The Great Dane Robbery
By John Baird
You could say I had a balanced upbringing; both my parents were light fingered crooks. It was like being raised by Gibraltan monkeys. I picked pockets like other kids picked noses.
Now in my mid-twenties, I’m awaiting my mandatory chinwag with the parole officer when screams of rape reverberate around the cop shop. They’re coming from Mrs Turpentine, a burly pensioner with a plastic hip. Barging past me, she delves under her fur coat, places a white lap dog onto the reception desk.
“It’s Fluffles,” she cries. “My girl’s been raped!”
A half-bitten sarnie falls out of the duty officer’s mouth. Old boy Compton watches the sequined-waistcoated pooch tootle along his counter.
Shifting seats, I spot that Fluffles sports the same curly locks as her owner. Turpentine even shares the white fluff on her chin - the kind of whiskers that can arrive free with your bus pass.
“Well,” she demands, her voice reeking of old money, “what do you intend to do about it?”
His eyebrows pinched, Compton, a stooped man with a chin-wart the size of a Malteser, flips the dog over like he’s an expert on The Antiques Roadshow.
“What’s happened to you then?” he asks, sequins shedding like dandruff.
Turpentine snatches back her dog. “Stop faffin’. Get out and impound Derrick.”
Compton cocks an ear. “Derrick?”
“My grandson’s Great Dane,” explains the treasurer for the Society of Gossips and Complainers. “That beast wants locking up.”
“I’m not sure that a crime’s been committed,” says Compton, his wrinkles leaking sweat.
“Don’t fob me off.” Turpentine thumps the counter. Close to six-feet-tall she looks down her nose at the whole village. “I watch Discovery Channel. Rape carries an average sentence of seven years.”
I wade in, “Technically, that’s one dog year.”
As eyes bear down on me, I am spared reprisal by the emergence of Stickler, my parole officer. He makes a beeline for Fluffles as Compton answers the phone.
Grey haired, save for his dark bushy brows, Stickler’s a hybrid of Alistair Darling and a Jim Henson puppet.
"A Bichon Frise, if I’m not mistaken,” he enthuses, petting Fluffles in a manner prohibited in a public bath.
“Indeed she is,” says Turpentine flashing lashes at the snappily dressed stranger. “Someone knows their toy breeds.”
Compton returns with news: “I just had a call from a man who witnessed a Bichon Frise being, er, compromised. Only he’s adamant that the perp wasn’t a Great Dane.”
“Preposterous,” says Turpentine.
“Did you actually see the incident, Madam?”
She taps her fluffy chin. “Not exactly.”
“The caller claims it was an Alsatian, called Heinz.”
She sucks her teeth. “Half the dogs in the neighbourhood have been sired by that mutt. He rooms with a traveller in the next field.” Glancing my way. “A ghastly bunch of wasters.”
She makes like she’s sniffing a fart; a look my appearance often elicits. It irks me that there are no laws protecting the ugly. When it comes to getting on in life there is no greater handicap than an ugly mug but do we, the genetically challenged, get a disabled badge? We are the most marginalised of groups and yet the closest we come to a self-help group is a Dungeons and Dragons’ chat room.
Before I say something she’ll regret my parole officer leads me into the small interview room that doubles as a cell. Leaving Flufflesgate, I locate my usual seat and calm myself by considering the merits of owning a dog. It can’t be that difficult, I conclude, or expensive. I mean, all the homeless seem to have a well-behaved one.
“Let us begin, as we always do,” says Stickler, a jovial sort whose bite is worse than his bark. Parking his bum, he begins him rhyme, “Stickler will be my friend, so long as…” he motions me to finish.
“…I don’t re-offend."
“You got it cowboy. So how are you finding the straight and narrow?”
“As the poor get poorer the rich keep getting richer. It’s playing havoc with my Robin Hood complex. I now avoid the moneyed. Out of sight, out of mind.”
