La Cioccolata in
by Doctor George
The sky was slate grey and the occasional snowflake fell as Soo made her way from her tiny flat near Finsbury Park to Coco Aldington’s house in Muswell Hill, which was also Coco’s office and Soo’s workplace. The December morning was dull, gloomy and bitingly cold. Soo buried her chin in the scarf wound around her neck and pushed her mittened hands deep into the pockets of her thickly-quilted hooded coat.
Soo’s first task on arrival was usually making coffee for herself and Coco. On this morning, she was delighted to be greeted by the aroma of fresh coffee as soon as she let herself in.
“I thought you might be especially in need this morning,” Coco told her as she handed over a steaming mug of fragrant coffee.
Soo took her mittens off to reveal the purple fingerless gloves she wore underneath and stood clutching the mug until her hands thawed out. She waited until she had finished her coffee before venturing to take her coat off. Soo generally wore skirts rather than trousers as office attire, many of them quite abbreviated, but the outfit revealed that morning was quite the opposite: her knee-length black Doc Martens boots were just visible below the hem of a heavy calf-length black tweed skirt. When she had unwound the long scarf from around her neck, the collar of a heavy purple sweater was revealed, the rest of it being hidden by the massive black hip-length cardigan she wore on top.
“Not taking any chances then?” Coco observed, looking Soo up and down.
“Certainly not,” Soo replied with a grin, hoisting her skirt up to show the thick woollen tights she wore underneath.
The weather worsened during the day, with a steady accumulation of snow. Coco and Soo took it in turns to sweep the path from the front door to the street every hour or so, but by mid-afternoon, it was clear they were fighting a losing battle.
A little after 5 pm, Soo looked up from her computer, where she had been busy making amendments to a set of engineering drawings following Coco’s notes.
“I think that’s me done for the day, unless you’ve got anything else for me, Coco.”
“Nothing that can’t wait until tomorrow.”
“I think I’ll head off home in that case, if that’s OK by you.”
Coco stood up from her desk and walked to the window. She parted the curtains and wiped the condensation-covered glass with her hand so that she could see out.
“It’s a wild night out there, Soo. You’d be very welcome to stay here overnight.”
“Thanks for the offer, Coco, but I don’t want to be any bother, and it’s only a couple of miles to my flat from here.”
“The underground trains are probably in a mess with this much snow on the open-air sections, so you’ll probably end up walking.”
Undaunted, Soo bundled herself up for the rigours of the weather. When she reached the front door, she had her coat on with the hood up and all that could be seen of her face were her eyes in the narrow gap between her scarf and woollen hat. As Soo already had her mittens on, Coco opened the door for her. In the light from the open door, the snow could be seen streaming steadily down at an angle of about 45 degrees as it was driven by the wind. There was no sign of the efforts that the two women had put into clearing the path earlier in the day. The street lights were barely visible as haloes of orange light in the falling snow and the lights in the houses on the opposite side of the street were completely invisible.
“Are you really sure you don’t want to stay the night?” Coco asked.
“Actually, that sounds like a better idea the more I think about it,” Soo admitted, her voice muffled by the layers.
“Weather like this is a good excuse for a girls’ night in.”
“Good plan,” Soo agreed, unzipping her coat and pulling her scarf down.
* * *
Soo surveyed the contents of Coco’s kitchen before exercising her culinary skills to improvise a thick Spanish-style omelette loaded with potatoes, onions, a slightly elderly bell pepper and, rather unconventionally, spicy Polish frankfurters. Coco’s contribution was a bottle of red wine.
After the meal, Coco offered to put Soo’s clothes through the wash and to lend her some nightwear. After some deliberation, Soo selected a blue fleece sleepsuit decorated with white snowflakes: the same garment she had worn overnight when she had first tracked Coco down and demanded a job from her a few years before.
“You strapped me to the bed, that night,” Soo reminded Coco. “I hope that’s not compulsory for overnight guests.”
“The straps are in the bottom of the chest of drawers in the spare bedroom: I’d be happy to strap you down if the urge takes you,” Coco replied with a grin.
As the evening progressed, the two women settled down to a series of cut-throat games of Scrabble as they worked their way steadily through the bottle of wine. The heating in the house with its Victorian standards of insulation was not coping well with the outside temperature and the wind, so Soo supplemented the sleepsuit with a huge woollen shawl wrapped around her while Coco settled for a heavy sweater on top of a similar fleece sleepsuit.
With the wine gone and the time well after 11 pm, Coco suggested that hot chocolate would be a good way to finish the evening.
“Do you fancy some cheese on toast?” Coco asked as she and Soo returned to the kitchen.
“I’m still full of omelette, but you go ahead.”
Coco took a block of Cheddar cheese out of the fridge and unwrapped it. “Are you sure you won’t join me?”
“Well, perhaps,” Soo agreed, her resolve crumbling, “but just one piece of toast.” She watched as Coco grated the cheese into a bowl, and then mixed in some Worcester sauce and mustard before spreading it on two thick hunks of bread she had already toasted on one side.
“You like your cheese on toast to be quite spicy then?” Soo commented as she watched Coco slip the bread back under the grill, the surface starting to bubble and brown as it melted under the intense heat.
“I don’t have any beer, or I would have made proper Welsh Rarebit – one of the few things my mother actually showed me how to cook properly,” Coco said as she pulled the grill pan out. “For now, this will give you a bit of extra warmth.”
* * *
Feeling just a little over-full, Soo made her way upstairs to Coco’s spare bedroom, a hot water bottle under her arm. She tucked the hot water bottle under the duvet on the spare bed then made her way across to the window and peered out through the curtains. The snow didn’t seem to be easing, as it still wasn’t possible to make out the houses on the other side of the street through the white swirl.
Having given the hot water bottle a few minutes to take the worst of the chill off the bed, Soo flipped down the attached mittens on her borrowed sleep-suit. She slid the shawl down off her shoulders and was just about to deposit it on a chair when the sudden chill on the back of her neck made her think better of the idea. Instead, she lifted it up so it was over the top of her head and climbed into bed like that. She manoeuvred the hot water bottle down the bed with her feet so that her toes would benefit and adjusted the shawl so that a fold of it was across her nose. Satisfied with her arrangements, Soo reached out and clicked off the bedside lamp.
