A dark sorcerer. Trapped souls at sea. Can a detective with mystical skills survive the tsunami of evil that is about to be unleashed on his city?
Ghost Ship (Vale Investigation, book 4)
Release date: July 24, 2021
PI Bellamy Vale is determined to save Cold City from supernatural peril. So with news of a Chilean businessman’s child disappearing out of his own home, Vale won’t rest until he solves the case. But a sinister presence at the luxury apartment sets off his psychic sense, and the private eye fears something is grievously amiss.
Teaming up with his nemesis on the force and his ex-girlfriend, Vale learns from a powerful witch that the boy is trapped on a ship run by enslaved souls. But with a bloodthirsty lizard creature threatening to permanently end his search, Vale’s fury could release a skill he didn’t know he had.
Will he rescue the missing kid before these deadly spirits destroy everything in their path?
When I drove by Smoke & Mirrors, I barely recognized the nightclub. Though nothing had been done to change its look, dread ran through me as I glanced at the imposing building. The run-of-the-mill club façade was there, its closed doors a solid teakwood, its overhead sign the same neon gold that had shone since the Aztec-themed club opened years ago. But I didn’t need a sixth sense to realize something was missing from this picture of normalcy the club owners were trying to project—and that ‘something’ was people.
On a Saturday night like this, clubbers ought to be lining up ’round the block for a chance to go inside, and try as they might, some of them would still be waiting for their golden ticket when dawn broke. The fact that there were no throngs of party kids, no velvet ropes and no bodyguards on the front doors should be a big enough clue to make me scatter off and head back home. That is, if I had any sense.
As it was, I drove two extra blocks up the street to stow my wheels in another club’s parking lot, the Ace of Diamonds, planning to make my way to the Aztec grotto on foot. Smoke & Mirrors had a full parking lot in the back, but self-preservation had ingrained in me the habit of never parking my car where people expected me to be.
Turning off the ignition on my Corvette Stingray, I shook my head at the faux-Vegas décor upfront. The Ace of Diamonds used to be the unofficial HQ for Alonzo Vitorini, an anachronistic hood who’d made one too many bad deals a while ago. I was surprised that someone hadn’t bothered to give the place a traditional Cold City wrecking ball makeover since his death. Of all the buildings that get torn down on the regular, the tacky factor made it a more deserving candidate than most.
I didn’t get out of the car straightaway. Scratching at my stubble-covered chin, I glanced down at the item that rested in my lap. For what had to be the thousandth time, I re-read the invitation that’d been slipped under my door this afternoon. A literal invitation; complete with embossed gold lettering on hard white card stock.
Señor and Señora De Soto request the honor of your presence at Smoke & Mirrors this evening between the hours of 10 PM and 1 AM. Refreshments and a complementary meal will be provided.
My eyes shifted from the invite over to what I was wearing. It sounded like I’d be going to a formal event and I’d decided to dress to impress. My fashion choices for this fine evening was of the Late Period Vietnam Veteran look: vintage dull-green M26 army jacket, black shirt, last season’s cargo pants and top-of-the-range sturdy black combat boots. To complete the ensemble, I’d chosen to accessorize with a K-Bar knife in my right boot and a Sig Sauer P226 pistol in a shoulder holster.
If the invite came from one of the city’s legitimate billionaires, I wouldn’t think about it twice, but the De Sotos were a separate breed. While Smoke & Mirrors made them a consistent, steady profit, their real businesses were a checklist taken straight from the mafia playbook. If it was illegal, involved a fairly large infrastructure to pull off and loyal lieutenants to maintain, they were in it—and that was just the vanilla side of things. Though I wasn’t sure how far their reach went—and I had enough good sense not to go poking my nose in that hornets’ nest—I knew they had connections ‘over the border’. And nothing good ever came from people linked to Alterum Mundum.
I grunted in frustration and got out of the car. I was stalling, which never did anything to get the job done. I’d prepared as much as I could; I needed to get this over with. Still, I kept one hand on my invitation and the other close to my Sig the whole walk up.
I had to give the guys in the back of Smoke & Mirrors credit for professionalism. They were dressed in three-piece suits that looked intimidating but I could tell were practical. Combined with the average height and weight of these guys—at least six feet tall and two hundred and fifty pounds apiece—most people wouldn’t even think about giving them trouble.
