Witness to Distress
Even as I sit here, writing this down, I find it hard to comprehend the events that I have witnessed over the last day. In many ways it answered questions that I had, but it also opened my eyes to a way of living and working that I did not think was possible in this time of closed circuit surveillance and security systems guarding almost everything. While I am grateful that I have emerged unscathed, I don’t think I will ever be able to forget the look on those two women as long as I live.
I’m getting ahead of myself – let me backtrack and start at the beginning. My name is Billie Bright, and I work as a reporter at what they laughingly call the “crime desk” for a news agency. Laughingly because it’s really just a part of our computer filing system, and at any rate the sort of stories I had been covering were not exactly major league or likely to give me a break with one of the major dailies.
That sort of story only comes around if you are extremely lucky, or if you make it yourself and luck has never been something I have been associated with. Hard graft is what got me to the position I have now, but that break seemed to keep eluding me. IF I am being honest, the fact that I’m not exactly what you would call a beauty sometimes works against me as well. The low cut blouse does seem to lead to advancement in certain branches of journalism far more quickly than talent, but that’s not something worth complaining about.
No, I had to dig out the story myself, and there was one that kept crossing my desk that intrigued me. There had been a number of robberies and home invasions over the last year or so performed by a group of women that called themselves the China Doll Gang. I say women, but there was no way of telling, as they had a unique modus operandus. Descriptions given by those who had been held by the gang were identical – three women, dressed entirely in grey with hoods over their heads, and white doll masks over their faces. They would break into a home, bind and gag anyone they found there, and proceed to either strip the place of valuables or, in one case, use their victims as hostages in order to persuade a supermarket manager to hand over the takings. They were methodical, and most curiously of all they were silent. They achieved their objectives without saying a single word – and that was unheard of in my admittedly limited experience.
That was what fascinated me – what would drive a group of three women to do these things and act in that way? What were the events that may have helped to shape their exploits? I asked my editor if I could dig a little further, and he gave me permission.
So I started by examining the police reports of the known incidences, and talking to those who were willing to talk about their experiences. What came over most of all from that was the feeling they described of utter dread when faced with three silent and featureless people, holding guns and doing the things they did through sheer force of will. I began to wonder what it must be like to be placed in that position, and to wonder even more why they did it.
My next step was to talk to psychologists and other experts, but they gave conflicting views as to what may be motivating them. Even the police forces involved were unsure as to what the reason behind these crimes – behind the obvious ones of robbery and extortion leading to financial game – might be. Yet the more digging I did, the more convinced I became that there was something more driving this group than mere avarice – and I wanted to know what that was.
So I asked some of the underworld contacts we used to spread the word that I was interested in understanding this trio. On reflection, and with the always perfect benefit of hindsight, I realise now that I should have told my editor what was going on, but as I say hindsight is always perfect…
Two weeks passed without incident, until yesterday afternoon. I had just finished my shift, and was heading back to my car to return home to a nice hot bath and a quiet evening in. I had just reached my car, and was trying to find my keys in my handbag, when I was grabbed from behind and a wet, sweet-smelling cloth was placed over my nose and mouth. I had no idea what was happening at first, but as I breathed in the fumes I realised that the smell was chloroform, and someone was trying to kidnap me. Reaching up with my hands, I tried to pull the hand away but the grip was like Iron, and I slowly drifted into unconsciousness. As I did so, I looked in the wing mirror of my car and caught a hazy picture a blonde haired woman holding me, but the enveloping blackness became complete and I passed out.
I had no idea how much time had passed, but slowly I came to and found myself seated in the back of a transit van with the windows blacked out. I was seated on a rug on the floor of the van, and in my hazy state I tried to bring my hands up to rub my eyes, only to realise that they were being held together by something. As I looked forward, I could see my legs, but while I had been wearing a blue leather skirt and black boots, I could see that my legs were in some sort of grey pants, with grey trainers over my feet. As to what was holding my hands behind my bag, I could see a thin white strap around my ankles, and realised that a zip tie was holding them together – it followed, therefore, that was what was around my wrists as well. My lips seemed to be stuck together so that I couldn’t speak, so some sort of tape had to be over them. The only remaining questions were where I was and who had done this to me?
The answer to that second question came first, as my eyes began to focus and the white shapes I had seen swimming around became clear as white, featureless faces looking down at me. Two of them to be precise, and the reason they seemed to be floating became clearer as my eyes adjusted to the light and saw they were dressed from head to toe in grey catsuits, with matching gloves and shoes, and the hood of the catsuit pulled over their heads.
With a growing sense of fear and horror, I realised that I had found the very people I was trying to understand – the China Doll Gang. True to what I had read, they didn’t say a word, but just stood there looking at me as if I was some sort of museum exhibit. What I didn’t understand at that time was where we were, or why they had me wearing grey clothes over my legs at least.
