La Cioccolata
Rough Diamond
by Gillian B
Part 1

HATTON GARDEN is a narrow street within the square mile of the City of London. It sits slightly oddly midway between the legal quarter around Gray's Inn Road and the great meat market at Smithfield. As a piece of streetscape it is undistinguished, but it and the adjacent streets are known worldwide as one of the great centres of the diamond trade. High above the street. under the cover of darkness, Coco worked her way expertly up a drainpipe. The bottom of the pipe was in a dark alleyway between two of the buildings in the street and the top a vertiginous sixty feet above that.

     Always cautious by nature, Coco had made quite certain that sixty feet of cast iron-pipe would support her not inconsiderable weight adequately. The previous day, a white van parked with two wheels on the pavement had caused a minor obstruction to pedestrians for several hours. The van was clearly marked Bolt from the Blue Lightning Conductors and General Steeplejacks. Any passers-by gazing idly upwards would have seen a plump figure in blue overalls with a distinctive white lightning flash logo on the back working an alarming distance above the ground with no obvious means of support. Coco had free-climbed up the eroded brickwork beside each section of pipe, checking the security of both the pipe and its fastenings. She replaced any loose bolts as she went and inserted steel liners into two joints where the pipe was showing signs of cracking. As she completed each section, she belayed herself off to the pipe fastening and carried on upwards.

     Eventually, having secured the full length of the pipe, Coco stood on a small flat area of lead roofing high above the back alley between Hatton Garden and the next street. There was a lead-covered wooden trapdoor in the roof but no other openings. She lifted gently but discovered that it was locked. A little pressure with a jemmy rewarded her with the sound of screws tearing out of wood. It took only a few minutes to pick the padlock now dangling uselessly from its hasp. She refitted the hasp using new screws and hung the padlock on the fixed half of the hasp on the rim of the opening, folding the other half attached to the trapdoor out of the way. She closed the trapdoor again and returned to street level the way she had climbed, recovering her safety rope as she went.

     One of the delights of central London is that property ownership involves so many layers of tenancy and multiple occupancy that no-one is ever likely to question building maintenance work as it is never obvious who might have a legitimate need to have work done on any given building. A traffic warden was gazing balefully at the van when Coco returned to it. "Shift it, mate," he instructed testily.

     "OK, keep your shirt on," Coco had replied as she climbed into the van. Mate? she mused. Even in overalls and a woolly hat there wasn't much doubt about her gender; maybe this was the traffic warden's version of sexual equality. As she drove off into the London traffic, she wondered if the traffic warden had noted the registration number of the van. The number plates were false but she had taken care that they showed a number belonging to a similar white van which was owned by a perfectly legitimate firm of steeplejacks in Whitechapel.

     After driving for half an hour or so, Coco had parked briefly in a deserted yard in south London which had the advantage of not being overlooked from any direction. She quickly switched the number plates for the ones which actually belonged to the van and stored the false ones in her bag of tools. Next, she peeled off the adhesive signs advertising Bolt from the Blue. She was rather proud of the business name and was surprised that no real lightning conductor engineers had adopted it. When she had removed the sticker from the rear of the van, the name of the commercial vehicle hire firm who actually owned it was revealed once again.

     Coco switched her blue overalls for a suit of grey ones with Post Office Telephones emblazoned across the back. She removed the woolly hat she had been wearing and put on a wig to cover her short ash-blonde hair. The wig was a good representation of long dark brown hair pulled back into a single utilitarian plait. Picking up a large canvas toolbag, she set off on foot, stopping at a rather dilapidated telephone box. The instrument inside was clearly wrecked beyond redemption but, as Coco knew, the exchange line was working perfectly. She unscrewed an access panel below the mangled payphone and retrieved a compact telephone answering machine which she had earlier connected to the incoming line and to the mains supply for the light in the phone box. The phone number on Bolt from the Blue's van was actually the number for this telephone box. Undoubtedly the tape would by now contain several messages on the general theme of, "Move your bloody van."

