Amberlough: Chapter 3

Covert agent Cyril DePaul thinks he’s good at keeping secrets, especially from Aristide Makricosta. They suit each other: Aristide turns a blind eye to Cyril’s clandestine affairs, and Cyril keeps his lover’s moonlighting job as a smuggler under wraps.

Cyril participates on a mission that leads to disastrous results, leaving smoke from various political fires smoldering throughout the city. Shielding Aristide from the expected fallout isn’t easy, though, for he refuses to let anything—not the crooked city police or the mounting rage from radical conservatives—dictate his life.

Enter streetwise Cordelia Lehane, a top dancer at the Bumble Bee Cabaret and Aristide’s runner, who could be the key to Cyril’s plans—if she can be trusted. As the twinkling lights of nightclub marquees yield to the rising flames of a fascist revolution, these three will struggle to survive using whatever means—and people—necessary. Including each other.

Debut author Lara Elena Donnelly’s spy thriller Amberlough is available February 7th from Tor Books. Read chapter 3 below, or head back to the beginning with chapter one!

 

 

Chapter Three

From the stage, Aristide couldn’t see much of the audience. Not with the spotlight in his eyes, striking sparkles off his jeweled false lashes. But he could hear their thunderous applause. Pleasure curled through his middle, and he took a bow.

The curtains, heavy swathes of black velvet, fell between him and his admirers. He blinked, still dazzled by the spot, and waited for the lights to come up onstage. Before he could quite see again, he heard Malcolm snarl at one of the chorus dancers, then her despairing wail as she burst into tears. Well, she’d tripped up her half of the kick line. What did she expect?

He let his hands uncurl from the warm metal of the microphone stand and took a deep breath.

“Almost makes you wish we weren’t switching up the shows.”

Malcolm was next to him suddenly, standing with his weight on one leg, arms crossed. His biceps, strong from hauling ropes and set pieces during strike and rehearsals, were cleanly outlined by the black wool of his tailcoat. He reeked of aftershave and whiskey.

“You don’t think the p-p-punters would get tired of the same show all year round?” Aristide ducked his head and lifted away the towering powdered wig he wore for the last half of the first act. His emcee was a languid fop with a dry, pointed sense of humor and a tendency toward glamour that bordered on carnivalesque. Really, he was playing himself, in gilded heels and face paint.

“I think they wouldn’t,” said Malcolm, “but Lady knows we would.”

Aristide picked an invisible bit of fluff from Malcolm’s lapel. “If you insist,” he said, and floated off to his dressing room on the echoes of applause.

The Bee employed a card boy to circulate during the first act,collecting names in labeled boxes for each star performer. At the interval, cast members made rounds among their admirers. It was a way to collect tips, free drinks, and goodwill. Malcolm harped on them every night to flirt like blush boys, though he was comically jealous and turned an alarming shade of red if he caught Cordelia sitting in anybody’s lap.

Before Aristide could address the formidable stack of cards on his makeup table to night, he had to get through the woman waiting on his chaise longue.

“Merrilee,” he said. “Back from Liso already?”

“It’s been two years.” Her heart-shaped face was deeply tanned,and the equatorial sun had bleached her salt-and-pepper hair white at the tips. “Or hadn’t you noticed all those pretty profits rolling in?”

Merrilee Cross represented Aristide’s interests in southern Liso, where Gedda had very little influence since the disaster of the Spice War. Twenty-some years ago, in an ill-conceived bid for influence in a resource-wealthy nation crippled by repressive monarchy,Gedda had put an army on the ground in Liso to shore up a nascent revolution. Like quicksand, or a pit of tar, the situation had grown deadlier and more difficult the longer Gedda was involved.

The federal government sank money and soldiers into the mess in alarming quantity. Most of the money came from the national treasury’s tax revenue—all four states poured their income into the enterprise, which put a squeeze on the southwest but positively crippled the northeast—and most of the soldiers were Tatien. They had the training, unlike the rest of the nation. But it was Amberlinian strategist General Margaretta DePaul who wrangled a somewhat… hollow victory for Gedda. Related to Cyril somehow, no doubt, and a divisive public figure to put it mildly.

