A hanging job, p.1
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       A Hanging Job, p.1

           W H Oxley
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A Hanging Job

  Published by Smudgeworks

  [email protected]

  A Hanging Job

  W H Oxley

  Copyright 2013 W H Oxley

  By the same author

  Hitler’s Banner

  Steam: rocking’n’railing


  An Accidental Millionaire

  The Missing Gun: Hawker of the Yard

  Table of Contents

  The Long Drop

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11


  By the same author

  The Long Drop

  Whereas the American fondness for democracy decrees that executions should be semi-public events complete with an audience seated in a theatre, the British would conduct theirs in a cramped little room with a couple of official witnesses. There would have been no stroll along death row as the other inmates called out their farewells: all British condemned cells came equipped with an en suite gallows.

  There are many ways to hang a man, and the method favoured in Britain, the long drop, relied very much upon the skill of the hangman. How far a man needed to fall in order to have his neck snapped by the jerk of the rope would vary according to his weight and other factors, and it was the hangman’s job to control the extent of the drop by adjusting the length of rope in relation to bodyweight etc. If he got it right, the neck would be broken and death instantaneous, but if he miscalculated the weight/drop ratio the result would vary from decapitation to strangulation. However, the one thing that all British hangmen prided themselves on was speed: the object being to have the prisoner out of the cell and dangling at the end of a rope before the prison clock had finished striking eight.

  The prisoner awaiting execution would be held in the condemned cell, a cell adjoining the execution chamber. It always contained two doors, one of which led directly to the gallows. On the day of execution, the prison governor, the padre and the official witnesses would assemble in the corridor outside the condemned cell at seven-thirty in the morning. Just before eight they would enter the cell, and the governor would read the notice of execution to the prisoner. A moment later, the prison clock will begin to strike the hour…

  At the first stroke, the door to the execution chamber flies open and the hangman marches in with his two assistants. A leather belt is fastened around the prisoner, pinning his arms to his body, while another secures his legs. Then it’s out of the cell, into the execution chamber and onto the trapdoor. A hood is placed over his head and a noose around his neck. Having expertly adjusted the angle of the noose to ensure that the neck is snapped by the drop, the hangman pulls a lever, the prisoner disappears through the trapdoor – and the prison clock is still striking the hour…

  Chapter 1

  The afternoon of the 18th of August 1939 was warm and sunny. Police Constable George Robinson plodded along the sleepy suburban High Street at regulation pace. He barely glanced at the placard propped up outside the newsagents. Scrawled across it in capital letters was the headline: HITLER WANTS PEACE.

  Robinson had been pounding this beat for twelve years. On leaving the army in 1919 he’d been one of the lucky ones. Jobs were scarce at the end of the war, but the medal he’d won for attacking a German machinegun post had smoothed his way into the ranks of the Metropolitan Police. Steady, reliable, unimaginative and always respectful to his betters, his bovine qualities matched his physique: he was built like an ox. When it became obvious to his superiors that he was not destined for promotion, he’d been posted to one of the new suburbs that had sprung up around London after the war. He’d taken to it like a duck to water, becoming a well respected pillar of the community.

  Freddy Fox, known to one and all as Foxy, kept his hands on the wheel and his eyes on the road. Once reputed to be the best in the business, he hadn’t been on a job in four years and had been reluctant to go on this one – but when Big Sid asks a favour... Ten years ago he’d enjoyed the thrill of the chase but now, past thirty, he considered himself to be a businessman not a tearaway. Admittedly, he did cut corners and most of the stuff he handled was a bit iffy, but the risks were low, unlike this little outing.

  Seated next to him, chewing gum and wearing a trilby hat, was Jack Parsons. A taciturn man, he rarely spoke, and when he did, it was in a slow, monosyllabic manner, as if he had to rummage around in his brain to locate the words. He fingered the sawn-off shotgun and frowned, wrinkling the crisscross pattern of razor scars etched on his face. A hard man he came from a hard place – the Elephant and Castle may not have been London’s answer to Hell’s Kitchen, but in his street if you didn’t own a cut-throat razor by the age of fourteen you were a sissy.

