Unfortunate Rewards (short story)


UNFORTUNATE REWARDS

It was a moonless, starless night teeming with an early spring’s heavy rain. The two men, wearing balaclavas, crouched behind the chest-high privet hedge establishing the boundary of the cottage’s kitchen garden at the rear. Jacko grumbled, he was chilled and soaked through to the bone, but orders were orders. He always did what the others told him to do even if it did lead to trouble, and the blame for it, as a consequence. Larry had insisted they both get here early to wait for the occupants to leave the house; their departure would signal the field clear for their break-in. What none had realized was that from the hedge they wouldn’t have sight of the front door. All they could see through the branches of the privet was the bottom end of the path leading down to the road at the front of the cottage. It didn’t occur to them to wonder how the light, streaming from the front door, was switched off as the couple drove away.

Terry and Jacko watched the man and his wife walk out through the front garden gate and climb into their brand new green and white Ford Anglia parked in the road. Heaving a sigh of relief, they assumed their way was clear now for a spot of purloining of the owners’ property. The two burglars waited a few moments longer only making their move when they felt sure the quiet country road would remain a quiet country road.

Terry led the way through the gate from the lane and up the path between the potato patch on their right and the cabbages and carrots growing in neat lines on their left. The owner of this cottage still maintained the thriftiness of the war years and grew a lot of his own vegetables for his table. Unfortunately for Jacko, for he stumbled in the dark and put his foot down on a marrow, squashing it out of existence.

‘Now you’ve done it,’ Terry whispered, ‘the man’s won prizes for them. He beat my Dad’s at that garden show two years ago.’

‘Well, he won’t be beating your Dad this year with that one. Stupid bloody place to grow it, it’s sticking out over the path,’ said Jacko, cleaning his shoe on a patch of grass.

Jacko crept up to the back door of the cottage and took a small crowbar from the inside of his soaking wet jacket. He wedged it in at the site of the lock and prised the door open. The jamb crumbled with a loud crack and exposed the latch.

‘Quiet fool!’ said Terry pushing his hand through the hole and lifting the latch from its demolished catch and the door swung open. ‘The fools forgot to bolt the door,’ said Terry, ‘My Mam would kill me if I’d gone off and not done that.’

‘Lucky for us, then,’ said Jacko putting the jemmy back in his pocket.

They crept in and found themselves in a short passageway leading through to the front of the house. On their left was the kitchen door and on their right the stairs up to the bedrooms, a little farther on was a heavy hallstand opposite the front room door. Halfway along the passage was a table, on it a white phone rested on a crocheted doily, its silver dial reflecting a light shining down from somewhere above.

‘Hey, there’s a light on.’ Jacko was renowned for stating the obvious. ‘There’s no-one here is there?’

‘Nah, they’re like my Mam, she always leaves a light on somewhere in the house to deter burglars,’ answered Terry.

‘Who’d burgle your Mam? She ain’t got anything has she?’

‘She’s got them souvenir plates she pinched from that street party we had for the Queen’s coronation last year. They might be worth a bit. Don’t you get telling Larry about them. I ain’t stealing off my Mam, she’ll kill me,’ said Terry, breaking into a sweat at the thought of it. She was always threatening to kill him. ‘Come on, the lounge is that way.’ And Terry opened the door into the front room and Jacko followed him in.
It was on their way out that Terry had the fright of his life when the old woman came downstairs in her nightie, a hockey stick in her hand.

‘Oi, you two!’ she shouted menacingly, waving the stick about in the air. ‘What do you think you’re doing with that trunk?’

‘What does it look like, you old bat,’ Jacko said, his voice muffled in his misshapen balaclava. The rain had stretched the heavy wool so that the eyeholes gaped larger and the hole for his mouth was now somewhere beneath his chin. It was still dripping water. ‘We’re going on holiday!’ It took a lot to instil fear in Jacko, mainly because he didn’t have the intelligence to recognize it.

