by Doctor George and KP
Turning right out of Highgate tube station, the red-headed woman pulled the collar of her coat up and headed along Archway Road. Under almost any other circumstance, this was an errand she would have taken care of with a phone call, but this was one time when the personal touch was needed.
She paused on the steep climb up Muswell Hill Road to catch her breath and to check her note of the directions. There were several other visits still to get through, so she hoped this one would not take too long...
* * *
At the office of Aldington Associates, which was also the home of Colette Aldington, Coco to her friends, Monday was not a business day. Not that it was a weekly holiday; it was still a working day for Coco and her assistant Soo Angarrack, but one that was supposed to be undisturbed by callers. The idea was that the two women would be able to work in peace, either on Coco’s legitimate engineering business or on her more covert activities and an opportunity for Soo to hone her skills in both businesses.
Today, the two women were in the back office, Soo poring over a mock examination paper for her Open University course while Coco acted as the silent invigilator. The room was quiet, save for the ticking of the clock and the scratch of Soo’s pen on paper, when the doorbell rang.
If it had been a single ring on the bell, then both women would have ignored it, but this one was different. It consisted of four distinct rings: long, short, long, short; a letter C in Morse code and the signal that the visitor knew Coco in her persona as La Cioccolata, the renowned jewel thief.
Soo looked up from her desk at the clock, noting the time as two thirty. She glanced over and made brief eye contact with Coco before putting her pen down on the paper, standing and going to the door. Through the frosted glass, she could see a single figure standing there, but as a precaution she felt for something in her waistcoat pocket. With her hand wrapped around it, she slowly opened the door.
She looked at the red-headed woman standing there, the brown leather boots visible under the hem of her coat, and smiled, letting go of the anaesthetic-loaded injector pen in her pocket.
For her part, the visitor looked at the young girl standing there. Her closely-cropped dark hair was hidden by a short spiky wig in a brilliant shade of henna red. She wore a black waistcoat over a long-sleeved black-and-white striped sweater. A short blue denim skirt covered the top if a pair of black woollen tights, and her feet were in a pair of laced up Doc Marten boots, the striped tops of her socks turned down over the top.
The visitor smiled as she said, “Sorry to interrupt you on your quiet day, Soo.”
“Penny! What a nice surprise, but what brings you here in person?” Soo asked. She knew Penelope Harker well, both as a friend and as the PA to Madame X, but for her to call in person was unusual.
“It’s a message for Coco from Madame,” Penny replied. “Could we talk inside please?”
“Well,” Soo said, hesitantly, “it’s a little inconvenient just at the moment. We’re in the middle of a delicate discussion on training matters.”
“Soo, I wouldn’t be here in person if it wasn’t of the utmost importance.”
“Fair point,” Soo said as she stood to one side, “but you’ll have to take us as you find us. Come on through.”
As she closed the door, she helped Penny to take her coat off, hanging it and a long scarf up as her visitor brushed down her angora jersey dress. “This way,” she said as she indicated a door a little way up the hallway, opening it to allow Penny to go through.
“I’m sorry to drop in unannounced like this,” Penny said as she went in, only to stop dead as she took in the sight before her. Soo came up behind, smiling as she said “I told you we were having a training discussion.”
“Gdmrnnggpne,” Coco mumbled through the thick knot wedged between her teeth. The knot was tied in the middle of a large orange headscarf which had been rolled into a thick band, the ends of which were tied tightly round her head and secured together under the edge of her neatly-cut grey hair. From the way her cheeks were puffed out, Penny deduced that there was additional packaging behind the scarf.
Coco herself was dressed in a navy blue cardigan over a purple sweater-dress, with dark blue ribbed tights and a pair of lace-up black leather boots that came to just below her knees. The skirt of the dress had ridden up her thighs due to her position sitting on the floor with her knees raised. The single length of rope bound and cinched around her thighs and then similarly tightly tied around her ankles served to keep her legs bent.
As for her upper body, Penny could see rope going from behind Coco’s neck and under her arms, then winding down one arm towards her back. She assumed that the same thing had been done on the other side, a style she recognised well. As Coco leaned forward slightly, she could see the spirals around her arms as they had been brought together behind her back, and then fixed by the ropes going through a small loop behind the back of her neck. The remaining rope was wrapped tightly round her arms and chest, making a harness in a very distinctive style.
She knelt down and examined the rope work with a professional eye, checking a few of the knots and loops as Coco looked back up at her. Eventually, she stood and turned round, smiling.
“Have I interrupted an office coup d’état?” Penny asked, regaining some of her poise.
“Just a little experiment,” Soo assured her as she loosened the knot on Coco’s gag. “Absolutely no malicious intent. We had been intending for some time to see if we could replicate some of the methods the Dolls use, and today seemed the perfect opportunity while I tackled an example exam paper for my OU course.”
“An activity,” Coco finally said, as Soo eased the now dark orange knot from her mouth, and drew out the folded handkerchief that was wadded behind it, “that I suspect we may have to postpone for a day or two. Good afternoon, Penny – I heard you spent a few days with a certain matriarch recently.”
“Yes,” Penny said as she sat down, while Soo went to the kitchen to make some coffee, “it was a different assignment for sure. It was also interesting working with an old friend of yours – does she know we were behind your visit to her?”
“If she does, she will say nothing,” Coco said as the smell of freshly brewed coffee came through from the kitchen. “Anyway, what is so important that you had to come in person?”
“I will tell you when Soo returns,” Penny said as she crossed her legs and relaxed, “but I will say that I have to ask you to clear your schedule for tomorrow morning.”
“Serious enough for you to say that up front,” Coco replied as Soo came back in, carrying a tray with three mugs of steaming coffee. “What else can you tell us?”
“Not a lot really,” Penny said as she took the mug of coffee and waited until Soo sat down. “All I can say is this: “Madame wants a meeting about a matter of mutual concern to you and certain others – a matter that requires a mixture of delicacy and cooperation to resolve, and she wishes to have an open discussion on the subject. When I am finished here, I have a few more calls to make, but I need to know that you can attend at the office tomorrow at 10 am.”
“I notice you said ‘can attend’,” Soo said, “and not ‘free to attend’. This is serious, isn’t it?”
“Serious enough that she would not tell me more than who to call on and to give the invitation to. I do not think she would do this unless she was deadly serious.”
Coco looked over at Soo, who nodded and picked up a large desk diary. “Do you have any idea when the meeting is likely to finish?” Soo said as she looked at their visitor.
Penny nodded as she said “We have a management meeting due to start at one, so we will be finished before then.”
Soo consulted the inside of the book, and then said “We will need to ask the Uxbridge Towers team if they can move the meeting back to three o’clock, but we should be able to do that. Would you like me to make the call?”
Coco nodded, and Soo made her way to the rear office.
“I take it this is stuff she took off you when she tied you up?” Penny asked, picking up a small but wickedly sharp vegetable knife from a side table. There was also a hooked blade, apparently from a carpet knife and a tiny knife improvised from a scalpel blade taped to a wooden lolly stick.
“Yes, she went over me with one of those metal detectors you use for finding pipes and cables behind walls.”
“Soo’s getting really good,” Penny said approvingly, “and that looks like a very good take on one of the tie-ups I remember from my days with the Dolls. Off-hand, I’d say you’re stuck since she’s relieved you of your blades.”
“A good take, certainly, but I know just what to do in a situation like this,” Coco said.
From the small movements she was making, it was obvious that Coco was working on her bonds. Penny watched with interest and a few moments later was rewarded with the sight of one of Coco’s hands appearing from behind her back, clutching a small knife with a black blade, cut rope trailing loosely from her wrist.
“That girl needs to be reminded that you can’t find a ceramic blade with a metal detector,” Coco commented triumphantly. “Experience and guile beat technical wizardry yet again.”
* * *
“We’re a little early,” Coco said as she and Soo stepped out of the taxi, “but better early than late for this sort of meeting.”
Coco was dressed for a business meeting, in a grey tweed jacket and skirt, the jacket covering a cream coloured silk blouse with a brooch attached to the collar. In her hand was a large leather document case, while Soo had her serviceable handbag. A pair of light stockings covered her legs, with her feet in a pair of grey leather shoes with low heels. In every way she looked the consulting engineer her profession demanded.
For her part, Soo was wearing a black trouser suit with a blue high necked sweater underneath, a pair of black ankle boots on her feet and her hair hidden by a businesslike black wig set in a bun at the back. As with Coco, she wanted to project the professional image, an assistant going with her boss to a consultancy meeting.
The two women walked briskly into the entrance lobby of the grey stone building, walking towards a reception desk at the far end of the hallway. A grey-haired uniformed man sat behind the desk, looking up as he heard the click of heels on the stone floor and standing up.
“Miss Aldington, Miss Angarrack,” he said as a number of other workers passed by, “You are expected. If you will enter the elevator, I will inform your host that you are on your way up.”
“Thank you,” Coco said as she and Soo walked toward an open elevator door, turning and smiling as he picked up a telephone. The doors silently shut as the elevator started to rise, muzak coming over the speakers.
“It feels just like a regular office,” Soo said out of the corner of her mouth as the lift continued the way up.
“That’s because to all intents and purposes it is,” Coco said as the lift came to a stop. As the doors opened, Penny was waiting for them, dressed in a red jacket and skirt.
“Miss Aldington, Miss Angarrack, welcome,” she said as Coco and Soo stepped out and shook Penny’s hand. “If you will come this way, Madame is in the conference room with the rest of the discussion group.”
They followed her down the corridor, passing small groups of women talking and working, before Penny opened a set of doors and indicated they should go in. As they did so, Penny said “I will join you shortly” and closed the door behind them.
