La Cioccolata in
The Ethics of Theft: Rainy Day
by Doctor George
April was appallingly, relentlessly and dismally wet. Not so much April showers as April monsoons, Soo Angarrack thought as she looked out at the rain streaming down the front windows of Coco Aldington’s house in Muswell Hill. She sighed and turned her attention back to the cost analysis spreadsheet that Coco had left her to work on.
The sound of the telephone broke the silence in the office. Soo picked up the handset and tucked it under her chin as she reached for notepad and pencil. “Aldington Associates, good morning,” she announced.
“Hello, Soo, it’s Penelope Harker here,” the voice on the other end of the phone said.
“Good to hear from you, Penny,” Soo replied. “I expect it’s Coco you want, but I’m on my own here this morning.”
“That’s all right. I’m phoning to ask a favour and I expect either of you could help – if you’re available and willing or course.”
“Is that ‘help’ as in a contract for Madame?” Soo asked.
“It is a job for us,” Penny confirmed, “but ‘contract’ is possibly overstating it a little. It’s a fairly simple pick-up job.”
“I’ll need to check with Coco.”
“I’m afraid it’s urgent – it really needs to be done today,” Penny explained.
“Well, Coco has given me authority to make decisions like this – it’s just that I’ve very rarely had call to do it!” Soo replied with a laugh.
“Scary when the boss leaves you in charge isn’t it?” Penny replied, her smile obvious from the tone of her voice.
“OK, Tell me about it,” Soo said, taking up her pen. “I take it ‘pick-up’ probably means a certain amount of coercion is involved?”
“Yes, the present custodian of the item may be... shall we say... reluctant to give it up. Also this has to be very discreet and completely anonymous.”
“So not my customary ‘girl-in-black’ persona then?”
“Completely avoid any MO you would usually use if that’s at all possible,” Penny confirmed.
“Understood. Better give me the details, then...”
* * *
Later that morning, Soo walked along a side street in Camden, North London, trying to avoid the worst of the puddles. The rain was still pouring down, but she was well sheltered by a long hooded raincoat in shiny bottle green PVC. A pair of bright yellow wellington boots was visible below the hem of the coat and her face was protected by a yellow woollen scarf pulled up over her mouth and a matching knit hat well down over her forehead. Her thin black leather gloves offered little protection from the cold, but were thrust into the pockets of her coat.
Soo had checked the address on Google Earth and familiarised herself with the neighbourhood using Streetview before she left the office. She was therefore able to go straight to her destination without hesitation.
She paused outside one of the many small clothes shops in the area. Like many of its competitors, this one specialised in clothing with a distinctly Bohemian and ethnic style. Its name was simply ‘Miriam’s Place’. There were scarves and jewellery hung on the inside of the door, largely obscuring the view inside, but there didn’t seem to be any customers inside the shop, so Soo opened the door and stepped inside. Penny hadn’t been able to brief Soo on the internal layout of the shop, so a quick appraising glance had to suffice. There was a counter with an electronic cash register to the left. The space to the right of the shop door was filled with racks of clothes. Other items were on the shelves that lined the walls. At the back of the shop on the right there was a doorway, presumably leading to some sort of storage area, which had an old-fashioned bead curtain hanging over it..
“Horrible day, isn’t it?” commented a middle-aged woman sorting out a rack of brightly-coloured cotton print dresses utterly unsuited to the current weather.
For an instant, Soo wondered why the woman was sitting down for this task, until she realised she was sitting in a wheelchair.
With practised skill, the woman span her chair around and rolled it forward in front of Soo. “You’re certainly not taking any chances with the weather,” she observed cheerily after looking Soo up and down.
Whatever misgivings Soo had about robbing a disabled woman had to be set aside to undertake her agreed task. nevertheless she inwardly cursed Penny for not including this detail in her briefing. “I try never to take chances,” Soo replied, drawing a small automatic pistol out of her coat pocket. “That’s why I brought this.” She stepped backwards and turned the sign on the door to show CLOSED, locking it after she did so, her eyes fixed on the woman the whole time.
“Oshitoshitoshit,” the woman commented, not unreasonably. She gathered her wits and resolve remarkably quickly and continued, “There’s nothing in the till except for the hundred quid float I started the day with. I’ve only had two customers today and they both paid by card. Just take it and go.”
“I’m not too bothered about that,” Soo replied. “All I want is that kilogram of gold that you’re looking after.”
The woman’s eyes involuntarily snapped to one side than back to Soo.
“Under the counter,” Soo said. “Thank you – that will save me a lot of searching. I just need to put you out of action, then I’ll take the gold and be on my way.”
