La Cioccolata
A Piece of Goodwill
by Gillian B

COCO WAS cold and bored. She was sitting in the corner of an open porch, knees drawn up to her chin and arms wrapped round her legs. She was in the deep shadow behind an enormous stone plant pot with an ugly-looking squat shrub growing in it. As she was dressed in black from head to toe and the night was dark, she was almost completely invisible. The bitter December night air had caused her breath to condense into the fabric of her black balaclava, creating an annoying soggy patch in front of her mouth and nose. The cold was seeping up through the clay tiles on the floor and from the stonework behind her back and she was chilled to the bone. Two hours of this had left her numb in body and mind. Worse still, the large bar of chocolate she had brought to sustain herself was long gone.

     At last a car drew up with a crunch of gravel. It was a metallic grey Jaguar XJ12. The final M on the registration number had been introduced at the beginning of August 1973, showing that it was only a few months old. An expensively-dressed middle-aged man and woman climbed out, chattering noisily. The woman was clearly slightly the worse for drink and had to be steered up the steps to the front door by her partner. They stood within a few feet of Coco as the man fumbled for keys and opened the door. The low warbling of an alarm system within could be heard as soon as the door was open. This was the moment Coco had been waiting for. Above her head there was a narrow window beside the front door of the house. In one corner was a small but sensitive contact microphone. A wire led from there to a battery powered amplifier which Coco held ready and that in turn was connected to an earphone under Coco's balaclava. Through her simple bugging device, Coco heard the sound of a cupboard door being opened then the sound of a rotary mechanical telephone dial. Four digits were dialled, the unlocking code for the alarm. Coco read the number by the simple expedient of counting the clicks as the dial returned each time. High technology sometimes only gave the illusion of improved security, she reflected with a smile. No matter, it made her job that much easier as a professional burglar.

     Coco waited a final few minutes until she was sure that her departure would go undetected. She crept off into the night as a moving shadow, black on black.

AFTER a few days' observation, Coco was reasonably sure that she understood the Jaguar owners' pattern of movements. Mr Jaguar generally left the house early in the morning, usually before 8 am. His return was more varied, ranging between 4 pm and 7 pm. This seemed to be consistent with his being a company director or a partner in a professional firm of some kind with an office to attend first thing in the morning but with enough flexibility to make his afternoon hours suit himself. He looked to be that type of man.

     Mrs Jag had a much less regular pattern to her life. She was rarely seen leaving the house before 11 am except on one occasion which was fairly obviously a hairdressing appointment. However, she seemed to be almost guaranteed to be out between 1 and 2 pm, sometimes leaving earlier, often returning later. Possibly a lady who lunches, Coco speculated. Coco had noticed a wide range of promising-looking jewellery adorning Mrs Jag, hence her interest. She was almost certain that it was all stored in the house somewhere.

     Coco preferred to do her burglary at night, but it was quite obvious that the ideal time for Chateau Jag would be around 1 pm (or as soon as Mrs Jag had left). Suitably inconspicuous but concealing clothing should be easily achievable in winter.

     The rather grandiose detached house that Coco though of as Chateau Jag was one of several large stone-built Victorian villas in a leafy suburban street in South London. They were all set well back from the street with front gardens now all given over to gravel and shrubs, little more than glorified car parks. At right angles to this street was a street of shops and small businesses. To Coco's delight there was a small café strategically positioned on one corner of the road junction, so that she could sip a mug of coffee (or indeed several over a period of time) in warmth and relative comfort while keeping a discreet eye on Chateau Jag.

     With her big shabby cardigan worn instead of a coat, owl-like spectacles and mop of light brown curly hair and with a book and note-pad open in front of her, Coco was quite obviously an impoverished student who had found somewhere warm to study. The spectacles were perfectly genuine as Coco was quite severely near-sighted. The hair was a wig. Coco was especially proud of that. It was fairly easy to buy a wig that looked like natural hair at a distance, but difficult to get one that would withstand close scrutiny. Coco's approach to disguise relied heavily on other people's laziness as observers and witnesses. She had discovered that a little lanolin and a touch of setting gel produced the perfect illusion of greasy hair a touch overdue for a wash. Anyone noticing the hair would look only long enough to categorise Coco as a slightly slovenly individual and would leave it at that. The fact that she always wore thin wool gloves, even while drinking coffee or making notes might well be noticed but would probably just be dismissed as an eccentricity. For over a week, Coco had been a regular at the café and had read several worthy novels that she had always meant to read. She had also catalogued the comings and goings from Chateau Jag in some detail and noted them down in her own private shorthand (just in case anyone should be looking over her shoulder).

     A visit to Chateau Jag in the guise of a London Electricity Board meter reader had afforded Coco a view of the alarm system, which shared a cupboard under the stairs with the electricity meter, a vacuum cleaner and the usual accumulated junk that any family keeps in such cupboards.

     Coco was at her usual table in the café on her chosen day of action. Mrs Jag left her house a little earlier than usual at 12.15. Without seeming to rush, Coco finished her coffee, closed her books and put them in her rucksack then paid her modest bill. As she left the café, she turned right, away from her target and about 50 yards later, reached the gates to a public park. Just behind the enclosing wall was her immediate destination: a public toilet. As usual here, the ladies' toilet was deserted. She entered the first cubicle and set to work on her appearance.

     When Coco emerged less than a minute later, she was wearing her burglary outfit of tight black trousers and sweater with thin leather gloves and a black knit balaclava covering all of her head except for her eyes. This would be a little conspicuous to wear in the street, but a grey knee-length hooded coat on top merely made her look well bundled-up for a December day. Her spectacles were gone too, replaced with contact lenses which also changed her periwinkle blue eyes to a greenish brown. Inside her rather shabby brown rucksack was a shiny new black and grey one, neatly folded. She swiftly hid the brown rucksack and the rest of the props for her student persona inside the new rucksack and slung it on her back. Turning into the street, Coco walked with a crisp purposeful stride quite unlike the student's amble. She had done nothing to disguise her ample figure, but her own observation had shown that people who keep their backs straight and walk quickly usually look lighter and slimmer than they might otherwise.

