La Cioccolata in
by Doctor George
One bright February morning found Coco Aldington and her personal assistant studying an engineering drawing spread out on the big layout table in her office. Most drawings they handled were to do with Coco’s legitimate engineering consultancy, but this one was for a more covert form of consultancy. In her occasional role as a consulting criminal, Coco was searching for weaknesses in a bank vault in Zurich on behalf of a German gang who had designs on its contents.
Both women looked up at the sound of the doorbell ringing. There were four distinct rings: long-short-long-short, a C in Morse code, C for Cioccolata, the signal used by the few people who knew Coco both in her persona as Colette Aldington, engineer, and as her alter ego La Cioccolata, international jewel thief.
Discretion was nevertheless essential. “You go,” Coco said, “and I’ll get this stuff under cover.”
The front door was opened to reveal a tall man with short, neatly-trimmed grey hair. He wore a leather jacket over a black roll-necked sweater and dark trousers.
“Mr Jacobs! Come in out of the cold. I’ll tell Coco you’re here and get the coffee on.”
John Jacobs was slightly taken aback. He knew Coco very well and her assistant Soo Angarrack, but this girl, who had cheerily addressed him by name was a complete stranger. Soo was a tiny girl with a slightly excitable personality and hair frequently dyed imaginative colours. This woman was anything but tiny; it was true that she was quite short but the sheer bulk of her generously-proportioned body more than made up for it.
John was still trying to work out how to respond to this girl’s friendliness when Coco’s arrival at the door. “Do come in and shut the door behind you,” she said briskly.
“Good morning Coco,” he said, hugging his friend warmly and giving her a peck on the cheek “Forgive me for dropping by uninvited.” He glanced at Coco’s assistant. “- but I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure, or at least I don’t...”
Coco laughed at the expression of deep confusion on her visitor’s face. “Sorry, John, I think Carenza must have forgotten that you’d never met her before.”
Now even more confused, John followed Coco into the sitting room while Carenza was dispatched to the kitchen to make coffee. He took a seat on one of the comfortable sofas while Coco settled herself opposite him.
“While you’re here, we need to go over our arrangements for our trip to Ireland next month,” Coco said.
“I’ve booked the ferry tickets for us and the van,” John told her. “We’re sailing from Fishguard to Rosslare.”
“I was expecting Holyhead-Dublin.”
“Fishguard is a lot cheaper with a van and there’s a bit less driving. I’m hoping you’ll help with that.”
“That was our deal, John. How about the hotel?”
“I’ve found a nice country house hotel just west of Galway City. It looks really comfortable – I think we’ll enjoy it.”
“This trip is supposed to be work for both of us – you’re making it sound like a dirty weekend,” Coco pointed out with a chuckle.
John spread his arms. “No harm in making business as pleasurable as possible.”
Carenza bustled in with a tray of coffee at that point and set it down on a low table. “Black with no sugar isn’t it?” she said as she handed a cup to John.
“I ought to introduce you properly,” Coco said, smiling at John’s obvious confusion. “This is Carenza Trefusis – she’s Soo’s cousin and you can see the family resemblance if you look really hard.” She placed careful emphasis on the last three words.
John dutifully studied Carenza’s face in what would have been a rude stare had it not been invited. He saw a distinctly overweight young woman wearing a tight blue v-necked sweater which showed a daring amount of décolletage and more than a hint of cleavage. Her long flowing cotton-print skirt was just short enough to reveal a pair of black ankle boots and a glimpse of royal blue leggings. Her hair was a mop of loose blonde waves with darker roots that suggested a visit to the hairdresser was overdue. John’s gaze settled on the plump rounded face smiling back at him. After a moment, his jaw dropped open. “Soo?!?”
“I need the fat suit for a job we’re planning and it always takes a few days for me to feel natural in it, so Soo takes a break and cousin Carenza temps for her,” Soo explained.
“You ladies never fail to impress me. I’d have walked right by you in the street and never guessed.”
The conversation between the three friends continued over the coffee. After some minutes of chat, Coco asked, “Is this purely a social call or is there something we can do for you, John?”
“It always a pleasure... and an education...” John glanced at Soo, “to visit you ladies, but I do have some business that I would like to put your way, if you are interested.”
“Is this engineering or...?” Soo asked.
“Definitely ‘or’,” he replied.
As if by magic a notebook appeared in Soo’s hand.
“This concerns a client of mine, also an old friend, named Daphne Porterhouse. Her mother has recently moved into a sheltered flat and I have been helping to sell some antique furniture on her behalf and to buy a few smaller pieces. All perfectly legitimate and above board. The problem concerns a diamond pendant belonging to the mother. It went missing shortly after the move to the sheltered flat.”
“Lost in the move?” Soo asked.
“Daphne thinks not. She has asked her mother about it and the two of them have done a careful search of the flat. I’ve met the old lady – she’s about 80 and slowing down a little, but her mind is as sharp as ever. They are both sure that the loss happened after the move not during.”
“Surely this is a matter for the police?” Coco suggested.
“It might be, but Daphne is certain that she knows who the thief is – her niece. She has good evidence in support of that theory, but she wants to keep it a family matter and not involve the police. She has tried oblique approaches but has been completely stonewalled. Daphne is fairly sure her niece knows that she suspects her.”
“Is it a particularly valuable piece?” Soo asked.
“It’s gold with diamonds and peridots, so it has some value, but probably not more than a couple of hundred pounds. However, apparently it’s been in the family for several generations and is of enormous sentimental value.”
“I’m still not sure where we’re supposed to fit into this,” Coco said.
“Well, last time I discussed this with Daphne she asked me if by any chance I knew a trustworthy burglar who might be able to steal it back.”
“Isn’t ‘trustworthy burglar’ a contradiction in terms?” Soo asked.
“Well, maybe, but you two come closer than most,” John replied.
“I’m not sure if that’s a compliment or an insult,” Coco commented with a laugh.
“So, Daphne just wants someone to sneak into her niece’s place and turn it over until they find the pendant?” Soo asked, looking up from her notebook.
“Actually, no,” John said. “She wants her niece to be burgled when she’s at home and to be left bound and gagged so she has a really bad fright.”
“Daphne really has it in for her niece, doesn’t she?” Coco remarked.
“There was a fairly obvious undercurrent of anger when Daphne was speaking to me. Anyway, if you’re willing to contemplate doing this, I’ll set up an anonymous meeting on neutral territory with one of you and Daphne.”
* * *
A few days later, Soo was to be found sitting on a bench in St James’s Park tossing scraps of bread to a semicircle of attentive ducks. Having been put into a 1950s spy film cliché by John Jacobs’ meeting arrangement, she had felt obliged to dress the part by wearing a beige trenchcoat. She was glad to have a break from the cumbersome fat-suit for a few hours, but on a morning when there was a hard white frost on the ground, she rather missed its all-enveloping cosiness. Her low-heeled brown knee-length lace-up boots (which concealed a pair of warm socks), her matching brown leather gloves and her jaunty black beret on top of a short black wig cut in a severe bob completed her look as a period MI6 agent. She had even chosen appropriately pale make-up with a slash of bright red lipstick, but that was largely hidden by the black woollen scarf she had pulled up over her nose.
Soo was attempting to feed a solitary teal that was getting less of her bread than the larger and more aggressive mallards when she heard a voice beside her. “Not the best of weather for the ducks, is it?”
“No, but it should improve with the spring,” Soo replied, acknowledging the identification phrase that John had given her.
The newcomer sat down on the bench beside her. To Soo’s delight, she was wearing a huge grey fox-fur coat and a round black fur hat. All that could be seen of her face was a pair of eyes, everything below that being concealed by a white woollen scarf. “Good morning,” she said, offering a mittened hand. “I’m Daphne Porterhouse.”
“I love the outfit,” Soo commented as she shook hands. “I feel as if we should be speaking Russian and exchanging Cold War secrets.”
“It’s perfect for dressing up as spy,” Daphne agreed, “but not actually Russian and entirely fake – no foxes were harmed in the production of this coat.”
“Perfect for weather like this too,” Soo replied.
“Good, but, alas, not as warm as real fur. I’ve got about three layers and my skiing underwear on underneath and my bottom’s still cold sitting on this bench. Shall we walk as we talk?”
“Good idea,” Soo agreed, “although the ducks will be disappointed.”
“I’m sure another spy will be along in a minute.”
Soo laughed and realised that even after a few minutes, she was rather taken with this pleasant middle-aged woman with her dry humour. She understood why John Jacobs had been so keen to help her.
As they walked through the park, Daphne went over the same information that John had given at the initial briefing to Soo and Coco.
“So you don’t just want me to steal your mother’s pendant back, you want your niece to be the victim of a robbery and to be left tied up and gagged,” Soo said, summing up her instructions in a sentence.
“That’s right – the idea is to scare her silly. But I’d like you to do it when I’m visiting her, so I’ll be a victim too. It’s partly because I’m not totally heartless and I don’t want her to go through this alone. Also, if I’m tied up too, it will go some way towards diverting suspicion from me,” Daphne explained.
“Ah, yes, the Toad of Toad Hall gambit,” Soo observed.
“Sorry, you’ve lost me.”
“In ‘The Wind in the Willows’, when the prison washerwoman helps Mr Toad escape from jail, she makes it a condition that she is left gagged and bound and dumped down in a corner and thereby hopes to keep her job despite the suspicious circumstances.”
“I see what you mean,” Daphne conceded. “I still think it’s a good plan, all the same.”
They walked on in silence for a few minutes, then Soo said, “You need to realise that being tied up in a robbery by a professional is likely to be fairly traumatic.”
“I’m quite well aware of that,” Daphne replied soberly. “It won’t be the first time it’s happened to me so I know how much it will scare my niece.”
“You’ve been robbed and tied up before?”
“Well, technically it was my parents who were robbed, but I certainly ended up tied up.”
Soo’s curiosity got the better of her. “What happened?”
“Well, it was a long time ago. I was 18, and in my final year at school, so it must have been 1976. It was just after school one afternoon. I was planning to go out with some of my friends, but I needed to go home first to change. We had to wear uniform even in 6th form at my school, so I wanted to get out of it just as soon as I could.”
“We had to wear uniform in 6th form too,” Soo said sympathetically. “It took years before I could contemplate wearing navy blue tights again.”
“Ours were worse – they were green. Nearly everything in our school uniform was green. White shirt and grey skirt, but green sweater, green blazer and green duffle coat. The school tie and the school scarf had thin yellow stripes, but they were basically green too.”
