by Gillian B
COCO'S CONSCIOUSNESS returned slowly and painfully. Her head hurt horribly and she felt sick and dizzy. She opened her eyes tentatively and saw only a meaningless jumble of shapes spinning round her. She closed them again and attempted to take stock of the situation. It was immediately obvious that her wrists were tied behind her back and the feeling of constriction around her body suggested that her arms were tied to her sides as well. She had been tied up plenty of times before but this time it felt indefinably different. Her jaw ached and mouth was stuffed with something, probably cloth, so she was gagged too: hardly a surprise. She was clearly not blindfolded as her earlier experiment with opening her eyes had shown.
After a few minutes quietly waiting, Coco felt a little better. Her head still hurt, but not as badly as it had in that initial moment of disorientation when she had become fully conscious. She tried opening her eyes again. There was light and she was obviously able to see; the trouble was that the jumbled visual images made no sense to her. Everything was out of focus without her spectacles, but it was also as if the room had been turned upside-down. Suddenly she understood: The room was the right way up as usual, but she was upside-down. More precisely she seemed to be hanging upside-down. She looked at her feet (was that down or up?) and found herself spinning and lurching wildly as her centre of gravity shifted. She closed her eyes again and fought down the nausea she felt: vomiting while hanging upside-down and gagged would lead to a particularly unpleasant death.
Once her inner ears told her that she was hanging reasonable still, Coco opened her eyes once more. Very slowly and carefully, she bent her body to see how she was suspended. Her legs were bound together at knees and ankles, each with about half a dozen turns of rope and three or four cinching turns at right angles to those. A loop of rope had been tied around her ankle binding on top of the cinching turns so it passed between her legs. Her eyes followed the rope leading from it up the the ceiling, where it was threaded through a steel eye screwed into the plaster. Coco wriggled gently to initiate a very slow spin. As she turned, she could see the rope from the screw-eye in the ceiling leading down to one of the old-fashioned cast-iron radiators which provided the inadequate heat in her flat. The rope was tied off firmly between two of the ribbed elements of the radiator.
Coco started to panic. She could see no possibility of escape from this predicament. Someone had left her here to die and barring a miracle, that looked to be exactly what would happen to her. She knew that a person could live for several weeks without food if necessary, but that water would be the issue. She vaguely remembered reading that people could die of thirst in a desert in about 48 hours. Surely, she thought, it would be longer than that indoors in England: maybe as much as a week? It was not a pleasant prospect. She did not want to die, but the real horror was the likelihood of many long hours of pain and delirium before finally slipping into a fatal coma. Coco's naturally over-active imagination went into overdrive as she pictured her own withered corpse dangling from the rope until finally falling when her ankles rotted through.
The headache that Coco had regained consciousness with was still there. It had receded to a dull throb but showed no signs of disappearing. Coco wondered if hanging upside-down was altogether a good thing. She knew that short periods of inversion were claimed by some people to do wonders for the back but she worried about extra blood pressure in her brain from being upside-down. Being rescued with irreversible brain damage could be even worse than not being rescued at all.
Coco forced herself to think calmly. She was good at solving problems and if there was a way out of this she knew she would find it if she could only harness her imagination constructively. The first thing to do was to establish exactly how she was tied up as that would determine what options she had to free herself. She started with her hands. Her wrists were bound securely behind her back, but she already knew that. Her hands could touch each other and it was obvious from their relative position that they were tied palm-to-palm. A separation of about an inch between the heels of her hands suggested a substantial cinch between her wrists. She could just touch the cinching turns with the tips of her fingers. The rope was finely stranded, probably with seven strands rather than three and felt quite rough, suggesting hemp rather than cotton. It was somewhere between 1/4 and 3/8 inch in diameter. Inevitably, there were no knots in reach, although Coco checked just in case.
By bending her body forwards a little, Coco could get a glimpse of the ropes around her arms and body. There seemed to be two bands of about five or six turns of rope. One was at her waist level, which put it just above (from Coco's perspective) her wrist binding and pressed her hands against her bottom. The other was just above her elbows and below her bust, preventing her from bending her arms or getting any leverage on the rope around her wrists. Neither of these ropes seemed to be cinched between her arms and body.
