Flora Mackenzie and the Locked Room Mystery by Gillian B

Tuesday 19 February 2002: A Private Hotel in Brighton

8.00 am Interrupted Breakfast

I always enjoy breakfast time. By nature I am a sociable creature, except at breakfast. For me, the first meal of the day is best taken alone. In the small residential hotel in Brighton where I live, this is well understood by my fellow residents. The table in the dining room where I habitually sit for breakfast has two chairs and it is widely known that I really only welcome occupants in the second chair after I have reached my second cup of coffee. Before that, I prefer to contemplate the coming day alone.

As it was, one morning early in 2002, I had barely finished my first cup when I became aware of the hotel manager, Miss Zibby Smith, making her way towards me. She was bidding cordial good mornings to the other residents but there was clear purpose in her stride and it was focussed on me.

I have known Zibby (short for Hephzibah) for several years, ever since she was a poverty-stricken student eking out her finances by working in the hotel office. Since then she gained first her degree and then the position of manager in the hotel. Her organisational skills proved to be so good that she now acts as a supervisory manager over two other Brighton hotels as well, with a team of assistant managers to do the day-to-day work. And she is still only in her early 20s: very impressive.

"Good morning, Miss Mac, may I join you?" she asked breezily, putting down the cup of coffee she had been carrying. I nodded and indicated the second chair.

Aside from her role as manager of my residential accommodation, I regard Zibby as a personal friend and she often treats me as a confidante. Despite my being over four times her age, we seem to be kindred spirits and get on extremely well. Accordingly, I know her very well and wasn't fooled for a minute by her studied casualness.

I came straight to the point. "Let's cut the niceties, Zibby; you're worried about something. Tell me what's on your mind and we'll talk about it."

Zibby's relief was palpable. I could see the tension go out of her shoulders as she prepared to unburden herself. She planted her elbows on the table and eyed me over her coffee cup, which she clutched in both hands.

She explained that there had been a robbery the previous night in one of the other hotels she managed. She had been duty manager and had discovered the aftermath of the incident.

After a hesitant start, Zibby was lucid and an excellent witness to the events of the previous night.

"I was doing my late-night prowl just before midnight. I always like to give all the public areas a visual once-over once each day. It helps maintain standards and it's also an opportunity to spot any odd bits of maintenance that might need doing. I like to do it late at night because otherwise the guests always think I've lost something and offer to help me search and the staff think I'm spying on them.

"Anyway, when I got to the third floor corridor, I could hear noises coming from one of the rooms. It was clearly a woman's voice but indistinct. I am always circumspect about things like that. After all, honeymooners pay good money to be allowed to go a little wild in our hotel rooms. My instinct here was that there was something wrong. The noises just didn't sound right. I knocked politely on the door and asked if there was anything wrong. I could hear a muffled voice but no words, but it sounded like someone was in distress.

"The door had been double-locked from the outside, so I unlocked it with my pass-key. However, I still couldn't open it because it was also locked from the inside. I decided that we were justified in breaking down the door, so I summoned the night porter. He's a big lad and would have a better chance than me. Also it's best not to do these things alone in case you need a witness. Graham, our night porter, was with me in less than two minutes and he put his shoulder to the door for me."

Zibby took a sip of her coffee, surely cold by now, and gazed somewhere over my head as she brought the previous night's events more clearly to mind.

"The room was a complete mess. Every drawer was open and overturned. The wardrobe doors were open and the sheets and blankets had been pulled off the bed. Right in the middle of all this was Miss Forbes, the guest who had booked that room, and she was tied to a chair. I couldn't see her face at first, because there was a pillowcase over her head. When I got into the room, I discovered that Annie, one of the domestic staff, was there as well and she was tied up, gagged and blindfolded too, lying on the floor."

I stopped Zibby to clarify a point. "But the door was locked from the inside?" I asked.

"That's right and there isn't any other way out of that room, except through the door!"

"Windows?" I queried.

"No, they don't open far enough to climb out. They have to be like that for safety."

"No connecting doors?"

"No, the bedrooms are separated from their neighbours by their en-suite bathrooms, which is why none of the other guests had heard anything. And there is no way up or down from there either: just a solid floor with more bedrooms below and the roof above."

Satisfied with the extra detail, I asked Zibby to continue.

"Well, our first priority was freeing the women. I untied Miss Forbes while Graham untied Annie. They were both quite distressed and had apparently been tied up for some time before I heard them.

"As soon as Miss Forbes knew that she had been rescued safely, she started shouting about robbery and demanded that we call the police. It was obviously a police case so I dialled 999 immediately. While we were waiting for the police to arrive, she started searching the wreckage of the room and declared that her jewellery was missing."

