Hoisting herself up onto the sill, Maria Davis squeezed her tiny body through the small gap where a window had been carelessly left open. These people were asking to be robbed, she thought, wiggling her narrow hips to manoeuvre forward and ease herself into the house. Her hands balanced against the countertop until her legs passed through the window behind her, and as she dropped down, Maria removed her cap and ran her fingers through her short dark hair, which stuck up in untidy tufts. Squatting in position, her dark brown eyes scanned the brightly lit kitchen. Absentmindedly, she stuffed her cap inside her coat.
Jumping to the floor, Maria picked up the large carryall she had thrown inside before climbing in. She wasted no time and headed straight for the door, pressed the handle, and pushed it cautiously open. Poking her head around, she checked the coast was clear before moving into the living room and hastily closing the shades.
“Greedy bastards,” she muttered, moving to the rear of the room and picking up a wad of cash that had been left in clear view on the edge of the table. “While the rest of society struggles, the fat cat government officials don’t seem to be doing too badly,” she said out loud, fanning the bundle of notes between her hands before tossing it into her bag. Moving across the room, she picked up a pair of large teardrop-shaped diamond earrings, discarded on the fireside. They were quite clearly the real thing, no doubt bought by the bureaucrat for his over-pampered wife. Adding them to her loot, Maria reached for the matching necklace, with multiple diamonds hanging from a silver—or more likely white gold—chain.
Looking back towards the kitchen, Maria guessed it would be wise to leave now. She knew it was safer to ply her trade during the night, when people were sleeping. And she knew that without a lookout, she was more vulnerable. But she also preferred gaining access to a property during the day, when the occupants were out working or shopping. If she could get in unnoticed, she could then nose around to her heart’s content, finding a lot more goodies than she would while creeping around in the dark.
Maria had really fallen lucky this time, and the cash alone would keep her going for some months if she was careful. The jewellery was an added bonus. She knew a trader on 47th Street who would ask no questions and give her a fair price. Despite the current recession—which had seen more dips than a roller coaster—she imagined ‘Diamond Dan’ would have no problem shifting the gems by the end of the working day.
“But I’d like to bet there’s plenty more where this little lot came from,” she said, shaking her bag and looking towards the spiral staircase. Moving slowly up, her eyes scanned over the many pictures on the walls. Maria was no art critic, but the ugly oil paintings—of equally unattractive people—that adorned almost every inch of wall space would probably raise as much as the jewellery, if not more; but regrettably she had no means of transporting the huge canvases from the house.
Maria whirled round, panicking when she saw an overweight, middle-aged man waddling towards her, waving a walking stick above his head. His cheeks were almost purple with rage, his eyes wide as saucers. “Halt! Police!” he yelled, as she ran down the stairs towards him, searching for an escape route. As she sidestepped one way then the other, the man lost his balance as he attempted to mirror Maria’s movements. Dodging around him, Maria yelped as she was struck hard across her back with the walking stick. “Bastard,” she cursed as she clutched onto her spoils and darted for the open doorway.
“Not so fast, missy,” a gruff voice said as a policeman gripped her upper arm. Maria struggled to break free, but she was no match for the brute strength of the fit young officer. Wrapping an arm around her waist, he effortlessly lifted the tiny female off her feet. Maria kicked at thin air, her arms flailing in desperation. Even though she knew she was busted, she was unwilling to give up the fight and continued her futile attempts to break free of his vise-like grip.
“No, you fucking pig, let me go,” Maria yelled, kicking her legs frantically. Realising her efforts were in vain, she quickly changed her tack. “Please, that fat bastard’s been holding me against my will,” she said. “Thank God you turned up when you did, or Lord only knows what might have become of me. He’s done such terrible things to me already. He ought to be locked up.”
Maria wailed as the homeowner marched towards her and struck her across the backside with his stick, before snatching the carryall away from her and tipping the contents onto the floor of his hallway.
“You thieving little bitch,” he said. “Take her away, officer, before I sort her out myself. She ought to be horse-flogged, daring to burgle my home.”
Maria’s eyes widened as the man raised his stick high. “I’ll deal with this, Governor Michaels,” the officer said, dropping Maria to the floor and yanking her arms behind her back. Maria winced as he snapped metal cuffs tightly around her wrists.
“The courts can barely keep up with the current crime wave, but hopefully the new laws and reintroduction of the short sharp shock treatment should help deter this type of villainy in the future,” the officer said to the still furious householder.
Before she had chance to ask about the new laws, Maria was propelled along the sidewalk, one hand gripping her right upper arm, the other pressing against her back.
