La Cioccolata in
The Ethics of Theft: Blind Chance
by Doctor George
Under cover of darkness, the black-clad woman carefully slid a thin steel shim between the frame and casement of a window. She slid it from side to side to detect the tug of the magnet in an intrusion detector. Once she found it, she stuck a small but powerful neodymium button magnet to the woodwork to keep the reed switch in the detector closed. With the detector neutralised, she used the shim to manipulate the catch and eased the window open.
With access achieved, the woman heaved her not-inconsiderable bulk through the opening and closed the window behind her. She made her way stealthily through the dark, silent house. The alarm control panel was where she expected to find it, in the coat cupboard in the hallway. A small electronic device rapidly interrogated the circuitry of the alarm and delivered the code on a digital display. She keyed in the four-digit code and watched as the status lights changed to green.
With the alarm system out of action, it just remained to find the safe that was her target. The burglar knew that it was in a small study and that she had to cross a sitting room at the front of the house to reach it. The sitting room opened off the hallway, just a few steps away from the coat cupboard where she had disabled the alarm.
There was sufficient light leaking in from the street-lights outside that no additional light was necessary to cross the sitting room. The burglar made her way across the room, her feet silent on the thick carpet.
“Excuse me? Who are you and what are you doing?” A young female voice took the intruder out of her comfort zone, as she stopped and looked round.
“I could ask you the same question,” the burglar replied, deciding to brazen out the situation.
“I’m reading, but then this is where I live.”
“Reading in the dark?”
“Reading in Braille – you don’t need light for that.”
“But how did you know I was here?”
“I’m partially sighted, not completely blind and my hearing’s pretty good – you’re not as silent as you think you are. And you still haven’t told me what you’re doing here.”
Sometimes honesty is the best policy, even for a cat burglar. “I’m here to see what’s in your safe.”
“So you’re a burglar?”
“That’s right. I was hoping to get in and out undetected – I didn’t really expect to find you here reading in the dark.”
“That’s OK,” the girl replied cheerfully. “Being burgled is much more interesting than reading a book. By the way, what on earth are you wearing? I can’t see much, but you look shiny all over.”
“It’s a black latex catsuit, and yes, it’s very shiny,” the burglar told her.
“Ooh! You’re La Cioccolata aren’t you?”
“I am,” Coco admitted.
“Not just any burglar then! I’ve read all about you. They say you never hurt anyone, but you tie people up. Are you going to tie me up?”
Coco was considering how to respond to this question, and indeed what she should do now that her presence was known, when the room was flooded with light. She blinked as her eyes adapted to the brightness and looked around. The room was a large but comfortable sitting room furnished with chairs and a sofa in a variety of styles. The furniture seemed to have been chosen for comfort rather than effect, a policy that Coco approved of.
The girl Coco had been talking to looked to be in her late teens, quite slightly built with a shock of almost white curly hair. Her pale grey eyes and almost translucent skin suggested albinoism which would explain the poor eyesight. She was sitting on a wooden rocking chair with an unwieldy Braille volume open on top of a tartan blanket spread across her lap. She was wearing a dark red cardigan and had a black woollen scarf looped around her neck. Below the blanket, the legs of a pair of pink pyjama trousers were visible, tucked into a pair of white socks.
Standing with by the door was a tall, older dark-haired woman dressed in a lavender dressing down, her hand still on the light switch.
“I heard voices,” the woman said. “What are you doing up at this hour Melanie – you should be in bed. And who’s this woman you’re talking to?”
“Mum, I don’t need nearly as much sleep as you think I ought to. I just got up to read for a bit,” the girl replied with an air of resignation. “And this is La Cioccolata – she’s a burglar and she’s come to break into Dad’s safe.”
The woman froze in astonishment rather than taking the opportunity to get away. Coco reacted by drawing the small gun she had in her belt. The woman’s eyes widened and she raided her hands.
“This is an anaesthetic gun like vets use,” Coco said. “If you both cooperate, I won’t have to use it, but any trouble and I won’t hesitate.”
“It’s all right, mum,” Melanie said. “I’ve read about La Cioccolata – she never hurts anyone, but she ties them up. We’ll be perfectly safe.”
Coco was puzzled by the girl’s attitude. She didn’t seem to be remotely fazed by what was happening, but increasingly excited.
