Discovery, Dust and Danger Chapter 3.
The Return of the Chinthe.
This was going to be a first for Nina. In her career as a historical researcher, she had authenticated hundreds, probably thousands of artifacts, some valuable, some not. But up till now, she had never dealt with an Oriental item.
Tomorrow that was going to change. The Grenville Museum at Upper Clandon would know the origins of the item that had come to light, with a little help from Nina. She had only seen photographs of it up till now. A dog-like figure, sitting in an upright dog-like pose. It was made mainly of silver, with gold claws and teeth. The protruding eyes were rubies. Its historical value was its cultural importance in the country of origin, but, assuming it was genuine, its financial value was beyond estimate. Apparently, nothing quite like it had ever come onto the market.
Nina had been commissioned to authenticate the object. She kept thinking of it as an idol, though it probably wasn't an object of worship. The references to it from the time called it a Chinthe, but she knew that they were associated with Burmese temples. But this object had no known connection to Burma. The museum owners just hoped that it was the same item that had disappeared in 1948, in suspicious circumstances. Admiral Sir Colin Grenville, a Provincial Governor in British India, had thought to bring the precious item back to his ancestral home. However there were those in India who thought he was not the legitimate owner, and their representatives were preparing legal action. It seemed as if he might have to return it to its country of origin. But that was where the unexpected took a hand.
In the summer of 1948, Phyllis Allen was technically in the WRAF. In reality she was the acting personal assistant (which mainly meant "driver") to Sir Colin Grenville. This year, he had come to the end of his role as part of the establishment in the former British India. That had meant relocation for Phyllis. Now, on this particular day, she had collected a large package from Southampton, in the Wolseley which had been assigned to her ever since Sir Colin's return to England.
As she drove away from the port, further into the Hampshire countryside, she wondered about the future of the valuable item in the boot. Nobody had directly told her what it was, but she had guessed. And having guessed, she had had a closer look, after the sailors had loaded the tea-chest, wrapped in brown paper, into the boot. She had seen the statuette around often enough, but it seemed to have been left out when all the belongings were packed. She had heard that there was a controversy brewing over its ownership. Apparently the former Maharajah of somewhere or other had sold it to Sir Colin, but that nobleman had since died, and his nephew was contesting the validity of the sale.
It meant nothing to Phyl personally, but she hoped her old employer would be able to keep it. She suspected he might have pulled a stroke of some sort, but he was one of those old-fashioned charmers, you hoped he would get away with things. He had got away with having an inappropriately close relationship with her on occasions, she remembered with a smile. No strings, they had just had fun for a few weeks. She was expecting to be redeployed any day now, so she wouldn't be seeing much more of him. She wondered if he would be at the house today. He wouldn't be thinking about her, she knew that much.
Somebody was thinking about her though. When she arrived at her destination and turned off the tree-lined country road, she was surprised to see the six-foot high wrought-iron gates closed. On her few visits, in the last month, she had driven through, with a wave from whichever serviceman or woman was on duty. She didn't quite know what to expect, finding the gates shut and apparently nobody around. It hadn't happened before. There was a procedure, but it involved checking with the duty person, and there didn't seem to be one of those. She knew that in the last month, responsibility for the admittance of visitors had been passed to the Auxiliary Fire Service, who seemed to get drafted in as helpers for all sorts of things since the end of the war. They were mostly middle-aged women, and Phyllis liked dealing with them because they had no illusions about their career prospects. It was something of a surprise to find the gates shut and the little wooden kiosk apparently empty.
Over an hour before, Tess Underwood, the AFS lady who was manning the gate, was bored. She was reading the Edgar Wallace mystery for the second time, and the day was dragging. She had a date at the end of her shift. There wouldn't be any time to change out of her uniform, so she had got ready, as much as possible, before coming to work.
It wasn't bad, as uniforms went, she thought. A smart black jacket with shiny silver buttons, a matching skirt, over a crisp white shirt and black tie. Not forgetting the seamed stockings and the sensible black lace-up shoes. She would be slipping out of them and into some nicer shoes she had brought with her. Now she was concentrating on not laddering her seamed nylon stockings, and not spoiling her hairdo. She wasn't wearing her uniform hat, for that very reason. A chubby war-widow of thirty-two had to try her best to keep a man, even if he had described her to a friend as a pretty blonde. She wasn't expecting much to happen today, so when the two men on bikes suddenly appeared and dismounted, she hoped they were just going to ask the way somewhere. They didn't look like the sort who would have any business here. As they wheeled their bikes up to her kiosk, she saw that they were of Far Eastern appearance. Chinese, she thought. She shivered, remembering those Fu Manchu books she used to read. "Yellow Peril" she thought. Then, don't be stupid, Tess. They probably just can't find the main road. "Can I help you?" she called, leaning slightly forward out of the open hatch of the kiosk.
The nearest man pointed back down the road, and said something unintelligible. Tess couldn't make it out. "What?" she raised her voice. "Can't understand you". Now the second man was jabbering too. Tess was exasperated. Nothing for it but to see what they were on about. She unbolted the side door of the kiosk and stepped out. "Now, what's going on?" she began. "You know it's private here. You'll have to----" she stopped in mid-sentence as they threw down their bikes. She couldn't believe the speed with which they moved towards her. She put her hands out to fend them off, and turned to run, but one of them grabbed her hands and forced them together in the small of her back. The other man took hold of the lapels of her jacket, and pulled it down over her shoulders, down her arms to her elbows. She couldn't do anything, her arms were pinned to her sides now. She felt something being wound round her wrists, behind her back, and pulled tight. She was being tied up! "Hey, you can't just tie me up! Help!" At first she was just speaking, but by "help" her voice had risen to the level of a shout. The man in front of her, to her surprise, whipped a folded white handkerchief from his pocket and shoved it into her open mouth, pressing it in with his finger. As she wriggled in vain, he produced a long white bandage and wound it round the lower part of her face, over her mouth, and pulling it tight, knotting it at the back of her neck.
