“I can’t wait.” Death smelled of cut lemons and tarnished metal. “We can finally start our afterlife together – ”
Marla resisted the urge to knee Death in the crotch, but she did disentangle herself from his embrace and push him away. “We’ve been over this. I’m not eager to shuffle off this mortal coil yet, and like you always say, the rest of my long and natural life is just a drop in the bucket of eternity, and all that – you promised you wouldn’t rush me into an early grave.”
He held up his hands, rings twinkling in the light from the brass chandeliers. “I’m not! I have no hand in this at all, darling. But there are forces gathering against you, and, well… while there are no certain futures, there are certainly likely ones, and it doesn’t look like you’ll live to see the new year here in the upper world.”
“Huh.” Rondeau turned to Pelham. “So, if your mistress dies, what happens to you? Do you, like, crawl onto the funeral pyre? Or serve her in the afterlife like an unlucky Egyptian servant?”
“The bond is broken by death.” Pelham wrung his hands. “But – but surely – ”
“Surely for sure.” Marla crossed her arms. “Who’s coming after me, Death?”
He sighed. “I’m not certain. I can tell when someone is going to die – or when they’re likely to die, though the possibilities have always proliferated rather wildly for you – and gradually those lines of probability narrow into certainties. Your death is… increasingly likely. I know some other people who will almost certainly die with you, in the same place, around the same time. Perhaps that might give you a hint?”
“Shoot,” she said.
“A witch named Nicolette,” Death said. “And, ah… your brother, Jason.”
Marla whistled. “Both of them? They don’t even know each other.”
Death shrugged. “Perhaps not yet, but they will probably die within half-a-dozen yards and a few minutes of one another, and your odds of lasting long beyond their demise are quite slim.”
Marla nodded. “But now I know about the threat. That changes the equation, right? Forewarned is forearmed and all that.”
Death spread his hands, and gazed down at the rings. The gems glowed faintly in various colors, from sky-blue to the red of strawberry wine to a necrotic pulsing black. He slowly shook his head. “Here, in this physical form, I have only limited access to my full powers, but from what I can see… . No, sorry. Your knowledge doesn’t change things substantially. Oh, the place and time, those have shifted, but death is still rushing toward you. None of this is written, nothing is ordained, but… you don’t need to believe in fate to know a dropped billiard ball is going to hit the floor. It’s simple physics. Objects are in motion, and it is possible to chart the trajectories of those objects, barring outside interference.”
“Like someone kicking the billiard ball through a window.” Marla rounded on Rondeau. “You! You’re supposed to be my seer. Haven’t you been having any crazy prophetic dreams? Bradley used to have visions if I was about to stub my toe!”
“Bullshit,” Rondeau said. “Anyway, I take way more opiates than Bradley did. I’ve had a few of those dreams, the prophetic ones, and they’re cryptic as fuck and scary as hell. I don’t like them much. Is it any surprise I pop some downers before bedtime?”
Marla sat down on the padded stool behind the counter, happy to put a slab of oak between herself and the Walking Death. She stared at the rippled windows of the bookshop, and after a moment, she smiled. “All right. Okay. What’s my timeline looking like?”
Death reached into his vest pocket and tugged on a chain. Marla expected a pocketwatch, but instead, he pulled out a small hourglass, filled with white sand, and held it up to the light. Marla rolled her eyes. “An hourglass? Really?”
“There’s nothing wrong with tradition. I should show you my scythe sometime. I’d say you have… three days? Perhaps a week? It varies, there’s some slippage, so it could be a bit more, or a bit less.”
“Around Hallowe’en, then?” Marla said. “Isn’t that a little, I dunno, over-the-top?”
“For a witch’s duel? Someone has a taste for the classics, anyway.”
Marla cracked her knuckles methodically. “All right, then. I get the general idea. Nicolette and Jason both have reasons to want me dead. I figure this is a revenge thing, kick me when I’m down, then keep kicking me until my insides come out. I don’t know how they got together, or will get together, or whatever, but I’ll roll with it. I can make plans.”
