[Author’s note: Because the first chapter is rather short, I decided to start with the first two chapters. Extra Bonus Grim Tides!]
by T.A. Pratt
For Anne, who knows Marla even better than I do
1. Let Me Tell You a Story
Thanks ever so much for seeing me. We may as well get started, don’t you think?
Let’s scroll through the mortal timeline and look in on Marla Mason, exiled sorcerer-queen, driven from her beloved city of Felport as punishment for her considerable sins and sent to languish in a tropical paradise, specifically Maui, second largest of the islands in Hawai’i.
We’ll take as our focus one particular afternoon when she sat barefoot in the sand near the surf, behind the vast resort hotel where she lived in rather more luxury than she felt comfortable with, courtesy of her best (and almost only) friend, Rondeau.
He sprawled beside her on a towel printed with pictures of jolly green carnivorous plants, watching her wiggle her toes in the sand. Rondeau grunted. “You took your boots off. I didn’t realize they came off. I thought they were permanently fused to your footmeat.”
“I can kick your ass just fine barefoot,” she said, but absently, her eyes on the waves, her mind even farther beyond.
“Feeling homesick?” Rondeau turned his head and slurped from a straw plunged into a plastic tumbler jammed in the sand, drinking a concoction that was mostly fruit juice but not inconsiderably rum. He didn’t have the stomach for booze and drugs he once had, having inherited both a slew of psychic powers and a nervous constitution recently, but he imbibed as much as his body would allow.
Marla dug her feet deeper into the warm sand. “I live in Maui, in the kind of hotel where if you call room service at three a.m. and demand a well-done bison burger and a bucket of champagne, they bring it in fifteen minutes. My bills are paid by my rich best friend, so I never have to worry about how to pay for the buffalo and bubbly. I get to tell people, with a straight face, that I’m an occult detective. I have an office in an old bookshop that I’m increasingly sure is actually magical. Nobody’s tried to kill me in two months. I have absolutely no cares or responsibilities. The hardest choice I have to make on any given day is whether to spend the afternoon napping or swimming. My life is objectively wonderful, the sort of existence most people dream of. What do you think?”
“You really hate it here, huh?”
“Of course.” Marla flopped back into the sand, exchanging a view of the endless expanse of blue-green water for the endless expanse of blue sky. “I know I’m ungrateful, but fuck it. I was sent away from the city I loved, where I had useful work to do, and now… I don’t even know why I get out of bed in the morning. I mean, I’m sure Elba was nice too, but exile sucks.”
Rondeau nodded. “Elba? You mean that black British actor? Yum. Is he staying at the hotel?”
“I love having you around. I never even finished high school, but you make me feel educated. Elba’s the island where Napoleon was exiled, the first time. In the Mediterranean. He stayed there for about a year, then escaped and regained his empire.”
“Ha. Are you getting ideas? I don’t think I’d make much of an invasion force, but I’m up for it if you are.”
“Napoloen got his throne back, but he only got to sit on it for about three months. Then he got beat down again at Waterloo. His enemies stuck him on a much uglier island after that, and he died there. So, no, Napoleon’s not the model I want to follow. At least they made him king of Elba. What am I? I might as well be one of those tentacley things clinging to a coral reef, slurping microorganisms out of the passing waves.”
“Aw, come on, like you said, you’re an occult detective now — ”
“I’ve had two clients, Rondeau. Two.”
“Sure, but one of them was a shark god.”
“I’m not saying they weren’t quality clients. But helping a shark god recover his stolen teeth, and giving a snooty kahuna a hand dispelling a ghost? They don’t exactly qualify as a life’s work. I used to do stuff that mattered. I saved California from a frog god and a jaguar god, beat up the king of nightmares, and sent Death himself back to hell with his head hung low. And that was just this year. ”
Rondeau took another slurp. “Business will pick up. You’re still new here, and I get the sense the native Hawai’ian sorcerers don’t like outsiders from the mainland much. Probably that whole history of invasion and subjugation and overthrow. But word will get around — you’ll have more cases than you can handle. I’m sure at some point a squid god or a sentient volcano or a malevolent animate tiki statue will get out of control, and boom, you’ll get the call.”
“Promises, promises.” Marla looked up at the perfect blue sky, a few fat clouds floating past in stately procession. A beautiful day, but every day here was beautiful, and what she wanted more than anything was to feel that autumnal bite in the air, like she would back home. It was October already, and back in Felport, the sidewalks would soon be covered in crisp, crackling leaves, people would be breaking out their scarves and coats, and in a month or so the first snowfall would begin. In a month or two here… things would be pretty much exactly the same as they were now. She’d have to take a trip to the east side of the island if she even wanted a reliable chance of seeing rain. “I don’t even know if I’m cut out to be a detective. A protector, a guardian, sure — I can handle duty to a place, or even an ideal, in a pinch. But if you’re a detective, you have to work for people, and you know I don’t get along with those. Do you think it’s a good idea for me to be working with the public?”
“I think you’re good at helping people,” Rondeau said. “Which is funny, since you mostly don’t like them. But when you were the protector of Felport, what were you protecting, anyway? A bunch of buildings? Or the people who lived in them? Would you have stayed on as chief sorcerer if nobody lived there?”
Marla sighed. “Yes, fine, point taken. Mostly I just like getting in fights, and helping people out can make that happen. If you don’t have enough enemies of your own handy, volunteer to take on somebody else’s. But nobody’s even asking for my help right now. What’s the point?”
“Your whole life changed.” Rondeau slurped the last dregs of his rum. “It’s going to take some getting used to. But look: life is chaos. We both know that. If you don’t like how things are going? That’s okay. Things will change.”
“Everything except the weather.” Marla rose and walked off by herself, though Rondeau got the last word, or at least, the last long-suffering sigh. She couldn’t blame him. Even Marla wasn’t enjoying her own company lately.
She walked barefoot, letting the warm water lap at her feet. Sometimes she thought about walking the entire perimeter of the island, a journey of some 120 miles. The island was shaped something like a barbell, or the number eight, or an infinity symbol, and a better sorcerer could probably come up with some ritual purpose for such a walk, sketching out a symbol of power footstep by footstep… but Marla only considered the journey because it would be complicated and annoying and full of treacherous cliffs, and it would give her something to do. But doing that would be too much like a tiger pacing back and forth inside a cage, and when she finished the circuit, she’d just be back where she started. It was absurd to feel trapped, she knew.
She wasn’t actually confined to Maui — she could go anywhere in the world, except for Felport, where she was forbidden to enter by magic. Why did that sting so much? There were billions of people on Earth who’d never go to Felport. Who’d never even heard of Felport.
But there was nowhere else in the world she’d ever felt needed, and nowhere else she wanted to be, and nowhere else she wanted to go.
Sad, isn’t it? A woman of action, with no particular actions to undertake.
Clearly, something needed to be done.
2. Murder by the Sea
We’ll skip ahead a bit and settle on the morning when Marla finally got her third case.
She sat on a stool behind the counter in her office on yet another fine autumn morning, sipping occasionally from a cup of coffee that had gone cold half an hour before, looking at a newspaper full of local news that didn’t interest her. The office was actually an antiquarian bookshop in Lahaina, not far from the resort where she spent her nights. As a bookshop it was a failure, since it was situated in a bit of hidden space invisible to the eyes of passing tourists and local ordinaries. She’d inherited — or stolen, or maybe looted — the office from its previous occupant, a deranged sorcerer who’d made the mistake of antagonizing a local shark god — Marla’s first case as a detective had ended with that man being transformed into a shark by his own magic and dumped into the sea, to contend with the furious spirits of those he’d wronged.
Because Marla had no interest in the traditional occupations of ordinary private detectives — outing cheating husbands, or doing background checks, or acting as stalker-by-proxy for jealous boyfriends — the bookshop acted as a useful barrier to entry. The first qualification she required of a client was the ability to find her in this hidden space, which required a certain amount of magical acumen.
Unfortunately, no one was looking for her, as far as she could tell. She’d hoped helping that kahuna on the Hana side of the island get rid of a ghost would lead to some word-of-mouth business, but Arachne had seemed profoundly annoyed to have to ask for assistance, and probably hadn’t told anyone.
So on this morning, like so many others, Marla sat pretending to go through the motions of a morning at work while secretly brooding over the closed-down avenues of her life. Rondeau perused the shelves and tried to keep her spirits up. “I swear, there are new books here,” he said. “Look at this one — a bound volume of old National Geographics, heavy on pictures of tribal men wearing penis-sheaths and not much else. I know I would have noticed this one before.”
Marla spun her scythe-shaped letter opener around on the wooden counter. Not that she had any letters to open. She’d sent postcards to everyone she knew on this mortal plane when she first moved to Hawai’i, vicious bitchy missives for the most part, but no one had written back, not even her onetime closest allies. She gestured around the room, with its twelve-foot-high oak bookshelves, its rippled windows of old glass, its dangling brass light fixtures. “There’s magic in this place, beyond the concealment spells. I haven’t figured out exactly what yet. Something to do with small-scale matter transportation, some attractant associated with empty spaces on the shelves. I think the bookshop transports forgotten books here, maybe based on how long it’s been since a human touched a particular volume. There are tons of ancient-ass books from all over the world here, and I think they’ve been snatched from libraries and garage sales and charity shops, most of them total junk, I’d guess — old medical textbooks, Reader’s Digest condensed books, potboiler novels from the 1940s.”
Rondeau laughed. He was wearing an aloha shirt patterned with sailboats in an eye-watering combination of reds and pinks and purples and blues. Back in Felport he’d favored whatever hideous things he could unearth from the back shelves of vintage clothing stores, and he’d adapted his fashion sense to life in the tropics admirably “So, what, the bookshop is magically looking for rare books by the dragnet method? Scoop up enough forgotten shit and you’re bound to get a first edition of, I dunno, The Hobbit?”
“Or Ulysses. That’s worth more.” When Rondeau looked at her with a raised eyebrow, she shrugged. “I’ve got a bookshop now, so I looked it up, all right? I don’t think there’s a book in here that’s even in the top one hundred most valuable first editions, though.”
“Good thing I’m filthy rich. Especially since you’ve never had any customers, or sold a single book. Working in an invisible shop really cuts down on your walk-in trade. You could sell books on the internet, I guess, though that would require the ability to use a mouse, which I know you’ve never quite mastered.” Rondeau had made a healthy sum when he’d sold his night club — a Felport institution that came with certain magical amenities, making it attractive to powerful sorcerers — before joining Marla in exile. Though in truth it was more that she’d joined him. She had no particular interest in Maui, or anywhere else, apart from Felport — the one place she was forbidden to ever return, upon pain of painful death. When Rondeau had asked her if she’d like to tag along with him to paradise, she’d shrugged and said “sure.” This was as good a place as any to molder.
“You could advertise, you know,” Rondeau went on. “Not for the bookshop, for the other job. I know you asked that shark god to tell all his friends you were open for business, but what kind of friends does a shark god have? Manta rays? Jellyfish? We need the kind of people who actually come up on land — ”
Someone knocked on the door. Marla whistled. “Whoever that is didn’t trip my proximity alarms when they entered our fold in space. But they’re announcing themselves now, which means they aren’t outright hostile, or else, they’re pretty dumb. That’s… interesting. You get any psychic impression off of them?”
Rondeau’s psychic abilities were substantial, but he hadn’t possessed them for long, and was generally too lazy to work on developing them — after all, there were swims to take and massages to enjoy — so he just shrugged. “Something weird, not like a normal human mind, but if they found the shop, you already know they’re some kind of magic, so that doesn’t tell you much.”
“Brilliantly insightful as always. All right, show them in — maybe you’re a better greeter than a psychic.”
Rondeau opened the door with a flourish. “Hello gentlemen. And lady. Uh, ladies? Wow, there are a lot of you.” He stepped aside, ushering in five — no, six — or was it eight? — people, all young, tanned, and dressed in swimwear, from full wetsuits with reef shoes to barefoot and shirtless-with-trunks. They milled around, seeming to move in impossible ways, switching places with one another instantly in a bizarre series of interpositions, and sometimes their bodies stayed in the same place, but the clothes they were wearing switched, swifter than an eyeblink.
Marla gritted her teeth and closed her eyes. A certain god had gifted her with the power to see through illusions at will, and while the talent was useful, it was also disturbing. Sometimes it was a lot more pleasant to see the world as it pretended to be, not as it actually was, but since she combined an insatiable curiosity with a profoundly suspicious nature, she was reluctant to blind herself willingly. She couldn’t talk to a bunch of people flickering like a strobe light, though, so she stepped down her vision. When she opened her eyes, her illusion-piercing gaze was deactivated, and she saw nothing but half a dozen surfer-types, two women and four men, dripping seawater on her hardwood floor. They were all still very attractive, but no longer so… interchangeable. “What can I do for you? Anybody want a towel?”
One of them stepped forward. “We are. Ah. Names. Leis. Ryan. Josh. Mad Gary –”
Marla took pity on him. “I don’t need the full roster, really. I won’t remember them all anyway. What’s your name?”
“You may call… this one… Glyph.” He was blond, square-jawed, blue-eyed, shirtless, and in the kind of shape only a very athletic twenty-something with unspeakably good genes could be. Rondeau was eyeing Glyph like the wolf looked at Little Red Riding Hood. (Rondeau’s powers allowed him see through illusions, too, but he seldom bothered — misconceptions and lack of perception made the world more beautiful, as he always reminded her.) “A… friend of ours… was murdered.” Something about Glyph’s affect was deeply weird, his eyes not quite focused on Marla, his head titled just slightly — as if talking to another human with actual words was a significant effort for him.
Marla nodded. “Okay. Why come to me? They have cops for that.”
Glyph shook his head. “Even if the police could help us… there is no body. Ronin was a devotee of the sea, and his remains returned to our mother ocean when he died — he became sea foam and salt, and washed away.”
“Nice trick,” Marla said. “Better hope organized crime doesn’t figure out how to do that. But, again, why me? You kids are obviously carrying some pretty heavy magic around. Why not cast a few divinations of your own to find the guilty party?”
“The killer… he must be more powerful than all of us combined. We cast a dozen divinations, but we could find no trace of him.”
Marla grunted. That was interesting, because she’d guess this group, combined, possessed rather a lot more magic than she did. Not that she’d ever let a little power imbalance stop her from getting into a fight. She’d kicked a hellhound across a room once, and outsmarted the god of Death, and imprisoned the king of nightmares, among other things, and those were all fights that, on paper, she should have lost. You didn’t always have to be more powerful. Sometimes you just had to refuse to lose.
Of course, it helped to have something worth fighting for, which she didn’t, not lately. The old cliché said “freedom” was just another word for “nothing left to lose,” but if this life in exile from her home city was freedom, she’d take the prison of responsibilities anytime.
But, whether she really gave a crap or not, these people needed help, so it was time to stop moping and start asking semi-intelligent questions. “It’s definitely murder, right? No chance it was an accident?”
Glyph nodded. “We saw him die. He… Ronin could not speak when we found him, his throat was cut, blood running into the sand and turning into seawater…” Glyph shivered, and all the other surfers behind him shivered an instant later — even draped in an illusion of normalcy, they couldn’t entirely hide their group affinity. “Can you help us?”
“Sure, I could.” Marla spoke with a certain amount of bland confidence. She’d recently defeated her own evil counterpart from a parallel dimension. How hard could it be to find a murderer on an island that was only about 730 square miles all together? “If you don’t mind me asking, though, how did you find me? I don’t exactly have a listing on Yelp or Craigslist.”
“A god told us you might be able to help.”
Marla nodded. “Shark god, right?”
Glyph shook his head. “No. He was not a god of the sea — or, not just the sea, anyway. We are unsure of his domain, or even his true name, but he is… not from around here. Not one of the Hawai’ian gods, we mean, who mostly slumber deeply now, anyway. He was friendly with Ronin, and when Ronin was killed, this god suggested you might be able to help. He spoke quite highly of you.”
Marla frowned. She didn’t know that many gods, nor did she want to. Apart from the shark god she’d helped soon after arriving in Hawai’i, there was just a snake god who’d pledged to kill her someday when he got around to it, and the god of Death, with whom she had a… complicated relationship. And there was her old apprentice Bradley Bowman, who was pretty busy maintaining the structural integrity of the multiverse since he’d ascended to a sort of meta-godhood. She didn’t think any of them would be recommending her services as a detective to a pod of hive-mind surf-sorcerers, as such business was way below their pay grades. So this bunch had inadvertently brought her two things to investigate — who’d killed their friend, and which god was dropping her name.
“You are an outsider,” Glyph went on, “and so we thought you might be more… objective? The kahunas here all have old alliances, grudges, and suspicions that could color their investigations if we sought their help. They look first to their own enemies, or those they have deemed undesirable, even if the evidence points elsewhere. You do not have any of their biases. We asked others about you, and were told… not good things, exactly, but things that make us think you can find out who murdered Ronin. Arachne said you knew your way around the dead.”
Marla nodded. Arachne had only come to Marla at all because she was between apprentices and too proud to ask any of the other local kahunas for help — she could hire a haole like Marla without anyone knowing she couldn’t handle the unquiet spirit on her own, though of course it had proven to be rather more complicated than an ordinary ghost. “Sure, I helped her out, but — ”
“We talked to Zufi as well,” Glyph said.
Ah. That made more sense. “The Bay Witch. That’s what we call her back home — back in the city I’m from, I mean. We worked together for a lot of years.”
“She used to ride the waves with us in the Pacific, before relocating to the Atlantic.” Glyph frowned. “Her choice never made sense to us. Why leave the whole to be alone? And the waves over there are terrible. The god said Zufi could provide a reference for you, and when we sent word, Zufi said you are tenacious and capable and not very nice, but if you are on our side, you will be not very nice to people we do not want to be very nice to, so it is okay.” He paused. “That is a direct quote. She also said to remind you that you still owe her a favor.”
“Yeah, that sounds like Zufi. Okay. I’ll take the case.”
The surfers exchanged glances. It was like watching a meticulously choreographed bit of stage business. “What do you charge for your services?”
Marla grinned. Once upon a time, before being chief sorcerer of Felport, and then being an exiled ex-chief sorcerer, she had been a mercenary. She’d never worked for money back then, choosing a life of poverty in favor of accruing power. So her rates now were the same as they’d been back then: “If I solve the case, you’ll have to tell me a secret I don’t already know, and teach me a trick I’ve never seen before.”
“That is acceptable,” Glyph said.
Rondeau cleared his throat and glared at her.
“Oh, right,” Marla said. “I charge a secret, and a trick — plus expenses.” Rondeau had been funding her entire life since her exile, and even though he had more money than some gods now, he’d insisted that if she got a job she should at least not lose money in the process. As chief sorcerer she’d never worried about cash — all the other sorcerers under her protection had kicked up a percentage of the profits from their various legal and illegal businesses to her, leaving her free to look out for the city’s well-being as a whole — but, as she kept discovering in new and annoying ways, this was a new world. If this kept up, she’d actually end up knowing how much a gallon of milk or a loaf of bread cost.
Glyph chewed his lip. “We do not have much in the way of actual money… what kind of expenses?”
That was a good question. “Like if I need to buy grave dust or a hand of glory or something, for a spell?”
He nodded. “May we pay you in black coral?”
Marla didn’t know what that was, but she looked at Rondeau, and he nodded vigorously, so she said, “Yeah, that works.”
“May we ask how you intend to proceed?”
“I should see the crime scene.”
Glyph frowned. “Ronin’s body melted, as we said, and we could find no trace magically — ”
“Look, it’s not that I don’t have faith in you. Except, in fact, I don’t know a damn thing about you, so I’m going to do everything you did all over again, just so I know. Okay?”
“You do work for us — ” Glyph began.
“Nope,” Marla said. “I work for me. On your behalf, yes, but not for you. I do this my way, and you don’t get to bitch unless I don’t get results. Understood?”
Glyph narrowed his eyes, glanced at his fellows, then nodded. “Understood. Just… find out who killed Ronin. He was our eldest, and the best of us, and he did not deserve to die that way.”
“Sure,” Marla said. “Give my assistant here the details about the crime scene, directions and all that. And it would be good if the directions were for traveling by car, and didn’t start, ‘Swim out half a mile east’ or something.”
“We can take you — ”
“I’d rather see it on my own, without having my observations influenced,” Marla said. “I’m going to go prepare my tools of the trade. Let Rondeau know how to get in touch with you, all right?” She stepped around the counter, shook Glyph’s hand — strong grip, kinda damp — and nodded at his fellow sorcerer-siblings, or multiamorous lovemates, or hive-buddies, or whatever they were. She slipped through a curtain behind the counter into the little back room office, which didn’t contain much but a chair, a smaller desk, a safe (unlocked and empty, except for a small silver bell), and a shelf on the wall holding a few books on Polynesian mythology and the Hawai’ian language. Marla didn’t really have any prepatations to make, or any tools to pack — she just didn’t want to deal with the logistics of shooing an anxious tribe of surfers out of her office. The prospect of a mystery to solve should have excited her, but she didn’t actually give a crap about Ronin or the surfers, so the thought of getting in a car and looking at some sand a guy had died on made her tired. She didn’t want to dwell on the negative, but… what if this whole occult detective thing didn’t work out? What would she do with herself then?