Flora MacKenzie and the Millennium Bug

by Gillian B

Friday 31 December 1999: A Private Hotel in Brighton

9.50 pm Celebration Anticipated

I like Brighton. I have always enjoyed the English seaside. Brighton is not only the seaside at its best but also a wonderfully bohemian and cosmopolitan town. The delights of London are only an hour away by train but can be ignored unless the mood seizes one. Brighton is still the haunt of artists, writers and actors and if parts of it are showing signs of genteel decay, that only adds to its character.

When I was 93, I decided that I had had enough of my own housework and moved here to a small residential hotel in a quiet square in Kemp Town. Brighton's town centre is less than a mile away along Marine Parade or, if it is raining or I am just feeling lazy, a short bus or taxi ride away. There I can stroll along the promenade, browse through shops, visit galleries and meet my friends to drink coffee (or something stronger) and put the world to rights.

When I was a child, my parents told me how splendid the celebrations had been for the dawning new century. Calendrical precision ruled and the beginning of the 20th century had been celebrated at the beginning of 1901. I was born in 1905 and all my life secretly hoped I too would see the beginning of a new century (although there were dark times during the Cold War when it looked unlikely that anyone would ever see another century). Although purists might argue for 2001, in the popular view 2000 became the accepted beginning of the 21st century and the 3rd millennium. I have no problem with that – when you are 94, you do not lightly put anything off for a year.

A group of my friends and I (none of us under 70) had decided that we would celebrate properly together with appropriate libations of champagne and plenty of decadent foods. The venue was a small restaurant that we had booked in its entirety. It overlooked the promenade and pier, which would be the site for a major firework display at midnight.

One advantage of being my age is that you can dress for practicality and no-one ever criticises or looks disapproving. I debated wearing a suitably formal dress but concluded that if I was spending any time outside, I really wanted something warmer. Accordingly, a few minutes later I was comfortably dressed with stirrup pants tucked into warm boots and a fleece jacket over a wool sweater. I popped a round felt hat with a curly brim on my head and hung a scarf loosely round my neck in case I should need it later. I decided not to bother with a handbag and pocketed my wallet, keys and mobile phone. I felt in my pockets for gloves, picked up my walking stick and left my room.

I made my way downstairs and to the front door. I paused for a moment then turned on my heel and headed for the hotel office. My friend Zibby Smith, an impoverished student at Brighton University was working here through her Christmas vacation. I knew she was doing the night shift and I wanted to wish her an early Happy New Year, Century and Millennium. It was an unsociable time to be working but she had volunteered and she was being extremely well paid for it. I liked Zibby ("What else can you do with Hephzibah?" she said when I asked about her name); she was 75 years my junior but we got on well and seemed to be kindred spirits in many ways.

10.00 pm Celebration Postponed

I went behind the reception counter, through the door behind it and along the short corridor to the administrative office where I was sure I would find Zibby, probably indulging her passion for computer games.

The admin office was silent as I approached, so there were no computer games going on in there. I tapped on the door and pushed it open. Zibby was sitting with her back to me in the big leather covered swivel chair at the desk. I could just see the top of her curly brown hair over the high back of the chair. Everything was oddly quiet. It took me a moment to register that there was silver duct tape wrapped round the chair.

I rushed forward into the room and swung the chair round to face me. I was shocked to see Zibby securely bound, gagged and blindfolded with tape. For a fraction of a second I feared she was dead but as soon as I swung the chair round, she started squirming and making noises behind her gag.

"It's all right, Zibby," I reassured her. "It's Flora MacKenzie. I'll have you free in a jiffy."

I started by peeling off the two square patches of tape covering her eyes at the loss of a few of her eyelashes. Big, round, scared-looking eyes stared up at me as I carefully peeled away the big X of tape covering her mouth and extracted the handkerchief stuffed inside.

I searched around for a pair of scissors to free Zibby while she gasped and tried to get her voice working again.

I took stock of the situation and decided where to begin. The chair was a large executive-style swivelling desk chair, deeply upholstered and covered with dark green leather. It had stainless steel arms with more squashy leather-covered padding on them and could swivel and tilt on its star-shaped metal base. Zibby was sitting with her legs drawn up cross-legged like a tailor on the seat. Her denim-clad legs were taped together where they crossed and more tape running at various angles held her down onto the chair seat and stopped her sliding forwards. Her forearms were resting on the chair's arms and were securely taped down. More tape held her back against the chair, passing round her waist, under the arms of the chair and right round behind it. Further turns of tape were wrapped round her chest and arms and the back of the chair.

