It Takes a Thief

by Doctor George

Some time ago, Mordaca came up with a story idea about burglars going on holiday together. That was the starting premise for this story. It has taken a ridiculously long time to write and the concept has mutated somewhat in the process...

The bright autumn weather had brought a small but steady trickle of customers to John Jacobs’ antique shop, despite it being a weekday afternoon. John split his time between paperwork at his desk in the corner of the shop and fielding the occasional customer query that his assistant, Alex, was unable to answer.

He happened to glance up just as a familiar figure entered the shop, a short, quite plump middle-aged woman. She was elegantly attired in a loose-fitting unbleached linen trouser suit worn over a roll-necked woollen sweater in dusky pink. Apart from the fringe at the front, her grey hair was covered by a floral silk headscarf echoing the colour of her sweater. It was worn Grace Kelly-style, crossed under her chin and knotted at the nape of her neck. The prescription sunglasses she wore were fading as she entered the comparative darkness of the shop. She paused to ease her snugly-fitting beige leather gloves off her hands and stowed them in the capacious matching handbag she had slung over one shoulder. She briefly inspected the state of her shoes, a pair of brown leather brogues with modest two-inch heels. Apparently satisfied, she looked around the shop and made eye contact with John, who was looking back at her with a smile of undisguised pleasure.

He stood up as he caught the woman’s eye. “Coco! What brings you out to the depths of Kent? I thought you were usually a city girl.”

“John, don’t let me disturb you if you’re busy,” she said, walking across to the desk. “I was passing through on my way back from seeing a client and really couldn’t miss an opportunity to say hello.”

“Hence being all dressed up to the nines?”

“The client is a minor media mogul, so presentation counts nearly as much as performance,” Coco explained, “though the steel-toecapped wellies I was wearing on site rather spoiled the effect.”

“Another job keeping water at bay?”

“That’s what people pay me for. This is a good one though – I’ve never done a castle before.”

“Is that Fentlesham? I read in the local paper that it changed hands recently.”

“That’s right. It’s actually more of an artillery fort than a real grown-up castle – part of Henry VIII’s coastal defences – but very pretty in red Tudor brick and it even has a moat, which is where I come in.”

“A proper moat with water?”

“No water in the moat – but there’s about a foot of it in the castle cellars.”

“So the media mogul needs an ingenious Coco Aldington solution?”

“It’s actually not that hard – we make the moat properly watertight like a canal, sink a sump into the cellar floor and install an immersible pump.”

“I wonder if your media mogul will be looking for any antique furniture for his castle,” John mused.

“I can certainly drop your name,” Coco offered. “Can I have a business card?”

“I should have one in here,” John said as he rummaged in a desk drawer. While he did so, Coco turned around a leaflet lying on the desktop so that she could read it. It was a flyer for an antiques fair to be held in Galway City.

“Are you going to this, John?” Coco asked as she tucked his card into her pocket.

“I certainly plan to. It’s in March next year and I stand a good chance of picking some items up before my business gets busy around Easter. Why do you ask?”

“It’s just that I’ll be in Galway City myself at the same time for a conference,” Coco explained.

“The long arm of coincidence strikes again!” John remarked with a laugh. “We could go across together if you fancy the idea,” he added teasingly.

Coco pondered the idea for only a few seconds before surprising John by saying, “Yes, why not?”

John was visibly stunned but recovered quickly. “Well, I at least owe you a cup of tea and a cake for offering to tout my name to your client, so why don’t we go across to Bessie’s teashop and discuss it further?”

As they left the shop, John stopped in his tracks, his eye caught by the car parked outside: a huge convertible, glittering with chrome and complete with tail fins. The paintwork was ivory white above the chrome midline and bubblegum pink below. The leather upholstery was also pink. Gleaming chrome-plated hubcaps and white-wall tyres set the whole thing off.

“A Vauxhall Cresta from about 1960 and beautifully looked after – Britain’s answer to a Cadillac,” he said appreciatively. “Surely not yours?” he asked, noticing Coco’s broad grin.

“Not quite,” she admitted. “You know me and cars – an engine and a wheel at each corner and I’m usually quite happy.”

“But not this time?”

“I rather wanted to put on a show of style for my castle-owning media baron. I phoned up Penny Harker – Madame X’s sidekick – and asked if they had anything I could borrow that would be a bit classier than my usual rented Ford Focus.”

“And she came up with this thing?”

“Perfect, isn’t it?”

John nodded his agreement. “What’s it like to drive?”

“Hard work – 3-speed gearbox with a column shift and no synchro on first, zero to sixty in about half an hour, no powered steering, turning circle like a truck and brakes like a bicycle.”

“Consistent with what you said about presentation and performance earlier,” John commented wryly as he dragged his eyes away from the car and led Coco across the street.

“I had no idea you were such a petrol-head, John,” Coco said as they took their seats in the teashop.

“I’m not in general, but you know me – I go for anything that’s a bit old and rather gorgeous.” He favoured her with an appreciative stare.

Coco put down the leaflet that she had been studying again. “And what, precisely is that supposed to mean, John Jacobs?” she demanded with mock severity.

* * *

The sky had lightened to a slate grey, but it was not yet fully light on a blustery March morning when Coco stepped off a train from London at Charing station in mid-Kent. Only one other passenger got off, but the opposite platform was well populated with commuters waiting for the next train to London.

Coco settled the grey woollen poncho she was wearing more comfortably around her, hoisted the bulky bag containing her conference papers and laptop onto her shoulder, extended the handle on her small wheeled suitcase, and set off for the exit to the car park. Before she reached it, John Jacobs stepped onto the platform to meet her.

“Let me take your case,” he offered.

Coco relinquished the case and accompanied John out into the station car park. John’s van stood waiting, a Ford Transit painted a dignified maroon and lettered in gold with red shading: J. JACOBS ANTIQUES, FURNITURE & COLLECTABLES.

“Not quite as classy as Madame X’s transport, I’m afraid,” John commented.

“A good deal more practical and probably easier to drive,” Coco countered with a grin.

John opened the sliding side door of the van and deposited Coco’s case inside. Coco put her shoulder bag beside it.

“I thought you were buying not selling,” Coco remarked as she noticed a plastic crate filled with newspaper-wrapped objects.

“I’m repatriating some Waterford glass,” John explained. “It should fetch a better price over there than here.”

“I won’t need this on in the van,” Coco said, lifting her poncho off over her head and revealing the bright red and remarkably tight-fitting heavy sweater she wore underneath. She loosened the grey scarf that was wrapped around her neck but left it in place.

“Do you want first or second shift driving?” John asked.

“Don’t mind as long as you get it on and off the ferry,” Coco replied.

“OK, I’ll do the first bit and you can take over after we stop for coffee.”

Coco opened the passenger door of the van. She hitched up the ankle-length grey cord skirt she wore in order to climb up into the cab, giving John a brief glimpse of her bright red woollen tights and the grey socks she wore folded down over her lace-up ankle boots. He was always impressed at the woman’s sense of style, even when dressed casually.

* * *

It was a little over three hours after they had set out from their rendezvous point that John pulled up at the motorway service area next to the old Severn Bridge.

“I miss the constant flow of coffee when I’m out of the office,” Coco commented as she and John settled down in the café.

“I take it Soo is minding the shop while you’re away.”

Coco glanced at her watch. “Yes, she should be well through a meeting with a client right now.”

“I didn’t know she had the experience for that,” John said.

“This project isn’t too demanding – it’s a garden water feature.”

“One of Europe’s leading hydrological engineering practices designs garden water features?” John asked in delighted astonishment.

“Only as a favour to friends. The client in this case is a mutual acquaintance: Kay Winters.

“The... ah... China lady?” John asked circumspectly.

“None other.”

* * *

Soo had already marshalled all the research material she had prepared for her meeting when the doorbell sounded.

“Kay! Do come in,” she invited, ushering her client into the house. “In civvies this time I see”, she commented with a smile.

“Catsuits are strictly for professional visits,” Kay agreed, returning the smile.

Kay was in fact smartly turned out in a coffee brown tweed suit jacket over a black sweater dress which set off her blonde hair beautifully. Her brown leather boots echoed the colour of the jacket.

Soo was privately pleased that she had judged her own attire about right with a businesslike white blouse under the waistcoat and short skirt of a dark grey pinstripe suit. Her grey and black striped tights added a funky touch without overdoing it while her black mary-janes maintained the sobriety of the suit.

“I put some coffee on a few minutes ago,” Soo said. “It should be about ready by now if you’d like some.”

“Yes please,” Kay replied, following Soo into the kitchen and watching as she filled two mugs.

“Milk and sugar?”

“Just milk, please.”

“That’s easy – same as me,” Soo said, adding the milk to both mugs.

Soo carried the mugs through to her desk on a small, circular tray. She had already arranged another office chair next to her own so that Kay could sit on her right and see both the drawings laid out on the desk and the computer screen.

“Now, what have you got for me?” Kay asked as she settled down in the seat and put the black nylon shoulder bag she carried down on the floor beside it.

“Well, first off, I’ve drawn up the survey measurements I took when we met at your place and confirmed that the overall drop down the length of the garden is about 3 metres as I thought it would be. I’ve done a pencil sketch of a possible layout with the pond at the bottom, a spring at the top and an irregular watercourse winding its way down between them. I’ve put in a mix of steep bits and not-so-steep bits and rocky bits to get as interesting and varied a flow as possible.”

“I like the look of that sketch,” Kay commented, scooting her chair a bit closer to Soo’s.

“I’ll leave the precise details to the landscape contractor who actually builds the thing – my job is getting the right size pump in and getting the channel size and general shape and gradient right so it flows nicely.”

“That’s why it foxed me when I was first thinking about this – how do you know what it’s going to do before you’ve built it?” Kay gestured towards the sketch.

There was a slight awkwardness to the gesture Soo thought. Was Kay holding something hidden in her hand? She put the thought aside and explained, “Well, you can never be absolutely one-hundred-percent sure, but I did some web searching for videos of similar water features as worked examples.”

Soo adjusted the angle of her monitor so that Kay would have a clear view. The screen had a matt finish, but provided just enough of a reflection to see Kay drop something into Soo’s coffee mug.

Soo said nothing but finished adjusting the angle of the screen, all the while trying to work out what was going on and what to do about it. “Let me make a bit more space,” she said, reaching for the coffee tray. As she did so, a spoon clattered to the floor.

Kay instinctively bent to retrieve the spoon and, as soon as her gaze was averted, Soo switched the mugs around.

“Thank you,” Soo said as Kay put the spoon back on the tray. She picked up the coffee mug nearest to her, the one that had not been tampered with, took a sip and parked it on the clear space to the left of the computer screen.

Kay reached for the other mug and took it in both hands, her eyes on the screen.

Soo double-clicked an icon on the screen. “Now, this is what one litre of water per second looks like. It’s a narrower channel than the one I’m thinking of, but not by much,” she explained.

Kay sipped her coffee as she watched what was obviously a home video of a recently-constructed artificial water course in someone’s garden. About a minute into the video, Kay looked at her coffee mug with a slightly puzzled expression on her face.

Soo turned to face her. “I switched the mugs,” she commented lightly.

Kay said nothing but now looked a little unsteady as well as puzzled.

