I waited outside in the chilly darkness of an autumn morning with double daylight saving time in force. I wanted to stamp my feet to keep warm but did not want to disturb the neighbours' slumber. Nor did I want to attract attention. After a few minutes, I became aware of the sound of a car grinding its way up the steep hill from the town centre. My heart sank as I saw the small battered Morris van Sarah was driving instead of our usual comfortable Humber staff car.
Sarah grinned an apology as she drew up, "The motor pool won't let me take anything fancier than this up to London. The Chief has some idea he might not see it again." I grinned ruefully; the Chief might well be right.
I dumped my small case in the back of the van and sat down in the passenger seat next to Sarah. The van was like an icebox. I turned up my greatcoat collar and snuggled myself down into it.
Sarah and I spoke little as she negotiated the pitch-black streets by the weak headlight beams permitted in the blackout. Once we were clear of Dover, Sarah was able to relax a little and we chatted together, happily speculating on the reason for our summons to London.
Folkestone was beginning to show some signs of life as we drove through. We picked Diane up at the gates of Lympne RAF Station. Diane was astonished at the cloak-and-dagger character of our journey to London and scathing of the quality of the transport laid on by the Royal Navy. Soon, she too was chatting happily. The journey passed quickly as we brought each other up to date on our wartime activities and our plans and aspirations.
Since the effective end of the Battle of Britain, the Luftwaffe had turned its attention on London. Our mood became sober and the conversation died away as we drove up through New Cross and Camberwell and saw signs of the damage already sustained. The worst was, of course, yet to come.
The London traffic was still very busy although the morning peak had passed. Big Ben was showing 9.15 as we crawled across Westminster Bridge beside a seemingly endless queue of red London trams. Sarah worked her way determinedly through the traffic, taking us through Parliament Square and into Whitehall. We parked in one of the designated (and guarded) areas for forces' vehicles then walked to the Admiralty building.
I showed my Identity Card to the armed rating on duty in his sandbagged sentry post outside. He had clearly been briefed to expect us and sent us inside without even asking to see Sarah's or Diane's papers.
The Chief Petty Officer in charge of security inside was an old family friend whom I regarded as an honorary uncle. He grinned at me broadly as he saw me. He spoke quietly and urgently, "I have been told not to sign you in and not to tell anyone you are here, Miss Flora. I know Miss Marks, but you will have to vouch for the Pilot Officer."
"Section Officer," Diane corrected.
"Yes, she's with me," I confirmed. "Is my father waiting to see us?"
"Yes, ma'am, please follow me," he replied more formally. Instead of using the main stairway, we were led through a small, unmarked door into what was clearly a service corridor. A long walk, relieved only by the need to dodge nimbly round stacks of stationery, led to a service lift then another corridor and, as if by magic, we were through a narrow door and out into the main corridor serving my Father's section. We were pointed towards a familiar office door and then left to our own devices.
I knocked sharply on the office door. "Enter!" a voice replied. We trooped in and the diminutive figure of Lady Gillian Beaumaris hauled herself to her feet behind her paper-strewn desk and limped round to meet us. I saluted her and she responded by shaking my hand. She already knew Sarah, of course, and as she introduced herself to Diane, I studied her curious uniform. She was wearing a Wrens' pattern jacket as I was but sporting the four gold rings of a Captain, RN on each cuff. She had dispensed with the uniform shirt and tie that I was wearing in favour of a cream coloured roll-necked sweater. She wore trousers in place of a skirt and the comfortable-looking black brogues peeking out below them were anything but regulation pattern.
My father, Rear-Admiral Alexander 'Sandy' MacKenzie, joined us and the cycle of greetings and introductions was repeated. "Come on!" he announced suddenly. "There's a briefing team waiting in Number 2 meeting room. Mustn't keep them waiting. Obediently, Sarah, Diane and I followed Lady Gillian and my father, her walking stick tapping a counterpoint to the thump of his wooden leg, which would have been comical, had it not been for the seriousness of the atmosphere.
Number 2 meeting room proved to be a windowless briefing room with rows of chairs seating about 50 and a slightly raised platform at one end. We could see three chairs together on the platform and an arc of about a dozen chairs around them. "Looks like a court martial," Sarah whispered as we made our way up the length of the room. I suppressed a giggle and tried not to look overawed by the level of preparation that had clearly gone on.
