Rondeau had, remarkably, never needed to make small talk with a god before. “What do you do for a living?” and “Which kind of massage do you like better, hot stone or shiatsu?” seemed like fruitless lines of inquiry. But Pelham was off looking for Marla – it was weird that the god hadn’t managed to show up where Marla actually was, but presumably Death didn’t need to be omniscient about anything except maybe actuarial tables – leaving Rondeau here alone with one of the more powerful personifications of an impersonal force in the universe. Probably better to keep mum, but Rondeau had a pathological aversion to silence, so he had to say something. He settled for, “So, did you find that dead guy? The one who got murdered?”
“Mmm? Yes, I spoke to Ronin.” Death sat in a soft, red leather armchair beneath a light-filled window. He looked like something from a Renaissance painting (specifically the sort of portrait commissioned by wealthy and amoral merchants). Death must have brought the chair with him, or conjured it into existence, as the chairs that normally furnished the bookshop were straight-backed and wooden. Rondeau hadn’t actually seen the chair appear, but that was Death’s whole modus operandi. He insinuated himself. By the time you started wondering where he’d come from, he was already in place.
“Ronin,” Rondeau said, leaning against a bookshelf. “Something about that name has been bugging me, it sounds familiar. It’s Japanese, right? Wasn’t there a movie called Ronin?”
“I wouldn’t know. But yes, the man was born in Japan, though that is not his given name – he chose it.”
“Right. I don’t know much about Japanese mythology. Ancestor worship and stuff, right? What kind of hell, or heaven, or whatever, do they favor?”
“Once upon a time, Japan had some interesting visions of the afterlife. The ten judges of Hell, and the old hag Datsueba, who would rip the clothes from your back as you passed by – and if you weren’t wearing clothes, she would rip off your skin.” Death took an art book featuring pictures of the moon from the shelf and began flipping through it idly as he spoke. “Many Japanese are quite secular now. The religious ones tend to be Buddhist or Shinto, and Shintoism eschews the issue of death almost entirely – they leave that for the Buddhists. But neither faith is known for its rich and complex visions of the afterlife. Nirvana for some, or the purgatory of the bardo, followed by reincarnation – which does happen, sometimes, it’s very strange, and I don’t entirely understand it, but I usually don’t interfere. Nothing of the original personality seems to remain when a soul is reincarnated and returns to Earth. It’s more like… recycling a plastic bottle into a plastic bag. The raw material is the same, but the end product is quite different. When those people die again, and come back to me, they’re like a wholly different soul.”
“Huh. So is this Ronin in the reincarnation queue?”
“Oh, no. His spiritual inclinations lay in a different direction, and his afterlife is… rather more unique. I never cease to be amazed by the heavens and hells people conjure for themselves. Ronin made himself into a sentient ocean on a watery planet. I had to create a boat of reeds and papyrus and ply his waters for a while before he noticed me, and even then, it took a while before he consented to talk to me. I could have made myself into an asteroid and smashed into his surface, and really gotten his attention, but… he was so beautiful. Blue and vast. I couldn’t bring myself to do something so crass. Besides, there was no hurry. Time in the eternal realms functions differently from time in this world. Things are much slower down there.” He sighed. “That’s part of why waiting for Marla to die is so tedious – ”
“Wait,” Rondeau said, standing up straighter. The moment he spoke he realized he’d just interrupted Death, but, shit, too late now. “So you’re telling me everybody gets to create their own afterlife?”
Death shrugged, closing the moon book on his lap. “People get what they expect, mostly, or what they think they deserve. Very few realize they’re the ones creating the afterlife they live in – shaping the raw magic of my realm into appropriate shapes.”
“Huh. So the bad guys come to bad ends because deep down they know they deserve it? But there are plenty of evil people who don’t think they’re evil.”
“So, what, they just get to cavort in the corpse gardens of Pedophile Island or whatever, happy and depraved for eternity?”