“Is this true? Do you intend to tie us up?” the woman demanded.
Coco was in a quandary. She generally made it a policy not to tie up children, let alone disabled children, unless it was unavoidable. She could still abandon the job and get away safely. She hesitated for a fraction of a second then made a decision. “If I am to carry out this job successfully, then I must, madam. I promise not to hurt either of you or to cause any unnecessary distress, but if I have to I can knock you out with this,” she gestured with her anaesthetic gun, “and tie you up unconscious.”
“I’m not going to let you tie my little girl,” the woman announced striding purposefully across the room.
“Mum! I’m not a little...” Melanie began.
“Quiet dear,” her mother retorted. “If she has to be tied up, I’ll do it myself,” she continued to Coco. She unwound the scarf from around her daughter’s neck and wrapped it around the girl’s wrists, securing it with a large untidy knot.
Melanie stared at her bound wrists resting on the Braille book in front of her.
“You’ll want to gag us too, I suppose?” the woman asked Coco. Without waiting for an answer, she pulled a large white handkerchief out of her dressing gown pocket, folded it into a triangle and tied it over Melanie’s mouth, knotting it at the back of her head. “There. You may deal with me as you will, but do not touch my daughter.”
Melanie rolled her eyes heavenwards and shook her head. Coco marvelled at the ability of a parent to embarrass her daughter even in a situation like this.
“Very well, madam,” Coco replied quietly, seeing that a lesson was required. “Please turn your back to me and cross your wrists.”
The woman did as she was instructed. Coco unslung her small rucksack, put it on the floor in front of her and took a number of bundles of rope out of it. She selected one and used it to bind the woman’s wrists together, running the coils of rope first horizontally then vertically and knotting it off securely over the cuffs of her gown.
“Does it have to be this tight?” the woman complained.
“Yes it does. It’s not a pleasant experience being tied up, but as I promised, I won’t hurt you or cause unnecessary distress,” Coco assured her.
“So this is necessary distress then?”
“I suppose you could call it that,” Coco conceded, picking up another much larger bundle of rope. “Turn around and face me now.”
The woman turned and Coco wound the length of rope around her arms and chest half a dozen times. She tugged the rope tight with each turn and finished off with a knot at the bottom of the woman’s sternum. The finished band of rope lay just above her elbows, drawing her arms tightly against her ribcage.
“This is horrible,” the woman told Coco flatly. “You shouldn’t do this to people.”
“I know – I’m a criminal and I do things you shouldn’t. Tell me something I don’t know,” Coco retorted.
“You won’t get away with this you know.”
“Oh, but I will, if I’m careful. And I’m always very careful. That’s why I’m tying you up so carefully,” Coco told the woman. “Now sit down on the sofa and I’ll tie your legs next.”
The woman sat down heavily, not being able to use her arms to control her descent. Coco took three more bundles of rope from her bag and knelt down in front of her. Coco folded back the woman’s dressing gown to reveal the legs of a pair of pyjama trousers in a startling shade of royal purple. Her feet were covered by a pair of socks in a more sober dark purple.
Coco positioned the woman’s legs so that her ankles were crossed then lashed them together tightly. She followed this with two more bindings, one above and one below the woman’s knees. In the absence of cinching to separate them, the woman’s legs were held tightly together, making any attempt to uncross her ankles impossible.
“Now, this is where you get a choice. I’m going to open your husband’s safe one way or another tonight. You can tell me the combination and everything will be neat and clean or I can blow the door off and you can just take your chances with the mess I make of the house. Now which is it to be?” Coco asked quietly.
“It’s a good safe and I don’t believe you can get into it, so I’m not telling you anything,” the woman declared defiantly.
“Are you sure?” Coco asked taking a small paper-wrapped blob of a red clay-like material from her rucksack. “Semtex is very potent you know.”
“Quite sure. I don’t believe that’s even real Semtex. You’d never carry dangerous explosives around loose like that.”
The woman was absolutely right, but Coco wasn’t about to abandon her bluff and admit that the ‘Semtex’ was just red modelling clay. “If that’s your last word, I’ll just gag you next,” she said.
