La Cioccolata
Rough Diamond
by Gillian B
Part 4

WITH A CONSIDERABLE effort of will Coco brought her terrified imagination under control and dispelled the vision of her own death that filled her head. She knew that to have any chance at all she must focus on her present situation.

     "You know, you've got some guts, girl," Mrs Harman commented with a wry smile. "Most people would've just caved in and begged for mercy in your place. You stood up for yourself even when you didn't have anything to bargain with. I like that."

     Mrs Harman stood up and walked over to the kitchen window. She looked out into the garden for a minute or more before turning to face Coco again.

     "Listen, girl," she said, apparently having come to a decision, "I gave you a second chance once before and trusted you to respect that. I reckoned that you'd betrayed that trust when you staged the diamond job and that's why I wanted to teach you a lesson."

     Coco opened her mouth to deliver an angry retort but Mrs Harman waved her into silence.

     "By your own light, it was me that was out of order, not you. Now I don't quite accept that, but I understand why you thought it. Then you felt that I was cramping your style by turning your place over and you came here to teach me a lesson in return. Like I say, I didn't think that showed proper respect, but you felt that the Harmans didn't deserve respect like they used to. Is that about right so far?"

     Coco nodded in confirmation, uncertain where this might be leading.

     "Right," Mrs Harman continued, "here's my take on it all. If you'd done your planning properly you'd've known who was giving you information and you'd've worked out that she was selling the same stuff twice. You didn't, and that's bad but it's mostly just your lack of experience. That means, as far as you were concerned, you weren't ripping anyone off by getting in first with your job. I accept that. But, and it's a big 'but', I risked my life to save your neck not so long ago. Now, even if you've got no other reason, I reckon that you owe me some respect for that. Right?"

     Coco hung her head in genuine contrition. Mrs Harman truly had taken a big risk and surely Coco owed her something.

     "One thing you got dead right is how useless Henry has been getting," Mrs Harman added. "And that's why I've ditched him. It's just a pity you got mixed up in me doing it."

     Mrs Harman took another circuit around the kitchen, her body language suggesting that she was coming to a big decision. She sat down on her chair again and looked Coco squarely in the eye. "I put my life on the line for you, girl and you treated me like trash. In my book you deserve all you get for that. On the other hand, you thought I was messing you around, so maybe you don't deserve to get snuffed."

     Coco hardly dared hope to get out of this situation alive, but it looked like Mrs Harman might just be relenting.

     Mrs Harman was silent for another long minute then spoke quietly. "I really need a reliable partner now Henry's been banged up," she said. "You're the best cat burglar and the best at locks I've ever seen and I mean that straight up. The best, bar none. But, let's face it, your planning is crap at times. As I see it, you need a decent planner with experience and I need a top-notch technician, not like those clowns Henry used. We could be a team, you and me. What do you say?"

     "You've got one hell of a way of interviewing staff," Coco replied, her voice wobbling with relief.

     "I'll take that as 'yes'," Mrs Harman said with a grin.

     "What would have happened if I'd just caved in?" Coco asked, half-afraid to hear the answer.

     "A one-way boat ride," Mrs Harman replied grimly.

     "So what happens now?" Coco asked, still not quite daring to believe in her reprieve.

     "So I'd better get your feet out of that bucket before the cement goes hard. Two ticks while I get changed again."

     Mrs Harman left the kitchen and Coco sat trembling with relief and limp with exhaustion. She was sure she would not have been able to stay on the chair if she hadn't been tied to it.

     Mrs Harman returned to the kitchen wearing her boiler suit again, her hair covered with a scarf once more. She retrieved her rubber gloves and wellingtons from the place she had dropped them by the back door and walked back to Coco. She picked up the dusters that had been used to gag Coco and re-folded them.

     "Open up," Mrs Harman commanded.

     "Why?" asked Coco.

     "Because I'm going to take you outside and I need you to stay quiet, that's why," Mrs Harman replied a little irritably.

     Coco did as she was told and Mrs Harman pushed the packing into her mouth and bound it in place once more.

     Mrs Harman opened the back door next and stepped outside for a moment before returning to Coco. She grabbed the back of Coco's chair and pulled it backwards, rocking it from side to side as she did so, to prevent it from rucking the polythene sheet on the floor. There was a six-inch drop from the back door the paving outside, requiring some effort to bounce the heavy concrete-filled bucket over the threshold.

     Once outside, Mrs Harman positioned the chair so that the bucket was next to the grating covering a drain in one corner of the paving. She fetched the garden hose and poked the nozzle into the wet concrete just in front of Coco's legs and turned on the outside tap. As the water flowed into the bucket so a steady stream of very dilute cement and sand overflowed over the rim and ran away down the drain.

