MacKenzie and Marks

Undercover in Austria

by Gillian B

Part 7: Graz - Diane the Dancer

Monday 24 January 1938: A Hotel in Graz

10.30 pm Rescue

We had broken into our new friend Diane's room to find her bound gagged and blindfolded on the bed. A quick search of the ransacked room confirmed that her assailants had departed.

Whoever had tied up Diane had taken no chances. She was still wearing her outdoor coat, so had presumably come in and discovered her attackers in the room. She was lying on her stomach on the bed. Her wrists were bound tightly behind her back with what appeared to be a thick silk stocking. Her elbows were similarly bound and were alarmingly close together. Her legs had been tied, also with stockings, at knees and ankles. Her knees were bent and her feet drawn up behind her back, beyond her bound wrists. A stocking joined her ankle and elbow bindings and another joined her wrists to her knees. the fabric tie belt of her coat had been tied tightly round her at waist level, pinning both her hands and her feet to her back.

Having surveyed the situation, I decided to start by removing Diane's blindfold and gag. She had been blindfolded with a woollen scarf, presumably her own, which was wound tightly twice round her head, completely covering her face, and knotted at the back. I worked the knot undone and unwrapped it, revealing eyes full of fear and anger. She was gagged with a silk scarf between her teeth and knotted tightly at the back of her neck. The knot was tight and took me a minute or more to untie. When I removed the gag, I discovered that there was also a handkerchief filling Diane's mouth. I pulled it out and she swallowed twice then croaked, "Oh God, that feels better."

I turned my attention to Diane's bonds next. The belt was easy to remove, but I had trouble with the stockings which had been used to tie her up. The knots were pulled into tight little knobs that I could not tease undone easily. The first knot took over two minutes, but at least freed her feet from her elbows and allowed her to straighten her legs. I realised at that point that the "stockings" were actually pairs of dancing tights which had been ripped into separate legs. Sarah realised that I was making slow progress and passed me her clasp knife without comment. I quickly hacked through the rest of Diane's bonds.

Diane stretched herself out on the bed, then swung her feet down onto the floor and stood up. Without saying anything, she spread her legs and then bent forward to touch first one foot then the other. She stood straight again and lifted each knee in turn, clasping the bent leg to her chest each time. Next, she straightened and stretched her clasped hands as far up as they would go. Lastly, she spread her legs again, put her hands on her hips and leaned back with an alarming bend to her spine. She straightened up and faced me, saying, "I'll be all right now." I admired the flexibility and resilience of Diane's body - being tied up like she had been would have left me crippled for a week.

Once she had straightened herself out, Diane stood with an easy poise and gracefulness and looked around at the ruins of the room and the fragments of tights scattered over and around the bed. She was aghast. "Oh God no! Look at my tights! They cost a fortune!"

I felt responsible to a degree, so I retrieved my handbag from the corridor where I had dropped it and rummaged in my wallet. I handed Diane a wad of Austrian Schillings equivalent to about five Pounds Sterling. "I'll pay for new ones," I said quietly.

Diane thanked me and then unashamedly stood and studied me. I took the opportunity to study her in return. She was remarkably tall, probably an inch or more taller than I. The height was accentuated by her very slender build. Her hands and feet were quite large, but everything else was delicate, almost fragile in appearance. Her face was dominated by large round eyes of an unusual shade of green and framed by straight dark brown hair pulled back into a chignon. I estimated here age to be only 18 or 19. A bruise developing on one cheek and few stray wisps of hair hanging down over her face bore testament to her recent ordeal.

"Who are you?" Diane asked me finally, "This all happened because of you didn't it?"

I decided to take her at least partly into our confidence and replied carefully, "It probably did. We are working for the government and our secret has leaked out. I think someone believes you are working with us." After a long pause, I added, "Sorry."

"Thank you for being honest," she replied guardedly after a moment's consideration.

I decided to break the ice that had formed. "Bring your things and freshen up in our room," I suggested to Diane, "then we're going to forget about this mess for now and I'm going to buy us all a really good meal."