* * *
Soo was startled to be shaken awake by a hand on her shoulder. She opened her eyes reluctantly to see Coco’s face illuminated by a candle which she held in a small brass candlestick.
“Nearly time to go,” Coco said urgently. “Be ready in ten minutes.”
Coco turned and reached up to manipulate something on the wall. There was a hiss and a sharp click then the room was slowly bathed in white light as a gas mantle heated up.
Soo was still too fuddled with sleep and too confused by what she had just seen to say anything before Coco left the room. She sat up in bed and drew the shawl around her shoulders trying to get her thoughts in order. The candle made sense if the snow had caused a power failure, but a gas bracket? Surely if Coco’s house still had functioning gas lighting, she would have noticed by now.
Nevertheless, Coco clearly wanted her urgently for something, so Soo swung her legs out from under the duvet, or attempted to, only to discover that she couldn’t because the bed was now made up with sheets and blankets. The shock jolted Soo into full alertness. She looked around the room. It seemed to be the same room that she had gone to sleep in and the bed was in the same place, but it was a different bed and the rest of the furniture was different too.
Now completely baffled as to what was going on, Soo shuffled herself higher in the bed so that she could get her legs out. The next surprise was the sight of her bare feet as they came out from under the bedclothes. She looked down at herself to discover that she seemed to be wearing a hip-length white cotton chemise and a matching pair of cotton pantalettes with frilly hems that came just below her knees.
A memory surfaced in Soo’s mind: of course she had gone to bed in her underwear, so that she could be ready quickly when Coco called her. Soo’s increasingly confused conscious mind protested that this wasn’t the case at all: she had gone to bed in a borrowed sleepsuit in a bed with a duvet in a room with electric light. Nevertheless, some part of Soo’s brain insisted on a different version of events, which was disturbing and more than a little frightening.
The classic way to wake up from a dream is to pinch oneself awake, so Soo reached under the chemise and pinched herself firmly on the tummy; it hurt, but she stayed stubbornly as she was. She reached higher and pinched a more delicate part of her anatomy; it hurt a lot more, especially as it was quite a vigorous pinch, but she was still sitting on the edge of a very old-fashioned bed, wearing period underwear and in a gas-lit room.
Soo concluded that the only way to find out what was going on was to go with the flow and find out what nocturnal expedition Coco, or this version of Coco that lived in a gas-lit house, had planned.
Soo had already noticed that there was a pile of clothes on a chair by the bedside. (And some thread of memory insisted that she had put them there herself the night before.) The logical thing to do was to put them on. She was alarmed to notice that on top of the pile was a corset; just getting dressed was going to be a challenge.
Some instinct led her to pick up a stocking first. It had already been rolled in such a way that all she had to do was to put her foot into it and unroll it up the length of her leg. As she did so, she discovered that it was knitted from dense black lisle and was a very good fit, very cosy and surprisingly comfortable. Her fingers seemed to know what to do as they pushed the pantalette leg out of the way to smooth the stocking top up over her thigh. Instinct also led her to pick up an elasticated garter next and slide it up over the stocking before pulling the pantalette neatly back down. She repeated the operation with the other leg.
Being able to tap into apparent motor memory like this was fascinating and more than a little disconcerting. Soo wondered if she was somehow inhabiting the body of a Victorian woman. (She was almost certain that her surroundings were late Victorian.) Did that make her some kind of ghost from the future as far as her host was concerned?
Still operating largely by instinct, Soo put on a pair of warm grey woollen socks, much darned, but also a perfect fit and very comfortable. She reached under the chair for a pair of boots next. These were black calf-length lace-up boots with heels about two inches high, and, Soo decided, utterly adorable. She examined them before putting them on and realised that they had been hand-made. She was surprised to see that the sole and heel had a layer of rubber on them instead of being bare leather. The boots fitted beautifully and had clearly been custom-made to fit her feet.
Wondering why she had her shoes on already, Soo reached for the corset, wondering how on earth one put on such a thing unaided. Once again, her hands seemed to know exactly what to do. She wrapped the thing around herself and fastened the hooks on the busk opening at the front. Several adjustments followed to smooth out the chemise then to seat the corset comfortably on her hips. She reached around behind her and located the ends of the laces about half way up the back. She then started at the top systematically pulling the laces tight at each point where they crossed working her way down. She repeated the operation working upwards on the lower set of laces then tugged the long loose ends to make sure everything was tight. She secured the laces with an overhand knot behind her then brought the ends forward around her waist and tied them off in a neat bow at the front. A little more adjustment settled the corset more neatly on her hips and arranged her bust to be supported comfortably at the top. Soo had wondered how Victorian women coped with their stays and was rather pleased to have learned the secret.
Petticoats came next and Soo realised why she had put the boots on so early in the process of dressing: she was significantly less flexible in the middle than she was used to. A light white cotton petticoat went on first followed by a heavy one in a dark grey flannel-like material.
Still guided by this peculiar instinct that seemed to underlie her conscious thought, Soo reached up to her hair and froze in shock, astonished by the sheer quantity of it that her hands found. She looked around for a mirror and located one on top of a chest of drawers. Tentatively, unsure of what she would see, Soo looked in the mirror. She was pleasantly surprised to see her own face looking back at her. She inspected herself closely. It was definitely her, with her distinct cheekbones and slightly pointy chin and even the one slightly crooked tooth, but she hadn’t had this much hair since she was about eleven and had competed with her school-friends to grow the longest possible plait. She allowed the instinct to cut in again and watched as her right hand automatically reached for a hairbrush and briskly brushed out the mass of hair. She scraped the hair back from her face with her fingers, twisted it into a chignon at the back of her head and expertly skewered it in place with a handful of hairpins.
As she lifted a dress over her head, Soo was increasingly baffled by what was going on. The hypothesis that she was some sort of ghost from the future inhabiting a Victorian woman’s body as it was now obvious that the body she was inhabiting was her own. In that case, where were these memories coming from? And who owned these clothes that seemed to fit so well?
Soo smoothed the dress down. It was made in a heavy black wool serge with a full skirt below the narrow waist. The bodice was tight with buttons up the front and a high collar. The sleeves weren’t quite ‘leg of mutton’ style but were definitely fuller at the shoulder with snugly-fitting buttoned cuffs.
