La Cioccolata
Home Sweet Home
by Gillian B
Part 2: Research and Development

Consciousness returned to Margot Harman surprisingly rapidly. There was a moment of confused semi-consciousness then, quite abruptly, full alertness. She was not entirely surprised to find herself gagged and tied to a chair.

Mrs Harman knew that she was in no danger, so she took leisurely stock of her predicament. She was tied to one of the upright wooden chairs in her own kitchen. Her wrists were crossed behind the back of the chair and bound together with rope. They also seemed to be tied to the woodwork of the chair. There was rope around her chest and over her shoulders and more over her lap, securely anchoring her to her seat.

From her vantage point, Mrs Harman's feet were out of sight, but a little experimentation quickly showed her that she could move her feet forwards and back a little and had slightly less freedom to move them from side to side but could not separate them. She concluded that her ankles were bound together and that the binding was connected to the two front legs of her chair. Her knees seemed to be similarly tied together and attached to the tops of the chair legs.

Mrs Harman explored her gag with her tongue. It was simple but efficiently applied. There was a wad of cloth packing her mouth and another piece of cloth forming a band between her teeth and knotted at the back of her head. The packing was just enough to impede speech and to restrict the movement of her tongue but not so much as to prevent the band holding it in place from pulling well back into her mouth. Even if her hands were free, it would probably be impossible to remove the gag without untying it or cutting it. Any attempt to dislodge it with her tongue was certainly futile.

Heaving a slightly exasperated sigh, which came out as a barely audible exhalation, Mrs Harman studied the inert form of her lodger, protégée and partner in crime, Coco, crumpled on the floor in front of the chair. She seemed to be solidly unconscious, but, to Mrs Harman's relief, was visibly breathing. In one outstretched hand, she was holding an industrial dust mask.

Mrs Harman thought back over the events that had led up to her waking up tied to the chair to reconstruct what had happened to Coco.

Coco was an enthusiastic innovator and designer of gadgets in her criminal partnership with Mrs Harman. Even from childhood, she had an aptitude for all things mechanical and this had more recently been focused and honed by a degree course in mechanical engineering. Her latest project had been to design some means of harmlessly rendering a victim rapidly unconscious.

After considerable research, Coco had identified a narcotic substance, generally used as an ingredient in some manufactured drugs, which would induce unconsciousness quickly and apparently safely. An illicit night-time visit to a pharmaceutical laboratory yielded a large jar of this useful substance. It was in the form of a very fine, dust-like, white powder. Coco soon discovered that it was very potent and very easily absorbed through the surfaces of the nasal passages or the tongue just by getting one's face too close to the open jar.

After several accidental spells of unconsciousness while gaining experience with the narcotic powder, Coco evolved more careful procedures in her makeshift laboratory, including acquiring a top-quality industrial dust mask, which she purchased quite legitimately.

Coco's challenge was to devise a mechanism to deliver a small dose of the powder to a victim's face while minimising the quantity of excess powder scattered elsewhere. She knew that the standard industrial solution was to introduce the powder into a narrow fast-flowing air stream, but that was only effective with an established airflow and she was not likely to be able to carry a compressor and air hose to a robbery.

Coco experimented using talcum powder, similar in density and particle size to the narcotic but less hazardous and easily replaceable. A child's toy pop-gun seemed to be a promising starting point for delivery. Coco bought one modelled after an automatic pistol which delivered bright red plastic bullets about three-eighths of an inch in diameter. There was a knob on the back which had to be pulled back to cock a spring-loaded piston inside the barrel. The bullet was driven out by air pressure, which was exactly the mechanism Coco wanted.

A pair of fragile tissue paper discs on a narrow slice of plastic tube proved to make an effective cartridge for containing the powder. It would fit snugly into the muzzle of her gun and on pulling the trigger, the air pressure would tear both paper discs allowing the powder to be driven out by the force of the air.

The improvised cartridge worked as Coco expected, but the concentrated jet of powder she expected the gun to discharge did not appear. Instead, a wide, diffuse cone of powder was produced and with a disappointingly short range.

Aerodynamics was not really Coco's subject, but she knew enough to suspect that the air flow through the relatively narrow muzzle of her gun was to blame for the poor performance. After some research she constructed a modified gun. The hand grip and trigger were from the pop-gun she had bought, but the barrel was now replaced by a piece of two-inch diameter PVC pipe with a new piston and a suitably modified cocking mechanism inside it. It looked utterly absurd, but Coco hoped it would perform better than it looked.