Diane's face lit up immediately. "Yes please!" she said with a broad grin.

10.45 pm De-briefing and Briefing

While the three of us were preparing to go out, I had noticed how gaunt Diane was and how worn and shabby some of her clothes were. When we were ready to go out, Diane put on a thick hip-length cardigan under her coat and wound her scarf over her mouth and nose before pulling her cloche hat down as far as it would go. "I know I look silly like this," she said, "but I get so cold in the winter." I remembered how poverty-stricken I had been as a young woman working my way round Europe and suspected that Diane was having to skimp on necessities like food and clothing in order to make ends meet. I resolved to find a way to improve her finances without embarrassing her.

We had en excellent dinner at the restaurant originally recommended to us by Diane. I watched with approving amazement as Diane packed away far more food than either Sarah or I could possibly manage.

I had meant to de-brief Diane discreetly on the attack she had suffered. As it turned out, she talked non-stop about anything and everything and told us about the whole incident without any encouragement. It seemed that she had returned from the cabaret to find a man and a woman searching through her room. She had stormed into the room and told them to clear off. One of them had pulled a gun on her and ordered her to shut up. She ruefully admitted that she had carried on shouting at them, whereupon she had been struck in the face with the gun. (She gently fingered the bruise on her cheek.) After that, she had woken up bound, gagged and blindfolded as we had found her.

Sarah and I decided that we really had to ensure that Diane remained safe during the remainder of our time in Graz and possibly thereafter as well. Diane protested but buckled under pressure. We decided, as an interim measure that, Diane would spend the night in Sarah's and my room and we would make better arrangements the next day.

Later, as we were about to prepare for bed, Diane had another shock. She had just spotted the 2-shot Derringer which I had been carrying while we were out. (The Webley is far too big to carry discreetly unless I can pass it off as a stage prop.) I have a small fabric holster for carrying the Derringer which hangs from my garter belt (to use the American term) and has an elastic strap round my thigh at the muzzle end. Diane blanched visibly. "This isn't a game is it?" she asked in a small, scared voice.

I told Diane the truth - I confirmed that it was most certainly not a game and there were some very dangerous people involved. I did my best to reassure Diane, but the world had clearly become a darker and more frightening place for her.

Tuesday 25 January 1938

8.00 am Back in the Café

Sarah, Diane and I breakfasted in the Jewish café which had become a regular early morning haunt for Sarah and me.

I broached the question of accommodation with our friend the café proprietress, whom I now knew as Frau Goldmann. She immediately insisted that we had to stay there in her family rooms above the café. With difficulty, I negotiated a room rate which was a reasonable business proposition for her rather than a charitable donation towards us.

I was pleased with the arrangement we had made. Quite apart from a vast improvement in comfort, we would have a much safer base to work from than we had in the horrible hotel.

Sarah, Diane and I transferred our belongings to the café immediately after breakfast then dispersed to our respective rehearsals.

Thursday 27 January 1938

8.00 pm Cabaret

The next few days passed uneventfully. As a precaution, either Sarah or I escorted Diane any time she had to go out after dark, but nothing untoward happened.

On Thursday, Sarah and I had a free evening. There had been a matinée performance that day, but not an evening one. Accordingly, we took the opportunity of a visit to the club where Diane was performing, partly for pleasure and partly to see Diane in action as a dancer.

Sarah and I chose a table where we could see clearly, but reasonably secluded so that we could converse easily. We were mixing our pleasure with a little business. As we enjoyed our drinks and watched the various acts in the cabaret show, we also had a notebook spread between us and were working out the contents of our act for each evening of our next engagement in Vienna.

The cabaret was of a high standard. Other than an American magician named Brian, whom I had seen before, all the performers were new to me.

To my utter embarrassment, the compère of the cabaret recognised Sarah and me. We found ourselves picked out by a spotlight and being named to the rest of the audience. We stood up and bowed to the gratuitous applause of the rest of the audience. Behind my fixed smile, I harboured uncharitable thoughts about the compère.