"And was it missing?" I asked.

"Well, there wasn't any jewellery in the room and none of the staff had seen any, but she said that several valuable pieces had been in her room and were now gone," Zibby replied cautiously.

Zibby took another sip of her coffee and wrinkled up her nose. I purloined a clean cup from a neighbouring table and poured her a fresh cup from my pot. She thanked me and continued her story.

"The police arrived quite quickly and took brief statements from Miss Forbes, Annie, Graham and me.

"Miss Forbes' story was very simple. She said that she had returned to her room about 9pm, or maybe a little earlier, and had found the lights on and more-or-less the chaos we found when we rescued her. She remembered seeing her jewellery cases on the bed, but had little time to notice much more as she was grabbed from behind, gagged, hooded with a pillowcase and then tied to a chair. She thought that at least two pairs of hands had been involved in the tying.

"Annie's story was equally simple. She went to check the room, put out fresh towels and turn down the bed at about 8pm. The room was in perfect order and she had almost finished when she was grabbed and tied up. She didn't see her assailant but said that whoever did it was much stronger than her. She is a slender thing, so almost anyone would be heavier and stronger than her. She heard various noises, which she supposes must have been the room being ransacked, and later an angry fracas, which she supposed was probably Miss Forbes being set upon and tied up. The room door was banged shut after that and there were no more sounds of searching. She could however hear a muffled voice and struggling for a while after that. From time to time, there was muffled shouting, which she took to be someone else gagged as she was. She tried to get their attention but didn't seem to succeed, possibly because she was gagged rather effectively.

"Miss Forbes concluded that Annie must have turned the room over in order to steal her jewels then when she was surprised by her return, she jumped her and tied her up. She supposed that the maid had locked the room and then tied herself up in order to divert suspicion."

"But the jewels weren't in the room," I objected.

"No, but she suggested that Annie might have sneaked out of the room to hide them before locking herself back in, or she might have tossed them out of the window to a confederate."

"Possible," I commented.

"No it isn't," Zibby insisted. "You're forgetting the door: it was locked from both sides. It was double-locked on the outside and locked from the inside too."

"So what does Annie say?" I asked while I digested that point.

"She just repeated her story and didn't offer any theories."

"And you believe her?" I queried.

"She has been with us a long time and has always been entirely trustworthy. Besides, I don't think that she has it in her to do anything like this."

"And Miss Forbes?"

Zibby shrugged. "She's an entirely unknown quantity."

"What do the police think?"

"They arrested Annie!"

8.15 am Photographic Evidence

Zibby was still seething with frustration at the police as I walked back to her office with her. As she opened the door, I spotted lying on her desk, the small digital camera that she often carried with her. Zibby loves gadgets and when a secret agent style camera came along that was designed to be worn round the neck like a pendant, she could not resist it.

"I don't suppose you had your fancy camera with you last night?" I asked.

"Yes, and I took some pictures too, but I don't see how they would help. After all, the police were there in person and they still got it wrong!"

"Calm down," I replied, doing my utmost to radiate tranquillity. "Let's look at the pictures. More information can't be a bad thing. At worst it just won't get us any further."

"OK," Zibby replied, "I haven't looked at them myself yet."

She busied herself starting her computer and plugging the camera into it. A few minutes later, there was a folder of thumbnail images on the screen. Astonishingly, she had found time to take about twenty pictures while managing a crisis.

Zibby enlarged the first image. It was one of her typical 'management' shots. It just showed the room door before Graham had broken the lock and merely served to record its former condition. It was carefully levelled and framed, probably taken while she was waiting for Graham to arrive.

The next photograph and those following were a tribute to Zibby's instinct to record everything despite the stress of the situation. The pictures were all obviously taken in a hurry with haphazard framing and levelling and a few were badly blurred, but many contained valuable information.

The first shot taken inside the room showed Miss Forbes bound to a chair. She was facing the camera, with her hands out of sight behind the back of the chair. Rope was visible around the woman's neck, across her chest and around her upper arms and waist. Her ankles were tied separately to the chair legs, but, as she was wearing a mid-calf-length skirt, her knees had been rather uncomfortably tied together. More rope went across her lap and under the chair seat. The woman's head was entirely obscured by a white pillowcase which had been dropped over it.

"Do you keep rope like that in the hotel?" I asked.

"I don't think so," Zibby replied. "I can't imagine what we would need it for, so whoever did this probably came equipped."

The next shot was a hastily taken view of Annie lying tied up on the floor. She was on her side with her hands behind her back and facing the camera. Rope was visible round her knees and her waist, but her wrists and ankles were hidden behind her body in this view. She was gagged with a thick yellow cloth between her teeth and blindfolded with another, presumably cotton dusters.

