All of my courage gathered together would fill a thimble. I waste the lot in one go by punching Dennings in the stomach. I’ve put all my strength behind it. It’s like punching a rock. I look up very slowly, shaking my sore hand. His insane grin hasn’t changed. Reaching an arm around my shoulders, like a buddy about to give me a hug, I’m suddenly in a headlock tight enough that black spots pass across my eyes.
If mother hears me being murdered her conversational chattering doesn’t show it. I imagine Ernest in there, listening to me squeal; enjoying the power he wields.
“The boy’s not right in the ed Ernest, ya know that. But ya send him on ‘errands’ without me knowing, which aint right. Only I can esplain to im how ta do what ya want. It’s yar fault as much as ‘is for screwing this one up.”
“You blaming me, bitch? It aint just this one time, is it? That fucking idiot screws up everything but the simplest deliveries. He’s a fucking jinx, an ya making me look bad. I’ve had enough of the both of ya.”
There’s an unmistakable click of a gun being cocked. Dennings’ grin widens. He could snap my neck at any time but waits, wanting me to hear the shot first.
Mother’s broad conniving streak is backed by insanity. She uses a tack I never would have thought of.
“Fuck you, Ernest! I aint goin out like this. If we gotta die, we’ll do it for the Cause. Got a bunch of that sweaty boom-cake, dontcha? Put it ta good use. We’ll blow sumtin’ up for ya. Sumtin ya can’t get at normally. Jus say da word. We’ll do it. I knows ya like a bet. All or nothing. If we get caught ya kin get someone to off us in the cage, ya done it before. But. If we gets away, ya never come near me again. Deal?”
My depression takes a nose dive. Her proposal is almost as alarming as my present predicament of having my head ripped off. Partnering up with my mother on a suicide mission is not a step in the right direction as far as I’m concerned. Kill me now you big bastard.
Denning would very much like to, I can tell. His ears are twitching, waiting for the bang that will mark the end of my life as well my mum’s. The wait is so long I stop worrying about my neck breaking, and start worrying about choking to death. My windpipe is being flattened by a professional who knows exactly what he’s doing. The standoff ends without a shot being fired.
“Ya got a point there, Enid. Ya always was one for the cause, weren’t ya? Just so happens I turned down a gig not an hour ago. Impossible to get enough of the stuff in to be sure of the job. But maybe; between the two of ya... Okay, it’s a deal. Have ya killed that fat half-wit in there, Dennings?”
“Not yet, Boss. Nearly.”
“Leave im be for a minute. Change of plan. Is the shit there?”
The disappointed goon squeezes tighter for a moment more before releasing me. I fall on my bed and hide a few sobs in a coughing fit.
Dennings turns away unconcerned and uses a toe of his battered, military-style boot to lift the dirty, old coat. His ever-present grin widens in satisfaction when he sees the paper-wrapped packets beneath. He reports it.
“Stuff’s here, Boss.”
“Get it ready. Plate his coat up good like the Thompson job. Maximum shock wave.”
“Double negative the safety?”
“Yeah. Ya better.”
If I’m getting blown up I want to be wearing a shirt. I bend down to get one off the floor, next to the pile of paper wrapped bricks. The big man’s hand is a blur, grabbing my flabby wrist in a crushing grip. My knees buckle, dropping me off the edge of the bed with a weak cry.
“No so fast, Laddy. I’s a bit nervous of sudden moves around this old stuff, see?”
I nod fast and imploringly.
“Just getting me shirt. Leggo, pleeeeeeassee!”
He must approve of begging because he lets go and pats my head. I waste a few seconds hating him while rubbing the reddening skin. Slowly I pick a shirt out of the floor mess, and wriggle into it.
I hear the snap of latex gloves being put on. A frightening sound in itself. Then there is a careful tearing of paper as Dennings unwraps his presents. I’ve trapped myself in the shirt and can’t see a thing. I’m trying to force my head through an arm hole.
By the time I sort it out, and poke my head through the right hole, I discover what I’d carried so carelessly a few hours prior. Many of the items Dennings turns out of their wrappers are marked ‘High Explosive’ and ‘Danger’. It just so happens, my worst fears include: things that go boom, and being too close to someone handling things that go boom.
“This ya only coat?”
Not trusting my voice I nod jerkily. It hurts my neck. Dennings tuts and uses a slim knife plucked from nowhere to pick it up. He examines it critically; an expression similar to a person stepping in dog shit on his face.
“Well, ya needed a new one anyway.”
