He can’t be killed. But that protection doesn’t extend to his friends…
Avenging Spirit (Vale Investigation, book 3)
Release date: February 15, 2020
PI Bellamy Vale may have sold his soul to Hell, but his heart’s in the right place. So when a friend reaches out for help to find his missing niece, he readily agrees. But the straightforward case takes a dark turn when he discovers deadly ancient rituals and a mysterious vigilante prowling Little Japan.
Pushing hard to uncover the truth, Vale gets trapped by a supernaturally connected crime boss and faces a choice: steal a powerful rare artifact or say goodbye to his buddy. To disobey will end someone’s life, but giving in could summon an underworld force that not even Lady McDeath’s mighty powers can defeat…
Will Vale put his immortal status on the line and save the world from a fate worse than death?
I should have been dead, but that wasn’t the case just yet.
I groaned as I flexed my shoulder, aching from the bullet it took a few minutes ago. The gesture sent hot spikes of pain shooting through my nervous system. Damn, but it hurt.
Some fools might think signing a compact with Death Incarnate to become her envoy in the mortal realm is a good thing. I beg to differ.
“Moron,” I muttered, gazing through the iron bars of the cell I was locked in. “Always read the fine print.”
If I had, I might have noticed the immortality clause on the contract lacked the pain-free option. Then again, seeing as I had to be told about the immortality thing after the fact…
I shook my head and turned away from the barren concrete floor around the cell, leaning back against the cold metal bars. It didn’t do squat to alleviate the pain, but I was bleeding from a gunshot wound—I didn’t expect it to.
The bullet—a nine-mil, by my estimate—tore through my flesh and muscle at an impossible angle. As if by sheer luck, the little piece of lead managed to miss all my major arteries and bones on its way through. Mind you, I’d rather it missed me completely, but avoiding pain hadn’t been put in whatever passed for my boss’s day planner. Hells if I knew what Lady McDeath was mad at me for this time.
Glancing down to check the wound, I realized the bleeding had stopped. My boosted immune system had kicked into overdrive, ensuring I would once again make a full—if improbable—recovery. Of course, the wound wouldn’t heal itself in the blink of an eye, but my shoulder should be as good as new in a matter of days. A trip to the ER could go a long way towards speeding up the healing process, but considering how this day was unfolding, it seemed like it was one more injury that would have to heal on its own.
The cell I was stuck in was tiny. All four sides of those firm metal bars stretched no more than three feet across and the only accessory in it was an old, worn-out cot that was tossed in the back. Currently, a twenty-something Japanese woman was occupying that cot, out cold.
I moved my eyes over to the left and found the locked door. It had the same iron bars as the rest of our cell, held in place by thick, sturdy hinges of the same metal. My kingdom for a hacksaw…
Seeing nothing else interesting, I slid my eyes over to my fellow prisoner. Her lithe, little body was snugged inside loose black trousers and a matching, tight-fitting shirt with long sleeves. Her shoulder-length dark hair was a tangled mess that covered a large portion of her face, hiding most of the porcelain white skin underneath it.
As I looked her over, I noticed a pronounced streak of red crossing through the black hair on her right side, which made me frown.
Was this kind of hair dye a new trend with the kids these days? I shook my head again, this time in reproach. Bah, what did I know about it anyways? With my combat boots, cargo pants and M65 field jacket, I was hardly the right person to be lecturing anybody on the topic of fashion, even if my last big case had involved a lot of it.
I turned my attention back to taking stock of our situation. Every time I did, I kept coming to the same conclusion. Since I didn’t know any of my captors, there was no way I could trick my way out of here. And seeing as they’d taken both my gun and knife before locking us up, there was no way I could force my way out, either.
Frustrated, I slapped at the nearest bar with my bad arm and groaned when it woke up my wounded shoulder.
The pain wasn’t the only thing my groan woke up; the young woman in the cot moaned as her eyes fluttered open. She rose out of her sleeping position by pushing herself up onto her elbows. She stared at the same concrete floor and metal bars that I had with a deepening frown. She saw me by the door and froze.
“Who the hell are you?” she asked. There wasn’t a hint of an accent in her voice, not even of the American variety.
