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Sisters in Crime

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It was half past twelve on the 15th of March when I returned to the Savoy as a last desperate resort.  One would not have thought, to look at it, that the elegant suite had, but a scant hour before, been the site of my utter ruination.  With their wonted efficiency the hotel staff had returned chaos to order.  The furniture had been restored to its proper positions, table tops and other surfaces cleared of the discarded champagne flutes and half-emptied demitasses with which they had been littered.   Windows flung carelessly open by overheated revelers were closed once more against the night’s creeping fog.  Inevitably my eyes were drawn to the card table in the corner; its green baize top was now bare, yet I fancied I could see that last fatal hand spread across it still.

Raffles herself had opened the door, an elegant peignoir of Japanese design wrapped casually over her petticoats, her hair still up in its pins.

“Forgotten something?” She enquired with a quirk of one carefully shaped brow.

“No,” I replied shortly, offering no excuse as I barged rudely past her.

“Come to take your revenge then?” She shut the door and followed me into the chamber. “I am sorry to disappoint, but while it may have been my rooms it wasn’t my bank – and don’t think I shall carry the can for playing host!”

Had she taken offence or demanded an explanation for my impudent behaviour like as not I would have apologized meekly and been on my way.  Instead her remarkable sang-froid as she took a cigarette from a box on the mantelpiece, as if being faced with a desperate midnight intruder was a matter of the utmost indifference to her, lent steel to my resolve.

“I beg your pardon, Miss Raffles, for disturbing you like this.  I was never at one of your soirees before tonight, and I hardly know you, after all.  You greeted me so warmly when I arrived, though, I thought perhaps you might recall me; you were always so kind at school, senior though you were. That is no excuse for such familiarity, of course, but I am at my wits end! If you would only give me a hearing, as you used to at Miss Edgar’s...”

Her expression softened as I made my plea, and an indulgent fondness crept into it.

“Of course I remember you, darling! I am all yours, and never mind the hour.  Now –” she held out the cigarette box “have a Sullivan and a sit down, and tell me everything.  I could ring for some tea if you fancy? They are terribly obliging here, even at this time of night.”

“I shouldn’t dare to trespass so on your hospitality, not when you will want me gone the moment I am done my story. You won’t be able to be rid of me fast enough, I am sure.”

“Indeed?” her clear blue eyes studied me appraisingly. “You seem remarkably certain of that, but perhaps you might let me decide for myself, old thing?”

“Yes, I may as well,” I agreed, oddly reluctant now that the moment of confession had come. “It will all come out soon enough.  You know I dropped £200 this evening at the table?”

“I saw you cut a cheque, but I’d no notion it was for so much.”

“It might as well have been for double that, for I can’t cover a penny of it.  It was bad paper, through and through, and I knew it even as I signed!”

“Perhaps you haven’t the sum to hand, but surely you could get it.  Didn’t I hear you had come into a sizable legacy?”

“All spent – interest and principal. I am all rolled up.  I have been a fool, and this disgrace is no less than I deserve,” I cried bitterly.  “You see now what sort of cad you have wasted your warm welcome upon?  No fear, I’ll take my leave and not embarrass you further.”

Raffles, who had begun to pace the room, dismissed my self-indulgent ranting with a wave of her Sullivan.

“That is a bit strong, darling. Have you no relations you could go to, no indulgent aunt or fond uncle who might front you the necessary funds?”

“No one – I should never have had even my legacy were I not the last of my line.  Thank god for small mercies; at least my disgrace will be mine alone.”  With that realization I was at last overcome by the bleakness of my situation.   I was a lady alone and penniless, shortly to be without even my good name to trade upon.  Despondent, I collapsed onto the settee and buried my tear bedewed cheeks in my hands.  Seeing my state Raffles left off her pacing and came to stand beside me by the sofa, resting a soothing hand on my shoulder. “Might you not find some employment?” She suggested reasonably. “You could go for a lady’s companion, or a governess – quite respectable.  Or you might take up the pen; you were always scribbling at school I recollect.”

“And earn two hundred pounds by tomorrow? Not to mention enough to cover all my other debts, which are no small thing.”

“Is there nothing you could flog? Jewels, furnishings, frocks even?”

“Anything I had of any value is sold long since.”

I watched in dejected silence as Raffles resumed her pacing, the tails of her kimono fluttering in her wake each time she crossed and recrossed the salon.

“There is one jewel I have left to sell,” I conceded at length. I glanced down at the hands clasped tightly in my lap, unable to face the bright optimism of Raffles’ expression. “Most would think it a trifle; I doubt it will raise even a quarter of the debt, though it is priceless to me.”

“Better something on account than nothing at all.  Now is no time to stand on sentiment, my dear.  Come, what is it?”

