La Cioccolata in

Babysitting Blues

by Doctor George

“Aldington Associates, good morning,” Soo Angarrack announced as she picked up the phone on her desk.

“Guess who?” said the voice on the other end of the phone.

Soo glanced at the caller-ID display on the phone and recognised the number immediately as belonging to the Harman twins. “That’s cruel!” she exclaimed. “You know I usually can’t tell you and your sister apart if you’re standing in front of me. There’s no chance at all with just a voice to work from.”

There was a peal of laughter from the other end of the connection. “It’s Maggie Harman here. I’m sorry, Soo, but you sounded so much the perfect professional that I couldn’t resist teasing you.”

“I could point out that I am a professional, even if not a perfect one, but I’ll let you off, Maggie,” Soo replied with mock severity. “I’ll pass you over to Coco who’s giving me a very peculiar stare trying to work out what we’re talking about.”

“No, it’s you I want to talk to,” Maggie said. “I’m actually begging a favour. Would you be prepared to babysit for us on Friday and Sunday?”

“Babysit?” Soo queried in astonishment.

“Half-term is coming up and our niece is going to be home from boarding school for a long weekend. The problem is that Hettie and I have an evening performance of the show we’re in on Friday and matinees on Saturday and Sunday. Our mum is doing Saturday, but the planned babysitter for Friday and Sunday has called off sick and we’re a bit stuck.”

“What would I need to do? I’m fairly busy with my Open University course most evenings at the moment.”

“Not very much at all,” Maggie assured Soo. “You really just need to be there. Chloe is 13 and doesn’t need much looking after, but we prefer there to be someone there and not to leave her alone in the house.”

“If you don’t mind me working on an essay while I’m there, I’d be happy to babysit for you,” Soo confirmed.

“That’s great. See you Friday. Can you make it for 6 o’clock?”

“No problem – see you then.”

Soo replaced the handset and turned to Coco. “I’ve just agreed to babysit for the Harmans.” She paused for a moment, looking at Coco, then said “I didn’t know they had a niece they look after.”

“Chloe?” Coco replied. “She’s not strictly a niece. I think her father was some sort of cousin to the Harman girls or possibly to their mother. He and Chloe’s mother were killed in a car crash about seven or eight years ago under some very suspicious circumstances. Maggie and Hettie became Chloe’s legal guardians and they keep a very watchful eye over her. I think they’re worried that she might become a target for whoever was responsible for her parents’ deaths.”

“Justifiably worried?” Soo asked.

“I’m not honestly sure. But they have to be very careful anyway just like everyone else in our sort of business.”

“Does Chloe know what sort of business Maggie and Hettie are in? I mean apart from show business.”

Soo sat back and thought for a moment. “Well, she must be about 13 now, and she always seemed like a smart cookie whenever I’ve met her, so I’m sure she must know at least some of it.”

* * *

On Friday evening, Soo arrived at the Victorian villa in Greenwich that the Harman twins shared. She rode her motor scooter up the gravelled driveway to the front door, put it on its stand and secured it with a chain. She unstrapped her laptop case from the rear carrier where it was secured with bungee cords and slung it over her shoulder then stepped up to the front door. She rang the bell, moved her goggles up on to the front of her helmet and unfastened the chinstrap as she waited.

The door was opened by one of the Harman twins. She looked Soo up and down then commented, “Retro chic meets road warrior?”

“I hadn’t thought of it that way but it could be,” Soo replied with a laugh, her voice slightly muffled by the black respirator mask she was wearing.

The helmet and respirator contrasted oddly with the tightly-belted red PVC raincoat and matching leather gloves Soo wore. In the gap between the hem of her coat and her black knee-length boots, a pair of grey woollen tights could be glimpsed.

Soo removed her helmet and the respirator as she entered the house. “Not the most comfortable of things to wear,” she said, rubbing her nose, “but it beats breathing other people’s exhaust fumes.”

“If you give me your coat, I’ll hang it up in here,” the still unidentified Harman sister said, opening a cupboard.

Soo handed over her helmet with the respirator inside it then put her laptop case on the floor and removed her coat. “You’re Hettie!” she announced triumphantly as her host took the coat.

“Damn!” Hettie exclaimed. “I had a bet on with Maggie that you’d have to ask. How did you do it this time?”

“You took the coat with your left hand, even though it wasn’t nearest,” Soo explained. “I wasn’t absolutely sure, but it was worth going with my guess just for the reaction if I was right.”

“We’d have fooled the other 99 percent of the population,” Hettie retorted with mock defiance.

“Is it OK if I take my boots off too?” Soo asked. “Retro chic is all very well for being smart outside, but the OU student wants comfort for essay writing.”

“Go ahead,” Hettie invited.

Soo unzipped her boots and tossed them into the bottom of the cupboard. Her comfortable student attire was now fully revealed. She wore a pair of blue denim dungaree shorts over a grey roll-necked sweater matching her tights. A heavy knit red cardigan topped off the outfit, its colour echoed by the red ankle socks that had been hidden by her boots.

Hettie led the way into a spacious living room which had clearly once been two rooms knocked together into one. The dual function of the room reflected this origin. One end was furnished with comfortable armchairs and also housed a large television while the other end had a traditional oak dining table and six chairs.

“We thought that the table might be handiest for you,” Hettie said.

“Perfect,” Soo replied, depositing her laptop case on it.

“I’ll introduce you to Chloe,” Hettie said leaving the room by another door. Soo heard her calling out for Maggie and Chloe.

A moment later, Maggie Harman appeared. Like her sister, she was wearing a long black coat ready to go out. She was followed by a teenage girl. Just then the doorbell rang again.

“That’s our taxi,” said Maggie. “We’ll have to leave Chloe to do her own introduction.”

The Harman twins bustled out of the house leaving Soo and Chloe facing each other.

Soo was immediately struck by Chloe’s height. With her own diminutive stature, she was used to most other women being taller than her, but it was unusual for a 13-year-old. Maybe height was a family characteristic of the Harmans. Chloe was only taller than Soo by about an inch, but she definitely had the edge over her. Soo glanced at Choe’s feet to see how much her shoes contributed to the height but, like Soo, she was just wearing socks. Chloe’s narrow build emphasised her height width; she was still very much the typical skinny teenager, was almost painfully thin. She would undoubtedly fill out over the next few years. Facially she bore a strong resemblance to her adoptive aunts, but instead of their blonde hair, hers was a rich dark brown, worn in a long, thick plait that snaked forward over her left shoulder.

Like Soo, Chloe was also dressed for comfort. Her slender frame was hidden beneath an enormous baggy green cowl-necked sweater several sizes too large for her. The hem reached down almost to mid thigh and the sleeves were rolled well up so that her hands were not covered. A glimpse of a yellow t-shirt was visible in the neckline of the sweater. Her legs were encased in a pair of black cotton leggings. They were slender, in keeping with the rest of Chloe’s build but, Soo noticed, well-muscled. A pair of mismatched socks, one red and one blue, finished off the eclectic outfit.

“Hi, I’m Soo,” Soo said offering a hand.

“Chloe,” Chloe replied gravely, shaking Soo’s hand.

“So, what are you up to this evening?”

“Homework. I’ve got some English and maths to do and I’d like to get them out of the way before the weekend.”

“Good plan – I’m trying to do the same with an essay for my OU course.”

“What are you studying?”

“The module I’m on at the moment is part of my History of Art course. It’s a nice change from the Business Management I did at university and the civil engineering I do working for Coco Aldington.”

“But probably handy to help with Aunt Coco’s other job?” Chloe suggested.

Soo was lost for words. She had hoped that the topic of ‘other jobs’ wouldn’t arise and could safely be ignored.

“It’s OK,” Chloe said with a disarming smile. “I know most of what our family’s into and I know that Aunt Coco isn’t just an engineer. I’m kind of assuming that you’re not just her office assistant.”

“Right on all counts,” Soo admitted. “The OU course probably will be useful, but it’s interesting in its own right too.”

“Aunt Maggie’s left a pizza for us. Do you want to eat now or later?”

Soo glanced at her watch. “It’s a bit early for me. How about you?”

“I’m happy to wait. Suppose I get my English homework out of the way, then put the pizza in the oven?”

“Sounds like a plan,” Soo agreed.

“OK, see you later,” Chloe said, heading out of the room. A moment later her feet could be heard on the stairs, then the sound of her bedroom door closing.

