Sarah had gone off to the magic shop where I had deposited a code book disguised as an ordinary book on magic by Houdini. Her task was to pass on the instructions on how the book was to be used. Diane and I became worried when she failed to return within a reasonable time and went off in search. We discovered that the shop had been shut up and the blinds pulled down. Peering under one of the blinds, I was able to make out Sarah sitting on the floor in the middle of the shop. She appeared to have been manacled. I suspected a trap.
Diane and I had a brief conference in an adjacent doorway. I outlined a two-pronged strategy which might well allow us an element of surprise, despite the ambush that had probably been laid for us. I was also armed with my revolver and was quite prepared to shoot our way out of any situation that might arise.
The doorway where we stood, I reasoned, probably led to a staircase serving the flats above and probably also led to a door into the back premises of the shop. I drew a set of skeleton keys out of my pocket and set to work. After about a minute, I had the door open and we slipped quietly through. We were in a dark corridor with a stair at one side and a door at the far end. From the light streaming under the door, it was obviously in the back wall of the building. Adjacent to this door was another door in the side wall of the corridor. Common sense suggested that this led into the back of the shop. I surreptitiously picked it open too.
My plan was to enter the shop noisily from the front while Diane entered quietly from the back. Diane and I started counting synchronised seconds, "Elephant one, elephant two, elephant three..." and I dashed back to the street. I crept up to the glazed front door of the shop and as the count reached thirty, I hit the door frame as hard as I could with my left shoulder. With a loud splintering noise, the wood around the lock gave way and the glass cracked.
I quickly took in Sarah manacled and gagged on the floor, but no-one else obviously in sight. Sarah has trying to yell something round her gag. Just then another figure appeared from the back of the shop, working his way through the clutter that filled it. It was the man who had attempted to rob us in Innsbruck at the beginning of our tour of Austria. I mentally noted that I had been naïve to discount him as a mere thief. He had a gun which he pointed at Sarah until I raised my hands and then he turned it towards me and grinned. It was not a pleasant grin.
As I waited to see what would happen next, Diane had crept into the shop from the back premises and was making her way through the maze of goods until she came up behind the man. She could move as silently as a cat when she needed to. Last time we had met, I had tried the old trick of staring over his shoulder to make him look round, and it had worked. I tried it again as a double bluff and that worked too - the more I looked behind him the more he fixed his gaze on me. That way he missed seeing the chair that Diane was now holding above her head. As she swung it down, I dived for the floor. The man caught a glimpse of movement from the corner of his eye, but too late to avoid the chair as it crashed across his head and shoulders. He pulled the trigger reflexively as he was hit and a bullet flew through the space where I had been standing a fraction of a second before.
The chair did not disintegrate in the true Hollywood fashion, but the frame was knocked well out of shape by the impact. The man lay unconscious in a crumpled heap on the floor, blood trickling from a cut on the back of his head. Diane was nursing jarred hands and looking rather surprised that she had been hurt too.
I turned my attention to Sarah. She was very securely manacled, presumably using goods from the magic shop. She was sitting on the floor with her knees raised, He hands were down next to her feet. Her wrists and ankles were secured by U-shaped steel shackles all threaded on a single steel bar and held in place by a padlock at one end. A pair of leg-irons had been fitted to her arms just above the elbows, with the chain passing below her knees. She was gagged with a large wooden ball in her mouth. A chain passed though a hole drilled through the ball and was padlocked behind her head. She looked very uncomfortable.
I selected my smallest skeleton key and offered it up to the padlock on Sarah's gag. It was far too big, so I helped myself to one of Sarah's hairpins and worked away with that. After a short while, the padlock sprang open and I removed the chain then eased the wooden ball out of Sarah's mouth. She swallowed a few times then croaked, "Thanks."
"What about the shopkeeper?" I asked, worried.
"I don't know," replied Sarah, mirroring my worry. "I never saw her. Better go and look, I'll be all right a little longer."
I nodded and stood up. "Ist jemand hier?" I called out. ("Is there anyone here?") We heard a muffled thump from somewhere. I carried on calling out while Diane and I wandered around the shop with its immense clutter of magical bits and pieces trying to locate the source of the sound.
Eventually I came to a tall black cabinet, evidently where the noise was coming from. I recognised it as a 'spirit cabinet', used by stage magicians masquerading as mediums or, sadly, by fake mediums masquerading as the real thing. The idea of the spirit cabinet is that the medium should be firmly bound within it and therefore supposedly unable to perform the miraculous signs and wonders which take place during the séance.
The double doors on the front of the cabinet were bolted shut. I drew the bolts back and opened the doors. Inside, there was a heavy wooden chair integral with the framework of the cabinet. The shopkeeper was sitting in the chair and securely strapped into it. As restraints, the chair in the cabinet had strong leather straps fitted to grip the wrists, upper arms, chest, waist, ankles and knees of the would-be medium. She was also gagged with a thick white cloth jammed between her teeth and knotted behind her head. She had just enough freedom of movement to kick the door, and that was the noise we had heard.