"OK. You keep quiet and still. You won't get killed" He did speak English after all, she realised. He man behind her yanked the jacket further down her arms, and she stared in disbelief as a length of the bandage was passed round her body, just below her ample bust, then wound round her arms at the elbows. As it was pulled tight and knotted, she thought about kicking, but then she thought again. She was already bound and gagged, it wouldn't be wise to push her luck and make them angry. Would she get a chance to run?
That question was soon answered.
Tess was dragged backwards into the kiosk and dumped down on her bottom, on the floor. The pair set to work with the bandages, one passing another length round her upper body, the other one binding her feet at the ankles. Her first instinct was to worry that her stockings were about to be laddered, but then she wondered if she would be going on that date at all. Was she going to be carried off, sold into slavery? However, once her ankles were bound, the man behind her drew her knees up to her chest, passed a bandage under her legs and tied it to the strips round her body. Now that she was sitting bound in an uncomfortable crouched-forward position, they got to their feet. Looking down at her, one of them took her by the shoulders and lowered her onto her side, grinning as she glared up at him. Giving her a hard slap on the bottom, he joined his mate outside, and bolted the door. Tess, staring up at the open hatch, wondered what on earth was going on. Was it a straightforward robbery or was it spies or something? She knew about the diplomatic past of Sir Colin Grenville. She'd read about the ruthlessness of Oriental villains in fiction, and was ready to fear the worst.
She remembered the time, four years ago now, when she had disturbed two burglars at the AFS headquarters. She had been threatened with a length of pipe, and left tied up. Hands behind her back, then bound to a chair. No gag, and they hadn't scared her like these two. And yet these two weren't armed, but she had allowed them to capture her. She realised with some annoyance that they hadn't threatened her with any weapons. They had just grabbed her and tied her up, and all she had done was shout at them. Thinking about that made her feel ashamed of her performance. It had been so easy for them. Maybe she should have put up more of a struggle. But why had they attacked her. She couldn't even hear them anymore. She squirmed around, struggling, frantically at first, then more half-heartedly as she realised it was only making the bandages feel tighter. It was making her hot and sweaty, too. She remembered her tea-time date. In the gloom, she couldn't have seen if her stockings were still ladder-free, even if she wasn't trussed up almost in a ball. And then, to her surprise, she heard running footsteps on the road, just for a few seconds. Was she about to be rescued? And then the hatch on the kiosk was pushed shut. She was in darkness. She heard the running steps again, going away this time, then silence.
They must have just forgotten to do that earlier, when they first tied her up and shut her inside. Why were they still hanging around, she wondered.
There was a good reason for this, but she wasn't going to be told what it was until the police interviewed her, much later. The pair had concealed themselves among the rhododendrons that lined the road at this point. Their plan was to wait for the arrival of a certain car, with its cargo. When it arrived, they watched from the bushes for a few minutes before they acted.
They observed the Wolseley pulling up at the gateway. Nothing happened at first. They watched as the door eventually opened and the uniformed lady driver got out. They observed the attractive auburn-haired woman, to be quite certain that she fitted the description that they had been given. Bluish grey skirt, pale blue shirt, a dark necktie knotted neatly. The uniform of the WRAF. She wasn't wearing a hat, and her sleeves were rolled up above her elbows, but it was a hot day. When they were sure it was their quarry, they acted.
Phyllis stared at the closed stable door of the kiosk. How the hell was she going to get up to the house, if the gates were locked. She wasn't going to carry that box single-handedly to the house, that was certain. She looked around. "Anyone there?" she shouted angrily, guessing that there wouldn't be an answer. She was startled to hear sounds from inside the kiosk. She had assumed it was empty, but there was a desperate -sounding muffled squeal from inside. And something banged against the side, low down. Phyllis gingerly moved closer. "Who's in there?" she asked, not shouting now. This time it sounded as if someone was trying to call out, a muffled female voice. She took hold of the half door and pulled it open, fearful of what she might see. But nothing leapt out at her, there was nothing to see. At least, not at face height. But something had made the noise. She leaned over to peer inside, ready to step back quickly if need be. She was shocked to see Tess staring up at her, wide-eyed above her gag, struggling frantically now that a rescuer had appeared. The missing gatekeeper, Phyllis realised, noticing that the woman was in uniform. She was just beginning to grasp the implication of the situation. Why would someone lock the gates and leave the woman on duty trussed up inside her kiosk? She remembered her own valuable cargo, and realised that she might be the target, just as she sensed, then heard, movement behind her. Strong arms seized her from behind, one round her middle, the other at first round her neck, then a hand clamped across her mouth. A Chinese-looking man thrust himself in front of her, a curved knife raised in front of her, terrifyingly close to her face.
"You be quiet. You've got what we want." She got the impression that he was exaggerating his accent. "You won't give us trouble?" She shook her head emphatically. She wasn't going to cause trouble, not while he had that knife so near. The hand relaxed its grip on her lower face. She went to feel her chin, feeling bruised, but the man behind her now used both hands to force her arms back. "Where's the thing you are bringing? In the boot of the car?"
A strange way of describing it, she thought. He must know what it was. "Yes" she gasped. "In the boot. The keys are in the ignition lock" She was thoroughly frightened, the sooner they took it and left, the better she would like it. She would do whatever it needed to speed them on their way. They were going to drive off in the car, and she would have to untie the poor woman in the kiosk and call the police. Sir Colin wasn't going to be happy, that was certain.