Fifteen minutes later, after being marched through the city in silence, her head hung low as onlookers gawked, Maria and the officer entered one of numerous court buildings. She was furious with herself that she had been caught and desperately tried to come up with a plan to get away. It seemed an unlikely prospect at the moment, but she would bide her time until she saw her opportunity to escape.
Maria was quickly booked in and taken to a waiting room. The officer again said nothing to her, but she appreciated the silence. It was preferable to being told how she should live her life, especially by someone who had no idea what it was like to struggle to survive on a daily basis. Brooding, she gazed at the wooden panelling covering the walls. She wished she could disappear behind it, and found amusement in picturing herself in the crawl space behind the panels, evading the hapless officers. A short time later, Maria’s name was called and the officer led her into the courtroom. “But I haven’t had a chance to speak to a solicitor,” she complained. “I know my rights.”
Stopping, the officer grasped Maria’s shoulders and turned her so she was facing him. With a shake of his head, he sighed, his pale blue eyes filled with pity. “You have no rights, love. You gave those up when you decided to rob a government official.” Glancing towards the dock, he continued. “Magistrate Thomas Allen is a real stickler for rules, and he looks very unfavourably towards those who steal. Unfortunately for you, he gives out the harshest sentences available to him. He lost a lot in the stock market crash, and vents his anger on those who dare to rob from society. You’re not in for an easy ride, but you did bring it on yourself.”
Maria had no chance to respond, as the police officer grasped her wrist and led her towards the dock. Removing the handcuffs, he pushed her into the box. “Your honour, I present Miss Maria Davis.”
Maria frowned, rubbing her wrists as the elderly magistrate peered over his wire-rimmed glasses. He was clearly well into his seventies, if not older, and Maria wondered why he was still working. It clearly made him miserable, judging by his pinched features and disapproving expression. Looking down at his desk, he shuffled through some paperwork. Lifting his head again, he stared at her for a moment before sighing loudly. “Explain yourself, girl.”
Maria scowled. She was infuriated by his pompous manner, and the way he looked at her as if she were something he had just scraped off the sole of his shoe. Her plan to try to sweet-talk her way out of trouble quickly evaporated as she glared at him. “I’m living on the bloody streets. What do you expect me to do? Those rich bastards have everything. If they shared their fortune with the rest of…”
“Silence!” the magistrate yelled, standing up and slamming both fists against his desk.
Maria’s eyes widened and she swallowed anxiously. Maybe angering him wasn’t the best thing to do when her fate lay in his hands. But it wasn’t her fault, it was the current system that looked after the rich and left the poor with little choice but to beg, steal, or borrow—though to be fair, she did little, if any, of the latter.
“I have a number of options available to me under new laws, brought in to stamp out this current state of lawlessness. The city of London will be cleaned up by the time we enter the twenty-second century,” he said. “You mark my words. It was my intention to have you publically flogged, to teach you a lesson…”
“You can’t do that!” Maria gasped, even though she was well aware the magistrate could indeed impose such a sentence.
Turning back, Maria tried to appeal to his better nature, though she very much doubted he had one. “Please, your honour,” she said, holding back the string of expletives she would rather hurl at him. “I beg you, have mercy on me. I’m starving. I was orphaned at the age of six. My uncle and aunt took me and my brother in, but they lost everything in the financial collapse and had to let us go. I’ve been living on the streets for several years now.”
“But you’re hardly a child,” he noted, glancing down at his paperwork. “How old are you?”
“Twenty-five, your honour.” The respectful words almost stuck in Maria’s throat, but she had no intention of being flogged in public. She would say and do whatever it took to prevent that. She had seen the barbarians that attended such events, gathering in Hyde Park, hollering and cheering as they took pleasure from a wailing, half naked young woman’s severe chastisement.
“Many people live on the streets, but they don’t turn to burglary,” the magistrate added, looking Maria up and down as she tried to erase the unwelcome image that had formed in her mind. “They go to soup kitchens and shelters to seek help.”
Maria sighed. She had tried those things, but the places were always packed out. After waiting for hours on end on numerous occasions, she had been turned away and told to try again the next day.
At her wits’ end, she had started to sleep on the streets, where she was eventually reunited with her younger brother. They had been separated for some months, when he was jailed for shoplifting, but once free Martin had taught Maria how to burgle properties—a skill he learned from other inmates. He kept watch while Maria climbed through windows and helped herself to whatever she could find of value. He had told her that at only four foot ten inches tall, and with her tiny frame, she was perfectly equipped for the fine art of burglary.