A sequence of shots followed, which Zibby explained, had been taken while she was freeing Miss Forbes. The first was a head and shoulders view after the pillowcase had been removed. Like Annie, she was gagged with a thick yellow cloth which was wedged between her teeth and forced her mouth quite widely open. She was glaring at the camera. I wondered if that just signified her distress at being tied up or whether she was annoyed at Zibby for wasting time before releasing her or whether she objected to having her picture taken in that state.

An almost identical view showed Miss Forbes with the gag removed. Incipient bruising at the sides of her mouth testified to its tightness. She was still glaring fiercely at the camera.

The next two frames showed Annie just as Graham started to untie her.

"Let's come back to those later," I suggested.

Zibby nodded and carried on to the next picture of Miss Forbes. It was a view from behind, looking down on her bound hands. The wrists seemed to be tied with a single strand of rope cinched between them. That binding did not seem to be tied to anything else, although it was in contact with the back of the chair.

"Could you print that one please, Zibby?" I asked. "And also the first one showing her tied up."

"Will do," Zibby replied, and a few mouse clicks later, the inkjet printer on its trolley in the corner whirred softly as it sucked in a sheet of paper.

"Have you any more that show how she was tied up?" I asked.

"Not many," replied Zibby as she clicked through the images looking for helpful ones. I selected two more for printing. One was taken just after Zibby had freed Miss Forbes's hands. It was a side view and showed clearly the ropes across the front of her chest and round her arms. The other showed a little more detail of the ropes tying her ankles to the chair legs and around her knees.

"OK, that's helpful," I commented. "Let's look at Annie next."

Zibby ventured a cautious smile. "You're onto something, aren't you, Miss Mac?"

I waggled my hand equivocally so as not to raise false hopes. "Maybe, then again, maybe not."

I looked at the first picture of Annie again. It didn't show much but as there the coil of rope round her waist was clearly visible, I asked for a print.

The two pictures we had skipped past were very helpful. Between them, they showed exactly how Annie had been tied up. Her wrists were crossed behind her back and bound vertically and horizontally. A separate length of rope had been tied round her forearms and cinched just above her wrist binding and it was this rope that was also wound round her waist.

Annie's legs had been bound just below the knees with a coil of rope around them and a substantial cinch between. Her ankles were tied in the same way. I asked Zibby to print those two pictures as well.

We skipped past the pictures of Miss Forbes until we found one of Annie again. It had been taken hurriedly and was badly blurred by camera movement; it was just about possible to tell that her gag and blindfold had been removed, but was useless for detail.

The next picture was more telling. It showed Annie's wrists after Graham had hacked through the rope. Deep red weals on the skin bore grim witness to the severity of the binding.

"It's hard to believe she did that to herself," I commented after we had both gazed silently at the photograph for some seconds.

Zibby brought up the next picture. It showed Annie after Graham had freed her. She was sitting on the floor and must have been looking at Zibby when the photo was taken. There were dark bruises either side of her mouth and her face was streaked with tears.

The rest of the photographs concentrated on the state of devastation that the room had been left in. We concluded that it would be more useful if we went and inspected the room in person.

8.45 am At the Scene of the Crime

Five minutes of Zibby's extrovert driving brought us to the hotel where the events of the previous night had taken place. As we walked up the steps from the street, the hotel receptionist rushed out to meet us.

"E-mail from Miss Forbes's insurance company, Zibby," she announced without ceremony, waving a sheaf of paper. "They sent pictures of the jewellery that was stolen and the values."

Zibby looked at the photographs as we walked into the hotel then handed them to me without comment. They weren't ostentatious pieces but clearly all good quality and worth a tidy sum of money together. The stated value of £1,925 in total seemed reasonable.

"Without wishing to be rude," I began tentatively, "wouldn't someone with stuff like this be more likely to stay in a classier hotel?"

"Not necessarily," Zibby replied. "We get everyone in here from factory workers to the landed gentry. We offer comfort without swank and aim to give good value for money..."

I raised my hands in surrender at the sales pitch I had inadvertently triggered.

After examining the photographs of the missing jewellery once again, Zibby led the way to the stairs, explaining that the room was on the third floor.

"In that case," I announced firmly, "I'm taking the lift. I'm 96 and I don't do stairs if there's an alternative!"

The room where the incident had happened was much as I expected it to be from Zibby's photographs. The scene-of-crime officers had finished, leaving silvery patches of aluminium fingerprint powder as the only sign of their work. Drawers and cupboards were still all open and heaps of belongings strewn on the bed and the floor. I recognised the chair in which Miss Forbes had been imprisoned. There was still a tangle of ropes on the carpet beside it. Another heap of rope and two yellow dusters marked the place where Graham had freed Annie.