Coco had already examined the ropes binding her legs, but she looked again. They were exactly as she remembered; lashed and cinched securely. The rope used looked to be the same as the rope she could feel on her wrists. The rope suspending her from the ceiling seemed to be a slightly thicker version of the same material. That rope was tied around her ankle binding in a competent-looking slip-knot, possibly a Buntline hitch from the look of it.
The shiny steel ring screwed into the ceiling was new, undoubtedly installed by her captor for this express purpose. The rope presumably slid smoothly through it as an improvised pulley and must have been used to haul her into position. The end was fastened off to the radiator with a round turn and two half-hitches following best Girl Guide practice. That rope looked slightly different, Coco thought. Her eyes followed the rope upwards again. She stopped half way. It was not one piece of rope at all, but two which were knotted together at about her waist level.
Coco was excited. At last there was a glimmer of hope. If she could only reach that knot, then she could untie it and would at least no longer be suspended. After a little experimentation, Coco worked out how to get herself swinging. It was frustratingly difficult to reach the rope. Her pendulum-like swing tended to drift one way or the other and then change so that she was swinging in circles. At the same time, she tended to spin on the rope holding her up so that her hands were often not in the right place to grab that tantalising knot. Finally, she had it grasped in the fingers of one hand. She hung for a few moments panting as hard as the wad of cloth in her mouth would allow until the got her breath back. This was hard work; Coco could feel a rivulet of sweat working its way from between her shoulder blades to her collar.
It took only a few moments for the physics of the situation to impress itself on Coco. Escape was utterly impossible in this way. The lengths of rope were tied with a single sheet-bend, the Girl Guide approved knot for two dissimilar ropes. It was impossible to untie when it was under tension from her body weight. she could pull on the rope either above or below the knot; neither would reduce that tension. If she could get a grip with both hands so that one hand was above the knot and the other below it, then she might just conceivably be able to make it possible to undo it, but she had only two hands, so it was still impossible. Disgusted with herself for not thinking the problem through, Coco let go of the rope and swung disconsolately to and fro.
Coco thought through the difficulties of securing someone like this from the captor's point of view. While houses are generally quite strong structures, they offer few really strong fixing points as anyone trying to attach shelves or light fittings rapidly discovers. Coco had noticed that there were several small holes in the ceiling around the screw-eye that was supporting her. Presumably it had required more than one attempt to find a ceiling joist to take her weight. Even so, she thought, the threaded part had to go through perhaps half an inch of plaster before reaching wood, so there was a chance that it might be overloaded with a little effort. The radiator was a different matter. As an iron casting it was massive, and full of water, it was probably heavier than she was. Aside from that it was bolted down to the floor and back to the wall, so it was unlikely that she could cause it to come adrift. Coco decided to see how much load she could apply to the ring on the ceiling. Slowly and carefully, she bent her knees and bent her waist forward to lift her centre of gravity as far as it would go. Suddenly she straightened her body with a snap. She did so quickly enough that her feet struck the ceiling and the rope went slack. A fraction of a second later the rope stopped her fall with a colossal jerk. She bounced on the rope like a broken marionette and felt her head whip back. Coco had not expected quite that result. She had made no impression whatever on the screw-eye but felt as if she had almost shaken her head off. She had been gagged on previous occasions, but had never been so thankful of it as at that moment; she was sure she would have bitten her tongue off or knocked all her teeth out otherwise.
Coco dangled glumly wondering what to try next. She was rapidly running out of ideas. She wondered if there was anything else in the room she could possibly make use of. Slowly turning on the rope, she surveyed her surroundings minutely. There was a wooden chair not far away; probably her captor had stood on it to secure the screw-eye and then to thread the end of the rope through it. On the chair, there was a large pair of scissors. Coco recognised them as hers, but they were supposed to be in the kitchen drawer, not there. Was there any chance of her reaching them, she wondered. The chair was just about within swinging distance, but, at best, she would brush the scissors with her hair; with her arms bound to her body, she had no chance whatever of reaching them.
Frustration gripped Coco, bringing her to the brink of despair. Had the scissors been used to cut the ropes to length that were used to bind her and then just been carelessly left there? Was it supposed to be some kind of initiative test to see if she could escape from this situation? Or was it just calculated cruelty to put a means of escape in plain sight but forever out of reach for Coco to look at day-by-day as her strength and her reason ebbed away?
