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. Last chapter, John learned that Lucia wasn’t above a little bit of creative storytelling to bring him back under her thumb. This week, we take a quick break from the drama to revisit John in the (possibly distant?) future where he is, yet again, a naked prisoner, before returning to the start of his latest stakeout. Here is Blood is Thicker Than Lots of Stuff: Interlude and Chapter 4.
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 read once that the human body is an amazing thing. Given time and sufficient resources, it can adapt to nearly anything.
My body seemed to be the lone exception; I’d been huddled in the cold darkness for somewhere between ten minutes and thirty years, but it hadn’t adapted one bit.
A spontaneous covering of fur would have gone a long way to protecting me from the cold, but my naked skin was just skin—presumably still pale and pudgy, though it was impossible to verify either detail without light or free hands. The extra appendages that would have allowed me to untie those hands or feet had likewise failed to magically appear.
As I continued to lie there in the cold and dark, I came to the sad conclusion that there was equally little chance of my developing phosphorescent eye beams or the ability to teleport like Nightcrawler. That left me with two options. I could wait for someone—probably my captor—to come finish what they had started or I could use the big mouth that God had cursed me with in the hopes of summoning help.
As usual, I went with option B.
“Hello?” My voice was weak and reedy. It had never developed into the rich baritone that sex ed and puberty had promised me, but this was a whole new level of bad. I cleared my throat and tried again.
“Hello? Can anyone hear me?”
In the darkness to my right, something stirred, like Yeats’ horrible beast, or a purple polka-dotted people eater.
I really should have stuck with option A.
…BUT STAKEOUTS ARE FOREVER
My alarm rang at the ungodly hour of 6:30 A.M, waking me from a dream that involved three gnomes, whipped cream, and a circus bear in a tuxedo. I rolled out of bed and trudged over to the shower. My new client, Phil Thompsen, worked construction, which required him to be on site by eight, even on a Saturday. And I needed to be at his house sometime before that to set up my stakeout. The crack of dawn was anything but a prime hour for adultery, but if his wife, whose recent unexplained absences had brought Phil to my office, left again, I needed to be ready to follow her.
Really, I told myself, you should be grateful your date went as badly as it did. At least this way, you’ll be on time and mostly rested.
Because promptness was so much more important than finding love or at least ending my long national nightmare of undesired abstinence.
My parents were still asleep. I poured myself a glass of orange juice from the refrigerator, choked down a slice of bread, and put together a bag of food for later: two granola bars, an apple, and a small bottle of water. My dad had left his camera out for me in the entryway. Beneath it was a note from my mom, asking me to buy eggs on the way back. I tucked that note—and the ten-dollar bill that came with it—into my wallet, grabbed the camera, and headed out into the morning.
We had recently gained an hour thanks to the end of daylight savings, and the sun was already up in the sky. I saluted it, plastic bag in hand, and walked to my Corolla. Mr. Brown, the bitter retiree who lived across the street from us, had complained to the HOA about my car’s penis-and-expletives graffiti, so I’d been parking it around the corner. The fact that it was now closer to the house of Ms. Givens, the extremely attractive and not particularly old divorcee, was purely coincidental. Honest.
Sadly, Ms. Givens was still asleep, like everyone else in the neighborhood. I grabbed a large, empty water bottle from my trunk for when nature would inevitably call later that day. That was one of the less glamorous parts of running a one-man stakeout. I’d thoroughly bleached the bottle, of course, but even so… I put my lunch bag in the passenger seat and my pee bottle in the back.
The Corolla only took a couple of tries to start, which made it a very fine morning indeed. I gave it some gas and eased away from the curb.
The Thompsens were renting a home in North Clairemont, just west of the 805. According to Phil, he and his wife, Melissa, had fallen in love with the neighborhood when they’d moved from Minnesota a few months earlier. Their house was small, only slightly larger than the attached garage, and occupied an equally small plot of land. A short driveway was all that separated it from the street.
I knew I’d stick out like a sore thumb if I parked in front, so I circled the block until I found a spot on the nearby cross street that gave me a passable view of their front door and garage. My vantage point lacked sight lines on the two front windows, but the blinds were down anyway. Besides, I only cared what happened inside the house if someone else showed up. At that point, I’d have to move in for a closer view, and hope that none of the neighbors noticed.
I parallel-parked behind a rusty old truck that, judging by the oil stains beneath it, hadn’t been driven in months. Tucking my camera beneath the chair, I put on my sunglasses and crawled over the emergency brake and stick shift to sit in the passenger seat. With my feet extended back across the driver’s seat and onto the door’s armrest, I looked like someone who had simply pulled over to take a nap.
That was the hope anyway. The last thing I wanted was neighbors calling the police to report a suspicious individual. Thankfully, the Logan Heights gangs had made sure my car fit in well with some of the other beaters on the street.
