The little guy groaned from the back seat, where he was trussed up and covered with a blanket. Jason tried to ignore the noises as he drove along the highway toward the cabin Christian had booked for them to use as a base of operations. The SUV ran more smoothly now than it had before the tires got popped – Jarrow had patched them up magically, somehow. He didn’t trust magic, but they hadn’t given him much choice. He considered cutting the little guy loose and driving to the airport, but Jarrow had found him in his trailer in Mississippi, and he was pretty sure she’d be able to find him anywhere else he ran. Better to play this thing out, and hope he landed on his feet when it was all over.
The guy in the back said, “Hello? Who is driving, please?”
“Keep quiet,” Jason said. “I’m trying to think.”
“My name is Pelham,” the little guy said, like Jason didn’t know that. “May I ask where you’re taking me?” His tone was polite, reasonable, and not even a little bit terrified. Jason had driven a few cars with guys tied up in the back seat, or in the trunk, over the years, and none of them had sounded this cool when they talked. You had to admire the guy’s guts.
“Don’t worry. I’m just supposed to keep you on ice for a little while.”
“You work for Elsie Jarrow, the chaos witch?”
“I don’t work for anybody but me,” Jason said, knowing how hollow that must sound. “I’m working with Jarrow, all right?”
A moment of silence, and then a dry chuckle, muffled by the blanket but still audible. “You are Marla Mason’s brother, aren’t you? Jason.”
Christ. “So what if I am?”
“May I sit up? I promise not to cause you any difficulties. I would not wish to get you in trouble with Ms. Jarrow. She seems a formidable woman.” Without waiting for an answer, Pelham levered himself upright, the blanket half-falling off his body. Jason glanced at him in the rearview. His hair was mussed and sticking up in all directions, making him look like a little boy just awake from a nap. He was handcuffed, and shackled, and tied with a weird rope of Jarrow’s own devising, one that twisted and squirmed like a snake. “You’ve certainly gone to some trouble to tie me up,” Pelham said. “I’m not even a sorcerer, you know.”
“Jarrow said you’re an escape artist, though. She told me you don’t have much in the way of actual magic, but that you know a whole lot about a whole lot of other things.”
“I have some small expertise in escapeology,” Pelham acknowledged. “But my lockpicks have been taken, it seems, and these bonds are ensorcelled. I am amply contained. But Mrs. Mason will be worried about me, you know. She’ll come find me. She – ”
“She doesn’t know you’re gone, Jeeves. We’ve got a guy, Lupo, who can make himself look like anybody. A perfect imposter. God, the scams I could run with a guy like that, too bad he’s batshit crazy… anyway, he’s being you right now. He’s not even faking it, exactly – he thinks he really is you. I was all for putting a bullet in your head and leaving you back there at the park, but Jarrow says Lupo can do a better job imitating you if you’re still alive.”
“A passive psychic link,” Pelham murmured. “How very unpleasant.” He sighed. “At least if Lupo believes his own delusion, he doesn’t pose a threat to Marla.”
“Until Jarrow makes him think he’s the Green River Killer or something, sure. You take comfort in that.”
“If I may ask – why do you harbor such antipathy toward Marla?”
Jason wasn’t in the mood to spill his guts to his sister’s footman, or whatever the fuck this guy was. “We’ve got history. I did everything for her, and when push came to shove, she wasn’t there for me. So I don’t owe her anything anymore.”
“She was very young,” Pelham said, almost gently. “I think you would find her a loyal and indefatigable ally now.”
Jason shook his head. “Too late for that. I tried to kill her. She tried to kill me. I tried to kill her friend Rondeau, though I guess he survived. Fucking magic. She did kill my partner, Danny Two Saints. Jarrow came to me, told me she could give me peace of mind, that I could help her get rid of Marla, so I could stop looking over my shoulder – ”
“Marla wasn’t coming for you, Mr. Mason. She is, I think, more sad than angry, when she thinks about you, and what’s happened between you.”
“Why should I believe you?”
“Don’t you think she could have found you easily if she’d tried? Those who understand magic have ways of hiding from one another, but you know nothing of such secrets. She could have traced you, gone after you, with trivial ease. She did not. You should not have become involved in this.”