WITHOUT hesitation, Coco walked in past the gateposts of Chateau Jag, crunched her way over the gravel and trotted up the steps to the front door. She rang the doorbell and waited. Anyone passing on the street might see her there but would probably assume that she was waiting for the door to be opened. In a sense that would be true, for hidden from public view by her body, Coco was busily at work with a lock-pick. Despite its five-lever action and British Standards Institute certification, the mortice lock yielded after about three minutes of Coco's expert manipulation. The Yale lock was almost trivially easy by comparison.

     As Coco pushed open the door, she heard the warbling of the alarm telling her that she had just 60 seconds to turn it off. She closed the door gently then followed the sound to the familiar cupboard under the stairs and dialled in the 4-digit release code. The warbling stopped and the array of red and green lights on the control panel all went out except for the orange neon bulb showing that the mains power was on.

     Coco removed her coat and stowed it in the rucksack. She decided that the first thing to do was to get a feel for the premises by taking a quick tour. From previous inspection through the windows, Coco knew that the furniture and decoration was all expensive with some of the biggest leather chairs and sofas that Coco had ever seen. While opulent, it seemed to have been gathered with little purpose other than displaying wealth. Vulgar was not a word that Coco used much, but it seemed to sum up her impression of the house. On the other hand, conspicuous consumption like this often indicated new money rather than inherited wealth and that in turn often implied that the owner had worked to achieve it. Curiously for a professional thief, Coco had respect for self-made fortunes built up through years of hard work. It was just that she preferred a more direct route to wealth.

     Since Coco's last discreet survey of the house through the downstairs windows, Christmas had come a little closer and with it a frenzy of Christmas decoration. On her way from the front door, Coco had dodged around an enormous Christmas tree in the hallway without really paying much attention. Now she had a moment to study her surroundings, she had to admit that she was impressed. She had not believed that it was possible to pack quite so much decoration into one house. Massive swags of paper chains festooned the ceilings and the light fittings. Glass balls and holly sprigs had been attached to the corners of picture frames and bookcases. Georgian windows had been simulated by strips of insulating tape criss-crossing the windows, with a little triangle of spray-on snow in the corner of each fake pane. The six-foot-high inflatable snowman in the lounge caused Coco a heart-stopping moment as she entered the room.

     The bedrooms would be the most likely place to find jewellery, so Coco looked there next. She was thankful to discover that the full impact of Christmas decoration had been limited to the public rooms downstairs. Coco had just identified the master bedroom when she heard the front door open and shut. Whoever had just come in would surely notice that the alarm wasn't set. Coco froze in her tracks and listened, breathing very quietly so as to hear everything.

     "Hello?" A female voice from downstairs. Presumably this was Mrs Jag and presumably she remembered that she had set the alarm when she left. Why was she back so early?

     "Hello?" The voice sounded a little closer. Possibly she was on the stairs. Coco reached for the weapons concealed in her rucksack and flattened herself against the wall beside the bedroom door.

     "Hello?" Mrs Jag walked straight past Coco looking round the bedroom and then freezing when she saw a black-clad figure brandishing a wickedly-pointed knife in her right hand.

     Coco held the knife steadily in her right hand with the point hovering about an inch from the end of Mrs Jag's nose.

     Mrs Jag seemed faintly amused rather than as frightened as she ought to have been. Without being asked, she very slowly raised her hands.

     Coco jabbed once with the device in her left hand. It was one of the automatic tranquillising syringes used by vets preparatory to treating unruly large animals. This one was loaded with just enough anaesthetic to render an adult human being briefly unconscious.

     Mrs Jag winced and then looked puzzled as she felt the needle go through the fabric of her skirt and penetrate her thigh.

     Intravenous anaesthetics are almost immediate in their action but intramuscular delivery like this takes a little longer. Coco waited patiently for something to happen. After about ten seconds, Mrs Jag started to look worried as she began to feel the effects of the drug flowing into her bloodstream. 30 seconds later, her eyes rolled up under her eyelids, her knees buckled and she collapsed untidily onto the floor.

     Coco paused for a moment to look at her victim. Mrs Jag had come into the café on two occasions, but Coco had carefully averted her gaze, so this was the first opportunity she had for a really close look. Mrs Jag was possibly closer to 60 than 50. She had probably been a natural blonde but her permed hair clearly now had a little assistance in retaining its colour. Her face had a quality of strength, possibly hardness, that Coco had not expected. The smart dark green tweed suit and beige cashmere sweater were expensive (and visibly so) but not overly ostentatious.

     Breaking off her inspection, Coco put her knife and syringe away and looked for some means of securing Mrs Jag. The third drawer that Coco investigated contained the untidy muddle of stockings and tights that most women have lurking somewhere in their bedrooms. Coco sorted through them trying to find something more robust than the ultra-sheer 8 and 10 denier stockings that Mrs Jag seemed to favour. Very pretty but not ideal for tying someone up. At last, near the bottom of the drawer, Coco unearthed some 40 denier tights. From the lurid shades of pink, orange and green, Coco concluded they were exercise tights left over from a keep-fit phase somewhere in Mrs Jag's past.

     Coco returned to Mrs Jag and removed the woman's jacket. She helped herself to the silver and diamond brooch pinned to the lapel. There was a gold chain around the woman's neck, tucked under the collar of her sweater at the back and showing just enough at the front to make it plain just how heavy and expensive it was. Coco deftly removed it then examined her victim's hands. She left the wedding band but carefully worked the other five rings off the fingers and pocketed them.

     Now that she had removed Mrs Jag's jewellery, Coco rolled her over onto her stomach. Mrs Jag was not quite unconscious but far too disorientated and groggy to resist. Coco crossed the woman's wrists behind her back and lashed them together with a pair of tights, winding the nylon both horizontally and vertically. Every few turns she pulled the binding tight and added a knot, finally finishing off with a knot well out of reach of fingers and pulled so tight it would have to be cut to remove it.. Coco proceeded methodically, crossing Mrs Jag's ankles and then tying them in the same way as her wrists. Lastly, she twisted a pair of tights together into an improvised rope and used it to link Mrs Jag's wrist and ankle bindings.

     Another short search revealed Mrs Jag's underwear drawer. Coco selected a pair of panties to use as a gag and a stocking to hold them in place. She hesitated for a moment and then put the gagging material aside. There was some risk that Mrs Jag might vomit as she regained consciousness and she had no desire to murder the woman.

COCO WORKED methodically through all the likely places for jewellery in the bedroom. Mrs Jag seemed to have a touching faith in the bottoms of drawers as hiding places. Coco estimated that her haul was worth perhaps £10,000 retail, from which, with luck, she might realise £2,500.

