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, Anastasia returned from her most recent trip to Rome and John filled her in on at least some of the recent happenings in San Diego, including both cases he’s been hired for. In Chapter 5, that discussion continues and Juliette has a crisis of coolness. Enjoy!
IN WHICH DOUBT IS A FOUR-LETTER WORD
The next morning found us having a late breakfast in Anastasia’s eat-in kitchen. Gustavo had disappeared—age hadn’t impacted his ninja-like stealth, apparently—to tackle some sort of maintenance project, but his wife, Teresa, bustled about the kitchen, passing out cups of tea, thermos-sized glasses of orange juice, and platefuls of her own uniquely made avocado toast.
I had thanked her for both with a smile, and she’d returned it, signifying both that this was a good day for her joints and that my long campaign to win her approval was finally bearing fruit. She had started out far more standoffish than her husband, but like mold, I was slowly growing on her.
Anastasia’s unmistakable happiness probably helped a lot too.
I was polishing off my second piece of toast when I finally remembered Steve’s request at the wedding. I washed down that last bite with some OJ and cleared my throat.
As Lucia’s Secundus, Ana had regularly spent her meals on a slim tablet, researching people or events for the queen, but I hadn’t seen that tablet since her return. Instead, she was talking in Italian with Teresa, the warmth of both of their voices a balm even though I couldn’t understand the words.
“I forgot to mention; I ran into Steve at the wedding.”
“Stephen Grant?” Just like that, I had Ana’s attention. She watched me over the brim of her cup of tea.
“Yeah. He was part of Kayla’s wedding party.”
“And how is Mr. Grant doing?”
“Pretty well, I think. He’s happy that the Bitter End is open again so he and Barry could reconnect. But uh… he wanted to pass on a message and a request from the House.”
I watched her as I recapped my brief encounter with Steve, but her poker face was in fine form, as usual, and I probably spent at least half of that time just watching her instead. We had gotten up at the same time, but somehow, she looked like a thousand bucks—hair up in a twist, one of her favorite ocean-colored tunics draping over wide-legged pants—while I just looked like death warmed over.
“What do they believe I can or should do?”
“I think the House was hoping you would help them track down Zorana.”
“I don’t know. Sweet talk her into coming back?”
The look Anastasia sent me spoke volumes.
“Yeah, tell me about it. It wasn’t my idea. In fact, I think it’s pretty ballsy of them to even reach out at all, given everything that happened last year. Most likely, they’re just running out of options.”
“So it would seem.” Her voice gave away nothing, but I could almost feel her brain churning away, already focusing on the problem and likely devising possible solutions.
“I told Steve I’d give you the message, but that I wasn’t making any promises. As much as I like him and a few of the other residents, I’d rather you not get involved.” I repressed a shiver. “Zorana is dangerous.”
“As am I.”
“Sure, but you I care about. Zorana? Not so much.”
That was a lie. If something happened to Zorana, I’d likely breathe a sigh of relief, and maybe have a few less nightmares. But that wasn’t necessarily the same as wanting her dead, especially if it put Ana at risk.
Anastasia was as competent and badass as anyone I’d ever met, but the Blood Witch was a thousand years old, and it wasn’t Zorana who had come away badly wounded from their last encounter.
“Legally speaking, this is the fledgling House’s problem to deal with,” she said slowly, as if tasting her words. “However, a Blood Witch running amok in our city poses risks and challenges for everyone, especially given Zorana’s altogether questionable state of mind. I should at least meet with Mr. Grant to discuss the situation.”
“Maybe suggest he hire the karkino,” I said, referencing San Diego’s clan of crab assassins. “Not that I think they can take Zorana, but they could at least help find her. They tracked me down without any problem at all.”
“If I recall correctly, they simply waited outside your place of business.”
“Still… that takes at least some savvy.”
“I will pass the suggestion on during my visit. When were you planning for us to leave for New Mexico?”
“Sometime in the next couple of days,” I said, “although I need to check with the Mer first. They’re scheduling my initial mediation between the Superchargers and Clippers, and I need to make sure it’s not set for while we’re gone.”
I eyed the half-slice of avocado toast left on Anastasia’s plate, but after a brief but bloody war between my id and my self-control, decided I’d had enough. As good as the toast was, the last thing I needed was another food coma.
“Very well. Would you like to accompany me to the House, or do you need to make an appearance at your office?”
“Juliette should be able to handle the office, and I’d much rather spend the afternoon with you.” I tapped out a quick message on my wonderphone and sent it off into the electronic ether. “There. Now, she won’t worry or assume that the agency’s senior partner is some kind of slacker.”
