Genre: Urban fantasy
"There are things that go bump in the night, Mr. MacMillian. It's my job to bump back."
Private investigator Jesper MacMillian was sure he'd seen it all. After all, in a city like San Francisco, strange is what's for breakfast. Following a long recovery after a horrific accident, his life is finally the way he wants it- or at least, close enough. The only monsters on his radar are the ones that keep him awake at night.
All that changes the day he meets Lena Alan.
Before MacMillian has a chance to brace for impact, Lena drags him into a world where monsters aren't just real, they're hiding in plain sight. Suddenly, everything he knows is suspect, starting with his current case. For Lena, a medium since childhood, it's just another day at the office.
For MacMillian, it's the beginning of the end of everything he thinks he knows.
"I should hex the IRS."
Lena set down the receipt she was scrutinizing, and stared at the woman across the table from her. "You're not serious."
The woman blew a wisp of dark brown hair out of her face, tugged off her plastic-frame reading glasses, and stretched. The movement made her deep violet lowlights shimmer. "Why not? It might distract them for a while, and we could take a break from sifting through all this bullshit."
Lena snorted. "Hey, I said you didn't have to help me. My business, my-"
"Responsibility. Whatever." The woman rolled her eyes. "We both know you're shit with numbers. Hand me that calculator."
Lena bit back a grin, and obediently passed it over. "Have I ever told you you're like some kind of occult superhero? Georgia Clare: bookkeeper by day, badass biker witch by night. Seriously, you should put that on your business cards."
Georgia scowled, but her sharp green eyes twinkled. "Well, as your bookkeeper, I'm hereby suggesting you set up a network for this place. Are you kidding me with all this paper? If I didn't know your family, I'd swear you were Amish."
Lena shrugged. "I'll get to it."
The bell above the door jingled, and a small posse of women trekked inside. Lena flashed them a smile. "Welcome! Take a seat anywhere. I'll have someone right with you." She set down the receipt she was holding and stood. "I need to go find Connie. Thanks again, Georgia."
Georgia was already tapping away at the calculator. She waved without looking up.
Lena left their table in the corner, wove around the other tables and scooted behind the counter. The women were ogling the scones and tiny cakes in the pastry case. Lena nodded to them, pride warm in her chest. She pushed open the swinging doors and stuck her head into the kitchen. "Hey, Tiburcio! You seen Connie back here?"
Her head chef popped up from behind one of the stainless steel counters. "No, señora, not yet. Do you know when Jimmy is coming in? He was supposed to take a look at the stand mixer."
Lena's good mood immediately deflated. "I'm afraid we won't be seeing Jimmy around anymore."
Tiburcio's eyebrows went up, and she prayed he wouldn't press her for answers. Mercifully, he merely gave a single, short nod. "Qué pena. Nice guy."
She swallowed hard. "Yeah. Yeah, he was."
With Connie nowhere in sight, Lena backed out of the kitchen again, and turned to the group at the counter. This time, her smile felt tight. "Sorry about the wait, guys. Just pastries today?"
She forced herself through the motions, and heaved a sigh of relief when they finally headed out the door, already picking bits of scone from their crisp white paper bags. Lena allowed her gaze to wander to the park across the street. Maybe she'd head over there for lunch. For some reason, the shop felt smaller than usual. Some fresh air would be nice.
Maybe it would help dislodge the painful knot from her throat.
She was still staring into the park when a dark green, classic-looking car rolled up to the curb. The throaty engine rattled the shop's windows, then shut off. A tall, dark-haired man climbed out. He paused, turned, and looked directly at her. The bottom plummeted out of her stomach. Lena shook herself. Of course he wasn't looking at her.
He was looking at the shop.
Sure enough, he squinted at the sign, slammed the car door and started across the street. He walked with a barely noticeable swagger, his well-built body encased in a dark gray suit. She looked closer. No, not quite a suit: instead of a blazer, he wore some sort of belted military jacket.
She braced herself. The bell above the door chafed her already strained nerves. The man filled the narrow doorway. Lena swallowed hard.
She knew a wolf when she saw one, and this man was definitely a wolf. He stayed in the doorway for a moment, then started towards the counter. His gait swayed, and she realized what she'd thought was a swagger was actually an injury. An old injury, judging by the practiced grace with which he wielded his curved black cane.
Lena relaxed slightly. A wolf was bad news, but a wounded wolf? That, maybe, she could deal with.
He reached the counter, and leaned against the glass. Lena frowned. "Can I help you?"
