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Bob Beers
AKA the Author Robert Lee Beers
AKA the Author Robert Lee Beers
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A piece from Tony Mandolin 6 The Clone in the Closet.

I woke up with the rare sunbeam shining onto my eyelids. You have to have lived in the bay area for a while to understand how rare that sort of event is. It felt nice, lying there under the comforter, the sun shining into the room, feeling the gentle lethargy of sleep slowly melting away…
“Ah, he wakes.”
I knew that voice. Damn, and I was hoping it was all just a long, highly detailed, complicated dream. I shut my eyes tightly, and then sat up, opening them again. Nope, it didn’t work, they were still there, Medb and the Morrigan. One clothed, and one… well, even in San Francisco, she’d have to put something on if I was going to get anywhere.
There was a soft wuff and the canine traitor known as my dog came over to the side of the bed and rested his muzzle on the covers.
“What?” I said, “Et Tu, Greystoke?”
He just opened his mouth and grinned me a German shepherd grin.
The animal is correct Anthony Mandolin,” The Morrigan said, “He should have been fed already.”
“You speak dog?” I asked.
“I speak to all animals,” she said as if I should have known that as a matter of course, “Now arise, we have a task to fulfill.”
I looked at Medb and raised an eyebrow.
She shook her head and said, “Get up Mandolin. The sooner we get this done the happier I’ll be.”
I nodded and got out of bed… mostly, there was the condition I typically sleep under to consider. “Uh, ladies?” I said, looking down at myself and then back at them. There were indications of potential embarrassment going on.
Medb looked disgusted, “Really, Mandolin, modesty?” She glanced at the Morrigan, “Especially now?”
“Indulge me,” I grumbled.
The Morrigan threw back her head and laughed. Under different circumstances I would have enjoyed watching, the movements that action caused were highly intriguing, but this wasn’t different circumstances, not by forty rows of trolley cars.
“Very well, Mandolin,” Medb sniffed, “But hurry yourself, this has already gone on too long.”
They left the bedroom and I took a nice cold shower. Warm would not have helped things. As I was dressing, I wondered if Frankie had noticed the two new guests in the house.
When I hit the landing to the staircase I found the answer. “Toneeee! What are these women doing in MY house? And why is this one with the hair showing her tits to the whole world?”
I found Frankie in the kitchen, his favorite frilly apron on and a rolling pin in his hand. He was wearing the chef’s hat he’s been given from his friend Bruce as a thank you for helping solve that case of the foodie poisoner. He was also wearing his best outraged glower.
Medb and the Morrigan were standing near the back door. Looking at something in the backyard. They were carrying on a sub-vocal conversation, ignoring Frankie entirely. I think that may have been irritating the big guy the most. We have had people in the house far weirder than either of these two, and he took all of that in stride.
He saw me and immediately stepped onto his soapbox, “Tony! How in the world am I going to keep a decent house if you keep bringing guests in unannounced? And,” he pointed the rolling pin at the Morrigan, “Just look at the state of that woman, and not just her hair, though a few hours in a parlor wouldn’t hurt, but she’s completely naked! Just look at that!”
Believe me, I had been looking. I also had a concern. What if the Morrigan refused to cover up? In my experience, the vast majority of magical beings and creatures consider our rules of society to be ludicrous, if not downright insane. Convincing someone like the Morrigan to put on some clothes, if she didn’t want to could be hazardous to one’s health. She seemed to think of maiming as foreplay. I didn’t want to be on the receiving end of miffed.
Whatever the two had been whispering about was over. Medb and the Morrigan turned to look at me, and then at Frankie. “We have decided,” Medb said.
“Okay…” I said, wondering where in the hell this was going, “Umm… decided… what?”
“You will be our consorts,” The Morrigan said
I blinked. “Umm… what?”
Frankie grabbed my arm, so tightly it hurt, “Tony…”
Medb snorted derisively, “Don’t be a fool Mandolin. Human mating rituals are not needed here. As consorts, you will be made aware of some of the senses of the fae. We cannot do this and succeed if you act as an anchor rather than an aid. I can feel Bain, but without some kind of rooting into this world the feeling is too faint to track.”
The Morrigan slithered up to Frankie and reached out.
He flinched back, “Tony…”
“Go with it, big guy,” I said. “I don’t think she intends to hurt you.” I hoped.
The Morrigan laid her palm on the big guy’s chest and drew in a deep, deep, massively astounding, breath.
She released the breath in one long, slow sigh, and then shivered. “Mmm,” she purred, “The magic is strong in this one.”
Frankie said, “This is not the droid you’re looking for.”
Medb stepped forward, “Explain yourself, human.”
I spoke up before things deteriorated even further, “It’s his way, ladies. When he’s nervous he uses cultural references. That was from a well-known film called Star Wars.”
The Morrigan’s eyes widened, and things stood out further, “A warrior who battles among the stars?”
Frankie said, “Uhhh… Tony…?”
“He’s right. Queen Medb, I think your friend here is frightening our warrior.”
Frankie shot me an I’ll get you for that look.
The Morrigan smiled and stepped back. “This one has much of the bear in him. Our mating would be long and violent.”
“Enough,” Medb growled, “We need to begin or we will never finish.”
I said, “Sounds good to me.” And then I said, “Might I suggest the Morrigan disguise her body? The natives have some rather narrow-minded attitudes about women walking about in the nude.”
The Morrigan, being of fae upper echelon was no fool. She waved a hand and was transformed into a casually-dressed, extraordinarily beautiful woman. Her hair went from a tangled, enveloping mane into a neat ponytail that reached just below her buttocks, which, by the way, were encased in a pair of rather fetchingly far too tight jeans. Her feet were stuck into a pair of flats that worked well with the jeans. Up above, a woman’s flannel plaid shirt struggled to contain what was inside.
She did a twirl, saying, “Does this look suit your human sensibilities?”
“Uh, yeah,” I said, maintaining my professional attitude at all times. Oh, the pain… the pain…

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Prologue


Anyone familiar with my history would think I would be used to people coming back from the dead. Hell, the past few years it seems that sort of thing happens with more regularity than earthquakes, and I live in San Francisco for god’s sake. Yeah, you would think that, but I’m not. I seriously doubt I will ever be.
The latest resurrection starred Landau Bain. If you don’t know that name you must have been living on a desert island somewhere or perhaps under a nice dense rock. Bain is a wizard. In San Francisco, he is The Wizard, all caps et cetera, etcetera. The first time I met him he gave me a lesson in manners that fried every nerve in my body. The second time wasn’t much better. He stuck me with the tab in one of the most expensive eateries in the city. There are those people who know guys who know guys, right? Not Bain. No, he’s one of those guys people know. I mean, how many people do you know who can get the devil, I mean the big L himself, so pissed off he gives him the finger, twice. Now ask yourself this, why did Bain only get the finger? Yeah, now ask yourself the follow-up, why didn’t he get anything worse, hmmm? Get the picture?
I followed Bain into Hell, and no, that is not a euphemism. So what did the jerk do to repay that favor? He saved my life at the expense of his own. Another guy I know used the phrase that starts with, “No greater love hath a man…” This is also the guy who gave me a very broad hint that Bain’s time on earth wasn’t over. I really should have paid much closer attention; really should. I’m saying that for a reason.
Another fellow who’s crossed my path more than once is Tiny, no last name. At least as far as I can tell. He’s the owner, cook, brewer and chief bottle washer of the Snug, my neighborhood bar, what the Brits would call my local. Tiny is the only guy I know who can almost look Frankie in the eye. Frankie, by the way is my partner, and no I don’t mean that in the San Francisco sense, but in the business sense. I may not date a whole lot, but I do vastly prefer the company of girls over guys. Frankie, not so much. Imagine a neatly seven foot tall NFL lineman with a penchant for stiletto heels and feather boas and you’re about 1% into the maze that is Franklin Amadeus Jackson. Frankie was there with me when Bain saved both my life and his. He was also there in the hospital when we both watched Bain vanish right from under the covers, looking like he was about 600 years old. The big guy, as I call him, bawled like a baby
The other big guy, Tiny, also has another job separate from owning and operating the bar, he’s the Norse All Father Odin. You know, the one with the eye patch and the twin ravens who act as his mobile eyes and ears? I have yet to ask how he keeps his shoulders free of bird crap. That’s not really a question you ask of a guy who’s laid out a troll with one punch, you know?
I’m bringing all of this up because it was in the Snug where Frankie and I saw Bain, alive and for all intents, purposes and whatever cliché you want to add into the mix, well. Tiny had just handed us a shot glass of something he claimed was nearly priceless and rarer than Madonna’s virginity, and after we sipped it, and both had what can best be described as a very personal moment, found out it was thousand year mead. After that, Bain, who was sitting on the next stool with his back turned to us, turned around and said, “Hi.”
That’s right where I left things hanging in the last casebook, mainly because it was more of a brief pause than an ending. Yeah, there’s this vast amorphous evil called The Other floating around in the multiverse somewhere that has everyone’s panties in a twist, and I do mean everyone’s, including the biggest guy himself, who for some reason thinks Momma Mandolin’s baby boy is the answer, but that’s another casebook altogether. And, of course everyone involved is lining up and taking sides as well as side bets, but so what? Politics is politics, whether you’re in Heaven, Hell, or any of the innumerable places in between.
Where Bain was concerned, after he got his breath back following Frankie’s bear hug, we were informed Tiny’s mead had curative properties, and before the week was over, Landau Bain would be back and as cranky as ever. I thought that was a pretty good deal, even if the guy had put my life at risk just about as often as he saved it. But I also wasn’t going to be counting my chickens waiting for it to happen. It has been my experience that whoever holds down the job of universal balance is always pretty quick on the draw when it comes to sending a trainload of crap my way.
You know how some of the old detective stories, the really, really good ones from the pulp fiction days usually started with a ringing telephone or doorbell? Well, that’s how it usually begins. It isn’t a cliché if it happens all the time, right? So, I was in my front office, working on a crossword when the doorbell rang.
♦ ♦ ♦

