Way of the Wolf
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The new center of the city is the railway station, where the more favored soldiers and technicians house themselves in a ring around the Grand Avenue Mall. A hobo jungle of casual labor lives around and under the spaghetti-strand warren of overpasses that make up the old Interstate 94/43 juncture. Two Kurian Lords run the city, one from the Grog-guarded 1950 bomb shelter under the FederalBuilding, and the other from Tory Hill on the grounds of MarquetteUniversity. The Miller Brewing Company is still in business, producing but a trickle of the pilsner torrent it once did. Under new management, of course.
Lake Michigan awed Valentine with its quiet majesty. It had nothing of the crashing drama of the ocean shoreline he knew from books. The expanse of water covering 180 degrees of the horizon in almost a north-south line impressed him nonetheless.
He and Randall Harper camped together north of White-fishBay. They had left Gonzalez in a secluded barn far outside the city limits with the horses after a cautious but uneventful crossing of southern Wisconsin. The only difficulty had been from a pack of guard dogs at a lonely farming settlement who chased them out of a field where they were stealing corn for the horses. The dogs contented themselves with barking rather than biting, and the Wolves had hurried back to their mounts without injury to anything but their dignity.
Now each night they stood behind a four-foot-tall, decorative stone wall in an overgrown park overlooking the lake, waiting for a boat from the White Banner Fleet to show three lights, one flickering, which they would answer with two.
"What exactly is this Flotilla?" Valentine asked his companion.
Harper, comfortably seated with his back to the stone wall, took a puff of one of the noxious cigarettes he smoked. "They're sympathetic to the Cause, even if they don't fight the Kurians tooth and nail. They're smugglers, gunrunners, traders. When they fight the Quislings, it's more because somebody got double-crossed, or they asked for too big a payoff. The Hoods hate going out into blue water, I'm told, so they leave it to the Quislings and some amphibian Grogs. Naturally the Quislings take bribes whenever they can get away with it. But the Flotilla always fights the Grogs whenever they get the chance. It's a real blood feud. I guess these Grogs are more partial to human flesh than most."
"Oh, I think I've heard of these. Big Mouths, Snappers, or whatever. They have jaws that open right to left, instead of up and down, right? Kind of fish-frog things?"
"Yep, slimy skin, like an eel. They're a problem in summer. They go dormant in winter. The real danger's in the spring, when they lay their eggs, you gotta keep away from the shores of the places they inhabit. They forage miles inland for food. They like the water a little shallower though, so they're not such a problem here. Up by Green Bay it's another story, though. And Lake Erie is stiff with them, they tell me."
Valentine thought of all the times that he had taken a boat out into the lakes of the Boundary Waters, collecting fish for dinner. Strange to think of fish emerging and hunting ashore. "So why does the Fleet carry our mail for us?"
"The Hunters in upstate New York give them guns and ammo, that's why. Rope, lumber, paint, turpentine, engines, gasoline-all sorts of stuff. We're lucky. We're just delivery boys; we don't have to worry about payoffs. But I got a little grease for the wheels in my bag; it's sort of expected."
Valentine shrugged. "Whatever it takes. You'd think they'd be on our side."
"They are, they are. In fact, I guarantee that you'll like 'em. Those sailors got a million stories. Of course, most of it's lies and brag, but it's still fun to listen to."
"I'll bet," Valentine said.
The next night the boat arrived. Valentine almost missed it, having wolf-trotted back to Gonzalez's barn to check on things at the main camp. Both the horses and his scout looked better for a few days' rest. Gonzalez had explored the area, finding some apple trees and rhubarb growing nearby. The scout had collected a basket of green apples and an armful of rhubarb, and was sharing his findings with the horses. "I saw some tomatoes near there, too. I'll get 'em tomorrow, sir," he reported.
"Just make sure you're not raiding somebody's field. We might end up dealing with something worse than dogs. I don't want any locals to suspect we're here."
"No tracks, no sign, and best of all, no Reapers," Gonzalez reassured him.
"I hope not. Sleep light. I'll take some apples back, if you have no objections, Mr. Bountiful," Valentine said, filling his pockets.
"Of course, Lieutenant. Give a few to the sarge with my compliments."
It was a tired lieutenant who returned to the overlook that evening, having covered fifteen miles on foot in the course of the day. Two hours after sunset, the three lights appeared on the dark lake.
