by Sean Dent
"Ya ready, Ian?" Julie stood up from her bar stool.
"Just one more." Ian pushed his glass toward Big Tommy behind the bar.
"Well, ya know, Ian, I wouldn't ordinarily mind ya havin' a fourth refreshin' Coca Cola with the lads," she said with a sweet smile, "but me an' Joe was havin' a barney t'night, and I'd just as soon get home and finish it before he thinks he's won. If ya don't mind."
Joe didn't like her being late. This is not Ballymena, he said. It wasn't safe like back home. Of course, it had nothing to do with the fact that she was surrounded by men all night. You're jealous, she'd told him, which made him laugh. As if Joe Conner would be jealous of a bunch of Englishmen.
Julie stood beside his stool and smiled until Ian could ignore her no more.
"Christ, can I never relax after hours? Let Paul walk you home tonight."
Julie noted Paul's stupid grin. "Oh that would go down lovely. Me walkin' home with the Casanova of Priorswood. Now get yer little behind moving or I'll tell yer ma about those magazines under yer mattress."
"Fuck sake, Julie," Ian said. "That was in confidence."
Paul laughed. "Christ, Ian, if you want nude pictures, don't be wasting your money. I have plenty of your sister at home."
Ian leapt off his barstool and glared up at Paul, who was a good 50 pounds and six inches bigger. "Would you like a thump, Paul? Is that what you want?"
"That's enough, Rambo," said Big Tommy, "I want to get outta here myself."
Ian looked up at Paul for a moment longer, then twitched his eyebrows. "Scared you, didn't I?"
Paul chuckled as he lifted himself off the barstool. "Will you be okay to lock up on your own, Tommy?"
"I might just manage," Tommy said. "It's key in the door and twist, isn't that how it works?" He grabbed the keys and tossed them to Paul. "Here, show me one more time, make sure I got it right."
The four of them chatted as they walked through the first doorway into the small foyer that led to the outside door. As Paul inserted the key into the heavy oak door that led outside, Julie heard him say something about her fight with Joe, but her attention was drawn to a hurried whisper from outside. "Wait!" she wanted to say, but it had already started.
The key turned. The tumblers clicked. With a burst, the oak door swung open and into Paul. He reacted like he'd done this before, throwing his shoulder against it, slamming it closed. He fumbled with the key. Julie stopped breathing. Hurry up! The door cracked open a few inches. Shite! Ian jammed his foot against the bottom of the door.
"Help us," Paul shouted. Julie and Tommy stared at each other. Both were frozen to the spot.
The thick barrel of a gun poked inside just enough to keep the door from fully closing. It pointed straight at Tommy. "I'll shoot the lot o' ya," shouted the deep voice from the other side of the door. The voice was Irish!
Julie looked for Tommy, but he'd disappeared back inside. The inner door started to swing closed. Ian grabbed it while he could and fled after Tommy. Paul pushed once more against the oak door, then followed them inside. The oak door exploded open and slammed into Julie's forehead, dazing her and pinning her against the wall. Footsteps rumbled through the foyer into the pub--two or three sets of them. She held her breath for silence just like she did at home every night before she tiptoed into her boys' room to kiss them goodnight. Even with her being as quiet as death, they'd stir, say "I love ya, Ma" with their eyes still closed, then turn over and return to their dreams. She'd hold their tiny hands and watch their angel faces for a few minutes before leaving the room on feet as light as air.
"Stop or you're dead!"
She froze, though the voice was directed at the three lads inside the pub. Inches from her face, a left hand grabbed the oak door. She saw a badly-painted tattoo -- a shamrock overlapping an Irish flag. The heavy door slammed shut, and he stood there, all in black, including his ski mask. He was close enough to touch, as if she were watching a movie from the front row -- so close to the action, yet not part of it. This wasn't happening. It couldn't be happening. Things like this never happened.