They found themselves in a large conference room, with some people standing by a table with coffee and pastries available on it. As they looked at them, Soo recognised some, but not all of them, starting with the tall, broad-shouldered and grey-haired man standing talking to a woman to one side.
“John,” Coco said as she walked forward, “how wonderful to see you again.”
The grey-haired man smiled as he turned round, and said, “My dear Coco, a pleasure as always – and a pleasure to see you as well, Susan.”
“You know I prefer Soo,” the younger woman said as she came forward, “but I didn’t know you knew Number 17.”
“John and I go way back,” the woman said with a laugh. She was slightly taller than Coco and Soo, with shoulder length dark hair that was starting to show signs of grey, and was wearing a brown hound’s-tooth check coat dress with a wide brown belt, and knee-length brown leather boots. “Here, however, it’s not Number 17 – call me Sandra.”
“Sandra, you know young Susan of course,” John Jacobs said with a gleam in his eye, “but I have the honour of introducing you to Miss Colette Aldington, aka La Cioccolata.”
“Please, call me Coco,” she replied as she held her hand out. “I need to thank you for the training you have given young Susan here.”
“It’s Soo,” Soo said in an exasperated tone as she walked over to talk to another person she recognised: Maggie Harman. She was wearing a pastel pink jacket and skirt, but for once was alone. Soo could only guess at which twin it was by the hand she held her coffee cup in.
“She is a great talent,” Sandy said as she looked at Coco, “We should thank you for discovering her.”
“Arguably, she discovered me,” Coco said with a small smile as a young man walked over to them. He stood about five feet six, and was dressed in a smart suit, with a white shirt and a tie. Coco had the strange feeling she had met him before, but for a moment she was finding it difficult to put her finger exactly on where.
“Hello John, Coco,” he said as he joined them. “This must be a serious discussion given the people invited.”
“Good to see you as well, David,” John said as he shook the younger man’s hand, and then turned to Coco and Sandy. “Ladies, this is Dave, my former apprentice. You know him better as...”
“Mister Small,” Coco finally said as she realised where she had met him before. “You look very different out of uniform.”
“Don’t we all,” David said as the door opened and Penny escorted in a tall, thin woman with long blonde hair, dressed in a simple cornflower yellow sleeveless dress over a white long sleeved top, and knee length grey fabric boots.
“Fair point,” Sandra said as the woman waved at and joined Maggie and Soo, talking quietly with them. “So, any idea why we have been asked to come here?”
“I do,” John said, “but we are in Madame’s domain, so for now I will say nothing.”
“Is there anything you don’t know, John?” Coco said as she laughed.
“How to make decent sourdough bread?” John Jacobs said as the door opened and Penny entered, followed by a tall, thin, dark-haired woman who walked in with a grace and air that immediately silenced the conversation,
“Good morning,” she said in a deep mellow voice that warmed the very air around them. “Please, be seated. Penelope, please ensure we are not disturbed.”
Penny nodded and went to the doors, locking them before taking her place next to Madame X. “Thank you all for agreeing to meet with me here today,” she said as she looked round the table. “Many of you know each other, but it will be helpful if you would briefly introduce yourself and your... shall we say... role in our profession. John, will you start?”
John nodded and said “John Jacobs, security consultant, antiques dealer, formerly known as The Cat and an old friend of many here.”
“I am Sandra Kirk, an old and dear friend to John and Madame, and also Number 17, Head of Training for the Burglars’ Association.”
“Margot Harman, and hopefully all here know who I am.”
Soo had to stifle a laugh as the blonde-haired woman said, “My name is Kay Winters, and for my pains I am one of the China Dolls.”
“David – David Bennett, more usually addressed as Mister Small.”
“Susan Angarrack, trainee and very, very over-awed.”
“Don’t sell yourself short,” Coco said, “I believe all of you here know who I am, and Soo is my apprentice.”
“And a most able apprentice,” Penny said, “You all know me too and, of course, Madame, and we thank you all for coming today.”
“So when do we get to know why we are here?” Sandra said as a television screen flickered into life.
“Now,” Madame X said as an image appeared on the screen. “Is everyone familiar with this person?”
Soo looked at the screen, trying to recognise the woman whose face was appearing. She had a Middle Eastern complexion, with short black hair, and was stocky in build, dressed casually in a white shirt and light coloured slacks.
“Angela Krakas,” Coco said with a nod to Soo, “She took over as head of the Greek operations in the north of the city about... what two years ago?”
“Three years ago,” Sandra said, “After the passing of her father, Dimitri. You knew him, didn’t you John.”
John Jacobs nodded as he said “Old Dimitri came over here after the war, and built a very efficient operation involving small-scale bookmaking, number running, fencing and distribution – everyday stuff, but he was good enough at it for people like me to trust him with our work from time to time. Why is Angela running the show now? What happened to Alexis?”
“Who is Alexis?” Soo whispered to Coco.
Coco whispered back, “Alexis was Angela’s older brother, and normally would have taken over the family business, but he is on an extended holiday at the moment. Somewhere on the Isle of Wight, I believe, so when Dimitri died Angela took over the family business.”
“Miss Krakas,” Madame X continued, “has overseen a vast expansion in the influence of the Krakas family, assisted by three family members.” She pointed to a new face that appeared on the screen, who looked like an older version of Angela.
“Diana Krakas is the sister of the late lamented Dimitri, and acts as Angela’s enforcer. She rules the operation on her niece’s behalf with a rod of iron. In this she is assisted by her twin daughters, and Angela’s cousins, Athena and Circe.”
The picture changed to two younger women, dressed identically in black leather with long brown hair. They stared at the group from the still image, but Soo felt a chill running through her even so. “I know Athena,” Margot said quietly, “she was in the same class at school as my sister and me. Even then she was a cold-hearted bitch.”
“Was Circe not in the same class as well?” Soo asked as she looked at Margot.
“Circe attended a school for the deaf,” Penny said, “A result of a family dispute when she was a toddler. At any rate, these four women have turned what was a small-time and quiet operation into a much larger organisation – and one that is giving us some cause for concern.”
“In what way?” Kay asked as she looked at Madame X, who in turn looked to Sandy.
“They have taken on a significant number of additional staff over the last three years, but none of them has been affiliated with the BA. In itself, that is not a major concern, but it does mean that some of their operations have interfered with those of some of our members. You may have read recently of the robbery at the Breakfield branch of Barclay’s Bank?”
The group around the table nodded. “Holding the family of the bank manager hostage was a little passé, surely,” Kay said with a frown.
“Yes – but holding the extended family in the cellar of a local historical museum, that was unique. At any rate, two of our groups were planning to hit that bank as well, and had to abandon their attempts at the last minute. That’s not the main thing I hear about them however.”
“Yeah,” David said as he sat forward, “my colleague and I paid a visit in North Greenwich recently, and it took us a full twenty minutes to get the woman of the house calm enough that we could go about our business. She was screaming, struggling – and scared out of her mind.”
“Why?” Soo asked.
David looked at Soo, then said “Two weeks earlier, she had been at her mother’s when the Krakas group decided to take some family possession from them. Without going into the gory details, they spent the rest of the night in a very cold cellar, too tightly tied to move, and with a nasty surprise if they did try.”
“I heard about that,” John said, his voice tense “The hogtie rope attached to a crossbow trigger?”
David nodded at John’s comment. “A lot of my acquaintances have heard those sort of things – I understand it was the threat of a canister of a nasty gas they used for the Breakfield job to keep their captives quiet.”
“I too have heard similar things,” Madame X said, and the frown on her face was clear for all to see. “I have also heard reports that they show no compassion towards children, the elderly – anyone who we as professionals need to take special care of.”
Sandra nodded. “I have a report of a visit made by the Krakas gang to a house in Wycombe, where they arrived in the middle of a birthday party for the six year old daughter. The full details have never been released, but I can give the salient details.
“The girl and her guests were herded into her bedroom, hogtied and gagged with strips torn from pillow cases. The women were forced to strip and all hogtied on the living room floor, and the men forced to empty their bank accounts before they were left bound and gagged in the middle of the Chiltern Hills.”
Madame X shook her head as Margot said “I have heard similar stories – Henrietta and I have done something we never have done before: we refused to work with them.”
“In itself,” Penny said, “I find this disturbing, but I have heard they have recently moved into a new field of supply. We have some evidence they have made arrangements with certain persons in Africa and Asia to supply child labour. The parents think they are coming to this country to get an education and a new start in life, and instead...”
John stood up and walked to the window, looking out for a few minutes. “That is intolerable,” he finally said as he turned round, his face dark with anger. “We need to do something about them.”
He looked round the room, and saw the others nod in agreement.
“I am glad you all agree,” Madame said quietly, “because purely on a question of professional ethics, I think it is time the Krakas gang was brought down and taught a permanent lesson.”
“So what do you have in mind,” Coco said as she took off her glasses and wiped them, “and how does it involve us?”
“I propose we hit the family where it hurts them – cut off their resources and prevent them replacing them.” Penny stood up and handed round several manila folders. “In here is an outline of a plan – one I have already started to execute in anticipation of your agreement, with the help of John.
“The family live and operate from their house in the North West of the city – we’re going to stage a mass raid on them, secure everyone, and I mean everyone, in the house, and take what we can. Much of their assets are held in bank accounts offshore, but I have secured the talents of a specialist to track and obtain the funds.”
Sandra looked up and said “Who?”
“A most talented young lady called Jessica Greens – she is freelance, but owes me a favour. In the meantime, seizing their assets is not enough – we must prevent them replacing them and at the same time discredit them permanently.”
