HTG: Changing Rules
by Delilah Winston

Part 1

The interior of the Two Arches diner was nicely arranged. Guests passed under two rectangular arches made of mahogany at the entrance; hence the diner's name. Tables were arranged in a checkerboard pattern, with comfortable booths in the rear. The booth seats were upholstered with dark red seat covers.

Donna approached the host and gave him her name.

“Yes, Ms. Richmond,” the tall, well-groomed man nodded at once. “Ms. Wooten is expecting you. This way.”

He led Donna to a booth in the rear. Annie sat with her back to the wall, sipping a cup of light coffee.

“Hello, Donna, nice to see you again,” Annie offered a polite, matronly nod as she motioned for Donna to sit.

“Hello, Annie,” was all Donna offered in return as she sat down across from Annie, putting her purse on the seat beside her.

A waitress promptly came over and set down a cup of coffee in front of Donna, with a saucer of milk packets. Donna gave her a nod of thanks and returned her attention to Annie.

“Nice diner,” Donna said.

“Been in operation at least as long as Jackson's, if not longer,” Annie said. “It also offers these rear booths with just as much privacy.”

Donna put some milk and sugar in her coffee and stirred. “I'll admit it. This wasn't the kind of welcome I was expecting.”

“Oh, don't think I don't FEEL every bit as complacent as you thought I'd act, hon,” Annie said with a satisfied smile that only lasted a second, before she tempered her demeanor back into a polite one. “I knew you'd be calling, shortly after I read the newspaper obituary, and realized from the written eulogy, who-- Carla, was that her name? Once I realized who Carla was. But like I said, I know how it feels to lose a friend. I know better than to mock your feelings, Donna. Your co-workers might cringe at just the sound of my name, but I'm not some kind of monster.”

“The obituary not only showed you where she worked, but what her position was?” Donna's eyebrows lifted a centimeter.

Annie shook her head. “Come on, hon, SOME things must still be the same there, as many years as it's been since I left,” she said. “Head of Human Resources? They had that even when I was there. What was her name...”

Annie tapped her fingernails against the table as she recollected. “Joyce,” she said. “I forget her last name, but Joyce. She was heading that spot up back then.”

“Joyce Miller?” Donna asked.

Annie looked thoughtful. “I think that's it, yes,” she nodded. “She's not still there, is she?”

“No,” Donna answered. “I don't know when she moved on, but she's not around now. She'd eventually became a manager for the company before leaving.”

Annie smiled sarcastically. “They sure like to make tales of role models to follow and bad examples to avoid emulating.”

Donna's hand dropped to the table, her coffee cup tapping back on the coaster a little hard. Catching herself, she looked lost in thought for a brief moment. “I remember you said you can defend your story pretty well,” Donna said. “So I take it you'll probably deny what I've heard about you.”

“I didn't necessarily say deny,” Annie pointed out. “What exactly are you looking to accomplish, if you don't mind my asking? I'm sure you didn't just need someone to talk to. I do sympathize with the sense of loss you're feeling, but we're here to 'talk shop,' as you called it back when you went on that vacation to Toronto... aren't we?”

Donna sipped her coffee again. A waitress came by to see if they wanted to place an order.

Annie and Donna took a quick skim of the menu, the two of them deciding on toasted bagels with cream cheese on the side. They smiled politely at the waitress as she collected the menus and headed toward the kitchen.

“All right,” Donna began. “So you had a rivalry going with a secretary named Tracy?”

Annie's face set in a rigid look. “Oh, I remember her, all right,” she said. “Stuck-up, sanctimonious little ego trip.”

Donna's eyes opened wide for a second at the remarks. “That makes me wonder what they called you,” she said absently.

Annie chuckled low. “I'm sure I can imagine a few things if you wanted to give me a few moments for it.”

Their bagels and cream cheese arrived; Annie and Donna both pausing to thank the waitress and wait until she stepped back out of earshot.

“I'm sure you all still do that at Jackson's,” Annie smiled.

Donna suppressed a chuckle, although she gave a conciliatory gesture. “Okay, how about... cheater? Betrayer? Of their trust? Bribery, I heard them accuse you of? Bribing the aides so you could beat Tracy out in the 'competition'?”

