A Dead Man’s Favor, book five in The Many Travails of John Smith, launches September 26th! As usual, I’m counting down to its release by sharing sample chapters, book stats, content warnings, and whatever else seems fun.
In Chapter 1, we joined a wedding reception, already in progress, where John was happy to have a chance to focus on something other than vampire politics. In Chapter 2, John gets to deal with… well… vampire politics. And a few other things. Enjoy!
IN WHICH WEDDING FEVER MIGHT BE AN EPIDEMIC
What’s up?” I finally asked. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know the answer, really, but it was a little too late for that.
“With Barros gone, we’ve done our best to elect new leadership,” said Steve, clearing his throat, “but things are kind of a mess. If Kayla had stuck around, she’d have been one of the oldest of us left. Without her, there’s only one person over a hundred, even. And that’s a problem because that one person is—”
“Zorana.” More than a year later, I liked to pretend just saying the name didn’t give me the shivers. It wasn’t true, but I liked to pretend it. The pre-teen Blood Witch and I had a long history and very little of it was good.
“Right. Which is a problem at the best of times. But now, she’s disappeared, and we aren’t sure where she went or why.”
“You lost the Blood Witch? How?”
“I think she just walked out.” He read the look on my face and shrugged. “Do you think any of us would have dared stop her from leaving? We’re pretty sure she’s in San Diego still, but—”
But that put a millennium-old, possibly insane vampire on the streets, one whose behavior had only barely even been constrained by the femmepire she acknowledged as queen.
A tiny, forever scared part of me was amazed the streets weren’t already running red.
“What do you want from me then?”
“I was—we were—hoping you could help find her. And then maybe Lady Dumenyova or Queen-Regent Lucia could… I don’t know… take care of her?”
“You’ve got to be kidding, dude. Ana barely survived their last meeting, and I highly doubt Lucia will set foot in this country ever again now that her exile has been lifted.”
“It’s a lot to ask, I know, but we don’t know what else to do. We have people out looking, but even if we find Zorana, there’s not a damn thing we can do to control her.” He took a step back and held up his hands. “Just ask Lady Dumenyova. Please. The House will help however we can, but the Blood Witch is a bigger problem than we’re equipped to deal with.”
I sighed. “Ana’s in Rome until tomorrow, but I’ll at least tell her when she comes back. I’m not making any promises though, and frankly, the less either of us has to do with Zorana, the happier I’ll be.”
“I get it. And thanks. Seriously.”
The DJ was clearing the dance floor and calling for the unmarried men and women in the audience to make their way forward for the bouquet and garter toss. I took advantage of that distraction to make my escape, and joined the small crowd that was starting to form. Marriage wasn’t really a vampire thing—this one being an obvious exception—but there were more than a few bloodsuckers in the group around me, and a vastly larger crowd had readied for the bouquet toss. Honestly, both groups were a mix of genders, but almost the entire wedding party was out there waiting for the bouquet.
Kayla, smiling every bit as broadly as her human bride, held the wedding bouquet like a sword, dipping it down as if to knight the men and women hoping to catch it. She spun to put her back to the crowd, her wedding dress skirts flaring like she was some kind of princess, and without further ado, tossed the bouquet over one shoulder.
If she’d used her vampiric strength, she’d have sent the flowers right through the tent’s heavy canvas and probably a few hundred yards further, over the cliff and into the ocean. Then again, if the hopeful recipients had used their supernatural abilities, we’d have had a tentful of Olympian high jumpers skying for the prize. Instead, it all went off in relatively mundane fashion; the bouquet arced up and then came back down in the middle of the crowd, where a beaming femmepire snatched it and held it aloft like a trophy.
“Tasha,” said the manpire to my right, disgustingly fit and handsome as all his kind were.
“You know her?” I didn’t recognize either of them from the San Diego House, but it had admittedly been a while.
“We’re dating,” he admitted.
“Oh. Congratulations on her catching the bouquet. Or… condolences?”
“Definitely the first.” He grinned. “I’m Kale.”
“As in the vegetable?” I couldn’t help but shudder. “No offense, but I’m pretty sure we’re mortal enemies. I’m—”
“John Smith, yeah. I know. Everybody knows.”
