Cat On The Prowl
From time to time, in my career both as dealer and as thief, I have done things on impulse. It’s not a stratagem I usually recommend – careful planning saves time and trouble – but when the occasion has presented itself sometimes I have, as you say, gone with the flow. Sometimes it proved to be a big, big mistake – and I almost got caught. At other times...
Just after I started out, in about 1974, I was walking down the street in the back end of Ealing when I saw that a downstairs window had been left open, facing out onto the street. Well, what can I say? I was young, impetuous, unafraid – so I jumped through and found myself in a very well set up front room.
Whoever lived there had taste – or what passed for taste then, with all the furniture out of the new Conran place that had just opened called Habitat. I looked round the room, picking up and pocketing a few things, when I heard singing from upstairs. I had a choice at that point – get out and not be seen, or look for jewellery and risk been seen. I think you can guess which one I went for.
As I went into the hallway, I saw a couple of lengths of orange nylon rope next to a packing case. Picking them up in case I needed them, I quietly climbed the stairs and looked round the door into what proved to be the main bedroom.
Sitting on an ornate metal chair in front of her dressing table was this absolutely gorgeous young woman, long chestnut brown hair flowing over her neck and shoulders as she sat doing her makeup. She was wearing a long off the shoulder dress, made from peach coloured silk with a lace top that hung over her shoulders and around the top of the garment. Looking down, I could see a pair of open toed white pumps on her feet. More to my interest, beside her on the table was a fabulous pearl necklace and a set of diamond earrings.
I must have made a noise at that point, for she looked into her mirror and slowly put her lipstick down. Turning round, she looked at me standing in the doorway and said “Hi, handsome. What can I do for you?”
I recognised her instantly – Joanna Bigtree, heiress to the pools magnate and the doyen of the society pages. I smiled, and said “You could give me your necklace and earrings for a start, Miss Bigtree.”
“And what makes you think I am just going to give you them?”
“Because I asked nicely,” I said as I walked into the room, “And because I really do not think you want o be hurt, do you?”
She looked at the ropes in my hand, and sighed. “You can have them – I don’t like them anyway. They were a present from dad, but all I want from him is...”
“A little respect?” I had heard reports of Bigtree, and his business style. It would not have surprised me one bit if the private man was worse than the public one.
“Yeah – so, mister bad guy, what are you going to do to me?”
“Make sure you cannot raise the alarm,” I said as I sat on the bed behind her. “Please, put your hands behind the back of the chair. I promise I will be gentle.”
“Oh, my first time as a damsel,” she said as she sat herself up and put her hands where I had asked her. As I passed one of the ends of rope around, I caught a glimpse of her smiling in the mirror.
“Enjoying yourself,” I asked as I secured the rope around the metal chair frame before tying the ends off. She looked at me in the mirror and said “Yes, I am – thank you. I guess you’re doing my feet next?”
“I am afraid so,” I said as I knelt behind her and tied her ankles together, making sure they were fixed to one of the front legs of the chair. Standing up, I picked up a roll of tape that was sitting on the floor.
“I was packing some things to ship to my new flat,” she said as she looked at me. “I’m moving to the US soon.”
“I hope you enjoy it there,” I said as I tore a strip off. “For now, purse your lips.”
Masking tape is funny stuff – it can stick, but it slaps shows dark colours underneath, so I could see clearly her dark red lips under the tape as I blew her a kiss and set off as fast as I could. She was sitting there, not moving and almost admiring herself in the mirror when I left her.
When the urge got to me, it could happen in the most unlikely of places. One time it was when I was visiting Poole, and found myself in the harbour area walking alongside the yachts moored up there. Bear in mind security was a different matter in 1978, and anyone could walk round these areas.
Well, as I passed one particular boat I caught a glint in my eye through a porthole, and on closer inspection I could see a large brooch with a ruby in the middle sitting on a small table. I genuinely had not intended to do anything that day, but I could see instantly just how valuable it was, so after a quick look round I jumped onto the deck and went into the cabin area.
You know the phrase “Engage brain before opening mouth”? That’s what I should have done in this case. At any rate, I pocketed the brooch only to turn round and run straight into a woman in her early forties, wearing a short black dress and heels with a white scarf tied in a band over her brown curly hair. Naturally, her first impulse was to shout for help.
It was only after I had held her against the wall for a few minutes, with my hand over her mouth and continually trying to get her to calm down, that she stopped making the most infernal racket I could remember. Obviously, I needed to buy some time, so I put my other hand in my pocket and pretended I had a gun in there. That shut her up, so when I turned her round and told her to put her hands on the cabin wall she did it without a murmur.