Donna finally gave Annie a brazen look, confronting her on what the blonde knew. Donna's spine tensed up as she made her move, anticipating a hostile turn in both of their respective demeanors. But Annie just laughed. A real laugh of amusement, not a harsh one. Annie propped her right elbow on the table, bent her wrist and rested her chin on it. “Is THAT what they told you I did?”

“So you deny the charge?” Donna asked.

“Oh, no, I don't deny it. I offered them the bribe,” Annie said, still looking amused. She paused a few seconds, looking expectantly at Donna, before dropping a bomb that hit Donna from the blind side. “They didn't also tell you that Tracy's boyfriend was one of the aides, did they?”

Donna jumped in her seat, dropping her butter knife, which still had a gob of cream cheese on it; sending it tumbling down the napkin across her lap before dropping down to the floor. The blonde blushed rosy as she started to bend to clean up after herself, but a busboy quickly approached and took care of it, before setting a clean butter knife and napkin down for her.

“B-b-but that's... that can't be,” Donna said. “How would any of you have known that?”

Annie started to chuckle again. “What, we all knew that,” she said. “Do your managers make you put on blindfolds before the aides come in, now?”

Donna's shoulders slumped. “The aides didn't wear masks then?”

Annie started to lift her butter knife from her cream cheese container, and quickly dropped it back down onto the plate. “They wear MASKS now?” she laughed, looking tickled pink to hear it. “Because of that whole fiasco?” She let go of her knife and clapped her hands together a few times. “Oh, that is just a hoot! Thank you so much for sharing that with me, Donna. You've just made my evening!”

“Glad to have been of help,” Donna said with a condescending smile, but a sullen tone. “All right, so if her boyfriend was an aide, you're that sure it meant he was going to help make sure she won? Wouldn't all the other women see right through it if they all knew the truth?”

“People there were a lot of things, Donna, but they weren't stupid,” Annie shook her head again. “Tracy was smart enough to ask that her boyfriend wasn't assigned to her, and the managers were smart enough to make sure he wasn't.”

“Then?” Donna raised her eyebrows again.

“Trust me, hon, there's plenty of things he could have done to tip the odds in Tracy's favor,” Annie said. “Nothing that all the women wouldn't have been able to suspect, but nothing that any of them would be able to prove. If he was ever assigned to her, and she got free that day, it would have been too obvious. But making a deal with a lead aide to tie a slack knot? Nobody could prove that. Coaching her at night at one of their homes? That would have gotten him fired the very next day, but only if it could be proven. No proof, and a lot of people would have glared with angry suspicion, but that's all it would be. Suspicion, and a 'sour grapes' attitude. Tracy would still go home with the betting pool's pot. You could also bet she'd have rubbed salt in the wound by buying herself something real nice with the money soon as she could.”

They paused again as their coffee cups were refilled.

Donna stayed quiet, thinking about the quandary that not only Annie, but all of her other co-workers at the time, must have been in. Annie let her think for a short moment before speaking up again.

“So how long did it take before the managers made the rest of the ladies stop that whole stupid competition?” Annie queried, her voice quickly turning sarcastic at the end of the question.

Donna looked back up at Annie. “It's still going,” she said. “Just hasn't been unfriendly since you left. Joyce saw to that.”

Annie smirked. “Oh, DID she now? Do tell.”

“First day of a new girl's fourth week, the aides leave a slack in her wrist bondage, so she can get free. If she does, her manager tells her 'big sister' abou--”

“Wait, hold on, hon, take it back a notch,” Annie said. “Big sister? What, have they gone all Nineteen Eighty-Four on everyone there? Big Sister is watching?”

Donna looked dubious. “When a new hire starts, one of her co-workers under the same manager will take her under her wing and be her chief confidante, helping the new girl adjust to all the ins and outs of working there. A 'big sister'. They didn't have that, then?”

Annie thought. “Not quite the same, but close. Several co-workers all helped a new woman fit in, but we didn't have one co-worker on constant call like that. We didn't call it by any particular name, either.”

