Archive for February, 2012

10. Revengers Assemble

The first thing Crapsey heard when he woke up, slumped on the couch in Dr. Husch’s office, was Elsie Jarrow saying, “They’re so adorable when they sleep. Like lobotomized little puppies.”

“Do you mean Crapsey and Nicolette in particular,” Dr. Husch said, “or just… those who require sleep?”

“I know!” Elsie said. “I love unclear antecedents too!”

Crapsey sat up, groaning. His tongue felt like it had been replaced in the night by a mummified rodent – which, given his proximity to Elsie Jarrow, wasn’t an impossibility. “Buh,” he said.

Elsie sat perched on the edge of Dr. Husch’s desk, dressed in a dark green pencil skirt and a white blouse, clearly raided from Husch’s wardrobe. Her lips were heavily lipsticked crimson, and her hair – dry, now – was red as molten rock. Crapsey looked down at his hands, saw the streaks of red on his fingers, and tried to remember if things had gotten that crazy. He sniffed, and was relieved: not blood, just dye from Elsie’s damp hair. Nicolette was sleeping on the floor by a potted ficus, and while she was dressed, her shirt was on inside out. Crapsey had slept with Nicolette a few times before, because even though her weird shoulder-stump-thing freaked him out, she was the only game in town, but he’d never seen her as passionate as she was last night. Probably the way Crapsey would feel if he got to sleep with one of his idols. Except he couldn’t think of any idols he’d want to actually sleep with. He loved the comics of Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, but…

Nicolette’s eyes opened, she sat up, and grinned. “Today we eat the world, yeah?”

“First we torment and kill Marla,” Dr. Husch said. “After that… what you do is your own business.”

Elsie had an oversized coffee mug in her hands, and she put her nose close to the rim, inhaling deeply. “Did you know, Nicolette, now that the good doctor has unshackled me, I can draw enough power from the Brownian motion of the steam rising from this coffee to light up an entire city? And by ‘light up’ I mean ‘devastate with a relentless storm of fireballs’?”

“That’s badass,” Nicolette said. “You’re badass.”

Crapsey rolled his eyes. One of the few things he liked about Nicolette was her absolute refusal to be impressed – she’d even backtalked the Mason a few times, until she realized one more slip of the tongue would get her turned into a smear on the old monster’s boots. But she was kissing Elsie’s ass. Sometimes literally.

“You’ll learn a lot from me,” Elsie said. “Just be sure you do what I want with that knowledge. You showed me last night you can take direction, so keep that up, and we’ll be fine.”

“What happens now?” Crapsey croaked. “And where can I get some of that coffee?”

Dr. Husch pointed at a large French press on the edge of the desk, and pushed a cup toward him. Crapsey grinned at her, but she looked away, a lock of blonde hair falling across her eyes in a seriously fetching way. She’d declined to take part in the debauchery the night before, withdrawing in disgust – though presumably keeping them under observation and guard – and Crapsey was bummed about that. Elsie still looked pretty much like his old evil boss, and sleeping with Nicolette was always a one-way-ticket to Regretsville, but now that her wounds had been healed, Dr. Husch was irresistible.

“Doctor Prettyface agrees I get to run operations,” Elsie said. “After all, telling me how to kill somebody is like telling a Django Reinhardt how to tune a six-string.”

“What’s a Django?” Crapsey said.

Elsie crossed her legs, gave him a smile patronizing enough to wilt his traditional morning erection completely, and said, “We’ll put our team together, and then we’ll teleport over to Hawai’i, and start making Marla’s life miserable.”

“Uh,” Nicolette said. “I don’t… I mean… I’m not a big fan of teleporting. Last time I did that…” She gestured at her empty sleeve.

Elsie’s look of concern was so convincing Crapsey had to concede it might be real. “You poor thing! One of the nameless many-limbed horrors of the in-between ripped your arm off?”

Nicolette nodded, looking away, clearly embarrassed. Crapsey had only teleported a few times, when the Mason really needed to get somewhere fast, and he’d never had any problems… but ripping holes in space and stepping through to somewhere else was dangerous, and there was a double-digit-percentage chance that some interdimensional predator would try to eat you on the way through. Or maybe not predators, and maybe not eating – the Mason had told him once that teleporting took you through the machine room of the universe, and it was possible Nicolette had lost her arm to the whirring gears of some incomprehensible cosmic engine, like a kid in a factory getting his hand caught in a drill press.

“Something tried to tear my leg off once when I teleported,” Elsie was saying. “But I just ripped its arms off instead. Nasty things, they melted into a sort of silvery sludge as soon as I brought them through the portal with me. I dumped the remains in a pond, it killed like a thousand fish, really interesting, they grew extra eyes and then their brains exploded, poof!” She laughed, deeply and genuinely. “Nasty fuckers, those beasties-in-between. I actually learned another way to travel somewhere quickly – a Sufi mystic taught me the secret of Tayy al-Ard, ‘the folding of the Earth.’ Instead of ripping holes in reality and stepping through, you stay in one place, and the Earth moves under you, and puts your destination beneath your feet. Doesn’t work for groups, though, so I couldn’t pull you along. Besides, I prefer the old hole-tearing Western form of teleportation – it comes with a much bigger chance of disaster.”

“You could teach me the… Tayy, whatever,” Nicolette said.

Elsie chuckled. “Oh, that’s cute. No, I couldn’t. No more than I could teach a toddler to fly a fighter jet. Actually, the results would be equally hilarious. If you’re too scared to teleport, you can book a ticket on Hawaiian Airlines or something and catch up with us on your own time.”

Nicolette narrowed her eyes. “No, I want to go, it’s fine, I’ll teleport. I got one arm ripped off already, so what are the odds of it happening again?”

“Exactly the same odds you’d have if you still possessed both arms,” Elsie said kindly. “The fact that it happened once before doesn’t affect the probability of it happening again – not in the slightest. That’s simple statistics. But there’s no reason you should know about statistics or probability, after all. They’re only fundamental underpinnings of chaos magic.”

“I love what a bitch you can be,” Nicolette said, with apparent sincerity. Crapsey looked at Dr. Husch and raised an eyebrow, but there was no making a connection with her – she just turned up her nose and looked away.

“I’m as changeable as the colors in an oil slick all right,” Elsie said. She hopped off the desk and clapped her hands. “Dr. Husch has given us the run of the asylum. I figure we’ll fling a couple of the inmates – sorry, patients – Marla’s way, just to cause trouble. Then we’ll step in more directly and have some fun.”

“Can’t we just kill her?” Crapsey said. “And Rondeau, too. Especially Rondeau.”

“So many vendettas! Who can keep track? No, just killing her is boring, it would not fatten me up or make me drunk with power at all. We will have a plan, and it will be an extremely complicated plan – ”

Nicolette raised her hand. “Not to agree with Crapsey or anything, but… a plan? Really? Shouldn’t we just jump in and make some moves and see what happens, surf the probability waves, stir up some shit and cause a ruckus?”

Suddenly Elsie had a wooden ruler in her hand, and she slammed it down on the desk with a resounding crack. “Nicolette! What is chaos?”

Nicolette blinked. “Disorder?”

“Yes. What necessarily precedes disorder?”

“Um. Order?”

“Good girl! Chaos magicians don’t hate order, silly, we love order. If we were just relentless champions of entropy, you know what we’d get? A static universe, with all the particles evenly distributed, and no heat. Everything still, and unmoving, and dead. That’s the kind of world the Mason, the last inhabitant of this fine body, wanted. It’s not the kind of world I want. I love plans, Nicolette, and the more complicated the better. I want a big crew, and lots of moving parts. A team of criminally insane sorcerers, and assorted other malcontents and grudge holders, all secretly pursuing their own agendas, looking to backstab and scheme and further their own interests, working at cross-purposes and getting into fights and squabbling and storming off in a huff…” Elsie’s eyes rolled back in her head, and she shivered all over.

“Is she… having an orgasm?” Dr. Husch asked. “Because she looks like she’s having an orgasm.”

“Either she is,” Crapsey said, “or she was faking it exactly the same way last night.”

Elsie pushed a hank of hair out of her face, bit her own thumb hard enough to draw blood, then smiled. “Sorry. Just thinking about all that potential disaster gets me… . Ahem. The more complicated the plan, Nicolette, the more possible ways it can fall apart. And that falling apart is basically the kinetic energy that feeds my power – and yours, too, I guess, not that I’ve seen any power out of you yet.”

“I did not release you to grow fat off disaster.” Dr. Husch glared. “I want Marla miserable, and then I want her dead. Your plan is useless to me if it doesn’t achieve those ends. And, much to my surprise, it turns out I have an informant of sorts in Marla’s camp. Rondeau called me last night for a friendly conversation, unaware of how my loyalties have shifted. Marla knows you’re coming.” Husch paused. “Not you, specifically, Jarrow, but her enemies – Rondeau summoned an oracle, which gave Marla a warning, in general terms. You will not be able to take her unawares.”

“It’ll be way more fun with an informed opposition anyway!” Elsie said. “What’s the point of a war if one side of the conflict thinks it’s a vacation instead?” She leaned over the desk and patted Husch’s folded hands. “It’s okay. If the plan works, misery and death, just like you wanted. If the plan fails spectacularly, I’ll get a nice power surge, and, eh, then I’ll just pop Marla’s head like Nicolette pops her pimples, okay?”

“I care only for results,” Husch said.

“I guess we’d better get started, then! Let’s meet the new recruits.”

“I think these are the best prospects.” Husch pushed over a pile of folders, and Elsie picked them up and flung them at Nicolette, who snatched one out of the air but, lacking a second hand, got smacked in the chest with rest.

“Read!” Elsie barked. “Summarize!”

Nicolette sat down on the floor and scanned through the files. “Uh, Norma Nilson, the nihilomancer. She projects her emotions, making others feel what she feels, and since she thinks life is horrible and meaningless, she’s kind of a bummer to be around. Everybody in her apartment building died of starvation before she was locked up – they just stopped caring enough to eat. All the people who came to check on their friends or family who lived in the apartment got caught in the field of depression, too, until somebody with magical connections figured out what was going on. Ugly stuff.”

“She’s a maybe,” Elsie said. “Nihilism is boring. If we could get her to project, say, Dionysian frenzy, that could be something. Might be possible. Brain chemistry can be hacked.” She sat back down on the desk and turned to Husch. “What about that other psychic, Genevieve? The one who knocked me out last time I tried to escape? She’s got some power we could use.”