I raised my hands, making sure both palms faced her. “It’s okay. I’m a friend.”
Going by the way her dark, almond-shaped eyes narrowed, she didn’t believe either sentence. “Who. Are. You?” she repeated, making each word its own separate sentence.
“The name’s Vale…Bellamy Vale.” Seeing as my shoulder was acting up again, I lowered my hands before going on with, “I’m a private investigator.”
She took a second to consider my answer. Glancing around the cage we were stuck in, she snorted. “Not a good one.”
I chuckled as I turned on my best Cheshire Cat smile. “See, that’s where I beg to differ, Yukina.”
As expected, the use of her first name shook her enough to give me a harder stare. To prevent any misunderstandings, I went on with, “I was hired to find you—” I motioned at her with my hand. “—and I did. So, in my book, that makes me a really good P.I.”
Her thin nose twitched as she pursed her lips, the shock giving way to annoyance. “So…the both of us getting locked up in here was all part of your master plan? Nice to know.” She sat up fully. “Care to tell me what’s the next step, Mr. Vale?”
I kept the smile up but it lost some of its wattage. “I’ll, uh, have to get back to you on that.”
She rolled her eyes at me before patting herself down.
“Don’t bother,” I told her. “They did a thorough frisk on the both of us while you were out. They got all your blades, along with my weapons.”
That factoid didn’t stop her from checking herself over. At last, she reached the hem of her left sleeve and smiled. “You can always count on the idiots to overlook something.”
Her fingers played with the hem. At the push of her thumb, a thin needle popped its way out of the stitches. One of my eyebrows popped up as well. Seemed like she’d be rescuing me instead of the other way around.
Standing up in one swift, fluid motion, Yukina went over to the door and knelt down. The needle between her fingers was thin but more than long enough to reach inside the locking mechanism. I could hear it pick through the tumblers with the delicacy of a concert pianist playing Beethoven. While she was working on our exit, I gave the space outside our cell another look.
The walls were made of the same dusty concrete as the floor, making me think we were below street level. No visible cameras were monitoring us, but there could always be high-tech versions that blended in with the scenery. The only distinguishing feature about this room, aside from the cell, was the single light bulb hanging from a wire in its center.
Not very Feng Shui, I thought to myself. That’s when I remembered my hosts were Japanese. If they practiced anything, it would likely be Fusui—not that I thought they did, going by all this.
I turned my gaze back to the cell door to see how close Yukina was to getting us free. It wasn’t long until I heard a familiar metallic click. That sweet sound told me that she’d managed to jam the needle in the right spot. She gave it a good twist and—clang—the cell door unlocked. Two seconds later, the wooden door on the other side of the room opened up, which made me tense.
Five Japanese men stepped into the room in single file. The first two had their pistols in hand, aiming at us the instant we were in their line of sight. By the time they staked out their firing positions, the other three had entered the room, their own firing hands resting inches away from their hip holsters.
I’d seen men like these before. Hells, a lifetime ago, I’d been one. The way they moved and held themselves all but screamed “private security firm”. I didn’t need to read their CV to know their general profile: young, athletic, extensive knowledge of weaponry and hand-to-hand combat, possibly ex-military. They all wore matching suits that were a cross between business casual and formal office wear, with jackets the perfect length to conceal the weapons at their sides. The dark colors and tight fit on them would allow these guys to blend into everyday environments while still giving them a broad range of motion.
The only odd, attention-grabbing detail on them was the tattoo they all had on the back of their right hand. It was some sort of Japanese symbol inked in black, right between the knuckles and wrist. Something about it made me think of cattle branding.
Yukina spat something to them in Japanese. Even if I knew any of the language beyond “thank you”, “yes” and “hi”, I’d still have had trouble deciphering the words through her rapid delivery. When no response came, she repeated her question, spitting it out twice as fast as before. Silence was her only answer and she huffed at them indignantly.
