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 Chapters 1 and 2, we caught the tail-end of a wedding reception as Simon, zombie prince of San Diego, showed up to call in the favor John owes him from Ghost of a Chance. In Chapter 3, John focuses all of his less-than-considerable attention span on that case. Enjoy!
IN WHICH PIMPIN’ AIN’T EASY
The next day found me working out of our office in Logan Heights. For the first time in weeks, all three members of the agency were present, but thanks to our recently finished expansion into the neighboring ‘suite’, the combined space still felt roomy. As our receptionist, Angel’s desk occupied the room that had originally been the agency’s entire footprint, where a fancy glass door led out to the public hallway and bore the name of our agency. Meanwhile, Juliette and I had desks in the new space, connected to Angel’s room by an interior door that spent most of its time wide open.
I still wasn’t thrilled with Juliette’s decisions to hire Angel and expand our business, but with the amount of money she’d been bringing in on solo investigations, it was almost a wash. And the extra space was nice. If I squinted and pretended hard enough, I could even almost make out downtown San Diego through the gaps between buildings outside our new room’s only window.
Not bad for a twenty-seven-year-old community college dropout.
For some reason, Juliette’s new desk was bigger than mine, but it lacked the dents, divots, and damage that gave a piece of furniture character, and her chair was the kind only a junior executive would find themselves saddled with. It was squeaking forlornly as she slowly rotated in a circle, playing catch with the paperweight she’d stolen from my side of the office.
“Are you really done with the Peterman case already?” I asked her, somewhere around the seventeenth tortuous squeak. “You don’t want to go out and run down some more leads or anything?”
“He confessed. On tape,” she reminded me. “And then gave me his home videos. His soon-to-be ex-wife has absolutely everything she needs to take that man to the cleaners. I never even had to pull my camera out of its case.”
“I think you mean my camera. And that’s only because you used your vampire powers to compel him.”
“We use what we have, little bird. I’ve got strength, beauty, mental compulsion, and legs for days, while you’ve got… well, experience, I guess?”
“Nice. Between that and the last two cases, we’ve got salaries and rent covered through next month. Assuming the goblin mediation goes okay, we should be on easy street for a while.” I yawned, and hit Ctrl-S on the excel spreadsheet I tracked our budget in. Nobody had told me that being a small business owner would involve so much work.
Actually, everyone had told me that. Even Mike. But still, I couldn’t imagine Marlowe or Spade ever doing spreadsheets. I’d become a private investigator to avoid being an accountant.
The printouts Simon had given me were spread out across my desk. I’d already reviewed them twice since the wedding. Dulcinea, age nineteen, had left her family’s home with her boyfriend, Pedro, age twenty-three, sometime after lunch on Tuesday, the 8th of September. A neighbor had seen them riding out of Ghost Falls on Pedro’s motorcycle, but after that, they’d both disappeared off the face of the earth. Dulcinea’s youth, and the fact that she’d left with her boyfriend, had me wondering if she was missing at all or had just run away from home. After all, my summer to the contrary, eloping was still a thing in 2015, wasn’t it? The town sheriff had come to a similar conclusion, but Dulcinea’s father, Jeremiah, was convinced that something had happened.
I’d already asked Juliette’s contacts at the SDPD to run traces on the couple’s credit cards, but we wouldn’t get that information back for another day or so. In the meantime, I’d spent my morning researching Ghost Falls itself. Neither Juliette nor I had ever heard of the place, and it only took one Google search to find out why; the town had less than three hundred people living in it—two hundred ninety-seven, according to the last census. In fact, their main export seemed to be people, with the town’s population plummeting in recent years as kids grew up and moved down to Santa Fe.
For a town seemingly on its last legs, it was at least picturesque, surrounded by forests with mountains to the north and east. Quaint, as my mom would insist on calling it while reading the description of the town’s single post office that had been built all the way back in 1947. I wasn’t much of an outdoorsy guy, and I doubted the town had any breweries, but even so… I didn’t hate the idea of spending a few days there chasing down leads.
In the other room, the phone rang, and both Juliette and I stilled as Angel went through her usual greeting. I hated to admit it, but Juliette’s girlfriend had come a long way since her early days of not taking notes. She even had a tidy stack of post-its on her desk now, just waiting to be used.