“She escaped herself,” Husch said. “Her current whereabouts are unknown.”

“She’s friends with Marla anyway, I hear,” Nicolette chimed in. “Marla helped de-crazy her.”

“Hmm, that could be a real challenge, if she got involved on Marla’s side,” Elsie mused. “It would be nice if this wasn’t a total one-sided blowout. Okay, who’s next?”

“The Beast of Felport.” Nicolette opened a folder and removed a single sheet of paper. “Not a lot of info here. An animal unknown to science. Relentless killing machine, cunning, difficult to contain, apparently immortal, seems to be connected to this area somehow, though nobody’s sure why – maybe a supernatural protector? Ha, kind of like Marla was, except whatever it’s protecting isn’t the populace. Hates people, tries to kill them all, pretty indiscriminately. Wants to wipe the city off the map, it looks like. Maybe it just really like trees and mud. Currently wrapped in a dream that makes it believe it’s running around primal uninhabited Felport, all happy and unconscious.”

“Hmm. No, I don’t think so. I like people I can talk to. Relentless killing machines don’t scheme or plot, anyway. Capital B Boring. Next.”

“This guy calls himself Everett Malkin – claims to be the first chief sorcerer of Felport, from hundreds of years ago.” Nicolette shook her head. “He’s got some kind of magic, but it’s not clear if he’s super-powerful or anything, and apparently Marla tricked him into getting locked up here without much trouble. He really hates her, though, so he’s got that going for him.”

“I think we have enough personal grudges against Marla in this crew already,” Elsie said. “One more and we’ll be in danger of having a quorum, far too much unity of purpose. Next!”

“Roger Vaughn, and his reincarnation, the younger Roger Vaughn – ”

“Vaughn? That idiot?” Elsie blew a raspberry. “He worships an evil sea-god that doesn’t even exist.. Pathetic. If I worshipped an imaginary sea-god, you’d better believe it would start existing, and quick. Next.”

“Gustavus Lupo, the skinchanger.” Nicolette looked up from the pages in her lap. “Didn’t he make a giant body out of corpses or something once?”

“That was just a rumor,” Dr. Husch said. “It was an unrelated flesh golem. No, Lupo is…”

“I told Nicolette to summarize,” Elsie said and, amazingly, Husch fell silent – possibly because she was afraid the chaos witch would ugly her up again. Crapsey didn’t like the way the power dynamic was shifting here. It felt kind of like an ocean liner starting to capsize.

“Lupo can… Ha! You ever hear of the Napoleon complex? When a crazy guy thinks he’s Napoleon?”

“Yes. I also know about people trapped on desert islands, men lying on psychiatrist’s couches, people crawling through the desert, and other gag comic-strip clichés.”

“Well, if Lupo thinks he’s Napoleon, he turns into Napoleon. Like, physically, it’s not just an illusory light show, he really changes. And he has the strategic and tactical knowledge that Napoleon had, and he speaks French, and all that.”

“His impersonations are more convincing when the subject is living,” Husch said. “I think he establishes a sort of… psychic link, and mirrors their minds directly. For the dead, he gets the knowledge from somewhere, perhaps the minds of some scholar or relative somewhere, but the artifice is less perfect.”

“What’s Lupo doing in here?” Crapsey said. “Sounds like he’s a crime boss’s dream. Perfect impersonations on demand.”

Husch shrugged. “He lost control. Replicating so many minds grievously damaged his own – when he impersonated someone, he forgot almost entirely about himself and his own identity. He’d turn into people he encountered randomly on the street, sometimes. Then he would become convinced they were doppelgangers, monsters impersonating him, and he would try to murder them. Any actual identity he once had is in shreds and fragments. I’ve tried to coax out the ‘real’ Gustavus, but… it’s been a long time, and we’ve made almost no progress. His rooms are full of mirrors, so he can see his face, and remember who he is, but if he so much as sees a photograph of another person, he takes on their form, and in the absence of external reinforcement or new people to imitate, he just… blurs.”

“So what good is he to us?” Nicolette said. “If he’s too crazy to follow orders?”

“Oh, I can control him,” Elsie said airily. “I can’t heal him, or anyway I won’t, but I can pick a person for him to impersonate and stir in a little compulsion to lock down that shape until we want it to change, not a problem. But who should we turn him in to? Does Marla have any dead lovers? Ooh, maybe her dead apprentice?”

“Her brother,” Nicolette said. “They’ve got some kind of messed-up history. Lupo could impersonate – ”

“No, no, we’re going to recruit her actual brother,” Elsie said. “It’s on my to-do list for later this morning.”

Husch frowned. “Jason Mason is just a criminal – a confidence man. He has no real knowledge of magic. You want to recruit him to your team?”

“Of course!” Elsie said. “It’ll be a disaster. I can’t wait.” She reached out and touched Husch’s cheek. “Your skin, I swear, it’s like porcelain. Which is to say, I could shatter it with a hammer. Now, I’ll do this job for you, I’ve made an agreement, and I’ll stand by it since I haven’t figured out a way to knock down your binding spells yet, but you have to give me the good stuff, quit holding back. Who do you have locked up in here who can do some real damage?”

Dr. Husch sighed. “Yes. I thought it might come to that. Let me show you.”


“Elsie Jarrow and Roderick Barrow?” The chaos witch laughed. “I can’t decide if that sounds like a firm of lawyers or a vaudeville duo.” They were in a small room just off a remote hallway of the estate, a space unremarkable in most respects – except for the fact that one wall was an unbroken sheet of black volcanic glass, so imbued with magics that it made Crapsey’s wooden jaw ache.

“He calls himself Barrow of Ulthar now,” Dr. Husch said. “Though his full title is Lord of the Maggotlands, Protector of the Ravenous Dead, Dispenser of Injustice, Bestower of Maladies, Emperor of the Cinderlands and the Megalith Isles… well, I can’t remember the rest of it. He’s a Dark Lord, basically.”

“Of an imaginary fantasy universe,” Elsie said.

“He is very good at imagining. Barrow was a pulp science fiction writer in the 1930s, and after he suffered a mental breakdown, he began to imagine himself living in a sword-and-sorcery world of his own devising.” Husch spread out a few photos on the desk – they showed swords, animal pelts, some kind of giant dead snake, and misshapen skulls. “These are all… imports, you might say, or rather apports, from his fantasy world. He is delusional, but he’s exothermically delusional. I almost tried to recruit him to run this operation, but I was afraid I might accidentally unleash his monstrous horde upon the Earth.”

Elsie smiled. “And, what, you thought I’d be safer? I wonder about your sanity, doctor. Maybe my craziness is contagious. Though I’m feeling much better in this body. Chronic agony tends to distort your worldview.”

“He’s also very resistant to direct communication,” Husch said. “Anyone who enters Barrow’s physical presence is pulled into his fantasy world. The results are seldom pleasant for those so absorbed. He incorporates visitors into his narrative, generally as enemies. And Barrow of Ulthar’s enemies don’t tend to live long. His fantasy alter-ego used to be a hero, actually, with a destiny, on a quest to save the universe. But I sent Marla Mason into his dreamworld in an attempt at therapy, hoping she could thwart his quest, and show him his world was an illusion. This was many years ago, back when she was just a mercenary, really…”

“She fucked it up?” Elsie said.

“On the contrary, she did just as I hoped. She showed Barrow he was not a hero fated to save a world – that he was just a man, fragile and flawed and entirely capable of being defeated. Alas, he did not respond by becoming lucid and returning to this reality. Instead he decided that, if he didn’t have a destiny, he would make his own destiny, and that if he couldn’t be a hero, he would become a conqueror.”

“I’m so over conquerors,” Crapsey muttered, running his fingers along the wall of obsidian glass that separated Barrow’s room from the rest of the Institute.

“We could still use him,” Elsie said. “Or his power, anyway. Let me in to see him.”

“He’ll think you’re a rival sorcerer,” Husch warned. “He’ll try to kill you.”

“Many have tried,” Elsie said. “Few have triumphed.”

Few? Crapsey thought. Then again, how surprising was it that Elsie had died already, and more than once?

Husch removed her necklace, revealing the small golden key that had been hanging between her breasts all this time. Lucky key, Crapsey thought.

“Ooh, there’s power there.” Elsie leaned forward and sniffed. “You’ve got yourself an artifact, don’t you?”

“This object maintains Barrow’s captivity,” Husch said. “Among other things. It’s called the Key of Totality. An item of power that comes from Barrow’s own imaginary universe, actually, which might be why it’s so effective against him.” She put the key into a small hole in the black glass wall – though Crapsey wasn’t entirely convinced the hole had been there a moment ago – and gave it a twist. A rectangular section of rock slid away, revealing darkness inside. “It’s basically an airlock,” Husch said. “The door to his room will open after this door closes behind you. Are you sure you want to do this? Our Dark Lord is more powerful than you realize.”

“I love meeting new people.” Elsie stepped into the wall of black glass, and the door slid closed after her, the whole becoming seamless and solid again.

“I hope she doesn’t die,” Husch said. “Or… I don’t suppose she’s solipsistic enough to want to usurp Barrow’s power?”

“Elsie’s not really a builder,” Nicolette said. “Or, if she builds something, it’s just for the joy of demolishing it later. I’ve been spending my whole life kicking over sandcastles, but Elsie likes to build the sandcastles herself and then kick them over – probably because she makes better sandcastle than your average asshole with a pail and shovel does. But she’s been trapped in a box for a long time. I doubt she’d want to be stuck in another box, even one made of imagination.”

“Uh. How will you know when she wants to come out?” Crapsey said.

Husch shrugged. “The spells of binding here are meant to keep Barrow and his various emanations in captivity. It should be possible for Jarrow to get out – assuming she isn’t murdered in my patient’s dreamworld. But either way, we should – ”

A knocking sound came from beyond the obsidian wall. “Yoo hoo!” Elsie called, voice muffled but cheerful. “Open, says me!”

Husch touched the key, which pulsed golden light, and twisted it again in the keyhole, making the door in the wall slide open again. Elsie came out, hair mussed but otherwise unchanged. She had an object the size of a soccer ball, wrapped in a brown fur, tucked under her arm. “Okay,” Elsie said, “Barrow and I made an arrangement. I’m done.”

