After the black pillowcase was taken off her head, it took the poor woman a moment to regain her focus. The light was too bright and the bindings at her wrists were really starting to chafe, but she wasn’t afraid. Too many things had happened in her life for a simple thing like kidnapping to cause fear and panic. This was a pretty average day, all told, except for the person sat before her being the last one she ever expected.
“Really? You had me abducted?” she asked with a look. “Why?”
“We meet again, Miss Hart,” Regina Mills leaned back in her desk chair and smiled like a crocodile figuring out the best way to eat you. “That is your name these days, isn’t it? Isabelle Hart?” she checked, leaning in a moment to grab her paperwork and flip through the pages.
“You know it is,” Isabelle replied, trying to keep the venom out of her tone. “You know everything, otherwise you wouldn’t have been able to get me back here.”
Regina continued to grin, even though she was riled. She didn’t really want this young woman here anymore than the so-called Isabelle Hart wanted to have been brought. The fact was, she needed her. She was the only woman capable of taking on the job she had in mind, and so they must form an alliance of a kind. The fact the deal was being struck with one of them in restraints probably wouldn’t seem to bode well to any outsider, but then most did not understand the world they operated in.
From the outside, Regina Mills was seen as the completely capable, ball-breaking businesswoman who had built Regal Corp up from mediocre status to an incredibly successful conglomerate since her husband’s death. That was a tiny piece of a much larger, darker, and nastier puzzle, that Isabelle knew more details of than she really wished to. Fortunately, the world at large saw her as whatever she chose to be, and there were but a handful of people alive that knew her real name. That was how it had to be when you were one of the greatest grifters and thieves the world had ever seen.
“Come along, Miss Hart... or may I call you Isabelle?” asked Regina as if she were the most reasonable woman in the world. “Perhaps you prefer one of your other aliases. Frances Booker? Bella White? Jolie Walton?” she tried from the list before her. “Tell me, do you even remember your real name anymore?”
It was a ridiculous question. As if any person, no matter how many personas they spun themselves into, could ever forget who they truly were. Belinda French. It was the one name guaranteed not to be on the list Regina held in her finely manicured hands. Even her closest friends never used it, preferring simply to call her Belle, the name her father had used for her since she was so small she barely recalled it herself.
“One would hope you didn’t bring me here just to discuss my name,” she replied, trying to make herself look comfortable and relaxed, even with her wrists bound together and ankles lashed to the chair legs.
“Indeed,” Regina replied, her smile slipping into a scowl. “As we both know, you ought to be the last person I want to do business with, but on this occasion I really have no choice,” she explained, dismissing the two over-sized men that had been flanking the door this whole time.
Something so big and so secretive even Regina’s dearest minions were not allowed to know about it? Now Belle really was intrigued! Of course, she ought to have known how major this deal had to be for the very fact she was a part of it. Just a year ago now, Belle had been involved in a battle against this woman, a string of cons that had ensured Regina lost her adopted son Henry back to the boy’s birth mother. There was not even a tiny part of the grifter that felt sorry for this woman, even after what she had done. After all, Regina was the bad guy here, and Emma Swann had been desperate for help. Belle and her old team, that was what they did, used their skills to help those who could not help themselves, who the authorities had no time for or could not legally get justice for. That team had broken up after that very job, the one that resulted in a happy reunion between birth mother and son, and one very pissed off Regina Mills.
“Come on, Regina. Don’t be shy,” said Belle, deliberately poking the bear just to prove she could. “If there’s something you want from me...”
“Believe me when I tell you, I wish I didn’t,” the businesswoman replied succinctly, punctuating her sentence with the resonating thump of the desk drawer closing.
A folder landed in front of Belle and was swiftly opened to reveal a page full of details on one side and a photograph on the other. Belle knew the name as well as anyone, but the face was a surprise. So this was what the reclusive man of business they called Robert Gold looked like. He really wasn’t at all what Belle had been expecting, if she had expected anything at all. What she really wanted to know now was why she was looking at him. The question must’ve been written on her face when she glanced up at Regina then and saw her slowly smile.
“This is the man I need you to deal with,” she explained, with a look akin to a snake - Belle never flinched.
“Deal with how exactly?” she asked curiously instead.
The phrase could be taken in all manner of ways. For all that she was, Belle didn’t kill people, but she did do almost everything else. Relieving them of their money was her speciality, but she had other tricks up her sleeve too...
