Queenie and the Boxer

Brixton, South London, October 1922

QUEENIE WAS AWARE of distant bells. After a great mental effort, she worked out that it was a church clock striking the hour. She wondered which hour and tried to count the strokes. The concentration needed was far more than she could muster and she lost count even though there must have been only three or four. She decided that she was really too tired to think about anything and slipped away into her drugged sleep again.

     Later, Queenie slowly surfaced into wakefulness once more. She was completely lucid this time and uncomfortably aware that she was tied securely to a chair in Bella's front room. It was still dark outside but other than that, she had no idea of the time. There was a clock on the mantelpiece but not enough light to read it.

     Queenie felt stiff from being bound to her chair for several hours. Her mouth felt dry and uncomfortable from her gag and she longed to be rid of it. Otherwise, she could detect no actual pains. Her head felt a bit fuzzy from the Mickey Finn that Bella had given her but seemed to be clearing.

     Escape was the first imperative, Queenie decided. Bella had done quite a good job of tying her with the eclectic selection of materials she had found. Nevertheless, it might well be possible to escape.

     Queenie investigated her wrist bindings first. They had been tied down to the chair arms using a pair of old stockings. The bindings had been cinched carefully and the ends of the stockings knotted well out of reach below the arms of the chair. Queenie tried simply pulling her hands out of the bindings, but they were too tight and also the rope wrapped round her chest and upper arms and the chair back hampered any attempt to escape her wrist bindings by brute force. The ropes also prevented her from leaning forward so that she could reach her gag with her fingers and then the stockings binding her wrists with her teeth.

     The key to escaping seemed to lie with getting rid of the rope first. The chair back was wider than the width across Queenie's arms so there was a small amount of movement possible within the ropes. Queenie pushed one elbow as far out as it would go and attempted to lift the ropes. They did indeed move up fractionally before jamming. She repeated the process with the other elbow and was rewarded with more progress. Many frustrating repetitions later, the rope had slid up far enough for one strand to ride up over the top of the chair back. The extra slack that afforded enabled Queenie to make faster progress. Eventually, the rope hung in untidy loose coils around her neck and shoulders.

     Queenie leaned forward until she could hook the outstretched fingers of her right hand over the top of the scarf securing her gag. She pulled it down, forcing it over the tip of her nose and then her chin and then gratefully spat out the soggy handkerchief which filled her mouth.

     After exercising her jaw for a moment or two to ease its stiffness and the incipient ache that was starting to appear, Queenie leaned forward again. There was no scope to untie the knots on the stockings binding her wrists as they were completely inaccessible. She contemplated gnawing through one of them, but decided it would probably take too long although it might be a good back-up plan. She had already tried just pulling her hands out of the loops of stocking holding them but without success. It was however, just possible that by stretching a loop upwards, there would be more scope to pull a hand free. Queenie knew that her left hand was fractionally smaller than her right and decided to concentrate on that wrist. She gripped the band of band of black wool tightly between her teeth and pulled upwards as hard as she could. It was an awkward position to work in, but she immediately felt the pressure on her wrist diminish. Straining to hold the loop open, Queenie worked at withdrawing her hand. Twice she lost the grip with her teeth and had to work them back into position again. However, with perseverance her hand at last came free.

     Only as her hand came free did Queenie realise how much she had hurt the injuries sustained on Friday evening. She waited until the throbbing subsided a little then reached across to her right wrist. She felt for the knots securing the stocking which shackled her wrist to the arm of the chair. They were small and tight but, on balance, she preferred to work away patiently picking them undone rather than use the brute force approach again. The only light in the room was the residual glow of the dying embers of the fire and the faint glimmer of streetlights outside. Queenie therefore relied entirely on touch to work away at the knots with her fingertips. It was slow and frustrating work, but eventually she untied first the knot linking the ends of the stocking and then the one cinching the whole binding together. At last Queenie's right hand was free. She stretched and relaxed her arms for the sheer pleasure of being able to do so.

     The next job, Queenie faced was to remove the strap round her waist and the chair back. She quickly discovered that by twisting her body slightly, she could get either of her hands onto the buckle behind her back, but not both at once. She sighed; this escape was probably instructive, but was proving tedious in the extreme. She hauled on the strap with both hands to work the buckle round to the front of her body. For a brief moment of panic, Queenie thought it had jammed immovably on the edge of the chair back, but more tugging freed it. At last she could get both hands to the buckle. She sucked in her stomach as far as she could and then unfastened the strap.

     The strap over Queenie's lap required much the same technique and just a few more minutes work removed that one too.

     Only the scarf around Queenie's ankles remained. She leaned forwards and deftly untied the ends of the scarf from the chair legs then loosened the knot securing it around her own legs. Queenie stood and staggered to her feet. She was desperate to know the time so she felt around on the hearth for the jar of wax tapers she knew must be there. Finding it, she lit one from the embers of the fire and then used it to light the gas bracket beside the fireplace. As the gas mantle started to warm up, Queenie was able to read the clock. It was 5:25 am.

     Queenie stretched herself luxuriously, taking joy in the simple pleasure of standing up and straightening her cramped limbs. As she did do she heard a small sound. It was the metallic chink of the latch on Bella's wrought iron gate being lifted. Another sound suggested that a bicycle was being manoeuvred through the gate and propped up against the wall.