“Anyway, I got home, parked my school bag at the bottom of the stairs to take up to my room later, hung up my coat in the hall cupboard and dumped my blazer next to my bag. I kept my scarf on because I was still feeling cold from being outside. I headed for the kitchen to get a glass of milk and as I passed the sitting room door, I saw my mum tied up and gagged sitting on one of our dining room chairs. That image is etched on my memory forever. I even remember she was wearing a powder blue sleeveless jump suit – a thing like the top half of a pinafore dress combined with a pair of flared trousers. That sort of thing was all the rage then. She was wearing the jumpsuit over a white blouse with a white sweater underneath it. Remember how we used to wear sweaters under shirts back then?”
“A bit before my time,” Soo replied.
“I’d never seen anyone tied up for real before. I’d seen people tied up on TV of course and I’d played games as a kid, but this was obviously the real thing. I was looking at mum straight on, so I couldn’t see her hands which were behind the back of the chair. There was a lot of rope around her arms and chest and it looked very tight. There was more around her waist and I could see that her legs were tied to the front legs of the chair. The gag was the scariest bit – there was obviously something stuffed into her mouth and a white cloth pulled between her teeth and tied behind her head so tightly her cheeks were bulging over it. When she saw me she tried to yell something at me, but it was so muffled by her gag that I couldn’t work out what she said. I found out later that it was ‘Run!’”
“But it was too late by then?”
“It certainly was. Finding mum like that was such a shock, that I couldn’t think clearly. I went into the sitting room, probably with some idea of rescuing her, and that’s when I saw the burglar. It hadn’t occurred to me that whoever tied mum up might still be there and it took me a moment to register that the other person in the room was actually the burglar. I was well into the middle of room by then. I think I was so used to the idea of a burglar being a six-foot bloke with a striped shirt and a bag marked ‘swag’ that I didn’t immediately connect a short fat woman as being the burglar, even though she was wearing a mask.”
Soo tried not to react too obviously to what sounded like an early sighting of Coco in action. “Sounds like La Cioccolata,” she ventured.
“I think La Cioccolata came to prominence rather later, but when I first read about her, I did wonder if this might have been her before she established her identity. She was wearing a black catsuit, but it wasn’t the shiny black latex you hear about her wearing now, it was one of those 1970s knit numbers like a sweater and a pair of woolly tights all in one with a zip up the front. It certainly didn’t leave much to the imagination with a figure like that.”
“You said she was masked too?”
“Yes. She was wearing a black balaclava and a black eye mask so that just the lower half of her face was visible. She had bright red lipstick on too.”
“So what did you do next?” Soo asked.
“Well, the burglar told me she was armed with an anaesthetic dart gun and ordered me to stand still, but I decided to have a go at her. I reasoned that as she was rather small and fat, while I was a fairly fit 18-year-old, I would be able to tackle her and if I got in close, she wouldn’t be able to bring that gun to bear. I was wrong on both counts – she moved like lightning, floored me with no trouble at all and darted me in the bottom.”
“And you woke up tied up and gagged?”
“No, it was much weirder than that. The injection took effect immediately and made me feel very woozy but it didn’t knock me out. I felt as though I ought to be able to move without any difficulty, but it was as if I couldn’t summon up the energy to do anything, so I just lay there like a rag doll while the burglar tied me up. I realised fairly quickly that tackling the burglar had been a mistake as she made very sure I wasn’t going to get a second chance. She started by making a sort of noose and putting it around my arms and chest so it came just above my elbows. She arranged the slipknot to be behind my back and pulled it hard so my arms were squeezed tight against my sides. She wrapped the loose end of the rope around my chest again so it went above my boobs and I think she threaded it through the knot again to pull it tight. She took it over one shoulder tucked it under the ropes across the front of my chest then back over the other shoulder.”
“I’d have expected her to tie your hands first,” Soo commented.
“The way I was completely floppy with the injection, I don’t think there was any need, but that was what she saw to next anyway. I was still lying flat on my stomach and she arranged my arms across my back so my forearms were together and my hands pointing in opposite directions, then she tied each wrist to the opposite elbow. I think she must have left some loose rope when she did that, because she rolled me over so I was face up and tied something off to the bottom of my chest ropes and my arms felt much tighter after that. The burglar tied my legs together while I was still lying on my back. I think that was so the knots would be on the front where I couldn’t possibly reach them. She tied them at my ankles, at that narrow bit just below the knees and about half way up my thighs. The way she tied them, there were a few turns of rope between my legs that snugged everything up tight, if you know what I mean.”
“I know exactly what you mean,” Soo replied. “That arrangement is called a ‘cinch’. You’ll probably see it again when I visit your niece.”
Daphne was intrigued. “You make it sound like there’s a standard terminology. Do burglars actually get taught how to do that stuff?”
“Well, some do – there are training courses. I’ve been on one.”
Daphne just shook her head in astonishment before continuing her story. “Anyway, with my legs tied, I thought that would be it, but I was rolled over again. The burglar bent my legs so my heels were almost touching my bottom then used another bit of rope to link the rope on my ankles to that lot around my chest.”
“We call that a ‘hog-tie’ in the trade,” Soo said.
“Really? I thought if you tied up a pig, all its legs would be tied together in front.”
“They would. Calling what happened to you a ‘hog-tie’ is a complete misnomer, but that’s what it’s called, all the same,” Soo explained.
“I’ll treasure that nugget of information, but I can’t imagine when I’ll ever get a chance to wheel it out in conversation!”
“That sounds fairly tough as previous experience goes – your mother tied to a chair and gagged and you hog-tied on the floor?”
“Well, that still wasn’t quite the end. My scarf must have come off or the burglar pulled it off when she was tying me up. She picked it up and stretched it out between her hands. I think she was checking it for length, but for a horrible moment I thought she was going to strangle me with it. She tied a knot in it about a third of the way along its length then forced it into my mouth. I tried to resist but she just pushed harder. Once it was in my mouth, she wrapped the scarf around my face again, so it went up over my nose and below my chin and held the knot in place then pulled hard on the ends and double knotted hem at the back of my head. It was much worse than I imagined being gagged would be.”
A mouthful of wool is pretty unpleasant,” Soo agreed.
“Anyway, that was it for being tied up. The burglar knew exactly where to find the wall safe my father had installed – it was hidden behind the picture that hung above the mantelpiece. It was a good safe for the time too – no electronics back then, but a top-quality combination lock.”
“That sounds a bit fancy for a domestic safe.”
“I should have mentioned that dad was a sort of antique dealer. He mainly handled jewellery and small objets d’art. He had a safe deposit box at the bank, but he needed a safe at home to store stuff on its way to or from clients. The burglar lifted the picture down then stood on a chair to get up to the level of the safe. She took a stethoscope out of a small bag she had brought with her, worked the ear pieces in place under her balaclava and taped the other end to the door of the safe. She fiddled with the safe for ages and made notes as she worked. Mum and I just had to watch as this went on. Maybe she wasn’t very good, because it took nearly an hour before the safe was open.”
Soo felt the urge to leap to Coco’s defence, but replied cautiously. “Actually, that’s not bad – two or three hours to get a safe open isn’t unknown.”
“You’ve been on a course for that too?” Daphne asked in disbelief.
“Not a course as such, but I’ve been taught by experts.”
“Well, I asked John to find me an expert burglar that I could trust, so I suppose I should expect you to be well trained.”
“So your father was into antique jewellery? Was the piece your mother has lost one that he gave her?”
“Actually no – and it comes into the story I’ve been telling you. When the burglar finished with the safe, she left the room for a few moments and returned with a couple of scarves, which I think she’d lifted off the coat stand in the hall. It was fairly obvious that she was about to blindfold my mother with one of them when she paused. Mum was wearing her pendant, the one that my niece has now taken. The burglar looked at it closely and made to unfasten it from around my mother’s neck. Mum had been fairly passive up until that point, but she suddenly started struggling with her ropes and trying to yell through her gag. She got very red in the face and I was worried that she was going to choke. The burglar put down the scarf and reached behind mum’s head to untie her gag. Just before she pulled it out of mum’s mouth, she lifted her finger to her lips and mum nodded to show she understood. With mum ungagged, the burglar asked if the pendant was especially important. Mum was no longer hysterical, but she was in tears as she explained that it had been her mother’s most precious possession.”
“And that’s why it’s so important to get it back now?” Soo asked.
“That’s right. The pendant was a gift from my grandfather to my grandmother just before he went off to fight in the last few months of the First World War in 1918. He was killed just a few days before the Armistice and my mother was born in 1919 without ever knowing her father. That pendant was a treasured by my grandmother and by my mother after her. It should eventually have gone to my older sister, but she died quite young, so it would rightfully be my niece’s one day, only she has pre-empted it by taking it from my mother while she is still alive.”
“So how did the burglar react to that story?”
“She said that she would never knowingly take something with that degree of significance. She re-gagged my mother, not quite so tightly, I thought, then blindfolded us both. My sister found us a couple of hours later after receiving an anonymous phone call.”
“I see why you’re so angry with your niece,” Soo said. “Are you absolutely sure that she really has the pendant?”
“As sure as I possibly can be. Beyond reasonable doubt, as they say.”
“And you’re sure that you want me to take it back by force?”
“I don’t want to go to the police and she has to be taught a lesson, so yes, tie her up and gag her and take it off her.”
“OK, I understand the brief,” Soo replied. “So when would you like me to um... to do the dirty deed?”
Daphne laughed. “This is bizarre – it’s like making an appointment with the dentist.”
“And probably a lot scarier and more uncomfortable,” Soo warned.
“I know, I know,” Daphne replied soberly. “Would next Tuesday evening be possible?”
“Yes, I know I’m free then,” Soo confirmed.
“But my niece and I won’t be by the end of the evening,” Daphne reflected. “Very well, my niece’s name is Cilla Bryan and this is her address.” Daphne removed one of her mittens, reached into her coat pocket and handed a slip of paper to Soo.
Soo studied the note briefly and put it in her own coat pocket. “I’ll see you next Tuesday, then.”
“Thank you,” Daphne said. “I really wasn’t sure what to expect of a meeting with a burglar, but you seem like a very personable young woman.”
“What’s a nice girl like me doing in a job like this, in other words?”
“Well, yes,” Daphne replied, laughing at her own audacity.
“It’s a long story, but I’m afraid it’s not one you’re ever going to hear.”
“I thought that might be the case. Now we’ve agreed matters, would you like a cup of coffee to warm up?” Daphne gestured towards one of the coffee shops within St James’s Park, which they were approaching.
“I would love one,” Soo replied, “but I’d have to pull my scarf down to drink it, so I’ll have to decline with thanks.”
