The Big O

The Big O

by Declan Burke


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780151014088
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 09/22/2008
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

DECLAN BURKE is a freelance writer with the Sunday Times, Village magazine, and the Dubliner, and lives in Wicklow, Ireland. Visit his blog at

Read an Excerpt



In the bar, Karen drinking vodka-tonic, Ray on brandy to calm his nerves, she told him how people react to death and a stick-up in pretty much the same way: shock, disbelief, anger, acceptance.

‘The trick being,’ Karen said, ‘to skip them past the anger straight into acceptance.’

‘So you just walk up the aisle—’

‘A side aisle. Never the main one.’

‘That’s why I didn’t see you coming,’ Ray said. ‘So you came up the side aisle, wearing a bike helmet.’

‘Always. Visor down. Tinted.’

‘Naturally. And carrying, it looked like to me, a Mag .44.’


‘But you still say "Excuse me?" at the counter?’

‘That’s so no one gets excited. Least of all me.’

‘So you’ve got their attention. Now what?’

‘I ask if they have kids. Usually they do. Most nights I don’t even have to rack the slide.’

‘Lucky me,’ Ray said. He sipped some brandy, watching Karen over the rim of the glass. ‘Should I feel privileged you just couldn’t help shooting at me?’

‘I was aiming wide,’ she said.

‘You still fired.’

‘See it my way. You came out of nowhere. Snuck up.’

‘I was trying to get a strawberry Cornetto from the bottom of the freezer.’ He lit a cigarette. ‘Then, I stand up, I nearly get my head blown off.’

Karen had seen him late, in her peripheral vision, Ray coming up fast as if he were lunging. So she’d half-turned and squeezed, dry-firing. It was over before he even knew it was on.

Except what Karen remembered best was his eyes in the split-second when he realised what had just happened. How they got clearer but stayed perfectly still. Tigery eyes, gold flecks in hazel. Karen, knowing he couldn’t see her face behind the helmet’s visor, had been tempted to wink.

Then the Chinese guy behind the counter had said: ‘I just locked up. The money’s in the safe. All I got is bags of change.’

‘Gimme your wallet,’ she’d said, and checked the driver’s licence for his address. ‘I know where you live,’ she’d told the Chinese guy, tossing the wallet back onto the counter. The Chinese guy shrugged, glanced at his watch.

Outside on the forecourt, Ray standing there with his shoulders loose, a strawberry Cornetto in his hand, Karen’d said: ‘Fancy a drink?’

And Ray’d said: ‘Okay by me.’


Karen had a place where she dumped the bike after a job. Ray had said he’d follow on, catch her up at the bar. Now they were sitting at the corner of the L-shaped counter, Ray on the short leg of the L with his back to the wall so he could watch the door. Karen bolted down the first vodka-tonic, ordered another and a coffee for Ray. ‘So what do you do, Ray?’ she said.

‘I’m retired.’

‘Okay for you. What’re you retired from?’


‘You’re a baby-sitter?’

‘Not anymore. I quit. What about you, you’re a full-time blagger?’

‘Nope. Tell me more about the baby-sitting.’

Ray caught a gleam in her eye, and they were nice eyes to start with.

‘The guy I work for,’ he said, ‘that I worked for, sometimes he needs people held a while. I’m the one does the holding.’


‘Sometimes people owe money and they’re in no hurry to pay up. Or you’ll have a job where an inside is needed, the guy who can access the security code. So you snatch someone he knows. Wives, mainly. Kids can get messy.’

‘And you take good care of these wives.’

‘No one’s ever complained.’

‘Nice job.’

‘You’re the one brings a Mag .44 to work.’

‘You don’t use a gun?’

‘Not always. Depends on the circumstances. Some people adapt better than others.’

‘I thought no one ever complained.’

‘Mostly they’re gagged.’

Karen sipped some vodka-tonic. ‘So how come you’re retired?’

‘It was jump or be shoved. The Fridge checked out. A new shylock took over.’

‘The Fridge?’

‘The guy liked to eat.’

‘What happened to him?’

‘What happens every fridge,’ Ray said. ‘Bottom of a canal, punctured.’


To work with human flesh, Frank would tell his patients, to work in human flesh, is a privilege that allows a humble surgeon to aspire to the status of an artist. Moreover, the trust that existed between the artist and his living clay was unique. Michelangelo, Frank would say with a self-deprecating nod to the bust of the Renaissance master in the corner of his consultation suite, never had to worry about whether or not the marble trusted him.

