The Netterton Jewels - Part 4
“So, was it a pleasant evening?”
Coco looked up at the young woman who was standing next to her. Small and petite, with dark hair and dressed on this particular day in a smart jacket and skirt with a camisole top underneath, she worked for Coco as her administrative assistant, taking care of paperwork and other duties as well as providing a useful additional resource for research. She also helped Coco out in other ways, in a different capacity, but today her focus was the work ahead.
“Yes, thank you, Soo, it was a very – interesting evening,” Coco said as she took a sip from the coffee cup sitting in front of her. “Excellent food, delightful company, and intriguing tales – that, however, is not that important. My host asked if we would undertake a piece of work for her, and I have agreed to do so in return for a small fee.”
“It’s not like you to do this – she must be a very persuasive lady.”
“More a case of respecting your elders – which you still need to remember from time to time, young Susan,” Coco said with a smile on her face. “At any rate, the favour she has asked presents some unique opportunities, both for you and for me.”
“I see,” Soo said as she sat down. “So, are you going to tell me what the favour is?”
By way of reply, Coco opened the copy of The Times to the political analysis page and handed it to her assistant, pointing at a picture next to an article. It showed a tall, slender, well-dressed man with greying hair, formally attired in a dress suit with a white bow tie. There was also a woman of middle years, still stunningly beautiful with raven-black hair, wearing a floor-length evening gown. Between them stood a younger woman of perhaps 18 or 20 years, somewhat taller than the older woman and wearing a pale blue dress with a dark blue bolero jacket. Looking down at the caption, Soo read “Sir Desmond and Lady Mary Wolverton with their daughter, Caroline, at the opening of the new season at the Royal Ballet.” Raising an eyebrow, she passed the paper back to Coco.
“The Cabinet Secretary? This favour is going to involve robbing the second most powerful man in Britain? A nice, easy, simple job, then?”
Coco smiled. “By know you should have realised, Soo, that the challenge can be everything. Anyway, I have taken on much more demanding ventures and succeeded.”
“True – but he is not exactly the most public of men, even given his position. He seems to embody the old-fashioned definition of a civil servant – a shadowy figure in the background behind the politician. What are you proposing to do – walk up to the front door and ask to let them rob you?”
“Maybe – unless I can think of something better. This file,” Coco said as she placed a brown manilla folder on the table, “contains all that my host last night could give me on Sir Desmond, his family and his arrangements. Study it, and we’ll discuss it in the morning and see if you can identify any gaps.
“Right now, we need to sort out the Deptford problem – bring me the file, will you?”
The following morning found Coco and Soo sitting in the front room of Coco’s house, a number of documents set out on a coffee table in front of them. As Coco studied a sheet of paper, her glasses pushed up on top of her head, Soo was looking at a sketch map.
“From the information we were given,” she said as Coco continued to read, “Sir Desmond is something of a rarity for a civil servant.”
“How so?” Coco asked, settling her glasses on her nose so that she could see across the room.
“He is considered to be utterly trustworthy, and even his enemies admit he has many good qualities. He eschews most of the trappings of the rank he holds, he keeps his police protection to the bare minimum, he lives modestly – well, as modestly as you are likely to see someone like him living.
"The Wolverton residence is in Kensington, but in a terraced row as opposed to detached and surrounded by walls. He lives there with his wife and daughter and has only one servant – a cook of mature years.”
Soo handed Coco a photograph of a woman in her sixties, seen entering the house as the door was held open for her. She looked at it, before nodding and handing the photograph back.
“Her name is Agnes Gray – has been with the family for years, but doesn’t live at the residence. She actually lives in a nearby street, and walks there at 9 am every morning.
“Young Caroline is apparently about to turn 21 – and her father has allegedly got her a very special birthday present. Details are unclear, but it is rumoured to a collection of jewellery from over 100 years ago. The gossip columns are falling over themselves to get the rights to publish pictures of her birthday party.”
“Never underestimate the capacity of the great British public to read complete and utter nonsense,” Coco said as she set the papers down. “In this case, however, they are right – she is getting a very rare set of jewellery, and that’s the primary target we have been given. Hopefully, there will be other things we can acquire too, but that would be a bonus and mustn’t distract us from our assignment.”
“As for Lady Wolverton, she is the epitome of a society wife – one of the best known hostesses in the area, does lots of charitable work, and quietly stands by her husband when required. I believe they met when she worked at the Italian embassy over here, but if you spoke to her now, or heard her when she has been interviewed, you would never have known she wasn’t English.”
