Marla arrived at the hotel’s the open-air breakfast buffet, wondering how often the birds fluttering around shat on people’s omelets. She told the hostess she needed a table for two. Pelham was lurking around somewhere, keeping an eye on things to make sure Jarrow didn’t bring an entourage. Rondeau was on Nicolette duty, and Marla just hoped he’d remembered to put the “Do Not Disturb” sign on the doorknob. If some poor housekeeper discovered they had a woman tied up in a bathtub, things could get awkward.
Jarrow breezed in a few minutes after Marla was seated, all smiles and cheerfully waving, dressed like a wealthy tourist from the mainland in a red sundress and lots of chunky gold jewelry and too much lipstick. Marla stood up, and Jarrow embraced her and air-kissed her cheeks. “Darling, you look tired!”
“I didn’t get much sleep last night, Jarrow.”
“Please, call me Elsie! I didn’t sleep, but then, I never do, it cuts into my me-time, you know. I realize we have a lot to talk about, but I’m dying for something to eat. I don’t actually need food, I subsist on other energies, but I love a good buffet – ooh, there’s an omelet station!” She hurried over toward the long tables of savories and sweets.
Marla unobtrusively slipped Death’s ring from her finger and peered through the circle as the witch filled up a plate with eggs and bacon and fruit. The future didn’t appear to hold any surprise attacks, just Jarrow getting food and coming back to the table and talking. The ring didn’t provide audio, and Marla wasn’t much of a lipreader, so she didn’t know what Jarrow was saying. She put the ring away. She’d find out soon enough.
When Jarrow returned, she reached across the table and took Marla’s hand. Looking at her up close, Marla could see the underlying structure of Jarrow’s face, and it was Marla’s own, though it was clearly being altered from the inside. Still, they could have been sisters, once you looked beyond the fiery red hair and make-up on Jarrow. “My dear,” Jarrow said, “let there be no more conflict between us. I was hired to do a distasteful job, and now that my employer is no longer in a position to give me orders, well! Why should I bother you any longer?”
Marla frowned and pulled her hand away. “So you’re just going to let it drop? No more murder or torment?”
“You understand me perfectly.”
“Then why did you even come here? Why not just leave the island?”
Jarrow raised one eyebrow. “Marla Mason. I told you I did a tiny bit of research on you before I came on this mission. You’re a fairly formidable person. In the past few years you’ve vanquished the Beast of Felport, outsmarted the time-traveling first chief sorcerer of the city – don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone it’s really Malkin, it’s cute how you made everyone think he was just some crazy guy – sent the king of elves back to his hideous little dimension, killed a resurrected Aztec god, dispelled the king of nightmares, and fought the incarnation of Death. Am I missing anything?”
“Lots of things, actually,” Marla said. “But I guess those are some of the highlights.”
“And what highlights they are! You don’t look like much, forgive me for saying so, but I think you could make my life unpleasant, if you wanted to. You still have some powerful friends, even if you’re reluctant to call on them. Why didn’t you summon your friend Genevieve, by the way, the reweaver? She would have made this thing between us into a real fight.”
“Against you? Genevieve’s mind isn’t all that stable, and she can alter reality with a thought – she shut herself away in a private bubble-universe because she worried about how she might mess up this world. She contains the potential for incomprehensible chaos. Throwing her at you would be like trying to douse a fire with kerosene – you’d end up using her power to make yourself stronger.”
“Drat,” Jarrow said. “I was afraid you’d actually thought it through. Oh well. You’re a fighter, Marla, and you have a distressing tendency to accomplish things. You’ve got the one quality that’s indispensable to a sorcerer: an iron will. The kind of will that says, ‘I will change the world, and I will not be changed.’ So I thought it best to come visit you, and formally declare an end to hostilities, and break bread together.” Jarrow tore a macadamia nut muffin in half and offered a chunk to Marla, who accepted it, but didn’t eat.
“If you think I could be a threat to you… why not kill me? Just to be on the safe side?”
Jarrow smiled warmly. “Why, what a cold arithmetic, Marla! I want you to live because you make the world a more interesting place. Despite your best efforts to restore things to maintain a status quo and prevent upheaval in Felport, you’re an agent of turmoil. You prompted a regime change in Hell, Marla. You tore a big hole right in the fabric of reality and let terrible things from a dread dimension pour into this world. Thanks for that, by the way – I’m quite fond of Crapsey. You’re a destabilizing force for chaos, and the adorable thing is, you think you’re a force for order.”
