La Cioccolata in

Return Visit

by Doctor George

A sequel to Gillian B’s story ‘Occupational Hazards’

In Coco Aldington’s experience, opportunities for work, both legitimate and criminal, were abundant. The scarce commodity was information. Accordingly, intelligence gathering was a key part of her twin careers, both the public one as a prominent consulting engineer and also the clandestine one as La Cioccolata, one of Europe’s most successful (some might say celebrated) jewel thieves. Once conceived, she aimed for projects in both spheres of her life to be subtle and ingenious. As an engineer, this approach had built her reputation for unorthodox (some would say daring) and innovative solutions to problems. As a thief, it made her formidably skilled and almost completely unpredictable.

Coco worked hard to keep her public and criminal personae entirely separate. Only a tiny handful of trusted people knew her in both realms of her life. She made no attempt to hide La Cioccolata’s activities; she just made sure that they were never traceable to Coco Aldington. Indeed, she enjoyed the reputation that the mysterious Cioccolata had built up. She was well known for her startling black costume and her proclivity for helping herself to chocolate whenever possible, but Coco was proudest of La Cioccolata’s professional reputation as a thief. Her technical skill was second to none and she took care never to stray beyond theft in her criminal enterprises. She might steal their jewellery, but she took great care never to cause any lasting physical harm to her victims. She might terrorise them into cooperation, but apart from leaving them helplessly bound and gagged and sometimes making use of tranquillisers, she never used serious physical violence and would never contemplate deadly force.

Coco’s use of intelligence required a degree of juggling to integrate information acquired professionally as an engineer and information emanating from her underworld contacts (while always making sure that nothing she did could be traced back to her). One such convergence of information occurred early in 2005. While discussing a project for a bank, which combined both security and engineering flair, she heard from another consultant about a domestic security installation he had recently carried out, one which sounded like a classic case of locking the stable door after the horse had bolted (or in this case, been stolen). Coco recognised it as the location of an extremely lucrative burglary she had carried out late the previous year, which had featured some amusingly amateur security arrangements (amusing for La Cioccolata, that is). Miss Aldington, the respected engineer, shared her colleague’s amusement but of course betrayed nothing else that she knew of the circumstances. As chance would have it, a few days later, Coco met with a dealer who sometimes disposed of the proceeds of robberies for her. (He had a good idea that she worked for La Cioccolata and suspected that she might just possibly actually be La Cioccolata, but she was so thoroughly and expertly disguised that he would never connect her with Coco Aldington.) She learned from this contact that an unusually large purchase of jewellery, some of it rather fine antiques, had recently been made by a woman living in the southern suburbs of London. There were a few other details that enabled Coco to make a connection with the alarm system installation and come to an interesting conclusion: her victim had upgraded the alarm system since her encounter with La Cioccolata and then made a conspicuously large purchase of jewellery to replace the items that had been stolen, presumably making use of an insurance settlement. Possibly time for a return visit, Coco concluded privately.

***

As Coco approached the target of her return visit, she was already in her working outfit of a black latex catsuit. Soft-soled calf-length black leather boots and thin black latex gloves complemented the suit while a tightly-fitting black leather corset cinched her plump figure to at least an approximation of an hourglass. Several strategically-mounted D rings on the corset also provided convenient suspension points for various pieces of equipment. A small black leather rucksack completed her professional ensemble. Her short grey hair was hidden under a curly brown wig and a black leather domino mask obscured her features. Contact lenses transformed Coco’s own periwinkle blue eyes to La Cioccolata’s startling green.

Coco would have been rather conspicuous in her attire had it not been for the cover of darkness. She had also not had to travel far dressed like this, having removed her street clothes behind the screen of some bushes in her victim’s garden.

The immediate object of Coco’s attention was the siren and strobe light for the alarm system. It was a louvred metal box mounted high up just below the eaves of the house. Conveniently it was positioned in an angle of the wall so that it was in the deep shadow cast by a street lamp. With a practised underarm swing, Coco tossed a rope up over the top of the house roof. She pulled gently on the rope and the small grappling hook on the end of it lodged itself on the ridge of the roof. Cautiously, Coco applied more tension to be sure that it would support her weight (she had pulled ridge tiles off doing this before). Once she was satisfied, Coco used a pair of ascenders to swarm up the rope in a series of frog-like movements.

The difficulty with the type of alarm that Coco faced was the way that it continuously tested its own integrity. If she interfered with the functioning of the siren, the alarm system would immediately send an emergency call via its telephone line. Equally, if she cut the telephone wire, the alarm would immediately sound. A simultaneous two-pronged attack was required. Coco began by inserting a device through the ventilating louvres of the siren box. This consisted of a coil of thick insulated copper wire attached to which was a plastic box bound with insulating tape. On the box was a switch to arm the device and a large button to activate it. Coco flipped the switch and placed her right thumb on the button. In her left hand, she held a smaller box, also with a button on it and with a small wire antenna poking out of one end.

Coco pressed both buttons at once. There was a barely-audible pop from the ground below her as an explosive bolt, radio controlled by the box in her left hand, sliced through the telephone wire. The larger box in Coco’s right hand became suddenly warm as she pressed the button. The warmth was from the brief but very heavy electric current that had been discharged through the coil. The resulting strong electromagnetic field wrought havoc with the delicate electronics inside the siren box. Coco knew that there would be an audible warning from the control box for the alarm system that all was not well, but it would be no more than electronic beeping, probably inside a cupboard and unlikely to wake the sleeping residents upstairs. Nevertheless, silencing even that sound was imperative as Coco’s next task.

It took only a few seconds for Coco to abseil down to ground level and detach herself from the rope. She had already surveyed the two locks on the front door through binoculars on a previous visit and knew what to expect. One was a mortice lock and the other a cylinder latch, both quite expensive high-quality products, but vulnerable to Coco’s decades of experience with lock picks. She was through the door in less than three minutes.

The alarm was indeed beeping plaintively, barely audible inside a cupboard in the hallway. Coco silenced it by the simple expedient of pushing a screwdriver through the grille on the front of the control box and destroying the small loudspeaker within.

With the electronic alarm now out of action, Coco’s next imperative was to deal with any people who might raise the alarm. From her previous visit, she already knew that there were a maximum of four occupants in the house: a married couple in their forties, Susan, their nineteen-year-old daughter and a foreign student working as an au pair. The husband was away on business in Dublin. Coco knew that the daughter was in a gap year between high school and college doing part-time work and was not always at home. Coco had met the daughter (who like to be known as Soo) on her previous visit to the house. For a nineteen-year-old (who looked much younger), she was a surprisingly forthright and resourceful woman. Coco had also met the predecessor of the current au pair, a Norwegian girl named Inga. The present incumbent was a tiny girl of somewhat Asiatic appearance and a completely unknown quantity to Coco.

Coco was already familiar with the layout of the house. From her previous experience, she judged that the daughter Soo might be the greatest risk, so she began with her room. Coco turned the doorknob and opened the door silently. In dim light penetrating the house from the streetlights she could see that Soo’s bed was unoccupied. From its neat appearance, Coco concluded that the bed had not been slept in and that Soo must be away from home.

As Coco anticipated, the au pair was installed in the room formerly occupied by Inga. She was lying on her side, facing away from the door and curled up in a ball making a small hump under her duvet. The first she knew of Coco’s presence was a gloved hand clamped over her mouth. The girl woke instantly, a startled squeak almost completely muffled by Coco’s hand. Coco turned the girl’s head so that she could see her face.

“If you do exactly what I say, you won’t get hurt,” Coco said in a low, even voice.

The au pair stared back, her brown almond-shaped eyes wide open in terror. She made no response whatever.

“Don’t struggle or fight me and don’t make any noise or I may have to hurt you a lot. Do you understand?”

The reply was a tiny nod, which Coco felt through the hand clamped over the girl’s mouth rather than seeing it.

“Good,” Coco said, allowing a little of the steely menace to depart from her voice. “Now I’m going to have to tie you up. It won’t be very comfortable, but I promise I won’t hurt you. Do exactly as I say and it will be over quite soon.”

The girl nodded again.

“Now, roll onto your front, put your hands behind your back and cross your wrists.”

Coco drew a coil of rope from her rucksack and used it to bind the young woman’s wrists securely together. The au pair was cooperating, but it was always reassuring to reach the point where a victim was essentially helpless. Coco had many years of experience in tying people up and proceeded quickly and efficiently, working largely by touch and instinct in the dim light of the bedroom. She wound a coil of rope around the au pair’s upper arms and chest, pulling her elbows tightly against her ribs, knotting it off tightly at the front. Next, she pulled down the duvet to gain access to the girl’s legs. Coco paused for a moment to arrange the skirt of the girl’s nightdress more tidily around her, both for comfort and to preserve a little dignity. She then lashed her legs together at the ankles and knees. Finally, Coco used a length of rope to link the girl’s ankle binding to the rope around her wrists and then up to the coil around her chest. Coco helped the girl roll onto one side for comfort. The rope linking her wrists and ankles wasn’t pulled tight enough to make a severe hog-tie, but it prevented the au pair from straightening her legs and would make it very difficult for her to crawl anywhere even if she managed to roll out of bed.

“Open your mouth so I can gag you. I’m sorry, but this bit is never very nice.”

The au pair obediently opened her mouth. Coco stuffed a wad of cloth in behind her teeth then held it in place with another piece folded into a long band which she eased between the girl’s teeth and then knotted behind her head. Coco finished off by blindfolding the au pair with another length of cloth then drawing the duvet back up over her to keep her warm.

There only remained the lady of the house to deal with. Coco closed the au pair’s bedroom door silently and crept along the corridor to the master bedroom.

The curtains in this bedroom blocked the light far more efficiently than had been the case in the au pair’s room. Coco decided to risk losing some of the element of surprise by switching on the light. Coco already knew how the furniture was arranged from her previous visit, so she lost no time through having to orientate herself. The bed was occupied by a woman lying on her back and rather untidily sprawled under the duvet. One arm was flung out across the bed and the other was tucked under the pillow. The duvet was a rumpled mess with one foot sticking out from under it and the middle heaped up over a raised knee. Sharing a bed with someone who slept like this couldn’t be conducive to a peaceful night’s slumber, Coco noted.

Coco was surprised that there had been no reaction to the light being switched on. As she approached the bed, she saw the reason: the woman’s eyes were covered by a black sleep mask. Coco adopted the same approach that she had with the au pair; she clapped a hand over the woman’s mouth.

“Do as you’re told and you won’t get hurt.”

The woman grabbed Coco’s arm and tried to break her grip, kicking out wildly with her legs as she did so. Coco pressed down harder, and with her free hand reached back for one of the items clipped to her corset.

“Don’t struggle or I’ll have to knock you out,” Coco threatened.

The woman let go of Coco’s arm, pushed her sleep mask up and made a more determined effort to fight Coco off her using fists and knees.

“Have it your own way.”

Coco used the auto-injector pen she had in her hand to deliver a shot of anaesthetic into the woman’s bottom. Over the next minute or so, the struggles became progressively less co-ordinated and weaker before the woman finally subsided into unconsciousness. Coco heaved a sigh of relief.

Although the anaesthetic Coco used was very quick acting, the anaesthesia it induced wasn’t too deep for safety’s sake and it wasn’t long lasting. Accordingly she had to work quickly, taking less than five minutes to render her victim completely helpless.

