Man in Black

Man in Black
John G. Hartness

August 2016 $14.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-707-6

The Black Knight Chronicles, Book 6
 
Our PriceUS$14.95
Code978-1-61194-707-6
 
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The latest book in the award-winning Black Knight Chronicles is a raucous ride through the city of Charlotte’s seedy underbelly with the most unlikely crime lord ever.

Jimmy Black’s knack for stumbling into the right place at the wrong time has landed him his dream job or worst nightmare—Master Vampire of the City.

Almost everyone that works for him wants him dead.

His best friend isn’t speaking to him.

His girlfriend is now his ex-girlfriend.

And the Vampire Council has appointed a watchdog who’ll decide if he lives past Thursday.

He has a kidnapping to solve, monsters and demons to fight, and a whole new crime empire to figure out.

Then there’s Lilith . . . .

Join Jimmy as he tries to put his (un)life back together and stay alive long enough to save the world. Again.

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Excerpt


Chapter 1

"THIS PLACE SUCKS,” I said, looking around the marble-and-glass monstrosity that was my new office. "It feels way more Game of Thrones than any place I want to hang out. If I’m gonna be the new Master of the City, we should totally redecorate.” And the first order of business was going to be a new chair. Something leather, maybe with a back massager built in. Anything but this iron-and-wood refugee from a George R. R. Martin novel that I was sitting in.

"Yeah,” Abby agreed. "At least a throw rug or something. Of course, after tonight’s festivities the whole stone floor thing looks like a pretty good idea.”

She had a point. There was a lot of blood on the floor. Abby had left a couple pints in a puddle where she fell after I stabbed her, and I felt pretty sure that I had left at least a unit of my own strewn around the floor, windows, and ceiling. Then there was the headless corpse of Gordon Tiram, former Master Vampire of the City and former occupant of the ridiculously uncomfortable chair I was sitting in. Seriously, I thought the chunk of broken marble column Abby was perched on might hurt my ass less.

"Yeah, so what do we do about all this mess?” Abby asked.

"I dunno,” I replied. Both my usual options were kinda out the win­dow. "In the past I’ve either called Tiram or Lilith.”

"And you just killed one of them, or I did, if we want to get technical about it.” That was Tiram, who Abby had taken out while I distracted him by running my face into his fist a lot.

"And the other one wants to rip my head off and carry it through town on the top of a flagpole.” That would be Lilith, the other super­natural criminal mastermind in town, an immortal woman of indeter­minate power and spectacular attributes who once had carnal knowledge of Adam. That Adam. She’d seen some stuff, and had a chip on her shoulder the size of a continent. Lilith had been the mastermind behind my confrontation with Tiram, and when Abby killed him, she was perfectly happy to be the power behind the throne and run Tiram’s empire through Abby and the sluagh that possessed her.

I screwed up her plans by "killing” Abby in single combat and banishing the evil spirit inside her with my magical sword, which I wasn’t quite ready to come out and callExcalibur, regardless of the fact that it was a gift from the Queen of Faerie, who told me that’s what it was. Yeah, it’s been an interesting couple of years, to say the least. And topping it all off was tonight, when I became Jimmy Black, Master Vampire of Charlotte, NC. My mother would be so proud.

"Yeah, Lilith was pretty pissed when she left.”

"I think it was more than a couple centuries ago when anybody surprised Lilith like I did tonight,” I said. "That calls for a beer.”

"And where do you plan to get a beer in the middle of the night, covered in blood, at the top of a high-rise office building in downtown Charlotte?”

"I have no idea,” I said. "Maybe if I yell loud enough, a beer will just materialize. BEEEEEEERRR!” I yelled at the top of my lungs.

"Any brand in particular, sir? Or should I simply bring you one of everything in the refrigerator?” A cultured voice came from behind me and to my left. I sprang off the throne, grabbing my sword, and turning to the newcomer. Out of my peripheral vision, I saw Abby leap to her feet as well, picking up the concrete pillar she’d been sitting on and brandishing it as a weapon.