Death shrugged. “Sometimes. And why not? It’s not as if rehabilitation or punishment really matter – occasional reincarnation notwithstanding, eternity is eternal. It doesn’t matter if the souls are reformed, or tormented. They can’t hurt anyone while they’re locked in the palaces of their own imaginings – every figure they conjure is an aspect of their own selves. Anyway, when freed from the pressures of the flesh, and the poison of bad brain chemistry, people can be remarkably different, and some very nasty folk have felt profound remorse for their actions in life. Still, as someone who once dabbled in cruelty and later saw the error of my ways, I… occasionally intervene, and try to bring a certain amount of moral clarity to the truly repellent souls. But you’d be surprised how seldom it’s necessary. Most people realize, on some level, when they’ve done unforgivable things.”
“But if I ever manage to die, you’ll totally hook me up, right?” Rondeau said. “I mean, I assume I’m an immortal psychic parasite who wears human bodies like you wear pants, but I’m not a hundred percent sure. You can’t know the unknowable and all that. I could die someday.”
“I doubt you’ll have any trouble in the underworld.” Death leaned forward. “Although, if you’d like to make sure, I’d be open to making an arrangement. Not just limited to the pleasures of the afterlife, either – I can make sure your days on Earth are pleasant beyond your imagining.”
Rondeau frowned. “I’m… pretty rich, and just as bone idle as I’d like to be already.”
Death snorted. “You can afford to live well on a nice island, Rondeau. But I could give you the wealth to buy your own islands, and the influence to rule them, and the power to shape them to your whim.”
Rondeau licked his lips. He knew, instinctively, that he wasn’t the kind of person who should be trusted with reality-altering powers. But he was exactly the kind of person who found them very tempting. So: why was Death trying to tempt him? “I’m guessing this would be more in the nature of a transaction than a gift?”
“I wouldn’t ask for much,” Death said. “Only, if there comes a time when you could do something and save Marla Mason’s life, or do nothing and let her die, I’d ask you… to choose nothing.”
Rondeau whistled. “You want me to betray my best friend?”
“I suppose you could put it that way,” Death said. “But you’re free to say no. The fact that you’re almost certainly immortal is one of the reasons I’m willing to ask you this – there’s no implied threat, you see, since I can’t take your life. Still, I hope you consider the option. Marla would never know, after all – your failing to act in time to save her would hardly strike her as unbelievable. You often fail to act in a timely fashion, don’t you? It’s not as if dying would be the end of Marla – she’d ascend to her goddesshood, and begin her truly important work.” Death sniffed. “Not that investigating murders isn’t important, I suppose, but from my point of view, one more dead person is hardly anything to get worked up about.”
“Thanks for the offer, really, but I think I have to pass.” Rondeau wanted to go crawl behind the counter and hide. This was Death; he wasn’t human. He didn’t get humans. If you wanted to be technical, Rondeau wasn’t a human, either, but he’d lived as one long enough to get a pretty good handle on the subtleties.
“No, no, don’t decide now, mull it over. Dream about the kind of power I could give you. I’m not asking you to raise a hand against Marla, I’d never ask you that – but not raising a hand? Just… standing by? All I’m asking you to do is… nothing at all, at the right time, if the situation arises.”
“Seriously, I – ”
“Do not answer.” Death’s voice was like an ice gale, freezing Rondeau’s words in his throat. “Just… act, or do not act, as the circumstances warrant.”
“Okay,” he croaked.
Death rose and strode over to Rondeau, putting a hand on his shoulder. It was like being touched by a marble statue: heavy and cold. “I’d appreciate it if you kept this conversation between us. I want what’s best for Marla, that’s all, but I don’t think she would understand. If you saw someone you loved wasting their life on trivialities, when you knew they could be doing much greater things, wouldn’t you want to steer them toward greatness?” His face was long, pale, and earnest; his eyes lively and bright; but all Rondeau could imagine was a void behind those eyes, an everlasting blackness. Eternity was eternity. As far as Death was concerned, everything before eternity was just a waste of time.
“I’m, uh, a pretty big fan of trivialities.” Rondeau resisted the urge to squirm away from Death’s touch. “String together enough trivialities, and you’re talking about something pretty substantial.”
“Disappointing.” Death let go of Rondeau and spun around just as the door to the bookshop opened. “Marla, darling! I come bearing news from the worlds below.”