     Returning to the van, Coco had changed her appearance once again. In jeans and a much-darned sweater and wearing a curly brown wig, she looked like a student who had just been doing a do-it-yourself move. This was exactly the reason she had given for hiring the van and she was effusive in her thanks as she returned it. The tools and costumes she had used were now all contained in a large canvas holdall which she carried to the nearest underground station.

     While these preparations had been carried out in a leisurely and public manner, the job itself required speed and stealth. It was unlikely that anyone would be looking up at the Hatton Garden skyline in the early hours of the morning, but the less time Coco spent climbing, the less chance there was of being seen. Having climbed the drainpipe in near-total darkness as fast as she dared do it, Coco had to pause for breath once she gained the small flat roof and total invisibility from below. She pulled down the front of her balaclava to enjoy a few breaths of cold night air. Her costume was primarily designed to be inconspicuous but the combination of stretchy black stirrup pants tucked into ankle-length black boots, black sweater and a balaclava covering her whole head except for her eyes was also very warm for strenuous exercise, despite the chill of the night. Coco fumbled in one of the pouches on her belt with a gloved hand and found a square of chocolate, which she popped into her mouth before pulling her balaclava mask up again. It was very ordinary corner-newsagent sort of chocolate, more fuel than treat, but the burst of sugar made her feel more alert and chocolate always made her feel better anyway.

     Coco lifted the trapdoor she had previously forced and stepped onto the iron ladder which led down into the building. She paused to close the trap again and snapped the padlock onto its hasp to fasten it. She carried on down the ladder and found the floor by feel; it was totally dark inside the building. Coco reached down to her belt again and withdrew a small electric torch from another pouch. The torch was fitted with a red filter both to reduce the risk of its light being seen outside and to preserve Coco's night vision.

     The stacked boxes, old filing cabinets and broken chairs confirmed to Coco that she was in a storage room that she had identified on an earlier reconnaissance visit. Several weeks previously, Coco had decided to put a theory to the test. She had remembered one of G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown stories in which no-one had noticed a postman entering a house, simply because no-one ever notices people like that obviously just going about their normal everyday business. The story was entitled The Invisible Man. Coco concluded that the modern-day equivalent invisible woman was probably an office cleaner.

     Following her theory, Coco had turned up at the main entrance to the building at 8pm one day, the time that cleaners generally seemed to report for duty in the building. She was dowdily dressed in old slacks and sweater with a rather worn duffel coat on top. The suggestion of grey in the wig she wore and the subtle overtones of white and grey in her light make-up left casual observers with the impression that she was perhaps in her 30s or even 40s rather than barely 20. The building housed several tenancies which were served by almost as many different cleaning agencies. As far as anyone knew, she could have worked for any of them and, as she looked as though she knew where she was going, no-one questioned her. Had Coco actually entered any of the offices in her guise as a cleaner, her cover would certainly have been blown as the real cleaners at work there would have known that she didn't belong there. However, Coco's mission had been more focused on the layout of the building as a whole and any interestingly vulnerable communal spaces. She had discovered several storage rooms including the one through which she was now passing.

     Coco quickly made her way to the storage room's door out into an access corridor. She expected the building to be deserted, but nevertheless turned the doorknob silently and opened the door slowly and cautiously. The corridor was dark and silent, as she anticipated. With surprising silence for such a heavily-built woman, Coco walked the length of the corridor to a staircase. She opened the sprung firedoor onto the stairway just a fraction then stopped as she heard the beginnings of a creak from the hinges. A quick squirt of WD-40 silenced them. She descended one floor then emerged onto another corridor.

