In his undead quest for justice, Felix Gomez—detective vampire extraordinaire—has traveled from dusty desert battlefields, to gritty urban barrios, to the deepest corners of outer space. Now he's about to embark on his wildest adventure yet: back to an alternative past of steam-powered technology, telepathic magic, and intrigue more deadly and unforgiving than any he has ever encountered. There, he's a renowned pistolero hired to find the missing daughter of notorious Chinese gangster Wu-Fei.
Accompanied by philosopher-gunfighter Malachi Hunter and mercenary femme fatale Hermosa Singer, Felix follows clues through the reimagined Southwest of Aztlan to the Gulf of California. The fate of Wu Fei's daughter is known only to the sex slaves imprisoned on Isla Tiburón—Shark Island—the fortress home of a mad scientist whose ambitions are as twisted as her evil genius.
Getting on the island proves tough. Getting off the island proves impossible. But to learn what happened to Wu Fei's daughter, Felix must brave a gauntlet of murderous henchmen, infernal machines, and ferocious prehistoric monsters.
And don't forget the sharks.
"You'll never know what to expect, so be ready," the bartender said to me. I puzzled over what she meant, and I hoped it was an inviting tease. She handed over my check.
I was in a brewpub on Walnut Street in my hometown of Denver, Colorado. A hundred years ago the building had started life as a boiler factory, then it became a warehouse, then sat idle for decades, was converted into an artist colony, which was then swallowed by the gentrification spreading northward from LoDo like herpes. In this latest reincarnation the place was a noisy faux-dive offering local craft beers, single-malt scotches, and fancified bar food. The bartender—a Chicana prieta who did a nice job filling out her Los Mocosos t-shirt—had attracted my eye even before she took my order. I couldn't help but crank up the charm and flirt. Sure, I could've gotten into her pants using vampire-hypnosis, but that would've been the equivalent of a supernatural roofie. If I couldn't get laid using my natural charisma, then it was time to improve my social skills.
She turned to serve another customer. I read the check and felt like I'd been given a wedgie. Besides my two beers, I'd been charged with four more beers, two shots of Lagavulin, and a cheesesteak sandwich.
I beckoned her and shouted to be heard over the din of conversation. "What's this?"
"That guy said to put it on your tab." She pointed down the bar.
I scanned the line of tattooed hipsters, and they parted just enough for me to make out a familiar face. Imagine a brown, wizened mutt grinning a mouthful of yellowed teeth like he'd scored a bucket of fried chicken from the dumpster. Who else could it be but the sketchiest vampire ever? Coyote.
He raised his glass to salute me. My kundalini noir, the supernatural force that animates my undead bloodsucking form, coiled in suspicion. I hadn't seen him since our last adventure together over a year ago. We had rescued our vampire friend Carmen Arellano from her alien captors, then quelled a vampire rebellion, and frankly I was still recuperating. It's never a coincidence when Coyote shows up, so I knew he was after more than a free lunch.
"I was going to throw the bum out," the bartender said, "until he told me you were good for the tab."
I slapped my Visa card on the bar and scowled at Coyote. He kept grinning.
With the tab settled, I put my sunglasses on, made my exit, and started for my car. The bright August sun baked through my layers of Dermablend and makeup.
Just when I thought I might make it to the car, he popped from behind the corner and waited on the dirt shoulder of the street, a diminutive scarecrow in frayed denim. Strands of oily hair jutted from under a grease-stained ball cap. A wispy mustache colored his upper lip. Cheap wraparound sunglasses with a paperclip inserted into one of the temples made him look more rasquache than usual. "Hey vato, you slipped out of the bar without saying hello."
"Chale man, don't be this way."
"Coyote, every time I run into you, I get a dent in my wallet." I kept walking toward my car. He fell in step beside me. This close, he brought the tangy and sweet smell of over-ripe onions and melons.
"Life is more than money, ese," he replied.
"Says the man with no money."
"Sorry, I had to do this."
I raised an eyebrow. "You're apologizing to me for mooching?"
"No, not that ese. I meant using that ruca."
"Angelica. The bartender." He nodded back toward the brewpub. "Took some doing, también. Is costing me a big favor."
And what favor could he possibly offer in return? The guy owed me enough money to pay off the mortgage of a small condo. "You want something. What?"
"A ride, ese."
"No way am I driving you back to New Mexico."
"Oh? What happened to Rainella?" She was his most recent girlfriend. Together they shared a doublewide in the high desert south of Farmington, and their home had been the base for our last supernatural odyssey.
"Things happen, ese," he quipped and didn't elaborate. He pointed to the left. "I live a few blocks from here."
"How many is a few?"
He squinted and counted on his fingers. "Twenty-one and a half."
"Okay. I can do that." We reached my car.