I decided that the best move was to separate Zibby from the chair and worry about getting tape off her clothes afterwards. I worked quickly with the scissors and as I did so, Zibby explained what had happened. It seemed that earlier in the week she had received a card and then a phone call from a small computer consultancy offering to do a last minute pre-millennium check on the office computer for a very reasonable fee. Zibby decided that it was a worthwhile investment and agreed to a visit. She was told to expect two people, both women, to arrive late in the evening on 31 December to do a check over which would only take a few minutes. Zibby had answered the door to them about 9.30 and had led them through to the office. She explained that if they had been men, she would have asked for someone else to be there too but she felt perfectly safe with women. As soon as they had reached the office, she was grabbed from behind and her eyes and mouth taped. Her assailants made it quite clear to her that she would not be hurt if she co-operated but that any resistance would be met with violence. Zibby wisely co-operated.

I asked if she had seen these women clearly. Zibby looked rather shamefaced. She explained that they had both been wearing scarves pulled up around their faces and she had just assumed that they were feeling cold on a chilly winter night and hadn't seen more than their eyes.

It had only taken a few moments to get Zibby on her feet and we both worked on peeling tape off her sweater and jeans. Zibby looked round anxiously and then gasped as she saw the office safe standing open, the keys still in the lock. I knew that the safe contained the guests' valuables and, in many cases, personal documents such as bank books too. Nothing else seemed to have been touched.

"They went somewhere else after they finished here," Zibby said suddenly with alarm in her voice. "I heard them use the phone here to call ahead and confirm an appointment."

"Do you know who they phoned?" I asked, hoping we could tip the police off.

"We can find out," replied Zibby, brightening. "I know that was the last outgoing call." She picked up the phone and pressed the redial button. She waited patiently listening to the ringing tone then heard an answering machine cut in. The name it announced was another residential hotel not far from this one.

A look of grim satisfaction spread across her face. "We know where they've gone - let's see if we can stop them!"

I was taken aback to say the least. "I'm getting a bit old for games like that you know," I replied. Zibby looked crestfallen, so I added, "All right, let's go there and I can phone the police on the way. We have to be careful though – I wouldn't be much use in a fight these days."

10.20 pm Rescue Mission

Three minutes precarious driving in Zibby's ancient Mini brought us to our suspected scene of crime, another residential hotel converted from a tall Victorian terraced house.

Zibby rang the doorbell. Nothing happened. She rang again but still nothing happened. "I've been here before," she commented, "and they are usually very prompt."

I looked at the door lock, which was a simple Yale rim latch. "I wouldn't do this for everyone, you know," I told her as I opened my wallet and removed the stiff piece of clear plastic which protects my pensioner's bus pass. I eased the plastic into the gap between the door and the jamb and pressed gently. I felt it contact the latch and I pushed more firmly, forcing the latch back. I pushed the door open, taking great pleasure at the look of delighted astonishment on Zibby's face.

"If the thieves are still here, we don't want to disturb them," I hissed as we crept towards the hotel reception desk. Zibby nodded.

There was a door with a large ribbed glass window in it behind the reception desk. Through it, I could make out the flickering of a television but could see no detail. Zibby opened the door and entered. I followed.

The clerk on duty had suffered a similar fate to Zibby. Her chair was a more basic wooden model than Zibby's but she was just as securely fastened to it, again with silver duct tape. Her wrists were taped together behind the back of the chair; her legs were taped to the chair legs at the ankles and just below her knees. Many more turns of tape were wound over her lap and under the chair seat and round her arms, body and the chair back. Like Zibby a patch of tape covered each eye and a big X covered her mouth.

I put my mobile phone down on the desk and stepped forward to start freeing the unfortunate clerk when a voice behind me said, "Please don't do that." I turned with trepidation, Two women were standing in the room, one whom had a gloved hand firmly clamped over Zibby's mouth and one of her arms twisted up behind her back. Both these women were wearing dark clothes with hats pulled down almost to their eyes and scarves obscuring the lower part of their faces.

