by KP and Doctor George
Early November, and the clear skies above the city of Oxford gave the illusion that it was a warm day. As the people walking down the street could testify by their coats and scarves, however, it was anything but warm, with a crisp autumnal wind cutting through the air. As daylight faded, the temperature dropped further.
In a quiet residential street in the suburb of Botley, the men and women were going about their usual business, not paying much attention to the cars parked nearby. In one of them, two women were having a conversation. If they had cared to look, people would have seen that one appeared older, with grey hair, while the other was in her early twenties with dark hair.
Eventually, the younger one got out of the car and placed a watch cap on her head. She turned the collar of her jacket up around her neck, and adjusted her gloves, before slinging a black leather rucksack over her shoulder and making her way past the houses. The older woman watched from the car as she went.
Soo glanced at the few other pedestrians about, allaying her fear that she was conspicuous in her choice of clothing. She wore a black leather jacket with black leggings tucked into black knee-length boots. The tops of black socks could be seen above the boots. Her black woollen cap was pulled right down to her eyebrows and the collar of the black sweater she wore came up to her chin. Some other passers-by had even less skin exposed than Soo, but, she reflected, she would soon do something about that.
* * *
?Alexia, my dear, I love what you have done with the place. The combination of old with new is a tribute to your tastes.?
The young woman smiled at her visitor as she set the tray down on the table and started to pour. She was in her late twenties, with light brown hair that was pulled back in a pony tail, and wearing a long Laura Ashley pinafore-style dress in dark purple over a high-necked fawn jumper. A pair of baggy black leather boots was visible under the hem of the skirt, while she had a large shawl tied around her waist, the ends to one side to complete her ensemble.
?I?m glad you like it, Aunt Vanessa,? she said as she handed her guest a cup of tea and sat down, taking one herself. Her visitor looked as if she was in her late forties, although if truth be told another ten years would have to be added to arrive at her true age. She was about five feet nine, although with the pair of patent leather brown shoes she was wearing that too would be difficult to judge, and wearing a dark brown suede jacket and skirt that came to just above her knees. Underneath the jacket was a cream silk blouse, while her legs were encased in sheer flesh coloured pantyhose. A brown and cream scarf was tied around her neck as a cravat, the floral pattern visible at her throat. As always, her nails were immaculately manicured, with bright red polish on her finger nails, and her lips were shaded a deep shade of red to match.
As she spoke, her Virginia accent could clearly be heard.
?I must confess, dear, I was surprised to receive your call. Why did you ask to see me??
?Well, I knew you were here in Oxford visiting Shrewsbury College in relation to the Beaufort endowment, and I thought I would take the opportunity to ask you something about great grandfather Louis.?
?Louis? Ah, now there was a man of some renown and taste. What would you like to know??
Alexia sipped from her cup before placing it on the table. ?As you know, when father passed away I inherited from him some of great-grandfather?s effects. I finally started to sort through them, and I was wondering if you could help with the story behind some of what I have.?
?Well, let us have a look together and I will see what I can tell you.?
As Alexia stood up and left the room, Vanessa set her cup down and sat deep in thought. She knew when her father had passed away, the papers of her grandfather had passed down to the English side of the family, where Vanessa?s brother had emigrated, so it made sense that Alexia would have inherited some of them. She was one of two children, but her brother Edward had split from the family over some trivial argument, and consequently Alexia had inherited the bulk of the effects while her mother got the monetary estate.
The room to the door opened, and Vanessa watched as Alexia carried in an old tin chest and laid it on the table. Unlinking the padlock that held the lid down, she took her own seat as Alexia revealed the contents. The box appeared to be filled with papers, which she took out one by one and handed to Vanessa.
?These look like letters to my grandmother from him,? she said as she quickly scanned them and laid them carefully on the table. She noticed a small, faded white card lying in the box and picked it up.
?To whom it may concern... This is to certify that 27521 Sgt Dechamps L G has served with the Princess Louise's Royal Quebec Fusiliers in the 6th Company from 2nd February 1915 to 3rd March 1919 with honour and distinction. He was honourably discharged.? Vanessa looked over at her niece who was examining a small wooden box that had lain within the chest. ?Did you ever hear the tale of how my grandfather served in World War One, Alexia??
?Hmmm ? no, I didn?t,? she said as she laid the box on the table and opened it. ?I did hear that he had served in the Canadian Army, but...? Her voice drifted off as she looked at the row of medals, laid on a bed of red cloth within the box. There were seven in total, with the ribbons and clasps laid out above them. One in particular caught her eye ? a cross made of what looked like bronze, with two swords crossing behind the body of the medal, the red and green ribbon adorned with silver.