“Mrs. Mason,” Pelham said. He glanced at Death. “Or, er… Mrs. Death?”
“I believe my wife would prefer to keep her own name,” Death said.
“She would. What is it, Pelham?”
“Forgive me for saying so, but… you seem almost pleased at the prospect of your imminent demise.”
“Nah,” Rondeau said. “She’s pleased at the prospect of a fight. Aren’t you?”
She reached under the counter and took out a Samoan war club, three feet of intricately carved black wood curved at the end like a blunt hockeystick, the whole thing heavy as a sledgehammer. “Beautiful, isn’t it? A kahuna over on the Hana side asked me to help out with a ghost problem, and gave me this as payment. I haven’t had a chance to hit anybody with it yet. I don’t know that I could bring myself to use it on Jason, despite everything he’s done… but I could sure as shit split Nicolette’s skull with this.”
Death sighed. “I hate it when you get all bloodthirsty. It’s unbecoming in a queen of the dead.”
“I’m not dead yet, loverboy.” She put the war club away. “Thanks for the heads-up about my imminent demise. But while I’m alive, I’ve got a job to do, which is why I called you here in the first place. There was a wave-mage named Ronin. Somebody cut his throat and let him bleed out into the waves. His cohort want to know who did the deed. Divinations don’t turn up anything, and Rondeau even summoned an oracle that couldn’t help us. The killer has whipped up some kind of big obfuscating magic – but I figure you can just pop in on the dead guy’s private hell or heaven and ask him who cut his throat, right?”
“I’ll do almost anything for you.” Death leaned across the counter, bringing his face close to Marla’s. “But the price is a kiss.”
“What would she have to pay to get you to kill Nicolette and Jason before they come after us?” Rondeau said, and just grinned when Marla glared. “What? It’s worth asking.”
“We have an agreement,” Death said, glancing at Rondeau. “I will do nothing to hasten Marla’s demise… but I will not intervene to delay it. This life of hers is important, of course, but from my point of view, it’s all just… prelude.” He looked back at Marla. “The underworld is dull without you. The place could use – ”
“If you say ‘a woman’s touch,’ this is one woman you’ll never touch,” Marla warned. Death chuckled, and Marla leaned in and planted a quick kiss on his lips.
“Would it be so bad, spending eternity with me?” Death murmured.
“I’ll be honest,” Marla said. “It’s not the thought of being dead that bothers me. It’s the thought of being beaten.” She shook her head. “You wouldn’t want to spend eternity with me if Nicolette manages to kill me. That’s one bad mood that would never end. Hell would become a genuinely unpleasant place with me in charge.”
“You’ll be a good queen.” Death stepped away from the counter. “It’s a shame the qualities that make you worthy to stand beside me also serve to delay the time until you do. All right. I’ll check on this – Ronin, was it? I’ll be in touch when I find out something.” He ambled across the room, opened a door in the corner, and stepped through, shutting the door after him, whereupon it turned into nothing more than a slanted shadow.
Marla grinned at Rondeau “There. That’s a detective-type thing to do, right? Working informants, using sources, all that stuff? I rule at this.”
“I can’t believe you married Death,” Rondeau said. “How do you not mention that?”
“Probably because it leads to conversations like this one? So what do we do with the rest of the afternoon? I can’t do much about this investigation until I hear back from, ah – ”
“Your DH?” Rondeau said. “That’s what the happy homemaker types call it on the internet – ‘dear husband.’ Or ‘dead husband’ I guess in this case.”
“Go swim in a shark tank.” Marla looked up at the ceiling. “I should prepare for the attack that’s coming, too, but… well. Back in Felport I’d call the seers and sibyls, I’d tailor the pattern recognition sensors on the border guardians to look for Jason and Nicolette, I’d put all the snitches and street kids on alert… but what the hell do I do here?”