  In jail he’d befriended Alfie Peck. There are a lot of unpleasant things that can happen to you in jail, and that nothing happened to Alfie was largely thanks to Jack. A prison is the ultimate capitalist jungle – what are you worth; what have you got to trade – and Alfie’s market value had been his family connections: he was a nephew of Sid Weston who controlled a large slice of the East End of London. To Jack, who’d always been a small-timer, Alfie represented an opportunity of promotion to the first division.

  Alfie sat hunched up on the back seat nursing a revolver. This was his job; he’d planned it; he’d show them. Small and weedy, with a sallow complexion and permanent shaving rash, he was the runt of the litter. While he was growing up the family called him little Alfie, and when he’d grown up it changed to Little Alfie. His standing in the family firm had fallen even further after the fiasco that earned him a twelve month stretch. Sid had refused to arrange protection for him in jail, leaving him to his own devices in the hope it would make a man of him – though it was only thanks to Jack that someone hadn’t made a woman of him.

  As the Wolseley 8 cruised along Holloway Road in the direction of Archway, Foxy effortlessly changed gear without using the clutch. He chuckled to himself…

  Nice to know I can still do it. Who needs a clutch? Don’t think I’ll ever lose the knack, comes from starting young. How many other kids of sixteen could go up and down a gearbox without a clutch just by matching the engines revs to the car’s speed? Handy little trick to have up your sleeve, especially if you happen to have a copper up your arse, and I’m gonna need every trick in the book on this little caper. That Alfie couldn’t organise his way out of a paper bag, let alone a piss up in the proverbial, probably why Sid put the squeeze on me to do the driving. If Alfie screws up, I’m the one that’s supposed to get him out of the shit – ta very much, Sid.

  Half an hour later, as the car glided to a halt outside the National Provincial Bank, Foxy cast an expert eye up and down the High Street. It was quiet and peaceful. He sighed. He’d been half hoping to see a patrol car or at least a couple of coppers, any excuse to abandon this little effort, but the High Street was practically deserted. Instinctively, he pulled the brim of his hat down low. The other two did likewise, before pulling their scarves up above their noses so that only their eyes showed. Nothing happened for over a minute. Foxy listened to the sound of Alfie’s heavy breathing, hoping he’d lost his bottle. He was about to ask if it was okay to drive away, when Alfie, in a voice a couple of octaves higher than normal, announced, ‘Right, let’s go.’

  As the two of them marched into the bank, Alfie did his best to sound authoritative. ‘This is a hold up!’ he shouted, waving his gun. ‘Everyone put their hands in the air!’

  The butcher who’d been paying in his takings wet himself and a little old lady fainted, but nobody put their hands up. They just st
ared open mouthed. Alfie was about to repeat the command when the door marked manager opened and Mr Parker emerged. He may have only been in charge of a petroleum depot in the war but, nonetheless, he’d been a British officer.

  ‘What on Earth do you think you are doing?’ he asked in the haughty tone he always used when turning down a loan application.

  Confused, Alfie hesitated. ‘Er, robbing your bank.’

  ‘How dare you!’ Parker turned purple.

  ‘I bloody well do dare!’ Alfie snarled, pointing the gun. ‘Stick ’em up!’

  ‘Certainly not.’ Parker folded his arms across his chest.

  ‘I’ll shoot!’ Alfie blustered.

  ‘Go ahead.’ Parker’s arms remained folded. ‘I am a British officer and I would rather die than–’ As the butt of Jack’s shotgun smashed into the back of his head, Parker collapsed to the floor and fell forward onto his face.

  Muttering, ‘That’s all we needed, a bloody hero,’ Jack kicked the inert figure. It didn’t move. He glanced around the bank. They all had their hands raised high above their heads.

  Alert to the slightest hint of irregularity, Foxy sat in the car listening to the sound of the ticking engine. It was purring as smoothly as a well fed cat. He glanced in the rear-view mirror and froze. The silhouette was unmistakeable: a helmet – and Foxy knew exactly what sort of helmet it was.

