by Brian Sands
Lisette regained consciousness slowly. As she became more fully aware of her surroundings, a cosy front sitting room, its bay window looking out upon a narrow village lane, the loud ticking of a grandfather clock in the hall just out of sight, that the large au pair was tying the final knots at her wrists. She was seated in one of the wooden framed kitchen chairs. It had evidently been brought into the sitting room for that purpose. Her ankles were already tied neatly together and anchored to one leg of the chair, high heels on the carpeted floor. She raised her head and tried to focus on the figure that lounged before her in one of the deep armchairs that belonged to the room. Having bound her wrists, the woman behind her began looping coils of rope about her waist, securing her to the back of the chair. Lisette gasped as the cords were drawn tight, restricting her waist and pressing her lower back against the chair's frame.
"Welcome back from wherever it is people go when they're unconscious," said the younger woman sitting in front of her in an affected, supercilious drawl.
Who is this? Lisette wondered dazedly. Oh yes, Baroness Bindapoost the writer. I must have been out, long enough for them to fetch a chair in here, put me in it and tie me up.
Lisette's head ached and her nose felt stuffy. Perhaps she had been unconscious for longer than she thought possible. Her mouth was parched and a sickly-sweet odour clung to her senses. Knocked out and then chloroformed? She shivered. It felt cold in the room, or was it delayed shock? She was wearing only a thin light green silk blouse and an equally flimsy mauve skirt of fine cotton.
"Wh- What have you done to me?" Lisette was surprised at how weak she felt. It took a huge effort to speak.
"We had to deal with you quickly. Unhappily it was necessary to knock you out with a blow. We had certain tasks to carry out and you were an inconvenient interruption. So I took the expedient of chloroforming you as well."
"H- How long …?"
"You've been out to it for more than an hour. That was long enough. As you can see, we now have time to deal with you more efficiently."
"What are you going to do with me?" Lisette found her voice growing a little stronger.
"It's necessary to detain you here indefinitely," replied Baroness Bindapoost. "It is a regrettable necessity I assure you, Miss Rivers, but your investigations come to an end here."
"People will notice my disappearance," Lisette argued, "You won't …"
"Get away with this? Oh but we shall. Word has it that you are on holiday for two weeks. Your London office was kind enough to apprise us of that fact when we enquired. We searched your room, found your business cards, we know who you are. You will not be missed for some time. When we are ready to release you we will do so, when our work in this sleepy little village is done. You succeeded in escaping twice from our colleagues at the old mill, but this is as far as you go."
Lisette remembered exploring the village on foot when, coming in sight of an old water mill lately transformed into a local museum, she had noticed a small unmarked van parked outside and two men acting suspiciously. She had crept up closer to see what they were doing. They were carrying small rectangular parcels wrapped in brown paper and string from the building to the van. Lisette had been about to make a cautious retreat when one of the men chose a different route of egress from the mill. He came around the corner of the building behind her. She was discovered, overpowered, and made prisoner.
"You're going to hold me here?"
"What better place than the guesthouse you originally booked into, and where you began your snooping? Or we may choose somewhere else, if it seems necessary to move you. For the time being it is here. It's the off-season. You are our only guest. Oh, and another thing. You will notice that we have taken that wide belt from your waist. We found the twisted remains of cotton thread back at the mill that had secured the blade, and of course we found the blade where you had slipped it loosely back into the belt. Very neat my dear!"
There had been an impressive inspection of the bathroom floor at the mill. Some criminals to Lisa's chagrin could be as meticulous about clues as the police.
The woman looked at her wristwatch. "Time for my tea and scones. I will take them in the kitchen."
Baroness Bindapoost rose from her armchair and stretched elegantly, showing with intended irony the contrast between her freedom of movement and the ropes that restrained Lisette.
"The girl …" the big woman began.
"Ah," Baroness Bindapoost paused at the doorway and addressed Lisette. "Please do not create a fuss by screaming or calling for help, Miss Rivers, otherwise I will ask Miss Whipple here to gag you. She has calico and dressmaking silks in her sewing box that will do very nicely. This is an isolated location, not a house for a block on either side, and it is unlikely that anyone will hear you. So try not to be a nuisance."
As soon as the two women were out of the room, Lisette tested her bonds. She was held fast. Miss Whipple had done a good job of the tying-up. Lisette looked through the window into the narrow side street. It was deserted and she could not remember seeing anyone pass down the lane during the brief conversation with the Baroness. A false name if ever there was one, she thought.
The guesthouse had appeared innocent enough when she booked in, and almost empty except for the baroness and her aides. To all intents and purposes they appeared to be running the premises. She had inadvertently stumbled into a den of thieves.