Her solution to the military crisis left Farbourgh bankrupt and Tatié furious, contributing to the nation’s current troubles with the Ospies. The army pulled out of Liso, leaving a partition in its wake. Northern Liso still traded and politicked with Gedda, but the south was where the poppies grew.

Luckily, smuggling could be a lucrative sideline for a secret agent, as long as Ada Culpepper didn’t pick up on it.

“Is this just a social call?” asked Aristide. He set his wig on its stand and pulled the stocking cap from his pin curls. “I’m sorry to say my evening is already sp-p-poken for.”

Cross picked up the stack of cards. “Impressive. Taormino’s little contribution would outfit a few of her larger divisions. You must have important things to talk about.”

“Merrilee, I’m wounded. You know I am imp-p-possibly incorruptible.” He took the police commissioner’s card from her hand. It was pinned to a thick wad of folded bills.

“What’s this?” She slipped the second card from the pile—this one in heavyweight satin cream. As she turned it, Aristide caught a glimpse of blue-black copperplate, deeply embossed. He knew that card.

Cross tched. “Speaking of incorruptible. How is Culpepper’s golden boy? And what is his card doing in your dressing room?”

Aristide knew his smile looked lecherous, and didn’t care a fig. “Mr. DePaul is… somewhat t-t-tarnished since you last encountered him, shall we say?”

“Wrong precious metal,” she said. “Gold don’t tarnish.”

“I’m a t-t-terribly bad influence.”

She laughed like a dog: wide mouthed and panting, more exhalation than sound. One hand in the air, she said, “I’ll testify incourt. Tell me, is he a hard knock? Always thought he was fine,but I couldn’t get him to look twice.”

He took Cyril’s card from her. “Did you need something, Miss Cross?”

She reached into her jacket and pulled out a velvet bag—the kind jewelers used to store diamonds. Aristide took it, and tipped it out into his palm. Three sticky squares of poppy tar tumbled free. Aristide rubbed his thumb across one of them—it left a streak dark and tacky as pitch.

“Uncut,” she said. “Strongest stuff you ever smoked. My man can get it by the brick.”

“And I, sweetest girl, will buy.” He kissed her cheek.

“Better be off,” said Cross, standing from the chaise. “Have fun with Cy, but don’t turn him too rotten. I don’t want him moving in on my market.”

“Don’t fret. He’s got no ambition beyond keeping c-c-comfortable.” Aristide stripped his sweaty costume from his skin and reached for the brocade dressing gown flung across the chaise. “You’ve been away. I think some sort of Foxhole mischief has d-d-dinged his p-p-pretty plating.”

“Well, you know what they say.”

“‘A chipped pot still holds soup’?”

“I was going to go with ‘one-legged whore’s still got holes.’ ”

“How… colorful. Now, if you don’t mind.”

She laughed her dog-laugh, and left him to his business.


Aristide slipped between the patrons, narrowly avoiding the languid swipes of expressive hands and cigarette holders. A blush boy snaked out jewel-heavy fingers to pinch Aristide’s bottom and got a sharp look for his trouble, but nothing worse. There were bouncers for that sort of thing.

In the beginning of their association, when Cyril was just curious, he’d been at the Bee nearly every night. He’d dropped off coming when he caught on to the fact that Aristide didn’t just have a finger in the pie, but that he’d stolen it from the windowsill as well. After that, Cyril couldn’t be reasonably seen paying court to a black market kingpin, so his attendance at the Bee slacked off in favor of more private meeting places.

Still, when he did come, he had a preferred table—slightly house left of center, second row back—and he paid well to make sure he got it.

Perched on a high iron chair, he had one heel hooked on the rail, one foot dangling. He wore the same dark suit he’d left in that morning. Yesterday’s suit. Ilse had done a good job on it, but itwas undeniably past its prime. Patchy stubble gilded his jaw. Surrounded by the sparkling evening crowd, he looked wilted. Though he’d checked his overcoat at the door, he still had his briefcase. Curious. Aristide filed the observation away.

