Unwilling to be fetched, I open my door and attempt to nimbly climb over the bed frame like Dennings had. I trip, landing heavily, half-way out the door. I look up sheepishly. My guardian stares at me, bug-eyed at the unconventional exit of an explosive packed man. Pleased his alarm exceeds my own for a change I get up and perform an extended drum solo across the midriff bulges.
“Don’t panic, no harm done.”
The goon swallows reflexively, much to my satisfaction.
Dennings steps out of mother’s room and takes in the scene. My dopey grin dies and I stop the slap dance.
“Why dontcha come in here, Sambo. Boss man wants to talk to ya. An I already tole ya once, be careful with the gear. Ya won’t like it if I ask ya again.”
I dead-man walk into the tiny room. Dennings follows closely, one hand in his coat pocket. It’s standing room only even with mum on her bed, crowded into a far corner. She’s wearing a ridiculously inflated coat like myself and presses a hand against bloody lips. Her eyes are glassy with equal fright and hate.
Ernest stands rigidly, and uncompromisingly, in the centre of the room, copying Dennings’ hand in pocket pose. I’m successfully intimidated by being pressed firmly between the two men. I can’t decide if I’m about to get a beating or audition for a gay porn movie. Both options sound painful.
“OK. Listen up, dickhead. We’re gonna drop yous off at Sampson’s SecureMax depot. It’s a big place. Good chance you’ll get lost in the crowd. It’s all govmint freight; the hush hush stuff, so plenny of Sec-men will be around. Don worry bout that APB on ya, ya new Pox-card won’t flag it. By the time we get ya there I’ll ave ya truck sorted. Now; all ya gotta do is sign in wiv the over drivers on shift change and then drive it to wherever they tell ya to. Pretty easy, huh? Can ya handle that?”
I wait a moment; not wanting to get my face messed up with an untimely interruption. The man’s glare is intense, and I can feel Dennings literally breathing down the back of my neck. The tension of nothing happening rises until I can’t stand it any longer. I raise one hand slowly.
“What?! This had betta be good or I’ll punch your brain through ya bloody arse!”
The visualisation of such a thing happening makes me stutter. I wipe the flecks of spit Ernest has sprayed across my face.
“I...I... just wondered when we get to take our coats off an... you know... run away before they go bang.”
Ernest’s eyes roll alarmingly until a crafty, salesman smirk covers his confusion.
“Oh, yes. Yes, yes, yes, of course. Ummm, obviously that part needs a bit of tweaking seein as the original plan was more of a hi-jack, execution thing. Gonna make me look real good though if ya pull this off. A lotta work went inta settin this up, an they weren’t too pleased bout me knockin it back. S’long as ya don’t screw it up. Right, Fucker!”
Any sort of responsibility makes my skin crawl, and asking me not to screw something up almost ensures it will go wrong. I have a premonition. Neither mum nor I are meant to survive this job. This is not as unpleasant as I would have thought. I have nothing to look forward to anyway.
For several seconds I search for a peaceful place within myself to look at the situation objectively. We’re being discarded like used tissues. Our retirement gift will be a vaporising flash of light and heat. But it’s Ernest’s use of my school yard bullies nickname that decides my actions. If I’m going out, I’m taking these bastards with me.
My hands creep up to the wired coat button and I pull, clenching every muscle at once and half-closing my eye’s in an ecstasy I’ve never before experienced. Come get me angels, and wing me away. May there be a better world after all.
The wire snaps...
...and nothing happens.
Dennings and Ernest are both fiddling about, getting ready to move. They are completely unaware of my attempted suicide. Mother, however, sees all, and her mouth hangs open letting a weak, whistling scream escape. Ernest misreads her fear as directed at him.
“C’mon ,woman, no need for that. I won’t hit ya again if ya do what I say.”
He drags her off the mattress by one leg and roughly hugs her to him when she flounders under the coat’s added weight.
“Dennings! Get Dopey outa here, wouldja. I can’t fucken breathe.”
I remain in a confounded state over the failure of the ultimate sacrifice. Deflated, embarrassed, and mystified, I barely feel the elbow Dennings deals to my head to wake me up.
“Move back, Lard-arse!”
The shift and rub of four bodies in this tiny space is a comedy no one laughs at. Dennings raises his arms above his head and pirouettes like a ballet dancer until his back is to me. We are bounced back and forth as he tugs the door open. I stagger into mum and she bounces off Ernest whose short fuse flares.