Coco turned her inner torment into a grim determination that she would escape and survive and have her revenge on whoever had done this to her. The first step had to be to get her arms free. As she had noted earlier, the coil around her upper arms and chest was not cinched between her arms and body. That meant that there was some faint chance of wriggling out of it. Bound as she was , Coco's elbows were closer together than her shoulders, so it was going to be hard work. She thrust out as hard as she could with her right elbow, tucking the left in as tightly against her body as it would go. She felt the ropes slip a tiny fraction against her sweater. She reversed the manoeuvre and again felt a tiny movement. With a few more repetitions, the ropes were definitely sliding towards her shoulders. Unfortunately, they were also bunching up below her bust. Coco was wearing one of the new sports bras that were just coming on the market, so there were no wires or stiffenings for the rope to catch on. There were, however, two substantial breasts over which the rope would have to be persuaded to ride. Coco kept on working at the rope. Eventually, there was nowhere for it to go but up over her bosom, uncomfortably squashing her breasts as it went. The final stages were much easier and greatly helped by gravity. At last, the rope dropped off her, landing in an untidy heap on the floor beneath her.
The rope at Coco's waist was a much easier prospect. Now that Coco could move her elbows comparatively freely, she was able to work her bound wrists out from under the waist rope. Coco's wrists were now very painful, but if she survived this ordeal, then bruised skin would be a small price to pay.
With her wrists still bound but her arms otherwise free, Coco discovered that she could reach out behind her with her arms approximately parallel to the floor. The question was whether this would allow her to reach those scissors. She set herself swinging again. It was much easier to initiate the swing and to control the direction now that her arms were almost free.
Coco found it quite satisfying to work herself into the perfect position to snatch the scissors. It was tempting to grab hold of the chair when she swung within reach but Coco realised that she would end up dragging it back to the middle of her arc of movement where the chair seat would be higher than the level of her shoulders and therefore completely inaccessible. At last, everything was aligned precisely and Coco lightly snatched the scissors with her fingertips. Her plan was to snip through her wrist binding with the scissors but she quickly discovered that the scissors were actually too big to do that. With the scissors reversed and the tips of the blades positioned on the cinch between her wrists, Coco's fingers could reach only to just above the hinge of the scissors and she could not apply nearly enough pressure to cut through a strand of rope.
Stymied for the moment, Coco wondered what to do next. As she had a pair of scissors in her hand, the obvious thing was to find a rope that she could cut with them. The only one that looked remotely accessible was the one with the inviting knot she had tried to untie earlier. She set to work swinging herself in the right direction. The trick, Coco decided, was to grab the rope tied to the radiator while not dropping the scissors. Accordingly, she held the scissors ready in her right hand and attempted to catch the rope using only her left hand. It took several near misses and two fumbled failures to grasp the rope before she finally succeeded. A taut rope is far easier to cut than a slack one, but even with a large pair of scissors, it requires many strokes of the blades to cut through it a few strands at a time. As each strand of the rope gave way, Coco felt herself drop another fraction of an inch or so until at last, the rope was completely severed and she fell heavily to the floor head-first. Instinctively, she tucked her head in and took the impact on her shoulders.
For a long time, Coco lay on the floor, just enjoying not hanging from the ceiling. It was an enormous relief to have got herself down; now she could allow herself to truly believe that she would get free and not die hanging there.
Once she felt a little stronger, Coco wormed her way over to retrieve the scissors which had gone flying as the rope finally parted. She rolled on her side and brought her feet as far up behind her as she could. Holding the scissors in both hands, she was just able to bring the points to bear on her ankle binding and hacked away until several strands or rope had been cut. She kicked vigorously until the rope loosened and her feet were free at last. It was only as the pressure was relieved that Coco realised how numb her feet had become. The pain in her feet was excruciating as they came back to life but at the same time it was another step towards freedom.
Coco's knee binding was out of reach with the scissors so she decided it was time to get to her feet now that she was reasonably sure they would support her. She squirmed across the floor to an armchair and used it as a prop to work her way up into a kneeling position in front of it then rolled over so she was sitting on the floor with her back to it. A few hard pushes with her feet and she was sitting in it properly. Coco indulged in another short breather before attempting to get to her feet.
