The Prop Room
By Jack Peacock
Another yawn escaped despite her best efforts. Darlene shook her head, trying to stay awake. A glance at the clock showed 3pm. Two hours to go on a Friday afternoon before a long holiday weekend. She was the last one in the small accounting office, covering for everyone else who had left early. Not even the phone was ringing, and she couldn’t hear any activity out in the warehouse.
She had been on the job for about three months. As the junior member of the small back office staff she had volunteered to stay till closing time when the building had emptied out at noon. This was the exciting world of making movies, or as close as she had ever come to it. The company rented props to television, movie, and theater productions. Their small but highly profitable sideline was selling movie memorabilia. Items were guaranteed to be authentic because the owner insisted on meticulous computer records whenever some of their props were used. That was part of her job, updating the inventory history database from invoices.
Darlene loved movies, new and old. She never had the desire to be in front of the camera. Her attraction was the story and how it was presented. The scripts, the costumes, the art direction defined the quality of a movie by her standards. Landing the job at the prop company had been a dream come true. The pay wasn’t spectacular but as long as she had enough to live on she didn’t care. Her hope was to one day learn enough to work her way up to assistant art director, planning sets, checking continuity, researching period sets for authenticity, all the small details that made a movie believable and realistic.
At the moment her problem was too little sleep. She knew better but had started to watch one of her favorites on TV late last night, Radarmen >From The Moon, an edited version of one of the old matinee serials made for kids before the days of television. The individual episodes had been edited into a feature length movie full of non-stop action. She was fascinated at how the directors were able to use a tiny budget to produce such a lengthy feature. Then there were the “damsel in distress” cliffhangers she so dearly loved to see, the hero’s assistant who always seemed to get captured by the villains and left to some horrible fate, be it locked in the closet of the burning building or tied to a chair with a ticking bomb next to her. One camera angle would seem to show her certain doom, but at the last minute another angle would reveal how the hero rescues her.
If she had thought about it she would have taped the movie on the VCR and gone to bed at a decent hour. Instead she had stayed up two hours past her normal bedtime, glued to the screen. Two hours of sleep she sorely missed now. Pushing aside the stack of paper on her desk she folded her arms, put her head down, and closed her eyes, intending to rest for just a moment.
When she opened her eyes the window showed it was night outside. The clock said 9pm, six hours later. In a panic, she dialed time on the phone, hoping her clock was somehow wrong. Her heart fell as the voice on the phone agreed. She had fallen asleep and missed the last bus of the day. The warehouse was located in the industrial section of town, miles from her apartment building. Too far and too dangerous to walk home, and she didn’t have enough money to call a taxi. She hadn’t been in town long enough to make friends, so there was no one to call for a ride either. The next bus wouldn’t come by until 7am Saturday morning.
Hoping someone might still be in the building she left her office and went out into the warehouse proper. Only the security lights were on, casting long shadows between the aisles. Walking up to the front she could tell all the lights were off in the reception area and executive offices. Now she had another problem. The windows and doors were wired to an alarm. If she tried to leave she would set the burglar alarm off. She could see the blinking indicator on the alarm panel indicating it was set, but she didn’t have the code to turn it off. She had no doubt the boss would understand if she did trigger the alarm, but he would have to come out in the middle of the night.
Darlene turned and started walking back to her office in the rear of the warehouse. She could simply stay the night and leave in the morning. She knew from a “will call” order she put in the computer that there was a customer pickup scheduled for late on Saturday morning so someone would be showing up to open the warehouse by then. The break room had a couch she could sleep on, a TV to pass the time, and there was some food left in the refrigerator. It would be embarrassing when the crew found her in the morning, but after some good-natured jokes everyone would forget about it. In any case she would be far safer inside than walking home on dark deserted streets late at night, in a neighborhood known for its rough character.
The first problem was the television. It only got local broadcast channels, and the shows on were among the worst she had ever seen. Finally she turned it off in disgust. Then came the second problem, boredom. She wasn’t tired now, but she had nothing to do. The TV did have a VCR, but no one had left any tapes to watch. She went into her office, hoping to find something to read.
It was a forlorn hope. She knew there wasn’t anything worth reading. A few manuals and a dull computer book were the sum total of her library. She sat down in her chair, staring at the unprocessed invoices on her desk. She really didn’t want to do any more work either. Picking up the next invoice she started to read it. It came from an outdoor shoot a week ago for a new TV movie, miscellaneous props and a couple of specialty costumes. At the bottom was a note that the returned box contained a copy of some of the unedited footage, the “rushes”, on a VHS tape.
Darlene had forgotten about the tapes. As part of the memorabilia operation the company kept excerpts, or in some cases copies of the entire movie or TV show where the props appeared. Provenance, her boss had called it, documented proof the items were authentic. Sometimes the company would store old boxes from a movie for twenty years or more, hoping what started as a bad B movie would become a cult classic when it reached late night weekend TV. Those were the rare cases, a goldmine where the props sold for exorbitant prices. If the movie remained a flop there were still a few dedicated collectors who bought items if the price was right. Either way the company made money off what would otherwise be junk. That was her job, to keep up the inventory list of items waiting to “age” as her boss put it, like a fine wine. Inside all those boxes in the section they laughingly called the “wine cellar” were some tapes of the movies.
Darlene turned to her computer and brought up the database. Grabbing a piece of paper she noted down the bin and box numbers where tapes were listed as part of the contents. She didn’t need anything to read; she had an entire library of one of her favorite genres, the low budget movie. Scanning the records she saw titles going back to the 1940s, even some familiar classic serials from Republic Studios. Eagerly she made a list of their locations.
Out in the warehouse the dim lights made it difficult to read box codes, but a flashlight on the shipping desk solved that problem. It took her about half an hour to figure out how the aisles, shelves and boxes were organized. Most of the space was set aside for props still in use, but she managed to locate the section set aside for old memorabilia. She had to stop and look for a rag to wipe the dust from some of the boxes, an indication of how long they had been sitting unopened on the shelves.