     To Coco's delight, she found a box of rather nice chocolates on a bedside table. The disadvantage of wearing a balaclava on this job instead of an eye mask was of course that her mouth was covered. She decided to risk pulling it down for a few seconds while she ate one of the chocolates.

     Once she got started, Coco was very quick at searching a room and rapidly worked her way through all the drawers and cupboards in the bedroom. The last places to check were a series of high-level cupboards above a row of built-in wardrobes. She had to stand on a chair to reach up there. At first sight, there just seemed to be old suitcases stored there. However, it was just the sort of place that a married couple might use to hide surprise gifts for each other so Coco lifted one down. It was surprisingly heavy. She laid it down on the floor and opened it. It was full of money. The case was stuffed with bundles of bank notes and the image of Ben Franklin smiled his slightly tight-lipped smile from each of them. They were American $100 bills, about a hundred to each bundle, say $10,000, and possibly as many as a hundred bundles in the case. That was a million dollars, almost half a million pounds. Coco was too stunned to move and just knelt in front of the case staring at all that money. Who on earth would have this amount of money in cash in the house? A bank robber? Drug dealer? Gun runner?

     Without warning, Coco was knocked over by a tremendous blow to her lower back. As she collapsed in pain, she realised far too late that Mrs Jag was unaccountably not only conscious but free and had just kicked her in the kidneys. A second kick, this time to Coco's stomach, knocked the wind out of her. She lay helplessly on her back attempting to get some air back into her lungs. When the spasms in her abdomen had eased a few minutes later and she was able to open her eyes again, Coco discovered that she was staring into the unfriendly muzzle of an automatic pistol which was aimed at a point between her eyes. She froze and attempted to wheeze more quietly.

     Hand guns were still legal in Britain in 1973, but very rare and difficult to license. Hardly a likely lifestyle accessory for the average suburban couple. Coco realised immediately that the rich middle-aged couple she had attempted to rob were in fact rich, middle-aged... what? Gangsters? Certainly something illicit. And the woman she had so carefully tied up (a gangsters moll? Were there such things in 1970s Britain?) not only knew how to free herself but did so silently and then fearlessly turned the tables on her. It also looked as though she knew exactly how to use that gun.

     Mrs Jag spoke for the first time. "Take that silly hat off girl. Let's see what you look like."

     Coco reached up and pulled the balaclava off her head revealing her short ash-blonde hair and rather frightened eyes.

     "Ye gods!" commented Mrs Jag. "You look about 12. How old are you? 16?"

     "19," Coco corrected her.

     "You work like a pro. I was expecting someone about twice your age."

     Was this a compliment? Coco really didn't know what so say, so she stayed quiet.

     "Anyway, girl, on your feet," Mrs Jag ordered briskly. "We need to get you tied up. I'm not going to stand here pointing this thing at you all day."

     Coco got to her feet carefully, trying to keep her back straight. She stared back at Mrs Jag, not sure what she was supposed to do next.

     "It would show proper respect if you put your hands on your head, Mrs Jag suggested. "After all I am pointing a gun at you."

     Coco linked her fingers behind her head and awaited further instructions.

     "Let's go down to the kitchen," Mrs Jag instructed. "I'm not kinky enough to keep rope in my bedroom."

     Coco led the way with Mrs Jag following a cautious distance behind her.

     Coco knew exactly where the kitchen was from her exploration of the downstairs rooms. It was a spacious modern room within the old house, with a tiled floor and expensive-looking fitted units round three sides. In the middle of the room was a wooden table and four upright wooden dining chairs, evidently the venue for breakfast. She stopped in the middle of the room and turned to face Mrs Jag.

     "You don't know where we keep the rope then?" asked Mrs Jag, with only the faintest suggestion of sarcasm, then immediately answered her own question. "I suppose not. I would probably still be tied up if you'd known where to find it."

     Coco shrugged her shoulders. She couldn't tell if she was being chided for doing such a poor job of tying up her victim or whether Mrs Jag was commenting on her own good fortune.

     "Look in the cupboard under the sink. There's bleach and stuff like that in there too, but don't get any clever ideas. Just keep remembering who has the gun."

     Coco tentatively lowered her hands then went to the sink.

     "Stand to one side so I can see your hands."

     Coco turned sideways to the cupboard and opened the door. There was a plastic storage box at one side of the cupboard with bundles of rope clearly visible in it. She pulled the box out onto the floor.

     "Bring two of those dusters too," Mrs Jag instructed, "and put everything on the table"

     It was obvious what the dusters would be used for, so Coco carefully picked the two cleanest ones she could see in the cupboard and placed them and the box on the table.

     "Very good," Mrs Jag congratulated her. "Now I'm sure you know this, but the trick with tying someone up who isn't already unconscious is to stay out of reach as much as possible. That means that you will get to do most of the tying yourself, dear. And do make sure you make a good job, because the alternative is that I knock you out first. Understood?"

     Coco nodded.

     "I'm glad we understand each other. I think we'll start with a gag. Be a good girl and stuff one of those dusters in your mouth, please."

     Coco did so, trying not to choke on the fluffy yellow cotton as it dried her mouth out.

     "I'm sure I don't have to tell you how to tie it in with the other one."

     Coco folded the second duster into a band and wrapped it across her mouth.

     "Nice try, but we'll have it between your teeth, I think," Mrs Jag corrected her.

     Coco shrugged and then rearranged the band to go between her teeth. She knotted the ends firmly behind her neck with a double knot and turned round for Mrs Jag to inspect it.

     "Now, move that chair away from the table and sit on it." Mrs Jag pointed to the place she wanted the chair to go. As Coco sat down, Mrs Jag walked across to the table. She selected two fairly short pieces of rope from the box and tossed them to Coco. "Ankles to front legs of chair," she ordered.

     The chair had bars linking the front and back legs at each side and a stretcher across the middle linking those bars. Coco decided that she had no alternative but to do a competent job of tying herself. She wound rope around her left ankle and the chair leg, taking care to make some turns go above the bar linking the chair legs and some below. The knot was neat and firm. She repeated the operation with her right ankle.

     "I'm glad you're being sensible about this," Mrs Jag said evenly. "Tie your legs back at the top of the chair legs next." She tossed Coco two more pieces of rope.

