La Cioccolata
in
Rough Diamond
by Gillian B
Part 5

IF SHE COULD only get rid of the scarf linking her wrist and ankle bindings, then at least she could lie flat in bed, Coco concluded. She started to grope behind her for the knot, hoping that she would be able to undo it with socks on her hands. Suddenly she stopped; Coco had just realised that by turning a perfectly serviceable wrist and ankle tie-up into a hog-tie, Mrs Harman had possibly made the same elementary mistake that she had herself made the first time she tied Mrs Harman up.

     Coco spent a few minutes working the blankets loose where they were tucked in at the side of the bed and then kicking them clear. She planned to apply steady tension to her wrist binding by pulling with her feet on the scarf which formed the hog-tie. She relaxed her arms as much as possible and then gently straightened her legs. She felt the pull on her arms but nothing else happened. Coco thought for a moment. The figure-of-eight wrap that Mrs Harman had used was intrinsically tighter than an ordinary wrap and furthermore did not rely on the cinch to hold it tight. That meant that there was little or no opportunity to transfer tension from one wrist to the other. Coco thought about the mechanics a little more and ran through the sensations she had felt as Mrs Harman had bound her. Her initial understanding was wrong, she concluded: the wrap had definitely become tighter as the cinch was tightened. She tried to visualise what was going on and then understanding dawned. Left to itself, the figure-of-eight wrap would tighten to a relatively large X shape between her wrists; the cinch tended to flatten the X to something more like an H thus tightening the wrap and also vastly increasing the friction between the successive wraps and the cinch.

     The strategy was now clear to Coco; whether it would work or not was an entirely different matter, but she would try. The first stage was to get as much slack into the wrist wraps as possible. General struggling often achieved this by tightening the knots and thereby yielding a precious fraction of an inch of slack. Coco vigorously pulled and twisted with her hands. There was a slight loosening of her wrist binding but not as much as she had hoped to have before starting the next stage.

     Coco relaxed for a few moments before embarking on stage two. When she was ready, she applied a steady tension to the hog-tie with her feet and gently moved her hands to encourage them to slip through the loops around her wrists. Her right hand slid a short distance and progressed no further. The left hand, which was fractionally narrower, fared better and slid up as far as the base of her thumb. Coco noticed that the sock seemed to be slipping off her hand rather than the binding slipping off the sock; she hoped that would make the process easier.

     From past experience, Coco knew that escape which relied on gently wriggling a hand out of the binding which restrained it was going to be long, slow and probably boring, yet requiring continual concentration. Rushing tended to produce friction injuries to the skin, which caused swelling and could make the escape process too painful to see through. Loss of concentration could lead to missed opportunities observable only by subtle nuances of the way the bindings gripped. She worked steadily, trying to feel the way that the scarf held her and to match the shape of her hand and the way she moved to the 'shape' of the pressure in her wrist.

     Quite suddenly, the big joint at the base of Coco's thumb was past the first of the two wraps. She resisted the urge to rush which could lead to the whole binding locking up. Instead she continued her patient manipulation until the second wrap cleared her thumb. It was then a simple case of pulling her hand free, leaving the sock behind, still in the binding.

     It felt good to be free. Coco lay still for a moment, just enjoying it. A gentle tug with her feet pulled the scarf which formed the hog-tie clear of her wrist binding. She then rolled over and swivelled herself around so that she was sitting on the edge of the bed. It was almost completely dark in her bedroom, with only the faintest gleam of light from neighbouring houses and nearby streets showing around the curtains, so Coco had to work entirely by feel. With one hand free, Coco was able to work the whole of the wrist binding off her right hand and then remove the sock covering it. With both hands uncovered, it was possible to untie the knot on her gag and ease the soggy handkerchief out of her mouth. Finally, she leaned forwards and untied her ankles. She decided that she would leave the socks on her feet for warmth.

     Coco was about to collapse back into bed when she thought that she should make more of a point of being free. She had already undone the knot in the scarf which had bound her ankles but she had simply let it drop to the floor. She picked it up and folded it as neatly as she could in the dark and placed it on top of the chest of drawers. Working by feel, she untied the knots in the other two scarves and folded them then placed them next to the first one. She retrieved the socks and put them neatly beside the scarves. There was not much she could do with two soggy handkerchiefs, so she wrapped the one that had been in her mouth inside the other, relatively drier one and put them down beside the folded scarves.

     Satisfied with her achievement, Coco climbed back into bed, pulled the top sheet and blanket up over herself and was instantly asleep.


