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And as a treat, here's a peek at the opening.
Blackwood, Essex. 55 miles north-east of London.
Monday 28th July, 1986.
Brian Jackson was out of the car and running for the coach the instant that Buggy brought the Cortina to a sharp halt in the deserted carpark at the rear of the Six Bells. They’d placed the masks over their faces as soon as they were behind the old pub, shielded from any of the terraced houses on Curwen Avenue. Boiling air struck Brian as he exited the car. Sweat collected in his hair and dribbled down the back of his neck. It didn’t matter. They all needed to look like wankers in their silly ape masks now they were away from the bank and here with a coach full of old farts who’d thought they were getting a trip to the seaside.
At the open door to the coach, he heard Buggy lumbering behind, and clambered up. Even through the hot plastic of his mask, he smelled the sharp tang of sweat and panic. Something else. Blood.
John Parker stood close to the driver, a tight hold on his Beretta. At the other end of the vehicle, Willie Hoskins kept his Smith & Wesson Model 39 at his hip, ready to raise it if need be. He gave Brian a brief wave without speaking. The simple gesture told Brian they had a problem and it lay flat in the first two seats. Andy Doyle was down. Smears of blood coated his forehead; the curls of his hair stuck to the red. On the floor of the coach, an old gent cradled a woman – presumably his missus. Like Andy, blood matted her grey hair. Her face was turned to the side, revealing an ugly wound in the middle of her skull.
Buggy boosted himself into the coach, panting hard, and dropped the bags to the floor.
“What happened?” Brian asked, keeping his voice low despite the urge to smack someone. Last thing they needed was trouble like this. It didn’t matter that there’d be nobody about in this neck of the woods at half nine on a Monday morning or that the Bells was little more than a crumbling pile of brick and smashed glass, fit only for the rats who called it home. Someone could walk into their little scene. A geezer strolling along with his dog. A kid out on his bike, taking advantage of yet another scorcher in the summer holidays. God forbid, PC Plod passing by for no bloody reason. And then their little adventure would be over before it pissing well started.
John wore his mask like the rest of them. It didn’t cover how pale he was below it. Brian saw the man’s scrawny neck, curdled like bad milk. He was quick and clever, was John; a man of violence he was not.
“Sorry,” John muttered. “She decked Andy with her cane … I hit her without thinking about it.”
“You’ve killed her,” the old boy cried out. He’d been weeping at some point. Now, though, there was only anger in his eyes and his voice was much too loud. Behind him, forty or fifty other OAPs sat in their seats, clutching their handbags or each other, the ladies in their best frocks and the gents in their smart ties done right up even with the stifling heat of the late July morning. A day trip to Sunny Hunny; a spot of lunch, and maybe a pint of mild for the blokes while their wives would have a sherry or a small white. Then on the motorway for a sing-song and home to Blackwood by six. A good day planned for all. And for all, it had been flushed down the shitter by four men in their ape masks and their bags of nicked cash from the fine people at the local branch of Midlands Bank.
Brian ignored the old boy and checked his watch. Nine thirty-three. Ten minutes since they’d sped away from the bank and the robbery. No sound of sirens yet.
Yet. You need to get moving.
“He okay?” Brian asked John and pointed at Andy, who groaned and tried to reach for his head. All he managed to do was shift his hair. More of the curls were glued to his forehead. Andy was proud of his barnet. Fancied himself as a bit of a footballer but was too large and too much of a tank on two legs to have any kind of grace.
“He’ll live.” John met Brian’s eyes, both men’s pupils black dots behind their masks. Brian took a breath and wished for clean air, not the stink of his sweat and the cheap plastic of the mask. “She’s hurt, though.”
The injured woman’s husband sobbed and cradled his wife.
Brian swore under his breath. The bank job was one thing; hijacking the coach full of grannies and granddads was another. What might end up being manslaughter on John’s part was something else. None of them could afford to be caught up in that sort of business. Get the job done quick-and-clean was always the plan. Bastard always. None of this ‘old lady brained and bleeding on the floor of a coach’ business.