He was still smiling, so hopefully that was a good thing.
Meanwhile, after congratulating Tasha, Kayla had joined her new mother-in-law and brother-in-law on the side of the dance floor. It was Darlene’s turn to take center stage. More than half of the people who’d been trying for the bouquet joined those of us waiting to catch the garter.
Except, of course, that Darlene wasn’t removing the garter from Kayla’s leg like in old fashioned weddings. In fact, the item she pulled out from within her vest wasn’t a garter at all. Instead, it was a thick loop of buttery soft leather, with a clasp on one side and a metal O-ring on the other.
Because of course D would be throwing a collar instead.
I didn’t have time to see how her family reacted to that little change of custom, as Darlene didn’t stand on ceremony any more than her bride had. She just waved at us, spun about with a click of her heels, and chucked the collar over her head in our direction.
Darlene was a human, without any supernatural powers to call upon, but either she’d been preparing for the event or collars flew a hell of a lot better than bouquets. Either way, the leather loop went farther than anyone would have expected, hit the ceiling of the tent, and then dropped like a grenade into my half-heartedly upraised hand.
I almost immediately found myself the center of attention. Kale slapped me on the back, while a femmepire who had just missed the catch glared daggers in my direction. Somewhere outside the throng, I could hear Juliette laughing, even if I couldn’t quite see her.
Which was great and all, but—I caught Kale as the manpire turned to go and tucked the collar into his hand.
“Might as well make it a matched set,” I told him.
“A matched set?”
“You and Tasha, I mean. I’m not saying flowers and collars go together. Although I guess in this case, they—Look, just take it, okay?”
His smile broadened, exposing teeth that passed as human since he wasn’t vamping out, and headed for his girlfriend, collar in hand.
“Does Anastasia know you have marital designs on her, little bird?” Juliette, the so-called Duchess of Snark, emerged from the swiftly dissipating crowd, Angel practically welded to her hip. My business partner had poured herself into a little black dress better suited for a club than a wedding, but so had a lot of the other attendees. This had been anything but a traditional ceremony, even before you considered all the different species running around.
“Duchess. And Angel,” I added, nodding to the other woman. With their throuple having recently turned back into a couple, the barista-turned-receptionist looked pleased as punch to be on Juliette’s arm. “Ana’s not interested in that sort of thing. I gave the collar to someone who actually wanted it.”
“If you didn’t want it, why were you out here at all?” asked Angel.
That was a really good question that I didn’t have an answer for. “Solidarity?” I ventured.
“Right.” Juliette smirked “Well, better you—or whoever you gave it to—than us, I guess.”
Angel’s features froze, her smile going flat.
“I’m sure it’ll happen when it’s meant to,” I said, my words intended more for the other woman than Juliette. Angel and I weren’t friends—for some reason, she seemed to see me as a threat, just because I lived in their apartment, worked long hours with her girlfriend, and had once been that girlfriend’s first choice as blood donor—but that didn’t make her reaction any easier to see.
“I don’t think so.” Juliette swirled the last dregs of champagne about in her glass and tossed it back. “Sweetums, do you mind getting me a refill?”
I waited for Angel to leave and then gave Juliette a look. “Dude. What was that about?”
“What was what about?” The femmepire met my eyes for a moment before her resistance crumbled. “Okay, I know. But ever since I got my wedding invite, she’s been all over the place. Anastasia and I don’t see eye to eye on a lot of things, but marriage is one of them. It’s never, ever happening. Angel knows that and she’s okay with it, but…”
“It’s like wedding fever is a real virus and not something you humans made up just to excuse your terrible life choices.”
My long and illustrious career as the city’s mediator told me this was probably not the time to pursue the subject, so I shrugged instead. “At least K and D look happy.”
Juliette softened, insofar as someone with cheekbones like razor blades could soften. “Yeah, I guess I don’t have to understand it to wish them the best.” She returned my shrug. “Anyway, any news from the Mer?”
“They’re still working to set up the first meeting. With Chief Tikky-Wokka Tomlinson… well… dead, and the coup squashed, there’s been a bit of a power struggle within the Superchargers tribe.” It was probably the only reason they hadn’t rolled over the much smaller Clippers tribe, who had declared war as soon as the Superchargers executed Rihanna Mariah Kardashian, the murdered chief’s wife, the coup’s mastermind, and one of the Clippers’ favorite former daughters. “Figuring out who should be attending from each tribe has been difficult.”
