(stay tune for more parts coming soon!)
I was a pretty smooth guy: cool and calculated. That was, after all, why Rodgers hired me for this job. And compared to some other lads, I knew that I’d always had a pretty easy time when it came to the fairer sex. A wink, or a flash of teeth for the stubborn ones, and they were as sweet as a puddle of melted ice cream. So why then, did I feel so out control in the situation? I couldn’t read the girl sitting across from me. There she sat, teeth chattering in her undergarments, but instead of whimpering and looking ardently at me like the savior that I was to her, she was clutching my knife with a face that said she was capable of using it. What was I thinking, handing my only weapon to her? She was clearly lying through her chattering teeth. Aunt Ivey indeed!
The dame stood up so fast that the boat lurched sideways. I quickly jumped up onto the dock before she could knock me overboard and turned back to extend a hand to her.
“What’s your name?” she demanded more than asked. She was staring at my hand like it could grow a snake head and bite her at any second.
“You can call me Louie,” I said. I could tell she thought I was lying. I was not. But considering it was the first truth I’d spoken to her, I could understand the suspicious look.
“My name is Ann. Ann Freemen,” she told me, emphasizing both her honesty and highfaluting snobbery at the same time. At last she accepted my hand. Hers was freezing, I noticed, as I pulled her up onto the pier.
My ears suddenly picked up the sound of voices and my stomach twisted with dread. The streetlamps along the harbor road confirmed my fear. Not strangers. Adrenaline began pumping through my system. I was just going to have to tell them that she was a friend, or my distant cousin perhaps. I turned back to Ann. The sight of her attractive slender body under her wet chemise and bloomers about made me sick. The way she stood, bent over wringing out her hair drew her collarbone up out of her neck in a most attractive way. Okay, so the cousin idea was out; they’d never buy it. We needed to hide. I was hoping not to have to go back in the water again, but at the moment, I couldn’t see an alternative.
“Come on babe, we gotta be makin’ scarce,” I said, grabbing her arm and drawing her down next to me on the pier.
“What?” She looked behind my head and saw the group of fellows--my fellows--making their way down the harbor road.
“Under the dock,” I explained, sliding off the edge and into the water. I kept ahold of the pier with both hands. I worried for a second that she wasn’t going to follow, before I heard the soft splash of her entering the water next to me. I grinned to myself. She did trust me.
Upon reentry, I was certain that the water was now doubly as cold. I locked my jaw to keep it from rattling off its hinges. Louie glided easily as a fish into the blackness under the dock.
“Come on babe, it ain’t bad,” he said. I gritted my teeth. The boy was such a liar! Only a turtle would think of the underside of a dock as ‘not bad’. Still, I couldn’t bring myself to refuse his outstretched hand. I couldn’t see a thing, but my feet were acutely aware of the sliminess of the uncertain ground under them. My toes were curling with fear. I didn’t even register the fact that he was directing my hands to hold a soggy cross brace overhead until he moved away to grip one of his own.
I squeezed my eyes shut. “Are there any snapping turtles in this channel?” I didn’t care that it sounded like a weak, girly demand. I had to know.
My eyes flew open to see if Louie’s voice was backed by honesty in his eyes, but I couldn’t see his face in the darkness at all.
“And eight legged crabs, mammoth stingrays, giant squid, jelly--.”
I didn’t hear past the giant squid when something slimy wrapped around my ankle. I screamed and leapt towards the reassuring sound of his voice. My arms found his neck and latched ahold while I drew my knees high out of the water.
There were a few seconds of stunned silence, where the echo of my scream bouncing around under the pier was loud in our ears. His free arm came up behind my back, sending a tingle of warmth through my freezing skin. I suddenly felt wretchedly stupid, even before I heard him finish: “And toxic puffer-fish. You’ve got to watch out for those.”
Part of me wanted to laugh, but I couldn’t stop shaking. I didn’t know if it was the cold or fright, but I’d never been so humiliated in my life. There I was, dripping wet in my bloomers throwing myself at a strange boy in the dark under a dock. What must he think of me?
