La Cioccolata in
What’s in a Name?
by Doctor George
This story relates the past events in La Cioccolata’s life which were mentioned in ‘The Netterton Jewels’ and hinted at in ‘Crossed Wires’.
Moving carefully, Coco waded through waist-deep foetid water. She was well protected by a pair of waders that came right up to her chest but the hem of her waterproof jacket still trailed in the filth. The beam from the lamp attached to the white plastic helmet she wore picked out the ancient stone vaulting above her head. Thankfully the coffins that had been stacked four high in the crypt had been removed to the burial island of San Michele but she still didn't like to think too much about the composition of the sludge under the soles of her boots. There was a sudden splash somewhere in the darkness. Among many things that Coco had learned during her six months in Venice was that you are never far from a rat in a Venetian crypt and that rats are surprisingly adept swimmers.
As she progressed, Coco compared the stonework with a folded architectural drawing on a clipboard she carried. From time to time she paused and either sketched corrections on the drawing or made annotations. She occasionally had to refold the drawing to show different parts of the vaulting. Finally reaching a stone wall that blocked her way, Coco turned and walked slowly back the way she had come.
A flight of stone steps led up out of the crypt into the comparative brightness of the nave of the church above. Coco sat down on the top step and set down her clipboard on the stone floor. She removed her helmet, switching off its light, and set it down beside her. She unzipped her waterproof jacket and laid it carefully on the steps, making sure she didn’t allow it to drip either on herself or the floor of the church. Coco’s strategy for taking her waders off without causing undue mess was to unfasten the shoulder straps and simply wriggle out of them, leaving them on the steps where they could be hosed clean later. It was an effective technique but wholly lacking in elegance, especially as her attire under the waders that day was a warm black sweater, a pair of grey woollen tights and thick bright red socks.
Free of her waterproof layer, Coco padded across to a chair where she had left a button-through denim skirt ready to put back on. She wrapped it around herself and had started to do up the buttons when she realised that she was not alone. Maddalena de Luca, her supervisor, was accompanied by a tall, distinguished-looking grey-haired man wearing an immaculately-cut business suit. He looked important, so, mustering what dignity she could, Coco scrambled to her feet.
“Coco, this is Count Bassanio Foscari.”
Coco recognised the name; in the eleven years since the disastrous Venice floods of 1966, Count Foscari had been a major supporter of the projects initiated to protect the city’s historic buildings from the twin dangers of neglect and rising water levels. Amongst other initiatives, the Count had personally financed a series of six-month placements for postgraduate students in engineering and other disciplines to come to Venice to gain hands-on experience, while benefiting the various projects with their skills. Coco was nearing the end of one of these placements.
“Count, Signorina Colette Aldington is the student from London I was telling you about.”
The Count offered his hand and Coco shook it after hastily inspecting her own for cleanliness.
“Maddalena has been telling me that you are behind the ideas we will be using in saving this church. She wanted me to meet you in person to hear the details, so why don’t you tell me all about it, Miss Aldington.”
The Count spoke excellent English, so although Coco spoke functional Italian, there was no barrier to conveying her enthusiasm as she showed the Count around the preliminary work going on. She explained to him that the crypt of the tiny church of Sant'Agata had been dry when the Byzantines built it in the 10th century, but that since then, the level of the water in the lagoon had risen while the building’s inadequate foundations had sunk, leading to the present situation. It would not simply be a matter of pumping out the water as the wet mud under the building formed a cushion and disturbing that could cause a collapse. She outlined the plan to build steel framework in the crypt which would gently hug the ancient stone columns and distribute the weight of the building evenly while the water was pumped out and the foundations secured. It was not just a matter of getting rid of the water but rather working with it; the whole of the stonework of the church was wet and if it was dried out there was the risk of dissolved salts forming crystals which would push the mosaics off the floors and walls and more disastrously destroy the later Mediaeval frescoes. Coco explained how the stonework would be kept wet, with progressively cleaner water over decades until the right balance could be reached and a natural level of dryness be allowed to establish itself.
Count Foscari seemed to be genuinely interested, asking intelligent and penetrating questions as Coco’s tour progressed. She introduced him to the artists, stonemasons and other specialists working alongside the engineers in preparing the church for the conservation and rescue work that would shortly begin.
As they stood outside in the deceptively bright sunshine of a crisp February afternoon, the Count thanked Coco for an informative and enlightening visit. As he was about to go off to his next appointment the Count turned to Coco.
“I would be honoured if you would join my family and me for dinner tomorrow night if you are free. Just an informal family meal, and you might enjoy seeing the work I have had done to restore my own house to something of its former dignity.” He passed her a business card with his address.
Coco accepted with genuine pleasure. Her social life had been somewhat restricted during her time in Venice. This was partly for financial reasons as she was living on the modest stipend that came with her placement but also because it was difficult to develop social links as a stranger in a foreign city, especially when she spent many evenings studying. Aside from the rare opportunity to have an evening out, Coco had enjoyed meeting the Count and anticipated a stimulating evening with his family.
Coco’s usual working attire was a sweater and either jeans or a skirt, which provided warmth for time spent in unheated historical buildings and was also suitable for an environment that was sometimes far from clean. Anticipating this, Coco had not brought many smart clothes with her to Italy. While the Count had said that the dinner was to be informal, she suspected that his standards of formality and informality might be rather different from hers; after all this was a man who wore a hand-made suit to visit what was a cross between an archaeological dig and a building site. Coco decided that a dress would be appropriate, which narrowed her choice down considerably. She eventually chose a knee-length pinafore dress in plum-coloured fine cotton needlecord worn over a plain white long-sleeved blouse. After further debate, she wore opaque black tights and black Mary-Janes. She examined the overall effect critically in the mirror and decided that she was sufficiently smart without being overdressed. The dress was also warm enough to combat the sometimes inadequate levels of heating found in many Venetian houses. As it was a chilly night and Coco had decided to spend a little extra money by taking a water taxi, she wrapped herself in black woollen shawl she had bought recently from a street market. The point of the shawl reached right down to her knees at the back, so she was well protected from the night air, if a little hampered in her movements.