“Everything with goblins is difficult.” She coughed, looking unsure in a very non-Juliette way. “Has anyone said anything about me? Or us, rather?”
“I don’t think the chief told anyone we were investigating one of his wives for infidelity. There’s nothing to link you or our agency to the coup you uncovered.”
“Other than the meeting I set up with him.”
“Which was scheduled for some time after his death and therefore never happened.” I shook my head. “And it’s not like you did anything wrong. You investigated Rihanna Mariah Kardashian, found out she wasn’t cheating, uncovered evidence that she was instead planning a coup, but were unable to warn the chief in time. Is it the ideal outcome? No. Was it great advertising for our agency? Of course not. Is the city a less safe place as a result? Obviously.” I trailed off. “Where was I going with this?”
“It’s not like you did anything wrong,” quoted Juliette, her eyes glittering dangerously.
“Right. We weren’t responsible for what happened. Sometimes, the world is what it is.”
“Of all the phrases you’ve picked up from Anastasia, that might be my very least favorite,” muttered Juliette. “But you’re right; I’ll stop looking over my shoulder for goblin hit squads. Just… try not to piss them off too badly during the mediations. Pound for pound, the little bastards aren’t that tough, but they’re as numerous as the rats back in New York City, and at least as hard to stomp out.”
“I’ve been hired to stop a war, not start a second one.”
“And no promises on either front.” The Encourager™ made a reappearance, but Juliette remained unimpressed. “You know I’ll do what I can, but things have a habit of going squirrely. Still, I’m hoping I can appeal to the tribes’ civic pride. They both named themselves after San Diego teams, after all, even if the basketball franchise moved up to Los Angeles. I’m hoping there’s common ground there. Maybe they can focus on keeping the town clear of Raiders fans or something instead.”
“That’s not the dumbest—”
“Excuse me… John?”
“Hey Brenna. What’s up?” Like Steve, Brenna had stayed with the San Diego House even after Lucia was driven out. For some reason, I found it harder to blame her for doing so. Maybe it was because she’d never held any kind of leadership role in the House, or maybe I was—as both Lucia and Juliette had accused me of in the past—thinking with my eyes and my impossibly stupid second brain. Brenna wasn’t Anastasia, but she was still smoking hot.
“You’ve got a visitor.”
“Here?” I glanced around the reception. The music had started back up again and the dance floor was packed, but even with Juliette and Brenna next to me, nobody seemed to be paying me any attention.
“No. Outside.” Brenna rolled her eyes. “It’d be best if he didn’t crash the party.”
Ah. Crap. “Bill is here?” I was pretty sure neither he nor his ward, Jee Sun, had been sent an invite, but that wasn’t the sort of thing to stop San Diego’s resident demigod of nightmares, terror, and vindication. Especially if there were sweets available. Or pizza. Or sinners.
“Lord Beel-Kasan? No, thank the gods. I’m talking about Simon.”
It had been a whole year, so it took me longer than it should have to place the name. But once I had, I thanked Brenna and made a beeline for the place she said Simon was waiting.
I didn’t know how the city’s zombie prince had found me, or what had brought him all the way out to a wedding on the coast, but I was guessing it wasn’t anything good.
Simon looked much the same as the last time I’d seen him, swaddled in multiple layers of clothes that did very little to limit the stench. His face was the only bit of exposed skin, barely visible between the shapeless hat on top and the ratty scarf below, but it looked like he’d lost more pieces of himself since our last encounter.
As undead, zombies didn’t heal. Any damage Simon suffered put him one step closer to a final death, and until someone confirmed that heaven had Netflix, that was something the zombie prince was keen on avoiding.
“What’s up, kid?” His lower lip continued to hang on by a thread, waggling out of sync with the rest of his face as he spoke.
“You tell me. You’re looking… uh…”
“Yeah, yeah. Pardon me if I didn’t get dressed up all fancy like to come see you. Turns out my tailor’s been dead since the Great Depression.”
“Right. So, not that it’s not great to see you again, but—”
“What the hell do I want?”
