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.
Last chapter, John and Juliette had just returned from an early lunch of sushi and saké, when they were met by Susan, the wife of John’s best friend, Mike. It’s only been a few months since Mike and Susan were married, but she suspects that he is already cheating on her and wants John to find the evidence. Because there’s no conflict of interest there whatsoever, right? In Chapter 4, John’s not focused on work at all. Enjoy!
IN WHICH HOME IS NOT A PLACE AT ALL
There wasn’t time to discuss the case with Juliette; I hurried out of the office a minute or two after Susan’s departure. Ana hadn’t asked me to pick her up at the airport, but her live-in housekeepers and blood donors, Gustavo and Teresa, were getting older by the day, and the less they had to drive, the better.
I checked my wonderphone as I waited in the cellphone lot outside of the airport officially known as San Diego International, but still called Lindbergh Field by everyone I knew. No news from the Mer just yet. Nothing from Mike either, even though I’d texted him on the way out to my Corolla. I wasn’t going to tell him that Susan had hired me, of course, but I could at least see if anything seemed off before I started tailing him like a wanted fugitive. It had been a while since our last bar crawl, but I’d assumed that was just another consequence of married life. Now, I’d find out for sure.
Whenever he texted me back, that is.
I did have messages from Kayla and Darlene, as well as a cat video from Juliette, so there was plenty to do as I waited for Ana’s plane to land. Eventually, my phone buzzed.
I am retrieving my luggage from baggage claim and will meet you out front. – Ana.
Anastasia wasn’t keen on contractions, let alone text-speak or emojis, and despite being one of the most tech savvy four-hundred-year-olds I’d ever met, she still insisted on signing her texts with her own name.
On my way, I texted back, Missed you.
I added a long chain of heart emojis, just to balance the scales and appease the local Demigod of Overly Emotive Messaging, then tossed my phone aside and pulled out of the lot.
There were a lot of people standing outside the terminal, waiting for rides, but Anastasia stood out as always: stunningly beautiful, elegantly put together, and just… better. Some of it was a vampire thing, some of it was her fashion sense, but most of it was just her being her. I didn’t even try to fight my grin as I got out of the Corolla, and that grin widened to traditional shit-eating proportions when she greeted me with a kiss.
The agency is doing well, Lucia’s still thousands of miles away in Rome, and I’m here, standing on a sunny curb, kissing my dream woman in my dream city. What’s not to love?
The obvious answer was the goblin war in that same city and the fact that I’d just been hired to investigate my best friend, but obvious answers were for quitters, and I was no quitter.
I snuck in another kiss and loaded Ana’s bags into the trunk before coming around to meet her in the Corolla.
“How was the flight?”
“Quiet and peaceful, truly. I napped for most of the journey and read for the rest of it.”
“No inflight movies?” I’d become secretly convinced that Ana was a huge movie buff but had yet to catch her in the act.
“Me? Perish the thought.” She pulled on her seatbelt and then laid a hand across mine. “It is good to see you, John. I missed you too. How was the wedding?”
“It would have been better with you, but it was pretty great even so. I caught the collar.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“No worries; I gave it to someone else.”
“I… see. Thank you for picking me up. Gustavo is a dear, but his eyesight is not what it used to be, and the traffic in Southern California gives Teresa conniptions.”
“If it means I get to see you sooner,” I pointed out, “I’ll drive you anywhere and everywhere.”
“And so, we shall ride eternal, shiny and chrome,” murmured Anastasia.
I threaded my way between shuttles, taxis, and pedestrians, waiting to give her a knowing look until we were in the clear. “You know, that sounded a lot like something they said in Fury Road.”
“Did it?” She gave me the slow half-smile I’d fallen in love with years earlier. “How strange.”
I filled her in on recent events as we drove, filling the comfortable silence with my usual blend of babble and banter, but as we reached the onramp to the 5, I decided it was time to change things up.
“How was Rome?”
“Largely uneventful. Maria Elena sends her best wishes and wanted me to ask you why you remain inactive on the social media accounts she created for you.”
“I’m not sure I’m a Twitter guy.”
“Admittedly, the decision to share your inner life on a public forum where anyone can access it does seem imprudent.”
“Right?” I shivered. Social media was one of my best tools as a private investigator; I’d found far too much actionable information on there to ever even think of sharing my own. The sort of things my parents posted on Facebook were bad enough. “And how is the royal family?”
“The Kingmaker remains uniquely himself. Princess Sabina is adjusting rapidly to the new status quo. In a few decades, I have no doubt she will be as capable a ruler as any in her line.”
“Queen-Regent Lucia,” corrected Ana, not bothering to hide her smile, “is well, for the first time in decades. Italy agrees with her in a way that this country never did. And I suspect she is grateful that the literal distance between you dulls certain aspects of your bond.”
“Me and her both. And speaking of certain aspects…” I gave her my very best smolder. “Do you have any plans for tonight?”
“The same ones that you have, I believe. Feed, shower, and then… perhaps retire to the primary suite? It has been a very long week.”
We shared another smile, this one the kind that puts hair on a man’s chest. It wasn’t until we’d passed the 8 that something horrible occurred to me.