Lisette fought down panic and tried to take stock of her position. Captured a day ago when she happened upon the mysterious delivery van, she had been held hostage in the mill museum by two men who were obviously the muscles of the gang. At first she was locked inside what had once been a small bathroom. She had not been bound because they were keeping a sharp watch on her. However, when one of her guards in the adjoining room had gone out for a smoke she managed to prise open a window and shin down a drainpipe into the lane below. Unfortunately her escape attempt was discovered immediately. She was intercepted by one of the goons as she stepped from the mouth of the lane into a main street and hustled roughly back into the building.
The second escape attempt was more difficult. She had been bound hand and foot and locked once again in the ancient bathroom. This time the blade secreted in her belt was the means of freeing her from the bonds. She exited through the same window as before and found her way through the village streets without being apprehended a second time.
Lisette's mistake was in returning to the guesthouse before alerting the police, not knowing that it was the robbers' headquarters. Gang members were awaiting her as she entered on the way to her room. That was when the blow to the nape of her neck was applied, followed by the chloroforming and transfer to the sitting room where she was now being held.
She looked about the small room. The situation seemed hopeless. The old ropes at her wrists, though frayed out into separate strands, had been tied so tightly that there was no feeling in her hands. The cords around her waist and ankles made sure that she could not get out of the chair. Lisette's mind was stupefied and as numb as her hands. The smallest movement brought sharp pain that inhibited struggling.
Slowly the afternoon passed. She was aware that there might be a guard taking her or his ease in an adjoining room, but no one came in to check on her. There was no need. Lisette's bonds were tight and escape proof.
The shadows cast by the row of houses were beginning to lengthen in the narrow street when Lisette saw a dark figure approaching on the far side. It appeared to be that of a man in a long overcoat and a cap. Scream! She thought frantically. Scream! As the person came abreast of the room in which Lisette sat she cleared her throat and made a desperate effort.
"Help! Help me! Please. Help."
To Lisette's relief the man came to a stop. He looked around, puzzled.
"Help! In here. I'm being held prisoner. Please help!"
The man found the source of Lisette's cries. He crossed the road and came to the bay window. He leaned forward and pressed his face to the glass.
"Yes! In here. Please help me. Get the police!" Lisette cried.
The man seemed to understand. He raised a hand to the peak of his cap, waved briefly and disappeared out of the right hand frame. Lisette, who had been straining forward, sank back and looked apprehensively over her shoulder. Her arms were shaking from the pain cause by her sudden movement. Her cries would surely have been heard by her captors and, true to their word, one of them would come in and deal with her.
The measures were taken as Lisette expected. What was unexpected was the leisurely fashion in which they were carried out. Several minutes passed before she heard footfalls outside the door. When it opened and the huge bulk of Miss Whipple shambled into the room, Lisette was struck by the lack of urgency in her progress.
Miss Whipple walked heavily to the coffee table. She carried a large wickerwork basket under one arm. Gaily coloured cloths spilled from beneath a lid that shifted precariously with every move. She placed the basket upon the coffee table, raised the lid and with a huge pudgy hand began sorting through the materials, eventually choosing a roughly cut square of unbleached calico. The woman turned towards Lisette and began in an absentminded air to fold the cloth loosely into a thick wad. Lisette watched her approach, resigning herself to the inevitable.
When she was towering over Lisette the woman grunted, and a huge hand wrapped about Lisette's face. Thumb and forefinger pressed against the hinges of her jaw on either side, forcing her mouth open. Lisette offered no resistance as the thick cloth was stuffed deep into her mouth. She sat still with her mouth open, about an inch of cloth still protruding past her lips, as the woman retraced her steps heavily and again rummaged through the sewing basket.
Miss Whipple returned with a piece of white dressmaking silk, the sort often used for the lining of dresses and skirts, light and translucent but very strong. This was folded and bound across Lisette's face so tightly that the rest of the calico wad was forced deep into her mouth. Lisette sat straight and still, fighting back nausea and the gagging reflex.
The big woman turned and left the room without a backward glance. Lisette heard her rumble something. Another voice replied from down the hallway. Heavier footsteps approached. A man entered. He wore a dark overcoat and a peaked cap shaded his eyes. Lisette recognized him as the man passing by in the street and her heart sank. She had thought at first that her cries for help had not only been heard but were also being acted upon and that very soon there would be police questioning the proprietors of the guesthouse. But the man was another member of the gang. She was no closer to rescue and freedom. Lisette watched apprehensively as he came to her.
He bent over her and began to untie the cord that held her in the chair wrapped about her waist. As he worked, she nicknamed him Brown Cap, the better to recall his appearance later.