Coco nimbly jumped across the gap between the water taxi and the steps leading up to the Count’s home. It was a palazetto (which in Venice tends to indicate a large town house rather than a small palace) dating from the Renaissance period. There was a light illuminating a doorway mid-way along the loggia which ran across the façade facing onto the canal. Coco tugged the bell-pull. The bell was inaudible from the door, but a small green light came on above the knob, suggesting that her presence had been detected electronically.
Count Foscari opened the door himself.
“Sei benvenuta nella nostra casa, Signorina Aldington.”
Coco offered her hand and to her surprise, instead of shaking it, the Count stood smartly to attention and lightly kissed the back of it. It would have been a ridiculously affected gesture for most men, but somehow the Count had the aplomb to carry it off.
Count Foscari stood aside for Coco to enter the house then led the way upstairs to the formal main floor of the house, the piano nobile. He opened a pair of tall double doors and gestured for Coco to enter. She walked past the Count then stopped in her tracks, awestruck by the magnificent drawing room. It was large but not overwhelmingly so and airy with a ceiling at least 12 feet high. It was simply but subtly painted in pastel shades with curtains covering what must in daylight be a range of windows overlooking the canal. The furniture was an eclectic mix of styles and ages which made the room friendly and welcoming but without offending the dignity of the architecture.
Dragging her eyes away from her surroundings, Coco took in the occupants of the room. A stunningly beautiful dark-haired woman in her forties stood up from a chair and approached Coco, her hand outstretched in welcome.
“Miss Aldington, may I present my wife, Donatella Ruzzini.”
Coco shook the woman’s hand. “You have a magnificent house, Contessa.”
“It’s my husband’s labour of love, and please call me Donatella; we Venetians are democrats at heart.”
“In that case, I’m Coco.”
The Count spoke again. “The girl whose book is so much more interesting than a visitor is our daughter Maria.”
A girl of about 12 years was sprawled on her tummy on a sofa with a book open in front of her and her feet in the air. She looked up at the mention of her name then scrambled to her feet, leaving the book face down. Coco noticed that she was reading a Nancy Drew adventure in English.
“Sorry, Papa,” the girl said with a disarming grin as she walked across to where her father was standing.
“Maria, this is Coco Aldington, the English engineer I was telling you about.”
“Pleased to meet you, Miss Aldington,” Maria said a little self-consciously, but in almost accentless English. She offered her hand and Coco gravely shook it. The girl was tall for her age, almost as tall as Coco, and bore a strong resemblance to her mother, although her features were still a little softer and unformed. She had her mother’s dark hair, albeit in an unruly mop rather than the Contessa’s carefully casual cascade of soft waves.
Coco had wondered if she had been too cautious and might be a little overdressed for an informal occasion, but looking at her hosts, she was relieved to see that she had judged her outfit well. The Count was wearing a pair of navy blue slacks with a lighter blue V-necked sweater over an open-necked white shirt. His wife was in a long-sleeved belted floral print dress with puffed sleeves. The hemline came just below her knees. Coco couldn’t decide if the Contessa’s legs were bare or if she was wearing stockings so impossibly sheer as to produce the same effect. Maria was practically but modishly dressed in a knee-length sleeveless jumpsuit in a startling shade of vermilion over white tights and a white long-sleeved t-shirt. Her canvas shoes lay abandoned under the sofa she had been lying on to read and she was padding around in her tights. All three members of the family had managed to combine casual clothes with elegance and sophistication in the apparently effortless way that seems to come so easily to Italians.
The Count invited Coco to sit down and offered her a pre-dinner drink. She was delighted to see that beer was on offer and gladly accepted a glass of Moretti. The Count poured himself a glass of the same, while Maria accepted lemonade on the promise that she might have a small glass of wine with the meal. The Contessa made her apologies and went to supervise activities in the kitchen.
Over drinks, Coco described the work she had been involved in during her placement and how it combined her love of old buildings and cutting-edge engineering practice. She was pleased to be able to carry on the conversation in English. Maria occasionally demanded explanation of unfamiliar words or concepts, but was impressively fluent in English. Coco’s grasp of Italian was actually very good after six months immersion in the language, but she always preferred to gain a slight advantage by keeping the true level of her competence hidden. Both the Count and his daughter proved to be very interesting and stimulating company as the conversation ranged over many topics to do with Venice, its history and its cultural heritage.
The Contessa announced that dinner was served and the conversation moved to a small intimate dining room, simply but elegantly furnished. A cheerful-looking middle-aged woman wearing an apron was in attendance in the room. She was introduced to Coco as Elisabeta, the family’s cook and general housekeeper.
Coco had developed a decided taste for the simple but hearty food available in Venice’s many small bars and was delighted that the menu for the evening was in much the same style. The starter was succulent fried sardines and onions. A range of small fish, meat and vegetable snacks followed as antipasti then the main course was a spicy risotto accompanied by a crunchy salad. An excellent crisp dry white Soave wine cut through the relative greasiness of the food. The dessert was a creamy tiramisù washed down with a sweet, sparkling Moscato d’Asti wine.
After the meal, Coco and the Count’s family returned to the drawing room where Elisabeta had provided a tray of coffee. Having ranged over many subjects during the meal, the conversation returned to the subject of the Count’s palazetto and the work that he had done in restoring it.
“Would you like a tour of the house?” the Count asked Coco.
“I would like that, but I don’t want to disrupt the evening.”
“It won’t disrupt anything,” the Contessa said. “Maria and I will come with you and do our best to prevent my husband’s enthusiasm for bricks and concrete from boring you to death.”
