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He's Been Run Through with A Sword. He's Been Shot at Point-Blank Range. He's Got a Reputation and Respect as One of the Hardest Men in Britain
By Cass Pennant
John Blake Publishing LtdCopyright © 2002 Cass Pennant/ Mike Ridley
All rights reserved.
'What the fuck?'
Revellers milling around in the nightclub foyer scream and start stampeding. The bullet entering my chest registers no pain. Instead, my brain is screaming 'attack!' I lunge forward towards the threat.
A hazy figure stands behind the smoke, two hands on silver metal. He fires again. A flash of flame, then, BOOM! I can smell the cordite. I'm flying backwards in slow motion, just like a Clint Eastwood. I must be wounded but I'm still on my feet. Everyone around me has hit the floor. I am the bouncer, so instinct is still telling me to attack, go forward. Where's my friend Mr T? He must be the target. He's had a real problem with troublemakers tonight. Can't see him in the dark, but I sense he's there. Where's Leon? There's confusion everywhere. We've got to group together and go on the attack.
You stupid prick, Cass. You're offering him a target. He's taking aim again, so why are you fronting him? You're the target – the only target – get yourself out, you big fool.
My only instinct now is survival. Going forward is suicide; that's where the assassin is.
Got to get back. The blue double doors behind me lead to the dance floor. Big man, get yourself through those doors for dear life.
A blue flash. BANG! A third shot rings out. I'm no longer on my feet. I'm six feet four, seventeen stones and I'm flying through the air. I crash through the doors, carried by the force of the blast. Bullet number three is in my back. I'm on my feet again, stumbling, staggering, trying to put some distance between me and the assassin. A sea of terrified faces rushes towards me. More screams. The faces part. I lurch forward. One more set of doors to go and I'm safe inside the club. Screaming people are running all over the dance floor. They're trying to get out of my way.
My only chance of safety is to get out through the back fire escape where my driver is waiting outside. If the gunman follows me now he can finish me off. He's probably thinking I'm dead already and if he's got a brain he'll get out before he's nicked. His sidekicks were shitting bricks when the second shot went off. Fearing for themselves, because they'd be done as accessories, they tugged at the gunman to leave: 'C'mon, you've done the black cunt. C'mon, we've gotta slip.'
Coked out of his brain, the gunman ignored their pleas and fired off the third shot.
Lurching like a drunk, I climb the stairs. Everyone else is coming down, screaming. I push them out of the way. It's pitch black and I don't know if there's blood pouring out of me or not. For the first time I feel real, raw terror. I'm losing the battle to live. I know my way blindfold. Clawing at the banister, I pull myself hand over hand up the thirteen steps. My strength ebbing with every second that passes, sheer willpower takes over. I reach the gallery that leads to the celebrity bar where the wannabe gangsters hang out. Turn left. I clatter down the last flight of stairs to the emergency exit. Safety is just yards away now.
I find the fire escape doors I've been blindly searching for. I'm alone. I'm dying for sure but, spurred on by the thought of safety on the other side of these doors, from somewhere I summon up the last ounce of strength to lift the bars. Jesus Christ, I can't open them. Am I so weak? Oh, no ... chains. The emergency doors have been chained shut.
You fucking fool, Cass. Fire escapes don't exist in this building.
For weeks I'd been arguing with the club promoters not to chain the exits shut. I wanted to put a doorman on each entrance but the club was losing money and they couldn't afford it. They kept the chains on to keep out gatecrashers and make more money. I'm full of holes but my mind travels back to a Monday meeting in the office here in the club arguing about these fire doors. The bosses are shouting at me, telling me to shut up.
You fool, Cass, you're the head of security – you, more than anyone else, know these doors are never going to open. I curse myself for not thinking clearly enough.
As I rattle the chains in despair, anger wells up inside. I'm close to tears. You fool, Cass, you fool. I've made it this far and used up all my energy. It had taken an eternity to get this far. It was like being at the bottom of a well. I'm a dead man now. My only escape is back through the minefield, back into the club. I can feel my life draining away. I've got to find the strength to climb those stairs again ...
Next thing I know I'm lying on my back on the desk in the club office. There are people on top of me. It's hazy; I can't see properly. I can hear Leon speaking to me. Panic makes his voice breathless, urgent. 'Keep talking, Cass, keep talking.'
Somebody's pressing down on my chest. I want to fight them off but I feel my spirit lift out of my body. I'm in no pain, floating on the ceiling looking down on my body sprawled on the table, claret everywhere. There's a crowd around the table, their faces ashen. In the middle of them is Mr T, my mate Bill who really does look like that guy out of The A Team. He's jammed a credit card over the bullet hole nearest my heart and his powerful arms are pressing the piece of plastic to my chest to keep the blood from spewing out. Somehow, I know I'm dead but the strange feeling of peace lasts only a moment. I'm back down on the table lashing out at the crowd around me. I've remembered that the last place I saw a silver gun was in this office.