Once I’d handed the spokesman in the center my invitation, I stayed bracketed by three guns while the head honcho made a call via Bluetooth. They’d left no room for complaints; each gun was aimed at a different limb and, given the .40 S&Ws these guys were packing, there was no way they’d miss at this range. I’d worked similar gigs in the past and I would have gone for the same kind of setup.
A bit of rapid Spanish later, the spokesman tapped the off switch on his Bluetooth and nodded at his men. The guns went down as he said, “Welcome back, Señor Vale. El Jefe is waiting for you inside.”
I shrugged and took a step forward. “Well, I’ll just—”
A gentle but firm hand stopped me in my tracks. “Lo siento, Señor, there is one more…formality.”
He didn’t need to spell it out. I raised my arms into a T-pose and said, “Sure.”
The security guard gave me a quick but efficient frisk that relieved me of my gun and knife. Not having them with me made me a little more nervous than usual, but it was expected. Normally, I could count on my out-of-this-world death insurance to keep me breathing through the incredible power of unlikely coincidence, but I’d been less willing to rely on it since I’d gone, unprotected, to Japanese Hell and back on my last case. That whole ordeal had left me with a lot of unanswered questions and a damaged hand that I kept in a glove for the sake of, well…everyone else.
Once the head of security was satisfied that he got everything, he said something to the slice of beef nearest to the entrance, which had him take a step to the side. To me, he said, “I’ll take care of these until you’re ready to leave. Have a good evening, Señor Vale.”
“Thanks,” I said as the steel door opened. The usual techno music blasted its way up the alleyway. Taking a quick swallow, I stepped inside.
The house lights were the same as they ever were, pulsing in time with the beats. It took me a minute of staring through the usual plumes of white-ice smoke to realize there was a different DJ up in the mock-Aztec pyramid booth tonight. Even though she had a dark complexion and a fuller set of hair, her body type and attitude were virtual clones of the habitual girl.
The guests who were strutting on the dance floor were a different story. Rather than the usual club kids, I saw plenty of slightly older Latin American types dancing to the music with abandon. It wasn’t their complexion which gave them away—like many people in America, they ran the gamut from obsidian to being able to pass for white in terms of skin tone. But the cut of the suits and styles of the dresses were the real giveaways. The designer suits were loose and carried a flamboyant edge about them, while the dresses on the women would be considered too scanty for anyone stateside. The general attitude of the guests also had me on edge; something about it was too wild, too primal. It made me regret having to leave my weapons outside.
As I looked on, I spotted something else that gave me pause. Depending on which lights hit their bare skin, I could spot little bits of glitter coming off their pores. And this wasn’t the type you could buy at Sephora. This was Glitter—capital G—a rare and costly powder-like substance imported straight from Alterum Mundum. With an effort of will from the person who wore it, Glitter allowed even the strangest of creature to pass as human for a couple of hours.
I felt my guts clench at the sight. Whatever the reason for tonight’s guests-only shindig, it had to do with business from across the border. And in Cold City, dealing with the supernatural always meant trouble on the horizon.
For once, I didn’t have a bodyguard escort taking me to my host. Maybe it was a sign of respect from the De Sotos. Maybe all their extra muscle was needed to keep the peace with this crowd. It didn’t matter either way; even in the whirling chaos, I knew where to go.
Sure enough, I spotted the usual eye of the hurricane that was Ramon De Soto’s table in the back. Among the bodyguards walling it off, I noticed some new faces. Were they new hires, or had they come with the other guests? I didn’t have time to dwell on the question; one of the guards recognized me, and he waved me in.
El Jefe, as he was known to his men, sat in his usual position at the back of the table. A twin set of cold dark eyes, combined with black hair gelled backwards, gave him a rugged calculating look. In his late forties, Ramon De Soto wore a grey business ensemble that leaned more towards politician than criminal overlord. A group of Hispanic men sat around with him, not hostile, but not friendly either. De Soto himself stayed unfazed by their posturing, affecting the courtly, polite mannerisms I’d come to associate with him. The bodyguard who’d waved me in cleared his throat to get his jefe’s attention.
De Soto’s eyes lit up with their usual friendliness and his smile had the customary warmth when he caught sight of me. I never understood why, but the southern kingpin was always glad to see me. And let’s just say, I was glad that I never seemed to be on his bad side.