Spirit cabinets usually have a secret means of escape from the restraints, so I was surprised to see the shopkeeper held so firmly as she, presumably, knew the cabinet's secrets. I removed her gag and she worked her mouth, trying to get her voice back again, while I methodically unstrapped her from the chair. As I freed her ankles, I discovered the secret pedal which would have released the wrist straps if it had not been jammed with a coin.
I helped the shopkeeper to her feet and supported her as she regained her balance, somewhat stiffly then guided her to a chair and helped her sit down.
Diane had been busy in the mean time. She had bound and gagged the intruder quite efficiently with various ropes, straps and rags she had found in the shop. Sarah, still manacled, was offering advice and guidance as Diane finished off the job. Diane had also found a bottle of brandy and a glass, which she pointed out to me. I poured a stiff measure and handed it to the shopkeeper, who acknowledged it gratefully.
While the shopkeeper sipped the brandy, I resumed work freeing Sarah. Less than five minutes work with a skeleton key had her free but stiff and bruised. She announced, however, that she was fit and well and ready for action. As the shopkeeper was now clearly also feeling much better, Sarah passed over the briefing information she had meant to deliver.
The shopkeeper handed me a bunch of keys directed me to a locked cupboard. I was surprised to find a shotgun and a box of cartridges in it. I brought them back to her and she sat guard over our prisoner with the gun across her lap. She told us that she was fully in charge of the situation now and sent us briskly on our way while she waited for reinforcements to arrive.
It dawned on me that in making contact and handing over our cipher materials, we had accomplished the mission we had set out to from London to do. All that remained was to get ourselves out of Austria alive and without compromising any of the Patriotic Movement.
If we were to leave Austria immediately, we had to decide what to do with our stage props. The two options were simply to abandon them or to send them on for collection somewhere. Abandoning our props would attract no attention while we escaped, but would make our sudden exit very obvious afterwards. If we announced the curtailment of our tour and sent the props on elsewhere, it would not be too unreasonable, given the increasing level of civil unrest in the country.
We tossed ideas around, coming to no serious conclusion. The decision rested with me and I elected that we should openly terminate our tour. Only the props we would need for the night's performance has been unpacked. All the rest was in the pile of packing cases that had been delivered from Graz. I left directions with the theatre that the cases be left packed and be re-labelled to go to a theatre in Pressburg (the German name for Bratislava in the Slovak part of Czechoslovakia). I arranged customs declarations and booked the props to be picked up immediately after the evening's performance. I would cable the unsuspecting theatre from London to tell them what to do with our gear. Hopefully, anyone concerned about what our luggage might conceal would happily follow it to Bratislava while we went elsewhere.
I apologised to the theatre manager, citing our fears for our safety as British subjects (which was almost true). He was very understanding and hoped that we would return in more peaceful times.
All three of us were more nervous than usual as we prepared to go on stage. Our billing in the show demanded that we be on relatively late. After some haggling, the theatre manager had agreed to us being on about halfway through the second half of the show. We listened as the compère (rather unusually, a woman, at this theatre) finished announcing us, "...aus England, die erstklassigen Ausbrechskunstlerinen, MacKenzie und Marks mit Diane." ("...from England, the first-class escape artists MacKenzie and Marks with Diane.")
We trotted on stage acknowledging our applause and launched into our act. Diane and I were in long evening gowns, mine red and hers white, while Sarah was all in dramatic black, with a tight sequinned top, satin knickers, silk tights and satin elbow length gloves.
For the first part of the act, we performed our usual escape challenges. I acted as anchorwoman for Sarah, who performed the escape challenges. Diane filled the essential role of usher, selecting volunteers from the audience and guiding them on stage. While her mastery of German was not great, it was sufficient for that purpose. All went smoothly and the audience seemed quite well engaged by it. No-one won any of our gold sovereigns, but Sarah made sure that it looked like a close contest on a couple of occasions.
Towards the end of the first part of the act, as soon as the last volunteer had been shown on stage, Diane slipped away to change. As had now become customary, she would perform a short dance number while the stage was being prepared for our main act.
Sarah started preparing the stage while I smiled at the audience and whipped my dress off. It was fastened with a very loose running stitch designed to break away and opened to reveal a costume identical to Sarah's.
As I turned to help Sarah, Diane came on stage, dressed somewhat like a soldier. I say somewhat, because, although she wore a military tunic (albeit of a rather comic-opera style), she wore only black tights and tall black shiny boots below the waist. Her costume was topped off with a tall black shako with a white cockade.
Diane carried a dummy wooden musket with which she carried out a rather provocative parody of parade-ground drill to Schubert's Marche Militaire. Her legs were certainly far more shapely than those of any soldier I had ever seen. From the reaction of the audience, it was clear that most of the men there thought much the same thing.