COCO WOKE as suddenly as she had gone to sleep. She was disorientated for a moment but quickly remembered that she was in Mrs Harman's daughter's bedroom. The sound that had woken her was the small metallic noise of a key being turned in the lock. The door opened and Mrs Harman entered the room, moving carefully with a cup of coffee in one hand and a bundle of clothes under the other arm. Coco squinted at the sudden brightness as Mrs Harman switched the light on with one elbow.

     "I was going to untie you, but I see you've already seen to that yourself," Mrs Harman commented without rancour as she noticed the folded scarves. "No matter: it looks as though I can trust you not to murder me in my bed, but I really thought that tie-up would hold you all night."

     "I've had a lot of practice," Coco replied modestly.

     "I'll have to get you to teach me sometime," Mrs Harman said, "but I'm not quite ready to let you tie me up again just yet."

     Mrs Harman set down the cup of coffee. Coco slid up in bed so she was sitting up with the pillow cushioning her back. She picked up the cup gratefully.

     "Thank you," said Coco after the first sip, "that was very thoughtful."

     "I try to look after my guests," Mrs Harman replied.

     "Does that mean I won't get tied up again today?" Coco asked pointedly.

     "Hospitality and sensible precautions are two different things, girl," Mrs Harman retorted. "I think we can trust each other enough to work together from now on."

     "I think so too," Coco agreed.

     "I've cleaned your clothes for you," said Mrs Harman, indicating the pile which she had put down on a chair.

     "However did you get the socks clean?" Coco asked in surprise.

     "Just gentle machine washing," Mrs Harman replied. "The tricky bit is not clogging the washing machine up with sand."

     Coco wondered how often Mrs Harman had reprieved prospective burial-at-sea victims to learn a good way to wash wet concrete out of socks.

     "Breakfast in fifteen minutes?" Mrs Harman offered as she left the room.

     Coco nodded in agreement as she gulped the last of her coffee. She picked up the clothes then went to the bathroom. A very quick bath left her feeling much refreshed. Her hair was a complete disaster so she washed it again and towelled it dry once more. As she pulled the clothes on, she was impressed at how much better they felt than they usually did when she washed them herself. Apart from being a ruthless gangland matriarch, Mrs Harman really did live up to everything she appeared to be.


COCO DESCENDED the stairs and joined Mrs Harman in the kitchen in slightly less than the specified fifteen minutes. She was surprised to see that it was still dark outside. The kitchen clock showed that it was not quite 5.30 am.

     "Why so early?" Coco asked.

     "We're going to meet a certain Joan Parkinson, if you remember," Mrs Harman reminded her.

     "So we are," Coco replied. She remembered the discussion of the previous evening but somehow it felt like an event in the distant past. They quickly consolidated their plan into a definite arrangement over a breakfast of hot buttered rolls and more coffee which they finished quickly.

     Coco had arrived in her full 'scruffy student' disguise, so it was important that she should look the same as she departed. She borrowed some hairpins from Mrs Harman to get her own hair pinned down flat then put the wig on over it, positioning it carefully and examining the effect in in a mirror. The student persona wore minimal make-up except for heavy mascara, which Mrs Harman was able to provide.


COCO LEFT the house on her own and shivering a little in the chill morning air, made her way down the street to the nearest bus stop. It required two buses for Coco to get back to her flat, which she did before 7 am. She found a discreet location to remove her wig so that she could return to her flat as herself just in case anyone saw her.

     Coco let herself into her flat and performed a quick check that all was well. Nothing seemed to be disturbed or out of place. She had arranged with Mrs Harman that they would meet again at 7.30, so Coco's next priority was to change into her working clothes for the planned visit to the wayward office administrator. She was dressing for effect as well as to be inconspicuous and her preferred black was always good for that. A black roll-neck sweater and stretchy stirrup pants were practical and comfortable without looking too ridiculous as street wear. Coco pulled a pair of ankle-length socks on over her trousers then put on a pair of short lace-up boots in soft black leather. She tucked her hair into the black balaclava which she wore folded up to form a snugly-fitting knit cap. Thin black knitted silk gloves eliminated fingerprints while not interfering too much with the sensitivity of her fingers. A small leather pouch attached to a belt contained the lock-picking tools Coco thought she might need while a black nylon holdall contained the other supplies she expected to use.

     Once she was ready, Coco discovered that she had almost ten minutes to spare. She resisted the temptation to gorge herself on chocolate and limited herself to a single square from an opened bar in the fridge. It was just enough to give her the sugar boost she needed and to give her the buzz that chocolate always did.

