The Chocolate Cat
“Please, don’t struggle so much or you will do yourself an injury.”
Katie stared at the man who was kneeling down beside her, wrapping a length of rope that he had cut from a new washing line around her ankles. He was dressed totally in black – sweater, trousers, shoes and leather gloves on his hands, and a black wool hat on his head. His light brown hair could be seen peeking out from underneath, but his eyes were shaded by a pair of sunglasses.
“Please, Katie, just try and stay calm,” she heard her mother saying, and she looked up to the settee where Janice Delaney was lying. She had come home a half hour earlier, only to find the intruder already inside the manor house. He had been polite and erudite, explaining when she challenged him that he was only there to steal their jewellery, and then asked her to show him to the kitchen. That was where they had found the rope, and he had got as far binding her hands together behind her back and her ankles when Katie had returned home from school.
When Katie had walked into the front room, she had seen her mother sat on the settee, dressed as she had been that morning in a light blue twin set and skirt, but with rope around her ankles, her hands behind her back and a man in black standing behind her with one hand on her shoulder and the other over her mouth. She had dropped her schoolbag, and was about to scream when the man asked her not to, and to do as he asked. When her mother nodded, Katie had agreed to allow the man to bind her own wrists together behind her back, rope around and between her arms, and then he had helped her to sit down on the floor.
Despite been in the sixth form, she still had to wear a grey pinafore dress with a white blouse underneath, with knee length socks and black shoes. He passed the end of the rope between her legs, knotting them together before tucking the loose ends back into the loops that held her ankles together, and then stood up.
“I will be back in a few minutes,” he said as he walked to the door, “If you promise not to shout out or scream, I’ll leave you alone to talk.”
“We won’t,” Janice said as she tested the ropes around her own wrists and found no give. The man smiled, and closed the door on them.
“Who is he, mum?” Katie asked quietly.
“I believe her is the man the newspapers have called ‘The Cat’ – but I can’t be certain.”
“So he’s not the person who broke into the post office – I heard Coco talking about it at school.”
“No – that was a woman, but he seems charming enough. He’s disconnected the telephone, so we can’t call for help, and I’m not expecting anyone to call. We’ll just have to make the best of it.”
A short time passed before the man came back in, carrying a small velvet sack that jingled as he placed it on the coffee table.
“Forgive me, my dear lady,” he said as he helped Janice to lie down on the couch and placed a pillow under her head, “but I am afraid it is necessary for me to prevent you and your charming daughter from talking for a while. Please, both of you try to stay calm and breathe through your noses.”
Katie watched as he took a roll of Elastoplast that she knew had been in the bathroom cupboard, tore off a long strip and pressed it over her mother’s mouth. The Cat paused for a moment, then reached down and removed the string of pearls from Janice’s neck, placing them in his sack before walking over to Katie. As a similar strip was pressed over her lips, she felt the adhesive pull at her skin, and knew it was not going to be easy to get off.
The Cat picked up the sack, smiled at the bound and gagged women and left them alone, closing the door behind him as he left.
The story of the break-in at the Manor House was all round the village the next day, especially how Mister Delaney had returned home from the office that night to find his wife and daughter struggling in the room.
In one kitchen, the conversation around the breakfast table had a slightly deeper resonance than elsewhere.
“At least it wasn’t that dreadful woman who broke in here, Coco,” her mother said as she passed some buttered toast to her daughter. “You can share your experiences with Katie when you see her.”
Coco picked up a slice with her right hand, her left arm in a sling, and munched on it. Her shoulder had been dislocated when someone known as ‘The Chocolate Thief’ had broken into their house, bound and gagged her mother in the hallway and her in her bedroom, and then escaped with a large box of chocolates and some jewellery. The accident happened when Coco fell down the stairs trying to get to her mother – at least, that was the official version.
Only Coco knew the truth - she was the thief, and had arranged the break-in to allay her mother’s suspicions. She already knew this was a career for her, but she had much to learn. Even so, she had to admire the audacity of this man called The Cat, and as she took a drink of her tea she wondered how she could learn more, or even possibly meet the man…
“You were right, Katie, this is a wonderful place to look round.”
It was the monthly antiques fair in Norwich, and Katie Delaney was showing an old friend around the various tables when she spied a familiar face at one side. While her friend was casually dressed, Katie was wearing a long tweed skirt, a white cashmere jumper and a large paisley shawl around her shoulders, which rose up as she waved across the floor.
“Fantastic – he’s here,” she said as she took her friend by the arm, “John? John – I’m glad I caught you, there’s someone I would like you to meet.”
The man put down the snuff box he had been examining, and turned to greet both Katie and the mystery woman with her. He was in his early sixties, with short-cut grey hair, and wearing a light blue suit and cream shirt. He was a tall man, and slightly stocky, but he carried himself in a way that suggested he was a lot stronger than he at first appeared.
“Katie – how marvellous to see you again,” he said as he took Katie by the shoulders and kissed her on both cheeks. “It really has been far too long. So, who’s your friend?”
“Oh, I’m sorry – John, this is Colette Aldington, an old school friend who is visiting. Colette, this is John Jacobs, the antique dealer I was telling you about.”
“A pleasure,” John said as he took the hand of Colette and kissed it, appraising her as he did so. She was in her mid fifties, with short straight grey hair, and a little over five foot tall. Her body was what the more polite papers would call ‘fuller’, and what the sleazier end of the press would call fat. John noticed that her dress, while casual, did emphasise her breasts in a pleasing way, and he found himself reminded of some of the women he had met in the past. She also had the most amazing periwinkle blue eyes, which gleamed as she smiled back from behind a pair of designer glasses.
