Once the woman and her henchman had gone, Lisette tested her bonds more vigorously. It did not take long for her to realise that she would not get free without help. The plastic of which the thin cables were made had a sticky quality so that it was impossible to twist her hands about. The ties were, moreover, so tight that they were embedded in the soft skin of her wrists and arms. Lisette had not been bluffing when she told the woman her hands were tingling. A natural reaction to being bound was to make fists, but when she did so she succeeded only in cutting circulation. She found that she had to allow her hands to hang limp and relaxed with the fingers open to make it bearable.
Lisette filled in the time by speculating what it was all about. Why had this gang taken over the guesthouse and made hostages of the Ladies' Detective Book Club? What was it for which they were searching? The woman mentioned documents. Come to that, who was she? Lisette shivered. The gang was very professional, very confident, and quite dangerous. It made sense that they had isolated her from the rest of the group. With her experience of perilous situations, Lisa would have been able to reassure her fellow prisoners, perhaps give them courage to escape or fight their captors. Without that support the group would be terrified individuals, stunned, easier to control. Compulsively, she strained against her bonds but quickly desisted. It was no use. They had neutralized her with cruel efficiency.
As the evening wore on, Lisette's tight restraints began to affect her emotionally as well as physically. As her body slipped gradually into shock she felt cold and clammy by degrees. The pretty Spanish style blouse, drenched in sweat, clung to her body. She wondered dully how long she would have to endure this. Was she going to remain trussed up all night? Boredom mixed with helplessness and fear played tricks with her mind. Several times she was about to call for help, scream, but the thought of being gagged made her stop in time. She licked her lips. Her mouth had become dry in the stuffy room. It clearly had not been aired for some time. She looked across at the scarves and kerchiefs where they had been left on the table - her own kerchiefs and scarves - and shivered apprehensively.
When at last a key grated in the lock and the door handle rattled, Lisette guessed that many hours had elapsed. She experienced a mixture of relief and foreboding as the Madam Tulle stepped in, closed the door behind her, and locked it again. She saw the puzzled look on Lisette's face.
"Taking precautions," the woman stated laconically as she walked across to Lisette. "You may have got free and be ready to surprise me. Only that would be a grave mistake."
She took the stun gun from her pocket as she spoke and activated it. Lisette watched the blue spark flicker across the terminals in benumbed fascination as the woman stepped behind her and inspected her bonds. With a grunt her captor switched off the implement and dropped it back into her pocket.
"As I expected, your powers of escapology don't apply to plastic cable."
She walked quickly to the table, took up a handful of kerchiefs, and turned back to Lisa."
"Why …?" Lisette asked huskily.
"Headlights seen coming down the road. They'll probably turn off to this place. No doubt the late-comer."
As the woman leaned forward and brought the handful of fine linen towards Lisa's lips, the girl spoke quickly.
"All right. But please may I have a drink first? My throat's parched."
Lisette had to be content with the promise as the wadded kerchiefs were stuffed into her mouth. The woman turned back to the table and selected a scarf. She folded it into a triangle, rolled it lengthwise into a thin band, and tied a knot in the middle.
"I thought of using that scarf around your neck, an elegant touch, by the way, to wear that little piece of pink chiffon laced in a string of pearls, but it wouldn't keep you quiet at all. On the other hand …"
Here the woman stopped speaking as she pressed the knot into Lisette's mouth and tied the ends of the scarf around her head to the back of her neck. The silk knot formed a thick triangle, the pointed apex of which penetrated behind Lisette's teeth and pressed the wad of cloth deeper into her mouth. She gagged and tried involuntarily to pull her head away. But it was too late. The gag was firmly in place, deep in her mouth.
"With any luck this will be temporary," said the woman almost kindly. "As soon as we've taken care of the new arrival I'll come back and check on you. But … I think I'll make doubly sure."
To Lisette's dismay, the woman took a pink chiffon scarf from the assortment on the table, and shook it out to confirm that it was a large square before folding it in into a three-inch rectangular band. She went behind Lisette and tied it over her mouth, pulling it very tight. The soft material moulded itself around Lisette's face and compacted the knotted cleave gag and the packing in her mouth.
"That will do nicely. I doubt there will be a peep out of you while we're dealing with the visitor."
Once again the woman went through the routine of unlocking the door, stepping from the room, and closing and locking the door from outside. Listte's dismay was redoubled as she tried to expel the gag with no result.