Chapter 1

I was trying to find a seven-letter word beginning with W when I heard the doorbell. I glanced at the clock and saw the time; a good hour past my posted office hours, so I called out, “Frankie, doorbell,” and went back to tickling my gray matter.
There was no answer. Thinking the big guy was probably under the influence of his ear buds, so I called louder, “Frankie! Someone’s at the door!” Then I waited, listening. No Frankie.
The bell rang a second time and I opened my mouth to yell. Greystoke’s whine stopped me.
I thought, “What the hell?” and stood up. When a German shepherd makes a sound like that something hinky's going on. It may not be dangerous, per se, but whatever it was, hinky probably applied.
Greystoke turned to look at me as I entered the hallway leading from my office slash study slash enlarged closet to the front door. He sat, in that typical shepherd version of at attention. Once he was sure I was headed his way, he turned his attention back to the front door.
I looked. There was definitely someone there, but I didn’t recognize the vague shape through the stained glass. If it had been Pat Monahan, he would have announced his presence with banging on the frame and yelling, demanding to know why I wasn’t there to have the door open as he approached it. It was nice to know his promotion to police Captain hadn’t dulled his manners any.
Bain wouldn’t have even bothered knocking. I doubt there’s any kind of lock that can keep him out if he’s of a mind to go in.
I said to Greystoke, “Good boy. Good boy.”
His tail thumped twice in reply, keeping his attention wholly on whoever was on the other side of the door.
“Now,” I said, “Let’s see who’s on our porch.”
I opened the door and said, “Yes?”
The man on my porch could have held down the role of the unassuming friendly neighbor in just about any of the evening sitcoms of the fifties. I wouldn’t have been surprised if he introduced himself as Joe Average.
“Are you… Anthony Mandolin, Private Investigator?” The question came in an accent I couldn’t place. It sounded familiar, but the place evaded me. I tossed the thought away. San Francisco was nothing if not a city of foreigners; essentially the Casa Blanca of the west coast.
I answered, “Yeah, that’s me.”
The guy smiled, lips closed, and nodded, bobbing his head up and down. “Ah, at last. I have been seeking you for nearly a year, Mister Mandolin.”
Before I could ask the obvious question, he held up a finger, saying, “I first had to learn your tongue and then I had to figure out the odd way you Americans maintain your maps.”
The expression on my face had to be one for the books. He smiled again and asked, “May I come in and explain?”
“Sure, sure,” I replied, stepping aside, “Come on in. The office is that door on the right,” I added, pointing.
“Yes,” he said. It sounded like “yass”, “I see it. Thank you.”
Greystoke backed out of the guy’s path, his tail not wagging, but very still. I’d learned a long time ago to trust my dog’s instincts. Whatever this guy was, he wasn’t as average as he looked. Another question came to mind as I followed him into my office, where was Frankie?
My office is small. I like to call it an enlarged closet, but in reality, it’s more of a cozy room, occupying the space between the front room and the kitchen on the right-hand side of my Victorian. Yeah, I owned my own Vickie, purchased for cash out of the earnings of the case that had opened my eyes to the world of the weird. Where other just felt uneasy, heard whispered voices, or caught something out of the corner of their eye they could never really see… I saw what was really there. Consider yourself lucky. Especially those of you living in San Francisco. No other city in the world can claim the oddities that call Fog City home.
My unknown guest was studying my bookshelf when I entered my office. His right hand was up, the forefinger running across the titles. Some may not believe it, but I do read, and sometimes I read the classics. One of my friends owns a book shop right off of the Haight, and sometimes I get a good deal on a collectible. That forefinger was dangerously close to some of the rarest in my collection.
He said, not turning his head as I came into the room, “You have a fine collection here, Mister Mandolin. Have you read them all?”
“Yeah,” I replied, heading toward my desk. “I only buy books I read.”
“Ah,” he said, pulling one of the older ones out of the shelf. “That would include this one.” He held it up so I could see the dust jacket. The title, Dracula was legible in its faded red against the dirty yellow of the cover. My guest shook his head as he looked at the book, “Mister Stoker had such an imagination.”
I wondered about that. Since my eyes had been… opened, as the faerie folk say, I’d come across enough solid evidence to indicate to me that old Bram may have been writing his diary more than a book. I wasn’t about to tell that to mister average here, fingering my collection. From the looks of the guy, he’d probably faint.
Greystoke gave a little woof, and the guy put the book back into its place on the shelf. “You are quite right, my dear fellow. I should ask before handling such a valuable rarity.”
It may have been the accent, but it seemed he just talked to my dog.
He turned and asked, holding up the book, “Do you mind?”
I shrugged, “Not as long as you’re careful. I buy paperbacks for reading. Those are just too delicate.”
He nodded, sighing, “Yes, age eventually wears upon everything, does it not?”
He turned, put the book back and then selected the even more prized piece of my collection, Max, the owner of the Haight bookshop and head dungeon master of the local gaming guild almost had a stroke when he saw it uncovered in the bottom of an old trunk I bought at an auction. I nearly joined him when I was told the last copy to surface sold at auction for almost a hundred and fifty grand.
The guy said, as he slowly turned the book over in his hands, “Lovely little Mary. I’d always wondered if she would publish what she saw…”
A chill went down my spine, one of those icy shivers that tell you something at the top of the hinky list is going on, and you are unavoidably involved. I said, “Perhaps it may be best if you just put my copy of Frankenstein back on the shelf and tell me why you’re here.”
He turned away from the book and stared at me. This was not just a look, it was a stare, one of those unblinking things you usually only see in old movies. It was damned uncomfortable, almost a challenge. Then just like that, it was over and he said, as he replaced the book onto the shelf with what could almost be called reverence, “Of course. You must think me incredibly rude.”
“No…” I said, easing around my desk and sitting. I linked my fingers together and put my hands onto my desk as I added, “No, you just seem to be dancing around the subject. I do have to say you do better footwork than most of the people I’ve seen.”
I waved at the one other chair, “Please, sit.”
He did and then pulled out a business card and reached across the desk, holding it out for me to take. “My card.” His accent made it sound like my carrrd.
I took it and turned it over to look. The face side was gloss black with red script lettering spelling out Wladislaus Dragwlya, vaivoda partium Transalpinarum. Underneath that in a thin chiseled-looking typeface, House of Drăculești.
I put the card onto my desk and said, “I don’t read much Latin, but I get the gist, You’re telling me you’re Count Dracula, right? What’s the follow-up, Frankie bursting into my office yelling surprise?”
He didn’t give a single tell. I filed away the notion of adding him to my never play poker with this person list. Then he shrugged, “Count is a misreading of the Latin. Vaivoda is better translated into Warlord, or rather War Leader. The closest European title would be Duke, not Count.” Then he chuckled and waved a hand, “But after nearly seven hundred years, it has little meaning, especially the way you humans wage war these days.” He smiled, “And people used to call me bloodthirsty.”
I couldn’t help it, I smiled as I leaned back in my chair. “You, Dracula, and seven hundred years? You’re being serious?”
He bowed his head as if he was in a royal court. “Allow me to introduce myself,” he said, “I am Wladislaus Dragwlya, vaivoda partium Transalpinarum, of the House of Drăculești, as it states on my card. I was born the eldest son of my father, Vlad II, who earned the title as he was inducted into the Order of the Dragon in 1431 by Emperor Sigismund. It is to my eternal shame that I caused the title to take on its devilish intonations, forcing my fellow Romanians to change the word for dragon to balaur.” He sighed, “The way a man deals with heartbreak…” His words trailed off as he shook his head.
The alarm bells were still going off in my head. I thought back to that case where I had an entire extended family of vampires as clients down in Redwood City. I was never paid for that case, but when your client’s castle winds up being ground into the rock of the mountain by a giant serpent out of Norse mythology, it does tend to put a damper on things like payment, being able to find the client, and so on…
What the hell. I decided to ask, “So, Mister… uh… Dracul, why are you here? What do you need me to do?”
He paused, took a breath and then said, “I need you to find the last remnants of my family. I am told you were one of the last to see them alive.”
Those alarm bells became sirens. “All right,” I said, intentionally leaving off the I’ll bite portion of the cliché, “What can you tell me so I can begin looking?” It helps to slip into the routine to hold off the shakes.
“From what I was told”, he said, leaning back in the chair and crossing one leg over the other, “My cousin Eretich had his family home transported from its place in the mountains of Romania to a city here named after those incredibly tall trees you Californians are blessed with.”
Danger, danger, danger Will Robinson. Okay, how do I tell the original bad guy vampire sitting across my desk in my home office that his cousin is most likely bits and pieces of decayed vegetarian vampire mixed in with the rubble of his destroyed castle? And to top it off, yours truly could rightly be blamed for it?
I, as quietly as possible, eased open the middle drawer of my desk, exposing the butt of the loaded semiauto I kept there. The bullets were those Landau Bain, my cranky alcoholic wizard friend had, uh… enhanced about a year ago. If needed, they just might put a hitch into Vlad’s get-along. As I did so, I asked, “Umm, what’s the full name of your cousin Eretich?”
Dracula said, his attention apparently on the condition of his fingernails, “Viscount Eretich Drutsk-Upyr, Mister Mandolin. Not cousin, but more nephew. And please, do not insult me by attempting to use that weapon. I am fully aware of the circumstances of my cousin’s disappearance, and even though he blamed you for what occurred, I have been made aware of who was the real cause of that tragedy. I am also prepared to cover the costs of both my needs and what Eretich should have paid you.”
Ever have one of those moments where your brain takes off on a vacation right in the middle of a conversation? I was pretty sure I was staring at my client-to-be with about as much intelligence as a newborn calf.
Finally, a few cells reactivated. “Umm. Mister Dracula—“
I stopped and held up a hand, and then said, “I’m sorry. But I’m going to need more than just a card. I’m decidedly not calling you a liar or intending to insult you in any way, but frankly, you don’t look or act like who you claim to be, and honestly, even in this city, legends dropping by to retain a Private Investigator… it just doesn’t happen.”
The guy nodded if anything his expression one of understanding. Then he stood, and then he swelled, changing. I could hear Greystoke leave at speed, whimpering. To be honest, I probably whimpered some myself. What stood before me, filling most of my office from walls, to the floor, to ceiling, was a nightmare of nightmares. Bat could have been the main theme, but it went beyond bat into full blown ewww and then some. And then as suddenly as it appeared, it was gone, and it was just the guy again, sitting in my office and looking at me with a tiny smile on his face.
“Is that better?” He asked.
“Good God, no, that isn’t better!” I yelled, and then I forced myself to settle down. Breathe Tony, breathe. I held up a hand, “Sorry. You startled me, but you did it for a purpose and you don’t deserve to be yelled at.”
Vlad, it couldn’t be anyone else, Dracul nodded, “Very understandable, Mister Mandolin. Actually, I should congratulate you, few men have taken that revelation with the aplomb you showed.
“Chalk it up to mileage, not guts,” I growled. Then I said, “Uh, are you aware there is nothing left of Ereitch’s castle? I was there. I watched it being destroyed.”
He stared at me and then shook his head, “No, I was not aware. Please,” he spread his hands in supplication, “Tell me how it happened.”
“I thoughtt you said you’d been told about his disappearance,” I replied.
Dracula scowled, “Obviously much was left out. I will deal with that at another time and in my own way, Mister Mandolin.” He relaxed and said, “Assume I know nothing of what occurred, and now please, tell me the tale.”
So I told him how the snake out of the Nordic apocalypse was discovered under his cousin’s property in Redwood City and my, uh, being temporarily turned into a werewolf wound up defeating the thing, and how in its death spasms it ground what was left of the castle into gravel.
“What was that damned snake doing under my cousin’s castle?” He asked, more to himself than to me.
I nodded, “You know, I asked Bain that same question, but I have yet to get an answer.”
He froze. “Bain? Do you mean Landau Bain, the Wizard?”
“Uh, yeah?”
He stood, looking around, “He isn’t here now, is he? Perhaps sleeping off his latest binge?”
“I take you know him?” I asked.
Dracula gave me the most haunted look I’d ever seen, and from my perspective, that’s saying something. He just stared at me for a while and then shook his head, “No, and I have a very good reason to not wish to. You are sure he isn’t here, or nearby?”
I nodded again, “Absolutely. The last time I saw him, he was planning on taking a vacation, or whatever his sort does to relax.”
“Then it wasn’t him,” Dracula growled, “His sort, as you put it, does not relax.”
“Well whatever it was he was planning, it was Bain, no mistaking it. You can be sure of that. Regardless, you’re in my house and under my roof and therefore under my protection.”
He smiled, the first real smile I’d seen. “You know, Mister Mandolin,” he said, “That is the first time, in a very, very long time that I have heard those words.” He bowed his head, and when he brought it back up again, he said, “I, Wladislaus Dragwlya, vaivoda partium Transalpinarum, of the House of Drăculești, gratefully accept your sanctuary.”
The words sounded formal, and way back in the dusty recesses of my mind, I could bed, a few of my remaining brain cells dedicated to common sense started ringing their own alarm bells.
To hide any unease I may be feeling, I asked, “Besides my being one of those who last saw your cousin, why come to me? I mean, it could be all I’m good for is just a witness, answer a few questions and that’s it.”
“Oh, you are far more than just a witness, Mister Mandolin,” Dracula waved a hand. I noticed the ring he wore, it had a very large ruby surrounded by diamonds in a very high carat gold setting.
He resettled himself into the chair and continued, “Why did Eretich hire you to act as security for his party?”
I thought back. “He said I had a reputation, I believe.”
“Oh, far more than a reputation, Mister Mandolin,” He said, chuckling, “In some areas of the nonhuman world you are notorious.” He leaned forward, “Are you aware, that the name Tony Mandolin is used to frighten the unruly children of certain species into behaving?”
Huh? Then I replied, “That’s got to be a mistake. I haven’t been around that long.”
He shook his head, “No mistake. You must not be aware that time flows differently outside this dimension. For some of the creatures on the other side of the veil, you have been a nightmare for centuries. For others, a hero of legend.”
“And I suppose,” I muttered, “For others not even a blip on the radar.”
He nodded, “Certainly. For others.”
I thought about that and then decided to stop doing that, it gave me a headache. I tried another direction, “Your cousin told me there are different types of…” I paused, didn’t not knowing how to say “vampire” without sounding… well, like a hick.
Dracula smiled, showing elongated canines, “Of my sort?” He chuckled again, “Eretich was speaking out of turn, either that, or you had been accepted as family.”
I had been, I thought, and then tossed out on my ear, so to speak, when it all went balls up.
“Well, as I have accepted your sanctuary,” Dracula added thoughtfully, “I have no issue with affirming what my cousin told you, there is a variety of my kind, and, as you are probably told, there is little love lost between any of them.” He sighed, “It’s a competition for prey issue.”
I suppressed the urge to cover my neck.
Dracula continued, “I won’t bore you with a discourse on all the various types of my kind. It is a dreary business at best.” He sighed, “What I will tell you is this, I cannot stand those stupidly insipid romance stories about teenage vampires. No basis in reality whatsoever.” He snorted, “Phagh! Whoever came up with that as a plot device should be staked and laid out in the sun.”
He stopped and looked at me, “I’m sorry. It’s from spending so much time on my own. Eretich had his family. The last of my wives was killed centuries ago.”
I was pretty sure I knew the name associated with that deed and mentally drew a line through Van Helsing and then locked it away. I nodded as if understanding. Rule number 35, learn how to act, it pays for itself.
Dracula broke into my thoughts with, “I believe I mentioned payment.”
“Yes, you did,” I agreed.
“Ah,” he said, smiling. This time the fangs were gone. “Good, I do so despise being absentminded, it reminds us of the passage of the years. Do you recall what my cousin promised to pay you?”
I shrugged, “Sorry. Things went screwy so rapidly once I showed up for his party, I never got around to writing a bill.”
“No matter,” he said, reaching into his coat, “If you are able to successfully complete this task, you will not only be aiding me, but Eretich and the rest of the family as well.” He held a smartphone in his hand, one of the big ones, more of a tablet than a phone when you got down to it.
He looked at me from behind the phone, his forefinger poised, “Will one do?”
“One what?” I was way out of my depth, guaranteed.
“Yes,” he said, pulling the finger away from the phone, “It would not do to be ambiguous now, would it. Allow me to clarify, the one refers to one million… dollars, I believe is the denomination you Americans use, yes?”
Beep-beep-beep. My brain went into tilt, just like a kicked pinball machine. All I could do is stare. I hoped my mouth wasn’t open. Swallowing, I croaked, “Yes.”
“Ahh,” he said, “Good.” Then he began tapping on the phone.
I asked, “Do I need to give you an account number, or anything like that?”
Still tapping, Dracula shook his head, “No need for anything like that. I distrust banks with ties to governments.”
He held the phone up so I could see the screen. “Is this address correct?”
“That’s my address,” I said. “What-?”
“Good,” he said, going back to his tapping, “Then the gold will arrive safely.” He looked at me sternly, “It will have to be signed for, of course.”
I nodded vigorously, “Of course.”
“Well, then,” he said, sounding pleased, “I’m glad that’s settled. Once you’ve found Eretich and delivered the dragon’s egg, I will have your payment delivered.”
He stood while I was still digesting what had just happened. “It has been very pleasant meeting you, Mister Mandolin, and not at all what I was prepared for. I will be in touch. Good day.”
I stood, ready to come around the desk and shake his hand, but he did that smoke or mist thing I’d seen Eretich’s people do and was gone.
It hit me several seconds later. Dragon’s egg?
♦ ♦ ♦