Soo took her laptop out of its case and set it up on the dining table. She placed an iPad next to it to view the textbooks she planned to refer to. Lastly she put a pair of headphones on and selected some suitable music to work to: Palestrina to go with the Renaissance topic she was writing about.

* * *

About an hour later, Chloe returned to the living room clutching a sheaf of printed A4 paper. “Any chance you could proofread this for me, Soo?” she asked.

Soo removed her headphones. “I’ll do that if you see to the pizza and put some coffee on.”

“It’s a deal,” Chloe said, disappearing in the direction of the kitchen.

Soo pushed her laptop back to make some space, reached for a ballpoint pen and started reading Chloe’s essay.

Fifteen minutes later, Chloe returned to the living room, walking carefully with a loaded tray, which she set down on the end of the table. “Veggie feast and mushroom pizzas, coffee for you and tea for me,” she announced. “I hope you don’t mind all the veggieness, but I don’t like meat.”

“Veggie is fine,” Soo assured her. “The essay’s good too. There are a few typos that the spell check missed. I think I’ve caught them all. There’s one paragraph that has a sentence that looks like an incomplete edit. There’s also a point where you don’t quite follow your own argument through – I’ve put a note in the margin. Other than that, good logic and well argued.”

“Thanks for checking it,” Chloe said glancing through the annotated typescript. “Any chance of some help on my maths?”

“I might struggle with A-level but I should be able to manage GCSE.”

“It’s not really part of the course, just a challenge our maths teacher set us for half term.”

“If it’s a challenge, should you be asking for help?”

“I really just want to explain my approach to you and see if you think it looks like I’m going in the right direction.”

“OK, then, try it on me,” Soo agreed.

Chloe turned over the last page of her English essay. As they ate their pizza, she sketched out a problem to do with a golfer striking the ball uphill to a flat green with a central hole. The problem was to work out the speed the golfer has to hit the ball to get it in the hole. Chloe explained her approach and Soo asked questions, finally saying, “I think that’s going to work but you’re going to end up with a pair of simultaneous equations with one of them quadratic. Do you know how to do that?”

“I think so,” Chloe replied, “but I’ll come back if I get stuck.”

As Chloe went back to her bedroom, Soo poured herself another cup of coffee and settled down to her own work again.

* * *

It was after 8:30 when Chloe appeared again. “Done it!” she announced happily. “Could you check it for me, please, Soo?”

Soo finished typing the sentence she was working on, saved her document then looked at the page of algebra in Chloe’s neat, small handwriting. She jotted on her own notepad as she checked the working. “That looks right to me, but I think you missed a trick. Looking at the numbers, I think you might have been able to factorise here instead of bludgeoning it with the quadratic formula. The answer’s right though.”

“Well, I’m not going to go back and change it now,” Chloe declared.

“So is that you finished?”

Chloe hesitated, then said, “There’s one more thing, but Aunt Hettie said to ask you very nicely as it’s a big favour and only if you had time.”

“Time for what?” Soo asked, mystified.

“Can I tie you up please?”

“What?”

“My aunts have taught me a lot of tying up and escaping, but I don’t very often get the chance to try it on someone new and I know you’ve been trained too, so I hoped you wouldn’t mind.”

“So is this a big favour to you or your aunts?” Soo asked.

“Both really. It’s not really homework, but my aunts like me to get practice when I can and there’s not much chance at boarding school.”

“Well, I was thinking of taking a short break soon anyway, so why not? It could be fun.”

“Oh goody – I’ll get some stuff.”

Soo brought her essay to a sensible point to break off and saved the document. She had just finished typing when Chloe returned carrying a large plastic storage crate. She had also added a black ski mask to her outfit.

“Dressing the part?” Soo asked.

“I thought it would be suitable for tying up the babysitter,” Chloe replied.

“It certainly makes your intentions clear. Is that a box of rope?”

“My aunts have several boxes of practice stuff they let me use. This one is a mix of different lengths of rope,” Chloe explained, displaying the neatly bundled hanks of rope in the box.

“So, do you have a plan?”

“I thought I’d just tie you to that chair you’re sitting on, if that’s OK.”

“Sounds fine – chair-ties are usually quite comfy, unless you’re planning anything strange.”

“Nothing strange, just a straightforward chair-tie for the practice.”

“OK. I’ll take a trip to the loo first, if I may.”

“There’s a downstairs one through that door and on the left,” Chloe said, pointing the way before continuing to sort out bundles of rope.

When Soo returned, she ran an appraising eye over the chair. It was a traditional Windsor chair, built from wood with slightly splayed legs fitted into the bottom of a solid wood seat and braced by spindles between them. The backrest was in the form of a wooden arch, also fitted into the seat. Within the arch shape, a decorative fretted wooden slat formed the central vertical member with four slender spindles each side of it.

“Are you sure that chair is strong enough?”

“Should be,” Chloe replied. “I’ve been tied to these chairs lots of time and I’ve never broken anything struggling.”

“Do I need any protection on my wrists?”

“No need,” Chloe assured Soo. “I’ll put the rope above the cuffs of your cardigan, so you should be fine.”

Soo had been wearing her cardigan open. She buttoned it all the way up to her throat then asked, “OK. How would you like me?”

“Just sit down and keep your arms out of the way for a bit, please.”

Soo sat down and, unsure what to do with her arms, put her hands on her head.

Chloe started by wrapping a coil of rope around Soo’s waist. She took it behind the central slat but not the more fragile spindles and finished off with a competent-looking knot at the front.

“Not too tight?” Chloe asked.

“No, it’s fine. I’ll squawk if anything’s too tight.”

Chloe repeated the procedure with two more bands of rope. One was below Soo’s bust and the other above, immediately below her arms. In each case, Chloe made use of the decorative shape of the central slat to make sure the ropes couldn’t slide up or down.

“I’ll do your arms next,” Chloe said, “so you can bring them down now.”

Soo dropped her arms to her sides. Chloe positioned her arms so that they were behind the chair’s backrest. She used another length of rope to lash Soo’s left arm to the curve of the arch just above her elbow. then secured her right arm in the same way.

“Separate pieces of rope for everything?”

“Yes, that way if you pull against one bit of the tie-up, it can’t affect the security of anything else,” Chloe explained. “My aunts taught me that,” she added.

“How very cautious of you.”

“I want to make sure you really can’t escape – and I know you must be good if my aunts taught you.”

“We’ll see.”

Chloe selected another piece of rope, shook it loose and folded it in half to find the centre. She fastened it to the top of the backrest with a neat hitch each side of the central slat. She brought the loose ends together and knotted them so that she could handle the paired rope as if it was a single length. Soo had let her forearms drop down vertically; Chloe re-positioned them so that they were horizontal across the back of the chair. She adjusted the sleeves of Soo’s cardigan so that they covered her wrists fully then wrapped the rope around then several times and formed a cinch between the wrists. Finally she separated the ends of the rope and fastened them around the section coming down from the top of the chair, finishing off with a firm knot just above Soo’s wrists.

“That feels pretty secure,” Soo commented. “It’s always much harder to break out of a wrist binding where the hands go through in opposite directions.”

“That’s the whole idea!” Chloe retorted, her broad grin filling the mouth hole of her mask. “I just need to fasten it to the back of the chair, then I’ll do your legs.”

Chloe tied a short length or rope around Soo’s wrist binding on top of the cinch, knotted it then tied the loose ends around the decorative central slat of the backrest.

With Soo’s upper body satisfactorily restrained, Chloe set to work on her ankles, lashing them to the front legs of the chair and cinching between the woodwork and Soo’s socks. She similarly tied Soo’s legs to the tops of the chair legs, just below her knees.

“That’s done – you’re all tied up!” Chloe announced.

“It feels like a really good job. Have you been learning this stuff long?”

“Ever since I was about six – that’s all the time I’ve been living with my aunts.”

“Do you want me to see if I can escape?”

“Yes, please, that way I’ll know for sure that I’ve done a good job.”

“OK. You can put the kettle on while I see if I can get out of this,” Soo suggested.

Chloe disappeared in the direction of the kitchen and Soo set to work on her escape attempt. It rapidly became obvious that Chloe had done a very competent job. With her body firmly bound to the back of the chair she had almost no freedom of movement other than a tiny amount from side to side, not enough to reposition her arms to try to pull them free. Also, her upper arms were tightly lashed to the chair, so there was no scope to pull against the wrist binding to any significant extent. Soo’s fingers were free and not covered, but she soon found that there were no knots anywhere within reach.

