by Gillian B
COCO WAS more content with her life than she had been for as long as she could remember. At the age of 18, she felt that she had finally gained some say in her own destiny. True, the route that she had chosen to achieve that end was covert criminal activity, but her growing sense of pride in her abilities and her self-confidence outweighed the faint naggings of conscience that she acknowledged to herself were still there.
Coco had turned to crime initially to satisfy her craving for chocolate and to prove to herself that she could outwit her parents, the police and the village postmistress who was the victim of her one-girl crimewave. Early on, she had established her innocence to her mother but now she feared that, before long, fingers of suspicion would nevertheless begin to point at her. Coco realised almost at the outset of her criminal career that a successful modus operandi, if repeated too often, can become a liability: a lesson that many professional criminals fail to learn, to their ultimate cost.
Although, she had not fully realised it herself, Coco had several qualities that set her apart from the general run-of-the-mill criminal. First and foremost was her intelligence and her ability to engage in both abstract and applied thought to her advantage. Then there was her imagination, which enabled her not only to conceive of surprising stratagems, which would confound her opponents, but also the myriad ways in which they could go wrong. Lastly, and probably most importantly, Coco could apply patience, persistence and attention to detail far beyond the average persons ability.
THE BIGGEST problem facing Coco was to find a way to place herself above any suspicion. She decided that the best means to do this was to commit a theft while being seen elsewhere by utterly reliable witnesses. This implied being in two places at once and, at length, she conceived a plan which would appear to do just that. A plan which would be challenging in the utmost to carry out but which would achieve the complementary goals of establishing the mysterious criminal as someone unmistakably other than herself and clearing her own name beyond any question.
Sherlock Holmes once remarked that it was far harder to disguise one's back than one's face. Coco recognised the truth of that. She was very nearsighted, but, even without her spectacles, she found that she could often recognise individuals at some distance by their walk, their posture, indeed by their whole demeanour, without necessarily being able to resolve any of their facial features. Coco's own appearance was distinctive with her diminutive stature and plump build, her soft ash blonde hair and her clear periwinkle blue eyes. On the other hand, these were precisely the key features by which she was recognised by others. If she were to succeed in hiding these giveaway features, or at least distracting attention away from them, then the very Coco-ness of her appearance might well disappear too.
Coco studied herself in a full-length mirror. First she looked at her image dressed in her usual sweater and jeans. The baggy sweaters she liked hid much of the detail, but the overall impression was still of a bulky, rounded figure with a lot of tummy. Her back was rather round too, she noticed, and she tended to hunch her shoulders. The clothes were odd in that they hid detail while somehow emphasising the whole, reducing her form to a sort of cipher for Coco.
She did not particularly like the look of her unclothed body, but this was an exercise in self-appraisal, so Coco peeled off her clothes and examined the naked figure she could see in the mirror. She ran through a mental checklist of good and bad points, trying not to concentrate on the aspects she thought less appealing. Suddenly she realised that she was looking at details not at her body as a whole; this approach wasnt helping either.
Coco needed to see her body in the abstract. She had always hated wearing it, but she had a regulation black leotard for school gymnastics lessons. She pulled on a pair of opaque black tights, then her leotard. This was more helpful, but still not as abstract a view as she wanted. The leotard had a fairly deep round neck and three-quarter length sleeves. Coco decided to sacrifice a pair of tights to her investigation. She chopped one leg off the tights and worked it down over her head, covering her hair, which she had pinned up as flat as she could. The other leg formed a sort of scarf covering the skin visible between the top of the leotard and her impromptu black stocking mask. She carefully poked two small holes in the nylon covering her face so she could see clearly. A pair of black socks over her hands and forearms completed Cocos transformation.
Strangely, with her body completely covered, Coco was at last able to see herself clearly. Broad hips, broad shoulders, still that slight hunch: no surprises there. Coco was honest enough with herself to know that she was fat. She studied her side view critically and made a little discovery. If she pulled her shoulders back, the tummy also pulled in. (She was pleased to note that her modest bust development also became a little more immodest.) She turned to face the mirror, lifted her arms and studied the silhouette. Her waist was quite visible from this angle. It wouldnt take much pressure to give her if not an hourglass figure, at least one more fashionable than her own. She experimented with a belt round her waist, but that merely made her stomach bulge over the top; something wider might work. A scarf tied round her middle with the knot at the back was starting to do the right thing. It slowly dawned on Coco that she needed a corset.
Cocos mother was taller than she was and while quite well built, didnt seem to have problems with her waistline. (Actually Coco didnt have problems with her own waistline, but it seems as though everyone else had problems with it for her.) However, Coco was almost certain that her mother must have needed some help with the more severely sculptural fashions of the late 60s, a few years previously. She was alone in the house, so she took the opportunity to investigate her mothers underwear drawer. She discarded the stocking mask and the socks over her hands before leaving her room.
