The evening rain thrummed through the darkness onto the windscreen, pounding harder and harder as if to crack the metal shell and dissolve everything inside in a torrent of digestive juices. John shifted uncomfortably in the driver’s seat of the black Mercedes. It was early May, but despite the recent turn in the weather the showers still came, straggling apologetically along behind April. It was that kind of day where, no matter what you wore, you’d end up dressed badly for the weather. He’d parked up in the staff car-park at the rear of Donall’s Mini-Mart this morning in blazing sunshine, and for what? To sit in it all day, waiting for something to happen. John had that kind of thick, dark, wavy mane and facial hair somewhere between stubble and beard. The heat had coated his face with what appeared to be a layer of seamy grit, a swarthy sheath of sweat and heat and lack of sleep. Although the sunshine had proven to be thankfully short-lived, what followed was an afternoon and evening of bludgeoning humidity and tepid downpours. The rain did not cool or relieve, instead moving the dirt around John’s body, messages from an unknown God written in the black tidemarks on his neck.
Thick smoke slid in plumes across the opulent upholstery. John raised the joint to his lips and it sizzled as it shrank. Gradually, a thick saccharine haze developed everywhere inside the car. John looked again at the object on his lap, a few scrawled notes on some well-folded blank paper. The paper and pen had come from Donall’s. What the pen and paper had produced was a plan. A series of marks which showed John how to get in, the code for the safe, the routes patrolled by security, and most importantly how to get out of there without attracting attention. Matt had drawn them up. It must have been 6 months since Matt had been fired from Donall’s, but he still harboured a special place for it in his heart. As is so often the case, John thought, pure hatred for an employer was all that kept some people sane. He folded the paper and let it drop onto the seat next to him.
The passenger door swung open suddenly, sucking the smoke out of the car in a roar of gusty rain and replacing it with a fat man in shorts and T-shirt. The leather seat creaked alarmingly under the weight as he sat, wiping a hand across his face in an effort to remove the rainwater.
‘Jesus would you credit this weather? Seems like it’s never gonna end, dunnit?’ The newcomer slammed the door closed and once again the only sound was that of the rain’s soft hiss.
‘Yeah,’ John chewed the inside of his cheek.
‘Well I see you’re in a wonderful mood, as usual. Oh, sorry -’ he broke off as John gestured at the chair and raised an eyebrow. The newcomer lifted a buttock and reached a hand underneath. The passenger smiled apologetically. ’So these are the top secret plans then, are they?’ He turned the paper over and over in his hands, as though some hidden treasure might make itself visible at any minute. ‘Don’t look like much to me. Here, chuck us that.’ John passed what remained of the joint.
‘Jeeesus, this motor has to be worth more than they’ve got in that safe. Listen, I know a couple of blokes who’ll -’
John interrupted angrily. ‘I’m not fencing the car you twat. Besides, they’ll never even know it’s gone.’ He patted the steering wheel
‘Well, whatever mate, lets just get this over and done with yeah?’
‘Don’t mate me, just make sure you read them fucking plans, alright – no, don’t turn on the map light for Christ’s sake, we’re supposed to be keeping a low profile!’ John sighed, grasping the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger. It was going to be a long night.
‘OK sir. I’m sorry sir. It won’t happen again.’ the shop assistant held the phone to his ear, rolling his eyes. It was the bastard area manager. On the case to make sure nothing went missing and the shop stayed secure. What was his name, Paul? Frank? He’d met the man once, which was quite enough. A tiny secret interior deadness made him seem slightly robotic, as though somewhere there was a giant factory turning out middle-managers with a 30-day warranty.
‘Well sir, if you’ve changed the locks, and the alarm codes, then I don’t think – Yes, I’ll make sure that th- Yes, I’ll make sure I’m secured. All right. Yes, thanks very much. You take care now.’ The assistant hung up the phone, mouthing a choice obscenity. Never mind the fact that he was practically doing the manager’s job, and never mind that he and Matt had been planning the robbery, like, since forever. The plan had started just before Matt got fired, and the two of them together had managed to make sure every possible detail was accounted for. It would’ve been fine too, but then Matt had got the sack. No one else seemed to know why, and if they did, no one was telling.