Chloe returned with a mug of tea and sat down on another of the dining chairs. She adjusted her ski mask so that the sides of the mouth hole wouldn’t get wet as she took a sip of tea. “Still stuck?” she asked.

“Still very stuck,” Soo acknowledged with a wry smile. “Definitely A-plus for this bit of your homework.”

“Are you sure you can’t get out of that?”

“Pretty sure,” Soo confirmed. “By the way, don’t I get a cup of tea too?”

“I don’t want you needing the toilet while you’re tied up,” Chloe explained.

“How long are you planning to keep me trussed up?”

“As long as you take to escape.”

Soo looked at the young girl. “I’ve already said that I don’t think I can. You’ve done a brilliant job, but it’s time to untie me now.”

“I want to know how good a job I’ve really done and I won’t be sure until I know you’ve really tried your hardest to get free.”

Chloe’s expression was hard to read under her mask. Was she serious about not freeing her, Soo wondered, or was this just a practical joke she was pushing a little too far?

“I’m completely stuck, so end of joke Chloe. Just untie me.”

“No. I want you to try harder.”

Soo reached the end of her fuse. “Chloe! Untie! Me! Now!”

“Wait a minute,” Chloe replied, leaving the room.

Soo waited, silently fuming both at Chloe’s insubordination and at herself for getting into this situation.

When Chloe returned, Soo saw immediately that she was clutching a rolled-up bandanna. “No, Chloe, just get me untied,” she demanded. “Now.”

Chloe held up the bandanna. Soo could now see that she had a balled-up handkerchief in her hand as well. “I wasn’t planning to gag you, but you’re making an awful lot of noise,” Chloe said, reaching forward with the handkerchief.

Soo clamped her mouth shut. Chloe responded with the time-honoured expedient of holding Soo’s nose. Soo attempted to shake her head, but the grip on her nose was too strong. The instant she opened her mouth to breathe, Chloe rammed the handkerchief in and wedged the bandanna between her teeth. She knotted it behind Soo’s head before she could even attempt to spit it out.

“It’s almost 9 o’clock, I’m going upstairs to get my night things on. I’m not going to bed yet – I’m going to going to come back downstairs and read for a bit while you see if you can escape,” Chloe explained matter-of-factly.

Soo snarled an incomprehensible reply through her gag.

While Chloe was away, Soo explored her bonds again to see if she could find a weakness. Her wrists were quite tightly tied, but it was the way that her arms were tied to the chair above the elbows that stopped her from putting any significant tension on the wrist binding to pull her hands free. The bands of rope holding her arms were between the spindles that formed the chair back so there was no way to persuade them to slide further up her arms to obtain more freedom of movement. Soo tried to twist her body to one side with the idea of forcing one arm further through its band of rope, but the ropes anchoring her body to the backrest thwarted her attempt.

With a sigh, Soo relaxed as much as her bonds would permit. She tried to think of another strategy that might lead to freedom, but could find nothing that she hadn’t already tried.

When she returned to the living room with her thumb in an open book, Chloe was dressed in a pink fleece sleepsuit with a pattern of white stars on it. Bizarrely, she was still wearing the black ski mask. She walked past Soo, plopped herself down on a sofa and opened her book.

Chloe looked across at Soo and commented, “You don’t seem to have made much progress.”

Soo mumbled an uncomplimentary reply through her gag.

Chloe looked back down at her book. Soo decided to try some psychological pressure. She stared fixedly at Chloe so that whenever the girl glanced at her, she would meet a baleful glare.

Some minutes passed. Chloe was clearly becoming uncomfortable as her glances at Soo became more frequent and she appeared to be feeling less comfortable with the situation, although her ski mask made it hard for Soo to be sure.

Finally, Chloe cracked. She stood up and laid her book face-down on the sofa. Soo silently congratulated herself as Chloe crossed the room, but instead of stopping to free her captive, she walked past and left the room. Soo wondered if her plan had backfired and merely made Chloe too uncomfortable to be in the same room but not uncomfortable enough to feel she had to release her.

A few moments later, Chloe returned. Once again she had a bandanna in her hand and it was obvious that she planned to use it as a blindfold. Soo shook her head and squawked in protest through her gag. Chloe trapped Soo’s head between one arm and her body and deftly tied the bandanna over her eyes.

At one time a blindfold would have reduced Soo to a quivering mess as she became overwhelmed by a panic attack. Since teaming up with Coco, she had trained herself to tolerate a blindfold, but it was still an intensely unpleasant experience for her. She focused inwards and concentrated on controlling her breathing. All she could do now was to control the panic that threatened to rise inside her and try to sit out whatever time remained before she was eventually freed.

* * *

The sound of the front door opening and closing roused Soo from the peculiarly detached mental state she had fallen into. She could hear the Harman twins talking together as they came into the house then an exclamation of, “Soo!” from one of the women followed by, “Bloody hell! She’s tied up the babysitter!” from the other.

Soo blinked at the light as her blindfold was removed. She looked up at the concerned face of one of the Harmans who was working on getting her gag off. “What happened?” she asked.

Before Soo could get her voice working enough to answer, there was a raised voice at the other end of the room. “Chloe! What’s going on here?”

Soo looked round and saw Chloe sitting up blearily, still wearing her ski mask. It was obvious that she had been asleep on the sofa where she had been reading.

“It’s Maggie,” the Harman twin with Soo said, identifying herself. “Did Chloe do this?” she asked.

“Yes,” Soo replied, her voice hoarse. “She said she wanted to practice her tying-up skills as she doesn’t get much opportunity when she’s away at school. And then she left me to get myself free if I could.”

Maggie carried on working to release Soo as she said, “That’s ridiculous. Chloe’s at St Blazius. They have anti-kidnap training there and have to tie each other up as exercises. On top of that there’s an after-school magic and escapology club and I know that Chloe is a dedicated member.”

Chloe had removed her mask as soon as she realised her aunts were home. Following Maggie’s comment, she looked extremely sheepish.

“Well?” Hettie demanded. Chloe glanced over at Soo and Maggie, before lowering her head and holding her hands together in front of her as Hettie stood there, tapping her toe as she crossed her arms.

“I wanted to see how my tying up skills stood up to a real professional that you’ve trained. I thought that Soo was maybe just being nice to me saying that she couldn’t get loose. I thought she would try for real if I refused to untie her.” There was a long pause, then she continued in a very small voice, “It looks like she wasn’t just being nice. I didn’t mean for it to be like this. I’m really sorry.” Her voice trailed off to silence.

“And the gag and blindfold?” Hettie prompted. “I don’t expect those were part of the deal when she agreed to be tied up.”

“Umm, no. I gagged her because she was making so much noise yelling at me and I blindfolded her because she was trying to stare me out.” Another embarrassed pause. “Sorry.”

“It’s Soo you need to apologise to.”

Chloe swallowed audibly and crossed the room to Soo who was now completely untied but still sitting on the chair.

“Soo, I’m really sorry. I really just wanted to see how good my tying was. I didn’t really mean to be as horrible as this and I didn’t mean to doze off like that.” Chloe’s face crumpled and she started sobbing softly.

“Off you go to bed,” Hettie ordered. “We’ll have more to say in the morning. There will be consequences, but not now.”

Chloe nodded wordlessly and fled out of the room, her face wet with tears.

“I can only apologise for Chloe’s behaviour,” Maggie said. “She gets some wild ideas into her head at times, but they don’t usually have this sort of impact on other people.”

“I know you said you’d look after Chloe as a favour, but we were going to pay you anyway,” Hettie said. “I think we should add some danger money as well.”

“And we won’t expect you to do Sunday after this,” Maggie added.

“I said I would do Sunday and I’ll stand by that,” Soo assured the twins. “Besides, it’s going to be very difficult to find someone else at such short notice.”

“Are you sure?” Hettie asked.

“Absolutely,” Soo replied firmly. “Chloe seemed like a nice kid until she went off the rails this evening.”

“That’s really not typical of her,” Maggie assured her.

“I believe you. I’m sure that Chloe will have learned her lesson and Sunday will be just fine. What time do you want me here?”

“We’ll work out tomorrow just what the nature of that lesson is,” Hettie said darkly. “If you come at 12:30, you can join us for a bite of lunch. We don’t eat much before a performance, but we’ll take you out for a decent meal afterwards.”