She was soon to realise it wasn't going to be quite that easy. Far from leaving her behind, they seemed to have plans for her along too. The man in front of her had put away the knife, and now he was unravelling a roll of white bandage. While she watched, he used the knife to cut off two lengths, each about two feet long. While the man behind her maintained his grip, the former knife man tied the fabric tightly round her right wrist, then, folding her arm behind her back, tied it tightly as close as possible to her left elbow. Oh no, she thought. She guessed what was coming next. Sure enough he repeated the process with the other piece, fastening her left wrist to her right elbow. That wasn't the end of it, he wrapped the bandage round her arms, binding them parallel behind her, then wound it round her above her bust and under it, pinning her arms to her sides. She was uncomfortably conscious of how her breasts were being pushed forward as her arms were drawn back. She looked angrily into the eyes of the man in front of her, but saw that he was staring down at her breasts. He looked up at her, grinning. Something about him made her stay quiet. He's probably done much worse things than this, she thought. They were only tying her up, and they would soon leave with the Wolseley and its precious cargo. She would be left here with the other bound woman. And as that woman seemed unharmed, apart from the indignity of being left trussed up, there was nothing to fear. Was there?
The man that she could see was pulling out more bandage, and the one behind her was still gripping her by the shoulders, quite unnecessary now that she was bound. She knew what was coming next, she had seen the gagged woman in the kiosk. She stood compliantly as a strip of bandage was wound round her head, forced between her teeth like a bit on a horse. She didn't want to say anything to them anyway. As the man knotted the gag behind her head, she couldn't help wondering where they were going to put her. Were they going to drive off and leave her standing here, with just her arms bound? It wasn't very likely. It would be too easy. She would run up to the big house as soon as they were out of sight, and they knew it. She thought about that scenario for a moment. She imagined herself running, or maybe strolling, up the gravelled drive to the house, gag in her mouth and arms bound behind her. That disapproving housekeeper watching as she approached. Sniggering housemaids. Herself, kicking the door, and them taking their time about opening it.
The two men spoke among themselves, in a tongue that Phyllis hadn't heard before. One of them gestured towards the kiosk. Maybe they were going to put her in there, with the bound and gagged blonde in the AFS uniform. She hoped not, they would be dumped on top of each other. They could probably free each other though, assuming that there was room to move. She wondered how long it would take them to unpick the knots in the bandage.
But things were moving on. The man behind her pulled her roughly over to the car, his fingers digging into her upper arm. They opened both doors, and the man holding her pointed inside, pushing her into a sitting position. She tried to position herself upright on her own, difficult with her hands tied and somebody shoving her. Even worse, the man on the other side was dragging her in, using the bandages round her body as a sort of handle. They manhandled her so that she was face down, and her feet were off the ground now. She couldn't see what was being done, but her feet were being tied together at the ankles. She panicked at the implication. She was in the car and they were tying her feet, they must be going to take her away. Where, and why? . She kicked out blindly with her right foot, and made contact. "Aaaah" the man cried out sharply, more in anger than in pain. She immediately regretted doing that. Her feet were forced roughly together, the bandage round her ankles pulled cruelly tight. Worse was to come. The man made his feelings clear . Seizing her by the ankles, he pulled her backwards so that her legs were out of the car, her bottom accessible. Phyllis guessed what was coming, and gritted her teeth as he pulled the hem of her skirt up, then landed three slaps on her bottom. She would have yelled if she hadn't been gagged, the smacks were hard and he intended to cause pain. Then, just as quickly, her skirt was pulled back into place, and she was hauled back into the car. She had hoped that the task of binding her was finished , but it wasn't. More bandage was being tied round her ankles, and then her feet were pulled up, forced back over her bottom, and a final bandage used to pull them as close as possible to her bound arms. Now she really couldn't move. This is how a parcel must feel, she thought. She wondered if the final bit of binding had been punishment for kicking, or would it have happened anyway. The speed with which it had happened made her wonder if it was all a well-rehearsed routine for abducting victims. She shouldn't have kicked out, she knew that now. All it had got her was a smacked bottom, that was still smarting.
She was relieved though, that they seemed to take no sexual interest in her. Satisfied with having subdued her, the two men shut the rear doors of the car, got in the front and started the car. As they drove back down the country road, the same way Phyllis had come, she dreaded what might be in store for her. All sorts of horrible situations could be in store for her. The thrillers she had read were bad enough, but she had heard enough about terrorists and enemy agents in the real world. She wondered if she would ever be found.
Over three hours later, she was much less worried. She was still trussed up uncomfortably, face down on the back seat of the car. Her wrists were sore from her fruitless attempts to get free. Her bottom wasn't stinging now, but her pride was hurt at the memory of what had happened. But the Chinese men had left her in the car, they had taken the box and gone. Her worst fears hadn't materialised after all. She wasn't weighed down with rocks at the bottom of a lake and she wasn't tied to a railway track. She hadn't suffered the "fate worse than death" that the thrillers referred to. The bad part was that she was desperate for a pee, she knew she wasn't going to be able to hold it in much longer. She couldn't see much outside, bound face down as she was, but she knew there were tall buildings not far away. She could hear motor vehicles and strangely, aeroplanes. And there were voices, she could make out that they were talking about parked cars. They seemed to be getting closer. Please hurry up and find me, she wanted to shout.
Tuesday May 22nd.
Assistant Curator Frank Parker looked at the clock on the wall of his office. Ten o'clock, right on time, if the taxi in the car park contained the woman he was expecting. Nina Costello was her name. He wondered what to expect. He knew she was middle-aged, and that was all. So long as she did the job..
Hearing voices , he went closer and looked out. There she was, coming toward the door. The taxi was reversing, about to leave. An attractive woman, with dark blonde hair, some might have called her overweight. Frank preferred the phrase "pleasingly plump". Better go to the door and meet her, formally, he thought.
