It was a Friday evening in January in Aidensfield and despite the bitter cold and freezing weather the Aidensfield Arms had had a busy night. Gina Ward thankfully closed the big heavy front door of the pub behind the last customer and bolted it top and bottom.
"Thank goodness for that was beginning to think they had no homes to go to!" she said to her Uncle George who was collecting glasses, somewhat wearily.
"Aye, be here all night if they were let," he said with a sigh.
Gina took a quick glance at him, he really did seem very tired and she felt not for the first time some concern for him. He wasn't getting any younger.
"Eh, Uncle George, why don't I finish down here?" she said now. "You go on off to bed."
"I can't leave you with all this, Gina," he said but she saw the temptation on his face.
"You can if I'm given a night off next week to go to the pictures with Phil Bellamy," she said. "Now go on, off you go, before I change my mind."
He smiled. "You're a good girl Gina."
They both jumped suddenly as there was a loud banging at the rear door of the pub. They looked at each other startled then hurried into the pub's large kitchen. "Who is it?" George called.
"I need help," a man's voice shouted. "My wife's ill – we were out in the car – and the phone box isn't working. She needs help, urgent like. Please help us!"
"Uncle George!" Gina dashed forward as her uncle hesitated. "We have to help them!" And she pulled back the bolts on the door and turned the key even as George began to say, "Wait a minute Gina," for he was thinking, if someone was passing through the village and needed help why did they come to the rear door of the pub, it would be more sensible for them to bang on the front door surely?
Too late. Gina pulled open the door and three men in boiler suits and balaclavas bearing sawn off shotguns pushed their way in, one grabbing Gina's arm and roughly pushing her at her Uncle. She screamed and George put his arms round her trying to protect her. Another man came in and slammed the door behind him.
"Shut her up!" he told George menacingly.
"Gina, its all right love," he said holding the sobbing girl tightly to him
"I let them in Uncle George, its all my fault."
"No love, its all right. Come on be a brave girl for me."
"Into the bar old man," the robber who had spoken said now. "You're going to sit down and keep quiet – the pair of you – and let us get what we've come for. And when we've got it we'll go and neither of you will get hurt if you do as you're told. Now move!"
George and Gina were forced back into the bar. They sat down at a table. George kept his arms tightly around Gina trying to soothe her – she was terrified. One of the armed robbers stood over them making sure they didn't move at all. The others got to work emptying the till of its takings, removing crates of stock, raiding the cigarette machine. They worked quickly and systematically not even bothering to look at their two hostages.
Just as it seemed the robbers work was completed – everything they wanted had been taken out of the rear door and loaded into a van they had waiting in the rear yard of the pub – there was a loud bang on the front door of the pub causing everyone, including the robbers, to jump.
The robber who had spoken to Gina and George and who seemed to be in charge cautiously moved to the pub window. The curtain was drawn across and he looked carefully through a small gap trying to see who was stood at the door. The pub's outside lights were still on and it was easy to pick out the figure illuminated in the light.
"It's the village copper," he said to the other gang members.
"Jesus Christ, someone must have seen something, reported it in," one man said.
"Yeah right," the first man scoffed. "If they thought anything was going off here, they wouldn't send one bobby would they? They'd send a van full."
At that moment George put in, "All the pub lights are on, in and out." He spoke flatly. "He'll have been passing, seen the lights and stopped to check I'm not having a lock in." He cleared his throat. "Let me get rid of him."
"No," the gang leader said. "You'll let him in. If you don't want your pretty friend here to get hurt." As he said this another man stepped behind Gina putting his arm round her throat pulling the poor girl up out of her chair toward him..
"Don't hurt her!" George lunged forward but the first man barred his way. "Let the copper in, "he said, "and we won't have to."
George closed his eyes mormentarily knowing he had no choice. He silently and heavily went to the door and opened it. Nick Rowan was standing there looking both impatient and puzzled.
"Just on my way home from Ashfordly and noticed all your lights are on George," he said. "Not serving after hours are we?"
"Well." George stammered. He looked back at what Nick couldn't see, his pretty young niece being roughed up by some thug with a gun. What could he do?
