Jayes and the Borrowed Burglar
by Doctor George and KP
It all started when I was dislodged from the arms of Morpheus by a gentle shaking, and what sounded like a slight but insistent cough. Although getting a little advanced in years, I was in robust health, so the cough was a surprise. Even more so was the voice of Jayes coming from somewhere saying “Sir? Sir?”
“Gway Jys,” I mumbled, but the shaking and the voice continued until I opened my eyes and looked into the face of our manservant. Glancing at the clock, and noting with regret the days when I would just be going into bed at this time were long gone, I looked back at him and said “Jayes, unless Harold Wilson has declared war on France, I can see no earthly reason why you should wake me at this hour.”
“The new Prime Minister is well-known to have little love for the Common Market, but I do not believe it has come to that, yet, sir. However, I have intercepted an interloper into our domestic arrangements and I felt that you should be apprised of the eventuality immediately.”
“Come again, Jayes?”
By this point Gladys, the love of my life, had also woken and was looking at Jayes, not quite her usual radiant self with her grey hair enveloped in a hairnet. “I think he means someone has broken in. Correct Jayes?”
“Correct, madam. I found a young lady searching through the bureau in the drawing room, and judged it prudent to detain her while I informed you of her presence.”
Well, an Englishman’s home is his castle and all that, so I had to admit that Jayes had a point. I dragged myself out of bed and, after a certain amount of bleary-eyed fumbling, found and put on my dressing gown and slippers and followed Jayes out of the room. Gladys brought up the rear of the procession having successfully located her own robe and slippers with no apparent difficulty – something I both love about her, and yet have never quite fathomed how she does it.
The drawing room of our flat is compact but comfortable. On arrival in the room, I was treated to a strange and wondrous phenomenon, the likes of which I had only seen on two previous occasions – the sight of Jayes distraught, discombobulated even. I stood for a while enjoying this rarest of events before I followed his gaze to a wooden dining chair lying on its side. That, the tangle of rope on the floor, the discarded gag and the open window told their story with a poignant eloquence only matched by the look on Jayes’ face.
As the bird had obviously flown, there was nothing more to do. “Bad luck, Jayes,” I said attempting to banish any suggestion of Schadenfreude from my voice and turned to go back to bed. As I approached the door, however, Jayes rallied a little and turned to both of us.
“Sir, madam, I can only offer my sincerest apologies. I believed that I had rendered the young lady quite helpless, but clearly in this instance I have failed in the performance of my duties.”
Jayes was plainly mortified to the point of being a broken man. Fortunately Gladys is a sympathetic woman and a great encourager and knew exactly what to say.
“Nonsense, Jayes. I’m sure you did your usual thorough and competent job. The circumstances suggest unusual skill on the part of the intruder rather than any failing on your part.” As she spoke, Gladys crossed the room to the open window and leaned out. “Barty, come and look at this.”
I was still hovering at the door at this point, waiting until Jayes had been suitably mollified before returning to bed. My wife, beauty that she is, is a wise and observant woman, so I dutifully crossed the room and joined her.
The view from the window is usually quite stunning. Our flat is on the top floor of one of those tall white terraces of 19th century houses that grace the seafronts of many English coastal resorts. The view is across a narrow access road in front of the building, a strip of garden beyond that then the rather ambitiously named Imperial Parade which follows the path of Lighton’s esplanade. Beyond that lay the beach and the English Channel. Of course at four o’clock in the morning, it lacks a certain something – absence of daylight being the main shortcoming.
I examined the view inasmuch as the streetlights permitted. “I’m sorry, but I can’t see anything,” I confessed eventually.
“Exactly. No ropes. No hooks or pitons. No broken body on the pavement below. If this is the way our burglar went, then she successfully made her way down the front of the building in the dark and without using any climbing aids.”
I looked again. From the window, there was a sheer drop of fully 30 feet to street level and a basement area rimmed with wickedly spiked railings going another 10 feet below that. About six feet to the left of the window was a black iron drainpipe, the only conceivable route down, but the mere thought of getting from our window to the pipe was enough to induce vertigo in itself.
“Jayes,” Gladys asked as she stepped back from the window, “do you think she really went this way, or is the open window just a diversion?”
“It is my firm belief , madam, that she came in this way – the locks on the front door are undisturbed and I am sure we would have heard her had she left through the door.”
I lowered the open window sash and turned to face Gladys and Jayes. “Shouldn’t we have heard of someone who can pull off a stunt like this?” I asked.
“It does seem quite remarkable, sir, and if I may hazard an opinion, she must be a freelance otherwise I am sure we would have heard of her through the Agency – my apologies, sir – the Burglars’ Association.”
Gladys raised an eyebrow. “Remarkable indeed. What exactly did she look like, Jayes?”
“Well madam, she is quite short, possibly only five feet or so.” Jayes indicated a level that came about half way up his chest. “Also she is... how to put this,,, robustly built.”
“Jayes, I know that politeness is your middle name, but you really don’t have to extend it to burglars,” I said. “Are you trying to tell us she is fat?”
“Most decidedly, sir, positively portly.”
“Hair and eye colour?” Gladys prompted.
“The young lady was wearing a balaclava when I apprehended her. After I had her securely restrained...” The pained look crossed his eyes again. “Er, that is, after I believed that I had her securely restrained, I removed her balaclava. Normally, of course, I would not disturb a lady’s clothing, but in this case, I felt that it would facilitate the more efficacious application of a gag.”
“Get on with it, Jayes” I urged. I love a god tale as much as the next man, but there was a warm bed calling the sweet song of slumber out to me.
“The young lady is a blonde. To be precise, ash blonde. Her eyes are an unusual shade of blue, almost violet. I believe the usual description is ‘periwinkle’.”
We stood there, me trying to sneak back to the door and bed, Gladys deep in thought. “I think I may have heard about this one,” Gladys announced. “When’s the first train to London?” she added for no obvious reason.
“About 5.30, I believe, madam” Jayes replied, quite unfazed by this sudden change of subject. “I can confirm that for you if you so desire.”
“Good. It’s only four o’clock now, so we can intercept her at the station. Come on, Barty – time for us to get dressed up!”
Any illusion I may have harboured that I was following the conversation was now completely shattered. “Hold on, apple of my eye, she didn’t get away with anything, so why do we need to catch her?” I objected.
“Barty, if you recall, only yesterday, you told me how perilously low our funds are getting,” Gladys explained with emphatic patience. “I think we might just be able to recruit an assistant to help remedy that.”
“So we ask her if she wouldn’t mind burgling someone else and giving us the proceeds?”
“No, silly.” She said this with the light laugh that first attracted me to her. “So we abduct her from the station, we bring her back here and we make her an offer she can’t refuse.”
I groaned. This was starting to sound like one of those occasions in my younger days when Aunt Deborah would send a telegram, asking me to undertake a ‘nice, simple job’ as she would say. “I was afraid you had something like that in mind. How do you propose to pick her up in broad daylight from a railway station?”
“I thought we’d just use a little coercion and light disguise. I thought the Little Old Lady gambit might work well – you know – hat with a veil, long shapeless overcoat with a pistol in the pocket – that sort of thing.”