     From another reconnaissance visit, Coco knew that the inside of her intended victim's office was bristling with electronic alarm equipment. Some weeks earlier, she had made a visit in the guise of a prospective customer. Diamond merchants mainly sell to commercial jewellery manufacturers, to individual jewellery craftspeople and to other diamond merchants. Van Houten was a small merchant but entirely typical in their mix of clientèle. A baggy sweater worn over a suitably ethnic cotton print dress with striped socks and purple lace-up boots and with the whole ensemble topped off with a frizzy-hair wig transformed Coco into an earnest young jewellery maker. In reality, Coco knew just enough of the technical details of jewellery making to pull off the impersonation, just so long as no-one actually expected to see her make anything. Her story was that she was seeking a single small brilliant-cut diamond to be used in a ring commissioned by a client. Furthermore, she was looking for a pale yellow diamond, which is not one of the more valuable colours but nevertheless hard to find in the size and clarity she wanted, hence the visit to a specialist dealer. It is surprising how little knowledge is required to convince someone you know what you are talking about if they are working on the assumption that you are who you say you are. Coco allowed the woman who was showing her possible diamonds to do most of the speaking and just steered the conversation when she had to. Coco's attention was split. She had to look at the diamonds she was offered and make intelligent comments to home in on exactly what she wanted. She also had to make careful observations of the office and its contents. It was important not to be too hasty as she needed time to study and absorb her surroundings. Equally, it might arouse suspicion if she were to prolong her visit unreasonably.

     In the event, Coco's visit had been all she hoped it would be. She was able to ascertain the layout of Van Houten's office in almost perfect detail. The main part of the office was a rectangular room about 25 feet by 12 with two windows on one long side and the entrance door on the opposite wall. There was a door at one end which led into a smaller office apparently used by the owner of the business. At the opposite end there were two doors. One opened into a tiny kitchen from which a cup of coffee had been provided for Coco. The other opened into a small storage room which contained office stationery and was also where the staff hung their coats. There were alarm sensors on the windows and on all the doors, including the internal ones. She felt a pressure pad under the carpet just inside the entrance door and assumed there were others. There were clearly no pads in either the kitchen or the storage room, which both had bare linoleum floors. Mid-way between the kitchen and storage room doors stood a Chubb safe which looked to be about 50 years old. The position in the room looked odd to Coco until she realised that there had probably once been a fireplace there and that the support for the hearth-stone was now taking the weight of the safe.

     As impressive as the physical security arrangements were the procedures that backed them up. When Coco had telephoned for an appointment, she was politely told that she would be sent a letter with appointment details on it. Coco already had an accommodation address set up to receive mail and calmly gave that address. The letter that arrived there the next day had Coco's assumed name on it, the time of her appointment and a reference number. On arrival at the diamond dealer's office, Coco had to speak through an entry phone and give her name and address and the reference number of her appointment before being let in. It would clearly be very difficult to gain entry during office hours other than as a legitimate booked-in customer or by resorting to massive force, which was not her style.

     As far as Coco could tell, she had met the entire staff on her visit. There was a tall thin woman in her forties with her hair scraped back into a severe bun, who seemed to be a one-woman administration department. She answered the phone, typed, made coffee and from the papers on her desk, apparently also did all the bookkeeping. Coco heard her being addressed as Joan. There were two people, also both women, engaged in buying and selling stones. One, a blonde in her thirties, was attending to Coco, showing her different diamonds that might meet her needs. She clearly knew the stock intimately and also knew what they expected to receive in future both as uncut diamonds and as finished gemstones. The other of these two looked to be barely older then Coco. She was an intense-looking brunette in her early twenties with a businesslike short bobbed haircut and slightly intimidating big spectacles. During the whole of Coco's visit, she was either on the telephone, speaking English, French and Dutch with equal facility or was composing or reading telex messages. It was obvious that despite her years, she too knew her business intimately. Coco never saw the fourth woman clearly. She nodded a greeting when Coco arrived, but never left her desk in the side office. She was on the telephone or writing most of the time that Coco was there. She bore a definite resemblance to the multilingual brunette but was grey-haired and possibly over sixty. Mother or aunt perhaps? Her whole demeanour spoke of assurance and control; she clearly owned or at least ran the entire business.

     Coco's visit had also concluded satisfactorily for the dealer as she had selected a good stone of the size and colour she was looking for. The price was a modest 40 guineas, which she paid in cash. More valuable was the piece of information that they expected another consignment of stones within a few weeks, confirming a piece of intelligence Coco had already gathered from another source.

