A postcard from Hanzhong
When I wrote my first novel, The Ministry of Thunder, it was originally called Beyul Express. It was the first in a hypothetical series, and I had written the first draft in eight days. The second draft took six months, and expanded from 48.000 words to 78.000.
The book got some great reviews, and was generally well-received.
Later, I wrote another story featuring Felice Sabatini.
A lot of people had asked to learn more about Helena Saratova, Sabatini’s old partner, and Cynical Little Angels, set about two years before the events in Ministry, described the first meeting between the Italian pilot and the blue-haired adventuress.
Two nights ago I was going through one of my usual bouts of insomnia. This has been a rough time for me – rougher than usual. Lots of thoughts and stuff. In the last ten days I’ve been unable to write anything good – and you may have noticed my posts on Karavansara became erratic and short.
So two nights ago, nursing a hell of a headache, at about 2am I fired up a txt file, and started writing.
Write to the block, write through your worries.
At 6am the neighbor’s dogs started barking their hearts out at the dawn, and I found myself with 3500 words of The Ministry of Lightning, the sequel to Thunder, taking place in Shanghai, about six months after the last page of the first novel.
As the story opens Felice Sabatini, having walked the 7000 miles back from the Taklamakan desert, rolls back in Shanghai in the sidecar of a stolen motorbike driven by a Korean expatriate. The city is getting ready for trouble – there are sand bags in the streets, and lots of soldiers carrying weapons.
The motorbike enters the Italian-style garden of a mansion on Bubbling Well Road.
“Are you sure this is the place?” the Korean asks, looking dubious.
“I’m sure,” Sabatini replies.
He knocks on the door. A girl in a sailor uniform opens the door, stares at him, starts screaming, and slams the door shut.
Sabatini gives a reassuring grin at the Korean guy, that looks even more dubious.
Then the door opens again, and it goes more or less like this…
The great door swung open again. I rolled my cap and pushed it in the pocket of my battered leather jacket.
“Hi,” I said.
Helena was standing in the door frame, wrapped in a black silk kimono. She arched an eyebrow. “Do I know you?”
There was enough ice in her Russian voice to cool all the gin-slings in Shanghai. A wave of sighs and whispers ran through the girls crowding behind her. The petite one with the sailor uniform, the one that had answered the door one million years ago, pressed her lips together and shook her head, her eyes in mine.
I stared down at the palms of my hands.
“Listen my foot, Sabatini!” she snapped, her fake Russian accent gone. “You think you can crawl back here from out of nowhere, without even a box of chocolates, and get a room and a free dinner on me because of—” she snorted. “Of what? Your face? Your manners? The fact that you almost got me killed the last time you were here?”
She turned to my companion.
“And this one? He your new boyfriend?”
Yang Jin Park’s eyes goggled and he lifted his hands in a placatory gesture.
“He’s a friend,” I said. “He—”
“He looks like a stray cat.”
The Korean grinned and took a step back. “Ah-uh— I think I better be going—”
“You stay there!” she said. She turned to the girl in an Arrow collar by her right. “Take him to the kitchen, tell cook to feed him.” She eyed Park critically. “He looks like he needs feeding.”
“Yes madame,” the girl grinned, and with a nod ordered Park to follow her.
He pulled off his airman cap and looked at me.
I nodded. “It’s all right,” I said.
The girls retreated and we walked into the marble hall of Helena’s palace. The girl in a man’s shirt took Park by the wrist and dragged him to the kitchens, her heels clicking on the floor the only sound. He was trailing behind, and staring at her behind. He gave me a last wink and disappeared in a side corridor.
Helena crossed her arms on her chest and stared fiery daggers dipped in acid at me. Her oval face was pale, her lips a thin straight line. Her pale purple hair looked like a thundercloud.
“You changed your hair,” I said.
Her hand ran to her curls, then she went pale. “I changed—?”
Her eyes widened. “Tāmāde báichī!”
She slapped me, hard. With a roar she grabbed me by the lapels.
“Six months, you bastard!” She screamed in my face. “Six fucking months thinking you were dead! You could have— I don’t know.” She let go of me, took a step back. “Done something. You could have done something.”
She was breathing hard, her chest heaving. “I thought you were dead,” she repeated, in a low voice.
“I sent you a postcard,” I said. “From Hanzhong.”
Bad choice. She slapped me again, harder.
“Damn you and your damned postcard from Hanzhou! What do you think this is, the fracking YMCA?”
Whispers again ran through the assembled girls. Some of them giggled.
“Hanzhong,” I corrected her.
I massaged my cheek. I needed a shave.
Her violet eyes were trying to drill a hole in my skull.
I sighed, I raised my hands, palm up. Her face cracked in a skewed grin. She stared at her fingernails. “I broke a nail,” she whispered.
She chuckled. “Where the heck is this Hanzhong of yours, anyway?”
I shrugged. “South of Xi’an.”
She sighed, shook her head, her smile broadening. “You took your own sweet fucking time, uh, Sabatini?”
It was like the air in the hall had warmed. The girls shuffled and started chattering. Helena turned to them. “Well?” she said, her Russian accent back on, “Don’t you have anything better to do, no?” She clapped her hands. “Back to work, the bills won’t pay themselves!”
The group scattered, whispering and glancing at us. Helena looked at me, then snapped her fingers at the sailor girl. “Get a bath ready. Hot water, soap.” She eyed me. “Lots of soap. And a razor.”
The girl scuttled away.
“Listen—” I said.
“No listen,” Helena raised her finger. Her nails were long and done in the same violet of her hair. “You stink to high heaven. You take a bath, and then I listen.”
The sailor girl was back.
“And burn his clothes,” Helena said, her hand running along my sleeve as I passed her by. She lingered by my frayed cuff. I ran my fingers across the palm of her hand.
“It’s good—” I said.
She shushed me. “I know.”
Greetings from Hanzhong, circa 1937
I am posting this here because I have started writing The Ministry of Lightning, a planned 85000-words sequel to The Ministry of Thunder, and you are learning of it before my publisher learns of it.
It feels good, writing Sabatini again.
And I might also write a short story – like I did with Angels, describing some of the stuff in which Sabatini and Yang Jay Park got involved before they came to Shanghai.
Can’t give you an ETA or anything.
Can’t even be sure this will get published at all.
But it’s good to be back.