The man was shorter than Julie and skinny. He hadn't seen her, his peripheral vision restricted by the ski mask. A voice shouted inside her head. Move behind him. Kick him between his legs. Her husband would have done it. Joe had no fear. His boot would've flung into the guy's goolies; he would've grabbed the gun; grabbed the keys; and he would've locked the door from the inside and went in for his friends, standing tall with the gun slung low like John Wayne. Your work here is done, lads. Time to let these good people go home to their families. Show them some bollox. They're all fuckin' cowards. But Julie's body refused to move. Her vision of Joe taking charge was just another part of the movie. Instead, she watched and wondered what would happen next.
From inside, the deep voice roared, "Get down on the ground--all of ya --I'll only fuckin' warn ya once."
The skinny man glanced away from Julie toward the commotion inside the pub. Julie crouched slowly. He held the inside door open with the butt of his sawed-off shotgun. He turned the key to the oak door, checked it was locked, then pocketed the key. Two steps later, he was inside the pub. The spring-loaded door swung shut. Julie was alone.
She took short breaths. Be calm. There has to be a way out. She'd walked through here six nights a week. The foyer was eight feet square. She'd never noticed the hinged window. Three months she'd worked here. But it was too small. She eyed the two doors. Maybe she could squeeze through the window. No, don't be stupid. Was the door locked? Jaysus! Ya saw him lock it. The other door led into the siege. She kept looking. Walls. Floor. Ceiling. Nothing. Doors. Her legs filled with adrenaline. Eyes darted around. God help me!
It was happening. She felt a little pee escape, warming her panties, and she thought of her mother's admonition to wear clean underwear in case of an accident. She looked to the open window and listened for footsteps outside--a passing stranger who she might be able to call to for help--but the only sounds she could hear were the voices barking orders inside the pub. The vast car park was empty. She knew that Pat McCarthy, the closest resident, lived at least 100 yards away and, at 12:30 AM was probably asleep in a drunken stupor. The roads around the pub led only to Priorswood, a brand-new residential neighborhood with very few occupied houses, and hardly any phones. Even street lighting hadn't been put in yet.
From the noise inside, Julie knew they were well aware of the remoteness. "Look around," shouted the deep voice. "See if there's anyone else here." It was an arrogant voice, a voice of authority. "Who's in charge?" he asked.
"I am," Tommy said. He was equally arrogant. "And there's no need for those guns."
Shite, Tommy, now's not the time for a pissing contest.
"You're not givin' the orders," the boss man said.
"There's no one else," one of the gang said. Julie backed into the corner and hunched almost to the floor, trying to keep low without squeezing her bladder. There was silence inside. She waited till they made some noise before she breathed again.
"Where's the cash?" the boss man asked.
"It's already been taken to the bank," Tommy replied in a sure tone that caused Julie to think back over the night's events. When? She wondered. Tommy always--
"Don't be a wanker," the boss man said. "We been watchin' the place, and you haven't sent nothin'."
Julie believed him more than she believed Tommy. Tommy would lie to his own mother for a free ride on the bus. Julie didn't give a feck about his money. If he didn't give it to them soon, she'd go in and get it for them herself.
"Now here's how it's goin' ta happen," the boss man said in a calm voice. "We're gonna leave here with the money, or we're gonna leave all o' yis dead. Those are the only two options. You choose."
Jesus, mother of God. Don't be an eejit, Tommy. One of those trigger-happy simpletons will blow yer bloody head off in a minute. Just give them what they want and let's go home to our families.
There was movement inside--calm movement and words quieter than she could make out. It sounded like Tommy had decided to give them the money. She thanked God and ran through scenarios in her mind. There was a back door out. Surely they'd take that way rather than risk walking out the front. They'd have to climb a wall though. Jesus, Julie, cop on to yerself. It was an eight-foot wall with shards of glass cemented into the top. Nobody was climbing over that.
She lay down on the floor with her eyes closed. Maybe they wouldn't see her in the dark foyer, especially after their eyes were so used to the brighter lights inside. Or if they saw her, they'd think she was knocked unconscious and leave her there, fleeing into the night. She'd be home soon, kissing her kids goodnight and telling the tale to Joe, a brief respite from their earlier barney.
