Hammersmith: Night Maneuvers (chapter twenty-nine)
Elton Bott advanced in stealth through the gloaming. Soft expressions into tussocky grass, of right foot, followed by left foot, heel rolled to toe—an art attributed by their Chief to the Iroquois, and a single-file exercise on which the Patriots had drilled—did not stop various articles attached to his person from tinkling accompaniment.
He gave it up when a neighbor spotted him from across the street.
“Where you off to this hour, Bott? Stiff gettin cold on ya?”
“I am taking the air, sir,” Bott answered, funereally enough. With a shrug, he moved onto the sidewalk.
The Chief had said it often: “Expect no thanks.”
From the slumbering hoi-polloi.
Though, when you came down to it, Mossbunker was himself no dispenser of gratitude. Bott could…he did, in metaphor…pat his own head, this act of initiative being not for the ears of his wife. He had got in with those two. He had made a place for himself at their little soiree. And wouldn’t that foreign rabble-rouser and his wanton accomplice be surprised to find the back door held open…
By the Hand of Justice.
He meant to take the footpath along Harmony Run, this stream descending northwest and downhill from the gate at the farthest end of Main Street—property beyond being private and Mossbunker’s. No one local gave a hoot about the barrier, that only crossed the road and had no fence attached. Young couples, ones (discounting politics) not unlike the Italian and the Vaudeville jade, liked to go spooning in the little coves along Harmony Run.
Bott hoped, as the night was moonless, he would find himself alone. The light from town, and the greater light from the factory, rendered the earth under his feet at least discernible from the slope to his right, and the water to his left.
A thunderstorm had passed that afternoon through Hammersmith. Places runoff swilled across the path caused Bott to lose his footing…the first skid of a sole forcing only a panicked swaying, and the modest emission of a bleat. The second time, with a sounder whump, he landed on his gut.
And though this expanse was sheltered in a woolen vest of his wife’s making, the mud was cold, and Bott felt it. A sock, half out of a shoe, drank water from a trickle coursing beneath.
And distinctly, he picked up indicators he was not, after all, alone.
The huff of breath had a character known to Bott. The figure—approaching too fast, the frozen undertaker estimated—sank a heel into the slippery spot. A heavy weight cushioned its fall on Bott’s prone form.
“Mercy sakes, Mack!”
“Bott, is that you?”
Their disentanglement called for concentration. The shared position was head down, ankles up, tree roots thrusting in from the right, pebbly stuff washing leftwards, the curve of a sassafras, guyed into this shape by a vine, narrowing the way.
“Hang on,” Vic muttered, grappling a toe onto a wedge of rock…that gave with a sandy shush and tumbled over the bank, echolocating Vic’s perch a precarious one. “Hang on, Elton. I don’t wanna grab that vine, case it’s the hairy kind.”
Under Vic’s belly, Bott’s shoulders shrugged. The undertaker then heaved with his knees, and Vic, upended, fell in a somersault, rolling to a muddy shoal along the creek.
Bott achieved his feet. Vic could be heard a few yards below, his grunts timed to a hog-wallowish sucking noise, that of shoes gaining and losing their freedom.
There was time… He cogitated.
Mossbunker had wired, had he not: mv/db? The first stood for Mechanicsville, a place there were locks on the river that flowed through Hammersmith’s valley. This was the code for locking lips. Db. stood for the Patriot’s doubtful new recruit, Drummerboy.
A.k.a., Victor B. Mack.
As Mossbunker’s lieutenant, Bott was in charge of codes…so it would be embarrassing if he’d got the Chief’s meaning wrong. He racked his brain for any other take on db. Equally, it seemed to Bott incredible Vic could be making his way by the exact path specified, and…near enough…the exact time Mossbunker had scheduled his emergency meeting, if he hadn’t been called to attend.
The signal they used was to stoop in sight of a fellow Patriot—each man responsible for the next down the list—as though to pick up a coin slipped out of a pocket. When any Patriot had got the tip, he scratched his left eyebrow.
Now, it happened that well before the titan of industry’s arrival in Hammersmith, Bott had taken (in Mack’s paper) his daily advertisement. Death a tricky theme to broach, planning ahead the undertaker’s persistent gist, Bott spoke to his public in Bible verses…chosen apropos to a man in his line’s philosophy:
Watch, therefore: for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come.
Bott Bros. Funeral Parlor
The practice meshed in tidily with Mossbunker’s demands, his occasional desire to assemble off-calendar, in secret. The fact of the meeting established, the rendezvous point—whether Tucker’s Cave, the Deacon’s Oak, or Mossbunker’s tunnel (a track of rails under the factory floor)—would be telegraphed via Bott’s chosen passage—
Proverbs, in this morning’s case, 8:34:
Blessed is the man that heareth me;
watching daily at my gates,
waiting at the posts of my doors.
The mustering place was the tunnel. The hour, eight-thirty p.m… A few minutes’ grace allowed for stragglers. Bott, being an officer, had timed himself to arrive half an hour early. But someone in the know—a weakness in Mossbunker’s system—could recognize the exchange of signs…
Consider himself invited regardless…
They had never had a Patriot go bad before.
Disquietingly, even Selma, when Bot had said to his wife, “Get on the horn, Mother, and call this one in”, had put an odd inflection to her words…dry, like the Mack girl’s humor.
“Vic’s there by himself now, did you hear?”
Bott projected in a whisper: “Seems like we’re headed the same direction, Vic.”
Vic, during that contest over possession of his shoes—the mud grudging him at last a narrow victory—and during Bott’s lengthy silence, had thought furiously on his own behalf.
Dang it all to heck! (he’d thought). A Patriots’ meeting…got to be the tunnel…this night? Just when I’m trying to get down to McKeefe’s?
The disturbing thing was, he couldn’t say whether he had been summoned or not, busy-minded over June’s elopement. By rights, he was on the outs with Mossbunker… But maybe a Patriot didn’t just part company with the gang, maybe you had to be formally court-martialed, get your stripes torn off…
Vic was fairly sure, recollecting now he’d passed Abel Bard in front of Derfinger’s, that Abel hadn’t stooped. But had he given a start, like the sight of Vic reminded him of something?
Only one kind of train came to the factory depot, a special. This had arrived around noontime. Vic sorely needed a woman’s advice. It had pained him…but he’d locked his offices, turned the Closed sign in the window. Hearing a shout and rattle at the pane he had glanced up to meet her eye, then, ears burning, hunkered to stare at his behind-the-counter paraphernalia, buying trouble on the installment plan. Aimee was going to tell him what was on that train…information she’d got from Zetland. As a newspaperman, he would have to go with the story, get down to Mossbunker’s factory and poke around.
Vic was determined on ignorance.
But he knew the train would move again in the morning. His daughter and Raymond had no place to go until then. They would sleep, like the communist heathen, in the big loft over the barroom floor. Men and women alike flopped in McKeefe’s loft.
He answered Bott: “I’ll stand out of your way, Elton, and let you go on ahead.”
Mossbunker’s lieutenant inched to Vic’s elbow. Astonishingly, he clamped on.
“I’ve weighed the evidence,” he said. “I can’t think of any right way around it… I’m sorry, Vic. I have to place you under citizen’s arrest.”
(2017, 2018, Stephanie Foster)