The trick to standing up while tied up is not to overbalance. Coco rocked herself backwards and forwards until she had exactly the right momentum to transfer her weight to her feet without toppling over forwards. Once she was standing, Coco was able to shuffle her way to her kitchen, taking tiny little steps all the way. Coco made her way to the cutlery drawer. She turned her back on it, grasped the knob between her hands and shuffled forwards to pull it open. Very carefully, she reached in and identified her sharpest vegetable knife by the shape of its handle. She turned the knife around so the tip of the blade was in contact with the rope around her wrists and started sawing enthusiastically, taking care not to poke the tip of the blade into her arms or back as she did so. After less than a minute, she was rewarded by a distinct slackening as a strand of rope parted. She carried on sawing until several more strands had been cut then started twisting her wrists to work them free. As soon as her hands were free, she brought them round to the front of her body and leaned down to cut her knees and then her ankles free.
Coco's gag proved too tight to pull down, so she carefully eased the knife up behind it, with the sharp edge outwards, and cut through the fabric. The wad of cloth in her mouth had compacted into a solid mass and had to be worked out with the fingers of both hands.
Coco heaved a huge sign of relief as she was finally completely free. She staggered back to her small lounge and collapsed into the armchair once again. After a minute, she realised that what she wanted most of all was a stiff drink and a hot bath. She heaved herself to her feet again and made her way to the bathroom after pouring herself a very large gin.
OVER AN HOUR later, Coco emerged from the bath with wrinkly fingers and toes but feeling infinitely better. She put on a warm comfortable dressing gown and wrapped a towel around her hair then returned to the lounge to survey the scene of her escape. It was only now that she realised properly that her flat had been searched very thoroughly while she was unconscious. There had been no obvious wanton destruction but cupboards and drawers were open everywhere and some of the contents heaped on the floor. It looked like the work of a professional who knew how to carry out a search but who was not worried about hiding the fact of a search.
Propped up on the mantelpiece was an envelope with Coco's name written on it. She picked it up and opened it. Inside was a single piece of paper bearing the message, "Don't get too cocky, girl."
Coco stared at the message in astonishment. Several things became immediately apparent. Firstly, she had not been left to die; she was clearly supposed eventually to read that message. Presumably someone would eventually have set her free had she not been able to escape by herself. (It would have been a humiliating rescue too, given the state she would have been in after a day or more of hanging there, Coco reflected.) Secondly, Coco now knew who had been behind her captivity; she could almost hear Margot Harman's voice in those words on the message. Thirdly, the motive for the attack was also apparent. It was not really either revenge or punishment, more intended as a demonstration to Coco of her insignificance in relation to the Harmans. Finally, it was obvious that Coco's cover was thoroughly blown, at least as far as Margot Harman was concerned.
Over a cup of tea (one large gin was plenty on an empty stomach), Coco pondered the extraordinary situation. As she did so, she became increasingly angry. Honour amongst thieves is a myth, but nevertheless, Coco expected a degree of respect from someone like Margot Harman. True, Coco was hardly in the Harmans' league, but she was proud of her competence and efficiency in her chosen illicit profession. Her handling of the Van Houten diamond robbery had been immaculately planned and coolly executed, in stark contrast to the Keystone Kops fiasco put on by the Harmans' minions. If she had been foolish enough to have kept the diamonds in her flat, then she could expect someone to attempt to steal them from her. Given that Margot Harman had penetrated her secret identity, she would expect nothing else. This Hammer Horror charade of hanging Coco up from the ceiling was something else altogether. She felt it was both an affront to her dignity and, she felt, a breach of etiquette on Mrs Harman's part.
Coco concluded that she had to set the score right again by obtaining her vengeance on Margot Harman. Revenge is a dish best eaten cold and Mrs Harman had taken her time over her attack on Coco, so there was plenty of opportunity to plan something out carefully.
COCO GENERALLY preferred black outfits in her professional capacity as a burglar. They were inconspicuous, dramatic and quite smart. However, she had to admit that they were not always the best colour for camouflage; black could actually be too dark sometimes. Instead, Coco was dressed from head to toe in various shades of muddy browns and greens. She had started with a tan-coloured boiler suit of the kind favoured by warehousemen. She applied the tie-dying techniques she had learned in art classes at school to produce irregular splodges of brown and green to break up her outline while wearing the garment. Thick olive green socks worn over her shoes muffled her footsteps and provided more camouflage. Brown woollen gloves similarly camouflaged her hands. Her head was covered with a chocolate brown ribbed winter stocking. It was just translucent enough for her to see adequately in good daylight but still hid the light colour of her face and hair.