“You were there only moments!” Husch said.

Elsie waved a hand. “Messing with time is a specialty of mine, and in a fantasy world? Please. The rules are so much more elastic there, you don’t even really have to break them, just stretch them a little. I spent a couple of weeks with the Dark Lord, and helped him deal with some rebellions in the provinces – I think he’s killing externalized representations of inconvenient parts of his psyche, like guilt and empathy, in the form of peasants and revolutionaries, it’s pretty interesting – and this is my payment.” She patted the object under her arm. “It should come in handy.”

“What is it?” Husch said.

“I know!” Elsie said. “I love surprises too! All right, it’s time to get things going. I know not much time passed here, but subjectively it feels to me like we’re running late, so you’re all on Jarrow time now. We’ve got a bit more work to do on the mainland, but there’s no reason we can’t start softening Marla up now. The road to hell wasn’t built in a day. Let’s go see Gustavus Lupo, teleport him over to Maui, and put him to work.” Elsie draped her free arm around Nicolette’s shoulder. “What were you saying before, about how most of Marla’s enemies were dead? What are their names? And do you think we could get some pictures of them?”

9. Seeing the World

Pelham rolled across a one-lane bridge on the winding, narrow, gloriously scenic road to Hana, then adroitly squeezed the black convertible onto the minuscule shoulder to let an impatient local in a mud-stained Jeep swoop around them and speed away.

“I was worried this drive would stress you out,” Marla said. They were only travelling about fifty miles, but it was going to take between two and three hours, because the Hana Highway was as twisty as a grifter’s wit, following the coastline through tropical rainforest on a route that included something like sixty bridges, many of them one-lane, plus an effective infinity of blind curves. The trip was stressing Marla out, because two parts of her nature were in conflict: she hated driving, but she was also a control freak. At least with Pelham she was in good hands. When Rondeau had driven this way, they’d nearly died about 125 times, by Marla’s count. This wasn’t a trip to take when you were in a hurry… but unless you had a helicopter or a boat handy (or were willing to brave the risks inherent in teleportation), there was no other way to reach the eastern side of the island.

“Oh, no, this is lovely,” Pelham said. “I suppose it might have made me anxious when I first left Felport… but since then I’ve driven the road of death in Bolivia, and the Deosai National Park Trail in Pakistan – after driving across a wood-and-rope bridge suspended over a chasm, a few blind curves and one-lane stretches are nothing to get worked up about.”

“Ha. I guess not. I’m going to have to get used to the new you, Pelham – I’m still thinking of you as the guy who never left Felport, who’d barely been off the Chamberlain’s estate.”

“The past few months have been most instructive, Mrs. Mason. During our time together I gained some inkling of the divide between my theoretical knowledge and the practical application of that knowledge.” He had a faraway look in his eyes – a trifle worrisome in a man driving along the edge of a cliff towering over the ocean. “I have experienced so much since then. Great kindness and casual cruelty. Amazing food and filthy rooms. Learning a language from books and tapes is quite different from speaking the language with people. I was groomed for service, but the world is so much larger than I ever realized. Thank you for that – for sending me out.”

Marla had been a few places over the years, but always for business, and she’d never explored like Pelham had – had never wanted to, with all her attention focused on Felport’s well-being. “You don’t have to stay here now,” Marla said. “With me, I mean. We can be – bonded, or whatever – without you having to live in a little room under the stairs emptying my chamber pot and cooking me rashers of bacon.”

“With your permission, I may go traveling again,” Pelham said. “But for now, you are in danger, and you are my friend as well as my mistress, and I would prefer to stay and assist in whatever way I can.”

“Ha. ‘Mistress.’ Careful calling me that in public, all right? But I’m glad to have you. I could use the help.”

He glanced at her sidelong. “Mrs. Mason. You’ve changed, too, if you don’t mind me saying. I can scarcely remember you ever admitting to needing help before.”

She sighed, gazing out the window as they passed the burned-out hulk of an old pickup truck someone had shoved into the trees on the side of the road. “I don’t claim to be the smartest person in the world, but if there’s one lesson I’ve learned this past year, it’s that there are some things you can’t do on your own. Being self-reliant is still important to me, don’t get me wrong… but losing almost all my friends and allies has given me a new appreciation for the ones I have left. You included.”

“Aren’t we on our way to see another of your friends now?”

Marla snorted. “I wouldn’t go that far. She’s a kahuna named Arachne, though she’s not as… spidery as the name would imply. She’s into the weaving thing, though, mostly magics of binding and separating. She weaves together nets and rugs and whatever else as part of her ritual. Arachne’s native Hawai’ian, pretty much a nature magician – you know how much I love those – and I helped her out with a ghost not long ago. She wasn’t too grateful, though. I think she was pissed off that she needed help at all – and, yes, I know, I can relate to that. Seeing me again will probably annoy her – but apart from the surfers who hired me, she’s literally the only sorcerer on the island I’m on speaking terms with. The local kahunas aren’t big fans of haole sorcerers from the mainland. Hard to blame them, since the last haole magus to show up on Maui was an asshole of a guy who turned rival sorcerers into sharks. But you’ve already heard that sob story, and I don’t feel like telling it – we’ve got a long drive ahead of us. Tell me what you’ve been up to.”

Pelham recited the list of places he’d visited – Malaysia, South America, bits of Eastern Europe, a lot of Southeast Asia, none for more than a few days at a time – and some of the difficulties he’d encountered. Apart from the Nuno, he’d also had run-ins with the iron-toothed Abaasy of Turkey, a Tokoloshe in South Africa, and a Colo Colo in Argentina. The glamour Marla had placed on the steamer trunk had proven an irresistible attractant for minor magical beings, something she hadn’t anticipated – there weren’t a lot of loose supernatural creatures in the streets of Felport, and she hadn’t realized quite how wild some of the remaining wild places in the world could be.

“Did you see anything nice?” Marla said. “I’ll feel like crap if it was all monsters, all the time.”

“Oh, no, it wasn’t all being chased by terrifying or bewildering creatures,” Pelham said. “And, given my extensive studies in magic, I generally knew what I was dealing with, and how to banish them, or at least avoid being harmed. There were many beautiful things. A forgotten temple in Indonesia, still intact, and more ancient than some civilizations. The Hang Son Doong cavern in Vietnam, where holes in the ground above admit water and light sufficient for a small forest to grow over the centuries, creating what is essentially a jungle under the earth – that was like something out of an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel. The Metéora monasteries in Greece, built atop towering pillars of rock, almost literally castles in the air.” He smiled, his expression going all soft and faraway. “I even met a woman. Nothing serious, of course, just a fellow traveler, but… . Yes. There were beautiful things.”

“Good for you, Pelham. I’m glad to hear it.”

Pelham blushed, adjusted the convertible’s mirrors in a completely unnecessary way, and continued briskly. “I went to Lake Paasselkä in Finland, thinking it might be a good place to sink the glamoured trunk – the lake was formed by a meteor impact, and there are strange magnetic anomalies associated with the place, along with other purportedly supernatural qualities. I decided the magics on the trunk and in the lake might interact badly, alas, but before I left, I saw the Paasselkä devil – a ball of light that seems to move almost consciously. Eerie, and beautiful, and despite the fierce name, I did not find it frightening at all.”

“What is it? The devil thing, I mean.”

Pelham smiled. “I have no idea. Isn’t it wonderful? The world is so big, Mrs. Mason. So full of mysteries, vistas, experiences. At home on the estate, growing up, I thought the world was very small – after all, I could see the whole thing on a globe, or a map. I read books, and believed the whole world could be contained in those books, and in a sense, I suppose they can. But the guidebook is not the experience. Knowledge received cannot compare to knowledge directly perceived.”

“Damn, Pelham,” Marla said. “You’ve managed to make me feel positively provincial, which is a pretty good trick for a guy who didn’t leave the grounds of a mansion for the first few decades of his life.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t say that. There is something to be said for the intense knowledge you have about Felport as well. My experiences were wonderful, but in many ways they were shallow. Spending only a few days, or sometimes only a few hours in a place, I could take away only surface impressions – startling and moving impressions, often, but not deep ones. To truly know a place takes a long stay, and the sort of devotion you gave to Felport. When, in my youth, I expressed dissatisfaction with the constraints of living on the estate, the Chamberlain told me that the world was small, but the gardens were vast – meaning, or so I understood her, that close attention could make a place seem to expand, containing multitudes. In my perfect world, I would spend a few months, perhaps a year, living in a place, thereby going a level or two deeper than the average tourist does, before moving on. Combining breadth and depth of experience, and trying to achieve some sort of balance.”

“But wouldn’t you feel, I don’t know, adrift? Not having a proper home?”

“I think home is where you make it, Mrs. Mason. Even if you make it in the inside of your own head.”

“Huh. I – oh, wait, this is close enough.” Marla directed Pelham to pull over into the big gravel parking lot, still half full of cars even this early in the day, surrounded by verdant hills. “Arachne likes to hang out in the woods around here. If I wander around a bit she’ll notice me soon enough.”

“We’re near the Seven Sacred Pools, aren’t we?”

“Yeah, that’s right, you read guidebooks. It’s a pretty place – waterfalls feeding pools, tropical birds, all that. Rondeau likes it over here, except for the drive being a pain in the ass, and all the walking you have to do to see everything. He’d be happier if they’d move the whole park closer to the hotel so he could wander over after his morning Bloody Mary.”

“The effort to get here is surely some of the appeal, though,” Pelham said. “If it were easy, wouldn’t it be less satisfying?”

“Huh. If you say so. I’ve always been more results- and destination-oriented myself. Look, I’m going to head up that hill over there, and try not to kill myself scrambling around on the lava rocks. Arachne doesn’t hang out on the hiking trails with the tourists. But if you want to go hike around, feel free.”

“Shouldn’t I accompany you?”

Marla shook her head. “Not yet. Arachne can be… prickly about outsiders. She pretty much sits in the woods and broods about tourists from Japan and the mainland US all day, as far as I can tell. The ghost we had to banish was some haole who jumped down a waterfall, landed badly, drowned, and ended up haunting the area. She doesn’t mind the ghosts of locals, but haoles like you and me… We’re all invasive species as far as she’s concerned. She probably hates the surfers, too, which is why I think she might be able to give me some nasty gossip about them. I figure nasty gossip is a good thing to hear in a murder investigation.”

