La Cioccolata
Home Sweet Home
by Gillian B
Part 5: Revenge and Loyalty

Charlotte, Mrs Harman's daughter, was a frequent, if irregular visitor to the household. She had her own flat in central London, but liked to stay with her mother from time to time, particularly when she was between contracts in her career as an international courier.

Unlike her mother, Charlotte was a very private and somewhat reticent individual. Coco liked her as a person and went to some effort to nurture a friendship between them. It was only after a great deal of patient and discreet probing that Coco discovered the full ramification of Charlotte's specialised profession. It seemed that there was a market for a courier service to convey and deliver important items by hand, sometimes over short distances, but usually between countries or continents. Most often, these items were documents to be carried from one business to another, but more exotic items had also been put into her care including a fossil dinosaur egg to be taken from China to South Africa and a dozen red tulips to be carried from Amsterdam to New Zealand. The overwhelming majority of Charlotte's work was wholly legitimate, scrupulously documented and declared for export and import. A minority of the work however was the transport of items to be kept discreetly out of sight of customs officers. She would not be drawn on the nature of these items except to assert emphatically that she never handled drugs and would not have anything to do with profit made from human degradation.

Charlotte's presence in the house from time to time prompted Coco to make a proposition to her. Charlotte had assisted Mrs Harman in ambushing Coco on her return to the house some time before. This was supposed to be a warning that extreme caution should always be exercised, even when entering one's own home. However, Coco had been observing Mrs Harman's comings and goings since then, whenever the opportunity arose, and was now quite convinced that she was not nearly as vigilant as she claimed to be. Coco harboured a deep desire for revenge on Mrs Harman by ambushing her and tying her up in much the same way that Mrs Harman had her. Coco was far too small to have any chance of taking on a large, powerful woman like Mrs Harman single-handedly. Accordingly she would need Charlotte's help, just as Mrs Harman had needed it to ambush Coco.

Coco had expected that this proposition might appeal to Charlotte's sense of mischief, which she judged to be well-developed, but when Coco put it to Charlotte, it was greeted with a long silence.

"Dunno," Charlotte replied eventually. "Mum's the boss here and she's pretty strict about family loyalty."

"How do you mean?"

"Well, I can give you a f'r instance, if that helps."

"Go ahead," Coco encouraged.

"This was a few Christmases ago, when I was still living here all the time and before I had my own job. I'd seen this really nice necklace that I wanted to get for Mum. It wasn't real jewellery, just a string of beads: black ones alternating matt and glossy. It was just glassy stuff but really nice."

"I've seen her wear that," Coco said. "It really does suit her."

"Anyway," Charlotte continued. "It wasn't all that expensive, but it was more than I had in my purse when I went shopping. The shop was busy and nobody was really looking, so I just pocketed it and bought something else really cheap to have a reason for being there."

Coco nodded, not surprised.

"Mum was delighted when she opened it on Christmas Day. The trouble started later on in the day when we were swapping war stories about Christmas shopping. I must have let slip that I'd lifted it. Mum went ballistic."

"It wasn't that she didn't like the present; she did and must still do. It wasn't even that I'd stolen it; after all, I was old enough to know where our family's money came from. The issue was that I'd done in a freelance job without Dad's or her say-so. Mum's point was that anything that might bring unexpected police attention on the family was a risk to other enterprises. Expected police interest was all right and something to be planned for in working out big jobs but unexpected interest could lead them to find out something that might otherwise have been better hidden. Mum gave me the most frightful tongue-lashing over it. I realised she was right and admitted as much. She calmed down quickly and the rest of Christmas Day was OK. I thought that was the end of it."

"But it wasn't?" Coco prompted.

"It certainly wasn't," Charlotte confirmed, with a rueful grin. "When I came downstairs the next morning, Boxing Day, Mum said it was just as well I was dressed comfortably because she was going to tie me up after breakfast. I protested, but she said I had to learn how important it was not to put the family at risk by going off doing jobs on my own that she didn't know about. Anyway, as soon as I'd had breakfast, been to the loo and cleaned my teeth, she tied me up with old nylon stockings and gagged me."