By the end of Diane's dance number, we were ready for the climax of the show. The first part of the act had taken place with just the first pair of stage curtains open. The second pair were now open to reveal a large pile of sandbags at the back of the stage. Towards the front of the stage, we had placed a heavy wooden chair (on the left as the audience saw it) and a complicated metal stand on the right, whose purpose would not be immediately obvious to the audience. Between the two, there was a much lighter stand, also made of metal.
I stood centre stage and addressed the audience. I explained that I was now about to perform the death-defying feat of catching a bullet in my teeth. Sarah held our stage pistol aloft, nickel plated and pearl handled, but otherwise a perfectly standard and deadly Webley and Scott service pistol. As I continued speaking, Sarah clamped the pistol on to the large metal stand so that its muzzle was about four feet off the floor and pointing towards the chair.
I explained that, while I was confident, there always remained the element of risk and that, should I fail or should anything go wrong, the consequences for me would be immediate, fatal and unpleasant to witness. I then invited any member of the audience who was of a nervous disposition to leave now, should they so wish. One woman in the front row of the stalls immediately stood up and made her way, clearly in some agitation, to the exit doors. The rest of the audience watched her departure with interest but made no move to follow her.
Diane was back on stage by this point, now dressed in the same costume that Sarah and I were wearing. I called for two volunteers from the audience to act as witnesses and Diane ushered them on stage. I assured the audience that the volunteers were complete strangers to us and went through the routine of asking each of them is they had met Sarah, Diane or me before. They gravely assured me that they had not, which was a bare-faced lie, for the volunteers had been carefully planted beforehand and were none other than Klaus von Immelhausen and Dr Schäler. It was not critical for the illusion that we had stooges, but I did not want anyone on stage with us whom we did not know and trust.
I told the audience that Diane and I would stay near the chair and away from Sarah, who would fire the gun. The bullet would be marked and identifiable and there would therefore be no means of passing it from Sarah to me except via the barrel of the gun.
First of all, I explained, there would be a test run. Sarah drew a round from a cartridge box on a small prop table, chambered it in the clamped revolver, closed the cylinder and pulled the hammer back. Meanwhile, I placed a wooden stand on the chair, with a balloon and a sandbag where my head would be if I was sitting there. Lastly, Sarah placed a large china plate on the smaller stand, so it was in the path from the muzzle of the gun to the balloon.
I stood back from the chair. Sarah returned to the revolver. The stand for the gun had a mechanism for squeezing the trigger when a lanyard was pulled. Sarah now operated this. The shot was startlingly loud (gunshots are always louder than people expect). The plate shattered and the balloon vanished as the bullet buried itself in the sandbag, which was also clearly punctured and leaking sand.
I turned to face the audience, "It all seems to be working correctly." A ripple of nervous laughter passed through the theatre.
I announced that Sarah would now mark a bullet, if one of the volunteers would like to name two letters of the alphabet, possibly their initials. Von Immelhausen offered M.I., his wife's initials (Magda von Immelhausen). Sarah draw a round from a cartridge box on a small prop table and took it behind the sandbag wall.
I removed the sandbag then sighted over the back of the chair towards the revolver, adjusted its position minutely and sat down. Diane produced a series of long white silk scarves from the prop table at our side of the stage. She knelt down beside me and bound my ankles to the chair legs. As Diane was doing that, I continued my commentary, explaining that Sarah would stamp the required letters into the bullet to be used.
Just then the banging of Sarah's hammer as she impressed the chosen letters on the bullet was interrupted by a loud report from behind the sandbags, startling the already tense audience. I reassured them that this sometimes happened but that everyone was safe and that was the reason for the sandbags and, besides, we still had plenty more bullets.
Diane continued binding me to the chair. More silk scarves held my legs just below my knees, one went round my waist and the back of the chair and another round my chest, just above my bust and below my armpits.
Sarah emerged from behind the sandbags carrying a live revolver round in a long pair of tongs. She showed it to each of the volunteers who confirmed that the bullet now had M.I. punched into the metal. Sarah flipped open the cylinder of the clamped revolver and, still using the tongs, she slid the round into one of the chambers and snapped the cylinder home.
Diane was now almost finished binding me. She bound my wrists and elbows to the uprights at the sides of the chair back. I pointed out to the audience that I could no longer move, so my only chance was to catch the bullet.
Sarah pulled back the hammer to cock the revolver and invited the two volunteers to confirm that the only chamber occupied was the one under the hammer and that (as far as they could tell) it contained the marked round and also to confirm that the gun was aimed at my mouth.
Sarah now moved to the other stand and placed another plate on it, checking that it was accurately in the line of fire between the revolver and my mouth.
Diane's last job was to blindfold me with a thick piece of white linen towelling. She then stood back, well upstage of me, quite literally out of the line of fire.
"Bereit!" I called out. ("Ready.") The band started a long drumroll then Sarah pulled the lanyard. There was the report of the gun firing with a puff of smoke from the barrel, the plate was smashed and I rocked back alarmingly in my chair, with the front legs lifting off the stage, before banging back down again.