“I can find no fault in your methodology,” Pelham said. “I have my phone if you need me. I suppose it might be pleasant to walk. And if you get in any trouble, I should sense it.”

“Arachne doesn’t scare me. Nobody’s managed to kill me with withering scorn yet, and I doubt she’ll be the first.” Marla got out of the convertible, tightened the laces on her boots, and gave Pelham a wave before going up the hill.

It was great to have Pelly back… but he was different. Probably he was just changed from having his horizons expanded and everything, but he seemed preoccupied, too, like there was something weighing on his mind. Pelham wasn’t the sort to share his troubles – having been trained all his life to ease trouble for others – but if he wanted to suffer in silence, that was his business. He did say he’d met a woman on his travels – maybe that was it. Nothing could mess with you like romance, in Marla’s experience, which was why she avoided it as much as possible.

A long green frond brushed her cheek as she tromped up the slope among the greenery. Nature. She’d never even liked going to the park back in Felport, and now she lived on an island that was half jungle. She liked to say that all of civilization was based on the effort to get away from nature, but talking to Pelham had made her reconsider certain of her bedrock assumptions. Maybe her dislike for wild places was just part of her need for control, and her distrust of things she couldn’t control. But she’d believed herself in complete control of Felport, and look how that had turned out.

The surfers who’d hired her were wave-mages, like the Bay Witch, and that meant they didn’t try to dominate the waves: they just worked with them, and chose the right one to get them where they wanted to go. Maybe they had a point. And maybe, damn it, she was kind of provincial.

Marla was so deep in thought that she walked right into a spider web. She wiped the threads from her face, scowling. Life had been a lot easier when she was absolutely dead certain about everything.


Pelham carefully locked up the car, adjusted his broad-brimmed hat – he’d gotten a terrible sunburn on his scalp in South Africa, and didn’t want to repeat the experience – and started toward the nearest trailhead. While he would never be able to dress down to the level of, say, Rondeau – those Aloha shirts! – he’d realized early in his travels that his preferred garb of waistcoats and cravats and perfectly-creased slacks and mirror-shined black dress shoes was impractical, regrettably anachronistic, and tended to draw attention. He had adjusted. Life was about adjustment.

Today he wore a white linen shirt, a tropical-weight sports coat in pale tan, and khakis, with (of all things) hiking boots. He’d felt a bit disloyal dressing down to such a degree while once more in his mistress’s direct employ, but Marla hadn’t commented, and he knew intellectually that she didn’t care what he wore. Overcoming decades of training on the proper attire and behavior of a valet was difficult… but he’d come a long way.

A Hawai’ian man, wearing a blue rashguard and long black shorts, fell into step behind him as Pelham walked along the trail winding through the trees. “Aloha,” the man said.

“Good morning,” Pelham said politely, still walking.

“How’s Marla doing?”

Pelham stopped, scrutinized the man, and shook his head. “I am afraid I do not know you, sir.”

“You do, though. We met in Nepal. I was a little shorter then.” The man paused. “And female. And, you know. More Nepalese. You were feeling awfully homesick, and I made you feel better.”

Pelham exhaled. “Of course. Ms. – Mr. – Reva. I should have realized your… demeanor would be different, here.”

The god shrugged. “Not ‘Mr. Reva,’ please, just ‘Reva.’ You and me, after how close we’ve been, it’s kind of silly to be formal.” He leaned close, put his hands on Pelham’s shoulders, and gazed into his eyes. “Let’s talk.”

Pelham took a step back, clearing his throat. “Ah, can we talk without… such intimacy? I mean no disrespect, and I realize our past history might cause confusion, but I confess I find it disconcerting now that you are in a different body – ”

Reva frowned. “Now that is weird as hell, Pelham.”

“What is, sir?”

“You didn’t – look.” He called out to a middle-aged man trudging past on the trail with a grim expression on his face. “Hey!” Reva shouted. “Come here for a minute. I want to talk to you.”

The man walked over, a strange, faraway look in his eyes, and stopped in front of Reva.

“Where’s your home?” Reva asked.

“Hot Springs, Arkansas,” the man said.

“Beautiful little town,” Reva said. “There’s a swimming hole near there, deep and still, in an old quarry, as nice as any tropical lagoon, isn’t it?”

“Sure is,” the man said, eyes locked on something far off, perhaps in the past. “Went there with my wife on our first date, if you could even call it a date – we were both about sixteen. We swam out to the float in the middle, and she kissed me, and…” He sighed.

“Tell me what troubles you, friend.” Reva rested a hand on the man’s shoulder.

“This is supposed to be our second honeymoon. Our first honeymoon was just a hotel room in Little Rock, nothing special, so we thought for our twentieth anniversary we’d do it up right, but my wife got a stomach bug from some bad fish I guess. I was moping around the room all morning, and she was moaning in the bed, and finally she yelled at me to go do something so we wouldn’t both waste the whole day, and here I am, did that whole long drive by myself, and now I’m just walking in the jungle, and what’s the point, when she’s not here?”

“Head on back,” Reva said. “When you get there, she’ll be feeling better, and she’ll be sitting out by the pool, wearing that new swimsuit she bought, and she’ll be just as pretty to you as she was when you were both sixteen. Go into the pool with her, slip back behind that little fake waterfall they have, and believe me, you won’t regret it.” He paused. “And you’ll get a free upgrade to first class on the flight back home, how’s that?”

“That sounds good,” the man said, and Reva took his hand off his shoulder. The man shook his head, eyes focusing, and looked around. “Ah. I should get back to the hotel and check on my wife.”

“Safe travels, my friend,” Reva said, and the man gave a wave and hurried down the hill.

“Magic,” Pelham said. “And a rather kind sort of magic, too. But what was that meant to show me?”

Reva looked around, then sat on a big rock by the trail. Pelham eased down beside him. The god said, “When I meet somebody who’s not in the place they consider home – one of my people, whether they’re a traveler, an exile, or just a tourist – I can sort of… cut through the bullshit. I talk to their deepdown parts. They can’t lie to me then. They tell me their true feelings. And I help them when I can. Since I’m a god… I usually can. I talked to you the same way in Nepal, at first.”

Pelham frowned. “I have no memory of that. But I suppose I wouldn’t, would I? I don’t think I’m comfortable with you having direct access to my secret thoughts, to the levers and axles of my mind. Especially considering what happened between us later – ”

Reva shook his head. “No, Pelham, there was no coercion – that’s not how I do things. I can’t make you do anything you don’t want to. I did get a sense of your loneliness from our talk, and in that body, with that brain, I thought you were cute, and one thing led to another… but everything that happened was consenting adult stuff. Don’t worry, you don’t do much for me now, this body is pretty firmly heterosexual.”

“Even so,” Pelham said. “To be laid bare that way, to have no choice but to answer your questions… .” He shuddered. “You are not human. You cannot understand why your actions trouble me. It is important for me to remember that.”

Reva sighed. “I guess you could see it as an invasion of privacy. And you’d be right. I am an invader of privacy. It’s just how I get things done, right or wrong – it saves time, and gives me confidence that I have all my facts straight. You can disapprove. I don’t mind – all I can tell you is, I try to use my power to give people better lives. Anyway, I thought I’d talk to you the same way here, but… it doesn’t work. Which is weird, because Hawai’i isn’t your home, and if someone’s away from home, my power always works – ”

Pelham shook his head. “But I am home. I am back with Mrs. Mason. Wherever she is – that is my home.”

Reva clapped his hands together, delighted. “Right! I’ve seen that before, in some lovers, but never in a case like this. But you and Marla have a magical connection, a supernatural bond… it makes sense. She’s your home, but you’re not hers.” He winced. “No offense, I’m sure you’re important to her – ”

Pelham shrugged. “It is the nature of our relationship. It does not trouble me. Unlike non-consensual hypnosis and seduction by a god.” His shuddered at the thought. No wonder he’d felt so instantly comfortable with Reva in his – her – previous form; the god had known just what to say to him, just how to behave, to win Pelham’s trust and affection. It was horrible, but perhaps no relationship between a mortal and a god could ever be truly consensual – there was always going to be a fundamental imbalance of power in the god’s favor. Something withered deep in his heart. A beautiful memory had been made ugly forever.

Reva winced. “Look, I promise not to try to shortcut around your conscious mind again, okay?”

“How noble of you to promise not to do something you are no longer able to do, immediately after trying and failing to do that very thing.”

“Look, we have to move on from this, all right? We’ve got other things to talk about, and anyway, I’m glad you’ve found your home again. So how’s our plan working?”

Pelham closed his eyes. He was involved with this creature now, and he believed Reva did mean well when it came to Marla, so he tried to suppress his revulsion. He said, “Marla seems interested in finding out the murderer’s identity. You were right, I think, that having a difficult project would help take her mind off her exile. But she is still not quite herself. She has renewed her connection with her consort, the god of Death, which may prove beneficial to her outlook, but I am unsure. She seems… uncomfortable in her relationship with him. He did bring another distraction, though – he says her death is imminent. Her enemies are coming for her.”

“My powers aren’t much good when it comes to looking into the future – I’m a here-and-now sort of god – but I’ve gotten a sense of forces gathering, too. From everything I’ve observed, Marla’s tough. The future’s not fixed. Don’t give up hope.”

“I have not.” Pelham was offended at the suggestion. “She has faced terrible foes before, and triumphed. I just worry… she does not have as much to fight for, now. Her city is lost to her. Death is trying to woo her with tales of how wonderful her afterlife will be, in his company. I do not believe she would willingly let her enemies kill her, but what if she lacks the fire, the passion, that has always given her an edge? What if, at the crucial moment, she cannot muster the will to stop her foes from killing her?”

“That’s why she has friends like you.” Reva clapped him on the shoulder. Pelham remembered the god’s touch, using different hands, and shuddered. “And friends like me, though she doesn’t seem to appreciate it. And you say her husband is trying to convince her to choose death? I might have to go have a talk with him.”

“Are the two of you acquainted?”

“Nah, he doesn’t even know I exist. On the scale of gods, Death is like a crowned head of Europe, and I’m chief of an island village so tiny it doesn’t even have a name. Compared to a mortal, or even a sorcerer, I’ve got a lot of power – but compared to Death, I’m an insect.”

