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 had barely even begun to make progress on that case before his car was stolen and he was summoned to the vampire House by Queen Lucia Borghesi, owner of his bond. In Chapter 5, we meet some new faces , and John learns just why he hasn’t been getting any mediations as of late.
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 PASS/FAIL IS UNDONE
BY PAST FAILS
In vampire society, the House was, first and foremost, a political entity, like a werewolf pack, a pixie congregation, or a shambling of anemones. It also served as a sanctuary for its members. From all accounts, unaffiliated vampires didn’t survive long on their own; it was a big, scary world out there, and vampires weren’t nearly as far up the food chain as they wanted to believe.
But the San Diego House was also an actual house. A mansion, to be honest. I assumed European Houses were all situated in castles or underground labyrinths or secret evil genius island lairs, but Lucia and her minions lived in a massive but otherwise ordinary estate deep in the well-to-do community of Scripps Ranch. Its sheer size was impressive enough, but I had always found myself a little bit disappointed in the plainness of its exterior, not to mention the absence of fundamental security features like a moat and drawbridge, active hell portals, or cybernetic guard dogs.
The manpire at the iron gate waved us in with barely a glance, apparently unconcerned by the fact that the House had suffered not one, but two, assaults in the past decade alone. I waited for Steve to say something, but he gave no sign that he had noticed his underling’s lackadaisical attitude. Given that the manpire standing guard had always been a huge dick to me, I decided it was my obligation as a friend and ally of the House to inform Kayla—my very good friend, and the reigning Captain of the Watch—that one of her men was shirking his duties.
Revenge was petty, but it was also glorious.
We drove up the long curving driveway, past the orchard and the small pond that remained sadly empty of man-eating piranhas or miniaturized sharks, and parked at the base of a short flight of stairs. At the top of those stairs was the House’s front entrance, a pair of massive wooden doors, elaborately carved and older than America itself.
A year ago, the doors had been flanked by human security guards, but that arrangement had ended when those same guards were used in a failed but bloody coup by the previous Captain of the Watch. Now, the vampires were intent on handling their own security.
Steve pushed open one of the doors and I followed him past the banquet hall and the living quarters for the on-site human staff and blood donors. Tucked in one corner, beyond the sweeping staircase that led up to the second floor, was a small bay of elevators.
The House consisted of six stories—four above ground, and two below—each roughly the size of an aircraft carrier. As Lucia’s nominal human servant, I’d been granted my own palatial suite on the second floor, but I had so far resisted the blonde queen’s relentless suggestions that I relocate there permanently. Like all of her gifts, the suite came with far too many conditions attached.
Which was a bummer, because the rooms were a hell of a lot nicer than my small bedroom in my parents’ basement. And the food was both plentiful and free.
Steve and I took the elevator up to the fourth floor, which consisted primarily of conference rooms and offices. The People, as they liked to call themselves, owned space in several gleaming high rises sprinkled throughout downtown and La Jolla, but most of the distinctly vampire-centric business was handled here.
We picked up a few additional guards as we left the elevator, a sure sign that Council members were present. Black-clad vampires trailed us down the long hallway to a conference room I’d been to before. I looked at Steve.
“Do we knock or—”
“Enter,” came a command from inside the room, the word delicate and sharp, like barbed wire fashioned from fine crystal.
That someone could have heard us from inside, despite the closed door, and my own hushed voice, would have blown my mind once. These days, it didn’t even give me pause. With a shrug, I did as the voice commanded.
Steve stayed behind in the hall… which just went to show that even badass mohawked manpires knew when discretion was the better part of valor.
A room that might have comfortably held thirty had even fewer occupants than usual, each seated a careful distance from one another around the polished wooden table.
There was Marcus, of course, darkly handsome and wearing a multi-thousand-dollar suit and the kind of pompous sneer that only a vampire accountant could adequately achieve.
There was Zorana, seated in an island of silence at the foot of the table, toying with a strand of her hair, and regarding me like a bug she couldn’t wait to dissect. The perpetually preteen Blood Witch wore a purple and yellow polka-dotted halter dress that in no way detracted from her homicidal aura.
Next to Marcus was a manpire I didn’t recognize, dark haired, olive-skinned, and disgustingly handsome in a suit that rivaled Marcus’ for cost, but which was somehow just a little bit more stylish. I made a mental note to point out that very fact to Marcus at my earliest opportunity.
