I’m going to die. And it makes no sense. That wasn’t the plan, not my plan, anyway. I may have been heading this way all the time without realising. It wasn’t my plan. My plan was better. My plan made sense.
I’m staring down the muzzle of a gun and I know that’s where it will come from. The messenger of death. The ferryman. Time for a last laugh. If you can see light at the end of the tunnel, it may be a spit of flame. Time for a last tear. We could have turned this life into something good, you and I. If we had followed the plan. One last thought. Everyone asks what the meaning of life is, but no one asks about the meaning of death.
The old man reminded Harry of an astronaut. The comical short steps, the stiff movements, the dead, black eyes and the shoes shuffling along the parquet floor. As if he were frightened to lose contact with the ground and float away into space.
Harry looked at the clock on the white wall above the exit. 15.16. Outside the window, in Bogstadveien, the Friday crowds hurry past. The low October sun is reflected in the wing mirror of a car driving away in the rush hour.
Harry concentrated on the old man. Hat plus elegant grey overcoat in dire need of a clean. Beneath it: tweed jacket, tie and worn grey trousers with a needle-sharp crease. Polished shoes, down at the heel. One of those pensioners of whom Majorstuen seems to be full. This wasn’t conjecture. Harry knew that August Schulz was eighty-one years old and an ex-clothes retailer who had lived all his life in Majorstuen, apart from a period he spent inAuschwitz during the War. And the stiff knees were the result of a fall from a Ringveien footbridge which he used on his daily visits to his daughter. The impression of a mechanical doll was reinforced by the fact that his arms were bent perpendicularly at the elbow and thrust forward. A brown walking stick hung over his right forearm and his left hand gripped a bank giro he was holding out for the short-haired young man at position number 2. Harry couldn’t see the face of the cashier, but he knew he was staring at the old man with a mixture of sympathy and irritation.
It was 15.17 now, and finally it was August Schulz’s turn.
Stine Grette sat at position number 1, counting out 730 Norwegian kroner for a boy in a blue woollen hat who had just given her a money order. The diamond on the ring finger of her left hand glistened as she placed each note on the counter.
Harry couldn’t see, but he knew that in front of position number 3 there was a woman with a pram, which she was rocking, probably to distract herself, as the child was asleep. The woman was waiting to be served by fru Brænne, who was loudly explaining to a man on the telephone that he couldn’t charge someone else’s account unless the account holder had signed an agreement to that effect. She also informed him that she worked in the bank, and he didn’t, so on that note perhaps they should bring the discussion to a close.
At that moment the door opened and two men, one tall, the other short, wearing the same overalls, strode into the bank. Stine Grette looked up. Harry checked his watch and began to count. The men ran over to the corner where Stine was sitting. The tall man moved as if he were stepping over puddles, while the little one had the rolling gait of someone who has acquired more muscle than he can accommodate. The boy in the blue hat turned slowly and began to walk towards the exit, so preoccupied with counting money that he didn’t see the two men.
‘Hello,’ the tall man said to Stine, banging down a black case on the counter. The little one pushed his reflector sunglasses in place, walked forward and deposited an identical case beside it. ‘Money!’ he said in a high-pitched squeak. ‘Open the door!’
It was like pressing the pause button: all movement in the bank froze. The only indication that time hadn’t stood still was the traffic outside the window. And the second hand on the clock, which now showed that ten seconds had passed. Stine pressed a button under her desk. There was a hum of electronics, and the little man pressed the counter door against the wall with his knee.
‘Who’s got the key?’ he asked. ‘Quick, we haven’t got all day!’
‘Helge!’ Stine shouted over her shoulder.
‘What?’ The voice came from inside the open door of the only office in the bank.
‘We’ve got visitors, Helge!’
A man with a bow tie and reading glasses appeared.
‘These gentlemen want you to open the ATM, Helge,’ Stine said.
