La Cioccolata
Occupational Hazards
by Gillian B

Coco was delighted at the safe. It was small, only about three feet high, but everything a classic safe should be: a splendidly handsome piece of Victorian engineering, rugged and functional but still pleasing to the eye and with just enough decoration to give it a touch of class without looking too vulgar. This one looked old enough to have been hand crafted by Jeremiah Chubb himself. Not something you saw every day in 2004.

As a piece of traditional craftsmanship the safe was vulnerable to traditional means of attack. Coco listened intently through a stethoscope as she manipulated the dial of the combination lock. Modern locks are designed either to be so silent or so noisy inside that they eliminate the telltale sounds of the mechanism. This one pre-dated Harry Miller's 1940 discovery of the technique by about eighty years and had no such safeguards.

The movie version of the safecracker at work has him listen to the lock as he twiddles the dial for a few seconds and the job is done. The reality is more laborious. Coco listened carefully through her stethoscope as she turned the dial slowly. The tiny sounds as the drive pins on each of the wheels within the lock contacted each other were easy to pick out and the minute variations in resistance to the knob turning gave additional clues but still required Coco's profound knowledge of locks and years of practice to yield useful results. After the first three minutes or so, Coco had familiarised herself with the sounds of this particular lock and was reasonably certain that it was a four-wheel mechanism, so she had a sequence of four positions of the knob to discover. As she worked, she made notes of the knob positions where she could hear the drive pins strike one another. The sequence of manipulations Coco made enabled her to obtain a series of positions for each wheel in the lock. At this stage, she could not tell which position belonged to which wheel and the positions she had were offsets from the previous position of the knob not absolute settings. Once her investigations were done, she had to tabulate and collate the results, finally obtaining a series of possible combinations for the lock. Given four numbers, there are twenty-four possible orders in which they can be put. Accordingly, Coco had a list of twenty-four possible combinations to try.

With the hard work out of the way, Coco set to work to open the safe. She cleared the lock by turning the knob through two full revolutions, and then tried the first candidate combination. The safe stayed locked. Coco was not surprised: one in twenty-four was a fairly slim chance. She cleared the lock again and tried the next possibility, again without luck. On the eighth attempt, Coco was rewarded by a subtle difference in resistance to turning the knob as she reached the last number. She was certain that that she had found the right combination, even before proving it by pressing down the handle to open the safe door. There was a satisfying clunk as the bolts securing the safe withdrew into the thickness of the door.

Coco swung the safe door open and inspected the contents. It was almost entirely full of business papers. Any cash or jewellery that she might have hoped to find seemed to be conspicuous by its absence. As Coco knelt gloomily in front of the safe she sensed rather than saw movement behind her. Instinctively, she turned and raised her arms to protect her head, receiving a numbing blow high on her left arm. Coco swore at the impact and pain, somehow managing to retain the nasal twang of the Birmingham accent she had adopted for this job as she did so.

There was a clang and a gasp behind Coco. She turned fully to see a girl of about 14 looking at her. There was a heavy wrought-iron poker on the floor at her feet and she was looking at Coco in wide-eyed horror with both hands pressed to her mouth in apparent contrition.

Coco was extremely annoyed, not least because she had left this girl tied up on the kitchen floor and had rather hoped she would still be there.

The burglary had been a fairly straightforward job as far as Coco was concerned. She usually preferred to break into an empty house, but that was not always possible. In this instance, the occupants of the house all had fairly predictable patterns of movement with the exception of a woman in her mid 20s whom Coco had mentally tagged as being an au-pair or something similar and whose presence in the house seemed to be completely random. Coco decided that the easiest approach might be to knock at the front door when the au-pair was alone in the house and then to rely on simple force and intimidation from there on.

Coco made her approach in the early afternoon. She carefully avoided setting any patterns in her modus operandi, but had always favoured autumn and winter afternoons for housebreaking. The short daylight hours gave her the cover of darkness during her getaway and, at least in cities, the rush hour crowds helped to confound any trail of witnesses she might leave. The colder weather also meant that Coco could dress to conceal much of her face without looking too conspicuous.

A trick that many users of disguise had discovered, quite possibly throughout history, was to offer potential witnesses some simple elements to remember and to rely on them not to penetrate to the real person underneath. As a skilled practitioner of disguise, Coco had discovered that she could shift her apparent age by years and sometimes decades by careful choice of hairstyle and clothes. She suspected that she enjoyed an advantage over her male counterparts in this respect. Coco chose to reflect her real age on this occasion (she had just turned fifty) with a slightly wavy auburn wig pulled back into a loose bun. The wig was cunningly made (at great expense) to have grey roots showing, suggesting that the colouring was dye and rather overdue for re-application. Coco's natural periwinkle blue eye colour was hidden by brown contact lenses. She wore a bottle green hooded coat with the hood up but not drawn tight around her face. An orange-brown knitted scarf was wrapped around her neck inside the hood with the ends hanging loose at the front of her coat. The scarf was pulled up over her mouth but not her nose as she approached the house. The clipboard cradled in her left arm provided a pretext for her presence.