The woman was wearing cosy cotton pyjamas and a pair of socks, probably for warmth, given how little of her seemed to be covered by the duvet as a result of her night-time gyrations. Coco had had occasion to tie people up in a wide variety of night attire in the course of her career. None caused her particular problems, but on the whole pyjamas made her task easier than long flowing nightdresses.

Coco had no conscious policy about tying up her victims and generally tried not to cause more distress than was inevitable. When someone fought back, it was a sensible precaution to ensure that they were well restrained. On the whole Coco was not vindictive, after all her victims had a perfect right to defend their property by whatever means available. Nevertheless, there was a certain satisfaction in making sure that particularly uncooperative victims were especially thoroughly immobilised.

When Coco left the lady of this house, she was tidily arranged face up in the middle of the bed. Her wrists were securely bound together with her forearms parallel across her back. There were bands of rope around the woman’s waist and also around her upper arms and chest, the latter cinched between her arms and body. A long pair of ropes were attached to the waist ropes, fastened to the wrist binding and then to the chest ropes, taken up over the woman’s shoulders and hitched to the chest and waist ropes at the front before passing between her legs and being fastened off where they began at the waist rope. There was thus absolutely no risk of the woman working her arms free. The woman’s legs were bound at the ankles and just below the knees, with the ropes being cinched snugly in both cases. As the bed had a decorative wrought iron frame, Coco had taken the opportunity to secure her victim further. A length of rope linked the woman’s ankle binding to the centre of the foot of the bed and two more ropes went from her shoulder ropes to the outside corners of the bed-head. She was gagged in much the same way as the au pair had been with a cotton cloth stuffed into her mouth and held in place by another band of cloth between her teeth. As the woman had provided her own blindfold in the form of a sleep mask, Coco left it in place, merely ensuring that it was properly positioned.

Coco replaced the duvet over the woman’s bound form. She knew from personal experience how cold one could get tied up and immobile.

With her victims safely indisposed, Coco set to work to relieve the woman of her newly-purchased jewellery. Some days earlier, she had spent an industrious afternoon cleaning windows in the immediate neighbourhood. She had provided the service free of charge ostensibly as a promotional effort for a new business and had distributed leaflets stating her scale of charges and giving a contact telephone number. (Anyone trying out the number would merely get the phone company’s message, “The number you have dialled has not been recognised.”) Most of the houses she visited simply got clean windows, but the one in which she had a particular interest also received a small video bug. While cleaning the master bedroom windows, it was the work of a moment for Coco to enter the room and place a thumb-tack sized infra-red activated video camera inside the wardrobe which contained the newly-installed safe.

Coco retrieved her tiny video camera and plugged it into a special adapter connected to a modified pocket media player. Using the player’s screen as a small monitor, she fast-forwarded the recorded video until she found someone opening the safe. The sequence of six digits on the safe’s keypad was perfectly clear, so all Coco had to do was to punch them in and the contents were hers.

The haul was all that Coco could have asked for. Its monetary value was very satisfactory and, she was pleased to discover, some of the pieces were of exceptionally fine quality. In her previous experience, Coco had found that jewellery purchases made with insurance settlements were often of inferior quality to the items they replaced, probably as a result of being bought in haste and without the care and thought that had gone into the earlier purchases. In some ways, that probably softened the blow of another burglary following so close on the heels of the first, but that would be unlikely to be the case on this occasion. Nevertheless, this wasn’t something that ever troubled Coco’s conscience and was mission accomplished as far as she was concerned. She carefully bagged the jewellery and stowed it in her rucksack.

Coco was out of the house less than a minute later. Shortly after that, she was walking through the streets, now dressed in a grey tweed coat with a dark green woollen scarf draped around her shoulders. Her hair was hidden by a slightly untidy wig giving the impression of wavy brown hair beginning to go grey and a beret matching the scarf was perched on the back of her head.

***

Soo woke from a deep sleep when an electronic instrument under her pillow emitted a soft ping. She rolled out of bed and straightened the duvet, smoothing it down to give the impression that the bed had not been slept in. She opened one of the two drawers that were set into the base of her bed, climbed in and slid the drawer shut by walking her hands across the wooden slats that supported the mattress. It was a tight fit, but her short and slight stature enabled her to squeeze herself into a surprisingly small space.

Curled into a foetal position and breathing as silently as she could, Soo listened intently. She heard nothing until her bedroom door was opened very quietly and then shut again. After that, she could just make out a low voice from the adjoining room. The intruder must be in Mariko’s room, probably tying her up. A few moments later, there was more sound, this time from further away. Soo could hear a voice, but the only words she made out were the final phrase, “Have it your own way.” She concluded that her mother had put up a fight and had been restrained forcefully. Her instinct was to run to her mother’s aid, but she knew that would be futile and also she had a different agenda that night.

After what seemed like hours, but was in reality probably less than ten minutes, Soo heard another gentle ping from the small electronic receiver she had retrieved from under her pillow. That must be the intruder leaving the house. It was also Soo’s signal for action.

Soo had deliberately gone to bed wearing clean underwear, a pair of black leggings, socks and a t-shirt. She had done this every night for almost two weeks now. She had also assiduously rehearsed the next series of actions until she could carry them out unhesitatingly in the dark. She put on the pair of pull-on boots that were beside her dressing table then a sweater that had been lying folded on a chair, she added the hooded jacket that was on a hook on the back of the bedroom door and left the room. She quickly checked Mariko’s and her mother’s rooms. As Soo expected, they were both bound and gagged. It was distressing to leave them like that, but it was necessary if she were to succeed in carrying out her plan to follow La Cioccolata to her lair.

As Soo descended the stairs, she checked that her purse and keys were already in her jacket pockets then let herself out of the house quietly. She crossed the street to where her small car was parked and climbed in. She started the engine, turned on the lights and set off.

The police always asked the public if they remembered seeing any unusual vehicle movements whenever one of La Cioccolata’s robberies hit the news. They also admitted that La Cioccolata was a master of disguise and that they had no real idea what she looked like, only that she was quite short and possibly fat. Soo’s theory was that La Cioccolata made her getaway from jobs like this by a combination of walking and public transport, that her mastery of disguise was in effect her getaway vehicle.

It was a tentative theory, but Soo thought that a railway station would be La Cioccolata’s immediate destination, as that would put the maximum distance between her and her crime in the minimum time. There were two stations reasonably close to Soo’s home, both on lines linking the central London termini with the South Coast. Both had a service that started in the early hours of the morning, so there was no way to know which was the correct station. Soo therefore had to guess. Her hunch was that La Cioccolata’s ultimate destination would be somewhere in London and that she might therefore choose the station further away from London just to misdirect anyone trying to reconstruct her route.

Shortly before reaching the station, Soo saw a woman walking steadily in that direction. She glanced at her in the rear-view mirror as she passed. The height was about right for La Cioccolata and she certainly wasn’t slim, although it was hard to tell what the woman’s figure was like under a bulky overcoat. She noted the untidy loose curls of the woman’s hair. Was that what she really looked like? Probably not, Soo concluded, remembering La Cioccolata’s reputation for disguise as she parked her car.

Soo picked up a small shoulder bag from the back seat of her car, affixed a pay-and-display ticket for the parking fee and made her way to the station entrance. It was still very early in the morning and other than Soo, the only people in sight were the short woman she had seen on the way to the station and the clerk manning the ticket window. Soo worried about being recognised as there was no opportunity to hide herself in a crowd. She reached into her bag and pulled out a hooded woollen scarf she had put in there as a potential disguise material. She put it on and wound the scarf around her face, leaving only her eyes and forehead showing. It was early on a chilly morning at the tail end of winter, but it wasn’t nearly cold enough to need to dress that way. Soo felt horribly conspicuous, but it was all she could think of to do.

“Day return to Brighton, please,” Soo heard the woman say.

Money and a ticket changed hands. The woman turned and fleetingly faced Soo as she made her way to the ticket barrier. Soo silently heaved a sigh of relief as there was no discernible reaction to her presence.

Soo was still working on the assumption that the woman’s true destination was London and that the ticket to Brighton was a diversion. Accordingly, she didn’t purchase a ticket herself, but used her London Oyster Card to pass through the ticket barriers. Oyster Cards can be used on quite a lot of the national rail network in suburban and inner London as well as the London Underground and red buses, and Soo hoped this would give her a degree of agility in following the woman, wherever she went on the public transport network.

Soo made her way to the platform to await the next London-bound train. There were about a dozen people waiting for the train, but no sign of the woman she suspected of being La Cioccolata either on her own platform or on the southbound platform opposite. Was the trip to the station a complete blind? Had the woman bought a ticket, passed through the barrier and then managed to go somewhere completely different? If so, Soo’s planning had been a complete waste of time and effort. She decided to keep on waiting.

A few minutes later, another figure joined Soo on the platform, standing a few yards away. Soo surreptitiously studied her out of the corner of her eye. Short, possibly only five feet tall, plump, wearing a grey raincoat over a dark trouser suit with black leather boots, black hair cut in a severe, chin-length bob and small circular Lennon-style spectacles. She had a black leather rucksack slung over one shoulder. The woman she had last seen at the ticket window had a rucksack like that and didn’t La Cioccolata have one like that when she had robbed Soo’s house a few months ago? Bingo, Soo concluded, with a broad grin behind her scarf, where nobody could see it.

Soo took care to board the same carriage as her quarry, but sat several rows of seats away, almost at the other end of the vehicle. Once the train was moving, she unwound the scarf from around her face and put it away in her bag, replacing it with a knitted beret, carefully tucking all her hair up inside it.

Most passengers were either reading or were asleep. Soo dared not do either as she had to be ready for La Cioccolata (she was sure it was her now) leaving the train unexpectedly. Fortunately there were other people either staring out of the window into the darkness or just staring vacantly, so Soo staring at her quarry was not too obvious a thing to do.

As the train drew into Clapham Junction station, the woman rose to her feet. Soo’s heart sank. Clapham Junction was enormous; there were something like seventeen platforms and getting on for a hundred trains an hour to dozens of different destinations. Soo stood up and stepped out onto the platform as soon as the train stopped. Soo knew that there was an underpass linking the platforms at this station. She made her way straight there then paused, apparently studying a network map on the wall. As she did so, she carefully glanced to either side and located the woman she was trying to follow. Carefully maintaining a discreet distance, Soo ascended the steps to another platform. Fortunately, there were more people around now and Soo no longer felt quite so glaringly conspicuous. A few minutes later, a train bound for London’s Waterloo terminus arrived. Once again Soo boarded the train within sight of the woman but not too close to her. She settled down once again to watch what happened.

There were only a few moments to wait until the woman stood again, getting off the train at Vauxhall, the very next stop. Soo left the train too. If the woman headed out of the station into the maze of streets around that part of London, Soo knew that she would very probably lose sight of her. She decided to risk a chance and head for the Underground station attached to Vauxhall main line station. The was thankful that she could use her Oyster Card to get through the barriers, so that she didn’t have to waste time buying tickets. Soo glanced up and down the northbound Victoria Line platform and located her target once more. She was relieved to see that the woman was still dressed the same way.

A train for Seven Sisters roared into the station and once again, Soo ensured that she was in the same carriage as her quarry but not too close. It was still very early in the morning, but there were enough other travellers now to make Soo’s pursuit a little easier to carry out inconspicuously.

Soo was relieved that the woman didn’t get out at Victoria or Oxford Circus, either of which would have provided myriad possible destinations and opportunities for losing her. However her hopes that the journey might continue to the quiet northern suburbs of London were dashed when the woman stood up as the train slowed down on the approach to Euston. The Victoria Line platform was quite busy but not as crowded as it would be a few hours later at the height of the rush hour. Soo decided she could take the risk of following close behind the woman to reduce the chance of becoming separated from her.

