When Marla woke up, her throat felt better. She drank glass after glass of water, then stepped out onto her balcony and looked down on the dolphin lagoon. The animals were beautiful, leaping from the water to the delight of watching vacationers. They seemed to be enjoying themselves, but surely they’d prefer their freedom? Or maybe she was anthropomorphizing. When the sight of dolphins in a resort hotel starts to seem unbearably poignant, maybe it’s time to change your life.
She went back inside to use the bathroom – all those glasses of water took a toll – and saw a slip of paper someone had slid under her door. Only a couple of lines written by hand. She looked at the clock. After hurriedly using the bathroom, she splashed some water on her face, ran her fingers through her hair, and slipped on some comfortable clothes. In a perfect world, she would look cool and poised and powerful for this rendezvous, but she’d just died yesterday, and there was only so much she could do. She cast a brief stealthy-and-silent spell (fresh cat whiskers, harvested humanely, made all the difference) and slipped out of her room. Her friends would probably be feeling overprotective, and this way they wouldn’t hear her leaving and ask where she was going. The spell might not work on Reva, but she hoped that if he noticed, he’d appreciate that she was trying to be private, and leave her alone.
Marla went down the elevator to the ground floor, and strolled to one of the hotel’s little cafes. Now, just past dawn, the place was nearly deserted, except for one man seated at a small round table, his back to a pillar, two cups of coffee before him.
She sat down across from him, and after a moment during which they regarded one another, said, “You’re looking well.” She was alarmed by how raspy her voice still sounded.
“So are you, sis.”
Marla laughed, but it hurt her throat. “You are a good liar, Jason. I look like I’m half-dead – because I am. I notice you didn’t come to our little final party on the beach.”
Jason exhaled. “So there was something final, then? It’s all over?”
She shrugged. “Crapsey is on ice somewhere, but I’m sure we’ll ship him back to the mainland soon, probably tied up with some evidence of a crime in his lap. We’ll see how prison suits him. And Jarrow… well. Someone like her, you can’t really kill. But she’s been neutralized.”
“And the one with the buzzcut?”
“Nicolette… didn’t make it. Not by my hand. Elsie Jarrow killed her.”
“Doesn’t surprise me,” Jason said. “I’ve met a lot of dangerous people over the years, and some people so far around the bend they didn’t know right from wrong, and didn’t realize what they were doing… but that woman knew exactly what she was doing, and did it anyway, just because she liked it.”
“Sounds a lot like you, brother.”
“I never wanted to be part of this. I know you’ve got no reason to believe me, but it’s true. Jarrow press-ganged me. She thought it was funny, having your brother along, making me call you on the phone, shit like that. I got away from her as soon as I could.”
Marla nodded toward her coffee cup. “Is this poisoned?”
Jason picked up the cup, took a sip, swallowed, then passed it back. “If it is, we’re all in this together.”
Marla took a sip of her own. “Why did you want to meet me, Jason? You were the only member of the murder squad who got to walk away clean. So what are you doing here?”
“I’ve spent the past few months living in fear of you, Marlita. Afraid you’d hunt me down, or send a gargoyle or a werewolf or something to kill me. I’m sick of the fear. If you’re going to kill me, I’d rather get it over with.”
“Fair enough,” Marla said. “It’s not on my agenda this morning, though.”
“Can I ask you a question?” Jason said. “Why did you try to reach me, a few days ago? I’d never even heard of Elsie Jarrow when I got the call from mom, telling me you’d been in touch. So what did you want?”
“It’s a magic thing. I heard a prophecy, sort of, that said you would try to kill me, and die yourself in the process. I was going to call and tell you not to get involved with Nicolette, and not to come to Hawai’i. That it wouldn’t end well for you. Fortunately, I messed with causality enough to keep you from dying anyway, but I wasn’t sure how things would turn out.”
Jason took a slow sip of coffee, both hands on the mug. “You wanted to warn me? To save my life?”
“All this time I’ve been hiding in shithole towns, trying to avoid detection. Once I heard you survived that… thing that happened between us… in Felport, I figured you’d come gunning for me. I mean, you’re a crime boss. Or you were.”
“Not really. I was a protector, Jason. Any crime that happened was strictly incidental.”
“Funny. You being a protector. I mean…”
“Because you were the one who protected me, when we were kids? From mom’s ten thousand drunken boyfriends and their roaming hands. Yeah.” Marla’s feelings about her brother were complicated. He was probably a psychopath – certainly he’d murdered at least a few times without any hint of regret. But he’d defended her when she was young and vulnerable, turning his cunning and his brutality toward keeping her innocence intact. “Listen, Jason. I know we tried to kill each other a few months back. But something… strange happened to me, not long ago. I know this magic stuff freaks you out, but listen. You know about parallel universes? Worlds like our own, except things are just a little different, and those little differences snowball into big changes?”
