A couple of weeks ago, I posted the cover for THREE MEAN STREETS.
Today, I'm going to reveal the covers for the next books in the Markhat series revival, HOLD THE DARK and THE BANSHEE'S WALK.
For anyone not familiar with the series, HOLD THE DARK is the book in which Markhat meets Darla. He also meets Evis, the bookish gangster vampire, who becomes a series regular as well.
Darla leaped into the series like she'd been waiting impatiently all along. I was still on the fence in the matter of any romantic involvement for Markhat, but any indecision vanished the moment Markhat was ushered into her tiny office at the Velvet.
If you looked at the very broad outline I'd prepared for the book, Darla was there simply to provide a few clues and some light comic relief. But she was having none of that, outlines be damned, and within a couple of chapters I realized my detective series was now a party of two.
Here's the moment Markhat and Darla meet. Markhat has been hired to find and bring home a seamstress named Martha Hoobin. Markhat's search for clues takes him to the Velvet, a renowned house of negotiable affected where Martha made clothes.
From HOLD THE DARK:
I eased my pace and counted monstrous trees. I passed beneath sixteen scarred blood-oaks before reaching the intersection of Broadway and Hent. And there, at the corner, loomed the Velvet—three slate-roofed, glass-windowed, brass-worked, brick-walled stories of steamy adolescent fantasies come absolutely positively true.
The big oak front doors faced south, toward me. The Velvet was set back from the street a stone's throw, surrounded by lush meadow-grass, bubbling fountains, and knee-high beds of fireflowers. A flight of wide, shallow marble stairs led from the cobblestone walkway to the brass-worked oaken doors. A single bored ogre leaned against the door, his arms folded across his chest, his eyes ahead and unblinking.
You seldom see ogres dressed in anything more than a sarong and sandals. The Velvet's doorman, though, wore a long-cut red tail-coat, black dress pants, black boots and white silk shirt with ruffles at the sleeves. All specially made and generously cut, of course, to accommodate his bulging ogre muscles and furry ogre frame.
I emerged from the shade of the last blood-oak and marched toward the Velvet. The ogre's wet brown gaze picked me up as I darted across Hent, and he watched me every step of the way after.
I eased onto the cobblestone walk, took a deep breath. The air smelled of fireflowers and a faint gentle perfume, and it was cooler there than even in the blood-oak’s shade.
I ambled through the flower-beds, halted at the foot of the stair. The ogre hadn’t moved.
I nodded and lowered my gaze briefly in greeting. Which may have been a mistake. I doubted that the Velvet’s clients were terribly concerned with matters of ogreish etiquette. But it never hurts to make friends.
He didn’t blink, or return my eye-dip.
I shrugged. “May I enter?”
He let my words hang for a moment. Then, with a great show of elaborate grace, he doffed his three-cornered, feathered hat, stepped out of my path, and motioned me to the doors with a grand, easy sweep of his clawed four-fingered hand.
“Enner, ’ordship,” he growled, grinning around his tusks. “Enner.”
The doors opened as I hit the top step, and then I was inside, leaving sarcastic ogres and the clatter and rumble of downtown Rannit behind.
The doors shut. You know the Velvet doors are shut because all the street noise stops. You take a breath and the scent of the beds of fireflowers is gone, but something sweeter and more subtle rides the air.
My jaw dropped. I’d been inside the High House, right after the War, but the Velvet put the Regent’s digs to shame.
I was alone for perhaps ten heartbeats. I breathed the sweet air, gawked at the gleaming marble tiles, the dark rich walnut paneled walls and the general glowing opulence of the place.
The gold-plated coat-hooks by the door were probably worth more than my entire building, fifteen blocks away.
One of the three tall white doors on the far side of the foyer opened, and a woman entered. It was then I realized the Velvet kept a sorcerer in its hire.
He or she knew the business. The woman that approached was absolutely the most beautiful creature I’d ever seen, human, Elvish or otherwise.