     Without pausing to think about it, Queenie dashed lightly to the front door, trying not to make any noise on the broken glass in the hallway. She flattened herself against the hallway wall with her right shoulder almost touching the inside of the door. She was just in time to see a hand clutching an envelope reach in through the broken pane of glass. The hand was quite small, so unhesitatingly, Queenie grabbed the wrist in her left hand and was rewarded by an obviously female squeak of alarm from outside. Despite the discomfort to her own battered wrist, Queenie hung on grimly while with her right hand she unlatched the door and opened it a few inches. The person outside was a fairly small woman in dark clothes, her face invisible in the shadow under the brim of her hat.

     Queenie was now committed to her course of action, so without giving her victim the chance to think about what was happening, she reached out and wrapped her right arm around the woman's waist. She let go of the wrist she was still holding and then clamped her left hand over the woman's mouth, spinning her round as she did so, so that her back was now towards Queenie. A muffled "Gerroff!" emerged from under Queenie's hand.

     With her right arm now round the woman's waist and her left hand clamped over her mouth, Queenie dragged her unwilling guest backwards into Bella's house, now kicking and trying to shout through Queenie's hand. Queenie paused and turned round to kick the door shut then dragged the woman into Bella's front room.

     Without moving her left hand from the woman's mouth, Queenie quickly let go with her right arm and grabbed the woman's right wrist, twisting it up behind her back. "Now," said Queenie in a calm, patient voice, "don't struggle or scream or I will be obliged to hurt you a lot. Understood?" The woman nodded. "I want you to sit down on that chair like a good girl and not make a sound. Can I trust you?" Another nod.

     Queenie cautiously let go and was pleased to see her prisoner sit down on the chair where Queenie had been tied most of the night. Queenie made sure she retained the upper hand by grabbing a heavy iron poker from the hearth. Now that she was in a lit room, Queenie could see exactly what she had caught. The woman was about Queenie's height but far lighter and the slightness of the figure initially made Queenie think that she might be young girl. Although her face was tightly framed by the felt hat pulled down on her head and the scarf up over her chin, it was obvious that this was a woman in her early twenties. The question facing Queenie now was what to do with this woman. She was almost certain that the envelope the woman had been delivering was another demand from Daisy's kidnappers. After all, who else would skulk around hand-delivering letters at half past five in the morning? In fairness, Queenie felt she ought to check the envelope first, but, if this was indeed one of the kidnappers, she could not risk leaving her alone, even for a second.

     It offended Queenie's instincts for fair play and for assuming innocence until guilt was proven, but she concluded that there was no alternative but to tie the woman up and then investigate the envelope. If it contained an appeal for funds for the children's homes, she would just have to untie her again and apologise sweetly.

     Queenie bent down and retrieved from the floor the handkerchief that had been used to gag her. She tossed it into the woman's lap. "Stuff that into your mouth," Queenie ordered. The woman hesitated, then, seeing the glint in Queenie's eye, complied. She grimaced as she did so. The handkerchief must still be damp, Queenie realised, and probably very unpleasant.

     "Good," said Queenie encouragingly. "Now let's make sure it doesn't fall out." She selected a black stocking from the remaining items on the floor which Bella had brought into the room but not used to bind her earlier and threw it carefully to land on the woman's lap. "Take your hat off and throw it on the floor, push the stocking between your teeth and then you can tie a nice tight knot at the back." The captive woman kept her eyes fixed reproachfully on Queenie as she withdrew a murderous-looking pin from her hat and threw that and the hat at Queenie's feet. Still staring at Queenie, she gagged herself as instructed.

     "Very good!" Queenie complimented her using the most irritatingly condescending tone she could muster. "That should keep your quiet, now let's get those hands and feet under control."

     Queenie proceeded with caution. At some stage she would necessarily be in contact with her prisoner and there was a definite risk of losing control of the situation. Queenie thought through some alternatives and decided to put off touching her captive for as long as possible. She picked up the short scarf that had been used to hold her gag in place earlier and threw it to the woman, who caught it instinctively. "Tie your ankles with that," Queenie instructed, "and please don't waste my time by not doing it properly."

     After a token glare at Queenie, the woman bent forwards, quickly looped the scarf twice around her ankles and tied a competent-looking knot. Queenie, watching this, concluded that the woman probably knew how to go about tying someone up.

     "Now," Queenie ordered, "take off that nice warm scarf you're wearing and tie it over your eyes. I don't want any peeking for the next bit." Queenie was bringing to bear all the force of character that she usually used to impose her will on recalcitrant children. Even armed with a poker, she wasn't sure how long it would work to intimidate an adult.

     The captive woman kept her eyes fixed reproachfully on Queenie as slowly unwound her scarf from round her neck. Still staring at Queenie, she blindfolded herself as instructed.

     Hastily tucking the poker under one arm, Queenie quickly picked up another stocking and formed it into a tomfool knot: a pair of joined slip-nooses. "Now hold your hands out," Queenie instructed, trying to keep all suggestion of a tremor out of her voice. The woman obediently stretched her hands out in front of her. Queenie swiftly slid the loops of the tomfool knot over the woman's hands and pulled hard on the ends of the stocking to close the loops around the prisoner's wrists. She knotted the ends firmly together to keep the binding tight. Without warning the woman lashed out with her bound feet, hoping to catch Queenie off guard. In anticipation of such a move, Queenie was actually standing to one side of the chair and leaning over her prisoner. She responded to the kick by immediately cuffing the woman across the side of the face with the back of her hand.

     Now that her prisoner was largely immobilised, Queenie worked quickly to complete the process. She wrapped one of the heavy leather straps around the woman's arms and body and the chair back, buckling it tightly at the back of the chair. The other went over the woman's lap, pinning her bound wrists down and was buckled underneath the chair seat.