Opposite Cyril, a gin cocktail sweated onto the mosaic table. Aristide sat, sipped it, and insinuated a toe between Cyril’s cuff and ankle.

He jumped, then smiled. The expression was weary. “I have had a beast of an evening.”

“Gracious.” Aristide dipped his finger into Cyril’s drink, and licked it. “What is this, t-t-tonic and lime?” Either he was off his feed, or he had secrets to keep. “Ask Ytzak for something stronger. T-T-Tell him it’s on me.” Aristide settled his bare feet on Cyril’s chair, between his thighs. “Why on earth didn’t you stop at home to ch-ch-change?”

Cyril shook his head. His hands lit on the tops of Aristide’s arches, and he dug his thumbs into the cables of muscle that stretched from heels to toes. It sent a shock of feeling up Aristide’s legs, into his groin and belly. He let his head fall back and groaned.

“Ari, that’s obscene.” Tory passed them, poking Aristide in the hip. “If you’ve got to shuck a quick oyster at the interval, will you do it in your dressing room at least?”

Cyril pulled his hands up and cupped his drink.

“Why don’t you come down to Antinou’s with us after the show?” asked Tory. “Malcolm’s buying, for once. Cordelia’s going to come. Aren’t you Delly?” He reached out one short arm, andCordelia wove through the crowd like the Wandering Queen coming down from the mountains, shot-away chin held high and her hair streaming out behind her. The whole cast knew she dyed it—going gray early, poor thing, but did it have to be quite so scarlet?

“That’s not how Mal tells it,” she said. “Says you owe him and you’re picking up the tab.”

Tory put his arm around the backs of her thighs, and something about the proprietary gesture, and the sharp look Cordelia dropped on Tory, piqued Aristide’s curiosity. Were they sleeping together?

“How about it?” asked the comedian. “Antinou’s, I mean. You can bring your pretty friend.” Tory shot Cyril with the imaginary pistol of his finger and thumb.

Cyril sagged over his drink, playing along, but there was real exhaustion in it. Aristide pushed one foot deeper into the crease of Cyril’s hip and curled his toes. “Not tonight, I think.”

Tory raised one eyebrow and squeezed Cordelia’s legs close. “Lucky man, you,” he said. “Eh, Delly?”

“What?” She was looking warily over one shoulder, back toMalcolm chatting up punters at the bar. She was definitely sleeping with Tory. When Malcolm found out… well, that would be an interesting week at the Bee.

“Maybe next time.” Aristide inclined his head graciously, letting the weight of his pin curls pull it forward.

Tory shrugged. “Suit yourself. We all know you can find your own fun.”

The chandelier dimmed and the footlights flared, illuminating the gold tassels hanging below the proscenium.

“That’s us,” said Tory. “See you up on the planks, lad.” He disappeared between the hips of the audience. Cordelia turned to follow, but Aristide caught her wrist.

“Cordelia,” he said, “must you really?”

“Ah, go yank yourself.” She shook free of his grip and slunk away, the red glass beads of her costume shimmering.

Aristide stood, smoothing the folds of his dressing gown. “Will you last through the second act?” he asked Cyril. “It’s Ilse’s night off, but I can get you my k-k-key.”

“Oh, I’ll be all right. I need some cheering up, and you look good under the lights.”

Aristide pushed his gin across the table, toward Cyril. “What happened today?”

“I’ll tell you later.” To Aristide’s satisfaction, Cyril came to some agreement with himself and tossed back the larger portion of the cocktail. “Go play up there. You’re killing them.”

“Stop flattering me. It will make my head swell.”

Cyril gave him a significant, downward-sweeping glance. “I’m counting on it. Now, go.”

Aristide went.

When the heavy black curtains pulled up and away, he was blind again, to everything but the spangles of his own glitter andgems. Still, he knew where Cyril was and he smiled brighter to stage right, flirted crooked, canted his hips.