"I've been done up like that by her too," Coco said sympathetically.

"Actually, it wasn't too bad as being tied up goes. Mum untied me so I could go to the loo regularly and she took my gag off and untied my hands for meals. She changed how I was tied up from time to time too, so I didn't get too uncomfortable, so sometimes I was tied to a chair with my hands behind my back, sometimes with my hands in front and tied down to my knees and sometimes I was allowed to lie on the sofa. I was sure it would all be over by the end of the day, but when Mum let me go to bed, she tied my hands behind my back and my ankles together with scarves and she gagged me again."

"I sort of heard about that," commented Coco.

Charlotte shot Coco a quizzical glance but did not pursue her comment. "The next day, Mum tied me up again. That's when I got really frightened for the first time. I wondered if she would keep me tied up right through until college started again in January. I asked her how long it would be the next time I had my gag off but all she would say was, 'Until I decide.' It was that afternoon that my sister decided she couldn't stand seeing me tied up any longer..."

"Wait a minute, Charlie. You have a sister?" Coco demanded.

"Catherine, a couple of years older than me. She's an accountant. Dead straight and no funny business. Doesn't call herself Harman any more either, just to keep a distance."

The obvious quip was almost obligatory. "Sort of white sheep of the family?" Coco asked.

Charlotte just grinned in response. "So Cath decided that enough was enough and started untying me. I wasn't sure whether to resist or not so I just sat there. I think she'd got as far as getting my gag off when Mum turned up in the room. She wasn't pleased."

"So, what happened next?" Coco urged.

"We both spent the rest of the day tied up. Mum tied us both to chairs, back to back. And she used rope just to show she meant business. She took our gags off to feed us our supper, but otherwise she just left us there."

"And that was the end of it?"

"No, I was tied up again with scarves at bedtime and then tied up the next day with old stockings again. It was only at the end of that day that Mum decided I'd learned my lesson."

"And had you?"

"Oh yes, I never got out of line like that with Mum ever again," Charlotte said emphatically.

Coco pondered on Charlotte's story before speaking again. "So, you think it would be a bad idea for you to help me ambush your Mum then?"

"Like I said, Mum is strict about family loyalty," Charlotte repeated.

"All I'm asking is for you to help me make a point about watching out for traps in exactly the same way as you helped her when she did the same to me. If anyone is out of line there, it must be me. I'm only asking you to help me out." Coco was not entirely convinced by her own argument, but it was the best she could do.

"Well, I suppose I do owe you," Charlotte conceded, "but it's your show. I'll just do what you tell me to; I expect Mum'll probably understand that."

Careful observation had revealed an almost unvarying sequence of events when Mrs Harman entered the house. If the alarm was set, she would first go to the cupboard under the stairs and switch it off. After that, still wearing her coat, she went to the kitchen and then the sitting room to check them. She would then return to the cupboard under the stairs, where she would stow her handbag on a hook inside the door and then hang her coat up on one of the pegs inside. Once Mrs Harman had done that, she removed her shoes and then carried them in her hand as she went upstairs. She went to her own bedroom first to put the shoes away and put her slippers on. Only then would she check the other bedrooms and the bathroom.

Coco noticed that Mrs Harman almost never checked the small cloakroom at the back door and, she was almost certain, the cupboard under the stairs received only the most cursory of checks.

The only way Coco could test her hypothesis was to see if it was indeed possible to hide in the cupboard under the stairs and for Mrs Harman not to notice her presence. The cupboard was a perfectly ordinary example of the species: a triangular wedge of space nestling under the lowest flight of the stairs. One entered through an outward opening door slightly shorter than normal and with its top left corner sliced off. The cupboard was a little over three feet deep and on the wall facing the door was the electricity meter and distribution board together with the control panel for the alarm system. To the right was another wall on which were a row of hooks for coats. To the left there was the upright vacuum cleaner currently in use and its predecessor, retained for no obvious reason. Beyond the vacuum cleaners, where the unlit space tapered off to nothing, there were various household items stored in cardboard boxes, some of which had probably been there untouched for years.