There was nothing for it.  I cleared my throat delicately before confessing: “It is that jewel which every women most cherishes, which ought to be given to her husband alone.”

“Oh, Bunny!”

Never have I heard a sweeter sound than that long unused nickname as it fell from Raffles’ lips that night.  It was almost a sigh, and suffused with such sympathy and tender understanding that I found in it more comfort than I had known for many months.  Raffles threw herself at my feet and took hold of my clasped hands.

“Bunny, dearest Bunny, anything but that!”

“I am no beauty, I know, but one hears stories, premiums paid for a lady’s...innocence. You’re theatrical, perhaps you might have a notion whom –”

I saw my mistake even as I spoke.  

“Is that why you came to me?” Raffles dropped my hands, and her compassion was replaced with disgust and hurt.

As ashamed of myself as I had been before, I was now at the very nadir.  Raffles had been nothing but good to me, had shown me kindness where I had no right to expect even common courtesy.  She had been all generosity, and I had repaid her with the grossest of insults.  I was a vile creature, and deserved whatever dark fate awaited me.

“Forgive me, Miss Raffles,” I wept, surging toward the door. “Forgive me everything.  I ought never to have come.”

“Where are you going?”

“To the devil, where I belong. Farewell!”

I was nearly to the door but she seized my arm with more strength than I expected, and refused to let me pass.

“You are in no fit state, Bunny.”

“I’m not worthy of your concern.  I beg of you, let me go.  I would have done with it!”

“I shan’t.  Not until you’ve told me what you intend to do.”

“Do?” I rounded on her. “Why, I shall do the only thing left to me if I can’t sell myself.”

Our eyes met and were caught in a moment of sudden stillness, the implications and crass brutality of my last remark hanging between us.

“You haven’t the pluck.” Raffles whispered.  Her tone was so callous, so dismissive! My last ounce of restraint crumbled in the face of my rising fury.

“Do I not?” cried I, trembling with the force of my passions.  My anger lent me the strength to break from her grasp.  I plunged my hand into my pocketbook and withdrew a serviceable little two-shot.  “Shall I do it here?”  I demanded, the lamplight flashing on the barrel of the gun as I raised it to my temple. “ Tragic Suicide in Chambers of Society Pianist has a certain drama to it.”  I was lost now to a euphoric madness, a knife’s breathe from hysteria.  My thumb stroked back the hammer with a click.  Elation coursed through me.  I was resolved at last; I had lived poorly, but by God, I would die well!

I turned on my unfortunate hostess, intent on savouring her horrified countenance as my last earthly sight, her dismay a fitting retribution for having doubted my determination. Had I found there the terror I expected I should assuredly have affected the happy dispatch at once, satisfied to have caused some pain with my parting, if no sorrow.  Rather than quaking with fear, however, Raffles gazed at me with an expression of such awed respect that my hand was stayed.

“You look as though you wanted me to shoot!” I exclaimed, allowing my hand to drop to my side.

“Nonsense,” said she with a flush which belied her protestation.  Raffles forced an air of nonchalance and gave a false little laugh.  “You had me half convinced you would go through with it.  You’ve surprised me, Bunny, for I never would have thought you had it in you.  Don’t take umbrage, darling thing, or try such a trick again, for I shan’t be fooled twice.  I’d no notion you were made of such stern stuff.  With nerve like that I’m sure we will be able to find a way out of this predicament.  Come, best you give me that pea-shooter before you cause some real harm.”

This last was spoken as one arm slipped chummily round my shoulders, a distraction while the other hand gently eased the pistol from my grasp.  I suffered disarmament without objection, for all fight had deserted me with the cooling of my sudden temper.  In truth even at my most obstinate I would have been hard pressed to refuse Raffles,  for she is capable of making herself so utterly enchanting that one feels compelled to indulge her every whim.  The fear of doing anything to disappoint - to bring the slightest shadow of chagrin to those sparkling eyes - was the great dread of my school days.

My acquiescence was not mere docility.  Hope had sprung once more in my breast, that blind faith in the omnipotence of Artemisia J. Raffles which had spurred me to seek her council in the first place.  All would be well, if Raffles was but my friend once more!

Weeping with gratitude I fell about her neck. “Bless you, dearest Miss Raffles! Say you forgive me, for I meant nothing by it.  I confess I had cherished the hope that you might assist me, though I’d no reason whatsoever to expect it.   I’d resolved to die if you denied me, and so I will if you cast me out.  You’ve my pistol, true, but there’s more than one way to do it.   Pardon me, I beg you, or I shall grace the Thames before the sun rises.”