He wasn’t an idiot; he knew Cyril didn’t love him and, stones, he was sharp enough not to fall for Cyril. But if Cyril was in abetter mood, he’d open up. Aristide might get a few more drinks in him, might find out what had put that charming worried wrinkle between his eyes. And it might be useful.

Oh, perdition, but he was handsome, too. And if Aristide had to have the foxes on his tail, at least he’d ended up with an agent he didn’t mind stuck to it.


Several hours later, in a dark niche of Amberlough’s best absinthe bar, they were both well into a green-tinged haze and Aristide had related his observations about Cordelia and Tory.

Cyril howled with laughter, burying his face in Aristide’s neck. “Never,” he said, his mouth against Aristide’s skin. “I know you: You’re a perfect liar.”

Aristide grabbed Cyril’s shoulders and propped him straight against the leather upholstery of the booth. He had nearly six inches and a few dozen pounds on Cyril, but he was still dizzy enough that he overbalanced and fell half into Cyril’s lap. When he tried to sit up, Cyril tangled his hands in Aristide’s curls and held him close.

“I’m glad you find it so amusing.” Aristide’s cheek pressed against Cyril’s waistcoat buttons. “You’re much p-p-prettier when you smile. Much easier to put up with. Now let me go.” He plucked at Cyril’s fingers where they tangled his hair. “Cyril. Cyril.” He sat up, pulling free. “Why are you in such a foul temper?

“Oh,” he said, all his laughter fleeing in a violent sigh. “The Ospies had a march in Loendler Park today.”

What?

Cyril ran a fingertip around the edge of his glass, then licked it clean of sugar. “I’m sure it’ll be all over the Clarion tomorrow,” he said. “There weren’t so many of them, but a fair number of police. And hecklers. Turned into a brawl. Someone ended up in hospital. The streets were jammed up all around, and they had to shut down the trolleys. I couldn’t walk through it to get home.”

Aristide pulled a face. “Well, have another drink. You need it.”

“I really shouldn’t,” said Cyril. “I should try to get back to my flat. I still have work to do, before tomorrow. And an early appointment.” He reached for his watch, but Aristide put a hand on his wrist, curling his fingers around the protruding bones. Cyril’s pulse stuttered under Aristide’s fingertips, and quickened. Smiling with the corner of his mouth, Aristide raised Cyril’s hand and brushed a kiss across his knuckles. He left a smudge of dark red lipstick behind, coloring the skin like a burn.

“Come home with me,” he said.

“Ari, I know I said…” He stopped, and shut his eyes. “But I really can’t. Not to night.”

Turning Cyril’s hand, Aristide kissed the center of his palm, then let his tongue trace the crease of Cyril’s life line.

“Ari—”

Aristide opened his mouth, pressed his teeth into the swell of muscle at the base of Cyril’s thumb. Cyril drew a sharp breath. On the table his free hand jumped, fingers flexing, scratching at the satin finish on the wood.

“Let me—” he said, but Aristide didn’t. He followed the sweep of skin at the inside edge of Cyril’s hand, to the tip of his pointer finger, and slipped it into his mouth. It was still sweet from the crushed sugar, faintly flavored with anise.

Cyril choked on a lewd sound, pressing his free fingertips against Aristide’s jaw. “Mother and sons,” he said, his voice rough. “Someone’s going to see you.”

Aristide pulled away from Cyril’s finger, slowly, drawing his tongue along the soft flesh between the joints. “And they’ll be rabid with jealousy.” He moved around the curve of their booth. Slipping both hands beneath Cyril’s jacket, he pulled him close. “Come home with me.”

The shuddering, inward rush of Cyril’s breath hissed in Aristide’s ear. “All right.”

Aristide left enough for their tab and tip beneath the foot of his glass. When he slid out of the booth he held a hand out for Cyril—to steady him; to make sure he followed.


Cyril lurched drunkenly at every trolley stop, holding the leather strap with an aching fist. The press of bodies put Aristide at his back, curved over him, sharing his handhold. Aristide’s breath caught in the fine hairs at Cyril’s neck.

It was not late enough that they had the streetcar to themselves—in fact, it was the time of night when most of the city started to head up Temple Street to the red light district on Princes Road.