Coco removed two of the boxes from the cupboard under the stairs and stored them beneath her bed. The rest she left in place to provide her with some concealment. She left this arrangement in place for several days to see if it would be noticed. No comment was made by Mrs Harman.

Emboldened by the success of her initial tentative experiment, Coco decided that the next step should be to see if she could hide in the cupboard undetected. She waited for an opportunity when she would be at home but Mrs Harman would be out on a short errand. As soon as Mrs Harman had left the house, Coco made her move. She had already taken the precaution of wearing a black sweater and tightly-fitting black trousers. She removed her spectacles and added a black nylon stocking pulled down over her head then her black woollen balaclava which covered her whole head apart from her eyes. She went to the cupboard under the stairs and pulled the door shut behind her. By the light of a small electric torch, Coco set the alarm system then removed her own coat from its hook. Taking her coat with her, Coco settled herself down in the space she had made at the low end of the cupboard. Her plan was that Mrs Harman would return to the house and find that the alarm was set. The absence of Coco's coat would send the obvious message that its owner had gone out. Coco switched off the torch and waited patiently.

Early on in her criminal career, Coco had developed in herself the art of sitting still and doing nothing while she waited for something to happen, without fidgeting and making no more noise than her own gentle breathing. She had also learned how to sit so that she would not develop stiffness or cramp. Boredom was inevitable and Coco simply accepted that as one of the costs of her chosen career. It was therefore no great hardship to sit patiently waiting in the darkness for Mrs Harman. As usual, she fell into a state close to but not actually dozing.

As soon as Mrs Harman put her house key into the lock on the front door, the tiny sound brought Coco to full alertness. She heard the door open and close. The cupboard was instantly filled with the urgent warbling sound made by the alarm control panel, drowning out the sound of Mrs Harman's feet as she walked to the cupboard door. The door opened, admitting a narrow shaft of light but leaving Coco still in darkness. She had a clear view of Mrs Harman in profile as she punched the sequence of numbers into the alarm to de-activate it. The cupboard door was pushed to but not quite closed, leaving Coco in not quite complete darkness. Coco waited, imagining Mrs Harman checking the downstairs rooms as she usually did. The actual check took slightly longer than it had in Coco's imagination, but the cupboard door opened again and Coco had a rear view of Mrs Harman as she hung her coat up. There was a tiny hesitation as she did so, which Coco interpreted as the absence of her own coat being noticed. The cupboard door closed again, this time fully, plunging Coco into darkness.

Coco waited until she heard Mrs Harman's feet on the stairs above her head then leaped into action. Taking her coat with her, she let herself out of the cupboard. She put her arms into the coat sleeves immediately to free both her hands and went to the front door. With care, it could be opened almost silently and by manipulating the Yale lock with its key, closed from the outside equally silently. Once she was outside, Coco removed her balaclava and then the stocking, storing them in the capacious pockets of her coat. She fumbled in another pocket for her spectacles and put them back on. She would have preferred to have worn her contact lenses for the wait in the cupboard, but knew that it would have been a nuisance taking them out again in a hurry afterwards. Coco walked briskly to the local shops, fastening her coat as she went and restoring some order to her hair with her fingers. She posted a letter which was already in her coat pocket, made a single purchase from the pharmacy to provide a further reason for being out and headed back towards the house.

As Coco let herself back in through the front door, she could see that the light was on in the kitchen and could hear sounds of activity coming from there. She went straight there, exactly as she usually would. Mrs Harman was at the sink filling a kettle.

Mrs Harman turned to look at Coco. "Tea, dear?" she asked, brandishing the kettle.

"Yes, please," Coco replied, thinking furiously. Mrs Harman had either noticed nothing of Coco in the cupboard under the stairs earlier or was now playing a very, very clever game of cat and mouse with her. With some difficulty, Coco rejected the latter thought as coming from her personal paranoia and tentatively chalked the experiment up as a success.

Coco was not entirely sure how wise a choice Charlotte was for the role of partner in crime. She knew that appearances were often misleading, but found it hard not to put Charlotte in a mental pigeon-hole labelled Dizzy Blonde, no matter how much she told herself that there was more to character than hair colour and complexion.