I stole a glance at her. Yukina was standing behind the cell door, the needle stowed somewhere out of sight. She looked every bit the caged animal they thought she was. Our sole ace up the sleeve was the fact that the cell was now unlocked. We’d have to wait until we could make the most of that advantage. In situations like this, patience was your best friend, with timing being a close second. I was glad to see that, for all her fury, Yukina seemed to know this as well as I did.
I was working out the next step in the plan I’d promised her when a sixth figure entered the room. This man had nothing in common with the armed goons. His short, round body was fitted in an expensive suit—Armani, or something as pricy. He had a thin mustache and round glasses that rested on a small nose set in the middle of his equally roly-poly face. Hells, even his haircut—a classic Beatles-style bowl cut—added to the overall air of roundness he had about him. The fat in his cheeks made him look young, but I put his actual age at between forty and fifty. I couldn’t stop my lips from curling up at the sight of him; he looked like a hot air balloon with legs in place of the basket.
“Ms. Tsing, Mr. Vale,” the newcomer said, in a nasal voice higher-pitched than his thick frame suggested. “So glad to see you both awake. Tell me…how do you like your new accommodations?”
“Two stars at best,” I quipped with a cheeky grin. “You should consider installing a mini-bar.”
His lips twitched into something that didn’t pretend to be a smile. I wasn’t offended. Plenty of people don’t get my sense of humor.
“What do you want, Kung?” Yukina asked, her tone cold and crisp.
“Ah, straight to the point,” Kung, said as he got within two feet of the cell door. “I appreciate that when it comes to business transactions.”
She gave him the same glare she’d given me. “I’m not here to do business with you.”
He responded with something that resembled a benevolent smile. “Oh, but you are, Ms. Tsing, you most certainly are.”
He turned to the side and paced back and forth. I was doing calculations on how fast I could open the door when he got close to us again. “See, everything in this life is a business transaction of one kind or another. Buying and selling, favors and debts.” He stopped pacing short of the cell door to raise a fat sausage-like finger. “And you, young lady, are now very much indebted to me. It is time to even that balance.”
“Go to hell!” Yukina spat out, doing some pacing of her own. Judging from the tension I saw in her movements, it was taking everything she had not to lash out at him.
“Given your current situation, Ms. Tsing, one could argue that you and your associate are already there,” Kung said, dropping the fake smile for actual menace.
He got closer to the cell door with slow, deliberate steps. “You have no idea how much trouble you’ve got yourself into, do you?”
Hells, yet another crime boss who’s having a torrid love affair with the sound of his own voice, I thought wryly. The late, unlamented Alonzo Vitorini was bad enough.
“See, I could ask any of these gentlemen by my side to kill you right now,” he went on. “I have the option on how quickly I want it to happen. And then, when your precious uncle opens up his shop tomorrow morning, he would find your body—or what is left of it—laying on the stoop. And that would be that. No one will ever trace it back to me. It will remain an unsolved affair before turning into a cold case. Your parents will cry for you, mourn for you.” Kung took one step forward, stopping less than twenty inches from the door. “They will lay your body in the ground, where you can rot to feed the worms. And when enough years have gone by, every last soul in this city will have forgotten you ever existed.”
Yukina’s eyes were torn between defiance and the crushing realization that what he was saying was true. I raised my good hand. “Seeing as I’m booked in this room too, do I get all the same perks she does?”
Yukina tightened her jaw while Kung stared at me like I’d grown an extra head. “Joke if you wish, Mr. Vale, but I hardly need remind you that you are in as precarious a situation.”
I smiled while I locked gazes with Kung. “Oh, I’ve been in a lot of those in my life… And I’m still here.”
The round man hummed a little bit before he used his left hand to grip the cage door. While he pulled it open, both of the thugs with drawn weapons tightened their grip on their guns. My hopes sagged as I realized they were aware of us picking the lock and any sudden movement on our part would equal a bullet to the head.
So much for plan A.
Kung moved to the side, making room for us to walk out. “It is fortunate for you and Ms. Tsing that I prefer you both to be alive for the time being, Mr. Vale.”
Neither one of us made a move to exit. “Why?” Yukina asked, suppressed anger leaking through her lips.
Kung shrugged. “If you’ll kindly follow me to my office, I’ll explain in details.”