I stopped as I saw a slight vampire in a tailcoat standing before me. His hair was plastered back with enough pomade to hold up in a tornado, and he wore a very carefully trimmed goatee. He stood maybe five and a half feet tall and topped the scales at a buck-thirty soaking wet. His wire-rimmed glasses, wing tips polished to a blinding gloss, and, no-shit, white cotton gloves completed the ensemble of perhaps the least threatening soulless, bloodsucking monster I’d ever seen.

I leaned Excalibur against the throne and sat down. Even as tired as I was, unless this little fella was a two-thousand-year-old ninja vampire, I figured I was pretty safe. Abby obviously decided the same thing, since she put her chunk of architecture back on the floor and re-took her seat.

"Who the ever-loving hell are you, and how in the world did you sneak up on the both of us?” I asked.

"My name is William, and I have served as the personal assistant to the Master of this territory ever since the Council saw fit to establish a seat here in the Carolinas. I will guide you through the process of assuming Mr. Tiram’s leadership role in the undead community and assist you in whatever fashion you deem most suitable.”

"So you’re, like, my personal assistant?”

"Yes.” The little guy was almost painfully stiff, and his British accentwas still thick, even after all these years here in the States, but he seemed trustworthy.

"Does that make you my minion? I’ve always wanted minions.”

"Better him than me,” Abby grumbled from her seat.

"I’d never think of calling you a minion, Abby. Besides, yellow isn’t your color.”

"Not since your bitch of a vampire mommy gave me the freakin’ gift of death. Now I look like I have a liver condition whenever I try to wear yellow.”

I turned back to William. "Do I have any other minions, or is it just you?”

"Mr. Tiram had a number of employees that I helped to oversee, suchas accountants, housekeepers, security personnel and the like. I am the only one of Mr. Tiram’s employees that was fully aware of the entire scope of his activities. I am also the only vampire in his employ, although there is one werewolf on the personal protection team. He doesn’t think we know. It’s quite cute, actually.”

"So... what do I do? As Master of the City, I mean. Do I just beat up other vampires that cross into my territory unannounced and that sort of thing?”

"You are ultimately responsible for the lives and livelihood of every creature within your territory, from human to ghoul. You are to insure that any supernatural threats against their welfare and well-being are dealt with, often with extreme prejudice. You are to make sure that the more unruly of our supernatural brethren are kept in line, and above all, you are to avoid any visibility in the mundane world.”

"What about the protection rackets, bespelling the police depart­ment, subjugating the Morlocks, and all the other disgusting things Tiram did?” I asked.

"You are a very young vampire. Mr. Tiram was a very old vampire. Your opinions on the treatment of individuals is colored by the time in which you lived. I expect that should your leadership be approved by the Council, you will be a very different Master from Mr. Tiram. I also expect that those very differences will be much of the reason that you will find it difficult to get approval from the Council to take over the vacant seat.”

"Wait, what?” I asked. "There’s no vacant seat. I’m sitting in it. Literally. See? My ass is right here on Tiram’s uncomfortable chair. Nothing to approve, I’m the boss. Right?”

"Not exactly,” the diminutive vampire said. "While you did defeat Mr. Tiram in single combat, after a fashion,” he looked at Abby, who suddenly became very interested in the tops of her shoes, "there are still certain protocols to be observed within the Vampire Council before you can be allowed dominion over an important outpost such as Charlotte. This city is a critical way station for undead travel along the Eastern seaboard, not to mention the importance of the banking community here to laundering the money for many illicit organizations. This is not the slash-and-burn days of old where might was right and sat the throne. Oh, no, sir. Territories are big business, and as such, the Council will be sending an evaluator to determine your worthiness to rule. If the evaluator decides that you are fit, then you will be appointed the Master of the City. Until then, you can live in Tiram’s apartments, access his accounts, even participate in the management of his businesses, but it will all be on a temporary basis.”

