Courtesy of Skull Island eXpeditions, we have a free excerpt of The Devils’ Pay by Dave Gross.
What’s it about?
Samantha ‘Sam’ MacHorne and her Devil Dogs need a contract, and when one comes in that leads to the haunted Wythmoor Forest, the company moves out with warjacks and slug guns at the ready…
Sam and the Devil Dogs may be relaxing in Tarna, but it’s not by choice-they’d rather be employed than resting up. When a dangerous job offer comes from “the old man,” Sam takes the Devil Dogs and their newest recruit, Dawson, on a perilous hunt to capture an unidentified warjack before their rival Steelheads or the horrific Cryx make a claim on the never-before-seen technology.
Whether their mission will be worth the risk remains to be seen, but one thing is clear: Sam and the Devil Dogs will do whatever it takes to bring home The Devil’s Pay.
by Dave Gross
Dawson pelted down Lantern Street yelling, “Crawley! Harrow! Pamuk! Burns! Lieutenant Lister! Devil Dogs!”
He tripped over a legless beggar gripping a pair of wooden blocks to walk on his hands. The man fell to his stumps. Cursing, he shook a muddy block after Dawson. “Watch where you’re going, you good-for-nothing-”
“Sorry!” Dawson plucked a few small coins from his purse and tossed them over his shoulder. They splashed into a puddle beside the beggar.
“Couldn’t be bothered to put them in my pocket?” grumbled the man. He planted himself beside the puddle to fish out the coins.
Dawson ran on, shouting up at the second-floor balconies. “Devil Dogs! Lieutenant Lister! Corporal Pamuk!”
Dawson tried to dodge out of the path of a trollkin vendor, but his shoulder knocked free two of the roast chickens hanging from the staff across her shoulder. They splashed onto the muddy street. “Sorry!”
“Four silverweight.” The trollkin thrust out a hand the size of a shovel. She glared down over her bulging blue chin at Dawson, who stood two inches under six feet tall and looked smaller compared to her.
This time Dawson stopped as he withdrew the payment from his purse. He placed the coins in the trollkin’s pebbled hand before resuming his search.
“Waste of perfectly good food,” grumbled the trollkin. Before she could bend down to retrieve the fallen chickens, the beggar tucked one between his chin and chest, hastening away on his blocks.
“Crawley! Harrow! Pamuk! Burns! Lieutenant Lister! Devil Dogs! Anybody?”
“Sweetheart, you looking for Smooth Pamuk?” A courtesan leaned over the railing of her balcony. A pair of the street’s eponymous lanterns glowed at either end of the railing, advertising her availability.
“Do you know where I can find him?”
“That depends,” she said. “Can you pay his tab?”
Dawson weighed his purse in one hand. “How much?”
She shrugged and turned aside, waving at a man across the street.
“Wait! Wait! I’ll be right up.”
Dawson barged through the brothel’s salon, dodging a scantily clad woman riding on the back of a patron playing the part of a donkey. The man reared and brayed at Dawson as he pushed past.
The over-painted madam looked up from behind a counter on which she counted colored chits, each one painted with a different variation on a common theme of two – sometimes three, or more – entangled bodies. At the sight of Dawson, she laid a cloth over the chits and smiled. Her shoes clacked on the floor as she came around the counter.
“Such a hurry, young fellow? Why don’t you have a seat and tell me just what you had in mind-” She spotted the emblem painted on his pauldron. “Devil Dogs! I’ve been meaning to have a word with your sergeant about Smooth’s outstanding- Where do you think you’re going?”
“Sorry!” Dawson darted around the madam and ran up the stairs. The courtesan he had seen from the street awaited him in the hallway, her open palm extended.
Dawson counted out twenty-six gold coins into her hand. Her eyebrows rose in surprise, but she pointed down the corridor to the grand suite. Dawson doffed an invisible cap and said, “Thank you kindly.”
