When Harry Met Queenie

New York City, April 1923

AS QUEENIE'S CONSCIOUSNESS CREPT BACK, she felt queasy and infinitely tired. It took a while for her eyes to focus properly and her hearing seemed oddly distorted. She was dimly aware that she was being tied to a chair but did not seem to be able to summon up the willpower or even the interest to resist.

     By the time the fog had cleared from Queenie's mind, it was too late; she was bound just as tightly as Bess Houdini. Her attacker was kneeling beside her doing a final check of the knots securing her. As he stood up, she tried to retain a clear mental image of the man. It was a man, she was almost sure of that. He was stockily built and not very tall. He was wearing dark-coloured workman's trousers and a black sweater. His features were obscured by a silk stocking pulled down over his head as a mask. He seemed to be completely bald under the stocking, but Queenie could not really discern much beside that. Strangely, he was not wearing gloves. Queenie noted that his hands were big with stubby fingers, but seemed to be well cared for. The fingernails were neatly trimmed with the exception of one that seemed to have just been broken, possibly while tying up one of his victims.

     The man left the room and closed the door behind him. Queenie looked down at what she could see of her bonds. She seemed to be tied in exactly the same way that Mrs Houdini had been, with ropes securing her to the chair and her arms behind the chair back. She tentatively explored her wrists with her fingertips. Handcuffs. Queenie could escape from handcuffs using the time-honoured methods of hidden keys or tools or by using gimmicked cuffs, but knew that a pair of honest handcuffs applied correctly while she was unconscious were completely beyond her skills. Queenie's chair had been set alongside the one Bess Houdini was tied to, affording her a clearer view of Mrs Houdini's bonds. Now that Queenie knew what to look for, she could see the glint of steel at Mrs Houdini's wrists. Bess Houdini seemed to read Queenie's thoughts and, bound as she was, she managed a small but eloquent shrug.

     Queenie was gagged effectively with a rag wadded up in her mouth and several wraps of cloth holding it in place, so she just nodded her head and grunted softly in reply.

     To her surprise, it was not the fact of having been attacked and tied up that annoyed Queenie most, but her frustration at having been given a task to do by Houdini and being unable to complete it. She was determined that she must find a way to escape and redeem the situation.

     If she were able to shuffle her chair across, she might be able to undo some of the knots in the rope securing Bess Houdini to her chair, but it would be slow difficult work, while tied to a chair herself and working with her wrists handcuffed behind her back.

     Queenie wondered if she could get more freedom to move her chair if she were to kick her ankles free of the rope binding them or at least detach them from the rope anchoring them back to the chair. With only a couple of inches of movement possible, it was hard to get enough speed up in the kick to achieve anything. She tried again and was rewarded by the creaking sound of over-stressed woodwork. Another enthusiastic kick yielded a louder creak. Three sharp kicks in succession led to the splintering sound of joints giving way to loads they were never designed to take. Queenie's ankles were still bound, but she was delighted to be able to lift her feet up and pull the rope holding them back away from the broken spindle between the chair legs.

     Lifting her feet up as high as they would go, Queenie turned her head towards Mrs Houdini with a glint of triumph in her eyes. As she did so, one of the chair's front legs, now robbed of its bracing, buckled outwards as the glue holding it into its socket in the underside of the chair seat gave up the struggle. The chair toppled slowly forwards and over to one side taking Queenie with it.

     Queenie was surprised. All her previous experience of chair ties had been with far more substantial chairs. It had not occurred to her that a valid escape strategy might be to destroy the chair. From her position on the floor, she studied Bess Houdini's chair looking for further weak points. The arched back of the chair was primarily supported by the joints where it was housed in the slab of wood which formed the chair seat. Possibly they could also be persuaded to fail.

     Queenie reached down behind her and took a firm grip of the back edge of the chair seat so that her bottom would not slide forwards. She took a deep breath and pressed down with the backs of her thighs, attempting to straighten her body against the chair. She felt the back of the chair flex a surprising way before she heard the ominous creak of tortured wood. She took another quick breath and redoubled her efforts. There was a series of sharp cracking sounds and with each one, she felt the joints give a little further. Finally, there was a sound of tearing wood and one side of the back let go completely, while the other held on by just a few splinters. A few twists of the seat were all that was required to separate it completely from the arch of the chair back. The spindles that had formed the back rest, simple wooden rods set into the seat at the bottom and the arch at the top, did not seem to have been glued in at all and fell out immediately with a clatter like a handful of dropped pencils.

     Bess Houdini's initial astonishment at the collapse of Queenie's chair turned to admiration as the systematic demolition began to yield results. She cheered Queenie on with mumbled encouragement from behind her gag.