“Too late to do anything about that now,” Jason said. “I threw the dice. Now I just have to hope it doesn’t come up boxcars.”
“Is it true you’re a confidence trickster, Mr. Mason?”
“I’ve made my living a lot of ways. But sure, I’ve spent some time on the grift.”
“I don’t understand why you would choose a life that revolves around hurting people,” Pelham said. “I am not a religious man – I’ve met too many gods to be comfortable worshipping them – but I do believe there’s truth in the saying that the wages of sin are death.”
Jason snorted. “The wages of sin are death, sure. But so are the wages of everything else, eventually. And in the short run, the wages of grifting are money. Not to mention the pleasure of knowing you put one over on some sucker, or some jerk who thought they were putting one over on you. They say you can’t cheat an honest man. That’s not true, but it’s a lot easier to cheat a dishonest one. The world is shit, Pelham. Most people are just pieces of shit. The best you can hope to be is an insect, feeding off the shit. At least then you can fly.”
“You certainly have a way with colorful metaphor, Mr. Mason.”
“Don’t I know it. I was always the creative one in my family.”
Crapsey and Elsie stepped out of the portal not far from the little beach cottage Christian had reserved for them, back before he got turned into frogs. The rented SUV was parked beside the house, hidden by the shadows of the night, and a light glowed in one of the windows, which meant Jason and his prisoner were probably inside.
Elsie took a deep breath of the warm, flower-scented air. “I love this place. Don’t you?”
Since he was busy trying not to puke again, Crapsey limited himself to a grunt. He bent over and took a few breaths to get his stomach under control before straightening.
Elsie slung her arm around his shoulder. “Maybe you and I should stay here, huh? After all this business is done? Just for a while. I mean, all these volcanoes! Talk about a volatile situation. I mean, they aren’t volatile enough, they’re all pretty dormant except the one on the Big Island, but I could do something about that…”
They were alone together, and Elsie was clearly feeling cheerful, so Crapsey decided to broach a subject he’d been thinking about. “Uh, so, Elsie. I was thinking, you’re probably the most powerful sorcerer I’ve ever met, maybe the most powerful in the world – ”
“Oh, now, that’s sweet of you, but really, I’m probably only in the top ten right now. But since I’m free of Husch’s chains, I can really get to work, stir up some disasters, get my powers back. Check back with me in a few months, though, and I might deserve that compliment.” She spun away from him, doing a little twirl with her arms outstretched and her head thrown back. “Freedom! Freedom, Crapsey! Is there a more beautiful concept?”
“Freedom’s something I’ve been thinking about myself. You know how I got that spell cast on me, trapping me in this body. It’s pretty shitty, boss. Terrifying, even, because if this body dies, there’s no reason to think my consciousness will die with it. I could be stuck inside my own corpse forever…” He shuddered.
“Hardly forever! You’ll rot like anybody, and since the spell is particular to that body you’re wearing, you’ll be free once it’s entirely decomposed. Now, that means you have to avoid being buried in a coffin, because, brother, those things take forever to break down. You want to go all natural, ideally near as many scavenging animals and flesh-devouring insects as possible. You know, I’d say go for cremation, but there are always unburned bone fragments, and you’d have to wait for those to break down entirely too, which is way slower if you’re in an urn somewhere. I mean, we’re talking the rise and fall of civilizations long. No, you want to get buried in a hole, somewhere nice and hot and moist – ha, no dirty jokes now – what I’m saying is, tropical. You’ll be free in a decade or two. Or three or four. I’m not sure how long it takes bones to break down and become basically undifferentiated from minerals. Now, a lot of people hate you, though admittedly most of them don’t live in this universe, but still, someone could really fuck with you, take extraordinary steps to preserve your skeleton, and in that case, you’re in trouble, so I’d advocate dying alone in a jungle – ”
Crapsey cleared his throat. “I could go that way. I mean, that’s good advice. No doubt. Or, maybe, I don’t know, you could… set me free?”
Elsie cocked her head. “Are you asking me for a favor?”