“Please, call me Coco – all my friends do,” she said as he released her hand. She was dressed in a light grey sweater and trousers, with a grey leather jacket over her upper body. “I understand you have done some deals for Katie in the past?”
“Yes – when her mother passed away I arranged for some of the belongings to be sold off, for a good amount. I pride myself on honesty with those I deal with.”
“A rare thing in the antique trade,” Coco replied as she picked up the snuff box John had been looking at. “Interesting piece – 18 carat, and a real ruby inset into the lid?”
“I see you know something of this area – do you trade in antiques?”
“No, merely a hobby of mine,” Coco said as she put the box down. “Tell me, Mister Jacobs…”
“Please,” he said with a smile, “Call me John.”
“Tell me, John, is it possible for me to come and see you in your store at some point? I believe we may have a mutual friend and I’d like to show you some of my pieces.”
“It would be a pleasure – ah, Lady Falsworth, do join us. Coco, Katie, May I introduce you to Lady Annabeth Falsworth, the wife of Lord Falsworth of Deal.”
The group had been joined by a younger woman, in her forties, with shoulder length chestnut brown hair. She was wearing a camel coat that came to just below her knees, with shiny patent leather brown boots covering her legs. On the lapel of her coat was a large bejewelled brooch that gleamed in the lights.
“Ladies,” she said in a cultured accent that only came from a private education, “I wonder if I may have a private word with Mister Jacobs?”
“Forgive me, Katie, Coco, another time perhaps,” John said with a smile as Lady Falsworth took John to one side. As they left, Coco was thinking over what she had seen of Lady Falsworth – an unexpected bonus given her plans for the next day or two.
“Friends of yours, John?” her ladyship said as she watched the two women retreating into the distance.
“One is – I’ve only just had the pleasure of meeting the smaller lady. Strange, though – I feel as if I know her from somewhere. Anyway, you wanted a word?”
“Yes – I wondered if you would be free to come to the flat tomorrow and value a few pieces for me. I’ve decided to let some of the collection go.”
“Of course – I can be in town for, say, six o’clock?”
“Fine – I’ll let Ginny know you are coming. Good day, John.”
“Good day, your ladyship,” John replied as she walked off into the distance.
The row of Georgian houses stood on the curved arcade just a mile or so from the centre of town. Each had been converted for some time into three studio flats, and was occupied by the most exclusive of tenants – showbiz, the nouveau rich, and some of the local dignitaries, of whom Lady Falsworth was just one. She occupied the top flat at one end of the parade, with the main entrance the only way of gaining entry. That was guarded by a video camera and lock that could only be opened from the inside by anyone except Annabeth or Ginny, her maid of long standing.
As a result, it was not an uncommon sight for people to call in and make deliveries. This particular afternoon saw a short, plump woman pushing leaflets through a door, that she retrieved a handful at a time from her shabby brown rucksack. She was wearing a long black military greatcoat, with the edges of black boots barely visible below the hemline, and a black woollen hat with a fringe of chestnut coloured hair peeking out from underneath. The sun was shining brightly, so her dark sunglasses didn’t draw too much attention as she progressed towards the end of the terrace.
As she approached the end house, she looked carefully around and slipped behind the hedge that lined the front of one house. Withdrawing a parcel and a clipboard from her rucksack, she slipped out again and made her way to the end house, stopping to press the intercom button for Lady Falsworth.
A voice with a light northern accent could be heard saying “Yes?”
“I have a delivery for Lady Falsworth, and it needs a signature.”
From within the flat, Ginny looked at the monitor and saw a woman standing there, with a clipboard and a parcel balanced on it. She shrugged her shoulders, wondering what her mistress had ordered this time, and said “Come on up,” as she pressed the intercom. The front door swung open, and the woman made her way quickly up to the top of the staircase.
Ginny thought for a moment about asking Lady Falsworth what she was expecting to be delivered, but chose instead to sign for it herself. She did not like to disturb her while she was making preparations for her visitor later that day. Instead, she made her way along the corridor and opened it to allow the parcel to be delivered.
It therefore came as a shock to her when, on opening the door, she was hit in the face with a spray of something that made her feel instantly woozy. She faintly saw the delivery woman standing there as her eyes started to close and she slipped into a comatose state, falling to the marbled floor as she did so.
The woman silently closed the door to the flat behind her, knelt down and drew a pre-cut length of soft white cotton rope from the pocket of her greatcoat. She quickly rolled Ginny over onto her front, pulled her wrists behind her and started to pass the rope around them as they lay crossed in the middle of her back. She worked quickly, winding the rope around and between while making sure the rope stayed over the cuffs of Ginny’s white blouse. Satisfied with the binding, she rolled Ginny back over, took hold of the woman by the armpits and quickly dragged her back into the kitchen.
Laying the maid gently on the floor, she took a plastic bag out of her rucksack, and withdrew three strips of white cotton cloth. Ginny started to moan as the effects of the narcotic started to wear off, but she offered no resistance as one length was rolled into a small ball and stuffed into her mouth, with the second length used to hold it into place by wrapping it around her mouth twice, knotting the ends at the side of her face. The final strip was tied over her eyes as she started to regain consciousness, moaning as she started to realise something was wrong.
The intruder sat across Ginny’s back, pulling her ankles up and starting to tie a second length of rope around them. The maid was wearing flat black shoes over white tights, and her black skirt was starting to fall down as her crossed ankles were lashed together. She stood up, looking at the maid as she started to roll on the floor, and removed her greatcoat to reveal a black latex cat suit, with knee length black leather boots and black leather gloves that went over her elbows. She opened her rucksack, pulling out a new grey one, folded the greatcoat neatly and placed it inside the old rucksack.