She was picked up effortlessly, slung over Brown Cap's shoulder, and carried into another room further down the hallway. It was a servant's parlour, possibly used by Miss Whipple herself, equipped with a large armchair, a television and a coffee table. Lisette was lowered onto a garishly patterned red and beige carpeted floor where she lay folded upon one side. Brown Cap left the room, closing the door behind him.
Lisette struggled upright and fought unsuccessfully to rid herself of the gag. She knew already that there was nothing she could do about her wrist bonds without aid. She looked about the room. Was there something she could use to cut her bonds? At the very least, was there a fitting of some sort on which she might hook the gag? The room was depressingly neat and nothing useful appeared to be at hand.
There was a chest of drawers over by the wall. Perhaps she could hook the gag upon one of the knobs. Lisette worked her way across the floor, sliding on her bottom and pushing with her hands. In a short time she had reached her goal. But the drawer handles were too round. Every time she thought that the silk tied about her face and jaw was about to catch on it, the taut material slipped off the smooth wood. Lisette sat back in frustration, breathing heavily, her face flushed from her exertions.
I have to get out of here, she thought desperately. I think they're art thieves. She remembered reading a week ago that the Upper Bodley Gallery of the Arts and Crafts had mysteriously lost many of its best paintings and objets d'art. The men at that van were packing what looked like paintings. She remembered how several of the square packages appeared to have thicker edges. Were they picture frames? She had come upon the gang by pure hazard. They were probably shipping out their haul ready to be taken overseas and sold on the black market for the private collections of interested buyers. There was a worldwide black market for antiquities of all kinds.
It was a neat strategy: heist the art collections, remove them to a small village, and hide them in the village museum, of all places, using the empty guesthouse as a cover. If Madame Bindapoost really was the proprietor, and Miss Whipple her accomplice, they must have planned the job over a long time, perhaps for years. They had probably allowed her to sign in as a short-term guest in order to avoid attracting attention. But they had been cautious, suspicious enough to search Lisette's room while she was out. Discovering her identity forced them to act. They could not take risks at this late stage of the operation. Lisette guessed that - knowing her identify - they would have made her a hostage if she had returned from her walk around the village without seeing the activity around the old mill.
She could not get rid of the gag and was unable to shift the bonds that held her wrists, but she had not tried to untie her ankles. Yet they were within easy reach. They should have left me tied in the chair, she thought as she rose onto her knees and searched for the knot in the ankle cords, and they probably will if they catch me before I can get these off.
The knot was difficult to pick apart because of the thinness of the cord. Lisette's blouse clung to her and sweat ran down the side of her face as she worked at it steadfastly. She listened anxiously with every passing minute for any sound from some other part of the house that might forewarn her of the approach of one of her captors. The guesthouse was silent. Perhaps they were all at the museum seeing to the final crating of the stolen goods.
When at last the cord came loose she kicked the coils from her legs and climbed unsteadily to her feet. Her hands might be bound and her mouth gagged but now that her legs were free she could make a break for it. If I can open the door and get out of the house before one of them comes back.
It was not hard to open the door of the room, although her hands were tied behind her back. Lisette negotiated the front door as well without mishap. Leaving the house from there was the most direct way of reaching the village's main street. The risk was that she might meet one of the gang members. At that time of night, however, no one was stirring. The art thieves must still be about their business.
The problematic part of walking the streets late at night was the way that so many cottages were in darkness. Occasionally she saw the glow of a television seeping from the edges of drawn curtains, but most villagers were asleep in their beds by now. Lisette knew how suspicious people in these small country towns could be, especially at that time. The sight of a young woman gagged and with her hands tied behind her back would freak them out. She would lose valuable time trying to persuade a frightened householder to untie her. Should she try knocking on one of the doors? No, the best thing was to find the main street.
At that moment of indecision the sound of pursuing footsteps added wings to Lisette's feet. The police station she remembered was not far distant. It stood in part of the village square more or less opposite the town hall. This thought coincided with Lisette's entrance into the main street. The pursuing steps were drawing closer.
Lisette made her way as quickly as she could towards the village square, hampered not only by having her arms behind her and the gag, that made breathing difficult, but also by the dark streets where she had to pick her way with care, often over rough ground. The footsteps were still coming on. At last she hove in sight of the square, which was relatively well lit. The blue bulb glowed in welcome above the main door of the police station. Someone had to be on duty even at that hour.
Stumbling, Lisette ran across the central grassed area of the square towards the beckoning light. The footfalls behind her continued for a moment then stopped. If it was a pursuer, one of the gang, he or she did not relish continuing the pursuit in the exposed lighted area facing a bastion of the law. Lisette ran up stone steps hollowed by centuries of foot traffic. She placed her shoulder against the bell push and kept it there. From deep in the interior chimes sounded the theme for Dr Who.