A moment later, she hung back up. “Wrong number, unless one of you told someone your name was Ziggy?”
Juliette gave me a look, but I shook my head.
“Not me.” Not recently anyway.
Angel went back to whatever she had been doing—playing on her phone, most likely, not that I could blame her—but Juliette was clearly tired of playing catch. She slid out of her chair with another squeak and crossed over to my desk. “Are you looking through the packet Simon gave you again?”
“Yeah. Unless your pet cops can help us out, there’s not much to work with. I guess going to Ghost Falls really does make sense.” Simon hadn’t given me any choice on that front, but I felt better knowing the trip was warranted. “I’m thinking I might make a little vacation out of it with Anastasia.”
“When does she get back?”
“Four hours and twenty-eight minutes.”
“Not that you’re counting.” She smirked, leaning one hip against the desk like a runway model giving the press time for photographs. “This was what… her second trip to Rome since you guys came back together?”
“I thought she was done with Lucia?”
“Yeah.” So had I, honestly. “She’s been released from Secundus service for the next century, but they’re still… friends? I guess? She’s been helping Lucia and her niece, Sabina, with the whole regency thing.”
Ana had also been doing a little bit of investigation on the side, but it wasn’t the sort of thing our agency handled, and for now, it was on a strictly need-to-know basis. I loved Juliette like the smoking hot, frequently disturbing sister I’d never had, but this was a vampire-politics thing, to my everlasting dismay, and the Duchess of Snark had done a much better job of extricating herself from that arena than me.
“You think she’ll want to turn around and fly right back out?”
“Who said anything about flying? I was thinking we’d drive.”
“Little bird, you do realize this town you’re going to is at least ten hours away from San Diego by car?”
“It’s still better than flying.” My flight to Rome had left deep emotional scars that the vastly more enjoyable flight from it had failed to erase. “When’s the last time you flew anywhere?”
“People were drinking and smoking on flights. Human people, I mean, not the People. So, maybe… the 80s?”
“Well, it’s not as glamorous as it was then. Trust me.”
“Few things are.” She flipped through the pages and tossed them back on the desk. “Anyway, want to go get some lunch?”
“It’s ten thirty.”
“Yeah, but I’m bored, and all you’re doing is shuffling papers around.”
I started to argue, then caught myself. One of the reasons I’d started my own business instead of interning at my dad’s accounting firm—besides an ineptitude with math that bordered on the supernatural—was that I’d wanted the ability to set my own rules. No suits or ties, no conference calls, and absolutely no slavish adherence to the typical 8-to-5 grind.
“Lunch sounds good.”
“I’m thinking sushi.”
“It’s ten thirty,” I reminded her.
“I didn’t say we’d do saké bombs with the sushi.” She shifted from foot to foot, acting the part of the teenager she appeared to be, rather than the century-old creature of the night she was. “It’s just lunch.”
“Fine. Sushi it is.”
“Sweet.” She was in the next office before I could reply, leaning over the desk in a way that gave Angel a look right down the deep V of her cropped T-shirt. “Can we bring you back anything, sweetums?”
“Maybe an avocado roll and a shiitake roll? And some dessert please?”
“Thanks for holding down the fort, Angel,” I said.
“It’s what you all pay me for.”
“I pay you to sit there and look adorable,” said Juliette. “But forts need to be held down or whatever too, I guess.”
The two traded smiles, Angel actually blushing, and then Juliette followed me into the hall. She scowled at whatever she saw on my face.
“I’m just saying… sometimes, you two are awfully domestic. What would your punk rock gods think of you now?”
“I will kill you where you stand, little bird.”
“Maybe I’ll take that chance?”
“And this is why you’re paying for saké at lunch.”
We both grinned and headed for the stairs.
Three hours and twenty minutes later, we returned to the office, Juliette swaying slightly on skyscraper-high stilettos that shouldn’t have gone with her painted-on jeans, but somehow worked anyway. I nodded to Dale, still camped outside the building with his too-many backpacks and a small hoard of questionable treasures, and the homeless man responded with his usual greeting: a raised middle finger and a complaint about communism.
Nice guy, Dale. He’d pretty much come with the building though, so I passed him the take-home container of sushi.
“What’s this?” he grumbled.
“A likely story.”