From the grey backpack, she drew out a black eye mask. She removed the sunglasses to reveal eyes which were surrounded in black makeup, the green colour of her irises accentuated by the background. Fixing the eye mask to her face, she removed her hat to reveal a head of curly chestnut brown hair, before making her way to the intercom. Searching quickly, she found a hidden button just below the shelf the small set was sitting on, and covered the panic button with a piece of card, holding it in place with tape. Opening the cupboard underneath the monitor, she found the recorder that contained the records not only for the intercom, but the various security cameras she had noticed when she visited the flat two weeks ago as a gas worker.
She smiled to herself at that thought – twice Her Ladyship had met her, and not realised it was the same woman. She hoped the third time would be as good, as she removed the disks for the last three days and stored them in a plastic bag.
The woman then turned her attention back to the maid, who had managed to roll onto her back. Opening the rucksack, she took out several lengths of rope, and selected a long one which she used to secure the captive’s legs together, passing them around above and below her knees before cinching them and passing the rope between both layers. She checked the ropes carefully, making sure the binding was tight enough to hold without cutting off the circulation, before helping Ginny to sit up.
The maid grunted something, but the black clad woman merely took another long length of rope and passed it around her arms and chest, pulling with each pass to secure and constrict the maid’s movement, before passing the rope between both layers behind her back to pull the ropes tighter. Her arms were further anchored by two short ropes tied around the layers under Ginny’s armpits. Her wrists were then secured into the small of her back by another rope that was passed around her waist and pulled tightly. It was uncomfortable, but Ginny’s protests were unheeded as she was placed on her stomach and her ankles pulled back behind her legs, as a last length of rope was used to secure them to her wrists.
Satisfied that the maid had been secured, the intruder carefully placed her old rucksack and coat in a corner of the kitchen, before collecting the detritus of her work and stowing that in the grey rucksack as well. Taking hold of the new rucksack, she quietly made her way out of the room and walked down the corridor.
Lady Falsworth was at in an armchair, reading a book with a glass of wine beside her and a selection of fine chocolates on a plate, when she heard the door open. Picking one from the plate, she said “Who was at the door, Ginny?” as she looked up, but stopped with her hand just short of her mouth.
In front of her was a woman wearing a black latex cat suit with knee-length boots and over-the-elbow gloves and an eye mask over her green eyes. The light reflecting on the suit highlighted the curves of her body, and as she stood there Annabeth could not stop herself thinking, “Who is this fat woman?”
“Good afternoon, your ladyship,” the woman said as she put a rucksack on the floor and aimed what looked like a dart gun at her. “Please, do not scream or make any sudden moves. I assure you, I would not hesitate to use this on you if I have to.”
Annabeth placed the chocolate back on her plate and stood up. “May I ask what the meaning of this is,” she said as she stared at the intruder. She, in turn, was assessing Lady Falsworth, as she stood there in a white silk blouse, black trousers and patent leather shoes.
“This, your ladyship, is a robbery. I have already secured your maid, and regretfully had to use a mild form of the sedative in the darts held in this gun on her. I assure you, she is fine, but if you do not cooperate I will be forced to use a full dose on you, and you will not enjoy the after effects of the sedative if you do so. Now, do I have to shoot, or will you cooperate?”
Annabeth considered for a moment, and then raised her hands above her head. “It would appear I do not have a choice – you had best be about your business.”
“Thank you – May I trouble you first to remove your scarf from around your neck, and place it on the table, then please turn around and place your hands behind your back.”
Annabeth was both impressed and intrigued by this woman, so she quickly untied the Hermes scarf that had been around her neck and laid it on the table. As she did so, the masked intruder laid her rucksack on the floor and removed a number of neatly coiled sections of white cotton rope.
“If you please, your ladyship,” she said as Annabeth turned and placed her hands behind her back. She looked over her shoulder as her hands were placed together, palm to palm, and a length of rope passed around and between them to secure them in place. A longer length was then passed around her elbows and pulled tight, not only bringing her elbows together but causing her shoulders to be pulled back and her breasts to strain against the silk of her blouse.
She did not find it too uncomfortable as the rope was looped around the lengths between her elbows, and secured in place, but had the distinct feeling that this was only the start. The masked woman pulled a heavy oak chair into the centre of the room, and taking Annabeth by the arm she helped her to sit down, guiding her secured arms over the back of the chair as she did so.
As she returned to her rucksack, Annabeth watched as the intruder picked up a long coil of rope, before stopping by the table beside her armchair and looking at the chocolates. She examined the assortment on the plate, picked up a dark brown one with a swirl on top and placed it into her mouth, slowly chewing and savouring the taste…
“Oh my god – you’re La Cioccolata,” Annabeth said as her eyes widened. Coco turned to look at her, inclined her head and smiled as she slowly unwound the large coil of rope.
“My reputation precedes me,” she said as she tied the end of the rope to the point where the chair leg met the seat on the left hand side, and proceeded to wind the rope around Annabeth’s upper body and the back of the chair, weaving the rope through the slots and passing it around her in such a way that the rope encircled her arms and chest above and below her breasts. Securing the bands together behind the back of the chair, she then ran it over her captive’s left shoulder, under the ropes below her breasts and then back over her right shoulder, finally tying the end off to her wrists to hold them more securely in place.
Annabeth tried to move, but the coils effectively held her rigid against the chair back. She could breath – just – but not a lot else could be accomplished. She watched Coco as she walked back over and selected another length of white rope, before walking back and crossing Annabeth's ankles and starting to lash them together.
The rope pulled her ankles together, and Annabeth watched as it was passed around and between her legs, then around her shoes before it was tied off. A second length went around her ankles and the crossbar of the chair that ran between the legs underneath, ensuring there was no way she could try to stand up in the chair. A final length was used to secure her lap to the seat of the chair, before Coco methodically checked every knot and binding to make sure it would hold.