“I guess I am. Is that a bad idea?”
“One of the worst! I’m a genie who just got her bottle broken to bits, Crapsey. I could do just about anything, after all. But, you know… I don’t think so. I think I want you to stay trapped in your own bottle for now.”
Crapsey sighed. Life was disappointment. “Why? I thought you liked me.”
“Oh, I do! I do like you, and usually the kindest feeling I can generate toward anybody is plain old indifference. Consider yourself blessed.”
“Okay, but… think of the chaos I could cause, if I had my old powers back.”
Elsie put her hands on his shoulders and looked into his eyes. He was glad it was dark out here – her eyes could be disconcerting, so bright, so merry, so full of depths. “Your powers, let’s be clear, involve leaving your body and taking over the bodies of others, destroying their souls in the process. Then you abandon their bodies, leaving them brain-dead husks. Right?”
“Pretty much. So you’ve got, like… a moral objection?” Crapsey was aware of right and wrong the way a color-blind person is aware of the full color spectrum: via secondhand explanations. Any conscience he’d once possessed had been utterly burned out of him during his years as the Mason’s lieutenant, when atrocities became casual.
“Heavens, no! Like I said, for most people, I can barely even muster feelings of indifference. No, Crapsey, the problem is, you could be a living genocide if you really got going. You could be a one-man pandemic. And with every soul you destroyed, and every body you dropped, you’d leave the world a little less complicated. Me? I like complicated. I want more people, with all their tiny little drives and urges and strivings crashing up against one another. The brain-dead do nothing for me. So, no, sweetie, you just hang tight. If you get really desperate you can always dunk your body in a big vat of acid until it’s totally dissolved.”
“I hate pain,” Crapsey said morosely. “Like, I hate it a lot.”
“Those who’ve inflicted a lot of pain on others often do.” Elsie patted his cheek. “Don’t be pouty. You could live a long time in that body, and you’ve got that wonderful jaw! You could eat the world with that jaw! And I might change my mind. You never know. I do that. For now, let’s go see how Jason’s doing, shall we? I need him to call his sister for me tomorrow.”
“Yeah. What are you going to do about Marla?”
“I think it would be fun to let Marla decide that,” Elsie said. “But I think I’ll let her get some sleep first, so she’s not too cranky, and the same goes for you and the other remainders of the Marla Mason Revenge Squad. And our hostage. I want everyone well-rested and perky. There’s plenty of time to decide Marla’s fate over brunch.”
“Nicolette tried to bite me,” Rondeau said. “I was just offering her a Danish, you know how great the pastries are in that little cafe downstairs? She nearly took my finger off. So I, uh, psychiced her. Squeezed her brain right to sleep. I didn’t even know I could do that, I just reached into her mind and felt around a little until I found the sleepy bit, and I gave it a little tweak, and, conk. She’s snoring now.” He yawned and poured Marla a cup of coffee from an oversized French press. They were out on Marla’s balcony, overlooking the dolphin lagoon.
“She’s still tied up in the bathtub?” Marla sipped. Kona coffee, black. That was one thing about life on the islands that she couldn’t find even a speck of fault with.
“Yeah, with a bunch of pillows around her because I’m not a dick. Pelly’s watching her. Your soundproofing spell is holding fine. We can’t even hear her yell unless we’re in there with her trying to brush our teeth or whatever, which is why we slipped in to use your shower this morning.
“It’s not like you to sleep later than… well, anybody. Roosters, early birds, worms, guys who work the night shift, you usually beat all of them.”
Marla shrugged. “You’re always telling me I need to learn to relax.”
Rondeau frowned. “True, but maybe not when a crazy chaos magician is trying to kill you?”
“If Jarrow wants me dead, I’m dead. I don’t have any more chance than the dinosaurs did against that asteroid. I can’t even hurt her, let alone fight her.” She took another sip of coffee. Good thing Rondeau had never learned to tell when she was lying. There was a way she could hurt Jarrow, she’d learned that when she talked to Hamil the night before, but it was a case of the cure being worse than the disease, and in the end, it wouldn’t make any difference. Because: “Even if I took Nicolette’s magic axe and put it in the hands of a god like Reva, and he managed to chop Jarrow’s head off, so what? She doesn’t need a body. It’s possible that being in a body is actually making her less crazy. Hamil said she seemed sane, and it’s not like she’s rampaging around turning whole shopping malls into frogs.”