In the short time Coco had known Charlotte, she had never seen her wear anything other than pastel colours, with (to Coco's thinking) an unfortunate predilection for pink. It was therefore with some misgivings that Coco had told her that they would need to wear something dark and concealing in order to stage the ambush. At Coco's request, Charlotte showed her what she planned to wear several days ahead of the planned escapade. Coco had expected to have to get Charlotte to buy something suitable, but was frankly impressed. Charlotte was wearing tight black stretchy trousers tucked into black socks, a black roll-necked sweater and thin black gloves. The lower part of her face was concealed from the bridge of her nose to the collar of her sweater by a thin black wool scarf and the top of her head was covered down to eyebrow level with a black pull-on knit hat. Her eyes were barely discernible in the narrow gap between them and it was obvious that she was wearing a black stocking over her head underneath.

"That's perfect," Coco assured Charlotte, possibly with a little too much relief in her voice.

"I'm no burglar, but I do need to be a bit inconspicuous sometimes," Charlotte replied defensively, her voice slightly muffled by the stocking and scarf. "Not usually quite as much as this though," she added with a laugh.

Until she teamed up with Mrs Harman, Coco had always worked alone, so the lengthy spells of waiting involved in some jobs were generally periods of extreme boredom. Hiding in the cupboard under the stairs with Charlotte was a pleasant change. They would have a few seconds' warning of Mrs Harman's arrival and their voices could not be heard outside the house, so Coco and Charlotte were able to engage in amiable conversation as they waited in the darkness.

The friendly chatter was abruptly interrupted by the warbling sound that the alarm system made as soon as the front door was opened. Charlotte immediately cut off her stream of conversation in mid-word and subtly changed her position so that she was still relaxed but ready to move instantly. Coco noted the professionalism of her friend's reaction approvingly.

As expected, Mrs Harman opened the cupboard within twenty seconds of the alarm's warning sound and punched in the code to unset it. She went to check the downstairs rooms, leaving the door open a crack, just as she had during Coco's trial run. Coco and Charlotte readied themselves for action.

The agreed signal to spring the ambush was the moment that Mrs Harman let go of her coat as she hung it up in the cupboard. The two women leaped into a coordinated attack when the appointed moment came. Charlotte, significantly the taller of the two, grabbed her mother by the shoulders while Coco went for her legs, hugging them in a rugby tackle. Together they bore Mrs Harman to the floor, face down on the hall carpet just outside the cupboard.

Charlotte had a length of cloth ready, formerly part of a bed sheet. It had a knot tied in it about a quarter of the way along its length which Charlotte forced into her mother's mouth by the simple expedient of holding her nose until she was forced to open her mouth to breathe. She wrapped the longer length of the cloth right around Mrs Harman's head and across her eyes then knotted the ends behind her head, neatly gagging her and blindfolding her in one operation.

While Charlotte was busy with Mrs Harman's head, Coco was dragging her arms round behind her back and pushing her hands through the loops of a pre-prepared tom-fool knot in a length of rope. She pulled the ends of the rope to close the knot down into a neat pair of rope handcuffs and double knotted them to secure the binding. While she was doing this, she was also having to endure a succession of energetic kicks from Mrs Harman's feet.

As soon as Charlotte was finished with the gag and blindfold, she turned to help Coco by holding her mother's feet so that Coco could bind her ankles. Despite now being bound hand and foot, Mrs Harman was still struggling vigorously and making a surprising amount of noise through her gag. Coco tied her knees together to make her a little easier to handle.

Struggling with the weight of their energetically kicking and squirming victim, Coco and Charlotte staggered into the kitchen carrying Mrs Harman between them. Charlotte took most of the weight, with her hands under her mother's shoulders. Coco meanwhile had to contend with Mrs Harman's flailing legs.

Coco was fairly sure that Mrs Harman would by now have worked out who her assailants were. Nevertheless, she and Charlotte maintained silence, communicating by a series of agreed signals and gestures. With difficulty, the two young women heaved Mrs Harman onto one of the upright wooden chairs in the kitchen. While Charlotte held her mother down, Coco fetched the box of ropes that she knew was in the cupboard under the kitchen sink.