I felt more than heard his laughter, vibrating deep in his chest. Suddenly, I wasn’t sure if my predicament was much better than being dragged under water by a giant squid after all.
“I’m sorry,” I muttered, pushing to move away from him. To my surprise, I felt his arm tighten around me.
“Hey, why don’t you just use the switch knife?” he suggested. As if I wasn’t embarrassed enough.
“I left it in the boat,” I admitted. “But a fair amount of good it would do against a giant squid.”
His laughter sounded genuine. The realization that he had been teasing all along was a sour pill to swallow. I didn’t understand it; I had never been the gullible type before. Maybe it was the cold water or, more likely, the warmth radiating out of lying cad I was clutching. I moved to pull away again, but he only drew me up higher out of the water.
“It’s okay babe,” he whispered very near my ear. “The giant squid can take my legs first.”
I wanted to hate him. It was purely brutal to make light of a person in my state. Instead, I felt a laugh tickling deep in my belly. And then I heard voices above us. I began to shudder with the strain of keeping my laughter inside. Louie’s arm tightened around me, sending a silent plea for silence as a stampede of shoe falls rained down on the dock above us. I dropped my head, smothering my laughter into his shoulder. Served him right.
The skin on my neck was twitching with the warm puffs of breath leaving Ann’s mouth. I couldn’t figure this dame out. A bit of innocent teasing and she went from miss haughty mature lady, to frightened female in the space of seconds. I’ll admit I was expecting to see her snobby side again after she realized I had been teasing her. Laughing into my shoulder was about the last thing I expected. I was trying to listen to the conversation going on above us, but the warm tingles racing up and down my neck were more than a little distracting.
“Look, a switchblade.”
The puffs of muffled laughter stopped coming from Ann.
“Hey, let me see that.”
The little wavelets that had been lapping against my chest were suddenly ripples tall enough to jump up to lick my chin as the silhouette of my skiff dived and bobbed on the water.
“P. K. His initials all right.” I wondered what Ann thought of that, given that the name I’d given her started with an L.
“Idiot. He knows better ‘en to leave this out where any lawful feller could see it.”
“I told you Harv. Puck ain’t one of us.” That sounded like Skeeder. He’d always been suspicious of me.
“You remember how interested he was in the current midtown value? I told ya not to tell him.”
“Just relax,” Harvey said. “Nothing’s wrong, and you all know Puck is good at what he does.”
“Ack! You could have been the one to talk to Adams just as easily.”
“Don’t be ridiculous Bane. I don’t have half of Puck’s speaking charm. He could talk a mule onto a moving box car.”
“Which is exactly my point Harvey. He’s hoodwinked you, and all of us. He’s probably halfway down the channel with the loot right now, about to make the biggest profit of his worthless life.”
I felt Ann’s arm slip a little off my shoulder and smothered a groan. This was not going well.
“That doesn’t explain the empty skiff and knife Bane.” Harv interjected. “I say we give him a few more minutes.”
“Fine. But he’d better have a darn good explanation or--”
“I know,” their footsteps began to retrace themselves down the dock and I strained to pick up the deeper notes of Harvey’s voice, “Don’t worry Skeeder. I’ll be the first one to mess up his pretty face.”
After a few minutes, the sound of their footsteps had warped back into the gentle plop-plop of waves against the pier pillars.
“Come on Babe, we’ve got to get you out of this water,” I said. The chatter of her teeth was starting to give me a headache.
“What ab-b-out Harv a-and the others?”
I was a little surprised. I mean, why should she care?
“Don’t worry about it.” I sounded a lot more confident then I felt. “Just a misunderstanding with some tradin’ buddies of mine. They’ll understand when I get a chance to explain.” I ducked out into the moonlight, drawing Ann with me. She grabbed the edge of the pier and turned to face me in the water.
“You’re a smuggler.”