“Until next Tuesday then,” Daphne said offering her hand.
“Until then,” Soo responded, shaking hands.
* * *
“Still freezing out?” Coco asked as Soo returned to the office.
Soo had changed out of her disguise since parting company with Daphne and as now wearing her thickly-quilted hooded winter coat. All that could be seen of her face were her eyes in the gap between her scarf and hat. “Baltic,” she replied, her voice muffled by her layers.
“There’s a fresh pot of coffee in the kitchen – help yourself and tell me how you got on.”
A few minutes later, Soo had removed her coat and hat but kept on the thick sweaters she wore underneath as she settled down with her coffee to brief Coco. She explained Daphne’s proposal and the intended date of the following Tuesday for the robbery before turning to the topic that had occupied most of the meeting. “I think Daphne’s path and yours may well have crossed back in 1976.”
Soo went on to relate Daphne’s description of the raid that she had walked in on. Coco nodded non-commitally as if she was unconvinced that the burglar had really been her until Soo reached the part of the story about the pendant.
“Yes, I remember it now. That pendant was fairly small but quite exquisite.”
“But you didn’t take it?”
“It was obviously charged with such emotional value it would have been like stealing an engagement ring or a wedding band – you just don’t.”
“Except in the case of the Foscari brooch?” Soo pointed out with a smile.
“Well, yes, greed overtook judgement that time, but it’s all put right now.”
“Anyway,” Soo continued, “that pendant is the thing that Daphne wants us to steal back.”
“And she knows what’s going to happen to her and her niece?”
“Yes, and the way she told the story of the 1976 burglary, I got the distinct impression that she would rather like her niece to have as hard a time as you gave her back then.”
“I did rather go to town on tying her up,” Coco acknowledged. “She had a go at me and I felt I had to make a point about who was in charge.”
“Not surprisingly, she remembers it well. She also remembers the black catsuit you wore then – very 1970s.”
“The black knitted thing? Possibly the most awkward garment ever foisted on womanhood by a deranged fashion designer.”
“Why’s that?” Soo asked, fingering the collar of the thin purple turtle-neck sweater she wore under her heavier outer layers and indicating the matching ribbed woollen tights she wore. “I thought it would be like this but a bit neater and more streamlined and less likely to develop a chilly gap in the middle.”
“I think that was the idea, but just think about how it works in practice. You were supposed to wear a tunic dress or a loose overdress on top to show off both legs and top. It’s winter wear, so if you go out, you’ve probably got a coat on top of that. Now suppose you need to spend a penny when you’re out. If you’re lucky, there’s a hook on the inside of the cubicle door to hang your handbag and your coat. You have to take your dress off and hang that up as well. You’re still encased in the catsuit from neck to toe, so you have to unzip it and get your arms out. The zip is at the front so you end up with most of it behind you. The only choice is to push it between your legs and bunch it up in one arm, because you really don’t want it to touch the floor in a public toilet. That leaves you one free hand to deal with your underwear and to clean up when you’ve done your business. After that, you need to get dressed again almost from scratch before you can go on your way.”
“Not good if you’re in any kind of a hurry,” Soo agreed.
“Trust me: what you’re wearing looks almost the same and it’s about a million times more practical.”
* * *
Standing outside Cilla Bryan’s front door, Soo consciously relaxed herself and focussed on the job at hand. She ran through her pre-raid check, verifying that she was at the correct address, that she wasn’t too conspicuous as seen from the street and finally that her face was properly concealed. As was her custom, she was dressed entirely in black: black leggings inside knee-high black lace-up boots, black turtle-neck sweater under black leather jacket, black balaclava with just two eye-holes worn over an opaque black stocking pulled over her head and lastly a pair of skin-tight thin black leather gloves.
Soo began by picking the locks on the door, letting herself in silently a few minutes later. Her briefing from Daphne Porterhouse had included a sketch plan of the house. Soo knew that the two women would be in the lounge. She made her way to the door to the room, which was standing open by an inch or so. The conversation she could hear was polite but distinctly icy.
With her small backpack unslung and carried in her left hand and her taser ready in her right, Soo pushed the door open with her foot and strode in.
“Good evening, ladies. I’m afraid it’s not your lucky day – you’re being robbed.”
“What do you mean ‘robbed’?” Cilla asked, her face a blank mask of confusion.
“‘Robbed’ as in I’m going to help myself to your stuff.”
Cilla’s bafflement gave way to outrage. “You can’t do that! We won’t let you!”
“You won’t be able to do much about it once I’ve tied you both up,” Soo pointed out.
“But you can’t just come in here and do things like that!”
“This taser says I can,” Soo replied, wiggling the yellow plastic gun in her right hand.
“Is that one of those electric shock things?” Cilla asked, suddenly more wary.
“That’s right, and it means you get a choice. You can either cooperate and let me tie you up or I can do it while you’re still twitching in agony on the floor after I’ve zapped you.”
“I think we’d better let her do what she wants – it’ll be safer for us,” Daphne counselled, speaking for the first time since Soo had arrived.
Now that she had imposed her authority on the situation, Soo took a moment to assess the two women.
Cilla appeared to be in her late twenties or early thirties, a little taller than average with a slender figure and a rather angular face. Dark brown, almost black hair cut in a short bob emphasised her high cheekbones and pointed chin. Soo had no idea what Cilla’s occupation might be, but she her clothing suggested an office job with a thin black v-necked sweater over a white blouse and a short black skirt over black tights. Whatever she had been wearing by way of jacket and shoes had been discarded since she returned to her house.
Although Soo had met Daphne in St James’s Park, she had been so muffled up that she had no idea what the woman looked like. She appeared to be in her late fifties with straight dark hair shot through with grey. There was a slight family resemblance to her niece, but Daphne was distinctly shorter and a little plumper. She was well bundled up for the winter cold, Soo noted, with a heavy skiing sweater decorated with rectangular blocks of white and primary colours against a black background, somewhat reminiscent of a Mondrian painting. The collar of a thinner red turtleneck sweater was visible at her throat. Tight black leggings were tucked into red socks which were just visible over the tops of a pair of grey Ugg boots. It was certainly cold outside, but Soo was surprised at just how much Daphne had chosen to wear indoors. It was when she spotted the red fingerless gloves that Daphne was wearing that Soo realised she had dressed specifically to be comfortable when she was tied up later.
“I know you’re Cilla Bryan, but who’s this?” Soo asked, hoping to allay any suspicion of collusion with Daphne.
“My Aunt Daphne,” Cilla replied.
“All right then, auntie, I wonder if you’re any good at tying people up?” Soo asked.
After a long pause, Daphne replied, “I don’t know. I’ve never tried.”
“Well, now’s your golden opportunity to learn how. Can you tie a reef knot?”
“Left over right, then right over left?”
“That’s all you need to know. I’ll talk you through everything else when you tie your niece up.”
“I can’t do that!” Daphne protested.
“I’ve still got the taser, but I really think you’d both prefer me not to use it,” Soo pointed out.
“If I have to be tied up, I’d rather it was done by you than her,” Cilla said nervously.
What do I have to do?” Daphne asked.
Soo put her rucksack down on the floor and squatted down beside it, still keeping her taser levelled. She unfastened the plastic buckles with her left hand and then tipped out a pile of rope which was already in neatly-bundled cut lengths. She stood up again and kicked two of the bundles across the floor to Daphne.
“Unwrap those first,” Soo instructed Daphne, then turning to Cilla, she continued, “Turn your back towards your aunt and put your hands behind your back. Now let’s see how flexible you are. Can you touch your elbows with both hands at once?”
“Like this?” Cilla asked, bringing her hands up behind her..
“Yes, just like that,” Soo confirmed. “Now cup your elbows in your hands.”
Cilla did so. “Are you going to tie me up like this?” she asked, a note of panic creeping into her voice.
“Yes – it’s nearly impossible to get out of, so your hands don’t have to be tied as tightly as they would if your wrists were tied together. Just so long as your shoulders aren’t under any stress.”
“No, they’re fine, I think.”
“OK, auntie, time for you to get started. Take one of those pieces of rope and use it to tie one of Cilla’s wrists in place. Just wrap it around the wrist and the forearm it’s in contact with until you run out of rope then make a knot. Try to keep the knot up out of reach of her fingers.
“I’m rally sorry about this, dear,” Daphne said to her niece as she set to work with the rope.
Daphne’s fingers proved to be quite nimble and she quickly formed the coil of rope and finished it with a very serviceable knot.
“That looks good,” Soo commented with approval. “Now do the same with the other wrist.”
Daphne picked up the second length of rope and repeated the exercise. As she did so, Soo glanced down to identify the next pieces of rope to use and kicked them across towards Daphne’s feet.
“Now pick up one of those pieces I’ve just sent across and wrap the middle of it twice around that coil of rope you’ve just tied, so it goes between Cilla’s wrist and elbow and squeezes the turns of rope together.”
“Like this?” Daphne asked, putting the rope in place.
“Exactly like that, now tie a knot so it tightens everything up. Don’t worry about the long dangly ends, we’ll do something with those later.”
Daphne did as she was instructed. Cilla gasped as she felt the binding tighten against her wrist.
“Not how you expected it to feel?” Soo asked.
“Not at all what I expected.”
“But not painful?”
“No, just very strange and a bit scary.”
“You’re being robbed by a masked intruder, so you’re entitled to be a bit scared,” Soo pointed out, not unkindly.
“The same with the other side?” Daphne asked.
“Yes, please,” Soo replied.
Once again, as Daphne dealt with the business of tying her niece up, Soo glanced at the pile of rope, manoeuvred the next piece out with the toe of her boot and kicked it across the floor.
“This is a huge piece of rope,” Daphne commented as she unwound the next bundle.
“It takes a lot of rope to tie someone up properly,” Soo replied. “Shake it all out, put the ends together and fold the whole length double.”
It took Daphne a few moments to carry out the instructions, but she soon had the fold at the centre of the rope firmly grasped in one hand.
“Now, keep a grip of that bit where the fold is. We call that a bight in the trade.”
“I remember that from Girl Guides.”
“OK, wrap the folded end of the rope around Cilla’s arms and chest, so it goes above her elbows and below her boobs and so the bight ends up behind her back then feed the ends of the rope through it so it’s like a lasso around her.”
“Like this?” Daphne asked.
“Yes, now pull it tight but keep the bight in position. You’ll have to pull the rope back on itself to do that. Cilla, squeeze your arms in as tight to your sides as you can while your aunt is doing that.”