“Well, hang in there Dimples, it gets easier.” He tugs on braces. “Besides, you are not my immediate concern.”
“In the parole game you get wind of things.” Stickler scoots up a chair. “Word has it your father is lagging on his rent. I’m told that he’s got until the week’s end to pay up.”
A wave of dread washes me. Dad’s landlord is Frank Stern; a renegade priest with a penchant for brutality. To sum up: bad news.
“Since leaving prison your father has, by and large, kept his nose clean. But now I’m worried that owing this money might tempt him to reach for his balaclava.”
“No chance,” I say. “Those days are gone.”
“You may well be right, but I’m told his landlord can be awkward. Just remind your father that if he steals so much as junk…”
I roll my eyes. “…he’ll be back in a bunk.”
“You got it.”
The meeting ends.
On my way out I pass Turpentine, demanding justice and reassessing her dog’s prospects at Crufts. She clutches her handbag - a Pavlovian reaction to my presence - whilst Fluffles paws an interest at Compton’s wart.
It’s enough for an idea to invade my noggin; one to keep my dad’s psychotic landlord at bay.
Digging up dirt on Frank Stern, I learn more about the born again agnostic. Despite being suspended from the Catholic Church, Stern continues to don his dog collar. It’s the perfect skeleton key; people happily welcome him into their homes, confessing allsorts and signing up to rent one of the many dumps that comprise his portfolio. It’s true that Dad owes him back rent, but Stern’s threatening to relocate him to the Burns Unit if he hasn’t coughed up by the Sabbath.
There’s only one person that can help: Paddy ‘Fingers’ McGeady, the finest steal-to-order thief this side of Liverpool.
Climbing the short steps to his door, I knock thrice and enter.
“What brings you to my fine abode?” he asks. By fine he means crappy and by abode he means caravan.
Paddy is a gapped-tooth, squat man with a beard of acne that’s hung around since his teens. He’s also my big brother and considered the better looking one.
“Dad’s in trouble,” I say, prizing Paddy away from Judge Judy.
Since Mum fled to Turkey with a Kwik Fit fitter we have been attempting to look out for Dad, which means limiting his slammer time. It’s not easy protecting a career criminal; especially one that stole the career of an armed robber. I explain to Paddy that I just spoke with Dad; the upshot of which is that we need to stump up a grand before he raids the nearest financial institution.
“Count me out,” says Paddy rolling sleep from his eyes. “You think I’d be in this oversized wheelbarrow if I had that kind of dough?”
Fearing incarceration, Dad paid up front for our private schooling but it was wasted on Paddy and me. Our qualifications were undermined by our criminal records and lazy disposition. Classed as a job-seeker, Paddy recently received benefits on the proviso that he updated his CV. He duly added his latest ASBO.
“It’s your skills I require” I plead. “For Dad’s sake.”
Dad was our childhood hero and we wanted to be just like him. When our playmates were out kicking footballs we’d be home ironing their pocket money.
Paddy vacates his bed-cum-sofa and yawns. “Last time I saw Dad he was down the legion, some gambler was whispering something about a dead cert.”
“Dad doesn’t bet.”
“My thoughts exactly, but this bloke was real shifty-looking and conspiratorial. They clammed up when I joined them.”
“No,” I say. “Dad’s not a gambler. He needs every penny for Frank Stern.”
A pause follows as I convince myself that Dad chatting with a known gambler is nothing to worry about.
Paddy jumps up. “What about your friend, Sleepy Ryan, he’s always good for a few bob?”
He means Sleepy Brian, a narcoleptic security guard whose career I had followed with great interest.
“Never mind him, I have an idea. Are you familiar with Mrs. Turpentine’s dog, Fluffles?”
“Ball of cotton in a pink waistcoat?”
I snap my fingers. “That’s her. I remember when dogs were naked and slept in kennels.”
"Dogs of today eh, don’t know they’re born,” concurs Paddy. “I can’t reach into a designer handbag without fear of being bitten.”