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Chapter 1


Franklin Amadeus Jackson, part time drag queen, full time oversize black man with an affinity for feather boas and Village People playlists stopped and stared. The city of San Francisco is known as the melting pots of melting pots. Whatever race, whatever species you’re looking for and whatever flavor it comes in you will most likely find it right there in Fog City, even if it sometimes wears size 16 red Christian Louboutin pumps. What you do not expect to see is two of Frankie, as he prefers to be called, but there it was, his double standing not fifty feet from him chatting with Billy Bunty, the hotdog vendor.
Frankie raised a hand and called, “Yoo hoo! I say, Mister Good Looking! What are you doing here with my face?”
Frankie stands bare inches shy of seven foot something, and at a mass closer to that of livestock than humanity, he has the built in volume of a bullhorn. Let’s just say his voice carried.
Said Mister Good Looking looked up, half a polish sausage in his hand, and the other half in his mouth. He saw Frankie waving, widened his eyes as he saw himself calling to himself, and took off through the Market Street crowd. When a semi-tractor decides to plow through a traffic jam the sedans give way…or else. This was essentially the effect of the double’s charge. The last Frankie saw of his double was the flapping tail of a trench coat vanishing around the corner of the art supply shop.
He pulled up adjacent to Billy’s cart, puffing.
Some overweight folks—no, who am I kidding? Billy Bunty is obese on a Guinness Records scale, but he makes up for it in being one heck of a nice guy. He could find good in anyone, so it was with acknowledged genuine concern that he peered up at the big guy. “Frankie, what’s wrong? Was the polish too spicy? And how did you change so quickly? That red shift looks pretty good, though. What is it? Are you and Tony on another case?”
Frankie, catching his breath, looked down at Billy with probably the same expression most folks use, confused affection. You just can’t dislike the guy, not even when he’s taken a firm hold on the wrong end of the stick.
I didn’t mention it earlier. As Billy said, the red shift; Frankie was in full drag, blonde wig and all. He’d won himself another starring gig at the drag queen theater down in the Castro. His current getup included a form-fitting spandex gown with a UK stars and bars motif, a wavy blonde wig that hung down to the small of his back, and a feather boa long enough to be worthy of the fourth Doctor.
He huffed and puffed a couple more times and said to Billy, “Umm, I’ll have another of what I just had. Okay?”
♦ ♦ ♦
“And then he handed me a Jackson Special,” Frankie said, flopping back into his chair and staring at me, eyes wide.
“A what?” I asked. Knowing the big guy and his sometimes off the beaten path ideas of what cuisine was, a Billy Bunty Jackson Special could involve any number of weird ingredients.
“I said,” Frankie leaned forward, working his mouth, “A Jackson Special. Tony,” he said, in his little boy voice, “I don’t have a Jackson Special. I never heard of one, and besides that, everyone knows I abhor sauerkraut.” He shook his head, “I think we’re getting pulled into another one of those weird deals… again.”
I checked my watch. It’d been about two months or more since the big guy and I had been involved in one of those “weird deals”. The last one involved a bunch of pirate ghosts, zombies, illicit gambling and the fate of the universe, and, to top it off, Frankie being killed. Yeah, you heard me, the big guy was snuffed, iced, axed, and whatever pulp novel term you choose to use in being shot and left to die in your partner’s arms.
I hear you, and I know the next question, if Frankie was killed, what was he doing telling me about his conversation with Billy? If you’ve been made aware of my other cases, you should already know the answer. If you’re a newbie, let me just say this, San Francisco has some rather unique qualities, one of them, it’s lousy with the supernatural… from both temperatures. One of the players in that realm, a whale, a major player, and a whole host of other descriptives that simply don’t do the job, decided I needed the big guy to remain in my life, and so it was. I came home ready to make the funeral arrangements and he was in the kitchen, cooking. Like I said, supernatural. I was getting pretty fed up with the supernatural, almost to the point where I was thinking about taking on divorce cases. Yeah, and the Niners were going to move back to Candlestick, win the Super Bowl and then retire as the next incarnation of the Village People.
I said to Frankie, “I wouldn’t worry about it, Jackson is about as common among the darker-skinned demographic as Smith is in Utah. The guy probably looks a bit like you and, face it big guy, people are growing…still. You may no longer be unique.”
Frankie sniffed, “I am so. I will always be unique, and that imposter is going to be brought to heel, Tony. I swear it!”
I gave him my best gimlet stare, all 90 proof of it, “Frankie, if you start quoting Wrath of Khan in the original Klingon, I’m eating at The Snug.”
He opened his mouth for a comeback and the doorbell started singing. I had to smile, literally, saved by the bell.
♦ ♦ ♦

