As we count down to The Italian Screwjob’s March 15th release, I’m sharing one chapter a day from the book. Despite calls from the peanut gallery to pick those chapters randomly and without context, I have once again opted to start at the beginning.
As ever with later books in the series, the text will contain spoilers from previous books, so read at your own risk! Here is The Italian Screwjob: Chapter 4.
IN WHICH A LONG JOURNEY BEGINS WITH A SHORTER ONE
Juliette’s condo sat on the top floor of a nine-story building. I rode the elevator down to the lobby, Lucia’s impatient summons reverberating in the back of my brain.
It was going to be a long trip.
Outside, April was doing its best impression of May Gray. At the curb, a gleaming black limo idled directly in front of the “No Parking” sign. Hillcrest was a fancy neighborhood, but that fanciness usually manifested in the form of designer cupcakes and antique wine cabinets—the limo looked absurdly out of place.
The rear passenger door swung open, and this time the queen’s irritation was accompanied by an audible voice. “Put your luggage in the trunk and get in, Mr. Smith. We have much to do.”
The trunk already contained two oversized suitcases, both white leather, but I found space for Angel’s satchel, and laid Juliette’s garment bag on top.
“What’s the hurry?” I asked, as we pulled away from the curb. “Lindbergh is twenty minutes away. Thirty, tops. Even for an international flight, we should have plenty of time.”
The queen’s earlier outfit was gone, replaced by a tailored skirt suit in winter white. It would have almost looked corporate, if both the jacket and the pristine white blouse beneath it hadn’t been unbuttoned to display a country mile of cleavage.
“I am capable of calculating both time and distance, my thrall. We have an errand to run before departing for the airport.”
“Still not your thrall,” I reminded her. The privacy glass was up, shielding us from the driver and making it impossible to look out the front window. “So, where are we going then?”
“Have patience. All will reveal itself in time.” Lucia crossed her legs in a soft swoosh of silk and turned to look out the window.
In another sign of slow but steady maturation, I bit back a half dozen retorts and focused on counting to ten in my mind.
I’d only made it to six when Lucia spoke again.
“I understand Caleb Van Stahl has begun another mediation.”
“Oh yeah?” The subject change caught me off guard.
“Indeed. Your rival mediator continues to flourish.”
“He’s more colleague than rival,” I said. “We hashed things out over coffee last Christmas. He’s working the coastlines while I work the interior.”
“And how many mediations have you had in the time since?”
“None,” I admitted, glossing over the fact that it had been almost a full year since my last mediation. “But I’m sure someone will start a blood feud sooner or later.”
I just hoped that someone wasn’t my firm’s junior partner. People would talk.
Lucia said nothing, which was a message all on its own.
“What do you know that I don’t?”
“A vast multitude of things, Mr. Smith.”
“About my business, I mean.”
“Mr. Van Stahl’s new mediation is in Ramona, for the chupacabras.”
Which meant Caleb was flat out ignoring our agreement: Ramona was a good hour from the beach.
“Yes. While you were busy taking the high road, Mr. Van Stahl was taking your position as city mediator.”
I frowned. I had stumbled into the whole mediation gig, and still wasn’t particularly great at it, but those few cases had provided welcome breaks from my usual investigative work.
The extra source of income hadn’t hurt either.
“I’m sure there’s an explanation,” I finally managed.
“I don’t know.”
“As I thought.”
“Why do you care anyway?”
“You are my thrall.” Lucia cut off my protest with a slash of a well-manicured hand. “However much we both might wish otherwise, it is an indisputable fact. Your actions reflect upon me, and with my power base in the Americas effectively crippled, reputation matters now more than ever. As city mediator, you had both status and prestige. As a lowly private investigator, your value is significantly reduced.”
“That doesn’t mean you get a say in how I run my business.” Caleb breaking our deal was a bit of a shock, but I was sure he’d had a good reason for it. Maybe a preexisting professional relationship with the chupacabras or something? That would make sense.
A small groove appeared between her pale eyebrows. “You are ignoring the larger picture. As usual.”
“Screw the larger picture and screw your reputation, Lucia. All I care about is Anastasia. And I can’t help but notice that we’re talking about everything but the case you woke me up for.”
“The trip to Rome is lengthy, Mr. Smith. There will be ample time for you to review those details later.”
I turned in my comfortable seat to face her fully. “Lucia, if this is going to work, you need to stop treating me like an unpaid servant and start thinking of me as a partner. If you can’t manage even that much, then we should call this whole thing off right now.”
“You would let my Secundus perish over a matter of pride? Is this what passes for human sentiment in the modern era?”
