Archive for January, 2012

6. A Mother’s Love

“I can’t wait.” Death smelled of cut lemons and tarnished metal. “We can finally start our afterlife together – ”

Marla resisted the urge to knee Death in the crotch, but she did disentangle herself from his embrace and push him away. “We’ve been over this. I’m not eager to shuffle off this mortal coil yet, and like you always say, the rest of my long and natural life is just a drop in the bucket of eternity, and all that – you promised you wouldn’t rush me into an early grave.”

He held up his hands, rings twinkling in the light from the brass chandeliers. “I’m not! I have no hand in this at all, darling. But there are forces gathering against you, and, well… while there are no certain futures, there are certainly likely ones, and it doesn’t look like you’ll live to see the new year here in the upper world.”

“Huh.” Rondeau turned to Pelham. “So, if your mistress dies, what happens to you? Do you, like, crawl onto the funeral pyre? Or serve her in the afterlife like an unlucky Egyptian servant?”

“The bond is broken by death.” Pelham wrung his hands. “But – but surely – ”

“Surely for sure.” Marla crossed her arms. “Who’s coming after me, Death?”

He sighed. “I’m not certain. I can tell when someone is going to die – or when they’re likely to die, though the possibilities have always proliferated rather wildly for you – and gradually those lines of probability narrow into certainties. Your death is… increasingly likely. I know some other people who will almost certainly die with you, in the same place, around the same time. Perhaps that might give you a hint?”

“Shoot,” she said.

“A witch named Nicolette,” Death said. “And, ah… your brother, Jason.”

Marla whistled. “Both of them? They don’t even know each other.”

Death shrugged. “Perhaps not yet, but they will probably die within half-a-dozen yards and a few minutes of one another, and your odds of lasting long beyond their demise are quite slim.”

Marla nodded. “But now I know about the threat. That changes the equation, right? Forewarned is forearmed and all that.”

Death spread his hands, and gazed down at the rings. The gems glowed faintly in various colors, from sky-blue to the red of strawberry wine to a necrotic pulsing black. He slowly shook his head. “Here, in this physical form, I have only limited access to my full powers, but from what I can see… . No, sorry. Your knowledge doesn’t change things substantially. Oh, the place and time, those have shifted, but death is still rushing toward you. None of this is written, nothing is ordained, but… you don’t need to believe in fate to know a dropped billiard ball is going to hit the floor. It’s simple physics. Objects are in motion, and it is possible to chart the trajectories of those objects, barring outside interference.”
“Like someone kicking the billiard ball through a window.” Marla rounded on Rondeau. “You! You’re supposed to be my seer. Haven’t you been having any crazy prophetic dreams? Bradley used to have visions if I was about to stub my toe!”

“Bullshit,” Rondeau said. “Anyway, I take way more opiates than Bradley did. I’ve had a few of those dreams, the prophetic ones, and they’re cryptic as fuck and scary as hell. I don’t like them much. Is it any surprise I pop some downers before bedtime?”

Marla sat down on the padded stool behind the counter, happy to put a slab of oak between herself and the Walking Death. She stared at the rippled windows of the bookshop, and after a moment, she smiled. “All right. Okay. What’s my timeline looking like?”

Death reached into his vest pocket and tugged on a chain. Marla expected a pocketwatch, but instead, he pulled out a small hourglass, filled with white sand, and held it up to the light. Marla rolled her eyes. “An hourglass? Really?”

“There’s nothing wrong with tradition. I should show you my scythe sometime. I’d say you have… three days? Perhaps a week? It varies, there’s some slippage, so it could be a bit more, or a bit less.”

“Around Hallowe’en, then?” Marla said. “Isn’t that a little, I dunno, over-the-top?”

“For a witch’s duel? Someone has a taste for the classics, anyway.”

Marla cracked her knuckles methodically. “All right, then. I get the general idea. Nicolette and Jason both have reasons to want me dead. I figure this is a revenge thing, kick me when I’m down, then keep kicking me until my insides come out. I don’t know how they got together, or will get together, or whatever, but I’ll roll with it. I can make plans.”

“Mrs. Mason,” Pelham said. He glanced at Death. “Or, er… Mrs. Death?”

“I believe my wife would prefer to keep her own name,” Death said.

“She would. What is it, Pelham?”

“Forgive me for saying so, but… you seem almost pleased at the prospect of your imminent demise.”

“Nah,” Rondeau said. “She’s pleased at the prospect of a fight. Aren’t you?”

She reached under the counter and took out a Samoan war club, three feet of intricately carved black wood curved at the end like a blunt hockeystick, the whole thing heavy as a sledgehammer. “Beautiful, isn’t it? A kahuna over on the Hana side asked me to help out with a ghost problem, and gave me this as payment. I haven’t had a chance to hit anybody with it yet. I don’t know that I could bring myself to use it on Jason, despite everything he’s done… but I could sure as shit split Nicolette’s skull with this.”

Death sighed. “I hate it when you get all bloodthirsty. It’s unbecoming in a queen of the dead.”

“I’m not dead yet, loverboy.” She put the war club away. “Thanks for the heads-up about my imminent demise. But while I’m alive, I’ve got a job to do, which is why I called you here in the first place. There was a wave-mage named Ronin. Somebody cut his throat and let him bleed out into the waves. His cohort want to know who did the deed. Divinations don’t turn up anything, and Rondeau even summoned an oracle that couldn’t help us. The killer has whipped up some kind of big obfuscating magic – but I figure you can just pop in on the dead guy’s private hell or heaven and ask him who cut his throat, right?”

“I’ll do almost anything for you.” Death leaned across the counter, bringing his face close to Marla’s. “But the price is a kiss.”

“What would she have to pay to get you to kill Nicolette and Jason before they come after us?” Rondeau said, and just grinned when Marla glared. “What? It’s worth asking.”

“We have an agreement,” Death said, glancing at Rondeau. “I will do nothing to hasten Marla’s demise… but I will not intervene to delay it. This life of hers is important, of course, but from my point of view, it’s all just… prelude.” He looked back at Marla. “The underworld is dull without you. The place could use – ”

“If you say ‘a woman’s touch,’ this is one woman you’ll never touch,” Marla warned. Death chuckled, and Marla leaned in and planted a quick kiss on his lips.

“Would it be so bad, spending eternity with me?” Death murmured.

“I’ll be honest,” Marla said. “It’s not the thought of being dead that bothers me. It’s the thought of being beaten.” She shook her head. “You wouldn’t want to spend eternity with me if Nicolette manages to kill me. That’s one bad mood that would never end. Hell would become a genuinely unpleasant place with me in charge.”

“You’ll be a good queen.” Death stepped away from the counter. “It’s a shame the qualities that make you worthy to stand beside me also serve to delay the time until you do. All right. I’ll check on this – Ronin, was it? I’ll be in touch when I find out something.” He ambled across the room, opened a door in the corner, and stepped through, shutting the door after him, whereupon it turned into nothing more than a slanted shadow.

Marla grinned at Rondeau “There. That’s a detective-type thing to do, right? Working informants, using sources, all that stuff? I rule at this.”

“I can’t believe you married Death,” Rondeau said. “How do you not mention that?”

“Probably because it leads to conversations like this one? So what do we do with the rest of the afternoon? I can’t do much about this investigation until I hear back from, ah – ”

“Your DH?” Rondeau said. “That’s what the happy homemaker types call it on the internet – ‘dear husband.’ Or ‘dead husband’ I guess in this case.”

“Go swim in a shark tank.” Marla looked up at the ceiling. “I should prepare for the attack that’s coming, too, but… well. Back in Felport I’d call the seers and sibyls, I’d tailor the pattern recognition sensors on the border guardians to look for Jason and Nicolette, I’d put all the snitches and street kids on alert… but what the hell do I do here?”

“Well,” Rondeau said. “Death says your brother is coming. So maybe, I don’t know… call him?”

Marla snorted. “You want me to reach out to Jason? Are you forgetting he shot you?”

“He did worse than that – he used me, said he’d teach me to be a con artist, said I’d be part of his crew, and then tried to kill me as soon as I got a little bit inconvenient.” Rondeau shook his head. “But he’s still your family. If nothing else, calling him up is an unpredictable thing to do, right? An unlikely thing? Some of that, what do you call it, lateral thinking, it might shake up some of the paths of probability your DH was talking about.”

“It’s not like I even have Jason’s number. He had a cell in Felport but it was a burner, he tossed it – ”

Pelham cleared his throat. “Mrs. Mason, if I may… there is an intermediate connection you might exploit.”

“Who? I don’t know anybody who knows Jason. Nobody alive, anyway. Cam-Cam is dead, Danny Two Saints is dead – ”

“Mrs. Mason,” Pelham interrupted. “I meant that you could call your mother.”

Marla put her head down on the counter and brought out some of her choicest curse words, the ones she saved for special occasions.


When they’d reunited after their long estrangement, Marla’s brother Jason had told her their mother was dead, passed on years ago from cirrhosis of the liver, leaving behind an inheritance of exactly jack-shit. He’d used that news to both guilt-trip Marla into some family bonding and as a way to scam his way into becoming the beneficiary of Marla’s own last will and testament, acting on the mistaken impression that she was a rich crime boss. After Jason’s treachery was revealed, Marla realized nothing he said could be trusted, including the potential life-or-death of her mother, so she’d made some discreet inquiries. It turned out Gloria Mason still lived in the same shitty trailer in the same shitty Indiana town she always had.

Marla remembered her childhood phone number just fine. The voice that answered was smoke-roughened and way too old, but it had an aggrieved and peevish tone she recognized instantly: “What?”

“Nice to talk to you too, Mom,” Marla said.

“You got a wrong number, girl.”

“Don’t hang up!” Marla shouted, glad she’d sent Rondeau and Pelham out of the shop. Making this call was hard enough. “It’s me, mom. It’s Marla.”

A long silence, and then an inhalation that probably involved a cigarette. “Well, well. What kind of trouble are you in?”

Marla gritted her teeth. Her relationship with her mother wasn’t the only reason she’d run away from home before turning sixteen, but it had been in the top five. Gloria Mason had been a roadhouse beauty with a string of drunken boyfriends, and as soon as Marla hit puberty, her mother started to view her with a combination of distrust, suspicion, jealousy, and entirely unhealthy competition. “No trouble at all. Just… thought it was time I got in touch.”

“After nearly twenty years? Isn’t that sweet of you, to remember the woman who gave birth to you and kept you clothed and fed. I just naturally assumed you were dead, murdered by some psychopath the first night after you ran away. Nice of you to call and set my mind at ease.”

“I sent money,” Marla said. “A few times.”

A laugh. “Did you now? Jason told me he was the one who sent it.”

Of course he did. “He ran away too, you know”

Her mother’s voice was patient, and as condescending as a god talking to a wayward worshipper. “No, dear. He told me he was leaving. He kissed my cheek and gave me an address where I could reach him. He moved away. That’s not the same thing. I guess all this time you’ve just been confused about the difference. So now you know you should feel bad. I’m sure you’ll get right on that.”

Marla leaned forward in the chair, resting her forehead on the smooth wooden surface of the desk. She’d rather kick a hellhound than do this, any day. “You’re right. I’m sorry. I was young, and stupid, and ungrateful.” And you were an evil bitch who was either willfully blind to the way your boyfriends groped me, or who thought I deserved it, or who thought I wanted it. But saying that wouldn’t get her what she wanted, so she didn’t. “Listen. I ran into Jason a few months ago. That’s why I’m calling – I’ve been thinking about family.”

