Reflected in a Cat's Eye
When the sun shines, we’ll shine together
Told you I’ll be here forever
Said I’ll always be a friend
Took an oath, I’ll stick it out till the end
Now that it’s raining more than ever
Know that we’ll still have each other
You can stand under my umbrella
You can stand under my umbrella
Joanna Kepler sang along to the radio as she drove down the A257 towards Sandwich. Not that the small town was her destination – there really was nothing there apart from the golf course, a large industrial site and a few houses. Her workplace happened to be along that road, just a few miles outside Canterbury, at the home of her boss.
Elaine Harper ran a very successful consultancy business from her home, choosing to work from there rather than a more convenient site in the town centre. The clients she worked for could afford the extra cost of travelling to meet her, and as she had said many times “The view from my window is both relaxing and inspiring.” She was in her early fifties, although she looked younger, and shared the house with her daughter Catherine, who was in the sixth form at a grammar school in Canterbury.
The arrangement suited Joanna as well – she was gaining valuable experience and, as she turned into the tree- lined avenue that led up to the Harper residence, she too had to admit she would miss the view if she worked in the town centre. She always dressed smartly for her job – Elaine insisted on standards – and today was wearing a cream jacket and skirt over a white sweater with matching patent leather shoes.
As she approached the house, she saw a red Royal Mail van parked outside and realised that she must be running late for the post to have arrived before her. The postman was standing with a bundle of mail cradled in his arm knocking on the door.
Joanna parked beside the van and called out as she stepped out of the car, “Morning Danny – is there a problem?”
The postman turned and looked at Joanna as she closed the car door and locked it. He knew her well – she was the one he usually spoke to and handed the deliveries to, and he wondered if some day the tall, blonde-haired woman might consider going out with him.
“Morning, Joanna – you’re late today.”
Joanna pulled up the sleeve of her jacket and glanced at her watch, confirming what she had already realised.
“I know – one of those mornings. I was already late when I left the house. What’s up?”
“Looks like your boss is having a lie-in – I can’t get an answer and I need someone to sign for this parcel.”
Joanna glanced at her watch again. “Funny – she’s normally up by now, and I know she wasn’t out last night. Hang on – let me get my keys out and then I’ll sign for this lot.”
She took a set of keys from her handbag and unlocked the front door, pushing the door wide and walking into the small lobby followed by the postman. As she opened the inner door, a beeping sound could be heard coming from a nearby cupboard. As Danny walked in and placed the parcel and the other mail on a table, Joanna unlocked the door to a small panel on the wall, and punched a code into the keypad inside. The beeping stopped as the alarm system shut down.
“Danny, do you notice anything strange?” Joanna said as she looked round.
“It’s a bit chilly, but what do you expect? There was a cold snap last night.”
“No, not that – do you smell anything?”
Danny sniffed the air. “No – just the blossom from outside. Why?”
“By this time, there’s usually coffee brewing, and I don’t smell anything. I wonder…”
“Do you want me to have a look round with you?”
Joanna smiled. “Thanks, Danny – that would be a great help. Let me check the kitchen first.”
Closing the front door behind her, Joanna walked towards the rear of the house, Danny following behind her. They entered the kitchen, and looked round.
“Nothing,” Danny said as he looked at the empty coffee pot on the work surface. “I have to admit, this doesn’t look good.”
Joanna nodded as he led the way back into the corridor. A short way down, she stopped outside a heavy oak door. Putting her head to the wooden surface, she listened for a moment, before looking at Danny behind her.
“Come on,” she whispered as she opened the door, but nothing could prepare her for the sight that greeted the two of them in the office at the other side of the door.
Elaine Harper stared at Joanna and Danny from the centre of the room, her eyes wide with fear and surprise above a scarf that covered the lower half of her face. She was wearing the clothes Joanna had seen her in the previous day – a white long-sleeved silk blouse, grey knee-length skirt and flat black shoes – but it was obvious that she had spent the night in the chair.
Actually, she had no choice in the matter, as became clearer as both Joanna and Danny came further into the room and looked at Elaine. Her wrists were lashed together with white rope behind the back of the chair, and secured to the centre spar so that she was unable to move them more than two inches away. Her upper body was comprehensively bound to the back of the chair, with a long length of rope woven around her arms and chest and through the lattice work at the back of the chair, while her ankles were bound together and pulled back so that her toes barely touched the floor. More rope held her legs together above and below her knees, while her thighs were also lashed down to the seat of the chair. She was trying to talk to the two new arrivals, but the sounds that came through the scarf were too muffled to understand.
“Hang on, Elaine,” Joanna said as she untied the knot that held the two ends of the scarf together at the base of her neck. Now that she was close up, she could see the tear stains on her employer’s cheeks as she let the Hermès silk fall to the floor. A second scarf was tied into Elaine’s mouth, this one made of blue silk with a knot tied in the middle. As Joanna untied this one and let the saliva soaked cloth fall to the floor, Danny pulled a large cotton wad out from between the bound woman’s teeth.
“Catherine,” she croaked as the cloth was taken from her mouth. “Never mind me – find Catherine. She’d already gone to bed when this happened.”
Danny looked at Joanna, as Elaine said “GO!! I can cope a little while longer.” The assistant nodded, and looking at Danny she left the room, with the postman following her up the stairs and into a bedroom at the rear of the house.
Catherine Harper was lying on her side on her bed as they came into the room. She looked up and mumbled at them unintelligibly but urgently through the gag that filled her mouth, her strawberry blonde hair lying on the pillow where her head was resting. As Danny reached behind her head and started to untie the knot, Joanna looked at her bonds.
She had effectively been hogtied – her wrists were held together in the small of her back, while there were lengths of rope around her arms and chest above and below her breasts. She was wearing a pair of pink winter-weight cotton pyjamas, which afforded her some protection from the ropes but stretched over her breasts so that they were more prominent. Her ankles had been crossed and lashed together, with rope around and between her legs, while more rope had been tied around her thighs and calves. Finally, a long length of rope had been tied around her waist, fed through the rope around her chest and over her shoulders, then down her back through her wrist bindings and ended by being connected to her ankles, so that her legs were pulled slightly back. The whole effect was as if she had become a very large sausage, ready to hang on a butcher’s wall.
“Are you all right, Cathy?” Joanna asked as Danny untied the blue scarf that was between the girl’s teeth and pulled a pair of cotton panties out of her mouth. “Whoever did this did a real number on you.”
“I’m fine – but get me out of this, please,” the young girl said as Danny started to untie the knots.
“Go and see to Elaine,” he said as Joanna left them in the room and returned downstairs.
“Catherine – how is she?” Elaine asked anxiously as Joanna came back in and picked up the phone.
“Danny – the postman – is untying her now. I’ll call the police and then free you,” Joanna said as she waited for the answer on the other end of the line. “Hello – I need police and an ambulance please – there’s been a robbery.” As she gave the details of the address over the phone, Joanna looked down on the table and noticed a small rectangle of white cardboard. On the card was a silhouette in brown of a small fat woman wearing a mask and smiling.
“All right, Catherine, why don’t you take your time and tell me what happened.”
Some hours had passed, and Cathy was sat at the table in the kitchen, a pink dressing gown over her pyjamas and a mug of coffee in her hands. A uniformed policewoman was standing next to the doorway while the young detective sat opposite her, his pen poised over the notepad.
“Where’s my mother?” she asked as she raised the mug to her lips and took a long drink.
“My colleague is talking to her now, but we need to hear from you as well. What do you remember of last night?”
Cathy put her mug down on the table, her hands still firmly clamped around it.
“Well, I’d gone up to my bedroom at about nine o’clock – my mother always insists I get an early night when it’s school the next day. I had already washed and changed, and was sitting up in my bed reading a book when the door opened and there was this small woman standing there.”
“A small woman?”
“Yes – she was shorter than me, and fatter. I don’t think she was more than about five foot, maybe five foot two tall. She was dressed all in black, but the thing I noticed more than anything at first was the gun that she pointed at me as she told me to be quiet.
“There was a small bag in her other hand, which she put on the floor as she told me to stand up. That was when I noticed her mask.”
“She was wearing a mask?”
“Yes, she had a balaclava over her head – one of those ones that just has two eye-holes in the front. I put my book on the bedside table, and stood up with my hands raised in the air. She put the bag on the floor, watching me all the time, and told me to take a pair of panties out of my drawer. I did as she asked, but when she told me to roll them up and put them in my mouth I tried to ask her not to make me do that. All she did in response was point the gun at me and threaten to shoot me with some sort of dart if I didn’t cooperate, so I balled up the panties and pushed them behind my teeth. She then told me to turn round and put my hands behind my back.
“I looked over my shoulder, and saw her take several of coils of rope out of the bag. She unfastened one, shook it out and then crossed my wrists behind my back before tying them together. Whoever she was, as I looked over my shoulder I could see her work quickly – I knew there was no way I was going to get free.” Cathy gave a slight shudder as she sat there before looking up at the detective. “ I’m ashamed to say it, but that was the first time I began to wonder where my mother was.
“The woman seemed to sense this, because as she unwrapped another length of rope and passed it round my arms and chest she said she would ‘be going to take care of Mummy once I was secured.’ She kept going, wrapping more and rope and pulling it tighter and tighter until I could hardly breathe. Eventually, she made me sit down on the edge of the bed and took a plastic bag out, which had a blue scarf in it. She rolled that up, tied a knot in the middle and pulled the knot between my teeth, fastening it behind my neck.”
The detective made some more notes in his notepad as Cathy took another drink of coffee. “What happened next, Cathy?”
“She took even more rope out, crossed my ankles and tied them together, then carried on tying my legs together. I thought she had finished when she produced the longest length of rope I’ve ever seen, and tied it around my waist and wrists. She then wrapped it around the rope between my breasts, passing it over both shoulders, before making me lie face down and using it to pull my legs back. I managed to roll over onto my side with my head on the pillow and watch her put some plastic bags back into her bigger bag, pick it up and turn the lights off. I lay there listening to see if I could work out what was happening downstairs, but I heard nothing and must have fallen asleep until Joanna came into my room this morning.”
The young detective looked over at Cathy. “You didn’t hear the alarm going off at all at any time? Not even when the house was in darkness?”
The young girl looked back at him and shook her head. “No, apart from some scuffling downstairs I heard nothing.”
He smiled as he stood up. “Stay here with PC Greene for a few minutes, Cathy – I’ll be right back,” he said as he left the room and walked down to the main lounge.
Inside, he found his colleague sitting with a uniformed officer and Elaine. She had changed into a grey cotton leisure suit, and was also holding a cup of coffee as the detective walked in.
“As I said, Mister Evans, I was working late in my office when the door burst open and the intruder ran in. It must have been about ten o’clock, and I had planned to stop working after reviewing some documents for a client. At any rate, the door flew open and I looked up to see this woman standing there, pointing a gun at me and telling me to put my hands up and sit perfectly still.”
Detective Sergeant James Evans made a note in his notebook as Elaine continued talking. He was a veteran, with short greying hair and a face that, although lined, still had a warm smile for those he was trying to help.
“Anyway, she said it was a robbery, and so long as I did as I was told neither I nor my daughter would be harmed. I remember telling her to leave Catherine alone, but she just laughed and said she had ‘already taken care of the little girl’. As she said this, she put a bag she was carrying on the small table in the office and drew out a length of white rope.
“She told me to come round into the centre of the room, where she had put one of the oak chairs from around the conference table, and made me sit down on it. She pulled my wrists round, and used the rope to tie them together before securing the ends to the spar at the centre of the chair.
“After that – well, all I really remember is asking her time after time where Catherine was, and her telling me over and over again to give her the combination to the safe as she bound me to the chair. She used two scarves she pulled out of her bag, one to stuff into my mouth and the other to hold the first one in place. I couldn’t move, not just through fear but the ropes as well.
“I watched her take stuff out of the safe and put it in a bag before she gathered up the stuff she had left lying around and packed it away. The last thing she did was to take my own shawl and tie it across my mouth and nose.”
DS Evans looked up. “Do you remember anything at all about your assailant? Any glimpse of hair? How tall she was?”
Elaine shook her head. “I’m sorry, but apart from it being a woman dressed in black I saw nothing else. She had a balaclava over her head. I wish I could remember, but…”
The young detective looked at Evans as he stood up. A nod indicated the two stories were similar, but a look in the young man’s eyes told the old copper there was something else. He put his pad into his pocket as he looked at Elaine.
“Don’t worry about it, Mrs Harper; you’ve had a great shock. If you tell the constable here what has been taken, we’ll let the insurance people take care of the details. One more thing – who advised you on your security?”
“I’ll tell him to talk to you, when I have a chance to call him. He’ll be livid – he prides himself on his standards.”
Detective Evans nodded at the constable. “If you remember anything else, Mrs Harper, get back in touch. We’ll see ourselves out.”
As the two men left the room, the young detective told Evans about his interview with the daughter. The older man nodded and walked into the kitchen.
“Cathy,” he said to the young girl as she looked up, “your mother has told me what happened to her, but she wasn’t able to tell us much about the assailant. Did you get a good look at her?”
