Flora MacKenzie's First Case (Part 3)

Flora MacKenzie's First Case

by Gillian B

Part 3: A Flying Finish

It was fully daylight, but overcast and dismal, as Grandfather and I ventured out of the house. We knew that we had to move quickly if our reconnaissance was to be successful, before Mrs Dalhousie and her daughter Mary were missed.

"Captain! Flora!" a familiar voice hissed. As I looked round, Queenie Holkham, looking rather dishevelled, emerged from the shrubbery behind the house.

"Queenie!" I replied enthusiastically but keeping my voice cautiously soft. "We thought they had taken you away."

Queenie quickly explained that her subterfuge had worked. Not many minutes after I had left her, the woman who had been involved in her capture had returned. Queenie's apparently instant escape had caught her completely by surprise and Queenie had left her bound and gagged while she made good her escape. She hadn't seen the man as she made her way out.

Queenie had walked along the beach to avoid detection and had returned to the house approaching from the west. She had seen my mother being abducted and had decided to approach the house by way of several neighbouring gardens, climbing over the intervening walls and fences. I was thrilled at her resourcefulness and daring. She had missed seeing Grandfather and me arrive and hadn't seen us bring Mary Dalhousie back as a prisoner, which was why she was still in hiding when she called to us.

Grandfather rapidly brought Queenie up to date on events and the three of us had a quick conference on what we were to do next. We agreed to concentrate our efforts on Kilmurdie House where we believed my Mother was being held. Our plan was to make pursuit difficult and divert attention from our true purpose if we were observed.

Grandfather and I were to travel on his motorcycle while Queenie took her bicycle. We would turn right out of the house and take the direct route after a few diversionary twists and turns. Our superior speed would make it difficult to follow us. Queenie would turn left and take a circuitous route but one involving a series of narrow paths, again making pursuit difficult.

A few hectic but exhilarating minutes later, Grandfather and I were hiding in a small patch of woodland observing Kilmurdie House through binoculars. It was an isolated three storey Victorian villa with a fanciful Scottish baronial style turret at one corner. We could see the back door (which was actually on the side of the house) but the main door and the seaward facing main rooms were just out of sight from our vantage point. We would, however, be able to see all comings and goings as most of the driveway was visible. There were no obvious signs of movement in the house.

After about ten minutes, Queenie joined us, approaching quietly along a woodland path, wheeling her bicycle.

I pointed out a small ground floor window next to the back door. It was open a few inches, but clearly unlatched. I judged that I was probably small enough to get in through it and would then be able to unlock the back door. The problem was that our approach would be completely exposed to view from the house.

Queenie suggested a diversionary tactic, which sounded to my ears to be very dangerous to her personally. Grandfather listened carefully then nodded grimly. They discussed details and timing then Queenie set off along the path again with her bicycle.

About five or six minutes later, we could see Queenie approaching the house from the opposite side, riding purposefully up the driveway. She disappeared from sight behind the house, but we knew what would be happening. She would be ringing the doorbell, then would raise a hysterical commotion with whoever answered, declaring that she knew her mistress was being held prisoner and demanding her release.

As soon as we heard Queenie's voice (although we could make out no words at that distance), Grandfather and I made our move. We ran across the lawn that separated us from the house. (For so large a man, Grandfather could move surprisingly quickly.) Grandfather pushed up the window I had seen and I scrambled through it.

I was in a small storage room full of garden tools, old coats and some ancient wooden chests. It was very dusty. I carefully opened the door. It creaked alarmingly, no matter how carefully I pushed. I looked left and right. There was no-one in sight so I rushed to the back door. The big iron key and the bolts were stiff for small hands but after a moment or two, I had it open at the expense of a slightly bruised thumb.

Grandfather shut the door behind him and we crept along the passageway towards the main hallway of the house. We could still hear lots of yelling from Queenie, but the sound was coming from somewhere upstairs. We decided to await developments. There was silence after a few minutes then we heard the sound of feet descending the stairs.

Grandfather and I hid in a dark corner and held our breath. I caught a glimpse of two figures as they crossed the hallway and entered one of the rooms at the front of the house. Grandfather and I crept to the stairs and silently climbed them. We had no way to tell if there was anyone up there.

