16. Things Are Never So Bad They Can’t Be Made Worse

“We have walked a mile. Literally a mile. Where are our rooms?” Marla paused by a piece of ornamental sculpture to tighten her shoelaces.

“Well, yeah,” Rondeau said. “It’s like a sixty-acre resort. We’re in the tower farthest from the lobby, unfortunately. If we hadn’t gotten here so late, we’d be able to take the train, or a boat, but since we had late check-in they’ve stopped – ”

Marla stood up, scowled, and continued walking. “This is a hotel with its own train line. It’s a hotel with canals. What am I doing here?”

“It’s big, there are a lot of people, it’s on the coast, and it’s exactly what you asked for.” Rondeau was cheerful. “Plus, I know you love complaining, and I figured this place would give you lots to complain about.”

“It’s very beautifully landscaped,” Pelham offered. “And some of the artwork is quite exquisite. But, yes, it has a certain…”

“Disneyland vastness,” Rondeau said. “There actually is a Disney resort on Oahu, but I figured that might be pushing Marla a tad too far. But basically this is a family-friendly place, you can come here, stay a week, and never even leave the hotel grounds. It’s got like ten pools, and entertainment, and there’s a lagoon where they truck in fresh sand every morning – ”

“A fake beach,” Marla said. “In Hawai’i.”

“The coast right around here’s really rocky,” Rondeau said, reasonably. “I mean, you’d have to walk half a mile to get a nice sandy beach. I’m pretty sure the sea turtles and fish in the snorkeling area aren’t actually animatronic, if that makes you feel any better.”

“I’m not a big fan of the rustic experience,” Marla said. “You know that. The whole ancient Polynesian culture thing doesn’t excite me too much either, though I like their war clubs.” Her Samoan club was nestled in one of the suitcases even now. “But a grass shack on the beach, even though that would be depressingly close to nature, would be preferable to this manufactured, artificial… extruded hospitality product. It’s too neat, too clean, too fake, too orderly – ”

“Ah ha!” Rondeau said. “What’s that last word?”

“Orderly?” Marla said. She paused, then said, more thoughtfully, “Orderly. Really? You did that on purpose?”

Rondeau stopped to sketch out a little bow. “I do sometimes have reasons for the decisions I make, you know. Not always, but. We’re going to fight a chaos magician, and this place is all about the orderliness, the schedules, the cleanliness, the high gloss. All stuff that will salt Nicolette’s game.”

“All right,” Marla said grudgingly. “That’s pretty good.”

“There are also service tunnels,” Rondeau said. “Running all underneath the resort, so the guests never have to see the thousand employees it takes to keep this place in operation.”

“Okay,” Marla said. “Tunnels, I like.”

“They’ve also got a dolphin lagoon,” Rondeau said. “I fucking love dolphins. And it’s only two hundred bucks to swim with one, you believe that? A steal.”


“Ah, there’s our antimancer,” Elsie said.

“Good,” Nicolette muttered. “Maybe he can carry some fucking bags.”

For reasons known only to herself – maybe for the same reasons God was such a dick to his loyal servant Job – Elsie was heaping ever more abuse on Nicolette. Besides taking an apparent shine to Crapsey, which was the surest route to annoying the younger chaos witch, she’d also ordered Nicolette to carry everyone’s luggage, and as a result, she was heaped with two partially-overlapping backpacks, a messenger bag slung across her front, and the handle of a rolling suitcase in her one hand. With her buzzed hair and paint-spattered jeans and t-shirt, she looked like a furious art-school sherpa. They made an odd group overall: Jarrow in the lead, head held high, long red hair streaming behind her, heels clicking on the smooth airport floor; Crapsey in his increasingly rumpled pin-striped suit following at her heels and having unpleasant flashbacks to accompanying the Mason in similar fashion; Talion in his black leather, looking even more ridiculous given the morning heat and humidity here; Nicolette stumbling and snarling and dragging her burdens after him; and Jason bringing up the rear, no doubt thinking about making a break for it, but never quite mustering the courage to try. They all paused to allow a greeter, presumably from the Hawai’ian tourist board or something, to drape them all with sweet-smelling leis and say, “Aloha, welcome to Maui.” Talion took it with exceptionally bad grace, and Nicolette groaned, presumably because even the weight of a couple dozen flowers on a string was an unwanted addition to her considerable burdens. The necklace fit in nicely with the half a dozen other chains she wore strung around her neck, all festooned with beads and charms in various sizes, shapes, and colors – since she couldn’t wear enchanted items in her hair anymore, she’d resorted to wearing them around her neck, and she clattered like a dice cup when she walked. Elsie kept joking that Nicolette must have flashed her breasts a lot at Mardi Gras to get so many necklaces.

Christian Decomain leaned against a pillar by the curb, dark eyes watching them approach from behind his chunky Clark Kent glasses. He was a small, compact man, with short dark hair, dressed in a studiedly nondescript black-jeans-black-button-down-shirt way that actually made him stand out amid the crowds in their vacation-wear casuals. He held up a sign that said “Jarrow & Co,” and Elsie waved at him jauntily. “You must be Leda’s friend!” she said, voice warm and welcoming as an old friend’s embrace.

Christian folded up the sign and tucked it into his back pocket, looking them over with a frown. “And you’re the famous Elsie Jarrow. Dr. Husch told me you’re… no longer ill.”

Jarrow beamed. “I am entirely cured, Christian – may I call you Christian? My antisocial tendencies have been eradicated utterly, and I’ve dedicated myself to making amends for all the nasty little things I did. Starting with the capture of that dangerous renegade Marla Mason.”

Christian nodded. “I’ve heard of her, of course, even up in Portland – she was the youngest chief sorcerer ever, apart from the boy-king Jack Shaffly, but he was a conscious reincarnation, so he doesn’t count.”

Elsie wagged a finger. “You’re forgetting the Bellingham triplets!”

“They were a tripartite soul,” Christian pointed out. “Three life experiences, one mind, so really, you have to combine their ages – they were really forty-eight when they took over.”

“You’re such a bright one!” Elsie patted his cheek, and Christian flinched away – no surprise, Crapsey thought. This was the woman they’d called Marrowbones, after all, ostensibly cured of her bad craziness or not. “Do you have a car for us?”

Christian gestured to a dark blue van parked at the curb. “Minivans aren’t really my thing, but I thought for such a large group… I got one that can seat eight, if we don’t mind getting cozy, and there’s a roof rack for the luggage.” He paused. “I figured we might want to keep the back storage area free for, ah…”

“Bundling Marla up in a sack? Good thinking.” Elsie turned. “Nicolette! Get the bags up on top. Oh, fine, you’d think I was making you eat whole lemons from the look on your face. Jason, you help her, hup hup. You can drive, too, Jason.” She leaned in toward Christian, conspiratorially. “Jason here isn’t a sorcerer. He’s not much good for anything, really, but he’s Marla’s brother, so we thought he might be able to work some of that old family magic, talk her down from her manic arc of destruction, calm her enough for us to scoop her up and get her back to the Blackwing Institute for therapy without a struggle.”

“It’s a shame. From what I heard, she was so promising.” Christian shook his head. “But I guess it was too much pressure for her, and she couldn’t handle it. She really lost it, huh?”

“They say she was turning people into sharks.” Elsie tapped her temple with one finger. “And just letting them drown in the air! That doesn’t sound like a rational actor, does it? Paranoia, schizophrenia, posttraumatic stress disorder, who knows? Dr. Husch will handle the diagnosis. We’re just in charge of bringing her in.”

“This is… quite a crew for a simple apprehension,” Christian said. “Who are the others?”

“Oh, just my entourage,” Elsie said. “Talion does security, don’t you, my good boy? And Crapsey here is an all-purpose lackey.”

“And Rondeau’s brother,” Crapsey offered.

Elsie snapped her fingers. “Ah, that’s right! You see, Marla has some misguided friends who don’t want to see her committed. They’re in denial, you know, poor dears, classic enablers – especially her old right-hand-man Rondeau. We’re hoping his long-lost brother Crapsey can talk some sense into him. Though Marla also has a loyal-beyond-all-reason manservant named Pelham, and maybe a wayward god or two.”

Christian widened his eyes but didn’t say anything, and Elsie went on blithely. “So having Nicolette – that’s the one-armed one, you can’t miss her – around to throw some trinkets, and Talion to bite people, grr, and so on, is just us being on the safe side. Can you suppress all the magic in a given area?”

“Mostly, but it depends on how many sources are involved,” Christian said. “And the force of the will directing the magic. I can dampen or dispel or counter pretty much anything a mortal sorcerer throws at me, at least for a few minutes, but it’s like pressing against a door with a horde trying to force their way in – it takes effort and energy on my part, too. But I should be able to render Marla inert long enough to tranquilize her.”

Elsie stepped close to him, so close his face was practically tucked up against the hollow of her throat, and appeared to smell his hair. “Do you think you could stop my powers from working?”

“I could,” Christian said. “Not for long, but, yes. I’ve made a study of your powers, Ms. Jarrow. Dr. Husch consulted me when your cell was constructed.”

The chaos witch stepped back, all smiles again. She was looking less and less like the Mason, Crapsey realized. It wasn’t just the red hair and lipstick, or the fact that she smiled a lot – the structure of her face was actually changing, the cheeks rounding, the nose becoming more snub, and, yeah, her boobs were getting bigger, too. Elsie was making this body into a replacement for her own. Crapsey wondered if she was even conscious of the transformation. “All loaded?” she called.

Nicolette, huffing, tied down a last bit of rope, pulling the knot tight with her teeth. “All set.”

“Then I’ve got shotgun,” Elsie said. “Who knows the way to Lahaina?”

“There’s a GPS in the car,” Christian said. At her blank look, he cleared his throat. “Ah, global positioning satellite? Basically a computer that communicates with a satellite, so it knows where we are all times, and can give us turn-by-turn directions to get wherever we’re going.”