He gave my silver Lexus sedan the once-over. "What happened to your Cadillac?"
"I needed a change." I palmed the remote.
But before I could press the button to unlock the car, he waved a hand and the doors clicked open. He slipped into the front passenger's seat. "This will do."
I worried that the leather seats would absorb his funk. He directed me to Downing Street, then Brighton Boulevard, and we made our way to Globeville, a tiny enclave zoned for cheap rents and light industry, bounded by Interstates 25 and 70, the railroad tracks, and the Platte River. Along the way he fished peanuts from a pocket in his denim jacket, cracked them open, munched, and tossed the shells out his window. The breeze carried at least half of the shells back into my car.
When I asked again about Rainella, Coyote turned on the stereo and increased the volume of KUVO until it was just shy of being uncomfortably loud. Obviously he didn't want to talk about New Mexico or her. Not now anyway. Maybe never.
We drove past a trailer park and down a block of ramshackle adobe shacks, which looked as forlorn as a collection of rain-warped cardboard boxes.
He turned the radio off. "Stop here."
Not surprisingly, we parked outside the most rundown of the little houses. Ribbons of discolored paint curled from the wooden door, the adjacent window frames, and the eaves. Rusted nails secured the door. Scabs of stucco had fallen loose, exposing mud bricks underneath.
Coyote cracked his car door open. "Well vato, don't you want the grand tour?"
"I got something to show you."
I kept my hands on the steering wheel.
"You'll be out of here in diez minutos. Tops."
"And that's it?"
"In, out, like you're delivering pizza."
There was a catch to his offer, but if I didn't humor him, he'd be under my feet for days.
We got out of my car. Denver's skyline peeked above the mountains of wrecks in the auto salvage yard next door. I followed Coyote along a weedy path beside the house. We ducked through a gap in the sagging chain-link fence that enclosed a barren dirt lot, littered with old tires and rusted, discarded water heaters, washing machines, and stoves.
Coyote approached the back door and grasped a steel lock the size of a coffee cup. Quite the lock to protect this dump. He blinked, the lock popped open, and he slipped it off the hasp. He pushed the door and it wobbled open, creaking and releasing a heavy musty odor.
We took off our sunglasses. I removed my contacts to take the measure of Coyote's aura. It shimmered around his skinny frame like he was wrapped in burning yellow fluff.
We entered a kitchen that was in no better condition than the exterior. Stained and warped counter tops. Cabinet doors hanging crooked or missing altogether. A set of vice-grips served as a handle for the faucet. The spigot dripped into stagnant dishwater. The linoleum floor felt spongy beneath my feet. A spray can of Febreze rested on an empty shelf, lying on its side like it had surrendered.
Coyote continued to the darkened front room and further into his dilapidated labyrinth. Sunlight filtered through gaps around the plywood in the windows. The ceiling drooped in places where the roof had leaked. Mushrooms grew in random patches on the carpet. The edges of their caps shined purple in the gloom.
A coffee table rested in the middle of the room, between a threadbare sofa and a vinyl recliner patched with duct tape. Candles, tin cans, bottles, a small tattered book, and a chipped, ceramic bowl decorated in a Southwestern motif sat on the table. A clutter of more items rested beneath. The book looked like a vintage-style diary, a hardback with the covers torn off.
I said, "You might want to clean this place up before the homeowners' association files a complaint."
"Vato, laugh all you want. But if I told you what I pay in rent, you wouldn't believe me."
"You're right. I don't believe that you pay rent at all."
"Speaking of rent." He tapped his trouser pockets. "I'm a little light this month."
"Seriously, you pay to live here?"
He stared at me, his aura sizzling in a low burn.
"You really don't need rent money, do you?" I asked. "You're squatting here, right?"
"If I was squatting, don't you think I'd choose a classier place than this?"
He pruned his lips. "Okay, you got me. I need feria."
"You could work."
"Would you hire me, ese?"
"Good point," I replied. "Before I hand over any cash, tell me why we're here."
Coyote sat cross-legged on one side of the table. He motioned that I sit opposite him.
"I have a job for you," he said.
"What kind of a job?"
"Algo bien diferente. Y muy importante." He flipped through the book, showing me dog-eared pages filled with scribbles and sketches. "This has everything you need to know."
I reached for the book, but he pulled it away. "It's not for reading."
My brow furrowed. "Then what good—"
"Vato," he interrupted, "you're thinking too linearly." A glowing spot lifted from his aura and hovered inches above his head. The spot spread into a horizontal line that resembled a length of sputtering neon. The line wiggled and shook, made loopy curves, then shrank back into the dot, which plopped into his aura. His demo did little to enlighten me.
"Explain," I said.
"El dinero, por favor," he replied.
I counted two Jacksons from my wallet and dropped them on the table.