“Some kind of Mickey Finn?” Soo asked.

“Something... like... that,” Kay replied groggily.

Enlightenment suddenly dawned in Soo’s brain. “Coco put you up to this, didn’t she?”

There was a long pause, then Kay nodded slowly.

Soo lifted the coffee mug from Kay’s unresisting fingers before she could spill it.

Kay very quietly, but distinctly said, “Bugger,” then slumped in her chair.

* * *

Kay’s eyelids fluttered then opened. She looked at Soo then glanced down. “Ugga,” she said, picking up where she had left off, her voice muffled by the thick band of white cloth pulled between her teeth.

Soo stared back, slowly sipping her own mug of coffee, but saying nothing. She had investigated the bulky shoulder bag that Kay had brought with her, which seemed so much out of keeping with the rest of her outfit, and found several neatly bundled skeins of rope together with some conveniently sized pieces of cotton cloth. She had put them to good use. Kay now sat with her crossed wrists bound in front of her, tied back to her waist and down to her lap. More rope was wrapped around her arms and chest and the backrest of the chair. She was held down with rope across her lap and under the chair seat. Her legs were bound at the ankles and above and below the knees. In addition, her ankles were tied back to the central supporting post under the chair, her feet resting on the five-armed wheeled base.

Kay looked down and studied her predicament. “Ugga, ugga, ugga,” she said, summarising the situation.

“If you’re going to be a potty mouth, I’ll just leave that gag where it is,” Soo told Kay firmly.

She turned back to the computer. “Now if you remember before your little nap, we saw at what a flow of one litre per second looks like. I think it looks a little understated.”

Kay glanced at Soo then shrugged, so far as she was able, and nodded her agreement.

Soo double-clicked another icon. “This one is about six litres per second. It’s from an American web site so it calls it one-and-a-half US gallons per second. The channel is a bit too narrow in my view, so the flow is quite hectic in places.”

Kay watched the video in her enforced silence then nodded agreement with Soo’s remarks.

“Now, while I’ve got a captive audience...” Soo paused while Kay responded to the weak joke with the obligatory wince. “Here comes the science bit – concentrate, there will be a quiz later.

“One litre of water weighs a kilogram. The force of gravity on that is about 10 newtons. To lift that through 3 metres, it takes 30 joules of energy, so doing that every second needs a power of 30 watts. A pump isn’t 100 percent efficient, so you probably need 50 watts for one litre per second or 250 watts for five litres per second. If we go for a 250 watt pump and make it adjustable, that will do the job nicely.”

Not being able to do much else, Kay nodded.

“Now that you’ve calmed down, I think I’ll take a chance on removing your gag,” Soo said, standing up.

Kay sat straight while Soo loosened the knot of her gag and eased the band of cloth out of her mouth.

“Thank you,” Kay said hoarsely.

“Now, perhaps you would like to explain exactly what you were up to and just what Coco’s involvement is in this,” Soo invited.

“I was chatting to Coco last week when we were setting up this meeting and we got to discussing the need for constant vigilance in our line of work. She thought that you would trust me automatically as a fellow professional and that your guard would be down when we met. She bet me that I would be able to put one over on you without any difficulty.”

“Putting one over by drugging me and tying me up? That sounds like Coco’s idea.”

“Well actually, we cooked it up together.” Kay looked acutely embarrassed as she spoke.

“At least you were betting on my side,” Soo conceded. “And how much was this bet for?”

“A tenner.”

“So you’ve won your bet at the expense of being thoroughly hoist on your own petard?”

“Some sort of poetic justice there I suppose,” Kay said. “Any chance of turning me loose soon?”

“I think I need a photograph of this first,” Soo replied, “and I think I’ll put your gag back for that.”

* * *

As John and Coco were walking back to the van, there was a musical tone from Coco’s handbag. “Text message,” she said, pausing to retrieve her phone. She saw that it was actually a photo message and it was from Soo. She and opened it to find a picture of Kay Winters bound to a chair and gagged together with the terse comment, ‘You lost your bet.’

“What’s so funny?” John asked, reacting to a snort of laughter from Coco.

“This,” she replied, showing the picture to John. “I’ll explain as we go.”

* * *

The remainder of the journey through Wales passed uneventfully with plenty of time in hand when Coco pulled up in the commercial vehicle lane at the Fishguard ferryport. They changed places so that John could manoeuvre the van onto the ferry.

The crossing to Rosslare took about three and a half hours, so there was time for John and Coco to enjoy a meal together in the ship’s restaurant and to study the Irish pages of the road atlas.

John took the wheel once more for the first leg of the journey. They travelled relatively slowly across country heading generally north-westwards. They had agreed to stop for a break in Port Laoise and Coco took over from there, negotiating the town’s multitude of roundabouts and heading north-west again until the reached the M6 motorway from Dublin to Galway. It was late afternoon by the time they reached the city.

Through one of his personal contacts in Ireland, John had found a pleasant country house hotel some miles out of Galway City to the west. Using a combination of the road atlas, the city map issued with his tickets for the antique fair and the leaflet from the hotel, John navigated Coco through the city and out to the west.

The roads became quieter and narrower as they progressed into the countryside. Coco slowed slightly as she became aware of headlights approaching in the rear-view mirror. A black vintage Rolls-Royce swept past them, the Irish tricolour fluttering from one front mudguard and a flag that Coco could not identify on the other.

“Lovely old Rolls-Royce,” Coco commented.

“That’s ZJ 5000,” John said excitedly, quoting the car’s registration number. “It was Éamon de Valera’s car and it’s still technically the Irish president’s official car. It’s usually only used for special occasions these days.”

“I was right – you really are a petrol-head,” Coco teased.

“I’ll admit to being a selective petrol-head,” John conceded. “It depends a lot on the car involved.”

* * *

The hotel was marked by a small discreet sign by the side of the road. Coco turned in and followed a narrow winding private road through trees which ended in a gravelled area in front of the hotel building, presumably once the carriage sweep but now extended into a small car park.

“There’s that Rolls again,” Coco said, noting the presidential car, now standing empty outside the main entrance.

“The other cars look fairly official too,” John commented, pointing out the pair of black Mercedes in the car park.

Coco parked the van alongside a dark green minibus with the hotel’s name painted on it. She and John retrieved their luggage and walked the short distance to the hotel door. The lobby was completely deserted except for a dark-haired woman sitting at the reception desk. The sound of her typing broke off as she heard the swish of the door closing.

“Good evening and welcome to Cathair Park,” she said, standing to greet the new arrivals.

“Thank you,” John replied. “John Jacobs and Colette Aldington. We have reservations.”

“Indeed you do – it was myself you spoke to when you booked. I’m Eithne Ó Sé”

Coco was startled to hear how the woman pronounced her name and glad not to have attempted a pronunciation on the basis of the name badge she wore: her first name sounded like Enya and her surname turned out to be the Irish spelling of O’Shea.

“You don’t seem very busy,” John remarked as he signed the register then passed it to Coco.

“March is a bit early in the season for us – we don’t usually bothering to open until Easter.”

“But you have this year?” Coco asked as she passed the register back to Eithne.

“We have a diplomatic party in and we opened a couple of weeks early for them. They have no problem with us having other guests, but our publicity material all says we’re not open yet, so you’re the only ones we have so far.”

“How did you know they were taking bookings?” Coco asked John.

“Inside information,” he replied, tapping the side of his nose.

“Seeing as there’s only you, I’ve put you in the Taoiseach’s suite,” Eithne said. “There’s two separate bedrooms with en-suite bathrooms and a shared sitting room.”

“I’m surprised that the diplomatic party didn’t get that,” Coco commented.

Eithne smiled. “They have the President’s suite and a couple of other rooms.”

“Well, if it’s good enough for the prime minister,” Coco said, carefully avoiding having to pronounce ‘Taoiseach’, “I’m sure it’s good enough for us.”

“De Valera really did stay in your suite in the 1950s when he was Taoiseach, and O’Kelly was in the President’s suite,” Eithne said, pointing out a framed black-and-white photograph of the two men standing outside the hotel. “If you will follow me?” She picked up two keys and indicated a lift to the side.

* * *

The suite proved just as comfortable as its name suggested. The two bedrooms were a single and a double, which John gallantly insisted Coco should have. The sitting room had a small desk which Coco immediately commandeered for her laptop.

John and Coco agreed to freshen up and then go downstairs for dinner together. When John emerged from his room after what he had believed to be a quick shower and change of clothes, he was surprised to find Coco already changed and checking emails on her computer.

“Just finished,” she said, not looking up immediately.

Coco looked John up and down. He had exchanged the jeans and sweatshirt he had worn to travel for dark trousers, a white shirt worn with the collar open and a grey suit jacket.

“I was hoping that you’d go for smart casual too,” she said, standing up.

John reciprocated the inspection. Coco was wearing a cream silk blouse loose over a calf-length moss-green tweed skirt with chocolate-brown tights and comfortable flat brown brogues. She had topped the outfit off with a hip-length cardigan fractionally darker green than her skirt.

“The country lady look is just perfect for the surroundings,” he said approvingly.

“But just short of the twin-set and pearls,” Coco retorted with a grin.

* * *

Eithne directed John and Coco to a small bar with a few dining tables set up rather than the main dining room that would be used later in the season. They picked up a menu each from the bar and settled down on a pair of armchairs close to the fire to study them. They were still contemplating the choice when a young woman entered the room.

The newcomer was tall and slender with a mass of wavy red hair. She wore a plain but elegant long black dress with three-quarter length sleeves. She too picked up a menu from the bar and walked across to John and Coco.

“You seem to have picked the warmest spot – do you mind if I join you?” she said in a soft Irish accent.

“Please go ahead,” John replied with a smile, gesturing towards an empty chair.

“That’s very kind of you,” the woman said, taking her seat.

“Not at all,” Coco said, looking up from her menu. “It’s nice to have some company. I’m Coco and this is my friend John.”

“Flavia,” the woman returned.

John was instantly on his feet. “An unexpected pleasure, Your Highness.”

In total bafflement, Coco looked first at Flavia then at John.

“Coco, this is Her Serene Highness Crown Princess Flavia of Ruritania,” he explained.

Putting her menu down, Coco made to stand too.

“Sit down, the pair of you. We’ll have none of that nonsense here,” Flavia protested. “Ireland is a republic and I’m just plain Flavia Elphberg on my native soil.”

John resumed his seat and Coco relaxed back into hers.

“I came out here for my dinner to get away from all the bowing and scraping,” Flavia continued. “I’d heard there were some ordinary guests at the hotel, so I was hoping for some normal conversation.”

“We’ll do our best,” Coco promised, “but please satisfy my curiosity first – how does a Ruritanian princess turn out to be an Irishwoman?”

“There’s been Irish blood in the house of Elphberg for a long time,” Flavia explained. “Back before Catholic emancipation in Ireland, there wasn’t much chance for Catholics to enter government or the higher ranks of the military here at home – that was all taken up by the Anglo-Irish protestant ruling classes. There were opportunities in the Catholic parts of central Europe, such as Austria, Bohemia and Ruritania. By the time of the Napoleonic wars, most of the Ruritanian general staff were Irish – one of them was a General Jacob von Rafferty, presumably Jim O’Rafferty to his family. Anyway, that led to a certain amount of Irish blood diffusing into the nobility too.”

