“Dahlia Moss is back for another mystery in The Astonishing Mistakes of Dahlia Moss, out today from Orbit books!
“Max Wirestone’s Dahlia Moss series is described as, “Veronica Mars meets the World of Warcraft,” so you can see why we’re a bit excited about the second book’s release today, following October’s The Unfortunate Decisions of Dahlia Moss. We think you might like it, too, so we’ve got an exclusive excerpt from the new book to share with you today!”
FROM “THE UNFORTUNATE DECISIONS OF DAHLIA MOSS”:
The only time I ever met Jonah Long he was wearing a fake beard, a blue pin-striped captain’s outfit, and a toy pipe that blew soap bubbles. He did not seem like someone who was about to change my life.
“I have a proposition for you,” he told me. Admittedly, that does sound like the kind of thing a life-changing person might say. It’s right up there with “It’s dangerous to go alone—take this!” and “You are the chosen one.” But a plastic bubble pipe really takes the edge off this sort of thing.
It was a nautical-themed party, which partly explained his ridiculous outfit. I thought he was hitting on me. “I’m in a non-dating phase,” I told him. Not entirely true, but I repeat: bubble pipe.
“A financial proposition, Dahlia.”
I had no idea who he was. I was irked that he knew my name, but it was clear from the way Charice was hovering over him that my roommate was involved. She was wearing an oversized mermaid’s outfit that made her look faintly seal-like—especially with her mugging at me as Jonah spoke. Eh? Eh? I felt like I should throw a fish at her.
But really, what could I do? I had seventeen dollars and twenty-three cents in my bank account at the time of this exchange, with less in savings. I could only use ATMs that dispensed tens. Despite my correct sense that Jonah was (1) ridiculous and (2) trouble, at the phrase “financial proposition,” he had my undivided attention.
“Come into my office,” I told him.
I didn’t have an office, to be clear. Actually, this is a good time to come clean on all the things I didn’t have, just to get them taken care of, right up front.
Things Dahlia Moss Did Not Have:
- a job
- an internship
- cheerful prospects of finding a job
- a reliable car
- supportive family members
- any skill or experience as a detective
Honestly, that’s just hitting the highlights, but I feel they look less depressing as bullet points. Still with me? If you are, you can’t say I didn’t warn you.
Anyway, no office. What I did have was a room—or more technically, Charice’s room, which she let me sleep in for free.
“Quite a place you’ve got here,” said Jonah.
He was referring to the fact that there were no decorations of any kind, just cheap, misshapen furniture and blank beige walls. This is what happens when garage sales keep you afloat.
“What’s your financial proposition?” I asked, gesturing for Jonah to sit in a sagging director’s chair while taking the luxury of the folding bed for myself. At business meetings, I had read, it was best to take the position of power, although I doubt a folding bed is what Forbes had in mind.
I could tell that Jonah was getting serious, because he took off his beard.
“I want you to recover the Bejeweled Spear of Infinite Piercing.”
This is the kind of statement that makes one pause, and it is especially the kind of statement that makes one pause when it immediately follows a debearding. First, the debearding: It was like one of those teen movies where the ugly girl takes off her glasses and is revealed to be a bombshell. Except that here we were moving from community theater sea captain to J.Crew model, which I would argue is a greater distance.
“The Bejeweled Spear of what?”
“Infinite Piercing,” said Jonah solemnly.
“How can something be infinitely pierced?”
Jonah was not interested in this sad and overly literal question. “It’s been stolen from me, and I want you to recover it.”
“Maybe an earlobe shaped like a Klein bottle?”
But earlobe-based math puzzles were not why Jonah was here. “Don’t get lost in the weeds,” he said. “The important thing is that the spear was mine, and I want you to recover it from the thief who stole it away from me.”
And here Jonah looked deeply satisfied and proceeded to blow bubbles from that damned plastic pipe. The noise was appealing, but it looked ridiculous.
It bears mentioning that this was not the first ridiculous boy that Charice had funneled through our apartment. Charice specialized in ridiculous, and so I got guests not unlike Jonah with relative frequency. They didn’t usually have quests for me, but I’ve seen lots of strange birds pass through. Charice favors odd theme parties that just sort of happen, like flash mobs. Literally, I’ve gone to the bathroom for a span of time and come back to find three people dressed like vampires in our sitting room. My general strategy for dealing with Charice’s parade of guests was to treat them as a sort of living theater. Occasionally, they were.
“All right, fine. Tell me more about the spear,” I told him, only half holding back a sigh.
“It’s an item from the Kingdoms of Zoth,” said Jonah.