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Chapter 1

I looked across my desk at the little guy sitting in the only other chair in my office. He looked about as dangerous as a gerbil and half as fierce.
He spent most of the time examining his hands, which he kept in his lap. “I can’t even keep pets, Mister Mandolin. This isn’t due to any clause in my rental contract, they either run away or die on me.”
He called himself Hugo Dahl. From what I could gather, he was some sort of scientist, or researcher. He worked at Stanford in an area I’m not going to try to re-pronounce. The term had a whole lot of syllables and most of them Latin, I think.
He kept talking, all of it in the same quiet monotone, “I’ve got to have the worst luck in the world, the universe. Why do I keep betting on them, every time, they lose, every time!”
He started to become excited so I held up a hand. My office isn’t big enough to pace in. “It’s all right, Mister Dahl, I’m here to help, if I can.”
“Hugo, please.”
“All right, Hugo. Who loses?”
“Huh?”
Some clients are like that. They head off onto tangents and need to be guided back to find whatever point they were aiming for. “You were talking about luck and betting,” I said, hinting broadly.
He nodded and said, “Rather than being hyperbole, Mister Mandolin, I have never won a bet in my life. In fact, I have never won anything. Anything in the realm of chance as far as being favorable in the remotest has stayed far from me.
“I keep trying. I can’t help it. One year, a few seasons ago, I chose the NFL team that, the previous season had breezed into the playoffs and won the Super Bowl by a record number of touchdowns. After I placed my bets they became the first team ever to be shut out for the entire season. The team owner committed suicide on the fifty-yard line and the head coach, when last heard from, was managing a McDonald’s in Portland.”
I’d read about that. I seriously doubted Hugo was responsible. He didn’t look like he’d purposely jaywalk, much less put a whammy on a football team. I grunted, nodding for him to continue.
He did, “I decided to enter into a study of Heisenberg’s laws of probability. Some might consider it crackpot, but I began working on a theory concerning the existence of probability waves consisting of particles similar to Quarks. I was able to get ahold of a small projector and modified it to where I could fire a stream of what I called Heisendahl particles at a charged plate.”
I nodded and asked, “Did you?”
He answered my nod with one of his own, “Well, the math appeared to be correct so all I needed to do, in theory, was push the fire button on the gun.”
“What happened?” In spite of myself, I was becoming interested.
He swallowed and said, in a slightly more engaged tone, “A stream of extremely over agitated electrons impacted the plate. They produced an ever-expanding rainbow such as one might see under a fountain on a clear summer’s day. I set up a control program on my laptop and through it, I could see that, even when the voltage was diminished to a level below that of a phone line the rainbow effect remained constant.”
“What did that mean?” I asked.
Well,” he said, “according to Murphy’s corollaries there should be two polarities to the probability spectrum. If these were in fact probability waves…if Murphy was right in saying (1) that if anything could go wrong it would, and (2) that if anything could go right it would, then there could possibly be a way to force the condition. Sort of a lucky force field, I suppose. All I needed to do was test it.
“Considering my track record in that area, I assumed even one winning roll of a pair of dice would tell me in a control test. I also weighted the dice to come up with craps when outside of the control field. If the field could affect probability so that it affected dice weighted in favor of my bad luck, I thought I would have something.”
I nodded again. Even in the number of weird cases I’d been handed over the years, this fellow was out there. Fortunately, he didn’t seem prone to violence.
Hugo continued, “The polarity control consisted of a simple toggle switch to the side of my laptop. Up selected one polarity and down selected the other. When I began, the switch was up. I tossed the loaded dice into the field and they bounced, coming up with a five and a two. I repeated that test four more times. Every time I threw either a seven or an eleven.
“For the final test, I had a pair of legal dice. With the polarity set to positive every throw was a winner, and when set to negative, a loser. I also checked with the loaded dice and received the same result.”
I leaned back in my chair and said, “Sounds like you’ve got something there.”
“That’s the problem, Mister Mandolin,” Hugo said, looking me in the eye for the first time, “I don’t. There was a break-in and the projector has been stolen.”
“Hmmm, that could be interesting,” I thought, “Where would a thief go with something like that? The casinos would be my first choice.” Then another thought hit me and I asked, “Can you describe this projector? How big is it? Breadbox, shoe box or refrigerator box?”
Hugo smiled sort of a nervous twitch on one side of his mouth. He said, “I work in micro-circuitry, Mister Mandolin. The breadboard was only for preliminary testing. My final prototype was designed to fit in my pocket.” He smiled again, “I don’t know if it was for ease of use or a way of rubbing it into my fate’s face, but the projector looks like an old silver dollar. Heads is the positive side and tails is negative. All you have to do is press either side with your thumb.”
I groaned, “A lucky coin.” “Nice.”
Hugo nodded, “Exactly.”
Another question came to mind, “You said something about a charged plate earlier. Does that mean your lucky coin only has so much area where it works?”
“Well, yes and no,” Hugo said, hedging his bet.
“Come again?”
He spread his hands, “I’m sorry, I’m not telling this very well. Losing my prototype has been very upsetting. When I was just beginning my experiments, I used the charged plate to test my hypothesis. After that, especially after perfecting the microcircuitry I discovered the field affected an area covering a sphere of exactly eight feet, no less, no more.”
I nodded, wondering what the results of thumbing the wrong side of the coin would be, then I asked, “What does that mean? It only works in that area? Like that story about the football team, it wouldn’t have helped?”
He seemed to be thinking for a bit and then he said, “No…no, I think it would have. I wanted them to win, and if I was in the field they would have. Yes, I’m sure of it.”
“How about anyone else in that field?” I asked, “Would it affect them as well, and is there a tradeoff?”
He looked puzzled again, “I don’t understand the question.”
I shook my head, “Maybe I’ve watched too much science fiction, but it seems to me if you’re forcing good luck to go your way, then doesn’t it follow that someone else has to pay for it? You win and they lose?”
He hummed to himself for a bit and then nodded, “Yes, I suppose the question of balance would come into play…”
I shuffled a couple of the papers on my desk. I was only in the office to pick up the mail and was ready to head back home when the little fellow showed up. For some reason what he was telling me scared me just shy of the point of wetting my pants.
For those of you snickering at my attitude right now, let me introduce myself. My name is Tony Mandolin and I’m a Private Investigator, not a private eye. I don’t do snoop work such as peeking through bedroom windows to catch assorted types of infidelity, not even for serious money. Some of us still have a little bit of pride left. At least I’m not personal injury hack.
Anyway, a few years back I discovered that nearly every fairy tale had a certain level of truth to it, like about past your eyebrow level. Pixies, vampires, goblins, werewolves, gods, goddesses, elves and faeries, all real, all true and most of them scary as hell. Toss in a former alcoholic wizard and we have the whole chef’s salad of weird that my life has become.
Ever since then the word has gotten around, and if you’ve got yourself into a pickle, and if it’s the sort that if you told the authorities about, your next sleepover would be in in a padded room, well that’s where I come in. I deal with the weird stuff.
Yeah, I said weird stuff. There was this vampire whose taste ran to redheads, a witch poisoning the diners in high-end restaurants, an evil-not-so-evil faerie queen, and that alcoholic wizard I mentioned, plus a pregnant werewolf. And, that just a sampler. What Hugo was talking about added a completely new level of weird to the possibilities.
Well, turning down jobs that didn’t insult my integrity never paid the bills. I shook my head and asked the next question, “There’s the matter of my retainer, Mister Dahl.”
“Oh, yes,” he said, fumbling in his jacket. He pulled out a checkbook, “What was the amount again?”
“I haven’t mentioned it yet,” I said, leaning back in my chair. “My usual rate is $200 a day in addition to expenses. Those expenses include state and federal taxes. And I can’t guarantee I’ll find anything,” I smiled, “Sorry about that, but all you’re paying for is the effort.”
“Oh, no matter, no matter,” Hugo babbled, “Is the first week in advance all right?”
I didn’t tell him that a nice round thousand dollars retainer was very welcome news. Nodding, I said, “That will do.”
Hugo left the check on my desk and took one of my cards, along with my promise to keep him informed on how the case progressed.
After the door closed, I picked up one of the papers from my desk. It was a bill, and so were the others, coming to a total of about $650.00. I glanced at the check and breathed out a sigh. It wasn’t all that long ago a bundle like that would have been considered small change. The last case though hadn’t turned out all that well. My client wasn’t pleased that most of his family died, even though it wasn’t my fault or doing, and he didn’t pay. Of course, that could have been because of his castle being torn down about him by an enraged giant snake. I wasn’t going to judge.
I put the check and the bills into my pocket and stood up to grab my coat and hat. The phone rang just as I was reaching for the doorknob. Whoever ran the circumstances surrounding my life, they had far too much of a sense of the idiotically dramatic.
I picked up the receiver and said, “Mandolin.”
“What are you doing there? Why aren’t you at home?”
I recognized the voice. It belonged to Patrick Monahan, my friend and a Captain for the San Francisco Police department. Pat tended to be rather short and gruff when the city leaders had a bee in their bonnet.
“Hi Pat,” I answered, “I’m just doing a mail run. What’s up?”
He grunted, “Why haven’t you let that flea trap’s lease lapse? If anything the neighborhood is worse than it was when you first moved in.”
He was right there. When I took out the lease on my office the elevator actually worked and most of the businesses in the building were, for the most part, legitimate. Now, outside of the attorney down the hall, the average office housed businesses devoted to selling, or at the very least renting assorted forms of affection. I’d been toying with the notion for a while, but it was my office, damn it. Working from home all the time seemed like giving up.
I answered, “I know, I know. Sentimental, I guess. Why the call? You got a case for me?” I figured I might as well do some sales work while I’m at it. Pat sometimes sent cases my way, especially if they had an ingredient the police called Mandolin Madness in it.
He paused and I knew it was going to be one of those MM cases. “Well, we’ve got something down in the morgue I want you to see…”
I sighed, the city won’t release the count, but a huge number of bodies go through the San Francisco morgue every year. So far, in my career as an investigator, the number of times I’ve been asked to go down there and check something out comes out to a nice round three. One of those times was without Pat’s knowledge, but every time I got the call, meant I was in for a case loaded with things nightmares are made of.
“When do you want me?” I asked.
“Take your time,” Pat said, “You don’t have to be downtown until 8 am tomorrow morning. You’re going to love meeting patient zero.” He hung up.
♦ ♦ ♦


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Tony Mandolin Mysteries Characters: Landau Bain.

