It’s that time again! I’ll be counting down to the June 29th release of Ghost of a Chance, 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, with Chapter 1!
If you haven’t read Investigation, Mediation, Vindication or Blood is Thicker Than Lots of Stuff yet, please be aware that some of these sample chapters may include spoilers from that series. Read at your own risk!
IN WHICH BEING DRUNK AND BEING PREPARED ARE MUTUALLY EXCLUSIVE
The world is a funny place. Sometimes, it’s haha funny, but mostly it’s swift kick to the groin funny. You can spend your whole life preparing for the worst without having it happen, but the moment those concerns leave your mind…
Bam! Frying pan to the face.
Growing up in the ever-sunny city of San Diego, I’d never been too worried about my future, which was probably why the world took such delight in treating me like a human-sized soccer ball. After two kidnappings and even more attempts on my life, I should have learned to keep an eye open for potentially fatal situations, but Friday found me once again far from alert. Maybe the past half-year of peace had lulled me into complacency. Maybe the approaching summer had my guard down. Or maybe it was all the beer I’d had.
Yeah, it was probably the beer.
I was seated on the patio bench in front of my house, letting the cool night air soften the four-beer buzz I’d brought home from the bars. As usual, said buzz was the only thing that had come home with me. The old Smith charm, as my dad liked to call it, was on a losing streak for the ages.
Kind of like our hometown Padres. The season had barely started, but 2014 was already looking an awful lot like 2013. And that wasn’t good if you were a baseball fan in San Diego.
I was wiping at what appeared to be a stain on the left leg of my jeans—where had that come from?—when I felt a cold breeze on the back of my neck and a trembling in my bones. It was a sensation I’d grown accustomed to over the past months.
I looked to the right and found a ghost staring back at me.
Once, that would have sent me screaming through the streets of Chula Vista, masculine pride forgotten in the interest of self-preservation, but a lot had happened in the past year. I liked to at least pretend I was now made of sterner stuff.
Besides, this particular ghost was a friend of mine. Back in November, she and several of her spectral sisters had been hired to keep my home and my parents safe. While that danger had since passed, she’d elected to stick around.
As always, she was clothed in a heavy white nightgown—the sort of thing I imagined people had worn in the ‘50s—her dark, curly hair bedraggled and hanging in front of her face. As I watched, a black stain appeared in the middle of that nightgown, darkening as it spread until the material was drenched with blood.
That was another thing I’d grown accustomed to. The White Ladies were ghosts of women who had been killed, and the wounds that had killed them replayed on a never-ending loop. This ghost had died of a gunshot to the chest, although the identity of the killer and the reason for her death remained shrouded in mystery.
I’d been working up to asking her about her past, a process made more difficult by both the seriousness of the subject and the fact that she didn’t speak. After six months, I still didn’t know her name.
Tonight, her spectral face was even more grave than usual. Dark eyes intent, she refused her usual seat next to me on the bench.
“What is it?” The last time I’d seen her so solemn was when she had shown me the corpses of the three rather nasty people who’d tried to get at my parents—a mistake they had barely begun to appreciate before their deaths.
If she had fresh corpses to show me…
I was starting to regret that last beer.
In response, the ghost offered me her spectral hand. I could see the balustrade of the porch through both hand and body, but only dimly. Like so much else, a spirit’s visibility appeared to be under their own control.
“You want me to come with you?” I interpreted. Our conversations were always like this: a weird blend of charades and monologue.
I’d seen the ghost phase through solid objects, so I was surprised to find resistance when our hands made contact. Her grip was cold—bone chillingly cold—but solid. She cocked her head at me for a moment, lips pursed.
Then we began to move.
More accurately, the world began to move around us. One glance down was enough to verify that my own legs were still, but we were flowing through the world, first at a walking pace, and then at an outright sprint. There wasn’t time to wince before we reached the porch railing, and I breathed a quick sigh of relief as we passed right through it like it wasn’t there.
What followed next was a straight-line journey into and through the neighboring houses. As we phased through Ms. Givens’ home, I caught a glimpse of the smoking hot divorcee, curled up on a loveseat with a grey-haired man, a bowl of popcorn, and a half-finished bottle of wine.
They weren’t just holding hands.
Thankfully, neither one saw us, but as we blurred past, the final remnants of my long-running crush faded away. I couldn’t count the number of times over the years that I’d mowed Ms. Givens’ lawn for free as a feeble excuse to spend time with her. Clearly, I’d have been better served collecting my usual fee, buying a gym membership, and pining for someone a little closer to my own age. But I’d never been all that smart about money. Or women. Or a bunch of other things, really.