“Blood isn’t much, but I guess it’s something. So this is just a call to catch up? Let me know whether or not I have any grandbabies?”

“No babies here.”

“Learned to keep your legs closed, did you?”

Marla had to literally bite her tongue to keep from saying something nasty – I was a virgin when I left home, no thanks to the efforts of your thousand asshole boyfriends. She almost hung up the phone, and her hands started to shake, but she took a deep breath and powered through. “I… we should talk. Try to get past this… all this time and distance between us.”

“You abandoned this family.” Gloria’s voice was cool and poisonous. “Now you think you can make one phone call and get back on the Christmas card list?”

“I have to start somewhere, don’t I? And like I said, I saw Jason. We were supposed to get together again recently, but I got sidetracked and couldn’t make it, and now the number I had for him doesn’t work. Do you have a way to reach him?”

A long silence. “I see. This is about money, isn’t it? Jason always was a soft touch, he’ll probably even give you some, the fool boy.”

“It’s not about money,” Marla said. “It’s… more a matter of life and death.”

Another harsh laugh. “His, or yours? I can tell you which one I’d favor. Never mind, never mind. Give me your number. I’ll call Jason and tell him you’re trying to reach him.”

Marla rattled off Rondeau’s cell number – no way she was giving her mom one of her numbers, and they could always throw Rondeau’s phone in the ocean later. After performing an exorcism. “Thank you. I know I wasn’t the easiest daughter in the world, and this means a lot.”

“You were plenty easy, and don’t think I didn’t notice. I’m glad this means something to you. It doesn’t to me.” There was a click as she hung up the phone.

“That went well,” Marla said to the empty office.


Marla was crap at waiting, and she had nothing to do but wait – for Death to get back in touch, and for Jason to call her back, assuming her mother even tried to pass on the message. So she locked up the bookshop and went out out onto Front Street. She walked down a couple of blocks, then crossed to the ocean side, going down a short flight of steps next to a mediocre cheeseburger restaurant with spectacular views. Just like that, she was on the beach, and what a beach: pale sand, views of the sea, sailboats, and the island of Lanai, that last partially obscured by clouds. A far cry from the bay of Felport, with its iron-gray water fizzing and sloshing with pollution by the shore, and the scraggly wooded islands farther out. Marla would never admit to liking this view better than the one in her old city – but she could grudgingly admit it was lovely enough in its way, even if she was sick of looking at it by now.

She took off her boots and stood in the surf, gazing at the leaning mast of a dead sailboat that had been reefed a few score yards out and abandoned years before. “I know how you feel,” she told the boat.

“And how’s that?” The voice was cheerful enough, but so unexpected that Marla reached for a knife before turning her head.

A shirtless, athletic Hawai’ian man wearing knee-length blue shorts and rubber sandals sat down in the sand next to her feet. A long black ponytail, bound with colorful elastics along its length, hung down between his shoulderblades, straight as a plumb line. He was somewhere north of twenty and south of fifty, but Marla had trouble pinning his age down any more precisely than that – his face was young, but something about his calm dark eyes suggested they’d seen a lot of things over a lot of years. He looked up at her, smiling. “Will you sit and talk with me?”

Marla sat. “Have we met?”

“We have now. My name is Reva.” He offered his hand.

She didn’t take it. “I’m Marla.” She didn’t get any whiff of bad crazy off him, or any intimation of power, either – which meant he was either an ordinary man, or strong enough in magic to hide every trace of the uncanny.

“Oh, I know. I told Glyph and the others of his tribe about you. How’s the job going, by the way?”

“I shouldn’t discuss an ongoing investigation.” She looked him over. “Glyph told me a god recommended me.”

“Yes.” Still calm. But crazy could be very calm under certain circumstances.

“Reva’s your name? Can’t say it rings a bell. I’ve heard of Pele, and Lono, and Uli, and – ”

“Oh, they’re all much greater than I am. I’m the sort of god only a hipster could love – so obscure, almost nobody’s ever heard of me.”

“I always thought the big gods were sellouts anyway. So what exactly are you supposed to be the god of?”

“I was the god of a little island in the Pacific, far from here – far from anywhere, really. Not many people lived there, but there were enough inhabitants to kindle me into specificity, to expect the local power to have a mind and a personality, and so draw me into being. I lived a simple life of storms, and fishing, and births, and deaths. But, alas… my island sank.”

“Wait, what? You mean sank? Like Atlantis?”

“Atlantis was a great city. My island was little more than a village and some trees. But, yes. It sank. That happens sometimes. Volcanic activity. Earthquakes. Land rises, land falls.”

“Huh. So all your worshippers died?”

“Oh, not that many. Most just left. Islands don’t sink overnight. They departed, and left me behind. I found myself a genius loci with no loci, or no worshippers anyway.”

“Isn’t that a death sentence for a god?”

“Eh. Not necessarily. Belief is a factor in the birth of gods – some gods, anyway, sometimes. Others seem to exist because the universe needs them to exist. Those gods were around before there were people, though they’ve come to resemble people more and more over the years, at least in some of their aspects. I mean the big gods – sea gods, storm gods, like that.”

“The god of death.”

Reva nodded. “That’s another one. But smaller gods, yes, we emerge from raw magical power, taking on specific forms based on the beliefs and expectations of our worshippers. But that belief just starts us going, like crumpled up newspapers are used to start a fire. After it’s started, the fire can continue burning long after the original source of fuel is gone – as long as it can find something else to keep it going. So, with my home and original purpose gone, I had to find another niche.”

“And more worshippers to consume, oh burning bush?”

“All right, the fire metaphor was ill-chosen. I do not consume my followers. Nor do I look for sacrifices. Since I became a wandering, displaced god, I became the god of wanderers and the displaced. Exiles, and the homesick, and the expatriate. I’m the god of people who aren’t from around here – wherever ‘here’ might be.”

“Uh-huh. No offense, but I don’t get a real godly vibe off you.” Marla squinted, letting Death’s gift of true seeing fill her. The man before her wore no illusions – he was just what he appeared to be.

Reva nodded. “Good. That means it’s working. When I come to a place, I like to take on a shape that conforms to local norms – this body is perfectly human and quite unremarkable here, as it should be, even though I made it from dust and sand and dead animals and sea salt. Everything is just atoms, after all, and it’s trivial to assemble the atoms this particular way. Just be glad I didn’t appear as a loudmouthed middle-aged sports fisherman instead. That shape would fit better on the Big Island anyway.”

“Yeah, okay, whatever. I’m not in the market for a new god, anyway, so you can take your pitch elsewhere.”

“Oh, Marla Mason. You’ve lost heart, haven’t you? Lost your purpose, along with your home. A man once told me, ‘a person needs a purpose like a car needs a driver.'” Reva rose, brushing sand from the seat of his shorts. “I’m already your god, Marla – because you are an exile, and far from home. I’m not asking for worship or tax-deductible donations. Just know that, when I can, I help my people.”

“What makes you think I want your help?”

“I know you don’t want it.” Reva began to walk south along the shoreline, and called after him: “But I also know you need it.”

Marla watched him until he was just a speck in the distance, then flopped back on the sand to look at the sky and the clouds. Maybe he really was a god. She’d met enough of them, more than most people ever did – maybe some god-stink had rubbed off on her, attracting others.

Someone cleared his throat discreetly, and a flash of anger rushed through Marla. Godsdamnit, couldn’t she have a few minutes alone to contemplate her mortality and think about who she might have to kill to stay alive? And what she’d do with herself if she did manage to survive? And if it was even worth bothering to survive?

“What is it, Pelham?” she said, calm as calm.

“Your husband appeared in the grocery store where Rondeau and I were shopping. He is now waiting at the bookshop.” Her valet paused. “He told me to let you know he has bad news.”

“Of course he does. Why ruin a perfect streak?”

5. The Bad Doctor

Let’s leave Marla and her friends for now, and take a few moments to talk about Dr. Leda Husch.

You don’t know her? There’s no reason you should; she’s not alive, exactly, and will never die, though she often wishes she had. For many years now Dr. Husch has run the Blackwing Institute, a hospital of sorts for mentally ill sorcerers, located a bit outside the city of Felport, Marla Mason’s old holdfast. Marla and Dr. Husch have had their disagreements, but they were essentially allies, and business associates, and occasionally even friends — as two strong women with difficult jobs, they had certain things in common, after all. But shortly before Marla’s exile, something very bad happened to Dr. Husch. Her assailant was a woman from another universe — a woman who was only in this universe because of something Marla did, a certain selfish act that ripped a hole in the fabric of reality and let bad things cross over, specifically a bad thing called the Mason. But you know about her. She sent a lot of people your way, didn’t she?

The Mason did a great deal of damage on her rampage through this reality before Marla stopped her, but the only damage that concerns us just now is what happened to Dr. Husch:

The Mason tore her to pieces. Literally. Small pieces. Hundreds of them.

For most people, being dismembered so thoroughly is fatal, but as I mentioned, Dr. Husch isn’t exactly alive — she’s a fully sentient and self-aware homunculus, created long ago by a powerful sorcerer, and as such, she cannot die. Though she was ripped to shreds, she retained awareness throughout her ordeal and the aftermath. She was later reassembled by a biomancer named Langford, and she — oh, but listen to me, going on and on. Better to show you.

While Marla is investigating a murder in Maui, back on the mainland a pair of people are on their way to meet Dr. Husch, and they should suffice for our introduction to the other side of this story. These two people were never friends of Marla: the first is a one-armed chaos witch named Nicolette, who holds a longstanding grudge against Marla, and the other is Crapsey, the Mason’s old lackey and the dark doppelganger to Rondeau. Crapsey was stranded in this world when Marla killed his mistress the Mason, and after that he began clinging to Nicolette’s coattails, because some people are only happy when they’re being told what to do. Let’s see how things look through Crapsey’s eyes…


“Aren’t you even a little bit afraid Dr. Husch is going to throw you in a cell again?” Crapsey said. “The Mason and I just broke you out of this place not so long ago.”

“I’ve got you to protect me, big boy.” Nicolette kicked at the massive oak doors of the Blackwing Institute, her boot thumping with the regularity of a metronome.

Crapsey winced. “Dr. Husch isn’t going to be too happy to see me, either — I was just following orders, but I did some not-so-nice stuff to her myself, the morning she got all torn up.”

“The divinations say this is the place to begin our campaign,” Nicolette said. “My dice and mouse bones and toad stones don’t lie.”

“I still say we could’ve just done some recruiting,” Crapsey said. “We should be looking for Marla’s enemies, not her allies.”