“You called Ireland your native soil, so presumably it’s still going on?” Coco asked.

“Largely as a result of exile in my case,” Flavia replied. “When the Nazis annexed Ruritania in 1938, the royal family escaped to Poland and eventually to Britain then Ireland. My grandfather ended up breeding racehorses in County Kildare and my parents still do. Our country became a communist dictatorship after the Second World War and stayed like that until the end of communism in 1990.”

“I’m surprised that the monarchy was restored after such a long gap,” John commented.

“Despite the political upheavals of the mid-19th century and Rudolph V being assassinated, Ruritanians always seem to have had a soft spot for royalty,” Flavia said. “The monarchy was brought back as a way of having a neutral non-party-political head of state. It’s a completely constitutional monarchy now. Just now, I’m still only queen designate. I don’t actually get the job until I stand up in front of the parliament in Strelsau and swear my allegiance to the country and they vote me in as queen. Theoretically, I could turn the job down at any point up to the last minute and, equally, they could turn me down. There’s no coronation, just a swearing-in. The state crown never leaves the National Museum.”

“What do people think of having an Irishwoman for queen?” Coco asked.

“I’m just as Ruritanian as I am Irish,” Flavia pointed out. “My grandfather was the younger brother of King Rudolph VII’s father.”

“Rudolph VII is the king who’s just died?” John queried.

“Yes. I think technically, he was some sort of cousin to me, but I always called him Uncle Rudi,” Flavia explained.”

“Why does the succession go to you rather than your father?” Coco asked.

“It would actually be my mother: she’s the Ruritanian – my father’s name is Michael O’Hare. They’re both very happy running a stud farm and feel they’re too old for a change of career, so Mama turned the job down in favour of me. When I become queen, she gets to be Duchess of Strelsau as a sort of consolation prize.”

“It’s as good a way of choosing a head of state as any other, I guess,” John commented.

“A bit odd having someone not actually born in the country though. Does everyone accept that?” Coco asked, going back to her earlier question.

“The Nationalists don’t like it,” Flavia admitted. “They’re very much a minority party, but they feel that monarchy should end and that there should be an elected head of state, with some actual political power. Their leader sent me a letter commiserating with me over the death of my uncle, congratulating me on my succession and suggesting strongly that I should decline the appointment as queen.”

“By ‘actual political power’, presumably you mean something like the power that the Communist leaders of the country had?” Coco asked.

“Yes, they’re a small minority, mainly drawn from the former Communist party, but they think that Ruritania’s golden age was the period under Hitler and then Stalin. Their dream is to persuade the people to see the light and elect them as a majority government. One presumes that if that happened, the constitution would be adjusted so that no-one would be troubled with elections ever again,” Flavia said drily.

Before either John or Coco could comment further, a waitress appeared with a notebook in her hand. Coco was surprised that Flavia greeted the waitress in German, before ordering her meal in English.

“Almost all the staff here are Ruritanian expatriates,” Flavia explained. “Ireland is seen as a very Ruritania-friendly country and since we’ve been members of the European Union an amazing number seem to have taken advantage of the free movement of labour to come here.”

“So London has Polish plumbers and Galway has Ruritanian waiters?” John quipped.

“Well this hotel certainly does. I think that’s why the embassy chose to put me up here instead of Dublin, which would have been a tad more convenient.”

“Was that you we saw in the Rolls Royce earlier on?” Coco asked.

“Yes, I had lunch with the President today. I was driven up in one of our diplomatic Mercedes, but for coming back, they had brought out the presidential Roller. I think the romance of having a home-grown queen here may just be blurring Ireland’s republican ideals just a tiny bit.”

“But you didn’t turn down the ride?” John asked.

“Certainly not – when would I ever get a chance like that again? I insisted in sitting up front with the driver though, not in the back like Lady Muck.”

The waitress reappeared to announce that the table was ready and the first course was about to be served.

* * *

After the meal, John, Coco and Flavia paused at the top of the main staircase before going their separate ways. As they were bidding each other goodnight, a woman bustled out of the door to the wing where the diplomatic party was housed. She was tall and thin with steel-grey hair scraped back into a bun. She wore a severely-cut charcoal-grey skirt suit over a white high-necked blouse. Her wire-rimmed circular spectacles added to the severity of her appearance and made Coco think of librarians and schoolteachers.

“Meine Dame, ein Moment, bitte,” the woman said, addressing Flavia and ignoring John and Coco.

“Alas, business calls. This is Baroness Frederika von Tarlenheim, my private secretary. I inherited her from Uncle Rudi – the von Tarlenheim family have been loyal retainers of the Elphbergs for over a hundred years,” Flavia said. “Frieda, this is John Jacobs and Coco Aldington, fellow guests at the hotel.”

The baroness managed to straighten her posture even more than the ramrod-straightness that she had already adopted. “My pleasure,” she said, favouring John and Coco with a stiff little bow of the head. Coco felt that she might have clicked her heels together had she been wearing more suitable footwear.

“Pleased to meet you,” John replied as he and Coco turned towards their suite, leaving the Princess and Baroness deep in conversation in German.

* * *

When John emerged from his bedroom the following morning, he found Coco in their shared sitting room already up, dressed and sitting at the desk, working at her laptop. She had made use of the coffee maker in the suite and had a full mug at her elbow.

“Last minute preparation for your talk?” John asked.

“Speaker’s paranoia,” Coco explained. “I know my PowerPoint slides are all just fine, but I’m still compelled to check through them just to be sure.”

“I don’t speak in public as much as you, but I’m just the same. I usually find myself doing a Google search at the last minute, just in case there are better pictures than the ones I’ve chosen.”

Coco grinned back at him. “Me too, but that’s not an option today – the hotel’s comms all seem to be down.”

“No internet?”

“No anything. The wifi’s off and I can’t get anything by plugging into the network socket either. There’s not even any mobile phone signal this morning.”

“If the mobile signal comes from a microcell running off the hotel’s broadband connection then they’ll go off together,” John pointed out.

“I’d assumed that the comms mast down by the road was our mobile signal.” Coco gestured towards the window. An antenna was visible poking up behind some trees at the far end of the hotel’s driveway.

“It’s a nuisance anyway – I was hoping to make a call before we leave.”

“There’s always the room phone,” Coco pointed to the telephone sitting on the desk next to her computer.

“I’m getting too used to using a mobile for everything,” John said picking up the handset.

John pressed a sequence of digits on the phone’s keypad then pressed the switch on the handset cradle and tried again more slowly. He shook his head. “I get the internal dial tone, but everything goes dead as soon as I press 9 for an outside line.”

“We can ask Eithne what’s happening when we go down for breakfast. On which subject…” Coco stood up and headed for the door, John opening it for her.

* * *

There was no-one at the reception desk when John and Coco went downstairs, so they carried on to the room where they had eaten dinner the night before. The waitress spoke good English with a German accent, presumably another Ruritanian migrant worker. She rapidly furnished John with the toast and coffee he had requested and the huge full Irish breakfast that Coco had ordered.

The two friends discussed the day ahead as they ate. Coco’s conference would be open for registration at 9:30, well after John planned to be at his venue, so they agreed that Coco could walk from the hall where the antiques fair was being held to the conference centre and then return to meet John in the late afternoon.

“Today is trade-only, so you’ll need a pass to get in,” John said, rummaging in his jacket pocket. He handed a name badge to Coco.

“ ‘Coco Aldington, Consultant, J Jacobs Antiques’,” she read aloud. “Consultant?”

“Well, I’ve consulted you on lots of things, so you must be a consultant,” John replied with a smile.

“Thanks for making me Coco – the badge for my conference will probably have me as Dr Colette Aldington in full. If I’m unlucky, they may even wheel out my middle initial.”

“I didn’t even know you had a middle initial.”


* * *

After breakfast, John and Coco paused at the reception desk to ask about the state of the hotel’s communications. Instead of Eithne, there was a woman on duty that they had not met before. She apologised blandly for the situation and assured them that an engineer from Eircom was already on the case.

Coco settled down in the passenger seat of John’s van with her laptop protectively cradled in her arms. “No sign of an Eircom van anywhere,” she commented as John drove down the hotel’s winding private road.

“Optimistic spin, maybe,” John suggested.

Shortly before they reached the public road, there were simultaneous text message alert tones from both Coco’s and John’s phones.

Coco retrieved her phone from her handbag. “Three text messages, two last night and one this morning, all from Soo.”

“Comms must have been down for some time then,” John said.

“Odd that it should come back just as we reached the road,” Coco commented.

* * *

About 4pm, Coco arrived at the Victorian market hall that was the venue for the antiques fair. She pointed to the badge that John had given her and was ushered in by the doorman. She knew that John’s few sales would all be privately arranged and that he did not have a stall at the fair, so she wandered around looking at anything that caught her eye in the expectation that John’s and her paths would eventually cross.

“I might have guessed you’d find something like that,” said a voice behind her.

“Hello, John,” Coco said looking up from a selection of antique handcuffs that had caught her eye.

“You look as though you might be thinking of buying.”

“My thoughts were drifting in that direction,” Coco admitted. “I’ve never seen one of these for real before, only pictures,” she added, holding up one of the pairs of cuffs. It was an unusual design with a pair of rigid loops for the wearer’s wrists, a single hinge at one side and a barrel lock at the other.

“An Irish eight? Well, you’re on the right side of the Irish Sea to find them,” John commented, taking it from Coco. “Let’s see if this is the real thing.” He turned it over in his hands.

“People forge handcuffs?” Coco asked incredulously.

“Not as such, but there are a lot of reproductions around.”

“And this one?”

“It’s quite small, but women’s size handcuffs were made and used.”

“For unruly ladies of the night?”

“Something like that,” John said with a smile. “The maker’s mark says ‘W Cowen 1882’, which is a good sign – most of the reproductions are stamped Hiatt. There’s also a crown and 1884, which would be when it entered the Royal Irish Constabulary’s inventory. The plating looks like nickel rather than chrome and the degree of wear looks convincing. I think it’s genuine.”

John handed the handcuffs back to Coco. The key was dangling from a piece of string tied to the cuffs. She inserted it into the keyhole and screwed it in until the mechanism released and the cuffs swung open. “Still works,” she said. “I think I’ll buy them.”

“Something else to torment Soo with?”

“Training, not tormenting,” Coco corrected primly. “Besides, I’m curious to try these myself. I’m told that they’re almost impossible to get out of, even if you have the key in your hand.”

With John as an adviser, Coco struck a bargain with the seller and came away with the Irish eight, a pair of more conventional darby-style handcuffs and a pair of leg irons. Coco browsed around the fair a while longer with the added benefit of John’s expert advice, but saw nothing that caught her fancy sufficiently to buy it.

Satisfied with her visit to the antique fair, Coco accompanied John out of the hall and out into the yard behind the venue where the various traders’ vehicles were parked.

“How was your day, John?” Coco asked.

“Very successful – I’ll show you,” John replied, clicking his key fob to unlock the van. He swung the double doors at the back open and offered Coco a hand to climb up inside.

“Most of it is furniture, as you’d expect for me, but I got some paintings too,” he explained, flipping back the old blanket he had used to cover a stack of framed canvases.