Soo looked round the room, and said, “How do you propose to do that?”
“I have placed one of my more trusted associates in their gang,” Madame said, “and she is currently working out of their house. She informs me that they have obtained a rather unique painting – one they intend to use as a nest-egg if they ever hit financial trouble. If you are all in agreement, we are going to replace the painting with a forgery, and then – well, the rest can be explained later. Margot, may we count on the assistance of you and your sister when the time comes?”
“We’ll clear our schedules,” Margot said. “But who are you going to get to do a forgery that will pass an expert eye.”
“I’ve already taken care of that,” John said with a smile. “I know just the person. Coco, We need you and Soo to provide expert skill for the cover raid.”
The two women exchanged glances, before Coco said “Of course, John – let us know when you need us.”
* * *
Only the leather lace-up boots of Soo’s customary black working outfit were visible under her purple duffel coat as she sat at one of the outside tables at the Costa coffee shop next to Finsbury Park station. An inconspicuous gunmetal grey Vauxhall Corsa pulled up beside her and she put down the cardboard cup that she had been clutching for warmth on a chilly evening as much as for the coffee it contained. She picked up her small black rucksack, crossed the width of the pavement, opened the passenger door and climbed in. The car pulled away as soon as she closed the door.
“Perfect timing, Penny,” Soo said as she unfastened the front of her coat.
“Fairly easy at this time of day,” the redhead replied as she manoeuvred through the traffic.
Soo leaned forwards and opened the top of her rucksack. She removed the purple knitted beret she had been wearing and pushed it inside. She was a little more careful with her shoulder-length blonde wig, gently folding it into a polythene bag and stowing it away carefully, revealing her closely-cropped dark brown hair. There was a slight ripping sound and a barely-voiced “Ow!” as she peeled off her blonde false eyebrows and pushed them into the front pocket of her bag.
“Do you know, I think this is the first time I’ve seen you without a wig?” Penny commented, glancing sideways at Soo.
“A wig and a balaclava at the same time are a bit much even on a cold night,” Soo replied. “OK to wriggle a bit to get my coat off?”
“Go ahead, we’ll be on this road for a bit, so I won’t need to change gear.”
Soo struggled out of her duffel coat in the confines of the small car and pushed it over her shoulder onto the back seat. Her working attire of a heavy black roll-necked sweater and black leggings was revealed. She also wore a small black pouch on a nylon belt around her waist.
With the adjustments to her appearance done, Soo was at last able to fasten her seatbelt. “Must make sure we obey the law,” she said as she clicked the tongue into place.
Penny replied with an amused snort.
They drove on in silence until Penny drew up outside a Victorian terraced house. “Number 53,” she said as Soo released her seatbelt and stepped out of the car. She opened the small wrought iron gate, walked the few steps up to the front door and pressed the button for the bell.
The door opened immediately. A grey-haired woman bustled out carrying a black nylon holdall, a folded camera tripod and something similar that Soo couldn’t identify. Soo took them as the woman closed the door then folded the passenger seat of the two-door car forward to allow the woman to climb in. She handed the bag and the tripod in, tipped the seat upright again and climbed in herself. Penny pulled away from the kerb as soon as Soo’s door was shut.
“Hello Daphne,” Penny said as she drove. “I’m Penny Harker – we spoke on the phone – and this is Soo Angarrack who is part of the team on this job. Soo, this is Daphne Porterhouse, the... er... art expert that John found for us.”
“Good to meet you,” Soo said, offering her hand over the back of her seat.
Daphne accepted the proffered hand. “Yes, but we’ve met before. You’re the burglar that John found for me. I recognised you immediately.”
After a few seconds stunned silence, Soo replied, “That’s very clever of you to do that.”
“Not really,” Daphne said. “You had a scarf over your mouth and nose when we first met, but I got a good look at your eyes. The second time, you had a stocking over your head and a woolly mask on top of that, but I could see you must have really short hair. The last time we met you were wearing a huge pair of sunglasses over the bit of your face I’d already seen but none of the rest was covered up. It was just a matter of putting it all together.”
“Sounds quite impressive to me,” Penny commented.
“I hope I’m dressed all right – I’m not used to this sort of assignment,” Daphne said, sounding a little nervous. “I wore black like you said, Penny.”
Soo swivelled herself around in her seat to look at Daphne. She was wearing a black zip-up fleece jacket with black jeans tucked into black lace-up ankle boots. “Looks perfect to me,” she said.
“I wasn’t sure if I needed a mask or anything, so I’ve got a hat and a scarf in my bag.”
“No need,” Soo assured her. “We will be masked for this job, but I’ve got masks and gloves for all of us.”
“I’ll need some help with the stuff I have to do,” Daphne continued, still sounding a little uncertain.
“That’s OK, Daphne,” Penny replied. “Soo will be working as your assistant and I’ll be paired with our contact at the target premises. There’s another fifteen minutes or so until we get there, so just relax.”
“I’ll try,” Daphne said, settling back in her seat.
* * *
Meanwhile, in a cellar in North-West London, a young woman was being systematically chained to a chair.
“All I want to do is to please Kuria Circe,” the woman lamented. “I try my best, Lily, but she finds more and more fault with everything I do.”
“Lizzie, the only way to survive here is to keep a low profile like the rest of us do,” Lily replied as she snapped a padlock into place.
“But I want to be like the Kuria and get into her inner circle,” Lizzie continued. “How do I get on her good side?”
“She hasn’t got one. She and her sister are efficient, ruthless criminals and they have a certain aura about them, but inside, they’re both cold, heartless bitches. They see any attempt to ingratiate yourself as weakness and they’ll crush it without hesitation. I mean, just think what happened for you to be sent down here.”
“Kuria Circe handed me a note to prepare a report on some of the family’s property assets. I know she doesn’t like speaking to anyone because she’s deaf and her voice is a bit hard to understand, but it’s difficult to know exactly what she wants sometimes. I thought about sending a note back to ask for more detailed instructions, but I decided that it would look better if I delivered the report quickly, so I just did it the way I thought was clearest.”
“And when I handed it over, she flipped though it, then scribbled a note and gave it to me.”
“That’s the note you gave to me.” Lily took a piece of paper out of her pocket and read it to Lizzie: “ ‘Not the way I wanted the figures laid out. You will spend the night in chains to teach you a lesson. Find someone to do it.’ So the report wasn’t wrong or incomplete or anything like that, just not formatted quite to her taste and for that, you have to spend the night like this. And not only that, but you have the humiliation of having to arrange your own punishment.”
“But why does she do this?” Lizzie asked, apparently bewildered by what had befallen her.
“Maybe just because she can. She enjoys destroying people she sees as inferior to herself.” Lily stood up from her work. “Circe’s instruction was for you to be chained up. I think I’ve made it as easy on you as I dare. This is your last chance to tell me if anything is hurting before I gag you.”
Lizzie was sitting on a tubular steel framed chair. She was wearing a black boiler suit with the collar of a the black roll-necked sweater she wore under it giving her some protection from the iron collar that sat loosely around her neck. A pair of chains attached to the front of the collar went downwards and out to the sides, crossing her arms a little above the elbow and continuing around the back of the chair. Another chain ran horizontally below her bust and above her elbows encircling her arms and body and holding them back to the chair. Another ran above her bust and two more came over her shoulders, crossed in front of her and were fastened to a chain across her hips with a pair of padlocks. Lizzie’s hands were in front of her with a pair of heavy steel manacles around her wrists and connected by a short chain. A pair of thumbless leather mittens afforded her wrists some protection. The centre of the chain linking her wrists was padlocked to the one across her hips. Lizzie’s ankles, protected to some extent by her black leather lace-up ankle boots, were fastened together by a pair of steel fetters. The chain joining them was padlocked to a longer length of chain linking the front legs of the chair. Her knees were secured by a length of chain wrapped around her legs just below them and padlocked. Finally, another length of chain was wrapped across her lap several times and under the chair seat.
Lizzie looked down at her predicament miserably. “I guess not,” she said.
“OK, open your mouth and I’ll be as gentle as I can,” Lily said.
Lizzie did as she was instructed and Lily inserted the spherical plug of a muzzle gag into her mouth. She carefully arranged the harness around Lizzie’s head.. A pair of narrow leather straps ran from the sides of the leather panel covering Lizzie’s mouth and were fastened behind her head. Another pair of straps passed either side of her nose, joining together to go over the top of her head Her jaw was held closed by the final strap, running under her chin and up across her cheeks to be fastened together high up at the back of her head.
Lily crouched slightly so she was almost nose to nose with the unfortunate Lizzie. “Now keep your head down in future or you’re going to end up doing time on that thing.” She glanced around at the wooden St Andrew’s cross that stood against one wall. “I’ve seen what that can do to people – you don’t want to find out for yourself.”
Lily turned out all the lights except for one dim bulb and went back upstairs into the main part of the house, leaving Lizzie to endure her punishment.
* * *
Penny swung the car into the driveway of a substantial brick-built 1920s villa. There was a turning space so she reversed the car ready for a quick departure.
“According to our contact, she should be the only one on the premises,” Penny told Soo and Daphne. “You can never be a hundred percent sure that a mole hasn’t been turned, so we proceed cautiously. For the same reason, we wear masks and gloves for this. We believe any internal surveillance systems will not be active, but it’s best to be safe.”
Soo reached into her bag and handed black knitted masks to Penny and Daphne before pulling her own on. It completely covered her head except for the two eye holes.
“I was worried it would be itchy, but it’s really comfortable,” Daphne commented as she adjusted her mask.
“So it should be,” Soo replied, “I knitted them from a lambswool, cashmere and silk blend.”