Gladys performs the Little Old Lady routine to perfection. Give her a battered hat and a baggy old tweed coat and she’ll put on such an act of helplessness that she’ll have people falling over each other to come to her assistance, even as she’s robbing them blind.
“You’ve made it work plenty of times before,” I conceded appreciatively. Just then, the penny dropped. “Just a minute! You said ‘we’!”
“Yes, two little old ladies, just to be doubly sure.”
“No, I am absolutely not dressing up as a little old lady – I’d be a laughingstock if anyone found out.”
“Nobody will ever know it’s you, Barty. That’s the whole point of wearing a disguise, you know.”
“What’s Jayes going to be doing while this is going on? He’s a much better actor than I am!” I asked, hoping to derail the plan before it became inevitable.
“Forgive me, Sir, but the disparity in height between myself and Lady Rhymaes would be a distraction. I imagine I will be more gainfully employed obtaining and waiting in a car, sir, ready to make good our getaway. If you will excuse me?”
* * *
The events that followed are too humiliating to recount in too much detail. Suffice it to say that any resemblance to the normal morning routine began and ended with shaving the old chin. The razor was then applied to my legs, blessedly only from the knees downwards.
Various underpinnings followed, including an improvised semblance of a bust on my otherwise manly chest, then that instrument of the devil, a pair of nylon tights. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m as appreciative as the next man of a pair of tights when they are filled with a well-turned pair of female legs (and the rising hemlines of the 1960s improved this no end), but when it comes to putting on a garment that requires both legs to be inserted at once with precise co-ordination and is as delicate as a cobweb, I really don’t know how the ladies cope with this purgatory on a daily basis.
Gladys and I are about of a size, so she inserted me into a dove grey tweed skirt and matching sweater. A pink tweed overcoat went on top with a floral silk scarf tucked into the collar. A pair of Gladys’s shoes proved impossibly tight so she settled for a pair of my own brown brogues as not looking too incongruous with the outfit.
The ensemble was topped off with a grey wig and a cloche-style hat matching the coat. Inspecting myself in the mirror, I was glad of the finishing touch of a veil in the form of a cloud of grey chiffon finally hiding my male fizzog which was by now adrift in a sea of feminine frippery. It reminded me of a time when Jayes and I had to resort to similar measures to escape from a rather fruity situation – but that is probably a tale for another time.
Gladys decked herself out in a similar costume, but with powder blue rather than pink as the keynote colour. I demanded to know why I couldn’t have had the more masculine colour. Gladys replied with a mirthful chuckle that I found a little unkind under the circumstances.
We both put on gloves and were ready for action. We made use of the service lift in our building to make a discreet exit through the rear entrance of the building.
* * *
Jayes is a useful man when it comes to cars. There are very few that will not succumb to his use of a teaspoon and a wire coathanger to gain access and a short piece of wire to start the engine. While Gladys was arranging my costume, he had made excellent use of the time to dress himself in a rather less formal style than is his usual custom and to borrow a suitable vehicle. His judgement in this matter was excellent, as it is in most things – a black taxicab cannot be bettered for an inconspicuous trip to a railway station.
The sky was just lightening with the first signs of daybreak. It was still early enough in the year to be quite chilly at that time in the morning, so the veiled hats that Gladys and I sported were not implausible, even if they were several decades out of fashion.
Jayes opened the taxi door for us. I’m not at all sure that the combinations of denim jeans, leather jacket and a jaunty corduroy cap suited a man of his innate dignity, but it certainly made him look like a cabbie.
“Where to, ladies?” He asked, adopting a suitably demotic accent.
“The railway station, as quickly as you can, my man,” Gladys replied in her plummiest tones.
“Knees together, please, Barty,” she prompted as we took our seats. “Remember you’re a lady.”
The snatch, when it happened, proved remarkably easy. Jayes spotted our quarry as soon as we turned into the railway station’s cab entrance. She was wearing a purple sweater and a blue denim skirt over striped green and purple socks but Jayes had no difficulty recognising her distinctive hair colour and figure. She had also gained a pair of round wire-rimmed spectacles since he last saw her. Her burglary attire was presumably in the PVC sports bag she carried in her left hand.
We had caught up with our burglar before she had entered the main concourse of the station, which would be quite busy with commuters even at that early hour in the morning. As soon as Jayes had drawn the cab to a halt, Gladys and I stepped out and, without undue haste, were able to come up alongside the young woman, one of us on each side of her.
“Good morning,” I said, coming up on her left and not attempting to disguise my baritone voice.
As the girl turned to face me in astonishment, Gladys administered an injection into her right arm through the fabric of her sweater. I caught her bag as she let go of it and transferred it to my left hand then Gladys and I steered the increasingly woozy burglar back towards the taxi. Jayes was quite right about her diminutive height, but even between the two of us, she was no lightweight to support. Fortunately, she didn’t spark out completely until we had her sat down between us in the cab.
A few more minutes driving through the streets of Lighton brought us back to the rear of our apartment building. Jayes, Gladys and I lugged the now completely unconscious burglar from the taxi to the service door. We helped ourselves to a trolley ordinarily used by the domestic staff in our building to gather up laundry. It was just a wickerwork hamper on wheels, but it looked a lot more promising than trying to manhandle an inert body through the corridors. We dumped the sleeping girl into it unceremoniously, leaving her feet hanging over the edge.
While Jayes went to return our borrowed transport to the street where he had found it parked, Gladys and I wheeled the trolley into the service lift and pressed the button for the top floor. We trundled the trolley the short distance to our own flat door and then inside. By unspoken agreement, we took her back to the drawing room. Lifting our guest out of the hamper was awkward but doable with two of us on the job. I took the weight of the girl’s shoulders while Gladys lifted her under the knees. We parked her on the chair that she had escaped from a couple of hours earlier, pausing for a moment or two to allow us to catch our breath. Fit we may both be, but age does have its disadvantages at times..
I propelled the trolley back out of the flat, fervently hoping not to meet any of our neighbours as I didn’t relish the prospect of having to explain why I was wandering the corridor in full drag with a purloined laundry basket. I decided that the safest thing to do was simply to push the thing back into the service lift and send it down to the ground floor while I scuttled back to the safety of the flat.
I pressed the button and waited for the lift to grind its way up from the bottom. I confess that my nerves got the better of me when the lift door opened to reveal an occupant. Instead of a witty remark of the kind that I fondly imagine Bartholomey J Rhymaes is well-known for, I emitted a strangled squawk of panic.
Fortunately, the passenger in the lift turned out to be Jayes on his way back from disposing of the taxi. We pushed the laundry trolley into the lift, Jayes pressed the G button and stepped back smartly as the doors closed and we retreated to the flat, my nerves still jangling.
* * *
As Jayes and I returned to the drawing room, I saw that the burglaress manquée was still sitting slumped in the chair where Gladys and I had dumped her.
“Still out cold,” I pointed out unnecessarily. “Darling, just how much did you inject her with?”
It’s not often that I see the love of my life embarrassed, but this was one occasion. “Well, Jayes said she was fat, so I thought I should maybe give her a little more than usual to compensate for the extra body weight.”
“How much more?”
“About 50 percent,” Gladys confessed. I let out a low whistle – Normally the concoction she used worked for about an hour, but now?
“So she’s going be out for a while yet,” I commented. “And she’s going to have one doodlesocker of a headache when she comes to.”