I was slumped forward in the chair, hanging my head. I waited a few seconds as alarmed murmuring spread through the audience, then lifted my head and turned it to face into the auditorium. The murmurs sounded audibly relieved.
Diane came forward carrying a big round brandy glass. I spat a bullet into it with an audible clink. She then carried the glass across to Sarah and our volunteers, carefully not touching its contents with her hands. Von Immelhausen lifted the bullet out of the glass and shook his head in astonishment. He had the presence of mind to remember he was on stage and spoke out loudly to confirm that this was indeed the marked bullet he had seen chambered in the gun. Sarah invited him to retrieve the spent cartridge from the gun and he did so, sniffing it and confirming that it was genuine and had clearly just been discharged.
By this time Diane had untied me and I went over to join the others, then turned to the audience and thanked them. I led the audience in applause for our volunteers and that duly turned into applause for us which I gracefully acknowledged.
A large measure of stage magic is to look your audience in their collective eye and, with the ring of purest sincerity in your voice, tell them the most blatant lies.
Let's start with the parts that were really true. The gun was real. the first plate we broke was real and the balloon and sandbag were real. I was genuinely helpless when I was tied up. Almost everything else was lies and fraud.
The woman who left in agitation was in fact a theatre employee. Those in seats around her would have been surprised to see her leave so soon, as she had only occupied a previously vacant seat a few minutes beforehand.
The cartridge used for the demonstration was loaded with only a half-charge of nitro-cellulose propellant. This was partly for safety, but also to make it less loud than it would otherwise be. Also a half charge was plenty for firing at a target only 20 feet away.
The round apparently accidentally discharged by Sarah behind the sandbags was actually a theatrical maroon being fired to make a satisfyingly loud bang.
The second revolver round produced was a complete fake. The brass cartridge case was real, but contained only a small fraction of the full charge of powder. The bullet was moulded out of a form of glycerine soap, cleverly coloured to resemble the jacket metal of a real pistol bullet. Sarah used real punches to inscribe letters on the bullet, but hand held and applied gently rather than being struck with a hammer. Sarah never allowed the volunteers to touch the fake bullet or feel its weight.
On being fired, the fake bullet would be destroyed almost instantly by the heat of the passage down the barrel. The few remaining fragments and the wadding would strike the plate on its stand. The plate looked real but was in reality specially weakened and ready to break at the smallest impact (plates like this are standard props from magic shops. My blindfold acted as a final protection, to catch any remaining debris that might get through and ensure that my eyes were not damaged.
The bullet I eventually spat out was a genuine spent 0.38" calibre revolver bullet. As soon as I heard the letters called out, I opened up a secret compartment in the chair seat. By sliding a hidden lever across, the whole of the seat would open up like a series of louvres. Hidden in this compartment were 676 spent bullets marked with the 26 single letters of the alphabet and all 650 possible two letter combinations. The bullets had been carefully gathered on one of the Army ranges in Britain and marked by us. Under cover of adjusting the chair position, I selected the right bullet and popped it in my mouth ready.
However improbable a feat it is in the light of reason, many of the audience would be prepared to testify that they saw me catch a bullet in my teeth purely on the evidence of the letters marked on it. One of the traits that magicians rely upon is the reluctance of an audience to believe what extraordinary lengths a performer will go to in order to deceive them. I have heard various theories about the way this trick works but no-one has been so bold as to suggest that I have all possible marked bullets ready prepared.
Sarah, Diane and I, accompanied by two conscripted stagehands, rushed to move all the props back to the scenery dock, where we had packing cases ready and waiting. Ten minutes of concerted effort had them packed.
The three of us performed a quick change back into outdoor clothes in our dressing room. We emerged in heavy tweed travelling clothes, suitable for our alleged train journey.
We made our way back-stage and checked the scenery dock before leaving by the rear exit. Our props had already gone - the railway lorry must have arrived at exactly the requested time.
Sarah had hired a car earlier in the day and it was parked outside the theatre. Our plan had been to drive to the railway station and then just to keep going on the road northwards to our rendezvous. On further discussion, Sarah and I had come up with an alternative to use if the opportunity presented itself.
Sarah drove our hired Opel, while I sat beside her, keeping a lookout to the front and sides while Diane sat in the back with our hand luggage and watched out behind us.
When we arrived at the station, Sarah did indeed see a golden opportunity for us. She parked neatly near the station entrance and the three of us made our way quietly with our hand luggage to an open-topped Austro-Daimler with a Linz registration. Sarah installed herself in the driving seat and once again, I sat beside her while Diane sat in the back.
Diane and I applied a light disguise, which we had prepared, by removing our felt trilby hats and replacing them with cloche hats and goggles and wrapping ourselves up in mufflers.
As we did that, Sarah reached under the dashboard and ripped out some wires after a little experimenting and a grumble from the engine, she twisted two of them together. She touched the third wire to the two and there was a small shower of sparks where they contacted as the engine roared into life. I watched with surprise and interest to see how quick and simple an operation it had been.