?That,? Vanessa said as she looked at her niece, ?is the Croix de Guerre.?
?A medal awarded by the French government for bravery ? very high honour, but not the highest my grandfather received. That, my dear, is next to it.?
Carefully, Alexis laid the medal back in the box and picked up a simple, gunmetal coloured medal on a dark red ribbon. Two words were embossed on the design.
??For Valour?,? Alexia read. ?Is this...?
?It is, my dear ? a Victoria Cross, one of the very few ever awarded to an American. We have always been proud of him, but he never spoke much of how or why he received it. We found out some things, but the full story went with him to the grave ? rightly so, I imagine. We had some letters from his regiment when he passed away asking if it was possible for those medals to be sent to them, but by then your father had inherited them, and you as a family had emigrated over here.? She sat back as Alexia continued to stare at the medal.
?A Victoria Cross,? she said quietly. Standing up, she walked over to the window, watching the people passing outside as she thought silently for a moment.
?Are you all right, Dear??
?Sorry, Aunt ? lost in thought for a moment.? She came and sat back down next to Vanessa, who looked at her quizzically. ?So,? she said quietly, ?Why have you taken these out today? I know it is Veteran?s Day this coming weekend ? is that why you wanted to look at them??
?Veteran?s ? oh, Remembrance Day? No ? I had something else in mind, Aunt Vanessa.?
?Oh, and what is that, Alexia??
Vanessa was starting to wonder what was happening, as Alexia picked up a leaflet and handed it to her aunt:
MILITARY MEMORABILIA AUCTION
11am, 11th NOVEMBER, SOTHEBYS
As she glanced down the rest of the leaflet, Vanessa?s eyes narrowed slightly. As she turned to Alexia, she quietly said ?Alexia, dear, surely you are not considering selling such an important part of our family history to a... a private collector??
?Darling, these are valuable historical artefacts. If you do not want them, then they need to be where others can learn ? the Regimental Museum, perhaps. We do not...?
?Aunt Vanessa,? Alexia said in a slow, deliberate voice, ?These were left to me to keep or to dispose of as I see fit. I have some work that needs to be done to the house, and the capital these can fetch from an auction will make that possible.?
Vanessa put her hand gently on her niece?s knee. ?Alexia, darling, they are indeed yours to deal with as you see fit. But surely you can see that this is history ? family history and history others need to know about. That cannot happen unless we make it happen.?
?With all due respect, Aunt, these are mine, not yours. How I deal with them and what I do with them is, quite frankly, none of your business. I invited you here to see them and to confirm what I had suspected, but now they are not your problem.?
?Not my problem?? Vanessa drew herself up, trying to maintain her manners and composure in the light of this provocation. ?Not my problem? Young lady, we Beauforts have a proud and honourable family history, and I will not see it sullied by such a move. I knew your great grandfather, and he was a real Southern gentleman. He would never, ever agree to such a tawdry way of disposing of his history ? and neither will I.?
?You? Aunt Vanessa, you have absolutely no say in this matter.? Alexia jumped to her feet, her eyes red with anger. ?These are mine, left to me by my father, and you have absolutely, positively no say in what I do with them. Family be damned ? I?m going to sell them, and there is nothing you can do about that!?
?Now, listen to me, young lady,? Vanessa coldly said as she stood up, staring her niece in the eye, ?I will not...?
It was at that moment that the doorbell rang.
* * *
Alexia made her way quickly to the hallway, leaving her aunt?s words hanging in the air behind her. She opened the front door and stared at the diminutive figure standing there, dressed from head to toe in black. The person?s face was obscured by a woollen mask with holes for eyes and mouth, which could be made out blurrily through the black nylon stocking underneath. Judging from the outline, the person seemed to be female. She had some sort of yellow plastic toy gun in her hand.
Alexia came to the obvious conclusion. ?Go away, little girl ? Halloween was nearly two weeks ago!?
She closed the door with a bang and returned to the lounge.
* * *
Soo had foreseen a number of possible reactions to her arrival, but not that one. She considered her options. The raised voices that she could hear coming from inside the house suggested that she could probably go ahead and pick the lock without being noticed.
Reaching into her jacket pocket, Soo drew out a small leather wallet. She opened it to reveal a set of gleaming steel lock-picks. Selecting two of them, she set to work on the Yale lock.