“Then what does that make mortals, or sorcerers, to Death? Microbes? Parasites?”

“Exactly,” Reva said. “That’s why things like him shouldn’t be giving mortals advice about their life choices. Which is something I might point out to him.”

“It is brave of you to confront him,” Pelham said carefully

Reva sighed. “You’re thinking things like me shouldn’t be giving advice to mortals, too, aren’t you?”

“The thought had occurred to me.”

Reva nodded. “You have a point, but I do know what it’s like to be human, unike Death. When I instantiate like this, take on a local form, I become a person, with the drives and limitations of a person… mostly. Anyway, talking to Death isn’t all that brave. When you can’t die, Death is a lot less intimidating. I doubt talking to him will do me any good, but I can try. Marla may be his wife… but she’s one of my people. Her home is lost, but if we can help her find a new home, or at least realize that she might someday find a new home, she’ll be okay. Keeping her busy is a good first step.”

“Trying to find a murderer, and prevent yourself from being murdered, is certainly one way to keep occupied. Tell me, Mr. – ah, Reva. Do you know who killed this man, Ronin?”

Reva nodded. “I do.”

“Will Marla’s investigation lead her to ask you?”

The god of exiles stroked his chin. “Hmm. It’s possible, sure. I already introduced myself to her. She knows I know the surfers. She might get around to interrogating me.”

“Will you help her, if she questions you?”

“Depends on whether or not she can figure out the right questions. Just keep an eye on her. I’ll be around.”

“I don’t like deceiving her,” Pelham said. “I had a hard time telling her I just happened to come to Hawai’i, when you are the one who told me she’d been exiled, told me she might need help. And now, having met you again, to keep that fact from her as well – ”

Reva hmmmed. “I think it’s better if she doesn’t know we’re trying to guide her life – she strikes me as the contrary type, one who’d say ‘no’ just because we asked her to say ‘yes.’ But if you feel like it’s a betrayal to keep the conversations we’ve had a secret, do what you must.”

“I was taught to be utterly trustworthy. But I was also taught that there are things one’s master or mistress need not know, things they shouldn’t be bothered with, things they would not benefit from knowing, that might trouble them, and that can therefore be concealed… but it is so hard to know whether this qualifies.”

“You’ll do the right thing, Pelham. Whatever that turns out to be.”

“Mrs. Mason will be most unhappy if she finds you’ve been meddling in her life.”

“I’m a god. Meddling is what I do. It’s what she does, too – I’m just trying to find new things for her to meddle with. Take care, Pelham. Enjoy the scenery. And remember, we’re not conspiring against Marla – we’re conspiring for her.”

“I an unconvinced Mrs. Mason would appreciate the distinction,” Pelham said.

8. Meet Elsie Jarrow

“You can’t be serious.” Nicolette stared at the immense cube of granite, twenty feet to a side, decorated with inlaid gold in eye-watering patterns and etched with strange runes that seemed to shift and writhe without every losing their essential symmetry. “You’re really going to let her out? I thought you were just screwing with me.”

Dr. Husch walked around the cube, her long black dress rustling. Crapsey wasn’t sure what was going on, but from the way Nicolette was acting, it was pretty major. They stood in a large gray room in the basement of the Blackwing Institute, lit by harsh white overhead lights, looking at the world’s most boring sculpture, as far as he could tell. They were attended by at least a dozen orderlies – a whole harmony of human-looking homunculi – arrayed and waiting in the room’s shadowy corners.

“You don’t think I should release her?” Dr. Husch said.

“No, I think you definitely should. I just can’t believe you will.”

Oh, Crapsey thought. It’s a box. “Who’s in the box? Or, what?”

“Her name is Elsie Jarrow,” Dr. Husch said. “She is easily my most troubled patient.”

Nicolette gave a long raspberry, spraying spittle. “Please. She’s so far beyond ordinary notions of sanity that calling her ‘troubled’ is like calling cancer psychopathic.”

“If cancer were sentient,” Dr. Husch said, “it would be psychopathic. Speaking of cancer… I’m not sure if you’re aware, but Jarrow’s body died some months ago. She was absolutely riddled with tumors – she had been more cancer than clean flesh for years, of course, but her own mastery of chaos magic kept her physical form in more-or-less working order. Unfortunately… she tried to escape, as I think you know, this past winter, and she expended the last reserves of her power when she attempted to break through the wards on the Institute’s walls. She had precious little strength left for life support, and couldn’t control her own decay. I was unable save her physical form.”

Nicolette whistled. “She transcended completely? I mean, I knew she could leave her body behind to cause trouble in disembodied form, but she doesn’t even have a home base made of skin and bone and meat anymore? She must be like a wind made of fire now.”

“The death of her physical form doesn’t seem to have diminished her presence at all, no,” Dr. Husch said. “She had been experimenting with astral projection anyway – she tried to get out of the Institute via the phone lines once, and it almost worked. She’s still trapped in the cube, now, though the bed and the chairs and tables inside don’t do her much good anymore. She is wholly bodiless, and… she doesn’t like it much. She says the pain of the cancer made her crazy, and now that she has no body, and thus no pain, she’s thinking more clearly. It could even be true, I suppose – she was never capable of a ruse before, being far too irrational for deception. But she seems lucid, and wants a new body, and she’s willing to do almost anything if I can get her one.”

“What, you want an organ donation? And my whole body’s the organ? Elsie’s my hero, but I’m not willing to die so that she might live.” She glanced at Crapsey, who swallowed hard.

Shit. How many bodies had he stolen over the years, at the Mason’s orders, or – be honest – at his own whim? How many souls had he consigned to infinite oblivion, how many bodies had he used like puppets? Letting Elsie have his body would probably count as justice. “Fuck that,” he said. “Nobody’s taking my body, you got it?”

“Both your vessels are too weak.” Husch stood staring at a spiral of gold twelve feet high. “When she was free, in those last days before her capture, anyone who came within a dozen yards of her developed tumors. She was chaos walking, and cancer is nothing but cells who have lost all sense of order – she became a living carcinogen, and that poisonous aura was a side effect of her power that she couldn’t turn off. She caused bone marrow cancer, mostly. That’s why some people called her Marrowbones.” Dr. Husch paused. “That, and because in a moment of… I won’t call it clarity, but, maybe, misguided compassion? She had the idea that she could save the people she’d poisoned with her presence by magically removing all their diseased marrow.”

“Human osso bucco,” Nicolette said. “Yum.”

Husch’s dress rustled as she turned toward Crapsey, though with the veil it was impossible to tell if she were really looking at him. “Do you know what happens to a person when all the marrow in their bones instantly vanishes?”

“Uh. No.”

“Bone marrow produces red blood cells, platelets, and white blood cells, and regulates the lymphatic system. Let’s just say the people she ‘cured’ would have preferred the cancer. They at least had a chance of short-term survival with treatment.”

Crapsey furrowed his brow. “So she’s a, what… disease sorcerer? A cancer-mancer?”

“Cancer-mancer!” Nicolette said, and guffawed, actually bending over and slapping her knees. “That’s a little rhymey-wimey, there, Crapsey-wapsey.”

“What would it be called?” Dr. Husch mused. “An… oncomancer? No, ‘mancer’ is Greek and ‘onco’ is Latin, not that a little thing like that ever stopped people from talking about ‘polyamory’ or ‘genocide’ – ”

“Okay, professor boring,” Nicolette said. She turned to Crapsey. “Nah, cancer’s not Elsie’s thing. I mean, it’s one of her things, but it’s just a side effect. The purpose of a tea kettle isn’t to whistle, that’s just something it does in addition to its purpose. See, Elsie Jarrow is just like me.”

“Elsie Jarrow is to you as the sun is to a forty-watt lightbulb,” Dr. Husch said. “She is a force of unstoppable entropy with a will. But, yes, she is a chaos magician. She gets her power from disorder, and she is excellent at generating disorder as well. So powerful that, after she lost her mind and her self-control, her mere proximity was enough to drive cell division mad in the bodies of any creatures unlucky enough to come within range. And her mortal form was never much good at containing such a force of disaster.”

“Huh,” Crapsey said. “So she’s basically a tsunami made of tumors, but she’s on our side. Okay. What’s the plan?”

“We have to find a body that can withstand the stresses of having a woman who is essentially the living incarnation of chaos bound inside it.”

Nicolette snorted. “What, like a robot body? Sounds like anything fleshy would turn into tumor soup in a few seconds.”

“Elsie is very… sensual. She wants flesh.”

“Flesh is weak, lady,” Nicolette said. “Take it from the chick with one arm. Flesh is grass.”

Crapsey whistled. “Wait. You’re… you’re going to use her, aren’t you? The… the host?”

“Very good.” Dr. Husch might have been praising a bright student. “My orderlies are bringing her down right now.”

“What?” Nicolette was annoyed, and when Nicolette was annoyed, things tended to get broken. “What are you talking about? Crapsey’s not even from this reality, how the hell does he know anybody who could withstand – oh.” The chaos witch blinked, and a smile crept across her face. “No shit. That’s wicked. I like it.”

“I’m so glad you approve.” Dr. Husch spoke with enough condescension to wither even the mightiest egomaniac, though it didn’t dent Nicolette’s sudden good humor.

A few moments later, a pair of orderlies appeared, one pushing a wheelchair that held a slumped, apparently catatonic woman, the other holding a shotgun with the barrel wrapped in copper wire and plastic flowers – some kind of magical ordnance, Crapsey figured. The woman in the chair hardly seemed like a threat, but it was definitely better to be safe. She had once been a destroyer of worlds, an unstoppable conqueror – or, at least, the host for one.

“Evil mirror-universe Marla,” Nicolette said, walking around the chair and shaking her head. “She doesn’t look so scary now.”

“The cloak was the scary thing,” Dr. Husch said. “This poor child was just the host the cloak chose.” She knelt before Beta-Marla, lifting up her chin with two fingers, and looking into her blank-staring eyes. “She’s spoken a few times during her stay here, but just whimpers, really, and mostly, she’s been like this. I don’t think she’s ever going to recover.”

