“There’s a new client waiting to see you,” Angelina said when I entered her tavern.
I shook off the warm summer rain and ran my boots over the mud scraper. I had just returned to Neceda from a job escorting a wealthy but timid merchant through a war zone to visit his invalid mother; the fresh sword cut on my side itched something fierce around its stitches, and the dreary weather didn’t help. “Oh, goody,” I muttered, and ran a hand through my wet hair. “Do they look like they have money?”
Angelina stood behind the bar, clad as usual in a low-cut gown that showed off her, ahem, assets. She was a mature woman, roughly my own age, but she still—and probably always would—turned heads. Some sexiness is eternal. She said, “You should be grateful people actually want your services, you know.”
“I am,” I groaned. The tavern was empty except for the two of us, and whoever awaited me upstairs. “I just wish they didn’t want them today. I could use a little time to mend.”
“Are you hurt?”
“Just a scratch.” That’s if you didn’t count the pain in my forearms from blocking a dozen vicious sword blows that bent the blade on my Englebrook Jouster and ended only when I body-blocked the punk to the ground and cracked his head with a rock. He was a soldier, wine addled and bored, and deserved what he got for needlessly picking a fight. “I don’t bounce back like I used to.”
“Who does?” she said, her irony almost sympathetic.
I looked up the stairs toward my office. Having my place of business above a tavern made it easy for folks to contact me without drawing a lot of attention; after all, they could always claim they just stopped in for a drink, not to hire a sword jockey. Many of them did, in fact, have a drink—often several—before braving the stairs. Hell, so did I sometimes. “You think I have time for breakfast?”
“No. I think they’re getting a bit impatient.”
“How long have they been here?”
“As long as I have.”
“Lovely. Okay, I’ll go see what they want.”
Angelina came from behind the bar and followed me up the stairs. I didn’t think anything about it, since she kept odds and ends in storage outside my office. Even when she followed me inside, it didn’t register as anything unusual.
But no one was waiting in the outer office, or the private inner one, either. I looked back at Angelina. “You said I had a client in here.”
She said, “You do.”
It took me a moment. “You?”
She nodded at my inner office. “Can we talk in private?”
“Sure.” I closed the outer door and let her precede me into the small room where I kept my desk, sword rack, and what passed for my files. I opened the window to let in fresh air. The rain made a quiet swoosh in the background.
I gestured that she should sit in one of the two client chairs. “This is a surprise.”
“For me, too,” she agreed as she gathered her skirt and sat. She looked uncomfortable and nervous, two qualities I’d never associated with her before.
I sat and leaned my elbows on my desk. Water from my rain-soaked hair trickled down my spine and gave me goose bumps. I said, “So.”
“You’re hiring me.”
“I’m here to talk about it, yes. Look, don’t get weird on me, okay? I’m just somebody looking to engage your services. Treat me like you would anyone else.”
“Usually I’d ask, ‘What can I do for you?’”
“What can I do for you?”
She looked down at her hands resting in her lap. The rain continued to patter. When she spoke again, her voice was thick with uncharacteristic emotion. “First I need to tell you a story. Don’t interrupt me until I finish, okay? If you do, I’ll talk myself out of this and we’ll have both wasted our time.”
She looked up at the ceiling, took a deep breath, and began. “There’s a port on a western bay. It’s not important where unless you take the job, in which case I’ll tell you. Twenty years ago, there was a girl who worked in a tavern laying whiskey down. She was tough, reasonably attractive, and never wanted for male attention. She had no family, no past, no plans, and she liked it that way. Until the day he walked in.”
I’d seen Angelina angry, happy, drunk, focused, and on rare occasions, wistful. In none of them had I seen the girl she must’ve once been. But now, as she told her story, I did. The smile lines faded, the wisps of gray in her hair vanished, and her body lost its wide-hipped maturity and reverted to the slender girl who drew every eye.
“He came on a summer’s day,” she continued, “loaded with gifts from all over the world. Just another sailor between trips, right? Nothing unusual about him at all. Except that the barmaid, that smart, tough, seen-it-all girl, fell for him. It was the first, and last, time in her life that she had anything to do with love.”
Angelina looked out the window at the rain, but she wasn’t watching the weather. I followed her gaze as if I, too, might see back in time. She continued, “He stayed in port for a month because of her. She used to spend hours watching his eyes while he told his stories. He brought the ocean to life for her, she could practically taste the salt spray and feel the waves crash against her. And he loved her.” She chuckled coldly. “Well, she believed it when he said it, at any rate. But eventually, he had to go back to the sea. It was his life, and his real love. He promised to come back for her. And before he left, he gave her this as a token.”