“When’s the performance?” Soo asked.

“Curtain up is 3 o’clock, we need to be there by 2, so our taxi is booked for 1:30,” Maggie replied. “The show should be over by 5.30 and we’ll be back here about quarter past 6.”

* * *

Sunday was one of those damp grey days when the weather is somewhere between mist and drizzle. Soo had sensibly chosen a bright yellow rain-suit for her journey to Greenwich. She parked and locked her scooter outside the Harmans’ house, unstrapped her laptop case, which was inside a polythene bag for extra protection, and rang the doorbell.

There was no mistaking which Harman sister had opened the door: she wore a pink sweatshirt with a large white appliqué letter M on the front, cheerleader style. Underneath, she appeared to be wearing a pair of black leggings that came just below her knees. She was barefoot. “Sorry to greet you like this,” Maggie said, “but I’ve just finished my exercise routine and I haven’t changed yet.”

“No odder than my outfit,” Soo replied. She lifted her goggles up onto the front of her helmet so that Maggie could see the bottle-green knitted mask she wore with just her grey eyes visible through the eye-holes.

“No gasmask today then?” Maggie asked, standing aside so Soo could enter the house.

“There’s not so much traffic on a Sunday and drizzly weather tends to precipitate a lot of the muck out of the air,” Soo explained. “Besides this thing is much more comfortable to wear than a sweaty PVC respirator.”

“I must go and get changed,” Maggie said. “Chloe is masterminding sandwiches and coffee in the kitchen. Do go through when you’re ready.”

“Will do,” Soo replied as she started shedding her outerwear. She paused for a moment and said “Is the fallout from Friday all resolved?”

“We’ll tell you about that later,” Maggie said as she headed upstairs.

Soo systematically divested herself of helmet, mask, rain-suit and wellingtons, revealing the mid-thigh-length blue and green striped sweater she was wearing over black leggings with black socks pulled up to her knees. She stowed them in the hall cupboard, picked up her laptop case and padded off towards the kitchen.

In the kitchen, Chloe was busily organising a large platter of assorted sandwiches on the kitchen table. There was also a bowl containing potato crisps and a tumbler with breadsticks in it. Several small bowls of dips were clustered around them. A jug of coffee was keeping warm on the heating ring of the coffee-maker.

“Hi, Soo!” Chloe greeted cheerfully. “It’s not the healthiest of lunches, but my aunts need to stoke up on carbs before a performance, but without taking too much volume on board. They’ve promised to take us all out for a proper meal afterwards.”

“Carbs but low bulk will suit me fine for an afternoon essay-writing too,” Soo assured her.

Chloe surveyed the table with a professional air. She seemed to be quite a capable young woman, Soo judged. Apparently satisfied with the spread, she removed the PVC apron advertising Heinz Tomato Ketchup that she had been wearing. Her outfit for the day was revealed as an orange cardigan worn open over a buttoned green knitted waistcoat which in turn was over a yellow t-shirt. She also wore a yellow and black dogtooth check miniskirt over black wool tights. A girl who could make her own style, Soo decided with approval.

“Soo, I’m really sorry about my behaviour on Friday. Can we be friends again?” She extended her hand.

“I don’t see why not,” Soo replied, solemnly shaking the proffered hand. “Did the repercussions all get sorted out?”

Chloe looked uncomfortable. “My aunts want to talk to you about that.”

The awkward moment was averted by Maggie and Hettie arriving in the kitchen. Both were smartly dressed in royal blue skirt suits with black scoop-necked tops under the jackets.

“Don’t stand on ceremony, just dig in,” Hettie invited as she took a seat.

Soo sat down on an empty chair next to Hettie and Maggie sat opposite her. Chloe bustled around pouring coffee for everyone before taking her own seat. Somehow the conversation drifted onto Soo’s Open University course. She enthusiastically described the topics of art history she had been studying and the areas that the course would take her into in the future.

“I thought Coco specialised in jewellery,” Maggie remarked.

“She does, but this is an area of interest for me anyway. I might want to take both my careers in that direction in the future,” Soo replied.

“Competition for John Jacobs?” Hettie speculated.

“Cooperation rather than competition,” Soo said. “I get on rather well with John and there’s a lot I could learn from him.”

“I’m sure Coco will approve,” Maggie said with a smile, “and I expect John would be more than willing to help as well.”

The conversation eventually reached the topic that both Maggie and Chloe had evaded. “I know that Chloe is genuinely sorry for her behaviour on Friday,” Hettie said. “But, as she is well aware, ill-advised actions have consequences. My sister and I have discussed this and we felt it would be appropriate if you were to be the one to administer the consequences, Soo. Chloe will learn a much more salutary lesson that way.”

Soo was baffled. “Consequences? What do you mean?”

“Chloe tied you up for most of the time we were out on Friday. We think it would be appropriately symmetrical if Chloe were to be the one tied up while we are out this time and if you did the tying,” Maggie explained.

“But she’s only 13,” Soo protested. “Isn’t that rather rough treatment for a young girl?”

“Not really in Chloe’s case,” Hettie replied. “Think about it like this. Chloe is at boarding school, so her friends are well scattered across the country. There are a few in London, but none close, so there’s not much point in grounding her – she probably wouldn’t want to go out anyway. It’s pointless banishing her to her room – it’s full of electronics and she’d probably go there for the afternoon from choice.”

“Yes, but tying her up still seems a bit excessive,” Soo commented.

“Again, not really in Chloe’s case,” Hettie continued. “She’s been learning escape tricks off us since she was about 6, so she’s been tied up goodness knows how many times – certainly hundreds. She’s also been taught anti-kidnap skills at school, so she’s been tied up plenty of times for that. On top of that, she’s a member of a school club that does escapology amongst other things. Chloe’s not just used to being tied up, it’s something that she willingly chooses to do for fun.”

There was a pause then Maggie took up the argument. “What we’re saying is that being tied up holds no terrors for Chloe and provided it doesn’t cause her injury or discomfort, it isn’t really a hardship for her. What we’re suggesting as a punishment is a loss of freedom for the afternoon.”

“And, of course, there’s the embarrassment and humiliation involved in having you do it to her,” Hettie added.

“So I just truss her up and get on with my work?” Soo asked.

“Basically, yes,” Maggie replied. “The only thing is, school starts again on Tuesday, so try to avoid rope marks.”

All of this conversation had been going on as if Chloe wasn’t present. Soo decide it was time to include her. “Have you been told about this?”

“My aunts and I discussed it yesterday,” she replied. “I was completely out of order on Friday, so I guess it’s appropriate. I don’t expect I’ll enjoy it, but like Aunt Maggie said, I’m used to being tied up, so it really is just like being grounded or sent to my room but more so. I know it won’t make up for you not getting your work done on Friday, but I think I’ll feel better when this is over and we can make a fresh start.”

Soo was tempted to say that an apology would be sufficient and they could make a fresh start immediately, but that clearly wasn’t the way things were done in this household. She remembered that the Harman twins had mentioned some fairly robust approaches to child discipline in their own upbringing and Coco had mentioned something similar in her own experience with the elder Margot Harman in the 1970s. Presumably the tradition carried on. On the face of things, she had to admit, Chloe seemed to have turned out well. In any case, Soo concluded, it wasn’t her place to criticize.

“Are you all right with this?” Hettie asked.

“Yes, I think so,” said Soo, suddenly aware of the length of her pause for thought. “It’s just a bit...”

“Weird?” prompted Chloe with a laugh.

“I think I was reaching for ‘unexpected’,” Soo replied, “but if you’re OK with it, then I’m OK with it.”

“That’s settled then,” said Maggie. “We’ll leave you two to work out the details.”

“The taxi will be here in five minutes,” Hettie announced. “We’d better fly.”

Both twins rose from the table and headed off to get themselves ready to go out.

“I’ll help clear up,” Soo offered.

With Soo assisting and Chloe directing, the lunch things were soon cleared from the table and the dishwasher loaded. While they were doing this there was a chorus of “Bye!” from the hallway and the sound of the front door opening and closing.

“More coffee before we start?” Soo suggested, indicating the coffee jug which still had at least two cups left in it.

“I’m on tea, but it’s probably not a good idea anyway when I’m just about to be tied up,” Chloe pointed out.

“No,” Soo agreed. “I guess I’m just trying to delay things.”

“Are you really sure you’re all right with this?”

