Appassionata: Hammersmith (thirty-five)
Back from his tacit errand (ixnay on the taking of Reverend Sandy), Chilly had been for a while in whispering confab with Zetland.
“Got to be very, very cautious. Coat buttons. Lace-up boots…got them metal grommets. Wedding ring…” Aimee and Chilly, who’d inched to her with exemplary caution, shifted their eyes towards Vic. “If we had time to drill on any of this, I’d of made you put your coats on backwards, and mud up them others. Buckles. Eyeglasses. Bridge-work.”
When it had been too dark below to notice the gaps between the boards, Aimee—bent at the knees, hand on the rail—had so far as reason permitted felt comfortable navigating the catwalk. The gang’s movements called now for…no movement, essentially. They were on their bellies.
They were, in point of fact (though seven-tenths figuratively), poised on a brink, the balance of which continued pro-Zetland. Vic sprawled riveted…his face bringing to life something of Creon’s wrath, had Creon been a small-town editor confronting an Antigone gone Socialist. But Vic had also got himself positioned farthest from the door. And if any of Zetland’s troopers was likeliest to clink, or jangle, or flash the message “Look up yonder!” from a watch fob like a signal-beacon, it was Victor B. Mack.
The hour offered no occasion to discuss comparative tenterhooks, but the others must be frightened just as she was…for Abel, of course. But for all of the hostages, Mossbunker too. (And for Ben and Elton, guiltily.)
Doors closed, sliding ones, slamming ones. The five Patriots, tied back-to-back-to-back, etc., in a small circle, sat staring up glassy-eyed, at a large circle of rebels on their feet, a dozen deep.
A woman’s voice ordered silence.
Her arm was linked with Nico Raymond’s; she led, and he followed. It was June Mack who pulled loose Mossbunker’s gag.
Mossbunker cleared his throat.
He did not ahem, treating foe and friend alike, rather, to a sequence of boarish rumblings. He hawked, and spat.
“You have the right,” June said, “to expiate your sins.”
“Oh, ho!” said Mossbunker. A moment ticked by. “Well. If you mean to leave us helpless, our hands tied…if your gang of incendiarist assassins…stowaways, no doubt, from the slums of Europe, hiders in cargo holds, bribers of ships’ crews to connive, using their ill-gotten gains from pickpocketing, and…”
He writhed here, wanting, as it seemed, to fling a contemptuous gesture; flinging Abel—pinioned to his back—instead, from side to side.
“Yes, I think we know the sorts of crimes your ilk will stoop to. If you mean to do murder, in so cowardly and dishonorable a fashion, then, by God! You will see how five true patriots can die!”
Four patriots’ eyes bulged in desperation.
A stranger to the Hammersmithans parted the throng. He wore denim trousers, a bare head, soon seen to top Nico’s by a foot or more, and a skirted suitcoat of, appearance indicated, twenty years’ use.
“Ah, ha!” he answered Mossbunker. “We are all going to die, and I call you a fool! Use your ears!”
Like the patriots, the watchers on the catwalk took this news without joy. Certainly, as eighty or ninety sets of ears strained, amid the rustling, coughing, and murmuring that a crowd, doing its best, must produce, a honking rose with insistence…
From the area of the tracks, Aimee began to think. The honking was a voice, amplified by a bullhorn.
“Send out … hostages! You got … … to fear! Put … … … weapons and … … … rest of you … … hands up!”
The message was repeated, with adjustments, the bullhorn advancing to the factory gate. Then a fracas, shouts inside and outside the wall, a rain of thwop, thwop, thowps. An answering round of gunshots. Seconds passed, hinges creaked, and from a dark corner hurtled a soldier of the People’s Front.
At mid-burst, the leader halted him with a gesture, and a side nod at June.
The soldier said, in English: “We beat them back…all they did was fire their guns in the air.”
June said, “Well, it’s only the sheriff and his deputies, so far. Mossbunker has already delivered us all the local volunteers…” She shook her head, expressive of a lifetime of Elton Botts and Abel Bards. “Too bad. It won’t stay that way. They’ll send down the state militia. What are we going to ask them for?”
Someone spoke from the shadows. “They have two cars of coal near the furnaces, and a heap of lose filings. Have you ever seen steel filings burn?” A certain wistful connoisseurship colored this last.
June, to the young soldier, gave a directive. She, Nico, and the stranger, then withdrew. A song began, an affecting tenor taking the lead.
In a cavern
In a canyon
Excavated for a mine…
A hand tugged Aimee’s sleeve.
Chilly, Fred the fish man, divested of bonds, but feudal in honoring a captive’s obligation, Aimee, and Vic, scuttled in train, the first two making the roof with some show of practice; the latter two, hauled up by the arms.
A honking came again, as to prove Vic’s daughter knew her siege warfare.
“This is Commander Wonkton,” the voice seemed to say. “You are surrounded. We have a message for Cranston Mossbunker.”
Hogben and Shaw: one (excerpt)
(2019, Stephanie Foster)