I looked around the room in silence for a few moments, then walked back to examine the door. Graham had forced the door open, so it was still 'locked' with the bolt of the lock sticking out. The cast metal socket that receives the bolt was lying on the floor together with some screws and a splintered fragment of the doorframe.

"You said the door was locked from both sides," I reminded Zibby. "Could you show me how it works?"

Zibby drew her key ring with its staff passkeys from her pocket as she joined me. "It's really just a version of a Yale type lock," she explained."

"A cylinder rim-latch?" I queried.

"Quite conceivably," Zibby conceded with a grin. "I'm no locksmith, I just know how to turn the key in them!"

Zibby continued her demonstration. Like all Yale locks, it would self-lock if you just pulled the door shut. It also had a 'snib' on the inside, a small knob which would render the key ineffective from the outside. Unusually, you could also turn the key an extra turn which would deadlock the bolt, so that, for example, it could not be forced by the traditional attack using a credit card pushed past the edge of the door. The snib and the deadlock had similar effects, but could be applied independently. Zibby was emphatic that this deadlocking was only ever applied to empty rooms for security purposes.

I asked how she could tell that the door had in fact been locked from both sides in this way.

"Well," Zibby explained, "I was able to turn the key the extra revolution to undo the deadlock, but after that, I couldn't turn it any further to pull the bolt back, so I knew it had also been snibbed."

"So," I summarised, "the door was locked independently from both sides. That implies that it was done by two people, presumably one of the people inside the room and a confederate outside."

Zibby frowned. "Do you really think Miss Forbes might have robbed herself?"

"Stranger things have been known," I replied. "She would appear to be one of only two people who had the opportunity to commit the crime, so we must consider her a suspect."

"There's something wrong here," Zibby declared after a long pause for thought. "The trouble is that I can't put my finger on what it is."

"I agree," I replied. "Let's go through all the possibilities."

"Surely there are only three basic scenarios?" Zibby queried after a moment's thought. "The culprit is Annie or Miss Forbes or someone else."

"True," I agreed, "except that we keep coming back to this door that was locked from both sides, which makes it all much more complicated. From what you've said, we still need someone to double-lock the door from the outside, no matter who did what inside."

"But that still gives us three possibilities," Zibby pointed out. "It was Annie and an accomplice or Miss Forbes and an accomplice or just someone else."

"It can't have been 'just someone else'," I objected. "We've already established that lock was snibbed on the inside and there was no way into or out of the room, so it must have been snibbed either by Annie or Miss Forbes."

"So we're back to Annie or Miss Forbes in collaboration with person or persons unknown. But which of them?"

"Let's see what we can work out," I replied. "The lock had to be snibbed, so whoever did that had either to tie themselves up afterwards or already to have been tied up by this unknown accomplice."

Zibby picked up the photograph of Annie's wrists. We concluded almost immediately that no one could tie themselves up as thoroughly and painfully as that without help. That ruled out the possibility that she had snibbed the door and then tied herself up afterwards.

"Now," I announced, "we have to try to decide whether, if someone else tied Annie up, she could still manage to snib the lock." If she couldn't, then she couldn't have committed the robbery."

Zibby pushed the door shut and then pantomimed trying to snib the lock with her hands bound behind her. "It's no good," she declared. "I can't tell how much freedom of movement Annie would have had."

There was a long silent pause while we each waited for the other to make the obvious comment. I spoke first. "Well, I could always tie you up so you can find out properly," I offered tentatively.

"I was about to suggest that myself," Zibby admitted with a sheepish grin, "but I thought it sounded a bit melodramatic."

I picked up a piece of rope. "There aren't enough long pieces left to do it, but Dockerills in Church Street should have this stuff. It's number 8 sash cord. You have to make sure you get cotton, not nylon or nylon cored and it mustn't be waxed."

"I'll go myself," Zibby announced. "I don't think I have the guts to send anyone else and tell them what it's for!"

9.15 am Experiments with Rope

While Zibby was away, I examined the door lock and the damage to the doorframe. I sat down to consider my findings, using the chair that Miss Forbes had been tied in. I sat in the position That Miss Forbes had been bound, considering what freedom of movement her bonds would have permitted.

Zibby bounced into the room quite suddenly while I was still deep in thought. She looked at me quizzically, still sitting in the position that Miss Forbes had been tied in. "Method acting? Role play, perhaps?" she asked.

"Sort of," I replied. "It helps me imagine the situation."