“Anything useful?” Marla entered, followed by Pelham, and she sat right down in the chair Death had vacated. She looked worried, and thoughtful, which was a nice change from the way she’d mostly looked lately – namely, bored and pissed-off.
“Alas, I have little to report.” Death sat on the arm of the chair, putting his hand on Marla’s shoulder, prompting her to roll her eyes. “Ronin declined to tell me who’d murdered him.”
“What, he doesn’t know?”
“He knows – he just doesn’t want to say. He informed me it was none of my business.”
“But you’re Death,” Rondeau said. “It seems like his murder would fall under your jurisdiction.”
“He disagreed, and politely asked me to leave him to his eternity. So I did.”
“Don’t you have some kind of kill-o-vision you can access to see the dirty deed done?” Marla said. “I thought you were present at the moment of every death.”
“I am present for every death the way a bank is present for every credit card transaction, my love. In a highly-distributed, extremely abstract, and basically impersonal fashion. Oh, I sometimes make a personal appearance, if the deceased interests me particularly, but that’s a rarity. Don’t pout, Marla.”
She shruggled his hand off her shoulder. “I don’t pout. I’m not pouting. I’m fuming. You’re telling me there’s no way you can find out who murdered Ronin?”
“Marla, I’m Death. Of course I could find out, if I expended the effort. But Ronin asked me not to do so, and I am granting his request.”
“You’d favor some dead guy over your own wife?”
“I’m not just the god of Death, Marla – I’m the god of the dead. One of my subjects made a reasonable request, and I see no reason to deny it.”
“You want me to have to do this the hard way, don’t you?”
“It is lovely to see you interested in something again, I admit. Be honest. Did you take this case because you have a burning desire to see justice done, or because you thought investigating a supernatural murder would be interesting?”
“You know me well enough to know the answer to that one.”
Death spread his hands. “Then where’s the fun if I just tell you who killed Ronin?”
“What, it’ll mean more to me if I earn it? That what you’re trying to say?”
“Hmm. I suppose so.”
Marla sighed. “I prefer to be the one teaching people lessons, Mr. Mason. You’d do well to remember that in the future. But, fine, point taken. If you’re not going to help me, beat it. I’ll see you at my funeral. Which won’t be for a long time, so don’t get excited.”
Death stood. “Before I go, I wanted to give you this.” He slipped the silver ring off his right hand and held it up. “You lost your cloak – and good riddance to the vile thing – but I hate to think of you with only one artifact in your possession.”
Marla grunted. She still had a magical dagger that could cut through anything physical and many things that weren’t, including ghosts and astral bodies; it was an exact replica of the dagger of office she’d had as chief sorcerer of Felport, and it was also a gift from Death. Being married to a god had advantages, Rondeau had to admit.
“What is it?”
“A wedding band.”
“Well, yeah. What’s it do?”
“Again – where’s the fun if I just tell you?”
Marla actually smiled. “Ha. Fine. I never read instruction manuals anyway. It won’t kill anyone it touches, will it? Give me that much of a heads-up.”
“No touch of death,” he said. “I have to reserve some of my powers for myself.” He kissed Marla on the forehead – if Rondeau had ever tried doing that, Marla would have kicked his balls up through his ribcage – and then left, this time walking out the actual front door.
Marla squinted at the ring, shrugged, and slipped it into her pocket.
“Are you going to wear that?” Rondeau said.
“I put on a wearable artifact once before without knowing what the hell it did,” Marla said. “And that cloak eventually dumped an ocean of shit on my head. That’s not a mistake I’m going to make again.” She shook her head. “Never get married, gentlemen. It’s a peculiar institution.”
“So what now, Poirot?” Rondeau said. “Since the shortcuts failed us, what? We take the long way around?”
“I guess we go investigate.” She began pacing up and down the room and talking to herself while Rondeau lounged and Pelham worked on reorganizing the bookshelves according to some arcane system of his own. “So,” she said. “Let’s look at the evidence. I haven’t made plaster casts of any footprints or taken any fingerprints, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have any clues. The murderer is someone powerful enough to deploy supernatural forensic countermeasures, to shroud their identity even from one of Rondeau’s oracles. Ronin doesn’t want to give up the killer, which maybe means it’s someone he wants to protect, for whatever reason. So what’s that tell us?”