Moments later, they were sitting in his office. He had arranged a cup of coffee for both of them, He had briefly described the little upstairs room that was going to serve as her workshop, and soon he would be showing her it. He had expected a dowdy academic woman, the sort who wouldn't interest him at all, outside the working environment. He was considerably cheered up to meet an attractive middle-aged blonde. Some might have said she was overweight, but Frank liked what he called "pleasingly plump" women. She was dressed rather like a lady professor from a 'sixties thriller. She wore a dark grey pin-striped skirt suit, over a blue-and-white striped shirt with a shiny royal blue tie. Her footwear was a pair of calf-length black boots, wit zips at the side. Her dark blonde hair, pinned pack at the front and up at the back, was probably quite long when it was loose. He wondered if the business like outfit disguised a sensual nature. Her full lips and the way her glasses magnified her blue eyes made him think there was more to her than the letters after her name.
During the next hour he explained the background to Nina, explaining that the statuette had been inherited by Sir Colin Grenville's great-nephew. He had found it in "the big house" apparently concealed in a wardrobe. He knew he had never seen it when he had visited the house, and that had been quite often. He suspected it might be uniquely valuable, and from what Nina had seen of it, he could be right. This was followed up by a tour of the museum.
Nina dutifully looked at the collection as she was shown round, paying a few polite complements .The thing that surprised her most was the collection of stuffed animals. They were all Far Eastern and Indian animals , including two rhinoceros. She wondered how difficult it had been to get them back to Britain. The other animals were all much smaller, but when Nina read the labels she realised that Sir Colin had personally shot the rhinos. He was obviously proud of the achievement, but he went down in her estimation.
After the tour, Nina sat in the museum's small office, having a cup of instant coffee with Frank Parker. She was secretly not too happy about not being offered one when she first arrived, but it obviously wasn't his way. He was being very chatty about the exhibits, in a way that Nina didn't think they deserved. The treasures were a random collection of items which several generations of Grenvilles had accumulated, during their military and diplomatic careers. Some had been bought, some were the spoils of war. Some had been acquired in ways that didn't stand up to close scrutiny, especially in a time when governors and generals couldn't do just as they liked. Frank was enthusing about them and seemed to expect her to do the same, but she was also aware of his eyes roving over her for the whole of the conversation. He wasn’t exactly coming on to her, but he seemed to be working his way round to it. She wondered if he was going to be around tomorrow afternoon. She hoped he wasn't going to get under her feet. Every woman appreciates some male admiration, but she wasn't impressed by Frank Parker, and she was here to do a job.
Frank was keen to tell her about the robbery, and the subsequent disappearance of the item that she had come to examine, and to offer his own theories about it.
"When they found the car, it had been abandoned at Croydon Airport, the old London Airport. The driver was still in it, tied up and gagged on the back seat. The fact it was left at the Airport made the Police think the thieves had left the country".
"And now you think it didn't "Nina interrupted. "Do you think it was a put-up job? It wasn’t really stolen?"
"Oh, it was really stolen. When the catering staff at the hall knocked off at the end of the day, they found the gates locked, and the woman on duty was tied up inside her little sentry box. She said two Chinese guys had grabbed her, then waited for Grenville's driver to turn up with the statuette. As I said, they found the car at the airport with the idol gone and the woman driver trussed up inside. It really happened, the question is, who arranged it. Old Grenville didn't want to give it back to the Maharajah, so what if he hired some foreign looking fellows to do it. My guess is, he had it all the time. In those days, the police wouldn't have asked to search his property, they just took his word for it". Frank seemed convinced.
"And he had no heirs, no surviving children? " Nina knew she was repeating what she had already been told. "Isn't it lucky that the great-nephew didn't just treat it as part of his inheritance. He figured that it might be the missing idol".
"Right on" said Frank skeptically. "And he says he never saw it before, around the house. Do you believe that?"
“Sounds implausible,” she agreed, though in reality she had decided to agree with whatever he said.
But having been shown round, she was at least satisfied with the facilities, in the room that was allocated to her. A small room on the third floor that had good natural light for most of the working day. It was going to be her laboratory for a few hours, the next day.
Nina's appointment the next day was for the afternoon, which explained why Frank Parker wasn't on duty. The museum , she realised, was one of those places that kept their costs down by only employing part-time staff. Nina was nothing if not methodical, and it was her custom to telephone her destination an hour or two before leaving home. It has saved her some wasted journeys in the past. Today’s appointment was still on, of course, because she was going to be working alone. So long as the museum was still standing, it wouldn't be cancelled. What she did learn was that Mrs Maggie Devlin was the Assistant Curator who would meet her today. So no hopeful suitor,(that was how she saw Frank Parker) would be interrupting her work.
Wednesday, May 23rd.
Today Nina left the pin-striped business suit in the wardrobe,, and put on a lightweight linen suit, a jacket and skirt, over a lemon-yellow button-down shirt, collar and cuffs buttoned as was her usual style. Another concession to the weather was her white leather sandals, with toenails painted gold, and the fact that she was wearing no tights. Her intention was as always, to combine an apparently academic look with a dash of light-heartedness.
She arrived at the museum in the early afternoon, as suggested by the Assistant Curator who was responsible for the Asian and African exhibits. To her surprise and relief, it was a different person. And yet, she was sure Frank Parker had said "See you tomorrow” when she left the previous day. Never mind, that was one distraction she wouldn't have to deal with.
The lady in question appeared in the doorway as Nina climbed out of her taxi, so promptly that Nina thought that she had been waiting her as she arrived by taxi.
Sometimes, when you hadn't met a person yet, their name gave you a clue, but Maggie was one of those which didn't tell Nina much. Except that the said person wouldn't have been named before 1950, probably. This lady was a well-rounded brunette who looked about forty, and that sort of matched her expectation.