The woman holding Zibby was clearly irritated but not rattled by our arrival. "Lock the old bat in that cupboard," she commanded, nodding towards a door in the opposite wall, "then give me a hand to get this one taped up again." The other woman didn't speak as she escorted me to the cupboard. I briefly made eye contact with her as the cupboard door closed and the key turned in the lock. The eyes that looked back at me were grey with a single fleck of green in one and oddly devoid of expression.

I explored my makeshift cell with my hands as the only light was streaming in under the door. It was a very small room rather than a cupboard and seemed to be a stationery store. I could find no light switch, so presumably it was outside the door. As I listened I could hear the sound of tape being torn off a roll then only low conversation, too quiet to hear the words. I heard a brief telephone call being made and it was just loud enough to interpret as a confirmatory call to another unsuspecting client. I heard a door close then there was silence from outside my impromptu jail.

I decided that an escape in short order was my first priority. I retrieved my key ring from my pocket. It had a tiny electric torch on it meant for finding keyholes in the dark, which was precisely what I had in mind. The key was still in the lock, so I set about the method of escape so beloved of schoolgirls' adventure books. I found a piece of paper and slid it under the door. I needed something to manipulate the key with as it was not quite in line with the keyhole. A straightened paperclip promised to be as good a tool as I could ask for. Lit by the torch, I used the paperclip wire to work the key round gradually until it lined up with the keyhole. A gentle push with the wire ejected the key from the other side of the door. I heard it fall and hoped fervently that it had not bounced off the paper. I knelt down on floor and peered under the door. The key was perilously close to one edge but nevertheless completely on the paper. I carefully slid the paper towards me, hoping trusting that the gap under the door was sufficient. I was in luck and the key slid effortlessly under the door. I picked it up and unlocked the door with it.

My mobile phone was still on the office desk where it had foolishly been left undisturbed by my captors. I picked it up and updated the police on events. It seemed that there was another incident elsewhere and the police were already overstretched with the town centre full of New Year revellers but they were giving us the highest priority.

Zibby was lying on the floor. Her wrists taped behind her back, her legs taped at ankles and knees and more tape wound rather untidily round her arms and body. She was gagged again but not blindfolded. The dark blue eyes looking up at me had more than a suggestion of annoyance in them. I found a pair of scissors and snipped through the critical parts of Zibby's bindings, leaving her to peel the tape off herself.

I quickly freed the bound and gagged clerk, again leaving her to tidy herself up. She seemed more annoyed than distressed, especially when she saw her office safe standing open.

I noticed that there was still a number showing on the numerical display on the phone and pointed it out to Zibby. She recognised it immediately as another hotel where one of her friends worked. It looked very much as though there was a whole chain of identical robberies going on.

I looked at Zibby and asked her earnestly, "Are we really stupid enough to go after them again?"

"I think we probably are," she replied with a wry grin.

"I thought so," I replied, returning her grin. "I'll phone the police again while we're on the way."

10.50 pm Rescue Mission Redux

Another few minutes of Zibby's unconventional but exuberant driving brought us to another hotel, again much like my own and much like many others dotted around Brighton.

I had a distinct feeling of déjà vu as we rang the doorbell and waited for a response that obviously wasn't going to come. I sighed and looked at the door security arrangements. There was no easily subverted Yale lock here; the door was locked with a good old-fashioned lever-action mortise lock.

"My old partner used to be good at locks," I sighed. I decided to give it a go and begged a hairpin from Zibby. I probed around inside the lock and grinned up at her. "Never buy cheap locks if you want to keep retired magicians out," I advised her as I forced up the spring and snapped the bolt back.

I looked around me. Somewhere there must be a book of standard designs for Brighton hotels; this one differed only from my own in choice of furniture and décor. We went through the obvious door behind the reception counter and along a short corridor very like the one in our hotel.

A familiar sight greeted us in the administration office. A clerk was securely taped to a wooden chair with arms beside a desk and another woman was lying on the floor bound with tape. A safe stood forlornly empty with its door open.

"Jannie!" exclaimed Zibby, recognising her friend taped to the chair. Jannie was not blindfolded and she looked first at Zibby then at me. As she did so, I took in her grey eyes with a single fleck of green in one iris.

"Wait!" I ordered Zibby as she was about to leap to her friend's rescue. "I think there is more here than meets the eye." I explained my observation to Zibby. She looked disbelieving then puzzled but did not contradict what I said.

