La Cioccolata in
What’s in a Title?
by Doctor George
On two occasions Coco has left Maria Foscari bound and gagged as the victim of a robbery. The first time was with her mother in Venice as related in What’s in a Name? The second time was when she relieved Maria, now married as Mary Wolverton, of The Netterton Jewels. But has she covered her tracks as thoroughly as she believes she has?
Mary Wolverton attended many formal events out of duty in her role as wife of Sir Desmond Wolverton, the Cabinet Secretary, an extremely senior civil servant. In the case of some events, however, the pleasure outweighed the duty. So it was when the Wolvertons were invited to attend the opening of a new exhibition at the Tate Modern featuring the work of some 20th century European artists. Art history had been Lady Wolverton’s subject at university and art, and painting of almost any period or medium remained a lifelong passion. In this case, both the subject of the exhibition and the company of the fellow guests provided pleasure in equal parts.
Ferdinand Humboldt-Geissler, Nandi, to his many friends and a lifelong acquaintance of Mary’s was always a particular pleasure to meet. He was a distinguished Austrian collector and connoisseur now in his nineties, but looking twenty years younger. The top of Humboldt-Geissler’s head came well below Mary Wolverton’s eye level. What he lacked in height, he more than made up for in appearance. From the top of his bald head to his feet, he was always impeccably turned out. However informal the occasion, he always wore beautifully-tailored suits and gleaming shoes. The pink dome of his head was surrounded by a fringe of snow white hair at the back which swooped down to form generous sideburns and a luxuriant moustache, rather after the fashion of the late Emperor Franz-Josef of his country. What Nandi didn’t know about 20th century art was not worth knowing. Not only did he know the art, but it seemed to Mary that he had personally known almost every important artist whose life had overlapped his as far back as Monet whom he had met as a very young boy.
As well as being fastidious in his own appearance, Nandi was also a stickler for protocol. He was very careful to address Mary as ‘Lady Wolverton’ or as ‘Mary’, never as ‘Lady Mary’, which he knew was a form reserved for the daughters of nobility. When Mary’s father, Count Bassanio Foscari died in 2002, Nandi expressed his commiserations and enquired whether she now wished to be addressed as ‘Contessa Foscari’, a title she was now entitled to in her own right. Mary felt that it was pretentious for the wife of the Cabinet Secretary to be known by a foreign title and so demurred.
It was therefore curious, at the end of a enjoyable evening discussing art and artists, that Nandi should address her as ‘Frau von Wolverton’ when he bade her farewell.
Nandi’s odd mode of address was still bothering Mary the next morning, but she wasn’t sure why. Before settling down to deal with some emails, she undertook a little on-line research.
She started with the mysterious use of ‘von’. She was perfectly aware from books and films that German and Austrian nobility often had ‘von’ as part of their surnames, but had no real idea of its significance. It proved trivially easy to find out: Wikipedia had a whole page on ‘von’ which explained that it was simply an honorific used by members of the nobility prior to 1919 when both Germany and Austria became republics.
That left the question of Nandi’s use of ‘Frau’. From her basic knowledge of German, Mary knew that ‘Frau’ meant ‘woman’, ‘wife’ or ‘Mrs’ according to context, but had no idea how to address someone as ‘Lady’ in German. A little further research confirmed that her husband would be something like ‘Ritter Desmond von Wolverton’, ‘Ritter’ being the German word for knight or baronet.
It took a while to satisfy herself that German in fact appeared not to have an equivalent courtesy title to ‘Lady’ for the wife of a knight or lord. Titles of nobility all seemed to have their feminine equivalents, so that if she chose to use her father’s title, she could style herself ‘Gräfin Maria von Foscari’ in German, but the wives of barons and knights appeared to have to satisfy themselves with ‘Frau’.
It was later in the morning that another thought struck Mary. During that traumatic robbery when the Netterton jewels had been stolen, La Cioccolata had addressed her as ‘Ritterfrau’ several times. Wikipedia drew a complete blank on the word and Google had to be persuaded not to return links which simply had ‘Ritter’ and ‘Frau’ as adjacent words. The results took some interpreting, but after reading several links, Mary reached a conclusion. ‘Ritterfrau’ was a real word with two distinct uses. One referred to the very few women who had actually worn armour and borne arms like men in Mediaeval times, like the ‘shieldmaidens’ of the Norse sagas, or historical women like Eleanor of Aquitaine. The other use was by people involved in modern re-enactments for women whose role-play involved dressing up in chainmail and armour and wielding a sword. Under no circumstances was ‘Ritterfrau’ the correct title for the wife of a knight.
The obvious conclusion took a little longer to surface in Mary Wolverton’s mind: La Cioccolata, despite her German accent when she spoke Italian during the 1977 robbery in Venice and despite her German accent speaking English in the recent robbery, was clearly not a native German speaker.