The young girl nodded. “Yes, I did – she was short, an inch or so smaller than me, and fat.”
Evans nodded, and left the girl with the policewoman. “Let’s go back to the station and find out what forensics have for us,” he said as the two men left the house.
“Any thoughts, sir? I saw the card, but you didn’t mention it to Mrs Harper.”
“She may not have seen it – it was her assistant who told me about it. Never reveal all you know, boy – first rule of detective work.”
Later that afternoon, Evans put the phone down and looked at his assistant.
“That was Mrs Harper – the only things taken were some items of jewellery, many with sentimental value. Nothing connected with her business was touched.”
“Is that important?”
“It shows this was a domestic burglary, not a case of industrial secrets. Harper Consultancy works for some fairly high-powered clients – hence the security system. Anything from forensics?”
The young man shook his head. “Apart from the fact that the alarm was switched off and then back on again, nothing. Whoever did this was a real pro – maybe even her.” He placed particular emphasis on ‘her’. “No fingerprints or other evidence from someone outside the immediate occupants of the house, or anything we can trace back.”
James Evans sat back in his chair, looking at the small rectangle of card in the sealed bag. “How are the Harpers?” his assistant asked.
“The mother is more upset about the missing jewellery – some of it has been in her family for generations – and her daughter than herself. Tell the lab to get us a full report on anything they have as soon as possible.”
“What else can we do in the meantime?”
“Get the word out – apparently she’s going to talk to her security consultant later today, and I expect I’ll want to talk to him as well.”
“You never said who it was.”
“No,” James said as he stood up, “I didn’t”.
The grey haired lady looked up from her desk, where she had been typing a report out on her laptop.
“My apologies for disturbing you, but I have a Mister Jacobs on the line for you – he says he wants to talk to you about your order?”
Coco pushed her chair back slightly, before saying, “Put him through.” She waited for the phone on her desk to ring before lifting the receiver.
“Mister Jacobs, I wasn’t expecting you to call me quite so soon.”
The male voice on the other end was friendly and professional.
“I’m glad I managed to catch you at work, Miss Aldington. I wanted to let you know that I have managed to secure the bureau you were interested in much more easily than anticipated, and to ask if you would be able to come and view it before we agree a price. Would tomorrow be convenient?”
This was the first that Coco had heard of a bureau, but she was intrigued and played along. “Yes, I expect it would be. How about two o’clock tomorrow afternoon?”
“I look forward to seeing you then. Good day, Miss Aldington.”
“Good day, Mister Jacobs,” Coco said as she replaced the receiver and sat back. She had no other plans for tomorrow, and it sounded as if Mister Jacobs was keen to meet with her for some reason…
The small town had one main street, and Coco had no problem finding Jacobs Antiques near the town cross. It was a well-appointed store, with a selection of furniture and smaller items in the windows. Coco looked carefully in before opening the door. She heard a familiar voice saying “Be with you in a minute” from somewhere at the rear of the store and looked at a display of snuffboxes while a conversation took place. Eventually two people came round – a thin woman in a brown coat and a fur hat, and a tall well-built gentleman in a dark jacket and trousers, with a white shirt and tie underneath the jacket.
“I’ll let you know when the chest arrives,” he said as he held the door open for his client. “Good day, Miss Jenkins.”
Closing the door, he looked at the short, plump woman standing there in a grey jumper and trousers and an unbuttoned black coat. A capacious black leather handbag hung from a shoulder strap and a white scarf was draped loosely around her neck. Her hands were thrust deep into the coat pockets.
“Miss Aldington, thank you for popping in,” he said as he shook her hand. Coco was surprised at the formality, until she saw a young lady coming out from the back of the shop. “Alex,” John called as he turned to look at the dark-haired girl, “I need to take Miss Aldington here over to Bessie’s to discuss her order. Can you mind the store for me?”
“Certainly, Mister Jacobs,” the girl said in reply as John took Coco by the arm.
“It’s a delightful little place, Miss Aldington, and I’m sure you’ll like it.” As he said this, John guided Coco out of the shop and towards a small teashop a few yards down the road.
Despite the chill of the early spring day, the teashop had several tables somewhat optimistically set outside in the small garden in front of the building. As they approached, John guided Coco towards the table furthest from the door and offered her a seat. As she drew her coat around her and took her seat on one of the white- painted cast-iron chairs, John opened the door and called in “Tea for two with all the trimmings please, Bessie.”
“On its way, John,” the woman behind the counter said as he closed the door and sat down opposite Coco.
“My apologies, but what we need to discuss needs not only a modicum of privacy, but also the ability to see that no one can overhear us as we talk. How are you keeping?”
“Very well, thank you – and I still need to thank you for that last visit. It proved to be most – profitable.”
“Yes, well – you can tell me about it some other time.” He fell silent as Bessie brought out a pot of tea, two cups and an assortment of cakes and sandwiches on a tray. “I’ll take it from here, Bessie, thanks,” John said as he started to unload the items on the table.
“So,” Coco said as she accepted a cup, “you wanted to talk about something. Your call suggested both urgency and sensitivity.”
John nodded as he poured some tea into her cup. “Yes, well, it concerns a professional matter for both of us, and I don’t want others to hear our conversation.” He looked at Coco as he poured the brown liquid, but she was simply sitting, watching and giving no sign of interest. “Did you hear about the robbery near here a few days ago?”
Coco picked up the cup and sipped the contents. “Orange Pekoe – my compliments. I heard something about it on the news, but may not have paid much attention.”
John raised an eyebrow. “Don’t underestimate me – I’m sure you know more about it than you’re saying.”
“Well, I only know what I have read, but it points to a very professional job indeed – highest level of skill, if what I read is correct. Indeed, some press reports have speculated that La Cioccolata was responsible.”
“I could not possibly comment,” Coco said with a smile. She put her cup on the teacup and picked up a sandwich. John smiled as she sat there eating the delicate snack.
“As you say, very professional – no traces or evidence left, but the witness reports state the intruder was a woman, short and, well, forgive me, but fat, dressed in black with a mask over her head. The alarm system was disabled and reactivated, and a little card was found at the scene.” He took a sip from his cup. “Having said that, however, some things about this robbery do not fit the modus operandi of La Cioccolata. Only a few choice items were taken.”
Coco smiled as she picked up her own cup. “There have been occasions when I have left an entire household tied up in order to obtain just one item of interest. Indeed, they have often been the most interesting visits.”
John picked up a small piece of shortbread and sipped his own tea. “I can believe that – but that’s not the only anomaly.”
“Really – what else is so unusual about this alleged visit by this woman?”
“There’s the fact that no chocolate was taken or eaten during the robbery.”
It was Coco’s turn to smile as she picked up an oat biscuit, covered in dark chocolate on top. “Chocolate is sadly not always available – call it a bonus when it is.”
Shaking his head, John continued to smile as he leaned forward. “May I come to the point?”
“Of course you may – this is obviously important to you.”
“I don’t think you did this one, did you, Coco?”
Coco replaced her cup and picked up a small cake. “How can you be so sure I didn’t?”
“Lots of things, but especially the calling card. It wasn’t like any you’ve left before.”
“You’ve seen it?”
“I know the officer leading the investigation, James Evans. He started in the job as an assistant to a guy called Jim Drummond, from the Metropolitan Police. I happened to bump into him, and he described the card to me.”
“I draw them by hand each time so they’re all slightly different. It’s not the sort of thing you can put out to a commercial printer.”
“No, this one was completely different, drawn by someone who had never seen a real one.”
A young couple walked by as Coco drained her cup and replaced it on the table. She sat back, and with a shrug said, “All right, it wasn’t me, but whoever it was seems to have a good knowledge of my style. Why are you so interested?”
“I just wanted the chance to talk to you and ask you face to face.”
“Oh come on, John – what else is going on?”
“All right,” John said as he put his cup down. “Elaine Harper is an old friend as well as a client of mine, both as an antique dealer and as a security consultant.”
Coco raised her eyes at the last part of John’s statement.
“It’s a useful sideline – it takes a thief to catch a thief. Anyway, I advised her on who to use for her security system, as well as valuing the pieces that were taken. She knows I have some connections from the security side, so she asked me to see what I could find out.”
“And this policeman, Evans?”
John smiled. “James Evans knew me in my other professional capacity – ‘Bulldog’ Drummond tried to nail me a few times, and was one of the few coppers I had any respect for. Call it a mutual appreciation society – one that James joined after a few weeks working for the old dog.
“James knows I’m on the straight and narrow now. I went to see him as Elaine’s security consultant, and got to see the card and the complete lack of evidence. He knows there are only a few people who could do this, you included, so he asked me if I could pin it down. I declined, as he expected, but then I called you.”
“Very kind – but what do you want me for?”
She accepted another cup of tea. “I called Elaine and asked if I could call today with an expert in alarm systems to see if they can determine anything. I need someone with a little gravitas rather than the first person that came to mind, and besides…”
“I thought it might appeal to you to find out who’s copying you.”
Coco closed the file that John had passed her when they got into his car to drive to the Harper home. They had stopped off to ask his assistant to close up before leaving, and as the car drove down the Kent roads she turned to him.
“So let me make sure I’m clear on this. The forensic examination has found no sign of anyone being in the house other than the two Harper women, Miss Kepler and the woman who comes to clean once a week. The alarm system was shut down but no evidence left of how that was achieved, and you’ve heard nothing about the stolen items?”
John nodded. “Believe me; I would have heard if any of those items had appeared. I have some knowledge of them, and my contacts are fairly extensive. Not even a certain lady of our mutual acquaintance has heard anything.”
“Intriguing. I don’t suppose…”
Coco shot a look at John, who looked back with a smile. “I have my standards and my code – never, ever hit friends and family.”
“I thought so, but I wanted to be sure. Is it possible we have a new name on the scene – someone no-one has heard of who wants to make a mark for themselves?”
John shook his head at this. “It’s possible, but if so then why try to impersonate you? Only an idiot would do that – and the level of knowledge this person displayed suggests they are no idiot. No, this was no newcomer.”
“I would agree – and equally, anyone else in the business wouldn’t try to impersonate me. There are maybe – four, no, five other people who could do this apart from us. I’m presuming…”
“No – not the style of my former assistant, and besides he works with a partner. The others, as far as I know, are not in the country at the moment, and we know this was done by a woman.”
“Are we sure of that?”
“Both the Harper women are certain they were robbed by a woman.”
Coco nodded and looked out of the window. “Tell me something about the Harpers.”
John turned the wheel to negotiate a bend. “I’ve known Elaine for about ten years. Her husband died five years ago, and she lives alone with Catherine, working from her office there. If this had involved her work, then the jewellery would have been left. She approached me on a personal recommendation to value her jewellery, and when she heard I had some knowledge of personal security she sought my advice on that as well.
“Catherine is the apple of her eye, and she would do anything to protect her. Personally, I think Elaine is dreading the day she leaves home, but don’t quote me on that. Why are you asking?”
She turned and looked him straight in the eye. “Ever read Sherlock Holmes?”
“I liked the television adaptations but I’m sure you’re not asking me about that.”
“One of Holmes’ guiding principles was that once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. There’s no evidence of an outsider – so there probably was no outsider.”
John nodded. “James Evans said the same thing, but the only thing that suggests that is the fact that they have no evidence. Nothing else points that way. For one thing, Elaine has no need of the money – her business is doing very well, and she was absolutely distraught at the loss of some of those things. One ring, for example, had been in her family for over a century.
“As for Cathy, she gets anything she wants. I don’t think Elaine actually spoils her as such – in fact, she insists on calling her by her full name – but her allowance is more than adequate.
“Besides, where would a seventeen year old girl be able to offload the jewellery without raising questions? Remember, I’ve had the word out on all the missing items, and so far there is no sign of them.
“There’s also the small fact of the fact that both women were both effectively immobilised – and there’s no way they could have done that to themselves. You saw the description that Joanna gave in her statement.”
Coco sat back in the car seat, her eyes closed as she listened to John talk. “Based on what I’ve seen I’d agree with you. What about the assistant – Joanna Kepler? Could she have carried this out?”
John shook his head as he indicated to turn into a side road. “Not likely – unless she’s an actress on a par with Glenda Jackson. I saw her two days later, when I called in to see Elaine, and she was still shaking at what she’d seen. Besides, she’s six foot tall and thin as a rake – not even Elaine’s description would fit her, and both she and Cathy were asked and say they would have known if it had been her. She’s worked alongside Elaine for a few years now, and Cathy’s usually close by. She’d also have to pay off the postman – he backs up her story every step of the way.”
“The cleaning woman?” Coco asked.
“She’s only there one morning a week and only when the house is occupied – she doesn’t have a key or know the alarm code.”
Coco nodded, and then opened her eyes as the sound of tyres on gravel came to her ears. “There is another possibility,” she said as the car drew to a halt outside the main door.
“Miss Kepler could have given someone else a key and the code to do the job for her.”
“That crossed my mind too, so I did some checking. She has no debts, lives modestly and has no real urgent needs.”