“You silly chit, Bunny Manders!  I’ve given my word I’ll help you, and there’s an end to it.  Many and great may be my sins, but throwing over a friend in need will never be among them.  Sit down, there’s a good girl, and take a cigarette – it will calm you.  I think in this instance something stronger than a cup of tea is called for.  I’ve some Amontillado stashed somewhere – here, take a sip of that.  Now, let us put our minds to it:  how might we raise some ready capitol, and quickly.”

“I could chance the tables again; my luck is bound to change.”

“Doubtless that is precisely what you thought when you sat down to play this evening, and the evening before that.  Non, les jeux sont faits.  Besides, we haven’t a stake to start with, and don’t imagine I could put it up, for I’m as stony as you.”

“Impossible!” I exclaimed incredulously.  “With a suite at the Savoy and the latest hats from Paris.  Yes, you are clearly destitute.”

“You should know better than to be deceived by appearances; you hardly look the pauper, either.  We ladies of fashion are far too good at shamming flush.  Alas, it’s all on credit.  I haven’t tuppence to rub together, really.  I was rather counting on my cut of the chemin de fer to keep the wolves from the door another day, but now there isn’t even that to fall back on.  Not that I blame you, dearest.  No, we are birds of a feather, Bunny darling, and stick together we shall.”

“Together! Can you really mean it, Miss Raffles? I’ll do whatever you wish of me, anything at all.  You’ve only to ask.  I don’t care a fig what it takes, if only I can avoid a scandal.”

Despite a distance of many years, I can still perfectly picture darling Raffles as she looked then.  She lounged opposite me in the corner of the settee like an odalisque, the louche effect of her posture heightened by her casual undress. The silken folds of her kimono clung suggestively to the lithe form beneath it, and as she shifted they offered glimpses of milky skin.  Jet curls, artfully arranged, framed a sharp-featured face with an aristocratic nose and rosy lips whose lusciousness could not entirely conceal an underlying ruthlessness.  Most of all I recall her eyes, keen and calculating.  When she was merry they would sparkle like azure pools dappled with sun.  How easily I could drown in their depths, and how easily they could penetrate to the darkest corners of my soul!

“Can you really be in earnest?” She mused. “In your current frame of mind I am sure you mean every word.  But tomorrow, in the light of day when reason once more has mastery over the spirit, would you still pledge yourself so cavalierly?  I wonder if perhaps you might.   You were always a stubborn miss at school, and loyal, too, as I’ve had cause to be grateful for on several occasions. Ah, I’ve surprised you there, haven’t I?  I never forget anyone who does me a good turn, Bunny, nor forgive those who use me ill.  After all these years the time has come to repay you for your kind offices, though at perhaps a rather steep rate of interest."

As the clock ticked round, Raffles sat in quiet contemplation, eyes shut, smoke curling lazily from the Sullivan held loosely in one hand.  Had it not been for the occasional movement to unite said cigarette with her lips, I should have though she had drifted into sleep.

As for my own state of mind, a clean breast and a glass of sherry had worked wonders.  My equanimity was restored, for I had placed myself, my cares, and my future entirely in the dextrous, long-fingered hands of my darling friend.

Relieved of my burden of cares, at least for the present, I looked about me with some interest.  I noticed as I had not in my earlier preoccupied state how luxurious and well appointed the suite was.  Spacious and decorated in the best of taste, the electric light subtly diffuse rather than garish.  Being a hotel, albeit one of the first water, there was little of Raffles to the room, never the less I was able detect one or two more personal touches which had been added to the decor over the course of her long occupation.  Most obvious was the fine Steinway grand piano which filled one corner of the salon.  Other than that instrument, however, the suite was remarkably free from the sort of paraphernalia the musically inclined generally seem to accrue; rather I saw reflected in the more intimate objects the broad range of activities in which Raffles had always taken an interest.   The bookcase was filled with a comprehensive variety of works, not only scores or those on musicology.  Looming busts of Bach and Beethoven were eschewed in favour of tennis rackets and golf clubs.  Through the door to the bedroom, which had been left ajar in the haste to answer my knock, I could see that despite the conscientious efforts of the Savoy’s staff, Raffle’s chamber had reverted to the same breezy disarray so familiar to me from our school days: an insouciant tumult of ribbons and theatre programmes, letters and gloves.

By this course my thoughts were naturally brought to dwell on those shared days of ours at Miss Edgar’s, a not unfashionable lady’s seminary in Richmond.  I had been an awkward, knock-kneed chit of twelve, and the vivacious and talented Raffles quite the most popular girl,  already pledged to the Conservatoire in Paris. As overawed by her as I had been, I was glad to do her any service, if only it brought me to her notice.  If those trifles were not always entirely within the regs, so much the better.  My most cherished memory of that time was the occasion when, after one particularly close call, she had thanked me sincerely and profusely, and declared herself forever in my debt.  It had been in no small part the memory of that avowal which had prompted me to turn to her for succor now.