He looked the money. "Kinda light, vato."
"That's all you're going—"
He palmed the bills into a shirt pocket. "So-kay. You can owe me." Without elaborating about the book he centered the bowl between us. He sprinkled crushed leaves and powder from the tin cans into the bowl. Next he plucked mushrooms from the carpet and gathered them on the table to mince with a pocketknife. As he sliced and diced, the pieces crackled and emitted purple sparks. After whisking the mushroom pieces into his other hand, he dumped them in the bowl. He dug a chrome cigar lighter from his pocket and used its blue flame to set a corner of the book on fire. Its pages darkened and crinkled. He dropped the book into the bowl and jabbed at the burning pages with a long wooden spoon.
I traced the flight of embers lifting from the bowl, watched them float about the room, expecting the carpet and sofa to start smoldering. "Other than setting this place on fire, what are you trying to do?"
"Patience, vato, patience." He spooned the pages until they crumbled into ash. He doused the fire with liquid he poured from two of the bottles. I smelled mescal and goat's blood. He stirred the soupy mix until it stiffened into a fist of black, smelly dough. Reaching into the bowl, he scooped a handful of the mixture and mashed it with both palms like he was making a mud pie. Then he rolled it between his hands. Pieces fell back into the bowl. He held one hand open and showed that he had fashioned something the size and shape of an almond. The thing began to squirm like a maggot.
I didn't know if he had conjured the disgusting thing or it had been buried in the mix. "The hell is that?"
He rose to his knees and leaned toward me. "Remember Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan?"
"Remember that part when Khan planted a mind worm in Chekov's ear?"
My kundalini noir zinging in panic, I flinched from Coyote.
But too late. He reached across the table and snagged my hair with his free hand. For a five-hundred-year-old vampire who was as scrawny as his namesake, he was surprisingly quick and strong. He slapped his other hand against my left ear and jammed the maggot into my ear canal. Once he let go I jumped to my feet and bolted backwards.
Extending a talon from my fingertip, I tried in vain to dig the wiggling, disgusting creature free. But it had burrowed too far and kept worming deeper and deeper. I spun in circles, stomping my feet, yelling, "What did you do, Coyote, you crazy bastard!"
The maggot reached my eardrum, and as it pushed through, the pain was like getting my head skewered by a red-hot poker. I fell and thrashed on the carpet, screaming and rubbing my ear.
The pain ebbed and I lay on my back, gasping, and followed the path of the maggot as it crawled through my brain. It inched behind my eyeballs, pushing them against the front of their sockets. I pressed my hands over my eyes, horrified that this thing might eat its way through them.
"Coyote," I hollered, "I am going to skin you alive!"
"Don't panic, ese. Everything in that book is now in your memory."
"What the hell are you talking about?" The image of the maggot crawling through the folds of my gray matter had me cringing in terror.
"Hold on." He lifted me by the hair into a sitting position and smacked the back of my head. The worst sinus pain of all time flooded my cranium. He cupped my nose and again smacked the back of my skull.
"Blow your nose," he ordered. "Blow!"
I closed my mouth and blasted air through my nose. A gooey ball descended from my nostrils. Coyote pinched my nose and withdrew his hand, slimy with snot. I saw him brush his fingers over the bowl, and the maggot tumbled in.
I wiped my nose with the tail of my shirt, relieved that the pain had eased and the maggot was out. But I still shivered with disgust from the phantom sensation of the squirming horror crawling through my brain. Coyote uncapped a small red fuel can, splashed kerosene into the bowl, and lit it. A flame whooshed to the ceiling.
I watched, blinking. "You're going to torch this place for sure, cabron loco."
Coyote crouched beside the table and slapped his hands over the bowl. "Come here quick."
"Now what?" I kept my distance.
Smoke seeped between his fingers. "Hurry, get over here, pendejo. Before I lose it."
He glowered. "Just move your hairy nalgas. Ya!"
I crawled to the table. He lifted his hands and released a puff of smoke. He grabbed the back of my neck and pulled my face into the malodorous vapor.
"Breathe it," he demanded. "Breathe it."
I sucked in a deep breath. The acrid smoke burned my throat, and I curled into a ball, choking and coughing.
"We did it, vato," Coyote said, relaxing. Fire darted about his fingers and he rubbed them on his jeans to put out the flames.
"Did what?" Too woozy to sit upright, I collapsed against the floor.
His face loomed over mine. "Sent you on your way."
"My way? Where?" I mouthed the words but they faded from my hearing.
Coyote's face dissolved into a Cheshire's Cat grin floating in the gray haze. "Someplace close and faraway."
"To do what?" My body felt untethered, weightless.
He mumbled an answer, but all I caught was a whisper at the end. "You'll never know what to expect, so be ready."
"What does that mean …"