Elsie Jarrow stepped out of a rip in the flesh of reality, dragging a blindfolded man after her by the arm.
“Jesus Christ,” Jason Mason said, pulling the black scarf down off his face. “What the hell was that? When you said you knew a shortcut I thought – ” He looked around the assemblage in the office, then took a step back, almost bumping into Dr. Husch’s desk. He pointed. “You look just like Rondeau.”
“Come on,” Crapsey said, striking a pose and flexing. “Why you gotta insult me? I’m way more buff than that weedy little shit.”
“This is Crapsey,” Dr. Husch said. “You might think of him as… Rondeau’s brother.”
Jason didn’t look reassured. “Look, I don’t know what you heard – ”
Elsie patted him on the shoulder. “Don’t worry, Jason, Crapsey doesn’t mind that you shot Rondeau right in the guts and left him for dead, do you, Crapsey?”
“Ha. I just wish I could’ve seen it.”
Jason twisted around and stepped away from Jarrow’s touch. “Left him for dead? You mean Rondeau didn’t die? How could he have survived that?”
“Magic, man.” Crapsey shook his head. “We’re all tough to kill. Which is why we’re going to have to try extra hard to make sure Marla gets dead and stays that way. Oh, and Rondeau, too, we’ll get another shot at him, he’s with your sister.”
“This isn’t really my scene.” Jason ran his fingers through his hair. “I don’t really do killing, except when it’s unavoidable. Don’t get me wrong, I’d sleep a lot better if I knew Marla was buried six feet deep – hell, make it ten – but I don’t know what I’m doing here.”
Jason looked like Marla, sort of – same strong features, a little angular, but while Marla fell a bit short of pretty, Jason was well over the line into handsome. Crapsey could see how he managed to charm desperate middle-aged women out of their life savings and family jewels, but he was nervous now, and honestly, Crapsey wasn’t sure what use he’d be in their current circumstances either. But Elsie wanted him, so here he was.
“We’ll all have our parts to play,” Elsie said. “And it’s about time we got into position. I’m just waiting for one last member of our merry band to show up.”
“Who?” Husch said. “You haven’t consulted me about adding anyone else to the team.”
“That’s just one of the many things I haven’t consulted you about!” Elsie said. “Isn’t it fun?”
A buzzer sounded, and Husch went around her desk to look at her computer screen. “Why is there a man with metal in his face on my doorstep?”
Elsie clapped her hands. “That’s Talion! Oh, yay. Where’s Nicolette? I want her to meet him.”
“She’s preparing some weapons for the coming war,” Dr. Husch said. “She stole all my paperclips and rubber bands, a dish full of jelly beans, a box of pushpins, and one of my garter belts.”
“A mighty arsenal in her hands, no doubt,” Elsie said. “Well, Husch, send one of your orderlies to let our guest in, would you?”
Husch grunted and picked up her phone.
“Who is this guy?” Crapsey said.
“We used to hunt werewolves together in Europe,” Elsie said.
“You have to be fucking kidding me,” Jason muttered, shaking his head.
Elsie smiled, dimpling adorably. “This was back when I was just starting out, before I became almost godlike in my vast power. Oh, we’d pursue lycanthropes all night and fuck all day, good times. We had a little falling out about what to do with our kills, unfortunately. I wanted the teeth, claws, and eyes for my rituals, and he wanted intact trophies he could stuff and mount, so we went our separate ways. But he’s one of the best trackers and trappers I know, so I thought, who better to join our merry band of assassins?”
The office door opened, and Talion entered. He was tall, long-faced, and broody, with spiky black hair cut in an asymmetrical style that was probably avant-garde somewhere. He had enough silver jewelry in his face to melt down and make a ten-piece place setting: half a dozen rings in his eyebrows, a large-gauge septum piercing, a labret, and what looked like fishhooks dangling from his earlobes. He looked around the room, a sour expression on his jingling face, then bared his teeth; they were all capped in silver, the better, Crapsey presumed, for biting werewolves. Talion marched up to Elsie. “You,” he growled. “You dare summon me?” He had some accent Crapsey couldn’t place, but that wasn’t surprising – in his home universe, there wasn’t a lot of communication between the continents. At least the guy was talking English. “I am not your dog, and I came only to tell you I will never help you.” Talion slapped Elsie across the face so hard it snapped her head to the side.
