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 previous chapters, John nearly died at the pincers of two attacking crab cosplayers, and has learned that it was because of a Yellow Pages ad he placed (while drunk) that identified him as a mediator. The problem is that he is not, in fact, a mediator. Chapter 3 picks up right after he discloses that information to the woman who saved his life.
IN WHICH MISCONCEPTIONS ARE MURDER
“I beg your pardon?” Anastasia’s poker face was spectacular. The only evidence that I’d taken her by surprise was a slight sharpening of her gaze.
“I’m not a vindicator either. Assuming that’s even a thing? I was drunk when I bought the ad and…” I trailed off, and smiled weakly. “Rhymes are funnier after a lot of beer.”
“I suppose that explains why you were listed as a Private Investigator instead of under Mediation Services. I had wondered. That may be why you survived long enough for us to find you.”
“Lucky me, I guess.” I waited, but that appeared to be all she was going to say on the matter. As much as I would have loved to spend time with someone like her, all this talk of dead people was really killing the mood. Or maybe that was the smell of dead crab men? “So how do we inform the bad guys of their mistake? This has been nuts, but I’d like to get back to my real job.”
And lunch. And especially those cookies.
“I wish it were that simple.” She plucked the ad from my hands and carefully re-folded it. “The state of California does not require licenses for mediators. For our specific scenario, this document is all that is necessary to identify you as such.”
Either I had hit my head harder on the sidewalk than I’d thought, or Anastasia wasn’t making any sense. And given that I’d just barely survived a murder attempt by mutant crab assassins… that was saying something.
“You’re saying that an old Yellow Pages ad is enough to make me a mediator, and because of that, I’m a target? That’s insane!” She opened her mouth to say something, but I was officially on a roll. “Even if I were a mediator—and I’m really, really not—why would someone want to kill me for that? And for that matter, how do you, the human wall, and the men-in-black factor into the equation?”
There was a brief moment of silence as our car smoothly took the exit for the 8, carrying us eastward away from downtown San Diego. When Anastasia finally replied, her voice had softened. “I recognize that this is confusing, and more than a little alarming, Mr. Smith. We rarely expose mundane humans to the realities of the world around them, and for obvious reasons, I am not the usual intermediary for such discussions.”
Six months of community college and one possible concussion left me completely unprepared to unpack that sentence. Thankfully, my poker face was infamous for being the worst in San Diego, and she had no difficulty reading my continued confusion.
“The karkino are not the only paranormal species living around and among your kind. The world is both darker and deeper than you or anyone else might suspect.”
“And I’m the secret, half-blood prince of one of those empires?” I guessed. I wasn’t sure why she’d decided to take this tangent, but somehow, we were back in urban fantasy territory.
Anastasia tilted her head to one side and studied me. I wish I could say it was the first time a woman had given me that look. “Did you take a blow to the head before I arrived?”
“I did fall. Twice.” I shook my head. “I’m just trying to process. So the world is full of things that go bump in the night, and somehow humanity hasn’t noticed? Figures. Where does my being a mediator factor in? Not that I am one.”
I was going to keep hammering that point until it stuck.
“Many of the races on this planet are prone to conflict. Wars were waged long before humanity achieved any semblance of civilization. However, in the last millennium, humankind’s numbers reached a critical mass. It became increasingly difficult for those other species to keep their battles hidden and the risks inherent in failing to do so became significant.”
I still didn’t have a clue what she was talking about, but it was fascinating, in a low-budget alt-history sort of way.
“And so,” she continued, “several centuries ago, there was a convocation in the town of Toulon.”
I’d been close. Sort of.
“All manner of species were represented, from the ancient to the insignificant. Out of that assembly, the Concordat was born.”
Concordat. Convocation. Consortium. Anastasia was like a smoking-hot, crab-murdering, word-of-the-day calendar.
“It specifies that open warfare between species must be a last resort, lest humanity awaken to the world they truly live in. Should conflict arise, it is incumbent upon the involved parties to exhaust all manner of resolution before engaging in battle. And that delicate dance of diplomacy is overseen by one specific individual.”
I swallowed. “A mediator.”