“No, just one guy at a time. That’s super comforting. So we just wait?”
“Traps are laid. Defenses are set. What else can we do?”
“Usually ‘go on the offensive,’ is your answer to that,” Rondeau said. “Aren’t you the woman who literally invaded Hell last summer?”
Marla grimaced. “No, Rondeau. I’m not that woman. That woman was the chief sorcerer of Felport, acting in defense of her city. In case you haven’t noticed, I don’t have a city anymore. There’s not even a reason for me to get out of bed at all these days. Which is why I didn’t get up this morning, until you came and poked me in the arm.”
“Right, no reason at all. Except, oh, what’s it called – self-preservation?”
Marla pushed her cup aside. “I didn’t go to Jarrow with my head bowed and wait for death last night. I am fighting. I just wonder, sometimes, what I’m fighting for.”
“Marla – ” Rondeau’s phone rang. He raised an eyebrow, and Marla nodded. Probably it was just his masseur on Maui calling to ask why he’d missed yesterday’s appointment –
“Wow,” Rondeau said. “I didn’t expect to hear from you. I’m doing fine, thanks, totally recovered from the whole getting-shot-by-you thing. Oh, but you don’t want to walk down memory lane with me. Let me get your sister.” He handed over the phone.”Hello, Jason,” Marla said.
“Marla. I’ve, ah, got a message for you. From Elsie Jarrow.”
“I thought you had bad taste in friends before, but you’ve really outdone yourself this time. You never cease to impress.”
He sounded a little shaky when he replied, but with Jason, no show of emotion was remotely trustworthy. She wasn’t sure he even had emotions, apart from maybe envy and contempt. “Listen, sis, I didn’t have a lot of choice. I wasn’t so much recruited as kidnapped, and I still don’t know what the fuck I’m doing here with witches and warlocks and guys with creepy wooden jaws. Mostly I’ve just been driving them around and waiting for them to get bored with me.”
“Or kill you,” Marla said. “That’s just as likely. Maybe more so.”
“You sure know how to raise a guy’s spirits. But, look – I’m calling to tell you nobody has to die. Jarrow wants to meet with you, and talk things over. No tricks, no fussing or fighting.”
“Ha. Fine. Where?”
“There’s supposed to be a great buffet in that resort where you’re staying,” Jason said. “How about she meets you there for brunch in an hour?”
“Just me and her, alone?”
“I’m not coming, if that’s what you’re asking. Our tearful reunion will have to wait.” There was some background noise, and then muffled noises as if Jason was covering the phone, and then he returned. “Oh, Jarrow wants to know if you’ve got Nicolette, or if she’s still just a fart in the woods, whatever the fuck that means.”
“I’ve got her,” Marla said. “She’s not hurt.”
Jason relayed that. “Okay,” he said. “Thanks.’
“What, no demands that I release her?”
“Jarrow says if having a hostage makes you feel better, that’s cool. One hour at the buffet. If you get there first, order coffee for her.” He hung up, and Marla handed the phone back to Rondeau, telling him the deal.
“Normally meeting in public is a good idea,” Rondeau said. “It keeps people on good behavior. But this is Jarrow. What if she just, like… kills everybody?”
“Then get a message to Arachne, and mobilize the kahunas against her,” Marla said. “Put her in touch with Hamil, too – he was part of the team that caught Jarrow the first time, though he was nothing but an apprentice at the time. He might have some pointers.”
“How did they catch her?” Rondeau asked.
Marla shrugged. “I was prepubescent at the time, living in Indiana. I don’t know all the details. I just know it took a lot of resources. Ask Pelham – he’s a walking history of Felport.”
“Maybe I’ll get him to tell me for my bedtime story tonight, since you’re making us share a room,” Rondeau said.
“Assuming you’ll live until bedtime,” Marla replied. “Aren’t you the optimist?”