“You need a violin to play or some cocaine to inject or something,” Rondeau said. “Your pacing around is making me tired.”
“It’s obviously someone in the magical community,” Pelham said, without looking away from his work. Rondeau wanted to ask if he was sorting by the Dewey Decimal or the Library of Congress system, but since he didn’t actually know what the difference was, he didn’t bother. “Any murder investigation would start with the victim’s closest associates, wouldn’t it? If a woman dies, you look at the husband. If a child dies, consider the parents.”
“You mean he might have been killed by one of the other surfers? Huh, maybe, but I get the feeling they’re pretty closely bound-up together – it’s hard to imagine one of them could do the dirty deed without the others finding out. Still, it’s worth looking into.”
“We could see if there are any ex-surfers, too,” Rondeau said, getting into it now. “After all, where there’s a group, there’s usually an outcast.”
“Ha.” Marla paused for a moment, then tromped on, up and down. She was going to wear a groove in the hardwood if she made a habit out of this. “Speaking as an outcast, I can sympathize with murderous impulses. So that’s a good idea. We’ll ask our clients a few questions. Not that I can necessarily believe anything they say – for all I know they’re a cult worshipping dark sea gods and practicing human sacrifice…” She snapped her fingers. “Rondeau. Get in touch with the Bay Witch, would you? Call Hamil, he can reach her. She knows these guys, but she’s not of them anymore, so maybe she’ll have some insight.”
“Insight? From Zufi? Maybe if her brain worked even remotely like a normal person’s…”
“It can’t hurt to ask,” Marla said. “Come on, we’re working our contacts here, this is good. Probably worth asking some of the other magic types in the area about Ronin and the rest of the wave-mages, too – try to get an objective sense of the group.”
“Do you know many people in the local magical community?” Pelham asked. “Is there a chief sorcerer here?”
Marla shook her head. “I don’t know if they were ever all that hierarchical, but things are extra messy around here now – we told you about that lunatic hunting and killing other sorcerers not too long ago, turning them into sharks and letting them drown in the air? He left a lot of holes in the local scene, or so I understand. I only really know one of the kahunas.” She sighed. “Guess we’d better go see her. Arachne. She lives way the hell on the other side of the island, just off the road to Hana. I’m not up for that shit tonight. What do you say, Pelham – how about tomorrow morning we go for a drive?”
Pelham, of course, felt like doing whatever Marla wanted – and people thought Rondeau let Marla push him around. At least he wasn’t, like, genetically engineered to be enthusiastically obedient. “That’s enough work for one day,” Marla said. “I’m going to take Pelham to get some seafood, Rondeau. You coming?”
“I’ll catch up with you,” Rondeau said. “I should call Hamil about the Bay Witch before it gets too late in Felport.” After they left, Rondeau went into the office and sat down behind the desk. He took out his phone and dialed Hamil, Marla’s old consigliere back in Felport, and asked him to pass on a message to Zufi.
Hamil agreed without asking too many questions, then said, “How’s Marla doing?” in his bass rumble.
“She’s staying alive,” Rondeau said. He asked after a few of his acquaintances in Felport, trying to sound casual, hoping Hamil wouldn’t realize there was only one name on the list he really cared about. After he hung up, he sat for a few minutes looking at the scythe-shaped letter opener on Marla’s desk, sighed, and then dialed another number. It rang half-a-dozen times before being picked up.
The voice said, “I didn’t expect to hear from you.”
“Yeah,” Rondeau said. “Hamil told me you were, you know, all recovered. After everything that happened.”
A chuckle. “I’m good as new.”
“I’m glad to hear it. The reason I called is… you know that counseling you gave me when I was all broken up after Bradley Bowman died? You really helped me out a lot, gave me some great advice. Some pretty heavy shit is going on here, and I don’t really have anyone I can talk to about it, so I was wondering… does that doctor-patient confidentiality thing we had still apply?”
“Of course, Rondeau,” Dr. Husch replied. “Tell me your troubles.”