I’ll be counting down to the May 19th release of Investigation, Mediation, Vindication by sharing sample chapters, advance reviews, content warnings, and whatever else seems fun. Today, we’ll start at the beginning!
IN WHICH COSPLAY IS A CONTACT SPORT
I was having a pretty good day until the crab men tried to kill me.
May Gray and the all-too-aptly-named June Gloom had finally given way to summer in San Diego, and it was a warm and sunny day with nothing but blue skies and seagulls overhead. My ten o’clock appointment had been a no-show, which was a huge bummer, but I’d used my suddenly free morning to go check out the costumed crazies that flooded the city every year for Comic Con.
And that didn’t suck at all.
People-watching was a favorite pastime of mine. I often told clients it was the reason I’d become a private investigator in the first place. It wasn’t true, but it sounded way better than I dropped out of community college and didn’t want to intern at my dad’s accounting firm.
These days, my job-related people-watching was frequently of the skeevy variety, which made the hundred-thousand-plus comic book, anime, and video game fans a breath of fresh air. And getting to spend Friday morning out on the sunny streets of my hometown?
Like I said, I was having a pretty good day.
Unfortunately, I had to cut the people-watching short once my stomach started growling. I didn’t have the cash to pay even regular downtown prices for lunch, let alone what the street vendors charged during Comic Con, and the peanut butter and jelly sandwich on my desk in Logan Heights was calling my name. Thankfully, the length of the trek back almost justified the half-box of cookies I’d packed with my sandwich.
As I left downtown, the number of costumed would-be crusaders swiftly petered out, replaced by the debris and urban decay of one of the few neighborhoods in San Diego in which I’d been able to afford office space. Still, cosplayers remained very much on my mind. Maybe that’s why I didn’t pay the crab men much attention. Whatever part of my brain actually noticed the pair dismissed them as con-goers who had mistakenly wandered into a very bad part of town.
I didn’t know what show featured crab men, let alone crab men in trench coats, but it seemed like the sort of thing that could have been a failed Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles spinoff.
Nodding amiably to them both, I went to unlock the front door of the three-story building that housed my two-hundred-square-foot office. I was still a few feet away when one of them spoke.
In most places and for most people, that would have been the setup to some sort of lame joke, even before you considered the cosplayer’s oddly slurred speech. After all, it was 2013, and nobody with the last name of Smith would be so cruel or oblivious as to give their son the name John.
Unfortunately, nobody had told my parents that. Or my dad’s parents, for that matter. Or anyone in our overly long and narrow family tree. I was the seventh in a long line of John Smiths, and well on my way to being the least remarkable.
“Yes?” I gave the crab man a confused look. Up close, his costume was even more impressive. The red shell and pincers looked like they’d been sculpted out of something more solid than the usual foam. In the sunlight, they gleamed with an oily sheen, and matching antennae poked through the holes in his floppy fisherman hat.
If I’d had any constructive criticism to give at all, it would have been that neither crab man had thought to cut similar holes in their oversized trench coats. As result, their extra limbs were visible only as weird lumps beneath the fabric. Anyone who put that much effort into a costume really deserved to show it all off.
The crab man’s face, at least, was a creative marvel… and also the stuff of nightmares. Two wide, slightly glowing eyes had been set in the center of a disquietingly lumpy and otherwise featureless face.
“Hey, how do you even see through—?”
I never got to finish my question, because he was already attacking.
Fist of Legend came out when I was six, but I didn’t get to see it until almost six years later. That was my true introduction to Jet Li—a thousand times better than his part in the Lethal Weapon movie or that one film with Aaliyah. As the end credits rolled on the DVD, I knew—as only a twelve-year-old can truly know—that my destiny was to become the greatest martial artist the world had ever known. I swore to move to China, find a sifu, shave my head, and dedicate myself to the ancient arts of ass-kicking.
Instead, my parents signed me up for taekwondo, taught in a strip mall just a few miles from our house in Chula Vista.
I muddled through classes for a while, waiting for my promised destiny to materialize, but it turned out training was really hard work. Or maybe I just wasn’t all that talented. Either way, whatever dedication I had to my craft went right out the window when I turned thirteen and finally discovered girls.