We continued to accelerate until the world we were traveling through devolved into a blur of light and color. It might have been pretty if I weren’t on a four-beer buzz… and badly susceptible to motion sickness. I squeezed my eyes shut and held on tightly.
After an indeterminate span of time lost in the battle against my own queasy stomach, I felt the ghost’s cold fingers squeeze my hand. I cracked one eye open and found that we had come to a halt… and were no longer in Chula Vista. We stood atop a low hill overlooking the ocean.
Having lived in San Diego all my life, I knew most of the city’s coastline, but this place was unfamiliar. The lack of construction around us was inexplicable; given the spectacular view, some developer should have started cranking out luxury condominiums decades earlier.
I looked up the coastline. Wherever we were, there should have been some lights visible. Pacific Beach, La Jolla, Coronado, or even Del Mar. Instead, there was nothing, dark shores merging seamlessly into black waters.
Had the ghost taken me into Mexico?
More importantly, were the local police still pissed off about that one weekend in Tijuana?
As I pondered the mystery of our location, I became aware of another oddity; my companion—usually a pale presence in the night—was glowing, providing an illumination that outshined the stars and moon in the cloudless sky above us. And she wasn’t the only one.
At least a dozen other White Ladies had appeared around us in a circle that slowly contracted, like a noose being tightened.
They came in all shapes and sizes, from tall and fleshy to small and thin to mid-sized and boulder-shaped. Like my own ghost, they each bore evidence of their death, from the foam that bubbled between one woman’s blue lips to the extended and visibly twisted neck of another.
I wasn’t sure which of them was Graciela, the White Ladies’ leader, but it was the ghost with the broken neck who ended the silence. Her pale mouth opened and she began to speak.
Finally, a ghost that could answer my questions!
Too bad I couldn’t understand a word she was saying.
I met the strange ghost’s black eyes with a smile and a shrug. “I’m sorry. I don’t speak Spanish.”
Broken-Neck’s countenance darkened, but she gestured to one of her companions, a woman built like a tree stump and barely clad in a tattered pink bathrobe.
“You live twenty minutes north of the border and don’t speak the language?” The robed ghost’s voice was deep and surprisingly melodic, more suited for radio than for a dead woman who looked like she’d seen decades of hard road before her untimely demise.
“I took French in high school.” Not that I spoke that either. This probably wasn’t the time or place to explain my high-school crush on Aurélie, the Canadian exchange student. “What can I do for San Diego’s White Ladies?”
Tree Stump looked to Broken Neck and received a stiff nod in reply. As the older woman turned back to me, her fuzzy pink bathrobe gaped open to expose a long, jagged tear in the naked meat of her stomach, a wound that vanished even as I became aware of it.
“We would like to hire you, boy.” With a black-eyed scowl, she cinched her robe shut.
Which suited me fine, really. There are things a man shouldn’t have to see.
“Call me John,” I said, feeling more secure now that a job offer was on the table. “What’s the nature of the conflict you need mediated?”
One of the other spirits, a tiny slip of a girl who couldn’t have been more than fifteen when she died, threw back her head and laughed. There was something deeply disturbing about that high-pitched sound, and not just because of the bruises that appeared and vanished all over the teenager’s ghostly skin.
When the merriment had died down, the squat woman met my gaze. “We have no interest in hiring you as a mediator,” she explained. “We’ve seen what happens to those you mediate for.”
That was kind of unfair. I had a grand total of three mediations under my belt, and all of them had been successful. Granted, the first had indirectly resulted in a vampire coup, the second had almost led to a pixie blood feud, and the last had nearly ended the local werewolf pack, but still…
“None of that was my fault,” I told the gathered ghosts, who seemed disinclined to believe me. “And if you don’t need a mediator, then why am I here?”
“You’re also a detective, yes?”
“Oh. Right.” The paranormal community had only hired me as a P.I. once before, but I wasn’t going to complain. Especially with how slow business had been lately.
“What can I do for you?” I asked yet again. The bulk of my investigations involved cheating spouses or basic background checks, neither of which would be of any interest to the deceased. Unless adultery was a problem in the afterlife too? “And which of you is Graciela?”
That question touched a nerve. One spirit tore ineffectually at the tattered remnants of her dress. Another wailed piteously through the mouthful of curly red hair she’d been chewing on. Even the two ghosts who had spoken so far seemed upset.
“Graciela está desaparecida,” the broken-neck ghost told me.
“She’s missing. We need you to find her.”
Ghost of a Chance releases June 29th, and is now available for pre-order in digital format!
Thursday, I’ll be back with Chapter 2. See you then!