     "It can't set in the drains with that much water in it," Mrs Harman explained.

     Coco's feet had warmed up the water in the concrete that was in immediate contact with them, and the chemical reaction that makes concrete set was also beginning to release heat, so they no longer felt as icily cold as they had when the bucket was being filled. The water from the hose rapidly reversed that and they became painfully cold as more and more of the cement and sand was washed away. Coco squeals of discomfort were muffled to a low mumble by her gag and her chattering teeth effectively silenced by it. After a few minutes of this, Coco was glad of something to bite down on.

     Just as Coco though she could stand the cold no more, Mrs Harman pulled the hose out of the bucket. She used it to wash the streaks of dilute cement properly down the drain before turning it off.

     "Now it's just gravel and water in there," Mrs Harman announced. "We'll have you out in a jiffy."

     She untied the rope securing the bucket handle to Coco's leg bindings and the ropes fastening the bucket to the chair. She squatted down in front of the chair and lifted the bucket, straightening Coco's legs and tipping the polythene sack lining and the water and gravel it contained out of the bucket and onto the paving. Coco whimpered into her gag in pain as her cramped legs were straightened. Less than a minute later, Coco's feet were clear of the last remains of the concrete. Mrs Harman used the hose to sluice out the bucket which she carried into the kitchen.

     Coco was left for a minute or so with her freezing feet on top of a pile of wet, sandy gravel. Mrs Harman then returned and dragged the chair back towards the back door. She turned it around and tipped it back to get the front legs of the chair onto the higher floor level indoors then heaved the chair and Coco's weight up over the doorstep.

     Mrs Harman re-positioned the chair back on the polythene sheet and refilled the bucket under the kitchen taps, using a mixture of hot and cold water. When she was satisfied with the temperature, she put the bucket down in front of Coco's chair.

     "Lift your feet, dearie," Mrs Harman instructed.

     Coco did so and Mrs Harman positioned the bucket under them. Coco lowered her feet into the warm water. Her eyes widened and her gag muffled a startled squawk. The water felt boiling, but it was only because her feet were so cold.

     Mrs Harman went outside again and Coco could hear the hose running again, presumably as the last vestiges of cement were washed off the heap of gravel. She came back inside after a few minutes and closed the back door. Once again she removed her wellingtons and rubber gloves.

     "Now, just wait a minute while I run you a nice hot bath," she told Coco.

     This apparent solicitousness seemed to be a perfectly genuine aspect to Mrs Harman's character, but Coco could not help noticing how incongruously it sat with the earlier death threat and the fact that she was still tied to a chair and gagged.

WHEN MRS HARMAN returned to the kitchen, her boiler suit removed once again, Coco was feeling much better and was enjoying swinging he bound legs to and fro so that the warm water flowed through the fabric of her socks and between her toes.

     "Right, I'd better get all those ropes off you so you can have your bath," Mrs Harman remarked, sounding strangely maternal.

     She started by taking Coco's gag out.

     "Thanks," Coco croaked hoarsely.

     Next she helped Coco lift her feet out of the bucket and freed her leg bindings at her ankles and above and below her knees. As she unwound the long length of rope securing Coco to the chair. Coco wobbled unsteadily as the support from the rope was removed. Mrs Harman helped Coco stand. She was stiff and unsteady on her feet. Mrs Harman kept a hand on Coco's shoulder to steady her as she removed the vertical ropes over Coco's shoulders and between her legs and then the ropes binding her arms to her body. She helped Coco sit down again before tackling her wrist binding.

     Coco remained sitting somewhat limply once all her bindings had been removed. Her clothes were wet and there was cement embedded in her socks and splashed on her sweater in places. She felt as bedraggled as she looked.

     "Give me your feet and I'll get those socks off, dearie," Mrs Harman instructed.

     Coco lifted one leg then the other and Mrs Harman rolled her socks down and peeled them off her feet.

     "Now let's get you upstairs to the bathroom."

     Mrs Harman helped Coco stand and gave her an arm to hang onto as he helped her totter upstairs to the bathroom. The bath had already been filled with hot water. Coco sat down and perched on the edge of the bathtub.

     "Now," Mrs Harman said, "there's lots of nice-smelling stuff you can put in the water if you like and there's shampoo." She indicated a row of bottles. "I've put a clean towel out for you there." She indicated a fluffy pink bath-towel. "Take as long as you like and there's plenty of hot water if you need to add more."

     Coco nodded to acknowledge the stream of information.

     "I'll see if I can find any clothes to fit you while you have your bath," Mrs Harman added as an afterthought.