He scratches his crotch. “Getting back to Fluffles?”
I nod. “I propose that we babysit her.”
Umbrage is taken. “Become a dog thief? Those people are scum.”
“Just think about it,” I say. “Canines can’t give statements or produce photo-fits. In fact, none of the kidnapping laws apply. I agree with your assessment of dog thieves but I promise to return Fluffles after a day or two.”
“Turpentine would go to the cops. Probably has old man Compton on redial.”
“She wouldn’t risk it.”
“But a grand, you think she’ll pay?”
“A four-figure ransom for a four-legged friend.” I remind him, “The Turpentines are loaded.”
He nods. “And obnoxious. I especially hate the creepy grandson, Marty.” Paddy caves in, “Alright, I’ll nab the dog. You sort out the ransom note.”
I pass him a card. “Already done.”
“Be prepared, eh?”
Be prepared is Dad’s motto; he nicked it from the cub-scouts.
Paddy reads our demands:
£1000 cash or the dog gets it.
Call 09970 334228
“Threatening but ambiguous,” says Paddy. “The phone number?”
“Doesn’t lead back to us. Just get your mitts on the fluffmeister and I’ll handle the rest.”
The plan worked. Once Fluffles was home alone my brother did what comes natural. Four hours later I received a text message which I countered with the following:
We meet at dusk, Behind Budgens. Come alone.
So here I am, about to experience a ransom drop for the first time. On my instruction, Paddy is to bring Fluffles. From the movies I know not to release the goods until I have the cash. Speaking of which, I spy on the shoppers but there’s no sign of the fur clad Turpentine; only parents, shouting false ultimatums at their brats and stretching their re-usable carriers with 3-for-2 cider. I keep back, incognito, my hat and scarf offering a disguise that lends itself to the January conditions.
My presence registers with a gang of smoking hoodies colluding near bins. Concerned by their gesticulation I tell myself that it’s probably staff on a fag break.
I’m slapped on the bonce.
Spinning round I read through stars the word Metallica emblazoned on a black jacket. Above, the narrow face of Marty Turpentine comes into focus; he squints down a nose that resembles a bookie’s pen.
“Little Tommy the Turd,” he spits rumbling my disguise. “Should have known it would be a McGeady.”
My heart rattles my ribs. Another product of private education, Marty flourished into a pot-smoking thug. We avoided each other at school; both too unpopular to risk being seen together.
“Before this charade goes any further, tell me Tommy, which dog do you have?”
Forcing a smile, I reply, “Dog?”
“You are the only loser here that isn’t shopping, so I’ll try again, your note said or the dog gets it. To which dog were you referring?”
I cower, “Fluffles, the Bichon Frise.”
His eyes tighten. “Where’s Derrick, where’s my Great Dane?"
Confused, I plead ignorance and bemoan the cold, hiding my nerves with an exaggerated shiver.
He grabs my scarf, pinching skin.
“Please no,” I croak, “I’m allergic to violence, I… come out in bruises.”
“Then listen you grubby little cockroach. If I don’t get Derrick back I’ll cut you from ear to ear.”
“From where to where?” I say nodding towards an onlooker I know as the Irish woman from The Pasty Palace. Mrs. O’bese. She stares, gasping like she’s fresh from a trolley-dash.
Releasing his grip, Marty assures her that we are just friends, joshing.
I smile unconvincingly at her, fully aware that whilst she’s catching her breath I’m being spared a pasting.
She lingers, but only until Marty puts an arm around me. He whispers, “If I don’t get Derrick back you’re dead meat.”
Ignoring my aversion to death I press on, “I don’t have Derrick, only your gran’s dog and if I don’t get the cash…”
Laughter interjects. Marty’s shoulders dance. “Do your worst. I could easily get you your money but you’re missing the point. I’d rather you send Fluffles back in little pieces. My Derrick’s forced to live outside while she gets to parade about in the window. Great Danes are a gentle breed but lady muck pushes her luck. I put her outside, in the cold. Let Derrick teach her a lesson.”