“That sounds like me,” Coco said as she unbuckled the seat belt.
“Trust me – you are unique,” John said as he opened his door. “Come on – I’ll introduce you to Elaine.”
John rang the doorbell and a moment later the front door was opened by a tall blonde woman.
“Good afternoon, Miss Kepler. I believe Mrs Harper is expecting us.”
“She is indeed – please come in, Mister Jacobs.” She held the door wide open. “And you must be Miss Aldington.”
Joanna Kepler led the way to Elaine Harper’s office and ushered them in. Elaine Harper was sitting at her desk, but stood up and walked round to greet them as they were shown in. Coco caught a glimpse of the bruising around her wrist as the cuff of her blouse rode up when she extended her hand to John.
“John, it’s so good of you to come out to see me.”
“Not at all, Elaine. It’s a pleasure to be able to help in any way I can. May I introduce Miss Colette Aldington? She has considerable experience with locks and alarms and will give me some useful advice towards improving your security.”
“Thank you for agreeing to assist John, Miss Aldington. Please take a seat, both of you.” Elaine gestured towards the circular oak conference table with its four matching chairs.
“Please call me Coco. As John says, it’s a pleasure to help – it must have been a terrible ordeal for you.”
Mrs Harper took a seat at the table. “Well, it was dreadful being tied to one of these chairs all night, but it was not knowing what had happened to Catherine that was worst. Since my husband died, she really is everything to me.”
Joanna Kepler reappeared with a tray of coffee, which she set down on the table. “I’ll be in my office if you need me for anything, Elaine,” she said as she departed again.
As they chatted over coffee, Coco gently probed Mrs Harper for more details of her assailant. It turned out that she wasn’t a particularly observant witness. She was unable to provide a description of the robber’s clothes beyond the fact that they were black. When pressed, she volunteered that the woman had worn “one of those woolly mask things with just her eyes showing”. She was able to report most of the things that had been said to her but had no recollection of the voice beyond noting that “she had an accent”. Further questioning refined that observation to a possibility that it might have been a northern accent of some kind.
John took the initiative to move proceedings on by opening his file of notes at a page where he had jotted down a series of bullet points to discuss with Mrs Harper.
“Perhaps I should go and have a look at the locks and the alarm while you talk to Elaine?” Coco suggested.
“Good idea, Coco – I think that’s where we need your expertise most.”
Coco made her way back to the entrance hall. There was a discreet wooden door set into the wall at about chest level. It was only about a foot square – too small to be a useful cupboard – so this was likely to house the alarm system. It had a small brass knob and just below that the escutcheon plate surrounding a keyhole. Coco pulled on the knob and was surprised to find that the door was not locked. As the small door swung open, she realised there was more to it than immediately met the eye. The outer face of the door was wooden to match the internal doors in the house, but the edge was grey-painted steel a good inch thick. The cupboard was in fact a safe built into the wall. Inside was the control panel for the alarm system, a grey-painted steel box with a series of LEDs showing the system status – currently off – and a telephone-style twelve-button keypad.
After a little thought and examination of the door, Coco realised why it was not locked. The act of setting the alarm would make the door self-lock as soon as it was closed, by using a set of magnetic plates that Coco could now see along the interior edge. The wall safe was there to provide an additional barrier to prevent tampering with the alarm while it was active; once it was switched off, there was no need for the door to be locked.
Also inside the wall safe were a few other keys. Coco noted that there were no house keys there, only subsidiary keys clearly labelled as ‘garage’, ‘shed’ and ‘greenhouse’. There was also a triangular plastic key for the electricity meter cupboard and a radiator valve key. This was clearly simply a handy location for unimportant keys. Presumably spares of more important keys were kept elsewhere, possibly in Mrs Harper’s office safe.
Coco studied the alarm controls more thoroughly. From the hand-written markings next to the LEDs, it looked to be possible to set the alarm to activate all door and window sensors as well as internal motion sensors, doors and windows only or doors and downstairs windows only. That made sense – it would be possible to switch everything on if the house was to be left unoccupied, just doors and windows for use at night or doors and downstairs windows so that bedroom windows could be left open in summer.
The keypad showed slightly uneven wear on the buttons, which with time might eventually give an intruder a clue as to the digits in the code, but there were no visible signs of tampering. Coco recognised the make of system and knew that it would take a high degree of skill or some very special equipment to circumvent it quickly enough for the alarm not to be activated.
Coco turned her attention to the lock on the safe door. She rummaged in her handbag and drew out an otoscope, usually used by doctors for ear examinations, but equally useful for examining the insides of locks. The lock was a good quality but perfectly standard five-lever mechanism. It could be defeated, but, even for an expert, it would take away precious seconds of the minute before the alarm sounded. The lock showed the signs of wear that any lock acquires after a few years with a high polish on the points where the key rubs against the levers, but there were none of the tell-tale scratches that would indicate that the lock had been picked.
She stood back, taking in again the system and the structure of the surrounding safe. Finally, satisfied there was nothing more to learn there, she turned her attention to the front door of the house.
It was a robustly-made solid oak door mounted on three stainless-steel hinges. There were two locks – both good-quality Swedish ones, Coco noted. There was a six-tumbler cylinder lock above a five-lever mortice lock. Coco examined the edges of the locks and the striker plates where they would engage with the door frame; there was no sign of any damage. She crouched down to look at the interiors of the lock with her otoscope. Once again, there were just the usual wear marks inside and no sign of any scratches.
“Hello, you must be Miss Aldington.”
Coco stood up, startled. She had been so deeply engrossed in her examination of the locks that she had not been aware of anyone approaching.
The newcomer was a girl in her late teens. She had obviously just arrived from school, judging from her attire. Her charcoal grey duffel coat was unfastened, revealing a navy blue v-necked sweater over an open-necked white blouse worn with a surprisingly short dark blue skirt over black tights. A blue and red striped scarf was looped around her neck and she carried on her back a small rucksack in a startling shade of pink. The silence of her approach was all the more surprising given the gravel drive and the robust pair of black lace-up brogues on her feet.
“And you must be Catherine,” Coco replied, offering her hand.
“Cathy, please – only my mother calls me Catherine,” the girl countered with a grin, shaking Coco’s hand.
“Mum said that Mister Jacobs would be coming around today and she mentioned your name. Are you an expert on burglaries?”
“I suppose you could say that.”
“The police couldn’t work out how La Cioccolata got in. Are you doing any better?”
“Not really,” Coco admitted. “I’ve looked inside the locks,” she gestured with the otoscope, “but there’s not a mark in there.”
“Would a cup of tea help? I’m just going to put the kettle on,” Cathy suggested as she took off her coat and scarf and hung them on the hall stand and exchanged her shoes for a pair of rainbow-striped slipper socks.
Coco accepted the offer and closed the front door behind her as she followed Cathy to the kitchen. She watched the young girl filling the kettle and locating the tea caddy. She was a bit taller than Coco, but moved silently and gracefully – probably the end result of years of ballet lessons.
While they waited for the kettle to boil, Coco decided to follow the same line of questioning she had tried with Mrs Harper. “It must have been quite an ordeal for you tied up and gagged all night,” she ventured. Cathy turned and smiled at Coco as she poured the hot water into the teapot.
“It was really scary at the time and I was a bit stiff the next day, but I’m OK now. Milk and sugar?”
“Just milk, thank you.” Coco was surprised at the response; she had expected Cathy to be much more upset about the experience, traumatised even. However, she decided to take the girl’s words at face value and ask more questions. She sat back as Cathy placed a steaming mug of tea on the table in front of her.
“In that case, would it be all right if I ask you a few more questions? I know you’ve talked to the police, but you never know what tiny details might be important, especially when there’s so little to go on.”
“Not a problem,” Cathy replied. “Why don’t we go up to my bedroom, so you can see where it happened?”
Coco agreed to the suggestion, picked up her mug of tea and followed Cathy upstairs.
As teenagers’ bedrooms go, Cathy’s was quite presentable. Chaos was restricted to the pile of books and notes on the desk where her computer stood and the heap of shoes in front of the wardrobe.
“Have a seat,” Cathy invited, indicating an armchair in front of the window.
The chair was currently occupied by a very large rag doll, probably over four feet tall, and dressed in real children’s clothing – a grey pinafore dress over a white blouse with bright blue tights and a matching cardigan. Cathy lifted the doll off the chair and sat it on the floor alongside. As she did so, Coco noticed that rather than simply being made of stuffed fabric, the doll was jointed internally so that it flexed disturbingly like a limp human form. “That’s Cathy Two,” Cathy explained, “my alter ego. She was a family project when I was about ten. Dad made the wooden skeleton and Mum did the sewing. I helped them both, but probably just got in the way. Her hair used to be quite a good match for me, but mine got darker.” She ran her fingers through the pinkish light yellow wool that topped the doll’s head.
Coco wasn’t sure what to make of the doll, but found it slightly creepy. Having no children of her own, sometimes the things the younger generation did were a complete mystery to her. She made no comment, but sat down while Cathy settled herself on the bed, putting her tea down on the bedside table and adjusting her pillow behind her to act as a backrest.
“I understand that you had already gone to bed when the robber came into your room?”
“Yes, I wasn’t asleep though – I was reading.” Cathy indicated the paperback lying face-down on her bedside table. Coco caught a glimpse of the title – The Hidden Staircase – and the picture of a young girl shining a torch up an old staircase.
Coco glanced around the room taking in its layout. “The door is opposite the foot of your bed, so you must have seen her as soon as she came into the room. Can you describe what you saw?”
“I saw her immediately, of course, but my attention was drawn to the gun she was holding. She was all in black but she was holding this green gun with a bright red dart sticking out of the front of it and I was focussed on that.”
“That sounds like a plastic toy.”
“I think that was my first thought too, but the woman was holding it as if she meant it, as if she expected it to be taken seriously.”
“Yes, that’s what I was trying to say – with authority. It didn’t look much like a real weapon, but I didn’t want to find out the hard way, so I did as she told me.”
“What else did you notice about the woman? Can you describe her?”
“Well, quite short, even shorter than you, Miss Aldington…” Cathy clapped her hand against her mouth. “Sorry, that was tactless of me.”
“Don’t worry about it – I’m quite well aware that I’m short,” Coco assured her with a disarming smile.
“She was also rather…”
“Fat?” Coco prompted.
Cathy nodded wordlessly, blushing slightly.
“That’s all right, you’re allowed to say ‘fat’, even to fat people like me as long as you’re not using it as an insult, and you weren’t.”
“Thank you. Anyway, there’s not a lot else I can say apart from that she was dressed all in black.”
“Do you remember what she was wearing?”
Cathy stared at the ceiling as she recalled an image of the encounter to mind. “A black roll-neck sweater, quite tight fitting. A pair of black leggings, very tight fitting. Thin black leather gloves – you know, the kind that stretch a bit as you move your hands.” She wiggled her fingers to demonstrate. “There were black shoes or trainers – I think they might have been Converses. And she had one of those black balaclava things on, the kind that just has three holes in the front for eyes and mouth.”
“A ski mask?”
“Yes, but the mouth hole had been sewn up so just her eyes were showing. I remember it gave her a sort of tight-lipped expression as if she didn’t quite approve of me.”
“Do you remember the colour of her eyes?”
“Blue, I think. Not a really bright blue like yours – I’d remember that – more a sort of greyish colour like mine.”
“That’s a really good description,” Coco said encouragingly. “Did you tell the police all that?”
“Most of it, but you’re a really good listener and I’m a lot less wound up now than I was straight afterwards.”
“Did the woman speak to you?”
“She told me to get out of bed and stand up. I was really frightened so I did as she said and held my hands up in the air. I don’t know if people really do that, but it seemed like the right thing to do.”
“It probably sent the right message that you weren’t going to fight back. What happened next?”
“She made me get a pair of panties out of the drawer and stuff them in my mouth. It was pretty gross.”
“Weren’t they clean?”
“Oh yes, but it’s the idea of putting knickers in your mouth that’s so… eeew.”
Coco nodded to show she understood Cathy’s point of view. “And then she tied you up?”
“Yes, she tied my hands behind my back, then put rope around me here and here.” She pointed just above and below her bust line. “She made me sit down then she gagged me with a blue scarf between my teeth – I suppose it was so I couldn’t spit the panties out. Then she tied my legs together here, here and here.” She pointed to her ankles, her calves just below the knees and her thighs.
“That’s a lot of tying up,” Coco commented sympathetically.
“But she still hadn’t finished. She got out a really long piece of rope and tied it around my middle, so it held my hands against my back, then took the ends all the way up my front under the other ropes and over my shoulders.” She traced the route with her fingers. “Then I had to lie down on my front and she pulled my feet up and tied the ends of the long rope to the rope that was already around my ankles. I managed to roll onto my side, and watched the woman packing up her stuff. She turned the light off and that was about it until Joanna and the postman found me in the morning.”
“That must have been quite painful.”
“Not as bad as you’d think. It wasn’t very comfortable of course, but it didn’t hurt if I just lay still.”
