Jason Mason had been laying low in Mississippi, only occasionally emerging to count cards at some of the riverboat casinos to keep himself in whiskey and cigarettes, afraid to touch any of his various bank accounts in case his sister was keeping tabs on him. Who knew what people like her were capable of? She’d killed his partner Danny Two Saints, and done her level best to kill him, and she had more than connections – she had fucking powers.
Then his mother called to say Marla wanted to talk to him. Mom tried to lay a guilt trip on him for not mentioning he’d seen his sister recently, so he gave her a line of bullshit about how he didn’t want to upset her, he knew Marla was a sore point, and all that. He wasn’t fond of his mother, exactly, but he’d never quite managed to disentangle himself from her, and anyway, she was always good for an alibi, so he kept in touch.
So now he sat in the living room of his rented Airstream trailer, parked on a scraggly lot in the middle of some bare fields, nothing for miles but crows and farmhouses and leafless trees. He watched dust swirl in the yellow light coming in through the dirty half-closed mini-blinds, smoking a cigarette, and tried to work out the angles. What was the percentage in calling Marla back? What did she want? Their recent history was even uglier than their ancient history, and now she was trying to reach out. Why, why, why? A trick, a trap, a lure?
The only way to find out was to call and ask. He gazed at the disposable cell phone in his hand, the number his mother had recited repeating itself in his head – he’d always been good with numbers, almost as good as he was with people – and thought, Screw it, why not?
Before he could dial, someone pounded on his door hard enough to make the trailer rock on its wheels. Jason slipped out of the chair, drawing his pistol, and waited.
“Avon calling!” a woman’s voice shouted, and Jason frowned. Avon? Who still sold Avon door-to-door?
“I don’t want any!” he called, rising, but keeping his hand in his gun.
The door creaked open, despite the fact that he was sure he’d chained it shut, and he squinted against the rectangle of daylight. A woman climbed the steps into the trailer and looked at him, hands on her hips, just a silhouette against the brightness.
“Lady, you aren’t welcome. Beat it.”
The door slammed shut, apparently of its own accord, but he could make himself believe it was just the wind. When his eyes adjusted to the new dimness, he raised his pistol – because for a second, he thought it was Marla, come to finish him off. She was the right height, and the shape of her face was almost the same, but her hair was wild and long and red, and anyway, she was too young, closer to twenty than thirty. Marla didn’t dress like that, either, in a scarlet silk blouse and tight skirt. The woman gave him a big goofy grin like nothing he’d ever seen on Marla’s lips, and any residual resemblance dissolved then. “Cute gun!” she said, and the voice was a bit like Marla’s, too, but brassier, and too loud for the small space. “Point it somewhere else, would you?”
“I don’t know who you are, but – ”
“I know who you are, though,” she said. “A boy who can’t follow directions.”
The gun twisted in his hand, and he shouted, dropping it – the weapon had transformed into twenty or thirty big cockroaches, the monsters the locals called tree roaches, and he wiped his hand on his shirt as he backed away, the bugs scurrying for the corners.
“My name’s Elsie Jarrow, Jason. I’m here to talk about your sister.”
Shit. Marla must have sent this woman to finish him off. Figures she wouldn’t bother to do it herself. Why had she tried to call him, though? Just to gloat?
Jarrow didn’t try to attack. She pulled over the straight-backed wooden chair set up by the “kitchen table,” a folding thing smaller than a card table, and sat down, crossing one leg over the other. “I’m told you and Marla don’t get along. Why the sibling rivalry? Is it a Cain and Abel thing, or more like Michael and Fredo Corleone? Ha, I hear you tried to shoot her, so I guess it’s the latter. Cain just used a rock. Oh, those were simpler times.”
“What, Marla didn’t tell you?” Jason had another gun, in the little built-in drawer by the bed. Could he get to it and shoot her before she turned it into a bunch of snakes or something? It was probably a longshot, but he’d beaten worse odds.
She waggled her finger at him. “Assumptions get you in trouble, Mr. Mason. Marla didn’t send me. I represent a group of people whose interests may align with your own.”
He lunged for the drawer, and she started laughing. When he pulled it open, dozens of pale white moths fluttered out, and flew straight for his closet. “I know what you’re thinking – I turned the gun into moths. But not at all! I conjured moths who eat guns. Nice, huh? Of course they eat cloth, too. They’re going to ruin your suits. But a bullet hole would have ruined this nice blouse, so it’s only fair. Listen, sit, and tell me – why did you try to kill Marla?”