Helge Klementsen stared vacantly at the two men dressed in overalls, who were now on his side of the counter. The tall one glanced nervously at the front door while the little one had his eyes fixed on the branch manager.
‘Oh, right. Of course,’ Helge gasped, as if he had just remembered a missed appointment, and burst into a peal of frenetic laughter.
Harry didn’t move a muscle; he simply let his eyes absorb every detail of their movements and gestures. Twenty-five seconds. He continued to look at the clock above the door, but from the corner of his eye he could see the branch manager unlocking the ATM from the inside, taking out two oblong metal dispensers and handing them over to the two men. The whole thing took place at high speed and in silence. Fifty seconds.
‘These are for you, pop!’ The little man had taken two similar metal dispensers from his case and held them out for Helge. The branch manager swallowed, nodded, took them and slotted them into the ATM.
‘Have a good weekend!’ the little one said, straightening his back and grabbing the case. One and a half minutes.
‘Not so fast,’ Helge said.
The little one stiffened.
Harry sucked in his cheeks and tried to concentrate.
‘The receipt . . .’ Helge said.
For one protracted moment the two men stared at the small, grey-haired branch manager. Then the little one began to laugh. Loud, reedy laughter with a piercing, hysterical overtone, the way people on speed laugh. ‘You don’t think we were going to leave here without a signature, do you? Hand over two million without a receipt!’
‘Well,’ Helge said. ‘One of you almost forgot last week.’
‘There are so many new bods on deliveries at the moment,’ the little one said, as he and Helge signed and exchanged yellow and pink forms.
Harry waited for the front door to close again before looking at the clock once more. Two minutes and ten seconds.
Through the glass in the door he could see the white Nordea security van drive away.
Conversations between the people in the bank resumed. Harry didn’t need to count, but he still did. Seven. Three behind the counter and four in front, including the baby and the man in overalls who had just come in and was standing by the table in the middle of the room, writing his account number on a payment slip. Harry knew it was for Sunshine Tours.
‘Good afternoon,’ August Schulz said and began to shuffle in the direction of the front door.
The time was exactly 15.21.10, and that was the moment the whole thing started.
When the door opened, Harry saw Stine Grette’s head bob up from her papers and drop down. Then she raised her head again, slowly this time. Harry’s attention moved to the front door. The man who had come in had already pulled down the zip of his boiler suit and whipped out a black-and-olive-green AG3. A navy blue balaclava completely covered his face, apart from his eyes. Harry started to count from zero.
The balaclava began to move where the mouth would have been, like a Bigfoot doll: ‘This is a hold-up. Nobody move!’
He hadn’t raised his voice, but in the small, compact bank building it was as if a cannon had gone off. Harry studied Stine. Above the distant drone of traffic he could hear the smooth click of greased metal as the man cocked the gun. Her left shoulder sank, almost imperceptibly.
Brave girl, Harry thought. Or maybe just frightened out of her wits. Aune, the psychology lecturer at Oslo Police College, had told them that when people are frightened enough they stop thinking and act the way they have been programmed. Most bank employees press the silent robbery alarm almost in shock, Aune maintained, citing post-robbery debriefings where many could not remember whether they had activated the alarm or not. They had been on autopilot. In just the same way as a bank robber has programmed himself to shoot anyone trying to stop him, Aune said. The more frightened the bank robber is, the less chance anyone has of making him change his mind. Harry was rigid as he tried to fix on the bank robber’s eyes. Blue.
The robber unhitched a black holdall and threw it over the counter. The man in black took six paces to the counter door, perched on the top edge and swung his legs over to stand directly behind Stine, who was sitting still with a vacant expression. Good, Harry thought. She knows her instructions; she is not provoking a reaction by staring at the robber.
The man pointed the barrel of the gun at Stine’s neck, leaned forward and whispered in her ear.
She hadn’t panicked yet, but Harry could see Stine’s chest heaving; her fragile frame seemed to be struggling for air under the now very taut white blouse. Fifteen seconds.