At the top of the stairs, I carefully peeped round a corner into the short corridor which clearly served the main bedrooms of the house. I could see a young woman, little more than a girl, sitting in a chair outside one of the bedroom doors. I recognised her as one of the more unpleasant young women of the town. She was tall and broad for her age and was presumably a domestic servant here but apparently not averse to acting as an impromptu prison wardress. She hadn't seen me, so I ducked back. There didn't seem to be anyone else in sight.

Grandfather and I quickly formulated a plan. I walked nonchalantly down the corridor with my heart pounding and feeling anything but nonchalant inside. I walked up to the girl, deliberately passing her so she was looking away from the stairs. "Hello, Meg," I said casually.

Meg was not a particularly fast thinker. She stared at me; sure something was wrong but uncertain as to what. She caught a glimpse of movement from the corner of her eye and turned just in time to see Grandfather charging at her like an enraged elephant. Grandfather's fist struck her hard under the corner of her jaw and she sprawled on the carpet, senseless.

The key to the room Meg had been guarding was in the lock. We opened it and dragged the inert girl into the room.

I was overjoyed to see my mother. She was bound and gagged, but my relief at seeing her overcame any shock I felt. She was wearing a blouse and skirt, both rather rumpled now, and was tied to a wooden chair. Her wrists were crossed and tied behind the back of the chair and several turns of rope round her waist and over her shoulders secured her to it. Her ankles and knees were tied and her bound ankles had been lashed to one chair leg, giving her a slightly side-saddle posture on the chair. She was gagged with a piece of cloth, apparently torn from a sheet. It had been knotted, the knot pushed into her mouth and the ends tied tightly behind her head.

Oblivious to anything else, I ran across to Mother, untied her gag and eased the knot out from between her teeth. I had a clasp knife in my skirt pocket and used it to hack through the ropes holding Mother. As I did so, I suddenly realised that Queenie was nowhere in sight. I asked Mother if she had seen her. She nodded, then croaked, "Cupboard," indicating a door beside the fireplace.

While I was cutting Mother free, Grandfather was using the discarded pieces of rope and her gag to bind and gag Meg, who was showing signs of regaining consciousness.

As soon as I had freed Mother, I rushed across to the cupboard she had indicated and opened it. It was a shallow cupboard set into the wall and only about 18 inches deep. It was fitted with shelves which were lined with books. On the floor, under the lowest shelf was the bound and gagged form of Queenie. The cupboard was just deep enough to accommodate her sitting sideways. She must have been supported by the door, for as I opened it, she slowly toppled out and lay on one side looking up at me. She was very tightly tied but still managed to grin at me round her gag.

After Queenie's previous escape, her captors were clearly taking no chances. I studied her predicament for a moment to work out where to start freeing her. I began with her gag, which was a handkerchief between her teeth tied at the back of her neck. As I pulled it down, I discovered that a second handkerchief had been stuffed into her mouth. I extracted it and she swallowed to get her mouth working again.

Queenie had been tied up so that she was cramped into a tight ball shape. Her thighs were hard against her chest, with ropes under her knees and round behind her back. Her knees and ankles had been bound together. Her arms were wrapped round her bent legs as if she was hugging them. Her wrists were crossed and bound and the binding tied to the ropes securing her ankles. Further turns of rope had been added round the whole package, completely immobilising her and giving her insufficient freedom of movement to work her bonds loose.

I patiently sawed through rope after rope until Queenie was free. I was astonished how thoroughly she had been tied in the few minutes it had taken. I was also relieved that she had only had to endure this situation for a short time.

As we stood up, I could see that Grandfather had made a good job of binding Meg, who was lying on her stomach with her wrists tied behind her, her ankles and knees tied and her ankle and wrist bindings linked by a short rope. Grandfather helped Queenie lift her bodily and shut her in the cupboard from which we had just rescued her.

Mother was feeling able to stand now, so the four of us crept out of the room. Queenie and I had each equipped ourselves with a bundle of bits of rope in case there might be any more people like Meg to deal with.

In the event, we were able to reach the back door undetected and then dash across the lawn to the cover of the woods.

