I was bound tightly and uncomfortably, with my chin almost against my knees, and both gagged and blindfolded, and I was cold and stiff. I also strongly suspected that I would not outlive the day.
I had slept only fitfully and when I did sleep, my dreams were nightmares.
I was roused into full wakefulness as the rope connecting my wrists and ankles was loosened and removed. The remainder of that rope was progressively untied from the rest of my bonds. It had brought my face close to my knees and had pulled my bound wrists uncomfortably high behind my back.
I stretched out on the mattress which had been my bed for the night. I was now merely bound hand and foot. My wrists were crossed behind me and tied, more rope connected my upper arms together just above my elbows and secured my arms to my body. My legs were also tied together at ankles and knees and I was still gagged and blindfolded, but I was no longer cramped into the awful foetal position in which I had spent the greater part of the night.
As I stretched, a hand grabbed one of my legs and I felt the ropes on my ankles and knees being untied. I was hauled unceremoniously to my feet and firm hands gripping my elbows propelled me forwards on numb and unsteady legs. I was taken to a toilet and allowed to relieve myself, then I was brought back to the room in which I had spent the night.
Someone removed my gag and held a cup of water to my lips. I drank gratefully, but as soon as I had taken a mouthful, the cup was taken away and I was re-gagged firmly.
Once again, I was held by the elbows and pushed forwards. I was marched along a series of passages then up a flight of stairs. The surface under my stockinged feet changed from stone to carpet at the top of the stairs. After another few moments walking, my escort paused and I could hear a door being opened in front of me. I was steered into a room and then pushed down on a chair.
Hands grabbed my shoulders and forced me to lean forwards. The rope securing my arms to my sides was untied, then the rope linking my elbows came off too. Before I had a chance to take advantage of this freedom to allow my stiff muscles to loosen, I was pushed upright in the chair again, with my arms behind the chair back.
I could feel now that I was sitting on an upright wooden chair, fairly large, and, by the feel of it, one with a lot of ornate carving on it. Ropes were tied round my chest and body, both above and below my bust, holding me firmly back on the chair. Another rope held me back at waist level.
My ankles and knees were re-tied and more ropes passed over my lap and under the chair seat. Finally another length of rope was attached to my ankle binding and my feet were pulled back under the chair. The other end of this rope was tied to my wrist bonds, pulling my arms down and my feet off the floor.
I was left alone with my thoughts, sitting on the chair to which I had been tied. I could hear someone else gently breathing, so I knew I was not alone.
After a while, I could hear voices. They sounded as though they were in another room. The door the room in was in opened and the voices grew louder. I could also hear footsteps as several people (I could not tell how many) came into the room.
With several voices talking together quite softly in rapid German, I could catch little of the conversation going on around me and nothing which helped me in any way.
There was at last a lull in the talk and a woman's voice addressed me, quite slowly and clearly in English, "Fräulein MacKenzie, we are aware of your mission and we cannot allow it to proceed. We know that you are an agent of the government in London." The voice was familiar - it was the woman who had been one of our volunteers from the audience in Salzburg and who had passed me the note which had lured me into this trap in the first place.
"We know that you are the mysterious Lieutenant F.I.MacKenzie of the Royal Navy." She pronounced Lieutenant in the German way as Leutnant.
I sat impassively, not wishing to give anything away. "We know that London favours German supremacy in Central Europe." I sat up, and shook my head vigorously. "That is our conclusion and we have no reason to change it," she continued. I sat still and listened.
"We know you are carrying something useful, although we have not been able to identify exactly what it might be. However, your tour ends in Vienna, so it is reasonable to suppose that is the destination for your mission also."
"While we may not be able to prevent the Nazis from gaining control of Austria, we can at least put as many obstacles in their path as possible. That is why we must put an end to your mission now."
There was an ominous silence, then I tried to explain that they had it all wrong. I yelled furiously and vainly through my gag. I am not sure whether I was more angry about my mission being thwarted for the wrong reason, or that they were about to kill me, but I was furious.
"Fräulein MacKenzie, it is too late; the decision has been made. Goodbye."