“There aren’t that many enemies left, ugly. Even though she doesn’t usually kill them herself, Marla’s rivals have pretty lousy life expectancies. There’s me, and there’s you, and maybe her brother, but even though he’s a hell of a con man, he’s not much of a fighter. Mutex is dead, Todd Sweeney is dead, Ayres is dead, Joshua Kindler is dead, Reave might as well be dead. The Mason was exiled from this reality, and you two idiots killed Susan Wellstone and Viscarro on your little cross-country rampage. My old boss Gregor is dead, Bulliard and Marla reached an understanding, I don’t exactly have a phone number for the so-called King of the Fairies, and — ”

“All right, all right!” Crapsey touched the butterfly knife in his pocket. It had seemed so simple, when Nicolette first brought up the idea — Marla was in exile, stripped of her powers, all but friendless. What better time to try and kill her? They’d join forces with some other people who hated Marla, fly down to Hawai’i, and unleash murder most foul. Except they’d had trouble finding anybody to fill out their team, which led Nicolette to cast a divination spell to suggest a course of action, and now, here they were, on the doorstep of one of Marla’s old allies. Maybe not a suicide mission, but probably an imprisonment mission, which was better, but not by much.

The door swung open, and Nicolette squinted inside. “What are you, a beekeeper in mourning now? Part of a Goth hazmat squad?”

The figure in the foyer wore a broad-brimmed black hat with a long black veil, the cloth thick enough to obscure her features entirely. She also wore a floor-length black dress of severe cut, and leather gloves to match. Not an inch of skin showed.

“Nicolette.” The voice that emerged from beneath the veil was cracked, broken, and jagged, but comprehensible. “Have you come to commit yourself?”

“Why, Doc? Do you miss me that much?”

“You never really belonged here.” Dr. Husch sounded somehow placid despite her shredded voice. Almost peaceful, Crapsey thought, even though she’d been cut to pieces. “I never believed you were mentally ill. You are vile, contemptible, and selfish, but sane. No, you were a political prisoner, kept here because of your repeated treasons against Marla Mason.” The doctor shrugged. “But Marla isn’t in charge anymore, and our new chief sorcerer has no particular interest in you. You’re lucky — you have a chance to start over. You’re just fortunate that Marla chose not to kill you. I used to share her compassion, but no more.” The hat and veil shifted, and Crapsey knew the doctor was looking at him. “And you. The last time you came to my door, I… suffered. I do not like suffering. I abhor it.”

Crapsey took a step back. “Doc, it wasn’t my idea, the Mason made me go after you. I kinda liked you, honestly, and anyway I didn’t catch you, you smacked me on the head — ”

“I know,” Dr. Husch said. “You are a lackey. And I understand your more… promiscuous tendencies… have been curtailed, making you a harmless lackey as well.”

Crapsey winced. Once upon a time, he’d had the power to leave his flesh and take over the bodies of others, overwriting the consciousnesses of the original owners, and tossing their souls into the darkness of oblivion without hope of resurrection or afterlife. He’d murdered hundreds that way, on the Mason’s orders, and changed bodies the way most people changed their shirts… but Marla had cast a spell that trapped his mind in this body, like a fly buzzing around in a glass jar. Worst of all, when this body died, there was no reason to think his consciousness would die too — he might just be trapped in his own rotting corpse forever, awake and aware. Probably justifiable punishment for his crimes, he could see that, but still: fucking harsh, to go from immortality to… well, an entirely more horrible form of immortality.

“Yeah, he’s been neutered,” Nicolette said. “He’s totally housebroken now. I don’t even know why I keep him around. He’s a born lickspittle, and as you can see, I’m in greater-than-usual need of a right-hand man.” She grinned and twitched her stump.

“Yes, I noticed your lack of limb. You should have stayed in the Institute. You had both arms when you were under my care.”

Nicolette ran her remaining hand over her scalp. While she was captive, Crapsey knew, they’d kept her head shaved — Nicolette used to have dreadlocks, with wicked charms woven into the locks. She was letting her hair grow back in, but all she had now was a pale duck-fuzz, which looked even dumber than a bare skull. “Not that I don’t miss your tender ministrations,” Nicolette said, “but I’m here about something else. A certain mutual enemy. Mind if we come inside and talk?”

“If that crosses my threshold — ” she pointed at Crapsey ” — it will be confined, forever, in the blackest cell I have. The one in the basement. The one I used to be too enlightened to keep anyone in. And you aren’t welcome through this door, either, chaos witch.”

“Uh, okay.” Crapsey took another step back. Much farther and he’d be back in the driveway. “We can talk out here. Or we can just… go. Probably it was a mistake to come here — ”

Nicolette interrupted. “The divinations don’t lie, Doc. I did three different readings, with entrails and dice and butterflies, and they all told me — you’re the one we need.”

“And what were you trying to find with this divination? Someone to lock you both up for your own good?”

“Nah.” Nicolette leaned in close, not quite crossing the threshold. “We were looking for somebody else who wanted Marla Mason dead bad enough to do something about it.”

The veil and the hat made reading expressions impossible, so it took a moment for Crapsey to realize that Dr. Husch was shaking with silent laughter, which finally bubbled forth in a harsh little series of caws. “Oh, dear,” she said. “Well, yes, divination doesn’t lie, assuming an augur skilled enough to read the signs correctly, but there’s nothing to stop a witch from asking entirely the wrong question.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Nicolette demanded.

“You should have asked, ‘Who would help us kill Marla Mason?’ Because my name would not have appeared in a list of answers to that query. I do mean Marla Mason harm. Her selfishness unleashed the Mason on the world, and that led directly to me becoming… this.” She drew out the last word in a hiss, and Crapsey steeled himself for a dramatic raising of the veil to reveal the horror beneath, but Dr. Husch settled for shuddering and hugging herself. “And Marla doesn’t care. She didn’t even come to see me after her exile, even though my hospital is outside the borders of Felport, and open to her. If she’d come… if she’d apologized… Well. I don’t know that it would have mattered, really. But she didn’t. Exile is far from sufficient punishment for her transgressions, and her selfishness. So, yes, I do mean her harm — but why on Earth do you think I’d need help from you two idiots to kill her?”

“No offense,” Nicolette said, “but every time one of the more dangerous loonies in this bin of yours got loose, you always went crying to Marla, and before her, you went crying to Sauvage, and I’m sure before that, you went crying to whoever was chief sorcerer before him. You’re a healer, right, and a jailer, and when it comes to fixing broken things and locking up the things that can’t be fixed, you’re pretty badass, and I’m full of respect for that. But killing Marla Mason? Doc, you just don’t have the chops. Neither do I, and neither does Crapsey, not alone. But together? Striking now, when she’s weak and friendless? We can all get revenge. Crapsey for getting stranded in this stupid universe he hates, all his powers stolen, his boss sent away to another universe. And me? She locked me up here. Before that she backed me into a corner so tight I had no choice but to kill my own mentor Gregor just to stay alive myself. Hell, indirectly, she’s the reason I lost my arm. What do you say? You, me, Crapsey, maybe we round up a few others, and go all legion of supervillains on her ass?”

“Not really legion of supervillains.” Crapsey flinched away when they both swiveled their heads toward him. He couldn’t help it — he’d read a lot of comic books in his home universe, and he wanted to get the metaphor right. “More like the… Marla Mason Revenge Squad. ”

“I am well aware of my limitations,” Dr. Husch said. “I do not intend to attack Marla personally. But as you pointed out, I am a jailer. This is the foremost magical containment facility on the East Coast, and I have in my care some of the most lethal sorcerers to ever grace this continent. Norma Nilson, the nihilomancer. Gustavus Lupo, the skinshifter. Roderick Barrow, who rules a dark realm of his own imagination, and yearns to loose his armies into this reality. Roger Vaughn — both Roger Vaughns, the original and his young reincarnation — and their terrible oceanic magics. The nameless madman who calls himself Everett Malkin, and claims to be Felport’s first chief sorcerer, displaced in time. The immortal Beast of Felport itself. And, of course, I have your hero, Nicolette, locked in the most potent cell I possess, at the center of a cube wrapped in bindings of order — the witch Elsie Jarrow. You would be amazed at what some of these people are willing to do when you dangle the prospect of freedom before them. So, no — I won’t be needing your services. Good luck with the rest of your miserable, pointless lives.” The doctor started to close the door.

Nicolette stuck a boot in the way, and Dr. Husch made a noise of distaste and opened it again. “Do you want to lose a foot along with your arm, woman?”

“We want in,” Nicolette said. “If nothing else, we can help wrangle the crazies. Besides, don’t bullshit me, there’s no way you can let Elsie Jarrow out, you’d never be able to control her, she’s too — ”

“I am well aware of her condition — indeed, as her doctor, I know far more about her situation than you do. As I said, your services will not be needed. Why hire Vasari when you can work with Michelangelo?”

“I’m going to assume that’s an insult,” Nicolette said. “Like ‘why listen to Rush when you can listen to Led Zeppelin?’ But I don’t mind — I’m not fit to touch the hem of Elsie Jarrow’s garment. But that just means I’m even more eager to lend a hand. Let us join in. What could it hurt?”

“My chances of success,” Dr. Husch said.

Nicolette laughed. “Not bad, Doc. Being disfigured has given you a sense of humor. But what’ll really hurt your chances of success is me going to Marla and telling her what you have planned. And sending word to a few of the reigning sorcerers — I don’t think the Chamberlain or Hamil would be happy to hear you’ve decided to switch your patients from art therapy to murder-for-hire. That’s the kind of thing that could seriously impact your funding at the next meeting of the council, don’t you think? Or maybe you want to get locked up in one of your own cells?”

“You would help Marla? Protect her from me? Even though you want her dead?”

“Doc,” Crapsey said. “This is Nicolette. You can’t trust her to do anything. Messy unexpected stuff just makes her more powerful. She’s got a roulette wheel instead of a soul, you know?”

“Hmm. What makes you think you can escape the grounds of this estate?”

Nicolette drew a small hatchet with a curved blade the color of the moon from behind her back, and held it up to catch the light. “I did a little looting while I was running around with Crapsey and the Mason. I found this beauty in one of Viscarro’s vaults. It’s sacred to some moon god, I forget his name, but the point is — it is awesome. All those years I was jealous of Marla’s cloak, and her dagger of office, and now I’ve got an artifact of my own, and Marla doesn’t have any. Anyway, sure, sic your orderlies on me, whatever — if you feel like getting chopped into fucking little bits again.”

Dr. Husch didn’t move. You could have cut the tension with a knife. Or a really terrifying axe.

“Look, we want the same thing,” Crapsey said, holding up his hands in a gesture he hoped was soothing. “There’s no reason for us to fight. Just let us help. We can lend a hand.”
“Three hands, even,” Nicolette said.

To Crapsey’s surprise, Dr. Husch snorted with laughter. “Fine. I can see you won’t go away. I suppose I could use people to carry boxes and fetch coffee. But you take orders from me, understood?” She turned and started into the Institute, then paused, and called back over her shoulder, “You can come inside now.”

“No trying to lock us up, Doc,” Nicolette said, stepping in.

“I wouldn’t worry,” Dr. Husch said. “Haven’t you heard? Nowadays, it’s fashionable to let the inmates run the asylum.”

Table of Contents

1. Let Me Tell You a Story and 2. Murder by the Sea     *     3. A Conversation with Koona     *     4. A Visit from Death     *     5: The Bad Doctor     *     6: A Mother’s Love     *     7: Death Makes an Offer     *     8: Meet Elsie Jarrow     *     9: Seeing the World     *     10: Revengers Assemble     *     11: The Dead, Walking on the Beach     *     12: Brotherly Love     *     13: Everyone Is Someone’s Dog     *     14: Jaws     *     15: In Flight     *     16: Things Are Never So Bad They Can’t Be Made Worse     *     17: Proverbs of the Obvious     *     18: Places of Refuge     *     19: There’s Always Someone Better Than You     *     20: Claiming Asylum     *     21: Captivities     *     22: Breaking Bread     *     23: An Exchange of Prisoners     *     24: Welcome to Death     *     25: Such a Full Sea     *     26: Walking the Earth

4. A Visit from Death

“The first two things you need to know,” Rondeau said as he pulled out of the parking lot, “are that I’m crazy rich now, and Marla’s been exiled from Felport.”