Cyril held his briefcase tight, cursing himself. Surely he could have gone around a back way, earlier. He could have come to his flat through the alley, or up the fire escape. At least he should have stayed sober. He’d been out of the field too long. What was Culpepper thinking, sending him back? He hadn’t even left Amberlough yet, and he was already bungling the action.

They crested a small rise and the trolley jumped. Aristide’s weight shifted. He was hard with wanting, and Cyril felt it in the dimple of his lower back. Aristide laughed and pushed, this time with purpose.

Queen’s sake, what a mess. Cyril leaned into the crook of Aristide’s body and shut his eyes. His thoughts wandered from fantasy to self-flagellation, until Aristide whispered against his ear.

“Our stop,” he said, “unless you want to ride it all the way to the P-P-Prince and Temple.” The famous brothel was a seething offspring of sex and theatre. It stood at the corner of the two bawdiest streets in Amberlough, from which it took its name.

“I think you’re about all I can handle, tonight.” Cyril let the leather strap free and put his hand to Aristide’s shoulder, steadying himself. “Come on.”

Revelers thronged the Heynsgate trolley stop, packing Baldwin Street Bridge. Aristide had changed his costume for street clothes that were only slightly less gaudy, and he fit right in. Cyril, dizzy and exhausted, wanted to close his eyes again. The river shone with reflected lights, cigarette butts flecking the ripples.

He lit his own, fumbling with the matches, then tripped on a paving stone. Aristide caught him, but not before he’d dropped his straight. He cursed and reached for another one, but Ari stopped him.

“It can wait,” he said. “Come on.”

It was a matter of four city blocks, and then the doorman was waving them in. Ari’s large, bony hand splayed at the center ofCyril’s back, warm even through his overcoat.

The sleepy lift attendant scissored the grate closed behind them. She very professionally did not notice when Aristide pressed Cyril into the corner of the lift and pulled his tie from its knot. Cyril’s briefcase knocked the wall, and he set it down, bracing it with his heel to keep it from falling.

As the dial wound past the first floor, Cyril grasped the back ofAri’s neck, pulling him down into a kiss.

“Second floor,” said the attendant, staring at a spot on the tile. Ari tugged Cyril’s arm, drawing him across the threshold of the lift. At the last moment before the grate shut, Cyril dove back,tripping on the edge of the carpet, and grabbed his briefcase from the corner. He didn’t have time to tell if Ari looked disappointed, because Ari grabbed his coat and pushed him face-first against the wall. Adrenaline jumped like electricity through Cyril’s veins, laced with desire.

“Is your evening getting better?” Ari asked, closing his teeth on a tender divot of skin at the back of Cyril’s neck.

“Even better—” Cyril’s breath was harsh, his speech slurred. He tried again. “Even better once I sit down.”

“Sitting?” Ari snarled, mouth against Cyril’s ear. “Try flat on your back.”


Ari’s rooms were dark, but neither of them moved to turn on the lights. Cyril dropped his briefcase on the sofa and covered it with his overcoat—painfully casual, but did his drunkenness make it obvious?—then tossed his hat aside.

Ari twirled Cyril’s wrinkled tie in lazy arcs. “Shoes,” he said.

Feeling petty, Cyril fumbled with one of his cufflinks.

“I said shoes,” snapped Ari, pulling the tie tight between his hands. When they were off, it was “Socks. Waistcoat. Braces. Trousers.”Then, “Shorts,” and, with satisfaction, “Now your c-c-cufflinks.”

Cyril set them on the end table with a clatter, hands shaking.

“Shirt.”

He flung it away and shivered at the cool air on his naked arms. In the yellow light drifting up from the street, the scar across his belly shone platinum.

“Your wrists, please,” said Aristide. Cyril held them together and let Ari loop the necktie taut. He could feel heat gathering between his cupped palms. Ari tugged, not gently, and Cyril staggered after him.

In the bedroom, he let Ari fling him across the silk expanse of the duvet. The woolen necktie scratched his wrists as Ari drew the loop apart. Cyril reached for the gilded buttons of Ari’s waistcoat, but Ari struck his hands away. “No,” he said, like iron. Then, more softly, “I’ll do it.”