As it turned out, the woman simply used one of the connecting corridors to cross to the adjacent Northern Line platform. The first train was for Edgware; she let it go and boarded the second one for High Barnet. Soo sat a few seats away from the woman. She knew from her own experience that it wasn’t unusual to see the same person on several legs of a journey involving a series of changes of train. Nevertheless, she felt very visible and sure that her target must have noticed her by now. As the tube train headed into London’s northern suburbs, the number of passengers diminished steadily. When the woman got out at Highgate, she was one of only three to do so. Soo cautiously hung back so as not to be too obviously following the woman. Suddenly there was no sign of her. Highgate is quite a complex station, the nexus of the Northern Heights and City branches of the Northern Line, with platforms on two levels. Soo searched around at random for a few minutes, but it was soon obvious that her pursuit had been in vain; she had lost her quarry.

There was nothing for it but to return home. Soo was despondent on the way back but remembered that she still had a charade to see through. When she reached her home station, she made a point of having ‘lost’ her Oyster Card and then ‘discovering’ it again after she had asked one of the staff what she should do. That way the staff would be sure to remember her should the police ever follow up Soo’s statement of where she had been.

It was fully daylight when Soo reached her house. She let herself in and then took a deep breath before commencing the performance that she had to act out. She trotted up the stairs to her mother’s room and tapped on the door.

“Hi! Are you not up yet?”

There was something muffled and unintelligible in reply.

“Sorry, didn’t get that. Are you OK?”

Another muffled reply, a little louder.

Soo opened the door, knowing what she would find.

“Mum! Ohmygod, what happened?”

She rushed over to the bedside and pulled her mother’s sleep mask up to reveal tear-reddened eyes.

“I’ll get your gag off, then I’d better see if Mariko’s OK,” Soo told her mother, worrying all the time that the mental script the was following might sound contrived and unnatural.

Using her thumbs, she levered the gag out from between her mother’s teeth then pulled the packing out. Her mother worked her mouth for a moment then croaked, “Thanks.”

Soo ran to Mariko’s room. The Japanese girl rolled over to face the door as she entered, mumbling something from behind her gag. It took only a moment for Soo to relieve her of the gag and blindfold. The girl swallowed several times, trying to get her voice working again.

“Don’t try to speak. I’ll get you loose in a minute, but I’d better call the police first.”

Soo pulled her mobile phone out of her jacket pocket and dialled 999.

“Police, please,” she told the emergency operator. “A robbery.”

Soo gave her address to the operator then waited while a police officer was put on the line.

“I’ve just got home and found my mother and our au pair tied up. I think the house has been robbed...

“Yes, I’m going to free them both now...

“No, I won’t touch anything else...

“Thank you.”

Soo fetched a knife from the kitchen then paused. She wondered if cutting the women loose would destroy valuable evidence. She settled for using her phone to photograph both her mother and Mariko before hacking through the ropes binding them.

The police arrived in the form of two detectives, an inspector and a constable, and two uniformed constables, a man and a woman. Soo apologised that contrary to instructions, she had touched the kettle and teapot in order to make cups of tea for the two shocked women.

A doctor arrived a little while later. She examined Soo’s mother and Mariko carefully and pronounced them surprisingly fit after their ordeal, prescribing nothing stronger than tea and rest.

As she expected, Soo was questioned about her movements. She told the inspector that she had received a late-night phone call from one of her friends and had taken a train up to London, stayed out far later than planned and got an early morning train back. (She knew that she couldn’t substantiate any of this, but hoped she wouldn’t have to.) It all seemed to be accepted at face value, which slightly surprised Soo, who was feeling extremely guilty lying to the police like this.

Soo seemed to spend the rest of the day making cups of tea for police officers. In addition to the four officers who had arrived initially, a huge bevy of scene-of-crime officers arrived and searched the house minutely in their white hooded boiler suits and latex gloves. They all seemed to have an insatiable thirst for strong sweet tea.

Later on, Soo heard an encouraging conversation between one of the scene-of-crime people and the inspector.

“I saw the card, but are we sure it’s La Cioccolata?”

“It’s definitely her. I’ve come across other people leaving fake cards, but the real clincher is that there isn’t a scrap of evidence other than that. Nothing we can do anything with anyway.”

“Anything on means of entry?”

“The alarm system’s toast and the alarm people can’t work out how or why. The locks have been picked by an expert; there’s the usual scratches inside, but nothing else.”

“Sounds like her,” the inspector admitted. “What about those climbing ropes she left behind?”

“We’ll go through the motions, but I’ll bet the rope is either something you can buy anywhere or something nobody’s seen for forty years. The karabiners she used are stamped ‘Made in DDR’.”

“DDR?”

“German Democratic Republic. East Germany. They date from before German reunification in 1990, so we’re unlikely to find anyone who remembers stocking them, let alone who they were sold to. And that assumes the business that sold them is still going after fifteen years.”

“I agree; it all sounds like La Cioccolata. Do what you can anyway.”

Secretly, Soo was elated. She had been certain, well almost certain, that the burglary was a second visit from La Cioccolata; it was good to have it professionally confirmed. The previous burglary had left Soo gagged and tied to a chair in the kitchen for almost four hours. She refused all offers of counselling following the event. Although it was something of an ordeal, Soo, far from being traumatised by the experience, had found it intensely exciting.

Despite being a star pupil at school and with the prospect of an equally stellar university career ahead of her, Soo was bored. A degree course in Business Studies (with Accounting) would undoubtedly lead to a solid, well-paid job, but she couldn’t imagine any excitement coming out of either the course or the job. Her careers teacher at school had said, “Pick the job you want most in the whole wide world and then focus on what you need to do to get it. Get out there and find someone you want to work for and ask them for a job. Worry about the qualifications once you have the goal in sight.” Soo had been too timid to do anything like that. She had taken exams in the subjects she was best at (English, Maths, Business Administration and Modern Studies) and had chosen a university course that would rely on them, hence her place to study business studies. She had even looked for jobs in her gap year in the same way: Hotel Receptionist, Bookkeeper, Filing Clerk. She was only nineteen, had barely embarked on her career plan and was already bored. What made it worse was that she knew it was all her own fault.

Being tied up by La Cioccolata was the most exciting thing that had ever happened to Soo by a very wide margin. She wanted more of it, not more of being the victim of a robbery, but more of the excitement that must go with a criminal career. When Soo heard that there was a very real risk of a second visit from La Cioccolata to reap the proceeds of the insurance claim following the first burglary, she saw an opportunity and hatched an audacious plan: she would track down La Cioccolata and ask her for a job. The fact that the combined police forces of Europe had so far failed to track her down didn’t faze Soo in the least; La Cioccolata would probably come to her and when she did, Soo would be ready.

Given the warning that a second burglary was likely, Soo’s parents invested in a sophisticated alarm system and a formidable safe. Soo was quietly confident that La Cioccolata (who was becoming something of a heroine for her) would have no problem thwarting the new defences. She decided to add a discreet extra alarm of her own to the system, not to prevent a burglary, but to alert her that one was in progress. Alone in the house one Saturday, she installed a device she had found on the internet. She drilled a hole down into the top edge of the front door, where no-one would be likely to notice its presence, and inserted the sensor for her own personal alarm. A small permanent magnet had to be inserted in the corresponding position in the door frame above it. It was white and matched the paintwork, so again it would be unlikely to be noticed. The device was designed as the electronic equivalent of a bell rung by opening a shop door. Rather than ringing a fixed bell, this version signalled wirelessly to a receiver that could be carried around. It could be set to produce any of a number of sounds, including the very soft electronic ping that Soo had selected.

Having installed her early warning system, Soo simply had to be ready to act upon it. She kept the alarm under her pillow and slept in clothes that would allow her to dress very quickly to go in pursuit of La Cioccolata. One of the drawers under her bed was kept clear for use as a bolthole when the burglary actually came. After that, all she’d had to do was to wait. The plan worked admirably, except for the tiny detail that La Cioccolata had successfully (even if unconsciously) thrown off her pursuer at Highgate tube station.

***

The more she thought about it, the more certain she was that she had very nearly followed La Cioccolata all the way to her lair. The trail had gone cold in Highgate, which was hardly on the way to anywhere, or at least not on the way to anywhere greatly distant from Highgate. There were two ways to find someone, Soo reflected. One was to go and look for them and the other was to stay in one place in the hope that they came past.

Soo decided that a change in job was called for. All her gap year jobs thus far had been safe, predictable and dull. It was time to do something a little more risky.

The first step was to fill out a form and attend an audition. Soo was a reasonably competent musician, not brilliant, but sound and solid, like much else she did; she hoped that her unusual repertoire would give her an edge over the likely competition.

With a successful audition and payment of a £20 fee, Soo was pleased to be a licensed busker with an allocated pitch at Highgate tube station, which had hitherto been musician free.

Visits to several charity shops and several industrious hours with her mother’s sewing machine produced a costume. A visit to the hairdresser did away with her conservative straight shoulder-length cut and added a little colour to her naturally brown hair.

The travelling etiquette on the London Underground network is to steadfastly ignore the fellow traveller. Accordingly, it is perfectly possible to wear the most outrageous clothes and have no-one pay the slightest attention. Soo’s working costume was a floor-length dark purple velvet dress with a tightly-fitted bodice and widely-flared skirt, made largely from remnants of curtain fabrics. Her hair was full on top, cut sharply in on a level with the bottom of her ears and dyed an almost black shade of purple. She wore a pair of spectacles with blue-tinted circular lenses. When she walked, the toes of a pair of sturdy Doc Martens boots were visible and when she lifted the skirt of her dress to negotiate stairs and escalators, a glimpse of her black and white striped tights could sometimes be seen. Her make-up was dominated by deep red lipstick the colour of black cherries and dramatic mauve eye-shadow. The overall effect was of an Elizabethan noblewoman with a Goth fixation. The glossy black fibreglass guitar case on her back and small battery-powered amplifier she carried somehow seemed to fit in perfectly with this outfit.

Soo would have been too shy to perform in public as herself, but the outrageous costume enabled her to behave outrageously without her true identity being readily apparent. Soo located her pitch on a corridor leading to the low-level platforms at the station and settled down. She played a classical guitar, but was using one fitted with an electric pickup. The amplifier served both to boost the audibility of the music and to provide her with something to sit on. Soo left the guitar case open on the floor in front of her and scattered a handful of change into it to act as a seed for donations. In keeping with her costume, Soo’s repertoire centred on madrigals, but with an unconventional take on them. Madrigals in school music lessons tended to require a high degree of musical precision but were uniformly safe and dull in content. Soo’s preferred material was anything but safe and dull. The madrigal was the people’s music of England in the sixteenth century and many of them had lyrics that were racy in the extreme. Soo planned to give some of the juicier examples an airing. The musical arrangements she used were also a little unorthodox and the whole enterprise was set off nicely by her surprisingly gutsy contralto voice.

Soo discovered much to her surprise that she rather enjoyed performing in public, even though she had only embarked on her career as a busker as an excuse to watch out for La Cioccolata. She also found that she rather enjoyed being so heavily costumed that she could adopt a persona very different from her own. (This was a somewhat lesser surprise as she had always enjoyed dressing up when she was a little girl, but hadn’t really indulged in such games since then.) Soo had only rehearsed about half a dozen madrigals, so she effectively performed a series of half-hour sets. An hour or so into her first morning’s performance, two thoughts occurred to Soo in quick succession. The first was that she would have to expand her repertoire in order for regular travellers not to hear the same songs too often. The second was her own astonished reaction to the first thought: the realisation that she was getting so involved in her role as a busker that she was actually thinking like a performer. As a commercial enterprise, the busking proved remarkably successful too; counting up the takings while she took a mid-morning break in a local café, she discovered to her surprise and delight that she was taking about £10 per hour (although she realised that the novelty value of her performance would wear off and she would be unlikely to sustain this level of income).