Coco pressed the doorbell button and waited. After a few moments, the door was opened by the woman whom Coco though of as the au-pair. Coco was momentarily lost for words; the au-pair was dressed like a fugitive from a country and western show. She was tall and leggy with a mass of wavy blonde hair tied into two big bunches. She wore a red and white checked gingham blouse with the tails knotted below her bust. Despite the chill of the autumn day there was a full six inches of exposed midriff above the waistband of a blue denim miniskirt which was abbreviated almost to the point of indecency. The white over-knee socks she wore appeared to be her only concession to the winter temperature.

"Ja?" the blonde asked, Coco having failed to say anything so far to explain her presence. There was a distinct northern European accent. Swedish? Norwegian? Possibly even German?

Coco dragged her attention back to her reason for being there. "Good afternoon," she announced cheerily. My name is Hilda Blenkinsop and I'm here to ask you a few questions about your experience of the local council services." She briefly flashed an identity card at the bemused au-pair and stepped through the doorway. Completely baffled, the tall blonde stepped back instinctively to let Coco pass.

"Actually I lied," Coco admitted as she kicked the door shut behind her. She dropped her clipboard and grasped one of the au-pair's wrists in a vice like grip. With a swift kick, Coco swept the young woman's feet out from under her and bore her to the floor. Still clutching the wrist with one hand, Coco snapped one cuff of a pair of handcuffs onto it then kneeling on the blonde's back, Coco dragged her other hand behind her back and secured it with the other cuff.

With her victim now at least partially helpless, Coco took off the capacious rucksack she was carrying and reached into it. She brought out a plastic bag containing two pieces of cloth. She stuffed one piece into the au-pair's mouth and then tied it in place with the second, which she formed into a band passing between the blonde's teeth and knotted it securely behind her head.

As was usual in Coco's experience, there was a significant delay between the beginning of her attack and any meaningful resistance by the victim. Coco attributed this phenomenon to sheer disbelief on the part of the victim as to what was happening. Whatever the cause, it often proved advantageous to her. On this occasion, there was no resistance at all as Coco applied the handcuffs and gag and the au-pair only started to struggle after Coco had already started to tie her ankles.

Once the tall blonde started to kick and struggle in earnest, Coco found that the hallway was a little cramped as a space to work on immobilising her victim. Picking up her rucksack, Coco hauled the au-pair into the nearby kitchen by using her ankle binding as a handle and dragging her feet first.

With the ample space in the huge kitchen at her disposal, Coco was able to proceed more quickly as she systematically immobilised her victim. She wound a long length of rope around the au-pair's arms and chest and knotted it securely then used two short lengths to cinch this coil between the woman's upper arms and the sides of her ribcage, locking the arms in position. With the arms now partly under control, Coco was able to unlock and remove the handcuffs, substituting a rope binding that would be of far less interest to subsequent forensic examination. She checked her work conscientiously: it was important that the wrist binding was secure and inescapable, but imperative that it was not tight enough to interfere with circulation or to cause nerve damage.

Satisfied with progress so far, Coco turned her attention back to the au-pair's legs. She bound them together just above the knees, once again carefully cinching the binding but leaving it slightly loose; it would tighten more when she hog-tied her victim later. The woman's over-knee length socks prevented the rope from rubbing on bare skin.

Coco continued methodically. This was a tie-up she had used many times before and she knew exactly how to apply it with the minimum of fuss. The next stage was to lash the au-pair's wrists to the small of her back. Coco wound a long rope around the blonde's waist with a certain amount of difficulty as each turn had to be fed underneath her victim's stomach. She finished it off by cinching this coil between the au-pair's bound wrists and the hollow of her back. Coco checked the tightness of the binding; it was about right. The unseasonable bare midriff would give ample opportunity for self-inflicted rope burns if the au-pair indulged in really strenuous struggling, but Coco reasoned that she was not responsible for her victims' choice of clothing. The blonde woman showed no signs of struggling, strenuous or otherwise, by this time and seemed to have resigned herself to her fate.

The last stage was the hog-tie. The classic hog-tie involves linking a bound victim's wrists and ankles, which is undoubtedly an effective method of restraining a person securely but, in Coco's view, unnecessarily cruel. She needed to immobilise her victims, not to cause them physical injury. Coco finished off her binding of the au-pair by lifting her feet off the floor and bending her knees until she felt a small amount of resistance; any further would cause stress to the legs. She then ran a length of rope from the ankle binding to the band of rope around the au-pair's arms and chest, knotting it off securely at both ends. Coco generally avoided securing a hog-tie to her victim's wrists, partly to reduce the risk of unnecessary injury but also to eliminate the possibility of dragging the wrist binding off by pulling with the feet.

Coco was giving the knots securing the au-pair a final check when she heard the front door being unlocked. "Hi Inga!" a voice called out.

The au-pair, presumably the Inga in question, surprised Coco by suddenly taking an interest in the proceedings again. She grunted loudly through her gag. It wasn't a loud sound, but it would easily be audible from the front door. Coco had not expected anyone to enter the house until the couple who owned it returned from their respective places of work in the early evening. She flattened herself against the wall beside the kitchen door to salvage the little opportunity for surprise left to her.