“I say, old girl, do you recall that night we nearly got caught out with Miss Pratchet’s blasted love-letters?” Raffles asked suddenly, and I marveled at how closely her meditations had followed my own.  “There we were with our ill-gotten goods, and the headmistress advancing at speed.  We would have been well and truly for it if not for you.  You kept your nerve, and kept mum – even when Miss E. had you up on the carpet.  Loyalty like that that is a rare trait; one can’t simply put it on.  It is a matter of fundamental character.  You’d do the same again today if I asked you, I shouldn’t wonder.”

“I’ve made a hash of my own affairs, it’s true, but I have never betrayed a confidence, nor have I sought to profit at the expense of a friend, despite the fact that standing by my principles has cost me.  No, I would never deny a friend any aid it was in my power to give.”

“Be careful to whom you say such things, Bunny, for a carte blanche like that would be easy to abuse.  Why, I might ask anything of you!”

“And I should agree to it! There is nothing I would not do for you, Miss Raffles.”

“Even if it was the wickedest of crimes?”

Despite her arch tone, there was something in Raffles’ manner that gave me pause, and I found myself considering her question in all seriousness.

“No, not even then.  Name your crime and I’m your girl.”

For an instant her expression was one of total wonderment, but it was so hastily tucked away behind her mask of studied gaiety that I could not be entirely certain what I had seen.

“Heavens, Bunny! What a dangerous character you have become.  I shan’t be able to sleep at nights, knowing you are at liberty.  Still, all this brings us no closer to finding £200 at half-one in the morning.”

“Surely we must wait until tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow will be too late!  The moment that cheque is cashed – and they won’t dally – it will all be up.  The only chance is to head them off and deposit the requisite funds into your account the moment your bank opens.” Raffles gave a surprised little cry. “Oh, I have it!  How silly of me! I’ve just recalled I left a necklace – a horrid ugly piece, but it was a gift – on consignment with a cousin of mine who is a jeweler in Bond Street.  I am sure he would let us have an advance on its price that would more than cover your two hundred.  We need only call round for it.”

“What, now, in the middle of the night?”

“Why ever not? He’s a dear fellow, quite fond of me and bound to be sympathetic to a damsel in distress.   If you are worried for your reputation, you needn’t be.  My cousin is discretion itself, and if we pull it off no one else will know a thing!”

I could see there was nothing for it. Though I was anxious still at the reckless impropriety of the proposed course of action, reluctantly I acquiesced.

“Bravo, Bunny!  Help yourself to another drop of sherry if you think you’ll need it while I dress.”  With that Raffles disappeared into her bed chamber, leaving me to the turmoil of my thoughts. I did as she bid and refilled my glass then set to pacing the room, too overwrought to settle.  How could I, when the sword of damocles hung poised above me held by only the most tenuous filament of hope?  Seduced by the gay, frivolous life my independance had afforded me, too late, all too late, had I discovered the precariousness of my position.  Oh, to have had the foresight to see that it was the path to certain ruination which I trod!  Again and again I lashed myself with recriminations, and vowed to do anything rather than fall prey to such foolish dissipation ever again.

My sherry was finished even if  my mind remained agitated by the time Raffles re-emerged – though I could hardly discern it was she.  Her stately figure was bundled into a voluminous opera cloak, while her face was almost entirely obscured beneath a heavily veiled hat.  Holding out a bundle of garments she commanded me to dress myself similarly, with an exclamation that “We shall be utterly disguised!”

It is a testament to the discretion of the staff of The Savoy that the porter betrayed not the least sign of inquisitiveness as he handed two ladies, swathed unrecognizably from head to toe, into a cab at two in the morning – although I suspect it was not as infrequent an occurrence at that august establishment as one might think.

A scant five minutes found us stepping onto the deserted pavement outside one of the better jewelers on that elegant thoroughfare.  Around us the fog swirled in an impenetrable miasma which the thin light of the street lamps could do nothing to dispel.  The most ordinary of noises possessed an air of menace floating, disembodied, out of the mist.  I started at the slightest sound, convinced it was some villain using the horrid night as a cover for their despicable deeds.

Raffles had explained that, for security’s sake, her cousin occupied the flat above the shop, and she directed me to a discreet private entrance next to the store’s main frontage.  Though shuttered, I could see through a fish-eyed peep-hole that the lights still blazed within the shop, but the windows of the flat above were dark.

“Perhaps we ought to return at a more social hour,” said I, my whisper seeming as loud as a shout in the preternatural silence enveloping us.  “It’s clear they’re all abed – you can’t mean to knock them up at this hour?”

