Here is the first chapter of Dead Man’s Hand.
The entire novella can be purchased as an e-book through Amazon.
I should have known better than to be in the Gaudy Mirage that night. It’s not usually a rough place, but sometimes the tension spikes: nights when there’s a high stakes game on TV, nights when it’s hot and humid out and the Mirage’s air can’t keep up with all the bodies in the room, nights when the moon is full.
The night I’m talking about, it had hit a humid 95 earlier in the day, and the air in the city clung to you like an extra layer of skin. I didn’t connect the heat with the idea of trouble, though. The thought of a few tall drinks at the Mirage’s bar pulled me in the way it did just about every evening when I was done with work. Usually, I stopped at two and headed home. That night, though, I’d needed more, and after the third one I’d been able to forget that it was probably warmer inside the bar than out.
And even though the moon was full that night—bright and round in a cloudless sky—I didn’t take that as a sign of danger either. The full moon brings out rough characters, sure. But most of them know me, or know someone who’s hired me, and since I do a decent job at whatever they hire me for—usually keeping my clients out of jail, or keeping their employers from giving them the axe once their true natures have been found out—my reputation’s generally all I need to offset the dangers that the moon can bring.
There was no big game on the Mirage’s flatscreens that night, and though I didn’t have that particular source of urban tension to make me watch my back, I did see that the management had made a little mistake in booking the evening’s entertainment. They’d signed Slinky Vagabond and Leper Messiah to play on the same night, the first band opening for the second. Julius Axelrod, who owned the Mirage, couldn’t be blamed for the mix-up. Julian’s no hipster, and going off the names alone, he’d likely had no idea that he’d signed two David Bowie tribute bands, much less that the bands had a bitter rivalry or that their fans had been known to take their fierce loyalty to the level of violence.
I like a few cubes in my drinks, and I sat at the bar watching condensation build on my fourth glass. The little droplets had just about gotten me mesmerized enough to be able to tune out the tough talk and posturing going on behind me as one band or another tried to set up and plug in on the little stage at the far end of the room. The blonde on the next stool was busy ignoring me in between calls for refills and opportunities to flirt with Mick Dante, the bartender. It was just as well, and not just because she wasn’t my type. Her gray roots were showing, and her shimmery gold dress was maybe two sizes too small for the package it wrapped, the spaghetti straps threatening to pop with each brayed laugh. There’d been nights in the past when her type would have been the best I could do. Tonight, though, I just wasn’t in the mood for company. Those droplets sliding down the side of my glass, pulling others along as they went, were about all I had interest in.
It hadn’t been a good evening. I’d lost a wrongful termination case, which was bad enough, but I was angry with myself for having lost it on a stupid technicality. My client—former client, now—had been fired from her position after getting The Bite and being unable to keep to a daylight schedule. That’s usually an open-and-shut case; the undead have rights, after all. But she’d neglected to tell me about the extenuating circumstances clause she’d signed off on when she’d gotten hired six years before. It gave her boss the right to let her go if she couldn’t fulfill her duties regardless of reason—pregnancy, disability, vampirism, it was all the same in the eyes of the law once she’d signed on the dotted line. To hear her tell it after the Night Court judge’s gavel had fallen, she’d forgotten all about signing. I believed her. I mean, who really plans on getting The Bite? Most people get a job, they sign whatever the new boss tells them to sign and never figure they’ll have issues down the line. But I should have asked her, should have investigated before setting the court dates. Now I was kicking myself for having been complacent.
My business card read, “Ace Stubble, Attorney at Law” in embossed red letters. Under that, “Representing the Undead and Paranormal Communities” and under that “Because It’s Not a Crime to Be Different.” I didn’t believe that last bit, not at all. But it helped pull in the clients, so I left it. Vampires, werewolves, shape shifters, the demonically possessed…they were all my people. When they got in trouble—civil or legal—they usually ended up in my office after lawyers with more flash turned them away out of prejudice or fear or the need to keep daylight hours. Me, I had no qualms. And I like the night. I’d grown up with a mother who was a legitimate medium and a father in prison for psychic slavery, so the odd, the undead, and the paranormal had always seemed…well, normal to me. Following my career path had been like slipping into a groove.
And I was thinking about it in just that way while I stared at my glass and tried to ignore the woman beside me, wondering if I’d somehow managed to get a scratch in the groove that had gotten me off track. Maybe I needed a vacation, I told myself, one involving sand and a blonde slightly less obnoxious than my current neighbor. And just as that fantasy was really getting going, sliding along like the droplets down my glass, I felt a rough tap on my shoulder, almost a push. Someone on the stage was checking sound, a tentative run-through of the “Rebel Rebel” riff, and the woman beside me honked out another laugh at nothing in particular. It all ran together—the laugh, the music, the pumped up Bowie fans in the background, my lost case, and now the heavy hand on my shoulder. I’d had it and turned around, ready to pop somebody in the nose.
