Writing Nowadays–Shameless!

Now we pause for a moment of shamelessness.  And on Memorial Day, yet!  My new novel The Havoc Machine has recently arrived in bookstores everywhere. This is the fourth novel in my Clockwork Empire series. If you haven’t read the others in the series, don’t worry–this one stands apart from the other three and you can read it with no knowledge of the other books. Truly!

In a world riddled with the destruction of men and machines alike, Thaddeus Sharpe takes to the streets of St. Petersburg, geared toward the hunt of his life….

Thaddeus Sharpe’s life is dedicated to the hunting and killing of clockworkers. When a mysterious young woman named Sofiya Ekk approaches him with a proposition from a powerful employer, he cannot refuse. A man who calls himself Mr. Griffin seeks Thad’s help with mad clockwork scientist Lord Havoc, who has molded a dangerous machine. Mr. Griffin cares little if the evil Lord lives or dies; all he desires is Havoc’s invention.

Upon Thad’s arrival at Havoc’s laboratory, he is met with a chilling discovery. Havoc is not only concealing his precious machine; he has been using a young child by the name of Nikolai for cruel experiments. Locked into a clockwork web of intrigue, Thad must decipher the dangerous truth surrounding Nikolai and the chaos contraption before havoc reigns….

THEHAVOCMACHINEHeck, we can even post a sample chapter, but I’ll do it after my signature.  I’ve been blog-hopping for the last couple of weeks, and you can see all the behind-the-scenes stuff I’ve written about the book at my own blog http://spiziks.livejournal.com .  If you like adventure and a heart-strings story about family, grab a copy. And come back to tell us what you think–you know we enjoy the chats.

–Steven Harper Piziks

The Havoc Machine

Chapter One

Thaddeus Sharpe loosened his brown leather jacket and shoved his way into the low-beamed tavern. A fire glowed like a captured demon in the long ceramic stove, and the smoky air wrapped itself around him in a stifling blanket. At long tables, men in long shirts and blousy trousers clanked glasses of vodka and thumped mugs of gira, the fermented drink made from rye bread favored by Lithuanian peasants. A heavy smell of sweat mixed with the sharp tint of vodka and the earthy slop of gira. The autumn evening was already well under way, and the red-faced men shouted more than they talked. Candles stood upright on the tables in cracked saucers to provide light. Dante cocked his good eye at the room and clacked his brass beak from his perch on Thad’s shoulder. Several of the men turned to stare at Thad when he blew in. He tensed and automatically felt for the long knife in his sleeve.

“Shut the damn door!” one of them barked in what Thad assumed was Lithuanian. Thanks to his mother, Thad spoke a number of Eastern European and Baltic languages, and his father had liked to joke that once you learned three of them, the fourth came free. Thad slammed the door, and most of the men went back to their drinking. Two, however, continued to stare at him.

“Dummy, dummy, dummy,” Dante muttered in Thad’s ear. “Stare and stare, here and there.” He squawked.

“Shut it.” Thad’s jaw was set in a line and his brown eyes were hard. Dark hair curled beneath a workman’s cap and he had no beard, but there his resemblance to the men in the tavern ended. His lean build, long leather jacket, and stout boots made him stand out among plain Lithuanian homespun. The ratty brass parrot on his shoulder didn’t help. Maybe he should duck out again and look for a way in through the back.

The two men, both large and callused, got up from their long benches and strode across the sticky tavern floor before Thad could retreat. One of them loomed over Thad, his breath heavy with vodka.

“I have heard of your parrot,” he said in thick Lithuanian. “You are the man who kills clockworkers. Many, many clockworkers.”

The knife was already in Thad’s hand. “What of it?” he replied, his own accent heavy with British vowels. The blade gleamed silver in the candlelight, though neither man seemed to notice. Thad was already calculating—one slash at the throat to incapacitate the first man, shove him backward into the second man, flee into the street. Dante’s forged feathers creaked in his ear as the parrot tensed.

The man clapped Thad on the shoulder. “I will buy your first drink,” he boomed. “And my brother will buy your second. Bartender! Vodka and giras for our new friend!”