Coco took a plastic bag out of her rucksack. She opened it and extracted a length of white cloth. “You’re going to want your mouth open to equalise the pressure when I blow the safe,” she explained, “so I’m going to gag you by wedging your mouth open rather than stuffing it full. Open your mouth please.”
Somewhat apprehensively the woman complied. Coco shook out the length of cloth; it was thin white cotton about six inches wide and four feet long. She centred it behind the woman’s head and brought the ends together, tying them into a simple overhand knot which she drew back into the woman’s open mouth, forcing it open and pulling her cheeks back. She took the ends of the cloth behind the woman’s head, crossed them and brought them to the front again. She passed the ends between the woman’s teeth again, but didn’t knot them this time, and then round to the back of her head again where she knotted the gag off securely.
“Not too bad, I hope?” Coco asked.
The reply was an unintelligible mumble and a murderous glare.
“I’ll give your a pair of earplugs too,” Coco said. “It’s the overpressure, not the bang that does the damage, but these should protect your eardrums.”
Coco produced a pair of disposable earplugs and worked them into the woman’s ear canals.
“There’s going to be quite a lot of dust, so I’m going to blindfold you to protect your eyes.” Coco brought out another length of cloth and tied it over the woman’s eyes. Satisfied with her work, she lifted the woman’s feet off the floor and swung them up onto the sofa so she was lying full-length on it, her muffled complaints ignored
Coco turned to face Melanie, who had been sitting motionless on the rocking chair while her mother was being bound and gagged. With almost no effort, Melanie pulled her hands free of the scarf wound around her wrists. She reached up and pulled away the handkerchief tied around her face. It had not been double-knotted, so it came completely loose with a gentle tug.
“I expect you’ll want to tie me up rather better than that,” the girl said.
“I’m afraid so. I’ll be as gentle as I can, but it goes with being burgled,” Coco replied.
“I was hoping so.”
“You have no idea what a sheltered life a disabled teen leads,” Melanie said. “Everything is subjected to the minutest scrutiny. There are more professionals than you can shake a stick at – educationists, psychologists, social workers and that’s before you get to all the medics – dermatologists, ophthalmologists, the full works. And I go to a special school, so everything that happens there is risk assessed until every last possible drop of excitement has been squeezed out of it. Mum wants to wrap me up in cotton wool too. I’m 18 and she worries because I’ve decided to stay up late with a book. It’s part of the guilt trip she’s been on since I was born.”
“I’m albino – you must have spotted that. You get this way by inheriting a duff gene from both parents. She blames herself, but I can’t get her to understand that my genotype is part of who I am – it defines everything about me, so the daughter without albinism that mum really wishes she had wouldn’t be a non-albino me, it would be someone completely different. She just can’t understand why I embrace who I am like this and behaves as if I’m betraying her by accepting it.”
The girl paused, and then added, “Sorry to rant, but it gets to me sometimes,” as her head dropped again.
“I’m sorry you’ve had such a tough time,” Coco replied, “and I’m really sorry that I’m going to have to tie you up.”
“Sorry about it because I’m disabled? Don’t be – this is the biggest adventure I’ve had since... well, probably ever.”
Coco was reminded of her first encounter with Soo. She still felt uneasy about taking advantage of someone who was already disadvantaged by life. After a few seconds thought, she said, “I’ll still make it as easy on you as I can.”
“Don’t do that. I want the full damsel-in-distress thing. If I had a motto, it would be carpe diem – seize the day – and I’m trying to carpe the diem with both hands here. Could you tie me to my chair? You know – lots of rope, gag, blindfold, the full works?”
“You may regret getting what you ask for,” Coco advised.
“If you tie me up properly, I’ll tell you the combination to Dad’s safe,” Melanie offered slyly.
“Why would you do that?”
“Well, if you’re going to get the safe open anyway, we might as well let you do it without messing up the house.”
“All right,” Coco conceded. “Let me have a look at the chair.”
Melanie closed her book and put it down on a small table beside her chair so that Coco could see the chair properly.
The chair was a traditional wooden rocking chair. It was supported on two curved rockers resting directly on the carpet. The front legs of the chair extended upwards to support the armrests and the back legs to form a tall arched back which went up above Melanie’s head. The backrest was formed of a series of vertical spindles extending from the wooden chair seat right up to the top of the arch. The back was stiffened by a horizontal member which spanned between the rear ends of the armrests.