     Coco found herself taking a perverse pride in seeing how neat and efficient a job she could make of tying herself up. She started with her left leg again, winding the rope around just below her knee and around the chair leg. For good measure, she took two turns of the rope up over the corner of the chair seat, holding her knee down. She formed a neat knot behind the chair leg. Again she repeated the process with her right leg.

     "You must have been practising," Mrs Jag commented approvingly. She selected two longer coils of rope and tossed them onto Coco's lap. "One over your lap and one round your waist and the back of the chair please."

     Again, Coco did her honest best with the ropes, although she had no idea why. She wound the first one over her lap and under the chair seat about four times and then leaned forward on the chair so she could tie the knot underneath the seat. The waist rope was easier and simply required to be wrapped round her body and the chair back. She knotted it in the middle of her stomach.

     "Let's see if you can do the shoulder ropes yourself," Mrs Jag said, sounding like a schoolteacher offering her class a modest challenge. She rummaged through the box to find the right length of rope then tossed it to Coco. "First find the middle of the rope and fold it in half."

     Coco sorted through the rope and found the ends, sorting out tangles as she went. She grasped the ends in one hand then fed the rope through that hand, keeping it doubled until she reached the middle. She held up the fold that represented the centre point so that Mrs Jag could see it.

     "OK, now feed that part under the top rail of the chair back and bring it forward over your left shoulder."

     It was tricky working behind her back when she was already partly bound to the chair but at the second attempt, Coco managed it.

     "Tuck that folded bit under the rope round your waist so it sticks out below."

     Coco obediently pulled her stomach in and pushed the rope underneath her waist binding.

     "Now bring the other end of that doubled rope over your right shoulder and feed the ends through that loop you just made."

     With her left hand grasping the loop to stop it pulling back through her waist binding, Coco reached behind her with her right hand and grabbed the rope. She pulled it round onto her lap then pushed it up into place over her shoulder. She fed the ends through the loop and looked at Mrs Jag for the next order. Inside, she was in turmoil. At one level, she could see no solution to her predicament other than to co-operate completely and hope for the best. Deep down, she was cursing herself as a fool for not resisting more. Deeper still, she was simply terrified. She had never had a job go as badly wrong as this before and it all felt felt horribly out of control.

     "Almost done," Mrs Jag commented reassuringly. "Separate those two ends and take them to the sides of the chair. Wrap them round behind the uprights and bring them back to the middle of your tummy then just pull it all tight and tie a nice neat knot.

     Coco did as instructed and as she tightened the rope, she felt herself being pushed firmly down to the chair seat, while at the same time her waist ropes tightened. Her legs and body were now immovably welded to the chair.

     "I think that's about as much as you can do by yourself, dear," Mrs Jag said. She reached over to the rack where dry tea-towels were stored and selected one. She tossed it onto Coco's lap. "Now, if you would just blindfold yourself with that, I'll finish off tying you up."

     It was tempting to put the blindfold on with a gap at the bottom so Coco could peek out, but she somehow felt safer being properly blindfolded. Maybe if she couldn't see what was happening to her, it would all magically stop happening.

     "Cross your wrists behind your back please, dear," Mrs Jag asked, not unkindly. "Of course, I'll have to put the gun down at some point, but you won't know when."

     Coco crossed her wrists and waited. With astonishing speed, she felt her wrists being bound together with rope wound securely round them in both directions. For good measure, Mrs Jag then secured the wrist binding to the ropes round Coco's waist. Nothing happened for a moment and Coco wondered if that was her humiliation complete. It wasn't: Mrs Jag finished the job by tying Coco's upper arms to the side uprights of the chair back.

     "That's you all done," Mrs Jag announced as she removed Coco's blindfold. "I don't know if you're any good as an escape artist but I hope that will keep you under control for a while."

     Coco attempted to shrug. Nothing happened.

     Mrs Jag picked up a packet of cigarettes and a lighter from one of the kitchen worktops then pulled another chair across to face Coco's. "You really are a silly girl to try turning this house over, you know," she commented as she sat down and took a cigarette from the packet.

     Coco nodded but also looked slightly puzzled.

     Mrs Jag paused to light her cigarette then asked, "You do know who we are, don't you?"

     Coco shook her head.

     "Oh dear," Mrs Jag continued. "You really should find out more before you go breaking into people's houses. I'm Margot Harman."

     Coco shook her head again.

     "My husband is Henry Harman," Mrs Harman added.

     Coco's eyes widened. That was a name she knew instantly. A name spoken in the same hushed tones of awe and fear shared by the likes of Ronnie and Reggie Kray. He was known to be a fantastically successful gangland boss. He had also sufficiently well covered his tracks that the police had never been able to trace anything concrete back to him although everyone knew he was behind some of the biggest crimes since the war. Of course if the police had turned up there and then, they would have found a suitcase full of American currency and a bound and gagged woman being threatened with an illegal firearm. However, in the absence of enough evidence to justify a search warrant, they would not be about to do any such thing in the foreseeable future.

     How could Coco have been so stupid, she asked herself. She had seen pictures of Henry Harman in newspapers often enough. Somehow, though, she simply didn't connect a gangland boss with a legendary reputation for utter ruthlessness with the middle-aged businessman and his wife that she believed she was robbing.

     Coco had a cold wobbly feeing inside. She was in far more trouble than she could ever have imagined. She did not expect that Henry Harman would take at all kindly to being burgled by a teenage girl who drugged and tied up his wife.

     "You do realise that you're going to die don't you?" Mrs Harman asked her quietly, blowing smoke gently in Coco's direction.

     Coco simply stared back in abject terror, her very worst fear confirmed.

     "It's a pity," Mrs Harman continued. "You seem like a nice girl. I know you tried to take our stuff, but you're not like some of the low-lifes we come across. Killing them is like killing vermin."

     Panic gripped Coco. She couldn't even plead for her life gagged like this. Desperately, she tried to come up with something to do, but fear had so numbed her mind that she couldn't even think.

     "I'll make sure Henry doesn't hurt you though," Mrs Harman went on. "You won't feel a thing if he shoots you in the head. You won't even hear the bang."

     Coco shook her head to try to rid herself of the dreadful vision that arose in her imagination of her her own corpse with its head hideously shattered by a bullet at point-blank range.

     "Are your parents still alive?" Mrs Harman enquired conversationally.