Sarah paused just long enough to apply her own disguise of a leather flying helmet, goggles and a false moustache. The disguise would be laughable in daylight, but was adequate in the dark. The skirt she was wearing was somewhat at odds with the moustache, but we hoped no-one would get close enough to notice. Her coat was of a suitably masculine cut, even though it buttoned the wrong way for a man.
Nikolsburg, or Mikulov to give its modern Czech name, lies about 40 miles due north of Vienna, just across the frontier on the road to Brno. The road is hilly but reasonably fast as it passes through few villages and only one small town. There was also very little traffic, so we were able to maintain an average speed comfortably in excess of 30 miles per hour, even taking into account the very low speeds through some of the villages on the way.
As we neared the frontier, Diane was becoming suspicious that we were being followed. Certainly, there seemed to be a car maintaining a good distance of nearly half a mile behind us, but neither gaining on us nor being left behind. There was little we could do about it other than persevering with our journey and hoping to avoid complications..
The actual frontier with Czechoslovakia is a little arbitrary and could easily be missed as it is marked only by a small sign reading Ceskoslovenska. The customs post and immigration control is about another half mile north of this, where the road crosses a small river on a narrow bridge.
I had hoped that the frontier post might afford some protection from our pursuers, but it turned out to be completely deserted and the customs house in darkness.
I knew that we should expect to meet a Captain Mason at the frontier, but there was no-one in sight. Sarah slackened her speed slightly but carried on driving. As we started climbing up out of the valley on the north side of the river, a motorcyclist drew level with us. He had a tweed cap on backwards and was wearing goggles, but I recognised him as the man who had given me the coded message in Vienna earlier the same day.
The man on the motorcycle signalled us to stop. Sarah glanced at me and I nodded assent, so she pulled in to the side of the road.
The motorcyclist pulled up alongside the car as it stopped. He pulled his goggles down round his neck, grinned at me and held out his hand. "G'day. Mason. 3rd Batallion Aussie Pioneers." It was a statement as much as an introduction. Enlightenment dawned in my mind. I had not been able to place his accent because I had never before heard an Australian speak German and, of course, he had no problem pronouncing my name.
My reflection was broken by an urgent question. "Is there anyone following you, Miss?"
"Yes, we think so," I replied.
Mason took charge immediately. He was evidently well prepared for this. We were stopped at the beginning of a bend in the road which would slow down any approaching traffic. He ordered Sarah to drive further up the hill and round the bend to conceal our car. He gestured me to follow him and we took up our position side by side so that we could see a few hundred yards down the road.
He handed me a large electric torch and instructed me, "Use that and tell me if I should shoot." I nodded and stood ready with the torch in my left hand and my service revolver in my right.
"OK," I agreed, "but let's try to stop them and not kill them. I may need to ask them some questions."
"Fine by me. Tyres and radiator then."
Captain Mason readied a gun he had slung across his back. I glanced at it and then my eyes widened. It was a German 7.65mm MP28 sub-machine gun. Mason caught my stare and grinned at me, "Don't ask."
A few minutes later, we heard the sound of an approaching car, then saw its headlights pierce the darkness. I shone the torch beam at the occupants and recognised our old adversary, the housekeeper, at the wheel.
"Fire!" I yelled and Mason pulled the trigger. He clearly new what he was doing with the gun as I saw first one then the other front tyre collapse and both headlights go out. The car veered to one side and as a clear shot presented itself, he blew out one of the rear tyres.
The car bounced to a halt on the verge and I ran over to it with my gun at the ready. I pulled the nearest door open while Mason covered me. The occupants seemed to be dazed but unharmed. I steadied my gun on them and ordered them out. As they emerged, the torch revealed the second passenger to be our other adversary, the woman we had first met in the guise of a housemaid.
The car which Sarah had helped herself to now came back into sight, reversing slowly back down the hill. Sarah left the engine running and she and Diane got out to see what was happening. "Those two again, Boss," she commented grimly. "What shall we do with them?"
"We tie them up," I replied. "And we're taking this one with us," I added pointing to the housekeeper. Diane returned to the car and came back with a bundle of rope out of one of our bags. Captain Mason and I covered the prisoners while Sarah and Diane set to work.
They dealt with the maid first, binding her wrists behind her back, tying her ankles together and then joining the bonds with another short length of rope, so her hands and feet were almost in contact. They lifted her into the boot of the crashed car and closed the lid. They had not gagged her and, although muffled by the closed boot, her yells of protest could be still be heard.
The housekeeper had to be taken with us, so they settled for binding her wrists behind her back and winding a long length of rope round her upper arms and chest. We were anxious that she should not have the opportunity to give us away, so she was gagged with a handkerchief stuffed in her mouth and held in place with a length of rope knotted behind her head. We marched her back to our car and sat her in the back with Sarah beside her keeping her covered with a revolver.
I took over the driving seat and Diane sat beside me. Captain Mason went back to his motorcycle, fired up the engine and signalled us to follow. I put the car in gear and followed him up the hill. We drove for some miles through the darkness then saw Mason turn left.
