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. In previous chapters, John was hired by the White Ladies of San Diego to find their missing leader, Graciela. In Chapter 3, John tries to figure out how he’s going to do that. As usual, Google plays a part, but some very, very old friends also make an appearance.
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 do include spoilers from that series. Read at your own risk!
IN WHICH ALL WORK AND NO PLAY IS
TOO MUCH TO HOPE FOR
I was in the office by noon on Saturday, which practically qualified me for sainthood. Dale, the homeless guy who’d taken up residence on the curb outside, seemed unimpressed, but I didn’t take it personally. He was still holding a grudge over the time I’d asked him to move so I could open the door.
I let myself into the building, checked the mailbox for any items of note among the stack of fresh bills, and climbed the stairs to my second-floor office.
It was time to do some work.
The well-to-do private investigator no doubt had a surplus of contacts to draw upon, whether it was his inside man at the police department, or the politician whose dirty secret he’d helped bury back in the day. Maybe he even had access to a dedicated research department. That seemed dangerously close to bourgeois excess, but who was I to judge?
As one of the have-nots, my primary source of information remained the internet. Unfortunately, its track record was spotty when it came to the paranormal world. A search on vampires, for example, might return fan fic for that one CW show with the super-hot brunette, or a high school book review of Bram Stoker’s (almost entirely inaccurate) opus, or even paintings by someone with a serious BDSM fetish and an equally serious lack of talent.
I liked women in skintight leather as much as the next guy—probably more—but a basic grasp of anatomy didn’t seem like too much to ask for.
My search on ghosts proved similarly frustrating. On the bright side, ghosts’ relative lack of popularity compared to vampires, werewolves, and zombies meant that a healthy portion of the sites I found were focused on the actual subject. (The other results? Split between ghost movies and fan sites for one of the Call of Duty games.)
On the less-bright side, few of the relevant sites had any real information beyond blurry photos of random white lights or the static-laden audio file of something that might have been a ghost speaking, but was more likely the wind outside a window, or even the hushed breaths of the person making the recording.
Having spent my night on a hill that didn’t exist, conversing with a small army of female spirits, I was less than impressed by the so-called evidence our country’s ghost hunters had amassed.
Marge was right; we humans really were clueless.
Once I narrowed my search to San Diego, the quality of information improved, but none of it seemed applicable to my case. The city had its fair share of haunted locations, from the Whaley House in Old Town to the William Heath Davis home and the Hotel del Coronado, but none of those hauntings seemed to point to the White Ladies.
I found even less on Graciela herself. A forum post from several years earlier mentioned the sighting of a dark-haired woman in white along the pier at Garnet in Pacific Beach… which could have been any number of the White Ladies, including Valentina herself. It could also have been a mortal human woman out for a walk. I was starting to realize the internet wasn’t the most trustworthy of resources.
Regardless, old ghost stories weren’t going to be useful in my search. What I needed was something recent that could point me to where Graciela had gone. But when I narrowed my search even further, to focus only on results from the past few months, Google failed to return any results at all.
Which almost never happened.
I pinched the bridge of my nose as the anticipated headache finally made its presence felt, but I manfully held back the accompanying sigh. Truthfully, while a full-length biography of the missing ghost, accompanied by turn-by-turn directions to where she was currently residing, would have been convenient, I hadn’t been expecting this case to be that easy. As fascinated as my fellow humans were with things that went bump in the night, they remained remarkably blind to those creatures’ very real existence.
I’d been every bit as blind until the day crab men tried to kill me on the streets of San Diego, but that had been almost a year ago. These days, I considered myself a veteran of the supernatural.
More or less.
Mostly less, to be honest.
With the internet a bust—yet again—it was time to leverage some of my other sources. In their own way, those sources were even more useful than the police informants or government stooges my high-priced competition had access to. Unfortunately, they were also very frequently giant pains in the ass.
And not just the ass.
As my skull continued to throb, I finally realized that my headache wasn’t just the result of a few beers and several hours of dead-end research. The greatest of those pains in my ass was contacting me telepathically.
Over the past half-year, I’d gotten used to tuning Queen Lucia out, especially after January’s heated argument regarding my so-called duties as her thrall, but the ice-cold voice in my head was far stronger than it had once been. By now, Lucia’s insistent call was like an endless banging of pots and pans in the back of my brain. Even with the volume turned all the way down, it was damn difficult to ignore.
I mentally checked the femmepire’s location and was relieved to find that she was still far to the north of me. Probably at the House she ruled with an iron, if well-manicured, fist. I didn’t know what she wanted, but it could wait.
As they too often did, my thoughts turned from the irritating queen to a very different vampire, one I’d gone on a date with almost exactly six months prior. If you’d asked me back in November to describe that date, I’d have told you it was a first ballot, no-brainer inductee into the Dating Hall of Fame.
In the months that followed, I had come to realize that my date, Lady Anastasia Dumenyova, might not have shared my enthusiasm. The fact that she’d yet to return even one of my phone calls was a pretty big clue, as was her continued absence from San Diego.