“It’s not very comfortable,” Cilla complained as the noose tightened around her.
“You’re being tied up – it’s not a comfortable thing to have done to you, but I promise not to hurt you if you do as you’re told. OK?”
“I suppose so,” Cilla replied glumly.
“Now, auntie, you’ve already got the rope pulled back on itself. Just keep going in that direction, keep the rope doubled and wrap it around your niece’s arms and chest another time but go above her boobs this time. When you get round to the back again, feed the ends through the knot we’re building up and pull it tight again.”
Now that Daphne was getting the hang of the pattern, she was able to do the next stage more quickly.
“Reverse direction again and push the rope between Cilla’s arm and chest so it goes below that first lasso you put around her.”
Daphne did so and awaited the next instruction.
“Now up in front of both those pairs of ropes around her chest, across the back of her neck, then down in front of the ropes at the other side.”
Daphne stood in front of Cilla to position the rope, then surprised Soo by taking the ends under the chest ropes and pushing them up through the space above her elbow.
“Like this next?” Daphne asked.
“Yes, and feed it through the ropes at the back again then straight up to the back of your niece’s neck.”
“Feed the ends of the rope under those ones across her neck and shoulders then pull down. That should snug the chest ropes up nicely.”
Daphne did as she was instructed and gave the ropes a vigorous tug.
“Ow! Does it have to be that tight?” Cilla protested.
“Yes it does,” Soo said firmly, “but the ropes will slacken a bit as they settle down. You’re the victim of a robbery and you’re being tied up – just make the best of it.”
“That doesn’t mean I have to like it,” Cilla growled.
“No, but you do have to put up with it unless you want to find out what a taser feels like.”
“What do I do next?” Daphne asked, still hanging on to the ends of the rope.
Separate the ends, wrap them around that vertical pair of ropes and tie them together with a good tight knot.”
Daphne did so then stood back and commented, “I wouldn’t have believed you could do all that with just one knot.”
“Whose side are you on, Aunt Daph?” Cilla demanded crossly.
“I’m just trying to make the best of it like she said.”
Daphne seemed to be taking a certain grim satisfaction in tying her niece up, Soo noted. She just hoped that wouldn’t lead to suspicions of collusion.
“Let’s get on with this,” Soo urged. “See those ropes hanging loose from where Cilla’s wrists and elbows are tied? Pull them round to the front and knot them together. You can keep the ropes in pairs – a reef knot works perfectly well tied two-in-hand.
Daphne was getting quite adept now and quickly tied a fat knot in the middle of her niece’s tummy.
“Right, that’s the top half now, but Cilla needs to be down on the floor for you to tie her legs,” Soo announced. “She’s probably going to need some help for that.”
Daphne supported Cilla’s shoulders as she went down on first one knee then the other, then gently lowered her so that she was lying face-down on the carpet.
“No, don’t try to roll over,” Soo instructed as Cilla tried to right herself. “The next bit is easier if you’re face down.”
“So, what do you want me to do?” Daphne asked, still kneeling next to her niece.
“Tie her ankles together with this, and her legs above the knee with this.” Soo kicked two more skeins of rope across the floor as she spoke.
Daphne lashed Cilla’s legs together at the ankles and knees as she was instructed.
“Almost done,” Soo commented as she selected another length of rope.
“I should hope so – I can barely move a muscle as it is,” Cilla complained.
“Now, auntie, this is the last piece of rope. I want you wrap the middle bit of it around the rope you’ve just tied around your niece’s ankles – three turns will do nicely – then tie a good firm knot.”
It took just a few seconds for Daphne to comply with the instruction. From the way she was holding the free ends of the rope, it was obvious that she knew what would come next.
“Now, Cilla, bend your knees, so your toes are pointing at the ceiling.”
The younger woman complied with the instruction with a puzzled expression on her face.
“Last knot now, auntie,” Soo said, “Tie the ends of the t rope to the big knot where her chest ropes are tied together.”
Cilla kicked against the hog-tie she had been placed in. “You can’t leave me tied up like this – it’s barbaric!” she protested.
“No,” Soo countered, “barbaric would be shooting you both in cold blood. This way I get away safely and you don’t get hurt trying to stop me.”
In the silence that followed that remark, Daphne stood up and turned to Soo. “I take it that you’re going to tie me up like that next.”
“No, if I did that, there would be a risk that you’d find a way to untie each other. I’m going to tie you to a chair instead. Bring that straight-backed one in the corner into the middle of the room and sit on it.”
Daphne did as she was instructed and sat down, looking rather self-conscious.
Soo studied the chair, a sturdy-looking traditional wooden ladderback one. “Put your arms straight down by your sides, auntie.”
Daphne had been clutching her hands together on her lap. She let them drop to her sides.
Soo considered the situation a little longer than said, “Ok, put your hands behind your back and cross your wrists.”
Daphne obediently put her arms behind the chair while Soo selected a length of rope and used it to bind her wrists, wrapping the rope around them, first one way then the other and finishing off with a secure knot. Daphne tried to twist her wrists inside the binding.
“Don’t bother trying to get comfortable – that binding is just temporary,” Soo told her as she shook out a long length of rope. “I’m going to start by tying your body to the back of the chair.”
Soo found the centre of the rope she held, folded it into a bight and pushed it down between Daphne’s back and the top rung of the chair’s backrest. Instinctively, Daphne leaned forwards slightly to allow her room to work. Soo threaded the free ends of the rope through the loop she had formed and pulled them tight so that it formed a secure hitch around the top of the chair back. She tossed the ends of the rope forwards over Daphne’s shoulders.
She crossed the ropes diagonally across Daphne’s chest and took them behind the vertical side members of the chair back bringing them across her abdomen. She took them down to the tops of the back legs of the chair below the seat, looped them once around and then knotted the ends in Daphne’s lap.
“How does that feel?”
“But not too uncomfortable?”
“No – I’ll be all right.”
“What about me? You didn’t ask if I was uncomfortable,” Cilla complained.
“You’ll be all right,” Soo said dismissively. “Now shut up or I’ll gag you.”
“You’ll have to gag us eventually, so you might as well get it over and done with,” Cilla snapped back.
“Have it your own way,” Soo replied, searching through her rucksack. She produced a yellow ball about 2½ inches in diameter and held it in front of Cilla’s mouth.
Cilla’s eyes widened. “That’s huge!”
“It’s foam,” Soo told her, squeezing the ball to demonstrate. “It’s one of those ones they sell for kids to use with plastic tennis racquets.”
“It still looks too big.”
“Shut up and open your mouth. I can still taser you if I need to,” Soo pointed out.
Reluctantly, Cilla opened her mouth and allowed Soo to push the foam ball in, settling it behind her teeth. Soo ripped a length off a wide roll of Elastoplast medical dressing tape and smoothed it across Cilla’s face. It was wide enough to reach from just below her nose almost to the point of her chin and long enough to go from ear to ear.
Soo reached down to Cilla’s bottom and pinched hard. A muffled snarl of pain and outrage emerged from behind the gag. “There, now, that seem to work very effectively,” she commented.
As Soo turned to Daphne to finish tying her to the chair, she could see that her co-conspirator was trying hard to suppress a smile. She concluded that Daphne was secretly very pleased to have her niece so effectively silenced.
“I’ll do your legs next,” Soo said. “The boots will have to come off – it’s just too easy to pull your feet out of those even with your ankles tied.”
Daphne said nothing, but lifted her feet off the floor, allowing Soo to pull the Ugg boots off.
Soo knelt down on the floor and used a length of rope to lash Daphne’s left ankle against the inside face of the chair leg. She finished off with a couple of turns cinching the binding between the woodwork and the sock-covered leg. She repeated the process on Daphne’s right ankle.
After selecting another couple of lengths of rope, Soo tied Daphne’s legs to the chair legs just below her knees then followed them up with a longer length wrapped over Daphne’s lap and under the chair seat.
“Is that me done, than?” Daphne asked.
Soo worried that Daphne sounded just a little too familiar with someone who was tying her to a chair preparatory to robbing her, but replied politely, “Not quite, auntie. I’m going to retie your arms a little more securely.”
“But you’ve already got me trussed up so I can’t move. Won’t this do?”
Soo was pleased to hear a slight hint of worry creep into Daphne’s voice. “No. I need to be sure that there’s no chance whatever of you two getting loose,” she replied firmly.
There was now real fear in Daphne’s eyes. “But nobody will know what’s happened to us. If we can’t free ourselves we could die like this!”
Cilla looked up in panic hearing her aunt’s words.
“I’m not that cruel,” Soo assured the two women. “When I’m safely away from here, the police will get an untraceable anonymous phone call to tell them you’re tied up here. I’m just making sure you two don’t get free to raise the alarm before that.”
Soo knelt down behind Daphne’s chair. She untied Daphne’s wrists then reused the piece of rope to lash her left wrist to the left hand back leg of the chair, just below the chair seat so that her arm was extended straight down. She cinched the binding neatly between Daphne’s gloved wrist and the woodwork of the chair, ensuring that the knot was unreachable. Using another length of rope, she similarly bound Daphne’s right wrist. Soo selected four more short lengths of rope from her supplies and used them to bind Daphne’s arms to the side members of the chair back (actually an upward extension of the back legs). She formed bands of rope above and below each elbow, cinching them as usual, so that Daphne was unable to pull on her wrist bindings by bending her elbows.
“That’s you done now, auntie” Soo informed Daphne. “I just need to gag you and I can get on with my work.”
“Is that sticking plaster you’ve used on Cilla?” Daphne asked.
“Yes, good old fashioned Elastoplast. Why?”
“It’s just that that stuff always brings me out in a rash. Could you maybe use something else? My scarf is hanging up in the hall if that would do.”
“OK,” Soo replied with a sigh, turning to leave the room. “I don’t want you to end up with a rash on your face.”
Soo had noticed coats hanging up in the hallway when she had passed through it after breaking in. She returned there for a closer look. There was a long white scarf hanging up on top of a grey coat. Soo recognised it as being the one that Daphne had worn to conceal her face when they had first me. She examined it briefly It was quite wide and thick and very finely knitted. She took it in her hands and tugged at it. There was almost no stretch to the fabric, so it would make an effective gag without having to pull it ridiculously tight.
“Right, auntie,” Soo said as she returned to the sitting room, “I’ll do my best, but this probably isn’t going to be very comfortable. If you fight me, I’ll have to pull it tight and you’ll probably end up with bruises at the sides of your mouth, so just relax and let me do my stuff.”
Daphne said nothing but nodded apprehensively.