A few minutes later, Soo paused to return the picks to their wallet before pushing the door open. She closed the door silently behind her and made her way towards the argument that she could hear still going on, the soft rubber soles of her boots silent on the deep carpet.
The door into what Soo surmised was probably the lounge was standing slightly open. Soo paused and listened. There were two voices, both female, one of them American, judging by the accent. The argument was loud and impassioned, but it was not immediately obvious to Soo what it was about. In truth, the matter of the argument was of no interest to her. She took a deep breath and focussed herself ready for action. With her gun firmly gripped in her right hand, she opened the door and stepped into the room.
The two women Soo had heard were standing almost nose to nose, exchanging demands and entirely oblivious to her presence.
Soo eventually realised that she was going to have to announce her presence. Looking at the two women, she simply said loudly ?Hello? Girl here with a gun pointing at you.?
?You? I thought I told you to sod off.? the younger woman said as she turned to look at the masked girl.
?Language dear, and that?s a Taser she?s pointing at us,? the older one said, raising her hands.
?Electric stun gun. The police use them our side of the water.?
Alexia glanced at her aunt then looked back at Soo?s Taser. Reluctantly, she too raised her hands, watching the intruder as a smile appeared under the stocking mask.
In the silence that followed, Vanessa turned to face Soo. ?Young lady, I can?t help noticing that you have a small problem. I believe you can only fire a single shot before you have to reload a Taser. There are two of us and we?re both bigger than you.?
Soo said nothing but drew a second Taser from her pocket, pointing it at Vanessa as she moved the first one towards Alexia. ?Ah,? Vanessa said quietly, ?I see you have anticipated that problem.?
?What happens next?? Alexia asked in a shaky voice. ?Is she going to kill us??
?If she was going to do that, we would both be dead already and the girl with the yellow gun there wouldn?t have gone to such trouble to conceal her identity. No, from all my experience, I imagine that this young lady will tie us both up and make off with our valuables.?
?From all your experience? I heard about what happened when you visited Karen in Nottingham, but you?re making it sound as if this sort of happens to you a lot, Aunt Vanessa.?
?Alas, it has indeed happened to me a good many times. I find the best policy is just to let events take their course.?
?But there are two of us and only one of her...?
?And she?s armed. Alexia, whatever we do, the result will be the same in the end. The only difference will be the additional pain and distress along the way.?
?That?s a very sensible attitude,? Soo said. ?Neither of you will come to any harm if you just cooperate.? She pocketed one of her Tasers and, working one-handed, opened the top of her rucksack and lifted out several bundles of rope.
?But you said we wouldn?t come to any harm!? Alexia protested.
?And I meant it. I promise you won?t be harmed but it?s true you will be inconvenienced and probably not very comfortable for a while.?
?Alexia, there?s nothing we can do to stop her,? Vanessa pointed out quietly. She realised she would have to be the one to show a calm face. ?Being tied up isn?t much fun but it doesn?t hurt if it?s done properly and it?s not as bad as you probably think.?
?If you?ve had so much experience, perhaps you can put it to good use by tying your niece up?? Soo suggested. ?I?m sure she?d rather you did it than me.?
?Well being tied up wasn?t my plan for this evening, but I?d rather you did it, Aunt Vanessa, than that bitch.?
?Do watch your language dear,? Vanessa chided her. ?It?s quite unnecessary for a lady ever to resort to name-calling, even when someone is holding her at gunpoint.?
Vanessa turned to Soo and added, ?Very well, seeing as you offer us little choice, I?ll do my best. How would you like me to tie my niece up??
?Fetch two of those chairs at the dining table ? they look as though they will be very suitable.?
Vanessa said nothing but obediently brought one of the chairs across to the middle of the room. While Vanessa returned to fetch the second one, Soo examined the chair. It was ideal for her intended purpose ? a robust-looking oak-framed upright chair. The padded seat was enclosed by a sturdy rectangle of wood linking the tops of the legs. The backrest was formed of a lattice of wooden members between two uprights which were an upward continuation of the back legs. The four legs were linked by diagonal braces forming a horizontal X between them.
Vanessa placed the second chair a few feet from the first one and stood awaiting further instructions.
?Alexia ? that?s your name isn?t it? ? please sit down on the chair,? Soo invited. ?You might be more comfortable if you take that shawl off and kick your boots off.?
Alexia looked puzzled but undid the knot at her hip and tossed the shawl onto a sofa. She sat down on one of the chairs and pushed one boot off with the opposite foot against the back of it then leaned forwards to pull the second boot off with both hands. A pair of knitted socks matching her sweater were revealed. They had been partly pulled off her feet by the process of removing the boots, so she tugged them back into place before sitting upright.