“I promise to be good,” the Count replied. “You should bring your wrap; some parts of the house are unheated and it can be a little chilly,” he added.
Coco was grateful for her host’s advice as a few minutes later they stood in the cellar beneath the house. She drew her shawl more closely around her shoulders against the penetrating cold of the room. Part of the cellar was given over to quite extensive racks of wine bottles, another part was set us as a small workshop, but most was empty, echoing stone vaults with a concrete floor.
The Count explained to Coco that they were now about five metres below canal level. Coco noted the dryness of the stonework and nodded intelligently at the explanation of the waterproofing, the drains and the automatic pumps that kept it that way.
The Count was still in full flow with his technical discourse when the Contessa and Maria joined them. The Contessa was now wearing a hip-length tailored jacket in emerald green over her dress while Maria had added a rust-coloured hooded sweater to her outfit and had hung a long scarf around her neck and put on a pair of mittens for good measure.
“Just in time to save you from the full horror of the drains!” Contessa Donatella announced dramatically.
“They’re actually quite interesting drains,” Coco assured her diplomatically.
As the tour progressed, it became obvious that the Foscari family currently occupied a relatively small part of the palazzetto. Coco had already seen the drawing room and dining room. The main floor also contained a ballroom which was two storeys in height. It appeared to be nearing the completion of its restoration with decoration still in progress.
“We will have the ballroom finished enough for a Martedi Grasso ball,” the Contessa explained.
The recently-revived Carnevale di Venezia, the Venice Carnival, was under way, with events both public and private all over the city. The most lavish events would take place in a few weeks' time on Martedi Grasso, Shrove Tuesday, the last night of the Carnival before the sobriety of the Christian season of Lent beginning the following day.
Contessa Donatella went on to describe the work that was still to be done and the tapestries that were also undergoing restoration preparatory to being reinstalled. It quickly became clear to Coco that although the Count was the more vocal of the couple, the restoration was as much a labour of love for the Contessa as well. He concentrated on the structure of the building while she saw to the decoration and furnishing.
There were several smaller reception rooms and a tiny kitchen on a level with the upper half of the ballroom. Above that were the family bedrooms, bathrooms and a guest room. As these rooms were fully finished, the Contessa took the lead as guide.
In the main bedroom, on the next storey up, the Contessa drew back the curtains dramatically. Although it was dark, Coco could see that there was a magnificent view across the canal outside. The Contessa went on to describe her design philosophy for the room. She explained that she wanted comfort above all in a bedroom, so had chosen chunky but understated Swedish wooden furniture to give a friendly domestic atmosphere and supreme comfort without competing with the perfect proportions of the room itself. The paintings on the wall were 20th century works from the family collection.
Coco noticed that one painting, hanging above the Contessa’s dressing table, hung almost flat to the wall whereas all the others had the usual slight forward tilt characteristic of pictures hung with wires and hooks. It was immediately obvious to her experienced eye that the odd one out probably concealed a wall safe and, given the proximity to the dressing table, was likely to contain the Contessa’s jewellery. She was on the point of commenting on this when she realised she might also have to offer an explanation of how she came by this knowledge, so kept silent.
Maria’s bedroom was also adjacent to her parents’ room with a connecting door as well as its own door out onto the corridor. It was small compared to other rooms in the house, but still quite spacious. The floral wallpaper, iron-framed bed and white-painted wooden furniture gave the room an old-fashioned charm while not attempting to mimic the true period of the house.
The floor above the bedrooms was entirely empty, with bare plastered walls and wooden floors. The faint smell of recently-dried plaster and sawdust indicated that these rooms were only recently restored.
A narrow wooden staircase led further upwards and as she followed Count Foscari, she felt a dramatic drop in temperature and found herself on the roof of the palazzetto. There was a brisk on-shore breeze blowing in across the Lagoon from the Adriatic. Even at night, the view was spectacular. The domes and campanile of St Mark’s Cathedral were floodlit and visible over the buildings on the far side of the canal. The water was visible as a rippling reflection of the many lights of the city. Even the flares at the Porto Marghera oil refinery and the lights of cargo ships in the lagoon added to the magic of the scene. Coco pulled her shawl snugly around herself and noticed that Contessa Donatella had now buttoned up her jacket while Maria had pulled up the hood of her sweater and wound her scarf around her neck. The Count seemed immune to the cold.
By unspoken mutual agreement between the three women, they returned down the wooden stairs when they were too cold to enjoy the view any longer.
Glad to be back indoors, they returned to the drawing room. Now that the Contessa had fastened her jacket, Coco had a clear view of the brooch pinned to it. It was breathtakingly beautiful and Coco couldn't take her eyes off it.
“Have a closer look,” Contessa Donatella invited as she unpinned the brooch and handed it to Coco.
The brooch was made of fine gold filigree, decorated with tiny diamonds and round cabochon-cut rubies. Not just any rubies, Coco realised, but star rubies reflecting the light in tiny six-pointed flares. The age of the piece was puzzling. It was obviously not new, but it didn't seem to belong entirely to any one period either. ‘Timeless classic' is an overworked cliché, but, Coco realised, entirely appropriate in this case.
“French?” Coco ventured. “Italian?”
“That's very perceptive,” the Contessa replied. “It's both.”
Coco looked at the brooch then back at the Contessa, still baffled by the piece.
“It was made in France. King Louis XV commissioned it as a gift for his mistress Madame de Pompadour.”
“I thought it looked like a more modern design than that.”
“Ah, there's more. It stayed with the French royal family until the revolution then Napoleon presented it to the wife of the last Doge of Venice in 1797, when he annexed the Venetian Republic into his Kingdom of Italy. That Doge, Ludovico Manin was Bassanio's ancestor and the brooch has been in his family ever since. The brooch remained intact until the Risorgimento, the time of Garibaldi and the unification of Italy. Sadly it was almost destroyed when the Foscari house was shelled in the fighting for Venice.”