Moments later, Thaddeus found himself wedged in at one of the splintery trestle tables with a clay mug by his left hand and a shot glass at his right. A dish of salt and a loaf of dark rye bread sat in front of him. The men at the table raised their own mugs and glasses to Thad, drained them, and wiped their mustaches with their sleeves in one smooth motion.

“So. How many clockworkers have you killed?” said the first man. His name was Arturas and his brother was Mykolas.

“I keep no count.” Thad raised his giras mug, tried a gulp, and suppressed a grimace. It was like drinking sour rye bread.

“Liar, liar, liar,” Dante croaked in his ear.

“Shut it,” Thad said, glad none of the men seemed to speak English.

“Who is this man, Arturas?” asked one of the other drinkers.

“This,” Arturas boomed in reply, “is the man who killed Erek the Terror outside Krakow and Vile Basia in the sewers of Prague. This is the man who killed countless monsters and saved a thousand lives. They say he walks the streets with a brass parrot on his shoulder and a cannon in his trousers.”

The men roared at that, and Thad, laughing but uncomfortable at the attention, raised his mug with an ironic grin.

“This man,” Mykolas added in conclusion, “is a hero.” He threw his free arm around Thad and clashed his glass against his brother’s. The other men, half-drunk, joined in, slopping giras and vodka onto the bread plate. Thad glanced about uneasily and pulled a small card from his coat pocket.

“So what does bring the mighty clockwork killer into a piss-hole like Bûsi Treèias?” Mykolas demanded.

“Hey!” said the bartender, who was arriving with more drinks.

Dante cocked his head and Thad glanced down at the card in his hand. In graceful script on one side was engraved a name in Cyrillic letters. On the back in black ink was scribbled 7.45 sharp, Bûsi Treèias. A ragged boy had handed him the card on the streets of Vilnius earlier that afternoon and fled before Thad could react. Bûsi Treèias was the name of the tavern. It meant “You’ll be third,” and it was the name that made Thad uneasy, though not so uneasy that he avoided the meeting.

The name on the card was Sofiya Ivanova Ekk, a Russian woman’s name, and Russian women did not frequent taverns in the Polish-Lithuanian Union. Neither did Polish-Lithuanian women, for that matter. He thought about asking the men at the table if they knew Sofiya Ekk, but had the feeling that they might think he was enquiring after a prostitute or, worse, someone’s sister.

“I thought I might have business here,” he said in his heavy Lithuanian. “But I seem to have made new friends instead.”

That brought on another smashing together of mugs and more knocking back of vodka. Thad tried the latter this time, and it burned a fiery trail down to his stomach. Tears streamed from his eyes. He hastily snatched up some bread, dipped it in salt, and wolfed it down.

A glass of honest-to-god beer landed in front of him. Startled, Thad looked up. The balding bartender withdrew his hand and jerked his head toward a corner of the bar. A figure wrapped in scarlet sat in a shadow far away from the red-hot stove. Thad clapped Arturas on the shoulder and picked up his beer. “I seem to have business after all.”

Arturas and the other men didn’t seem to mind, though they watched him curiously as he picked his way across the crowded room with his beer.

“Pretty, pretty, pretty boy,” Dante said. “Beer and crackers.”

When Thad arrived at the corner, the scarlet figure resolved itself into a woman in a hooded cloak of rich scarlet velvet, unfashionable but not unheard-of. The hood covered the upper half of her face, and an untouched glass of something red sat on the small table in front of her. She had an actual chair instead of a bench, and a matching chair waited across from her. The noise of the tavern seemed to die away as Thad gingerly sat down. He had talked to his share of women in taverns elsewhere, but these circumstances were definitely odd. They were also intriguing.

“Pretty, pretty, pretty,” Dante said again.

“Miss Ekk?” Thad put out a hand, half ready to snatch it back.

“I am that woman.” She shook hands. Her palm was smooth and soft. Thad wondered if she expected him to kiss the back, but he didn’t. Instead, he set his elbow on the table and let Dante walk down his arm. Dante did get heavy after a while. The parrot waddled over to investigate the unlit candle. Gears creaked uneasily through bare spots where brass feathers were missing or broken, and the bottom half of his beak was off-center, as if Dante had flown through a tornado and only barely lived to tell about it.

“I am thrilled you decided to come, Mr. Sharpe,” the woman said. Her English carried a Russian accent, and her voice was low and powerful.