Sarah and I put down our notebook and paid full attention to the show when Diane came on. She was dressed in a magnificent red Spanish flamenco costume. The raised heels of her shoes and the comb and mantilla decorating her hair must have put her overall height well over six feet. The haughty unmoving expression appropriate for dancing the flamenco was slightly compromised by the conspiratorial wink she shot at me as she came on stage.

For her first dance, Diane had a partner - a slender young man in a black shirt and tight black trousers. He too had the proud bearing of the flamenco dancer and could dance magnificently.

After another two dances, Diane performed her solo finale. As the band started playing, Diane looked straight at us and performed the first few steps of the dance, her heels crashing down on the stage in a complex rhythm.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Sarah start with surprise. She grabbed the notepad and pencil and sat with it poised ready, all without taking her eyes off Diane. Sarah nodded once and Diane started dancing again. Sarah began writing, and as I looked at the pad, I saw the neat, economical block capitals of the experienced telegrapher. Only then did my ears tune in properly. Diane was dancing a perfectly executed flamenco. She was exactly in time with the music, but her complex footwork carried another rhythm too - the clatter of her heels on the stage also carried a message plain to those who could read it, in Morse code.

Sarah was better trained in Morse telegraphy than I. While I tried to retain the message in my head and catch all the letters as I heard them, she allowed her reflexes to take over and automatically wrote each letter as it came to her at a steady 12 words per minute, one letter every second.

I edged my chair closer to Sarah's, so I could see the text which had emerged, complete with its correct start and end of message codes:

KA

TWO MEN AT DOOR. WATCHING ME. WATCHING YOU TOO. ONE TIED ME UP. FOLLOW ME OUT AT END.

VA

Sarah nodded at Diane and the dance went on.

I looked round surreptitiously - there were indeed two men at the door, who appeared to be in an innocuous conversation together.

Diane's dance finished and while the audience applauded, we discreetly left our seats and walked towards the side of the room where the door used by the performers was situated. We reached the door at the same time as Diane and the three of us went through it together. "Follow me," said Diane and led us along a series of corridors at a brisk walk. She stopped outside a door and fished a key out of the top of her dress. She unlocked the door and waved me into the room ahead of her.

8.30 pm Ambush and Counter Attack

I stopped dead halfway through the door. Sitting waiting was the woman whose path we had crossed in Salzburg and who had been in the guise of a housekeeper the first time we met her. She held a small automatic pistol and was aiming it at my head. "Do come in, Fräulein MacKenzie," she invited, "and keep your hands in sight, please. I am certain you are carrying a weapon somewhere." I raised my hands and walked in as instructed. Diane shuffled into the room somewhat hesitantly behind me. "All of you come right in and shut the door," the housekeeper ordered. Sarah did as instructed.

The housekeeper's attention was focussed firmly on me. She rose from her chair, keeping the gun pointed at me as she did so. I was aware that Diane was no longer behind me and had edged round to my right. I wondered what she was up to - I could sense her tension and suspected that she had a plan. I was worried - amateurs can be dangerously unpredictable in situations like this.

I did not have to wait long for Diane's plan to become apparent. It was unexpected and blindingly fast when it came. Her right leg came up in a clean arc which ended as the toe of her heavy flamenco shoe struck the housekeeper just behind the left ear. The housekeeper was knocked over by the impact and ended up semi-conscious in a heap on the floor. She had not pulled the trigger when she was hit, which was fortunate for me, as I was looking straight down the barrel at the time. I bent down and relieved her of the gun, a German police-issue 7.65mm Walther PPK.

"Let's kill the bitch," said Diane bitterly. Evidently this was the woman whom Diane had disturbed in her room on Monday evening.

I shook my head. "No, too risky - the Police will be involved," I told Diane firmly, "We should just tie her up and leave her here - she won't want to involve the authorities. We need to move fast before those others we saw get here. And, Diane, you had better gather up your things - tonight was your last night here." Diane nodded meekly as the implications began to sink in.

While Diane set to work clearing her dressing room and loading all her possessions into a big leather travelling bag, Sarah and I searched our prisoner.