“Soo is a lady of many talents,” Penny observed.
“Black latex gloves all round,” Soo said, handing out polythene packets. “Careful how you put them on – they’re the same weight as surgical gloves, so they’re fairly fragile.”
All three women donned their gloves then stepped out of the car. Penny had a small bag on her back, Daphne carried her black holdall while Soo took the tripod and the item which she had now identified as a collapsible aluminium easel.
Penny led the way to a door at the side of the house. She pressed a bell-push and waited. After a few minutes a small hatch behind a barred opening in the door swung back to reveal a pair of eyes. It slammed shut again and the door itself opened. “Come in quickly,” a voice urged.
“Hello, Lily,” Penny said. “I take it the coast is clear for us?”
“There’s only one person here apart from me but she’s chained up in the cellar, so you’re safe for an hour. I can’t guarantee beyond that.”
“I suppose we should expect that sort of thing from the Krakases these days,” Penny sighed. “Still, an hour should be enough. Take these two to the painting then give me the guided tour.”
Lily led the way through a room that was clearly once a scullery and then through a modern kitchen to the hallway of the house. The staircase took them up to a room set up as a small office. On one wall hung a landscape painting of a pastoral scene with distant sea in a bold impressionist style.
“ ‘Sheep Grazing on Romney Marsh’ by John Robinson, painted in the early 1920s,” Daphne announced after a moment.
“Valuable?” Penny asked.
“Certainly. Robinson is one of our few home-grown impressionists and he lived far enough into the twentieth century to be influenced by some of the big names of post-World War 1 art and in turn to influence them. His paintings don’t come up for sale very often as most of them are in museums or big private collections now. This one hasn’t been sold publicly since the 1960s if I remember right.”
“Hard to tell, but probably getting on for a million,” Daphne suggested.
“And what would a copy be worth?” Soo asked.
“A competent copy, clearly identified as a legitimate copy would be a few hundred, maybe a thousand on a good day. An outright forgery would be worth nothing and would be legally unsalable.”
“Perfect,” Penny said. “You two had better get on – we don’t have that much time.
“Right you are,” Daphne replied. “Soo, you put up the tripod and the easel while I get the painting down from the wall.”
After a few moments of quiet discussion, Lillian and Penny left the room.
Working together Daphne and Soo mounted a camera on the tripod and the painting on the easel. A spirit level ensured that the camera was accurately levelled and the picture vertical. The heights of both were set with a steel tape measure to make the camera point precisely at the centre of the picture. With that done, Daphne set up a couple of small spotlights. She took a series of photographs of the painting both with and without a colour reference chart in front of it and with the lights set up at a variety of angles.
With the front of the picture recorded, they reversed it on the easel and photographed the canvas and stretchers from the back. Under Daphne’s direction, Soo took careful measurements of all four edges of the canvas and both diagonals then of the thickness of wood used for the stretcher.
Using the camera hand-held, Daphne took photographs of the old sale labels that were attached to the back of the painting, including a small ruler marked in millimetres in each image. Before returning the painting to the wall, she used a small magnifying device to measure the density of the weave for the canvas.
Taking care not to disturb the patina of dust on the frame, Soo and Daphne rehung the painting on its hook. While Soo folded up the tripod and easel and repacked the lights into Daphne’s bag, Daphne took a few close-up photographs of details in the painting.
Daphne had just put the camera in her bag and zipped it up when Penny and Lily returned to the room. “All done,” Daphne confirmed.
Without further ado, Lily led the way to the door by which they had entered the house. “I’m getting heartily sick of working for these scum – when are you planning to shut them down?” she asked.
“Replacing the painting with a fake is part of the plan, so we’ll need time to do that first,” Penny replied.
“It’ll take me about a week,” Daphne confirmed.
“We’ll get in touch via the usual channels when we have a date,” Penny said.
“And it won’t be a minute too soon,” Lily growled as she closed the door.
The three women climbed back into the car and Penny drove away from the house.
“Is it always as much stress going on a job like that?” Daphne asked when they were well away from the Krakas house.
“Quite often,” Penny confirmed with a laugh.
“It’s part of the excitement of the job,” Soo added.
“Excitement? I feel like I’ll be on an adrenaline high for days after this.”
* * *
About a week after Daphne’s introduction to covert operations, John Jacobs called at her studio in Hammersmith.
“Hello, Daphne,” he said as she opened the street door, “good to see you again.”
“Please excuse the attire,” Daphne said, noting John’s neat jacket and trousers. “I tend to dress for warmth and comfort when I’m working.”
John glanced down at Daphne’s clothes. She was wearing black woollen leggings, with a bold Norwegian pattern in red and grey, tucked into grey slipper socks. He could see the necklines of at least two layers of sweater under the oversized man’s shirt she wore as a painting overall.
“Artists are supposed to be a touch eccentric,” he said with a gallant smile.
John followed Daphne up a narrow staircase to the top floor of the Victorian terraced house, which had been knocked into a single open-plan space extending right up into the inside of the roof. One corner had a small kitchen area to save Daphne going downstairs for coffee and a large sink for cleaning palettes and brushes. Another corner had a table and three chairs, and there were several armchairs and a sofa placed around the room. The furniture was a mix of styles, well restored but obviously old, giving a softer, more domestic feel offsetting the white-painted austerity of the room. The space was dominated by the full-height north-facing wall of glass that gave the even lighting needed in a studio. Paintings were neatly stacked on wooden racks, with ones currently under restoration standing on easels. A very old, battered dining room table served as the repository for the paints, brushes and chemicals that were the tools of Daphne’s trade.
John paused, looking around him. “Much more impressive than my workroom,” he said.
“I got spoiled when I worked in Florence. When I came back to London, I felt I needed something more stylish than the scruffy attic I’d had before.” Daphne paused before adding, “But, of course, you saw that one too.”
John turned slowly until his eyes met hers. “Now we’re working as colleagues in more than one sphere, I suppose we ought to come clean with each other. I admit that leaving you tied to a chair when we first met wasn’t the most gentlemanly way to introduce myself.”
“I disagree,” Daphne countered. “You were professional and took care that I wasn’t injured or unduly uncomfortable. It was clear that there was no malice intended and that you weren’t being vindictive in any way, unlike the time my mum and I were tied up by La Cioccolata.”
“That’s very gracious of you,” John replied. “When did you work out that I was The Cat?”
“I recognised you the first time you approached me for a restoration job. I’ve just never quite worked out how to broach the matter. When you’ve been discussing the cost of restoring a painting, it’s a bit tricky so say, ‘Oh, by the way, do you remember that time you tied me up and gagged me?’”
“I see what you mean,” John conceded. “And I do remember it well – I’m glad there are no hard feelings.”
“Not at all – it has a page in my secret photo album.”
John’s jaw dropped open. “You have a photo? How?”
“If you remember, you phoned my sister to tell her I needed to be rescued. She very sensibly brought her camera along to get a record of what had happened to the studio in the expectation that the police or my insurance company might need to see them.” Daphne walked across to a rather untidy bookshelf and selected a ring binder. She carried it across to the table and opened it, beckoning John to look at it.
“My goodness, I didn’t take any chances with you, did I?” John commented with a chuckle.
There were several photographs showing a woman securely roped to a tubular steel framed chair. She was well bundled up against the cold in several layers of sweater with a long skirt, heavy socks, legwarmers and mittens. Her wrists were tied behind the chair and bound to a coil of rope around her waist. More rope was tied around her arms and chest. Her legs were tied at thighs, knees and ankles, with each binding secured to the chair. In some of the images, her face was visible and recognisable as a young Daphne; in others it was covered by a black legwarmer with another serving as a gag and she was blindfolded with a green and yellow scarf.
“Seeing as the photos include both me and a couple of forged paintings, it might not have been wise to show them to the police,” Daphne pointed out.
“You certainly wouldn’t have got away with it in the face of that evidence – they’re very good photos.
“My sister was a very good photographer.”
“She’s gone now – died far too young,” Daphne said with a sigh.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” John said. “Anyway, we have a fake Robinson to discuss – and it doesn’t involve you getting tied up this time.”
“It was a bit of a thrill being tied up that time,” Daphne admitted, “but, yes – to business. And it’s a forgery, not a fake.”
“Remind me of the difference.”
“A forgery is a fraudulent copy of a real painting whereas a fake is a painting that the faker hopes will be accepted into the catalogue of known works by the supposed artist.”
“So it was a fake painting you were working on the first time we met, but this is a forgery?”
“You got it.”
Daphne pulled on a pair of white cotton gloves then lifted the cloth covering a painting mounted on an easel. “Here it is. The stretcher is the one you made up for me but the canvas is just off a length I had in stock. It’s all done with oil paints, but whenever possible, I’ve used pigments that weren’t available in Robinson’s time and the varnish is a modern synthetic resin. I’ve copied all the major brushwork, but if you had this side-by-side with the original, I’m sure you’d find some small differences in the minor brushwork. All the detail in the painting is right – I don’t think you could tell it from the real one in a photograph.”
“You’ve done all this in the last week – how do you get oil paint to dry so quickly?”
“It’s a combination of some cunning chemistry and judicious use of a hairdryer,” Daphne revealed with a grin.
John laughed appreciatively and Daphne continued, “Actually, the paint is much softer than the real painting would be, but I’m relying on nobody poking it hard enough to find out.”
“I can see some dust on the lumpier bits of paintwork,” John commented..
“Yes, the real one is a bit overdue for a clean, so I’ve applied about the same amount of dust to this one. Some of it is French chalk as well as house dust. You’ll see more around the back.”
