The van ambled down the cul-de-sac and came to a shuddering halt, engine hissing dejectedly. This was not its first rodeo, and it listened in furtively to the conversation of its inhabitants, its bright lights keeping a lookout for a curious passerby.
Not that any were expected, though. They had planned this right down to the finest detail, taking care to ensure that the power supply would be out for the duration of their visit. The entire close was now in total darkness save for two houses: the one at the entrance to the cul-de-sac and the one in front of which they were now parked. The combined roar of the two generators resonated through the night air.
After going over their briefs one last time, the van door slid open and Simon "The Rattlesnake" jumped out. He was lean and hard and had a big limp in his right leg. His denim waistline bulged in two places with mean Magnums. He sniffed the air avidly, then, with a gold stained grin, he turned to his companions.
"I smell the cash. It's show time."
The rest of his squad climbed down and stretched their frames. You could be forgiven for thinking of them as clones, so similar of build were they. All three wore black snug tank tops on black denim, and their eyes shone like a dog's must at the prospect of a good meal. Simon had recruited well, with a keen eye for literacy, greed and ruthlessness.
He looked over his three comrades and nodded. He thumped Rwang on the chest hard, and was met with an unflinching expression. The same process and outcome for Fasio and Dayken. He was pleased. He looked at the driver's seat and was temporarily disheartened. He did not like what he saw.
Jonah sat there shivering like a leaf in the harmattan breeze. He was the newest recruit and this was his first assignment. Simon had picked Jonah for his street smarts and quick hands: he was an expert pickpocket and handy with a knife. Here though, he was out of his depth, which was why Simon had given him the driving beat.
It had seemed a wise decision at the time, but now Simon could not help but wonder. A chain is only as strong as its weakest point. If for some reason they had to come out hot, did he really want this jittery rookie behind the wheel in the eventuality of a chase? Simon shrugged away his doubts. His gut had a good track record, and besides it would be even more disastrous to change things around now.
"Let's go," he said.
They got to the fence and tested for a firm grip. They had made light work of the security guard at the entrance to the close, hence they took their time. They knew their jobs and in no time they were over the fence and crouching in a manicured lawn fringed with tropical flowers. Silent as cats, they sidled along the fence walls, keeping away from the sweep of the helium orb lights.
They went around the back and found the store door unlocked, just as the Engineer had said. It had two doors, one of which opened onto the kitchen. It was brightly lit and hummed with two huge refrigerators dominating the ground space. Simon motioned to his face and they all put on their masks and drew their weapons. They opened the kitchen door and were in the area between the dining room and the sitting room.
They could see the television. A late night soap was on; an attractive woman with tears running down her cheeks had a hunky guy by the collar and was shaking him furiously. The volume was unpleasantly loud. They tiptoed into the sitting room.
A large sofa had its back to them. All the other seats were visibly unoccupied, and Simon pointed at the sofa. Fasio circled around, his gun came up and he stopped short, then his hands dropped in shock. The others came around.
"Oh shit," said Dayken.
On the sofa lay an old lady in a thin pink gown. She was asleep and a line of saliva weaved its way out of her mouth down to the sofa. She looked quite peaceful.
"What the fuck is this?" Fasio threw up his hands in exasperation.
Simon stomped away, whipping out his cell phone. He placed a call to the Engineer.
"Hey man, what the hell is going on? We're in the wrong fucking joint, that's what. Of course we got it right. What..." the Engineer cut him short. He listened for a bit, then "Sorry man. A mistake on our part. Crap. Later."
Rwang came to him and whispered "What's up, man? This is a load of shit, if ever I saw one."
Simon shook his head in anger. "Do I have to do everything myself? That idiot Fasio got the address wrong. He's gonna get us killed at this rate."
"Holy shit, what're we going to do now?"
Simon looked at him like he was a cretin. "What do you think? It's pay day and for all your sakes this grandma had better have some valuable stuff or you all will have to hustle the streets all month long for some chow."
Fasio and Dayken joined them.
"Aha, the bloody idiot shows up," said the Rattlesnake, pointing at Fasio. "Rwang, get him away from me before I hit him."
Fasio looked confused.
"You got the wrong address, you nitwit," spat Rwang. Fasio opened his mouth to speak but closed it again, dumbstruck. Simon was massaging his temple in exasperation.
"Well, what are all you women waiting for? Let's wake the old lady and ask for the kools."
"But she's an old lady," said Fasio. Simon punched him hard across the face, his ring making a bloody inscription in Fazio's cheek.
"The next time anyone says 'but' to me," hissed the Rattlesnake, pulling out his piece and pointing it at Fasio, "I will shoot his fucking head off. I've just about had it with your carelessness. God!"
The lady moaned in her sleep and smacked her lips noisily. They looked at Simon uncertainly.
"Come on," he said, waving them on with his gun.
Dayken walked to the front of the sofa and tapped the lady on the shoulder repeatedly. She opened her eyes dreamily and squinted at them. Dayken brought up his gun and said to her in a brusque voice, "Don't scream lady. We don't want to hurt you. We just want your money."
She swung her feet off the sofa, and picked her glasses off the glass top stool beside it. When she put them on she looked like a geriatric nurse.
"Oh that's quite unnecessary," she said, pushing the gun away from her face. "All you have to do is ask, not try to scare me with a gun. You youths these days have no manners." She shook her head sadly. She started to walk away, then stopped and turned to the bewildered thieves and said, "Well come on. If I'm to have guests for the first time in five years, I might as well be hospitable."
