Book: Irregulars

Previous: Chapter 18
Next: Chapter 20

19

There are five men in the Ford Tourer and four of them sweat because they are wearing heavy trenchcoats. It is unseasonably warm for an October day in Kildare. The fifth man’s sweat is born of terror.

‘Please don’t harm my child. I’ll do anything you say …’ begs the bank manager, a Mr Anthony Roche, captive on the rear bench seat between Finch and Raney.

In the end, only one man—Smyth, with his mustard-gas-abraded lungs—had been needed to mind the banker’s wife, housemaid and child.

‘What about the wife?’ Raney says, in his flat Ulster accent. ‘You don’t mind what happens to the auld doll?’

The banker shakes his head. ‘Of course. Jesus, what do you take me for?’ There is some of the high-handedness one expects of a bank manager in his tone, and Raney elbows the man harder than he has to in the ribs.

‘I’m only ragging you, Mr Moneybags. Our chum won’t lay a finger on her once you do what you’re told. Unless she wants him to, aye?’ Again the digging elbow in the ribs. A Winchester pump shotgun rests on the floor of the Ford beside Raney’s feet.

Jack Finch, seated on the other side of the banker, smiles. Serves the stuffed cunt right, him with his airs and graces. Finch decides he does not mind robbing this man’s bank and will be happy to leave him unsure about his wife’s safety. Smyth’s a pukka lad and won’t hurt a kid, and probably won’t try to get up on the wife. Not with the maid and kid watching anyway. Smyth can be prissy like that, but the wife is an all right bit of mutton—no lamb—and Finch would not have minded a poke at her himself. But such is life. He promises himself the nicest, fattest whore he can afford when the job’s done and they’re away to Dublin. Now keep the mind on the job. They turn onto Edward Street, coming to a halt behind a beer lorry that has stopped to allow a squad of uniformed Free State soldiers to cross in front of it.

‘Don’t get no ideas, chum,’ Finch says, jabbing one of his two Webleys into the soft flesh of the banker’s armpit. ‘Bunch of kids just learning the trade, them lot. More likely to shoot you or each other, them wet boys.’

‘He’s no fool,’ says Tally, from behind the wheel. ‘He knows what’s good for the missus and the kid, don’t you, mate?’ He turns to watch the banker nod, the haughtiness gone now, his face pale under his bowler, sweat beading on his cheeks. Tally turns back and watches as the Free State troops march to the opposite side of the road, passing the Ford less than ten feet away. He has a Colt .1911 held on his lap under the folds of his trenchcoat.

The beer lorry moves forward. The men in the car release a collective breath and Tally follows the lorry until he comes to the bank where Hanson and Bennett are waiting, parked at the curb in a hardtop Chevrolet Sedan Captain Hanson had won in Cobh in a game of cards.

‘Anything else you like to tell us, chum?’ Finch says.

The banker swallows. ‘No … I’ve told you about the two soldiers guarding the safe.’

‘You told us about them. Nothing else?’

The banker shakes his head.

Finch says, ‘You know it’s not you I’ll shoot if something goes sour. It’s your wife and kid who roll sevens if you’re fucking us about. Nothing funny?’

‘No, no …’

‘Good stuff. Let’s hop it, gents,’ Raney says, stepping out of the Ford and holding the door open for the banker and Finch to exit. He carries an empty leather holdall in one hand, the Winchester against his leg in the folds of his long coat in the other. Bennett gets out of the Chevy to join them.

Finch notices Captain Hanson behind the wheel of the Chevrolet, a newspaper opened to hide his face as the bank manager passes. No sense in their hostage learning it was the Captain—that fine man he’d met in the Hermitage golf club bar and shared more than several tumblers of Bushmills with over an afternoon—who had turned a banker’s drunken blather into a cushy payday. Hanson would be hard to catch even if there were any coppers in the country to try it, but there is no gain in taking chances.

They mount the steps, and Finch, also carrying an empty leather travel bag, says to the banker, ‘Right, you call them two guards into your office like it’s important business. You do things proper and no one gets ’urt—not them guards, not your customers, not your tellers, right?’ He rests his hand on the door and waits for the banker to nod. Handy number, this, Finch thinks as they enter the bank, leaving the bustle of the market town street for the hush of country commerce inside. Be nice to do a job where, for once, there’s no shooting.

 

Commandant O’Hanley’s man, young Stephen Gilhooley and his two older brothers ride in one car, smelling faintly of meat and blood, cuticles claret-stained after a morning’s work for their father at Gilhooley’s Butchers and Purveyors of Fine Meats. The four others—Stephen’s two inside men from the Free State army and two of O’Hanley’s young Irregular charges—ride in the second. They pull up to the bank at the corner of the Dublin Road and Edward Street. Raymond Gilhooley gets out of the car and walks to the corner, glancing both ways up Edward Street and then at the bank itself. He walks back to the cars and taps the bonnet.