     Now that she had put all her planning and reconnaissance to use, Coco had successfully reached her intended target. With the alarm system active, she had no intention of venturing into the office: not yet, anyway. Instead, she entered a room which she had previously identified. It seemed to be used as a store by the owners of the building. It contained cleaning materials, paper towels, soap and toilet rolls: all the necessary day-to-day supplies for a commercial landlord.

     Coco unloaded the contents of the shelves at one end of the room then opened her tool pouch and selected a medium sized screwdriver. After another fifteen minutes, she had removed the shelves from the wall and was faced with an area of blank white-painted plaster. She thumped the surface gently with her fist, listening to the sound. Satisfied with what she heard, she selected a long thin screwdriver whose tip had been ground to a chisel point and pushed it into the plasterwork.. A minute or so of probing had found a point where the whole length of the screwdriver blade sank into the wall. She worked away to enlarge the hole then took out a long keyhole saw. A few minutes of dusty sawing through plaster and the thin timber laths that supported it yielded a hole about two inches in diameter. Using a mirror and a small electric torch, Coco examined the interior of the wall. The construction was exactly as she had anticipated. The wall was not structural and simply consisted of a series of 4 by 2 inch timber uprights spaced about two feet apart with thin wooden laths nailed to both sides and plastered. She set to work with the keyhole saw and was soon able to lift out a panel of lath and plaster about 18 inches wide by 4 feet high. With the other side of the wall now visible, Coco poked a hole through the plaster and started cutting another hole. The work was slightly hampered by the shelves that had been fitted to the other side of the wall but it did not take many minutes to open up a similar sized hole.

     As she had hoped, Coco was now looking out into the storage room off the diamond merchant's office. She helped herself to a duster and cleaned the worst of the plaster debris off the shelves in front of her in order not to pick up too much white dust on her black costume. The shelves were stacked with packets of typing paper, boxes of envelopes, bottles of correcting fluid and the other minor essentials of office life. Coco pushed them onto the floor then wriggled through the gap between two of the shelves. It was a tight squeeze. She was relieved that her assessment of the alarm arrangements was correct and that she did not seem to have set anything off. Now that she was in the diamond merchant's storage room, Coco set about unloading the shelves she had just climbed through, cramming the contents into spaces on the shelves on the walls at either side. Once they were empty, she dismantled the shelves themselves to leave herself a clear escape route.

     Coco consulted her watch. It was a little after 7.30am. She expected the staff to start arriving at 8am or thereabouts, so all she could do was to wait. It was hard to keep alert when there was nothing to do and Coco found her attention wandering. However her patience was rewarded when she heard the sound of a door opening and an alarm warbling. The sound continued for a few seconds then stopped as the alarm was switched off. At some point, whoever had entered the office must surely open the storage room door, but there was no way to anticipate the morning routine. Coco strained to hear the sounds beyond the door. She could just make out the sound of a kettle being filled and the metallic snap of its lid being replaced. Perhaps the next stage was for the coffee-maker to deposit her coat in the store room. Sure enough, Coco heard a key turn in the lock. She tensed herself ready for action.

     Coco immediately recognised the office administrator named Joan, whomshe had seen on her visit. The woman froze in astonishment at the black-clad figure that stood waiting for her inside the office store cupboard. Coco knew that moving instantly to take advantage of that hesitation would enable her to gain the upper hand without having to resort to unnecessary violence. Coco grabbed the woman and spun her round, with her left arm clamped around her waist and her right hand holding a chloroform-soaked pad of cloth over her mouth and nose. The sheer shock of the attack puts a victim at an immediate disadvantage. The woman focused on the assault of the evil-smelling cloth pressed against her mouth and brought both her hands up to claw at the back of Coco's gloved hand without making any attempt to break Coco's grip around her waist. Her panic caused her to breathe more deeply than she might otherwise have done. After only a few seconds, Coco felt her victim begin to lose strength and coordination. There was no need to keep the pad in place any longer, that would merely increase the risk of vomiting. The woman collapsed to her hands and knees on the floor as Coco loosened her grip. She was not unconscious but now so giddy and disorientated that she was unable to fight back.