“Certainly not! We’d rouse the whole street.  Luckily for us I’ve a passkey.” She produced the instrument from her pocket with a flourish, fitting it into the well-oiled lock and swinging open the door before I could utter a word in protest.  Stepping inside Raffles pulled me in behind her, shutting the door noiselessly after us.

“Take off your shoes, and not a sound on the stair,” she ordered. “We shall give him the shock of his life.  What a jape! Just like school, eh old girl?”

I obeyed; I could do nothing else.  The reader may wonder at my doing so without raising a single objection to this extraordinary behaviour.  It is, however, a testament to the magnetism and allure Raffles could command that I followed without question.  I doubt one person in a thousand could have resisted her.  Thus even as my reason rebelled at entering the bedchamber of a sleeping gentleman in the dead of night, I found myself creeping closely behind Raffles up the cramped, and rather dusty, stairs.

I was not so overcome as to not notice the dilapidated state of the staircase we were ascending; the papers were sadly faded, the steps uncarpeted, and there was not a painting or ornament to enliven the ascent.  We reached the upper landing, and behind me a light flared out as Raffles wordlessly struck a match.   The faint light it cast was sufficient to make out a bare landing and doors open to empty rooms beyond.

“It is deserted!” I cried out. “Raffles, what is the meaning of this trickery?  I ought to have known!”

“Hush, Bunny, let me explain.”  Raffles seized me as I made to push past her down the stair.  Dropping her match she pulled me into one of the empty chambers.

“You deceitful wretch,” I muttered as Raffles set about lighting a little brass oil lantern she had drawn from her cloak.  “No doubt you think this funny?  You meant to have a good laugh at poor desperate Miss Manders.”

“I deceived you, I admit, but it is not what you think.  It is no joke, and certainly not one at your expense.  It was a necessary subterfuge to obtain your money for you.”

“From whom? There is no one here!”

“From the jeweler, or rather his premises.”

“Oh, A.J.!”  My head began to swim, and I reached out for the support of the wall as understanding began to dawn.  “You cannot mean, you cannot intend for use to –”

I could not bring myself to finish the question, but there was no need. Had she not given me clues enough?  And here we stood in a deserted flat, in the middle of the night, the light of a dark-lantern shining on Raffle’s amused smirk.

“Well, why not?”

“But, burglary ,” said I, aghast.

“It is as good a method as any for getting funds in a hurry, and more honourable than some options I could think of.”

“Why the subterfuge?  Could you not have told me; did you not think I could be trusted with the truth?”

“I did everything but tell you! Why, I asked you, plain as day, if you would not be willing to commit a crime for a friend in need.  I see now that you were not in earnest.  I ought not to involve you further, dear blameless Bunny.  Forgive me.  Go now, while you can; I shall think no less of you, I promise.  I know I have nothing to fear from letting you go, for you would never peach on a friend.  And you are still my friend, I hope?”

Oh, the cheek, the wily cheek of her!  How well she knew where the weaknesses of my defenses lay.  Threats and imprecations would have found me running for the closest constable, but these tender appeals to my mercy and friendship only bound me closer to her.  She played on my affections as skillfully as any keyboard, and in the face of such virtuosity I was lost.

“Did I bring you to this?  Say you are not hazarding all only for the sake of rescuing me from my predicament.”

Raffles quirked her brow in bemused surprise at so unexpectedly astute a query.  “No, I confess this has been my line for some time now.  I have had this job in the offing for several days, but it was not one which could be effected alone.”

“Well, I’m your girl.”

“Truly?”

“Yes, I’ll be your accomplice – just this once, as you’ve need of me.”

“Dearest, darling Bunny!”  She cried fervently, clasping my hand firmly in hers.  “I knew I could rely on you!” Without more ado she set to explaining our course of action as calmly as if she were reciting the arrangements for a dinner party.

“I’ve bought a few little bagatelles from them – quite a pretty silver clip, and a new hat-pin – so I know the layout of the store.  These rooms are to let so I had the agent show me round and took a cast of the key.  The question is how to get from up here into the shop below; there is no obvious connection, alas.”

She went to the window, which looked out on a quiet court behind.  Careful to make no noise she eased up the sash and peered out for a moment before closing it again with a sigh.

“I had hoped to climb from here into a window below, but I can’t see a thing in this fog and I daren’t risk a light.  We shall have to use the cellar.  You must be quieter than a mouse, Bunny, for they will be listening for the slightest sound out of place.”

“Who will be listening?  I thought the building was deserted.”

“Why the constable - or rather, the private watchman in the pay of the merchants here abouts, who is by far the greater danger as, being engaged expressly to spot these sorts of goings-on and his continued employment dependent upon it, he is the more vigilant man.”