At which point the nervous patient—already dizzy with premonitions of needles, scalpels and the strong probability of public ridicule—would rush to assure Frank of her complete faith in Frank’s abilities, and Frank would reluctantly slide the release forms across his mahogany desk.

Those were the times when Frank felt most alive. In control of his destiny, a man who was making that elusive difference.

This was not one of those times.

‘You’re actually serious,’ he said, keeping his voice low with some difficulty as he leaned across the table.

‘It’s foolproof,’ Bryan said airily, tapping imaginary ash from his unlit Ritmeester. ‘Cast-iron. Lockdown of the year, I’d call it.’

‘Okay. That much I’m not disputing. What I’m asking is, are you serious? Or are you, y’know, back dropping acid again?’

‘Jesus, Frank. Keep it down.’ Bryan glanced over his shoulder as he tightened the marble-sized knot in his tie. He hunched closer and put his elbows on the table, which caused his slender glass of Czech import to wobble precariously. ‘It’s all there in the small print, Frank. It’s not like we’re doing anything illegal.’

‘The whole fucking point is it’s illegal,’ Frank whispered hoarsely.

Like, if it wasn’t illegal, why were they whispering in a remote booth of the Members’ Bar? Frank tried to remember if he’d ever strayed this far from the bar before but he couldn’t come up with a single reason why he might have wanted to.

He watched, fuming, as Bryan clipped the cigar. ‘I ask you to, y’know, stop the bitch from crippling me, swiping everyfuckingthing. And this is the best you can do?’

Bryan pinched a crease in his pants. ‘Relax, Frank. They were bound to find a loophole or two.’

‘A loophole? The pre-nup’s a fishing net, Bry. The guy’s pouring through every which fucking way.’

Frank still couldn’t get his head around how Margaret’s lawyer was on his case, working overtime the last six months, a labour of love, the guy coming on like red ants. Not for the first time, Frank was haunted by the spectre of Margaret screwing her lawyer so she could screw Frank by proxy.

Meanwhile, Frank was stuck with Bry the ex-hippy burnout, this on the basis of Oakwood’s code of etiquette, which stated—as firmly as it was possible for any unwritten rule to state—that it’s bad form to cut any of your regular four-ball partners out of the loop.

‘I’ve told you already, Frank,’ Bryan said. ‘My hands are tied. Maybe if you’d told me about the pre-nup before I went into conference …’ He winced. ‘Cigar?’

Frank shook his head and began shredding a beer mat. Bryan lit up, exhaled an acrid cloud. ‘The best bit about this deal,’ he went on, ‘is that these guys are pros. I mean, they do this shit all the time. It’s what they do. So if you’re worried about Madge—’

Frank snorted so hard he burnt sinus.

‘Okay,’ Bryan said. ‘So what’s to stop you? You’ve paid up on all your insurance premiums, right? And it’s all there in the small print. They’re the ones put the clause in, expecting you to pay for it.’ He puffed on the Ritmeester. ‘So you’re entitled,’ Bryan continued. ‘All you need to do is get Doug to sign off for Trust Direct, extending the insurance until Friday week.’ He shrugged. ‘You don’t want to get Doug involved, you don’t want to go down the road of having Madge snatched, then fine. Just remortgage the house and nab the money from the bank instead.’

Frank gritted his teeth. ‘We did that already, Bry. So Margaret could move out and live up in Larkhill Mews, have a swimming pool out back. At the time, if memory serves, you justified it by saying maybe she’d fall in and drown.’

Bryan, remembering now, nodded. ‘So you go with Doug.’

‘Bryan,’ Frank said, as patiently as any recently reformed smoker might while trying to dissuade his lawyer from proposing a major felony, ‘we could go to prison.’

Bryan sniffed. ‘I’d hoped it wouldn’t come to this, Frank, but I’m professionally bound to tell you: you’re fucked. Screwed. Cornholed. The divorce’ll leave you with socks and jocks, and that malpractice suit isn’t going away either. I mean, even if you had it in writing, how that poor woman explicitly asked to look like Bob Mitchum, the jury’d take one look at those eyelids and—’

Frank waved for silence, put two beermats back to back, began shredding. ‘Convince me,’ he muttered.

‘It’s simple. Grab what you can now. Like I say, it’s all there in the insurance contract anyway. What’s to stop you?’

‘The cops?’

‘The big house or the poorhouse, Frank, who gives a fuck? I was you, I’d think long and hard about passing up half a million in cash.’