“Like places where the South won the Civil War, or Hitler didn’t have a mustache,” Jason said. “Like that?”
Marla nodded. “I met a version of myself from another universe. She was… seriously messed-up. She let herself get pushed around and used by evil forces. She was turned into a monster – basically, she became everything I hate. And it turns out, the thing that was different about that universe, was you. You died as a little kid over there, so you were never around to protect her – this other version of me – from all the things you saved me from in this reality. I know we’re not friends now. I know you don’t consider us family, anymore – that I became dead to you the moment I refused to help you bury a body and ran away from home. But I know that I literally would not be the woman I am without you. You saved me from things you didn’t even know you were saving me from.”
“Magic,” he muttered. “I should think it’s interesting. I should be trying to figure out how to make a profit off it. But really it just makes my fucking skin crawl.”
Marla nodded. “Sometimes? Me too. As far as I’m concerned, this thing between us, the fact that you tried to kill me, the fact that you shot Rondeau, even this bullshit with Jarrow… we’re square. I owe you that much. Go live your life.” She leaned forward, and looked into his eyes, which were so much like the eyes she saw in the mirror every day. “But don’t fuck with me again, Jason. Even alone, without resources, away from home, outnumbered and outgunned, I still won.”
“Of course you did,” Jason said, the ghost of a smile on his lips. “You’re a Mason.”
Marla snorted. “So is mom, and she never won at much of anything.”
“Not true. She still brags about that wet t-shirt contest she won when she was twenty-two.” Jason smiled, more openly this time. “You must have really wanted to protect me, if you called her. I can’t believe it.”
“I can’t believe you’re still in touch with her.”
“She’s always good for an alibi,” Jason said. He dropped a few bills on the table. “I guess that’s it, then. You don’t try to kill me, and I don’t try to kill you.”
“It’s a start. Maybe we can work our way up to Christmas cards.”
“Anything’s possible,” Jason said, and walked out of her life again.
Back in her room, pretending she’d never left, Marla heard a tentative knock on the connecting door. “Come in!” she said, but couldn’t quite shout. Rondeau and Pelham shuffled in, followed by Reva, who looked almost as tired as Marla felt. He was still wearing his filthy clothing. Apparently when he made a body he only conjured one set of clothes, and didn’t think to buy or borrow more. Gods were such morons in some ways.
“I can order us some room service,” Rondeau began, but Marla shook her head.
“Sit with me on the balcony. I’ve figured out some things.” Once they’d joined her, Pelham and Rondeau sitting, and Reva leaning against the balcony, Marla took a deep breath. “I’m leaving Hawai’i. Not immediately – I have a couple of things to settle, we need to catch Lupo, and the surfers still owe me a secret and a trick for solving that murder – but soon.”
“Where to?” Rondeau said. “I hear good things about the Caribbean. Or were you thinking skiing?”
“I’m thinking… no fixed address. With Felport closed to me, I don’t have a home anymore. The home I chose rejected me, and, okay, I can even see why. And when you came back, Pelham… I realized how limited my world has been. I left Indiana and went straight to Felport, and that’s where I stayed. I traveled a little as a mercenary and an apprentice, but they were always missions – I never got to really experience the places I went. Seeing how travel has expanded your horizons got me thinking, Pelham. It used to be, I was the worldly one, and you were the guy who’d never left home. But now, you’ve seen more than I have. I want to get out in the world, too. To stop looking for a fort to defend, or a rock to hide behind.”
“So we’re talking world tour?” Rondeau said.
Marla shook her head. “We’re talking me, going from place to place, either flipping a coin or throwing darts at a map, and just… seeing what I find. Hoping I find something that resonates with me. And, for all that I think Reva is a meddling jackass, the way he lives appeals to me. Go to a place, learn to love it a little, and help the people there who need helping.” She glared at the god as he began to grin. “But only people who want my help. Or who I’m pretty sure would want my help if they were thinking straight.”
Rondeau whistled. “Wow. So you’re just going to… walk the Earth? Like Jules from Pulp Fiction?”
“I think so. I mean… I’m happy when I get in a fight, but only when I’m fighting for something that matters. I’m kind of a crap detective, but I’m a pretty good guardian. I protected Felport, didn’t I? So… maybe I can protect other places, too. Other people. Maybe wherever I am can be the place I protect. It seems like that would keep me occupied.”
“I’m getting the sense I’m not invited,” Rondeau said.