His eyes took a quick tour of her body, then he straightened. "Maybe. I'm looking for the owner of this place."
"You found her. I'm Powonia Alan." Lena crossed her arms. "If you're looking for a job, I'm afraid we're not hiring at the moment."
The man blinked. "I'm not here for a job. I'm looking for a friend of mine. His parents told me he'd been working here."
Something started to ache in the pit of her stomach. "Is that so?"
The man arched an eyebrow. "Jimmy Vaspurkan. You know him?"
She didn't know what made her open her mouth. Maybe it was the man's eyes, too heavy on her face. Maybe it was the way his voice reached deep into her gut and made her insides quake. Maybe she just needed to talk to someone.
Whatever the reason, she was answering before she could stop herself. "You're a little late. He's dead."
Character Name: Jesper MacMillian
Character Bio: Private detective. Budding paranormal investigator. Wayward Romani and newly appointed Rom Baro. The irony is not lost on him.
Picture provided by author.
I sit back and study the man in front of me. I'm not sure how to answer his question, because I honestly have no idea. I decide to treat it as rhetorical, instead glance around the tiny coffee shop where he instructed me to meet him.
LJKO: So, how are things with the family?
JMM: Things went fine.
LJKO: 'Went'? It's all settled, then?
MacMillian shrugs again.
JMM: As settled as they ever are.
He flags down the waitress behind the lunch counter. She takes in his broad shoulders, the dark scruff coating his jaw, and approaches warily. Then her eye falls to the hooked black cane propped next to him. She visibly relaxes. Her forehead wrinkles in an unmistakable expression of pity.
Waitress: What can I get you, sugar?
MacMillian forces a smile. It comes off vaguely sinister.
JMM: Coffee, black. Two of them.
I debate telling him I'm trying to cut back, but then he turns that sinister smile on me. I shut my mouth.
The waitress nods, and leaves without touching the notepad in her apron pocket. The instant she's out of earshot, MacMillian blows out an irritated breath. He motions to the slip of paper on the formica table between us.
JMM: Those the questions? Let's get this over with.
I nod. No problem there. This diner is making me itch.
LJKO: First off, we should thank Karen Swart for having us on her blog today.
JMM: Thanks, Karen.
LJKO: Now, first question. Describe yourself.
MacMillian gives me a strange look.
JMM: What, like, physically?
There's plenty to describe there, but I shake my head.
LJKO: No, like, what are your best and worst qualities?
MacMillian presses his lips together. I groan out loud.
LJKO: Jesus, you and Darius both. It's like drawing blood from a stone with you two.
JMM: There's this thing called "privacy"...
LJKO: It's the Age of the Internet. Privacy is dead. Now are we going to do this, or not?
JMM: Fine. Best quality, my doglike tenacity. And my smile.
I roll my eyes. He politely ignores me.
JMM: Worst quality...maybe I'm a little defensive sometimes.
LJKO: About your leg, you mean?
JMM: Yes. About my leg. Ask another question.
LJKO: What's the one thing you wish others knew about you?
MacMillian's face hardens.
JMM: I'm not a cripple. Just because I walk with a cane, doesn't mean I need people to baby me.
The waitress chooses that moment to return with our coffees. I keep my eyes on MacMillian as she sets the mugs down, and wait until she leaves before continuing our conversation.
LJKO: Or pity you?
JMM: Especially pity me.
LJKO: Next question. What is your biggest secret? As in secret secret. Something no one else knows about.
JMM: Nice try. Next question.
I debate pressing the matter, but I already know it wouldn't do any good. I move on.
LJKO: What are you most afraid of?
LJKO: Uh-uh. No way. You get one pass, and you already used it. Answer the question, buster.
MacMillian arches an eyebrow.
I lean back and cross my arms.
JMM: Fine. Jesus, you're pushy.
He thinks for a moment. A strange look crosses his face.
LJKO: Goddamnit, MacMillian...
JMM: No, seriously. I can't think of anything. -He looks unnerved by the revelation.- Kind of makes sense though, doesn't it? I mean, no reason to be scared if you don't have anything to lose.
It's an unexpectedly astute observation, one that makes my chest ache a little. I clear my throat and quickly move on.
LJKO: What do you want more than anything?
MacMillian stomps his prosthetic foot. His leg rattles under the table.
JMM: Two meat feet would be nice. And a Lambo, I guess, as long as we're talking wishes.
I shake my head.
LJKO: You are such a punk.
JMM: Said the pot to the kettle.