“You and your aunts all seem to be agreed, so there’s no reason for me to differ, It’s just that Coco and I have a fairly strong ethic against tying kids up unless it’s totally unavoidable. It’s a fairly traumatic thing to have happen to you.”

“Most kids would be terrified at a masked stranger climbing in through the window, or standing by their bed, and trussing them up,” Chloe agreed. “But I’m not most kids and I’m used to it.”

“And I’m not wearing a mask,” Soo added, feeling a little reassured.

“It’s not going to be a picnic for me,” Chloe said, “but it’s a punishment, so it’s not supposed to be fun.”

“OK, let’s get on with it,” Soo agreed, psyching herself up to the task. “What should I use.”

“Any of my aunts’ boxes of practice material would do. Would you like to come into the back room and have a look?”

Chloe led the way into a large room at the rear of the house. It had various items of home gymnasium equipment and one wall was lined with mirrors like a ballet studio in miniature.

“This is our gym and my aunt’s practice and rehearsal room.”

“Hence the mirrors for practicing routines?”

“Hence the mirrors,” Chloe confirmed. “These are our boxes of practice stuff,” she added, pointing out a series of large plastic crates against one wall.

Soo investigated the contents of the crates. There was the box of ropes she had seen on Friday, rolls of tape, a straitjacket, a bundle of leather belts, and a box containing a tangle of winter scarves.

“I have to avoid rope marks,” Soo reminded Chloe. “I thought about the straitjacket, but it looks a bit big for you, so it’s probably not escape-proof.”

“Drat!” Chloe replied in best melodramatic villain style and snapping her finger for effect. “Yes, I’m much too skinny for it and I’m quite flexible, so it’s a fairly easy escape for me.”

“How flexible are you?” Soo asked. “I don’t want to hurt you by straining anything.”

“I should be OK. I’m flexy enough to do this.” Chloe eased her skirt up then raised her right leg well above waist level apparently effortlessly then wrapping her arms around her thigh and hugging it to her body, she pulled it up so that her toe was pointing at the ceiling.

“Very impressive,” Soo commented. “Gymnastics?”

“Dance classes,” Chloe replied. “I could become the world’s skinniest can-can dancer,” she added, executing a couple of astonishingly high kicks.

“I’ll need to come up with something you can’t just wriggle out of in that case,” Soo said. After another look at the available materials, she concluded, “I think I’ll just use the scarves – no rope marks that way.”

“But that’s kids’ stuff,” Chloe protested.

“Kids’ stuff?” Soo echoed.

“Yes, when I was really little and I first asked my aunts to tie me up so I could be an escape artist like them, they used scarves so I wouldn’t get hurt. I used to get tied up like that a lot until they let me have proper ropes.”

“Well, you were pretty immature on Friday, so tying you up like a little kid seems appropriate.”

“I don’t think you’ll hold me for long that way,” Chloe said with a touch of bravado.

“What happens if you escape?”

“End of punishment. That’s the house rules.”

“Well that sounds like a challenge to me,” Soo said. “I’ll take the box to the living room while you go and change into something you’ll be comfortable in.”

Soo carried the box back to the living room and set it down on the floor. While she was waiting for Chloe, she investigated its contents. As she had already discovered, the top layer was an untidy jumble of winter scarves. She took them out and laid them over the back of a sofa. On closer examination, many were in a fairly sorry state and most showed signs of having been severely stretched, presumably as a result of being used for tying up. Several of the scarves were usefully long, a few of them over 3 metres. Digging down into the box, Soo discovered that there were other binding supplies. There were long socks, mostly with holed toes, suggesting that they had been demoted to the status of binding materials when they were no longer fit to wear. There were also some woollen tights, mostly outgrown by Chloe, judging by the size and juvenile patterns. Some had been cut into separate legs while others had been ingeniously doubled in strength by turning one leg inside out inside the other.

After reviewing the materials at hand, Soo began to formulate a plan.

Rapid footsteps on the stairs heralded Chloe’s return. “Don’t laugh,” she said, entering the room.

“Wow!” Soo replied. “That’s all: just wow.”

Chloe was clad from neck to ankles in a one-piece flannel union suit. Instead of the more usual white or red, it was a startling shade of pink. In preparation for being tied up, she had a pair of thick socks on her feet, pulled up over the cuffs of the union suit, and another pair on her hands. They were also pink. Instead of the long plait her hair had been in before, it had now been scraped up into a bulky bun on top of her head, pinned and netted in place, presumably much as she did for dance classes.

“I usually only wear this as pyjamas on cold nights,” Chloe explained. “It’s seriously comfy for that and I thought it would be perfect for spending an afternoon tied up.”

“Good choice,” Soo said approvingly. “And I’d have suggested the socks if you hadn’t thought of them yourself.”

“I brought a clean hanky down too,” Chloe added. “I expect you’ll want to use it.”

“Thank you,” Soo said, taking the handkerchief from Chloe’s sock-covered hand and laying it on the arm of the sofa.

“OK, I’m ready,” Chloe said. “Let’s get on with it.”

“Right, stand just there and clasp your hands behind your back,” Soo instructed.

Soo selected the longest of the scarves that she had found in the box. She formed it into a large loop and then folded the loop over on itself. She lifted it over Chloe’s head and positioned it around her arms and chest so it was just above her elbows. Once she was satisfied with the placement, Soo grasped the ends of the scarf and pulled hard, drawing the doubled loop tight around Chloe and pulling her arms tightly against her sides. Soo repositioned her hands and gave the ends of the scarf another tug. She let go of the scarf and the ends dropped but it remained just as tightly in place.

Chloe’s eyes widened in astonishment. “That’s amazing. How did you do that? I didn’t even see you tie a knot.”

“Have you got a copy of Ashley’s Book of Knots in the house?”

Chloe nodded.

“Look up ‘constrictor knot’. It’s actually a kind of hitch, a bit like a clove hitch, but it self-locks.”

“Cunning,” Chloe observed appreciatively.

“Now turn around.”

Chloe turned her back toward Soo, who took the loose ends of the round behind her back and tied them tightly together with a conventional knot.

“You can let go of your hands now,” Soo said. “That was just to get your arms in the right position.”

Soo picked up two of the long socks and hesitated. “I need a tool for this,” she said. “Can I get a wooden spoon from the kitchen?”

“Look in the drawer under the hob.”

Soo left Chloe for a moment. She found a suitable wooden spoon without any difficulty and returned to the living room with it. She found Chloe straining against the scarf bound around her.

“I would never have believed that you could make a woolly scarf feel this tight,” Chloe said.

“Your aunts do a good tutorial on tying people up with improvised binding materials,” Soo explained.

“Maybe I should pay more attention to them.”

“Now hold still,” Soo instructed. “I don’t want to poke you with the spoon.”

Soo selected one of the long socks from the box and used the handle of the wooden spoon to push one end of it through the tight space between Chloe’s left arm and her chest so that it went above the scarf wrapped around her. She then adjusted the position of the sock so that she could tie the ends together in front of the band of wool encircling Chloe, neatly cinching the binding. She repeated the process with the other arm.

“This is going to be a box tie, so put your arms in the right place please,” Soo requested.

Chloe obediently bent her elbows so that her forearms were positioned horizontally across her back.

Soo picked up another long scarf and deftly formed a constrictor knot near one end. She guided it over Chloe’s right hand and then slid it almost up to her elbow so that she could get the other hand through the loop. She brought it back to the centre of Chloe’s back then pulled it tight onto her forearms, pressing them together.

“Another constrictor knot, right?” Chloe asked.

“Right,” Soo confirmed as she fastened the short, upper free end to the chest binding. “Legs apart please.”

Chloe shuffled her feet a few inches apart. Soo moved around in front of the girl, reached between her legs and grabbed the trailing free end of the scarf. She pulled it forward and upwards, worked it under Chloe’s chest binding, letting the free end hang loose. She gave it a sharp tug to tighten it.

“I’m glad you’re not doing that with a rope,” Chloe commented when she had got over her astonishment.

Soo merely smiled in reply as she fed the loose end of the scarf back between Chloe’s legs and up the middle of her back. She took it between Chloe’s bound arms and her back and fastened it off to the scarf around her chest once more.

“OK so far?” Soo asked.

“Astonishingly snug and secure, but perfectly OK. Can I try struggling yet?”

“Not yet, if you don’t mind. There’s more to come.”