With all thought of the work she was supposed to be doing forgotten, Mary started searching the Internet for news reports of La Cioccolata’s activities. Theories abounded as to her nationality. Most sources thought she was British, but there were arguments for American, Australian, French, German and Spanish. The languages she used were varied too. Most often she spoke in English, but with a variety of accents both regional and foreign. When she spoke foreign languages, they were accented as well, sounding either like a native speaker or a foreigner.
Mary considered her own linguistic skills. She was bilingual in English and Italian, had a good reading knowledge of French and German and a lesser command of Spanish and Dutch, all of which she used for reading foreign art journals. When it came to speaking, she knew that she could get by in French and German and hold a simple conversation, but for anything else, she was reduced to phrase-book level. Could she even detect a foreign accent in a foreign language, let alone recognise one? Other than in English and Italian which were both native to her, she seriously doubted if she could. Privately she was rather impressed by La Cioccolata’s skills in this respect.
Mary thought back to a night in February 1977 when she had encountered La Cioccolata for the first time. She was just a little girl of 12 at that time, but that hadn’t deterred La Cioccolata from leaving her bound and gagged with her mother while stealing the Foscari Brooch.
Her mother and the police had both been certain at that time that La Cioccolata (named inadvertently by Mary herself in her evidence to the police) was a German speaker. Who else would speak very precise book Italian with a German accent but a German, an Austrian or a Swiss?
Mary had always harboured doubts about that. When she met La Cioccolata, there had been a strange feeling of recognition as if they had already met. At the time, she voiced a tentative suspicion of Colette Aldington, the young English engineering student who had spent an evening with the Foscari family and had attended their Carnival ball the night of the robbery. Both her mother and the police dismissed her suggestion. Miss Aldington had blue eyes and was very nearsighted; La Cioccolata had green eyes and did not wear glasses. Miss Aldington had blonde, almost white, hair; La Cioccolata had thick brown curly hair. Mary had pointed out that there were such things as contact lenses and wigs, but she had no answer to the question of La Cioccolata’s build. Colette Aldington was fat. It was unkind to put it so bluntly, but that was the fact of the matter. La Cioccolata, on the other hand, while no lightweight, had a clearly defined waist and an impressive bust. Someone could disguise herself with padding to appear fatter than she was in reality, but how could anyone pretend to be thinner than she really was? At the time, Mary accepted the strength of the argument, but in her heart of hearts she had remained unconvinced.
With satisfying proof that La Cioccolata was definitely not the German speaker she pretended to be, Mary returned to her lingering suspicion of Colette Aldington. She knew from hearing the name occasionally that Miss Aldington was now a successful engineer. A little searching on the internet demonstrated that Colette Aldington was not merely a successful engineer, but one with a distinguished worldwide reputation for innovative solutions to tricky problems often in association with conservation work. Mary became less convinced for a moment; after all, why would someone with a glittering professional career have a sideline as an international jewel thief?
Mary looked for pictures of Colette Aldington. Two things struck her immediately. One was Miss Aldington’s short stature. When they met in 1977, Mary had been only a child and therefore not well attuned to adult height; most adults were taller than her and she paid little attention to relative heights. In the recent robbery, Mary had noticed how very short La Cioccolata was, possibly only five feet. The other thing was Colette Aldington’s skin, which was very smooth for a woman in her mid fifties. There were wrinkles at the corners of her eyes, but her mouth and jawline were both still firm and smooth. La Cioccolata had worn a mask, so any wrinkling around the eyes would be hidden. Colette Aldington was still very fat, but La Cioccolata had been wearing a corset of some kind. Could the apparent difference in build be as simple as that? Were La Cioccolata and Colette Aldington in fact one and the same woman?
There was only one way to be sure, Mary concluded: she would have to pay Colette Aldington a visit. According to the web site for Aldington Associates, the address was in Muswell Hill, in North London, maybe five or six miles from where she was now sitting. If it turned out that Colette Aldington was entirely innocent, the visit would simply be a matter of saying, “Hello, remember me?” and passing a pleasant hour together reminiscing. If, on the other hand, Mary’s suspicions were correct, then things could get very interesting. It was a matter of preparing for either eventuality and Mary prided herself on being a very resourceful woman.
“Mum, explain to me again just what we’re doing,” Caroline Wolverton demanded as she walked alongside her mother.
“I’ve told you already, we’re going to visit someone I met when she visited Venice in 1977 and whom I haven’t seen since.”
“Yes, you’ve said all that, but why did you ask me to come too and why did you tell me I should wear trousers and flat shoes?”
“Well you usually do wear trousers and flats, dear.”
