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Wake of the Bloody Angel



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I turned it over. There was no hidden inscription, no markings or carvings. It could have been from anywhere. Yet I felt the truth of her assertion along the back of my neck, where the hairs rose in warning.

I handed it back. “Thanks.” Then I gathered up the book and returned it to the shelf.

“My God, you’ve got manners,” she said.

“And you should see me dance.”

She batted her eyes. “Is there anything else I can help you with, kind sir?”

“Do you know a local family named Dirnay?”

“Alas, on that topic I’m like the end of a worn-out sounding line.” When I looked blank, she added, “I’m a frayed knot.”

“Ah. Nautical humor.”

“It’s all we have here,” she said with a smile.

“Then I believe I’ve learned all I can. Thank you.”

“Thank you. A gentleman is always welcome.”

Outside Jane sat on the wooden sidewalk, watching the people pass. She got up when she saw me. “Anything?”

“Nothing I didn’t already know.”

“So now what, boss?”

I looked at the crowded street, the melange of races and nationalities, and felt the impending weight of my likely failure. What the hell had I been thinking? Finding anyone after twenty years was unlikely, let alone a sailor, let alone a pirate. “We ask around. Angelina was a barmaid when she met her man, so we start with the bars.”

“Hey, this job just got a whole lot better,” Jane said with a wink.

Angelina had told me she worked in a place called the Floating Coffin, but we found no one with any memory of it, and it certainly wasn’t around now. So we started closest to the water and methodically tried all the bars we did find: the Crossed Harpoons, the Sword-Fish Inn, the Trap. In each we bought a drink and asked as discreetly as possible about Brandywine Angelina Dirnay and the Floating Coffin. And in each we came up blank.

Finally, as we were leaving the Cuttlefish’s Embrace, an old salt called out to us, “I say, I couldn’t help overhearing your question to the bartender. Was that place you were asking about down by the waterfront?”

“Yeah,” I said. I had no idea, but it seemed reasonable, and this was the first positive sign we’d gotten.

He smiled wistfully. He had teeth only on the right side of his mouth. “Ah, the Floating Coffin. I used to go down there in my younger days, when I first went to sea. I got drunk for the first time there. Not even the harpoon that took out my teeth hurt as bad as my head did the next day. I couldn’t keep down solid food for a week.”

I exchanged a look with Jane; she rolled her eyes, but this was all we had. “Is that why you remember it?” I asked the old man.

“Partly. But what kept drawing me back was a girl. They had a lass slinging drinks who could make a dead man poke a hole in his burial shroud, if you take my meaning. ‘The swan was in her movements and the morning in her smile’; I forget who said that.” He almost shivered at the memory. “She could reduce the strongest man to a simpering pup with just a glance. To this day, I’ve never seen a woman who could compare.” He nodded at Jane. “No offense, ma’am.”

“She sounds like something,” I agreed. “What was her name?”

“Brandy,” he said with a sigh, his eyes closed. “I think it was a nickname, but it’s been a long time.” He shook his head at the memory. “Wonder what ever became of her?”

Well, I thought, the good-luck fairy just unloaded on us. I asked, “So is the Floating Coffin still around?”

“Goodness, no. Every time I return to this port, everything has changed owners and names. But there’s still a tavern there.”

I held out a coin. “Show us where it is, Mr.-?”

“Quintal, Derrick Quintal, harpooner’s mate,” he said with a little bow.

“Well, show us where it is, Mr. Quintal, and you can put this toward some new teeth.”

“My pleasure,” he said, and took the coin. Jane caught my eye, and I shrugged; it was the first lead we’d had, after all. It did seem a bit overly convenient, and I wasn’t entirely sure we weren’t being led into an ambush for robbery. If we were, though, they’d get a whole lot more than they bargained for.

We left our horses tied at the Cuttlefish’s Embrace and, alert for trouble, followed harpooner’s mate Quintal on foot. But the old sailor was on the level. After several twists and turns, we reached a corner a block from the ocean and stood before a tavern called Lurie’s Wharf. It didn’t look like much, but the noise from inside testified to its popularity.

Quintal sighed as he looked at it. “This is it. Was it. I don’t suppose she’s here anymore. Long gone, to either her family or her grave.”

