We’re at Sheyminister Square. The mourning banners on the walls are moving in a slight wind. Weird to think. That the things I delivered actually had an effect.
Lottie emerges from the alleyway, on time. Hope no-one got a good look at her - she’s bad at hiding fear. Right now she has the water bucket, full, and is moving in a hurried way. When she reaches us she offers up a single tight smile. She’s been crying. Rose reaches out to touch her hand. My legs feel shaky. I realize I’m very, very afraid.
“Alright then,” says Lottie, pushing the bucket into my hands. She sounds almost jaunty. “There’s some older guy coming down. Think he’s the next guard. Are we doing it like we planned?”
I nod. She looks at Rose, who hesitates a minute before doing the same. Even after the nod Lottie doesn’t take her eyes away. We didn’t know if Rose’d agree to come out of Redware but when we asked her she did, easy as that, like there wasn’t a question about it. Got a bit of a sense she was sceptical about Keller’s group, but not much. Didn’t expect her to be so enthusiastic as this. Me and Lottie’ve been talking about getting out of here for years, since before Rose arrived, though we’re still not really fond of the idea. We did grow up in this hellhole.
“So,” says Lottie like we’re talking about plans for a new job or divvying our food, doing something normal. “I’m pretty sure I saw the new guard coming. He’s older - in his twenties, I think. I don’t believe I know him. Rose’d better hurry, though, if she wants to catch him.” She turns to Rose. “You’ll probably need to use the knife.”
“Well that’s wonderful then,” she says with resignation.
The idea is - they’re changing the person who’s supposed to guard the bombs, at nine in the morning. It wasn’t hard for me to find that out. Rose’ll go and stop them coming here somehow - that’s either by convincing, telling him he’s needed somewhere else urgently, or by threat. Probably the second one. Lottie will get out of the city and wait a few hours. She’s not good enough at lying to do anything else.
So we separate, glancing about warily. This place doesn’t foster trust in anything so we’re used to paying attention to ill-defined threats. Watching people around us, bodies braced for impact. And now we might not be seeing each other again.
We speak in a quiet, tidy way and then they leave.
Keller’s group has set itself up in a small brick building at the edge of Sheyminister Square. They keep a room with several straw mattresses and blankets and a few of them stay there each night. There are two other rooms, one for storage and one for discussions, registration, filing, education. I unlock the door. Anyone inside will already hear the sound. I place the water bucket carefully on the floor, where it looks like protection against fire, then open the shabby door directly in front of me.
Here, some relief. Probably. There’s a boy of eleven or so behind the table, which is loaded with bags. His eyes are fixed on me. I know him - he’s Liam, Slater’s boy. They normally give the younger kids to more experienced recruits to train. I thought almost for sure that something’d turn out wrong. There’d be some other person here, something like that. But it’s all fine and I’ll be able to bully Liam. Mine know me too well for me to do the same.
Time for some traditional desperate bluffing.
“Hi. Did Enda tell you?”
“What?” He sounds vaguely irritated.
“No he would’ve actually, would he? I think he changed his mind only this morning.”
“Hell are you on about?”
“He said he’s to leave Redware for a couple days. He sent me to take over the guard, about eight hours ago.”
“Y’know, the guy who was supposed to take over. He’s older. Like, twenty-five. Think he’s a farm worker, he’s only in Redware sometimes?”
“He’s called Adam.”
“Ollie told me his name. Must’ve gotten it wrong. He works outside Redware though, doesn’t he?”
“I... I dunno.”
If I lay it on thick and keep confident then it’ll work. It has to. He’s just a child, for fuck’s sake, I’m four or five years older than him, and he only knows me as trustworthy.
“Well he’s business in Waterness or somewhere and he only heard this morning.”
“Why’d he send you?” asks Liam. His tone’s sort of cold.
“‘Cause I was there. It was over at the stockyards. And I’m getting the reward for the day’s shift now, not him.”
Liam looks vaguely sceptical but not hostile. There’s a clock at the back of the room, which he glances at. It’s past nine, when his shift was supposed to end. I wonder how Rose is doing.
“He should’ve come here himself to tell me. Why didn’t he?”
It’s what’s generally expected in these cases, telling the other one in person. For a second I want to praise him for suspicion, vigilance; I stop myself but then realise it’d be more effective if I did. I grin.
“You’re doing better than Charlie and Frank would. When I saw him first he wasn’t preparing to go at all. Then I saw him half an hour later and he was packing right there in the stockyard. Reckon it’s a family member or something. I asked him if he was coming, he just swore at me and said he had to run.”
“You’re just joking me,” says Liam, but he doesn’t sound sure. “You’re probably testing me.”
“Well if hadn’t questioned me I’d’ve told Slater you weren’t taught properly and got you taken off these assignments. You wouldn’t‘ve gotten your wage either. But really” - I hit on something else - “you’re falling asleep by now. What time were you up yesterday morning?”
“Uh... Like, six?”
“Were you working at the docks?”
“For what, twelve hours?”
“And then you’ve been standing guard here since eleven last night. You’ll do no good here. You’re exhausted.”
“You are testing me.”
“Ah, for fuck’s sake.”
“No, cause if I’m exhausted can’t you just wait here with me till someone else arrives. They’ll say what’s going on.”
“I doubt they’ll know. If someone comes for anything they’ll just be another kid Will you really wait here for the next eight hours? Cause that’s how long it’ll be.”
So. Can’t persuade him. Can’t look like I want to be alone with the bomb material. I’ve a knife on me, as I always do, but Liam won’t back down at a threat. He’s been trained not to. I find I can’t think of harming him.
I can never, never get anything fucking done, can I?
I can’t do anything else so I shove back my rage and wait.