“I see why you have the reputation you do,” Annabeth said as Coco packed the remaining coils neatly away, before removing two sealed plastic bags from her rucksack.
“I need to keep you quiet now,” Coco said with a smile as she removed a small black cotton square from one bag. Rolling it into a ball, she held it in front of Annabeth's mouth. “Please, your ladyship, open wide – if I have to drug you to put this in place, I will, but you may not like it when you cannot vomit later.”
“Well, when you put it like that,” Lady Falsworth mumbled as she opened her mouth and allowed Coco to push the cloth in. Removing a long black scarf from the second bag, she rolled it into a thick band and pulled it between Annabeth’s lips, passing it round her head twice before securing the ends together at the base of her neck.
She stopped and looked at the woman sitting in the chair. “If you will excuse me, your ladyship, I need to check your room now. Please, close your eyes.”
Annabeth wondered why she had said that, until she watched Coco pick up her own scarf, shake it out and fold it into a wide band. The darkness that engulfed her as the cloth went over her eyes and was knotted tightly at the back of her neck meant she failed to see Coco leave the room quietly, closing the door behind her.
Satisfied she had time to complete her work, Coco made her way to the master bedroom. It was furnished much as the rest of the house was, with a large king sized bed in the middle of the room and a large dressing table. She started her search there, working methodically through the items on the table until she came to a large black circular case. Opening it, she saw a pad and blusher powder, and made to set it back down when she heard a rattle from within the case. Looking more closely, she saw a thin line running round the side of the case, and holding the top and bottom in her gloved hands she twisted the case in opposite directions.
The top half came away to reveal a false bottom, with a little leather sack hidden inside. Coco opened the bag to reveal a pair of pearl earrings set in gold. She carefully placed them in her pocket, and continued her search through the items on the top, then through the shelves.
She then searched through the large wardrobes, but despite the variety of expensive clothing there was no sign of a safe or a jewellery box. This did not upset Coco – she knew this was a woman of high breeding, and did not expect to find anything in there. A large chest of drawers took her attention next, and she carefully emptied out each one, only to find nothing.
This intrigued Coco – she knew there had to be a jewellery store somewhere, but where? On a hunch, she put her hand vertically into each of the drawers in turn, noting where on her gloved arm each one went, and discovering that the second drawer from the bottom seemed to be somewhat more shallow than the others.
Carefully, she lifted the drawer out, placed it on the bed and withdrew a small thin blade from one of her copious pouches. Running the blade around the edge, she nodded as it slipped past a hidden slot, and gently prized out the false bottom. “Clever girl,” she said as she revealed a velvet lined cache of gold, jewels and pearls underneath.
Coco removed a larger velvet sack from a pouch that was attached to her suit, and laid it on the bed. Picking each piece of jewellery up, she carefully examined it before placing it in the sack ensuring each piece was packed with loving care. Satisfied, she replaced the false bottom and placed the drawer carefully back into the chest, before leaving the room and making her way back to the main area.
Annabeth raised her head as she heard the door open, repeating over and over in her mind the description she would give the police. “Just over five feet tall, fuller figure, dressed in black, chocolate brown hair under cap, green eyes through mask….” Coco deposited the velvet sacks into her bag, and then looked around the room for anything unusual.
Everything seemed to have a place – the books neatly stacked on the shelf, the music centre with the CDs carefully arranged underneath, the home entertainment system with television, satellite box, and Blu-Ray player and the video tapes lined up underneath…
Coco had just realised something when the telephone rang. She stood still, while Lady Falsworth tried to shake free from some of her bonds. Eventually, the answering machine kicked in.
“Hello – I cannot come to the telephone at the moment, but if you could leave a message I will call you back just as soon as I can.”
Both women listened intently as the beep sounded, and a male voice spoke.
“Good afternoon, your ladyship, this is John Jacobs. I regret to say I will not be able to call as planned this evening – something has come up unexpectedly. Perhaps you could call me to arrange a new time? I look forward to hearing from you.”
The line went dead, and Annabeth slumped back into the chair. That was it – her one hope of someone coming and rescuing her quickly was gone. Coco looked on and felt almost sorry for her – but not for long, as she knelt down and scanned the titles on the tape boxes. One in particular caught her eye – Take The Money And Run. She gently pressed on the spine, and watched as what had appeared to be a row of tapes slowly came forward on two levers, revealing the false cover that concealed a safe under the entertainment system.
Standing up, Coco walked back to her pack and drew out a small electrical device, which she fixed to the front of the safe with a magnetic clamp. Pressing a small button, she helped herself to another of the chocolates as the numbers on the front panel whirred round.
“My compliments to you on your security system – and your taste in chocolate. Hand made in Vienna, I believe,” she said to Annabeth, who could only grunt as she heard the click of her safe opening. Coco knelt down, and withdrew several more trays of diamond and emerald jewellery which she carefully loaded into another velvet sack.
Replacing the trays, she next took out a small metal box, which she opened quickly to reveal several rolls of fifty pounds notes. These she also placed into a separate sack, before returning everything to the safe and carefully closing the door, removing the device as she did so.
Looking further around the room, she noticed that at one spot in the bookshelf the books seemed to be a little bit tidier than the rest. Walking over, she tapped on the spine, and heard instead of a soft thud a metallic sound. Working round the books with her gloved fingers, she prised out another box, which she opened to reveal a number of other items of jewellery, including the brooch that Coco had admired a day or two previously. These were also placed into the sack, as was the money in Annabeth’s handbag.