     Mrs Harman closed the bathroom door and Coco heard the key turn in the lock. She was amused that Mrs Harman was still taking no chances with her. She therefore felt duty bound to check the security of the windows. Mrs Harman had drawn the bathroom curtains so Coco peeped out between them. The window had frosted glass but Coco could see the outline of bars on the outside. This struck her as odd until she realised that this room might well have been part of the nursery in the original layout of the Victorian house.

     As escape was impossible, Coco decided just to enjoy her bath and removed her remaining clothes. She chose a rose-scented bath oil and added it to the water then slipped luxuriously into the warm water.

     A whole hour passed, during which Coco twice topped the bath up with hot water. She eventually heaved herself out of the bath, with the skin on her hands and feet soft and wrinkly and feeling slightly wobbly after the water had supported her weight for so long. The whole room was comfortably warm and steamy so Coco simply towelled herself off and stood naked in front of the basin to wash her hair. She rinsed and washed it twice over before it felt properly clean to her. One advantage of short fine hair is that it dries very quickly, so Coco towelled it and roughly clawed it into shape with her fingers. She would have to ask for the loan of a hair-brush later.

     Coco examined herself critically in front of the mirror. There were rope marks on every part of her body except for the backs of her thighs where she had been in contact with the chair. The ones on her arms and body were already fading, but her wrists and her legs where her ankle and knee bindings had been had bright red rings around them that might well develop into bruises.

     There was gentle knock at the door and Mrs Harman's voice saying, "I've found some clothes that might fit." The bathroom door was unlocked and opened about six inches. Mrs Harman's hand appeared around the edge of the door and she tossed in a pile of clothes then shut and re-locked it.

     Coco sorted through the pile of clothes that Mrs Harman had offered. She decided that underwear was the first priority. A pair of Mrs Harman's panties were a surprisingly good fit although they were far more substantial than the bikini style that Coco usually wore and came almost up to her belly button.

     The two bras Mrs Harman had offered were both hopelessly too small. Coco's rib cage was clearly bigger than Mrs Harman's and she needed a full cup size larger as well. There was a white t-shirt amongst the clothes which was a snug but tolerable fit so Coco settled for going bra-less.

     Mrs Harman had offered only one skirt, a loose cotton print affair with an elasticated waistline, presumably the roomiest one that Mrs Harman owned. Coco tried it on but it was far too tight for comfort around her waist. It was almost tolerable if she pushed it down to her hips but if she did that, Coco was so short that the hem trailed on the floor. Coco decided that she would just have to do without a skirt. She chose the heaviest of the pairs of tights that Mrs Harman had offered, a black ribbed winter-weight pair. Coco was glad that Mrs Harman did possess tights: she would have been mortified to have to wear stockings without a skirt.

     Mrs Harman had provided several sweaters amongst the clothes on offer, perhaps realising that her blouses were unlikely to fit. Coco sorted through them and chose a beige long-line sweater with a roll collar. It would be hip length on Mrs Harman, but even with her additional girth, on Coco it was long enough to do duty as a mini-dress, albeit a daringly short one and not in a colour she would ever willingly choose except as a disguise. The sleeves were far too long, so Coco pushed them up above her elbows.

     Coco knocked on the bathroom door, politely announcing, "I'm ready, Mrs Harman."

     The sound of Mrs Harman's feet on the stairs and then the key turning in the lock of the bathroom door heralded Mrs Harman's arrival. Coco had expected Mrs Harman to push the door open but was amused to note that she was expected to do that herself; Mrs Harman was clearly not taking any risks.

     "It's all right, Mrs Harman, I'm not going to try anything clever," Coco assured her as she emerged onto the landing.

     "I'm still taking no chances," Mrs Harman replied with a slightly apologetic grin. "Hold your hands out, please."

     Coco obediently held them out in front of her. Mrs Harman inspected her wrists. "I was going to give you a pair of handcuffs to wear, but I thought your wrists might be a bit battered, so I'll do something a bit kinder to them instead."

     Mrs Harman slid a pair of thick socks over Coco's hands. They were knee-length so they went up past Coco's elbows. Coco noted to herself with amusement that their chocolate brown colour toned nicely with her improvised mini-dress. Mrs Harman used an old nylon stocking to bind Coco's wrists. She deftly wound the stocking twice around Coco's wrists then twisted the ends around each other and wrapped the remaining length at right angles to the first turns to cinch them down into a pair of nylon stocking handcuffs. Nylon stockings have odd properties as binding material. If moderate tension is applied to the stocking it stretches like a spring so that the stretch is proportional to the tension. However, if the stocking is pulled harder, this stretchiness diminishes and eventually just stops. Mrs Harman's handling of the stocking was perfect. She applied just the right amount of tension to the first two turns so that when they were pulled tighter by the cinch, they would be close to but not quite at that limit of stretchiness. That way, the stocking did not cut into Coco's wrists but neither was there enough remaining stretch for her to pull her hands out. When a knot is formed in a stocking it pulls down to an amazingly small size. The single knot that Mrs Harman used to secure Coco's wrist binding was about the size of a large pea.