The housekeeper had no other weapons about her person. However, we discovered that she had come well equipped for her mission. Out of her coat pockets, we retrieved three pairs of handcuffs, a small bundle of rope and some rags.

I decided to start by gagging the housekeeper before she had a chance to gather her wits enough to scream. Sarah stood guard with the gun we had taken off her. I forced one of the rags into her mouth and tied in place with another. Next, I pulled her hands round behind her back and snapped one of the pairs of handcuffs onto her wrists. The housekeeper's ankles looked quite slender, so I tried another pair of handcuffs and discovered that they would just fit.

Diane was keeping an eye on developments while she was packing. "Now tie her hands and feet together," she encouraged, "That's what she did to me!" That seemed to be as good an approach as any, so I rolled the housekeeper over onto her stomach on the floor. I grabbed the cuffs on her ankles by the chain and started pulling up and then towards her head, so that her knees bent and her feet were drawn towards her hands. At the same time, I pulled the cuffs on her wrists towards her feet. This was clearly causing the housekeeper some discomfort from the muffled squeals she was making. Finally, I was able to grasp both chains together in one hand. I took the third pair of handcuff and snapped one cuff closed round the chains of the wrist and ankle cuffs.

The housekeeper was now secure but needed to be hidden somewhere. I looked round the room. There was a built-in wardrobe which Diane had now emptied except for some costumes which belonged to the club. I decided that would do nicely and, with Diane's assistance, moved her in there. There was a heating pipe passing through the back of the wardrobe, so I rolled the housekeeper onto one side, reached over her and snapped the remaining cuff of the third pair of handcuffs onto the pipe.

From the noises she was making through her gag, the housekeeper was in considerable discomfort, but I was not about to make any concessions to her. Diane and I surveyed my work critically. "Blindfold," she said after a moment's consideration. I still had a piece of rag left over from the housekeeper's own supplies, so I used that as a blindfold, then shut and locked the wardrobe door.

Diane was by this time dressed in her own clothes and had finished packing her bag. "Time to go," I announced. I hitched my skirt up and retrieved my Derringer from its holster, transferring it to my coat pocket. Sarah looked cautiously out into the corridor and confirmed that all was clear. We filed out of the room and locked the door behind us.

Diane had clearly begun to sense the urgency of the situation and took the initiative. "There's a back door," she said, "This way, follow me." She set off at a trot and after a few twists and turns, we arrived at a kitchen. We walked through calmly as if nothing were amiss and out through the service door at the far end.

A short walk down a snow-covered alley took us out onto a street. There were a few pedestrians around, so we would not be too conspicuous and exposed. I decided that our best policy would be to keep moving and hail a cab if we saw one, but otherwise to walk back to our lodgings. On the way, I asked Diane about her proficiency with Morse code. "Girl Guides," she replied succinctly.

In the event, we did not see a cab until we were already within sight of the café. We walked past the diners who were there and went straight into the kitchen. Diane was visibly trembling, probably from delayed shock as much as the cold. Frau Goldmann was concerned at the state Diane was in and immediately started fussing over her. Within minutes, Diane had been divested of her snowy hat, coat and shoes and was sitting in front of the kitchen fire, wrapped in a blanket and working her way steadily through a huge bowl of chicken soup. Sarah and I were left to sort ourselves out.

Over the soup, we reviewed the situation. Defending Diane seemed to have become an important secondary objective of our mission and we still had to do one more night's performance in Graz, before getting to Vienna in one piece. I concluded that it was essential to concentrate our resources and made a decision, "You start your new engagement as a dancing magician's assistant tomorrow, Diane. Ten shillings each performance and I pay your expenses."

Diane stared at me with wide eyes. "Golly," she said, at a loss for words for once.

"I think she will be rather good," commented Sarah after a moment's thought, "Welcome to the crew."

Friday 28 January 1938

10.00 am Planning

We had a busy day ahead of us. Sarah and I had to re-plan the evening's act to incorporate Diane sensibly. Diane had to get used to working with us and I had set her the challenge of improvising a dance number to fit between the first and second parts of our act.