The urgency of Lisette's summons brought running feet. The door opened precipitately. In full uniform and with telescopic baton at the ready stood Detective Constable Poppy Chipps, but with long black hair falling below her shoulders that dispelled the otherwise severe image of the law. DC Chipps' jaw dropped open in surprise. It would have struck Lisette as comical if she had not been desperate to escape her pursuer and to be freed of the bonds and gag. She almost fell into Poppy Chipps' arms.
DC Chipps pushed the door shut, put the baton away, and gently untied the cloth from Lisette's face and eased the sodden gag from her mouth.
"Quick!" cried Lisette between a fit of coughing. "There's no time to lose otherwise they'll get away!"
"It's all right, Miss," replied Poppy soothingly as she led Lisette towards the back of the house and into a small kitchen. "Let's get these ropes off you and make you comfortable, then we'll take it from there. The long arm of the law moves slowly but we nearly always get our man or woman."
"That's what worries me, the 'nearly always,' said Lisette.
Poppy Chipps took a sharp vegetable knife from a kitchen drawer, slipped the blade beneath one loop of the cord that bound Lisette's hands and with a single movement severed it. The cord unraveled and fell from the young woman's aching wrists. A blanket was placed around Lisette's shoulders and she was led back along the hallway they had just traversed, to pause outside a closed door. DC Chipps knocked perfunctorily, opened the door and conducted Lisette within.
They were in what was evidently an Operations Room. A policewoman sat at a desktop computer that had been hurriedly set up on a small table by the wall. DC Chipps and Lisette passed between two men, a uniformed sergeant and a police constable, who stood respectfully to either side of the door. Sitting at a large office desk in the centre of the room was Detective Inspector Hereward Fysshe. He was in shirtsleeves and in the act of pouring a stream of steaming coffee from a thermos flask into a large mug. He looked up, recognizing Lisette at once. The look on his face showed not so much surprise as resignation.
"Don't tell me Poppy, Miss Rivers has just escaped from the art thieves."
"Yes Sir. She was tied up too."
DI Fysshe sighed. "Why is it, Miss Rivers, that you're tied up and in need of rescue nearly every time we meet? Not to mention how on earth you came across the Bodley art thieves."
He replaced the cap on the thermos, set it to one side, stirred a single teaspoon of brown sugar into the coffee mug, and sipped lightly. A look of bliss spread over his otherwise phlegmatic face. Lisette thought there was something different about him that she could not quite pin down. Then it came to her. DI Fysshe's head was shaven. With his stocky build it looked good on him she decided.
"Y- You know about them?" she asked.
DI Fysshe grunted.
"Yes dear," said DC Chipps. "We traced them to this village by means of a business card for the guesthouse. One of them was careless and dropped it at the scene of the crime in Upper Bodley."
"I know where they are," said Lisette.
"At the historical museum? Yes. We're ready to pounce. Road blocks have been set up in case they get away from us." DC Chipps paused and looked at her watch. "Sir?"
DI Fysshe stirred and rose from his chair, shrugging into a worn trench coat that had seen better days. "Find Miss Rivers something to wear will you Poppy? You don't want to miss all the fun," he added, addressing Lisette.
Lisette was given an anorak with POLICE emblazoned in glowing letters on both sides.
"Don't you think Hereward looks like that Sicilian police inspector?" whispered Poppy Chipps as they walked to a waiting squad car. Poppy's hair was now drawn back severely and tucked beneath her regulation cap.
Lisette nodded. "It suits him," she replied.
"Yes. He's even a little bandy-legged. It comes from riding the moors on patrol when he was a constable. They're … very strong."
"You two seem to be getting along well."
"Oh yes. Herry is really a bit of a dear when you get to know him. But don't tell him I said so."
Lisette promised to be discreet. In the police car, DC Chipps continued her briefing.
"The gang planned everything carefully, acquired the guesthouse as a cover and HQ, but they made mistakes, like dropping that telltale business card. It was the one clue we needed, and another thing. Their rich clients might be au fait with art objects, but the thieves have little idea of their value. Why, they left the rare bust of the Bodley head behind. Other paintings and sculptures they stole almost at random … Here we are!"
For once in her life Lisette watched a police raid in which she was not a hostage detained indefinitely by the criminals. The police pounced as the gang were leaving the old museum and about to enter the getaway van. The two goons who had originally captured Lisette gave up without a struggle, as did Madame Bindapoost. Miss Whipple put up a spirited struggle however. It took the male and female constable and the sergeant collectively to subdue her.
© Brian Sands 2008.
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