Pelham turned around in the passenger seat and looked at Marla, his eyes owlish and wide, and she nodded, then looked away, concentrating on staring out the window.

On the ride back to the hotel, Rondeau gave Pelham the rundown on everything that had happened since he left Felport to go on his world tour. The recitation was enough to make Marla exhausted all over again. Rondeau told the valet about Marla’s run-in with her con artist brother Jason, about Bradley Bowman’s murder at Jason’s hands, about Marla’s ill-conceived (or, if you were feeling charitable, daring) plan to bring Bradley back to life. And, finally, about the horrible consequences of her meddling in such cosmic affairs, including a rip in the fabric of space/time and the subsequent emergence of her villainous counterpart from a parallel universe, the Mason. “She looked just like Marla,” Rondeau said, gesturing animatedly with one hand as he drove with the other. “Well, Marla when she was twenty, maybe, because the Mason didn’t age after that. Only… well, you know Marla’s white-and-purple cloak?”

“I am familiar with the cloak.” Pelham sounded thoughtful, but not especially freaked out. This was probably a lot for the guy to take in — but then again, he’d once literally traveled to Hell with Marla, and lately he’d been battling a repeated infestation by Malaysian ant-monsters, so he was used to rolling with the punches. And the kicks. “Indeed, I think of the cloak often. I find its very existence rather disturbing.”

“Don’t we all,” Marla muttered. When she was twenty, she’d found a magical cloak hanging in a thrift store, and she’d felt compelled to buy it, sensing it was an item of magic. The cloak was more than merely magical, though — it was an artifact, a conscious object of uncertain origin and mysterious motivation. The cloak had granted Marla profound powers, both healing magics and viciously destructive battle prowess… but the latter came at a terrible psychic cost. Every time she used the cloak for violence, its alien intellect tried to subjugate her mind and possess her body for its own destructive ends. Essentially, it was a parasite, and Marla was the host, though it had taken her a long time to realize that. Marla’s will had been strong enough to resist the cloak’s attempts to possess her, but she’d never been comfortable wearing it, not once she was old and wise enough to realize how dangerous it could be. She’d eventually discovered it wasn’t a cloak at all, but a malevolent entity from another universe that chose to look like a cloak, and that in its true form, it was so scary it even frightened gods. When she finally glimpsed the cloak’s true form — something like a many-eyed devil ray with extra tentacles and fishhook fangs — she’d been horrified and vowed to never wear it again. The thing couldn’t be destroyed, though, and she’d dispatched Pelham on his world tour, with the mission to hide the cloak somewhere deep and obscure, someplace no one, even Marla, could ever find it. Except —

“The Mason made Marla look like Miss Congeniality,” Rondeau was saying, so Marla swatted him on the back of the head. He went on, unperturbed. “Imagine a version of Marla who put on the cloak at twenty, didn’t bother to fight the cloak’s influence at all, and just let herself get possessed by the evil alien mind inside it. That version of Marla, over in that hell of a universe next door, pretty much literally conquered the world. And then… we fucked up, trying to save Bradley, and tore a hole in the fabric of space-time. That set the Mason loose over here, and she went on the warpath. Shit got ugly. A lot of people in Felport died before Marla managed to outsmart the Mason. Viscarro, and Ernesto, and Granger… .” He shook his head. “Don’t worry, the Chamberlain’s okay, and all your friends on her estate are fine too, the Mason didn’t go near her place.”

“I am relieved.” The Chamberlain had been Pelham’s… employer, sort of? Or maybe foster mother? Pelham came from a long line of professional servants, pledged (and magically bonded) to serve prominent sorcerers. Marla hadn’t wanted a valet, even a supernaturally savvy one, but the Chamberlain had insisted that, as chief sorcerer, Marla required such help, and she’d “given” Pelham to her. Pelham had turned out to be amazingly competent, and soon became a friend, but Marla wasn’t happy with the notion of servants, especially supernaturally-bound ones. Which was one of the real reasons she’d sent him on his world tour —

“Oh, and check it out,” Rondeau said. “The Mason had a sidekick who was like an evil version of me, called Crapsey, with a creepy wooden jaw and a nasty trick where he could jump into people’s bodies, shove their souls into the void, and walk around in their skins — ”

“Get to the exile part,” Marla snapped. Rondeau was breezily reciting events that had left some pretty brutal wounds on her, psychically if not physically.

“Right.” Rondeau coughed. “The, uh, sorcerers in Felport who survived the Mason’s attacks blamed the whole interdimensional invasion thing on Marla, and… they kicked her out of the chief sorcerer job. Exiled her here. Well, not here specifically, they just forbid her to ever set foot in the city again. I didn’t see the point in staying in Felport with Marla gone, so I sold my nightclub and decided to retire in style. Marla didn’t have anything better to do, so I asked her to come along, and… here we are.”

“Mrs. Mason.” Pelham twisted around in his seat again, and this time, put his hand on her knee. “I am profoundly sorry for your loss. For all your losses.”

“Me, too,” Marla said. “Look, Pelham, the Chamberlain is actually the chief sorcerer of Felport now, and me… I’m nobody. If you want to go to Felport, I’m sure the Chamberlain would be happy to take you in — ”

“I am bonded to you, Mrs. Mason.” Pelham voice was gentle, his eyes placid and sure. “I could not break that bond if I wanted to, and I do not want to. Even if I did care about status, well, you are greater than any mortal nobility — ”

“Shush,” Marla said sharply. Pelham knew a secret about her that no one else in the world besides Marla herself did. It was bad enough he kept calling her “Mrs.” — that would be a giveaway to anyone more attentive than Rondeau.

“Shush what?” Rondeau said.

“He was going to say something about my amazing natural gifts,” Marla said. “And you know I hate being complimented.”

“Whatever,” Rondeau said. “Now that Pelham’s back, he can keep you company at the bookshop. That’ll really open up my afternoons for spa visits.”

“I am pleased to serve in any capacity you wish,” Pelham said. “Shall I stay here, Mrs. Mason, or do you wish me to continue my travels?”

“Did you, ah, dispose of that thing yet?” Marla said. “The thing in the trunk?”

“Do you mean the bedsheet you glamoured to look like your cursed cloak?” Pelham said politely. “No, ma’am. That is still wrapped in bindings and wards in the steamer trunk.”

Marla groaned, and Rondeau whistled. “I was trying to figure out how she was going to break that to you,” Rondeau said. “Sending you off on a mission to get rid of a fake cloak.”

“Pelham, listen, I wasn’t trying to screw with you, I wanted people to think the cloak was gone from the city,” Marla said. “There were powerful people who wanted it, and I was afraid of what would happen if it fell into their hands. But at the same time, the cloak was so powerful, I couldn’t bring myself to really get rid of it. I wanted to keep it in reserve, just in case I needed it, like… a nuclear weapon or a vial of super-flu. And I didn’t let you in on the secret because I wanted you to — ”

“I understand,” Pelham said. “Truly. You wanted me to experience the real world. Before I joined your service, I’d never even left the grounds of the Chamberlain’s estate. Though I was educated, and learned to serve at a formal dining table, repair cars, and cause permanent nerve damage with a well-aimed strike of the fist, I was provincial and unworldly. You wanted to expand my horizons.”

“Yes,” Marla said. “I mean, pretty much. I thought it would do you good, I guess.”

“You are also profoundly uncomfortable with the very idea of having a lady’s personal gentleman in your employ.” Pelham sniffed. “I am confident you will overcome that reticence in time. May I stay with you now, then, or do you prefer me to continue the pantomime of looking for a safe place to hide your cloak?”

“No need for pretense anymore. The cloak is really gone now. Once I met the Mason, and saw what the cloak wanted to do to the world, what it hoped to use me for, what it had used me for in another dimension… I didn’t have any qualms about getting rid of it, permanently, even if it did mean giving up my best weapon.”

“I hope you buried it deeply,” Pelham said. “Such things have a way of rising to the surface.”

“Ha,” Rondeau said. “Remember Bradley Bowman? How trying to bring him back to life caused all this trouble? Well, he didn’t come back to life, exactly, but he ended up ascending beyond the mortal plane and whatnot. Now he’s, like… the guy in charge of maintaining the structural integrity of the multiverse. Immortal, and existing simultaneously in every possible reality and in none of them, which is a nifty trick. We gave him the cloaks, both Marla’s and the Mason’s, and he put them both at the North Pole in a parallel universe where life never even developed on Earth. They are gone.”

Pelham exhaled. “That is a relief. Then… may I stay here?”

Marla reached out and touched his shoulder. “Of course. It’s good to have you back, Pelham. You’ll be a great help.”

“Marla’s a detective now,” Rondeau said. “Solving mysteries. Or, ah, failing to solve mysteries, mostly, but it’s a start.”

“A… detective?” Pelham said, in the tone of voice someone else might say, “A… rat turd?” “Is such an occupation truly suitable for your station?”

“What station is that?” Rondeau said. “Poverty stricken ex-chief-sorcerer? No offense, you know I love Marla to pieces, but she’s not exactly an aristo, Pelly.”

“Mrs. Mason.” Pelham’s voice was stern. “How can you expect Rondeau to give you the respect you deserve if he does not know you are due such respect?”

“Why do you keep calling her ‘Mrs.’?” Rondeau said. “You always used to call her ‘Miss Mason,’ and even that was weird, but — ”

Marla closed her eyes, covered her face with her hands, and groaned. “I hate you both. Take me back to the hotel.”


“You got married,” Rondeau said for the third time, sipping a rum-and-pineapple juice on his balcony. They had a great view of the ocean up here, but Rondeau was staring at her instead.

Marla sank down further in the padded chaise longue, looking up at the underside of the balcony attached to the room above them. “Okay, yes, but see — ”

“To a god,” Rondeau said. “To the god of Death. You’re the bride of Death. You’re a goddess.”

“Only by marriage. And it’s not like it was a love match. Pelham and I were in the underworld, and, well… it was a marriage of convenience. I needed to use the god of Death’s sword, and in order to do that, I had to take certain aspects of his power as my own — had to become a member of the family, a god by association. Don’t think of it as a marriage, it was just… a ritual.”

“So you’re saying you didn’t consummate?” Rondeau waggled his eyebrows.

Marla made a face. “That incarnation of Death was pretty much falling apart when I met him, hanging on way past the end of his natural span. He was a wreck, and he should have made way for the new incarnation of Death years before. He wasn’t exactly alluring. He couldn’t even stand up from his divine throne — he was holding onto his office by pure force of will and butt-in-chairness.”

“You missed out on throne sex?” Rondeau said. “I bet that thing was all encrusted with jewels, too.” He paused. “And I’m not talking about the chair.”

“Mrs. Mason was widowed soon after the wedding.” Pelham appeared with a silver tray and placed a drink — more juice than rum — on the small round table beside Marla. Where had he found that tray? Did he have some kind of emergency valet-kit in his backpack? “When the old god of Death was replaced by his newer incarnation.”