The side door of the van opened, and I could see through the gap that it was dark outside. A third woman dressed in an identical manner climbed in, and looked at the three of us sat there. Coming over to me, she reached behind and lifted something from a shelf behind me. Holding it in front of my eyes, I realised it was a mask identical to that worn by the other three, and without a word she put it over my face, pulling the straps over my head so that it was held firmly in place. Something was pulled over my head, but all I could see now was what was permitted by the slits that served as eyeholes within the mask. The ties around my wrists and ankles were then cut, and I was helped to my feet by the two who had been watching me.
As I brought my wrists round to rub them, I saw to my growing horror that grey gloves had been placed over my hands, and that my arms were also covered in grey fabric. Was it possible that they had disguised me as one of them? As if to answer that question, the person who had put the mask on me simply nodded, and producing a pistol went out of the van first, followed by me between the other two gang members.
We were in the driveway of a large house, and I felt that I had seen it somewhere before but wasn’t sure where. The four of us made our way quickly up the path and round to the rear of the building, where a light was shining out of a window. As we crept past, I glanced sideways and could see two women sat there. One looked as if she was in her early twenties, with a yellow silk blouse fastened around the waist with a wide black belt, a black knee length skirt and bare feet. The other was in her late forties, and looked as if she was the younger woman’s mother. She was wearing a top that looked as if it was a leotard, royal blue with a round neck, a brown peasant style skirt with an open pattern around the fringe, and brown suede boots. The two were holding drinks and laughing, and I wondered again where I had seen them before.
Reaching the back door, I watched as one of the gang produced a set of tools, and within seconds she had managed to unlock the back door. Entering a large kitchen area, we stood and listened as the door was silently closed behind us.
Laughter was coming from the room next door, and then a voice called out “I’ll go and make some coffee mum.” The three pulled back into the shadows, dragging me with them, and I suddenly realised that this was an actual robbery that I was witnessing.
The younger woman came into the kitchen, turned the light on, and went straight to the sink without realising that there was anyone else in there with her. Running the tap, she hummed to herself as she filled the kettle, plugged it in and switched it on, then turned around to take something from the cupboard that was behind us. The whistling stopped suddenly as she saw the four of us standing there, but I had been unable to utter a word of warning – whatever was over my mouth was proving very effective at gagging me.
One of the women beside me moved quickly forward, and before the young woman could say anything she had been grabbed around the waist and a gloved hand put over her mouth. The leader stepped forward, picked up a napkin from the kitchen table and stuffed it into the frightened woman’s mouth, before taking her by the arm and leading her towards the other room. The three of us came up behind, this time without me been held, as I had realised that I had to go through with whatever they did or someone else would be harmed.
The older woman stood up suddenly, dropping the magazine she had been reading, when our little party entered the room. Her first look was towards the younger woman, and when she called out “What have you done to my baby?” I knew they were mother and daughter. The Doll leader simply pointed the pistol she was carrying at the woman, and motioned to her to sit back down again.
“Who are you people? What do you want with us?” she asked, but no answers were forthcoming. Instead, one of the two who had been guarding me made her way to stand behind the chair the older woman was sat in, and producing a pistol of her own she kept guard. The leader then positioned herself in the room so that she could see everyone, and nodded at the other women beside me. It was then I contemplated the possibility of escape, but fear of what was going to happen to these new captives if I did stopped me. If I am being absolutely honest, so did a sense of wonder that I was involved in this, but my journalistic instinct was kicking in, and I resolved simply to watch and remember what was happening.
The last gang member walked forward and stood behind the young woman, and I noticed for the first time she was carrying a small satchel. Placing it on a table, she pulled out several coils of rope, and I watched fascinated as she unravelled one long length, found the middle and tied a small loop there.
Draping the rope over the younger woman so that the loop was at the back of her neck, she proceeded to pull the two loose ends under her armpits and wrap the ends around her arms, pulling as she did so, and I realised that by this process she had managed to pull the woman’s arms behind her back and then tie her wrists together. The rope was then passed through the loop, so that her arms and wrists were pulled up into her back. The rope was then passed around her arms and chest so that, by the time the final knot was tied, her upper body was secured in a way that looked impossible to get out of.
The Doll then took her by the arm and helped her to sit on the floor, with her back against a seat. She then reached up and removed the napkin from her mouth, and after a few moments of coughing the woman said “Mum, what’s going on here? Who are these people?”
The older woman had been sitting quietly, watching what was going on. “I think, Deirdre, that these are the robbers you read about and heard about from Dad. You are the China Doll Gang, aren’t you?”
The leader simply nodded, and pressed a finger to the lips of her mask. “We would be better off doing what they say, Deirdre” the older woman continued, “That way we get to tell people what happened.”
The one who had been tying up the woman called Deirdre produced another shorter length of rope, and doubling it up began to tie her legs together above her knees. After the rope was passed between her legs and used to tighten that binding, the loose ends were taken down towards her feet, and I watched as her ankles were expertly tied together.