Coco made up a new cartridge for the gun, fitted it and pulled the trigger. She was utterly delighted at the result. There was some scattering but the majority of the talcum powder in her test came out in a small tight doughnut shaped cloud. Just like a smoke ring, it rolled in on itself as it moved through the air. It expanded as it progressed until it completely dissipated about eight feet from the gun.

With barely-contained excitement, Coco set to work to try the new gun with the real narcotic powder. She had to calm herself down deliberately in order not to make mistakes. She made sure her dust mask was clean and seated firmly over her mouth and nose before she started making up a new cartridge. She was careful not to spill any of the powder but cleaned her workbench scrupulously afterwards anyway. She loaded her gun and cocked it then set out in search of Mrs Harman.

Mrs Harman and Coco had a working agreement that either of them was fair game for testing new techniques or tactics. As Coco was the chief innovator of the partnership, it was usually Mrs Harman on the receiving end. While it was possible to learn a lot from a cooperative test subject, an uncooperative subject was a much sterner and more realistic test. Coco knew that Mrs Harman was likely to be in the kitchen, so she looked there first and found her immediately.

Coco had kept Mrs Harman abreast of her research with the narcotic powder, so Coco's appearance in the kitchen, wearing her workshop dust mask and toting a bizarre-looking gun, was not a particularly surprising turn of events. Mrs Harman had only a fraction of a second to recognise that Coco was about to perform a live test on her. She snatched a quick breath and then clamped a hand over her mouth and nose just as Coco pulled the trigger. Mrs Harman was impressed at the sheer menace of the rolling cloud of white powder that came towards her.

From Coco's account of her work, Mrs Harman was well aware of the overwhelming potency of the narcotic powder that had just been deposited over her face and the hand protecting her mouth and nose. The particle size was so small that it was also hanging in the air like a mist all around her. She could already feel her lungs demanding oxygen and the demand was becoming more urgent by the second. In an effort to avoid the inevitable, Mrs Harman parted her fingers by a tiny fraction of an inch and used the remaining air in her lungs to try to blow the powder off them in order to take another breath. She breathed in carefully and cautiously through the narrowest gap she could make, hoping that the tortuous air passage between her hand and face would inhibit the flow of powder. Almost immediately, Mrs Harman could feel a tingling sensation in her nose and a bitter taste on her tongue as the narcotic powder dissolved on contact. A few seconds later, her vision started to darken at the edges and she could feel her consciousness beginning to slip away. She resisted the drug with all her might, but was unconscious before she hit the floor.

Mrs Harman went over the details in her mind again and satisfied herself that she had not missed anything. In truth there were few details to go over: Coco had tested her narcotic powder gun on Mrs Harman then had bound her to a chair and gagged her while she was still unconscious. Nothing difficult to understand or terribly unexpected. That still left the mystery of why Coco was now unconscious while Mrs Harman was not. Coco was no longer wearing her mask, so she had presumably taken it off, believing that it was safe to do so and had somehow been caught by an unexpected concentration of the powder.

It was obvious that Coco had used the time while Mrs Harman was unconscious to tie her to the chair, but was there anything else that Mrs Harman could deduce from her current predicament? She considered the disposition of the ropes securing her and immediately spotted an unusual feature. Usually when she went about tying someone up, Mrs Harman would begin with the wrists to incapacitate the subject as quickly as possible. If she was tying someone to a chair, the ropes securing the torso to the chair back would therefore also usually encompass the victim's upper arms as well. That was not the case with the was Mrs Harman was tied. In fact, she was almost certain that her wrists had been the last, or almost the last, things to be tied. On reflection, that wasn't unreasonable, Mrs Harman reflected. She had been unconscious, so there was no need to secure her hands first. Coco's immediate problem would have been to manoeuvre Mrs Harman's not inconsiderable weight off the floor and onto the chair. Her first priority might well have been to secure Mrs Harman's body to ensure that it did not slip off the chair.

Satisfied with the logic, Mrs Harman rehearsed in her mind the order in which Coco must have tied her up. She would have applied chest and waist ropes first then the shoulder ropes. That seemed to be consistent with what Mrs Harman could see. Ankles, knees and lap may well have come next in the interest of keeping her in place on the chair. Wrists were almost certainly next and, in the absence of any ropes encircling arms and body, Coco had tied her elbows to the wooden verticals which formed the sides of the chair back.

Strangely, the ropes securing Mrs Harman's elbows did not feel very tight. It was not typical of Coco to leave anything loose like that. She explored her wrist binding with her fingertips insofar as she was able. That was not particularly tight either and the coils of rope did not feel as if they were evenly applied. It was very unusual for Coco to do a job like that. In Mrs Harman's experience, if Coco tied her to a chair, there she would stay until freed. In fact, she had been so certain that escape would be impossible, that she had not bothered attempting to do so. Now she wasn't too sure and thought that it might just be achievable. She started working methodically at her wrist binding, searching for usable slack.