Turned out she was the owner’s wife, and was due to meet her husband at the club further up the pier in half an hour. Well, that gave me enough time to make sure she could not raise the alarm for a while, so I untied the scarf, shook it out, rolled it into a thick band and pulled it between her lips. Not the most effective gag, but good enough for my purposes then.
Looking round, I saw a length of sail cord lying on the deck floor, so I picked that up and started to tie her hands together behind her back. This stuff is strong, yet soft, so it didn’t hurt her too much even though I was using it on bare skin. Taking her arm, I led her further into the boat and a small room with a bed against the porthole. It only took me five minutes to use the rest of the rope to secure her ankles together, keeping them in the air as she lay on her stomach.
She looked at me with a sigh of resignation as I left her there to try and free herself. By my reckoning, her husband would miss her in about an hour – enough time for me to get the hell out of there!
I’ve told you before about the time I jumped into the wrong window at a student hall, right? That wasn’t the only time an open window or flat in a student area got me into a tight spot.
Early 1981, I was in the north of Scotland finishing up a job for a colleague, and I found myself with a spare day on my hands. With nothing particular to do, I went to visit Glasgow, and was walking round the Queen’s Park area minding my own business. Even then this had become a student flat area, and I wasn’t actually looking to visit anywhere.
As I went down one street, however, I saw a door open and this blonde haired woman walk out, carrying what I knew to be a designer hand bag. She was in her early twenties, tall and thin, with a brown bomber jacket over a mustard coloured jumper, tight black trousers and knee length brown suede boots. As she made her way down the street, I noticed the door had not quite shut, so on an impulse I let myself in and closed the door behind myself.
Walking up the stairs, I saw another open door, and listening could hear nobody inside, so in I went. It was obvious it was a student flat – the bike in the hallway and the food I could see in the kitchen confirmed that – but when I went into one bedroom I could see this was not your average penurious student.
Her wardrobe door was open, and the clothes inside were all from big fashion houses. There was also a large white box with a small padlock on the dressing table, which proved no problem for me. Inside was a selection of gold and silver jewellery, which I started to put into my jacket pockets.
The last thing I expected at that moment was to be grabbed around the throat from behind. Normally, I would never dream of hitting a lady, but this proved to be an exception as I pulled the arm away and turned myself around, recognising the blonde as I twisted her arm up.
She then said something like “Hvad fanden tror du, du laver?” I realised this was a nortdic language, but it was no use to me unless she stopped struggling. So I said ”I don’t understand, but if you understand me then stop struggling.”
” Ingen måde - du er ikke stjæle mine smykker!” was her angry response, so I put on the sternest look I could and said ”If you don’t stop strugglign right now and keep quiet, then I will be forced to make sure you keep quiet, do you understand?”
Her face paled as she looked at me, and said ” Åh gud, du mener du ville voldtage mig?” Well, I had no idea what she was saying, so I just replied ”Not if you stop fighting. Now, sit down on the bed!”
She stepped back as I let her go and sat down; looking at me in a way that showed me she was petrified. “Take your jacket off,” I said, “and then I’m going to tie you up. Is there anything in the flat I can use?”
“Der er en vis reb i køkkenet - en gammel vask linje,” she said, so I took her by the arm and said ”Show me.” She led me into the kitchen and opened a cupboard, wheer a coiled up length fo rope was sitting. Takign that and a pair of kitchen scissors, I took her bakc into the bedroom and sat ehr on the floor, pulling her hands behind her back and securing them together, before tying her legs together above her knees and around her ankles, the rope digging into the suede as they came together.
”Are you all right now,” I said as I knelt next to her and stroked her hair. She nodded and looked at me, as I said ”I need to make sure you stay quiet – do you have a scarf or something?”
” Jeg har et håndklæde i skabet på hylden,” she said as she nodded to the open wardrobe. Inside I found a small hand towel, thin but one I could roll into a strip and tie a knot in the middle of. As I puled the knot into her mouth, she said ””Takmmmmm” when I secured the ends at the back of her neck and left the room.
One of the hazards of the life of the cat burglar is that, from time to time, you inevitably end up getting in the way of someone else. There are ways of avoiding this, of course, communication lines and so on, but when you act on impulse it sometimes has rather – unexpected consequences.
In 1990 I was in the Wollaton area of Liverpool, when I saw that the front door of a house set back slightly from the road was slightly open. I had had to abandon a job the previous night, when the owner came home rather earlier than expected, so I needed to find some replacement funds. It was a nice area, with good looking houses, so I took the opportunity to walk quickly up the garden path and let myself in.
It was a semi-detached house, with a large hallway that I found myself standing in. There was no sound from inside, so I figured that the owner had just been careless when they left that morning. I walked into the living room, and started to search through the shelves and display cases for any sign of a safe.