Marla shook her head. “Maybe that was true once, Elsie, but I’m not a force for anything anymore.” She sighed. “But… I still try to do the right thing. And my problem is, you did bad stuff, last time you were free. It took a coalition of dozens of sorcerers from up and down the East Coast to contain you. You were a walking, talking cancer cluster. If I don’t try to stop you, what am I unleashing on the world?”
Jarrow put her chin in her hand and regarded Marla seriously. “Is that… altruism? How strange. I keep meaning to try that someday – being a do-gooder for a while. Listen, Marla. Those were dark times. I wasn’t entirely aware of what I was doing. My original body was ravaged by tumors. I held myself together physically through sheer force of will, but I couldn’t shut out the pain without shutting off all sensation, so my options were utter agony or the feeling of floating in a sensory deprivation tank all the time. Neither one was good for my mental health. You have to understand, I’m not really insane – I just had a nervous breakdown, lost my handle on my powers, and… yes, people died. I know that. I’ve been locked in a cube for years, and for some of that time, I didn’t have a body at all, I was so low on power I couldn’t save my physical form from the tumors that consumed it. Being bodiless for long periods of time will mess you up, Marla, especially if you’re a bon vivant like me. But now.” She sat back and gestured at herself modestly. “I’m in a young, strong, incredibly well-safeguarded body. No more bad craziness in my head. Don’t worry about me. Besides, practically speaking, how could you stop me? I mean, yes, theoretically, I won’t discount the possibility – but it wouldn’t be easy for you, and it wouldn’t be quick.”
Marla disagreed. She had a pretty good idea how she could stop Jarrow. She’d figured out the first part last night, and had woken with an inspiration for the second part. But the cost was extreme, and if she didn’t need to do it… maybe Jarrow was lying. But maybe she was telling the truth. She was definitely weird, but she didn’t seem particularly out-of-control now. Last night had been weird and ugly, but it was a duel between sorcerers – those tended to be unpleasant. Jarrow wouldn’t be the only unpredictable, dangerous sorcerer in the world. And why did she have to be Marla’s problem anyway? Jarrow hadn’t escaped from Blackwing under Marla’s watch. Marla didn’t even have a watch anymore. If Jarrow didn’t pose a clear and present danger to Marla herself, or to anyone she cared about… “I guess you have a point,” Marla said.
“Truce, then?” Jarrow said.
“Until you give me a reason to decide otherwise.”
“Then eat your damn muffin,” Jarrow said. “Symbolism is important.”
Marla took a bite, chewed, swallowed. “How’s my brother Jason?”
“Surly. I see a family resemblance.”
“Can you tell him I don’t mean him any harm anymore? I’ll leave him alone if he leaves me alone?”
“Hmm. Maybe? I’ll think about it. Doesn’t sound very interesting, though.”
That was probably the best she could hope for. “You’ve decided not to try and kill me, but what about the rest of your merry band?”
“Oh, the hired guns will wander off. The ones with a personal grudge… well, there’s Crapsey, I would imagine you can handle him if he gets obstreperous. And Nicolette, but you’ve got her, right?”
“Tied up in a bathroom. I’d like to get rid of her, by the way.”
Jarrow gestured vaguely westward. “There’s a whole big ocean out there you could drown her in.”
“I don’t go in for casual murder, or pre-emptive self-defense, either. But it would be nice if she left me alone.”
“Tell you what,” Jarrow said. “I’ll see if Crapsey wants her back. Maybe he’ll trade Nicolette’s freedom for his good behavior? You can’t trust him, and they’ll betray you, but…” She shrugged. “It’s just Nicolette and Crapsey. Knock them out and stick them on a banana boat to the mainland, and they won’t bother you for a while.” Jarrow leaned in and whispered conspiratorially, “Nicolette’s afraid of teleporting.”
“She did get her arm ripped off that way,” Marla said.
Jarrow rolled her eyes. “Such a little drama queen. She lost one arm. Big deal. She’s got another one.”
“Can I ask you something? What keeps you going? I mean… what’s your purpose?”
Jarrow leaned back and regarded Marla seriously. “Wow. I didn’t have you pegged as the philosopher type. What’s the meaning of life? Whatever meaning you give it, sweetums. I like seeing the world, meeting new people, and feeling the thrum of impossible energies filling my body. I’m basically a proponent of straight-up hedonism.”