“Perhaps we should take advantage of the situation by tying her up before she comes round?” Gladys suggested brightly.
Jayes coughed discreetly. “Forgive me, madam, but as it was due to my deplorable lapse that the young lady escaped previously, please allow me to remedy the situation by securing her more... er... securely.”
“Topping idea, Jayes,” I replied. “That will give me a chance to get out of these lady-togs before we have words with her.”
“Thank you, sir. I anticipate that it will give me great pleasure to rectify my earlier shortcoming.”
The grim smile that spread across Jayes’ features was more than a little disconcerting, but he was clearly a man on a mission, so Gladys and I left him to his labours and retreated to our bedroom.
* * *
I was thankful to remove my womanly disguise and take a quick shower to freshen up. I donned a pair of grey cotton twill trousers and a shirt in a cheerful shade of lemon yellow. I briefly considered a pink shirt but decided that there had been altogether too much pink in my life already that morning. I left the shirt open at the neck, a practice which Jayes considers deplorable but I found quite natty. I’ve told him that it was 1974 not 1924, but he will have none of it. A light blue V-necked pullover and a pair of well broken-in shoes completed a suitably comfortable ensemble after the rigours of the distaff side of the wardrobe.
I discovered that Gladys had taken an opposite approach to her attire for the morning. She had teamed a crisp white silk blouse with a narrow black knee-length leather skirt over sheer black stockings. She added a black silk cravat tucked into the open neck of the blouse, a black leather waistcoat and her very tallest pair of stiletto heels. With her steel grey hair up in a chignon, the overall effect was most alluring, in a provocative sort of way, and very, very intimidating. All she needed was a pair of black leather gloves and a riding crop to make it overwhelmingly so. She looked like a living embodiment of a drawing by that chappie – what was his name again – John Willie in Bizarre, a magazine both Jayes and I had found most enjoyable some years previously. She was clearly not in a mood to put up with any nonsense from the burglar girl when she awoke from her slumber.
* * *
We returned to the drawing room to discover that Jayes had been true to his word. The old trunk in which we stored rope and other paraphernalia for immobilising the victims of our professional enterprises was standing open in the middle of the room. Our burglarette was now as thoroughly trussed-up as I think I have ever seen anyone trussed. She was still sitting in the chair Gladys and I had left her on, but now pretty much cocooned in rope. It was just about possible to make out through the web of rope that encased her and the chair from waist to shoulders that her arms were secured behind the back of the chair. Her legs were tied together, indeed the tangle of rope extended all the way from her waist right down to her ankles, securing her down to the chair and pulling her feet back under the seat. The lower half of her face was covered by an oddly jaunty white spotted red cotton headscarf. From the shapes visible through the fabric and the additional knot visible at the back of her head, it was obvious that there was more to this gag than was immediately apparent to the eye.
From the angle of her head, it appeared that our guest was still under the influence of Gladys’s generous injection. She was going to get a surprise when she woke up and found out what Jayes had done to her. As I inspected Jayes’ admirable handiwork, I detected a slight movement of the burglar girl’s head.
“I think she’ll be back with us in a minute,” I commented to Gladys.
Gladys walked across to the bound girl and lifted her chin up. A pair of intensely blue eyes opened behind the spectacles. “Oh good,” Gladys said smoothly as the girl looked round. “She’s awake. Now I’ll be able to tell her that we really, really don’t appreciate people climbing in through our window in the middle of the night.”
“Er... but haven’t you just told her?”
“I have and I’m going to get someone else to tell her too. I’m going to phone Margot Harman.”
Now that was a name you didn’t want to hear without a stiff drink close to hand. “Margot Harman? At six o’clock in the morning? You can’t!” I exclaimed, in considerable alarm.
I should explain that Margot Harman was the queen bee of South London gangland in the early 1970s. If you’ve never heard of her, it’s because the police never managed to pin anything on her and usually never even suspected her. She was that good. I had met her a couple of times through our connections with the Burglar’s Association and, quite frankly, the woman terrified me. She could radiate menace just by sitting quietly in a chair drinking tea and smiling sweetly.
“Why Mrs Harman anyway?” I added as an afterthought.
“If this person is who I think she might be, then I think Mrs Harman will be most interested.”
“Won’t she be upset at being phoned this early? Shouldn’t you wait until a more civilised hour?”
“Margot Harman is a bit of a snob, Barty. She loves being associated with aristocracy, so I don’t think she’ll mind much.”
It’s no secret that I’m a baronet, but that just means I’m a ‘sir’ because my father and grandfather before me were ‘sirs’, probably because one of their ancestors carried out some skulduggery that was rewarded by the establishment of the day. It really counts for nothing compared with real nobility, but it still carries a certain cachet even in these egalitarian days.
Gladys crossed the room to the telephone and consulted a small black notebook in which we keep useful contact numbers. Smiling sweetly at our young guest, she dialled a London number and waited for a response.
“Good morning Mrs Harman, sorry to call at this unearthly hour. It’s Gladys Rhymaes here, Sir Barty Rhymaes’s wife.
“That’s right, Gladys Pugh as was.
“No, you don’t have to call me ‘Lady Rhymaes’ – ‘Gladys’ will do – we’re fellow professionals after all.
“Well, Margot (may I call you Margot?), it’s about your apprentice.
“Colette Aldington? I didn’t know her name. This Colette – blonde with blue eyes? Shortish? Wears specs? A bit on the tubby side? Climbs like a monkey and gets out of ropes like she’s Houdini’s granddaughter?
As she looked over to the girl, I could see her eyes raised in what appeared to my eye to be panic. She sat quite still, as I wondered what Gladys had in store.
“Why am I asking? Well, we caught her climbing in through our window last night. She seems to be rather good, if a little misguided, so, now that she’s here, I was going to ask you if we could borrow her for a small job. Before we discuss that, you might want to have a word with her about the courtesy of checking with the local branch of the Burglars’ Association before climbing up other peoples’ drainpipes. I’m afraid she won’t be able to say much back to you on account of being tied to a chair and gagged right now.”
Gladys brought the set over and held the telephone receiver to the bound and gagged girl’s ear, caressing her head from behind as she did so.
Have you ever watched someone having a conversation on the telephone, and known just from their expression and their reaction what was been said to them? Well, even with our guest been unable to talk, you could tell that she was on the receiving end of the ear-bashing of a lifetime. There isn’t a lot of scope for cringing when you’re swathed in rope from neck to ankle, but the girl made an impressive attempt at it, not that it did any good as Gladys simply moved her hand to keep the phone pressed firmly to her ear. This went on for an amazingly long time, the noises that I could hear from the headset ranging from loud to shouting, greatly deepening my already considerable awe of Mrs Harman. All the poor kid could do was to offer the occasional muffled grunt in reply.
The tirade eventually subsided. When Gladys judged that Mrs Harman had either had her say or run out of invective, she let go of our guest and put the receiver back to her own ear.
“I’m so glad you’ve explained the etiquette of the burglary business so eloquently to her. Have you put her under our command for the present?
“Thank you, that’s most accommodating. All being well, we’ll send her back to you tomorrow. It’s been a pleasure to speak to you. Good morning, Margot.”