My mind's telling me everyone in this club is a wrong 'un. They're all enemy; any one of them could have been in on this conspiracy. I've got to get away from here 'cos everyone's bad. I keep thinking, The gun came from this office; who are all these people in front of me? No one's allowed in the office except for the people I'm working for and they've set me up. I'm fighting them all. I can't understand it.
T's trying to keep me down. I'm dead ... I'm dying. I shout out for my wife: 'Elaine! Tell Elaine I love her.'
There's Leon again: '... Ambulance is on the way, Cass ... Keep talking ... Stop wasting energy ... Keep talking ...'
I try to get up off the table and grab him. 'Ambulance? Ambulance? They haven't called a fucking ambulance. It won't come; get me out of here.'
T's fighting to keep me on the table. Blood is still gushing out from under the makeshift plug over the hole in my chest.
My mind flashes back a year to the first night we ever worked at this club. A running street battle erupted in the street outside and a kid was stabbed. That night the management ignored our requests to call an ambulance.
I might be dying but I'm still Cass, the leader. 'Oi, get me out of here. They haven't called no fucking ambulance. It's a scam.' I can see the promoter and co-promoter: in my tormented mind, they're the enemy. I'm trying to claw at them, but they're actually trying to help save my life.
I'm in and out of consciousness. As I come round I'm on a stretcher going out through the very doorway where the gunman had stood. A feeling of utter relief washes over me. For the first time since the gun went off I feel safe. I sense Leon is next to the stretcher, speaking to me all the time: 'Keep talking, Cass, keep talking.'
My life was over. I gasp, 'Tell Elaine, tell her I love her. My kids ... tell them I love them.'
My spirit leaves my body again. I'm floating, watching two ambulancemen wheel the stretcher out to the waiting vehicle. Then, what seems like only a second later, I'm back on the stretcher. I can hear the ambulance engine throbbing. We stop. They must be about to lift me into the back of the ambulance.
I hear their voices. They're talking calmly, matter of fact. To them, I'm probably just another piece of meat on a busy Friday night. I'm trapped, strapped on the stretcher and I can hear the pair of them debating. 'Lewisham's nearest.'
'No, Greenwich,' says the other.
'They're about the same,' comes the reply. 'No, Greenwich.'
They're talking about hospitals. I must still be alive. I cut them short and gasp, 'Don't matter what hospital. Just get me out of here. Don't let me die in Low Life City.'CHAPTER 2
'Yes! Here!' I said loudly, but through gritted teeth trying to contain tears of temper as the frustration of being a boy called Carol gets to me again.
The classroom sniggers grow louder and louder. This new teacher can't understand a boy's voice replying as he calls out from the register. He thinks the class is playing a joke. His patience frays. 'Will the real Carol stand up, please?'
As I rise to my feet my emotions reach boiling point and I tip the desk up and over, sending books and ink flying everywhere. It was more than I could do to stop myself throwing it at the dopey new teacher.
'Carol Pennant is me, sir,' I say in a snarling whisper, fixing the whole class with a stare that warned, 'I just dare ya to say Carol's a girl's name.' We've been down that road so many times before that the class decide they ain't going to push it.
The teacher straightens the desk, picks up the mess and marks the register.
After the lesson he pulls me up: 'Sorry, I thought Carol was ...'
I'm thinking, Go on say it, pal, Carol's a girl's name. I'm eleven years old and about to lose it big time.
Realising an apology is making things worse, he says, 'Err ...', changes tack and just says, 'I understand everyone calls you Cass, pleased to meet you, Cass.'
I'm big and I'm hard but now you know my one weak heel – my name. I was born Carol Lindo Powell Pennant on 3 March 1958. For most of my life I didn't know where I was born or who my parents were. At six months old a social worker handed me over to the Dr Barnardo's home in Barkingside, Essex. Within weeks, a gentle couple had fostered me. Cecil and Doll Chambers were getting on in years and their own children had grown up. They were white, happily settled in their lives and they didn't have to take on a black boy. It was an act of pure love.
Home was a massive Victorian council house with geese and goats running round the large garden. The house was in Slade Green, a village near Erith on the border of London and Kent. Everybody who lived there – man, woman or child – was white. There weren't even Asians there in those days.