“I thought that the armies avoided Venice.”
“They did,” the Count replied, “but the family home was in Treviso at that time and it was completely demolished.”
The Contessa took up the story again. “The brooch was remade by a Venetian goldsmith, inspired by the original but largely a new creation, and that's how it is today.”
“So both French and Italian and both 18th and 19th century!” Coco exclaimed in delight, understanding the reason for her initial puzzlement.
Coco gazed at the beautiful brooch a little longer before handing it back to the Contessa. As she did so, she knew in her heart that she had to own the brooch. All the time she had been in Venice, Coco had scrupulously avoided indulging in any criminal activities. She considered it too risky in an unfamiliar country, but somehow she had to find a way of acquiring that brooch with minimum risk to herself.
Coco was busy at work the next day. Her placement was coming to an end and she was focussed on report writing (in English, to her relief) and preparing to hand over to her successor. Throughout the day she found her mind wandering to that wonderful brooch. She was at a loss to think of any way to gain access to the palazzetto without taking insane risks. She did her best to dismiss thoughts of the brooch from her mind but over the next few days, she found it difficult to think of anything else.
The turning point came when she arrived at work one morning and found an envelope addressed to her propped up on her drawing board. Puzzled, she opened it and found an invitation from Donatella Foscari to the Martedi Grasso ball she had spoken of, to be held in the ballroom at the Count's palazzetto. The problem of access was solved; all Coco needed to do was to formulate a plan to take advantage of it.
As a fairly impecunious student, Coco had very little choice over what she would wear to the ball; it would have to be the one long dress she had brought to Venice with her plus some accessories.
In her other persona, as a moderately successful thief with several years’ experience behind her, Coco was far from impecunious. In 1977, the British government still placed quite tight restrictions on money being taken out of the country by private citizens. The Italian Lire that Coco was living on were a combination of the small permitted export allowance (legitimately bought and correctly recorded in her passport) plus the small monthly stipend she received as part of her placement. She had however taken the precaution of supplementing that with a quantity of less legitimately-obtained American dollars. Dollars had the double advantage of being easily exchanged in almost any country and being available in higher denomination bills than most currencies making for low bulk and easy concealment.
Coco’s first job was to buy a wig. She chose a moderately-priced but fairly realistic long brunette one and paid for it with some of her precious Lire. Wearing the wig and a pair of dark glasses and speaking broken Italian in what she hoped was a reasonably convincing American accent, she exchanged $200 for more Italian Lire.
A whole series of purchases followed. Many of the purchases formed the basis of disguises so that as Coco accumulated the material she expected to need, she continually varied her appearance.
It took several days to acquire everything that Coco would need to carry out her plan. After that, it was simply a matter of carrying on with her legitimate work and waiting for Shrove Tuesday to arrive.
The Friday before Shrove Tuesday had been the planned end of Coco's placement. The Contessa's invitation allowed her to extend her stay by a few days. She completed all the documentation and drawings for the conservation work she had been undertaking and spent the Friday handing it over to her successor, a young graduate engineer from Madrid.
Coco spent a busy weekend tidying up her lodgings and packing most of her belongings. At the end of Sunday, her rooms were spotlessly clean and almost all her clothes and books were neatly stowed in a large rucksack and an immensely heavy holdall.
On Monday, Coco returned to the project office, not to work but to bid her former colleagues farewell and to enjoy a lengthy lunch break with them at a favourite local bar.
Coco slept late on Tuesday morning. She expected to be up most, if not all, of the following night, so wanted to take the fullest opportunity for sleep while she could. She dressed comfortably in sweater and jeans and went out to a café to enjoy a hearty breakfast. The afternoon was whiled away sightseeing (although she knew the sights of Venice very well) and browsing through interesting shops.
In the early evening, Coco prepared for the ball. The dress she had bought for her graduation ball a couple of years before was probably significantly cheaper than the ones that many of the Contessa's other guests would be wearing, but would have to do. It was a floor-length sleeveless dress in a lustrous deep blue silk that complimented her bright blue eyes and white-blonde hair. Ankle-length black lace-up boots with modest two-inch heels added a little to her height and gave her movements a touch more poise. She gave her costume a little more carnival spirit by covering her hair with an inexpensive white Marie-Antoinette style wig and a gold half mask which covered her face from forehead to the tip of her nose. The eye-holes in the mask were large enough to show off her blue eyes and the gold eye shadow she was wearing. Wearing her spectacles was out of the question with the mask; Coco would just have to cope without them for a few hours. A pair of long gold silk gloves reaching well above Coco’s elbows completed her outfit. She put the few necessities for the night in a small black evening bag which she wore at one hip suspended from a long gold chain running diagonally across her body.
Before going out, Coco added her black shawl for warmth. She settled around herself then flung one end over her shoulder, adjusting it so that it covered her mouth and nose, leaving just her masked eyes peering dramatically over it.
As on her previous visit to the Foscari residence, Coco indulged in the expense of a water taxi. In contrast to the deserted quayside she had alighted on previously, the loggia on the canal side of the palazzetto was filled with revellers, presumably overspill from the ball going on within.
The main door was open and on passing through it, Coco was welcomed by a footman in 18th century costume with a powdered wig. He inspected her invitation then ushered her in, dipping his head in a suggestion of a bow as he did so. A maid helped Coco divest herself of the enormous shawl and handed her a numbered cloakroom ticket in exchange.
Coco made her way up the stairs to the crowded ballroom. Another costumed footman stood at the door. He enquired her name then announced it in a booming voice, “La Signorina Colette Aldington.” He managed the difficult English surname without apparent trouble; Coco wondered if her was a drama student hired for the evening.
“Coco, I am so glad you could come.”
Coco recognised the Contessa’s voice and turned to greet her. “Thank you for inviting me; it’s a pleasure to be here.”