Daphne removed the painting from the easel and reversed it. “The arrangement of nails and paint streaks on the edge of the canvas are a bit of a guess, because I wasn’t able to see it.”
“Then again, nobody else has seen it either,” John pointed out.
“Exactly,” Daphne said. “Some of the dust on the back is ingrained in the canvas but most is in the crack around the edge of the stretcher.”
“It even smells like an old painting,” John said, leaning close to the back of the painting.
“There’s mouse pee and powdered copal varnish mixed into the dust – that does the trick.”
“The labels on the back look impressively real too.”
“I worked up my photographs of the real ones in Photoshop to get just the black ink image for each of them then laser printed them onto paper the right colour. The handwritten bits are good old fashioned forgery done by me. I glued the labels on with dilute PVA instead of gum arabic.”
“So this looks exactly like the real thing, even with a close visual inspection, but the most superficial of analysis will show that it’s only about ten minutes old?”
“That’s the plan,” Daphne said with a smile.
* * *
The sky was starting to turn a dark red as Soo and Coco walked out of Northolt underground station, crossing the road and making their way across the village green to a semi-detached house overlooking it. Both women had the collars of their overcoats pulled up, and did not look to the left or right as they approached the house.
The two women walked up to the door and knocked on the door three times, waiting until it was opened and they stepped inside.
“Nice night,” Penny said as they went into the front room, and removed their coats to reveal their black sweaters, tight black trousers and short boots.
“Well, it will give us plenty of cover,” Soo said as she looked around. “Who else is here?”
“Daphne should be here in ten minutes – we gave out staggered arrival times. Margot and a few others are already here – put on your balaclavas and come through.”
Both women nodded as they pulled the balaclava masks over their heads, and then pulled thin leather gloves over their hands, before following Penny into the room. They instantly recognised Maggie and Hettie, in their dark boiler suits. They stood over the small group of women they were talking to.
On the other side of the room was a solitary woman, dressed in black with the mask on, who was checking and re-checking an electronic notebook. “Jessica,” Penny said as she walked over to her, “May I introduce your minders for tonight – code letters C and S. Jess will be known as J for this job.”
“Pleasure,” Jessica said as she held out a gloved hand, “I take it you are professional acquaintances of Penny here?”
“That’s correct,” Soo said as a knock was heard on the front door. “Hello John,” they heard Penny say, and then the door opened, allowing John Jacobs to escort Daphne in, dressed as she had been the previous time they had met. She already had the balaclava over her head as she looked around, her eyes trying to take in as much as she could.
“This is D,” Soo said as she walked over and embraced Daphne, “Our other specialist expert for tonight. Ready?”
“Nervous as hell,” Daphne said as she continued to look round, “but ready to start. What happens now?”
“All right, everyone,” Penny said as she closed the door, “We need to have a final briefing. First check your watches – I have 18:15 at my mark... Mark.”
The group checked their watches as Penny looked round the room. “Good – at 19.00 we move out in three vehicles for the assault. There are three teams. Team one, led by S, will gain initial access to the building and disable security. S?”
“I have equipment, supplied by Mister Small, to take care of things, but our primary target will be the security room. The plans provided by our mole show the location to be the door on the right after the front door, so we need to be fast and silent. Once inside, we give the signal to team 2.”
“That’s us,” Maggie said as she looked at her team with Hettie. “We move to the main room. Our mole has revealed that the family are entertaining tonight. They should all be present, but I want you two,” she said as she pointed to two of the group, “to stay outside with Madame D, in case of stragglers.”
“Any in particular?” the tall woman referred to as Madame D said.
“Athena and Circe,” Penny said with a smile, “If they are not in the room, you get the job of finding them and neutralising the threat.”
“Consider it done,” Madame D said with a smile, one Daphne found both reassuring and vaguely frightening at the same time.
“Once the guests and staff are neutralised, we move on to phase 3. Team 1 will split – C with J, and S with D. You each have specific targets, and know what to do.”
Jessica and Daphne looked at each other and nodded. “Now, the rest of you: four will stand guard, the remainder search the house, take whatever you can find and carry. I want exit completed by 22:00 hours at the latest – are we clear?”
Penny looked round the room, seeing only nods. “Good, as always I will be monitoring and co-ordinating information. John?”
“I will be in contact with Madame X to inform her at key points. Good luck.”
“All right ladies – final check on equipment. D and S – a word.”
Daphne and Soo looked at each other, then followed Penny out. “Soo, Daphne must be your primary concern once the house is secured – the whole success of the plan depends on her. Daphne, where is it?”
Daphne looked to the wall, against which lay a large leather folder with string holding it closed. “Excellent,” Penny said as she put her hand on Daphne’s shoulder. “Breath easily and slowly – nothing untoward is going to happen.”
“Trust us,” Soo said as she put her arm round Daphne, “We’re professionals.”
* * *
“Honoured guests – we wish to welcome to you to our table, and to our house.”
The men and women seated at the long table applauded Angela Krakas as she stood at the head of the table. A black silk dress flowed down her slender body, hanging from her shoulders by a pair of gold chains attached by clasps to the fabric. To her left sat her aunt, her grey hair held up in a severe bun as she surveyed the table with her steel grey eyes. She wore a white high-collared blouse, a Victorian brooch positioned at her neck, and a long grey skirt.
To her right sat her cousins, Athena and Circe, both looking like Wagnerian heroines in robustly-made brown leather dresses ornamented with brass buckles and copper rivets. Circe was watching her cousin carefully, using her lip-reading skills to follow the conversation while Athena focused on her mother.
“You join us,” Angela said, “on a most auspicious evening. All of you have provided some form of investment in our activities, and tonight I am pleased to report that the first fruits of your support are about to be harvested.”
As Angela continued to speak, the female serving staff milled round the table, offering refreshments and clearing plates. As Lily collected the plate in front of Circe, she saw her look intently at her.
“Is there something in particular you require, Kuria Circe,” she said as she looked at her.
Circe nodded and scribbled a note which she passed to Lily: “Check on LIzzie. She has had sufficient chastisement to learn her lesson.”
“Of course, Kuria Circe,” Lily said with an inclination of her head, and she made her way out of the room, taking her dirty dishes to the kitchen.
“Dimitri,” she said to the cook, “I need to go and make sure Lizzie is all right. Cover for me if they ask, will you?”
The chef nodded as Lily took off her white apron, brushing down the front of her black dress as she descended to the cellar, donning a pair of black leather gloves at the same time. As she did so, she did not hear the sound of the doorbell ringing.
“Now who could that ne at this hour,” Diana said as she looked to the door. “Are we expecting any more visitors?”
“I do not believe so, Mama,” Athena said as she sipped from her glass, “Do you wish Circe or myself to investigate?”
“No – I am sure William will take care of the caller for us,” Diana said as she looked to Athena.
William had indeed reached the door, and then fallen to the floor, the anaesthetic dart plucked from him by Coco as the four of them entered the hallway. She looked carefully round, then motioned with her hand as Soo drew a dart gun and walked to the door to the right. Counting to three, she pulled the door open and fired two darts in quick succession.
“Clear,” she whispered as Coco and Jessica picked up William between them and dragged him into the room, followed by Daphne. Inside, she saw a bank of security screens, and two women, slumped in their chairs with darts in their necks. Both were dressed in black jumpsuits, gloves and boots, and both were armed.
“I hate guns,” Coco said as she pulled hanks of rope from her bag.
Jessica sat at the control desk and looked at the various screens. After a moment, she touched the side of her balaclava and said “J to control – do you read me?”
“Loud and clear J.”
“Initial target achieved,” she said as Daphne watched Soo and Coco bind the arms of the two security guards and William, using five turns of rope around their wrist and then two between, before securing their ankles and legs in the same way.
“I see two in the cellar, six staff working between kitchen and dining room, and fourteen in the dining room. Upper floor appears to be clear.”
“Good work. Do we have the go for team 2?”
Jessica looked over at the others, who were now placing the three staff in tight hogties. Bands of tape encircled their mouths and jaws, while blindfolds now covered their eyes. Looking back to the monitor, she saw two of the guests in the dining room stand up and walk out.
“Control, warning – two targets have left the dining room and are heading for the cellar.”
She watched, hardly daring to breathe as the two women walked across the hallway and then went through a door, closing it behind them.
“Control, we are clear. Team 2 is a go.”
* * *
“John? You have news for me?”
John Jacobs walked to the desk and sat in front of Madame X. “The house is in the process of being secured – it should all be over soon.”
“Excellent,” Madame X said as she stood up and looked out of the window. “John, while the operation is under way, I wonder if I can, to use the vernacular, pick your brains?”
“I’d be more than happy to help if I can.”
Madame smiled again and looked at him. “Tell me, John, what you know of a criminal known as Mister White...”
* * *
“And so, in conclusion...”
Angela looked up in mid flow as the room to the dining room was flung open, and a group of masked people in black ran in, brandishing firearms as they surrounded the table. “Nobody moves,” a female voice said as Angela looked at the tall, statuesque speaker.
“What is the meaning of this,” she said as she looked at them.
“This is a robbery,” the woman said, ignoring Angela, “and we told you that nobody moves. That includes you sister,” she said as she looked at Diana through the holes in her balaclava.
“May I ask who you represent,” Diana said as she returned the ice cold stare.
“We are Gravitas,” the woman said, “and we have come to relieve you all your valuables. Secure all of them.”
The two tall men in boiler suits nodded and got to work, Angela and Diana watching as with surprising speed they went round the table, pulling the wrists of the first two of the guests behind their backs, before the rope was wound round their upper bodies. In the case of the thin blonde, it almost made the top of her dress slip from her chest as her arms were forced into place, and then secured more tightly. They were then forced to lie on the floor as their ankles were crossed, pulled back and tied together as well as to the chest ropes, and a thick scarf tied between the lips of both her and her male companion.