“No problem,” Coco concluded. “I’ll tie your ankles to the chair legs and your wrists to the armrests and that will do the job just fine.”
Melanie’s face fell. “Can’t I have my hands behind my back?”
“I can tie you just as securely with your hands on the armrests. It will be much more uncomfortable with your hands behind your back,” Coco suggested.
“I don’t care about comfortable; I want exciting,” Melanie protested. “I want to be properly wrapped up in ropes.”
“Very well,” Coco conceded. “Will your arms reach behind the back of the chair?”
Melanie experimented. “Not all the way – the chair’s a bit too wide for that.”
“I can still tie your wrists separately to the back of the chair, Will that do?”
“You could tie me like this,” Melanie suggested. She put her hands behind her back so that her arms were between her body and the backrest of the chair.
“You’d have the weight of your body leaning on your arms until someone finds you in the morning. That’s really not going to be nice for you,” Coco pointed out.
“I suppose you’re right,” Melanie agreed reluctantly. “OK, do what you said a minute ago.”
Coco privately wondered just who was in charge of the situation as she sorted out some bundles of rope.
“Right, dump the blanket on the floor,” Coco instructed brusquely, trying to reassert her authority. “Shuffle as far back in the chair as you can and put your hands on your head.”
Melanie did as she was instructed and sat excitedly waiting for Coco to begin tying her up.
Coco began by wrapping a long length of rope several times around Melanie’s waist and the back of the chair so that it passed under the armrests. She formed a secure knot at the front then repeated the process with another band of rope just below Melanie’s armpits, anchoring her chest back to the chair.
“OK so far?” Coco asked.
“Strange, but OK, I think,” Melanie replied cautiously.
“Legs next. Put your feet on the rockers so the backs of your legs are against the chair legs. I see from the scuff marks you do that quite often anyway.”
“If you mean like this, then, yes I do. I hadn’t realised it was damaging the chair,” Melanie said, positioning her feet.
“I’m going to pull your socks up a bit so they’re not bunched up where I’m going to tie the ropes.”
Coco adjusted Melanie’s socks then tied each ankle back to a chair leg, cinching the bindings so they were snug but not too tight.
“Can you move your knees a bit further apart so your legs are against the supports for the armrests?” Coco asked.
Coco started by securing Melanie’s left knee. She passed a piece of rope behind the support for the armrest, which was an upward extension of the chair leg, obliquely across Melanie’s leg and down over the front edge of the seat. She brought it under the chair seat back to where she had started then applied several more turns of rope following the same path. There was no sensible way to cinch the binding, so she left it as a simple lashing and knotted it off. With Melanie’s left leg secure, Coco repeated the process with the right leg.
“That’s everything done except your arms,” Coco told the girl. “Are you still sure about having your hands behind your back? Try it and see how it feels.”
Melanie lowered her hands, which were still on her head and moved her arms behind her back.
“If I tie them like that, your arm will be here,” Coco said. She took hold of Melanie’s left wrist and held it against the horizontal member that linked the armrests.
“Yes, that’s what I want.”
“OK.” Coco used a short length of rope to lash Melanie’s wrist to the woodwork of the chair. She applied another similar binding further up the girl’s forearm and then repeated the process on the other arm.
“How’s that?” Coco asked.
“I really feel properly tied up,” Melanie replied, apparently enjoying the experience.
“I Just need to put some more rope here,” Coco touched Melanie’s arm just above her elbow, “to make sure you can’t pull your arms out of the ropes.”
Coco applied a lashing above to each arm where she had indicated.
“That’s you all done now,” Coco told the bound girl.
Melanie engaged in an exploratory struggle against her bonds. “I can lift myself up in the seat a tiny bit, but apart from that, all I can do is waggle my hands and feet a bit,” she commented. “I’m really tied up!”
“I don’t think it makes any real difference, but I’ll add some shoulder ropes to hold you down,” Coco replied.
Coco picked out a long length of rope from her diminishing supply. She shook it out, folded it in two and found the centre, which she hitched to the right-hand side-member of the chair just below the armrest on that side. She took the doubled rope diagonally across Melanie’s body to her left shoulder and fed it through the vertical bars forming the backrest.