Maria had previously hated being so small, but finally she had found a use for her petite-ness. They had had a good system going, until Martin was arrested again several months ago whilst they fled the home of a banker, who apparently hadn’t suffered at all despite being at the centre of a scandal that brought his bank down and lost his customers vast amounts of money. The banker deserved to be fleeced, she thought, and she was certain his clients would have no sympathy for him.
Sadly Maria had no idea what had become of Martin, but continued her lucrative crime spree alone. It was the only way she knew how to survive. A small smile curved her lips as she thought about her brother. He might be a year younger, but he was definitely the brains of their outfit. With him around, life never seemed quite so bleak. Without him, she felt she had lost her way.
“I don’t know what you find so amusing,” the magistrate snapped, pulling her back from her thoughts. “Not only did you commit burglary, a most heinous act in itself, but you had the audacity to steal from a government official. These are the very people who are trying to help by putting everything into rebuilding our broken city.”
Maria laughed sarcastically. She couldn’t stop herself. “Help? They’re only helping themselves, no one else. The only place they’re putting everything is into their own deep pockets. They’re bloody corrupt. Those are the people who ought to be publically flogged…”
“I’ve heard enough,” the magistrate said, raising his bony hand. “It would give me great pleasure to see you stripped and flogged for your impudence, but instead you will receive the most humiliating penalty I have at my disposal. You’ve caused great distress to your victim, and probably many others, through your actions. Now I intend to give you a taste of your own medicine and put a stop to your behaviour.” He smirked, rapping his gavel against the bench as Maria’s cheeks paled, her fingers gripping the stand. For one awful moment, Maria thought he was going to sentence her to the death penalty, such was his anger. “Miss Maria Davis, I hereby sentence you to one day at The Punishment Clinic. Guards, take her away.”
Maria’s mouth dropped open and she turned to the officer behind her. He shrugged his shoulders as two burly court officials approached. “All I can advise is that you do as you’re told, immediately,” he said, as she was led out of the dock.
Screaming in protest, Maria fought the two officials who dragged her towards a door at the rear of the court. As they forced her through it, she glanced back over her shoulder. The magistrate was smiling widely. “You’ll pay for this, you miserable old bastard,” she yelled, as the doors banged closed behind her.
Without a word, the two men dragged Maria across a gravelled forecourt towards a small, red brick building. It was a new build, with metal bars across the windows and huge metal railings surrounding it. Above the door was a large white sign, with huge red lettering—‘The Punishment Clinic.’
“Jesus Christ, what the hell is The Punishment Clinic?” Maria asked, looking through the gate and recalling the magistrate’s words. Standing still, she gazed up at the building. “Please, tell me this is some kind of sick joke.”
Maria’s heartbeat quickened as one of the guards reached forward and pressed a bell to the right-hand side of the gate. Neither man answered her. Maria tensed up when the door of the building opened and a female no older than herself stepped out, wearing a white tunic and navy trousers. Reaching them, she unlocked the gate. Stepping aside and beckoning Maria in, she smiled brightly at her. “Welcome to The Punishment Clinic, madam. I do hope you enjoy your stay.”
One of the guards shook his head as the woman giggled and locked the gate. “Nancy, you really ought to change your form of greeting. The guests here are criminals, attending for punishment meted out by the courts. They’re not hotel guests at a luxury spa. And you’re no longer a beauty therapist, you’re a nurse.”
Maria shuddered, again wondering what her punishment would entail. She had—on more than one occasion—been sentenced to short stays in prison, but that hadn’t been too bad. At least she had received three meals a day and had a reasonably comfortable bed; though to be fair, anything was comfortable when you compared it to sleeping on the streets. She knew that prisons had become so overcrowded that the courts were now looking at alternate ways to deal with offenders, but she had no idea what those methods were.
She suddenly wished she hadn’t been so greedy and had left the governor’s house without venturing upstairs. Had she gone back through the kitchen with the bundle of dollars and the jewels, she could have been outside when he returned, and she would have been long gone by now. And more important, she wouldn’t have been caught, therefore would not have been facing her current predicament. She felt no remorse for taking what she had, but Maria had learned a valuable lesson. In the future, the minute she found something of value, she would grab it and leave.
“Come with me,” the nurse said, touching a hand to Maria’s elbow. “Let’s get you settled in. Dr. Carter’s busy with another client at the moment, but I’ll be happy to show you to your suite.” The young woman exploded in giggles again, and the court officials shook their heads in disapproval.
