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Authors: Ann Howard Creel

The Whiskey Sea

BOOK: The Whiskey Sea
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OTHER BOOKS BY ANN HOWARD CREEL

The Magic of Ordinary Days

While You Were Mine

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

Text copyright © 2016 by Ann Howard Creel

All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.

Published by Lake Union Publishing, Seattle

www.apub.com

Amazon, the Amazon logo, and Lake Union Publishing are trademarks of
Amazon.com
, Inc., or its affiliates.

ISBN-13: 9781503936898

ISBN-10: 1503936899

Cover design by Rachel Adam

PROLOGUE

She opened her eyes to blackness. Salty blackness. She moved her arms against water, then remembered. The ocean. The flight. The flames.

No.

Now her arms and legs would not move. She was drowning, falling into the cold depths. Below her, the pull of invisible arms and no light. A silence pure and dark. Her face down, her vision gone, she was plunging fast into infinite time. She could not hold her breath much longer; she was going to die.

How predictable.

A meaningless life. More than anything, she had wanted to be useful. She had wanted to better herself and those around her. She had wanted to live as one with the sea in her soul. And she had wanted love. She had thought love would save her. She had hoped she would be worthy. She had dreamed of redemption. And for a time she believed she had found it all.

A stream of air escaped her lungs and bubbled past her lips. Her head felt compressed and rang as if a string of clanging bells was pulled taut between her ears. Not much longer. Her life almost over now.

Flashes of memories: skimming over the water into darkness, salt on her lips, big boats lingering on the horizon, crates of liquor luring them out, rolls of bills in her hands, lawmen on the take, and funerals. Desire and kisses. New York City on the arm of a man. A nice dress. Racing over the ocean. Whiskey bottles. Fear and exultation.

How had it come to this?

And where was love now?

CHAPTER ONE

1908

When death came to Della Hope, this story begins.

Della never set foot more than a few paces off the waterfront. A sweet little thing with brassy hair and misty green eyes, she made a living off being shapely and willing, with no other means to support herself. As the town whore, she lived above one of the ramshackle dockside establishments and catered to men coming in off a fishing boat, reeking of the sea. Along the way she caught a disease that drove her mad—and then killed her.

On the day Della passed from this world, Silver motored in to the docks later than usual. The day had been warm, with buttery September sun, so pleasant that after he ate some bread and cheese he’d packed for his lunch over the mudflats raking clams, he lay back on the boat deck and his eyelids closed. He woke just as the anchor was pulling free of its hold and the tide was rushing in to fill the bay and the Navesink and Shrewsbury Rivers to their banks. He extracted the anchor and coaxed the engine to life, then slowly let the motor and tide take him home.

Breathing in the familiar smells of fish and salt water, he nosed his boat into the row of mostly handmade and pieced-together craft of his fellow clammers. He heard the news as soon as he hopped onto the dock; people were milling around and beating their gums about what was to be done, since Della apparently had two little girls, who were now orphans.

Once or twice Silver had seen the older of Della’s girls, about five years old, playing on the docks, but he hadn’t paid much attention to her and had never known there was another. The man they called Hawkeye, who had only one good eye, which made him peer at a person real serious, was dockmaster that day, and he was pacing the wooden planks of the long pier in between cursing the messiest of the fishermen, kicking their fish heads into the sea, and shooing off seagulls.

It was a Sunday, and Hawkeye paced about as if he didn’t know what to do. The sun was sinking low in the sky. “No one’s gonna help them girls. They’re gonna end up on the streets in the city, selling flowers . . . or themselves,” he said to Silver, who reckoned Hawkeye was really talking to himself. Hawkeye pushed the gray-hazed rat’s nest of black hair off a forehead that was etched with horizontal lines as deep as the river, and Silver could see that Hawkeye’s eyes were bloodshot and teary. Silver figured Hawkeye had a sweet spot for Della, even though he was a married man with three or four children—Silver couldn’t remember the exact number. “Who do I send for? Who’s gonna decide what to do with them girls?”

The setting sun trailed a golden glow over the big city across the bay. It was Silver’s favorite time of the day. Almost time to head home.

“I can’t do a thing to help them,” Hawkeye said, speaking more frankly than Silver had ever heard the man speak before, Silver guessed on account of his grief. “My wife, you know.” He looked away. “They gonna end up like their mama, and that’s what Della didn’t want. Della wanted better for them girls.”