Caroline allowed herself a rueful smile. “I know that, but you usually tell me to dress up not down and I can’t remember when I last saw you go visiting without wearing a skirt and heels yourself. There’s something going on that you’re not telling me.”
Mary Wolverton glanced down at the smart grey trouser suit and brown brogues she was wearing and at the jeans, Converses and rugby shirt her daughter wore rather incongruously with a tweed suit jacket. She was perfectly aware that Caroline had chosen her outfit in a failed attempt to provoke her.
“It may be that Colette Alderton is not quite who she seems to be and I just want to be ready for any eventuality,” Mary said.
“Does ‘any eventuality’ also explain the enormous handbag you have today?”
Mary patted the capacious leather shoulder bag she carried. “It’s always good to be prepared.”
“We’re not bloody Girl Guides.”
“No, we’re not,” Mary agreed, her voice uncharacteristically grim as they turned off the street to approach Colette Aldington’s front door.
As they stood on the doorstep waiting for their ring at the doorbell to be answered, Caroline noticed that her mother was taking deliberate, even breaths as if she was focussing herself for some contest to come.
The door was opened by a short, petite woman with her brown hair worn in a boyish crop. She was dressed a little warmly for a spring day in a heavy black cardigan over a purple sweater with a black tweed miniskirt over opaque black tights. “Good morning, sorry to keep you waiting,” she began brightly then faltered as she took in the identity of the two visitors.
“Miss Anabelle DuPlessis without her blonde wig,” Mary Wolverton observed. “Miss Anabelle DuPlessis, the reporter whom Harper’s Bazaar have never heard of. Perhaps you would also be the ‘Susan Angarrack, Office Manager’ mentioned on the Aldington Associates web site?”
Without taking her eyes off Soo, Mary reached into her handbag.
“Mother! That’s a gun! That’s illegal!” Caroline exclaimed in alarm.
“I know, dear, but so persuasive,” Mary replied, levelling it at Soo. “Please put your hands on your head and step back into the house.”
Mary Wolverton followed Soo into the house with Caroline bringing up the rear and closing the door behind her.
“It’s nice to make your acquaintance again Miss Angarrack, but it’s really your boss, Miss Aldington we want to see. Please lead the way,” Mary instructed.
Soo walked ahead of the two Wolverton women, guiding them into the room that Coco used as the main office for her business.
“Miss Aldington isn’t in just now,” Soo said, turning to face Mary.
“What about the other associates?”
“There aren’t any. Except when we work in conjunction with another company, Aldington Associates is just Miss Aldington and me.”
“When do you expect her back?”
Soo instinctively lifted her left hand off her head to look at her watch.
“Don’t do that,” Mary said, gesturing threateningly with her gun. “I’m sure this place has all sorts of ingenious devices hidden away, so I want both your hands on top of your head and doing exactly nothing.”
“The time is quarter past ten. When do you expect Miss Aldington back?”
“She’s just out to the post office and the bank, so probably around eleven.”
“Good, that gives us plenty of time to deal with you.”
“What are you going to do to her?” Caroline asked apprehensively, still shocked by the situation she found herself witnessing.
“I’m not going to do anything. You, on the other hand, are going to tie her up,” Mary replied transferring her gun from her right hand to her left. Without taking her eyes off Soo, she lifted her handbag off her right shoulder and handed it to her daughter.
“You’ll find some duct tape in there. That should hold this little bitch quite efficiently.”
“Who is she anyway?” Caroline asked, still not entirely sure what was going on.
“Well, I’m fairly confident that she actually is Susan Angarrack who is listed as Colette Aldington’s Office Manager on their web site. That’s what she admitted a few minutes ago anyway. You and I have already met her in the guise of Annabelle DuPlessis, the bogus reporter. I strongly suspect that she was also one of the two women who tied up Agnes and Carol Grey, the one who never spoke in case Agnes recognised her voice.”
Caroline’s face hardened. “That was a horrible thing to do to a defenceless old woman and a little girl. I can’t tell you just how much I'll enjoy tying you up,” she said with venom.
“Frisk her first, Caroline,” Mary instructed. “Stretch your arms out to the sides, please Miss Angarrack and do it nice and slowly. Do it from the side, Caroline, so you don’t get in front of the gun.”
Caroline dutifully patted Soo down and searched the pockets of her cardigan. The yield was a rather crumpled paper tissue and a small silver box with a red button on it.
“That looks awfully like a panic button – well done finding it,” Mary congratulated her daughter. “Now, Miss Angarrack, you must be uncomfortably hot in that thick cardigan, why don’t you slip it off? Do make sure you keep your hands in sight as you do it.”
With exaggerated caution, Soo extended her arms behind her back and allowed the cardigan to slip off her shoulders onto the floor. Her sweater was revealed as being sleeveless. Caroline deftly picked up the cardigan and transferred it to a chair.