Ah. Now I saw where we were going. It still didn’t make sense, but I could at least recognize the general destination. I waited for an explanation from Jonah, not because I didn’t know what the Kingdoms of Zoth were, but because I had hoped that he would imagine I was the sort of person who didn’t know what the Kingdoms of Zoth were. He didn’t. Ah well.
Zoth is an MMORPG. That’s Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game. One of those computer games with a million people playing at once. In this case, imaginary avatars dressing up in knights’ armor and parapets and killing griffins—that sort of thing.
The truth is, I knew quite a bit more about it than that. Zoth was a niche game—there are other, bigger games you’ve probably heard about. World of Warcraft, or EverQuest, or The Lord of the Rings Online. Those were games that had commercials on Hulu. Inviting, easy-to-learn. Zoth was a game for the hard-core. There weren’t commercials, because they didn’t want everyone playing. This game was for the serious, for the connoisseur. For the type of detail-oriented guy who would put together an elaborate and expensive sea captain’s costume, complete with bubble pipe.
“You want me to find a stolen item from an imaginary world?”
“Not imaginary, Dahlia. Digital. These are entirely separate things.”
The conversation had gotten weird, even given my usually high standards. To recap: A man dressed as a sea captain had sneaked away from one of Charice’s nautical-themed parties and wanted to hire me for detective work in a video game. There were countless reasons to question this proposal. And even blinded by the prospects of an ATMable sum of money, I found a couple of them myself.
“Why hire me for this? Surely you can find someone more qualified.”
Jonah clearly had been anticipating this question, because he answered in a smooth and curiously rehearsed way. “Oh, I think you’ll do. I’ve heard that you’ve played Zoth yourself. And that you have some experience working for a detective agency.”
That last bit was very carefully phrased. I wondered who had fed him the line and had to assume it was Charice. “Some experience working for a detective agency” is technically true if we understand that “some” means two days and “experience” means answering the phone as a temp. I explained this to Jonah, who did not seem to regard my confession as a revelation.
“It’s immaterial,” Jonah told me, “because I’ve already got everything all worked out. I already know who took the spear.”
My grandmother used to say that there was nothing worse than trust-fund kids with plans, and I find myself thinking of her now as I type this account. Jonah had both in spades, although at the time I understood neither the depth of his wealth nor his designs on me. I just thought I was being presented with a suspiciously well-wrapped package. Emphasis on “suspiciously.” But who were we kidding; I was a pauper, and I needed the package.
“What is it, exactly, that you would like for me to do?” I asked with a glimmering notion that this was the sort of question a drug mule might pose.
“I want you to meet up with the thief and shake him down.”
I was looking at Jonah, and he was clearly making the sort of face that Satan makes when he’s on the cusp of adding a new soul to his collection. There I was, watching the mischievous gleam in his eye and thinking this was surely some kind of trap, but I couldn’t escape the gravitational pull of money. Jonah could sense it too, because he volunteered details on payment without my even asking.
“One thousand dollars, right now. Another thousand after you’ve met with the thief. That’s my offer; take it or leave it.”
One thousand dollars buys a lot of ramen. Things had gotten so rough for me in the past few weeks that I had to walk to job interviews because I could not afford the bus. There was no choice here, not really.
“Well, Jonah. You just bought yourself a detective.”
Jonah handed me an envelope.
“Open it,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. The kind of sparkle you’d find on Santa’s face. Or a mental patient’s.
I opened it. It was brimming with twenties. One thousand dollars in twenty-dollar bills. Hundreds would have been more sensible, but the weight of the twenties made me feel rich, and I suddenly couldn’t stop smiling. I don’t know if it was Jonah’s intent, but nothing quells skepticism like money.
“There’s a note as well,” said Jonah.
And so there was. When I got over my euphoria, I discovered a small sheet of paper folded into thirds. I unfolded it and read the message.
What comes around goes around.
I recognized the font, a serif that screamed high fantasy while only whispering legibility, as being from Zoth, and so I asked:
“I am,” said Jonah. “Level-sixty human thief at your service.”
“Someone sent this to you after the spear was burgled from your account?”
“Exactly,” said Jonah. “I can see that you are just the person for this sort of thing.”
There was something patronizing in his tone of voice that I frankly should have wondered about, but I had made one thousand dollars in five minutes, and for that price I would take the patronage. Instead, I found myself wondering who would steal a spear and then leave a snarky note. It could only increase the risk of getting caught, and for what? A punch line?
“So you want me to figure out who Revenge is?”
“I know who Revenge is. His name is Kurt Campbell. I think you’ll like him; he’s very charming.”
This was kind of a non sequitur, but I let it slide.