“Oh, I remember him,” Rondeau said. “The Walking Death. Now he was yummy, even if he was kind of a dick. Shame you couldn’t have married him instead of his dad. Or predecessor. Or whatever.”

“A little of both,” Marla said. In reality, she was still married to Death — it turned out the marriage ceremony had wedded her to the office of the god of Death, not to any particular incarnation, and the being known as the Walking Death was now her husband. Which was sort of like marrying a father, getting widowed, and marrying his son, but, hell, mythology was full of weirder sorts of incest. She hadn’t consummated her marriage to the Walking Death, either, though the idea wasn’t entirely unappealing, and he certainly wanted to. Her wifely duties — ha — were supposed to wait until after she died, when she’d take up the mantle of her goddesshood and sit on her own throne deep under the ground. (Well, metaphorically, and metaphysically. You couldn’t actually dig a hole and get to the underworld, but it definitely had a subterranean quality.) She wouldn’t really be the bride of Death until her own death… unless she figured out a way to wriggle out of the obligation first. Not that spending her afterlife as a terrifying goddess sounded so bad, but she was opposed to destiny in principle.

“It is a shame,” Pelham mused. “If your husband still existed, you could simply ask him who murdered this Ronin person. Solving murders would be much simpler with the god of Death at your beck and call.”

Marla stared at him. The idea had never occurred to her. She pretty much hated to ask for assistance with anything, but it wasn’t like she’d be asking the Walking Death to fight her battles for her — she’d just ask him to answer a question. Surely that wouldn’t shift the balance of power in their relationship too much? Though worrying about that was probably asinine. He was a god, tasked with overseeing the end-of-life and afterlife of every living thing in the universe. The “person” called the Walking Death that she interacted with occasionally was just an insignificant splinter of the god’s true vastness, an externalized physical presence created to interact with humans and other lesser beings. He probably had all the power in the relationship anyway, by definition. Still, no reason to give him more. But maybe if she spun it the right way…

She cleared her throat. “Um. Maybe I’m not so widowed after all. See…”


Rondeau insisted on accompanying her back to the bookstore, and Pelham murmured that he’d be happy to join them, if she had no objection, so she just gave in. They were both giving her a lot of crap about how she shouldn’t have lied to them, Rondeau gleefully, Pelham morosely. But, damn it, a woman’s marriage to a chthonic deity was nobody’s business but her own, and she refused to apologize.

In the back room of the bookshop, she opened up her safe, revealing the silver bell inside. It was a perfectly ordinary bell, not magical in the slightest… but Death was always listening for it.

She rang the bell.

The Walking Death never appeared before her in a puff of black smoke, or descended from the heavens like a sinking balloon. True to his name, he always just walked in, though strictly speaking, it wasn’t always clear where he walked in from.

He walked in now, emerging from a black door in the exterior wall (which was, usually, utterly doorless.) The Walking Death stood well over six feet tall, his long brown hair falling just past the shoulders of his impeccably tailored midnight blue suit, no tie. Marla knew next to nothing about menswear, but his dress always struck her as vaguely European and timelessly fashionable. His face was pale, narrow, and aristocratic-looking, his lips curved almost perpetually into the hint of a smirk. The look should have been maddening, and it was, a little, but it was also cute. He had rings on each of his fingers, as usual, eight glittering gemstones in different colors — but, no, now he had an extra ring on the third finger of each hand, just simple silver bands.

“Darling.” He kissed Marla on the cheek and took her hand in his own — cold, no surprise — before turning to look at Pelham and Rondeau. “The servant and the sidekick. How pleasant to see you both.” They stared at him, apparently more overawed by the company of a god than Marla was… or at least more than she allowed herself to appear to be.

Marla pulled her hand away from his. “Sorry to call you here. I was hoping you could help me out with this… murder investigation I’m doing.”

He raised one elegantly arched eyebrow. “Really? I’m to be your informant, am I? I suppose that makes a certain amount of sense. I do have access to the material witnesses in any suspicious death. I am not unwilling to assist you, if you choose to indulge in such trivialities. But I was actually planning to come see you anyway. I have something to tell you. It’s wonderful news, actually.”

She frowned. “What’s that?”

“A number of your enemies are conspiring to kill you.” The Walking Death broke into a wide smile, and swept Marla into a tight embrace. “Isn’t it wonderful?” he breathed into her ear. “You’ll be dead soon, my darling!”

3. A Conversation with Koona

Once he’d gotten rid of the surfers, Rondeau stepped into the office. “‘I don’t work for you, I work for me?'” He smiled. “You’ve been reading those Robert Parker novels about Spenser I gave you, haven’t you?”

She scowled. “I have to learn to be a detective somehow, don’t I?”

“Spenser does just wander around annoying people and getting in fights until he figures things out,” Rondeau said. “Instead of using deductive reasoning and measuring the depths of footprints and collecting cigar ash and shit like Sherlock Holmes does. So he’s probably a better model for your detecting style, if you can call it that.”

“Yes, fine, you’re hilarious.”

“If you’re Spenser, that makes me his buddy Hawk, right? A sexy, amoral badass?”

“One out of three ain’t bad,” Marla said. “So where are we going?”


Rondeau drove them north out of Lahaina in his little black convertible, past the West Maui airport, through the town of Kapalua, and along a route that curved gradually eastward along the northern edge of the island. The scenery along the coast road was absolutely gorgeous — great vistas of cliff and rock and sea — and Marla was sick to death of it. She liked to be in the shadow of old warehouses with the comfort of a vast continental plate beneath her, not out in the open under the sun on a speck of volcanic rock in the ocean.

“We both know I’m not going to learn a damn thing from looking at a spot where a guy died,” Marla said. “Unless the killer left a confession written in the sand, and even then, it would have blown away by now. So here’s what we’ll actually do. You’ll find an oracle, and ask it who killed our dead guy. Easy.”

Rondeau sighed as he swung the car around a long curve. “You only love me for my vast psychic powers.”

“Who says I love you?”

They approached the Bellstone, a boulder of volcanic rock that, when struck in just the right spot, made a sound like clanging metal. When Rondeau didn’t even slow their pace as they passed the rock, Marla growled. “Seriously? There’s no oracle we can talk to in the Bellstone? A great big hunk of rock upchucked from the fiery guts of a volcano? Rings like a bell when you smack it? You’re telling me that doesn’t have any magic?”

“Doesn’t feel right,” Rondeau said. “Sorry.”

“You know, when Bradley wanted an oracle, he could find some ghost or demon or whatever in the first stinky dumpster or drain pipe or dark alley we passed.” She was happy about her old apprentice Bradley’s new gig as an immortal being who lived at the center of all possible realities, but it meant Marla didn’t have his help anymore, and she was stuck with the infinitely less experienced (and lazier) Rondeau, who’d inherited Bradley’s abilities, but not his skill at wielding them.

“I’m pretty new at this,” Rondeau said. “But I’m learning. In my defense, I think there’s a higher density of demons and dead people in a city. If you want me to turn around and go talk to the rock for a while and hope for the best, I can.”

Marla sighed. “No, carry on, you’re the one connected to the great grand mystical whatever. Something’s seriously out of whack when you’re the most spiritual person in the room. Or car. Whatever.”

They drove in silence for a while, until Rondeau said, “Over here.” He pulled the convertible onto a wide gravel patch on the shoulder of Highway 340. “There’s definitely some magical stuff crackling down this way, by the Olivine Pools.”

She frowned. “Isn’t this where our dead guy died?”

“Yeah. That’s convenient, isn’t it? Maybe he left behind a ghost we can talk to. Go right to the source.”

Marla grunted. She wasn’t a big fan of ghosts. They weren’t the souls or spirits or immortal residue of the dead, exactly — those went elsewhere, to whatever afterlife they expected to get, usually. Ghosts were more like… old photographs, or video loops, or echoes, or shit stains — psychic residue, persistent but slowly fading and degrading, and all pretty much crazy. But ghosts knew things, and they made reliable oracles, especially when you asked them about their own lives and deaths. Ghosts were pretty self-centered. Not every death resulted in wailing translucent psychotic ectoplasmic residue, but such manifestations were more likely in cases of violent death, so there was a chance some fragment of Ronin might still be hanging around, the magical-forensic equivalent of shed hairs or blood drops.

Marla and Rondeau picked their way down a steep, rock-scattered incline toward the Olivine Pools, a beautiful spot beloved of tourists and those locals who could abide the company of tourists: a group of lovely tidal pools, deep and clear, most big enough for swimming (though ideally you tried not to disturb the denizens of the pools), in an area scattered with the small greenish crystals called olivine. The pools were entirely deserted at the moment, though, and Rondeau wandered along the shore, pausing occasionally, squinting at nothing in particular, looking for ghost spoor. He eventually crouched down by one of the smaller pools. “Not a ghost.” His voice was strained, like he was trying to do higher math in his head while operating heavy machinery. “But there’s something… else. Something watery and dark and… . In here.” He pointed to the water, and Marla crouched with him.

One of Rondeau’s powers was oracle generation. Marla wasn’t sure whether he summoned existing supernatural creatures who possessed the power to answer questions, or whether the “oracles” were just external manifestations of his own abilities, a way for him to get answers out of his own powerfully psychic brain, like a crazy guy in a comic book who took orders from his own ventriloquist’s doll.

Either way, the process worked, so Marla peered into the water — and jerked back when a gargantuan white moray eel rose up from the suddenly bottomless depths of what should have been an ordinary tidepool. The eel’s eyes were the size of teacups, black and dead, its mouth a horrorshow of overlapping fangs. The water rippled as the eel spoke, but the voice that emerged was perfectly clear, a deep bass with no underwater qualities at all: “I am Koona, the death of sharks, the thief of fish. What do you seek?”

Rondeau cleared his throat. “A man called Ronin died near this spot two days ago. We want to know who murdered him.”

The eel swayed a bit, almost hypnotically. Its jaws were big enough to swallow a human head in a gulp. After a moment, it said, “That knowledge is closed to me. I see a figure, but it is shrouded in mist. The killer is a being of power.”

Marla sighed. Well, yeah. The guy had murdered a member of a badass hive of wave-mages, so the power was self-evident. “Thanks anyway,” she said.

“I do have knowledge that may interest you,” the eel said. “Glad tidings, and grim ones. Do you wish to know?”

“Uh, sure,” Rondeau said.

The eel opened its mouth. “You must pay.”

“I always pay,” Rondeau said. The oracles he summoned were transactional creatures. “What’s the price?”


Rondeau sighed. Marlas passed him one of her many knives, this one more suited for slicing mangos than throats. He pressed the blade to his palm, winced, and made a fist over the water, drops falling in and turning to drifting streamers in the water. The eel closed its eyes for a moment, then spoke, gazing not at Rondeau, but at Marla. “An old friend will soon return to you, to gladden your hollowed heart. But others are coming, and they seek not to soothe your heart, but to tear it from your chest. One you once loved, whose love for you has soured. Old enemies returned. Strangers who shall become new enemies. They sharpen their knives for you, and gather their powers.”

“What friend?” Marla said. “And what enemies? Come on, give me names.” But the eel just sank down into the pool, vanishing into the blackness, which shimmered, and became just an ordinary tidepool again, with nothing more remarkable at the rocky bottom than anemones and a scuttling crab. She looked at Rondeau. “That oracle sucked.”