After a few minutes rummaging, Coco discovered what she was looking for. Later, she would learn that, in its day, the garment she had found was called a panty corselette. It was designed to cover the wearer from bottom to bust and combined the functions of panties, girdle and bra. It was made of uncompromisingly robust nylon with elastic sides that could be pulled tight with zip fasteners and the bra cups were not only reinforced with an X of broad elastic running between them but were also underwired. Coco marvelled that anyone would willingly wear such a device merely to make her outline more flattering then realised that she was contemplating using it for nearly the same reason.
Back in her bedroom, Coco puzzled out just how one was supposed to get into this piece of corsetry engineering. She stripped off her leotard and tights then slid her legs in through the top of the corset. She quickly discovered that she actually had to cross her legs to get them to slide in. Inch by reluctant inch, she slid the skin-tight garment upwards until the upper edge reached her bust. She was puzzled as to what to do next until she realised that she would have to fold the bra part down to make any more progress. She kept on pulling and wriggling until the sides of the bottom hem reached her hip joints, which she estimated was about the right point. She slid her arms through the shoulder straps and scooped herself into the bra cups. There was an elasticated flap to go between her legs and then be fastened with hooks and eyes. Coco tried to see what she was doing but discovered that she could not bend far enough forwards to get a useful view. After much fumbling, she managed to secure the crotch flap. The last stage was to pull down the two built-in zip fasteners, which would close the elasticated side gussets. After some experimentation, Coco established a rhythm of breathing in, pushing as much slack as she could towards the zips and then tugging them down another short distance.
Finally, she was finished. Coco stood up with some difficulty to see the effect. She noticed immediately how much flatter her tummy was and how much straighter her back was. Not only that, but the straighter back naturally encouraged her shoulders to go back. With a little dismay, Coco discovered that she didnt fill the bra cups, but a carefully folded pair of socks remedied that problem.
Coco decided that she needed to wear clothes to properly see the effect of the amazing panty corselette. She put her opaque black tights back on, taking almost twice as long as usual because of the extreme difficulty of bending far enough to reach her feet. A ribbed black sweater was the obvious complement to the tights. It was in fact her tightest sweater and normally rather too small for her. With the borrowed underwear, it fitted perfectly and gave her an astonishing outline. Coco turned slowly in front of the mirror and admired the otherness of the image reflected in it. On an impulse, Coco added a belt round her waist on top of the sweater, something she would not normally do, but which gave a very pleasing effect with her present attire.
The first item on Cocos list of give-away features was solved; she was no longer Coco-shaped and she moved like a different person. She even looked taller somehow. That left hair and eyes to be disguised.
The obvious solution for hair was to cover it up. Coco put on her old black balaclava helmet, now rather a snug fit as it had been knitted for her when she was about 10. A fringe of hair still showed at the front. With care, she could tuck it up under the edge of the balaclava but it did not seem to want to stay there. This would require further thought.
Coco had already decided to use the black eye mask she had worn on previous burglaries. She removed her spectacles and put the mask on, carefully settling it down on the bridge of her nose. Without her spectacles, Coco found it difficult to gain a true impression of her appearance. It was also dawning on her that although she had managed without spectacles for her earlier exploits, it was a serious liability when she would be seen carrying out the raid and would need full use of her own vision.
ABOUT AN hour later, Coco had the ideal accessory for the nearsighted burglar: a prescription eye mask. She had glued the black papier mâché mask to an old pair of spectacles. The prescription was slightly out of date, but still close enough to her current one. Because the spectacles were quite old, they were meant for a younger, smaller Coco. With a little bending of their legs they could be persuaded to fit her face. The lenses were so close to her eyes she could feel her eyelashes brush them sometimes, but that was good as it allowed the mask to fit her face quite naturally. Coco had very carefully stuck transparent self-adhesive film over the lenses. It was intended for covering books and was yellow. Of course Cocos view of the world was tinted yellow as a result, but to anyone looking in, her eyes were now a greenish grey instead of their usual startling blue.
Coco stood in front of the mirror again. Apart from that annoying fringe of hair, the effect was stunning. She had expected that she would look rather boyish, but the padded bra and tightly held-in waist left no doubt at all about her femininity. She concluded with a giggle that she looked like a slightly heavier and more homespun version of the Cat Woman in the Batman comic books.
FOR THE NEXT raid, the one that would also establish an unshakeable alibi for her, Coco knew that she would have to overpower her victim. She was strong but engaging in a fight seemed to be terribly risky with both the success of the job and the security of her disguise at stake.