Seconds later, a teenage girl stepped into the kitchen. "Inga!" she exclaimed, shocked at the sight of the tall blond lying bound and gagged on the floor.

Coco sprang into action immediately. She clapped one hand over the girl's mouth and wrapped her other arm around her waist as she dragged her to the floor. Letting go of the girl's waist and substituting a knee in her solar plexus, Coco grabbed her handcuffs, which were still lying on the floor. It is almost impossible to handcuff someone using only one hand, so Coco was compelled to let go of the girl's mouth in order to roll her over onto her stomach and cuff her wrists behind her back.

It had not been her plan to tie more than one person up, but Coco had plenty of supplies in her rucksack, so she was able to silence the voluble protests coming from her new prisoner with a wad of cloth stuffed into her mouth and held in place by a securely-tied band of material forced between her teeth.

With the immediate panic over, Coco was able to take her time binding her second victim's ankles then substituting rope for the handcuffs securing her wrists behind her back.

Much of Coco's joy in a robbery well planned and executed had now largely evaporated. She had an unknown person on the scene who had not figured at all in the planning and that introduced all kinds of uncertainties into the job. The new arrival had also presented Coco with a situation that she detested. She always hated having to tie up children and avoided the necessity whenever possible. She regarded the owners of any property she planned to misappropriate as fair game. After all, if you owned something worth stealing, then it was an risk of that ownership that you might well find yourself being trussed up by Coco: a sort of occupational hazard. The same argument also applied to employees, like the unfortunate Inga. If you worked for someone whose property might become the object of Coco's desires, then being tied up in the course of your employment, was also just an occupational hazard. Children, however, were an entirely different matter. It wasn't their fault if they had rich parents and it wasn't their toys but their parents' toys that Coco was intent on stealing. Also, whenever she was faced with the need to tie a child up in the course of her work, Coco was reminded of her own mother's robust and arbitrary approach to child discipline and she would never wish on anyone else the things she had been subjected to in her own childhood.

Coco debated aborting the job immediately and leaving without taking anything. It would certainly be the safest course of action, but would leave her with nothing for her days of surveillance and preparation. She looked again at the second unplanned victim to see if she could deduce anything useful. She was a young teenager of perhaps 14 years and seemed to be dressed in her school uniform: V-necked navy blue sweater over a white open-necked blouse and a predominantly blue tartan kilt over thick ribbed black tights with sensible low-heeled lace-up shoes. The girl had apparently given up her struggling as futile and was glaring furiously up at Coco. Who was this girl? Coco wondered. If she was a member of the household, then her presence probably would not change the arrival time of the adult residents. On the other hand, if she was a visitor, she might well be missed before too long. Coco concluded that, at worst, she had a few minutes to give the house a swift once-over and take what was to hand.

From experience, Coco knew that the most lucrative place to start in a burglary was the master bedroom, the usual repository for jewellery and other small portable valuables. She ascended the stairs, instinctively treading lightly. The main bedroom turned out to be above the lounge and was a light and spacious room equipped with surprisingly old-fashioned looking dark-stained furniture. Old, but good quality, Coco acknowledged to herself as she pulled open the top drawer of what was obviously the lady of the house's dressing table. There were several jewellery boxes in the front of the drawer together with the usual collection of bits and pieces that most women accumulate. Coco scooped them out onto the top of the dressing table then paused. There was a framed photograph on the dressing table; it showed a family group of three. Two of the people Coco recognised as the couple who owned the house; the third was the girl she had just tied up in the kitchen. Coco's quandary over the unknown girl was answered: she was apparently the daughter of the house and would not be missed anywhere else. Also, Coco reasoned, at 14 or so, she was old enough that her presence was unlikely be an indicator of either of her parents' imminent return. Nevertheless, there was still that remaining niggle of why Coco had not seen her before.

Given the additional information she had just gleaned, Coco came to a decision. There was nothing to stop her going ahead with a thorough search of the house as planned. She had been planning not to change out of her street clothes for a very quick grab-and-run job, but she felt it would be appropriate to do so for a longer operation; after all she would not properly be La Cioccolata without her costume. Coco removed her coat and scarf, which she folded and put into her rucksack. She was already wearing her black latex catsuit and her snugly-fitting black leather corset underneath. Her knee-length black boots had been visible under her coat, but nothing else. She removed her thin black leather gloves, risking bare hands while she worked on her costume. The wig came off next, revealing her natural short grey hair. It went into a plastic bag and then into the rucksack. It was replaced by the chocolate brown mop of curls which had always been a trademark of La Cioccolata. Coco removed her spectacles and then the brown contact lenses she wore, substituting the green prescription contacts which were an important part of her alternative persona. There was a convenient en-suite bathroom with a well lit mirror which Coco used as she applied black make-up around her eyes before putting on her black leather domino mask. Finally, she put on a pair of disposable black latex gloves, which allowed her almost an almost undiminished sense of touch while eliminating fingerprints or traceable deposits from her hands.