Vanessa and Alexia both looked expectantly at Soo awaiting the next instruction. Soo was privately both surprised and relieved at how compliant her two victims were proving to be, and also at how well mannered the older woman was. Breeding shines through, she thought to herself before making a move. Keeping her Taser levelled, she pushed one of the smaller bundles of rope towards Vanessa with the toe of one boot.
?Use that to tie your niece?s wrists behind her back.?
Vanessa picked up the rope and shook it loose before walking behind the chair where Alexia sat. She removed her shoes and stood them carefully side-by-side before kneeling down behind the chair.
?Can you cross your wrists please, dear??
?Like this?? There was a slight tremor evident in Alexia?s voice.
?That?s right ? just hold still now.?
Soo moved so that she could see what Vanessa was doing. She watched as the woman wrapped a series of figure-of-eight turns around her niece?s wrists.
?Ow, that?s tight!?
?If I don?t make it tight, the girl with the yellow gun will probably re-tie it a lot tighter. It?s best if I get it right first time. Isn?t that right??
?Absolutely,? Soo confirmed. ?I?ll check very carefully to make sure everything is as tight as it should be.?
?OK,? said Alexia in a very small voice.
Vanessa finished the binding with a series of cinching turns and a secure knot.
?Her ankles and knees next, please.?
Vanessa stood, picked up another couple of lengths of rope and knelt again, this time in front of Alexia?s chair. She lifted the skirt of her niece?s dress then bound her ankles together, winding the rope around them several times and cinching between them before knotting it off. As she took the second length of rope, Alexia looked down at her feet and wriggled her toes.
?However did you learn to do that, Aunt Vanessa?? Alexia demanded indignantly.
?Well, if you get tied up often enough, I guess you learn a trick or two. Sometimes I have seen it, sometimes I have not, but I have always felt what they did to achieve their goal.?
?It would be more to the point if you?d learned the trick of escaping,? Alexia shot back tartly.
?Touch?, my dear, but I never had much success in that direction,? Vanessa replied apologetically as she set to work to bind her niece?s legs just below the knees. ?If you?re determined to sell those medals,? Vanessa went on as she manipulated the rope, ?let me buy them. I?ll give you 500 dollars for them.?
?I?ll get a lot more than that for them at auction.?
?You might not ? you can never tell with auctions.?
?I?ll take my chances ? they?re my medals.?
?Ladies, can we get on please?? Soo demanded, raising her voice. ?I don?t have all night to spend on this.?
Folding her niece?s skirt back down, hiding the ropes around her legs as she did so, Vanessa stood up and looked at Soo ?What do you want me to do next?? she asked.
?Tie your niece?s arms and chest to the chair, please.? Soo pushed a large bundle of rope forward with her foot.
Vanessa shook the rope out and found one end of it. She fastened it to the top of one of the back legs of the chair.
?Round turn and two half hitches ? very professional,? Soo commented.
?You learn a lot when you?re a Girl Scout ? and I won the First Class Award, my dear. That?s the girls? equivalent of being an Eagle Scout.?
Vanessa ran the rope diagonally across Alexia?s body and over her shoulder. She threaded the rope through the woodwork of the chair-back and pulled it tight. After that she wound it twice around her niece?s waist, trapping her arms against the backrest. She threaded the rope through the woodwork of the chair again.
?I do believe you?re enjoying this, Aunt Vanessa,? Alexia accused.
?Nonsense, dear, I?m just doing what I have to,? Vanessa replied. ?At any rate, I do not enjoy having to restrain my own family. Alexia, I am perfectly serious about buying the medals ? how about 750 dollars??
Vanessa carried on wrapping the rope around her niece, looping it through the chair backrest every now and again, eventually fastening it off to the top of a chair leg. When she had finished, Alexia was encased in web of rope crossing her body at various angles from waist to shoulders.
?Tie her lap down to the chair seat too,? Soo commanded, handing Vanessa another coil of rope.
Vanessa knelt down again and wrapped the rope over her niece?s lap and under the chair seat several times, finishing off with a knot at one side.
?Will that do?? Vanessa asked Soo, a hint of challenge in her voice.
Keeping her Taser levelled and with an eye on Vanessa, Soo inspected the rope-work. ?It looks very competent. I have to admit I wasn?t expecting you to do it quite so well.?
?Well, it?s been my misfortune to be on the receiving end a few times and that has taught me what can be escaped from easily and what can?t. Even for work as detestable as this, we Beauforts pride ourselves on our professional approach.?