Gladys replaced the receiver back on its rest and addressed Jayes and me. “I’m sure you heard most of that, but I’ll summarise. This girl is indeed Mrs Harman’s apprentice as I suspected. Her name is Colette Aldington, but she answers to ‘Coco’. She’s 20 years old, although you wouldn’t think so from the shortage of common sense and common courtesy. Mrs Harman offers her profuse apologies and has placed Coco entirely at our disposal.”
Gladys turned to Coco with an engaging smile. “That's all settled then – youre’ ours for tonight.” The smile vanished as she leaned forwards until she was almost nose-to-nose with the girl. “That means,” she said slowly and clearly with an undercurrent of menace, “that you will be working for us. You will deploy the very best of your undoubted talents entirely for our benefit. Most importantly, you will do exactly as you are told. Understand?”
In the face of this onslaught, Coco could only abjectly nod her agreement.
“Splendid! We'll tell you all about the plan later. Right now, I've been up for hours because of you, I’m hungry and I’d very much like to have some breakfast.”
Our unwilling guest perked up at the mention of breakfast. It’s quite difficult to perk when you’re trussed up like that, but she managed it, and with obvious enthusiasm too.
“Not you,” Gladys said with venom. She glanced into the open trunk on the floor and selected a black velvet hood, an opaque head-sized sack, which she deftly pulled over Coco’s head. A moment’s rummaging in the trunk produced a pair of industrial earmuffs which she clapped onto the poor girl’s head just to emphasise her point. I’ve no idea why Jayes should have furnished us with those – it’s not as if we made a habit of blowing up safes. A heartbreaking little whimper emerged from under the hood, but Gladys’s heart remained steadfastly unbroken.
“Now, Barty, we deserve a decent breakfast out,” Gladys informed me in no uncertain terms. I looked over at Jayes, who was standing there, impassive as ever, although he did have one corner of his mouth turned up in admiration.
“Jayes, you’ve worked as hard as any of us this morning, why not join us? I’m sure burglar girl won’t be going anywhere soon.”
“A most kind offer, sir, but I feel it would be prudent to keep her under surveillance. Besides, I have some small domestic matters to see to.”
“I’ll break an ankle if I try walking outside in these heels,” Gladys commented, heading back to our bedroom.
Gladys kicked off her shoes and substituted a pair of shiny black leather boots with more modest two-inch heels. She added a snug black suit jacket and a pair of thin leather gloves to her outfit and declared herself ready. I was feeling a little underdressed by comparison, so I put on a jaunty striped blazer and matching tie – a move which seemed to please Jayes as we looked in on our way out.
As we walked along the promenade a few minutes later, I was proud to be seen in the company of such a splendid example of feminine pulchritude, despite her being dressed like the kind of woman young men’s mothers warn them about, although, thinking about it, perhaps that was part of the pleasure.
* * *
Knowing that our night visitor was trussed up tighter than one of my late Aunt Agnes’s corsets, Gladys and I strolled along the prom together with a certain illicit but satisfying joie de vivre, enjoying the crisp spring sunshine. We ate a hearty and leisurely breakfast in a rather splendid local café, which we felt we deserved, a good deal of work having already been conducted for such an early hour. We strolled further and bought the morning papers before wandering back home again, our outlook on life much improved over the admittedly grumpy and vindictive mood we had been in earlier.
When we returned to the flat, we extricated our involuntary house-guest from the entanglement of rope into which Jayes had so skilfully inserted her. Removal of the headscarf covering the lower half of her face revealed another scarf with a knot in the middle pulled tightly back into her mouth. Removal of that one still left her mouth stuffed with a third scarf. Gladys eased the wad of sodden cloth out of Coco’s mouth.
“Thanks,” she croaked as soon as she could speak, the first word she had actually had the opportunity to say to us. She swallowed hard and coughed softly to clear her throat before continuing, “I’m awfully sorry about breaking in here. It never occurred to me that you might be in the same business.”
“I’m sure Mrs Harmon has already told you what you should have done, but that’s in the past now. One question – why us up here on the top floor?” Gladys asked.
“Top floor flats are often the easiest to get into. People think they’re quite safe because they’re out of the reach of ladders, so they’re quite sloppy about security catches on windows and stuff like that.”
Gladys and I exchanged glances: the girl was right, and I made a mental note to ask Jayes to take care of that.
“And,” she continued, “you look to be very well-off and you’re quite... well... er... old.”
Coco had the good grace to look embarrassed as she said the final word in little more than a whisper.
“Not too old to catch you on the hop,” I pointed out.
“Age and guile generally beat youth and talent,” Gladys pointed out with a disconcertingly sweet smile.
“Anyway, I’m really sorry and I’ll make it up to you if you tell me what you want me to do,” Coco offered with a winning smile.
I was quite taken with this girl. She seemed to be cheerful and willing despite having been drugged, kidnapped, wrapped in rope from neck to ankle, gagged, hooded and earmuffed, and all within the last couple of hours. An amazing capacity to bounce back. I returned her smile and said, “I’m glad you’re taking this so well.”
Gladys fixed me with a stern glare and raised an eyebrow at me, always a sure sign that she thinks I’m in danger of succumbing to another woman’s feminine wiles.
Coco caught the unspoken exchange and wiped the smile from her face. “What exactly do you want me to do?” she asked earnestly.
“I haven’t finalised all the details yet,” Gladys temporised. “We’ll have a briefing meeting later on.”
“Jolly good,” Coco responded, her enthusiasm bubbling up again.
“I wonder, madam, if I might be permitted to offer the young lady some breakfast?” Jayes interjected, the conversation having reached a natural intermission.
“Ooh, yes, please,” Coco replied before either Gladys or I could say anything.
“Yes, please, Jayes,” I said, trying to regain some control, “I’m sure she must be very hungry by now and we want her to be on top form later on.”
“Very good, sir,” Jayes replied, but it was clearly Coco he was addressing as he said it.
“I’m a bit stiff after... you know,,, being tied up so long,” Coco ventured as she stood up. “Do you mind if I take my skirt off and do a bit of yoga to loosen up? I’m quite respectable underneath.”
Without waiting for an answer, Coco unbuttoned her skirt and slid it off. The green and purple striped socks I thought she was wearing turned out to be a pair of woollen tights. She peeled off her sweater too, revealing a matching purple t-shirt. The burglar girl then proceeded to put herself through a long series of bone-popping stretches and contortions. A performance like this put on by such a generously-proportioned lass was utterly astonishing to watch. I have to confess it was also quite diverting – or would have been had not Gladys taken my arm and firmly guided me out of the room.
* * *
Later in the day, Gladys called us all together for a briefing meeting. She is a very methodical planner and insists on using proper management techniques. For myself, not having to endure a proper job with a management structure was part of the pleasure of my chosen career, but, credit where it’s due, Gladys knows how to run a tight ship.
“Tonight is my weekly bridge night,” Gladys explained. “It's a very congenial evening with three of my lady friends. Occasional winnings come my way, which are very welcome, given the parlous state of Barty's and my finances just now. While there isn't a great deal that I can do by myself, there is ample opportunity for an enterprising young cat burglar such as your good self, Coco.
From the expression on Coco’s face, she was having some trouble imagining a group of genteel old biddies playing cards for significant sums of money. “So, what sort of stakes do you play for?” she asked tentatively.