God bless the recession.
Shortly after my arrival, Phil left for work. He was a big man, headed toward fat, a baseball cap protecting his few remaining strands of hair. Given the picture he’d brought me of Melissa, it was easy to understand why he was worried; she was at least a decade younger and attractive in a rangy, former-cowgirl sort of way.
In my professional experience, that sort of age discrepancy rarely boded well for a relationship. Then again, I was probably biased. By the nature of our business, private investigators didn’t run into a lot of happily married couples. Or happy people, in general.
Phil looked around for a minute before climbing into a truck that was a newer, shinier twin to the one I’d parked behind. I tried not to envy the masculine rumble of his truck’s engine as I settled in for the day.
Staking out a house isn’t difficult. All it takes is a camera, a good vantage point, and superhuman levels of resistance to boredom. It’s a lot easier if you bring a co-worker. A second pair of eyes lets you take turns napping. One of you can even leave the car on occasion which helps avoid the indignity of a water bottle urinal.
When I was first getting my agency started, Mike had come on stakeouts with me, but his tendency to bring a six-pack of beer and turn the whole thing into a party had proven counterproductive. Nothing spoils the element of stealth like a two-hundred-and-fifty-pound man yelling drunkenly out the window. His obvious Mexican heritage worked against us too. For whatever reason, people became suspicious when they saw him lurking for hours at a time. It seemed like textbook racism to me, but Mike had called it an unconscious reaction to his inherent alpha dog status.
That was my best friend in a nutshell.
I made it almost two hours before my stomach finally woke up with a loud grumble. The first of several granola bars was shoveled into my mouth with the table manners that had my mother sighing and casting her eyes upward in silent conversation with Jesus. Either she was asking him to intercede on my behalf, or she was blaming him for the eternal trial that was her son. Either way, the son of God had never responded, which told me he secretly liked a messy eater.
I mentally bumped knuckles with him.
Bros before Moms, J-man.
The problem with granola bars, and the reason I’d put off eating this one, was that they made me thirsty. The problem with being thirsty was that I inevitably had to drink something. And the problem with drinking something was that it hastened my need to use the hand-held urinal, something I still tried to avoid as much as humanly possible. So, when I cracked open my water, the sip I drank was very, very small.
Hours later, I checked the clock, ignoring my growing thirst. Ten past eleven. There appeared to be at least one light on now inside the residence, but the blinds were still down, and I had yet to catch even a glimpse of Melissa Thompsen.
I pulled out my phone, taking the usual moment to admire its gleaming shell. I scrolled past contact numbers for way too many people I hadn’t spoken to since high school, found the number I was looking for, pressed dial, and held the phone to my ear. Careful observers would realize I couldn’t both be sleeping and on my phone, but I’d yet to see a single person on my cross street.
Plus, I was really bored.
The phone rang once on the other end before a bright, lightly accented voice spoke. “Good morning, Borghesi residence. How may I direct your call?”
Celeste was one of several operators that worked the switchboards at the vampire House. The other I knew of was Akiko. I’d never actually met either of them, but that hadn’t kept me from falling in love with both just a tiny bit, whether it was for the French accent that colored all of Celeste’s speech, or the way Akiko flirted with me relentlessly, despite already having two boyfriends. Both women could have made a fortune as voice actors, but were, like many vampires, already comfortably rich.
I’d be lying if I said that little fact didn’t make them even more attractive.
“Hi Celeste! Could you please connect me to Lady Middleton’s cell?” As Juliette had pointed out, I hadn’t called her even once since fleeing the House, which meant I didn’t have her cell number—or the number for her land line in the House—programmed into my fancy wonderphone.
“Mr. Smith, is that you?” Celeste purred. “Does this mean you’re coming back to us? It’s been so dull since you left!”
“Celeste, I was there for a week, and during that time, you guys had to fend off an angry demigod, suffer through a room-by-room search of the mansion, and fight off a bloody coup orchestrated by the European courts.”
“Exactly! And in these last few months?” She sighed, hamming it up for the phone call. “Absolutely nothing of excitement.”
Vampires were crazy. That’s all there was to it.
“What about the gnomes?”
“Oh, you heard about them? Well, gnomes are gnomes, non? Dried up little sticks in the mud. We had them out to the House for a dinner, but it was all so formal I wanted to cry.” Like most of the vampires who had flocked to Lucia’s banner, Celeste was young—likely under a century in age—and had little patience for the formality of her elders.
“Well, I’m not sure yet if I’ll be coming back, but Juliette gave me hell for being incommunicado, so I’m trying to unburn that bridge.”
“Good luck. She has not been in the greatest of moods since Lucia assigned her Andrés’ former duties.” Celeste chuckled, and even that somehow sounded French, reminding me of Aurélie, the exchange student I’d mooned over for several semesters in high school. “I can’t wait to hear how it goes!”