“So, if she chooses to take advantage of the slack and work herself free, her manager notifies her 'big sister' about it,” Donna continued explaining. “If the new hire gives any hint or indication that she's 'won the competition', we know she's lying. The support group stops helping her. As far as I know, none of the new hires who were caught in that stayed much longer.”

Annie gave Donna another sour look. “So, all these years, they stage a little mockery of me to see who's going to be honest. I hope you don't expect me to pat you on the shoulder and say that it's all okay with me. We weren't all honest with each other when I was there, Donna. Do you really believe all your co-workers are honest with you?”

“Certainly not all the time,” Donna answered, her voice taking a defensive edge. “We DO check our differences at the front door a lot more carefully than we did back then. Not all of us are friends, but we maintain that sense of respect and community. Any of us does something behind closed doors that we know won't go well with everyone, we never talk about it from nine to five. Annie, Joyce started putting the support group together nearly ten years before your incident with Tracy. Do you expect me to believe it was that weak?”

Annie gave a slow grin. “We're gonna have to come back here some time to get into THAT, hon,” she told Donna. “You think she hit a home run with that idea within the first few months? HTG almost shut down four years after she started putting this little sisterhood, yeah right, a sisterhood, together. I don't know all the details, because any company worth the paperwork it churns out, gets real good at sweeping dirt under the rug, really fast. But they almost folded while I was still in high school. Even by the time I started, stories had dwindled down to a few pieces of gossip.”

“But you take them seriously,” Donna thought aloud.

“There's a few words of truth in most lies, Donna,” Annie said in a tone that warned her to learn some caution.

'A lot of what she'll tell you, WILL be the truth in her eyes,' Mary told Donna, shortly before Donna's holiday trip to Toronto, a little over two years ago. 'She won't lie to you as often as you think. The more lies, the better the chance she'll be caught.'

“So what did you do, that some of your co-workers don't want to talk to you now?” Annie asked suddenly.

Donna was caught off guard, doing a quick double-take.

Annie gave another smug smile. “I'm sorry about you losing your friend, the one who headed up counseling for new girls, but I know that's not the only reason you're here. Something happened, and the other women won't speak to you, just when you needed to speak to them, the most.”

Donna let out a sigh without opening her mouth. “You're good,” she admitted. “You can read people pretty well. You'd have made a great head of Human Resources, if not for the whole fiasco of your own.”

Annie nodded in polite thanks to acknowledge the compliment. “So what did you do?”

“When Carla got sick, she was desperate not to tell anyone, because she worried too much about all of us. But I found out. How, probably doesn't matter. I found out. She begged me not to talk about it.”

Annie thought. “I can see they wouldn't be too happy about that, if they all loved her the way you did.”

“Carla's manager also knew,” Donna followed up. “He saw how it was affecting me. He asked me to take sick leave so I didn't fall apart.”

Annie's mouth opened knowingly right away. “Now I get it,” she said. “That was one of the first rules for the little community the women built for themselves. Even the senior managers don't step in themselves, except in a serious emergency. Oh yeah. It's not a betrayal, it's not permanently inexcusable, but they're gonna carry that grudge for a little while.”

“In the meantime, my 'big sister' is the new head of Human Resources,” Donna pointed out.

Annie had to fight to keep herself from smiling again. She raised her hands slightly in a gesture of apology. “I know that wasn't nice, Donna. But I'll admit it. If I were in that lady's shoes, I wouldn't be happy with you, either. Of course, there is a but.”

Donna merely raised her eyebrows slightly, waiting to hear the 'but.'

Annie leaned forward a bit. “She still has to do her job. Personal feelings aside, she has to do her job. This little 'big sister' thing isn't necessarily part of the job, it's just something they do because it keeps their little 'community' going strong.” She made a 'quote, un-quote' sign with her fingers as she said 'community'. “But head of Human Resources comes with specific duties, and she has to do them. Don't let her back out of that, Donna. Just don't.”

Donna leaned back and thought. “You're right,” she said, nodding. “You're right, Annie. Thank you.”