But Terry was a little more aware of terror, panicking, he slipped on the new lino and dropped his end of the large trunk at the foot of the stairs. ‘Run, Jacko, run!’

‘Shut up, Terry, Larry said not to use our names. Grab her!’ he ordered, jumping over the trunk and lunging for the Wainwrights’ mother standing midway on the stairs. But his trailing foot caught the edge of the trunk and he fell against Terry who fell backwards, his shoulders catching the shins of the old woman.
Screaming, she abruptly dropped to sit on the stairs. The unexpected outcome of her shouted challenge resulted in her dropping the hockey stick and it bounced heavily on Jacko’s head. He saw stars.

‘Right, you bitch,’ and grabbing Terry’s shoulder he threw him out of the way. ‘You’re coming with us.’ He reached over to the very small woman and pulled her arm.

‘Ow, stop that you brute! I’ll get up on my own, thank you.’ She smacked Jacko across his face with her free hand, pushing Terry off her legs with the other.

Jacko was so surprised he released her. ‘Christ, woman, what you do that for…that bloody hurt?’ He rubbed hard at his cheek feeling the heat grow.

‘You were hurting me, young man—and stop blaspheming!’

‘Aye, you were a bit rough, Jacko, she is old you know,’ said Terry sympathetically.

‘I can see that! I’m not bloody stupid am I?’

‘Come on, you take that arm I’ll take this one,’ Terry said quietly not to further alarm the woman, and at the same time placating Jacko.

Jacko reached out, very gingerly this time, and hooked his fingers around Mrs Wainwright’s thin bicep. Terry did the same the other side and they drew her to the foot of the stairs.

‘Where are you taking me, you heathens? Are you going to add kidnapping to burglary?’ Mrs Wainwright said showing no fear whatsoever.

‘Kidnapping, who said anything about kidnapping?’ asked Jacko. ‘What are we going to do with her, Ter?’

‘Me? Why ask me, how the hell should I know?’

‘There is no need to swear, young man. I’m not used to bad language so behave! I’m sure your mother never brought you up to swear like that…especially in front of old ladies.’

Terry’s face fell. He knew quite well that his mother would kill him for it if she ever found out.

‘Is that all you’re stealing?’

‘What?’ They both asked her together.

‘That trunk…is that all your plunder,’ and at their vacant expressions she added, ‘are you taking anything else?’

‘Er…no,’ said Terry, ‘this is heavy enough as it is. What’s in it?’

‘You mean you don’t know what you’re stealing?’

‘Of course we do! Think we’re idiots, do you? Our mate told us to take the black trunk from the lounge and that’s what we’ve done,’ answered Jacko, truculently.

‘The black trunk? But there are two in there. How about the other one, is it still behind the door? Why aren’t you taking the other one?’ she asked, not waiting for an answer, a smile growing in her eyes.

‘Don’t be daft it’s full of clothes! What do we want that one for, eh?’ said Jacko smugly, ‘we won’t get much for them.’

‘Well, I wouldn’t take that one if I was you,’ she said.

‘Why not…some good pickings in this one, huh? Want us to change our minds, do you?’ said Terry overcoming his reluctance to talk to her.

‘Well, can’t say I didn’t warn you. Take it if you want to, I don’t care, it’s not mine, it belongs to my son.’

‘Hear that, Jacko? This has to be the goodies. Her son owns that jewellers in the High Street, you know the one with that ship clock in the window that looks a bit like my Mam’s.’

‘Aye, course I know,’ and he beamed. It was an expression that still left him looking vacant, although it was still partially hidden behind his balaclava. ‘You’re right this is the big one, Ter…the one that’s going to set us up for life! Let’s shove her under the stairs and put that hallstand against the door.’ Jacko pointed at the heavy piece of furniture holding three umbrellas and a vase of flowers. ‘She’ll never get out with that against it.’

‘No, I won’t. And when I suffocate you’ll be done for murder as well, young man. Besides I’m old, I might have a heart attack before I suffocate.’