The woman’s eyes widened in horror. “Please, no. You can’t just walk in off the street and kill me in cold blood.”
Soo seethed inwardly at her own choice of words. “Nothing like that,” she said quietly. “I’m just going to tie you up to give myself a little time to get away.”
“But you have a gun.”
“Last resort, I promise you. I won’t need it if you cooperate,” Soo said, regaining command of the situation.
“I’ll do whatever you say,” the woman assured Soo. “Please just put the gun away.”
The woman sounded sincerely terrified, so Soo put the pistol back in her pocket. It was dummy in any case.
Soo had not had a chance to assess her victim properly. She took a moment to look the woman over. She appeared to be in her fifties or sixties with a cloud of frizzy grey hair surrounding her head. Her deeply-lined skin was light brown and she had dark brown, almost black, eyes and a narrow beak-like nose. Possibly Middle Eastern, Soo thought. Her taste in clothes was colourful and eclectic, in keeping with the style of her shop. She wore a purple and green fleece-lined knitted jacket over a black cotton top with gold batik decoration. Matching green wrist warmers covered her hands but left her fingers and thumbs free. There were at least half a dozen necklaces of different designs round her throat and down over her top. She wore plain black cotton leggings which starkly revealed how thin her legs were. Rainbow striped knitted legwarmers were pulled up over them and Soo could see the toes of a pair of badly-scuffed trainers on the woman’s feet.
Focussing back on the job, Soo unslung the small rucksack she wore from her back, placed it on the floor and opened it. She risked a glance into the bag and away from her victim to locate the items she needed.
It seemed inappropriate to bark orders at a woman in a wheelchair, although Soo couldn’t quite rationalise to herself why. She settled for a more conversational tone and hoped that she would retain control of the situation. “I take it you’re Miriam,” she said.
“Yes, that’s right,” the woman confirmed.
“I’ll try not to make this too awful for you,” Soo said, trying to be firm but not unnecessarily threatening. “Can you put your hands behind your back, please?”
“No,” Miriam replied emphatically, “my spine is too curved for that.”
“Well, hold your hands out in front of you then,” Soo instructed.
The woman did as she was told and Soo slipped a pair of plastic zip cuffs over her hands. There was a sharp rasping noise as Soo pulled the cuffs tight on the woman’s wrists, making sure they were bearing on the woollen wrist warmers, not on bare skin.
“Riot police handcuffs,” Miriam observed, examining her bound wrists. “I didn’t know you could buy those things.”
“You’d be surprised what you can get on eBay,” Soo replied. Miriam had to stop herself laughing at the comment.
The woman tugged experimentally at the cuffs.
“I wouldn’t bother,” Soo advised her. “You could hold an Olympic weightlifter with those. The only way out is scissors.”
Soo knelt down to apply a second pair of zip cuffs to Miriam’s ankles.
“You needn’t bother with that. I’m in a wheelchair after all – I’m not likely to run off anywhere.”
“In a wheelchair, but with a pair of elbow crutches propped up behind the counter and obvious signs of wear on your shoes,” Soo pointed out, “so I don’t think I’ll take the risk.”
Soo produced a plain plastic zip tie from her bag. “Lift your hands out of the way and I’ll put this round your legs next.”
Miriam did as instructed and watched with apparent interest as Soo secured her legs just above the knees.
“Why do you have a seat harness on your wheelchair?” Soo asked, discovering a nylon belt bucked out of the way across the back of the seat.
“It’s surprisingly easy to bounce yourself out of a chair getting over uneven surfaces, so they’re sometimes useful to have,” Miriam explained.
“Well, it certainly makes my job easier,” Soo commented as she snapped the waist belt into place with its big plastic buckle then fastened and tightened the shoulder straps.
“The buckle’s at the front, so I don’t think that’s going to cause me much trouble.”
“I’m going to fix that next. Put your hands back down and I’ll finish off with this,” Soo instructed holding up another zip tie.
The woman put her hands down and Soo used the tie to fasten the one around the woman’s legs to the plastic zip cuffs.
“I’m sorry about doing all this,” Soo said as she straightened up.
“I doubt that very much,” her victim retorted. “You came here specifically to rob me and you came with these things ready to tie me up. I rather think this is nothing out of the ordinary for you.”
“True,” Soo conceded, “but I don’t like doing this to someone in a wheelchair.”
“Why?” Miriam looked at Soo with a fire in her eyes that had been missing before. “ Is it somehow worse to rob a disabled woman than someone able-bodied?”
“It feels that way.”