"And if this evaluator decides that I’m not fit?” I asked.

"You’ll be executed, and the Council shall appoint someone to serve as Master. Most likely the evaluator himself. That is how Tiram was granted dominion of the Carolinas territory many years ago. He was the evaluator when the last Master was slain by an upstart vampire. Tiram came in, evaluated the vampire, determined that he was not fit to rule such a large and important territory, and destroyed him. Tiram went on to rule this territory for well over a century.”

"So the Council is going to pick somebody they think would be a good Master, then send them over to see if Jimmy’s good enough? And if this evaluator thinks he’d be a better Master than Jimmy, they’ll fight for it?” Abby asked.

"Yes.” William replied.

"So any vampire with any ambition will always say that the guy in place is unfit and try to kill him,” she continued.

"So it would seem,” William said.

"Fair enough,” I said. "Evaluator gets here, I kill him, move right along.”

"Actually, that would be considered inappropriate by the Council and could result in severe reprisals,” William said with a raised finger.

"More severe than getting killed?” I asked.

"Yes,” William said, and there was no question at all in his voice that there were things much worse than death.

"Great,” I said. "I’ve always loved tests.”

Chapter 2

I LOOKED OUT over the city a few days later, wondering if this was really my new place in it—above it all, looking down like some medieval lord. I kinda wanted to bounce things off Greg, but my ex-partner and ex-best friend still wasn’t speaking to me since I let our other best friend die instead of turning him into a vampire. And I couldn’t call Sabrina Law, my—I guess now—ex-girlfriend, because she kinda decided I was nuts during the whole "assault on Gordon Tiram” thing. That left Abby to talk to, and despite the fact that we looked the same age, there were a couple decades between us, and she still looked at the world through twenty-year-old eyes. So I stood there, looking out the heavily tinted and UV-proof windows, watching the city colors turn from stone grey and asphalt black to neon and LED brilliance as the last rays of sunlight dipped below the windows.

Then my phone rang, and I turned to where it lay on Tiram’s desk to grab it. I still didn’t think of it as "my” desk, or my office, especially since there was the specter of an impending Council vamp visit, which would decide whether this was actually my office to keep. I wasn’t sure I wanted it, honestly. Running a whole city? That was a lot to lay on a guy whose biggest decision a couple weeks before centered on whether to wear the Batman T-shirt or the Green Lantern one.

I looked down at the phone display and saw a number I didn’t recognize. I slid my finger across the screen and brought it to my ear. "Jimmy Black,” I announced.

"Black, this is Lieutenant McDaniel, CMPD. Do you remember me?”

Remember him? Of course I remembered him. He was the mojo’d cop that I threw down with right before I killed Tiram. He was also my I-don’t-know-if-she’s-my-ex-girlfriend’s boss, and one of the few cops who knew much about the supernatural world, so if he was calling me, it was probably bad news for somebody.

"I remember you, Lieutenant. What can I do for you?”

"I have a case that I may need your specific expertise on. Would you be available to come down to the station and consult with me?”

I wasn’t exactly accustomed to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department asking me to do anything, so I paused for a moment before I shook myself and answered. "Sorry about that, Lieutenant. Yes, I can come down and give you a hand. Can I get any details on the case?”

"Not over the phone. I’ll give you all the info face-to-face. How quickly can you be here?”

"Ten minutes.

"I’ll leave word at the front desk. Just go in and ask for me.”

"Will do—” but the line was already dead. "William?” I said to the empty room.

"Yes, sir?” The assistant’s voice came from behind me seconds later.

"One of these days I’m going to find out how you do that.”

"I doubt it, sir. What can I do for you?”

"Still no word from the Council on when my hall monitor is going to get here?”

"Nothing yet, sir. But I do wish you’d take the evaluation process a little more seriously. I’m growing to enjoy your company and would hate to see you decapitated and staked out on the roof of the building to meet the sunrise.”