‘Bloody hell, woman, have you got to be so difficult!’ Jacko said exasperated.

‘You can lock me in the kitchen. At least I’ll be comfortable in there and I could do with a cuppa, I’m exhausted,’ she ordered.

‘Go have a look, Jacko, see if she can escape from there,’ said Terry becoming more scared of her by the minute.

Jacko shuffled along the passage. Opening the half-glass door he walked into the kitchen. ‘It looks all right, mate,’ he shouted. ‘There’s no way out except the window. I can’t see her climbing out of that,’ and he laughed.

‘What you got in your hand?’ Terry asked when Jacko returned.

‘Fruitcake, there’s a slab of it in a tin in there.’

‘Didn’t you get me any?’

‘Get your own!’

Mrs Wainwright grinned.

‘What you smiling about, eh?’ asked Jacko, spitting crumbs.

‘I do like to see my baking appreciated…and don’t talk with your mouth full!’

‘She’s right there, boy,’ said Terry, disgusted. ‘I don’t want to see it rolling around inside your mouth! Move it, woman, I’m starving.’ And he nudged her gently before him through the kitchen door.

‘It tastes a bit sticky not like my Ma makes,’ Jacko said, staring at the residue in his hand. ‘What are these lumps?’ He prodded what looked like lumps of black glue.

‘God, woman, when’d you make this it’s…horrible!’ said Terry, moving it from side to side in his mouth he was finding it very difficult to swallow. He succeeded eventually and took another bite—he was very hungry. ‘We’re going now, you stay in here.’

‘You’d better put some of that cake in your pocket for Larry. We don’t want him moaning at us for forgetting him,’ said Jacko.

Terry spat the remains of the cake from his mouth having eaten most of it. ‘Christ, I hope I’m never that hungry again.’

Under cover of the sounds of the hallstand being dragged along the passage, Mrs Wainwright stood up. She listened with her head on one side for a moment and then walked slowly over to the cupboard holding the tinned food.

She stooped, moaning a little as her sciatica gave a twinge down her right leg. Rummaging around for a few moments she retrieved another phone set and placed it on top of the counter, being careful not to cause the bell inside it to jingle. Moving a packet of corn flakes aside that had been hiding it, she plugged the phone into the second socket in the house. There was another phone line upstairs in her son’s bedroom. Minutes later she heard the front door open and then close behind the burglars.

‘I don’t mind admitting, Jacko. She frightened the life out of me when she came down those stairs.’
‘What…you were afraid of a little old woman?’

‘That’s not what I meant. Larry makes the plans, sets everything up for a nice easy job and forgets that the Wainwrights have their frigging mother house-sitting while they go on holiday.’

The two young men carried the heavy tin trunk between them. Struggling against the gusting wind, their heads lowered in a vain attempt to keep the rain out of their eyes, both were elated at their very first success in the profession of house-burglary. Although finding someone unexpectedly at home had unnerved them, but only for a moment.

‘Bloody hell, Jacko, take it easy will you?’ spluttered Terry as he stumbled in the dark, in a pot-hole in the middle of the unmade track. ‘Nobody can see us, slow down.’

‘Ah, stop moaning, it’s not far to the van now. Shift it or Larry’ll be getting his hair off. You know what he’s like when he thinks we’re too slow.’ He continued to pull Terry along at the end of the trunk.

‘Why didn’t he tell us about that old bat staying there? He said the place was empty.’ Terry complained his off-white daps squelching in the pools of rainwater, his socks were soaking. He was wrestling mightily with the weight of their loot and losing.

‘Don’t ask him, for God’s sake, he’ll only start shouting at us. It don’t matter anyway, she was as blind as a bat. They all are at that age,’ answered Jacko.

Being the bigger of the two he was always picked on to do the heavy lifting but even he found the trunk was weighing a ton and very awkward to hold. The cloth covered handles were fraying and cutting into the palms of his hands.

At the end of the long lane they saw Larry waiting patiently in the van, the interior light was on and he was reading the paper while smoking his vile Spanish cigarettes.