Landau Bain is a wizard. Not THE wizard, because San Francisco is a city lousy with magic users. Bain just happens to be one of the most powerful, if not THE most powerful, but that isn't what makes him dangerous. No, that would be the drinking. You see, Bain is an alcoholic, and not a happy one. Somewhere in his distant past, a past that goes back millennia, something happened and it sent him to the bottle. When Bain is drinking, he can be dangerous to be around. When he hasn't been drinking, he's even worse.
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By way of introduction, I am the author of the Tony Mandolin Mystery Series, an urban fantasy series with a touch of humor. I am interested in feedback as it is usually helpful to the process of writing. Some of it works in adding things and some of it works in showing the writer what to avoid. This site - http://asmbeers.wixsite.com/robertleebeers has sample chapters, artwork etc... at no charge. I don't want your money , just your opinion, and believe it or not, UF can be family friendly.
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Chapter 1
Chapter 1

Harry reached into his coat and pulled out the envelope. Plastic was far more convenient, but since banks had developed a disturbing tendency to notify the feds every time someone moved any amount over 10K, he preferred the security of cash.
Chuckling to himself at his own pun, Harry lifted the flap of the envelope and counted the money. A cool 25K, he smiled to himself. The mark never knew what hit him. He should’ve gotten into the insurance racket a long time ago. He tossed the envelope onto his desk where it joined its many friends.
Harry Reed, of the Michigan Reeds, was a thin-framed little man with a receding hairline and watery blue eyes. After moving west, he started out as a runner for assorted white gangs in the bay area, working his way up the racketeering ladder until he was able to take his place at the top of his own organization. The fact that he had managed that feat through betrayal and blackmail meant nothing to him, but it spoke volumes to those who considered and then rejected the idea of deposing the bantam crime boss. The San Francisco bay’s bottom was littered with a number of skeletons chained to concrete weights as a testament to the ferocity of Harry’s intention to remain in power.
As he moved through the ranks of corruption, Harry tried his hand at nearly every one of the marketable vices: gambling, drugs, prostitution, unlicensed tobacco and alcohol and so on. At the turn of the millennia that he noticed the really big money was at the corporate level. His assorted businesses netted him about a million a year—nowhere near as much as Shultz’s organization and not even close to Luccesi—but it wasn’t chicken feed either. Then one day he decided to pick up a copy of the city’s business magazine along with his usual Chronicle. The man on the cover was Randall Driver, and when Harry saw the estimated yearly income, he nearly lost his teeth. He was no longer a small fish in a big pond; he wasn’t even in the pond. The man had other people doing all the work for him and he was raking in billions. Through a few of his political channels, along with several thousands in bribes, Harry managed to acquire himself a corporation. From there he searched around and located those industries which allowed the greatest degree of theft built into their business models, time-share sales, insurance and stock management. Because of the almost unlimited greed of the bankers, he grew quite fond of hedge funds.
Even though the greatest amount of graft came in through the stock markets, Harry felt the greatest sense of satisfaction in cheating people out of their insurance settlements. Sure, there were companies stupid enough to hand out awards like they were candy, but to Harry that seemed almost blasphemous, like giving away food and shelter, or treating everyone equally regardless of race, creed or color. That way lay madness.
His latest acquisition had been particularly satisfying; an old man had been the victim of a theft, several old paintings claimed to be nearly priceless works of an American master supposedly an ancestor of the homeowner. He, through his ‘investigators’, managed to prove to the underwriters that the supposed American Masters were little more than worthless attempts by a hobby painter. Of course, the owner protested the decision, but Harry also had a couple of judges on retainer. His reward for a few minutes work was the rather thick envelope sitting on the pile in the middle of his desk.
On impulse, he reached across the desk and picked up the envelope. This last one, he mused, was special. He’d had the unique pleasure of watching the old man realize the scam and being able to do nothing about it as he delivered the bad news. Harry stuck the envelope into his pocket and patted it. He was going to go shopping as a celebration, and the old man’s tears would pay the bills.
The heat began as Harry drew near to his door. He first thought that someone had been messing with the air conditioner. By the time he reached out for the doorknob he was sweating. As he pulled the door open, the fabric of his coat began to smoke and then it burst into flames.
Harry screamed out in both fright and pain, but ripping off his coat did nothing as the flames erupted from his shirt, pants and underwear. The heat increased to the point that none of his employees could even get close enough to try to staunch the flames. When the fire finally died out Harry was reduced to a pile of white ash and a few scorch marks indicating where he had laid.
♦ ♦ ♦
I put the paper down with a profound sense of ambivalence. The lead story in the Chronicle was about the sudden immolation of old Harry Reed. No great loss there, the man was a notorious cheat, except using the term with Reed was doing a serious disservice to cheats.
I’m Tony Mandolin. I live and work in San Francisco--Fog City, as it’s lovingly known to the locals, and if you weren’t born here, you ain’t local. When I first got my Private Investigator’s license I was about as green as green can be and the only thing that kept starvation away from the door was my friendship with then police sergeant, Pat Monahan. Pat funneled the odd job and consulting gig my way until I made the mistake of being right when the big boys insisted I was wrong. A city bigwig’s kid was indicted, a councilman was embarrassed and my ass was suddenly grass and every badge in the city, except for Pat, had an extreme case of Mandolinitis.
It was right about then I discovered my talent for finding things. You know how some people can lose their reading glasses right on their nose? Well, I’m the guy who can find them. Lost kids, cats, dogs, and wallets, it doesn’t matter. If you lost it, I’ll be able to find it. The problem is, an awful lot of the time there’s some folks even more interested in what was lost staying that way. And they tend to get pretty rumpled when someone like me comes along and stirs the pot.
A few years ago, that pot boiled over and sent me into the world of the weird. Someone had begun killing redheads, one of my favorite flavors, but my tastes don’t lead to leaving behind a corpse. In addition to bring me to the attention of the city’s mob bosses, it also put me under the microscope of the people at the tip top of the San Francisco food pyramid. When all was said and done Mama Mandolin’s baby boy had a stack of cash, a dead vampire, a house of my own, and an NFL-sized housemate with a penchant for size 16 Louboutin pumps.
I got up to pour myself another cup of coffee and had to veer to the right to answer the phone. I am a Luddite and proud of it. I don’t have a computer and my phone is one of the old connected to the wall with a cord types. Unlike the new smart phones, this one does one thing and it never breaks.
I picked up the receiver, “Mandolin.”
“You read today’s paper?” The gruff voice at the other end of the line belonged to Pat Monahan, now a Metro Captain.
“Harry Reed, right?”
I heard Pat take a sip of coffee. He’s the only guy in the city who likes it stronger than me. If it doesn’t dissolve his spoon, he sends it back. “Right,” he sipped again, “You notice anything about how they say he died?”
I have to admit, I pretty much skimmed the story. Today’s journalists, in my opinion, don’t know the first thing about writing. All they do is jot down a few facts, run it past the editor to make sure it meets with that paper’s agenda and then collect their check. The idea of making it interesting for the reader or actually exploring any of the facts never occurs to them. “Burned to death, I believe. I thought Harry stopped smoking a few years back.”
Monahan sighed, “At least you’ve grown up enough to not turn that into a sick joke. No, this one has you written all over it. Come to my office after lunch.”
He didn’t wait for me to agree, he just hung up.
Greystoke, my German Shepherd, padded into the room, his tail wagging in that way that means either take me for a walk or call for maid service. Breakfast was over with and Frankie was off auditioning for a part in the latest SoMo theatrical spectacle, so I grabbed his leash and hit the sidewalk.
In my part of the city, an older neighborhood with some Vickies that survived the 1906 quake, most folks have some form of family pet. Over the past year or so Greystoke had made friends with a couple of poodles, an English bulldog, a few undistinguishable mutts and a great Dane. Of course, he’s had his share of staredowns as well. So far, the only one he hasn’t been able to back down is a Tibetan Mastiff by the name of Fluffy. The dog is roughly the size of a black bear. I have no proof, but I think the owner just leaves it out in the yard and lets it feed on burglars.
After that first meeting, I decided to make sure our walks took us on a route away from Fluffy’s house. That dog’s bark could break windows.
I was also looking forward to getting out of the house a bit. Last year I had a case that finished up with a full blown war between the mob and a demigod right on my front lawn. It had only been a couple of weeks since the neighbors had decided I wasn’t going to be bringing the apocalypse down on their heads. Not to mention that I’d wound up gotten myself bitten by a bay werewolf. Don’t ask.
There’s a small park across the street from my house with the appropriate doggie doo station next to the sidewalk. I collected the necessaries and after checking to make sure no rivals were in sight, let the boy loose to run.
Greystoke took off at a full run, barked, and made a cut to the right that would have made Frank Gore green with envy. He made another cut to the left and then ran a high-speed circle that covered the entire diameter of the grass. A couple of his mutt friends ran across the park to join him and soon a game of chase was in play.
As I watched Greystoke romp with his buddies, I heard a growl behind me. I turned, assorted exclamations bouncing through my head, none of them appropriate for publication.
I should have used stronger language. It was the mastiff, and he did not seem to be in the same jovial mood as the other dogs.
If you’ve ever seen one of those documentaries on the wolf’s domesticated cousin, and if you paid attention, you probably learned about the body language of man’s best friend. A dog that’s feeling good and wants to play with you usually crouches and wags his tail held high. A dog interested in bumming a snack or a pet more often than not will sit down and look up expectantly with his mouth either closed or panting. Teeth never really come into the picture.
This dog was not wagging, or sitting, or panting. No, this one was decked in a more growly, toothy motif. Not something you really want to see up close and personal, especially if said dog is about twice your size.
I raised both of my hands ready to give a try at calming Fluffy down. Being eaten by the neighbor’s dog wasn’t high on my bucket list. To my surprise, Fluffy flinched and backed away as I moved. This time the doggie body language said nothing about attacking and a whole lot about getting away from the bad man. I took a step and Fluffy spun about and took off as if a nightmare was after him.
There wasn’t a lot of time to stop and consider what had happened because right about then, Greystoke led his buddies over to me. Whatever had gone on with Fluffy was going on with them as well. Every dog there except for Greystoke acted as if I was about to use them in assorted Chinese dishes, and even he was looking at me in a funny manner as his buddies took to the hills.
I looked down at him, “What?”
He didn’t seem to be interested in elaborating, so I grabbed the leash and took him home. On the way, Greystoke kept sniffing at me, and mustting, that thing where cats and dogs make a face as they work out a particularly intriguing smell. I’m pretty sure the neighborhood would be all abuzz with gossip for days after this spectacle.
The phone rang as I unlocked the door. The mantle clock told me why it was ringing as I entered the room. I’d messed around long enough that I missed the appointment with Monahan. He wasn’t at all understanding, and he dismissed my comment about the weird behavior of Fluffy and the other dogs with a comment of his own about my general personality that was entirely uncalled for.
I locked up and made my way down to the Metro building where I received more of the bonhomie from the desk sergeant as he buzzed me in. Geez, solve a couple of cases the Commissioner has deemed unsolvable and they treat a guy like he’s a hit man for internal affairs.
I caught sight of my most favorite person in the whole world, little Denny Knowlen; the midget Detective Lieutenant from Hell.
Knowlen, for some reason, hated me at first sight. Whether it was because I could actually reach the top shelf in the fridge and he couldn’t, or because I had proven Private Investigators were not all voyeurs with an expense account, I had no idea. Boiled down, it didn’t matter. It may have simply been the fact that I had a direct hand in getting his best bud, Ex-Lieutenant Rorche, a vice cop who made bad vice cops look good, kicked off the force. Rorche was all too cozy with some very nasty elements in San Francisco’s underworld. I spent some time kicking that anthill and then Rorche spent some time trying to whack Mrs. Mandolin’s baby boy. I was lucky there. If Frankie hadn’t got it into his head to follow me around I’d be staking out my own personal cloud right now.
He noticed me, started, and then that familiar sneer I knew so well took up housekeeping on his pinched face. “Mandolin,” he sniffed, “That explains the smell. I thought the sewers had backed up again.”
I pasted the cheesiest grin I could onto my puss and stuck my hands deep into my pockets, “Not me, short stuff. Look around, I’m sure you got your fan on reverse again.”
Knowlen snarled and started to stand, “Why you crud…”
“Don’t have to time to dance, Lil’ Denny,” I said, waving, as I continued on past his desk and pointed at Pat’s office, “The Captain has summoned me.” I finished with a royal wave and walked into Monahan’s office without knocking.
He looked up from the report he was reading and noticed who it was, “Mandolin! What have I told you about knocking?”
I started to turn around, saying, “Oh, then you don’t want to talk to me.”
“Get your ass in here!”
Sometimes Pat is way too easy to wind up. I really do need to find myself another hobby. I closed the door and grabbed the chair in the corner; I didn’t feel like taking the one in front of his desk, as it brought back too many memories from high school.
I crossed my legs, leaned back, and asked, “Okay, so what’s this about?”
Monahan sighed, “Come on, Mandolin. I don’t have time to play games. I’ve got a citizen--a politically connected citizen, in spite of what the news says about him--turning into a bonfire in the middle of his office and the only other thing showing damage is the scorch spot on his rug. If you ask me, this falls right smack dab into the middle of that bailiwick we in the Bay Area Law Enforcement Community like to call Mandolin Madness.”
I nodded, “So? The guy probably experienced a bout of spontaneous human combustion. It’s rare but I’ve read where it does happen. The stuff I’ve had to deal with goes way past rare.”
“Stop reading the tabloids, Mandolin, they do nothing for your questionable intellect,” Pat sniffed, “SHC’s a myth. So to answer your question, the big boys want to know what happened and they don’t want to have to wait for answers.”
“Lovely,” I snorted, crossing my arms, “And just to be clear, whatever is sent your way will roll downhill in my direction?”
Monahan almost cracked a smile, “That stuff does run downhill, always has, always will. Welcome to my world.”
♦ ♦ ♦