"Thar she blows," Harper quoted, choosing a curious allusion. Valentine was mentally reciting two on the land and three in the sea, and I on the outskirts of Milwaukee will be.
Harper poured his flammable liquid on two piles of wood, twelve feet apart on the lakeside of the overlook wall, and set them ablaze. One light on the boat began winking on and off, as somebody opened and closed a hooded lantern.
"Are you satisfied it's them?" Harper asked.
"Yes," answered Valentine, trying to make out the lines of the little ship.
"Then let's go down to the beach, sir, and deliver the mail," Harper said, kicking out his fires.
The ship bobbed in the small swell of the lake. The waters of Lake Michigan did not roar as they struck the shoreline, but instead gently slapped it. The lake almost seemed playful on this idyllic summer evening, and something about the cool water in the warm evening breeze made Valentine forget the dangers of the night. The men waded out, weighed down with their waterproofed message bags, moccasins tied around their necks.
A tiny dinghy met them, its sides a bare sixteen inches out of the water.
"Climb in sideways," a boy's voice said from the stern. "You'll capsize me if you try to vault in."
The Wolves threw their packs into the dink and rolled into the little boat. It settled in the water appreciably with their added weight.
Valentine looked into the stern, at the figure with the paddle. What he had thought was a young boy was in fact a young woman dressed in shapeless white canvas. She had a round face and merry eyes, looking at her passengers over freckled cheekbones.
"Nice night, eh, boys? Captain Doss sends her compliments to the representatives of the OzarkFreeTerritory and invites you aboard the yawl White Lightning," she said, flashing an impressive set of teeth.
"The what White Lightning?" Valentine asked.
"Yawl," she repeated. "You know nothing of ships, soldier?"
"Not much," Valentine admitted.
"It's a little thing, but seaworthy as a porpoise. A ship not very different from ours made it around the world with only a single man on board. Over a hundred years ago, that was."
"Good to see you again... Teri, is it?" Harper said, contemplating his soaked deerskin breeches.
"I thought you looked familiar. Aaron... no, Randall Harper. Met you twice before, I recall. But I didn't see you this spring."
"I had the overland route. I don't want it again," Harper explained.
"Well, the captain will be glad to see you. So who's this with you?"
"Lt. David Valentine. He hails from Minnesota."
She reached over to shake Valentine's hand. "Pleased to know you, Lieutenant. Teri Silvertongue, first mate of the White Lightning. Will it be possible for you gentlemen to be joining us as guests this lovely evening?"
"I can't think of anything I'd like more, Miss Silver-tongue," Valentine said, imitating her courteous phraseology. He wondered if Silvertongue was a nickname.
"We go by Mr. in the flotilla, man or woman," Silvertongue corrected. "Just as you do in the Wolves. Will you take an oar, sir?"
"I beg your pardon, Mr. Silvertongue. Sergeant Harper here didn't tell me the ship had a female crew, let alone how you expected to be addressed. Likes to keep a good thing to himself, I guess," Valentine explained, shooting a glance at Harper. He paddled for the white blob outside the gentle surf.
"Oh, there's plenty of men in the Flotilla," Silvertongue explained. "The commodore of our fleet just has a soft spot in her heart for any woman with a sad tale. It's the only soft spot she has; the woman has steel in her backbone and flint in her heart in all other matters excepting her 'poor foundlings," as she calls us. But yes, it's three women on the Lightning. But it beats life on land. The Capos just want us for breeding stock, and their gunbelt lackeys seem to think they have the right to get the job started on any girl who tickles their fancy."
"Capos?" Valentine asked.
"That's what we call the Reapers out east, handsome boy."
The dinghy reached the ship, and Valentine got a good look at the White Lightning. Her lines had kind of an off-balanced beauty, with an oversize central mast set well forward and a smaller, secondary mast projecting from far astern.
Captain Doss wore a smart white semi-uniform to greet her guests. The captain had beautiful, dusky skin and the angular features of a storybook pirate queen. Her short black hair matched even Valentine's own mane in its glossy sheen.
A third woman, who helped Valentine and Harper into the White Lightning, stood over six feet tall and had the long, graceful limbs of a ballerina. "Give me the bags up," she said perfunctorily, and Valentine realized he had heard a foreign accent for the first time in his life.
