Though Hell Should Bar The Way – Snippet 18

“And I get the bill!” said Woetjans. She didn’t exactly shout, but her voice from just behind — and above — me made me jump.

“Lucinda will seat you, madame and master,” said the headwaiter. His smile was a little wider; and I thought it had become real.

He thinks I’m Woetjans’ gigolo, I realized.

We followed a pert young woman — a slightly younger, female edition of the headwaiter — to a booth at the back. “Sorry, kid,” Woetjans muttered. “Hope I didn’t embarrass you. I just didn’t want you to forget what I said.”

“Of course you didn’t embarrass me,” I lied. “But I’ve looked at the prices, and I guarantee I could handle it.”

“Yeah, well, you’re not going to,” Woetjans said, taking the opposite side of the booth after I slid onto a bench. “I’ve made plenty in prizes, serving as bosun to Six. And I pissed away some of it, sure — I’ve got three sisters, all of ’em married and none of the husbands worth the powder to blow ’em away.”

She grinned. “I kept some for myself, though. You bet your ass I did.”

The server made the usual offers. I didn’t know enough about local food to make a competent choice, so I chose the peppered ragfish special — it sounded interesting, so why not? — and a glass of the house white.

Woetjans ordered the same, only she’d drink gin with a peppermint candy. To my amazement the server was no more surprised by that than she had been by my wine. I was broadening my horizons, though Woetjans’ choice wasn’t a taste I expected to cultivate myself.

“Two questions, Woetjans,” I said as we waited for our drinks. I was raising my voice a little to be heard over the other diners and the bustle of servers. The bar on one side of the building was already crowded.

“Shoot,” she said.

“What’s your first name?” I said. “I’m Roy, but ‘kid’ works fine.”

“I guess you’re going to stay ‘kid,'” Woetjans said. “That’s just how you come through. I’m sorry, I guess, but you just do.”

“That’s the breaks,” I said. “There’s worse. But your name?”

“I’m Ellie,” Woetjans said, “but nobody but my family calls me that. Blood family, I mean. With the Sissies, I’m ‘Chief.'”

She threw her shoulders back on the bench. “Two questions, you said. What’s the other?”

“What the bloody hell do you want from me?” I said, not letting my voice change from when I asked her name.

Woetjans looked blank for a moment; then she began laughing. Her laughter was loud enough — and harsh enough — that people were turning to look at our booth.

The drinks came. Woetjans downed half her gin, then smiled at me.

“Okay, kid,” she said. “I want to know what you’re doing here. You’re not like anybody I’ve seen before. Just tell me what you’re up to.”

“You want it straight?” I said. “I was in the Academy, but my dad was Dean Olfetrie. He was bribing politicians and Navy House bureaucrats to rob the RCN blind. So I dropped out of the Academy, did some scut work, and took the first decent job I was offered. Which was by Captain Leary, who brought me here.”

I sucked my lips in, then said, “Are you shocked? Want me to buy my own dinner now?”

“I guess your old man isn’t the first crooked outfitter I’ve heard of,” Woetjans said. “The cable you replaced the first day out was from a reel marked with the right size, but there was a ring around the hub to make up for the cable’s smaller diameter.”

She drank again, then thought about it and emptied the glass. She held it high, which I took as a silent request for a refill. “Go on, kid,” she said.

“Maybe it was Dad doing so much work with the RCN,” I said. “I don’t know. Both Junior and I wanted to be RCN officers, though. He was killed at New Harmony.”

I frowned as I tried to focus my mind on a past that had changed completely since my father’s death. “Look,” I said. “I know I don’t seem like an RCN officer, but I could’ve been one.”

I was trying to put words to things I’d thought for years but hadn’t been willing to say even to myself — because it’d seem like whining. “My brother had the look, I know what you mean,” I said. “He partied and he was everybody’s drinking buddy — and if you passed out trying to drink along with him, he’d pull your girlfriend sure as lead sinks. But my navigation was better than Junior’s and I could take him apart on the tactical simulator, even when I was twelve and he was an Academy graduate!”

