I’ll be counting down to the April 27th release of Blood is Thicker Than Lots of Stuff, the next book in The Many Travails of John Smith, by sharing sample chapters, advance reviews, content warnings, and whatever else seems fun. Today, we’ll start at the beginning! Also, because the book’s prologue is so short, I’m starting out with a two-for and sharing both the prologue and chapter 1.
If you haven’t read Investigation, Mediation, Vindication yet, please be aware that some of these sample chapters do include spoilers from that series. Read at your own risk!
I was cold.
No, that’s an understatement; I was freezing, like I’d been cuddling an ice-covered pillow while tucked into a snow drift. It was the shivering that finally woke me, interrupting my dream of a half-dozen Valkyries, Frosty the Snowman, and a castle-sized Twinkie. It was a frequently recurring dream, and I was unhappy to have it disrupted, especially before Frosty had reached his song and dance number.
My unhappiness doubled when I tried to rub my eyes and couldn’t, then doubled yet again when those eyes finally opened. I blearily looked into pitch black darkness through a film of eye goo. Where was I? And why couldn’t I move my arms or legs?
I struggled to sit up but ended up just flopping about like a fish on what appeared to be a cold, hard surface. It might have been marble, or tile, or even simple, boring concrete. It was even possible that I’d been trussed up like a Thanksgiving Day turkey and dropped in the middle of an ice-skating rink. I didn’t know, and I didn’t care, because two other things had just become apparent: I was naked and I was in a serious amount of pain.
I wish I could say I’d seen this coming, but foresight had never been my forte. It was the sort of character flaw that was going to get me killed someday.
Someday might have finally arrived.
IN WHICH THERE IS NEVER A SECOND CHANCE TO MAKE A FIRST IMPRESSION
I was having a pretty good date until the vampires showed up.
Mister A’s was something of an institution in San Diego, located at the top of a tower just north of downtown, its windows and deck giving panoramic views of the city and harbor. It wasn’t the sort of place I could normally afford, but I’d just finished a job for one of San Diego’s goblin tribes, and even after paying my office rent, I’d had enough left over for wining and dining.
Carly looked just like she had online: tall and slim with short black hair and brown eyes. Given how weird my life had become, she was just what I was looking for: cute, perfectly normal, and most importantly, non-homicidal.
Granted, it usually took multiple dates to verify that last bit.
We’d met at the restaurant, per her request, which had allowed me to keep my graffiti-stricken Corolla out of sight. I’d come with flowers in my hand and product in my hair, wearing the suit my parents had bought me back when they thought I’d get a real job instead of going into business as a private investigator.
This was my first date in a long time, but I was killing it.
“Wait.” Carly wrinkled her nose in confusion. “You still live with your parents?”
I coughed as eight-dollar beer went down the wrong pipe. By the time I could breathe again, I’d convinced myself that letting that small detail slip in our first few moments of conversation was a good thing. After all, honesty was key in relationships, right?
“Yeah,” I admitted. “They live over in Chula Vista and have let me stay with them while I get my business off the ground.”
I didn’t mention that I’d started that business more than three years earlier and still couldn’t afford to move out. There was such a thing as being too honest.
“Starting a business must be tough in this economy,” said Carly, closing her menu with a snap.
“There’ve been some rough patches, but things are starting to turn around.”
“You said you’re a private eye, right? Like Sherlock Holmes?”
“Kind of.” Most of my business still revolved around missing people or cheating spouses. I didn’t remember Sherlock having to stoop quite so low. “Recently, I’ve also started handling mediations.”
“Like, for divorce settlements and stuff?”
“And stuff, yeah. Intellectual property disputes, labor strikes, inheritance… that sort of thing. Sometimes, it’s cheaper and faster to go through a mediator than to hire lawyers and go to court.”
Especially since my mediation clients would rather eat their lawyers than pay them. It had been four months since I’d learned that humans weren’t the dominant species on the planet. Vampires, pixies, goblins, immortals, weird amoeba looking things… it was a big damn world out there and humans were near the bottom of the food chain.