Once on board, the White Lightning seemed smaller than it had looked from the dinghy. It was wide-waisted; the top of what was obviously the cabin area filled the middle third of the ship. It had a wheel to steer it-someone had spent a lot of hours carving and polishing the spokes-placed in front of the rear mast. All the woodwork, save the planks of the deck and the decorative wheel, was painted a uniform light gray.
The captain introduced her crew. "You've met my first mate, Mr. Silvertongue. My second mate, who works so hard I don't need any more crew, is Eva Stepanicz. She crossed the Atlantic four round trips before ending up in the Lakes."
"It will be more times, once I have goods enough for my own ship," she said.
"You mean gold enough?" Harper asked.
"No, sir. Goods. In Riga is agent of tradings, who pays most for paintings brought back from America. I anf here collecting arts."
The captain smiled. "It's hard not to indulge someone so determined. And she's a hard bargainer. I don't know a Picasso from an espresso, but I think our Mr. Stepanicz has enough to start a gallery."
"But I'm forgetting my manners," Harper said, reaching into his haversack. "Captain, compliments of my last trip through Tennessee," he said, handing over a pair of elabo-rately wrapped and sealed bottles of liquor. In the muted light, Valentine couldn't read the black labels, but they looked authentic.
"Sergeant Harper, you just bought us a new coat of paint, and maybe some standing rigging. My thanks to you, sir."
Harper pointed to the three bags of correspondence. "You'll also find a box of cigars for each of you in those bags. If you don't smoke them yourselves, a little good tobacco helps grease the Quisling wheels, I believe."
"You southern gentlemen are too kind. I wish those Green Mountain Boys would show the same courtesy," Silvertongue said, with a curtsey involving her overbaggy trousers.
"Enough playacting," Captain Doss interrupted. "I'd like to be anchored off Adolph's Bunker by midnight. You Wolves want to pay a call on Milwaukee? Get a little taste of life in the KZ?"
"We're always interested in the Kurian Zone. But would that be wise, Captain?" Valentine asked.
"Well, Lieutenant, the pathfinder look would have to go. But we've got some extra whites in the slop chest. The Bunker's a rough spot, but I've never heard of the Reapers going in there. The owner never makes trouble; in fact, I've heard he turns troublemakers over to them. I'd like a little extra muscle showing for the deal we need to do. I'll make it worth your while."
Valentine thought for a moment. "Is this deal anything the New Order would object to?"
"If they knew about it, Lieutenant," Doss said, looking at the wind telltale. The tiny streamer fluttered east. "You might say we're fucking with the Quislings."
"Count us in, then."
An hour later, the yawl tacked into Milwaukee's harbor. A single decrepit police boat, piloted by a Quisling whose sole badge of rank was a grimy blue shirt, motored alongside and illuminated the White Lightning with a small spotlight.
Captain Doss held up a hand and flashed a series of hand signals that would have done a third-base coach proud. The Quisling nodded, satisfied.
"Just arranging what you might call the port charges," Doss explained to Valentine. The Wolves now wore white canvas shirts and trousers, as well. While more tattered than the mates' uniforms, they still found it a pleasant change from sweat-stained buckskins. During the run south, Valentine had questioned the captain about the Lakes Flotilla and its habits, and had learned a little about how the sails were balanced. Valentine sponged information off anyone he met, his mind always ready to learn something new.
They pulled up to the main civic pier, a cracked concrete affair that sloped toward Lake Michigan at a twenty-degree angle. Valentine noticed that the captain pivoted as she brought the ship in so that its bow pointed out to the lake.
"The Kurians aren't too big on infrastructure repairs," Sil-vertongue commented as she tied the White Lightning to the dock. A few boats, none of which matched Captain Doss's in lines or upkeep, bobbed along the pier.
"Stepanicz, you've got the first anchor watch. Don't give me that look; after the deal, I'll take over for you. If we're not back in two hours, or if anything goes down, you raise sail. There's a good wind for it tonight."
"Aye, aye, sir," she answered, drawing a sawed-off shotgun from the chart locker. She broke it open and inserted two loads of buckshot.
"And if our broad-shouldered young men would each grab one of the barrels lashed to the mast in the cabin-Silver, help Mr. Valentine with the knots, would you-we can be about the rest of this night's business."
Adolph's Bunker looked like a transplant from the Maginot Line. Whatever its original purpose, its builders had wanted it to last. They constructed it from heavy concrete, with narrow windows imitative of a castle's arrow slits. The bleached white of the concrete and the irregular rectangular slits gave it the countenance of a toothy skull. It lay on the lakeshore, set well away from the dead and empty buildings frowning behind.
