Once he’d gotten rid of the surfers, Rondeau stepped into the office. “‘I don’t work for you, I work for me?'” He smiled. “You’ve been reading those Robert Parker novels about Spenser I gave you, haven’t you?”
She scowled. “I have to learn to be a detective somehow, don’t I?”
“Spenser does just wander around annoying people and getting in fights until he figures things out,” Rondeau said. “Instead of using deductive reasoning and measuring the depths of footprints and collecting cigar ash and shit like Sherlock Holmes does. So he’s probably a better model for your detecting style, if you can call it that.”
“Yes, fine, you’re hilarious.”
“If you’re Spenser, that makes me his buddy Hawk, right? A sexy, amoral badass?”
“One out of three ain’t bad,” Marla said. “So where are we going?”
Rondeau drove them north out of Lahaina in his little black convertible, past the West Maui airport, through the town of Kapalua, and along a route that curved gradually eastward along the northern edge of the island. The scenery along the coast road was absolutely gorgeous — great vistas of cliff and rock and sea — and Marla was sick to death of it. She liked to be in the shadow of old warehouses with the comfort of a vast continental plate beneath her, not out in the open under the sun on a speck of volcanic rock in the ocean.
“We both know I’m not going to learn a damn thing from looking at a spot where a guy died,” Marla said. “Unless the killer left a confession written in the sand, and even then, it would have blown away by now. So here’s what we’ll actually do. You’ll find an oracle, and ask it who killed our dead guy. Easy.”
Rondeau sighed as he swung the car around a long curve. “You only love me for my vast psychic powers.”
“Who says I love you?”
They approached the Bellstone, a boulder of volcanic rock that, when struck in just the right spot, made a sound like clanging metal. When Rondeau didn’t even slow their pace as they passed the rock, Marla growled. “Seriously? There’s no oracle we can talk to in the Bellstone? A great big hunk of rock upchucked from the fiery guts of a volcano? Rings like a bell when you smack it? You’re telling me that doesn’t have any magic?”
“Doesn’t feel right,” Rondeau said. “Sorry.”
“You know, when Bradley wanted an oracle, he could find some ghost or demon or whatever in the first stinky dumpster or drain pipe or dark alley we passed.” She was happy about her old apprentice Bradley’s new gig as an immortal being who lived at the center of all possible realities, but it meant Marla didn’t have his help anymore, and she was stuck with the infinitely less experienced (and lazier) Rondeau, who’d inherited Bradley’s abilities, but not his skill at wielding them.
“I’m pretty new at this,” Rondeau said. “But I’m learning. In my defense, I think there’s a higher density of demons and dead people in a city. If you want me to turn around and go talk to the rock for a while and hope for the best, I can.”
Marla sighed. “No, carry on, you’re the one connected to the great grand mystical whatever. Something’s seriously out of whack when you’re the most spiritual person in the room. Or car. Whatever.”
They drove in silence for a while, until Rondeau said, “Over here.” He pulled the convertible onto a wide gravel patch on the shoulder of Highway 340. “There’s definitely some magical stuff crackling down this way, by the Olivine Pools.”
She frowned. “Isn’t this where our dead guy died?”
“Yeah. That’s convenient, isn’t it? Maybe he left behind a ghost we can talk to. Go right to the source.”
Marla grunted. She wasn’t a big fan of ghosts. They weren’t the souls or spirits or immortal residue of the dead, exactly — those went elsewhere, to whatever afterlife they expected to get, usually. Ghosts were more like… old photographs, or video loops, or echoes, or shit stains — psychic residue, persistent but slowly fading and degrading, and all pretty much crazy. But ghosts knew things, and they made reliable oracles, especially when you asked them about their own lives and deaths. Ghosts were pretty self-centered. Not every death resulted in wailing translucent psychotic ectoplasmic residue, but such manifestations were more likely in cases of violent death, so there was a chance some fragment of Ronin might still be hanging around, the magical-forensic equivalent of shed hairs or blood drops.