Cecil worked as a precision instrument toolmaker at the nearby Woolwich Arsenal weapons factory. Doll didn't work and in the 17 years I lived at her home I can only remember her being away just one night. I knew almost instantly I was her favourite. She doted on me and treated me like one of her own. Her daughter Pat had married and left home but she only lived round the corner, so I looked on her like an auntie. Doll's son Richard was still there but he was a teenager by then.
My earliest memory is Doll pushing me around in my pram and seeing strangers peering in under the hood, putting out their hands to touch my black fuzzy hair. I was an oddity even then. As I grew older we'd walk down the street, me clinging to Mrs Chambers's hand, and kids would shout out 'Blackie!' 'Nigger!' 'Golliwog!' Even adults passing in cars would hurl insults. But Doll Chambers came from blitz stock. She'd survived the worst Adolf Hitler could throw at the East End, so a few names were never going to bother her. She just ignored them and held her head up high as if to say, 'Yeah, he's black, he's my son and I love him.'
Then I started school. The other kids in the class had never seen a black boy before, let alone one who was called Carol. The name-calling and the taunts started from day one. I was four years old and had come from a home where I was protected, so this was new and terrifying. There was none of this political correctness or trying to understand different cultures in those days. Why should there be? You couldn't have all that set up for just one boy. So like all the rest I played with golliwogs and read golliwog books. At the end of the first day, I cried my eyes out to Doll. She told me, 'Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.'
Next day the torment started all over again so, just like my foster mum told me, I started singing, 'Sticks and stones may break my bones ...'
It stopped the insults all right – just long enough for the kids to pick up a load of stones and hurl them at me.
In those days your mum didn't take you to school – you went on your own. Without a brother or sister to protect me, I ran the gauntlet of hate every single day. I'd arrive at North End school covered in bruises and lumps from bricks and cobbles that had been thrown at me. I'd have spit all over my nice clothes. School should have been my safe haven but I was trapped with nowhere to run. Finally, after weeks of taking all this torment, I snapped. I can still see this boy, his face pressed right up against mine, screaming, 'Wog!' Anger and humiliation welled up inside like a mini volcano; my right hand formed a fist and bash! I smashed him in the face. He recoiled in horror.
The teacher told us off but it didn't matter. Forget 'names won't hurt me', I had something that really worked ... my fists. Every time any child said anything I thought was an insult, or flicked something at me, bosh! I'd become a windmill of flailing fists.
The playground became my battlefield. The only way to escape my abusers was to stand up and fight. I fought tooth and nail, no matter what the size of the persecutor. It didn't take long for me to go from being the poor pathetic victim to being branded a bully. I bashed everyone in my class. Some of the girls were the worst because they thought they would never be hit – they were wrong. Once I'd hit them, tormentors never came near me again. I never hit anybody, boy or girl, who didn't start on me first.
A procession of parents would bang on Doll's door wanting to know what she was going to do about her 'black bully boy'. Doll spent most evenings at the huge Mecca bingo hall in the middle of Erith. Even there, mums would complain about me and I'd get a clip round the ear when she got home.
There'd be kids from the other street calling me names, new kids in the road calling me names, kids ganging up and, just for a laugh, throwing stones at me. It was non-stop but she never stood up for me. She always used to turn on me. One day I rebelled against her for not taking my side and to her credit she marched up to school, knocked on a few doors and gave 'em what for. But it was too late: I'd learned to love fighting.
I didn't realise the reason Mrs Chambers didn't defend me was that she was scared stiff Dr Barnardo's would think she wasn't up to controlling me and take her little boy away. Mrs Chambers was an honest, decent woman and, though I never, ever lied to her, I didn't tell her what I was going through. I'd absorbed so much punishment from my tormentors I'd become inward and deep. I didn't talk to my foster parents about my feelings like someone who's been brought up by their real parents can. I'm always shocked at how my kids and my wife are so open with each other.
Social workers from Dr Barnardo's would visit me four or five times a year, including Easter, Christmas and on my birthday. Mrs Chambers used to dress me in my best clothes and I'd never get a clip round the ear that week. One day the social workers suggested getting someone for me to play with and shortly afterwards Beverley Grant became my foster sister. Beverley is three years younger than me and her real parents lived only as far away as Peckham in South London. Because they were so close, Barnardo's encouraged her to stay in touch with them. So every Christmas, Easter and birthday she went over to see her mum, dad, brothers and sisters. Partly because she saw her folks so rarely and partly because of their guilt, she'd come back with her arms full of presents.
These presents would cause competition between her real mum and Mrs Chambers. It cut me up seeing my foster mum and dad spending money on presents like a black and white portable telly for Beverley. I knew Mrs C didn't have to prove her love to Beverley, and I also knew she couldn't afford it.
Excerpted from Cass by Cass Pennant. Copyright © 2002 Cass Pennant/ Mike Ridley. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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