     "The socks should make it a bit more comfortable," Mrs Harman explained.

     "I thought they were just to keep idle hands under control," Coco commented.

     "That too," Mrs Harman agreed lightly. "Now, I expect a stiff drink would do you a power of good after what you've been through. A gin perhaps?" she offered as she ushered Coco downstairs and followed her.

     Coco felt herself wrong-footed once again. Mrs Harman's concern for her welfare really seemed to be genuine but that was still in the context of Mrs Harman's threat to kill her which also seemed to be perfectly genuine. Apart from that, Coco was still tied up and Mrs Harman very much in control.

     "What I would like more than anything," Coco ventured tentatively, "is some hot chocolate. If you have any that is."

     "I'm sure we do, dearie," Mrs Harman replied warmly. "Just go into the kitchen and I'll get it ready for you."

     The kitchen was as Coco remembered it from her first visit. The round kitchen table and three chairs were back in position and seemed to have been freshly polished. Mrs Harman pulled one of the chairs out and Coco sat down.

     To her surprise, Mrs Harman knelt down beside Coco. Before she could work out what was happening, Mrs Harman was putting a pair of socks onto Coco's feet over the tights. They were identical to the pair she wore on her hands. Coco was too worn out to resist or complain or even to comment. The inevitable nylon stocking binding followed. Mrs Harman tied a loop around each of Coco's ankles separately with about three inches of slack between them.

     "This is just to slow you down and give me a head start in case you get any ideas, girl," Mrs Harman explained, faintly apologetic but with a definite hardness to her voice. "You should be able to walk in that if you take baby steps," she added.

     Coco sat quietly, bemused at her situation but not really thinking actively about anything while Mrs Harman busied herself in the kitchen, pouring milk into a saucepan and setting it on the stove to heat.

     A few minutes later, Coco was presented with a mug of hot chocolate, steaming invitingly. She sipped it with the mug cupped between her sock-covered hands. There was an unusual after-taste in the first sip; Coco looked at Mrs Harman, puzzled.

     "I put a shot of Cointreau in it," Mrs Harman explained. "I thought something stronger than hot chocolate would warm you up inside and that nice orangey flavour goes well with chocolate, doesn't it?"

     Now that she knew what it was, Coco could identify the taste easily. Mrs Harman was right: the flavour of the Cointreau did go very well with the chocolate. Coco made a mental note to buy a bottle so she could enjoy this treat at home.

     Mrs Harman said nothing as she watched Coco drink the chocolate with obvious enjoyment. She took the empty mug away and handed a Coco a tissue to wipe her mouth with. As she took the tissue back to throw it away she asked, "You must be getting hungry by now, dear, would you like me to cook something for tea?"

     Coco was astonished to see that the kitchen clock showed it was almost 5.30. She looked at the window: sure enough, it was getting dark outside. It had been such a bizarre day that Coco no longer had any idea at all of the time. On consideration, she concluded that she was hungry: she had not eaten for over 24 hours and the stress of the day had burned off a great many calories. "Yes please," she replied.

     Mrs Harman inspected the contents of her refrigerator and store cupboard critically. "Sausage and mash would be quick," she concluded. "Would you like that?"

     Coco would have been prepared to eat almost anything, but simple comfort food like old-fashioned bangers and mash had an appeal. "Yes please: that would do me nicely," she replied.

     "It will take about half an hour by the time I've got the potatoes done," Mrs Harman said, consulting her watch. "I'll turn on the TV for you and get you a comfier chair."

     Colour televisions were still an expensive luxury in 1974, but the Harmans had a portable set in the kitchen as well as the huge 26-inch TV in the lounge and the smaller one in their bedroom. Mrs Harman switched the TV on and left the room. The programme was the end of a children's quiz show which did not capture Coco's attention. Instead she inspected the nylon stocking binding her wrists. The knot was clearly visible but because of its position, it would be impossible to get her hands or teeth to it. Aside from that, her hands were useless inside a pair of socks and even if she got her teeth to the stocking it would be difficult or impossible to untie such a tight and tiny knot. Coco wondered if it was possible to gnaw through a nylon stocking: she had never tried.