Thus attired, Coco sat patiently in the deep shadows amid the shrubs in the Harmans' extensive back garden. When Coco had first targeted the Harmans for burglary, she had noticed the carefully tended garden. The front garden was little more than a glorified car-park, but the back had an area of lawn and extensive herbaceous and shrub borders cunningly laid out to make a mix of secluded corners and open spaces which changed in character as one walked around. Mrs Harman was a keen gardener and did almost all of the work herself. Coco's reconnaissance had shown that there was no practical way to enter the back garden other than from the street and by using the paths down either side of the house. It had been the point at which Coco had been most at risk of detection but with care she successfully passed the house and hid herself without being seen.
Coco had observed a methodical maintenance programme under way as Mrs Harman undertook the trimming and tidying that is needed before the spring growth starts in earnest each year. Coco's several discreet visits had revealed a clear pattern to Mrs Harman's activities as she progressively worked her way around the garden doing a little work each day. Coco had been able to predict quite accurately where that day's work would begin and had chosen a hiding place which would ensure that Mrs Harman would steadily work towards her. Although she was in deep shadow, Coco was in plain sight of Mrs Harman but her costume and knack of remaining perfectly still left nothing person-shaped to attract Mrs Harman's attention. In fact on two occasions, Mrs Harman had stared straight at Coco as if her eyes were telling her that there was something there but failing to resolve anything recognisable.
At last, Coco decided that the opportune moment had arrived. Mrs Harman was working about twenty feet from her and was sideways on to her , so that Coco was looking at her right profile. Coco had taken to heart Mrs Harman's advice to use entirely innocent objects as weapons when she had learned of the use of a rubber dog bone as an effective cosh. Coco had been back to the pet shop again and had bought some solid rubber balls 2-1/2 inches or so in diameter and weighing about four ounces each. She also had a catapult, a large businesslike slingshot with a moulded plastic hand-grip and thick rubber band. Maintaining perfect silence, Coco loaded a ball into the catapult, pulled the rubber taut and aimed carefully at a point just behind Mrs Harman's right ear. She waited until she was sure that Mrs Harman would stay still for a few seconds before releasing the missile. As chance would have it, Mrs Harman started to lean forward at the precise second that Coco fired so that the ball glanced off the back of her head. Shocked by the thump on her head, Mrs Harman looked around in alarm. Seemingly sensing that there was something amiss, she stared right at Coco, apparently still not able to pick her out from the leafy background. Coco had another ball ready in the catapult, so she brought it up level with her eye and fired straight at Mrs Harman. It struck her accurately in the middle of her forehead. She made no sound, but keeled over backwards, instantly knocked out cold.
Coco quickly put the catapult and her remaining supply of rubber balls into the small rucksack she had brought with her and slung it on her back. She walked over to Mrs Harman's inert form sprawled on the grass. Just to make sure nothing had gone wrong, Coco briefly placed a finger on Margot Harman's neck and checked for a pulse in her carotid artery; all was well. She laid Mrs Harman flat on her back on the lawn then lifted her from behind, taking the weight with her hands under Mrs Harman's arms. She was a solidly-built woman and a considerable weight to move. Coco was not nearly strong enough to lift Mrs Harman bodily, but she could drag her, with heels trailing on the ground. Coco shuffled awkwardly backwards with her burden, pausing to reach behind her to open the back door. At last, Mrs Harman was lying on her back on the kitchen floor, still unconscious and with a bruise developing on her forehead.
From past experience, Coco knew that she often got uncomfortably hot during the course of a job. She knew that this was due to a combination of nerves and the physical exertion required coupled with the all-concealing clothing she generally wore. For once, Coco could enjoy the luxury of not being disguised for a job. Mrs Harman would know who had done this anyway and if she happened to recover consciousness unexpectedly quickly and saw Coco in person, it would not matter. Accordingly, Coco stripped off the stocking over her head, her gloves and socks and the camouflaged boiler suit. Underneath she wore tight black stretch trousers and a thin black sweater, which she felt conveyed the appropriate gravitas for an accomplished criminal at work. She left her hands bare and her face uncovered.