“I’m a little surprised to find someone like you in a place like this, Miss Ekk,” Thad countered. His eyes flickered up and down her form, trying to assess her, but she wasn’t moving and the damned cloak hid everything. He couldn’t even tell how old she was.

“Someone like me?”

He gestured at the tavern. More than one person was still staring in their direction. Normally it would have made him more nervous, but right now he found it reassuring to have other eyes on him. “Proper females don’t go to bars in the Polish-Lithuanian Union. Or in Russia. They stay behind closed doors and do proper female things.”

“Rules are for people who think little, Mr. Sharpe. People like us, we think large. That is why I wished to meet you.”

“In a tavern with the name You’ll Be Third?” Thad brandished the card.

“I believe the name shows that the place is very popular—there are always two people ahead of you waiting to be served. The name fits, no?”

“It’s also the Lithuanian way of saying your luck will turn for the worse,” Thad spat. “Did you think I didn’t know?”

Sofiya laughed quietly. “You are not superstitious. You use scientific knowledge. You know from experience how the clockwork plague works, for example. These people”—she gestured at the room—“think the plague comes from the devil. They think that when someone catches the disease and it turns them into a shambling mound of flesh that wanders through the streets feeding on garbage until their brains rot away, God meant it as a punishment. And they think that when the disease makes someone into a clockworker who creates glorious and impossible inventions—”

“—and goes mad and does horrible things to innocent to people,” Thad put in.

“Doom, destruction, death, despair,” said Dante. “Doom!”

“Shut it,” Thad ordered.

“They think this also is a punishment from God,” Sofiya finished as if no one had spoken. “Their church tells them so. But we know it is nothing more than a disease that acts as a disease must.”

“The plague is a curse, and the faster we eradicate everything connected with it, the better,” Thad snapped. He found his left hand was shaking, and he forced it to still.

“I told you we think large,” Sofiya said with a nod. “And I am glad to see that you can react as a human being, Mr. Sharpe.”

Thad clenched his teeth. “Why are we talking about this? What do you care about the clockwork plague?”

“You have caught my interest, Mr. Sharpe. You are a very interesting person to very many people. Very interesting.”

That set off several small alarm bells inside his head.

“I don’t want to offend,” Thad said, now with careful control in every syllable, “but I feel I should to point out that the parrot which has moved to a strategic spot on the table less than eight inches in front of you can deliver more than two thousand pounds of pressure from the business end of that sharp beak, more than enough pressure to slice open your windpipe. I also have a knife on a spring-load that can open up an artery so quickly, you won’t even know you’re dead before the blade is clean and back up my sleeve. Finally, all those men over there, the ones you were scorning as small-thinking peasants a moment ago, seem to like me quite a lot, and I think they would be very upset if anyone tried something foolish.”

“Such a mental condition you have,” Sofiya tutted. “I believe the English word is paranoia.”

His muscles were growing tight with tension. The situation was unusual. Thad didn’t like unusual. It was too like hunting clockworkers. But tension made fights difficult. He forced himself to relax. “I deal with clockworkers all the time. One can never be too paranoid.”

“As you like, Mr. Sharpe. But I do not have a wish to harm you.” From the folds of her cloak, she produced a small purse, which she dropped on the table. It clinked. “I wish to hire you.”

That got Thad’s attention fast, though me made no move to touch the purse. “Dante.”

The parrot expertly tore the purse open, revealing the glint of silver and gold coins, a generous offering. “Pretty, pretty, pretty,” he said, plucking a coin from the pile with a claw and bending it in half with his beak.

Thad didn’t relax his guard. “People don’t usually hire me to kill clockworkers. They usually beg me, and I’m always happy to oblige. Why offer money?”

“You may do with the clockworker as you wish. It means nothing to me. I want—or rather, my employer wants—something else entirely. That is why we are offering you money.”

Now Thad leaned back in the hard chair. “Your employer?”

“I represent a third party. He does not go out in public and needs people to do for him. He heard you were traveling with the Kalakos Circus these days, and when they came to Vilnius, he asked me to arrange for your employment.”

“I’m not seeking long-term—”

“This is a single piece of work,” Sofiya interrupted. “And it is very similar to what you already do.”