Jason cowered behind a potted plant, and Crapsey sucked in his breath and waited for Elsie to do something truly nasty, like making the guy’s blood turn into maggots or something. Instead she just grinned, a handprint showing up in red on her cheek, and looked at Dr. Husch. “And the best part is, Talion hates my guts, and every other part of me! Won’t this be interesting?” She stroked the werewolf hunter’s cheek. “Dear boy, do you still hold all that business against me?”
“You tried to feed me to a pack of wild dogs,” he said. “I stank of dog’s blood for weeks afterward! And when I returned home to my estate, no one remembered who I was, my idiot cousin acted as if he’d been the heir forever, and everyone agreed! Security threw me out of my own home!”
“Technically not your home anymore.” Elsie’s nose crinkled adorably when she smiled. “Since I wiped every memory of your existence away, and rewrote all the records, and made it so you never were. I had a magic quill pen back then, good for that sort of thing. I wonder whatever happened to it? I vaguely recall stabbing a beauty pageant queen in the neck with it, but so much of that decade is a blur…”
“I have been wandering the Earth for years upon years,” Talion said. “Hoping for the opportunity to meet you again, and spit in your face. I’d heard you were imprisoned. I was glad. But if you are free now, perhaps I should kill you.”
“Better plan,” Elsie said. “Help me out now, and I’ll give you everything back. The estates, the family money, all of it.”
Talion lifted his chin. “I have made my own fortune since then. I do not need your gifts.”
“Even better plan, then,” Elsie said, and stuck him in the neck with a hypodermic needle. Talion staggered backward, hand clutched against his neck. Dr. Husch opened a bag marked “Biohazard,” and Elsie dropped the used needle inside. “Uh oh,” Elsie said. “Tally got a boo-boo.”
“What have you done to me?” he said, hand pressed to his neck.
“Injected you with a nasty infection, sweetie. Get ready to loop-the-loup-garou.”
Talion spat on the floor. “Fool. I cannot be turned into a werewolf. I break my fast each morning with wolfsbane.”
“That explains your breath, sweetie.” Elsie sat down on the edge of Husch’s desk. “And, you’re right, I misspoke, you’re not going to be a lycanthrope – but I hope cyanthrope is close enough?”
Talion paled. “No. No, there’s no such thing – ”
“Oh, sure there is. Not as glamorous as werewolves or even werejaguars or weretigers, obviously, but it’s amazing what someone with Dr. Husch’s connections in the supernatural medical community can track down. I almost went with were-hyena, but hyenas are too cool. So instead, you get to be a were-dog. Oh, I hope you turn out to be a sheepdog, you’ve already got the hair hanging down in your eyes, it would be perfect! Don’t widdle on the carpet, or mommy will spank.”
“This is ridiculous. I refuse to believe – ” Talion suddenly screamed, clapping his hands to his face, which – alarmingly – was starting to smoke. He tore the rings out of his ears and nose and eyebrows, howling as the silver burned his fingers, bits of bloody jewelry falling on the carpet.
“Ah, were-dogs do have the traditional silver allergy.” Elsie crouched to examine Talion as he writhed and tried to tear out his own teeth. “I wasn’t sure, but I guess cyanthropes are probably an evolutionary offshoot of werewolves, just like dogs are descended from wolves. Huh, look at that, though, all your face holes are healing up nicely, that’s a benefit, isn’t it? Would you like me to get you a wrench to smash out those nasty teeth? You should grow new ones.”
Jason sidled over to Crapsey. “This… this is so fucked up.”
“What did she do to recruit you?” Crapsey said.