“How do you know that he stole your spear?”
This was a question Jonah had wanted me to ask, because his answer was another of his prepared speeches.
“Up until three weeks ago, he was my roommate and classmate, but through a series of entanglements”—and here Jonah put particular emphasis on the word—“Kurt lost his place in our graduate program. Following that, he lost his job, his income, and from there it was a short trip until I asked him to move out. He did not take it well.”
I was more than a few months behind in rent, and I hoped Jonah did not know that I was living on Charice’s largess.
“You aren’t hurting for money,” I said, gesturing to my envelope of twenties. “You don’t need a roommate to contribute to rent. Why kick him out?”
“Oh,” said Jonah, bored. “The principle of the thing.”
“We’re not talking drug addiction or something ugly here?”
“Ho, ho, ho,” said Jonah, which was an incongruous laugh for someone in a sea captain’s costume. Even beardless, one expected some sort of yarr. “No, Kurt’s not that sort of guy.”
“How did he lose his job and his spot in school in one fell swoop?”
“Entanglements,” said Jonah.
I had somehow known that’s what he was going to say.
When I was a second-grader, my older brother, Alden, was deeply into Dungeons & Dragons, and talking to Jonah suddenly reminded me of Alden’s stories. He would design these elaborate adventures and was so desperate to have someone play with him that he would occasionally try to make me fit the bill. I loved playing—I always idolized Alden, plus the game had horses—but I never seemed to go where Alden wanted me to. He’d present me with a quest, and rather than killing the dragon, I would linger about the princess’s castle. He’d always get all clammy on the details whenever I was somewhere he hadn’t planned on me being. What’s the throne room look like, Alden? I don’t know… gray? Is there a banner? I guess. What does the banner look like? It’s also gray. Are there pictures of flowers on it? No. But when you went to where Alden wanted you to be, you were drowning in description.
The roommate losing his job was a gray banner in a gray room. So I did what I had done with my brother. I tried to figure out where he wanted me to go.
“So,” I said. “You ousted your roommate, and you think that he stole some bauble from you in Zoth as retaliation. Was anything else stolen?”
“No,” said Jonah. “Just the spear.”
“Did you play Zoth with Kurt?” Surely yes. I had played Zoth only a little, and the idea of breaking into someone’s account and stealing something of value seemed daunting. How would you know what had value? Oh, the Bejeweled Spear of Infinite Piercing sounded impressive enough, but Zoth was one of those games in which everything sounded impressive. You’d load Truesilver Arrows of Unerring Path into your Wildwood Bow of Goblin Striking while sipping on Improved Plumberry Tea of Mana Replenishment. This was at level two.
“We played together, yes. He was part of my guild, the Event Horizons.”
“A very techie name for Zoth, isn’t it?”
“The guild migrated over from Martian Chron—”
“Who else is in your guild?”
And Jonah suddenly got rather sharp with me. At the time I assumed that it was because I had interrupted him. “The guild is not important,” he said, his voice suddenly loud. And then he returned, just as suddenly, to his previous cherubic mood. “What I mean to say is that you do not need to trouble yourself with the rest of the Horizons. It’s Kurt you should be interested in.”
Given that Jonah had just given me one thousand dollars, it seemed wise to stay off topics that made him raise his voice.
“Kurt knew that the spear was important to you.”
“Well, yes,” said Jonah, pleased that we were back on track. “But everyone would have known that. Zoth has more than a half million players, and there is a single spear. Think about that.”
I did think about it, and it did not impress me very much. But I was not a Zoth person.
“How did Kurt steal it from you?”
“He took it from my computer,” said Jonah hastily. “The machine remembers my password, so if you have access to it, you have access to my account. But that’s not important either.”
And again, the effect was like being shuttled through one of Alden’s games. Look at that, not this. Nothing down that hall, silly girl. Investigate the dragon.
“How about you tell me what’s important.”
“The important thing is dinner.”
Dinner was never the answer in Alden’s games, that’s for sure.
“As in, what comes after lunch?”
“Yes. The dinner that you’re going to tomorrow. I’ve arranged for you to meet Kurt tomorrow at a nice restaurant. He thinks that he’s meeting me. But he won’t. He will meet you.”
“And I will…?”
“You will tell him that I know that he took the spear. You will inform him that I have hired you as a private detective to ensure its recovery. And he will fold on the spot. Then I’ll give you the second thousand dollars, and it will be the easiest money you ever made.”
It all seemed impossibly dumb to me, but I was reminded of another of Grandma’s sayings: A fool and his money are a golden opportunity. If Jonah was handing out cash for purposes as silly as this, I might as well benefit.