Crapsey just stared at the woman in the wheelchair, awash in memories. This was the Marla Mason from his home universe – the version of Marla that put on the white-and-purple cloak and then never taken it off again, her mind utterly dominated by the cloak’s malevolent intelligence, reduced to a puppet for an alien master. She still looked about twenty, smooth-faced and with the beauty of youth, because the Mason hadn’t seen any incentive in aging, and had woven her defensive magics strongly. The Mason was unmatched as a sorcerer, and claimed it was because magic in her home universe was denser than magic here – she could brush aside spells in this world as easily as a man brushes away cobwebs. But she needed a human host to operate in this reality – said it was like a scuba diver’s air tanks, or an astronaut’s space suit. The Marla from this universe had managed to trick the Mason into temporarily separating from her host, and defeated her that way – but it had left the host an almost-empty shell, with Beta-Marla’s long-dominated mind tattered and shredded and almost entirely gone.

“I just hope she’ll be strong enough to survive possession by Jarrow,” Dr. Husch said. “She looks so frail…”

“Let’s find out.” Nicolette drew her glittering silver hatchet.

“No!” Dr. Husch shouted, but Nicolette stepped past her and swung the weapon down in a smooth, swift arc toward Beta-Marla’s skull.

The blade just barely touched the skull, shearing away a few strands of hair, before rebounding hard enough to rock Nicolette back on her feet. Beta-Marla didn’t react at all.

Damn,” Nicolette said. “You know, when I stole this hatchet, I thought I might be able to use it to kill the Mason. Guess that wouldn’t have worked.”

“The Mason told me it’s an impressive weapon,” Crapsey said. “But she said unless it was wielded by a god, it wouldn’t be able to hurt her, not really.”

“Huh. Well, apotheosis is on my to-do list anyway.”

“Please refrain from swinging axes at my patients,” Dr. Husch said wearily.

Nicolette shrugged, a strange-looking gesture from a one-armed, hatchet-wielding woman. “Whatever. If this axe had hurt her, there wouldn’t be much point in giving her body to Elsie anyway. I don’t really understand why she’s still invincible though – the cloak is gone, Marla sent it off to a whole other universe, supposedly. This thing in the chair is just a husk.”

“The host body was soaked in the Mason’s magic for over a decade,” Crapsey said. “Marinated in it. Irradiated. Whatever. And the Mason wrapped that body in every kind of protective spell she knew – and she knew a lot. You could drop an atom bomb on this body and it would come walking out again without a scratch – assuming it has a mind to tell it to walk.”

“So it’s safe to say she would be immune to cancer? And… other stresses?” Dr. Husch said. “I have speculated, but…”

“I’m not a doctor, or even really a sorcerer, but, shit, yeah. The Mason thought bodies were disgusting, so she made this flesh as unchanging and impregnable as possible.”

“Then let’s give Jarrow her new vessel,” Husch said.

“Uh.” Nicolette cleared her throat. “I’m all for unleashing devastating horrors on the world, but… Elsie’s just gonna eat us, then take this body, and leave. This is Marrowbones we’re talking about. She’s not trustworthy.”

“Nicolette, shut up, please. I have access to objects of power that make your little hatchet look like a fingernail clipper. Precautions have been taken. If Jarrow doesn’t do what I want, she’ll be back in this cube in moments. I do not need your advice on how to contain my patients. I am a professional.”

Professionals don’t let dangerous prisoners loose on murder-for-hire gigs, Crapsey thought, but didn’t figure that was a productive line of argument, so he kept his mouth shut.

“Now then,” Husch said. “Let’s crack open the seals.” One of the orderlies handed her a hammer and chisel, and Nicolette took out her hatchet again.

Beta-Marla moaned, and whispered something. Crapsey knelt down beside her, and her vague eyes seemed to fix on him. He should look familiar to her, at least, assuming she’d had some degree of consciousness during her long years of being dominated by the Mason. “What is it, sweetie?” he said, though looking at her face reminded him of his old boss and tormentor.

“Kill me,” she whispered, eyes fixed on his.

“What did she say?” Dr. Husch demanded.

“She wants us to kill her,” Crapsey said.

Dr. Husch clucked her tongue. “Can’t be done, dear. I’m sorry. But this should be oblivion, which is the next best thing.” She placed the chisel at a seemingly arbitrary point on the face of the cube, and struck it with the hammer.

The face of the cube split open, dividing one of the spirals of inlaid gold into asymmetrical not-quite-halves. White light poured from the inside, which was furnished like a rather Spartan dorm room or an upscale prison cell – single bed, sink, toilet, shower stall, desk, chair, polished steel plate for a mirror. There was nobody inside, but there was a sort of disturbance in the air, something like a heat shimmer, but streaked with colors… the most beautiful colors

“Avert your eyes,” Dr. Husch said, and Crapsey wrenched his gaze away to stare at his feet. “There’s a force field preventing her from getting out, but it’s permeable from this direction – there’s nothing to stop you from going inside if you’re entranced. As homunculi, my staff and I are immune to her charms, but the two of you aren’t, probably. Orderlies, wheel in the new vessel.”

Beta-Marla reached out as if to clutch Crapsey’s sleeve when the orderlies pushed her wheelchair toward the cube, but she either didn’t have the strength, or didn’t have the strength of will. Poor thing. She’d just escaped from hosting one malevolent parasitic entity, and here she was, about to be enslaved by another. The kid never had a chance.

Then again, if she hadn’t been possessed by the cloak, she probably would have turned out a lot like the Marla Mason from this universe, and she was pretty much a total bitch, so whatever.

Crapsey risked a glance at the cube. The orderlies pushed the chair inside and stepped back, but they couldn’t get out, of course, because of the force field – theirs was a suicide mission. Good thing they were mindless man-things and not actual people. That close to Jarrow’s essence, the orderlies slumped like melting snowmen in hospital scrubs, their flesh liquefying into a slurry that stank like rising bread mingled with melted plastic.

“Does the vessel suit you?” Dr. Husch called.

The shimmer in the air vanished, and then Beta-Marla began to glow, a bright green aura enveloping her, and sparks started to fly up in the air.

“Shit,” Dr. Husch said, and Crapsey was actually surprised to hear such a basic profanity from her. “I was afraid the Mason might have made her host impregnable to possession.” Crapsey nodded, because the one time he’d tried to take control of the Mason’s body himself, he’d bounced off her protective barriers like a handball hitting a stone wall –

The green shimmer vanished, and Beta-Marla stood up from the chair, her back to Dr. Husch and the others. She stretched her hands up in the air, rolled her head around on her neck, then did a few toe-touches and deep knee bends before turning to face them.

Crapsey was astonished. He was used to seeing this woman’s face, of course, but while in the Mason’s control, it had almost always been blank and expressionless, more masklike than animated flesh. As the semi-catatonic Beta-Marla, her face had been slack and empty of everything but flashes of despair. But this

This woman looked happy. More than happy. Joyful, all twinkling eyes and dazzling smiles.

“I like it!” she shouted, and did a little pirouette, twirling on one foot. “Wowza! This body is cherry, Dr. Jigsaw, truly fine, damnfine, really fine. I had a little trouble getting in, I couldn’t pop the locks with any finesse, so I had to break a window with a brick, more or less, but that’s okay, I didn’t mess up any of the optional extras.” She pressed her hands against the invisible barrier keeping her inside the cube and grinned, so widely it looked like her face might split apart. “Knock, knock? Who’s there? Let me. Let me who? Let me OUT!”

“You have… control of yourself?” Dr. Husch said. “You know if I suffer injury, or lose consciousness, you’ll be snatched out of that body and back into the cube – ”

Elsie Jarrow rolled her eyes, then flopped onto her back on the floor dramatically. “It’s okay, Doctor Mom, I know, if I melt you I’m totally grounded, the deal is done, lemme free, lemme free!”

Dr. Husch made a series of arcane gestures – she looked like a guy on a runway waving in three or four planes at once – and Elsie did a little somersaulting roll out of the cube, springing to her feet. “New friends!” she shouted at Crapsey and Nicolette, then whirled toward Dr. Husch. “First thing’s first! Give me the stuff! The stuff the stuff the stuff!”

Dr. Husch summoned another orderly who’d been lurking in the shadows, and he came forward carrying a bottle of dark red fluid.

“Is that blood?” Crapsey said. “Is this some blood magic thing?”

“Ha,” Elsie Jarrow said. “You ever try dyeing your hair with blood? It’s total crap! Gets all crusty and when it dries it ends up looking brown.”

“It’s hair dye,” Dr. Husch said as Elsie snatched the bottle and a proffered comb and went back into the cube, to the sink.

“If I can’t be a redhead, I’d rather be dead,” Elsie said. “Help a girl out, would you, baldie?”

Nicolette, who’d been uncharacteristically speechless during this whole exchange, smirked, then stepped over a melted orderly to help the most deadly chaos magician in the world dye her hair.

“Is she for real?” Crapsey said. “She’s, like… not what I expected. I mean, she’s not… all supervillainous and everything.”

“She’s always tended toward the manic,” Dr. Husch said. “It would not be correct to call her bipolar – she is monopolar. Elsie Jarrow can be warm, and vivacious, and even fun… but she’s responsible for rivers of blood. Half the time she doesn’t even mean to cause the damage she does. The other half of the time… she does mean it. And it’s a lot worse when she means it.” She sighed. “This is going to take a while. We’d best make ourselves comfortable.” She summoned an orderly, who carried over a couple of plastic lawn chairs.

After nearly an hour of hair ministrations, Elsie declared herself satisfied with the dye and stripped off the red-stained shirt she’d been wearing, dropping it on the floor. Crapsey found himself getting a little aroused at the sight of her in just a bra, even if it was boring hospital-issue underwear – hell, it wasn’t like he’d had much experience with fancy lingerie in the nightmarish dystopian world he’d called home. A girl with no festering sores on her body had been a big treat over there, and he hadn’t exactly been rolling in willing scantily-clad women since he crossed over to this universe.

“Husch. Lipstick me. I know you like to wear that red red red. Or you did before your lips got torn into little pieces. Which means you don’t need it anymore. Give.”

Husch handed her a tube, and Elsie lavished her lips in scarlet, then took the hem of Husch’s veil and used it to blot. “Perfecto.” She turned to Crapsey and gave him a dazzling smile. “You. Want to have sex with me right here on this concrete floor? I’ve got this body! Gotta use it!”

Crapsey winced. “I would, I mean, but that body used to belong to my monster-boss – ”

“Okay, too much talking, you missed your window, big boy.” She turned to Nicolette. “You? And me? And the floor? I like the one-armed thing, I bet only having five fingers makes you work a lot harder, am I right?”