With the finality of that "Goodbye", I gave up yelling and sat still awaiting my fate. The odd realisation floated up in my mind that I had seen my last glimpse of daylight the previous afternoon and it irritated me that I could not remember the instant clearly enough to savour it. I heard an automatic pistol being cocked and knew that the end had come - I would never hear the shot, the bullet would be lodged in my brain before the sound reached my ears. I committed myself to my maker using the words of the Nunc dimittis, "Now, Lord, lettest thou thy servant depart in peace according to thy word, for mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people..."
I broke off from my introspection as I realised a commotion had broken out all around me. A loud male voice was attempting to shout everyone down, to stop my execution and to take control. A female voice was at the same attempting an explanation to anyone who would listen. A third voice, which I knew very well, said calmly, "It's OK, Boss, you're safe now."
My blindfold was removed first and, as my eyes adapted to the light, I was astonished to see Rudi Topolski standing on a chair as if he was addressing a public meeting. By sheer volume, he had taken control of the room and was telling my captors in no uncertain terms that I was no enemy of Austria.
I noticed a clock - it was 8.00 am, a very English time for an execution.
The woman who had pronounced the death sentence on me was listening to Rudi with a expression of open-mouthed astonishment. The young man who had assisted in my capture was standing to one side of me, with a tiny 7.65mm calibre Beretta in his hand - evidently he was to have been my executioner. There were five or six others whom I did not recognise. Standing next to Rudi was the proprietress of the café where we had breakfasted the previous day.
I took all this in and then looked at Sarah, who simply said, "I'll explain later, Boss."
While I was taking in my surroundings. Sarah busied herself ungagging and then untying me. As soon as my arms were free, she delved into a pocket and handed me a hip flask. It turned out to contain peach brandy, not the ideal breakfast, but wonderfully warming and just what my shattered nerves needed. As I held the flask, I became aware of the painful bruising on my wrists and the stiffness throughout my arms and shoulders.
Rudi had finished speaking by this time and all eyes turned on me. I was clearly expected to tell my side of the story. I was not at all sure if my voice would work after being gagged almost without break for sixteen hours. I mustered as much dignity as I could in the dirty and dishevelled state I was in.
I cleared my throat and, after a hoarse and hesitant start, managed to get my voice going. I explained that His Majesty's Government was opposed to Germany's apparent expansionist ambitions regarding Central Europe. I further explained that Britain was hopelessly unprepared for was as yet, and, therefore, unable to risk becoming committed to any military intervention.
I went to say that Britain would do everything in her power to ensure that the Austrian patriots opposed to the Nazis had the best chance of success possible. As my cover appeared to be hopelessly compromised already, I decided to be candid and explained that my mission was to contact groups such as theirs and to hand over means of secure communication to whatever core group was operating in Vienna.
I went on to point out that if the Patriotic Movement was to stand any chance of mounting an effective resistance, then it was essential that they act as one and share intelligence as far as possible without compromising their own security. In particular, I pointed out bitterly, if they had shared sound intelligence regarding me instead of believing political rumour which probably originated in Berlin, they would not have been threatening the life of an English agent who was trying to help them.
I sat quietly, tired and still incandescent with anger, after delivering my speech and wondered what to do next.
Rudi walked over to the woman who so recently had pronounced a death sentence over me and started an animated conversation with her. I was surprised no to be able to follow the conversation. I couldn't identify the language and tentatively guessed it might be Hungarian, which would explain the woman's slight accent when speaking German.
My guess was proved right. As the conversation ended, Rudi guided her across to my chair and introduced her as the Countess Maria-Magdalena Esterhazy. She offered her heartfelt apologies for her error which had nearly cost my life. I was surely richly owed an apology, but was in no emotional state to cope with one.
She went on to say that Rudi had suggested that I at least be offered some hospitality to enable me to go on my way in comfort and looking reasonably well presented. I maintained my cool detachment but accepted her offer gravely.
The Countess Esterhazy was as good as her word. Ten minutes, later I was luxuriating in a hot fragrant bath, drinking a cup of the most excellent coffee and listening while Sarah brought me up to date.
Esterhazy and her companion had left Sarah sitting on a bench at the Schloßberg (Castle Hill) in Graz. Her hands were tied behind her back, her ankles were also tied and she was gagged and blindfolded. The temperature was already well below freezing and still falling. They had, however, left her a knife with which to free herself.
