A Clean Stench
OK let's get situated with a veritable cannon-blast of local color.
Previously: When couriers need to deliver something, they usually know where it’s supposed to go, right? Well, for this job, the sisters were only given a weird symbol. They stew on it and come up with a plan in Sal’s Crab House. Meanwhile, Sal works on a new crab recipe. Classic Sal!
The door jingles and the sisters head out into the late October murk. Sal’s Crab House is on Malus Pier, there at the southern end of the docks. Still very lively at this late hour: thudding gangplanks, competing shanties, sundry donnybrooks. Contraband of all stripes being lowered by harbor cranes. Begrimed salts spitting in their hands to seal deals. A guy bellowing nonsense, but that’s pretty much a given, day or night.
If you drunkenly stumbled off the end of this pier, which somebody does literally every night, and then managed to swim a good ways out to sea (passing right over the old laboratory that now houses Hawthorne Grain) without succumbing to rum exhaustion or man o’ war, you could turn and see an overgrown port city tucked into Garra Bay like a damp plug of chaw.
This is Fort Hook. A convenient stopping point for seafarers looking to lay low for a spell, or trade ill-gotten cargo, or dredge up work, or raise miscellaneous types of hell.
We call it a city but it’s really almost nothing but port, dominated by a massive granite sea-gate from back when it was actually a fort. No skyscrapers or highways or suburbs, just a tortuous sprawl of piers and harbors and slipways, flanked by breakwaters, cleaved by an estuary and further fragmented by a complex web of canals and waterways. It’s as if a hairy giant smashed its fist down onto a pristine stretch of coastline and shattered it. (Which is not far from the truth.)
Despite its well-earned reputation as a haven for contract privateers, grubby stowaways, machete-for-hires, gunpowder snorters, unlicensed dentists, et cetera, it’s fish that spawned Fort Hook and it’s fish that keeps the economy humming.
There’s always been a rich supply of marine life along this stretch of coast—some would say unnaturally rich. Kelp gunnel, spotted cusk, rock sole, black croaker, brown irish lord, snubnose sculpin, chub mackerel, orangethroat pikeblenny, reef perch, plainfin midshipman, all practically throwing themselves into the nets year round. Thus the endless parade of trawlers, seiners, longliners, gillnetters, and crabbers, in and out every day, plus a couple factory ships permanently anchored out in the bay, clunking up the horizon.
And thus the ever-present piscine smell in the air, something Batya calls a clean stench. The scent of the dead sewn into the fabric of the living. She’s breathed this stank her whole life and finds it soothing.
Unlike her sister, Bat is a Fort Hook native, birthed on a junk boat docked in a wharf called the Snatch—don’t ask—and, as a result, this place makes her feel safe. Which is a fabricated concept and a slop word to describe a town with a constant ebb and flow of miscreants and cutthroats and dipshits, a town built from scratch to exist outside maritime law, a town crowded with dark alleys and lethal taverns and gimmicky brothels and illicit emporia.
But whatever. It’s her home. She knows what the Hook is. (An ever-churning eddy of corrupt organizations kept in fragile stasis by mutually assured destruction.) She knows her place in it. (Dangling from the last rung on the ladder.) And she knows how to survive. (Always be the person in the room with the least to lose.)
And anyway, that feeling of safety comes mostly from the geography. Fort Hook is cozily stashed betwixt the piney hinterland known as the Palaces and the briny blue known as the Salty Abyss. Bat’s always thought of it like a creaky wooden chair in the corner of a saloon, back to the wall so you can watch gunslingers come and go and no one can sneak up on you. And that corner is where she wants to park it for the long haul. She loves a good corner.
This has been Chapter 7 of Chokeville, a novel by Josh Fireland.
Next up: Bloody Tobacco