As Mrs Harman twisted and stretched her wrists, it came to her what might have happened to Coco. Mrs Harman had no idea how much time had passed between Coco finishing tying her up and her regaining consciousness, but suppose it was very short. She might already have been showing signs of coming to while Coco was still securing her and Coco might well have taken that as a signal that it was safe to remove her own mask. However, and Mrs Harman was guessing here, to apply the wrist and elbow bindings, Coco would probably have knelt down bringing her face closer to the floor, where the concentration of powder in the air would have been higher, she might also have disturbed powder on Mrs Harman's clothes and possibly even on her own hair. If Coco was beginning to lose consciousness when she was tying Mrs Harman's arms, that would explain the loose bindings. Where Coco was now, spark out on the floor, she was also where the greatest remaining concentration of powder in the air was likely to be. She might well therefore stay unconscious for some time.

Mrs Harman was not an expert escape artist by any stretch of the imagination, but she had some basic understanding and felt that a little elementary escapology was an essential part of any career criminal's education. It was some time since she had needed to escape from ropes in earnest, but she remembered how to go about it and, more importantly, her fingers remembered what to do. She gently twisted her wrists first one way and then another, feeling how the rope lay against her skin and sensing how she might coax it into moving. After some more exploration, it became obvious that she might well be able to work her right hand free. Some minutes of patient manipulation later, she pulled it free from the ropes.

After a short pause in her exertions while she rubbed her wrist to ease the abrasions she had just sustained, Mrs Harman set about releasing herself from the rest of the ropes that secured her. The ropes binding each elbow to the side of the chair back were just accessible by reaching across her back with the outstretched fingers of the opposite hand. Once her arms were completely free, it was just a matter of systematically untying knots. Mrs Harman was aware that the narcotic powder which had undoubtedly landed on her clothes might well pose a threat to her so she was careful to keep her head erect as much as she could. When it came to freeing her legs, she carefully took a breath and held it before leaning forward on the chair to reach the knots.

Once all the ropes had been untied, Mrs Harman stood up carefully, hoping to avoid raising any clouds of powder which might catch her unaware. Satisfied that the was still safe, she took a breath and leaned down to pick up Coco's dust mask from the floor. Still holding her breath, she made her way across to the kitchen sink and rinsed out the mask under the tap. Coco had told her that the powder was very easily soluble and completely harmless once wet. Still holding her breath, Mrs Harman wiped the mask dry with a clean tea towel from the drawer and then used it to wipe her face clean. She clapped the mask over her mouth and nose and was finally able to take a deep breath of filtered air, to the relief of her protesting lungs.

Mrs Harman pulled the elastic strap of the mask over the top of her head and settled it at the nape of her neck. She paused to take stock of the situation. Coco was still unconscious on the floor. Mrs Harman watched carefully for a few seconds to be sure that Coco was breathing then squatted down beside her and felt her wrist. The pulse seemed a little slow but was strong and even. Mrs Harman's little medical knowledge suggested to her that Coco was not in any danger but likely to remain unconscious for a while.

Standing up again, Mrs Harman formulated a plan. She stepped over Coco's inert form and went into the scullery which served as a small laundry room. She removed her sweater and skirt which were almost certainly contaminated with narcotic dust, and laid them on the floor, being careful not to spread the dust around. She stepped out of her slippers and took her tights off. After a moment's hesitation, she decided to play safe and took off her bra and panties as well. She put her feet back into her slippers and made her way back across the room to the kitchen door, where she stepped out of them again.

Now stark naked except for Coco's dust mask, Mrs Harman went upstairs to the bathroom and took a shower, still wearing the mask. Once she was wet all over and she was sure that all the powder still clinging to her must have been dissolved, she removed the mask. Her hair was a mess but there was no time to sort it out, so she roughly towelled it dry and then wrapped it up in a cotton headscarf, which she knotted at the nape of her neck. She dressed quickly in clean underwear, a thin sweater and a pair of snugly-fitting trousers.

Mrs Harman's problem was twofold. She needed to clean the kitchen of the powder that Coco had scattered around, which she suspected could potentially prove a hazard for days if not weeks until the natural humidity in the air neutralised it. She also had to protect herself while doing this, with no clear idea of just how much of a risk she was posing to herself. She decided that she would have to improvise some way of preventing herself from becoming contaminated again.