It had taken Sarah a perilously long time to get herself free. She had trouble finding the knife and when she did reach it, she knocked it onto the ground, so that she had to roll off the bench in order to locate it again. Her fingers were slightly numb, both with the pressure of the rope on her wrists and with the cold, which made it very difficult to grip the knife once she had found it. By this stage, she was also cold enough that she was finding it difficult to concentrate.
Once Sarah was free, she headed for the only contact we had in Graz that seemed in any way promising - the café where we had eaten breakfast. The café was crowded and noisy at 5.00 pm when she reached it. The proprietress recognised Sarah's distress immediately and ushered her into the café kitchen. On discussion, it turned out that the proprietress both knew Rudi slightly and had some idea of who my captor might be.
Sarah's lack of German, hampered her doing very much more, but the café proprietress put herself at Sarah's disposal. They telegraphed Rudi, whom Sarah knew still to be in Salzburg, to tell him what had happened. Rudi replied by telephoning long distance to the café at about 9.00 pm, instructing Sarah to sit tight and wait, while he drove through the night to Graz.
Sarah was desperate for action, but waited in the café kitchen, occasionally dozing by the fireside until Rudi arrived at about 6.00 am.
Rudi questioned Sarah closely about what had happened. Sarah had recognised my captor as the woman from the last show in Salzburg and described her to him. (Rudi had been on stage with us later in the same show, but had not met her.)
Rudi also questioned the café proprietress about possible contacts in the Patriotic Movement who might be able to help. She explained the sad state of fragmentation of the movement in Graz and the mutual suspicion and mistrust between groups.
At some point in the conversation, the Countess Esterhazy's name had been mentioned as a possible ally to call on. The café proprietress commented that Esterhazy had been in Salzburg recently. Rudi and Sarah made the same connection together - the tall woman with the odd accent who had given me the coded message was Esterhazy. A quick comparison of descriptions suggested that this was indeed the case. It seemed likely that for some, as yet unclear reason, I was being held against my will by Countess Esterhazy, who was the leader of one of the local patriotic groups.
By this time it was gone 7.00 am. Rudi decided that there was no time to lose and took Sarah and the café proprietress in his car to find Esterhazy and gain my freedom.
They stampeded their way past the servant at Esterhazy's house who opened the door and arrived on the scene in the drawing room where my brains were just about to be blown out with not a second to spare.
The Countess Esterhazy had given me carte blanche to raid her wardrobe and had even assigned a maid to help me. Esterhazy was a little shorter and broader than my lanky five feet eight, but not enough to prevent my finding a range of clothes which would fit tolerably well. I settled for a bottle green wool serge suit worn over a cream blouse.
Her underwear was a little more ostentatious than my taste, but I selected a range of foundation garments and the maid helped me dress. I gave the maid instructions to find my boots and other personal possessions which had been taken from me the previous night and to have the boots polished before being returned to me.
I decided to take full advantage of my hostesses beneficence and found a deep green, almost black, tweed overcoat, a trilby hat and a green cashmere wrap to complete my outfit. I carried these items with me as I descended the stairs in my stockinged feet.
I found Esterhazy, Rudi, Sarah and the café proprietress ensconced together over breakfast in the dining room. My temper had abated sufficiently, that it was not too much of an effort to join them.
I demanded a report from Rudi. Rudi confirmed Sarah's story and the opinions we had heard from the café proprietress the previous morning - the Patriotic Movement which had seemed so united and monolithic as seen from London, was, in reality, no more than a loose affiliation of groups each with its own agenda. Rudi went on to admit, rather shamefacedly, that our two prisoners in Salzburg had escaped at the cost of the life of one of the guards.
I had sat stony faced through this sorry tale and now delivered my second lecture of the morning. I pointed out that they were up against ruthless professionals who had no concept of fairness or justice and who would not hesitate to destroy anyone in their path. If Austria was to have a chance, then the patriots had to stop playing games.
More serious was the confirmation from Esterhazy, that Sarah's and my true identity as agents of His Majesty's Government was known. This implied a serious breach in security, probably in Whitehall and possibly in the Admiralty itself. Inward communications followed a different route through the chain of command, so there was a good chance that message back to my father would not be compromised. We knew an emergency radio frequency to use but had deliberately not brought a transmitter with us for fear of discovery.