     Queenie paused to survey her progress, breathing heavily through her nose. The wooden arch of the chair back was still loosely tied to her by the ropes swathed round her body and over her shoulders while the rest of it lay in ruins on the floor. However, Queenie's wrists were still securely handcuffed behind her back and her legs were tightly bound together at the ankles and both above and below her knees.

     The most likely place to yield a tool to attack the handcuffs, Queenie decided, was Miss Feuerstein's desk. The problem was how to get there. Queenie rolled onto her side then attempted to get into a sitting position. The broken chair back kept catching on the carpet but after several attempts, she managed it. By digging her heels into the pile, she was able to push herself backwards until her back came in contact with Mr Houdini's desk. She worked her way along to one corner and grasped the leg of the desk between her cuffed hands behind her back. She pulled her feet back towards her and pushed down with her heels. Inch by laborious inch, she walked her hands up the corner of the desk, taking the greatest care not to topple over, until her bottom was propped up on the top edge. She paused to regain her breath before attempting to transfer her weight entirely onto her feet. She moved cautiously in order not to lose her balance after so much hard work to get upright. Finally, she was standing, poised slightly precariously, on her own two feet.

     Queenie's ankle binding had been cinched between her legs, effectively making a pair of rope handcuffs. Although her legs were tightly lashed together at knee level, she had enough freedom of movement to walk, taking tiny, careful steps. Queenie fervently wished that she had been wearing boots rather than shoes as the rope rubbed her skin painfully with each step, even through the protection of her stockings. Several minutes of patient delicate steps later brought her to the door. She turned around and grasped the door knob, grateful for a chance to rest without the risk of falling over.

     With renewed determination, Queenie opened the door, pulling it carefully ajar as she shuffled forwards then sidling round it. Mrs Houdini's office was not particularly large but to Queenie's eyes it looked as immense as a ballroom as she made her way slowly across to the door to the outer office.

     For no obvious reason, this door had a lever handle instead of a knob. Queenie carefully bent her knees as she pushed it down with both hands behind her. She felt the latch withdraw into the door but discovered that she was powerless to pull it open. With her legs tied together it was impossible to shuffle forwards with her knees bent. Instead she had to risk all by jumping forwards. She jumped and then swayed wildly on landing, desperately hanging onto the door handle for balance. For a moment Queenie was sure she was about to fall but managed to steady herself. She slowly straightened up and shuffled her way around the edge of the door.

     There was only about another eight feet of floor to cover. Queenie forced herself not to rush and risk falling, especially as the outer office had a polished wood floor with a treacherous loose rug on it. She reached Miss Feuerstein's desk without mishap and propped herself up on it for a moment to recover her breath.

     Queenie quickly scanned the items on the desk and identified her goal: a small glass jar full of paper clips. She reached behind her, deliberately knocked the jar over and selected one of the larger sized clips from the spill. She unbent the clip behind her back, squeezing the narrow inner loop of the clip together and bending it into a hook shape. It was slow, frustrating work with her hands cuffed behind her and very sore on her fingers in the absence of tools. At last she was satisfied with the makeshift skeleton key she had fashioned. She eased it into the keyhole on her left cuff and probed the inside of the lock. With relief, Queenie recognised the usual simple mechanism used in handcuff locks. She found and flipped over the lever operated by the double locking mechanism then pushed back the spring on the ratchet. Carefully holding her lockpick in place, she eased the cuff open and was free. She brought her stiff arms round in front of her and rubbed the red skin on her wrist.

     Abruptly, Queenie remembered that the evening's show depended on Theo Hardeen being summoned to assist. Her first priority had to be a telephone call to Mr Hardeen. She suddenly realised she was still gagged. The cloth wrapped round her face was very tight and quite difficult to pull down. Her jaw was so stiff that she was unable to spit out the packing in her mouth and instead had to lever it out with her fingers. She licked her dry lips and worked her jaw while she flipped through the card index next to the telephone. There was nothing under Hardeen or under Weiss, but she found his address and number under Theo.

     Queenie picked up the telephone earpiece and rattled the hook. "Hello Central? Get me Klondike 2032 please," she asked like a seasoned New York telephonist. Theo Hardeen answered the call himself and Queenie quickly told him about Mr Kelly's indisposition and Mr Houdini's request for him to help out. He agreed and confirmed that he was on his way.

     Just as Queenie was hanging up the phone, the office door opened and Harry Houdini walked in. He said nothing but stared at her open-mouthed. She suppressed a giggle as she realised what a sight she must look, with yards of rope wound loosely round her body, a pair of handcuffs dangling from one wrist, a gag hanging round her neck and her legs bound together in three places. She was probably also rather dishevelled after her exertions.