I was, of course—and not just because it was already noon and I was barely having breakfast—but Juliette knew better than to expect me at work the day after Ana’s return. Given that my junior business partner had gone through her own honeymoon phase with Angel, I think she even kind of understood. Not that she’d ever admit it to my face.
Ana returned her teacup to its saucer and met my eyes across the table. There was nothing supernatural whatsoever about her gaze, but hell if it didn’t threaten to swallow me up every single time. “Are you certain that you feel comfortable returning to the House?”
I swallowed. “It wouldn’t be the first time.”
“To your eternal credit, yes. Even so, I could arrange to meet Mr. Grant elsewhere instead.”
After far too long of a pause, I shook my head. “It’s been more than a year, and pretty much everyone that tried to kill me—to kill us—is gone now. And I do have some good memories of the place. Besides, it’s been way too long since I got to ride in an elevator with you.”
That won me a smile, small but wry. “If you remain so easily satisfied, Mr. Smith, I might find myself starting to get lazy.”
“It’s hard to imagine you being lazy, Lady Dumenyova, but I’d like to see it at least once.” I wiped my mouth with the provided napkin and was just about to take our plates to the sink when my wonderphone buzzed. Twice. “Huh. Speak of the devil.”
“Lady Middleton requires your presence after all?”
“No, sorry… different devil. It looks like the Mer have finally scheduled our first meeting. Tonight, in the San Diego Bay. Not on the bay. In it.”
“The Mer are aquatic in nature.”
“So they are.” For some reason, I still hadn’t expected them to go with a water venue for the mediation. Their decision raised two immediate concerns. First, I got seasick from even walking near the ocean. And second, I didn’t have a way to reach the designated location, which was simply a map pin dropped out in the bay. The first issue could be partially mitigated through copious quantities of Dramamine, but the second…
It was late notice, but I could probably find a boat to rent, and then bring Juliette along to keep that boat’s owner compelled so they didn’t wonder what we were doing out in the bay at night and why the creatures we were meeting were recognizably inhuman. Or…
Or I could talk to someone I knew who had a boat of his own.
Yeah, I liked that idea a lot better. For a lot of reasons.
“I’m going to have to pass on the House visit after all,” I told Ana. “There’s still a lot of prep I need to do before tonight. Sorry about that.”
“It is your job. Never apologize for fulfilling your duties, least of all to one such as me.”
There was a strange note in her last few words, something slightly discordant that I didn’t quite parse, but before I could follow up on it, Ana was up and clearing our plates, dumping the dishes into the sink.
“I will let you know any additional details as I uncover them,” she told me, her voice back to its usual chocolatey velvet.
“If I can do anything at all—”
“You can stop worrying. I love you, John Smith, and all will be fine.” She dropped a kiss on my lips, and just like that, life was good again. “Tomorrow, we will toast the successful beginning of your mediation over breakfast.”
“Harry’s?” I suggested, citing the name of a breakfast spot in La Jolla that made insanely good breakfast burritos.
“It has been a few weeks since I had their pancakes,” she agreed.
That was all I needed to hear. I kissed her back and went upstairs to shower, dreams of burritos dancing in my head. There were worse ways to start the day.
It was only as I was toweling off from what had somehow turned into a forty-minute shower that I realized I’d never asked Anastasia about my deceased fellow mediator, Caleb Van Stahl. Not that I thought she’d killed him or anything, of course, but even in her pseudo-retirement, she tended to pay better attention to the events of the supernatural world than I did.
I’d only met Caleb twice, but both times, he’d been pretty damn likeable; handsome, well-dressed, and funny, in an I’ve seen every episode of obscure television ever recorded and thus will charmingly always recognize your off-the-cuff pop culture references sort of way. And yeah, maybe he’d invited himself down to San Diego, and taken over some of the city’s ever-active and ever-profitable mediation business, but we were a capitalist country, right? Competition kept me sharp, and there were only so many times a year I wanted to engage in potentially fatal conflict resolutions anyway.
Really, he’d been doing me a favor.
Still, he was dead now, and Jason’s assumption that I’d had something to do with it kind of poked at me. Anastasia was the least bloodthirsty vampire that I knew—pun not intended—but she was also a centuries-old assassin with a pragmatic streak as wide as the Grand Canyon. She’d looked into Caleb when he first set up shop and had never been quite as keen on the older man as I was. If she had recently found some piece of evidence that made him a threat to more than just my bottom line…?
Well, yeah. I had very little doubt that Anastasia would do what she thought necessary to protect me. But would she take that step without talking to me first?