Coco looked at the street map that Soo had spread out. “Well, we know he has eschewed a formal police presence, but you can bet there will be some sort of surveillance going on discreetly. Alarm systems?”
“Unknown – although it’s his own house, the details of the alarm system, and even the internal layout, are classified as secret by the security services. What I’m sure is that whatever police presence there may be in the area is not set up for his personal protection, or it would be in this dossier.”
Coco sat back and thought for a moment. “We need to get that internal information,” she said eventually, “and I can’t be the one to get it.”
“For one thing, I have that conference in Amsterdam to attend and speak at. For another, there is an outside possibility that I might be recognised by Lady Mary.”
“But I thought you two had never met – and besides, you always disguise yourself.”
“It’s a long story and I’ll tell you another time. Nonetheless, I can’t take that risk. You say the redtops and gossip magazines are trying to get rights to her birthday party? Soo, I need you to do a couple of things while I am away...”
The woman standing in the porch looked up at the tall, elegantly-dressed woman who had opened the door.
“Yes, I am Lady Wolverton,” she confirmed in a flawless English accent, “How can I help you?”
“Annabelle DuPlessis, from Harper’s Bazaar – we spoke on the telephone two days ago?”
Mary Wolverton looked at the young woman standing there, her blonde hair cut in a bob that came down around her ears. Her blue eyes were framed by a large pair of glasses. She was wearing a tweed jacket and skirt, a brown silk roll-neck sweater under the jacket. Her knee-length high-heeled brown leather boots made up for her lack of height. Over her shoulder was a large bag.
“Ah yes, Miss DuPlessis – forgive me, I had forgotten we had an appointment for this morning. Do please come in.” Mary held the door open to allow the reporter to come in, closing it behind her with a casual nod towards a car parked nearby.
“Please”, she said, “come this way” as they made their way through a large hallway to a door in the far wall. Opening it, they entered a large office and Annabelle took a seat at one side of the desk, Mary sitting at the other side. Lady Wolverton was wearing a white blouse, with a large brooch fastened at the neck, and flared trousers.
“So, Miss DuPlessis...”
“Please, call me Annabelle.”
Mary smiled at the young lady. “So, Annabelle, the Bazaar is interested in doing an article about my daughter and me?”
“Yes, we are – given the upcoming birthday, we feel that our readers may be interested to hear about your current work and your plans for the future, as well as hopefully see something of the way that you live. That is, if you’re willing to allow us to do that?”
“Well, we have resisted for some time offers from some of the, shall we say less reputable magazines, but yours is one I believe will be able to show us in the right manner. So yes, Caroline and I give you consent to prepare the article, and my husband has given his backing.”
“I presume Sir Desmond will not be joining us for this?”
“No – while he is content for us to do it, he prefers to stay in the background. A lifetime of civil service training, I’m afraid. So, what can I do for you today?”
“Well, I wonder if I could ask some preliminary questions of you and Caroline, and perhaps have a tour of the house to start to identify locations we could use for the photo shoot – if that is agreeable to you, that is.”
“It is, but Caroline is out at the moment and will not be back for an hour or so. However, we can talk for a while, and then I could show you the house. Excuse me a moment.” She pressed a button on the desk, and after a few minutes a grey haired lady entered the room. She was short, and perhaps a little overweight but with an engaging smile.
“Some coffee while we talk?” Mary said, and Annabelle nodded in agreement. “Agnes, coffee for two please, and when Miss Caroline returns could you ask her to join us?” The woman nodded, smiled again and turned to leave the room.
“Our cook. Agnes has been with the family since we moved here, and we would be lost without her skills. I can cook a little, but she is an expert. Now, where would you like to begin?”
The conversation lasted for about an hour, as Annabelle took notes in shorthand. As they finished, she reached into her bag and took out a digital camera. “Will it be all right for me to take a few pictures?” she asked, and Mary nodded in agreement. The young woman stood up and paced round the room, taking shots from various angles until she was satisfied, before sitting again.
“Well,” Mary said as she placed her cup on the table, “If you are ready, perhaps I can show you some of the other rooms in the house. I regret to say I cannot show you all of them, for security reasons, but those you may wish to feature I can take you to.”
“Yes – my husband’s office, for example, but you will not need to worry about them. I can tell you what they are, but not allow you into them. So, where would you like to start?”