As we reached the trees, something caught my eye and I stopped. I looked round, uncertain what I had spotted. Suddenly, I had it. It was the mysterious signal light again, out at sea and visible against the slate grey cloud that covered the eastern sky.

Grandfather had seen me stop and had also seen the signal. "Quick!" he commanded. "Back to the house!"

I was astonished to see my mother lead the way as we crossed the lawn again. A combination of patriotism, Grandfather's leadership and lust for revenge had her blood well up. We all paused outside the door. Grandfather split us into two groups. He and I would search for the room being used as the signalling station, probably the ornamental turret on the house. Mother and Queenie would act as a rearguard and would see if there was anyone hiding in any of the lower rooms. Grandfather drew one of his revolvers and handed the second one to Mother.

Quietly, but quickly, I followed Grandfather up through the house until we reached the stairs leading up into the turret that poked up above the roofline. He lifted his finger to his lips and we ascended the stairs as silently as cats. I could hear the clacking of the shutters on a signal lamp, so we were clearly in the right place.

"Stop!" ordered Grandfather, without raising his voice but in a tone that brooked no argument.

The woman who had so nearly captured me the previous night stood silhouetted against the big windows which made the turret room into a small studio. She turned slowly to face us.

"Cross your wrists behind your back and make no sudden movements," Grandfather commanded evenly keeping his revolver pointed at the woman. The woman was not taking any chances and did as she was ordered, but with a glint of defiance in her eye. I kept my head well below the level of the gun and bound the woman's wrists with one of the pieces of rope I had salvaged earlier.

While Grandfather was escorting the woman down the stairs, I did a quick check round the room. There were documents which appeared to my schoolgirl's understanding of German to be a schedule of contact times and a list of codes and identifiers. The signal lamp itself was a portable model of French manufacture. It was running off a pair of wires connected to a big lead-acid accumulator on the floor, but from its weight, it also had its own internal batteries.

I gathered the papers up into a small leather satchel which was on one of the chairs in the turret room. On a whim, I picked up the pair of binoculars which were lying on a table beside the code books and scanned the horizon through the large windows.

My blood ran cold as I suddenly realised what the last message must have been about. Looking north over North Berwick towards the Firth of Forth, I could see a large naval vessel, evidently a battleship or a battle-cruiser, making its way down to the North Sea from Rosyth with an escort of destroyers. My view was slightly obstructed by the trees where we had hidden earlier but the woman signalling must have had a clearer view earlier when the ships were still further up the Firth.

I swung the binoculars round to the east to see if I could identify the source of the signal out at sea. I found something almost immediately but it took me a few moments to interpret what I was seeing. Suddenly, I had it; I could make out the curved highlight of the top of a Zeppelin. The airship must be very low down and close to the water, presumably to reduce the risk of observation. Without binoculars, however, it was almost invisible against the grey cloud on the horizon.

The Zeppelin crew now presumably knew there was a solitary capital ship heading out to sea. But what, I wondered could a Zeppelin do against a dreadnought? Grandfather would surely know.

I paused just long enough to gather up the satchel and the lamp and rushed down the stairs after Grandfather and our prisoner.

I found Mother, Queenie and Grandfather all in the hallway on the ground floor. The woman from the tower room was there too. While Grandfather stood guard with his revolver, Mother and Queenie added the finishing touches to her captivity, roping her arms securely to her back and gagging her tightly.

The fifth person there was a complete surprise to me. In daylight, it was clear that the person who captured Queenie, whom I had taken to be a man in the dark, was actually a woman. She was tall and thickset and powerfully built. I took her to be in her forties or fifties. She had quite short steel grey hair and was wearing a rather masculine tweed jacket and trousers. Queenie and Mother had already taken steps to secure her. Her wrists were bound behind her back, her elbows were bound uncomfortably close together and coils of rope encircled her arms and body at waist and chest level. She stared malevolently back at me as I studied her.

I quickly told Grandfather what I had seen from the turret. He was alarmed and pointed out that the Zeppelin could contact elements of the German High Seas Fleet to intercept our ships. I explained that I could not hope to signal to our ships until they were too far out to sea for it to do any good and asked him what we could do to save the situation.

Under his voice, Grandfather cursed the naval contingent from Rosyth for not being there yet. He was suddenly decisive. "There will be naval airmen at East Fortune! They can signal the ships!"