     Coco nodded.

     "Do you get on well with them?"

     Coco hesitated then nodded again.

     "But they don't know you do stuff like this?"

     Coco shook her head emphatically.

     "I thought not. I bet you come from a really nice home. They're going to miss you aren't they?"

     Coco nodded, tears beginning to well up in her eyes. She realised that for all the antagonism between her and her parents, she truly did love them as, deep down, they did her. Coco tried to stifle her tears; it was bad enough knowing she had only hours to live without the humiliation of crying in front of this woman.

     Mrs Harman sighed. "It's going to be terrible for them, I'm afraid. We won't be able to risk your body ever being found. We'll probably have to take you out into the North Sea with concrete on your feet. Your parents will most likely go on and on hoping that you will come back to them."

     Coco lost control and wept helplessly, her sobs muffled by her gag.

     Mrs Harman put an arm across Coco's shoulder and squeezed gently. "I'm really sorry, but if you play for big stakes then you have to accept the risk of losing everything."

     Overwhelmed by grief, fear and self-recrimination, Coco continued to cry great wracking sobs.

     Mrs Harman stood up and walked to the kitchen window, looking out onto the garden, sombre under the leaden midwinter sky. She gazed at the bitter December afternoon for a long time then turned back to Coco whose sobs had subsided into a damp mess of self-pity. "If I take your gag off, will you promise not to yell?" she asked.

     Coco nodded. She was becoming resigned that she would probably die still sitting in this chair and still bound by these ropes, but it would be a relief not to be gagged as well.

     Mrs Harman stubbed out her cigarette then untied the knot securing Coco's gag and eased the wad of soggy cloth out of her mouth.

     "Thank you, Coco croaked.

     "I feel bad about snuffing you, especially just before Christmas," Mrs Harman said, resuming her seat. "Some of the rats we've had try to sting us have deserved all they've got, but you've just been a bit stupid and very unlucky. You don't deserve to die for that."

     This sounded like a glimmer of hope. Coco tried not to get excited; it would be far worse to have her hopes raised then crushed than never to have hoped at all.

     "I'm going to take a big risk for you, girl," Mrs Harman announced, "and get you out of this mess. You have to promise to do your bit. Nobody must ever hear about what we're going to do. If Henry ever finds out that his own wife deceived him, it will be the end for me. He'll have to make an example of me, so it'll be something much worse than a bullet in the head. Understand?"

     Coco nodded.

     "And hear this, girl," Mrs Harman continued. "If he finds out, I'll take you down with me and you'll be right there beside me begging him for a quick clean death. Are you up for this?"

     There was a steely glint in Mrs Harman's eye. Coco realised that this was no rhetorical question but deadly serious in the most brutally literal way. She was being asked to choose between certain death or a risky caper that would have the most appalling consequences if it failed. She looked again at Mrs Harman who was apparently prepared to link her fate to an unknown teenage girl who had broken into her house and attempted to rob her. Mrs Harman was meanwhile calmly folding a fresh duster and tea-towel ready to restore Coco's gag and blindfold. Coco desperately wanted to live, but knew she would be forever beholden to Mrs Harman and would be in constant fear that somehow whatever Mrs Harman was planning would be discovered. She could just say "No" and that would be the last word she would ever speak; the gag would be replaced and some time later, the last thing she would feel would be the muzzle of a gun pressed against the back of her head. Sometimes, terrible risk is the only choice we have.

     "Yes, I'm up for it," Coco replied at length.

     "Good girl!" said Mrs Harman with genuine warmth in her voice. "At least it would have been your own choice to die if you'd said 'No', but I feel much better this way."

     Mrs Harman stood up and started untying Coco. As soon as Coco's hands were free, she joined in herself. While she worked, Mrs Harman started to explain her plan. "We'll put the clock back to when you knocked me out and tied me up. Let's suppose you were a big tough bloke that knocked me on the head and made a decent job of tying me, so I would still be trussed up and groggy when Henry gets back. OK so far?"

     "OK," agreed Coco, "but in that case, why would I leave all your jewellery behind?"

     "You wouldn't," replied Mrs Harman. "You got past our alarm and you caught me on the hop, so I reckon you earned it. If I hadn't got loose, I'd just have shrugged it off and put it down to experience. I can afford to buy new stuff any time I want. Besides, the shopping will be fun."

     "What about the money?" asked Coco.

     "You never found that," Mrs Harman warned her sternly. "If you'd got away with that, Henry would have hunted you down and done things to you that you don't even want to think about."

     Coco was now completely untied and got stiffly to her feet. She winced as a sharp pain caught her breath.

     "Back still hurting?" Mrs Harman asked.

     Coco nodded.

     "Go to the doctor if you find you're peeing blood," Mrs Harman advised. "Tell him you fell down stairs or something."

     Mrs Harman walked through to the hallway and Coco followed, breathing more easily as the spasm of pain in her back eased.

     "Now," announced Mrs Harman, "we need to work out exactly what happened here and make sure all the bits of the story fit together. First, I know that whatever you did to the alarm can't have damaged it much, because I went to unset it when I came in and it looked as if it was unset already."

     "It was; I just dialled in the code," Coco explained helpfully.

     "How the hell did you get that?" Mrs Harman demanded in astonishment.

     "I hid in the porch one night and I listened to the dialling sound when you came home," Coco confessed.

     "Bloody hell! Well, that's not going to be part of the story; Henry won't believe that for a moment."

     "I didn't see anything outside. Is it a silent alarm," Coco asked, anxious to start being constructive.

     "Yes," Mrs Harman confirmed. "At least it's silent outside. There's a big loud hooter in here and it phones the alarm people."

     "Does it record the time when it gets set and unset?"

     "I think it might do; there are two cassettes inside. I know one is for the message it sends over the phone. The other one might keep track of things."

     "In that case, it's no good just disabling it now, because it will probably have recorded when I switched it off," Coco concluded. "I think we'll have to wreck it completely."

     "Sounds like a burglar with a rough sort of style," Mrs Harman commented. "Let's go with that and make everything else fit."

     "OK, I'll do the alarm," Coco offered, "but I don't have heavy tools with me."

     "There's a four-pound hammer and a jemmy in the cupboard under the stairs," Mrs Harman informed her.

