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 5.
IN WHICH THE AIR IS RECYCLED AND THE COMPANY UNPLEASANT
Roughly ten minutes later, our limousine dropped us off at Terminal 2. The nameless chauffeur went to check our bags in, and I followed Lucia toward the security line, shaking my head.
“I can’t believe we’re flying commercial. Doesn’t Borghesi International have a private plane?” I’d seen enough movies to know how lux those corporate jets were and had been looking forward to having my own in-flight suite and bar.
“Several, in fact,” the vampire queen replied over her shoulder, “but they are in use, and scattered across the globe. I will not curtail their profitable endeavors simply for your comfort. My resources are not infinite.”
“You and Marcus just ripped off your House—”
“Former House,” she interjected.
“—for everything it was worth, not to mention however much he took from Brazil.”
“A very large sum,” she acknowledged, as we reached the interminable security line. “Yet even such a sum remains some distance from infinite.”
I didn’t remember much from high school, but her math sounded correct. Even so, she was missing my point. “That’s not what I… uhm, Lucia?”
While I had dutifully shuffled into place at the end of the line—trained by a lifetime of Southern California theme parks—the queen was skirting that line entirely, making her way past the crowd toward the guards. With a muttered curse, I jumped out of line and followed. By the time I reached the front, a heavyset TSA agent was ushering Lucia through. The lack of protest from the crowd told me Lucia was using her vampire mojo to cloud the minds of everyone present.
I scurried after, passport and boarding pass in hand, and almost impaled myself upon the outstretched hand of that same agent.
“Sir,” he told me unkindly, “I’m gonna have to ask you to wait in line.” He nodded in the direction of the crowd.
“I’m with her,” I said, motioning to the vampire queen just behind him.
The agent didn’t even glance in Lucia’s direction. “You could be with the King of England, for all I care; you gotta go through the line, like everyone else.”
“England has a queen,” I pointed out helpfully.
The man seemed unimpressed by my knowledge of international politics. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see some of his fellow agents taking note.
“Lucia…!” I called over the guard’s shoulder, finding yet again that panic made my voice go high in a distinctly unmanly fashion. “A little help here?”
“Very well.” She rolled her eyes with a put-upon sigh. “Captain Daniels, this man is with me. He does not need to wait in line.”
The man’s face cleared almost instantly, and his eyes drifted slightly out of focus. “Yes, ma’am! Sir, if you would step on through?”
“Absolutely.” I tried not to gloat, but it was difficult… and I didn’t try all that hard, to be honest. This was one of the few times vampiric compulsion had ever been used on my behalf, and it didn’t suck. It was kind of like being a Jedi-by-proxy.
“Actually,” said the queen, “perhaps you should make quite certain that he is not carrying any contraband. One can never be too careful about these things.”
Ten minutes later, having been thoroughly searched by a man who lacked the decency to buy me drinks first, I joined a disgustingly smug vampire queen.
“What the hell, Lucia?”
“As you pointed out, Mr. Smith, we are headed into dangerous territories, where a single misstep might kill us both.”
“So, I decided to lighten the mood.”
“Lighten the mood? The dude practically had his hands down my pants!”
“You are headed to Rome, my thrall.” She arched one blonde eyebrow. “Modesty should be the least of your concerns.”
And what the hell did that mean?
“You know,” I finally managed, as we headed toward our gate. “I don’t think the TSA uses military rank.”
“What are you babbling about now?”
“You called him Captain Daniels.”
“The TSA agent!” Sometimes, I wondered if Lucia took notice of the people around her at all. The rest of the time, I was certain she didn’t. “I don’t think that’s his title.”
“Nor is his name Daniels. What does it matter?”
There was surprisingly little I could say to that.
While Lucia continued to our gate, I made a quick stop at the restroom. If what I had heard about airplane bathrooms was anywhere near close to accurate, I wanted to visit ours as infrequently as possible. With my luck, the in-flight facilities would be occupied by couples happily punching their mile-high club membership cards anyway.
I stepped around some dude’s urine puddle, splashed water on my face, and dried my hands beneath a sputtering blower, when another thought struck me.
With Lucia in Rome and Marcus somewhere unfairly tropical, the most logical targets for Barros’ wrath would be out of reach. Which might induce him to go after less logical targets. Juliette, having left the House before the coup, should be safe, but that still left quite a few possible victims.
I pulled out my wonderphone and made some hurried calls.
Lucia had found us the two chairs closest to our gate. I walked over and took a seat next to her, flashing an apologetic smile at the two travelers she had clearly just evicted.
“This is for the flight.” The femmepire handed me a thick manila folder that she had pulled from a white Louis Vuitton purse worth twice my monthly rent.
“What is it?”