“In short, I want him destroyed,” said Regina simply, leaning back in her seat with her hands folded neatly in her lap. “You think I’m a devious, manipulator of business, Ms Hart? You never met Gold. He invented the kind of games I excel at, and he cheats at every single one.”
Belle wouldn’t usually take anything out of Regina’s mouth to be the truth but she knew the stories about Gold. He had a reputation as black as night, and though she had never directly crossed him before, she had dealt with several of his connections. His was the one name they feared. Even the most despicable of wretches she had put down quaked at the thought of getting on his bad side. For Belle to bring him down alone, without preparation of any kind, it would be impossible. Well, maybe not impossible, but certainly not as easy as Regina seemed to think.
“Setting up a long con on this guy could take months, maybe years, especially if he’s smart as he seems,” she explained with a shake of her head. “I don’t have much research on him, or a plan...”
“That’s taken care of,” Regina cut in, producing further reading on the elusive Mr Gold. “The research is done, everything that can be found, and yet there is no actual solid proof that’ll help me see him cut down legally,” she explained with frustration evident in her tone and looks. “He excels at contracts and deals. His paperwork is perfect, at least everything I can get to,” she explained. “That’s where you come in,” she smiled slyly once more.
Belle didn’t really know what to think. She had no wish at all to say she couldn’t complete this job. Whatever Regina had in mind, it was doubtless going to push her skills to their limits. Still, a true test of ones talents was to go up against the best there was and win. Gold certainly was the best, even Regina had to admit it.
“You want to ship me off to Scotland?” she asked then, eyes roaming over the information available to her without the need to turn pages, after all, her wrists were still bound to the chair yet.
“No, and that is the beauty of the timing in this plan,” explained Regina with a look. “Though Gold has always conducted his business affairs from his ancestral home back in good old bonnie Scotland, he has finally decided to make a second home here in the States,” she went on, turning pages over until Belle could see the proof of it. “With the economy the way it is, apparently things here are bad enough he doesn’t trust his lackeys to handle things anymore,” she went on, though Belle stopped listening so much as she was given the chance to read.
Gold had an empire and ruled over it from afar up to now, just visiting America at semi-regular intervals. Lately, the man that all but ran things over here had proved to be a problem, in that he had up and killed himself. Gold would not trust another to take his place and so had bought a home here in New York and had brought himself over to run things himself, at least for now.
Belle couldn’t question the perfect timing Regina spoke of. This was home turf for the grifter and thief, despite her original origins being far away around the globe. What mattered was that Gold was close by and trying to run a business, trusting next to no-one. Belle could use that, she could ingratiate herself into his business, prove herself useful, and later indispensable. Without Regina ever explaining the details she had planned, Belle already had an idea in her head of how this all might play out.
“So, you think you can do it?” the businesswomen was suddenly asking and the grifter belatedly realised she had not been listening at all, quite hypnotised by the documents and photographs before her.
“I never came up against a job I couldn’t complete,” she replied generically. “I also never had someone else set up my work for me like this,” she said, with a pointed struggle against her bonds.
Regina’s eyes narrowed. She seemed to almost be reconsidering her whole plan right now and Belle could read every step of her thinking through her expressive dark eyes. She wanted this done, this man brought down in every way possible. Not just his business crippled, but the man himself thoroughly destroyed. Of course, she was also wondering if her evil plan should really be put in the hands of a woman she really couldn’t entirely trust.
“You went to all this trouble to bring me here,” said Belle then. “You know there’s no-one better for the task, so why the sudden doubts?” she asked, even though she already knew the reason before Regina ever spoke it.
The fact was, she wasn’t entirely sure why she was suddenly fighting so hard to be given this job. It would be that much easier to wriggle out of it. Belle had no wish whatsoever to work for Regina, the very type of person she fought against in her day to day works. Still, Gold was supposed to be that much worse, and giving up an opportunity to destroy him would be pure insanity.
“I can’t trust you,” she said succinctly. “At least, I wouldn’t be able to, if I didn’t have some... insurance,” Regina smiled slowly then.
The next folder to land on the table before Belle was red in colour, and the photograph clipped to the front made her heart skip. She audibly gasped before she had a chance to check herself, letting Regina know she had won this battle if not the war.
“I’ll do whatever you want,” said Belle, trying to keep the shake out of her voice but failing miserably.
“Oh, I know you will,” her adversary grinned akin to a crocodile. “And when this is over, I will rule not only this town, but the entire market,” she told a slightly quaking Belle. “Gold won’t know what hit him.”
To Be Continued...