Standing behind him was yet another stranger, close enough in appearance to be the seated vampire’s twin, wearing the all-black of the House Watch.
Even given Juliette’s recent defection, we were short a few Council members. Andrés was absent, of course, given the slight case of death he’d caught during my very first mediation, but Anastasia and Kayla both should have been there.
Seeing as how those women had historically been my strongest supporters in the House, my already low expectations for the meeting drooped even further.
My gaze turned to the one other individual in the room, currently simmering like a malevolent crockpot at the head of the table. Queen Lucia Borghesi remained the most beautiful woman I had ever seen, the sexual equivalent of chocolate crack; a platinum blonde whose golden tan and lush curves were unfailingly highlighted by her all-white wardrobe.
As it so often did, the sight of her struck me like a fist to the diaphragm, taking my breath away. It was almost enough to make me forget our mutual antipathy.
As attractive as the exiled queen was, her beauty was offset by an overbearing, selfish, and downright manipulative personality. Lucia had sufficient arrogance for ten normal people (or four vampires), paired with a self-confidence that bordered on reckless delusion. During Anastasia’s months-long absence, Lucia had grown increasingly aggressive and derisive.
Normally, that sort of thing would have been right up my alley—contempt was basically my sexual Kryptonite—but the femmepire’s focus had been on reshaping me into a properly subservient thrall. Given my own fixation on personal freedom, our few conversations had ended as arguments.
Judging by her expression, this was going to be another one.
“What have you done to your face?”
I ran a hand through my beard. “It was time for a change.”
“It looks like a virulent breed of fungus,” she informed me.
I shrugged. Some people had no appreciation for rugged masculinity. Or… whatever it was I was trying for. “Did you kidnap me—again—just to discuss my facial hair?”
The queen’s gaze darted briefly toward the two strange manpires, and then back to me, full lips thinning with irritation. “Is this how you would greet your queen, my thrall?”
I met her hard gaze with one of my own. As hard a gaze as I could manage, anyway; I wasn’t sure the gaze of a twenty-six-year-old carried the same weight as that of a four-hundred-year-old monarch. Even a monarch who had managed to get her ass exiled.
“For the last time, I’m not your thrall, Lucia. Now, can we skip all the posturing and discuss why I’m here? I have a case—”
The black-clad manpire across the table blurred into motion, somersaulting neatly over both furniture and private investigator. My brain was in the process of drafting a letter of recommendation that the rest of my body do something to defend itself when I found myself face-planting into the table’s heavy wooden surface.
“Manners, monkey,” the strange manpire whispered in my ear, voice thick with an accent I vaguely recognized as Spanish, or Mexican, or… well… not American. “Speak in such a manner to Her Majesty again, and I will remove one of your hands.”
“Make it the left one,” I managed, cheek squashed against the wooden surface by a vise-like grip that I had no chance in hell of breaking. “I need the right to drive stick.”
If I ever got my car back.
Zorana giggled, the sound of her magic-infused voice doing its usual number on my intestines. To the best of my knowledge, the Blood Witch didn’t have a sense of humor, so her laughter was almost certainly delight at my pain.
She was a charmer, that one.
“Thank you for explaining the situation to Mr. Smith, Thales,” Lucia told the vampire behind me smoothly. “Your attitude does this House credit, but I will decide when and how my thrall is to be disciplined.”
“Of course, your Majesty.” The force pressing me down against the table vanished.
By the time I was upright once again, the manpire was back on the other side of the table, standing behind and to the left of the other stranger. Thales, eh? I mentally added his name to the shit list I’d been keeping since elementary school. One day, when they least expected it… I’d egg every last one of their houses.
“Now then, my thrall,” said Lucia, as if nothing had happened, “I believe you were saying something about a case? Someone has finally enlisted your skills as a mediator?”
“Well… no.” I flushed as I remembered the White Ladies’ comments on my professional reputation. I was so not going to pass that little snippet of dialogue on. “It’s a missing persons case.”
“Ah.” The single syllable was sufficient to convey the many flavors of disinterest Lucia had in my primary occupation. “Pity. It is your role as a mediator that I have summoned you here to discuss.”