     Mrs Harman returned carrying a small but comfortable-looking armchair. She saw immediately what Coco was doing. "Oh, no you don't, my girl," she warned. "I should have guessed you would do something like that as soon as my back was turned."

     Coco turned round with a guilty smile. "I was only looking," she protested.

     Mrs Harman positioned the armchair and took a stocking from what appeared to be her rag-bag in the cupboard under the sink. She snipped through Coco's wrist binding with the kitchen scissors. "I'm sorry but I'll have to tie them behind your back," she said, sounding like a stern schoolteacher. "I can't keep an eye on you all the time while I'm cooking."

     Coco looked appropriately crestfallen.

     "Stand up and put your hands behind your back," Mrs Harman instructed. Coco did as she was told and felt her wrists being re-tied in the same way but safely out of reach behind her.

     Mrs Harman gently supported and guided Coco as she shuffled her way to the armchair and helped her sit. Coco squirmed around to find a comfortable position leaning against her arms.

     "That won't do," Mrs Harman declared and walked out of the kitchen. Coco wondered what further indignity she was to be subjected to.

     Mrs Harman returned with two cushions from the lounge. "Slide forward," she instructed Coco. Coco wriggled herself forward on the chair and Mrs Harman placed a cushion behind her hips. "Now slide back but stay leaning forwards," Mrs Harman said. Coco shuffled herself backwards until her hips were against the cushion and leant forwards again. Mrs Harman held the second cushion behind her and instructed her to lean back against it. Coco discovered it was at about the level of her shoulder blades.

     "Your weight won't be against your arms now," Mrs Harman explained. "It's always much more comfortable that way."

     "Much better, thank you," Coco confirmed, without a trace of irony. She pondered Mrs Harman's last remark in silence. Was Mrs Harman speaking from personal experience of being tied up? Did she make a practice of tying people up and then making sure they were comfortable? She dismissed the question as another of life's unfathomable mysteries.

     While Mrs Harman busied herself with cookery, Coco settled down to watch the television, mostly as a displacement activity. The next programme was the five-minute filler at then end of children's television, currently The Magic Roundabout, which had a certain cult following amongst adults and which Coco herself also enjoyed. At 5.40, the BBC's early evening news coverage started with Town and Around, the regional news programme for London and the south-east of England. The first item was on a threatened strike of London Underground workers. The second item was on the arrest of Henry Harman. Several still photographs were shown of Henry Harman while the reporter was describing his arrest at his home the previous evening. At the first mention of the name, Mrs Harman came over to watch too. There was a short shot of the exterior of the house as seen from the street, then the report wound up with the reporter speaking live to camera in front of a London police station, apparently where Mr Harman was being held. The reporter said that Mr Harman had been charged with offences in connection with the Hatton Garden diamond robbery and with assault on his wife with intent to cause grievous bodily harm. He concluded by saying, "Mrs Harman is believed to be staying at a secret location under police protection."

     "The BBC doesn't always get everything right then," Coco commented.

     "Oh, we've get police protection all right," Mrs Harman replied casually. "There's a bobby sitting in his car out on the street watching the front of the house. I took him a cup of coffee while you were in the bath."

     Coco was flabbergasted. "You mean you marched me in here at gunpoint right under the noses of the Metropolitan Police?"

     "Yes," replied Mrs Harman lightly. "After all, they know I live here; they're just on the lookout for thugs coming to finish me off. If I happen to take a friend back to the house, it's none of their business and they don't care."

     "But you had me tied to a chair with my feet in concrete in here," Coco went on. "What if they'd come round the back and looked through the window?"

     "They wouldn't," Mrs Harman assured her. "They know, and you do too, that the only way into the back garden is by coming in at the front and going round the house, so if they guard the front then the back is covered too."

     "You had me outside still tied to that chair while you were getting the concrete off my feet," Coco persisted. "What if I'd been seen or if I'd yelled for help?"

     "I know that part of the garden can't be seen from any other houses," Mrs Harman explained patiently, "and I made sure you were gagged."

     "It all seems a bit casual," Coco commented. "Surely you're their star witness. They must need to look after you better than that."

     "No, my diamonds are their star witness, I'm just the icing on the cake," Mrs Harman replied with an ironic laugh. "Besides, how many bobbies do you think the wife of a gangland boss justifies? There's only one out there at any time."

     Utterly bemused, Coco carried on watching the news and the beginning of the national news round-up that followed it while Mrs Harman went back to the food preparation.

     Appetising aromas had been making Coco feel hungry for a while when Mrs Harman came over to her carrying a coil of rope. "You can't very well eat a meal with your hands tied behind your back," she said. "I'll sort you out now before I serve up."