Charlotte changed her position so that she was sitting on Mrs Harman's lap, facing her with her legs astride the chair and her hands holding her mother's shoulder's down and pressing her against the chair back. Coco worked quickly to wind rope around Mrs Harman's arms and body and the back of the chair, taking care to thread it though the woodwork of the chair back as she did so. She finished off with a secure knot well out of any possible reach of probing fingers.

More signals were exchanged and Charlotte shifted her position so that she was standing in front of the chair with her hands on her mother's knees. She shifted her feet back to get her shins out of kicking range. Coco quickly wrapped a length of rope over Mrs Harman's lap and under the chair seat knotting it firmly.

Mrs Harman was still kicking viciously with her bound legs in the hope of catching any passing targets. Coco fetched more rope and signalled to Charlotte to get hold of her mother's feet. Charlotte looked at Coco for a fraction of a second but any meaning she hoped to convey was hidden by her disguise. After two failed attempts, Charlotte managed to get a firm grip on Mrs Harman's legs. Coco quickly attached the middle of the rope she had selected to Mrs Harman's ankle binding then tied the free ends to the front legs of the chair. She nodded to Charlotte and they were at last both able to let go of their prisoner.

Coco and Charlotte retreated to the side of the room while Mrs Harman struggled. After a moment, she paused, apparently having just noticed that her assailants were no longer actively working on restraining her. She seemed to be listening, so Coco raised her finger to her balaclava-covered lips and looked significantly at Charlotte, who nodded in reply. Both women remained still and kept their breathing shallow.

Nothing happened for fully a minute, then Mrs Harman started struggling again. However, it was obvious that she was systematically testing her bonds rather than just making life generally difficult for her captors. The chair creaked alarmingly under the stresses that were being applied to its frame. Coco was not sure whether it was going to be strong enough to withstand this assault. She knew that Mrs Harman owned a chair with a specially reinforced frame and strengthened joints, which was kept for the express purpose of tying people to it, but she thought it would have raised Mrs Harman's suspicions if she had put it in the kitchen in readiness.

Mrs Harman's struggles subsided once more then she began a new tactic. Pressing down with her toes, she was able to propel the chair backwards across the tiled kitchen floor. She kept moving until her hands came in contact with one of the kitchen cupboards. There was another pause then she used her feet to rotate the chair. She worked the chair along the line of cupboards, reaching out with her bound hands to locate herself. Although there was rope encircling her arms and body and the chair back, Mrs Harman still had considerable scope to move her hands from side to side. Coco cursed herself for not securing the wrist binding to the chair itself.

At last, Mrs Harman reached the recess where the free-standing cooker was located. She paused again then carefully rotated the chair so that her feet were towards the cooker. Coco was puzzled until she realised that Mrs Harman had been searching for a point of reference that she could identify by touch and the cooker was just such a unique feature. Seemingly content with the new orientation of the chair, Mrs Harman set off backwards again out into the middle of the room. Her hands were stretched out as far behind her as her bonds would permit. Eventually, she came in contact with one of the other chairs. Mrs Harman felt the parts of the chair that she could reach then grabbed at it with one hand, her fingers closing around the upright at one side of the chair back. With a vigorous flick of the wrist, she sent it skittering across the smooth tiled floor.

Mrs Harman's manoeuvres with her chair became more cautious and deliberate. Before long, one of her elbows made contact with the edge of the table and she paused again then appeared to start struggling with the ropes that bound her. Coco was puzzled as to why Mrs Harman should start fighting her bonds as she had tried that already. However, as she watched, Coco realised that Mrs Harman was testing her limits of movement within the ropes. She slid as far back on the chair seat as she could and pushed her body up as far as it would go, lifting her bottom off the chair and taking the strain in the ropes that secured her ankles to the chair legs. It was obvious to Coco that Mrs Harman knew exactly what she was doing and how to do it. Once again she cursed herself for lacking the foresight to put ropes over Mrs Harman's shoulders and anchor them to the frame of the chair.