Most of the boxes were too high for her to reach, and she didn’t want to use the ladder. The writing had begun to fade on some of the boxes too, making it hard to locate any of the ones on her makeshift list. After several tries she found what looked to be a match, though the handwriting was difficult to make out. Pulling it off the shelf she carried it over to the shipping desk by the loading dock. After wiping the rest of the dust off the top she opened it up.
The contents were inside a plastic bag to protect them against dirt and moths. Opening the inner bag she immediately realized she had made a mistake. Instead of a stirring tale of the government agent battling enemy saboteurs in World War II she had wound up with one of those exploitation women’s prison movies from the 1960’s. Right on top were two copies of the movie. The garish movie poster slipcover announcing the shocking story of Babes In Cages left no doubt as to what the movie was really about. The list of actors did not include a single recognizable name, and reading the synopsis on the back of the cover left Darlene laughing. Pure trash, the kind of movie no one would ever admit to seeing, much less appearing in it.
Setting the tapes to one side, she began to take out the contents. On the top were three costumes from the movie, by the looks and the stenciled lettering the “uniform” for the female inmates. A short sleeveless dress, tight and low cut in the front, with “State Prison” stamped across the back. The clothing was old but clean, well-preserved and still in good shape. Next was a copy of the script in a loose leaf notebook; several still photos from the sets; what looked like the belt for a guard, brown leather with a heavy ring sewn in the back; a small box with several badges all marked with the words “Prison Guard”; and in the bottom were two small heavy cardboard boxes. Removing the top of the smaller one revealed a set of steel handcuffs wrapped in some kind of brown preservative paper. The other box contained a larger version of handcuffs with a longer connecting chain, obviously meant to fit ankles. There was a set of two keys in each box, plus a handwritten note in the smaller handcuff box.
Curious, Darlene unfolded the note and began to look it over. The first paragraph was a note that the leg irons were too long and had to be shortened to fit in the camera frame for the close up. The director wanted the length cut in half but since it was a close shot the appearance had to match the previous footage. The prop man had added a penciled notation that it was cut to eight inches and the weld made inside the swivel so it wouldn’t show if filmed from the left side.
She burst out laughing as she read the second paragraph in the scrawled handwriting. It warned Bob the prop man to leave one set of keys in the prop box because the actress who was to play the prison matron “never met a bottle of vodka she didn’t fall in love with.” The director was concerned she would lose the keys and he didn’t want to have to use a hacksaw to cut open the handcuffs after the scene was finished. For a collector some day in the future this note would undoubtedly be worth the cost of the whole box of items. She carefully folded it and put it back.
Remembering a picture she picked up the tape and looked at the cover. There it was, the young actress in the revealing inmate costume, being led into prison in the very same set of shackles. She had never seen this particular movie but she had no doubts it would use a common variation of the “damsel in distress” plot. There would be a good looking male lawyer, warden, or boyfriend who ultimately saves her from the living hell of prison, just as the psychopathic gang leader is about to do her in. Darlene shook her head, thinking the rescue would probably be in a shower scene if the movie was really sleazy.
She debated whether to continue looking for her original choices or start with the tape she had inadvertently picked out. Studying the inventory numbers on the box while wiping away some more dust, she saw her error in the transposed digits that almost matched her list. It was an easy mistake to make, especially in the dark. It was going to be a long night, and she had time to search for the items on her list later. It might not be the best of movies, but it would be fun.
Picking up the tape she headed for the lunch room in the back, next to the accounting offices. Taking a bag of popcorn out of the cupboard she threw it in the microwave and started it up. Bad movies weren’t nearly as enjoyable without hot buttered popcorn. While it was popping she pushed the tape into the VCR and turned on the TV. Scrounging in the fridge she found one of her bottles of iced tea. The opening credits rolled to an end just as the popcorn finished. Curling up on the couch she settled down to watch the movie, snacks at the ready.
The movie proved to be every bit as second rate as the lurid cover promised. The lead actress was framed for embezzlement, sent to a maximum security prison, defied the prison gang and the corrupt guards, and is saved at the last minute by her boyfriend, who conveniently worked for the governor as an undercover investigator. Every possible plot stereotype was used, including the gratuitous shower scene. Supposedly high drama, Darlene burst out laughing at the inept acting, tedious dialog and amateur camera work. Several times she spotted continuity errors between scenes, without even looking for them. Knowing what to watch for from the note to the prop man, she saw how unsteady the prison matron character was on her feet. The director was right, barely sober at best.
While waiting for the tape to rewind she looked at the cover again. On a whim she stopped the tape to watch the scene near the beginning where the star was lead off the bus into the prison gates. There were the inmate uniforms, the same handcuffs and shackles, and now she saw how the leather belt worked. Rather than being a prop for a guard it was a restraint device, holding the prisoner’s handcuffs close to the waist. She noticed how the other two inmates behind the star were head shots, a camera angle trick to cut costs. Only the main actress needed the full outfit; the other two wore the same uniforms but simulated handcuffs by holding their hands together out of camera view. Those were the tricks she hoped to learn. She finished rewinding the tape and ejected it.
The clock showed the time as close to midnight. Darlene wasn’t tired so she decided to look for another movie. First she would have to put the one in her hand back in place. The collector and movie fan sales were not large but did carry high profit margins. She didn’t want to damage or in any way deprive the company of a possible sale, though she was sure she wouldn’t want to meet anyone who collected movies like the one she had just seen. Turning off the TV she went back out to the warehouse and walked back to the desk at the loading dock.
She couldn’t get that one scene at the prison gate out of her mind. The director may have had little talent but in a single short sequence he had managed to capture all the fear and terror of someone facing a certain and dire fate. Even the actress, and already Darlene had forgotten her name, had a look of hopeless resignation as the matron virtually dragged her inside.
The contents of the storage box were still spread out on the shipping desk. Darlene opened the plastic inner bag and picked up the two boxes holding the chains. She started to replace them but stopped on an impulse. She put them back on the desk top and opened the handcuff box again to look at the restraints. Other than pictures on TV she had never actually seen handcuffs close up. Earlier she hadn’t noticed the instructions printed inside the top cover; now she picked it up and read through the procedures.