As an investigator, I was trained to recognize such things.
Apparently, the elegant femmepire had decided to move on with her glamorous vampire life, and I was trying to do the same. I’d even grown a beard, just to show that I could. Another month or two of continued personal development, and I might even find myself trading in my gently used (and thoroughly defaced) Toyota Corolla for a Harley.
Really, I was a whole new person.
Which made my mind’s tendency to dwell on the absent Anastasia all the more annoying. She wasn’t the first woman I’d fallen for—not even close—but she was proving to be the most difficult to forget.
For the hundredth time, I pushed those thoughts to the back of my mind, where they could keep the persistent echoes of Queen Lucia’s summons company. I finally had a case, and a case meant I might be able to pay my bills. This was neither the time nor the place for sentimentality.
For the next few hours, I decided, I’m going to focus on the White Ladies’ case, make some calls to my contacts in the paranormal community, and do my best to forget that vampires exist at all.
A knock sounded at my office door before I could even finish the thought. In theory, any visitor should have had to call from the building’s front entrance to be buzzed inside, but I’d gotten used to people finding their way inside. I took a careful glance out through my door’s peephole.
In the hallway, a slender woman with spiky dark hair glared back at me, her distinctive yellow eyes glowing with irritation.
“Open up, little bird,” she said, tipped off to my presence by the shadow behind the peephole, or the sound of my breathing, or even the smell of my (delicately applied) aftershave. “We need to talk.”
It was clearly going to be one of those days.
Juliette Middleton, femmepire, Council member, and the woman I called the Duchess of Snark, swept into my office. She was wearing her standard uniform: a pair of jeans so tight they looked like they’d been painted on, and a loose-fitting, well-worn t-shirt trumpeting the name of one of the many punk rock bands she’d loved in the 60s and 70s. I had it on reasonably good authority—hers—that she’d spent the better part of a decade following those bands on their tours across the continental United States.
She’d also developed a habit of snacking on the roadies, but that was neither here nor there.
Juliette was stunning, like all vampires, but she had an edge to her that only an idiot would ignore. Tigers were beautiful too, after all, but if you decided to stick your arm in the cage… Well. Maybe that great big cat would let you pet it, or maybe you’d end up eating breakfast burritos with one hand for the rest of your life.
The tiger analogy was particularly apt, given that Juliette had fed on me twice. Both times, she’d taken blood from the wrist, and only enough to heal her own wounds, but that knowledge did little to blunt the memory of how much it had hurt. Or the fact that I’d had to punch her the first time to make her stop.
“Take a picture, moron. It’ll last longer.”
“I was just checking which band you’re promoting today.”
“Sure you were. The Sex Pistols,” she added, as if I had been unable to read her cropped tee. “1978. Sid was out of his mind on heroin almost the whole tour, and Johnny Rotten left the band after the San Francisco show. It was like watching the sun implode over the course of two glorious weeks.” She dropped into one of the two client chairs on the other side of my desk. “I’ll always have a soft spot for those boys.”
“Good to know.” I liked the band’s music well enough—Anarchy in the UK, and all that—but their heyday had been way, way before my time. “So, what did you want to talk about? And what’s with the bag?”
The bag in question was a black canvas duffel, straining at the seams, and almost as big as the femmepire herself.
She shifted about in the chair for a moment. “I quit.”
“Cool.” I nodded and waited for her to elaborate. A long moment of silence ensued. “Quit what, exactly?”
“The House. Lucia. The dumbass freaking Council.” Juliette leaped to her feet and began stalking about my office. “Do you have any alcohol in this dump?”
“Second drawer on the left,” I said, still fixated on her confession. She’d quit the House? Was that even possible?
“Of course it’s possible,” the femmepire growled, when I voiced the question. “We’re not slaves, whatever the elders believe.” She pulled out a slim golden bottle. “Tequila Joe’s? You have better taste than I thought, little bird.”
“It was a gift from Mike,” I said, watching tequila disappear from the bottle as if by magic. “And what do you mean you quit? How can you quit? You helped found the House in the first place!”
“Oh please.” She rolled her eyes. “The only reason I was on the Council is because my flock and I had a prior claim to the city before Lucia and her—” She made air quotes with both hands. “—noble subjects arrived.”
This wasn’t actually news. Juliette was still a few decades shy of her first century, which made her impossibly young to have a spot on the Council of any House, even one as dysfunctional as San Diego’s. “Still, I thought being part of a House was every vampire’s dream. And weren’t you proud of being on the Council?”
She polished off my eighty-dollar bottle of tequila with a shrug and tossed it across the room and into the trash can by the door. “It’s not all it’s cracked up to be, really. I’m ready for something new.”
“But… where are you going to live?”
“I own other properties in the city, John. I’m not an idiot.”
“I wasn’t saying you—” My voice trailed off. “Wait… how many properties? And why is this the first time I’ve heard of them? You remember that I’m still living with my parents, don’t you?”