Soo discovered that it was quite difficult to wriggle into a tight-fitting woollen sweater with the constraint of the corset and dress. Like the dress, the sweater was black and had a tight body and sleeves fuller at the top than the cuffs. It fastened with three buttons at each shoulder.
The next item was at last one familiar to Soo: a black eye mask. It was rather a good one, she discovered: black silk on the outside and felt on the inside. There was apparently some stiffening between the layers as it was shaped to fit the contours of her face. She tied the two pairs of black silk ribbons behind her head to secure the mask in place. She checked her appearance in the mirror and noted with approval that the mask covered her entire face from the tip of her nose to her hairline. The eye-holes were just big enough not to impede her visual field but small enough not to reveal too much of her face: all-in-all, everything you could ask for in a mask.
A mass of black velvet proved to be a beret. It had a broad band that fitted snugly around Soo’s head and a huge floppy crown that hung down at the sides and back. Soo knew that women almost universally wore hats in Victorian times; she as amused that this apparently also extended to burglars.
Soo was surprised by the pair of fingerless black woollen gloves she found next, until she realised that fingerprint identification was probably still a decade or more in the future.
The final item on the chair caused Soo considerable disquiet. It was a black leather belt. Attached to it was a leather pouch which would sit on her right hip and which, on examination, proved to contain a set of lock-picks. The lock-picks were essential equipment and not a source of surprise. The thing that caused concern was the small leather holster which would hang in the small of her back. She opened it and found a small pistol inside. Guns were entirely unfamiliar to Soo, but she knew enough to recognise it as a four-barrelled derringer. The faint whiff of fireworks that lingered on the gun suggested that it had been fired at some time in the recent past. She considered leaving the gun behind, but concluded that she should behave as she was expected to.
Soo fastened the belt around her waist and, sensing that she was now ready for action, left the bedroom, shutting off the gas-light as she went. As she trotted down the stairs, she realised that the illegal equipment she was carrying was actually the lock-picks: there was a specific crime of carrying housebreaking tools by night, but until 1916 it would be perfectly legal to carry firearms holstered. loaded and ready for use.
* * *
Coco, similarly garbed in black and masked, was waiting for Soo at the front door. “Hurry up,” she demanded, ushering Soo out.
The snow had stopped but still blanketed the ground. With a shudder, So realised that the snow on the ground when she had gone to bed lay more than a century in the future.
A hansom cab stood waiting in the street, the driver swathed in a vast cloak, just his eyes visible below his bowler hat. The horse stood impassively, its breath steaming in the cold night air.
Soo clambered into the cab, not surprised that somehow she knew how to do so. She sat down and reached out a hand to help Coco climb up as she was encumbered by a bulky carpet bag and a dark lantern. Coco sat down, placing the bag on the seat next to her. Soo leaned forward and closed the low doors that enclosed the front of the cab as Coco reached up and knocked sharply on the roof. The cab lurched into movement as the driver gently flicked the horse with his whip and murmured an instruction.
As the cab made its way through empty snowy streets, Coco ran over the plan for the night’s job. It seemed to be a fairly straightforward domestic break-in and robbery.
* * *
“Give us an hour, Thomas,” Coco said to the cabman as the two women climbed down.
They were standing outside a substantial terraced town-house. The front of the house was separated from the street by the width of a basement area spanned by a flight of steps leading to the front door. Coco opened a gate in the iron railings at the top of a narrow staircase leading down to basement level.
The steps and basement area must have been cleared of snow quite late the previous evening as there was now only a light dusting on them. As she cautiously descended the steps, Soo realised the reason for the rubber soles on the boots: leather soles would have been far noisier and would have offered far less grip.
Coco stopped at what was clearly the tradesmen’s entrance to the house, a half-glazed wooden door. Soo tentatively pushed against the top and then the bottom of the door with her hand, noting that it flexed slightly. “Not bolted,” she commented in a whisper.
Coco unshuttered the dark lantern a fraction, allowing the intense white light of the calcium carbide lamp to shine out. Soo squatted down in front of the door and selected a pair of lock-picks. She inserted them into the keyhole and nodded once: now that the picks were inside the lock, she could work by feel alone. Coco closed the shutter on the lantern and they were plunged into darkness again. The lock was quite heavy, with a stiff spring, but was a very simple mechanism by the 21st century standards Soo was used to, so she had it open within a few seconds.
The women stepped inside, quietly closing the door behind them. They were in a short corridor with just enough light coming through the glazed door behind them to show a single closed door on the right and three close together on the left. Coco knew the layout of the house and led the way. She paused at the door on the right. She handed Soo the carpet bag and the lantern and drew her gun, a derringer like the one that had so shocked Soo earlier. Raising a finger to her lips, she silently turned the doorknob and pushed the door open.
The only source of light was a dull red glow from the embers of a fire. It was enough to show that the room was a kitchen. In addition to the usual kitchen range (the source of the light) and cupboards around the walls, there was large wooden table and several chairs in the centre of the room and a trundle bed, pulled out from its storage recess in the wall. There was a person asleep in the bed, quite a large one, judging from the bulk of the shape huddled under the bedclothes and the stentorian snores emerging from under them.
“Ready with the lamp?” Coo whispered.
Soo put down the carpet bag and put a finger on the shutter of the lantern.
“Now,” Coco commanded. As she made her move. Soo slipped the lamp fully open.
The woman in the bed awoke in terror to find a hand pressed over her mouth and a masked stranger pointing a gun at her face.
“Keep perfectly quiet, do as we say and you won’t be hurt,” Coco instructed. “Understand?”
The woman nodded, her eyes wide with terror.
Soo set the lantern down on the table then moved the largest of the chairs into a clear space. It was a broad wooden chair with a tall arched back and broad flat arms. A patchwork cushion covered the seat and backrest and was fastened to the woodwork of the chair with ribbons. If, as she suspected, the woman they had woken was the cook and general housekeeper, the ‘cook-general’ in the parlance of domestic service, this was probably her chair of choice, a throne from which to oversee her realm below stairs.
