Hammersmith: Appassionata (chapter thirty-five)
“Got to be very, very cautious. Coat buttons. Wedding ring…”
Aimee’s was in a drawer, with Ralph’s cufflinks and lodge pin. Chilly shifted his eyes towards Vic. “If we’d had time to drill on any of this, I’d had you put your coats on inside-out, and mud up them others…buckles, eyeglasses.”
They were on their bellies. In the dark the catwalk had felt cozy; lit from below, its planks gapped with the menace of crevasses, the gang sprawling frozen as an ill-fated mountaineering party. Vic had got himself nearest 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 the same who singlehandedly (or left-footedly) could thwart their swift exit.
Vic’s unheeding face brought to life something of Creon’s wrath, had Creon been a small-town editor confronting an Antigone gone communist.
The hour offered no occasion to compare tenterhooks, but the others must be anxious as Aimee was…for Abel, of course. But for all the hostages, Mossbunker too. (And Ben and Elton, guiltily.)
Doors closed, sliding ones, slamming ones. The five Patriots, tied back-to-back-to-back, etc., in a small circle, stared up glassy-eyed at a circle of revolutionists, a dozen deep.
A woman’s voice ordered silence.
Her arm was linked with Nico Raymond’s; June led, and he followed. She pulled loose Mossbunker’s gag.
Mossbunker cleared his throat.
He did not ahem, but treated foe and friend alike 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 at their presence, making use of ill-gotten gains from pickpocketing, and…”
He writhed here, wanting, it seemed, to fling a contemptuous gesture; flinging Abel—pinioned to his back—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 patriots can die!”
Four patriots’ eyes bulged in desperation.
A stranger to Hammersmith parted the throng. He wore denim trousers, a bare head, soon seen to top Nico’s by a foot, and a skirted suitcoat—bought from a cart, or of 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. As eighty or ninety sets of ears strained, amid the rustling, coughing, and murmuring a crowd, self-stifling as best it can, must produce, a honking noise rose with insistence…
From the tracks, Aimee began to think. The honking was a voice, amplified by a bullhorn.
“Send out … hostages! You’ve got … … to fear! Put … … … weapons and … … … rest of you … … hands up!”
The message was repeated, with adjustments. The bullhorn advanced to the factory gate. Then a fracas, shouts inside and outside the wall, and a rain of thwop, thwop, thwops. An answering round of gunshots. Seconds passed, hinges creaked, and from a dark corner hurtled a soldier of the People’s Front.
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 militia. What are we going to ask them for?”
Someone spoke from the shadows. “They got two cars of coal near the furnaces, and a heap of lose filings. You ever seen steel filings burn?” A certain wistful connoisseurship colored this last.
June, to the young soldier, gave a low-voiced directive. She, Nico, and the stranger, 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.
“Now!” whispered Zetland, prudent in seating himself on Vic’s back.
Chilly, Fred the fish man, divested of bonds, but feudal in honoring a captive’s obligation, Aimee, at last Vic, scuttled in train, the first two making the roof with some show of practice; the latter pair needing 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.”
(2017, 2018, Stephanie Foster)