My boots, now splendidly polished, had by then been returned to me together with my watch, lockpicks, hairgrips and even the stray teaspoon, which, I now noted, rightfully belonged to the London and North Eastern Railway.
I made my farewells to everyone, still somewhat guardedly in the case of the Countess Esterhazy, and Sarah and I departed for the theatre.
It was sunny and clear but bitterly cold outside. I snuggled into Esterhazy's coat and wrap and kicked little flurries of snow in front of me as we walked, just enjoying being alive.
Sarah looked me up and down and commented, "You were lucky, Boss."
I grinned back at her, "You helped Lady Luck along a bit, Sarah."
We were both aware that in less than nine hours, we had to put on some kind of a show for our paying public. I was far too battered and bruised to do an escape act that day. We dismissed the option of cancelling - after all, we were professionals and we would be letting down not only the public, but also the theatre management and the other acts in that night's show.
We quickly concluded that we had to redesign the show from scratch with Sarah doing all the escapology and with me as both compère and assistant. We had one item we could use directly for our short slot before the interval, but for the long slot, we would have to cobble something together out of elements of other items we had done previously. We tossed ideas back and forth between us and finally came up with something that would work.
We decided to rehearse before lunch and try to catch up on some sleep in the afternoon before the show.
The remainder of the morning was a frantic whirl of preparing props and costumes and of building a script for the show. Sarah speaks no more than a few words of German, so for the few lines she would have to say, I coached her in her words phonetically. Fortunately she has a good ear and is a quick study.
By 1.30 pm, we were tired but reasonably confident and I was in a far better frame of mind now that I was focussed on our show.
We lunched in the Jewish café we had breakfasted in the previous day and where Sarah had found such valuable allies. We were greeted like long lost relatives and had the greatest of difficult escaping further hospitality when we had eaten.
We returned to our seedy and depressing hotel to catch up on sleep. As we entered the lobby, we met our acquaintance of our first night there, the English dancer. We chatted briefly and she introduced herself. We learned that her name was Diane and that she was working her way around Europe having finished school and before deciding on a career. Diane was going out to rehearse her own turns in the cabaret club where she was working, but we agreed to meet later after our respective shows that evening.
Sarah and I had already successfully negotiated the first part of our show. Usually I challenged members of the audience to tie me up and then escaped before their very eyes. Tonight, however, was Sarah's night - she had acquitted herself very well in the escapes while I did all the talking.
Our second slot was well into the second half of the show. Sarah and I stood breathlessly in the wings while the barker at the side of the orchestra pit introduced us, "...noch einmal, die unerschrockenen Ausbrecherinen aus England, MacKenzie und Marks." We walked onto the stage in front of the main curtains which were still closed.
Instead of my usual more revealing costumes, I was wearing evening dress, with a full-length gold ball-gown, elbow length white silk gloves and a sequinned head band decorated with a curl of feather at the back. The choice of costume was deliberate - the long gloves hid the bruising on my wrists and the long dress helped to disguise the slight stiffness in my walk from the previous night's ordeal.
Sarah was also in evening dress for this part of the show, but all in dramatic black - her gown, gloves and even the feather in her headband were all black.
In my introduction to our act, I contrasted Sarah's and my profession as magicians and illusionists with that of the spiritualist medium. "Meine Damen und Herren, in our act, my assistant and I depend on misleading you, our audience. Worse than that, we depend on outright deception. Surely a terrible thing, yet you are all obviously quite happy about it. There you all are in your seats, all having paid good money to be defrauded and cheated!"
I paused while the audience absorbed my opening comments. There was a modest ripple of laughter, so they were responding nicely. I relaxed a little as I went on. "A spiritualist medium, on the other hand, may just possibly be genuine, but most appear to me to be fraudsters and cheats, using much the same methods as I do, but claiming them to be genuine."
The audience could see where I was leading now and I could feel that I had their attention. "Meine Damen und Herren," I went on, "take my colleague Sarah here. A fine intelligent girl and a skilled illusionist." Sarah bowed towards me. "But about as psychic as a lamp-post." Sarah did a double-take at me and a murmur of laughter came from the audience.