After a few minutes' preparation, Mrs Harman was ready to begin work. She was wearing a nylon waterproof rainsuit with the jacket rather uncomfortably tucked into the elastic waistband of the trousers. Her feet were covered with plastic supermarket bags taped to the legs of the trousers and her hands were protected with rubber gloves taped to the sleeves of the jacket. She was wearing a pair of Coco's workshop goggles and the dust mask with the jacket hood up and the drawstring pulled tight. It wasn't a perfect seal around her face but probably adequate.

As Mrs Harman returned to the kitchen, feeling like a refugee from a bad science fiction movie, she found Coco where she had left her, but showing some signs of returning consciousness. Dealing with Coco was therefore the first priority. Mrs Harman rolled Coco onto her back and lifted her with a hand under each armpit. She deposited her comatose lodger on the chair from which she had so recently escaped. With quiet satisfaction, Mrs Harman spent the next ten minutes or so binding Coco securely to the chair. Coco was rapidly approaching consciousness, so Mrs Harman propped herself up against the kitchen table and stood with her arms folded watching events unfold.

Full consciousness returned to Coco as quickly as it had to Mrs Harman. These was a visible stage of disorientation followed rapidly by a shocked realisation that she had been tied up. It was hard to read Coco's expression as her mouth was wedged open by a tea-towel knotted and pushed between her teeth as a gag with the ends tightly tied behind her head. Her eyes studied Mrs Harman intently, scrutinising the masked and strangely attired figure watching her. Apparently satisfied with her captor's identity, Coco turned her attention to her own predicament. The slowly widening eyes and rising eyebrows spoke volumes, even if her mouth could not.

Mrs Harman was rather pleased at the results of her efforts. It wasn't often that there was the opportunity to spend more than the bare minimum of time in tying a person up. Mrs Harman enjoyed exercising her considerable expertise in this field, especially when the victim was Coco, who would be aware of the skill involved and appreciate it, even if she was not likely to enjoy the results.

Coco twisted her neck first to one side and then to the other to find out just what Mrs Harman had done to her. Her wrists were crossed behind the back of the chair and firmly bound; that much had been immediately obvious. There was a considerable amount of rope around her body and the chair back, forcing her to sit rigidly upright and tightening uncomfortably if she attempted to breathe too deeply. More rope was holding her firmly down to the chair seat. It was out of Coco's restricted field of view, but she recognised the patten of pressure. She was fairly sure that there was a band of rope attached to the tops of the chair's back legs and passing along the crease between the tops of her thighs and her lower abdomen.

Coco's feet were out of sight but it was fairly obvious that each ankle was bound to one of the front legs of the chair. Her knees were anchored firmly in place too, with rope just below the knees holding her own legs back to the chair legs. More rope was visible just above her knees holding her lower thighs down to the front corners of the chair seat, apparently part of the same binding.

Coco explored the binding on her arms further. She quickly discovered that her wrists were not just bound together; they were completely immobilised. She could not move them in any direction at all. She surmised that the rope binding them was probably also attached to the ropes holding her back into her seat at waist level. She could see ropes just above her elbows securing her arms to the verticals at either side of the chair back. There also seemed to be more rope anchoring her forearms to the woodwork of the chair. Even if her wrists were not bound, she might still have her arms held helplessly behind her, she conjectured.

The situation looked hopeless, but Coco felt duty bound to see if there was any way she could escape. She rapidly discovered that she could move her hands, but not reach any knots, she could move her feet a little and tap her toes on the floor and she could move her head. Everything else was completely immobilised with rope. From past experience, Coco knew that one of the most difficult parts of a person to secure was their body. She tried to push herself upwards with pressure from her arms and legs. She felt some increase in pressure from the ropes across her lap and over her shoulders, but mainly, she just felt the ropes on her arms and legs fight back at any attempt to gain leverage.

Coco concluded that she was not going to move from this chair until Mrs Harman allowed her to. Resigned to her situation, she looked up at her captor. Was Mrs Harman grinning at her behind the dust mask?

"Good trick with the gun," Mrs Harman said, breaking her silence, "but the technique could use a bit of work. You can give it some thought while I clean up this mess in my kitchen."

Paying no further attention to Coco, Mrs Harman set to work to rid the kitchen of the narcotic powder. She began by standing on a chair, a twin of the one that Coco was tied to, and methodically working her way along the highest shelf in the room with a damp sponge, returning to the sink to rinse it out at regular intervals.

Coco looked around the kitchen, noticing just how many horizontal surfaces there were. It would take hours to clean them all thoroughly, and that was without even considering the floor. Coco groaned inwardly; it was going to be a long afternoon.

End of part 2
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The Chronicles of La Cioccolata
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© Gillian B 2006