16. Things Are Never So Bad They Can’t Be Made Worse

“We have walked a mile. Literally a mile. Where are our rooms?” Marla paused by a piece of ornamental sculpture to tighten her shoelaces.

“Well, yeah,” Rondeau said. “It’s like a sixty-acre resort. We’re in the tower farthest from the lobby, unfortunately. If we hadn’t gotten here so late, we’d be able to take the train, or a boat, but since we had late check-in they’ve stopped – ”

Marla stood up, scowled, and continued walking. “This is a hotel with its own train line. It’s a hotel with canals. What am I doing here?”

“It’s big, there are a lot of people, it’s on the coast, and it’s exactly what you asked for.” Rondeau was cheerful. “Plus, I know you love complaining, and I figured this place would give you lots to complain about.”

“It’s very beautifully landscaped,” Pelham offered. “And some of the artwork is quite exquisite. But, yes, it has a certain…”

“Disneyland vastness,” Rondeau said. “There actually is a Disney resort on Oahu, but I figured that might be pushing Marla a tad too far. But basically this is a family-friendly place, you can come here, stay a week, and never even leave the hotel grounds. It’s got like ten pools, and entertainment, and there’s a lagoon where they truck in fresh sand every morning – ”

“A fake beach,” Marla said. “In Hawai’i.”

“The coast right around here’s really rocky,” Rondeau said, reasonably. “I mean, you’d have to walk half a mile to get a nice sandy beach. I’m pretty sure the sea turtles and fish in the snorkeling area aren’t actually animatronic, if that makes you feel any better.”

“I’m not a big fan of the rustic experience,” Marla said. “You know that. The whole ancient Polynesian culture thing doesn’t excite me too much either, though I like their war clubs.” Her Samoan club was nestled in one of the suitcases even now. “But a grass shack on the beach, even though that would be depressingly close to nature, would be preferable to this manufactured, artificial… extruded hospitality product. It’s too neat, too clean, too fake, too orderly – ”

“Ah ha!” Rondeau said. “What’s that last word?”

“Orderly?” Marla said. She paused, then said, more thoughtfully, “Orderly. Really? You did that on purpose?”

Rondeau stopped to sketch out a little bow. “I do sometimes have reasons for the decisions I make, you know. Not always, but. We’re going to fight a chaos magician, and this place is all about the orderliness, the schedules, the cleanliness, the high gloss. All stuff that will salt Nicolette’s game.”

“All right,” Marla said grudgingly. “That’s pretty good.”

“There are also service tunnels,” Rondeau said. “Running all underneath the resort, so the guests never have to see the thousand employees it takes to keep this place in operation.”

“Okay,” Marla said. “Tunnels, I like.”

“They’ve also got a dolphin lagoon,” Rondeau said. “I fucking love dolphins. And it’s only two hundred bucks to swim with one, you believe that? A steal.”


“Ah, there’s our antimancer,” Elsie said.

“Good,” Nicolette muttered. “Maybe he can carry some fucking bags.”

For reasons known only to herself – maybe for the same reasons God was such a dick to his loyal servant Job – Elsie was heaping ever more abuse on Nicolette. Besides taking an apparent shine to Crapsey, which was the surest route to annoying the younger chaos witch, she’d also ordered Nicolette to carry everyone’s luggage, and as a result, she was heaped with two partially-overlapping backpacks, a messenger bag slung across her front, and the handle of a rolling suitcase in her one hand. With her buzzed hair and paint-spattered jeans and t-shirt, she looked like a furious art-school sherpa. They made an odd group overall: Jarrow in the lead, head held high, long red hair streaming behind her, heels clicking on the smooth airport floor; Crapsey in his increasingly rumpled pin-striped suit following at her heels and having unpleasant flashbacks to accompanying the Mason in similar fashion; Talion in his black leather, looking even more ridiculous given the morning heat and humidity here; Nicolette stumbling and snarling and dragging her burdens after him; and Jason bringing up the rear, no doubt thinking about making a break for it, but never quite mustering the courage to try. They all paused to allow a greeter, presumably from the Hawai’ian tourist board or something, to drape them all with sweet-smelling leis and say, “Aloha, welcome to Maui.” Talion took it with exceptionally bad grace, and Nicolette groaned, presumably because even the weight of a couple dozen flowers on a string was an unwanted addition to her considerable burdens. The necklace fit in nicely with the half a dozen other chains she wore strung around her neck, all festooned with beads and charms in various sizes, shapes, and colors – since she couldn’t wear enchanted items in her hair anymore, she’d resorted to wearing them around her neck, and she clattered like a dice cup when she walked. Elsie kept joking that Nicolette must have flashed her breasts a lot at Mardi Gras to get so many necklaces.