“Turned my house into bugs,” Jason said. “Then threatened to turn my cock into beetles, more or less.”
Crapsey nodded. “Yeah, Talion’s got it a lot worse. Then again, he shoudn’t have slapped her.”
“Would you like another needle in the neck?” Elsie said. “I can make the pain go away.”
“Yes!” Talion sobbed. “Yes, anything!”
Elsie held out her hand, and Husch wordlessly passed her another needle. “Boys, come sit on him, would you?” Crapsey and – more reluctantly – Jason stepped forward to hold down Talion’s arms. Smoke and the smell of burning gums rose up from his open mouth, until Elsie jabbed her needle into the other side of his neck. After a moment, his writhing and jerking stopped, though he went on sobbing. Crapsey and Jason let go and stepped away. Elsie straddled Talion’s chest and stroked his face. Without all that silver piercing his skin, he looked younger, and more vulnerable. “All better, puppy?” she said. “That’s not a cure, now, it’s just temporary relief. The cure comes later – if you always heel, and sit, and roll over when I say.”
“How could you curse me?” he said, eyes so filled with tears they reflected the overhead lights like little mirrors. “I’ve devoted my life to fighting these monsters, and you turn me into – into something just as vile, but not even as… as…”
“As cool? I know. I was afraid that deep down you secretly wanted to be a werewolf – why else spend so much time around them? But nobody wants to be a were-schnauzer. Anyway, it fits that whole ‘dog’ theme you and I had going on all those years ago, with the leashes and the collars, and you remember that little cage? Super fun. So listen. This is easy. You fight a lady I want you to fight. That’s all. Pretend she’s a werewolf, it’ll be easy. If you do a good job, Doc Prettyface here will fix you up, purge all the nasty dog-o-toxins from your system, and you won’t have to sleep at the foot of my bed anymore. Deal?” She stood up, and held out her hand.
“You weren’t always like this,” Talion said, ignoring her hand and wrenching himself to his feet. “What happened to you?”
“Power corrupts?” Elsie said. “When you look too long into the abyss it also looks into you? Be careful hunting monsters, lest you become one? Ve are nihilists, ve believe in nuffink?” She shrugged. “I’m just Elsie being Elsie, baby.” She snapped her fingers. “Somebody get this man a flea collar! I have to step over to Maui for a minute and see what our advance scout is up to. Marla’s cage should be pretty well rattled by now.”
“Lupo shouldn’t be left for so long without supervision,” Husch said, but without much heat. “He’s unstable at the best of times.”
“I gave him a few disguises to wear,” Jarrow said. “Lupo’s not even Lupo right now. You worry too much. Besides – what’s wrong with unstable?” Crapsey expected her to tear another hole in space-time – that couldn’t be good for reality – but instead Elsie bowed her head, whispered a few words, then took a step, and another step… and vanished. She was using her Sufi trick, then. Must be nice, to never be more than three steps from anywhere in the world.
Crapsey held out his hand to Talion, who, after a moment, shook it limply. “Since it looks like you’re part of the team, let me introduce you around,” Crapsey said. And what a team it was. The crazy homunculus doctor, the cowardly con man, the psychic parasite with a wooden jaw, the master of disguise who believed his own disguises, the one-armed chaos witch, and a tumor with a mind. What a bunch of freaks and misfits. We’re not the Superman Revenge Squad, Crapsey thought. We’re the friggin’ Doom Patrol.
After the Bay Witch left, Marla finished her food, though she didn’t really taste it, deep as she was in thought.
“Holy shit,” Jon-Luc was saying. “The Bay Witch, wow. She is legendary. I can’t believe you know her.”
“She has been an ally of Mrs. Mason for many years,” Pelham said.
Jon-Luc frowned. “I can’t believe what she said about Glyph, though. He’s, like, the most Zen surfer I know, all about give and take, ebb and flow. I mean, killing Ronin? It just doesn’t seem like him.”