Returning to the dressing table, it did not take long for her to check through the selection of jewellery boxes she had found and to remove the choicest items, all of which she stored in plastic bags in her rucksack. She carried out an investigation of the other cupboards and drawers in the bedroom. For some reason, underwear drawers seemed to be a favourite hiding place for jewellery and so it was in this case. A jeweller's case dating from about the first decade of the 20th century, and therefore itself an antique, contained a rather fine pearl necklace. It disappeared into Coco's rucksack. Coco was disappointed not to find any diamonds, the king of gems and her absolute favourites. The bedside table did however yield an unostentatious but lovely old Omega watch.

Coco took a last look around the bedroom to seek out any other possible hiding places. It took a moment for the oddity to sink in, but when she thought about it, the signs were obvious. There was a small TV on top of a chest of drawers, angled so it could be watched from bed. Nothing strange in that, but the power outlet it was plugged into was one of a pair behind the dressing table with both sockets occupied by multi-way adaptors. In addition to the TV, a small lamp, a hair-dryer and a cordless phone charging base were also plugged in. Meanwhile, at the other side of the dressing table another pair of sockets was empty. Coco's suspicions were aroused and she went to investigate. The sockets were a good imitation but would never pass close examination. It was clear that they were fakes and that one of the earth pins actually concealed some kind of keyhole. Coco had encountered these safes before and knew that they relied entirely on concealment for their effectiveness. The key would probably not be far away, but a few moments' work with a sturdy long-bladed screwdriver was just as effective, leaving a ragged hole where the small safe had pulled away from the surrounding plasterwork and a scatter of shattered plastic from the fake sockets as Coco levered the safe open. The contents were encouraging, among them a splendid antique ring (and the first diamond of the haul) and an elegant Victorian gent's signet ring. More encouraging still was Coco's realisation that her unwitting benefactors were security amateurs. She hoped that there would be a few more hiding places like this for her to find.

The other bedrooms yielded nothing worthwhile at all. The first one Coco explored was a spare bedroom containing nothing more interesting than some spare clothes. Another bedroom was clearly the home territory of a teenager and presumably belonged to the daughter of the house. It was surprisingly tidy as teenagers' rooms generally go. Coco had been obsessively tidy at that age, largely as a defence mechanism to protect herself from her mother, but most teens seem to live surrounded heaps of clothes and other possessions. The tidiness made for a quick search but yielded nothing other than that the girl's name seemed to be Susan but that she liked to be called Soo. From its contents, another spare room was set up as a small artist's studio. Coco wondered which member of the family was the painter. The final bedroom appeared to be Inga's. It was decorated with a rather idiosyncratic collection of ornaments, mainly representing or featuring pigs and had several large posters advertising events in Oslo. Coco tentatively concluded that Inga was Norwegian.

Coco considered her priorities and concluded that her next move should be to check on her prisoners. She had no doubt that Inga would still be as securely tied as she had left her, but the girl, apparently Soo, was a different matter; she was only bound at the wrists and ankles and she was a fighter. Coco picked up her rucksack and trotted back downstairs.

A glance through the kitchen door as she passed reassured Coco that all was still well: both of her victims were more or less as she had left them. They appeared to be preoccupied with their own predicament and did not seem to notice her looking in on them.

The lounge contained some rather gorgeous furniture and some very expensive audio-visual equipment, but nothing that was small enough to steal or that was of any interest to Coco. She briefly considered checking the bookshelves for hollowed-out books, having already discovered the power-socket safe, but the books all had that slightly battered look that well-used genuine books have, even though several hardback volumes were big enough to contain secret hiding places.

Off the lounge was a small office with more bookshelves, a computer on a utilitarian desk, a filing cabinet and a gem of an antique safe. The art of classic safe-cracking was not something that Coco usually expected to practise on a simple house burglary, but she was not about to let the opportunity pass. It took almost fifteen minutes to get the safe open only to face the disappointment of finding it entirely full of business papers. Undoubtedly they were valuable to someone, but were of no immediate monetary worth to her. Had she not been at the nadir of her despondency at the wasted time, Coco might well have noticed that she was no longer alone in the room. Only the flash of movement as the poker descended on her saved her. Coco's left arm was instantly awash with agony to the tips of her fingers as the blow landed just below her shoulder. She roared in pain as she span around.

"Oh my God! I didn't mean to hurt you," exclaimed the teenage girl who had until recently been Coco's unexpected second prisoner, dropping the poker.

"Of course it bloody hurts if you hit someone with a poker!" Coco retorted, aggrieved.

"I just meant to tap you on the head and knock you out."

"Like in books, I suppose," Coco commented as she tried to work some life into her numb arm.

"Oooh! I recognise you. I've read about you in the papers. You're La Cioccolata, aren't you?"

Coco admitted that she was. "And you must be Soo," she added.

"Gosh, you must have done your homework on us to know that."

Coco wasn't about to confess that she had known Soo's name for less than ten minutes or that she had entirely failed to discover her existence when she had been watching the house. "It's a part of the job," Coco bluffed, also slightly taken aback that anyone could use 'gosh' in 2004 and keep a straight face.

