– Chapter Nine –
Clara left the spare room on the Wrench Work’s second floor to find her Uncle Marty asleep in a comfy recliner. He was still dressed, vest unbuttoned, cloths rumbled and stinking of yesterday, his thick black-grey beard glistening on one side with a silvery line of drool.
An open window with the curtain drawn let in the grayish light of transitioning morning mixed with the marine layer.
The room stank. Not the stink of an unwashed older man, no, the odor of sweet weed. Stale. Dank and musty. Suffocating. Breathing the air made her want to choke. She sighed and tried not to breathe through her nose, less she vomit from the sickly sweetness of the lingering smoke that stuck to everything in the apartment.
By the chair, within arm’s reach, on a side table rested a long stemmed pipe. A faint curl of reddish smoke drifted from the small bowl at the stem’s end. Next to the pipe was Marty’s tin, the lid flipped closed but ajar.
Tink’s bluish Nite light provided enough luminance for Clara to see by.
Marty let out an ineloquent snort of deep sleep, reminding Clara of an unmaintained motor choking on its own old, viscous oil. Like an unreliable machine that was a pain to fix and get running again. Yet Clara always gave those motors her best attention. If nothing else, she could salvage the parts. Humans were not machines, though, and at times foreign to her. Clara hated machines she couldn’t take a wrench or hammer to. Pound out the dents, replace some parts, tighten everything up, add Nites. Humans were not so easy.
Wake up the big hazed idiot, Tink demanded. The Nite always seemed in a hurry, never wanting to be in doors or near anyone but Clara.
“Shut it, Tink!” Clara hissed sharply. She softened her voice. “He can’t help feeling responsible.”
Her light dimming, Tink was effectively sighing in exasperation. Didn’t he tell you when you were younger that he promised your dad he would take care of you? Like he would his own daughter?
Clara went over to a couch and took from it the patchwork quilt hanging over the back. One of her mother’s make. A present from when her father still lived.
She draped the blanket over Marty, tucking it under his chin, and wiping away the drool with an edge.
“At least I didn’t have to carry him home last night,” Clara said.
Yeah, about that… again, he promised to take care of you. And it’s you who seems to take care more of him!
“He has no one else,” Clara reminded Tink, though she was trying to justify the lack of anger failing to boil within herself. “His wife died when I was a baby, some sickness that swept through Linden Grove and the neighboring communities. It took my grandfather too. There was…”
Propped up behind the tin and pipe was a wooden picture frame, its corners carved with daises, the sides wrought like woven vines. There was a picture of a little girl, pretty and happy.
“… Deseray. He had Deseray around still but…”
Who is Deseray? Tink asked. She fluttered down to the side table, landing in her girlish wispy form. Bending at the waist, she considered the framed photo.
“Uncle Marty’s daughter.”
What happened to her?
Clara sighed again. “I don’t know the details. Uncle Marty doesn’t talk about her, not anymore.”
You didn’t know Deseray?
Clara shook her head. “Nope. She was old enough to babysit me.” A warm smile. “I have vague memories of an older girl chasing me around the shop, threatening to tickle me if she caught me.” The smile chilled, frozen, and then it cracked. “Then she was gone. She left before my father passed. Like I said, Uncle Marty doesn’t talk about Deseray. I also remember that he used to… after my dad died and I grew old enough to work in the shop… Uncle Marty used to tell me he didn’t want me salvaging, he especially didn’t want me going into Nork. That probably had more to do with Deseray then me.”
How is that, Clara?
Being careful not to unravel the guilt, Clara snapped off a loose string.
“Uncle Marty’s lost too much. He doesn’t want his heart broken. For that reason, he allowed me to work with him finally. It made me happy.”
She quietly turned around and found paper, pen, and ink. The least she could do is leave a note. Marty would worry when the haze cleared, especially when he realized where she had gone.
Don’t worry about me. You needed sleep so I’m going alone to meet the salvage informant. I’ll scout the location he takes me to and be back in a day or so. Please send word to my mom that I won’t return to Linden Grove for a few extra days. Don’t worry her, if you can manage. You know her, she worries about me too much. Thanks.
What’s it say? Tink fluttered around the side table as curious as a bee near a rose bush. Clara told her.
After folding the note and placing it underneath Marty’s tin of unused weed, Clara shrugged into her jacket, sheathed the knife at her back, and shouldered her pack. Everything Clara wore was dark colored—brown or black—and form fitting. She had not owned a dress since she could walk and say “no”. Breaches were better for running in than a dress or skirt, and more useful for blending into shadows and brush. The city had lots of shadows and hiding places where nature had grown up. And Nork had more than its share of predators she might need to run from.
Wait! Clara, you really aren’t going to wake Marty from the haze? He’s going to kill you. Mischievous excitement pulsed around Tink, forcing her to revert to her firefly-like self.
Hand on the door handle, Clara paused to say, “We’ll let Uncle Marty sleep, Tink. The haze is thick this morning and he’s in no condition to go into Nork. Besides, the salvager has half the money and I don’t want to lose an investment for the Wrench Works.”