After only fifteen minutes, there were five pairs of bound and gagged guests on the floor, as the woman turned to the family members and said, “Your turn, ladies – please, feel free to resist. My boys like nothing more than a challenge and it would make their day.”
* * *
“My god they’re fast.” Daphne was watching the scene in the dining room, as the party were reduced to a group of struggling bodies, while the tall men were taking care of Angela and Diana.
“They are the best in the business,” Soo said with a smile then as she looked to the other screen, she added “The terrible twins have gone down into the basement – and look who they’re talking to.”
“We can’t move until everyone is neutralised,” Coco said as she and Jessica watched the cameras in the kitchen. Four more masked intruders were there, forcing the chef and his assistant to use rolls of duct tape to secure the arms and legs of the waiting staff, before they were made to sit back to back and taped together.
“True,” Jessica said quietly. “Control, this is J. Four still loose in cellar.”
“So noted J. Madame D has been informed.”
* * *
“Next time, Lizzie, for the love of god just stop sticking your neck out.”
The young woman’s tear-filled eyes stared out from the eyeholes in a leather mask that covered her entire head.
Lily unbuckled the hood and carefully pulled it away from Lizzie’s face, gently disengaging the rubber plug that went deep into her mouth. She used a tissue to wipe away the drool that coated the lower part of the girl’s face.
“I warned you this would happen,” Lily added as she reached up to unbuckle the straps securing Lizzie’s wrists to the upper arms of the wooden St Andrew’s cross.
Lizzie whimpered in pain as all her weight went onto one wrist then flopped bonelessly across Lily’s shoulders as the second wrist was released.
“Just hang on while I get your ankles undone,” Lily said, struggling to keep Lizzie supported as she manipulated the buckles.
Lily helped Lizzie stagger across the cellar to a chair and sit down on it. She handed the girl a bottle of water.
Lizzie slurped thirstily at the bottle then said, “I just want Kuria Circe to appreciate me.”
“Then you’re an idiot,” Lily retorted. “She can probably do much worse than this if she puts her mind to it.”
“I know, but I want to make my mark in this outfit and I’m sure she’ll appreciate me if she just realises how hard I try.”
“No amount of dedication to Circe is worth this,” Lily said as she poured some of the water onto a tissue and used it to wipe the sweat from Lizzie’s face.
“Maybe, but thank you for caring,” Lizzie said as she looked at Lily. “You’re a good friend.”
“Yeah well, I still have some semblance of a conscience,” Lily said, not hearing the door open as Circe and Athena walked in. It was the slight creak of their leather clothing that alerted her, as she turned and stood with her head bowed and her hands clasped.
“Forgive the interruption, Lily, but we cannot seem to find William. Have you seen him?”
“I regret to say no Kuria Athena,” Lily replied, “but I will look for him if you so wish it.”
“That will not be necessary – I can tell you where William and the rest of the staff are.”
Athena whirled round, Circe seeing the motion and following a moment later, to see the three black-clad and armed women standing behind them.
“What is the meaning of this,” Athena said as she stepped forward, only to stop when she saw the pistol levelled between her eyes.
“I strongly advise you to keep quiet,” the woman who had spoken said, “and do exactly what we say. I am addressing Athena Krakas, correct?”
“What of it?”
“Then you are the one who must explain to your sister – we are in control of this house, we have your mother, aunt, all the staff and all the guests secured, and we are going to take you to them once you are secured. You two – the servants – come here.”
Athena briefed her sister with a few seconds of rapid sign language. Circe nodded her understanding, her face darkening with anger.
Lily stepped forward and Lizzie rose painfully from her chair, shaking as they were each handed a pair of leather handcuffs, linked by a small chain.
“You will secure the wrists of your mistresses behind their backs, and make sure they are tightly fastened.”
“No buts,” the woman said as she looked at Lily, “just do it.”
“It’s all right,” Athena said as she looked at the three masked intruders, “we will take revenge on this insult one day.”
“Gravitas does not believe that will be the case,” the masked woman said as Athena and Circe had their wrists secured, then felt their arms being drawn together as a second pair of cuffs were fastened around them above their elbows.
“A most interesting way of silencing someone,” the masked woman said as she looked at the leather hood that had enclosed Lizzie’s head a short time before. “Use it on one of them,” she said, handing it to Lizzie.
“Which... Which one?”
Lizzie looked at Lily, who responded with an almost imperceptible nod, then pushed the bung into Circe’s mouth, fastening the buckles tightly behind her head as she rendered her dumb as well as deaf.
“Give her sister the same,” the woman said as she handed a muzzle gag to Lily. “Forgive me, Kuria,” she said quietly as she pushed the gag in and buckled it round Athena’s head. The young Greek woman nodded, her eyes never leaving the masked trio.
“Take them upstairs,” the masked woman said to the other two. “Have them secured by the experts, then stand guard outside the door. I will deal with these two personally.” They watched as Athena and Circe were forced at gunpoint to walk up the stairs, then the masked woman turned to Lily.
“You know we have to secure both of you as well?”
“I figured as much,” Lily said with a shrug. “Lizzie, I’m afraid we’re going to have to stay down here for a while. Probably better, by the look of things, if we stay out of the way.”
Lizzie nodded slowly, then said “Just answer me one thing – who are you people?”
“You really don’t want to know,” the masked woman said as she picked up one of several rolls of duct tape. “Stand face to face and hug each other – I’ll make you as comfortable as I can.”
* * *
From the security room, Coco and Soo watched as Lily and the other young girl were cocooned by Dominique, then their mouths covered with tape before she climbed the stairs, crossed the hall and walked into the dining room. The Krakas family were kneeling on the floor at one side of the room, their arms tightly secured to their upper bodies with rope and their ankles tied to their elbows as they knelt there. The rest of the party were lying hogtied on the floor, their dress and dinner suits looking decidedly more rumpled.
“All right,” Dominique said to the armed guards. “You two, stay with me. The rest of you, search and strip this house from top to bottom. Nothing, absolutely nothing, is left if you can carry it. We speak for Gravitas.”
“For Gravitas,” they all shouted as Dominique was left with Maggie and Hettie. As the two boiler suit clad women started to remove the valuables from the guests, Soo touched Daphne on the shoulder.
“That’s our cue,” she said as Jessica said “Control, phase 2 completed. We need the package for phase 3.”
Soo and Daphne left the room, as two more masked women came in, carrying a leather satchel between them. They handed it to Soo, before going to the security room. Soo and Daphne ascended the staircase, as Coco and Jessica made their way across the hallway.
“There it is,” Soo said as they entered the office that they had previously visited, the Robinson hanging on the wall. She helped Daphne to remove the frame from the wall and lay it down, and then turned her attention to the safe that was sitting in the corner of the room.
Daphne carefully unfastened the top of the leather satchel, and slipped the forgery carefully from within it, as Soo examined the safe door. “Electronic lock,” she said as she looked at it.
“Not if you have the right tools,” she said as she took a box like a cigarette case from her pocket, placed it next to the lock and pressed a button. “Now, do you need a hand with that... my god, it looks exactly like the real thing.”
“Why thank you,” Daphne said, and there was real pride in her voice as she said it.
* * *
“Here we are,” Coco said as she led Jessica into the room, a bank of computers along a wall. “What do you need?”
“Nothing – I’ve got all I need,” she said as she took out a tablet, and placed it next to one of the humming machines, tapping on it until she started to smile. “The funds transfer has started to the Swiss accounts you supplied – want me to have a look round while I’m in here?”
“May as well – you never know what you may find.”
Jessica nodded as she continued to work on the tablet. “Let’s see... business contacts... Government bribes... Oh, and this looks tasty.”
“I don’t know – it’s heavily encrypted, but I can break it later. Ten more minutes, and their bank accounts will have been emptied.”
“You are good,” Coco said as she watched the young woman work, “so why do you owe Madame a favour.”
“Long story, personal issue,” Jessica said as she watched the screen, and then downloaded the encrypted files. “I’ll set a program running on them while we travel back,” Jessica said as she looked up, “what have you got?”
“Paper work, by the looks of it,” Coco said as she put it down. “It’s strange, acting in this way?”
“Oh – how do you normally act?”
“Trade secret – tonight, you are my priority.” She stopped as she heard a soft beep. “Managed to crack that folder?”
“I have,” Jessica said as she glanced at the screen, whistling softly. “Her? I never would have thought it?”
“What is it?”
“Their client list – I think a few people are going to have a very restless few days,” Jessica said with a smile. “Right – let’s go.”
* * *
Circe and Athena were staring hard at the three guards, trying to memorise what little details they could of the intruders. Whoever Gravitas were – and they had heard the rumours – they were fast, they were efficient, and they had done the impossible.
They had hurt them – and that was an insult that would be repaid some day.
“We are done,” one of the masked intruders said to the tall woman, who nodded and said “Let’s go.”
“For Gravitas,” Dominique said as she and the two men walked into the hallway, watching as Soo escorted Daphne, carrying a large leather satchel, and Jessica appeared with Coco.
“Out – move,” Dominique shouted, as the gang left the house, the shouted screams of insult and anger falling on deaf ears as they climbed into the vans, and drove away into the night…
* * *
“Oh my god,” Daphne said as they returned to the house. “We did it. We actually did it!”
“We did,” Penny said as the group congregated in the room, “Madame thanks you all for your efforts, and hopes this goes some way to thank you all for your efforts.” She placed the tray of glasses on the table, and then opened the first of several bottles of champagne.