We descended again on silent feet, my breath catching and my heart leaping in my chest with every creak and shift of the rickety stairs.  Pausing to retrieve our shoes from by the door we continued down the stone steps to the cellar.  As we were well below the level of the street Raffles risked opening her little dark lantern.  It illuminated a dirty, rough room, a large pile of coal by the foot of the chute let into the street wall, and doors on the other sides.  Most were open onto empty storage rooms, but the one directly opposite us was firmly shut.

Raffles replaced her pumps, and I hastened to follow suit, my fingers clumsy on the buttons of my half-boots.  A sudden crash from the other side of the room made me look up from the recalcitrant studs to see Raffles standing with a jemmy in her hand,  next to the previously locked door which now swing loose on its hinges.

“One down, goodness knows how many more still to come.  Two at the very least, I should think, and we shan’t have the liberty of creating so much strum ünd drang about them, alas.”

We climbed a staircase identical to the one which had lead down from the flats, but at the top we were faced with a solid oak door blocking egress into the passage beyond.  Holding the lantern up so that its narrow beam illuminated the lock, Raffles muttered an oath.

“Blast!  I was counting on being able to pick it, but I know these locks – duced clever American firm – and it’s no use.  I shall have to cut it out, and that’s an hour’s work at best.  Come, Bunny, time to make yourself useful.”

I watched in fascination as she pulled out a pretty little huswife covered in Florentine work.  She unrolled it to reveal the accoutrements not of the seamstress, but the burglar.  From it she withdrew a little vial of rock-oil and a drill bit which attached to a steel brace.  Handing them to me she removed her cloak and spread it neatly across the top step to protect her gown as she knelt to her work.  Handing me the lubricant, she had me drip some on the bore before beginning to drill so as to keep the noise to a minimum, repeating the process with each new hole.

In the end it took forty-seven minutes and thirty-two separate borings – executed with a delicacy worthy of the greatest artiste – to cut round the mechanism of the lock.  Halfway through the process Raffles had paused to slip as much of her hand as she could through the rapidly widening hole.

“It’s as I feared”, she remarked with a slick of her tongue.  “There’s an iron gate on the other side.  We shan’t be able to force the door while it’s in place.”

“What then are we to do?”

“If we are fortunate, there will only be one lock, and I will be able to reach it through this hole, but it may be fastened top and bottom, in which case we shall have to cut two more holes to get at them.”

“But that will take hours!” I could have ascribed my impatience to anxiety that each passing minute increased our risk of discovery, but in all honesty I do not think the thought had entered my mind.   I wanted only for the tumblers to fall, the door to give way under our clandestine assault.   I was seduced by the thrill of our illicit acts, and like any scarlet woman, having fallen, I reveled in my dishonour.  I gave no thought to the immorality of our criminal actions, at least while we were perpetrating them.  I reckon I applied myself more conscientiously to these midnight chores than to any duties daylight demanded.  

And there was Raffles, the snake of my Eden, kneeling before the stubborn lock, her black curls working free of their pins, her cheeks flushed and eyes bright in exertion.  Her lips were parted in that same expression of passionate, otherworldly concentration I had see bestowed previously only on Chopin and Schubert.

Luck was with us that night for, when the door gave at last, it proved the grate behind had only one lock, and a simple one at that.  A few minutes with Raffle’s delicate arm plunged through the carefully cut hole, her dextrous pianist’s fingers working unseen at the mechanism, was sufficient to see clear that impediment.

I struggle to describe the thrill of such moments: Raffles, focused on her task, the room entirely silent save for the scratch of the skeleton key.   My heart pounds in my breast and I hardly dare breathe lest even that slight motion break the concentration of the virtuosa at her task.  Then, as the mounting tension becomes almost unbearable, there will be a click, loud as thunder in the hush, and Raffles will sit back on her heels, a smug, contented smile on her lips.  I help her to her feet, and she keeps hold of my hand as we pass boldly through what had so recently been barred against us.

I had expected the grill to be the final obstacle, but we had only gained admittance to the antechamber.  Access to the store proper was blocked by a heavy iron curtain.  I must have voiced some expression of despair at the realization, for Raffles hastened to reassure me.

“You needn’t worry, Bunny.  Those shutters may appear menacing, but a little carefully applied pressure and they will give in a trice.  This, however, is where my accomplice comes into her own.  No way to do it without making an awful din, so I shall need you to return to the flat, and give a thump on the floor whenever someone is approaching, and again when all is clear.”

While I hardly relished the idea of being left to keep a lonely vigil in the darkened flat,  I was pleased to be of use as something more than a lamp-stand.  Surrendering my lantern I cautiously picked my way back through the darkened building.  I was filled with an eager anticipation as I took up my post and gave Raffles the signal to commence.