     "Very impressive, but you should really watch your back," came a voice from behind Queenie. She span round and scrabbled for the poker, which was on the floor beside her, realising belatedly that the voice had been Bella's. As Queenie's heart rate returned to its usual rate she looked up at Bella, who was standing in the doorway from the hallway.

     Queenie was not quite sure how she wanted to greet a woman who had left her drugged and tied to a chair, but whom she was relieved to see back safely. After a length pause, she settled for a simple, "Hello Bella."

     "How long did it take you to get loose?" Bella enquired.

     "About twenty minutes after I woke up," Queenie replied politely, still not sure how to break the ice in the conversation or indeed whether she wanted to.

     "I'm really sorry about what I did to you," said Bella contritely, "but I didn't want you in danger and you'd have been on my tail right away if I hadn't doped you."

     "You're right," agreed Queenie. "I would have been, so I suppose it was all you could do."

     "No hard feelings?"

     Queenie shook her head.

     Bella walked over to the bound prisoner. "So what's been going on, and who's this?" she asked.

     Queenie outlined the events since she had woken up and assured Bella that she hadn't the least idea of the woman's identity. Bella retrieved the envelope that the woman had been delivering from the hallway where she had dropped it. It contained a lock of curly blonde hair and a betting slip.

     Bella laughed ironically at the contents of the envelope. Queenie understood that the hair was probably Daisy's and could recognise it as the melodramatic gesture it was undoubtedly mean to be but was baffled at what looked like a ticket.

     "This is the slip for a bet on Princess Ashanti to win tonight. It looks like I can collect about five hundred guineas if she does," explained Bella.

     "Bribery as well as blackmail?" asked Queenie.

     "All in a day's work for Mrs Hughes, I fear," replied Bella. She turned to the bound woman on the chair. "Let's see who the messenger girl is," she added.

     While Queenie stood guard with the poker, Bella deftly removed the prisoner's blindfold. "Aha," she commented enigmatically.

     "You know her?" Queenie asked.

     "Janie Hughes; one of Mrs Hughes' girls," Bella confirmed. "Not built to be a boxer like her mother, though. Her father was a jockey and the children took after him."

     Queenie was delighted at her coup. "So if we have her daughter we have a perfect bargaining chip for Daisy!"

     "Not quite," Bella countered. "This piece of no-good and her mother both know that I couldn't ever cause someone real permanent injury, so there's no threat I can use that will be sure to stop them taking a coal hammer to Daisy's hands."

     Queenie winced at the mental image and thought fast. "They might think you were too precious about your scruples to do anything, but they don't know anything of the kind about me," she declared. Queenie could see Bella was to say something to defend herself. As soon as the bound Hughes woman looked away from Queenie to Bella, Queenie gave Bella a tiny shake of her head and a wink. Bella got the message and said nothing.

     "At the very least we ought to be able to get some information out of this one and personally," Queenie continued, warming to her theme, "it would give me a good deal of pleasure to hear this toe-rag squeal and beg." She was still holding the poker in her right hand and slapped it gently but meaningfully against her left palm.

     "Surely you wouldn't think of hurting her permanently?" Bella asked, a little tremor of horror in her voice.

     Queenie hoped that Bella's overacting wouldn't give her charade away. She also hoped that their prisoner wouldn't call her bluff. Queenie realised that there was a distinct risk that she might decide that being beaten up here and now was preferable to her mother's wrath if she turned traitor.

     "Nothing permanent," Queenie replied smoothly, "but a little tap here and there could make walking very difficult for a few weeks. Perhaps even a few months." She allowed the tip of the poker to rest on one of the prisoner's knees. Queenie could feel the poker vibrating as the captive trembled.

     "Of course, she might like to hint to us where Daisy is being held," Bella suggested. "Nothing too explicit that her mother could get upset with her about later. Just hints."

     "I still think we should let her know we mean business," Queenie said, sounding quite crestfallen. She prodded the captive's stomach gently with the poker for effect and was rewarded with a look of wide-eyed terror. It was all Queenie could do not to giggle at the effectiveness of her own acting.

     "Let's see now," Bella mused, ignoring Queenie's last remarks, "Daisy might be at Mrs Hughes' house?" Janie Hughes gave no reaction. "Or perhaps her gymnasium?" No reaction. "Maybe at the Robert Fitzsimmons?" There was the tiniest nod.

     "Robert Fitzsimmons?" echoed Queenie.

     "It's a pub that Mrs Hughes owns," Bella replied, "named after Bob Fitzsimmons, the champion boxer."

     "Ah," said Queenie, dimly recalling the name.

     "Let's go into the kitchen where we can make plans in private," Bella announced briskly. "Will it be all right if we just leave her there like that?" she added pointing to the bound Hughes woman.

     "Safer to tie her up a bit more securely," Queenie advised, "and she might make enough noise to be heard from the street."

     Fifteen minutes later, Bella and Queenie had devised a plan of action and had taken steps to ensure their prisoner would not go anywhere. Miss Hughes had now been relieved of her skirt and jacket (but allowed to keep the blouse and light sweater she wore) and was sitting on a sturdy kitchen chair. Queenie had applied her expertise to the varied stock of binding materials provided by Bella and rendered their captive completely helpless. The leather luggage straps had been used to good effect once more round Janie's waist and the back of the chair and over her lap. Her ankles were bound to the front legs of the chair with two of Bella's stock of old stockings. Her petticoats had been pushed up above her knees and two more stockings held her legs back to the tops of the chair legs, just below knee level. Her wrists had been bound together behind the back of the chair with one of a third pair of old stockings and its counterpart used to secure a wad of cloth in Janie's mouth. The rope had been applied more carefully than Bella has used it on Queenie, now securing the captive's arms upper body to the woodwork of the chair, with ropes over both shoulders for good measure. Finally she had been blindfolded with the short scarf Bella had used the previous night to secure Queenie's gag.