“Rome is thousands of miles away from anyone I would consider an ally and full of people who want one or both of us dead. Including your own brother, the freaking king of the vampires. If we can’t work together, we’re going to lose. And I refuse to go to Italy just to watch Ana die.”
In the back of my mind, I was already formulating a contingency plan. Who could I call to form a sort of supernatural commando squad capable of invading Rome and smuggling Anastasia to safety? Unfortunately, I’d cashed in a lot of my favors when dealing with the witches the previous year, and the list of people left basically consisted of an insane demigod, a ghost, and Juliette. And while my friends were all badasses in their own ways, I wasn’t sure the four of us could take on every vampire in Europe. As annoying as it was to admit, Lucia was my best shot at rescuing Ana.
Thankfully, the queen appeared to have reached the same conclusion about me.
“Very well, Mr. Smith. But if we are truly to be partners in this, there can be no signs of dissent between us. You will need to let go of your inexplicable anger towards me.”
“Inexplicable? You made me a thrall against my will!”
“An action for which I apologized quite adequately last year.”
“I’m going to have you stuck in my head for the rest of my life. An apology—adequate or otherwise—doesn’t cut it.”
Lucia rolled her eyes. “It is unlikely that your life will span more than a few additional decades anyway. Assuming your attitude doesn’t get you killed first. In the meantime, you cannot deny that your station has improved in virtually every other facet since Anastasia hired you to mediate for us. Your investigative agency is flourishing, you are no longer living with your parents, and my Secundus, for reasons I cannot fathom, has yet to crush your irrational dreams of a romantic liaison with her.”
“None of which had anything to do with you,” I reminded her, “except in terms of us reacting to the messes you created.”
“The messes I created?” The temperature in the limo plunged and the queen’s pale eyes flashed gold. “Are you willfully blind or merely ignorant?”
Neither of those labels seemed accurate, so I stayed silent.
“It was you who dragged my House into conflict with one of North America’s largest packs of Infected. It was you who gave the Temecula coven direct access to my power, who split the focus of the one individual in this world that I can trust, and who cost me my House. Yet you speak to me of messes?”
I had a whole list of yeah, but’s ready to go in response—starting with yeah, but none of that would have happened if you hadn’t enslaved me first—but the enraged femmepire didn’t seem open to my particular brand of logic just then. So instead, we simply glared at each other, breath fogging in the now-frigid air, as our limo continued to navigate the pothole-stricken streets.
Finally, someone dared to break the silence. With a shock, I realized it was me, and that I was using my most polished mediator voice, the kind that could talk werewolves into an amicable divorce and—
—well, technically, that was the most impressive thing I’d ever done with it. But still, it had been kind of amazing.
“I won’t deny that mistakes have been made. On both sides.” Even if she had started it. “You and I will never be friends, Lucia, but we want the same thing here: Anastasia safe and free. Can we skip past all the usual arguments and discuss the situation at hand?”
“Very well.” She sighed and shook her head, hair pouring over one shoulder like liquid platinum. If vampires ever had bad hair days, I’d yet to witness one. “What is it you wish to know?”
“What is she accused of? They don’t execute people just for breaking their exile, do they?”
“Not usually. Although,” mused the queen, “there have been exceptions in the past.”
“Seriously? Then what’s to stop Tomasso from putting you in front of a firing squad too?”
“I am returning to Rome with the blessing of its Council. My exile has been temporarily waived due to the circumstances.”
“Circumstances that you still haven’t shared.”
Her anger a thing of the past, Lucia’s eyes were back to being the color of a crisp, cloudless blue sky. “My Secundus stands accused of a heinous crime. As her liege, I have both the right and obligation to prepare her defense.”
Heinous crime sounded bad.
“What have they charged her with?”
“In truth, you were wrong about one thing, Mr. Smith. I have many enemies in Italy, but my brother, the former king of the Italian Courts, is no longer among them.”
“And all evidence suggests that Lady Dumenyova killed him.”
Maybe bad was an understatement.
Our limo had turned onto Laurel and started down the steep decline by the time I’d finally come to grips with Lucia’s little bombshell.
“Tomasso is dead, and they think Anastasia did it.”
“Which is actually a fair assumption, given both her skills as an assassin and your brother’s sponsorship of Xavier’s own plot to kill you just a few years ago.”
“Your command of the obvious remains one of your less admirable traits, my thrall.”
“Did she do it?”
The silence that filled the limo was profound. And profoundly disturbing.
“I do not know,” the queen finally admitted. “Did I send her to kill him? I did not. But… things do happen.”
That settled it. None of us were making it out of Rome alive.