Marla and Rondeau picked their way down a steep, rock-scattered incline toward the Olivine Pools, a beautiful spot beloved of tourists and those locals who could abide the company of tourists: a group of lovely tidal pools, deep and clear, most big enough for swimming (though ideally you tried not to disturb the denizens of the pools), in an area scattered with the small greenish crystals called olivine. The pools were entirely deserted at the moment, though, and Rondeau wandered along the shore, pausing occasionally, squinting at nothing in particular, looking for ghost spoor. He eventually crouched down by one of the smaller pools. “Not a ghost.” His voice was strained, like he was trying to do higher math in his head while operating heavy machinery. “But there’s something… else. Something watery and dark and… . In here.” He pointed to the water, and Marla crouched with him.
One of Rondeau’s powers was oracle generation. Marla wasn’t sure whether he summoned existing supernatural creatures who possessed the power to answer questions, or whether the “oracles” were just external manifestations of his own abilities, a way for him to get answers out of his own powerfully psychic brain, like a crazy guy in a comic book who took orders from his own ventriloquist’s doll.
Either way, the process worked, so Marla peered into the water — and jerked back when a gargantuan white moray eel rose up from the suddenly bottomless depths of what should have been an ordinary tidepool. The eel’s eyes were the size of teacups, black and dead, its mouth a horrorshow of overlapping fangs. The water rippled as the eel spoke, but the voice that emerged was perfectly clear, a deep bass with no underwater qualities at all: “I am Koona, the death of sharks, the thief of fish. What do you seek?”
Rondeau cleared his throat. “A man called Ronin died near this spot two days ago. We want to know who murdered him.”
The eel swayed a bit, almost hypnotically. Its jaws were big enough to swallow a human head in a gulp. After a moment, it said, “That knowledge is closed to me. I see a figure, but it is shrouded in mist. The killer is a being of power.”
Marla sighed. Well, yeah. The guy had murdered a member of a badass hive of wave-mages, so the power was self-evident. “Thanks anyway,” she said.
“I do have knowledge that may interest you,” the eel said. “Glad tidings, and grim ones. Do you wish to know?”
“Uh, sure,” Rondeau said.
The eel opened its mouth. “You must pay.”
“I always pay,” Rondeau said. The oracles he summoned were transactional creatures. “What’s the price?”
Rondeau sighed. Marlas passed him one of her many knives, this one more suited for slicing mangos than throats. He pressed the blade to his palm, winced, and made a fist over the water, drops falling in and turning to drifting streamers in the water. The eel closed its eyes for a moment, then spoke, gazing not at Rondeau, but at Marla. “An old friend will soon return to you, to gladden your hollowed heart. But others are coming, and they seek not to soothe your heart, but to tear it from your chest. One you once loved, whose love for you has soured. Old enemies returned. Strangers who shall become new enemies. They sharpen their knives for you, and gather their powers.”
“What friend?” Marla said. “And what enemies? Come on, give me names.” But the eel just sank down into the pool, vanishing into the blackness, which shimmered, and became just an ordinary tidepool again, with nothing more remarkable at the rocky bottom than anemones and a scuttling crab. She looked at Rondeau. “That oracle sucked.”
Rondeau wrapped his wounded hand in a handkerchief. “It sucked my blood, anyway. What now?”
“I guess we go back to the office, and try to find out who this ‘friend’ is.”
“You’re not more concerned about the enemies?”
“Enemies, I’m used to. I’ve got lots of those. I don’t have that many friends.”
“True,” Rondeau said. “And most of the ones you used to have don’t like you anymore.”
“Honestly, it makes me wonder why you still hang out with me.”
Rondeau shrugged. “What can I say? I have profoundly horrible judgment.”
There was no one at the bookshop, and no familiar faces lingering on the streets in Lahaina town, and Rondeau refused to call up another oracle just to satisfy Marla’s curiosity about this mystery friend — summonings like that gave him headaches and insomnia even at the best of times, and two in one day would give him nosebleeds and the kind of migraines that come with auras and last a for week. “Maybe your long-lost pal is at the hotel, kicking his heels in the lobby, wondering where the hell we are?”