“There will probably be a couple of hundred on the table, but that's only a bonus. The point is that everyone will be dressed up to the nines in their best jewellery,” Gladys explained. “Or fake jewellery in my case these days,” she added pointedly.
“Three extremely well-heeled senior ladies, all positively dripping with jewellery,” I echoed appreciatively.
“Dripping with paste in my case,” Gladys pointed out acidly.
“You sound like badly-hung wallpaper if you put it that way,” I said in a futile attempt to lighten the moment. I knew as soon as she looked at me this was a bad move, so I was glad when Coco said “So, what’s the plan?”
Gladys looked at her, smiled and said “It’s a perfectly simple, easy job for someone like you...”
* * *
We were an oddly-assorted crew as we set out that evening. Jayes drove us in the elderly but elegant Lancia we had as transport in those days. Jayes wore his customary dark suit. Sitting alongside him, I made up for his sobriety with one of my jauntiest striped blazers, a favourite of mine but one that Gladys has compared unfavourably with the fabric usually associated with deckchairs. Gladys was on the back seat and looked magnificent in a midnight blue evening gown, partly hidden by the black cashmere wrap around her shoulders. Just visible were the diamond necklace, earrings and bracelet that would be worth a small fortune, possibly even quite a large fortune, if only they were real. Coco sat alongside her, inconspicuous in black. I had not seen her working clothes during the previous night’s shenanigans, so had been quite – what’s the word, not shocked – overcome when she had come into the parlour prior to our departure.
I don’t think I had ever seen trousers quite as tight as her black jodhpurs – I’ve seen coats of paint looser than that and they left very little to the imagination. Almost as tight was her curve-hugging black sweater. She wore black canvas gym shoes, thin black leather gloves and a black balaclava. According to Jayes, when she was turning our flat over, Coco had worn her balaclava to leave just her eyes showing. However, at Gladys’s instigation, she now had it pulled down below her chin. She had exchanged her spectacles for a pair of contact lenses and the upper half of her face was covered by a black eye mask borrowed from Gladys. Her mouth was emphasised with a slash of fire engine red lipstick. In Gladys’s expert opinion, orders issued from a clearly visible, well made-up mouth were so much more commanding than ones mumbled through a balaclava. I’m sure my darling wife was right in this – she usually was. I recalled a small visit we played to one of the nouveaux riches last year, when Gladys had the lady of the house cowering on her bed while I secured their daughters, using only her voice and demeanour to control the woman.
The venue for the bridge party was a seaside terrace divided into apartments, much like the one we inhabited ourselves. Jayes drove us to the front door and we watched Gladys disappear inside, giving us a nonchalant wave as she did so. We drove a short distance further on and parked. The half hour we had agreed in our plan ticked slowly past then Jayes took us to the back of the apartment block. In contrast to the pristine whitewashed front of the building, the back was a mad plumber’s fantasy, with a plethora of pipes festooned across the brickwork. We watched fascinated as Coco surveyed the scene and selected a likely looking pipe before beginning her ascent.
“Jolly impressive speed,” I commented to Jayes, “for one so...”
“One so generously proportioned?” Jayes suggested. It wasn’t quite the phrase that had been offering itself in my mind, but it would do.
In an astonishingly short time, the girl had reached the topmost floor. As we watched, she made her way along a perilously thin horizontal pipe as casually as if she was walking along the street. She peered in through a lighted window. Presumably this was unsatisfactory as a point of entry as we saw her lean out at an alarming angle, hanging on with only one hand so that she could look left and right. She pulled herself back and returned along the horizontal pipe to the fat vertical one she had climbed. A heart-stopping leap took her onto an adjacent pipe. She climbed a little higher then jumped across to a window a good six feet away. By some miracle of balance, she stayed there perched on the sill as she forced the latch and let herself in.
After this display of aerial acrobatics, Jayes and I were relieved to go back to the car. We drove to a seafront parking space and parked facing the sea. The view would have been perfectly charming, had it only been daylight. We waited for what seemed like an eternity, but was actually just short of an hour, before we heard a rap on the window that made me jump and Jayes merely smile. He stepped out of the car and gallantly opened the door to let our little helper in.
“So, how did it go, young lady?” I asked.
"All perfectly according to plan, sir,” she replied politely. “Nothing went wrong at all.”
“Out of the mouths of babes and innocents...” Jayes quoted darkly as he sat back behind the wheel.
I gave him my sternest look as we drove off, and I meant it to sting. As it was, however, the youngster wasn't wrong. Hang on, I’m getting ahead of myself. I’ll let Gladys tell you what happened in that flat.
* * *
My weekly bridge night had been a fixture on my social calendar for a long time. We played for money, although the stakes were always extremely modest. I am no novice with a pack of cards. I can do a perfect cut-and-riffle shuffle and I can spread deck of cards like a professional croupier. Of course, tricks like that tend to make other players around the table a little nervous, so I tend not to do them in public. I deal left-handed, which the other ladies regard as a charming eccentricity. What they don’t realise is that it gives me the opportunity to read the value of a card if I lift the corner with my thumb as I deal. On a good day, I can deal four bridge hands and know afterwards exactly where all 52 cards are. It won’t surprise you then to learn that, on average, I generally won more than I lost. It would be a bit obvious if I won all the time, of course, so I worked cautiously. You also play bridge in pairs, which rather limits the opportunity to cheat. I had a go at interesting the girls in poker, but they seem to feel it’s a rather unladylike game.
Given the paucity of money on the table, I encouraged my friends to dress up as if we were high-living society ladies on a night out at Monte Carlo’s finest casino. I had no idea how I might arrange for them to be relieved of their finery, but hoped that an opportunity might eventually present itself. Call it a long game if you like.
Our hostess was Stella Brangwyn, widow of a Welsh industrialist. As the daughter of a Welsh industrialist myself, I should have had a lot in common with her, but charming though she could be, I always felt that she was in some way slightly ashamed of the source of her late husband’s fortune (although she was very enthusiastic about the money itself). I had the feeling that she was friendly towards me more because of my title than for myself. Nevertheless, she was personable enough to pass an evening with.
Isabel Naismith was a semi-retired university lecturer and one of the brightest people I have ever known. She had quite a serious disposition but with little provocation revealed a wonderfully zany sense of humour. She took bridge very seriously and was probably the most intelligent tactician of the four of us, which I admit gave me to occasional pang of conscience when I cheated at her expense (but I had to keep my skills honed somehow).
As the widow of a duke and the daughter of an earl, Margaret, Dowager Duchess of Littlehampton (universally known as ‘Daisy’) was the only real lady of the four of us. I usually encountered her wearing a threadbare tweed skirt and a disreputable old sweater for walking her dogs on the beach, but her turnout for bridge parties was magnificent with a black velvet dress to set off a diamond and emerald necklace that covered most of her décolletage, a pair of huge diamond earrings, a diamond-encrusted bracelet that threatened to encroach on her elbow and a Cartier watch. If that wasn’t enough, she even had a tiara perched atop her mop of curly white hair.
Stella’s part-time Spanish maid Fina (short for Josefina) served us canapés (which had been bought in) and wine and generally fussed over us during these evenings when we weren’t actually engaged in card-playing. On this particular night, the game was progressing nicely, and Fina had taken herself back to the kitchen for a few moments.