“She’s probably old, fat, and gray by now,” Jane said dismissively. “That’s what always happens, isn’t it?”

Quintal smiled his half-toothed grin. “Now, I hope your man here won’t take this wrong, but you’ve got little to be jealous about. You may have a touch of snow on the mountaintop, but the peaks look in fine shape.”

She kissed him on the top of his head. “That deserves a tip.” She looked at me. “Right, my man?”

I gave him another coin, which made him laugh. He touched the brim of his cap in salute, then strode away whistling. The crowd swallowed him by the time he reached the next corner.

“Think we just got taken?” I asked.

“Only one way to tell,” Jane said, and unbuckled her sword. “I’ll handle this one. You go in there and start asking about a girl that used to work here, nobody’ll say anything. They’ll think you’re her husband or her pimp. Give me ten minutes to get settled, then come in and watch a master at work.”

She handed me her sword belt and scabbard, and I needed both hands for the weight. She undid her hair and shook it around her shoulders. She pulled the strands down close to her face, which made her look younger. Then she changed her whole demeanor, opening her eyes wider and somehow draining the maturity and tension from her face. She looked as innocent and vulnerable as a woman her age and height could possibly look. With a wink, she went into the tavern.

I put her sword belt over my shoulder and walked slowly around the block to give her time. The masts of the big sailing ships towered over the low buildings, darker shadows against the now-starry sky. A lone sailor with a lantern tightroped across one spar, checking the rigging. The rolled-up sails looked like the cocoons of enormous insects. Cargo was being unloaded even this late, and men sang work songs in languages I didn’t know.

I imagined standing on the deck of one of these floating ware houses and seeing the black flag of piracy atop an approaching ship. Merchants seldom went unarmed, but they also rarely employed real fighters. A man who could lift cargo all day could still be useless in a fight against an experienced sword arm. I knew pirates often left the crews and vessels unharmed after pillaging them, unless the crew resisted. Then all bets were off, and everyone on board might die. It was good motivation for standing quietly in the corner while your riches were offloaded.

I’d given Jane her lead time, so I went into Lurie’s Wharf and took a seat at the bar. Jane’s sword caused me to get more elbow room than I might have otherwise. I spotted her at a table with a half-dozen men around her, all with fresh mugs of ale or rum. I felt a twinge of professional annoyance- Hey, I can buy drinks for sailors, too — when I heard her loudly blow her nose. I listened without being obvious about it as she said tearfully, in a voice so demure, I had to check twice to confirm it was her, “Thank you, sir. Thanks to all you gentlemen. I just don’t know where else to turn. I’m at the end of my rope.”

Most of the men were too young to have known Angelina back then, but a couple were wizened with age and experience, and they regarded Jane with clear compassion. I ordered a drink and settled in to eavesdrop.

“It’s been a long time since this place was the Floating Coffin,” one of the younger men said. “My pappy mentioned it back before he died, but that would’ve been, oh, twenty years ago.”

“That’s about right,” Jane said. “She was my much older sister. I was a sunset baby, you know.”

“Was she as pretty as you?” another sailor asked, masking his lasciviousness with a gentle tone.

“Oh, sir, you’re being kind,” Jane said. “Brandywine was very pretty. All the boys liked her.”

“I knew her,” one old man said suddenly.

“You did?” Jane said hopefully. “When?”

“Like you said, twenty years ago. We just called her Brandy, but I remember her. Beautiful girl. Had a smile that could guide a ship through a storm. But…”

He trailed off. Jane prompted, “Please, sir, continue. I must know, no matter how bad it is.”

The old man looked down at his hand on the tabletop. He was missing his middle finger and pinkie. “I dunno, I’m speaking out of turn.”

“Oh, come on, Racko,” one of the younger sailors said, “you can’t stop once you’ve started.”

Racko sighed, pushed back his cap with his intact hand, and took another drink. “All right. Miss, I’m sorry for what I have to tell you, but it’s the honest truth. Your sister had every man in this port under her spell at one time or other.”

“So she was a whore?” Jane asked, playing the hurt perfectly.

“No, that’s not what I meant. I meant ‘spell’ literally.” He took another drink and this time looked up at the ceiling before he said, “She was a witch.”

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