Maria looked towards the sound of heavy footsteps and watched with bated breath as a male marched towards them and out of the building. She guessed his age at around thirty years. He was dressed in black trousers and a short-sleeved black shirt, which showed off his bulging biceps as his arms swung. Reaching them, he stopped and ran his fingers through his short dark hair. Maria held her breath. He was very handsome and his deep brown eyes were focused on her.
Suddenly turning away, he reached for the nurse and swatted her backside hard. The young blonde’s face registered shock before she grinned and laughed again, her hand cupping her buttock. “Nancy, behave yourself,” he warned. “Take this prisoner up to her cell, now.”
“Yes, sir,” Nancy said, smirking as she bowed her head. “Come with me,” she added, gripping Maria’s elbow and steering her through the door. Maria was distracted by the sound of the woman’s heels clicking on the stone tiled floor, and when they stopped at a metal staircase, the nurse indicated for her to walk up it. “Was that the doctor?” Maria asked, looking back towards the open door, where the male chatted to the two guards who had brought her to the clinic.
“No,” the nurse said, laughing as she gave her a shove and followed her up the metal steps. “That’s Scott. He’s our security guard. He’s very handsome, don’t you think?”
Maria stopped at the top of the stairs and turned to face the nurse, shrugging her shoulders nonchalantly. “Can’t say I noticed,” she said with a sarcastic smile.
“Ah, you bat for the other side,” the nurse said, smiling as she tossed back her head, running her fingers through her long blond hair in a flirtatious manner.
Maria’s eyes widened. “No, I’m not gay,” she protested.
“Don’t worry, you’re safe with me—for now,” the pretty young nurse said, giggling as she put a hand to Maria’s back and guided her towards a metal door, unlocking and pulling it open to reveal a small windowless cell.
“In you go,” she said, leaning a hand against the door frame. “Dr. Carter will be with you very soon. In the meantime, put your feet up, relax, and make yourself at home.” She laughed at her own humour as Maria stepped one foot over the threshold. Her eyes were drawn to the only item of furniture, a single bed against the wall. The mattress was covered with a white cotton sheet, one pillow was placed at the head end, and a folded blanket lay at the foot of the bed.
Looking over her shoulder, Maria measured up the nurse. She noticed she was only slightly taller than herself, maybe just over five foot. But Maria had the advantage of wearing flat shoes. Seeing her final chance of escape, Maria shoved the nurse hard, ducked under her arm as she teetered on her heels, and sprinted towards the stairs. Running down the steps, she hit a brick wall and landed on her backside, winding herself. Looking up, she realised the ‘brick wall’ she had encountered was the security guard’s broad chest.
“Going somewhere?” Scott asked, reaching down, hooking his arms under Maria’s armpits, and heaving her up. She shrieked as she was only on her feet for seconds before being tossed over the burly guard’s shoulder. Marching up the stairs, he repeatedly slapped Maria’s butt as she kicked her legs and screamed obscenities at him. When they reached her cell, he dropped her onto her feet in front of him, gripped her wrist and leaned down, his face close to hers.
“Your punishment will not start until tomorrow morning. It’s too late in the day to begin now. You will be free to leave the following day. However, if you wish for a little extra chastisement to prepare you for what’s to come, I will be only too happy to take you across my lap and give you a spanking right now.”
Maria’s cheeks flushed scarlet and she lowered her gaze, shaking her head. She could not believe this big oaf was threatening to give her such a childish punishment, but she had no doubt in her mind he would carry out his threat. Biting her tongue to prevent saying anything that might get her into further trouble, she turned and stepped into the cell, closing her eyes as the heavy door slammed shut behind her, the sound echoing.
Pacing up and down, Maria’s hands trembled as she removed her jacket and dropped it to the floor along with her cap. When she had spent time in custody previously, she had felt no fear. If anything, she had felt safe. Moving to the bed, she lay on her back and gazed up at the ceiling, focusing her attention on the single bulb that cast a dim light over the cell. Hopefully she would simply be spending a couple of nights there before being released, and they were just trying to frighten her with threats of punishment. But she remembered the magistrate telling her he would order the most humiliating penalty he could. And the guard had not only threatened to spank her, but had actually slapped her behind several times as he carried her back to her cell.
Closing her eyes, Maria hoped and prayed her ordeal would not prove to be as terrible as she imagined. She was sure she’d survived worse living on the streets, but once she had her freedom again, she needed to be more careful. If she could not track down Martin, she would have to find someone else to act as lookout for her. It was too risky working alone, and she had no intention of being caught again. Whatever horrors the next twenty-four hours or so held for her, a few minutes in this building was enough to know she had no desire to return.