"Why is it called Adolph's Bunker?" Valentine asked as they approached the squat, brick-shaped building. The ten-gallon cask grew heavier with each step.
"The guy who runs it is a dictator, for starts," Captain Doss said.
Silvertongue turned and looked at the men, each laboring with a cask on his shoulder. "There's a feeling about the place. It's a piece of sanity in an insane country. Or maybe a slightly different insanity within the insanity, take your pick. It's popular with the Quislings. When we found out we had to meet you this week, we contacted a Chicago big shot, so we could kill two birds with one stone this trip."
"As long as our bags get delivered," Valentine said, trying not to breathe too hard under his awkward burden.
"This trade will make getting your bags through a lot easier," Doss said.
The building seemed hollow and dead as a shucked oyster. Valentine surmised that the clientele liked to do their drinking in dark and quiet, when he realized that music, too loud to be the product of any instrument, was filtering up from somewhere beneath the building. He switched to hard ears and listened to the beat of ancient rock and roll and the gabble of voices echo up from a stairwell. Captain Doss turned to a set of narrow concrete steps that disappeared along the side of the building down into the earth. A knobless metal door opened out onto a small landing. Doss squatted down and said something into the hole. It swung open.
As he descended the stairs, Valentine plastered a drunken smile across his face, trying to live up to his role of eager sailor. The captain entered, nodding to someone. Valentine looked at Harper, and the two Wolves exchanged shrugs. Sil-vertongue turned to the men. "Don't worry, they're going to frisk you for weapons and smokes. Just put your hands on the wall and read the sign."
A Grog roughly the size of a Volkswagen Beetle barred their way. Over its yard-wide shoulder Valentine watched the captain and then her mate being frisked and sniffed by a dog-man right out of an H. G. Wells nightmare. When it finished with Silvertongue, the smelly roadblock at the door stepped aside and Valentine passed into the noise of the Bunker.
He mimicked Silvertongue's stance, placing his feet twice his shoulder width apart and putting his hands to either side of a sign, stenciled in paint onto another concrete wall just inside the door. To Valentine's left, a sumo-size man sat inside a wire cage, idly scratching his stubble with a Saturday night submachine gun.
As the dog-man gave him the once over, Valentine read the stenciled letters: the rules adolph's word is law no smoking anything we didn't sell you no drinking, unless it's ours you're only as good as your barter you're only as bad as we let you be VISIT OUR GIFT SHOP CONFUSED? SEE RULE 1
Valentine retrieved his keg and joined the women. He looked around the bar, trying to avoid staring like a corn-fed hick fresh off the back forty. Electric light and noise overwhelmed him. Prerecorded music played by machine was a rare treat to Valentine, and he gaped at the source. A box of neon and chrome against one cinderblock wall blared CD Selection & Sound, as the reflective lettering on the glass proclaimed. A bar almost filled the wall opposite the jukebox, and a mismatched assortment of tables, booths, and benches stood about the sawdust-covered floor. The base of a flush toilet peeped from beneath a curtain in the corner farthest from the bar. A sour-smelling urinal next to it trickled water down the wall and into the soggy shavings beneath. An alcove, separated from the rest of the room by a layer of wire netting similar to the guard-cage at the door, advertised itself as CURRENCY EXCHANGE-GIFT SHOP-MANAGEMENT.
He was relieved to see the rest of the occupants of the Bunker were human, albeit a poor genetic cross section. Two bartenders stood only a hair shorter and slimmer than the Grog at the door, stuffed like a pair of pointy-headed sausages into red T-shirts with black lettering reading the bunker. A desiccated weed of a man in a green visor sat behind a desk in the alcove-cage, smoking a cigarette from a long black holder. Gliding between the tables, laden tray miraculously balanced as she dodged and weaved, a nimble barhop waited on the customers. Clad only in a Bunker logoed baseball cap, bikini top, and a thong, she looked the happiest of anyone in the room. Valentine ran a quick estimate in his head and decided her hat contained more material, and covered a higher percentage of her body, than everything else she wore com-bined-high heels included. The patrons, dressed in ill-fitting black-and-tan fatigues or blue merchant marine overalls, drank, talked, and smoked in huddled groups.
The captain led her little party in single file to the Currency Exchange-Gift Shop-Management cage.