Back in 1972, chloroform was still relatively easy to obtain. It was widely used as an industrial solvent and could be bought in quite large bottles from chemical suppliers with no need to furnish a name and address or to sign the Poisons Register. Coco knew that it was important that any supplies she purchased for her criminal activities should be obtained as far away from home as possible and as far ahead of their intended use as possible. That way, that any trail she left would have gone cold before anyone tried to follow it.
Accordingly, on a school trip to London some weeks before her planned use of the substance, Coco had slipped away from the party long enough to buy a half litre bottle of chloroform from an industrial chemist. She was cheerfully open about being a schoolgirl requiring chloroform for use as a solvent adhesive for the Plexiglas she planned to use in an art project. The assistant who served Coco would have remembered her if he had been asked. He would have given an accurate description of a girl wearing a duffel coat, with a fringe of chestnut brown hair peeking out from a blue knit cap and with a blue and red striped scarf knotted at her throat. When Coco left the shop, she removed the cap, the Alice band with its attached fringe of false hair and the scarf, which she had bought in a charity shop, hiding them all in her capacious schoolbag. She put her own green school scarf on and unobtrusively rejoined her classmates.
COCO WASCholorform promised to be quite easy to use according to Cocos understanding, which was largely gleaned from detective stories and films. She suspected that there might be more to it than just soaking a rag and holding it over her victims mouth and nose and decided to use herself as a guinea pig.
Coco waited for an opportunity when she was alone in the house to carry out her experiment. She felt slightly nervous as she poured chloroform onto a cotton rag. She carefully replaced the cap on the bottle and steadied her breathing. Screwing up her courage, she clamped the rag over her face. She forced herself to take a deep breath. The smell was overpowering: a combination of sweetness and chemical laboratory. The vapour stung her tongue and mouth as she breathed. The effect was instantaneous and alarming. The room span, her vision darkened and there was a hammering in her ears as she crumpled to the floor.
Some minutes later, Coco stirred back into consciousness. Her head hurt terribly and waves of nausea rolled over her. She felt almost too weak to move but she had an overwhelming urge to vomit. She willed herself to crawl to the bathroom and there was copiously, painfully and repeatedly sick.
Coco felt weak and shaky for the rest of the day after that first experiment with chloroform. Subsequently, she was able to estimate a much smaller dose, which made her giddy and confused, and which she hoped would enable her to overpower a victim without undue distress.
AT LAST, Coco felt she was ready for her big raid. She had worked out what to wear, she had practised changing her clothes at amazing speed, she had practised with chloroform and, most important of all, she had a plan.
On Wednesday afternoon, the post office and shop in the village where Coco lived was closed. Early-closing Day is one of those curious British traditions which have largely died out now but one which was still current in the early 70s. Coco planned a daylight raid which would exploit the fact that on a Wednesday afternoon, the postmistress would still be on the premises but the shop would be locked up. The date Coco selected was in the school Easter holidays, so that she would have ample time in which to put her plan into operation.
Feeling a frisson of nervousness, Coco prepared for her big day. She dressed herself in the panty-corselette which she had abstracted from her mothers underwear drawer. Over that, she wore one of the soft cotton-print dresses she often wore in spring and summer. They were a little young in style for an 18-year-old, but that just added to their value as protective colouring. A red cardigan on top of the dress and a pair of white ankle socks and a pair of old school gym shoes completed the ensemble. She picked up a small sports bag, which she had packed with her equipment for the afternoons work, and unobtrusively left the house.
She walked slowly down the street, past the post office. She took care to notice that the CLOSED sign was up and also to note that the postmistress was at work in the back of the shop. Coco turned into the lane which led down the side of the post office, then into the one which ran across the back of the post office and her own house.
In her previous reconnaissance visits, Coco had discovered that there was a corner of the back yard to the post office which was not overlooked by the post office itself or by neighbouring houses or by people walking past on the lane. Coco made straight for that corner. Without any hesitation she stripped to her underwear, taking only a few seconds to do so after long practice. There wasnt even a single wasted movement as she quickly donned her black tights and sweater and put her gym shoes back on. She put on the Alice band with the fake chestnut hair she had used before then her balaclava. Her mask and black rubber gloves completed the transformation. Cocos everyday clothes were consigned to a plastic supermarket bag and left where she had changed.
Just being in costume steadied Cocos nerves. Somehow, the different persona she had adopted put her beyond her everyday fears. The first stage of the raid did not require much expertise, as Coco knew from experience that the back door to the post office would not be locked. However, the very act of opening it would commit her irrevocably to her course of action.