"Are you going to steal all my mum's jewellery then?" The girl sounded quite excited.

This wasn't turning out to be quite the reception that Coco was used to having when people found her in their houses. "That's the plan," she replied guardedly, puzzled at the strangely casual course of the conversation.

Soo still showed no sign of either resuming her attack or fleeing. "I saw you ring the bell when I was parking the car and you weren't dressed like that then or when you tied me up," she commented. "You must have changed clothes since then. Is it just so people know who you are?"

"Parking the car?" Coco echoed, astonished. "Surely you're not old enough?"

"I'm 19," the girl assured her. "I know I look as though I'm only about 15. Makes it tricky getting served in pubs."

"But why the school uniform?" Coco protested.

"Oh this," Soo replied lightly. "It's my work uniform. I'm a hotel receptionist just now. In fact, I'm not very often here. Gap year before college you know."

That explained how Coco had missed Soo in her surveillance. Coco studied the young woman intently, but she still looked like a 14 year old to her. She flexed her left hand experimentally. The feeling was coming back into it and she thought that she might actually be able to do something with it soon. It was just as well, because she was going to have to do something about this girl.

"What happens now?" Soo asked a little apprehensively, as if she could read Coco's thoughts.

"I tie you up again," Coco informed her bluntly.

"If I run...?"

"Then I chase you and knock you down. The result will be the same in the end."

"I suppose I'd better just let you do it then."

"I think that would be best for both of us," Coco advised, inwardly cursing herself for sounding like a schoolteacher handing out unwanted advice.

Soo led the way back to the kitchen. Coco picked up the poker as she followed, more on principle than with any real intention to use it other than as a threat.

"Is Inga still tied up?" Coco asked, remembering her other prisoner.

"Yes, she's a dear sweet thing, but she's as thick as two short planks," the girl replied, "so I thought it might be safer for her if I just left her where she was. She's a bit blonde, even as blondes go."

As a natural ash blonde, before her hair had gone grey, Coco felt aggrieved at this slight, but did not comment for fear of giving away personal information. "Why didn't you phone the police or just run away?" she asked instead.

"I didn't think of that. Grabbing the poker just seemed to be the natural thing to do. Defending the family castle and all that."

"Definitely too many Famous Five books," Coco remarked.

They arrived back in the kitchen. Inga was indeed still tied up and, as far as Coco could tell, had not moved since she last saw her. Inga looked up questioningly at Coco and the girl.

The coil of rope that Coco had used to tie the girl's wrists was on the floor with its knot still intact. She had evidently managed to slip her hands free. Her ankle binding had been untied and was now a small tangle of rope. Her gag and the packing that had been in her mouth were also lying discarded on the floor.

"I'd better make sure I do better this time," Coco commented. Now that she knew that Soo was 19, Coco had no conscientious reservations about tying her up again and doing it thoroughly. This was just an occupational hazard for Soo, for being the daughter of someone rich enough for Coco to rob them.

Will I have to be tied up like Inga?" There was a slight tremor in Soo's voice.

"No," Coco replied. "I don't want you both on the floor where you might untie each other, so I'm going to tie you to a chair this time."

"Oooh!" the girl responded with that hint of excitement again. "It won't hurt, will it?" she added anxiously.

"Well, it probably won't be very comfortable," Coco conceded, "but, no, it won't hurt."

"OK, then," the girl agreed. She looked around the kitchen. "Will one of those do?" she asked, indicating the chairs which stood around the small breakfast table in the kitchen.

As with most of the furniture in the house, the chairs were solidly made in a traditional design: wooden Windsor chairs with bentwood arched backs enclosing a series of vertical spindles and slightly spayed legs braced by an H-stretcher. "Perfect," Coco replied, "but I'll tie your hands and feet before you sit down. It'll be easier that way if you're going to co-operate anyway."

Coco fetched one of the chairs and stood it in the middle of the kitchen floor. Soo stood rather nervously and self-consciously. Without prompting she put her hands behind her back in readiness for what would follow.

Coco decided to re-use the rope she had previously used on Soo's wrists. She unpicked the knot and then knelt down to get to a comfortable level to work. The girl had placed her hands palm to palm and, in her anxiety at what would happen, had now clenched them into tight fists. Coco gently unclenched the hands and arranged them so that the wrists were crossed. She wound the rope around the wrists horizontally first, then vertically and finally a couple of turns between them to produce a solid binding. She knotted the rope off firmly and well out of the reach of probing fingers.

Still kneeling, Coco retrieved the rope she had used previously to bind Soo's ankles. Once again she wrapped it around them and cinched it off snugly with the knot carefully placed at the back of the binding.

Coco rummaged in he rucksack for a moment. She still had plenty of rope but it was now underneath her folded coat and the items she had stolen. She pulled out several bundles and laid them on the floor in readiness.

"Is that all for me?" Soo asked in astonishment.

"Probably," Coco replied, selecting a length and winding it around the girl's legs just below her knees. "I might even use more than this," she added as she cinched the knee binding. She left two long tails of rope hanging from the knot.