There was a newspaper lying on the table, a copy of the London Evening News. Soo glanced at the date at the top of the page: Friday 14th December 1894. Her heart skipped a beat as she realised that was fully 90 years before she was born. No, that was the wrong tense; her birth was in her own personal past, but as far as this world was concerned, it was 90 years in the future, in an unimaginably different world. With a shudder, she dragged her attention back to the work in hand.
Coco had persuaded the cook to get up. She was a plump middle-aged woman, quite short in stature. She wore an ankle-length cotton nightgown with a frilly white mob cap on her head. Tendrils of grey hair escaped from under the cap.
“Now, why don’t you put your dressing gown and slippers on,” Coco said, not unkindly. “You’ll get terribly cold if you don’t.”
The woman nodded distractedly and retrieved a tartan dressing gown from a hook on the wall and a pair of slippers from under her bed.
“Are you going to tie me up?” she asked apprehensively, eyeing the coil of rope that Soo had taken out of the carpet bag.
“Yes we are,” Coco replied, “but it needn’t hurt if you cooperate. Will you do that for us.”
Coco ushered the woman towards the chair and she nodded distractedly as she sat down.
In her own time, Soo practised a number of standard tie-ups with Coco, any of which they could deploy quickly and efficiently with the minimum of communication between them. The 1894 version of herself must do much the same, she realise as she swung into what felt like a well-rehearsed routine.
Soo started her part in the task by binding the cook’s ankles. The rope was rather different to the type she was sued to using in the 21st century. It was braided hemp rope about a quarter of an inch in diameter and the colour of brown sugar, probably sash cord. It was very flexible and quite rough, so knots should be small, tight and quite hard to undo. She wrapped a length of rope around the woman’s ankles and cinched it between them, leaving two long tails of rope loose.
While Soo was working on the cook’s ankles, Coco wound a coil of rope around her waist. She passed the rope under the chair’s arms and around the back of the chair. After completing half a dozen or so turns, she knotted the rope off securely at the back of the chair.
Soo proceeded upwards to deal with the cook’s knees next. Rather than subject her to the distress of lifting her nightdress, she simply wrapped the rope around on top of the nightie, positioning it below the woman’s knees and knotting it off firmly, once again leaving long tails of rope loose. She repeated the process above the cook’s knees then fastened off the loose tails of rope from that binding to the posts that supported the chair’s arms.
Coco placed the cook’s right forearm on the chair arm then bound it down with five or six turns of rope and finished off with a firm knot underneath the arm She checked carefully that the rope was tight enough to be secure but not so tight as to cause injury then repeated the operation on the cook’s left arm.
Soo used the loose ends of rope on the ankle and below-knee bindings to secure the cook’s legs in place by fastening them off to the chair legs.
Coco wrapped a long length of rope around the Cook’s arms and chest and the chair back. She built up the coil just above the cook’s elbows, anchoring her arms in place and eliminating the risk of her working her wrists free.
While Coco was finishing off the rope-work, Soo was folding a soft cotton dish towel into a band. She held it in front of the cook’s mouth. The woman looked at it and, realising what was expected of her, opened her mouth. Soo was shocked to see bare pink gums without a single tooth in sight as she settled the gag into position and knotted it behind the cook’s head. If she was permanently stuck here in 1894, she wondered how long her own teeth would last without the benefit of 21st century dental care.
Coco knelt down to carry out a quick visual inspection of the cook’s bonds while Soo closed the carpet bag and picked up the dark lantern. Both women froze as a sharp metallic scrape cut across the silence of the kitchen. They stared as they watched the doorknob turn. Soo put down the lamp and bag again and Coco drew her derringer.
The door opened to reveal a girl in a white cotton nightdress supplemented on a chilly night with a light brown woollen dressing gown and a dark brown, almost black shawl around her shoulders. Like her colleague the cook, she wore a white mob cap on her head. Gingery-red pigtails stuck out from under it.
“Are you all right, Mrs Baxter?” The girl said, screwing her eyes up against the intense white light from the lantern. “Only, I heard noises and... Oh!”
The girl stopped in her tracks as she saw the two masked black-clad women in the kitchen and the cook trussed up in her chair. Soo was astonished at her youth; she was tiny and didn’t look to be older than about twelve. A second later, she realised that the girl probably was only twelve: that was school-leaving age and the age a girl might well enter service as a kitchen maid.
“Are you burglars?” the girl asked.
“Yes,” Coco replied simply, keeping her gun pointed at her.
“Are you going to tie me up like Mrs Baxter?”
“I’m afraid so.”
Soo looked at the girl’s face: that exclamation sounded more like excitement than fear. It reminded her of her own experience of falling victim to a burglar, the day she first met Coco. She pushed the cook’s trundle bed back into its recess to make some space and selected another chair. This one was also a wooden chair, but with a rather lower arched back and no arms. She moved it out into the middle of the floor.
“Please sit down and put your hands behind your back,” Coco instructed.
The girl sat down, smoothing her nightdress and dressing gown down. She sat down and reached round behind her back. The shawl rode up as she did so, so she brought her arms back and loosened the knot on her shawl before putting them behind her again. “Will this do?” she asked anxiously.
“That’s fine,” Coco replied gently and reassuringly, “but you can relax – we’re not going to hurt you.”
The girl’s shoulders dropped noticeably as she relaxed.
“Try to hold still while I tie your hands,” Soo encouraged.
Squatting down behind the chair, Soo wrapped a length of rope around the girl’s wrists about four or five times, making sure it bore on the cuffs of her nightdress rather than bare skin. She adjusted the tension on the rope then twisted the ends round each other and formed several cinching turns between the wrists. She finished off with a secure knot above the cinch.
“Is that all right?” Soo asked, standing up again.
“It’s just like in the story papers,” the girl replied, grinning up at her.
Soo knelt down and bound the girl’s legs, using much the same approach as she had with the cook, with bindings at her ankles and above and below her knees. She left loose tails on all the bindings until Coco had finished the next stage.
Coco fastened one end of a long length of rope to the top of one back leg of the chair. She took it across the girl’s hips and lap to the top of the other back leg, looped it around and took it back across her lap. She repeated this pattern several more times until a band of rope was formed holding the girl both down onto the chair seat and back against the backrest. She fastened the end of the rope off to the top of the back leg of the chair opposite to the one she had started at.