     Just before 7.30, Coco descended to the street. Exactly on time, a battered Ford Escort halted just long enough for her to climb into the front passenger seat. Mrs Harman drove off as soon as the door was shut. Although the car looked close to being a wreck from the outside, Coco noticed that the engine sounded well cared-for and the steering and suspension seemed a little more precise than one might expect even from a new Escort. "I've never been in a real getaway car before," Coco remarked excitedly. Mrs Harman said nothing but shot her a withering glance.

     By agreement, Mrs Harman was also dressed in black sweater and trousers. Coco was amused to notice it was exactly the same outfit she had worn to abduct her the previous morning but with the addition of a knit cap like her own.

     Mrs Harman was concentrating on driving and spoke little during the journey. She made speedy progress through the little traffic there was about at that time on a Saturday morning but was neither too fast or conspicuously flamboyant. Clearly this was another of her many skills.

     Eventually they parked in a quiet street of Victorian terraced houses. Mrs Harman led the way round the corner to the next street, where she pointed out a row of shops with a single storey of flats above them. Coco nodded once in curt acknowledgement then they crossed the street and walked to the right door. There were two doorbell buttons, one with an untidy handwritten label and one looking slightly out of character with a neatly engraved tag reading J.D. Parkinson.

     The door was solid but shabby with peeling dingy green paint. The doorknob, lock-plate and letterbox were all shiny in places through use while everything else was dull with neglect. Without hesitation, Coco reached through the letterbox and found the dangling string she expected to be there. She pulled it up and retrieved the key on the end, which she then used to unlock the door.

     "How on earth did you know that was there?" Mrs Harman hissed.

     "You can see where the string rubs," Coco pointed out, indicating the tiny area of high polish in the corner of the letterbox nearest to the lock.

     "Very careless of our Joan," Mrs Harman observed.

     "Comes of having a careless neighbour," Coco commented.

     They re-locked the door behind them and prepared for the next stage. They were in a narrow hallway with a door at the far end, presumably leading into a back yard. There was also a staircase leading up to a small landing linking two upstairs flats. Mrs Harman removed her hat. Underneath was a rolled-up black stocking already pulled down over her hair. She worked it down over her face and tucked it into the collar of her sweater then replaced the cap. Her features could just be made out through the nylon of the stocking and someone who knew her well might recognise her. While it was not perfect as a disguise, it was very effective in making her look extremely menacing. Coco pulled her balaclava down and tucked the edge of it into her collar. She adjusted it for comfort and so that just her eyes and the bridge of her nose showed through the opening.

     The two women exchanged a glance and a brief nod to confirm they were ready then ascended the stairs together in silence. The admin woman's flat had a single Yale-type cylinder lock securing it. Cautiously Coco applied gentle pressure first to the top of the door, then the bottom. Both edges yielded slightly, suggesting that there were no bolts there. A bolt at lock level was always a possibility, but not one that Coco could test for at this stage. She drew a pair of small tools out of the pouch at her belt. One was a flat piece of metal about a quarter of an inch wide with a subtle kink in it and finishing in a swallow-tail shape with a pair of blunt prongs. She held the tool in her left hand and inserted the prongs into the keyhole. She applied gentle pressure to rotate the lock barrel. It moved a few degrees before the tumbler pins inside the lock stopped it. The lock felt well worn, which always made the job of picking it much easier. The second tool was a narrow flat metal probe with a tiny upward-facing point at the end of it. A pin-tumbler lock works by having a series, typically of five, spring-loaded metal pins inside it which prevent the lock barrel from rotating. Each of these has a cut through it at a different level. The zig-zag shape of the top of the key lifts each pin to exactly the right height so that the breaks in the pins line up with the outside surface of the lock barrel so that it is free to turn. To pick a lock like this it is simply a matter of lifting each pin in turn with the pick to find the break in it by feel. The slight twisting pressure that Coco had already applied to the lock enabled her to feel the minute click as each tumbler pin reached the precise level and also provided enough friction to stop them dropping again. She started with the pin furthest into the lock and was able to turn the lock less than half a minute later. She pushed the door open with her foot: there was no bolt at all.

