I’m 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, learned that supernatural creatures were a thing, and discovered that the woman who saved his life had come to hire him as a mediator. Even though he’s not a mediator. In Chapter 4, we learn a little bit more about what the hell is going on.
IN WHICH AMERICA HAS A MONARCHY
Oddly, the first thing my mind decided to trip over was Anastasia’s mention of a queen. I hadn’t been the best of History students—and I definitely preferred the Cartoon Network to CNN—but I was pretty sure our country was still a democracy. Had England re-assimilated us when I wasn’t paying attention?
It wasn’t impossible, but it seemed unlikely.
Before I could press that issue, or ask what the hell a Secundus or a Borghesi was, the rest of what she’d said finally sank in.
“You want to hire me? I thought this was a thing for the creepy-crawlies?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“You know… the non-humans… the crabs, the fish heads, the greys, and—” I was only guessing on this last one. “—the chupacabras.”
“Mr. Smith, I don’t know what greys are—”
“Aliens,” I supplied. “Big heads, bug eyes, and anal probes.”
“—but the karkino and yes, the chupacabra, are merely two of the very many species in the world. I and my kind are another. Some of us pass better among humans than others.”
“Please tell me you’re not a lizard in a people-suit.”
I waved off the question. If Anastasia didn’t know about V, I was going to let her enjoy her ignorance. “So you’re not human?”
“I am not.”
“What about him?” I nodded to the driver. “Is he half man, half grizzly bear?”
“Mr. Jefferson is entirely human.”
That was almost as hard to believe as the whole queen thing, but I let it go. “So other humans do know about your kind?”
“A few. In the case of our supplementary security personnel, we take steps to insure that the information does not travel far.”
I was starting to think my interrogation technique was lacking. Which was weird, since I’d taken an online course and everything. I spared another glance out the window as the Escalade finally left the highway. Apparently, this so-called queen lived in Scripps Ranch.
I’d have gone with Del Mar, but nobody was asking me.
“So you’re not human, but you’re not crabs or goat people either. Are you… angels?”
“No, although some would—”
“Like Chucky, from Child’s Play? Not that you look like a toy doll or anything. But I didn’t know murdering crabs were a thing until like half an hour ago. I’m open to the possibilities.”
“John,” I insisted.
“Mr. Smith, we are not aliens. Nor are we characters from your horror movie franchises.” She shook her head. “In English, we call ourselves the People, but humanity has its own names for my kind. Moroi. Nightstalkers. Nosferatu.”
“And yes, vampires.”
I sighed, and settled back into my still-comfortable chair. The Escalade turned down a long, private driveway, and came to a halt at a gatehouse. “If you didn’t want to tell me, you could have just said so.”
“Am I to understand that, despite accepting the reality of the karkino and being open to, as you said, lizards in people suits, you reject the very possibility of vampires?” By her tone, Anastasia couldn’t quite decide whether to be irritated or amused.
“Aliens are real. Probably. It’s a big universe. And crabs just tried to kill me, so they get a pass too. But vampires?” I shook my head. “They’re so played out. Twilight. True Blood. It’s 2013; zombies are the new ‘it’ thing. Besides…”
“The sun’s out. And so are you. And nobody’s burst into flame.” I shrugged and spread my hands as if resting my case. “Not a vampire.”
“You will find that human literature gets a great deal wrong with my kind, Mr. Smith. We walk in the sun, just as you do.”
“Right.” The guards waved us on and we drove through and up the winding road through lush greenery. The occupants clearly hadn’t heard about the ongoing drought. At the end of the driveway, on top of its own hill, was what could only be described as a mansion or—God help me—a palace; four stories high, as wide as a football field, and with enough windows for a hundred rooms. “Can you turn into a bat?”
“We are not the Infected.”
I filed away the question of who or what the Infected might be for another time. “So, no sun allergy and no magical powers. Exactly what is it that makes you vampires then?”
Our Escalade parked right in front, at the base of a long flight of stairs leading up to the imposing set of double-doors.
“Come with me,” said Anastasia, “and find out.”
“Seriously, dude… that’s not a gun.”
The guard didn’t reply, but his hands—each the size of a bowling ball—moved on, patting my legs down to the ankle. My sneakers received only a cursory examination. Apparently, seven-year-old, badly scuffed Nikes weren’t considered a threat in Vampire-Central.
Even on one knee, the man’s head came up to my chest, intimidating in its bald sheen. He was every bit as large as our driver had been, and his tent-like blazer was open to reveal both a shoulder holster and the weapon stowed within. I didn’t know a damn thing about guns, but this one was proportionally sized for the giant carrying it.
Not that I spent a lot of time thinking about the size of other men’s weapons. That way lay madness. And despair.
Anastasia stood off to one side, patient and serene. We’d barely made it through the mansion’s ornate, intricately carved double doors before the security team had descended upon me to make sure I wasn’t sneaking in some sort of thermonuclear device in my boxers.
If nothing else, it gave me a chance to take in the mansion’s interior. The floor was marble tile, gleaming like it had never seen foot traffic. Ceilings were at least twenty feet high, and a second row of windows in the exterior wall flooded the area with natural light. Directly ahead of us, an enormous staircase led up to the second floor, with an honest-to-God velvet runner partially obscuring the polished wooden steps.
Just looking at all those stairs made me tired.