‘Bloody hell, he hasn’t got the window open. It’s going to be murder breathing in there,’ moaned Jacko.

‘Shut it, don’t start him off,’ Terry gasped out of breath as they dropped the trunk at the rear doors.

Terry removed the rope holding the handles, the lock was broken and the doors could only be secured by tying them together. The hinges on the right hand door, being distorted, creaked loudly as he dragged it ajar.

‘Quiet, fools,’ Larry shouted from the driver’s seat putting his paper down and peering through the smog.

‘Okay, okay,’ said Terry helping Jacko lift the heavy trunk into the well of the empty, but dirty, van.

Their last job had been lifting paving slabs recently laid by the council, they’d had a fair price for them but it hadn’t half been backbreaking. They’d been forced to leave that job early, though, when a nosy old man had asked them what they were doing. As if it wasn’t obvious.

Terry leant against the sill gasping, Larry’s cigarette smoke wafting over him. He groped for his own tin of fags and shoved one between his lips. Unlit, he savoured the taste of his rollup and climbed into the back alongside the trunk. Jostling the padlock on its front he settled between it and the wall of the van. Reaching into his pocket he retrieved Mrs Wainwright’s cake and passed it – only slightly squashed – to Larry.

‘What’s this?’ Larry asked dubiously.

‘A bit of cake we found. It tastes a bit strange until you get used to it,’ Terry answered.

Larry took a bite and gagged. ‘Jeez, what the hell is it? You trying to kill me?’ He took another mouthful and threw the rest of it out the window in disgust.

Jacko pushed the rear doors closed and re-tied the rope around the handles. Hurrying in the rain he trotted around to the front passenger seat and slammed the door hard in his haste to get in out of the storm.

‘Jeez, Jacko, watch the paintwork! Any problems?’ asked Larry replacing the falling tax disk. He squinted through the smoke into the back of the van at Terry fidgeting. Being the smaller Terry was always shoved in the back on the miserably cold, hard floor.

‘Just one…their mother was house-sitting, we had to lock her in the kitchen before we left,’ Terry replied. He put the roll-up in his pocket and pulled out a packet of woodbines from his pocket. He lit one and drew heavily on it. He found it preferable, and more bearable, to put up with Larry’s fags if he was smoking a real one himself. ‘We got the trunk easy enough. You could have told us it was going to be that heavy, it nearly pulled my arms out the sockets.’

‘Shut up, wimp,’ Larry said beaming all over his face, ‘we’re going to make a fortune out of all that clobber.’

‘Er…um…what clobber?’ asked Terry, his stomach churning he suddenly had a nasty feeling in his stomach and glanced quickly at Jacko.

‘What?’ Larry, taking the fag from his mouth felt his colour rising, his temper forever simmering just beneath the surface. ‘You lifted the black trunk didn’t you?’

‘Yeah,’ said Jacko slowly, it suddenly occurring to him that something might be wrong. ‘Course we did, but there were two in there, so…so we lifted the locked one.’

‘The other one only had a load of clothes in it; they didn’t look like much so we picked this one. It’ll be more valuable won’t it otherwise why’d they lock it?’ said Terry coughing.

Larry stared from one to the other and then at the trunk. ‘You fools! God, give me strength you’d better hope this is worth a bit. Those clothes were all designer gear, worth a couple of grand easy! Have you looked in this one yet?’

‘No,’ Jacko said, ‘the old woman came downstairs before we could. We thought we’d better scarper with it as soon as possible.’

‘Yeah, we thought you knew what was in it,’ Terry said biting his lip again, anxiety creeping up his back. Now that he was squashed up close to the trunk in the confined space in the back of the van, he’d suddenly noticed a very strange smell emanating from its depths.

‘Well, you’d better be right you useless pair of dung-beetles. Climb over there, Jacko, and help him open it.’

Jacko heaved his bulk around and caught his knee on the gear stick as he did so. Eliciting a growl from Larry he crawled over the back of his seat and into the space behind the trunk.