"Why, if it isn't the White Lightning herself come to pay me a visit," the gnome croaked, cigarette clenched between yellowed teeth. "And Teri Silvertongue! Ahhh, missy, what I wouldn't give to be young again! Any time you get sick of high seas and low wages, you just come see me."
"Thanks for the offer, Ade," Silvertongue said, exposing her rack of teeth in a forced smile. "But I catch cold kind of easy."
Captain Doss stepped up to the slot midway up the cage and placed a small leather pouch on the owner's desk. "Brought you some makings for your coffin nails, Ade. Do me a favor and die quick, would you?"
Til outlive you, Dossie. You got a couple new hands?" The owner ran his eyes quickly up and down Harper and Valentine, perhaps assessing their creditworthiness or potential as troublemakers.
"Just a little extra muscle for this run. Speaking of which, has the Duke arrived yet?"
"Take my advice, Cap. Slow down and enjoy life a little. But yeah, his party is in the card room. You buyin' for your crew, or are you gonna pull another Captain Bligh like last time?"
Doss shook her head. "After the deal, Ade, after the deal." She gestured to the other three, and they filed toward a door next to the long wooden bar. Valentine counted three casks and some thirty-odd bottles of assorted poison, all unlabeled. He watched one Quisling, crossed rifles of a captain on his epaulets, purchase a shot and a beer chaser by placing a pair of bullets on the bar. The Quisling tossed off the shot, face contorted as though he had poured an ounce of nitric acid down his throat.
Valentine tried not to think about the fact that he stood in a room with thirty people, each of whom could win a brass ring by turning him over alive to the Reapers.
Doss knocked on the door marked private. It opened a crack, and half of an ebony face looked at her through a narrowed eye. The door shut again, but just for a moment.
The guard opened the door, and the crew entered a spacious, well-ventilated room. Three men and a woman sat around a felt-covered table. Cards and chips lay before three of the players; the fourth, a man, only watched. Valentine's eyes were drawn to him by his outlandish clothing if for no other reason.
The Duke of Rush wore a red uniform heavily trimmed with gold braid. Half high school marching band outfit and half toreador costume, it gaudily set off his pale skin and black hair. A brass ring, the first Valentine had ever seen, hung from a golden chain around his neck. Bored blue eyes stared up at the crew of the White Lightning.
The Duke's male henchmen wore the simple navy-blue battle dress of Chicago Quislings, and the card-playing woman an elegant blue cocktail dress glittering with real gemstones. No guns were evident, but the black man who opened the door toyed with a butterfly knife, opening and shutting it with quick flicks of the wrist.
"Captain, we expected you hours ago," the Duke said in an educated accent. "You know how I hate it when my own parties start late. What were you up to, running guns to insurgents?"
Doss let a simper mask her face. "No, trying to find some-thing to wear. You always make such an entrance. I decided it would be better to let you enter first."
"You don't need to dress for this dive, Captain. The only reason I'm wearing my best is that the purported reason for this trip is social. I spent the day calling on the Kur here and arranging beer trucks for Chicago. But our business is going to be much more lucrative. May we see the merchandise?"
The black man put aside his butterfly knife long enough to push a chair forward for Doss. She sat. "Put the bills on the table, and you'll see it," she said.
The Duke gestured to a lieutenant, who opened a leather satchel and drew out a sheaf of papers. Captain Doss pulled out a magnifying glass and went through the pages one at a time, examining the wax seals covering printed red-and-blue tape.
"Eight firearm permits, good," she counted to herself. "Five labor vouchers... twelve supply vouchers, sixteen... eighteen... twenty passports. Three dockyard releases... Hey, wait a second. The dockyard releases aren't signed and sealed, my friend!"
The Duke smiled. "Sorry, Captain. An oversight on my part. I'll make it up to you next time, okay?"
"Afraid not. We're keeping a bag. You want it, get these filled out properly, and you can have it," she said firmly.
"Oh, very well. Have it your way, Captain. We'll take one bag less now, and I'll see if I can get the sign-offs for your next run. Though it breaks my heart that you don't trust me. Now bring out the snuff, and we'll see if your color is worth all this."
Valentine and Harper, on cue, placed their barrels in front of Silvertongue, who popped the lids with a knife of her own. It was full of clumps of brown sugar. She upended the barrels one at a time and dumped the sugar on the floor. Glass test tubes filled with white powder soon emerged from the sugar. She gathered up two dozen tubes and placed them among the cards and chips on the table.