“Money, money,” Dante said. “Pretty money.” He reached for another coin. Thaddeus absently moved the purse out of his reach and took a pull from his beer.

“You can see my face,” he said. “I would like to see yours. So I know who I’m dealing with.”

Without hesitation, Sofiya cast back her scarlet hood. Golden hair spilled across her shoulders and clear blue eyes looked out over finely molded features and a sharp chin. The small scar that ran along her left jawline was the only flaw to her beauty. Thad didn’t outwardly react, though inwardly he caught his breath. Such sweet loveliness ran a sharp contrast to the dull tavern and its sour drinks—and brought up bitter memories.

“Thank you.” His voice stayed carefully neutral. “Who’s your employer, if you please?”

“He is a person who hires people like me so he does not need to give his name.” Sofiya straightened her thick cloak. It must have been stifling in the heat of the tavern, but she showed no signs of sweating. “You usually kill clockworkers for no money at all, so I would have thought the prospect of having extra coins would be an encouragement, no?”

“I just like to know what’s going on,” Thad replied.

“Darkness, despair, death,” Dante squawked. “Doom!”

Sofiya ignored him. “I will tell you. There is a castle ruin approximately half a day’s horseback travel south of Vilnius. A clockworker who calls himself Mr. Havoc has moved in to it, fortified it, and made it his own. He is quite brilliant, as all clockworkers are.” She paused to sip from her red glass. Was it wine? She had expensive tastes. “He has already managed many dreadful experiments with machines and men. The village nearby is quite terrified of him, but they lack the weaponry to assault his little fortress.”

“And you want me to go in there and kill him,” Thad finished.

“You are very forthright for such a handsome Englishman,” Sofiya said. “But I have already said that my employer does not care if you kill Mr. Havoc or not. He wants you to bring him a particular machine Mr. Havoc has created.”

“Is that so?” Thad took another pull from his beer mug. It was only of middling quality, but it was beer and not giras. “You didn’t give me much information, Miss Ekk. How coherent is this Mr. Havoc? Does he go into inventing fugues quite a bit or only rarely? What sort of inventions does he specialize in? Who was he before he became a clockworker? Does he have friends or family who help him? Where does he get money from? Does he buy or steal to get materials? If he buys, who is his supplier? If he steals, who does he steal from?”

Sofiya spread her hands. “I am afraid I have already told you everything I know, Mr. Sharpe.”

“Why doesn’t your employer simply wait him out? The clockwork plague will kill this Mr. Havoc of yours in a couple of years, three at the absolute most.”

“No. My employer needs the invention now. But I see you are reluctant.” She gathered up the purse and made to rise. “I will find someone else, then. Good day, Mr. Sharpe.”

He caught her wrist. The skin was smooth. “I didn’t say I wouldn’t do it, Miss Ekk. I’m just suspicious of strange circumstances and a secretive employer.”

“The circumstances are this—you have the chance to rid the world of another clockworker, and make a great deal of money in the bargain by delivering one of his inventions to my employer. Will you do it?”

Dante bit the candle in half. “Done, done, done.”

“Done,” Thad said.

“Excellent. The invention is a spider the size of a small trunk. It has ten legs instead of the usual eight, and it has copper markings all over it. You will know it the moment you see it. I would approach the castle from the west. Our employer has information that says the west wall of the castle has an old doorway overgrown with ivy. The castle’s defenses are also weaker in that direction, which is lucky for you—us. That door will get you through the castle wall and into the ruins. After that, you are quite alone.”

“I’m never alone if I have Dante,” Thad replied without a trace of irony.

Sofiya got to her feet. “I have a horse waiting in the back, and a basket of food. The moon is full tonight, so you can see. Take the main road south, then turn west when you reach the village of Juodsilai. The ruins are there. The horse is fast and should reach the castle an hour or two before dawn.”

“What, you want me to leave now? In the middle of the night?”

“Must you make extensive preparations?”

“No.”

“Do you intend to attack Mr. Havoc during daylight, when he can see you coming?”

“No.”

“Then we go now, Mr. Sharpe.”

“We?”

“I will come with you, of course.” A grim smile crossed Sofiya’s face as she hauled him toward the back door. “I am suspicious as well.”

 

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