HTG: Donna Learns the Ropes
by Delilah Winston

Part 3

Donna sat down and finished the remaining bond forms; sorting them properly and tagging the ones that needed to be tagged. She was putting the finishing touches on the last form when Christina came into the office.

“Hey,” Christina smiled in greeting as she came in. “How are you feeling?”

Having had to finish the remaining work had cooled Donna down and she was feeling better. Still, there was one thing bothering her.

Christina smiled slightly. She figured the whole 'orientation' thing was still bugging the blonde. “Still pretty bummed at it all, hm, Donna?” she asked, even as she handed Donna the customary small personal-size bottle of lotion and packet of Epsom salt. Christina took a particular interest in seeing to Donna's comfortable transition into life at HTG and was trying to be there for her whenever she could.

Donna took a breath to steel herself. “One of the...” she knew Christina would have no trouble understanding that she meant one of the 'aides,' but she was still incensed enough that she had trouble saying the word.

Christina got the message and her face took on a look of concern. “What did they do, Donna?”

“One of them touched my leg inappropriately. As in, not the way he should have been doing just to hold me down,” Donna said flatly. “That's not part of the whole 'orientation' thing, is it? He did it yesterday, too.”

Christina took two hurried steps to Donna's speakerphone and hit Carla's extension. “Carla, come to Donna's office right away, please?”

A brief pause and Carla's voice answered. “Donna, are you okay, hon?”

Christina gave Donna a compassionate look. “Tell Carla what you told me, Donna, when she gets here.”

“FUCK NO, that's not part of the deal,” Carla snapped after she heard what happened, though she didn't snap directly at Donna. “I don't give a crap if one of the other aides stopped him. You said he did this yesterday, too? On your first orientation?”

Donna nodded, and Carla visibly trembled.

Carla hit another extension on Donna's speakerphone. “Mr. Halwell, could you please stay another twenty minutes? I need to write a report for Mr. Stone's new hire. One of Mr. Stone's aides overstepped a line with her.”

There was a long silence before a concerned male voice responded. “Thank you for letting me know, Carla. I'll be here.” There was another pause before the voice addressed Donna directly. “What's your name, miss? Donna--?”

“Donna Richmond,” Donna answered.

“We'll take care of it from our end,” Mr. Halwell assured her. “Tell Mr. Stone right away. Don't wait for Carla to finish writing the report, okay?”

Donna smiled in relief. Christina and Karen's assurances about the respect they, and all the other women in the corporate division, were treated with, were proving true. “Thank you, Mr. Halwell. I'll do that.”

Carla patted Donna's hand. “Don't worry.”

Donna nodded gratefully. “Thank you too, Carla.”

Carla smiled and headed back to her office to start writing the report. Christina stayed with Donna while she told Mr. Stone about the incident. The sound of Mr. Stone's voice erased any lingering concerns Donna had about how she and everyone else was treated.

“It won't happen again, Donna. I promise.”

Christina hugged Donna. “You'll be okay,” the brunette assured her.

Donna nodded. “I wanted to ask you something else, too.”

“Sure, what's up?” Christina's eyebrows lifted curiously.

“Just how much can anyone talk to me, about this whole thing?” Donna asked.

“Well,” Christina began, “There's sort of an unofficial rule that talk doesn't cross gender lines, especially with any men who are in a managerial or exec position. Reporting that aide is an obvious exception, of course, but for the most part, the men let us take care of each other. It works out better for us that way.”

Donna took a moment to let it sink in. “I had been thinking about something Karen told me last night at dinner.”

“Mm-hmm... and?”

Donna hesitated again, and Christina smiled. “You can talk to me, I promise I won't call you a nutcase.” she gave a light giggle, and Donna couldn't help but follow suit.

“Karen's been here six years, you've been here-- going on five?”

Christina nodded.

Donna pursed her lips. “And neither of you ever got free?”

Christina's laugh surprised Donna, although not in a bad way. This was the first time Donna had seen Christina really laugh. 'I wonder how often this comes up in conversation,' Donna couldn't help but wonder.

Christina paged another extension on Donna's speakerphone. “Hi, Mary,” she prefaced, introducing Donna to Mr. Halwell's secretary. “Mary, tell Donna about the betting pool.”