     "Mr Hardeen says he is on his way," Queenie announced crisply in as level a voice as she could muster.

     Harry Houdini's mouth dropped even further open then he roared with laughter. "But what in the world happened to you?" he asked, suddenly serious.

     "We had a robbery," Queenie explained, then added, "and Mrs Houdini needs help. She's in your office."

     Houdini paused for the merest instant then ran to the rescue. Queenie sat down heavily on the desk chair and began freeing herself from the tangle of rope round her body. She then untied her legs, luxuriating for a moment in the feeling of freedom, and picked the remaining handcuff lock. The knot on her gag was too tight to untie, so she snipped through the fabric with scissors.

     Feeling slightly more in control of events, Queenie returned to Mr Houdini's office to see how Bess Houdini was faring.

     When Queenie reached Houdini's office, Bess Houdini was still sitting in the chair where Queenie had last seen her, but was now completely free. Houdini was brandishing a large and dangerous-looking clasp knife with which he had just freed his wife as the short lengths of rope surrounding the chair testified. He had presumably been carrying either a suitable key or a lockpick to undo the handcuffs.

     "This woman," Bess Houdini announced, "is a true English heroine. You should have seen the way she got loose. She knows her business and she fights like a tiger!"

     Queenie was acutely embarrassed at this eulogy. She made no comment but tossed the arch of the chair back onto the rest of the heap of wreckage that had been her chair. She hadn't intended it to be a gesture of defiance but both the Houdinis applauded her.

     Now that he knew everyone was safe, Harry Houdini asked for a report of what had been going on.

     Bess Houdini offered her explanation first. She had been sorting through paperwork, basically unmuddling a mess that her husband had created. (Houdini hung his head in mock shame at this.) She had been grabbed from behind and had been rendered unconscious somehow.

     "It was a sleeper hold," Queenie interjected flatly.

     When she had come to her senses, Mrs Houdini had found herself tied up as Queenie had seen her and as her husband had just discovered her. She found that she was completely helpless and had no option but to wait for rescue. (While Bess Houdini had been Harry Houdini's partner in their act, she had never exercised the skills of escape artistry that he had.) While she had been sitting there, her assailant had systematically rifled the office, looking at documents rather than for valuables, but she was not sure if anything had been taken.

     Queenie added her part of the story. She described what had happened in a very plain and straightforward manner, but including all the relevant details, a tribute to her skills as a teacher. The Houdinis said nothing but just nodded at intervals through the explanation.

     Once she had reached the end of her factual narrative, Queenie felt that she had to say something about the possible identity of her assailant. She started out by mentioning the lavender scent that Miss Feuerstein used which also seemed to be lingering on the burglar. Also, she pointed out, Miss Feuerstein was a very heavily built woman, while the burglar was a rather short man and that both had broad hands with well-cared-for nails. Feeling less and less certain of herself, she went on with her opinion that Miss Feuerstein wore a wig. Finally, and now feeling utterly ridiculous, Queenie propounded her opinion that the burglar was actually Miss Feuerstein. She blushed furiously as she finished and wished fervently that she hadn't sounded so foolish.

     "Well," said Harry Houdini after an uncomfortably long pause. "Miss Feuerstein certainly does wear a wig. She is a traditional Jewish lady and she wears a sheitel to cover her own hair in public. I agree that she is a large woman, but surely she couldn't hope to fool us like that." He spread his hands helplessly, not wishing to belittle Queenie by going on.

     Bess Houdini was quite decided in her opinion. "No," she declared firmly. "Miss Feuerstein wasn't the burglar. It's utterly impossible."

     Both Harry Houdini and Queenie were taken aback by the forcefulness of her statement.

     It was Queenie who eventually spoke up. "But how can you be so sure?" she asked tentatively.

     "Because she is tied to a chair in the meeting room," Mrs Houdini replied with the air of one slapping down a trump card.

     This remark was met with astonished silence by her husband and by Queenie, so she felt compelled to elaborate. "Just as we were finishing work, she asked me how difficult it had been for Miss Holkham to perform that escape I had her do. I told her that it was pretty basic for an experienced performer but that it could stymie a novice. She said that if she was going to work for the great Houdini, then she ought to give it a try too. I said that if she wasn't too busy, I could tie her up then and there if she liked and she agreed. I tied her up in the meeting room, so I wouldn't be distracted while I was working through here. I never turned her loose, so she must still be there."

     The Houdinis and Queenie all trooped through Mrs Houdini's room and the outer office then into the meeting room. "You see," announced Bess Houdini, "there she is!"