With a quick goodbye, she transferred me to Juliette’s phone.
“What?!?” Yeah, Juliette was definitely pissed off about something. In the background, I could hear loud music blaring. It sounded suspiciously like the Sex Pistols’ God Save the Queen.
“Is that how you always answer your phone, Duchess?” Duchess was short for Duchess of Snark, a nickname I’d given her several days before Lucia bestowed the more official—and far less creative—title of Lady Middleton.
“Little bird, is that you?” There was a long pause, as she went somewhere quieter, or turned down the music, and then Juliette spoke again. “What kind of trouble have you gotten yourself into?”
“A lowly human can’t just call you out of the blue to chat?”
“Seriously… I’m up to my eyeteeth in crap here. Whatever your crisis is, it had better be urgent. And involve lots of bloodshed.”
“Juliette,” I said soothingly, “I’m not in any trouble.” And if I were, I very carefully did not add, I’d be calling Anastasia instead. Juliette was wild and crazy and fun, but Ana was, by far, the more capable of the two. She made the Japanese seem inefficient by comparison. “You complained last night that I hadn’t called you… so, that’s what I’m doing.”
“Oh.” Another long moment of silence. “Huh.”
“I can call back later if you want?” This was not how I’d envisioned the conversation going. I glanced at the Thompsens’ house. Still no movement. I could always play a few more games on my phone while I had battery life left…
“Yeah, that might be for the—actually, you know what? Screw it! I’m sick of slaving away on House duties.” I could hear a door slam in the background, and then Juliette came back on. “You’re practically unemployed, right? Let’s go do something.”
“I’m on the job at the moment,” I said apologetically.
“Seriously? Anastasia hiring you was the best thing that ever happened to your career. It’s not the pixies again, is it? Trust me, those winged freaks are a lot less sweet than you might think.”
“I figured that out right after one of them swore a blood feud against me for eating a berry off her family shrub.” And even then, the pixies had still been way better than the goblins. “Anyway, I’m doing P.I. work. For a human, this time. I’m on a stakeout over in Clairemont.”
“Oh.” Juliette chewed that over for a while. “That sounds dull.”
“You’re not wrong.”
“I’ve got a week to find out for sure.”
“And you finally got so bored that calling me seemed like the less terrible option?”
“Pretty much,” I teased, hoping that Juliette could hear the smile in my voice. She might be less capable than Anastasia, but that still put her in a stratosphere that I couldn’t even see with binoculars. “Plus, Kayla and Darlene were busy.”
“Asshole!” She laughed, and I breathed a silent sigh of relief.
I would live to torment her another day.
Juliette and I chatted for an hour before she had to go. Her role in foiling the coup had earned her prestige, but she’d also inherited the duties of Andrés, the Council member slain in the assault. The Duchess of Snark was now responsible for the entirety of the House’s human relations, from the outside security they contracted as drivers, to the on-site staff—the maid service, the gardeners, and the garage mechanics. I didn’t think she was regretting that change—reputation, to a vampire, was everything—but it was clear she was struggling to find her footing. And the mountains of paperwork were making her irritable.
My absence hadn’t helped matters any. I lost count of how many times I had to both apologize and remind her I’d avoided contacting both her and Anastasia for their own good. Kayla was bad enough, but if members of the Lucia’s own Council had been in touch with me even as I continued to dodge the queen herself? It didn’t bear thinking about. The exiled royal had tried to crush my mind just for saying no to her; I didn’t want to see what she would do when she felt betrayed.
After our phone call, it was back to the stakeout grind. Foot traffic on my street had picked up, but nobody seemed inclined to call the cops on me. I spent the remainder of the day playing on my phone while keeping one eye on the Thompsens’ house. My battery life had dwindled into the low teens by the time Phil returned home. After twelve long hours, my first glimpse of Melissa came when she opened the door and greeted her husband. She was prettier than she’d appeared in the photographs, even dressed simply in jeans and a t-shirt. Her greeting seemed genuine, but I’d never been the greatest judge of human character.
Only time—and a hopeful mountain of billable hours—would tell if Phil’s fears were unfounded.
I was on my way home when the man in question called. Apparently, he was going to be one of those clients. I reminded him that I would have a full report at the end of the week, but he wanted to know what, if anything I had seen so far. The undercurrent of worry in his voice kept me from being too annoyed. If I were in his situation—which would first require finding someone who wanted to marry me—I’d be desperate for information too.
By the time I ended the call, the sun was starting to set. The freeways were packed with cars; people returning home after a day at the beach, or headed up to Los Angeles, or going downtown to start their Saturday night early. I’d spent my day literally doing nothing, but was exhausted anyway. I stopped at the grocery store to buy some eggs, added a king size Butterfinger, and drove home.
Next week, I’ll be back with the final sample chapter and the return of one of my favorite characters. See you then!