We had been playing for about half an hour when there was a heavy thud from the direction of the kitchen. We all stared at each other. There had been no crash of breaking china or glass and there was no sound of muttered swearing in Spanish, so we carried on playing.
I adopted my best poker face so as not to show any sign of anticipating what would happen next. I only had a few minutes to wait before Coco appeared from the kitchen. Her bearing was suitably commanding, as I had advised her (or as commanding as someone that short and fat can hope to achieve). Of course, the presence of my .25 calibre Beretta in her hand enhanced her air of authority no end. (It didn’t have any bullets in it, but the rest of the bridge party didn’t know that.)
“I’m afraid the game will have to stop now ladies,” she announced. “I will try not to inconvenience you more than is necessary to relieve you of your valuables. If you all remain calm and do exactly as I tell you, no-one will get hurt. Understood?”
Calm, polite, authoritative and with an air of quiet competence: I was very impressed with this girl’s performance. I could see why Mrs Harman had chosen her as an apprentice; this was quite clearly a master criminal in the making.
After some hesitation and exchanges of nervous glances between us, the four of us nodded our agreement.
“Very good,” Coco continued. “Now I want you to take off all your jewellery and place it in the middle of the table.”
Once again, there was a hesitation. I encouraged the others by taking off my bracelet first and putting it in the centre of the table where the stake money was piled.
Stella followed suit. “Do you realise just how much this is worth, young lady?” she demanded indignantly as she put her bracelet down.
“I think she does, dear,” Daisy pointed out gently. “That’s the whole point of stealing it.”
Somewhat deflated, Stella took off the rest of her jewellery in silence and placed it on the table.
“Not wedding or engagement rings,” Coco said, noticing Daisy struggling to get her wedding band past an arthritic knuckle.
Stella snatched her wedding and engagement rings back from the heap of jewellery in the middle of the table and slid them back onto her finger with a vitriolic look at Coco.
Once everyone’s jewellery had been heaped together, Isabel spoke for the first time since the robbery began. “So, what do you intend to do to us now, young lady?” she asked crisply.
I suspect that the combination of the tone of Isabel’s voice and the gimlet stare she aimed at Coco was something she used to strike terror into recalcitrant students. It had no effect whatever on Coco’s aplomb.
“Well, ladies,” Coco replied, “I regret that I shall have to detain you here while I get well away from here before you raise the alarm.”
There was a pause while we digested that comment. “I think she means she’s going to tie us all up,” I suggested, in the absence of anyone else voicing the obvious conclusion.
“Well, not quite,” Coco countered. “I would have to put my gun down if I were to do that, so maybe you should do it for me. Are you any good at tying knots?”
“Me?” I replied, with as much apparent confusion as I could feign. “Well, I was a Girl Guide a long time ago.”
(And it was when I was a Girl Guide, during the Great War, that I learned how to tie people up. Our Guide Company leader thought we should know how to just in case we caught a German spy. Not that I was about to tell that to Coco or the other bridge ladies.)
Coco kept the gun levelled as she unslung a small rucksack from her back. Working one-handed, she opened it and took out a small bundle of rope. She handed it to me and said, “Start by tying her hands behind the chair.” She gestured towards Stella.
The rope was in a neatly-wound skein. (This was Jayes’ doing. He looks after all our professional supplies with the zeal of an army quartermaster-sergeant.) I loosened the rope then knelt down behind Stella’s chair. I tried to guide her hands behind her but she held them stubbornly clasped in front of her.
“If you won’t let me do it, the burglar will have to do it herself and she may be a lot rougher,” I pointed out.
Stella relented and allowed me to arrange her hands with the wrists crossed. I lashed them together with several turns of rope horizontally and then vertically and then secured the binding with a firm knot.
Coco watched carefully as I worked. “Very good,” she congratulated me. “Now the other two.”
The next bundle of rope was slightly thinner, so I finished off with a couple of cinching turns between Isabel’s wrists before knotting it off. The rope for Daisy’s wrists was much the same as I had used for Stella, so I repeated the same binding.
(Our stock of rope is deliberately a mix of slightly different types, some old, some new, some bought legitimately, some stolen, even some scavenged off the beach if it was in good condition. Similarly, scarves for gagging were a mix of some bought from shops (and often stored for years before use) and some stolen from victims of our enterprises. This is Jayes’ influence again. He is always anxious to make the things we leave behind on a job as confusing and unhelpful as possible to the investigators. It’s his belief that not many years from now, the majority of crimes will be solved in the forensic laboratory, and he has been remarkable prescient about most things.)
Coco handed me a larger bundle of rope. “Now tie rope around their waists to hold them onto their chairs and to keep their hands under control,” she instructed.
I started with Stella again, building up a coil of rope around her waist and the chair-back. I finished off by fastening the ends to her wrist binding, pinning it against the chair. I repeated the process with the other two.
It was a tricky act to pull off. I had to appear to be acting entirely under Coco’s instruction and to seem not to have any experience of my own in tying women to chairs, but at the same time it was essential for our plan that I made a competent job of it. I’m not sure how good my acting actually was; possibly the other three were simply too scared to notice or question any inconsistencies in what was going on.
The tying proceeded to a coil of rope around each of my friends’ chests, upper arms and the backrests of their chairs, then one over their laps and under the chair seat. I finished off by binding their ankles and knees, just using simple lashings over the long skirts of their dresses.
Once I had finished, Coco ordered me to sit down then carried out a visual inspection of my work. My ropework was good and my knots all firm, but, of course, they might not have been in the charade we were acting out.
My turn came next. Coco bound me to my chair in exactly the way that I had bound my three companions. There was, however, one crucial difference: before tying my wrists, Coco had placed a loop of rope in one of my hands, which I grasped as she completed the binding. All I had to do was to let go of that loop to create several inches of useful slack. If, however, one of the others managed to free herself before I was ready to stage my planned escape, the slack was well enough concealed that I could be untied by someone else without their detecting it.
As soon as I was securely tied, Coco produced a bundle of assorted silk and cotton scarves out of her rucksack. She balled one up and pushed it into my mouth. I put on an act of feeble resistance as she did so. She folded a second one into a band and pulled it between my teeth to hold the first one in place then knotted the ends behind my head. I twisted my neck and produced a series of distressed-sounding mumbles and whines from behind the gag.
“Don’t fight the gag – you’ll just choke yourself that way,” Coco advised. “If you relax, it won’t be too bad.”
I brought my little act to a close and nodded to Coco. Hopefully the others would be surprised to discover that being gagged wasn’t actually as traumatic as I had made out and wouldn’t fight against it.
Working quickly, Coco gagged the other three ladies. None of them put up a fight as I had pretended to. She then set to work to clear the table of all the cash and jewellery heaped there. Jayes had equipped her with a number of velvet jewellery bags and she carefully bagged the cash and the larger items separately to prevent damage.
Once she had cleared the table, Coco went off to explore the rest of the flat. We could hear cupboards and drawers being opened in other rooms as she carried out a systematic search. I later discovered that the visit to Stella’s bedroom had yielded a very welcome and profitable cache of rather fine jewellery.