She cleared her throat. Once. Twice. Finally her vocal cords came to life:
‘Helge. Keys for the ATM.’ The voice was low and hoarse, completely unrecognisable from the one which had articulated almost the same words three minutes earlier.
Harry couldn’t see him, but he knew that Helge had heard what the robber had said and was already standing in the office doorway.
‘Quick, or else . . .’ Her voice was hardly audible and in the following pause all that could be heard in the bank were the soles of August Schulz’s shoes on the parquet flooring, like a couple of brushes swishing against the drum skin in an immeasurably slow shuffle.
‘. . . he’ll shoot me.’
Harry looked out of the window. There was often a car outside, engine running, but he couldn’t see one. Only a blur of passing cars and people.
‘Helge . . .’ Her voice was imploring.
Come on, Helge, Harry urged. He knew quite a bit about the ageing bank manager, too. Harry knew that he had two standard poodles, a wife and a recently jilted pregnant daughter waiting for him at home. They had packed and were ready to drive to their mountain chalet as soon as Helge returned. At precisely this moment Helge felt he was submerged in water, in the kind of dream where all your movements slow down however much you try to hurry. Then he came into Harry’s field of vision. The bank robber had swung Stine’s chair round so that he was behind her, but now faced Helge. Like a frightened child who has to feed a horse, Helge stood back and held out the bunch of keys, his arm stretched to the limit. The masked man whispered in Stine’s ear as he turned the machine gun on Helge, who took two unsteady steps backwards.
Stine cleared her throat: ‘He says open the ATM and put the money in the black holdall.’
In a daze, Helge stared at the gun pointing at him.
‘You’ve got twenty-five seconds before he shoots. Not you. Me.’
Helge’s mouth opened and closed as though he wanted to say something.
‘Now, Helge,’ Stine said.
Thirty seconds had passed since the hold-up began. August Schulz had almost reached the front door. The branch manager fell to his knees in front of the ATM and contemplated the bunch of keys. There were four of them.
‘Twenty seconds left,’ Stine’s voice rang out.
Majorstuen police station, Harry thought. The patrol cars are on their way. Eight blocks away. Friday rush hour.
With trembling fingers, Helge took one key and inserted it in the lock. It got stuck halfway. He pressed harder.
‘But . . .’ he began.
Helge pulled out the key and tried one of the others. It went in, but wouldn’t turn.
‘My God . . .’
‘Thirteen. Use the one with the bit of green tape, Helge.’
Klementsen stared at the bunch of keys as though seeing them for the first time.
The third key went in. And round. He pulled open the door and turned towards Stine and the man.
‘There is one more lock to open . . .’
‘Nine!’ Stine yelled.
Helge sobbed as he ran his fingers across the jagged edges of the keys, no longer able to see, using the edges as Braille to tell him which key was the right one.
Harry listened carefully. No police sirens yet. August Schulz grasped the handle of the front door.
There was a metallic clunk as the bunch of keys hit the floor.
‘Five,’ Stine whispered.
The door opened and the sounds from the street flooded into the bank. Harry thought he could hear the familiar dying lament in the distance. It rose again. Police sirens. Then the door closed.
Harry closed his eyes and counted to two.
‘There we are!’ It was Helge shouting. He had opened the second lock and now he was half-standing, pulling at the jammed dispensers. ‘Let me just get the money out! I–’
He was interrupted by a piercing shriek. Harry peered towards the other end of the bank where a woman stood staring in horror at the motionless bank robber pressing the gun into Stine’s neck. She blinked twice and mutely nodded her head in the direction of the pram as the child’s scream rose in pitch.
Helge almost fell backwards as the first dispenser came free. He pulled over the black holdall. Within six seconds all the money was in. Klementsen zipped up the holdall as instructed and stood by the counter. Everything had been communicated via Stine; her voice sounded surprisingly steady and calm now.