Coco moved quickly but silently to the door, opened it noiselessly on hinges she had oiled previously and slipped inside. The next stage was the tricky one; she had to get past the postmistress without being seen. The post office had a large shop area at the front, which also housed the post office counter in a small separately secured area of the same room. At the back was the storeroom, in which Coco was hiding. Between these rooms were a small washroom and a doorless alcove used to store cleaning materials. In was in that alcove that Coco hid next.
It was nerve-racking standing in the semi darkness willing herself to be silent, but it was an essential part of the plan and Coco saw no alternative but to wait patiently for an opportunity.
Before many minutes had passed, Cocos patience was rewarded. The postmistress walked past, close enough for Coco to touch her, and busied herself in the big room at the back. Swiftly and silently, Coco left her hiding place and moved into the shop.
Cocos plan was complex and exacting but she was determined to attend to all the details. She went immediately to the large wall clock in the shop, opened the glass and advanced the hands by 10 minutes. Closing the clock again, Coco flattened herself against the wall next to the open door through which she had come from the back premises.
It was hard not to be overwhelmed by tension, but Coco kept her breathing measured and silent as she waited. Seemingly, several hours passed, although the clock showed only two minutes. Suddenly, it was time for action as the postmistress re-entered the shop. Coco leaped into action without hesitation, seizing her victim and clapping the carefully prepared chloroform rag over her mouth and nose.
Coco held on for the vital few seconds while the postmistresss eyes stared at her in uncomprehending terror then lost their focus. Coco had judged the dosage to perfection. She was elated, but there was no time for rejoicing. As the postmistresss co-ordination started to go, Coco allowed her to slump to the floor.
In Cocos bag there was a bundle of pre-cut lengths of rope. Using the rope effectively was slightly risky as Coco had not tied anyone up since her days in the Girl Guides several years previously and back then her future liberty had not been dependent on her rope skills.
Coco had decided to go for a simple but, she hoped, effective method of binding the postmistress. She first crossed her victims wrists behind her back and bound them together with a length of rope, changing over from horizontal to vertical turns half way, just as she had been taught to lash poles together at Guide camp.
As Coco had practised on herself, the leg bindings were less experimental. She started with the ankles, winding several turns of rope round the legs just above the joint, then twisting the ends of the rope around to use as a seize to tighten them in a classic Guide-style parallel lashing. More rope bound the postmistresss legs just below her knees and knotted in the same style.
Coco finished off by winding a long length of rope round the postmistresss arms and body, just below her bust, effectively pinning her elbows to her sides.
As with the leg binding, Coco had put in some practice with gagging, using herself as a test subject. She had two suitably anonymous cotton rags to hand. One was folded up and used as packing in the postmistresss mouth while the second was wound around her head twice, passing between the teeth each time, to hold it in place.
As Coco tightened the gag, the postmistress was fully conscious, if rather shaken, and capable of turning her full attention to Coco and the situation in which she found herself. This was the moment Coco was dreading; would her disguise hold?
All the time she was being bound and gagged, the postmistress was sitting on the shop floor, where there was room for Coco to work, but where there was a small risk of being seen by passers by. Coco dragged her victim round behind the counter, hoping that she had seen the clock while she was being tied up. It was a risk, but Coco could hardly break her own silence by pointing out that it was now 3:22 pm.
Fully in command of her senses again, the postmistress started struggling furiously with her bonds. Coco realised that she should have anticipated this, but was nevertheless surprised by it. It was much harder than Coco had imagined to drag an unwilling and uncooperative victim a relatively short distance, even though she was bound hand and foot.
Once she had hidden the postmistress, Coco quickly reset the clock and selected two expensive and beautiful boxes of chocolates. She tipped the contents into a plastic bag and discarded boxes and wrapping on the floor.
Within moments, Coco was back out through the back door of the shop. She hid in the same corner of the yard that she had used before. Her costume was stripped off in seconds and packed away in her bag. She put her dress and cardigan back on, pulled on her socks again, resumed her usual spectacles and substituted a pair of schoolgirl-style sandals for her gym shoes. As a final touch, Coco hid a specially-prepared cushion under her dress to make her look as fat as she usually did without the corsetry.
EVERY SECOND after the raid was vital. Coco hurried back along the lane to the rear of her own house. She deposited the bag in a secret hiding space under the floor of the garden shed, then, mustering as much coolness as she could, she made her way through the garden to the front gate and out onto the street once more.
The next stage was to find a witness to Coco being out and about. Luck was with her, as she saw the local policeman make his way slowly across the village green. Coco went straight across to him and greeted him. She asked him if he had the right time, as her watch seemed to disagree with the time shown on the church clock. The policeman assured her that the church clock was right and it was exactly 3:22 pm.