Mrs Devlin was wearing a dark blue corduroy suit, consisting of a jacket with no lapel or collar and a skirt with a single pleat at the back. Under it she wore a high necked pink blouse, the sort that had frills either side of the button panel and at the neck. She's no more fashion conscious than I am, thought Nina. The woman had a rosy-cheeked complexion that, to Nina, didn't seem to match her brown eyes and dark hair. Perhaps she spent a lot of time outdoors.
After the introductions, Maggie Devlin led Nina into the same office where she had met Frank Parker the day before. Over a cup of coffee, Maggie began to repeat what Frank had already told her, explaining the history of the museum and the more impressive exhibits.
"I wouldn't have those rhinoceroses, if it was up to me. They are on the verge of extinction because people hunted them back then"
"And now, for Chinese medicine" Nina chipped in. "Not real cures, but enough people believe in it that their horns are worth a lot of money"
Maggie gave her a look that suggested disapproval, as if Nina should be listening rather than talking. "Really? Well, it's a good thing that nobody like that knows about them being here" she said, then went back to her topic.
"If the statuette we've got here isn't the one that was reported stolen back then, what can it be?" she said, more as a comment than a question. "Back then, somebody went to a lot of trouble to get their hands on it. Did you hear about it being stolen?"
"Mr Parker told me about it yesterday" said Nina, trying not to seem impatient now that her coffee was finished.
"A well-planned job, apparently. It was being brought here by Sir Colin Grenville's WAAF
Driver. Some say she was his bit on the side. There was an AFS woman on duty, that's Auxiliary Fire Service in case you didn't know".
I did know, Nina thought to herself.
"Anyway, these foreign guys turned up on bikes, lured the AFS woman out of her kiosk and tied her up. Then they waited for the car with the idol to come. They made the driver go to Croydon Airport, you know, the old London Airport. Then they left her trussed up and gagged in the boot and weren't ever seen again". She gave Nina a knowing look. "I've got a theory about that. Do you know what I think?"
Nina could guess, but didn't get a chance to speak. "I don't think they got on a plane at all. The driver couldn't see where they went, she was tied up in the boot. I think they went to the airport so everybody would think they had left the country, then brought it back here. That fits, as it has turned up here, doesn't it"
"It does, it's the most likely explanation ". Nina had to agree. The bit about the driver being tied up and put in the boot was a new detail, she noted. Frank Parker hadn't mentioned it.
"At least nobody is desperate to get their hands on it now" said Maggie. "I wouldn't want to be involved in something like that again "
"Again? Has something like that happened here, then?" Nina asked. She hadn't thought of this as an assignment with some danger attached.
"Oh no, nothing to do with the idol, but yes, there was an armed robbery here, about six years ago. There was an exhibition of Victorian jewellery here, stuff that had been in the family for a century or more. Anyway, these crooks hid in the museum, my bad luck to be in charge that day. When I was locking up they threatened me with pickaxe handles. They made me open up the cabinets with the jewellery, then they left me, bound and gagged, on my own in the dark. It wasn't nice, being gagged with a dirty old duster. And having them leering at me all the time, while I was tied up. I was really worried they might, you know, do things to me".
Nina was tempted to say "been there, done that", but Maggie had obviously dined out on this story a few times. There was work to do, and Nina didn't want to spend the afternoon telling Maggie about her own robbery experiences. She must have been giving off some indication of impatience, though, because Maggie suddenly looked at the wall clock and exclaimed" look at the time! I'm stopping you, and I've got things to do as well".
"By all means come down here to make yourself a coffee if you want one" she said as Nina left the office.
"Thanks, I probably will" Nina replied. It sounded as if Maggie was saying "I won't be making one for you".
As closing time approached, the two men who had concealed themselves in the cleaner's closet contemplated their next move.
"Five to five" observed one of them. "No need to rush. Give it till quarter past, then the visitors will all have gone. It'll just be the curator woman we have to deal with"
"Had a thought " said his colleague. "How long would it take to saw those rhino horns off? Could we do it while nobody was in that room, and not be noticed?"
"Maybe" said the other. "But what if she spotted us and phoned the law, and we didn't know. Best if she's silenced before we start".
So, for Maggie, history was about to repeat itself.
Upstairs in her temporary office, Nina had checked every detail of the Chinthe, and had scribbled down every detail of her research. Now she knew what the thing was made of, the metallic and non-metallic parts. And she was able to say with some confidence where and when it had been made.
Normally she would be ready to leave at this point. She would type out a final report on her typewriter at home. But here, in this office, was a more sophisticated typewriter than the one she owned. She really had to learn about word processing, and computers, she realised. But meanwhile, she was going to type her report on this machine. Just as soon as she had made herself a coffee, downstairs. She thought about putting her jacket back on, rolling her shirtsleeves down and buttoning her cuffs, but she decided not to, as she might have some work still to do. The drink came first, definitely, not she had thought about it.
While Nina was making this decision, Maggie was desperately hoping that Nina wouldn't come down just yet. Not till after the robbers had gone. That way, Maggie would soon be released. Maggie was being lowered to the floor of the cleaner’s closet by her captors, her crossed wrists taped tightly behind her back and many loops of the silver stuff around her upper body, above and below her breasts. She couldn't describe the robbers very well because they had been wearing ski masks, but as a precaution, they had taped a folded tissue over her eyes. It was scary, not being able to see, but at least they were thoughtful, she realised. She would still have her eyebrows when it came off. She would have protested, but three strips of tape had been pressed over her mouth, in the shape of an X, with a third horizontal piece for good measure.