     Coco had already gone to the alarm and was inspecting it critically. "Here's the phone line coming out of the box and it just goes into a quarter-inch jack socket down here, just like an answering machine," she commented. "Does it have its own exchange line?"

     "No," replied Mrs Harman. "I think the alarm man said it was just an extension on the house phone."

     "That means that there won't be test calls sent from the alarm centre to see if it's still working. They would ring the house phone as well and be a real nuisance. All we have to do is to unplug it." So saying, Coco did so.

     "Is that all?" Mrs Harman asked in astonishment.

     "Well, the alarm would still go off, but only inside," Coco explained. "Our burglar has a whole minute to unplug the phone line and then has more time to wreck the alarm without too much risk of anyone investigating if he does it quickly.

     "So much for alarms," Mrs Harman remarked gloomily. "Go ahead and wreck it. We'll get a better one next time."

     Coco took aim and swung the hammer down on top of the alarm control box. There was a sound of splintering plastic and a screech as the screws securing the box to the wall tore out. The electrical connection failed with an alarming blue flash. As soon as it lost power, the hooter in the hallway switched to its internal battery and started making a deafening shriek. Coco swung the hammer above her head and knocked the unit from the wall with one blow then smashed it on the floor with another. She returned to the cupboard and applied several more hammer blows to the remains of the alarm, reducing it to a pile of smashed electronics and a very bent battery case. She shredded the contents of the two cassette tapes that had been inside the box.

     "Records erased, I think" Coco concluded.

     "I think they must be," Mrs Harman agreed drily. "Now, the back door has a big bolt on it, so you must have got in through a window somewhere."

     "No," Coco contradicted her, "I came through the front door. I picked the locks."

     "You picked a five-lever mortice lock?" Mrs Harman demanded in disbelief. "You really are good. I think we'll bring our burglar in through the back door though. Bring the jemmy and the hammer."

     Coco picked up the tools and followed Mrs Harman through the kitchen and out into a small scullery.

     Mrs Harman drew back the bolt and unlocked the big iron lock in a massive Victorian door. "Give me the tools, girl, and lock me out," she instructed, "then I'll break back in. I may not be any good with alarms but I know how to get through a door."

     Coco closed the door as instructed then threw the bolt, turned the key and stood back. "OK," she yelled through the wood.

     There was a series of loud splintering noises from outside as Mrs Harman levered away the edge of the door frame with the jemmy then a terrific bang as she drove it past the edge of the door to dislodge the bolt. The screws holding it all sheared off or pulled out at the second blow. Another series of bangs marked Mrs Harman's assault on the lock. Once again she drove the jemmy into the gap between door and frame. The lock held but the metal socket on the frame into which the lock engaged detached itself from the wood. Triumphantly, Mrs Harman pushed the door open with one finger.

     "I'm impressed," conceded Coco. "I don't think the alarm would have gone off until you opened the door."

     "Just a trick I picked up," Mrs Harman acknowledged modestly.

     "So our burglar smashes his way in through the back door and disconnects then wrecks the alarm before it can alert anyone," Coco recapped. "But if you came in and found that mess you'd just do a runner and not come wandering upstairs as you really did."

     "Too true," Mrs Harman agreed. "I thought Henry must have come home early for some reason, because I didn't think anyone else could switch the alarm off."

     "Come to that, I wasn't expecting you home so soon," Coco commented.

     "I usually have lunch with a friend, but she's not well today, so I took her a bottle of something nice, then came straight back home," Mrs Harman explained.

     "Our burglar must already have finished upstairs and met you by chance as you came in," Coco offered, getting back to the point.

     "Yes, he must have got me before I really worked out what was happening," Mrs Harman agreed. "Let's go up and make sure everything looks OK."

     Coco followed Mrs Harman upstairs musing on her sudden reprieve from certain death to become the accomplice in an elaborate deception of her intended victim's husband.

     Mrs Harman carried out a quick survey of her bedroom and concluded that it was basically convincing. "All you need to do is to put the money back and pick up your haul, girl."

     Coco closed the suitcase full of hundred dollar bills and put it back where she found it, conscientiously not taking even a single note, despite being sorely tempted.

     Meanwhile, Mrs Harman was gathering up the three small piles of jewellery that Coco had picked up but not had the chance to put in her rucksack. As she opened the rucksack, Mrs Harman paused in surprise as she found Coco's simulated greasy hair wig. "You were that girl in the café," she exclaimed. "I'd never have recognised you. You really are good. With a bit more care and better luck, you'll be the best."

     Coco smiled. She was pleased at the compliment and genuinely hoped that she would indeed become the best and that somehow she could prove to Mrs Harman that she was.

     Mrs Harman presented Coco with the tights that had been used to bind her earlier, still knotted together. "Get rid of these for me please, dear. I don't expect Henry will notice they're missing, but if he found them in the bin like this he might start to ask questions."

     Coco took them then remembered a question she had meant to ask Mrs Harman. "How did you get loose? I thought I had tied your wrists pretty well."

     Mrs Harman smiled an enigmatic little smile. "And so you did, my dear," she replied. "If you had only tied my wrists, I would have needed a knife or scissors to get free. Your mistake was turning it into a hog-tie like that; I got my hands out by pulling with my feet."

     "But surely that must have hurt!" Coco protested.

     "Well, a bit," Mrs Harman admitted, "but you don't care about that too much when there's some bint in a balaclava turning your house over. Besides, whatever was in that needle you stuck in me is a pretty good painkiller; you don't feel a lot through the haze while you're coming round."

     "I never thought of that," replied Coco.

     "Just put it down to experience," Mrs Harman said magnanimously, "but remember you have to think of all the ways a plan can go wrong as well as the ways it can work."

     "I'll remember that," Coco promised, feeling like a schoolgirl being ticked off for silly mistakes in her homework.

     "Another thing," Mrs Harman went on, "why didn't you gag me?"

     "I was going to do that later," Coco explained. "I didn't want you to choke if you threw up when you came round."

     "I knew you were a nice girl."

     By now, Coco and Mrs Harman had made the bedroom look as though it had been ransacked, which of course it had, but with no evidence of the hoard of money having been found or of Mrs Harman having been tied up there. They stayed upstairs in the house and went quickly from room to room opening cupboards and drawers and spilling the contents. There was nothing of immediate interest to the fictitious burglar, who wanted only small, portable, easily saleable items.

     Satisfied with progress, Coco and Mrs Harman returned downstairs to the hallway.