Coco thanked the policeman and engaged him in companionable idle conversation as they ambled slowly across the green together towards the post office. She remarked to him that she wanted to see the postmistress with a view to getting her old job back and that she hoped she would be there.
As they reached the post office door, Coco glanced at her watch; it was now 3:31, probably long enough since the raid for the postmistress not to question the clock. The policeman hesitated, still in conversation with Coco while she knocked on the door. It was hard for Coco not to betray triumph on her face as her knock was answered by a muffled cry from inside the post office, clearly audible both to her and to the policeman.
The policemans gaze locked with Cocos for a split second then he went into action without hesitation. First he tried the shop door, which was locked. Next he put his shoulder to the door, but the lock was far too strong to be forced like that. Cautioning Coco to stand back, he drew his truncheon and smashed the glass window in the shop door then reached in to turn the key in the lock. Neither of the bolts on the door had been shot, so he could open the door without difficulty.
Protection of scenes of crime was still rather rudimentary in those days, so the policeman made no attempt to prevent Coco from following him into the shop. He did, however, remember to warn her not to touch anything in case she destroyed fingerprints. The postmistresss angry yells through her gag led them unerringly to her hiding place behind the counter.
Coco had a chance to take one clear look at the postmistress before helping the policeman release her. She was startled to notice that the coil of rope round her arms and body had slipped slightly. This had been the element of the binding that Coco was least sure of and she realised that refinements to her technique would be needed if she repeated this.
Although she was by nature very cautious and not a gambler, Coco had bet heavily on the approach she had taken to the robbery. She would win or she would lose ignominiously depending on whether the postmistress had recognised her or not. As chance would have it, Coco was nearest the postmistresss head as she and the policeman worked on freeing her, so it was Coco who removed the gag that she had tied less than a quarter of an hour before.
The tension was almost unbearable as Coco eased the packing out of her victims mouth, but she had to contain herself and betray nothing of what she was feeling inside.
The postmistress licked her dry lips and then thanked Coco for helping with her rescue and congratulated her for being so calm in a crisis. Coco breathed a huge, silent inner sigh of relief.
Once the postmistress was free, the policeman telephoned for support from the divisional CID then asked a few preliminary questions. The postmistress had been canny enough to notice the clock giving the time of the raid as a little after 3:20 and had clearly not realised that the clock was not giving the correct time. Coco reminded the policeman of the time they had met. They concluded that must have been on the village green at the time the robbery was happening. If only they had been slightly earlier, they agreed with regret, they might have been in time to catch the mysterious chocolate thief.
THE CHOCOLATE thief had been something of a local joke but had suddenly become a more serious issue with the assault on the postmistress. The robbery was front-page news in the local paper the next day. There was a photograph of the post office with the postmistress, the policeman and Coco standing self-consciously in front of it.
Coco was more interested in the information about the thief. The report gave a full description of the masked raider. Coco was pleased to note that the robber was described as being a woman of middle height, probably in her late 20s, with brown hair and grey or green eyes. Coco smiled a broad, secret smile. She had managed to disguise not only her shape and her hair and eye colour but also her height. She hadnt expected to be described as tall, but she had at least hoped to appear taller than she really was.
HER CELEBRITY status as a local hero was pleasing to Coco, but it seemed not to allay her mothers suspicions entirely. Coco tried to convince herself that it was all her imagination. After all, she had a police witness to prove that she had been somewhere else when the postmistress had been attacked. Deep within herself, however, she knew that her mother knew her too well and knew her to be capable of committing crimes like that.
It was clear to Coco that her criminal career would continue in some form. The rush she experienced when she successfully carried out a theft was unbelievable and she knew that she was hopelessly addicted. It was equally clear that unless her mother was utterly convinced of Cocos complete innocence, then the suspicions would gnaw away until Coco inevitably gave herself away by some detail and then her mother would pounce mercilessly.
The question that exercised Coco was how to establish her absolute innocence to her mothers complete satisfaction. She had already carried out a burglary when her mother knew her to have been bound and gagged and locked in her room. She had a policeman to testify to her alibi for another. It was hard to see what more she could do.
An audacious thought occurred to Coco. She had already faced the postmistress in her guise as the mysterious chocolate thief and not been recognised. She wondered if the disguise would deceive her own mother.
Common sense dictated that the next robbery should be as far away from home territory as possible to avoid the risk of suspicion through mere proximity. Coco was usually cautious, but she was driven by a need to allay her mother's suspicions.
If her mother were to be the next victim, it would be a far more demanding test of Coco's skills, but, were shr to succeed, it would give her an unassailable defence. The risk would be enormous, but risk was increasingly what Coco lived for.