Donna did a double-take at Christina. “The what?!”

A hearty laugh filled the air; lightly tinged with what sounded like a foreign accent. That accent became more clear when Mary answered; it sounded like she was from England. “You want to join the betting pool, then, Donna? Most of us are putting odds on when one of we ladies finally struggles free before the aides come to untie us. Karen and I are the most competitive against each other. A friendly competition, of course.”

Donna was incredulous. “You mean, in all the time that pool's been going--?”

“Hard to believe, I know,” Mary answered. “So far the score is zero all across the board. “How the bloody hell our managers got all the aides trained so well is anyone's guess, specially since talk of it all doesn't cross the gender lines. But those boys know what they're doing, hon. They tie me tight and gag me tighter. I struggle with everything I've got. Haven't beaten them yet.”

Donna didn't try to look at Christina, although her head drifted toward the brunette unconsciously. Christina just smiled and raised a hand to shoulder level; in the universal HTG-girl gesture that said, 'me too.'

One thing gave Donna pause. “What happens when one of you does... win the pool? Or decides not to try?”

Mary caught the tone Donna used and laughed again; Christina chuckling along with her. “I hope you don't think our managers will do anything, silly goose,” she said. “How would they enforce a policy like that? It would cross a line they don't dare cross, trust me.”

“And what happens to all the money in the pot?” Donna wondered just how much the girls had all lost to whomever they'd lost to.

Mary tsk'ed for a split-second. “You're learning something new hires usually don't learn about until after the first week,” she began, “but Christina seems to trust you. Pool's active for two weeks or until someone finally wins, whichever comes first. Since the latter has still to arrive after so many years, at the end of each period, each girl gets back what they put in, and a new period starts. I promise you, hon, the managers aren't running our 'competition,' nor using it to dip into our paycheques. Again, that would cross a line they won't dare step over.”

Donna had yet to meet Mary face to face, but something in her voice rang out, telling Donna to trust her. For the first time since she found out what 'orientation' was about, she felt completely safe here at the company.

The blonde girl's eyes twinkled with a flash of mischief. “Put me down for $40.”

“Done!” Mary said delightedly. “You're now part of the competition. May the best girl win!”

Christina flashed a grin so big that Donna thought her face might split. “Welcome to HTG, girl friend,” Christina gushed, hugging Donna much in the same way that Deena often did.

* * * *

Donna knew about the time she'd gotten out of the shower that she wasn't feeling too well. Exactly what she'd eaten that offended her stomach, she wasn't sure, but she was pretty sure that something she ate was the culprit. And while she was perfectly safe claiming a sick day to wait it out, she chose not to. Although the whole 'orientation' thing at HTG still offended her at some level, Karen had turned out to be increasingly right-- she, Christina, Carla, and all the other women in New Bonds were making Donna feel comfortable enough and safe enough that she had continued to endure it. And here she was at the end of her third week; the final day of 'orientation', of 'learning the ropes.' Donna had to flash a sardonic but slightly bitter grin as she buttoned her jacket, at the thought of that. Was it worth all the job perks, including the generous salary? The salary had paid for Donna's current skirt suit, a pearl gray one with dark pinstripes so thin as to barely be noticeable. When Donna thought about it... no, the perks weren't really worth it. They might have helped, but alone they didn't suffice. What made it all endurable and livable was the camaraderie she'd developed with all of her co-workers; the little sisterhood they'd all established and welcomed Donna into with open arms. Karen was right about that too.

And so, this being the final day of 'learning the ropes,' Donna chose to go into work and told her stomach to be quiet; or at least, not bother her for the duration of the work day.

And it did-- at least, most of the work day. Although Donna made a habit never to look at the wall clock or her wristwatch during work hours, and therefore didn't know it, she was 15 minutes into her final 'orientation' period when her stomach finally decided that enough was enough, and she was going to start listening to it now.

Donna's struggles against the ropes that bound her started to falter slightly. Of all the times for-- then again, maybe that's why this was the perfect time; she still wasn't really okay with being bound and gagged for 45 minutes each day. On the other hand, soon as it was finished, the day was nearly through. 'DAMN it, not now! Shut the fuck up and be quiet!'