“Did I just… waggle my eyebrows at you?”
“I believe you may have.”
Holy crap. I was turning into my dad.
“Sorry about that. Uhm…” I flailed about for a change in subject. What had we been talking about? Oh, right. Rome. “Any luck with your research?”
“Not as much as we hoped for, although Denarius has promised to continue pursuing any available leads. Gaius’ personal effects contained no mention of when or how he gained his Talent or how exactly Jehane faked her death in the Tower.”
“And the stone fragments from the Bitter End that they used to frame you with?”
“I was hoping you had made progress on that front.”
“No. We went back to the Bitter End, but even with it open again, Kala remains a no-show.” I frowned for the first time since I’d seen Ana standing on the curb. The fact that Gaius had refused to reveal his secrets even when he thought he’d already won was still bothering me, all these months later. “There’s something we’re missing. Too many things just don’t add up.”
“I think you are correct that there is another party involved somehow,” agreed Anastasia. “Yet their identity and ultimate goals both remain unknown. The one piece of information I did come away with was that Gaius was not away on King Tomasso’s business when the king was murdered.”
“Wait, he was still in Rome?”
“No, eyewitness accounts place him in India and then eastern Asia during that time. However, Denarius found mention that it was Gaius himself who suggested that trip, and not King Tomasso as we had originally believed.”
“It got him out of Rome and gave him an alibi when Tomasso was murdered,” I reasoned. “But why Asia? Especially given how long travel took back then? You think he was doing something for this unknown third party?”
“Indeed. Denarius has agents attempting to reconstruct Gaius’ journey. Though the world has dramatically changed in the ensuing century, perhaps one or more clues will be found.”
“I’ll see if I can step things up with Kala here. I have a feeling that whatever allowed someone to remove pieces of the demigod’s home dimension without him knowing will go a long way to answering our questions.” I coughed. “Which leaves only Xavier.”
Two years after Ana had killed her former lover, I still wasn’t sure exactly what to say about the traitorous captain of Lucia’s ex-House’s Watch.
Hell, even that phrase—traitorous captain of Lucia’s ex-House’s Watch—made my brain hurt. The supernatural races of the world had really cornered the market on coups, power struggles, and betrayal.
“It is still possible that he developed a second Talent on his own,” said Anastasia, her words calm and composed, giving no clue to whatever emotions Xavier’s mention had provoked. “It has happened before.”
“Yeah, but in someone so young, and just in time to suborn some of Lucia’s less easily bought House members and stage the coup?”
“Talents are born of blood and age. It seems impossible that someone would be able to create one entirely from scratch.”
“As impossible as sneaking into a demigod’s own domain and chiseling out pieces of their bar’s largely indestructible wall?”
“A fair point. Still, they may not be related. Xavier’s second talent at least has an explanation, no matter how unlikely. As for Gaius… some mysteries may never be solved.”
“Maybe they should have waited before executing Jehane.”
“Perhaps. Yet it was a decision that the council and royal family made together. Better to ensure that justice was finally done than to risk her escaping yet again.”
It was a heavy subject and one that followed us all the way up the 5 and past the 52 and the 56. We’d almost reached Birmingham when I remembered Simon’s case.
“So, I know you haven’t even gotten home yet,” I said, breaking the silence that had fallen over our drive, “but how do you feel about taking a road trip?”
“A road trip? To where?”
“Ghost Falls, New Mexico. Fall foliage, Hatch chiles, gorgeous scenery, and, uh… one small missing persons case.”
“You’ve been hired to go to New Mexico?”
“Yeah. Our local zombie prince called in that favor I owed him. It turns out he still has living descendants, and one of them is missing. Honestly, I think she probably just ran away with her boyfriend, but I told him I’d check it out. And I wouldn’t hate having you along for company.”
“Well, as long as you would not hate it.”
“I’ll even let you pick the music we listen to, as long as I get to choose where we eat.”
Her jade eyes danced. “I would say this proposed deal feels a little bit one-sided, had I not once spent several hours with you on an otherwise lovely Sunday listening to grown men grunt and call out obscenities.”
I coughed again. “Admittedly, gangster rap’s not for everyone. So, we have a deal?”
“This is not a mediation, John.” She touched my hand again, her fingers feather-soft for all that they could bend steel. “I wish to spend time with you, and New Mexico is lovely this time of year. And if I must eat In-N-Out once or twice on this road trip of ours, I will find my way to accepting that fate,” she added, lips curling into a smile.
Best. Girlfriend. Ever.
Gustavo met us at the door from the garage, the elderly man looking like a San Diego native in khaki shorts and a polo, a broad smile deepening the maze of wrinkles in his bronzed face. I handed him one of Anastasia’s bags, grabbed the second, and slipped past him and Teresa as Ana hugged her long-time housekeepers and blood donors. The primary suite was up on the second floor, two bedrooms down from where Ana had once nursed me back to health and Lucia had tried to snack on me in her sleep.