“Not a problem,” I said with forced cheer. “After all, you’re paying me for the privilege.” In fact, that not-inconsiderable monthly stipend had been one of the few things allowing me to make rent. And the only reason Lucia and I had maintained any relationship at all in Ana’s still-unexplained absence.
“What I am paying you for is performance. And your performance to this point has been far from satisfactory.”
Even Marcus had to suppress a snicker at the unintentional double entendre. Whether twenty-six or three-hundred, men were idiots.
“I perform just fine,” I answered under my breath. Not that anyone had borne witness to that fact for a far longer time span than I was interested in sharing.
“Do you? How long has it been since you mediated the settlement between San Diego’s wolf cubs?”
“Six months, give or take.” Carolyn and Jason had been the married alphas of the local Pack and were now—thanks to my efforts and an unfortunate incident of interstate war—much happier as the divorced leaders of the world’s first werewolf democracy.
“Indeed.” Her sneer was far lovelier than it had any right to be. “So, what exactly has the stipend I am paying you gained me in the ensuing months?”
“My continued good will and the right to summon me to your House of Doom for lovely gatherings like this one?”
“Your value hinges upon your position as mediator.” The queen bit off each word, less than happy—as usual—with my attempts at humor. “And recently, that value has been negligible.”
As much as I hated to admit it, she kind of had a point. Part of the reason Lucia had formalized my relationship with the House was because my role as San Diego’s mediator added to her prestige. However…
“What am I supposed to do about that?” I shook my head. “Believe me, I’d love to have more mediation cases. They pay a hell of a lot better than staking out cheap motels. But it’s not like I’ve been turning down offers or anything. I can’t just invent situations that require my services.”
I stopped short of calling them skills, not wanting to suffer through even more laughter from Zorana.
“It is your position then that there have been no conflicts in the greater San Diego area that required mediation?”
“Uhm… yes?” Hadn’t I just said that? “Maybe I’ve just been too good at my job?”
Lucia glanced down the table at Marcus, who rose to his feet, hands clasped behind his back like a schoolboy prepared to deliver his first book report.
“In January, the Clippers tribe nearly went to war with a visiting band of chupacabra. In late March, the Mer excommunicated ten of their own over a quarrel that could not be resolved. And last month, a skinwalker sued our local zombie prince over access rights to an object he claimed had been stolen from ancestral lands.” With a smug smile, the manpire unbuttoned his suit coat, and returned to his seat.
“Jesus. You people are worse than humans,” I grumbled. Three inter-species conflicts in six months? The supernatural world didn’t need mediators… it needed an army of shrinks and remedial lessons in conflict resolution.
Even the long-sought confirmation of zombies’ existence failed to cheer me up.
“It sounds like they all worked out fine. Except for the ex-communicated Mer, I guess.” I glanced at Lucia as I said the last bit; she was touchy about references to banishment or exile for some reason.
Nobody seemed inclined to respond.
“Fine. I’ll bite. If they were having issues, why didn’t they hire me? I’m the city mediator. And it’s not like I’m hard to find. I even have my own website now.”
“One that looks like it was crafted by a child,” said Zorana.
You would know, I very carefully did not reply. The Blood Witch was damn near a thousand years old, insanely powerful, and not at all amused to be trapped forever in the body of a twelve-year-old girl.
Again, Lucia glanced to Marcus. This time, the bean-counter flipped open a manila folder on the table in front of him. He held up a color photograph and slid it down the table to me.
A middle-aged man, moderately handsome and exceedingly well-groomed, had been caught exiting a building downtown, his long coat swinging open to reveal a three-piece suit and what looked suspiciously like a Roman gladius at his waist. In the picture, he was gazing past the photographer, pale eyes sparkling. There was something inherently likable about the man, even in two-dimensional form.
“Marcus, is this really the best time to announce you’ve found a new boyfriend?” I gave the manpire a sad shake of my head. “Can’t you just use social media like the rest of the world?”
“That man is not my boyfriend, you uneducated, mewling pile of human excrement.”
“This is Caleb Van Stahl,” added Lucia, in a sweet tone I immediately distrusted. “Formerly of Los Angeles, and recently moved to San Diego.”
“Cool. Who’s Caleb Van Stahl?”
“A mediator for the supernatural world.”
Ghost of a Chance releases June 29th, and is now available for pre-order in digital format!
On Thursday, I’ll be back with the full list of (non-spoilery) chapter subtitles. See you then!