In the new Markhat Files book, The Devil's Horn, the world seems to be falling apart.
Monsters walk the streets. Each night brings new terrors, and each dawn reveals a fresh crop of corpses. The dead wagons have all the cargo they can bear, and then some.
Still, life goes on. The people of Rannit have bills to pay, businesses to run, lives to get on with. A numb acceptance of the new normal spreads. Even as the dead wagons rattle past in increasing numbers, people retain their routines, falling back on the familiar in some unspoken and irrational hope that if they just keep living as they always have, the monsters will simply go away.
Sound at all familiar?
I don't want to scare you away from the book. Yes, there's trouble on the home front -- but Markhat and Darla made their decision to stay and fight at the end of Way Out West.
So stay and fight they will.
The book will be out as soon as I can finish it. Until then, here's the rough draft of the opening to The Devil's Horn. I thought a few Markhat fans might enjoy reading it.
THE DEVIL’S HORN
Father Chide was a bastard.
He kept his red priest’s mask close to his face as he spoke, but his eyes showed. They were rheumy and narrow and mean. His thin bloodless lips were also visible, set in a permanent scowl, hiding crooked yellow teeth that looked loose and diseased, the perfect lair for a lying priest’s tongue.
“Have you listened to a word I’ve said?” barked Father Chide, using his best frighten-the- flock pulpit baritone.
I shrugged. Three-leg Cat sauntered in the office and, with the unerring ability cats have to draw close to people that loathe them, Three-leg leaped atop my desk and settled right in front of Father Chide’s gold-trimmed mask.
“A few,” I said, as his brow knotted in anger. “But like everybody else these days, I stopped listening when you started preaching.”
He sputtered and nearly stood up. I’d hit a sore spot. As what the papers were calling the Summer of Monsters entered its third month, the Churches had failed to slow the flow of supernatural beasties taking to Rannit’s streets. The faithful were deserting Rannit’s five Church mainholds in droves. I imagined Father Chide wasn’t any too happy about that, and a petty part of me decided to twist the dagger a little more.
“So tell me again, Father. Without the religious commentary, this time. What brings you, a mighty priest favored by the Host itself, to seek out the likes of me?”
“We have sent six letters,” he replied. “Two were formal summonses, affixed with the Holy Seal of the Holy Primate himself.”
I nodded agreeably. “On a fine grade of paper, too. They lit up like a treat, and burned with an exceptionally pure flame. I commend your taste in stationery.”
“You burned them.” It wasn’t a question. He forgot to hide his face from the sinful world by letting his mask of office dip.
“I did,” I said. “Send more, and I’ll burn them too. Let’s get something straight, Father Chide. There are maybe three people in all of creation who can summon me. My wife, Mama Hog, and the proprietor of any middling good brewery. But not you, and not His Holy Whatshisname, and not every painted angel in every holy book. I don’t recognize any authority you claim to exert. So knock it off. Speak plain, or get out.”
“Twenty thousand crowns.” He remembered to raise his mask.
“That’s plain enough. Now what is it you want, for twenty thousand crowns, plus expenses?”
He turned his mask slightly this way and that, inspecting my tiny office for big-eared sinners, I suppose. Then he lowered his voice to a whisper.
“That will not be discussed here. Ever. You will accompany me to Wherthmore. My carriage awaits.”
I leaned forward, matched his whisper.
“Nothing doing, you sour old goat.” I’d once ridden a stolen horse up Wherthmore’s steps and right down the middle of the Grand Chamber itself. For all I knew this was some bizarre attempt at chastisement. “You want to try and hire me, fine. I can put my personal distaste for you and yours aside. But I do my business my way, and that means we discuss business right here, right now.”
Father Chide gave Three-leg Cat a savage shove when Three-leg sniffed his mask.
Three-leg whirled and let the bastard have a good hard swipe with his remaining front paw. Father Chide yelped and raised his staff to strike and if I wasn’t bound for Hell before that moment I am now because I took his holy stick away from him, broke it over my knee, and then threw him out into the street by the neck of his greasy red robe.
His attendants, a foursome of armored Church soldiers who’d been napping atop the carriage, were caught off guard. I managed to plant a kick on Father Chide’s backside and beat a hasty retreat through my heavy door before they could clamber awkwardly down.
I threw the bolt just as the first blows landed. I spent the next hour idling with Three-leg, who kept a murderous glare aimed at the door while he licked his forepaw in feline triumph.
With a final barrage of threats and curses, Father Chide and his corpulent honor guard departed. I waited a bit before stepping outside, wary of crossbows bolts or sermons.
Neither manifested. Old Mr. Bull cackled and waved from across the street. An ogre hurried past, pulling a sausage cart, pursued by crows and stray cats. The Father’s gaudy Church carriage, festooned with gingerbread-house trim and flying a dozen flags, was nowhere in sight.
“Throwed him out on his ass!” yelled Mr. Bull. He slapped his knee in delight. “You in trouble now, sonny!”
“I’m seldom out of trouble,” I said, tipping my hat. “How goes it?”
Mr. Bull spat. “Some damn imps or other tried to slip through my window last night,” he said. “Third time this week.”
That gave me pause. Cambrit had been spared the worst of the recent supernatural invasion’s traffic, but now that Mama Hog was away inspecting her orphanage out west I wondered if we’d start seeing our share of things that go bump as well.
“Give you any trouble?” I asked.
The old man guffawed, jerked his head toward the alley beside him. “I strung up their heads,” he said. “Ain’t much to ‘em. A few whacks with my stick and they quit trying to bite.”
“Need me to look at your window?”