“We deal with it,” Brian said and jabbed his SIG P210 at the driver – a chunky guy with rings on his fingers and an open shirt. No tie for him. Piggy eyes glared up at Brian and the guy’s moustache quivered. Hands gripping the wheel clenched, and Brian made a mental note not to let the driver stand. Even the threat of a gun was sometimes not enough if the other man’s fists were big enough, and the driver was clearly handy.
“Start the engine,” Brian said. “You take us to where we need to go; you and everyone else on the coach walks. Simple.”
“You can’t do this,” the driver said.
Brian drew closer to the man and lowered his voice. “My mate down the end there, he’s not a bad driver. I’ve seen him shift forklifts, diggers and bin lorries. He can move this motor so don’t be thinking you’re indispensable, mate.”
He pulled away as the driver looked down the end to Willie, who stared back through his mask.
“If that old lady is hurt –” the driver began and Buggy interrupted him.
“My mate told you to drive.” The statement was a mutter, no more than that. Never raised his voice and not a muscle man like Andy – Buggy wasn’t that sort of bloke. He didn’t need to be. People did what they were told when Buggy spoke.
“God forgive you,” the driver said and turned his key. The engine kicked to life and the doors hissed as they closed.
“Down,” Brian said. He and his men crouched, weapons ready. On his seats, Andy groaned again and John shifted closer to the larger man.
“This is the deal, everyone,” Brian called out. “We know nobody wants to be here. We appreciate that and we appreciate your co-operation.” He sucked fetid air and promised himself a long, cool shower at the first opportunity. Okay, that wouldn’t be until they made it to Spain; there was a hell of a long way to go between this dusty, grubby carpark in Blackwood on a baking summer’s day and the pleasant breeze blowing off the coast while he necked some dago lager and counted their takings, but it was a vision to hold on to.
“There’s absolutely no need for any violence or unpleasantness. You are not our business and we are truly sorry you’re involved. We wouldn’t bring any older people into our work normally and hurting anyone here is not on the cards.”
Blood on grey hair; mouth opening to expose false teeth; a nice frock and new shoes marked by grime and dirt.
“Everyone, sit tight, don’t get out of your seats and don’t signal to any vehicles on the road. We’ll be gone before you can sing I do like to be beside the seaside.”
Murmurs and soft weeping. That was all he got as a reply.
“Where are we going?” the driver asked and the words emerged like he was spitting them.
“Get on the new parkway and head for Carter’s Woods. You know it?”
Another quiver of moustache and another creak as the driver squeezed the wheel like he was throttling Brian.
“I know it.”
“Good. Take us there. I’ll tell you exactly where to go when we’re on the road, mate.”
“I’m not your mate.”
Brian pulled at his mask and licked salt from his lips. “Fair enough. Now get us out of here. Pal.”
The coach lurched forward. Brian steadied himself, wishing he could stand straight instead of crouching close to the aroma of spilled claret. He needed to keep as much out of sight as possible. Four geezers in monkey masks on a coach would attract immediate attention from anyone else on the parkway, and then all it would take was someone pulling over, running for a phone box and calling the law. Or worse, some yuppy type with one of them portable phones who could call the police from his car. Not likely in a town like Blackwood – it wasn’t that close to London, after all – but Brian believed in covering all angles. It was what had kept him successful and out of prison for twenty years.
The coach turned, revealing the side of the Bells: cracks in the bricks, every window smashed; pits and scars in the body of what once had been a decent boozer. A lot of good nights there, five or six years ago. Rarely any trouble thanks to the landlord Billy and his Doberman, King. People who liked a drink and their community.
Time to let that go, though. Same with all of Blackwood and the whole country. Spain, the readies, and his little girl were ahead once they paid off the Hussain Brothers. Everything was for the taking once they got these silly, stinking masks off.
Below his, Brian grinned.
The coach exited the carpark, turned with Ward Road, and passed a playing field on one side and the brick pits on the other. The driver took them up to fifty and closed in on the slip road for the parkway a mile distant. Blue, innocent sky above; the city, the county and the country kissed by a long, blistering summer and twenty-five grand in the bags Buggy had brought from the ditched Cortina.
Spain, here we come.
A few minutes later, the driver changed gears; they took the slip road and curved onto the parkway, close to empty at this hour of the day.
Which is when the earthquake hit.