Christian Decomain leaned against a pillar by the curb, dark eyes watching them approach from behind his chunky Clark Kent glasses. He was a small, compact man, with short dark hair, dressed in a studiedly nondescript black-jeans-black-button-down-shirt way that actually made him stand out amid the crowds in their vacation-wear casuals. He held up a sign that said “Jarrow & Co,” and Elsie waved at him jauntily. “You must be Leda’s friend!” she said, voice warm and welcoming as an old friend’s embrace.

Christian folded up the sign and tucked it into his back pocket, looking them over with a frown. “And you’re the famous Elsie Jarrow. Dr. Husch told me you’re… no longer ill.”

Jarrow beamed. “I am entirely cured, Christian – may I call you Christian? My antisocial tendencies have been eradicated utterly, and I’ve dedicated myself to making amends for all the nasty little things I did. Starting with the capture of that dangerous renegade Marla Mason.”

Christian nodded. “I’ve heard of her, of course, even up in Portland – she was the youngest chief sorcerer ever, apart from the boy-king Jack Shaffly, but he was a conscious reincarnation, so he doesn’t count.”

Elsie wagged a finger. “You’re forgetting the Bellingham triplets!”

“They were a tripartite soul,” Christian pointed out. “Three life experiences, one mind, so really, you have to combine their ages – they were really forty-eight when they took over.”

“You’re such a bright one!” Elsie patted his cheek, and Christian flinched away – no surprise, Crapsey thought. This was the woman they’d called Marrowbones, after all, ostensibly cured of her bad craziness or not. “Do you have a car for us?”

Christian gestured to a dark blue van parked at the curb. “Minivans aren’t really my thing, but I thought for such a large group… I got one that can seat eight, if we don’t mind getting cozy, and there’s a roof rack for the luggage.” He paused. “I figured we might want to keep the back storage area free for, ah…”

“Bundling Marla up in a sack? Good thinking.” Elsie turned. “Nicolette! Get the bags up on top. Oh, fine, you’d think I was making you eat whole lemons from the look on your face. Jason, you help her, hup hup. You can drive, too, Jason.” She leaned in toward Christian, conspiratorially. “Jason here isn’t a sorcerer. He’s not much good for anything, really, but he’s Marla’s brother, so we thought he might be able to work some of that old family magic, talk her down from her manic arc of destruction, calm her enough for us to scoop her up and get her back to the Blackwing Institute for therapy without a struggle.”

“It’s a shame. From what I heard, she was so promising.” Christian shook his head. “But I guess it was too much pressure for her, and she couldn’t handle it. She really lost it, huh?”

“They say she was turning people into sharks.” Elsie tapped her temple with one finger. “And just letting them drown in the air! That doesn’t sound like a rational actor, does it? Paranoia, schizophrenia, posttraumatic stress disorder, who knows? Dr. Husch will handle the diagnosis. We’re just in charge of bringing her in.”

“This is… quite a crew for a simple apprehension,” Christian said. “Who are the others?”

“Oh, just my entourage,” Elsie said. “Talion does security, don’t you, my good boy? And Crapsey here is an all-purpose lackey.”

“And Rondeau’s brother,” Crapsey offered.

Elsie snapped her fingers. “Ah, that’s right! You see, Marla has some misguided friends who don’t want to see her committed. They’re in denial, you know, poor dears, classic enablers – especially her old right-hand-man Rondeau. We’re hoping his long-lost brother Crapsey can talk some sense into him. Though Marla also has a loyal-beyond-all-reason manservant named Pelham, and maybe a wayward god or two.”

Christian widened his eyes but didn’t say anything, and Elsie went on blithely. “So having Nicolette – that’s the one-armed one, you can’t miss her – around to throw some trinkets, and Talion to bite people, grr, and so on, is just us being on the safe side. Can you suppress all the magic in a given area?”

“Mostly, but it depends on how many sources are involved,” Christian said. “And the force of the will directing the magic. I can dampen or dispel or counter pretty much anything a mortal sorcerer throws at me, at least for a few minutes, but it’s like pressing against a door with a horde trying to force their way in – it takes effort and energy on my part, too. But I should be able to render Marla inert long enough to tranquilize her.”

Elsie stepped close to him, so close his face was practically tucked up against the hollow of her throat, and appeared to smell his hair. “Do you think you could stop my powers from working?”

“I could,” Christian said. “Not for long, but, yes. I’ve made a study of your powers, Ms. Jarrow. Dr. Husch consulted me when your cell was constructed.”

The chaos witch stepped back, all smiles again. She was looking less and less like the Mason, Crapsey realized. It wasn’t just the red hair and lipstick, or the fact that she smiled a lot – the structure of her face was actually changing, the cheeks rounding, the nose becoming more snub, and, yeah, her boobs were getting bigger, too. Elsie was making this body into a replacement for her own. Crapsey wondered if she was even conscious of the transformation. “All loaded?” she called.