Marla shrugged. “Sure. It’s as good an idea as any.” The resort was the closest thing she had to a forwarding address.
Rondeau lived in a two-bedroom suite at a hotel in Kaanapali, a stretch of gorgeous coastline dominated by giant resorts. It was a long way from the traditional Hawai’ian experience, but Rondea was an unapologetic tourist and hedonist. He let Marla stay in the suite’s extra room, at least when she didn’t sleep on the hideous brown couch in the bookshop. She knew she should find a place of her own. That would be a pain in the ass, but hotel life just wasn’t to her taste. Too many people had keys to their room. Back in Felport, she’d owned an entire apartment building and lived in it alone, with her personal effects scattered in the empty apartments around her own to create a cloud of psychic chaff if anyone tried to divine her precise location within the building. Oh, beautiful privacy. That kind of real estate was rather beyond her reach here on Maui, unless she asked Rondeau for a major loan, and she felt beholden enough to him already.
Rondeau drove up along Highway 30 from Lahaina, leisurely covering the short distance to the hotel. Marla was in the passenger seat, doing her habitual (if paranoid) scan of her surroundings. She peered into the side mirror. “Someone’s following us.”
Rondeau glanced up at the rearview. “Marla, that’s a taxi. People take taxis to the resorts, and this is the main road to the resorts from Kahalui airport. What makes you think they’re following us?”
“I’ve got a sense for these things. Besides, you’re going so slow that any taxi driver worth a damn would have passed you miles ago. Why put up with your pokey ass unless he’s following us?”
“You told me to slow down,” Rondeau said, outraged and aggrieved — or at least affecting to be. “You said I drove like a maniac, so I brought it down to the speed limit, just like you asked — ”
Marla pointed. “Pull over in the park there.”
Rondeau sighed, paused to await a break in the oncoming traffic, and turned left into the lot of Wahikuli Park. The long, narrow strip of public ground boasted a few picnic tables overlooking the ocean but little else, and didn’t have much going for it except all the scenery you could eat. Marla barely noticed the deep blue vistas of ocean and sky anymore. She wasn’t sure it was true that you could get used to anything, but you could certainly get used to beauty.
“Well, hell,” Rondeau said, as the taxi pulled in and parked next to them. “What do you think? Is this the world’s least subtle assassin? Or — ”
Marla was already getting out of the car, just as the taxi’s back door swing open. Friend, or enemy?
When the cab’s passenger climbed out, Marla stopped dead, then broke into the biggest, most genuine smile she’d worn in weeks, if not months.
Rondeau got out of the convertible, too, and bellowed “Pelly!” He raced around the car and picked up the short, middle-aged man who’d emerged from the cab. He spun Pelham around twice, then put him back down on his feet, where he wobbled a bit.
“A pleasure to see you, sir,” Pelham said, and then looked at Marla. “And you, too, Mrs. Mason.”
The cab driver emerged, leaning over the roof of the car, squinting. “You going to ride the rest of the way with your friends, pal?”
“I wouldn’t presume,” Pelham murmured, but Rondeau was already saying, “Yeah, we got this, pop the trunk.” Pelham reached into the cab and removed a battered-looking canvas backpack, and a gnarled black walkingstick that might have passed for a wizard’s staff. The cab driver helped Rondeau wrestle a familiar-looking trunk out of the cab, then accepted his fare and a generous tip from Rondeau before driving off.
While Rondea was wrangling luggage, Marla walked around the car and looked Pelham up and down. He still had his wispy hair, his mild eyes, his mostly-unlined face, his general air of affable harmlessness, but he’d changed some, too. “You got some sun on your travels, huh? I never even imagined you with a tan.”
“I did indeed, Mrs. Mason, in Africa, mostly,” Pelham said. “Though the snows in Nepal reflected a glare even brighter.”