Rondeau wrapped his wounded hand in a handkerchief. “It sucked my blood, anyway. What now?”

“I guess we go back to the office, and try to find out who this ‘friend’ is.”

“You’re not more concerned about the enemies?”

“Enemies, I’m used to. I’ve got lots of those. I don’t have that many friends.”

“True,” Rondeau said. “And most of the ones you used to have don’t like you anymore.”

“Honestly, it makes me wonder why you still hang out with me.”

Rondeau shrugged. “What can I say? I have profoundly horrible judgment.”


There was no one at the bookshop, and no familiar faces lingering on the streets in Lahaina town, and Rondeau refused to call up another oracle just to satisfy Marla’s curiosity about this mystery friend — summonings like that gave him headaches and insomnia even at the best of times, and two in one day would give him nosebleeds and the kind of migraines that come with auras and last a for week. “Maybe your long-lost pal is at the hotel, kicking his heels in the lobby, wondering where the hell we are?”

Marla shrugged. “Sure. It’s as good an idea as any.” The resort was the closest thing she had to a forwarding address.

Rondeau lived in a two-bedroom suite at a hotel in Kaanapali, a stretch of gorgeous coastline dominated by giant resorts. It was a long way from the traditional Hawai’ian experience, but Rondea was an unapologetic tourist and hedonist. He let Marla stay in the suite’s extra room, at least when she didn’t sleep on the hideous brown couch in the bookshop. She knew she should find a place of her own. That would be a pain in the ass, but hotel life just wasn’t to her taste. Too many people had keys to their room. Back in Felport, she’d owned an entire apartment building and lived in it alone, with her personal effects scattered in the empty apartments around her own to create a cloud of psychic chaff if anyone tried to divine her precise location within the building. Oh, beautiful privacy. That kind of real estate was rather beyond her reach here on Maui, unless she asked Rondeau for a major loan, and she felt beholden enough to him already.

Rondeau drove up along Highway 30 from Lahaina, leisurely covering the short distance to the hotel. Marla was in the passenger seat, doing her habitual (if paranoid) scan of her surroundings. She peered into the side mirror. “Someone’s following us.”

Rondeau glanced up at the rearview. “Marla, that’s a taxi. People take taxis to the resorts, and this is the main road to the resorts from Kahalui airport. What makes you think they’re following us?”

“I’ve got a sense for these things. Besides, you’re going so slow that any taxi driver worth a damn would have passed you miles ago. Why put up with your pokey ass unless he’s following us?”

“You told me to slow down,” Rondeau said, outraged and aggrieved — or at least affecting to be. “You said I drove like a maniac, so I brought it down to the speed limit, just like you asked — ”

Marla pointed. “Pull over in the park there.”

Rondeau sighed, paused to await a break in the oncoming traffic, and turned left into the lot of Wahikuli Park. The long, narrow strip of public ground boasted a few picnic tables overlooking the ocean but little else, and didn’t have much going for it except all the scenery you could eat. Marla barely noticed the deep blue vistas of ocean and sky anymore. She wasn’t sure it was true that you could get used to anything, but you could certainly get used to beauty.

“Well, hell,” Rondeau said, as the taxi pulled in and parked next to them. “What do you think? Is this the world’s least subtle assassin? Or — ”

Marla was already getting out of the car, just as the taxi’s back door swing open. Friend, or enemy?

When the cab’s passenger climbed out, Marla stopped dead, then broke into the biggest, most genuine smile she’d worn in weeks, if not months.

Rondeau got out of the convertible, too, and bellowed “Pelly!” He raced around the car and picked up the short, middle-aged man who’d emerged from the cab. He spun Pelham around twice, then put him back down on his feet, where he wobbled a bit.

“A pleasure to see you, sir,” Pelham said, and then looked at Marla. “And you, too, Mrs. Mason.”

The cab driver emerged, leaning over the roof of the car, squinting. “You going to ride the rest of the way with your friends, pal?”

“I wouldn’t presume,” Pelham murmured, but Rondeau was already saying, “Yeah, we got this, pop the trunk.” Pelham reached into the cab and removed a battered-looking canvas backpack, and a gnarled black walkingstick that might have passed for a wizard’s staff. The cab driver helped Rondeau wrestle a familiar-looking trunk out of the cab, then accepted his fare and a generous tip from Rondeau before driving off.

While Rondea was wrangling luggage, Marla walked around the car and looked Pelham up and down. He still had his wispy hair, his mild eyes, his mostly-unlined face, his general air of affable harmlessness, but he’d changed some, too. “You got some sun on your travels, huh? I never even imagined you with a tan.”

“I did indeed, Mrs. Mason, in Africa, mostly,” Pelham said. “Though the snows in Nepal reflected a glare even brighter.”

“What are you doing here?” Marla said. “I told you to spend a couple of years on your, ah, mission, and it’s only been a few months.”

Pelham nodded. “I am still traveling. I landed this morning on the Big Island, as part of a journey through the Pacific. But I could sense you, nearby. I took a flight to Maui, and frustrated my cab driver immensely by refusing to tell him my final destination, guiding him instead in the direction where I felt your presence, and… Why are you here? Have you finally agreed to take a vacation?”

“I was going to send word to you,” Marla said, “Except I wasn’t sure where, since we warded you so well from divination, nobody could tell where you were, exactly. I left word for Hamil to pass along my contact info if you called in, but — ”

“Don’t mind me.” Rondeau heaved the steamer trunk into the convertible’s too-small trunk and fussed with bungee cords to tie it down. “I’ve got this.”

“My apologies.” Pelham stepped in with his customary competence, swiftly strapping his luggage in and tying the trunk lid partly closed with the bungees. He turned back to Marla. “Then… this isn’t a vacation? Oh dear. Does something here in the islands threaten the safety of Felport? Volcano gods with strange grudges? A tentacled creature of ancient lineage stirring on the sea floor?”

Before she could answer, Rondeau yelped, and jumped like someone had stabbed him in the ass with a pin. “Marla… something’s happening. Something’s coming.”

Marla had a knife in each hand before he finished speaking, and she put her back to the convertible, scanning the area. Unless the picnic tables were about to come to life like Japanese tsukumogami, she didn’t see any potential threats. “What is it?”

Rondeau shook his head. “How should I know? Call it bad vibes. Some kind of… I want to say… eruption? No, I shouldn’t use that word on a volcanic island, it’s not that kind of eruption. Something’s coming, or actually it’s already here, but it’s about to make itself known — ”

“Oh, dear.” Pelham chewed at his lower lip. “Not these again.” He pointed with his walkingstick toward the ground beneath a tree. The dirt was beginning to rise up in little cone-shapes, like molehills. “I’m terribly sorry, Mrs. Mason, I thought I’d gotten rid of them.”

Marla frowned. “Of what?”

“Should I be wishing I had a gun?” Rondeau said.

“I don’t think a gun would be much — ” Pelham began, but then a strange chittering emerged from the three mounds of black dirt, and at least a dozen cat-sized creatures poured out, like ants boiling up from a hill. The creatures moved fast enough that Marla couldn’t get a good look at them, but they seemed both insectile and mammalian, with hairy bodies and too many limbs and grinding mandibles and antennae and weirdly humanlike eyes.

Knives were not ideal for fighting off a swarm of rat-bug-people, and she was stepping to the side so she could unleash a fire spell without catching her friends in the spray when Pelham stepped forward and began to spin his stick in a blur. He caught the first of the creatures with a blow hard enough to send it sailing right out of the park and into the sea, and flattened half a dozen more in seconds using his stick and his feet, spinning with a fluidity and grace that Marla couldn’t quite wrap her head around — after all, Pelham looked like the manager of a small branch bank, or a longtime certified public accountant, but now he was become death; or if not death, then at least grievous bodily harm. “If I might ask you to destroy the mounds?” Pelham shouted, as more of the creatures came scrambling out of the dirt. Marla caught Rondeau’s eye, shrugged, and moved with him toward the source of the invasion.

She considered just stomping, but she didn’t like the idea of one of these things climbing up her leg, so she knelt, scooped up a handful of sand from the ground into a little heap, took a deep breath, and believed the mound she’d made was the same as the mounds the creatures were coming through.

Then she stomped on her little mound, and the other three flattened, smashed by the weight of Marla’s sympathetic magic. Rondeau watched the collapsed mounds warily, then nudged one with the toe of his foot. Nothing came out. “There’s not even a hole under here. What the hell?”

Pelham had finished bashing the little monsters, and those that survived burrowed into the ground, dragging their dead after them, and soon they’d all vanished from view, seemingly pulling their holes in after them, leaving the ground unmarked and unmarred. Pelham mopped his brow. “I am so very sorry. The creatures have not troubled me in weeks, and I had assumed they were gone forever. They are deucedly persistent beasts.”

“What the fuck are they?” Marla said.

“Nuno sa Punso,” Pelham said. “Frightful things, but really just a nuisance, incapable of doing real harm. I… picked them up during my time in the Phillipines.”

“Pelly,” Rondeau said. “Tell me these things aren’t some kind of supernatural STD you picked up in a Filipino cathouse. Or, better yet, tell me they are, because that would be hilarious.”

Pelham bowed slightly. “Loath as I am to disappoint you, the origin of this infestation is less lascivious. I spent a week in the Malay archipelago, studying the martial art known as Silat. I have long been proficient in Bartitsu, which incorporates elements of Malaysian stick-fighting, and I thought to refine my technique by studying at the source.”

“You seem to have gotten the hang of it,” Marla said. “You could have played eighteen holes using those little Nuno things as golf balls.”

“Yes. Thank you. Alas, that is not the first time I have needed to forcibly dispel the creatures. While I was out walking in the countryside in the Phillipines, I inadvertently disturbed an ant hill, or perhaps a termite mound, with my stick. I expected insects to emerge, but instead — out came several Nuno. They looked more human, then, though they were still very small, appearing as tiny men with long ragged beards. They are local spirits, called ‘ancestors of the ant hills,’ though I think they are more closely aligned to imps than to true ancestral spirits. By which I mean, their resemblance to humanity is superficial and conditional.”

“Lots of supernatural creatures start to look more like humans when they have more contact with humans,” Marla said. “Or else people just perceive them that way. I looked at them in their true forms, and they weren’t much like people at all, apart from the eyes.”

Pelham nodded. “The Nuno are mostly used as a story by the locals, to keep children away from ant hills. If you disturb their homes, the Nuno can curse you — either trivially, to cause pain in the foot that kicked their hill, or more seriously, to… ah… this is indelicate… to urinate a viscous black fluid, or vomit blood. Most people never encounter the creatures, and only the superstitious believe they exist. I suspect they were attracted by the magical spells on my luggage.” He gestured toward the convertible’s trunk “Or perhaps I simply stumbled onto the one mound where they actually live. The Nuno have chosen to punish me more creatively than usual, it seems. They appear occasionally and attack me, wherever I am. I attempted to dispel them in Malaysia, paying an alularyo to perform a tawas ceremony. She poured molten wax into a bowl of water, interpreted certain signs beyond my understanding, and said I must make offerings of fruit at the site of the hill I’d destroyed, and beg for forgiveness. Unfortunately, I had difficulty finding the precise location again, and though I did make offerings… .” He shrugged. “I may have gotten the location wrong. Or perhaps the alularyo was a fraud. I did not realize the ritual had failed until I was a thousand miles away, when the creatures attacked me in an outdoor market. They are easily defeated, but terribly persistent, appearing days or even weeks apart. Though I lack your ability to pierce illusions, Mrs. Mason, they seem less and less humanoid to me with each appearance, as I’ve gone farther and farther from their home. Perhaps familiarity is enabling to see me more as they actually are.”