“I think the next job is to tape Miss Angarrack’s wrists together. Do you remember how I did it to you once, Caroline, when you were boasting how you could get out of anything?”
“Vividly! I told you to do your worst and that I would escape by myself and I wouldn’t need you to let me go. Me and my big mouth.”
“Well the same technique will probably work again. Miss Angarrack: arms by your sides and a little away from your body, please.”
Soo complied and Caroline wrapped a couple of turns of silver duct tape around each wrist, snipping it off neatly from the roll with a pair of scissors she found in her mother’s handbag and smoothing it down firmly against Soo’s skin.
“Now turn sideways on to me and cross your wrists behind your back but keep them away from your body.”
Caroline held Soo’s wrists together wrapped four full turns of tape around them on top of the tape she had already placed around each wrist separately. She ensured that the wrists were tightly clamped together and smoothed the tape down carefully, snipping it off the roll neatly as before.
“Let’s see how tightly you can press you arms against your back, Miss Angarrack.”
“You can do better than that if you try. Really tightly, please.”
Unable to think of anything to do to alleviate her predicament, Soo did as she was told.
“Tape below her boobs next, Caroline. See how tightly you can tape around her.”
Caroline attached the end of the tape to Soo’s left arm just above her elbow then with grim satisfaction pulled it brutally tight as she wrapped it around the woman’s arms and body. She kept wrapping until she had encircled Soo with six layers of tape.
“And now above.”
Caroline repeated the process a little higher up, going above Soo’s bust.
“I think we need to lose that fetching little miniskirt next,” Mary commented.
“Right, Mum,” Caroline responded, pulling the zip down, sliding the skirt down over Soo’s hips and letting it drop to the floor.
“Tape her wrists to her back next and I think that’s probably the top half done.”
Caroline Wound the tape around Soo’s waist, trapping her bound wrists against the small of her back. After five turns, she ran out of tape.
“There are three more rolls in my bag,” Mary told her daughter.
While Caroline freed the next roll of tape from its packaging, her mother addressed Soo again. “I want you to sit down on that armchair and then slide down so that you’re sitting on the floor.”
Soo sat down heavily, unable to control her descent and with her back completely rigid. She squirmed forward on the chair until her bottom slid off the cushion and hit the floor with a bump.
“Shall I do her ankles next, Mum?”
“Yes please, the same way you did her wrists: tape around each separately and then tape them together. And tape them together crossed in case she gets any smart ideas about hopping around the house.”
Caroline did as her mother instructed, carefully applying duct tape while Mary Wolverton kept her gun trained on Soo.
Now that their prisoner was largely immobilised, Mary put the gun down to assist her daughter. As soon as the gun was no longer pointing at her, Soo took the opportunity to try to kick Mary Wolverton in the face. With her ankles taped, the attempt was weak and ill coordinated, missing the target completely. Nevertheless, it earned her a vicious slap across her face.
After that, Soo gave up resisting and docilely allowed Mary to lift her feet off the floor so that Caroline could more easily tape her legs together, which she did a few inches below and above the knees and about half way up her thighs.
“Are we going to gag her too?” Caroline asked.
“Yes. I'll do that bit,” her mother replied rummaging in her bag and producing a large white handkerchief.
“Open,” Mary instructed, holding the balled-up handkerchief in front of Soo's mouth.
Soo hesitated long enough to register her unwillingness but not to merit another slap then opened her mouth. Mary stuffed the cloth into her mouth, making sure it was all tucked in behind her teeth.
“Now close your mouth and purse your lips.”
Soo complied then Mary applied a strip of tape across her mouth reaching from ear to ear. She followed it with another overlapping the first just below Soo's nose and a third, again overlapping the first, almost down to her chin.
“There, that's the bogus Miss DuPlessis nicely bundled up.”
“Won't the police take a rather dim view of us doing this to her even after what she did to Agnes and Carol?”
“I am the wife of the Cabinet Secretary. At worst, I expect a little official tutting from a senior officer. The same with my gun. Rank hath its privileges and so do connections.”
Caroline digested this assertion in silence. “Now what?” she asked at length.
“Now we wait for the main event: the arrival of Miss Colette Aldington aka La Cioccolata.”
“That's what you're being so mysterious about! Are you really sure that's who La Cioccolata is?”
“I wasn't completely sure until we came here and found this Angarrack woman, but now I'm absolutely certain. I'll explain the logic while we're waiting...”
It was closer to quarter past eleven than eleven when Coco Aldington reached her front door. She was burdened by a canvas shopping bag suspended from one shoulder and her leather handbag on its diagonal strap at the opposite hip as she fumbled for her keys.
“I've got stuff to put in the kitchen,” Coco called out as she let herself in and kicked the door shut behind her.