After glancing at his gunmen to make sure they had us covered, he waggled that fat finger at both of us to come out. Because I was closer and I had a better chance of surviving an extra bullet, I took the lead. I felt a gun barrel grind into the back of my neck before I was pulled to the side. I saw Yukina get the same treatment once she left the cell. Kung glanced at the rest of his men and waved a casual hand at the outer door. After letting the other three flunkies take the lead, he led us out of the room.
We followed Kung single file down a dimly lit concrete corridor. The gun stayed pressed into the back of my neck the entire way and it was very likely that Yukina was getting the same treatment. The whole place smelled like rotting cabbage, and my best guess was that we were in some kind of dank basement that connected to the sewer system. As we approached an intersection, I looked for a way to make a clean break.
Before we got to the actual intersection, my escort pulled me short. “Hold it.”
I stopped in my tracks as two people turned into our corridor from the left, a young Japanese woman flanked by another of Kung’s stooges. We waited while they walked by us, which gave me time to study her.
Dressed in a classic white kimono, she looked like a geisha. The impression was reinforced by her powdered white cheeks and the dark red lipstick on her mouth. She moved forward in small measured steps, her head held high underneath her strange coif, which seemed to be a headdress as white as the kimono. She passed by us without a word and without averting her gaze. I could make out the faint scent of an exotic flower lingering behind her, which killed off the cabbage smell for a second.
A bad feeling clutched the pit of my stomach. Everything about her posture and movements screamed, “lamb to the slaughter”. What was a beautiful woman like that doing down in a horrible place like this? My fists clenched up but there was nothing I could do for her. So, instead, I turned to watch her go.
I noticed that her coif was even stranger from behind. It was like a sphere was placed on her shoulders. That thing was like a white fishbowl, but with a pizza-slice-shaped opening on the front. In fact, the whole thing reminded me of—
“Alright, let’s move,” the guard behind me snapped, driving in the gun for emphasis.
I got the hint and obeyed, the whole coif analogy flying right out of my head. Ah well…If it was important enough, it’d come back to me later. Assuming Lady McDeath wanted me to have a later.
Once we got to the end of the hallway, we entered another room to the right. This one was a lot fancier than the one we’d just vacated.
A thick emerald-green rug covered the floor, contrasting with the eggshell-white walls surrounding us. There was a large bookshelf that matched the oak desk in the rear left corner. Kung was sitting behind it, surrounded by his goons while he turned on the laptop sitting in front of him. All the goons had their pistols out, so my guard pulled his gun off my neck.
After typing a few keys, Kung turned the laptop around so we could see the screen. It was a black and white video—or a live security feed—of a small shop in Cold City’s Little Japan neighborhood. Mao’s Herbal Teas and Remedies was written in bold letters on the window pane. The sight made my blood run cold and I could see Yukina turning pale on my right.
Kung steepled his fingers beneath his heavy chin and studied us. “Interesting…While I have no solid ideas on what your actual relationship is to Ms. Tsing’s uncle, Mr. Vale, the concern on your face tells me that it is far more than your usual client-contractor variety.”
I was about to tell him where he could shove his threats when a thought hit me. That woman in the hallway—I finally figured what her coif made me think of…Pacman. Yup, her head looked like a tilted white version of the round open-mouthed eater of pellets. The thought made me smile.
“Is something about this situation amusing to you, Mr. Vale?” Kung asked his brow knitting closer together.
I kept the smile going and nodded. In my line of work, you learned not to look a gift horse in the mouth pretty darn quick. So if I had to resort to memories of silly 1980’s video games to keep my morale up and the bad guys off-balance, so be it.
“What’s this about?” Yukina cut in before I had a chance to follow up with a witty comeback.
Kung tapped the screen from behind with his pudgy pointer. “The man sitting next to this camera has a rocket launcher. He also has instructions to shoot this shop unless I call him every hour to ask that he postpone the deed.”
“What do you want?” Yukina said, putting a little more volume in it this time.
Kung’s round eyes narrowed to small dots as his smile grew. “Why, for you and Mr. Vale to restore the balance, of course, Ms. Tsing. I trust that I now have your undivided attention?”