"That makes two of us. I have to go to the police station. Do we know where Abby is tonight?”

"I believe her words were ‘going for takeout,’ sir. I assume that means something to you?”

"Yeah, it means she’s hunting. I guess I’m solo on this one.”De­spite being a member of a phone-obsessed generation, Abby had a bad habit of leaving her phone turned off when she was hunting. Maybe it was because everybody she used to text and tweet thought she was dead. Well, she was, but they thought that meant she couldn’t Facebook like a normal person. Little did they know.

"Yes, sir. Should I bring a car around?”

"You say that like I have more than one.”

"For the time being, you have access to Mr. Tiram’s entire fleet of automobiles which includes some truly impressive vehicles, I understand. I do not care for the machines myself.”

"Huh,” I said. "I’ll have to check out my wheels later. For now I’ll just walk it. It’s only a few blocks.”

I GOT TO POLICE headquarters in just a couple of minutes. Tiram’s build­ing was on the north end of downtown, so I jogged the distance in less time than it would take to find a parking space and gave my name to the desk sergeant.

"Hi, Jimmy. You can follow me.” I turned to see Detective Michael Nester waiting for me. Nester looked good in his plain clothes, the result of a promotion he’d picked up working a case with me and Greg back when we were on speaking terms and Black Knight Investigations was more than just a website and an email address nobody ever checked.

I fell in behind Nester as he led me through the halls of HQ. "What’s going on, Mike?”

"I can’t really say, Jimmy. This is the lieutenant’s show, and he’ll have me back on traffic duty if I talk out of school. But I do think there’ssomething spooky going on, at least as far as I can tell.”

We made a couple more twists and turns, then Nester opened an unmarked door and held it open for me. I stepped through the door and came face-to-lovely-face with Detective Sabrina Law, my ex-girlfriend (I think) and the one person in Charlotte who least wanted to see me right then.

"Hi, Sabrina,” I said. I tried to make eye contact, but she wouldn’t look at me. I guess that answered the question about the "ex.”

"Good-bye, Jimmy,” she replied and pushed her way past me into the hallway, slamming the door and leaving me alone in the room. Seconds later I heard McDaniel’s voice. I didn’t have to try to overhear. I’m a vampire; super-hearing is just part of my life.

"No way, Lieutenant. I’m done with that bloodsucking bastard and all this crazy shit. You saw what he did to the SWAT team last week. Hell, what he did to you. He has no regard for human life or well-being, and I do not trust him. Especially if the reports we’re hearing about him taking over Tiram’s seat are true.”

"That is exactly why I want him in here, Detective,” McDaniel said. "He’s dangerous and unpredictable, but we’re better off with him dangerous, unpredictable, and ours, rather than working with somebody else. I need you on this one, Law. The politics are delicate, and Black’s big mouth is more trouble than his fangs have ever been. All I need is him to crack one stupid joke at the wrong time for this whole thing to fall apart.”

I was a little offended. Then had to admit to myself that McDaniel was right. I do have a tendency to only open my mouth to change feet, and I’ve spent a lot of the last few months letting Greg and Sabrina do the talking while I do the punching and shooting. With neither of them around to watch my mouth for me, I was probably going to need a minder.

"Let Nester babysit,” Sabrina said. "He likes Black, and after the kidnapping case when Nester made detective, he actually feels indebted to the son of a bitch.”

"Fine,” McDaniel said. "I’ll put Nester on this assignment, but you owe me, young lady.”

"Yes, sir.”

I listened as her feet clomp-clomped away down the hallway. I heard McDaniel take a deep breath then open the door. He took the chair opposite me, and Nester came in and stood by the door, looking at me like he wasn’t sure whether he was supposed to want this gig or not.

"Gee, Lieutenant, that was exciting. What’s next? You gonna arm wrestle detectives for the privilege of working with me? Loser gets stuck with me, of course,” I said, pulling out a chair from the table and sitting down. I propped my feet up on the table and laced my fingers behind my head. "Now, what’s the case? Must be pretty spicy for you to call me.”