“My friend Rondeau’s the same way. But for me… that’s never been enough.”
“Take up knitting, or join the Society for Creative Anachronism, or get into exotic animal rescue. You’re retired now, right? Get a hobby.”
“A hobby? Elsie, I used to have a mission.”
“So find one of those.” Jarrow shrugged. “The world’s full of shit. If that bothers you, don’t just bitch about it. Grab a shovel and get to work.” She grinned. “People like me will help make sure there’s always more poop for you to scoop.”
When Marla got back to her room, Death was waiting for her, sitting in the armchair by the sliding glass door to the balcony.
“You just let yourself in, did you?”
“Death can go anywhere, Marla. That’s sort of the point. I’ve seen the future – and your death is no longer imminent. Neither is Jason’s, or Nicolette’s.”
Marla sat down on the edge of the bed. “You don’t seem too thrilled about that.”
“For obvious reasons. But you don’t seem very happy, either, which surprises me.”
“For a little while there, I had some adrenaline pumping, I was having fun, but… a truce over brunch? It’s kind of anticlimactic. I always hated the diplomacy parts of my job the most.”
“Tell me, Marla – did you discover the secret of the ring?”
“Look through it, see the future. Kind of nifty, I guess. I haven’t told Rondeau about it. He’d beg me to borrow it so he could find a horse race to bet on. Like he doesn’t have enough money already.”
“I’m sure it’s less about the money, and more about the thrill,” Death said. “I’d think you could relate.”
“Did you look at Jarrow through the ring?”
“Sure. I got to see her scoop eggs onto a plate whole seconds before she actually did it.”
Death frowned. “The ring can do rather more than give you glimpses of the immediate, Marla. If you focus on the person you’re watching, and let the surroundings blur, you can see farther – a view of the most likely long-term future for that individual, unfolding in a rapid flow, and by paying attention in just the right way, you can slow down and focus on particular moments. It’s quite a powerful artifact.” That last bit was rather peevish.
“Right. Sorry. It’s a beautiful ring, and… I can see how it would be very useful.”
“Perhaps, if you have the opportunity, you should look at Jarrow through it again.”
Marla didn’t like the sound of that. “Why?”
“You might see something that… makes you rethink your agreement.”
“Shit. You’re saying she’s going to betray me?”
Death shook his head. “Not that, not exactly, but… she is a force for chaos, Marla. She is a carrion beetle that feeds on death.”
“So? It’s none of my business.”
“Really? Well. Sometimes things get big enough that they become your business, whether you like it or not.” He stood up. “I should be off. But one other thing. If, in the future, you have something to say to me – just say it. You don’t need to send a messenger.”
“I have no idea what in the earthly fuck you’re talking about.”
Death’s expression became thoughtful. “Ah. I may have misjudged… if you don’t know what I mean, never mind. I was mistaken.”
“Hold on, what are you – ”
“Marla!” Rondeau burst in through the connecting door. “I offered Nicolette the bathroom like ten times, but she just crapped herself and now she’s laughing and rolling around in the tub – ” He stopped short. “Oh. Uh. Hi, Mr., uh.”
“Rondeau,” Death said, voice chilly. He pulled open a door that shouldn’t have been on the wall and stepped through. The door sort of sidled away and vanished after he closed it.
“What did he want?” Rondeau said. “Did I interrupt a godly booty-call?”
“Not exactly. He’s pretty bummed I’m not going to die anytime soon.”
A look of guilt flashed across Rondeau’s face. Marla had seen that expression on him before lately. She didn’t ask – he probably had lots of things to feel guilty about.
But Rondeau said, “Marla, I should tell you… I mean, it doesn’t matter now, but… Death made me an offer, back in Lahaina.”
“What kind of offer?”
“Everything I’ve ever dreamed of,” Rondeau said. “And all I had to do in return was… stand aside and let you die. He didn’t ask me to kill you, he just said, if it looked like you were about to get killed, if I didn’t do anything, if I didn’t try to save you, he’d reward me. I was never going to do it, but I didn’t want to tell you, didn’t want to distract you when you were in a fight for your life, but if things are cool now – ”
Marla blinked. The bottom had dropped out of her stomach. “Fucking gods,” she said.
That’s when Reva knocked on the door and called, “Anyone home?”