Coco decided to relieve Mrs Harman of some of her clothing as well. She had been wearing a sturdy tweed skirt, a warm sweater and a cardigan for gardening. Although the clothes were quite well-worn, they were a little smarter than one would expect as a gardening outfit. However, Coco reflected, it was in keeping with the solid lower-middle-class respectability that the Harmans had adopted as their public persona in the neighbourhood. Coco's aim was to ensure that Mrs Harman's clothes would not interfere with tying her up. She toyed with the idea of stripping her victim naked, but decided against it: the humiliation she intended Mrs Harman was that she had been outwitted and overpowered in her own home, nothing more.
Undressing an unconscious person is not an easy task to carry out alone but only a few minutes later, Mrs Harman's outer layers of clothing and the slip she had worn underneath were in a neatly-folded pile on a kitchen chair. Coco noted with amusement that Mrs Harman's taste in underwear was not unlike her own mother's: distinctly robust and utilitarian. Mrs Harman favoured the same style of one-piece panty-corselette, combining under-wired bra, girdle with substantial elastic control panels and panties. Coco often adopted just such a foundation garment herself to change her outline as part of her burglary costume, although she had decided that it was unnecessary that day. The corselette was fitted with stocking suspenders which supported a pair of old-fashioned black lisle stockings. Coco noticed that the stockings had been frugally darned at the heels, suggesting that Mrs Harman had retained economical habits from less wealthy younger days.
Coco had a stock of rope with her, but felt that it would be more fitting to use Mrs Harman's own supplies. From her first encounter with Mrs Harman, Coco knew where to look for rope in one of the kitchen cupboards. Having located a bundle of suitable pieces, Coco set to work.
She began by tying Mrs Harman's wrists in front of her. She bound them palm to palm with several turns of rope cinching the binding tight. Coco tied a firm knot out of reach of Mrs Harman's fingers and left two long loose ends of rope about three feet long, which she would need later. Mrs Harman was still unconscious, but Coco worked on the principle that it was still important to get a victim's hands under control as soon as possible. Next, she rolled Mrs Harman over onto her front, arranging the bound wrists to prop her up slightly so that Coco could reach under her waist.
Coco smiled to herself as she selected the rope for the next stage of Mrs Harman's imprisonment. Coco had thought long and hard about what she would do to obtain her revenge and expected the results to be very satisfying. She folded the length of rope in two and wound the doubled piece around Mrs Harman's waist. She fed the loose ends through the U shape formed by the fold at the centre of the rope and pulled it tight, slightly constricting Mrs Harman's waist. She carefully arranged the fold to be centred in the small of Mrs Harman's back. She wrapped the doubled rope right around the waist again and once more fed it through the loop at the back. With a grim smile, Coco led the rope down between Mrs Harman's legs and up to meet the waist rope at the front. She threaded it under the waist rope and led it back down and through the legs again, finally knotting it off securely at the T formed by the ropes at the back of Mrs Harman's waistline. Coco carefully checked the ropework, making sure that it was tight enough not to be able to slip down over Mrs Harman's hips.
Margot Harman no longer seemed to be so deeply unconscious. Coco carefully lifted one of Mrs Harman's eyelids; there was the slightest suggestion of the pupil contracting so she estimated that she had perhaps ten minutes to finish the task she had set herself. She set to work on the next stage of the process by winding a long length of rope around Mrs Harman's arms and body, fitting it snugly beneath her bust and knotting it off tightly behind her back. She used two shorter lengths to form cinches between Mrs Harman's arms and body, locking her elbows securely to her sides.
Coco turned her attention back to Mrs Harman's wrists. She rolled her victim onto one side, balancing the inert body by bending one knee. Coco fed the two long ends from Mrs Harman's wrist binding down between her legs and up behind her back. She threaded them up over the waist rope behind her back and led them down between her legs again. On reaching the waist rope at the front, Coco used them to lash the cinch of Mrs Harman's wrist binding to the T of rope where the waist and crotch ropes met. She finished off with a secure knot above Mrs Harman's wrist binding and well out of reach.
Pleased with progress, Coco selected three more pieces of rope which she used to secure Mrs Harman's legs, lashing and cinching them at ankles and both above and below her knees. She carefully manoeuvred her victim so she was lying flat on her back and with her heels almost against the inside of the kitchen door.