“You let him hurt that little dog?”
“You sound like gran,” scoffs Marty. “She wants Derrick impounded. I had to mislead the police, tell them I saw an Alsatian wearing a Bichon Frise like a posing pouch.”
Licking dry lips, I readjust tactics, “Well if you won’t fork out for Fluffles your gran will.”
He removes my hat, stamps on it. “If that fluff-ball comes anywhere near my house, I swear I’ll have you cut up.”
“Not the cutting again, you need a different MO.”
I see him raise a hand, summoning the gang of hoodies to corroborate his latest threat.
Gulping, I take my cue to leave. And if there is one thing I know how to do, it’s scarper.
Marty shouts after me but to no avail. Slaloming shoppers I disappear into the night.
His words linger: Find Derrick.
Our village sits on, and occasionally in, the river Trent. At its heart is the precinct, and it’s here that I join up with Paddy, outside Trish ‘n’ Chips. I see him tucking into a Pukka-pie whilst a shivering Fluffles hankers for a titbit. Picking her up I tuck her wiggling bottom under an armpit. Then I elbow my brother’s ribs.
“What happened to the Great Dane?”
“Oh.” Paddy looks sheepish. “Is that what he is?”
He scans for company. “Obtaining Fluffles wasn’t as straightforward as I alluded. Leaving via the rear this giant beast came galloping at us like a banshee. I legged-it to the van, just managing to pass her through to Dad-”
“Dad! What was he doing there?”
“I’m sorry but I needed the McGeady mobile. I told Dad about our plans and he offered to drive.”
The McGeady mobile was one of the few survivors of Dad’s armed robbery days. That van had provided more getaways than Lunn Poly.
“You idiot! The whole point of this was to keep Dad out of trouble.”
“Chillax, Dad’s got the beast with him. He joked that it might help fend off his landlord.”
My gut absorbs the news that we had kidnapped Derrick. I jab Paddy. “That dog belongs to Marty Turpentine.”
His smile flattens. “Didn’t have much of a choice. It followed me into the van, wouldn’t leave. I couldn’t hang around with it barking its head off.”
I place Fluffles on the ground, fuss her. “You be a good girl, I’ll see you soon.”
“Where you going?”
“To visit Dad.”
Pacing the frosty main road, I head to Dad’s mid-terrace which is located at the south end or, as it’s known locally, the deep end of the village.
Waving at a sensor light I illuminate his weed-encrusted entrance and let myself in. I am soon greeted by what can only be Derrick. Bounding over for a sniff the Great Dane ducks his wet black muzzle into my midriff.
Dad is hiding; I find bum cleavage poking out from behind a sofa. He is 45 but has the figure of a man twice his age.
“I thought you were ‘im,” he wheezes, stumbles to his feet. “Damn priest has a key.”
Dad smells of the onion soup that’s down his cardigan.
“Well it’s a good job I’m not your landlord, I imagine dogs contravene your rental agreement.”
He shrugs. “Once I pay the priest off I’m outta this hovel.”
I squat on the sofa. Derrick noses open my legs. My groin is lined with slobber. “About that, we can no longer rely on the ransom money.”
Dad’s shoulders sink. “But I need that money now else I’m gonna be doused in petrol.”
“Is Stern really that bad?”
“Worse. Once you’re in debt to men like ‘im they own ya.” Noticing that Derrick is now mouthing my Achilles tendon, Dad whistles him over, begins massaging his fawn pelt.
I suck in the damp, dog-tinged air. “Promise me there’ll be no armed robbery?”
“I promise,” he says. “It’s a crowded market these days, every wrong-un’s got a weapon. No longer a role for the traditional armed robber. And the government don’t help. When they’re not installing CCTV they’re closing down post offices.”