“Well, if you are willing, we could start with any rooms upstairs – such as the bedrooms – and then work down from there.” Lady Wolverton’s eyebrows rose slightly, so Annabelle continued “Sometimes our readers like to see photos of the people we are writing about in informal settings, and with a house such as yours that can often mean the bedroom.”
The door opened, and a young woman walked in, removing a faux fur jacket as she did so. “You wanted to see me, Mama,” she said as she walked in, the heels of her boots clicking on the wooden floor.
“Yes, dear, I did. Caroline, this is Annabelle DuPlessis from Harper’s Bazaar. Annabelle, my daughter, Caroline Wolverton.”
“A pleasure to meet you at last,” Annabelle said as she took the hand the young woman held out. Caroline had her mother’s face and eyes, but was taller than her by a good three inches, which Annabelle assumed came from the father’s side and which made her own modest height feel particularly short.
“So you’re the reporter that wants to write all about us?”
“Well I hope to,” Annabelle said with a smile. “I was just explaining to your mother how important it is to find good settings for the photos to go with the article, and was wondering if I could see your bedrooms.”
“Why don’t you take her, Caroline,” Mary said as she sat down, “I need to make some telephone calls. When you have finished, please come back here and we will arrange a date when you can come to do the interview and take photographs.”
“Come with me,” the younger woman said to Annabelle as she stood up. “Thank you for your time, Lady Wolverton,” she said as she picked up her bag, leaving with Caroline as Mary looked down at some documents on her table.
“You’ll have to forgive Mother,” Caroline said as she walked up the stairs, the heels of her boots clicking as she did so, “She’s a stickler for formality and protocol, but she’s not really that scary when you get to know her. So, where do you want to start?”
The next hour passed in Caroline showing their visitor the main bedrooms of the house, Annabelle taking photographs and making notes as she did so. The offices, as Mary had said, were off limits, but the two women talked about other matters. Eventually Caroline lad Annabelle into a large room with a variety of chairs and walls lined with books.
“This is our reception room,” Caroline said as Annabelle started to take pictures. “It’s where my birthday party is going to be based.”
“Ah yes – how does it feel to be 21?”
“I don’t know yet – but I can’t wait for the party. Apparently Daddy has something very special for me – it’s meant to be a secret, but I’ve heard them talking about it.”
“When is it?”
“The party’s next Monday, but apparently they’re bringing whatever it is on Sunday and locking away somewhere for safety. We have a very special safe in the house, you know.”
“Well, I’d expect nothing less. After all, you are a wealthy and important family.”
“Which is why you are here, Annabelle. Anyway, we need to get back to Mother. Do you have everything you need.”
Annabelle replaced the camera in her bag. “Yes, I think I have all that I need to plan the interview and shoot now. After you.”
“So we will see you in two weeks time, Miss DuPlessis?”
“I look forward to it, Lady Wolverton, and to meeting you again, Caroline.”
Annabelle shook hands with both women as she took her leave from the front door. As she turned to leave, she caught a glimpse again of Lady Mary nodding to somebody. Walking down the street, she glanced at the parked cars, mentally noting a few things as she quickly walked to the nearest station.
It took Annabelle an hour or so for her to return to the semi-detached house in Muswell Hill. Letting herself in, she placed her bag on a table and picked up a mobile phone she had left there. She listened to the messages and nodded to herself before going upstairs to a small room with a dressing table and an illuminated mirror. She sat down and removed her boots, pausing to massage her toes. Very high heels disguised her height but they were tough on the feet. The spectacles came off next, making the room an impenetrable blur until she removed her contact lenses, revealing her natural hazel eye colour. She carefully removed the blonde wig and set it on a wig block. Her brown hair was pinned up with several kirbigrips, which she removed then shook her head and ran her fingers through the tangle to straighten it. Her jacket and skirt were carefully hung up in a capacious wardrobe while the brown silk sweater went in the laundry basket. She sat down with a packet of cleansing wipes to remove the last traces of Annabelle DuPlessis from her face.
Returning downstairs, fully herself again and dressed for comfort in sweatshirt, leggings and a short skirt, Soo opened her bag and took out the camera she had used during her visit to the Wolvertons. She unfastened two flaps inside the bag and extracted the hidden video cameras built into it. Gathering up all three cameras, she made her way to her desk in the office at the rear of the house to see how her shots had come out and to start composing a report.
“Good morning, Coco – how was your flight home?”
As Soo closed the office door behind her, Coco turned and placed the book she was reading on the desk. “Mercifully short – the wait to get through Passport Control and get my case back was longer than the time in the air. Any messages for me while I was away?”