She glided to stand before me. She was blonde and tall and had eyes the color of the high noon sky in the country.
“How may we serve you, sir?”
I mopped sweat off my brow, and I had to clear my throat twice before words would come.
“You could turn down the charm a few notches. I’m not here as a client. I’m a finder, looking for one of your associates. Her name is Martha Hoobin. I’m told she was a seamstress here.”
The room tilted and I jerked, as though the floor had dropped an inch or two.
When I looked back up, she was still there, still beautiful, but I wasn’t mentally counting my life savings and wondering if all of it would buy me an hour.
“Hooga,” she called out, not to me. “Wait here.”
The twin to the ogre at the door came thump-thumping from behind an alcove concealed by thick red drapes. He moved to stand at my side.
The woman turned and retreated, gliding through her door without a glance or word of farewell.
My heart broke. I took a deep breath, mopped more sweat away and turned toward the well-dressed ogre.
“Greetings, Hooga,” I said, dipping my gaze. “I am Markhat. How do you stand that mojo, all the time?”
Hooga didn’t reply, but he did dip his gaze and grin.
Maybe I’d made a friend after all.
The doors at the far end of the room opened again, and another woman stepped out.
The blonde lady had floated in, all promise and lace and gauze. This new arrival was a brunette, clad in a high-necked brown shirt and comfortable-looking black pants. She was tall and thin, and she was not smiling.
The mojo lingered, though, and it did its best to turn my thoughts from purity, which meant it was reduced to the arcane equivalent of whispering things like “see how she wears that pencil seductively behind her right ear” and “those pants are rather tight, in a loose sort of way, are they not?”
She crossed the foyer, her sensible black shoes tap-tapping a quick cadence on the marble floor. She got within a pace of me, halted, smiled and stuck out her hand—not flat, palm down for milord to kiss, but held out to shake.
“Hello,” she said, in a good strong voice. “I’m Darla. I keep the books here. Wendy tells me you’re asking questions about Martha Hoobin.”
I took her hand and shook it.
“I am. My name is Markhat. I’m a finder. Martha’s brothers hired me.”
“They waited long enough.” She freed my hand. “Shall we talk in my office?”
I nodded, and she looked at Hooga and dipped her gaze. “Thank you, Hooga,” she said. “I don’t think Mister Markhat will need a beating today. I’ll call out if he changes his mind.”
Hooga snuffled a chuckle and shuffled off to his post. Darla turned her big brown gaze back to me and motioned toward the leftmost door.
“If you’ll come this way.”
“Gladly,” I replied. My mouth was still nearly too dry to talk. She smiled at me and set off, leading the way.
The white door opened after she tapped out a complicated knock and mouthed a long harsh word. No one was on the other side.
The door shut itself behind us, and I heard it click as the spell locked it down.
“You’ve got more spells here than the High House,” I said. Our steps fell quiet on thick red carpet. We walked not quite shoulder to shoulder in a long and narrow hall.
“They cost a fortune, but so does trouble,” she replied, as we ambled along. The hall was high-ceilinged, lit only by lamps set every ten paces or so along the wall. Doors showed here and there, and moving light at bottoms of some, but absolutely not a sound. “You’re not exactly being held in thrall though. Most men couldn’t resist Wendy and the conjure at once.”
She wasn’t looking at me, so I mopped sweat and wiped my hand on my pant leg.
“I was in the Army for eight years. I’ve had more hexes cast on me than the Court Stone. They don’t stick very well anymore.”
Darla laughed. “I’ll have to tell Wendy. She was nearly in tears when she found me. No one has ever noticed the conjure. She thinks she’s losing her touch.”
I shook my head. “Not at all,” I said. “Tell her that my priestly vows forbade me to view her in other than a pure and sisterly light.”
She halted at a door, turned, put her hand on the plain brass knob. “Do come in, Father. Don’t mind the clutter.”
She went, and I followed.