Moving behind the chair, Coco pulled the doubled rope down to the horizontal member across the back of the chair, looped it around the vertical bars just below that, tugged it tight then took it up to Melanie’s right shoulder and fed it through the backrest again.
Standing in front of the chair again, Coco took the doubled rope diagonally across Melanie’s body again and fastened it off below the left armrest, opposite to the point where she started.
“That’s you definitely done now,” Coco informed her prisoner. “So you can tell me the safe combination.”
“I don’t know the combination as such,” Melanie confessed, “but I know how much you have to turn the knob to open it.”
“The safe isn’t electronic, it’s one of those ones with a knob to turn to set the combination.”
“Yes, I know.”
“You do? Anyway, the knob makes tiny clicking noises when you turn it. I know that 50 clicks is a full turn, because I’ve heard that when I’ve been in the office when Dad has opened the safe. He told me that you have to turn the knob right round twice before you open the safe. There’s always a run of 20 or so clicks, not always the same number, then a pause, then 50 clicks then 50 clicks again.”
Coco considered this information. It made sense if the knob was zeroed from a random setting before the two full turns to clear the lock. “Go on,” she said.
“After that, there’s 23 clicks, then 37, then 19 then 29. I don’t know what the numbers actually are, because I can’t see well enough and I know you have turn a combination lock first one way then the other, but I don’t know if it starts clockwise or anticlockwise.”
“I’ve got a note of all that,” Coco confirmed, “so you won’t have to clean up after a big bang.”
“I wouldn’t have told you if I didn’t know you were going to blow the safe up otherwise,” Melanie pointed out earnestly.
“I just need to gag you, then I’ll get on with it. No need for earplugs and blindfold if I’m not letting off explosives.”
“It would add to the experience if you did,” Melanie suggested. “Besides, it will save me having to explain to Mum and Dad that I told you the combination if you treat me the same way as you did Mum.”
“So the story is that I go into the office intending to blow the door off the safe and mysteriously manage to work out the combination instead?”
“Exactly. I waited for the bang and it never came – a complete mystery,” Melanie said with a mischievous grin.
“It’s no skin off my nose, but you may regret this later,” Coco said dismissively. “I’ll start with your gag.”
“Can you use my scarf as a gag, please?”
Coco picked up the black scarf that Melanie’s mother had earlier used to tie her daughter’s wrists. The slightly rough texture suggested wool. “Being gagged with a wool scarf isn’t going to be very nice,” she warned.
“I’d like you to use it so I can take it to school on Monday. We share about life experience in PSE on Mondays.”
“Personal and Social Education. The life experience sharing is like show-and-tell for sixth formers. Being tied up and gagged by La Cioccolata and having tangible evidence will be so cool.”
“I hope you still think so when you’ve been tied up for a few hours,” Coco replied grimly. “Open your mouth as wide as you can.”
Melanie obediently opened her mouth. Coco tied a knot in the centre of the scarf and judged its bulk against the gap between the girl’s teeth.
“Did you see what I just did?” Coco asked.
Melanie shook her head.
“I’ve put a knot in the scarf, otherwise it won’t make much of a gag. It will be a bit of a shove to get it in past your teeth, but it will be OK if you relax and don’t fight it. Understand?”
Melanie swallowed audibly, opened her mouth again and nodded.
Coco eased the knot between Melanie’s teeth. “Tip your head forward,” she instructed. Melanie did so and Coco double-knotted the scarf behind her head. The girl grunted as the knot tightened.
“That hankie your mother tried to gag you with was enormous – I’ll see if I can blindfold you with it,” Coco said, retrieving the handkerchief from the floor where it had fallen. She folded it into a narrow band and tied it over the girl’s eyes.
“OK with all that?” Coco asked. Melanie nodded. “Just the earplugs then.” Coco took another pair of earplugs from her bag, unwrapped them and inserted them into the girl’s ears.
Coco gathered up the few bundles of rope she had not used and returned them to her rucksack. She carried out a quick visual check of her two prisoners’ bindings then patted Melanie on the shoulder and made her way to the office.
* * *
It took a few minutes of searching to locate a tiny video bug that Soo had managed to plant on a reconnaissance visit some days earlier. She had planned to use the footage recorded on that to obtain the combination to the safe, but trusted that the information given up so readily by Melanie would make that unnecessary.