“You want to go? Walking, or hitchhiking, or hopping trains? Never knowing where you’ll be tomorrow? Sleeping rough? No massages? I’d love to have you – apart from just enjoying your company, which I grudgingly admit, you’re a psychic, and you’d be a great asset – but you’ve sacrificed enough for me.”
“Hmm. How about I stay here and provide tactical support,” Rondeau said. “You know. Materiel. Intel. Other things that end in ‘el.’ I can be your wealthy patron.”
“That would be great,” Marla said.
“May I accompany you, Mrs. Mason?” Pelham said.
Marla smiled. “Are you kidding? I need a seasoned traveler to show me the ropes. Otherwise I’ll end up eating with the wrong fork or breaking a local taboo or accidentally marrying a guy I just wanted to sleep with. Plus I’m lousy at languages. I can’t think of a traveling companion I’d rather have.”
“I was really hoping that the occult detective thing would work out,” Rondeau said. “Oh well. Mind if I rent out the bookshop?”
“I was only ever a squatter anyway. Suit yourself, if you can find a deed.”
“Oh, Marla. It’s like you’ve never heard of forgery.”
Marla thought about how to broach the next subject, and finally decided: fuck it. Being direct had occasionally led to disaster, but there was no sense trying to change her nature. “Listen, guys, there’s something you should know. When I was back on that beach, dying – I should have died.”
“I wondered about that,” Rondeau said. “Jarrow’s body did die, and it was a sympathetic magic thing, so it seemed like you would have died, too…”
“Did the god of Death intervene on your behalf, Marla?” Pelham said.
“Ehhh… yes and no. He did restore me to life, but against his wishes, and with a fair number of strings attached. See, he really wants me to join him in the underworld, to reign at his side, but post-exile-angst notwithstanding, I’m not ready to leave this life yet. He was ready to schedule my coronation and polish up my throne, but I let him know that… wouldn’t make me happy.”
“If the goddess of the underworld ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy,” Reva said, grinning.
“So Death and I sat down and had a pretty hardcore negotiation, and the upshot is… I got him to invoke the Persephone clause.”
Rondeau whistled. “So what? You spend six months in the underworld, and six months on the Earth? Damn, Marla. So you’ll be wintering in Hell? I think that makes you the ultimate snowbird.”
“Ah, but I’m a sharper bargainer than Persephone ever was, or maybe it’s just because I don’t have some goddess-of-the-springtime responsibilities to complicate matters. I got Death to agree that my six months in hell can be non-consecutive. I owe him six months a year, but I can take them whenever I want, so I don’t have to say goodbye to seeing any season on the Earth forever. Plus, while I’m in the underworld, I don’t age. So, you know. Pretty good health-care plan.”
“Congratulation, Mrs. Mason,” Pelham said. “And, of course, also my sympathies. I know the arrangement will be difficult for you.”
“First B, now you,” Rondeau said. “My friends keep turning into gods. Why don’t I ever get tapped?”
“I’m sure the first time there’s an opening for the god of hedonistic excess, you’ll make the shortlist,” Marla said.
“You better not change, Marla. Or start putting on airs. I’m not going to address you as ‘Your Divine Shadowhood’ or anything. Does this mean you’re going to go all goth, start dressing in vintage wedding dresses or black lace and spiderwebs?”
“I was thinking a black cloak, maybe with something in a matching scythe, but I’ll have to see what the wardrobe department has in my size.”
“This is good,” Reva said. “For one thing, becoming a god yourself will help you better understand the minds of gods, and perhaps you will stop holding my interventions on your behalf against me – ”
“You, shut it,” Marla said. “And as a part-time goddess in training, I can say that to you without fear of repercussion. What I’m going to do is help Death and you and any other so-called higher powers I run into learn what being human is about. Which means I need to keep my humanity in the forefront for the half a year I’m allowed to be wholly a woman and nothing else. That’s why you’re never going to see me again while I’m up here in the world, understood? Don’t take on any guise, don’t come visit, don’t happen to be on the same hiking trail or tour of the catacombs with me, nothing. You now officially have a restraining order, Reva – so restrain yourself. I’ve had quite enough of your meddling. I don’t care if you meant well. I’ve learned firsthand that good intentions don’t matter much, and my husband tells me we use them for paving stones back home.”
“Marla, you’re one of my people, whether you want to be or – ”
Marla leaned forward. “Reva. You’re a genius loci with no loci, right? And I’m, at least for half the year, part of the double deity that has full power over the entire sphere of death. So correct me if I’m wrong, but: don’t I outrank you?”
“That was very royal, Mrs. Mason,” Pelham said approvingly.