Now that the girl was securely anchored to the chair, Soo used the loose ends of the leg bindings to restrict her movement further. She fastened off the rope above her knees to the tops of the chair’s front legs, taking the ends out over the sides of the seat. The binding below her knees was tied off to the same points, but just taking the rope straight out to either side. Lastly, her ankle rope was tied to the chair legs at the points where braces between the chair’s front and back legs were attached.
Coco finished off the girl’s confinement by using a long length of rope wrapped around her arms and chest and the chair’s backrest. She started at the top of one of the back legs again and ensured that from time to time she threaded the rope between the spindles that made up the chair back. When she finished, the girl was enmeshed in a web or rope from waist to neck with ropes over both shoulders.
“Still all right?” Coco enquired.
The girl nodded her head enthusiastically. “Do I get a gag like Mrs Baxter?”
“Yes, and a blindfold,” Soo told her.
The girl’s face fell at this. “Please don’t blindfold me.”
“You don’t like blindfolds?” Soo asked, thinking the girl was perhaps afraid of the dark as she was.
“It’s just that I want to be able to see myself all tied up like this. It won’t be the same if you blindfold me.”
Soo glanced at Coco, who said nothing but shrugged expressively. Accordingly, she gagged the girl with a dish towel in the same way as the cook but left her eyes uncovered.
“Ang oo,” the girl said through her gag when Soo finished.
Coco pointed at the kitchen door and the two women picked up their equipment and left the kitchen.
* * *
Coco had evidently done her research well as she led the way confidently up through the darkened house. The journey was thankfully entirely uneventful. Eventually, they reached a closed door leading off the upstairs landing. Coco raised a finger to her lips to signal absolute silence. She took the carpet bag from Soo and removed a small glass bottle with a cork stopper. She nodded to Soo, who turned the doorknob as silently as she could and pushed the door open.
They were in a small bedroom. A candle night-light provided a glimmer of illumination, allowing Soo to close the lantern and put it down. Coco handed Soo the carpet bag then uncorked the bottle and splashed a little of the liquid it contained onto a cloth. Soo caught a faint whiff of a sharp chemical smell and wondered what it was; it certainly wasn’t the oddly sweet smell of chloroform and she didn’t think it was ether.
Coco advanced quickly but silently across the room to the bed where a young woman lay huddled under the blankets asleep. She rolled the woman onto her back and clapped the cloth over her mouth and nose. Her eyes opened wide then almost immediately rolled upwards and closed again. Whatever the anaesthetic was, it was very potent, Soo noted.
Once again, Soo seemed to be able to call on a well-rehearsed routine without any apparent conscious effort. She put the bag down and opened the lantern’s shutter to give them light to work, leaving it where she had set it on the bedside table. The light revealed that the bedroom was small and modestly furnished, presumably, Soo concluded from its location in the house, the abode of a lady’s maid rather than a more junior servant.
Coco returned the bottle of anaesthetic to the bag and took out a bundle of rope. She rolled the unconscious woman onto her stomach, crossed her wrists behind her and set to work to bind them together.
Soo pulled the blankets down to expose the woman’s feet. She pushed her legs together and wrapped the skirt of her nightdress neatly around them. Picking another bundle of rope, she bound the woman’s ankles loosely together then formed a cinch of about half a dozen turns of rope, so tightening the binding and leaving the ankles spaced about an inch apart. She also bound her legs above the knees, just lashing them together over the nightdress.
By this time, Coco had finished securing the woman’s wrists. Soo supported her shoulders so that Coco could more easily wrap a band of rope around her waist. Soo let her drop down onto the bed again while Coco finished off the waist rope with a cinch anchoring it to the rope around her wrists. Soo lifted again to allow Coco to wind a rope around her chest and upper arms.
While Coco cinched the chest rope between the woman’s arms and body, Soo attached one end of a rope to her ankle binding. As soon as Coco was finished, she fastened the other end to the chest binding, drawing the woman’s feet up towards her waist. She didn’t pull it cruelly tight, just enough to prevent her getting to her feet if she managed to roll herself out of bed.
The woman was beginning to regain consciousness as Coco pushed a wad of cloth into her mouth then tied it in place with another piece of cloth between her teeth and knotted behind her head.
Soo pulled the blankets back up over the bound woman, now struggling weakly against her bonds. She picked up the lantern and the carpet bag once again and followed Coco to a second door, presumably connecting to another bedroom. She adjusted the lantern to emit a narrow sliver of light and stood close to Coco as she put her hand on the doorknob.
Once again, the room was not in total darkness, lit by a single candle night-light on a bedside table. Even in this dim lighting, it was obvious that this room was large and well-furnished.
Without hesitation, Coco strode across the room towards the bed, her derringer in her hand. Soo followed with the lantern and bag. The large iron-framed double bed had a single occupant, a woman possibly in her mid fifties asleep on her back, the blankets drawn up to her chin. Like the other women in the house, she wore a nightcap, in this case a lace-trimmed bonnet tied under her chin. A pair of grey pigtails stuck out from underneath it.
Coco reached down with her left hand and pressed it against the woman’s mouth, her gun steady in her right hand. “Madam, do not cry out and do as you are told and you will not be hurt,” she said slowly and clearly, an undertone of menace in her voice.
The woman nodded and Coco removed her hand. She looked at the two figures standing over her, her eyes going from one masked face to the other. “I take it that I am the victim of a burglary,” she said, her voice crisp and patrician.
“You are, madam,” Coco replied politely. “We will endeavour not to distress you unnecessarily if you cooperate with us.”
“Cooperate with the violation of my own house?” the woman replied calmly but with a hint of indignation in her voice. Her eyes glanced towards her bedside table where a small brass bell stood beside the night-light.
“I regret the bell will avail you nothing, madam,” Coco said. “Your maid is unavoidably detained.”
“Bound and gagged?”
“Just so, but, I assure you, otherwise unhurt.”
“I take it that will be my fate also,” the woman asked, still retaining her aristocratic poise despite being held at gunpoint in bed.
“It will, but we hope to do so without undue discomfort, madam.”
“Very well, as I seem to have no choice, you may proceed.”
“Please raise your hands above your head.”