Tink blinked frantically. After yesterday, haven’t you had enough adventure?
“If I had, I would have turned back around and gone to Linden Grove, gone home.”
Okay! Just checking.
By the time Clara arrived at the docks the first hint of daybreak was sliding up over the horizon, turning the bay’s still waters golden and burning off the marine layer common to a port like Rivend. Clara gazed past the broken bridge that once connected the island city of Nork and focused her attention on the shadowy spires waiting for her across the river. Hazy ghosts in the mist. She thought if she reached out a hand that her fingers might slip through the spires’ shades. A bell rang somewhere in the distance, far out in the river; the chime only added the eerie atmosphere of the morning.
Quickly the goings-on of the docks distracted her and she blinked. Ships were bustling with sailors loading cargo—aided either by their own muscle or by wenches—all the while the captains barked and cursed like it were their native tongues. Clara had put on her very-male floppy hat and tucked her hair underneath the crown. A passing glance from a sailor would not give away her gender; everyone would see her as a boy, possibly cabin boy.
Now… where was the salvage informant?
They were supposed to meet at pier nine, or so Uncle Marty had said of the arrangements. The one thing Marty had not explained to Clara was how much of the salvage informant’s price they had left to pay. “The other half” of what? So, Clara brought along what she thought would settle the deal. She hated carrying around coin. The weight dragged at her, her worry even heavier. That much money was like a clubbed foot, it slowed you down and made you vulnerable. Junkers, bandits, and city pickpockets went after the lame and the distracted, not people who could fight, who could run with two good feet, and less often those who had less to steal. For safekeeping, she had tucked the coin purse away at the bottom of her pack, underneath a spare shirt and other essentials. That muffled the jingle nicely.
A captain by the name of Dano Slynt had his vessel berthed at pier nine. A small boat, it was not comparable to the big steam engines typically running up and down the river. Rather Slynt’s vessel was a long boat with ten oars. Slynt made a living carrying people across the river. Uncle Marty and Clara—her father before her—trusted Slynt and his men to get them across, to a safe place they could enter Nork.
Spying Slynt not far from the end of the pier, Clara proceeded at brisk walk. He turned upon hearing the conduit’s footfalls, just in time to receive the full blow of Clara’s hug. The old river rat’s embrace nearly squeezed every last breath from her as he picked her up to return the gesture—he was much taller than she, near half of seven feet!
Slynt was bald, or nearly so. The shadow of what remained of his hair formed a horseshoe. Blonde thick muttonchops covered his cheeks and swung down to his chin, not connecting. Years on the river and going barefoot had hardened the bottoms of his feet, turning them from calloused to nearly hard horn. Slynt was flamboyant, always gesturing wildly when telling stories of his youthful travels up and down the river, chuckling loudly, slamming his open palm down on any available surface near to him. Every time they met, he picked up the smaller Clara and swung her around like a tiny child. He wore colorful sashes, a different color every day it seemed, and he matched the color to his vest. How the wide, wrapped cloth held the man’s loose pants around his thick belly, Clara could not guess.
“Going across this morning, lass?” Slynt asked after sitting Clara down gently. He stuck his thumbs in the front of his sash as he spoke.
“Making a trip to Nork,” Clara responded, readjusting her hat for it had gone eschew when Slynt tried to break her in half with his squeeze. “I should be a few days, no more.”
Slynt glanced over Clara’s should and down the pier. He squinted into the lingering mist swept in by the river the previous night.
“I’m on my own today,” Clara explained softly, hoping not to get a lecture about safety. Not many women—young or old—were salvagers.
And there are too many men who think they have to replace my father. Dad, why did you have to have so many concerned friends?
She doubted the deep frown Slynt’s dark brown features drooped into was meant for her. Anyone working or living in Rivend knew about Uncle Marty’s… habit. He spent nights drinking at the inns with the captains, playing cards, and smoking his sleepless nights away.
“One of those mornings, aye, lass?” Slynt said, returning his gaze to her. They both knew who and what they were referring to.
“Ah-huh. He should be sleeping for a while. I got business for us to finish, though. It can’t wait.”
“Is this dunked and drenched dog your ‘business’ then?” Slynt’s gaze once more drifted into the background, past Clara. Suspicion darkened those eyes.
Turning, Clara glanced at the person walking down the pier toward her and Slynt. The newcomer was not so much walking as stalking. He barely made a sound. The boards of the pier didn’t even creak underneath the cloaked figure’s boats. He hunched as if attempting to blend into marine layer lingering around them. Come to think of it… he moved like the mist itself, lazy, in a soundless wave. Clara recognized the cloak from the previous night in the Wrench Works, and the hood.
“You sure you don’t want to wait for Martin, lass?” Slynt had bent a little and was whispering in her ear. “This man here washes over my old river bones like bog water. Slimy, you kin?”
Either the gray damp of the morning had slipped over her skin or this salvager was indeed slimy as Slynt described.
Although she did not make herself seen, Tink sent blips through the Field, intoning her own trepidation toward Clara.
I think I agree with the captain. There’s something about this guy… he’s… he’s off. The pauses in the tones actually illustrated Tink’s unease. Do we trust him?