McDaniel walked over to the table and swatted my feet onto the floor. He leaned down and put a finger in my face. "Look here, Black. I don’t want to deal with you any more than you want to deal with me. I’m pretty sure I’ll forgive you as soon as all my bruises fade, but we’re not there quite yet. In the meantime, there’s something going on with this case, and I need you to help me close it. Fast.”

"Is this the part where I apologize for kicking your ass or the part where I remind you that you were mojo’d into trying to kill me by an evil vampire, and I not only didn’t kill you, I didn’t do any permanent damage. AndI haven’t tried to put the whammy on you or anyone in your department since I took over Tiram’s gig. I’m not saying you should be grateful to me for anything, but I am saying that I don’t owe you a damn thing, and if you want my help, you might want to stop talking to me like I’m something you scraped off the bottom of your shoe.” I never raised my voice, never got out of my chair, just leaned forward and looked McDaniel in the eye. I could tell from the look on his face that he got it.

McDaniel sat down opposite me again and slid a blank folder across the table. Nester took the chair to my right, and I opened the file. The first thing I saw was a picture of a pretty teenaged girl. She had long brown hair, an orthodontically perfect smile, hazel eyes, peaches-and-cream complexion, and a gold cross on a chain around her neck. The photo was a standard school photo, taken at some private school with a navy sweater as part of its uniform. The school logo was cut off in the picture, but I could see some piece of a Latin motto.

The next photo was a printout of a cell-phone picture, and it was the same girl in different circumstances. She was wearing the same sweater, along with a skirt and black tights. She was in her stocking feet, and her hair was mussed, like she’d been in a fight, and her lip was split. She wore a fierce expression and dirt on her knuckles. I revised my earlier impression—she had definitely been in a fight. She held a copy of today’s newspaper and a TV in the corner of the frame showed this morning’s CNN.

"A kidnapping?” I stared at McDaniel. "Isn’t this automatically kicked up to the feds?”

"Not this one. Not yet. I have the father’s cooperation as well as his reluctance to involve the federal authorities.”

"Oh, balls,” I groaned. "Who is it?”

"The girl is Cassandra Owen, only daughter of Marcus Owen, owner of Owen Imports, Owen Manufacturing, and several restaurants and nightclubs around town.”

"And the biggest, baddest mob boss North Carolina has ever seen,” I finished for him.

"Right now we are not discussing anything Mr. Owen may have been accused of in the past. We are treating him just like any other distraught parent.”

"And he’s right outside, isn’t he?” I focused my attention on the other side of the door and was able to distinguish two heartbeats standing still, waiting for McDaniel to call them in. "Go ahead, bring Owen and his lawyer in,” I said, waving my hand at the door.

McDaniel opened the door, and in walked a man with a sense of presence like nothing I’d ever experienced. He did nothing out of the ordinary, but from the second he stepped through the door, the room was his. Marcus Owen stood around six feet tall, probably a little over two hundred pounds, but he moved with the grace of a much smaller man. His brown hair was cut short, but professionally. No flyaway for this guy. He wore a pin-striped suit with a vest and watch fob. An hon­est-to-God, no-bullshit watch fob in today’s world. I’ll admit it: I was impressed.

Owen walked into the room and looked around like he was surveying an empire. This wasn’t a man who demanded respect, or anything else. This was just a man who you respected. He moved with the quiet self-assurance of someone who knew exactly who he was and what his place in the world was. Everything about him was confident and collected, without a hint of the emotional turmoil he must have felt. This guy had his shit together, and I felt even less impressive than normal in comparison. I sat up a little straighter in my chair, like a kid about to meet with the principal.

Owen’s hazel eyes missed nothing, taking in McDaniel, Nester, the case file on the table, and settling on me. I could tell I wasn’t exactly what he was expecting from whatever McDaniel told him I was, probably a "consultant,” since that’s what they put on my checks. I was in my usual outfit of clean-ish jeans, a blue Mary Janes band T-shirt, and a long-sleeve black overshirt. Owen came in and stood across the table from me.