I just didn’t buy it. Not because she needed my approval or anything… she was just a hell of a lot more considerate than that. She would have understood the optics of my mediator competition being suddenly offed, and that she—and by proxy, me—would automatically become the most likely suspects. At the very least, she’d have given me some sort of heads-up so I didn’t look like a complete fool when the subject came up.
None of which stopped me from popping in a Bluetooth earpiece and calling Juliette as I headed toward the 5.
“Little bird, I didn’t think I’d hear from you until tomorrow. Is the bloom already off the rose?”
“What rose are we talking about?”
“If you have to ask…” She sighed. “Whatever. Are you planning to grace us with your presence?”
“Not today. The Mer have set the introductory mediation meeting for tonight, so I need to get things set up. I’m just calling to check in on how things are going.”
“Things are dead, as usual. Figuratively speaking, that is. The soon-to-be former Mrs. Peterman is coming at one to pick up our evidence and drop off her payment, but otherwise, the day is wide open. No hits on Dulcinea’s credit cards, so I’m going to have one of my contacts at the SDPD reach out to the sheriff in Ghost Falls to see if there’s anything that didn’t make it into Dulcinea’s file. Beyond that? I think it’s another Netflix and chill sort of day at the office.”
I was pretty sure the and chill part meant she and Angel would be relaxing, rather than performing sexual acrobatics all over our sole place of business, but it was hard to know with Juliette. Given that I wouldn’t be there until tomorrow, and that we now had multiple windows to create a cross-breeze with, I didn’t really care either.
As the Duchess had told me on multiple occasions over the past few months, semi-regular sex really had dislodged the stick up my ass.
“What do you want to do about the other case?” continued Juliette. “Your friend Mike and little Susie Homemaker?”
I paused to safely navigate the merge before answering. “Assuming tonight’s mediation goes well, I need to head to Ghost Falls with Ana tomorrow. I can check in with Mike before then to see what’s going on. I’m sure Suzanne—I mean Susan—is just being paranoid. Again. Dude’s probably pulling extra shifts so he can buy her shiny things or something.”
“Extra shifts? After midnight?” Juliette’s voice was its usual blend of sharp and sweet. “Doesn’t he work construction?”
“I’m just saying… I’ve known the guy since elementary school, when we ate peanut butter, jelly, and banana burritos on the bus together. Mike’s not a cheater.”
It was a rare thing in our line of business to have any kind of faith in the target of an investigation, but then again, most PIs didn’t get hired to investigate their best friend.
“I’ll leave that one up to you then, senior partner. If there’s nothing else, Angel and I are going to order something for lunch on the corporate card.”
“Yeah, right. The corporate card.” I snickered as I overtook a landscaping truck that was depositing freshly cut greenery all over the highway. “Wait; we don’t really have one of those, do we?”
“Of course we do. How else do you think we deduct business expenses?”
“I guess I hadn’t really thought about it.”
“Seriously, it’s a miracle this agency stayed afloat before me.”
“I’m a small business owner, Juliette, not some kind of entrepreneurial badass.”
“Isn’t your dad an accountant?”
“Yeah… which meant he dealt with all that tax stuff for me. Until they moved to Austin anyway.”
“If we get audited—”
“You’ll use your magical vampire powers and make it all better, like you do everything else.” I shook my head even though she couldn’t see the gesture. “Seriously, Duchess, when did you start worrying about things like the IRS?”
“I…” She coughed. “Shit, you’re right.”
“When the hell did I turn into an even lamer version of you? Is this Bizarro Land or something? I’m the cool one!”
“I mean, I wouldn’t say—”
“This is your fault,” she decided. “If you hadn’t sweet talked me into rescuing your floundering agency—”
It had only been a year, but we had very, very different recollections of how Juliette had become my business partner. Still, I could recognize an impending meltdown when I heard it. Rather than debate trivialities, I decided to head off said meltdown at the pass.
“Hey now,” I told her, injecting a carefully prescribed mix of reassurance and confidence into my tone, “you’ve got a hipster girlfriend named after celestial beings, you’re on a buy-you-drinks basis with half the roadies in America, and you can sprint flat-out for miles wearing four-inch stilettos. You’re still the cool one.”
“Damn right I am!” I could somehow hear her scowl over the phone. “I swear… you finally lose your virginity and the whole world turns upside down.”
“I wasn’t a virg—” I sighed and let it go. There was no point in arguing with Juliette when she got like this, especially not over the phone. “Anyway, I had another reason for calling.”
“Oh yeah?” She at least sounded mollified. Maybe Angel had fed her something. Either that or my secretly amazing mediator powers had struck again.
“Yeah. Did you know that Caleb Van Stahl is dead?”
“Oh, so now you want to talk about it?”