“I need to take this off – you know what I look like anyway,” Soo said as she pulled off her balaclava, shaking her head.
Daphne followed suit. “Who are the rest of these people anyway,” she asked as she looked round the room.
“Fellow professionals,” Soo said as she took Daphne to one side. “You’d get a shock if you knew who some of them were.”
“True – wouldn’t surprise me if they were really famous,” Daphne said, then stopped as she saw Margot and Hettie remove their masks. “Oh my god,” she whispered, “they’re…”
“Yup – told you,” Coco said as Daphne saw the small woman she had seen Soo with earlier talking to Penny. “So who is she?”
“My boss,” Soo said, “and my mentor in so many ways. Would you like to meet her? I think we can consider you an associate member of our fraternity now.”
“Yeah – if she is willing to talk to me,” Daphne said as the masked woman came over. She looked at Soo, as the young woman said, “Go on – you might as well get it over with. She realised who I was a few days ago.”
“The artist’s eye for detail,” Daphne said as she shook the mystery woman’s hand.
“Well,” she said as she reached up and pulled the mask off her head, “it is a pleasure to finally meet you properly, Daphne.”
Daphne stopped and looked at the small, rather plump woman staring at her, and said quietly, “No.”
“No? Have I got spinach in my teeth?”
“You,” Daphne said, “I know you. You robbed me and my mother when I was a girl! You’re…”
“Shhh,” Coco said as the three of them went outside. “Who do you think I am?”
“You’re La Cioccolata – I’d know that face anywhere.” Daphne put her hand to her forehead and looked at the two of them. “I should have known – your styles are so similar. Do you know I swore I would find you and make you pay some day.”
“I think I’ll just have to retire next time someone works out who I am,” Coco said quietly in an aside to Soo, “but I’ll scream in their face first...” She took a deep breath and turned back to Daphne. “Yes, it’s true – I am La Cioccolata. When Soo told me about your experience, I remembered it clearly. However, I assure you there was no malice involved. I’m a cat burglar – tying people up when I rob them is just part of the job. I promise you, it was nothing personal – Soo can testify to that. The first time I met her, I tied her up just as tightly.”
“You still do from time to time,” Soo said, which made Daphne smile a little. “Honestly, Daphne, in our line of work we do this an awful lot, and…”
“I’m sorry if I caused you to be upset,” Coco said, extending a hand to Daphne. “No hard feelings?”
“No, I guess not,” Daphne replied as she took Coco’s hand. “After all, it was strictly business, wasn’t it?”
* * *
The telephone ringing made Soo look up from her desk as she lifted the receiver.
“Aldington Associates, how can I help you?”
“Good morning, Soo.”
The young girl looked over the desk at Coco as she said “Good Morning, Madame – if you will hold a moment, I will put you on the speaker phone.” She pressed a button and replaced the handset as Coco said “Good morning Madame – how can we help you?”
“You already have,” the deep, authoritative voice said, “I wanted to call and let you know that the plan was an outstanding success, and to thank you for the part you both played. The Krakas gang are effectively neutralised.”
“Most gratifying,” Coco said quietly, “so the painting did its job?”
“Oh yes – I am told by Lily, who has been released from her employment, that the sisters were most perturbed to be told their only remaining source of funds was a worthless forgery.”
“How unfortunate,” Coco said as she smiled at Soo. “And how did the forgery come to light?”
“Well, the expert they called in exposed it as a dud right away, pointing out the paints and varnish used were too modern, and the cloth too new. Quite an authoritative lecture, by all accounts. I must write a letter of commendation for Miss Porterhouse.”
“Quite so – by some strange misfortune, the expert they selected to authenticate the painting was one Daphne Porterhouse, PhD, FRSA. Most unfortunate.”
“Indeed,” Coco said with a smile. “And the other items?”
“The funds have been liquidated, and I think you will find your share most generous. As for the files Jessica uncovered, we have either informed the appropriate authorities or taken certain steps to use the information to our advantage. But as I said, I called to thank you.”
“Our pleasure,” Coco said, “until next time?”
“I look forward to it,” the voice said before the line went dead.
“So, job well done,” Soo said as she sat back, “I hope Daphne finds a good use for her share.”
“Oh I’m sure she will,” Coco said as she went back to the drawing she had been studying.
* * *
Coco was enjoying a relaxing evening at home. The curtains were drawn and, apart from the small pool of light from her reading lamp, the lights were turned low. Gentle music was playing on her sound system and a mug of hot chocolate was in easy reach from the sofa where Coco was curled up reading an Italian romance novel.
The peace was broken by the doorbell. Coco would have been tempted to ignore it, but the long-short-long-short pattern indicated someone on confidential business with her. She sighed and heaved herself off the sofa, leaving her book behind. She glanced down at her attire: pink and white striped pyjama trousers tucked into thick grey socks and a rather baggy oversized purple sweater worn over a thinner grey one under the pyjama top. Not quite the attire to receive visitors, but anyone turning up this late would just have to take her as they found her.
Coco could see nothing through the frosted glass of the door, which suggested that the visitor had stood slightly aside from the door. This wasn’t necessarily a cause for concern, but as a precaution reached into a drawer on a small table in the hallway and drew out an injector pen. She opened the door cautiously. She tensed on being confronted by three masked figures then relaxed as she recognised the two taller ones as the Harman twins, despite only being able to see their eyes.
“Better come in, in case the neighbours see you dressed like that,” Coco said.
The twins stepped through the door together and advanced menacingly. “Sorry, Auntie Coco, but we’re here on business,” one of them said.
Coco raised the injector pen, realising what ‘business’ implied, then noticed how the women were dressed. Both Harman sisters were dressed entirely in black with leather jackets zipped up to their necks and leather trousers inside knee boots. Their heads were covered with black knitted balaclavas showing just their eyes and they wore leather gloves. Coco realised that their faces were the only part vulnerable to the injector pen but recognised that she wouldn’t be able to get close enough against two strong young women so much bigger than her. She lowered the pen.
“We thought you might try to use that,” one of the twins said, taking the pen out of Coco’s hand.
The twins backed Coco into the lounge where Coco’s book still lay face down on the sofa. Coco stood impassively in the middle of the room waiting for the twins to explain what was going on. One of them put down the black holdall she was carrying then they both removed their masks to reveal their blonde hair.
“As Hettie said earlier,” one of the twins began, implicitly identifying herself as Maggie, “we’re here on business. We have accepted a contract for our services. As you know, we work on a strictly professional basis and there is never anything personal involved. We trust that you will accept that and not hold this against us.”
“Is this your client?” Coco asked, indicating the third visitor who had not yet spoken.
Like the Harman twins, this visitor was dressed entirely in black. She was clearly female, significantly shorter than the Harmans and wearing a fake fur jacket over a knee-length skirt. Opaque tights could be glimpsed between the skirt and her knee-length boots. Her hands were covered by thin leather gloves and her face obscured by a black knitted mask of the style that Soo favoured with just two holes for the eyes. Also, like Soo, she was wearing a black nylon stocking under the mask so that her eyes were barely visible.
“Yes,” the woman said in reply to Coco’s question.
“Daphne?” Coco demanded, recognising the voice.
In response, Daphne peeled off the mask and stocking. “I told you that I’d sworn to track you down and make you pay for what you did to my mother and me. With my share of the profit from our recent project, I now have the resources to engage professionals to do the job for me and of course the necessary contacts.”
“So what are you going to do?” Coco asked.
“Isn’t that obvious? I’m going to have you tied up and left, just as you did to me.”
“And you two have agreed to do the dirty work?” Coco asked the Harman sisters.
“Daphne is a professional just like us now, so she’s entitled to engage our services,” Hettie replied.
“And loyalty to your Aunt Coco doesn’t count for anything?”
“We considered that, of course,” Maggie said, “but we felt that Daphne might gain some closure if we did this for her.”
“At my expense?”
“We know you’ve been through far worse, so we considered that you would probably fare better than many of the people we have had to deal with in the past,” Hettie explained.
“No way I can talk you out of this?”
“No – we won’t renege on a contract,” Maggie assured her.
Coco spread her hands, acknowledging defeat. “Can I at least use the toilet before you tie me up?”
“Of course,” Hettie replied, “but only under supervision.”
“I’ll fetch a suitable chair,” Maggie said as her sister escorted Coco to the door.
“No,” Daphne said firmly. “I don’t want her tied to a chair. I want her to be tied up the way she tied me up.”
Hettie and Coco stopped in their tracks and turned to face Daphne. “I’m sorry, Daphne, but that’s not going to happen,” Hettie said.
“Why not?” Daphne demanded, a little petulantly.
“Several reasons,” Maggie said. “I know from the way you explained it to us, La Cioccolata left you lying on the floor hog-tied.”
“And gagged and blindfolded,” Daphne pointed out.
“Yes, but the point I’m making is that you were only 18 at the time. And tied up for how long?”
“About an hour while La Cioccolata was opening my dad’s safe and about two hours after that until my sister found my mum and me and rescued us.”
“So you were young and fit and tied up for about three hours. Coco is almost 60 and she will be tied up until Soo arrives for work tomorrow morning – probably close to eleven hours,” Maggie explained patiently.
“We have professional standards,” Hettie pointed out. “Nobody ever escapes prematurely when we tie them up, but equally nobody ever suffers permanent injury. Our contract with you is that we bind, gag and blindfold Coco. We’re not going to risk hurting her, especially not when she’s our favourite aunt.”
“Oh good, I was hoping you hadn’t forgotten that last bit,” Coco commented with slightly forced humour.