Without her spectacles, Coco could tell that her hostess was wearing a red dress but could see little else. She pushed her mask up onto her wig and retrieved her spectacles from her evening bag.
Now that her surroundings were in focus, Coco could appreciate the Contessa’s costume properly. The dress was a magnificent floor-length creation in wine-red velvet. A panel of gold-embroidered white brocade decorated the front of the skirt and the bodice. The sleeves were long and shaped to cover the backs of the Contessa’s hands, but left her shoulders bare. There was also a daring depth of décolletage in the cut of the bodice. The width of the skirt suggested a crinoline cage underneath to support it. Coco also suspected that the trim waist and contour-hugging bodice were evidence of a corset underneath. Unlike many of the guests wearing wigs, the Contessa had left her own wavy chestnut hair uncovered, but piled on top of her head instead of hanging loose as Coco had seen it before. The narrow gold domino mask she wore did nothing to disguise her identity.
“As you can see, the ballroom is a little more complete than when you last saw it,” the Contessa said, gesturing to their surroundings.
The marble floor under their feet seemed to be fully restored. The walls were still only whitewashed plaster but tapestries hung from them lent a richness that complemented the costumed guests thronging the room. A huge chandelier hung from the middle of the ceiling, filling the space with a joyfully sparkling light.
“Just perfect for tonight,” Coco complimented her. “Like something out of the Middle Ages.”
“Now enjoy yourself Coco. My husband is away on business so I must see to all my guests on my own,” the Contessa enjoined as she squeezed Coco’s hand before turning away to speak to someone else.
Coco took a glass of champagne from a tray that was offered to her and wandered around the edge of the ballroom inspecting the work that had been done since she last saw it. She always found loud noisy parties difficult socially. It was especially the case here where she knew no-one apart from the hostess and all the conversation was in a foreign language. Nevertheless, her plan for the night required her to stay for at least two hours, so she continued to stroll around the ballroom admiring her surroundings, carrying her glass of champagne but never drinking from it. After a few minutes, Coco removed her spectacles and pulled her mask back down, preferring the degree of privacy it conferred.
Coco turned to see who had addressed her. There was the blurry figure of a woman beside her. No, a girl, she corrected herself realising that the person who spoke was shorter than she was and quite slender.
“Yes. Do you like my dress, Miss Aldington?” Maria asked as she executed a slow pirouette.
“I really can’t tell without my glasses,” Coco replied, rummaging in her bag.
With Coco’s mask pushed up and her spectacles in place once more, Maria repeated the turn.
“Che ne pensi?”
Maria was wearing a floor-length scarlet silk pinafore dress over a white silk round-necked chemise with long sleeves puffed at the shoulder. Both were elaborately embroidered in gold. A gold half-mask similar to Coco’s covered her face from the hairline down to her nose. Her hair had been scraped back and braided into a long plait which hung down her back. A gold mesh cap covered the top of her head, giving the whole ensemble a somewhat Mediaeval feel.
“That’s beautiful. It looks quite old.”
“My Mama wore it when she was young too. I think it was made for one of her aunts before that.”
“Perfect for tonight,” Coco declared. “Are you enjoying yourself?”
“Well, no, not very much,” Maria admitted. “It’s very pretty to watch, but there are no other children here. I love Mama, so I won’t spoil it for her, but I am getting bored now.”
“I understand. Too many grown-ups talking about things that only interest them and no-one paying any attention to you because you’re little.”
“Exactly so,” Maria confirmed, pleased that someone saw her point of view. “But what about you, Miss Aldington – are you enjoying the ball?"
“Well, it was an honour to be invited by your mother and I'm glad I got to see the ballroom like this – it's an amazing sight full of people all dancing,” Coco replied diplomatically. “But they're all people I don't know apart from you and the Contessa and although my Italian is not too bad, it's book Italian and I really struggle with the Venetian dialect, so no, I'm not enjoying the ball as much as perhaps I should.”
“You're not drinking your champagne,” Maria pointed out.
“I don't actually like champagne very much,” Coco confessed. “I don't like the way the bubbles feel on my tongue and if you let it go flat, it just doesn't taste good.”
“I have a bottle of apple juice behind the sofa over there – would you like some?”
Coco and Maria made their way around the edge of the ballroom. Maria produced a bottle of apple juice from an ice bucket hidden behind the sofa and a clean glass for Coco. Both Maria and Coco were glad to find kindred spirits and settled down side by side chatting together companionably, watching the other guests dancing or milling around the edges of the room.
As a clock struck eleven, Coco glanced at her watch and made her apologies to Maria. “I have to go back to London tomorrow, so I really need to go now.”
She kissed Maria on the cheek and stood up. She made her way across to the Contessa, thanked her and bade her farewell.
Her mask in place and wrapped in her shawl again, Coco walked the few hundred metres to another Martedi Grasso party. This one was filled with her work colleagues and the building contractors from the Sant'Agata conservation project and was considerably noisier than the Contessa's genteel ball. She circulated around the party talking to as many people as she could before making a discreet exit.
Another short walk brought her to Sant'Agata church. The building was surrounded by a wooden hoarding. Coco checked to make sure she was unobserved then let herself into the site, unlocking the gate with an illicit copy of the foreman's key. She used another copied key to let herself into the church itself.
By the light of a small torch, Coco made her way through the church to the chapel currently being used as the project office. She retrieved a nylon holdall from the corner she had left it in underneath the drawing board she had used during her placement. She checked her watch then set the torch down on a desk.
Working quickly, Coco stripped naked, piling her clothes on a chair. She selected a garment from the holdall and sat on the floor to put it on. It was a robust foundation garment which encased her from crotch to bust remodelling her bodily contours inside an unyielding carapace of nylon and elastic. After much grunting and a certain amount of cursing, she succeeded in forcing herself into the corselette. She stood and closed a pair of zip fasteners which further tightened the undergarment across her stomach. Coco was glad she had avoided eating anything at the ball.