Elsie looked up, as if she might be able to see one of those satellites – and who knew? Maybe she could. “The world is getting so small, isn’t it?” she murmured to Crapsey. “Where are the wild places anymore? I really must do something about all this when we’re finished with Marla.”

Before Crapsey could come up with an answer, Elsie was climbing into the minivan, so he got in the back. Christian and Talion sat together in the very rear, so he had to sit next to Nicolette in the next row of seats. She looked at him with eyes so filled with hate she’d probably weep cobra venom if she started to cry.

Jason, who hadn’t said a word since they deplaned, drove away from the airport, following the soothing directions of the GPS as Elsie chattered at him happily about the first time she’d come to Hawai’i, which had apparently involved a horrible fire at a luau, and how she’d lived in a place down by the beach for a while. “You know, a lot of people think a sorcerer named Felix invented the spell commonly known as the Scream of Felix. Not so! That was me! Felix Garcia was my roommate. But, yes, it was his scream. You could have swept up what was left of him in a dustpan, poor dear, but he never left wet towels on the bathroom floor again…”

Nicolette leaned toward Crapsey, close enough he was afraid she’d bite his neck. “Why the fuck does she like you?” Nicolette hissed in his ear.

“I think it’s this body,” Elsie said, turning around in her seat and staring. Nicolette squirmed uncomfortably under the gaze. “I hear everything, you should know that. I hear things you haven’t even said yet. Crapsey was the most trusted companion of the last inhabitant of this body, and you have to understand, even though I’ve taken over, I’m still dealing with a lot of the original architecture. The brain locked up in this skull has certain ingrained pathways, and I just feel comfortable with Crapsey.”

“But the Mason was friends with me, too,” Nicolette objected. “Or, okay, not me, exactly, but the version of me that existed in her universe.”

“Yeah, but she never liked you – or your counterpart,” Crapsey said. “She said you were first on the list of people she expected to betray her. Now, everybody in the world was on that list somewhere, even me, but you were right at the top. That’s why she kept you close – you knew about chaos magic, which was actually kind of a danger to her, since she was so rigid and order-obsessed.”

“So I’m working with those same mental grooves,” Elsie said cheerfully. “I look at you and think: venomous bitch. What can I do?”

“But I worship you,” Nicolette said miserably.

“Yes!” Elsie nodded rapidly. “It’s super pathetic!” She turned around and began playing with the radio.

“Just… maybe don’t try so hard.” Crapsey kept his voice low, even though he knew it didn’t matter. “I think she respects people who are, you know. Tough.”

“But you’re totally spineless,” Nicolette said, glum and slumped. “And she likes you.”

“Yeah, okay, but I’m naturally spineless,” Crapsey said. “I’m not faking it. The whole adoration thing – it doesn’t exactly fit naturally on you. You’re a badass, Nicolette. You nearly killed Marla yourself once or twiceif she hadn’t had the cloak, she would have died, and now, she doesn’t have the cloak.” It was weird trying to reassure Nicolette, but it was even weirder seeing her depressed and sulky. He wouldn’t have been able to imagine her this way a few days ago – it would have been like imagining a brooding bonfire, or a depressed avalanche.

She perked up. “Yeah, that’s right. I could totally kill Marla now. That would probably impress the shit out of Jarrow – ”

Christian cleared his throat behind them. “Ah, but we’re not going to kill her, I mean, we’re here to get her help. Right?”

“Naturally,” Crapsey said. “We’re just, you know… trying to be prepared. Obviously you try to cure the rabid dog first, but you have to be prepared to put it down if it’s a matter of self-defense – ”

“There is no cure for rabies,” Talion said, voice dripping with scorn. “Not after symptoms begin to appear.”

“You would know, wouldn’t you, dog-boy?” Nicolette said.

Crapsey smiled. Nicolette was defending him. That was something. “Huh,” he said. “I didn’t know that. I mean, where I’m from, there’s not really a cure for anything. If you step on a rusty nail you pretty much just die. Measles, whooping cough, whatever. I thought you guys had cures for everything.”

“Where are you from?” Christian asked, bewildered.

“Never mind that,” Elsie called from the front seat. “Nicolette, you should call Talion dog-boy again. Or Rover, things in that vein. That’s the sort of behavior that could rewire my brain’s pathways in your favor.”

After a few more miles of banter, snippiness, complaining, and sniping, Jason finally spoke: “This is Lahaina.” Crapsey looked out the window. Cute little touristy town, right down by the water, the main street lined by buildings with wooden facades housing gift shops and restaurants and tiny art galleries. There were lots of slow-moving cars and tourists, the latter ambling aimlessly across the paths of the former with impunity. Their van crawled past a park dominated by a majestically sprawling banyan tree, and Jarrow hmmmed. “Pull into this next lot. Our contact is here.”

Jason managed to find a spot only halfway back in the packed public lot, and they all piled out of the vehicle. “Is it okay to just leave the luggage up top – ” Crapsey began, but Elsie just waved her hand, and all the luggage vanished, instantly transported inside the van.

“If you could load the van with the wave of your hand,” Nicolette said through gritted teeth, “why did you make me climb up on the fucking roof?”

“Hard work builds character,” Elsie said absently, then brightened. “There he is! Oh, Sam! Here we are!”

A man with sad hound-dog eyes, wearing a gray suit, emerged from the shadow at the side of a two-story building. He looked around, frowning, and twisted a fedora in his hands. “Who’s Sam? I don’t understand any of this.” The man’s eyes darted from side to side. “Who are you people? And what’s with all the funny-looking cars? Is this one of those futuristic pictures, a Flash Gordon sort of thing? I think I need to talk to the director.”

Crapsey looked around at his fellows, who were staring at the newcomer, all of them wearing expressions of confusion or disbelief. “What? Do we know him?”

“That’s… he looks exactly like Humphrey Bogart,” Christian said. “The way he looked in the ’40s, in all those movies…”

“Oh,” Crapsey said. “Right. Where I’m from, we didn’t really have much in the way of movies. There were a lot of electromagnetic pulses, so most of the players were fried, and electricity was spotty anyway.”

“Remind me to never visit wherever it is you’re from,” Christian said. He raised his voice. “Ms. Jarrow, what is this?”

Elsie stamped her foot. “Disappointing, is what this is.” She gestured at Bogart, who looked torn between running away or throwing a punch. “This is our skinshifter, Gustavus Lupo. He can imitate anyone, perfectly. I thought maybe I could tweak him a bit, mess around with his mind and make it possible for him to imitate fictional characters. How wonderful would that be, if he could turn into, oh, I don’t know, Willy Wonka, or Conan the Barbarian, or Hannibal Lector? Fictional characters have so many more obvious applications than real people do. I thought it would work – fictional creations are naturally simpler than actual real people.” She looked around. “Except maybe for you, Nicolette, and you, Talion. But I thought the premise was sound! I was hoping to get Sam Spade, the private eye, but instead, I got the actor who used to play him… . Oh well.” She took a deep breath. “Mr. Bogart, I presume?”

“Sure, that’s right, and who are you?”

“You know how to whistle, right, Bogey?” Elsie said. “Just put your lips together, and…” She puckered her lips, but she didn’t whistle: it was more like blowing out a candle flame, and when she did, Bogart shimmered, fedora vanishing, and the figure before them became somehow… undifferentiated, like they were looking at him from behind a pane of distorting shower glass. “This is the closest thing to a ‘neutral’ form he’s got,” Elsie said. “Kind of calls attention to itself, though, doesn’t it? We can do better. I sort of miss Dr. Husch though, so…” She snapped her fingers, and the figure trembled, then became the good doctor – but with her dark blonde hair worn loose, and dressed in dark sunglasses, a clinging yellow-tank top, extremely brief denim shorts, and strappy sandals. She looked around in alarm.

Elsie jabbed Crapsey in the rib with her elbow. “You like her outfit? I did that for you.”

“You’re a generous soul,” Crapsey said.

“What’s the meaning of this?” Lupo snapped, crossing her arms and scowling. “Jarrow, how dare you teleport me against my will? For that matter, how did you manage to – ”

“I didn’t,” she said. “Come on, Doctor. If I could pry you out of Blackwing, you know I would have done so first thing. You’re not you. You’re Lupo, imitating you.”

Lupo took off her sunglasses, narrowed her eyes to glare at Elsie, then sighed. “Oh, wonderful. Not only do I have to be here with you, I also have to live with the knowledge that my entire sense of self is false, and that even this provisional consciousness could cease to exist at any moment. That’s just grand.”

“I totally missed you too,” Elsie said, linking arms with Lupo, much to her apparent dismay. “Let’s go break into Marla’s office and put her in a straitjacket for her own protection, what do you say?”

15. In Flight

“It’s time to get ready for war.” Marla leaned against the counter in the bookshop and surveyed her troops, such as they were: Pelham, nervous because of his little betrayal; Rondeau, who was more-or-less paying attention; and Reva, who was here only because he wouldn’t go away. The wave-mages had promised to lend their support when it came to actually apprehending Nicolette, so that was something. Normally, Marla wouldn’t have worried. She could beat Nicolette with one arm tied behind her back (which, given Nicolette’s recent loss of limb, would be only fair), and her brother wouldn’t exactly be able to con her again – she was wise to his deceit now. But Death had seen a likely future where she was dead, so it might be best to proceed with caution. Once upon a time she’d had sufficient self-confidence to believe she could defeat any challenge, but that was before Bradley Bowman got killed, and she got exiled. She was still going to fight… but maybe she wouldn’t charge in with nothing but her knives and a well-honed sense of outrage anymore.

“What do you propose?” Reva said.

“Step one is to get the hell off this island. Death saw me being killed on a beach on Maui – so I might as well change that first. I’m going to stay in Hawai’i – just on a different island. I want to deal with my enemies, not run away, but I’d rather choose my own ground.”