"Well, I got the rope," Zibby continued breezily. "I wasn't sure how much we would need so I got two 10 metre bundles. Oh, and I brought you some big scissors."

"That's more than enough," I assured her. "Are you sure you want to go through with this."

Zibby was suddenly very serious. "Of course I am, if there is any chance of helping Annie."

"Well, I think we will be able prove a few things before the morning is out," I returned as I ripped the plastic shrink wrap off one bundle of rope and began unwinding it to get the kinks out.

Zibby removed her wristwatch and a bracelet she had been wearing and kicked off her shoes. As an afterthought, she removed her earrings as well and faced me, looking slightly nervous. "OK, I'm ready."

I stood up and then laid out on the bed the pictures of Annie that Zibby had printed earlier. "OK, Zibby, we'll start with your wrists. I'll tie them firmly but not as viciously tight as Annie was tied. Turn round and cross your wrists behind your back please."

Zibby turned and stood rigidly to attention with her arms stiffly behind her.

"Other way please: left wrist behind right, and you are allowed to relax, you know!"

Zibby switched her hands around and her shoulders sagged visibly as she made herself relax.

I counted coils of rope visible in one of the pictures, roughly calculated that I needed about six feet and measured it by eye using the length of my arms as a guide.

I wound four turns of rope horizontally around the middle of the X formed by Zibby's wrists. She unconsciously straightened her arms slightly to reduce the pressure of the rope. I switched to vertical turns next, interestingly without twisting the two free ends together first as I would have usually done. The vertical turns had the effect of spreading the angle between her arms slightly, so increasing the tension on the horizontal turns as well as locking them in position. I finished off the binding with a reef knot sitting on top of the vertical coils of rope and far beyond the reach of even the most prehensile fingers.

"How does that feel?" I asked Zibby.

"Very secure," she replied after a pause for thought, "but not painful and not as tight as I feared."

"Good," I confirmed. "That's how it should be."

The waist rope came next. I cut a piece of rope to the fifteen feet that I estimated I would need. The pictures were not completely unambiguous as regards where the rope went I told Zibby that she might have to be patient while I experimented.

I centred the rope just above Zibby's bound wrists, level with her waist. I wound it round her arms and body, not pulling it too tightly. It went round four full turns, leaving two free ends, each about two feet long, where the rope crossed for the final time behind her arms. I used the free ends to form a cinch between Zibby's arms and body, drawing the relatively loose coils into tight bands of rope around waist and arms. I knotted the ends securely and completely inaccessibly above the cinch.

Zibby's eyes widened as she tested her bonds. "That's amazing! I can hardly move my body at all now and all you did was to tie rope round my middle."

"The rope round your arms is preventing your elbows from bending much," I explained, grinning back at her, "and it holds your hands tight against your bottom, so the long bones in your arms brace your spine and stop it flexing very far."

"So somebody knew what they were doing?"

"Looks like it," I confirmed.

Zibby walked across to the wardrobe, which had a full-length mirror attached to it. She squinted over her shoulder, trying to get a good view of the ropes restraining her. "Better take some pictures, so we have a record of all this" she suggested.

I picked her camera up from the table where she had left it and studied the controls. "It's really easy, Miss Mac," Zibby explained. "Just point and click." I duly pointed and clicked from various angles.

"Now we have to work out how to tie your legs," I announced, studying the photographs of Annie. "I can't tell from the pictures whether her knees were tied before or after her ankles. It probably doesn't matter which."

Zibby came over to look too. "Miss Mac, where Annie's ankles and knees are tied, what do you call that bit of rope that goes round the rest?"

"This bit?" I asked, pointing at the photograph. Zibby nodded. "It's either called a 'cinch' or a 'seize' depending on who taught you to tie knots. It's not actually a separate piece of rope, just the ends of the main part wrapped round. It pulls everything tight and makes the rope fit more snugly round the limbs."

"That looks like it makes sort of rope handcuffs," Zibby observed. "I could imagine still being able to walk if my legs were tied like that, if I took tiny little steps."

"That's true," I agreed. "It's far more restrictive if your ankles are lashed directly together, but, on the other hand, it's almost impossible to kick off a cinched binding."

Zibby looked thoughtful for a moment. "I think that if I was tying someone up," she observed, "I would want to get their feet under control by tying their ankles before I saw to their knees."

"Let's just do it that way," I agreed. Zibby supported herself by holding onto the back of the chair with her bound hands and placed her feet close together. I estimated the length I would need and cut if off the supply that Zibby had bought. I kept about a foot and a half to form the cinch and wound four complete turns around Zibby's ankles. I wrapped the reserved length round those coils to cinch them.