Once she was placed face down on the floor, she hoped they had finished with her, because they hadn't tied her feet yet. Maybe they weren't going to, for some reason. What would she be able to do, she wondered, once they had gone. If she could get to her feet, with hands tied behind her, and then blunder about, blindfolded, she might end up getting hurt. Nina was upstairs and hopefully wouldn't draw attention to herself. Maggie was thinking along these lines when one of the unseen men grabbed her feet and pressed them together, wrapping tape round and round her ankles, taking it up her legs almost to her knees."Might as well use it all up, as there's only you" he said. "That's the lot". This must be how a mummy feels, she thought. An unexpected slap on her bottom made her jump, but then the man got to his feet. She listened as he crossed the office and closed the door behind him. She struggled ineffectively for a moment, then stopped, knowing it was pointless. Anyway, it didn't seem as if they had captured Nina, and she would be coming down before long. Nina would find her and untie her, and then she would call the police.
She certainly hoped that was what would happen. Oh my god, what if they get that Nina as well. So long as she stayed upstairs, and the robbers didn't explore and find her. If Nina got herself captured, they were both going to be here till about seven thirty, when her husband was due to pick her up.
She was a bit annoyed with herself for causing this situation. She had known the cleaner’s closet door didn't lock properly, but she hadn't had it fixed. If only.......
She hadn't thought it important, but she would in future.
She had spent the late afternoon in her office, catching up on paperwork. Time flew by, and she was surprised to see that the time was 5.05. She should be locking up. Leaving her jacket draped over the back of her chair, she picked up the bunch of keys.
She had been walking along the passage when, out of the corner of her eye, just as she passed, she saw the door move. Startled, she turned to face it, just as two men in dark clothes and woolen ski-masks stepped out. She realised immediately that they must have been waiting for her, she saw that both of them had lengths of tape in their hands. It happened very quickly, one stepped behind her and pulled her arms back, the other was in front of her pressing a length of tape over her lips. Followed by another length, while tape was being wrapped round her wrists behind her back. In no time she was helpless, silenced and sightless.
Oh yes, she would definitely get any doors fixed in future.
Nina was unaware of the drama happening on the ground floor. Leaving her equipment and her jacket in her temporary office, she descended the stairs, suddenly aware , in the nearly empty building, of the sound her footsteps made on the polished wooden steps. As she reached the ground floor, she heard a sound from one of the galleries, the one where the stuffed animals were. It sounded like a saw, but it was probably Maggie Devlin doing something, tidying up perhaps. She knew the coffee and the kettle were in Maggie’s office, that was where she was headed. But if Maggie wasn't in there, she had better at least ask her about it. She didn't notice that the noise suddenly stopped.
So when Nina poked her head round the door of the gallery, the source of the sounds, she was horrified to see two men, hastily pulling ski-masks down over their faces, and on the floor behind them, next to the raised stage that supported the rhinos, some hessian sacking and a hacksaw. On seeing the masked men, Nina correctly guessed the reason for their presence; they were stealing something. She assumed at first that they were after the same rare artifact that she was working on. For a split second, she hoped they hadn't seen her. She froze, and began to step backward. She wasn't fast enough though, one of them grabbed her by her hand and pulled her into the room, while his colleague went into the corridor and looked around. He returned almost immediately.
"There's only her" he said.
"Go and see if the other one is where we left her. This one might have found her" The masked man turned to Nina. "Where did you come from?"
"I was working upstairs. Paperwork" she said quickly. She didn't want them going up there and finding her work. She tried to pull her arm out of his grasp. "You're hurting me, let go, please" She didn't know what was going to happen, but she knew the prospects weren't good. She had been caught up in quite a few crimes where valuable antiquities were the target, and she knew those criminals weren’t casual opportunists. Usually they were dispassionate, professional heisters, working on a hefty commission for someone who wanted to own the item, at any cost. What made this occasion different was that she, or more specifically the artifact she was researching, wasn't the target. Looking behind them, she was horrified to see that the horn had already been sawn off one of the stuffed rhinos.
Not being the target was only a minor relief to Nina as she was dragged into the room by her arm. "Where's Mrs Devlin?" she demanded. "Just wait till she finds out what you've done" As she said this, she knew how ridiculous she sounded. She might have intimidated a pair of naughty seven-year olds, but not this pair. Was there a faint hope that she might stop them in their tracks, buy herself some time perhaps. They just might not know that Maggie Devlin was on the premises.
Her illusion was soon dispelled. Without slackening his grip, he asked "Is she the one in the blue suit?"
"Yes, why?" said Nina, with a sinking feeling.
"She's a bit tied up at the moment " the second man interrupted, laughing. "What are we going to do with her? We're almost done here. None of that tape left though".
Nina felt momentarily reassured. The unfortunate Maggie Devlin had obviously been captured and restrained, and there was no tape left to do the same to her. But the next suggestion wasn't reassuring.
"She'll have to come with us" said the man holding her. Nina didn't like the sound of that, and nor did the other robber.
"We can't take her back to, you know, with us, can we? She'll see where we go, we can't keep these masks on outside, can we? Not a good idea!"
"Suggest something then. We used up all the tape on the other woman. Can't see anything to tie her up with, and we can't leave her to call the cops as soon as we've gone, can we?"
Nina decided to put her side of the argument. "I could always go back to where I was working and not come down for another hour. Nobody knows I've seen you. I don't mind doing that. I don't want to be taken away".
They both looked at her, disbelief on their faces. "You know, if I had just fell off a Christmas tree, I might just go for that" said the man who hadn't wanted to take her away.
"Look, if you take me with you you'll have to let me go somewhere, and I'll know where you went, more so than if I stay here" Nina continued. "I just came here to do a job for the museum, not to catch, er, to stop a robbery"
The response gave her a fright "That depends what we decide to do with you. You could have an accident, commit suicide or something. That way, you won't be telling anybody anything" Then, seeing the look on his colleagues face, and avoiding eye contact with Nina, he said, defensively "Look, ordinarily we'd tie you up, like the other woman, but we didn't know you were here. We used up all the tape on her. So what do we do?"