“So you want someplace nice and secluded?” Rondeau said. “Away from the ordinaries? There are some islands that are pretty much uninhabited, actually, we could dig in and – ”

Marla shook her head. “Nope. Flip that 180 degrees. If I’m in some isolated bit of tropical paradise and Nicolette and Jason and some hired thugs come to kill me, nobody local is going to care – it’s just a bunch of haoles killing each other. But if I’m in a nice populated area, and some nasty magic users show up and start behaving in a way that’s threatening to civilians, then the local kahunas are going to take an interest. Just like when I was running Felport – if people came into the city itself and started making noise, I shut that shit down quick. But if people wanted to run wild in the hinterlands outside my area of interest, what did I care? I don’t have the kind of support system I used to have, but if possible, I’m going to piggyback on the local system. I’ll sneak inside the local beehive and let their drones protect me.”

“So… we’re talking about human shields, basically,” Rondeau said.

Marla scowled. “That’s not the way I’d put it. I don’t think Nicolette is going to start lobbing fireballs through a hotel lobby – I know she likes chaos, but there’s a lot of big old magic and tough badass kahunas in these islands, and she knows she wouldn’t get away with that kind of assault, not without dying herself. Besides, I’ll let you pick a nice resort for us to hole up in – how’s that sound?”

“In that case, might I suggest the big island?” Reva said. “The most powerful sorcerers in Hawai’i live there, and the place has certain other properties that might prove useful.”

Marla pointed a finger at him. “Listen, godlet. Just because you’re helping me doesn’t mean I’m going to join up with the Church of You once this is all over. Understood?”

“You are already one of my people, Marla. I don’t demand that you become a follower explicitly. I’m a god who takes care of you even if you’ve never heard of me.”

“I wish I hadn’t,” she muttered. “Rondeau, hop on the computer and make some arrangements, the way we talked about. Someplace on the Big Island, near the water in case we need help from the surfers on short notice, ideally not too close to volcanic activity just to be on the safe side – chaos magicians are fans of fire – but otherwise, please yourself. Pelham, come with me. We’re going shopping.” She cracked her knuckles. “It’s been ages since I did any enchanting. I had people to do that sort of thing for me back in Felport. It’ll be good to get my hands dirty again.”

Rondeau snorted. “Yeah, that was always your problem – your hands were too clean.”


The Marla Mason Revenge Squad breezed them through security with ease, Elsie providing fake IDs made of scrap paper and dead leaves, and cloaking them in an illusion of normalcy so thorough that none of them even got pulled aside for secondary screening. Nicolette, who was pretty good at tricking computers into doing her bidding, had gotten them all first-class tickets on a direct flight to Oahu, so they were the first ones on board, stowing their carry-ons and sinking into the luxurious seats. A couple of other people tried to get seated in the section, but Elsie made them hallucinate emergency phone calls, and they went running off the plane, leaving the whole front cabin to her own people.

Nicolette had booked herself the seat next to Elsie in the left-hand front row, but the older witch shook her head and told her to change places with Crapsey. Nicolette sullenly sat down beside Jason, who did his best to appear engrossed in a SkyMall catalog. Talion sat by himself, obsessively touching the places on his face where his piercings had been. Crapsey sat down beside Elsie – she got the window seat, naturally – and tried not to think about whether she was actively carcinogenic at the moment.

Elsie put a hand on his knee. “Cheer up, evil twin. I have a surprise for you. The Mason enchanted your prosthetic jaw, isn’t that right? So you could bite through steel and eat hot lava and things like that? And there were other spells, too, laid on the jaw, things that could affect your whole body, transform you in various ways.”

Crapsey massaged his chin. The Mason had ripped his jaw off when he was just a little kid, and later fitted him with a magical carved wooden prosthesis, decorated with intricate runes, though just now the jaw was glamoured to look like ordinary flesh. “Yeah, but she was the one who controlled the spells, not me.”

Elsie tapped the side of her head. “The host body still has some memories rolling around in here, and guess what: I made a list for you.” She passed him a slip of paper with a dozen seemingly random words jotted down. “All the controls were attached to this body, too, so: I hereby give you ownership of your own face. Those are the trigger words. Just be careful not to use one of them in casual conversation, or you might end up biting someone’s head off. Literally.”

Crapsey blinked. “That’s… thank you, Elsie, this means a lot. But which keyword does what? There’s no guide here.”

Elsie nodded. “I know! Trial and error is so entertaining! But don’t worry, I didn’t include the keyword that makes your jaw self-destruct, so don’t worry about stumbling across that one. Unless you accidentally just say it, like in the course of ordinary conversation, but it’s a pretty obscure word, I wouldn’t worry. Just don’t go reading the entire dictionary aloud, and maybe refrain from taking up metallurgy as a hobby, or at least talking about the field too much.”

Crapsey winced, nodded, and folded up the paper, slipping it into his pocket. He’d never much liked it when the Mason invoked his jaw’s powers – it just reminded him of how he was damaged and weird and altered – so he was content to put the note away for now.

The flight attendants came by and checked their seat belts, and the plane took off soon after, more or less on time. Soon after they were airborne and settled in for the twelve-hour flight, the attendants took requests, and everyone asked for and received booze.

Crapsey poured his tiny bottle of Scotch over the two ice cubes in his plastic cup. He sighed. “Look, it’s none of my business, but Nicolette made me promise I’d ask you – why don’t you just get rid of Doctor Husch and be on your merry way?”

“I can’t say I like having strings attached to me.” Elsie tipped her head back and loudly gargled the contents of a miniature vodka bottle before continuing. “But it’s not that easy. Husch, while she’s inside the Blackwing Institute, is pretty much unassailable. She’s wrapped in all the same defenses the building is. She’s not an extension of the place, exactly, but she’s definitely sheltering in its protection. A lot of that protection was designed especially to thwart little old me. Now, give me a couple of years to raise hell and get my power levels up – or hand me the right lever to pry Husch out of her fortress, where she’s exposed and vulnerable – and it’ll be a different story, but for now, every chain in the place leads to Husch, and I’m on one of her leashes. Besides, you wouldn’t want me to be free – you want me to kill Marla, right? And I wouldn’t have any reason to bother with some exiled sorcerer if Husch wasn’t making it a condition of my parole.”

“I don’t really mind Marla,” Crapsey admitted. “It’s her friend Rondeau I hate, mostly.”

“Differing agendas are so delicious. I eat them up like tasty tasty cake. There’s nothing I love more than cross-purposes and conflicts of interests, except maybe tornadoes made of screaming glass.” She patted Crapsey’s knee. “You know, you only hate Rondeau because you wish you had his life.”

“And here I thought I hated him because I used to be able to take over anybody at will, until he trapped me in this one body like a bug in a bottle.”

“Nope, it’s that thing I said. But don’t worry, we’ll hurt Rondeau too, I don’t mind. I can do a two-for-one special.”

Crapsey gestured toward Talion. “If you don’t mind me asking, why’d you bring him onto the team? Just to increase complexity? More of those agendas and cross-purposes?”

“Having someone who hates me and will betray me at the first opportunity is nice, of course, but there are practical considerations, too. We’ve got yours truly, a master imposter, a confidence man with a personal connection to Marla, a born lackey with a magical jaw and the power to Curse – that’s cute, by the way, little primal burps of chaos, I like it – and a one-armed wannabe chaos magician with an axe she doesn’t know how to use. What we don’t have, or rather didn’t have, is a straight-up fighter, someone who can take the kind of punishment I hear Marla likes to dish out, and give as good as he gets. Magic’s all well and good, but Marla’s a face-puncher, a nose-breaker, a hamstring-cutter, and an ass-kicker by all accounts, so it might come to fisticuffs. Especially since I have another recruit waiting for us in Oahu.”

“Another old friend of yours?” Crapsey said.

Elsie shook her head. “No, actually. Dr. Husch knows him. His name’s Christian Decomain, and he’s an anti-mancer.”

“Which means… what?”

“He negates magic. He’s a counterspell expert with an suppressive aura. Get close to him and spells fizzle, psychics lose their special insight, and levitators fall out of the sky. He’ll be fun to have around. Of course, he thinks of himself as a good guy, so Dr. Husch had to tell him that Marla was having a psychotic break and threatening to destroy the Hawai’ian islands. He thinks we’re just going to take her into custody, for her own good. It’ll be fun to put him next to Marla, then let Talion try to beat the crap out of her.”

“But when this Decomain guy realizes that we’re not just trying to capture Marla…”

Elsie nodded. “Fun, right? He’ll be super pissed. I’m not sure how that’s all going to work out, since I can’t mind-control him, but we’ll improvise. You’ve got a knife, right?”

Crapsey nodded.

“Good. If Christian gets out of line, I’ll need you to stab him in the neck. Negating magic means he can’t use magic to protect himself, so unless he’s wearing a suit of armor, he should be vulnerable to a direct attack.” She reclined her seat and closed her eyes. “Don’t let anyone disturb me, Crapsey dear.”

“I thought you didn’t sleep?”

“I don’t. I’m going astral projecting. Who needs an in-flight movie when you can travel invisibly anywhere on Earth?”

“What are you planning on going to see?”

“I’ve been locked in a magical cube for years,” she said. “What do you think? I’m going to go watch famous people have sex.”

Crapsey had no idea whether she was telling the truth or not, and wasn’t sure he wanted to know. He called for another drink.


“I think that’s everything.” Marla slipped Death’s bell into her pocket, careful not to let it ring. “The other things we need we can pick up on the Big Island.” She looked around the suite Rondeau had rented for her, trying to make sure she hadn’t forgotten anything, though she was less concerned about leaving a hairbrush than leaving, say, a jar of cursed seawater or an enchanted nene feather.

Pelham had emptied his steamer trunk, the glamoured bedsheet now an ordinary piece of fabric again, and Marla had filled the space with those magical and practical supplies she’d managed to scrounge up that afternoon: glass vials full of rarefied airs, a box of precisely shattered pocketwatches, hatpins with blood crusted on the points, and other nice things.