“I’m not into girls, and I hate both the people you look like in that body, but you are Elsie Jarrow, and I will so absolutely fuck you,” Nicolette said.

“Stop!” Dr. Husch said. “We have work to do, things to discuss, plans to make.”

“Dr. Jigsaw is a buzzkill,” Elsie Jarrow said. “Lift that veil, pretty lady. ”

“I am not sleeping with you.”

“Oh, don’t worry, I’m not in the mood anymore, but you’re pretty prudish for a sexbot, even one with a PhD.” She glanced at Nicolette. “The doctor here was invented as a sex homunculus for her creator, did you guys know that? He gave her all those smarts so she could read the Kama Sutra or recite lyric poetry while she gave him handjobs or whatever, and then she goes to college and gets advanced degrees, just like she’s people. Her maker wouldn’t like banging her now, though, she’s all damaged. The veil. Up.”

Husch backed away, arms crossed, the faint blot of scarlet lipstick on her veil reminding Crapsey of a spreading bloodstain. “You don’t give me orders – ”

“I’ll kill Marla for you, okay? And anybody else who annoys you. Don’t get all unyielding, it makes me cranky. Just. Lift. The. Veil. Let me get a look at what they did to you.”

With trembling hands, Dr. Husch raised the black netting and revealed her face. She was worse than Crapsey had expected. He hadn’t been the one to cut her up, but only because she brained him with a blunt object before he could carry out his boss’s orders. The Mason had done the deed, tearing her into pieces. She’d been stitched back together… but her face was a nightmare of bright red lines, a map of scars so pronounced they looked drawn on with red Sharpie. Her face was like a photo shredded and taped back together, with none of the edges quite lining up anymore.

“They sure did a number on you, didn’t they?” Elsie said. “These hands, right here, they ripped you up, didn’t they?” She wiggled her fingers. “Well, let me fix you up, then.”

Husch tried to jerk away when Elsie reached out for her, but some magic snared her, and the chaos witch pressed her palms against the doctor’s face. Husch twitched and writhed and moaned for a moment, battering uselessly at Elsie, then tore free and fell to her knees. The doctor looked up.

“Uh,” Crapsey said. “Doc. Maybe look in that mirror over there?”

“What have you done to me?” Dr. Husch said, her voice no longer rough and shredded. She rushed to the mirror, and looked at herself – at her smooth face, restored to its original classical perfection.

“Fixed you.” Elsie sat down in the middle of the floor, pulled one of her feet up close to her face, and sniffed her own toes. “Not just your face, either. The whole caboodle. Boobies and nethers and all. Did you guys know she’s hairless as a hypoallergenic cat from the neck down? Her maker was a perv.”

Husch paid no attention, just staring at her own face, touching her cheeks with her fingertips. “The biomancer, Langford, he said there was no hope, that my skin couldn’t heal like a human’s, that it lacked the elasticity – ”

“Eh, all true, but broken things are my whole, um. Thing. I can increase disorder, but you know how double-edged magic is, I can run the progression back the other way, too, and create order. There, poof, you’re pretty again, yay.” Elsie seemed bored with the whole situation now – she was chewing on her big toenail – and Crapsey got a sense of just how unsettling it could be to work with her. She was changeable as the moon, as the sea, as…

Well, the whim of a lunatic devoted to chaos.

“No offense, but what the fuck?” Nicolette said. “You fixed something? Increased order? That just… isn’t something I’d expect the great Elsie Jarrow to do.”

“That’s exactly the point.” Elsie spat out a toenail. “Half my power comes from doing the unexpected. A lot of the time even I don’t know what I’m going to do. That approach has worked out for me so far. Except for killing everyone I ever knew and loved or even liked, and being imprisoned for all those years, and everything. Otherwise it’s been a rock-solid strategy. Besides, I don’t mind creating order. I like it! Build those towers high! The more complex you make something, the bigger the mess it makes when it collapses.”

Crapsey was mulling that over when Dr. Husch’s cell phone rang. She looked at the screen and said, “What in the world…” She put the phone to her ear. “I didn’t expect to hear from you,” she said, walking toward a corner of the basement, presumably for privacy.

“We’re gonna have fun,” Elsie said, standing up, and walking toward Crapsey and Nicolette with her arms outstretched. “I’m in the mood again. What do you say? Three-way, right now? We’ve only five hands among us, but we can make do, right?”

7. Death Makes an Offer

Rondeau had, remarkably, never needed to make small talk with a god before. “What do you do for a living?” and “Which kind of massage do you like better, hot stone or shiatsu?” seemed like fruitless lines of inquiry. But Pelham was off looking for Marla – it was weird that the god hadn’t managed to show up where Marla actually was, but presumably Death didn’t need to be omniscient about anything except maybe actuarial tables – leaving Rondeau here alone with one of the more powerful personifications of an impersonal force in the universe. Probably better to keep mum, but Rondeau had a pathological aversion to silence, so he had to say something. He settled for, “So, did you find that dead guy? The one who got murdered?”

“Mmm? Yes, I spoke to Ronin.” Death sat in a soft, red leather armchair beneath a light-filled window. He looked like something from a Renaissance painting (specifically the sort of portrait commissioned by wealthy and amoral merchants). Death must have brought the chair with him, or conjured it into existence, as the chairs that normally furnished the bookshop were straight-backed and wooden. Rondeau hadn’t actually seen the chair appear, but that was Death’s whole modus operandi. He insinuated himself. By the time you started wondering where he’d come from, he was already in place.

“Ronin,” Rondeau said, leaning against a bookshelf. “Something about that name has been bugging me, it sounds familiar. It’s Japanese, right? Wasn’t there a movie called Ronin?”

“I wouldn’t know. But yes, the man was born in Japan, though that is not his given name – he chose it.”

“Right. I don’t know much about Japanese mythology. Ancestor worship and stuff, right? What kind of hell, or heaven, or whatever, do they favor?”

“Once upon a time, Japan had some interesting visions of the afterlife. The ten judges of Hell, and the old hag Datsueba, who would rip the clothes from your back as you passed by – and if you weren’t wearing clothes, she would rip off your skin.” Death took an art book featuring pictures of the moon from the shelf and began flipping through it idly as he spoke. “Many Japanese are quite secular now. The religious ones tend to be Buddhist or Shinto, and Shintoism eschews the issue of death almost entirely – they leave that for the Buddhists. But neither faith is known for its rich and complex visions of the afterlife. Nirvana for some, or the purgatory of the bardo, followed by reincarnation – which does happen, sometimes, it’s very strange, and I don’t entirely understand it, but I usually don’t interfere. Nothing of the original personality seems to remain when a soul is reincarnated and returns to Earth. It’s more like… recycling a plastic bottle into a plastic bag. The raw material is the same, but the end product is quite different. When those people die again, and come back to me, they’re like a wholly different soul.”

“Huh. So is this Ronin in the reincarnation queue?”

“Oh, no. His spiritual inclinations lay in a different direction, and his afterlife is… rather more unique. I never cease to be amazed by the heavens and hells people conjure for themselves. Ronin made himself into a sentient ocean on a watery planet. I had to create a boat of reeds and papyrus and ply his waters for a while before he noticed me, and even then, it took a while before he consented to talk to me. I could have made myself into an asteroid and smashed into his surface, and really gotten his attention, but… he was so beautiful. Blue and vast. I couldn’t bring myself to do something so crass. Besides, there was no hurry. Time in the eternal realms functions differently from time in this world. Things are much slower down there.” He sighed. “That’s part of why waiting for Marla to die is so tedious – ”

“Wait,” Rondeau said, standing up straighter. The moment he spoke he realized he’d just interrupted Death, but, shit, too late now. “So you’re telling me everybody gets to create their own afterlife?”

Death shrugged, closing the moon book on his lap. “People get what they expect, mostly, or what they think they deserve. Very few realize they’re the ones creating the afterlife they live in – shaping the raw magic of my realm into appropriate shapes.”

“Huh. So the bad guys come to bad ends because deep down they know they deserve it? But there are plenty of evil people who don’t think they’re evil.”


“So, what, they just get to cavort in the corpse gardens of Pedophile Island or whatever, happy and depraved for eternity?”

Death shrugged. “Sometimes. And why not? It’s not as if rehabilitation or punishment really matter – occasional reincarnation notwithstanding, eternity is eternal. It doesn’t matter if the souls are reformed, or tormented. They can’t hurt anyone while they’re locked in the palaces of their own imaginings – every figure they conjure is an aspect of their own selves. Anyway, when freed from the pressures of the flesh, and the poison of bad brain chemistry, people can be remarkably different, and some very nasty folk have felt profound remorse for their actions in life. Still, as someone who once dabbled in cruelty and later saw the error of my ways, I… occasionally intervene, and try to bring a certain amount of moral clarity to the truly repellent souls. But you’d be surprised how seldom it’s necessary. Most people realize, on some level, when they’ve done unforgivable things.”

“But if I ever manage to die, you’ll totally hook me up, right?” Rondeau said. “I mean, I assume I’m an immortal psychic parasite who wears human bodies like you wear pants, but I’m not a hundred percent sure. You can’t know the unknowable and all that. I could die someday.”

“I doubt you’ll have any trouble in the underworld.” Death leaned forward. “Although, if you’d like to make sure, I’d be open to making an arrangement. Not just limited to the pleasures of the afterlife, either – I can make sure your days on Earth are pleasant beyond your imagining.”

Rondeau frowned. “I’m… pretty rich, and just as bone idle as I’d like to be already.”

Death snorted. “You can afford to live well on a nice island, Rondeau. But I could give you the wealth to buy your own islands, and the influence to rule them, and the power to shape them to your whim.”

Rondeau licked his lips. He knew, instinctively, that he wasn’t the kind of person who should be trusted with reality-altering powers. But he was exactly the kind of person who found them very tempting. So: why was Death trying to tempt him? “I’m guessing this would be more in the nature of a transaction than a gift?”

“I wouldn’t ask for much,” Death said. “Only, if there comes a time when you could do something and save Marla Mason’s life, or do nothing and let her die, I’d ask you… to choose nothing.”

Rondeau whistled. “You want me to betray my best friend?”