     Coco pressed home her advantage by forcing the woman down onto the floor, still face down. She pulled the woman's hands behind her back, crossed her wrists and held them together with a one hand while taping them together with the other, wrapping tape around the crossed wrists in both directions. Coco had always used rope to secure victims in the past but decided to try tape for this job, where she expected that speed would be vital. After investigating the alternatives available, she settled for the strong cloth tape used to join sections of carpet. It was about 2 inches wide, had a glossy brown coating on the non-sticky side and incredibly strong adhesive. Appropriately, it was sold as 'binding tape'. The only serious drawback with tape that Coco could foresee was that it could require a lot of fumbling with scissors to cut it to length while also attempting to control an unwilling victim. She solved this problem by cutting a roll of tape into convenient lengths and then putting them back onto the roll, so she could peel a piece off quickly and easily.

     Having bound the woman's wrists, Coco taped her legs together at ankles and knees as well. Coco had experimented on herself and concluded that the tape was too stiff to be used as a gag. She had therefore also brought a roll of good old fashioned sticking-plaster, also pre-cut into convenient lengths. Coco had bought a roll of 2-inch Elastoplast, which was the widest she could find. The stretchy cloth tape that it was made from allowed it to conform perfectly to the contours of the face and the adhesive resisted all attempts to dislodge it by working the jaw.

     Coco rolled her dazed victim onto her back and, speaking for the first time, instructed her to purse her lips. The terrified woman did so without hesitation and held her head still while Coco applied two lengths of Elastoplast to form a shallow X across her mouth, each piece reaching from the jawline at one side to the cheekbone at the other.

     Coco stood up and surveyed the scene. On the floor, her victim was shaking with fear. Coco was not particularly concerned; after all, if she cared that much about the victims of her crimes, she would not commit them. However, a seriously frightened captive was also an unpredictable one; it was better to have cooperation, however unwilling.

     Coco squatted down beside the woman. "Look, I know it's not nice being tied up," Coco stated bluntly, "but that's all that's going to happen to you. If you just lie there quietly, I promise I won't do anything more to you." The woman seemed a tiny bit more relaxed as she nodded in response.

     Standing up again, Coco carried out a brief inspection of the room. It was all exactly as she remembered it from her previous visit. She had noticed the alarm system on the wall between the next to the door, but had not had the opportunity to examine it properly. To her surprise, it was not completely switched off as he had expected. One green light indicated that there was a sensor still active somewhere. She slowly turned right round looking for anything that might reasonably still be alarmed then spotted it not three feet from where she was standing. Next to the door was the entry phone that was used to admit visitors and below that was a large red button, clearly the panic button for the alarm. It was recessed slightly so it would not be struck accidentally but it was nevertheless easily accessible, even, she realised, to someone bound hand and foot with tape, if they could get to their feet.

     The alarm system had a wire leading into it that was clearly a telephone line, so if the alarm was activated, it would not just make a noise in the room, but would presumably also summon the police. It was also possible that the alarm status was monitored from time to time, so it might not be a good idea simply to switch off the channel for the panic button.

     If there was one button, Coco realised, there might well be more. A traditional location was to put them under desks where they could be pressed discreetly with a knee. She examined all the furniture, but found no tell-tale wires leading down to the floor (this was years before wireless alarm systems).

     It certainly made things easier having only one button to worry about, but she still had to make sure it wasn't pressed by anyone. This would mean breaking Coco's promise to the office administrator who was being nervously cooperative down on the floor. Her conscience was not overly troubled by making a promise and immediately reneging on it.

     Coco considered what to do. The obvious solution was to tie her prisoner's hands and feet together in a hog-tie. If she had used rope to do the tying, she would have done it without a moment's hesitation. She had some rope with her but that was the short length of climbing rope she had used as a safety rope while climbing the drainpipe. Besides, a rope hog-tie might well subvert a tape binding by abrading the tape and causing it to tear. It was not immediately obvious what to do, but time was running short, so she set to work with more tape. She rolled the administrator over onto her stomach and lifted her feet off the floor so her knees were bent at about 90 degrees. She stuck one end of a length of tape the the ankle binding and led it to the tape on her victim's wrists, taking it over the vertical wrapping. From there, she took it back to the ankle binding and overlapped it over the beginning of the piece of tape.