Cyril lay back, grateful and furious, and let him do it—let him do everything—until Ari was leaning over him, slippery with sweat and gasping for breath. One of his hands was pressed deep into a pillow, the muscles of his arm corded with the effort of holding his weight. With the other, he was pulling himself off. He was close; Cyril knew from the cant of his head, from his crooked mouth. He was biting the inside of his cheek. Sometimes he made himself bleed, like that.

Unable to resist, Cyril grabbed two handfuls of those sinful curls and yanked Ari’s head back, stretching his skin over the sharp ridge of his larynx. Cyril drew the flat of his tongue up the deep groove of Aristide’s throat, where the tendon was thrown into sharp relief. The chemical bitterness of cold cream coated his mouth,and the alcohol base of Aristide’s cologne. Ari cried out, his supporting arm buckling. Cyril pressed his hips up. Ari’s buttocks gave against the ridges of his hipbones. Cyril’s jaw ached around his clenched teeth.

“No,” said Ari again, ripping free of Cyril’s grasp. “No!” He pinned Cyril’s wrists over his head with one hand and slapped his face, hard.

Hissing through clenched teeth, Cyril spent himself, crumpling the fine linen of the pillowcase in his grasping hands. He closed his eyes, exhausted, but Ari put a fist in his hair and hauled him up.

“Finish it.” His dark eyes were wide and mad, curls snarled and springing around his head like the mane of a big cat. “Perdition take you, bastard son of a whore, you finish it.”

Reeling with fatigue, Cyril still felt a twist of desire, and he marveled at it. He lay on his side, cheek pressed in the crease of Aristide’s thigh, and said, “Come on, then.” Ari twisted, and Cyril took him into his mouth, pressing the pads of his thumbs into the hollow of Ari’s hips.

When Ari finished, he let his grip on Cyril’s hair go loose. His hands ghosted past Cyril’s ears, slipped through the sweat beneath his arms. They pulled him higher, so his head rested on Ari’s chest. Light from the street caught stray flecks of glitter still stuck to his skin.

Cyril squinted and yawned, painfully wide. There was something he needed to do. But what was…

Oh. His briefcase. Mother’s tits.

“Ari,” he said, and even to him it was nearly unintelligible. “Ari. I need to clean up.”

Ari’s arm tightened around his shoulder. “In the morning.”

Cyril squirmed. “No. Really. Just quick.”

A sigh, and Cyril’s head rose and fell with Ari’s breath. “Fine.”

Leaning against the wall, he tried to make himself move fast. Aristide would realize what he was up to, if he was gone too long. But the lingering effects of the absinthe conspired with his own traitorous, postcoital body. He had only just made it back to the washroom, briefcase in hand, when Aristide called his name.

“Half a minute.” Cyril climbed unsteadily up on the lid of the toilet and reached above his head to lift the top off of the decorative tank. The case was oiled leather, and if he angled it just right—yes, like that—it would stay mostly out of the water. He replaced the lid and stepped down.

For appearance’s sake, he wiped clean with a towel and threw it into the tub, then splashed a little water on his face. A headache was creeping in beneath his dizziness. With luck, he’d get to sleep before he witnessed the squalling birth of his hangover.

Shuffling back into the bedroom, Cyril shivered. Goosebumps came out across his damp skin. Ari held the blankets back and Cyril fell in, pressing against the warmth of the body beside him.


Close to the spillway on South Seagate Road, a narrow alley dove off the street into a deep brick courtyard. The arches of old tenements sheltered crisscrossed laundry lines and a mossy fountain. Antinou’s took up the northern edge of the yard, tables and chairs crowded under the striped awning and scattered more thinly right up to the edge of the water.

This late, the place was still jammed full of students, actors, and whores. Tory stood on a chair, running through some new material. He’d been working on a routine for the election, and now he was doing his impression of Caleb Acherby, the Ospie candidate running for Nuesklend’s primary seat. He was so good at it, the crowd was hissing. Cordelia wondered how it would play with their punters,though. It wasn’t hard-scrabble types the Ospies pandered to.