I chewed on that little info-bomb for a bit, barely noticing as we took another exit and headed north on the 163. “So there are two species in San Diego—not counting the karkino, I guess?—who are pissed off at each other… and only a mediator can stop things from escalating, but someone has killed all the mediators in San Diego?”
“All but one.”
“Still not a mediator,” I muttered. “Why not just go up to Los Angeles? It’s the lawyer capitol of the world… surely, they have their share of mediators? Or if that’s too far to travel—” I wouldn’t want to wish the 405 on even my worst enemy. “—why not pick a random person and make them a mediator?” She started to reply, so I hurriedly added. “Someone other than me, I mean. If there’s no license requirement, why not grab someone more qualified? I think the UN has people trained in this sort of thing.”
“When the Concordat was drafted,” said Anastasia, her voice still soft, “there were concerns that parties would endeavor to cheat the system through their choice of mediator. Consequently, three provisions were included.”
I didn’t like the sound of that. If I’d learned anything from television and superstition, it was that bad things came in threes.
“First, the mediator must be a resident in the town in which the dispute occurs. This would preclude hiring a mediator from Los Angeles.”
Some people claimed San Diego was basically just a suburb of Los Angeles anyway, but those people were idiots… and generally lived in LA.
I nodded, conceding the point.
“Second, the mediator must already be one at the time of the dispute, which means we cannot make someone a mediator after the fact.”
“Your advertisement qualifies as the modern analogue to a shop sign, and is sufficient to designate you as a mediator.”
My mom had always said beer would be the death of me. I just hadn’t expected it to happen so quickly. Or at the pointy end of a crab pincer.
“The accused party is responsible for hiring the mediator, but the accuser is given the right of rejection.”
“Meaning you will have to convince them of your suitability for the role.”
I’d never done well in interviews. Or tests, for that matter. This was sounding like a disturbing and potentially fatal combination of the two. “What happens if they say no?”
“As there are no other mediators, any hopes of peaceful resolution would be over.”
“Between secret species. In San Diego.” I really, really didn’t want to know the answer, but still felt compelled to ask. “How bad are we talking?”
“By the end of it, Los Angeles might well be the southernmost city in California.”
I stared out the window, not really seeing the blur of strip malls and scrub grass as we continued north. San Diego was the only home I’d ever known. Literally; my parents had owned the same house for as long as I’d been alive, and all three of us were still living there. San Diego wasn’t just America’s finest city, it was my city. There was no way I was willing to let it slide into the ocean.
Or a hell mouth.
Or whatever was potentially going to destroy it.
“So everyone I know is doomed unless I take this mediation.”
“And are able to forge an accord between the two parties.”
“Right.” Just taking the job wasn’t sufficient. I’d actually have to succeed at it too. Because that was totally something I was qualified for. “And I’m the only option left because all of the actual mediators have already been killed.”
“Indeed. The first casualty was the individual who usually serves in such matters. By the time his body was discovered, further assassinations were already underway.” She shook her head, eyes distant. “I have had a very bloody morning.”
“It is hardly your fault, Mr. Smith.”
For the first time in a long while, I met her eyes. The thin ring of gold around her pupil had disappeared, swallowed up by deep green waters.
“Call me John. You just saved my life from criminal crustaceans, and now we’re both doing our part to ruin this car’s leather interior. I think we can be on a first-name basis.”
“If you insist.” What almost passed for a smile flashed across her face.
“So where do you and the men-in-black fit into this?” I asked again. “Some sort of secret organization dedicated to observing the paranormal and arranging mediations when necessary?”
All those reruns of Highlander my dad had forced me to watch were finally coming in handy.
“Not exactly. As I said, there are two parties to every mediation. The accused and the accuser.”
“And I represent the former.”
“Legally?” The idea of a ninja lawyer was giving my suspension of disbelief a run for its money.
“Not exactly.” Her voice shifted yet again, steel emerging from behind those chocolate notes. “I am Lady Anastasia Dumenyova, Secundus of House Borghesi. We stand accused of a crime that we did not commit, and I have come to secure your services on behalf of my queen.”
“Cool.” I nodded confidently. “Wait. What?”
Next week, I’ll be back with the last two sample chapters, and the following week, I’ll celebrate the release day with some advance reviews. See you then!