     Queenie had exchanged her own navy blue skirt for the narrower black one that Miss Hughes had been wearing. It refused to meet at her waist and had been secured with a large safety pin. It was a little tight across her bottom but she hoped it would survive a bicycle ride. The jacket was similarly too narrow for her but a loop of string through one of the buttonholes and around its corresponding button was sufficient to keep it approximately closed. Queenie completed her disguise by winding Janie's black woollen scarf around her neck and up over her chin then putting on her hat (which was a little tight for Queenie's head) and pinning it in place.

     "Do you think anyone will be deceived for an instant?" Queenie asked Bella nervously.

     "If this works, an instant is all we need," Bella reassured her, handing her a brass knuckle-duster.

     Queenie examined the heavy brass casting and slid her fingers through the holes as Bella showed her. She was not at all sure that she could bring herself to hit anyone with this thing but it was somehow reassuring to have it all the same. She slipped it off again and put it in one of the jacket pockets.

     Leaving their prisoner sulking gloomily in her bonds, Bella and Queenie set out into the dark streets. Queenie was riding Miss Hughes' bicycle, while Bella rode Queenie's, which they had retrieved from the gymnasium, even though it was a trifle large for her. There was as yet still little traffic moving, just a few early-morning tradesmen starting their rounds.

     It seemed to Queenie that the racket of their bicycles over the cobbled side streets would bring their plan to everyone's attention. She was also convinced that her disguise was ridiculously ineffective and sure that everyone must know exactly who she really was.

     After two miles of steady pedalling, Bella signalled Queenie to halt. Even though the most dangerous phase of their mission was just starting, Queenie felt oddly relieved to be embarking on some real action. Queenie dismounted, extracted the long hatpin from the back of her borrowed hat and neatly speared the front tyre of Miss Hughes' bicycle. With a gentle hiss, the tyre slowly deflated. Replacing the hatpin and feeling in her pocket for the knuckle-duster, Queenie pushed the bicycle the last few hundred yards to the Robert Fitzsimmons, the rim of the front wheel clanking noisily on the pavement.

     At last, Queenie reached the pub. Next to the pub's frontage was a narrow black door which led to the accommodation upstairs and down into the cellar. This was Queenie's goal. She glanced up and down the street. Bella was a few feet away from her, flattened against the wall. Bella nodded to Queenie to signal the start of the operation. Queenie pulled the black scarf up over her nose to bolster her disguise then rapped at the door, the brass knuckle-duster transforming her gentle knock into a thunderous hammering.

     After a few moments, there came the sound of a bolt being withdrawn on the other side of the door. It opened a few inches and a face peered out. "Awri', awri'," a gruff male voice protested. "Yer don't 'ave ter wake the 'ole street! Wot took yer so long anyway?"

     "'Adda punkcher," Queenie explained in what she hoped might pass for Miss Hughes' voice.

     "Awri'," the doorkeeper responded, opening the door wide.

     Hunching her shoulders and trying to keep her face hidden, Queenie bumped the bicycle up over the threshold and into the hallway beyond.

     Suddenly the man's face was inches from Queenie's. "'Ere!" he exclaimed. "You're not Janie!"

     Queenie reacted in panic. She drew her right hand back and punched the man smartly on the nose. The knuckle-duster struck him between the eyes and he collapsed at her feet without uttering another sound. Queenie had not expected quite such a decisive result. She stared in astonishment at her brass-reinforced fist.

     "Get a move on!" instructed Bella, following Queenie into the hallway and shutting the door behind her. "We haven't got all day."

     Queenie pulled herself together and helped Bella deal with the unconscious doorman. They had brought a copious supply of binding materials from the bag that Queenie kept in Bella's gym and now used it to immobilise him. They bound his wrists behind his back, tied his ankles, wrapped a coil of rope round his arms and chest and gagged him with a thick band of cloth.

     "That should be enough to hold him for a while," Queenie advised as she and Bella dragged the unconscious man to a walk-in cupboard in the hallway and bundled him in with the tools, buckets and mops stored there.

     Bella locked the cupboard door then raised one foot and stamped on the key, twisting it and buckling the lock mechanism. "I hope they have a good locksmith," she commented with a grin.

     By mutual unspoken consent, Bella and Queenie decided to explore the cellar next. It was unlikely that anyone would be down there this early in the morning, but equally it could well be where Daisy was being held. Suddenly Bella froze and held her finger to her lips. Queenie listened; there were footsteps audible below as if someone was coming up the cellar stairs.

     On an inspiration, Queenie pointed Bella to the foot of the stairs leading upwards, where she would not be visible to anyone coming up from the cellar, then turned her back, apparently tending to the bicycle. Queenie's heart pounded as she heard the footsteps from below reach the top of the stairs and then approach her along the hallway.

     "Not another punc" a female voice began and was abruptly stifled.

     Queenie at last dared to look round. Bella had pounced on the newcomer and was holding her with one arm around her arms and chest and the other hand tightly clamped over her mouth. From the resemblance to Janie, this was obviously another of the Hughes family.