He ran down the hall and burst through the suite’s double doors. Inside, Corporal Pamuk sat in a steaming bathtub. The brown man’s body was a mass of muscles, almost too much for the tub to contain, yet a pretty young woman sat behind him in the water. She drew a silver straight razor across his scalp. At Dawson’s sudden arrival, she looked up. Pamuk hissed. A spot of blood appeared on the shining blade.
“Dammit, private!” said Pamuk, touching the wound. He tasted the blood and scowled. “You’d better have one hell of a good-”
“Emergency meeting, Sir,” said Dawson. “Captain said, ‘Fetch all the boys double-fast.'”
“But we haven’t-”
“She has a contract, Corporal. A paying job.”
“Why didn’t you say so in the first place? And don’t call me ‘Corporal.’ It’s Smooth.”
His barber stroked his shaved head and said, “It certainly is.”
Smooth rose, splashing the doxy with bathwater. He stood a good eight inches taller than Dawson. Apparently his head was the last part of him to be shaved.
“Don’t just stand there, Private-”
“Dawson, Sir! I signed on just last week”
“That’s fine, Dawson. Now hand me that towel.”
Dawson obliged. When he saw the woman glaring at him from the tub, he fetched another for her while Smooth donned his gear: thick leather pants, heavy boots, steel shoulder plates, elbow and knee guards. At last he snagged his leather jacket. On its back was painted a ferocious horned hound, Dog Company’s emblem.
The young woman wiped the razor carefully on a towel before handing it with a flourish to Smooth. He gave her a kiss and slipped the razor into a pocket inside his jacket. “Thanks, doll-face.”
Dawson turned to leave through the suite door.
“Not that way,” said Smooth. “Here comes the reckoning.”
An accelerating clack of footsteps came down the corridor. Dawson winced as he recognized the sound of the madam’s hard shoes. He peered out the door to see her approaching, shoulders squared, chin tucked, ready for battle.
“It’s all right,” said Dawson. “I paid your tab.”
“Did you bring a handcart?”
“What? No, of course not.”
“Then I assure you, you didn’t pay my tab.” Smooth slammed shut the suite doors. After a moment’s consideration, he pushed a vanity in front of them.
“Smooth!” bellowed the madam. She banged on the suite door with the strength of an ogrun berserker, rattling the vanity mirror. “I know you’re in there.”
Smooth and Dawson went over the windowsill, slid across the eave, and dropped down to the street.
“Where are the others?” asked Smooth.
“I was hoping you could tell me, Corporal,” said Dawson. “I mean, Smooth.”
Smooth stared and shook his head. “Why did the captain send you, then?” he asked. “All right, follow me.”
They ran down Lantern Street, heedless of the muffled shouts of the brothel madam.
Smooth led the way to the Rust Market a few streets away. Cool shadows began to pool at the base of the buildings. Clouds veiled the descending sun.
“Creepy!” shouted Smooth.
Sergeant Crawley glanced up from a table full of pistons. His goggles hung loose around his scrawny neck. The tip of his long cap fell limp upon his shoulder. He returned his attention to a warjack piston, one among many salvaged parts arrayed on scarred tables beneath the dealer’s tent. “Whaddaya want, Smooth?”
“Captain MacHorne wants the boys back double-quick,” said Dawson.
Crawley looked up, as if noticing Dawson for the first time. “Got any money?”
“Not much left,” said Dawson, shaking his purse. “But the captain has a new contract.”
“Well, why didn’t you say so in the first place?” Crawley pushed the piston back across the table.
“That’s what I told him,” said Smooth.
“Better fetch the lieutenant,” said Crawley. “He’s around here somewhere, giving the junk boss an earful.”
The three men turned two more corners among the market’s confusing array of junk stalls before they heard the evidence of Crawley’s report.
Up on a wooden platform, two big men stood nose-to-nose, each trying to knock the other unconscious with harsh language thrown at high volume. Behind them stood two ranks of decommissioned warjacks covered in tarpaulins. Each steel giant was chained to huge stone anchors sunk into the ground. A rusty iron sign nearby read: “Buy & Sell.”