“Well,” Rondeau said. “Death says your brother is coming. So maybe, I don’t know… call him?”
Marla snorted. “You want me to reach out to Jason? Are you forgetting he shot you?”
“He did worse than that – he used me, said he’d teach me to be a con artist, said I’d be part of his crew, and then tried to kill me as soon as I got a little bit inconvenient.” Rondeau shook his head. “But he’s still your family. If nothing else, calling him up is an unpredictable thing to do, right? An unlikely thing? Some of that, what do you call it, lateral thinking, it might shake up some of the paths of probability your DH was talking about.”
“It’s not like I even have Jason’s number. He had a cell in Felport but it was a burner, he tossed it – ”
Pelham cleared his throat. “Mrs. Mason, if I may… there is an intermediate connection you might exploit.”
“Who? I don’t know anybody who knows Jason. Nobody alive, anyway. Cam-Cam is dead, Danny Two Saints is dead – ”
“Mrs. Mason,” Pelham interrupted. “I meant that you could call your mother.”
Marla put her head down on the counter and brought out some of her choicest curse words, the ones she saved for special occasions.
When they’d reunited after their long estrangement, Marla’s brother Jason had told her their mother was dead, passed on years ago from cirrhosis of the liver, leaving behind an inheritance of exactly jack-shit. He’d used that news to both guilt-trip Marla into some family bonding and as a way to scam his way into becoming the beneficiary of Marla’s own last will and testament, acting on the mistaken impression that she was a rich crime boss. After Jason’s treachery was revealed, Marla realized nothing he said could be trusted, including the potential life-or-death of her mother, so she’d made some discreet inquiries. It turned out Gloria Mason still lived in the same shitty trailer in the same shitty Indiana town she always had.
Marla remembered her childhood phone number just fine. The voice that answered was smoke-roughened and way too old, but it had an aggrieved and peevish tone she recognized instantly: “What?”
“Nice to talk to you too, Mom,” Marla said.
“You got a wrong number, girl.”
“Don’t hang up!” Marla shouted, glad she’d sent Rondeau and Pelham out of the shop. Making this call was hard enough. “It’s me, mom. It’s Marla.”
A long silence, and then an inhalation that probably involved a cigarette. “Well, well. What kind of trouble are you in?”
Marla gritted her teeth. Her relationship with her mother wasn’t the only reason she’d run away from home before turning sixteen, but it had been in the top five. Gloria Mason had been a roadhouse beauty with a string of drunken boyfriends, and as soon as Marla hit puberty, her mother started to view her with a combination of distrust, suspicion, jealousy, and entirely unhealthy competition. “No trouble at all. Just… thought it was time I got in touch.”
“After nearly twenty years? Isn’t that sweet of you, to remember the woman who gave birth to you and kept you clothed and fed. I just naturally assumed you were dead, murdered by some psychopath the first night after you ran away. Nice of you to call and set my mind at ease.”
“I sent money,” Marla said. “A few times.”
A laugh. “Did you now? Jason told me he was the one who sent it.”
Of course he did. “He ran away too, you know”
Her mother’s voice was patient, and as condescending as a god talking to a wayward worshipper. “No, dear. He told me he was leaving. He kissed my cheek and gave me an address where I could reach him. He moved away. That’s not the same thing. I guess all this time you’ve just been confused about the difference. So now you know you should feel bad. I’m sure you’ll get right on that.”
Marla leaned forward in the chair, resting her forehead on the smooth wooden surface of the desk. She’d rather kick a hellhound than do this, any day. “You’re right. I’m sorry. I was young, and stupid, and ungrateful.” And you were an evil bitch who was either willfully blind to the way your boyfriends groped me, or who thought I deserved it, or who thought I wanted it. But saying that wouldn’t get her what she wanted, so she didn’t. “Listen. I ran into Jason a few months ago. That’s why I’m calling – I’ve been thinking about family.”
