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‘Do either of you know why she invited us?’ asked Zafirah Khalil.
‘No,’ replied Lydia Goodman.
Yvette Baudelaire gave a slight shake of her head. She was piecing together the commonalities that the women and their host shared: female, single and multi-billionaires (although not via the same means). The meeting was most likely to do with finance but as each of them either had previously had nothing to do with each other or, in the case of Lydia Goodman and the host herself, had been fierce competitors in business, it was unwise to lay bets on exactly what the reason would be.
They were in the circular top-floor restaurant of The O Bar. While Zafirah and Yvette sat patiently, Lydia stood at the floor-to-ceiling windows taking in the view that included Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Opera House. A cruise liner blew smoke from its funnel that cast a haze into the otherwise clear and crisp August air.
Lydia eyed the clock — it was 9.29am and 36 seconds. ‘Whatever the reason and despite the impressive breakfast she inevitably has in store for us, I do hope she won’t be late,’ she said with what Yvette perceived to be deliberately accentuated received pronunciation.
Just seconds before it turned 9.30am they heard the maître d’ bid someone welcome and soon Ngaire Brown rounded the bar to where the others were waiting.
‘Good morning, ladies,’ she said and held out a hand. She shook the hands of all three, bowing slightly when it came to Zafirah. ‘Please: take a seat. I’m very glad you could all make it.’ She signalled the maître d’ who smiled from a distance and went to signal the chef to begin.
Lydia tried to ignore her in-built resentment that Ngaire had retained her broad, working-class Australian accent. Whenever their interests had collided and lawyers got involved, she couldn’t help but imagine that, although they were both self-made billionaires, people respected Ngaire more because she came from a meagre background and was twenty-eight when she made her first billion, whereas Lydia had a Berkshire-British accent and was five years older.
‘I don’t usually allow my bodyguards to be so far away from me,’ said Zafirah.
‘I know, and I do appreciate that Miss Khalil. I’m sure they surveyed the building closely enough. They certainly searched me before I came in. Be assured, we’re very safe here but I did want complete secrecy for what I would like to discuss.’
‘Excuse my cutting to ze chase,’ said Yvette, ‘but I have anozzer meeting at lunchtime zat I cannot be late for, so I would like to ensure we fully cover why it is zat we are here.’
‘Of course,’ said Ngaire. ‘While some of us haven’t officially met before and some of us are very familiar with one another…’ she flitted a knowing glance at Lydia, ‘I have a very serious proposition and I couldn’t think of three women–three people–in the world who are better to share it with.’
The women waited as Ngaire contemplated how to continue. There were many routes she could take, but she decided to go with the technique that came most naturally: being forthright.
‘It’s time for change. Big change. History, and most recently the evidence of our own eyes, tells us that when it comes to the crunch, we should be very cautious of the trust we place in men. We can’t trust them to put the people before self-interests; we can’t trust them to take the peaceful route when they need to measure their dicks and we sure-as-shit can’t trust them to set aside their ego or admit their ineptitude to ensure hundreds of thousands of people don’t die in a pandemic! On the other hand, most female world leaders have been outstanding!’
Lydia nodded agreement. The others awaited further explanation.
‘On a smaller scale, we have all experienced pain at the hands of men: Yvette, you were nearly bankrupted by your gold-diggin’ husband; Lydia, both your husbands cheated on you; and, Miss Khalil…’ she paused as Zafirah lowered her eyes. The physical and mental abuse her oil baron husband inflicted upon her for years before his death were well-documented in the press. ‘…I’ve experienced the same as you.’
Zafirah met her eye. ‘You have a solution?’
‘Not a solution for the world, but an answer for those that want it.’
‘Go on,’ said Yvette.
‘There is an uninhabited island in the South Pacific, between New Caledonia and Vanuatu. For decades the French government have looked into establishing a community there, but various issues have kept it from happening. Last week I went to France and had a meeting with the President…’
Yvette raised an eyebrow at the influence Ngaire evidently had in her home country.
‘He would be willing to sell that island.’
‘Sell it?!’ Yvette exclaimed.
‘Yes. The pandemic hit the world hard and France is no different. The island is just sitting there, so I persuaded the President of the benefits in letting it go for a very healthy profit.’
‘You’re suggesting we pool together,’ said Lydia.
Ngaire didn’t answer, but her expression said it all.
‘Set kastamonu escort up a new community on an island?’ said Zafirah. ‘But how would being under French rule stop us being governed by men?’