Following the diagram printed on the instruction sheet she tried to open the cuffs. The keys still worked. The bows on the cuffs opened and closed smoothly. Darlene put a hand on the uniforms, the glimmer of an idea forming. Unfolding them, she quickly determined the first one was too small, but the second one was her size. Could she do it? With a guilty feeling she looked around the empty warehouse. No one would be showing up for the next eight hours so she had plenty of time. Reaching behind her back she unzipped her dress and dropped it to the floor. Then she put on the inmate costume. It was tight, likely intentional, but it did fit. She picked up her own office dress and laid it over the chair next to the shipping desk.
The leather belt was stiff with age but didn’t crack as she put it around her waist. The buckle was different from ones she had seen before. There was a narrow rectangular button on top with a slot in it. When she pushed in the button the buckle locked shut and wouldn’t open. Attached to the ring with a piece of string were two thin metal keys. Darlene inserted one in the slot and the button popped open. She tried it several times to make sure the latch would open properly. Satisfied, she placed the belt around her waist, pulled it snug but not too tight, and closed the locking buckle. She pushed down the button, verified it was secure then slid it around so the ring was in front and the belt buckle behind her back. One of the publicity pictures in the box was from the gate scene. She studied it, noting how the belt was positioned. The still showed the handcuffs in the ring centered on her waist, in front.
Taking a deep breath, Darlene sat down in the chair and reached for the leg chains. Looking carefully she could see where one end of the chain had been shortened and welded back, just as the note described. One last time she checked to make sure the keys worked. Positive she could get them off again she closed the large leg cuffs around her ankles leaving just enough slack to ensure they wouldn’t cut off circulation, as the instructions warned. She stood up and took a few tentative steps. The unfamiliar weight was a distraction but she was able to walk. She sat down again, using the small end of the cuff key to engage the double lock so the cuffs wouldn’t close further. Stretching out her legs she looked at the shackles. They really didn’t restrict her movement all that much, no worse than high heels and a long tight skirt, or so she thought. Walking would be slow but not impossible.
Only one item left to go, and she would be a close match to the actress in the scene. Picking up the handcuffs she examined them again. >From the bright untarnished finish she guessed the prop man had purchased the cuffs new all those years ago. There were no scratches or worn spots, and no rust. Darlene felt confident they were in good working order. Opening one cuff she slowly closed it over her right wrist, careful not to over tighten it. Following the illustration in the instructions she kept enough slack to slip a finger between her wrist and the cuff. The weight was more than a regular bracelet but seemed to be tolerable.
Holding the keys in her left hand she opened the left side cuff and slipped it through the ring in the belt around her waist. She laid the open cuff over her left wrist but didn’t close it. First she wanted to make sure she could reach the key hole while wearing them. A quick test showed she could easily insert and turn the key. A moment of hesitation, then she closed the cuff on her left wrist till it matched the number of notches on her right wrist. Once more she checked to make sure she could slip a finger between the cuff and her skin. Transferring the keys in her right hand she pushed in the double lock pin. A tug on the belt verified both her hands were secured against her waist.
Unlike the chains on her ankles the handcuff and belt combination proved to be very restrictive. The box containing the second set of keys was too far back on the shipping desk, beyond her now severely limited reach. She hadn’t thought to move them closer, but she still had the set in her hand. Holding onto those keys she took a few steps, walking back and forth. Being unable to move her arms left her with an unbalanced feeling but she could stand up and walk around without much difficulty.
Darlene realized she didn’t quite equal the scene in the movie. The actress didn’t have the keys in her hand. It was a small but crucial detail, the difference between freedom and captivity. Darlene looked around, wondering where she could put the keys. She settled for dropping them on the edge of the shipping desk, making sure she could reach them easily. One last glance to make sure they didn’t fall off, then she stepped back and turned around. Looking down she could see the steel rings surrounding her wrists and ankles. She spread her legs apart, to the full limit of the connecting chain between her ankles.
Darlene closed her eyes, feeling the bonds confining her. Now she was the damsel in distress. All she needed was the handsome love interest rescuer to come to her aid. And how would she look to her would-be Prince Charming? There was a large mirror in the women’s washroom. She frowned; it would be a long walk all the way across the length of the warehouse to where the toilets were located, along the back wall but at the end opposite her office. What better way to determine just how well those leg shackles worked? She glanced over her shoulder at the keys. Should she take them with her? Darlene grinned; the original prisoner didn’t have them in the movie, so if she were to play the part she would go without as well.
Walking along the aisle she became the federal agent’s intrepid and sometimes careless assistant trying to escape from the Nazi spy ring. She had to get to that back door before they discovered she was missing. What would it be? Maybe a fire, or poison gas slowly leaking into the building? Whatever the threat, she was sure she wouldn’t be able to get to the door in time, at least not till next week’s exciting episode.
Meanwhile she began to appreciate how well the leg chains did slow her down. Constantly jerking the chain taut was bruising her ankles. She tried to measure her stride, keeping it to just less than the length of the chain. That helped but slowed her down even more. The awkward gait was putting a strain on her legs too. Stopping to rest she looked back, intending to go back and take them off.
But she was already more than half way to the ladies room. Darlene decided to keep going for now but she would take these things off as soon as she satisfied her curiosity with a look in the mirror. As for the fleeing assistant, she decided in her version it would be just too bad and the next assistant wouldn’t get caught so easily.
It seemed like hours had passed as she finally reached the door. She pushed it open then stopped as she saw the lights were off. From the dim aisle lights she made out a switch on the wall. It was too high to reach with her bound hands but by holding the door open with one leg she was able to nudge it on with her shoulder. The overhead fluorescents flickered into life. Darlene let the door close as she shuffled toward the mirror next to the sinks.
The uniform revealed more than it concealed, just as she suspected. If it was based on a real prison uniform then Victoria’s Secret must have gotten the design contract. Her low heeled office shoes definitely were not color coordinated with the rest of her outfit. The other accessories, the steel jewelry, did seem to go with the overall theme especially with the prison logo on the back of the dress. As a fashion statement it would make anyone stand out in a crowd, though Darlene doubted she would ever make the list of best dressed models in this particular casual wear. There was plenty of skin in all the right places though, suitable for a distressed damsel still neatly tied up while being carried to safety by the hero of the hour. And in her current condition if some guy wanted to carry her off there wasn’t much she could do about it.