Coco picked out another piece of rope and used it to lash Soo's thighs together, binding her kilt tightly to her legs. She knotted it firmly in front of her legs and again left long lengths of the rope hanging loose from the knot.

"You're not taking any chances, are you?" Soo remarked ruefully.

"Certainly not when you've escaped once already," Coco answered with a smile. She took a handful of the tartan fabric of the kilt in the vicinity of the girl's bottom and tugged. "You'll need some slack there when you sit down," she explained.

Coco manoeuvred the chair into place behind Soo's legs and helped her to sit down, guiding her bound hands so that they were behind the chair back.

After studying the chair critically for a moment, Coco said, "The frame is good and strong, but I'm not sure about those spindles at the back; I don't want to risk breaking them."

"In case I escape?"

"It's a nice chair and I don't really want to damage it, but, yes, that too!" As she was speaking, Coco selected one of the longer pieces of rope she had laid out. "Slide forward a bit on the seat please, so I can reach behind you," she requested. Soo did so and Coco wrapped the rope around her waist several times, finishing it off with a large knot in the vicinity of her belly button. The girl watched these proceedings with interest.

"Now slide your bottom as far back as it will go and straighten your back," Coco instructed. There were still two long loose tails left after Coco had formed the knot. She took these out to the sides of the arch which formed the chair back, passed them behind the woodwork of the arch and brought them together again in the middle of the girl's stomach. She crossed them over and took them out to the sides of the arch and back again. As Coco pulled the ropes tight, Soo found herself pressed firmly back against the chair. Coco tied another firm knot.

Soo was sitting slack-jawed in astonishment. "Not how you expected it to feel?" Coco asked, not unkindly. The girl said nothing but shook her head slowly.

"Shoulders next," Coco announced. "Always a bit tricky on a chair this shape." She sorted through her pile of rope to choose an appropriate length then shook it loose. She held the two ends in one hand and pulled the doubled rope through her hand until she found the middle. Standing behind the chair, Coco fed the folded middle of the rope under the arch of the chair back and under Soo's right arm. The girl obligingly lifted her arms slightly to make more room. Coco brought the folded rope across Soo's chest just below her bust, under her left arm and fed it back under the arch again. With one hand, she held the loop formed by the centre of the rope slightly open and with the other, she threaded the paired ends of the rope through it so that it formed a noose encircling Soo's chest and the middle four spindles of the chair back. She tightened the noose so that it hugged Soo's ribs then tossed the ends of the rope forward over her right shoulder, still keeping them together. Coco leaned forwards over her victim's shoulder and fed the ends of the rope under the double strand running across her chest then pulled them back over her left shoulder. She kept a gentle tension on the rope and adjusted it so that it sat snugly and evenly taut then knotted the ends to the larkshead she had formed in the rope to create the noose. The rope now formed a neat harness passing around the girl's chest and over both shoulders and anchoring her to the top of the chair back.

"That should keep you down on the chair and stop you leaning forwards," Coco explained. "The thick part of the chair back is taking the strain, so nothing will break if you struggle." Soo wriggled experimentally within her bonds but discovered that she had almost no freedom of movement at all.

"I just need to finish your arms off now," Coco commented as she selected two of the shorter pieces of rope she had laid out. She used them to bind each of Soo's upper arms to the arch of the chair back as it curved down, holding her elbows quite far apart and denying her any scope to attempt to pull either hand free of her wrist binding.

Coco took hold of Soo's shoulders and checked to see how much freedom of movement she had. A tiny amount of side-to-side movement was possible, but not enough, in Coco's judgement, to constitute a risk. She carried out a similar check on the girl's hands, but was less satisfied. Coco chose another length of rope and knelt down behind the chair. She moved Soo's hands as far away from the chair back as they would go to give her self some working space then threaded the rope under the band of rope around the girl's waist. She looped the rope vertically around the wrist binding and drew it tight, pulling the bound wrists against the spindles of the chair back. Coco tied a knot in the rope and then wrapped the free ends horizontally around the wrist binding, knotted them again, and took the ends out to the points where Soo's waist rope was anchored to the sides of the arched chair back and fastened them off there.

"Is that me done then?" Soo ventured.

"No, I haven't tied your legs to the chair yet," Coco informed her firmly.

Coco started with the rope around Soo's kilt and thighs. She had left two very long tails of rope hanging from the knot which she now made use of. She pulled one to the front right corner of the chair seat where she took it down around the top of the chair leg and back to the middle of Soo's lap again. She similarly took the other tail to the back left corner of the chair seat and around the top of that chair leg. She knotted the ends of the rope together and repeated the process, this time going to the left front and right back corners of the chair seat. She had judged the length of rope quite accurately and there was just enough to knot the rope to the two previous knots in the rope. Soo was now not only held down onto the chair seat, but also prevented from shuffling her bottom forwards or backwards or to either side.

The loose tails of rope on the knee binding were much shorter. Coco simply tied them to the tops of the chair's front legs.