She placed a braided silver chain on my desk. It sounded solid against the wood. There was a catch in her voice when she said, “That barmaid kept this all that time, waiting for him to keep his word.”
I picked up the chain. A locket hung from it, but I didn’t open it. “Nice jewelry,” I said. “A little pricey for a regular sailor, though. Was he a pirate?”
“Not when I met him. But later … yeah.”
Pirate. That was not a word I liked to hear. Back in my mercenary days, I’d crossed both paths and swords with the so-called “Brotherhood of the Surf,” and the thing that stuck with me most was the smell. Granted, an army-for-hire that had been in the field for a while was no bouquet of roses either, but the odor of these sea vermin—a mix of sweat, salt, fish, and blood—impressed me with its organic rankness. They seemed a separate species, governed by laws so arcane and labyrinthine that even looking at one of them risked sparking a violent confrontation. I avoided them whenever possible.
The wind shifted a little outside, and the rain began to splash off the windowsill and into the room. I asked, “What happened then?”
“He left, and she waited. New ships every day, new sailors, wondering which ones would bring a letter, or worse, news of his death … It was too much. The town didn’t think very highly of her association with him, either, and made things even more difficult for her. So she moved inland, eventually ending up in a little town by a river, because when he returned, she knew it would be by water. She opened a tavern so he would hear about it and be able to find her. And she waited, holding her breath like a drowning woman with the surface six inches above her head.”
She looked directly at me now. The smugness, the fire, the absolute certainty that she always presented to the world was gone, replaced by the countenance of that long-ago barmaid with a broken heart. “I want you to find out what happened to him, Eddie. I’ve waited as long as I can. Now I have to know.”
“When’s the last time you heard from him?”
“I got a letter from him about a year after he left.”
As gently as I could, I said, “That’s a pretty cold trail, Angel.”
“I know it’s a cold trail,” she snapped. “I’m not an idiot. I accept that, and I don’t care.” She paused, looked down at her hands again, and said softly, “Here’s the thing, Eddie: I trust you. The list of people I can say that about is awfully damn short. I know you’ll see it through as far you can, and that whatever answer you give me will be the truth.” She looked up and smiled her standard seen-it-all grin. “And you know I can pay your standard rate for however long it takes.”
That was true enough. Angelina didn’t need to run a tavern in Neceda; she could’ve bought half of Muscodia, and that’s just with the gold I knew about, stacked in neat boxes along the attic rafters. Taking her case was a lucrative prospect. It was also doomed to failure unless I was very smart and got very lucky. Twenty years. I said, “Do you still have that last letter?”
She nodded, pulled it from her dress, and handed it to me. I’d never seen her handle anything with such tenderness. It was worn and creased from being reread.
I have crossed the line, and now have my own ship, the Bloody Angel. My crew is eighty strong and willing men, and soon we will set out on our first voyage on the account.
When I return, I shall make you the queen of our own island.
“We have the same name,” I observed.
“Except he was never an Eddie. Always an Edward. Edward Tew.”
There was a little doodle in the corner, of an angel with a sword hovering over a skull. “What’s this?” I asked.
“I don’t know. He loved to draw. He always promised to paint my portrait one day.”
She gestured at the locket. I picked it up and opened it. Inside, the inscription said, You could steal a sailor from the sea. Your loving, Edward.
I snapped the locket closed and tapped the letter. “And you’re sure this letter came from him?”
“Of course I’m sure.”
“You know what ‘on the account’ means, right?”
“Yes. I told you he turned pirate.”
“And you haven’t had any news about him since?”
“Some rumors. Nothing solid. Most people think he’s dead. I want proof, one way or the other.”
“This is a very cold trail,” I repeated as I returned the letter.
“I don’t expect you to find him alive,” she said.
“Hell, I don’t expect me to find him at all.”
“But you’ll take the job?”
I sat back in my chair and watched the raindrops explode on the windowsill. There were two big professional downsides to this. First was the coldness of the trail, of course, and the other was more intangible but no less applicable: I’d be working for a friend. I might find out her boyfriend had died. I might find out he’d married someone else. I might find out he’d completely forgotten her. I wasn’t sure how she’d handle any of that.
“I don’t care if he’s dead,” she said as if reading my mind. “I don’t care if he’s settled down with some fat jolly bitch and raised a litter of snot-runners. I just want to know. So I can stop wondering.”
That was clear enough. And it decided me. I said, “Okay. I’ll do the best I can to find that out for you.”
Her voice was as calm as if we’d been discussing the day’s lunch special. “Thanks, Eddie.” She stood to leave.
“Whoa, wait a second.”
“What?” she said impatiently.