‘We wouldn’t be under French rule. For the price we discussed, the island would have total independence, territorial waters, guaranteed trade routes and… trust me: I’m not someone who overlooks the finer details. I’ve wanted this since I was a child. It’s the vision that got me where I am.’
‘How much are we talking about?’ asked Lydia.
Ngaire reached into her handbag and picked out an Aurora Internazionale fountain pen with an 18 karat gold nib and wrote on her serviette — folded, to shield the content. She turned the serviette to face the other women and opened it.
Accustomed to keeping a poker face, they each absorbed the figure with the respect it deserved.
‘Even we four cannot cover zat,’ said Yvette.
‘Not without further investment, no. But, as long as we are the major contributors… I mean, we each have a history of being successfully persuasive,’ said Ngaire. She was encouraged that the others seemed to be considering it.
‘How would it be governed?’ asked Zafirah.
‘Democratically. Parliamentary, with a Prime Minister and balanced constituencies. But with lessons learned from the mistakes made by “first world countries” and their ancient constitutions; we won’t blindly follow outdated rules. We will preserve the natural resources and beauty of the island–and believe me, ladies–it is a paradise on earth. If you don’t want to live there yourself, it will be the perfect vacation spot and you get the option to pick the spot for your mansions overlooking the white sand beaches or lush forests or the majestic central mountain. The only difficult choice is whether you want the master bedroom to face the sunrise or the sunset.’
The ladies’ poker faces cracked with smirks.
‘It truly does sound like a paradise,’ said Lydia. ‘But aside from placing women in charge–‘
‘Not just in charge. The entire island will be female only.’
There was a surprised silence.
‘How will zat work?’ asked Yvette.
‘We will process applications from women all over the world who want to live in a utopia away from men. We’ll have to establish a cut-off point in numbers and we will balance applications based on fair criteria to ensure we get an impressive workforce to make us a country to be reckoned with.’
‘What about children? I mean, boys?’
‘I’ve thought about that: single mothers are obviously welcome, but I suggest if they have sons they will need to leave before secondary school education. This issue will need some discussion. But imagine it: devising the world’s best education system from scratch!’
‘We would become a political target for male-led states that felt threatened,’ Lydia contemplated.
‘When have we ever not been targets?’ said Zafirah.
Lydia concurred. ‘I’m just mentioning it. What about exports?’
‘Darlin’, there’s room enough to set up industry without destroying the environment and we could start from a position of being genuinely carbon neutral and solar powered. Yes, there would be import costs, but we could devise our own tax systems. We could even work together rather than in competition.’
‘It really does sound like a paradise,’ said Yvette.
‘Ladies, while Zafirah is still young, the rest of us are in our mid thirties. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to wait any longer to live in an ideal world… Speaking of which, I would insist everyone has your French accent, Yvette — I love it!’
Zafirah and Lydia smiled agreement.
There was a pause in discussions as the maître d’ oversaw two waiters arrive with the breakfasts and refreshed drinks.
As the men retreated Yvette noticed Zafirah deep in thought. ‘What’s on your mind, Miss Khalil?’
‘I assume that we would want a progressive society?’
‘That’s right,’ said Ngaire, ‘Science over bullshit. It’s better to move forward than back.’
‘Everyone has a vision of paradise when they first start out, but divisions always occur. How can you enforce a liberal society in a democracy?’
‘First, I would regard liberal to be the true sense of the word rather than the politically stained insult that it’s become in some quarters. I’m a believer that the best things exist in balance rather than extremes — sometimes a little bit left, sometimes a little bit right but always level-headed. The only thing I could be accused of having a right-leaning view on is law and order — we would need a strict deterrent to stop people undermining our society.’
Zafirah sat back. ‘Saudi Arabia has the death penalty. I have known people who were innocent when put to death and I’m not able to accept–‘
‘Excuse me, Miss Khalil — I’m not talking about capital punishment,’ Ngaire interrupted. ‘But I am talking about a corporal punishment of sorts.’
‘Of sorts?’ said Lydia.
‘Yes. It’s a particular method that is rarely used escort kastamonu these days and, if used in the right way, can be extremely effective. If you like, I can take you all on a tour tomorrow to show you what I mean.’
Intrigued, the women agreed.
At noon the next day a cavalcade of limousines arrived in a humble street on the suburban border of Grays Point and the forest of Campbells Creek, which lined part of Sydney’s outer perimeter.
Ngaire Brown waited on the driveway of a house midway up the road. There was an ironic smile on her lips as the cars pulled up.