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Chapter 1

Ever have one of those days? How about one of those weeks? Got the picture? Now stretch that into an entire month and you can begin to see why my mood was lower than a 60-year-old hooker's expectations.
The name's Mandolin, Tony Mandolin. I'm a private investigator and the city of San Francisco is my beat. I used to be a way for people to find things, and relatives who were lost, but a couple of years ago things shifted to the weird. That last was a huge understatement by the way; weird had somehow become the major factor, not only in my professional life but also in my personal. My current girlfriend is a scientist who breeds highly unusual plants, and my housemate is a sometimes recovering NFL-sized, black, drag queen named Frankie.
My last case dealt with another woman of magical means blackmailing the city's best restaurants with poison orchids. I'd had to use the services of a flock of pixies, an alcoholic wizard with a serious attitude problem and an apprentice Werebeagle – yes, I did say Werebeagle - plus assorted others to solve it. Apparently, according to Bay Area reality, not every lycan is related to wolves and Alsatians. It seems shapeshifters come in all flavors. I wouldn't be surprised if somewhere out there is a whole tribe of weremice getting overwhelming urges to attack the cheese counter at the local supermarket just before a full moon.
That case had also taken away one of my usual hangouts, the Summersault but, cad that I am, I didn't shed too many tears. You see, I'd found a better place literally right around the corner from my house. It was called The Snug and run by a guy with the utterly cynical name of Tiny.
*
The typical San Francisco summer evening, cool, damp and foggy, perfectly suited my mood, so I stuffed my hands into my pockets and mooched on over to Tiny's place. The Snug's owner stood just shy of 6'10" and tipped the scales when you found some that went that high, at around 575 lbs. His usual mode of dress was a week old growth of beard, red mixed with white, light blue shirt with khakis and an old apron that must have been around when Doc Holiday met the Earp boys. He kept a sawed-off shotgun behind the bar for just in cases but I'd yet to see the time come when he had to pull it out.
Sure, things happen in the city, especially when you run a neighborhood bar. There was a night not too long ago when this addict tried to pull a gun on Tiny. They say the guy bounced twice before he hit the other side of the street, and then there was the time he punched out a troll. Yes, troll, the kind with knobby green skin and breath bad enough to use as welding fuel. When you live in the city you get your entertainment where you can.
I pushed open the door to The Snug and walked in. Discarded peanut shells crunched under my feet as I made my way over to the bar. They hadn't been there when I discovered the place, but a couple months back Tiny took a trip up north to the lost coast. Now, every spare corner in the place had a 100lb. burlap sack of the things. I picked one of the small bowls sticking out of a bag and scooped up a portion.
"Rough day, Tony?"
"You can read my face, eh?"
He grunted.
"No, rough week."
He grunted again. The big guy's vocabulary would never win him any game show host gigs. He was New Jersey Irish from the other side of the tracks. Me, I'm mongrel Italian, but he's never held it against me. "Another?"
I cracked a peanut. "Yeah, sure Tiny, thanks." I flipped the empty shell down to join its brothers.
Tiny pushed the fresh pint in my direction. "So...wanna talk about it?"
I looked up in surprise. Tiny usually stayed out of people's personal problems. The most common advice was a sympathetic grunt and perhaps a raised eyebrow.
"Work problems. I've been running into brick walls since the weekend."
Tiny examined a thumbnail the size of my belt buckle. "Some more of that weird stuff?"
I took a sip of my beer. "Yes and no. I accepted a runaway case and I've been getting nowhere. You know how deeply a kid can go underground, but now I've got some serious heat on me to do something...or else."
Tiny nodded. "Expectin' miracles 'cause they believed the hype."
I looked up. "I don't hype my business, Tiny."
He grunted and shook his head. "I know, but they don't"
"Thanks for the help."
"grunt."
As Tiny turned back to polishing glasses, I looked over towards the chess set he had put next to the fireplace. Hand carved. Whoever had done the carving sure took their time. Each piece was a miniature portrait of a middle-ages figure down to the last detail. The white were Saxon, the black-Norman. Every time I picked one up I saw another detail I'd missed before. Me, I couldn't whittle if you spotted me three notches, but I do appreciate talent.
Since I lived around the corner it had become my habit to decompress by going against Tiny with that set even though the games were usually short and to the point. The point being me taking another beating. So what, where else can you play by a fire and drink beer? Besides, I thought that perhaps the exercise of planning a few moves ahead would help me break through my figurative wall. You know what they say about plans...
Against most of the other regulars, I could hold my own, except of course Ursula Ignatova and her fiancé Paul. Ursula is the medical examiner and Paul runs a lab over at Berkeley doing terrible things to moss and mildew. And then there was the old man I met after the Summersault burned, Doc Lamoreaux. He was one of the few guys who could even whip Tiny. Of course, Doc has the patience of the grave on his side, he's a zombie, but he prefers the title life-challenged. He belongs to an association of life-challenged folks, the Brotherhood o' Non-Living Entities Reanimated or BONER for short. And yes, he got the joke. He was originally from New Orleans and still had the Cajun in his voice.
I snatched up some more peanuts, letting the shells fall to the floor. Tiny ignored my sloppiness. He says the crunch underfoot adds atmosphere along with the ability to absorb spilled beverages. Anybody will find an excuse for not doing janitorial work.
I finished my beer and signaled Tiny for another. Then I blinked. "Hey, Tiny, who's the little guy over by the chess set?"
"What little guy?"
"Your eyes going bad on you, Tiny?" I picked up my mug. "Over there by the chess set. About four foot nothing with a dark green coat? "
Tiny gently, but irresistibly pulled my mug out of my hand, "Time to go home, Tony."
I looked back at the chess set--nothing. I did a quick scan of the place; nope, just me and Tiny. The other two customers had finished their business and gone. I knew it wasn't the beer. Two pints did not do that to me. I turned back around on my stool and leaned my elbows onto the bar.
"Tiny. You know I haven't had enough to start hallucinating." He just looked at me and went on wiping glasses. "Tell you what. If I can hit two bull's-eyes out of six will you believe me?" I might not be much of a chess player but I can throw a decent dart. The Sung had a board hanging in an alcove off the bar, pub style with foldout doors and a boar's hair target over an inch thick; well away from breakables, and the odd customer.
He looked me up and down, measuring. Then he sighed. "Yeah, go ahead."
"Some darts, please?" Every Thursday night Tiny holds a darts tournament. The winner drinks for free the rest of the night and the losers pick up his or her tab for the time prior to the match. Not a bad deal for Tiny. It usually makes for a very busy Thursday and being a work night, most winners aren't too interested in greeting Friday morning with a roaring hangover.
Tiny handed me my darts. I toed the line and threw. Seeing that little guy must have shaken me more than I thought. My first dart stuck firmly into the middle of the left door. Tiny grunted and started to pour out my drink.
"Hey! Whoa there, Tiny! I've got five to go." Tiny grunted again, unbeliever. I took a deep breath and some extra time to settle the flutters. I could feel the dart sink into the 50 before it hit. I looked at Tiny and gave him my winner's grin. He grunted noncommittally but it didn't matter. I was in the zone. The second one I tossed without even really looking. It slid in next to the other dart with a satisfying metallic 'zing'. Tiny pushed the mug back over to my stool. It was a good thing I hit the zone when I did, because as I looked back over to the chess set, the little guy was back. If I had to toss another dart right then I couldn't promise you it would land anywhere near the board. What made it worse was, he waggled his eyebrows at me. Tiny had his back to the bar just then so he didn't see my hand shake when I took a drink.
The front door opened and closed. It was Heather, the girl from the antique shop a couple of blocks down the street. She must've seen something on my face when she slid onto the stool next to mine.
"Bad week?"
"You can tell, huh?"
"You've got one of those faces, Tony. You'd make a lousy poker player."
I took another drink. "Yeah... guess so."
"He been like this all night Tiny? Irish coffee please."
Tiny started his mixing and grunted an affirmative.
She nodded back.
I looked. The little guy was gone again. I was starting to wonder if my brick wall problem was affecting more than just my personality. I grabbed another bowl full of peanuts and sat down with my back to the wall next to the fireplace. The chess set was arranged on the table before me. The playing surface was inlaid into the oak tabletop, squares of white birch and ebony. As I sat down the front door opened again and Doc came strolling through. He pulled his right hand out of his pocket and gave me a jaunty wave.
"Tony! You're not ready for another shellacking already, cher?" I made the mistake of playing Chess with Doc Friday night. He caught me in his own version of fool's mate after five moves. No, I wasn't ready to face him again. Not for a long time. His voice had that usual dry, raspy grave quality. It smoothed out after a couple of drinks.
"No, Doc. The fire's kind of peaceful. It's a good place to do some thinking."
He looked at me for a few seconds then nodded. "Yes...do you some good, I t'ink, cher." Now, what did he mean by that? I shook my head and turned back to the fire. Everyone seemed to know me better than me. I think that was part of the problem. What was bugging me was work, or rather work not working out the way it was supposed to. It used to be that I could find anything, even if the thing needing finding didn't want to be found. Over the years I'd gathered my fair share of lumps because of that, but still...it was part of what made me, me. And now I had this runaway to find, not to mention the knockdown, drag out I'd had with Alcina the other night because my temper got the best of me. I tried to piece together the reasons as to why.
No, I'm not some psychic detective and I don't have any magical powers. What I am is stubborn and over the years I'd developed a knack for being able to turn over what others have missed, sometimes even when those others didn't want me to. Getting nowhere, I scooped up some more peanuts and ordered another brew.
I spent the next half hour having a discussion concerning my shortcomings with myself. I considered closing up shop and trying my hand at managing a pizza parlor. But reason intervened and convinced me that even with all its problems I wouldn't be happy doing anything else.
The door blew open with a bang.
"Frankie! Easy on the door. OK?" Tiny called out as my partner came in.
"Damn wind. We have a real blow working up out there." Frankie, besides being my housemate and an NFL-sized ex-drag queen was also one of the best decisions I'd ever made in my business. I'd already lost count of the number of times he had saved my life and, if memory served right, he'd started doing that before I'd hired him.
He has one of those mercurial personalities of the born performer. When I'd met him he was doing a show at one of the SOMA clubs catering to fellas who don't swing in the same direction the rest of us guys. During the last case, he'd wiped out a high-ranking member of Queen Medb's court with the swing of a chair. Faeries are tough, but Frankie is one of those folks who could give Tiny a run for his money in the brute strength department. Unlike Tiny, though, Frankie cries during romance movies.
He shook out his umbrella and said, "So...what's new, guys?"
He received an assortment of noncommittal shrugs and grunts and then ordered a pint. After it slid to a stop in front of him he joined me by the fire.
"Alcina called."
I did not want to hear that. The other major failing I have is that I can't switch off a mad the way most women seem to be able to do. Of course, being of the male persuasion, I am guilty as charged when I act like a man. Alcina was, more than likely, waiting for me to admit that I was wrong and I wouldn't ever do it again. The worst part of it was...she was right. I imitated one of Tiny's grunts.
"I...spent some time checking out the shelters," Frankie said tentatively, turning the pint in his hands.
"Yeah," I drank, already knowing what was coming next. This girl had vanished from her parents' home over a week ago. I usually solved such cases in less than a couple of days, three if the kid was real good at hiding. But, not this time. Somehow this girl had managed to disappear into the city's background and pull it in after her.
"I showed the managers the photo. None of them had seen her and it didn't look like any of them were lying."
"Yeah," I nodded.
"Do you think..." Frankie began the question with his attention focused on his drink.
"No!"
"But..."
"No, Frankie. Not if Hell freezes over, and I'll say the same thing to Alcina. I am not going to ask him for help, not this time. He scares the living crap out of me."
This 'he' was the reason for the fight Alcina and I had. Landau Bain, San Francisco's resident wizard was also an unrepentant alcoholic and scary as hell. Both Frankie and Alcina were convinced that simply because Bain had saved my worthless hide at least three times during the last case that I should forget the time he fried my nerves with a wave of his hand. They were convinced that Bain, being a wizard and all, could solve my problem with another wave of his hand. They were probably right. However, the last time I'd gotten mixed up with him I'd wound up as the sacrifice du jour for a witch and her acolyte.
I went back to my self-proclaimed gloom and nodded at the appropriate times while Frankie dispensed what he thought was helpful advice.
After a while, Julius ambled in complaining about the rain. Julius is the Werebeagle I told you about. He had one of those faces that make you think about a hound dog when you look at him and if you did so in a good light, you'd see a subtle patterning in his skin that spoke volumes if you knew what you were looking at. He also had the most incredible sense of smell I'd ever seen put to work. He'd been out of the city for the past couple of months so I hadn't been able to use him on the case. For the first time in a while, I saw a potential ray of sunshine in my future.
I waved Julius over to where Frankie and I sat and offered to buy him a drink.
Julius was immediately suspicious. His experiences with the last case he'd helped me on hadn't been all that enjoyable, even though he did get paid.
"I...didn't see you guys sitting here," meaning that if he had we would have been seeing his backside exit the bar.
"Hey, I paid you, didn't I? I think I almost remember putting a little extra in," I motioned to the empty chair next to Frankie. The case had paid extremely well. Antonio Luccesi, the city's crime lord had been very generous since it turned out most of the restaurants affected by the blackmailer were under his control.
Julius nodded, "Yes, yes you did."
"There, you see? Now don't worry, I have no intention of getting mixed up in any case that involves, witches, wizards, warlocks or trolls, ok?" I managed a pretty phony smile.
Frankie chuckled disbelievingly, the ingrate.
"Who's the little guy with the green suit?" Julius asked.
I whipped my head around so fast I almost gave myself an injury. "You saw him?"
He wasn't there again. Damn.
I turned back to face Julius. "You saw him," I made it a statement that asked questions, "You really saw him."
Julius reared back at my excitement, "Y...yes, so what? Lots of little people live in the city."
I glanced over my shoulder, "Is he there now?"
Frankie asked, "Tony, what's going on?"
I told both Frankie and Julius about the little guy, the green coat, and the wagging eyebrows. I even mentioned the disappearing act. Since they both had witnessed as much weirdness as I had, I figured on a little understanding at least."
This time I'd figured right.
"You know...this sounds familiar." Julius scratched his head, grimaced and rubbed his chin. "I...don't.... .... know...it seems I've heard or read about something like this before."
"One of the tabloids, maybe?" Frankie reached for a peanut.
"I remember!" Julius slapped his forehead. "My uncle, Pontius the Finder, mentioned it, oh...about six or seven years when he was telling me all about his trip to Ireland."
"Go on," I encouraged.
"Did you see if the hair was red?" Julius asked with his head tilted to one side.
"What does that have to do with-?" Frankie began.
I stopped him with a held up hand, "Yes, I think so. I couldn't get a real good look."
"Then I think I've got it now. According to what my uncle told me, we've just seen a Leprechaun." He held his chin up in smug pride.
♦♦♦