"If I have to choose between being taken away, or being tied up and left here, I'd choose to be tied up and left here". She had already noticed the blinds at the tall windows, they were operated by pulling a cord with a wooden handle at the end. They were long, almost from floor to ceiling, and there were four of them. She had chosen not to mention them unless there was a real risk of being taken away, and being thrown off a bridge, or worse, but now that moment had come.
Feeling her cheeks reddening, she pointed to the window with her free hand. "Look at the cords for the window blinds. There's yards and yards of it". They looked at her, then at each other. Feeling suddenly breathless, she continued. "You can tie me up with that, and be on your way. I won't be trying to get away because I sort of volunteered for it"
"Very helpful, lady" said the man who was still grasping her arm. "Why didn't we see that? We're losing it in our old age" He grabbed Nina's free hand and pulled it behind her, forcing both hands together. Nina, once she realised she was going to be tied up, would have liked to roll her sleeves down and pull her cuffs down over her wrists, but the opportunity had been missed.
The other man tugged at one of the cords, hard, then harder, with the result that the blind casing clattered to the floor. The cord was still looped round the mechanism, but the man pulled a knife from his pocket and sliced through it. "There's enough here to do a thorough job on her" he commented. "The textbook method, in fact". He sliced a three-foot piece off the twenty-foot cord and turned towards Nina
"Textbook method?" said Nina. "Textbook method of what?" Surely there wasn't a textbook for tying people up. Some sort of operation manual for armed robbers?
"Hold on a minute” said the man with the short cord. He was behind her now, placing her wrists in a crossed position, then passing the cord round them twice horizontally, knotting it, then doing the same vertically. Nina had been bound in quite a few escapades during her career, and not once had she managed to free herself. She knew that having her hands bound like this was enough to hold her prisoner, but she also knew that no captors ever stopped at this point. She always ended up, in a phrase once used by a police officer who rescued her, trussed up like a turkey.
"Right, let me explain" he began, the first part of the binding completed. "When we tie somebody up, the intention is so they don't raise the alarm for quite a while. So we tie them properly so they can't get free, but also so there isn't too much discomfort. And if the person is an attractive lady, we know they always like to look their best, so we do what we can to enhance their appearance".
"Come on, we need to get out of here" the other man interrupted.
Nina felt herself blushing. She didn't dare to ask what he meant, but she had a feeling she was going to find out. As a large-busted lady, she knew the visual side effect of having her hands tied behind her back. And that was before any ropes round her arms were added.
The man with the cord set to work, draping the cord over her shoulders from behind and passing the ends back under her arms, round the arms, across her front above her breasts, round the arms again, across her front below her bust this time. And then he took the ends behind her and seemed to do it all over again, but behind her back. The end result was that her arms were fastened securely, inescapably, to her sides. The final touch was when he tied more cord round her bound wrists. She couldn't see what was being done, but it seemed her hands were being tied to the ropes that went round her upper body, somewhere between her shoulder blades. The ropes all seemed to get tighter. Even worse, Nina's lemon-yellow blouse seemed to have shrunk since last time she wore it. Or had she put on a few pounds? Either way, looking down at her boobs, she decided against struggling too vigorously. Or her buttoned-up blouse wouldn't stay buttoned, not where it mattered most.
Nina knew she could handle the embarrassment of being found bound and gagged. It sort of came with the territory in a job where she was always working on valuable items of, sometimes, disputed ownership. It happened to her colleagues just as often as it happened to her. Fortunately the press reporting of such events wasn't very detailed. The tabloids weren't much bothered about a theft of some old documents, even if a tweedy female academic had been bound and gagged during the robbery. It was definitely preferable to being taken away, but she didn't want to be found with her boobs on show. Who knows who might find her first?
"Need more cord for her feet" said the tying-up man suddenly. "Pull the other blind down for me".
"You didn't need to use it all up like that" said the other man, moving over to the window and tugging at the other blind. "All it needs is for her not to be able to run away. Just do that, don't try to make a work of art. She isn't Houdini. Are you?" he turned to Nina. "Think you stand a chance of getting loose?"
Nina was taken by surprise, she hadn't expected to be involved in the conversation. "No, I don't think so" she answered hesitantly.
"She would say that". The other man had pulled down the cord of the second blind and cut off a length. To Nina it looked about six feet long. Quite enough to stop me running around, she thought. Why was it that all these criminals felt a compulsion to overdo the tying up? Did they lack confidence in their skill? She thought back a few years to an occasion when a robber had relieved her of a valuable Japanese museum piece. It had transpired at the trial that the man himself had been Japanese. It had been a very scary incident at the time, she remembered. The man had a samurai sword and had threatened her with death if she didn't obey his every word. Nina, having no wish to trade her life for the jewel, had followed his orders, unlocked the safe and wrapped the item for him, so that his fingerprints wouldn't be on it. Afterwards, in fear of that blade, she allowed herself to be hogtied with a yard of five-millimeter thick copper wire, which, instead of knotting, he twisted to its maximum tightness with a pair of pliers. He didn't gag her, there was no need. All the other staff at the college had left for the evening when the robber emerged from a cupboard. Nina had endured an uncomfortable two hours, with every movement bringing pain to her wrists and ankles, trying not to wet herself before the night watchman came on his rounds and found her. And when he did eventually arrive, he naturally wasn't carrying wire cutters, and had to fetch pliers from the maintenance man's cupboard. It was the worst of the robberies she had been a victim of, the one and only time she had feared for her life. The man had enjoyed inflicting terror and pain, but he had only needed a piece of wire, not yards and yards of rope. Unlike this pair, who seemed to think that, if their victim wasn't literally cocooned in robe, they weren't properly tied up.
"So long as we get a clear hour to get away, we don't care what you get up to after that. I think it's the floor for you though, there aren't any chairs in here." Nina looked down at the floor. Polished wood, it was going to be hard, sitting on it for ages. All very well them talking about an hour, there was no guarantee she was going to get loose after an hour. If she could find Maggie Devlin they might be able to free each other, but the pair hadn't finished with her yet.