She didn’t look forward to the long slow walk back to the shipping desk but she didn’t have much choice in the matter, unless she wanted to stand there in front of the mirror all night long. Getting the restroom door open again proved a challenge. She had to stand on tip toe to reach the handle but she managed to grab hold and pull on it. Rather than perform some more gymnastics to turn off the light she left it on, figuring a return trip would be easier once she removed the chains.
The aisle seemed to stretch for miles. Darlene knew it wasn’t really that bad. She did have sympathy for the poor actress who must have spent hours in the same get up while the cameras and lighting were moved around for the scenes. Idly she wondered if the prop man ever had to use the spare set of keys.
Due to her slow progress she was only a few feet from the restroom door when she heard the front doors open. She froze as the regular lights came on. There were voices, at least two men, coming from the front.
“…really want to thank you for coming out in the middle of the night Joe. Forecast says rain on Sunday and Monday. We have to do all the shooting Saturday or it’ll cost a fortune to hold over the crew. We’ll be working all night to get ready for the sunrise shots.”
“No problem, Cal. You guys are good customers. I know how it is. Usual deal, sneak me a copy of the script when you finish, signed if you can, and some publicity stills if you can spare them. I had the picking list run on Friday so everything should be ready. You can take a quick look to make sure you have it all.”
Darlene recognized the second voice. Joe Riordan, the current owner and grandson of the company founder. He must have gotten an emergency call from a producer and came in to open up for their props. She had to hide somewhere. They were sure to see her sooner or later if she stood in the middle of the aisle. The question was, where to go?
As fast as she could, without making a sound, she headed back to the restroom. It was the closest place and one they weren’t likely to visit. Fortunately Joe and the other man seemed to be involved with something at the other end of the building. She had enough time to make it through the door.
Breathing heavily, more from surprise than from exertion, she leaned against the wall next to the closed door. Darlene closed her eyes for a moment, grateful she hadn’t been in the middle of the warehouse when they walked in. She had no idea what Joe would say but she could never live down the embarrassment. Opening her eyes she looked around. There was only the one door in and out. She was trapped for the moment but if she waited they would leave after the customer checked and loaded his order. Clenching her fists in anger she mentally kicked herself for leaving the keys on the desk. In desperation she grabbed the belt with her manacled hands and tried to pull it down. No luck, she had tightened it around her waist and now it wouldn’t slip over her hips.
She had no idea how to pick a lock. Not that it made any difference because she didn’t have anything to make into a lock pick anyway. She tried to slip her wrists out of the cuffs but it took only a few seconds of effort to prove that was impossible. Trying not to panic she stared at the handcuffs holding her prisoner, trying to figure out some way to get them off. Wracking her brain she had to admit there were only two options: walk out and reveal her predicament with whatever consequences might happen; or wait until they left and then retrieve the keys. Darlene chose to wait. If she went out now sooner or later word would leak out and everyone would know. The whispers and laughter behind her back would be too much. She loved her job and didn’t want to jeopardize it.
There was a chair in one corner. Being careful to keep her ankles apart so the chain wouldn’t rattle on the tile floor she crossed the room and sat down. There was a fleeting concern about the lights but she didn’t think they would be visible from outside the door. It felt good to give her legs a rest. Darlene closed her eyes again and leaned her head back against the wall. She tried to visualize what the men were doing out in the warehouse. Double check the shipping manifest, open the loading dock doors, load the truck, sign a few papers, then as men usually do stand around drinking beer for an hour talking about ten minutes worth of work. Two hours at most before they left, then she would be safe.
There was still the question of how she would get out of the warehouse. Compared to her current situation it wasn’t as important, but she would have to think about it sooner or later. Her best bet was to wait till some other employees came back in during the day, and then try to slip out a side door when no one was looking.
Silently she banged her head against the wall. This had been a dumb stunt. Now she was paying the price, hiding in the restroom all night long while trussed up in chains. Just like a night in jail, she realized, only worse. She tried to pass the time by making up scripts. She had been kidnapped by a drug cartel. They hadn’t discovered she was loose in the building, but neither could she get away. Her undercover police boyfriend would sneak in and find a way out. She looked down at the handcuffs. He’d have a key too.
No, that wouldn’t explain the inmate uniform. Continuity, she had to incorporate it into the story somehow. She was an undercover policewoman, sent to prison to infiltrate the drug gang. They had broken her out along with the leader’s girlfriend, but a gang member recognized her. Her cop boyfriend was frantically trying to find her even as she hid out.
Darlene opened her eyes and shook her head. She had to concentrate on the moment and tone down the fantasy. That’s what had gotten her into so much trouble. Idly she played with the handcuffs, moving her wrists around, trying to pull them open. If only she had some way to get them off. She had to smile at the thought. The express purpose of handcuffs was to make sure the wearer didn’t have the means to easily remove them. She was truly the damsel in distress. All that was missing was someone to save her.
There weren’t any sounds from the warehouse but the door cut most sound off. Without a watch she had no idea how much time had passed. They might have finished already. If she could open the door a crack she might be able to tell if they had left. Standing up she carefully made her way to the door. She tried to be as quiet as possible, walking softly so her heels wouldn’t make a sound, and keeping her ankles apart so the connecting chain wouldn’t drag or rattle. At the door she used her shoulder to switch off the lights first.
This time she tried to work the restraint belt up as high as she could in order to reach the door handle. By sliding it back and forth she was able to pull it up just enough to grasp the handle in one hand. Slowly she pulled the door open so she could see out. The main overhead lights were out, a good sign, and she didn’t hear any talking. Carefully she closed the door again. In the dark she stood next to the doorway, debating what to do next. They could be in the front office, talking or filling out paperwork. She nudged the light switch back on before shuffling back to the chair. Her plan would be to wait a little longer.
The worst part was not being able to do anything. Barely able to walk and her hands all but useless, it was beginning to get to her as she sat waiting. Try as she might to keep it back, a black cloud of panic was creeping up on her. She might not be feeling the despair of being sent to prison, but the fear of being discovered, ridiculed, even having to face the police were all adding together to make her nervous and scared. Darlene felt she had to do something. The longer she sat the worse it would get. She walked back to the door and switched off the lights one more time. She pulled open the door. The lights were still dimmed. Standing still, listening, she couldn’t hear anyone.
