‘Smyth, you’ll take the van to the house. Shouldn’t need more than the one to manage the wife and kids,’ Captain Hanson says, looking up from his plate of smoked salmon and brown bread. Only the best for Captain Hanson. ‘And Tally. You’ll drive the others and our friend the bank manager in the Ford, and I don’t need to tell you, Tally, you don’t so much as inch that motor forward until they come out and load up.’
Tally looks up blankly from his beans and rashers. The dining-room of the Athlone Arms hotel is empty, and the single waiter has disappeared into the kitchen. The gang has checked in to the hotel as a group of English journalists covering the civil conflict in Ireland, Bennett even showing the desk man the Box Brownie camera he’d purchased in Cork with his cut of the take from their first job. Finch had carried a notebook around for the first hour or two of their stay and then abandoned it, realising the hotel owner and staff do not mind what their business is, just so long as they are business for the hotel. A civil war is a hard time to run a hostelry, and there has been fighting in Athlone in recent weeks. The town is controlled by the Free State side at the moment, but no one knows when this might change and when the people of Ireland might once again begin staying in hotels.
‘I’ll be there. I was there last time and every time before, wasn’t I?’ Tally says.
Hanson stops chewing and swallows, his fork and knife held poised over his plate. Finch, Smyth, Bennett and Raney stop eating and look from Tally to Hanson. The silence seems to last a long minute.
‘You weren’t where I fucking told you to be,’ Hanson says, his voice a rough, upper-class Scottish burr that is sometimes difficult to understand when he is speaking but utterly clear when he roars.
Tally blinks but says, ‘I moved round the corner to get off the tram tracks. Wouldn’t have been much of a getaway with the motor carved in two under the wheels of a bloody tram.’
Hanson again lets the silence hang heavy over the table and stares at Tally until Tally looks away. The Captain has that effect on men. There is something in his eyes—green, running to hazel, deep-set and thick-lidded like a reptile’s. His waxed moustache like fangs on a viper. Finch wonders what it is about the Captain that makes him the leader of their little mob and not one of the others. Hard men all, veterans, and not easily led. Why not himself, for example, Jack Raymond Finch? A stout-hearted man, if he do say so himself, who has no love of taking orders from anyone.
Yes, Hanson had been an officer in the big war in Europe. Rising to captain and demobbing as one. But then so had Tally and Raney. Point of fact, Raney had been a captain as well and a major in the Auxiliaries whereas Hanson had remained a captain. Finch and Bennett and Smyth had been enlisted men and served as Black and Tan constables in the RIC, but all three had as much combat experience in the war and in the ditches and fields of Ireland as the others.
So it is not rank that makes Hanson the chief, nor is it physical size or toughness. Hanson is roughly the same size as Finch—five nine, eleven stone—and Finch imagines that they don’t teach a man to scrap like a Shoreditch boy in the la-di-da schools and clubs, the likes of which Hanson had attended.
The same clubs—hunt clubs, golf clubs and débutante balls, that still thrive in Ireland despite the civil war—where Hanson dines and drinks, and meets people like the bank manager from Kildare town who has told him about the army payroll, which will be held for the Free State in his very own bank in Newbridge.
Or maybe, Finch reckons, tucking back into his roast chicken, it is merely because the whole lark, the strong-arm gang they had become, had been Hanson’s idea in the first place. The idea being that, despite the truce and the Treaty and the disbandment of the RIC and Auxiliaries, there was still fun to be had in Ireland; that, having no coppers in the country, especially when you had recently served as one or something like one, could be a rare opportunity for a mob of men of certain experience and temperament.
And fair dues to the man, Finch thinks—dabbing at his lips with his linen serviette because this is what he has seen Hanson and Raney do. Sometimes it took a man with a bit of class, a touch of the book learning, to spot the main chance. Three pubs, two post offices, a bank and a creamery since they had started in May. Hitting them hard and then riding the pig’s back until the money ran out and it was time to hit another one.
Bennett once told Finch that Captain Hanson had deposited his cut of their takings in various branches of the Ulster Bank throughout Ireland, intending to repatriate it to Scotland when he returned there. Finch and the others had spent theirs on the finest hotels, whores and whiskey.
‘You just be where you’re told to be, Tally,’ Captain Hanson says, setting his knife and fork down on the side of his plate.
And Finch has no doubt that Tally, if he has any sense in the world, will be exactly where Hanson expects him to be when the job goes off.
Bennett raises his head. Good old Bennett. Finch’s china plate from the muddy trenches of Flanders, they had also served as Black and Tans together in County Cork. Another East End boy, and the reason Finch is with the gang.
‘And will we just release the woman and child there, when we’ve done? Or will we bring them back to town?’ Bennett asks.
Hanson sighs deeply. He likes Bennett, Finch thinks, but even Finch knows what is coming.
‘Why don’t you drop the bank manager himself back at the house when we’ve done, Bennett, aye. That’ll be just velvet. Have a chat with the Free State soldiers waiting for him while you’re at it.’
Bennett smiles. He rarely takes offence at things, unless he’s been drinking. ‘And what then? I mean, right, what if the ’usband don’t co-operate, go along with things? What if he won’t leave his missus and kid with Smyth? I’d not like to leave my missus with ’im …’
‘Fuck off, chum. She’d like it,’ Smyth says.
‘What would you do, Smyth, cough on her, mate?’ Smyth’s lungs had been damaged by mustard gas in the war.
‘If he decides against travelling with us, Bennett, you’re to put a bullet in the wife’s knee. Then one in the kid’s knee, and he’ll get sense once he sees that.’ Bennett nods and stays silent. He searches the dregs of his coffee cup and balls his napkin, then opens it up and folds it and sets it onto the tablecloth as Hanson has done. The others at the table watch Bennett, who waits until Hanson has risen from the table and made his way into the hotel lounge for his brandy and cigar. When the Captain has gone, Bennett turns to Finch.
‘He’s not serious, is he, Jack? About shooting the lady … and the kid?’
Finch sniggers. ‘Don’t be a mug all your life, Bennett, what do you think?’
But Bennett does not laugh or smile in return. ‘That’s the thing, Finchy. I don’t know what to think. I’m not shooting no kid nor no bloody bint. I didn’t even do that in the war. Or down in Cork, though God knows I would have liked to at times.’
Finch claps Bennett on the shoulder. ‘You won’t have to shoot a bint, Benny, or a kid. He’s winding you up, mate.’
‘I ’ope so, chum. I fucking ’ope he is …’