De Soto rose from his table with his usual open arms, turning to face me. The man sitting nearest to me, a lanky southerner with a beak for a nose, was too busy staring at my clothes to notice his boss’s actions. The fool spat at my boots and said something in Spanish that didn’t sound like a compliment when I stepped closer. Before I had the time to think up a witty reply, De Soto’s good humor evaporated. Without breaking his stride, he turned to the sitting man and gave him three slaps to the face in a rapid succession—front hand, backhand, and then front hand again. While I doubted they’d pierce the wall of sound, the slaps echoed inside the little circle like a trio of gunshots.
The subdued man stared at De Soto in shock, mixed with anger. El Jefe loomed over him, leaning closer for a Spanish ass-chewing that needed no translation. He finished it with a finger pointed back towards the club. The bodyguards parted at the command and the red-faced lanky man got up without a word. The dancing crowd swallowed him an instant later.
Ramon De Soto turned back to me with a regretful look and gave me his usual warm embrace. “I must apologize, Bell, for my guest’s horrendous conduct. Juarez isn’t from around here, and he’s yet to get a full grasp on our customs.”
As I gave the hug back, I said, “Well, maybe if I’d worn my funeral suit instead of my work clothes…”
He gave my shoulder a couple of claps and then pulled back. “Nonsense. Had formal dress been a requirement, I would have included a note on your invitation.” De Soto looked over his shoulder and spoke to his more respectful guests in Spanish. This prompted a round of “Entendido,” and “Si, Jefe,” from the table as they all rose to leave. I noticed they took some of their bodyguards with them as they went, confirming my earlier assumption that they weren’t all De Soto’s people.
Giving my chest a pair of affectionate pats, the businessman gestured towards the chair his rude guest had so quickly abandoned. “Have a seat.”
I complied while he went back around to his usual seat, unsure what to do with myself. Usually, I was the one coming to De Soto for help with something case-related; him summoning me, for once, had me wonder if he wanted to hire me for a job. He fired off some instructions to one of his bodyguards, who cleared the table, before disappearing into the crowd. Once he’d walked off, De Soto said, “Now, before we discuss business, I must insist that you have the meal and drink I promised on the invitation.”
A flash from darker days poked its way into my head. “As long as the drink’s non-alcoholic,” I said. “I’d rather not get the breathalyzer treatment by a CCPD flatfoot tonight.”
De Soto gave me a magnanimous shrug. “I suspected as such. Also, with this particular gathering, I would recommend sobriety so long as you are here.”
One of my eyebrows rose up at that and the knot in my intestines got a little tighter. There was little doubt that the only reason this particular crowd hadn’t come near me was because I was De Soto’s guest. But as the saying goes…the night was young.
Some of my anxiety faded when the bodyguard came back with a full meal. It was some sort of chicken dish I’d never laid eyes on whose smell made my mouth water. A Coke—how appropriate—was sitting on the upper right corner of the tray in an exquisite wine glass. The bodyguard even laid out the napkin in my lap and the cutlery in the proper spots.
“Muchos gracias, Jorge,” De Soto said with a confident and dismissive nod.
“Gracias,” I echoed, my own Spanish coming off as a little awkward. While the guard took up his former position as part of the human wall, I turned my full attention to the meal. “This looks delicious.”
De Soto gave me an indulgent smile. “Yes, a family recipe from Estella’s late mother, vaya con Dios. I promise you that it tastes twice as excellent as it smells.” He gestured towards the dish. “We’ll talk once you’ve eaten.”
That was all the invitation I needed. I attacked the food the way I’d attacked a lot of unsavory things and people in the last year—except, for once, my target wasn’t fighting back. The chicken and spices melted in my mouth, slid down my throat and hit that tender spot in my stomach that was waiting for something this delicious all its life. It was the best thing I’d eaten all year and having Coke as a chaser was a bonus.
In no time, the meal was gone and there was a little bit of Coke I was swirling around in the bottom of the wine glass. “I’m kind of impressed that soda goes so good with the food. I mean, you expect that from fast food but…”
De Soto chuckled indulgently. “Where Estella and I grew up, alcohol was scarce aside from the occasional cervesa. Water was often suspect and frequently tainted. But Coca-Cola and its corporate brethren? That was everywhere and cheap, much like it is in this country. Estella’s mamacita was adamant about making good food but so much of it clashed with the soda drinks. So she kept experimenting until she found the perfect dish…which you have now finished off.”
I tilted back the glass to finish the drink. “She sounds like an extraordinary woman.”