Slowly she ventured out into the warehouse aisle, ready to dash back to the illusory safety of her hiding place at any sign someone else was in the building. Not that she could dash anywhere, more like a crawl. After every step she stopped to listen for the slightest sound. She crouched down to try to see through the stacked shelves. No lights from the front offices. She did see the burglar alarm light blinking. At that point she relaxed. If it was armed everyone must have left. As fast as she was able she headed toward the shipping desk and freedom.
Turning the corner she stopped dead. The shipping desk was cleared off, the box gone. So was her dress on the back of the chair. The keys were nowhere to be found. In shock she stood in the middle of the aisle, staring at the empty desktop. All the boxes that had been stacked by the loading dock door were gone too. Her shoulders slumped in gloom. They must have repacked the Babes In Cages box and taken it along with the other props. The keys, the only way she had to free herself, were gone and weren’t coming back any time soon.
She sat down in the chair by the desk, at a loss as to what to do next. There was a telephone on the wall, beyond her reach but she could find some way to get to it. The shelves in the warehouse seemed to loom ominously in the dim light from the few overheads left on. Waiting wasn’t an option any more. Between the three day weekend and the fact that the one customer due for a pickup on Saturday had already come by, it was entirely possible she would be left alone for three days. There was no way she could go that long locked in chains. If only they hadn’t taken the keys.
She stared at the rows of labeled boxes on the shelving. What were the chances another one had items from some police show, or even another one of those sleazy women’s prison movies? Darlene sat up, thinking furiously. What were the chances? She had a way of finding out. It wouldn’t take much to query the database for handcuffs. There might even be something in current stock too.
There was a terminal on the shipping desk, but she knew it was set up only to enter receiving documents or print picking lists. The guy from the computer company that maintained their system had told her about it one afternoon while he was hanging around trying to flirt with her. Each location could only run certain programs. Her terminal could enter or search inventory but not generate checks or payroll reports. She would have to print out every box that matched, and then hope she could reach one.
Standing up she headed for her office. More than ever she cursed the leg chains that slowed her down. She shook her head, remembering how she thought it was no worse than a tight skirt. It wasn’t going to be easy to use her keyboard either but she was determined to get it done. Turning a corner she saw her office door and headed for it, step by hobbled step. In her mind she was trying to compose the search string, what keywords someone else might have used, or possible misspelled words. She had to cover every possibility. The last thing she wanted now was to make several arduous trips back and forth to her desk.
A sense of desperation added urgency but she could move no faster than the limits of her restraints. Ever so slowly she approached the office door until she was finally in reach of the door knob. Like the washroom door she would have to push it open with her knee, so she stood to one side as she reached out.
The door knob wouldn’t turn. The owner must have locked it before he left. She grabbed it with both hands, trying to turn it with all her strength. She yanked on the door, hoping it wasn’t completely shut. The stout wooden door didn’t budge. Her last hope gone she leaned against the wall, tears flowing down her cheeks as she cried.
Never in her life had Darlene felt so helpless or been so terrified. She would have to use the telephone to call someone. If she could find a number in the shipping desk she could call the owner or someone else who worked at the company. It would be humiliating but she had no choice now. And if she couldn’t find a number then it would have to be the police. She didn’t want to think about that. They might decide she was trying to rob the place.
Knowing she couldn’t avoid the inevitable any longer she started making her way back to the shipping area one last time. How many trips across the warehouse had she made now? Was it three, maybe four? She had lost count. All because of a stupid stunt; she had no one to blame but herself.
Shuffling along toward the desk she could see the phone on the wall behind the desk. Her next problem would be to figure out a way to get to it. She certainly couldn’t reach it. Halting in front of the desk she held onto the top of the chair with her bound hands. There was a broom nearby; she could knock the phone off the hook but it would be a challenge to dial with a broomstick. Fortune was with her on one small matter. Underneath the phone was a list of emergency numbers, including the owner’s home. At least she wouldn’t have to call the cops after all. Darlene eyed the desk top. It was low enough that she might be able to get on it. If she knelt by the phone she should be able to reach the dial pad.
“I’d say this would be good material for one of those dumb crook stories.” Darlene jumped as she heard the voice behind her. Turning around she saw Joe Riordon, the owner. Startled she backed against the desk, stumbling as the leg chains grabbed at her ankles. He quickly lunged forward and caught her as she was about to fall.
“I…this isn’t what it looks like. Please, I can explain…” Darlene stammered, not knowing what to say. She hung her head, unable to even look him in the face.
He pulled the chair out into the aisle and held onto her arm as he led her over to it. “You sit down here and tell me. I’m in no hurry. It doesn’t look like you will be going anywhere either.” He leaned back against the desk, folded his arms and looked down at her. “Darlene, isn’t it? In accounting? You can start by explaining to me how you got in here. I wasn’t aware that we gave out building keys to everyone.”
Still upset at being discovered she had to hold her hands together to keep them from shaking. His stern expression as he towered over her only added to her nervousness. She began with Friday afternoon, how she had fallen asleep and found herself locked in the warehouse after hours, and her plan to wait till Saturday morning when someone would come in for the scheduled pickup. Then how she had been bored and went looking for a movie. And finally to the unexpected arrival in middle of the night which led to her current condition.
Joe held up a hand to stop her. “So you didn’t break in? You could have called me. That’s why my home number is next to all the telephones. You aren’t the first one to get stuck here. I think I’ve been called out two or three times for the same thing.”
Darlene shook her head. “No sir, I didn’t want to inconvenience you. I thought I’d be okay. I was going to sleep on the lunchroom couch and go home on Saturday morning.” She went on to tell him how she turned on the TV but couldn’t find anything to watch.
He nodded. “That explains why the lights were on in your office, and your terminal was still active. I saw your database search. You were looking for a movie to watch? Very resourceful, but how did you get to this,” he gestured at her restraints, “from a query on old matinee serials?”