Soo tied a knot about a third of the way along the length of the scarf and remembered as she did so that this was exactly the gag that Coco had used on Daphne all those years ago when she had tied her up as a schoolgirl. Soo eased the knot into Daphne’s mouth and pushed it back so that it was behind her teeth. Daphne coughed as that was being done.
“Just relax and you’ll be all right. I’m not going to choke you.”
Taking the ends of the scarf round behind Daphne’s head, Soo made sure that she hadn’t trapped her lips between the scarf and her teeth. She wrapped the longer end of the scarf another time around Daphne’s head then knotted the ends firmly at the back. Soo adjusted the second wrap of scarf so that it covered Daphne’s face from her throat to the bridge of her nose then tightened the knot slightly and double-knotted it.
“Right, ladies, that’s you both done for the moment. I’ll have to blindfold you both before I go, but I won’t do it just yet.”
Soo began her exploration of the house by systematically examining everything in the sitting room. She was primarily interested in the diamond pendant, but planned to take all jewellery that she found. Her search of the sitting room yielded nothing, so she went in search of the bedrooms.
There was a small amount of jewellery in sight on top of Cilla’s dressing table but nothing in any of the drawers, not even in that favourite hiding place, the underwear drawer. The bedside cabinet yielded a box of tissues, a stash of chocolate (which was not of immediate interest to Soo, unlike her mentor) and some extremely racy women’s fiction.
When she reached the wardrobe, Soo found a small electronic safe at the bottom alongside Cilla’s shoes. The safe was of the type sold relatively inexpensively in DIY shops rather than a serious piece of security equipment. Soo briefly considered jemmying the safe open just to make a point about security, but decided that was unnecessarily destructive. Instead, she used one of the handy electronic decoders designed and made by the estimable Mr Small which successfully interrogated the safe’s electronics and gave her the keycode in a matter of seconds.
The safe proved to contain Cilla’s passport, a small quantity of cash in Euros and a stack of small jewellery boxes. She emptied the boxes into several velvet bags that she had brought for the purpose. A few more items were unboxed but wrapped in tissue paper. Among them was the diamond pendant that Daphne had describes during their initial meeting.
“Gotcha,” she said under her breath as she bagged the pendant.
With the pendant successfully gained, Soo’s mission was basically accomplished. Nevertheless, she continued her search through the rest of the house to make it less obvious to the police that she was targeting one item.
When Soo returned to the sitting room, she was astonished to see that Cilla had managed to get herself into a kneeling position. A quick inspection of her bonds reassured Soo that Cilla was still securely bound, but had managed to exploit the little freedom of movement that she had been allowed.
“I’m very impressed,” Soo told Cilla. “I see your plan too – shuffle across to auntie on your knees like that and see if you can reach any knots. I’m afraid I’m going to have to put a stop to it.”
Cilla had been glaring defiantly at Soo, but that confidence crumbled as she heard Soo’s words.
“Don’t look at me like that – I’m not going to hurt you, but don’t dare move until I get back.”
Soo quickly returned to Cilla’s bedroom, where she picked out one of a pile of sweaters she had seen in the wardrobe.
Back in the sitting room, Soo pulled a tight-fitting black turtle-neck sweater over Cilla’s head and down over her bound arms. She wrapped the sleeves around her body and knotted them together.
“That should keep your hands under control.”
Soo rummaged in her rucksack and brought out two circular fabric pads. “These are dressings for eye injuries,” she explained. “Of course you’re only supposed to wear one at a time, but two make a very good blindfold. They’re only sticky round the edges, so they won’t stick to your eyelashes or eyebrows.”
She put one hand behind Cilla’s head to steady it and stuck the two thick gauze pads over her eyes, then took her by the shoulders and lowered her to the floor again.
“I’d better find something else for you, auntie,” Soo said to Daphne. As she spoke, she took the diamond pendant from its bag to show that she had found it.
Daphne nodded her acknowledgement.
Soo quickly returned to the hallway, where she had seen a black scarf, presumably belonging to Cilla. She wrapped it across Daphne’s eyes and knotted it behind her head.
* * *
Two hours later, on a street in central London, Soo placed a phone call to the police, as she had promised. The mobile phone she used was an ancient Nokia bought second hand for £10 with a prepaid SIM card bought for £5 from a newsagent. After this single use, the SIM card would be destroyed and the phone donated to a charity shop.
* * *
The following afternoon, John Jacobs once more rang the doorbell of Coco’s house in Muswell Hill.
Soo’s alter ego Carenza Trefusis opened the door. “Come in Mr Jacobs,” she invited, standing aside to let him pass. “I’ve just made a pot of tea; would you like a cup.”
John accepted the offer and followed Carenza into the kitchen where she poured a generous mug of tea and handed it to him.
“I’m afraid Coco is out just now, Mr Jacobs,” Carenza explained as she led the way to the sitting room.
“Please call me John, Soo. And I came to ask how you got on with Daphne Porterhouse and her niece yesterday, so it’s really you I’ve come to see.”
“Oh dear, this is going to get very confusing. I answer to Carenza when I’m wearing this thing.” She gestured towards the ample figure lent by the fat-suit. “But I’ll need to report back as Soo.”
“I understand and I’ll try not to use either name until we get through the conversation.”
“I’ll just move these so you can sit down while we talk,” Carenza said, picking up her guitar from the sofa and putting it on its stand and gathering up a music manuscript book. “I was taking a guitar break with my tea when you rang the bell,” she added.
As they drank their tea, Carenza related Soo’s story of the successful burglary of Cilla Bryan’s house and the recovery of the diamond pendant. John asked a few questions, but mostly listened appreciatively to the tale.
“The jewellery is all in Coco’s safe just now. What should I do with it?” Carenza asked as she finished.
“I’ll take it to the police, with a suitable story of how it came into my possession mysteriously and anonymously. I will identify the pendant as being the subject of a different burglary and that way the pendant can go back to Daphne’s mother and everything else back to Cilla Bryan.”
“Well, no, probably not everything. Did you have some items in mind that might not have bee recovered?”
“Just one or two, Carenza conceded with a smile.
“Do we have to wait for Coco to get back?” John asked.
“No, I can open the safe myself, if you would care to wait here for a few minutes, I’ll fetch the goods for you.”
When Carenza returned with a black velvet bag in her hand, John was looking at the music manuscript book.
“This looks like quite serious guitar music,” he commented. “Is it something you’ve written yourself?”
“Far from it,” Carenza replied. “It’s Vivaldi. I found a YouTube clip of Steve Howe, the guitarist from Yes, playing a bit of one of Vivaldi’s lute concertos on the guitar. I thought it sounded good, but terribly plain for baroque music, so I’m working on my own transcription with a bit more ornamentation.”
“John laughed at his mistake. “May I hear it?”
Carenza sat down with her small classical guitar and started playing. John listened appreciatively.
“I’m very impressed. Coco told me you were good, but I hadn’t realised just how good,” John said as she finished.
“Thank you. It’s just a hobby, but one I work quite hard at.”
“I never got past the three chord trick when I was a kid, but then I hardly ever practiced,” John observed with a sigh.
Carenza picked up the velvet bag from the side table where she had put it down. “I’ve taken three items out by way of my fee. I’ll take them elsewhere to realise into cash so as not to cause you any possible embarrassment.”
“That’s a sensible plan,” John replied slipping the bag into his pocket.
“It’s been good doing business with you again,” Carenza said, offering John her hand.
John hesitated instead of taking her hand.
“Something wrong?” Carenza asked.
“No, nothing at all. It just struck me how very odd it feels taking a haul of stolen jewellery from a woman without leaving her bound and gagged. It must be my misspent past speaking to me!”
Carenza laughed then said, “Well, you can tie me up if it will make you feel better.”
“There’s not much point. I know the kind of training you’ve had. You’d probably be free and playing your guitar again before I’ve even got the front door shut.”
“I don’t think I’m quite that good. Besides, this oversized rag doll I’m wearing hampers my movements quite a bit, so I don’t think Carenza is quite the escape artist her cousin Soo is.”
“You almost sound as if you want to be tied up.”
“I confess I’m curious to know what it feels like being tied up as Carenza.”
“You’re a strange girl, Susan Angarrack,” John said with a smile. “I didn’t bring any rope with me today, so I’ll have to use some of yours.”
“No problem,” Carenza replied walking to an old sea chest that stood in the corner of the room. “Coco and I keep our practice supplies in here.”
John walked across to join Carenza. He surveyed the contents of the chest for a moment then emitted a low whistle. “I suppose I should have expected something like this. Rope... handcuffs and chains... leather belts... scarves... duct tape and good old-fashioned Elastoplast... What’s this?”
“It’s veterinary bandage. It only sticks to itself, not to hair or skin. We thought it would be a bit less rough on the victim’s skin than rope or tape, but it’s quite hard to apply effectively and it’s not completely escape-proof.”
“Better not use that then,” John commented with a grin. “And what’s this one?” He held up a dull green cylinder about two inches long and the same in diameter. It had an odd fuzzy texture.
“Ah! That one really is escape proof. It’s nylon webbing with Velcro hooks on one side and loops on the other. It’s meant for gardeners to use to attach young trees to stakes, hence the muddy green colour. You just wrap it around and it sticks to itself. The webbing itself is completely tear-proof as far as we can tell.”
“And it’s escape-proof? Even for you and Coco?”
“We both tried and failed.”
“So have you used this... er... professionally?”
“No, because it needs to be applied very carefully to be secure and that’s not always possible with an uncooperative subject. Also, the edge of the webbing is quite sharp, almost like a saw. You could draw blood with that if someone rubbed their skin against it.”
“Pity. I was just contemplating using it on you.”
“You can if you like. I’ll be fine as long as I have a bit of protection for all this bare skin.” Carenza gestured downwards at herself. She was wearing an ankle length cotton skirt in a floral print, a bright yellow v-necked top with a daringly deep plunging neckline and a thin green cardigan with elbow-length sleeves.
“It would be interesting and instructive if you’re game for it.”
“Always happy to pass experience on to fellow pros. Isn’t this what they call Continuing Professional Development in some professions?”
“We usually attend rather boring seminars in the antiques trade. This sounds much more fun.”
“Back in a jiffy,” Carenza said, leaving the room.
When she returned, Carenza was wearing a heavy grey roll-necked sweater which came down to her hips. Her hands were covered by a pair of navy blue woollen mittens pulled up over the cuffs of the sweater. Her feet were now encased in a pair of stoutly-knitted grey socks in place of the thin yellow socks she had been wearing earlier.
“All bare skin safely covered,” she announced.
