Lady in Black

Lady in Black

John G. Hartness

June 2021 $14.95
ISBN: 978-1-61026-165-4

The Black Knight Chronicles, Book 8

Our PriceUS$14.95
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Vigilante. . . check.

Killer vamp. . . check.

Undead serial murderer. . . check.

Enough alcohol to get Jimmy through this sh*tstorm? Doubtful.

Fists, fangs, and fury. It's all a matter of balance when Jimmy Black, Charlotte's Vampire Master of the City, is tasked with discovering why a mostly bloodless, decapitated body shows up in a dumpster. After a little sniffing around, Jimmy uncovers problems he didn't even know he had. Like a murderous vampire running loose in the city.

To keep the whole supernatural world a secret, Jimmy has to find the vigilante and stop them before the mundane world figures out that the monsters-under-the-bed are really living right next door. But the people the vigilante is killing are people who probably deserve it. So now Jimmy has to balance the safety of the city against the secrecy of the supernatural world. To maintain his leadership of that supernatural world, Jimmy is going to have to step up his game before it's "game over."

Author Bio: Author John G. Hartness is the Epic and Manly Wade Wellman Award-winning writer behind The Black Knight Chronicles from Bell Bridge Books, as well as the Quincy Harker, Demon Hunter and Bubba the Monster Hunter series. In his copious free time, John enjoys long walks on the beach, rescuing kittens from trees, and playing Magic: the Gathering.

EPIC Award-winning Series!

"I flew through this series.”

—We Geek Girls on The Black Knight Chronicles Omnibus

"I do love the banter in this book. It’s fun, it’s funny, and it’s often hil­arious.”

—Fangs For the Fantasy on Back in Black

"What’s not to love about a snarky Buffy-loving vampire?... The dia­logue in Hard Day’s Knight, both internal and external, is what really makes this book. I learned the hard way to not both read this book and take a drink of tea.”

—Shay Williams, NetGalley, on Hard Day’s Knight


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Chapter 1

"YOU ALWAYS TAKE me to the nicest establishments, honey,” I said as I slipped the Tyvek crime scene booties on over my shoes. I looked for a manufacturer’s name and resolved to ask Sabrina where to order some of these things. With as often as I’ve found myself traipsing through sewers in recent years, I should either own stock in protective footwear or a shoe store.

This "nice establishment” was an alley behind an Italian restaurant in a half-empty strip mall. Flashing blue LED police lights made a garish display across the service entrances to the restaurant and other business. With the ambulance’s red and white light mixed in, we had ourselves a patriotic display of death between the dumpsters and the steep embank­ment leading up to the apartment complex next door.

The main attraction of the evening was the corpse lying in the alley. Or maybe the attraction was his head, lying in a puddle of blood and grease about six feet away. One or both of those were the reason I wasn’t bingeing V-Wars on Netflix and laughing at all the things Holly­wood gets wrong about vampires. The dismembered body was male, early thirties judging by his face, and Caucasian. He was dressed in early twenty-first-century biker trash—a Harley-Davidson T-shirt, a do-rag laying on the ground next to his head, motorcycle boots, a black helmet, and worn jeans. A Honda Gold Wing lay on its side near the body.

"I think he’s dead, Detective,” I said, walking up beside Sean Fitzpatrick, who knelt beside the body.

"Anybody ever tell you how funny you are, Black?” Fitz asked without looking up.

"Not lately,” I said.

"Yeah, there’s a reason for that. Jimmy Black, meet Bradley Guenther, age forty-two. Mr. Guenther seems to have run afoul of the same person who’s been dropping headless bodies on CMPD’s doorstep for two weeks. You know anything about that?”

"Honestly, Sean, this is the first I’ve heard of it.” I looked around for Sabrina Law, my girlfriend and Sean’s partner in the Charlotte- Mecklenburg Police Department’s Homicide Division. "Sabrina told me she was working some murders that might be connected, but I didn’t know there was anything... in my area of expertise about the murders.” Officially, I sometimes work as a consultant to the department, brought in on unusual cases, and that’s all most of the people at the crime scene knew about me, if they knew anything at all. Unofficially, I’m the guy they call in when the weird stuff happens. It says a lot about my life that decapitation doesn’t trigger any of my warning bells.

"I didn’t think they were in your area of... interest until tonight,” Fitzpatrick admitted, standing up. He led me off to the side, away from the prying eyes and ears of patrol officers, crime scene photographers, and forensic techs. "The killings looked routine. A little more violent than usual, but not too bad. All the victims had victims of their own, if you know what I mean, so nobody was shedding any tears downtown to see a couple of familiar faces move into the ‘solved permanently’ col­umn.”