Smooth and Crawley winced at the argument and looked at each other before turning to Dawson.
“Deliver your message, Dawson,” said Smooth.
Dawson gulped before he approached the two combatants. “Lieutenant Lister, Sir!”
The bald and black-bearded man continued swearing into the face of the red-bearded ‘jack dealer. A fat, unlit cigar bobbed with every syllable, threatening to tickle the vendor’s nose. “I never agreed to a thirty-five percent markup on the buy-back!”
“You take long enough, prices go up!” bellowed the dealer. “It’s no fault of mine you Dogs can’t pay your bills.”
“You don’t know a damned thing about the vicissitudes of contract employment, you grubby little junk picker.”
“Pipe down, Private. Can’t you see I’m in the middle of a delicate negotiation?”
“Captain’s orders, Sir! Double-fast assembly, Sir. JOB, Sir!”
Lister wheeled, turning his back to the vendor, who made a vulgar gesture beneath his chin.
“Well, why didn’t you say so in the first place?” He jumped down from the platform, splashing mud on himself and the other Dogs. “Who’s missing?”
“Harrow and Burns, Sir!”
Lister waved a vague hand beyond the Rust Market to a row of shops. “Harrow’s over there, somewhere.”
They split up to peer into storefronts until Sergeant Crawley blew his signal whistle. Thus summoned, they piled into a shop beneath the sign of a brace of pistols.
Inside, a hard-faced man stood across the counter from the proprietor and peered into the fat barrel of a new slug gun. Both his eyes and his short-cropped hair were the color of fresh steel. Between him and the gunsmith sat a game board with most of the pieces set aside, captured.
Dawson stepped forward. Harrow turned and paralyzed him with a glance. Dawson retreated to stand beside Crawley. “If you don’t mind, Sergeant, perhaps you could be the one to tell the Corporal-”
“Harrow, job!” barked Lieutenant Lister.
Harrow laid down the gun and walked away without a word to his opponent.
As the men left the shop, Smooth slugged Dawson in the shoulder, just hard enough to leave a bruise. “You see? That’s the way to do it.”
“Now where’s Burns?” asked Crawley.
“Where else?” said Harrow. His voice was the sound of a shell loaded into a chamber.
“There’s one,” said Smooth. He nodded toward a tavern beneath the sign of a pig whistling under the skirts of a startled lady. “I think I hear his voice.”
They walked past a statue of Madruva Dagra. Gas flames licked up from each of her cupped palms. A trio of damp ravens perched on her arms, eyes scanning the street for food.
As they approached the Whistling Pig, the men heard Burns’ off-key rendition of “Blue Rose in Winter.” The big man sat on the windowsill, his curly blonde hair thrown back as he belted out the song. His arms were as thick and hard as Smooth’s. An audience of mill workers banged their tankards on the tables in rhythm to his song.
“Uh, oh,” said Crawley, his reedy voice cracking. “He’s doing his special version.”
“That’s fine,” said Smooth. “It’s not like we’re anywhere near the Khadoran border.”
“Tell it to those fellows.” Crawley pointed across the crowded tavern.
Two long-mustached mercenaries leaned against the bar. Their insignia had been torn away long ago, but their long coats were unmistakably Khadoran. Nearby, four more burly Khadorans sat at a table, not drinking their beers. Their scowls deepened as they listened to Burns’ revised lyrics. In his version of the song, the princess’ lover was a clever ogrun tinker.
As Burns came to the part where the princess professes her love in an obscene rhyming couplet, the foreigners’ hands moved to the hilts of their swords. As they stepped toward Burns, their countrymen rose from the table to support them.
“Get him out of there,” said Lister.
“Yes, Sir!” said Dawson. He ran after Sergeant Crawley, who was already shouldering his way through the crowded doorway. Eager to witness a fight, the patrons made no effort to get out of his way.
Burns appeared oblivious to both the approaching mercenaries and the shouts of his fellow Dogs. As one of the Khadorans drew his sword, Burns snatched up his steel helmet and swung it hard. The man fell back, clutching a nose that now looked like a crushed strawberry.