     Coco eyed the rope with trepidation. Just how long was Mrs Harman going to keep her tied up?

     Mrs Harman pulled a dining chair back from the table. "Can you get yourself over here and sit down, please?" Mrs Harman instructed.

     Coco was already sitting well forward in the armchair so it was not too difficult for her to tuck her feet back and to rock forwards so they took her weight without overbalancing. The cushion that had been supporting her shoulders dropped to the chair seat with a plop as she did so. Coco shuffled her way across to the dining table and sat down on the chair indicated, her bound wrists behind the chair back.

     "Be with you in two ticks," Mrs Harman assured Coco, sounding like a busy waitress.

     As promised, Mrs Harman was able to attend to Coco a moment later. She picked up the coil of rope from the table, where she had left it and uncoiled it. She found the centre of the rope and attached it to the centre of the top rail of the chair back. She tossed the two ends of the rope forwards over Coco's shoulders and crossed them between her breasts. Mrs Harman looped the two ends of the rope around the side uprights of the chair back then crossed them again in the middle of Coco's stomach. Next they were looped around the very tops of the chair's back legs, crossed on Coco's lap and wound round the tops of the chair's front legs. Finally Mrs Harman knotted the ends of the rope together where they met midway between the tops of the front legs of the chair, somewhere behind Coco's legs and well out of reach of Coco's hands even if they hadn't been tied behind her back. Coco wondered how she was supposed to eat like this. A place had been set for her at the table, complete with knife and fork, so she assumed that she would be allowed to use them.

     Mrs Harman dashed back to the cooking area and engaged in more frenzied activity. She returned shortly afterwards with two plates, putting one down in front of Coco and one at her own place setting.

     Coco gasped in delight at the meal set before her. 'Sausage and mash' had sounded like very basic fare, but this was magnificent. Two plump Cumberland pork sausages, seasoned with sage and other herbs had been grilled to a perfect glossy brown. The generous serving of potato was freshly mashed from real potatoes boiled only minutes before, well buttered and garnished with parsley for good measure. Coco knew that the peas were fresh not frozen or tinned as she had seen Mrs Harman taking them out of their pods. There was also a small mound of onions lightly fried until they were soft, sweet and almost transparent.

     Mrs Harman snipped through the stocking binding Coco's wrists and removed the socks covering her hands. Coco rubbed her wrists for a moment. The nylon stocking had left no mark of its own but there was a faint imprint from the ribbed knit of the socks.

     Coco thoroughly enjoyed the meal that Mrs Harman had prepared, even though she had to eat it sitting bolt upright roped to a chair. Coco had previously wondered how Mrs Harman had managed to deceive the neighbours, the police and everyone else with her guise of suburban respectability. Now she realised that Mrs Harman's public persona was completely genuine. She clearly enjoyed her role as home-maker, she was a superb cook and an instinctively skilled hostess. Somehow, Coco concluded, Mrs Harman managed to combine the roles of underworld godmother and domestic goddess with no sign of contradiction.

     Mrs Harman offered and Coco gladly accepted a sumptuously rich chocolate mousse as desert. Afterwards, Coco was offered coffee to follow. She asked if she might use the bathroom first, so Mrs Harman untied her from the chair and cut her ankle binding then escorted her to the small downstairs cloakroom containing a toilet and a basin. When she emerged, Mrs Harman was waiting with the brown socks and yet another stocking from the seemingly inexhaustible rag-bag. Resignedly Coco pulled the socks over her hands and allowed Mrs Harman to bind her wrists in front of her. When she returned to the kitchen, Coco sat down again and Mrs Herman re-tied her ankles as well. Once again Coco found herself drinking from a mug cupped between sock-covered hands and with bound wrists.

     "Now," Mrs Harman began, her tone suddenly brisk and professional, "we have some unfinished business to discuss."

     "Your diamonds?" Coco asked.

     "Well, that wasn't what I had on my mind," Mrs Harman replied, "but now you mention it, you do have my diamonds."

     "I stole them fair and square," Coco retorted. "I'm a thief: it's what I do."

     "Good point," Mrs Harman conceded, "but you're a thief who's currently tied up in her victim's kitchen. Most people would agree that reduces your bargaining power a smidgen. Why don't we just treat it as your premium to buy into a partnership with me?"

     Coco fought the urge to come up with an irritatingly smart answer. She had already accepted Mrs Harman's offer of a partnership and this appeared to be the next stage of cementing a working relationship.

     "Very well," Coco agreed after a long pause, "let's do that. I can retrieve the diamonds within a couple of days."