AS ALWAYS, Coco's planning was meticulous and occupied some of her spare time over several weeks. She was always careful not to give the game away by being obviously preoccupied with a major project which might arouse suspicion. However, an hour or so every day gave her a great deal of time, during which she constructed some additional hiding places for equipment, worked on her costume and developed some new skills.
Coco knew that her mother occasionally indulged in a box of chocolates and she waited patiently until a day when she knew that a box had recently been bought from the post office.
Coco decided that the best preparation for the day of her planned attack would be for her to ingratiate herself as much as possible with her mother. She announced at breakfast time that she planned to do a major spring clean of her bedroom. Her mother greeted this news with enthusiasm, only mildly tainted with sarcasm. Coco's room was always well organised by her own standards. Everything had a place and was put away after use every time with almost obsessive efficiency. Her mother always pointed out the sheer quantity of books, drawing material and tools Coco had and how cluttered they made the room look. Coco had given up explaining that it was all stuff she used and that she always put it away; nothing she could say would ever satisfy her mother.
As Coco returned to her bedroom, she put her operation into motion. The first job was to clear the clutter (she admitted to herself that her room was cluttered, but it was cluttered in the way a well-equipped workshop might be cluttered). She had already planned places for everything. Tools and notebooks simply vanished from sight as they were hidden in a compartment under the floorboards, which she had constructed. Her books were quickly re-stacked two-deep on the shelves, with children's books (all of which she had outgrown years before) hiding the technical and scientific volumes in the back layer. These operations cleared her writing table and the mantelpiece of the old fireplace in her room. She dug her old dolls out of the box in which she had hidden them and lined them up on the mantelpiece. A partly complete watercolour sketch was already taped to the smallest of her several drawing boards. She placed it on the writing table and artistically scattered pencils and paints around it.
Coco kept her bedroom door closed as she worked. She was certain that her mother's curiosity would get the better of her before too long and that she would come up to see what was happening. Coco had finished long before this but continues to make odd noises by opening and shutting cupboards and drawers. Eventually about two hours after Coco had started, there was a gentle tap at her bedroom door. Coco opened the door a few inches and peered round it. She told her mother that the room wasn't ready to show off yet, but knew full well that some major changes, ones her mother would approve, were clearly visible through the narrow opening of the door.
WITH THE anticipated maternal visit out of the way, Coco leaped into action. She could guarantee that her mother would not think of visiting her room for at least another hour. She bolted the bedroom door and swiftly donned her catburglar costume.
Coco was able to put on her mother's panty corselette quickly and easily after all the practice she had put in. She added the bust padding, trying hard to concentrate on the job and not get carried away with the excitement of the daring deception she was about to commit. The black tights and sweater came next together with the belt to complete the disguise of her outline.
With a little more time than usual at her disposal, Coco applied some makeup to disguise her age and appearance further. Black greasepaint around her eyes completed the effect of the mask and made her face unreadable Fire-engine red lipstick applied to make a slightly narrower lip shape than her own both disguised the true width of her mouth and conveyed an impression of makeup used to make the wearer look younger (although by doing so, it paradoxically had the opposite effect of making her genuine youthfulness look older).
The Alice band with its fringe of fake hair and her balaclava covered Coco's hair as before and complemented the disguise of her face. Her rubber-soled gym shoes and a pair of thin black leather gloves bought from a charity shop completed her costume.
It took only a few seconds for Coco's practiced eye to be sure that no-one was within sight from her bedroom window and for her to be out through the window and down the drain pipe. Keeping close to the wall of the house, she sprinted round to the front door.
Conveniently, the front door of Coco's house was situated inside a deep porch, which made her presence less obvious from any passers-by on the road. In any case, the hedge in front of the garden made it hard to see the door except from the gate and a few feet either side of it. As soon as she reached the door, she applied the burglar's time-honoured glass silencer of a piece of brown paper (carefully pre-cut to fit) stuck to the glass with treacle. The door had six small panes of rippled glass and Coco had chosen the lowest one adjacent to the lock. A sharp blow with a stonemason's rubber mallet removed the pane with a surprisingly loud bang but no telltale tinkle.
Without pausing for even a second, Coco reached in and opened the Yale lock using the knob on the inside. As she closed the door behind her, she already had her next weapon in her hand, a sizeable handgun. Right on cue, Coco's mother bustled out of the kitchen to investigate the noise. She stopped dead as she saw the gun levelled at her. The bright blue plastic of the gun betrayed its identity as a toy. It was in fact quite a powerful popgun. It was cocked by pulling back a knob where the hammer would be on a real gun. This action compressed the spring on a piston inside the barrel. It was designed to propel a small red plastic cylinder across a room, but when Coco pulled the trigger, the charge it fired at her mother consisted of a small screw of tissue paper and a large shower of finely-ground pepper.