The server did indeed arrive with a gin, and a peppermint candy that Woetjans cracked with the back of a spoon. The bosun put half in her cheek and sipped at her drink. She said, “Barnes said you did a good job rerigging Dorsal B.”

I shrugged. “Barnes and Dasi could’ve done the job in half the time,” I said. “I’ve watched them work.”

Woetjans smiled broadly. The server, arriving with our meals, shied back, though I’m not sure she had anything to do with Woetjans’ expression.

“Barnes and Dasi’ve been working rigging for a long time,” Woetjans said. “Either one could be bosun on a cruiser if he wanted to. Besides, Barnes was laying back to see how you’d handle the job.”

“You could be on a battleship, Ellie,” I said. “Why aren’t you?”

Woetjans laughed again. “I been on a battleship,” she said. She cut a big bite of fish, guiding it to her mouth with both fork and the tip of her knife. “My first tour as an able spacer was on the Renown. Didn’t like it worth a damn — seemed like the admiral was always looking over my shoulder. Transferred to destroyers, then got a slot as bosun’s mate on a courier ship — the Aglaia. Best luck I ever hope to have.”

The ragfish was pretty good, though bland to my taste. The peppers were strands of bell pepper, not the hot pepper I’d expected.

“You liked the courier ship that much?” I said to keep the conversation going.

“It was bloody awful,” Woetjans said, shoveling the rest of her fish into her mouth. “You not only have extra ship’s officers, you got the passengers like as not nosing into your business. But that’s where I met Six, and I been with him ever since.”

I was taking longer to finish my meal than Woetjans had. For that matter, I still had half a glass of wine and she was ordering her third gin. I said, “Because of the prizes?” I said. “I guess all the crew who’ve served with Captain Leary are pretty rich by now.”

Woetjans laughed, but without the enthusiasm that’d rattled the windows before. “Most of the Sissies, they’ve got maybe a pot to piss in, kid,” she said. “They’re spacers. The ones who’ve got more — Pasternak’s got a regular manor back in Wassail County where he grew up — it don’t do them no good. It don’t do me no good, except if I want to take a kid to dinner to learn what makes him tick, I don’t worry what the tab’s going to be.”

She paused and pursed her lips. “We Sissies are all spacers,” she said. “Every single soul who stuck with Six is that, and you don’t need money to be a spacer. If you signed with Six to get rich, you’re a bloody fool. You’re more likely to lose your arm or your ass than to get rich.”

“I joined to be a spacer,” I said. “I’m learning to do that. I’ll never be the astrogator that Captain Leary and even Cory are, but I’ll be better than I am now. And eventually I’ll be pretty good.”

I shrugged. My glass was empty, so I held it up the way Woetjans had hers. “I know there’s risks,” I said. “They told us not to open the coffin when they shipped Junior back for burial. Mom thought that meant his body’d been torn up and maybe Dad thought that too, but I heard the gravel rattle when I shifted the coffin a little. Junior’d been burned so bad they had to ballast the coffin before they sent it back. But he’d been a spacer, and I’m going to be a spacer.”

My wine came. I took a deep draft, I guess to cool myself off. I’d gotten pretty hot talking like that.

“That stuff any good?” Woetjans said.

“It’s all right for me,” I said. “I’m not much of a drinker. But I can tell you, my fiancée’s father wouldn’t use it to clean drains. Ex-fiancée.”

“Toss it down and let’s get out of here,” Woetjans said. “We’ll find a place near the harbor and really tie one on if you like.”

I didn’t — I peeled off when the bosun stopped at a place on the harborfront. But I went back aboard the Sunray, feeling that it’d been a good evening. My astrogation was improving faster than it ever would have if I’d stayed in the Academy, and I’d gotten through another test.

I guess the tests would keep coming till I died. Well, that was all right.