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. In Chapter 1, our hero, John, nearly died at the pincers of two attacking crab cosplayers. Chapter 2 picks up with the woman who saved his life and kept this from being a very, very short book.
IN WHICH THE WORLD GETS WEIRDER
Start with the shoes.
It’s something my old boss and mentor taught me while I was accruing the hours necessary to apply for my private investigator’s license: always look at a person’s shoes. He claimed they were one detail people forgot to change when traveling incognito.
In my experience, very few people bothered with disguises in the first place, but the lesson had stuck.
The woman who’d just killed two monsters with her bare hands wore leather boots with almost no heel at all. Given the amount of crustacean ass she’d kicked, I’d have expected combat boots, but these looked like something you’d get from a high-end designer instead. If someone had walked into my office wearing boots like that, I’d have gleefully tripled my usual rates.
Above the boots, long black pants and a blue silk blouse had been transformed into fashionable biohazards by gratuitous quantities of crab blood and goo, but my crab-killing savior almost made the whole thing work. She was tall and slender, with shoulders slightly broader than her frame suggested, and posture so perfect that the buildings around us seemed even more decrepit by comparison.
That was the point where I should have said something back—preferably something suave that she’d recount to our children twenty years down the line—but my heart was hammering a million miles a second, and oxygen was in short supply. Still flat on my back, the best I could do was nod.
Thankfully, the blood-soaked woman standing above me didn’t seem to mind. She returned my nod with one of her own, somehow elevating the simple gesture to a thing of elegance.
“Mr. Smith, my name is Anastasia Dumenyova.” Her voice was smooth and deep, like warm chocolate. Even her name was lovely; an exotic blend of rounded consonants and vowels. I’d never regretted my own utterly bland name quite so much as in that moment. “As you can see, your life is in danger. I need you to come with me.”
Anastasia pulled me to my feet with astonishing ease. Now that I was finally upright, I realized she was a good four inches shorter than I was. She’d seemed taller when I was flat on my back.
It was my turn to speak again, but face-to-face with my future wife, the world’s softest hand still firmly gripping mine, the words stuck in my throat. It was eerily reminiscent of the time I’d tried asking Marie, our school’s Canadian exchange student, to Homecoming.
Except that Anastasia hadn’t laughed in my face.
As we stood there, two black Escalades pulled up to the curb. In a movie, there’d have been an accompanying squeal of brakes and some sort of ominous music, but this was real life, and there was nothing but the throaty purr of oversized engines. Judging by the shine of their glossy paint jobs, both SUVs had been washed, detailed, and waxed that morning.
I was glad my gently-used Corolla was parked around the corner. It had enough self-esteem issues already without being directly compared to vehicles like these.
I looked from the Escalades back to the woman who had just saved my life, and somewhere along the way, I found my voice. “Shouldn’t we call the cops?”
“And tell them what, exactly?” She arched one delicate eyebrow, slightly darker than the auburn hair she’d pulled back into a neat bun. “That you were assaulted by a pair of karkinos?”
“Maybe?” I had no idea what a karkino was, or how I could actually hear the italics she was giving the name, but my well-honed investigative instincts and the two bodies lying in multiple pieces around us made me think she was talking about the crab men.
“The rest of the consortium is no doubt on its way, Mr. Smith, and the police have better things to do than get killed.”
I blinked. I wasn’t sure what a consortium was either, but… the rest of what she’d said sounded an awful lot like a quote from Big Trouble in Little China.
It might have been the near-death experience talking, but I decided then and there that I was going to marry this woman if it was the last thing I did.
I was busy planning our elaborate Coronado wedding—I’d wear a tux with a red cummerbund… she’d wear whatever she damn well pleased—when a man emerged from the driver seat of the first Escalade. He cut an imposing figure in aviators and a suit that had been purchased at whatever store stocked XXXXXXL, but there was something deferential in his manner as he came around to open the rear passenger door.
Clearly, he’d seen Anastasia’s fight.
The second Escalade disgorged a handful of additional men in similarly black suits. Unlike the driver, most were average-sized, but they were all fit and far too attractive for Logan Heights. Or even downtown San Diego, in general. It was like someone had hired an entire modeling agency to play bit roles in a government conspiracy thriller. Wordlessly, they unrolled plastic tarps along the sidewalk, and began to mop up the carnage. The cracked concrete had been stained that disturbing shade known as puke green… which was appropriate because I was about ten seconds from losing my breakfast.
“After you, Mr. Smith,” said Anastasia, disengaging from my increasingly sweaty hand and gesturing to the empty rear seat.
I turned back to her and felt my nausea transform right back into butterflies. That Homecoming disaster hadn’t been the end of my crush on Marie—nor had her eventual return to Canada, where she’d gotten married and was now somehow already the mother of two—but at that particular moment on the blood-soaked streets of San Diego, I couldn’t remember what the former love-of-my-life even looked like. There was no space in my world for anything but the woman in front of me. From a few feet away, her eyes were pools of liquid jade.
“Two girls with green eyes,” I recited. “What can it mean?”
“I beg your pardon?”
Maybe she hadn’t been quoting Big Trouble in Little China after all. That was actually kind of disappointing.
“Never mind.” I cleared my throat, and voiced the questions I should’ve asked at the start. “What’s going on? Who are you people? Why would anyone try to kill me, let alone whatever these things are?”
“We do not have time for explanations, Mr. Smith. I promise they will come when you are safe.” She had a small ring of gold around her pupils, almost lost amidst the green. As she spoke, it seemed to catch light and sparkle. “Get in the car.”