But he was wrong about it being the easiest two grand I ever made. For one, Jonah hadn’t known about the Modern Woodmen of America scholarship, which was an easy two grand indeed, if a little hard to reproduce.
For another, he would never live long enough to give me the second thousand dollars.
After Jonah left, I took a moment to count the twenties and inspect that it really was American currency and not some sort of gummy candy money. Something had to be off—money doesn’t just fall out of the sky like that—but I couldn’t put my finger on anything that was actually a problem. On the face of it, Jonah was some rich kid who’d been fed a line about my detective skills and was caught up in the romance of having his own private eye. But even as I failed to rub the ink off the money he’d given me, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something greater was happening.
I took the bills and placed them inside my copy of Northanger Abbey. If I was going to be stolen from, I could at least take consolation from knowing that the thief liked Jane Austen. And then I crept back into the party.
I generally avoided Charice’s parties, despite living among them. I was never one for parties, and I was especially against them since I had entered my long, dark era of unemployment. My parents, whom I would describe as sharklike real estate people, encouraged the idea, suggesting that Charice’s gatherings were a good place to “network,” but I could never stomach the “What do you do for a living?” questions, which are hard to take after thirteen months of failed job interviews.
I ventured out now. Guests in sailor suits danced while a woman pecked out the theme to The Love Boat on the marimba—which is to say that things were just getting started. Charice was making drinks for a boy who, from the looks of it, had dressed as flotsam. Even if my parents had been right about my needing to get my name out there, it’s hard to know what you’ll gain by networking with flotsam.
I passed by the driftwood and headed straight to Charice. I didn’t turn any heads, which is good, because I felt underdressed. This is a Dahlia Moss superpower. With my “quiet girl at the library” look, I am genetically suited to not being noticed at parties. In my best moments, I think I look like Carmen Sandiego, with long wavy brown hair and sunglasses and a fedora. Setting aside the fact that I don’t wear a lot of fedoras. In my worst moments, I think I look like Roz from Monsters, Inc., but maybe everyone thinks that.
“Did you put Jonah Long up to that?”
“No,” said Charice. “Put him up to what?”
The question must have taken her by surprise, because it was not in Charice’s nature to deny involvement with anything. Most of the time, this was simply because she was involved, but even in the rare case that she wasn’t, it wasn’t like her to just say no. More often you would get a raised eyebrow and Mona Lisa smile, suggesting that she was possibly involved, even if she didn’t know precisely what you were talking about.
Charice was the head-turner at parties, by the way. I like to think of Charice as a jolie laide, which is my way saying that I don’t really understand why men constantly throw themselves at her. She’s not really—a jolie laide is supposed to have a “flaw” that somehow makes her more beautiful, like a big nose that’s somehow entrancing and perfect. Or snaggle teeth. Or alopecia, although you see that one a lot less. But I couldn’t tell you what Charice’s flaw was. She looks like Peppermint Patty, but grown up and with 0 percent body fat.
I parried her question for now, but I knew that I would have to answer her eventually. “How well do you know him?”
Charice poured a sludgy red substance into a pink plastic cup and slid it over to me. “Drink this. It’s my special mix.”
Despite some long dark nights of the soul caused by Charice’s special mixes, I gave the sludge a swig. It was just the sort of terrifying combination of fruitiness and liquor that I expected.
“How well do you know Jonah?” I asked again.
“Not well. He came to my Seed Time party a few months back. Great fun, but I never saw him again. A shame, because he’s a good person to have around at parties. A gentleman of leisure.”
I remembered that party. Charice had been inspired by Harold and Maude and sent people in teams to plant saplings all over the city. I remembered two biologists getting into a fistfight over a cactus, but I couldn’t recall Jonah at all.
“What you mean by ‘gentleman of leisure’? He’s rich? What do his parents do?”
“His parents don’t do. They own. A pharmaceutical, I think. Anyway, he called me last week and asked me if I had any parties coming up. I told him about this one, and he showed up in that fantastic outfit. I thought we were in for a grand time.”
“He only wanted to speak to you, Dahlia. He was barely here before he went into your room, and when he came out he bailed on me altogether. What did you do, punch him?”
“He gave me one thousand dollars.”
Charice considered this. “I didn’t realize you would turn out to be such a high-class hooker.”
I noticed that flotsam boy was taking quite an interest in our conversation, and I brought my voice down to a whisper. “Charice, he hired me to be a detective. You didn’t feed him lines about how I worked for an agency last year?”
“No,” said Charice, her face practically splitting in half with delight. “A detective? That’s the best thing I’ve ever heard.”