“MMMMmmmmmm.... mmmMMMmmMM--” Donna's gagged cries suddenly gave way to a gurgling cough. No doubt about it; the time for being quiet, as far as her stomach was concerned, was over. It kicked against her abdomen-- hard. Donna felt herself cough unsteadily. She started to panic. Her stomach kicked her again. Now what was she supposed to do?

The door flew open and the four aides came rushing in. They pulled Donna up to her knees and snipped off her gag with the scissors. One aide patted her back lightly but firmly; a second started to cut the knot for the ropes around her upper body. He'd only gotten partway through it when Donna felt her stomach kick her really hard. The aide withdrew from cutting the knot and helped his partner keep Donna steady while the third and fourth placed a small metal pail for her. The offending culprit that Donna's stomach took such issue with-- whatever it was-- plopped into the pail along with Donna's lunch. The first aide continued to pat her back lightly but firmly. Donna coughed again; feeling her throat start to become hoarse. The four aides balanced her lightly on her knees, keeping her upper body bending slightly forward, holding her up and being as careful as possible not to touch any inappropriate parts of her body.

When her upper body stopped wriggling and showed signs of calming, they quickly finished cutting her loose and sat her down on the wooden stool. One of them wiped Donna's mouth with a piece of cloth. Was that another reason they always wore gloves? When he was finished, another opened a water bottle and fed her part of the contents. Donna reached up to hold the bottle herself, but the aide very gently put his free hand on top of hers. Against his touch, Donna could feel her own hands trembling and understood why he stopped her. When she finished drinking, they capped the bottle and put it on her desk so she could finish it at her convenience. They helped Donna to her chair so she could sit comfortably. With the usual efficiency they were notorious for, they plugged her phone cord back in, gathered up the cut ropes, the stool, and the pail and turned to exit her office.

Donna knew they weren't supposed to talk to her or even look directly at her, but she couldn't be silent. “Thank you,” she said softly as they started to file through her door. And to her great surprise, one half-turned and gave her a small nod over his shoulder. He didn't make direct eye contact, but as far as Donna was concerned, he didn't need to.

Donna now glanced at her wristwatch. It was 4:10 pm. Twenty minutes until 'orientation' would have been finished. She figured she might as well finish up the few forms remaining in her inbox. The quick response time and how the aides handled her stomach's rebellion assured Donna that they were prepared for something like this happening. It raised a couple of more questions-- none of which Donna was inclined to believe she'd like the answers to-- but it would be a little bit of time, yet, before any of her co-workers were untied and could talk to her.

Or so Donna thought.

A knock quickly sounded at Donna's door, followed by Karen's voice. “Donna? May I come in?”

Donna's head quickly lifted. She glanced at the wall clock in a bit of confusion. It read 4:21. Karen wasn't supposed to be untied until 4:30.

The knock sounded again. “Donna?” Karen's voice called again, softly.

“Come in,” Donna finally said.

Karen came into the office and closed the door. She didn't smile at any point between opening the door and coming into the office and approaching Donna. Her face showed that she was in 'big-sister mode' even before she knocked on the door.

“Aides came in and untied me very suddenly,” Karen began, answering Donna's question without needing to hear it. “One of them held up an index card with your name stenciled on it. That's a call sign telling me they were untying me so I could come here and check on you.”

Donna gave a soft, brief chuckle. She had a feeling that she could tell Karen all she needed to know without actually saying anything. Donna's head turned thirty degrees to her left where the half-full water bottle rested.

Karen followed her glance and finally smiled; though it was only perfunctory and etiquette. “How are you feeling now, Donna?” Karen asked, her voice showing she was still concerned.

“Better,” Donna admitted. “I'll probably need to take some medicine when I get home, though.”

Karen nodded. “HTG tradition number two: after you finish 'orientation,' some of us take you out for a drink at Jackson's to celebrate. But I guess you shouldn't be having any alcohol right now, right, hon?” She smiled again, and Donna smiled with her.

“I guess not,” Donna answered. “But if there's a pharmacy close by, I can pick up something for my stomach and maybe have something more standard.”