“As liege of the defendant, I am, by rights, granted permission to procure my own investigator,” Lucia continued. “You will work with the Crown Watch to reconstruct what happened and identify the real killer.”
“Right. Assuming Anastasia is not the real killer.” So much for my assumptions that I was headed to Rome as a mediator.
“And if she is?”
“It’s been five minutes since you dropped this whole mess on me. I haven’t thought it through yet. There’ll have to be some sort of Plan B, I guess.”
“Whatever Ana did or didn’t do, there’s no way in hell I’m going to let them kill her.”
“For once, we are in agreement.”
On cue, my imagination supplied an intricate Bond-esque action sequence, where I infiltrated the highly guarded dungeon in Rome, disabled the multitude of guards, rescued Anastasia, and then fled the country in a speed boat. Or an F-15.
I couldn’t help but notice that the Bond version of me had abs. Lucky bastard.
“You do realize that this isn’t something I have any experience in, right? If you’re only allowed one investigator, maybe you should hire someone who has actually worked a murder before.”
“If such an individual were available, I would have already hired them. I need someone with knowledge of my kind, who is not currently under the employment of a rival faction. Even more damning, I need someone that I can trust.”
Given that I would gladly let Lucia fall on her well-rounded ass in every trust exercise ever invented, I found the sudden declaration of faith difficult to swallow.
“While your business sense is abominable, and your professionalism laughable, it is impossible to deny that you do get results… and your delusional fixation upon my Secundus means you will be properly motivated to save her life. On rare occasions, dedication and desire can be of greater value than experience or skill.”
“Ah.” That last bit at least made sense. Through another superhuman act of restraint, I avoided pointing out that the queen was depending heavily on a relationship she’d done her very best to keep Ana and I from even having.
Our limo turned before we reached the 5 and slowed to a stop near some ratty apartment buildings. Over the past decade or two, Banker’s Hill had become a nice and expensive neighborhood, but these residences were still fighting the good fight against urban gentrification. One of the buildings even had an honest-to-God chicken coop by its door.
“This was your super-secret, pre-airport stop?”
“As I said, we have an errand to complete.”
“And will I ever find out what this errand—”
I stopped. A familiar figure was making his way out of the nearby alley.
“Marcus.” Lucia greeted the other vampire warmly as he joined us in the limo.
“Your Majesty.” Dark eyes flicked to me and then back away. “Filthy monkey.”
Marcus was, to the best of my knowledge, still a member of the San Diego House whose ownership had been wrested from Lucia. He and his thousand-dollar Armani suits should have been busy counting beans for the House’s new leader, Duke Barros, instead of… oh for God’s sake, was he seriously kissing her ring?
“Jesus, dude… have some self-respect.”
Both vampires ignored me with obvious effort. My ability to annoy other species seemed to increase in direct proportion to the number of them present.
Which really made going to Rome a spectacularly stupid idea.
“Is it done?” Lucia’s eyes were bright with anticipation.
“It is, Your Majesty.” The manpire released her hand and leaned back in his seat, smiling openly.
“Is what done?”
Marcus’ lips thinned at my interruption, but with Lucia’s nod of permission, he deigned to explain.
“Duke Barros will wake up tomorrow to find his traitorous House bereft of funds, Mr. Smith.”
“You robbed the House?” I didn’t have any love for Barros, and I actively despised his chief thug, Thales, but both Brazilians scared the crap out of me. Robbing them seemed like a fantastic way to get one’s ashes dumped into the Pacific.
“Robbed? Don’t be ridiculous. I am an operator of skill, not some bandana-wearing, gun-waving fool who seeks to steal from a train on horseback.”
There were times I wondered what century Marcus thought we were living in.
“But you just said…”
“It took seven months, three new projects, and substantially inflated ROI before the fool trusted me sufficiently to restore my position on the Council. Even once I had the financial keys to Barros’ so-called kingdom, penetrating his private accounts was a task of additional months. Once I had accomplished that much, however, it was a simple matter to funnel those funds through a small credit union in Mexico which—” He pulled out a gold pocket watch and ostentatiously checked the time. “—as of six hours ago, was dissolved by the federal government for suspected ties to the local cartel.”
“And the funds in question, Marcus?”
“Safely deposited into your off-shore accounts, my queen, with no trail for our enemies to follow.” The smile Marcus turned on me was unabashedly smug. “I would like to see your pistol-waving idols manage that.”
“Trail or not, they will know who’s responsible. Why bother with the elaborate charade?”
“Deniability, Mr. Smith,” Lucia answered coolly. “Without proof of malfeasance, Duke Barros has no official recourse.”