“That sounds pretty close to discrimination to me. I resent what you’re doing, but I’ll be damned if I’ll have you pitying me.”
“I still don’t like it. It’s taking advantage of someone who’s already at a disadvantage. I hate it when I have to tie children up for much the same reason.”
“Well today’s not your lucky day then.” Miriam sighed, then turned to face the door in the back wall of the shop and raised her voice. “Anya, you might as well come out now. It’s probably safer than waiting until this woman comes looking for you.”
A girl of maybe twelve or thirteen years emerged from the door, her eyes wide as she looked at the two older women. There was more than a passing resemblance to Miriam with the same olive skin, aquiline nose and dark questioning eyes, Unlike the older woman, she had a mass of raven-black hair. Her taste in clothes was similarly colourful with a short red and blue patterned knitted dress worn over black and white Norwegian-pattern knit leggings tucked into plain red socks folded down over the top of zebra-striped wellingtons. She also wore a blue circle scarf looped twice around her neck, picking up the blue in her dress, and a pair of matching fingerless gloves.
“Is she going to hurt us, Aunt Miri?” the girl asked cuatiously.
“I think she’s going to tie you up, Ani, but she’s promised not to hurt us,” Miriam assured her.
“Yes, that’s right,” Soo confirmed, liking this job less every minute.
“Is it going to hurt being tied up?” Anya asked.
“Not at all,” Soo told her. “Try to think of it as an adventure and you’ll be all right.”
The girl looked warily at her aunt, who nodded in reply.
“What do I have to do?” Anya asked.
“Bring me three of those scarves hanging up over there,” Soo instructed. She indicated a series of coat hooks fastened to the wall over which were hung brightly-coloured cotton print scarves.
Anya selected three scarves and offered them to Soo who took one and allowed the others to flutter to the floor.
“Now hold your hands out in front of you,” Soo told her.
Anya held out her hands, clenched into tight fists and trembling slightly. Soo deftly folded the scarf into a band, wound it twice around the girl’s wrists on top of her gloves then wrapped the ends around the centre of the binding to form a cinch and knotted it tightly and out of the reach of probing fingers.
“How’s that?” Soo asked.
Anya flexed her wrists experimentally as she stared at the brightly coloured band around her blue sleeves. “Weird, but OK, I suppose,” she concluded.
“No, just very odd.”
“Good, then sit down on the floor for me.”
Anya sat down awkwardly, not being able to use her hands easily. She settled herself into a sitting position against the counter with her knees drawn up and her hands on top of them, her feet flat on the floor.
“I’m going to take your wellies off,” Soo told her. “I think you’ll be more comfortable that way.”
Anya nodded, so Soo pulled the red socks up over the girl’s knees and eased the boots off her feet. She folded a second scarf into a band and used it to bind Anya’s ankles in the same way that she had tied her wrists.
“Still OK?” Soo asked. Anya nodded in reply, so Soo continued, “Now I want you to put your hands over your knees and down to your feet so you’re hugging your knees.”
“Like this?” Anya asked, complying with Soo’s instruction.
“Exactly like that,” Soo confirmed. She folded the third scarf into a band and wrapped it between Anya’s ankles and wrists drawing the cinches of the two bindings tightly together. She formed a snug knot, making sure it was well out of reach.
Anya studied her predicament with a puzzled frown on her face.
“Not too uncomfortable?” Soo asked.
“I don’t think so,” Anya replied a little uncertainly.
“That’s you all tied up then.”
Anya engaged in some exploratory struggling. “I don’t think I can get out of this.”
“That’s the whole point of being tied up,” Soo pointed out, not unkindly.
“We’ll look after each other, won’t we Ani?” Miriam commented.
“I suppose so, Auntie,” Any replied, still sounding unsure. “It’s still a bit scary, but she has been kinda nice to us, hasn’t she?” Miriam nodded as Soo looked at both of them.
“I just need to get what I came for, Soo announced, walking round to the back of the counter.
It took her just a few moments searching the shelves under the counter to find a padded envelope containing something small but very heavy. She drew out a tissue-paper covered block of metal and laid it on the counter top. Unwrapping it revealed a gold ingot about the size of a cigarette packet. It carried an inscription in Cyrillic script and the crowned double-headed eagle of the Romanovs.
“Tsarist gold,” she said. “I wonder where this came from.”
“You do realise that the people who left me to look after that are some very unpleasant Russians? They’re likely to come back with baseball bats if that goes missing.” Miriam said evenly.