“What are you doing here?” Marla said. “I told you to spend a couple of years on your, ah, mission, and it’s only been a few months.”
Pelham nodded. “I am still traveling. I landed this morning on the Big Island, as part of a journey through the Pacific. But I could sense you, nearby. I took a flight to Maui, and frustrated my cab driver immensely by refusing to tell him my final destination, guiding him instead in the direction where I felt your presence, and… Why are you here? Have you finally agreed to take a vacation?”
“I was going to send word to you,” Marla said, “Except I wasn’t sure where, since we warded you so well from divination, nobody could tell where you were, exactly. I left word for Hamil to pass along my contact info if you called in, but — ”
“Don’t mind me.” Rondeau heaved the steamer trunk into the convertible’s too-small trunk and fussed with bungee cords to tie it down. “I’ve got this.”
“My apologies.” Pelham stepped in with his customary competence, swiftly strapping his luggage in and tying the trunk lid partly closed with the bungees. He turned back to Marla. “Then… this isn’t a vacation? Oh dear. Does something here in the islands threaten the safety of Felport? Volcano gods with strange grudges? A tentacled creature of ancient lineage stirring on the sea floor?”
Before she could answer, Rondeau yelped, and jumped like someone had stabbed him in the ass with a pin. “Marla… something’s happening. Something’s coming.”
Marla had a knife in each hand before he finished speaking, and she put her back to the convertible, scanning the area. Unless the picnic tables were about to come to life like Japanese tsukumogami, she didn’t see any potential threats. “What is it?”
Rondeau shook his head. “How should I know? Call it bad vibes. Some kind of… I want to say… eruption? No, I shouldn’t use that word on a volcanic island, it’s not that kind of eruption. Something’s coming, or actually it’s already here, but it’s about to make itself known — ”
“Oh, dear.” Pelham chewed at his lower lip. “Not these again.” He pointed with his walkingstick toward the ground beneath a tree. The dirt was beginning to rise up in little cone-shapes, like molehills. “I’m terribly sorry, Mrs. Mason, I thought I’d gotten rid of them.”
Marla frowned. “Of what?”
“Should I be wishing I had a gun?” Rondeau said.
“I don’t think a gun would be much — ” Pelham began, but then a strange chittering emerged from the three mounds of black dirt, and at least a dozen cat-sized creatures poured out, like ants boiling up from a hill. The creatures moved fast enough that Marla couldn’t get a good look at them, but they seemed both insectile and mammalian, with hairy bodies and too many limbs and grinding mandibles and antennae and weirdly humanlike eyes.
Knives were not ideal for fighting off a swarm of rat-bug-people, and she was stepping to the side so she could unleash a fire spell without catching her friends in the spray when Pelham stepped forward and began to spin his stick in a blur. He caught the first of the creatures with a blow hard enough to send it sailing right out of the park and into the sea, and flattened half a dozen more in seconds using his stick and his feet, spinning with a fluidity and grace that Marla couldn’t quite wrap her head around — after all, Pelham looked like the manager of a small branch bank, or a longtime certified public accountant, but now he was become death; or if not death, then at least grievous bodily harm. “If I might ask you to destroy the mounds?” Pelham shouted, as more of the creatures came scrambling out of the dirt. Marla caught Rondeau’s eye, shrugged, and moved with him toward the source of the invasion.
She considered just stomping, but she didn’t like the idea of one of these things climbing up her leg, so she knelt, scooped up a handful of sand from the ground into a little heap, took a deep breath, and believed the mound she’d made was the same as the mounds the creatures were coming through.
Then she stomped on her little mound, and the other three flattened, smashed by the weight of Marla’s sympathetic magic. Rondeau watched the collapsed mounds warily, then nudged one with the toe of his foot. Nothing came out. “There’s not even a hole under here. What the hell?”