Coco walked back over and re-tightened the ropes holding Lady Falsworth to the chair, making her grunt in exasperation as she did so. Collecting up the bags and ropes she had not used she carefully packed them with the velvet sacks into her rucksack, except for one bag which she kept out to place the plate of chocolates in. On the plate, she left a calling card with a silhouette of a woman in black, and quickly walked out, closing the door behind her and making her way back to the kitchen.
Ginny had managed to move slightly along the floor towards the door, but offered no resistance as Coco pulled her back into the kitchen and checked her bonds, adjusting the blindfold to ensure it still blocked her sight. On a whim, she checked the store cupboards, and found several boxes of chocolates in their original wrapping. These she placed on top of the grey rucksack inside the older one, before withdrawing a small plastic bag. From this she drew out a grey jumper and a pair of light jogging trousers.
Ensuring everything else had been placed in the rucksack; she removed her gloves, hat and wig and placed them in the plastic bag, followed by her eye mask. A pair of green contact lenses went into a small case before been placed in the plastic bag, and a cosmetic wipe removed the dark makeup from around her eyes.
Placing the used wipes in a small bag, she deposited the remaining items into the grey rucksack and closed the covers, concealing the grey pack within the larger older one. Coco slipped the jumper and trousers on, pulled back on the greatcoat and picked up the rucksack, moving silently out of the kitchen and towards the front door. Checking through the peephole that no-one was present, she let herself out and through the main door, walking quickly but carefully to the nearest train station.
“I am very sorry to hear what had happened, your ladyship. I only wish I had been able to call that evening.”
It was a few days later, and John Jacobs handed Annabeth Falsworth a cup of strong tea as they sat in his antiques shop. She had come to explain why she had not called back, but also to apologise that she was unable to complete the business they had discussed.
“After all,” she said, “when we finally managed to get free and realised what had been taken, there was nothing left to trade with.” Now, she took a sip of her drink and looked at John as he looked at her in a concerned way.
“Don’t worry, John, Ginny and I are fine, and the insurance will cover the cost. I just wish that damned woman had not taken the brooch – it was a genuine family heirloom. The rest, well…”
John took a sip from his cup. “So it was a woman then?”
“Oh yes – the detective took one look at the calling card she left and shook his head, muttering La Cioccolata as he did so. Apparently she’s one of the most notorious jewel thieves in the world – I don’t know whether to feel privileged or scared.”
“The important thing is that you same through unscathed – apart from your dignity that is.” John took another sip of his drink. “At any rate, sometimes these pieces come to the attention of the trade. If I hear anything, I will let you know.”
“Thank you, John” Annabeth said as she stood up. “By the way, why could you not come that night?”
“Oh yes – I heard an old friend had passed away and went to offer my condolences. A contact from my days working in London – Margot Harman. You may not have heard of her?”
Annabeth shook her head. “No – no I can’t say I have. Was she well known?”
“In certain circles – I have to close the shop tomorrow to attend her funeral.”
“In which case, I will detain you no longer. Thank you for everything, John.”
“A pleasure, Lady Falsworth,” John said as he held the door open for his guest. As he watched her head towards her car, there were a number of thoughts running through his head. One was admiration – he knew, of course, of La Cioccolata and her reputation, and he could not help but admire the way she had conducted the robbery. His own professional pride, however, was hurt – he had advised on the security measures, as a favour to Lord Falsworth when he was around – measures she had easily compromised.
Mostly, however, the feeling was one of curiosity – he would love to meet this woman, and compare notes, perhaps even teach her a thing or two? He shook his head – he had a funeral to attend, and preparations to make.
Collier’s Wood, despite being in the Greater London metropolis, in many ways was a quiet town, and that was exemplified by the small church in a wooded area, peaceful and still, that the group of people were departing from the next day. They stopped in turn at the door of the chapel, shaking hands with the woman standing there and exchanging a few words before they left. John left just behind a stunningly beautiful woman, in a long black fur coat and hat, who waited as John exchanged a greeting before joining her.
“A fitting funeral for a grand woman, John” she said in a deep voice like melted chocolate as they walked towards a waiting car, the chauffeur by the door.
“Indeed, Madame, I think we will not see someone like Margot again in our lifetime. Did you know her well?”
“We were acquainted – met occasionally, discussed modern times as friends do. Some of the tales she told of the Richardsons and the Krays – well, let us just say the full story could never be told.”
John smiled as they walked down the gravel pathway. He looked around the quiet graveyard.
“Funny – I expected more people to be here.”
“Not many people knew just how powerful Margot was – family and friends only. They say behind every successful man is a powerful woman – for Henry, that was Margot.”
As they reached the car, John turned and saw a small, plump grey-haired woman coming out of the church. As she stopped and hugged the woman by the door, He turned to Madame X.
“Do you know that woman by Margot’s daughter at the moment? I’m sure I met her a few weeks ago.”
Madame X looked over. “You are referring to Colette? She lodged with Margot for some time in the late 70’s, and I believe they kept in touch.”
“You know her?”
“Of course – but I will not tell you what I know. Professional courtesy, John – let me put it this way. She moved in just after that raid in Hatton Garden that led to Henry spending the rest of his life at Her Majesty’s pleasure. I’m sure you will figure it out.”
She stepped into the car and looked out. “You and she have a lot more in common than you might think,” she said as the chauffeur closed the door and took his place behind the wheel.
John looked over at the woman as she walked down the pathway, before turning and heading for his own car. He had a little research to do on this woman – just a little...
For her part, although she took pains not to show it, she too had recognised John as he had spoken to the woman by the car. She was wondering what an antiques dealer from the East of England was doing at the funeral – and beginning to consider some research of her own.