As she had been listening to Cathy tell the tale, Coco had not been sure what to make of her attitude. Over the years, she had bound and gagged more women than she could remember, varying in age from fifteen or sixteen to sixty and over, and in the vast majority of cases they had not looked as if they had enjoyed the experience. Even when she had seen reconstructions and interviews, they had not shown any signs of wanting to relive it. Yes, there had been one or two who had surprised her, but generally not. Cathy, however – her eyes were wide and bright as if she were reliving an exciting experience rather than one that terrified her. Coco decided to probe a little further, wondering where she had seen a look like this before.
“Didn’t you fight against the ropes?”
“I didn’t dare resist when she was tying me up – she had that gun, remember. Afterwards, I knew I couldn’t escape and would just hurt myself.”
“You must have been worried about your mother while you were lying there.”
“Well, she hadn’t hurt me apart from tying me up, so I didn’t think Mum would be in any danger either.”
“But you didn’t know that.”
“No but when she said she would ‘take care of Mummy’, I just assumed she meant she would tie her up like me.”
There was something about Cathy’s account that bothered Coco. It wasn’t just what the girl was saying, but the attitudes that seemed to lie behind it too. They reminded her a little of – well, of herself at that age.
Coco decided to take a chance. “You seem to keep a bit of distance between you and your mother.”
Cathy stiffened slightly. “How do you mean?”
“Well, when you came home, you said ‘hello’ to me then you went straight to the kitchen and then came up here. You knew where your mother was, but you didn’t pop in to say ‘hi’.”
“I knew if you were still here, then she was talking to Mister Jacobs,” she pointed out defensively.
“Even so, you know him and you knew that they weren’t talking about anything confidential.”
“Mum likes her privacy, and…” Cathy trailed off to silence.
“And so do I,” she added hurriedly. “I need to keep a bit of space around me that’s my own.”
Coco said nothing for a moment then asked, “Is that all there is to it?”
Cathy looked uncomfortable. “Can I be honest?”
“It’s always the best policy and I won’t tell anybody anything – I’m just looking for clues to a robbery, remember.”
Cathy nodded. “Mum can be a bit controlling sometimes. She’s always been a bit like that, but since Dad died, she’s tried to keep tabs on everything I do. I know it’s just because she cares for me and doesn’t want to risk losing me too, but it can be a bit stifling.”
“In what way?”
“Well, she always insists on knowing where I’m going and who I’m with and when I’ll be home and she gets really worried if I haven’t phoned her for a while. She often insists on driving me to places when I could use a bus just as well.”
“But you make your own way home from school – I saw you arrive.”
“And, believe me, I had to fight for that privilege.”
“Driving you everywhere must be a huge burden on your mother – after all, she’s a busy woman.”
“It means I don’t always get to do things if they don’t fit in with her schedule.”
“So coming home from school on the bus is a rare bit of freedom for you?”
Cathy, now looking quite miserable, nodded.
Coco was beginning to have an inkling of how Cathy ticked. “And not telling your mother you were home was just a small act of rebellion to assert your independence?”
Cathy looked surprised at this insight, but nodded after a moment’s thought. Quite suddenly, everything snapped together in Coco’s mind. The look as she described her attack, the way she resented her mother wanting to control her life, the desire to assert her own way – suddenly it was decades ago, and a plump young girl was sitting in her room, plotting how to get her own back on her mother and assert her own authority over her life…
She looked at the young girl sitting on the bed, and decided to take a chance in challenging Cathy directly. “You staged the robbery yourself, didn’t you?”
Cathy froze, her gaze resembling a rabbit caught in headlights. Whether this was fear or simply shock, Coco couldn’t tell.
“The guiding principle in forensic science is ‘every contact leaves a trace’, but there seem to be no traces to be found in this case. One possibility is that we have an extremely clever thief here, who can enter a house, tie up the occupants, steal some jewellery and leave again, all without leaving any sign of ever having been there. But there’s another possibility too, isn’t there, Cathy?”
Cathy said nothing but simply stared back at Coco.
“The locks don’t have any scratch marks, because they’ve only ever been opened with the right keys. The alarm system doesn’t show any sign of tampering because it’s never been tampered with. There are no traces of anyone being in the house other than family members and regular visitors because there never was anyone else here. Your mother is quite obviously badly shaken by the robbery, but you seem more excited by it than anything. You were tied up on your bed but you made no serious attempt to struggle or escape, even though, for all you knew, your mother was lying injured or even dead downstairs.”
There was still no response from Cathy, except for the way she shuffled nervously on the bed.
“But you knew that you didn’t have to worry about your mother being injured or dead, because you staged the robbery and you tied her up yourself. Isn’t that right?”
Cathy’s gaze dropped, unable to look Coco directly in the eye any more. At length, she replied with the tiniest nod of her head.
“Why did you do it, Cathy?” Coco asked gently.
It was several seconds before Cathy could reply. When she did, her voice was choked and she was obviously near to tears. “Just so something exciting would happen to me.”
“Can you tell me what really happened that night?”
Another tiny nod and a long pause. “I wanted something exciting and scary and out of control to happen. Something that Mum hadn’t planned for me and something I hadn’t had to go begging to her for.”
“My mother was a bit of a control freak too,” Coco confided.
“Anyway, I wasn’t really sure how far I could push it, but I thought it would be fun to play a prank on Mum by pretending to be a burglar. I knew Mum was working late and wouldn’t move from her office till she was done. I dressed up all in black: leggings, sweater, socks and my Converses. The gloves are an old pair of Mum’s I acquired and I found one of those woolly masks in a camping shop in Canterbury. I sewed up its mouth so Mum would only see my eyes and maybe not recognise me.”
“Did you think she might recognise you anyway?”
“I thought she probably would – after all I am her daughter – but I was really just planning to give her a big fright and have a laugh afterwards.”
“I understand. Carry on.”
“I’ve got a green plastic toy gun that fires bright red plastic darts – I’ve had it for years. I armed myself with that and took a bundle of rope and a couple of old headscarves with me and went down to Mum’s office. I just barged in and told her it was a robbery and she’d better do as I said. I did a sort of northern accent – you know, Yorkshire or Newcastle or Manchester or something like that.”
Coco forbore from pointing out that those were three completely different and unmistakable accents, but simply nodded to encourage Cathy to continue.
“Mum span around in her desk chair and sort of squawked in panic. I pointed my gun at her and told her to sit still. I think I said she wouldn’t be harmed if she did what I told her. I don’t know what she thought my gun was, but she behaved as if it was real – she was terrified and her voice was really shaky when she asked me not to harm her daughter. I remember telling her I’d already ‘taken care of the little girl’. I wasn’t sure how long this would go on for before Mum would realise what was happening and recognise me. I didn’t know how to stop the prank now that I’d started, so I just kept going. I pulled one of the heavy conference table chairs out and ordered her to sit down on it. I’d never ordered Mum to do anything before!”
Cathy’s eyes were bright again and she was becoming visibly excited as she told her story.
“And she did as you said?”
“She did. I can’t remember when I’ve felt so excited by anything – it was like being on a roller-coaster – scary and a bit out of control and so exhilarating!”
“Adrenaline rush,” Coco commented.
“Must have been that. Anyway. I pulled Mum’s hands around behind the chair and tied her wrists together and fastened them to the chair itself then I wound lots of rope around her arms and body and threaded it through the holes in the back of the chair. I tied her legs together at the ankles and knees then and fastened the end of the ankle rope to one of the bits of wood that link the chair legs together so her feet were pulled back. I still had some rope left, so I tied her down to the chair seat too.”
“How did you learn to tie someone up like that?”
“Pictures in books and comics and stuff on TV, I suppose. It was the first time I’d tied someone else up for real though. I demanded the combination of the safe and she told me I could have it if only I wouldn’t harm her daughter. She kept on asking about me, still not realising it was me tying her up. I’d brought headscarves down with me but they were more props for my well-equipped burglar persona than anything I expected to use, but I did use them to shut Mum up – I stuffed one into her mouth and used the other one to tie it in place. She was still making quite a lot of noise so I used her own scarf – one of those expensive Hermès silk ones – over her mouth and nose as an extra layer of gag. I opened the safe, more as a matter of form than anything else as I had the combination, then left the room.”
“Why didn’t you just go back and tell her it was all a joke?” Coco asked.
“I felt I was in too deep by then. I was sure she’d go ballistic if I did that. Things are bad enough now, but if she knew I’d pulled a stunt like that, I’d be grounded till I’m forty!”
“And that was why you made it look like a real robbery and tied yourself up too?”
“Yes…” Cathy replied a little hesitantly.
“There’s another reason?”
“Well, not really a reason, I suppose, but it’s something I’ve wanted for ages.”
Coco was puzzled. “To be the victim of a robbery?”
Cathy looked a little sheepish and nodded her head. “Ever since I was little, I’ve loved reading adventure stories and mysteries and whodunnits.” She waved her hand at her bookshelves, which, Coco saw, were well-stocked with Nancy Drew, the Famous Five, Agatha Christie and many others. “The heroines are always getting into scrapes and ending up tied up before they solve the mystery and I thought that sounded so exciting.”
“Exciting as long as you don’t really get hurt,” Coco pointed out.
Cathy nodded her agreement. “Books like that are a way of enjoying peril safely – I just wanted to go a bit further. I really wanted to know what it was like, so I asked my Mum to tie me up once when I was little, but she told me off for asking. I started tying myself up instead; I’d pretend that Cathy Two and I were girl detectives and I’d tie her up and then do my best to tie myself up as well. Mum caught me once and told me never to do it again, so of course I carried on doing it in secret.”
“And that’s why you already had rope and headscarves to hand and why you knew how to tie your mother up? And I bet you already had the ski mask as a prop for your secret games too.”
“That’s right – I’ve been doing it for years and I’ve learned how to tie myself up really well. That was another reason for what I did. Some time ago, I worked out a way to tie myself up so I couldn’t possibly get myself free and I’ve been aching to try it out. The trouble is that if I ever did that, Mum would be the one who would have to untie me and she’d probably forbid me from ever doing anything like that again.”
“How did you do it? Miss Kepler and the postman were both prepared to swear that you couldn’t possibly have tied yourself up the way they found you.”
“It’s not terribly difficult. I changed out of my burglar outfit and hid the balaclava along with the stuff of Mum’s I’d taken, then I put my pyjamas on and a pair of socks too in case my feet got cold in the night. I sat down on the edge of the bed like this.”
Cathy swung herself around so that her feet were on the floor.
“Then I tied my legs together here, here and here. I tied the middle of the long rope around my waist next with the knot at the front and I tied the two long ends together so that when I put them over my shoulders, the knot would be at about shoulder blade level.”
She gestured to show where the rope would go and where the k not would sit.
“I tied a little noose of rope to the waist rope so it was in the middle behind me. I think I gagged myself at that point, too. It got tricky once I got to my arms. I put a coil of rope around my arms and body so it went over the top of the shoulder ropes both front and back.”
She indicated a line just above her bust.
“I put another one around a bit lower down but made sure the shoulder ropes went under it at the front and over it at the back.”
Cathy kept her arms to her sides and her legs together as she swivelled around again and ended up lying face down on her bed.
“That’s quite hard to do when you’re already partly tied up. I brought my feet up and tied the ends of the shoulder ropes to my ankle rope.
She was now lying in the classic hog-tie position.
“I already had a coil of rope ready that I could just get my wrists through. I put it over one hand, threaded the coil through the noose behind my back then put my other hand through. All I had to do was to pull the whole thing away from the rope around my waist for it to tighten. I rolled over onto my side and wriggled myself up so that my head was on the pillow once I was already completely tied up.”
Cathy rolled onto her back and sat up to face Coco again.
“No wonder you looked as if someone else had tied you up,” Coco commented.
Cathy’s face fell again after being quite animated as she described the process of tying herself up.
“It was satisfying at the time, but I feel awful about it now, Miss Aldington, and I don’t know what I should do.”
Coco smiled and stood up, walking the floor as she thought of her own home at that age, and how she had felt. This girl, however – she wasn’t Coco, and the experience may have been enough. She sat back down and leaned towards Cathy as the girl sat on the bed.
“Well, it sounds to me as if you’ve done several things that you’ve been dying to get out of your system for some time. You’ve found out what it’s like to be tied up all night, you’ve asserted your independence by staging a rebellion against your mother, you’ve got back at your mother by tying her up so you took control of her life for a change and you’ve punished her by taking her jewellery.”
“I know, but I feel terrible about it now – I’ve frightened her really badly and I must have hurt her tying her up like that. I’ve taken things that mean a lot to her and I can’t give them back without her finding out what I’ve done and that might hurt her even more. I really wish I hadn’t done it.”
“You could just come clean and tell her everything.”
“I could, but I don’t think she’d take it well and the police are involved too.”
“I’m sure your mother wouldn’t press charges against you, so the only thing the police could charge you with is wasting their time. I don’t think they’d prosecute, but you’d get a stern telling-off from a senior officer.”
“It would still break Mum’s heart. I didn’t mean to be so cruel – I was just stupid and gave into the temptation to get back at Mum. I wish it hadn’t happened.”