“I need some more information from you.”
“I told you his name.”
“You’ve never told me yours. I don’t even know your last name.”
She stood still, but every muscle was tense, as if she fought the competing urges to run and to smack me. Then she took a deep breath and told me her true name.
“Really,” I said.
“I didn’t pick it.”
“Why do you go by your middle name, then?”
“Because he used to call me Angel.” She smiled. “Just like you do.”
“He named his ship after you, too.”
“He could’ve changed a lot in twenty years. How will I know him if I find him?”
“He gave me that locket, I gave him a bracelet. It’s made of gold, and has a heart in the center, with angel wings engraved all around the band.”
She gave me the rest of the basic information I needed, then went downstairs when a customer started yelling for ale. I closed the door behind her, went to the window, and looked out at Neceda’s muddy streets and the brown Gusay River beyond. The scent of water overwhelmed everything, and the rain hitting my face did nothing to wash away my doubts.
* * *
I knew Angelina took the afternoons off and left the place in the care of the barely capable, but definitely easy on the eyes, Callie. Young, gaspingly gorgeous, naïve as a bootheel, Callie was the reason a lot of men came to the tavern. She could disarm even the most determined mischief-maker with a sway of her hips and a smile.
It also helped that, in the fallow period between lunch and dinner, the tavern was mostly empty. At the moment, I was the lone customer, nursing my ale and pondering my new job. Callie knew to leave me to my thoughts.
When I first came to Muscodia, I hadn’t planned to stay, certainly not in a small town like Neceda. Sevlow, the capital, might’ve been all right, but this muddy little river town was a great place to put behind me, or so I thought. As it turned out, its location was perfect.
I’d come to the tavern as a customer that first time, with no thoughts at all of making it my permanent base. It was packed that night, and I was lucky to get a place at the bar. Angelina appeared before me, blew a loose strand of hair from her face, and said, “What can I get you?”
I admit I stared. Her hair cascaded around her bare shoulders, and her face and cleavage gleamed with sweat. I hadn’t been with a woman in a while, and suddenly I felt every moment of that time. I smiled.
My reaction was not new to her, and she had no patience with it. “Close your mouth and name your poison, friend, I got a lot of thirsty folks here. There’s nothing under here that isn’t exactly where you think it is, so let’s pretend you’ve seen it and move on, okay?”
I ordered an ale, the same thing I was drinking now, and watched her sweep around the tavern with all the dexterity, skill, and composure of a soldier in the middle of battle. I’d never seen a woman so beautiful yet so single-minded in her task. And I wasn’t the only one who noticed.
Between serving drinks, she took a big pot of slop out the back of the kitchen to dump in the ditch, and I thought nothing of it until that inner voice I’d long since learned to trust said she’d been gone too long. None of the other workers had noticed, so I discreetly slipped out and crept to the back of the building.
I was right. Two big, drunken young men had her backed up against the tavern’s outer wall. The nearby kitchen door was shut, and no scream would be heard over the noise inside. They didn’t physically hold her down, but that was clearly in the immediate future. One toyed with a knife and said woozily, “It ain’t fair for you to look so sexy and be so ice cold.”
“No one said life was fair,” Angelina shot back, no fear in her voice.
The second man said, whining like a child, “Oh, come on, just show us a good time and we’ll be out of your hair. You might even enjoy it.”
I couldn’t tell if she knew I watched from the shadows or not. She always swore she didn’t. But she nodded in my direction and said, “You better watch it, or my husband might run you through. He’s mighty possessive.”
The one with the knife said, “Come on, how stupid do you think we are?” He slipped the tip of the blade under the laced cord that cinched the front of her dress.
I stepped out of the shadows behind them and slammed their heads together. They dropped silently.
Angelina tossed her hair from her face. “Thanks.”
“My pleasure. Want me to tie them up?”
“No, they won’t cause me any more trouble. I’ve seen them around; they’re local boys who just had a little too much to drink.” She picked up the empty slop bucket at her feet.
“That’s awfully charitable of you.”
“It’s not charity, it’s business. I want them back drinking at my bar.”
“You own this place?”
“I sure as hell do.” Then she looked at me steadily, with the kind of scrutiny that makes a moment feel like a lifetime. At last she said, “I think I can trust you, can’t I?”
She stepped over one of the fallen men, grabbed the back of my neck, and kissed me. Full on, with tongue. A lesser man might’ve burned to death on the spot. When she broke it, she said, “Anything?”
“Not really,” I said honestly, which surprised me as much as it did her.
“Now I know I can trust you.” She laughed.
