After the Bombs
It was nine o'clock in the evening, in Blackbury High Street.
It was dark, with occasional light from the full moon behind streamers of worn-out cloud. The wind was from the southwest and there had been another thunderstorm, which freshened the air and made the cobbles slippery.
A police sergeant moved, very slowly and sedately, along the street.
Here and there, if someone was very close, they might have seen the faintest line of light around a blacked-out window. From within came the quiet sounds of people living their lives --- the muffled notes of a piano as someone practiced scales, over and over again, and the murmur and occasional burst of laughter from the radio.
Some of the shop windows had sandbags piled in front of them. A poster outside one shop urged people to Dig for Victory, as if it were some kind of turnip.
On the horizon, in the direction of Slate, the thin beams of searchlights tried to pry bombers out of the clouds.
The policeman turned the corner and walked up the next street, his boots seeming very loud in the stillness.
The beat took him up as far as the Methodist chapel, and in theory would then take him down Paradise Street, but it didn't do that tonight because there was no Paradise Street anymore. Not since last night.
There was a truck parked by the chapel. Light leaked out from the tarpaulin that covered the back.
He banged on it.
"You can't park that 'ere, gents," he said. "I fine you one mug of tea and we shall say no more about it, eh?"
The tarpaulin was pushed back and a soldier jumped out. There was a brief vision of the interior --- a warm tent of orange light, with a few soldiers sitting around a little stove, and the air thick with cigarette smoke.
The soldier grinned.
"Give us a mug and a wad for the sergeant," he said to someone in the truck.
A tin mug of scalding black tea and a brick-thick sandwich were handed out.
"Much obliged," said the policeman, taking them. He leaned against the truck.
"How's it going, then?" he said. "Haven't heard a bang."
"It's a twenty-five-pounder," said the soldier. "Went right down through the cellar floor. You lot took a real pounding last night, eh? Want a look?"
"Is it safe?"
"Course not," said the soldier cheerfully. "That's why we're here, right? Come on." He pinched out his cigarette and put it behind his ear.
"I thought you lot'd be guarding it," said the policeman.
"It's dark, and it's been pouring," said the soldier. "Who's going to steal an unexploded bomb?"
"Yes, but . . ." The sergeant looked in the direction of the ruined street.
There was the sound of bricks sliding.
"Someone is, by the sound of it," he said.
"What? We've got warning signs up!" said the soldier. "We only knocked off for a brew-up! Oi!"
Their boots crunched on the rubble that had been strewn across the road.
"It is safe, isn't it?' said the sergeant.
"Not if someone drops a dirty great heap of bricks on it, no! Oi! You!"
The moon came out from behind the clouds. They could make out a figure at the other end of what remained of the street, near the wall of the pickle factory.
The sergeant skidded to a halt.
"Oh, no," he whispered. "It's Mrs. Tachyon."
The soldier stared at the small figure that was dragging some sort of cart through the rubble.
"Let's just take it quietly, shall we?" said the sergeant, grabbing his arm.
He shone his flashlight and set his face into a sort of mad friendly grin.
"That you, Mrs. Tachyon?" he said. "It's me, Sergeant Bourke. Bit chilly to be out at this time of night, eh? Got a nice warm cell back at the station, yes? I daresay there could be a big hot mug of cocoa for you if you just come along with me --- how about that?"
"Can't she read all them warning signs? Is she mental?" said the soldier under his breath. "She's right by the house with the bomb in the cellar!"
"Yes . . . no . . . she's just different," said the sergeant. "Bit . . . touched." He raised his voice. "You just stay where you are, love, and we'll come and get you. Don't want you hurting yourself on all this junk, do we?"
"Here, has she been looting?" said the soldier. "She could get shot for that, pinching stuff from bombed-out houses!"
"No one's going to shoot Mrs. Tachyon," said the sergeant. "We know her, see? She was in the cells the other night."
"What'd she done?"
"Nothing. We let her nap in a spare cell in the station if it's a nippy night. I gave her sixpence and a pair of ole boots what belonged to me mum only yesterday. Well, look at her. She's old enough to be your granny, poor old biddy."
Mrs. Tachyon stood and watched them owlishly as they walked, very cautiously, toward her.
The soldier saw a wizened little woman wearing what looked like a party dress with layers of other clothes on top, and a woolly hat with a bobble on it. She was pushing a wire cart on wheels. It had a metal label on it.
"Tesco's," he said. "What's that?"
"Dunno where she gets half her stuff," muttered the sergeant.
The cart seemed to be full of black bags. But there were other things, which glittered in the moonlight.
"I know where she got that stuff," muttered the soldier. "That's been pinched from the pickle factory!"
"Oh, half the town was in there this morning," said the sergeant. "A few jars of gherkins won't hurt."
"Yeah, but you can't have this sort of thing. 'Ere, you! Missus! You just let me have a look at --- "
He reached toward the cart.
Excerpted from JOHNNY AND THE BOMB: The Johnny Maxwell Trilogy, Book 3 © Copyright 2012 by Terry Pratchett. Reprinted with permission by HarperTrophy, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All rights reserved.
Johhny and the Bomb: The Johnny Maxwell Trilogy, Book 3