Rondeau let himself in – there was no way to keep him from having a key, despite Marla’s best efforts. “You guys almost ready? I booked us in at a resort on the west coast of the Big Island, and I got us on a plane tonight. It’s only about a twenty-minute flight, and we’re good for late check-in.”

“Three rooms, right?” Marla said.

“Two connecting, one across the hall, though they all have two double beds. I like to have one bed just for jumping up and down on, so – ”

“Not this time. You and Pelham can share a room.”

Rondeau raised an eyebrow. “You need two rooms?”

“I do,” Marla said.

“Then why didn’t you tell me to book four rooms – ”

Marla shook her head. “Three rooms, three people, it makes sense. When Nicolette and company come looking for us, I want them to see exactly what they expect to see. If we had four rooms, they’d wonder what the other one was for. Trust me on this, Rondeau. We’re about to get into a fight. I’m good at those.”

Rondeau raised his hands in mock surrender. “Fine, you’re the boss. Oh, wait, no you’re not, you’re, like, my ward – ”

Marla put her hand on his shoulder. “I know. And I’m sorry if I’m still acting like I have a right to tell you what to do without explanation. So: that extra room is going to be filled with traces of me, my clothes, bits of my hair, a little bit of my blood. I’m going to disguise my presence in the other room, and that fake room is also going to have some really nasty magical traps primed, so if anyone comes in unannounced, following a divination and looking to grab me, they’ll get something more unpleasant instead. Which reminds me, we’d better keep the ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign on that door at all times. I’d hate to spring a nest of shadow snakes on housekeeping. Okay?”

“That kinda makes sense,” Rondeau said. “But I still don’t see why you get your own room and I have to share.”

“Boys in one room, girls in the other. It’s traditional. Plus, I’m probably going to be doing a lot of enchanting, and that means weird smells and sounds and lights. You don’t want to be in there with me. You’re here as my friend, Rondeau, not a guy on my payroll. I know that, and if I ask too much of you, I’m sorry. I hope you know I’d do the same for you, if you needed it. ”

He sighed. “I know. Just be ready. I’m going to get myself into some hellaciously big trouble and make you bail me out of it pretty soon, just to keep the balance right in our relationship.”

“I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” Marla said. “Now help Pelham carry that trunk, would you?”


Reva sat next to Marla on the flight to the Big Island, unpleasantly close due to the narrow seats on the little puddle-jumper aircraft. “I love the windowseat,” Reva said, once they were airborne.

Marla, who was the one actually sitting in the windowseat, grunted. She didn’t offer to switch places. She was over the wing anyway, so it wasn’t like the view was that great, but it was the principle of the thing.

“Looking down on the world, seeing the shape of the land, it’s like being a god.” He chuckled in an extremely annoying fashion. “Trust me. I should know.”

“Water looks like water whether you’re ten feet above it or ten thousand.” Marla looked out at the wing, wishing for a gremlin to appear, “Terror at Forty-Thousand Feet”-style, because hitting something would do her good, and dealing with a supernatural incursion at high-altitude posed some interesting tactical problems. Then again, she shouldn’t make wishes like that – with Pelham on board, there was a non-trivial chance the admittedly gremlin-like Nuno could appear at any moment. With all the chaos of solving a murder and preparing for war, they hadn’t had time to try a ritual cleansing to get rid of his infestation yet.

After a too-brief interval of silence, Reva started up again: “I hope you won’t hold Pelham’s little lie against him. He was just doing what he thought was best – ”

“I don’t hold it against him,” Marla said. “I hold it against you. The whole stupid plan to give me a fake murder investigation was your idea, and I know gods can be convincing. Pelham’s not the most worldly guy, despite all his traveling – he still has a bad habit of taking people at face value and thinking the best of them.”

“I do mean well, Marla – I want to help you find a new home, or adjust to the lack of a home, and at the very least I want to keep your enemies from killing you.”

“That’s why I’m not kicking up a fuss about your company – because I could use some extra firepower. Though I’m wondering what you can do exactly. Why are you even on this plane? Shouldn’t you be able to fly to the Big Island or something?”

“And miss the pleasure of your company?” His quirked smile was almost cute, but only almost. “When I take on a human form, like this one, I take on certain human limitations. Like the inability to fly. I could give up the body, and regain greater powers, but I find it easiest to deal with people when I’m being people. It makes me… think more like a human. When I’m fully a god, not using a human brain to do my thinking, not subject to the glandular passions that govern humankind, everything is a bit… cold. Abstract. Impersonal. The difference between being in the water, or thousands of feet above it. I don’t like that feeling. This is better. Besides, I’m not without resources – I have a certain degree of magical ability, and as Pelham told you, I have the power to… interact at a primal level with the mind of anyone who considers herself out-of-place or away from home. Your assassins aren’t likely to be local, so that could be useful.”

“Mind control, huh? How… godly.”

A flash of irritation crossed his face. “Again. It’s not. Mind control. It just makes people receptive to bargains, and I’m always careful to give more than I get. You have a history of meddling in people’s lives, too.”

“Yeah, but I’m a person, so it’s different.” She yawned. “Anyway, you’re going to have to get your own hotel room. I didn’t book one for you.”

“Oh, don’t worry, I don’t expect you to give me accommodations. All it takes is one clerk or concierge who isn’t a native Hawai’ian, and I’ll be staying in a better room than you are.”

“Sounds like mind control to me,” she said, and put on a pair of headphones before he could object again.

14. Jaws

“This is very Hawai’ian!” Marla shouted into the wind as the convertible cruised down the highway, a longboard poking up out of the back seat next to a visibly miserably Jon-Luc. “Wind in my hair, salt in the air, a song in my heart, and murderers to catch!”

“Have you ever surfed before, Mrs. Mason?” Pelham said.

“No, but I’m good at everything, so I’m sure it’ll be fine.”

It was hard to tell, with the wind and all, but she thought Jon-Luc groaned from the backseat.

The drive took about an hour and a half, plenty of time for Marla to prepare various strategies, even though she knew, when the time came, she’d probably just improvise. How often did a detective end up telling their client: “I think I know who did it. I think you did it.”

Eh, maybe it was pretty often, at least in books. She’d have to ask Rondeau when they got back home. He’d read more mysteries than she had.

Jon-Luc directed them down a paved side road, and told Pelham to pull over just before it turned to dirt – or, more accurately, mud. “It rained recently,” Jon Luc said. “I wouldn’t try driving any farther. There’s no parking or anything there anyway, it’s all undeveloped land. It’s only a mile or so. We can walk it.”

The muddy road ahead was lined with the burned-out hulks of derelict cars. “What happened here?” Marla said. “Demolition derby?”

Jon-Luc shook his head. “People tried to block access to the beach years ago. They dragged cars across the way, and even dug trenches, so you couldn’t drive this way without getting stuck. The old cars got moved out of the way, but there’s still a lot of junk around. Technically, all the beaches in Hawai’i are public land, but…”

Marla nodded. “Rich assholes trying to make it a private party for themselves, huh?”

Jon-Luc shook his head. “Not this time, not exactly. See, Jaws is the best place to surf on the island, if you know what you’re doing – and I mean really know. I wouldn’t even try it myself, I’m not good enough yet. You get sixty-foot waves out here sometimes. But when the surf gets really big, tourists and posers and kuks all flock down, get in the water, and screw things up for the serious people. Back in 2004, it got really bad, and a few people got hurt, so some of the really well known big wave riders complained. After that, people took steps.” He nodded toward the wrecked cars. “It’s sort of an invitation-only spot now. I mean, you can get there, if you’re willing to hike, but… you might not find the best reception.”

“Ah, but you’re inviting us, right?”

“I guess so.” He didn’t sound happy about it. That was okay. Marla wasn’t that invested in his happiness.

“So, we walk from here?” Marla said, climbing out of the car.

“Unless you’ve got an ATV in the trunk,” Jon-Luc said.

She looked at Pelham, just in case. He cleared his throat. “Alas, no, ma’am.”

Jon-Luc carried the board she’d rented, balancing it on top of his head as they walked around a burned out Chevelle. “You can’t actually go out on this board,” he said.

“Why not?”

“I heard you say you’d never even surfed before. This isn’t the place to start, okay? The water will just destroy you, it’s carnage, it’s chaos. You can’t even really paddle out into the waves – people do tow-in surfing, they get a jet ski to pull them out to the right spot so they can catch the waves. The surf is biggest in the winter, and – ”

“Is that what Glyph and the Glyphettes do?” Marla asked. “Tow-in?”

“No, but they’re different. They’re magic.”

“Me, too,” Marla said. She hadn’t actually been that interested in trying to surf before, but if someone was going to tell her she shouldn’t, that changed everything. They squelched along, avoiding the mudpits as best they could, occasionally walking on the shoulder, where their legs were whipped by knee-high grass. Finally they crested a hill, and Marla finally got a view of the cliffs leading down to the ocean. A few jet skis bobbed on the water, but it wasn’t the frenzy she’d been expecting. “Doesn’t look so scary to me.”

“Water’s not doing much today,” Jon-Luc said. “That’s how it is sometimes. Getting here’s a pain, and there’s not much point if there’s no big surf – most people will just go over to Ho’okipa and surf the Middles. On certain days, though, when you get waves taller than a building, you’ll see people lined up along these cliffs, watching… it’s unreal.”

“So why aren’t your tribe at Ho’okipa, if it’s better today?”

Jon-Luc shrugged. “They don’t care as much about big waves. They like them, don’t get me wrong, but they’re in the water every day, whether the surf is high or not. They say the ocean always whispers, but this is a place where the ocean shouts. They come here to listen.”