With her outline dramatically reshaped, Coco quickly donned the rest of the clothes the had ready.
Out on the street, Coco strode along purposefully in her new costume. She wore a long black silk taffeta dress somewhat akin to an Edwardian riding habit. It had a high collar and was buttoned from throat to waist. The sleeves were puffed at the shoulders and tight at the wrists with black silk gloves covering her hands. The skirt was full and long with a bustle at the back. The front was open right up to waist level, revealing the tight black satin trousers and knee-length black leather boots she wore. Coco wore the black tricorn hat traditional for Carnevale with a glossy black oval mask obscuring her face. The only colour anywhere in her costume was the rich chocolate brown of her curly wig; everything else was black including the long cloak that flowed out behind her as she walked.
It was a short walk back to the palazzetto, but Coco followed a complicated and indirect route to avoid her destination being too obvious.
It was close to midnight when Coco reached the Foscari residence. The last guests were leaving, already dressed in cloaks or coats against the chilly night air. It was easy for Coco to slip into the house unnoticed.
Coco made her way to one of the rooms that she knew was still unfinished and therefore empty. She removed her cloak, mask and hat and took off a small black leather rucksack that had been hidden under the cloak. She unbuttoned her dress and removed it to reveal a black silk camisole top with cap sleeves. Her gloves were opera-length reaching almost up to the sleeves of her top. She took a small mirror out of her rucksack and, by the light of a dim torch, she checked that her wig was securely in place and that the black leather domino mask she had worn under her full face mask was also correctly in place. She nodded approvingly at her reflection, bright green eyes twinkling back at her from the masked face.
Coco went to the door of the room and opened it a few millimetres. She pressed her ear to the crack. She could hear the sound of the caterers, who had presumably also provided the maids and footmen for the evening, clearing up in the ballroom.
Coco settled herself down in a corner. Waiting was an essential part of many of her criminal enterprises, so she was used to having to spend time silently and patiently just watching the time creep slowly by.
At half past twelve, the house seemed to have fallen silent, so Coco decided it was time for her to begin work. She made her way silently to the main bedroom.
Coco opened the door and let herself in, closing it silently behind her. The Contessa was in the process of disrobing for bed. She sang softly to herself and seemed a little unsteady on her feet, undoubtedly the result of the excellent wine served at the ball. She seemed oblivious of the presence of a masked intruder in her room.
“Mi scusi...” Coco said, adopting a German accent in the hope that she would not be betrayed by her own English accent.
The Contessa turned in surprise. She was now wearing nothing but a corset and a pair of panties, both in scarlet silk, and a pair of black stockings. She stared first at Coco’s masked face then at the dart gun aimed at her.
“Signora la Contessa,” Coco began, hoping her German accented Italian would hold up, “please do exactly as I say and you will not be harmed. This is an anaesthetic gun, such as a veterinario would use on a wild animal. I will not hesitate to use it on you if you make a noise or disobey me.”
The Contessa continued staring at the gun then turned her gaze to Coco. Her thought processes seemed to be running very slowly. After a long pause, she nodded once.
“Very good. Now I want you to lie down in the middle of the bed and stretch your arms out.”
The Contessa did as she was instructed and as Coco watched her, she took off her rucksack, opened it one-handed and withdrew a bundle of rope.
“You do not have to tie me up,” the Contessa ventured, speaking for the first time. “I will do exactly as you say.”
“But when I am gone and no longer pointing my gun at you, what then? I suspect you will telephone for the police. Am I right?”
The Contessa shrugged, apparently accepting her fate.
Coco had already considered the bed as a possible place to secure a prisoner during her first visit to the Foscari house. The bed was a modern Swedish design which did not offer the ample opportunities for securing ropes that a traditional iron bedstead would, but there was a chunky wooden leg at each corner and that would be ample for her purposes.
Coco put her dart gun down on the bed within easy reach, should she need it, but beyond the Contessa’s grasp. She fastened one end of a length of rope to Donatella Foscari’s right wrist and took the other end down to the floor beside the bed. She hitched the free end around the leg of the bed then, taking the gun with her, repeated the process with the Contessa’s left wrist at the other side of the bed.
With her victim essentially immobilised, it was possible for Coco to return the dart gun to her rucksack. She withdrew from it another bundle of rope, a wad of cloth and a roll of medical tape.
“Are you going to gag me?” the Contessa asked anxiously.
“If I do not, then you will cry out as soon as I have gone and your daughter may her you and raise the alarm.”
“I understand, but, please not the cerotto.”
Coco was thrown by the unfamiliar Italian word. “This?” she asked, holding up the roll of tape.
“It will give me a terrible rash on my face, please look in the top drawer there.” She pointed with a bound hand. “There are scarves in there. Can you use one of those instead?”
Cautiously, Coco opened the drawer wondering if it was possible to booby-trap a dressing table drawer in some way. However, it was exactly as the Contessa had said; the left hand half of the drawer was filled with silk scarves of various colours. Coco selected two, one larger than the other.
Returning to Donatella Foscari, Coco balled up the smaller of the two scarves and held it in front of her victim’s face. Realising what was expected of her, the Contessa opened her mouth and Coco carefully pushed the wad of silk inside, tucking it behind her teeth.
Coco folded the larger scarf into a band which she placed across the Contessa’s mouth, guiding it between her teeth and knotted the ends securely behind her head.
Pausing before completing her work on securing the Contessa, Coco spotted a bar of chocolate open on a bedside table; apparently she had been enjoying a late-night nibble as she prepared for bed. Coco inspected the wrapper and nodded approval before helping herself to a square and popping it into her mouth.
“Adoro il cioccolato svizzero,” she commented with a conspiratorial grin.
Coco bound the Contessa’s ankles together, cinching the rope between them then tied her legs together just above the knee, cinching the binding in exactly the same way. She found the centre of another length of rope and fastened it to the Contessa’s ankle binding then took the two free ends to the legs at the foot end of the bed where she fastened them with hitches.