Grandfather sent me outside to check if there was a car there. By the time I had confirmed that Inspector Dalhousie's car was parked outside, Grandfather was well through his briefing of Mother and Queenie. By now each had one of his revolvers and he was instructing them to transport the two captive women with us and Meg, still in the cupboard upstairs, to our house where Mrs Dunbar was still guarding the Dalhousie women. He told them to defend our position there until the naval contingent arrived in North Berwick.

Grandfather turned to me. "Bring those!" he ordered, indicating the signalling gear I had captured. "You are coming with me on the motor-bicycle." I trotted after Grandfather as he rushed to the back door and headed for the woods where the motorcycle was hidden.

The cold wind bit into my face and my eyes watered as Grandfather took the narrow lanes East Lothian at breakneck speed. There had been an airfield at East Fortune, a few miles to the south, for several years. It was seemingly in the process of being evaluated by the Royal Naval Air Service prior to being taken over as an operational base.

As we roared up the narrow track from the road to the airfield proper, an able seaman armed with a rifle challenged us then saluted Grandfather as soon as he recognised him. Apparently this was not his first visit.

We screeched to a halt outside the hut serving as a temporary office and two officers emerged, a sub-lieutenant who looked to be still in his late teens and a grizzled lieutenant commander who must surely be close to or even past retiring age. Grandfather dismounted and greeted the older man, going on to explain our mission as I flexed my frozen limbs. I saw a sad shake of the head and I walked over to hear the conversation. It turned out that they had no wireless equipment at all, relying on the telephone for contact with the Admiralty. They did not even have a signalling lamp; flares and flags were all they needed for the single aeroplane located there.

"But we have a lamp here!" I blurted out, brandishing the captured signalling equipment.

"Good girl!" exclaimed grandfather. "Could you use it for us?"

I stood open mouthed as I took in the implication; he wanted me to signal to the ships from an aeroplane. Grandfather interpreted my astonishment as hesitation. "You would be doing it for Britain, for the King. Will you do it, Flora?"

I nodded my head and then looked back at the three men all gazing imploringly at me. "What do I do?" I asked in a small voice.

"This way," the young sub-lieutenant called out, already sprinting for the aeroplane. I handed Grandfather the leather satchel and trotted along with the signal lamp cradled in my arms. I was strangely exhilarated as I approached the aeroplane; I had never seen one this close before. (I learned later that it was an Avro 504.) A kindly and smiling sailor in dirty overalls, who seemed to be a leading seaman but wore unfamiliar RNAS insignia, helped me climb up into the rear cockpit and handed the signal lamp up to me. He then went forward to the front of the plane.

The elderly lieutenant commander had caught up with us by then. He stood on a box beside the fuselage and showed me how to fasten the straps over my shoulders and round my waist. He handed me a leather flying helmet and goggles then plugged the speaking tube connected to the helmet into the right place and showed me where to I had to speak to communicate with the pilot. My heart was pounding as I wound my scarf round my face, fastened the helmet and pulled the goggles down over my eyes. I cradled the signal lamp on my lap.

I heard the pilot's voice through the speaking tube. "You really are very brave, you know. What's your name?"

"I'm Flora," I replied, feeling reassured by his calmness.

"My name's Ranulph but they call me Mick."

"Why?" I asked, my mind now completely off the terror I felt a few seconds earlier.

"Well, my last name is Stupp." I rolled this around in my head a few times before I understood the joke.

By this time, the leading seaman had spun the propeller, the engine had roared into life and the wheel chocks had been pulled clear. Suddenly we were moving. It had only been about three minutes since Grandfather and I had arrived on the airfield but time seemed to have stretched out in slow motion as we prepared to fly; now it seemed terribly compressed and everything was happening in a blur as the aeroplane raced over the grass, shaking every bone in my body. I felt the tail wheel lift off then suddenly everything was smooth as the main undercarriage left the ground.

As we rose above treetop height, I could see the warships far ahead of us in the Firth of Forth. "Is that them?" the pilot's voice yelled in my ear through the speaking tube.