“Well, you’ll have to do something about it, Cathy. Sooner or later, the police will come to the same conclusion I did that there wasn’t a real burglar at all and they’ll search the house until they find something. You still have your mother’s jewellery hidden away, don’t you?”
Cathy’s eyes flicked to her wardrobe.
“Miss Aldington, can you think of any way I could get them back to Mum safely?”
“‘Safely’ as in keeping you off the hook?”
Cathy had the good grace to look embarrassed at Coco’s question. “Yes, please, if that’s possible.”
“I think I know a way to do it,” Coco replied after a long pause for thought, “but you’d have to trust me to do it the way I think is best.”
“Why? What are you planning to do?”
“It’s probably best if you don’t know.”
“Oh, I see… Well it’s still awfully kind of you to agree to help,” Cathy replied, rummaging in a handbag stored in the bottom of her wardrobe.
Coco accepted the small bundle that Cathy handed her. It turned out to be the missing jewellery inside the black ski mask that Cathy had worn for the robbery.
“They’re lovely pieces,” Coco said as she examined them before putting them back into the knitted mask and tucking them in her own bag.
“One more question,” Coco said as they descended the stairs from Cathy’s bedroom, “why the fake card from La Cioccolata?”
The young girl smiled. “Just because she’s cool,” Cathy replied lightly. “I read about her in the papers and wondered what would happen if she came to our house.”
The two met John and Elaine as they were leaving her office. “I’ll talk to DS Evans and get back to you with our findings,” he said as he shook Elaine’s hand and then looked up. “All done?” he asked as Coco reached the foot of the staircase.
“Yes,” Coco said with a smile as she shook Elaine’s hand, “I think I have everything I need to do my report.”
“So how did you get on?” John Jacobs asked Coco as he drove down the avenue that led back to the A257.
Coco waited until John had safely negotiated the turn onto the main road before replying, “I’ve solved the mystery. I know exactly what happened during the robbery.”
“You do? Why didn’t you tell Elaine and me before we left the house?”
“There’s a good reason, John. If you can find somewhere to stop for a few minutes, I’ll tell you everything I’ve found out.”
John drove on for a mile or so then pulled into a lay-by where a mobile snack bar advertising tea and coffee was already parked.
While they sat in the car drinking rather dubious tea out of polystyrene cups, Coco related the results of both her examination of the locks and alarm and her interview with Cathy. Finally, as John sat silently considering what she had told him, Coco rummaged in her bag and produced the missing jewellery, still wrapped in Cathy’s ski mask.
“It’s nice stuff, but it’s a bit grubby,” Coco commented.
John picked up a jewelled gold brooch. “Old jewellery is supposed to have a bit of a patina.”
“This is beyond patina, John – that’s dirt! It looks as though it’s been stored somewhere it could collect dust.”
“I know that Elaine doesn’t wear the older pieces in her collection – maybe that’s just because of the state they’re in.”
“It would be nice if they could be cleaned before they went back to her. Is that something you could do?”
“It’s really just surface dirt, so an ultrasonic cleaner would lift that off without making the metal look sparkling new. I’ve got one of those.”
John continued to examine the jewellery in silence before asking Coco, “Just how do you propose to return these without Cathy coming under suspicion.”
“The only way I can think of doing it is to stage another break-in – a sort of reverse robbery.”
“But if you sneak in and leave the jewellery behind, it won’t look any different from Cathy just returning it herself. She’ll still be suspect.”
“That’s why I said ‘reverse robbery’, John.”
“You’re proposing to break in, hold the family up and then leave the jewellery that Elaine thinks was stolen?”
“Basically that, but I’ll refine it a little bit.”
John shook his head in disbelief and restarted the car engine.
The sun was just beginning to peek above the horizon the following Saturday morning, but the red glow had not yet reached the rear garden of the Harper residence. As a result, there was still deep shadow between the trees and clumps of shrubs that framed the view over the downland – perfect cover for the short, plump woman making her way silently towards the house. There was nothing in the way she moved to suggest she was anything more than a lost walker – but a closer examination of her garb would have dispelled that idea rather quickly.
She was dressed in black – a roll neck sweater covering the upper half of her body, with tight leggings on the lower half. Both accentuated the buxom curves of her body, while her short stature belied the careful way that she moved across the garden to the rear wall. She was grateful for the thermal top and long johns she had on underneath the clothing as she waited in the shadows, looking at the heavy oak door and planning her next move.
Her eyes were gleaming through the eyeholes of the black ski mask that she had over her head, the mouth of which had been sewn shut to give the appearance of a crooked smile. Stretching the thin leather gloves over her hands, she adjusted the straps on her small rucksack and walked quickly over the gravel path. Two black plastic carrier bags, had been pulled over her black canvas Converse trainers and gathered at her ankles with elastic bands, the socks she wore pulled up over her leggings showing above them.
The first red rays appeared on the horizon as she approached the front door and crouched in the shadow of the porch to remove the bags from her shoes, she turned them inside out to contain the moisture and mud they had picked up and tucked them into a side pocket in her rucksack. The only traces she would bring into the house would be from the front doorstep. Looking at the two locks on the door, she selected a pair of tools from another pocket and knelt down. She inserted them into the cylinder lock and manipulated them delicately. A soft click confirmed that the lock had been successfully subverted. Another moment fiddling with a different tool opened the mortice lock below it.
Coco tucked a small rectangular object about the size of a cigarette packet into the waistband of her leggings and clutched the lock-pick firmly in her hand. She took a deep breath and prepared herself for the burst of focussed activity that would follow. When she was ready, she pushed down the handle on the door and swung it open. The quiet beeping from behind the locked panel on the wall confirmed that the alarm had been activated by her entering the house. Mentally counting off the seconds, she inserted the lock-pick into the keyhole and worked swiftly to overcome it. As the panel opened, she allowed the lock-pick to drop to the floor and retrieved the device from her waistband. She held it against the keypad, pressed a button on the side and then turned a small knob until a green LED came on, indicating that the circuitry in the box had successfully detected the electronics in the alarm system. Nothing happened for several long seconds then a numeric display lit up with the alarm code. Coco lifted the box away from the keypad and punched in the number that had been displayed. The beeping stopped and a green light indicated that the alarm system was now switched off. Only then did Coco release the breath she had been holding since opening the front door.
“I must remember to thank someone for that one day,” she said to herself as she went into the office and deposited her rucksack on the desk, withdrawing a small dart gun before closing it. She left the room, closing the door behind her, and quickly made her way up the staircase. Coco paused at the top of the stairs, not sure which way to go first, then made a decision and opened the first door on the landing.
The room was exactly as she remembered it, even in the gloom of the early dawn. The books were still neatly piled up, the shoes on the floor, and Cathy Two the oversized rag doll sitting on the chair. As Coco silently closed the door, she noticed to her amusement that the doll’s arms were pulled behind her back, and there were lengths of thin cord around the upper body and legs. There was also a blue scarf tied over the embroidered mouth, with a bulge underneath that suggested another piece of cloth. The real Cathy was lying on her bed in her long pink pyjamas, the covers kicked off during the night, her lips moving silently.
Coco stood there for a moment, before leaning over and gently shaking Cathy by the shoulder. The young girl stirred, mumbled “’S too early, Mum” and slowly opened her eyes.
As her sight came into focus, Cathy thought she was living in a dream come true. There, in front of her, was a short, fat woman dressed in black, with a ski mask over her head pointing what looked like a toy gun at her. She thought the mask looked familiar, and whispered, “Miss Aldington?” There was no reaction from the masked figure. Cathy tried again. “Coco?” Then she noticed the grey eyes that were looking down at her, not at all like Coco’s piercing blue ones.
“Bit early for a night time drink, pet,” Coco said in a light Geordie accent. As well as the contact lenses, she had used some foundation to slightly darken the skin tone around her eyes, and brown mascara to colour her naturally blonde eyelashes. The accent was both an additional form of disguise and a slight dig – if she was going to do this, Coco was going to have some fun as well.
Cathy stared at the masked woman, and the gun, before whispering “Oh God” and sitting up, raising her hands above her head as she did so. Coco allowed herself a smile under the mask before saying “Very slowly, lass, swing your legs over the side and stand up – we’re going to take a little walk.”
“Can I put my bed socks on first – I don’t want to be cold.”
Coco thought for a moment, then nodded before saying “No funny stuff – you wouldn’t like it if I had to use this gun.”
Cathy reached down, her eyes fixed on the gun all the time, picked up the pair of socks that were discarded on the floor and pulled them over her feet before standing up, her hands raised. “Put them on your head and come with me – and not a peep. Your ma needs a little more sleep,” Coco said as she marched Cathy down to the main office.
“Who are you?” the young girl said as Coco held the door open and motioned for her to go in first.
As she closed the heavy door, Coco replied, “I can be your worst nightmare, pet, if you want to make it that way. Pull one of those chairs out and sit down.”
Watching the black clad woman all the time, Cathy picked up a chair from the conference table and brought it into the centre of the room. Coco motioned with the gun for her to sit down, before walking to the rucksack on the desk and taking out a number of coiled lengths of white rope. Picking one up, she walked over and examined the chair as Cathy sat there, her terrified eyes looking at her.
The chair was a sturdy old wooden chair, with a wooden back made up of three vertical spars and an ornate carved piece in the top. The gaps between the slats were wide enough that, on any other occasion, Coco would have had no hesitation in pulling the thin arms of Cathy through and starting to bind her wrists together. This time, however, there were other things to consider, so she simply knelt down and said “Bring your hands down and let them hang by the side of the chair. Keep quiet and you’ll be fine.”
Staring forward, her breath coming in short pants as she tried to remain calm, Cathy let her slim arms be pulled behind the chair back, as Coco crossed her wrists and started to wrap the rope around them. Cathy looked over her shoulder as the soft rope was passed around and between her crossed wrists, restricting her movement more and more with each pass. Making sure the binding was tightly secured, Coco took the loose ends and secured them to the central spar of the backrest, leaving Cathy with a little movement but not enough to free her from what was coming next.
Taking a longer length, Coco looped it around Cathy’s waist, crossed it over at the back and then brought the ends down in front of her and passed them twice round, pulling her back against the backrest so that she was sitting bolt upright. She could feel the rope move as Cathy breathed in and out, her chest rising and falling as she tried to calm herself down. The ends were then secured in front of her, out of reach of her fingers.
“I don’t think you’ll get out of that very easily,” Coco said with a laugh as she went to retrieve another length of rope. Passing it around Cathy’s chest, she pulled tightly so that the cotton fabric of her pyjama top stretched over her breasts, further pinning her upper body to the chair back so that she was unable to move. She considered passing the ropes around and under her shoulders and through the chair back as well, but a thought occurred to Coco as to a possible way for Cathy to raise herself in her mother’s eyes, and she elected to keep the chest binding firm, yet simple. Cathy sat there, testing just how little movement she had, and realising with a start that this woman really knew what she was doing. A thought crossed her mind, and she turned her head to look at Coco as she walked back to her rucksack.
“You… you’re not La Cioccolata are you?” she asked. Coco thought for a moment – she could not deny the desire for some chocolate was there, but a promise was a promise. She turned back, and said “What’s that then – some sort of ice cream?” as she unravelled and doubled over a long length of rope. Cathy looked back at her, the gleam of fright that Coco had seen so often growing as she knelt down and pulled Cathy’s ankles together, wrapping the rope around and between them to cinch the binding. The seat had two spars running between the front and back legs, and a central one between them; Coco pulled the loose ends of the rope back and tied them around that central spar, pulling Cathy’s feet back so that the tips of her toes just touched the floor through her socks.
As Coco tied the young girl’s legs together, securing the rope to the chair legs as she did so, she heard Cathy say, “Please, don’t hurt me or my Mummy, I don’t want you to hurt us.” She looked up through the balaclava at her, seeing the tears coming down her cheeks, and wiped them away with her gloved hand.
“You’re been very brave, pet, and I want you to carry on being brave. When I’m done here, I’ll go and get your mother and you can be together while I have a look around, all right?”
Cathy nodded as Coco secured her legs together, passing the loop of rope around them just above the knees and pulling tightly, then wrapping them round above and below her knees in turn, then cinching the rope in both places. A final length was used to secure her lap to the chair seat. Stepping back, she checked all the knots to make sure they were firm, and that Cathy wasn’t going anywhere. Walking over to the rucksack, she took out a small plastic bag, which Cathy could see contained a cotton handkerchief and a long strip of fabric plaster.
“Now,” she said as she opened the bag, “I know you’re going to be a good girl and keep quiet, but I can’t take any chances, so I want you to open wide and let me put this in your mouth. If you stay calm, sit still and don’t struggle, you’ll be just fine. Do you understand?”
In response, Cathy opened her mouth, allowing Coco to stuff the cloth into the space behind her teeth. “This will damp down after a while, so be careful and breath through your nose,” the masked intruder said as she took the backing paper off the strip and smoothed it over Cathy’s mouth and lips. The band stretched from just below one ear to the other, and stuck firmly as Coco pressed down with her hand.