“That’s the old bridge in Maidstone,” Coco said, recognising a scene.

“Yes, and it’s by John Robinson”

“The English impressionist?”

“That’s the one – I’m repatriating a Kentish painting back to Kent,” John replied.

“Are the others local too?” Coco asked.

“I think both the others are. This one obviously is – it’s Canterbury cathedral and it’s another Robinson – and I’m fairly sure that the third one is a Robinson too, even though it’s not signed, and I’ll have to check, but I think the scene is Boughton Monchelsea churchyard.”

“And a grandfather clock,” Coco commented. “It’s marked Thomas Woolley, Charing – is that the Charing in Kent?”

“It certainly is. Long-case clocks always sell well and a local item like this will be worth far more back in Kent than here.”

“And the furniture?”

“A bit of a mix, but all good saleable items,” John said. “I’d especially like you to take a look at this one.” He pulled a dust sheet off a chair.

“I like that style of wooden chair...” Coco’s voice trailed off as she saw the leather straps that were attached to it. “So, what’s it for?” she asked after examining it for a few moments.

“It has the name of a mental hospital stamped on the underside of the seat, so it must have been for restraining patients.”

“I thought that sort of thing went out in the nineteenth century,” Coco said. “This doesn’t look that old.”

“My guess is 1920s from its style as a piece of furniture,” John said.

“That’s our grandparents’ time – scarily recent,” Coco commented. “Do you expect to be able to sell this easily?”

“Really weird stuff always sells well,” John replied. “Do you want to try it out?”

“Might be fun some other time,” Coco said, turning to face John.

“I’d like you to try it now,” he said lifting his right hand slightly to make sure Coco noticed the bright yellow Taser in it.

Coco took another long look at the chair. It was a robustly-made plain wooden armchair. The back legs rose to form the side members of the backrest, while the front legs also supported the armrests. The tall back was formed of a series of vertical spindles with a wider central member and a deep cross-member at the top. Without further comment, she sat down on the chair.

“Are you going to co-operate while I do up the straps,” John asked.

“As I have no desire to be zapped, yes I will, but perhaps you would tell me what this is about.”

“In good time,” John said. He pocketed the Taser and turned to shut the van doors. He started with the broad leather strap that was attached to the chair back at waist level. It fastened with two separate buckles on narrower straps riveted to the main one. Next came a pair of straps attached to the armrests which secured Coco’s wrists. A long strap attached to the chair back a bit higher up encircled Coco’s upper arms and chest, holding her arms to her sides and her body back to the chair. There was a wooden bar linking the front legs of the chair to which another strap was attached. John tightened it around Coco’s ankles, holding her legs together and keeping them in position. Lastly there were two straps attached to the chair seat. One went around Coco’s legs just above the knees and the other across her hips.

“Now that you’re not going to interfere or perform some sleight of hand, I can examine your bag,” John said, picking up Coco’s handbag.

“I wondered what this was about,” Coco said with the air of having had a great mystery revealed to her.

John searched the bag methodically, carefully picking out four items of jewellery. “I don’t suppose you can show me receipts for these?” he asked.

Coco just smiled back.

“I thought as much,” he said. “The antiques trade doesn’t have much in the way of margins at the best of times, without having someone helping herself to the stock just because she can.”

“I like to keep my hand in,” Coco said by way of explanation.

“That’s all very well, but these are people I do business with,” John pointed out firmly. “Honest business. Now three of these have labels still on them and the fourth one I remember noticing myself, so I know where to take them back to.”

John picked up the dust sheet that had been over the chair and ripped a strip off one edge of it. “This isn’t going to taste good, but you know what’s coming.”

Coco opened her mouth and allowed John to push a folded wad of the dust sheet into it. He secured it in place with a band of the same stuff between her teeth.

“Back soon,” John said, letting himself out of the van and shutting the doors.

* * *

John returned to the van about fifteen minutes later. He opened the rear doors, climbed inside and shut them behind him. “Reverse shoplifting successfully accomplished,” he said as he set down two lidded paper cups and removed Coco’s gag. “I’ve brought you some coffee to help take the taste away,” he explained.

Coco licked her lips and grimaced. “Thank you – you were right about the taste. Furniture polish is not a good flavour for a gag.”

“Sorry, but you rather brought it on yourself,” John said as he unfastened the straps securing Coco to the chair.

“I know I did. You were quite right – I did do it just because I could and I was completely out of order,” Coco admitted contritely. “And you were right thinking you’d never find the pieces if you got me to go through my bag for you. You really know me far too well.”

“Like they say, it takes one to know one,” John said. “No hard feelings?”

“None at all – I really did deserve that, but you could have gagged me with the handkerchief and scarf in my bag.”

“I could, but I didn’t,” John acknowledged with a grin. “Shall we sit in the front to drink our coffee?”

John helped Coco step down from the back of the van and while he secured the back doors, Coco opened the passenger door and stowed her laptop case, her handbag and the plastic carrier bag containing her recent purchases before taking her seat.

She handed John his coffee as he settled himself in the driving seat. She took a sip of her own then set the cup down and took out the Irish eight to examine it more closely.

“I don’t suppose you want to try it out after what I just did to you,” John said.

“Might be fun – and it’s my choice this time,” Coco said, handing the cuffs over.

John used the key to unlock the cuffs then unthreaded the string securing it. Coco held her hands out and he closed the cuffs on her wrists and snapped the lock shut. He handed her the key which she took in her right hand.

“That should keep you amused on the journey,” John said as he started the engine.

As they drove, Coco attempted to get the key into the lock to free herself from the handcuffs. She worked away in silence with intense concentration.

“Any luck?” John asked once they were clear of Galway city and the worst of the traffic.

“No, I think I’m well and truly stuck,” Coco replied. “The keyhole is at the bottom and on the right, so it’s really hard to reach and I have to use my left hand.”

“Yes, I know,” John replied with a satisfied smile.

“Bastard,” Coco said, without apparent rancour. “Anyway, I can get the tip of the key into the hole but I can’t tilt it to the right angle to engage with the screw thread. I might do better somewhere with a bit more elbow room, but I doubt it.”

Coco gave up her struggle and just sat quietly sipping her coffee clutched between her cuffed hands. As they turned into the hotel driveway, there was a bleep from Coco’s phone inside her handbag announcing the arrival of a text message.

“Sounds like they’ve fixed the mobile phone signal,” John said.

“It’s probably from Soo, but I can’t do much about it until I’m out of these,” Coco said, holding her cuffed hands up.

As soon as he had parked the van, John reached over and released Coco from the Irish eight.

“Thank you,” Coco said, rubbing her wrists. “Not uncomfortable, but they are indeed impossible to get out of.”

She reached down to retrieve her phone from her handbag. “It is from Soo,” she said, “but, once again, there’s no signal here, so I can’t reply. I’ll have to take my phone for a walk down the drive later on.”

The person on the reception desk was the one they had spoken to in the morning. Once again, she apologised for the non-availability of internet, wifi and outside telephone connections. She assured John and Coco that it was being worked on, but could offer no estimate of when services might be resumed.

“She seemed to be rather on edge about something,” Coco commented to John as they climbed the stairs.

“It’s hard to tell with an accent like hers, but I felt that too,” John replied. “Surely she can’t be that upset about the hotel comms being down?”

“Maybe she’s missing her Facebook time,” Coco suggested.

* * *

Dinner was at the same table in the room adjacent to the bar as the previous evening. The sense of tension that John and Coco had felt speaking to the receptionist seemed to pervade the bar and waiting staff too.

“Surely they can’t all be missing their Facebook time,” John remarked as they ate.

“No, but there’s clearly something bothering them,” Coco replied.

After the meal, Coco announced her intention of walking down the driveway to find a mobile phone signal so that she could reply to Soo’s text message. John offered to walk with her, which she readily accepted. As they walked through the reception area, they met Princess Flavia and Baroness von Tarlenheim who had apparently just come in from outside.

Coco greeted the princess and her companion with a cheery “Good evening.”

“Good evening,” the princess replied, sounding oddly formal. “I hope you both had a good day.”

“We did, thank you ma’am,” John replied, responding to the tone of the greeting.

The princess and baroness swept on past and headed up the main staircase.

“Hard to believe that was the same woman we met last night,” John said when they were outside and out of earshot.

“She wasn’t,” Coco replied flatly.

“But we spent over an hour with her yesterday – I’d know her anywhere.”

“Not the same person,” Coco insisted. “I agree the resemblance is remarkable, but that woman we’ve just met was wearing a wig, and didn’t you think her accent sounded a little forced?”

“Are you sure?” John asked in astonishment.

“I know a wig when I see one – trust me on this.”

“A double for security?” John speculated.

“Seems a little excessive in rural Ireland,” Coco replied.

“Maybe the one we met last night was the double – she seemed much more un-princess-like than the one we’ve just met.”

“Last night’s one was a genuine redhead and she seemed entirely convincing to me in the way she switched from informality with us to business with the baroness. And don’t forget she’s only been a professional princess for a few weeks – before that she was just a horse-breeder’s daughter.”

John and Coco walked on in silence. Coco glanced at her phone from time to time until the signal level changed abruptly from nothing to full strength.

“Odd,” She commented, but said nothing more as she composed and sent a text message to Soo.

“Very patchy signal,” John commented.

“Suspiciously so. Bear with me while I investigate further,” Coco said walking on down the driveway.

When they reached the end of the driveway, it was a walk of just a few yards to the phone mast that was visible from the sitting room of their suite. A small sign on the equipment cabinet at the foot of it identified the owner as Vodafone Ireland.

“The same network as my phone is using here in Ireland,” Coco said, pointing to the display on the phone.

“So why can’t we get a signal in the room when we can see the mast?” John asked.

“It can’t be lack of signal, so it has to be active jamming.” As Coco spoke, she turned and started to walk back towards the hotel, John keeping pace with her.

They walked back up the hotel driveway in silence, considering the odd set of circumstances they had discovered.

* * *

“I don’t know about you, but I’m sure something’s going on here,” John said as soon as he and Coco were in the privacy of their suite.

“I agree. The comms failure could be quite innocent until you factor in the mobile phone signal being jammed, the staff all seeming to be on edge about something, someone apparently impersonating the princess and Eithne Ó Sé not being around.” Coco counted off the points on her fingers as she spoke.

“I suppose we ought to call the police,” said John, “but there’s no point – the woman we met earlier can produce a passport proving that she’s Princess Flavia.”

“Two passports probably – both Irish and Ruritanian,” Coco pointed out. “And there’s a good chance the police would recognise her from the newspaper and TV coverage when she inherited the crown.”

“Well that leaves only two possible courses of action,” John said. “We could simply decide that this is none of our business and do nothing...”

“...or we could decide that this needs investigating and go snooping,” Coco added.

“That could, of course, be quite risky if someone has gone to this much trouble.”

“But we’re not going to let a little thing like that stop us, are we?”

“Certainly not!”

The two friends agreed to mount a reconnaissance mission at eleven o’clock.

* * *

Coco emerged from her room at 10:45 to find John already sitting in an armchair waiting. “Sorry about the outfit,” she said. “I wasn’t quite planning any covert activities on this trip and had to improvise.”