“Preserve me from mystics, Pelham,” Marla said. “If I ever start communing with giant chaotic systems, lock me up for my own safety.” They followed a rocky trail down to the beach, such as it was – this clearly wasn’t a place you came to set up a volleyball net or sunbathe or grill a few hot dogs. It was mostly cliffs and reefs and pounding waves, with a handful of people in wetsuits milling around. Jon-Luc handed the board to Pelham, who took it with relatively good grace, then ran down to the sand, waving, and calling out the names of his friends – “Leis! Ryan and Josh! Mad Gary! I brought the detective!” The surf-hive welcomed him warmly with embraces and shoulder-pats, then all their heads swiveled to look at Marla.

“I don’t see Glyph,” Marla said. “Do you – wait, you haven’t met him.”

Pelham nodded. “I have not had that pleasure.”

Marla squinted out at the water. “There, on that wave, I think that’s him surfing.”

It wasn’t much of a wave, and Glyph didn’t look too excited about it – from this distance, at least, he looked like a guy standing around at a dull cocktail party, hoping the cute waitress with the shrimp puffs and the short skirt would come by again soon. Then, for no apparent reason, he lost his balance and fell off the board, disappearing under the waves. Marla joined the hive on the beach.

“Marla Mason,” a dark-haired man – he was either Ryan or Josh – said politely. “How is your investigation progressing?”

“Not bad, I have some leads.” She shaded her eyes and looked out in the water. She saw Glyph’s board, rolling in on a wave, but not the man himself. “I just wanted to ask Glyph a few questions. Are you guys sure he’s not drowning?”

“He won’t drown,” Ryan (or Josh) said, and the others chuckled. “We’re drown-proof. I’m not sure why he went off the board. He must have seen something interesting underwater – ” The man frowned, then shook his head. “That’s… strange. He broke his connection with me.”

A chorus of “Me too” rose up from the half a dozen surfers on the beach, and they all hurried toward the water, suddenly alarmed. Marla followed. Glyph’s board bobbed in the water a few yards out, not floating all the way in to shore for some reason, as if anchored. Jon-Luc and the others waded out, grabbed the board, and began feeling around in the water for something.

“The board tether,” Pelham said, pointing. One of the surfers pulled on the bright yellow cord trailing from the end of the surfboard… and after a few moments, they found the ankle it was attached to. The wave-mages lifted their comrade out of the water and flopped his body onto the board, then began walking it in to the shore.

Before they reached the sand, Glyph’s body was already melting, his flesh crumbling like wet sand, his blood appearing briefly red before going the clear of seawater, and the other mages wailed and sobbed and scooped up bits of his deliquescing body, only to have it run through their fingers and into the water.

“Well, hell,” Marla said. “So much for that theory.” The surfers came out of the water and sat on the sand, staring blankly at one another, in shock or quiet communion, Marla couldn’t tell which. She waited a respectful interval – respectful for her – then said, “You all saw that, didn’t you? His throat?”

“A shark,” one of them said. “There are shark attacks here, sometimes…” He subsided.

“I don’t think so,” Marla said carefully. “Unless it’s a shark with thumbs, and a knife. His throat wasn’t ripped out. It was cut. I saw it, before he…”

“Returned to his mother,” a freckled redhead said. She blinked. “Is this… do you think…”

“It’s the same person who killed Ronin?” a blond man said. “The cut, it was the same kind of cut, he was killed in the same way…”

“Is this all of you?” Marla said. “The whole family, tribe, crew, whatever?”

They nodded, all in unison, even Jon-Luc. Damn it. So much for the inside job theory, unless Glyph had cut his own throat to throw off suspicion, which was a pretty extreme tactic. Besides, the way he’d fallen off the board, it was like something had pulled him under. The killer might still be out there, under the water, but if it wasn’t one of these people, who was it? “I think we have to proceed on the theory that whoever killed Ronin also killed Glyph,” Marla said finally. “And that could mean all of you are in danger.”

“You think someone wants to kill us?” Jon-Luc said.

“It’s a possibility,” Marla said.

“I understand why you think that.” Reva approached from direction of the road, and Marla narrowed her eyes at him. She never liked it when gods showed up unannounced. “But there’s something you don’t know.” He took a deep breath. “I’m the one who killed Ronin.”

Marla was on him in an instant. She kicked his legs out from under him, and then knelt down on his chest, holding the dagger Death had given her against his throat. “I didn’t think you were the type to go in for human sacrifice,” she said. “So why’d you do it? And why kill Glyph?” She frowned. “And why tell Glyph to hire me?”

“I did not kill Glyph,” Reva said, as unperturbed as if he didn’t have an angry sorceress pinning him to the ground at all. “That’s my point. It wasn’t the same killer. If you’ll let me up, I’ll explain.”

“Ha. Like that’s going to – ”

A moment of blankness passed over her, or rather, she passed through it, and in her next instant of awareness she was sitting in the sand, in a circle with all the other sorcerers. Reva was on his back in the center of the circle, and Pelham was standing over him, the unsheathed length of a sword cane pointed unwaveringly at the god’s throat. “Are you with us, Mrs. Mason?”

“I, uh – the fuck?”

“Reva has the power to control the minds of any of ‘his people,'” Pelham said. “Anyone who feels they are an exile, or otherwise away from home, is susceptible to his powers.”

“It’s not mind control,” Reva said, though now he sounded a bit annoyed. “It’s just a form of direct communication, stripping away all niceties, talking to the deep down true parts of a person.”

“His power does not work on me,” Pelham said, “for I am home, which is to say, by your side, Mrs. Mason. But, alas, it does work on you. He used that ability to stop you from questioning him so sharply. At least, he attempted to. I stopped him.”

“I am a god, you know,” Reva said. “What do you think this is going to accomplish?”

“I know that you prefer to use physical bodies,” Pelham said. “I know that destroying this body will inconvenience you. And I assume you are capable of feeling pain.”

“Fine,” Reva said. “I’ll explain. I wanted to explain, anyway, I just didn’t want to do it with a knife at my throat.”

“And look how well that turned out,” Marla said. “Don’t you ever try to mess with my head again, little god. There are things more powerful than you, and some of them owe me favors.”

Reva sighed. “If I can sit up? No? Fine. I only meant to help you, Marla. I could see you were bereft, without hope or purpose. I knew you were attempting to become a detective, without much luck. So I thought… I might help you get a case.”

“This is true, Mrs. Mason,” Pelham said, still keeping his eyes firmly fixed on the supine god. “I regret to admit that he discussed this plan with me some weeks ago. I met him during my travels – he was in a different form then, a different body – and he said I should rush to your side, and assist you. He said he had a plan…” Pelham shook his head. “I am sorry. I should have told you.”

“I see. Tell me about the plan.” There was enough frost in Marla’s voice to kill a thousand crops.

“Ronin wanted to die,” Reva said. “We were friends – he’s one of my people, he never got over how much he missed his home in Japan, never felt at home anywhere else, not really. He lost faith in the ocean, and he was going to kill himself. I told him there was a way his death could help another exile, and he agreed to let me stage a murder.” Reva sighed. “That’s why you couldn’t find any traces – I am a god. After I cut his throat, as per his request, I covered my tracks. Then I talked to Glyph and the others, and told them they should hire you, and that you could find the killer.”

“You set me up with an unsolvable case? Just busywork to keep me occupied, like a bored housewife doing crafts or something? And these people, you fucked with them, too, with their minds, with their grief? What’s wrong with you?” The surfers nodded their heads in unison.

“Ah, not unsolvable, I thought you’d figure out it was me eventually, I hoped that you’d understand what I was trying to do – ”

“Gods,” Marla said, disgusted. “You’re like children putting bugs in bottles, shaking them up to see what they’ll do.”

“I believe he did mean well, Mrs. Mason,” Pelham said. “Though his methods are questionable.”

“So why murder Glyph, then?”

“I didn’t, like I said. Someone else did, the same way I killed Ronin, and I have no idea why.”

Marla rolled her eyes. “Why should I believe you? How do I know this isn’t another fake mystery, one set up to seem real?”

“What can I do to convince you?” Reva said. “There’s been a real murder here, one that you should investigate – these people actually do need justice now, it’s not playacting anymore, it’s serious!”

“Huh. Jon-Luc, the rest of you – what do you think?”

“It’s different, this time,” the redhead said. Apparently she was the new speaker for the hive. “The killing, the method of attack was the same, but last time there were no traces at all. This time… we can sense something. Look.” She scooped out a depression in the sand, while one of the others ran to scoop up a double handful of sea water. When the water was poured into the depression, it began to fizz and splash, shapes forming in the foam. The redhead said, “I see… spinning roulette wheels. Butterfly wings. A double pendulum. Three spheres, circling one another, orbit decaying. An apple – ”

“Chaos magic?” Marla said.

The redhead nodded.

“What’s your name?” Marla said.

“Call me Leis,” she said.

“Ah, a bride of Poseidon,” Pelham commented. “Very clever.”

“How do you know I’m not actually her?” Leis said.

“She was Greek, and you appear to be mostly Irish,” Pelham said politely, still holding his sword to Reva’s throat.

“I know a chaos witch,” Marla said, bowing her head and staring at the sand. “There was a prophecy, I guess you’d say, that she was coming to the island. I didn’t think – why would she do this? Just to mess with me, I guess, to disrupt my investigation, to amuse herself. I’m sorry. Glyph dying – it’s my fault. One of my enemies, trying to get at me, hurt one of your friends.”

The surfers exchanged glances in that eerie way they had, then Leis shook her head. “You are not at fault. You didn’t hold the knife. Life is unpredictable. The waves push some of us together and push some of us apart. You can’t blame yourself. Might as well blame Reva, for telling us to hire you.”

“That’s not a bad idea,” Pelham murmured.

“Or blame the sea, for sinking Reva’s island, and making him a wandering god, so long ago,” Leis went on. “No, we blame the actor, the one directly culpable. And we wish her brought to justice. Do you think you know the killer, Marla Mason? Then we ask only that you bring her to us.”

“Nicolette,” Marla said. “Her name is Nicolette.”