Malcolm laughed at Tory’s jokes, jabbing with his cigarette and calling out suggestions. One of his hands rested on Cordelia’s neck, his thumb rubbing absent circles at the base of her skull. He was in his shirtsleeves, not bothered by the chill.

When their waiter brought the food out, Tory gave his audience of drunken night owls some peace and slipped back into his seat. Snatching one of the sticky pumpernickel buns, he took a bite and said, through a mouthful of nuts, “Delly, sit up and have a cup of something hot. You’ve had a big day.”

Huddled in the raised collar of Malcolm’s khaki overcoat, she glared at him. Was he trying to show his hand?

“Big?” Malcolm tangled his fingers in Cordelia’s hair and shook her head back and forth. “Last I saw you before rehearsal you were flat on your back and half asleep.”

“What I get up to ain’t your business. Now leave off.” She slapped his arm. “I’m perishin’ for some coffee.”

The stuff was gritty, thick as oil, and potent. Within a few minutes of her first cup, she was awake and sitting straight, holding a red-checked piece of waxed paper piled high with charred and dripping lamb. Still pinned about both of her companions, she hunched over the kebab and used her fingers to eat—no one with half their senses trusted the silverware at Antinou’s.

“Commissioner was at the show tonight,” said Malcolm, tearing chicken from a skewer. He stopped to chew and swallow before he continued. “Makricosta was supposed to talk to her. I asked Tito to tell him at the interval.”

“That boy’s too poor to take any orders that don’t come well-padded with cash.” Tory poured himself another cup of coffee.

“I rotten pay him,” said Malcolm. “He works for me.”

“But you don’t pay him much,” said Tory. “That piece our Ari was flirting with looked like a sheep past due for shearing, but I know a fine suit when I see one. Even two days worn. Tito’s passed out drunk somewhere with a whore on his prick. Taormino never had a chance.”

“Talk to the commissioner?” Cordelia set down her kebab and licked her fingers. Malcolm grabbed her hands and tried to finish the job for her, but she yanked away and wiped them on his coat instead. “About what? The ballast?” Ballast liquor was tax-free,smuggled in the bilges of ships coming into Amberlough’s harbor by river and sea. “Every place in town has a sailor or two brings ’em cheap hooch.”

“Not every place is the Bee,” said Malcolm. “We’re a rotten example now. And it’s pay off the hounds or hang in the snare.”

“Why didn’t you ask me?” Cordelia picked at her food.

“Makricosta knows the market,” said Malcolm. “And Taormino’s a fool for a pretty face.”

Cordelia pursed her lips. “And what am I? A sow? I’d’ve had her here.” She cupped her palm.

“And how were you going to convince Taormino to blind-eye our ballast? Stimulatin’ conversation?”

She sneered. “Oh, that’s flattering. I’m just two pears and a peach, is that it?” She grabbed her crotch.

“Aw, Delia, put away your fangs. Far as I’ve heard, Taormino don’t go in for tits anyhow. She likes her squeezes with a big prick and too much paint. Halfway won’t sway her.”

Cordelia knew her makeup was prob ably smudged beneath her eyes by now, her lipstick blurring at the edges. She shoved Malcolm, and not gently.

“Hoggies! Hoggies! Stand down.” Tory held his hands up as if he could push the two of them apart. “You’re just hungry and it’s making you snap. We were having a nice little supper before somebody started talking business.” He leveled a baleful glance at Malcolm. “Now. Let’s all be civil and finish our kebab. Agreed?”

They went back to eating, and it wasn’t long before Malcolm and Tory were lobbing friendly insults back and forth. Tory was a bowlegged ladychaser who came out so short on account of his ma taking too many men while she carried him. Malcolm was a lecherous old cur who couldn’t please a lover ’cause he’d spent too long pleasing creditors. Cordelia was cold, disgusted, and ready to go to bed.

Excerpted from Amberlough © Lara Elena Donnelly, 2017

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