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, but his Saturday research was interrupted by Juliette and Anastasia. And then someone tried to steal his car. In Chapter 4, John and his much-loved Corolla both take a ride, albeit to separate destinations.
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 THE LOSS OF A CAR ENDS
IN A RIDE
It was Dale who tipped me off. Like most people who spent significant time in the city, I’d learned to tune out its ambient noise; the cars, the sirens, even the planes flying in and out of Lindbergh just to our northwest. But when Dale started cursing up a storm, I couldn’t help but check on him from my office window. He’d been staking out our street corner for months now, and I sort of felt responsible for the guy.
Even after the spitting incident.
Down on the street, our unpaid doorman had risen to his feet, tattered sleeves flapping like the wings of a deranged bird. He was stalking towards a heavyset man in a baseball cap.
The other man was keeping a wary eye on Dale, but remained primarily focused on whatever he was doing, crouching down at the front bumper of my Corolla, and extending one arm under its body. My first—admittedly silly—thought was that the man was planting a car bomb in broad daylight. Then, I noticed the vehicle parked in front of my car, a logo-emblazoned truck whose flatbed had been replaced with a sort of crane-like contraption, the far extremity of which was extended under my own…
“Oh, hell no!” It was a fancier type than I was used to, but I still knew a tow truck when I saw one. My shouts joined Dale’s, but the driver ignored us both, straightening up from where he had finished inserting the pins that secured my Corolla’s front tires.
If I’d ever achieved my adolescent dreams of parkour mastery, I could have hurled myself out the second-floor office window, clung to the drainpipe, and descended to the street in a dizzying series of acrobatic flips and somersaults. But parkour was a lot harder than it looked, and athleticism had never been my strong suit.
I turned and ran for the door.
I took the stairs at a sprint, promptly missed a step, and barely caught myself from tumbling the rest of the way down, after which I adopted a slower, less suicidal pace. My beloved late-90s Corolla had never been worth killing myself over… even before the local gang had decorated it with colorful slogans and anatomically incorrect penises.
At least, I hoped they were anatomically incorrect. My ego didn’t need another hit.
I was sucking wind by the time I reached the lobby. My friends Kayla and Darlene had been gently encouraging me to exercise, but I remained a long way from peak physical condition. This time, it cost me. It had taken less than forty seconds to reach the first floor, but when I made it out onto the street, the tow truck was already disappearing into the distance, dragging my Corolla behind, broken taillight, graffiti penises and all.
“Son of a bitch!”
“Rock-eating commies,” agreed Dale, who was at most fifteen years older than me, and had likely never seen a Communist in his life.
“Why did they tow my car? I’ve been parking here for years.”
“Plus it’s a piece of shit.” The excitement over, Dale wandered back to his pile of possessions, casting suspicious glares in my direction as he performed a quick and careful inventory.
“I didn’t take any of your stuff, dude.”
“Like I’d believe that,” the other man muttered, carefully placing what appeared to be a wad of tinfoil next to a half-decayed candy necklace. “You just let them take my car!”
The polished hum of a powerful engine cut off my reply. A gleaming black Mercedes E-Class pulled up to the curb, filling the space that my own car had so recently vacated. The man who emerged had skin the color of dark coffee and a mohawk dyed bright red.
“John.” Wraparound shades hid his eyes but a wide smile gleamed white against the darkness of his skin. “Her Majesty requires your presence.”
Running was out of the question; even if my brief trip downstairs hadn’t already sapped my wind, Steve probably sprinted marathons before breakfast. And then ate marathon runners for breakfast. Plus, as a vampire, he had the sort of speed to make an Olympian weep. And it wasn’t like I had a car to escape in…
Wait a minute.
“Tell me Lucia didn’t just have my freaking car towed!”
“Goddamn commies,” muttered Dale.
The interior of the Mercedes was every bit as plush as I remembered, if more cramped than the House Escalade the manpire normally drove. I closed the front passenger door, buckled myself in, and turned to give Steve what I hoped was a baleful look. The fact that he was both a friend and physically capable of twisting me into a pretzel may have lessened the impact.
“Seriously, man… did Lucia have my car towed?” I asked again, as we pulled away from the curb and made the series of turns that would take us onto the 5.
“No clue. Maybe your neighbors just got tired of the penis-mobile.” Steve grinned again. “Were you ever going to get that thing a new paint job?”
“Eventually. Maybe. I don’t know.” I stared out the window as we drove. It was another beautiful day in San Diego. Our usual May Gray had taken the day off, and the sky was a crystalline blue, unblemished by clouds. “Why did she send you to pick me up, anyway?”
“Other than the fact that you’ve been ignoring her summons, you mean?” Steve seemed amused by that little detail. The burly vampire had a laidback outlook on life, completely at odds with both his position as second-in-command of the House Watch and his talents as a badass-ninja-death-machine-on-steroids.