He fails to prize a tattered shoe from Derrick’s jaws, orders him to drop. “Dog won’t drop diddly-squat,” moans Dad. “Fetches owt but will he release it?”
The gate creaks, followed swiftly by a thud on the door.
“Who the chuff’s that?” Dad’s back behind the sofa.
Discarding the shoe, Derrick goes to see.
Dad springs out, rugby tackling the dog. They roll across the carpet like a six-legged monster. My old man emerges, red-faced and with a finger to his lips. “Keep Scooby-Doo quiet,” he wheezes and I grasp the dog’s harness.
The letterbox flaps. “I know you’re there McGeady.”
It’s the priest, Stern, mouths Dad directing me into the back. But Derrick won’t budge.
Unable to reach his play-shoe I grudgingly slip off one of mine. Derrick notices and slides after it into the kitchen. I shut him in, hopeful that his reluctance to drop will keep him from barking.
Dad opens his front door.
“What was that racket?” bawls Stern.
“Oh that,” says Dad. Their voices are muffled but audible. “That’s me youngest son. He was, erm, wrestling with himself.”
“He some kind of nutter?”
“'Fraid so. You know how it is these days, all care in the community.”
With Derrick busy mauling suede, I peek at this Frank Stern for myself.
Stout, and with a brick for a forehead, he towers over Dad, and looks my way. Either his heavily bejeweled left ear is causing his head to tilt or he’s assessing my sanity.
“This is me lad.” Dad rolls his eyes at Stern, circles a finger at his temple.
I salute in the style of Benny Hill then hop away.
Dad decides to grovel, “Not got your money yet Mr Stern but I’ll pay.”
“Oh you’ll pay, McGeady. You’ll pay. You have until tomorrow night. I’ll be back at this time. Don’t disappoint me.”
The door sighs shut. Locks snap into place. Exhaling hard, Dad bends over.
I’m open palmed, “Wrestling with himself?”
“Was all I could think of but ya played it well."
“It was probably my one shoe that convinced him.”
Still shaking, Dad folds his arms. “You can’t reason with bullies like ‘im.” His eyes glaze over. “I really need that money. Can’t we sell the Bichon Frise, I mean, if a ransom is owt the question?”
“I promised Paddy we’d return her. Anyway, you don’t get much for pedigrees anymore.”
He opens the kitchen door. Derrick bursts out. “Can’t we get a ransom for laddo?”
A ransom for Derrick? It sounds risky but I recall what Marty said: I could easily get you your money…
“You know what Dad, that might just work.”
Recovering Marty’s text message I send him my demands, incorporating a picture of Derrick for provenance.
The bait is taken and we agree to meet: same time, same place.
Sunday trading laws mean the venue is well-lit but customer free. That said I am anything but alone. On my way here I did a reconnaissance of the area and saw Marty’s gang loitering. About six of them, dressed in black, huddled together for warmth.
Pretending all is well, I head out to the car park.
Arms tucked in and clutching what I hope is a thousand pound ransom is Marty Turpentine. Spotting me, he yells for Derrick.
“Not yet,” I tell him. “First off I’m going to need my finder’s fee.”
He ignores me. Blowing through digits he emits a loud whistle, the kind favoured by shepherds and dinner ladies.
Two gang members join us.
The taller one slips off his hood, revealing long untamed hair and a scowl. He nods like he can read my future.
I edge up to the smaller one. He’s sucking on a roll-up when I try to nudge a smile out of him. “Bet the only bird interested in your pal here is the nit-nurse, eh?”
Shorty is unmoved. Hairy presents a blade from a Swiss army knife.
“Careful mate, those things have scissors,” I say. Adopting the surrender position I turn to their leader. “Call him off Marty, if you want to see Derrick again.”
“All right McGeady, how do you want to play this?”
“You hand me the money and I send for Del-boy.”
“Fine,” he agrees, a little too easily, handing me a plastic wallet.
