Authors: Deb E Howell
DEB E. HOWELL
Copyright © 2012 by Deb E. Howell
Deb E. Howell asserts her moral right to be identified as the author of this book
All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Cover art by Matt Donnici
Maps by Evelinn Enoksen
An Imprint of Grimbold Books
4 Woodhall Drive
To my parents
Robyn & Alan Thomson
Llew didn’t break stride as she kicked the empty glass bottle aside, barely giving it a thought. Litter was the least of the hazards in Cheer’s streets at night. She walked with her head down, hands thrust deep in the pockets of her coarse brown trousers, blending in with the evening’s wildlife. With hair in dire need of a trim, there was always a risk that the disguise wouldn’t hold – but it only had to hold until she got home. She would cut the offending locks in the morning.
A commotion broke out up ahead at Camille’s Cathouse. Some john lacking the financial means to sate his desires by the looks and sounds of it. Perhaps he should have thought about that before buying such a large bottle of whisky. The town’s men hunted gold by day, oblivion and pussy by night, and sometimes the two nocturnal aims conflicted. Both could spell danger for Llew.
She approached the still cussing man, stepping into the road to give him a wide berth. At this time of night at least one didn’t need to be so cautious about steaming piles in the middle of the dusty streets; all the horses were asleep in their stables or paddocks, or waiting lazily outside a bar or brothel.
“Out for a good time, boy?” The old coot stepped in front of Llew, stopping her in her tracks. “I’ll share one wi’ yer.”
Llew tried to side-step him, but he shadowed her movement.
“It’s still five miras each. Two men, ten miras.” The half-dressed madam on the porch folded her arms across her chest and stared down at them.
“You said five miras per girl. We only need the one.” His arm snaked across Llew’s shoulders drawing her in to him. If she hadn’t already been cursing staying out late with Kynas, she sure would have started now. “What d’you say? I’ll let you go first. I won’t even watch. Sure you won’t mind me listenin’, though.”
Llew struggled to find her voice – her deeper, more boyish voice. She shook her head.
“Five miras per . . . service.” The woman’s eyes narrowed. “You want cheap, Renny, you go down see Hedy’s girls. They’ll look after you real nice.”
“Aw, but Hedy don’t have your wee Tamra.” Renny pulled Llew closer to his mouth. His breath reeked like it was coming from the other end of his body. “Wee Tamra’s my favourite,” he confided in a loud whisper.
“Tamra’s busy, anyway. Now scoot.” Camille waved the back of her hand in a brushing motion at Renny, dismissing him. “And don’t come back till you’ve got some cash.”
Still clutching Llew, Renny waved his bottle, miraculously not spilling any liquor.
“Oh, you’re a hard woman, Cammy.”
“Better a hard woman than a limp dick any day, Renny.” The woman flashed a gleaming white grin at them. “Maybe next time you’ll rethink the whisky. Or at least buy it here. Then maybe we can talk discounts. Loyalty is rewarded at Camille’s.”
“Oh, aye.” He turned Llew with him to dawdle back the way she’d just come. “Women, eh? Never give nothin’ for free.”
Llew didn’t know anyone who gave anything for free, and didn’t see why the brothel girls should be any different.
“Well lad, shall we try Hedy’s?” Renny squeezed again.
Llew tensed the second his step faltered.
He regained his composure almost instantly and squeezed her shoulders once more, this time looking down at the way her shirt bunched across her chest. Two small but distinct peaks appeared as her shoulders rounded under the pressure.
“Well, well. Looks like my luck’s on the up ’n up.” His arm reached around her shoulders so his hand could feel the soft flesh beneath Llew’s shirt. He sucked back a glob of spit, took a swig from his bottle, and tried to bring her around in front of him. Llew pushed back and ducked under his arm. But he was quick and grabbed the loose waist of her shirt.
“Hey! We was just gettin’ to know each other.” He tugged and Llew bounced against his chest.
She used the momentum to break free of his grasp, turned and ran. The whisky hadn’t kicked in as much as she thought, because he was soon on her heels. She focused on keeping her line straight down the middle of the road. A straggling group of men leaving Polly’s Bar farther down the road made no moves to let her pass, seeming to find the spectacle of a young boy running from an older man interesting verging on downright hilarious. Some of them reached out to slow Llew, but they didn’t go so far as to stop her. Fearing that the men would turn on her, Llew didn’t plead for their help but pumped her limbs even harder, and a few moments later she was past them. Unhindered by the group, Renny caught up to her, knocking her into a narrow alleyway between McNulty’s Bar and Barber Pierson’s.
The crash of the half-full bottle against the wall rang out as Llew fell to the ground. Quickly regaining her feet, she found herself facing jagged glass and Renny looking pissed off.
“That bottle cost me a night with wee Tamra. Come ’ere,” he said, flinging both arms out in some sort of drunken embrace. He missed, but the bottle swung dangerously close and Llew hopped back deeper into the alley. “You owe me the price of a bottle o’ whisky, girlie. And maybe a bit more.”
“You broke it, you drunk bastard.” Llew dodged the man’s next lunge and made a pass for the alleyway’s entrance.
He brandished the bottle at her. “That ain’t the language of no young lady.”
“Who said anything about being a lady?”
They danced side to side, Llew looking for a gap, Renny blocking.
“Oh, you like playin’ at it like a boy, eh? Well, I ain’t picky. Turn around, we won’t even have to take them pants right off.” He paused to grab his crotch.
Llew lunged and Renny blocked her path again, grabbing her and throwing her back on the ground. He scrabbled at her feverishly, trying to get her trousers undone. Llew kicked wildly, she punched, she clawed, and when he hit her back she grabbed his face, digging her fingers close to his eyes and returning the pain. Renny slashed at her with the bottle, slicing her shoulder. Llew pressed her hand against his chin, pushing him up and closing her wound. He screamed and slashed again, cutting into her arm. Llew grabbed his wrist, healing this new scratch.
Renny cried out again and now swung the bottle blindly, hysterically, cutting Llew’s cheek, neck, chest, forehead, shoulder, ear, nose, eye, throat . . .
Somewhere in all the chaos, a strange peace overcame her. She relaxed and let it take her.
Llew woke to the scent of blood, the jaunty tinkle of a piano being played nearby, light spilling across a wood-plank wall, and a heavy feeling in her chest. No. Not in her chest. It was on her chest, and it was sticky and damp.
Smell of blood. Heavy thing. Sticky and damp.
She pushed up. The corpse – she couldn’t feel any breathing other than her own – lifted, teetered, and then the strength in Llew’s arms failed. She fell back and the body dropped down with her. A shudder ran through her body. A glass bottle smacked to the ground and rolled across the ground, scraping the stones. Dim candlelight from the uncovered window above reflected from its shattered edge.
A broken bottle. The dead man.
Remembered pain flitted through Llew’s mind. He had attacked her and now he was dead. The events between those two points were a blank. Her shirt was wet, almost certainly with blood.
Mustering all her strength, she wedged her hands under the man’s shoulders and heaved again, pushing higher on one side. His shoulder slid to the ground, easing the weight off her. Bracing herself on her elbows, she kicked and slid, freeing her legs. Clambering to her feet, Llew shook herself, trying to rid herself of the dead man’s touch. Her near-white shirt looked black in the low light.
Only slightly less so with the knowledge that it was her own blood. She could just make out his face, frozen in an expression of horror, in the flickering candlelight from the window above. There was no outward sign of injury Llew could see – apart from all the blood, of course.