"I'm that sorry Nick," George muttered.
Nick frowned. "It's all right George. I don't think you're planning the Great Train Robbery! But I do need to come in?"
George stepped back from the door and closed his eyes. Nick stepped through the door and before he could see or register anything a gun barrel was brought down across the side of his head. He went down instantly.
Gina sobbed wildly as two of the robbers hauled Nick fully into the pub and dumped him on the floor. The one who had hit Nick slammed and locked the pub door again. Gina was released by the man holding her and she immediately tried to get to Nick but was roughly pulled away and pushed to her Uncle who grabbed her tightly.
"Sit back down the pair of you!" the man who had hit Nick snapped and miserably they did so all the time watching Nick trying to gauge how badly he was hurt.
He was beginning to come round even as they sat back down and the man who had hit him leaned over him. With a groan Nick opened his eyes and blinked trying to clear his vision. As his eyes focused he saw George and Gina sitting at a table with a boiler suit clad, masked figure brandishing a gun standing over them.
"Are – you all right?" Nick managed to ask them.
"Fine lad, we're worried about you," George said soothingly.
The man leaning over Nick snapped, "Shut up all of you! Right we need to start thinking about getting out of here." He looked at one of his cohorts. "Has he got any wheels outside?"
One man went to look. "A motorbike."
"Get out there and move it round the back. Go through the rear entrance and make sure you're not seen. When you come back we need to get the van fully loaded and then we need to get moving."
As this man sped off the first man looked at one of the others. "Help me with him." He nodded at Nick. "Get that bag we brought. We'll use that for him and lock these two in the cellar."
"No." George spoke angrily. "You said you'd do what you came for and then go. You said nowt about leaving us in cold cellars."
"Yeah like I'm giving you the opportunity to call in the cavalry minute we walk out that door." The man looked up as one of the gang came in with a small bag and walked over to Nick.
Nick, lying on his side, blood oozing from the cut on his head watched them trying to hide the anxiety he was feeling wondering what they were planning. He was about to find out.
He was pulled onto his front and his handcuffs removed from his belt. The man who had hit him then forced his hands painfully up behind his back and put the cuffs on. The other man removed Nick's tie and used this to tie his legs together.
As Nick was pulled on his side again the first man then pulled out of the bag a neck scarf and a piece of rag. Nick began to get an idea of what was coming then and felt his breathing quicken although he tried to control it.
The first man knelt behind Nick then roughly grabbed hold of him in a vice one hand cupping his jaw the other holding Nick's nose. Nick held on for a bit then had to take in some air and opened his mouth to breathe. The other man then forced in the piece of rag and used the neck scarf to tie it in place.
The men stood up watching as Nick fought to remove the tight gag by rubbing his face against the floor without any success at all. Gina was sobbing almost hysterically by now as George pleaded with the men. "You can't leave him like that, he can hardly breathe, he'll choke."
"Cellars. Now. Move," was the only reply he got and the two were reluctantly forced to the stairs down to the steep cellars. They were pushed down the steps and the cellar door was slammed shut and locked behind them.
They would have been in darkness but there was electric light down there and George snapped it on. He held Gina tightly as they sat down on the cold cellar floor. She was crying and very distressed. Suddenly she stopped and looked up at her Uncle.
"Uncle George! You keep a spare key down here don't you. Just in case anyone gets locked in here by mistake!"
George looked miserably at her. "Aye. It were on top of that ledge there. But last week I knocked it on the floor and pushed it in my coat pocket and well I didn't put it back again…"
Gina stared at him in horror. "Uncle George! What are we going to do?"
"Well, well….we'll get found eventually like. And Nick Rowan, Kate'll start asking questions won't she when he doesn't come home tonight."
"But she isn't home!" Gina gasped as she remembered something. "She's gone to London for a few days to see a relative who isn't well or something. An Aunt. What does it matter? She's not at home is what I'm saying so Nick won't be missed. You heard him say that he'd finished his shift and was on his way home. So they won't know he's missing and nor will Kate. Oh Uncle George what are we going to do? Nick can't be left like that, he will choke or suffocate! We have to get help Uncle George! We have to!"