It would be another few years before girls discovered me back, and even then, it was more of a bemused awareness that I existed than any sort of tangible interest, but that’s not the point. The point is that my dream of becoming a martial artist had amounted to little more than six months of learning to bow and one failed test for yellow belt.
So when I dodged the incoming pincer, it was pure luck, not skill. In truth, I stumbled backwards, tripped over my own feet, and very nearly ate concrete as I fell to the ground.
This wasn’t the first time someone had tried to jump me on the streets of Logan Heights, but the crab costume was a new touch. The only good news was that he didn’t seem to be carrying a gun. If I could make it back to Comic Con, security there would protect me. Two miles was a long way to travel—especially for the third time in one day—but given the bulk of the crab man’s costume, I should have an edge in speed.
A slight edge; I hadn’t done much running in the seven years since high school.
Or during high school, for that matter.
Or really any time since I was six.
As these thoughts raced through my mind, far faster than my purely corporeal body could ever hope to manage, I rolled to one side and scrambled back to my feet. The crab man lunged for me again, but I was already running full-steam back in the direction I’d come from.
Unfortunately, I’d forgotten that there were two crab men.
I bounced off the second enraged cosplayer and went down hard. Whatever that shell was made of, it was solid, and the man in the costume was built like a linebacker. That too-wide mouth opened under his lump of a face and he screeched, showering me in spittle.
I crab-walked backwards, too scared to even appreciate the inadvertent pun, only to bump into the lower feet of my original attacker. My position gave me a spectacular view right up the now-open trench coat of my attacker, and I could see those extra limbs wriggling in a manner that defied modern cosplay technology. He raised one of his hind legs, preparing to bring it down upon me like a ketchup-colored spear. In that brief but endless moment, I was forced to accept the truth that was, quite literally, staring me in the face.
There’s just no way these guys are human.
I’d spent my entire life avoiding the Pacific Ocean, but that was because I got seasick even standing on a pier. Nobody had ever warned me about homicidal humanoid crabs.
It seemed like the sort of thing someone should’ve mentioned.
Then time caught back up with itself, and that leg came crashing down.
I may or may not have squealed like a seven-year-old. Nobody caught the moment on camera, so the world will never know for sure. Even a witness would’ve been hard-pressed to hear any noise I may or may not have made over the far louder shriek my attacker gave when a tall shape interposed itself between us, shunted the killing strike aside, and spun the crab man into the wall of my office building so hard I thought the whole structure was going to come down.
I was still flat on my back, like a baby in his crib, when that same tall shape hurdled me to attack the crab man who had been bringing up the rear. I couldn’t see what happened next, but from the sound of things, it wasn’t good for the crab.
Whoever or whatever had just saved me had clearly taken more than six months of martial arts classes.
The first crab man finally staggered away from the building it had collided with, its shell now cracked and split. One of its many legs was hanging limply, and any last doubts as to its inhumanity was dispelled by the greenish blood oozing out from lacerations in its flesh. Even from ten feet away, the fluid smelled like raw sewage. Glowing eyes blinked twice as the crab man shrugged free of its trench coat, exposing its full ugliness to the world. Then that lumpish face focused back on me.
That lasted for all of a second, because my protector—who had slowed down just enough for me to see that she was both human and female—had taken out my other attacker and was coming back to finish the job on its buddy. She met it a few feet in front of me, bobbing and weaving through the storm of pincers and extra limbs the other creature was unleashing.
After my late introduction to Jet Li, I’d watched every martial arts movie I could get my hands on. Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee, Tony Jaa, Donnie Yen… even homegrown heroes like Chuck Norris and Cynthia Rothrock. To the best of my rather expansive knowledge, none of them had ever fought mutant crab men on the streets of San Diego, but it was hard to imagine them doing any better than the woman defending me.
In the blink of an eye, three of the crab man’s eight legs were just gone, torn away in another shower of green goo. One of its pincers waggled drunkenly to the side, and she slipped past the second to grab hold of the lumpy head, right beneath its antennae. She jumped up, braced her booted feet on either side of its thorax, and pulled.
The crab man’s lumpy head flew over her shoulders like the world’s foulest missile, and my defender rode the now-decapitated body down to the street. The creature’s shell became a makeshift island in the rapidly spreading pool of noxious blood.
It was simultaneously the most disgusting and awesome thing I’d seen in twenty-five years of life.
I really should have kept going to taekwondo.