Coco adjusted the hitches securing the Contessa’s arm ropes so that she was stretched out helplessly but not painfully on her bed.
With her victim now secure, Coco could relieve the Contessa of the wonderful brooch and make good her escape.
Although the Contessa had removed her jewellery before undressing, it was still scattered across her dressing table. The wall safe, whose presence Coco had suspected on her first visit was standing open, the picture that normally concealed it swung back on its hinged supports. Coco sorted through the various items on the dressing table but the brooch was not among them. It was sorely tempting to help herself to some of the pieces, but Coco was determined not to take any risk beyond acquiring the one thing she had set her heart on.
Coco turned her attention to the safe. It was set a little high for someone of her stature, but she could just see in by standing on tiptoe. The beautiful gold and ruby brooch was there in its nest of black velvet. She lifted it out and held it up to the light, admiring the craftsmanship and sheer elegance of the piece.
“That’s my Mama’s brooch.”
Coco around to see Maria looking at her quizzically. The elegant gown she wore earlier was gone and in its place she wore a simple blue and white striped nightdress, essentially an ankle-length long-sleeved t-shirt, with a white cardigan on top and white socks. Her hair was still braided into the long plait she had worn earlier. The rag doll tucked under one arm emphasised her youth.
As soon as she heard her daughter's voice, Donatella Foscari turned to face her and started struggling against her ropes and trying to shout through her gag. Maria seemed oddly unperturbed by this.
The stark choice facing Coco dismayed her. She could either abandon the job now and make a run for it, but with a good chance that Maria or Donatella would raise the alarm very soon, or she could carry on as planned, but that would entail binding and gagging Maria and, as a rule, Coco tried to avoid situations that would lead to tying up children. Carrying on also seemed less risky, so Coco concluded that her next task was to immobilise Maria, but how to do it without causing undue distress?
“Are you playing a game with my Mama?” Maria asked, calmly observing her mother’s struggles.
“It's not really a game,” Coco admitted, manoeuvring herself between Maria and the door and hoping that her German accent would prevent Maria from recognising her.
“I sometimes play games a bit like that with my Mama and you're dressed up like a bandita, so I thought...”
Coco shook her head.
Maria paused, apparently considering the possibilities. “Are you a very bad lady who steals things?”
“That’s why you’ve tied my Mama up, isn’t it?”
Coco nodded again. The Contessa continued her fruitless struggles and unintelligible imprecations through her gag. Maria looked thoughtful but strangely calm.
“You’re going to tie me up too now, aren’t you?”
Coco was thrown by the directness of the question. She took Maria by the arm and led her across to her mother’s bed. The Contessa had given up struggling, but was still trying to talk through her gag. Coco sat on the edge of the bed in an effort to appear less menacing to the girl, who didn’t seem at all fazed by what was going on. As she thought about what to do next, Coco took another square of chocolate and offered a piece to Maria, who took it and popped it in her mouth.
“What’s your name?”
“Well, Maria, burglars have to tie people up so they can get away before the police come. I am going to tie you up, but I absolutely promise that I won’t hurt you.” Coco deliberately caught the Contessa’s eye as she spoke; the woman nodded an acknowledgement and visibly relaxed.
“Are you sure you’re not going to kidnap me?”
“Because I’ve been told to look out for kidnappers and to run away home if they try to catch me in the street.”
“Why didn’t you run away when you first saw me then,” Coco asked, puzzled.
“Well, I can’t run away home because I’m already here and Mama said that if I had already been taken to a house by a kidnapper, it’s usually safer to do what they say, so I wasn’t really sure what to do.”
“Well, Maria, I promise I’m not going to take you away anywhere. Quite the opposite, I’m going to tie you up so you stay right here. It might be a bit scary being tied up, but I promise I won’t hurt you.”
“That’s all right, I’ve been tied up lots of times. Mama plays games with me sometimes. She says it’s so that if I ever get tied up for real I won’t be too frightened and I’ll be able to keep a clear head.”
“Is your Mama good at tying you up?” Coco asked, intrigued.
“I can quite often get loose if I try really hard,” Maria replied with a grin, glancing at her mother as she did so.
“It might be a bit different being tied up by a real burglar,” Coco warned her as she took more rope out of her rucksack. “Hold your hands out in front of you, Maria, and I’ll start by tying them together.”
“They ought to be behind my back,” Maria objected. “In front is much too easy to get out of; you can just untie the knots with your teeth.”
“You’ve done this a lot haven’t you?”
“I’m good at escaping. You’ll have to use a lot of rope if you want me to stay tied up all night.”
Coco glanced at Contessa Donatella, who rolled her eyes heavenwards at her daughter’s boast.
“Well, Maria, it’s really uncomfortable lying in bed with your hands tied behind your back, so I don’t want to do that. I’ll see what I can think of instead.”
Coco studied Maria for a moment. She noticed that the girl’s cardigan was far too big for her with the cuffs folded back almost to her elbows.
“I know what to do, Maria. Put your doll down, button up your cardigan and come over here.”
Maria carefully propped the doll up so it was sitting on her mother’s pillow and buttoned the front of her cardigan as she had been instructed.
Coco unfolded the cuffs of the cardigan so they covered Maria’s hands and then tied a knot in the end of each sleeve. “That’s so the rope doesn’t hurt your wrists and to keep your fingers safely out of the way. Now hold your hands out.”
Selecting a piece of rope, Coco found the centre of it and tied it around one of Maria’s wrists, leaving two long tails hanging loose. She repeated the operation with the other wrist then arranged Maria’s arms so they were crossed in front of her in the classic straitjacket position. She gathered the four loose tails of rope together and knotted them together at the back of the girl’s waist. The loose ends still reached the floor behind her.
“I’m fairly sure I can get out of this.”