The ropes holding Pelham hostage were unpredictable in nature: they moved, they writhed, they tightened – but they also loosened. And whenever they did loosen, Pelham shifted his body incrementally to take advantage, sliding the ropes down, edging ever closer to freedom… for what it was worth. Escaping from the ropes would take hours – but he seemed to have ample time, as they’d stuck him in a closet in a bungalow overnight and well into the morning. He was one good twist away from being loose, though what he would do after getting loose was an open question.
Elsie Jarrow was gone to some mysterious meeting, and moments ago Crapsey had loudly announced that he was going to take a walk because Jason kept cheating at cards, which Jason denied rather mildly. Pelham wasn’t sure what Jason was doing out there. If he was napping, Pelham could escape. If he was watching the closet diligently… Pelham was fairly sure he had a gun. But two of his three captors were out of the room. When would he get a better opportunity? He –
Something moved by Pelham’s foot. He squinted in the dimness of the closet – the door was slatted, allowing in some light, so it wasn’t entirely black inside – and saw the carpet tear apart as a cone-shaped mound grew up through the floor. From beyond the door, Jason swore, and there was a thump, like a chair falling over.
The Nuno were coming. Pelham’s curse – and, in this case, potentially his salvation. Just then the ropes went briefly slack as they slithered around his body, and Pelham slipped his hands free and tore the ropes from his ankles. Jason shouted outside, and Pelham slid the closet door open just as the first cat-sized, chittering monstrosity emerged from the hole beside his feet. He ran out into the room, where Jason was whirling around, one Nuno clinging to his arm, another trying to climb his pants leg. Pelham quickly scanned the room and caught sight of a cell phone on the bedside table. He leapt over the bed, snatched up the phone, and ran for the door. “No, stop, Goddamnit!” Jason yelled. “What the fuck! I thought you weren’t a sorcerer!”
Pelham didn’t bother to explain the situation. He found Jason Mason a most unpleasant man, and hoped the Nuno would find him sufficiently entertaining to avoid pursuing Pelham. He opened the door, looked out briefly to make sure Crapsey wasn’t in sight, and started running. The bungalow was close to the beach, surrounded by verdant trees, quite idyllic, really, if he wasn’t too busy running for his life to enjoy the view. A dirt track led off to the east, and Pelham ran into the woods parallel to the track, trying to move swiftly but not too loudly. Woodcraft was not one of his greatest strengths; he’d studied the subject, but mostly on the grounds of the Chamberlain’s estate, which were not particularly wild. After he’d gone a few hundred yards from the house, and could no longer hear Jason shouting, he paused briefly in the shadow of a great tree to dial Rondeau’s number.
“You again,” Rondeau said. “Not that I don’t love talking to you, Jason, but – ”
“Rondeau! This is Pelham. I was abducted by Jarrow, and replaced with an imposter, a shapechanger named Lupo. This Lupo is wearing my face, but he is not me. I have escaped my captors and stolen their phone, but I am unsure of my location.” It occurred to him that the phone probably had GPS, so he said, “Just a moment, I will try to ascertain my whereabouts.”
“Pelly, wait, what the – ”
“Drop the phone, butler boy.” Crapsey appeared from the direction of the road, his face a welter of red scratches. “Those little shits you summoned were nasty. Elsie would approve. Definitely an eruption of the irrational. But come along home like a good little hostage.”
Pelham slipped the phone into his pocket, cracked his neck, and took a stance. “I look forward to the opportunity to repay you for your impertinence,” he said.
Crapsey cocked his head. “You’re a fighter, footman?”
“I am skilled in many martial arts. I gather you are not.”
“Nah, I usually get by on the strength of my winning personality.” Crapsey grinned, and the illusion that made his grotesque wooden jaw appear normal faded away. The jaw was inlaid with strange traceries of gold. “But I do have some other resources. Now let me see, I was trying some of the trigger words earlier this morning, and I found a really great one I’d never used before – let’s see: ‘dysmenorrhea’.”
Pelham frowned. “A troubling condition, I’m sure, but not one that seems applicable to our current – ”
Crapsey lowered his head, and his whole body trembled. His arms stretched out, growing beyond the ends of his sleeves, and his fingers and nails elongated into oversized claws. His spine curved as he hunched forward, and his wooden jaw swelled, jutting out in a profound underbite, with railroad-spike sized teeth bursting up through the wood. His eyes began to glow green, and in general he took on a profoundly bestial aspect, the stink of sulfur puffing out with his every exhalation. “Gonna – get – you,” the beast growled, and reached out with those impossibly long arms.
Pelham ran. Crapsey ran faster.