It wasn’t like the kiss diminished her sexiness; instead it was like I saw past it, to the integrity of the person behind it. I might have been her lover for years without seeing this, but once I had, I knew we’d never be physically intimate. In one kiss, we’d jumped over all that and become … well, whatever we were. Friends didn’t quite capture it. Neither did siblings, or comrades-in-arms. It was all of those, mixed and applied as the situation demanded.
And this situation demanded all of them.
I’d taken a job at which I knew I’d fail. I’d never find this other Edward, the sailor and pirate, not after twenty years. But I would look as hard as I could. Because I knew that Angelina, whatever she might say for others to hear, would do the same for me.
* * *
OVER dinner that night, I told my girlfriend, Liz Dumont, about the new job.
We sat in our small second-floor room in Mrs. Talbot’s boardinghouse. The rain had stopped, and the lamp burned as the overcast sky dimmed to darkness. Horses whinnied in the street, and someone yelled something in a language I didn’t recognize. In the distance, I made out the distinctive clang of sword against sword and men’s voices drunkenly raised in song. It was all part of Neceda’s rustic river-port charm.
Liz was trim, with short red hair and freckles. She was also smart, brave, and tough, which she had to be since she ran a courier business that took her all over. She knew how the world worked, and how to navigate it.
She said, “You don’t really think you’re going to find him after all this time, do you?”
“Then you’re just taking Angie’s money.”
“I’m taking her money to look. And I will, as hard as I can, and as long as I think there’s any point. She knows there aren’t any guarantees.”
Liz looked at me from beneath unruly bangs. It was a look that tended to make me agree with anything. “Is it a good idea to work for a friend?”
“I thought about that. I think it’ll be okay. I also think,” I added as casually as possible, “that I’m going to bring Jane Argo in on this.”
Liz sat up, tossed her bangs from her face, and set her jaw. I knew that look, too. “Really,” she said flatly.
“Yeah. She was a pirate hunter before she turned sword jockey, you know.”
“And she was a pirate before that.”
“Well, I’m looking for a pirate. It’s her area of expertise, not mine.”
“Is she still married to that worthless little weasel?”
“Miles? As far as I know.”
“Didn’t you have to go pull him out of one of Gordon Marantz’s gambling houses last year?”
“Yep. Didn’t change a thing.”
“Amazing how some people can have such huge blind spots.”
I didn’t say anything. Jane Argo knew exactly what her husband was; she just didn’t care. She loved him. It couldn’t be explained rationally. Not by Jane, certainly not by me.
Liz continued, “I can trust you on a long trip alone with her, then. Right?”
“She’s a colleague, that’s all.”
“But suppose your ship sinks and you get washed up on some desert island, just the two of you…” she teased.
“Do you want to come along?”
“Kinky. But I can’t. I have to take a bunch of scrolls to the Society of Scribes archive in Algoma.”
“Then you’ll just have to trust me.”
She grinned. “It always comes down to that, doesn’t it?”
We both laughed. We drank some more wine. Then we abandoned our dinner for more intimate activities.
* * *
SOMETIME before dawn, I got up and walked out onto the landing. The stairs leading up to our apartment went down the side of the building, and I saw a lamp burning in old Mrs. Talbot’s rooms on the ground floor. Neceda’s riverside location gave her the perfect means to receive and dispose of stolen property, and it was no secret that she did so. Still, she was discreet, and I had no interest in knowing her business. She gave me the same consideration.
The clouds were beginning to break at last. I caught glimpses of stars behind the irregular blobs. Neceda was asleep; even the whorehouses and taverns were silent. Liz snored lightly, femininely, in the room behind me.
“Hey, what you doing up there?”
I looked down. Mrs. Talbot stood at the foot of the steps in a shapeless, too-short nightgown. At her age, I assumed it was for comfort against the heat and humidity. At least I hoped it was. I said, “Just thinking.”
She took the pipe from her teeth and said, “About what?”
“Pirates,” I answered honestly.
She laughed. “They’re bad luck, you know.”
“My second husband was a pirate.”
“Sure as the moon in the night sky. Not a very good one, though. He lost a foot during a boarding, but he still got his share of the loot. Name a navy that would do that for him.”
“What finally happened to him?”
“Got his peg leg stuck in the mud making a run for it ashore. A soldier cut him down and trampled him. That wooden leg was the only way I could tell it was him.”
Chuckling, she went back inside. I heard male voices muttering before the door closed.
I looked up at the stars. Finding one pirate after twenty years was a lot like picking one star out of this sky. Just when you thought you had it, a cloud slid by and you had to start all over when it passed.
My star was Edward Tew. And my cloud was the two decades that separated us.
Copyright © 2012 by Alex Bledsoe