We drove for about a mile down a narrow country road, unfenced and with fields on either side. Captain Mason slowed down and rode his motorcycle about 20 yards away from the road across the snow-covered grass of the field. When he stopped, he signalled me to follow, so I cautiously pulled off the asphalt surface and bounced across the snow, trying to avoid the boulders strewn over it. The car shuddered to a halt next to Mason as the engine stalled. I did not bother to restart it.
I climbed out of the car and stood shivering in the pitch darkness beside Mason. "How does anyone land a plane here?" I demanded.
"On the road apparently," he replied, rather off-hand. "Nearly twelve o'clock now."
As if on cue, we heard the drone of aeroplane engines. Mason pulled the torch out of his coat pocket and trotted back to the road. He started signalling M3 in Morse with the torch (-- ···--). The dark silhouette of a plane was just discernible against the starry sky. The landing light came on just before it roared overhead. We sensed rather than saw the plane bank right and come round for another run. We guessed that this time it would land so we fled from the road.
We heard the engine note drop slightly as the pilot throttled back. A flare soared into the sky and then lit up the area in an intense white light. We saw the plane clearly then, a medium-sized twin-engined monoplane. The pilot's approach looked all wrong - the plane was skewed round and approaching slightly crab-wise. Then I recognised that he was executing a side-slip manoeuvre (which I had heard of but never seen), using opposite stick and rudder to lose height quickly. At the very last moment, the plane straightened up and landed neatly on the road. The wheel track was only just narrow enough to fit. The plane stopped exactly abreast of the point where we were parked.
Captain Mason and I made our way across to the plane. As we approached, the door opened and two figures climbed out onto the trailing edge of the port wing then jumped down. By the dim light escaping from the interior of the plane, I recognised an old friend, Squadron Leader Ranulph Alexander Stupp (inevitably nicknamed "Mick"). He was wearing a plain navy blue civilian aircrew uniform with the four gold rings of a captain on each cuff. The other person was a woman in her late twenties, wearing an air hostess's uniform, but without any insignia on it. Stupp introduced her, "Nursing Sister Barton, Princess Mary's RAF Nursing Corps. I wasn't sure if you would need medical help." He looked from me to Captain Mason and then to the car. "How many of you are there anyway?"
I was brisk and businesslike, "No injuries that sleep won't cure, sir. There are four of us to fly - I seem to have acquired an assistant and a prisoner. Our luggage is everything in the boot of that car."
"No problems there," Stupp replied easily. "An Airspeed Oxford can take six and Sister Barton will be able to help make your prisoner comfortable. Let's see this luggage of yours."
Sister Barton nodded, then climbed back into the plane and returned with a bundle which she carried across to the car. Stupp, Captain Mason and I saw to transferring the luggage. I knew that Stupp had an old leg injury, so I made sure that he supervised and gave directions while Mason and I did the fetching and carrying.
As I hurried back to the car for the second load, Sarah, Diane and Sister Barton were escorting our prisoner to the plane. She was now securely strapped into a canvas straitjacket which had presumably been in the bundle Sister Barton took to the car.
As Captain Mason and I saw the last of the luggage securely stowed in the back of the plane, Stupp was already in the pilot's seat preparing for take-off. He gestured towards the empty co-pilot's seat beside him and I made my way forward and settled myself into the right-hand seat. Mason fastened the door and ran back to his motorcycle. It was less than five minutes since the plane had landed.
I looked round behind me. Sarah and Diane were immediately behind me and behind them were Sister Barton and the housekeeper. The housekeeper's legs had been secured with leather straps at ankle and knee level and the makeshift gag had been replaced with a large piece of medical tape over her mouth. From the bulging cheeks, I assumed that there was a sizeable quantity of packing in her mouth too. She had also been blindfolded with a cotton pad and a length of gauze bandage.
I swivelled back round to face forwards and was just about to fasten my seat harness when Stupp spoke, "I need some extra light for this. There's a very pistol and a star flare in the clip on your right." I loaded the very pistol and hesitated. Stupp pointed upwards to a section of the perspex canopy which clearly slid open. Clumsily, I squatted on my seat and slit the panel open then wormed my way up so that I had my head, shoulders and arms through the opening. I fired the pistol into the air and as the flare lit, I looked round. There was a car right behind us on the road and approaching fast.
"We've got company - go now!" I yelled. The engines were already running, so Stupp took me at my word, opening the engines to full throttle and releasing the wheel brakes. We were already moving quite fast as I plonked down in my seat and strapped myself in.
When I had the chance to look forward again, I was horrified. The road we were on executed a right-angle bend to the left and in front of us was a wooden field gate in a very substantial stone wall. Stupp jerked the control yoke backwards then forwards and, to my utter astonishment, the plane hopped neatly over the gate and continued its run on the field beyond. A few seconds later it lumbered into the air and Stupp pulled the landing gear up immediately.