Time crept by more slowly than ever. She heard a distant chime from the hall clock marking off the hour and remembered that she had heard it through the evening without paying much attention to the sound. Now, however, that clock marking off the quarter hour as well became of desperate importance. Lisa was both choked and stifled by the gag. Her mouth was dry. The soft linen of the kerchiefs stuck to the roof of her mouth and clung around her tongue. Her head was pounding and she feared than at any moment she would pass out. When the clock struck the next hour tears came to her eyes. How much longer? She was terrified of choking, and beads of sweat broke out on her forehead and throat and trickled into her eyes.
When at last she was aware that the door was opening, Lisa was barely conscious. She registered the henchman standing before her and shook her head wearily, begging with her eyes to have the gag removed.
The woman stepped past the man and came to Lisette's side. "It's safe to take this off now," she said, and bent to the task, her fingers plucking at the knot of chiffon at the back of Lisa's neck.
The silk scarf followed. Lisa was too weak to expel the gag unaided and her captor had to do it for her, fastidiously extracting the linen cloths with thumb and forefinger and laying them aside on the table. Lisette coughed and took several deep breaths. A thin thread of drool fell from the side of her mouth to her chin. It was no doubt unladylike but Lisa was past caring. A water bottle was held to her lips and she drank slowly and greedily.
"I'm glad you're in one piece," said the woman, "because we have business."
"I- I … don't know what you mean."
The water, cool but not icy, was incredibly soothing. As it did its work, Lisette's head began to clear.
"What do you want of me?" she asked in a steadier voice.
"It's very simple. I'll explain. When I left the train at the railway station, at Tunbridge Wells, I was carrying a satchel. It has in it, let us say, sensitive documents I was going to pass on to my contact, and personal papers. I won't say any more about that side of it. However, the satchel was picked up by mistake by one of the women here. My associate made enquiries, and, while the station porter was unable to identify the woman in the crowd, he did say she was one of a group attending a conference at this guesthouse. We found the caterers and, um, persuaded their manager to put off her regular staff. We took over. The manager is safely bound and gagged in a house we are renting in one of the suburbs."
"A simple complication can wreck your plans," observed Lisette drily, "for which you have deprived us of our liberty. Those papers and documents must be very important. Who are you then? Spies? That's old hat: the Cold War's over. Drug runners, forgers, black market antiquities? That's more your style."
"You've certainly got your voice back, Lisa Rivers. Just remember if you anger me unduly I will put your gag back. You won't be so chirpy then."
"You haven't said what you intend for me."
"We're taking you for insurance while we fetch the satchel. The woman who calls herself Lady Frances Keene has it. Or rather, she admitted leaving it in the cloakroom of the hotel she stayed at the day she arrived. As soon as she found the satchel was locked, she knew it was not hers. She intended to hand it in to the police lost and found department when she got back to Tunbridge Wells. Forgot about it, silly woman. We had to, ah, persuade her before she remembered."
"You are a nasty bunch, that's for sure. But I still don't understand why you're taking me along."
"While we're away the ladies will be under lock and key. The wine cellar beneath this building is perfect. It is soundproof and there is only a single door, very heavy and locked and barred. They will stay well behaved if one of them is taken with us. You are the most dangerous. We need to keep an eye on you. For that reason you will make an excellent hostage. When we told the ladies, they were appropriately impressed. My associate Humphrey Dinkerman will now see to you."
The woman nodded to her henchman who on cue produced a pocketknife and began to cut the cables that held Lisette to the chair.
"You may ride in the front of the car, if you cooperate. There will be no need for extra bonds, or a gag, though your hands will remain tied. If you show any signs of becoming a nuisance you will be trussed up, hogtied, gagged very tightly and locked in the boot of the car for the journey."
"I'll take the luxury option," said Lisette ironically. "I've had enough of being trussed and gagged thank you."
"I knew you'd see it our way," responded the woman with equal sarcasm.
The cables fell away and Lisette was hauled to her feet. "Out, and not a word," said Madam Tulle.
Lisette, her hands still bound firmly behind her, was conducted down the hallway and out to the waiting car. She shivered in the cool air and remembered the clock striking two shortly before the woman and her henchman came to get her. So it must now be midmorning, still dark, she decided.
Lisa was pushed into the front seat where she sat between Humphrey Dinkerman at the wheel and one of the other henchmen. They called him Coniver. Goon number two, who rejoiced under the name of Boobello, was remaining at the guesthouse to keep an eye on the other prisoners. The car pulled away down the driveway in a spray of gravel. Lisette looked back over her shoulder as the lights of the guesthouse receded behind them.