“They look pretty much like pissed-off garden gnomes to me,” Rondeau said, helpful as always. “I didn’t bother to try and see their true forms. Stuff pretty much never looks better that way.”

“I send you on a trip around the world,” Marla said, “and you come back with a case of supernatural fleas. Well, curses can be lifted. We’ll see what we can do.”

“I would appreciate that,” Pelham said. “The Nuno are most unseemly. But I do not mean to burden you with my problems, Mrs. Mason. Please, tell me, how are you? Why are you here?”

“You ride up front with Rondeau.” Marla climbed into the convertible’s comically undersized back seat. “He’ll tell you how I am, and what I’m doing in Hawai’i.”

1. Let Me Tell You a Story & 2. Murder by the Sea

[Author’s note: Because the first chapter is rather short, I decided to start with the first two chapters. Extra Bonus Grim Tides!]

Grim Tides

by T.A. Pratt

For Anne, who knows Marla even better than I do

1. Let Me Tell You a Story

Thanks ever so much for seeing me. We may as well get started, don’t you think?

Let’s scroll through the mortal timeline and look in on Marla Mason, exiled sorcerer-queen, driven from her beloved city of Felport as punishment for her considerable sins and sent to languish in a tropical paradise, specifically Maui, second largest of the islands in Hawai’i.

We’ll take as our focus one particular afternoon when she sat barefoot in the sand near the surf, behind the vast resort hotel where she lived in rather more luxury than she felt comfortable with, courtesy of her best (and almost only) friend, Rondeau.


He sprawled beside her on a towel printed with pictures of jolly green carnivorous plants, watching her wiggle her toes in the sand. Rondeau grunted. “You took your boots off. I didn’t realize they came off. I thought they were permanently fused to your footmeat.”

“I can kick your ass just fine barefoot,” she said, but absently, her eyes on the waves, her mind even farther beyond.

“Feeling homesick?” Rondeau turned his head and slurped from a straw plunged into a plastic tumbler jammed in the sand, drinking a concoction that was mostly fruit juice but not inconsiderably rum. He didn’t have the stomach for booze and drugs he once had, having inherited both a slew of psychic powers and a nervous constitution recently, but he imbibed as much as his body would allow.

Marla dug her feet deeper into the warm sand. “I live in Maui, in the kind of hotel where if you call room service at three a.m. and demand a well-done bison burger and a bucket of champagne, they bring it in fifteen minutes. My bills are paid by my rich best friend, so I never have to worry about how to pay for the buffalo and bubbly. I get to tell people, with a straight face, that I’m an occult detective. I have an office in an old bookshop that I’m increasingly sure is actually magical. Nobody’s tried to kill me in two months. I have absolutely no cares or responsibilities. The hardest choice I have to make on any given day is whether to spend the afternoon napping or swimming. My life is objectively wonderful, the sort of existence most people dream of. What do you think?”

“You really hate it here, huh?”

“Of course.” Marla flopped back into the sand, exchanging a view of the endless expanse of blue-green water for the endless expanse of blue sky. “I know I’m ungrateful, but fuck it. I was sent away from the city I loved, where I had useful work to do, and now… I don’t even know why I get out of bed in the morning. I mean, I’m sure Elba was nice too, but exile sucks.”

Rondeau nodded. “Elba? You mean that black British actor? Yum. Is he staying at the hotel?”

“I love having you around. I never even finished high school, but you make me feel educated. Elba’s the island where Napoleon was exiled, the first time. In the Mediterranean. He stayed there for about a year, then escaped and regained his empire.”

“Ha. Are you getting ideas? I don’t think I’d make much of an invasion force, but I’m up for it if you are.”

“Napoloen got his throne back, but he only got to sit on it for about three months. Then he got beat down again at Waterloo. His enemies stuck him on a much uglier island after that, and he died there. So, no, Napoleon’s not the model I want to follow. At least they made him king of Elba. What am I? I might as well be one of those tentacley things clinging to a coral reef, slurping microorganisms out of the passing waves.”

“Aw, come on, like you said, you’re an occult detective now — ”

“I’ve had two clients, Rondeau. Two.”

“Sure, but one of them was a shark god.”

“I’m not saying they weren’t quality clients. But helping a shark god recover his stolen teeth, and giving a snooty kahuna a hand dispelling a ghost? They don’t exactly qualify as a life’s work. I used to do stuff that mattered. I saved California from a frog god and a jaguar god, beat up the king of nightmares, and sent Death himself back to hell with his head hung low. And that was just this year. ”

Rondeau took another slurp. “Business will pick up. You’re still new here, and I get the sense the native Hawai’ian sorcerers don’t like outsiders from the mainland much. Probably that whole history of invasion and subjugation and overthrow. But word will get around — you’ll have more cases than you can handle. I’m sure at some point a squid god or a sentient volcano or a malevolent animate tiki statue will get out of control, and boom, you’ll get the call.”

“Promises, promises.” Marla looked up at the perfect blue sky, a few fat clouds floating past in stately procession. A beautiful day, but every day here was beautiful, and what she wanted more than anything was to feel that autumnal bite in the air, like she would back home. It was October already, and back in Felport, the sidewalks would soon be covered in crisp, crackling leaves, people would be breaking out their scarves and coats, and in a month or so the first snowfall would begin. In a month or two here… things would be pretty much exactly the same as they were now. She’d have to take a trip to the east side of the island if she even wanted a reliable chance of seeing rain. “I don’t even know if I’m cut out to be a detective. A protector, a guardian, sure — I can handle duty to a place, or even an ideal, in a pinch. But if you’re a detective, you have to work for people, and you know I don’t get along with those. Do you think it’s a good idea for me to be working with the public?”

“I think you’re good at helping people,” Rondeau said. “Which is funny, since you mostly don’t like them. But when you were the protector of Felport, what were you protecting, anyway? A bunch of buildings? Or the people who lived in them? Would you have stayed on as chief sorcerer if nobody lived there?”

Marla sighed. “Yes, fine, point taken. Mostly I just like getting in fights, and helping people out can make that happen. If you don’t have enough enemies of your own handy, volunteer to take on somebody else’s. But nobody’s even asking for my help right now. What’s the point?”

“Your whole life changed.” Rondeau slurped the last dregs of his rum. “It’s going to take some getting used to. But look: life is chaos. We both know that. If you don’t like how things are going? That’s okay. Things will change.”

“Everything except the weather.” Marla rose and walked off by herself, though Rondeau got the last word, or at least, the last long-suffering sigh. She couldn’t blame him. Even Marla wasn’t enjoying her own company lately.

She walked barefoot, letting the warm water lap at her feet. Sometimes she thought about walking the entire perimeter of the island, a journey of some 120 miles. The island was shaped something like a barbell, or the number eight, or an infinity symbol, and a better sorcerer could probably come up with some ritual purpose for such a walk, sketching out a symbol of power footstep by footstep… but Marla only considered the journey because it would be complicated and annoying and full of treacherous cliffs, and it would give her something to do. But doing that would be too much like a tiger pacing back and forth inside a cage, and when she finished the circuit, she’d just be back where she started. It was absurd to feel trapped, she knew.

She wasn’t actually confined to Maui — she could go anywhere in the world, except for Felport, where she was forbidden to enter by magic. Why did that sting so much? There were billions of people on Earth who’d never go to Felport. Who’d never even heard of Felport.

But there was nowhere else in the world she’d ever felt needed, and nowhere else she wanted to be, and nowhere else she wanted to go.

Sad, isn’t it? A woman of action, with no particular actions to undertake.

Clearly, something needed to be done.


2. Murder by the Sea

We’ll skip ahead a bit and settle on the morning when Marla finally got her third case.

She sat on a stool behind the counter in her office on yet another fine autumn morning, sipping occasionally from a cup of coffee that had gone cold half an hour before, looking at a newspaper full of local news that didn’t interest her. The office was actually an antiquarian bookshop in Lahaina, not far from the resort where she spent her nights. As a bookshop it was a failure, since it was situated in a bit of hidden space invisible to the eyes of passing tourists and local ordinaries. She’d inherited — or stolen, or maybe looted — the office from its previous occupant, a deranged sorcerer who’d made the mistake of antagonizing a local shark god — Marla’s first case as a detective had ended with that man being transformed into a shark by his own magic and dumped into the sea, to contend with the furious spirits of those he’d wronged.

Because Marla had no interest in the traditional occupations of ordinary private detectives — outing cheating husbands, or doing background checks, or acting as stalker-by-proxy for jealous boyfriends — the bookshop acted as a useful barrier to entry. The first qualification she required of a client was the ability to find her in this hidden space, which required a certain amount of magical acumen.

Unfortunately, no one was looking for her, as far as she could tell. She’d hoped helping that kahuna on the Hana side of the island get rid of a ghost would lead to some word-of-mouth business, but Arachne had seemed profoundly annoyed to have to ask for assistance, and probably hadn’t told anyone.

So on this morning, like so many others, Marla sat pretending to go through the motions of a morning at work while secretly brooding over the closed-down avenues of her life. Rondeau perused the shelves and tried to keep her spirits up. “I swear, there are new books here,” he said. “Look at this one — a bound volume of old National Geographics, heavy on pictures of tribal men wearing penis-sheaths and not much else. I know I would have noticed this one before.”

Marla spun her scythe-shaped letter opener around on the wooden counter. Not that she had any letters to open. She’d sent postcards to everyone she knew on this mortal plane when she first moved to Hawai’i, vicious bitchy missives for the most part, but no one had written back, not even her onetime closest allies. She gestured around the room, with its twelve-foot-high oak bookshelves, its rippled windows of old glass, its dangling brass light fixtures. “There’s magic in this place, beyond the concealment spells. I haven’t figured out exactly what yet. Something to do with small-scale matter transportation, some attractant associated with empty spaces on the shelves. I think the bookshop transports forgotten books here, maybe based on how long it’s been since a human touched a particular volume. There are tons of ancient-ass books from all over the world here, and I think they’ve been snatched from libraries and garage sales and charity shops, most of them total junk, I’d guess — old medical textbooks, Reader’s Digest condensed books, potboiler novels from the 1940s.”

Rondeau laughed. He was wearing an aloha shirt patterned with sailboats in an eye-watering combination of reds and pinks and purples and blues. Back in Felport he’d favored whatever hideous things he could unearth from the back shelves of vintage clothing stores, and he’d adapted his fashion sense to life in the tropics admirably “So, what, the bookshop is magically looking for rare books by the dragnet method? Scoop up enough forgotten shit and you’re bound to get a first edition of, I dunno, The Hobbit?”

“Or Ulysses. That’s worth more.” When Rondeau looked at her with a raised eyebrow, she shrugged. “I’ve got a bookshop now, so I looked it up, all right? I don’t think there’s a book in here that’s even in the top one hundred most valuable first editions, though.”