     It all looked very flimsy, not at all the secure professional job that Coco liked to do. She pressed together the sticky surfaces of the loop of tape she had just formed, but it was obvious that they would pull apart again quite easily. She applied a second layer of tape round the loop but it did not really improve the situation materially. Also, she realised, it would not take much to nick the edge of the hog-tie and start a tear. Suddenly, inspiration struck; she took a third length of tape and applied it as a wrapping to the first two, spiralling it round them to form an impromptu rope.

     Coco was satisfied with progress so far but was worried at how much time she had spent and the vulnerability of that panic button. She did not want to be caught off-guard when the next member of staff arrived, but decided to risk spending more time in preparation. There was a shorthand notebook lying on one of the desks. She ripped the cardboard back-board off it and hacked it roughly to size with a large pair of scissors. Using more of her tape supplies, she taped it over the red button. The tape did not stick well to the painted plasterwork of the wall, which had a slightly powdery texture, but it was sufficient to put the button out of reach.

     Now feeling more confident, Coco simply had to wait for the remainder of the staff to arrive and hope that they did not do so all together. She moved the administrator out of sight of the door and stood well to one side herself so as not to deter anyone from entering the room.

     The next to arrive was the woman who had sold Coco the diamond on her reconnaissance trip, the thirty-something blonde. She was taller than Coco but probably, Coco judged, lighter and probably not as strong. Coco was surprised at the speed with which the woman reacted. As soon as she had let the door close behind her she spotted the bound form of the administrator and the masked black-clad figure of Coco. She spun round instantly, leaped for the panic button and slapped at it. It was only when her hand hit the cardboard covering the button that she hesitated for a fraction of a second. It was enough time for Coco to rugby-tackle her from behind, Coco's arms grabbing her round the legs and her shoulder hitting her solidly on the bottom, carrying her to the floor.

     The woman squirmed in Coco's grasp and managed to roll over, reaching up with her hands to claw at Coco's face. Coco was glad of the protection afforded by her balaclava. Coco decided that this was no time for refined fighting and drove her knee hard into the woman's groin. The blow had nothing like the desired effect as the fabric of the woman's tight skirt absorbed most of the impact. Nevertheless, it was distracting enough that she brought her hands down to protect herself against another attack. Coco seized the opportunity to grab the woman by her hair and bang the back of her head smartly against the floor. She was dazed and shocked by the force of Coco's attack and did not attempt further resistance. Coco had often found that by appearing to be prepared to escalate violence without limit, her victims would often be intimidated into capitulating.

     To maintain control, Coco knelt down straddling the woman's stomach with her knees on the woman's elbows. She lost no time in applying the same Elastoplast gag that she had used on the administrator. Coco also had some large rectangular plasters with her of the kind intended for children's grazed knees. She applied one of these over each of her victim's eyes so that the lint pads in the centres kept her eyes closed but did not allow the adhesive to come in contact with her eyelids.

     Gagged and blindfolded, the woman allowed Coco to roll her over and to tape her wrists behind her back in the same way that the administrator had been secured. Coco removed the woman's shoes before taping her ankles and knees and then hog-tying her in the same way that she had done to her colleague.

     Coco glanced at the wall clock as she dragged her second victim away from the door. It was almost 9 am; surely the other two members of staff would arrive soon.

     As if waiting for a cue, there was the sound of a key in the lock and the door opened. The multi-lingual diamond buyer entered first, closely followed by the older woman who had seemed to be in charge. They were in animated conversation together and did not notice what was happening in the room until they were well inside. Following her usual policy of seizing the initiative, Coco grabbed the younger woman and spun her round with her back to Coco, twisting one arm up behind her and gripping her with an arm across her throat as she did so. The idea was to display enough aggression to overawe her intended victims even though she was outnumbered.

     Coco's strategy seemed to work. The older woman looked resigned rather than frightened. "Diamonds aren't worth dying for," she said, her eyes fixed on Coco. "Please just take what you want and leave."