“Sure thing,” Karen said. “Just across from here in the other direction from Jackson's, in the lobby of the Reynolds building are a few stores, including a small drug store.”

Donna's speakerphone buzzed. It was Mr. Stone. Donna froze briefly and glanced again at her wristwatch: 4:25 pm.

Karen patted Donna's hand lightly. “He wouldn't page you unless he knew, hon,” Karen said.

Donna nodded and picked up. “Hi, Mr. Stone,” she said politely.

“How are you feeling, Donna?” Mr. Stone asked.

“Better, thank you,” Donna answered.

“I've come in despite not feeling well, more times than I care to admit,” Mr. Stone said amiably. “We all have. And I think I can guess why you did today.” He paused for silence. “And you were wrong to do it. Just as I was wrong every time I didn't use a sick day, every time any of us who didn't use a sick day when we should have.”

Donna and Karen both giggled at the remark; decidedly girlish titterings that nonetheless took more than just a few seconds to abate. A baritone-bass chuckle accompanied them from the other end of the call. “I'll keep that in mind, Mr. Stone,” Donna smiled. “Although it would have helped if I knew what was going to happen, before I left the house.”

“You got me there,” Mr. Stone conceded, and all three of them chuckled again. “If we listened that close to every little complaint from every part of our bodies, nobody would ever get out of bed. But if you're really feeling unwell, tell us. Forget milestones and achievements. They'll wait for you.”

Donna smiled again. She couldn't help but look at Karen, who simply leaned her backside against the front of Donna's desk and crossed her arms over her breast with a smug I-told-you-so look. Donna's smile widened into a grin. “Deal. Thank you, Mr. Stone.”

“If you need to, you can head on out,” Mr. Stone said. “If you're sure you want to finish the day, then of course you're welcome to.”

Donna would be able to finish the last form with just three more keystrokes to tag and date it, and sort it into the database properly. Karen glanced at her wristwatch and nodded lightly. “You can pick up what you wanted to at the drug store at the Reynolds building and be done in time to meet us at Jackson's.”

“It's settled, then,” Mr. Stone said. “Rest easy tonight, Donna. See you Monday.”

Donna smiled lightly. She was beginning to wonder why she had yet to actually see Mr. Stone face to face so far, so 'see you Monday' was an interesting remark. For now, though, she simply gave a polite, 'Good night, Mr. Stone.' The pleasantry was also exchanged between Mr. Stone and Karen before he clicked off.

The clock read 4:29 pm. Donna put in the final keystrokes to finalize the last form and logged out of her workstation. “How many of them know?” she asked Karen.

“Just Carla and I, right now,” Karen said. “The others are just starting to get untied. You didn't need the whole department rushing to your side, after all.” They both smiled.

Donna's pleasant look slowly melted as she gathered her spring coat. “Karen...”

Karen nodded and lightly touched Donna's arm. “I know,” she said. “Trust me, I know. This little out-for-a-drink is more than just a celebration. You just happened to think of some of the questions before they got answered.” She smiled reassuringly. “Pick up what you need to and meet us at Jackson's.”

* * * *

Christina had wanted to be there for Donna's final day of 'orientation' badly, but her mother had become ill suddenly, and the other women and Mr. Stone had all pitched in to talk her into going to her mom's side; Karen promising to fill the role for Donna that Christina would have, otherwise. Meeting Donna at Jackson's, besides Karen and Carla, were Mary and the receptionist and secretary for another manager in the department, Mr. Steward. The receptionist's name was Bea; she was a couple of inches taller than Karen, slight but shapely of build; looking to have long legs despite being short overall in height. Bea's hair was light brown, almost golden brown, complementing her hazel eyes. She wore eyeglasses similar in design to Carla's. Nancy was the secretary; she was medium height, dark eyes and skin, and well-endowed at the bust. She'd become adept at keeping her bust tastefully covered and toned down, but it didn't take a pervert to notice on first glance. Nancy kept her crinkled black hair a little shorter than most of the HTG women; it came down to just brush the top edges of her shoulder blades. Mary was blonde like Donna, but more of a pale sandy blonde, and her eyes were blue. She stood the same height as Christina and was equally shapely; Mary's legs could have probably gotten her a job modeling hosiery, or 'body part' stand-in work for a television actress. Mary looked a little older than Christina; possibly the same age as Karen, give or take a year. Bea and Nancy, on the other hand, looked to be just about Donna's age; Karen had mentioned that Nancy had recently finished her first year, while Bea was near the end of hers. Being taller than most of the women at HTG, Carla wore lower heels, more block cut, with a strap over her insteps. To match their respective skin tones, Carla wore suntan stockings and Nancy wore black ones, while the other women wore basic daysheer beige like Donna.