The extra few inches that Mrs Harman had gained enabled her to reach the edge of the tabletop. Her fingers explored the woodwork for a few seconds then she relaxed down onto the chair. Mrs Harman resumed her manoeuvring of her chair, still keeping it close to the table. Once again, she raised herself in the chair and felt along the edge of the table before dropping down onto the chair seat again and then repositioning it once more. This time when she raised herself in the chair, her fingers found one of the two small drawers which were fitted just below the tabletop. These were intended as cutlery drawers by the designers of the table but, as Coco knew, Mrs Harman actually used them to store heatproof table-mats.

Mrs Harman pulled the drawer out a about an inch and then felt under the lip of the drawer face with her finger tips. Coco heard a ripping noise and to her astonishment saw that Mrs Harman was now holding a small vegetable knife with a narrow, sharply-pointed blade. The piece of tape still stuck to the handle showed how it had been secured to the drawer. Coco thought that all the sharp kitchen knives were kept in a wooden knife block on the worktop and well out of Mrs Harman's reach. She had no idea of the existence of the hidden knife. Although she said nothing, it was obvious from her body language that Charlotte was equally surprised.

With the knife now firmly grasped in her hand, Mrs Harman set to work to free herself. First she reversed it in her hand so that the point could be brought to bear on her wrist binding. The blade was very sharp so it took only a few strokes to cut the rope. Next, she cut though several of the turns of rope around her arms and body and started to work it loose. With only a few more cuts and a bit more wriggling, Mrs Harman's arms were effectively free. She put the knife down on her lap and reached up to remove her gag and blindfold. As soon as her eyes were uncovered she looked around the kitchen, immediately finding the black-clad figures of Coco and Charlotte standing watching her.

"I thought it was probably you two," she growled.

"I was just making a point about checking the house when you come in," offered Coco by way of explanation.

"Well, you got me, so I wasn't keeping as good a lookout as I thought I was," Mrs Harman conceded. "Just as well it was only you two I suppose."

"Coco thought she wouldn't be able to tie you up on her own, so I lent her a hand," Charlotte said.

"And bloody useless tying it was too. I thought you were supposed to be good at this stuff, Coco."

Coco glanced at the kitchen clock. It had taken Mrs Harman less than minutes to reach a point where her freedom was only a matter of a few more knife strokes away.

Well, are you just going to stand their in your silly masks, or are you going to get me out of this? Mrs Harman demanded brusquely.

Coco pulled the balaclava then the stocking from her head while Charlotte took her hat off, unwound her scarf and took her own stocking off. Both women then obediently set to work to finish freeing Mrs Harman.

"All right then; I'll watch my back a bit better in future," Mrs Harman continued in a softer tone as they worked. "And I suppose I ought to thank you for noticing," she added, "even if your tying up was rubbish."

Over the days following Coco's semi-successful ambush of Mrs Harman she exercised particular caution whenever she returned to the house. She was almost certain that Mrs Harman would attempt to get back at her somehow, but had no idea how and under what circumstances that counter strike might happen.

Returning home in the dark late one afternoon, Coco went through her now-standard routine of checking the apparently empty house. Turning on the hall light as she went, she first went to the cupboard under the stairs and switched off the alarm, while checking that there was no-one hiding in the cupboard. Next she went to the kitchen, switched on the light and glanced into the room. The cloakroom at the back door would be let until she had checked the other downstairs rooms. The small office used by Mrs Harman was next, then the broom cupboard in the hall.

The last main downstairs room Coco checked was always the large lounge. She opened the door and switched the light on then froze. Facing her, sitting in the middle of a sofa was Charlotte Harman. Her ankles and knees were bound with brightly-coloured winter scarves and another was tied around her arms and body. Her hands were out of sight behind her back, but presumably also bound. Finally, the lower part of her face was covered with a jaunty tartan scarf. The faint mumbles from behind it strongly suggested that her mouth was well packed with something. Coco remembered Charlotte telling her about being tied up with scarves by her mother, so this was fairly obviously Mrs Harman's work.

