Though Hell Should Bar The Way – Snippet 14

Woetjans kneaded her pectoral muscles with her fingers and looked sideways at me. “Sorry,” she muttered in apparent embarrassment. “I took some slugs a couple years ago and they tighten up when they get cold.”

I said, “I’d been thinking that a jacket might have been a good plan. We could go back?”

“Bloody hell, no,” the bosun said.

The chandleries along Water Boulevard were separated from one another by bars and brothels. We’d left the ship long enough behind the main liberty group that the prostitutes were back out on the sidewalk in strength.

Woetjans moved slightly ahead of me and cleared a path — less brutally than I’d feared, but thoroughly nonetheless. “Move along, girls,” she said, though none that I saw were girls and not all were even female. “We’re on business now, maybe later.”

She paused in front of the next chandlery where the walk was clear and said, “Unless you’d like to stop in, sir? I didn’t mean to — ”

“Good heavens, no,” I said, genuinely shocked at the notion. The whores here were the equivalent of the air above the slip when we’d just landed: real beyond question, but with no other virtues that I could see.

“I think Apex is the next one,” I said and moved up beside Woetjans again. We entered the business together.

I felt at home. Dad had worked his way up through chandleries; some of my earliest memories were of riding on my dad’s shoulder through places like Apex Outfitters.

The clerk behind the counter was reading an illustrated paper. He looked up, eyed us, and went back to his paper. He was about my age, but possibly younger.

“Good afternoon,” I said. No one else was in the store that I could see, though someone could be walking among the racks of goods. “We need to speak with the person in charge.”

“That’s me,” said the youth. He put his paper down but eyed us without enthusiasm. “What d’ye need?”

I thought for a moment, then said, “Come along, Woetjans. If this person is in charge, we need to go elsewhere. Blakesley Brothers was the next firm on my list.”

I wasn’t shouting, but I pitched my voice to be heard in the office to the right behind the counter. Its door was ajar and a light was on inside.

Woetjans turned to go, but I put a hand on her shoulder. As I expected, the office door opened and a man of fifty-odd came out. His hairline was receding, making him look older than he was.

“Sir?” he called to me. “Can I help you?” To the clerk he added, “I’ll handle this, Amos.”

“But you said…” the youth whined.

Both the older man and I ignored him. I said, “I have a list of purchases to bring our ship up to RCN spec. I’d like to discuss quantities and pricing with you.”

“I’m Artur Ferrante,” the older man said, opening a gate in the counter. “If you’ll come this way, we can discuss it in my office.”

There were two straight chairs before the cluttered desk. One had a caddie of electronic files on it, but I lifted them off and put them on the floor behind me. That left the other chair open for Woetjans, but she stood by a file cabinet instead.

Ferrante latched the door firmly and sat down behind the desk. “My wife’s nephew,” he said in a low voice. “I was hoping that he’d come along a little faster than he has.”

“He won’t unless he changes his attitude,” I said, “but that’s not my problem. We’re here to outfit the Sunray properly. We’re an RCN crew carrying a Cinnabar trade delegation to Saguntum in a chartered vessel. This is the first leg, and there are significant deficiencies to correct.”

Ferrante brought up the workstation at his desk. “What in particular are you looking for?” he said. “I think we’ll be able to handle your requests.”

I know you will, I thought. But you may not like the price I’m offering.

I read off the items on the list which the Chief of Rig and Chief of Ship — Woetjans and Pasternak — had prepared. Ferrante entered the items and quantities.

When I got to the end of the list, I said, “I mentioned that we were on a trade mission. If it’s as successful as I expect it to be, there will be much more commercial traffic between Cinnabar and Saguntum than there is at present. There will also be increased RCN traffic, though of course that depends on many factors.”

Ferrante smiled and nodded. “Apex Outfitters will be delighted to serve their needs with high-quality merchandise,” he said.

He cleared his throat and looked down at his display. “I find the total of your current order to be — ”

He paused and looked up. “Would you like the figure in florins or would you prefer another currency?”

“Florins are fine,” I said. “If I may ask you a question, Master Ferrante? Are you the owner or the manager of Apex?”

“I’m the sole owner,” Ferrante said. His eyes had narrowed slightly. “I married the founder’s daughter, but I’ve built the business up considerably since then.”

“Excellent,” I said. “Go on.”

“As I was saying,” Ferrante said, “in florins, the total is eight-seven hundred and I’ll knock off a hundred for the new relationship.”

I nodded and said, “I’m offering sixty-one hundred.”


“Incidentally, this will be in the form of a draft of the Shippers’ and Merchants’ Treasury” — I’d checked while I was putting together the proposal — “rather than RCN scrip. It allows you a fair profit on every item, and I’ve included the ten percent surcharge that I would have paid to a manager as an expediter’s fee.”

“You were planning to bribe me?” Ferrante said.

“I was prepared to bribe a manager,” I said. “I’m glad I didn’t have to. And I point out, not only is the price fair, it really will lead to increased business for you when I make my report in Cinnabar.”

“I’ll decide if the price is fair,” Ferrante muttered as he went over the figures on his display. I glanced at Woetjans, who looked stunned. She didn’t even meet my eyes.

After a moment Ferrante looked up. “Maybe that’s what they call fair on Cinnabar,” he growled. “But I suppose I can live with it.”

He suddenly laughed. “Say, you wouldn’t like to jump ship and come work for me, would you?”

I smiled back as I got to my feet. “Thank you, sir, but no,” I said. “There’ll be a credit chip in the full amount waiting at the Sunray when the order is delivered.”

The sun was low as Woetjans and I returned to the boulevard. I was feeling extremely good for the first time in a long while.

The first time since Dad shot himself.