A short waitress wearing a name tag that read, 'Vanessa' came to take drink orders as the women were seated. Donna fingered the plastic bag holding the medicine she'd bought. “I think maybe just a glass of water?”

“Better yet,” Nancy said, turning knowingly to Donna. “A cup of mint jasmine tea. One of the herbals they have available here. It's GREAT stuff.”

Donna looked at Nancy, then at the waitress, and finally nodded with a small shrug and a small smile. “Sounds good to me.”

“Sweet 'N Low and no milk,” Nancy added, and Donna again nodded in assent.

The waitress nodded and turned to Carla. “And you, Miss?”

“Coffee, light with one sugar,” Carla answered. The rest of the women decided on coffee as well; Mary taking hers black and Bea taking milk but no sugar in hers.

Donna watched Vanessa turn and walk to the next table as she carried on with her rounds. The waitress wore a baseball cap as per health code rules of keeping her head covered; a dark blonde ponytail poked through the opening above the cap's snap adjustment. Even despite her relatively plain and serviceable waitress uniform, Vanessa was easily discernible as being a relative 'Plain Jane' by nature in comparison to the six of them seated at the table; her body equally 'nice' but unremarkable. Since Karen had made it clear that this little gathering was meant to bring Donna further into the fold by telling her more about the HTG workings and what they meant, Donna now knew what her first question was.

“If she had the right skills,” Donna said, indicating Vanessa, “would she be hired for a 'corporate' position at HTG? Would she be taken as a receptionist in New Bonds?”

Carla carefully stole an appraising look at the waitress and thought about it. “She'd need to change her shampoo because her hair looks limp and a little oily, even if it isn't,” she said, “and walking with slumped shoulders the way she does, trust me, Donna... no corporate firm is going to see that as positive. It suggests you don't care about what's going on around you.” She paused briefly and then lowered her head, looking at Donna over the edge of her eyeglasses with a slightly firmer glance. “But just because she doesn't look as 'hot' as we might, that's not going to close our doors to her or anyone like her. Even just finishing your third week, you should know that, Donna.”

“You've told me, yes,” Donna admitted. “Accepting it would be easier if one or two of the women at HTG looked the same way as she.”

“You should see me when I get out of bed,” Bea said with a wink. “You should see Jennifer Garner when she gets out of bed. 'Net is making a point of posting photographs of a number of celebrities to prove it, so ladies like her--” Bea nodded in the waitress' direction-- “don't feel bad about themselves.” The other women quickly chirped up with light chuckles and nods.

It was time for the primary matter on Donna's mind, now that the opener had been satisfied. “You all know what happened to me during my final 'orientation' period, by now, right?”

They all nodded, Bea adding an 'mm-hmm,' and Mary simply saying, “How are you feeling now, hon?”

“Physically, I'm better,” Donna said with a small nod of thanks, fingering the box of chewable tablets she'd picked up. Two of them with her beverage, two more an hour before bed, and any lingering traces of stomach upset should settle by the end of the evening.

“But it told you some things before we could,” Mary added.

“Exactly.” It was now Donna's turn to hand her co-workers the stern look. “They were prepared, and not just by apparently having done it before and knowing how to handle it. They were in my office far faster than I'd have expected anyone to have any idea what was going on.”

Donna could have added a few points, such as how she wasn't any closer to working her gag off by the time she started to feel sick, than when the aides first tied it in place only a short time prior, but it wasn't really relevant to the true issue: how the aides found out about her so quickly. Her co-workers were here to give her answers, so she just stuck to the facts.