“Can I get up now?” Reva said. “I’ve finally got this body broken in, and I don’t want to start over with a new one.”


Elsie appeared in the middle of the office, sopping wet and grinning, bringing with her the mingled smells of blood and salt. Dr. Husch started squawking about her ruining the carpet, and Crapsey said, “Did you fall off the island?”

The witch sat down on Husch’s loveseat, the cushions making a squelching noise, and said, “I had a little talk with Lupo. Well, he thought he was Marla’s old murdered mentor Artie Mann, dragged back to life and enslaved by my will, but anyway. He did some spying for me, listened in on a little lunch date Marla had, where she was playing detective.” Elsie rolled her eyes. “I found out where Marla was going, and who she suspected of committing the dastardly crime she’s investigating, so I thought it would be funny to get there ahead of her and cut her prime suspect’s throat. Isn’t that the way it always happens in detective novels? The PI thinks they’ve figured everything out, and they go to confront the bad guy, only to find him headless and stuffed in a closet? I love a good plot twist.” She tilted her head and tugged on her earlobe, apparently trying to shake some water out. “My victim was a surfer, out in the water, so I got to play shark attack with him. Death from below! Fun, but damp.”

“So was the guy you killed really a murderer?” Crapsey said.

“Don’t know, don’t care, don’t know why you’d bother to ask,” Elsie said crisply.

“Because it would be interesting if you turned out to be a tool for justice, I guess?”

“If a murderer gets hit by a garbage truck, that’s not justice. It’s not even karma, despite what some people want to believe. Remember, kiddies: Stuff Just Happens. Trying to figure out why will make you crazy.”

“I did not release you so that you could kill innocent people,” Dr. Husch said, sitting behind her big desk like a judge presiding over a particularly disappointing trial.

“Thpt.” Elsie stuck out her tongue. “You can’t make an omelet without stabbing a surfer in the neck. Not any kind of omelet I’d like to eat, anyway. I might have to send a few more people to the bottom of the sea before I’m done, Doctor Prettyface. Besides, maybe that guy really was a villainous killer, did you think about that? Either way, if you’re so upset – are you calling me off?”

Husch sighed. “No. Try to keep collateral damage to a minimum from here on out, would you?”

Elsie shrugged. “We’ll see, won’t we? Anyway, between the dead people wandering across Marla’s path and this sudden exciting development in her investigation, and the grim foretellings of oncoming doom that Rondeau told Dr. Husch about, I’d say Marla’s pretty well softened up. It’s time we got the whole gang over to the islands, I think, and moved on to phase two of Operation Murderkill.”

“I don’t guess we’re chartering a plane, are we?” Jason said miserably from his seat in the corner.

“Nah,” Elsie said. “I thought it would be more fun to steal one.”

“I thought you were planning to teleport?” Nicolette said. “Not that I’m complaining, but – ”

“Here’s the thing,” Elsie said. “Teleporting is like setting off a flashbang. It’s noisy, magically speaking, when you rip gaping holes in the flesh of the world. When I do my little moving-the-Earth thing, that’s quiet, almost undetectable. I know Marla’s on edge now, so if she’s got any sense, she’ll be on the lookout for intra-dimensional incursions. I teleported Lupo over, and if Marla starts sniffing around, she’ll find a trace of that, and a little divination will tell her that two people came through. According to what Rondeau told the good doctor, Marla thinks Jason and Nicolette are the ones coming to kill her. So – let her think you two are the ones who teleported, why not? We’ll travel by more conventional means and then, boom, element of surprise, a whole crowd when she expected a duo. I doubt she’s watching the airports. Everybody pack a bag, we’re leaving in half-an-hour. I’ve got my eye on a nice redeye flight we should be able to mind-control our way onto.”

“Uh, all my shit is at the apartment Nicolette and me rented,” Crapsey said. “I haven’t changed my shirt in two days – ”

“You can steal new shirts from the corpses of your slain enemies,” Elsie said. “Really, do I have to think of everything?”

13. Everyone Is Someone’s Dog

Elsie Jarrow stepped out of a rip in the flesh of reality, dragging a blindfolded man after her by the arm.

“Jesus Christ,” Jason Mason said, pulling the black scarf down off his face. “What the hell was that? When you said you knew a shortcut I thought – ” He looked around the assemblage in the office, then took a step back, almost bumping into Dr. Husch’s desk. He pointed. “You look just like Rondeau.”

“Come on,” Crapsey said, striking a pose and flexing. “Why you gotta insult me? I’m way more buff than that weedy little shit.”

“This is Crapsey,” Dr. Husch said. “You might think of him as… Rondeau’s brother.”

Jason didn’t look reassured. “Look, I don’t know what you heard – ”

Elsie patted him on the shoulder. “Don’t worry, Jason, Crapsey doesn’t mind that you shot Rondeau right in the guts and left him for dead, do you, Crapsey?”

“Ha. I just wish I could’ve seen it.”

Jason twisted around and stepped away from Jarrow’s touch. “Left him for dead? You mean Rondeau didn’t die? How could he have survived that?”

“Magic, man.” Crapsey shook his head. “We’re all tough to kill. Which is why we’re going to have to try extra hard to make sure Marla gets dead and stays that way. Oh, and Rondeau, too, we’ll get another shot at him, he’s with your sister.”

“This isn’t really my scene.” Jason ran his fingers through his hair. “I don’t really do killing, except when it’s unavoidable. Don’t get me wrong, I’d sleep a lot better if I knew Marla was buried six feet deep – hell, make it ten – but I don’t know what I’m doing here.”

Jason looked like Marla, sort of – same strong features, a little angular, but while Marla fell a bit short of pretty, Jason was well over the line into handsome. Crapsey could see how he managed to charm desperate middle-aged women out of their life savings and family jewels, but he was nervous now, and honestly, Crapsey wasn’t sure what use he’d be in their current circumstances either. But Elsie wanted him, so here he was.

“We’ll all have our parts to play,” Elsie said. “And it’s about time we got into position. I’m just waiting for one last member of our merry band to show up.”

“Who?” Husch said. “You haven’t consulted me about adding anyone else to the team.”

“That’s just one of the many things I haven’t consulted you about!” Elsie said. “Isn’t it fun?”

A buzzer sounded, and Husch went around her desk to look at her computer screen. “Why is there a man with metal in his face on my doorstep?”

Elsie clapped her hands. “That’s Talion! Oh, yay. Where’s Nicolette? I want her to meet him.”

“She’s preparing some weapons for the coming war,” Dr. Husch said. “She stole all my paperclips and rubber bands, a dish full of jelly beans, a box of pushpins, and one of my garter belts.”

“A mighty arsenal in her hands, no doubt,” Elsie said. “Well, Husch, send one of your orderlies to let our guest in, would you?”

Husch grunted and picked up her phone.

“Who is this guy?” Crapsey said.

“We used to hunt werewolves together in Europe,” Elsie said.

“You have to be fucking kidding me,” Jason muttered, shaking his head.

Elsie smiled, dimpling adorably. “This was back when I was just starting out, before I became almost godlike in my vast power. Oh, we’d pursue lycanthropes all night and fuck all day, good times. We had a little falling out about what to do with our kills, unfortunately. I wanted the teeth, claws, and eyes for my rituals, and he wanted intact trophies he could stuff and mount, so we went our separate ways. But he’s one of the best trackers and trappers I know, so I thought, who better to join our merry band of assassins?”

The office door opened, and Talion entered. He was tall, long-faced, and broody, with spiky black hair cut in an asymmetrical style that was probably avant-garde somewhere. He had enough silver jewelry in his face to melt down and make a ten-piece place setting: half a dozen rings in his eyebrows, a large-gauge septum piercing, a labret, and what looked like fishhooks dangling from his earlobes. He looked around the room, a sour expression on his jingling face, then bared his teeth; they were all capped in silver, the better, Crapsey presumed, for biting werewolves. Talion marched up to Elsie. “You,” he growled. “You dare summon me?” He had some accent Crapsey couldn’t place, but that wasn’t surprising – in his home universe, there wasn’t a lot of communication between the continents. At least the guy was talking English. “I am not your dog, and I came only to tell you I will never help you.” Talion slapped Elsie across the face so hard it snapped her head to the side.

Jason cowered behind a potted plant, and Crapsey sucked in his breath and waited for Elsie to do something truly nasty, like making the guy’s blood turn into maggots or something. Instead she just grinned, a handprint showing up in red on her cheek, and looked at Dr. Husch. “And the best part is, Talion hates my guts, and every other part of me! Won’t this be interesting?” She stroked the werewolf hunter’s cheek. “Dear boy, do you still hold all that business against me?”

“You tried to feed me to a pack of wild dogs,” he said. “I stank of dog’s blood for weeks afterward! And when I returned home to my estate, no one remembered who I was, my idiot cousin acted as if he’d been the heir forever, and everyone agreed! Security threw me out of my own home!”

“Technically not your home anymore.” Elsie’s nose crinkled adorably when she smiled. “Since I wiped every memory of your existence away, and rewrote all the records, and made it so you never were. I had a magic quill pen back then, good for that sort of thing. I wonder whatever happened to it? I vaguely recall stabbing a beauty pageant queen in the neck with it, but so much of that decade is a blur…”

“I have been wandering the Earth for years upon years,” Talion said. “Hoping for the opportunity to meet you again, and spit in your face. I’d heard you were imprisoned. I was glad. But if you are free now, perhaps I should kill you.”

“Better plan,” Elsie said. “Help me out now, and I’ll give you everything back. The estates, the family money, all of it.”

Talion lifted his chin. “I have made my own fortune since then. I do not need your gifts.”

“Even better plan, then,” Elsie said, and stuck him in the neck with a hypodermic needle. Talion staggered backward, hand clutched against his neck. Dr. Husch opened a bag marked “Biohazard,” and Elsie dropped the used needle inside. “Uh oh,” Elsie said. “Tally got a boo-boo.”