The safe was already familiar to her from Soo’s photographs: a sturdy grey steel floor-standing model probably dating from the 1980s, just before electronic locks became ubiquitous. The dial was calibrated from 1 to 50, just as Melanie had described. The pointer currently stood pointed to 34, probably a random position set after closing the safe.
Coco zeroed the pointer then turned the knob two full turns clockwise. It was an even chance as to whether the combination would go right-left-right-left or the other way, so Coco turned the knob 23 clicks to the right to point at 23. 37 clicks to the left took her past zero to 36. 19 right took her just past zero to 5 and finally 29 to the left took her right round to 26. She pressed down on the handle of the safe, but nothing happened.
Unperturbed, Coco zeroed the dial and cleared the lock again. 23 left this time to 27, 37 right to 14, 19 left to 45 and 29 right to 24, a mirror-image of the moves she had tried earlier. This time the handle pushed down easily and the safe door swung open.
The safe contained several bulky folders of paper, some jewellery, which Coco rapidly concluded was worth far less than its owners probably thought, and a huge quantity of banknotes. The documents were of no interest to Coco and the jewellery not worth the effort of trying to resell it. There were sterling banknotes, US dollars, euros and Swiss francs. Sterling was represented by a small wad of notes in a plastic bag, probably not much over £100 worth. Both US dollars and euros were there in huge quantities. All the notes were used and wide mix of denominations, held together in bundles with rubber bands. Coco estimated that there were over ten thousand pounds worth of each. The Swiss francs were brand new notes, all 1000 franc denomination and numbered sequentially. There was a bundle of 10 notes in a wrapper issued by a Zurich bank, about £6500 worth.
Coco paused to consider her findings. From what she knew of the safe’s owner, it was unlikely that Her majesty’s Revenue and Customs knew anything about money in this quantity, which suggested some interestingly illicit activities. She had no idea of the source of the dollars and euros, but the Swiss francs strongly suggested that one of Switzerland’s famously secretive banks was involved either as a repository or as a stage in laundering funds, whether wittingly or unwittingly. She decided that new sequential bills were far too easily identifiable, so she left the francs and happily helped herself to the dollars and euros.
She returned through the sitting room where her two prisoners were ensconced. Melanie was sitting peacefully in her rocking chair but her mother seemed to have put some effort into struggling unsuccessfully with her bonds as her dressing gown was now slightly awry and she was breathing hard around her gag.
Coco headed out of the room, switching off the light as she went, and let herself out of the house.
* * *
At 8:30 the next morning, Soo let herself into Coco Aldington’s house. “Morning!” she called out as she went to the kitchen with the carton of milk she had picked up on the way to work. She checked the coffee machine. It wasn’t unusual for Coco to have filled it and switched it on before she arrived, but the jug being almost empty already was usually a sign that Coco had started work very early or had been up all night.
Soo made her way to the office with her own cup of coffee. She found Coco sitting at her desk, wearing a white towelling bathrobe and counting banknotes which she had sorted into stacks according to denomination.
“The safe job?” Soo asked. “You said you might do it last night.”
“Yes – it turned out quite profitable too. The only thing is going to be how to distribute so much cash without drawing attention.”
“All according to plan?”
“Not quite,” Coco replied. “I got in with no trouble at all. The husband was away as we expected but I had an encounter with the wife and daughter.”
“And you tied them up?”
“Yes, no difficulty there, and their domestic help should be arriving to find them about now.”
“But something’s obviously still bothering you.”
“It’s the daughter. She’s blind, well partially-sighted to be precise. I was hesitant about tying her up and thought about abandoning the job, but she seems to have led an incredibly sheltered and protected life and she practically begged me to tie her up so she could experience something exciting and risky for once.”
“And you did?”
“Very thoroughly. She offered me the safe combination in exchange for ‘the full damsel-in-distress thing’. Her words.”
“That sounds like win-win. You got the safe open; she had a blast being trussed up.”
“It ought to be win-win, I agree, but I still feel uneasy about tying up a blind kid.”
“You need more coffee,” Soo told Coco firmly. “You gave her the same thing you gave me, an experience she will build on for the rest of her life. Maybe just not in quite the same way.”
Coco looked at her assistant, a small smile on her lips. “I suppose not,” she said eventually, “let’s have that coffee.”
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