Coco had used all the pieces of rope she had set out on the floor and had to rummage in her rucksack for one more. She found the centre of the new piece and tied it around the cinch between Soo's ankles. She took the two ends of the rope out to either side and hitched them to the front legs of the chair at the point where the stretchers which joined the front and back legs of the chair came in. She brought the ropes back to the ankle binding and fastened them off there, leaving a pair of loose ends dangling from the knot. She pulled those back to the central stretcher which linked the two side stretchers (and formed the crossbar of the H shape) and fastened it off. This pulled Soo's feet back so they were slightly under the chair and absorbed all of the slack that was in the links between the ankle binding and the chair's front legs.

Coco stood up. "Now, that's you done," she announced

"My God! I can't move!" Soo exclaimed with a mixture of awe and astonishment.

"That's the general idea," Coco pointed out.

"But I can't move anything!"

"Nothing hurting?" Coco inquired.

"No, it feels fine; it's just so weird not being able to move at all."

"I think we'll call that done then."

"Will I have to be gagged again?" Soo asked apprehensively.

"You're the victim of an aggravated burglary and you've been tied up; being gagged comes as part of the same package," Coco informed her.

"Well, before you do that, can I ask a favour?" the girl replied, apparently unperturbed.

Coco said nothing but waited to hear what the favour might be.

"Did you see my digital camera? I think it's on the bedside table in my bedroom."

"I didn't take it," Coco assured her. "It's not the kind of think I look for."

"Oh good," the girl said. "What I want to ask is, could you use it to take a picture of me all tied up like this, please?"

"Why?" asked Coco, astonished.

"This is the most exciting thing that's ever happened to me and I want a memento," Soo replied. "It's also the scariest thing," she added in a rather smaller voice.

"And this is to show all your friends?"

"And for my blog. I'll need to write this up properly: The Day I was Tied Up by La Cioccolata."

Coco glanced at her watch. "I'm just about done here, so I can afford a few minutes, but I'm going to gag you before I go upstairs."

"OK," Soo replied, opening her mouth in anticipation.

Coco picked up the discarded gag that she had used on the girl earlier. She held the packing under the kitchen tap then squeezed it out. "It's more comfortable if the gag starts off damp," she explained as she worked the wad of cloth into Soo's mouth. Coco centred the gag between Soo's teeth and pulled it tight, knotting it behind her head. She inspected its position and made sure that it could not be worked down then adjusted the knot and double knotted it.

After a final visual check of Soo's bindings and a quick inspection of Inga's, Coco went back upstairs. Soo's digital camera was exactly where she said it was. Coco studied the controls for a moment. It had a zoom lens and a flash and everything else seemed to be automatic, so it should be quite straightforward to use.

As she returned to the kitchen, Coco could hear a series of small grunting noises. Soo was using the tiny amount of sideways movement she had available in her upper body to throw herself against her ropes. She stopped as soon as she saw Coco.

"I don't think that's going to work," Coco advised. "I've had a lot of practice tying people up, you know."

It was hard to tell with a gag in her mouth, but Soo's reply seemed to be a sheepish grin.

Coco switched the camera on and found the zoom control. "Do you want me to take the pictures before or after I blindfold you?" she asked.

Even though Soo was gagged, Coco expected to be able to distinguish between the grunts representing 'before' and 'after'. Instead there came something long, complicated and utterly unintelligible. Whatever it was, Soo seemed to be frantic to get her message across, judging by the wide-eyed panic on her face.

Coco consulted her watch again, sighed and untied the knot on Soo's gag. As soon as it was obvious that her gag was about to be removed, the girl calmed down and kept her head still for Coco to free her mouth.

"Ugh, worse than a visit to the dentist," was Soo's immediate comment as the packing came out of her mouth.

"Was that all it was?" Coco demanded with more than a hint of irritation in her voice. She wadded the packing together again ready to put it back in Soo's mouth.

"No! Nononono!" Soo exclaimed, her voice squeaky with panic. "I'll put up with the gag, but please don't blindfold me. I'm going to be stuck here for about three hours until mum and dad get home as it is. I don't think I could stand being blindfolded all that time as well. Please?"

"Afraid of the dark?" Coco inquired gently.

Soo nodded. She was visibly shaking and looked petrified with fear.

"Well, I'm going to leave the lights off when I go anyway," Coco pointed out, "and it will be dark in less than an hour."

"That's not so bad," Soo told her. "There are street-lights outside, so it's never completely dark in the house, even at night. At least I'll be able to see something."

Coco considered her situation and concluded that a blindfold was probably unnecessary. It was just that her instinct always led her to put her victims at the maximum disadvantage possible. "All right then," she conceded, "no blindfold."

"Thank you," Soo replied in a small voice, still with a distinct tremor in it.

"Anything else before I gag you again?" There was a touch of impatience in Coco's voice.

"Yes, I'm sure I read that La Cioccolata always leaves a calling card at every burglary she commits. Is that true?"

"Yes, but if you're thinking of keeping it as another memento, I think the police always retain them as evidence."

"Maybe you could leave a spare for me?" Soo hinted with an ingratiating smile.