Captain Doss took two of the tubes and pocketed them.
The Duke wiped his mouth eagerly. "Test it, my dear." -The woman in the cocktail dress pulled a vial of clear liquid from her small handbag. She uncorked one of the tubes, licked a toothpick and coated it with the powder, then stirred it in the vial, which turned an azure blue.
"They don't call me the Duke of Rush for nothing," the Duke quipped. Valentine forced a laugh, but the captain and her mate ignored him.
"Can I take the bills now?" the captain asked.
"Of course, Captain. But I think this calls for a celebration. The drinks are on the Duke tonight, and your crew is invited, of course."
Doss rose from her chair. "Sorry, Duke. You know how I get when I'm away from my ship."
"I should be going, too. Maybe next time," Silvertongue said, bringing crestfallen expressions to the Quislings.
Harper patted Valentine on the shoulder. "Duty calls."
"It's not calling that loudly," Valentine demurred. "Captain, may I stay for a while?"
Captain Doss shot him a questioning glance. "Just be back by dawn. And I mean dawn, Tiny, because we sail with first light with or without you."
"Thank you, Captain. I'll be there."
"Finally one of your little flock shows some sense, Doss." The Duke laughed as the other sailors exited. "Ask anyone in Chicago, no one parties like the Duke. What's your name, son?"
"Dave, Mr. Duke. Dave Tiny."
The Duke clapped him on the back. "Glad to meet you, Tiny. I'm always making friends with traveling people, never know when they'll show up with something worth trading."
A knock sounded at the door.
"Duke, it's your other appointment," Butterfly Knife said.
"Oh, yeah. Tiny, you keep quiet; you might find this interesting. You'll see something you won't see sailing with Doss, that's for sure. I need to get a little dispute resolved."
The man with the butterfly knife opened the door, and two neatly dressed men and a woman entered.
"Thanks for the invite to the party, Duke," the tallest of the three said. Valentine noted he wore a wide brass ring similar to the Duke's, on his finger rather than on a chain.
"Good you could make it, Hoppy," the Duke said with a smile-snarl. "You seemed kind of preoccupied during my business call. Thought you might be tired of my company."
Valentine felt a shiver, but it had nothing to do with the nasty glint in the Duke's eye. There were Reapers outside. He thought of making up an excuse to leave, but decided to obey the Duke's order to remain silent.
"Glad you brought your assistant, but you didn't have to bring the muscle, Hoppy. This is just a friendly social gathering.
"Gail Allenby takes care of my professional life," Hoppy said. "Andersen here is responsible for the physical one. He uses a knife just as well in the kitchen as in an alley, by the way. I'll have you over for dinner tomorrow and prove it."
"I trust the cutlery will be well washed," the Duke responded. "Thanks for the offer, but I have to get back to Chicago. We need to get something straightened out, Hoppy. When it's done, you might not want to honor that invite anyway."
Someone screamed in the main part of the bar, and Valentine heard chairs tip over. Butterfly Knife opened the door again, and a Reaper entered the room, glancing around with wary yellow eyes. A muscular man in a sleeveless shirt followed. Then a female figure-at least, it appeared female to Valentine-slowly came in. She wore a black-and-gold woven robe and a heavy hood, her face hidden behind a shining mask. The mask was decorated only by a narrow eye slit; the rest was silvery, polished mirror-bright. She did not so much walk as float across the floor on legs unseen under the robe; Valentine heard no footsteps as she moved. A second Reaper remained at the open door, its back to the room, facing the rapidly emptying bar.
"Thank you for coming, Lord Yuse-Uth," the Duke said, his face calm and serious.
Valentine looked at Hoppy, who seemed to have lost three inches and twenty pounds since the Reaper and its Master Vampire had entered. He focused all his attention on the blanching man, hoping the Kurian would not probe his thoughts.
"Lord, what need brings You here?" Hoppy stammered.
"I asked Her to be present," the Duke said. "You've been cheating me, Hopps."
"Past couple months I've been noticing our beer running dry a lot. We opened up some kegs, found plastic balls inside. Not many, but enough to skim off ten percent or so. I had my men spill a keg after we made our purchase today: balls again."
Hoppy, who was apparently the factory manager, thought for a moment. "Maybe someone at the brewery is up to something. I had no knowledge of this, Duke. I'll make it up to you."