     "Meet Josie," Bella invited. "This is Janie's big sister. Let's go and see what she was doing down in the cellar at this hour in the morning." Bella frogmarched Josie unceremoniously back down the cellar stairs while Queenie followed with her bag of ropes.

     The cellar was a typical London pub cellar. Chubby cast iron columns about a foot in diameter supported massive oak beams which in turn supported the floor above. Barrels and crates, some full and some awaiting return to the brewery filled most of the space. A trestle table in the centre of the cellar held a selection of cellarman's tools and the only source of light, a paraffin lamp turned quite low. Queenie went straight to the lamp and turned the wick up. The lamp-glass was quite dirty so the increase in light was modest. It was however sufficient to reveal another figure in the cellar, sitting slumped in a chair against one of the iron columns. They had found Daisy.

     A moment's inspection showed Queenie that it would be no quick matter to free Daisy. She was sitting on a wooden chair backed up against one of the columns. Her wrists were handcuffed together behind the column and an extravagant length of steel chain had been wound around her, the chair and the column, criss-crossing her body from her waist up to her neck. From the number of padlocks used, there might well be more than one length of chain. Her legs had also been bound together with wrappings of chain at ankles and knees.

     Daisy looked up and her face lit up with joy at seeing Bella. Queenie quickly removed the thick band of cloth that had been tied between Daisy's teeth. Daisy licked her dry lips and croaked, "Hello Mum," with an attempt at her usual cheery grin.

     "I think we'd better deal with this one first," Bella remarked. Josie Hughes was struggling and kicking with all her might and there was a real risk that she could break free at any moment.

     Queenie started by gagging Miss Hughes, taking a grim satisfaction in re-using the stale soggy gag she had just removed from Daisy's mouth. With both hands now available to subdue the captive, Bella held Josie against one of the columns while Queenie tied her securely to it. She started by tying the woman's wrists in front of her, just to get them under control. Coils of rope around her waist and around her chest, both going round the column took some of the strain off Bella. She and Queenie knelt down and bound Josie's ankles together then tied them back to the column. They repeated the process with her knees. While this was going on, Josie had lifted her bound hands to her mouth and was attempting to pull the gag down. Queenie and Bella grabbed a forearm each and held them tightly while Queenie untied the rope binding them. Bella pulled the arm she was holding around to the back of the column and held it there. Queenie brought the other wrist around to meet it and handed it to Bella who held the two wrists tightly together and crossed. Queenie quickly retied them and stood back to survey progress so far. The captive was still squirming wildly in her bonds so Queenie wound another coil of rope around her arms and body and the column to encourage her to keep still. The struggling was more subdued after that and eventually Josie gave up and just glared at Bella and Queenie.

     Queenie returned to Daisy to inspect the chains and padlocks more closely. Bella turned to Josie and started searching her for keys. The look of triumph in the bound woman's eyes made it obvious that it would be a fruitless search before it had even been begun. She checked on the table. It had gimlets, corkscrews, a wickedly sharp awl, a mallet and some knives but no keys.

     Bella rejoined Queenie and after a long pause said, "We need the hacksaw out of that cupboard upstairs that I jammed shut, don't we?"

     "Perhaps," Queenie replied, "but I'll see if I can spring these locks first. I'm not terribly expert with locks yet, but I've been practising and I don't think these ones are much good." She removed Janie's huge hatpin from the back of the hat she still wore and took it over to the table. She jammed the point down between two of the planks of the table and bent the rest over at a right angle. Next, she put it down on the table so its bent-over tip was pointing upwards. She placed the flat side of one of the knife blades down on the point, angling it carefully and then tapped it with the mallet. The point obligingly twisted over to form a small curlicue.

     Queenie held up the bent pin for Bella to examine it. "Skeleton key?" she offered. Queenie nodded.

     The locks suddenly seemed huge and heavy in comparison with the hatpin Queenie proposed to use on them. She concentrated on using the pin as a probe to examine the interior of the first padlock and ignored her doubts. It had several wards, but was a simple spring-and-bolt mechanism with no levers at all. Queenie was elated and snapped open the lock with panache. She grinned at Bella who acknowledged her expertise with a nod.

     It only took Queenie a few minutes to free Daisy from the chains that were wrapped around her. That left just the handcuffs. Queenie inspected them and grinned slyly. The handcuffs were the type then favoured by the Metropolitan Police (who were quite possibly the rightful owners of this pair). Each cuff had a cylindrical metal barrel with a curved metal shackle attached to it so that it was pivoted at one end. The other end of the shackle engaged with the lock inside the barrel. "Watch this," she instructed Bella. Queenie took the mallet from the table and used it to strike one of the cuffs smartly on the end of the barrel. The cuff sprang open instantly. She repeated the process with the other cuff and held the empty pair of cuffs up triumphantly. Bella was immensely impressed and stood in open-mouthed astonishment.

     "It's a well-known weakness," Queenie explained. "That's how Houdini did his famous Scotland Yard handcuff escape. All the same, it's still quite hard to do if you happen to be wearing the cuffs at the time."

     Daisy sat gratefully massaging her cramped arms and legs and looking very relieved. Experimentally, she got to her feet. She was wobbly and clearly in some discomfort but assured Bella that she was more than ready to get out of that cellar.

     Bella and Queenie cautiously crept up the stairs with Daisy following them. Other than some grunts and thumps from the occupant of the cupboard, who seemed to have regained consciousness, the pub and the rooms upstairs were still in total silence.

