And so it was that I found myself, very late indeed the next evening, awaiting a jewel thief in the darkened but opulent Room 613 at the Charing Cross Hotel. The rightful occupant of that room, an Italian heiress whose name I should not care to mention, was currently enjoying the Lake District.
I had been sitting a long time and, I confess, struggling to remain awake despite the urgency of the situation, when I first heard a soft clicking suggestive of a skilled lockpicker in action. However, the sound came not from the door out to the corridor, but rather from the glass door leading out onto the small balcony, six stories over Charing Cross Lane. As the thief silently swung the door open and pushed aside the heavy drapes, I was not the slightest bit surprised to recognise John Chance’s silhouette against the starry sky – for of course, as an escapologist, he was well-versed in both scaling buildings and picking locks.
“That’s quite far enough, Mr. Chance!” I said as he stepped into the room. He started, instinctively dropping into his wrestler’s crouch, hands darting up as if to ward off a blow – but I had absolutely no intention of coming to grips with him.
“Who the devil …?” he whispered hoarsely, but then his eyes found me in the gloom. “Why, it’s you – the Oriental girl from the Club! What’s your game, then, eh? What do you mean by this?”
He advanced across the room towards me and I circled away, keeping the heavy table between us.
“You’ll stop right there, Mr. Chance, if you know what’s good for you. I’ve no doubt that you’re quick on your feet, but not so quick as I might pull this trigger. Do keep your hands raised, now.”
At that, he stopped dead in his tracks, palms up, with his back to the door leading out to the corridor. Even in the dim light, I could see his eyes widen as he registered the neat Dreyse pistol in my right hand.
“What’s your game?” he asked again.
“It’s simply this,” I said. “I am Judith Lee and your accomplice, May Dixon, has confessed to me her part in the theft of a certain diamond ring belonging to Lady Duff-Gordon. She has also implicated you in that theft.”
“No, May would never …” Chance began.
“Do you need proof of her betrayal? Then ask yourself, how else could I possibly have known to be waiting for you here?”
Chance scowled in bewilderment, and I continued. “She told me all about this evening’s spree. ‘Not just diamonds’, eh? Well, not even diamonds is more to the point. Now, you keep your hands up and my colleagues shall be here presently …”
I withdrew my brass whistle. Just then his expression turned to one of sly satisfaction and I felt a sudden premonition of danger, but too late; a powerful arm entwined both of mine in a cruel wrestling grip from behind, striking the pistol from my grasp, and a meaty hand clamped over my mouth, muffling my cry of alarm.
“All right, then, there’s no use struggling now. Just you keep quiet and still, like a good girl. If you don’t, I swear I’ll make you very sorry.”
A woman’s voice, low and soft … although I had never heard her speak, I knew at once that my captor could only be May Dixon!
“Nicely done,” Chance whispered, as he snatched up the pistol from where it had fallen and leveled it at me. “Now, Miss Whatever-your-name-is, don’t you feel a fool?”
In fact, I was indeed just then cursing myself for blithely assuming that the burglar would be alone.
“Speak softly, now,” May hissed into my ear, as she lifted her hand a short distance from my mouth. “How did you know to be here?”
“It’s as I said, as well you know, you …” but she muffled me again.
“She’s lying through her pretty teeth, John,” May Dixon whispered. “I don’t know how she’s here, but here she is.”
Chance scowled suspiciously, then shook his head as if to clear it of an unwelcome thought.
“Well then, May, whatever shall we do with this little snoop?” he sneered.
“Only one thing to do, I should say,” she replied quietly. “She knows our faces, John; she knows a damned sight too much to be allowed to tell.”
“Hmm. A tragic accident, then. We’ll be over the roofs and far away, and then this haul will set us up for life, far from merry old England.”
“You won’t be the first young lady to fall to her death,” murmured May. At this, I was lifted bodily off my feet and swung about, as May Dixon carried me back towards the terrace door. I strained against her grip and kicked and scratched as well as I could, but I had precious little leverage and she held firm. The narrow rectangle of starry sky grew larger and larger …
“Wait!” Chance whispered. I was swung around again and saw him stuff the pistol into his belt, then open the liquor cabinet and uncork a bottle of wine. “Ease up a moment, May. We’ll douse her hair and clothes; from the smell when they find her, the rozzers will think her just a drunken sot who took a tumble.” He winked at me. “We’ll even send the bottle down with you, to complete the trick.”
The villain splashed me with wine and then nodded to his accomplice, who again lifted me up and started to carry me towards the balcony. By now I was quite faint from lack of breath, nerves and wine fumes, and I felt myself slipping into a dreamlike state; the room seemed to ripple with a swirling kind of purple fog and my muscles, exhausted from the struggle, went suddenly slack. In the instant that I became a dead weight, my neck seemed to arch bonelessly, my left arm slipped free of May Dixon’s grip and I slid down to the floor.
“Ah, she’s out,” I heard Chance murmur, but I wasn’t – not quite. I drew in a great, invigorating draught of air and, raising the whistle to my lips, let forth a piercing trill while scrambling blindly sideways, feeling May’s hands slap across my blouse without finding purchase. I crawled headlong on knees and elbows under the heavy oaken table, snatched another deep breath and whistled again as I felt her frightfully strong hands seize my skirts.
“Shut her up! Shut her up, damn it!” whispered Chance hoarsely.
I was in the process of being hauled out from beneath the table when suddenly the door to the hallway burst open with a splintering crash. At once the room was as filled with light and commotion as it had been dark and still. May’s grip faltered and then released altogether. My head still swimming, I crawled further under the table and so beheld the ensuing combat from that peculiar vantage point, counting four, now five additional sets of legs; three in skirts, one in tight-fitting black pants and one set in grey linens that could only have belonged to Inspector Ellis.
Shouts and curses rent the air as my bodyguards had at Chance and May Dixon with gusto. The Dreyse went off with a deafening bang and glass shattered; there was a short scuffle and then Chance cried out in pain and the pistol thumped to the floor. Next came a loud clattering on the tabletop above my head and I was treated to the spectacle of Chance rolling off the table in an awkward somersault. He landed like a cat on the other side, though, and retreated around the couch; my eyes widened as I saw Persi vault clear over the couch, skirts billowing, in hot pursuit.
Chance lunged at her as she landed and seemed at once to overpower her, for she fell back; but then, via some swirling feat of Bartitsu too swift and complex for me to follow, much less describe, it was Chance who got the worst of it, being flung heels over head into the wall some ten feet away. He rebounded and then fell below my line of sight, but I did see Miss Sanderson rush and swing her ball-handled umbrella at him, for all the world as if she were playing hockey. There was a sickening thud followed by a soft groan.
I turned just in time to see May Dixon brought down by Flossie and Toupie in tandem, each of them having seized one of her powerful arms in a painful-looking twist.
I rolled out from under the table and retrieved my pistol before being helped (quite unnecessarily) to my feet by Inspector Ellis, who surveyed the scene with some wonder.
“Good Heavens, Miss Lee,” he began, “you do get yourself into some scrapes, don’t you?”