The last tenants had left up the nets on the windows of the front parlour, providing cover as I peered out, monitoring the street with an assiduousness not even the nosiest of suburban matrons could fault.  I could hear the muffled sounds of Raffles at work below me, little more than a quiet scrabbling after the initial crash of the iron curtain giving way.  When I gave the signal, however, a firm double stomp of my foot on the boards, even those slight noises ceased until another thump from me signed the all clear.

Over the course of my watch the constable passed half a dozen times, and a burly fellow in a cheap suit, who I took to be the jewelers’ man, twice as often.  Their passage gave no cause for panic, for the fog was lifting and from my vantage I could spot them and give warning long before they came within earshot.  Only once did I feel the danger to be more acute.  On one of his rounds the watchman, instead of passing by with only a glance, halted before the storefront and approached the door where a peephole in the shutters provided a view of the blazingly lit premises.  With bated breath I waited for our theft to be discovered and the alarm sounded – Raffles and I were undone, I was sure! But, whatever he observed within, it did not excite his suspicion, and in a moment he was once more on his way, to my immense relief.

After about an hour I had two thumps of my own from below, and thus relieved of duty went to rejoin Raffles.  She met me at the top of the basement steps with open arms and a broad grin.

“Well done, you clever thing!” said she. “I knew you were just the girl for the job – still as level headed in the breach as ever.  It has been worth the pains, for I’ve got a thousand pounds worth of goods in my pockets, and half of it yours.” She made to clasp me tight, but pulled back at the last moment with a moue of distaste.  “Forgive me; I’m as filthy as a sweep.  I shall just fix myself up; best not to scandalise the Savoy more than necessary.”

While she slipped into the adjacent convenience to rectify her appearance, curiosity got the better of me and I risked raising the metal shutter a few inches to inspect Raffles’ handiwork.  I had expected to find chaos – counters ransacked, the safe open and empty – but the scene lit by the harsh electric nightlight appeared at first glance entirely undisturbed.  Cases full of silver gleamed on my right, and although the counters were empty, it was only because their contents remained securely locked in the Chubb safe where the staff had placed them at the closing bell.  I understood now why the watchman had thought nothing amiss, for even knowing the place had been burgled I could not, at first, spot how.

All became clear when my gaze fell on the shop windows.  The normally riotous display of winking gems and precious metals was picked bare, every trinket and ornament small enough to be secreted in a pocket had been spirited away.  To one side stood the heavy panels which had sealed the treasures in for the night, their simple locks no match for Raffles’ picks. As I eased the shutter down again I was left with the smug certainty that, aside from a few forced doors and a damp towel in the lavatory, no trace of our incursion would remain.

Raffles having been set to rights, we donned our coats and veils once more and slipped out into the street.  The fog was dissipating quickly in the face of a rapidly brightening dawn.  Raffles linked her arm in mine and we strolled with as much casualness as we could muster, two ladies of questionable repute returning from a night of debaucheries.  In Piccadilly we managed to hail a cab, and settled into it with sighs of fatigued satisfaction, feeling at last secure in our escape as it jolted into motion onwards towards the Savoy.

"That was well done, Bunny; quite the debut.  I have been aching to strike at that place since I saw the To Let sign go up.  I could see as soon as I visited how neatly it could be carried off, if only I had a chum.  Then, when I had nearly given up on it, you materialised - just the girl in just the straits.  You know, I still haven't settled my account with that establishment; I rather fancy I shall pop back in tomorrow and do so, after our morning's business is completed.  Ah, here's the Strand.  Is it too early to ring for breakfast, I wonder?  I've rather a craving for something hearty this morning, perhaps a kipper."

How could she think of fish at a moment like this? Consider her breakfast as if we were returning from a ball, not a burglary? With her careless remarks the reality of our felonious evening came crashing down upon me.  Raffles was a thief, and I had assisted her in a theft, making me one as well. My thoughts were a maelstrom as I followed Raffles up to her room, oblivious to the hotel's empty lobby and the pointedly averted gazes of the staff.  I felt sickened as she began gleefully to empty her pockets onto the table in the sitting room, cooing and fussing over the baubles as if she had acquired them honestly.  Her demeanour was entirely sanguine, elated even, and wholly untroubled by the wrenching guilt by which I was now consumed.

To what sort of villain had I entrusted myself? In the face of such confirmed depravity my awed worship of a girlhood idol must surely curdle into revulsion.  I watched Raffles gloat over her stolen treasures and waited for disgust to topple my goddess from her pedestal, longing to be free of my unworthy devotion.  Yet loathing would not come; my Artemisia Inviolate remained.  And what offerings were now laid before her: earrings and necklaces, strings of pearls, rings by the score, bandeaus, broaches and bracelets.  They winked and glittered with precious stones of every shape and colour, dazzling in the first light of dawn.  The sole incongruous note, the one piece of base metal among the gold and silver, was my little pistol, fished from Raffles' pockets along with her hoard.