     Coco entered first, followed by Mrs Harman who shut the door silently behind her. Despite their silence and the earliness of the hour, they were immediately confronted by the resident of the flat, possibly a small noise from Coco's lock-picking or a minute drop in temperature as the door opened had alerted her. She was still in her night things but appeared to have been up already. Coco had already confronted a number of people in their nightwear and then tied up during the course of her career and was used to the idea that some people wore some very peculiar things in bed. Joan Parkinson's taste ran to the eccentric rather than the exotic. Her nightdress was a very large long-sleeved t-shirt which came down almost to her knees. It hung loose on her tall thin frame, making her look even more gaunt and bony. Her feet and legs were covered by red and white striped socks which went over her knees and above the hem of the nightdress. She appeared to prefer to keep her hair under control at night and had it in two surprisingly long plaits which cruelly showed off the grey streaks in her brown hair. The overall effect was of Pippi Longstocking in middle age.

     Mrs Harman and Coco had agreed what they would do, but had expected to go looking for their victim rather than the other way around. She got as far as an indignant "Who..." before being borne to the floor by the two intruders. Any further comments were interrupted by Coco stuffing a wad of cloth into her mouth. While Coco bound the gag in place with another piece of cloth, Mrs Harman held the unfortunate woman's wrists behind her back and tied them together so her forearms were parallel transversely across the middle of her back. They heaved her up into a sitting position on the floor. Coco arranged the woman's legs so she was sitting cross-legged in a parody of yogic relaxation. She bound the woman's ankles together where they crossed. The woman was amazingly limber; Coco would usually expect to have to force legs into a position like this but discovered that the woman's knees would go almost to the floor just under their own weight. Perhaps she had been a dancer at sometime, Coco speculated.

     Meanwhile, Mrs Harman had attached one end of a long rope to the wrist binding. She took it between the woman's left arm and her body, diagonally across her chest between her breasts and back over the right shoulder. She fastened it to the wrist binding with a half-hitch round both wrists then applied another loop around the woman's chest, going under the right armpit and coming back over the left shoulder this time. When she had tied it off securely, there was still a long loose end of rope.

     Coco prepared a loose rope halter and dropped it over the woman's head. Her eyes opened wide in alarm at the idea of a rope around her neck. Coco checked the knot to make sure it was secure but would not slip and strangle the woman. She nodded to Mrs Harman who pushed the woman's shoulders from behind so that she was folded over with her chin almost in contact with the floor. Once again, Coco was impressed at the woman's flexibility. She tied off the loose end of the halter to the rope binding the woman's ankles, holding her in position. Lastly Coco used two short ropes to lash the woman's shoulders to her legs.

     "I'll search the bedroom, you start in the kitchen," Mrs Harman instructed Coco, following their agreed script. They left their victim struggling ineffectually on the hallway floor and went to their appointed tasks.

     The kitchen was compact but just large enough to contain a small square dining table and three chairs. Mrs Harman and Coco had agreed to go for maximum chaos in their search. Accordingly, Coco unloaded every cupboard onto the floor and searched the contents of every container she came across. She avoided wanton destruction but was quite pleased at the degree of mess that she was leaving behind her. After about 5 minutes of enjoyable ransacking, Coco found a surprisingly heavy teapot stuffed with bank notes. She smiled to herself, set it carefully to one side and carried on stirring up the contents of the kitchen. After Coco had finished to her satisfaction, she progressed to another room.

     Mrs Harman had already finished in the admin woman's bedroom and had heaped the contents of drawers, cupboards and wardrobes on the floor and was now working on the small lounge. Coco said nothing, but made a thumbs-up gesture to indicate that she had found the money.

     When they had finished, Mrs Harman and Coco moved to the bathroom and scattered the contents of the bathroom cabinet over the floor.

     Returning to the hallway, Coco resumed the script. "What do we do now?" she asked Mrs Harman.

     "Well it was worth a try, but we never found the cash, so we'll just have to chalk it up to experience," came the reply with an unnecessarily theatrical sigh.

     "No, what do we do about Joan here?"

     "We just leave her. She wasn't any use to us, so she probably won't be much use to anyone else," Mrs Harman replied, trying not to over-act too much.

     "But she could die if we leave her like that," Coco pointed out, enjoying the good-crook/bad-crook routine.

     "Too bad," Mrs Harman replied.

     "How long do you think she'd last?" Coco enquired.

     "Dunno. Could be a week or more," Mrs Harman speculated.

     If you knew that the word the admin woman was desperately trying to yell through her gag was "Teapot!" it was just about intelligible, but otherwise it just sounded like frantic mumbling. She struggled wildly against the ropes that held her, but tied like that there was almost nothing she could move.

     Mrs Harman and Coco left the flat and closed the door behind them. They peeled off their headgear and leaned against the wall trying not to laugh too loudly at the success of their performance.