     On one of the chairs sat the figure of Miss Feuerstein. She was tied to the chair in much the same fashion that Queenie had been tied for her audition that morning, with slight variations to suit the square-backed chairs in that room.

     "I didn't gag her though," Mrs Houdini added, noticing that Miss Feuerstein was wearing a gag much like the ones that had been applied to Mrs Houdini and Queenie.

     "No sense in leaving her trussed up any longer," Harry Houdini declared, opening his clasp knife.

     Queenie felt that whatever she said now could not possibly make her look more foolish in the Houdinis eyes, so she decided at least to satisfy her own curiosity. "Wait!" she said firmly. Harry Houdini stopped in his tracks.

     "The burglar had very neat rounded fingernails," Queenie explained, "except for the right index finger, which had a rounded notch folded back on the edge. Please humour me by letting me look at Miss Feuerstein's hands."

     Queenie and both the Houdinis went round behind Miss Feuerstein's chair. Her hands were between her back and the chair, in the same way that Queenie had been tied. Both hands were tightly clenched fists. Reaching through the bars of the chair back, Harry Houdini gently but firmly prised each fist open. The nails were exactly as Queenie had described them: very neat with a single notch in the right index fingernail.

     Emboldened by her success, Queenie took a long hard look at Miss Feuerstein then lifted the hem of her skirt. Underneath was a pair of dark blue cotton trousers, turned up so as not to show below the mid-calf length of her skirt.

     Miss Feuerestein glared venomously over her gag at Queenie.

     Houdini let out a long low whistle. "Well, I didn't believe it for a minute, but it looks like you're right on the mark, Miss Holkham," he commented. "I thought I was a pretty good judge of character but Miss Feuerstein here had me taken in completely."

     "But how could she be tying you two up and turning the office over if she was tied up here all the time?" he added after another pause.

     "Well," said Queenie, feeling her self-confidence surge back, "I'm pretty sure that in her position, and tied up like that, I could get myself loose, do whatever I wanted to elsewhere and then tie myself up again the same way for a perfect alibi."

     "It wouldn't be hard for someone who knew what they were doing," Houdini agreed.

     "But I didn't see anything being taken from the office," Bess Houdini objected, "and if Miss Feuerstein is the burglar she is still here. Why would she stage this charade unless it was to steal something?"

     "Well," Queenie ventured after a pause for thought, "she was unsupervised in the office plenty of times with the rest of us coming and going all the time. I was with her a lot of the time but she was on her own all the time I was with Mrs Houdini. Maybe she stole something earlier in the day. and this was a ruse to divert suspicion away from her."

     "She hasn't been out of the office as far as I know," Mrs Houdini offered, "so anything she stole must still be here somewhere.

     The Houdinis and Queenie returned to the outer office to carry out a search. Miss Feuerstein's desk and the capacious bag she carried with her were subjected to a minute examination but the only incriminating item found was a black sweater, further confirming her identity as the burglar. Nothing else was found in her desk that shouldn't have been there and nothing in her bag that didn't belong to her. Her coat pockets proved to contain a pair of gloves and used Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit ticket.

     "I know!" Queenie cried suddenly. "The mail! I never had the chance to take it to the post office. If she wanted to send something out of the office, all she had to do was to put it in an envelope and I would have posted it for her."

     The mail was still in the string bag in which Queenie had intended to carry it to the post office. She offered each item in turn to the Houdinis for examination. Most very obviously contained a single sheet of paper and were replies to fan mail. All payments and orders were to addresses that one or other of them recognised.

     At last they reached a thick envelope addressed only to a New York City PO box number. Harry and Bess Houdini exchanged meaningful glances. Neither of them recognised the address, so they ripped open the package. Inside was a thick wad of paper, each page covered with sketches and notes in Houdini's distinctive handwriting. Queenie stared at it in astonishment. Miss Feuerstein seemed not only to have been spying on the Houdinis and stealing their secrets but doing so wholesale.

     A broad grin split Harry Houdini's face. "Well," he mused, "I don't know who hired our Miss Feuerstein as a spy. I suppose it could have been Carter or Thurston or Blackstone or Goldston or any of the others. She must have some experience of the business herself to get loose and tie herself up again like that. All the same, she can't have been much help to them so I guess she she won't be much of a loss either."

     Queenie now stared at Houdini in astonishment.

     "These are the notes for my book, Magic Rope Ties and Escapes," he explained. "It's been out since last year, so all that Miss Feuerstein would have achieved would be to save her employer spending seventy-five cents to buy it from a bookstore on Fourth Avenue!"