No surprise, fear, or judgment in her voice, just a casual realization. She wasn’t playing games; she wanted honesty. She wasn’t going to get it.
“Yeah. So what?” I pulled myself up onto the pier with two hands.
My quick scan of the docks proved empty and still, just as the midnight hour should be. Maybe that luck would hold out long enough for me to get Ann out of the harbor.
I reached down and took both of Ann’s freezing hands in mine, careful not to bang her against the edge of the pier as I pulled her up and sat her on the pier. She shivered as she looked around with the face of a lost puppy. Gosh, I’d never seen anyone look so helpless in my life. Or pretty. The way the moonlight colored her wet hair as she flicked it out of her face…
“You have purple hair.”
Did I have to say that out loud? She cocked her head up at me.
“I mean, it’s not, it just looks like it is …purple. Must be the moonlight.” I cleared my throat and looked quickly away.
Where was my smooth-talking charm now? I bet even Harvey’s thick tongue could’ve produced a better sounding compliment.
“You have an earring.”
Where in the blazes did that come from? I took a moment to blink.
She shrugged and climbed to her feet. “Just thought maybe you didn’t know.”
Was that a tease?
I considered a few responses, but non seemed adequate, so I just stood there gaping. I couldn’t believe it. For the first time in my life, I was tongue-tied.
Let it be known: Louis Headland’s smooth talking tongue had finally been wrestled down and tied. And by a girl nonetheless! I grinned at her. I was starting to like this babe.
If my Momma were still alive, this stunt would surely have been the end of her. I was dripping wet in my bloomers holding hands with a very attractive young smuggler as we crept down the pier together, alone, in the middle of the night. What would my father think? I suppose if I were honest, I didn’t care. I mean technically, the whole thing was his fault in the first place. I would be warm and asleep in my cabin’s bunk aboard the Angelica right now, if not for his ludicrous past time hobbies. Namely, emptying bottles with his lips and his wallet with cards. I had thought it was just a phase. I’m old enough to understand that not everyone handles grief the same way. Still, Momma had been dead for over a year and apparently, even the empty bottom of his wallet wasn’t enough to sober him up. My mind was stilling reeling with shock as I recalled the way he’d entered my cabin and told me I was engaged. Just like that. Engaged. And him, not the slightest bit remorseful. My wailing and tears did nothing but anger him and then he hit me. And that’s when I realized I would be disembarking the Angelica. Didn’t matter that we were miles from home and I hadn’t a friend in the city, except the vague notion of an Aunt I’d never met. As I considered this, I realized my hand was warm in Louie’s palm. A piety he had to be a dirty smuggler. Why was luck so set on evading me?
Male voices broke my thoughts. Louie drew up behind an overturned fishing rig. I could tell he was more concerned about those lads then he was letting on to me. After all, we had just climbed under a slimy pier to avoid company with them. If he could’ve just explained things to them, he would have.
There was more going on here. Louie was acting almost …guilty. And then it hit me: the way those boys were talking about him—as Puck—selling out on them. He was a traitor as well as a smuggler. I slipped my hand from his. I’d have nothing to do with their midnight dealings.
I could hear the boy’s approaching. Louie turned around to face me. He looked like a schoolboy just caught with a frog in his pocket. Served him right. Served them all right, this whole ordeal had nothing to do with me—why was I hiding?
I straightened to my full height, revealing myself in the streetlight. There were shouts from the group as they spotted me. Louie looked alarmed, but he didn’t try to stop me. Maybe it was time he stood up for his deeds. Let Harvey unleash his revenge; it had nothing to do with me.
The main road leading away from the harbor was well lit and I’d already decided to follow it. There must be some decent people in this town who were lawfully upstanding.
I’d only taken a few steps when a bulky frame suddenly blocked my path.
“Excuse me,” I said, moving around him. He stepped in front of me again.
“Well Puck, where is it?”