?You mean you?ve tied me up to make sure I can?t escape? Whose side are you on, anyway??
?If I didn?t, I suspect our visitor would have done the necessary to make quite sure of the job, and I don?t think you?d have enjoyed that. I have done this to spare you pain, Alexia ? you need to be grateful for mercies like that.? Turning to Soo, Vanessa added, ?I suppose it?s my turn now??
?You suppose right, please take a seat.?
Vanessa paused to slip her shoes back on, and then removed her jacket, folding it and laying it gently on an armchair. ?You can never quite get the rope marks out of suede,? she explained. She tugged the cuffs of her blouse well down over her wrists then sat back in the chair with her arms behind it. ?You may begin, young lady,? she said.
Soo said nothing in reply ? she had the strangest feeling she was not entirely in charge of this situation, and she did not want to find her authority being eroded even further. She selected a suitable length of rope and approached Vanessa?s chair from behind. She squatted down to a comfortable working level to bind Vanessa?s wrists and laid the Taser on the floor beside her feet.
?Quick, do something! She?s put the gun down!? Alexia yelled.
In an instant, Soo dropped the rope and drew her second Taser from the left pocket of her jacket. She pointed it steadily at Alexia. ?It?s getting awfully tempting just to pull the trigger,? she said calmly.
?Alexia, darling, please try to remain calm ? she has not hurt either of us, and I do not wish her to have a reason to do so. Act the lady that you are and bear this with dignity.? There was a hint of steel in Vanessa?s voice as she said this, looking over at her niece the whole time.
Alexia apparently had nothing more to say, so she remained silent, glaring at her aunt and Soo. Soo placed the second Taser on the floor so both were within easy reach and picked up the rope again. Arranging Vanessa?s wrists so they were crossed behind her back, she set to work to bind them. She applied several turns horizontally then vertically and finished off with two turns between the wrists as if she was lashing a pair of logs together. She tied a small neat knot where Vanessa?s fingers could not possibly reach it.
Following the pattern set by Vanessa?s binding of her niece, Soo tied Vanessa?s legs at the ankles and below the knees, lashing them together and then cinching between them in each case. As she finished the knot, Vanessa turned back to her niece.
?Two thousand, Alexia??
?Will you two just shut up, please?? Soo demanded, becoming exasperated by the two women sniping at each other. ?I don?t know what you argument is about, but if you don?t stop I will stop it for you.?
Soo selected a long piece of rope and used it to lash Vanessa?s arms and body to the backrest of her chair, threading it through the woodwork of the chair so as to eliminate any possibility of Vanessa working the rope up over her shoulders. She used a final shorter length to tie Vanessa?s lap down to the back of the chair.
?Five thousand?? Vanessa offered.
?NO! I?m not selling them to you and that?s final,? Alexia retorted sharply.
?Right, that?s enough!? Soo snapped back at her. ?I?ve had enough of you two bickering. I wasn?t going to gag you until it was time for me to leave, but I can?t stand any more of this.?
Soo returned to her rucksack and drew out a white plastic carrier bag containing several smaller items. She held something squashy in front of Alexia?s mouth. ?Open,? she demanded.
?What is it??
?It?s half of a bath sponge and it?s going in your mouth.?
Alexia responded by clamping her lips together only to have Soo pinch her nose closed until she could hold her breath no longer. Soo pushed the sponge into Alexia?s mouth as soon as she had the chance.
?Now close your mouth and purse your lips.?
Alexia glared back at Soo.
?Just remember I can always Taser you and just do it anyway,? Soo reminded her.
Alexia closed her mouth and allowed Soo to stick a length of two-inch-wide Elastoplast medical tape across her face from one cheekbone diagonally across her mouth to the angle of her jaw on the opposite side. Another piece of tape ran across her mouth on the opposite diagonal, forming a shallow X under her nose.
?What about ten thousand dollars, dear?? Vanessa offered with a smile as soon as Alexia was silenced.
?I?ll get to you in a minute,? Soo told Vanessa. ?Just shut up until then, will you??
Soo reached into the plastic bag again and pulled out a black sleep mask, one of the inexpensive type that some airlines give away. She held it across Alexia?s eyes with one hand and fastened the velcro tabs behind her head with the other.
?All right, ten thousand pounds then,? Vanessa said, ignoring Soo?s instruction.
Alexia?s reply was incomprehensible through her gag, but sounded very angry.