Checking the tightness of the bonds, the Doll stood up and came to stand beside me. The leader then nodded at the Doll standing behind the older woman, and then towards the two of us. I was taken by the arm, and as I was led from the room I saw one of the Dolls taking a further longer length of rope and beginning to unravel it.
I was led upstairs, and one by one went through each of the rooms. Having produced a pistol of her own, in each room I was forced to either lie face down on a bed or sit in a chair, with my hands behind my head, and watch as the Doll systematically went through every drawer, box and cupboard, taking things as she did so and placing them in the sack she was carrying. All the valuables, money, credit cards and other items she could take were taken, but as we went to each room I kept getting this nagging feeling that I had seen the two women downstairs, and this house before.
Just where I had seen them became clear when we went into what must have been the master bedroom, and as I was forced onto the bed I saw a small photo on a bedside table. The two women were there, alongside a man who I recognised instantly. The head of the bureau that I work for!! This was his house that we were robbing.
In some way the Doll knew what I had seen, so she looked at me and very slowly nodded. As she went through the dressing table drawers, I realised that I was now in a next to impossible situation. If I even managed to reveal who I was, or get free, I would be accused of being part of this gang! That feeling gnawed away at me as we finished in the last of the rooms. Before leaving, the Doll went into the wardrobe and picked out two large silk squares, and holding them in the same hand as the satchel she took me by the arm and led me downstairs.
As we re-entered the room, the Doll took my hand and raised both her and my arm up in a gesture of triumph, lifting the satchel up in the other hand. Looking round, I could see that this room had also been searched in the same methodical manner. Deirdre and her mother were now sat on the floor, next to each other. By the looks of it, her mother had been tied in exactly the same way as Deirdre, except that the rope around her legs was covered by the long brown skirt she was wearing.
The Doll who had been with me handed one of the scarves she was carrying to her companion, and then to my astonishment she handed the other one to me. Looking at the leader of the Dolls, she motioned to the two of us that we should roll the scarves up, and I found I was unable to stop myself from copying the Doll beside me and rolling the scarf into a thick wide band, before tying a knot in the centre. WE both then sat on the couch beside the two women, me beside the mother and the other beside Deirdre, and we placed the knot in front of each of their mouths.
“I hope you all rot in hell for this,” Deirdre’s mother said as she opened her mouth, and I placed the knot firmly in the middle before bringing the loose ends round and tying the scarf tightly into place at the base of her neck. Deirdre was gagged in a similar way, and the lead Doll motioned to us both to stand up.
With the two bound and gagged women staring at us, the lead Doll left the room with the three of us coming up behind, and we exited the house in the same way that we came in. The three of us climbed into the back of the van, and the door was closed on us before I heard the engine starting and we moved away.
Just how did I feel about what had happened? Terrified and exhilarated at the same time, if you could believe that. I knew now what they felt, and yet I wasn’t part of it, I was an innocent if coerced participant, a witness to the distress these visits they made could cause. One other question was coming to mind now – what was going to happen to me?
As if in answer to that, the hood was pulled off my head and the mask removed. Before I had a chance to adjust my eyes, however, that sweet smelling cloth was placed over my mouth and nose again and I fell into a deep, deep sleep.
I came to an hour ago, and found myself back in my own flat, dressed in the same clothes I had been wearing the day before and laid out on my own couch. There were two items left for me on my table, and until I first looked at them I was beginning to wonder if I had just dreamt the whole thing. I didn’t think I had after I looked at them.
I have them in front of me now, and even though I’ve had a shower I can’t get that stench of what happened off me completely. One of the items is a photograph, showing me in the costume worn by the China Doll Gang, but with the mask in my hand and my face and hair clearly visible. It has a date and time stamp on it that shows it was taken the previous evening.
The other item was a note, which I have in front of me, and even though I’ve read it several times it still strikes me as one of the most unusual things I have ever seen,
By now you will have realised that you really did spend some time with us, taking part in some business we were conducting in the area. We had heard about your investigations, and wanted you to experience what it is like on a first hand basis.
Do not believe, however, that this means you understand us. Far from it, we would rather say that we understand you more from your time with us.
As you may have surmised, we chose our target carefully to give you a choice. As a journalist, we know you want to write the truth. As a person, however, you must begin to understand the dilemma you now face.
For make no mistake – if we see any reports of your time with us last night, and we will know if one is printed, this photo goes straight to your editor and the police, and you will have some explaining to do.
You will find that your car is outside, where it should be, and everything is as normal. It will be simply your word that you were abducted and forced into the situation by us, and we do not think that will be a very acceptable argument for the authorities.
So you have a choice. Publish and be damned, or use this experience to hone your skills and be a better reporter. For believe us, you do not want to cross our path again.
The China Doll Gang.
So here I am, typing this story knowing that I never dare submit it, for if I do I will be submitting myself to the authorities. It does make me wonder who else may have been treated this way, and if they have similar tales to tell. Sadly, I will never know until I am far, far older or this gang is caught. From what I saw last night, the former is far more likely to happen, and I will have to live with this burden for years to come.