A Sneak Preview: Chapter 1 of A Storm Hits Valparaíso

I want to give you a sneak preview of my upcoming novel, which has the working title of A Storm Hits Valparaíso. I’m currently on the final pass, but it’s quite convoluted and could take a month or two before it is ready for the editor.

I started writing this in 2006. It was a classic case of an inexperienced writer biting off far more than he can chew. It has seven main characters who all start in different locations and their narrative strands gradually interweave.

In technical terms, it’s by far the most difficult thing I have ever attempted to write, and I have no shame in saying that at several points I felt it was beyond me, and walked away.

But it always drew me back. It’s still early days on the rewrite, but for the first time in a while I actually have confidence that I will wrestle it over the finish line. If it doesn’t kill me first. And that’s not a joke. This is tough.

Here’s the quick blurb:

A Storm Hits Valparaíso is an epic historical adventure starring San Martín and his army of thieves, rogues, mercenaries, slaves, and prostitutes as they fight to free Argentina from the Spanish Empire.

And here’s the first chapter. Bear in mind that this has neither been edited nor beta-ed, I just need to air it a little. Oh and that cover above is just something a friend knocked up for fun a few years back.

Chapter One – A Storm Hits Valparaíso

Catalina Flores de la Peña’s tongue got her in more trouble than any other part of her body, even though there were far more likely candidates. However, as soon as anyone brought these to her attention, they realized why most men preferred to admire her from the dusty corners of her father’s tavern, rather than approach her directly. So legendary was her temper that the mayor had ordered her father to lock her in her room when dignitaries came to visit the tavern, fearing a repeat of the night she broke the magistrate’s nose.

When she was confined upstairs, customers tended not to linger; there was no-one to hasten the hours between the first pisco and the fall of night. Watching her glide between tables, flirting with one man, berating another, eyes flashing one moment, soft and kind the next, was one of the more pleasant ways to avoid thinking about the weather on Valparaíso’s long winter nights.

Her father—Don Flores—was a stern man and no-one was quite sure of his first name. One customer swore their uncle grew up with him in Pucon, and that he was called Ignacio. Another insisted their brother once loitered outside the confessional and heard old Father Guido call him Ricardo. Catalina’s father never let on, happy to give the men something to talk about other than his daughter. And, anyway, the majority of his patrons were content simply calling him Don Flores, the honorific reflecting the distance he kept from his customers.

Don Flores’ low opinion of his fellow man resulted from years of seeing them at their worst, for he slept when he wasn’t working and he worked when he wasn’t sleeping. His daughter was spared this judgment. He showered her with all the love and affection he withheld from the rest of society. When Catalina was old enough, he insisted she work at the bar so that she would form the same useful opinion of humanity that protected and comforted him in equal measure.

Catalina could feel his eyes—watching her. She tried to ignore him, but every time she looked, there he was. Most men had the decency to look away when she caught them, but this Spanish puerco just went on staring, with the faintest hint of a sneer at the corner of his lips.

Something about him kept her on edge. She tried to put him out of her mind; she had troubles enough tonight. The crew of the Esmeralda had descended on Valparaíso with no good in mind. Their ship had docked needing repairs and they were taking advantage of several days of unexpected shore leave before continuing on to Lima. It had been a long voyage from Spain. The sailors hadn’t seen port during the journey across the Atlantic, down the barren coast of Patagonia, past the frozen wastelands of Tierra del Fuego, and around Cape Horn into the Pacific. The Chilean rebels had no ships worthy of the name and their forces withdrew on sight of the frigate, their one paltry cannon no match for its forty-two guns. The Spaniards had secured the waterfront in under an hour, encountering no resistance. Sentries were posted at each street corner, while the sailors who escaped guard duty were determined to make the most of this opportunity.

Towards midnight, the bawdy crowd began to clear, following the musicians down the street, looking for whores and gambling tables. An hour later, only one table was left: Spanish sailors, drunk, shouting insults. Except for him; he just watched. She tried to shake it off, hoping they would be gone soon. Instead, they called for another drink.

“Very well, señores,” said Don Flores, as he poured the pisco, “one more, then we close.”

Catalina approached the table, grateful the night was nearly over, already thinking of bed. She placed the drinks on the table. As she turned to leave, the puerco grabbed her arm.

“I hope you are not going to throw us out on the street just yet. It’s still early.”

Catalina glared at him. “Let go of me, puerco, or you’ll be out now.”

He pulled her down onto his lap, grabbing her breast. “Chica, the night’s only beginning—” He stopped short, her cold metal blade pressed against his throat. The bar fell silent. His companions jumped up from their chairs, upending the table in their haste. Catalina pulled the puerco’s head back, exposing his sweaty neck. One of the sailors edged closer. Catalina pressed the tip of her dagger into the puerco’s skin, drawing a small bead of blood.

“Stand back lads,” he cautioned.

Catalina turned to his companions. “You two, leave.”

They paused. The puerco gave a slight nod, the knife still firmly at his neck. Eyes on Catalina, they staggered backwards towards the door, and stepped outside. Her father hurried to her side and eased the knife from her fingers. With his other hand, he twisted the puerco’s arm up behind his back and marched him after his companions.

“You tell that bitch this isn’t finished.” The puerco struggled. “I’ll be back for her.”

Don Flores threw him out the door, bolting it shut. He sighed then looked at his daughter. “Go to bed mi hija. It has been a long night. Tomorrow we can clean.”

Catalina nodded then went upstairs.

The next morning, Catalina drummed her fingers on the bar, surveying the damage, the air thick with an admixture of stale sweat and tobacco. This day wasn’t going to improve in a hurry, she thought. Last night’s crowd had been rough. Aside from dirty glasses and plates, she had smashed bottles and broken chairs to contend with. At least her regulars knew the rules—and occasionally respected them—but those animals, they had no respect for anything. She cursed as a glass slipped from her hand and shattered. A groan came from the doorway outside. Pedro, she thought, a smile sailing through the storm of her face.

Every night Pedro Villar fell asleep in the doorway of the bar with a flower in his hand, intending to profess his love to Catalina. His courage would falter, leaving him slumped outside, cursing his cowardice and mourning his solitude. Each morning Catalina sent him home to his mother—a stern woman who put a raw egg in his coffee as punishment for his nightly excesses. Catalina opened the door and shooed Pedro away with the broom, unmindful of the heart she broke a little more each day.

“Pedro Villar?” Her father appeared as she was re-locking the door.

Catalina laughed. “Who else?”

“He has too much interest in you for my liking.”

“That drunk would chase a burro in a dress.”

Her father grunted. “Catalina, put down that broom. I want to talk to you.”

“What is it, Papa?”

“I’m sending you to Santiago for a few days, to your aunt. I don’t want any argument. It’s not safe for you here.”

“But Papa, we can’t let—”

“Sergeant Eduardo came by last night, after you went to bed. He is worried about these sailors. They are hot-headed and foolish enough to do something stupid.” Don Flores took a bottle of pisco from the shelf, cleaning the label with his thumb before pouring himself a healthy measure. “He can’t protect us. His hands are tied. None of his men can enter Valparaíso while there is a Spanish warship in the bay.” He emptied the contents with one gulp. “He feels it would be best if you visited some relatives until they leave town.”

“But this is my home.”

“I have made my decision, Catalina. Just for a few days, until these sailors leave.” He raised his hands, as if to brook further discussion.

“Papa…”

“That’s enough!”

Catalina continued cleaning in silence. There was no point arguing further, her father’s mind was made up. She had no siblings to share the burden of her father’s protectiveness, no mother to soften his resolve; she was going to Santiago.