“I suppose you could put it that way,” Death said. “But you’re free to say no. The fact that you’re almost certainly immortal is one of the reasons I’m willing to ask you this – there’s no implied threat, you see, since I can’t take your life. Still, I hope you consider the option. Marla would never know, after all – your failing to act in time to save her would hardly strike her as unbelievable. You often fail to act in a timely fashion, don’t you? It’s not as if dying would be the end of Marla – she’d ascend to her goddesshood, and begin her truly important work.” Death sniffed. “Not that investigating murders isn’t important, I suppose, but from my point of view, one more dead person is hardly anything to get worked up about.”

“Thanks for the offer, really, but I think I have to pass.” Rondeau wanted to go crawl behind the counter and hide. This was Death; he wasn’t human. He didn’t get humans. If you wanted to be technical, Rondeau wasn’t a human, either, but he’d lived as one long enough to get a pretty good handle on the subtleties.

“No, no, don’t decide now, mull it over. Dream about the kind of power I could give you. I’m not asking you to raise a hand against Marla, I’d never ask you that – but not raising a hand? Just… standing by? All I’m asking you to do is… nothing at all, at the right time, if the situation arises.”

“Seriously, I – ”

“Do not answer.” Death’s voice was like an ice gale, freezing Rondeau’s words in his throat. “Just… act, or do not act, as the circumstances warrant.”

“Okay,” he croaked.

Death rose and strode over to Rondeau, putting a hand on his shoulder. It was like being touched by a marble statue: heavy and cold. “I’d appreciate it if you kept this conversation between us. I want what’s best for Marla, that’s all, but I don’t think she would understand. If you saw someone you loved wasting their life on trivialities, when you knew they could be doing much greater things, wouldn’t you want to steer them toward greatness?” His face was long, pale, and earnest; his eyes lively and bright; but all Rondeau could imagine was a void behind those eyes, an everlasting blackness. Eternity was eternity. As far as Death was concerned, everything before eternity was just a waste of time.

“I’m, uh, a pretty big fan of trivialities.” Rondeau resisted the urge to squirm away from Death’s touch. “String together enough trivialities, and you’re talking about something pretty substantial.”

“Disappointing.” Death let go of Rondeau and spun around just as the door to the bookshop opened. “Marla, darling! I come bearing news from the worlds below.”

“Anything useful?” Marla entered, followed by Pelham, and she sat right down in the chair Death had vacated. She looked worried, and thoughtful, which was a nice change from the way she’d mostly looked lately – namely, bored and pissed-off.

“Alas, I have little to report.” Death sat on the arm of the chair, putting his hand on Marla’s shoulder, prompting her to roll her eyes. “Ronin declined to tell me who’d murdered him.”

“What, he doesn’t know?”

“He knows – he just doesn’t want to say. He informed me it was none of my business.”

“But you’re Death,” Rondeau said. “It seems like his murder would fall under your jurisdiction.”

“He disagreed, and politely asked me to leave him to his eternity. So I did.”

“Don’t you have some kind of kill-o-vision you can access to see the dirty deed done?” Marla said. “I thought you were present at the moment of every death.”

“I am present for every death the way a bank is present for every credit card transaction, my love. In a highly-distributed, extremely abstract, and basically impersonal fashion. Oh, I sometimes make a personal appearance, if the deceased interests me particularly, but that’s a rarity. Don’t pout, Marla.”

She shruggled his hand off her shoulder. “I don’t pout. I’m not pouting. I’m fuming. You’re telling me there’s no way you can find out who murdered Ronin?”

“Marla, I’m Death. Of course I could find out, if I expended the effort. But Ronin asked me not to do so, and I am granting his request.”

“You’d favor some dead guy over your own wife?”

“I’m not just the god of Death, Marla – I’m the god of the dead. One of my subjects made a reasonable request, and I see no reason to deny it.”

“You want me to have to do this the hard way, don’t you?”

“It is lovely to see you interested in something again, I admit. Be honest. Did you take this case because you have a burning desire to see justice done, or because you thought investigating a supernatural murder would be interesting?”

“You know me well enough to know the answer to that one.”

Death spread his hands. “Then where’s the fun if I just tell you who killed Ronin?”

“What, it’ll mean more to me if I earn it? That what you’re trying to say?”

“Hmm. I suppose so.”

Marla sighed. “I prefer to be the one teaching people lessons, Mr. Mason. You’d do well to remember that in the future. But, fine, point taken. If you’re not going to help me, beat it. I’ll see you at my funeral. Which won’t be for a long time, so don’t get excited.”

Death stood. “Before I go, I wanted to give you this.” He slipped the silver ring off his right hand and held it up. “You lost your cloak – and good riddance to the vile thing – but I hate to think of you with only one artifact in your possession.”

Marla grunted. She still had a magical dagger that could cut through anything physical and many things that weren’t, including ghosts and astral bodies; it was an exact replica of the dagger of office she’d had as chief sorcerer of Felport, and it was also a gift from Death. Being married to a god had advantages, Rondeau had to admit.

“What is it?”

“A wedding band.”

“Well, yeah. What’s it do?”

“Again – where’s the fun if I just tell you?”

Marla actually smiled. “Ha. Fine. I never read instruction manuals anyway. It won’t kill anyone it touches, will it? Give me that much of a heads-up.”

“No touch of death,” he said. “I have to reserve some of my powers for myself.” He kissed Marla on the forehead – if Rondeau had ever tried doing that, Marla would have kicked his balls up through his ribcage – and then left, this time walking out the actual front door.

Marla squinted at the ring, shrugged, and slipped it into her pocket.

“Are you going to wear that?” Rondeau said.

“I put on a wearable artifact once before without knowing what the hell it did,” Marla said. “And that cloak eventually dumped an ocean of shit on my head. That’s not a mistake I’m going to make again.” She shook her head. “Never get married, gentlemen. It’s a peculiar institution.”

“So what now, Poirot?” Rondeau said. “Since the shortcuts failed us, what? We take the long way around?”

“I guess we go investigate.” She began pacing up and down the room and talking to herself while Rondeau lounged and Pelham worked on reorganizing the bookshelves according to some arcane system of his own. “So,” she said. “Let’s look at the evidence. I haven’t made plaster casts of any footprints or taken any fingerprints, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have any clues. The murderer is someone powerful enough to deploy supernatural forensic countermeasures, to shroud their identity even from one of Rondeau’s oracles. Ronin doesn’t want to give up the killer, which maybe means it’s someone he wants to protect, for whatever reason. So what’s that tell us?”

“You need a violin to play or some cocaine to inject or something,” Rondeau said. “Your pacing around is making me tired.”

“It’s obviously someone in the magical community,” Pelham said, without looking away from his work. Rondeau wanted to ask if he was sorting by the Dewey Decimal or the Library of Congress system, but since he didn’t actually know what the difference was, he didn’t bother. “Any murder investigation would start with the victim’s closest associates, wouldn’t it? If a woman dies, you look at the husband. If a child dies, consider the parents.”

“You mean he might have been killed by one of the other surfers? Huh, maybe, but I get the feeling they’re pretty closely bound-up together – it’s hard to imagine one of them could do the dirty deed without the others finding out. Still, it’s worth looking into.”

“We could see if there are any ex-surfers, too,” Rondeau said, getting into it now. “After all, where there’s a group, there’s usually an outcast.”

“Ha.” Marla paused for a moment, then tromped on, up and down. She was going to wear a groove in the hardwood if she made a habit out of this. “Speaking as an outcast, I can sympathize with murderous impulses. So that’s a good idea. We’ll ask our clients a few questions. Not that I can necessarily believe anything they say – for all I know they’re a cult worshipping dark sea gods and practicing human sacrifice…” She snapped her fingers. “Rondeau. Get in touch with the Bay Witch, would you? Call Hamil, he can reach her. She knows these guys, but she’s not of them anymore, so maybe she’ll have some insight.”

“Insight? From Zufi? Maybe if her brain worked even remotely like a normal person’s…”

“It can’t hurt to ask,” Marla said. “Come on, we’re working our contacts here, this is good. Probably worth asking some of the other magic types in the area about Ronin and the rest of the wave-mages, too – try to get an objective sense of the group.”

“Do you know many people in the local magical community?” Pelham asked. “Is there a chief sorcerer here?”

Marla shook her head. “I don’t know if they were ever all that hierarchical, but things are extra messy around here now – we told you about that lunatic hunting and killing other sorcerers not too long ago, turning them into sharks and letting them drown in the air? He left a lot of holes in the local scene, or so I understand. I only really know one of the kahunas.” She sighed. “Guess we’d better go see her. Arachne. She lives way the hell on the other side of the island, just off the road to Hana. I’m not up for that shit tonight. What do you say, Pelham – how about tomorrow morning we go for a drive?”

Pelham, of course, felt like doing whatever Marla wanted – and people thought Rondeau let Marla push him around. At least he wasn’t, like, genetically engineered to be enthusiastically obedient. “That’s enough work for one day,” Marla said. “I’m going to take Pelham to get some seafood, Rondeau. You coming?”

“I’ll catch up with you,” Rondeau said. “I should call Hamil about the Bay Witch before it gets too late in Felport.” After they left, Rondeau went into the office and sat down behind the desk. He took out his phone and dialed Hamil, Marla’s old consigliere back in Felport, and asked him to pass on a message to Zufi.

Hamil agreed without asking too many questions, then said, “How’s Marla doing?” in his bass rumble.

“She’s staying alive,” Rondeau said. He asked after a few of his acquaintances in Felport, trying to sound casual, hoping Hamil wouldn’t realize there was only one name on the list he really cared about. After he hung up, he sat for a few minutes looking at the scythe-shaped letter opener on Marla’s desk, sighed, and then dialed another number. It rang half-a-dozen times before being picked up.

The voice said, “I didn’t expect to hear from you.”

“Yeah,” Rondeau said. “Hamil told me you were, you know, all recovered. After everything that happened.”

A chuckle. “I’m good as new.”

“I’m glad to hear it. The reason I called is… you know that counseling you gave me when I was all broken up after Bradley Bowman died? You really helped me out a lot, gave me some great advice. Some pretty heavy shit is going on here, and I don’t really have anyone I can talk to about it, so I was wondering… does that doctor-patient confidentiality thing we had still apply?”

“Of course, Rondeau,” Dr. Husch replied. “Tell me your troubles.”



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