Coco was not so naïve as to rush to Charlotte's rescue. Her first and correct instinct was to retreat. She fled back to the hall and paused for a moment to collect her thoughts. Mrs Harman was almost certainly aiming to draw her into a trap with Charlotte as bait. The problem was that she had no idea where Mrs Harman might be. There were too many places that it was possible to be trapped inside the house, so outside would be the better place to be for reconnaissance. On the other hand, she was ill-equipped to carry out an efficient outdoor sortie dressed in an ankle length coat over an almost equally long winter skirt and heavy boots. The best place to begin might well be her bedroom, where all her equipment and more suitable clothes were stored. This was all fairly obvious thinking and Coco was acutely aware that Mrs Harman could easily reach the same conclusion and use that as a location to ambush her.

Concluding that she actually had no other option, Coco headed up to her bedroom. The risk of being caught was there whatever she did, so she threw caution to the winds and ran upstairs, taking the steps two at a time. She closed her door behind her and locked it then turned on the light. She was pleased, if a little surprised to find that she was alone in the room. Coco wasted no time in exchanging her clothes for what she thought of as her burglar's outfit: tight-fitting black trousers, a black sweater and soft rubber-soled gym shoes. She wondered whether it was necessary to add any more concealment and concluded that she needed all the advantages she could give herself and the extra minute or two would be time well spent. Coco removed her spectacles and quickly put her contact lenses in. She pulled a balaclava over her head and put on a pair of thin black leather gloves.

Since the last time Coco had needed to use her bedroom window as an exit from the house, she had fitted an inconspicuous but sturdy metal ring to the eaves overhang above her window. It was screwed into the end of one of the wooden rafters supporting the roof, so it would easily take her weight. Coco clipped a rock climber's carabiner onto the ring then snapped the centre of a length of rope into it. It was too short a drop to need any fancy techniques, so Coco simply lowered herself to the ground gripping the doubled rope hand over hand, landing softly and silently on the lawn below.

Coco decided that it would be too conspicuous to leave the rope hanging there, so she pulled one end so that it ran through the carabiner and ended up in a heap at her feet. She coiled it loosely and then hid it behind a bush in the garden.

Coco checked the downstairs windows at the back of the house first. The only lights that were on were the ones that she herself had turned on as she had done her inspection of the house. The kitchen seemed to be empty and through lounge window, she could see Charlotte still sitting on the sofa, tied up as she had seen her earlier.

Checking the front of the house would make Coco visible from the street. There was always a risk that a neighbour or passer-by would see her black-clad figure prowling around and call the police, but she judged that it was a small risk. The only lights visible at the front of the house were again those that Coco had switched on. The glass in the front door was rippled, so she could not get a clear view into the hallway. The other lit window was the lounge, which ran the full depth of the house, but that simply gave Coco another view of Charlotte tied up on the sofa.

If Mrs Harman was anywhere in the house, she must be hiding in the dark, Coco reasoned. Given that the hallway and the lounge both had lights on and there was nowhere to hide in either of those, except for the cupboard under the stairs, which Coco had inspected, it must therefore be possible to return to Charlotte and free her without risk of an ambush. That way Coco would have an ally against any tricks Mrs Harman might have prepared.

Nevertheless, Coco was still bothered by Charlotte. If she was really alone in the house, why was she just sitting tied up on the sofa? Surely any attempt to free herself would lead to her being on the floor or in some position other than sitting quietly on the sofa? On the other hand, Coco knew that Charlotte was no escape artist, so it was always possible that she had tried and failed to get her hands free and simply decided that further struggling was pointless. The real question, Coco concluded, was whether she could free Charlotte before Mrs Harman could appear from some hiding place. Charlotte was tied up with scarves, which would be quite quick to untie, so Coco thought she could probably do it.

The quickest way back into the house was for Coco to enter through the front door again. As the alarm was already switched off, she could go directly to the lounge to rescue Charlotte. It took only a few seconds to unlock, open and re-close the front door silently and a few more to reach Charlotte.