?There?s only one solution to this,? Soo announced, ?and just remember you brought it on yourselves.?
She took a small plastic packet out of her bag and unwrapped a pair of foam earplugs. Cradling Alexia?s head in her left arm, she pushed one into each ear.
Alexia twisted her neck and shook her head as soon as Soo let go, but without success. Just to be certain that everything stayed in place, Soo picked up Alexia?s shawl and used it to wrap her head. Folding it diagonally in half, she positioned the long edge over the bridge of her nose, bringing the shawl down over her eyes and ears before wrapping the ends round her neck and tying them together with a big knot at the back. Although her legs were tied together, they weren?t secured to the chair, so Alexia used the little freedom of movement she had to kick frantically.
?Careful, you?ll have the chair over if you do that,? Soo warned as she rectified the situation by fastening Alexia?s ankle binding back to the braces linking the chair legs using a short length of rope. Letting out a deep sigh, Soo watched the muffled and blindfolded woman struggling for a moment before turning round.
?You certainly know how to provoke your niece,? Soo commented as she turned her attention to Vanessa.
?She is a Southern lady at heart, and we Southern ladies vex real easily,? Vanessa acknowledged. ?I need to ask you something before you gag me.?
?What?? asked Soo, her patience wearing thin.
?Before I ask, Can Alexia hear us??
?Those earplugs are pretty good. She might be able to tell we?re talking, but she certainly won?t hear any words if you keep your voice down.?
?Good. Now, you see those medals there?? Vanessa nodded towards the open case on the coffee table. ?Are you planning to take those??
Soo glanced at them, then, recognising the Victoria Cross, took a second longer look. ?No, most ordinary campaign medals are not worth as much as people think. The real value in medals is in their provenance and the story behind them and that makes them instantly traceable back to the owner. The VC would be worth a lot on its own, but they have the recipient?s name engraved on the bar and the date on the back, so they are virtually unsaleable other than legitimately with provenance.?
?I thought that might be the case,? Vanessa replied, ?but I?d like you to take them anyway ? as a favour to my family and the Beaufort name.?
?How is stealing them a favour?? Soo asked intrigued, despite herself.
?Let me tell you a story. My grandfather was a man named Louis Dechamps, American, but with French ancestry as you might guess from the name ? a Cajun from Louisiana, in fact. He was a patriotic American, but he still harboured a strong loyalty to France. In 1914, Germany invaded France ? I assume you studied history at school??
Soo nodded. ?Not my strongest subject, but I remember most of the basic facts, even if I?m hazy on detail.?
?Your country reacted by declaring war on Germany but mine had a policy of non-intervention. Louis was a man of breeding, and one who respected his ancestry. He felt that he had to do something to defend the land of his ancestors, despite what the men in Washington said. He couldn?t afford to sail to France, so he went north, all the way to Canada. He rode freight trains when he could but he walked most of the way, more than thirteen hundred miles to Montreal. He joined a French-speaking Canadian regiment there and sailed to Europe with them.?
Vanessa looked at Soo as she crouched beside her. ?How much do you know about the Somme??
?Only that it was a long and nasty battle, and a lot of bad things happened. I have to confess, the thing I remember most about it was the way it was portrayed in Blackadder Goes Forth.?
?I have seen the programme,? Vanessa said with a smile. ?It was more historically accurate than you may realise, and the end was truly tragic. I digress however.
?Louis fought shoulder to shoulder with Canadians, Englishmen and Frenchmen, all to defend a country he had never seen before, because he believed it was right. He was a good soldier and a brave man. The battle of the Somme lasted for five months, and far too many young men died for a few yards of mud. Louis was one of the lucky ones, to escape almost intact ? a truly brave man.?
?He must have been, to win a VC,? Soo acknowledged.
?Not just a VC ? there?s a Croix de Guerre there too. Not many Americans were awarded either of those, let alone both. He got them not for that battle, but a part he played in the Battle of Vimy Ridge in 1917 ? he stormed a German machine gun emplacement to save the rest of his platoon. Five VCs were awarded to the Canadian army for that battle alone ? and this is one of them. If you look in the box, you will find the citation that gives the details.??
Soo looked at the piece of paper in the box, before turning back to Vanessa. ?So why do you want me to steal them??
?My dear young girl, my ancestor fought in a war that was meant to end all wars, and it is to our eternal shame that that wish did not come true. Looking at you, I believe there is a generation between us as well, but young men of my age and yours fought, died and saw horrors to protect the freedom for you to prevent my freedom now.?