     "Let's say by the end of next week then," Mrs Harman suggested.

     "Just so long as you've untied me by then," Coco added, raising her bound wrists.

     "That's just a precaution until I know for sure that I can trust you," Mrs Harman reassured her.

     "So what was the other unfinished business?" Coco asked, recognising an impasse when she saw one.

     "What do you make of Joan Parkinson?" Mrs Harman asked.

     "Who?" Coco asked baffled

     "That administrator woman at Van Houten's?" Mrs Harman explained.

     "I think the super-efficient Joan has had me for a mug," Coco replied crossly. "OK, I know I should have been more cautious, you've made that quite clear, but the fact is, she was out to do a number on me and I fell for it."

     "She was certainly out to do a number on one of us, possibly both," Mrs Harman pointed out. "I paid her to leak the info about the diamonds to Henry and Henry paid her when she offered her that info."

     "And then I paid her as well so she would leak it to me," Coco said.

     "I gave her a grand to be leaky," Mrs Harman explained, "and I'm pretty sure Henry gave her one-and-a-half. What did you give?"

     "Two," Coco admitted.

     "Much too steep, girl," Mrs Harman admonished. "Only pay that much if you have lots of useful extra detail."

     "I'll ask your advice next time," Coco promised with just a hint of sarcasm. "Anyway that's four-and-a-half grand she's had off us."

     "I'm sure she hasn't spent it all yet," Mrs Harman speculated, "and I'm sure no bank would accept that much in cash without asking some very careful and awkward questions."

     "So, if she still has it, we could go and get it back," Coco suggested.

     "We could indeed," Mrs Harman agreed, "and we'll make quite sure she doesn't do it again."

     Coco was aghast. "You wouldn't kill her for something like that surely?"

     "Of course not," Mrs Harman replied. "I'm sure this was just greed for easy money and not malice, besides, she's not a pro and she doesn't know the rules. No, we'll just give her a nasty fright so she stays well away in future."

     "You're good at that," Coco commented dryly.

     "It's Saturday tomorrow, so she won't be at work. Shall we visit her first thing?" Mrs Harman suggested.

     "Only if I get a good night's sleep first," Coco replied. "I didn't sleep last night and today has been..." she groped for the right word, "...a little taxing."

     "Well, you're staying the night here," Mrs Harman told her. "You can sleep in my daughter's room tonight."

     Coco was torn between relief at not having to go all the way back home when she was exhausted and irritation at Mr Harman's continuing control of her life. "I didn't know you had a daughter," Coco remarked, just to shift the topic of conversation away from herself.

     "She's grown up now," Mrs Harman explained, "but we still think of that room as hers. She still uses it whenever she stays the night."

     "Does she work for you?" Coco asked, wondering if she was being asked to join a family business.

     "Good God no!" Mrs Harman exclaimed. "We'd probably kill each other. No, she's a courier."

     "She delivers things?" Coco asked, uncertain of what kind of courier a Harman offspring would be likely to be.

     "Yes, anything you want delivering personally anywhere in the world," Mrs Harman explained. "She's not cheap, so it tends to be small valuable items or items of a, shall we say, sensitive nature that she carries. She sorts out all the permits and customs stuff too."

     "Would that by any chance also include things that perhaps you don't want to tell the customs people about?" Coco enquired delicately.

     "Well, as I understand it there is always proper documentation. It's just that sometimes there may be items other than the ones documented," Mrs Harman replied with a smile.

     Coco yawned long and wide. "I know it's not much past eight o'clock," she said, "but I think I really need to get to bed right now."

     "No problem," Mrs Harman responded. "Come upstairs and I'll see if I can find a nightie to fit you"

     Mrs Harman fetched the kitchen scissors and snipped through Coco's ankle binding. At her ushering, Coco led the way upstairs.

     "You use the bathroom while I look for a nightie," Mrs Harman suggested.

     Coco said nothing but held out her hands to have the stocking on her wrists cut away. As soon as she was free, she went sleepily into the bathroom. Mrs Harman closed and locked the door behind her.

     "You can use the green toothbrush," came Mrs Harman's voice through the door. "It's a new one that I've put out for you."

     Coco nodded in reply, even though no-one could see her, then peeled off the socks on her hands and took off the big sweater she was wearing as a mini-dress and started to wash herself. Her hair was a mess, she noted: she had forgotten to ask for a hair-brush.

     Coco was almost finished when Mrs Harman unlocked the door, opened it a fraction and tossed a nightie into the bathroom then closed and re-locked it. "And put the socks back on your hands and feet before you come out," she yelled through the door.