There was a loose group of maybe eight or ten people in conversation on the platform, some civilian and some in various uniforms. They turned to face my father as he led us in. "Sit down quickly, please, ladies and gentlemen," he instructed, with the air of a flustered headmaster. We sat in the three seats obviously intended for us and my father took the central chair in the arc facing us.
"Ladies," he said after a pause, "you are here because we have a mission which we believe to be of vital national importance and for which we believe your talents and your usual cover would be well suited. The job will be dangerous and there is no compulsion to do it. You may withdraw now or at any point during this briefing. After that you will be committed to the mission. Is that understood?"
The three of us all nodded solemnly.
The briefing began with a man I had met once before. He was in his eighties, tall and almost skeletally thin but with a commanding presence and a piercing glance. In his younger days he had been a solver of mysteries of a criminal nature but in his middle years had become an advisor to kings and presidents, often solving mysteries affecting millions of people. His name was Sherlock Holmes.
Holmes paused for silence and also, I suspected, for effect. "The United States of America," he began in his dry, precise voice, "is the greatest democracy in the world. It is very different from our own democracy, yet even our own mother of Parliaments here owes more to American ideals than perhaps we care to admit."
Holmes went on to make sure we understood that the president of the United States was elected separately from the legislature, unlike the way we elect our prime minister in Britain. Despite his thin voice, he could hold an audience rapt and we hung onto his every word as he explained that the incumbent president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was about to stand for an unheard-of third term as president.
A brief history of American foreign policy followed. We understood the roots of American isolationism in the aftermath of the Great War and President Woodrow Wilson's failure to get the United States to join the League of Nations he had fought to establish. Holmes pointed out that despite official neutrality, the United States had passed a bill through Congress to allow military conscription. There was however some opposition. He quoted Senator Wheeler of Montana's claim that it would "plough under every fourth American boy." The United States' Pacific fleet had also been relocated from San Diego, California to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii to counter possible Japanese threats.
Holmes' dry tone became more impassioned. Now that Britain stood alone, it was vital to draw support from the United States if we were to survive the Nazi threat. The majority of American people and American politicians supported the Allies but many were reluctant to contemplate another European war in the light of their experience of the Great War.
There were also, he added in a grave tone, those who wanted the United States to stay clear of the war in order to give the Axis powers time to defeat Britain. He mentioned the German-American Bund and reminded us that the swastika still flew over the German embassy in Washington.
After another pause, Sherlock Holmes turned to my father and nodded, then resumed his seat.
"Yes," my father began, uncertain how to follow Holmes' eloquence, "you will be travelling to America. We want you to re-form Mackenzie and Marks and to tour the U.S. to 'fly the flag' and to help foster feelings of sympathy for the Allied cause."
The look of disappointment on my face must have been obvious from my Father's chuckle. "Of course," he continued, "while you are there, there will other tasks to be performed using your peculiar talents."
The next speaker was a tall thin young woman in the uniform of a Wren Third Officer. She was introduced to us only as Jill. Her demeanour and manner of speech suggested an academic recently recruited to the service. Her knowledge of German Navy signal traffic seemed to be encyclopaedic. I glanced at Sarah, who was riveted as the detail poured out. The picture her words painted was a grim one. Britain's survival depended in a large part on the continuing supplies of food, fuel and machinery by sea. The Atlantic was the hunting ground of German U-boat packs which were having an increasing devastating effect on shipping. Their range was limited but their effectiveness was enhanced by German spies operating from American and even (her voice rose in a squeak of indignation) Canadian soil reporting on departing cargo vessels. Furthermore, she went on, there were indications that the Germans were trying to use American neutrality as a means to establishing a supply chain to the U-boats, thereby enabling them to range freely over the western Atlantic right up to United States territorial waters.
I wondered at the time about the authority with which Jill was able to pronounce on German communications. It was only many years later that it became public knowledge that Polish, French and British experts had broken the Enigma ciphers used by Germany and much of their signals traffic was being routinely read.
While we digested the sobering information, a third speaker rose and introduced himself. He was a handsome young RNVR Subieutenant with a direct gaze and a sardonic grin rather beyond his years. He asked for the lights to be dimmed and for a projector to be switched on.