The waiter swooped in to take our orders. When he was gone, I decided it was my turn to show an interest. “What about you? I don’t know anything about the tech industry. What’s it like being a recruiter?”
“It has its moments. When Qualcomm went under last year, things were tough, but the industry seems to be bouncing back already. I get to meet a lot of people, which can be…”
Her words trailed off as someone behind me caught her eye. Given the infamous Smith luck, we must have run into an ex-boyfriend or something. I could only hope he was balding and out of shape.
“Hello, little bird.”
Or maybe it was someone from my past instead. I tried not to grit my teeth as I turned around.
There was something about Juliette that just screamed trouble. Maybe it was the feral cast of her otherwise lovely features. Or the almond-shaped eyes that glowed distinctly yellow in the restaurant’s dim lighting. Or the short, ever-spiky hair and cheekbones sharp enough to shave with.
Or maybe it was the fact that she was a vampire, the youngest member of the San Diego House’s Council, and cars and people both tended to explode in her vicinity.
Yeah, it was probably that last one.
Usually, Juliette had two styles, punk rock chic and borderline indecent exposure, but tonight, she was sheathed in an elegant black dress. The plunging neckline was classic Juliette. The hem, which extended to her knees, was anything but.
She strutted to our table, giving me a sweet smile. That was just as weird as the dress. Juliette’s default expression was a smirk. Friendly smiles were almost always precursors to violence. Or humiliation, usually mine.
“Juliette, what are you doing here?”
Another warning sign. I could count on one hand the number of times Juliette had called me by name. Usually, it was little bird or moron.
“You never write, you never call…” Her eyes darted over to appraise my date. “I’m starting to think you don’t want this marriage of ours to work.”
Carly went from bemusement to outrage in three seconds flat. “What? You’re married?!”
“Oh, I like this one, Daddy,” cooed Juliette. “Can we keep her longer than our last toy?”
My date seemed dangerously close to having a conniption.
“Oh, fine.” She turned to Carly. “Zip it up, buttercup. Everything is golden and you’re having a grand old time.”
Just like that, the recruiter lost her scowl and sat back in her chair with a contented smile.
“I hate it when you do that.” Fiction had gotten a lot of things wrong about vampires—like that whole sun allergy thing—but one thing our authors had nailed was a vampire’s ability to cloud human minds. The People—as vamps unhelpfully called themselves—named it compulsion or glamour. I called it annoying.
“Would you rather I allow our little chickadee to make a scene and go storming off instead?” Juliette’s yellow eyes sparkled. “Because that would be hilarious.”
I’d rather she hadn’t interrupted my date at all but saying so would get me in more trouble than it was worth. It had been months since I’d last seen Juliette—that much, at least, she hadn’t been lying about—and I was hoping to get out with my skin and dignity intact.
“I’m just glad she’s not a freak like you. One human who can resist compulsion is enough for a lifetime. I hear pixie dust doesn’t work on you either?”
“Or goblin tricksiness or whatever it is they’re calling it this week.” For some reason, I was immune to most of the other species’ so-called mind magic. Hell if I knew why, but it was one of the reasons I’d been able to continue in my role as supernatural mediator. That and my winning personality, obviously. “I guess I’m just special.”
“That’s not the word I was going to use.”
“Juliette, it’s actually nice to see you again, sort of, but if you hadn’t already noticed, I’m on a date. Is it too much to ask for some privacy?”
“Sometimes, you’re positively adorable. This is supposed to be a date? No skydiving? No mosh pit? Are you at least going dancing afterwards?”
Okay, so maybe it wasn’t a date by Juliette’s standards. But I was half a century younger than she was, and despite my best efforts, dramatically poorer.
“She’s in a dress and I’m in a suit.” I waved at the city skyline. “We’re at an expensive restaurant with a great view. This is a quality date. I’m kicking all kinds of dating ass.”