"I'm withholding payment. You've got ten percent less bodies coming north this shipment, and another ten percent less for the previous two." The Duke turned to Kurian. "With winter coming on, that's going to be fifty, sixty less auras for the Milwaukee Families, my Lord."
The man in the sleeveless shirt spoke. "Lord Yuse-Uth says that the brewery will make it up next year. Her need is for the full allotment of auras."
"I don't like to say no to a Lord," the Duke said, "but my own Lords may have some say in the matter. Does She want a faction-war? That'd cost Her more. I'll split the difference, twenty-five fewer auras and you can make it up to me next year."
The mirrored face turned to look at the Duke. "Agreed. The ring is revoked." Valentine was not sure if the grating voice came from the mask or between his ears.
The Reaper grabbed Hoppy's arm and reached for the ring on the third finger of his right hand. It took the ring, pulling off the finger as well with a sickening snap of tearing cartilage. Hoppy screamed. His bodyguard stood frozen, staring in awe at the Reaper.
"He is no longer under Lord Yuse-Uth's protection," the Kurian's speaker said, watching Hoppy try to squeeze off the blood flowing from the pulpy mass where the digit had been. "Allenby, you are now the brewery manager. Lord Yuse-Uth trusts your deliveries will be complete. Perhaps in time you will wear this very ring."
The woman gulped, stepping away from her former supervisor. "Thank You, my Lord," she quavered. "Andersen, your contract with Mr. Hoppy is terminated. We will talk tomorrow about your future with the brewery. Think about it."
"Y-yes ma'am," Andersen said, his hands trembling.
"Dammit, I had nothing to do with shorting the shipments," Hoppy swore.
"Lord Yuse-Uth thanks you for bringing this matter to Her attention," the speaker said, turning to the Duke. "She looks forward to continued good relations and trade with Her Brethren in Chicago."
"I appreciate Her Lordship's time," the Duke said.
The Kurian, her speaker, and the Reapers departed, and Valentine found himself able to breathe again.
"Responsibility demands performance, Hoppy," the Duke said. "Personally, I think you were cheating me." The Duke looked at the man with the butterfly knife. "Make him shorter. Permanently."
Valentine watched, his face as passive as the Kurian's mask, as the man with the knife knocked Hoppy to the floor. He savagely hamstrung the screaming man, cutting the tendons at the back of his victim's knees.
"Guess they'll call you Crawly now," the Duke said. "Ms. Allenby, take that trash out with you as you leave. Dump him with the other garbage on the dock. I'll talk to you in the morning and see what kind of understanding we can come to."
None of the Duke's companions looked particularly upset as the brewery people dragged the bleeding, weeping wretch outside. The Duke's craggy face split into a smile.
"Party time. Go get a bottle of something decent, Palmers. And a couple cases of Miller, in sealed bottles. I'm going to get rolling on some of this white gold. Join me, Denise?"
She smiled and reached again into her purse for a mirror. "Tested high blue. Dukey? You bet your ring I am."
Twenty-odd beers, three bottles, and multiple toots later, the Quislings and Valentine were closing down the Bunker. Still behind the wire, Adolph counted out most of the contents of the Duke's purse. One bartender remained. A passed-out merchant marine was being dragged outside, and the waitress sat in the bodyguard's lap. Her bikini top rested on the closed eyes of Butterfly Knife, who had downed almost a whole bottle of the unlabeled house busthead. Behind the toilet curtain, Denise's shapely ankles with the blue dress around them twitched in time to the music. Valentine, who had drunk only a little booze while appearing to drink a lot, sat on the sawdust floor with his back to the jukebox, leaning up against the Duke.
Valentine had discovered a passion in the Duke for bad jokes and dirty songs. The ringholder had announced earlier in the evening, "This bar reminds me of what happens when you cross a German with an Irishman: you get someone too drunk to follow orders." After that the Wolf had dredged his brain for every mossy old chestnut he could remember from his early teens to barracks life. Finally, in keeping with his nautical disguise, he taught the Duke of Rush all the lines he could remember of 'The Good Ship Venus."
"The cabin boy, the cabin boy, the dirty little nipper I Put ground glass inside his ass and circumcised the skipper," the Duke sang with him, giggling at the end of each verse.