Noting that Donna had fixed her gaze directly on her, Karen figured she'd field this one herself. “Christina didn't lie to you, Donna,” Karen said softly. “She just didn't tell you everything. I'm here to tell you now, and no, it's probably not going to be pleasant for you. Nancy's been here a little over a year now and she still wishes it weren't so.”

Donna turned toward Nancy, who offered a nod to affirm what Karen was leading up to. As Karen was going to tell her anyway, Donna simply waited to hear the news.

“You weren't being watched,” Karen repeated, “...but you WERE being listened to. And starting Monday, you WILL be watched. There's a hidden camera in your office, it was just kept deactivated.”

Donna couldn't help but look smug, at least for a brief moment; the evidence had been plain before the aides finished tying her up on her first day. But her hands quickly pressed down on the table and she was expending visible effort to restrain herself from getting to her feet, marching out of Jackson's and leaving behind HTG and the new friends she'd made there, forever.

The beverages arrived and the waitress set them all down on the table efficiently. As Donna was the only one not taking coffee, she saved Donna for last. As she leaned over to set the cup down in front of Donna, the waitress paused. “You okay, miss?” she inquired.

Donna's sea-green eyes turned toward Vanessa very sharply, but the waitress didn't notice as Donna's head remained still. Something about Vanessa's innocent and calm voice pacified Donna's anger; at least for now. Taking a small breath, Donna managed to give the waitress a small smile. “Yes, thank you,” she said politely.

After the waitress continued on her rounds, however, Donna's voice became curt again. “Someone?” Her eyes fell on Carla, the senior woman for the department. “Carla? What's your excuse?”

Carla simply smiled, though she kept her lips pressed together when she did. “I guess I can't fault you this minute, for choosing that word,” she admitted. She thought back to when she first learned that she would be watched starting the following Monday. “It took me a while to stop minding it and thinking about it, yes. Maybe not as long as it's taking Bea and Nancy, and maybe not as long as it'll take you. I would offer you one point, though, Donna, and you should consider its pragmatism very carefully. In a way, you're proof of the upside to it.”

Donna's lips curled in a half smile that showed she couldn't wait to hear what Carla meant.

“Please don't look at me like that now, Donna, not after what happened to you,” Carla said softly, reaching out to touch Donna's fingertips. Donna's hand twitched very briefly but then went still, allowing Carla to touch fingers.

“If they weren't going to watch us, and if they weren't going to at least listen to us while they weren't watching... this conversation might not be happening,” Carla said softly, but matter-of-factly and a little bluntly. “What might be happening is half the company being rounded up to face manslaughter charges... and your folks facing the most horrible fate any parents can be made to face: losing a child.”

Carla's voice slammed into Donna's stomach hard enough to make the blonde fumble to open the box of tablets. Seeing this, Nancy, who was sitting closest to Donna, quickly reached over and took the box, opened it, and handed it back. Donna gave a small nod of thanks as she pushed two tablets through the foil seal, pushed them into her mouth and chewed them up into a fine, gritty powder before lifting the teacup and washing the powder down with a sip of the minty tea she'd been brought.

“How's it taste?” Nancy asked conversationally.

Donna did a brief double-take, realizing Nancy was asking her a question. She glanced down at the teacup and nodded. “It's very good,” Donna said, and Nancy nodded and smiled in acknowledgment.

Carla waited until Donna turned to face her again, and then continued. “Think about it, hon. You had to toss your cookies. But what happens while you're gagged and can't spit that crud out? It wouldn't be long before it goes back down the wrong way and you suffocate. They HAVE to know the minute you start feeling unwell, and hurry in there pronto to help you. That's one reason it's good that we're always trying to cry out through our gags while we're struggling. It sends a message that we're not in any real trouble. Never leave a gagged woman alone, it's a rule they observe very strictly. Once all of us are bound and gagged, the aides patrol the hallways, ready to hurry inside soon as they're notified of trouble, which is pretty much instantly.”

Donna still looked both amused and frustrated... and still a bit incredulous. “I guess it's a good thing I'm the one who was hired, and not my sister Deena,” she said sarcastically. “Deena's asthmatic. The shock of being grabbed on her first day would have sent her into a full attack--”

Donna's voice died in her throat as Mary raised her hand in the standard HTG girl gesture of 'me too.' The two blondes locked eyes; Donna not very believing until Mary opened her purse and produced her two inhalant pumps; one her standard preventative medicine and the other her quick-relief inhaler for emergencies.

