Brown River Queen cover art

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Happy Endings

Not every book has a happy ending.

Good books have satisfying endings, whether they're happy ones or not.  If the hero or heroine dies a good death, if you close the book saddened but satisfied, then it's still a good ending, even if everyone fails to live by the happily ever after rule.

I've not been brave enough to kill off any of my major characters.  Well, I did once, but after my editor explained why that was a Bad Move, I repented and rewrote.  Which is a good thing, because had I not the series would truly have suffered.

But that doesn't mean every character lives, or meets a good end.  You can't write about detectives, even fantasy ones, without the odd bit of murder here and there.

But of all the many hapless characters I have dispatched over the years, one stands out.  He was called Stick, and he makes his first and final appearance in a Markhat novella, The Cadaver Client.

In the story, Stick is a weed addict.  Weed in Markhat's world is a powerfully addictive drug, easily obtained, rather like ice and meth in our own world.  And like meth, from the first time a user tries the drug, his or her whole life is centered around getting more weed.  Nothing else matters but the next puff.  Weedheads quickly forget who they were, and pay no mind to what they have become.  For a weedhead, there is no future. They just want more weed, and they want it now.

Markhat hopes enough of Stick is left to remember something from his past.  So Markhat seeks him out, and finds him, and -- well, read for yourself.  The whole scene is below.  It's always been one of my favorites, and I hope you enjoy it too.


The bathhouse attendant, a blind old man named Waters, gathered up Stick’s clothes with the end of his cane and without a word hurled them into the furnace.

“That there man stinks,” offered Waters. “Use all that soap. I’ll go fetch more.”

And off he went grimacing and muttering.

I gave Stick a couple of good hard slaps, which roused him to mutter but not open his eyes.

So I hauled him up by the scruff of his neck and simply tossed his ugly naked butt into the big hot copper bathtub.

 Three-leg Cat couldn’t have put on a better show of flailing and howling and sputtering. I put my right hand on his head and pushed him back under briefly.

“Good morning, Mr. Stick.” I had him by the hair, and though he punched and struggled all he did was splash. “It’s bath day. If you behave yourself, it’ll also be breakfast day. If you keep making a ruckus, well…”

I put him under again. The water, I noted, was turning muddy.

But at least it was cutting down the smell. Waters arrived as I let Stick back up for air and dumped a bowl of something fragrant into the tub.

“Gonna need more of that,” he opined, before shuffling off again.

Stick was furious, but beginning to wake up. He quit trying to punch me, and a ghost of recognition flashed across his face.


“Me,” I agreed. “The finder? The one with the coin? The one who wants to know all about Cawling Street and a woman named Marris Sellway? Ring any bells, Stick?”

“You said you pay.”

“I did. And I will. But first you’re going to get yourself clean. And then you’re going to eat. And then you and I are going to sit and talk about the Bloods and Cawling and Marris. Got it?”

Stick closed his eyes and brought up his hands to run water over his face.

“Got it.”

I let go of his head and tossed him a bar of soap. “Waters here did your clothes a favor and burned them. I’m going to go back to my place and get you some of mine. If you want the coin you’ll be here when I get back. You do want the coin, don’t you, Stick?”

The weed-lust in his eyes was the only reply I needed.

“Don’t make trouble for Waters, you hear?”

“I hear.”

I told Waters what I was doing on my way out. My place is just a short walk away, and I swear I could still smell Stick in the still early morning air all the way back to my door.

I found an old shirt and an old pair of brown trousers and a pair of socks with holes in the toes under my bed. They bore the faint aroma of Three-Leg, who had apparently been using them as a bed, but even so they were a vast improvement on anything Stick was likely to ever own again.

A pair of old black shoes, soles worn paper thin, completed Stick’s new ensemble. I gathered them all and headed back, more worried about Waters and the possible application of his cane to Stick’s head than I was about anything Stick might decide to do.

Mama popped out of her door as I neared.

“No time now, Mama,” I said. “Bath emergency.”

Mama eyed my bundle wrinkled her nose at me. “Something stinks. Come back around when ye finish your doings. Got some things to say.”

Don’t you always, I thought. But I just nodded and kept that to myself.

Stick was still in the bathtub when I got back. Waters had near-empty bottles of bath salts lined up by the tub, and he was emptying the dregs from each one onto Stick.

He had at least managed to knock the smell down.

“Gonna have to charge you double, Markhat. Can’t use this water for nothin’ but fertilizing flowers.”
“Not a problem.” I put the clothes down where Stick could see them. I think he muttered a toothless thank you.
Beneath the grime and the filth, Stick looked thin and pale and weary. And no amount of bath salts was going to wash that yellow skin away, or heal those open sores.

I paid Waters and got Stick dried off and dressed. The man had to have help getting shoes on. He simply couldn’t operate more than two fingers at a time.

We left the bathhouse to the sound of Waters draining the tub and burning the towels.

 “You’re bathed. You’re fed. Now let’s talk about Cawling Street and Marris Sellway.”

Stick swallowed the last bite of biscuit and washed it down with water. I’d never seen a toothless man eat a slice of baked ham before. I hoped I never did again.

“She lived in old Number Six. Up top. Nice lady. Baked us bread when she had extra.”

I nodded. Number Six hadn’t been on the waybill either.

“What did she do for a living, Stick?

He looked confused by the very concept.

“Did she have a job? Did she take in laundry or sewing?”