Involuntarily my hand reached out for the gun and a murmur escaped me.  Raffles studied me, a brow quirked over flinty eyes, a knowing smile hovering about her lips.

"I can see why you carry it, my dear.  Having a loaded weapon does give one such a rush, though it might be more of a hindrance than a help if it came to it - far too tempting to use it in the face of trouble.  I have often thought it must be such an exhilarating act to commit  murder, if one could live with the consequences.  Ah, no need to look so fearful, little rabbit.  I am not so far beyond the pale as that, nor so scornful of human life."

"But human property?"

"I cherish life and liberty - is that not sufficient?"

"You have done this before."

It was a statement, not a question, but Raffles responded with teasing petulance. "Bunny, you wound me!  What part of my performance would make you think I was a novice?"

"How many - " Burglaries? Crimes? I could not bring myself to say it.

"Oh, enough to be well practiced, but not so many that the novelty has waned.  I ration myself strictly: I indulge only when it is a case of desperation.  It's been absolute ages since the last time.  You heard about the Thimbleby diamonds? That was the last instance, though between you and I, most of them proved to be paste.  It seems Lord T has worse luck at the tables than you.  Before that I had a flutter at Lord Dormer's yacht at Cowes last summer, and got a dunking for my pains."

I was shocked.  To think that those celebrated cases which had been so much discussed in all the papers had been the work of my old friend;  that this noted pianist, who had played for the crowned heads of Europe and even our own queen, was also a burglar non-pareil.  It was ridiculous! And yet here, spread across the table top, was more than ample proof of her abilities.  In the face of the glittering evidence my disbelief must give way.  Overcome as I was forced, at last, to accept the truth, I stumbled backwards and collapsed upon the sofa.  Raffles was beside me at once, all tender solicitousness as she took my hand in hers, her previous strange mood forgotten.

“But however did you come to begin?” I enquired, as curiosity overtook my shock.

“Why, desperation, same as you,” said she.  “I was on a concert tour in the colonies and ran into a bit of bother.  Having exhausted all legal options, when an illegal one presented itself I seized it.   It was intended to be an isolated act, a crime of opportunity never to be repeated, but I discovered I quite enjoyed it.  I can earn more in one evening with my picks than in three months of concerts.  And the exhilaration of it!  No, there is nothing so thrilling, so profitable as crime. Besides, it isn’t as if those lords and ladies and magnates can’t spare a bauble or two.   The proper life of a gentlewoman is utterly stifling afterwards, you shall see. “

“You’re mistaken,” I declared with some heat.  “I was driven to it this once, yes, but it was an aberration.  I do not intend to make a habit of this.  I am no hardened criminal.”

“And I am? I suppose that is true, in the strictest sense.  You mean to say, however, that if I were to ask it of you, you would not help me again?”

“I pray you, do not ask it of me, for I should be obliged to refuse and would hate to do so.”

“Refuse me, after you swore you’d aid me in anything, that you’d never turn away a friend? Oh, but I knew you could not mean it, really.  It was all too perfect.  I ought to be grateful you saw out tonight, and leave it at that.  But oh, how I wish it was not so – what japes we should have! It is, perhaps, selfish and unreasonable of me, darling Bunny,  to wish it were otherwise, but you are the very girl for me, I am certain.  You’re a natural! Why, look at how we did this evening: smooth as silk from start to finish, even with me springing the whole business upon you.  It was as if we’d been at it for years.  We would be the very perfection of partners, I know it.  There’s nothing to fear in it, as you’ve seen.  I shan’t let anything happen to you, not while I can prevent it.  Not while we work together.”

She had clasped my hands in hers, her eyes shining with enthusiasm.  I could not think while she looked at me so ardently.  I broke away from her and went to stand by the window, pressing my overheated brow to the cool glass.  In the reflection I watched her approach, and lay a gentle hand on my shoulder.

“Very well, darling girl,” she soothed, “I’m a brute.  It was cruel of me to tempt you so, unforgivably cruel.  I promise I shall never ask such a thing of you again.  I’ll get you the money by mid day; you’ve more than earned it, and I’d give you all of it if I thought for a moment you’d take it.  We’ll settle up, and part forever.”

“I’ll do it again,” I whispered.

“No, you’ve stood by me tonight, which is more than I had a right to, I cannot ask more of you.”

I turned on her, bristling with determination. “I will help you, as often as you like.  May as well be damned for a sheep as a lamb; I’m a felon now, whether I’ve committed one crime or a dozen.  You’re right - I can’t go back, nor would I.  I’m your girl, Raffles, whenever you want me, and let the rest go hang!”

And so it was that as the Ides of March dawned, a new chapter of my life began with Raffles and I as sisters in crime.