Soo picked up one of the pairs of tights that had been doubled by folding one leg inside the other. She tested it for stretchiness then formed a small noose at the toe end. She slid it over Chloe’s left hand, tightened the slipknot and left it dangling. She repeated the process with another pair of tights on Chloe’s right hand. Standing in front of Chloe, Soo picked up both pairs of tights and tied them together in a loose overhand knot at the front of her body.

“That’s just to keep them in place while I do this,” Soo explained, moving behind Chloe.

Standing behind her, Soo reached around Chloe with both hands and grabbed the dangling ends of the tights. She pulled the overhand knot tight then took the gusset ends round the girl’s waist and knotted then securely together at the back of her waist.

“A box tie and a reverse Jacobi at the same time,” Chloe commented.

“I’m glad you’ve been paying attention to terminology,” Soo remarked. “Talking of which, the reverse Jacobi is done with buntline hitches.”

“I know about those,” Chloe interjected hastily. “They slip one way so they tighten, but you have to untie the knot to get them off. Very sneaky.”

“I’m in a sneaky profession,” Soo pointed out as she chose another long scarf.

Soo threaded the scarf under Chloe’s chest binding then adjusted it so that the two free ends were about equal. She tossed both ends over the girl’s shoulders then moved around so she was standing behind her. She gathered the ends of the scarf together then tied a fat two-in-hand overhand knot just below the nape of Chloe’s neck. She fed one of the free ends down under the chest binding then knotted the ends together, completing the harness around Chloe’s body.

“Right,” announced Soo, “that’s your arms and trunk done. I need you down on the floor next.”

“Hog-tie time?”

“Got it in one.”

Chloe dropped down onto her knees then Soo took her shoulders and guided her down gently so the she was lying on her stomach on the floor.

Without being asked, Chloe put her legs together and bent her knees ready to be hog-tied.

“Not like that,” Soo said.

“Crossed ankles? I might have guessed.”

Chloe adjusted the position of her legs so that her knees were spread apart and her ankles neatly crossed.

Selecting another scarf from the ones she had sorted out from the box, Soo bound Chloe’s ankles together so they crossed at right angles. She took care to wind the scarf around both east-west and north-south, finishing off with a cinching turn like a Girl Guide lashing two poles together. She secured the binding with a firm knot.

Soo surveyed her work for a few moments then reached for one of the old pairs of tights that had been cut in two. She used them to lash Chloe’s shins to her thighs, leaving the bindings relatively loose but cinching them for security.

One more scarf completed the Chloe’s imprisonment. It linked her bound ankles to the scarf around her arms and chest that had been the beginning of the whole process.

“Right,” Soo announced, standing up, “that’s you all tied up.”

“And don’t I know it, Chloe replied from the floor. “I didn’t think it was possible to be trussed up like this just with scarves.”

“Well, you know who taught me.”

Chloe’s snort confirmed that she understood the irony.

Soo knelt down next to Chloe and inspected her face closely. “The sides of your mouth look a little bit tender,” she commented.

“That’s from yesterday.”

“You were gagged yesterday?”

“Aunt Charlie looked after me while my aunts were out at the theatre.”

“That’s Charlotte Harman, their mum?” Soo asked.

“That’s right,” Chloe confirmed. “She wasn’t at all pleased when she heard what I’d done on Friday.”

“And she tied you up?”

“No, she told me to go upstairs and tie myself up.”

“You can do that?” Soo asked in surprise.

“Yes, I can do quite a competent box-tie. You need to use a door knob as a sort of anchor for the rope. You put a slip knot in the end of the rope, tighten it on your hands then sort of twizzle round to wind the rope around yourself. It’s fairly easy to unhook it off the door knob and make a knot at the end of the process.”

“Can you escape afterwards?”

“Only if I put an emergency release in the slipknot for my wrists.”

“And you didn’t do that yesterday?”

“No, I was fairly sure the brief was to make myself helpless, so I tied my legs, gagged myself then did the box-tie thing.”

“So you were gagged for, what 3 hours?”

“More like 4.”

“From the marks, it looks like it was a cleave gag.”

“Yes, I stuffed a hanky in my mouth and tied a long sock between my teeth.”

“OK, I won’t do that, then. We don’t want you going off to school with bruises on your face.”

Soo took the handkerchief that Chloe had provided to the kitchen. She soaked it under the tap then squeezed it out so it was just damp. Returning to the living room, she knelt down next to Chloe and held the handkerchief in front of her face. Chloe opened her mouth to accept the gag and Soo carefully pushed it behind her teeth. Soo used a scarf to tie the handkerchief in place, wrapping it tightly around her head twice and knotting it at the back. She arranged the scarf to go above the tip of Chloe’s nose and below her chin to resist any attempts to work it off. Soo followed the first scarf with a second one similarly wrapped around Chloe’s head and knotted. but covering her eyes. The lower edge of the blindfold overlapped the upper edge of the gag, helping to keep both in place.

“Can you breathe OK?” Soo asked.

“Um-hum,” Chloe mumbled and nodded.

“Lift your head while I put a cushion down for you, then I’ll leave you to it and get on with my work.”

Chloe’s reply was little more than a grunt.

Soo settled herself down at the dining table, opened her laptop and returned to the essay she was still working on. From time to time, she glanced at Chloe who seemed to be trying to find some weakness in her tie up from the way she was struggling.

Some time after starting work, Soo was suddenly conscious of movement. She looked up from her work and was astonished to see that Chloe had somehow managed to get herself into a kneeling position, sitting on her bound ankles. She was straining hard at her bonds and swaying precariously.

Soo saved her document and went across to Chloe. “You’re not going to be able to get out like that, you know,” she said. “I know how to tie knots and none of those is going to come loose – you’re just going to hurt yourself when you fall over eventually.”

Chloe immediately stopped struggling and there was a long pause while she apparently considered Soo’s words. She shrugged surprisingly expressively for one so thoroughly tied up and nodded her head.

“OK, I’ll help you lie down again,” Soo said, taking hold of Chloe’s shoulders. “Just let yourself tip forwards and I’ll take the weight.”

Chloe did as instructed and Soo gently lowered her back to the carpet. She repositioned the cushion under the girl’s head and returned to her work.

The following two hours passed uneventfully and Soo made good progress with her work. Reaching a sensible point to take a break, she rose from her chair, stretched herself and walked through to the kitchen. A little exploration revealed the cupboard where mugs were kept and the supply of teabags. She filled the kettle and switched it on then returned to the living room.

Soo walked softly across to Chloe and knelt down beside her. The girl reacted by turning her head to face Soo.

“It’s just gone 4 o’clock,” Soo said, “so that’s probably about half time for you. Would you like me to get you some water?”

Chloe nodded in reply, so Soo returned to the kitchen. In the cupboard where she had found mugs, she remembered seeing a lidded plastic cup with a built-in flexible drinking straw. Pausing to pour boiling water into her own mug, Soo half-filled the lidded cup from the tap and took it to Chloe.

Soo set the cup down on the carpet and released the knot securing Chloe’s gag. She unwound the scarf from around the girl’s head, easing it out from under the edge of the blindfold, but leaving the blindfold in place. Chloe opened her mouth and allowed Soo to extract the sodden handkerchief that filled it.

Chloe swallowed hard several times then said, “Thank you,” in a hoarse voice.

Soo tilted the cup and guided the straw into Chloe’s mouth. The girl sucked eagerly at it.

“Whoa, not too much!” Soo said, pulling the straw away. “Not good to be desperate for the toilet when you’re all trussed up.”

“Sorry – I was getting very thirsty,” Chloe explained.

“How are you feeling?” Soo asked.

“Bored to tears, but I guess that goes with loss of liberty as part of my punishment.”

“I guess so,” Soo agreed. She still felt troubled at being party to such an apparently drastic punishment for a fairly young girl, but Chloe’s aunts felt it was appropriate under the circumstances and the girl herself seemed to accept the situation with equanimity.

“My legs are getting a bit uncomfortable,” Chloe continued.

“How about your arms?”

“I think they’re OK.” Chloe wiggled her hands experimentally.

“You don’t sound very sure.”

“Well, it’s never that comfortable being tied up this long.”

“We can start again with a different position, if you like,” Soo offered. “Would you like that?”

“Yes, please, if it’s not too much trouble.”

“Your aunts were very clear that the punishment is the loss of freedom not the tying up, so I want you to be as comfortable as possible.”

Soo undid the scarf forming Chloe’s hog-tie then the two keeping her legs bent and the one binding her ankles.