"What’s different about this guy?” I asked.

"Other than his head being ripped off his body? Nothing. Come on, Black. Did you even look at the body?”

"I’m not exactly the medical examiner, Sean. Why not save us all some time and tell me what you want me to know?”

"When I said his head was ripped off his body, it wasn’t a figure of speech. He wasn’t decapitated. At least not with anything that slices. Whatever killed this dude literally tore his head off.”

Well, that changed things a bit. There aren’t very many things in this world that can rip a human body apart like that, and exactly none of them are the things that mundane cops are equipped to deal with. Lookedlike I had a case.

I knelt down by the body, working hard to ignore the cool sensation of something seeping through the knee of my jeans. Too bad those crime scene booties weren’t hip waders. I looked closely at the neck wound, drawing annoyed glances from the crime scene photographer, who almost certainly didn’t want a skinny private investigator with unruly brown hair getting in his shot. I didn’t really care, I just hoped he got my good side.

And then showed the pic to me, so I’d know if I even have good side.

Fitzpatrick was right, this dude was decapitated the hardest way. I could see where the skin had stretched before tearing, and it looked like who-or whatever killed him had given things a twist at the end, judging by how the arteries were slewed around in the neck.

"Where was he killed?” I asked without looking up.

"What makes you say he wasn’t killed here?” Sabrina said as she walked up. She didn’t kneel next to me, but her pants were nicer than mine, so I didn’t blame her. Frankly, her whole outfit was nicer than mine. She was in a dark green scoop-neck top, black pants, and black sneakers with her own set of lovely booties on them. I was rocking my very finest haute couture—a pair of jeans that would probably now have to be burned, and a killer Saga T-shirt I’d found at Heroes Aren’t Hard to Find a couple weeks before. I had a long-sleeved black dress shirt hanging open doing a really mediocre job hiding the Glock under my left arm, but it was no worse than the ill-fitting suit jacket Fitzpatrick had on.

"There’s nowhere near enough blood. What’s out here, maybe a liter? That means there’s at least four, maybe five liters missing. I can’t really tell how big this guy was with his head over there. It’s screwing up my estimating. But you get my point.”

"Yes, I do. Come over here.” She turned and walked over to a dump­ster with the lid open. I followed, the coppery scent of blood get­ting stronger with every step.

"Seriously?” I asked, looking at the dumpster. It was your garden- variety industrial trash container, about five feet tall by eight feet wide, blue, with rust shining through pretty much everywhere. There was a locking bar that should have been holding the lid closed, but it was bent all to hell. One of the plastic lid sections was ripped almost completely off, hanging by a scrap of the surviving hinge. I peeked inside, and my eyes confirmed what my nose had already told me—the dumpster was full of blood.

"What the hell?” I asked, turning to Sabrina. "Your killer decapi­tated the dude in the dumpster, then yanked him out and tossed him aside. I mean, I get the metaphorical dumping him like garbage, but he was inthe garbage already!”

"I’m as baffled as you are. I’ve seen some weird shit in my time, and way more of it since I started dating you, but this one is out there.”

"Did you find anything in the bottom of the dumpster?” I asked.

"We haven’t sifted through that yet,” Sean said, giving a sympa­thetic look toward the crime scene techs. Those folks were not in for a good night.

"Can you pick up on anything that we might miss?” Sabrina asked, reminding me that I wasn’t there just for my scintillating wit.

I closed my eyes and focused on the scents around me, which was every bit as enjoyable as one would expect. Every vampire has different abilities, almost like specialties. I got a really hyper-jacked sense of smell, and I’m crazy fast. My best friend Greg is strong, stronger than any two normal vampires, and our roommate Abby is also strong, with the power of super-snark. She probably had that one when she was human, but dying and being reborn certainly fine-tuned it.

The alley was a breeding ground for scents, almost none of them appealing. I smelled the kitchen garbage from the Italian place, the cleaner scent of cardboard and plastic from the video store, and the light aroma of homeless person piss laying under everything like an acidic founda­tion. There was blood, of course, the pungent coppery scent that usually made my mouth water; instead, the toxic mix of odors killed my appetite. There was shit, and more urine, centered around the corpse, because that’s what happens when you die—all your muscles relax. There was something else, though. Something familiar, but faint, almost vague. I couldn’t tell where I knew that smell from, but it was definitely familiar. It was strongest around the dumpster, but there were hints of it around the body as well.