"There must be more than this," she heard the boss man shout. "You take ten times this amount on a night like tonight. Where's the rest?"
"That's all there is. We have a guy come in half an hour before closing time on busy nights. He takes most of the money then." Oh shite, not that plan!
"Right! Either you tell us where it is or I start with the kid," said the boss man. Julie, still on the floor, opened her eyes. They were threatening Ian. In her mind, she was standing in the dark doorway of Ian's house, face-to-face with his mother--the woman's confused eyes contemplating never again seeing her child and re-living the savage way he'd died. Julie wouldn't be able to answer when Ian's mother asked, "Why didn't you tell them where the money was?" Because, she would think, I was afraid to go inside. I thought they'd shoot me.
Julie took a long breath, closed her eyes, and inched toward the door, willing her hand to take the handle and turn it.
"Hang on," Tommy pleaded. "Listen. Do you think I would let you kill him if I had the rest of the money here? Come on." Tommy sounded so sincere, the fecker.
"Fuck off Tommy. Give it to him you bastard," Ian shouted, his voice muffled by the carpet.
There was silence. Then Julie heard footsteps walking on the tiles behind the bar. The boss man had made his way over to Tommy. "You are a bastard," he said with a menacing voice. There was a thud followed by the sound of Tommy falling to the tiles. The voice took on a new level of rage. "Have ya ever seen a man die? Have y'ever seen a stomach with a hole in it the size of a fist? With the guts oozing onto the floor? The eyeballs rolling back into the head? Have ya?"
She heard a sharp grunt from Tommy. He'd been kicked.
"Have ya?" the boss man shouted.
"No," Tommy said.
Hit 'im again, Julie found herself thinking. Give 'im a good one. Feeling a little braver, she inched closer to the door and peeked through the smoked glass. She could make out shapes. The boss man was short and heavy. He stood over Tommy, prepared to kick again.
"I have," the boss man said. "And it's not a pretty sight. If ya make me do it, I'll make sure you die slow." He slammed the butt of his sawed-off shotgun down, and Tommy let out a shriek that pierced the walls, dropping Julie to her knees, her hands covering her ears.
"That's only yer little finger," the boss man said. "There'll be a lot more of that."
"I know where it is." Paul had taken over. Within minutes, he gave them what they wanted--the second cash box. Julie felt herself breathe again, and her thoughts turned to their exit strategy. Her mind ran through everything that could ruin the plan. She thought about her husband looking at his watch. She remembered the night he'd left the two boys for a few minutes and ran to the Priorswood Inn because she was late in coming home. Don't do it, Joe Conner, she thought as she lay against the wall, her legs splayed to make it look like she'd been knocked out.
She assured herself, he'd never do that again--not after the shellacking she gave him last time for leaving the kids alone. Her bladder hurt in this position. She needed to pee something awful. Hurry the feck up. She heard them lock the three lads in the storeroom at the back then scurry about inside, smashing the two telephones that were on the walls, before gathering together about 10 feet from the foyer. Again, the boss man did all the talking, in tones too low for Julie to hear. After a minute, their footsteps approached. It would all be over soon.
The handle squeaked. Someone yelled, "Shite!" A foot kicked against the door, slamming it against the wall. Then the hollow click of a gun misfiring. "Shite!"
"No," she screamed, covering her face.
"Get fucking back," said the deep voice, and his boots stomped into the foyer, then stopped. A silence stretched until she couldn't help but open her eyes and stare at the gun pointed at her, then--
As soon as she saw his face, she knew she'd made a mistake. She would never forget him.
Their eyes met, and he knew it too. He had medium length dark hair, a Mexican style moustache, and a square jaw. His eyes were a bright enough blue that she could see them even in the dim light. His body shape was almost exactly the same as Tommy's, but more muscular.
"Look away!" he shouted at her with his deep voice. He jumped forward and grabbed her hair, pushing her head to the ground. "Put yer masks back on," he shouted. He grabbed her hair and dragged her to one of the tables. She kept her head low until he replaced his mask. She looked up and noticed the skinny man checking out his gun--the one she heard misfire. The boss man glared at him. "Yer very calm under pressure, aren't ya? An' by the way, did ya give any consideration to loading that thing?"