Pelham had finished bashing the little monsters, and those that survived burrowed into the ground, dragging their dead after them, and soon they’d all vanished from view, seemingly pulling their holes in after them, leaving the ground unmarked and unmarred. Pelham mopped his brow. “I am so very sorry. The creatures have not troubled me in weeks, and I had assumed they were gone forever. They are deucedly persistent beasts.”
“What the fuck are they?” Marla said.
“Nuno sa Punso,” Pelham said. “Frightful things, but really just a nuisance, incapable of doing real harm. I… picked them up during my time in the Phillipines.”
“Pelly,” Rondeau said. “Tell me these things aren’t some kind of supernatural STD you picked up in a Filipino cathouse. Or, better yet, tell me they are, because that would be hilarious.”
Pelham bowed slightly. “Loath as I am to disappoint you, the origin of this infestation is less lascivious. I spent a week in the Malay archipelago, studying the martial art known as Silat. I have long been proficient in Bartitsu, which incorporates elements of Malaysian stick-fighting, and I thought to refine my technique by studying at the source.”
“You seem to have gotten the hang of it,” Marla said. “You could have played eighteen holes using those little Nuno things as golf balls.”
“Yes. Thank you. Alas, that is not the first time I have needed to forcibly dispel the creatures. While I was out walking in the countryside in the Phillipines, I inadvertently disturbed an ant hill, or perhaps a termite mound, with my stick. I expected insects to emerge, but instead — out came several Nuno. They looked more human, then, though they were still very small, appearing as tiny men with long ragged beards. They are local spirits, called ‘ancestors of the ant hills,’ though I think they are more closely aligned to imps than to true ancestral spirits. By which I mean, their resemblance to humanity is superficial and conditional.”
“Lots of supernatural creatures start to look more like humans when they have more contact with humans,” Marla said. “Or else people just perceive them that way. I looked at them in their true forms, and they weren’t much like people at all, apart from the eyes.”
Pelham nodded. “The Nuno are mostly used as a story by the locals, to keep children away from ant hills. If you disturb their homes, the Nuno can curse you — either trivially, to cause pain in the foot that kicked their hill, or more seriously, to… ah… this is indelicate… to urinate a viscous black fluid, or vomit blood. Most people never encounter the creatures, and only the superstitious believe they exist. I suspect they were attracted by the magical spells on my luggage.” He gestured toward the convertible’s trunk “Or perhaps I simply stumbled onto the one mound where they actually live. The Nuno have chosen to punish me more creatively than usual, it seems. They appear occasionally and attack me, wherever I am. I attempted to dispel them in Malaysia, paying an alularyo to perform a tawas ceremony. She poured molten wax into a bowl of water, interpreted certain signs beyond my understanding, and said I must make offerings of fruit at the site of the hill I’d destroyed, and beg for forgiveness. Unfortunately, I had difficulty finding the precise location again, and though I did make offerings… .” He shrugged. “I may have gotten the location wrong. Or perhaps the alularyo was a fraud. I did not realize the ritual had failed until I was a thousand miles away, when the creatures attacked me in an outdoor market. They are easily defeated, but terribly persistent, appearing days or even weeks apart. Though I lack your ability to pierce illusions, Mrs. Mason, they seem less and less humanoid to me with each appearance, as I’ve gone farther and farther from their home. Perhaps familiarity is enabling to see me more as they actually are.”
“They look pretty much like pissed-off garden gnomes to me,” Rondeau said, helpful as always. “I didn’t bother to try and see their true forms. Stuff pretty much never looks better that way.”
“I send you on a trip around the world,” Marla said, “and you come back with a case of supernatural fleas. Well, curses can be lifted. We’ll see what we can do.”
“I would appreciate that,” Pelham said. “The Nuno are most unseemly. But I do not mean to burden you with my problems, Mrs. Mason. Please, tell me, how are you? Why are you here?”
“You ride up front with Rondeau.” Marla climbed into the convertible’s comically undersized back seat. “He’ll tell you how I am, and what I’m doing in Hawai’i.”