Silver was aiming to stay out of this business. Though he was about the only man down on the wharves who didn’t have a wife and kids at home, he’d never partaken of manly pleasures with Della. Many of those other men had indulged in Della’s services, but when she took ill there was no help for her, save some Catholic women who came down to nurse her a bit, as if Della were the fallen Madonna with children. The men had vanished, except for Hawkeye, who couldn’t afford to incur his wife’s wrath by letting her know about his past infidelity and present concerns. Silver guessed it was the way of men.
Fine lot, all of them,
he thought gravely.

Hawkeye said, “I guess I’m going to have to go call the police. Let them take those babes away.”

A wave of sadness washed over Silver, but he had no part to play in solving this problem. He hauled his day’s clams to be weighed and sold, and when he came back, the docks had all but cleared out. Hawkeye was gone, too, and Silver thought that was the end of it. But as he was leaving to walk home, he passed the wharf-side bars above which Della had operated her whoring business, and there outside on the rough wooden walkway that sloshed to the beat of the incoming tide, sitting on top of a small, scarred valise, was Della’s older girl, her Indian-black hair tangled, her dress stained and dirty, her feet bare, and a hard look to her jawline that said,
Leave me alone,
despite the fact that she was but a little child holding a helpless babe in her lap. And yet this small, dark-haired girl was beautiful, a heavenly mistake, as if something had blown across the ocean on an errant breeze from the shores of the Mediterranean. She could’ve been from some noble Italian or Greek family rather than the bastard daughter of the town whore.

The baby, who looked to be nearing a year old, was much fairer than her sister, with skin so pale and thin it looked near to transparent, and atop her head were fine threads of almost-white hair. She appeared as if blown here by some strange wind, too, though hers of Norse origins.
She ought to be growing up in the mountains of Scandinavia, not by the harsh, burning sea,
Silver thought. It was pretty obvious who’d fathered the baby, a big-time lobsterman called Whitey, who lived over in Atlantic Highlands. No other person for miles around had Whitey’s near-colorless hair, except his other children. But who sired the older one remained a mystery.

The older girl stared out over the water, the sun now turning blood orange, the light over the sea a burned red, and as he drew closer, the look of the girl took hold of Silver and made him stop. Her feet were planted solidly, she held her knees together tightly, her arms were curved loosely but protectively about the baby, and she wore an expression of shattered defiance on her face, as if she’d been overtaken by some kind of stupor or shock. She didn’t gaze up at him as he started to pass by.

Silver stopped for a moment, rubbed his thatch of gray whiskers, and shrugged his shoulders, first one, then the other, as he did when he found himself at a loss. The girls’ story was a fitting tale for Highlands, where the rich lived across the bay in New York and in the hills above town, and those just getting by—the clammers and fishermen—lived down by the docks and the shifting deeps. There wasn’t much actual space between them, yet those two places were worlds apart. Big money came to Highlands to sit on the verandas of their summer homes, slip amid clean, soft sheets in the new hotels, and comment on the quality of the clam chowder in dining establishments along the water. Big money lived in two-story, porch-fronted houses on the hills above town and traveled in automobiles and ferries. It came for the beautiful beaches, which were nearby, but at the same time far enough away from the clammers that they didn’t spoil its vacation. It came to private swim clubs, beach resorts, and boats people took out for pleasure and not for work. Scant money came to the folks who washed dishes and mopped floors in the hotels, clubs, and restaurants, and to the hardy men making a living out of the rolling waters: fishermen, lobstermen, and clammers, mostly clammers. It lived packed together in small cottages and rooms near the water, where winds whipped, storms threatened, and the streets sometimes flooded during summer high tides . . . and, of course, scant money also came to women like Della Hope.

The older girl didn’t move or utter a word, and yet there was something different about the light and evening breeze picking up, and it told him to wait, just wait for a minute. Don’t leave those babies alone. He was aiming to stay only until Hawkeye came back. He figured the other man would show up with help soon enough, and in the meantime the little girls shouldn’t be left by themselves on the wharf with the light fading. By now the sun was only a half dome cupped over the hills, and there was still no sign of Hawkeye.

“You hungry?” asked Silver, who was thus nicknamed because his hair had turned old when he was but twenty-five.

She looked at him then, the first time she’d ever really looked at him, although she had to have seen him around the waterfront plenty of times before. By God, the color of her eyes was a steely gray like he’d never seen before, and her appraising gaze was powerful. The look was neither good nor bad, trusting nor untrusting, helpless nor helpful—just a stare of pure sizing up. What he’d first interpreted as stupor was instead clearly intense concentration, as if everything in her surroundings had just transformed, and she was still trying to adjust to the altered appearance of it. Certainly her young life was now shattered.

Her eyes never moved, never watered, never told him a thing.

Clearly she wasn’t going to answer. “You got a bottle for that baby?” he asked.