"It is loaded," the skinny one protested, opening it and showing him. "Fuckin' Arab shit."
The boss man shook his head and looked to the heavens.
"What are we gonna do with her, Mike?"
"Oh shit!" the boss moaned. "Why don't ya tell her me fucking address too?"
The skinny man pulled a switchblade from his pocket. "Doesn' fuckin' matter. Let's slash her throat and get outta here."
Mike looked at the man accusingly. "When did you get in charge?"
"We can't leave her here. She's seen us."
"I didn't get a good look," Julie cried. "I swear it!"
"She's lying," said the skinny man.
"No!" she screamed, and her eyes were drawn to the shamrock/flag tattoo on the skinny man's hand.
"Jaysus," The skinny man said, "did ya see tha'? She's seen me tattoo. We have ta kill her."
"Feck off," Julie shouted. "Ya' don' kill someone just cuz yer stupid enough to have a tattoo where everyone can see it."
Mike looked at Julie, then at the skinny man. She noticed he looked the skinny man up and down. She heard Joe's voice say, "There's yer chance! Say something."
"If yer gonna kill anyone," Julie said, "ya should kill him. Sure, wasn't he supposed to make sure there was no one in the foyer? What use is he?" Again Mike looked at the skinny man longer than was comfortable.
"Fuck her," said the skinny man striding toward Julie. "She's gotta go."
"Stop," Mike shouted at the skinny guy. "We don't kill our own unless it's necessary. Now, shut up and let me think."
"If she's gonna talk then she's not one of us," he said, pressing the button on his switchblade.
"Us?" Julie said to the skinny man, "Jaysus, yer such a feckin patriot."
He glared at Julie. "Yeah," he said. "I am. An' if we got more support from people like you, maybe the six counties of Northern Ireland wouldn't be under the rule of the fuckin' Brits."
He sounded like he was reading a pamphlet. "Do ya even know what the six counties are?" Julie said.
"Can ya name them?"
"I'm a fuckin' soldier--not a geographist," he said.
Julie steeled her gaze on him. "Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry, Tyrone," she said, pausing for a second between each name.
"What?" he said.
"They're the six counties that yer fightin' fer."
"So fuckin' wha'!"
"Now that I've told ya," Julie said, "now can ya name them?"
"Fuck this bitch, eh?" He fixed a stupid grin on his face and looked at Mike and the other two. "She knows nothin' about us."
"Oh, I know you very well," Julie said.
"Is tha' right'?" the skinny man said.
"Yeah, it is," Julie said. "You read the Daily Mirror and the Daily Star, don't ya?"
The skinny man looked around him and laughed. "Well, that'll surely help the cops track me down."
"British newspapers," Julie said with a steady nod. "You watch Top of the Pops on TV--British music. Your favorite football team is either Man United or Arsenal. You've probably never been to a Gaelic Football game in yer life. Probably can't even tell me who wrote Finnegan's Wake or when the Easter uprising was. So don't tell me about being Irish, ya daft hypocrite."
"Fuck you," he said.
"And quit that filthy talk. Sure, if yer ma was here now, she'd slap yer face."
"That's it," the skinny man said to Mike. "I've heard enough."
Julie glared at the skinny guy and fired words at him like they were bullets. "Bhail, póg mo thóin, má chreideann tú go bhfuil mise le teitheadh."1
He stared back at her with a blank expression. "What did she say?" Two of them shrugged. Mike, the boss man, just looked down and shook his head.
"I ainm Dé," Julie said. Then she looked at Mike. "nach bhfuil Gaeilic agat fiú?"2
"Shut yer fuckin' trap," the skinny man said. "What are we gonna do with this bitch? Make a decision."
Mike stared at the skinny guy and turned away in disgust. "You're gonna shut fuckin' up an' go find me a pen and some paper." He turned to face Julie. "Listen, all we did tonight was steal some money."