Eva Stepanicz rested in the arms of the other Quisling, there more to keep an eye on Valentine per the captain's orders than to enjoy herself. A small tower of empties stood next to her, begun when she returned to the bar to find out what had transpired during the Kurian visit. She possessed an almost magical power over liquor, making her the choice for this particular assignment. She pushed the man's face away from her, directing his beer-fumed breath toward the floor.
The bartender returned from dumping the merchant marine, escorting First Mate Silvertongue.
"Okay, Tiny, on your feet. Day's breaking, and the captain wants you and Stepanicz back."
Stepanicz climbed to her feet with a relieved sigh.
Valentine looked up at the first mate from beneath his red Bunker T-shirt, worn pharaoh-style on his head. "C'mon, Silver. No reason she can't wait another hour or two. Shove off," he slurred, more from fatigue than alcohol.
"Stepanicz, let's get him up," Silvertongue ordered. The two women each took an arm and pulled Valentine to his feet. Valentine winked at Silvertongue.
"I said shove off!" he shouted, startling the Quislings from their slumber. Valentine grabbed a head of hair in each hand and seemingly knocked their heads together. He arranged it so his hands absorbed most of the impact.
And so began a semidrunken three-way brawl that brought even the passed-out Denise from her toilet-seat nap. The men roared approval every time Valentine knocked one of the women on her ass, and the two females ringside cheered whenever Stepanicz or Silvertongue landed a punch. The bare-breasted barhop had placed her pinkies in her mouth and produced a piercing whistle when Stepanicz brought the fight to a close with a powerful, accurate, and all-too-realistic kick in the proper place. Valentine folded like the Quisling's butterfly knife and dropped to the ground.
The Duke of Rush staggered to his feet, absently brushing sawdust from his garish uniform. He knelt next to Valentine and helped his groin-gripping drinking buddy sit up.
"Better get back to your ship, Tiny. Guess they weren't tiny enough, heh?"
Valentine managed a pained smile.
"Look, next time you port in Chicago, look me up. I'm pretty much in charge of R and R, that's rest and relaxation, you know, for those wise enough to join up with the Kurians. My place is above a group of bars called the Clubs Flush. On Rush Street, it's easy to find 'cause it's the part of the city lit up at night, unless you count the Zoo. I cater to the creme de la creme of Chicago society, you understand. Following orders from these bitches every day, I bet you and that other guy are about dying to get laid. I'll get you some on the house, okay?"
"Thanks, Duke," Valentine said, adjusting his trousers.
"You're my kind of people, Davy. And," he added, more softly in Valentine's ear, "if you can tie up to the big pier with another load of the white stuff as good as this, I'll see to it that even if you dock a swabbie, you'll sail out a captain, you know what I mean? Just stop in and see me first, at the Clubs Flush, like I said. I'll treat you right."
Valentine massaged his aching groin. "Thanks for the tip, sir."
With Silvertongue on one side and Stepanicz on the other, Valentine marched back to the ship, exhausted.
"What was all that about, Valentine?" Silvertongue asked as they climbed back on board. "Why were you toadying up to that ring-carrying clown?"
"He's a powerful man where he comes from. Sometimes just knowing the name of someone with that kind of influence can come in handy."
Later that morning, the White Lightning landed Harper and Valentine on a deserted stretch of beach north of where they first rendezvoused.
"Sorry for the kick," Stepanicz said, shaking Valentine's hand. "No hard feelings?"
"No, 't don't think it'll be feeling, hard for a while," Valentine answered. "But thanks for asking."
The captain presented them each with a fifth of rum brought all the way from Jamaica. "And the Lakes Flotilla is always willing to help you out," she said, handing them each a card with her name written on it in elegant calligraphy. "You can always tell a Flotilla ship because the word white is in the name somehow. Or a foreign version of white: blanc, weiss, something like that. Just give them this card, and tell them I owe you a favor."
"Thanks, Captain Doss," Harper said.
"Your servant, ma'am," Valentine added.
Each Wolf shouldered a bag of dispatches addressed to Southern Command. As they hopped out of the dinghy, again wetting their feet in the waters of Lake Michigan, the weight of their rifles brought home the seriousness of the journey back.
"Should we tell Gonzo about all this?" Harper asked.
"Why?" Valentine said, responding with a twinkle in his eye. "He just missed a boring evening with some sailors. And what he doesn't know won't piss him off. But I'll make it up to him. He can have my Bunker souvenir T-shirt."