Vanessa looked at Soo with sadness in her eyes. ?My niece has inherited them and she?s determined to auction them off. I suppose technically she has the right to, but these medals are our family?s history and, beyond that, they are part of my country?s history, part of Canada?s history, maybe part of everybody?s history. They shouldn?t be owned by some private collector. They belong in a regimental museum, so that the story and the message can be passed on. Could you find some way to spirit them away and get them to a museum anonymously??
?I?m a burglar, not some sort of public service!? Soo retorted. Vanessa looked at her reproachfully, making Soo hang her head a little.
?Just because you?re a burglar who trusses up innocent women,? Vanessa said quietly, ?doesn?t stop you having a sense of history, does it? Don?t some things have a value beyond their monetary worth??
?I suppose they do,? Soo conceded.
?Well, then, if someone like you doesn?t have the resources to make the medals disappear here and reappear there, then I don?t know who does.?
?If they turn up on a museum?s doorstep, it won?t take them long to work out where they came from and send them back.?
?Unless, of course, the museum was convinced that the medals had been donated by my niece. She would be too embarrassed to be seen as mean-spirited enough to demand them back.?
?Are you setting me some kind of challenge?? Soo asked, grinning behind her mask at the thought of pulling off the subterfuge that Vanessa was suggesting.
?I? I could not possible suggest such a thing,? Vanessa said, but she too had a smile on her lips. ?Let me put it this way ? It?s certainly a chance for you to do a little good in the world.?
?It?s a wonderful story and, like you say, it?s a part of history. I?ll follow my heart instead of my head and see what I can do,? Soo promised, closing the medal case and slipping it into her rucksack. ?I?ll see what I can find elsewhere to make this possible.?
?Thank you,? Vanessa replied as she sat back. ?Now, is there something else you need to do, my dear young lady?
?I?d better get on with my work,? Soo said a little apologetically, ?so, I?m afraid I?m going to have to gag you. I can leave out the blindfold and earplugs though if you wish.?
?I?d hate Alexia to get any idea about our colluding, so you?d better treat me the same as her. You?ll find my scarf hanging up with my coat in the hallway, if you want to wrap my head up like hers.?
Soo nodded her understanding and held a half sponge in front of Vanessa?s face. She opened her mouth to accept it without another comment, her rouged lips closing over the stuffing as she nodded to Soo. The two strips of Elastoplast, the sleep mask and the earplugs followed. Soo knelt down to secure Vanessa?s ankle binding back to the chair then went into the hallway. She found a chocolate-brown pashmina shawl hanging there and used it to swathe Vanessa?s head.
With both women safely immobilised and silenced, Soo got on with what should have been a fairly straightforward robbery. She found a small safe in the bedroom which yielded easily to an electronic decoder. The jewellery it contained was relatively small in quantity but of excellent quality.
Soo also found Alexia?s passport, and an idea started to form in her head. On a small table at the side was a computer with a printer. Booting it up, Soo watched as it came to life, and placed some paper into the printer. As she looked at the screen, she noticed a purse on the table beside her, and made a note of the contents.
In the room downstairs, Vanessa could just about hear the sound of wood scraping on the floor, as she assumed Alexia was trying to free herself. For her part, she sat still, realising it was next to impossible for her to escape. In a strange way, she was enjoying the fact she could do, see or hear nothing ? it was somewhat relaxing after the excitement of earlier. She had a feeling Alexia was not seeing the situation in quite the same way, from the muffled grunts, but there was nothing she could do about that.
A few minutes later, Soo removed a USB stick from the dock and turned the computer off, slipping a folded piece of paper into her pocket and returning the passport to the safe. Looking round the room, she noticed an unlocked jewellery case on the dressing table, which added a few more items to the haul but mainly contained cheap costume pieces which Soo left alone.
A rapid survey of the other rooms in the house added a few ornaments that Soo recognised as being valuable. Before leaving, she checked on Vanessa and Alexia, who were both still securely bound. As she tugged on the ropes around Vanessa, the older woman raised her head and nodded towards her, in a way that made Soo feel she was content with the way things were. Stepping quietly back, Soo turned the light in the room off and turned to leave.
Closing the door to the room, Soo paused at the front door to remove her ski mask and the stocking over her head. She pocketed the stocking and folded the mask into a watch cap again, putting it back on her head before opening the door and walking out into the dark night.
* * *
Soo walked purposefully along the street, not least to keep warm on a bitterly cold night. After a few minutes, a car drew to a halt beside her and she got in.
?Everything OK?? Coco asked as she pulled away from the kerb.