"I see how it works now," Zibby commented, looking down on the proceedings. "And it is just like handcuffs made of rope."

I formed the knee binding in the same way, winding the rope round Zibby's legs then cinching it with the remainder and knotting the ends at the front of the cinch.

"Look, I can walk," Zibby declared, sounding very pleased with herself. She proceeded across the room, taking tiny steps and swaying precariously. "The ropes rub on my ankles, though," she added.

"Don't fall," I cautioned unnecessarily. "The important question is whether you could reach the lock to snib it."

"I'll see," Zibby replied and made her way slowly to the door. She raised her bound hands as far as she could behind her back. "I can just get a finger on it," she reported. I took a photograph of her doing it just for the record. "And if I can do this, Annie probably could too: she's about my height. I was hoping we could prove conclusively it wasn't her. It's a pity she wasn't tied up so she couldn't walk."

"Could you do it blindfolded?" I asked.

"Just being Devil's Advocate for a moment," Zibby replied, "Someone could say that Annie might have had the blindfold above her eyes and then worked it down somehow after snibbing the door."

I selected one of the photographs. "Look at this. Annie's blindfold went on before her gag and the knot on the gag is above the one on the blindfold, so it would keep it tight."

"I suppose you want me to try that?" Zibby asked with a wry grin. "I brought some dusters just in case."

I took one of the dusters, a traditional British cotton duster made from thick fuzzy yellow fabric. I folded it diagonally to form a triangle, then folded that into a strip, which I placed across Zibby's eyes, knotting it securely at the back of her head.

"I can still see a bit of light through it but that's about all," Zibby reported.

I folded a second duster in the same way and wedged the middle of it between Zibby's teeth. She grunted as I tightened the knot behind her head and above the blindfold knot.

"Try again," I requested.

Obediently, Zibby shuffled around, trying to locate the door again. She paused every now and again feeling out blindly behind her and hoping to find something familiar. She was actually quite close to the door although she didn't realise it. I took another photo to illustrate the point. Abruptly, Zibby lost her balance and fell over heavily. She lay for moment, obviously winded and then mumbled at me through her gag. It didn't take much effort on my part to interpret it as, "Get me out of this!"

I knelt down beside Zibby and removed the gag and blindfold. "No way could I snib the door all done up like this," she exclaimed as soon as she could speak. "We know Annie couldn't have tied herself up," she continued, "and this has to prove she couldn't have snibbed the door if someone else tied her up. The lock had to be snibbed by someone inside the room and that only leaves Miss Forbes, but she was tied to a chair and couldn't possibly reach the lock. Besides, it was her jewellery that was stolen."

I busied myself with untying Zibby and considered our next move.

9.45 am Expoeriments with Locks

A few minutes later, Zibby and I sat side by side on the edge of the bed. Zibby rubbed her wrists thoughtfully. "I got tied up a few times playing cops and robbers or cowboys and Indians when I was a kid," she commented, "but I never imagined what it would feel like to be tied up for real by an expert."

"It's quite an experience, isn't it?" I replied with a grin.

"And you made a profession out of letting people do that to you every day?"

"No," I corrected, "I made a profession out of getting free after other people had done that to me."

Zibby grinned back.

"And," I added, "I did it by fair means or foul."

"Do you think someone is playing tricks on us then?" Zibby asked.

I nodded. "Let's have a look at that lock and see if we can work out any tricks there."

The lock was held to the door by only three screwsThe lock was one of the standard types seen on any number of front doors up and down the country. The only remotely unusual feature was the deadlocking mechanism. Like most of the lower range of Yale and similar locks, the body of the lock was held to the back of the door by only three screws, with no screws into the edge of the door. I retrieved my Swiss Army knife from my handbag and selected a suitable screwdriver blade then removed the lock from the door.

I left the cylinder, the part with the keyhole, still attached and showed Zibby that the act of turning the key merely turns a flat metal strip protruding from the back of the cylinder and that in turn engages in a slot in the body of the lock. I showed Zibby how I could manipulate the lock mechanism in isolation by putting a screwdriver blade into that slot.

"Let's see if I can engage the deadlock that way," I suggested. I refitted the lock then sent Zibby out into the corridor with her key and closed the door. She was able to open it again as usual. I then removed the lock, turned the slot using the screwdriver blade on my knife and refitted it again. I called to Zibby to try opening the door again.

I heard Zibby's key enter the lock and then an exclamation of surprise. "It works!" she called. "You've deadlocked it from the inside!" Zibby let herself into the room again, her eyes bright with excitement.

"That's brilliant, Miss Mac," she enthused. "Now we don't need a mysterious accomplice. We know that the door could have been locked from inside the room and we know that the only people there were Annie and Miss Forbes."