Reva scowled. “It’s not like we have ranks, exactly – ”
Marla gave him her most withering stare. Or, at least, the most withering stare she could muster as a mortal. Apparently as a goddess she’d be able to literally wither things. She still wasn’t sure it was a good idea to let her wield that much power, but given that most stories about gods depicted them behaving like spoiled horny entitled spiteful children, she’d probably be better than most. “Don’t screw around with me, Reva. I’m not condemning what you do. I plan to go into the freelance do-gooding business myself. Just stop doing it to me. Call it a character flaw, but I don’t like people messing around with my life. Understood?”
“Yes, my queen.” Reva gave an over-elaborate bow.
“Good.” She leaned back in her chair. “There’s one favor you can do for me, as my loyal subject. I need you to go see Death, and tell him the same thing I told you. He isn’t to have any contact with me while I’m above ground. He gets me for half the year, and that’s it. I won’t have his long-view tainting my here-and-now. Plus, I’m still pissed at him for… well. I have my reasons, and he knows what they are.”
“I could do that – ”
“But listen, Reva. Take a walk with me. We need to talk. Because even though it’s probably wasted, I want to try to make you understand why I’m doing this – for you to try and see my reasoning from a human point of view. And I want you to tell Death the whole story, try and get him see it from my side, from everybody’s side, so he can understand there’s a whole universe of stories that don’t revolve around him, and a whole lot of things that matter other than his own convenience and contentment. He really needs to understand that people are real, all of us – every one of us – and that we mean more than just what he can use us for. Do you think you can do that for me?”
“You’d better do it, dude,” Rondeau said. “She didn’t say ‘fuck’ once during that whole speech. That’s how you know she’s serious.”
“So that’s why I’m here,” I said, leaning back in the chair Death had grudgingly offered me. I took a sip of water cold and freshly drawn from some sunless lake. Death’s meeting room was paneled in red-tinted wood, and full of heavy furniture and shelves lined with countless books, all black, their spines unmarked.
Death sat in dark leather chair, swirling amber liquid in a glass. “I told Marla she didn’t need to send a messenger anymore. That she could tell me anything she had to say directly.”
I shrugged. “I don’t think she much cares what you want, really. Anyway, she knew I could fill in certain portions of the narrative, tell you about things she didn’t see herself, and details she didn’t know.”
“How do you know all this, Reva? These stories you told, these conversations you recounted?”
“Some of it comes from direct observation – I was there for a lot of this, you know, either openly present or watching in secret. I tried hard to tell the story as objectively as I could, not to editorialize, to make myself just another one of the people in the background. Some of it I got from a little light mind-reading here and there, especially from Rondeau – I promised not to pry into Pelham’s mind anymore, but I never promised that to Rondeau, so I rifled through his perceptions a bit. I also got to know Crapsey fairly well – he’s the ultimate exile, he’s not even in his home universe anymore, and after Marla and company stuck him on a boat back to the mainland I visited him, taking on the form of a crew member, and talked to his deepdown parts. Crapsey’s not a bad sort, apart from being a mass-murderer. I learned a lot about Jarrow from him. Some other things Marla told me, and sometimes I read between the lines of what she told me – though you’ll have to judge whether it’s all true or not.”
I coughed, though of course, I never really need to cough. “And, I’ll admit, sometimes, I was just guessing, and making things up. Maybe I got a little carried away with the story here and there. But the point stands. Marla understands why you did what you did – and she wanted me to tell you this story so you’d understand why she doesn’t want to hear from you during her six months on the Earth. She needs to know you aren’t meddling, that you respect her humanity, even if you don’t understand it. She needs to figure out her life, and what she’s living for, and what’s worth living for, without interference from either of us.”
“Where is she now?”
“Still in Hawai’i. She’s tracking down Gustavus Lupo, because she feels like that’s her responsibility. Once that’s done, though… Who knows? She talked about going to Malaysia with Pelham to cure him of his Nuno infestation. She’s talked about walking through the American West. She’s never been to Europe. She’ll see the world.”
“My Persephone,” Death murmured, swirling the amber-colored liquid in his glass.
“No,” I said. “Not your anything. She’s her own Marla.”
“You told me all this. Do you understand the point she was trying to make?”
“Not exactly,” I said. “And I have to be honest with you… that kind of uncertainty is a new experience for me. Not a terribly pleasant one. Creatures like you, and to a lesser extent I, are used to feeling certainty in all things – aren’t we?”
Death finished his drink, and we sat silently together for a while in his room at the bottom of the end of the world, thinking the thoughts that gods think, which are not entirely like the thoughts of women and men, or so I understand.