The Cat's Challenge

You can’t always get what you want,

You can’t always get what you want,

But if you try somehow, you might find,

You get what you need


Oh hello there – I was just listening to Mick and the boys again.  So, you’ve come back to hear another tale have you?  Well, how about I tell you about the stupidest, yet most exciting bet I ever took on in my professional career.  Grab a seat and I’ll pour us some tea.


This would have been about 25 years or so ago now, and I had built up my reputation to the point where I was welcome in any establishment that catered to those in our trade.  One night, I went for a quiet pint in the Rope and Gag, a special little pub known to a select few, and I was just sitting there having my pint of Mackesons and reading the paper when one of my esteemed colleagues came in.


When I say “esteemed colleague”, I guess “hated rival” would have been nearer the mark, for he was everything I felt was starting to go wrong in our business.  Young, brash, not afraid to boast and tell of how he terrorised this little old lady or frightened the life out of some poor mother while he was robbing a place.  You know how I feel about this sort of thing – no finesse, no style, no craft involved.  Well, for some reason on this occasion he got to me more than he usually did, so I put my paper down, stood up and called over.


“Hey – when did the word discretion leave your vocabulary?”


Well, he turned and just stared at me, then shouted back “About the same time I realised I didn’t need it.  Why – do you think you can do better your way?”


“I know I can, and I’ll put it to the test any day!”


Yeah, I know – maturity just left by the exit and I walked right into it.  He stared at me and then did something I could not resist in those days – he made me a bet.


“All right, master cat burglar – I pick the site, and you show me you can get in and out and steal as much as possible in the most subtle manner possible.  You take nothing on your back, nothing in a bag or satchel, just whatever tools you can carry on your pocket.  If you can do at the place I pick and get out without being captured, I will give you £1000, no questions asked.  What do you say?”


I swear, at the time I was just seeing red or I would have spotted the trap right away, but I agreed and we shook hands on the deal in front of an audience – which meant I had to get through with it.  It was only then I asked the question I should have asked first.


“And what is the target?”


A sly grin crossed his face, and he mentioned an address in Knightsbridge.  I knew the street – old houses turned into flats for the new young people who were moving into the area – so I asked which flat at that address.


“All of them – in one night” was his reply.


Well, of course I was stuck, so I went back to my pint and began to think about what I was going to do about this.


Now, I need to explain how the house was divided up.  It was an old three-storey building, with three flats in the main body and a kitchen flat in the basement.  I went round to explore the area, and in the guise of someone doing a consumer survey visited each flat in turn.  The basement flat was occupied by a lovely old lady in her sixties, who acted as a concierge of sorts.  On the ground floor was a young secretary, a banker in the city had the first floor flat, and the second floor was an artist who had her studio there.  In those days, security on outer doors was a little more lax than it is today, but I also discovered purely by chance that the lady in the basement flat kept spare copies of the door keys for the flats.  A plan was starting to form in my mind as to the approach to take.


The night of the challenge came, and I met my “friend” outside the building along with a pair of impartial witnesses.  As promised, I came with no bags, no tools except for a small pocket knife, and no other equipment, but he was gracious enough to allow me the knife.  I was dressed as I usually did at the time for these jobs – black sweater and trousers, leather gloves and a black woolly hat on my head.


Shaking hands with all, I went across the road and started to get to work.  I knew the key here was going to be getting in and out without any fuss or bother, so I needed those spare keys from the basement flat.  Also, I didn’t want to take anything form the flat if possible, so my plan was to quietly break in there, get the keys, then work my way down from the top.


The other problem I had, as I looked up, was that there were lights on in all the flats, so someone was in each one, and I didn’t have anything if I needed to secure someone to do my job properly.  All in all, an interesting evening ahead.


Sneaking down to the basement, I jimmied open a window with my knife and slipped into the first flat.  Fortunately, there was no-one home, so I quickly located the spare keys and pocketed them, before letting myself out of the flat door and going back up to the street.  I then slipped quietly into the lobby area, and made my way to the top floor.


As you know, I normally don’t use masks or stockings over my head when I’m about my work – I find it restrictive – but on this occasion I had seen all the residents before, and by the looks of things the other three flats had someone in them, so I was glad he hadn’t checked my hat properly.  If he had, he would have realised it was actually a rolled-up balaclava, so as I made my way up to the top floor I did what I very rarely did or do now and pulled it down over my head so that only my eyes and mouth were showing.


Using the key, I quietly opened the front door of the second floor flat and made my way in.  I could hear noise coming from a room, so having first closed the door behind me I crept along the corridor and peeked into the room that light was shining out of.


At that time, one of the fashions was to wear old denim dungarees with white t-shirts, and that’s exactly what the young lady I saw was wearing while she was painting at a canvas.  She had short, spiked bleached hair, and a rolled band was tied in her hair.  She never looked round while I watched her, admiring the skill she was applying to her art, before I slipped past the door and made my way towards where I believed the bedroom was.


Searching quickly and carefully through her room, I managed to find a number of items of good jewellery, some money and other things that I could secrete in my pockets, but I was keeping one ear open for the sound of footsteps in case she left the room.  Never occurred to me to check if she was actually wearing shoes, did it?  For when I turn around, there she is standing in the doorway gaping at me with her mouth wide open.