Being a private detective must be really boring, Soo reflected. She had her music to keep herself occupied, but even so, there were quite long periods when nothing was happening and although she was playing her guitar and singing, she was just waiting in an almost entirely empty corridor. Her patience was, however, beginning to bear fruit. Soo was becoming very adept at surreptitious people-watching as she performed. She had had several sightings of a woman whom she was beginning to suspect might be La Cioccolata in her everyday identity, certainly someone who could be the woman she had followed to this station.

The height and figure of the woman Soo had spotted were right; she was short and plump. One thing that had caught Soo’s attention was the way the woman moved. Her movements were not those of a fat woman; she walked quickly and nimbly and seemed surprisingly light on her feet. Soo’s research had suggested that La Cioccolata must be about 50 years old, possibly more. This woman looked as though she might be a little older than that but strangely also seemed younger; her hair, which was cut in a boyish short bob, was completely grey, almost white, but she had a relatively unlined face and moved like a young woman. The woman’s eyes were a puzzle to Soo; they were the most intense blue she had ever seen, almost violet. She remembered La Cioccolata’s eyes as green and they were generally reported as being green. Soo had simply assumed that the green she had seen was La Cioccolata’s natural eye colour. She acknowledged contact lenses as a possibility, but they would have to be very good ones to pass close-up scrutiny. And were contact lenses like that available when La Cioccolata began her career in the 1970s?

There was really nothing that Soo could do to progress her quest other than to carry on busking and to keep up her surveillance in the hope that there would be some kind of breakthrough. Besides, the busking was paying as well as several of the part-time jobs she had taken on in the past.

About the middle of the second week of busking, Soo had the proof she was looking for. She spotted another short, plump woman. This one had slightly untidy brown wavy hair and didn’t walk with quite the purposeful stride she had seen the grey-haired woman use. She didn’t pause as she passed Soo, but glanced at her briefly so that Soo had a clear view of her grey eyes. Could it be the same woman, Soo wondered. If so, her disguise was very good indeed.

Some hours later, Soo spotted the same woman returning from wherever she had been. The clothes, the hair and the walk were the same. Soo couldn’t get a clear view of the woman’s eyes as she approached, but they seemed to be subtly different. In a flash of inspiration, Soo snapped the top E string on her guitar. She broke off her singing and cursed under her breath. (This wasn’t acting; it really hurt breaking a string deliberately like that.) The subterfuge worked as planned; the woman glanced at Soo when she heard the bang of the string breaking. Her eyes were bright blue now. Soo bit the inside of her cheek to stop herself from grinning manically as she worked on replacing the broken guitar string.

As she travelled home that evening, Soo reviewed the results of her week and a half of busking. She was fairly certain that the woman whom she had originally followed to Highgate tube station and then lost was La Cioccolata. Although she had not been in her working costume, La Cioccolata had nevertheless been in disguise on that occasion. Since then, Soo had tentatively identified a short, plump grey-haired woman as possibly being La Cioccolata in her true, everyday identity. The evidence for this was very flimsy, really based on no more than height and build. However, Soo was now certain that she had seen the same woman wearing a disguise. It seemed highly improbable that there were two short, fat, women who both used Highgate Underground station who habitually went about disguised, so there was a very good chance that this really was La Cioccolata. Soo wondered if she really had achieved in ten days of busking what the best police in Europe had failed to do in thirty years; it seemed rather too good to be true. Still, the evidence did seem compelling.

Soo’s next problem was how to track La Cioccolata any further. She had several sightings but no clear pattern so far. The woman’s route through the station was not consistent, which suggested that she sometimes began or ended her journey at Highgate and sometimes changed trains there. One possibility was that she lived within walking distance of Highgate station, but that she sometimes travelled from another station, presumably also close to her home. Soo had too few sightings of the woman to correlate her observations with other factors such as weather. Nevertheless, it was a theory to be going on with.

Like most regular users of the London Underground, Soo had a reasonable working knowledge of the network, but other than stations she used regularly, little clear idea of where the lines ran geographically. Later that evening, when she was at home, she brushed up her knowledge of the area around Highgate tube station. A combination of the 1:25,000 scale Ordnance Survey map, the A to Z street map and a London Underground network diagram gave her a good picture of the neighbourhood. The key was Highgate’s position in the tube network. The station is on two levels. The upper level (actually in the open air) is mainly served by trains shuttling between Moorgate in the City and Alexandra Palace. To get from the Alexandra Palace branch to the West End or anywhere south of the Thames, it is necessary to change at Highgate and catch a train from the lower level platforms. The stations on the Alexandra Palace branch are very close together; indeed, Cranley Gardens is only a kilometre from Highgate station, so it would probably be quicker to walk to Highgate if one was having to change trains there anyway. Soo tentatively concluded that La Cioccolata probably lived somewhere near Cranley Gardens or Muswell Hill tube stations.

***

Soo began the next phase of her surveillance exercise by taking a very long lunch break. She had already discovered that there was a very pleasant café on Archway Road, directly opposite the entrance to Highgate station.

She had forsaken her usual performing costume in favour of something a little less conspicuous (and cumbersome) for street wear. Given the Goth-inspired image she had established for herself, she retained the same keynote colours with a warm black sweater worn over black tweed miniskirt. Her black Doc Martens and a pair of thick purple wool tights kept her legs warm (busking in a tube station was a chilly occupation). A short black padded jacket with a fake-fur-trimmed hood kept her top half cosy while a purple knitted scarf slung around her neck added a touch of colour. The purple-black dyed hair fitted in very well with the rest of the outfit.

Soo suspected that La Cioccolata must be habitually very observant in order to have enjoyed such a successful career. As she was already known to La Cioccolata (and had no idea if her disguise as a Goth busker had already been penetrated), Soo was anxious to maintain the integrity of her assumed persona. She had been wearing entirely cosmetic blue-tinted spectacles but they looked a little strange with street clothes. A visit to a chain-store pharmacist yielded a pair of quite funky reading glasses with rectangular frames and lenses weak enough that Soo could read through them without suffering instant eye strain. She could also look over the top of them in order to cross the street without risking her life.

At mid-day, Soo settled herself down at a table in the café window. She had already seen the woman she suspected of being La Cioccolata earlier in the morning and hoped to see her emerge from Highgate station on her return journey. There was a good view across the street and along it in both directions (although it was sometimes obstructed by passing traffic, including double-deck buses). A large cup of coffee (the first of several) and a copy of the Guardian newspaper folded to the daily crossword, established an innocent pretext for Soo’s presence.

Soo found it difficult to concentrate on watching passing pedestrians and kept finding herself being distracted by the crossword. She just hoped that she hadn’t missed her quarry.

It was almost three o’clock when Soo saw the woman she had been waiting for. She emerged from the tube station and turned right. Soo quickly put her jacket on. hoisted her guitar case onto her back and picked up her amplifier. She reached the street just in time to see the woman turn into Muswell Hill Road. Soo was usually fairly cautious about crossing busy roads, but she darted across as soon as she saw a gap in the traffic. When she reached the bottom of Muswell Hill Road, the woman was still in sight, a hundred metres or so ahead of her. Heaving a sigh of relief, Soo set out in pursuit.

Although Soo had never attempted to follow someone covertly before, she had read read many children’s adventure books in the past. She knew the theory was to stay far enough behind the person being followed not to attract attention, but at the same time to stay close enough not to lose contact. The principle sounded simple enough, but applying it was problematic: how close was too close? Soo decided to close the gap to about fifty metres and increased her pace. It was a fairly steep climb to begin with and the weight of the guitar and amplifier made it quite strenuous. By the time the woman reached Cranley Gardens tube station, Soo was happier about her distance from her target and relaxed the pace a little.

Without warning, the woman turned right into a side street. So wasn’t sure what she should do. It was all very well to stay close enough to maintain visual contact, but as soon as the quarry turned a corner, they were out of sight. Soo sped up as much as she felt she could without drawing undue attention to herself then slowed deliberately as she reached the corner. She was relieved to see the woman still in sight as she turned into the side street. Her rush to regain visual contact had reduced the gap between them to only about thirty metres, but Soo felt she had to keep going; she had no plausible reason to stop and wait. A deliberately slow pace might attract attention as might stopping to consult her street map, so Soo carried on, carefully matching her target’s pace. She was relieved when a hundred metres or so further on, the woman crossed the road and went through the garden gate of one of the houses. Soo kept walking, but glanced to the side as she passed the house and noted its number.

Soo worked her way back to Highgate tube station by a circuitous route. She selected an inviting looking patisserie in Archway Road and bought herself a large (but she felt well-deserved) late lunch. Assuming all her assumptions and deductions were correct, she now knew La Cioccolata’s home address.

***

The next day, Soo set out to discover La Cioccolata’s secret identity. She acknowledged that ‘secret identity’ was more to do with comic book superheroes than jewel thieves, but couldn’t help herself thinking in those terms.

The first thing was to find a name. Soo decided to consult the Electoral Register as every adult has by law to be registered to vote and the list of voters is a public document. As a first attempt, she tried using one of the on-line sites that claim to offer views of registration details. The address wasn’t listed. Soo knew that one could opt out of being listed on the commercially-published version of the register and it lookes as though La Cioccolata had done just that. Soo would have to take a trip to the council offices to read the definitive version. It took her a few minutes to discover that the Muswell Hill area is in the London Borough of Haringey and that the council offices are near Wood Green tube station.

It seemed like a long journey to look at a computer print-out but Soo curbed her impatience as best she could.

The journey to Haringey took over an hour, but Soo’s visit to the council offices took only a few minutes. A brief study of the definitive copy of the Electoral Register yielded two pieces of information. The first was a name: Colette Aldington. The second was that no-one else at that address was registered to vote. It was extremely unlikely that someone in their 50s would have young children, so the probability was that there were no other names listed because she lived alone.

Soo’s next port of call was to Wood Green Public Library, just a few hundred metres along the street from the council offices, where she would be able to access the internet. She had to wait a few minutes until a PC was available. She went to google.co.uk and typed in Colette Aldington’s name. There were hundreds of hits. Soo had hoped that the name would be reasonably rare and that it would be fairly easy to see if there was anything relating to the woman she was looking for. Unfortunately, there seemed to be someone fairly prominent with that name, an engineer by the look of it, and links relating to her were swamping the list of hits. There was nothing to do but to work through them methodically trying to see if ‘her’ Colette Aldington appeared.

The first dozen hits were all the engineer, mostly abstracts of technical papers she had authored or co-authored. This was going to take a long time.

Inspiration struck as Soo dismissed yet another link to something complicated to do with engineering. She realised that if she searched in Google Images, it would be very easy to distinguish quickly between photos of different people. Naturally, the search didn’t simply deliver pictures of people called Colette Aldington; there were people called Colette or Aldington but not both and there were photos by rather than of all those people too. That said, it was immediately obvious that there were quite a lot of pictures of a short, plump, grey-haired woman.