Suddenly she had a brainwave” Can’t I go somewhere on a rug, or a carpet?" she asked. She knew there was a carpeted floor in Maggie's office, and Maggie might be in there. If she could persuade them to put her in there too, who knows, they might free each other.
The pair looked at each other. "Yeah, what difference does it make? Why not?" The talkative one took Nina by the arm. "Come on, you got your wish" he said, leading her out of the room. "You can go with the other woman, in the cupboard. There's an old rug on the floor in there. You can keep each other company".
Nina was hustled to the cleaner's closet where Maggie had already been imprisoned, and was relieved to see that the light had been left on. Not that it was a comfort to the blindfolded woman who was hogtied on the floor. Nina stared apprehensively at her, as she raised her head and grunted through her gag. "She isn't very good company" joked the man. "Not got much to say".
Nina knew just how the woman felt. She had been in that position herself, and it seemed as if she was about to be in it again. In a futile gesture, she strained against the ropes round her arms and wrists. "Let's get you finished" The two men took her by the shoulders and lowered her into a sitting position. The one who had done the talking dropped to his knees and pulled her feet out in front of her, lifting one foot over the other so that her ankles were crossed. She knew from past experience that she wouldn't be able to get to her feet, but there was more to come anyway. After passing the cord round them twice, he knotted it and took it up and over her shoulder. She felt it being wrapped round her bound wrists, then brought back over the other shoulder, back to her ankles. "Lean your head forward " he said, forcing her head toward her feet. She moved her legs into a crossed position, involuntarily, as he knotted the cord round her crossed ankles. The finishing touch was when he took the end of the cord up from her ankles and threaded it under the cord that went round her body, under her bust, then ran it back to her ankle-ropes and knotted it to them. Now her head was pulled downwards, only a foot above her feet, and her linen skirt had slipped back over her knees, exposing her thighs. She knew if she leaned forward a bit more, she would be able to see her yellow knickers, the ones that matched her bra and her blouse. She diverted her gaze, before her captor started looking in the same direction. So far the two men hadn't shown any interest in her as a woman, and she hoped it would stay that way.
She hadn't always been that lucky. It had started back when she was involved in a bank robbery, in her twenties. The robber, Ray, had become a friend, but had subsequently drifted out of her life. But on that first meeting when he robbed her bank, she learned something. There were criminal men around who, if in the course of a crime they came across a woman, enjoyed the opportunity to restrain that woman. Ray had been such a man, and he had explained to her that women with what he called a "pleasingly plump" physique, were ideal subjects for being tied up. And not just being tied up, either. During that robbery, Nina had done everything he asked, and had been obedient while she was being tied up. Ray had repaid her by bending her over a stool and giving her a sound spanking, the first she had ever had. Nina had never forgotten the experience, and it had been repeated a few times during the on-off relationship that had developed between them.
There had been other robberies where she had been tied up, and in some of these the robber had, on impulse, thought it was fun to smack Nina's bottom a few times, which seemed to prove Rays point. But bound in a sitting position as she was today, she obviously wasn't going to be spanked. She glanced across at Maggie Devlin, who was lying quietly, face down but with her head facing Nina. Gagged and blindfolded, she was listening intently, wondering if anything else was going to happen to her.
"You all right?" Nina whispered in her direction. Maggie lifted her head and grunted in what sounded like an affirmative. Nina studied her, wondering at the amount of silver tape that had been used to bind the woman. She knew from past experience that it took ages to get off. The yards of cord around her would come off easily, even if it left marks.
Nina couldn't see what was going on behind her, it sounded as if one of the men had gone to another room. She dearly hoped they weren't going to find her statuette. They had got what they came for, the rhino horns, so maybe they wouldn't go upstairs. Maybe they were about to leave.
Nina was well aware that she was probably going to be gagged, that's what robbers did, but nobody had mentioned it so far. She kept her mouth shut, in the last few minutes, for fear of reminding them. She was beginning to hope they really were going to leave. It wasn't that she expected to raise the alarm by yelling for assistance, it was just that she knew the discomfort of being gagged, and didn't want to experience it again.
But suddenly her hopes were dashed. The man who had bound her was back, a green tin in his hand. On its lid there was a white cross. A first aid kit, no doubt with bandages of some sort inside. She wasn't going to be spared a gag after all. Glancing for a moment toward Maggie Devlin, she wondered if she was going to be blindfolded as well.
He popped the lid off of the tin. "Not very well equipped" he said. Let’s hope nobody injures themselves round here". He pulled out a small roll of gauze bandage. "Just about enough to shut you up" he said.
Nina had tried not to attract attention up till now, but there was nothing to lose by speaking up. "You don't need to do that, do you? Who's going to hear if I shout?"
"You could use your teeth to help her get untied" He nodded in the direction of Maggie Devlin as he unfurled the short length of bandage. Short, but just long enough, she noted. "Anyway, why am I arguing with you". He pulled it tight and tied a knot at the centre, and then another one on top of it. "Open your mouth. Don't worry, it won't choke you!"
Nina, knowing there wasn't any point in resisting, opened her mouth, allowing him to push the knotted fabric inside and tie the ends at the back of her neck. She knew she wouldn't choke, but it was still uncomfortable having a ball of knotted bandage in her mouth.
His next action took her by surprise. He carefully lifted her glasses from her face. "How's your eyesight without these?" he asked, and without waiting for a reply, dropped them on the floor in the corner of the closet. "Don't want you breaking them, while you try to get loose" he joked.
It was annoying, without the glasses everything more than six feet away was a blur. And though she could still make some sounds, what would be the point. She looked over at Maggie Devlin, bound differently but just as helpless. There wasn't much that either of them could do. It was going to be a long evening.