He showed us a short sequence of lantern slides. I recognised the first one immediately. It was the female German agent whom I had first met in Austria when she was posing as a housekeeper. We had brought her back to England with us for interrogation. The young man explained in his slight Scots accent that the woman had escaped from prison shortly before Christmas 1938 and had never been recaptured.
After the risk we had taken to bring her back, I was indignant and demanded to know if she was behind the attack on my landlady in Dover and the searching of my belongings. He replied that it was believed that she was currently in the United States. However, before leaving Britain, she was believed to have put a number of spies in place. Many of these had been rounded up on the outbreak of war and either executed or turned to act as double agents. Some were undoubtedly remaining as 'sleepers' ready to be activated when they were needed for particular tasks by the German intelligence service.
The remainder of the slides were of the housekeeper's suspected associates. Most were just faces to me but one, a middle-aged woman, seemed vaguely familiar. Unfortunately, I could neither name her nor remember where I might have seen her.
The Sublieutenant concluded by telling us that the best intelligence they had was that the housekeeper was at present engaged in setting up a spy network in the north-east of the United States in the way that the had already done in Austria and Britain.
My father spoke up again to round off the meeting. "There you have it, ladies. The picture is incomplete but the best we have. We think you may have a better chance than the more official agencies at uncovering whatever is going on in the United States."
"One question, sir," I ventured. My father nodded and I continued. "Someone in Dover knew that I had received orders and was watching the house. I am sure of it, otherwise why pick the very day before I was summoned here to intercept the mail delivery? Surely they could only have learned my movements from someone in this office?"
My father sighed, "Sadly, I am sure you are right. That's why we have kept this meeting very secret and why, officially, this mission doesn't exist. Only the people in this room, the Director-General of Naval Intelligence and Mr Churchill know about any of this." He paused then said, "Make sure you keep it that way."
As the meeting broke up into groups of two or three discussing various points, I went through a set of paper prints of the photographs we had been shown. There were some surveillance notes but they did not add much to the story. I lingered over the photograph I felt I recognised then handed the set back to the RNVR Sublieutenant. I thanked him for the presentation and apologised for not catching his name.
"It's Bond, ma'am," he replied, "James Bond."
Sarah, Diane and I sat huddled over a notebook drinking our rather watery coffee and crunching very welcome slices of toast. It was Tuesday and our departure for the United States was planned to be on Thursday. Before then, we had to get our props and other equipment out of the various locations in which it was stored, purchase some items (probably very difficult in wartime London) and pack our own personal things.
We decided that Sarah should act as transport captain and use the Navy van we still had to concentrate all the material we needed at my parents' house in St John's Wood. In the mean time, Diane would try to obtain some theatrical make-up and some costume accessories within the limits of wartime shortages and rationing. I would look up some old friends in the magic business and buy some additional props and tricks if I could.
Sarah would be staying overnight with her parents in Acton, while Diane, who had no connections in London, would stay with me at my parents' house in St John's Wood.
Our transport arrangements for the trip to the United States were still unknown to us but, so I understood, were being organised discreetly by Naval Intelligence.
We departed to our different errands, scribbled notes tucked safely in handbags.
As I walked the few hundred yards to my parents' house, I reflected on my hectic day. My afternoon's expedition had been more successful than I feared it might be. I had secured two new tricks at bargain prices and a positive cornucopia of small props from a retired magician. Our cover story of showing the good old Union Jack in the States was enough to provoke some generosity and it was close enough to the truth that I didn't mind using it.
An advantage of the double daylight-saving time for the duration of the war was the long evenings. I enjoyed the warmth of the autumn sun as I made my way home.
As I walked up the steps to the front door, I was surprised that the outer porch door was shut usually only the inner door was closed during the day. I was slightly worried to find that the door had been bolted on the inside so I couldn't get in with my key.
I made my way back down to the street and down the steps to the basement where the kitchen door was. There were clear signs of forced entry. I pushed the door open, not needing a key for the broken lock.
I paused and listened in the kitchen but could hear only my own breathing and the ticking of the clock. There was nothing for it but to investigate. I took my overcoat and uniform jacket off for ease of movement and removed my shoes for silence. I helped myself to a sizeable mahogany rolling pin as an impromptu weapon and crept upstairs on my stockinged feet.