As he walked from the tiny office out into the shop floor, clicking on his ’Hello, my name is Damon’ badge, he looked down at the safe. That was it. The part he was really proud of, and the reason why he’d do anything to avoid a visit from the managerbot, was the safe. He’d cracked it, just after they’d drawn up the plans. The lock was broken, and had been for months now. Anyone could open it, but he was the only one who knew that for a fact. Oh it had been close a few times. Difficult questions were asked about just why the safe was kept open, but Damon had been able to answer them all in a way that seemed to pacify head office.
Just then the door beeped open, and Damon looked up from his interrupted thoughts to greet the new customer, a bedraggled man with eyes like saucers. Probably some crackhead, but dressed too smartly – another burned-out city boy? Most likely. They were ten a penny around Faults Road. It was the stress, Damon nodded to himself. They’re like little kids at the seaside – the tide comes in and washes their little sandcastles away, the bank forecloses and in the end they wash up here like flotsam. It was happening everywhere these days. Things are tight, times are harder and harder and no-one trusts you with their money anymore if you wear a pinstripe suit. Damon’s mouth lifted slightly at one corner. And they all wear pinstripe suits. No, better off where he was now, behind a till. Making not much, but steadily, rather than a sudden tissue fortune that blows away in a stiff economic breeze.
Damon rang four cans of strong lager through the till without making eye contact and pointed to the large CASH ONLY sign as the saucer-eyed man proffered a rectangle of gold plastic. The man seemed puzzled at this, and frowned. Damon felt his fingers drifting towards the alarm button hidden beneath the counter, but his hand relaxed as the man fished inside his jacket pocket.
‘Oh dear, I know it’s in here somewhere, oh dear,’
‘Oh I’m sure it is.’ Damon sighed softly and began the mental countdown. He got as far as 4.
‘I’m terribly sorry about this,’ the city boy yammered
Forcing a smile, Damon picked up the plastic carrier bag holding the lager, and moved it from the counter to the floor. Too many times they’d either grab the bag and run, or stand and argue pathetically for half an hour as to why they couldn’t have credit. A real pain in the arse either way. On straightening, Damon found himself staring down the unwavering barrel of a small grey pistol.
‘I’m terribly sorry about this,’ the city boy’s oafish vulnerability was gone, replaced by serpentine threat.
‘H-hold on now,’
‘You know what I want, just get the safe open,’
‘It-it takes twenty min-’
‘Shut up! I know how long it takes. I also know that the lock’s been broken for at least six months. So get back there and OPEN THAT FUCKING SAFE!’
Damon leapt in convulsive shock at the sudden volume and then froze, rendered immobile by the pointing weapon, feeling the potential of the moment swelling beyond his control. His scattered mind attempted to divine the function of the red circle, the round shape of a button. The button. The alarm button! Donall’s was one of those penny-pinching little retail chains that feels a direct connection to the police is an unacceptable cost. Far better for the staff to take their chances, apparently. Then an unknown genius at head office had a brainwave – fuck all that other rubbish, what about an alarm? Press the button and bright blue lights flash, the cheap alarm goes off like a foghorn and the robber fucks off quick smart. In theory at least.
The moment seemed to draw itself out like pouring honey. Damon’s fingers rested on the red circle. He took a deep breath, feeling the millimetre travel of the little switch.
‘Holy fuck, what’s all that?’ John opened the door of the Mercedes, swinging himself out and upright. ‘Get off your arse Tone, someone’s robbing Donall’s!’
His companion scrabbled in the dark with unfamiliar door handles, momentarily trapped by German ingenuity, before finally freeing himself and shooting John a sheepish grin. The two men broke into a run, reaching the shop in moments.
‘Looks like he’s still in there,’ said John, pointing to the blazing rectangle of the shop window. Two figures were visible, one of whom was carrying. Definitely. John reached an arm behind his back, feeling for the lump in his waistband. While slightly larger, this gun would be much more accurate close-range than the piece of shit carried by the thief. What was that anyway, a Walther?
‘OK, right. Follow me; don’t do anything stupid, right?’