‘Grand so. No troops or coppers I can see.’

‘There’s hardly a copper left in the whole of Ireland,’ Stephen says, smiling. ‘And good fuckin’ riddance.’

They get out of their battered, stolen Willys–Overland 90, each with an empty coal-sack bunched in his jacket pocket, throwing down half-smoked cigarettes. The others climb out of their Ford Tourer, which had been requisitioned for the job at a hastily drummed up checkpoint in the village of Tallaght. Webleys bulge in waistbands under the younger boys’ shirttails; sawn off shotguns beneath overcoats for the older Gilhooley brothers and, for Stephen Gilhooley, a Thompson sub-machine-gun dangles on a strap under his coat.

 

Finch stays close to the hostage as they cross the Bank of Ireland’s small atrium, and then nudges him with his Webley barrel. ‘Call them,’ he says.

Bennett is on the opposite side of the banker, a chopped-down Winchester pump gun nestled close to his leg, and Raney is behind them with his full-length Winchester. All three wear low-dipped trilbys and, as one witness would later remember, expensive brogues polished to army standard shine.

The banker clears his throat, removing his bowler to reveal thinning hair sweat-matted to his scalp. ‘Gentlemen,’ he calls to the two uniformed Free State guards at the locked walk-in safe to the right of the teller’s windows. ‘Come in to my office, please. I need an urgent word …’

The two guards look at each other, and the larger of the two says, ‘We’re not meant move til we’re relieved, sir.’ His words are authoritative, and Finch gives the man a long look as the banker stops. He does not like what he sees in the guard’s eyes, and swiftly decides there will be no fannying round with him. The shorter guard is younger and looks to the older for his lead. No bother there. Finch’s finger moves from the Webley’s trigger guard to its trigger. He scans the barred teller windows and counts three customers waiting—two older farmers and a young woman—as the single middle-aged male teller serves a woman wrapped in a black shawl. A second teller, a young man just out of his teens by the look of him, sits at a desk behind the cage filling in forms.

Finch says, without moving his lips, ‘The big lad.’

Raney, behind Finch, says, ‘Clocked him, aye.’

The banker’s skin is a shade of white that indicates only fear or illness. His voice is thinner than it had been in the car. ‘Gentlemen, these men have been sent on urgent business from Dublin, sent by …’ the banker stops, as if thinking of a name or title to suitably impress the guards, but more likely he cannot recall who is in charge of what department, ‘…
by Headquarters Staff in relation to matters pertaining to … your duties. I should not like to have them report you for insubordination or obstructing the orders of the Free State government …’

‘Move into your office,’ Finch mumbles. ‘They follow or I’ll shoot the both of them.’

‘Please, gentlemen, time is against us,’ the banker says, a crack in his voice that Finch hopes the guards don’t hear.

They move as a group of four to the banker’s office, situated to the left of the tellers’ cages, and enter.

‘Sit,’ Bennett says, pointing to the banker’s chair behind the desk. The banker sits and Bennett stands behind him with the cut-down shotgun to his temple.

Finch stands behind the door, and when the guard’s knock comes, Bennett says, ‘Come in.’

The door opens and the bigger guard walks his face into Raney’s shotgun barrel, his own Enfield rifle still slung on his shoulder.

‘Call your mate,’ Finch says, levelling his Webley at the man, ‘or I’ll put a bullet in your nog and then I’ll go out and put one in his. Call him.’

‘Fuck sake.’ The guard’s face darkens, he balls his fists. ‘For fuck sake.’

‘Try it,’ Raney says, shoving the gaping up-and-under Winchester barrels closer to the guard’s eyes. ‘I’ll paint that wall with you, big man.’

Finch watches the guard’s fists unclench. ‘Call him.’

‘Gareth,’ the big guard says, clearing his throat, and then louder out of the open office door. ‘Get over here now, boy.’ He does not look at the men, but fixes his gaze on the window behind the seated banker, and does not react when Raney slips the Enfield rifle from his shoulder, ejecting the round from its chamber and detaching the box magazine, pocketing both. Raney waves the shotgun barrel at the man and he follows it across the room. Finch decides not to wait for the younger guard and slams the butt of his Webley into the back of the guard’s skull as he passes, the guard collapsing forward with a grunt. Finch moves back to the door, then and as the second guard enters, he closes it. He steps from behind him and delivers an expert uppercut, his punch landing just below the young man’s ribs. Raney grabs the lad’s rifle before he falls and Finch takes two sets of handcuffs—souvenirs from his time in the constabulary—and cuffs the guards behind their backs.