She reached down to her side and picked up a baby bottle, but there was no milk in it.

“You wait here. I’ll be coming back, ye hear?”

Silver walked away toward Bahrs Landing, only a short stroll down the waterfront. He didn’t want to go far; he aimed to stay where he could still keep an eye on the girls.

When he returned with clam fritters and a small glass bottle of milk for the older girl and another one for the baby, the older girl poured the baby’s bottle. She fed that baby first, and Silver wondered how long she’d been mothering the child while Della took sick. Only a child, she was already taking care of another life on this earth. Already doing what he had shied away from doing his entire life, nearly fifty years of it.

Silver liked people to a point; he liked to hear them tell of some important news or share a laugh, but then solitude was always calling him back. Too much contact with people took things away from him—his energy, his soul, his freedom. There was something too loose and scattered about the outside world. He had taken to the sea from the moment his father taught him to clam, but even out there with all that openness of sea and sky, the one thing he craved after a day out was his own private space. Life had whittled out a little place for him and painted the sea beside it, just as he’d wanted.

After the baby had been fed and burped, the girl’s face seemed brighter, as if the light of the day were opening up instead of drifting away. Still holding the baby, she started eating the fritters with one hand, picking up two, three, four of them at a time and stuffing them in her mouth, barely chewing before swallowing. Where her baby teeth had come out, there were gaps big enough to put a finger through, her lips were reddened and chapped, and she smelled musty, like a dirty room.

Silver said, “Slow down. You’re gonna make yourself sick.”

She kept on eating that way until the fritters were gone, and then she licked at her fingers and touched the bottom of the paper bag to pick up each and every last crumb.

“I should’ve brung you some more food,” he said.

She handed him the empty bag and then fixed him with that gaze again.

“You talk?”

She smacked the final crumbs from her lips and swallowed them, and he saw the tendons shift in her little neck. “I talk when I got something to say.” Her tone wasn’t necessarily disrespectful, but it was utterly sure. She sat tall, her shoulders firmly set, and her chin level despite it all. Some people have that inner pride inside that no amount of hard knocks can ever beat out, and this girl had it in barrels. Her eyes bore through him, and they seemed to say,
I’ll never belong to anyone. Not to you, not to anyone.

Something odd, like an invisible wire, sparked and shot between him and the girl, then fizzled up his spine. Silver couldn’t tear his eyes away.

Hawkeye came back and said there wasn’t anyone at the police station that night, and he guessed he was going to have to walk up into the hills to wake up the judge or the mayor. “I even went to one of them Catholic ladies who used to come around and nurse Della, but she don’t want ’em.” Hawkeye pursed his lips. “A fair crowd gathered to watch the police take Della out of here, but then everyone went on about like nothing happened. No one paid a bit of attention to these girls.”

“I’ll take ’em,” Silver said, stunning himself. Some spirit must have pulled those words out of his mouth. He’d never believed in ghosts, but he smelled something of Della’s perfume just then, as if she’d just gone strolling by. He shook his head even as he said, “Just for tonight.”

Hawkeye stared at him and started to thank him. But Silver couldn’t have any of that. “I’ll put ’em up for one night.”

He was sure he meant it at the time.

Hawkeye said, “The girl’s Frieda. The baby’s Beatrice.”

“Bea,” said Frieda as she gazed up into the darkening sky. “I like to call her Bea.”

Hawkeye said, “’Cause she’s little, like a bee, yeah?” and laughed at his own joke.

The girl darted her eyes away. Silver didn’t blame her. He wouldn’t make a joke on a day like this.

Instead he leaned closer, laid his hands on his thighs, and studied the girl. “Well, come on. I got to get you some more food,” he said, holding his breath, not knowing whether she would go with him or not. Why did he suddenly care so much? Some kind of madness had struck him, like the sickness that smacked down so many young men when they fell into a frenzied, passionate love. He’d never fallen into that, not once, but now he was experiencing something even more profound than what he imagined that romantic love to be. Some kind of powerful longing to save something before it was too late, and that feeling was swelling solid-like in his chest.

Would she come? There was no way he could ever replace what she had lost, but for the first time in his life he believed he had something to offer, and he was ready to give it finally, as though he had awakened from a lifelong sleep.

She must have recognized the shift in him, or else she knew him as one of the few men who hadn’t come to her mother, or else she saw something else she deemed worthy. After only a few seconds, she stood up and let him take the ratty valise. She carried the baby in one arm, and as they walked to his place in the gathering dark she put her free hand—a little soft creature—in his, and it changed Silver’s life for good. From that moment on he wasn’t going to let either of those girls go.

BOOK: The Whiskey Sea
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