I was concentrating on this, but a second instinct kicks in at times like these, and I sensed rather than heard somebody coming down the staircase. Hiding beside the door, I saw a woman walk past the living room door. She was about five foot nine, with long frizzed black hair that fell down the back of the purple jacket she was wearing. I could see she had a matching skirt on, and a pair of heeled purple suede shoes, but not a lot else.
She made her way into the kitchen, and I could hear the sound of water running. I knew there was no way of getting out of the house without her seeing, so regretfully I realised I would have to make sure she was secure. Slipping out of the door, I made my way cautiously to the kitchen.
She was standing by the kitchen sink, with her back to me, while I noticed on the wooden table a large black briefcase. Screwing my courage to the mast, I walked in and grabbed her from behind, putting my own gloved hand over her mouth and saying “Keep quiet now – I don’t want to hurt you.”
She had reached up to try to pull my hand down, but when she heard my voice she relaxed slightly and nodded her head. Letting her go, I turned her round and saw that she was wearing a dark blue blouse under her jacket. Curiously, she also had a pair of leather gloves on her hands, but I just put that down to the cold weather outside.
“What have you got in the bag?” I asked. “My supplies – I’m a... a salesperson,” she said, and as I opened it at first I believed her. I could see a selection of scarves in there, neatly folded and packed into individual plastic bags.
“I didn’t know there were door to door scarf saleswomen,” I aid as I looked back at her. “It’s rather a specialised skill,” she said with a smile. “I don’t suppose I can interest you in them?”
“Not for wearing, anyway,” I said as I picked up one – a small neck scarf, made from gold coloured silk. “I need to make sure you can’t raise the alarm – please, put your hands together in front of you.”
“I wondered if this was coming,” she said as she put her hands out, palm to palm in front of her. I took the scarf out of the bag and folded it into a thin band, before using it to bind her wrists tightly together. As I did so, she watched with mild interest, almost as if she was assessing my work.
“Very neat,” she said as I went back to the bag and took out a large Hermes style scarf, made from cream silk with a brown border and horse prints in brown. “Thank you,” I said as I helped her to sit down against a small stool by the wall, “now put your legs out and keep them together.
I looked up as I used the scarf to tie her ankles together, and saw that she was watching me again, with the look that said she was studying me. “Am I doing a good job?” I asked as I stood up.
“Not bad,” she said as I fetched another bag from her briefcase, this time taking out a deep brown head square. “You obviously have a lot of experience in this area.”
“I’ve been around a while,” I said as I tied her legs together above her knees. “Why – this happened to you before?”
“No tin this way, no,” she said as she looked at me. “I guess you’re going to gag me now?”
“Naturally,” I said as I took a pair of handkerchiefs and a large black square with white polka dots from the briefcase. “One question before I do so, however?”
“And that is?”
“Where do you keep your jewellery? I don’t want to make too much of a mess.”
She actually smiled as she said “My bedroom, second door on the left upstairs. See what you can find.” I stuffed the handkerchiefs into her mouth, tied the scarf over her mouth and left her sitting there, looking at her arms as I climbed up the staircase.
Now, at this point I thought I was going to take the jewellery, and then get out. As I opened the room door, however, I got the surprise of my life.
Sitting in a chair in the centre of the room was a woman in her late fifties, with brown permed hair. She was wearing a white blouse with a frilled front, a knee length black skirt and black patent leather heels, and as she looked at me her eyes widened.
I expect she wanted to say something, but she could not – There was a long blue, red and white scarf pulled between her lips, and it was obvious that something had been stuffed into her mouth underneath it. Her arm were pinned behind the back of the chair she was sitting in, with her elbows and wrist bound together with two more long scarves of differing colours, while as I walked round I could see her ankles and knees were secured together by yet more of the silk oblongs.
I checked the knots, and watched her eyes widened as she tried to call out to me as I left the room. Obviously I had walked in on something, and only one woman could tell me what. I went back into the kitchen, knelt beside her and pulled the scarf down from her mouth.
“It would appear I owe you an apology,” I said as I removed the mouth stuffing. “May I ask who you are?”
“My name’s Penny,” she said as she coughed slightly. “I’ve just started around here – and I had the bad luck to run into...”
“John – John Jacobs.”
“Pleased to meet you, John,” she said with a smile. “Any chance you can get me free?”
“I guess so – after all, you were here first,” I said as I started to untie the bonds. When she stood up, she rubbed her wrists and walked over to her bag. Opening it, she motioned for me to come over and look inside.
There, under the scarves, was a pile of jewellery that she had obviously taken from the woman upstairs. I smiled as I turned to her and said “How old are you anyway?”
“Sixteen – why?”
“You just learned one of the first important lessons of this trade.”
“Oh,” Penny said with a smile, “What’s that?”
“Next time, resist the urge to grab a drink until you are well away – time is freedom in our business.”