I turned to see the rest of the boys surrounding Louie. He was standing now, and his composure was surprisingly casual: fingers buried in his pockets and leaning back against the rigging. He probably had been the boy with the frog in his pocket at school, but I’ll bet he was never punished for it. His face could charm the staunchest schoolteacher. Yes, Harvey was right; of all the boys, I’m sure he would have had the best chance of wooing Captain Adams.
“I didn’t get a chance to pick it up Harv.”
My gaze switched to Louie’s interrogator: Harvey was about two inches taller and three fingers broader, and his agitated stance made Louie look all the more composed.
“What do you mean? Where is it?” The boys started to crowd him, throwing out questions with rising intensity. I could feel my own pulse quickening at the threatening presence of the group, but I pushed away my concern. If he had sold out on them, something he seemed fully capable of, then I supposed he earned the predicament he was in.
I moved to pass the boy blocking my path. Before I could take one step, he grabbed my arm with a grip hard enough to bruise.
“Hey!” I yelped.
The animated voices of Louie’s interrogators behind me died off in the echo of my cry. I was suddenly very aware of my clothes--or lack thereof--as the eyes of a dozen boys turned on me. “Please let go.”
I yanked my arm back but it didn’t budge. “Look, I have no idea what’s going on here, but I have nothing to do with it.” It was the truth.
“Yer gal Puck?” one of the boys asked, tossing his head in my direction.
“Gee, I can’t imagine what ya’ve been so busy doin’ tonight that ya forgot to meet-up with Adams,” Harvey’s voice dripped with unspoken insinuations. The boys began to snicker and chuckle. My body was shaking with cold, but now my face burned like I’d caught a fever.
“All right!” The tone in Louie’s voice quieted the boys immediately as he straightened and lifted his hands diplomatically. It wasn’t hard to see why he had been elected as their leader. “I had every intention of meeting with Adams tonight and keeping our deal, but this babe sort of interrupted me when she fell overboard the Angelica.”
“In her underclothes?” One of the boys had to ask, doubtfully. Louie shrugged indifferently, and then casually issued the ultimate embarrassment; “She was drunk.”
I scowled and the boys laughed outright.
“So? Why’d you bring her ashore?” Harvey demanded.
I saw the suspicion root in Harvey’s face as Louie hesitated second before responding, with a disinterested lift of his shoulders: “she demanded I did.”
A lie, but I wasn’t about to argue.
“Look, I can still catch Adams if I hurry,” Louie said, “I just have too get--.”
“You’re not going anywhere Puck.”
The harbor suddenly became so quiet that the sound of the waves lapping up on the shore grew tenfold.
Harvey stepped into Louie’s space, making threatening use of his extra two inches. “You’re done. Okay? It’s over.”
“Come on Harv.” Louie seemed genuinely upset over his demotion, as he stood a little taller. “Who’s going to be your spokesman, huh? You need me.”
“I said it’s over.”
“One late appointment? Just let me go talk to Adams. I’m sure I can--.”
“No. You don’t need another opportunity to demonstrate your lack of responsibility Puck.” Harvey turned and looked at me with a strange expression. Louie was still looking around quite troubled over his dismissal, when Harvey suddenly thumped him on the chest. “But good job picking yourself a strumpet.”
Shock slapped me in the face as a sinister grin lifted Harvey’s mouth. The realization dawned like an ugly storm across Louie’s face.
“I told you Harv,” he said, speaking slowly, “she ain’t a prostitute.”
“I know Puck. Your lies are as pretty as your face,” the bigger boy said with a patronizing pat of Louie’s cheek. “But I ain’t stupid.”
Harvey turned away. I saw Louie’s recoil moments before the rest. There were shouts from all sides as Louie jumped the bigger boy from behind and the two of them went down in a mess of arms and legs. I wanted to watch, but this was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. Drawing back with a fist of my own, I punched my captor in the face as hard as I could. Pain flared across my knuckles, but the bone-crushing hold on my arm finally released, and I ran.
©Mary Lund 2014
Please do not copy/repost anywhere without permission.