The private investigator side of me wanted answers before I went anywhere, while the side of me that could never have survived a regular nine-to-five bristled at the idea of anyone giving me orders. But Anastasia had literally just saved my life. If she thought we’d be safer elsewhere, I was willing to trust her.
Besides, God loves a strong woman, and so do I.
I got in the car.
The interior of the Escalade was closer to a small apartment than a car. It was one hell of an upgrade from my Corolla, whose interior had already been trashed before I bought it, and now most closely resembled the dumpster I parked it behind every morning. I let myself sink into buttery soft leather and luxuriated in the ability to extend my legs without encountering day-old fast food wrappers or any of the other stakeout trash that had made my car’s back seat a wasteland. As we pulled away from the curb, the SUV’s shocks effortlessly handled the pothole-ridden streets outside my office.
It was like riding on a cloud. Only less damp.
I was alone in the back with Anastasia. The oversized driver had passed her a fluffy white towel, but crab guts were proving to be the sort of stain that never comes out. With a sigh, she folded the now-ruined towel and placed it on the floor by her booted feet.
“I’m sorry about the mess,” I said. My ‘Stay Classy, San Diego’ t-shirt was a lost cause too, but I had an extra back at my house. Besides, I was pretty sure her one outfit had cost more than my entire wardrobe. And maybe my monthly rent.
She shrugged. “It is a small thing, Mr. Smith, when measured against your life. What matters is that we arrived in time to save you.”
In the confines of the Escalade, the impact of her voice was only magnified. It was unfair that anyone so good looking could also have a voice like that. Barry White would have been jealous if he were still alive. Part of me wanted to just sit and listen to her speak for the rest of my life. Especially when she made it sound like I was someone important.
But I’d been promised answers.
“How did you know I was in danger? And for that matter, why am I in danger? I don’t even eat crab. Anymore.” As a small business owner, my food budget mostly went to beer. “Why would they want me dead?”
“The karkino are not concerned with your dietary habits. Nor do they bear any direct relation to actual crabs. They are a species of assassins. I believe their consortium was hired to kill you because of what you are.”
“And what’s that?” I’d read fantasy books that started out this way. A hidden bloodline. Secret powers. Women way more attractive than the protagonist warranted. The hitman crabs were admittedly a new wrinkle, but everything else was going precisely according to script.
Instead of answering, Anastasia retrieved a black folder from the pocket of the seat in front of her. She flipped through several sheets of varying color and size and handed me a torn yellow scrap of paper.
It was a Yellow Pages ad. That was weird enough as it was.
Even weirder? It was mine.
The ad had been one of my many attempts to drum up business for the agency. My best friend Mike and I had been on our third pitcher of beer when I purchased it, and the ad copy, printed just above the address and phone number for my office, reflected that fact:
Investigation. Mediation. Vindication.
No case too small, no fee too large.
(Tips gratefully accepted, but not required.)
Needless to say, it hadn’t been very successful. I’d written the whole thing off as a lesson on never drinking again… and then, when that lesson proved impossible to follow, as a lesson on never buying Yellow Pages ads when drunk. Or at all.
As bad as the ad was, however, it didn’t seem to justify someone hiring hitmen… or hit crabs… or whatever… to kill me. And why now, all this time later?
Wait. Anastasia had said they wanted to kill me because of what I was. So it wasn’t the ad itself that had put my life in danger. It was my job. That made slightly more sense.
“Did I see something I wasn’t supposed to on a case?”
I’d had two jobs in as many months. One had been a father trying to reconnect with his wayward daughter. I’d scoured social media, interviewed old friends, run a credit report, and basically struck out on all fronts. At the end, Mr. Oglestein had seemed more sad than murderous.
The second job had been a housewife looking for proof that her husband was having an affair with his personal trainer. As was too often the case, he had been. And with his secretary. And their next-door neighbor. It had taken me less than three days to fill four USB drives with the photographic evidence. Which sucked, both for the poor wife and for my billable hours.
I wouldn’t have been shocked to get a visit from that dude—irate spouses were an occupational hazard—but nothing I’d seen in my brief stakeout had suggested criminal connections… let alone some sort of pipeline to syndicates under the sea.
Anastasia shook her head, sending a few wayward strands of auburn hair whispering across the silk of her blouse. “It is not your role as an investigator that is the issue here, Mr. Smith.” She extended one slender finger and tapped the second word in my ad’s headline. “This is why they want you dead.”
I’d literally just read the ad, but I found myself doing so a second time, just to be sure. “Say what now?”
“They want you dead because you are a mediator.”
“For your sake, I wish that were the case. But all evidence points to the contrary.”
I frowned. Small streams of crab guts had pooled in the leather stitching of the car’s seats. I wasn’t sure how much it cost to have an Escalade detailed, but this one would also need an exorcism.
“Mr. Smith, I recognize that this is difficult to accept, especially for someone who was unaware of the true nature of the world they lived in. But as you have seen, the threat is real. You are, in fact, the last mediator alive in San Diego.”
It wasn’t the sort of thing I’d ever expected to hear, let alone on a Friday in July, after a morning outside Comic Con. Assuming I ever recovered from my own near-death experience, I was pretty sure I’d have nightmares about all the many murders that had apparently been carried out before mine. But in that singular moment, my mind was fixated on only one thing.
“But I’m not really a mediator!”
On Thursday, I’ll be back with Chapter 3, in which the diabolical nature of errant Yellow Pages ads becomes even more apparent. See you then!