Most salvagers looking to sell junk locations were dodgy. You never knew if that person was selling the information to multiple people or if the location was real at all. That’s why Marty and Clara usually had the salvagers lead them—those Marty trusted longer than a strand of hair and that list was short. Distrust was the reason why they only paid half upfront, good faith money.
If this salvager was as untrustworthy as he seemed and if Clara asked him to postpone the trip for a day, he may just take half the payment and disappear. Clara didn’t want that. She didn’t want to lose Uncle Marty’s money. She’d messed up enough in last twenty-four hours.
“Get the boat ready, Dano,” Clara said as the cloaked and hooded salvager halted out of earshot.
Slynt hesitated for a breath or two, long enough for him to run his thumps along the inner edge of his sash. Then he inhaled a deep breath, scowled at the salvager, and turned to start barking at his crew to get to their paddles and row stations.
Clara breached the gap between her and the salvager, trying to wipe the sludge off her flesh and not succeeding. Just your paranoia, she told herself. You’ve done this tons of times. Nork is your playground. And the ruins were that. Last week she discovered a mole on the back of her hand, but nothing surprised her about Nork.
“We getting on with this then?” she asked the salvager, more distant and abrupt then she intended. She immediately regretted her reaction when the salvager pulled back his hood.
He was gorgeous! And he was around her age, maybe a few years older—close to Clay’s age actually. Those good looks were a rugged, living off the land kind. Mused dark hair the color of bark fell to the nape of his neck, his face was narrow with the angular lines of a hawk, his body was well fed but in shape for running and strong enough for fighting—odd for a scavenger. A scar ran across the middle of his nose but wound had heeled well, it reminded her of Uncle Marty’s mark, except this young man still had both his tree moss colored eyes, eyes enigmatic and wild, always glancing and watching for slight movements he might find threatening.
The salvager didn’t respond right away to her inquiry. Clara’s harsh welcome had thrown him off balance.
“Excuse me,” he finally said. His voice was timid, not in a meek way but more like the tone of someone not used to speaking with other people. Yet his response was friendly enough, and strong. “I was expecting… well… your boss. And you, I mean. Your boss and you. Not just you, though.”
Nervous. Good. That made Clara relax, she had not noticed how tense she’d become until this moment. All the same, she kept her guard up. A crafty scavenger wanting to filch her would not be as boyish and nervous as this young man. Unless this was a clever act…
Regardless, Clara found herself unable to speak.
What’s wrong with you? Tink pinged and blipped. Haven’t you ever seen another human being before? You’re acting… odd. Odd for a human, I guess.
No, I’m acting like a sleeping road golem! He’s just a boy, Clara reminded herself. A boy like Clay. He probably hates conduits too.
That sobered Clara, like a bucket of cold water to the face.
“Um… yeah. Just me. Uncle Marty couldn’t make it today. He’s… under the weather.”
“Oh,” the salvager said, licking his lips with what Clara read as nervousness. “He’s your uncle? I didn’t—”
Clara shook her head. “Not really. He’s not, I mean.”
The salvager cocked an eyebrow.
“It’s a long story.”
Someone behind Clara cleared their throat. She noticed a pause in the barking of orders Slynt was issuing to his men. Slynt had not cursed or called any of the rowers a-son-of-a-broken-oar in nearly a minute. What? Was she putting on a show?
“Right, we should get along then,” she suggested, shaking herself mentally.
“It’ll be easier this way, just the two of us…” the salvager added, trying to smother that nervousness Clara had detected.
“Just the two of us”…? Clara nearly blushed. She hoped she wasn’t turning red. Last thing she needed was to resemble a red lobster caught for dinner.
Then the embarrassment turned to panic, and not in a good, flirty way either. That slimy feeling was slipping over her flesh again.
“That’s not… What I mean is…” The salvager cursed. He flipped his hood back up, as if to hide himself from her. He pulled the hood off again and issued a long sigh. “It’ll be easier to lead just you to the junk stash, that’s what I mean. We have to cross a couple flooded areas. You’re more fit than your…” Another curse.
Clara’s mouth curved into a gentle smile. He really is nervous too. Good.
“My name is Clara, by the way.” She offered her hand out to him.
The salvager let go the breath he’d been holding since she—thankfully—had interrupted him. For his sake, obviously. He ran a hand through his messy hair and then used it to shake the hand she proffered. “Roos. My name is Roos.”
Again someone cleared their throat. Manly giggling followed. Great. Clara indeed was giving the rowers a show.
“Oh, and I’ve got the money we owe you. What Marty and I owe you.” Business. Keep this about the business, Clara, she reminded herself. Another bucket of cold water would be nice right about now. “When I see the cache you’ll get the second half. Promise. I’ll make good on Marty’s promise, if the location is good.”
“Yeah, I almost forgot about the money.”
Funny. Me too.
Within five minutes of walking up the gangplank to Slynt’s river longboat, they were setting off across the three miles of river to the shores of Nork.
Wanna keep reading?! Turn the page to Chapter Ten.
© 2015 Clinton D. Harding, All Rights Reserved