“Aren’t you going to overheat with all that on top of... you know...” John tailed off, gesturing towards Carenza, slightly embarrassed.
“On top of the fat suit? Well, yes, a bit, but that’s part of the process of acclimatising to being Carenza. I’ll be fine.”
“OK, if you’re sure. Now, where do I begin with this stuff?” John asked, picking up the roll of green webbing.
“You should find that it’s already been cut into handy lengths from when Coco and I were experimenting.”
“Yes. We found the most effective method was a tight wrap around each wrist separately then a wrap around both wrists together.”
Carenza offered her wrists to John who found two short lengths of the Velcro webbing on the roll.
“Does it go on the same way it is on the roll?” John asked.
“Yes, that way it has the hook side of the Velcro towards me, so it will cling to my clothes as well as to itself.”
John wrapped the Velcro around each of Carenza’s wrists. “How’s that? Not too tight?”
“No, it’s perfect,” Carenza assured him, turning her back and crossing her wrists behind her.
“It’s going to crumple a bit going around crossed wrists,” John commented as he worked.
“That’s OK. As long as it’s smoothed onto the bits already around my wrists, it will be perfectly secure.”
“I see what you mean about being as fiddly as duct tape to apply,” John commented, smoothing down the end of the piece of Velcro.
“It would be difficult to do single-handed on someone who was struggling, which is one reason we’ve not used this stuff in the field.”
“I think that’s your wrists done.”
Carenza flexed her arms slightly. “It feels about right, but you’ll need to pin my arms to my sides so I can’t get any leverage on my wrists. If you go around twice and put it above my elbows and below my boobs, that should do the trick.”
Carenza pressed her elbows against her sides while John positioned one end of a long length of the green Velcro on her left sleeve then wrapped it around her twice. Not quite satisfied with the result, he peeled it off again and re-applied it.
“That’s as tight as I can get it. Is it OK for you?”
“Impressively tight, but I think it has to be to work with all this padding. Do the same thing around my waist next to pin my forearms against my back,” Carenza instructed, adding with a grin, “...not that I have much of a waistline with this thing on.”
John repeated the exercise with two full wraps of Velcro around Carenza’s waist and arms and was satisfied with the result at the first try.
“If you can help me sit down on the sofa, you can do my legs next.”
Carenza reversed up to the sofa and John held her by the shoulders as she sat down.
“I was expecting you to be much heavier,” he commented.
“The suit feels pretty heavy, but it’s only about eight kilos, so I’m probably still under 55 kilos wearing it.”
“What’s that in old money?”
“Um... about eight and a half stone,” Carenza replied, doing a quick calculation.
“Now, how do I do this?” John asked, looking down at Carenza’s feet.
“Just wrap around both legs, the same as you would with duct tape. Go round twice like you have for everything else and start with my ankles.”
“Is it OK if I lift your skirt out of the way?”
“Yes, but be careful how far you go – I can’t wear knickers with the fat suit!”
John grinned sheepishly then with exaggerated care lifted the hem of Carenza’s skirt to mid-thigh level and tucked it decorously under her. The grey socks could now be seen to go well above her knees with the strange beige fabric of the fat suit visible beyond.
Carenza clamped her ankles together ready to be bound and John wrapped the Velcro tightly around them.
“If you do the same above and below my knees, it will all be completely un-kick-offable.”
John applied two more bands of Velcro as instructed then re-arranged Carenza’s skirt so it covered her legs once more.
“Thank you, John. That’s me completely helpless now, I think,” Carenza confirmed after a brief token struggle.
“Except for gagging you, of course,” John pointed out.
“Silly of me to forget,” Carenza replied with a grin. “Don’t forget I’ve got cheek pads in my mouth – try to do it without damaging them or choking me with them, please.”
John examined the contents of the trunk for a moment then said, “I know exactly how to do this.”
He selected a somewhat battered and faded cotton print headscarf and folded it into a band. He then tied a knot in the middle and tied another knot on top of the first then a third on top of that. The result was a bulky knot with both ends of the band of cloth emerging from one side of it.
“That’s clever,” Carenza commented as she watched.
John inserted the knot into Carenza’s mouth then took the ends of the scarf around to the back of her head and knotted them. He put a finger between the cloth and her cheek to make sure that it wasn’t too tight.
“Now I know you could just spit that out, but I haven’t finished yet.”
John returned to the trunk and rummaged for a moment before taking out a long woollen scarf. He wrapped it tightly across Caranza’s mouth so that the upper edge was just below her nose and the lower edge well down below her chin. A second wrap of the scarf went up to the bridge of her nose and down to the point of her chin. John finished off with a secure double knot behind her head.
“Are you all right like that?”
Carenza nodded and mumbled something through the gag.
“I think that’s you done in that case,” John said. “I know about you and blindfolds, so I won’t even suggest it.”
Carenza shook her head emphatically.
“Would you like to lie down on the sofa while you wait?”
Carenza nodded, so John hoisted her feet up onto the sofa and arranged cushions to support her shoulders and take the weight off her bound arms.
“I hope you don’t have to wait too long for Coco,” John said as he let himself out of the house.
* * *
A few days later John Jacobs was once again at the front door of Coco’s house having just rung the bell.
Coco opened the door herself. “Hello, John. This is getting to be a habit you turning up here.”
“How can I stay away from such charming company?” he replied, kissing Coco on the cheek.
“Flattery will get you a cup of tea, but no further,” Coco said, directing John towards the kitchen.
“Are you on your own this afternoon? I was rather hoping to see Soo, or Carenza rather, to report back on the Daphne Porterhouse assignment.”
“Carenza has gone away and Soo is back again,” Coco said, “but she’s doing a bit of research just now.”
“Well, I don’t want to disturb her is she’s busy with something important,” John replied.
“She won’t mind if we look in on her,” Coco insisted, leading the way to the sitting room.
John was astonished to discover to see Soo lying on the floor trussed up with the same Velcro webbing that he had used to secure her alter ego Carenza on his previous visit. She was bound in much the same way with the green Velcro around her wrists, chest and waist and encircling her legs at the ankles, knees and thighs. She was oddly dressed in a red union suit with grey socks over her feet and hands. He was struck once again by just how small a woman she was and surprised to notice how very short her hair was.
“Hello, John,” Soo said. It sounded more like ‘Ah-oh, Om’ on account of the red and white bandana tied between her teeth.
“Soo reckons she’s worked out a way of escaping from that stuff and wanted to try it out,” Coco explained.
John had initially thought that Soo was hogtied, but now realised that her odd posture was because she had folded her legs up behind her and was reaching out towards them with her bound hands.
“I think she’ll be busy for a while – let’s get that cup of tea,” Coco said, ushering John out of the room.
Coco and John chatted together in the kitchen as they waited for the kettle to boil and Coco spooned tea into the pot. After a few minutes, the distinctive sound of Velcro ripping was clearly audible.
“Sounds like she’s making progress,” John commented.
“We’ll have to wait and see how far she gets – that’s quite a challenge she set herself.”
“And of course, you made absolutely sure that she was very securely taped up.”
Coco shrugged. “No point in doing an exercise like that unless it’s done properly.”
About 10 minutes later as Coco and John discussed their forthcoming trip to Ireland, a dishevelled, but elated Soo arrived in the kitchen. She carried the socks that had been over her hands and a soggy gag in one hand.
“Harder than I thought, but my idea worked,” she announced.
“I’m impressed,” John said. “How did you do it?”
“I thought that if I could raise a corner of the Velcro around my wrists by catching it on the sharp edge of the stuff round my ankles, I might eventually be able to stick the end of the wrist binding to my ankles and then unwind it.”
“And it worked?”
“As you see,” Soo replied, “but it was very hard work and I don’t think I could have done it at all in more restrictive clothes. Also, I was lucky about where the end of the Velcro around my wrists ended up.”
“So we write it off as insecure?” Coco asked.
“Even if they don’t do what I did, there’s always a risk that someone might get lucky and find a way to peel the Velcro off by sticking it to something else, so I agree: insecure.”
“Pity. It seemed like such a good idea when we first spotted that stuff,” Coco said. “Would you like some tea?”
“I think I’ll take a quick shower and get some proper clothes on first,” Soo replied, running her fingers through her close-cropped hair.
John looked up at Soo and said, “You know, all this time I thought all those funky coloured dye jobs were your own hair.”
Soo grinned sheepishly. “Erm... it was my own hair, but I’ve really been overdoing the dyeing and re-dyeing and found it was getting dry and brittle, so I decided to take it all off and start again. This is about six weeks’ growth from a shaved head. I have to say it’s a lot more comfortable with a wig than having lots of hair pinned up under it.”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to embarrass you,” John offered apologetically.
“Not at all,” Soo replied. “It was my own silly fault. Anyway, I’ll be back in ten minutes for that tea.”
Soo left the kitchen and could be heard trotting upstairs to the bathroom.
“Your assistant really is quite a girl,” John commented. “How long has she been with you now?”
“Since 2005. She’s made a terrific difference to the business – both businesses – and she’s a real joy to work with.
Taking slightly longer than the ten minutes she had promised, Soo reappeared in the kitchen, dressed once again in her office clothes. She wore a short black pinstripe skirt over grey and black striped wool tights and black polished Mary-Janes. A waistcoat matching the skirt contrasted sharply with her crisp white blouse and grey silk necktie. Her short brown hair was now hidden by a black wig set in a chin-length straight bob.
“John, did I overhear you saying that it was me you wanted to speak to rather than Coco?” Soo asked, accepting a mug of tea.
“That’s right. I came round to report back on the Daphne Porterhouse job. Daphne is absolutely delighted with the outcome. Her mother had her pendant back and she feels that her niece has been suitably chastised for her misdemeanour.”
“That’s good to hear. And everything was all right from your point of view? I was worried that the police might make life difficult when you were the channel for returning the jewellery.”
“I have a very good working relationship with certain police officers, and they know when to stop asking questions.”
“Job done, then.”
“There’s just one more thing, Daphne wants to meet you again, so she can thank you in person.”
Soo did not reply, but exchanged glances with Coco.
“I don’t think there’s any hidden agenda,” John continued. “I think she’s genuinely grateful and wants to express it personally.”
“Well, she can’t be about to turn me into the police,” Soo said after a long pause for thought. “She’s equally as culpable as me and would get busted too if she tried that.”
“I agree – I don’t think there’s any significant risk,” Coco said.
“In that case, I’ll do it, if you could set up the meeting, John.”