“I haven’t finished yet.”
Coco took two of the loose tails of rope and wrapped them around Maria’s waist. She knotted them at the front then wound the remaining lengths around the girl’s forearms where they crossed and secured them with a firm knot. She wrapped the two remaining loose ends around Maria’s upper arms just above her elbows, knotted them and fastened the remaining few inches of rope to the knots at each wrist binding.
“Still think you can get out of that?”
Maria tugged at her bonds then shook her head.
“Sit down on the edge of the bed and I’ll do your legs next,” Coco instructed, kneeling down in front of her.
Maria sat down and put her feet together.
“Cross your ankles, Maria. It’ll be more comfortable that way.”
Maria did so and Coco lashed them securely together, carefully cinching them so that they were locked together in the crossed position.
“That’s clever. I won’t be able to walk or hop like this.”
“Just remember that, because you’ll fall over and hurt yourself if you try. Are those socks or tights you’re wearing?”
“Tights. My bedroom gets really chilly in winter.”
“In that case, I’m going to lift up your nightie and tie your legs together under it.”
Coco did exactly that, binding Maria’s legs just above the knees and cinching the rope between them. She smoothed the nightdress back into place and stood up.
Maria shook her head.
“That’s you all tied up then.”
“You haven’t finished yet,” Maria objected. “You have to tie something in my mouth to keep me quiet. It’s always like that in books.”
Coco was relieved that she didn’t have to break the news to the girl that she would be gagged. She gave Maria another square of chocolate and took one herself before going to the Contessa’s chest of drawers to select a suitable scarf to use.
“Grazie,” Maria responded politely once she had swallowed the chocolate, making Coco feel even more wretched than she did already about tying the girl up.
Coco returned to Maria with a long narrow silk scarf. She tied a knot in it about a third of the way along its length. As she held out the scarf, she was disconcerted by Maria tilting her head back and opening her mouth to receive the knot. Coco wrapped the longer end of the scarf right around Maria’s head, passing it between her teeth to press the knot securely into the girl’s mouth. Sensing what was about to happen. Maria tipped her head forward so that Coco could knot the ends of the scarf behind her head.
“Is that all right?” Coco asked, worried at Maria’s wide-eyed, slightly startled expression.
The girl mumbled a reply which could just about be understood from its rhythm as, “Non troppo scomodo.” Not too uncomfortable.
“I think I ought to blindfold you too, just to be safe.”
Maria managed a surprisingly eloquent shrug for someone so securely bound.
Coco selected two more silk scarves from the Contessa’s drawer, folded them into bands and used one to blindfold Maria and one her mother. She lifted the girl’s feet and swung them up onto the bed then helped her shuffle across until she was snuggled against her mother.
Coco found an eiderdown folded up on top of a blanket box and carefully spread it across the bed to keep the Contessa and Maria warm.
“You look very like your Mama,” Coco commented as she tucked the eiderdown under the girl’s chin. “I think you’re going to be just as beautiful as she is when you grow up.”
With the brooch safely stowed in a velvet bag inside her rucksack, Coco swiftly surveyed the bedroom to make sure she had not left behind anything incriminating then left, switching off the light and closing the door as she went.
Returning to the room where she had hidden earlier, Coco resumed the remainder of her costume and made her way to the outside door of the palazzetto. She switched off the alarm system then let herself out onto the canal wharf. She followed the narrow alleyway between
the Foscari house and the adjacent building, emerging onto a quiet street.
Although Carnevale theoretically finished at midnight when Lent would begin as Shrove Tuesday became Ash Wednesday, many parties were still in full swing and the revellers Coco saw in the streets were no less outlandishly dressed than she was.
It was a short walk to Sant'Agata where once again she let herself in and made her way to the project office. She reversed the change of clothes she had done earlier, exchanging the black outfit for the dress she had worn earlier and exchanging her green contact lenses for her spectacles. She zipped the black costume into the nylon holdall in which it had been stored earlier, adding a substantial piece of waste building stone.
Dressed once more in her long blue silk dress with the Marie Antoinette wig, her gold half mask and the enveloping black shawl, Coco made her way back to her work colleagues’ party which she had briefly visited a couple of hours earlier.
On the way, Coco dropped the nylon holdall into a narrow canal. With no regular dredging unlike the main canals, the bag would be likely to remain undiscovered for many years, possibly forever, and the inert nylon would never rot and release the incriminating costume within.
Coco was relieved to discover that the party was still as busy and noisy as when she had left it. She made a point of speaking to several people she knew on the pretext of telling them that it was now time for her to leave to be ready to return to London the next day. She hoped that her absence in the intervening period had not been noticed.
With all her business in Venice, legitimate and otherwise, concluded, Coco took the opportunity to sleep late in her lodgings, rising shortly after ten o’clock. She washed and dressed, packed her long dress carefully into her big holdall and left the room for the last time. She left the key with the concierge, the portinaia, bidding her farewell.
Coco enjoyed a late breakfast of coffee and a sticky pastry in a café then made her way to the Santa Lucia railway station. On the way into the station, she picked up the midday edition of Il Gazzettino, the local newspaper. The station was huge, with sixteen platforms, but it proved easy to locate the right train, a sign clearly proclaiming its destinations: Milano-Torino-Lyon-Paris.
Coco located an empty seat and heaved her heavy luggage onto the overhead rack. She sat down and, after resting for a few minutes, spread out her newspaper on the table in front of her.
As the train rumbled across the causeway from the island city of Venice to the mainland, Coco read the headline CHI È SIGNORA LA CIOCCOLATA? She noted with some amusement how the description of the previous night’s robbery as told to a reporter by young Maria seemed to focus on the pieces of chocolate fed to the girl by the mysterious burglar, Signora La Cioccolata as she dubbed her. As she read the article, Coco wondered if her masked persona had just acquired the thing she had been missing, a name to go by...
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