“Blood isn’t much, but I guess it’s something. So this is just a call to catch up? Let me know whether or not I have any grandbabies?”
“No babies here.”
“Learned to keep your legs closed, did you?”
Marla had to literally bite her tongue to keep from saying something nasty – I was a virgin when I left home, no thanks to the efforts of your thousand asshole boyfriends. She almost hung up the phone, and her hands started to shake, but she took a deep breath and powered through. “I… we should talk. Try to get past this… all this time and distance between us.”
“You abandoned this family.” Gloria’s voice was cool and poisonous. “Now you think you can make one phone call and get back on the Christmas card list?”
“I have to start somewhere, don’t I? And like I said, I saw Jason. We were supposed to get together again recently, but I got sidetracked and couldn’t make it, and now the number I had for him doesn’t work. Do you have a way to reach him?”
A long silence. “I see. This is about money, isn’t it? Jason always was a soft touch, he’ll probably even give you some, the fool boy.”
“It’s not about money,” Marla said. “It’s… more a matter of life and death.”
Another harsh laugh. “His, or yours? I can tell you which one I’d favor. Never mind, never mind. Give me your number. I’ll call Jason and tell him you’re trying to reach him.”
Marla rattled off Rondeau’s cell number – no way she was giving her mom one of her numbers, and they could always throw Rondeau’s phone in the ocean later. After performing an exorcism. “Thank you. I know I wasn’t the easiest daughter in the world, and this means a lot.”
“You were plenty easy, and don’t think I didn’t notice. I’m glad this means something to you. It doesn’t to me.” There was a click as she hung up the phone.
“That went well,” Marla said to the empty office.
Marla was crap at waiting, and she had nothing to do but wait – for Death to get back in touch, and for Jason to call her back, assuming her mother even tried to pass on the message. So she locked up the bookshop and went out out onto Front Street. She walked down a couple of blocks, then crossed to the ocean side, going down a short flight of steps next to a mediocre cheeseburger restaurant with spectacular views. Just like that, she was on the beach, and what a beach: pale sand, views of the sea, sailboats, and the island of Lanai, that last partially obscured by clouds. A far cry from the bay of Felport, with its iron-gray water fizzing and sloshing with pollution by the shore, and the scraggly wooded islands farther out. Marla would never admit to liking this view better than the one in her old city – but she could grudgingly admit it was lovely enough in its way, even if she was sick of looking at it by now.
She took off her boots and stood in the surf, gazing at the leaning mast of a dead sailboat that had been reefed a few score yards out and abandoned years before. “I know how you feel,” she told the boat.
“And how’s that?” The voice was cheerful enough, but so unexpected that Marla reached for a knife before turning her head.
A shirtless, athletic Hawai’ian man wearing knee-length blue shorts and rubber sandals sat down in the sand next to her feet. A long black ponytail, bound with colorful elastics along its length, hung down between his shoulderblades, straight as a plumb line. He was somewhere north of twenty and south of fifty, but Marla had trouble pinning his age down any more precisely than that – his face was young, but something about his calm dark eyes suggested they’d seen a lot of things over a lot of years. He looked up at her, smiling. “Will you sit and talk with me?”
Marla sat. “Have we met?”
“We have now. My name is Reva.” He offered his hand.
She didn’t take it. “I’m Marla.” She didn’t get any whiff of bad crazy off him, or any intimation of power, either – which meant he was either an ordinary man, or strong enough in magic to hide every trace of the uncanny.
“Oh, I know. I told Glyph and the others of his tribe about you. How’s the job going, by the way?”
“I shouldn’t discuss an ongoing investigation.” She looked him over. “Glyph told me a god recommended me.”
“Yes.” Still calm. But crazy could be very calm under certain circumstances.
“Reva’s your name? Can’t say it rings a bell. I’ve heard of Pele, and Lono, and Uli, and – ”
“Oh, they’re all much greater than I am. I’m the sort of god only a hipster could love – so obscure, almost nobody’s ever heard of me.”