Well, I was my usual calm and polite self, so I asked her if she wouldn’t mind sitting down no the bed for a few minutes while I explained why I was there.  She walked over and sat down, and listened as I explained I was robbing her and the other flats that night, so if she cooperated I would go easy on her.  As it turned out, she had no particular love for her neighbours, but was afraid of what I might do to her, but when I told her I only wanted to make sure she couldn’t raise the alarm and make my getaway, she agreed to do what I asked.


I had found, when searching her room, a drawer full of long chiffon scarves of the type that were popular back then, so I asked her to lie down and make herself comfortable on the bed.  As she did so, I took one of the scarves and rolled it into a band, then used it to tie her wrists together in front of her.  Taking a second scarf, I passed it under her waist and tied it round her wrists to keep them in place, and then a third scarf was used to tie her ankles together.  I checked she was comfortable, and then I took a bandana that I had found in the same drawer and used it to gag her.  Checking the knots were secure and well out of her reach, I wished her a good night and left the flat, closing the door quietly behind me.


Now, I made my way to the flat on the first floor.  Again opening and closing the front door quietly behind me, I peeked into the living room and saw two women sitting there.  The flat owner was one, and the other was older yet looked enough like her to let me guess that she was her mother.


I realised then that, if I needed to secure one of them, both would have to be bound, and I would need something to take care of that quickly.  With that in mind, I stopped off in her bathroom before I went to search the bedrooms, and found what I was looking for in the medicine cabinet.  Pocketing the items, I then sneaked to the bedroom.


The haul here was more considerable.  This was the early 80’s, and the concept of the yuppie had just been popularised, so this lady banker had a considerable amount of expensive jewellery, as well as a small safe which when I opened it contained a small fortune in notes.  I pulled my jumper up, and unclipped an item I had picked up on a recent visit to the United States – a money belt, which I proceeded to fill with my finds.


As I reclipped the belt around my waist and pulled my jumper back down, I heard the click of heels coming down the corridor.  Standing behind the door, I waited as it opened and the banker came in.  She was dressed in a high collared white blouse, straight grey pinstripe skirt and high heeled patent leather shoes, and as she entered the room I could see the shocked look in her eyes.


As much as I abhor violence, speed was of the essence now, so I grabbed the woman by the arm with one hand and clamped my gloved free hand over her mouth.  I whispered into her ear “All I want is your money and jewellery, if you do what I say you and your mother will be fine” and frog marched her into the main room.


As we came in, her mother stood up and stared at the two of us.  She was wearing a royal blue jacket with padded shoulders and matching skirt, and was about to say something when I interrupted her.  I asked her if she was going to cause any trouble, because if so I would have to hurt her daughter, and she shook her head.  I then said to both of them that if they did what I said, they wouldn’t be hurt, and asked the older woman to kneel on the floor, with her head on the chair and her hands behind her back.


As she did this, I took one of the two rolls of medical tape I had found out of my pocket, and gave it to the banker, telling her she had to tape her mother’s wrists behind her back.  Looking at me all the time, she walked over and began to wrap the tape round, with her mother telling her it would be all right.  I then told her to help her mother up, which she did, and told the older woman to sit down and the younger one to start taping her mother’s ankles together.


Once she had done this, the younger woman walked back over to me, and taking the roll of tape I bound her wrists behind her back, before sitting her down and crossing her ankles before taping them.  Taking a seat myself, I asked if they were both all right, and explained I was only interested in the stuff I could steal and carry, not in them.


Taking the roll of sticking plaster I had also found, I tore a strip off and stuck it over the banker’s lips, followed by her mother.  I then switched the television on for them to watch, pulled the telephone out of the wall and left them in the flat.


Two down, one to go, and that was the ground floor flat the secretary was in.  Making my entrance and peeking in the main room as before, I saw that she was working out while watching an exercise video of the type that had started to become popular.  She was wearing a pink bodysuit and a light green leotard, with baggy leggings and ballet slippers, and was oblivious to the fact I was in her flat.


Again, it was the work of a few minutes to find her bedroom and purloin her valuables, but this time professional decency dictated that I left her in a similar state to the other flat owners.  I found a couple of belts from towelling dressing gowns, and a flannel, and made my way back to the main room.


The girl had just finished her workout, and turned around to see me standing there, dressed from head to toe in black and holding the belts.  “Are you a burglar,” she said, and as I nodded she fainted.


Well, that made my job a little easier.  Dropping the items I was holding, I picked her up from the floor and placed her on a settee that was in the room.  It was simple then to sue the belts to tie her ankles and wrists together, and then the flannel was stuffed into her mouth. I didn’t secure it in – I had to be sure at least one person would be able to raise the alarm – but I did get out as quickly as I could.


Pausing only to roll my balaclava back up to be a hat, I let myself out of the front door, back into the basement flat and replaced the keys, before slipping back out and joining my colleagues across the road.


Back at the Rope and Gag, we found a quiet alcove and looked at my gains.  MY “friend” admitted I had won the bet, especially when I showed the small carriage clock I had taken as the one item from the downstairs flat, and bought the customary round of drinks.


For the record, by the way, the clock was mine - I just did not have the heart to take anything from the sweet old dear, so I secreted it outside earlier that day to pick uo when I needed it.


The papers two days later had details of the simultaneous raids on the flats, but nothing to indicate one person had done them all.  Fear plays tricks with people’s memories, and I had hoped that would be the case then as well.


Did I ever try anything like that again?  No way, my friend – at least not on my own.  But that is a tale for another day. So, fancy going for a pint?