"Oh, very well," Coco agreed with amused exasperation, inwardly slightly worried at this reverse version of the Stockholm Syndrome that seemed to be developing.

Smiling cheerfully, Soo opened her mouth and tilted her head back for Coco to restore her gag. Once the packing was in place, she tipped it forward while Coco retied the knot.

Coco was as good as her word and took a whole series of photographs of both Soo and Inga from different angles.

While Coco was kneeling on the kitchen floor to take a dramatic shot looking up at Soo's gagged face, a sudden thought occurred to her: of all the rooms in the house, the kitchen was the only one she had not properly searched.

As soon as she was satisfied with the photographic shoot, Coco put Soo's camera down on one of the worktops and started methodically checking the kitchen cupboards. As she found the cupboard where the canned goods were stored, her face cracked into a grin. Would the kind of people that kept valuables behind a fake power socket and trusted a Victorian safe also own one of those fake tin cans that were supposed to fool burglars? Coco knew that the commonest varieties of these alleged safes were the ones disguised as Heinz baked beans or as Heinz tomato soup. There were several of each of those in the cupboard. Coco started with the soup, lifting each can in turn and shaking it. Almost immediately, she found a can that was much lighter than the rest. Eagerly, she lifted it out of the cupboard and in inverted it. Camouflage is the sole line of defence for these cans; there is no lock and the base simply unscrews. This one proved to be stuffed with some very fine jewellery all wrapped up in tissue paper. Grinning happily, Coco screwed the base back on and put the whole can into her rucksack.

The rest of the soup cans proved to be genuine, so Coco investigated the baked beans. There was a surprisingly large stock; they must really like beans, Coco thought. All except one can were labelled 'Multi-Pack'. Coco went straight to the odd one out. As soon as she tried to lift it, the can was exposed as a fake; it was absurdly heavy, almost too heavy to left with one hand. With delighted curiosity, Coco set the can down upside down on the floor and unscrewed the base. A wad of tissue paper hid the contents. Coco lifted it to reveal gold; the entire can was packed with gold sovereigns, seven columns of them with tissue paper packed in between. Coco lifted one coin out and looked at its thickness relative to the height of the can. There must be about 60 in each column, so 420 or so in total, she estimated. She knew that sovereigns were worth a touch over £50 each, so that was something over £21,000 in total. Coco screwed the base back onto the can and gleefully tucked it away in her rucksack.

Soo had been watching the proceedings as Coco rifled through the cupboard. Her face was unreadable behind the gag but Coco wondered if she realised that it was probably a sizeable chunk of her future inheritance that had just been stolen.

Coco decided that it was time for her to leave; she had spent far longer in the house than was really safe. She checked the room to make sure that there were no stray pieces of rope lying around and, more importantly, no personal items of hers. She picked up Soo's digital camera and promised to return it to her bedroom.

Back upstairs, Coco put the camera back on the bedside table where she had found it, then made use of Soo's en-suite bathroom to clean off the make-up from around her eyes, carefully bagging the wipes she used and tucking them safely away in her rucksack. The brown curly wig was exchanged for the auburn one with grey roots, the green contact lenses were swapped for brown and the spectacles transformed her back into the character who had rung the doorbell earlier in the afternoon. It was probably getting cold now as the daylight began to fade, so Coco put on a knitted tam-o'shanter in the same orange-brown as her scarf. She put her hooded coat back on, hiding all of her costume except the boots, and pulled the hood up. Coco wound the scarf around her neck outside the hood and pulled it up over her chin.

Satisfied with her disguise, Coco returned to the kitchen. Both Soo and Inga looked at her as she entered the room but otherwise showed no reaction. Coco took two of her special calling cards out of her rucksack. They depicted the stylised silhouette of a woman with a rather rubenesque figure: La Cioccolata in all her glory. Coco left one prominently in view on one of the kitchen worktops, the other, she tucked inside the neckline of Soo's sweater, where she hoped Soo could retrieve it when she was freed.

After one more check of the kitchen, Coco headed for the front door, picking up her discarded clipboard on the way. Once she had closed the door behind her, she removed her black latex gloves and secreted them in the rucksack, substituting a pair of woollen mittens matching her hat and scarf.

Over the next few hours, Coco used several modes of transport and in various secluded locations changed her appearance from time to time, so that by the time she arrived at her own house in London, she was the Coco that her neighbours knew with short grey hair and wearing a coat which was now black with a dark green lining. The hat, scarf and mittens had all disappeared and only the collar of a red sweater appeared at her neckline. All through her journey, the exquisite weight of the rucksack loaded with a tin can full of gold sovereigns reminded her of just what a successful afternoon she had enjoyed.

As Coco let herself in through her front door, she glanced at her watch. There was a good chance that Soo would have been discovered by now and freed from her ordeal. Coco generally wasted no feelings for the people she stole from or those who had the misfortune to get in her way, but she found that she harboured an odd fondness for Soo and hoped that she would not suffer any long-term effects from her encounter with La Cioccolata. Maybe that too was an occupational hazard.

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