I glanced into the workroom, nerve centre of my Mother's war work, currently rallying dozens of women to undertake knitting to keep soldiers and sailors warm in the coming winter. There was no-one there, but the room was more chaotic than usual, possibly indicating a search.
I carried on up to investigate the bedroom my mother used as her office. I noticed that cupboard doors were open and drawers had been pulled out on almost every piece of furniture I passed on the way.
I entered Mother's office as quietly as I could and almost suffered heart failure as the silence was shattered by her voice. "Flora!" she boomed, "And about time too!"
As my pulse returned to normal, I surveyed the scene. The room was a complete wreck with cupboards open, drawers upturned, books pulled off shelves and papers strewn everywhere. Mother and Diane were sitting side by side, tied to two of the dining chairs mother used as office chairs.
They had both been tied up very thoroughly and with an expert touch. I studied the ropework to see if it resembled the way Mrs Cliffe had been tied up in Dover. This was equally skilfully applied but rather different in style. They each had their wrists crossed and tightly bound in front of them with thin rope. Several turns of rope were attached to their wrist bindings, holding their hands down into their laps and passing under the chair seats. Many more turns of rope were wound over their forearms and laps and under the chair. Even more were wrapped around their arms and bodies and the back of the chair. Their legs were lashed together at the knees and ankles and their ankles were also tied back to a crossbar under the chair.
Both Diane and my mother had been gagged with a handkerchief stuffed into the mouth and another bound round it. Mother's gag was hanging loose round her neck while Diane's was still in place.
I stepped towards Diane to remove her gag. "Never mind her," my mother ordered. "I have things I need to do." I meekly obeyed and started untying her.
"I've been telling young Diane here," Mother went on, "that she will have to do a great deal better than this if she wants to make a career in an escape act." I glanced at Diane who rolled her eyes heavenwards. I suspected that this had been my Mother's sole topic of conversation since ridding herself of her gag.
Mother started tutting over the state of the room and trying to get her desk into some semblance of order while I freed Diane.
Suddenly, Mother turned to me. "Look, Flora, I know you are on some kind of jolly secret mission and I mustn't make waves and all that, but surely we can do something about that bitch who tied us up?"
I stared at her in astonishment. "You know who did this?"
"Well, of course," replied Mother testily, "I would recognise that voice anywhere. It was that Belsize woman."
I looked at Diane; she shrugged. "There were two of them, armed. One was definitely a woman; the other could have been a man or a woman. They both had black stockings over their heads. They had a gun too looked like a revolver from the last war."
I turned back to Mother. "Griselda Belsize?" I asked, naming a young woman in the neighbourhood whom I knew only as a passing acquaintance.
"No, her mother, Lillian Belsize," my mother continued. I've never liked her much but I wouldn't have taken her for a fifth columnist."
"I don't want to call the police, but we can pay Mrs Belsize a visit later."
My mother suddenly looked worried. "Are Freda and Joan all right?" she asked.
"Who?" I replied, puzzled.
"Mrs Dollis and Miss Stanmore. They were in the big workroom downstairs."
I shook my head, also worried.
I was armed with my rolling pin again as we crept into the workroom, although we were sure the intruders were long gone.
As my earlier glance suggested, this room was in chaos too. It had indeed clearly been searched but it appeared to have been done hurriedly and by people who were not well versed in techniques of search. What, I asked myself, could they possibly have been looking for?
Diane and my mother found the two missing ladies simultaneously. Two of the plywood packing cases (old tea-chests) that were being used to ship the piles of knitwear for service men and women had been emptied and now contained the volunteers. They had each been tied up and then shoved into a case. It took all three of us to manoeuvre each of them out again.
The tying was whimsical but effective. Each lady had been bound using items on hand in the room. They both had socks pulled over their hands and their wrists tied behind their backs with scarves. More scarves bound their wrists to their waists and pinned their arms to their sides. Three more, at ankles and above and below the knee secured their legs. Finally they had been blindfolded and gagged by having a balaclava pulled over each of their heads, with the face openings at the back and with a scarf tied round to force a fold of wool between their teeth.
"Bloody cheek!" pronounced Joan Stanmore in her crisp, precise tones, as soon as she could speak.
"Bloody right!" agreed Freda Dollis in her more plebeian London accent.