The woman in bed complied, revealing as she did so that she was wearing a white nightdress decorated with lace at the collar and cuffs with a deep red gown of some kind on top of it. She was also wearing fingerless gloves on her hands.
Without further ado, Coco fastened a length of rope to the woman’s right wrist then tied the other end off to the decorative ironwork that formed the bed-head.
Soo pulled the blankets and sheets loose at the foot of the bed and threw them back to reveal the woman’s feet and a heavy ceramic hot-water bottle. The hem of the nightdress was also decorated with lace edging and she was wearing a pair of stoutly-knitted bed-socks.
Selecting a suitable length of rope, Soo lashed the woman’s ankles together then cinched the binding with three or four turns between them. She tied a firm knot and left two long tails of rope loose. She waited while Coco walked around the bed and secured the woman’s left wrist to the bed head then pulled the end of the ankle rope tight and fastened it off to the ironwork at the foot of the bed. That done, she folded the bedclothes back down to cover her feet.
“Do you really need to gag me?” the woman asked. “With my maid tied up, there is no-one for me to cry out to.”
“So you say, madam,” Coco replied smoothly, “but we have only your word for that, so I fear we must take appropriate precautions.”
“As you will,” the woman said with a sigh. She opened her mouth to allow Coco to stuff a piece of cloth into it and then to secure it with another piece tied between her teeth.
While Coco was gagging the lady of the house, Soo wasted no time and started to search the bedroom for jewellery and other small, portable valuables, putting them into a cloth bag as she found them.
Coco meanwhile inspected the half dozen pictures hanging on the bedroom wall. “Aha!” she cried in delight, lifting a painting down from its hook to reveal the door of a safe set into the wall. In a second, triumph turned to despair: “Hell and damnation!”
It took a second for Soo to remember that this was very strong language indeed from a woman in Victorian times. She wasn’t sure if she was supposed to look shocked by it. She looked at the safe and could see immediately that it was newly installed, with a strip of bare plaster around it that had not yet been painted to match the rest of the wall. The circular knob and numbered dial proclaimed a combination lock within.
“Not the safe you were expecting?” Soo asked.
“No, you could have opened the one I was told about with a hat-pin, but we can’t do a thing with this.”
The bound woman on the bed had been watching the proceedings with interest and with undisguised delight at Coco’s reaction to the new safe.
“Worth asking the lady for the combination?” Soo suggested reasonably.
The woman mumbled something unintelligible through the cloth filling her mouth.
Coco pulled her gag down and removed the packing. “So, are you going to give us the combination?” she asked with more than a hint of steel in her voice.
“Only my husband knows it – and he’s in Manchester,” the woman replied with a triumphant grin.
Coco muttered an imprecation under her breath and restored the gag.
To Soo’s 21st century eyes, the safe looked like a museum piece, which would surely not be too difficult to open if only she had a stethoscope. With that thought, it dawned on her that she had the benefit of a whole century of distilled safe-cracking knowledge that this 19th century version of Coco did not. “I have an idea. Give me ten minutes with it,” she suggested.
“I can’t imagine what you think you’re going to do with a combination lock, but you might as well try now that we’re here,” Coco told her.
Soo moved a small footstool across to the safe so that she could elevate herself to work on it. She pushed the band of her beret and a stray wisp of hair back behind her left ear, which she pressed against the safe door. Tentatively, she rotated the knob and was delighted to hear possibly the noisiest combination mechanism she had ever encountered. A single full rotation suggested two possible values for the first number. She reversed the direction of rotation and immediately found a small change in resistance as she turned the knob past one of her two candidate numbers.
Soo rotated the knob through two full turns to clear the lock. As she did so, her excitement mounted: in her own time, the technique of cracking a combination lock by listening to the mechanism had only been developed in the 1940s, so if she was stuck here then, with a bit of luck she could look forward to almost half a century when she would be the only person in the entire world to know the secret.
With the first number identified, Soo dialled it in then listened carefully as she tried to identify the next one. Again, she came up with two candidates. The first of these proved to be a dead end, but the second one seemed to work. See cleared the lock again then set to work to find the third number.
A final clunk from the lock mechanism confirmed to Soo that she had defeated it. It had taken her a little longer than the ten minutes she had asked Coco for, but with not a little pride, she pushed down the big lever on the front of the safe and swung the door open.
While she had been focussed on the safe, Soo had been oblivious to everything around her. She turned to announce her success to Coco and was astonished at the sight that met her eyes. Coco was still standing where she had positioned herself a few feet away from Soo to watch as she worked on the lock but now she was flanked by two figures dressed in what looked like black silk pyjamas. Their heads were also swathed in black silk so all that could be seen of either of them was a pair of brown, Asiatic-looking eyes. It was impossible even to guess their gender. One of them held the ends of some sort of segmented black wooden baton which was wrapped around Coco’s neck so as to press firmly on her throat. Through the holes in Coco’s mask, Soo could see that her eyes were wide with apprehension.
Soo felt a sharp scratch on the side of her neck and froze. A third figure, dressed like the other two came silently into view from behind her. She must have been standing right beside Soo while she was opening the safe. This person (Soo judged she might be a woman from her stature) was armed with a strange bladed weapon that resembled an elongated butcher’s cleaver. The back of the blade curved gently upwards and ended in a wickedly sharp point. Soo hadn’t seen a weapon quite like that before, but she assumed counted as some kind of sword. It was the sharp point of the sword that was resting gently against the side of Soo’s neck. The black-clad intruder was sufficiently skilled to keep the point of her weapon on exactly the same spot as she moved. Soo suspected that the spot in question was located with some precision over her jugular vein.
As if three undetected arrivals in the room weren’t enough, another two figures emerged from the shadows. One was dressed in black and was masked like the other three. The other was strikingly different: a tall slender woman wearing a bright red silk robe with a high Mandarin collar, fastened with a series of gold toggles slightly right of centre. The robe was edged with gold braid and richly ornamented with embroidery in gold thread representing long thin sinuous Chinese dragons. The woman was clearly Asiatic with broad cheekbones and almond-shaped eyes. Her jet-black hair was scraped back into a bun which was secured by a pair of ebony pins. She wore subtle but striking eye make-up and blood-red lipstick. Her bearing suggested one who was accustomed to unquestioning obedience from those around her.