I left the sushi with him, knowing eventually he’d eat it anyway, and followed Juliette into the building lobby. Her Ducati was there, chained to the stairwell, and we passed it on our way up to the second floor. It wasn’t until we neared the office’s front door that I heard the voices inside. We hadn’t had any appointments scheduled, but someone was in there.
Two years ago, that’d have been enough to have me panicking, but I was made of sterner stuff now. Also, Angel was one of those two voices, and she didn’t seem worried. Still, it didn’t suck to have Juliette as backup. With Lucia more than six thousand miles away, the femmepire queen and I no longer had to worry about passing emotions and sensations across our bond, but my ability to pull on her powers—or even her strength—was similarly hampered.
Most days, it was a tradeoff I was okay with.
I took a deep breath, just to steady myself, and sent Juliette a nod that she returned with a confused expression. I pushed open the door and found a small, well-dressed blonde sitting on our client couch and talking with Angel.
“John!” She hopped to her feet, started to say something, and then trailed off as Juliette filed in behind me. “Ugh. Unbelievable.”
Susan shook her head with a scowl. “It’s bad enough that you brought an escort to my wedding, but you’ve got one at work, too? Of course you would. John in name and role. What was I even thinking, coming here?”
“At least the last one was almost age appropriate,” she continued. “Did you even wait for this girl to graduate from high school?”
“Did she just call me a teenage prostitute?” asked Juliette, her words dangerously barbed.
“I don’t blame you for your profession, honey,” Susan told her. “Whatever it takes to survive in this economy, right? But you’re pretty enough to model, and you can do a lot better than a deadbeat pseudo-daddy half again your age. I swear, every time I think my opinion of John couldn’t get any lower, he’s out there with a shovel, digging.”
I reminded myself, and not for the first time, that Susan was the wife of my best friend, and that he’d probably miss her if I had Bill banish her to his private hell dimension, Gehenna.
“Susan, this is Juliette Middleton, my business partner and the other name on the door you came through. And Angel, who you’ve already been talking to, is her girlfriend.” I paused. “Wait, did you just call Anastasia a prostitute too?”
“Oh, so now you care,” muttered Juliette.
“What should I believe? That you’re somehow dating a 10 and in business with another one? No offense intended,” she said to Angel, who wasn’t much prettier than I was and was also dating a ten. “I’m sure your actual girlfriend is very pretty too, hon, and I wish you both nothing but the best. I even marched in the Pride parade last year!”
“Believe what you want, Susan.” Unlike Juliette, I hadn’t had any saké, but this conversation was giving me a headache anyway. “And then let yourself out. Unless there’s anything else?”
The usually perky woman’s face—always perfectly made up, whether she was headed out for work or dinner or just watching television at home with her husband—fell, and her eyes dropped to the reasonably clean area rug she was standing on.
“I’m not trying to be…”
“You?” I finished.
“Yes. I suppose. If you insist that the woman at my wedding was your girlfriend, I guess I should believe you?”
I tried not to be annoyed that she’d made it a question rather than a statement. This was as close to an apology as I was going to get, and for my best friend’s sake, I was going to be okay with that.
“We’re an odd pair; I can’t argue with that. But as impossible as it is to believe, Ana is my girlfriend. And Juliette is my junior partner.”
“Who brings in most of the money,” muttered the femmepire in question, “and all of the cool.”
“Then I guess I’m sorry.” Susan directed the words to Juliette, not me, not that I’d have expected anything else. “Making partner at your age is impressive, even in a small business like this one.”
Juliette, who hadn’t been a teenager for a good eighty years, looked unreasonably mollified.
“What brings you to Logan Heights?” I asked Susan. “And where did you park?” The neighborhood was in better shape than when I’d first set up shop, but the local gang still had an unfortunate taste for smash and grabs on any vehicles they didn’t recognize as local.
“I took a taxi, and… could we talk? In private? Please?”
I traded glances with Juliette and nodded. “Sure thing. Why don’t you step into my office.”
As I escorted her through the interior door, I heard the rustle of plastic as Angel finally tore into her long-awaited lunch.
I closed the door to complete the illusion of privacy, even though Juliette would still hear every word we spoke, and waved Susan to one of the two chairs in front of my desk. I walked around to sink into the plush faux leather of my senior executive chair.
“What’s going on, Susan? If you wanted to plan a surprise for Mike’s birthday, you could have just called.”