“Three weeks! I’ve been waiting three weeks for you to bring it up! I’ve dropped hints, I’ve made casual asides, I even left the obituaries out on your desk to make sure you knew that I knew, and yet nothing! I was starting to wonder just how long you were going to pretend it hadn’t happened.”
“Uhm…” Hints? Asides? Obituaries? Granted, I would never have thought to expect subtlety from Juliette, but shouldn’t I have noticed something?
There were times I questioned my vocation as a private investigator.
“I have to admit,” purred Juliette, “you defending your territory like that is kind of hot. You lose some points for having Anastasia do it for you, but still… I wasn’t sure you had that sort of ruthlessness in you.”
“Because I don’t!”
“Come on, Duchess. I’m a community college dropout. What have I ever done to make you think I could have someone killed?”
“Well, you did shoot Ricardo during the first House coup.”
“And vaporized that big boy werewolf out past Santee.”
“And made an ice sculpture of the king’s Secundus in Rome.”
“That was Lucia as much as me,” I muttered.
“And we can’t forget the witches.”
“Okay! I get it!” Lord Kala, the demigod owner of the Bitter End, had called me a nexus of death, and maybe, just maybe, I was starting to think he was right.
Juliette’s voice softened. “You know you saved us all when you killed her right? Not just me, but Anastasia and the White Ladies too?”
I blinked away images of Nepenthe, a forty-something yoga instructor and the leader of the coven that had tried to take power in San Diego, blinked away images of her clutching at the knife I’d driven into her chest. Maybe it was racist—or species-ist—of me, but her death still haunted me in a way that the vampires, weres, and mercenary roaches never had.
A loud honk—more suitable for a barge than anything even remotely automotive—brought me back to myself and I made way for the F250 careening down the highway.
“Anyway,” I said, clearing my throat. “I didn’t have anything to do with Caleb’s death. I didn’t even know about it until the wedding this past weekend.”
“Shit.” She gave me a moment or two in an uncommon show of courtesy, but then couldn’t resist asking. “You think Anastasia…?”
“Are you sure? Because I think she’d kill me in a heartbeat if she thought I was a threat to you. And I’m unreasonably pretty.”
‘Exactly. Also, Van Stahl was murdered during one of the few weeks your girlfriend was in town.”
“It really is a good thing he’s dead,” she insisted. “I never understood your attachment to the guy when he was taking money right out of your pocket.”
“We had a bit of a bromance going.”
“A bromance? Since when are you into silver foxes?”
I frowned. “Wait, he was an Infected? I didn’t even know werefoxes were a thing!”
“Silver fox is code for an older human who is distinguished, handsome, and rich, you moron.”
“Oh.” That made more sense. “You know I’m not into guys. Not even old ones.” That qualifier hadn’t quite come out the way I’d intended, but I shrugged it away again. “There’s just a special bond between mediator dudes.”
“A special bond.”
“Yeah. Two good guys doing their best to deal with difficult clients and dangerous situations.”
“Caleb invaded your territory.”
“Only because he didn’t know me at the time. Once we met, we agreed to divvy up the greater San Diego area.”
“An agreement he promptly broke by mediating for the chupacabras in Ramona.”
“Apparently, his best friend growing up was a chupacabra.”
“Naturally.” She sighed. “I should have known you would never do anything I might perceive as hot. Anyway, I’m just saying… him being dead isn’t the worst thing ever. And if Anastasia did it—”
“But if she did, maybe she had a good reason.”
“Maybe,” I admitted.
“Have you asked her?”
“I will. I just forgot last night. But when she says she had nothing to do with it, we should probably investigate who or what did kill him.”
“Because it’s the right thing to do?”
Nothing but silence over the line. I tried again.
“And I might be next?”
“Okay, that makes more sense.”
“Maybe you can get started on that while Ana and I tackle Simon’s case in New Mexico?”
“If I must.”
“And here you were complaining that we didn’t have any cases. Between Dulcinea, Mike, and Caleb, I’ve gotten us three!”
“And how many of those are we getting paid for, little bird?”
“That’s what I thought. Hey, be careful with the Mer and the goblins tonight. Both have had human on the menu at various points in their species’ history.”
“As opposed to vampires, who still do?”
“That’s totally different.”
“We’re hot. Humans will forgive anything if the packaging is attractive enough.”
I could hear Angel say something in the background, but the words themselves were too indistinct to make out.
“And speaking of humans,” added Juliette, “I need to feed mine so she can return the favor. Thanks for the credit card, partner.”
That settled it; I needed my own corporate card.
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 a spoiler-free list of this book’s chapter subtitles. See you then!