Coco unloaded her shopping bag onto the kitchen table then transferred the items she had bought at the local deli to the fridge along with a carton of milk. A bag of ground coffee went into a cupboard. Inspired by the thought of coffee, Coco filled the coffee machine with water and loaded a filter paper with fresh coffee. She flipped the switch on the machine then put away the last few purchases.
A faint feeling of unease had been bothering Coco since she returned home. It was nothing definite, just a vague sixth sense that something wasn't quite right. She turned off the coffee machine to silence its hissing and gurgling and listened. Nothing. There was no sound at all in the house. Usually there would be the sound of Soo typing or speaking on the phone or just generally bustling around, but there was nothing, just silence. If Soo had gone out unexpectedly, then she would usually have sent Coco a text to tell her.
It was probably nothing, but Coco knew that it was always better not to take chances in her business. She took off the jacket of the cream linen suit she was wearing to reveal a short sleeved blouse. She hung the jacket on the back of a kitchen chair and kicked off the loafers she was wearing. Now barefoot, she could move silently. She briefly considered removing her skirt but decided that it was not a serious impediment to her movements.
Coco paused before leaving the kitchen and reached into a kitchen cupboard. She felt behind the drawer above it and there was the faint ripping sound of a velcro tab letting go. She made her way cautiously and silently towards the office, a bright yellow Taser now clutched in her right hand.
As she approached the office door, Coco transferred the Taser to a two-handed grip and nudged the door open with her right foot. The sight that greeted her confirmed her fears. Soo was sitting on the floor propped up with her back against the front of an armchair, comprehensively bound and gagged with silver duct tape. Caroline Wolverton was kneeling on one side of Soo while her mother knelt at the other side with the muzzle of her gun pressed against Soo's temple. Soo's eyes were wide with fear.
Coco froze, the Taser still in its two-handed grip in front of her. “Lady Wolverton, Miss Wolverton,” she said, acknowledging the intruders.
“We've been waiting for you, Miss Aldington,” Mary Wolverton replied. “Note the professionalism,” she added in an aside to her daughter. “If we've penetrated Miss Angarrack's disguise, then it's immediately obvious that we also know that Miss Aldington is La Cioccolata, but she doesn't insult our intelligence with denials or blustering.”
Coco nodded an acknowledgement of this assessment, but kept the Taser trained on Mary Wolverton. “How did you work out where to find me?”
“Your German isn’t very good. You called me Ritterfrau.”
“Stupid of me. I’ll have to do better research.”
“You will indeed, Miss Aldington. Now please put your Taser down. It’s no match for a 9mm Glock. Besides, you have only one shot and you have to ask yourself whether the electric shock might make me pull the trigger.” Soo whimpered as the gun was pressed harder against her head.
“I think even the wife of the Cabinet Secretary would have a hard time talking her way out of a murder charge,” Coco commented.
“True,” Mary agreed, moving the gun to Soo's right leg and pressing the muzzle against her kneecap.
Soo squeaked in terror through her gag.
“Very well,” Coco said with a shrug, tossing the Taser onto a vacant armchair, where it bounced harmlessly.
“Caroline, please search Miss Aldington very carefully and very thoroughly. Who knows what else she keeps concealed about her person?”
Caroline carried out her task conscientiously, checking Coco's skirt pockets then feeling around the waistband and subjecting the rest of her body and clothing to a minute examination. It was something of an anticlimax that she found nothing. Nevertheless, she relieved Coco of her wristwatch, spectacles and ear studs more as a matter of principle than anything else.
“Shall I tie her up now, Mum?” Caroline asked, her voice betraying a degree of eagerness.
“I think that would be appropriate,” Mary Wolverton agreed. “If you do exactly what you did to Miss Angarrack, that should do the job nicely.”
Caroline set to work taping around each of Coco's wrists, then taping them together behind her back. She put bands of tape around Coco's arms and body above and below her bust as she had done earlier with Soo.
“Should I take her skirt off?”
“I don't think that will be necessary, but when you tape her legs do it under the skirt not over it.”
“Right-ho,” Caroline acknowledged cheerfully, as she wound tape around Coco's waist and bound wrists.
Caroline helped Coco sit down on an armchair then taped her ankles and her legs in exactly the way she had done to Soo.
“Are we going to gag her?”
“Not until I've had a good long chat with her,” Lady Wolverton replied taking a seat opposite Coco.
“I don't know there's a great deal to chat about,” Coco said. “I no longer have the Netterton Jewels if that was going to be the topic of conversation.”
“I wasn't expecting you to have them. I don't seriously expect to see them again. I fear that we will simply have to chalk that up to experience and content ourselves with the insurance money. I have information that suggests they were passed to a third party within days of the theft.”
“How could you possibly find that out, Mum?” Caroline asked, astonished.
“Hush, dear, I'll explain later.”
