If you're standing between me and the goal, you're not my friend.
Rory Cullen, CULLEN: The Autobiography
Cormac Kelly nibbled on the inside of his ski mask. He'd been given the only one without a mouth-hole and it was driving him nuts. The damp fibres irritated his lips. He'd already swallowed four or five little balls of chewed wool but couldn't stop himself from biting off another tiny piece. They stuck to the walls of his dry throat. He'd be hawking up hairballs all night.
It didn't matter what line of work you were in, the new guy always got the crap. A ski mask with no mouth-hole, a dinged-up old Ruger Security Six revolver in serious need of a clean, and the shittiest job – babysitting.
The kidnapped man slumped in the middle of a bare mattress pushed up against a damp wall. The boy sat slightly apart from his father. His knees were drawn up to his chest and his arms wrapped around his shins. His head tipped back to rest against the wall. He hadn't uttered a peep since Big Frank had scared him with a few dummy digs for the camera. Once or twice the boy had glanced at his father with disappointment etched deep in his face, as if he wondered how his guardian, his hero, his protector, had let them get into this mess.
And it didn't look as if Daddy was going to spring into action mode any time soon. Although the boy wouldn't understand it, this was the best thing his father could do for him. Heroics got people killed.
Big Frank blundered into the room. He moved without grace and his footsteps clapped like thunder. The boy tensed at the sight of the juggernaut who'd bullied him for the camera. Built like a silverback on steroids, Big Frank would scare the life out of most men. Put him in a ski mask and he became the stuff of nightmares. His lips stretched wide as he treated Cormac to a craggy-toothed smile through the mouth-hole of his ski mask.
"The boys are waiting for the bitch at the cottage."
The father's frame tensed. He breathed deep but didn't complain. The boy shot a death stare at Big Frank. Looked like he was ready to jump up and lamp the giant. Fiery wee bastard.
Cormac kept an eye on the boy as he responded to Big Frank. "Great."
"Aye, she'll be scared shitless. That wee video turned out a beezer."
"Amazing what you can do these days, isn't it? I mind a time when you'd have to send fingers through the post to get what you wanted. Everything's digital now."
"It's like living in the future."
Cormac could see that Big Frank's brainless chatter poked at the boy like a rusty spike. His little fists clenched up into white-knuckled knots of fury. He was bound to do something stupid if Cormac let the oaf ramble on.
"Would you put the kettle on, mate?" Cormac said. "I've been gasping for hours."
Big Frank took a step back. "Get away to fuck. You think this is a day at the office?"
"Don't know, big man. Aren't you the one gabbing away like we're on our tea break?"
Big Frank's teeth disappeared behind a tight-lipped slit. He turned in a clumsy half-circle and headed for the door.
Cormac couldn't resist a parting shot. "And tell that other fat shite-bag to come in here and do a turn. He's not even offered me so much as a toilet break."
"You can piss yourself, you wanker."
Big Frank clattered out of the room and slammed the door behind him. The father and son flinched, though Cormac thought he could see the trace of a smirk on the boy's face. He was tempted to engage the young fellah in some idle banter but knew it to be a bad idea. So he went back to chewing on his damp balaclava. It passed the time.
Lydia Gallagher stepped onto the cast-iron doormat of the cottage and rummaged through her handbag for the key. Her rain-soaked hair clung to her face. She wished for an umbrella, gave up the hunt for the key and hammered on the door with the side of her fist.
Footsteps thudded on the other side of the windowless slab of oak and she brightened in anticipation of John's welcome. It had been a long day and she craved a decent glass of Pinot. She turned to wave her taxi away. Its tail lights disappeared behind the hedging on the side of the main road.
The door creaked open. Lydia gazed deep into the twin barrels of a sawn-off. The shotgun's hollow stare watched without passion. She took one step backwards. Gravel scrunched under her heel.
But she couldn't.
Lydia looked over the sawn-off at the gunman. Eyes as dispassionate as the shotgun muzzle nestled in the peepholes of a black ski mask. She raised her hands.
The gunman reached out and grabbed Lydia's lapels with his free hand. He kept the shotgun trained on her face and walked backwards into the hallway. Lydia followed without resistance. She listened out for her family. Nothing. The light in the kitchen was out. A telltale sign that Mattie, her son, hadn't mooched in the cupboards for a pre-dinner snack. Whatever was going on had started a few hours ago.
"Where are they?"
The gunman said nothing. He yanked her into the living room.
The television played on mute. Two more masked men sat on the sofa and gazed into the pale blue light of a documentary about sharks. They didn't look up at her, but Lydia noticed one of them lift a handgun from the arm of the sofa and thumb a little switch on the side. Acknowledgement enough.
She tried again. "My son. My husband. Where are they?"
The silence crept into her bones. She could have screamed, but it seemed wrong. Like belting out a football chant in a chapel.
The first man shoved her into the armchair closest to the TV – furthest from the door. He stood in front of her. Lowered his sawn-off.
"What the fuck do you want?" Lydia was hyper-aware of her London accent in the eerie calm. She could feel the panic take hold of her heart. Claw at her lungs. Tie knots in her bowels.
The man with the sawn-off leaned forward and back-handed her across the face. Instinctively she kicked out at him. Her leg arced upwards as she aimed her shin at his groin. He parried her kick with his knee and slammed the palm of his hand into her forehead. The dull thwack juddered her vision and shoved her head against the back of the seat. She blinked away black dots. The pain faded quickly but left a hangover of weakness and humiliation.