A few days later, Coco was walking down the high street of her home town, on her way back to her semi-detached home. The suburb provided the perfect cover for her – as far as her neighbours knew, she worked as a consultant for an international engineering firm, which was the truth – as far as her main day job was concerned. She worked hard at the job, and was allowed to manage her own time, affording her the time and opportunity for her own researches.
The sky was turning to a rich dark blue as she approached her own gate, and let herself into the neatly-kept garden. In all respects it was a perfect home for a middle-aged woman who lived alone – an appearance Coco was proud to have maintained over the years. No-one needed to know she had bought the house outright, with no mortgage, from the proceeds of just one visit in Hampstead Heath.
Selecting a key from her handbag, she slipped it into the lock and turned it to the left, the sound of the twenty deadbolts turning a reassuring sound to her. Although she had an alarm box on the wall, the real security system inside the house was state of the art, and discreet to the point of invisibility.
As she placed her handbag on the table beside the front door, and removed her brown leather gloves, she looked round. Everything was in the correct place – well, not quite everything. The telephone directories were neatly stacked, but a little to the left of centre. The coats on the stand were not perfectly aligned. Little things, but they put Coco on alert that something was not quite right. Removing her camel coat, she placed it carefully on the stand, before taking her glasses off to wipe the condensation off them with a small cloth. Replacing the frames on her head and placing the cloth in her pocket, she withdrew from her handbag a small black box that clicked as she pressed on a button. Palming it in her hand, she made her way casually to the door to her front room and opened it.
The light from the street lights never came far into this room, not helped by the hedge that provided more privacy, but Coco could make out the form of someone sitting in one of her armchairs. She stepped forward, only to hear a male voice saying “Please, feel free to turn the light on and then close the curtains. I think we need to have a little chat, you and I.”
“Do I know you?” Coco said as she stepped into the room, but the gleam of the light from outside on a metal blade made her stop.
“Please – turn the light on and close the curtains. As I said, I think we need to talk.”
“All right,” Coco said as she switched off the taser. Walking to the window, she drew the heavy velvet curtains closed, then made her way back to the door and switched the light on.
There was indeed a man sat in her armchair, and even in his seated position Coco could see he was stocky in a muscular way. He was wearing a dark blue blazer over a black roll neck sweater, dark trousers and shoes, and had a black woollen hat over his head. In all ways normal, except for the dark stocking that covered his head and face. A large carving knife from Coco’s kitchen was beside him on a table, which he had a gloved hand on as she sat there.
“So,” Coco said as she calmly took a seat opposite him, crossing her legs as she did so, “you say that we have to talk. What do you want to talk to me about?”
“Honestly – where your safe and valuables are. Before that, however, I have a question.”
Coco looked at the man, her face set in a serious expression but her blue eyes twinkling. “All right – what is your question?”
The man smiled as he leaned forward. “Do I have the honour of addressing the woman known as La Cioccolata?”
Coco sat up, uncrossed her legs and leaned forward. “Let me answer by asking you a question first.”
“Do I have the honour of addressing the man known to police as The Cat?”
John smiled as he removed the cap and pulled the stocking off from his head, rubbing his greying hair as he did so. “I thought you recognised me at the church.”
“I did wonder what an antique dealer called John Jacobs was doing at Margot’s funeral, but when I discovered that you used to be the premier cat burglar in England I wondered if we would meet.”
“Indeed,” John said as he drew a bag round and opened it, “then imagine my surprise when I looked into a woman named Collette Aldington, or Coco – I may call you Coco? – and worked out from my research that she was the woman known as La Cioccolata. You, my dear lady, are without peer. I must, however, ask a question?”
“Do you have two wine glasses,” John said as he drew out a bottle of red wine. “It seems a shame to let this fine bottle of Burgundy go to waste.”
“I may be able to help,” Coco said as she stood and smoothed down her grey skirt. “In fact, I have a particularly fine chocolate that would complement that wine if you are interested.” She walked to a cabinet and drew out two large glasses and a box.
“Do you know, you were an inspiration to me when I first started on this career,” Coco said as she held out the glasses for John to pour the wine into. “That woman I met you with – Katie – you robbed her and her mother in my home town.”
“I know – although she never recognised me. It was some years later when we met again, and my body shape had changed somewhat. Anonymity has always been my watchword.”
“Indeed – I followed your career for some time after that. I always prefer the more direct approach myself, although at times then my planning did let me down somewhat. I take it that is where you knew Margot from?”
John raised his glass. “Before I forget, a toast – to Margot Harman. May she be at peace.”
“Or raising a ruckus somewhere,” Coco said with a smile as she raised her glass in turn. “So, what exactly can I do for you, John?”
“Well,” John said as he took a sip and accepted a chocolate from her box, “you paid a visit to a friend of mine a week or two ago – Lady Falsworth?”
“I may have, I may not have,” Coco said as she took a sip. “An excellent choice of wine, by the way.”
“Thank you – and yes, you did. She visited me afterwards, and even if she had not told me of the calling card I would have recognised your style. What exactly did you use on the maid – isofluorane?”
“No – a compound of my own devising that causes no nausea in small inhaled doses. You know, of course, that you are not going to retrieve anything I may have obtained there?”
“There’s only one thing that I would be interested in retrieving, if truth be told, and it’s the one piece I know for a fact you have not been able to sell on.”
“Ah – yes, the brooch.” Coco sipped her wine. “I have to admit, had I known what a treasure it actually was, I would not have taken it, but sometimes even the best of us make mistakes. Is it truly that historic?”
“Well, given the appearance it makes on the portrait of Queen Mary the second, I believe it is. Centuries old, instantly recognisable to those who know such things, and really too beautiful a piece to allow out of sight. She only wore it that day as she was going on to a meeting with – well, modesty forbids me from saying whom she was seeing.”