"Phone for the Police, Flora! That Belsize woman is a menace!"
I hesitated. "Ladies, I'm sorry but we can't involve the Police. There is something going on here that affects national security and I will have to take it straight to the Admiralty."
Mother was not about to be put off. "Well tell their Lordships of the Admiralty to get a move on and we'll go and make sure that Mrs Lillian High-and-Mighty Belsize doesn't have any travel plans."
"Hear! Hear!" and "That's right!" chorused Miss Stanmore and Mrs Dollis. Both those ladies were in their fifties at least but clearly spoiling for a fight. Just how much of the motive was patriotic and how much personal I wouldn't venture to guess.
I conceded defeat. "All right, but you are under Naval orders and you do as you are told and you tell no-one about it afterwards. Understood?" They all nodded at me solemnly.
Mrs Belsize's house was only a short walk away from my parents' home. I marshalled my impromptu task force on the front steps and briefed them quickly. This was to be a reconnaissance in force rather than an all out assault. I proposed to take charge of the house quickly and then to establish the validity of Mother's allegation before summoning official help.
Diane and I positioned ourselves for the initial advance. I rang the doorbell and Diane waited beside me to launch her attack. The door opened a few inches and a housemaid looked questioningly at me. Before she could say anything, Diane's shoulder piled into the door and pushed it open. I grabbed the astonished maid and clapped a hand over her mouth.
The maid's eyes were wide with terror as I asked her in a steely whisper, "Where is Mrs Belsize?"
I relaxed my hand, judging correctly that she was too scared to scream. "In the parlour," she whispered tremulously and pointing the way. I handed her over to my Mrs Dollis who was not about to take any chances and gripped the maid firmly around the waist with one arm while keeping the other hand clamped firmly over her mouth.
Diane and I led the way at a run, unsure if we had been heard. We burst into the parlour and saw Lillian and Griselda Belsize working away at a writing desk. Mrs Belsize was sitting while her daughter stood beside her. They both had their backs to us and turned in alarm as we entered. Mother stood guard in the door while Miss Stanmore stationed herself at the window armed with the rolling pin I had used earlier, effectively blocking both possible escape routes.
Recognition dawned on me. The face I had so nearly identified amongst Sublieutenant Bond's photographs was Lillian Belsize.
Diane and I advanced across the room. Both the Belsize women were dressed in dark trousers and the sort of workmen's jackets that many women on war work were wearing. Together with the dark gloves and what looked like bunched up stockings lying on one corner of the desk, their clothes seemed to confirm my Mother's suspicions. I walked right up to the desk and looked at what they were working on. It was a report, which they were encoding into cipher by using a numerical lexicon printed in a small book.
On the one hand, I was elated at our success. To be sure, their incompetence as spies was the deciding factor but success was nevertheless ours. On the other hand, I felt sick. Such blatant treachery always sickened me. To me they had not only betrayed their country but also had the blood of some of our service men and women on their hands.
Griselda Belsize looked terror stricken but her mother was quite calm and seemingly unrepentant. "What happens next?" she asked.
"First, we tie you both up," I replied grimly, "until Naval Intelligence can get here. You will both be questioned, I imagine quite unpleasantly. You will be tried before a panel of three judges behind locked doors and, unless I am very much mistaken, you will be hanged as spies."
As I was speaking, Diane was sorting out the bundle of rope we had brought with us in anticipation of a successful capture. Griselda Belsize was too frightened to be a threat, so I concentrated on the older woman who was still calmly contemplating the situation.
I gestured Lillian Belsize to stand up then pulled her hands round behind her back and bound them together, cinching the binding firmly between her wrists. I sat her down on the desk chair again and wound about eight or nine turns of rope tightly round her arms and body and the back of the chair, trapping her arms between her back and the woodwork.
As she was wearing trousers, I lashed each of her ankles to a chair leg. I tied her legs to the tops of the chair legs too, just below knee level. Finally I tied her down to the chair seat with about five turns of rope across her lap.
Mother found another chair and stood it next to the first. Diane tied the younger Belsize to it following the pattern I had set. "There," she commented, straightening up, "that should hold them. Tied like that they wouldn't be able to reach each other's ropes even if they got their chairs together." I realised that the last comment was meant for me, just to show that she understood my reasons.