A few minutes later, Coco reappeared and carried out a quick visual inspection of our bonds. This was completely unnecessary as both she and I had done a competent job but it was a signal to me that she was finished and was just about to leave. I glanced at the clock on Stella’s mantelpiece and noted the time. Coco went off in the direction of the kitchen and her departure from the flat was silent as far as we were concerned.
After a few minutes, Isabel began struggling with her bonds. It looked as though she might actually have some idea of how to escape from ropes and I was concerned that she could be free before Coco was safely back in my flat with Barty and Jayes. As it turned out, I needn’t have worried; her ropes held and she gave up after about five minutes.
Twenty minutes after Coco had left, I began to struggle with my bonds. At least, that was the impression I hoped to convey; in reality, I was simply squirming around inside the ropes. At the twenty-five minute mark, I began my escape bid in earnest by letting go of the loop of rope that Coco had concealed in my hand. My wrists were still tightly bound together, so I still had to distribute the slack into the rest of the binding so that I could pull a hand free. This took about three minutes of concentrated effort, twisting my hands back and forth. I produced what I hoped sounded like a grunt of triumph and showed my companions my free hand. Of course, it took a while longer to work my other hand loose and then to untie all the other ropes holding me to my chair.
I tugged at my gag and, failing to pull it down, reached behind my head to untie it. As soon as I could speak, I said, “I’ll phone the police and see if Fina is all right then get you three loose.”
Stella made what sounded suspiciously like a disapproving snort. If that was her attitude, I decided, then she could definitely wait a few minutes longer.
I picked up the telephone and dialled 999. It took just a couple of minutes to be put through to the police switchboard and to report a robbery. I promised not to touch anything beyond freeing the others.
I went to the kitchen next, where I found Fina bound and gagged on the floor. Her wrists were tied behind her back and secured with a waist rope. Another coil of rope held her upper arms tightly against her body and her legs were bound at the ankles and knees. She had also been put into a hog-tie with a rope linking her ankles to the band of rope around her chest. The maid’s knees were bent to about a right angle, so the hog-tie was sufficient to incapacitate her quite effectively but not so severe as to cause pain or injury. I also noted with approval that the hog-tie linked the maid’s ankle binding to her chest rope not her wrists, lessening the risk of injury, but also making it impossible to use the hog-tie to pull the wrist binding off by brute force. This girl Coco had obviously been well taught.
I bent down and removed Fina’s gag and started freeing her from the ropes. “¿Está bien?” I asked. She assured me that she wasn’t hurt and asked after the other bridge players. I told her, still in my best schoolgirl Spanish, that they were fine.
Although my command of Spanish is nothing much to write home about, it’s sufficient to get by, whereas I knew that Stella had never bothered to learn any of her employee’s native language and relied on shouting louder in English in the event of a communication failure. My use of Spanish to Fina was a way to obtain information about the burglary without Stella overhearing it, just in case there was anything I didn’t want her to know. I asked Fina to tell me what had happened: “Cuéntame lo que pasó.”
Fina explained that she had been grabbed from behind with a hand over her mouth and dragged to the floor (which would explain the thump we heard). She had been threatened with a gun and wisely decided to cooperate. The intruder had tied her up and then left the kitchen almost immediately.
I asked whether the burglar had also passed through the kitchen on the way out. Fina confirmed that she had, and, she added grimly, the burglar had looked in her handbag.
I hadn’t specifically told Coco that the maid’s property should be off-limits, but I was disappointed that she should have added what must have been quite a small amount to the overall haul in this way. Fina was free by now, so I suggested that she check the contents of her handbag and purse to see what was missing.
She did so and as she looked in her purse, I heard a sharp intake of breath. She turned to me, clearly trying to suppress a broad grin, and told me there was nothing missing: “No hay nada perdido.”
I concluded that Coco had slipped some of the stake money into the woman’s purse in a gesture of Robin Hoodery. I was getting to like the girl’s style.
I returned to the sitting room and freed my companions, Daisy then Isabel and Stella last, as I had privately resolved. I had just finished when the police arrived. There was the usual business of giving statements and describing the items we had lost. As soon as they had interviewed us, the police insisted on calling an ambulance and sending us off to the local hospital to be checked out. (Curiously, they didn’t include Fina in this, although she had a far tougher time than the rest of us; maybe they thought that a Spanish maid was made of sterner stuff than English gentlewomen.)
Hours later than I expected, I let myself into my own flat. I could hear voices in the drawing room, so made my way there.
I found Barty, Jayes and Coco swapping stories, tall and otherwise, about past exploits. Barty was sprawled (the only word for it) in his favourite armchair. Jayes had drawn up one of the upright dining chairs and was perched on the edge of it, about as much as he ever allows himself to unbend. Coco was back in her everyday clothes with the jolly purple theme and was also sitting on a dining chair, but in her case, she was also securely tied up. Her arms were behind her in an efficient-looking wrists-to-elbows box-tie with her arms and chest enmeshed in a web of ropes. Her legs were bound together at the ankles and knees. She did not appear to be tied to the chair on which she was sitting, presumable for portability.
* * *
As the door opened, I was delighted to see the love of my life return to the domestic fold, but concerned at the length of time that had passed. “Was there a problem?” I asked.
“Not with the job – Coco pulled that off perfectly – but the damn fool police insisted on sending us all to hospital to be checked over.” she explained.
“Possibly a reasonable precaution, given your collective age?” I ventured tentatively. Not for the first time that day, Gladys gave me a look that showed she was not amused.
“Humph. An hour’s wait to have a doctor that looked as if he was just out of short trousers look at me for about ten seconds and tell me I'm fine. What is the health service coming to?”
“Perhaps a soothing drink would be in order at this point, madam?” Jayes suggested diplomatically.
“Good idea,” I agreed, glad to divert Gladys’s rant. “I'm sure we could all do with one to celebrate a job well done and to calm our nerves.”
“Damn right,” Gladys agreed. “And no half measures, Jayes! Less of the T and more of the G.”
“Get one for yourself too, Jayes,” I added. “You're part of tonight's team too.”
“Sir Barty, Mr Jayes, may I be untied now?” Coco asked.
“You go ahead and get the drinks, Jayes,” I said. “We’ll deal with Coco.”
“Why are you tied up anyway?” Gladys asked our guest.
“Mr Jayes suggested to Sir Barty that until they were sure everything had gone to plan and you were back safely, that I ought to be, well... ‘contained’ was the word he used.”
“And what were you going to do with the girl if something had gone wrong and I had been arrested?” Gladys asked me reasonably.
I have to admit that rather flummoxed me. Tying the youngster up seemed like a sensible security precaution at the time, but it was a good question. I settled for shrugging helplessly. Gladys shot me another of her piercing stares.
“Well, I’m back here safely,” Gladys continued smoothly, “so I’m sure we can let you go now.”
“Thank you, Lady Rhymaes, I’m starting getting a bit uncomfortable”
With another stony stare in my direction, Gladys bent down and in a few moments had freed the young cat-burglar.
I feared for a moment that Coco would go through her rather disconcerting exercise routine again, but if that was her intention, she changed her mind when Jayes returned with the drinks. True to my darling wife’s urging, he carried a tray with four generously-proportioned glasses of gin and tonic. I was glad to see that he had accepted my invitation to include himself. He’s part of the family firm, and an indispensible one for many years, but he does go all butlerish from time to time.