I walked back over to the body and knelt beside it again, trying to separate the familiar scent from the regular death and garbage smells. I closed my eyes to concentrate, but the more I tried to nail it, the more other scents kept getting in my way. The rubbery smell of the Tyvek booties. The rich tomato smell of pizza sauce, the hint of seriously good weed half-heartedly masked by cigarette smoke.

"You picking up anything?” Sean asked, shattering my concentra­tion. I glared at him, and he took half a step back, his hand drifting toward his service pistol. "Hey, hey, easy.”

"Sorry,” I said, standing up. "There’s something here, I just can’t put my finger on what it is. Did our Mr. Guenther have anything interesting in his pockets?”

"Nothing out of the ordinary. Keys to the motorcycle, thirty-five bucks, some change, a pocketknife.”

"A condom in his wallet that I think was there since Clinton was in office,” Sabrina said. "He also had a can of snuff or dip, and the ring on the back of his jeans says he carried one pretty much all the time.”

"So the cigarettes probably weren’t his,” I mused. "Any marijuana?”

"I don’t smell pot,” Sean said, looking around. "Are you sure?”

"I went to college in the 90s, and I have a better nose than you. Yeah, I’m sure. If Guenther wasn’t holding, then some of the kitchen staff have been out here on their smoke breaks.” I nodded toward the back door of the restaurant.

"I’ll interview them,” Fitz said, heading off.

"I’m gonna follow the ambulance to the morgue,” Sabrina said. "We’re in one car, and I want Jimmy to be there when Bobby does the autopsy.”

"Have I mentioned how much I love your idea of date night?”

"Shut up. It’s bad enough I just told every patrolman in the depart­mentwe’re dating. I don’t need any crap about it from you.”

"Wait. Were there any people in the department that didnt know we were dating?” I asked. It wasn’t like we’d been keeping it a secret. Or at least, we didn’t use to keep it a secret.

"I’ve been keeping it on the D.L. for a while. Since you... got some new interests.”

"I got rid of all of those interests!” I protested. "I got rid of those interests like four months ago.”

When I killed Gordon Tiram and took his spot as Master Vampire of Charlotte, I also took over his spot as a crime lord, which made dating a police detective... problematic, to say the least. I ended all my in­volvement with illegal enterprises a few months back, but apparently either Sabrina was afraid of me backsliding, or she decided she liked having some parts of her life that the boys at the office weren’t privy to, because it certainly seemed like she hadn’t been in a hurry to share our relationship with them.

"Hey,” she said, and something in her voice made me look in her eyes. "Where do I wake up every morning?”

She had a point. "Beside a sexy dead guy?”

"With cold toes, no less.”

"Me or you?”

"Both. As I might have mentioned, you’re the worst foot warmer of any boyfriend I’ve ever had.”

"But I have the absolute best fashion sense,” I said, smiling as I stood. My comic book T-shirts were a battle she had finally accepted she’d lose.

"Well, you certainly have the most comic book shirts of any guy I’ve ever dated. Now get in the car and let Bobby load the van.”

She was right. My fragile male ego could get stroked later. Right now, we had a murder to solve.



Chapter 2

I WAS SITTING ON a metal table sucking the sides flat on a bag of AB-positive when Bobby pushed the stretcher into the exam room in the basement of Presbyterian Hospital. I like to get a good blended vintage blood type whenever I can, and the Red Cross had a nice bumper crop of donations recently, so Bobby’s stash was loaded. I had to drink it cold, though. I blew up a pint all over the inside of Bobby’s microwave a few years back, and he banned me from touching it ever again. It’s not like he could stop me, but I tried to respect his wishes with regards to county property. Or city property. I can never remember which is which in the whole Charlotte-Mecklenburg thing, which is why we were under a hospital instead of in a city morgue.

"You know I ain’t had time to clean that since the last autopsy, right?” Bobby said as he pulled the stretcher over to another table. "You’re probably sitting on all kinds of fluids. I wouldn’t be surprised if you stood up with pieces of kidney stuck to your ass.”

"Don’t worry,” I said, hopping down from the table and holding up my improvised cushion. "I found this nice lab coat hanging on the back of the chair and sat on that, instead.”

He glared at me and snatched his lab coat out of my hand. "Dammit, Jimmy, if you got... hey, this is clean.” He looked up at me, confused.

"I washed down the table, man. Even dried it. You’ve only got one chair, and I didn’t want a wet ass, no matter the cause.”

He chuckled, walked over to the body, and unzipped the body bag. "Okay, you got me. Now grab this dude’s shoulders and help me get him onto the table. Don’t let the head roll away.”