She walked into the kitchen, and after exchanging confused glances, the quartet followed her. She opened one refrigerator and pulled out a china bowl covered in tin foil.
"Sit down, sit down," she motioned them to some kitchen chairs. "I'll just pop this in the microwave so you boys can have a quick bite." She opened the fridge again and brought out a jug of pineapple juice. "I've been simply dying for someone to try out my recipes. I made them for the colonel; he never could get enough of my cooking."
"The colonel?" stammered Dayken.
"My husband, dear boy." she clasped her hands together, gay as a schoolgirl. "He would always say to me, "Nora, you're the best cook in the whole world." He is a gentleman, that one. Oh, I miss him so much." The microwave clicked loudly.
"Why, isn't he around?" asked Rwang pensively.
"No, he's not. He isn't back from the war yet."
"War?!" chorused all three except Simon who had an expression like flint.
"The civil war of course. He's fighting on the side of the Biafrans."
Fasio blinked twice. Rwang could do nothing but gape, wide-eyed at the old lady. Dayken started to sweat. Simon snickered in derision.
"Can't quite figure out why the war is taking so long. I've been consoling myself, thinking 'it has to end any moment now,' but it's been 43 years since, and still it rages on..."
"Look lady," said Simon rising and limping towards her with his gun pointed at her, "we appreciate the hospitality and all, but we really have to cut to the chase. Business before pleasure, you know."
A look of alarm dawned in the woman's eyes, and with a nimbleness belying her advanced years, she brought up her right leg and delivered a savage kick to the inside of Simon's thigh. He howled with pain as her hard big toenail connected with and severed his femoral artery, spouting blood in a crimson arc. He fell in a heap, his blood spreading over the white tile as he slowly bled out, twitching.
"Holy shit," screamed Fasio. All three sprang to their feet in horror.
"Now, young man," she addressed Fasio, "mind your language. I didn't mean to do that to him, he just alarmed me that's all."
"You didn't mean to?! You crazy witch!" Rwang remonstrated in shock.
"The sandwiches are ready. Do sit down and have a bite."
Rwang shook his head. God, this woman was totally deranged. He had known it was a bad idea to go on with this from the moment Simon had suggested. He looked at the puddle widening pool of blood and thought good God, she didn't mean to. Ha!
She followed his glance at the corpse of his comrade and shook her head, "I can understand if you've lost your appetite over this foolishness. All right then." She set the tray of hot sandwiches and pineapple juice down on the counter top. "Let's go get the money then."
They trudged up the stairs, a somber procession wondering how an easy night's work had become so hopelessly complicated. The old lady led gaily on, whistling "when the saints are marching in" and looking quite sprightly for a lady of her age (Rwang figured she could be no younger than 70). They got to a white door and she stopped, turning around to face them.
"Now, I have tried my best to be a gracious host. I hope you'll extend me the courtesy of this one favor. This is the colonel's room. You will find it perfectly well arranged. Please do not attempt to in any way alter the position of anything. I made sure to keep it just the way he left it when he left for the war. If there's a man who appreciates order, it's the colonel. Are we clear?"
The thieves nodded in unison. She inserted the key in the lock and opened the room.
It was a very neat and poorly lit room that welcomed them. The bed was for one and occupied only a small portion of the floor space. There was no television, just an antique radio which stood on a wooden chair. Above the chair was a large shotgun. It hung on the wall, clean, the wooden handle gleaming. It caught Dayken's eye immediately. On the other side of the room were two large wardrobes and beside the wardrobes were the largest collection of shoes any of the robbers had ever seen. They were arranged along the floor in four neat rows.
"The money is in the wardrobe," she said.
Rwang turned to her. "It's your house. You get it and bring it here."
She shrugged and walked to the wardrobe. It opened with a loud creak, rust flaking off the hinges. She crouched low.
"He arranged for his pay and benefits to be paid back home to me, you know," she said to them. "I don't require a lot to run the house, so I keep whatever's left in here. No one ever comes around, except maybe during festivities when the neighbors bring their kids over to say 'merry Christmas' or 'happy Easter.' oh, it's quite musty in here. Really must do something about it..."
"This is some really fancy stuff," said Dayken. He had in his hand the shotgun, and he turned it around. "Can't figure out how it works."
The old lady peered out from behind the wardrobe door and frowned. "Young man, put that down this minute. That's the colonel's private property. He would be displeased..."
"Save it, lady," said Dayken dismissively. "How do you cock this?"
"You idiot," hissed Rwang, mindful that the gun was aimed forward. "Put that thing down. You'll..."
It was too late. The gun went off with a loud report. Fasio looked down at the hole in his midriff where the hot bullet had entered and coughed up a blob of blood, before sinking to his knees. Behind him, the wall was spattered with scarlet streaks.
"Oh God," breathed Dayken, dropping the gun in disbelief.
Jonah heard the gun go off, and he knew something was wrong. Nowhere in the plan had firing a gun come into the equation, except in an extreme worst case scenario. It sure sounded like there was one now.
He was temporarily unsure of what to do. His first instinct was to up and run away, get out of there. Then he realized that if he did that, he would have no share in the largesse that was to be carted away from this job. He could also be sure he would be hunted down by Simon. Word got around that the Rattlesnake was a mean SOB, and there was no telling the limit of his cruelty. It was rumored on the street that he had driven two large nails through the chest of the last person that betrayed him.
Jonah had no idea how that must have felt, but he was sure he didn't want to find out.