While Sarah busied herself checking and maintaining props in one corner of the stage, Diane and I discussed music with the bandmaster. We settled on an arrangement of Saint-Saëns' Danse Macabre and I borrowed his conductor's copy of the score.

11.00 am Costume

Sarah and I had plenty of costumes for the two of us, but fitting out Diane was going to be problematic. Diane was taller than me and much thinner. We found a short black beaded dress of mine, which Diane pronounced suitable for dancing and which would fit with very minor alterations. Diane tried on a pair of my tights, but they were hopelessly too short for her.

I took Diane to see the wardrobe mistress for the theatre's own chorus line and managed to sweet-talk her into lending Diane two pairs of black tights for the day.

All the details were beginning to fall into place and all three of us were feeling the mixture of fear and exhilaration that goes with any new enterprise on stage.

12.00 Rehearsal

I had managed to book us two hours in the theatre's rehearsal room by pleading dire circumstances with the stage manager.

The rehearsal room was on a level with the stage, so Sarah was able to use it as a workshop to finish preparing and testing props. Once she had done that, she sat down with the dress Diane was to wear and busied herself with the alterations that would be needed.

While Sarah dealt with her jobs, Diane and I settled down to work out the dance number. I blundered my way through an impromptu piano arrangement of Danse Macabre on the basis of the orchestral score. While Diane listened to the music through once, she changed into her practice tunic and one of the pairs of borrowed tights. The rehearsal room was freezing - I was glad to be wearing slacks and a sweater, but poor Diane had to manage with just a shawl round her shoulders and her woollen legwarmers. Section by section, Diane worked up a routine until she had a full three minutes while I selected the passages of music we would use and which we would omit and marked up the score for the bandmaster.

At 1.30, we were both reasonably happy, so Diane tried on the costume and we did a full run-through. There were rough edges, but it would have to do. We broke for a late but very welcome lunch.

4.00 Walk-through

I had booked the stage for half an hour so that we could do a final walk-through with the props in place.

Sarah and I were now also wearing our practice costumes of thin sweaters and tights. The three of us stood shivering on an empty stage. Diane broke into a broad grin. "I love being on stage - I live for this," she said, "Come on, let's make this act fly!" Sarah and I exchanged glances - what more enthusiasm could we ask for in an assistant?

Sarah and I guided Diane through her moves and checked our own. There were lots of pauses while we made minor changes to the positions of props or while one of us went to the back of the auditorium to check sight-lines. At the end of our half hour, we were content and we had marked out the positions for the props with pieces of coloured paper tape stuck to the stage.

5.30 pm Learning the Ropes

We all returned to the café for a light meal and some more rehearsal before the performance.

Frau Goldmann was ready for us and had a meal prepared. Sarah and I ate sparingly as we always did before a performance - enough to take the edge off the appetite but not enough to fill us up. Diane happily tucked into everything that was on offer. I noticed that while she was still very slim, which I took to be her natural shape, her face had lost some of the gauntness I had observed a few days previously.

I had a last surprise to spring on Diane. She already knew that we started the act with a quick demonstration tie-up and escape. What she didn't know was that she would be the one doing the tying.

We retired to our room and started teaching Diane the basics of tying someone up. She picked up the moves she would need that evening quite quickly, but cracked up laughing while we were putting it all together. "How can I possibly do this to you in public?" she asked, "In front of all those people!" After a few minutes of hilarity, we all re-focused and finished the rehearsal.

8.30 pm Show Time

We stood waiting nervously in the wings while we were announced. "Break a leg," I whispered to Diane and squeezed her hand. As soon as the barker had finished introducing us, the three of us swept on, all wearing long black cloaks that flowed out behind us. I stepped to the front of the stage and introduced Diane as our new assistant. As I did so, I deliberately stood in front of Sarah, masking her from the audience. She stepped out from behind me and struck a defiant pose with a toss of her head. Establishing the illusion of tension between the two assistants was part of the theme for that night's performance.