Coco decided that she had reached an opportune moment for a gag. She decided to follow the same approach that Mrs Harman had once used on her: she used two yellow cotton dusters, one as packing and one between the teeth to hold the first in place.
Mrs Harman was now effectively helpless, but Coco planned to match the humiliation that had been meted out to her. She took a long length of the heaviest rope she could find in Mrs Harman's collection and tied one end of it securely to the cinch between her victim's ankles. She tossed the rope over the top of the door. In Coco's bag was a small piece of specialist equipment which she had put together. It consisted of a U-shaped metal bracket and a small block and tackle assembled from lightweight yachting components. The tackle consisted of two four-sheaved pulleys, giving her a mechanical advantage of four to one. The lower pulley block was attached to the bracket and the upper one had a short length of rope attached to it. She knotted this piece of rope to the heavy rope over the door, hooked the bracket under the bottom of the door and started heaving on the rope around the pulleys. As she did so, Mrs Harman's feet were slowly hauled up the door. Coco kept pulling until Mrs Harman's head was about a foot clear of the floor then she belayed the pulley rope off to keep it taut. Next, she fed the rope which now suspended Mrs Harman upside down underneath the door, where she tied a big figure-of-eight stopper knot as tight against the bottom of the door as she could. Very carefully, Coco released the slack on the pulley rope. The stopper knot held and Mrs Harman's head dropped about four inches as the heavy rope took up the strain. Coco cut through the short length of rope attaching the pulley to the rope now supporting Mrs Harman's weight, leaving the knot in place. The block and tackle went back into Coco's bag.
Coco tidied away the spare rope where she found it. In the same cupboard, she also found a rubber door wedge, which she kicked under the edge of the kitchen door to prevent Mrs Harman from attempting to break the door by swinging it.
There was one last touch that Coco had planned. She took folded piece of paper out of her bag and placed it on the floor under Mrs Harman's head. Later, when she had been set free, Mrs Harman would discover the one-sentence message, "Not cocky - just a rough diamond."
AS COCO left the Harmans' house, she felt a flutter of fear in her stomach. As she judged the situation, she had to establish her own degree of respect as a professional thief, otherwise she would find herself under the Harmans' thumbs and with no independence. On the other hand, she was acutely aware that she was taking a terrible risk. If she had misjudged the situation, she could find herself on the way to a series of unpleasant experiences probably culminating in a final resting place at the bottom of the Thames. It was a terrifying gamble but one she felt she had to take. Only time would tell whether she had been right.
THE FOLLOWING morning, Coco sat nervously in a café situated conveniently close to the Harmans' house. She had used this café as an observation post during the surveillance prior to burgling the house just before the previous Christmas. Once again she had adopted the persona of an impoverished student who had found somewhere quiet and warm to study. Her large round spectacles and shaggy light-brown wig had also featured prominently in that disguise. They were known to Mrs Harman, but that was at least partly the point of the exercise. Coco had previously always made a point of wearing thin wool gloves even indoors in that guise, but that had been in December and there was no longer the need not to leave fingerprints, so she settled for a pair of purple fingerless gloves to continue the theme of slight eccentricity. A striped green sweater with much-darned elbows and a slightly shabby long Indian print cotton skirt completed her transformation.
To say that Coco was nervous was an understatement: she was in fact terrified. She had not been able to eat anything that morning and had hardly slept the night before. Her insides were shaking like jelly and only the need to maintain her disguise enabled her to sit sipping coffee and apparently perfectly calm.
Coco kept an intermittent lookout from her window seat in the expectation that Mrs Harman would come to the café looking for her. From past experience she knew that Mrs Harman would be in sight for between two and three minutes, so it was not necessary for her to sit with her nose pressed against the window all the time.
As she stared idly across the street, Coco was abruptly aware of another person sitting at her table. Mrs Harman was gazing steadily at her, her expression unreadable. Coco's efforts of the previous day had left her with a large bruise on her forehead which had also slightly blackened one eye and caused the eyelid to droop. Coco was unable to suppress a small gasp of surprise. Coco had expected Mrs Harman to notice her sitting in the window of the café but not to anticipate her to the extent of taking a different route here specifically to corner her.