Annie nodded a 'you're welcome,' before giving a sarcastic grin. “If she gives you trouble over it, you can always apply to work at Northland with my family and me.”

Donna's look changed from surprised to slightly annoyed, before she gave in and laughed. “Thanks, I'll keep it in mind.”

* * *

Christina glanced up at Donna as the blonde came into her office. “Morning, Donna,” she said politely. “What can I do for you?”

“I've come for some advice. I need help with something,” Donna said.

Christina didn't need to ask Donna, 'with what?'. “Could it wait until later, pleas--”

“It could, but then it would get put off again, and again, and there's only so long that can happen,” Donna answered.

The brunette's eyes flashed in annoyance. “My 'little sister' is 'fully grown' now, remember?” she reminded Donna. “I can't always be there right away like I could before.”

“I'm not here as your 'little sister,'” Donna said, her voice becoming sterner. “I'm here seeking the help of the Head of Human Resources. She DOES have to be available during walk-in periods, like now, doesn't she?”

Christina's eyes opened wider and she stared at Donna for a moment before nodding a grudging approval. “You've done your homework, I see,” she said. “All right. What can I help you with as Head of Human Resources?”

Donna's eyes dipped downward, looking briefly embarrassed. “I need help mending fences... with my big sister.”

Now it was Christina's mouth that opened wider, before the irony of the situation struck her funny and she started laughing.

“Hmmm,” she said. “I suppose I could call her in for a group session?” she cracked with a small grin.

Christina slowly stood. “I'll ask Mr. Halwell if I could get out a bit earlier than usual at the end of the day, and we'll hit Jackson's for coffee and donuts?”

Donna nodded. “I'd like that, very much.”

Christina blinked rapidly. Her eyes started glistening. “Donna...”

Donna moved toward her, and they hugged; Christina starting to sniffle as she did.

* * *

Donna squirmed in the aides' grasp as the ropes were wrapped around her upper body; the usual coils being made both above and below her bust. Even though she'd never been able to get out of their grip regardless of circumstance, it reminded her of something KJ said at 'Barbie's' retirement party: 'Once we're gagged, a lot of the wind goes out of our sails.' Is that why we're always tied up in a specific pattern? Donna found herself thinking silently as the rope was knotted at the midpoint of her spine. It made some sense. Once Donna's wrists were tied, her arms and hands were out of the way, behind her back, strictly limiting whatever 'cat-and-mouse games' the women tended to play with the aides while being tied up. Next she was gagged; during orientation, this was mainly to keep the women from screaming in fear. But once a girl became reconciled to Down Time, it was more than just sticking to a pattern. Once each woman was gagged, it took the wind out of their sails.

KJ had meant more than just breathing. Despite how Donna's gag pulled the corners of her mouth back, and how the cloth pinched against the corners when she tried opening her mouth, she was still able to part her lips just enough to breathe through her mouth if she needed. But resistance continued to decline, and the aides didn't need to rely as much on simply holding the women fast. The ropes around her upper body were probably the most complex part of the bondage, and it had a definite psychological effect. From there, tying each woman's knees and ankles was pretty routine, and the hogtie rope became a trivial matter.

Donna knew she wasn't the first woman to figure this out. It simply never came up in conversation with any of the other women. Support group discussions were for the purpose of living with Down Time so they could continue to feel comfortable and safe working at HTG. It wasn't for analysis of how each woman was bound and gagged. The 'competition,' although friendly, was still every woman for herself. When it came to figuring out how to get free, each of them was on her own. That this unwritten rule probably contributed to no woman ever successfully freeing herself in all the time HTG had been running, was irrelevant.

Donna was lain on her side and gently rolled onto her stomach. Her bound ankles were lifted up so the short rope would reach between her wrist bondage and ankle bondage, completing the hogtie. Her phone cord was stowed in a drawer of her desk, and the aides took the stool with them as they left the office, closing the door behind them.

Donna's struggles had begun before the door was completely closed. There was no 'rule,' written or unwritten, that bade her wait until afterward. Besides, the sooner her body was in motion, the less difficult it was to clear her mind, and the more of a head start she had on enduring the restrictiveness of her bondage longer.