Nicolette, huffing, tied down a last bit of rope, pulling the knot tight with her teeth. “All set.”

“Then I’ve got shotgun,” Elsie said. “Who knows the way to Lahaina?”

“There’s a GPS in the car,” Christian said. At her blank look, he cleared his throat. “Ah, global positioning satellite? Basically a computer that communicates with a satellite, so it knows where we are all times, and can give us turn-by-turn directions to get wherever we’re going.”

Elsie looked up, as if she might be able to see one of those satellites – and who knew? Maybe she could. “The world is getting so small, isn’t it?” she murmured to Crapsey. “Where are the wild places anymore? I really must do something about all this when we’re finished with Marla.”

Before Crapsey could come up with an answer, Elsie was climbing into the minivan, so he got in the back. Christian and Talion sat together in the very rear, so he had to sit next to Nicolette in the next row of seats. She looked at him with eyes so filled with hate she’d probably weep cobra venom if she started to cry.

Jason, who hadn’t said a word since they deplaned, drove away from the airport, following the soothing directions of the GPS as Elsie chattered at him happily about the first time she’d come to Hawai’i, which had apparently involved a horrible fire at a luau, and how she’d lived in a place down by the beach for a while. “You know, a lot of people think a sorcerer named Felix invented the spell commonly known as the Scream of Felix. Not so! That was me! Felix Garcia was my roommate. But, yes, it was his scream. You could have swept up what was left of him in a dustpan, poor dear, but he never left wet towels on the bathroom floor again…”

Nicolette leaned toward Crapsey, close enough he was afraid she’d bite his neck. “Why the fuck does she like you?” Nicolette hissed in his ear.

“I think it’s this body,” Elsie said, turning around in her seat and staring. Nicolette squirmed uncomfortably under the gaze. “I hear everything, you should know that. I hear things you haven’t even said yet. Crapsey was the most trusted companion of the last inhabitant of this body, and you have to understand, even though I’ve taken over, I’m still dealing with a lot of the original architecture. The brain locked up in this skull has certain ingrained pathways, and I just feel comfortable with Crapsey.”

“But the Mason was friends with me, too,” Nicolette objected. “Or, okay, not me, exactly, but the version of me that existed in her universe.”

“Yeah, but she never liked you – or your counterpart,” Crapsey said. “She said you were first on the list of people she expected to betray her. Now, everybody in the world was on that list somewhere, even me, but you were right at the top. That’s why she kept you close – you knew about chaos magic, which was actually kind of a danger to her, since she was so rigid and order-obsessed.”

“So I’m working with those same mental grooves,” Elsie said cheerfully. “I look at you and think: venomous bitch. What can I do?”

“But I worship you,” Nicolette said miserably.

“Yes!” Elsie nodded rapidly. “It’s super pathetic!” She turned around and began playing with the radio.

“Just… maybe don’t try so hard.” Crapsey kept his voice low, even though he knew it didn’t matter. “I think she respects people who are, you know. Tough.”

“But you’re totally spineless,” Nicolette said, glum and slumped. “And she likes you.”

“Yeah, okay, but I’m naturally spineless,” Crapsey said. “I’m not faking it. The whole adoration thing – it doesn’t exactly fit naturally on you. You’re a badass, Nicolette. You nearly killed Marla yourself once or twiceif she hadn’t had the cloak, she would have died, and now, she doesn’t have the cloak.” It was weird trying to reassure Nicolette, but it was even weirder seeing her depressed and sulky. He wouldn’t have been able to imagine her this way a few days ago – it would have been like imagining a brooding bonfire, or a depressed avalanche.

She perked up. “Yeah, that’s right. I could totally kill Marla now. That would probably impress the shit out of Jarrow – ”

Christian cleared his throat behind them. “Ah, but we’re not going to kill her, I mean, we’re here to get her help. Right?”

“Naturally,” Crapsey said. “We’re just, you know… trying to be prepared. Obviously you try to cure the rabid dog first, but you have to be prepared to put it down if it’s a matter of self-defense – ”

“There is no cure for rabies,” Talion said, voice dripping with scorn. “Not after symptoms begin to appear.”

“You would know, wouldn’t you, dog-boy?” Nicolette said.

Crapsey smiled. Nicolette was defending him. That was something. “Huh,” he said. “I didn’t know that. I mean, where I’m from, there’s not really a cure for anything. If you step on a rusty nail you pretty much just die. Measles, whooping cough, whatever. I thought you guys had cures for everything.”

“Where are you from?” Christian asked, bewildered.

“Never mind that,” Elsie called from the front seat. “Nicolette, you should call Talion dog-boy again. Or Rover, things in that vein. That’s the sort of behavior that could rewire my brain’s pathways in your favor.”