“So what was it you had in mind for our chat?” Coco asked.
“The Foscari brooch, of course.”
“The one that was stolen when you were twelve?” Caroline asked.
“The one that Miss Coco Aldington, La Cioccolata, stole when I was twelve,” Mary confirmed. “The one that Miss Aldington was prepared to bind and gag a twelve-year-old child to own.”
“I seem to remember a rather bossy twelve year old that instructed me on the right way to tie her up and ticked me off whenever she thought I wasn't doing it right,” Coco replied with a grin.
“Mum, you didn't?” Caroline exclaimed, trying not to giggle.
“Caroline, that's enough,” Mary scolded. “The fact is that the brooch was old, valuable and a family heirloom and you betrayed our hospitality by stealing it. My mother adored that brooch and has missed it ever since you stole it.”
“That was a long time ago,” Coco pointed out.
“Thirty-four years ago. Thirty-four years, during which my mother and I have explored every possible avenue of information, but have found nothing. The brooch simply vanished that night. No-one has seen it or heard of it any time since.”
“So?” Coco prompted.
“So you still have it. It entered your possession that night and disappeared as far as anyone else has been concerned. If it still exists, it has to be somewhere. I vividly remember the way you admired that brooch, so you would never have destroyed it. It must still exist, so it follows that you still have it.”
“The reasoning is consistent,” Coco acknowledged. “That doesn't necessarily make it correct reasoning of course.”
“Stop playing with words,” Lady Wolverton snarled. “That brooch belongs to my family and I want it back.”
“What do you mean, 'No'?”
“I mean no, it doesn't belong to your family. Something like that belongs to history. It may have been in your family's possession, but it was stolen property long before then. It belonged to the French royal family to begin with. I can't imagine it was taken from Marie Antoinette with her consent. I don't expect that when Napoleon acquired it from some revolutionary thug during the reign of terror that he asked permission either. I also mean no, I'm not giving it back to you.”
“You're hardly in a position to refuse,” Mary Wolverton pointed out, regaining her composure. “I'm sure the police would be delighted to find out the identity of La Cioccolata after all these years. There must be a very long charge sheet waiting for you by now. I'm sure lots of foreign police forces would be equally pleased to hear the news too. All it takes is one phone call and they will lock you up and throw away the key.”
“On the contrary, Lady Wolverton, I'm in an excellent position to refuse. To be sure it's a rather uncomfortable position at present.” She glanced down at the tape encircling her arms and chest. “Nevertheless, it's a very strong position. If I were to find the police asking me difficult questions, I would make very sure they also knew about your business importing glassware and art objects from Venice, the business your mother set up as an export operation and which you expanded with a London counterpart, the business that imports objects of far greater value than the paperwork suggests.”
“I don't think a little smuggling compares with the activities of an international jewel thief.”
“But we're not talking about just a little smuggling are we? We're talking about an export channel for making stolen antiquities disappear. We're talking about very valuable material indeed, the sort of objects for which no government would ever be likely to grant an export licence. We're talking about small, portable objects worth immense amounts of money, just the thing for a very efficient money-laundering operation on the side.”
“Mum? This can't be true,” Caroline protested.
“You have a lot to learn about the family business, dear, and now isn't the time,” her mother replied firmly. She turned back and stared at Coco as she sat smiling in the armchair.
“All of this is of course just supposition, unsubstantiated bluster on the part of a woman desperate to save her own neck.”
“Not at all unsubstantiated. You can't run a business like yours alone. You need trusted couriers who can handle cargoes that are not all they seem, experienced reliable people like, for instance, Charlotte Harman. You need dealers who can arrange buyers very, very discreetly and not ask too many questions, perhaps someone like John Jacobs. Of course acquiring stock can be a challenge too, but there are specialists. I know a certain Mr Tall has done business with you.”
Lady Wolverton said nothing, but was now looking very pale.
“What does this all mean, mother?” Caroline urged, her voice cracking slightly.
“It means, Caroline,” Coco replied, “that we have reached a Mexican stand-off. Your mother and I have each other by, if you will forgive the vulgarity, the short hairs. If either of us is betrayed to the police, she will bring the other down along with her. Impasse. Stalemate.”
“Is she right?” Caroline asked her mother.
Mary sighed and sat down. “Yes, she’s La Cioccolata and she stole the Netterton jewels and she stole the Foscari brooch and I can’t do a thing about any of it.”
“But they tied up Agnes and Carol and they tied us up. Can’t we do anything?”
“I think maybe we can do something about that part of it, Caroline. Get the tape.”
Mary Wolverton returned briefly to her handbag and produced another handkerchief from it. She handed it to Caroline and picked up her gun again. “I think you know what to do with that,” she said as she stood guard with her gun pointed at Soo.