“MMMMMMMmmmmmmm mmmmmMMMMmm MMMMMMmmmm!” Donna's muffled cries into her gag were an extension of her nature. If a fairy godmother, the likes of what was in Disney movies, were to appear and grant Donna the ability to work herself out of one part of her bondage, and she could choose which one, there was no doubt that getting her gag out of her mouth would be her choice. This had been true from day one. She shook her head side to side as much as her neck and sense of equilibrium would let her. No matter how many weeks, how many months, how many years, she would do this despite the futility. The only alternative to struggling against her gag was to submissively wear it, and for Donna, that simply wasn't an option.

Donna's second choice would be to kick her ankles out of the hogtie rope, if a fairy godmother were feeling particularly generous–- to relieve some of the cramping in her knees and thighs after she was untied. The rest of her bondage, well... Donna didn't feel like pressing her luck with a fairy godmother. Besides, that would be 'cheating' in the 'competition;' at least if you asked Mary. Donna was a fierce competitor, but she played fair; and not just because her co-workers wouldn't be pleased if she didn't.

It was somewhat ironic that some of the ethical codes that the sisterhood operated by put all the women at even more of a disadvantage in struggling free from their bondage during Down Time, but maintaining integrity was more important to the HTG women. It kept them from internal politics that would have impaired the company's productivity. That was one reason the company could afford some of the many job and career perks the women enjoyed. Pun notwithstanding, their hands were tied on the issue.

So, Donna simply struggled, simply cried out into her gag, and as usual, was unsuccessful. Her door opened, and the aides came in to untie her. She fought a curious urge to smirk into her gag as they began undoing the hogtie rope.

Donna gave the aides a polite nod farewell as they exited her office. Settling back in her chair, she finished her work for the day in an efficient manner, putting the last forms in the outbox to be collected by a senior clerical worker after she left for the day.

As Donna was finishing up, a fax memo came in. She picked it up and looked it over, her eyes widening in surprise. The memo asked Donna to come to Christina's office, but it wasn't signed or initialed by Christina herself. It was initialed BTW: Bethany Wilkins' initials. Donna logged out of her workstation and paged Christina on her speakerphone to tell the brunette that she was on her way.

Christina's acknowledgment was followed by another woman's voice; one Donna had never heard before. The voice sounded, not old by any means, but older than Christina, and it resonated with authority despite the gentle feminine timbre. “We'll be here, Donna. Bea Knight is on her way as well.”

Donna paused, noting this. “Understood.”

Bea was waiting by Christina's door as Donna arrived. She nodded in greeting, a bit nervously. Donna nodded back, and Bea knocked before entering.

Christina stood behind her desk, her hands clasped behind her back. On her left side stood a woman with medium-long, golden brown hair clipped behind her at the base of her neck. She had blue eyes, standing the same height as Christina; Donna had never asked, but figured Christina was 5'5” or 5'6.” The woman looked to be in her mid forties; she was still beautiful, with light rosy cheeks and full lips; her jaw line showing a medium-small chin. Her black skirt suit was crisp and spotless, the skirt sharply pleated. She wore plain daysheer pantyhose that matched her fair skin tone, and immaculate black pumps with medium heels.

Donna swallowed as softly as she could. “Ms. Wilkins?”

“Pleasure to meet you, Donna,” she said, offering her hand and delivering a firm handshake.

“Likewise,” was all Donna could manage.

Ms. Wilkins shook hands with Bea, giving her the same greeting, before getting right down to business. “Normally I'm one of the last people to leave at the end of the day, but Mr. Hill gave me clearance. So I'll be privileged to buy you all a cup of coffee at Jackson's. It's been quite a while since I've been able to go there, even longer to do it with some female co-workers.”

Ms. Wilkins finished the invitation with a friendly smile that put the three other women at ease.

“Gladly,” Christina said, looking toward Donna and Bea.

Bea nodded and gave a small smile, and Donna copied.

“Of course,” Bea said.

End of part 1

Copyright© 2015 by Delilah Winston. All rights reserved.
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