She resumed her explanation. “For the first one to go, the least sure of himself, we can keep the rope here until he’s on the light, but after that, we have to drop the rope down, of course.”
“You’re going to make a loop in the end of the rope, with a slip knot, I presume,” said Lyall, “and hook it over the end of the lamp?”
“If I were up here on my own, yes,” said Greta, her face expressionless as she thought again about what she was planning to do. “That would be the only possibility. But we can save an extra little bit of rope by not tying a slip knot.”
“How is that possible?” asked Lyall. “It would mean one of us going down there to tie the rope on.”
“You’re starting to catch on,” Greta replied. “What I propose is that you, Lyall, and you, Crispin, hold me by the legs while I tie the rope round the light.”
Lyall stared at her incredulously. “You’re not serious.”
“I am,” said Greta with a nervous smile. “And I’d like to get on with it. We’ve spent far too long hanging around up here.”
She pulled the coils of rope over her head and handed them past Crispin to Charlie, who sat looking numb. “Look after it,” she said. “And whatever you do, don’t let go.”
She swung her right leg over the wall, so that she was lying bent over it on her stomach. “Okay, you two,” she grunted. “Lower me gently. But please don’t drop me.”
Lyall and Crispin exchanged glances, raised eyebrows and a shrug. Each placed his hands firmly round her upper thighs, feeling through the material of her pants muscles that were themselves the consistency of rope. The two men each clamped a leg between his elbow and his ribs.
Alternately, they released their grip and renewed it a little lower down Greta’s leg. Each in turn would, for a moment, be supporting her full weight, and both men experienced quiet surprise at discovering how little that weight was.
At last, she had a boot in the groin of each of them, and they were clasping her fiercely round the ankles. Greta reached down, and was relieved to find that her arms could encompass the light fitting without difficulty. She reached up to begin untying the end of the rope that was around her waist.
The sound of footsteps coming along the side of the building threw everything into abeyance.
Two Security Commission guards, a man and a woman, rounded the corner. They needed only to raise their eyes to behold the extraordinary spectacle of a woman being suspended by her feet down the wall, supported by two men while a third looked on.
But they did not look up. Something else was on their minds.
“Come here,” said the man softly. He drew the woman into the angle formed by the lean-to and the adjoining wall, a place of almost impenetrable shadow.
Though their shapes were lost in the inky blackness, the sounds of passion emanating from that corner were unmistakable.
The reluctant observers were dismayed. The two men could not support Greta’s weight indefinitely.
Greta began to reach for her blaster. To her immense chagrin, she discovered that it had slipped almost entirely from her belt, being held only by the end of the muzzle, while the handle was almost under her armpit. She reached across herself with her left hand to pull the weapon free.
Its awkward, bulky shape slipped from her clammy fingers, and it fell, clattered across the outhouse roof and landed with a thump on the ground beyond.
The frenetic coupling fell instantly silent. The Security persons stumbled from the corner, he with his pants lowered and his penis raised, she with her tunic hanging open and her pants around her knees. Both stared speechlessly at the figures above their heads, their hands already going for their blasters.
But Charlie was faster on the draw. Two shots sang in the stillness, and the disshevelled lovers lay still, looking grotesquely post-coital, except for the blaster burns over their hearts.
“Let’s get on with it,” Greta hissed, and continued untying the rope. “Charlie, give me some slack.”
Charlie had the rope snared between his leg and the top of the wall while he shot the Security patrol. He now released it and paid some out to Greta. She passed the end of the rope round the lamp fixture and tied a firm knot. She gave the rope a tug, to test both the knot and the firmness with which the arm was attached to the wall.
“Pull me up,” she urged.
With unspoken relief, Crispin and Lyall began the reverse of the process by which they had lowered her. Biceps, triceps and deltoid muscles ached with the strain as they hauled her back up into their midst.
She swung her right leg over the wall so that she was once more sitting astride it. “Whew,” she gasped. “Charlie, you saved my bacon back there.” Charlie waved his hands dismissively. “If it’s all right with you two,” Greta added, catching Lyall’s eye, then throwing a glance over her shoulder at Crispin, “I’d like to give Charlie the benefit of the extra handhold provided by the rope.”
She let it be seen that she was rewarding Charlie for his timely sharpshooting, which indeed she was. But she had been observing the three men throughout their evening of scrambling over the rooftops, and had detected that, beneath his bravado, Charlie was the least comfortable as a steeplejack, and consequently the most at risk at this juncture.
Crispin and Lyall eagerly concurred, and moved forward to give Charlie room.
“Make sure the rope is taut between you,” Greta told the others, as Charlie cautiously manouevered himself as she had done, but swinging his left leg over the wall, so he was facing back along the building. “And remember, he weighs a lot more than I do.”
“Here goes nothing,” Charlie murmured, and began lowering himself off the wall, with Crispin and Lyall each grasping a shoulder of his tunic in their fists.
For a moment Charlie feared he had missed the slender bar of the light, as he sank, and felt nothing beneath his feet. Crispin and Lyall switched their grip to his arms as he remained hanging by his hands.
“You’re almost there,” Greta told him. “Use the rope.”