Soo picked the clearest-looking photograph and clicked through to the page it belonged to. It was her. It was most definitely her. The height was unmistakable compared with the people around her. Weight was fairly obvious from the pictures. The hair tended to photograph white rather than the silvery grey it was in reality and the colour of the eyes didn’t reproduce at all well, but it was definitely her. Soo glanced through the text on the page. It related to a recent conference on hydrological engineering in Belgium at which Colette Aldington had been a speaker.

Soo was stunned. How could someone who was clearly quite a prominent consulting engineer also be a jewel thief? It wasn’t impossible, of course, but it just seemed so very, very unlikely. Nevertheless, Soo was certain that the woman pictured was the one she had followed to her front door. She had established that a woman named Colette Aldington was registered to vote at that address. Now this website confirmed the appearance of an engineer named Colette Aldington. Improbable as it seemed, Colette Aldington, notable consulting engineer, and La Cioccolata, renowned jewel thief, were one and the same. The evidence was conclusive.

***

Soo decided to retreat to a café and think over what her next move should be. She bought a large cup of coffee and a toasted sandwich and carried them to a corner table, where she settled down.

Now that her goal was almost in sight, Soo was beginning to have second thoughts. She still desperately craved excitement and becoming sidekick to an enterprising criminal genius appealed enormously. The question was whether she had the chutzpah to knock on Colette Aldington’s door and say, “I know you’re really La Cioccolata and I want to work for you.” As she had imagined it when she first conceived of the plan, she would have an immediate rapport with La Cioccolata and be accepted joyfully and willingly as an apprentice. Soo had to remind herself that La Cioccolata was a very dangerous criminal. It had been exciting being tied up by her, but it had also been terrifying, by far and away the most frightening thing that had ever happened to her. Knowing La Cioccolata’s true identity might also be a perilous thing, Soo reflected. If she was perceived as a threat, it might be very dangerous for her, possibly fatally so, she admitted to herself.

Soo bought another coffee and a large, sticky pastry to aid her thought processes. She pondered her options and then came to a decision. Almost every decision she had made regarding her future had been predicated by minimising risk. She always took the option she perceived as ‘safe’ or, more worryingly, the option that her teachers or parents perceived as being safest for her. She had already acknowledged to herself that she was bored with her chosen path through life so far. She wanted excitement, so she would take a risk and if the gamble didn’t pay off, she would have no-one but her self to blame.

Soo retrieved her A to Z London atlas from her bag and thumbed through the pages until she found her current location. She estimated the distance by counting the grid squares on the map and worked out that she could walk to Colette Aldington’s front door in less than an hour.

***

Soo’s walk took her through Alexandra Park, up over the hill surmounted by the Alexandra Palace exhibition centre. It was a beautifully sunny early spring afternoon, but still decidedly chilly for wearing a short skirt, even with warm tights. She pulled the hood of her jacket up and snuggled her chin down into her scarf to compensate.

When she reached Colette Aldington’s house in Muswell Hill, Soo’s resolve hadn’t wavered. She walked up to the front door and pressed the bell push.

There was no immediate reply. Should I ring the bell again, Soo debated. And what if she’s not in? Will I ever have the courage to come back if there’s nobody in now, Soo wondered, realising just how nervous she was.

The wait was probably a lot shorter than it seemed to Soo, but eventually the door opened. Whenever Soo had seen Colette Aldington before, she had always been quite smartly dressed. Her preference for home wear seemed to favour comfort with a heavy sweater worn over a collarless cotton blouse and a denim skirt. She had always been wearing at least moderate height heels when Soo had seen her; the completely flat soles of the thick slipper socks she wore now emphasised her diminutive stature.

“Can I help you?” Miss Aldington asked, as Soo hadn’t immediately spoken.

“Well, I wanted to discuss something rather important with you,” Soo blurted out, realising as she spoke that she was talking far too quickly in her nervousness. “It’s a bit delicate, so perhaps I could come in?”

Miss Aldington looked surprised but said nothing as she stepped aside for Soo to enter the house.

“I’ve seen you busking down at Highgate tube station, haven’t I? You’re rather good.”

“Thank you,” Soo replied, slightly wrong-footed by the compliment, “but that’s not what I came to see you about. The thing is, I’ve worked out that you’re really La Cioccolata.”

Soo suddenly blushed bright crimson. It all sounded so utterly absurd when she said it aloud.

“It would be more comfortable if we talked in the sitting room,” Miss Aldington suggested, gesturing towards an open door.

Soo headed in the direction indicated. As she did so she felt a sudden sharp pain in her bottom as if she had been stabbed with a pin. Having heard her mother’s account of La Cioccolata’s second visit, she knew exactly what had happened. She turned to look at Miss Aldington. The room seemed to tilt alarmingly and her vision doubled.

“No! I really need...”

Soo’s protest got no further before her knees buckled under her. She was unconscious before she hit the carpet.

***

The memory of being drugged was still clear in Soo’s mind as consciousness returned. At first all she was aware of was a terrible headache that seemed to clamp her skull in a vice. She opened her eyes, but the light was far too bright, so she closed them again. Any movement of Soo’s head hurt terribly and the pain surged in time with her pulse. That said, the headache did seem to be starting to diminish.

Soo tried opening her eyes again. The light still seemed terribly bright, but not unbearably so. Her eyes eventually focussed on Colette Aldington who was sitting in an armchair a couple of metres away looking at her. Full consciousness returned quickly and with it Soo’s realisation that she was tied to a chair and gagged.

“To answer your question: yes, I am La Cioccolata,” Miss Aldington said. “I’ll get you some water; that usually helps ease the headache.”

Colette Aldington stood up and left the room. Soo could hear the sound of running water then she returned carrying a tumbler of water, which she set down on a small table.

“Now, I’m going to take your gag out. These old houses have nice thick walls, so don’t bother screaming; nobody will hear you and I might be obliged to slap you quite hard if you do.”

Soo nodded her head.

Miss Aldington untied the knot behind Soo’s head which secured the band of cloth between her teeth then eased the soggy wad of packing out of her mouth.

Soo swallowed hard then said, “Thanks,” her voice sounding oddly rough.

Colette held the glass for Soo to drink.

“Don’t take too much; it’s not nice needing the toilet when you’re tied up.”

Soo resisted the urge to slurp down the entire contents of the glass and satisfied herself with a mouthful.

“Now, I have work to finish off this afternoon,” Colette Aldington said. “I need to email stuff to my clients, so for the moment, you’ll just have to wait here.”

“What’s going to happen to me?” Soo asked, trying hard to keep her voice from breaking. “I only wanted to talk to you.”

“I haven’t decided what’s going to happen to you; I need to think about that,” Miss Aldington replied. “You can talk to me later, but for now you’ll have to put up with the gag again.”

“Do I have to be gagged again? I promise to keep quiet.”

“I’m not offering you a choice.”

Soo opened her mouth and allowed Colette Aldington to gag her again.

Miss Aldington left the room and a few minutes later, Soo could faintly hear the sound of typing somewhere else in the house.

As Soo had imagined it beforehand, her interview with Colette Aldington should have been a cosy fireside chat in which she shared her passionate desire for excitement and asked to become la Cioccolata’s apprentice. Being drugged, tied to a chair and gagged before she had a chance to say anything was not what she had expected. However, Soo was enough of a realist to acknowledge that this had always been a possible outcome, even if she hadn’t admitted it to herself before. She had confronted an experienced career criminal with proof that she had penetrated her secret double identity, so Soo could probably count herself fairly lucky still to be alive and able to worry about the situation.

Now that the headache had more-or-less gone, Soo took stock of her situation. She was sitting on an old-fashioned upright wooden dining chair with arms. Her wrists were tied down to the arms of the chair and her elbows secured to the uprights that formed the side members of the chair’s backrest. She could see rope around her chest and over her shoulders holding her back into the chair and preventing her from leaning forwards. Soo could feel rope around her waist, although it was out of sight below her own bust. Similarly she could feel but not see that her legs were tied back to the chair legs at the ankles and at the knees.

Soo tested the limits of her freedom. Her hands could be turned and twisted to a surprising extent, but she quickly realised that she was nevertheless helpless. She could just reach the ropes over her wrists by twisting her hands around and stretching out her fingers, but the knots were all well out of reach and fingertip contact with rope achieved nothing. She tried leaning forward and reaching up with her right hand at the same time. She had wondered if it might be possible to reach her gag, but the closest she could manage still left a gap of ten or fifteen centimetres. She had been tied up by an expert and would stay that way until the expert decided otherwise.

As she was struggling, Soo realised that she was no longer wearing her jacket. She looked around the room and saw her jacket, scarf and mittens tidily folded on an armchair, her shoulder bag beside them and her boots standing neatly side-by-side on the floor. The fingerless gloves she had worn under the mittens were still on her hands.

As escape was out of the question, Soo relaxed so far as she was able and studied her surroundings. The room was the spacious Victorian parlour that would be expected in a villa built for the burgeoning and increasingly wealthy middle classes in the nineteenth century. The décor accentuated the original architectural features that had been retained. The furnishing was an eclectic mix from all decades from the mid nineteenth century to the present day. Nevertheless, Soo concluded, it was a tasteful mix that complemented itself and the room. The overall effect was quirky, but unostentatious and comfortable.

Soo attempted to consult her watch but discovered that it was no longer on her left wrist. Looking at the pile of her clothes, she could see that it too had been removed. She glanced around the room and found a rather attractive Art Deco style clock on the mantelpiece. She was astonished to see that less than an hour had passed since she had entered the house. Thinking back, an hour was entirely consistent with the sequence of events that had taken place. Nevertheless, in that time she had gone from being a free agent in search of adventure to a helpless prisoner whose fate lay entirely in the hands of another. It seemed to be a shockingly short space of time for that.

It might even still be daylight outside, Soo realised. The room’s heavy velvet curtains had already been drawn across the windows, giving her the illusion that it was actually much later than was really the case. As it was a cold, grey winter afternoon, it was not unreasonable to draw the curtains to keep the chill out, but, Soo concluded, a far more likely reason was to conceal the presence of a bound and gagged woman from passers-by in the street outside.

After Soo had been sitting gloomily contemplating her predicament for some time, Colette Aldington returned. She picked up Soo’s bag and sat down on the armchair she had occupied previously to examine its contents. She rummaged through the assortment of pieces of paper and other items she found then pulled out Soo’s purse.

“A name at last: Susan Hildegard Angarrack,” Miss Aldington announced, reading from Soo’s driving licence.

Colette Aldington stood up and walked across to Soo, studying her face closely.

“You know, I thought you looked familiar when I first saw you busking, but I couldn’t place you and the Goth look threw me a bit too. I remember you well now: Soo, the girl who was so excited to be tied up by La Cioccolata.”

Soo nodded.

“I think you’d better tell me how you came to be standing on my doorstep.”

Colette Aldington reached behind Soo’s head and untied her gag.

Soo swallowed a couple of times to get her voice working again then announced, “I came to ask for a job. I want to be La Cioccolata’s apprentice.”

Miss Aldington, sitting in her chair again, said nothing for a long moment but sat staring at Soo with raided eyebrows. Eventually she said, “That’s ‘why’; let’s begin with ‘how’.”

Soo explained how she had anticipated and planned for a second visit from La Cioccolata and had then successfully followed her as far as Highgate Underground station.

“I always make sure nobody I rob is in a position to follow me, but it never occurred to me that someone might anticipate a visit from me and then hide out in order to follow me home.”

“You made sure you were disguised though,” Soo pointed out. “And you managed to change your clothes between buying your ticket to Brighton and then getting on a train to London.”