“She sewed some,” said Stick. “I remember. She sewed some.”

“That’s good, Stick. That’s very good.” I shoved another biscuit his way. “Now tell me about her husband. Did you know him too?”

Stick had half a dry biscuit in his mouth and he nearly choked trying to reply.

“No husband,” he finally choked out. “Dead. Dead and gone.”

I frowned. But maybe that’s what she told people, when he didn’t come home.

“Died in the War?”

Stick shook his head no. Biscuit crumbs went flying.

“Kilt in a bread riot. Stabbed in the street. We brung him home. She cried and cried.”

Something in the back of my mind said, softly but plain, I told you so.

“What? Tell me again. And tell me who died, and who you brought home.”

Stick rubbed his chin. “Mr. Sellway. Got hisself stabbed dead in a bread riot down on Forge. We found him, brought him home. Me and Eggs and Lark and Stubby. Mrs. Sellway. Marris. She cried and cried.”

Bread riot. The last one had been on Midsummer Eve, a year before the War ended.

Which meant my dead client—or Granny Knot—was lying through his metaphorical teeth.

“Army wouldn’t take him. Mr. Sellway. He had a bad leg. Bad hand, too, all twisted up.” Stick curled his right hand into a claw and held it limp at his side. “We didn’t know what to do. She just stood there crying and screamin’. Eggs started cryin’ too. Lark took off. Me and Stubby wound up sitting with her ’til the dead wagons came. She had to let him burn. Couldn’t afford no burial. Can I have another biscuit?”

“Are you telling me the truth, Stick?”

Stick tilted his head, genuinely confused. “I think so. Is that not what happened?”

I looked into his yellowed, rheumy eyes, and I realized he no longer had the capacity to create such an elaborate lie.

“I’m sure it is, Stick. Here, have two.”

I sat back and watched him gobble down a week’s worth of food. Tears ran down his cheeks, from what I couldn’t discern.

“What happened to the lady after that, Stick? What did she do? Where did she go?”

Stick gobbled and nodded. “Heard she took up with some other fella,” he said. “Or something. Moved after the second fire. Up and took off, left her door wide open. Don’t know about that.” His face clouded. “War ended, them soldiers came. Lark dead. Eggs dead. Stubby…”

He teared up again. I tossed him my last biscuit. He gummed it and gobbled like he’d not just eaten six of its kin.

“So let me get this straight. Her husband died in a bread riot a year before the War ended. She was seeing another man shortly after. Then came the fires, and she left in a hurry. Is that about right?”


“Any idea who this second man was? A name?”

Stick shook his head. “Don’t know,” he said. Worry creased his brow. “Sorry. Don’t know.”

“Doesn’t matter. You’ve told me what I needed to know.”

“I get the coin? The twenty crowns?”

“That was the deal. You did your part. I’ll do mine.”

I flipped him a single Old Kingdom gold crown. He could buy a decent place to sleep with that, for a month, and food, and clothes, and maybe even a middling good set of carved oak false teeth.

Or he could blow it all on weed and vein and whatever other drugs were in vogue, and wind up encrusted in his own wastes and drooling before the Curfew bell rang again.

It took Stick a long time to count the single coin he gripped in his skeletal hand and realize that one coin was, just possibly, fewer than twenty.

His face darkened.

“You said twenty.”

“I didn’t say all at once.” I pulled my Army knife out and stuck it point-first in my desk. Weedheads don’t respond to subtlety.

“We both know what’ll happen to you if you walk out of here with twenty gold crowns in your pocket, Stick. You got a place? You got a bank? Have you got so much as a sack to keep your money in?”

“I want my money.”

“Those pants you're wearing have holes in both pockets. So that coin will do you for today. I’m going to put the rest in a bank, Stick. They’ll keep it safe for you, and you can take all of it out, if you want. I hope you won’t. I hope you’ll clean yourself up and get off the weed and have what’s left of your life. I doubt that’ll happen. I figure you’ll march into whatever bank I choose and take all of it out and you’ll be dead before you spend a tenth of it. But that’s your decision. This is mine.”

He eyed me and eyed the knife and finally his eyes fell on the crown in his palm.

“This is a lot of money,” he said.

“Enough to buy you a brand new life. Come back around before Curfew. I’ll tell you where your bank is, give you the bank chit so you can get to the rest anytime. Deal?”

Maybe, just for an instant, Stick really meant to start over. Maybe he realized what a stroke of rare good fortune had befallen him, and maybe he meant to turn his miserable life around.

He stood. He looked me in the eye. And after I stood, too, he shook my hand.

“Thanks,” he said. “I mean it.”

And then he was gone.

I did all that, by the way. I went to Crowther and Sons. I opened an account in the name of Mr. Stick. I deposited the nineteen gold crowns. I had the bankers make up a chit just for Stick, made them promise not to throw him out even if he stank, and I put Stick’s bank chit in my pocket.

Stick never returned. The chit is in my desk, waiting for him. I suspect it will wait forever.

Even rare good fortune can be too little and too late.


Poor Stick.  I've always felt sorry for him.  There was a decent person in there, under the grime and the weed.

You can get The Cadaver Client in Kindle format from Amazon by clicking here.  You can get it in any other format by clicking here.

And I'd be remiss if I didn't plug my latest book, a light-hearted fantasy entitled All the Paths of Shadow available in any format from the publisher here.

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