"Yes!" I replied. "That must be Lion or Queen Mary," I confirmed, identifying the battle-cruiser in the group. I saw that the escort consisted of two destroyers and one of the new light cruisers. The older heavy cruisers would not be able to keep up with the battle-cruiser.

I sat mentally composing my message as the plane steadily gained on the ships. Suddenly we were over water and losing height fast to fly level with the battle-cruiser's bridge. The aeroplane seemed like a toy in comparison with the immense grey bulk of the ship and was tossed around by the turbulent air blowing round the ship's superstructure and funnels. I read the name Lion from the stern as we caught up and glanced up to see Beatty's Vice Admiral's flag flying from the mainmast. The mission assumed a personal importance; this was also the ship on which my father served.

We were about two hundred yards from the battle-cruiser and the pilot reduced speed as much as he could. "Now Flora!" he urged.

I aimed the signal lamp and concentrated on sending precise Morse code. "LION LION LION DE RNAS RNAS RNAS K" I received a single letter K for "Go ahead" in reply. "HUN ZEPP AHEAD EXPECT ATTACK FROM HUN SHIPS REPEAT HUN ZEPP AHEAD K" I continued. The officers on the bridge must have understood the implications immediately. The signaller sent a series of Rs (Rogers) to acknowledge my signal. Even over the Avro's engine, I could hear the ship's siren whooping. All four ships executed a tight turn to starboard, the destroyers bouncing crazily in the battle-cruiser's wake as they crossed it. This was certainly wise; speed was the only advantage the group of ships had but neither the armour nor the firepower to risk meeting German battleships in open water.

I expected the aeroplane to turn back towards East Fortune, but instead I heard Mick's voice again, "Let's see if we can find that Zeppelin." A few minutes later, we spotted the Zeppelin low down, only a hundred feet or so from the water, to be harder to see from the shore. I saw mist below the Zeppelin and its nose begin to rise as it discharged water ballast. "We're faster, but it can climb much higher than we can," Mick explained.

My heart pounded as I wondered what he planned to do. We too were climbing steadily to match the Zeppelin's altitude when we finally intercepted it. What was the pilot planning to do in a completely unarmed plane, I wondered?

We approached the Zeppelin from behind so it passed below our starboard wing. "Hold the stick steady!" the pilot yelled and I instinctively grabbed it and held it as still as I could. Using both hands, the pilot took careful aim with a flare pistol which must have been in the front cockpit and fired. I saw the flare arc lazily down to the silvery top of the Zeppelin. It skittered along the taut fabric then disappeared over the far side of the airship's envelope.

"Let go!" yelled the voice in my ear as the Stupp wrenched the stick over to the left to swing us round in a tight circle so we approached the Zeppelin from behind again. "Hold steady!" he called again. The second shot was true. The flare slithered along the fabric and then stuck as the dope melted. I saw the silver fabric blacken and then a hole appear as the flare burned and then dropped inside.

"Let go of the stick and hang on tight!" I was commanded. My stomach lurched as Mick threw the plane into a spin. I saw the Zeppelin swing round and round above us as our plane spiralled down. For a few seconds I saw bright sparks in the air and realised in horror that they were tracer bullets zipping past us. Fortunately none struck the Avro. We straightened out a hundred feet or so clear of the water. The Zeppelin was clearly already in trouble with an extensive blackened area on the envelope.

As I looked up, the black dots of three figures dropped clear of the doomed airship then after a long pause a fourth figure emerged. White parachutes blossomed open. Above them, the Zeppelin suddenly erupted into a huge sheet of flame and debris rained down. One of the destroyers had heaved to some way further up the Firth of Forth and now started to make its way back to look for survivors.

I sat soberly considering what I had just seen as the Avro headed westwards towards North Berwick. I could see that a naval launch had just arrived in the harbour and was being made secure. As we passed the harbour, Mick spoke to me, "It's low tide so I can put you down on the beach if you don't want to go all the way back to East Fortune." I desperately wanted to get back to the stronghold of my house to be sure that my mother was safe so I agreed. Mick executed a circle to starboard and I realised just how small the beach looked. Nevertheless, he made a neat landing on the hard sand. I undid my seat straps and pulled off the helmet before scrambling out of the cockpit and dropping to the beach. The plane took off again as soon as I was clear.