Carly kept drinking her wine, blissfully unconcerned with the dialogue happening in front of her.
“Maybe you get some credit for the effort,” Juliette admitted, “even if it is doomed to failure.”
“You told her you lived with your parents.”
The fact that Juliette had been at Mister A’s long enough to overhear my screwup was yet another warning sign that slipped right past me.
“That’s water under the bridge. We’ve moved on.”
“Sure you have.” Juliette turned to Carly. “Honey, why don’t you tell Mr. Smith how you think the date is going?”
“Of course, Mistress.” I suspected it was the first time Carly had ever called someone Mistress. Unless her personal life was way more interesting than she’d been willing to admit online. Her brown eyes sparkled as she looked in my direction. “I think you’re cute…ish—” Juliette loudly gagged in the background. “—and a nice enough guy, but we’re a terrible match.”
“And why is that, chili bean?” Juliette’s blood-red lips curved in a predatory smile.
“I’m a grown woman. I have a career and an apartment in the Gaslamp. I’m looking for a man who can keep up with me, personally and professionally. John doesn’t seem to qualify. To be honest, I was on the fence about even coming out tonight.”
“So, why did you?” I asked, feeling my ego deflate to match my bank account.
“I just got out of a long-term relationship. This seemed like a way to dip my feet back into the dating pool. And you never know; we might have had a spark.”
“But instead…” prompted Juliette.
“He lives with his parents, Mistress.” Carly shook her head.
“So, no conciliatory roll in the hay? Not even a good night kiss?” Juliette’s smile only widened as my humiliation continued.
“Not a chance. But the lobster here is amazing. An hour or so of small talk seems like a fair trade.”
“Thank you, my dear. Go powder your nose or something.” Juliette shooed Carly away and the recruiter obediently headed in the direction of what I hoped was the restroom. The yellow-eyed date wrecker sat down in her place. “You’re welcome.”
“Saving you from the awkward embarrassment of the next hour, obviously. What if you’d tried to kiss her?”
“You don’t think this was equally embarrassing?”
“Nope. She won’t remember a thing she said, and gods know I’ve seen worse from you.”
That was sad but true.
“You still haven’t told me what you’re doing here. You can’t possibly have come down from Scripps Ranch just to tell me my internet date was doomed to failure.”
I watched the yellow-eyed femmepire—short for female vampire; a linguistic construction I remained justly proud of—mouth the words internet date, but she refrained from mocking me further. In fact, she lost her smirk entirely. “First of all, you ran away from the House in July. It’s November now and have I gotten a single call? An email? A freaking postcard? Even a thank-you-Juliette-for-saving-my-life-all-those-times singing telegram?” Her eyes glowed dangerously.
“Well, no, but I didn’t want to get you in tr—”
“Second, you really need to get over yourself. The world doesn’t revolve around you.”
“I didn’t come here to speak with you or even to interfere with this pathetic excuse for a date. I came for dinner.”
“Oh.” My persecution fantasies notwithstanding, that almost made sense. “Then why did—?”
“She, on the other hand—” She pointed over my shoulder, her smirk making its triumphant return. “—came to speak with you.”
It was like that scene from a horror movie, where one of the soon-to-be-dead teenagers stops, turns around, and finds the killer at their back. Except instead of an axe murderer standing behind me, there were two extravagantly beautiful women seated in a prime spot by the window.
The auburn-haired, jade-eyed goddess with the billion-dollar poker face was Lady Anastasia Dumenyova—enigmatic, elegant, and more deadly than Ebola. The other woman, the one Juliette was pointing to, was a golden-skinned blonde whose beauty somehow eclipsed even Anastasia’s. She wiggled the tips of her fingers at me and offered a smile that could have chilled a volcano.
“Shit,” I breathed. “Lucia.”
I’d have preferred the axe murderer.
Thursday, I’ll be back with Chapter 2. See you then!