“I’ll remember that,” Penny said as she gathered up the scarves and put them in her bag. “So, what now?”
“Now”, I said as I took her by the arm, “You let an older person buy you a coffee – I want you to tell me all about yourself.”
I kept in touch with that young lady over that years, and eventually the opportunity came to point her in the way of a great career opportunity – but that is another story.
Remember earlier I was telling you about my encounter with Joanna Bigtree? In the late nineties, I found myself back in that Ealing street, after I had been to a fair at the town hall. As I walked down, I remarked to myself how little it had changed – yeah, the people around had, but the houses seemed to be the same, even the one I had broken into all those years ago.
To my surprise, I saw that the door was open. Now, by this time you would think I would have known better - and I did. I rang on the doorbell to see if anyone would come, but there was no sign of anyone approaching. Despite my own supposed maturity, I pushed the door open and let myself in.
The furniture was all different of course – minimalist IKEA instead of Conran, but the rooms somehow still managed to look the same. I was about to turn and leave when I heard a woman behind me saying “Can I help you?”
I turned round, and for a moment thought I had gone back nearly thirty years. There was the spitting image of Joanna Bigtree, wearing a black short sleeved top with a floral print of many colours, a short black linen skirt, dark stockings and heels.
“Forgive me,” I said quickly, “I rang the doorbell but when there was no answer...”
“You just decided to come in and have a look around.” Her accent had a faint American twang, but only a little – otherwise she sounded as if she had lived in London all her life. “Are you always so forward in coming forward.”
“Well, I have been known for that,” I said with a smile. “Truth be told, I visited this house a long time ago, and was curious to see if it had changed much.”
“Oh? When was that?”
“Oh – twenty five years ago now, I think.”
She smiled. “That was when my mother lived here – I just came back to take over the house. You were a friend of hers – Joanna Bigtree?”
“Well, we met only once, but I can definitely say I left an impression. You are her daughter?”
“Carly – pleased to meet you,” she said as she held out her hand.
“Pleased to meet you, Carly. How is your mother? It may only have been one time I met her, but I did enjoy her company.”
“Dead, I’m afraid – three months ago. The big C took her.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said with genuine sympathy. “Was it bad at the end?”
“Not really – we were there for her,” she said as she looked at me. “I didn’t catch your name – mum used to talk of the people she knew here.”
“Well, if truth be told I never gave her my name, you see...”
I looked at this young lady as something occurred to her. “You’re him, aren’t you – the cat burglar? Mum told me about the night you robbed her – she said it was the second most gentlemanly thing that ever happened to her.”
“I suppose I should be flattered,” I said, “What was the first?”
“Dad asking her to marry him on the deck of a 747,” Carly said with a smile. “So, do you still...”
“I’d prefer not to answer that, but I’m more of an antiques dealer now,” I said as I stood up. “look, you seem to be busy, so I’ll just..”
“Can you do it to me?”
“Tie me up – Mum said it was exciting and terrifying at the same time, and I want to know what she meant by that.”
“Won’t it look a bit suspicious?”
Carly took my hand in hers. “My boyfriend is coming in an hour and a half – it will be a nice surprise for him. Will you, please?”
Yet again I found myself wondering about modern youth, before saying “All right – but I need some rope and something to silence you with.”
She smiled and left the room as I looked round. Eventually I took a chair from the dining table – a high backed leather affair – and set it in the centre of the room facing the door. Eventually Carly returned with some coils of rope and a large black woollen scarf.
“Will these do,” she said, and when I nodded she sat herself down and put her hands behind her back. “Is this what it was like for her?”
“I think so,” I said as I crossed her wrist and tied them together, cinching the rope as she shuffled back and made herself comfortable in the chair. Allowing her arms to rest against the leather back, I walked round and knelt in front of her, crossing her ankles and tying them together with a second length of rope before repeating the process just above her knees. In all cases I made sure to cinch the coils, making them snug and secure.
“Can you make me really secure in the chair,” Carly said as she looked down at her legs. “I think I can,” I said as I took the longest length of rope and wrapped it around her lap and the chair, pushing the legs down into the seat before pulling her ankles up underneath and securing them with the free ends of the rope. She squirmed round a little, before smiling at me and saying “You haven’t lost any of your touch.”
“I hope not,” I said as I rolled up the woollen scarf. “What are you going to tell your boyfriend?”
“A mutual friend did it for me,” she said with a smile. “I’ll figure out who later. I’m ready now.”
Opening her mouth wide, she allowed me to pull the scarf in, closing her lips round as I tied the ends together under her hair. She really did look like her mother sitting there – but the thought of that beauty dying far too soon was one I chose not to dwell on. I left her there and walked out, closing the door behind me and going on the next thing in my life.
So my message – think things through thoroughly, but sometimes you just have to go with the flow...