Be careful walking along the Columbia River on a clear, moonlit night.
There just might be a werewolf, a vampire, a witch or even a river monster lurking nearby.
But for those occasions when the supernatural creeps into the homes and onto the streets of Kennewick or Richland, the Tri-Cities also has its very own version of a superheroine -- Mercedes Thompson, the tough, sexy, tattooed, shapeshifting Volkswagen mechanic featured by novelist Patricia Briggs in her best-selling book series.
Thompson, known as "Mercy" to her friends and family, has battled her way through hordes of the undead, the magical and the things that go bump in the night in five novels since 2006, two of which hit No. 1 on the New York Times fiction bestseller list.
The character takes on a few new challenges -- not the least of which is marriage to the Tri-City werewolf pack leader -- in Briggs' sixth novel in the series, which hits shelves Tuesday.
Fans have bought more than a half-million of the Mercy Thompson books. And around 300,000 of her 11 other novels published since 1993 have been sold.
The new novel, River Marked, finds newlyweds Mercy and Adam on their honeymoon at a private riverfront campground near Maryhill, but the couple's bliss quickly is shaken as they take on a legendary evil that's stalking the locals -- and takes Mercy on a journey toward understanding her own past and her Native American heritage.
Briggs' book tour
Briggs, who lives near Benton City, will kick off an eight-city tour celebrating the book's release at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Hastings Books Music Video & Coffee in Richland.
From Richland, she will embark on a weeklong whirlwind through Chicago, Washington, D.C., Minneapolis, Houston, San Diego, Seattle and Portland.
She has additional Tri-City appearances scheduled March 26 at The Bookworm stores in Kennewick and Richland, according to her website at hurog.com.
She also has been invited to attend Comic-Con International in San Diego in July as a guest, which is a pretty big deal for anyone involved in the science fiction and fantasy world.
For those not in the know, urban fantasy is a literary genre in which authors infuse elements of the paranormal, fantastical or supernatural into contemporary, real-world settings -- Stephenie Meyer's uber-popular Twilight series, for example, which drops vampires and werewolves into the real town of Forks.
While Twilight is written for young adults, Briggs' books are very much for grown-ups. Mercy Thompson is a woman in her early 30s coping not only with being a shapeshifter who turns into a coyote, but also the struggles of operating her own business -- a garage specializing in Volkswagen repairs.
"I made her a mechanic because I figured she needed grounding," Briggs said. "Jobs provide tension in real life. She needed a job where if she didn't go in, she didn't get paid."
Mercy's garage is based on a real place in east Kennewick that Briggs frequented for years to have her own Volkswagens repaired.
The garage used to be Buckner's Volkswagen Parts Exchange, but the name was changed to The Bug Shack when current owner Mike Harvey bought it in 2006.
Harvey said he hadn't heard of Briggs or her books when he bought the place, but during the past few years, more and more customers have mentioned that The Bug Shack is the template for one of the prominent locales in the series.
"It's really exciting," Harvey said. "It gives the place a certain sense of nostalgia now. The shop already had character, but now it really has character. I will have to dive into the books for sure."
Loaded for action
At least one of Harvey's employees also is eager to read the books, now that he knows he works in one of the settings.
"It thought it was pretty neat," said Charlie Sampair, a Bug Shack mechanic whose wife, Melissa, is an avid fan of the books.
Sampair's wife sent a copy of Silver Borne -- the fifth Mercy Thompson book -- to work with him Thursday to get signed when she heard that Briggs would be dropping in on the shop.
"I have been thumbing through it," he said, holding the paperback. "It's a grabbing book. They're actually pretty neat."
He joked that he comes to work ready to tangle with werewolves. Sampair has a concealed weapon permit, and said he carries silver bullets for his gun because of scary stories his grandfather told him when he was a young boy.
"It's just in case," he said with a laugh.
The shop isn't the only piece of Buckner's garage that made it into the books. Briggs said she also based one of the main supporting characters -- Zee, the Fae mechanic who is Mercy's friend and mentor -- on Floyd "Buck" Buckner, who owned the garage before his death in 2005.
But these are no Disney fairies, and Zee is no Tinkerbell. All of the supernatural people in Briggs' books have sharp, dark edges, which is one reason why Briggs said she is very careful about basing her characters on real people -- she doesn't want friends or family members to see something reflected in the pages of her books that they might not like.
"What I see in a person doesn't necessarily mean that's what the person really is," she said. "I take bits and pieces and shake them up really good. I don't know any real vampires, sad to say."
She also shakes up real Tri-City locations to come up with composites that feel uniquely local and real, but without exposing her friends to having fans show up on their doorsteps.
While she might mention that a character lives in a Richland "alphabet home," built during the 1940s for the first Hanford workers, or in a particular neighborhood, Briggs said she doesn't use real people's homes or shops.
"I feel like it's not fair to have horrible things happen at real places," she said.
But she does use public places such as Howard Amon Park or the Uptown Shopping Center or, in the latest book, the Maryhill Museum and Stonehenge replica near Goldendale.
"I am a fantasy writer and here we have a replica of Stonehenge, petroglyphs, pictograms, all this really nifty stuff," Briggs said. "I just couldn't resist any more."
The hidden Tri-Cities
River Marked is the first of the Mercy Thompson books that isn't set primarily in the Tri-Cities -- a location Briggs told the Herald is a perfect setting for her brand of urban fantasy.
"As an outsider coming in, and then living here off and on for 15 or 16 years ... one of the things I love about the Tri-Cities is we're often blind about ourselves," she said.
She said Tri-Citians sometimes see the area as homogenous and conservative, but she looks around and sees tremendous diversity.
"You can walk in the mall and hear Russian, Laotian, Spanish and French," she said. "We have Native Americans coming in. It is a very diverse population, but we all live together, and we're pretty happy about it."
She said that diversity lends itself well to having all sorts of supernatural creatures hiding in plain sight.
"If we can fool ourselves into thinking we live in this conservative, white-bread community, we can certainly fool ourselves into not seeing the vampires or the werewolves or the Fae."