Coco's plan had been to afford her mother one clear view of her costumed alter ego before the attack began in earnest. So far, so good. Coco was shorter but heavier than her mother and, fuelled by the adrenaline rushing through her veins, she had no problem wrestling her to the floor. Planning, practice and meticulous preparation of her materials came into play as Coco set about methodically binding her own mother.
It was of paramount importance to incapacitate her mother as quickly as possible. Coco had her mother face-down on the floor and was kneeling on the small of her back. She hauled her mother's hands behind her back, pinning them down with one knee. There were several lengths of rope already cut to length and tucked through Coco's belt. The first of these came into play to bind her mother's wrists. Coco could not risk her mother freeing herself, so she took care to cross the wrists and tie them with both vertical and horizontal turns, finishing off with a knot well out of her fingers' reach.
The shock had been sufficient that Coco's mother had so far made very little noise, but Coco realised that was unlikely to continue. She had pilfered an old cotton dustsheet from some painters who had been working at her school. Since then, she had washed it to remove any traces of its origin and ripped it into some conveniently sized pieces. The first piece was rolled into a ball and stuffed into her mother's mouth. The second was already folded into a thick band to go between her mother's teeth and be knotted behind her head to hold the first in place.
Coco was careful to work from behind her mother's head to apply the gag so as to minimise the risk of being recognised. However, a blindfold was essential to ensure that her disguise should not be penetrated. A third piece of dustsheet, generously sized to cover her mother's face from nose to hairline, worked admirably.
Now that the critical first phases of her attack were complete, Coco could feel her heart rate ease off and some of the tension drain away from her. Nevertheless, she could not afford to waste time by slackening her frenetic pace.
Coco used a second length of rope to tie her mother's ankles. She used the same technique as she had applied to the wrists: crossing the limbs and lashing them together with turns of rope in both directions.
Finally, Coco forced her mother's legs to bend at the knees and pulled the bound ankles as close to her bottom as she could. A short binding linking the wrist and ankle ropes effectively immobilised her mother. From the sounds coming from behind her gag, it was not at all comfortable, but Coco did not let that deter her.
Coco inspected the knots critically to confirm that everything was secure then paused. Her planned timetable required her to rush upstairs to prepare her own role in this charade, but her eyes were fixed on the bound and struggling form of her mother. Coco found herself shocked and troubled by her actions, attacking her own mother mercilessly and leaving her tied up and helpless. On the other hand, she recognised a growing feeling of satisfaction. Her mother had poisoned her childhood with pressure to conform and with overwhelming mistrust. Well, perhaps the mistrust was well placed, but surely this was an apt revenge on a mother who would tie her own daughter up for eating chocolate.
Focusing herself back on the job in hand, Coco dragged her eyes away from her mother and ran upstairs.
MAKING THE burglary as perfectly convincing as possible was Coco's next priority; she did not want there to be any suspicion that this was an inside job. She went first to her mother's bedroom, where she suspected that she would find the box of chocolates she had targeted. She had also decided that this would be the first burglary where the thief would diversify her interests.
The chocolates were in full view on her mother's bedside table. It took only a few seconds to strip off the cellophane, empty the contents into a plastic bag and toss the box onto the floor. She crushed the empty box underfoot just to make her point.
Coco's mother habitually left jewellery lying around on top of her dressing table. The rest was easily found in the top drawer, some in cases, but most loose. Coco helped herself to the best pieces of jewellery, deliberately leaving the items she knew to be costume pieces and any that she felt might be too distinctive to dispose of safely.
It was only through family knowledge that Coco could distinguish the real gems from the fake, but she made a mental note to improve her education in this area.
Next, Coco went to her own bedroom. She overturned a chair loudly and tried to give the impression of a vigorous but futile struggle. What she was actually doing was hiding all the stolen jewellery in one of her under-floor hiding places and then changing out of her burglar's costume, which she also hid.
COCO FELT very naked and conspicuous pounding down the stairs in her everyday clothes while her mother lay bound and gagged in the hallway below. Part of her was certain that her mother must be able to see right through the blindfold, but she was determined not to let her courage fail at this stage.
Reaching the kitchen, she opened the back door and then hesitated. Her mother's watch and diamond engagement ring were on a small glass dish on the windowsill where she always put them while she did housework. A real burglar would not miss them and while the watch was worthless, the ring was most definitely not.
On an impulse, Coco grabbed the ring and went through the door slamming it behind her. She tossed the ring into a flowerbed as if it had been dropped by a careless thief who had pocketed it at the last moment. If the police failed to recover it, she could always 'find' it herself another day.