Then he raised his voice. "But if we get caught for this, they'll pin a lot more charges on us, stuff we didn't do, and we'll go to jail for the rest of our lives." He looked her in the eye until their eyes held a line. "Look," he continued, "what's yer name?"
"Julie Conner," she said.
"Well, Julie," he said pointing to her wedding ring, "yer married. Got kids?"
Julie nodded. "Boys," she said. "Christy and Liam--"
"So have I," he said, his voice detached now, like a lawyer calmly interrupting a witness. "And I won't miss their growing up because of this. So I've only got one choice. I've gotta kill ya 'cause I think you're gonna' talk. Nothing personal."
"No!" she shouted, fixing her eyes on his. "Don't be an eejit. I could care less about that fat bastard's money. Take it and spend it with me personal blessing."
"It's outta me hands," he said, his voice even colder. He took the pad and pen from the skinny man and turned to her. "I have people to protect. I gcionn cúig bhomaite, tá mé ag iarraidh go ndéarfá go'b iad na Brits a mharaigh d'athair."3
Julie glowered at him for a few seconds, her mind trying to make sense of what he'd just said; of what was he up to? She looked at the other three men and even through their masks, she could make out their blank expressions. They didn't have a clue what was going on. None of them understood his words. Play for time, she heard Joe say.
"Have ya ever actually seen someone die?" she said, her lower lip trembling.
The boss man glared at her, but didn't answer.
"Did ya read their names in the paper the next day?" she said. "Did ya see the pictures of their kids at the funeral?"
He grinned at her. "I fuckin' attended the funeral."
"Well, that's real comforting. Do ya know why ya don't get more support for yer cause?"
"That's not my concern."
"Oh, I think it is. I think you believe in what yer doin'."
"Do ya, now?" he said.
"Do ya know the names of--"
"Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry, Tyrone," he said. "I read An Phoblacht and the Irish Times. I don't watch British TV or any other British propaganda. James Joyce wrote Finnegan's Wake. The Easter uprising was 1916. I knew Bobby Sands and three of the other hunger strikers personally. I was at Bogside in 1972. Two of me friends were shot down in the streets. I've seen Irishmen assassinated for their protests, but they don't call it that in the press, do they? They call us criminals. Why? Because we fight the British for our independence? Were the Americans criminals in 1776? Were the Argentines criminals in 1982? Was Gandhi a criminal for wanting self rule?"
Suddenly, his gaze was just to the left of her--not looking directly into her eyes. The skinny man was loving this, grinning at Julie like he'd been the one who sat down with God while they invented righteousness and indignation.
"Ya want to know if I watched people die?" Mike said. "Yeah, I have. Good Irish people--peace-loving people who wanted nothing more than the freedom to walk about their land without a British gun in their face. And yes, I've attended their funerals."
Julie wondered about the time. At what point would the kids notice that she didn't kiss them goodnight and come into her bedroom? Was Joe asleep or waiting to finish their barney? These were her concerns. They seemed small right now.
"So did I," she said. "I watched me Da die of bullets in his chest--British bullets." She turned to look at the skinny one.
After a few seconds Mike asked, "What was his name?"
"Paudraig O'Connell," Julie said, her glare fixed on skinny. "Eight years ago--June 11th, 1976."
Mike stared at Julie, then looked at the other three men. "Do yis remember Paudraig?" They all shrugged. He looked at Julie and paused for a few moments. "He was a friend of mine. I was in the lockup at the time. Sorry about yer loss." Mike threw the pad and pen on the table in front of her. "Write down yer name and address and write it quick. Don't pause or this fucker here will have a go at yer neck with or without my approval." His tone was all business.
Julie grabbed the pen and wrote fast. It was barely legible. Mike picked it up.
"What's yer phone number?"
"I don't have one."
Julie rattled it off.
Mike looked at one of his men. Not the skinny one. "Put her with the others. We're done here." The skinny man started to talk. Mike shot him a look. "I said we're done."
He looked at Julie one more time. "I'll take responsibility."
Julie nodded. She understood.
Copyright 2004 by Sean Dent. All rights reserved.