‘Right, you,’ he says to the banker, ‘up and open the safe and we’ll be off.’ Bennett lifts the banker to standing, the man having seemingly lost the power to do so himself.

‘Don’t faint, Shylock,’ Bennett says. ‘You open that safe or I’ll kill every cunt in this bank and then your wife and kid, right?’

The banker nods. ‘Please … I’m all right.’

The men leave the office, passing behind the short queue for the teller, and Finch watches the young man filling forms look up, a question in his eyes. They reach the safe and the bank manager begins to spin the dial, his fingers sweating, stopping to wipe them on his trousers. Four numbers in, an audible click and the banker lifts the lever below the dial and begins to spin the wheel lock counter-clockwise. Twenty seconds later, the heavy door is swung open and the men walk in.

‘Take him back to the office and cuff him, mate,’ Finch says to Bennett, beginning to shove packets of pound notes into his leather bag, Raney working the opposite side of the safe.

‘Right-o, you, let’s go,’ Bennett says to the banker before smiling and winking at Finch. ‘Piece of piss, innit, mate?’

 

‘Here we go, lads,’ Stephen Gilhooley says, moving towards the street corner with the others in his wake, ‘try not to shoot the two guards …’ he stops and turns back to the six men, ‘… unless you have to.’

‘We won’t have to,’ Mullen, one of the moonlighting Free Staters says. ‘I know the one of them, and he’s as windy as a March day that fella. Just shout at him and he’ll shite himself.’ He scans the street and pulls a pair of motorcycle goggles down over his eyes, raises a neck scarf to cover his mouth while his Free State comrade does the same. A drover taps the hind of the last cow in his milking herd as it passes up Edward Street in front of the bank, studiously ignoring the masked men moving with purpose towards the bank’s stone steps.

Gilhooley tips his cap lower and his brothers quickly knot kerchiefs over their mouths as they walk, passing two parked cars in front of the bank, Gilhooley dismissing the man in the Chevy reading a paper. He is oblivious as the drover, it appears, to their passing.

They mount the short flight of stone steps, beginning to jog halfway up, one of O’Hanley’s young lads holding open the door as they pass one by one. The lad remains outside the bank, his face uncovered, to keep sketch.

From inside the bank comes the sound of bellowing voices and a woman’s scream.

 

‘Everyone, down on the floor, now!’ Stephen Gilhooley shouts, waving the Thompson at the three customers and the wide-mouthed teller and his partner behind the cage. ‘This is a stick up!’

The shawled woman, having completed her business, has turned and faces the masked men. She screams and drops her handbag, screams again before one of the Free State moonlighters crosses to her and forces her to the floor with the others.

‘The payroll!’ Stephen says, rushing the counter. ‘Where is it, the Army payroll?’

The terrified teller is unable to speak, but points to the open vault.

Gilhooley and his brothers take the coal-sacks from their pockets and turn to the safe.

 

Finch freezes when he hears the shouting. Raney begins to speak, and when he does so Finch signals for silence. He hears the words ‘payroll’ and ‘Army payroll’ and shoves a last packet of notes into his bag, hanging the bag’s straps on the crook of his arm. He takes a second Webley from the holster on his thigh, holding one in each hand. Raney does likewise with his bag and clutches the Winchester in both hands.

‘Would you fuckin’ believe it, mate? We’re being robbed.’ Finch smiles at Raney. He has known the man for these many months and has enjoyed his company. A good skin, Raney, if a touch on the mad side.

‘I’d believe anything, aye, after some of the things I seen in the war. Good luck, Jack,’ Raney says. ‘See you in Dublin if I don’t see you in hell first.’

‘I’ll see you in the Ford in thirty seconds time, chum. Don’t you facking fret about it.’

Raney smiles. ‘Time for the fireworks.’ He moves towards the vault’s open door.

 

The first to the vault is the moonlighting Free State soldier named Mulally. As he reaches it, his Enfield rifle held in loosely across his body, he is met by the smiling face of a trilby-hatted man. His brow furrows in confusion and he has not had time to register the Winchester when fire erupts from its barrel, ripping into his chest, killing him instantly.

Gilhooley, six feet behind Mulally, watches as the moonlighter’s trenchcoat billows at the back, the heavy shot passing through the soldier’s body in a spray of blood, the body collapsing as if it is nothing more than a suit of clothes tossed in a heap to the floor. He raises the Thompson gun and watches as Patterson brings up his own Enfield, but too late. He watches as Patterson is hit by pistol fire coming from behind the Winchester; watches as a second man steps out of the vault, two Webleys raised and watches the first man, still smiling, rack another round into the shotgun and swing it towards him and his brothers.

All this in an instant, and Gilhooley reacts, loosing off a burst from the Thompson before turning and diving to the side of the tellers’ cages, his brothers following, scrambling, boots slipping on the polished floor for the tight cover where the counter extends out from beside the bank manager’s office.