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Chapter 1

It didn't look like a troll at first. But since this is San Francisco, all sorts of varieties of the weird, the wild, the wonderful and the far-from-wonderful can be found here, and I can assure you that I've seen plenty of city folk who could pass for troll. Well, ok...troll-ish; sure, they didn't have the tusks or the olive-green knobby skin, but they certainly had the personality, the facial hair and the size, and some of them were men. This one...troll, absolutely sure.
I had just left a bar I frequented, the Summersault, and was heading towards the corner where Polk intersects with Eddy, when this long arm reached out of an alley and dragged me into the shadows.
Trolls have two outstanding weaknesses—sunlight and faith. Unfortunately, I don't usually carry a copy of the King James edition with me into bars. As for sunlight, there is a reason why trolls love the city by the bay; a nice thick layer of high fog tends to cut sunlight down to a tolerable level, especially if you're a troll.
With strength capable of ripping a solid-core door right off its hinges, the troll heaved me further into the alley.
I tried to roll as I hit, but it's kind of hard to do that when you're bouncing off an old rusty dumpster.
It's funny how the mind works in times of stress. Mine decided to go for gallows humor, the phrase, that's going to leave a mark, popped into my head as I slammed into the pavement.
Trolls, unlike vampires, are thankfully slow even if they are, excuse the pun, monstrously strong. Any human with even a bit of coordination can dodge a troll's attack.
That is, if that human wasn't covered in brand new bumps, bruises and contusions. I think I sensed, more than anything else, the descending foot and rolled out of the way just in time. The troll's heel thudded into the blacktop and continued on for several inches. I got lucky and the foot got stuck.
Unlike concrete, blacktop is flexible and under pressure it can become gooey. The troll being trapped gave me the time I needed to collect my thoughts and scrabble out of range.
With a final grunting heave the troll pulled its foot free, along with a good-sized chunk of blacktop, but by that time I was at the alley mouth and accelerating. Sure, there was a danger of it chasing after me, but its best run was my jogging speed. And then there were the pedestrians. San Francisco's sidewalks almost always have crowds during the day, and Trolls don't do crowds. Lucky me.

My name is Tony Mandolin and up until last year I was an ordinary, run of the mill private investigator with a penchant for being able to find things for my clients. I have no super powers, extrasensory perception, magic or special fighting ability. What I do have is a very annoying stubborn streak and a tendency to cheat when backed into a corner. Nothing stops an aggressor faster than a quick knee to the tender moments. I don't hit girls.
Some people would consider me tall, but on the not too odd occasion my 6'3" has looked pretty puny in comparison to the other guy...like a certain troll for example. In my younger days I was tending toward blonde with a reddish beard, when I forgot to shave. Now the temples are turning gray, the beard is more white than red and the eyes have an ever growing set of carry-on's. I do keep in shape, but it takes more these days to get the same result. The ladies don't run screaming when they see me, but the current crop of Tom Sellecks are in no danger.
About a year ago I was thrust into a world I had no idea existed. According to a certain alcoholic pixie I know, my human eyes were opened when I decided to take on a case that eventually involved a vampire with ties to the police commissioner's office. How my eyes were opened is still unclear, but now I can see the world of faerie. That's right; the world of the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Anderson and all the other writers of bedtime stories intended to give little boys and girls bad dreams.
Faeries aren't nice. In fact, in most cases they aren't even cordial. Most of them tend to think of humanity as an irritant at best and a food source at worst. Some, such as my booze-loving pixie, can be bargained with, as long as you understand that the penalties for violating the terms of a faerie contract are far more severe than those imposed by, say, the IRS. At least the government doesn't turn you inside out to think about how badly you screwed up.
The other thing about faeries is that they can't lie, but that just means they have had millennia to figure out ways of twisting the truth. They make used car salesmen, stock brokers and lawyers look like rank amateurs. That makes bargaining with them about as safe as step dancing on quicksand.
The one good thing about the vampire case was it earned me enough green to buy myself a house. It was no mansion, but it was certainly better than a third floor walk-up overlooking an alley. Not to mention that, being paid off and all, the monthly breakdown of taxes made my house a lot cheaper than rent. I didn't have a Pacific Heights address by any means, but my front porch did look out on a nice neighborhood park right across the street and it even came with a garage, a rarity in the city. Now all I needed was enough scratch to afford a car and some driving lessons.
I still kept my office. There was a nice comfortable feeling about having a spot in one of the seedier parts of the city with a glass door that had my name on it. It felt like tradition, and ever since last year, for me, tradition had become rather important.
I'd also picked up a partner, of sorts. One Franklin Amadeus Jackson, Frankie to everyone else except the police and a certain billionaire and crime lord we'd helped out.
Frankie, besides being a black man, was the size of one of your average draft horses, incredibly strong and a raging cross-dressing diva...when the mood took him. Imagine a Cher impersonator wearing size 16 pumps and you get the picture.
Ever since the vampire case, Frankie had taken to dressing more like Sam Spade rather than Samantha. I have to say, his Bogart was a better impersonation than his Shatner.