Darla’s office was small—about, in fact, the size of mine. She had a battered oak desk that showed scorch marks on one side, a rolling leather-backed chair that squeaked when she moved it, a cracked crystal flower vase for holding pencils and a dented brass spittoon set to the right of the desk for a wastebasket. A magelamp hung from the ceiling on a plain steel chain, the walls were lined with bookshelves and the bookshelves were lined with ledgers. Each ledger bore a neat handwritten label—a string of nonsense numbers and a date, written out in a neat, precise hand that I knew immediately was Darla’s.
Her desk was covered with ledger sheets and a pile of ragged-edged store receipts and one of those newfangled adding dinguses that the Army introduced a few years back—colored beads on wires in a square wood frame.
A second chair faced Darla’s desk. Like the one in my office, it lacked wheels, and was probably intended to provide a seat without making its occupant so comfortable that they overstayed their welcome.
Other than a new black coat on a hook on the back of her door, that was it.
Darla smiled, moved behind her desk, sat and motioned for me to do the same. “I’ll help however I can. Ask away.”
I sat. “You know Martha Hoobin.” I knew she did. She’d even pronounced her name correctly—Mart-ha, not Martha—out in the foyer.
“She’s our best seamstress,” replied Darla.
“Seamstress,” I said, with no particular emphasis. Darla laughed. The magelamp’s warm gold light flashed in her eyes.
“Martha had a gift for sewing, and an eye for clothes. The outfit Wendy was wearing—that was one of Martha’s. An early one, in fact. She’s improved since then.”
“How long has she been with the Velvet?”
“Six years. We were friends,” she added. “I’ll miss her.”
I nodded. “So you don’t think she’s coming back?”
“Would you be here, if she were just away on holiday? Would she have left her brothers without a word if she ever meant to return?”
“I don’t know her, but from what I’ve heard, probably not.”
Darla shrugged, and the twinkle went out of her eyes. “She left without collecting her pay. Do you find that unusual?”
“I do.” I meant it. The Hoobins hadn’t mentioned that. And while I have seen people walk away from money, I’ve only seen them do it when they’re terrified. Finding that terror. That’s the tricky part.
I leaned back in my chair and sighed. “You’re her friend. So tell me. Who is she? Who is Martha Hoobin?”
Darla leaned forward. She took the pencil from behind her ear and began to doodle on a scrap of green ledger-paper, and I doubt she even realized she was doing it.
“Martha.” She frowned as she scribbled. “Martha, well, Martha is a Hoobin.”
“You’ve met her brothers?”
“All ten tons of them,” I replied. “Stalwart lads, each one. You could cut the air of their rural stability with a knife.”
Darla nodded. “That’s a big part of Martha. Work hard, never complain, be polite—”
“Whoa,” I said, gently. “I got all that from the brothers. What I want to know from you are the things they didn’t know, or wouldn’t tell.”
“The deep dark secrets all us girls share you mean?”
“The very ones.”
Darla frowned. “Damn.”
“Oh no. Surely you don’t mean there aren’t any.”
She shrugged. “Martha was a saint.” She noticed the pencil for the first time, and put it down on the desk, neatly aligned beside the ledger. “She didn’t drink. She didn’t carouse. She sewed, she fed birds in the Park at lunch, she loved violin music and all the girls liked her.” Darla spread her hands. “Hooga and Hooga brought her ogre hash every Armistice Day,” she said. “You know anybody ogres actually like?”
I didn’t. I nodded no.
“She ate it, Markhat. If it tasted like it smelled, it was awful. But Hooga and Hooga were standing there watching, and she thanked them and tore off a chunk and ate it right there. Ate Gods know what just so she wouldn’t hurt an ogre’s feelings.” She sighed. “That’s Martha Hoobin. Good to the bone. Now where does a person like that run away to?”
“I don’t know. Yet. And it’s entirely possible she didn’t leave of her own volition.”