“Background data on the Italian Court—the people of importance, the present political environment, and anything else you might need to know for your investigation.”
“Ah.” I opened the folder and found a thick stack of printed pages, each white sheet filled from top to bottom in size eight font. “Does it come with a CliffsNotes?” At her confused expression, I remembered that she had never actually attended school. Not in this century anyway. “A summary, I mean.”
“If a summary sufficed, I would have given you one.”
Nobody had told me that heroically saving the woman I loved would involve homework.
“Mr. Smith.” Lucia’s voice was soft and deadly serious. “Lady Dumenyova is my oldest friend and my most trusted vassal. I need your aid to rescue her. If I must force you to read the briefing, I will do so.”
“Because that went so well for you last time,” I muttered.
“Perhaps Captain Daniels is still available for a strip search.”
“No need to get nasty… I’ll read it.” I hefted the manila folder in my hand, shaking my head. “This just isn’t the way I tend to work.”
“I am aware of your so-called process. And I admit that, despite your tendency to bumble into situations you are entirely unprepared for, your efforts have proven effective in the past.” She met my eyes again. “But Rome is not some provincial town. There are terrors there who walked the earth before your people had even left their caves. Those beings do not grant second chances.”
I hadn’t noticed the various supernatural entities around San Diego being all that forgiving either, but I didn’t think Lucia would appreciate my keen insight.
“Furthermore,” the femmepire continued, “as you yourself have already noted, you will be without your usual safety nets. Lady Dumenyova is in no position to save you this time and we will be far beyond the domain of your godling and his ageless ward.”
I swallowed as her words struck home. I’d been involved in a truly depressing number of life-or-death situations over the past two years, and my pale, pudgy, and entirely mortal ass had only survived thanks to interventions by Ana and Lord Beel-Kasan—Bill to his friends—our local demi-god of Nightmares and Terror.
“That’s a good point.”
“Which is why I said it.” I could hear the disdain in Lucia’s voice. “If you wish to stay alive long enough to help rescue my Secundus, you will study the dossier I have provided.”
I hated when she was right. With a sigh, I flipped to the first page. It looked boring. “Do we have any of the details on Tomasso’s murder?”
“We do not. Once we have been presented to the Council, you will have an opportunity to review the evidence their own investigator has already accrued.”
This was the first I’d heard of a rival investigator. Hopefully, he or she wouldn’t be too much of an asshole. Maybe we could bond over P.I. war stories. And knock-knock jokes. And beer.
I made it three or four lines down that first page—which appeared to consist entirely of the genealogy of people, places, or minerals I’d never heard of—before my eyes started to glaze over. With a frown, I forced myself to keep reading. I’d been out of college for six years now, but I still remembered how to study.
Five minutes later, I realized three things. First, I’d gone to community college, and had dropped out after only a semester. Second, even back then, I’d never been good at studying. And third and most importantly, at some point in the preceding five minutes, I had drifted off into some sort of fugue state and had absolutely no idea what I had just read. As I was trying to find a page I did remember, something else Lucia had said finally sank in.
Lucia looked up from her gleaming phone with a frown. “I beg your pardon?”
“You said godling and his ageless ward. But Bill only has one ward, and Jee Sun is anything but ageless.”
“And how old would you say the child is?”
That was a subject of much debate between Juliette and me. “I don’t know… seven? Ten?”
“I arrived in this city well before your birth, Mr. Smith, but Lord Beel-Kasan preceded my arrival by centuries. According to my sources, he has never left the region—beyond trips to his native dimension—with one notable exception.”
She paused as some unintelligible announcement was broadcast through budget speakers.
“Twelve years ago, Lord Beel-Kasan was gone for eight days. When he returned, it was in a houseboat that nobody had seen before. And he had a young Korean girl with him. Not an infant. A girl, aged somewhere between five and ten.”
“Twelve years ago…?” Even I could see that math didn’t add up. “That’s impossible.”
“As I said, ageless.”
With those words, Lucia gracefully rose to her feet, phone in one hand and expensive bag in the other. Directly in front of us, a small line was forming at the gate.
I shut the folder and rose to join her. “How do you know all of this?” When I’d first met Lucia—and Bill—the vampire queen hadn’t even realized that Jee Sun existed.
“After the godling chose to take an interest in both my House and my thrall, I decided it would be wise to research my opponent. Information,” she concluded, with a nod to the folder in my hands, “can be the difference between success and agonizing death.”
“I already said I’d read the briefing!” I tried to ignore the fact that, from her lips, agonizing death sounded kind of sexy.
As Juliette too often told me, I had serious issues.
Our flight to Rome would be the first time I had ever flown at all, and a lot of the minutiae of what we were doing and why was lost on me. Thankfully, several years of being a P.I. had sharpened my observational skills into finely honed instruments of investigative destruction. As a result, I smartly had my boarding pass ready when it was my turn to be greeted by the attendant.