"Are you the man who’s going to get my little girl back?” With that question, everything changed. He wasn’t the crime boss who could order people disappeared with the snap of his fingers. He wasn’t the drug kingpin with ties to every major street gang in the city. He wasn’t the murderer, extortionist, blackmailer, money launderer, and evil mastermind he was painted to be. In that moment, he was a father whose little girl was missing, and he was asking me to help with his heart in his eyes. There was the turmoil I was looking for, the humanity behind the crime boss. This guy was a terrified father. This guy I could help.

I motioned to the chair in front of him. The second heartbeat was a lawyer with a thousand-dollar briefcase and two-thousand-dollar suit. He pulled out his boss’s chair, and Owen sat. I sat across from him, with Nester at my elbow, a yellow legal pad at the ready. The lawyer took a spot next to Owen, and McDaniel sat at the end of the table.

I turned to McDaniel and pointed at the cameras in the corners of the room, up by the ceiling. "Lieutenant, I need your word that those cameras are turned off and there are no other recording devices or listening devices in this room. For me to do my job, Mr. Owen must feel completely comfortable with me, and our conversations may stray into some areas that he wouldn’t normally discuss in your presence.”

"I assure you, Mr. Black, we are all here for the same reason—to get Mr. Owen’s daughter back,” McDaniel said, and butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth, he sounded so innocent.

"That’s not what I said, Lieutenant,” I pointed out.

"There will be no recordings of anything said in this room,” McDaniel assured me with a glower.

"I like you,” Owen said. "You got balls. Now how you gonna get my Cassie back?”

"First, you’re going to give me a list of everyone who wants to hurt you. Then we’re gonna cross off all the ones that are too scared of you to try this. Then we’ll cross off the ones that are too small-time to even think about something like this. That should leave us with a pretty short list.”

"And what do you do with the people on your list?” Owen asked.

"I ask them all very nicely if they have Cassie. When I find the person who has her, I ask them nicely to let me take her home. Then they do that.”

"And what if you ask nicely and they don’t respond politely?” Owen leaned forward, his elbow on the table and his fingers steepled under his chin.

"Then I have to ask them in a less than nice manner. People don’t refuse when I insist,” I said.

Owen laughed and leaned back in his chair. "You don’t look like much, Black, but if you managed to edge out Gordon Tiram, then you must have something going for you that I can’t see. And honestly, I don’t care how you do it, I just want my little girl back.”

"I’ll do my best, Mr. Owen,” I said, opening the file.

He nodded. "Of course you will. That’s why Perkins here will be with you every step of the way.” He gestured toward the lawyer.

"No, thank you,” I said politely.

"I wasn’t asking,” Owen said, and this time I heard the steel in his voice that probably had grown men wetting themselves at the sound. I was way past being smart enough to scare.

I stood up and walked to the door. Owen stood up, too. "Where you going?” he asked.

"I’m going home,” I replied. "I don’t work with threats or with bullies, Mr. Owen. If you want my help, we’ll work together. If you want to bully somebody, bully your lawyer. He’s getting paid enough to take it.”

"Wait,” Owen said, reaching for my arm. I caught his forearm and let him feel the strength that he was playing with. I didn’t pour it on or anything, just let him know that I was a lot stronger than I looked, and that he wasn’t going to be able to force me to do anything.

Owen looked up at me, and I felt like he really lookedat me for the first time. He looked beneath the ratty T-shirt and jeans, beneath the goofy hair, and looked at me like an equal. "I’m sorry,” he said, releasing my arm. His whole tone was different. He was no longer the bigshot crime boss used to having everyone jump at his every whim. Now he was just a dad with a missing daughter, who would do absolutely anything to get her back. "Please help me.”

I went back to my chair and sat down. I opened the file and looked at Owen. "Now, let’s get to work.”



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