Jason knew when he was outgunned, even if his enemy didn’t use guns. Better to play along and wait for an opportunity, maybe. He returned to his chair, got comfortable, picked up his tumbler of Jack and Coke, and shrugged. “It was nothing personal. Just business. Her dying would have made me some money.”
Jarrow widened her eyes in mock alarm. “You would have killed your own flesh and blood? For mere filthy lucre?”
“Sure, she’s my sister, but so what? She’s really a stranger. I went almost twenty years without seeing her, without hearing a word, and I had to track her down. Hell, she was an ingrate even when we were kids, she never appreciated anything I did for her. Then she grew up and got rich, became a big boss running Felport, and she never even reached out to me. I don’t owe her shit.”
“Blood is thicker than water, but money is even thicker, huh?”
Jason scowled and took a sip of his drink. “Doesn’t matter anyway. The plan kind of blew up in my face, and come to find out Marla’s not just a criminal – she’s some kind of goddamn witch. Like you are, I guess.”
“Some kind,” Jarrow murmured. “You killed a friend of hers, too, didn’t you?”
Jason shrugged. “Somebody got on the wrong side of my gun. It happens. Marla came at me, tried to kill me. Didn’t work. I’m not saying I don’t see her side of things, but I’m not going to go down easy. Did she send you to try and see, what, if I’m remorseful? If she could get an apology? Won’t happen. She was just another mark to me. My mistake was not realizing the kind of power she had, that’s all. If I’d known, I would have played things differently.”
“I told you I don’t work for her. I don’t work for anybody – I work for me. More fun that way. But if you keep contradicting me, you won’t like what happens next. Or did you think guns were the only things I can turn into bugs?”
Jason narrowed his eyes. “What, you’re going to turn me into a mosquito?”
“I was thinking more of turning your genitals into dung beetles,” Jarrow said. “It’s a lot more traumatic when you ruin just parts of someone, instead of outright killing them. Killing is boring. A good maiming will pay dividends for years to come.”
Jason held up his hands. Who knew what this crazy bitch could do? “Fine, okay, you’re not from Marla. So what do you want?”
“Two things: to make Marla miserable. And then to kill her. I know, I just said killing is boring, and it is, but that’s what my associates want, so I’ll go along with it.”
Jason shrugged. “So kill her. What do you want with me? I don’t know any of your voodoo shit.”
“Ah, but you have other skills, and besides, Marla probably has very complicated feelings about you. Having you on our team is going to make her distracted, and it’ll bother her, so it works for me.”
“I wish you the best of luck. Marla, dead, that’s a load off my mind. But I don’t want any part of it.”
Jarrow snorted. “This isn’t an invitation. These are marching orders. You’ll help me.”
“What if I don’t?”
“Well, I could control your mind and make you into a puppet, or even have this guy I know transform himself into your exact double, but it’s more fun if you do things of your own more-or-less free will, give or take a little bit of extortion. So: this is a nice trailer you’ve got here. Be a shame if something… happened to it.” She snapped her fingers, and the walls began to shimmer and groan, then exploded outward in a cloud of millions of small gray birds, leaving only the floor intact.
Jason tilted his head back and watched as the birds rose up into the sky, clotting together into a flock and then flying off toward the west. A cold autumn breeze blew across the fallow fields around him, making him shiver. Ha. Like it was just the wind making him do that. He was lucky he hadn’t pissed himself. No way he was getting back his security deposit on this place now.
“Oops, something bad already happened,” Jarrow said. “I always mess up threats that way. Those were passenger pigeons, by the way. They were extinct until four seconds ago. Look at me, I’m an environmentalist! Anyway, yes, I will do bad things to you. How’d you like to vomit tiny brass gearwheels for a week? Or have sentient shit lurking in your colon? Or have everything you touch turn to quicksilver? Much runnier than gold, and more toxic, too. All this and more can be yours for the low, low price of disobedience.”
Witches. Shit. “So we’re going back to Felport, then?”
“Felport? Oh, no. Marla got fired from that job. She’s licking her wounds in Hawai’i. How do you feel about kicking someone while they’re down?”
Jason considered for a moment, then said, “I can’t think of a better time to do it.”
“What are you doing here, Zufi?” Marla said.
The Bay Witch took her long blonde hair in her hands and twisted it, wringing water out onto the steps, then came forward and sat in one of the low plastic chairs around the table. “Hamil sent me a message, from you, to me, he said you wanted to talk, so here I am, for talking.”
Marla blinked. “Well, sure, but – I thought you’d call.”
“I don’t have a phone,” the Bay Witch said.