"Of course, it isn't very comfortable like that," I added, "but that's the least of their worries."
I turned to Miss Stanmore. "I don't think they should be allowed to work out a story ahead of their interrogation," I remarked lightly, glancing at the bundle of socks and scarves for soldiers and sailors she had brought with her stuffed into her coat pocket. "Perhaps you would like to help?"
"Wouldn't I just," she replied with grim relish.
Miss Stanmore offered me the choice of her supplies and I selected a long sock. As I stepped over to Griselda Belsize, Miss Stanmore advanced on Lillian, with another sock pulled taut between her hands.
"Like this," I suggested as I tied a knot in the centre of the sock. I worked the knot between Miss Belsize's teeth and knotted the ends tightly behind her head.
"Perfect," commented Miss Stanmore as she meted out the same treatment to her prisoner.
"And blindfold them both too," I requested.
"A pleasure," came the reply, clearly sincerely meant, as she set to work with a couple of scarves.
Mrs Dollis still had the maid firmly in her grasp but had released her mouth. For the first time, I had the opportunity to look at her. She was a girl of perhaps 18 or 19 years, probably working here while awaiting call-up for war work. She seemed more intrigued by what was going on than frightened or worried.
I decided to take a direct approach and asked her, "Did you know these two were spying?"
She was genuinely shocked. "Ooh no, ma'am! They always seemed so keen to help the war effort. They were ever so kind, always organising things to help people. And they often invited soldiers and sailors and airmen round to tea."
I paused while she digested her own last comment. In a quieter voice, she continued, "Is that how they found out secrets and things?" I nodded. "But that's wicked!" she exclaimed, as she worked out the implications.
"I don't think you have anything to worry about," I reassured her, "but some people from the Admiralty will want to take you away, maybe for a day or two, and ask you lots of questions so they can make sure that you're innocent and so they can find out what has happened here."
Mrs Dollis piped up, "I can't stand here holding her all day."
"I'm sorry," I said to the maid, "we'll have to tie you up too just to be on the safe side."
I knew we had used all the rope, so I looked around to see what else I could use. Mrs Dollis also had a bundle of knitting for soldiers and sailors and she handed it to me.
I asked the maid to hold her hands out. I pulled a pair of socks up over her hands. She looked puzzled for a moment then said, "Ooh, that's clever! So I can't get the knots undone with my fingers." She seemed to be quite excited.
Without being asked, she turned around and held her hands out behind her back. I bound her wrists with a scarf, cinching it off with a firm knot. "How does that feel?" I asked, anxious not to hurt her.
She engaged in a vigorous struggle then said, "I'm sure I can't get out of that." I exchanged glances with Diane and shrugged.
"Now, I just need to tie your feet together too," I told the maid, trying to sound reassuring.
She sat down on a sofa and kicked her shoes off. To my astonishment, she then rolled over onto her tummy and bent her knees, so her feet were almost touching her bottom. "This is just like a spy story come true," she commented happily. I was glad someone was having a good day.
I obliged by tying her ankles firmly together. Again, she tested the security of the binding.
"I wouldn't mind if you tied my hands and feet together," she ventured tentatively. With another shrug to Diane, I duly tied the loose ends of her ankle binding to the scarf around her wrists.
As soon as I had finished the tying, the maid mounted a titanic struggle then commented approvingly, "I really can't get free at all." In a smaller, slightly disconsolate voice she asked, "Don't you need to gag me too? There's a clean hanky in my skirt pocket."
I retrieved the hanky and rolled it into a ball which I pressed into her mouth. I tied a scarf snugly around her head to hold it in place. She mumbled something incomprehensible behind her gag but was apparently quite satisfied with her predicament.
"Ma'am, you should look at this," called Diane with urgency. She was studying the papers on the Belsize women's desk. I walked across to join her. Diane said nothing for fear of our prisoners overhearing us but she was pointing at part of the message they had been preparing. It referred to their failure to discover the code book that they had been instructed to steal from me. I was genuinely baffled. There was no such code book and I could not imagine why they would think there was one. However, that explained the earlier search of my lodgings in Dover.
The same thought occurred to us simultaneously, "Sarah!" Was Sarah also a target and was she in danger too?
Copyright © 2001 Gillian B
Chapter 1 Chapter 3
Flora MacKenzie's Casebook
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