“Actually, how did you find me?”
He gave me a look. “Same way I find anything in this town.”
“Yeah, though I used their eyes rather than checking energy signatures this time.”
It was the same thing he’d done to help me find the missing ghost, Graciela, but it was significantly less cool when I was the one being tracked. And not just because it meant there were rats at Kayla and Darlene’s wedding venue.
“As for what I want?” continued Simon. “I’m calling in my favor.”
“Jesus Christ on a squeaky unicycle, how quickly they forget.” He thumped the Mercedes hood ornament hanging around his neck. “Me help you find missing ghost. You kill shitload of witches. Everybody go home happy. Any of this ringing a bell, asshole?”
“Right. Of course. Sorry… it’s been a long year.” I cleared my throat. “So, what can I do for you? Need a new iPad? A more permanent place to stay? A friendly ear?” I fought not to gag as the wind off the ocean shifted, bringing the zombie’s stench even closer.
“None of that. I… uh… have family, you know?”
“Yes, seriously. What, you thought I was some kind of loser in my first life? My wife and I died from influenza after the war, but at least some of our kids survived. And they went on to have kids of their own, and so on.”
I didn’t ask which war it was. Multiple generations meant we were talking one of the world wars. Or maybe even the Civil War.
“So, you have descendants still walking the earth and possibly adding to the family tree?”
“Right. I don’t keep track of most of ‘em, because who the hell has time for that? But there’s a branch I helped a generation or two ago, and I guess that story’s been passed down, because someone reached out to me.” He hawked noisily and spat something brown and thick to the side, where I could swear it practically sizzled against the rocks. “Long and short of it is that my however many greats granddaughter and her guy have gone missing. It’s been a week already and I want you to find them.”
Of all the things I’d expected the zombie prince to call in his favor for, a missing persons case wasn’t one of them. Thankfully, it was very much in my wheelhouse.
“Yeah, I can do that. I’ll need as much data as—” I stopped as a manila envelope landed in front of me, its exterior only lightly stained.
“That’s everything I have on Dulcinea’s disappearance.”
I picked up the envelope and thumbed through its contents, doing my best to keep it away from my rented tux. There were a dozen or so pages, including black-and-white printouts of the missing couple. At a glance, there was plenty to go off of.
“How did you get this all printed?”
“The FedEx print center down on Sixth.” He read my look and shrugged, one of his unseen shoulders twitching higher than the others. “I broke in last night. Anyway, I included contact information for her father. Jeremiah’s a bit of a weirdo—thinks technology is rotting our brains and stuff—but he’ll have more info for you when you arrive.”
“Ghost Falls,” said Simon. “Podunk little town in the ass end of New Mexico. You’re going there to find Dulcinea.”
“To New Mexico? I mean… normally, I handle out-of-state cases remotely. The internet’s a pretty amazing—”
“Boots on the ground, asshole. You owe me.”
He wasn’t wrong. And a road trip to New Mexico didn’t sound awful… provided I could somehow fit it in between my mediations with the goblins.
“Okay, that’s fair.”
“Good. I’ve got Fargo to watch.” He paused. “I included my newest phone number in there too. Call me once you’ve got something. And kid?”
“This matters to me. Dulcinea matters. Don’t screw it up. None of your usual stuff where you get everyone around you dead, you hear me?”
“When you come to Middleton & Smith Investigations, satisfaction is guaranteed.” It wasn’t our actual motto—for both legal and financial reasons—but I was betting Simon didn’t know that.
“Yeah, that’s not how I hear it. Anyway, you do this, and we’ll be square.”
“I’ll find her,” I promised, breaking one of the first and most fundamentals rules of private investigation:
Promise to try. Promise to make every conceivable effort. But never, ever promise someone a result that you haven’t already achieved.
Still, I’d survived witches, vampires, werewolves, two demigods, and a murder trial in Italy of all places. I was in a personal relationship with the deadliest woman I knew, and a professional relationship with the snarkiest. What kind of difficulties could a simple missing persons case pose in comparison?
A Dead Man’s Favor releases September 26th in print and digital formats, and is now available for pre-order in digital format!
On Friday, I’ll be back with Chapter 3. See you then!