“Yeah, other than that. Besides, Ana was just here.”
“Lady Dumenyova? She’s back?”
“As of today, apparently,” I confirmed. “Why didn’t Lucia just have her bring me in?”
“Did the queen know Lady Dumenyova was with you?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Well, there you go.” Steve shrugged broad, muscular shoulders. “Anyway, I’m just a worker bee. I stay the hell out of Council business.”
“Wish I could be so lucky.” I felt at the part of my brain that represented my bond with the vampire queen and got a distinct sense of the femmepire’s smug satisfaction. Since the moment Lucia had made me her thrall, we’d been able to sense each other’s location, but this business of emotions leaking across the bond was new… and worrisome.
“I hear you. You swim in deep waters, my friend.”
“It’s that or drown.” I sighed. “Oh well. I guess I might as well see what Queen Crazy Pants wants.”
Steve’s reply was a thinly concealed laugh. When I’d first been introduced to the vampire House, my relative lack of respect for the exiled queen had been considered scandalous. Now, most of the vampires—the ones who saw me regularly, at least—simply accepted it as a matter of course.
We drove in silence for another few minutes, north up the 5 and then east onto the 8. We were almost to the 163 when I finally remembered my case for the White Ladies. With Google a bust, I’d drawn up a list of people who might be able to help track down the missing Graciela. Steve wasn’t on that list, but he was my best shot at contacting one of the beings who was.
“So,” I said, breaking the comfortable silence, “how’s Barry?”
Barry was a wereboar. More significantly, he was Steve’s wereboar boyfriend, an inter-species relationship that still had me scratching my head. Steve and I got along famously, but Barry always seemed to be one bad day away from tearing my arms off.
“He’s doing okay,” Steve said, the hint of a question in his tone. “Sick of being cooped up, as always, but I’m trying to find a solution to that problem.”
“Really?” Barry was more than a century old, ancient for humans, and beyond impossible for weres, whose average life span was roughly forty years. He’d spent the last eight decades as the bouncer for—and permanent resident of—San Diego’s only paranormal watering hole, the Bitter End. “Does Kala think it’s possible?”
“Lord Kala,” Steve corrected me sternly. “And I’m… still working my way up to asking him.” He shivered, hands tightening momentarily on the steering wheel.
I could understand Steve’s apprehension. In addition to being Barry’s employer and an ambulatory skeleton in a heavy black robe, Lord Kala was an immortal—a demigod of death and time, to be precise. Within the confines of his domain, he was pretty much all-powerful.
It was that power which had enabled Barry’s continued existence; if the grey-haired wereboar remained within the bar’s pocket dimension, time didn’t pass for him. But if he were to ever step outside… well, nobody was sure if he would go insane the way all weres eventually did, or if he would simply crumble to dust. Neither fate seemed worth risking to me, but having their relationship confined to the bar’s small interior was starting to wear on the long-time couple.
“Let me know if I can do anything to help,” I said, knowing that it was unlikely he’d take me up on that offer. Steve was a big believer in self-reliance. And there wasn’t much I could do, regardless. Beyond a genetic condition that made me mostly immune to glamour, illusion, and compulsion, I was as human as they came. Which was to say, damn near useless by most supernatural creature’s reckoning.
Still, it didn’t hurt to offer.
“Thanks, man. I know you and Barry don’t always get along, so I appreciate it.”
“I do have an ulterior motive,” I admitted. “If he can swing it, I’d love a face-to-skull with his boss.”
The Bitter End was not—officially—off limits to humans, but the portal to access it couldn’t be activated by my species, and Barry himself only allowed humans into the bar if they were chaperoned by someone of the supernatural persuasion. I’d been inside a number of times, usually with the vampires, but an audience with Lord Kala required something a bit more. Like having the one and only bouncer make a request on my behalf.
“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” I couldn’t see Steve’s eyes, but his voice was skeptical. “I know you’re starting to figure your way out around the community, but Lord Kala is not someone to screw with.”
“You’re not telling me anything I don’t know, dude. But it’s for a case and it’s important.” Who better than a demigod of death to help me track down my missing ghost? It was one of the few good ideas I’d had all day.
Given that it was already mid-afternoon… well, it hadn’t been a very good day, even by my intentionally low standards.
Steve shrugged, cutting across three lanes of traffic with the casual aplomb of someone with nothing to fear from car accidents. “I’ll talk to Barry tonight, and see what can be done. But if Lord Kala doesn’t want to meet…”
“…then I’ll drop the matter,” I agreed. “I’m not looking for trouble.”
“You never are,” he said darkly, before spoiling it with a grin. “And yet, it somehow always finds you.”
Since the vampire at my side had nearly died saving me from some of that trouble, I wasn’t going to argue.
Ghost of a Chance releases June 29th, and is now available for pre-order in digital format!
Next week, I’ll be back with the final sample chapter. See you then!