     Houdini consulted his watch. "No time to deal with the police right now," he concluded. "We'd better make sure Miss Feuerstein doesn't go anywhere until after the show."

     Queenie and the Houdinis trooped back into the meeting room. Miss Feuerstein had been busy while they had been away. Her hands were already both free and she was working on getting her arms loose from the ropes that held her to the chair. She froze as they entered the room.

     "Perhaps you ladies would like to restrain our former employee a little more securely?" Houdini invited.

     "It would be our pleasure," his wife replied grimly. Queenie nodded her agreement.

     The chairs in the meeting room were far stronger than the one that Queenie had destroyed earlier and, she judged, probably immune to the same line of attack. Accordingly, they decided to untie Miss Feuerstein from her chair and then to retie her to it rather more thoroughly.

     "She's got trousers on under that skirt," Queenie pointed out. "We could tie her better in those."

     "We can do better than that," Bess Houdini replied with a sinister grin. "Start stripping, sister!" she ordered. Miss Feuerstein, looked despairingly at each of her captors and seeing no mercy in the stony expressions, meekly complied.

     Queenie and the Houdinis waited while Miss Feuerstein shed her blouse then her skirt and the trousers that were hidden beneath it. "All right, you can stop there," Bess Houdini instructed.

     Queenie bit her lip not to laugh aloud at the impressively robust underwear that had been revealed. Miss Feuerstein evidently took no chances with the weather even in April. She was clad in a cream wool union suit with an old-fashioned corset on top, which also acted as a garter belt supporting her utilitarian heavy black winter stockings.

     At Mrs Houdini's invitation Queenie began by crossing Miss Feuerstein's wrists behind her back and binding them securely together, with the rope wrapped round them both vertically and horizontally and knotted well out of the reach of her fingers.

     With Miss Feuerstein now sitting in the chair again, Queenie and Bess Houdini worked away methodically with ropes, pausing every now and again to agree details. Miss Feuerstein was secured with a coil of rope round her waist and the back of the chair, more above and below her bust and over both shoulders. Her ankles were tied to the chair legs and her knees were tied back where the chair legs joined the frame of the seat. Several more turns of rope ran across her lap and were knotted underneath the chair seat. Finally, her bound wrists were secured to the back of the chair and her elbows tied to the woodwork at each side.

     Queenie and Mrs Houdini decided that Miss Feuerstein's self-applied gag was probably sufficient and agreed that there was poetic justice in leaving it in place.

     There was a certain satisfaction to tying someone up really thoroughly so they were completely helpless, Queenie concluded to Bess Houdini as they surveyed the finished result of their attentions to Miss Feuerstein.

     Mrs Houdini agreed as she added a blindfold to complete Miss Feuerstein's humiliation.

     "Great job, ladies," Harry Houdini complimented. "We'll leave her here to stew and turn her loose after the show. Maybe if we feel generous, we might not even tell the cops about this." Miss Feuerstein shifted uncomfortably in her bonds but did not appear to react to this comment.

     "And, Miss Holkham, we seem to have a vacancy for an office clerk," he added.

     "Just an hour to show time, Harry," Mrs Houdini remarked.

     "Gee, you're right," he agreed, checking his watch. "Say, Miss Holkham, you never did see the stage. What d'you say we go down quickly now?"

     "Yes please," Queenie replied, beaming.

     Once again, she followed Harry Houdini at a trot at he led her along deserted corridors and down narrow stairways. This time Bess Houdini accompanied them.

     Quite suddenly, they were on red carpet and the walls were ornamented with gilded detail: the public half of a theatre's split personality. A pair of double doors led into the auditorium. Houdini kept up a brisk pace down an aisle between row upon row of empty seats curving away on either side of them. He opened a small gate in the wall that separated the front row of seats from the performance space and ushered Queenie through it. In the centre of the arena, he stopped, turned to face her and spread his arms dramatically.

     Queenie knew that the stage of the Hippodrome was actually a full-size circus ring, but she was unprepared for the sheer scale of the building. She turned slowly, taking in the breathtaking volume of the space and the 6,000 empty seats which would soon be filled by an eager audience all looking down on this spot. How could anyone put on a performance to command the attention of so many people.

     "Ladeeeez and gentlemen!" Houdini roared to a phantom audience. "For the first time on any American stage, we proudly present to you Miss Victoria Holkham, Queen of Escapes!" The last six words were yelled at the top of his voice, yet enunciated with perfect clarity.

     Queenie could hear the sound reverberate back off the walls and her heart swelled with excitement and pride. One day, she thought. One day very soon.

Harry Houdini

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© Copyright Gillian B 2003

The Adventures of Queenie Holkham

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