‘Right. After you,’
The two men burst into the off licence, weapons raised. The shop assistant shrank back, closing his eyes and wincing. John could almost hear the words going through his mind: Ohshitimgoingtodieohshitohshit. Simple words, over and over. Wishing he hadn’t pressed the button. Wishing the thought had occurred to him that the robber might not be alone. The gun-multiplier button. Once one, now three. The bad-luck button. The gunman spun round, hesitating in the face of two weapons. John and Tony spoke together.
‘Armed Police! You’re under arrest!’
John continued the speech. ‘Put the gun down on the floor. Slowly!’
The robber grimly did as he was told, laying a heavy knapsack next to the weapon. Tony regarded it scornfully.
‘All this for a couple of grand? Jesus, I thought you fat-cat city types were loaded. Hard times eh?’ He snapped the cuffs around the gunman‘s wrists, chuckling at his observation. ‘How about you son? Alright?’ He looked across the counter and flashed his warrant card at the shop assistant, who was staring around the shop floor like he’d never seen it before. He nodded.
‘Well son, I’m afraid we’ll have to take the bag with us to the station for identification and all the rest of it. You’ll get it all back, don’t worry, once we’ve logged the evidence. Shouldn’t take more than a day or two. We’ll be in touch in the next few days, and an officer will be here tomorrow to take your statement, if you’re going to be here?’
The clerk nodded vacantly. John knew he’d have a hard time for the next couple of days. They always did. ‘Police officers receive training, months of training, before they learned to deal with situations like the one you’ve faced. You’ll be OK I think. You handled it very well. What’s your name?’
The assistant looked dumbly down at his badge.
‘Well Damon, tell your manager we’ll be back to follow this up in the next few days.’ John gripped the cuffed robber by an arm, dragging him to his feet. Tony hefted the bag onto his shoulder. The two officers smiled once more, before leaving the shop, letting the flimsy wooden door creak flake itself redly shut behind them.
The three men sat in the Mercedes; the cuffed robber occupied the back seat alone, while the two officers watched him carefully in the rear-view mirror. He rubbed at the red marks made by the sharp metal cuffs.
‘Jesus Christ Tone, why’d you have to put ‘em on so bleedin tight?’
‘What can I say David, I take pride in my work. Have to make it look good, know what I mean?’
‘I suppose, but next time you get to be the one in cuffs.’
Tony sighed. ‘We’ve been through this Dave.’
John smiled and leaned back into the luxurious clutches of the driver’s seat. ‘How much have we got there?’
‘I’d love to count it up for you John, but I’m a bit tied up at the minute.’
John couldn’t believe this one had gone without a hitch. They’d been doing this for a while now, making a bit of money on the side. Police pay isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Especially not now, not with the recession coming and all that. John looked at David again in the mirror. They’d been friends for years. He remembered how happy he’d been when Dave admitted that he’d finally popped the question to Laura and became John’s brother in-law. When Dave lost his job at JP Morgan six months ago, things had been really tough, and it looked for a while as if he might lose the plot and self-destruct. A jobless future, no money coming in, just enough to drink away. No life. It was Laura’s pregnancy that held him back from that particular brink. And so, instead, he’d hatched a plan.
At first John wouldn’t contemplate the idea. But then – why not? No one would get caught, and even if they did there were enough strings he could pull to make sure they’d never do any hard time. But each and every time, it had gone off without a single hitch. In fact, this one was the easiest so far – when he and Tony had nicked Matt, the old Donall’s manager, they’d found the plans for the break-in, right there in his pocket. All the little details they’d need to get in, get out, and get away.
‘The key for the cuffs is on here,’ John passed a jangling bunch of keys to Tony, who set about the cuffs. They sprang open and Tony replaced them in the holster he carried.
Dave smiled broadly, stretching himself out across the seats. ‘Cheers for that. Here, this motor’s a bit tasty John, I thought you said you were brassic?’
John smiled. ‘The car pound. I got old Portson the desk sergeant to give me a set of keys, said I needed em for something or other, I can’t remember what. Anyway, I got a copy cut, went back in there last night and found this beauty.’
He turned the key and the engine purred into life.
‘I’ll drop it back in there before morning. Like I was telling Tone, they’ll never know it was gone.’ Gripping the wheel, he eased the Mercedes from the car