Coco smiled. “I know who she was seeing – I had visited her house a week or so earlier and looked quickly at her diary. Quite a VIP, I thought. At any rate – you are correct, I cannot dispose of it, but I’m curious to know how you will retrieve it.”
John smiled. “I assured her I would put out feelers within my community. One of them got lucky, I presume because the item had been too hot for your usual contacts and they had progressively passed it ‘down the line’. I only presume that, having recognised the issues, someone decided to try to dispose of it as expediently as possible. Something like that, anyway.”
Coco smiled. “You realise, of course, no-one will believe that?”
“I think it will pass muster just well enough for most people. I’m glad you like the wine – I kept it on the off chance we would ever meet again.”
“I knew we had met before,” Coco said as she put her glass to one side. “Hampstead Heath, 1979.”
John smiled – he still had fond memories of that particular night...
The dark night had afforded perfect cover for him as he climbed up the drainpipe of the detached house. The street lights did not meet that particular corner of the house with any great power, so no-one noticed the black clad form as it quietly opened the bathroom window and crept through the opening.
The house was quiet – perfect for him as he slowly opened the door and looked out. There were no lights on upstairs, but he could see a light on and noise could be heard from a downstairs room. He moved silently to where he knew the master bedroom to be, and opened the door just enough to allow him to slip in.
As he closed the door, he turned and realised that he was not the first person there. A blonde haired woman, whom he recognised as the lady of the house, was lying on the bed, and turned her head to where she could hear the noise from. Hearing was all she was capable of doing, however – her eyes were covered with a strip of silver tape, and The Cat could see little pads of cotton wool underneath over her eyes. Over her lips was a strip of brown sticking plaster, of the commercially available type that he knew from experience was a most effective gag.
The Cat looked over and examined the work of whoever had captured this woman. She was wearing a white cotton nightgown, with full length sleeves, and her wrists had been expertly tied above her head and to the metal headboard of the bed. Similar care had been taken with the ropes around her ankles, calves and thighs – so much so that The Cat knew this woman was going nowhere fast.
A brief examination of the room also showed someone had been there before him – although it looked undisturbed, he could see that any valuables had already been collected by someone. Most intriguing of all, however, were the small pieces of foil and coloured plastic scattered on the floor.
“Quality Street?” he mumbled to himself as he heard footsteps coming up the staircase. Flattening himself against the wall, he watched as a young woman walked in. She was short – barely over five foot tall – and what he politely termed stocky. The woman was wearing a black body stocking, dark soft shoes and leather gloves, but over the stocking was a black corselet that drew her stomach in and made her look rather attractive. He head was covered by a black woollen cap, and on her face she wore an eye mask with what looked like tinted lenses fixed into the eye sockets.
She was about to close the door when she looked up and saw The Cat standing there. She smiled, acknowledging his presence, and held the door open. “Naturally, you were here first,” he said quietly as he left, bowing his head as he passed out of the room. “Perhaps next door,” he thought to himself as he left the way he had come...
“Well, you were right – I was there first. So,” Coco said as she placed her empty glass on the table, “What do we do now?”
“Well, I want to offer you the opportunity to take some attention away from you while this resolves. Everyone is allowed to make one or two mistakes – and this, my dear lady, is your one. I’m going to rob you, and you are not going to stop me, even though you are quite capable of doing so. You owe me that much.”
“I presume you already have what you want?”
“Indeed,” John said as he picked up a small sack and shook it, “except for the brooch. You disturbed me as I was about to leave, and regretfully I had to prevent you from raising the alarm for a while. Just a little while, of course – your skills as an escape artist are also legendary.”
“Thank you for the compliment,” Coco said as she stood up and walked over to the cabinet she had taken the glasses from. Reaching into a drawer, she withdrew a small velvet sack that she passed over to John. He opened it, and examined the gold and jewelled item inside.
“So, where would you like to begin,” Coco said as she sat down. John smiled at her.
“Finish your wine first, and then I will make you – as comfortable as possible,” he said as he took a number of skeins of white rope out of his bag. “These days, The Cat visits rarely, but he always comes prepared. I also, of course, allowed you time to take your coat off before I bound you.”
“Most considerate of you,” Coco said with a smile as she drained her glass and set it down. She stood up, and turned her back to him, placing her hands together behind her back as she did so. “No time like the present, then – unless you have any objections, I think I would like to lie down on the couch.”
John looked at Coco as she stood there. She was wearing a grey knee length skirt and a light blue short sleeved silk blouse over a white long sleeved top. “You really are a beautiful woman,” he said as he crossed her wrists and started to bind them together with a doubled length of white cotton cord.
“Flatterer,” Coco said as she looked over her shoulder. John kept the cord above the cuff of her top, so that it snaked around her covered wrists and held them tightly together. He took a second length of rope, passed it around her cinched wrist binding and then passed it twice round her waist, pinning her wrists in the small of her back, before knotting the two ends together just below her belly button.
“Not bad,” she said as John helped her to sit down. “Tight, but quick – no need for additional arm binding from this cat burglar.”
“As I said, anonymity is everything,” John replied as he removed her shoes, crossed her ankles and started to tie them together with more rope. “I trust you are not uncomfortable?”
Coco tried to twist her wrists round as she felt her ankles been pulled together. “No – firm but fine,” she said as he passed the rope between her legs and knotted the ends tightly together. “Forgive me, my dear,” he said as he folded the hem of her skirt slightly back, allowing him to use more rope to tie her legs together above her knees before folding the skirt back again and helping her to lie down on the couch. A pillow was placed by John under Coco’s head.
“May I ask a question and a favour before you gag me?” Coco said as John stood up.
“Of course – what is the question?”
“You must know I have a sophisticated security system – how did you get past that?”
