“Happy birthday, you mangy fleabag, you.”
I scratched his battle-scarred head. He rewarded me with the merest flick of his long, black tail.
I sat in my chair, my shiny new boots propped on my battered old desk, and watched Three-leg Cat lick the stump of his missing paw.
That’s how I celebrated the tenth birthday of my business. It had been ten years ago today that I’d scraped together enough coin to pay the rent on the office on Cambrit Street and hire a man to paint a finder’s eye on the bubbled glass pane set in the weather-beaten door. Three-leg, then a mangy injured kitten, had been the first living soul to pass through my open door.
For the last ten years I’d done what every finder does—I’d found things. Sons or daughters or fathers or trouble. If you’ve lost something, or someone, you can seek out my painted finder’s eye, and I’ll pull my feet off my desk, and for the right handful of coin I’ll see if I can find it for you.
I’d done very well, right after the War, finding fathers and sons left abandoned by the Regency when the Truce was declared. These days, I didn’t look for missing soldiers nearly as often as I looked for straying wives or errant husbands.
I reflected on that as Three-leg Cat washed his scar. For awhile the soldiers I’d found often brought their families joy, but the news I brought my clients lately was anything but joyous.
Three-leg Cat looked up, as though he’d heard my thoughts, and gave me a scathing look of feline contempt.
“Buy your own breakfast then,” I muttered.
Three-leg Cat leaped down from my desk, and it was then I heard Mama’s voice close by my door.
I groaned. I’d inherited Mama Hog along with the office. Her card and potion shop was two doors down from mine. She’d taken me on as a project the very first day, and ten years later she was still trying to browbeat me into the Mama Hog version of respectability.
I hoped she’d pass on by, but as usual, luck was showing no love to Markhats near and far. Mama banged on my door, then tried the latch.
“You in there, boy?”
I swung my legs down to the floor. “I’m closed, Mama. No, I’m retiring. Going to sell off my business and buy a barge.”
Mama guffawed and swung my door open, and it was then I saw Mama Hog wasn’t alone.
Mama Hog is old. She claims to be a hundred and twenty, and though I doubt that, I’d buy even odds she is on the bad side of eighty. Mama carefully cultivates every clichéd Witch Woman affectation ever spoken—a wild tangle of grey hair, fingernails that could scare a grizzly bear, and a mole that sometimes changes cheeks from day to day. That’s Mama, and I gather the look is good for business, even in downtown Rannit.
But if Mama was two-dozen clichés stitched together with wrinkles and cackles, her companion was something straight out of myth.
She was a head higher than Mama, which put her just a bit below my shoulders. If she had hair at all, I couldn’t see it, not beneath that trail-beaten black bowler hat. She wore a faded poncho that might have been striped in orange and black zigzags half a century ago, and six or seven layers of castoff rags under that, all clashing, all tattered and trailing threads or bits of cloth.
Her face, though—there were eyes, tiny and black, recessed so far beneath wrinkled grey brows I wondered how the woman saw. Her nose was a wart-encrusted proboscis that sprouted its own crop of fine, white hairs from within, and her chin protruded far enough forward to nearly meet the tip of her nose.
She had hands the color and texture of old leather, and black fingernails four times longer than Mama’s and sharpened to points besides.
She held a gnarled walking stick in her right hand and a handful of dark rags in her left. She was muttering, and though her black eyes were turned up toward mine, I didn’t think she was talking to me. She confirmed this by raising the rags to her lips and whispering to them, then shaking her head as if they’d replied.
“Boy, this here is Granny Knot,” said Mama. “I brung her here myself so I could make inter-ductions. Granny Knot, this is that finder what I told ye about. His name is Markhat. Markhat, this be Granny Knot.”
Mama caught my sleeve and hissed at me. “Don’t you dare make no mock of her, boy.”
“Pleased to meet you, Granny Knot.”
Granny whispered into her handful of rags, then held it to her ear, listened and cackled.
“Granny here needs to be hirin’ herself a finder,” said Mama. “I told her you was the best, boy. And I told her you’d deal fair with her. Don’t make a liar out of me.”
“Mama,” I began. “I just took on a big case, I was just headed out the door—”
“I pays,” said Granny Knot. Her black eyes sparkled, back in the shadows. “I pays good. Got old coin. Three hundred crowns. Pays you fifty.”
I almost snorted. Three hundred crowns, especially in pre-War old coin, was a small fortune. I didn’t figure Granny Knot of the handful of rags had ever seen three crowns stuck together, much less three hundred.
“Granny here is a spook doctor,” said Mama. “Best in Rannit.”
“Nice meeting you, Granny.” I rose. Spook doctors claim to converse with spirits. For a price, of course. Always for a price. “Nice hat.”
And that’s when Granny cackled again and pulled a canvas sack from somewhere beneath her rags and let it fall onto my desk with a tinkle and a thump.
“Three. Hundred. Crowns.”
And then Granny cackled again and went back to her whispered conversation with her pet rags.
Mama grinned at me, her two front teeth shining in triumph.
“I’ll leave you two alone to talk business,” she said. She made a small courtly bow to Granny, who plopped down in my client’s chair while a pair of grey moths escaped her wardrobe and began to dart around my office.
Mama stomped out. Granny beamed at me, and the coins in the sack shifted with that magical sound of gold on gold.
“You’ve hired yourself a finder, looks like.” I said. “So, tell me what it is you’ve lost.”
-- End Excerpt
Another excerpt, you ask?
Indeed it is, I reply. This one from The Cadaver Client, in which Markhat takes on a dead man for a client. This is a novella-length tale (hence the reduced price) which is set early in Markhat's career. Fans refer to it as one of the 'pre-Darla' tales.
If you've been on the fence about trying the Markhat series, The Cadaver Client is a good place to start. You'll meet Mama Hog, Markhat's next-door-neighbor and a major source of exasperation for the streetwise finder. you'll also get a feel for Rannit, Markhat's rough-and-tumble home.
Yes, the Markhat books are fantasy, but you won't find any winsome Elves or cute fairies here. Or dragons, for that matter. I based the mean streets of Rannit on what I've seen of the seedier parts of Memphis, Tennessee, and believe me, any Elf that tried to charm the masses with ancient songs would quickly find he was missing his wallet, his rings, and a significant volume of his blood, probably not in that order.
Why did I decide to drop a 1940s film-noir private eye into a world where magic works and the dead don't always stay buried?
Your guess is as good as mine. Some will claim I must have suffered a recent head injury. Others will speak of an excess of over-the-counter cold medicine and a bout of insomnia. Still others will just make that finger-spinning motion by the side of their head when they think I'm not looking.
Any or all of them might be right. But I've had a blast writing Markhat. I think we've all wanted to be that guy who always has the perfect retort, who's never at a loss for words. That's Markhat. Cynical, quick-witted, weary enough of the world to see it for what it is, yet not so calloused that he can turn away from the suffering of innocents.
No wonder I enjoy pretending to be the guy.
I think you'll enjoy reading about him, too. If the excerpt hooked you, follow the links below to choose which version you'd like. Kindle, Nook, pdf for your PC, a version for your Sony e-reader, heck, even print -- choose below!
The Cadaver Client - Various Formats (Nook, pdf, Mobi, etc.)
The Cadaver Client - Amazon Kindle version
The Markhat Files - Printed book, 3 stories, includes The Cadaver Client!
The e-book versions are less than 3 bucks and the print book from Amazon is around ten (it includes 3 Markhat novellas -- The Cadaver Client, Dead Man's Rain, and The Mister Trophy).
Thanks for reading!