“A few minor matters – I took care of them on your behalf, and I also sent that report you asked me to finish off to the client.”
“Excellent – and the other matter?”
Soo smiled as she handed a typed document to her employer. “The main points are there – I’ll make some coffee and go through the supporting material with you.”
Coco looked at her young assistant as she left the room. She was going from strength to strength and was already a valuable asset in so many ways. Turning her attention to the file, she began to look through the information and notes that Soo had made.
As Soo brought a tray in with two steaming mugs, and set it on the table, she lifted the lid of a laptop computer that was already sitting on the desk. She tapped a few keys and manipulated a remote control. As the software started, the two watched as the face of Lady Mary Wolverton appeared on the large high-definition television screen in the room. They watched for some time, Coco making the occasional note, as Soo recapitulated the tour that she had been granted of the Wolverton residence, using a combination of the high-quality stills she had taken and the video footage that she had shot covertly.
“I do like these new cameras,” Coco said as she watched her assistant’s work, “so neat and tiny. What about the thermal photographs?”
“I’m coming to those,” Soo said as she brought the relevant images up on the screen. “As you suspected, they don’t have a very sophisticated security system in the non-secure rooms – they seem to pride themselves on being safe enough. Two interesting things, though.”
Coco looked up. “Which are?”
“First, despite what your sources say, there is an unmarked car watching the house.” Soo jumped to the end of the video, footage taken after she had left the Wolvertons’ house, rewound it a few seconds and froze the picture. “That car there – I saw Lady Wolverton signalling to someone, and I’m sure it was the only car in the street that was there both when I arrived and when I left.”
Coco nodded. “Good work – what’s the second thing?”
“There’s a hidden room. When I was pacing the rooms, the number of steps on the top floor didn’t match the bottom. I couldn’t see why, until I saw this image from the library.”
Soo brought another photograph up on the screen. The older woman stood and moved closer to the television to study it more closely. “Well, well, well,” she finally said. “So, when is the party?”
“The day after tomorrow,” Soo said as she looked at the calendar. “That other thing you asked me to look into – I have the file here, but why do you need to know so much about her?”
“Well,” Coco said as she looked at the second file Soo handed her, “because I think you’re right.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“I think you have suggested the way in to me already. Now, here’s what we are going to do...”
It was a grey, cold morning as the two women made their way along the street. They were both wearing heavy coats, their collars turned up against the cold, and one was carrying a duffel bag with her. As they approached the line of terraced houses, they ducked down a side street and made their way along the back alley, stopping eventually behind a simple wooden fence with a high gate in it.
As one woman watched, the other one took a thin blade and slipped it into the side of the gate, slowly taking it up until she felt some resistance. Continuing to raise the blade, she slowly lifted a latch until the gate swung inwards. Quickly, quietly, the two women slipped inside and took off their greatcoats.
The smaller of the two women was wearing a dark jumper and leggings, with soft shoes and gloves, and pulled a black stocking over her head, covering her hair and eyes as she did so. The other woman was wearing a black cotton jumper and leggings, with a pair of knee-length felt boots over her legs and short black kid leather gloves on her hands. A woollen hat had been pulled over her head, but as she reached up and pulled on the hem it came down and covered her face, leaving only her mouth and eyes showing. They looked at each other and nodded as they quickly made their way to the rear of the house, keeping to the stone paths as they did so.
The door that led to the kitchen was an old wooden one, and it only took the women a few moments to pick the lock and open it wide. They moved in, closing the door behind them noiselessly, and made their way along the downstairs hallway. Placing the bag at the foot of the stairs, they removed a number of items and made their way slowly up the staircase, looking all the time as they did so. At the top of the staircase, they slowly opened a door and looked in, before closing it and moving to the next room. Again opening the door quietly, they slipped in and closed it behind them, taking up a position on either side of the bed and looking at the woman sleeping there.
The first that Agnes Gray knew of her day was when she was woken by a gloved hand covering her mouth, and her eyes opening on two masked women looking down on her. One stood back slightly from the bed, her face no more than a silhouette with the black stocking that covered it. The other woman was leaning right over her, incongruously bright blue eyes showing through the holes in the woollen mask covering her face. She addressed Agnes in a crisp, refined Scottish accent that made it clear that absolutely no nonsense would be tolerated. “Don’t say a word, Agnes – just do as we say, and you will be just fine.”
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