     As they made their way down the stairs to the street, Mrs Harman was suddenly serious. "Did you find our drama queen's disguise kit while you were searching?" she asked.

     "No," replied Coco, wondering what the significance of the question was.

     "Nor me," Mrs Harman confirmed. "I wonder where she keeps it?"

     "Not in her office, surely?" Coco wondered.

     "Could be," Mrs Harman speculated. "After all, she has keys so she can get in any time."

     "I suppose that way, none of her neighbours would see her in disguise," Coco pointed out. "But I don't see why it would matter to us."

     "Just think a minute, girl," Mrs Harman retorted. "There's a chance that the police will search the office again. After all, it doesn't take a genius to wonder about it being an inside job, so they might just have a look around on the off chance of finding something."

     "And if she has got her dressing-up stuff in the office, then they'll wonder what it's for and ask questions," Coco added, catching on the Mrs Harman's train of thought.

     "I don't think it will take too many hard questions to make our Joan spill the beans," Mrs Harman said.

     "And some of those beans will lead to us," Coco concluded.

     "Exactly."

     Mrs Harman and Coco had reached the Ford Escort again. As they climbed in, Coco was worried about the conversation they had just had. "We need to visit Van Houten's again, don't we?" she asked.

     "We do," Mrs Harman agreed. "And I think we'd better do it right now."


AFTER A FEW MINUTES' hasty planning, Mrs Harman drove Coco back to her own flat and dropped her there. Coco normally preferred to take the clothes, props and make-up for a disguise to a discreet location away from home before putting them on so that she would not arouse any suspicion by being seen leaving home as anyone but herself. However, time was of the essence on this occasion, so she went to her bedroom and set to work.

     Coco removed her hat and gloves, then unlaced her boots, pulled the socks off and took off her tight trousers, dumping them unceremoniously on her bed. She kept on the black sweater and added a pair of black tights then a conservative grey knee-length skirt. and matching suit jacket. She picked out a pair of low-heeled comfortable black lace-up shoes of the kind favoured by policewomen and realised that they really needed polishing. There was no time to do it properly, so Coco made do with the schoolgirl's stand-by of a quick wipe of polish over the toes followed by a vigorous rub with a rag.

     A short straight back wig came next. Coco forced herself not to rush as she examined it critically in a mirror, making sure it was seated correctly and that there were no tell-tale ash blonde hairs showing. She realised that she looked a little under-dressed without any make-up. There was no time for anything fancy, so she chose a conservative rusty red lipstick and applied it quickly. That made her lack of eye make-up even more apparent, so Coco settled for taking her contact lenses out and wearing a pair of tinted spectacles to hide her eyes.

     Coco gathered up the clothes she had discarded and put them into a small black nylon holdall together with some rope and tape then put on a pair of thin black leather gloves. She gave herself one last inspection in the mirror and decided that she would probably pass muster.

     Mrs Harman had agreed that Coco would be a little conspicuous standing waiting on the street in full disguise, so she turned left and set off down the street with a straight back and a purposeful stride.

     After a few minutes' walking, a black Jaguar glided to a halt alongside Coco. With the barest glance to make sure the driver was Mrs Harman, she climbed in and the car immediately pulled out into the traffic.


THE JOURNEY to Hatton Garden took about 20 minutes. The square mile of the City of London is largely a Monday-to-Friday place, with most businesses closed or with only a few staff on a Saturday, so parking was quite easy. They walked the few yards to the building which housed Van Houten's office. Mrs Harman was wearing an outfit almost identical to Coco's and they both sported pinned-on badges identifying them as employees of Airspeed International Couriers. Coco carried her nylon holdall while Mrs Harman carried a clipboard with a sheaf of important-looking forms on it.

     The main door was locked, but there was an entryphone with push-buttons for all the companies in the building. Coco had already identified a likely large company to be working on a Saturday morning and pressed the button with their name. "Yes?" came a tinny female voice from the loudspeaker.

     "Courier," Coco announced confidently.

     There was a barely-audible conversation in the background then the same voice replied, "OK come on up." A loud buzzing indicated that the door had been unlatched from upstairs. Coco and Mrs Harman entered and closed the door behind them.

     The business which had let them in was on the second floor. Coco led the way, as she already knew the layout of the building. They presented themselves to one of the small number of staff who were working there that Saturday morning, apparently engaged in mountains of photocopying. As planned, a degree of confusion ensued. The workers assumed that a delivery was being made while Coco and Mrs Harman behaved as if they had been summoned to collect a package. Mr Harman consulted her clipboard and finally dismissed the confusion as an administrative foul-up. She apologised and then she and Coco left the office.