Once we had gained some height, Stupp banked the plane to the left as we turned south towards the Austrian frontier. He tapped my elbow and pointed towards the windows on his side of the cockpit. The car which had been following us had fared less well than we had with the field gate. Presumably they had not seen it as we were blocking their view. The car was now intimately entangled with the ruins of the gate.
Stupp tapped my arm again and pointed over to my right. There was a pair of headphones with a boom microphone there. I removed my hat and put the headset on. Stupp pointed to the intercom switch on the control yoke and I flipped it on.
"I made sure I came myself as soon as I heard it was you we were rescuing," Stupp said after a long pause.
I looked round at him but he kept his eyes facing forwards. Still the same Mick Stupp, brave, loyal and quite possibly the finest pilot in the Empire but somehow the shy, vulnerable schoolboy he had once been still lingered on just under the surface. I have known Mick since I was little, meeting by chance in 1916. Mick is six years my senior and, as a child, I adored him. We continued to meet from time to time after his Great War service with the RNAS and later the fledgling RAF. Somehow the romance that everyone, and possibly we ourselves, expected to blossom, never came to fruition. We drifted apart and I went to Oxford, then established myself as a performer, while Mick pursued his RAF career. He was severely injured in one leg in Afghanistan in 1928 and eventually found work as a civilian pilot, but continued to perform covert work for His Majesty's Government. My own role in undercover work brought us back together from time to time. Our chosen careers really left no opportunity to put down roots, but we continued to meet socially and enjoyed each others' friendship.
We were still on an operation and he was still my superior officer, but I decided to drop the formality for the time being. "What's the plan, Mick?" I asked. He explained that he was going to take the chance of flying due south-west across Austria (he pointed out the lights of Vienna visible in the distance over to our left). It was a new moon that night, so there was little chance of detection. We would cross the Italian border at its north-eastern extremity then skirt the southern edge of the Dolomites and across the top of Italy. Once we were across the French border at the Col du Mont Cenis we would at last be on friendly territory.
I looked round behind me again. Sarah and Diane were both clearly asleep. I could not tell whether the housekeeper was awake or asleep from her slumped posture, but she was clearly resigned to her fate and had given up struggling. I made eye contact with Sister Barton, who had a revolver on her lap, and she gave me a thumbs up sign. I faced forward again, terribly tired.
"Nothing's going to happen for a while, Flora," said Mick. "Why don't you have a nap - you look as though you need it." I nodded, removed my headset, leaned back against the headrest as was instantly asleep.
I am not sure if it just the length of time I had been asleep or the drop in temperature that woke me, but I came to slightly groggily and feeling very cold. I looked round at the others. Diane was still asleep. Sarah and Sister Barton had changed places. Sarah was now guarding our prisoner, whose gag and blindfold had been removed, presumably on the promise of good behaviour. Sister Baron was asleep beside Diane.
I pulled my scarf up over my head and arranged it to cover my chin and mouth then clamped the headset down on top of it. I rummaged in my coat pockets and found my gloves, then feeling slightly warmer, was able to take some interest in my surroundings. The ground below was completely covered in snow, just discernible in the starlight from the clear sky above. We were above a deep valley between mountains. I craned my neck to read the clock and the altimeter - 3.20 am and just under 8,000 feet. Mick interpreted my curiosity correctly and his voice came through the intercom, "We're still over Italy - that's the Val de Susa down below, and the pass up in front is the Col du Mont Cenis."
As we crossed the Mont Cenis plateau, Mick spoke again, "France." Just a single word, but I could hear the relief in his voice. "Fuel stop coming up in a few minutes," he continued. "There's a French Air Force base at Modane and they're expecting us."
I swivelled round in my seat and alerted the others, "Time to wake up girls!" Diane and Sister Barton surfaced into wakefulness reluctantly then realised how cold they were. As they shivered, I briefed them that we would be landing in France under French military security, but that I wanted our prisoner to be kept secure and silent and didn't want the French authorities to know who she was. I accepted that she would nevertheless need to be allowed some exercise and a chance to clean up. Sarah and Sister Barton undertook to manage the prisoner between them.
While I discussed details with the others, Stupp was in contact with the airfield at Modane getting landing permission and instructions on where to stop on the apron. He called out to us to get ready and we all settled into our seats for touchdown.
We landed gently and our intended stopping place was plain to see as there was a fuel bowser parked out on the apron. Stupp taxied to a halt beside it.
Sarah, Diane and I stepped out of the plane into the freezing night air. I watched from the tarmac as Sister Barton re-gagged the housekeeper. This time she used an formidable-looking red rubber medical gag strapped behind the prisoner's head. She freed the housekeeper's legs, undid her seat belt and then helped her off the aircraft. Sarah and I both held revolvers at the ready.
I had a brief discussion with a French sentry to enquire where washing facilities were located. He pointed us to a nearby hut and we set off in that direction. The housekeeper made no move to resist. Once we had used the facilities, we returned to the plane with the housekeeper still secure in our grasp.