“Oh yes,” John said as he picked up a small silver case that was on a coffee table. “I have a young friend who specialises in disabling modern security systems. He loaned me this little gadget – I do not pretend to understand the science, but I believe it sends out a jamming signal similar to that used to block radios. He assures me it will be quite effective – I leave it for you to try out. And the request?”
“Perhaps one more piece of chocolate?”
John smiled as he placed a square of the dark, rich chocolate in Coco’s mouth. She allowed it to melt in her mouth, savouring the texture and taste, as John folded a silk scarf he had produced from his back into a thin band.
“Ready?” he said as he looked down on Coco. She nodded and opened her mouth, raising her head to allow him to pull the scarf between her teeth and tie the ends tightly together at the base of her neck. Taking a second scarf, he folded that into a wide band and tied it over Coco’s mouth and lower jaw, again knotting the ends together at the base of her neck. Lowering her head down again, she twisted herself round so that she was lying on her side, as John cleared a number of items away into his bag.
“Before I go, Coco,” he said as he closed the zip opening, “may I say what a pleasure it has been to visit you, and offer a hand of friendship whenever you are in my neighbourhood. I left a little something for you in the kitchen – have fun.” With that, he bent over and kissed Coco on the forehead, before turning the light off and closing the door on the darkened room.
Coco lay still on the couch, contemplating her situation and allowing her eyesight to adjust to the dim light. Like most short-sighted people, she could actually see better in darker light if she had time to adjust, and she was soon able to look down the couch to where her feet rested on the far end of the second cushion.
Testing the way her wrists had been bound, she found she had little chance of freeing them without first loosening the rope that held them fast against her back. Looking down her chest, she could see the knot placed just below her belly button, and by wriggling her body round she began to wonder if it would be possible to get her body through the rope some other way. Trying to slide the rope up her body was not going to be possible – even with her loose clothing her large breasts made that an uncomfortable, if not impractical prospect. She therefore started to relax her body, using some breathing techniques she had picked up in yoga classes to slowly suck in and let expand her abdomen.
Coco continued this for some time, watching the minutes tick by on the display of her home entertainment unit as she did so, until her efforts allowed her to move her hands a little way away from the small of the back. Knowing this meant she had managed to loosen the knot somewhat, she started to try to slide her backside up the couch, leaning forward as she did so, and was pleased to find that she was able to make some progress in that direction. Allowing herself to lie back down again, she continued the breathing exercises, at the same time moving her bound wrists to and fro behind her back to work some more slack into the rope around her waist.
It took another hour, but eventually Coco managed to get herself into a position where she was able to sit up, with her knees against her chest and her wrists over her bottom and underneath her legs. She could feel the sweat trickling down her cheeks as she sat there, allowing herself to calm down before she leant back and lay flat on her back, extending her legs as she did so. Drawing her legs slowly down, she gingerly pulled them through the ropes that had held her wrists against her back, before with some effort managing to get her feet through and leaving her wrists bound in front of her, a loop of rope dangling down from them as she lay back and relaxed.
Reaching up with her hands, she pulled the first scarf down around her neck, then worked the thin band out of her mouth and allowed the soaked cloth to lie around her neck and against her white top. “His reputation was indeed well deserved,” she mumbled to herself as she started to work at the knot at her wrists with her teeth, promising herself a hot bath once she had worked herself free.
One hour later, Coco walked back down the stairs, wrapping a blue bath robe around herself as she did so. She had deposited the ropes, the scarves and the wine bottle in a refuse bag, and added it to the usual items she took to the recycling centre for disposal, as well as carefully washing the wine glasses. Intending to open her fridge door to retrieve a last sample of chocolate before retiring for the night, she saw a box sitting on the kitchen table, tied with a ribbon and with a card attached.
Removing the red cardboard, Coco first opened the envelope and read the inscription on the card.
My dear Coco,
I was quite serious when I said I would appreciate seeing you again – old characters such as ourselves need company from time to time. Please, accept this gift as a token of admiration and respect. Also, you are right about us having mutual friends – a friend of mine would like to talk to you. Please, when you feel free, call this number.
“Definitely a flatterer,” Coco thought to herself as she opened the box. The inside was lined with silver foil, but as she opened it she discovered the most exquisite selection of Belgian chocolates, surrounding a small object wrapped in blue tissue paper. She picked up the object, and unwrapped it to reveal a small cat, made of sterling silver and encrusted in diamonds. Her blue eyes lit up as she studied the figurine, and the chocolates, before selecting one crème and closing the lid. Placing the box in a cool cupboard, she went back into her front room, reading the card once again.
“Well, this could be interesting,” she thought as she picked up a pre-pay phone she had for calls she did not want traced, and dialled the number on the card. A male voice answered.
“Good evening, can I help you?”
“Yes,” Coco replied cautiously, “I was given this number by an acquaintance and told I should call.”
“I see,” the man replied, “May I ask who gave you this number?”
“His name was John – John Jacobs?”
There was silence for a moment, and then the voice said “please hold.” Coco sat back, putting the chocolate into her mouth and allowing it to slowly melt, before a female voice came on saying “Hello – I understand you were given this number by John Jacobs?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“Yes.” Coco wondered what was going on, but her question was answered by a second female voice – this one deep rich and full, rather like the chocolate that even now was going down her throat.
“Good evening. If you have indeed been given this number by John Jacobs, then you have had a most interesting evening. My name is Madame X – perhaps you have heard of me?”
Coco gulped. Very few people in her profession gave her cause for pause, but this was indeed one of them.
“I am honoured, Madame.”
“No, the honour of finally making the acquaintance of La Cioccolata is mine. I would like to meet with you – I have an offer you may find most interesting.”