I give him that.
LJKO: Okay, here's a fun one. What is your relationship status?
JMM: Single, as you well know. Remind me how this is fun?
LJKO: Oh, please. Do I have to spell it out for you? That whole thing with Lena at the end of your book—
JMM: Stop. Seriously, stop. It was...that was...nothing. Nothing happened.
LJKO: You are so full of shit.
JMM: We worked together once, and it was weird as fuck. I'll probably never see her again.
LJKO: Never say never, Don Juan.
He blushes. Actually blushes. It's delightful.
JMM: What's the next question?
LJKO: Fine, you big chicken. How would you describe your sense of fashion?
JMM: What the hell kind of...? I don't have a sense of fashion.
I purse my lips and study him. Button-down shirt, belted military-sort-of jacket, dark slacks, heavy boots. He definitely has something, but I don't know that I would call it "fashion".
LJKO: A grievous oversight on my part, but I'm sure I can fix it. Maybe I'll give you an ascot in your next book.
JMM: Don't you dare.
The look he gives me is pure murder. I cough.
LJKO: Right, which leads us to our next question. How much of a rebel are you?
JMM: You know me. Che-fucking-Guevara.
LJKO: You kind of are, aren't you? A lone wolf? I mean, how long were you on your own? Away from your family, your traditions, the kumpania...?
JMM: Five years. And it wasn't exactly my choice.
LJKO: Maybe not at first, but you could have gone back. What made you stay away?
MacMillian blows out a breath.
JMM: You're not going to let this go, are you?
It's my turn to shrug.
JMM: Of course you're not. -He pauses.- I guess I just...shit. I couldn't go back. After the accident, I was this pariah. The One Who Survived. And I shouldn't have. I mean, I was the one driving that night.
He looks away, and I resist the urge to reach out to him. He would only interpret it as pity.
LJKO: You didn't cause the accident.
JMM: No, but I've been paying for it anyway. You know my mother still won't look me in the eye? How am I supposed to go back to that?
I don't have an answer. In light of the sudden turn the conversation's taken, my next question seems in painfully poor taste.
LJKO: What is your idea of happiness?
JMM: Why? You buying?
LJKO: If I can.
He looks me square in the eyes.
JMM: One night to have a few drinks and shoot the shit with my brother.
My stomach wrenches. I wish I could give him that. We both know I can't. I pick up the paper off the table.
LJKO: We still have a lot of questions to get through.
It feels like the fight has gone out of both of us. MacMillian leans back with a sigh.
I read them rapidfire.
LJKO: What would you consider your greatest achievement?
JMM: Walking again.
LJKO: What is your current state of mind?
LJKO: What is your most treasured possession?
JMM: My Fury.
I raise my eyebrows. He clarifies.
JMM: As in Plymouth Fury. My car.
LJKO: Right. What is your most marked characteristic?
JMM: If I had to guess, I'd say probably the metal leg.
LJKO: What is it that you most dislike?
JMM: Personal questions.
I ignore the jab.
LJKO: Which living person do you most despise?
JMM: Detective Mark Durbin.
LJKO: That wouldn't have anything to do with his getting to Lena first, would it?
JMM: That's low.
He's right. I change the subject.
LJKO: What is your greatest regret?
He's already used his pass, but I don't have it in me to fight him over it.
LJKO: What is the quality you most like in a man?
JMM: Excuse me?
LJKO: Not sexually.
He gives me an exasperated look.
JMM: I know that.
LJKO: Great. So...?
JMM: Same things I like in everybody, I guess. Perseverance. Honesty. Resilience.
LJKO: How about in a woman?
MacMillian doesn't answer right away. He taps his finger against the tabletop. It's remarkably distracting. When he does speak again, I jump.
JMM: Confidence. Kindness. The ability to see beneath the surface of things. I like a woman who can look life right in its ugly face and still find something beautiful.
He stares past me. I clear my throat.
LJKO: You realize who you just described?
MacMillian doesn't say anything. Abruptly, he swings his legs out from under the table, grips his cane and pushes to his feet. He reaches into his pocket for his wallet, pulls out a few bills and tosses them next to his still-full mug.
JMM: Time's up.
I start to tell him I still have questions left, but it's no use.
He's already on his way out the door.
L.J.K Oliva is the devil-may-care alter-ego of noir romance novelist Laura Oliva. She likes her whiskey strong, her chocolate dark, and her steak bloody. L.J.K. likes monsters... and knows the darkest ones don't live in closets.
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