“So, what, you hopped the first plane?”
The Bay Witch began to draw on the metal surface of the table in a puddle of her own seawater. “Swam.”
“You swam here? In less than a day? How did you even do that from the East Coast? Did you paddle through the Panama Canal?”
The Bay Witch shook her head. “The ocean is deep, and vast, vaster than space sometimes in some ways, it goes down as much as it goes side to side, more so. There are places in the deep deeps where space is folded over, tunnels the ancients of the drowned continents used for their wars and their business, and there are fearsome things there but they all fear me, or call me friend. You can go places fast fast if you can stand the pressures.”
Marla sat back in her chair and whistled. Ancient magical (or maybe technological, or a hybrid) wormholes, deep in the ocean? First she’d ever heard of that, but then, she’d never been a big fan of the deep blue sea, ever since some bad experiences in her early twenties, dealing with a terrible tentacled thing in the ruins of an undersea megalith. “That’s pretty crazy. You learn something new every day.”
“When you’re in the ocean, you learn something new every few minutes,” Zufi said. She turned her blank attention on Jon-Luc, who was simultaneously trembling and staring at the Bay Witch’s breasts, which probably looked pretty tantalizing to him in the slightly-unzipped damp wetsuit. “Hello. You are to be joining Glyph’s crew?”
Jon-Luc managed to drag his eyes up to her face. “Yes ma’am.”
She nodded. “I used to paddle with them, ride with them, ride on them sometimes, once upon. They tell you they are a perfect blend, yes yes, all together, all one with the waves, yes?”
Zufi shook her head. “Always there are currents, you see, always there are treacheries, because the crew reflects the sea, and the sea is all things: destroyer of sustenance and giver of food, killer and giver of life, she soothes wounds and pours salt in wounds too, she lifts you gently up and slams you cruelly down, yes? The sea is one thing that contains oh so many things, and so it is with the crew.”
“Ha,” Marla said. “So one of them might have killed Ronin?”
The Bay Witch cocked her head. “I will tell you about Ronin. He was once a warrior of the sky. He was the divine wind.”
“A Kamikaze pilot?” Pelham said. “During World War II?”
“They taught him only to fly! But not how to land.” The Bay Witch shook her head. “He loved his country. He loved the sky. He watched the planes smash into great ships and erupt in gouts of flame. His purpose, his service! But his plane failed, his engines died, he glided down, close to the water, far from the target. He tried to set off his bombs, tried to boom boom, but nothing happened. He sat and waited, ashamed of his failure. His plane hit the water. Even then it did not explode, it only broke apart.”
“And he survived?” Pelham said.
The Bay Witch nodded. “He floated on wreckage. He floated for seven days and seven nights, very significant, he went through the door of death and looked around and came back out again.” Zufi leaned forward, water dripping from her chin to plop plop plop on the table. “And the sea spoke to him. The ocean herself! So rare, such a rare thing.”
“Hallucinations aren’t that rare,” Marla muttered, but Zufi went on.
“The ocean told him, I saved your life, you are mine now. You will serve me always in all things. And so kamikaze became Ronin. The man moved by the waves. He drifted. He drank rain until he learned to drink seawater. The ocean taught him oh so many things. He came here, to Hawai’i, eventually, and I met him – this was long long after the war, yes, when the Japanese were welcomed for their wallets and not hated for the actions of their ancestors anymore, and so he blended in, became the wise old man of the beach. He looked for likely ones. Prospects. He recruited me, and Glyph, and others, some others, he taught us to be one with the waves, but that means: to contain multitudes.” She fell silent for a moment, staring at the puddle on the table, or somewhere farther away.
“He was a great man,” Jon-Luc said. “At first he just gave me some pointers about riding my board, but later, he taught me lots of things.”
“He had a sadness in him,” Zufi said. “An empty place where home used to be. He knew somehow deep inside he had failed his country, even if his country had failed him by asking him to die in fire in the sky. The waves never carried him home, never never in all the drifting years. He felt himself an exile, oh, yes, ”
Marla thought about Reva, the god of the wanderers, and resolved to have a little talk with him about Ronin, too.
“We spoke, not long ago,” the Bay Witch said. “Ronin came to see me, we were still friends, he was still my teacher, but we had not seen each other in oh such a time. I left the crew long ago, I did not get along with Glyph, we had different ideas: I believed in protecting the life of the sea, he believed the sea should be protecting him, I wanted to sink whaling ships and he wanted to catch bigger waves and ride higher on the ocean’s strength.” She paused. “He would say it a different way, a way to make me sound crazy and bad and make him sound smart and good, but people always say things that way, don’t they just. I missed Ronin, and I was happy to see him when he came, but he was sad so sad. He cried, salt tears, tears because the ocean had destroyed his home. He grew up in a little fishing village in the east of Japan, and…”
“There was an earthquake, and a tsunami,” Pelham said.