“That was mainly so there would be conflicting witness statements if anyone tried to find out if I’d gone by train. I’d imagine I’m pretty easy to follow if there aren’t too many people around.”

Soo had the good grace to hesitate before saying, “Well your figure is pretty distinctive and that cuts down the number of possibilities.”

“I’m short and fat, in other words.”

“I’m pretty short too, so I’d have had a hard time following you anywhere really busy. If you’d carried on to Waterloo instead of getting off at Vauxhall, I think I’d probably have lost you in the crowds.”

“Tactical error on my part,” Colette Aldington acknowledged with a wry grin.

“I was worried that you’d change train at one of the really big complicated tube stations and I did eventually lose you at Highgate.”

“Hence the busking?”

“Hence the busking,” Soo confirmed. “It was the only way I could think of loitering for hours without anyone asking what I was doing or moving me on.”

“Good thinking, and you’re good enough that no-one would suspect you were there other than to earn money.”

“Thank you, and I did actually make a lot more money than I expected.”

“You’ve been busking for about two weeks now and I’ve seen you a couple of dozen times now. Why did it take so long before you came here, if that was always your plan?”

“I saw you and I occasionally saw people who might be you in disguise, but I was never sure until one day I saw you disguised except for your eye colour,” Soo explained.

“Damn,” Miss Aldington exclaimed. “I’m usually fine with contact lenses, but one eye kept watering that day and I eventually had to take them out. I just had to risk coming back with blue eyes. What made it worse is that I wasn’t wearing glasses that day, so I could hardly see without the contacts. I just had to try to avoid eye contact and hope that no-one who had seen me was very observant.”

“It was so you’d look at me that I broke a guitar string.”

There was a long pause in which Colette Aldington stared open mouthed at Soo. “You’re a bloody clever girl, Soo Angarrack. The question now is what the hell am I to do with you?”

“I’ve already told you,” Soo replied. “I want a job. I want to be your apprentice.”

“I’ve spent decades making sure that nobody beyond a trusted few know me both as Coco Aldington and as La Cioccolata. Now you know, and there’s no way for you to stop knowing. The most sensible thing for me to do would be to kill you before you can tell anyone else. If the police ever found out who I was, I’d go to jail for twenty years or more. By the time I came out, I’d be an old woman and there would still be a dozen other countries all queueing up to extradite me. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life in prison.”

“I don’t want to spend the rest of my life dead.”

There was a long tense pause. “No, and I wouldn’t want to live with having killed you. I’ve never killed anyone in my life and I’m not going to start now. The only other choice is for me to run away and start a new life somewhere else. I’ve got enough money and contacts to do that, but, dammit, I like the life I’ve got. Why did you have to wreck it for me?”

“If I’d wanted to turn you in, I’d have gone to the police, but I didn’t, I came to you because La Cioccolata coming into my life was the most exciting thing that’s ever happened to me and I realised that my life was boring. I decided that what I really wanted was to work for you and to learn to do what you do.”

“Most people who want excitement take up white-water canoeing or skydiving in their spare time rather than taking to a life of crime,” Miss Aldington pointed out. “Besides, you took a terrible risk coming here. For all you knew I might just have killed you outright as soon as I realised you knew who I am.”

“I’ve hardly ever taken a risk in my life; that’s why it’s so boring,” Soo replied. “I decided it was time to start taking a few risks.”

“Well, you’ve certainly done that. I can’t tell you how tempting it was just to keep pumping anaesthetic into you until your heart stopped.”

“But you didn’t, because you don’t kill people,” Soo pointed out. “Instead, you’ve taken the time to listen to me when you could have just left me tied up in the cellar until you’d decided what to do. Aren’t you taking a bit of a risk too? Couldn’t you go that bit further and take the risk of giving me a job?”

Colette Aldington threw back her head and laughed. “This reminds me of a conversation I had about thirty years ago, but it’s so different. Have you ever heard of a woman named Margot Harman?”

“Don’t think so,” Soo replied, puzzled by the change of subject.

“You’ve heard of the Kray twins? Way before you were born, but you probably know the name.”

Soo nodded.

“The Richardson brothers?”

After a pause for thought, Soo nodded again.

“Henry Harman?”

Another nod, but a little more cautious.

“Not so well known, but just as nasty. What’s less well known is that his wife, Margot Harman, was the real power behind the throne and far more successful than Henry.”

“I still don’t think I’ve heard of her.”

“You probably wouldn’t; like I said, she was successful and that includes not getting caught.”

“Sorry, I think I’m losing the drift here,” Soo said.

“When I was just setting out on my career, I had a bit of a run-in with Margot Harman, mainly because I was arrogant and naïve. I ended up tied to a chair in her kitchen with my feet in a bucket of concrete, ready to take a one-way boat trip down the Thames. Just when I thought I was done for, she offered me a job; she wanted me to team up with her and be her apprentice.”

“Sounds like she made you an offer you couldn’t refuse,” Soo observed.

“True, and that’s what makes it so different. I’ve got you tied to a chair, but it’s you asking me for a job. When Mrs Harman had that conversation with me, I was already quite a good cat burglar and I had skills she could use. What have you got?”

“I’m a good planner and organiser, I’m good with figures and I’m good at paying attention to detail. I also like to think I’m quite intelligent. Surely those are resources you can use?”

“Good answer. Information gathering, logistics and management are the hard parts of setting up a job. Most people think a good thief needs to be able to silence alarms and open locks, which is true, but it’s the organisational skills that are likely to let them down and get them caught.”

“What about your other business? Do you need an admin assistant there?”

Colette Aldington grinned. “For a girl who’s tied to a chair and ought by rights to be frightened out of her wits, you’re very persuasive. All those years ago, Mrs Harman took a risk by taking me on. I like you, Soo, and I’m going to take a risk on you. I need a bit more time to get used to this idea and we need to work out a lot of details, but I think you might just possibly have a job.”

“Thank you, Miss Aldington,” Soo replied. “Now, could you possibly untie me for a bit so I can go to the toilet? I’m getting a bit desperate here.”

“Not quite what I was expecting you to say, but yes you may go to the toilet. Can you manage in handcuffs? I’m not quite ready to cut you completely loose yet.”

“Yes, I think so. I’ll try anyway.”

“And one more thing, if we’re going to work together, my name is Coco.”

Working quickly, Coco untied Soo’s arms from the chair and handcuffed them in front of her. After that, it took only a few minutes to remove the rest of her ropes.

Soo felt a little unsteady walking after being tied up, but returned to normal after a few steps. Coco led her to a small downstairs cloakroom and left her to do her business.

***

“What happens next?” Soo asked as she emerged from the cloakroom a few minutes later. “This is really as far as my plan went.”

“I’m afraid that what happens next is these,” Coco answered, holding up another pair of handcuffs.

“But you’ve handcuffed me already,” Soo pointed out.

“Not your feet, I haven’t,” Coco said, kneeling down and snapping the cuffs onto Soo’s ankles.

“Is this really necessary?” Soo asked.

“Actually, I hope it isn’t, but I feel happier keeping you under control until we both know exactly where we stand. I hope it’s not too uncomfortable for you.”

“I think I understand and no, it’s not too bad, just very strange; I’ve never been handcuffed before,” Soo replied. “At the risk of something else happening to me, I’ll ask again, what happens next?” she added with a smile.

“Well, I was thinking of going into the kitchen to put the kettle on for a cup of tea and to see if there’s anything I can feed you with.”

Coco turned and walked into the kitchen while Soo shuffled along behind, taking tiny steps with her handcuffed ankles. By the time she caught up, the kettle was switched on and Coco had two mugs standing ready for tea.

“What were you going to eat?” Soo asked.

“I’m not much of a cook, so I tend to eat out a lot, but I can hardly take you out to a restaurant in handcuffs,” Coco told her. “There’s not really very much here,” she added, opening the fridge.

“There’s a couple of bell peppers in there; what else have you got?”

“I think there are some onions in the veg cupboard, but they’re probably a bit elderly.” Coco walked across the kitchen and opened another cupboard door.

“Onions keep for ages, so they’re probably fine,” Soo said, “and you’ve got garlic too, but I think those potatoes have probably had their day.”

“I think you’re right,” Coco admitted, dumping the soft wrinkly potatoes into the bin.

“Any tinned tomatoes?” Soo asked.

“I think so,” Coco replied, crossing to another cupboard and opening it. It proved to be well stocked with cans and packets.

“You’ve got pasta in there too. I can knock up a meal from that lot. It’ll be a bit dull as pasta sauces go, but perfectly edible.”

“What else would you add to make it more interesting?” Coco asked.

“Courgettes, mushrooms and some pancetta works well.”

“I can easily pop out and get anything you need, if you’re offering to cook; there’s some quite good shops in Muswell Hill. Let’s have that tea first.”

It took Soo a few minutes to negotiate the walk from the kitchen back to the sitting room. She selected a comfortable chair then sat down heavily, unable to use her hands effectively to lower herself more gracefully. Coco handed her a mug of tea which she held in both hands, the chain of the handcuffs clinking against the pottery.

Over tea, they discussed Coco’s legitimate business and how a willing but inexperienced assistant might best be deployed.

***

“I’ll see to the shopping now,” Coco said, taking Soo’s empty mug.

“Will I have to be tied to the chair again?” Soo asked, a little apprehensively.

“Well, I’m not going to let you wander around, but it’s probably enough just to move your handcuffs behind your back. I’ll get rid of these mugs and fetch a clean gag for you.”

Coco left the room and returned a moment later with a dish towel in her hand.

Soo held her hands out so that Coco could release one cuff and then leaned forwards so that it could be re-fastened behind her back.

“Leaving someone alone like this, I really prefer to blindfold them, but you really can’t cope with that can you?” Coco asked, remembering Soo’s panic at the prospect of being blindfolded the first time they met.

“It sounds silly, but I’m afraid of the dark and I’ve always got panicky whenever I’ve tried to wear a blindfold.”

“Why would you want to try, if you know it scares you?”

“This is beginning to sound really silly, but I desperately wanted to be able to wear a blindfold when I was a little girl. There are lots of party games and playground games that involve blindfolds: ‘blindman’s buff’, ‘pin the tail on the donkey’, that sort of thing. I didn’t want to be the girl who was too scared to be blindfolded.”

“I see what you mean.”

“My mum found a solution though. She used an old pillowcase to make a little bag that was the right size to fit over my head.”

“And that worked?”

“It was fine. I couldn’t see, but it wasn’t dark inside the bag so I wasn’t scared and I could have my eyes open because they weren’t held shut the way they would be by a blindfold.”

“I’ve got a white knitted hat that’s big enough to pull right down over your head. Would that work?” Coco suggested.

“It might,” Soo replied cautiously. “I could try it and see.”

Coco left the room and returned with a white stocking cap. Soo sat still while Coco pulled it down over her head. It was long enough to reach right down to the neckline of her sweater.

“How’s that?”

“I think it’s OK. I can’t see anything, but it isn’t dark in here and I can open my eyes.”

“Will you be all right for half an hour?”

“Yes, I think I will, but I thought you were going to gag me too?”

“I am. Open your mouth wide , Soo.”

Soo opened her mouth as instructed and was startled to have a fold of the hat pushed between her teeth and held in place with a thick band of cloth, presumably the dish towel that Coco had been holding earlier.

“The hat is acrylic, so it shouldn’t be too nasty in your mouth like that and I can wash it afterwards,” Coco said. “I’ll see you shortly.”

