The Widow Merlat sat across from me, breathed through her scented silk hanky, and did her best to make it plain she wasn’t one of those Hill snobs who think of us common folk as mere servant-fodder. No, I was all right in her book—not a human being like her, of course, but as long as I kept my eyes on the floor and knocked the horse flop off my boots, I’d be welcome at her servant’s entrance any day.
“You come highly recommended, goodman Markhat,” she said, daring Rannit’s unfashionable south-side air long enough to lower her hanky while she spoke. “The most capable, most experienced finder in all of Rannit. I’m told you are discreet, as well. I would not be here otherwise.”
I sighed. My head hurt and I still had cemetery dirt on my shoes. I did not need to have my face rubbed in my humble origins by a Hill widow who doubtlessly thought her son was the first rich boy to ever take a fancy to the half-elf parlor maid.
“I’m also told you are expensive,” said the widow. She plopped a fat black clutch purse down on my desk, and it tinkled, heavy with coin. “Good,” she added. “I’ve never trusted bargains, nor shopped for them. Money means nothing to me.”
“Funny you should say that, Lady Merlat,” I said. “Why, just the other day I was telling the Regent that money means twenty jerks a day, to me. Plus expenses. And that’s only if I decide to take the job.” I leaned back in my chair and clasped my hands behind my head. “And, despite your generous display of the money that means nothing to you, I haven’t said yes yet.”
The widow smiled a tight, small smile. “You will, finder,” she said. “I’ll pay thirty crowns a day. Forty. Fifty. Whatever it takes, I will pay.”
Outside, an ogre huffed and puffed as he pulled a manure wagon down the street, and all the silk in Hent wasn’t going to keep the stench out of the widow’s Hill-bred nostrils.
The widow shoved her purse my way. I shoved it back.
“Tell me what you want,” I said.
She nodded, once and quickly, and took a deep breath. A hint of color fought its way past the powder on her cheeks.
“My husband is dead,” she said.
She was wearing more black than a barge-load of undertakers. “No,” I said, straight-faced. “How long?”
“Two years,” she said. More color leaked through. “Two years. He caught fever.” The widow’s voice went thin. “He caught fever and he died and I buried him.” She took in a ragged breath. “But now he’s back, goodman. Returned.”
“Returned?” I lifted an eyebrow. “How? Rattling chains, wearing a bed-sheet?” I stood. “Nice talking to you, Lady.”
Her small bright eyes got smaller and brighter. “Sit,” she hissed. “I am neither senile nor insane. My husband has returned. He walks the grounds at night. He rattles the windows, pulls at all the doors. All but four of the staff left after his second visit.” The widow Merlat gave her hanky a savage twist. “I had to hire caterers for the Armistice Day Festival,” she said. “The canapés were spoiled, and two of my guests fell ill after sampling the stuffed mushrooms.”
“Tragic,” I said. “Shocking. And the wine?”
“Goodman Markhat,” she said. “Are you mocking me?”
I sighed, eyed the coin-purse, sat. “Lady Merlat,” I said, “this sounds like a matter for the Watch, or the Church, or both. Why me? What can I do that they can’t?”
She twisted her hanky and chose her words. “The Watch. The Church. Don’t you think I tried, goodman? Don’t you think I tried?”
“I don’t know, Lady,” I said. “Did you?”
She glared. “Sixty crowns a day,” she said.
“So your husband is a revenant,” I said, slowly. “And he’s tracking up the flower beds and scaring the neighbors and the coachman is also the butler and nobody can cook a decent meal.”
“Sixty-five crowns,” she said, her voice glacial, to match her eyes. “Seventy, if you vow to hold your tongue.”
I grinned. “Sixty-five it is,” I said. “And I need to make one thing perfectly clear, Lady Merlat. I saw a lot of folks get suddenly, tragically dead during the War. What I didn’t see was anybody walking around afterward complaining about it.”
“You doubt my word?”
“I believe you believe, but that doesn’t make it the truth,” I said. “Have you seen your husband, Lady Markhat? Really seen him?”
She shuddered, and went corpse-pale underneath the powder. “Once,” she said in a whisper. “The second time. I’d moved upstairs, kept the windows shuttered and bolted. But I heard the dogs barking and Harl, the footman, shouting and I peeked outside and there he was, standing there, looking up at me.” She shivered all over, fought it off. “It was him, goodman Markhat. Two years in the grave—but it was Ebed.”
She hesitated. And then she lowered the hanky and looked me in the eye. “Please,” she said, and the word stuck in her throat, so she repeated it. “Please.”
“All right, Lady,” I said. “All right.” I opened my desk, pulled out a pad of ragged pulp-paper and a pair of brass dipping-pens. “I’ll do this much. I’ll try to find out who or what you saw,” I said. “Give it three days. If I come up empty, you only owe me for two.”
“I saw my husband,” said the widow. “I saw him, and others have seen him, and I’ll pay you sixty-five crowns a day to find out why he has returned, and how I can put him to rest.”
I sighed. “I need to know a few things, Lady Merlat,” I said. “Names, dates, addresses. And the location of your husband’s tomb.”
She found a fresh hanky and took a big breath.
Revenants and funerals and aching in the head.
Happy birthday to me.
Yep. I sneaked another promo into the blog. For Dead Man's Rain, which is a fan favorite in the Markhat series, at least judging from the emails I get.
The excerpt is from the opening. Later on, you've got a haunted mansion, a mob of ruthless heirs, and Ebed Merlat, who may or may not be the walking dead. Oh, and there's a storm. A stormy night, in fact. Dark, too. So, one might say, a dark and . . . .
One might say that but I certainly won't. It's a spooky little tale of (literally?) undying love and a guilt so profound it can't even be buried. But don't take my word for it -- here are a few reviews I've received via email:
"...tons better than anything I ever wrote." W. Shakespeare, deceased.
"...and if we do not receive your payment by the 15th, we will consider the account delinquent." MasterCard.
"Greetings of the day to you dear. I am Dr. Reverend Mbai Basoli, and I have a 100% safe and legal business deal for you." firstname.lastname@example.org
"...for more CONFIDENCE in the BEDROOM, with NO SIDE EFFECTS and NO PRESCRIPTION!" email@example.com
By now you're either hooked or you long ago hit the back button, so I'll list the various formats below. Choose your poison!