“I’m sorry, sir.” I blinked in confusion as the dark-suited American Airlines employee handed back my pass instead of running it through the scanner. “We haven’t called for general boarding yet.”
“What?” Ahead of me, Lucia was still walking down the tunnel.
“The current call is for first class and special needs passengers only, sir.” She waved my boarding pass at me. “You aren’t either.”
I took the boarding ticket and looked at it for the first time since Lucia had handed it to me. Sure enough; I was flying economy. “But… but… she…” I waved vaguely in the direction of Lucia’s receding back, as words, for once, failed me.
“Yes, your uhm…” The other woman glanced from Lucia to me, and made an accurate, if hurtful, snap judgment. “…employer is flying first class with us today.”
Of course she was.
I only had to sit in the boarding area for another twenty or so minutes before my row was called, but it felt a lot longer. The amused looks from passengers who had witnessed my failed boarding attempt didn’t help.
Once on the plane, I stalked past the luxurious first-class section where Lucia was already reclining like a miniature Nordic snow princess, pushed through the mid-aircraft galley and found the aviation equivalent of a cubicle farm.
This was why everyone was always complaining about air travel.
At least I’d been assigned a window seat in my row toward the rear of the plane. That was almost cool enough to distract me from the fact that my knees were touching the back of the seat in front of me. Safely buckled in, in case the pilot decided to do barrel rolls, I scanned the faces of passengers shuffling in my direction, trying to guess which of them would share my row.
The first terrifying candidate—a six-foot-five, well-tanned dude who had either been a football player in college or eaten two of them—passed on by, one brush of his arm rocking the entire row of chairs, and I breathed a sigh of relief. Whoever sat next to that man was going to have an elbow in their ribs for the entirety of the flight.
I dodged a second bullet when the elderly woman who was loudly reciting a list of everything that had been wrong with lunch to her long-suffering husband filed past my row. So it went for dozens of additional passengers. After fifteen minutes, the steady stream of people had slowed to a trickle, and the two seats next to me remained empty. It was a long way from sitting in first class but having a row to myself would still be pretty damn nice.
And then I saw her.
She was small, a few inches taller than Lucia, with long black hair and sparkling brown eyes. Maybe only a couple years older than me, friendly-looking, and the kind of woman a younger me would have tripped over himself to ask out. I was, of course, already in love with a woman who could stop time with a smile, but as far as seatmates went, this stranger was easily a cut above the alternatives I’d seen so far.
Please, I prayed to the anonymous patron demigod of flights to Rome, please let her sit next to me. The only thing better than having a row to myself would be sharing that row with someone who could distract me from the fact that we were about to hurtle through the air at ten thousand feet in a vehicle I’d seen crash in like every movie ever.
I avoided making eye contact with my unsuspecting savior, so as to not jinx the whole thing, and held my breath as she made her way down the aisle. After a moment’s hesitation, she stopped… at my row.
I risked a peek. She was casually dressed in a t-shirt and jeans and seemed totally comfortable with air travel. In short, the perfect woman to sit next to during the flight. I prepared to introduce myself—
—which was when she stepped aside and let a whirling dervish of braids and energy climb into our row and take the middle seat.
My keen detective senses began to pick up on the handful of clues I’d somehow missed: the weariness in the woman’s expression, the band on her left ring finger, and the tall, skinny dude who had followed her down the aisle and was now helping her put a bag in the overhead bin.
Also? The kid. It was pretty hard to miss the little girl when she was squealing at a volume reserved for car accidents and Nine Inch Nails concerts.
When the man had finished stowing his wife’s carry-on, he turned to head back up the aisle with something that looked suspiciously like relief. I spoke up before he could escape.
“Mister, I’m happy to switch seats if the three of you want to sit together as a family?”
A look of poorly disguised horror crossed the man’s face. “That’s kind of you, but it’s cool. I paid for an exit row seat and really need that extra space to get some work done.” He hefted the laptop bag hanging from his left shoulder and offered an apologetic smile that even I recognized as fake.
“That was very thoughtful,” offered the woman, once her husband had fled for the relative peace of the exit row. “Thank you.”
“Family’s important,” I said blandly. “I’m John.”
She looked up from buckling in her wiggling, screeching, flailing daughter and gave me a smile that transformed her face from cute to downright lovely. “Amanda.”
I smiled back. Maybe being trapped on a tiny, explosive tin can next to a hyperactive toddler wouldn’t be so bad after all.
The Italian Screwjob releases tomorrrow! I’ll be back then with a short introduction and some content warnings and then I’ll be taking at least a few days off to let the dust settle. Happy reading!