     Queenie retrieved her bicycle from the shop doorway where Bella had propped it and pushed it along as Bella and Daisy, who was feeling rather better now, walked beside her. Camberwell was unknown territory to Queenie, but Bella had a good understanding of the geography. There was some traffic on Camberwell New Road and they were able to hail a taxi. The bicycle went up on the roof-top luggage rack and they were able to ride to Brixton in style. Whatever the taxi driver thought of Daisy's rather dishevelled appearance, he said nothing. Probably he put it down to the aftermath of a night out on the razzle.

     On return to Bella's flat, they found everything as they had left it. Janie Hughes was still securely tied up in the kitchen. She had managed to move the chair a couple of feet but had made no progress whatsoever towards freeing herself. Queenie removed the skirt, jacket and hat she had commandeered and resumed her own skirt, pleased to be wearing something that fitted her properly.

     Daisy went upstairs to enjoy a long soak in the bathtub. (Queenie rather envied Bella's proper plumbed-in bath with its gas geyser to heat the water.) Bella offered Queenie some breakfast. She was just about to decline, but suddenly realised that she was ravenously hungry after all the stress of the previous few hours and accepted gratefully. Bella believed in huge breakfasts and was well-stocked to prepare a feast of bacon, eggs, black pudding and fried bread. It was a slightly surreal meal with Janie Hughes still tied to a chair in the kitchen. After they had eaten, they ungagged their prisoner and fed her some toast.

     Daisy reappeared looking tired and still a little stiff but otherwise a new woman. Queenie thought about requesting use of the bathroom, but decided she would far rather use her own tin bath at home and enjoy a soak in front of a roaring fire. She took her leave of Bella and was reminded to join them for the boxing match that evening. The fight began at 8 o'clock, so Bella suggested that Queenie arrive at the flat at 7.

     As Queenie soaked away the after-effects of her adventures, she wondered how it was that she had been so easily dragged into the murky underworld surrounding women's professional boxing. On reflection, she realised that there was a deep yearning for adventure somewhere within her soul. She just hoped it wouldn't get her into too much trouble too often.

     As evening fell, Queenie prepared for her night out at the boxing match. She felt she needed something smart but a little flamboyant to wear. She sorted through her modest selection of conservatively-styled dresses and suits and sadly recognised that everything she owned made her look like a schoolteacher. She concluded that smartness with a touch of eccentricity was her only hope for the present and selected a smart navy blue suit with a skirt just above her ankles and a hip-length jacket snugly tailored at the waist. A crisp white blouse with a high collar and a matching navy blue cloche hat set the suit off with impeccable class. Black lace-up boots and black leather gloves completed the slightly severe classical look to perfection (even if she did look like a schoolteacher dressed up for an evening out). Eccentricity was provided by the startling long scarlet scarf that she wrapped round her neck and flung over one shoulder.

     Queenie was feeling excited by the evening ahead and there was a spring in her step as she made her way down the stairs from her flat. She had already decided to treat herself to a taxi. It was a short walk to Clapham Common and she would be sure to pick one up there for the journey to Bella's house in Brixton.

     Bella had opened the front door and was waiting for Queenie as she paid the taxi driver her half-crown fare plus tip. Queenie felt quite the lady to arrive in such style.

     "Very sharp," commented Bella approvingly as she looked Queenie up and down.

     "Thank you," replied Queenie with a shy smile. "Shall I ask the driver to wait?"

     "No, let him go. We need to get Janie Hughes ready to go first."

     Queenie was taken aback. She had forgotten about Janie and hadn't expected here still to be in Bella's house. Bella led the way through to the kitchen. Janie was indeed still there and still tied to the same chair although it was obvious to Queenie's eyes that she had been released and retied since that morning, presumably to allow her to eat or to use the toilet.

     "How do we take her with us?" Queenie asked. "We can't just lead her through the streets on a rope."

     "Well," Bella confided, "I think we might be able to do just that. I have an idea but I don't know if it will work."

     Queenie listened carefully to Bella's plan and grinned broadly. It was audacious but could just be made to work with care.

     The first stage was to untie Janie Hughes. Queenie removed the various bindings securing her while Bella stood guard with the poker. Unlike her sister, Janie had never put up much of a fight, but there was no sense in taking unnecessary risks.

     Janie was wearing two petticoats. Queenie removed the outer one and ripped the inner one at the front from the hem almost up to the waist then did the same at the back. There was a muffled protest from behind Janie's gag. Next, Queenie helped Janie on with her jacket, or rather bundled her into it as she was passive but unco-operative. It took a moment for Queenie to locate Janie's gloves, then to put them on her hands. (Queenie was reminded of the process of dressing a very small child to go out, which she sometimes had to do with the youngest pupils at her school.)

     Queenie rummaged through the bag of ropes to find two eight foot lengths. She wound the middle of one piece round Janie's left wrist and knotted it securely with two long ends hanging loose, then did the same to the other wrist with the second piece of rope. With Bella's help, Queenie, manoeuvred Janie's arms into the classic straitjacket position with her forearms parallel across the front of her body. Queenie resisted the temptation to force the elbows close together as she wanted to achieve something close to a natural pose with arms folded. While Bella held Janie's elbows, Queenie drew the four loose ends of rope together and knotted them at the back of Janie's waist.