Even though I was able to see all the assorted dwellers in the world of faerie, that didn't mean I had an automatic ticket to the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It does exist, you know, but that gold belongs to the Leprechauns, and Leps tend to get rather possessive about their gilt. You know that series of horror movies about a certain Irish fae? They are closer to the truth than is comfortable.
The last big case I'd had brought in enough of a payday to buy the house, but it had also been the last big payday. It seems the police commissioner never forgave me for being partially responsible for the capture of her meal ticket, even if that meal ticket happened to be an electrolyte-sucking vampire responsible for the deaths of literally hundreds of innocent humans. Since then the lovely Ms. Commissioner had managed to scare off every whale in the ocean. Sure, I still got the occasional cheating husband/wife case, and finding lost poodles kept the utilities paid, but I was getting damned tired of subsisting on pot noodles and coffee.
Ex-police Lieutenant Rorche, a mustachioed, blonde, slightly overweight mass of corruption who had tried to kill me...twice… continued to cool his heels in an orange jumpsuit while reflecting on his various sins. I was almost becoming used to the idea of not having to look over my shoulder. But...Rorche wasn't the reason for my problem with the commissioner. Neither were Randal Driver, the wealthiest man in the state, nor Antonio Luccesi, the top crime boss in the city, even though they were mostly responsible for forcing the commissioner to back off when she tried to put a wedge in the investigation I had involving her favorite vampire. Driver's twin daughters were killed by the vampire and, through no little effort on the part of yours truly said vampire was delivered into Mr. Driver's loving hands. However, the world of politics being what it is, my two favorite whales were occupied with protecting their own assets; pun intended.
So, Tony Mandolin, private eye with one foot into the world of faerie, is forced to pay his bills finding lost fidos and proving whether or not so and so is cheating on so and so.

I made it back to my office with no further interruptions. Opening the door revealed the pile of mail that had been shoved through the slot while I was out. Sorting through it showed me several offers I couldn't refuse, a couple of pleas from Nigerian royalty for me to share their wealth...as long as I was willing to launder it for them, and, of course, the usual bills.
A glance at the phone told me no new messages had come in, and another glance at the clock told me I had a couple of hours to go before I could honestly turn the open sign around to read closed. And my stomach was already starting to growl.
I used to chuckle at the portrayal of private eyes on television, especially the movies done in the old days. Gorgeous woman walks through the door and bam, the PI's world suddenly becomes exciting. I used to laugh, until just exactly that happened last year. Now I was getting used to experiencing the other part I used to chuckle about, playing solitaire.
Frankie came into the office while I was trying to find the red jack I needed. He had on his Bogart trench coat and fedora, plus a suspicious-looking bulge under the coat. Well, suspicious only if you didn't know the bulge was caused by a squirt gun filled with white vinegar. The last big case, remember? Contrary to popular opinion, vampires do not drink blood and they actually like the taste of garlic. Their food of choice is actually the body's electrolytes, which makes their physiology very sensitive to acid, hence the vinegar.
"Hello, lover." Try as he may, Frankie has a real problem keeping the diva out of his voice. He may look like an NFL lineman posing as a PI, but scratch the surface and you get a full on Judy Garland. "My, don't we look busy today. Has Tony finally succumbed to ennui?"
"Don't start, Frankie," I growled, "or I may tell the next client that you just love looking for lost kittens." Frankie is terribly allergic to cat dander, swelling and itching allergic.
"Heaven forbid." He held up both hands in a warding gesture. "Never let it be said that Franklin Jackson, PI can't take a hint. Besides, I just may have landed a case that will ease that bruised ego of yours."
"I told you before, Frankie, I don't take same-sex cheating cases, regardless of the size of the deposit."
"Au contraire, lover, this case has nothing at all to do with your typical fare. This little jewel involves blackmail and quite possibly...murder." He phrased the last word using two long drawn out syllables.
I put my cards down and leaned back in my chair. "Tell me more."
He perched on the corner of my desk but backed off when I gave him the stink eye. "Well," he lisped, sulking, "this friend of mine is a Michelin three-star chef. Her specialty is quiche..."
"Let me guess," I interrupted, "her name is Loraine."
His eyes widened. "How did you know?"

Loraine was the executive chef and owner of Le Oeuf Sublime, an eatery far too pricey for this PI. Her bistro -, at the prices she charged calling it a restaurant just did not apply - sat square in the mission district and competed very nicely with the dozen or more eateries within walking distance. The Bistro's public face began with a half-round green awning, the logo and name in white on its front. Inside it was your typical high-end bistro; tile floor, softly textured walls with good quality work hung by local artists and personable small round tables for intimate dining.
The maitre d' met me and Frankie at the door. Frankie was greeted as if an old friend, which he probably was. The kinds of people my unlooked–for-partner knew never ceased to amaze. Me, I got the usual supercilious sneer that door-wardens of places ritzier than the crab shack at the wharf keep in reserve for the working class. Being the dinner hour, the dining room was full. Waiters moved smoothly from table to table, taking orders, checking on the guests and delivering the meals.
Loraine came out of the back and greeted Frankie with the same enthusiasm he got from the maitre d', plus air kisses. I received a cool appraisal and then an offer to sit down and talk.

"Frankie tells me that you are the best detective in the city, Mr. Mandolin."
Chef Loraine was a looker, if a bit short for my tastes. Her eyes were a cool gray with touches of green. She had pale skin and thick straight black hair that she wore pulled back and fixed with a clip. Over what appeared to be expensive black slacks, she wore an ordinary chef's coat.
We were seated at a table situated between the corner of the bar, a futuristic-looking layout with lots of glass block lit by blue and pink neon, and the entrance to the kitchen.
I toyed with the glass of water a waiter had set before me. "Frankie tends to exaggerate, Miss..."
"DeMoran, Mr. Mandolin, but please, call me Loraine."
"Not in a professional relationship, Miss DeMoran," I temporized. "As I was saying, Frankie tends to exaggerate, and if you know him you are already aware of that. I am, however, a very good detective and I just happen to succeed where a lot of others don't."
"Put him on the bad side of that bitchy police commissioner, that did," Frankie interjected. Catty would be an understatement where his tone was concerned, but it did get a smile out of Loraine.
"I see, and brave as well," she breathed. "Perhaps you are the one to talk to after all."
"What do you mean?" I asked.
She looked down at her hands. It was then I noticed they were shaking. "I am being blackmailed, Mr. Mandolin. Well, me and a number of members of the restaurant association, the Purveyors of Epicurean Gastronomical Specialties."
"P.E.G.S.?" I asked, a smile twitching at my mouth.
"It reads better than P.I.G.S., Mr. Mandolin," she said wryly. "We are a group within a group. The restaurant association is made up of owners of practically every type of establishment, from bistros even more exclusive than mine to that horrid little crab shack down on the wharf." Her lip curled at the mention of one of my favorite eateries.
I held back my defense of sourdough and Dungeness, opting instead for earning a paycheck. "Right. So, what form is this blackmail taking?"
"People are dying, Tony," Frankie broke in.
Loraine nodded in agreement. "Three, so far," she said. "Each of them poisoned and each death followed by a letter demanding payment and each payment more than the last."
I considered what I'd been told. Then I asked, "These deaths, they all happened in a gourmet bistro, right?"
Unlike Frankie, Loraine did not seem surprised at my insight. She pursed her lips and replied, "The first was at Steak Au Pam. We thought it was from choking until the letter arrived. The second happened two weeks ago at François. It also looked like a choking, but the diner was eating flan at the time."
"And the third?" I prompted.
Her voice held that dead quality you hear when fatalism is setting in. "A week later, in Mon Ami Toulouse. The demand letter was twice what the first asked for. The police have been no help at all. They keep asking the same questions."
I nodded. It was a good bet that this one also was made to look like a choking victim. Poisoners tend to stick to a one note symphony, just like government investigators. I opened my mouth to say as much when a scream, the sound of china hitting the tiles and cries of alarm came from behind me.
Loraine was out of her chair like a shot, crying, "Oh, God, no!"
Frankie and I were right behind her.
The disturbance came from a table near the foyer. A crowd had already gathered and Loraine pushed her way through. A chef's coat does give you authority in a restaurant.
That snooty maître d' moved to prevent me getting to the diner until he saw my expression. I can scowl with the best of them when I have to. He sniffed, "Some people," and stepped to the side.
This victim was a woman. She lay on the floor, convulsing. A thick white foam flecked her lips. Her date, or husband, knelt next her crying for someone to help. Around the floor lay scattered the remains of what looked to be a salad and the broken shards of a plate. Loraine had her cell phone out, and from the side of the conversation I could hear, she'd called 911.
Frankie stood to his full 6'8" and bellowed out, "Everyone, stand back!"
The crowd moved back. Like everything else about him, Frankie's voice is big.
I moved to stand next to Loraine. "People don't usually choke on green salad and foam at the mouth. This woman was poisoned," I whispered.
She replied in a choked whisper, "This is the fourth victim. Oh, God." She covered her mouth with a hand.
Frankie put a hand on my shoulder. "Tony..."
"Yeah, yeah, I'll take the case," I muttered. "Miss DeMoran, I will need to interview the staff, especially whoever made the salad and bought the produce." All of a sudden I wasn't hungry any more.
She nodded, numbly. "Yes, of course."
I could hear sirens approaching. If everything moved according to form the first arrival would be paramedics. San Francisco's finest tended to like it that way. The ambulance crews could deal with the messy stuff while they asked questions and looked important. Once the PMs had things in hand, Loraine led me into the kitchen and told everyone there to cooperate with me. From the looks some of them gave me I was pretty sure I'd have to spend some time convincing them, through an interpreter mind you, that I wasn't the immigration man come to take them away.
I was just getting ready to talk to the Sous Chef when the door to the kitchen slammed open and in came the police departments own version of Napoleon.
Five foot six, when he wore lifts, police lieutenant Denny Knowlen compensated for his lack of height by inflating his personal self-esteem to aggressive atmospheric levels. As a consequence, any man taller, and especially damning, more competent than he, was immediately filed under the category of potential enemy. I had the unique misfortune of being both, but my most unforgivable sin was that Knowlen happened to be an old friend of Walter Rorche, the disgraced police detective yours truly exposed.
Knowlen saw me and, as his face turned a lovely shade of puce, beckoned to the door with a thumb. "Get out of here, Mandolin. This is police business. If I see you nosing around my case I'll have you cited for interfering with a police investigation."
I shrugged. "Happy to oblige, Detective. The last thing I want to do is mess up your unblemished record."
He scowled. "What's that supposed to mean? Is that a cut?"
I shook my head, smiling. "Not at all. I would never enter into a battle of wits with one of the city's finest. I'll let myself out."



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