Wake of the Bloody Angel
AN EDDIE LA CROSSE NOVEL
This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
A Tom Doherty Associates Book
WAKE OF THE BLOODY ANGEL
Copyright © 2012 by Alex Bledsoe
All rights reserved.
A Tor Book
Published by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC 175 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10010
is a registered trademark of Tom Doherty Associates, LLC.
First Edition: July 2012
Printed in the United States of America
0 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
To Jacob, for insisting that here be monsters
AC Crispin Rhodi Hawk Angus Konstam Steve Osmanski Mary Jo Pehl Jarkko Sipila Paul Stevens Marlene Stringer Miriam Weinberg
The Mount Horeb Public Library Schubert’s Diner and Bakery Sjolind’s Chocolate House
and Valette and Charlie
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 rainsoaked 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
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
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.”
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
. 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.”