“Unconventional, but practical,” John said, suppressing his smile at the tight red sweater Coco had worn for travelling teamed with black cotton leggings tucked into red socks and black trainers. He had experienced less difficulty in selecting the sweatshirt, jeans and trainers he wore.

“I do however seem to have brought some tools with me,” Coco said patting the black nylon pouch on a belt around her waist.

“Me too,” John said, patting one of the back pockets of his jeans.

John and Coco left their room and made their way quietly towards the wing of the hotel where they knew the Ruritanian party was accommodated. They knew that their likely destination was the President’s Suite, but had no clear idea of the layout of that part of the building. The first part of the corridor they entered contained only numbered rooms and unmarked doors which were presumably storage spaces.

As they reached the first corner in the corridor, Coco held her hand up to signal they should halt. She reached into her belt pouch and drew out a dental mirror on a telescopic handle. She lay down on the floor and cautiously pushed the mirror beyond the corner at skirting board level. After a few seconds, she withdrew the mirror and stood up silently. She took a few steps back the way they had come and signalled John to come close.

Whispering in John’s ear, Coco said, “The woman we saw at reception is sitting on a chair in the corridor. She looks to be asleep, but I think she has a gun on her lap.”

John gestured to Coco to lend him the mirror. He repeated Coco’s cautious approach to the corner but remained on his feet to get a higher angle of view. He returned to Coco and whispered, “Glock 9 millimetre pistol.”

“Looks like Flavia is in a lot of trouble,” Coco replied. “Are we daft enough to attempt to disarm a woman with a gun?”

John hesitated for a second then smiled as he said, “I think we probably are.”

Coco returned the mirror to her belt pouch then she and John walked steadily towards the corner, keeping well apart to present separate targets, their feet silent on the thick carpet. As they turned the corner, they saw that the woman with the gun was indeed asleep at her post. John walked past her then doubled back to approach from the opposite direction to Coco. There was still no reaction from the sleeping woman. John pointed towards the gun and raised his hand. Coco readied herself for his signal. After a few seconds, John nodded his head and Coco grabbed the gun. The woman was instantly awake but her attention was focussed on Coco so that she didn’t see the swift rabbit punch that John administered to the back of her neck, causing her to crumple silently to the floor.

The room that the woman had been guarding was indeed the President’s Suite. Coco tried the door and found it locked. A quick search through the unconscious woman’s pockets yielded a bunch of keys, one of which proved to be a bedroom master key that opened the door.

Coco entered cautiously with the Glock ready in her hand, while John dragged the unconscious woman in behind her, his hands under her shoulders.

The President’s Suite proved to be a similar layout to John and Coco’s own, with the door from the corridor opening onto a sitting room. The room was larger than its counterpart in the Taoiseach’s Suite, but furnished similarly. Coco opened one of the doors leading off the sitting room, taking care not to present too large a target as she did so. It was a spacious double bedroom which was unoccupied, as was its private bathroom. Coco returned to the sitting room and tried another door. It was a small storage cupboard containing spare bed linen. Coco opened the remaining door and looked inside.

“John,” she said quietly, “I’ve found Flavia.”

John left the unconscious woman and quickly crossed the room to join Coco. Alongside the double bed were two wire cages of the kind that might be used to house a large dog. Sitting in one of them was Princess Flavia. Her back was against the far end of the cage and her feet against the near side, with her knees drawn up to fit in the length of the cage. Her head was bowed slightly forward to clear the roof of the cage. Her ankles and knees were secured with bands of silver duct tape and her hands hidden behind her back, presumable also taped. Her mouth was also covered with strips of tape at different angles covering her face from ear to ear and extending from just below her nose right down to the chin.

The occupant of the second cage was not immediately identifiable. She was lying on her stomach with her head at the far end of her cage. Her wrists and ankles were also bound with duct tape and additional tape had been used to link the bindings into a hog-tie. Coco was fairly sure from the dark hair and clothing that it was Eithne Ó Sé.

“Check the bathroom,” Coco said, handing the gun to John. “I’m going to get these two out.”

John cautiously entered the bathroom while Coco selected a lock-pick from her pouch and set to work on the padlocks securing the two cages.

The locks were not particularly sophisticated and both sprung open with only a few seconds’ manipulation. The bottoms of the cages were steel trays on top of the wire mesh. Coco hooked her fingers over the lip of the tray in the Princess’s cage and pulled hard, bracing one foot against the edge of the cage to gain purchase. She had managed to get the tray about half way out when John returned from the bathroom. “All clear,” he said, adding his strength to Coco’s to get the tray completely out of the cage.

As soon as the Princess was completely out of her cage, John and Coco turned their attention to getting Eithne out of hers. As they did so, Flavia slowly lifted her head and looked wide eyed at the couple.

“You’d better see to that woman you cold-cocked – she’ll be coming round soon,” Coco said to John. “I’ll get these two free.”

John returned to the main room of the suite while Coco set to work on the tape binding the Princess and Eithne. She started by cutting away Eithne’s hog-tie. There was an audible whimper as she straightened her legs. Taking care not to damage clothes or skin, Coco sliced away the tape securing Eithne’s wrists and ankles then helped the woman to roll over and sit up. Once she was stable, Coco carefully peeled away the tape covering Eithne’s mouth and removed the wad of damp cloth that was filling her mouth. Eithne attempted to say something but gave up when her voice failed her and settled for a weak thumbs-up sign instead.

Leaving Eithne to recover, Coco turned her attention to Princess Flavia. The Princess was able to lift her taped wrists slightly to allow Coco a better opportunity to cut them free. She cut through the Princess’s ankle and knee bindings then carefully peeled away the tape on her face as she had with Eithne. Flavia spat out the wad of soggy cloth in her mouth as soon as she was able. “Thanks,” she said hoarsely.

Coco helped the two former prisoners to get to their feet and the three women returned to the main room of the suite.

“Nearly finished here,” John said as they entered the room.

Their formerly gun-toting guard was sitting on the floor, now conscious and glaring over the strip of torn bed sheet that covered the lower part of her face. It was obvious that there was also a wad of cloth inside her mouth. John had bound her wrists behind her back with another strip of sheet and her legs at the ankles and knees. He was currently winding a long strip around her upper arms and chest. He jerked the fabric tight and knotted it.

“Coco, can you help me roll her over?” John asked. “I’m going to hog-tie her just to make sure.”

Coco knelt down beside the woman and, between them, John and Coco laid the woman flat on her back then rolled her onto her stomach. Coco lifted her feet and forced them towards her bottom while John tore another strip off the sheet he had already partly destroyed. While Coco held the woman’s feet in place, John deftly linked her ankle and wrist bindings, finally pulling the hog-tie tight and knotting off the torn cotton.

“That should hold her for a while,” John said after inspecting the knots once more.

“Now what?” Coco asked. “Someone is bound to notice eventually that she’s not guarding the door any more.”

“Do you know if anyone is likely to check on her?” John asked Flavia and Eithne.

“Frieda and the fake me come in from time to time, but there’s no telling when,” Flavia replied.

“That’s right,” Eithne agreed, “but we haven’t seen them for a while, so they’ll probably show up before turning in for the night.”

“It’s already pretty late,” Coco said glancing at her watch.

As if on cue, there was the sound of a key in the door from the corridor. John and Coco took up positions on either side of the door, John with the Glock and Coco holding a chair to use as an impromptu weapon if required.

It took a moment for the person at the door to realise that it wasn’t actually locked. There was the sound of the key being withdrawn and then the door opened. Frederika von Tarlenheim and Flavia’s imposter walked into the room before being brought up short by the sight of Flavia and Eithne free and the erstwhile guard hog-tied on the floor.

“Stop right there,” John ordered, levelling the gun at von Tarlenheim’s head.

The two women stopped and slowly turned to face John.

It was only then that Coco realised that they had been accompanied by another person, who was still standing in the corridor, a young woman wearing the hotel staff uniform. She turned and fled as soon as she saw what was happening.

Coco made to go in pursuit but checked herself. “Too risky,” she commented.

“And probably not necessary,” Flavia commented. “The ringleaders are these three. I think the other members of staff were mostly being coerced by threats either to themselves or to family back in Ruritania.”

“So what should we do next?” John asked, still holding the gun steady.

“I’ll happily tear up another sheet for you,” Flavia offered with a malevolent grin.

“I’ll give you a hand,” Coco said, carefully walking around the captured women and ducking under the line of the gun.

Coco and Flavia helped themselves to another bed sheet from the linen cupboard and industriously ripped it into sheets.

“I think we’ll start with the imitation princess,” Flavia said.

“Have you ever tied someone up before?” Coco asked.

“No, but I’ll be more than happy to learn, if you show me what to do.”

Coco started by tying the imposter’s wrists behind her back, wrapping a strip of sheet around them and then securing it with a cinch. Under Coco’s supervision, Flavia applied the same binding to the woman’s ankles and knees.

The sound of an engine starting and a vehicle driving away came from outside. Eithne crossed quickly to the window and looked out. “I think that was the Ruritanian contingent of the staff absconding with the hotel’s courtesy minibus,” she commented.

“Do we need to do anything about that?” John asked.

“Not urgently,” Eithne replied. “Apart from these three, I think everyone else were either co-operating with them under duress or were very small cogs in the machine.”

“We’ll leave them for the police to round up then,” John said, still covering the prisoners with the gun.

“Can we do what you did to Ulrike over there?” Flavia asked, indicating the erstwhile guard hog-tied on the floor.

“I’ll show you what to do and you can pull it tight,” Coco replied.

Under Coco’s tutelage, Flavia applied a secure hog-tie then gagged her would-be double.

“Now for Frieda,” Flavia announced grimly.

Within another five minutes, Baroness von Tarlenheim was hog-tied and gagged like her other two colleagues. When it was done, Flavia had a fit of trembling and had to sit down.

“That was cathartic,” she said unsteadily. “I thought I was done for.”

“What’s going on?” Coco asked. “What were they hoping to achieve?”

“The end of the Ruritanian monarchy,” Flavia said. “I was to be smuggled back to Strelsau where there would be a military take-over of the government. I would be arrested as a traitor and a show trial would follow where I would dramatically confess all my misdeeds, except, of course, it would be her doing all the confessing on my behalf.” Flavia indicated her double. “After that there would be a very public exit involving a stout wooden post in the palace gardens and a firing squad.”

“And a gag to stop you saying anything unscripted?” Coco asked.

“Nothing so crude. Frieda took great delight in explaining how my tongue would be cut out and my lips sewn together.” John looked at the conspirator, resisting the temptation to show her what he thought of that idea.

“Your stand-in would be a bit of a liability after that, wouldn’t she?” Coco pointed out.

“I don’t think she’d worked that out,” Flavia said. “I suspect there would have been a bullet in the back of her head and an unmarked grave.”

There was an indignant squeak from the bound imposter.

“Hadn’t we better phone the police now?” Eithne asked.

“I think so,” Flavia replied, getting to her feet. “And I’d better make some phone calls and try to head off a diplomatic incident.”