I knew I wasn’t the only twenty-six-year-old living at home, but it didn’t make the situation any less frustrating. The recent dearth of mediations meant office rent was back to being a month-to-month thing, and I’d had to table the idea of moving out yet again.
“Trust me,” Juliette said, with a roll of her eyes, “even my smallest home is way outside your price range.”
“And the idea of letting me live in one of them rent-free is…”
“Ludicrous,” she confirmed. “You’d piss off a dragon and get the whole damn block burned to the ground. I can’t afford insurance premiums like that.”
“Dragons aren’t real… are they?” Before she could reply, I waved off the question. “Never mind. It doesn’t matter. So, you quit the House. But why are you here?”
“Well…” Juliette looked uncharacteristically nervous again, but that could have been the bottle of tequila she’d just guzzled. “Now that I’ve left the House—”
A knock at the door interrupted our conversation. I eyed the offending slab of wood with annoyance. “Maybe I’ll get a dragon to burn this place down,” I muttered, “since the landlord can’t be bothered to install a real security system.”
I stalked over to the door and yanked it open.
In the hallway, stood an auburn-haired woman with sparkling jade eyes.
“Mr. Smith,” said Anastasia, “may I come in?”
Wordlessly, I returned to my desk, allowing the elegant femmepire entry. She nodded to Juliette, her long hair swaying gently with the motion.
“Lady Middleton,” she offered in cool, cultured tones.
“Just Juliette is fine,” said the other femmepire. “When did you get back, Anastasia?”
“I flew in this morning.” Despite the warm May weather, Anastasia had on a long black coat over a deep blue silk blouse and tailored black slacks, the very image of a sophisticated woman of means. Over one shoulder hung a designer bag that was probably worth more than my Corolla. When we had first met, I’d assumed she was a supermodel assassin, or a billionaire, or a billionaire supermodel assassin… and I still wasn’t sure I’d been wrong.
All vampires were gorgeous, regardless of gender, but Ana was something special. I drank in the sight of her from across the room.
“I did not expect to encounter you here,” she was saying to Juliette. “I thought you were still working long hours to adjust to your new duties on the Council.”
Juliette shrugged. “You can’t believe everything you hear.”
“Might I have a moment to converse with Mr. Smith?”
“Now you want to talk to him?” Juliette rolled her eyes but headed for the hall. There was a fine line between disrespect and insanity, and actively pissing off a femmepire three centuries her elder—let alone one who had killed a Battle Lord with her bare hands—strayed rather definitively into the realm of the latter.
I was trying to think of something to say when a phone rang. Anastasia fished a wafer-thin device out of her bag and raised it to one ear.
“Greetings, my queen.”
Juliette froze in mid-step, three feet from the door, and did a slow fade into the woodwork, as if the stained beige walls could mask her presence.
“Yes. I landed less than an hour ago.” Anastasia’s eyes met mine. “I was dealing with a personal—” She paused, her classically beautiful face slowly emptying of emotion, as Lucia continued speaking. “Of course. I will be there shortly.” She tapped the phone and slid it back into her bag. “I apologize, Mr. Smith. It seems that Queen Lucia has urgent need of me. Might we continue this discussion another time?”
“Maybe six months from now?” suggested Juliette helpfully.
I gave the spiky-haired femmepire a subtle shake of my head. As nice as it was to have someone on my side for once, this probably wasn’t the time.
“As you wish, Lady Dumenyova,” I replied formally. “You have my number… at least I think so.”
Okay, maybe it was kind of the time.
“I do.” Another enigmatic look flashed across her face, her lovely lips parted, as if to say something, and then she was gone.
“Well, that went well.”
“Did it?” I sank back into my chair, rubbing my eyes. “I have no idea what that was about.”
“From where I was standing—”
“More like skulking.”
“—it sounded like the worst, most awkward foreplay ever.”
Juliette smirked. “She’s ancient and you’re human. Pardon me if I have no idea what sort of weird sexual practices either of you might be into these days.”
“Your guess is as good as mine at this point.” I sighed, ignoring the pitying look coming my direction. “Anyway, thanks for sticking up for me.”
“Is that what you thought I was doing?” The femmepire chewed it over, yellow eyes glowing slightly. Finally, she gave a sharp shake of the head. “Sorry, little bird. Just because we’re partners now doesn’t mean I’ll be taking an active role in your dating life. If I wanted to die of boredom, I would have stayed with the Council!”
She wandered back out the door, duffel bag in hand, leaving me alone in my office with a raging headache and an empty bottle of what had once been expensive tequila.
A long moment passed before her words sank in.
“What do you mean partners?”
Unfortunately, she too was already gone.
As I sat back down behind my desk, Queen Lucia resumed her mental summons, sounding for all the world like a marching band in my brain. It was all I could do not to scream at the ceiling.
And that’s when someone decided to steal my car.
Ghost of a Chance releases June 29th, and is now available for pre-order in digital format!
Next Thursday, I’ll be back with Chapter 4. See you then!