?The job was fine and the occupants not too much trouble, but I?ve got a teeny confession to make.?
?I?ve taken on a delivery job.?
Coco raised her eyebrows as she looked over at her young apprentice. ?A delivery job? You had better explain yourself.?
Soo went on to explain the bickering that had been going on between Vanessa and Alexia over the medals and the eventual outcome of her discussion with Vanessa.
?Well, I don?t think we could have anticipated that with any amount of planning,? Coco conceded. ?On the whole, I agree with your sentiments. I?m not sure that I would have taken it on, but I think this is a challenge we can rise to. It won?t leave us with much net profit off the job, but I think we can deliver Aunt Vanessa?s package to her complete satisfaction and a certain amount of style. Did you obtain anything that may help us??
?I have everything we need,? Soo said patting her jacket, ?and if not, the means to get to it.?
* * *
A week or so after the robbery, Alexia was surprised to receive a letter with a Canadian postmark. She opened it to find a letter of thanks from the Regimental Museum of Princess Louise?s Royal Quebec Fusiliers in Montreal. She learned that the medals had arrived safely by courier a few days before and that they were delighted with the story of her great-grandfather?s gallantry that had been set out in her covering letter.
Utterly astonished, Alexia tried to get her head around what had happened. Could Aunt Vanessa have been so brazen as to have donated the medals in her name? A phone call to Montreal to ask a few questions seemed to be the next move.
Alexia curbed her impatience as best as she could until late afternoon when it would be late enough in the morning in Montreal to expect the museum office to be open and answering their phone. She asked to speak to the curator who had dealt with the Dechamps medals and discovered that she was speaking to her already. Alexia had no desire to make wild accusations until she understood exactly what had happened, so she started by expressing her pleasure that the medals had arrived safely. Suddenly inspired, she told the curator that she had forgotten to keep a copy of the covering letter, so would it be possible for the museum to send her a copy. The curator assured her that it would be scanned and emailed within the hour. Emboldened by this success, Alexia said that she really had to thank the courier for handling such a valuable package so expeditiously and could they remind her of the name of the company. That too would pose no problem: the delivery documentation would also be scanned and emailed. Alexia thanked the curator profusely and hung up.
In the event, Alexia only had to wait ten minutes for an email to arrive. Eagerly she opened the attachments. The letter had clearly been written on a computer and she was disconcerted to see that it was in exactly the format she used for her own personal correspondence, even down to the filename appearing at the bottom of the page. The signature was indistinguishable from her own. With increasing apprehension, Alexia searched through the folder on her computer where she kept the Word files for letters. There was one with the right name there. She opened it and sat staring open-mouthed at what was clearly the electronic text corresponding to the image of the paper copy that had arrived in Montreal.
Alexis opened the file containing the scanned copy of the courier?s delivery documentation. The company name was unfamiliar: C Harman Couriers. The sender?s name was her own as was the sender?s address. As she read further, she saw that the payment had been by credit card. As usual, most of the credit card number was represented by, but she recognised the last four digits as belonging to her card. She opened up her bank?s on-line banking site and checked her credit card records. As she had been almost certain would be the case, there was a recent payment to C Harman Couriers.
The next day, Alexia called at the small office in Central London where C Harman Couriers were based.
A woman behind a desk looked up from her work as Alexia entered. ?Good morning. It?s Miss Dechamps isn?t it??
?Yes, that?s right,? Alexia admitted, now seriously rattled by everything that had happened. ?I would like to check the paperwork on this delivery please.? She handed over the scanned copy of the delivery note.
?That was to Canada, wasn?t it?? the receptionist asked as she rummaged through a filing cabinet.
She placed the carbon copy of a despatch form on the desk in front of Alexia. The form and the accompanying customs declaration were both filled out in her own handwriting and bore her signature. There were also photocopies of her passport and driving licence as proof of identity.
?Was there some problem with the delivery?? the receptionist asked, a note of concern in her voice.
?No, it was fine, thank you,? Alexia replied. ?I just wanted to check a few details,? she added lamely.
As she left the office, Alexia concluded that whatever had happened to her, it had been done by experts and that the only option she really had was to give in as gracefully as she could. Walking down the street, she turned into Whitehall and paused to look at the Cenotaph, the wreaths of poppies still there from the Remembrance Day ceremony a few days before and the flags of the armed services fluttering in the breeze.
?We will remember them,? she said quietly before walking towards the Underground station.
Return to the Perils of Vanessa index
Return to the New Adventures of La Cioccolata index
Return to the main index