“I, uh, I thought I found the right box but when I opened it I found something else. I copied the numbers down wrong. In the box was an old prison movie, called Babes In Cages.” Darlene was almost too embarrassed to even pronounce the title.
Joe started laughing. “I remember that movie. My uncle Bob was the prop man for it. He was out of work and didn’t care where the money came from. Darn, I’d forgotten all about it.” He thought for a moment. “Is that where the costume and the handcuffs came from? You watched it?”
“Yes. I like B movies. That one wasn’t on my list but the cover caught my interest. It was after I finished, and I was repacking the box that I got this crazy impulse. The one scene in the movie, where she gets off the prison bus, it was so well done. Really out of place in a movie like that. I guess the director just got lucky.
“Anyway, I was putting the stuff back in the box, when I started wondering. Was it the setting that made her acting seem so realistic, or something else? Well, I decided to put myself in that scene, at least to the extent I could. I know it was a foolish thing to do, and I’m really sorry. I know I shouldn’t even have been out here. I didn’t mean any harm, and I certainly wasn’t going to take anything.” She stopped, afraid of what he might do next.
At first he said nothing in response. She looked up at him hesitantly, hoping he wouldn’t call the police. His expression was neutral, giving no indication of what he was thinking. His eyes were fixed on her though, staring intently. Darlene remembered the image in the washroom mirror. Her uniform wasn’t hiding much. Self-conscious, she tried to reach the hem of the dress to pull it further down. Between the restraint belt and the handcuffs she could just brush the edge with her fingers. All she succeeded in doing was to draw his attention to just how short it was.
“Your story is so far-fetched that it has to be true. We’ve had people break in before, even try to hide after hours, but not once has a single one been found neatly tied up early the next morning and already dressed for jail. I don’t think it will be necessary to call in the authorities.”
Relief flooded through Darlene. “Oh thank you Mr. Riordon! I love working here. I’d never do anything to hurt the company. You and every one else are so nice. It’s been my ambition to get some kind of job in the movie industry, something to do with art direction. I never hoped to find a real job with a prop company so soon.”
“Not many people want your job. Cataloging dusty relics isn’t very exciting. We have a hard time keeping your position filled. I want you to know that the events tonight won’t affect your job here. No one else needs to know either; we’ll keep it as our little secret. That way I can blackmail you for years to come.”
Darlene sat up, caught off guard by his last comment. “Blackmail?” What did he want? She barely made enough to pay her bills.
He laughed out loud. “Don’t worry, just wanted to make sure you were paying attention.” He opened one of the drawers at the desk. “Now where did I leave that camera…?”
“You wouldn’t…” She stopped, seeing the grin on his face. “You’re teasing me!”
“I’m making sure you learn your lesson. What if I had been a real burglar? You’d be in substantial danger right now instead of sitting in that chair.” He paused, frowning. “Wait a minute. You were looking for serials, those old cliffhangers. Damsels in distress. That’s what was in the back of my mind. Well you did yourself proud. I’d say you qualify as being in distress,” his head went up and down, looking her over, “and I can safely say you are without any doubt whatsoever a damsel. Is that what really triggered all this?”
Darlene had to look down at the floor as she felt her face blush red. Standing over her he had an excellent view down the front of her dress. Not that the dress covered much in front. She had to sit very still to keep what little modesty she had left. Almost as an automatic reaction she crossed her ankles and tried to tuck her legs under the chair. She grimaced as the cuffs on her ankles clicked together and the chain scraped on the floor.
It hadn’t taken him very long to figure out what she had been doing. She had to say something. “I…yes I do like those kinds of plots. Ever since I was a little girl they’ve always appealed to me. I can’t explain it; maybe it’s the thrill of being so helpless and vulnerable then saved at the last moment by the strong handsome hero.”
“I can understand that.” He unfolded his arms and took a step toward her. “Would you like to go home now?”
“I’d love to, but what about these?” She jerked on the handcuffs.
“Hmm, yes, well that would be difficult to explain to the neighbors. Where are the keys?”
“I don’t know. I put them on the desk when I went to, um, when I tried to walk around. My dress was on this chair. I was headed back to the desk when I heard voices, you and someone else. I hid, thinking I’d wait till you left. When I came back they were all gone. I was trying to figure out how to call on the phone when you showed up.” She didn’t want to admit she was admiring herself in the mirror.
“They were on the desk? The box too? Cal must have picked them up with the rest of his order. I told him to take everything on the loading dock. Those keys are probably sitting in the back of his truck out at their location.
“Okay, I know there’s a hacksaw in the tool chest. I can cut you loose, but it will take some time and you’re going to get a few gashes from it. Those handcuffs are made of tempered steel, hard to cut with a regular saw. The other option, we go out to Cal’s location and I get the box back from him. It’s up to you, saw or drive?”
Neither sounded very attractive. There was a third possibility. “Mr. Riordon, what if we search the inventory to see if there are more handcuffs here in the warehouse. Maybe the keys would fit the ones I have on? I can do it from my office. I’d hate to have you ruin your investment by cutting them up.”
He nodded in agreement. “That’s a good idea. I wouldn’t have thought of it. Okay, you know more about the computer than me, what do we need to do?”
“Can you take me to my office? I can run a query from there. It will only take a few minutes.”
“Okay.” He took her arm and helped her stand up. “Back in accounting, right?”
“Yes sir.” For what seemed the hundredth time she began her shambling walk across the warehouse floor. This time his hand was holding on to her arm to keep her steady. Progress was slow. After only a moment he stopped her.
“You shouldn’t be walking like that,” he stated. “I have a better idea.” Bending down he scooped her up in his arms, one behind her back, and the other under her knees. He carried her the rest of the way to the door. Darlene started to protest but had to concede they were moving quite a bit faster.
At the office door he put her down. After making sure she was steady on her feet he took out a keychain and unlocked the door. Holding it open he helped her inside. “Now, your desk is over there?” Carefully he walked beside her, always holding onto her arm to make sure she didn’t trip and fall. “Take your time”, he warned her, “I don’t want you to get hurt.”