‘Hey, why are there holes in the back of it?’ Jacko frowned.

‘I don’t know,’ said Terry, ‘there’s some in the front as well,’ he rattled the padlock. ‘Pass the jemmy, Jacko.’

‘God, what’s that stink, it smells like that old woman’s cake don’t it?’ Jacko asked sniffing loudly. ‘I’m not going back to try her cooking again,’ he added, laughing nervously Terry’s apprehension was infectious.

Terry found it easy to lever off the hasp. It came away with a snap followed by a loud bang as the lid shot up and smashed against Jacko’s head. Stunning him, Jacko fell back against the wall of the van.
‘What the hell!’ Larry, startled, bent over the rear of his seat to peer around the lid.

Terry couldn’t move. His face ashen, eyes popping from his head he stared – hypnotized – at the contents of the trunk returning his gaze.

Larry, who hadn’t yet seen what his smallest gang member was staring at – his line of sight obstructed by both the lid of the trunk and the bulk of Jacko moaning and holding his head in his hands – leant over farther to get a clearer look.

But he overstretched and slipped down between the driver’s seat and the passenger’s. ‘Shit! I’m caught…help me up Terry, don’t just sit there, what’s the matter with you?’

Larry’s cries for help drowned out the hissing coming from the trunk.

But Jacko heard it and he rose to his knees with great difficulty in the cramped space behind the lid. He peered over the top and discovered the contents sticking up between his and Terry’s faces, apoplexy turning Terry a funny colour yellow.

Jacko screamed, his shriek causing utter panic.

Larry, jammed down between the seats, looked up and saw the snake slowly turning its head to stare at all three of its companions, all in various degrees of distress at being confined with it.

But they weren’t confined for long.

Jacko made a dive for the rear doors, smashing one of the handles the door flew outwards and immediately rebounded hitting him in the face.

The largest of the three burglars – hysterical at feeling his nose break – fell head first out the rear of the van. For the third time that night he sustained an injury to his head. Out cold, he lay with his legs still in the back of the van, his face on the rough stones of the lane.

Terry jumped the other way.

Making for the passenger door he accidentally trod all over Larry – still unable to move between the seats – pushing him down even further into the gap. But in his haste Terry hit his head on the windscreen. Stunned he bounced back against the passenger door knocking it open and again another of the felons was unconscious half in and half out of the van.

Fortunately for Larry the police discovered him moments later struggling to breathe, his face compressed against the side of the seat by the weight of Terry’s legs.

The python was once again resting in the trunk nibbling at Mrs Wainwright’s cake, specially baked for it with the bits of sheep discarded by the local abattoir and cockroaches bought from the suppliers of foodstuffs to python owners. It also liked the way the old woman prepared the mouldy flour.

The police, summoned by Mrs Wainwright from the second phone in the kitchen, were led by her second son, a very large Inspector of Constabulary. The snake was owned by his older brother, the jeweller, a perfectly harmless ball python he’d had for years. A pet, it was allowed to roam the house and act as a deterrent to would be house-breakers.

His mother, though, didn’t like the python one little bit. Whenever she house-sat the snake had to be imprisoned in its trunk. The only concession she ever made was to bake the snake’s food so that it had something to occupy it when she locked it away.

There had been another occasion, years earlier, when the inspector had received a frantic phone call from his mother. Arriving at his brother’s home after completing a particularly harrowing nightshift, he found her hysterical. She had woken to find the python stretched out on the bed alongside her. “Eyeing her up”, she called it. And no amount of persuasion could satisfy her that a ball python never ever swallowed humans.

Larry, Jacko and Terry – after having spent a fortnight in hospital with food-poisoning – were each sentenced to a three month term of imprisonment. Jacko and Terry because it was their first attempt at burglary and Larry because he wasn’t displaying a valid tax disk – it was ten years old.

Larry, of course, took the opportunity to berate his mates continually during their incarceration.

THE END

Total Words: 3,936

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