education who was responsible for administering the schools at which both Ruth and Vicky taught.
It didn't trouble him in the least that he was the odd man out. He found all three ladies very attractive in their different ways. Amanda, whom he had at first thought rather plain, turned out to be very intelligent and witty, and her deep-blue eyes had an intensity that he began to find very sexy. It was impossible not to form an instant attachment to Vicky; she was so bubbly and full of life. Stephen was quick to notice that what he had, at first, thought of as 'chunkiness' was in fact a perfect figure. It was just that she was small in stature - he guessed not much over five feet tall - and one sort of expected the body of a young girl, whereas Vicky was most decidedly developed in all the places that mattered.
Although there was plenty of idle chatter throughout the meal, Stephen noticed that none of those seated at the table, himself included, said much about why they were attending this somewhat unusual course. He guessed that each of them had some reason for not wanting to go into details. In his own case, he was not especially proud of the fact that he was there because his job depended on it. He was curious to know if the same applied to the others, but his police training did not help him to find any answers. This was neither the time or place for interrogation techniques to be applied!
As the meal drew to a close, Luc - or was it Kim, as Stephen could hardly tell one from the other - began to serve coffee. The Reverend Mould waited until everyone had been served and had helped themselves to cream and sugar before he stood up and rapped his spoon gently on the side of his cup to gain attention.
"I hope you all enjoyed your meal." There was a general chorus of assent, swiftly stilled as he held up his hand for silence. "Now it is time for us to address the real purpose of your being here. As you know, the purpose of this course is to teach you about corporal punishment, something which is relevant to all of you in your professional lives, for one reason or another." He paused and looked closely at his audience. When he appeared satisfied that he had their undivided attention, he continued.
"I am a great believer in a technique that I describe as Action Learning. This means learning from a close involvement with a situation. Role-playing, if you prefer. As you must realise, to apply this technique to the subject of our little course, it may be necessary for those involved to endure a little personal discomfort, and embarrassment, for a short period of time, although I do assure you that this is a temporary state of affairs and is essential if the course is to succeed in its objectives."
Stephen wondered if he had heard correctly. The man could only mean that the attendees on the course were actually going to receive punishment themselves. Surely he couldn't mean that! He saw from the varying degrees of horror on the faces of the other students that they had put the same interpretation on the speech. His imagination began to run away with him, a series of lurid fantasies flitting across his mind in swift succession.
"Now, of course, I do realise that this concept may be unacceptable to some of you," the Reverend Mould continued, " and for that reason, I am giving you the opportunity to opt out of the course at this point. If you choose to do so, you are welcome to stay the night here and return home in the morning. Those of you who elect to remain will be asked to sign a little document which I have prepared - nothing elaborate, just a little waiver to confirm that you are here of your own free will and accept the consequences of your presence here. Once you have signed the waiver, I shall consider that we have entered a binding Master-pupil relationship and the course will continue with no further concessions. Do you all understand? Are there any questions?"
There was a stunned silence for some considerable time, broken eventually by Amanda who asked, with a gasp;
"Do you actually mean that that you are going to...well, I mean...beat us?"
The story so far: