“Reva, get out of here,” Marla said, standing in the doorway. “I could have actually used your help last night, but you were nowhere to be seen.” She looked him up and down. “You look like crap.”
The god’s hair was sticking up in all directions, and he was streaked with soot and ashes, his clothes so filthy he looked like he’d gone crawling through a volcano’s cinder cone. “I should,” he said. “I didn’t want to give up my body – I always get so attached to my bodies – so I went to the underworld the hard way. The only local entrance to your boyfriend’s realm is in a cave way too close to a volcano. It’s dark and ugly down there, too, took me forever to find the landlord. Your husband is a pain in the ass, Marla. I just wanted to have a civil conversation with the guy, tell him to lay off with the enthusiasm about you dying, and he threw me out – ”
Marla stepped back. “You what? You went to talk to Death? About me?”
Reva smiled. “No need to thank me. Like I said, you’re one of my people, and I thought, as one god talking to another – admittedly much more powerful – god, I might be able to make an impression.”
Marla gripped the edge of the doorframe to keep from punching him. “Thank you? Who the fuck do you think you are? You went and had a talk with my – whatever he is to me – without asking? You think I can’t take care of myself? You condescending, patronizing shitheap, who the hell appointed you my guardian – ” Reva shrank back under her onslaught, but before she could really work up any steam, Rondeau tapped her on the shoulder.
“In a minute.”
“Rondeau, I’m about to ream out a god, what is it?”
“Pelham. He just called. Jarrow kidnapped him. He tried to escape, but – it sounded like they caught him again.”
Marla turned and stared at him. “What are you talking about? Pelham is next door. He’s been here all morning…” She trailed off. The seventh member of Jarrow’s crew. The one they’d seen in the office video, but hadn’t ever identified. It was Gustavus Lupo. Lupo hadn’t escaped during the raid on the Blackwing Institute. Lupo was here, impersonating –
The connecting door opened, and Pelham stepped in. “Miss Nicolette is clean again. I now have a greater appreciation for the efforts of zookeepers. I do hope we can find a more permanent placement for her soon.” He looked at Rondeau, Marla, and Reva, his amiable expression changing to bafflement. “Is something wrong? Has something happened?”
“Get Jason on the phone, Rondeau,” Marla said. “Now.”
“I was going to let him go,” Elsie said into Pelham’s phone. “Honestly, Marla, I’d forgotten I even had him.”
Crapsey hadn’t hurt Pelham too badly when he chased him down, but the valet had sustained some bruises and scratches, and was currently unconscious, put to sleep by Elsie’s magic. The chaos witch had laughed and laughed when she arrived to find Crapsey carrying Pelham over his shoulder and Jason stomping on the little ant-monsters that came crawling out of the carpet. She’d dispelled the beasts – she called them “Nunus” or something, Crapsey wasn’t sure – with a wave of her hand, knocked Pelham out, and said, “Just hand me the phone when Marla calls, Jason.”
So he had. “I’m absolutely amenable to an exchange of hostages. You bring Nicolette, and I’ll bring the real Pelham. Though, really, Lupo is just as good – better! All the qualities of the actual Pelham, and capable of turning into anyone else you need, too. Admittedly, Lupo’s a bit tricky to control, probably too advanced for you, but – no? The real Pelham? You’re sure? Fine, fine. Where shall we meet? We’ll be there in, say, three hours. I do hope this doesn’t cause any problems with our arrangement, Marla. I had Pelham abducted and replaced last night, when things were still… tense between us. You understand. Kiss kiss. See you soon.” She handed the phone back to Jason. “Your sister gets so exercised about things, doesn’t she? I swear, you’d think she didn’t have any other friends.”
Jason rubbed at a cut on his cheek, from where the Nunus or whatever had attacked him. “I’m out. This is bullshit. Furry ant-creatures? I want to go home. Back to my life.” He was tense, all his usual superficial charm boiled away, clearly on the edge of fight-or-flight.
Elsie hmmed. “Oh, fine. You can leave. Call it a gesture of good faith. You can walk out to the road and get a taxi or something. But listen – no more trying to kill Marla, either, understood? What kind of a brother are you?”
“I’m about to become a long-lost one. You lunatics enjoy the rest of your lives, okay?”
“Have fun scamming little old ladies until you die alone and forgotten,” Crapsey said.
“At least I’m my own boss, lackey.” Jason strode out of the bungalow without a backward glance.
Crapsey sat down. “And then there were two.”
“Three soon, once we get Nicolette back.”
“Do you think it’s a trap?” Crapsey said. “Marla’s going to see this thing with Pelham as a betrayal – ”
“I’m sure she will. And it might be a trap. But so what? Marla can’t hurt me – at least, not without destroying herself in the process. And even then, I’d just be hurt, not stopped. The best she can hope to do is make me mad and lead me to seek vengeance on everything she loves.” She got a faraway look on her face. “You know the funniest thing, Crapsey? I really did forget we had her little man tied up in the closet. My mind has been on other things – what to do with my freedom. The places I’d like to visit. What would happen if I blew up the moon. How fun it would be to do a comparative analysis of the stomach contents of the world’s currently operating serial killers. Whether putting a person’s brain in a robot body would drive them insane. Interesting things.” She sighed. “But I guess we’ll give Pelham back. Maybe Marla will take it in the spirit in which it’s offered.”
“You could just kill her,” Crapsey pointed out.
“You don’t waste perfectly good nightmare fuel,” Elsie said. “Marla’s one of my people, a member in good standing of the Tribe of Discontinuity. She just doesn’t want to admit it. Maybe we can still make nice.”
“And if not?”
“We’ll make nasty. Speaking of nasty, or rather, doing the nasty – we’ve got a few hours before we need to meet Marla for the exchange.” She waggled her eyebrows at him. “Wanna fuck?”
Crapsey laughed. “You’re so romantic, Elsie.”
“Sometimes, when the mood strikes me, but not today. Come to bed. We won’t wake Pelham, he’s way down deep. Oh, and Crapsey – turn yourself into a monster again first. I’m feeling beastly.”
“Of all the dangerous maniacs I’ve worked for, Elsie, I think you’re my favorite.”
“Okay, I’ll tell them,” Reva said. They were out in the hallway in front of her room, talking in low voices. “I think they can work up the kind of spell you’re thinking about, and I’ll make sure they’re in place when the time comes. They don’t go there often – the waves are way too gentle, usually, it’s not very good surf, but they know the spot, because it has some mythic resonances. A chief was assassinated on that beach once.”
Marla laughed, harshly. “Good thing I’m not a chief anymore, or that might worry me.”
Reva looked at her curiously. “So, this errand you’re trusting me with… does this mean you forgive me?”
“It means I need you,” Marla said. “Look, Reva, I know you mean well – but that doesn’t mean you can keep fucking with my life. You really need to stop. I’m starting to run out of patience.”
“I used to have worshippers,” he said. “They welcomed my intervention. Oh, the good old days. We’ll talk about this later, assuming you survive.” He left on his errand, and Marla went back inside the room, where Rondeau and… the guy who looked like Pelham… were waiting. “Pelham, Rondeau, you stay with Nicolette, see if you can get her calmed down. It would be easier if she actually walked with us to the beach when it’s time.”
“We have to walk?” Rondeau said. “Can’t we drive? There’s a beach access like five minutes away.”
Marla shook her head. “Even with spells to keep us from seeming too interesting, it’s dangerous to haul Nicolette through the resort. You want to take her out through the lobby, stand around while the valet gets our car, and give her a chance to work some mischief. I’d rather walk half a mile. Besides, if we arrive at the rendezvous point on foot, it’ll give me a chance to scope things out, and make sure there’s not an ambush in place.”
Lupo/Pelham nodded. “We can convince Nicolette to cooperate, Mrs. Mason, but are you sure handing her over to Crapsey is a good idea?”
“I think getting them both together where we can incapacitate them and stick them on a boat headed somewhere far, far away is a good idea,” Marla said. How could she tell Lupo there was going to be an exchange of hostages, and the real version of himself was one of the hostages? There was no etiquette for this sort of thing. Marla would just have to hope he stayed in Pelham-form, and didn’t morph into Ed Gein or Ted Bundy or something, until they’d finished the exchange. “Listen, I need to prepare some things.” She didn’t want to say too much – it was always possible that Jarrow could listen in on Lupo’s conversations. Who could say? “Just a few precautions, in case Crapsey tries something.”
“You aren’t worried about Ms. Jarrow?” the faux-Pelham said.
Marla shook her head. “Elsie and I have an understanding. I don’t think she’ll be a problem.” Once Rondeau had hustled non-Pelham out of the room, Marla took her brown leather bag from beneath the bed, and began removing some of her instruments: knives, vials, candles. All the trappings of ritual magic. She tried to tell herself this was just a worst-case-scenario contingency plan, that she wouldn’t have to actually go through with any of it… but the fact that Jarrow had kept Pelham hostage was troubling, and Death’s suggestion that Marla look at Jarrow through the ring again was niggling at her. What would she see? What could she see, that would make her take such extreme action?
She’d find out soon enough. Marla cut the meaty part of her left palm with a sharp knife, squeezed the blood into a wooden bowl, and got to work.
Nicolette was being a pain in the ass, wisecracking and walking slow and shouting “Help, help, I’m being oppressed!” before they were even out of the room, so Marla cast a look-away spell over the four of them to keep the hotel staff from getting too interested. Their tower was pretty far away from the path leading to the beach where they were supposed to exchange the hostages – Marla needed a waterfront site for her contingency plan – so they decided to take a shortcut through the service tunnels that ran underneath the vast sixty-some-acre resort. Besides… she just liked tunnels.
The tunnels were surprisingly roomy and well-maintained, and the look-away spell kept the bustling staff from noticing the interlopers in their midst, though they had to step lively to avoid being run down by the tuggers, little electric vehicles like souped-up golf carts designed for hauling luggage. They emerged from a service door near one of the hotel’s myriad pools, this one a confection of waterfalls, rope bridges, multiple hot tubs, and slippery stone steps. The weather was bright, glorious, and just windy enough to take an edge off the heat.
They herded Nicolette up a set of stairs and across a swinging rope bridge that spanned a vast blue pool – that was a treacherous bit, as Nicolette managed to mouth half the syllables in an incantation that would have snapped all the ropes before Pelham stuffed a handkerchief in her mouth. From there they hurried past one of the resort’s higher-end restaurants, one offering outdoor seating with stunning views of the Western sea. Come later afteroon, Marla figured those tables would be full of tourists ignoring their food and gazing at the colors of the setting sun. They could probably get away with sending out woefully sub-par food, given the beauty of the setting. It would be a clever way to economize.
From there it was down a set of steep steps to the shoreline. All beaches in Hawai’i were public land, by state law, and the hotel concierge had told Marla there was a path that would take them all the way to the beach at Anaeho-omalu Bay – better known as “A-Bay,” since that name was a mouthful even for the locals. They passed a place where visitors to the hotel had used small white rocks to spell out their names, declarations of love, and other ephemeral messages on the fields of black lava rock that separated the path from the sea. The path wound along, close to the water, and it was largely a trail of black and white: the black rock of the lava fields, and the white rocks composed mostly of dead coral. Such starkness; such contrast; such clarity. Marla remembered a time when everything had seemed so black-and-white to her, so yes-or-no, so all-or-nothing – when she’d stood for Felport, no matter what. Things were a lot grayer these days, like the salt-and-pepper sand composed of mingled crushed stones of both colors. The time was coming when she’d have to figure out what she stood for now.
The trip would have been pleasant, almost, if not for the moanings of the tied-up chaos witch, and the fact that a tense exchange at best and an all-out war at worst waited at the end of it. The scenery was beautiful, and the trail ran along the backside of various resorts and condos. The lavish buildings were supplanted only by the Anchialine Ponds Preservation area, where signs warned visitors away from disturbing the lava pools, where rare sea life somehow still survived amid the tourism-industrial complex. After a while they crossed a wooden bridge, then passed a small sandy cove where a pair of green sea turtles sprawled on the sand, being photographed by tourists who were far closer to the endangered animals than the twenty feet allowed by law. On another day, Marla might have given them a tongue lashing, but she had bigger problems than haole tourists annoying the local reptiles.