     "Let's suppose our burglar has finished upstairs and just started to look at the downstairs rooms," suggested Coco. "He hears your key in the front door and comes through here to wait behind the door. You come in and then..."

     "...and then bop," Mrs Harman completed, miming swinging a cosh.

     Coco winced at the thought then continued, "Then he ties you up somewhere, grabs a few last things and does a runner."

     "Sounds about right," Mrs Harman agreed. "Let's make it look like he did a quick search down here."

     Together, the two women methodically opened cupboards and drawers and scattered their contents around. A camera was added to Coco's haul as it was small enough to go in her rucksack, but items like the TV and four-track stereo player were far too bulky and were left untouched.

     Returning to the hallway, Mrs Harman pointed out her handbag, lying where she had left it just inside the front door. Coco turned it upside down and rummaged through the heap of spilled contents. She helped herself to all the banknotes but left everything else. There was a small spray bottle of expensive perfume in the scatter of possessions. Coco poised the heel of her shoe above it. "Touch of realism?" she asked.

     "Go on," Mrs Harman urged. "It'll make the carpet smell nice anyway."

     Coco applied her weight and the bottle crunched satisfyingly.

     Mrs Harman walked into the kitchen and pointed to the clock. It was 2:10 already. "Time we got this finished off," she advised.

     "I think all that's left is to get you tied up," Coco replied.

     "I want Henry to find me still tied up when he gets home," Mrs Harman said. "He knows I'm pretty good at getting myself free, but he won't smell a rat if he sees that I really couldn't get loose by myself. You'll have to do better than your last effort, girl."

     "Well, our burglar has looked in most places, so he might well have found your stash of ropes before you came in and he bopped you," Coco speculated. "He wouldn't want to carry you upstairs, so he might well tie you up in here.

     "Good thinking. Do you reckon you can tie me up well enough, girl?" Mrs Harman asked.

     "I think so. How would you like me to do it?" asked Coco. "Floor or chair?"

     "You need to do this in your own style," Mrs Harman replied. "Henry has seen me tie people up often enough that if I tell you what to do he might recognise my way of doing things."

     "Good point," agreed Coco. "Let's think it through. If it was just me, I would have to tie you on the floor and take my chances. I'm probably not strong enough to get you onto a chair if you were unconscious. On the other hand our big strong man probably could do that and it will be harder for you to get out of.

     "Might be more comfortable too," Mrs Harman commented.

     "Tell me that when I've finished," Coco replied with a grin, then added, "You have a few hours to go, so you might be more comfortable in trousers than a skirt."

     "So I might," Mrs Harman agreed, "but I've been seen wearing this outfit today and our burglar is hardly going to invite me to slip into something more comfortable is he?"

     "True," Coco admitted. "Should you have your jacket on for this too, in that case?"

     "I probably should, now you mention it," Mrs Harman agreed. "I'll go and get it."

     While Mrs Harman went back upstairs, Coco retrieved the box of ropes from the cupboard under the sink once more and tipped its contents onto the kitchen floor.

     Mrs Harman returned wearing her tweed jacket once more. She was also wearing a pair of thin leather gloves. "I might have taken these off to unlock the door today," she explained, "but I don't always, so this is my concession to comfort."

     "The burglar won't bother taking them off you," Coco agreed.

     "Have you worked out how you're going to do this?" Mrs Harman asked, a little anxiously.

     "Not all the details, but I've got the basics. I'll try to do exactly what our burglar would, except that I'll need a bit of help from you when I get to the bit where he lifts you onto the chair."

     "Sounds OK, where do you want me to start?"

     "Lie on your back on the floor, please with your feet nearest to the door," Coco requested. "He's just dragged you in here from the hallway after knocking you on the head."

     Mrs Harman lay down as instructed and waited for Coco's next move. Coco rolled Mrs Harman over onto her stomach and then pulled her arms round behind her back. "The idea is to get the person being tied up under control as quickly as possible," she explained. She sat astride Mrs Harman's legs, placed her hands palm-to-palm and lightly gripped the fingers between her knees while binding Mrs Harman's wrists and cinching the binding off snugly with the knot well out of reach. Next, she tied Mrs Harman's ankles together, also cinching securely between them.

     "The burglar would also gag you at this point," Coco explained, kneeling beside her victim, "but I'll leave that until later. Now he's got you more-or-less helpless, he lifts you onto the chair. I'll take as much weight as I can, but you'll have to co-operate."

     "I'm not that fat," Mrs Harman protested.

     Coco lifted Mrs Harman's shoulders and helped her get into a kneeling position, then steadied her as she straightened her legs to stand up. With Mrs Harman standing, Coco manoeuvred a chair in behind her and helped her sit down. Mrs Harman leaned forward and moved her arms so that her hands were behind the seat back.

     "No, I want your hands where they were, between you and the back of the chair," Coco instructed. "Sorry, I know that isn't comfortable, but it's much harder to get out of."

     Mrs Harman sighed and moved her arms back. "That's all right, dear," she replied. "I did tell you to do it all your own way."

     Coco rummaged through the heap of rope on the floor and picked out a suitable length for the next stage. "Lean forwards, please" she requested. Mrs Harman did so and Coco proceeded to wind rope around her upper arms, drawing her elbows slightly towards each other then cinching off between them to make a snug binding.

     "I'm just glad you didn't pull them any closer than that," Mrs Harman commented ruefully.

     "You can just sit back now," Coco assured her. "I'm just going to make sure you stay in the chair next."

     She selected a long length of rope and belayed it securely to the top of the chair's right-hand back leg, just beneath the seat. She pulled the rope diagonally across Mrs Harman's body and over her left shoulder. Looping the rope around the top of the chair back, she brought it forward over Mrs Harman's right shoulder and diagonally across her body, mirroring the section of rope already in place. She looped it around the top of the left-hand chair leg then took the rope across the top of Mrs Harman's lap and down to the right-hand chair leg where she had secured the beginning of this rope. There was plenty of rope left, so Coco looped it around that chair leg again and followed the diagonal path she had taken earlier, again going over Mrs Harman's left shoulder and looping it around the top rail of the chair back. This time, however, Coco brought the rope out sideways on the left-hand side of Mrs Harman's body and wrapped it horizontally across her body, enclosing her chest and arms. Coco pulled the rope tight as she fed it behind the right hand vertical of the chair back. She brought the rope across Mrs Harman's body again to the left-hand side of the chair back, following a shallow diagonal, so that it came down to about elbow level. She pulled the rope tight again then repeated the manoeuvre crossing Mrs Harman's arms and body twice more then finally securing the rope back where it started at the top of the chair's right-hand back leg.