“That’s better already,” Chloe said appreciatively, stretching her legs out.

“Hold still while I get these knots undone,” Soo said as she set to work loosening the various bindings. Eventually only the long scarf that Soo had started with was left, still tightly tied around Chloe’s arms and chest. As soon as she had a free hand, Chloe, pushed her blindfold up and off her head.

“You’ll need to roll over so I can get the last one undone,” Soo instructed.

Chloe rolled over onto her back, somewhat awkwardly and Soo tugged at the constrictor knot securing the scarf, eventually feeding enough slack into it to loosen it and work it up over Chloe’s shoulders and over her head.

“Wow! That was a fairly intense tie-up,” Chloe commented, still lying on her back surrounded by a tangle of scarves and socks.

“I had good teachers,” Soo pointed out modestly.

“Can I take a loo break before the next session?”

“Good plan – I’ll tidy up a bit while you’re gone,” Soo returned.

Chloe rolled over again, pushed herself up onto her knees and then jumped to her feet with no obvious after-effects from spending two hours bound and gagged.

Soo straightened out the mess of binding materials, roughly sorting them by length once again.

Chloe returned a few minutes later. She was still dressed in her pink union suit but her hands were now bare, the socks that had covered them clutched in one hand. In the other hand, she held a folded handkerchief. “Fresh gag,” she commented, handing it to Soo.

“You’ve had a fairly strenuous couple of hours, so how about I just tie your wrists and ankles and leave it at that?” Soo suggested.

“I’d prefer something a bit more than that now we’ve got all this stuff out.” Chloe gestured towards the scarves and socks now hung over the back of the sofa.

“Did you have anything in mind?”

“Can we try like this?” Chloe asked. She sat on the floor, drew her knees almost up to her chin and wrapped her arms around her legs, crossing her wrists in front of her shins.

“A ball-tie? I’ve never done one of those – it would be a fairly high-stress position to use on someone you’re robbing.”

“High stress?” Chloe asked, still staying in position.

“Compressing your abdomen like that puts pressure up onto the diaphragm so your lungs can’t expand fully and that can strain your heart,” Soo pointed out. “Also, there’s a lot of tension on your shoulders like that.”

“I think I’ll be fine,” Chloe countered. “I don’t have enough of a tummy to put any pressure up into my chest. My shoulders should be OK if you tie me up right and I can just fold up like a deckchair, so nothing else should get strained.”

“Like I said, I’ve never done one of those before, so I’m not really sure what the right way to do it would be.”

“It’s not difficult,” Chloe assured Soo. “I’ve been tied up like this lots of times, so I can talk you through it.”

“Lots of times?” Soo echoed sceptically.

“Well, several times,” Chloe admitted. “My aunts tried it on me as an escape challenge the first time.”

“And you escaped?”

“Not quite.”

“Not quite escaping is being still tied up,” So reminded her.

“OK – I’ve never yet got out of one of these,” Chloe confessed with a grin.

“All right, I’m up for it if you’re sure,” Soo offered. “Do you want to sit on the floor like that or would the sofa be more comfy?”

Chloe thought for a moment, then replied, “Sofa – that way I can lean against the back of it and won’t topple over like I would on the floor.”

“So where do we start?”

“Socks back on hands,” Chloe prompted. She stood up, handing Soo her socks and gripping the sleeves of her union suit with her fingers to stop them riding up.

Soo worked the socks up over Chloe’s hands and forearms then allowed the girl to adjust them for comfort herself.

Chloe sat down on the sofa, perching on the edge of the seat. “Start off with the second longest scarf we have. Wrap it around my waist, knot it at the back and bring the ends round in front of me again.”

Soo did as she was instructed. Chloe shuffled herself back a little on the sofa and drew her legs up so that her thighs were against her chest and her heels were just onto the front edge of the seat cushions. She arranged the scarf around her waist so that the loose ends were hanging between her legs.

“OK, longest scarf next,” Chloe instructed. “Under my knees and around behind my back. Go under my arms, but as high up as you can manage. It’ll slip upwards if you don’t.”

Soo wrapped the scarf around Chloe, pinning her legs to her chest. “How tight?” she asked.

“As tight as you like – it’s too high up to mess with my breathing,” Chloe assured her.

Soo took Chloe at her word and discovered that the scarf was long enough for three full wraps and still had enough left to knot it behind Chloe’s shoulders quite easily. “Are you OK with that?” she asked cautiously.

“No problem – it’s a lot more comfortable than having this done with rope.”

“OK, what next?”

“Tie my legs together here and here.” Chloe indicated her ankles and a point just below her knees.

Soo waited while Chloe crossed her ankles and found a comfortable position then lashed her ankles together with a short scarf and her knees with one of the doubled pairs of tights.

“Comfy?”

“Not bad actually. Now, that red scarf looks about the right length. Tie it above one elbow, take it under my knees and then tie the other end above my other elbow.”

Soo tied the scarf as Chloe had described, leaving the girl’s hands sticking out awkwardly either side of her bound lower legs.

“Are you really sure this is all right?” Soo asked, looking down at Chloe critically. “This seems like very rough punishment for a young girl like you.”

“I’m not all that young.”

“You’re only 13!” Soo exclaimed

“I know, but you do a lot of growing up very quickly if your parents are murdered,” Chloe said soberly.

“I can’t imagine what that would be like,” Soo replied quietly, “but it still doesn’t feel right doing this to you.”

“My aunts took me in and gave me a home when my parents died. A lot of other people, including Aunt Charlie and Aunt Coco, went to a lot of effort to make sure I was safe and well looked after. I know that there is a circle of people that I owe a deep debt of loyalty to. We’ve only just met, but you’re a part of that circle too, Soo. You chose to help my aunts out by looking after me on Friday and today and I know that was out of your own loyalty to them and probably to Aunt Coco as well. I betrayed that loyalty by taking advantage of you and playing a stupid prank. I fully accept that losing my freedom is an appropriate punishment – I’ve already told you that.”

“This still looks pretty extreme as a way to treat a 13-year-old.”

“Except that I really don’t mind being tied up. If we were doing this just for fun, you wouldn’t mind would you?”

“I suppose not.”

“So not being able to do anything for a couple of hours is my punishment and being trussed up in a little ball like this is a bit of fun,” Chloe argued. “OK?”

Soo shrugged. “OK.”

“Right, the next bit is to tie my feet back,” Chloe said. “Use the ends of the scarf round my middle.”

Soo took the ends of the scarf that hung between Chloe’s legs. She carefully fed one between Chloe’s lower legs so that emerged above her ankle binding and pulled the other between her feet below the binding. She tied the ends together in a half hitch and pulled them tight to draw Chloe’s feet back until her heels were touching her bottom. With a certain amount of pushing and shoving, Soo managed to get the ends of the scarf to wrap once more around Chloe’s ankle binding and knotted it off just behind her feet.

Chloe worked her hands forwards until she could hug her legs with her wrists crossed. Soo selected a pair of long socks and used one to bind the wrists horizontally and the other vertically. With some more determined pushing to get it in place, Soo used a scarf to fasten Chloe’s wrist and ankle bindings together.

“That’s you done, I think,” Soo said, straightening up.

“Thank you,” Chloe replied, settling herself into her bonds.

“Let me get you propped up so you won’t fall over.” Soo swivelled Chloe sideways on the sofa and shuffled her back so that she was leaning against the backrest.

Soo went to the kitchen to soak the clean handkerchief that Chloe had provided. She picked a scarf off the back of the sofa. “Anything you have a burning desire to say before I gag you?” she asked.

“Actually, yes,” Chloe returned. “It was a bit hot and itchy having my head wrapped in scarves. I’ve got a better idea for a gag.”

“What’s your idea?”

“If you go up to my room – it’s the second on the left at the top of the stairs – and look in my wardrobe. The right hand door has drawers and shelves. The shelf about nose level has woolly hats and mittens and stuff like that. If you rummage, you’ll find one of those neoprene face masks for skiing – it’s purple and I think it would work to hold the hanky in my mouth.”

“I’ll go and get it.”

Soo went upstairs and had no difficulty finding the right shelf in the wardrobe. As Chloe promised, a little rummaging yielded a neoprene mask, purple on the outside and white on the inside. Soo was expecting it to be the usual kind that covered the wearer’s mouth and nose, but this one was more all-enveloping. It covered the face from throat to hairline. There was an oval hole for the eyes (which would be covered by ski goggles), a small vent for the nose and a pattern of perforations corresponding to the wearer’s mouth. The mask fastened at the back of the head with Velcro.