A couple of moments later, Soo heard the front door close. There was nothing to do but wait, so she shuffled herself back into the chair, trying to find a comfortable position where her arms weren’t too badly squashed behind her back.

After a few minutes of just feeling strangely apprehensive, Soo realised that she was well on the way to a full-scale panic attack, with a huge bubble of terror threatening to well up within her. The problem was the hat blindfolding her. It worked just the same way as the cotton sack her mother had made for her, but with the crucial difference that she couldn’t take it off. It was now terribly obvious to Soo, that her mother’s solution only worked because all the time she was wearing it, she could whip it off her head in a fraction of a second if she needed to. She never wanted to take it off and spoil a game, but the fact that she knew she could made all the difference. There was no way to remove this hat. She might have been able to rub it off against the arm of the chair, but for the gag that also held it securely in place. She could see light through the knitted fabric with no difficulty, but the enclosure now made her feel as if she was somehow hemmed in by darkness. She had to find a way out.

Soo knew that if real panic set in, she wouldn’t be able to think clearly, so she forced herself to calm down as much as she could. To get the hat off, she would have to get the gag off, that much was obvious. Could she manoeuvre herself into a position where she could use something to hook the gag out of her mouth? Possibly, but as she couldn’t see what she was doing, it was never going to work. If she couldn’t hook the gag out, then the knot would have to be untied and that would require the use of her fingers.

Soo reached up as far behind her back as she could with her cuffed hands. She could get her hands up to shoulder-blade level, but no higher. Maybe she could force them higher? She slid herself forwards off the seat of her chair so that her elbows were resting on the front edge of the seat cushion. Using her weight, she forced her elbows as high as they would go and at the same time, tipped her head back in the hope that the knot on her gag would come within reach of her fingers. She had no idea how close her fingers were to the gag but they were clearly not close enough.

If her hands were in front of her, she could remove the gag and the hat with very little difficulty, Soo realised. She had seen people on television get handcuffs from behind their back to in front by sliding the chain down over their bottoms; it was worth trying. Soo knelt on the floor and leaned forwards, working her hands downwards. It turned out to be surprisingly easy to get her hands down below her bottom, almost an anticlimax. Now that the prospect of escape seemed at least a possibility, Soo felt less panicky. She rolled over onto her side so that she could more easily get her feet through the loop formed by her arms and the handcuff chain. Her legs were a little long to go through easily, but by curling up into a very tight ball, she managed it. Still lying on one side, Soo reached up and slid the handcuff chain up over her head to get her fingers to the knot securing her gag. It was a fairly tight double knot but yielded to a little probing and tugging. As soon as the gag was off, Soo hauled the stocking cap off her head and rolled onto her back gasping and waiting for her heartbeat to subside to a more normal rate.

After five minutes or so, Soo felt much better and hauled herself to her feet using her hands on the end of one of the chair arms to support herself. Once she was stable and upright, she decided to explore Coco’s sitting room. Although the furniture was an eclectic mix, the room looked a little bare. It took Soo a few minutes to work out that it was the lack of ornaments that gave this effect. There were a few pictures on the walls, mainly watercolours of European cities that Soo didn’t recognise, but all the horizontal surfaces were bare, except for the clock on the mantelpiece. There were several bookcases, one of which, with a glazed door, was also serving as a display cabinet. The few items on display were old brass scientific instruments.

The books were a fascinating mix of travel guides, maps and technical books relating to a wide range of disciplines. Soo pulled one out at random, attracted by its binding. It proved to be something to do with Venice, quite an old book showing the way some of the buildings were constructed. It was beautifully illustrated with finely drawn engravings showing methods and details of construction. Soo laid it down on a coffee table to have a closer look, perching on the edge of a sofa and carefully turning the pages with one hand, while keeping the handcuff chain out of the way with the other.

***

It was while Soo was reading that Coco returned home. She came straight to the sitting room and stopped dead at the sight of Soo now minus her gag and improvised blindfold and with her hands now handcuffed in front of her.

“I’m really sorry, but I got panicky with the hat over my head and I had to get it off,” Soo explained.

“So you just escaped. You really are a slippery customer, you know,” Coco commented without apparent rancour. “That’s two out of four times you’ve escaped so far; I’ll need to be more careful.”

“Not quite escaped; I’ve still got the handcuffs on.”

“But you could have opened the door and hopped away or used the phone, so it was as good as an escape.”

“True, but I’m here from choice, so I don’t have to escape,” Soo pointed out.

Coco glanced at the book Soo was reading. “Is reading Italian one of your many talents, then?”

“I did French and Latin at school and I know some tourist Spanish, so I can work out quite a lot of the words, but I’m just guessing at the grammar. Mostly I’m just looking at the pictures.”

“The pictures are good,” Coco agreed. “Full details of how to erect large buildings that are now of world heritage importance on a foundation of tree trunks hammered into mud. An engineer’s nightmare.”

“Have you done work in Venice?”

“Yes, both kinds of work, but I’m more interested in food right now. I’ll take your handcuffs off so you can do things in the kitchen, but I’ll leave the ones on your ankles if you don’t mind.”

“It’s a bit awkward, but I’ll manage,” Soo confirmed.

***

Cookery was a relaxed and companionable experience with Soo taking charge of the proceedings and Coco helping by chopping onions, crushing garlic and stirring pasta. The fact of her ankles being chained together lent a touch of unreality from Soo’s perspective. Nevertheless, good, wholesome Italian-style home cookery emerged from the process and the two women sat down to hearty portions accompanied by a bottle of fruity Italian red wine that Coco had picked up on her shopping expedition.

Later, as they chatted together over coffee, with Soo’s handcuffs in place again, Coco asked, “Are you expected home tonight?”

“Yes, I am. It was in the back of my mind to ask you if I could be uncuffed so I can go home, but I wasn’t sure how to ask or if you’d let me.”

“I want you to stay here tonight; I’m not happy about you leaving until we have a working agreement properly sorted out and I really want to address that when I’m fresh in the morning.”

“I can just text and say I’m staying over with a friend. That’s even very nearly true.”

“I hope it is; I’d like to be a friend as well as an employer,” Coco said as she handed Soo her mobile phone.

After she had exchanged text messages with her mother, Soo looked thoughtful. “If I’m staying here tonight, am I going to have to spend the night tied up?”

“I think I basically trust you, but I’m not sure I trust that streak of curiosity you have.”

“So you want me to stay put?”

“Exactly. If it’s any comfort, Mrs Harman tied me up for the night the day she offered me a job. She was quite nice about it though and she even used winter scarves to tie me up so it wouldn’t be too uncomfortable for me.”

“Is that what you’re going to do with me?”

“Certainly not!” Coco exclaimed with a laugh. “I escaped in about ten minutes that night and with your track record, you’d probably be free in a flash. I’ll probably have to strap you down to the bed to make sure you stay there.”

Soo joined in the laughter, but wondered just how serious that last remark of Coco’s was.

***

About 10:30, Soo yawned. “If you don’t mind, I’d quite like to go to bed soon, Coco. I know it’s not very late, but it’s been an exhausting day for me.”

“Believe me, it’s had its moments for me too,” Coco replied, completely deadpan.

“Can you uncuff me so I can use the bathroom, please?”

“I’ll see if I can find some nightwear for you. Anything that fits me will be a bit baggy on you, but I don’t think we’re much different in height,” Coco said as she knelt down to remove the handcuffs from Soo’s ankles.

“My height’s about 155 centimetres if that helps.”

“I use metric units every day in my work, but I still think of people’s heights in feet and inches. Let’s see, 1.52 metres is exactly five feet, so you’re another three centimetres over that which makes you a touch over five feet one, just an inch or so taller than me.”

Coco freed Soo’s wrists then led the way upstairs to a large and well-appointed bathroom.

“There’s loads of hot water so have a shower or take a bath if you wish. If you leave the door unlocked, I’ll pass you something to sleep in.

While Soo filled the bathtub, Coco found some sleepwear for her and tossed it into the bathroom around the edge of the door.

Soo made the most of a long hot soak to relieve the stress of spending the last few hours in restraints and to relax her for what she feared might be a rather uncomfortable night. After forty minutes, she decided that she really had to face whatever Coco had planned for her.

Coco was sitting on the top step of the stairs reading a book when Soo emerged from the bathroom.

“When you said nightwear, I wasn’t quite expecting one of these,” Soo said.

She executed a slow pirouette to show off the one-piece fleece sleepsuit which covered her from toes to neck. It was deep purple with small white stars all over it and had attached feet and mittens, although the mittens were folded back to expose Soo’s hands. The suit was about the right height for Soo, but vastly too loose for her narrow frame.

“I bought that when I was doing a project in the north of China,” Coco told her. “It gets very cold there in winter.”

“I haven’t worn one of these since I was about eight,” Soo remarked. “I didn’t know you could even get them in adult sizes.”

“I thought it would be about the most comfortable thing I could offer you.”

“You mean ‘comfortable’ as in ‘comfortable for being tied up in’?”

“Yes, I suppose I do mean that.”

“Let’s get this over,” Soo said. “I’ve been worrying about it all through my bath.”

Coco showed Soo into a small bedroom. It was furnished with a bed, a tall-backed upholstered chair and a small chest of drawers. The bed was modern but in a retro Art Nouveau style with swirling decorative wrought-iron work forming the head and foot.

While the bedroom looked very comfortable, Soo’s attention was grabbed by the collection of white fabric straps laid out on top of the sheet. “Gosh, you really meant it when you said you were going to strap me to the bed. That looks fairly scary.”

“I’ll sleep better knowing you can’t go anywhere.”

“I’ll be lucky to sleep at all when I’m done up in that lot.”

“The straps are meant for hospital use, so they’re designed to be as comfortable as possible,” Coco pointed out defensively. “Other people who’ve used them said they weren’t too bad.”

“You make a habit of strapping people to their beds?”

“Let’s just say there have been occasions when I’ve had to make sure guests stayed where I left them.”

“Better get on with it, then. Where do we start?”

“Lie down on the bed first so we can see where the waist strap should be then get off again.”

Soo did as she was instructed then Coco laid a broad strap across the bed in the appropriate place and fastened it to the bed frame at either side. She picked up a tangle of narrower straps and threaded the ends of one through a pair of loops on the strap already attached to the bed then laid the rest out flat.

“Lie down with your waist on the wide strap and we’ll get you done up,” Coco instructed.

Soo settled herself down and Coco wrapped the broad waist strap across her stomach, fastening it with small plastic button.

“I was expecting huge brass buckles or something,” Soo commented.

“These are very neat,” Coco explained. “There’s a metal post that pushes up through one of these holes in the belt and the button just clicks down on top. You can only lift it off with a special magnetic key.”

Soo spun the button on its post and satisfied herself that it wouldn’t lift off.

“I’ll do your shoulders next,” Coco said as she brought a pair of narrow straps forward over Soo’s shoulders. Coco temporarily removed the button securing the waist strap, threaded holes in the shoulder straps onto the metal post and replaced the button. The ends of another strap were brought around Soo’s chest, just below her arms and fastened to one of the shoulder straps with another magnetic button.

“Lift your legs a bit, so I can position the straps for your thighs.”

Soo raised her feet off the mattress while Coco positioned another strap across the bed and fastened it to the frame at each side.

“Down.”

Soo lowered her legs again. Coco wrapped a strap around each of Soo’s thighs, securing them with the magnetic buttons. Soo propped herself up on her elbows so she could watch what was happening. Coco repeated the process with a similar set of straps securing Soo’s ankles.

“It’s not nearly as bad as I thought it would be,” Soo commented. “It’s very secure, but not nearly as restrictive feeling as rope.”