To my left, another set of double doors opened onto a banquet hall, full of tables and chairs. To my right, a much less impressive single door was firmly closed, but I could hear the buzz of unintelligible chatter from within. More importantly, I could also smell something utterly fantastic.
Once again calling on my professional powers of inductive reasoning, I decided that was probably the kitchen.
If this frisking went on much longer, I was going to risk a beating and ask for a sandwich. I might as well get something out of the ordeal, right?
Finally, the enormous man ran out of body parts to grope. Rising to his feet, where he loomed over both of us like the world’s most terrifying TSA agent, he gave Anastasia a nod.
“He’s clean, ma’am.”
“I already told you that,” I muttered.
“Your pardon, Mr. Smith,” said Anastasia. “Our security team takes their job quite seriously.”
“No kidding.” Between the gatehouse, the estate grounds, and the front-door welcoming crew, I’d counted over a dozen guards, all of them armed. Anastasia didn’t sound American, but her people sure seemed to love their guns. “Is it because of the current crisis or are things always so…?”
I trailed off. Calling the woman who had recently saved my life insanely paranoid seemed like a low-percentage play.
“There are extenuating circumstances, yes,” she said, escorting me deeper into the house. Happily, the guards stayed behind. Even better, we bypassed the staircase entirely. Nestled in the shadows, behind and to the right, was a bay of elevators. “It has been a difficult decade.”
“I hear that.” Prom. Graduation. My one semester of community college. Three years interning as a private investigator’s assistant, and two more trying to run my own agency. I’d always assumed that I’d be rich and married by twenty-five—with the former a result of the latter—but my birthday had come and gone and I was still living with my parents.
Thankfully, things were looking up on both fronts. Judging by the mansion, this so-called queen had plenty of cash, and if I really was the only mediator left in town, my as-of-yet undisclosed rates could afford to be exorbitant. As for marriage… Anastasia had been nothing but professional so far, but a solid working relationship seemed like a great foundation to build on.
A chime sounded, and the doors to the nearest elevator whisked open. If the foyer had screamed old-world opulence—and it really, really had—the elevator was modern and efficient, like something you’d find in one of the high-tech towers downtown. As we filed inside, I took a peek at the array of buttons on the interior panel. In addition to the four floors I’d already noted on our drive up, there were two sub-floors and something called G.
“Ground?” I guessed, pointing at the button.
“Garage. Much of House Borghesi resides here full-time, but we all have our own lives, and come and go as those lives demand.” Anastasia tapped the button for the fourth floor, and it lit up with a soft glow.
“I thought this was the House.” I waved at the mansion outside the elevator doors, even as they started to whisper shut.
“A House is its people, Mr. Smith.” I’d thought the interior of the Escalade did wonderful things for her voice, but the confines of the elevator amped things up even more. “Think of it in feudal terms. Every noble has a house. Everyone here is a member of that house and a sworn vassal of the queen.”
I couldn’t hear any difference between our pronunciations, beyond the fact that her slight accent made everything sound better, but I shrugged.
“Okay. And we’re heading to meet her now?”
“And the rest of the council, yes. Time is of the essence. Once you have been briefed, we can arrange for the initial meeting with Lord Beel-Kasan.”
“Is he a vampire too?”
“Most definitely not.”
I wanted to ask more, but a chime announced that we had arrived on the fourth floor. The doors slid open, and I braced myself for my first view of the hidden depths of House Borghesi’s… well… house.
Anastasia turned, one eyebrow arching delicately upwards. “Yes?”
“I thought it would be a little bit more… vampirey.” Much like the elevator itself, the hall would have fit nicely into any of the more expensive office towers in San Diego. Wide enough for five normal people—or two of the human guards—to walk shoulder-to-shoulder, it stretched for a hundred or more feet in either direction, flanked on both sides by the glass walls of what appeared to be conference rooms.
“Our kind must do business like anyone else, Mr. Smith.” So far, she didn’t seem keen on calling me John. That was admittedly a bit of a setback. “The House owns an office tower in Sorrento Valley, but meetings of a more sensitive nature occur here, in the heart of the queen’s domain.”
The carpet was lush and deeply padded, cushioning my feet with every step. If my bedroom had carpet like that, I’d be able to forego a bed entirely. Sleeping on the floor probably wouldn’t impress any dates I brought home … but the fact that I lived in my parents’ basement kind of already had that covered.
Most of the conference rooms we passed were dark and empty. In the few instances where lights were on, the glass had gone opaque, hiding the room’s interior. I wasn’t sure how that worked, but it was pretty cool.
Our destination was two thirds of the way down the hall, one of only two rooms in that wing featuring double doors. Between this, the banquet hall, and the main entryway, it seemed like vampires used the number of doors to signify importance. I wasn’t sure how that knowledge would be of use, but I filed it away anyway, just in case.
Assuming these people really were vampires. Anastasia didn’t seem like the kind of woman to joke about that sort of thing, but you never knew.
We paused outside the illuminated conference room, and Anastasia’s voice dropped to a soft murmur. “When you speak to Queen Borghesi, it is customary to refer to her as Your Majesty. As you are not her vassal, you need not kneel, but a bow would be appropriate. Above all, be respectful.”
“No worries,” I assured her. “I can totally do respectful.”
On Thursday, I’ll be back with the final sample chapter. Next Tuesday, I’ll celebrate the release of Investigation, Mediation, Vindication with some advance reviews and content warnings. See you then!