     "I can barely breathe in this lot," Mrs Harman commented in astonishment.

     "That's the idea," Coco assured her. "If you struggle too much, you could faint."

     Coco returned to the heap of rope and returned with a rather shorter length than before. She used it to bind Mrs Harman's legs just below knee level, ensuring that they were firmly cinched. Another length of rope was attached to the cinch between Mrs Harman's ankles and then tied off firmly to the chair legs either side, leaving her very little scope to move her feet.

     "I don't think I need have worried about persuading Henry I couldn't free myself," Mrs Harman announced as she watched Coco's methodical progress.

     "Glad to hear it," Coco replied as she selected another length of rope. "There's just one more bit to do and then I'm finished." She fastened one end of the rope to the top of the chair's left-hand back leg and then wound it over Mrs Harman's lap and under the chair seat, spiralling forwards until she could fasten the other end off to the top of one of the front legs.

     "All done," Coco declared.

     "And very secure too," Mrs Harman congratulated her. "Now you need to gag me and knock me out then get out of here. Have you got a cosh with you?"

     "No," Coco replied. "I've never even seen a real one."

     "Well, go and look in that drawer nearest the back door," Mrs Harman instructed.

     Coco went over to the drawer and opened it. The only thing that resembled a cosh was a large rubber bone: a toy for a very big dog. She picked it up tentatively.

     "Yes, that's the right thing," Mrs Harman declared. "It's solid rubber. Just feel the weight. Every bit as good as a blackjack and the coppers aren't going to ask any awkward questions if the find you carrying it in your handbag."

     Coco hefted it in her hand. Mrs Harman was right. A bright orange rubber bone might look ridiculous but weighing a pound or so, it was quite a formidable weapon.

     "Straight from the pet shop. All I've done is to take the tinkly bell out of it," Mrs Harman explained. "You can keep that one if you like."

     "I've never done this before," Coco confessed. "How hard do I have to hit you? I don't want to get it wrong and kill you."

     "Feel about an inch behind my ear," Mrs Harman instructed. "There's a knobbly bit of bone there."

     "Here?" asked Coco feeling tentatively.

     "That's it," confirmed Mrs Harman. "That's where the muscles that stop your head falling off are attached. You're only using a lump of rubber, so you can hit me as hard as you like there without breaking my skull. A good hard whack should put me out, but support my head when you do it; I don't want to get whiplash."

     "OK, got it," confirmed Coco, her heart pounding. "Anything else?"

     "Yes, gag me first," Mrs Harman replied. "It will be easier while I'm still conscious and it will make sure I don't break any teeth when you hit me."

     Coco selected a tea-towel and ripped it in half. She rolled one half into a ball and stuffed it into Mrs Harman's mouth then bound it in place with the other half.

     "Do you want a blindfold too?" Coco asked as if she was offering Mrs Harman a cup of tea.

     The reply was incomprehensible, which confirmed to Coco that the gag was quite effective. Mrs Harman repeated her answer by nodding her head. Coco took a second tea-towel and folded it into a band which she tied over Mrs Harman's eyes.

     Coco was not entirely confident about the next stage. She stood beside Mrs Harman and cradled her head in one arm, supporting her chin in the crook of her elbow. "Ready?" she asked.

     There was an almost imperceptible nod from Mrs Harman. Coco took a deep breath and swung the improvised cosh. The smack of rubber on flesh was surprisingly loud and caught Coco by surprise. There was a faint cry from behind Mrs Harman's gag and she tensed then went limp.

     My God, I've killed her, thought Coco. She allowed Mrs Harman's head to droop then hurriedly searched for a pulse. Her instinct for self-preservation prevented her from removing her gloves, so it was hard to detect a pulse, but after several frightening seconds, Coco's fingertips found Mrs Harman's carotid artery and a pulse beating steadily. She heaved a sigh of relief.

     All that remained was for Coco to make her escape. She looked outside. It was even darker than before, although it was still only mid-afternoon. It was also just beginning to snow. Coco quickly checked that she hadn't left anything of hers behind in the house. She put her balaclava back on, then her long grey coat and pulled the hood up. She smiled under the balaclava; no-one would think she was oddly dressed in this weather and no-one would notice much with such poor visibility.

     Slinging the rucksack on her back, Coco let herself out of the front door. She hesitated for a moment. It wouldn't be too difficult to re-lock the mortice lock with her lock-pick, but in the scene they had set up, Mrs Harman would not have had the opportunity to lock it before being ambushed by the supposed burglar and he would probably have left it unlocked. She left the door locked on the Yale alone. She made her way quickly back to the street, glancing around for anyone who might see her. The street was deserted, so Coco strode out with confidence.

     The day's experience had shaken her badly, but paradoxically also restored her faith in fellow human beings, however much she might betray their faith. She still couldn't quite understand Mrs Harman's gesture of goodwill, but that was surely what it was, goodwill extended at personal risk to a complete stranger who surely did not deserve it. Appropriate at Christmas.

     The wind lashed at Coco as she turned the corner at the end of the street and icy granules of snow stuung the small part of her face that was exposed. Coco was not worried; it was good to be alive to feel it.

COCO THOUGHT of Mrs Harman often over the following weeks. The first few days after her encounter were filled with dread that their plot had been discovered. Whenever she went out she was in fear of being kidnapped off the street and taken to a hideout somewhere to face Henry Harman's terrible revenge. Nothing happened and Coco started to plan future escapades.

     On a Saturday in early February, Coco was out looking for opportunities once more. Her blonde hair was tucked away under a chestnut brown wig which faithfully represented hair permed into a cloud of loose curls. She was wearing wire-framed spectacles and had a scarf pulled up over her chin almost to her nose. Confident in her anonymity Coco threaded her way through the shoppers crowding the pavements. Coming towards her was Margot Harman. Mrs Harman said nothing and never hesitated as she passed Coco, but briefly made eye contact and shot her a conspiratorial wink. So much for disguise.

The Chronicles of La Cioccolata
KP Presents Contents
© Gillian B 2003