"Quickly, lean forward," Coco urged Charlotte. If her hands were freed first, she would be able to assist Coco in untying the rest of her bonds.

Charlotte leaned forward as instructed. Too late, Coco realised that Charlotte's wrists were not actually tied behind her back. Before she could react, Charlotte's hand darted out and Coco felt a sharp jab in her thigh. As the hand pulled back, Coco recognised that it held her own veterinary injection gun.

As she collapsed into unconsciousness a few seconds later, Coco berated herself for thinking that Charlotte might be the bait in a trap but never considering for a moment the possibility that Charlotte was actually herself the trap.

As she regained consciousness some time later, Coco was still cursing herself for a fool. The familiar feeling of constriction that went with waking up bound and gagged came as no surprise to her. She opened her eyes to discover that she was sitting on the lounge sofa, where she had attempted to free Charlotte. As she surveyed the room, her eyes met those of Mrs Harman who was sitting in an armchair watching her. Mrs Harman's expression was quite unreadable and showed no sign of the triumph she might have expected.

Coco looked around the room to see if Charlotte was still in evidence. To her surprise, Coco found her sitting next to her on the sofa. She still seemed to be tied up the way that she had appeared to be bound when Coco had tried to free her, except that her hands were presumable genuinely tied behind her back now. Charlotte appeared to have been suitably rewarded for duplicity. Coco looked back towards Mrs Harman who gave her a brief, enigmatic smile then rose from her chair and left the room.

Coco took stock of her situation to see if she was likely to be able to escape. Her hands were behind her back so she could not see her wrist binding, but its slight elasticity suggested that her wrists were tied with a nylon stocking, a favourite technique of Mrs Harman's. It was difficult to feel the binding with her gloves on but a moment's probing confirmed the softness of the material and the tiny pea-sized knot that secured it. Coco knew that it would have to be cut or abraded to free her.

The black balaclava that Coco was still wearing had been pressed into service as a gag. The part that covered her lower face had been pushed back into her mouth and secured with something tied around her head. It felt quite thick, so Coco suspected it was a scarf or a long sock rather than a nylon stocking.

Looking down, Coco could see that a long winter scarf had been tied tightly around her upper arms and chest. It had been arranged to loop around her arms, so there was no way to wriggle out of it with her hands still tied.. Her ankles and knees were similarly bound with woollen scarves wrapped around her legs and neatly cinched between them. Looking at Charlotte beside her, Coco could see that they were both bound in exactly the same way. She wondered why Mrs Harman should own so many winter scarves, particularly gaudily coloured ones that would hardly complement her usual quite classy style of dress. Looking more closely, Coco noticed two things. The scarves all looked quite badly stretched, which suggested that this was not the first time they had been used for this purpose. The scarves binding her ankles and knees and also those binding Charlotte's ankles and knees were rather small, more suitable for children than adults. Coco wondered if they had been used for precisely this purpose, to discipline Charlotte and her sister Catherine when they were younger. If that was the case, then Mrs Harman's message to Charlotte might be that childish behaviour would merit being treated like an unruly child. If so, then Mrs Harman's standards for her own behaviour were somewhat at odds with the behaviour she expected of others, Coco reflected.

Coco's head still hurt, but she felt a lot better than when she had just regained consciousness, so she decided that it was time to show some initiative and see if she could escape. She shuffled herself along the sofa towards Charlotte and reached out her bound hands as far as she could in the hope that she might be able to free her fellow prisoner. Charlotte shook her head vigorously, squeaking through her gag as she did do, and moved as far away from Coco as the arm at her end of the sofa would permit.

As Charlotte seemed to be so thoroughly intimidated by her mother that she would not allow Coco to try to free her, Coco concluded that there was little point in attempting a solo escape as Charlotte would probably try to alert her mother if she did so. The only alternative was to find as comfortable a position as she could and to wait.

Coco revised her previous assessment that there was never a dull moment living with Mrs Harman: sitting bound and gagged waiting for Mrs Harman to decide to untie her was extremely dull.

End of part 5
Back to part 4

The Chronicles of La Cioccolata
KP Presents Contents
© Gillian B 2006