Sister Barton secured the housekeeper again and we all resumed our seats for takeoff. Stupp announced that we had enough fuel to get all the way home now.
With the probable exception of the housekeeper, the spirit in the plane was noticeably more buoyant with thoughts of our return to Britain. Stupp taxied the plane out to the end of the runway, turned, and took off smoothly.
I yelled over the engine noise, telling Sister Barton that she could remove the prisoner's gag now. She did so and the housekeeper nodded an acknowledgement to me. I confessed to myself that I had a growing regard for that woman. I detested the political system she supported, but in many ways she was a fellow professional, ruthless but basically straightforward and honest in her dealings. Under other circumstances, I privately admitted to myself, I could conceive of friendship with her.
Once we had reached a comfortable cruising altitude and had set course for home, Mick turned to me with a surprising question, "Can you handle the ship while I get forty winks?"
I was astonished. "I've only got a private licence and it isn't for multi-engine," I protested.
Mick was exhausted and clearly in no mood to argue. "You're under RAF orders - that's all the qualification you need. Anyway all you need to do is keep her straight and level and on that heading," he said pointing at the compass. "You have control," he added firmly.
"I have control," I confirmed lamely. I put my hands on the yoke to show compliance even though no intervention was needed at that moment.
Stupp settled back in his seat and tipped his cap down over his eyes. "Wake me if we run into anything," he said yawning. I didn't bother to reply to that wisecrack as he was obviously already asleep.
I sat quietly checking the altitude, airspeed and heading and made occasional minute adjustments. Stupp slept for about half an hour before waking, apparently completely refreshed and taking control again.
As we neared the Channel coast, the sky was noticeably lighter. I undid my seat harness and swiveled round to look at the passengers. Both Sarah and Diane were awake and looking out of the windows, now that it was light enough to see something outside.
I swung round in my seat again and refastened my harness. I settled the headseat down over my ears and adjusted the microphone so I could talk to Mick. After a short while the sun came up to reveal a perfect winter morning. As we crossed the French coast, I could see the chalk cliffs at Seaford dazzling in the early morning light and, out to my right, the Seven Sisters and Beachy Head. I leant forward slightly and, looking out of Mick's side of the plane, I could see Selsey Bill and, beyond it, the Isle of Wight.
We crossed the English coast at Brighton. "Nice day for the seaside," commented Stupp, pointing down.
I looked along the coast - the tide was almost completely out and the beaches looked very inviting. "I haven't got my bucket and spade," I replied.
Mick allowed the Oxford to drift a little to the west and then pointed it due north and eased it lower, following the line of the Southern Railway's Brighton main line. I feasted my eyes on the scene around us, just enjoying being over British soil again. I watched as we caught up with and passed the long green snake of an early morning train to London. I saw horses exercising on Gatwick racecourse, mere specks at this height.
Mick tuned the radio then flipped on the transmit switch. "Good morning Croydon Tower. This is George Baker Oboe Able Charlie - ex Modane - request permission to land."
The controller at Croydon evidently knew him. "Able Charlie clear to join circuit and land on runway three-five - wind 15 knots west-north-westerly - and let's not have any of your circus flying, Mick."
Mick grinned and replied with a deadpan, "Roger, roger your instructions, Croydon Tower."
I watched as we came in line with the runway and Mick throttled back and commenced our final approach. He lowered the flaps and undercarriage shortly after that. All the while, the Oxford followed the glide path as if on invisible rails in the sky. We flared out into a perfect textbook landing and braked to a gentle halt. As we taxied to the aerodrome apron, I could see a police car, a navy staff car and another unmarked black car parked there. A huddle of figures, some in uniform, were waiting for us.
The housekeeper was completely docile as Sarah and Sister Barton guided her down the steps to the waiting escort. I spoke briefly to the uniformed police inspector who was waiting for us and the housekeeper was immediately taken in charge by a Policewoman from the Metropolitan Police and a Petty Officer in the Naval Provost. She was bundled into the waiting police car, still in her straitjacket, and driven off, preceded by police motorcycle outriders and followed by the staff car.
The remaining car was evidently transport for Sarah, Diane and myself back to London. I knew the driver who was waiting discreetly until I was ready and in the mean time helping Sarah and Diane to ferry luggage from the plane.
I looked at the Airspeed Oxford again. In daylight, I could see the markings clearly for the first time. I read the name on the fuselage, British and Continental Airways. "Very impressive, Mick," I commented. "Your own outfit?" Mick nodded. "How many aircraft?"
"Just one," he replied, nodding towards the Oxford. "That one."
I put my hands on Mick's shoulders and gave him a chaste but lingering kiss on one cheek. "Thanks for everything, Mick. Let's not leave it so long till we meet again. You know where to find me."
Mick said nothing but grinned as he stood watching us climb into the car and drive away.
Copyright © 1999 Gillian B
Part 9 Epilogue
Flora MacKenzie's Casebook
KP Presents Contents