"Sit still unless you want to spend the rest of this trip in the boot," snapped the woman.
Under this threat, Lisa settled back and prepared to wait out the journey. It was true that she was no longer as thoroughly bound as before, but the cable that ensnared her wrists had not been touched and was acutely painful. She decided that it would be unwise to complain. She had already been very tightly gagged and bound for several hours and Lisa did not want to repeat the experience. She reminded herself that one rule for being a good hostage was to cooperate with her captors. Then there were the other women to consider. As hostages too, they ensured her good behaviour.
The distance between Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells is about thirty kilometres. The Guesthouse Sans Souci was a little closer to the Maidstone side so Lisa calculated that they would be approaching the outskirts of Tunbridge Wells in a little over half an hour, considering that the road wound its way through undulating country that forced the driver to proceed slowly. To break the monotony and take her mind from the pain in her hands and wrists, Lisette attempted to engage the woman in conversation.
"There's one thing I don't understand about this affair," she began. "You were expecting a visitor, who is I imagine now locked in the cellar with the others. Why was I kept gagged for such a long time?"
There was a pause that Lisa could only interpret as awkward. Then the woman spoke reluctantly.
"Um. I suppose there's no harm in telling you. There was no visitor. The headlights did not turn down the driveway as we expected. But we searched. It's an old ruse, you know, to park some way from a place and approach it on foot. To safeguard ourselves against a sudden attack we covered the grounds thoroughly. That's why we had no time to attend to you. Anyway, it was necessary to keep you quiet as long as we thought an intruder was about the place."
"So you people aren't as clever as you make out," said Lisette haughtily. "And another thing: the longer you hold those ladies hostage the more dangerous it will be for you."
"You're hardly in a position to crow, Lisa Rivers. Consider your predicament. We shan't offer you harm but you are very uncomfortable are you not?"
Lisa fell silent. The truth of that statement was unassailable.
About ten minutes later the car topped a rise and the lights of Tunbridge Wells could be seen in the grey of pre-morning several kilometres ahead.
"Stop here a moment," said the woman. "We'll transfer Miss Rivers to the back with me."
The henchman Coniver on Lisette's left slid out of the car and helped her alight. He kept a firm grip on her arm and steered her to the open back door. She was pushed inside, almost falling upon the back seat, unable to stop herself with her hands tied behind her back. During the brief manoeuvre there was no opportunity to make a break for it.
As Coniver returned to his place in the front, the woman took from her bag one of Lisette's silk scarves. It had been used earlier, of high quality silk, crisp and heavy.
"This will stay on you while we're here. We don't want sudden screams disturbing the neighbourhood. People are sleeping." She raised the folded scarf towards Lisett's face.
Lisette had no choice but to comply and in a short space the scarf was tied over her lips and mouth, covering her face from the nasal septum to her chin.
"It's very tight, but with a lot of effort you could probably slip it," observed the woman. "However, if you interfere with the gag I will make it so much more uncomfortable for you. I hope you understand?"
Lisa nodded. The car moved on and she was forgotten as they entered the first suburb.
Several minutes later the driver pulled up outside an unobtrusive hotel near the railway station. Lisette was required to go down onto the floor on her knees then to roll onto her side, the woman's hands guiding her carefully.
"It's better for me to go in," said the woman to the henchmen. "The satchel was deposited by a woman, so they'll be less surprised if a woman collects it - if they are surprised at anything at this early hour. I don't expect the girl to give us trouble but keep an eye on her."
Lisette caught a glimpse of the woman in trench coat and dark glasses as she left the car.
Within a few minutes Madam Tulle was back and the car pulled out into the road and sped on its way, retracing the route by which they had come. Lisette was helped back onto the seat and relieved of her gag. She licked lips that had become dry under the silk's pressure.
"So that's what all the fuss is about," she said, looking at a black polished satchel resting upon the woman's knees.
Madam Tulle patted the satchel affectionately. "Yes. Your ordeal is coming to an end. We'll take you back to the guesthouse and lock you in the cellar with the others. You can cool your heels there until people rescue you on Monday."
"But it's Saturday! We'll be locked up for more than forty-eight hours!"
"It can't be helped. Food and water will be made available. After all, we are temporary caterers."
Lisette fell silent for a moment. "Won't you loosen these bonds please? My hands have been tied like this since early last night and they're really hurting!"