Marla frowned. She’d seen some of the footage on TV, a wall of dark water sweeping across the land, burying fields, houses, and fleeing cars. She shuddered.
“Ronin knew it was coming,” the Bay Witch said. “He knew the sea, knew its patterns, could read the likeliest futures in the swirling chaos, the chaos that is only part of a pattern too large to perceive, and he tried to intercede. He performed rituals, he implored, he hoped to speak to the sea again, but she would not talk to him, and his magics… . He had great magics. But there is no force on earth like the tsunami. He had family there still, in those coastal lands, and he tried to warn them, he sent letters, he made calls, but they did not believe him: the man he claimed to be, the name he dredged up from the past, that man had died long, long ago in the war, he could not be alive anymore. The waters rushed in, and the ones he loved were lost in the dark waves.” Zufi licked her lips. “He came to me, after, to talk, to tell me he had… lost his faith. Strange, strange. How could I reassure him? Imagine a wise and ancient monk on a mountaintop, coming to a young one, a student at the temple, and asking for reassurance? What could I say? The ocean, it moves in mysterious ways?” She laughed, bitterly, the first hint of bitterness Marla had ever heard from the woman. “I told him the ocean does not care if we live or die. It is vast and deserving of worship, and it rewards devotions, sometimes, a bit, but there is no shortage of life. It gives and it takes. He knew, he knew, but he thought, he had a personal relationship, because once, the sea spoke to him.” Zufi shook her head. “He swam away from me. He came here again, and he sat on the shore, and he didn’t go back into the water anymore. He forsook the sea, as he believed he had himself been forsaken.”
Jon-Luc swallowed hard and nodded. “That’s true. He said he was getting too old, the ocean was getting too rough for him. He still came to the beach, he still gave us tips, but he didn’t go out on the water anymore.”
“They’re a group, though,” Marla said. “The wave-mages, they’re like a hive, drawing power from each other, right?”
“So having their eldest, most powerful member renounce his powers, that can’t be good for the group as a whole, can it?”
“It would have weakened them,” Zufi said. “Yes, all of them.”
“Huh. So from a certain twisted point of view, killing Ronin might look like a necessary evil, or maybe even self-defense. So tell me, Zufi. This guy Glyph – is he capable of murder?”
“Anyone is capable of anything, if the current flows just right,” Zufi said. She stood up. “I am sad that Ronin is dead. But he was sad to be alive. Perhaps he is happier now. But if someone killed him, yes, I want them to be sad, too. They should not gain from my loss. You will find them, Marla?”
“I’ll do my best,” Marla said. “And now I’ve got a good idea of where to look.” She paused. “Assuming my enemies don’t kill me first.”
Zufi frowned. “Who’s trying to kill you?”
Marla shrugged. “Nicolette. My brother. Who knows who else.”
“I could stay and help you,” Zufi said, thoughtfully. “Let me ask: if you die, will you still be able to repay the favor you owe me?”
Marla hesitated. She didn’t have anything against telling lies, but when you were talking about a bargain made with another sorcerer, it was better to be straight. “No. I’d rather live, but if I die, I might actually be able to do you an even bigger favor.”
Zufi didn’t ask for details. Marla didn’t understand how her mind worked, even remotely, but the Bay Witch just nodded. “Okay okay. I will swim home instead.”
“Fair enough. But before you go – look at something for me.” She took Death’s ring from her pocket and slid it across the table.
The Bay Witch picked it up, holding it in the palm of her hand, then chewed on her lower lip. After a moment, she shook her head. “Magic. Not of this Earth.”
Marla grunted. “I could tell that much.”
The Bay Witch nodded, and slid the ring back across the table. “Viscarro might know more, the spider, the hoarder, the wanter-of-things, but he is dead, his soul chopped up, consumed by the monster you set loose on Felport.” Zufi said that entirely without noticeable rancor, but Marla winced anyway. The Mason had killed a lot of good people in her city. Along with nasty-but-useful people like Viscarro.
“I will go now. Tell Rondeau I said: What is it I should say?”
“Hello?” Marla hazarded.
The Bay Witch considered. “Aloha,” she said after a moment, and then walked down the steps, across the sand, and into the sea, where she vanished.