“All right,” Coco said as she turned the bound Cathy round to face the door of the office, “You just stay there, nice and quiet, and I’ll go and fetch your mother. All right, pet?” Cathy nodded and watched mutely as Coco walked out of the office, closing the door behind her.
Glancing at the large grandfather clock in the hall, Coco saw that it was approaching six in the morning, and she smiled again as she climbed the staircase, her dart gun in her hand. She’d only brought one bag of gag material with her – deliberately. She needed to make sure Elaine was more securely bound, more completely silenced, and less trouble for what was to come next.
Passing the young girl’s bedroom, she made her way to the second door and slowly opened it. She could see Elaine lying on the bed, her duvet slowly rising and falling in time with her breathing, and as she slowly closed the door Coco wondered what the best way to wake her was going to be. She softly crossed the floor, reached down and pulled the duvet back.
Elaine lay on her side, her eyes closed and her hair pulled back by the chiffon scarf that was tied over her forehead in an Alice band. That was not what surprised Coco, however. She had only ever seen Elaine in that one meeting with John Jacobs, and at that time had struck her as very prim, proper and formal. When she saw her choice of night attire, however, Coco had to stop herself from laughing out loud.
It wasn’t the lurid blue pyjama bottoms she was wearing that were the surprise – although the legs came halfway down her thighs, which was not unexpected. No, it was the bright pink t- shirt with a picture on the front that was the thing. The picture was of a blonde haired – well, more girl than woman, with a tiara in her hair and a long white and gold ball gown. The caption underneath read A Princess Forever, with a trademark for a well-known American entertainment company underneath.
Coco stood there, staring for a moment as Elaine started to stir and open her eyes. She lay there, as her vision came into focus and she discerned what the black form was standing over her, but before she could scream Coco clamped a gloved hand over her mouth and pointed the dart gun at her chest.
“This is an anaesthetic dart, and believe me, if I used it on you, you wouldn’t like how it feels when you wake up afterwards,” she said in the same Geordie accent she had used when talking to Cathy. “So, are you going to be quiet or do I have to put you back to sleep?”
“Cthe,” Elaine mumbled as she stared at the masked intruder.
“If I take my hand away, will you scream?” Coco said, and as Elaine shook her head from side to side she stood up and removed her hand.
“Cathy – where’s my daughter?”
“The lass is downstairs, and I want you to come and join her. No funny stuff, all right?”
“Why have you come back?”
“Back? What makes you think I’ve been here before? Now, do exactly as I say – and for goodness sake put something on over that top. Does your daughter know you wear that?”
Elaine looked down at her night garb and blushed slightly. “No – no, she doesn’t.”
“Do you want her to?”
“No,” Elaine replied as she picked up a blue sweatshirt and pulled it over her head. “You must think I’m strange.”
“I’ve seen worse – much, much worse,” Coco said as she opened a drawer and took out a pair of thick socks. “Put these on as well – it’s cold down there, and your daughter was given the same opportunity.”
Elaine kept her eyes on the masked intruder, trying to remember as much as she could as she pulled the thick grey socks over her feet and up to just below the hem of her pyjama pants. As she did this, Coco opened another drawer and saw something she could make use of. The sun was now starting to shine through the closed curtains, as Coco motioned for Elaine to stand up.
“Now,” she said as she reached into her pocket and took out a length of rope, “I need to make sure you’re going to do as I say. This is a robbery – all I want is your money and stuff, and I don’t want to hurt you unless I have to, so stay calm and do as I say.”
“What do you want me to do,” Elaine said as she held her arms around her body.
“Turn round and put your hands behind your back,” Coco said as she shook out the rope. “Unlike your daughter, I’m going to start securing you up here. Just to be on the safe side.”
Elaine nodded as she allowed Coco to put her wrists together behind her back and pass the doubled over rope around and between them, pulling tightly so that they were secured together. She turned Elaine round so that the woman was facing her, then sat her on the edge of the bed.
“I want to make sure you’re quiet from now on. She held up a pair of clean panties that she had rolled up into a ball. “open wide, and keep these in your mouth. If you spit them out, it’s a dart and you wake up with a king-sized headache.”
Elaine glared at the masked woman, but opened her mouth up and allowed her to push the material in. She watched as Coco went back to her cupboard and pulled out a red scarf, which she rolled into a band and knotted in the middle. Coming back to Elaine, she pulled the knot between her teeth and secured the ends tightly together at the base of her neck, before taking the chiffon scarf out of her hair and tying it over her mouth on top of the red one as a further layer of gag.
“When they do this in films,” Coco said as she stood in front of Elaine, “it’s just the thin scarf and the damsel can barely talk. I’m willing to bet ten quid you can’t make a sound that anyone can understand, pet. Want to try?”
Elaine grunted and shook her head – she knew she wouldn’t be able to talk, and didn’t want to give this person the satisfaction of an answer.
“As you wish,” Coco said, not forcing the issue. “Now we’ll go down and see how your daughter is getting on – Cathy, you called her?”
Elaine nodded in reply.
“Well, you and Cathy won’t be able to say much to each other, but I want you both where I can see you.” Taking her by the arm, Coco helped Elaine to stand up and marched her to the door.
Cathy looked up as she saw the door open, then screamed out, “MMM” as she caught sight of her bound and gagged mother being led into the room. Elaine looked down at her as she was made to stand in the centre of the room, while Coco brought another chair round and set it next to her daughter. Taking Elaine again by the arm, she helped her to sit down and walked back to her rucksack, saying as she did so, “I do love it when a family get to spend quality time together. Make yourself comfortable, Mum – you’ll be here for a little while.”
Elaine’s eyes widened as she watched the masked woman take a long skein of rope out of the bag shake it loose and double it over. Walking round to stand behind Elaine’s chair, Coco examined the lattice work of the back panel, and shook the rope loose again. “I think we’ll try something different for you, lass,” she said as she took one end of the rope and secured it around the left hand side of the backrest, looping it round the top of the leg as she did so. She then passed the loose end around the older woman’s waist, tightening it so that her bound wrists were squeezed firmly between the chair and her own back, then looping it round the chair leg on the right hand side. She repeated this three times, before passing the rope through the loops at the back and taking it diagonally up to pass round Elaine’s chest just below her breasts.
Coco wound the rope around Elaine’s chest, threading it through the lattice work on the right hand side and passing it round her arm so that it was secured to the chair back as well. This was repeated on the other side, and then the rope went round and round, through and through so that Elaine was almost permanently fixed to the wood work, unable to move her arms and chest other than to breath. Finally, Coco pulled the various loops together with a pass through, before knotting the loose end round in a clove hitch.
“Comfy?” she enquired as she walked round and held Elaine’s head up with her chin. Cathy was struggling, trying to wriggle her way free, and as Coco caught her looking at her out of the corner of her eye she simply said “Remember what I said, pet – if you struggle, you’ll throw up, and you’ve no way of getting that clear of your mouth and lungs. Calm down and sit still – I won’t be long with your mother here.” Cathy watched as she went back to the rucksack, took out a length of rope and walked back over to her mother, pulling her left ankle towards the chair leg and holding it in place while she passed the rope around.
It only took a moment to secure the sock-covered ankle to the chair leg, followed swiftly by the other ankle being secured to the opposite leg. A further length of rope was then passed around Elaine’s legs below her knees, and as Coco pulled tight the coil her knees were drawn together, lifting the soles of her feet from the floor as the cinched ropes squeaked. That squeak was echoed by one from her gagged mouth – the way her legs had been forced together was not the most comfortable position to be in, but as she let the muffled sound out she realised that, quite frankly, that was not a lot she could do about it.
One further length of rope was deployed, and Cathy watched with wide eyes as the masked intruder wrapped one end around the top of the chair leg, passed it around her mother’s lap and the seat in a lattice fashion, and then secured the other end to the opposite leg. Once again Coco took time to check all the knots were secure, for both Elaine and Cathy, before standing in front of the two captives and looking at them both.
Elaine looked over to her daughter and said’ “R u l rght, lv?” to which Cathy nodded her head to show she was coping, if not altogether fine.
“Well now,” Coco finally said, “I have a few things I need to do here, and I think I’m going to need a little privacy. You two sit there while I have a look round upstairs, and then I’ll come back and see how you are. All right?” She smiled as she left the office, closing the door behind her, while Cathy looked towards her mother.
“Dnt cr, Mm,” she mumbled as a tear started to fall down Elaine's cheek, “Wll b ll rght.”
Her mother looked over at her, and said in reply, “Ur bn vr brv, Cth.”
“Thnk u,” was the response, as the young girl tried to shuffle her chair over to be closer to her mother.
While this was going on, Coco was systematically searching Elaine’s room, making it appear as if she was looking for valuables, but for once in her illustrious career that was not her intention. She had made a promise to John and, despite what many people thought of La Cioccolata, she did keep promises to those she called her friends. Leaving the room in a state that showed it had been searched by an expert, she repeated the process in Cathy’s room, before heading back down the stairs, clutching something she had retrieved from the linen cupboard.
“All right, pets?” she said as she walked back in. She noticed that Cathy had managed to shuffle her chair closer to her mothers, but decided not to do anything about it at this time.
“R u dn?” Elaine mumbled through her cloth filled mouth.
“Almost – I just want to have a look in your lovely safe first,” Coco said with a smile. “Do you want to watch?” The angry glare she got back from Elaine gave its own answer, while Cathy looked on silently. “I thought that might be your answer, so I brought a little present.” Coco held up two white cotton pillow cases, and walked behind the two women. “Now, you just sit nice and quiet, and I’ll finish off here,” she said as she pulled one over Elaine’s head. “I know its Saturday, but I’m sure the postman will come eventually,” she continued as the second case went over Cathy’s head, leaving both women with only the haziest view of the room. Coco stood in front of them, waving to see if they would react, but getting no response she quickly picked up her rucksack and walked to the other side of the desk.
The safe was modern, undoubtedly recommended by John, but intended as a deterrent rather than as the last word in security, so it yielded to Coco’s expertise after a few minutes. She confirmed that there really was nothing of value inside as she removed some papers and scattered them on the desk. Taking one more look at the women, she reached into her rucksack and took out a soft velvet sack, which she noiselessly laid on the desk on top of the papers, before starting to gather up the things which she had left scattered on the floor.
“I’ll be off now,” she said loudly, causing both Elaine and Cathy to turn their heads towards the sound of her voice. “Enjoy your weekend.”
Coco walked quickly out of the office, closing the door behind her and returned to the alarm cupboard as the grandfather clock struck seven. She pressed the button to re-engage the alarm system. A steady beeping sound warned Coco that she had only sixty seconds to leave the house before the alarm became active. She closed the cupboard door and heard the lock engage automatically. She closed the front door and re-locked it with her lock-picks. She waited a few seconds longer for the beeping to finish.
The morning sun had risen to come over the tops of the trees, casting shadows over the gravel drive and illuminating a stone path that ran round the side of the building. Coco used this to make her way round the side of the house, keeping to the remaining shadows as much as possible, and made her way to the rear garden. A path of paving slabs ran across the immaculate lawn, and it was to this path that Coco kept until she reached the bottom edge of the garden, which looked out over a post-and-rail fence onto a grass field. A number of sheep were grazing there; they watched her in the slightly nervous way that sheep do as Coco quickly climbed over the fence and started to walk around the edge of the field.
The early-morning dew was still heavy on the grass, so moisture steadily soaked through Coco’s canvas trainers as she followed a route between the grass and the soft mud at the edges of the field so as not to leave any identifiable footprints. She shrugged off the growing discomfort as she crossed over several other fields, her eyes fixed on a stand of beech trees that was slowly growing as she approached.
Eventually she slipped into the woodland. The edge of the wood was a dense thicket of sweet-smelling sycamore and earthy hazel. Once she was through that, she headed deeper amongst the tall grey trunks of the beech trees with the sunlight filtering through the bare winter branches, dry leaf litter crunching under her feet as she went. After a few minutes she came across a tree with a rucksack hanging by its straps from a low branch. She lifted it down onto the ground and shrugged off the smaller one that was on her back, placing it alongside.
Coco looked cautiously around the silent woodland and satisfied herself that she was alone before opening the larger rucksack and taking out a black bin liner which she shook open and set on the ground. With relief, she was at last able to pull the balaclava off her head, rubbing her grey hair to relieve the itching that her sweat had started to cause. She tossed the mask and then her gloves into the bin liner. With her hands now bare, Coco was able to pop the grey contact lenses out of her eyes and disposed of them too. She retrieved the two plastic carrier bags that had protected her feet on the outward journey and laid them on the ground, still inside-out, as an improvised foot mat. She removed her shoes and then peeled off her soaking wet socks, again putting them all in the bin liner. She took her sweater off next and used it as a towel to dry her feet before discarding it. As she took off the thermal top that had been under her jumper, Coco shivered slightly – even with the sun beginning to warm the land, it was still a very cold morning. Working quickly, she continued to strip off as her leggings, long johns and undergarments all went onto the growing heap in the bin liner.