“Found it,” Soo announced, returning to the sitting room. “I also found this on your bedside table.” She held up a black sleep mask and a pair of shaped rubber earplugs with attached cords for removal.

“That’s my kit for getting to sleep in a school dormitory.”

“I thought boarding school dormitories were a thing of the past.”

“Well, we don’t have those St Trinian’s style things with a dozen beds down each side. We call it a dorm, but mine’s just a big bedroom I share with two other girls. The trouble is, one of them snores like a hippopotamus.”

“Hence the earplugs?”

“Invaluable at times.”

“Maybe you should gag the snorer.”

“You’d be surprised how little difference it makes,” Chloe commented.

“Ready?”

Chloe nodded.

Soo carefully inserted the earplugs into Chloe’s ears then put the sleep mask in place, easing the elastic loops behind her ears. “Open,” she instructed. Chloe opened her mouth to accept the handkerchief. Soo pushed it into position, tucking it behind the girl’s teeth. She positioned the neoprene mask so that it held the sleep mask in place, smoothed it into place around her head and pressed down the Velcro fastening.

“Is that OK for you?” Soo asked.

“Mmm,” Chloe replied, apparently in the affirmative.

With Chloe suitably secured for the remainder of the afternoon, Soo returned to the dining table and her laptop. She took an experimental sip of the tea that she had made for herself just before releasing and re-tying Chloe. It was barely lukewarm, so she took it back to the kitchen and made another cup. Settling down in front of the computer screen, she commenced what she hoped would be the final read-through and revision of the essay.

Some time later, Soo decided that she had finished her work. She saved the document then put a copy onto a USB stick. She still needed to email it to her tutor and for security to email a copy to her work email address as well, but had forgotten to ask the Harman twins if she could access their WiFi. She briefly considered ungagging Chloe and asking her, but she would be unlikely to know the password for the WiFi from memory.

Soo walked across to the sofa to check on Chloe. “Still all right?” she asked. Soo experienced a moment of panic when there was no response, but was reassured when she noticed Chloe’s slow, even breathing; the girl was apparently fast asleep.

It was still only about 5:30, so Soo probably had about three-quarters of an hour before the Harman sisters returned from the theatre. Other people’s taste in books was always fascinating to Soo and sometimes quite revealing. She discovered that the Harmans were no exception. The living room bookcase was dedicated to the history of stage magic, with a particular emphasis on escapology and illusions. There were biographies of all the famous names: Houdini, of course, the Maskelynes, Thurston, Harry Kellar, Flora MacKenzie and many Soo had never heard of. There were books on stage magic techniques, some of them dating back to the 19th century. Most were in English, but there were others in French, German, Spanish, Italian, Russian, something she assumed must be Hindi from the Devangari alphabet and something else Asiatic-looking that she couldn’t begin to identify. The collection of old catalogues from magic equipment suppliers was particularly fascinating, not least for the exotic or simply bizarre costumes that were worn by the performers and assistants shown in the illustrations.

Soo was still browsing the bookshelves when she heard the front door open. The Harman twins came straight to the living room. Chloe was visible from the door, so they went across to her and spent a minute or so examining her bindings.

“You certainly did a number on her,” one of the twins commented to Soo, who was still sitting in an armchair with a book open on her lap.

“A number of her own devising,” Soo pointed out. “I had her in a hog-tie for the first couple of hours then she talked me through doing that to her for the second half of the afternoon.”

The twin who had spoken walked across to Soo and glanced at the book she was reading. “Chung Ling Soo,” she commented, “almost your namesake.”

“That’s why I picked the book off the shelf,” Soo confessed.

“Well, be a bit more careful than he was if you have a notion to start catching bullets in your teeth.”

“Not something I’m planning to try, Maggie,” Soo replied soberly, taking a chance on which sister she was talking to.

“Nope, it’s Hettie,” Hettie said with a grin. “Nice try kid,” she added in a faux American accent.

The real Maggie shook Chloe gently by the shoulder. “Time to wake up, sleepyhead,” she said, ripping open the Velcro on the girl’s mask.

“Hi, Aunt Maggie,” Chloe said as soon as she could speak again. “How was the show?”

“Pretty good – half-term Sunday matinee so there were lots of kids there and they’re always the liveliest audience,” Maggie replied enthusiastically. “But how are you?” she added with a note of concern in her voice.”

“I’m fine,” Chloe said, almost dismissively.

“Still up for a meal out with us?”

“Definitely – just get me out of this and let me have a shower and I’ll be ready for it.”

“Neat tie-up,” Maggie commented as she set to work to release her niece.

“Did you manage to get any work done?” Hettie asked Soo.

“The essay’s finished and ready to send to my tutor. Could I possibly use your WiFi to email it out?”

“No problem – I’ll just go and take my coat off then I’ll get a note of the password from the office for you.” Hettie promised.

As soon as she was free, Chloe left the room and trotted upstairs. Soo helped Maggie load the discarded scarves and socks back into their storage crate.

As soon as Maggie departed to take the crate back to the practice room, Hettie returned with a Post-It note in her hand.

Soo sat down at her laptop and sent her emails before shutting it down and putting it back in its carrying case along with its mains cable.

“Are you up for joining us for a meal too?” Hettie asked Soo as soon as she had finished packing up. “We’ve got a table booked for 7 o’clock at Spiro’s – it’s Greek.”

“Love to,” Soo replied, always welcoming an offer of food. “I’ll take the scooter and go straight home from there if you let me know where to find it.”

“I’ll write it down...” Hettie started then broke off as Chloe’s voice came from upstairs: “Can someone help me dry my hair?”

Hettie headed out of the room. Confusingly for Soo, it was Maggie who returned a few moments later, now minus her coat but still dressed identically to her sister.

“Would you like to join us for a meal?” Maggie asked then burst out laughing at Soo’s expression of bafflement. “Ah, Hettie already asked you?”

“Yes, and I said yes,” Soo replied. “Hettie was going to give me a note of the restaurant’s address.”

“Sorry, Hettie went upstairs to help Chloe with her hair. There’s a lot of it to dry and Hettie is better than me at plaiting it just the way Chloe likes it – it’s easier for a left-hander to get that twist into it.”

Maggie left the room and returned almost immediately with the local business directory and a notepad.

Soo wrote down the address of the restaurant and briefly consulted Google Maps on her phone before saying, “Right, I’ll get togged up and see you there.”

As Soo was sitting on the stairs putting on her scooter gear, Chloe clattered down from upstairs saying, “’Scuse,” as she sidestepped past.

Soo noticed that Chloe was dressed much as she had been earlier with the same orange cardigan and green knit waistcoat, but with a black roll-neck sweater as the base layer. She was also wearing the yellow and black check miniskirt again, but over black leggings tucked into heavy mustard-yellow socks peeking over the top of a pair of olive-green Converses. The mustard colour was echoed by the fingerless gloves she was wearing.

“Did I leave some marks?” Soo asked, noticing the gloves.

“Nothing serious – just an imprint of my socks on the skin. It’ll be gone by morning. I’m just a tiny bit stiff though, so I’ve added some extra layers for warmth.”

Soo stood up to put on the jacket of her rain-suit then pulled her knit mask down over her head. “OK, that’s me about ready,” she said.

The Harman twins arrived in the hallway at that point. Both were wearing leather jackets and red v-necked sweaters over tight denim jeans tucked into black leather boots.

“Do you always dress identically?” Soo asked.

“Always, if we’re out in public together. If you’re known as we are, you always need to make a bit of effort with appearances. Especially now everyone has cameras with them all the time on their phones.”

“Taxi’s here,” Chloe announced from the front room where she had been keeping a lookout.

“OK, see you there,” Soo said, putting her helmet on.

* * *

“So, how was the babysitting?” Coco asked Soo over their first cup of coffee together on Monday.

“Eventful,” Soo replied. “Nice kid, but definitely eventful.”

“So, somebody must have got tied up. I can’t imagine Chloe missing an opportunity to try out her tying or escaping skills.”

“You know,” Soo replied after a long pause, “you could have told me that on Friday.”

“I could have,” Coco said with a smile, “but then, every babysitter should have some fun like that in her life.”

“Oh,” Soo said quietly, “And did that ever happen to you?”

“What do you think?” Coco said.

 

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