He spat. “That’s kind of ye, but I seen to it myself. What you better do is make yourself scarce. You know they’re coming back. Won’t be for tea, neither.”
Mr. Bull had a point.
I developed a sudden irresistible urge for one of Eddie’s sandwiches, so I set sail for his place a couple blocks north.
Two dead wagons passed me, their pale burdens shifting bonelessly beneath the tarps that hid them from the early morning sun. Before the Summer of Monsters, the halfdead had been Rannit’s apex predators, but even during the worst of their nightly predations I hadn’t seen a dead wagon packed past the high side-rails. Certainly not a pair of wagons in tandem.
“Bring out your dead,” chorused the drivers, in bored monotones. “Mister, seen anything we need to pick up in any alleys you passed?”
“Not a thing,” I said, and I hadn’t.
The wagons rattled on, making for the crematoriums that line the Brown River. I added a block to my walk, but I took a right on Sorrow Street just so I’d not have to ponder the movement of the tarps all the way to Eddie’s.
Taking that detour saved me from another Church carriage, one bigger and grander than Father Chide’s. I caught a glimpse of a toad of a priest through a window as it passed. His mask was down, and his fierce expression suggested he was en route to deliver some first-class hellfire and industrial-strength damnation to the kinds of unrepentant sinners that might have the temerity to toss lesser priests out by their robes.
I pulled my hat down and set a leisurely pace. Eddie welcomed me with a grunt and a wave of his ever-present bar rag.
I stayed all morning. Had two sandwiches, two coffees, and a glass of milk. Eddie didn’t say two words, but that suited me just fine. Father Chide had talked enough to fill any three mornings.
Darla and I had lunch in the park. I dropped her off at her shop, had the cab take me past my office without stopping. Two fancy carriages were camped outside it, manned by a trio of red masks and a bevy of grumpy Church soldiers idling on the sidewalk.
Someone high up in Wherthmore must be in deep, I decided. The Church itself must be teetering on the edge of ruin, to provoke the offer of twenty thousand crowns to unrepentant ne’er-do-wells such as I.
Spurred on by that thought, I rounded up Slim, my runt Troll deckhand, and we took Dasher a couple of miles upriver, cast our hooks in the muddy waters, and enjoyed an afternoon of fishing.
Between us, we pulled half a dozen fat catfish from the turgid waters of the Brown River.
“Hard work,” opined Slim, who is quickly mastering not just Kingdom but the fine art of sarcasm. “Deserve raise.”
“How about an increase in rank instead?” I replied. “Effective immediately, you’re now an admiral. Take the fleet home, if you please.” I pulled the brim of my hat down over my eyes. “Wake me when we’re tied off at the slip.”
Slim chuckled. Dasher’s pistons thumped, and we raised a noisy wake.
“Storms tonight,” Slim said, as he steered. I didn’t look, but I’d seen the thunderheads building far off in the west.
“Good. That should keep the priests indoors.”
“Is that a humorous euphemism for rain?” Slim asked.
“Nope. I’ve been pestered by priests all day. But they won’t go out in a storm.”
“Why do holy men seek you out?” Slim gave Dasher’s wheel a nudge. A fisherman cussed as we threw up a wake.
“They seek my wise spiritual counsel,” I replied. “The purity of my soul is the stuff of legends.”
Slim boomed out Trollish laughter, and Dasher churned towards home.
That's all I'll say about the book, for now. The writing is going well, and I hope to have the book out by October.
I'm trying to build a digital model for Darla (and one for Markhat too), but that's taking a little longer than expected. I can't use the same model for Darla that I did for Meralda. The Meralda model is too young, and doesn't look at all like Darla, so I'm starting from scratch.
Darla and Markhat have a more 1940s film noir look than Meralda's Victorian style. I love the 1940s, and often wish we still dressed that way. Even portly fiftysomething gentlemen such as myself can still look good in a suit and a hat.
MARKHAT and DARLA
In case you're curious, here are some images that represent the Darla and Markhat in my head. We'll start with Darla.
You may recognize her -- this is a photo of silent film actress Louise Brooks. Those are Darla's eyes, and her guarded expression. She is clearly not a woman to be, as Mama Hog would say, "Trifled with, nor put upon. She won't hesitate to return in kind, and you won't see it comin' and you won't walk right for a month if'n ye walks away at all."
Here's Darla at a fancy party. The face and hair is all wrong, but the gown is about right. She could hide plenty of small but lethal surprises under all that lace.
Now for Markhat. He's easy, because I've always seen him as film noir actor Robert Mitchum.
The lady seated beside him could be Gertriss. It certainly isn't Mama Hog.
Mitchum is the right age. He has a face that looks a little tired, a little jaded -- but not so much that he's bitter.
Finally, that's Markhat and Darla sharing a tender moment after Darla empties her revolver into something or someone so incautious as to incur her wrath.
Those are the looks I'm going for.
If you haven't read any Markhat Files books, I suggest reading them in this order:
1) THREE MEAN STREETS. Markhat's first adventures.
2) HOLD THE DARK. Markhat meets Darla.
3) THE BANSHEE'S WALK. Something ancient lurks the forest...
4) THE BROKEN BELL. Weddings can be deadly.
5) BROWN RIVER QUEEN. A cruise on a vampire riverboat -- what could go wrong?
6) THE FIVE FACES. How can you defeat a killer who knows the future?
7) THE DARKER CARNIVAL. Death stalks the carnival midway.
8) WAY OUT WEST. All aboard a train bound for Hell...
9) THE DEVIL's HORN. Coming soon!
Time to get back to work. Have a good week, everyone.
And be careful out there.