Now completely naked and with her teeth chattering, Coco turned her attention to the set of clothes that were in the larger rucksack. She quickly donned clean underwear and sighed with relief as she pulled on a pair of warm brown woollen tights over her legs, followed by a pair of olive green corduroy culottes and a thick bottle green woollen sweater. Pulling a pair of thick grey socks over her feet, she fastened on a pair of stout walking shoes and stomped on the ground. A zip-up tweed jacket, a scarf around her neck and a woollen hat on her head followed. She rummaged in the rucksack again and retrieved a small polythene bag containing wet wipes which she used to remove the make-up from around her eyes, checking the result with a small hand mirror. The used wipes went into the bin liner and Coco completed her transformation by putting her glasses on.
Coco turned to the small black rucksack again. She removed her lock-picks, the electronic device that she had used to overcome the Harpers’ alarm system and her dart gun and transferred them to one of the side pockets in the larger rucksack that had contained her change of clothes. She dumped the small rucksack, together with the few unused lengths of rope it still contained, into the bin liner then gathered and knotted the top, stowing the whole thing inside the larger rucksack, fastened the flap and hoisted it onto her shoulders. She pulled a pair of warm woollen gloves out of her jacket pockets and put them on her hands.
A short walk brought Coco out onto a footpath, and if anyone had been walking their dogs in the area they would have seen a small middle-aged woman with grey hair peeking out from under a woollen hat taking an early- morning walk in the sunlight. Other than a fox, which eyed her suspiciously before going about its business, Coco saw no-one as she briskly covered two miles, eventually climbing over a gate and finding herself in a lay-by on a public road. A grey car was parked there, the boot of which opened as Coco approached. Placing her rucksack in the back, she closed the boot and opened the front passenger door, settling herself in as the driver looked out onto the road. He turned and looked at Coco as she took her hat and gloves off.
“All done,” Coco said as John Jacobs handed her a cup of steaming coffee from a flask.
“None at all.”
“And you kept your promise not to touch anything else?”
Coco hesitated, the cup next to her lips, before she took another deep drink. “I didn’t touch anything else.”
John looked at her, a smile on his lips but a look that showed his understanding of the woman who was sitting next to him. “Are you sure?” he said with a hint of concern in his voice
Coco smiled as she handed the cup back to him “Really and truly. Come on – we haven’t finished yet”
As John pulled into a side road, Coco looked out at a number of cars that had parked around a group of multi-coloured bins. He stopped the car, and opened the boot as Coco climbed out of the passenger seat. She watched as John rummaged around under the metal door, before extracting a box of empty bottles and handing them to Coco.
“Would you do me a favour and put these into the recycling bins,” he said as he handed the box to Coco. “I’ll take care of the rest of the rubbish.” As he said this, John took a sealed black bag out of the boot and closed the lid down, walking towards the communal dump as Coco headed towards the large brown bin.
She looked over as John walked past the barrier to the main dump, and started to pick out the brown glass bottles and feed them through the holes at the side of the bin. It took a few minutes to work her way down the line, by which time John had returned and was climbing back behind the wheel. Leaving the box in a pile by the bins, she joined John in the car and watched as he drove past the JCB as it started to crush the piles of bags against the wall.
“So,” John said as he turned back onto the main road, “How about a spot of breakfast while I settle our accounts?”
“Sounds good,” Coco said, “It’s been a long day already and I’m getting hungry.”
“Welcome to my humble abode.”
Coco looked round the entrance hallway to the flat as John closed the door behind them. He parked Coco’s rucksack on the floor and took her jacket, hanging it on an old coat tree and placing his own checked jacket next to it. Waiting while Coco removed her walking boots, John indicated a door to the right and opened it for her to enter.
She looked round the spacious living room, taking in the little details that made it clear this was the residence of a man with considerable taste. The walls were lined with an assortment of pictures and drawings, framed and annotated, while the polished wooden floor had a number of Persian rugs scattered where there was room between the items of furniture in there.
There were two large armchairs placed either side of a small couch, while to one side was an unusual-looking large wooden chair with a pedestal base, arms and a footrest. From its slightly battered appearance, it had clearly seen many years of hard wear, but the soft gleam of beeswax polish on its slightly pinkish wood testified to a careful and loving restoration. The back and seat were upholstered in chestnut brown grained leather secured to the wood with closely spaced brass dome-headed nails.
“Lovely wood,” Coco commented, caressing it with her hand.
“It’s beech. It’s hard to tell with country carpenter pieces like this but I think it dates from the 1830s or 1840s and was probably made here in Kent from locally grown wood. I’ve reupholstered it, but other than that, all I’ve done is to give it a clean and polish.”
“Barber’s chair?” Coco ventured.
“Not quite – look here.”
John pointed out a detail on the arms of the chair. On the outward facing side of each arm was a sort of staple fashioned from heavy brass rod. Each one was two inches wide and stood about a quarter of an inch clear of the wood.
Coco stared in puzzlement first at the chair, then at John.
“It’s a dentist’s chair,” he explained. “This one dates from the time anaesthetics were an expensive optional extra, so it has these fittings for straps to hold the patient down. There are more on the back of the chair, the sides of the seat and the bit above the footrest.”
Coco winced involuntarily as she imagined all too clearly what some occupants of the chair must have experienced.
“I picked it up a few years ago in an auction,” John continued as he brought a glass of whisky over to her. “I buy old pieces for the shop, but I like to collect old curios like this myself. Reminds me of some of the people I once used to visit. Here – this should warm you up enough to take your hat and scarf off.”
“Thanks, I need a lot of thawing after this morning” Coco said as she took the glass. Taking a sip, she looked at John as he stood there. “You won’t join me?”
“Maybe later – I don’t like to mix drink and business. Would you come to the office for a minute? I have something to show you.”
He walked towards the door, Coco following, and opened a second door a little further down the corridor. Walking in, Coco saw a typical office set up, with a desk and chair and a computer set up to one side. Like the living room, the walls were lined with framed pictures, mainly of John shaking hands with various people. Coco was particularly taken with one showing John standing next to a tall, thin grey-haired man in spectacles. She turned and looked at him as he smiled.
“Yes, I did support him when he was at Number 10, and yes I was aware of his little predilections. I may tell you how I know of them later – but for now, let me show you something.” He stood in front of a painting that depicted some dogs playing poker.
“I think that’s the best print I’ve ever seen of that picture,” Coco said admiringly.
“Who said it was a print?” John reached up and touched the top of the frame, and as the frame swung out Coco whistled at the gleaming metal door that was revealed, a number of illuminated panels flashing on the outside.
“I see you take security seriously – I didn’t see any alarms when I came in,” she said as John stepped to one side.
He smiled as he replied “You won’t – not unless you have a sweeper to use, and even then some of them are incredibly well hidden. Now, let’s see what I have to offer.”
“Aren’t you afraid I may see how your safe works?”
“Good luck with that – my young associate set this up, and he knows virtually every trick in the book.” He put his eye to one of the brightly lit panels, and pressed his right index finger against another. Coco could hear an electronic hum before the door swung silently open, and realised that this was as good a security system as she had ever seen.
“Biometric locks – I’m impressed,” she whispered as John withdrew a tray covered in a velvet cloth. Placing it gently on the desk top, he drew back the covers and revealed a dazzling array of items of jewellery. Her whisper went into a low whistle as she examined the collection laid out in front of her.
“As we agreed, you can choose one of these as a reward for your help, Coco.”
She sat herself down on the opposite side of the desk, and as John settled into a large oak chair he watched her picking up each of the items in turn, examining them closely and turning each one so that the light from the desk lamp glistened off the jewels. “Where did you get all of this from,” she asked as she looked up at him.
“Now Coco – a forty year career in two lines if work where fine art and workmanship are involved? I picked them up over the years. All of these are from the last ten years – no nasty little secrets hiding behind them. So, which one will it be?”
Looking over the tray for a few moments, Coco finally picked up a crucifix, made of white gold and studded with clear diamonds that sparkled in the light. Taking a small velvet bag from her own pocket, she placed it inside and replaced the bag. Looking up, she saw John looking at her, one eyebrow raised quizzically.
“No, John, I haven’t found religion yet. This may be the first time in my life I’ve actually done the right thing for the right reasons – this will be a reminder to me of that in the years ahead.”
“Funny,” John said as he covered up the remaining items and picked up the tray. “I suppose I should thank you.”
“For not taking the most valuable item in the collection – I was almost sure you would.” Replacing the tray in the safe, John pushed the door to and replaced the picture. As he sat back down, the telephone on the desk started to ring. Picking up the receiver, he said, “John Jacobs, how can I help you?” He listened for a moment, then looked at Coco indicated she should be quiet as he pressed a button on the phone and replaced the handset.
“My apologies, Elaine, you caught me drinking a cup of coffee before work. Has my respected friend DS Evans had some news for you?”
Coco recognised the female voice on the speaker. “No, John, he hasn’t, but the strangest thing has happened. I… I…”
“Elaine, calm down, you sound like you’ve had a great shock. What’s happened?”
“I have had a shock – we were robbed again. At least, I think we’ve been robbed, but…”
John smiled as he looked over at Coco. “Again? Elaine you’d better start at the beginning. Tell me what happened.”
The female voice took a deep breath, distinctly audible over the phone. “Well, I was woken up this morning by an intruder pointing some sort of gun at me. She made me get up, tied my wrists together behind my back and then stuffed a pair of my own panties in my mouth before tying a couple of scarves over it.
“All the time she kept talking to me, in this soft northern accent, before she took me by the arm and led me down to the study.”
“What did she look like? It wasn’t the same person, was it?”
“I’m not sure – she was certainly small, fat and dressed in black. She had this weird mask over her head, but it was definitely a woman.
“Anyway, she took me into the office, and I saw Cathy sitting there, bound to the chair and with a wide strip of sticking plaster stuck over her mouth. The intruder sat me down in a chair next to her, before lashing me tightly to the back with rope and securing my ankles to the chair legs.”
“Are you both all right?”
“Yeah – I’m getting to that. Anyway, she left the two of us there for a few minutes, grunting at each other before Cathy started to slide her chair over to be next to me. She’d almost made it when the woman walked back in, and said she wouldn’t be much longer. She then pulled a pillowcase over my head, and presumably over Cathy’s as well, and then I listened as she did some other things before walking out of the office and closed the door.”
“Any idea what time that was?”
“Seven o’clock this morning – I heard the clock strike in the hallway when the door was closing.
“Anyway, I tried to get myself free, but with my wrists trapped between my back and the chair backrest I couldn’t move at all, and my feet were tied to the chair legs. I could hear the other chair scraping on the floor, so I presumed Cathy was also trying to get free. I could see her arms pulled behind the back of the chair, and when I was being tied up I could see she was just as securely bound as I ended up, so I had no idea how she could get free if I wasn’t able to.
“I don’t know how long passed, but I was surprised when I started to feel the cloth been slowly pulled off my head. When it was finally pulled off over my face, I looked to the side but couldn’t see Cathy at all. Well, I started to scream out when I heard her say ‘It’s all right, Mum – I’m behind you.’
“I looked over my shoulder and saw Cathy had moved her chair so it was behind mine. She turned and looked at me, and I could see the tape hanging on one side of her mouth. She’d used her teeth to pull the pillow case off my head and I could see it lying on her lap and another pillow case on the floor.
“‘I managed to shake the hood off, and used my tongue to moisten the tape enough to pull it off my mouth. Now, sit still – I can see the rope holding you in place is held by one knot. I’m going to try and undo the knot with my fingers, and give you enough slack to work your hands free.’
I didn’t notice at the time – fear tends to block out these things – but the burglar hadn’t tied Cathy to the chair as tightly as she had me. I guess she thought I would give more trouble than a seventeen year old girl who was scared out of her wits.”
John glanced over at Coco, who was sitting smiling as she listened to the conversation. “It would appear your daughter has surprised you, Elaine. I see you’re calling her Cathy now and not Catherine.”
“Am I? I guess I am – she’s grown up so much and I hadn’t noticed. Anyway, she somehow managed to undo the knot and feed the rope back through, so that I was eventually able to get my chest free. Cathy shifted her chair round so that the back of her chair was at the side of mine, and I twisted round to let her get to the rope around my wrists. A few minutes later, I was rubbing my wrists and pulling that gag out of my mouth.
“‘Can you get yourself free, Mum?” Cathy said as she looked over her shoulder at me, and I nodded as I reached down and started to untie the ropes that were holding my own legs to the chair. I then stood up, nearly tumbled over, and started to untie Cathy from her chair. She told me how the intruder had woke her up first, and bound her to the chair in the office before gagging her and going to fetch me. I guess she wanted her as a – I don’t know – a bargaining chip if I refused to cooperate.
“Once she was free, I looked round the office to see what might have been taken.”
“The files – tell me you took my advice and moved them somewhere else.”
“Yes, yes, they’re elsewhere, but that’s not the strange thing. There was a small bag on the table, and when I opened it….”
The line fell silent.
The silence continued before the woman said “John, the bag had all my missing jewellery in it.”
“All of it?”
“Yes, and even stranger, the jewellery had been cleaned. You should see how it looks now!”