We touched glasses and toasted the completion of a successful caper.
The small talk and reminiscences of part jobs continued convivially, but I noticed that young Coco wasn’t contributing much. True, her tender years meant that she had a lesser fund of material to call on, but that hadn’t inhibited her much before. I glanced at her and thought that she was perhaps looking a little peaky, possibly just the strain of the evening’s excitement telling on her.
“I’m terribly sorry,” the girl said, her voice a little slurred, “but I’m not feeling quite right.”
“I'm sorry to hear that, miss,” Jayes replied solicitously. “It was remiss of me not to mention the -sedative that I added to your drink.”
Coco opened her mouth as if to say something in reply but nothing came out and her knees started to wobble and then buckled completely. I handed my drink to Gladys as soon as I saw what was happening and caught her under the shoulders as she crumpled. Much as I would like to say that I caught the swooning female gracefully, her weight defeated me and I settled for at least depositing her on the carpet more gently than gravity would have done. Jayes adroitly fielded her glass before it hit the floor, in a feat that would not have been out of place in a test match at Lord’s.
“Was that really necessary, Jayes?” Gladys asked.
“I believe so, madam,” our man replied. “The hour is late and I believe that we will have to accommodate our guest overnight. I feel that it would be prudent to take appropriate measures for our security but fear that the young lady might prove reluctant to cooperate in that matter.”
“You mean we ought to tie her to her bed and you think she might kick up a fuss when we do?” I asked after decoding that sentence.
“Well, you two can carry her to the guest room,” Gladys said, parking the two glasses she held on the mantelpiece.
We lugged the guts into the neighbour room, as the Bard put it. With the burglar girl deposited safely on the bed in the guest bedroom, Gladys shooed Jayes and me out. “It’s girl’s work from here on,” she told us firmly.
When Gladys returned to the drawing room a while later, I saw that she had sensibly changed out of her evening dress into a simple blouse and skirt.
“I managed to get her skirt off, but she’ll just have to sleep in her sweater and tights,” she said, retrieving her gin and tonic from the mantelpiece and collapsing into an armchair.
“So, did you secure her as Jayes recommended?” I asked.
“Nothing complicated – a classic spreadeagle on the bed.”
“Is that going to hold her?” I asked. “She’s a pretty slippery customer.”
“She got out of Jayes’ ropes,” Gladys conceded, “but I’ve tied her to the bed with nylon stockings.”
“So the knots are all tiny and unpickable,” I commented appreciatively.
“Tiny and unpickable and I painted them over with nail varnish just to make sure.”
I smiled back at my wife in undisguised admiration. Could a man ask for a partner more ingenious and resourceful?
“And you silenced her too?” I asked.
“Just a bit of Elastoplast.”
I’ve seen Gladys’s ‘just a bit of Elastoplast’ gag. A three-inch-wide strip of brownish pink fabric medical tape, incredibly sticky, running from ear to ear and lovingly smoothed into the contours of the unfortunate subject’s face like a second skin.
“No, it’ll be confusing enough for the kid if she wakes up in the night to find she’s tied to the bed without disorientating her more than necessary. I’ve left a night-light on so she can see what’s happened to her if she does wake.”
There didn’t seem to be much more to say on the matter, so we poured ourselves another drink each and spent an enjoyable half hour examining the proceeds of the evening’s work before turning in for the night.
* * *
The knowledge that the family coffers would soon be brimming lent an air of relaxed joviality to breakfast the following morning. Scrambled eggs and toast had been provided and consumed and the morning’s copy of the Times shared out between us for perusal over our coffee (the sports pages for me, the crossword for Gladys and the news pages set aside for Jayes to read later) by the time Coco joined us. She had been cut free from her bonds by Gladys some time earlier and invited to enjoy a hot bath for as long as she wished.
I had assumed that the girl’s plan in coming to Lighton had been to carry out a single night of burglary then to high-tail it back to London, but she had evidently brought clothes for several days. The day’s outfit featured the blue denim skirt again, but worn with a bright red sweater and matching tights. Combined with her diminutive stature, the overall effect was of an unusually plump schoolgirl.
“Good morning, Sir Barty, Lady Rhymaes,” she said as she entered the dining room. “And you too, Mr Jayes,” she added as our man appeared from the direction of the kitchen. She might have been a bit lacking on professional etiquette and, of course, she habitually broke into other peoples’ houses in the middle of the night, but, that aside, you couldn’t fault the girl for manners.
“Good morning, miss,” Jayes replied. “I trust your night was not too incommodious.”
She hesitated then replied, “Not too bad, Mr Jayes – I’ve spent nights tied to far less comfortable beds than that.”
“Perhaps some breakfast will remedy the situation, miss. Bacon and eggs? Sausages? Maybe mushrooms or tomatoes? Perhaps just some toast?”
“Yes please,” the girl replied, a sunny smile brightening her face.
To his credit, Jayes wasn’t in the least fazed by that response. He merely smiled indulgently and ushered Coco to the place he had set for her.
“Is this for me?” she asked, picking up an envelope from her side-plate.
“Well, it has your name on it,” Gladys pointed out, regarding the girl over the top of her reading glasses.
Coco opened the envelope and pulled out a bundle of banknotes.
“Your fee for services rendered last night,” I explained.
“It’s 10% of what we expect to realise from the proceeds,” Gladys added. “We thought that would be about right.”
Coco riffled through the notes, counting them. About half way through she paused with a puzzled frown on her face.
“Yes, they have been ironed,” Gladys said, answering the unasked question. “Jayes has certain standards he feels should be maintained.”
“Indeed madam,” Jayes murmured as he entered with a plate heaped with food for Coco. “As Henry Ward Beecher once said, ‘Hold yourself responsible for a higher standard than anybody else expects of you.’ I have found that to be a most efficacious model to employ. I will bring your toast and coffee directly, miss.”
* * *
Once our temporary assistant had put away an impressive amount of food, we took her to the railway station and packed her off on a train to London. Gladys and I thought that would be the last we would hear of the previous night’s adventure, but a few days later, we picked up a letter with a South London postmark as we were heading out for our morning stroll along the promenade.
Gladys opened the letter as we walked. It was from Coco thanking us in the most effusive terms for allowing her to participate in a job with us. She went on to say how much she appreciated the privilege of learning from us and to apologise again for her dreadful breach of etiquette in attempting to burgle us.
“I say, old girl, you don’t suppose La Harman sat her down and dictated the letter do you?” I asked.
“I rather suspect so,” my other half replied. “There’s a Polaroid photo in the envelope. The note on the back says, ‘Be assured that I will maintain proper discipline in my apprentice in future.’ It’s signed ‘MH.’”
She handed the photo to me. I assume it was of Coco – it was hard to tell as the only part of the face visible was a nose poking out between a blindfold and a gag. She was sitting on a chair with her arms behind her and what appeared to be several miles of rope swathed around her.
“I hope Mrs Harman doesn’t squeeze all the initiative out of her,” Gladys commented. “Given her head, that girl could be quite something one of these days.”
Return to the WABAC Machine index
Return to the New Adventures of La Cioccolata index
Return to the main index