The man proves to be a highly efficient demolitions expert. He lays the coat out flat and cuts slots in the inner lining and begins moulding the soft, sticky reddish-brown substance around the waistline of the coat. He arranges the packet of pencil thin silver cylinders and a roll of wiring and tape neatly round him and carefully inspects each cylinder. He finds a dented one and turns to me critically.
“Yed do well to treat this stuff a bit more carefully, Laddy. This should have gone off. And this shit is old. Highly unstable. You aint bin knocking it about have ya?”
He takes my goggling head shake for a no and my zip-lipped silence for a desire to chat.
“You’re one of those really lucky, unlucky people, aintcha? Got me fucked how ya didn’t blow up when ya stacked that nice bike we lent ya. Packed full of crappy old Ardex it was. Took me four hours. All ya had ta do was ride it, stash it in the car-park under the Armoury, an toddle off to work. God knows where the bloody thing is now. Some kids prolly ridin it. Anyway, lucky we got ‘tingency plans, Eh? Christ, workin wiv knobs like you, I dunno.”
Yeah, I feel real lucky. I cringe when Dennings goes quiet. He concentrates fiercely while gently inserting cigarette butt sized silver cylinders into the squashed lumps. He uses the knife to strip a bunch of wires and connects them to the detonators. A plastic housing has a label reading ‘capacitor’ on it. He plugs the wires into it and clips a small square battery to finish the contraption. An orange light is flashes rapidly on the capacitor. He prods a red button a few times which slows it down before taping everything under a concealing layer of tape.
“There! Hey, you look scared enough for both of us, mate. You’re shaking like a whipped dog. Stand up, I’ll help ya put it on. Bloody hell it’s a tight fit now innit? Let’s just button ya up. Ya don’t look clever enough to do it wivout setting something off.”
The bloody thing weighs a ton, and I’m fed up with being treated like an idiot.
“How do I get it off then? What happens when I unbutton these?”
Time and Dennings stand still; muscles bunch and twitch in his face and neck.
His claps his cupped hands together, hard; a thunderclap directly in front of my nose. I stumble back in fright and flop on the bed, glad I’d used the toilet earlier. The coats new padding feels like tumours against my skin. Dennings laughs loudly.
“Nah, just kidding. You’re safe enough for now. The boss’ll esplain it, right, Boss?”
“Ask im if he can drive a truck.”
Do they think I’m deaf as well as stupid? Dennings punches my leg and impatiently repeats his boss’ request.
“Ya can drive a truck can’t ya?”
I shake my head emphatically, and hopefully. Dennings gives me a sneer instead of a reprieve.
“Never mind. They’s all Auto-drive. Any moron can press a button can’t they? Anyway you’re hired. Here’s a lucky break, Boss. Already got the prick a new Prox-card. I tested it onya door so ya should be sweet.”
Dennings flicks it at me and gathers up his paraphernalia. He throws a warning over his shoulder as he leaves.
“Stay here. I’m not going far. Just next door. Good boy.”
I slip the hacked Prox-card into my pocket when the door shuts, and sit on the edge of my bed trying to get comfortable amongst the coat’s contents. A trampled ration bar lies at my feet. I use my dirty feet to drag it over until I can reach for it. Gnawing at its artificial blandness absently gives me comfort while I listen to mothers prattling. She never knows when to shut up.
“Your brother lost me ma real sons. We was the top cell back them an ya knows it. They woulda bin yar boss by now. But I got left with im. The useless, big virgin...”
I choke on the ration bar a little and almost cheer when her voice is cut off by a loud slap and a muffled scream.
“Now don’t start that shit again, Enid. Brother Dave never could follow orders. He was top cell cos he got lucky time after time. Pity he had bad intel on that robbery caper wasn’t it...”
“We was set up.”
“Mebbe ya was. Mebbe Dave was getting too big for is boots and ad to be shut down. But the past is past and I’m top cell now. So shut the fuck up and listen. Stop talking, or I’ll break all ya teeth.”
I can hear Dennings industriously tearing off strips of tape and pray fervently that he’ll put a piece over mother’s mouth.
Ernest gives her a moment, his leather gloves creaking ominously as they clench and unclench. He continues calmly.
“There now, you made me break my rules again. Threatening a woman I was. I never threaten usually, I just do it. Dennings! Ya finished?”
“Yeah ,all done, Boss.”
“Put that on her, then bring that fucker from next door in here. I wanna make sure he understands what happens if he fucks this up, while I look in his piggy eyes.”
For a second or two I wonder why they’re involving the guy next door. Then I recall that particular next door is out enjoying himself on a windfall of cash, not the piggy-eyed bunny on this side who’s wearing enough plastic explosives to level a medium-sized building.