“I haven’t finished yet,” Coco pointed out.

“But I couldn’t possibly get out of this lot,” Soo protested. “Won’t this do?”

“Well, I’m going to gag you when I finish and there’s not much point in doing that if I leave your hands free.”

Soo made no comment but shrugged and lay down flat again.

“You probably want the mittens on now,” Coco suggested.

Soo pulled first one hand then the other up through the wrist openings in the sleepsuit and back down into the attached mittens. Coco threaded the wrist straps through the appropriate loops attached to the broad waist belt then wrapped them around Soo’s wrists and locked them in place with two more magnetic buttons.

“Almost finished now,” Coco said as she attached the last two straps in the set to Soo’s shoulder straps then fastened them off to the bed head.

“That’s you done.”

“All strapped down like the madwoman in the attic,” Soo commented as she tested the limits of her movement.

“I think they try to avoid terms like that these days and you’re not actually in an attic,” Coco replied with a smile.

“True, but ‘psychiatric patient in the guest bedroom’ lacks a certain something in style,” Soo countered, returning the smile. “I really hope I don’t need the toilet in the night all tied down like this.”

“I could give you a catheter and a bag, I suppose,” Coco offered.

Soo winced at the idea. “I think I’ll just take my chances.”

“I’ll gag you now, if we’re done with the small talk.”

“Do you really have to?”

“We’ve been through this before,” Coco replied brusquely. “It’s part of the package when you’re tied up. Anyway, I’m just going to tape your mouth closed; I don’t want to risk anything you could swallow and choke on.”

“That doesn’t sound too bad.”

“I’m afraid it’s not going to be the tiny square of tape you see on television; that wouldn’t stay stuck for long.”

Coco produced a three-inch-wide roll of Elastoplast sticking plaster and pulled a length out.

“Purse your lips and hold still.”

Coco stuck the end of the tape to Soo’s right cheekbone, just in front of her ear then smoothed it diagonally across her mouth and down to the angle of her jaw below her left ear. She repeated the process with a second piece of tape going the other way to produce a shallow X below Soo’s nose.

“Can you breathe OK?”

Soo took several experimental breaths through her nose before nodding her head and replying with a muffled, “Um-hum.”

Coco picked up the duvet that was lying folded on the chair and spread it over Soo. She switched on a small nightlight then turned off the room’s main light and closed the door. Soo settled down to make the best of what sleep she could get.

***

Soo had already been awake for some time when Coco came into her room and switched the light on.

“I’ve brought you a cup of tea,” Coco said, setting a mug down on top of the chest of drawers.

Soo mumbled something unintelligible behind the tape over her mouth.

“Sorry, I didn’t get that; wait until I get the gag off.”

Soo repeated herself, making it even louder and more urgent sounding.

“Toilet?” Coco asked.

Soo nodded her head frantically.

“OK, just hang on two ticks.”

Coco flung the duvet back and systematically unfastened the magnetic buttons securing the straps holding Soo down. To her credit, she managed to undo the eight critical buttons in less than a minute.

As soon as she could get off the bed, Soo fled for the bathroom, her mouth still taped shut. Coco sat on the edge of the bed waiting for her to come back.

A few minutes later, Soo returned. The mittens attached to her sleepsuit were folded back so she could use her hands and the tape was gone from her face.

“Sorry, about that, but I’ve been awake and desperate for a pee for about half an hour, and you can’t cross your legs when you’re strapped down like that.”

“I’m glad you made it in time. Did you manage to get any sleep?” Coco asked.

“It wasn’t as bad as I thought it might be. I woke up a lot of times, but I always got off again fairly quickly,” Soo replied, picking up her tea and sipping it.

“I’m sorry I’ve had to treat you as a prisoner, but I’ve been doing some thinking and I have a proposition to put to you after breakfast.”

“After breakfast would be good: I’m starving,” Soo replied, draining her mug and handing it back to Coco.

“I put your socks and tights and under-things through the wash last night. I’ve left them in the bathroom with the rest of your clothes.”

“Thanks for doing that,” Soo acknowledged, heading for the bathroom once again. “I’ll be downstairs in a few minutes.”

***

“You can just have tea and toast or you can have the whole works,” Coco announced as Soo entered the kitchen. “I bought bacon, sausages and eggs when I was out shopping yesterday.”

“I love breakfast,” Soo replied, “Let’s have the whole works.”

Over the next few minutes Soo and Coco collaborated to produce the kind of breakfast that cardiologists issue stern warnings about. Breakfast-time discussion ranged from the Coco’s views on the finer points of safe cracking to the dirtiest madrigal lyrics Soo had discovered.

After breakfast, with the dishwasher loaded and another pot of tea made, the two women sat down at the table again.

“Now, what’s the proposition you want to put to me?” Soo asked.

“Well...” Coco began, but got no further as the telephone rang.

“Aldington,” Coco announced as she picked up the phone.

Soo gathered that the conversation was something to do with business and that someone wanted something in a hurry.

“All right, ten o’clock here, but I can only give you an hour max,” Coco said, finishing off the conversation and hanging up the phone.

“Problem?” Soo asked.

“A client that needs his hand holding. The project is going fine, but he’s getting the collywobbles about something and thinks it’s all going to go pear shaped. I just need to reassure him. The trouble is that he’ll be here in half an hour and I need to get dressed up in something more businesslike.” Coco gestured at the jeans and sweatshirt she was wearing. “We still need to have our talk, so that’s going to have to wait until after the meeting. I gave him an hour, but I may not be able to get rid of him that quickly.”

“Should I just step in and be your assistant right now? Coffee for the client, that sort of thing?”

“No, you’re not exactly dressed for it like that and I’d rather we started off our relationship with a proper agreement that we’ve shaken hands over rather than just scrambling into it.”

“I’ll can just go upstairs with a book and keep out of the way until you’re done then.”

Coco said nothing but seemed preoccupied, as if she was balancing conflicting thoughts in her mind.

“I’m not properly signed up yet, so you’re working out whether to tie me up again. Is that it?” Soo asked.

“Yes,” Coco replied with a sheepish smile. “You seem to be a pretty good mind reader too.”

“It’s only for an hour or so, so I really don’t mind. Do it now and then you’ll still have time to get changed,” Soo suggested.

“I can just put you back to bed for a bit; the straps are still there.”

“I’d rather be tied to a chair, if you’ve got time. I think I’d be happier sitting up.”

Coco glanced at her watch. “We’ll use the chair in your bedroom.”

Soo went upstairs closely followed by Coco with a bundle of rope.

“Why does this chair have such a ridiculously low seat?” Soo asked, sitting on the chair in the guest bedroom.

“I really don’t know,” Coco confessed. “It’s a nursing chair and that’s the classic design: low seat, tall back, deep padding and no arms. Given that it was made for a Victorian mother to feed a baby on and she has to stand up from down there wearing a long skirt and carrying an infant when she’s finished, low seat and no arms looks calculated to make it as difficult as possible.”

“Is it all right if I sit like this?” Soo asked, arranging herself so she was sitting cross-legged on the chair.

“Should be fine,” Coco confirmed, setting to work.

Coco started by winding a coil of rope around Soo’s waist and the chair’s backrest so that she was held snugly back against it. She secured it with a firm knot at the front.

“See if you can cross your wrists behind the chair,” Coco asked.

“Only just,” Soo reported, straining to make her wrists meet.

“That’s going to hurt your arms fairly quickly if I tie them like that,” Coco advised. “I’ll see if I can make a pair of rope handcuffs for you.”

Coco separated Soo’s wrists and wound a coil of rope loosely around them. She then formed the ends of the rope into a cinch with many turns so that it formed a bar of rope between Soo’s wrists. Coco used a shorter length of rope to link the centre of the cinch to the coil of rope at Soo’s waist.

“Before I tie them in place, are your legs comfortable like that?” Coco asked.

“They’re fine. My feet are off the sides of the chair seat so they’re not getting squashed by the weight of my knees on top.”

Coco used two lengths of rope to tie each of Soo’s ankles to the adjacent knee, cinching between them. She linked the cinches with a doubled length of rope running under the chair seat to hold Soo down onto the cushion.

“How far forward can you lean?” Coco asked.

Soo leaned as far forward as she could opening up a gap of three inches or so between her shoulders and the backrest.

“I’ll just tie you back there and that will do, I think.”

Coco selected a long length of rope which she wound around Soo’s upper arms and chest and the back of the chair, knotting it off at the front.

“I suppose I get a gag too?”

“You suppose right,” Coco confirmed. She packed Soo’s mouth with a handkerchief then taped over it with the same pattern of gag that she used the previous night.

“See you later,” Coco said as she left Soo’s room, closing the door behind her.

***

Soo was beginning to feel a little uncomfortable in her bonds by the time Coco returned. She noted that Coco was now smartly dressed in a grey trouser suit over a white blouse and had applied a subtle touch of make up since Soo had last seen her. She was carrying a tumbler of water and dragging a wooden chair behind her.

Coco peeled the Elastoplast off Soo’s face and extracted the soggy handkerchief from her mouth. She deposited the gag on the floor and offered Soo the glass of water, holding it while she took a mouthful.

“Thanks,” Soo said. “I don’t mind much about being tied up, but I really don’t like being gagged.”

“It’s never much fun,” Coco agreed, “but I try not to make them any worse than necessary.”

Coco sat down on the chair she had brought with her and faced Soo. “Time to discuss my proposition,” she announced.

“I’m still all tied up,” Soo pointed out. “Does that make this an offer I can’t refuse?”

“I hope that won’t come up,” Coco replied evenly. “See if you like the idea first.”

“OK, what’s the proposition?”

“I really need an admin assistant. That’s been obvious to me for some time, but the problem has always been the risk that anyone working that closely with me would get some inkling of what I do the rest of the time, but there’s no risk in that respect with you, because you already know.”

“What would you need assistance with?”

“Answering the phone, looking after my diary, filing, bookkeeping, tax forms, a small amount of typing and the menial stuff like coffee for visitors. I’d also hope that you would learn enough about the business that I could use you as a research assistant. You would probably need to do odd courses in things like how to file records for Revenue and Customs, but we could build that into your working hours. How does a starting salary of £12,000 sound?”

“I’m inexperienced, but I’d still expect a London weighting, so how about £15,000.”

Coco grinned broadly. “I love your attitude, Soo. Here you are, tied to a chair by a ruthless criminal and you’re still not too intimidated to drive a bargain. OK, £15,000 it is.”

“I was banking on the ‘ruthless’ bit not being quite true.”

“Now, the proposition is that you also get a second job. I usually prefer to work alone, but I could still pass on my skills and experience. Besides, it’s about time La Cioccolata took on an apprentice.”

“You make it sound like a formal arrangement.”

“It’s a bit looser than that, but, yes, an apprenticeship with an acknowledged experienced mentor is recognised in the criminal fraternity.”

“So what would I learn?”

“All the relevant skills I can teach or that people I know can teach as experts in their own field. So, techniques for selecting and studying a target, methods of breaking and entering, locks and alarms, how to work unobtrusively, that sort of thing.”

“How to tie people up?” Soo asked, looking down at the ropes securing her to her chair.

“That too, and escape techniques as well,” Coco replied with a smile.

“Remuneration?”

“Strictly on commission once you start working on actual jobs with me. No tax or National Insurance to worry about, of course.”

“I like your proposition,” Soo confirmed, “and I’ll shake hands on it as soon as you get me out of these ropes.”

“Consider yourself hired.”

 

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