     The first stage of the subterfuge had worked perfectly: they had gained access to the building and in all probability no-one would check on their movements. The next step was to stage a small diversion before visiting Van Houten's office again. Coco and Mrs Harman wandered through the building until they found an office which promised to offer an ideal target. Light visible through an obscured glass window in a door showed that someone was working there. The doors on either side were in darkness and their spacing along the corridor suggested that this was a single very small office. The door was marked with a discreet nameplate reading "Vera Thorneycroft, Patent Attorney", which sounded very much like a one-woman business. Coco shot a questioning glance at Mrs Harman who replied with a nod. Maintaining their silence, both women pulled black nylon stockings out of their jacket pockets and worked them down over their heads then unpinned their badges and pocketed them. It is quite difficult to pull a stocking on over a wig without dislodging it, so Coco and Mrs Harman checked each other briefly before knocking sharply on the door.

     "Come in," a voice invited, slightly indistinct through the door.

     Coco and Mrs Harman burst into the room together. A slightly-built middle-aged woman was on her hands and knees on the floor sorting out a huge pile of documents into a series of neat stacks. This was presumably the eponymous Vera Thorneycroft, Mrs Thorneycroft, Coco Corrected herself, noticing a wedding ring. That Saturday morning seemed to be time she had set aside to get down to some serious sorting out. She was dressed comfortably in a brown sweater and rather baggy green tweed trousers and had taken her shoes off. Her surprisingly long grey hair was tied back with a jaunty orange silk scarf. A transistor radio in the corner of the room was tuned to BBC Radio 2 to give her some music to keep her company.

     Mrs Thorneycroft looked up in horror at the two masked figures who had just intruded on her quietly industrious Saturday. "Oh no!" she exclaimed as she jumped to her feet, sounding more irritated than frightened. She spread her arms as if to protect her precious paperwork.

     Mrs Harman and Coco grabbed an arm each and pulled Mrs Thorneycroft down to the floor, face down. Mrs Harman held her down by sitting astride her and pulled her arms behind her back where she started binding her wrists with rope. Mrs Thorneycroft was getting very agitated and struggled vigorously. Either Coco or Mrs Harman could easily have overpowered her single-handedly and working together she had no chance. Coco silenced the continuing protests by stuffing a wad of cloth into Mrs Thorneycroft's mouth, where she secured it with the bright orange scarf. Next, she blindfolded her victim with a black headscarf which she had bought from a jumble sale many months before on the chance that it might be useful some day.

     Mrs Thorneycroft's wrists were now securely tied and her efforts to pull her hands free proving completely futile. Mrs Harman continued to hold her down while Coco went to secure her ankles. Mrs Thorneycroft was drumming on Mrs Harman's back with her heels and it took several attempts before Coco successfully lassoed them both with a loop of rope. She wound the rope around the ankles several times then cinched it off and knotted the rope between them.

     Coco returned to Mrs Thorneycroft's upper body and the assault on Mrs Harman's back was resumed although somewhat subdued. Coco looped half a dozen turns of rope around Mrs Thorneycroft's upper arms and chest so that it came above her elbows and below her bust. It was quite difficult to pull the rope tight against the continuing struggles, but Coco eventually pinned Mrs Thorneycroft's arms tightly against her body and knotted the rope. It was a slightly easier task to put another six turns around her at waist level to secure her wrists tightly into the small of her back.

     Mrs Harman was still enduring regular kicks to her back and was relieved when Coco grabbed Mrs Thorneycroft's feet and held them down on the floor. There was still some vigorous squirming going on, but Mrs Thorneycroft's arms and upper body were now so thoroughly tied up that there was not much scope for movement. Mrs Harman bound Mrs Thorneycroft's legs together at the knees while Coco hung on to her feet.

     Coco mimed wiping sweat from her brow and Mrs Harman replied with a grin barely visible through her stocking mask. Mrs Thorneycroft was still testing her bonds but now completely ineffectually and could do little more than roll from side to side with the occasional kick from her bound feet. Coco and Mrs Harman set to work to cause as much chaos as possible. They thoroughly stirred up the paper piled on the floor, emptied most of the filing cabinets onto the floor and tipped out the contents of all the desk drawers. It would take weeks for Mrs Thorneycroft to put everything back in order and it was possible that she would never be sure if anything had been taken. With luck, she would interpret the raid as some kind of industrial espionage and send the police off on completely the wrong track.