"Let's be like my old friend Sherlock Holmes," I encouraged, "and use our eyes first to see what clues we can gather." Zibby nodded agreement. Jannie started making urgent noises behind her gag and squirming in her bonds, but to no avail.

I began by examining the woman lying on the floor. She was bound with duct tape in much the same way that Zibby had been at the previous hotel. Her wrists were crossed behind her back and firmly encircled with tape. Her ankles and knees were taped equally tightly. The tape round her body had been applied considerably more carefully than had been the case with Zibby. Three distinct bands of tape went round her at waist level and above and below her bust. An X of tape covered her mouth but her eyes had not been taped. I commented that it all looked very secure. She too was starting to squirm and try to talk through her gag, but she was far too securely bound.

We studied Jannie's predicament next. Her legs were firmly taped to the chair legs at ankles and just below her knees. Several turns of tape were wrapped over her lap and under the chair seat. More went round her waist and the chair back. The tape around her arms and chest was less tidily applied and there were only three full turns of it. Her wrists were taped down to the arms of the chair with several turns of tape each. Finally, the usual X of tape covered her mouth. Jannie was struggling quite hard now but was making no impression on the tape at all.

"Now, let's look at the tape on her wrist," I suggested to Zibby. "See how it's been applied?" The tape was not a continuous wrap as might be expected; instead several short strips of tape had been used on each wrist. They were stuck to the bottom of the chair's arm and were wrapped up each side of the wrist to overlap on top. It looked as if four strips had been used on each wrist and the ends arranged to be staggered.

Zibby was now completely baffled. "But what does all that mean?" she almost wailed.

I outlined my reconstruction of events. "I think it means a deliberate trail was laid to lead us here. It was probably for the benefit of the police rather than us. I strongly suspect that the safe here may have been emptied much earlier, possibly even some days or weeks ago."

"I see," said Zibby, "so the other robberies may have been to cover up something here."

"Could be," I agreed. "When they returned here, your friend Jannie taped up this other lady on the floor there."

"That's her mother," interjected Zibby.

"Jannie then taped her own legs to the chair and put more tape over her lap and round her waist. At some point she prepared that arrangement for holding her wrists down. She would just have stuck them to the underside of the chair arms. She applied what seems to be their standard gag and then did the difficult part; she wound tape round her own chest and upper arms and the back of the chair. That's why it isn't done very neatly. I think the roll of tape will have been tossed somewhere."

"I can see it by the window," Zibby pointed out.

Jannie's mother started trying to crawl towards the office door in a caterpillar-like fashion. I pre-empted her by pushing the door shut with my walking stick.

Jannie had given up struggling and was slumped dejectedly in the chair.

"Jannie's mother will have been taped up but still standing all this time, possibly leaning against the desk for balance. Jannie put her wrists down on the arms of the chair and all her mother had to do was to wrap the ends of those strips of tape up over Jannie's wrists so they overlap on top. She can do that quite easily, even with her own wrists taped behind her back. The ends of the tape are staggered so it doesn't produce an untidy lump that might draw attention to itself. Once that was done, Jannie's mother could drop down on to the floor apparently helpless and beyond suspicion."

Zibby was incensed, "What a rotten trick to play on everyone. And I was just about to cut her free." She glared at Jannie who shrugged eloquently in reply, despite the tape binding her.

"And you would have destroyed the evidence doing so," I remarked. "That's exactly what anyone discovering them was supposed to do."

I took a last look round. "Now, Zibby," I announced, "I propose to go to my Millennium Party as planned. Will you be all right here? I'm sure these two can't get away and we have to leave them taped up so you can show the police what we discovered about the taping when they get here."

"No problem, Miss Mac," replied Zibby. "I plan to dine out on this for months."

11.20 pm Celebration Resumed

I stepped out of the hotel into the chilly night air and pulled my scarf a little more snugly round my throat. I did not plan to miss my Millennium celebration for anything. I was sure the police would find me if they really wanted to.

As I walked down to Marine Parade, I switched on my mobile phone again. I was sure that at least one of my friends (who would surely be wondering where I was by now) would have her phone on. The second number I tried was successful and I called down a blessing on the extraordinary British love affair with cellular telephones.

"Lydia? Yes, I'm on my way now... About fifteen minutes probably... What? No, nothing serious. It was just a bit of a hold up..."

Copyright © 2000 Gillian B

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