"Very well. But you have to be kept bound, all the same."
The cable twisted about Lisa's wrists was picked open. She massaged her hands and arms gratefully, then after a few minutes placed them behind her back again and submitted to being retied. She was not bound as tightly as before but was secure as ever, the ends of the cable now cinched in between her wrists to make getting free an impossible feat still.
They travelled in silence until the Guesthouse Sans Souci came into sight, its façade lit by the morning sun. The car pulled up at the entrance steps and MadamTulle and Coniver alighted, the former helping Lisette from the back seat. Humphrey Dinkerman disappeared around the side of the building with the car as Lisette was herded up the steps into the foyer.
The place was quiet, not surprising thought Lisette considering the women were all locked up below in the cellar. But there was a strange sense of emptiness. Coniver took several paces to the centre of the foyer and slid a hand under his jacket where Lisa knew the henchman carried a gun. "Where the hell is Boobello?"
"Go and find out," said Madam Tulle. "He's probably in the back raiding the kitchen."
"More likely the wine cellar," grunted the man. "If the fool's let any of those women out …" He disappeared into the darkened hallway.
Lisette spoke to Madam Tulle: "Did anyone tell you during your short visit here that this place is supposed to be haunted?"
"Nonsense!" But the woman looked about her uneasily.
At that moment they were joined by Humphrey Dinkerman: "The car's in one of the car ports, out of sight in case we have unwelcome visitors … What is it?" he asked abruptly, becoming aware of the Madam's uneasy silence.
"People tend to disappear," said Lisette mischievously.
At that moment Coniver rushed back into the room. "The cellar's empty and Boobello's gone!"
"I told you so," said Lisette, wondering herself what on earth was happening.
"But their cars are still parked outside," said Dinkerman.
"They're probably hiding, having got out somehow, and Boobello's searching for them," said the woman. "Put Miss Rivers in the sitting room. Tie her feet and gag her. Then come and help us."
This was addressed to Humphrey Dinkerman. He took his prisoner by an arm, caught up the silk scarf as Madam Tulle handed it to him, and hustled Lisa through into the sitting room where she was pushed down into one of the easy chairs. Dinkerman knelt and tied her ankles together with a piece of cable that he still had in his pocket.
Quickly he twisted the scarf and pulled it between Lisette's jaws. She tried to catch the gag on her teeth so that it would not go too deeply into her mouth, but this was foiled by the expedient of rolling the cloth over her lower teeth and then tying it very tightly at the back of her head over her hair. He jaws were held wide apart so that she could make only faint choking sounds in her throat.
"If anyone's around, they won't hear you," said the man callously.
He left, closing the sitting room door behind him, but without locking it. Lisa sat still, listening hard and wondering what on earth was happening?
Shd did not have to wait long when there came a soft rap at the window. She looked back across her shoulder to see staring in at her a middle-aged woman with a halo of brown and purple streaked hair blowing wildly in the morning breeze. The woman raised her finger to her lips - Very funny, thought Lisette crossly - and made a vague gesture that seemed to indicate her intention to enter and come to her.
Lisa expected the woman to disappear and come in from the front entrance. Instead, she raised the window and climbed direct into the room. She wore a trench coat and Wellington boots that squeaked faintly as she walked towards her. She hooked a finger into the silk cutting into Lisette's cheek and pulled the gag down and out of her mouth.
"Th- thank …" began Lisa, interrupted by a fit of coughing.
At this, the woman placed a hand over her mouth and held it there, muffling the worst of the coughing until it had subsided.
"You must be Lisette Rivers, the private investigator. It's such an honour to meet you at last. I've followed your career with interest, even drawn upon some of your cases in my stories."
"I think I know who you are …?" Lisette's private guess was instantly confirmed.
"I'm Agatha Crest."
"Of course. I'm equally pleased to meet you, especially under these circumstances. Do you think you could cut these bonds?"
Agatha Crest produced a pair of nail scissors from the small purse she carried and swiftly snipped through the wrist cables. As Lisette massaged her hands and wrists ruefully, Agatha - or as the press described her, Lady Crest - proceeded to scissor the ankle ties. In a moment Lisa was free. She stood shakily, swaying on her feet.
"What on earth - ?" she began.
"I can explain," said her rescuer.
But before any explanations were forthcoming they were interrupted by the eruption of a fracas outside in the foyer. There were shouts. A shot was fired followed by squeals of rage.