     The younger woman in Coco's grasp was clearly still game for a fight and started struggling. Coco responded by forcing her arm further up behind her back.

     The older woman intervened. "I think you should just let this person tie you up," she advised. "I don't think she will hurt us if we cooperate."

     "All right, Mum," the younger woman responded, confirming Coco's theory that they were related. She gave up her struggles and meekly allowed Coco to tape her wrists together behind her back. She lay down on the floor without being asked as soon as her wrists were secure. Coco removed her shoes and quickly applied the rest of the taping that had already used on the two other women she had already bound. She finished off the job by gagging the woman with Elastoplast while her mother watched impassively.

     "Would you mind if I sit in a chair while you tie me up?" the older woman asked politely. "I'm getting a little old for that sort of treatment." She gestured towards her bound staff. "I'm sure you can render me just as helpless sitting down. Without waiting for a reply, she sat down on the administrator's desk chair, an old-fashioned four-legged upright wooden armchair.

     Coco had the distinct feeling that somehow she had just lost the initiative without quite knowing how. However, the woman was right, she could be held just as securely by being taped to her chair. Coco set to work quickly. She taped the woman's wrists down to the arms of the chair first. Several turns of tape round her arms and chest and the back of the chair held her in place. Coco taped her ankles to the chair legs and then taped her legs back to the tops of the chair legs. A few turns of tape over her lap and under the chair seat finished the job.

     "Safe keys?" demanded Coco.

     "In my handbag," her victim replied. "I'm afraid you'll have to get them yourself," she added with heavy irony.

     Coco quickly found the keys then returned to the woman to gag her in the same way as she had done the others.

     The safe was exactly as Coco had remembered it. Old-fashioned but sturdy and with a single key action. She checked carefully for any alarm wiring but found none. Without further ado, she opened the safe. She hesitated and listened; there were no bells sounding or tell-tale clicking from the alarm unit to suggest that it was dialling out, so she continued.

     The safe contained four trays of cut diamonds, which were breathtakingly beautiful to look at but dangerous to steal. Coco knew enough about diamonds to know that large diamonds each had an identity of their own and the combination of colour, clarity and minute flaws would be instantly recognisable to any expert who had seen them before. Another tray held a black velvet bag full of uncut diamonds. Rough diamonds look like misshapen glassy pebbles with a dull and often dirty surface: none of the inner character of the stones which would eventually identify them were yet visible.

     Coco pocketed the bag of uncut diamonds, returned the other trays to the safe, closed the door and relocked it. She put the key back where she had found it in the older woman's handbag.

     It took only a minute or so for Coco to be certain that she had gathered up all she came with and had not left any clues in the office. She departed the way she had come, by way of the stationery cupboard and into the adjacent store room.

     A few minutes later, Coco emerged into the corridor now wearing an efficient-looking conservative grey suit and a crisp white blouse. The brown wig with its single long plait and a pair of no-nonsense spectacles instead of her contact lenses completed the picture of an efficient office worker. The black nylon holdall that she carried contained all her tools and disguises and of course the bag of rough diamonds. Coco walked down the stairs rather than waiting for the lift. As she reached the door to the street, she paused to put on the lightweight raincoat she carried then stepped out onto the pavement. An unmarked van was causing a minor obstruction with two wheels up on the kerb. She crossed the street to avoid it.

     Coco's first port of call was a busy shop which she knew had capacious ladies' toilets. The woman who emerged looked at least 20 years older with permed greying hair and her years further emphasised by an unflattering tweed coat and a floral silk scarf tucked in at the collar. The black holdall was sufficiently neutral that it would still draw no attention. She walked for some time, eventually reaching Cannon Street, where she entered a branch of Martin's Bank, marked by its distinctive golden grasshopper sign. Once inside, Coco asked to make use of her safe deposit box. The name she gave was her mother's. Her mother knew nothing of this but Coco had made use of her name and address to open an account two years previously, offering her mother's driving licence as additional evidence of identity. Her disguise looked nothing like her mother but as British driving licences do not carry photographs, this was not a problem. Subsequently, Coco had changed the address for the account to an accommodation address she had set up so that inexplicable bank statements would not appear in her parents' mail. Coco stowed the diamonds in the safety deposit box and thanked the bank clerk profusely.