"Now," I continued, "many of these mediums can produce some very convincing effects. Ectoplasm by the metre for example..." Sarah held up one gloved hand, showed both sides of it to the audience then flung out a streamer of 'ectoplasm' (actually a roll of gauze bandage which she had palmed). "Did anyone miss that?" I asked rhetorically. Sarah repeated the effect with the other hand.
"Mediums can produce ectoplasm from other places too," I added. Sarah turned sideways, so her profile was towards the audience and her back to me. She opened her mouth and, with one finger, extracted a strip of cream-coloured fabric, which she left dangling down from her mouth to about waist level. She turned to face the audience, so it would be clearly visible against her black dress, then turned to face me. With an expression of mock disgust, I lifted the end of the fabric in my fingertips and stepped back from Sarah, so it was stretched out between us. I started pulling on the fabric and more and more of it came out of Sarah's mouth. I kept on pulling while a great pile of it built up on the floor between us. The audience were split between laughter and occasional expressions of fascinated disgust. When the last of the fabric had emerged from Sarah's mouth, I held up the end of it and turned to the audience, "Nothing supernatural here, it's ordinary silk ribbon." I looked at Sarah and added, "but I'm not sure where she keeps it all." Sarah and I turned to the audience and bowed, acknowledging the audience's laughter and applause. (The trick lies only in the unbelievably small space a hundred yards of thin silk ribbon can be packed into - easily concealed in the mouth.)
I continued my mock lecture, "Some mediums are so sensitive about accusations of trickery, that they go to great lengths to prove otherwise. They argue that if they allow their clients to tie them up, then surely that proves the spirit world to be at work." I clapped my hands twice, and the main curtains opened to reveal an ornate fabric-covered screen about six feet high and in six segments each about three feet wide, a tall wooden stool and a small circular table covered with assorted props.
I appealed for two members of the audience to act as witnesses to the proceedings and a man and a woman duly came on stage. They appeared to be a married couple, but I did not enquire. I indicated they should stand either side of Sarah and slightly upstage of her, so they would see clearly, but would obscure nothing from the audience. "Imagine you are attending a séance," I instructed, "and that Fräulein Marks and I are wily mediums. Your job is to make sure we do nothing underhand. Watch very, very closely, please."
I took two lengths of white rope from the props table, each about 12 feet long. Sarah stood still facing the audience and stretched her arms out to the sides. I tied the middle of one of the ropes round one of Sarah's wrists and invited the volunteers to inspect the knot, then I repeated the process with the other rope and wrist.
Sarah turned round with her back to the audience. I brought her left arm across the front of her body, so her elbow was bent and her left hand almost below her right armpit. I took the two ends of the rope tied to her left wrist round behind her then flipped the ends up over her left shoulder and left then loose. I repeated this move with her right arm, so her arms were now crossed over in front as if she was wearing a straitjacket.
Sarah turned again to face the audience, so they could see her arms crossed. The white rope stood out clearly against her black dress and gloves. I took hold of the loose ends of ropes hanging down in front of her body from her left shoulder (this was the rope attached to her left wrist) and, holding the ends together as if they were a single rope, wrapped them once completely round her neck, so they were hanging down from her left shoulder again. I repeated the operation (in mirror image) with the ends hanging down from her right shoulder. Finally, I knotted all four ends together in front of her throat.
Sarah turned right round so the audience could see the finished result. It was visually quite striking - her arms were crossed in front of her and the ropes went round behind her back and upwards, crossing above her shoulder blades. Her neck was wrapped in quite a sizeable bundle of rope.
I led Sarah across to the stool, then bound first her ankles then her knees. Once again I used white rope to stand out against the black of her dress. I helped Sarah to sit down on the stool and invited the two volunteers to examine Sarah's bonds. They duly declared themselves satisfied.
I faced the audience again. "My colleague is now securely tied, and will obviously choke herself if she tries to move her arms, but she may still be able to manipulate objects with her teeth," I pointed out. I took a rectangular white cotton cloth from the table and held it up to for the audience to see. I bunched it into a strip then tied a large knot in the middle. (As I wanted to remind the audience of how tricky magicians can be, and for maximum effect, I tied the knot one handed and shook it down to the middle of the cloth.) I stood behind Sarah, pushed the knot into her mouth and tied the ends behind her head.
Next, I showed the audience some of the props on the table. There was a bulb horn of the kind that motor-cars used to have, a tambourine, a drum and some streamers with weighted ends.