“What about unofficial recourse?” To me, Marcus looked way too calm for someone with a billion-dollar target on his back. “Thales isn’t going to let a little thing like protocol stop him. And he’s a Battle Lord, last I checked.”
“That would be cause for concern,” Marcus admitted, “if Barros and his ilk didn’t have larger troubles to occupy their time.”
I slumped back in my seat and sighed loudly. “Could someone just tell me what the hell is going on?”
“Very well. I will even use small words, in the desperate pursuit of your comprehension.” Marcus brushed imaginary lint off the gray sleeve of his suit jacket. “The funds that I transferred were a combination of House Borghesi’s investments, Duke Barros’ own personal accounts, and two other accounts. Accounts that originated with the primary House in Brazil.”
“A masterstroke, Marcus,” murmured Lucia in tones of glowing approval. She turned to me, a triumphant smile transforming her always beautiful face. “Duke Barros was embezzling from his former House. While his actions had gone unnoticed to date, the disappearance of all funds from those two accounts will surely catch someone’s attention.”
“And the paper trail leads right to the duke, who will find himself unable to return the funds he stole,” finished the manpire. He offered Lucia a half bow from his seat in the limo, a gesture that should have looked ridiculous but didn’t. “Barros is ruined, and has no choice but to flee, leaving our former House leaderless. The stage has been set for you to resume control.”
Part of me wanted to mock the manpire’s flowery speech. The rest of me was wrestling with the shocking realization that Marcus—obnoxious, pedantic, accountant Marcus—was, in his narrow area of specialization, kind of a terrifying badass.
The queen tapped her long nails on the leather arm rest, then shook her head decisively. “I will not be reclaiming the House.”
Marcus blinked. “I beg your pardon?”
When Lucia spoke, her voice was hard. “Mr. Smith and I leave tonight for Rome. There are more important things at stake than a single, traitorous House full of individuals who surrendered without a murmur during my convalescence.”
“You were in a coma and the coup was completed before most of the People even knew it was happening,” I argued. “You can’t blame them for that.”
“Can’t I?” Lucia shrugged slim shoulders. “As I said, there are more important matters in play.”
“I… see.” Marcus had visibly deflated. “Will you need my aid in Rome then, your Majesty?”
“No.” Lucia softened her tone, sounding for a moment like she almost cared. “You continue to demonstrate your skill and loyalty, Marcus. It is time you receive your just reward.”
In the movies, this was when the femme fatale would have pulled out her ivory-handled derringer and put two slugs into the unsuspecting henchman’s face… but Lucia instead pulled an envelope from her purse.
“As you are aware, Borghesi International owns property across the world. Enclosed within are the addresses and deeds of three estates in some of our more tropical locations. They are yours.”
Marcus didn’t look like a man who’d just been given three houses. Not that I had a lot of experience with that sort of thing… but television had taught me to expect some mixture of cheers and grateful sobbing. The manpire looked almost… morose.
“Am I to be banished once more?”
Lucia’s laughter, like her smile, was a thing of uncommon and rarely witnessed beauty. “This is not exile, Marcus. It is merely a reward and a much-deserved vacation. When my business in Rome is complete, we will reconvene to discuss the future.”
I watched the manpire leave and shook my head. While I was busy trying to prove Anastasia innocent of a crime she very well might have committed, Marcus would be sipping Mai Tais at one of his beach-front properties.
I should have just stayed in bed.
Lucia turned in her seat to regard me. “You have been staring. While that is hardly an uncommon occurrence with you, your gaze has for once been fixed upon my face rather than my breasts, suggesting that your brain might actually be engaged. So, ask whatever question it is that has woken you from your usual mental torpor.”
I marveled at the impressively dense array of insults that had just been lobbed in my direction. “It’s not really a question. I’m just kind of shocked—pleasantly shocked—that you’re putting Ana’s life before your own egotistical ambition for once.”
“Is that what you think is happening here?”
“Perhaps?” Socrates had nothing on my interrogation technique.
“Perhaps I am not quite the monster you have long believed me to be. Or perhaps there is more to this situation than your severely limited mental facilities can discern.”
“And which of those is the truth?”
“Maybe neither of them. Maybe both.”
“Didn’t we just agree to set aside our differences and work together on this trip? Allies don’t keep secrets from one another.”
“How delightfully naïve of you.” Lucia’s laughter was a little bit less wondrous this time around. “If you live long enough, you will eventually learn otherwise.”
And that’s all she would say on the subject.
This trip was really, really going to suck.
I’ll be back tomorrow with Chapter 5, in which the air is recycled and the company unpleasant.