“Oh, it’s a surprise alright,” she muttered. “Happy fricking Birthday.”
“Did you know?”
“Susan, I’m tired, I’m full, I have no idea what you’re talking about, and I have roughly thirty minutes before I need to go to the airport to pick up the girlfriend you don’t believe I have. Tell me what’s going on.”
Her carefully composed mask crumbled, and Susan’s blue eyes overflowed with tears that coursed down her cheeks, creating messy streaks in both her mascara and foundation.
“It’s Michael,” she said. “I think he’s cheating on me!”
It took twenty of those thirty minutes to get the full story out of Susan between sobs and far too many tissues. When she was done, I was left with what we in the business would call an ethical dilemma. The wife of my best friend wanted me to investigate that friend? I didn’t see any way it could end well.
According to Susan, Mike had been leaving their house at odd times during the nights over the past month, disappearing for hours at a time, and offering flimsy excuses when questioned about it. There’d even been instances when he’d come home from his construction job with the faint scent of perfume clinging to him. She’d tried following him a few times, to no avail, and now wanted me to tail him instead so that I could dig up evidence on what—or who—he was doing.
It was a simple cheating spouse case, made considerably less simple because it involved my best friend.
My old boss and mentor, the man who’d shown me the ropes of the private investigation business, would have taken the case anyway as long as he knew for certain the check would clear. I ended up taking it for another reason entirely: there was no way in hell Mike was cheating. It simply wasn’t in the man’s nature.
“Look, I’ve known Mike since we were three, and in that time, there’ve been two things he loved: you and his ‘66 Mustang. Unless you made him sell it…?” I waited for her to shake her head, because you never knew with Susan. “Then yeah, I don’t see either one changing. And even if it did, he’d leave you before cheating. That’s who he is.”
“But you’ll look into it anyway? And you won’t tell him?”
And that’s where things got thorny. Spying on my best friend wasn’t the sort of thing that would go over well with Mike. Nor would finding out his new wife thought so little of him. But I was pretty sure Susan would just find another private eye if I said no, and I figured Mike would rather have me up in his business than a stranger.
“That’s the job.”
She dug through her oversized designer handbag and pulled out a checkbook. “How much do I owe you to start?”
“Nothing.” I shrugged, feeling way more tired than even four sushi rolls could explain. “You’re Mike’s wife. That means you’re practically part of my family too. I know he’s not cheating on you, and I’m not taking your money to prove it.”
She sniffled and tucked the checkbook away. “That’s… that’s actually really decent of you.”
“I’m a decent sort of guy. I know you’ve always had a bit of a problem with me, though I never knew why, but—”
“You bring him home drunk at least once a month. And you hired five strippers for his bachelor’s party. Five of them!”
If you’re going to go, go big. Wasn’t that the rule for bachelor parties? Hell, Darlene’s had involved an entire bathtub of body glitter. I was still finding it in the oddest of places.
“Also, you called me Suzanne for the first six months of Michael and me dating!”
From the other side of the door, I heard something that sounded suspiciously like a cackle. Thankfully, Susan was too busy blowing her nose again to pay attention.
“In fairness, I thought it was your name! Mike was drunk the first time he told me about you, and… well… maybe he kind of slurred your name? With him calling you Susie after that, I never realized it was short for Susan instead of Suzanne.” I waited a second to see if that excuse landed, and then launched my counterattack. “Also, Mike invites you to come to the bar with us, every single time!”
“I know, I know. I just feel sometimes like you’re the fun wife and I’m the boring one. But maybe,” she allowed, “that’s not fair to you.”
Gee, you think? I very carefully did not ask. And why was I the wife in Mike and my life-long heterosexual bromance anyway?
“Maybe the four of us—you, me, Mike, and Ana—could go out together for dinner or something,” I found myself suggesting, to my own internalized screams of despair. “We can all get to know each other better in a more adult and sophisticated setting. You and I are both going to be part of Mike’s life for a long time to come. We should figure out how to get along, don’t you think?”
“Maybe… yeah,” she said, voice firming. “But if he is cheating on me, it’s over. One hundred percent done, and I don’t even care what excuse he comes up with.”
“I get it. But this is Mike we’re talking about. I’m sure there’s another explanation.”
There had to be.
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 4. See you then!