Caroline smiled savagely and stuffed the handkerchief into Coco’s mouth, sealing it in place with several strips of tape.
“Right, that’s us done, Caroline. Enjoy the rest of your day ladies.”
Caroline’s triumphant grin vanished in an instant. “But, Mum, we can’t just leave them like that, all trussed up. What if they can’t get free? They might die like that.”
“Don’t worry about them. They’re both experienced professionals, I’m sure they’ve been tied up before. Besides, this is an office, there must be at least one pair of scissors somewhere. It might just take them a while to reach them.”
With that, the Wolverton women made their exit. As the front door closed, Coco and Soo stared at each other over their gags. It was going to be a long afternoon...
New York is supposed to be the city that never sleeps, but Venice must come a close second. It was past midnight as a group of noisy revellers made their way along a narrow street. As the sound of their voices faded into the distance, a black clad figure detached itself from the shadows and made its way cautiously along the street before disappearing down a narrow alleyway.
The alley ended abruptly at the edge of a canal but adjacent to that was the private landing stage behind a substantial house. The figure made its way along a colonnaded loggia, briefly pausing at a door. It walked to the edge of the drop into the canal and leaned out, one arm wrapped around a column for support. It swung something heavy back and forth on the end of a rope, steadily building momentum until it finally let go, flinging it high up the façade of the building. There was a clink then a dragging sound of metal on stone as the rope was tugged sharply.
The black-clad figure swung clear of the landing stage, steadily climbing the rope. At last by the dim light coming through a window with a drawn blind inside it the figure was revealed as that of a woman dressed in a black latex catsuit with a black leather corset on top. The only colour showing was the chocolate brown of her hair and her bright green eyes showing through the black leather domino mask she wore. Steadying herself on the windowsill, she detached the grappling hook from the stonework and flung it away behind her. There was a distant splash as it vanished into the water of the canal.
The woman turned her attention to the window. An electronic detector revealed the presence of a sensor on the frame. She cur out a semicircle of glass at the edge of a pane adjacent to the sensor then working with one hand through the hole in the glass and hanging on with the other, she disabled it. Cautiously, she released the window catch and swung it open. In common with most traditional windows in Italy, it opened inwards, making ingress considerably easier. Nothing happened as she opened the window, suggesting that the alarm had been successfully circumvented.
The black-clad woman dropped lightly to her feet inside the room. The occupants of the house were still up, so there was no likelihood of motion detectors being activated yet. She made her way to a well-appointed kitchen where a middle-aged woman was stirring the contents of a saucepan and singing softly to herself in an unfamiliar language. The woman at the stove became aware that she wasn’t alone and turned towards the intruder just in time to receive a fine mist of liquid sprayed into her face. She closed her eyes instinctively, then crumpled noiselessly to the floor.
The intruder inspected the saucepan briefly then turned down the gas flame under it. She unslung a small rucksack from her back and drew a bundle of rope out of it. She lifted the unconscious woman from the floor and deposited her on a wooden chair. Working quickly, she tied her victim’s wrists behind her back then fastened the ends of the rope to the woodwork of the chair. She wrapped a longer length of rope around the woman’s upper arms and chest and the back of the chair, knotting it securely at the front, She bent down and bound the woman’s legs to the chair legs at the ankles and just below her knees. Reaching into her bag again, she pulled out a small plastic bag containing two pieces of cloth. One of these she wadded into a ball and pushed into her victim’s mouth then folded the other piece into a band and used it to hold the first in place, knotting it firmly behind her head.
Returning to the stove, the intruder turned the gas up slightly and stirred until the mixture in the pan was just beginning to bubble. She shut the gas off and poured the contents of the pan into the vacuum jug standing ready beside the stove. Pausing to put her rucksack back on, she transferred the jug to a tray which was waiting with two cups on it. As she left the kitchen with the tray, the bound woman was just beginning to return to her senses.
A short walk brought her to a door, which she opened awkwardly as she balanced the tray in one hand. She entered the room, a small intimate sitting room furnished with elegant but comfortable armchairs and a small sofa. An elderly woman with white hair was sitting in one of the armchairs reading and taking notes on a small pad. She looked up as the door opened. Her face was striking with a fine, well-defined bone structure; it was obvious that she had been a great beauty in her day.
The white-haired woman looked at the strange masked figure in black so incongruously carrying the tray with her hot chocolate. Her expression betrayed no great shock or surprise as she studied the newcomer. “La Cioccolata,” she said at length. “I never expected to see you again.”
Coco poured out a cup of hot chocolate and handed it to the woman. “I discovered that I had left some business with you unfinished, Contessa Donatella, and that a visit might be appropriate.”
“Before you tell me your business, what happened to my companion Katja? Is she all right?”
“She is perfectly all right, but I felt it prudent to restrain her. She is tied to a chair in the kitchen and gagged but otherwise unharmed.”