“I see your point,” Daphne acknowledged. “I spoke in anger and I apologise for that. I know that revenge is best served cold but I prefer it to be just warm enough to be interesting. Eleven hours tied to a chair sounds about right.
Coco and Hettie continued on their journey to the bathroom while Maggie went in search of the chair she had in mind. Daphne was left on her own in the sitting room for a few minutes until Maggie returned carrying a wooden chair. “This is the one Coco and Soo use for practice.”
“Use for practicing what?” Daphne asked.
“For practicing tying each other up and seeing if they can escape.”
Daphne’s mouth dropped open in astonishment. “Really?”
“That’s why they’re so good at tying people up,” Maggie said. “And Coco could be good enough to be a stage escapologist if she hadn’t chosen a different career.”
“Somebody taking my name in vain?” Coco asked, returning with Hettie.
“Only good things,” Maggie assured her.”
“I’ve frisked her thoroughly – no hidden blades or anything,” Hettie said.
“And she let me put a pair of woolly tights on under my PJs,” Coco added pointing at her legs.
“You can get pretty cold just sitting still when you’ve been tied up,” Hettie explained.
“Yes, I remember how it was when The Cat tied me up,” Daphne said, then asked, “Are you wearing socks on your hands?”
Coco held her hands up, showing the thick grey socks covering her hands and going right up to her elbows. “Yes and I’ve got another pair on under these. It will give me a bit of protection against the ropes and make it much harder to untie myself.”
“Not that she’ll be able to reach any knots if we do our job properly,” Maggie pointed out.
“I thought I might end up on the John Jacobs special,” Coco remarked, sitting down.
“John Jacobs special?” Daphne echoed.
“Tying someone to a chair and having them try to escape can be a bit rough on the chair, especially if you do it repeatedly, so John prepared this one for me. It’s an old chair I picked out in his workshop, but he customised it by shortening the legs a little as Soo and I are both quite short, and by reinforcing all the joints with steel rods. It looks just the same as before but now it’s totally unbreakable.”
Daphne nodded her acknowledgment then watched fascinated as the Harman twins deployed the bundles of rope they had brought with them. Unlike the rapid action that she had witnessed during the Krakas raid, they proceeded quite slowly but methodically, co-operating seamlessly with hardly a word exchanged between them.
The tying process took over 15 minutes and at the end of that time, Coco was comprehensively immobilised. Her wrists were crossed behind the chair and bound together with both vertical and horizontal coils of rope. More rope went between her wrists to cinch the ropes snugly. The completed wrist binding was fastened to the horizontal bars that formed the chair’s backrest and out to the vertical side member of the chair, eliminating any movement.
There were ropes tied to the top of the chair back coming forward over both Coco’s shoulders, crossing on her chest and fastened off to the side members of the chair below the lowest of the backrest’s horizontals. On top of that, there was a coil of rope around her upper arms and body above her bust line, cinched in such a way as to clamp her arms to the frame of the chair. A similar coil was below her bust and a little above her elbows. Two further bands of rope at waist level and across her hips held her back to the chair.
Coco’s legs were tied together and cinched at the ankles, below and above her knees and about half way up her thighs. At the ankle and lower knee binding, the ends of the rope had been taken out to the chair legs and fastened off, keeping Coco’s legs in place. The ankle binding had additionally been tied back to the stretchers that linked the chair legs, pulling her feet back under the chair slightly. At the upper knee and thigh bindings, the ends of the rope had been taken under the chair seat, holding Coco down on the chair.
After securing Coco, the twins methodically checked each knot to assure themselves that everything was completely secure.
“However much rope is that?” Daphne asked.
Maggie glanced at Coco then at the few bundles of rope left unused and did a quick mental calculation. “About 75 to 80 metres.”
Daphne frowned as she tried to convert the measurement to something more familiar.
“About 250 feet,” Coco translated helpfully.
“And she can’t get out of that?” Daphne asked.
“Not a chance,” Coco answered before either of the Harman sisters could reply. “If those two tie someone up, they stay tied up.”
“Far be it from us to boast, but, well, what Coco said,” Hettie added modestly.
“You’re going to be gagged and blindfolded,” Maggie said to Coco, “but do you want a hat on too to keep you warm?”
Coco thought for a few seconds then replied, “I might get cold without one, but I’m unlikely to overheat just sitting here even with a hat on, so yes, please. You should find one in the hall cupboard.”
Maggie left the room and returned a few moments later grinning. “I found the perfect hat,” she said holding up a stocking cap that was extended into a scarf about five feet long with a huge pompom on the end. It was knitted in blue, pink and white in a busy Norwegian pattern.
“Emergency purchase when I was doing hydroelectric scheme near Oslo in the middle of winter,” Coco explained slightly apologetically.
“Can I gag her now?” Daphne asked.
Coco cast a questioning glance at the Harman twins.
“Daphne wants you to be gagged the same way that you gagged her when you robbed her parents’ house,” Hettie explained. “We agreed that she could do it as long as we supervised and approved what she did.”
Coco nodded her assent and Daphne unslung a black leather shoulder bag she had been wearing. She drew out of it a green woollen scarf with narrow yellow stripes. “My old school scarf,” she explained.
“Not the same one, surely?” Coco asked.
“No, that got a bit tatty over time, but the school uniform still has the same scarf, so I bought a new one specially for tonight.”
“While I can still talk,” Coco said, “I’d like to apologise for what I did to you and your mum all those years ago, Daphne. To me, it was just business at the time, but it’s obviously had a profound effect on you and I’m truly sorry for that. I’d also like to make you an offer.”
Daphne stiffened at Coco’s words.
“No, I’m not trying to talk my way out of getting tied up,” Coco said hurriedly, “but I know that hiring the Harmans isn’t a cheap proposition and I’d like to offer to pay their fee myself, if that’s acceptable to you.”
“Well, we did give her a bit of a discount,” Maggie admitted.
“Even so, I’d still like Daphne to be able to enjoy all the profits from our last job,” Coco said.
“Paying for your own punishment sounds good to me,” Daphne said. “I accept.”
“In that case, please contact Soo for payment through the usual channels,” Coco advised the Harmans, then turning to Daphne said, “OK, I’m ready for my gag.”
Daphne tied a knot in the scarf about a third of the way along its length then, standing behind Coco and leaning forward over her shoulder, she pushed the knot into her mouth. Daphne kept the scarf taut as she wrapped it right around Coco’s head, going across her mouth for a second time. She pulled the ends hard and tied a double knot behind Coco’s head. Moving round in front of Coco, she arranged the second layer of scarf so it went over her nose, almost up to her eyes, and below her chin. She looked around at the Harman twins, who nodded their approval.
Hettie took Coco’s spectacles off and slid a black fleece sleep mask down over her head, adjusting it so that it covered her eyes completely and went under the upper edge of her gag.
Maggie worked the woolly hat she had found down over Coco’s head, taking care not to dislodge the sleep mask and easing it over the knot securing her gag.
“How’s that?” Hettie asked Daphne.
“Exactly what I wanted,” Daphne replied, nodding her approval. She took a small camera out of her bag and took several photographs of Coco.
“Do you want us to leave the music on, Auntie Coco?” Maggie asked.
The muffled figure nodded.
Maggie lifted a pair of wireless headphones off their stand and plugged the transmitter unit into the headphones socket of Coco’s digital media centre. She turned the volume down a little then settled the phones over Coco’s head. “Volume OK?” she asked.
Coco nodded again.
“Well, that’s us done,” Hettie said. “I’ll leave a note for Soo then we can set the alarm and leave.”
* * *
It was a little after 8:30 that Soo parked her scooter in the street outside Coco’s house. She retrieved the plastic carrier bag containing a bottle of milk from the bungee cords securing it to the rear carrier and headed up the path to the door. She removed her gloves to let herself in with her key. When she was in the hallway, she was surprised to hear the alarm system beeping its warning that it had just been triggered. She quickly went to the hall cupboard where she punched her six-digit personal code into the console then put her finger into the biometric sensor which would read her fingerprint and also check that she had a pulse and a plausible body temperature. There was a double beep then silence, confirming that the system was satisfied with her identity.
Soo removed her helmet and the respirator she wore to protect against air pollution and put them on the shelf where she usually left them. She removed her yellow rainsuit and wellington boots to reveal a bottle-green knitted minidress over black woolly tights with a brighter green sleeveless v-necked sweater over the dress. She put on a pair of black Mary Janes which she kept in the cupboard, picked up the bag containing the milk and headed for the kitchen.
As she put the milk into the fridge and sniffed suspiciously at the part-used bottle that was there already, Soo wondered where Coco was. She knew that Coco usually set the alarm for just the doors and windows when she went to bed, which was the state she had found the alarm in when she arrived, but she had never known Coco not to be up already when she arrived for work. The more likely explanation was that Coco had needed to go out early for some reason. It was surprising not to have received a text message in that case, but there would undoubtedly be a note somewhere.
When Soo went to fill the coffee machine and switch it on, she found a note, but not the one that she expected: ‘Look in the sitting room. HH MH.’
Soo recognised the initials as belonging to the Harmans, but nevertheless she was cautious enough at an unexplained note to go to the drawer in the hall where an injector pen was kept. She was surprised to find it wasn’t there. She carried on unarmed.
Soo’s measured silent tread broke into a run when she saw Coco in the middle of the room, bound to her chair and hooded. “It’s me,” she announced as she removed the headphones and woolly hat. She lifted the mask off Coco’s eyes and untied the gag, taking care not to hurt her as she pulled it away. “What happened?” she asked.
Coco licked her lips and swallowed hard several times before replying in a hoarse voice. “Don’t worry, this was purely a professional incident – there was absolutely no malice involved.”
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