He wasn’t big so much as he was thick, and I immediately thought better of swinging on him. That neck was so wide that his chin wasn’t going to budge no matter how much I put into a punch. The guy must have sensed me tense up and then wind down in the second it took me to spin around, but he didn’t flinch, just grinned. He was ready for it, wanted it. That should have told me right there I was in trouble; I should have bolted, but I didn’t, thinking I could talk my way out of it. But an instant later, I saw how wrong I was.
Even in the dim light of the Mirage, I could see that the whites of his eyes were going yellow, and when he growled, “That’s my seat,” his breath washed over me. I’d smelled it a hundred times before—from every Labrador and Shepherd and mutt I’d had as a kid to more clients than I could count. Dog breath. Unmistakable.
I wanted to say, “You’re my people. I’m Ace Stubble. You might need me some day.” But it didn’t come out. Those thoughts flew into my mind and out again faster than I could get my lips to move, faster than I could get my ass off the stool.
Seconds after the words were out of his mouth, his hands were on my shirt, and I was yanked off the stool, flung through the air and into the crowd of angry Bowie fans. With whatever good luck I still had, I landed on my shoulder and rolled into three or four people’s legs. There were screams and shouts, and everything was a blur as I tried shaking off the shock of my sudden flight and hard landing. I tried scrambling to my feet, but the gasps from the crowd and the rush of movement away from me told me it was useless. Turning my head toward the bar, I saw him rushing toward me, halfway through the Change.
It’s never something pretty to watch—the snout elongating, the ears growing pointed, the fur erupting and the fangs and claws sprouting. But when a werewolf is drunk and angry, and his wrath is directed right at you…well, terrifying doesn’t quite cover it. I about pissed myself halfway through his charge, and managed to roll sideways just as he made his final dive, his claws skidding on the wooden floor where I’d been a second ago. I rolled again, trying to figure out how to get my feet underneath me once more and picturing myself running halfway to the door before feeling those claws on my shoulders and his full weight on my back as his fangs closed on my neck.
But then I heard a yelp, like a dog would make when you accidentally step on its tail.
A more beautiful sound I’ve never heard.
I managed to turn my head in the werewolf’s direction and saw only a woman blocking my view of him, her back to me. She appeared to be slightly bent forward with her legs spread apart as far as her knee-length skirt would allow—for stability it appeared, although the skinny heels on her shiny black shoes looked like they were ready to slip out from under her no matter how ready for a fight her stance made her look. From where I lay, she looked to have one arm drawn back ready to strike and the other held far out in front of her like she was warding something off. The crowd around us had fallen suddenly silent at the werewolf’s yelp, and the guitar player on the stage had stopped his riffs, apparently aware that something more than fan rivalry was afoot on the dance floor.
With some effort I got my feet under me and pulled myself into a crouch, ready to spring if my attacker should regain his advantage. Already winded and with my heart racing, I don’t think I would have gotten far, so you can imagine my relief when the crowd parted and I caught sight of the werewolf slinking away. Once the crowd closed ranks around his retreat, the woman who’d come between us held her defensive posture for another moment, then straightened up and turned toward me.
The first thing I saw was the big silver crucifix she held in her right hand, a long silver chain hanging down. I wore one myself for just such an occasion, but I hadn’t even thought of using it in my haste to fight or flee. I told myself again that I really needed a vacation.
Then, in the instant that I focused past the crucifix, I saw that it wasn’t a random stranger who had saved me, but someone I knew.
With a flick of her wrist, the crucifix was hanging from her forearm and her open hand extended down to me. “Losing your mojo, Ace?” she said.
I shook my head, both in self-deprecation and disbelief, then accepted her hand and let her help me to my feet. “Thanks, Pixel,” I said. After taking a second to shake off the attack, I nodded toward the bar. “Buy you one? It’s the least I can do.”
She looked around the room. We stood in the center of a cleared circle of still frightened looking Bowie fans. All their bravado and posturing had deflated in the face of the werewolf’s charge. I think every one of them would have been happy to concede that their rivals’ band was better, so long as they just got on with it already, played “Jean Genie” and let the fans get the paranormal stuff behind them. Now the fans’ earlier ire had been transferred onto Pixel and me, and they looked at us like we had the plague. Pixel picked up on it at the same time I did.
“Maybe not here,” she said.
I nodded, straightened my shirtfront, threw a five onto the bar for Mick, and turned to go, but not before noticing that the graying, braying blonde I’d been beside now appraised me with a keen eye. I’d suddenly become interesting to her, and here I was leaving with another woman.
When we got to the door, Pixel dropped her arm so the crucifix hung down again. I thought of pulling my own out but figured there wasn’t much point. Once a werewolf gets a taste of silver, he needs some time to lick his wounds. Though he might have been drunk when he Changed, the attack’s outcome would have sobered him fast, and the chances were slim that he was waiting outside the Gaudy Mirage to even the score.
The night was still warm even though it was closing in on eleven. “Where to?” I asked as we threaded our way through the little crowd outside the Mirage.
Pixel looked around for a moment, her expression making me wonder if she wasn’t tasting the air to see which way the wind blew. “My place?” she asked. I shrugged my agreement, wondering if the night had just gone from bad to worse to suddenly better.