“Cleaned? Well, now, that’s a new twist,” John said with a smile. “Listen, Elaine, what else have you done?”
“Nothing yet – I wanted to call you and let you know.”
“You haven’t spoken to the police?”
“No – should I?”
“Call DS Evans and tell him what you told me. They need to know the jewellery has turned up, and they’ll want to have a look round and do some forensic tests on the items. Has anything else been taken?”
“I don’t know – Cathy, take a look upstairs and see what you can find out.”
“All right, Mum.” John heard the reply from the young girl as Elaine went on, “I’ll call the police right now.”
“Elaine – tell Evans I’m coming out as well. He won’t mind me being there, and I want to offer any assistance I can. I need to open up the shop first, but I shouldn’t be more than an hour.”
“All right, John – I’ll see you in a little while.”
The line went dead, and as John ended the call he turned to Coco.
“What,” she said, “Did you think I wouldn’t keep to our agreement?”
“I thought you would, but some old habits die hard. Listen – can you hang around for a few minutes? I need to tell my assistant what’s happened, and there’s something special I want to show you. If I take you back to the main room?”
“Of course,” Coco said as she stood up and walked back to the living room. John showed her in, and closed the door gently behind himself as he left her there. She walked round the room, picking up and examining a number of small items such as an inlaid snuff box that was on the coffee table, and a picture of the Norfolk Broads that hung on the wall. As she walked round, her attention was drawn again to the heavy wooden chair that was set off to one side, and she examined it very carefully.
“Alex will take care of the shop,” John announced as he returned, so there’s no problem my going to see how Elaine and Cathy are doing. “There’s something else I really want you to see before I go, Coco.”
John led Coco across the room and pointed out a frame hanging on the wall. On closer examination, it was somewhere between a very shallow glass-fronted cabinet and a very deep picture frame. Inside was an old-fashioned straitjacket, with its arms folded across in front.
“You have the strangest things here, John. Why a straitjacket?”
“It’s a present from a very famous magician. Do you remember Flora MacKenzie?”
“Of course I do,” Coco replied with a smile. “I watched her television programs from when I was a very little girl. I was fascinated, especially when she used to do her escape tricks.”
“I met her back in the late 90s. She had decided to sell up her house in London and go and live in a hotel by the seaside and she wanted someone to value her furniture and get a good price for it. I worked on her behalf and she was very pleased with the result. She gave away a lot of personal items to friends and I was honoured to receive this. There’s a card from her inside the case.”
Coco stepped a little closer and saw a white card about the size of a postcard. It bore the logo Flora MacKenzie used for her television shows – an upturned top hat with a pair of white rabbit ears sticking up out of it – and a hand-written inscription: To John, who knows how to look after antiques of all kinds, Flora.
Turning to look at John, Coco was surprised to see her dart gun in his hand, pointing at her.
“Whatever happened to honour amongst thieves?” she asked.
“It’s still there, and I’m not planning to relieve you of your reward. Please, take the jacket out of the case and put it on.”
Coco stared back at John, silently weighing up the situation.
“If you don’t, I’ll try this little toy on you and see what happens.”
“Trust me, I know what happens, but why?”
“Sorry to be so mistrusting, but I want to be sure that there is absolutely nothing missing from that house before I let you go on your way.”
Coco continued to look steadily back looked at John, then shrugged. “I’d probably do the same thing in your place,” she admitted as she opened the case containing the straitjacket.
The jacket was supported on a coat-hanger bracketed out from the back panel of the case. Coco lifted it off carefully and examined it. It was made from heavy canvas, with thick leather straps on the cuffs and waist and buckles strategically placed at the back.
“OK, I promise not to do any funny business, John, so you can put the gun down and help me into this thing.” Coco handed the straitjacket to John, unwound the scarf from around her neck and dumped it on a nearby chair then stood with her arms stretched out in front of her.
“So, what are you planning to do?” Coco asked as John slid the sleeves up over her arms.
“Well, first I plan to fasten this jacket up nice and tight, so that you don’t feel uncomfortable. Then I’ll invite you to have a seat and make sure you are entertained, after which I’ll head off to see Elaine. When I come back, I’ll make it up to you with lunch. Questions?”
“Are you sure this thing is going to fit me?” Coco said as she looked at the jacket. “Flora MacKenzie was a lot taller and thinner than me, you know.”
“Escape artists usually like them fairly loose, so there’s probably plenty of room – let’s just see, shall we?”
“Oh well – it’s been a while since I’ve been done up in one of these.”
Coco found that her arms went barely went half way down the sleeves, but she knew that was a moot point where a jacket like this was concerned. As she stood there, looking straight ahead at the wall hangings, John closed the back of the jacket with a series of heavy buckles securing the straps so that it fitted snugly around her chest. Taking Coco’s left arm, John gently threaded the sleeve through a leather loop sewn to the front of the jacket then put the strap that extended from the end of the sleeve through a smaller loop in the right hand side seam. Repeating the process with the other arm, John then buckled the ends of the two sleeves together behind Coco’s back, so that that her arms were folded across her chest. Lastly, John took hold of a strap that was dangling from the front of the jacket, passed it between Coco’s legs and attached it to the corresponding buckle on the back of the jacket.
“How does that feel?”
“Very snug and I’m certainly not going to feel cold in here. I fancy myself as a bit of an escape artist, but it’s beyond me how Flora ever got out of this thing.”
“She never did.”
“What?” Coco protested. “But you said…”
“This is a perfectly genuine straitjacket that can be examined as thoroughly as you like. The one Flora actually escaped from looked just the same at first sight but was gimmicked so she could get out easily. The real trick was switching the jackets under the noses of everyone watching.”
“Sounds just as sneaky as some of the things we’ve got up to,” Coco said with a laugh.
“Now, have a seat,” John said indicating the dentist’s chair, and as Coco sat herself down and shuffled back so that she rested against the back she watched him remove a set of leather straps from a box he had produced. She could feel the metal buckles as she leaned back, but the thick canvas and her own sweater meant there was little discomfort.
John started by threading a strap through a staple on one side of the chair just below the point where the arms were attached. He took it across the back of the chair, through another staple and then buckled the ends together in the middle of Coco’s stomach, holding her back into the chair. The second strap was arranged similarly but higher up, so that it encircled Coco’s arms and chest.
“I can see I’m not going anywhere,” she said as she watched John fasten the buckle in the middle of her chest.
“As I recall, you said that the last time I needed to secure you – you were out within two hours. This time I hope you’ll stay put for a while longer.”
A third strap went across the top of Coco’s thighs near the front edge of the chair seat.
Coco was now held firmly back in the chair but her legs were pulled off the foot rest and hung loosely over the end of the seat.
“The footrest adjusts too,” John explained as he knelt by the side of the chair and manipulated a lever under the seat. He was then able to bring the foot rest up under Coco’s feet and tilt it so that her legs were extended slightly in front of her.
John locked the footrest in place and then produced two more straps. The first went through one of the brass staples positioned centrally a few inches above the footrest. He wrapped it around Coco’s ankles and fastened the buckle, so that her legs were clamped together and held down to the woodwork.
“Why is that one such a long strap, John?”
“The straps aren’t all original, so some of the lengths are a bit of a guess,” John admitted, “but I felt that this one would need to be long enough for a Victorian lady with a full skirt and several petticoats underneath.”
The final strap was similarly attached but higher up and went around Coco’s legs just below her knees.
“You really know how to show a girl a good time, don’t you?”
“One endeavours to provide satisfaction,” John said with a smile as he re-checked all the buckles. “Now then, let me see – ah yes. I’m afraid I’ll need to make sure you can’t disturb my assistant or the customers downstairs. Open wide now.”
Coco looked at the large handkerchief that John held in his hand, before looking up at him as she opened her mouth wide. He pushed the cloth in, making sure it filled the space but didn’t choke her, before allowing her to close her mouth so that the only sign of the packing was the slightly puffed cheeks she now had. Picking up a roll of white bandage, she leaned forward as much as she could to allow John to wrap the bandage tightly around the lower half of her face, holding the cloth in and compressing her lips slightly so that her cheeks were even more prominent. He secured the end of it with a square of Elastoplast.
“There’s a headrest too,” John told Coco swinging a small leather-covered padded cushion up into place behind her head. “And I’ll just tip you back so you’re comfortable.” There was a sharp clunk as John operated another lever under the chair seat then Coco was tilted back into a semi-reclining position.
John crossed the room to the stack of home entertainment equipment that sat surprisingly well on the Jacobean chest of drawers that supported it. He returned with a pair of lightweight cordless headphones.
“I wouldn’t want you to get bored, so I’ll pop these on for you,” John said, settling the headphones over Coco’s ears.
John returned to the entertainment system, selected several CDs from one of the drawers and loaded them into the machine.
“Hw lng wl u b?” Coco mumbled.
“Hopefully, not too long.”
Coco nodded in response.
“You might like to relax and use your imagination as the music plays,” John added as he picked up her scarf, which was still on the chair where she had dropped it. He removed her spectacles and tied the scarf over her upper face, holding the headphones in place and cutting off her sight.
Coco felt John pat her on the shoulder and say, “Enjoy yourself,” before the door opened and closed. She engaged in a token struggle against her bonds, mostly as a matter of principle to confirm that she really was helpless. She decided that she might as well make the best of her situation and settled down as the opening strains of Les Miserables came into her ears. As the orchestra swept into the overture, she closed her eyes and relaxed to the sound of the prisoners as they marched to the prison boat…
On this page, I write my last confession.
Read it well, I leave it to your keeping.
It’s the story of those who always loved you…
Coco opened her eyes as the sound of the door closing woke her up. Her first thought was where was she, and why was there a taste of cotton in her mouth. Her second thought was why she was so stiff. As she slowly came to, she remembered what had happened that day, and how John Jacobs had left her trussed up. She knew she should be angry, but then she remembered her own words. “I would do the same,” she had said – and she certainly would have if her own safety was at stake.
She felt a pair of hands reaching round her head and untying the scarf, and as she blinked at the sudden light she saw John bend over her and gently remove the headphones. He replaced her spectacles and the world came back into focus.
“Let me get you out of there so that you can stretch,” John said as he brought the chair back to its upright position and unbuckled the straps allowing Coco to sit up and lean forward. As he unfastened the straps of the jacket and freed her from the restraints, she shook her arms to restore the feeling before reaching up and starting to unravel the bandage from around her mouth. John offered her a bag to place the bandage and sodden cloth in as she spat it out. She sat up and watched as he neatly folded the straitjacket and restored it to its display case then carefully repositioned the dedication card before closing and fastening the door.
“Sleep well?” John said as he looked at Coco while she rubbed her eyes.
“I hadn’t realised just how tired I was – I don’t remember anything from you leaving until just now. I’ll have to remember that technique if I ever need an enforced break.”
She smiled as she said that, and John had to join in the joke. “So, I owe you an apology – you were as good as your word. My friend Evans is working on the theory we have some sort of jewellery fetishist out there, stealing jewellery and returning it after making it as good as it should be. There are indeed some very strange people out there.”
“You don’t say?” Coco said as she finally stood up and stretched her legs. “Anyway, no apology required. As I said, I know it was professional caution on your part – I’m not someone you can trust in the normal course of affairs.”
John had poured two small tots of whisky and held one out to Coco.
“Two whiskies before I’ve even had breakfast!” she exclaimed accepting the proffered drink and sitting down in one of the padded chairs. “So, how are the two ladies – no worse for their morning, I trust?”
“In some ways, very much the better,” John said as he sat opposite her and sipped from his glass. “I think Elaine has realised just how resourceful and brave her daughter is – she never called her Catherine once. Do you know, I don’t think she knows how she managed to get the rope holding her to that chair loose, never mind pulling it out with her hands tied behind her back?”
Coco grinned knowingly in reply.
“At any rate, Cathy Harper is the hero of the moment, and I believe Elaine is going to loosen that leash a lot on her.”
Coco smiled as she heard this. “Good – I like her; she shows a lot of talent and resourcefulness. I predict a bright future for Catherine Harper.”
“In our particular line of work?”
Placing her glass on the table, Coco shook her head. “No – although she certainly has some of the skills, she was just a young girl living out a fantasy. I don’t think she will be someone we watch coming up in the years ahead – not in that way anyway.”
John stood up and picked his jacket off the chair. “Listen – it’s after one o’clock, but I know this little pub that serves a Michelin star lunch until four. Will you allow me to treat you to a meal to make up for today?”
“Sounds wonderful,” Coco said as she stood up and tied her scarf around her neck. “I have to admit I’m famished – you never did give me that breakfast you promised.”
“Ah – I knew there was something I had forgotten. Come on then.”
As she picked up her handbag, which had been in the rucksack, Coco reached in and drew out a small rectangle of card.
“Here,” she said as John opened the door, “A small memento for you.”
John looked at the card, with a drawing in brown pen on it, and slipped it into his wallet.
“Thank you,” he said as he allowed Coco to pass out, closing the door behind him.
As they walked out, Coco said, “You know, I met Flora MacKenzie myself once – I’ll tell you all about it over lunch…”