  PC Robinson was on his way back to the police station. He fancied a nice cup of tea and maybe a bacon sandwich. The High Street was always quiet just after lunch. There were only a dozen or so people about and one solitary car. It was parked outside the bank. Another quiet day, nothing ever happened here. He paused to mop his brow before plodding on in the direction of the bank, watched by an apprehensive Foxy...

  Stuff this. He’s coming our way. What’s happening in that bloody bank? Why are they taking so long? It’s only a bloody bank raid, for Christ’s sake – just point the gun, grab the money and get the eff out of there. Something must have gone wrong. I knew I should never have taken the bloody job. Now what the hell do I do? If I sit here I run the risk of getting nicked, but if I piss off and leave those two arseholes behind, not only is my reputation stuffed but Sid will send a couple of his boys round with razors. I don’t fancy ending up with a face like a patchwork quilt – and that’s if I’m lucky. If I’m not, the only thing I’ll be left with after they’ve finished circumcising me will be my foreskin. So I’m just gonna have to sweat it out.

  Hello, what’s the copper up to now? He’s stopped to talk to that old biddy pushing a pram. Oh my Gawd, I don’t believe it, he’s admiring the baby. Now he’s patting her little boy on the head. Whatever happened to the good old British Bobby who could always be relied on to give you a clip round the ear? He’s on the move again. Now what’s he doing? Shit, he’s taken his notebook out and he’s looking this way … don’t like the look of this. Yeah, thought so. He’s writing something down: my bloody registration number I’ll bet. All I need now is for those two clowns to come marching out of the bank waving their bloody guns…

  At that moment, Alfie and Jack emerged. No sign of the guns, but the scarves still covered their faces and Alfie was carrying a bag. At the sight of the policeman they hesitated, unsure what to do. Jack was the first to move. Ignoring Robinson, he strode swiftly across the pavement to the waiting car, but Alfie remained frozen on the steps of the bank. Robinson also paused. Having not been gifted with a great brain, anything outside of the normal routine rarely elicited a rapid response. He thought it odd that the two men had their faces covered, but it never occurred to him that someone would rob a bank. That was something that only happened in big cities or cowboy films.

  Alfie was still hesitating when the solid oak door of the bank slammed shut behind him. It was another one and a half seconds before the alarm went off.

  As Jack screamed at Alfie to shift his arse, PC Robinson drew his truncheon. Jack’s shotgun appeared from inside his jacket, and he pointed it at Robinson. Alfie remained frozen to the spot as Robinson started moving forwards, truncheon held firmly in his hand. Jack pointed his gun in the air and pulled the trigger. BOOM! The deafening roar momentarily drowned out the sound of the alarm, but Robinson continued advancing at a steady pace. Four years in the trenches on the western front had inured him to the sound of gunfire. He was back in his element: ignore the guns; don’t hesitate; don’t run, just keep marching.

  ‘Let him have it!’ screamed Jack.

  Alfie threw the bag. It landed about twenty feet ahead of Robinson.

  ‘Not the money, you bloody idiot! I meant the rozzer! Shoot the bastard!’

  Alfie pointed his revolver at Robinson, and shouted, ‘Stop where you are. One more step and I’ll blow your brains out!’ But the copper kept on coming.

  Alfie looked to Jack for guidance. Robinson had almost reached the bag.

  ‘Shoot the bastard! Pull the fucking trigger!’

  Crack crack! Police Constable George Robinson clutched his chest, twisted round and collapsed on the bag of money.

  Jack grabbed Alfie, threw him into the back of the car and leapt in after him. Down went Foxy’s foot on the accelerator and the car roared off.

  ‘What the fuck happened?’ Foxy screamed as they raced away. ‘You killed a copper! That’s a bloody hanging job!’

  ‘I didn’t mean to.’ Alfie had turned green.

  ‘Didn’t mean to? You pointed a bloody gun at him and pulled the fucking trigger!’

  ‘I didn’t think that–’

  ‘And I didn’t think that you were using live ammo! You told me you’d be using blanks. I wouldn’t have taken the bloody job if I’d known you had live ammunition! Now we’re all gonna swing!’