“Are they prepared for EVERYTHING?” Donna seriously couldn't believe it. She didn't see how she could if she wanted to.

Mary and Carla chuckled while Karen smiled politely. “Maybe not everything, but a lot more than you're willing to believe, or will be willing to believe until you've been here about as long as Nancy has,” Mary said with a brief nod in Nancy's direction. “And you would faint at just how adaptable and accommodating they can be, working this strange little facet of HTG with all its bizarre oddities into more and more of the curve balls life can throw us.” Even Donna had to chuckle at the words Mary chose to describe it. They certainly fit, as far as Donna was concerned.

Donna took another sip of her beverage and sighed a little more softly. Her co-workers sure knew how to gradually de-fang her anger; probably having learned by being in her place more than enough times. “How do they fit you in?” she asked Mary finally.

“I'll tell you some time, Donna. I promise,” Mary nodded. “Give me until then, okay? Remember how we all take this. A few baby steps at a time.” Mary smiled, and Donna couldn't help but smile back.

The waitress came back. “May I get you anything else?” she asked the six women. Bea took a refill on her coffee, while the others still hadn't quite finished theirs yet. Carla assured the waitress they were all there just to drink, not to eat; at least not tonight, so Vanessa quickly fetched the coffee pot and refilled Bea's cup, and then continued on her way again.

“Who was listening to me?” Donna asked. “And who's going to be watching me starting Monday?”

“Who's your manager again, Donna?” Bea asked. “Mr. Stone, right?”

Donna nodded.

“Him, then,” Bea said. “Mr. Steward with Nancy and me. Our immediate managers are the only ones for the first few months. After that, other managers in the department can take turns. After eighteen months, once a girl becomes more accustomed and less bothered by it all, any departmental manager can take a turn. But only one of them at any time will watch you, and no manager can watch more than two of us. If need be, due to women-to-men ratio differences, Officer Brown and the other security personnel, and any senior executives will watch. Remember, they're also making sure we're safe and in no trouble.”

“Is that all they're really doing?” Donna's voice dripped sarcasm like a ceiling with a hairline crack. “I appreciate Mr. Stone's being so nice to me so far, and I'm very grateful at how he handled that touchie-feelie aide for me. But I swear I'm gonna deck him one--” she clenched a fist for emphasis-- “if I find out he's been...” Donna turned her fist palm-side up and shook it back and forth, causing the other women to all cover their mouths politely to mute their amused laughter.

“I've been here longest out of any of us, and I STILL feel that way, girl friend,” Carla said emphatically, and right on cue, all four other women shot a hand up in solidarity. “And don't think Mr. Halwell doesn't know it, either... or Mr. Stone or Mr. Steward. Remember the first lesson you learned from us, the one about respect. If any manager feels that way while watching any of us, you'd better believe they toe that line very, very carefully and never show it to our faces.”

The other women all nodded; even Bea and Nancy showing by their faces and postures that Mr. Steward had never made them feel excess discomfort or anxiety while they were tied up in their offices. Their assurances put Donna more at ease, and Nancy smiled and patted Donna's hand lightly in a sisterly gesture.

Vanessa returned again and refilled everyone's cups; bringing Donna another cupful of hot water to steep her tea bag. Karen sipped her coffee before turning to Donna again. “We'll give you one more question for tonight, and one heads-up for Monday,” she said.

“Make it count,” Nancy added, and all of them chuckled.

Donna put both her hands up in another gesture of surrender. “Only thing I can really think of, and it would kinda help cement what you've just told me now. Is that why we all have our own offices?”

Karen flashed a broad grin at the question. “Twosomes are OUT,” she said emphatically. “One of the weirdest things with HTG that makes it so, well, weird, is just how normal an investment company it is, despite all of we girls spending three-quarters of an hour tied and gagged. Anyone at HTG wants to watch a twosome, they can rent a DVD.”