“I always thought the big gods were sellouts anyway. So what exactly are you supposed to be the god of?”
“I was the god of a little island in the Pacific, far from here – far from anywhere, really. Not many people lived there, but there were enough inhabitants to kindle me into specificity, to expect the local power to have a mind and a personality, and so draw me into being. I lived a simple life of storms, and fishing, and births, and deaths. But, alas… my island sank.”
“Wait, what? You mean sank? Like Atlantis?”
“Atlantis was a great city. My island was little more than a village and some trees. But, yes. It sank. That happens sometimes. Volcanic activity. Earthquakes. Land rises, land falls.”
“Huh. So all your worshippers died?”
“Oh, not that many. Most just left. Islands don’t sink overnight. They departed, and left me behind. I found myself a genius loci with no loci, or no worshippers anyway.”
“Isn’t that a death sentence for a god?”
“Eh. Not necessarily. Belief is a factor in the birth of gods – some gods, anyway, sometimes. Others seem to exist because the universe needs them to exist. Those gods were around before there were people, though they’ve come to resemble people more and more over the years, at least in some of their aspects. I mean the big gods – sea gods, storm gods, like that.”
“The god of death.”
Reva nodded. “That’s another one. But smaller gods, yes, we emerge from raw magical power, taking on specific forms based on the beliefs and expectations of our worshippers. But that belief just starts us going, like crumpled up newspapers are used to start a fire. After it’s started, the fire can continue burning long after the original source of fuel is gone – as long as it can find something else to keep it going. So, with my home and original purpose gone, I had to find another niche.”
“And more worshippers to consume, oh burning bush?”
“All right, the fire metaphor was ill-chosen. I do not consume my followers. Nor do I look for sacrifices. Since I became a wandering, displaced god, I became the god of wanderers and the displaced. Exiles, and the homesick, and the expatriate. I’m the god of people who aren’t from around here – wherever ‘here’ might be.”
“Uh-huh. No offense, but I don’t get a real godly vibe off you.” Marla squinted, letting Death’s gift of true seeing fill her. The man before her wore no illusions – he was just what he appeared to be.
Reva nodded. “Good. That means it’s working. When I come to a place, I like to take on a shape that conforms to local norms – this body is perfectly human and quite unremarkable here, as it should be, even though I made it from dust and sand and dead animals and sea salt. Everything is just atoms, after all, and it’s trivial to assemble the atoms this particular way. Just be glad I didn’t appear as a loudmouthed middle-aged sports fisherman instead. That shape would fit better on the Big Island anyway.”
“Yeah, okay, whatever. I’m not in the market for a new god, anyway, so you can take your pitch elsewhere.”
“Oh, Marla Mason. You’ve lost heart, haven’t you? Lost your purpose, along with your home. A man once told me, ‘a person needs a purpose like a car needs a driver.’” Reva rose, brushing sand from the seat of his shorts. “I’m already your god, Marla – because you are an exile, and far from home. I’m not asking for worship or tax-deductible donations. Just know that, when I can, I help my people.”
“What makes you think I want your help?”
“I know you don’t want it.” Reva began to walk south along the shoreline, and called after him: “But I also know you need it.”
Marla watched him until he was just a speck in the distance, then flopped back on the sand to look at the sky and the clouds. Maybe he really was a god. She’d met enough of them, more than most people ever did – maybe some god-stink had rubbed off on her, attracting others.
Someone cleared his throat discreetly, and a flash of anger rushed through Marla. Godsdamnit, couldn’t she have a few minutes alone to contemplate her mortality and think about who she might have to kill to stay alive? And what she’d do with herself if she did manage to survive? And if it was even worth bothering to survive?
“What is it, Pelham?” she said, calm as calm.
“Your husband appeared in the grocery store where Rondeau and I were shopping. He is now waiting at the bookshop.” Her valet paused. “He told me to let you know he has bad news.”
“Of course he does. Why ruin a perfect streak?”