"We have already eliminated Annie as a possibility," I pointed out, "so our prime suspect has to be Miss Forbes herself."

Zibby was silent for a long moment. "We only have Miss Forbes's own word for it that the jewellery was ever here," she stated thoughtfully.

"What do you usually do in cases like this?" I asked.

"The value of the jewellery is about £2,000, so we would simply pay the guest, without admitting any liability, of course. That way, we would avoid having our own insurance company demanding expensive security upgrades or imposing huge premium increases."

"And then our Miss Forbes will presumably just disappear untraceably," I added.

Zibby nodded. "We haven't any way of proving any of this," she wailed. "It's all theory and it's only our word against hers!"

I disagreed. "I think we can prove enough for the police to take a very close look at Miss Forbes and check out her story."

10.00 am Reconstructing the Crime

"Miss Forbes was tied to a chair," Zibby pointed out. "We still need to prove that she locked the door. She couldn't possibly reach once she was tied up, so she must have tied herself up afterwards, but how?"

"There's a stage escape act you might have seen," I began, not answering her question directly. "The magician (usually male) ties his assistant's hands behind her back (it always seems to be a female assistant) and then uses more rope to bind her arms to her body. The magician calls for a volunteer from the audience and asks specifically for a man wearing a jacket. The man is asked to stand close to the woman. A screen is lifted up in front of them and then dropped a few seconds later. The man is now jacketless. The assistant is wearing his jacket but is still tied up as before."

Zibby nodded. "Yes, I've seen that one on TV. I think the magician and the assistant were Chinese. Obviously the assistant must be able to free and re-tie herself in seconds but I couldn't work out how it could be done so quickly."

"The volunteer has to be a stooge," I explained, "but the real key is in the way the tying is done." I paused significantly.

"You must have worked out a way for Miss Forbes to have locked the door and then tied herself up," Zibby exclaimed excitedly, "but what does it have to do with an escape trick?"

"Not just any escape trick," I replied, "but one in which the escaper is mysteriously retied."

"And I suppose I'm the guinea pig again?" Zibby retorted with a glint of amusement in her eye.

"If you would, please," I requested politely. "I want to see if the pattern of tying that my theory suggests actually corresponds to the pictures of Miss Forbes."

"OK, do your worst," Zibby replied with a grin, getting to her feet.

I started by tying Zibby's wrists behind her back. "How does that feel?" I asked.

"Not nearly as tight as the first time you tied me up, but still pretty secure," Zibby responded, twisting her hands experimentally. "And you don't seem to have used much rope this time."

"Your photo shows only one strand of rope round each of Miss Forbes's wrists," I explained, "so that's what I've done to you. The interesting bit comes next."

I measured off about twenty feet of rope and found the centre. I draped the rope over Zibby's neck so that the centre was at the back of her neck and the two ends hung loosely down in front of her. Next, I tied the two ends together loosely in front of Zibby's throat, so that a chunky knot sat just below her collar bone.

Next, I took one of the loose ends and took it to one side and wrapped it around Zibby's upper arm with three full turns spiralling down towards her elbow. I repeated the process with the other arm then knotted the ends together at the front of her waist. There was enough rope left to take it to the back of Zibby's waist, cross it and knot it again at the front.

"That's it!" exclaimed Zibby. "This is exactly how the ropes went on Miss Forbes."

I compared Zibby's predicament with the photograph Apart from the fact that Zibby was standing, whereas Miss Forbes had been sitting in the chair, the ropework seemed to be nearly identical. I took another photograph.

"But how does this help us?" Zibby asked plaintively. "I'm sure I can't get out of this."

"The trick lies in the way your wrists are tied," I explained in my best imitation of a schoolteacher. "The knot I used is called a tomfool knot. You will find that you can transfer the slack from one wrist to the other and should be able to get one hand free with a little effort."

A smile spread over Zibby's face. "So I can, she confirmed. It's a tight squeeze, but I think I can get loose."

A frown of intense concentration creased Zibby's brow then broke into a broad grin as she displayed her hands, the binding dangling uselessly from one wrist. "Ta-daa!" she crowed in self-congratulation. I added her triumphant pose to our collection of photos.

"If we knew all the right lengths in advance, it would be possible for you to tie yourself up using that arrangement. Get your arms free of the ropes next." Zibby shook the spiral of rope off each arm and I pointed out that the magician's assistant in the trick I described would do that and then be able to put the volunteer's jacket on without any more ropes being untied.