“NO! Absolutely not!” Carla said quickly and emphatically as she saw Donna's eyebrows arch at Karen's saying the phrase, 'rent a DVD.' “Those cameras don't record. They're not part of the security camera network. During my first year, the administrative assistant who took me under her wing and helped me get through it was Barbara Bailey. She's one of only twelve women to climb high enough on the ladder to become a manager. Most women here usually aren't interested in being a corporate manager once we know what it entails. Barbara was different.”

Karen smiled fondly, showing she remembered Barbara also. “She was like a mother hen teaching her chicks how to swim,” she said with a small grin. “Making her tenure here all the more surprising is that her Bachelor's degree was in electronics. She saw the cameras in our offices. She knew for a fact they aren't designed to record.”

“Does Barbara still work here?” Donna asked.

“That's three more questions, but I'll give it to you,” Carla said. “But after that we're done, okay?” Donna smiled sheepishly as the other women all giggled lightly.

“Barbara retired a year and a half ago,” Carla said. “Every corporate woman in HTG came to her retirement party. And I mean EVERY one. We gave her enough going away gifts that you could have thought it was a baby shower. Actually, it WAS a baby shower; Barbara married a year before and her husband got a job promotion that meant moving cross country... and on the same day the party was announced, Barbara found out she was pregnant.”

“I'm almost sorry,” Donna said softly. “I think I'd have loved to have met her.”

“I might be able to get her to send you an email at some point,” Mary said. “Even retired from HTG, she's a very busy lady, and she does have a family now, that has no idea about all of us. But when discretion allows, she emails us now and then.”

The six of them accepted one more refill before requesting the check. Per HTG tradition, each of them paid their share, including toward the meager sales tax and a generous tip for Vanessa. All of the women hugged Donna as they prepared to head their separate ways home, and Donna smiled gratefully with each hug she received and returned.

“A final heads-up for Monday,” Karen told Donna. “When the aides come in to tie you up, there will be something different you won't be expecting. We usually keep it a surprise. Are you okay with that?”

Donna pursed her lips lightly. Part of her wanted to shrug it off and wait til Monday, but another part of her wanted to be prepared.

“It's okay, hon,” Bea rubbed Donna's shoulders. “I had to ask them to tell me. No shame in it.”

Donna smiled at Bea and considered it carefully. “I guess I can find out Monday,” she finally said.

Karen smiled in a way that showed that was the choice she hoped Donna would make; the choice she'd made when she was in Donna's shoes. “Way to go,” she said proudly. “Oh, and I have the packet of Epsom salt for you, if you plan to use it.”

“That I think I won't need tonight,” Donna said, “but thank you.”

* * * *

Deena called Donna that evening as Donna was watching the evening news. “Hi sis,” Deena said cheerfully. “How's the world of corporate bonds?”

Deena's question caught her sister a little off-guard. Finally she recovered and smiled in amusement. “Very different from anything I'd have thought it was,” she said just a little cryptically; the trace of it small enough that Deena didn't notice.

“They pay you enough for your time?” Deena asked conversationally. “You've gotten your first check by now, right?”

“Yes,” Donna said. “Pretty generous one at that. I picked up a new suit, and I'll probably have six or seven of them in time for July 4th. By fall I'll probably have a wholly filled and stocked corporate dress closet, complete with proper pumps, blouses, ties. And above my sock drawer will be a pantyhose drawer.”

That had Deena snickering noisily. “My sister's chasing the corner office!” she joked, and both of them laughed. “Save up for your first vacation, right? You are going to come home to see us all for Christmas?”

Donna paused for a moment before finally giving an affirmative. “But if this job is everything it's rumored to be, I think next Christmas I might want to really travel somewhere. Weird as the whole experience has been the first three weeks, Deena... I might really have a career to look forward to, even if it doesn't come with a corner office. Can't have everything, can I?”

“I guess not,” Deena said in her best pouting voice. “But you really think this is for real?”

Donna took a long look at her wrists. They were clean and smooth, with only a slight impression of rope marks that were more than mistakable for something else. “It might be too early to tell, Deena, but I'm sure going to treat it like the real thing until it proves me wrong. And weird as the job is... it hasn't proven me wrong yet.”

End of part 3

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