His face drew thoughtful, his eyes dialing into somewhere far from the club we were in. “One need only look at my Estella for proof of such.” Then he blinked and his focus was back on me. “But you did not come all this way for family stories. Let us get to it.”
I sat the glass down and gave him a puzzled look. “Fine by me, but I have no idea what ‘it’ is.”
De Soto clapped his hands twice, followed by some more instructions. The bodyguard came back to clear my plate and drink. De Soto then pointed through the gap in security his absence had made. “If you will direct your attention that way…”
I did as I was told, even though there was nothing new to see. When you’ve been looking places over for things that don’t fit as long as I have, you can lock onto a place’s vibe like a cruise missile. The bodyguard took off with my dirty dishes and the security wall closed up on us again.
“Now,” De Soto said, folding his hands in front of him like a teacher quizzing his prize pupil. “What are your impressions of what you have seen?”
With anyone else, I’d have taken it as a challenge. Coming from De Soto, it meant he was looking for something that he thought I could spot…and he couldn’t. May as well play along, I thought. “Well, to get the obvious out of the way, your guests strike me as out-of-towners.”
“From, say, Miami and other parts southeast?” De Soto asked, a devil’s smile lighting up his face.
“Even if you hadn’t telegraphed the answer, that’s a definite no. Sure, walking through there was like stepping onto the set of a Scarface remake, but I didn’t hear anything but Spanish on the floor, either from the music or the general talk. And the way they were talking wasn’t something you’d find in Little Cuba.”
De Soto tilted his head. “You heard the words that clearly?”
I shook my head. “Not enough to piece together a conversation, but I know Spanish when I hear it. I can also recognize some of the accents.”
He laughed as he leaned on his hands. “I had no idea you were that much of a world traveler, Bell.”
“You join the U.S. Navy, Uncle Sam kind of turns you into one if you’re serving on a ship.”
“Of course…Are there any other details that stand out?”
“The occasional sparkle on some of your guests’ open skin. Your average citizen would think that’s all it was, but I’ve seen that shine too many times not to recognize its true provenance.”
De Soto pursed his lips and nodded. “And do you have any educated guesses on what hides behind the human masks that Glitter provides?”
“None I’d feel comfortable making and they’re probably all wrong anyway. Besides, wouldn’t that be kind of rude to do? I mean, they’re your guests as much as I am.”
De Soto looked…disappointed with that answer. Surprisingly as it was, it felt as if he wanted me to know what I walked past out there. There was a resigned edge to his voice when he said, “So they are.”
I swallowed again, this time in dread. My relationship with De Soto wasn’t as safe as he made it appear. While it was true that we’d come to some kind of truce and I stayed out of his business while he provided me with the occasional nudge in the right direction—that somehow always seemed to benefit his business in the long run—there may very well be a day where I’d outgrow my usefulness to him.
“Did I say something wrong?” I asked, deciding to tread lightly.
De Soto held up his hands and waved them at me. “No, no, no, far from it. I would much prefer that you be truthful over sensational, after all.”
I shrugged. “It’s the operating model of my business. Something going on I should know about?”
There was another odd flicker of his eyes at my words. He didn’t answer me, just leaned back in his chair and pondered me for a moment. Then he said, “How have things been for you of late?”
That question gave me pause. While always outwardly amicable, De Soto never asked personal questions—unless they played a part in his scheming games. Unsure what he was aiming for, I decided to err on the side of caution. “It’s been a rather dull kind of year,” I said, which was the truth.
Compared to last year, this one was rather mundane so far, what with no deranged Mayor blowing up half the town, no evil jinn trying its hand at cursed fashion, and no portal to the Underworld opening up in the Japanese neighborhood. Sure, there’d been the occasional ghoul or specter I had to dispatch, but that was nothing to write home about.
De Soto’s pensive look, as he studied me, set off alarm bells and a little voice in the back of my head warned me that the year was still young; July isn’t even over yet.
“Nothing out of the ordinary?” De Soto asked at last, seemingly disappointed. “Not even a hint?”
“No.” I lifted my eyes to meet his. “What is this about, Ramon? Is there something you know that I don’t?”
Another quick flicker of his eyes betrayed his inner nervousness. It felt as if he wanted to tell me something but couldn’t. His lips remained sealed as he looked at the ceiling, as though it had the answer he wanted. I was about to ask him again when a large manicured hand fell on my shoulder. “I believe it’s time for you to depart, Bell. Ramon has a number of guests whom he needs to speak with this evening.”