They finally reached the beach, a strip of off-white sand dotted with palm trees, between the ocean on one side and an old royal fish pond the size of a small lake on the other. Marla broke a carefully rotted egg against a palm tree’s trunk as they arrived, casting a psychically-stinky keep-away spell to make the few tourists on the beach decide something unpleasant had died in the vicinity. Marla hoped the impression wouldn’t turn out to be prophetic. There were a couple of boats in the distance, but they were way out, and, Marla hoped, wouldn’t come drifting into a confrontation.
Once the place was deserted, Marla shaded her eyes and looked out to sea. A woman on a surfboard a few dozen yards out raised her hand in greeting, and as the waves moved another half-a-dozen figures sitting on boards were revealed – she spotted Reva among them, as well as the kid from Handsome Bob’s who’d taken them to Jaws beach. They were all in place. Marla hoped devoutly she wouldn’t need to use them.
“Okay, take out her gag,” Marla said. “No reason to make Jarrow think we’re mistreating her protege.”
“I want my axe back,” Nicolette said sullenly, once Pelham pulled the cloth out of her mouth. “You didn’t have any right to take that, I stole it fair and square.”
“I gave it to my boyfriend,” Marla lied. “He lives in hell. He’ll keep it safe. You’re not old enough to be trusted with sharp things, Nicolette.”
“Just because Elsie decided you get to live doesn’t mean I agree,” Nicolette said.
“Seriously, Nicolette, get a hobby,” Rondeau said. “Take up underwater basket weaving, or start crafting detachable steampunk prosthetic arms. Move on with your life. You’re, like, a b-grade villain. If they made a superhero movie out of Marla’s life, you wouldn’t get a role until the fourth movie, and even then, it would be as part of a team of four other minor bad guys.”
“Marla’s my nemesis.”
Marla shook her head. “Not even remotely. I’ve had a few nemeses over the years. They’re all dead now. Why would you want to be one of them?”
Three figures appeared on the far side of the fish pond, following a path from the beach’s parking area. Elsie Jarrow, unmistakable with her red hair, waved, and then began walking across the surface of the pond. What a cliché. Crapsey walked the long way around with a smaller figure – Pelham! – at his side.
“Who… who is that with Crapsey?” the faux-Pelham asked, voice strained.
“Don’t worry about it,” Rondeau murmured. “It’s okay.”
No sign of Jason. Marla couldn’t tell if she was disappointed or glad. He was her brother, but he was also an asshole she barely knew anymore, and what she knew, she didn’t like. Still, she hoped Jarrow hadn’t killed him.
“Marla!” Jarrow called from halfway across the pond. “I said I’d come, and here I am. I kept an appointment for you! You must know how rare that is.”
The ring on Marla’s finger seemed suddenly heavier. Marla slipped it off, held it between her thumb and forefinger, and lifted the ring to her right eye, closing her left.
Through the ring she saw Jarrow, walking across the pond, just a little closer now. Marla let her eye relax, allowing the background to fade out, until she was focused on Jarrow and nothing else. Time around her seemed to slow and flow like cool syrup as Jarrow’s future unspooled in her view, not so much a fast-forward as a series of snapshot impressions: Jarrow in bed with Crapsey, Jarrow on a plane, Jarrow in snowy mountains, Jarrow in a forest, Jarrow on a city street, Jarrow in –
Wait. She’d recognized a building in that city, the tower of the Whitcroft-Ivory building in downtown Felport. She tried to concentrate her mind and shift her focus, and the view ran backwards, then slowed down. Jarrow standing on a busy sidewalk, face all serenity, with a bundled object under her arm – something wrapped in fur. She unwrapped the object, revealing something like a ram’s horn, but the same red as her hair, and as long as her forearm. Jarrow raised the horn to her mouth and blew. Marla couldn’t hear what it sounded like, of course, but the buildings around Jarrow began to crumble, and the street buckled and cracked. A spidery thing the size of a car pulled itself out of a hole in the street, and dark shapes bigger than any bird swooped across the sky. Something as broad as a garbage truck, but walking on two legs, shouldered its way from an alley, shattering bricks as it came. Jarrow threw back her head, laughing, then brought the horn to her lips again.