* * *

Leaving John in charge of the prisoners, Eithne led Flavia and Coco down to the hotel office. It took Eithne only a few minutes to diagnose the non-functioning communications, to switch off the mobile phone jammer and to switch everything else back on. She dialled the emergency number and spoke to the police dispatcher in Irish. Coco understood nothing of the conversation, but from the series of expressions on Flavia’s face, she clearly did.

“I pity the police who have to sort this mess out,” Flavia said. “Now it’s my turn to set the cat among the pigeons. I'll start with the Ruritanian Ambassador.”

She took the telephone, punched in a Dublin number and waited for it to be answered.

Flavia glanced at the clock and noticed that it was well after midnight. “Guten Morgen. Ich muss dringend mit dem Botschafter sprechen.”

The telephonist’s words at the other end of the line were unintelligible to Eithne and Coco.

“Kronprinzessin Flavia von Elphberg,” Flavia said, identifying herself.

The telephonist’s gasp was clearly audible. After a short pause, another voice came on the line. There followed a lengthy exchange in German as Flavia briefed the Ambassador on the events that had taken place at the hotel.

After putting the phone down, Flavia turned to Eithne and Coco. “The problem is that as well as being a private Irish citizen I’m also a visiting foreign head of state, even if I'm only head of state designate just now. That means that diplomatically I outrank everyone in the country except the President. The Ambassador is breaking the news to him right now.”

Two minutes later, the telephone rang. Eithne picked it up. Despite Flavia’s warning, her eyes widened as she heard the voice at the other end of the line. “Yes, President, the Princess is right here.” She handed the phone to Flavia.

“Sorry to haul you out of bed, President, but I felt I ought to follow some kind of protocol by starting with you and working downwards,” the Princess began.

As Flavia continued her conversation, there was the sound of a vehicle arriving outside. Four Garda officers entered the reception area, a sergeant and three constables, one of them a woman. Eithne identified herself as the hotel manager and outlined the situation to the sergeant, pointing out Flavia, who was still speaking on the phone.

“Sergeant,” Flavia said, her hand over the telephone’s microphone, “the President would like to speak to you.”

The sergeant looked puzzled as he took the phone but snapped to attention when he heard the President’s voice. He had little so say but, “Yes, sir. I understand, sir,” before handing the phone back to Flavia.

“I’ll keep you briefed, Michael,” Flavia said, finishing her conversation with the President and putting the phone down.

Coco tapped Eithne’s elbow as soon as she had finished speaking to the police sergeant. “It’s just occurred to me,” she said. “We heard the Ruritanian staff doing a runner when we were upstairs, but do you have any staff who live in and who aren’t Ruritanian?”

“We’re not fully staffed just yet, but most of the Irish staff live locally and just come here for their shifts,” Eithne said. “There are only three of them who live in.”

“Should you check to see if they are all right?”

“Oh my god, I hadn’t thought about that. Will you come too?”

“Yes, of course,” Coco replied.

Eithne turned to Flavia. “Ma’am...” she began.

“Oh for goodness sake,” the princess retorted. “After what we’ve been through together, just call me Flavia.”

Eithne smiled briefly in acknowledgement. “Flavia, would you mind taking the Gardai upstairs to the President’s Suite and let them take charge of our prisoners?”

“Prisoners?” the sergeant echoed.

“I’ll explain upstairs and I’ll introduce you to Mr Jacobs who’s guarding them,” Flavia said, leading the way to the stairs.

“We’ll take the service lift – it’s quicker,” Eithne said to Coco as she picked up a bunch of keys from the reception desk.

* * *

On the top floor, the lift opened onto a narrow corridor with doors on both sides. Some of the doors stood open, suggesting a hasty exit by their occupants. Each door had a small card-holder screwed to it, some empty and some with their occupants’ names on pieces of paper.

Eithne methodically checked every room, some showed signs of recent departure while others appeared not to have been occupied. Eventually, they reached a door which was locked. The label on it named its occupant as Caitlin. Eithne knocked on the door. There was no response, so she unlocked it with her pass-key.

The reason for Caitlin’s failure to respond was obvious as soon as they entered the room. She was lying on her bed in her pale blue pyjamas, her wrists and ankles secured to its four corners using the dark green opaque tights that were part of the staff uniform. She was gagged with a green fleece scarf, again part of the uniform, tied tightly between her teeth.

Coco produced a small knife from her belt pouch and cut through the tights. She untied the gag and helped Caitlin sit up.

“You poor dear,” Eithne said. “How long have you been tied up for?”

“Not sure; they turned my clock round so I couldn’t see the time.” the woman replied. “But I think it’s been since some time yesterday.”

“And you’ve been left here all that time?”

“They brought food and untied me to eat and use the toilet, but with a gun pointing at me.”

“Still brutal,” Coco commented.

“And Miss Ó Sé, from some of the noises I’ve heard, I don’t think I’m the only one they’ve tied up.”

“Don’t worry, Caitlin, we’re checking every room to see who’s been left behind. Will you be all right here for a minute while we look?”

Caitlin nodded her agreement, so Eithne and Coco resumed their search. The next two rooms they found locked revealed two more of the staff spread-eagled on their beds in the same way. One was an Irishwoman named Cliodna, the other a Ruritanian named Angelika who had refused to take part in the insurrection, even when threatened.

“I think this is the only room we haven’t checked,” Eithne said, finding another locked door. She unlocked the door with her pass-key and opened it.

“A Dhia dhílis!” Eithne exclaimed as she saw the figure of an Irish staff member named Bronagh wearing her staff uniform and sitting slumped in a chair.

Bronagh lifted her head as Eithne and Coco entered the room. She was both gagged and blindfolded with uniform fleece scarves. Coco noticed that there were tights visible at the corners of the bed and surmised that the woman had initially been tied their like her colleagues but had escaped or caused problems in some way, which why she was now tied to a chair. From the number of empty cellophane packets on the floor, it seemed that extra tights had been brought from the hotel’s stocks to secure her.

Coco decided to deal with the blindfold first. She loosened the knot behind Bronagh’s head and dropped the scarf on the floor. The woman’s right eye was bruised a deep purple and swollen shut. As soon as Coco touched the gag, there was a grunt of pain, so she carefully cut through the fabric with her knife. As the scarf came away, the bruised mouth and the smear of blood at one corner were obvious. Also obvious was the pair of tights stuffed into her mouth behind the gag.

“Sorry, but this is going to hurt a bit,” Coco said as she eased the tights out of Bronagh’s mouth.

Coco squatted down and cut through the tights securing Bronagh’s ankles and knees to the chair legs. As she stood up, she said to Eithne, “Support her weight while I cut these.”

Eithne stood behind the chair with her hands on Bronagh’s shoulders while Coco cut through the bands of nylon holding her back into the chair at waist and chest level.

“Now help her lean forwards,” Coco instructed.

Standing in front of the chair, Eithne took Bronagh’s weight as she leaned forwards in the chair, allowing Coco to reach between the woman’s body and the backrest of the chair to cut the tights holding her wrists together behind her back and linking her elbows.

“Can you stand?” Eithne asked Bronagh.

The woman nodded slowly. Coco and Eithne helped her to her feet, but her knees buckled as soon as her weight went onto them. Coco helped her sit down again and turned to Eithne. “We need to call an ambulance.”

Eithne turned to the telephone in the room and dialled the number for the reception desk in the hope that there was someone still there. The phone was answered immediately by a crisp female voice announcing, “Flavia here.”

“It’s Eithne. Could you ask someone to bring the wheelchair in the back of the office up to the top floor please?”

“John and the police are still upstairs, so I’m the only one in the office right now. I’ll bring it myself,” Flavia replied.

* * *

A few minutes later, Bronagh had been successfully transferred to the wheelchair and taken down to the reception area. All four of the police officers were now there together with the three prisoners from upstairs, all in handcuffs rather than John and Coco’s improvised bonds. Two of the three staff members who had been tied up were there, wrapped in blankets. Caitlin, however, had decided that what was needed most at that moment was tea and that if no-one else was going to make it then she had better see to it herself and accordingly had gone off to the hotel kitchen.

An ambulance with a team of paramedics arrived shortly after that and Bronagh was able to receive the treatment she required.

Flavia fielded two more telephone calls, one from the Ruritanian Ambassador and one from the Irish Minister of Justice, who also asked to speak to the senior police officer present. The sergeant dutifully took the call, but looked to be even more out of his depth than he had been before.

* * *

At last, police reinforcements arrived. A car and a van arrived outside and another four officers came into the already-crowded reception area. Two were uniformed constables and two plain-clothes detectives. One of the plain clothes officers showed her warrant card and identified herself as Detective Inspector Mary O’Connor. “Who’s in charge here?” she asked.

“I was the senior Garda officer present until you arrived, ma’am,” the sergeant said.

“And I’m the hotel manager,” Eithne added.

“Right, tell me what’s been going on here,” the inspector demanded.

Between them, Eithne and the sergeant managed to give a fairly coherent account of events, starting with Eithne and Flavia being seized and ending with the Gardai taking control of the prisoners. By the end of the explanation, the inspector was wide-eyed with astonishment.

“Have these three been formally arrested yet?” she asked, indicating the three handcuffed prisoners.

“Yes, ma’am,” the sergeant replied. “Under instruction, I have arrested them under the Offences Against the State Act.”

“That’s for spying and treason. Whose instructions were that?” the inspector demanded.

“The Minister of Justice, ma’am. With respect, ma’am, he pointed out that as agents of a foreign power operating in Ireland, we were justified in using that act,” the sergeant replied a little unhappily.

“Well, if it’s good enough for him, I suppose it ought to be good enough for me,” the inspector said with a sigh. “Let’s get them out to the van and then we can get statements from everyone.”

“Sorry, ma’am, I have instructions on that too. The case is to be handled by the Diplomatic Protection Unit in Dublin.”

“The Minister of Justice again?” the inspector asked.

“No, ma’am, that was the President.”

The inspector turned her eyes heavenwards, but retained her composure. “So someone tries to kidnap a princess on our patch – the biggest case any of us are ever likely to see – and we don’t even get a sniff at it?”

“That’s about the size of it ma’am. We just lock up the prisoners and wait for the high-fliers from Dublin to tell us what to do.”

Flavia coughed discreetly.

“Yes, ma’am? Is there something I can do for you?” the inspector asked.

“I need to be in Dublin as soon as humanly possible. If you could see your way to providing a police escort I’m sure that would, shall we say, speed things along a bit?”

After a moment’s hesitation, the inspector smiled. She had been frustrated in the work she expected to do after the call-out, but a high-speed dash escorting a princess was not something to miss. “Certainly ma’am – we have two police cars outside, I would be happy to offer either to transport you.”

“Given the potential sensitivity of this evening’s events, it might perhaps not be appropriate for the Irish state to be directly involved in transporting me, which is why I suggested an escort.” The princess turned to John. “Mr Jacobs, as an entirely neutral party, would you be willing to provide the actual transport?”

“You do realise that my transport is a Transit van I use for my business?” John said, taken aback.

“I do, and it doesn’t bother me. It’s the principle I was thinking of,” Flavis replied firmly. “Inspector O’Connor, if Mr Jacobs provides the transport, perhaps you could use your two cars to provide a sovereign’s escort and maybe turn a blind eye to the speed limit?”