Crispin released his hold on Charlie’s left forearm, and seized the rope. Charlie also gripped the rope with his left hand. Lyall similarly relinquished his grip on the right, and joined Crispin in taking the strain on the rope. Charlie took his right hand from the wall. The rope held. He was dangling.
“Quickly!” grunted Crispin between clenched teeth.
With both hands clasping the rope, Charlie slid down the two or three centimetres until his feet were resting on the bar. Then, holding the rope for support, he lowered himself gradually into a squatting position, from where he was able to seat himself, sideways on to the wall.
“You’re on your own now,” said Greta.
“That’s a statement of the obvious if ever I heard one,” Charlie breathed, his body tense as he maintained his precarious position.
“I’m going to drop the rope now,” she told him. “Hold on.”
The rope dropped past him, its end swinging like a pendulum three metres above the lean-to. It was a tolerably short distance to drop, and Greta felt relief that her plan had worked thus far.
“Take your time,” she called down, hoping he would take as little time as possible. She avoided looking at the corpses of the lovers, but knew it would only be a matter of time before they were missed.
Charlie snared the rope between his legs, and pressing himself against the wall, began to lower himself, until the light fitting was beneath his armpit. Then he was descending the rope, stiffly but steadily.
“Aim to land on the wall of the outhouse,” Greta instructed, keeping her voice as low as possible while still remaining audible.
Charlie complied, dropping from the end of the rope onto the edge of the lean-to roof, from where he could jump effortlessly to the ground.
He watched in silence as Crispin and Greta began lowering Lyall off the wall, dropping him further, until they were clasping the cuffs of his jacket, and he was standing on tiptoe on the bar. Leaning against the wall, he edged down, bending his knees, until his left knee, closest to the wall, was on the bar. Delicately, he shifted his right foot off the bar, brought his right knee down, then almost in the same movement, he swung his left leg down and entwined it around the rope. He let his body descend in easy stages, straining with his arms, leaning down on the bar, while beneath him, his right leg became plaited with the rope and the left. Finally, he switched his grip from the bar - which was trembling under the strain - to the rope, tucking his forearm under it, and began his descent, moving more swiftly and with greater confidence than Charlie had done. Shortly he too was standing on terra firma.
Only Greta and Crispin now remained sitting on the wall.
“You’re next,” Greta said.
Crispin looked at her blankly. He gave a slight shake of the head. “What about you?” he murmured. “I can’t leave you here.”
“Oh, I’m coming after you,” she said. When he gave no indication of moving, she added: “Trust me. I’ve done this sort of thing before.”
It was clearly the truth, but Crispin could not imagine how she proposed to get down unaided. With the deepest reluctance, he prepared to follow the others.
Greta held one sleeve of his tunic while he lowered himself over the wall, steadying him merely, for there was no way she could have supported his weight had he slipped. When his feet were on the bar, she released him.
“Greta, this bar is very shaky,” he said, lowering himself as Lyall had done.
“It’s all right,” she replied. “I’m a lightweight.”
She watched him slip down the rope. At the bottom, he dropped onto the outhouse roof as the others had done, but did not jump to the ground. He stood waiting on the edge of the roof, watching to see what she would do. He was prepared to throw himself under her to break her fall, even if it meant his own death.
Under her breath, she repeated Charlie’s words. “Here goes nothing.”
Assuring herself one last time that she was directly above the light, she swung her left leg over the wall so that she was once more lying atop it on her stomach. She eased herself backwards until she was hanging by her hands. Whereas the others, in this position, had had only a couple of centimetres gap between their feet and the bar, she was still ten centimetres clear of it.
A final glance downwards to ensure that she was still on target, and she released her right hand from the wall and twisted. She glimpsed Crispin’s upturned face below and to one side, sucked in her breath, and released her left hand.
Her feet hit the bar. In the moment of balance her body snapped double. Her fingers folded round the bar into clenched fists as her feet slipped from it, and her body arched in space like that of a champion gymnast. But the bar was bending under the strain.
She extended her left leg, scrabbling to pass her foot between the rope and the wall, grasping the rope securely between her knees and ankles. First one hand then the other she moved from the bar to the rope, and as she did so, the bar arced downwards.
The rope slid along it until it reached the neck of the lamp. She flashed a glance at the wall, and saw that the mounting bolts were working loose. There was no time to lose. She half climbed, half slid down the rope. She felt the excruciating pain in her hands, and willed herself not to let go.
The rope slid from between her knees and she fell, staggering into Crispin’s arms. There was a crash as the light smashed a hole in the lean-to roof beside them.
Once on the ground, Crispin pulled his hunting knife from his belt and cut strips from his tunic to dress the rope burns seared across Greta’s palms. Lyall retrieved Greta’s blaster and tucked it back into her belt.
Meanwhile, Charlie forced the door of the lean-to. He and Lyall entered. Amid much noise they emerged again, carrying between them the heavy, twisted remains of the light fitting. With the rope they lashed it to the bodies of the two Security guards, whom they had relieved of their blasters.
Together, the four of them dragged the whole business to the edge of the canal and pushed it in. The weighted corpses sank at once.
Three men and one woman made off into the darkness. There was still important business to attend to.