His partner’s hand left his sword and came up with a pistol from inside his coat. As he leveled the weapon at the singer’s face, Burns swung his helmet again. The pistol fired. A ricochet struck off the helmet to blast a chunk of the stone out of the hearth before finally shattering bottles behind the bar.
“No guns!” screamed the bartender before diving for cover.
Burns head-butted the second Khadoran, making the man’s nose a match for his companion’s.
The patrons cheered. Some stood up to grab the Khadorans’ bodyguards. Others threw punches at random targets.
“Stay away from my daughter!” somebody yelled before punching the man beside him.
“You never buy a round!” Another man leaped a table to strangle his drinking mate.
“I don’t even know you!” A burly fellow punched a stranger in the gut and looked around, grinning, for another foe.
The tavern erupted into a general brawl as patrons saw the opportunity to address simmering feuds or simply to let off some steam after a day’s labor in the mills.
Smooth leaped through the open window behind Burns. He wrapped his massive arms around Burns’ waist and pulled him backward. “We don’t have time for this.”
“What are you doing, Smooth?” bellowed Burns. He poked a finger through the bullet hole in his helmet and frowned in sorrow.
Smooth winced at the blast of beer breath. “We’re getting you out of here.”
“Job, Corporal!” shouted Dawson, trying to push his way back out of the tavern. “Captain has a job!”
“Oh, all right,” said Burns. As Smooth released him, he lurched back toward the brawl. “I just want to make one last point.”
As the belligerent Khadorans staggered to their feet, Burns swung his helmet in a wide, horizontal arc, dropping both with a single blow.
Crawley blew a piercing blast from his brass signal whistle. “Dogs, out now!”
“Well, hell,” said Burns. “I was just warming up.” Cradling his dented helm, he snatched up a stranger’s tankard and followed Smooth out the tavern window.
“That’s my beer!” yelled a man holding his unconscious foe by the collar.
The tavern keeper pushed his way through the mob of his customers. “You’re not going anywhere till you’ve paid for the rounds you bought.”
“How many this time?” asked Crawley.
Burns paused to burp. “Two or three, maybe.”
“Nine!” shouted the tavern keep. “You Devil Dogs owe me ninety-six royals, to say nothing of the damages!”
“That tears it,” said Lieutenant Lister. “Run for it, Dogs!”
“Stay together,” Crawley yelled. “Lead the way, Dawson.”
They pounded their way out of the market district and ran toward the Dragon’s Tongue River. One bloody-nosed Khadoran pursued them, two of his men at his back. A few streets away, the whistles and shouts of the Tarna Watch joined the hunt.
Turning away from the river walk, Dawson dashed through the crooked alleys of Mill Street, hoping to lose their pursuers in the smut of coal and dye vapor. Bleach stung their eyes, and the mechanical clatter of steam-operated looms overwhelmed the cries of their pursuers.
The Devil Dogs emerged dripping wet and blackened by soot, but no one followed them out of the steamy passage. The sky had grown darker. A cool breeze blew across Tarna from the Dragon’s Tongue.
Dawson led the way to the company’s rented warehouse. Beside the massive door, one of the men had chalked up the company’s horned dog emblem. A drizzle of rain struck up a rising patter on the building’s tin roof.
“Good job, Dawson,” said Crawley.
Dawson stood a little straighter until Burns added, “Yeah, we’ll know who to tap next time we need to run away from a fight.”
Harrow slid open the door and the others entered. Dawson began to follow, but Crawley barred his way. “Sorry, Dawson. Briefing’s for the ‘boys’ only. Go join the rest of the men. I’ll fill you all in during second briefing.”
Dawson didn’t know what it took to become one of the ‘boys’, but it obviously didn’t include grunts like him.
“But I…” Dawson’s shoulders slumped. “Yes, Sergeant.”
Crawley gave him a smile, but the stained pegs of his teeth were more frightening than comforting. He closed the door.