When she reached her chair she sat down and spun around to the terminal. Fortunately her chair was high enough, and the keyboard low enough, that she could reach it once she scooted her chair up close. Working the keyboard with hands chained to waist wasn’t recommended procedure but she could manage.
“Would it be easier if I loosened the back of your belt?”
“It locks. I don’t think you can unfasten it.” She leaned forward as he examined the restraint belt.
“Too bad. I don’t see how to get it off. Okay, can you use the terminal or do you want me to help?”
She looked up at him as he stood next to her. He bent over to look at the screen, a position that again gave him ample opportunity and an excellent vantage point to look down her dress. “I think I can do it,” she answered. Typing was slow and awkward but she was able to enter the query string and started it running. In the reflection on the screen she could see he was just as interested in her built-in display as the one on the screen. Somehow it didn’t bother her. It wasn’t fair to blame him when she was the one who chose to put on something so enticing.
The query finished, with one result. She read the description, “goth type costume with handcuffs. What do you think Mr. Riordon?”
“I’m afraid you’re out of luck. I know where that item came from.” He shook his head. “It’s fake, made of plastic. There won’t be any keys. And call me Joe, Mr. Riordan is my father.”
“Alright, Joe. I guess that means we take a drive? I’m so sorry to put you to all this trouble. If you’d rather, the hacksaw is okay with me. Cuts can heal.” Darlene had to totally depend on a stranger now. She knew the database search had been grasping at non-existent straws.
“Let’s drive. I’m not all that confidant about cutting those things off. I’m parked out front. First thing, we have to get you into the car.” He rubbed his chin, lost in thought.
“I can walk. You don’t have to carry me all that way. It will take me a while but I can get there.” She stood up.
“I’m sure you can, but there’s a better way. Sit down. I have an idea.”
Unsure as to what he had in mind she sat back down in her chair. He took hold of the back and began pushing her out the office door. He paused at the accounting office door to close and lock it before rolling her down the warehouse aisle. She had to hold up her legs but he had her at the front office door in seconds. Looking back she estimated it would have taken her five minutes or more.
He opened the front hallway door and helped her stand up. “The chair will be okay where it is. No one’s going to be here over the weekend. Cal’s pickup was the one scheduled for later in the morning. That would have been a problem for you, by the way. No one else was scheduled to come in this weekend. You would have had to call eventually.”
He held onto her arms as she made her way to the front entrance. “Stay here while I pull the car up to the door. That way no one will see you.” He went out to the parking lot.
Standing to one side and peering out the glass door Darlene couldn’t see anyone on the street. No traffic went by either. Still, it was a nice gesture on his part. With the way her luck was running tonight, a police car would go by while she was in the middle of the parking lot. She could only imagine the expression on an officer’s face when confronted by a man dragging a woman in handcuffs into his car in the middle of the night.
Joe pulled up and stopped in front of the door with the passenger door facing the entrance. He got out and went to Darlene. Holding the door open for her he steadied her with a hand on her arm as she walked to the car. He opened her door and put a hand over head as she sat down on the car seat. She held her breath as the uniform rode up her legs but she was able to slide back in the seat and regain some measure of modesty. Joe fastened her seat belt and closed the car door. She watched him lock up the company entrance and walk back to the driver’s side. He got in and started the engine.
Still embarrassed Darlene hesitated to say anything. He had been the perfect gentleman, except for the lapses when he stared a little too long. In a way that had been flattering too. She had to grant if there was a way to dress that guaranteed a man’s attention she qualified.
Joe broke the silence first. “How about a bite to eat? There’s a 24 hour fast food place coming up. Food isn’t that bad. Would you like something to eat or drink?”
“That would be wonderful, thanks.” She wasn’t sure how she would be able to eat but they’d solve that problem. He drove a few blocks before turning into the order lane of a fast food restaurant.
He pulled up to the drive through window to place their order. Darlene held her hands over the cuffs on her wrists and glanced down to make sure the chains on her ankles were hidden in the shadows. Joe nodded in approval when he saw what she had done. He rolled down the window and took the bags from the cashier. Without thinking he started to hand them to Darlene, but caught himself on realizing she couldn’t hold them.
Joe pulled away from the drive in window and drove along the street till he found a secluded place to park. A row of trees shielded them from the street and passers by while the parking lot lights gave them light to see. She didn’t want to tell him but Darlene was glad he had stopped for some food. The handfuls of popcorn had not been a proper meal. She was hungry and thirsty.
“Now for our gourmet feast. First course will be hot French fries, fresh out of the fryer. Is Madame ready?” Joe placed the fries and her sandwich on the top of the dashboard in front of her. She looked at the food, tantalizingly close just beyond her reach.
Darlene turned her head toward Joe and held out her hands, to the limit of the belt and cuffs. “I seem to be in some difficulty at the moment. Perhaps you could help me?” She gave him her best precocious little girl smile.
Joe put his half-eaten sandwich on the dash and turned to look at her. “Oh! I forgot. Yeah, I guess you do have a problem. Okay, let’s try this.” He picked up her container of fries and held one out to her. Leaning forward she took it out of his hand with her teeth while looking up at him. From the grin on his face he seemed to find feeding her by hand a pleasurable experience.
“I was going to apologize for not being able to feed myself but I can see it isn’t necessary. You’re enjoying this aren’t you?” She took a bite out of her sandwich as he held it out to her.
“Immensely. How often does a guy have the girl eating out of his hand on their first date? And we haven even gotten to the movie yet.”
Darlene nearly choked as she started to laugh with a mouth full of food. Joe wiped her face with a paper napkin. “Here, wash that down.” He put a straw in the top of her cold drink so she could sip on it.
While she ate he told her about the company, how his grandfather had worked behind the scenes at the studios before starting the company, and how he had taken it over when his father retired. Darlene could have listened for hours to his stories about the scandalous antics of old studio moguls and the hilarious anecdotes about the ways small production companies would skimp on productions costs. She was disappointed when he stopped to clean up the trash from their meal.
“The location is a ranch house that’s been rigged for cameras and lights. A lot of directors use it when they need a house in the country. I think it’s had about two hundred coats of cheap paint in the last ten years. I’m not sure what they are filming tonight. It’s outside of cell phone range, mountains I think, but Cal has to be there. It should take us about an hour. Will you be okay for that long?” He started the car.