     Coco and Mrs Harman let themselves out of the office, leaving the lights and the radio on as they had found them. Mrs Thorneycroft was a determined individual and would undoubtedly escape or raise the alarm before too long, but not until Coco and Mrs Harman were long gone. They removed the stockings covering their heads and made their way quickly to Van Houten's office where they let themselves in with the administrator's key and then switched off the alarm with one of the smaller keys on the set they had taken.

     Mrs Harman impressed on Coco the need to make sure they left no obvious signs of their presence. Every drawer and cupboard they searched had to be left exactly as they found it and inspected only by eye as far as possible. Coco understood, but was inexperienced at this type of work. She was methodical and exercised great care but noticed that Mrs Harman was about twice as fast as her.

     They found nothing out of the ordinary in the any of the desk drawers or the filing cabinets in the main part of the office. The proprietor's office and the kitchen were also as they should be. That left just the store cupboard. It had been repaired and rearranged somewhat since Coco had broken through its back wall. About a third of the space was occupied by small items such as boxes of pens or staples and bottles of ink or correcting fluid which were all obviously exactly as they seemed. The rest was stacked with boxes of stationery and archived documents. Mrs Harman agreed with Coco that she would start at the top shelf while Coco started at the floor. They pulled out and examined each box. They were all cardboard cartons about a foot wide and high and two feet deep and all stuffed with old files and ledgers, some of them decades old.

     After a few minutes, Mrs Harman found a box that weighed far less than the rest. She lifted it down onto the floor. Sensing Mr Harman's excitement Coco joined her and watched as the lid was lifted off. She immediately recognised the grey wig and the scarf and gloves worn by the administrator for their rendezvous in St James's Park. There was another wig that she did not recognise, several pairs of spectacles and some items of make-up. The implication was obvious: the administrator had used her own office as the place to change her appearance before going out in disguise. If the police had discovered this, they would have known her appearance in disguise and could have looked for witnesses who had seen her dressed like that. Coco shuddered. That information would not have led directly to her, but it would have considerably shortened the odds of a connection being found. Under the disguise items was a large hard-bound notebook. Mrs Harman lifted it out to investigate further and gasped: the entire bottom of the box was filled with a layer of bundles of five and ten pound notes, each neatly secured with an elastic band and numbered neatly in pencil on the topmost note. Coco immediately recognised the writing from the papers she had looked at while searching the admin woman's desk. She shook her head in astonishment at the naivete of the woman's approach to staging a major crime.

     "Looks like we weren't her only customers for information," Mrs Harman commented.

     "How long did she expect to survive behaving like that?" Coco wondered.

     As they were about to leave the store-room with the contents of the box stowed safely in the black holdall, Coco found the remaining piece of the admin woman's disguise: her beige duffel coat was hanging from a hook on the back of the door. It was presumably also part of her everyday attire, so they left it there. They set the alarm and locked up the office again.

     Coco and Mrs Harman met no-one as they made their way back to the door out onto the street . The traffic was still quiet as Mrs Harman started the Jaguar and drove unobtrusively away. After about five minutes of driving, a police car raced past them in the opposite direction with its blue lights flashing.

     "Do you think Mrs Thorneycroft has got loose already then?" Coco asked.

     "Jolly quick if she has, the way we trussed her up" Mrs Harman commented, stealing a glance at the dashboard clock as she drove.


ONCE THEY were south of the river, Mrs Harman drove though a maze of back street, finally stopping in the forecourt of a dilapidated motor workshop. It looked to be closed, possibly permanently, but after a few moments a man wearing mechanic's overalls appeared from a scruffy-looking door. He nodded to Mrs Harman and opened one leaf of the big doors that apparently led into the workshop area. Mrs Harman drove in and the door was immediately closed behind the car. The lighting was dim but Coco could see that there were five or six care placed in an almost mathematically straight line across the concrete floor of the hangar-like garage they had entered. The place was well equipped and clearly well-used but immaculately clean and tidy. The cars were an assorted bunch of new and old, some beautifully polished and some looking very battered indeed. Coco was deeply impressed that the Harmans apparently owned a facility dedicated to the preparation of getaway cars.

     "Come along, girl," Mrs Harman chivvied Coco, breaking her fascinated study of the garage.

     "Sorry," Coco replied trotting along behind Mrs Harman.

     As Coco half expected, Mrs Harman took her to the battered Escort they had used earlier. Coco now regarded it with more than a hint of awe as the product of a dedicated criminal organisation that she had not even guessed at previously.