“The Dragon Queen,” Soo said, surprising herself with her own words. Now where did that come from? she wondered.
The woman inclined her head in acknowledgement. “And if I am not mistaken, you are the Lady Burglars.”
This was news to Soo, who glanced at Coco, trying not to impale her neck on the blade as she did so.
“If I may speak, madam?” Coco said, her voice tense.
The Dragon Queen gestured to the intruder who was holding the segmented baton around Coco’s throat. She immediately unwrapped it but still stood close to Coco who relaxed visibly.
“The Lady Burglars is the name certain newspapers have given us,” Coco continued, turning to face the Dragon Queen, “but we are honoured that you should recognise us.” She inclined her head slightly to the Dragon Queen in a hint of a bow. “We seem to have chosen the same target tonight; perhaps we can agree an amicable division of the spoils?”
“Alas no, I am the Dragon Queen and I defer to no-one. I cannot have it said that I was compelled to give up the proceeds of a job to intruders.”
“With respect, madam, we relied on our own reconnaissance and intelligence to stage this job. My associate exercised considerable skill in defeating that safe. We have more than earned our due.”
“There is logic and indeed natural justice in your argument, but I regret that I cannot permit it,” the Dragon Queen replied, spreading her hands in a gesture of contrition. The next words were lost on Coco and Soo as they were a command barked out in Cantonese.
The Dragon Queen’s acolytes swung into action. Both Coco and Soo found themselves straining their necks upwards as two of the black-clad intruders pressed the points of their swords against the women’s throats. The other two produced lengths of rope from inside their robes.
Coco was standing with her back partly turned towards Soo, which afforded her a good view of the binding that was swiftly applied to both of them. She watched as the rope was hung loosely around Coco’s neck, the ends hanging free in front of her. She assumed that the same was happening to her, but the blade at her throat discouraged her from looking down. She felt the ends of the rope being crossed on her chest and then looped around each of her upper arms which were pushed slightly behind her. Watching Coco’s fate, she saw the rope being crossed again behind her back then another loop being formed around each upper arm. The rope was then spiralled down each arm, going twice around each forearm. Soo felt her hands being lifted behind her back so her forearms were parallel to the floor. She watched as Coco’s arms were also positioned so that her wrists were together across her back. The ends of the rope were brought together and wound together as a pair around Coco’s wrists, the last two turns being finished as simple overhand knots. The pressure on her own wrists confirmed to Soo that she was receiving the same treatment. She saw the ends of the rope securing Coco’s arms being brought up to the rope across the back of her neck where they were anchored with a firm knot. The sudden increase in pressure on her own arms and shoulders indicated to Soo that the same had been done to her. She had been hopeful that the overhand knots used on her wrist binding might offer a means of escape, but with the rope fastened off at the back of her neck, there would be no way to take enough tension off the knots to loosen them.
As soon as Coco’s and Soo’s arms were bound, the sharp blades were taken away from their throats. Soo surreptitiously tested the security of her bonds. She could hardly move and it was immediately obvious that the only way to escape would be with the aid of a sharp knife.
The two black-clad women who had tied up Coco and Soo produced pieces of black cloth from somewhere inside their robes. There was little point in resisting, so Soo allowed the wad of material to be stuffed into her mouth. It was a smooth, shiny black fabric similar to the women’s robes and felt like heavy silk. A larger piece of the same fabric was tied over her mouth to hold the packing in place. Soo was surprised that it was not pulled between her teeth, but instead simply covered her nose and mouth. As it was tightened, Soo realised that with the gag going above her nose and below her chin, she would not be able to dislodge it to eject the cloth in her mouth. She glanced at Coco, who had been gagged in the same way and whose face was now entirely obscured except for her eyes visible through the eye-holes in her mask.
The Dragon Queen issued another order and Soo found herself being hustled out of the room by two of the black-clad acolytes guiding her by her elbows, Coco being steered in the same way. The bound and gagged woman on the bed looked on in bewilderment.
Soo was led to the stairs and guided down to the main hallway. No effort seemed to be made to be stealthy, so she concluded that the Dragon Queen’s operatives had taken full control of the house. She was taken out through the front door to the street, where a growler, a four-wheeled horse-drawn cab, stood waiting. One of the women guiding her opened the door and said something in Chinese. Soo interpreted it as an instruction to get into the cab, which she did with some difficulty with her arms bound behind her. She sat down on one of the forward-facing seats and a few seconds later Coco sat down heavily beside her. One of the black-clad women followed them into the cab and quickly bound their legs at the ankles and knees. She used simple lashings, not needing anything more secure as she sat guard facing them, sword in hand.
As soon as Coco’s and Soo’s legs were bound, their guard issued a command in Chinese and the carriage lurched into motion.
* * *
From the few landmarks she recognised as the cab made its way through snowy streets, Soo guessed that the journey was taking them eastwards. She knew that Limehouse was the Chinese quarter of London in the 19th century and wondered if that was the destination.
Eventually the cab came to a halt. The woman who had guarded Soo and Coco on the journey opened the door and jumped to the ground. She shouted something in Cantonese and was joined by another black-clad figure who emerged from an adjacent building.
Coco’s legs were untied and she was escorted into the building by one of the black-robed women. Soo followed, escorted by the other woman.
They walked along a dusty timber-lined corridor and emerged into a large room. It had a worn wooden floor, boarded walls which might once have been painted white and exposed wooden rafters overhead. From the boxes and barrels which stood in stacks against the walls, it looked to be used as some kind of warehouse. Large doors occupied most of one wall which suggested that the building was by the side of the Thames and opened onto a wharf. Considering the all-wood construction, Soo wondered if the building was actually built out over the water on timber piles.
In one corner of the room was a battered old wooden table and four chairs. The Dragon Queen’s minions moved two chairs out into the middle of the room and indicated that Soo and Coco should sit. In the absence of any sensible alternative, they complied.
As soon as Soo was sitting down, one of the black-robed women approached her, carrying a bundle of rope. She lashed Soo’s ankles together, passing a couple of turns of rope under the soles of her boots for extra security. She followed that by binding Soo’s legs just below the knees and at mid-thigh level. When this had been done, she found she had no freedom to move her legs independently and her feet felt as though they had been welded together.
A few moments later, Coco’s legs were similarly bound.