* * *
St James’s Park was not quite as bone-numbingly cold as it had been for Soo’s first meeting with Daphne London was nevertheless still firmly in the grip of winter. Early morning sunshine out of a clear blue sky brought a sparkle to the frost that coated the grass.
Only Soo’s nose was visible as she made her way to the rendezvous. Soo’s face was framed by the fur-trimmed hood of the short ice-blue parka she wore. Her eyes were hidden behind a large pair of wrap-around sunglasses. A white knitted balaclava covered her forehead down to her eyebrows and the lower part of her face up to her nose. Her tightly-fitting denim jeans were tucked into grey knee-length socks folded down over a pair of sturdy Timberland boots. Her thin leather gloves were hidden inside a pair of fleece mittens which were, in turn, thrust deeply into her pockets.
The meeting place was the same bench where Soo and Daphne had met for the first time. On this occasion, Daphne had arrived first. As Soo approached she could see that rather than the flock of squabbling ducks that had surrounded her on the previous occasion, Daphne was feeding scraps of bread to a solitary teal.
“I tried to feed that one last time, but a mob of mallards kept pushing in front of it,” Soo said.
“Maybe they found a real spy somewhere else,” Daphne replied, turning to face Soo with a grin.
Instead of the svelte Russian spy style, Daphne had gone for something more like the Bohemian grandmother look. She was enveloped in a huge grey knitted poncho fringed with tassels in rainbow colours. A mid-calf length dark blue tweed skirt covered most of her legs with her grey Ugg boots visible below. The short length of arm visible between the folds of the poncho and the mittened hand holding out bread for the duck revealed that Daphne was wearing the same colourful skiing sweater she had worn during the robbery. The bright stripes of the woollen earflap hat she wore and the long scarf wound around her neck echoed the tassels of her poncho.
“Thank you for agreeing to meet me,” Daphne said, standing up and dusting crumbs off her mittens.
“It was an unusual request,” Soo responded, “but then this whole assignment has been rather unusual.” She fell into step alongside Daphne as they walked together along one of the Park’s many paths.
“I’m sure John Jacobs has already said this to you, but I really just wanted to have the opportunity to thank you in person, particularly on my mother’s behalf.”
“It’s not often that I get thanked by a robbery victim.”
“Technically, I’m not a victim,” Daphne said. “You didn’t actually steal anything of mine,”
“You still had an uncomfortable couple of hours tied to a chair,” Soo pointed out. “No serious after-effects, I hope.”
“A little stiff afterwards, and my scarf was a write-off, but that was all.”
“And your niece?”
“Well she did a lot of struggling, so she ended up with quite an interesting collection of bruises.”
“You don’t sound very sympathetic,” Soo observed.
“I’m not. She deserved what she happened and she’s got off more lightly than if we’d involved the police.”
Soo digested this comment in silence then Daphne spoke again. “I suppose offering you a cup of coffee is still out of the question?”
“I had an idea you might say that, so I dressed appropriately,” Soo replied, flipping back the hood of her jacket and pulling her balaclava down to expose her mouth. “You saw my eyes last time, so you might as well see the bottom half of my face this time.”
“Well, if I was being pedantic, I saw your contact lenses last time. I suspect your eyes might not actually be brown.”
“I thought they were rather good contacts,” Soo said defensively.
“Oh, they were, but even on a dull day, you get that occasional glint as the light catches the edge of the lens.”
“I’m impressed,” Soo said in honest admiration. “I wonder what else I’ve given away.”
“Not much,” Daphne said with a disarming smile, “apart from the obvious that you’re about five feet one tall and must weigh about six stone twelve, I know that elegant retro hairstyle you had last time was a wig.”
Soo did a quick mental conversion of her 155 centimetre height and 44 kilogram weight and discovered that Daphne’s estimates were disconcertingly accurate. She decided not to pursue that part of the answer and asked, “What makes you suspect it was a wig?”
“It’s not just a suspicion, I’m absolutely certain it was a wig. When I saw you in a balaclava on the night of the robbery and again today, it was obvious that you can’t possibly have that much hair under there.”
“You don’t miss much, do you?”
“Attention to detail is just a professional habit,” Daphne replied modestly.
“It sound like your profession must be private eye – you sound positively Sherlockian.”
“Nothing as dramatic: I’m a freelance art restorer. Detail really is my stock in trade.”
“Is that how you know John?”
“Yes, I’ve done a number of jobs for him, mainly cleaning paintings, but a few quite extensive restorations too.”
The two women had reached one of the coffee stalls in St James’s Park by this time. Soo took a seat at one of the aluminium tables while Daphne bought her a large mocha topped with whipped cream and a double espresso for herself.
Soo was anxious not to reveal her own professional interest in art history, but decided that Daphne’s career was an interesting topic of conversation and so decided to take the risk of asking further questions. “What brought you into restoration as a profession?” she asked.
“I went to art college intending to specialise in painting, but it didn’t work out the way I expected. I never had any problem with the technical aspects – I could make paint do just about anything I wanted it to – but I could never find my own voice as an artist, I could imitate just about anyone else’s style but not develop one of my own. One of my tutors suggested that conservation and restoration might be a fruitful outlet for my skills, so for the rest of my time at college, I split my time between art history and developing my own painting skills. Once I started working as a restorer, I found that I could really get under the skin of another artist and that meant my restorations often had a life to them that is lacking in a drier more academic approach.”
“With skills like that, it must have been tempting to turn your hand to a bit of forgery,” Soo commented.
Daphne sat staring at Soo impassively for an uncomfortably long time before speaking. “Given that you’re a hardened criminal yourself, I don’t suppose there’s much harm in telling you that’s exactly what I did to supplement my income in the early days. I discovered that turning out a few dud paintings was vastly more lucrative than the sort of legitimate commissions I could get then.”
“Bogus old masters?”
“Mainly late impressionists. The materials they used are all still available in ordinary art shops. You just have to avoid modern pigments and drying oils.”
“It sounds like you’ve given up that line of work from the way you put it.”
“Yes, for self-preservation as much as anything. I had a succession of that sort of commission from one particular dealer. I realised later that some criminal gangs were using artwork as portable high-value commodities to pay off debts to one another. The trouble was that some of those paintings were my fakes. I had a real fear that someone would find out and arrange to have me killed.”
“I try to distance myself from people like that,” Soo commented drily.
“I’m sure you do. You were firm, but remarkably polite and professional in the way you presented yourself at my niece’s house,” Daphne said. “But then I was absolutely certain that John would find me someone who shared his standards like that.”
Soo tried several interpretations of Daphne’s remark in her mind, but the implication about John seemed unavoidable. “Excuse me?” she said lamely.
“Dammit. I really didn’t mean to say that, but I can’t really unsay it now,” Daphne said, sounding flustered. “If you’ve finished your coffee, let’s walk and I’ll explain.”
Soo drained the last of her mocha, wiped her lips with a paper napkin and pulled her balaclava back up over her mouth before standing and trotting to catch up with Daphne, who was already walking away from the coffee stall.
“Back in about 1981 or 82, when I was just starting to build my reputation as a restorer, I won a rather important commission from one of the private galleries in south-east London.”
Soo realised that probably meant either the Dulwich Gallery or the Horniman Museum and wondered why Daphne hadn’t been more specific.
“The commission was to restore and conserve two paintings by an artist called John Robinson. He’s not very well known, but he was a late impressionist and worked both before and after the First World War, mainly in northern France, but also in south-east London, where he was born. It was a major coup for me to get work like that as a relatively inexperienced freelancer and there was some publicity in the local press.”
“Good publicity?” Soo asked.
“Yes, very positive. It was mostly of the ‘Local Girl Makes Good’ variety, with a certain amount of general interest stuff about just what a restorer does. All good publicity for me, just starting out on my own.”
“I can imagine,” Soo said, wondering where this was leading.
“It turned out to be quite challenging work. Robinson had struggled to find buyers after the war and some of his work was done with very cheap paints on cardboard, so I had to stabilise the pictures to prevent any more paint loss before I even started to restore them. I had successfully conserved one painting. I was working away in my studio, which was also where I cooked and slept, repairing the missing paint when I suddenly realised I wasn’t alone. There was a man standing silently watching me work. I had no idea how he got in – as far as I knew I had locked the door behind me when I came in myself. He was wearing dark-coloured jacket and trousers and had a black balaclava over his head with just his eyes showing.
“ ‘Good afternoon, Miss Porterhouse,’ he said, very politely.
“I realised that dressed like that, he was up to no good, but I managed to stay calm and told him that if he was thinking of stealing anything, the only items of any value were the Robinsons and they were too well known.
“ ‘Let me be the judge of that,’ he said. ‘I’m a very good judge of value.’
“I was quite annoyed at being interrupted in my work, so I told him to clear off in no uncertain terms.
“ ‘I’ll go in good time,’ he said and wandered across the room to have a closer look at my work.
“I was getting very nervous by this time, not just because I had an intruder in my studio, but because he had caught me red-handed in the act of forgery. I had two easels set up. One held the genuine Robinson I was restoring. The other held a fake that I was creating from scratch. It wasn’t a copy of the real picture but an entirely new composition. I had found a photograph dating from the right period of a train entering Penge railway station, a scene that Robinson would have known well. He lived in the area and several of his other genuine paintings depict railway scenes. I was using the real Robinson as a reference for technique and brushwork and working on both with the same palette of colours. As if that wasn’t enough, I had another dud Roberson propped up against the legs of the easel.
“The man studied the real Robertson closely, then the part-finished fake.
“ ‘That’s very impressive work,’ he said, sounding quite sincere, ‘but I expect you’d like to keep it a secret. If you’re a good girl and behave nicely, then I won’t let on to anyone.’
“I wasn’t too worried that he might report me to the authorities, after all, he was a burglar, but I was very worried who else he might speak to in the underworld. He had me over a barrel, so all I could do was to ask him what he wanted me to do.
“ ‘Not very much,’ he replied, ‘but I’m sure you appreciate that a man in my profession needs to work with the minimum of interference, so I’m afraid I will have to take steps to make sure you won’t hinder me.’
“It took me a moment to work out this was a roundabout way of telling me he was going to tie me up. ‘If you must,’ I said, ‘but let me clean up first.’
“ ‘But, of course,’ he said. ‘Your profession has its demands too.’
“I wiped my brushes and cleaned them off with turpentine then wrapped my palette in clingfilm to keep the paint workable. I wore an oversized man’s shirt bought from a charity shop as an overall to protect my clothes. As I unbuttoned it, the intruder took a bundle of rope out of a small holdall he carried.
“ ‘What are you going to do to me?’ I asked. I was seriously unnerved by his calm professionalism, almost as much as if he had threatened violence.