Lisette and Agatha Crest ran to the door. In the foyer they saw a strange sight. Bodies raged to and fro. The gang members - Madam Tulle, her associate Humphrey Dinkerman, Coniver and Boobello - were in a frantic mêlée struggling against enraged members of the Ladies' Detective Book Club. Rouge Sunday had Coniver by the hair and was in the act of delivering a devastating head butt. Boobello was grappling with her clownishly and only getting in the way, tangling against the ill-fated Coniver who the next instant fell to the floor. Dark-haired Penelope Whittle was kneeing Humphrey Dinkerman in the groin. He quickly joined Coniver doubled up on the floor in a foetal position and groaning. Lady Frances Keene was wrestling with Madam Tulle while Effie Beeswax and Dorothy Sailing encouraged from the sidelines, each holding a terracotta vase dangerously.
Lisette and Agatha Crest stepped into the foyer but the fun was not quite over. As Dorothy and Effie disposed of Boobello, a move that necessitated the destruction of the two vases, Madam Tulle rolled away from her attacker and climbed to her feet. She looked frantically for a means of escape, but upon seeing Lisette and Agatha she changed her mind. Her face distorted with rage and her hands curved into claws, Madam Tulle launched herself towards them. Agatha let out a yip and jumped away.
Lisette, however, stood her ground. As the larger woman pounced on her she stepped aside, grasped Madam Tulle by one of her outstretched arms, and swung the woman around using her own momentum against her. Madam Tulle found herself sliding backward across the polished floor, a look of almost comical surprise on her face. She came to rest at the feet of two large uniformed police officers who had just appeared at the front entrance. Lisette, following up fast upon Madam Tulle, pulled up short. Madam Tulle was gathered up between the two officers and quickly cuffed.
Taking a deep breath, Lisette stepped back a pace. As the police officers melted out the door with the gang's ringleader between them, two figures in plainclothes pushed past them. Lisette gasped in astonishment. Facing her were Detective Inspector Hereward Fysshe and Detective Sergeant Poppy Chipps.
"Oh no!" groaned D. I. Fysshe. "Not you again! Poppy, my eyes aren't deceiving me?"
D. S. Chipps shook her head in mock dismay. "No, Herry love. It's Miss Rivers all right. We should be getting used to this."
"Well, what have you to say for yourself?" asked D. I. Fysshe sternly.
"I- well," faltered Lisette, "I suppose it's fate."
"Fate?" D.I. Fysshe tilted his head back and roared with laughter. "Fate? Ah ha haa!"
"At least she's not bound and gagged like that catering lady, who managed to get her gag off and call for help. That alerted us," said Poppy. "No, this time Miss Rivers has done a commendable job of rescuing herself."
Agatha Crest came up to them. "No, it was me," she announced brightly. "Lisa was bound and gagged and I sneaked in and rescued her. It was just like that scene in my book The Monstrous Affair of the Empty House. When I arrived early this morning - it was still dark - I thought something was wrong. No one answered my calls. All their mobile phones were off, as in The Dial Tone Investigation. So I parked my car up the road and hid it. That's from chapter three of Sparkling Override. I watched those shady characters searching the perimeter -The Mystery of the Silver Beeches - and when they went back into the house I crept to a window and listened, as in Parrot's Last Case. When the woman and her two heavies left, I crept in past that stupid guard and unlocked the cellar, as my heroine Constance Tremble did in Peril at Pigeon Mansions. We waited for them to return and you see the result! There was a fight scene like that in Problem at an English Country House."
"Who - ?" began D. I. Fysshe.
"She's a writer, Dear. You must have heard of her. Agatha Crest," whispered Poppy Chipps.
Whistles were being blown. More police appeared, and in a short time the whole gang were taken away. Coniver, Boobello and Dinkerman had to be carried.
"Come, Miss Rivers," said D. I. Fysshe. "We'll take your statement at the Maidstone office."
"We dropped in there to visit our old friend Inspector Dogleash of the Met, on holiday himself," said Poppy confidingly. "We're on our honeymoon you know."
"Congratulations," said Lisette warmly. "I was hoping something like that would develop between you."
"In a way, it was you who brought us together, Miss Rivers," said Poppy with a chuckle.
"That's right," Fysshe agreed. "Your escapades - women's involvement you see -showed that we have so much in common. As well as wonderful coffee."
Lisette was only half listening as they made for the cars. All I want to do is go home, rescue Rasputin from his cattery, and sleep for a week.
Brian Sands 2009.
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