     Queenie braced herself for some resistance as she started on the next stage. Standing in front of Janie, she nudged her feet apart with the toe of one shoe. Janie obligingly shifted her weight and stood with her feet about nine inches apart. Queenie seized the opportunity while it was there and reached between Janie's legs to grab the ropes dangling behind her and pull them forward between her legs. With a muffled squeak of alarm, Janie clamped her legs together, but it was too late; Queenie was already wrapping the ends round her forearms where they crossed in front of her.

     "A girl could have endless hours of amusement with that set-up," Bella observed.

     Queenie blushed as she interpreted Bella's comment, but said nothing and concentrated on tying knots.

     A third eight-foot length of rope was looped round Janie's left arm just above her elbow, led across her back and similarly wound round her right arm then brought back to the left arm and knotted off.

     Next, Queenie knelt down beside Janie and lashed her legs tightly together above her knees. While Bella supported Janie's weight, Queenie slid her second petticoat back on over the first. There was a problem at the back; although the ropes leading down to Janie's crotch passed through the back vent of the jacket, it was still not possible to get the petticoat right up to her waist. Queenie solved the problem by ripping the back seam of the jacket open by a few inches.

     Queenie and Bella repeated the manoeuvre to get Janie's skirt back on. It proved impossible to fasten all the buttons with the additional bulk of rope under the waistband, so Queenie made use of the safety pin she had been obliged to employ to while wearing that skirt.

     Bella left the kitchen for a few moments while Queenie stood guard. With the prisoner now quite securely bound, there was no need to brandish the poker in her face. Janie struggled experimentally with her bonds but rapidly concluded that she could not even move enough to register her protest effectively. She settled for glaring balefully at Queenie.

     Bella returned with a large maroon-coloured triangular shawl. Working together, she and Queenie draped the shawl around Janie's shoulders, crossed it at the front, led the ends under her elbows and knotted them at the back of her waist on top of the tail of the shawl.

     "That's brilliant," Bella congratulated Queenie. "It really does look as though she's just folded her arms to keep warm."

     "And it's just the right colour to set off the black suit too!" Queenie added.

     Queenie unfastened the stocking securing Janie's gag and eased out the wad of cloth packing her mouth. Janie spat noisily on the floor. "Me mum'll 'ave yer guts for this!" she warned in a growl.

     Bella ignored her and held up a small glass tumbler to Janie's lips. "Drink!" she ordered.

     Janie clamped her mouth shut and turned her head away.

     "It's just a sleeping draught," Bella assured her.

     "Can't I just bang her on the head with the poker?" Queenie asked, trying very hard to keep a straight face as she resumed her hard-woman act.

     Janie chose to co-operate and with ill grace drank the proffered liquid.

     Queenie immediately re-packed Janie's mouth and secured the cloth once more with the black stocking. To hide the gag, she wound Janie's scarf around her face so that it came up just under her nose, then tucked the ends inside the shawl. She put Janie's hat on her head and secured it with one of Bella's hatpins, Janie's own one no longer being much use for its intended purpose.

     While Queenie was doing this, Bella had made a telephone call. "The taxi will be here in a couple of minutes," she announced, "so we'd better get moving."

     "Pity we can't blindfold her," Queenie remarked with a touch of regret in her voice.

     "It might be a wee bitty conspicuous," agreed Bella, "but I thought these might do." She passed a pair of round wire-rimmed spectacles to Queenie, who held them up to the light. The lenses were black and almost completely opaque.

     "Just an old pair of reading specs with boot blacking dried on the inside," Bella explained.

     "And just perfect!" Queenie declared, putting them on Janie, who clearly didn't share the enthusiasm.

     The front doorbell rang, catching both Bella and Queenie slightly by surprise. Queenie went ahead opening doors while Bella steered their prisoner out of the house. Queenie dodged back in past then and doused all the lights, locking the front door as she came out.

     "Evening Miss MacSween," the cabbie greeted Bella.

     "Good evening Sam," Bella replied, propelling Janie towards the waiting taxi.

     "Don't mean to pry, Miss MacSween, but is there anything wrong with the lady?" Sam inquired politely, with a note of concern in his voice.

     "Nothing you want to hear about Sam," she assured him.

     "Right you are, Miss MacSween. It's New Cross you're heading for, I take it," he replied, dismissing his concerns.

     "Yes please," Bella confirmed, turning her attention to settling Janie Hughes in the taxi. Queenie climbed in and they sat either side of Janie, propping her up between them.

     Janie kept dozing off as the chloral started to work on her. "Try to keep her awake until we're in the hall," Queenie requested. "She's my first line of insurance tonight and I don't want to have to carry her in obviously unconscious."

     "I'll do my best," replied Queenie, prodding Janie into wakefulness. "Where's Daisy?" she added, suddenly realising that she hadn't seen Daisy since that morning.

     "I'm sure she'll be along later," Bella assured her. "Daisy is my second line of insurance."

     Queenie pondered this comment in silence as the taxi sped them to their destination.

     It was a struggle getting Janie out of the taxi. Her semi-comatose state just about allowed her to put one foot in front of the other in the tiny steps which her leg binding permitted. Queenie and Bella hung onto an elbow each and steered her towards the boxing hall and up the steps to the entrance.

     "Looks like your friend's 'ad a bit much ter drink," the doorman commented.

     "It was definitely something she drank," Bella confirmed with a straight face. Queenie suppressed a giggle by biting her lip.

     After an immense effort, Queenie and Bella finally managed to sit Janie down on one of the ringside seats. Queenie quickly checked her over to make sure the ropes and gag were all still well hidden.