“Yes, I’m all right. I really want to thank you again Joe, for all you are doing for me.” Darlene had been so engrossed in his stories she had forgotten why she was in his car. She studied his face as he accelerated out into the main street from the parking lot. Tucked away in her office she hadn’t seen him very often, and never had talked to him. The other employees all spoke highly of him. She could see why. He seemed to be a decent and caring man.
She leaned back in the seat and turned to watch the scenery go by. Conversation lagged but it was a comfortable silence. She leaned her head to one side and closed her eyes, feeling tired. Joe had a way of making her feel safe, to the point where she could relax. The way he had easily picked her up and carried her around gave her a warm feeling. As she drifted off to sleep a smile crossed her lips. It was a fleeting thought, one she would never admit, but sitting next to Joe she didn’t mind being tied up in the handcuffs.
Joe stole a glance at Darlene as he drove down the deserted road. She had her eyes closed and head turned to one side, resting or sleeping. Her skimpy costume served only to accentuate the fact she was an attractive woman. Under normal circumstances his lecherous side would be tempting him to take advantage of her. These weren’t normal circumstances. In a way it was ironic. If she wasn’t so helpless he’d feel free to be more aggressive, but all he could think about as he looked at her was sheltering and protecting her.
When he pulled up to the location and stopped the car she roused, turning to him to see what was happening. “I fell asleep. Is this where the movie is being filmed?” She blinked a few times. He noticed one of her wrists jerked against the cuffs. “Oh, I forgot.” She sat up in the car seat. “What should I do?”
“You stay right here. No one should bother you. If anyone does come up to the car ignore them. I’ll go find Cal.” He opened his door and got out.
She watched him walk through the parked cars and trucks toward the camera lights. He had left her seat belt and shoulder strap on so she couldn’t move around much. Curious, she tried to reach the seat belt latch. She was able to touch it but couldn’t get to the release button. There was no reason to open it anyway; she had nowhere to go.
She couldn’t see much of what was going on from inside the car, but there was a lot of noise and activity. Looking around she couldn’t see anyone in the parking area. She hoped Joe came back before anyone noticed her. She tried to slouch down in the seat.
He must have found Cal right away because she saw Joe heading back to the car after waiting for only a few minutes. He opened her door and crouched down next to Darlene. “Good news. The box was in the back of Cal’s truck, and the keys were in the box. Hold still for just a moment.” He took hold of one of her wrists to steady the handcuff while he inserted the key. He turned it a couple times, back and forth, before the cuff fell open. “Okay, I see how it works now.” A moment later both her hands were free.
Darlene immediately stretched before scratching her nose. “Oh thank you Joe. I don’t know what I would have done without your help. It feels so good just to be able to lift up my arms again.”
“I have to give Cal his flashlight back and let him know I found the box.” He handed the keys to Darlene. “Can you get the rest of those things off? Here’s your dress too.” He handed her the clothes she had left by the desk. “You can change while I go see Cal. Everyone’s working; no one’s back here so you’ll have some privacy.”
“Okay. And thanks again. Joe,” she reached out and put a hand on his arm. “I really mean it. I was about to break down in panic when you showed up. The distress was real; you rescued me.”
“You’re okay now. I’ll be back in a few. I might have to wait if they’re filming.” He stood up and headed toward the lights. She watched him go, a wistful, thoughtful expression on her face. At last she had the keys in her hand. Looking down at the shackles on her ankles she realized if it was possible to hate an inanimate object those things would be high on her list.
The director was at the end of a scene as Joe came back to the set. He paused quietly till they finished, and then waited for Cal to collect the props as the scene was broken down. Joe walked over and handed him the flashlight. “I found it. Here’s your flashlight. Thanks Cal, I needed that box. Couldn’t wait sort of thing.”
“No problemo amigo” Cal answered. “Looks like we’ll be done by late afternoon. Do you need the rest of the junk, errr, props back right away? I can drop them off on the way home.”
“Take your time, nothing scheduled for the weekend. Tuesday is good enough. It’s late for me so I’ll be hitting the road. Take it easy, see ya then.” Joe walked back toward his car.
From the camera lights at his back Joe could see her head through the windshield as he made his way through the makeshift parking lot. She was sitting up so he figured she must be finished. He opened his door and immediately halted in surprise as the interior light came on.
She still had the inmate uniform on. But what stopped him was the gleam of light from the handcuffs on her wrists, still held against her waist by the restraint belt. A glance told him her ankles were bound together as well. Puzzled, he sat down but left his door ajar to keep the light on.
Before he could say anything she lifted one hand, as far as the cuffs allowed, keys dangling from her fingers. “Could I ask one more favor Joe? Would you hold onto these? I know I can trust you not to lose them.”
He hesitated a moment before taking them out of her hand. “Are you sure about this? You understand what you’re doing?”
She stared at him, any pretense of joking replaced by an intent, serious expression. “I know exactly what I’ve just done. There is no doubt in my mind as to what those keys in your hand signify. I’m sure.
“And do I know what I’ll be doing next? No, I have no idea. That’s entirely up to you. I assume at some point I’ll find out.”
Joe had been propositioned by women before, but never quite like this. He dropped the keys in his shirt pocket. The gallant thing to do would be to graciously decline and then remove her chains. His problem was a certain reluctance to let her go.
“Maybe I better just take you home.” In truth it was the last thing he wanted to do, but the moment was turning from a rescue to something more. “What’s your address?”
Silence. She looked at him but said nothing. “What? You can’t remember where you live?” It seemed to him the conversation was headed to bad movie script territory.
“It’s a secret. I’ll never tell.” She turned her head away from him, eyes forward, staring directly out the front windshield.
Joe shook his head. This was a rerun of some absurd spy movie. Still, he couldn’t resist. “Ve haf ways to make you talk.” He grinned as she laughed.
“Is that a promise or an idle boast?”
“From now on you answer questions instead of asking them.” He started the car. “If I can’t take you to your home, then I guess it’ll have to be my house.”
Darlene smiled at him. “Sure Joe,” she said in a soft seductive voice, “whatever you want.”