“You really should choose your associates more carefully,” Soo advised, “but just tell them Gravitas have it, and that you’re under our protection. They won’t bother you if you tell them that. I’ll even leave you a card.” She produced a business card out of her rucksack and laid it on the counter. It had the single word GRAVITAS embossed on it in bold black lettering.
“I can’t see them being impressed by that,” Miriam replied sceptically.
“Trust me – you won’t see them for dust,” Soo said, slipping the gold bar into her coat pocket.
Miriam nodded as she digested this comment then asked, “What happens to us now?”
“Well, usually I place an anonymous call to the police, but I can’t imagine you want to tell them about the gold, so I’ll leave you to get free by yourselves. I’ll put a pair of scissors on one of the shelves where Anya can get it with a bit of wriggling – that’ll give me time to be well away.”
“I suppose that’s all right,” Miriam said with a resigned sigh. “I’ll just be glad when you’re gone.”
“Any minute now, I promise you,” Soo replied. “I just need to make sure you don’t raise the alarm early, so I’ll have to gag you both before I go.”
“You don’t have to do that – we’ll stay quiet,” Miriam offered.
“Well, you say that now, but I expect you might just change your mind as soon as I’m through that door,” Soo countered as she selected two more scarves from the rack. She crumpled one up into a ball and held it in front of Miriam’s face.
“Do I have to have that in my mouth? It’s huge!”
“It’s not as bad as it looks – it’ll squash down a lot once it gets wet in your mouth.”
“And it won’t choke me?”
“It’s easier if you don’t fight it,” Soo advised, still holding the bunched-up scarf steadily.
Miriam still looked apprehensive, but opened her mouth. Soo gently pushed the scarf inside and carefully tucked the corners in. She folded the second scarf into a band, positioned it between Miriam’s teeth then knotted the ends securely together behind her head.
“Not too bad?” Soo enquired.
There was a perceptible pause before Miriam shook her head.
“Your turn now,” Soo told Anya, who was watching anxiously. “It’s not as bad as it looks, I promise. Ready?”
Anya nodded nervously.
Soo picked out the least bulky scarf she could find on the rack, bunched it up and carefully pushed it into Anya’s mouth. “OK so far?”
Anya replied with an almost imperceptible nod then held still as Soo pulled a second scarf into her mouth and tied it at the back of her head.
“Now,” announced Soo, “let’s make the adventure a little more challenging – see if you can find the scissors blindfolded.”
Soo selected another two scarves, folded them into bands and tied them over her victims’ eyes. She took a pair of scissors from the counter and put them on a low shelf for Anya to find. That done, she unlocked the door and let herself out of the shop, leaving the CLOSED sign in place.
* * *
Soo changed her outer clothes twice before returning to Muswell Hill, depositing the previous outfits in public left-luggage lockers. She was wearing a bright yellow two-piece rain-suit when she let herself back into Coco’s house.
“I got your note,” Coco said, looking up from her desk. “An urgent pick-up job for Madame X, you said. How did it go?”
“Technically, no problem at all.” Soo reached into her pocket and put the gold bar down in front of her employer. “We get twenty percent of this as our finder’s fee.”
“Any idea what it’s worth?” Coco asked.
“Well, it’s gold bullion, so we can weigh it and the prices will be on the internet.”
Coco picked up the gold. “A lot less than a kilogram,” she said hefting it in her hand.
“Kitchen scales?” Soo suggested.
The two women went into Coco’s kitchen and weighed the bar. “A bit over 370 grams,” Soo said inspecting the dial, “or thirteen-and-a-bit ounces. I was expecting a round number.”
“Gold is weighed in troy ounces,” Coco pointed out. “I wonder if that’s a troy pound.”
“Internet,” Soo said, heading back to the office.
A few minutes later, Soo announced her findings. “374 grams is a troy pound of twelve troy ounces. Today’s gold price is 1,663 US dollars and some cents per troy ounce and the pound sterling is one dollar fifty-nine. So, taking our twenty percent...” Soo carried out a calculation. “...we have made 2,510 pounds and eighteen pence this morning.”
An appreciative silence fell, then Coco spoke. “You said, ‘Technically, no problem.’ Was there another issue?”
Soo paused before replying. “Well, I didn’t feel quite comfortable tying up a woman in a wheelchair and a teenage girl to get the gold. Sometimes the boundaries we try to keep are terribly indistinct.”
“A woman in a wheelchair knowingly harbouring over 12,000 pounds worth of stolen gold,” Coco pointed out. “Sowing the wind and reaping the whirlwind and all that. It happens from time to time, Soo – you learn and move on. I’m sure Lady Wolverton would say the same thing”
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