     Coco groaned inwardly: apparently she was to be tied up again for the night. However, she found that she was too tired to care about protesting. She examined the nightie. It was huge and would fit her easily: Mrs Harman must like a really loose fit. The style was a sort of romantic peasant look in floral cotton print with lots of ruffles but none of the uncomfortably scratchy nylon lace that Coco detested. Coco stripped off her remaining clothes and put on the nightie. It was far from new and repeated washing had given the fabric a delicious softness that felt quite exquisite against her skin.

     Coco put the socks back on her feet then slid the nightie's sleeves up to her elbows and put the second pair on her hands. She gathered up the borrowed clothes and knocked on the door, the sound oddly muffled by her sock-covered hand.

     Mrs Harman was waiting for Coco. "You're room's right here," she announced, indicating the room immediately adjacent to the bathroom. Coco preceded her into the room. It was a compact but not uncomfortably small room with a bed, a chest of drawers and some largely empty bookshelves. From the position of the window, it was obvious that this room and the bathroom had originally been one room. Coco noted to herself that that probably meant there were bars on this window too.

     There were three tartan scarves lying on the bed. Mrs Harman picked one up, about four feet long and in bright red Royal Stewart tartan. "Put your hands behind your back please, dear," she instructed.

     Coco said nothing but looked appealingly at Mrs Harman.

     "I'm sorry dear," Mrs Harman replied, "but I want to be absolutely sure I can trust you before I risk sleeping in the same house as you without tying you up first."

     Coco shrugged and turned her back towards Mrs Harman with her wrists crossed behind her.

     Mrs Harman gently uncrossed Coco's wrists and positioned her hands palm to palm. She wound the scarf twice round her wrists in a figure-of-eight pattern then twisted the ends of the scarf round each other and wrapped the remaining length between Coco's wrists to cinch the binding. "These are woven not knitted," Mrs Harman explained. "They are soft and wide, so they won't cut into you or hurt you, but the fabric has no stretch in it at all so you won't be able to wriggle your hands out. My daughter never managed to get out of this anyway."

     The scarf certainly was very tight on Coco's wrists but, as Mrs Harman had told her, it didn't cut into her or hurt at all.

     "Now," Mrs Harman continued brightly pulling back the blankets on the bed, "sit down and I'll do your feet."

     Coco sat on the edge of the bed and put her feet together. As Mrs Harman bound her ankles, she wondered what transgressions had led to Mrs Harman's daughter being tied up like this. Coco looked down as Mrs Harman stood up. Apart from the tartan being a green Black Watch pattern, her ankles seemed to have been bound in the same manner as her wrists.

     Mrs Harman took up the third scarf, longer than the other two and in a strange brown and yellow tartan that no Scotsman ever wore. "Lie on your tummy, please, dear," Mrs Harman requested. "I'm going to tie your hands and feet together so you don't go exploring in the night."

     Coco lay down and then rolled herself over. She bent her knees and waited for Mrs Harman to do her worst. This promised to be a very uncomfortable night.

     Mrs Harman threaded the scarf between Coco's wrists and between her ankles then knotted the ends into a long loop. Coco's knees were bent, so that she would not be able to stand like this but her hands and feet were not pulled painfully tightly together.

     "You'll probably be most comfortable on your side," Mrs Harman advised.

     Coco rolled herself onto her side and Mrs Harman pulled the blankets up over her. She went over to the chest of drawers and took something from one of the top drawers. She returned to Coco and instructed her, "Open your mouth please, dear."

     Coco saw the balled-up handkerchief in Mrs Harman's hand. "Surely you don't have to gag me too?" she pleaded.

     "I don't want you to have any bright ideas about yelling for our tame policeman in the middle of the night," Mrs Harman replied.

     Coco saw that she was not going to win this battle, so she opened her mouth and allowed Mrs Harman to stuff a handkerchief into it and then to tie it in place with another one passing between her teeth and knotted behind her head.

     Mrs Harman wished Coco goodnight then switched the light off and closed the door. Coco heard the key turn in the lock.

     Despite Mrs Harman's assurances, Coco was desperately uncomfortable. Lying on her side, her weight was on one arm and that arm was also pressing into her ribs. With some difficulty she worked herself onto her front. The weight of the blankets resisted every move she tried to make. On her front, at least the weight was off her arm, but she could not find a comfortable position for her feet. If she allowed her knees to straighten as far as they could, then the bindings pulled uncomfortably on her wrists. If she bent her knees further, then an ache would develop where her back was arched. She tried lying with her chest flat on the bed and her hips twisted so her legs lay sideways but that was even worse after a few minutes.

End of part 4
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The Chronicles of La Cioccolata
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© Gillian B 2004