“Watch out! Jesus Christ, be careful. Dennings, you better have me outa this room in five seconds or you’ll be going with them!”
Swearing in frustration, Dennings scrapes the door past his nose and yanks me into the corridor like so much baggage. With space to put some muscle behind his blows, I’m slapped about. Feeling left out, the second minion joins in. I reel between them and collapse when a few good blows to the head threaten to black me out.
“Teach him a lesson Dennings, but don’t mess up the gear! Get out of the way, woman! Hurry up before they kill the fat idiot!”
My chastisement over, I woozily return to reality; cheeks stinging and ears ringing. Dennings and the other goon stand over me, grinning.
“Thass enough. Unless you two clowns want to carry him.”
I am hauled up and booted towards the lifts. Another problem inflames Ernest’s bad mood when we reach them. Not everyone will fit. The annoying delay timers will mean a long wait for someone. Volunteering to stay behind will only get me another slapping so I stay quiet.
“Shit! Jimmy! You and Fatso take the stairs. Stay in range.”
He pats his pocket and winks. I keep my head down; impersonating the dullard they think I am. Nevertheless, a jackhammer of understanding pries apart the clamshell of my self-absorption. Those little boxes in their pockets must be bomb actuators. Considering my flakiness the detonators have wisely been left unarmed.
Jimmy; obviously the lowest thug on the totem pole, accepts his orders without complaint. He shoves me towards the stairwell and we both gag at the eye-watering stench that wafts through the opening door. As I recall, a sewer pipe has been leaking in here for the last six months.
Afraid of what may happen if the blocking signal is too widely separated from the human bomb he is in charge of, Jimmy pushes me downwards, starting a gruelling marathon. Chips of concrete and wet rubbish slop and crunch under our pounding feet. The descent is complicated by not being able to use the railings. Some light-hearted lads have chopped razor-sharp scallops into the steel with forged blades.
Three floors down Jimmy slams me to a stop, face first against the wall. Before I can question the treatment I see the reason. A fit, old man faces us, hunched in a fighting crouch, watching us closely.
I ask out of desperation, knowing he won’t help me. He’s the block’s ‘Lame Duck’. An innocuous looking target meant to draw out surprise attacks from block drifters and feral animals. A nightshift crew of five or six other oldies will be trailing him.
The old man has no intention of buying into my trouble, though he’s well prepared if we want to give him any. He backs into a corner of the landing; a tightly gripped blade in one hand and a slim can of mace in the other. He tilts the blade towards the downward stairs.
Jimmy nods confidently and manhandles me past. The Lame Duck taps a railing twice to warn his crew, and we pass the collection of elderly men and women at the next landing. They display their laughably inadequate, yet well-drilled urban survival techniques. Backs to the wall and weapons tendered. There’s fear and determination in their eyes. Taking those blades and clubs from their gnarled fingers would come at a price.
We scrape by them, causing one half-deaf old biddy to remark loudly to her friend.
“Thass Enid’s boy, innit? E’s weight problem is getting worse.”
Jimmy snorts a laugh and grips my coat lapel tightly in his fist. He makes up the lost time by alternate punches to the back of my head and choking jerks backwards to control a high speed descent.
I am thrown through the lobby stairwell door, dizzy and out of breathe, wishing only to be left for a moment to vomit and then have a nice sit down.
Concessions Jimmy denies by dragging me to the scanners.
Dennings and mother must already be processed. Ernest alternates barks at the methodical scanning machinery and us to hurry up.
Outside it is freezing. My puffing breaths bloom with ice crystals. Weak sunlight shows its pre-dawn skirt across the horizon. An accompanying mist beautifies the surrounding decay and destruction by softening sharp edges and suppressing smells of burning trash and rot.
An ugly, beat-up Sammaku truck, its panels plated with steel scrap awaits us. Condensation almost hides the vague shape of a driver at the wheel. He revs the roughly idling beast, spewing fumes and noise from the exhaust stack. The twin-cab design unaccountably cheers me at the thought of warming myself inside.
This prospect is summarily crushed.
“Not you two, in the back!”
I should have seen that coming. I calculate the probability we’ll have to share the mesh-in, canvas-covered tray with a rabid pit-bull.
The odds are rarely in my favour.