 

It is the Thompson gun that rouses Captain Hanson. He had watched the men enter and decided to wait, to see if his men could handle things without him. The Thompson gun is the kicker. Captain Hanson, for all his faults, will not abandon these men who have chosen to follow him. He leaves the Chevrolet and mounts the steps, not bothering to conceal the Colt automatics he draws from their low-slung holsters.

He is three steps from the young scout at the top, and the scout begins to tug at the small pistol in his belt, the gun’s hammer catching on a belt loop, and Hanson raises a Colt and shoots the boy in the face, the back of the boy’s head blown onto the grey stone of the bank’s façade.

 

Bennett, in Roche’s office, hears the shooting, fumbles with the handcuffs but cannot latch them. He settles for slamming the banker face first into the wall and kicking him twice in the ribs as he falls. He opens his cut-down shotgun, checks its load and takes his back-up Webley from his coat pocket. He tips his hat back on his head and throws open the office door.

 

Hanson sees the men huddled at one end of the teller’s counter, registering the Thompson gun, the cut-down shotguns, and begins firing.

The office door is flung open and he directs his fire there, seeing Bennett too late as two of his heavy .45 calibre rounds hit the Londoner high in the chest. He winces and turns his fire to the Gilhooley brothers. He does not notice the boy—the youngest of the Irregulars—behind him, to his left, three feet away, his arm outstretched, shaking, his knuckles white on his pistol’s grip.

 

The boy yanks at the trigger, his eyes squeezed shut, and continues jerking it until it is empty, and he opens his eyes to see the dead man at his feet, two shiny Colts in either hand, their barrels smoking, blood spreading in a pool on the marble floor, the man’s eyes wide and surprised in sudden death.

 

Raney fires a round at the men cowering at the counter, and Finch begins to sprint for the bank door, passing the paralysed boy clutching an empty revolver. Raising his own Webley, Finch thinks to shoot the boy but decides against it, saving his rounds.

Pumping the Winchester, Raney fires another horror of buckshot, splintering the wooden counter above the huddled men, blasting chunks of plaster from the wall beside them. He walks as he shoots, racking the pump, smiling, but his aim is awkward, not adjusting for the heavy bag on his arm and the high prime of the shells. He has not kept count of how many rounds he has fired and, as he thinks this, the Winchester’s chamber sounds with a hollow thack of the hammer striking hot nothing.

He is still smiling as Finch, standing in the doorway of the bank, turns and shouts for him and watches as the Thompson gunner rises from his cover and begins to spray the bank with lead. Finch watches as Raney goes down in a foamy haze of blood and pulverised bone. He sees Bennett, dead, and Hanson. Last man standing, naughty Jack Finch.

Finch turns, flinging open the bank’s door, and he is flying, leaping down the bank steps when the single, stray .45 round strikes him in the meat of his lower back. He lands hard on the path beside the Chevrolet, his breath blown from his body, his pistol and the leather bag flung out and away from him, packets of notes tumbling onto the rough cobbled street. He looks at the sky and waits for the shots to come. He turns his head and notices that Tally has scarpered in the Ford. The windy toerag. Ten seconds pass and Finch counts another. He thinks of his mother, whom he would have liked to see again. When the shot does not come, he pushes thoughts of his mother away, rises to his feet and finds, by the mercy of Mars, the Chevrolet is still running, idling quietly at the curb as if expecting him. Warm blood runs down his leg and spills out of the cuff of his trousers. He does not bother stopping for the bag.

 

Ears ringing in the sudden silence, gun smoke snaking in window light, Gilhooley waits for almost a minute before rising, then runs to the leather tote on the dead man’s arm.

‘Get the guns, lads. All of them.’ His voice is calm, as if repeating a customer’s order in his father’s shop.

His two brothers and the surviving youth edge past Gilhooley, arms full of weapons, coming into the shocking afternoon light outside the bank to see a lone Chevrolet pulling away, turning the corner for the Dublin road.

‘The others,’ Dinnie, the eldest Gilhooley brother says, as if only remembering, ‘we have to go back in to get …’

‘They’re dead, yeh slow shite,’ younger brother Stephen says, passing him on the steps, the leather bag over his arm. ‘We need to move, unless you want to shoot your way back to fuckin’ Dublin.’

The elder Gilhooley brothers glance at young Stephen and then bound down the stairs after him. Each of them wonders how it has come to pass that the baby of the family had become the bossman, and both deciding, as they bundle into the Overland 90, that they don’t care how or why, once they get home in one piece. The boy has mettle, sure as fuck, and that is why they are still standing, still running for Dublin. And may God rest them dead lads back in the bank.

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Next: Chapter 20