One of the guards stood impassively, staring at Soo and Coco. Her sword was sheathed and tucked into a sash around her waist, but clearly could be in her hand ready for use in the blink of an eye.
There was nothing to do but sit and wait, wondering just what the Dragon Queen had planned for them. Soo forced the fear to the back of her mind and concentrated on studying the room where they sat on the chance that she might gain some useful intelligence. She changed her mind about the room being a warehouse. It was too sparsely filled for long-term storage to be a likely function. Given the proximity to the Thames and the wharfage she imagined to be beyond the doors, it was probably just somewhere to store material unloaded from ships before being moved on to somewhere else. The presence of a table and chairs and what looked like a small desk with its top closed suggested that this was also a place where business was transacted, which would also be consistent with her revised estimation of the function. That would imply, Soo hypothesised, that the clusters of boxes and barrels actually corresponded to shipments either arriving or departing. Adjacent items seemed to have similar labels, which supported that theory.
After ten minutes or so looking around the room, Soo was fairly confident that she could reconstruct the sort of activities that went on there. Given that it was part of the Dragon Queen’s domain, she suspected that the goods handled might well not be entirely legitimate cargoes.
There remained one item that Soo could not identify. It was a wooden construction standing a few feet out from one wall. It was a wooden box about three feet wide and six feet tall, robustly constructed out of wooden planks, open at the top with a black iron grille covering the front which was also open. The box appeared to be supported by some sort of wooden frame reaching about half way up its height. There was a wooden wheel rather like a ship’s wheel attached to something just behind the box. From Soo’s perspective, the wheel was to the left of the box and almost edge-on to her. She assumed the device must be some item of cargo-handling equipment, but its precise function eluded her.
Soo’s musing was interrupted by the arrival of the Dragon Queen with several of her associates.
“My apologies for your undoubted discomfort waiting for me,” she said. “However, given your well-known talents, I deemed it prudent to have you restrained thoroughly while I considered your fate.”
Soo could not work out whether or not the Dragon Queen’s words meant that they were about to be released.
“The Lady Burglars are well-known as expert and resourceful criminals; I have the greatest respect for your achievements. Alas, this is a matter of lianshang, a matter of my honour; I cannot lose face among my own people by being known to have been forced to defer to gweilo, to white devils. I was tempted to remove your masks but I will allow you the dignity of keeping your identities secret for now. Nevertheless, I shall read the newspapers with interest to learn your names when the police recover your bodies from the river. Farewell.”
One of the Dragon Queen’s acolytes drew her sword and rested its point on Soo’s throat, while two others grabbed Coco by the elbows and hauled her to her feet.
Soo sat horror-stricken as she watched Coco being dragged across to the mysterious piece of apparatus that had puzzled her earlier. Another black-clad figure was waiting there and had already swung open the grille on the front of the box. Her associates turned Coco around, so that she was facing outwards and thrust her into the box. One of them knelt down and fastened some sort of metal hook to Coco’s ankle binding, a detail that Soo had missed. The woman holding the grille open closed it and latched it in place then went to the wooden wheel at the side of the box and started to turn it. The box started to tip back, rotating about a horizontal axle half-way up its height. There was apparently some gearing involved as the box rotated much more slowly than the wheel was being turned. Coco stood impassively in the box as it tipped back. Soo lost sight of her as the box tipped past the horizontal position. The tipping stopped when the box reached a point where it was almost inverted. Soo could see that it was now aligned with some sort of chute built into the floor. The woman left the wheel then pulled a cord dangling from what had been the foot end of the box which lurched slightly. Soo’s stomach turned over as she realised that the cord must have released the hook which held Coco by her ankle rope; the slight movement of the box was her weight shifting as Coco slid head-first into the chute. Soo listened for a splash but heard nothing.
Suddenly Soo was the centre of attention. Two of the black-robed women hauled her to her feet. Coco had gone quietly to her doom, but Soo wasn’t about to be so passive, even at the cost of her dignity. She turned towards the Dragon Queen and tried to shout through her gag as she was dragged across to the box which was back in position and standing open for her.
“Wait, let her speak,” the tall Chinawoman commanded.
The two women who were steering Soo across the room stopped. One continued to grip her tightly but the other let go and removed Soo’s gag.
Soo swallowed hard a few times to get her voice working again after being gagged for so long. “I have skills you can use – you saw the way I opened that safe this evening. I can be of value to you, if you give me the chance.”
“And you would give me unquestioning loyalty, as my followers do? Every one of them would lay their lives down for me. Would you do that?”
“Yes, of course!”
“Your skills as a safebreaker are most impressive. I do not believe any of my operatives could have done that. Nevertheless, what one person has learned, another may surely also find out. I am confident that knowing it to be possible, we will shortly be able to discover the same technique without your aid. As to your offer of allegiance, I do not hear the zeal of a true follower of the Dragon Queen, only the desperate protestations of a woman pleading for her life.”
The Dragon Queen nodded to the women gripping Soo. One of them moved to restore Soo’s gag, but her superior intervened: “Allow her one final scream.”
Soo gritted her teeth. She would die with what dignity she could muster and not give anyone the satisfaction of hearing her scream. There was little she could do to resist being dragged to the box standing open ready for her. Her captors pushed her into place and one supported her while the other bent down and fastened yhr steel hook onto her ankle rope.
As soon as the iron grille was slammed shut and fastened in place, the box started to tilt backwards. Moments later, she was hanging almost completely upside down. She breathed deeply, trying to control her mounting panic. Suddenly there was a sharp click as the hook disengaged from her ankle binding. As Soo slid head-first she clawed uselessly at the wood with her fingers. Despite herself, Soo screamed in overwhelming terror as she fell into the black void and then...
* * *
...then there was bright light. Soo blinked and recognised her surroundings. She was back in Coco’s spare bedroom in the 21st century lying on the floor with Coco looking down at her in concern. She wasn’t bound but was tangled up in the duvet and the shawl she had wrapped herself in at bedtime.
“I heard you scream,” Coco said. “Nightmare?”
Soo nodded in reply then waited until her heart rate had dropped to something close to normal before attempting to speak. “I don’t think toasted cheese at bedtime was such a good idea. You wouldn’t believe the dream I just had...”
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