Princess Flavia had judged the inspector perfectly; the words ‘sovereign’s escort’ hit exactly the right note of prestige to a middle-ranking provincial police officer.

“It would be a pleasure, ma’am,” the inspector said.

Flavia glanced at the clock over the reception desk. It was almost 2am. “Can we be ready to leave in ten minutes?” she asked.

John and Inspector O’Connor both assented.

In the ten minutes available, John and Coco quickly packed their bags. Coco added her long grey skirt to her unconventional attire and flung her poncho and scarf on top.

* * *

Ten minutes later, the prisoners had been dispatched in the police van with four of the officers. Two of the remaining officers were qualified in high-speed driving and were assigned one to each car. A convoy was marshalled with the marked police car in front of John’s van and the unmarked one, now sporting a magnetic blue light on the roof, behind.

The princess emerged from the hotel neatly dressed in a dark green trouser suit over a white blouse with a pair of black brogues on her feet. She had a sage green shawl hung over one arm and was towing a small wheeled suitcase behind her. To see her, it was impossible to guess the state she had been in only a couple of hours before.

“How does she do it?” John whispered to Coco.

“Special princess magic?” Coco hissed back.

Flavia handed her case to Coco to store in the back of the van, wrapped herself in her shawl and settled herself in the middle one of the three seats in the front. Coco closed the sliding side door of the van and climbed into the left-hand seat.

“OK, off we go,” John said, putting the van in gear and following the lead police car down the hotel drive.

* * *

After a few minutes driving in silence, Flavia spoke. “Now the three of us are alone, I can finally ask something that has been bothering me.” She looked at John and Coco, before demanding, “Just who the feck are you two?”

There was an awkward pause before Coco responded, “We did the intros the other day. I’m Dr Colette Aldington. I’m a civil engineer and known to all and sundry as ‘Coco’.”

“And I’m John Jacobs, just plain Mr, and I own an antiques business in Kent,” John added.

“Yes, I remember all that from the evening we met. I also remember seeing the two of you in action a few hours ago. You had no hesitation in tackling and disarming a woman with a gun, you knew exactly how to go about tying her up and you had no problem controlling the situation when Frida and my double turned up. If you don’t mind me pointing it out, neither of you are exactly spring chickens, so this wasn’t youthful bravado; you knew exactly what you were doing it and went about it efficiently and competently. I’ll ask you again: who are you? MI6? G2?”

“G2?” Coco echoed.

“The Irish Intelligence Service,” John explained, then added, “No, we’re not either of those, we’re who we said.”

“You can check easily enough,” Coco said. “I was giving the keynote paper to a conference full of fellow engineers today. I’m well-known in the profession and a bit of searching online will bring up dozens of references to stuff I’ve done or written and that’s aside from the website for my own business.”

“I probably don’t cast as long a shadow across the internet as Coco, but I’m well known in my trade too, mainly in the UK, but here in Ireland too” John said.

“And you just happened to wind up in the same hotel as me?” Flavia asked.

“Yes, that really was pure chance,” John confirmed.

“Understand me, I’m not ungrateful – you certainly saved my life and you may well have helped save democracy in my country – but when somebody appears out of nowhere and saves the day, I really want to know who they are and who’s behind them.”

Another uncomfortable silence followed and eventually Coco spoke. “I’ll admit that we have both had a somewhat colourful past,” she offered.

“The kind of colourful past that you might not like to have too many questions asked about?”

“We’d prefer not,” Coco replied.

Flavia considered this then ventured, “The kind of colourful past where enquiring too closely might actually threaten your freedom?”

“You don’t really expect us to answer that, do you?” John asked.

“That comment is probably an answer in itself,” Flavia observed with a laugh.

“I wouldn’t presume to contradict a queen,” Coco said, returning the laugh.

“So you really are just a pair of adventurers with no reason to put yourselves at risk,” Flavia said, adding the obvious question, “Why?”

“When we met that woman trying to pass herself off as you, it was obvious that there was something underhand going on,” John explained.

“You could just have phoned the police,” Flavia pointed out.

“With all telecoms down, it would have been quite hard to phone anyone,” Coco replied. “Besides, she was a good enough double that she could have convinced any police officer that she was you. She could easily have travelled on your passport without any questions being asked.”

“So you decided to do your own investigation?”

“We’re probably more curious than is good for us,” John admitted.

“You certainly are – you risked injury and quite possibly put your lives on the line just because you thought I might need help,” Flavia commented.

“Well, it was partly the fact that they had an armed guard on your suite that made it obvious that the situation was serious but, yes, we knew we were taking a risk,” Coco said.

“Well, assuming I ever get to be queen, I intend to honour your bravery. In Ruritania, we have an order of chivalry that is specifically for people who have performed personal services for the monarch. If you were prepared to accept it, I would be honoured to name you two as knights of St Patrick.”

“St Patrick?” Coco echoed in surprise.

“It’s that Irish connection again. I think the earliest members of the order back in about the 17th century were Irish,” Flavia explained.

“Do we get the tap on the shoulder with a sword?” John asked.

“I don’t know how it’s usually done in Ruritania,” Flavia admitted, “but as queen, I expect I’ll be able to change the protocol if I don’t like it.”

“It’s a pity dames don’t get the sword thing like knights,” Coco complained.

“This is the 21st century with equal opportunities. I don’t see why you shouldn’t both be knights – after all, you both did battle on my behalf,” Flavia pointed out.

“Sir Coco?” Coco said.

“OK, maybe I need to think about titles,” Flavia conceded.

“We need to make sure you actually get to be queen first,” John said as they picked up speed after joining the motorway to Dublin.

* * *

Two hours of fast driving brought the convoy, now augmented by a Dublin police car, to the Ruritanian embassy. Flavia went into immediate conference with the ambassador, leaving the head of the embassy’s domestic staff to offer John and Coco an early breakfast. At the mention of food, they both realised how hungry they were and accepted gratefully.

Over an enormous breakfast John and Coco discussed the events of the night. Just before 5am, the domestic manager came into the small dining room where they were eating and switched on a television standing in the corner. The programme it showed was the Ruritanian television service’s 24-hour news channel. The on-screen clock showed that the time in Ruritania was an hour ahead of Dublin.

After giving the headlines, the news anchor announced that there followed a special message from the Crown Princess who was speaking live from Ireland. The picture changed to a head-and shoulders view of Flavia standing in the foyer of the RTÉ studio in Dublin. Coco and John found it difficult to follow the rapid German, but gathered that the princess was reassuring the people that an attempted overthrow of the government was being thwarted as she spoke and that she would be travelling to Strelsau later that morning to provide her personal support to the maintenance of democracy.

Several of the embassy staff had gathered at the door of the room and all agreed that the princess had set exactly the right tone in her short speech.

“After seeing Flavia in action today, I get the feeling that she is going to make a very good queen,” Coco commented.

John nodded his agreement.

* * *

“Welcome to my grand opening,” Kay Winters said as she ushered Coco and Soo into her house.

Kay led her visitors through the house and out through a conservatory to the back garden where two other people were enjoying the April sunshine.

“You’ve already encountered my friends Jane and Sue,” Kay said.

The two women stood up from the wooden garden bench they had been sitting on just outside the conservatory. The shorter of the two, a petite redhead in a floral dress with a white cardigan on top, put out a hand to steady herself on the back of the bench and cast a glance at her feet. Court shoes with two-inch heels were not ideal for walking on soft grass. Her brunette companion was more sensibly shod in a pair of navy blue canvas deck shoes picking up the colour of her trousers and the blue and white striped long-sleeved top she wore.

“That encounter wasn’t exactly our finest hour,” Jane, the brunette said extending a hand in greeting to Coco.

“Ancient history,” Coco said dismissively, shaking her hand warmly.

Sue, walking carefully on the slippery grass shook hands first with Soo then Coco.

“So, when does the show start,” Sue asked.

“I’d better get my boss to inspect the works first,” Soo replied with a grin.

“Aldington Associates demands quality,” Coco said with mock severity as she walked down a series of stone steps to the new pond. Looking back up, she could see that the artificial watercourse as it zigzagged down the slope looked very like Soo’s sketches. The immediate surroundings had been built up as a rock garden which had been planted with alpines and heathers but still looked a little raw and immature. The area around the circular pond had been paved in the same stone that had been used for the water channel and the steps and was wide enough to make an informal patio shaded by the trees that grew along the lower edge of Kay’s garden. There was a curved wooden garden bench with a small table built into each end which had been supplemented by several café-style aluminium chairs.

“I take it this is the grandstand,” Coco said taking a seat on the bench.

Jane and Sue went down to join Coco, Sue walking carefully across the grass then picking her way cautiously down the steps.

“I’ll have to put some more stone paving down if you’re going to turn up in shoes like that every time you come here,” Kay said.

“I thought it might be overdoing it to turn up in wellingtons and a hard hat like I usually do on site,” Coco said, lifting her feet to show off the grey suede brogues she was wearing to complement her grey trouser suit and pink sweater.

“Site safety is paramount at all times,” Soo announced, coming down the steps, “but I decided that the hi-vis jacket might clash with purple.” She gestured at her purple sweater which she was wearing with a denim mini-skirt, almost opaque grey tights and purple Converses. “I’ll do the valve, if you switch on,” she shouted to Kay as she took a T-shaped steel device from behind the bench.

Soo bent down beside the pond and lifted a small rock, which turned out to be a hollow fake. The inserted the stem of the T into the hole and engaged the socket on the end of it with the head of an underground valve, rotating it to admit water to the pump. She replaced the rock then called to Kay, “OK, slow flow first.”

Kay, standing just inside the conservatory, touched a switch next to the door. A gentle trickle of water started at the top of the rockery, going first one way then another as it zigzagged its way down, racing through narrow channels and tumbling over flat rocks as it came. There was a ripple of applause from Coco, Sue and Jane.

“Full works now,” Soo called out, “then come and see how it looks.”

Kay touched the switch again and the artificial spring at the top of the rockery grew into a bubbling fountain a few inches high. The flow of water became much more pronounced and dramatic with an audible gurgling and splashing. A renewed round of applause followed.

Kay disappeared from view for a moment then reappeared walking down the garden. In her right hand, she carried a bottle of champagne, with the stem of a glass awkwardly held between her thumb and forefinger. Four more glasses were between the fingers of her left hand.

As Kay reached the level paving around the pond, she held out her right hand for Soo to take the glass. She extended her left hand towards Coco, who took the glass between Kay’s thumb and forefinger. It was slightly easier for the other two Dolls to take the remaining three glasses, Jane taking two of them

With both hands free, Kay removed the foil and wire from the bottle and applied gentle thumb pressure to the cork, which took off with a satisfying pop and landed somewhere in the newly-planted rock garden.

Kay poured the champagne into the glasses and set the bottle down on the ground. Jane handed a glass back to her and she raised it, saying, “To Soo, who made all this happen!”

Soo blushed and raised her glass in a counter-toast. “Coco, who taught me how to do it!”

Coco smiled then replied, “To good friends and partners in crime!”

A few minute later, Coco’s brow wrinkled in a puzzled frown. She looked questioningly at her glass.

Soo and Kay exchanged a significant glance, put their own glasses down and advanced on Coco, reaching her just as her knees buckled and she dropped her glass. They caught her before she could fall to the hard paving and manoeuvred her onto one of the aluminium chairs.