"Sit in the chair, Zibby, and we'll see if it works they way I think it does," I instructed. I tied Zibby's ankles to the chair legs, put three turns of rope across her lap and then bound her knees. "With a bit of practice, you could easily do that to yourself and make it really secure," I remarked. "Let's just assume that you did."

"That all makes sense," Zibby confirmed. "Do I try to get my arms back in the ropes now?"

"Yes please," I replied. "It might take several tries to get it right though."

It did indeed take Zibby three attempts before she found the knack of forming a coil of rope for each arm and then sliding it above her elbow. I took another photo showing that stage.

"Miss Mac!" Zibby exclaimed, suddenly inspired. "I think I understand about the pillow case. Let me have a duster and a pillow case to try something."

I handed her the duster I had previously used to blindfold her then shook one of the pillows on the bed out of its cover and handed that to her as well.

Zibby grimaced as she placed the duster between her teeth as a gag and knotted the ends behind her head. She carefully placed the pillowcase on her head so that the open edge was across her shoulders at the back and poised just above her forehead at the front. She nodded her head a few times and the pillowcase dropped neatly over her head, effectively blindfolding her. I had her repeat the manoeuvre and photographed it both 'before' and 'after'.

Zibby lifted the pillowcase again and pointed at her wrist. I handed her the wrist binding again and she threaded it over one hand, jerking it tight round the wrist. She put her hands behind the back of the chair and grunted softly with the effort of working her free hand back into the tomfool knot. After a great deal of wriggling, she looked up at me and nodded her head in confirmation that she had succeeded. The nodding dislodged the pillowcase again so that it dropped over her head, also proving the point.

Rather than let Zibby go through all the effort of freeing herself, I untied her myself. When she was free she leaped up and hugged me in elation. "We've got her!" she growled in grim satisfaction. "The devious bitch staged the robbery herself and then fitted Annie up for the rap, just because she was handy."

10.45 am An Inspector Calls

Events moved rapidly after that. Zibby telephoned the police immediately to inform them that we had additional information that might help their enquiries. A detective inspector from Brighton CID was with us within a few minutes. He introduced himself and the woman detective sergeant accompanying him. Zibby introduced first herself and then me.

The inspector's mouth dropped open. "The Flora MacKenzie? I used to watch your TV programme every week when I was a nipper," he declared. "I never expected to meet you in person, especially not on duty."

We showed the police officers the photographs that Zibby had taken at the scene of the crime and took them through the logic that supported our conclusions. The inspector requested a repeat performance of the experiments that Zibby and I had carried out. We were pleased to oblige and went through the same routines again but with a little more speed now that we knew exactly what to do.

The inspector was impressed and thought our conclusions were probably sound. He phoned back to police headquarters and set in motion a search for recent cases with similar characteristics. Zibby phoned one of her assistants and asked for a message to be e-mailed to all the hotel mailing lists to which they subscribed to see if there were any similar cases, which had perhaps not been reported to the police.

Zibby and I decided to return to her office to await developments.

4.00 pm Springing the Trap

About mid-day, Miss Forbes phoned Zibby to ask what she proposed to do about the stolen jewellery. Zibby expressed the hotel's sincere regrets and offered her a £2,000 cash settlement with no admission of liability. Miss Forbes accepted with alacrity and agreed to meet Zibby in her office at 4pm.

Promptly at 4pm, Miss Forbes presented herself at Zibby's office. By then, the police had found several similar reported robberies on their files, all with victims fitting Miss Forbes's general description but all with different names. In most cases, the victim had been discovered by hotel staff, bound and gagged in her room. Zibby's e-mail appeal had yielded two similar apparent robberies which were not reported to the police at the victim's request and a third in which the victim never returned to claim her agreed cash settlement. The insurance company which had provided the photographs and valuations of the stolen items proved not to exist after some investigation.

'Miss Forbes' was somewhat surprised to find not only Zibby waiting for her, but also the inspector and the sergeant, a reporter and photographer from the Brighton Argus, Annie and me. Her immediate attempt to turn tail and flee was hampered first by the massive presence of Graham in the doorway behind her and then by the handcuffs applied by the detective sergeant.

Zibby milked the press publicity for all it was worth, as a conscientious manager should. 'Miss Forbes' was later convicted of six sample counts of obtaining money by deception, three of occasioning actual bodily harm and one of common assault. She asked for fifteen other offences to be taken into consideration and was sentenced to seven years' imprisonment.

I later received a framed certificate, obviously cooked up in a DTP package, which purported to appoint me as Official Forensic Escapologist to the Sussex Constabulary. It was signed by the detective inspector who had been so pleased to meet me. So far they have not had to call on my services again.

Copyright © 2002 Gillian B

Flora MacKenzie's Casebook

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