Marla patted Jon-Luc on the back. “Always expect the worst of people, kid. That way, you’ll only ever be pleasantly surprised. Tell me, are you integrated into the pod well enough to sense their location yet?” She tapped her temple. “Got that magical GPS in your head and all?”
Jon-Luc hesitated, obviously considered lying, then thought better of it. Smart kid. He nodded. “They’re at Pe’ahi – Jaws beach – on the north shore. Maui’s not the best island for surfing, but Jaws is as hardcore as it gets. We’ll find them there.”
“Why haven’t you taken the plunge?” Marla said. “Joined up full time?”
He shrugged. “I still have my mom to think about. She’s a concierge at one of the hotels. Broke her heart when I dropped out of school, but at least I’m working, you know? If I just started surfing all the time, no visible means of income…” He shook his head. “She’d get really worried. I know I want to join Glyph’s crew someday, but… . Now you’re saying one of them might be a murderer. So I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
The poor kid looked miserable. “It’s just a theory,” she said. “But I tell you what. Take me to see your friends. I’ll ask Glyph a few questions, and maybe we can clear all this up. Even if he is a bad guy, that doesn’t mean the rest of them are.”
“I just… why would Glyph hire you to find Ronin’s killer, if he was Ronin’s killer?”
Marla shrugged. “To throw off suspicion, maybe? Because the others in the hive were demanding action and he had to do something, so he figured he’d hire the dumb haole newcomer, who doesn’t know anybody or have any resources, so he can say he tried? That’s just off the top of my head.” She started to grin, saw Jon-Luc’s stricken expression, and stopped. “I’m sorry, I know this is bumming you out, but I finally feel like I’ve got this thing in my teeth. The game is afoot.” She paused. “You know, that expression never made any sense to me. What kind of game has feet? Clearly we’re not talking about poker here.”
“I understand it means ‘game’ as in ‘prey,’ Mrs. Mason,” Pelham said. “It is a Shakespearean metaphor derived from the practice of fox hunting.”
“Then I guess that makes me the hound,” she said. “People are always calling me a bitch, so why not?” She tossed some cash on the table and rose, thinking about what she’d say to Glyph. A good interrogation was almost as fun as a fistfight, after all –
Her old mentor Artie Mann sauntered out of the restaurant’s bathroom, wearing a cheap-looking aloha shirt and puffing a filthy stump of a cigar in clear contravention of all anti-smoking ordinances. And, given that he’d been dead for more than a decade, in clear contravention of natural law, too. “Do you guys see that?” she said, pointing. “That short fat bastard with the cigar?”
“A fine cigar is a gentlemanly pleasure,” Pelham said, “but that does appear to be a rather cheap and unpleasant variety.”
Right. Pelham had never known Artie. But at least he saw the guy, which meant this wasn’t simply a hallucination. Marla stepped up her vision, and, just like with Susan Wellstone, saw no indication of illusion or ghost. The dead man caught Marla’s eye, winked at her, and then kept walking, disappearing around the building and heading in the direction of the parking lot. “Give me a minute.” She hurried after him, but when she reached the lot, there was no sign of the man, except a smoldering cigar end on the asphalt. Marla watched the smoke spiral up into the sky for moment before Jon-Luc and Pelham caught up with her.
“What’s wrong, Mrs. Mason?” Pelham said.
“That fat guy was a dead friend of mine. That makes two dead people I’ve seen today.”
“Ghosts?” Jon-Luc said. “You’re seeing ghosts?”
“Oh, how I wish it were that simple,” she said.
They stopped by Handsome Bob’s, where Marla handed over a fat wad of Rondeau’s money and said, “Jon-Luc’s offered to give me a personal tour of a couple of good snorkeling spots, is it okay if he leaves work a little early?” She found people had a hard time saying no when they were being given money, and it worked out that way this time, too.
“Sure thing,” the old guy said. “Just make sure you don’t serial kill him or something, because I remember your face and your license plate and all that.”
“Understood,” Marla said. She paused. “Do you rent wetsuits? And, I guess, surfboards?”