“Good thing I’m filthy rich. Especially since you’ve never had any customers, or sold a single book. Working in an invisible shop really cuts down on your walk-in trade. You could sell books on the internet, I guess, though that would require the ability to use a mouse, which I know you’ve never quite mastered.” Rondeau had made a healthy sum when he’d sold his night club — a Felport institution that came with certain magical amenities, making it attractive to powerful sorcerers — before joining Marla in exile. Though in truth it was more that she’d joined him. She had no particular interest in Maui, or anywhere else, apart from Felport — the one place she was forbidden to ever return, upon pain of painful death. When Rondeau had asked her if she’d like to tag along with him to paradise, she’d shrugged and said “sure.” This was as good a place as any to molder.

“You could advertise, you know,” Rondeau went on. “Not for the bookshop, for the other job. I know you asked that shark god to tell all his friends you were open for business, but what kind of friends does a shark god have? Manta rays? Jellyfish? We need the kind of people who actually come up on land —

Someone knocked on the door. Marla whistled. “Whoever that is didn’t trip my proximity alarms when they entered our fold in space. But they’re announcing themselves now, which means they aren’t outright hostile, or else, they’re pretty dumb. That’s… interesting. You get any psychic impression off of them?”

Rondeau’s psychic abilities were substantial, but he hadn’t possessed them for long, and was generally too lazy to work on developing them — after all, there were swims to take and massages to enjoy — so he just shrugged. “Something weird, not like a normal human mind, but if they found the shop, you already know they’re some kind of magic, so that doesn’t tell you much.”

“Brilliantly insightful as always. All right, show them in — maybe you’re a better greeter than a psychic.”

Rondeau opened the door with a flourish. “Hello gentlemen. And lady. Uh, ladies? Wow, there are a lot of you.” He stepped aside, ushering in five — no, six — or was it eight? — people, all young, tanned, and dressed in swimwear, from full wetsuits with reef shoes to barefoot and shirtless-with-trunks. They milled around, seeming to move in impossible ways, switching places with one another instantly in a bizarre series of interpositions, and sometimes their bodies stayed in the same place, but the clothes they were wearing switched, swifter than an eyeblink.

Marla gritted her teeth and closed her eyes. A certain god had gifted her with the power to see through illusions at will, and while the talent was useful, it was also disturbing. Sometimes it was a lot more pleasant to see the world as it pretended to be, not as it actually was, but since she combined an insatiable curiosity with a profoundly suspicious nature, she was reluctant to blind herself willingly. She couldn’t talk to a bunch of people flickering like a strobe light, though, so she stepped down her vision. When she opened her eyes, her illusion-piercing gaze was deactivated, and she saw nothing but half a dozen surfer-types, two women and four men, dripping seawater on her hardwood floor. They were all still very attractive, but no longer so… interchangeable. “What can I do for you? Anybody want a towel?”

One of them stepped forward. “We are. Ah. Names. Leis. Ryan. Josh. Mad Gary –”

Marla took pity on him. “I don’t need the full roster, really. I won’t remember them all anyway. What’s your name?”

“You may call… this one… Glyph.” He was blond, square-jawed, blue-eyed, shirtless, and in the kind of shape only a very athletic twenty-something with unspeakably good genes could be. Rondeau was eyeing Glyph like the wolf looked at Little Red Riding Hood. (Rondeau’s powers allowed him see through illusions, too, but he seldom bothered — misconceptions and lack of perception made the world more beautiful, as he always reminded her.) “A… friend of ours… was murdered.” Something about Glyph’s affect was deeply weird, his eyes not quite focused on Marla, his head titled just slightly — as if talking to another human with actual words was a significant effort for him.

Marla nodded. “Okay. Why come to me? They have cops for that.”

Glyph shook his head. “Even if the police could help us… there is no body. Ronin was a devotee of the sea, and his remains returned to our mother ocean when he died — he became sea foam and salt, and washed away.”

“Nice trick,” Marla said. “Better hope organized crime doesn’t figure out how to do that. But, again, why me? You kids are obviously carrying some pretty heavy magic around. Why not cast a few divinations of your own to find the guilty party?”

“The killer… he must be more powerful than all of us combined. We cast a dozen divinations, but we could find no trace of him.”

Marla grunted. That was interesting, because she’d guess this group, combined, possessed rather a lot more magic than she did. Not that she’d ever let a little power imbalance stop her from getting into a fight. She’d kicked a hellhound across a room once, and outsmarted the god of Death, and imprisoned the king of nightmares, among other things, and those were all fights that, on paper, she should have lost. You didn’t always have to be more powerful. Sometimes you just had to refuse to lose.

Of course, it helped to have something worth fighting for, which she didn’t, not lately. The old cliché said “freedom” was just another word for “nothing left to lose,” but if this life in exile from her home city was freedom, she’d take the prison of responsibilities anytime.

But, whether she really gave a crap or not, these people needed help, so it was time to stop moping and start asking semi-intelligent questions. “It’s definitely murder, right? No chance it was an accident?”

Glyph nodded. “We saw him die. He… Ronin could not speak when we found him, his throat was cut, blood running into the sand and turning into seawater…” Glyph shivered, and all the other surfers behind him shivered an instant later — even draped in an illusion of normalcy, they couldn’t entirely hide their group affinity. “Can you help us?”

“Sure, I could.” Marla spoke with a certain amount of bland confidence. She’d recently defeated her own evil counterpart from a parallel dimension. How hard could it be to find a murderer on an island that was only about 730 square miles all together? “If you don’t mind me asking, though, how did you find me? I don’t exactly have a listing on Yelp or Craigslist.”

“A god told us you might be able to help.”

Marla nodded. “Shark god, right?”

Glyph shook his head. “No. He was not a god of the sea — or, not just the sea, anyway. We are unsure of his domain, or even his true name, but he is… not from around here. Not one of the Hawai’ian gods, we mean, who mostly slumber deeply now, anyway. He was friendly with Ronin, and when Ronin was killed, this god suggested you might be able to help. He spoke quite highly of you.”

Marla frowned. She didn’t know that many gods, nor did she want to. Apart from the shark god she’d helped soon after arriving in Hawai’i, there was just a snake god who’d pledged to kill her someday when he got around to it, and the god of Death, with whom she had a… complicated relationship. And there was her old apprentice Bradley Bowman, who was pretty busy maintaining the structural integrity of the multiverse since he’d ascended to a sort of meta-godhood. She didn’t think any of them would be recommending her services as a detective to a pod of hive-mind surf-sorcerers, as such business was way below their pay grades. So this bunch had inadvertently brought her two things to investigate — who’d killed their friend, and which god was dropping her name.

“You are an outsider,” Glyph went on, “and so we thought you might be more… objective? The kahunas here all have old alliances, grudges, and suspicions that could color their investigations if we sought their help. They look first to their own enemies, or those they have deemed undesirable, even if the evidence points elsewhere. You do not have any of their biases. We asked others about you, and were told… not good things, exactly, but things that make us think you can find out who murdered Ronin. Arachne said you knew your way around the dead.”

Marla nodded. Arachne had only come to Marla at all because she was between apprentices and too proud to ask any of the other local kahunas for help — she could hire a haole like Marla without anyone knowing she couldn’t handle the unquiet spirit on her own, though of course it had proven to be rather more complicated than an ordinary ghost. “Sure, I helped her out, but — ”

“We talked to Zufi as well,” Glyph said.

Ah. That made more sense. “The Bay Witch. That’s what we call her back home — back in the city I’m from, I mean. We worked together for a lot of years.”

“She used to ride the waves with us in the Pacific, before relocating to the Atlantic.” Glyph frowned. “Her choice never made sense to us. Why leave the whole to be alone? And the waves over there are terrible. The god said Zufi could provide a reference for you, and when we sent word, Zufi said you are tenacious and capable and not very nice, but if you are on our side, you will be not very nice to people we do not want to be very nice to, so it is okay.” He paused. “That is a direct quote. She also said to remind you that you still owe her a favor.”

“Yeah, that sounds like Zufi. Okay. I’ll take the case.”

The surfers exchanged glances. It was like watching a meticulously choreographed bit of stage business. “What do you charge for your services?”

Marla grinned. Once upon a time, before being chief sorcerer of Felport, and then being an exiled ex-chief sorcerer, she had been a mercenary. She’d never worked for money back then, choosing a life of poverty in favor of accruing power. So her rates now were the same as they’d been back then: “If I solve the case, you’ll have to tell me a secret I don’t already know, and teach me a trick I’ve never seen before.”

“That is acceptable,” Glyph said.

Rondeau cleared his throat and glared at her.

“Oh, right,” Marla said. “I charge a secret, and a trick — plus expenses.” Rondeau had been funding her entire life since her exile, and even though he had more money than some gods now, he’d insisted that if she got a job she should at least not lose money in the process. As chief sorcerer she’d never worried about cash — all the other sorcerers under her protection had kicked up a percentage of the profits from their various legal and illegal businesses to her, leaving her free to look out for the city’s well-being as a whole — but, as she kept discovering in new and annoying ways, this was a new world. If this kept up, she’d actually end up knowing how much a gallon of milk or a loaf of bread cost.

Glyph chewed his lip. “We do not have much in the way of actual money… what kind of expenses?”

That was a good question. “Like if I need to buy grave dust or a hand of glory or something, for a spell?”

He nodded. “May we pay you in black coral?”

Marla didn’t know what that was, but she looked at Rondeau, and he nodded vigorously, so she said, “Yeah, that works.”

“May we ask how you intend to proceed?”

“I should see the crime scene.”

Glyph frowned. “Ronin’s body melted, as we said, and we could find no trace magically — ”

“Look, it’s not that I don’t have faith in you. Except, in fact, I don’t know a damn thing about you, so I’m going to do everything you did all over again, just so I know. Okay?”

“You do work for us — ” Glyph began.

“Nope,” Marla said. “I work for me. On your behalf, yes, but not for you. I do this my way, and you don’t get to bitch unless I don’t get results. Understood?”

Glyph narrowed his eyes, glanced at his fellows, then nodded. “Understood. Just… find out who killed Ronin. He was our eldest, and the best of us, and he did not deserve to die that way.”

“Sure,” Marla said. “Give my assistant here the details about the crime scene, directions and all that. And it would be good if the directions were for traveling by car, and didn’t start, ‘Swim out half a mile east’ or something.”

“We can take you — ”

“I’d rather see it on my own, without having my observations influenced,” Marla said. “I’m going to go prepare my tools of the trade. Let Rondeau know how to get in touch with you, all right?” She stepped around the counter, shook Glyph’s hand — strong grip, kinda damp — and nodded at his fellow sorcerer-siblings, or multiamorous lovemates, or hive-buddies, or whatever they were. She slipped through a curtain behind the counter into the little back room office, which didn’t contain much but a chair, a smaller desk, a safe (unlocked and empty, except for a small silver bell), and a shelf on the wall holding a few books on Polynesian mythology and the Hawai’ian language. Marla didn’t really have any prepatations to make, or any tools to pack — she just didn’t want to deal with the logistics of shooing an anxious tribe of surfers out of her office. The prospect of a mystery to solve should have excited her, but she didn’t actually give a crap about Ronin or the surfers, so the thought of getting in a car and looking at some sand a guy had died on made her tired. She didn’t want to dwell on the negative, but… what if this whole occult detective thing didn’t work out? What would she do with herself then?



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