Even if I hadn’t recognized the honey-coated rock voice, there was no mistaking the hand. Estella De Soto stood behind me, wearing the most conservative dress of the evening, a classic crimson strapless. It left plenty of room to show off the impressive musculature of her upper body, sinewy arms sheathed by velvet-smooth caramel skin. Her lovely face had a smile on it that was every bit as intimidating as her husband’s. The proper response when you saw it was to follow its owner’s instructions if you wanted to live.
As I stood, Ramon De Soto sighed. There was a weariness in the sound that I’d never heard from him before. But he was his commanding self when he said, “I must apologize for bringing you all this way for nothing.”
Inside, I was a little pissed that he’d wasted our time and that I’d walk out of here with my life. Outside, I said, “No big deal…at least I got a really good meal out of it.”
The mention of the food seemed to brighten up De Soto’s mood. “You see, Estella? You are living up to your dear mamacita’s legacy with that excellent dish.”
Mrs. De Soto’s smile widened, making me think too much of a gaping wound. “It is heartening to know that you enjoyed it so much, Bell. Now if we may…”
The sudden pressure on my shoulder and her body language told me that it wasn’t a request. Her husband tossed off one last salute before I was led back into the club.
The guests noticed me a bit more as I passed this time. To be fair, the music from the booth was winding down, which meant the party itself would be over shortly. But I was sure that a good part of the staring was due to my escort. The Latin Amazon stood out in this eye-catching crowd the way an RPG would stand out on a rack of machine guns.
As usual, Mrs. De Soto walked a little closer than I felt comfortable with. She’d never made any secret about liking me as much as her husband did. But sometimes the way she showed that affection was a bit more…hands-on than El Jefe. While too many guys I know would find her muscles off-putting, I had to admit that she made them work the way a supermodel can make a Versace dress look fabulous. If she wasn’t married to the city’s elite mobster, I might even be stupid enough to try to sleep with her.
As soon as we hit the door, she was barking orders at the guard who had frisked me. He gave her a curt “Si, Señora,” before handing me back my K-Bar and Sig, then taking a step back. Mrs. De Soto pulled me into so deep a hug that I was wondering if she planned to molest me on the spot. “Cuidate, amigo,” she whispered, slipping something into my pocket. “If I were you, I’d leave town for a few days.”
“Why?” I whispered back with what breath hadn’t been smothered out of me.
There was no answer, as she broke off her hug. When she let go, I knew it was time to make myself scarce; nodding to the bodyguards, I went back out the alley towards my car.
As soon as I got close to a street lamp, I pulled out what Mrs. De Soto had placed in my pocket. It was some kind of box that was only a little bigger than my palm. It looked to be made of gold and had intricate, delicate carvings on the lid. Opening it up, I found an old-fashioned compass inside. While I get shot at and tied up just as much, I’m no Indiana Jones, and I had no way to tell whether this thing dated back to the Spanish Armada or the last century. All I knew was that you wouldn’t find it on any Walmart shelves.
The needle on it seemed to be broken. It kept pointing this way and that like a drunkard who’d finished off his sixth cerveza of the night. Why the hell would Mrs. De Soto want me to have this? And what was scaring her husband enough to come find me for once?
Putting the compass away, I rethought the use of the term “scared” to describe the atmosphere in Smoke & Mirrors; no other word fit all the available facts. My gut was telling me that the De Sotos were battening down the hatches for a storm, and all indicators pointed towards foul weather coming to Cold City real soon. Hells, if it was enough for the Gomez and Morticia Addams of organized crime to reach out to me, then, like CCR used to sing, there was a bad moon on the rise.
Still, bad moon or not, nobody bothered me on the way back to the Stingray. I’d just started it up when my cell phone went off. The number on display was local but it wasn’t someone from my contacts list. Maybe a client? I thought as I answered it in my best professional voice. “Vale Investigations.”
“Evening, Bellamy. This is Ian Townsend,” said the voice of an ex-client who’d recently been given the keys to the city. “Sorry to call you this late, but I need your help.”
I hadn’t heard that desperation in his voice since the day his daughter was kidnapped by Alonzo Vitorini’s crew a year and a half ago. “Sure, what’s going on?”
“It’d be best if you could see things for yourself. How quickly can you get to 128 Oceanview?”
I did some quick calculations in my head. “I’m a few blocks over, so…give me fifteen minutes.”
“Sooner would be better,” our Mayor said ominously, as I put the car in gear.