Marla slipped the ring back onto her finger. Elsie was approaching, all smiles. She gestured, and the rope fence erected to keep visitors out of the pond fell over with a snapping of fibers and a rapid rotting of wooden posts. Jarrow stepped onto shore, still beaming. Marla forced herself to smile back. Get Pelham first. Then… think about the future.
“I really did forget about him,” Jarrow said. “I know it sounds like a lie, but why would I lie? It’s the truth. Pelham had some fun, too – did you know his little Nuno infestation had a flare-up? That’s why Crapsey’s face is all scratched up.” She stage-whispered, “Don’t say anything about it, he’s sensitive.”
“Elsie!” Nicolette called. “You came back for me?”
“I know! I’m surprised too! But you know what they say about chaos witches – we can’t even be guaranteed to act in our own best interests.”
Crapsey made it around the pond, leading Pelham with a rope tied to the valet’s wrists. “Here you go,” he said, studiously ignoring Rondeau. “Safe and sound.”
“Shall we trade?” Jarrow said.
The faux-Pelham stared open-mouthed at his double, who looked at his own doppelganger with an expression of bemusement. “But… but this… Marla, I don’t understand…” Lupo trailed off.
Jarrow clucked her tongue. “You didn’t tell him, Marla? So cruel! You’re not Pelham, my boy, you’re Lupo, my dear Lupo, here.” She snapped her fingers, and the fake Pelham sort of… blurred out, becoming a human-shaped beige smear, jittering and twitching on the sand, emitting a constant high-frequency mewling sound. “There, he’s in neutral now. Crapsey, let Pelham go to his friends.”
“We should get Nicolette first – ”
“Marla’s honorable,” Jarrow said firmly. “She adheres to her agreements. Doesn’t she?”
“Unless there’s a compelling reason not to,” Marla said.
Crapsey sighed and untied Pelham’s wrists. The valet looked at his captor, sniffed once pointedly, and joined Marla and Rondeau. “I’m pleased to be back, ma’am,” he said.
“Did they hurt you, Pelham?”
“Only incidentally, in the course of apprehending me after my attempted escape.”
“Don’t you want to know if they hurt me?” Nicolette said. “They kept me in a shit-filled bathtub and didn’t feed me and – ”
Rondeau shoved Nicolette toward Jarrow. “Thank you for choosing Hawai’i,” Rondeau said. “We know you have a choice of vacation destinations, and we appreciate your visit.”
“So, Marla,” Jarrow said. “I know I told you we could drug them and put them on a boat – ”
“What?” Crapsey said, alarmed.
Jarrow ignored him. ” – but I’m fond of Crapsey. If I keep him on a leash and make sure he doesn’t bother you or your friends, can I keep him?”
Marla looked at Rondeau, who shrugged. “I don’t see why not. But what about Nicolette?”
“Ah, yes.” Jarrow looked Nicolette up and down, then beckoned. Nicolette approached her, eyes downcast like a penitent. “For all the grief I give you, Nicolette, you really are a fairly promising witch. You have the right instinct for mischievous mayhem, but if you could get over your petty vendettas, you’d go a lot farther – don’t you understand, seeking revenge on someone who’s wronged you is so expected. It’s much better to visit harm on those who have no connection to you. Think random, reject causality, do you understand?”
“So… if I stop trying to go after Marla… you’d respect me more?”
“I think you’d respect yourself more,” Jarrow said. “What do you say?”
Nicolette shot Marla a venomous glare, then shrugged. “Whatever. I’m really a lot more interested in you than I am in Marla – ”
“Good girl.” Jarrow seized Nicolette’s head in both hands and twisted it off. There was some magic in the act, as the head separated cleanly from the neck, with only a little blood, and Nicolette’s eyes rolled in confusion and terror for a moment. Her body fell to the sand, and then Jarrow tossed the head over her shoulder, where it disappeared into the depths of the fish pond. “That’s what we do with Nicolette!” Jarrow said. “Consider that my apology for the misunderstanding with Pelham. I know my girl’s been a thorn in your side, and now she’s gone, with no blood on your hands. Yay!”
“Shit on a biscuit,” Crapsey muttered, staring at the pond, where bubbles rose among the ripples.
“She’ll lose consciousness and truly die in ten or fifteen minutes, don’t worry,” Jarrow said. “I don’t want her to suffer unduly.”