Frank boggled.

‘I didn’t mention,’ Bryan said innocently, ‘that the indemnity’s for a half-mill?’

Frank swallowed hard.

‘Of course,’ Bryan said, tapping more ash, ‘I’ll be needing a finder’s fee. Ten grand, say. And the boys, the pros, they charge a flat fee of fifty large. But four-forty isn’t to be sneezed at. Tax-free, too.’

‘Half a fucking million?’ Frank croaked.

‘To my way of thinking—and this is just me, mind—five hundred gees is a lowball shot when you’re dealing with, y’know, someone’s life. But I checked it out and that seems to be the standard rate. And with the contract running void this week, it’d smell if we went fucking around now looking for more than the half-mill.’

Bryan fished a scrap of paper from his breast pocket and laid it on the table, ironing its wrinkles with the heel of his hand. ‘All you have to do is ring that number and ask for Terry. He’ll look after the rest. You just sit back and watch the green roll in.’

Frank polished off his highball in one gulp.

‘Oh,’ Bryan said. ‘Just one more thing. The boys’ll need twenty grand up front, a good-faith gesture. You can stretch to twenty grand, right? In cash?’

Frank stared, owlish.

‘Not to worry,’ Bryan said. ‘In cases like this, and apparently it happens more often than you’d think, the boys’ll put up their own good-faith twenty. And don’t sweat the vig.’


‘I hear what you’re saying. But for twenty large they won’t charge more than ten, maybe twelve points. Fifteen, tops.’


‘Think positive, Frank. See the big picture. Half a mill.’ Bryan got up. ‘That’s a Scotch, right?’

As Bryan headed for the bar, the spectre loomed large in Frank’s imagination again: the lawyer humping Madge, his pinky finger digging into her belly button, Madge lying back on the pillows laughing and smoking a Marlboro red.

Frank gritted his teeth, tossed away the flittered remnants of the beermats, put three more back to back.

Copyright © Declan Burke, 2007

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The Big O 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
jenforbus on LibraryThing 27 days ago
When Karen the armed robber runs into Ray the kidnapper in the midst of a hold-up, sparks start to fly. However, Karen comes with some rather serious baggage - an ex about to be released from prison and Anna. Ray is not without his problems. It just so happens that he's been hired to kidnap Karen's best friend, Madge. It also isn't such a good thing when police detective Stephanie Doyle takes a shine to Ray and starts giving him more attention than he'd like. Stephanie Doyle is investigating Frank, Madge's soon-to-be ex-husband, for illegal distribution of prescription drugs. Frank just so happens to be the one who hired Ray to kidnap Madge so he could con the insurance company out of the ransom money.And if that circle of "just so happens" isn't dizzying enough for you, Karen's ex - the one being released from prison - throws another ball into the air for Burke to juggle. And juggle them he does!If someone had given me a summary of this novel as enticement to read it, I probably wouldn't have given it much thought. But once I picked it up, I was hooked! Characters who normally wouldn't interest me, had me turning pages to find out just what craziness was going to happen next. It was a constant comedy of errors.Throughout the book I couldn't help but hear "It's a Small World" humming in my head. Everyone is intertwined to everyone else in some rather strange coincidences. But the coincidences simply add to the humor. If I was asked to describe this book, I might say, "if you crossed the land of the misfit toys with Desperate Housewives, you might come close to this crew!" Some people with far too much money and time on their hands crossed with the societal outcasts...all of them misfits in their own ways, and everyone wanting what they don't have. No one is happy with what they do have.Burke's juggling act in this plot is really genius. How he makes everything somehow link together is amazing. I kept picturing the flow chart he had to have while he was writing to make sure there were no loose ends. But the genius is actually in the way he leads you by the nose right up to the end. I was following, following, following: "oh, of course that's what's gonna happen next!" Then bam! I was blindsided by the final "coincidence." Didn't see it coming at all, but I was grinning from ear to ear when it was revealed.I have to say that this was one of the rare plot-driven books that really kept me entranced. I wasn't especially fond of the characters, save Anna. They were crass, some were overly spoiled, others were career criminals. They were all smoking pot so often I was getting high just reading the book. But, I had to find out how everything was going to play out in the end. I felt exactly the same way about The Gun Seller by Hugh Laurie.If you're looking for something deep and realistic, you'll have to look elsewhere. The Big O is funny, at times ridiculous or even absurd, and just plain entertaining. It's a fun book; enjoy it - don't look for enlightenment!