     "Come on, we haven't got all day," Mrs Harman urged opening the car door and perching on the side of the driver's seat.. To Coco's astonishment, Mrs Harman started taking her suit off. She glanced around but the man seemed to have vanished as mysteriously as he arrived. Coco realised what Mrs Harman was doing and removed her own suit. The black outfit she had worn earlier was folded in the bottom of their black nylon holdall and she quickly changed back into it. The suit and her wig went into the bag in its place. She put her boots back on then re-folded her balaclava into a watch cap again and put it back on, checking it carefully in the car's wing mirror.Finally she put her gloves on and was ready. By this time Mrs Harman was also ready and sitting in the driver's seat impatiently waiting for her.

     Coco shut the door and Mrs Harman started the engine. As soon as she turned it over, the mechanic reappeared and opened the door for them. Mrs Harman eased the car past the rest of the small fleet and out into the street. The backstreets were deserted and it was several minutes before they saw any other traffic.


FIFTEEN MINUTES later, Mrs Harman reversed the Escort neatly into the same parking place they had vacated two hours previously. They walked briskly to Joan Parkinson's flat again.

     There were a few more people about by this time, but no-one gave the pair a second glance as they opened the door from the street to the stairs up to the flat. Once inside, Coco swept her hair back behind her ears and pulled her balaclava down again while Mrs Harman put the stocking over her head once more and smoothed it down over her face. Once she had her hat on as well, she and Coco briefly checked each other's disguises and exchanged confirmatory nods. They ascended the stairs silently and Coco picked the lock of the flat door again, only fractionally slower than she would have done it with a key now that she had opened that lock once.

     The admin woman was exactly where they had left her. She appeared to have given up her struggles at least for the moment and lay limp, as relaxed as her bonds would permit. She raised her head as Coco opened the door. Her face was strained and streaked with tears. Coco was shocked at the obvious terror and despair etched in the woman's face, but reminded herself that her duplicity to the Harmans had almost cost Coco her life.

     Coco knelt down and untied the woman's gag. She levered the compacted and now almost dry wad of cloth out of the woman's mouth. After swallowing several times, the woman croaked, "All the money's in the teapot."

     "I know, but I wanted to hear it from you," Coco replied lightly with an entirely humourless smile. She retrieved the teapot from the kitchen and brought it back to the hallway. The bundle of notes inside was a tight fit in quite a large teapot. They were a mix of used Bank of England five and ten pound notes. Coco spread them out on the floor and started counting. There was four thousand, four hundred and fifteen pounds worth altogether. Coco solemnly counted out a thousand pounds worth of notes and pushed them towards Mrs Harman.

     "That's your grand," Coco said as she counted out another two thousand for herself. "And my two," she added.

     "I don't suppose Henry will be needing the rest," Mrs Harman commented, "so she might as well keep them."

     "She did sort of earn his bit," Coco pointed out, "so it's only fair." She stuffed the remaining banknotes back into the teapot and plonked it down in front of Joan Parkinson's head.

     "It's a pity she's all tied up," Mrs Harman observed. "She won't get much chance to spend it like that."

     "Please don't leave me here like this," the woman pleaded in a thin wavering voice, "I don't want to die."

     "Nobody ever does, dearie," Mrs Harman retorted, "but it comes to us all in the end."

     Coco was still kneeling next to the admin woman who was now sobbing helplessly. She stood up and went to the kitchen, returning brandishing a huge and wickedly sharp butcher's knife. She paused and glanced at Mrs Harman who nodded assent.

     The bound woman looked up at Coco in abject terror. Coco stood impassively holding the knife, knowing that her face was totally unreadable inside the balaclava. After pausing for almost a minute for maximum effect, Coco knelt down and deftly cut through each of the ropes binding Miss Parkinson. She did not bother to remove any of the ropes but left them in place for the woman to disentangle herself from them.

     Without saying anything further, Coco returned the knife to the kitchen then opened the flat door for Mrs Harman, who preceded her out to the stairs, also without saying anything.

     They removed their masks as they descended the staircase. They exchanged satisfied smiles at a job successfully accomplished.

     "You really are a cold bitch when you want to be, aren't you?" Mrs Harman commented as they walked back to her car. "I really thought that you were going to go soft when you saw the state she was in when we got back."

     "I nearly did," Coco admitted, "but then I remembered that what she did nearly landed me at the bottom of the Thames."

     "The North Sea, dear;" Mrs Harman corrected, "things wash up on the shore eventually if you dump them in the Thames."

     "I'll remember that," Coco replied drily.


The End
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The Chronicles of La Cioccolata
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© Gillian B 2004
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