By the time I had tucked Ana’s suitcase away and gone back into the hall, Gustavo was making his way toward me with the second bag. A frown came to me unbidden. I’d intentionally given the old man the lighter of the two bags, but he was struggling with it, his steps more a shuffle than the careful stride I was used to.
Part of me wanted to offer my help, but Gustavo had his pride, and I didn’t think he’d take it well. So instead, I ducked back into the bedroom and then the ensuite bathroom where I made a lengthy show of washing my hands.
Four happy birthdays later, I emerged, trading smiles and then handshakes with the older man. I split my time between Ana’s house in Cardiff and Juliette’s apartment in Hillcrest… and only stayed in the former when Anastasia was also present. I liked Gustavo and Teresa both and they seemed to return the sentiment, but the elderly couple deserved time to themselves when their employer and friend was away.
Gustavo clapped me on my shoulder, murmured something incomprehensible in Italian, and turned to shuffle back downstairs. I dropped into one of the two easy chairs in Ana’s bedroom, fishing out my phone to see if I’d gotten any new messages. The answer to that was no, so I sent a text to Maria Elena saying hi, but making absolutely no mention of Twitter or any of the other social media services she’d created accounts for on my behalf. Then, I messaged Darlene, wishing her and Kayla a safe trip to Australia.
Maria Elena was likely asleep in Italy, but D responded almost immediately with a gif of three men from The Office—the American version, of course—all dancing awkwardly and the caption Party Time! I sent back two thumbs up, a fire emoji, and a pumpkin, although I wasn’t sure what the last was supposed to represent.
The newlyweds were clearly doing just fine.
Ten minutes and innumerable rounds of Candy Crush Saga later, Anastasia made her appearance. Her usually pale cheeks were flushed from feeding, and her eyes locked onto me like laser-guided missile defense systems, even as she toed the door shut behind her.
“Ready for that shower?” I asked.
“I believe it can wait until after we’ve gotten dirty.”
Much later, I snuggled with a delightfully—one might even say exquisitely—clean Anastasia. The sheets were Egyptian cotton, the pillow was a soft cloud, and Ana’s nightgown was smooth silk, but the vampire herself put them all to shame.
“That was lovely, Mr. Smith.”
“I think I died twice, Lady Dumenyova.”
We just held each other for a long while. Between the shower, her feeding, and our own activities, Ana was warmer than usual, her cheek nestled against my bare shoulder, her long hair splayed out on our shared pillow.
This was home. I couldn’t bring myself to say it out loud—I felt sort of lame for even thinking it—but it was true.
Eventually, Ana shifted to look up at me. “Thank you for permitting Gustavo to carry one of the bags. No matter what Teresa and I say to him about resting, the dear man does need to feel useful.”
“He’s a great guy, even if I can’t understand a word he says; I don’t want him to feel like he’s being put out to pasture or anything.” Even though it felt like I was betraying the old man, I swallowed and continued. “That said… he was really struggling with your suitcase.”
“Yes.” Ana’s voice was quiet. “I worry about them both. In the long tradition of their family, they have served me well, but I do not know how many years either of them has left.”
I gave her another hug, uncertain what to say. Gustavo was the last in a family line that had served Anastasia since shortly after her parents had sold her to Lucia’s father, and the old man and his wife had been her primary housekeepers and blood donors for far longer than I’d been alive. I couldn’t even imagine what it would be like, saying goodbye to Mike when he was eighty and dying, and yet Anastasia had done something similar again and again over the centuries.
“There is still time yet,” said Ana, reading my thoughts and for some reason seeking to reassure me. “And they will spend that time cared for and cherished to the best of my abilities.”
“What happens when they do pass?” It wasn’t a subject I wanted to delve into, but I couldn’t help myself.
Once again, Ana knew exactly where I was going. Her voice was soft, and she reached up to stroke my cheek. “I will have to find new donors.”
I tried to hide my reaction. A vampire’s feeding didn’t have to be sexual for the vampire themselves, but it inevitably triggered sexual reactions in their donor. It was one thing to see it with Gustavo and Teresa, who had known her all their life and were desperately in love with each other, but someone new?
“We could try—”
“No, John.” Her words were steel wrapped in silk. “I have fed from you twice now, once in the Tower and once here at home. There will not be a third such occurrence.”
“It doesn’t hurt that much,” I lied. The same gift that made me immune to glamour was a curse when it came to a vampire’s bite. Lucia, who had brute forced her way into my brain to form our bond, was the only exception. With everyone else, Juliette and Anastasia both, there was nothing but pain for me at the end of a vampire’s fangs.
Ana’s sigh was cool against my chest, and she dropped her hand from my face to snuggle more tightly against me. “We have time yet. We will figure something out.”
It was still early, for those of us on California time instead of Western Europe, but I lay there anyway, holding the woman I loved as she drifted off to sleep.
And if my stomach gurgled from time to time, having finally woken up sufficiently to start protesting the four sushi rolls I’d fed it, well, nobody but me was awake to hear it.
A Dead Man’s Favor releases September 26th in print and digital formats, and is now available for pre-order in digital format!
On Wednesday, I’ll be back with our final sample chapter, Chapter 5. See you then!