“Just as well they’re plastic glasses,” Kay said looking at Coco’s glass lying forlornly by the pond.

* * *

Some minutes later, Coco’s eyes opened came slowly back into focus. She took in the four women looking at her with interest, freshly refilled glasses in their hands.

She knew immediately that she had been tied up while she was unconscious. Nevertheless, she looked down to see what had been done to her. Her wrists and forearms were securely lashed down to the arms of the chair. She could see ropes around her chest and body pinning her arms to her sides and more running over both shoulders. She could feel a band of rope below her bust line, tying her back to the chair and another across her hips. Her legs were tied back to the chair legs at the ankles and knees and her thighs held down with rope over her lap and under the chair seat. Finally a thick soft cloth of some kind was tied between her teeth. Any attempt to struggle achieved nothing other than a scraping noise from the chair legs moving slightly on the stone paving. She decided to preserve what little remained of her dignity by not attempting to say anything through the gag.

“So your first question is, ‘Why?’,” Soo said.

Coco nodded.

“Well I felt I needed some payback after the stunt that you had Kay pull on me when you were going to Ireland. She didn’t think that there was any way you would fall for the same trick but I thought a combination of trust and not expecting me to try the same routine might just work, which reminds me, Kay...” Soo rubbed her thumb and forefinger together in a significant gesture.

Kay smiled and reached into the pocket of her white denim skirt and handed Soo a ten pound note.

“Second question, ‘How?’”

Coco nodded again.

“The bottle was fine – you saw that for yourself: foil, wire and cork all in place – and we all drank from it. That handy knock-out drug you introduced Kay to had been poured into your glass and left to dry. Kay was making it deliberately awkward to carry a bottle and five glasses, so you thought you were being helpful taking the one she was holding with her thumb and never suspected it was being forced on you.”

Coco’s eyes widened in realisation and she looked as if she would have smacked herself on the forehead if she had been free to do so.

“Now,” Soo said quietly as she removed the gag, “would you like a proper glass of champagne?”

* * *

Coco and John looked out of the train window at the increasingly hilly and more densely wooded landscape as their train crossed southern Germany on a sunny June afternoon. Coco had caught a Eurostar train from London St Pancras station that morning and had been joined by John at Ashford International. At Brussels, they had changed to a German high-speed train to Berlin where they had caught their present train, an express going to Prague via Dresden and via their eventual destination, Strelsau, the capital of Ruritania.

A man who wore his smart grey suit as if it was a military uniform met the train at Strelsau’s main railway station. He explained that he was Captain Sapt, the princess’s new private secretary as he ushered them to a black Mercedes which took them to the Royal Palace. Their suitcases were spirited away by another member of staff and Coco and John were ushered to a small sitting room. The view from the window was over the gardens behind the palace, which kept them interested for a few minutes until Flavia appeared. She was dressed in a pair of sage green trousers which looked as if they might be the lower half of a suit and a white silk blouse. “Good to see you both again,” she said, extending a hand.

“And you, Your Highness,” John replied, shaking her hand.

Flavia held up her left hand. “I’ve instituted a change of protocol. “Your Highness and Your Majesty are reserved for state occasions and formal documents only. The standard form of address is now ‘meine Dame’ for all other occasions. Personal friends, though, get to call me Flavia unless we’re all out in public somewhere.”

“I’m not sure I can manage ‘milady’ with a straight face,” John confessed.

“Let’s make it ‘ma’am’ then in English,” Flavia said.

“Was that a Royal Decree?” Coco asked, shaking Flavia’s hand.

“I do believe it was,” the princess replied with a broad grin.

A tap at the door heralded the arrival of a female servant with a tray. “Ihre Tee, meine Dame.”

“Danke schön, Hilde,” Flavia replied, taking the tray from the astonished woman’s hands. “I’m doing my best to subvert the protocol,” she added as an aside to John and Coco.

The princess poured the tea and the three of them sat down to enjoy it. “You two are my moment of sanity in a totally crazy day. Tomorrow will be worse.”

“Well, it’s not every day they make you queen,” Coco pointed out.

Flavia’s moment of sanity lasted about fifteen minutes before she had to return to her duties.

John and Coco were left to their own devices for a further ten minutes or so until Captain Sapt appeared. “The princess has asked me to ensure you are given suitable hospitality this evening. The palace kitchens have an excellent chef or I can take you into the city. Strelsau has restaurants that are the equal of any in Europe.”

After a pause, Coco said, “Actually, after a whole day travelling, I’m not sure we’d do justice to fine wining and dining. Where would you go if it was your choice, Captain?”

The captain grinned then replied, “I prefer a good old fashioned Bierkeller – good simple food like sausages, pork stew, dumplings, maybe Schnitzel. And really good beer of course.”

John glanced at Coco then said, “I think you have just sold us on the idea, Captain Sapt.”

* * *

After being shown to their rooms and being given time to freshen up, Coco and John were met by Captain Sapt (“Rudi,” he insisted). By mutual agreement, they had avoided formal attire: John in an open-necked shirt with dark trousers and a leather jacket, Coco in a long blouse worn loose over a calf-length cotton print skirt and with a lightweight cardigan worn loose on top. The captain wore a thin roll-necked sweater under a blue blazer with black trousers and somehow still gave the impression that he was wearing uniform.

The meal was informal and convivial and the food and beer everything the captain had promised it would be.

* * *

At breakfast in the palace the next morning, John and Coco were surprised by the princess joining them. “My half hour of sanity to try to centre what little remains of my mind today,” she explained.

Coco had been expecting the fare on offer to be a standard central European-style breakfast of different breads with cheeses and sliced meats but was delighted to find porridge, bacon, sausages and eggs on offer. John asked for coffee and toast while, after a moment’s hesitation, Coco requested the full cooked breakfast.

While Coco was sipping tea, waiting for her food to arrive, she commented to Flavia, “It’s nice to get a proper cup of tea in the morning. I despaired of finding anything I liked when I used to live in Italy. I eventually had to switch to coffee.”

Flavia broke into a smile. “Well I am in a position to insist on these things. It’s Barry’s tea from Ireland. I found it on the internet.”

Coco was delighted. “The Queen of Ruritania gets on the internet and orders boxes of teabags from Ireland?”

“Alas no, the Queen of Ruritania finds it online and requests that the Domestic Bursar might order it: she who rules the palace finances with a rod of iron.”

“Maybe she thinks it’s a bit unpatriotic ordering in provisions from Ireland,” John suggested.

“Well, I’ve limited it to the tea and porridge. The bacon and eggs are local. The sausages are too, but they’re not quite the traditional British and Irish style,” Flavia said defensively.

“Looks perfect to me,” Coco said, inspecting the plate of food that had been put in front of her.

A rack of toast was placed between John and Flavia, who took a slice each.

Flavia buttered a piece of toast then bit off a corner. She chewed it thoughtfully then said, “No, I’m just too nervous to eat anything. I’ll try again after the ceremony.” She quickly finished her tea then made her apologies to John and Coco and left the room.

“I’d be nervous too, if I’d just headed off a coup d’état,” Coco commented.

* * *

Later that morning, John, now wearing a dark suit with a white shirt and a grey tie, and Coco, in a grey suit with a white blouse that she usually reserved for business meetings, took their seats in the public gallery of Strelsau’s parliament building. They were flanked by the British ambassador and by Captain Sapt.

The ceremony of swearing in the new queen began with Flavia entering the debating chamber. She wore a simple but exquisite green dress, almost ankle length and with long sleeves. She wore a diamond necklace and a tiara, but no other jewellery or ornamentation. The whole of the parliament and the guests in the gallery stood as she entered, sitting when the Presiding Officer signalled to do so. Flavia remained standing and gave her oath of allegiance to Ruritania and its constitution. It was in extremely formal German which Coco found difficult to follow. The members of the parliament were then called on to indicate whether they accepted Flavia as their new queen by standing. Again the words used were couched in very formal language. No-one stood up. Coco looked anxiously at Captain Sapt, who leaned towards her and whispered that the pause was supposed to indicate the members giving due consideration to the question. Sure enough, one by one, they stood up until the whole of the parliament was standing. The Presiding Officer then stood and proclaimed Flavia as Queen Flavia II of Ruritania. The formality ended at that point as the whole of the parliament and the guests broke into spontaneous applause.

Flavia walked to the Presiding Officer’s desk and took her place at a small lectern. She adjusted the microphone and began speaking. “Meine Mitbürger...”, ‘My fellow citizens...’.

Once again Coco found the speech hard to follow, not because it was in formal German, but because it was in the local Ruritanian dialect, very different to the standard German she had learned at school. From the reaction of the parliament and onlookers at the end of her ten minutes speaking, it was obvious that Flavia had judged it perfectly.

John leaned towards Coco and said, “You’re right – she’ll be a very good queen indeed.”

* * *

Later that day, John and Coco were sitting in one of the formal reception rooms of the royal palace along with a number of other people, most of whom were to receive various honours for services to the previous king, Rudolf VII. John was dashingly, if uncomfortably, dressed in a tuxedo with a white tie. Coco wore a calf-length silk dress in a fabric that looked almost black until the light caught it at the right angle to reveal an iridescent blue-green sheen. She wore a short jacket of the same material. Captain Sapt was in charge of proceedings, now dressed in a splendid dark blue uniform with a great deal of gold braid on it.

Queen Flavia entered the room, still dressed as she had been for her swearing-in ceremony. Everyone stood until Captain Sapt signalled that they should sit down.

The captain called people forward in ones and twos to receive their honours and decorations. The queen spoke to each of them briefly, so it was quite a protracted process. Coco was struck with how completely at ease Flavia seemed to be in her new role.

John and Coco were the last to be called forward. It was obvious why as a minor reorganisation of furniture was required. Two kneelers with were brought out from a side door and placed side by side. They had dark green velvet cushions and a wooden rail at each side to aid getting down and up again. Flavia was helped to put on a broad green sash running from her right shoulder to her left hip. It looked to be of considerable age. As she stepped forward again, it was obvious that the sash was actually a baldric with a sword in its scabbard hanging from it.

Captain Sapt led John and Coco to the kneelers where they took their places. Flavia stepped up to them and unfolded a green silk sash which she placed neatly across John’s body, running from right shoulder to left hip in imitation of her own, and repeated the process with Coco. “You wouldn’t believe how much I practised that so it wouldn’t tangle,” she whispered.

Flavia drew her sword. It wasn’t some jewel-encrusted ceremonial piece, John noted, but 30 inches of businesslike steel with the style of basket hilt favoured in the 17th century. Flavia briefly held the sword in the ‘present arms’ position, pointing straight up just in front of her nose then gently tapped first John, then Coco on each shoulder before presenting the sword again and returning it to its scabbard.

Flavia gestured to John and Coco to stand, announcing their new titles as they did so, “Ritter Johann von Jacobs, Ritterfrau Kolette von Aldington.,” pronouncing Jacobs with Y and sounding the final E in Kolette, in the German manner. She kissed each of them formally on both cheeks and nodded to indicate that the investiture was over.

“Ritterfrau,” Coco whispered to John as they went back to their seats. “That’s a title that got me into a lot of trouble once...”


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