It took only a few seconds for Coco to check that she was unobserved then to swarm up the drainpipe and regain her room.
BACK IN her bedroom, Coco was aware of an immense tiredness as a consequence of the emotional and physical intensity of what had gone before, but there was still work to do and she had to concentrate.
Coco now had to make herself appear to be another victim of the mysterious chocolate thief. She knew that she could not reproduce the security of the ropework she had applied to her mother, so the scenario she hoped to suggest was that the burglar had not expected to be faced with a second victim to secure and had been forced to improvise.
There had been a ball of smooth cotton string prominently in sight on Coco's writing table for some weeks. She had already measured off and cut a fifteen-foot length, sufficient for a dozen turns round her ankles and four turns between them to cinch the coil into a snug pair of ankle cuffs. She jerked the string tight, wincing as it dug into her flesh through her socks, and tied a firm reef knot.
There were two handkerchiefs ready and waiting. The first one, Coco rammed into her mouth, almost choking on the dry material. The second was folded diagonally and then into a band to force the packing into her mouth. She knotted the ends at the nape of her neck. Her breath came in rough gasps around the gag and she had to force herself to breathe slowly and evenly.
Coco had tried out tying her wrists with string and had come up with a workable technique. She had prepared a pre-knotted coil of about twenty turns. It was possible to increase the tightness of the coil by folding a loop over to make an extra turn and then to redistribute the tension to the other turns. The tightness could be reduced by the opposite procedure. Coco had already adjusted the coil she planned to use so that she could just get both hands through with difficulty. Getting them out again was possible, but was even more difficult. She slipped the coil onto her left wrist then knelt down next to her bed.
Coco's school scarf usually hung on the back of her bedroom door, where, she reasoned, a burglar might well find it and use it to blindfold her. It was about five feet long, so she centred it at the back of her head, then wrapped each end across her eyes, knotting them tightly at the back of her head.
It was tricky keeping the coil of string evenly tight as she worked her right hand through it, but she had practised and after a minute or so of gentle struggling, it slipped through. Coco knew of only one way to make sure that she wouldn't free herself inadvertently or through panic. She deliberately worked her wrists to and fro inside their binding until the skin became raw, red and inflamed. She knew that a few minutes after that treatment, her wrists would swell sufficiently to make escape impossible. It also made them very painful, but realism was her goal, at any cost.
Now that she was securely tied, there was one more stage of Coco's charade to put into action. As she was kneeling, it was possible for her to inch her way forward, taking tiny steps on her knees. Her ankle binding was just slack enough to permit this movement at the expense of some chafing.
Coco made her way by memory out of her bedroom and to the top of the stairs. She was not sure if she would sense the edge of the top step before overbalancing, but it was not her intention to stop and not knowing exactly when the tumble would happen might make it easier to carry through.
As it happened, Coco could tell when she reached the head of the stairs. She paused for a moment and then allowed herself to topple, twisting as she did so, so that her left shoulder took the first impact. The stairs ran for eight steps then took a right angle bend to the left before a further eight to the hallway below. Coco's bouncing and jarring journey was frightening and disorientating and knocked the breath out of her. It was only when she reached the bottom that she realised there was something far wrong with her shoulder.
IN THE stillness after her precipitous descent, Coco heard her mother's voice. It was muffled by the gag of course and there were no distinct words but questioning and concern were obvious in the tome. Coco had expected anger and outrage but not concern. She realised that for all her mother's bullying there was still love there, but she was not about to be diverted from her chosen path. Revenge could be costly, but she promised herself it would ultimately be sweet. Coco made a mumbled reply to assure her mother that it she was there and that she was alive and conscious but gagged.
The wait on the hall floor lasted several uncomfortable hours, but rescue eventually came in the shape of the village policeman who had been observant enough to spot the broken pane of glass in the front door and who took the trouble to investigate.
Coco told her tale many times to different people of how she had been surprised and overpowered but had tried to make her way to her mother, whom she had realised must also have been bound and gagged, in the hope of rescuing her. Everyone commended her for her bravery and sympathised over her injured arm in its sling.
Coco's mother was a rational woman and she realised that Coco couldn't have been the burglar, not with all the evidence which pointed to some unknown intruder. She still felt uneasy, but could never quite work out why.
COCO TOOK her enforced inactivity philosophically as she waited for her arm to heal. As far as she could tell, everyone had accepted the evidence set before them and had believed in her innocence, never troubling to consider that someone might go to so much trouble to deceive them.
She realised she still had much to learn in this new career of hers. For a start, she had to find someone to sell her mother's jewellery to. However, she looked forward to developing her skills and pitting her wits against victims and police again in the future.
| The Chronicles of La Cioccolata
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|© Gillian B 2002|