We all shed our cloaks, revealing Diane in the borrowed dress and Sarah and me in the usual gym knickers and camisole tops that we wore. Sarah carried our props table with a pile of rope on it in from the wings.

The first item was the demonstration tie-up and escape I had rehearsed with Diane. She made a great play of going right to the front of the stage and taking a deep bow, while Sarah feigned disgust. The audience was catching on and we heard a little laughter. I turned my back on the audience and crossed my wrists behind my back. Diane tied my wrists, making a shoelace-style bow with the ends of the rope. I turned round and stepped back about eight feet. Diane then tied my ankles, also finishing it with a neat bow.

I squatted, then dived down into a forward roll on the stage, finishing by jumping to my feet right at the edge of the stage. I actually rolled through the loop of my bound arms, so my wrists were still tied but were now in front of me. I raised them up to make the point to the audience and heard a satisfying "Ooh!" in response. I pulled the bow undone with my teeth, then leant down and untied my ankles. I spread my arms and bowed before appealing for volunteers to see if they could do a better job of tying me up than Diane had.

As the first volunteer came up, Sarah made a great play of elbowing Diane out of the way to guide the volunteer to the centre of the stage. Diane stood by with her hands on her hips and tapping one foot. There was another ripple of laughter from the audience - they were clearly enjoying the rivalry.

8.35 pm Target Practice

After the escape challenges, the main curtains opened to reveal our apparatus for the main part of the act - a large stopclock, a crossbow on a stand and the stake on its curtained platform which we had used for the Fireproof Nun Escape.

While Sarah and I busied ourselves preparing the props, Diane performed her interpretation of Danse Macabre. She added a big black sequinned shawl to her costume, sometimes wrapping herself up in it, sometimes trailing it on the floor and sometimes waving it like a banner. Her dance was suitably sinister and mysterious and the applause she received was warm and genuine.

Sarah was to be the escaper for this item and my job was to tell the audience what was going on. I showed them the crossbow and to show it was genuine, I sent Sarah to hang a target on the stake. I held a bolt aloft, placed it on the crossbow, aimed and pulled the trigger. The bolt transfixed the target and, as the centre of the target was a thin self-detonating theatrical maroon, there was a hefty bang and a puff of smoke as it did so. The audience produced a satisfying gasp.

I retrieved the bolt and explained to the audience that Sarah's job was to escape from the ropes which would secure her to the stake before she too was skewered by a crossbow bolt. I appealed for two scrutineers to watch me tie Sarah up. Diane ushered the volunteers on stage, then stood back, wrapped in her shawl and looking grim and menacing.

My first job was to tie Sarah's wrists. She held her hands out in front of her, palm-to-palm, with her fingers curled into fists. I took a 15 foot length of rope from the props table with a flourish and showed it to the scrutineers. I found the centre of the rope then positioned that below her wrists. I brought the ends up either side of her wrists, then wrapped then round in opposite directions several times. I twisted the free ends of rope round each other, then cinched the binding with several turns between her wrists. Finally, I knotted the ends and made sure the knot was out of reach of her fingers. The scrutineers examined and approved the completed binding.

Next, I led Sarah to the stake. As Sarah is shorter than me, we had a small stool in front of the stake for her to stand on. Sarah stood on the stool and I invited the scrutineers to examine the metal rings fastened to the stake, pointing out the features of the top one. They examined the one I had pointed to, then the one below and pronounced themselves satisfied.

I took a long length of very thick rope and passed it through the top ring, on the front face of the stake at Sarah's neck level. The rope was brought forward over both her shoulders and crossed in front of her chest. Next, it went through the rings on each side of the stake at waist level. The ends of the rope were brought forward, crossed again and threaded through the rings at mid-thigh level. They were crossed again and passed through the last pair of rings, just below Sarah's knees knees. Finally, the ends of the rope were brought together and knotted in front of Sarah's shins. The roping also pinned her bound hands to her body.