I did as he asked, then stepped back and let Bobby get to work. He had a delicate touch with a scalpel, making me think he probably threw a hell of a pass before he blew out his knee and had to change career trajectories. The big man opened up the body to begin removing and weighing the organs, taking tissue samples for the lab, and performing a thorough, if quick, autopsy. There wasn’t much for Sabrina and me to do while Bobby worked, so we bounced ideas off each other and poked through Guenther’s life on social media to pass the time. I called Greg and had him dig around in the places we didn’t have access to, and Sabrina called up the victim’s criminal record.

"Huh,” she said, turning her tablet around for me to see the screen. "Check this out.” The display showed a healthy rap sheet for Mr. BradleyGuenther, age forty-two, currently deceased. He had a history of domes­tic violence, burglary, shoplifting, drunk and disorderly, and other nickel- and-dime offenses. His one highlight was a grand theft auto conviction from a New Year’s Eve about five years ago, which looked mostly like a joyride, but when paired with a DUI and resisting arrest, earned Mr. Guenther six months as a guest of the North Carolina prison system. The most recent notation was from a couple days ago, and didn’t list an arrest, just that he was a person of interest in an open assault case.

"Is there more on that most recent case? Maybe that’s what got him killed,” I asked Sabrina.

"You think he beat up the wrong person and somebody ripped his head off for it?” She tapped the screen a couple of times and dove into the investigating officer’s notes. "Says here the victim is Sherrilyn McArthur, age twenty-seven, female, and Guenther is suspected of beating her so badly she ended up in a coma with a brain bleed. Apparently she’s upstairs now in the ICU.”

"Okay, then, let’s go,” I turned to the door, but Sabrina put a hand on my arm.

"Where are you going? She’s in a coma.”

"But her entire family isn’t. I remember when I was in high school my grandmother had some kind of accident during an X-ray and they ruptured her large intestine. She was in intensive care for a week after surgery, and it was almost like a family reunion in the lobby every day. Sherrilyn isn’t going to have a dozen kids and four times as many grandkids, but she should have parents, siblings, or at least a friend or two sitting vigil for her. And if she doesn’t, that tells us something, too.”

"Fair enough. Let’s go.” She walked past me and straight through the double doors leading out of the morgue.

I turned to Bobby. "We’ll be back soon.”

He didn’t even look up, just kept on cataloging organs. "Take your time. I got at least another hour here, but it ain’t like I’m going to find out anything new.”

A couple minutes later, we stepped out of the escalator right into the ICU waiting room. There were three little clusters of people sitting in uncomfortable chairs scattered around the tiled floor. A tall man in his fifties with an impressive snow-white handlebar mustache leaned back in a chair with an LSU baseball cap pulled down over his eyes and his legs stretched out in front of him. A woman of about the same age sat next to him reading a J.D. Robb novel and occasionally reaching over to stroke his forearm.

At the far opposite end of the room was a twenty-something redhead sitting with a black couple in their late forties. The man wore slacks and a blue dress shirt, with his tie loosened and his jacket thrown over the back of a nearby chair. The woman had the rumpled and slightly shell-shocked look of someone who has been in the hospital far too long waiting for some kind of news about a loved one. Her hair was tied back in a loose nest of dreads, a couple wound with red and yellow thread. The younger woman had her face buried in her phone, her sneakers poking out on front of her without a care in the world.

In the middle of the room was the ubiquitous loud family in the waiting room, the people treating the whole ordeal as a lark, something to be "made the best of”. They were the ones I used to hate when I saw them as I visited Mike, because no matter how sick someone was, they plastered a cheerful mask on their face and gave out hugs like drug dealers give out free samples. There were half a dozen of them ranging from a pair of eight-year-old or so boys to various parent-aged folks, to one woman who looked mid-sixties. I really hoped they weren’t the ones we had to deal with.

"Let’s start with these folks,” Sabrina said, heading for the Black couple.

"How do you know?” I asked.

"Because Sherrilyn is Black, and they’re the only Black people in the waiting room. It’s no guarantee, but it makes for a good place to start.” As she approached, she held up her badge. "Mr. and Mrs. McArthur?”

The woman stood. "I’m Cynthia Morton. Sherrilyn is our daughter. This is her father, Terrence McArthur. I remarried,” she said, by way of explanation.

"My name is Sabrina Law, and I’m a detective with the Charlotte- Mecklenburg Police Department. I have a few questions I’d like to ask you about your daughter.”

While Sabrina guided the parents to the elevator and down to the cafeteria for some coffee and questions, I sat down next to the young woman. She didn’t look up, just swiped her finger up her phone’s screen as she scrolled.