I placed the prop table in front of Sarah and arranged the screen so that it was around both her and the table. I positioned the screen so that one end section acted as a sort of door in front of Sarah.
I closed the screen in front of Sarah and turned to the audience. "Let's see what she can do all tied up like that," I said. I looked at the screen and waited.
After about 30 seconds, the motor-horn honked. I cast a glance at the audience, with mock surprise on my face. The tambourine rattled next, the drum banged and one of the streamers came sailing over the top of the screen.
"Looks like she got free," I commented to the audience and walked over to the screen. I swung back the section of screen hiding Sarah and revealed her still tied and gagged as we last saw her. The stool has a top which rotates freely, so I moved the table out of the way and swung Sarah round to show her back view to the audience, so they could see all the ropes still in place.
I swung Sarah round to face the audience again and re-positioned the table in front of her. I closed the screen in front of her again, then turned to face the audience and moved downstage.
I had not had the chance to say anything when the horn honked and the tambourine rattled again and another streamer flew through the air. I went back to the screen and opened it again. Sarah was clearly still tied up.
I closed the screen again, but this time stood right next to it. I waited a few seconds and the tambourine rattled. I pulled the screen away immediately, but Sarah was still securely tied up.
Sarah and I repeated this move another two or three times. Each time I was quicker pulling the screen away, but Sarah was always revealed still apparently securely bound and gagged.
I turned to the audience and said, "Let's see if she really is still tied up." I freed Sarah's ankles and knees and led her down to the front of the stage, with our two volunteer observers following. I removed her gag then carefully untied the ropes securing her arms to show that everything was exactly as I had tied it in the first place.
I addressed the audience again, "So, what have you seen this evening? Was it the work of unseen spirit hands? Or was it just two wily Englishwomen deceiving you? Take my advice, meine Damen und Herren - never, ever trust a magician!"
We bowed and enjoyed the applause. I turned and applauded our volunteers, then the main curtains closed behind us and we trooped off stage.
I should point out that Sarah does not in fact have supernatural powers. The rope tie I used on her is a variation of the Jacobi tie, much used by the late Harry Kellar whose anti-spritual cabinet séance was world-famous. Although the tie-up looks secure and daunting, Sarah is actually able to free herself almost instantly by working the rope attached to her right wrist up over her left elbow and then over her head, unwrapping one turn of the rope round her neck. She was then able to produce the apparent spirit manifestations quite easily. Re-tying herself was simply a matter of looping the rope round her neck again and re-positioning her right arm. (Her left arm stayed tied throughout the trick.) In fact, other than achieving the speed we demonstrated (the product of hours of rehearsal), the only tricky part of the performance for Sarah was to make sure that she didn't dislodge the feather in her headband.
We returned to the hotel in exultant mood. We were relieved to have carried off the evenings show despite the alarms and excursions of the previous day and night. We were also both very pleased that Sarah had been able to do the bulk of the show solo, another step towards a true double act rather than our present arrangement which placed her very much as my assistant most nights.
Our plan was to change (we were both still in our evening gowns from our act) and then go out with our new friend Diane and I would treat us all to a splendid meal out. We had to pass Diane's room on our way through the maze of corridors to our own. As we reached it, I could see light under the door, so I knocked, intending to tell her that we would be ready in a few minutes. After a few seconds, I faintly heard a voice, but could not make out any words. I knocked again and this time heard a louder muffled cry.
I turned to Sarah. "Trouble," I commented, unnecessarily. We both put our bags down and I drew my revolver from my handbag. Sarah carefully turned the doorknob and found the door was locked. Without a word, she drew a lockpick from her bag and squatted down with her eyes level with the lock. I took up a stance behind her with my legs spread slightly and my knees bent. I held the gun in a two-handed grip and waited. Within a few seconds, Sarah had the door unlocked, she stayed down below the level of my gun, flung the door open and then rolled into the room, ending up on hands and knees. I stepped into the room behind her and looked around with my gun ready.
Diane's room was a complete shambles, with clothes and other possessions scattered everywhere. Diane herself was the only person in the room. She was lying on the bed securely bound, gagged and blindfolded.
Copyright © 1999 Gillian B
Part 5 Part 7
Flora MacKenzie's Casebook
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