I kept a wary eye open as I walked the few hundred yards to my street. Nothing seemed to be amiss. I paused at the last corner. I was expecting to find Inspector Dalhousie's car outside the house and was surprised not to see it. I approached the house cautiously and debated what to do. I decided that I really had to take the risk of going in but I would reconnoitre first.

I crept up the side path and crept through the shrubs in the back garden until I was close to the kitchen window. I crawled the last few yards on hands and knees then very carefully peered over the windowsill. All was not well; I could see Mrs Dunbar tied to the kitchen chair again and gagged. After a moment's alarmed thought, I concluded that my safest entrance into the house was through that window. I opened my clasp knife and eased it between the sashes, flipping back the catch like a professional burglar. I lifted the lower sash, then climbed through into the big kitchen sink before dropping silently to the floor.

Mrs Dunbar was looking at me wide-eyed over her gag. I held my finger to my lips, quite unnecessarily in view of the amount of cloth crammed into her mouth.

I surveyed Mrs Dunbar's predicament before starting work. The binding was more than adequate to secure her but had been done with less skill than the situation she had been left in before. Her wrists were crossed and bound behind the back of the chair and roped to the woodwork, her ankles and knees were lashed together and her ankle binding had been tied back to the front crossbar of the chair. An immense length of rope was wound her body, her arms and the chair back. Another length went over her lap and under the chair seat.

I started by removing her gag, a towel tied over the lower part of her face and, as I discovered, holding in place a rag which had been stuffed into her mouth. I untied and uncoiled the rope securing Mrs Dunbar to the chair then cut through the rest of the rope with my knife.

I carried out a whispered debriefing of Mrs Dunbar. It seems that Inspector Dalhousie had appeared suddenly at the back door and overpowered her before she could call for help. She rather feared that the tables had been turned on the erstwhile guards of our prisoners.

Mrs Dunbar armed herself with her favourite weapon, her heaviest rolling pin, and we cautiously searched the downstairs rooms. They were empty, so we ascended the stairs as quietly as we could manage in our stocking soles.

I heard a faint moan from the sitting room upstairs and made my way there, peering round the door before committing my self to go in. I fully expected to find Mother and Queenie tied up and our prisoners all gone. Mother and Queenie were indeed tied up but only Mrs Dalhousie and her daughter were gone.

Meg and the two women (whom I suspected were German spies) whom we captured at Kilmurdie House were all still there. Their restraints were neat and thorough and, I suspected, the work of Queenie's hands. Each had wrists and forearms tied together and to the frame of the chair so their forearms were parallel with the floor. Their bodies were tied back at waist level, above and below the bust and at the shoulders. Their skirts were pulled up slightly so their ankles could be tied to the front legs of their chairs and their knees to the front corners of the chair seats. They were all gagged and blindfolded with linen towels so that just the tips of their noses showed. I assumed that the gags concealed some packing in their mouths. Their bonds all seemed to be secure and undisturbed; Inspector Dalhousie had rescued his own family but left the others to their fate.

Mother and Queenie were less expertly tied. They had been tied like Mrs Dunbar with wrists, ankles and knees tied and many coils of rope used to secure them to their chairs. Both were gagged with towels jammed between their teeth and blindfolded. Queenie had been working on her wrist binding and was well on the way to freeing herself. I removed their gags and blindfolds and was starting to free them when there was a loud hammering at the front door; the Naval Provost had arrived at last.

Mother, Queenie, Mrs Dunbar and I all hugged each other in relief that the terror of the day and the previous night were over and some semblance of normality had been resumed.

Grandfather returned home shortly after the Naval Provost arrived. The three prisoners were handed over into custody.

Meg was released without charge after questioning as no-one could be bothered to formulate charges against a very minor cog in the espionage machine. The spies were taken to London and tried in camera at the Old Bailey. After the statutory three clear Sundays, they had a brief but fatal appointment with Mr Thomas Pierrepoint, the official hangman.

Nothing was ever heard of the Dalhousie family again.

Queenie found herself elevated in status from hired help to esteemed honorary family member.

Copyright © 2000 Gillian B

Part 2 Epilogue

Flora MacKenzie's Casebook

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