After a few more miles of banter, snippiness, complaining, and sniping, Jason finally spoke: “This is Lahaina.” Crapsey looked out the window. Cute little touristy town, right down by the water, the main street lined by buildings with wooden facades housing gift shops and restaurants and tiny art galleries. There were lots of slow-moving cars and tourists, the latter ambling aimlessly across the paths of the former with impunity. Their van crawled past a park dominated by a majestically sprawling banyan tree, and Jarrow hmmmed. “Pull into this next lot. Our contact is here.”

Jason managed to find a spot only halfway back in the packed public lot, and they all piled out of the vehicle. “Is it okay to just leave the luggage up top – ” Crapsey began, but Elsie just waved her hand, and all the luggage vanished, instantly transported inside the van.

“If you could load the van with the wave of your hand,” Nicolette said through gritted teeth, “why did you make me climb up on the fucking roof?”

“Hard work builds character,” Elsie said absently, then brightened. “There he is! Oh, Sam! Here we are!”

A man with sad hound-dog eyes, wearing a gray suit, emerged from the shadow at the side of a two-story building. He looked around, frowning, and twisted a fedora in his hands. “Who’s Sam? I don’t understand any of this.” The man’s eyes darted from side to side. “Who are you people? And what’s with all the funny-looking cars? Is this one of those futuristic pictures, a Flash Gordon sort of thing? I think I need to talk to the director.”

Crapsey looked around at his fellows, who were staring at the newcomer, all of them wearing expressions of confusion or disbelief. “What? Do we know him?”

“That’s… he looks exactly like Humphrey Bogart,” Christian said. “The way he looked in the ’40s, in all those movies…”

“Oh,” Crapsey said. “Right. Where I’m from, we didn’t really have much in the way of movies. There were a lot of electromagnetic pulses, so most of the players were fried, and electricity was spotty anyway.”

“Remind me to never visit wherever it is you’re from,” Christian said. He raised his voice. “Ms. Jarrow, what is this?”

Elsie stamped her foot. “Disappointing, is what this is.” She gestured at Bogart, who looked torn between running away or throwing a punch. “This is our skinshifter, Gustavus Lupo. He can imitate anyone, perfectly. I thought maybe I could tweak him a bit, mess around with his mind and make it possible for him to imitate fictional characters. How wonderful would that be, if he could turn into, oh, I don’t know, Willy Wonka, or Conan the Barbarian, or Hannibal Lector? Fictional characters have so many more obvious applications than real people do. I thought it would work – fictional creations are naturally simpler than actual real people.” She looked around. “Except maybe for you, Nicolette, and you, Talion. But I thought the premise was sound! I was hoping to get Sam Spade, the private eye, but instead, I got the actor who used to play him… . Oh well.” She took a deep breath. “Mr. Bogart, I presume?”

“Sure, that’s right, and who are you?”

“You know how to whistle, right, Bogey?” Elsie said. “Just put your lips together, and…” She puckered her lips, but she didn’t whistle: it was more like blowing out a candle flame, and when she did, Bogart shimmered, fedora vanishing, and the figure before them became somehow… undifferentiated, like they were looking at him from behind a pane of distorting shower glass. “This is the closest thing to a ‘neutral’ form he’s got,” Elsie said. “Kind of calls attention to itself, though, doesn’t it? We can do better. I sort of miss Dr. Husch though, so…” She snapped her fingers, and the figure trembled, then became the good doctor – but with her dark blonde hair worn loose, and dressed in dark sunglasses, a clinging yellow-tank top, extremely brief denim shorts, and strappy sandals. She looked around in alarm.

Elsie jabbed Crapsey in the rib with her elbow. “You like her outfit? I did that for you.”

“You’re a generous soul,” Crapsey said.

“What’s the meaning of this?” Lupo snapped, crossing her arms and scowling. “Jarrow, how dare you teleport me against my will? For that matter, how did you manage to – ”

“I didn’t,” she said. “Come on, Doctor. If I could pry you out of Blackwing, you know I would have done so first thing. You’re not you. You’re Lupo, imitating you.”

Lupo took off her sunglasses, narrowed her eyes to glare at Elsie, then sighed. “Oh, wonderful. Not only do I have to be here with you, I also have to live with the knowledge that my entire sense of self is false, and that even this provisional consciousness could cease to exist at any moment. That’s just grand.”

“I totally missed you too,” Elsie said, linking arms with Lupo, much to her apparent dismay. “Let’s go break into Marla’s office and put her in a straitjacket for her own protection, what do you say?”

  • Thomas

    April 9th, 2012


    Your characters can take awhile to “gel” in my mind – but then they do. I really like the Rondeau/Nicolette/Jarrow interplay. They’re all very fun.

    “If you step on a rusty nail you pretty much just die. Measles, whooping cough, whatever.”

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