  ‘B-b-but I thought they were blanks.’

  ‘What d’you mean, thought? Didn’t you bloody well check?’

  ‘I didn’t think to. I got them off of Taffy Davies. He told me they were blanks.’

  ‘He’s a bloody pimp! You trusted a Welsh pimp? You’re more bloody stupid than you look.’

  Jack remained silent throughout the exchange. He sat there thoughtfully feeling his neck. He’d been in Pentonville prison when they hung Jimmy McBride. There’d been rumours that the hangman had miscalculated the weight and the length of the drop, resulting in Jimmy being decapitated. It was said that the screws who’d been obliged to clean up the mess were on sick leave for months.

  Chapter 2

  The Riley Continental had been parked in the quiet back street since early morning. There was nothing remarkable about it. Solid and respectable, its chrome headlights gleamed in the afternoon sun and the black cellulose paint was shiny enough for you to see your face in.

  At the far end of the street where it joined the main road, stood a greengrocer’s shop. Bert Claridge’s family had been hawking fruit and veg in street markets all over London for generations. Having spent the war as an observer in the Royal Flying Corps, he’d taken on this shop shortly after leaving the army. Like his business, life in the ensuing years had been steady but dull with little of interest to observe.

  Bored, he watched a wasp as it buzzed around his pears. He was wondering how best to kill it when he caught a glimpse of a black car as it flashed past his shop.

  ‘Now remember,’ said Foxy, bringing the Wolseley to a halt behind the Riley, ‘don’t rush, look casual, don’t look back, just look down and walk nice and slow, like you were on your way to church – and don’t forget to keep your gloves on.’

  Three car doors opened and three men got out. Hat brims low and heads well down, they strolled along to the Riley, opened the doors and slid in.

  Gently, at a dignified pace, Foxy eased the car along the street. On reaching the main road he turned left and started back in the direction they’d just come from.

  ‘Oi, what’s the big idea?’ Jack warily scanned the road ahead.

  ‘I’d have thought it was bleeding obvious, Einstein, change of plan.’ Foxy slipped smoothly into third gear. ‘
After that bloody balls-up, the coppers’ll be checking every car heading into the Smoke – and some of ’em will have guns – so I’m doubling back.’

  ‘My name ain’t Einstein. Who’s Einstein?’

  ‘A scientist; he invented relativity.’

  ‘How would you know?’

  ‘Went to grammar school, didn’t I?’

  ‘Rozzers,’ hissed Jack, at the sight of a police car racing towards them. He griped the seat with one hand and fingered his Adam’s apple with the other.

  ‘Relax.’ Foxy did his best to sound calm in spite of his stomach churning like a cement mixer. ‘They’re not looking for us they’re after the Wolseley, and it’s well tucked away in that side street.’

  Jack breathed an audible sigh of relief as the police car flashed past and raced on in the direction they’d just come from, its bell ringing intermittently.

  Foxy watched it disappear. ‘Cheer up, Jack, there’s a war coming, and with a bit of luck it’ll start next week.’

  ‘There ain’t going to be no war.’

  ‘How would you know?’

  ‘Read it in the paper.’

  ‘Oh, in that case it must be true cos…’ Foxy paused and sniffed the air. ‘Blimey, what’s that?’

  ‘What’s what?’

  ‘That smell.’

  ‘Oh that,’ Jack’s voice was deadpan, ‘that’s Alfie. He shat himself when he saw that cop-car.’

  ‘Oh my Gawd, Alfie, I don’t believe it. Not satisfied with killing a copper, now you’re trying to gas us.’

  ‘Piss off, Foxy, it’s all right for you,’ whined Alfie. ‘You ain’t the one what done the copper in. It ain’t you what’s going to get hung.’

  ‘Correction, it bloody well is. Thanks to your inability to do something as basic as check your ammo, we’re all going to bloody well swing!’

  ‘I don’t see…’

  ‘You tell him Jack. I’ve got better things to do than educate an ignoramus. I have to concentrate on getting us out of the shit.’ Foxy returned his attention to the road.

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