To finish off, I produced another target and pinned it to Sarah's costume, so that the bullseye was positioned approximately over her heart. I told the audience that this would be my aiming point and that if we heard the maroon explode then we would know that Sarah had come to a sticky end.

I went over to the crossbow next and cocked it then set it up so that it was pointed at the centre of the target. I invited the scrutineers to check my aim and they confirmed that it was indeed aimed at Sarah's heart.

At this point, I closed the screens round the stake, pointing out that the aim was certain and the fabric of the screens would not impede the bolt's flight.

I announced to the audience that I proposed to give Sarah two minutes to escape her predicament. I explained that the stopclock would count down to two minutes and at the end of that time would automatically fire the crossbow. I called out, "Are you ready?" to Sarah and she confirmed that she was. "Starting the clock now!" I announced dramatically and set it going.

The clock had a single hand which would sweep right round the dial once in two minutes. The audience watched it go through the first half minute's travel in silence. At that point, Diane rushed forward and shouted, "Let's make it a bit harder!" She grabbed the clock hand and swept it round to the zero position. As soon as the hand reached zero, the crossbow fired and we heard the report of the maroon exploding. The audience responded with an appropriate mix of gasps and screams.

I rushed to the platform in obvious panic and flung the screens aside. The crossbow bolt was buried deep in the stake, transfixing the target. Sarah was sitting on the stool, nonchalantly smoking a cigarette in a long holder and reading a copy of Variety (which we hoped the audience would recognise). Sarah looked up at me, gestured to Variety and said, "I'm looking for a new job - this one is getting dangerous!"

The audience audibly heaved a sigh of relief. Sarah jumped to her feet and embraced Diane to show the rivalry was all an act. The three of us then held hands and bowed to the audience acknowledging our applause.

As usual, the trick was a web of lies and deception from beginning to end. My initial tying of Sarah's wrists was completely fraudulent - I arranged to hand her a huge loop of slack which was concealed between her wrists and, by the time the scrutineers got a close look, completely hidden by the rest of the rope. The mechanism that releases the chains for the Flameproof Nun Escape works equally well for rope and I made sure that the scrutineers only examined the honest rings on the stake.

Although the audience were told that Sarah would begin her escape when I started the stopclock, she actually started nearly a minute earlier as soon as I has closed the screens round the stake. A quick press on the release pedal allowed Sarah to wriggle out from the rope securing her to the stake. She next freed her hands by redistributing the hidden slack and then pulling her hands free as soon as they were loose. With her hands free, she could then remove the rest of the rope from the stake, neatly coil both lengths of rope, fasten the target to the stake, produce the copy of Variety (actually only the four outermost pages) hidden inside her costume and retrieve the cigarette and holder taped to the bottom of the stool. Finally, a small hidden catch released a tiny green flag attached to the bottom of the platform, almost imperceptible to the audience, but the "all clear" signal to Diane and me.

Diane's cue was either the stopclock reaching the half minute mark or the green flag appearing, whichever came later. Turning the stopclock hand round was merely a misdirection - the crossbow was actually triggered by a lanyard hidden behind the clock.

9.00 pm Curtain Call

As we left the stage, Sarah and I congratulated Diane on her debût as a magician's assistant.

After a few minutes rest while the finale of the show took place, the three of us took our curtain call with the rest of the evening's performers. When we left the stage, we all headed off in different directions. Sarah went backstage to supervise handling and storage of our props (which we would not properly pack until the next morning). I went to the theatre manager's office to collect our fees and to discuss future bookings with the impresario who had put the show together. Diane went to our dressing room to get changed and to start packing our smaller items.

When I returned to the dressing room, it was empty, so I made some space amongst the open cases and trunks and started getting changed out of my costume. I was still getting dressed when Sarah returned. We looked at each other, then both said, "Where's Diane?" Each of us thought she was with the other.

We looked round the dressing room a little more carefully. Diane's costume was in one of the cases and her own clothes were no longer hanging up. The packing appeared to have been abandoned unfinished.

We were driven to the inevitable conclusion that Diane had been abducted in the few minutes we had left her alone.

Copyright © 1999 Gillian B

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