“What have you done to me?” he said, hand pressed to his neck.

“Injected you with a nasty infection, sweetie. Get ready to loop-the-loup-garou.”

Talion spat on the floor. “Fool. I cannot be turned into a werewolf. I break my fast each morning with wolfsbane.”

“That explains your breath, sweetie.” Elsie sat down on the edge of Husch’s desk. “And, you’re right, I misspoke, you’re not going to be a lycanthrope – but I hope cyanthrope is close enough?”

Talion paled. “No. No, there’s no such thing – ”

“Oh, sure there is. Not as glamorous as werewolves or even werejaguars or weretigers, obviously, but it’s amazing what someone with Dr. Husch’s connections in the supernatural medical community can track down. I almost went with were-hyena, but hyenas are too cool. So instead, you get to be a were-dog. Oh, I hope you turn out to be a sheepdog, you’ve already got the hair hanging down in your eyes, it would be perfect! Don’t widdle on the carpet, or mommy will spank.”

“This is ridiculous. I refuse to believe – ” Talion suddenly screamed, clapping his hands to his face, which – alarmingly – was starting to smoke. He tore the rings out of his ears and nose and eyebrows, howling as the silver burned his fingers, bits of bloody jewelry falling on the carpet.

“Ah, were-dogs do have the traditional silver allergy.” Elsie crouched to examine Talion as he writhed and tried to tear out his own teeth. “I wasn’t sure, but I guess cyanthropes are probably an evolutionary offshoot of werewolves, just like dogs are descended from wolves. Huh, look at that, though, all your face holes are healing up nicely, that’s a benefit, isn’t it? Would you like me to get you a wrench to smash out those nasty teeth? You should grow new ones.”

Jason sidled over to Crapsey. “This… this is so fucked up.”

“What did she do to recruit you?” Crapsey said.

“Turned my house into bugs,” Jason said. “Then threatened to turn my cock into beetles, more or less.”

Crapsey nodded. “Yeah, Talion’s got it a lot worse. Then again, he shoudn’t have slapped her.”

“Would you like another needle in the neck?” Elsie said. “I can make the pain go away.”

“Yes!” Talion sobbed. “Yes, anything!”

Elsie held out her hand, and Husch wordlessly passed her another needle. “Boys, come sit on him, would you?” Crapsey and – more reluctantly – Jason stepped forward to hold down Talion’s arms. Smoke and the smell of burning gums rose up from his open mouth, until Elsie jabbed her needle into the other side of his neck. After a moment, his writhing and jerking stopped, though he went on sobbing. Crapsey and Jason let go and stepped away. Elsie straddled Talion’s chest and stroked his face. Without all that silver piercing his skin, he looked younger, and more vulnerable. “All better, puppy?” she said. “That’s not a cure, now, it’s just temporary relief. The cure comes later – if you always heel, and sit, and roll over when I say.”

“How could you curse me?” he said, eyes so filled with tears they reflected the overhead lights like little mirrors. “I’ve devoted my life to fighting these monsters, and you turn me into – into something just as vile, but not even as… as…”

“As cool? I know. I was afraid that deep down you secretly wanted to be a werewolf – why else spend so much time around them? But nobody wants to be a were-schnauzer. Anyway, it fits that whole ‘dog’ theme you and I had going on all those years ago, with the leashes and the collars, and you remember that little cage? Super fun. So listen. This is easy. You fight a lady I want you to fight. That’s all. Pretend she’s a werewolf, it’ll be easy. If you do a good job, Doc Prettyface here will fix you up, purge all the nasty dog-o-toxins from your system, and you won’t have to sleep at the foot of my bed anymore. Deal?” She stood up, and held out her hand.

“You weren’t always like this,” Talion said, ignoring her hand and wrenching himself to his feet. “What happened to you?”

“Power corrupts?” Elsie said. “When you look too long into the abyss it also looks into you? Be careful hunting monsters, lest you become one? Ve are nihilists, ve believe in nuffink?” She shrugged. “I’m just Elsie being Elsie, baby.” She snapped her fingers. “Somebody get this man a flea collar! I have to step over to Maui for a minute and see what our advance scout is up to. Marla’s cage should be pretty well rattled by now.”

“Lupo shouldn’t be left for so long without supervision,” Husch said, but without much heat. “He’s unstable at the best of times.”

“I gave him a few disguises to wear,” Jarrow said. “Lupo’s not even Lupo right now. You worry too much. Besides – what’s wrong with unstable?” Crapsey expected her to tear another hole in space-time – that couldn’t be good for reality – but instead Elsie bowed her head, whispered a few words, then took a step, and another step… and vanished. She was using her Sufi trick, then. Must be nice, to never be more than three steps from anywhere in the world.

Crapsey held out his hand to Talion, who, after a moment, shook it limply. “Since it looks like you’re part of the team, let me introduce you around,” Crapsey said. And what a team it was. The crazy homunculus doctor, the cowardly con man, the psychic parasite with a wooden jaw, the master of disguise who believed his own disguises, the one-armed chaos witch, and a tumor with a mind. What a bunch of freaks and misfits. We’re not the Superman Revenge Squad, Crapsey thought. We’re the friggin’ Doom Patrol.


After the Bay Witch left, Marla finished her food, though she didn’t really taste it, deep as she was in thought.

“Holy shit,” Jon-Luc was saying. “The Bay Witch, wow. She is legendary. I can’t believe you know her.”

“She has been an ally of Mrs. Mason for many years,” Pelham said.

Jon-Luc frowned. “I can’t believe what she said about Glyph, though. He’s, like, the most Zen surfer I know, all about give and take, ebb and flow. I mean, killing Ronin? It just doesn’t seem like him.”

Marla patted Jon-Luc on the back. “Always expect the worst of people, kid. That way, you’ll only ever be pleasantly surprised. Tell me, are you integrated into the pod well enough to sense their location yet?” She tapped her temple. “Got that magical GPS in your head and all?”

Jon-Luc hesitated, obviously considered lying, then thought better of it. Smart kid. He nodded. “They’re at Pe’ahi – Jaws beach – on the north shore. Maui’s not the best island for surfing, but Jaws is as hardcore as it gets. We’ll find them there.”

“Why haven’t you taken the plunge?” Marla said. “Joined up full time?”

He shrugged. “I still have my mom to think about. She’s a concierge at one of the hotels. Broke her heart when I dropped out of school, but at least I’m working, you know? If I just started surfing all the time, no visible means of income…” He shook his head. “She’d get really worried. I know I want to join Glyph’s crew someday, but… . Now you’re saying one of them might be a murderer. So I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

The poor kid looked miserable. “It’s just a theory,” she said. “But I tell you what. Take me to see your friends. I’ll ask Glyph a few questions, and maybe we can clear all this up. Even if he is a bad guy, that doesn’t mean the rest of them are.”

“I just… why would Glyph hire you to find Ronin’s killer, if he was Ronin’s killer?”

Marla shrugged. “To throw off suspicion, maybe? Because the others in the hive were demanding action and he had to do something, so he figured he’d hire the dumb haole newcomer, who doesn’t know anybody or have any resources, so he can say he tried? That’s just off the top of my head.” She started to grin, saw Jon-Luc’s stricken expression, and stopped. “I’m sorry, I know this is bumming you out, but I finally feel like I’ve got this thing in my teeth. The game is afoot.” She paused. “You know, that expression never made any sense to me. What kind of game has feet? Clearly we’re not talking about poker here.”

“I understand it means ‘game’ as in ‘prey,’ Mrs. Mason,” Pelham said. “It is a Shakespearean metaphor derived from the practice of fox hunting.”

“Then I guess that makes me the hound,” she said. “People are always calling me a bitch, so why not?” She tossed some cash on the table and rose, thinking about what she’d say to Glyph. A good interrogation was almost as fun as a fistfight, after all –

Her old mentor Artie Mann sauntered out of the restaurant’s bathroom, wearing a cheap-looking aloha shirt and puffing a filthy stump of a cigar in clear contravention of all anti-smoking ordinances. And, given that he’d been dead for more than a decade, in clear contravention of natural law, too. “Do you guys see that?” she said, pointing. “That short fat bastard with the cigar?”

“A fine cigar is a gentlemanly pleasure,” Pelham said, “but that does appear to be a rather cheap and unpleasant variety.”

Right. Pelham had never known Artie. But at least he saw the guy, which meant this wasn’t simply a hallucination. Marla stepped up her vision, and, just like with Susan Wellstone, saw no indication of illusion or ghost. The dead man caught Marla’s eye, winked at her, and then kept walking, disappearing around the building and heading in the direction of the parking lot. “Give me a minute.” She hurried after him, but when she reached the lot, there was no sign of the man, except a smoldering cigar end on the asphalt. Marla watched the smoke spiral up into the sky for moment before Jon-Luc and Pelham caught up with her.

“What’s wrong, Mrs. Mason?” Pelham said.

“That fat guy was a dead friend of mine. That makes two dead people I’ve seen today.”

“Ghosts?” Jon-Luc said. “You’re seeing ghosts?”

“Oh, how I wish it were that simple,” she said.


They stopped by Handsome Bob’s, where Marla handed over a fat wad of Rondeau’s money and said, “Jon-Luc’s offered to give me a personal tour of a couple of good snorkeling spots, is it okay if he leaves work a little early?” She found people had a hard time saying no when they were being given money, and it worked out that way this time, too.

“Sure thing,” the old guy said. “Just make sure you don’t serial kill him or something, because I remember your face and your license plate and all that.”

“Understood,” Marla said. She paused. “Do you rent wetsuits? And, I guess, surfboards?”

12. Brotherly Love

Jason Mason had been laying low in Mississippi, only occasionally emerging to count cards at some of the riverboat casinos to keep himself in whiskey and cigarettes, afraid to touch any of his various bank accounts in case his sister was keeping tabs on him. Who knew what people like her were capable of? She’d killed his partner Danny Two Saints, and done her level best to kill him, and she had more than connections – she had fucking powers.