“True. But Martha wasn’t stupid. You wouldn’t catch her roaming the streets after Curfew, or counting her pay out on the street. Don’t think she was some kind of wide-eyed New People bumpkin, finder. She hadn’t been in Rannit long, but she knew the lay of the land.”
I leaned forward. The mojo still whispered suggestively in my ears, and I caught myself breathing in her faint, subtle perfume and admiring the way her face moved when she spoke.
“Let’s talk about men. Did Martha have any I should know about?”
Darla laughed, showed her teeth. “Aside from the Hoogas, no, she had none. The Hoobins are Balptists. Ever heard of that?”
“Balptists? Nope. I assume it’s a faith?”
“It is. The New People brought it with them. Balptists marry Balptists, or not at all. Martha was opting for ‘not at all’.”
I lifted an eyebrow, kept my mouth shut.
“It wasn’t men Martha had a problem with,” said Darla. “Just husbands. I think a lifetime of picking up after her brothers left the thought of doing the same for a husband less than appealing.”
“I gather Martha pretty much ran the Hoobin household.”
“She cooked, she cleaned, she handled the money,” replied Darla. “And I suspect she handled it well. Have you ever been inside the Hoobin house?”
“You’ll be surprised. They’ve done well. The Regent may have done them a favor, flooding their farms.”
“That’s the kind of favor the Regent is best at.”
“You’re a cynic,” she replied. “I like that.” She picked up her pencil and twirled it around. “Tell you what. I’ve already asked around, but no one knew anything about Martha. But I’ll ask again. And I’ll see if I can round up any of her things that might still be in the sewing room.”
“That would be helpful. I’ll come back around in a day or so.”
“Don’t bother. The Hoogas will be told not to let you back in.” She lifted a hand before I could speak. “I don’t run the place, finder. The management won’t admit pesky finders who set Wendy to crying and leave without spending a fortune. You’re a waste of good conjure, you are. Don’t know rare beauty when you see it.” She smiled when she said it, leaned forward and batted those big brown eyes. The lingering charm gave me one last good flush, and a fresh layer of sweat. Darla leaned back in her chair and laughed again.
“Surely I can wait outside until you head home some night?” I asked, with as much dignity as I could muster. “Or will the Hoogas have orders to smite me on the street?”
“That depends on your manners and your deportment,” she replied. “Keep that in mind. Anyway, I might just come and see you. You have an office, I assume?”
“I do.” I made a note to carry a clean handkerchief, when next I called on Darla. I sweated more in the Velvet than I had on all-day marches. “Down on Cambrit. It isn’t the best part of town. If you come, come early. You can wait at Mama Hog’s if I’m out.”
“Cambrit’s not so bad,” she said. “And I’ve heard of Mistress Hog.” She gave me a sly sideways look. “She your lady love?”
Blame it on the mojo, but a mercifully fleeting image of Mama Hog wrapped in a gauzy nightgown ran hobnailed through my mind.
I stood. “Miss Darla,” I said. Mama Hog waved gauzy veils at me from the dimmest corners of my mind. “They don’t make a charm that strong.”
She stood too. “I’m sorry,” she said, offering her hand, to shake. “About the mojo. I just couldn’t resist.”
I took her hand. It was warm and dry and her fingers slipped easily through mine, like we’d held hands a thousand times before.
She spoke a nonsense word, and I felt the last of the mojo slip off my shoulders and well and truly fall away.
“Now you’ve got nothing to blame but the innate depravity of your soul. Still think I’m pretty?”
I gobbled something complimentary and let go her hand. We stepped out into the hall, hadn’t gone three steps before Wendy popped out of a door and pretended she didn’t know we were there.
Wendy had an extensive wardrobe, though it didn’t appear to take up much room. She turned, spoke, batted her eyes and was about to join us when Darla grabbed my hand again and gave her a glare. “Ease off, sister,” she said. “This one is mine. Aren’t you, honey-chunks?”
Wendy giggled. I left, and the Hoogas even dipped their gazes in farewell.
And—God help me—that was Darla.
And now, the new cover!