The Whiskey Sea

By: Ann Howard Creel

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.”

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