“ ‘You look like a fairly fit young woman, so I think my best policy will be to tie you to a chair,’ her replied.
“There were only three chairs in my studio. There was an old and saggy armchair with it stuffing showing through holes in the covering, a rather rickety wooden dining chair that creaked and drooped slightly if you lifted it off the floor and one of those tubular steel framed chairs you used to see in waiting rooms in those days. Not surprisingly, it was the latter he chose.
“ ‘Will you be warm enough?’ the man asked unexpectedly.
“It was a cold late autumn day. I had a small paraffin heater, mainly to keep the air around my painting warm so that the paint stayed pliable and my fingers didn’t get too cold. I pointed it out to him. I also told him that I was wearing plenty of clothes, which was possibly an understatement. I followed the usual policy of the impoverished young, that it is cheaper to wear more clothes than to heat a room. I think I had several sweaters on with a heavy calf-length skirt on over woolly tights, legwarmers and the thick hiking socks I wore as slippers. I had fingerless gloves on too to help keep my fingers supple and a scarf wound around my neck.
“ ‘You can get really cold sitting still when you’ve been tied up,’ he told me, ‘and I’m going to turn that heater off. It looks badly in need of a service and I don’t want to be responsible for you being gassed by it.’
“His comment about the heater might just have saved my life. I had it checked a few days later and the engineer who looked at it told me it was lethal. Anyway, I took the intruder’s advice by adding a heavy cardigan over my layered sweaters and a pair of mittens over my gloves.
“ ‘Ready?’ the man asked, not unkindly. ‘I’ll try to make sure this is no more unpleasant than is inevitable.’
“I was too nervous to reply, so I just nodded. I allowed the man to take my arms round behind my back where he quickly and efficiently tied my wrists together. While I was still standing, he wound a coil of rope around my waist and tied it off it at the front, leaving long tails dangling from the knot. He tied another coil of rope around my thighs over my skirt, again leaving long loose tails.
“ ‘Please sit down,’ the man invited. He helped me to sit down without overbalancing and guided my arms over the back of the chair so my elbows were hooked around the tubular steel verticals.
“Once I was sitting, he used the tails on my waist rope to fasten the binding off to the chair frame at each side. The loose ends of the rope around my thighs were longer and he was able to wrap them over my lap and under the chair seat a couple of times before knotting them. He used two much longer pieces of rope around my arms and chest and the chair back, one coil below my bust and the other above. I was wondering if I would eventually be able to wriggle out of those chest ropes when I realised that my captor had already thought of that. He used another long rope, doubled it and fastened the folded end to my waist rope, took it up to the lower then upper band of rope around my chest and hitched it to each of them. He separated the two strands and took them over my shoulders then I think he attached them to the chest and waist ropes behind me, but of course I couldn’t see that bit.
“He knelt down in front of me and tied my ankles together then lifted my skirt so he could tie my legs together below my knees. It was while he was doing that that the penny dropped for me. ‘Are you the one they call The Cat?’ I asked him.
“ ‘Yes, that’s the name the press seem to have given me,’ he confirmed as he turned his attention back to my wrists. He did something to fasten my wrist binding to my waist rope and the back of the chair. Whatever it was, I couldn’t move my arms at all after that.
“The man, The Cat, as I now knew him to be, inspected the underside of the chair then pulled my feet back and up until they were off the floor. He fastened the loose ends on my ankle rope to one of the tubular metal stretchers under the seat.
“ ‘Not too uncomfortable?’ The Cat asked.
“ ‘Surprisingly not,’ I replied. ‘I can’t move a muscle, and I wish I wasn’t tied up, but it’s not too bad otherwise.’
“ ‘That’s as it should be,’ he told me as he set to work to search my studio.
“ ‘I was worried that you were going to gag me,’ I commented to him. ‘I’m glad you haven’t’
“He paused in his work – I suppose burglary counts as work – and looked around at me. ‘I haven’t gagged you for now, as you’ve not attempted to yell for help or anything, for but my own safety I’m afraid I’ll have to rectify that before I leave.’
“There wasn’t much I could say to that, so I just sat there and watched as he rifled through all my things. I have to say it was the neatest piece of searching I have ever seen – I think I would have made more mess doing it myself. I was intrigued to see what he would consider to be worth stealing. I personally didn’t think I had anything of value at all – I really was as poor as a church mouse in those days.
“Finally, The Cat completed his search and came back to where I was sitting. ‘I can’t remember when this last happened to me, Miss Porterhouse,’ he said, ‘but you were quite right – there really is nothing of any value here apart from the paintings and they are utterly unsaleable with all the publicity they’ve had.’
“ ‘Well, I did tell you that,’ I said, ‘so you can just untie me and go on your way, then I can get on with my work.’
“ ‘Alas, no. As I said, I have my own safety to think about,’ he told me, ‘so you’ll have to stay tied up and I’ll have to gag you as well. I’m truly very sorry for the unnecessary trouble I’ve caused you.’
“ ‘That’s all very well for you to say, but you’re not the one sitting here trussed up like a turkey,’ I retorted crossly.
“ ‘All I can do is to inform someone of your... er... predicament, so you get rescued soon. I take it you won’t want the police to find out about your little sideline.’ He indicated the bogus Robinsons. ‘Is there anyone else I can contact?’
“I gave him my sister’s phone number. He made a note of it then said, ‘Before I gag you – are you still quite comfortable?’
“ ‘No, I’m not,’ I told him grumpily.
“ ‘Apart from being tied up, I meant,’ he amended.
“ ‘No, the bar at the front of the seat is pressing into the back of my knees. Can’t I have my feet on the floor?’
“ ‘They’re pulled up like that to stop you shuffling the chair around,’ he explained. ‘It’s so you can’t get hold of anything to cut yourself loose.’
“ ‘It’s still very uncomfortable like this – can’t you do something to fix it?’ I asked, trying not to plead.
“ ‘Well I can let your feet down, but I’ll have to blindfold you to discourage you from scooting the chair around,’ he offered.
“ ‘That’s OK,’ I replied, annoyed with myself for sounding so meek.
“The Cat knelt down and untied the end of my ankle binding from under the chair seat, allowing my feet to drop to the floor. I heaved a heartfelt sigh – it really had been getting very uncomfortable. He acknowledged that with an apology as he redeployed the loose ends of the ankle rope by fastening them off to the front legs of the chair. He wrapped another length of rope around my legs just above the knees and on top of my skirt and tied the ends of that binding to the joints where the front legs of the chair were welded to the troublesome bar that had been pressing into my knees.
“ ‘Anything else?’ he asked, with a suggestion of sarcasm.
“I played my answer straight. ‘Yes, the ropes are tugging on my scarf and making it too tight around my neck’
“I’m sure I heard at least the hint of an exasperated sigh, but he carefully extricated my scarf from under the chest and shoulder ropes and unwrapped it from around my neck.
“ ‘Is that going to be my gag?’ I asked.
“ ‘No,’ he said, ‘I have a better idea.’ He went across to the battered old chest of drawers where I kept my clothes. He had already searched through it, so knew exactly where to look for a pair of black legwarmers, which he brought back to my chair. These were 1980s-style legwarmers, meant to fit from ankle almost up to crotch level and wearable over a pair of trousers, so he had no trouble pulling one right down over my head. He tucked the end into the collar of the roll-necked sweater I was wearing under my other layers then told me to open my mouth. I had a good idea what was going to happen when he pulled the second legwarmer between my teeth, forcing the fabric of the one over my head to fold back into my mouth, and knotted it tightly behind my head.
“ ‘Now, I’m sure you can still see something through that,’ The Cat said, ‘so I’ll just make use of your scarf.’
“He tied my scarf around my head on top of the legwarmer as a blindfold and I was plunged into complete darkness. He bade me a very polite farewell and then I heard the door to my studio open and shut. I struggled for a bit, but it was absolutely useless – The Cat was an expert and I had no chance of freeing myself. I had to wait nearly three hours until my sister let herself into my flat.
“That experience was my trigger for getting out of the forgery game. I was really worried that The Cat might tell someone else in the underworld about my forgery activities and that word would get back to someone who had bought one of my dud paintings. I was terrified that I would find myself at the bottom of the Thames with my feet in concrete, or something worse, so I finished off the restoration of the Robinsons and finished the fakes to finance a swift exit.”
“You went away somewhere?” Soo asked, having listened to Daphne’s description of the abortive robbery in silence.
“Italy for more than ten years.”
“Plenty of Mafiosi there,” Soo observed.
“Yes, but I stayed well away from them and got a job in a private gallery in Florence. I built up my skills and gained a respectable reputation before coming back to London and setting up on my own again with good credentials and a proven track record as a conservator and restorer.”
“And that was when you met John Jacobs?” Soo asked.
“Yes, he came to me with a tricky restoration job on someone else’s recommendation. As soon as I saw him, I knew that I’d seen him before – same height, perhaps a little more weight, same voice, same mannerisms and that same polished politeness. I didn’t let on, of course – I don’t know a socially-acceptable way of saying, ‘I know you – you’re the man who broke into my studio and left me tied to a chair.’ ”
“I agree that would be tricky,” Soo agreed. “So does John know that you know?”
“That’s the confirmation I’ve always wanted!” Daphne exclaimed excitedly. “You wouldn’t have asked that in those words if you didn’t know yourself that John Jacobs is The Cat.”
Soo cursed herself inwardly but said nothing.
“To answer your question,” Daphne continued, “I think he must do. A while ago he brought me a painting. He explained that as it stood, it was a forgery and therefore both worthless and illegal to sell. However, if I were to remove the signature, it would be saleable for a few hundred pounds as being by an unknown artist in the style of John Robinson. The painting was my fake Robinson showing the train at Penge station.
“I examined the painting and asked him if he was sure that it wasn’t genuine. I pointed out that the style, materials and location were all quite consistent with known Robinsons. He caught my eye and said, very deliberately, that he was absolutely sure it wasn’t genuine because he knew who had really painted it. I realised that he had me at that point, so I agreed to do the work.”
“And neither of you went as far as to acknowledge your earlier meeting?” Soo asked.
“No, but knowing his alter ego, so to speak, I knew that John was the perfect person to go to to hire a discreet and conscientious thief. I thought he might do the job himself, but his judgement in choosing you was perfect.”
“And why are you telling me all this?” Soo asked, puzzled.
“Because I’ve always wanted to tell someone the real story and I know that the secret will be safe with you, my dear, whoever you are.”
The two women parted and Soo returned to Coco’s house bemused but not dissatisfied with the encounter.
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