The men on the sofa shifted forward and perched on the edge of their seat. With elbows on knees, they watched. Lydia tried not to think about what they might be expecting to happen. She squirmed. Needed to pee.
"Take off your shoes."
The gunman's Belfast growl matched his mask.
Lydia raised her hands to ward off another attack. "What is this? I don't… Are you an IRA man?"
He swept her hands to the side and slapped her again. It stung like he'd shoved her face in nettles. One of the sofa jockeys sniggered.
"Shut your mouth and do as you're told, wee girl."
Lydia kicked off her heels. The tingle of fresh circulation in her toes didn't bring the usual relief. All she felt was fear and confusion. She didn't understand why he wanted her shoes. Maybe he was worried that she'd try and hit him with one of them. She prayed that he wouldn't ask her to remove anything else.
The gunman punted her shoes into the corner of the room.
"Give me your handbag." In his thick Belfast accent it sounded like he wanted her hawndbeg.
Lydia handed it over. He studied the brand logo on the buckle.
"Is this a real Lewis Vuitton?"
Lydia paused a second before she nodded.
He curled his lip in distaste and tossed the bag into the corner with her shoes. The contents clattered.
"Now your coat."
"How far is this going to go?"
"Don't flatter yourself, love."
Lydia struggled out of her knee-length coat. She was afraid to stand in case she earned another slap so she shifted from side to side as she dragged it out from under her bum. Just another indignity.
The gunman threw the woollen coat into the corner and moved to the other armchair. A black canvas holdall sat on the cushion. He unzipped it and poked around inside.
Lydia's skin tightened into gooseflesh. The house was cold. It smelt wrong. The scent of strange men.
The gunman pulled a smartphone from the holdall and handed it to one of the sniggering sofa jockeys. "Get the thing working."
He tapped the screen a few times and passed it back to the gunman. He brought it to Lydia and dropped it in her lap.
Lydia picked up the phone and squinted at the little display.
A masked man stood over Mattie – her thirteen-year-old son – with his fists curled. Mattie scuttled backwards on all fours, his mouth pulled back in a ghost train grimace.
Lydia sprang out of the armchair and launched herself at the gunman. She clawed at his eyes and caught a handful of ski mask. The gunman danced backwards and batted her hands away. He was light on his feet and skilled. Lydia shrieked and stepped up her attack. Swung arms and legs at the dancing bastard. He sidestepped. Buried the butt of his sawn-off into her solar plexus. Air whooshed from her lungs. She wheezed and crumpled face-first into the carpet. Hitched her breath, sputtered and pulled her knees under her chest.
The ten seconds of footage from the video clip played on a loop in her mind.
A rough hand seized a fistful of hair from the back of her head and hauled her to her feet. She tried to strike out behind her with the heel of her shoeless foot. Earned a kick in the backside for her troubles. Hot breath blasted in her ear.
The fight drained from her and she sagged. The gunman practically held her up by the hair. He led her back to the armchair and dropped her into it.
The gunman adjusted his ski mask and sighed. "Your son hasn't been hurt. Yet. Neither has your husband. But we will hurt them if we don't get what we want. Hurt them a lot and then kill them. Let that sit with you for a second or two. See how it makes you feel."
Lydia gripped the arms of her chair. She opened her mouth to speak.
The gunman raised a gloved finger to the lower part of his ski mask. Lydia clamped her mouth shut.
"Now, Missus Gallagher. You listen to me and do exactly as I say."
She swiped fresh tears from her eyes with the sleeve of her suit jacket. "Okay."
Cormac had almost gnawed himself a ragged mouth-hole when Paddy waddled into the room. Paddy weighed about as much as Big Frank did, but he was made up of doughy fat that drooped from his bones like custard in a condom. His arms were always in motion as if they couldn't find a casual spot on his soft body to rest against. Paddy was the lame duck of the crew. A blood connection with the boss was the only thing that booked him a place on these jobs. And yet, he still ranked higher than Cormac.
Paddy brandished the hi-tech phone that they'd filmed the boy and Big Frank on. "I've the woman on the blower. She's to talk to the kid."
Cormac flapped his hand at the boy. Paddy walked past the father to hand over the mobile. The boy took a deep breath before speaking.
"Hello…? Yeah, it's Mattie, Mum." He screwed up his face. "I'm fine." Then he glanced at his father, his young face hardened. "Yeah, he's okay too."
Paddy snatched the phone away from Mattie's ear and pressed it to his own. "Right, that's all you get for now, missus." He disconnected the call.
Cormac nipped across the room to cut the departing Paddy off at the door.
"Lend us the mobile for a bit, will you?"
Paddy gave Cormac one of his watery-eyed looks. His nose twitched visibly under his ski mask. "What for?"
"I'm bored shitless here. Wouldn't mind a wee tinker on it to pass the time."
"You going to call one of them dodgy numbers, big lad? Heavy breathing and all that?"
"Fuck off. I'll just piss about on the apps or something."
"What are apps?"
Cormac shook his head. "Can I have it or not?"
Paddy shrugged and handed over the touch-screen phone. "Whatever. Just don't get too distracted, all right? You're meant to be working."
"No sweat, boss."
Paddy puffed his chest and his considerable man-boobs strained the front of his black cotton shirt. Suitably inflated by an ounce of respect, he gave Cormac a curt nod and waddled out.
Cormac turned his back to the family, gave the phone a quick once over, then flipped open a tiny flap on the side of the casing. He took a miniscule memory card from the watch pocket of his jeans and slipped it into the slot. A few taps of the screen later and he had the video of Big Frank threatening Mattie on the card. He ejected his little piece of evidence and tucked it back into his watch pocket.