"Hey,” I said, affecting a bored tone. I was hoping this would be one of the few times getting turned into a vampire at twenty-two worked in my favor. I looked a lot closer to this woman’s age than to Sabrina’s, so maybe I could get her to open up a little.

She didn’t look up, but she didn’t tell me to get lost, either, which I took as a good sign. "Hey.”

"You know her? The girl in the coma?” I asked.

"She’s my roommate.”

"Oh, shit. Sorry. That sucks. Are y’all close?”

"Yeah.” She still didn’t look up, but she wasn’t quite as engaged with her Instagram feed as she had been a moment before. "We work together. She’s a good person. I hope the cops find that asshole and put him away this time.”

"You know who hurt her?”

She looked up now. "What are you? A cop? You’re awfully young. Is this some kind of 21 Jump Street thing?”

I laughed a little. "Nah. That movie sucked. I’m just doing a ride along with my sister for a criminal justice elective.”

"You’re in school?”

"Yeah, I’m a senior at UNCC. Political science with a criminal justice minor. What do you do?” I never had any kind of game when I really was the age I was pretending to be, and I didn’t have much now, but I could make casual conversation with a pretty girl now, which is a stark contrast to mid-90s Jimmy.

And she was pretty. She had unruly red curls, pale skin, and freckles dotting her cheekbones and nose. Her hazel eyes were a little red, and there was a hint of irritation under her nose that told me she’d been crying at some point that night, and was trying to hide it.

"I work at Red Ventures. I’m a Javascript engineer. Sher works in the web development department. We met at one of those corporate mixers last year and hit it off, so when she saw on the company intranet I was looking for a roommate, she moved out of her parents’ place and in with me.”

"Cool,” I said. "Saves on gas, I guess, if you work at the same place.”

"Sometimes,” she said with a nod. "If we’re on the same schedule. If one of us has a project deadline, we never know when we’ll get out of there.”

"I don’t know anything about programming,” I admitted. "I’ve always been a nerd of a different flavor.” I pointed to the image of Lying Cat from Saga splashed across my chest.

"Hey, I like that one,” she said. "Vaughan is the best.”

"You’re not wrong,” I agreed. "I loved Y: The Last Man.”

"Sher does, too. She’s got all the hardcovers in her bedroom.” Her face fell. "I hope she’s gonna be okay. She looked real jacked up when I found her.”

"You found her?” I asked. "That must have been awful.” I was thinking to myself that should have been in the report. If it had been, Sabrina would have definitely been the one talking to her, instead of questioning the parents three floors below me.

"Yeah.” Her voice was quiet, a timorous little thing made shy by the place as well as the subject matter. "It was pretty terrible. I knew something was wrong when I got home and the door was open. I thought maybe we’d been robbed, but when I got inside, I found her. She was lying on the floor by the coffee table, her face all bruised and bloody, and her eyes closed. I called 911, and we’ve been here since.”

"You sounded like you knew who did it?” I asked after a couple moments.

Her head lifted, and I saw pure anger through the tears welling up in her eyes. "It was that dickhead scooter trash boyfriend of hers, Brad. He’s such an asshole. I’ve never understood what she saw in him. Whenever I told her he was no good, she’d just laugh and say something about going for the bad boys. I tried... goddammit.” She dashed away tears with the back of her hand.

"It’s not your fault,” I said. "We can’t save people from themselves. God knows my sis has tried to keep me from doing plenty of stupid crap, but it never works.”

"I know,” her voice was soft again, but colder, angry instead of upset. "I just want a few minutes alone with the bastard when the police find him.”

"Do they have any leads?”

She looked at me funny. "Isn’t that why your sister is here? She’s not looking for Guenther?”

I opened my mouth, trying to come up with a valid reason we would be here and not be looking into Sherrilyn’s assault, but I was saved by the bell. Or the vibrate feature on my phone, really. I pulled it out and swiped the screen to unlock it. There was a text from Bobby to both me and Sabrina.

Come to morgue.Got something.

I looked up at the roommate, realized I never got her name, and gave her a rueful smile. "I’m sorry. That’s my sis. I’ve gotta go. She got another call. Maybe it’s about your friend. Um... I hope she gets better.” I stood up and held out my hand. "I’m Jimmy. Jimmy Black.”

"Tina Neal,” she said, taking my hand automatically. "And thanks. I guess I needed to talk to somebody.”

"Glad to help,” I said, then turned to the elevator, ready to do something to help bring a killer to justice. Because killers have to be caught, even if they’re killing assholes who beat up their girlfriends. No matter how good an idea ripping Brad Guenther’s head right off his shoulders was starting to feel like.

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