     As Janie was now solidly asleep, Queenie put an arm around her to balance her and to look as though she was supporting an inebriated friend. Bella had meanwhile gone to give Jenny Ironside a last-minute pep-talk and to accompany her into the ring.

     Queenie looked around at the crowds milling around eating, drinking placing bets and generally enjoying themselves. Suddenly she saw Mrs Hughes and her daughter Josie staring straight at her from the other side of the ring, stony faced. Despite the scarf and dark glasses, it was undoubtedly obvious to them who the woman leaning against Queenie was. A tingle of fear ran up Queenie's spine, even though she knew that they would be most unlikely to do anything in such a public place.

     A man in a loud checked suit and a bowler hat climbed into the ring and loudly announced the evening's list of fights.

     The boxers in the first bout were hopelessly mismatched in skill, so the result was a foregone conclusion and saw the weaker contestant out cold on the canvas by the end of round two. The fight barely caught Queenie's attention as her eyes kept drifting to the Hughes women who seemed to be gazing impassively back at her whenever she looked in their direction.

     The second fight was the one where Jenny Ironside was to meet 'Princess Ashanti', Mrs Hughes' African fighter.

     The match was a good one and Queenie found herself absorbed in the spectacle. The African woman and Jenny both looked to be about the same general weight and height. The African was, however, noticeably faster on her feet, which ought to have given her an immediate advantage. It was not immediately obvious to Queenie why this did not seem to be the case. She was still pondering the question when the bell sounded for the end of round one. Neither boxer had so far inflicted any serious damage on the other. Queenie was glad of this but also anxious that the fight should be over. She wondered if the African knew that Mrs Hughes had attempted to fix the fight and if she knew that it was not in fact fixed.

     Round two began with more cautious circling of the fighters round each other with an occasional exploratory exchange of punches. The African woman started to use her speed to advantage, stepping back to avoid an attack and then stepping forward again in the blink of an eye to deliver a counter-attack. Jenny's style also began to be asserted. Her forte was landing big punches as she stepped forward, adding her own body weight to the momentum of the punch. The second round ended as indecisively as the first.

     In the third round, the African woman seized the initiative, dashing forward to land a rapid-fire rain of blows then stepping back as suddenly. Queenie noticed that although the black woman's punching was rapid and withering, it did not always seem to be accurately targeted. Jenny's punches were almost always landed with precision, but the number actually delivered was woefully small. By the end of the round, Queenie felt that the fight could go either way.

     Round four continued in the same vein but Jenny began to land more punches successfully on her opponent, using her body to add to the weight of the blow each time. At last, she delivered one perfectly-timed punch. Queenie was ideally positioned to see Jenny stepping forward on her left foot like a fencer while punching with her right hand. There was a perfectly straight line from the toe of her left boot on the canvas, up the length of her leg, through her body and along her right arm to the glove, and beyond it to Princess Ashanti's chin. The African woman had been misled into jumping forward as Jenny had feinted back before delivering that enormous punch. The impact was tremendous and the result inevitable; the black woman dropped to the canvas as if poleaxed.

     The audience's applause was tremendous. Queenie found herself once more admiring the skill and athletic prowess while at the same time being revolted by the sight of women attempting to knock each other senseless.

     In the interval that followed, as the crowds surged to the bookmakers' tables, Queenie was surprised to see a group of four policemen and two policewomen enter the hall. They made their way purposefully towards the ring, the crowd parting before them like the Red Sea before Moses. They had almost reached the ring when Queenie spotted the unmistakable figure of Daisy with them. In another moment, they had surrounded Mrs Hughes and Josie. Queenie could hear raised voices but was unable to make out words. As suddenly as they had arrived, the police withdrew, taking the Hughes women with them. As they departed, Queenie could clearly see the metallic glint of handcuffs on their wrists.

     Queenie was still trying out various explanations in her mind when Bella and Daisy came over to join her. "What was Mrs Hughes arrested for?" she demaded.

     "Kidnapping of course," Bella replied.

     "Surely they can't have been stupid enough to leave any evidence at the pub," Queenie protested.

     "Well, no, I didn't think they would," Bella admitted, "so I took Daisy to Mrs Hughes' house after she left for the gymnasium and tied her to a chair in the spare bedroom."

     "And the police had an anonymous tip-off, I suppose?" Queenie asked lightly.

     "It seems that they must have," Bella speculated with a broad grin.

     Queenie shook her head in disbelief. "What do we do with this one?" she asked, indicating Janie, deeply asleep and now resting her head on Queenie's shoulder.

     Under Bella's direction, Queenie and Daisy helped carry the unconscious form of Janie Hughes to the curtained changing area at the back of the hall. They took her to the cubicle where Jenny Ironside was changing back into her everyday clothes. Queenie swiftly unfastened all the bindings from Janie's arms, legs and body, took her gag out and removed the black spectacles. The rope and other bindings went into the bag in which Jenny was packing her boxing kit. The maroon shawl was returned to Bella, who draped it round her own shoulders. Lastly, Bella extracted a half bottle of gin from her pocket and splashed most of it on Janie's face and clothes. She re-corked the bottle and thrust it into a side pocket of Janie's jacket.

     Jenny was ready to leave by then, so the four women left the changing area together and made their way across the hall, Bella and Jenny acknowledging congratulations as they went.

     Outside, they paused. Queenie took a deep breath, enjoying the cool, fresh air of the night. School would seem awfully dull tomorrow after all this excitement, she reflected.

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© Copyright Gillian B 2003

The Adventures of Queenie Holkham

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