Lydia, Yvette and Zafirah were escorted from the limousines by their personal security teams. For Zafirah, this consisted of six men in suits and dark glasses. Lydia and Yvette were content with a subtler entourage of two each. All approached Ngaire.
‘Well, if the neighbours weren’t suspicious of what went on here before, they probably are now!’ said Ngaire.
‘You’re right,’ said Zafirah. She turned to her head of security, ‘Ahmad, satuntazar ‘ant warijaluk huna.’
Ahmad directed his men to take positions surrounding the house.
‘Attendez ici, s’il vous plaît,’ Yvette told her team.
‘You too, Zoe,’ said Lydia to her head of security.
‘I’d be happier if someone came with you, madam,’ said Zoe. ‘I can leave Callum outside.’
‘Do you mind?’ Lydia asked Ngaire. ‘It ticks the box of ladies only!’
Zoe was just under six feet tall with the lean build of a national team rugby player. Ngaire observed her unwavering stern expression and military gait but resisted the kind of crass crack her father may have made, such as, “You sure about that, Daalin’!?”
‘No worries at all. Let’s go inside.’
The ground floor of the bungalow looked very comfortable and lived-in, much like the other houses on the street, but Zoe could tell it was as much a genuine home as the set of a sitcom is. A hostess served them drinks and Ngaire led them to a door secreted in the back of the bedroom closet, which opened onto a wide circular staircase that led down to a sterile-looking steel-walled basement.
‘I built this place years ago so that tests could be carried out in private,’ she said.
‘What kind of tests?’ asked Yvette.
‘I found law enforcement practitioners and interrogation specialists from all over the world in order to research the possible techniques that could be employed in punishment, interrogation and rehabilitation. I was seeking something that would do the job and also felt somewhat humane.’
The basement was divided in two by a wall with a window and a steel door. While the window was obviously a two-way mirror, the light on the other side of the wall was off and so they could not see in.
The door opened and from out of the shadows stepped an imposing figure: around the same height as Zoe, with wavy black hair and the air and looks that would have her labelled as an “ebony goddess” in certain circles. She wore loose-fitting cream cotton top and bottoms, with a flowing drape shrug and bamboo flip-flops, which gave the impression she was about to instruct a meditation class.
‘Ladies,’ said Ngaire, ‘I’d like to introduce you to Kisi Baidoo.’
The women introduced themselves.
‘Good morning. It’s nice to meet you all,’ said Kisi with a silky Ghanaian accent.
‘Were you waiting in there with the lights off?’ asked Ngaire.
‘I was. I do like to make an entrance,’ she said with arid delivery.
‘I’ll leave it to you to explain why I’ve asked you to be here.’
‘Of course. Ladies, I am an ex-agent of Ghana’s National Intelligence Bureau. I have had dealt with with organised crime, espionage, drug trafficking and terrorism by means of interrogation for the purposes of counterintelligence.’
‘You torture people?’ asked Zafirah.
‘Yes,’ she replied, unabashed and without hesitation. ‘During my time at the N.I.B. I helped prevent three major terrorist attacks and place all of the major players behind one of the biggest drug trafficking organisations in jail.’ She was very matter-of-fact.
Yvette marvelled at Kisi’s cheekbones, highlighted by the basement down-lighters. Because she had made some of her wealth in fashion and lifestyle publishing, if it hadn’t been inappropriate to do so, she would have immediately handed Kisi a card with the intent of placing her on the cover of her next magazine release.
‘I do not know of any “paradise” that endorses capital punishment,’ said Zafirah.
‘Perhaps we need to be informed of the specific methods you use, Ms Baidoo,’ said Lydia.
‘I was just about to suggest the same thing myself!’ said Ngaire. ‘But we can do one better than describing it. Over to you, Kisi.’
Kisi stepped back into the darkness of the room, closing the door behind her. Ngaire encouraged the others over to the window.
The lights flashed on to reveal a white room with a digital timer on the wall, set at one hour, and a state-of-the-art St. Andrew’s Cross situated in the middle. To kastamonu escort bayan the frame, a young woman was attached at the ankles, wearing just lycra shorts and a crop top.
The women could hear no sound from the room as the young woman raised her arms and Kisi clipped padded metal cuffs around her wrists to keep her in place. Kisi spoke with her in a friendly manner although it seemed that they were not especially familiar with one another.
”oo is zat?’ asked Yvette.