“So, what is the nature of your business?”
“Only this, Contessa,” Coco said, handing over a small black velvet bag.
The Contessa loosened the drawstring on the bag and felt inside. She drew out of it a beautiful gold filigree brooch exquisitely set with deep red rubies which caught the light in tiny points of fire.
“The Foscari brooch,” The Contessa said, holding the piece up to the light. “You have kept it all these years?”
“Yes, I’ve never thought of selling it.”
“And you have enjoyed it?”
“Very much so.”
“And worn it?”
“Many times and with great pleasure. It has been much admired but never recognised.”
“I never expected to see it again. Why have you brought it back if you loved it so much?”
“Two reasons. The first is that it was an impulse of youth. I saw the brooch and lusted after it, had to own it, irrespective of the hurt it might cause beyond mere monetary loss. I am a mature woman now and can understand a broader picture.” Coco hesitated.
“The other reason?” the Contesa prompted.
“The other reason is related to the first: the personal hurt you yourself suffered. Your daughter recently tracked me down. She told me how much you had been devastated and urged me to give up the brooch.”
“Maria told me about that and how her attempt to persuade you ended in deadlock.”
Coco smiled. “Did she also reveal my identity?”
“She did, but I am in no more of a position to exploit that information against you than she is. Besides, we are fellow professionals and should not indulge in such things.”
“If you know my real identity, then may I say I also regret my betrayal of your hospitality to me while I was a visitor to Venice?”
“Nonsense, my dear girl. If you never betrayed anyone’s confidence in you, you wouldn’t be much of a thief, would you?”
Coco couldn’t help laughing at that comment. “It’s very gracious of you to see it that way, Contessa. I feel, however, that it’s time the brooch was returned to its rightful owner.”
“Its rightful owner was Madame de Pompadour and she’s dead. Since then it has been inherited, squabbled over and stolen, yours was just the latest chapter. All the same, I am pleased to have it back.”
“In that case, I am satisfied too. I will bid you goodnight Contessa.”
“Not yet, Signora La Cioccolata, there is more unfinished business.”
Coco hesitated, suddenly concerned that more entanglements would follow.
“There are two matters outstanding,” the Contessa said. “The first is that I will not have you leave empty-handed. I suspect that your tastes in jewellery tend towards the unusual and distinctive to complement your own strength of character. Am I right?”
“You are clearly an expert judge of a woman,” Coco acknowledged.
“Come with me and I will show you something,” the Contessa instructed, rising to her feet.
Intrigued, Coco followed the Contessa to her bedroom on the next higher storey of the house. Coco noticed that many of the pieces of furniture were still exactly the same as when she had last been in that room thirty-four years earlier.
The Contessa crossed the room to her dressing table and reached up to the picture on the wall behind it. She swung it back on hinges to reveal a safe fitted into the wall behind it. She punched in a series of numbers and then opened the safe door. She reached in and after a moment, withdrew a square jewellery case and handed it to Coco.
“Ignore the case. It’s a cheap plastic one that happens to fit.”
Coco opened the case to reveal a circular gold brooch about two inches across with the image of a saint on it in brightly coloured enamels in the form of a Byzantine icon.
“It depicts Saint Mark,” the Contessa informed Coco. “It was made in about the 12th century, but it’s not particularly valuable. Saint Mark is the patron saint of Venice, so there were a great many medallions like this made. The pin is 19th century; it would originally have hung on a chain.”
“I think it’s lovely,” Coco assured her.
“Would you wear it?”
“Then have it with my thanks. Maybe Saint Mark will prompt you to return to Venice one day. Perhaps as yourself next time.”
“Thank you Contessa. I am glad we don’t part with ill will.”
“Wait,” the Contessa said as Coco turned to leave. “There is still one matter to be dealt with.”
“You’ve left Katya tied up in the kitchen. I can’t very well just go and release her without some good explanation of what’s been going on.”
“What do you suggest we do?”
“If you were really going to carry out a robbery, you would have to tie me up too.”
“But, you’re no longer a young woman,” Coco protested, seeing where this was leading.
“I’m eighty-three and as fit as a fiddle. Let’s work out a plan.”
A few minutes later, the Contessa was sitting in the kitchen alongside Katja her companion and bound to her chair and gagged in the same way.
Coco went down to the ground floor of the house. Just before reaching the front door, she dropped a large velvet bag full of jewellery as if she had taken fright and abandoned her haul. She let herself out of the building, making sure the alarm was triggered as she did so. A few minute later, as she disappeared into the night she could hear the sound of police sirens.
Coco had a distinct feeling of dejà vu as she sat down in the train to Paris the next day and opened the newspaper she had just bought. The headline was RITORNO DELLA CIOCCOLATA.
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