     Coco spent another four hours working her way home, always travelling by public transport and changing her appearance several times. By the time she reached her flat, she was back to being the 20-year-old engineering student that her neighbours knew.

     A few hundred yards from her flat, Coco had bought a newspaper. The mid-day edition of the Evening Standard was out and headline on the vendor's stall read HATTON GARDEN ROBBERY. It was only when Coco was back in her flat that she had the opportunity to read the paper. She spread it out on her kitchen table and read it over a cup of coffee. The actual headline was more intriguing: DOUBLE ROBBERY IN HATTON GARDEN.

     The first part of the newspaper article told the story substantially as Coco knew it, apparently through the eyes of the proprietor of Van Houten's as told to an Evening Standard staff reporter. The daring entry through a wall of a robber who waited for the staff to arrive was accurately reported as was the fact that over £10,000 worth of uncut gems had been taken. (That much? thought Coco in surprise.)

     The surprise came in the information which followed. Apparently almost as soon as Coco had left the scene, another team of robbers had entered the office by the simple expedient of smashing the lock with a sledgehammer. They had been somewhat nonplussed to discover the staff already tied up. Coco reflected that any sensible criminal would turn tail and run at that point; if you are not in complete control of the situation, then there is always a risk of things going badly wrong. However, this gang had freed the proprietor from the chair to which Coco had taped her and they had demanded that she open the safe for them. On her way to the safe, she calmly ripped the cardboard cover off the panic button and struck it. The would-be thieves panicked when the alarm went off and fled. They reached the street without being stopped, although the police had been summoned by this time. They piled into the getaway van which was waiting for them (the illegally parked van Coco had seen in the street, she realised). A postman had seen a group of men with stockings over their heads rush out of a building and drive off and foiled them by the simple expedient of ramming their van with his red mail van. The police had arrived on the scene by this time and had no difficulty in apprehending the now thoroughly demoralised gang of robbers.

     The newspaper report concluded by saying that the police strongly suspected that underworld boss Henry Harman was behind the unsuccessful robbery but that they could not as yet make any further arrests. A statement by Mr Harman's solicitor denounced this as a foul calumny on an upstanding citizen's character. The slapstick failure of the second robbery dominated the news report and there was no speculation about the identity of the mysterious and successful female thief.

     Coco laughed out loud at the news story. The Harman gang's utter incompetence was almost too good a tale to be true. She was overjoyed at such success on her part, while supposed professionals had come so badly unstuck. Coco briefly worried if this turn of events posed any personal risk to her, but concluded that it probably did not. Her informant had presumably decided to double the profits by the simple expedient of selling the same information twice. This was risky, to say the least, when one of the sales had been to a man like Henry Harman, but was not Coco's problem.

SEVERAL WEEKS later, when the Van Houten robbery was old news and largely forgotten by press and public, Coco returned to her flat late one afternoon. She was tired after a busy day pursuing her quite legitimate occupation as an engineering student and possibly not at her most alert mentally. She unlocked the door of her flat and stepped in. It dawned on her that the lock felt different from usual. The door hinges and locks were normally well lubricated and maintained to perfection, but today she had felt a slight roughness as if something in the lock was not perfectly aligned. Puzzled, she turned to look at it but before she could take anything in, a hand had reached past her and slammed the door shut. Strong arms grabbed her from behind and a gloved hand forced a wad of cloth into her mouth, preventing her from crying out. A moment later a cloth bag of some kind was pulled down over her head.

     Coco retaliated by jabbing backwards with her right elbow in an attempt to break her assailant's grip. She was rewarded with a terrific blow to the right side of her neck with a cosh. Her whole right arm was instantly numb and useless. She continued to fight back by kicking in the hope of connecting with her attacker's shins but another hard blow struck her on the back of her head and she felt herself tumble helplessly into unconsciousness.

End of part 1
On to part 2

The Chronicles of La Cioccolata
KP Presents Contents
© Gillian B 2004