I thumb through a wad of fifties, zip it back up. Satisfied the notes are kosher, I call Paddy; tell him we have lift off. Pocketing the wallet I inform Marty that his dog is ready and waiting, tied to a post in the precinct.
After a tense minute, the rest of Marty’s gang arrive, Derrick in tow. Reminiscent of a scene from King Kong they surround the giant dog. The largest two lads have hold of his harness as he pulls towards us.
On release, Derrick gallops over to welcome his master who’s swamped with emotion and saliva. The happy reunion is soon over. Marty snarls at me, knife in hand.
“Hey,” I screech in a voice only Derrick can hear.
“Hand me back my money,” orders Marty.
Immediately, I pull out the wallet and hold it up.
A circle of hoodies gather round. Past them, at the entrance to the car park, I see the McGeady mobile. As planned, Dad is in the driver’s seat. Behind him, the slider is open. Paddy is in there, with Fluffles.
Attracting Derrick’s attention I hurl the wallet over Marty’s head. All eyes follow the money as it spins through the air, landing on tarmac. Seizing the opportunity I head for the van.
Calls of ‘drop’ ring out as Derrick is first to the cash. The chase is on.
Dad’s shouting attracts Derrick’s attention just as my brother leaps out the van, raising Fluffles above his head like she’s the FA cup.
Glancing back I see red faces in pursuit. Leading the charge is Derrick, wallet in mouth. Reaching the McGeady mobile before he does, we use Fluffles to lure Derrick into the van.
The shouting intensifies.
Excited, Derrick barks, releasing the wallet of cash.
Wheels spin and we drive off, leaving hoodies in our wake. Then Paddy opens the slider. In full view of the car park the van stops. We push Derrick out, drive away. We have the £1000, Marty has his Great Dane back.
The next morning I was walking up and down Privilege Road, deliberating for an hour, before I finally decided to return Fluffles. It wasn’t just the wrath of Marty on which I pondered; I had fallen for the Bichon Frise. You might say she had stolen my heart, and thus, I considered keeping her.
So it’s with regret that I go and see Mrs Turpentine and hand back her dog, complete with some spiel about finding her in the company of hoodies, fuelling her suspicion that Marty was behind her dog’s disappearance. As you would expect, she is overjoyed at her little girl’s homecoming and I am satisfied that neither Marty nor his Great Dane would ever be allowed near her again.
As for me, I have decided to soften the blow of parting with Fluffles by adopting a pooch of my own. Later today, I’m going down the RSPCA in an attempt to bag the ugliest mutt on their books. What greater motivation for staying out of trouble?
Speaking of which, having talked with Dad this morning I can reveal that Frank Stern is no longer a concern. A grand well spent, Dad had said, packing his belongings into the McGeady mobile and heading for pastures new.
My thoughts revert to Fluffles when a 4x4 slows up beside me.
A window lowers. “How do?” says Stickler. “Need a lift?”
I get in.
He double-takes. “Are you all right there cowboy, you look a bit upset?”
“Girl trouble,” I tell him. “What are you up to?”
“I’m off to see Sergeant Compton, to give a statement.” He sighs. “Last night, your father’s landlord was arrested for murder.”
Stickler nods. “Only an hour earlier I had been with him. I’d gone to his house to warn him about being heavy handed with your father. He agreed to give your father another week to pay the £400.”
“£400? Are you sure?”
“That’s what your father owed him, two months’ back rent. So anyhow, sometime after I leave Mr Stern’s house he makes a 999 call, turns himself in, says he shot a man. When the police arrive they find Stern, dog collar and all, calmly sat across from the dead body. He’s citing self-defense, apparently the guy was about to shoot him. Evidence seems to back up his story.”
“Mr Stern recognised the shifty looking intruder as that no good gambler who had been touting himself around as a hit-man for hire, £1000 a pop. Looks like someone took him up on the offer and paid him to kill Mr Stern. They not only found a gun on him, there was a grand in his back pocket…Tommy, you okay?”