"Finish your coffee, girl; we're going for a walk," Mrs Harman instructed.
Coco had by this time taken in the glint of a gun muzzle just visible inside the folded newspaper on the table in front of her which concealed Mrs Harman's right hand. She stayed in character and drank her coffee slowly but steadily to gain some thinking time.
Mrs Harman seemed to read Coco's thoughts: "Don't think that being in a public place is going to save you," she advised in a low but clear voice. "I'll blow a hole in you if I have to and then talk my way out of it somehow. Of course you won't be around to know how successfully I do it, but that's the whole point isn't it?"
Coco said nothing but nodded once. She finished her coffee, put the empty cup down and put a 5p coin in the saucer as a tip. She retrieved her bag from the floor and stood up. Mrs Harman stood too and the two of them made their way to the door.
As she walked along the street with Mrs Harman beside and slightly behind her, Coco's thoughts were bleak and self-recriminatory. How could she have possibly expected to get away with this? Even after yesterday's revenge on Mrs Harman, she could have gone into hiding or run away to sea or joined the Foreign Legion or something. Instead, like a fool, she had come here to Mrs Harman's home turf and been outmanoeuvred at a single stroke.
Coco contemplated making a break for it and running. She judged that she would almost certainly be shot if she did and although death might well not be instantaneous, it would surely be preferable to the hours of pain and humiliation she undoubtedly faced at the Harmans' hands. Coco discovered that she could not do it; the optimistic streak in her was so deeply ingrained that she would hang onto any thread of hope however slender and as long as she was not actually dead there was still hope.
The two women continued in silence. They made an odd pair with Coco in her bohemian student guise and Mrs Harman in severely practical and businesslike black. Coco had not seen Mrs Harman in trousers before but they made a simple and clear fashion statement: this was a woman dressed for action. The trousers were stretchy black stirrup pants with the stirrups passing under the soles of her shoes. The shoes were immaculately-polished black lace-ups with a modest one-inch Cuban heel. Closer examination revealed a discreet steel edge visible at the rim of the sole round the toes and round the back of the heels. Her neat black sweater and tight black leather gloves completed the picture of a woman not to be trifled with. It was ironic how closely the outfit resembled Coco's chosen clothes for her attack the previous day.
Without any prompting or guiding, Coco turned into the Harmans' driveway when they reached it and preceded Mrs Harman to the front door. Mrs Harman tossed the keys down at Coco's feet. Without being told, Coco picked them up and opened the door. The alarm was evidently not set. Coco thought of rushing in and slamming the door behind her, but Mrs Harman anticipated that too. "Remember I can pull this trigger faster than you could shut that door," she said lightly.
Mrs Harman closed the front door behind her without ever taking her eyes off Coco. "Kitchen," she ordered. Coco nodded: Mrs Harman clearly intended to have her revenge on Coco where Coco had humiliated her the previous day.
Coco made her way to the kitchen and then stopped just inside the door. It took a lot to shock Coco but she was shaken to the core by the sight that awaited her. The table that usually stood in the centre of the room had been removed and a heavy polythene sheet spread on the floor. In the centre of the room stood a sturdy straight-backed wooden chair. Coco noticed immediately that the chair had been reinforced at some time by extra wooden bracing between its legs and that there were prominent screw-heads visible where most of the joints had been strengthened. The original chair had been stained dark brown and varnished but now bare wood showed through in various places. Coco realised that the wear pattern was the result of abrasion from ropes. Many people must have struggled in that chair for many, many hours. Coco was both fascinated and horrified that the Harmans should own a piece of furniture specifically to be used to tie people to. As if to make the point clearer, several bundles of rope and some pieces of cloth were piled on the chair seat. The reason for the polythene sheet was also obvious. A 56lb paper sack of ready-mixed cement, sand and gravel sat next to the chair, carefully positioned so that the printing on the bag was clearly visible from the door. There was hose-pipe attached to the kitchen tap, a plastic bucket, a small shovel, possibly an old coal shovel, for mixing and a battered old galvanised-steel basin ready to contain the concrete and presumably Coco's feet.
Coco had never fainted in her life before, but her mouth was dry, the sound of her blood pounding in her ears was almost deafening and her knees felt terribly weak. This must be how a condemned prisoner feels when he sees the noose, she thought.
End of part 2
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