‘This is one of our volunteers,’ said Ngaire. ‘Her name’s Sarah. She’s a Lieutenant Commander in the Royal Australian Navy.’
‘Does she ‘ave any secrets to divulge? Or any incentive not to divulge zem? I mean, she’s not in danger, no?’
‘Not secrets, but her commanding officer is an associate of mine. If she doesn’t pass this test, she won’t be considered for a promotion for another year.’
‘And what test is zat?’
‘She has a safe word that she is not allowed to say for one hour. If Kisi gets the safe word, I’ve agreed to give it to her superiors. And, I can assure you, she wants this promotion.’
Kisi tapped a digital panel on the wall and the clock began to countdown. She then stepped in front of the Lieutenant Commander and they could lipread her asking, ‘Ready?’
Sarah took a deep breath and nodded.
Kisi leant in close and whispered something. Sarah frowned a little in confusion, but wiped the expression from her face as Kisi stood upright and placed her fingers at Sarah’s wrists.
Zafirah dreaded what she was about to witness, but her mouth dropped open when Kisi began gently teasing her long fingernails at Sarah’s wrists…
Sarah jolted as though given an electric shock.
She clenched her eyes and mouth tight as she resisted.
Kisi’s fingernails trickled their way down her bare forearms, causing her to tug at the restraints as they reached her inner elbows.
In contrast to the expression on Sarah’s face, Kisi appeared serene and talked to her constantly. Suddenly Sarah panicked in response to something that was said and she looked, wide-eyed at Kisi, shaking her head and pleading.
Kisi’s fingernails continued their journey down Sarah’s triceps and as they approached her underarms she became more frantic until Kisi stimulated her armpits and she threw her head back and laughed.
There was the faint sound of a scream through the soundproofed walls and Sarah shook her head emphatically as she spoke through her laughter.
Kisi replied and nodded to the clock. There were fifty-nine minutes left.
Sarah cried out, prompting Kisi to stop — a subtle smile on her lips. She unclipped the wrist restraints and Sarah instantly hid her face in her hands.
Ngaire pressed a button on a wall-mounted touchscreen and the window misted over. ‘Let’s give her privacy to get dressed,’ she said.
‘Are you serious?’ asked Yvette.
‘Very much so.’
The door opened and out stepped Kisi. ‘Molten Breakaway three zero five is the code,’ she said.
The Lieutenant Commander left the room and hurried for the stairs without acknowledging her audience.
‘This is what you specialise in?’ Lydia asked.
Lydia turned to Ngaire, ‘And out of all the law enforcement techniques, this is the one you have found to be most effective? Who have you tested it on?’
‘Volunteers. Men and women who were well-paid for their time and silence; who pride themselves on their ability to endure anything. From athletes and extreme sports fanatics to secret service agents, but mostly military personnel. This can be used for everything from interrogation to punishment to negative reinforcement rehabilitation. It could revolutionise law enforcement worldwide!’
Lydia was trying to digest the concept when an uncharacteristic change in Zoe’s expression caught her attention. ‘You have an opinion, Zoe?’
‘Excuse me for saying so, but I don’t buy it,’ she replied.
‘You just saw what happened,’ said Ngaire.
She didn’t answer.
‘You think Sarah was a set-up?’
Zoe gave a nominal shrug. Irked, Ngaire looked to Kisi who seemed unmoved.
‘If that’s the case…’ said Kisi, ‘there’s only one way to settle it.’
‘And how is that?’ asked Zoe.
‘You come into the room.’
A silence fell across the basement.
‘I’m here to protect Miss Goodman,’ said Zoe, ‘Getting locked in a room where I can’t see her isn’t an option.’
Lydia was curious — Zoe had been by her side for over five years and was the toughest and most resolute person she knew. ‘I believe I’m perfectly safe here, Zoe. This is a substantial investment I am considering. I trust you with my life and, if you wouldn’t mind, it would help me to make my decision if I knew your evaluation.’
‘But, madam, what she did in there doesn’t affect me.’
‘That’s all the more reason for me to entrust you with this.’
Zoe considered a moment then acquiesced: ‘Lead the way,’ she said to Kisi.
Ngaire tapped the touchscreen and the window cleared. Again there was silence as Kisi explained to Zoe that she needed to disrobe. Zoe took off her jacket and began to unbutton her shirt.
‘Zis is somesing that people do–parents do, friends do, lovers do–all ze time, every day, all over ze world, no? How can it be ze groundwork for law enforcement?’ asked Yvette.
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