Then his mother called to say Marla wanted to talk to him. Mom tried to lay a guilt trip on him for not mentioning he’d seen his sister recently, so he gave her a line of bullshit about how he didn’t want to upset her, he knew Marla was a sore point, and all that. He wasn’t fond of his mother, exactly, but he’d never quite managed to disentangle himself from her, and anyway, she was always good for an alibi, so he kept in touch.

So now he sat in the living room of his rented Airstream trailer, parked on a scraggly lot in the middle of some bare fields, nothing for miles but crows and farmhouses and leafless trees. He watched dust swirl in the yellow light coming in through the dirty half-closed mini-blinds, smoking a cigarette, and tried to work out the angles. What was the percentage in calling Marla back? What did she want? Their recent history was even uglier than their ancient history, and now she was trying to reach out. Why, why, why? A trick, a trap, a lure?

The only way to find out was to call and ask. He gazed at the disposable cell phone in his hand, the number his mother had recited repeating itself in his head – he’d always been good with numbers, almost as good as he was with people – and thought, Screw it, why not?

Before he could dial, someone pounded on his door hard enough to make the trailer rock on its wheels. Jason slipped out of the chair, drawing his pistol, and waited.

“Avon calling!” a woman’s voice shouted, and Jason frowned. Avon? Who still sold Avon door-to-door?

“I don’t want any!” he called, rising, but keeping his hand in his gun.

The door creaked open, despite the fact that he was sure he’d chained it shut, and he squinted against the rectangle of daylight. A woman climbed the steps into the trailer and looked at him, hands on her hips, just a silhouette against the brightness.

“Lady, you aren’t welcome. Beat it.”

The door slammed shut, apparently of its own accord, but he could make himself believe it was just the wind. When his eyes adjusted to the new dimness, he raised his pistol – because for a second, he thought it was Marla, come to finish him off. She was the right height, and the shape of her face was almost the same, but her hair was wild and long and red, and anyway, she was too young, closer to twenty than thirty. Marla didn’t dress like that, either, in a scarlet silk blouse and tight skirt. The woman gave him a big goofy grin like nothing he’d ever seen on Marla’s lips, and any residual resemblance dissolved then. “Cute gun!” she said, and the voice was a bit like Marla’s, too, but brassier, and too loud for the small space. “Point it somewhere else, would you?”

“I don’t know who you are, but – ”

“I know who you are, though,” she said. “A boy who can’t follow directions.”

The gun twisted in his hand, and he shouted, dropping it – the weapon had transformed into twenty or thirty big cockroaches, the monsters the locals called tree roaches, and he wiped his hand on his shirt as he backed away, the bugs scurrying for the corners.

“My name’s Elsie Jarrow, Jason. I’m here to talk about your sister.”

Shit. Marla must have sent this woman to finish him off. Figures she wouldn’t bother to do it herself. Why had she tried to call him, though? Just to gloat?

Jarrow didn’t try to attack. She pulled over the straight-backed wooden chair set up by the “kitchen table,” a folding thing smaller than a card table, and sat down, crossing one leg over the other. “I’m told you and Marla don’t get along. Why the sibling rivalry? Is it a Cain and Abel thing, or more like Michael and Fredo Corleone? Ha, I hear you tried to shoot her, so I guess it’s the latter. Cain just used a rock. Oh, those were simpler times.”

“What, Marla didn’t tell you?” Jason had another gun, in the little built-in drawer by the bed. Could he get to it and shoot her before she turned it into a bunch of snakes or something? It was probably a longshot, but he’d beaten worse odds.

She waggled her finger at him. “Assumptions get you in trouble, Mr. Mason. Marla didn’t send me. I represent a group of people whose interests may align with your own.”

He lunged for the drawer, and she started laughing. When he pulled it open, dozens of pale white moths fluttered out, and flew straight for his closet. “I know what you’re thinking – I turned the gun into moths. But not at all! I conjured moths who eat guns. Nice, huh? Of course they eat cloth, too. They’re going to ruin your suits. But a bullet hole would have ruined this nice blouse, so it’s only fair. Listen, sit, and tell me – why did you try to kill Marla?”

Jason knew when he was outgunned, even if his enemy didn’t use guns. Better to play along and wait for an opportunity, maybe. He returned to his chair, got comfortable, picked up his tumbler of Jack and Coke, and shrugged. “It was nothing personal. Just business. Her dying would have made me some money.”

Jarrow widened her eyes in mock alarm. “You would have killed your own flesh and blood? For mere filthy lucre?”

“Sure, she’s my sister, but so what? She’s really a stranger. I went almost twenty years without seeing her, without hearing a word, and I had to track her down. Hell, she was an ingrate even when we were kids, she never appreciated anything I did for her. Then she grew up and got rich, became a big boss running Felport, and she never even reached out to me. I don’t owe her shit.”

“Blood is thicker than water, but money is even thicker, huh?”

Jason scowled and took a sip of his drink. “Doesn’t matter anyway. The plan kind of blew up in my face, and come to find out Marla’s not just a criminal – she’s some kind of goddamn witch. Like you are, I guess.”

“Some kind,” Jarrow murmured. “You killed a friend of hers, too, didn’t you?”

Jason shrugged. “Somebody got on the wrong side of my gun. It happens. Marla came at me, tried to kill me. Didn’t work. I’m not saying I don’t see her side of things, but I’m not going to go down easy. Did she send you to try and see, what, if I’m remorseful? If she could get an apology? Won’t happen. She was just another mark to me. My mistake was not realizing the kind of power she had, that’s all. If I’d known, I would have played things differently.”

“I told you I don’t work for her. I don’t work for anybody – I work for me. More fun that way. But if you keep contradicting me, you won’t like what happens next. Or did you think guns were the only things I can turn into bugs?”

Jason narrowed his eyes. “What, you’re going to turn me into a mosquito?”

“I was thinking more of turning your genitals into dung beetles,” Jarrow said. “It’s a lot more traumatic when you ruin just parts of someone, instead of outright killing them. Killing is boring. A good maiming will pay dividends for years to come.”

Jason held up his hands. Who knew what this crazy bitch could do? “Fine, okay, you’re not from Marla. So what do you want?”

“Two things: to make Marla miserable. And then to kill her. I know, I just said killing is boring, and it is, but that’s what my associates want, so I’ll go along with it.”

Jason shrugged. “So kill her. What do you want with me? I don’t know any of your voodoo shit.”

“Ah, but you have other skills, and besides, Marla probably has very complicated feelings about you. Having you on our team is going to make her distracted, and it’ll bother her, so it works for me.”

“I wish you the best of luck. Marla, dead, that’s a load off my mind. But I don’t want any part of it.”

Jarrow snorted. “This isn’t an invitation. These are marching orders. You’ll help me.”

“What if I don’t?”

“Well, I could control your mind and make you into a puppet, or even have this guy I know transform himself into your exact double, but it’s more fun if you do things of your own more-or-less free will, give or take a little bit of extortion. So: this is a nice trailer you’ve got here. Be a shame if something… happened to it.” She snapped her fingers, and the walls began to shimmer and groan, then exploded outward in a cloud of millions of small gray birds, leaving only the floor intact.

Jason tilted his head back and watched as the birds rose up into the sky, clotting together into a flock and then flying off toward the west. A cold autumn breeze blew across the fallow fields around him, making him shiver. Ha. Like it was just the wind making him do that. He was lucky he hadn’t pissed himself. No way he was getting back his security deposit on this place now.

“Oops, something bad already happened,” Jarrow said. “I always mess up threats that way. Those were passenger pigeons, by the way. They were extinct until four seconds ago. Look at me, I’m an environmentalist! Anyway, yes, I will do bad things to you. How’d you like to vomit tiny brass gearwheels for a week? Or have sentient shit lurking in your colon? Or have everything you touch turn to quicksilver? Much runnier than gold, and more toxic, too. All this and more can be yours for the low, low price of disobedience.”

Witches. Shit. “So we’re going back to Felport, then?”

“Felport? Oh, no. Marla got fired from that job. She’s licking her wounds in Hawai’i. How do you feel about kicking someone while they’re down?”

Jason considered for a moment, then said, “I can’t think of a better time to do it.”


“What are you doing here, Zufi?” Marla said.

The Bay Witch took her long blonde hair in her hands and twisted it, wringing water out onto the steps, then came forward and sat in one of the low plastic chairs around the table. “Hamil sent me a message, from you, to me, he said you wanted to talk, so here I am, for talking.”

Marla blinked. “Well, sure, but – I thought you’d call.”

“I don’t have a phone,” the Bay Witch said.

“So, what, you hopped the first plane?”

The Bay Witch began to draw on the metal surface of the table in a puddle of her own seawater. “Swam.”

“You swam here? In less than a day? How did you even do that from the East Coast? Did you paddle through the Panama Canal?”

The Bay Witch shook her head. “The ocean is deep, and vast, vaster than space sometimes in some ways, it goes down as much as it goes side to side, more so. There are places in the deep deeps where space is folded over, tunnels the ancients of the drowned continents used for their wars and their business, and there are fearsome things there but they all fear me, or call me friend. You can go places fast fast if you can stand the pressures.”

Marla sat back in her chair and whistled. Ancient magical (or maybe technological, or a hybrid) wormholes, deep in the ocean? First she’d ever heard of that, but then, she’d never been a big fan of the deep blue sea, ever since some bad experiences in her early twenties, dealing with a terrible tentacled thing in the ruins of an undersea megalith. “That’s pretty crazy. You learn something new every day.”

“When you’re in the ocean, you learn something new every few minutes,” Zufi said. She turned her blank attention on Jon-Luc, who was simultaneously trembling and staring at the Bay Witch’s breasts, which probably looked pretty tantalizing to him in the slightly-unzipped damp wetsuit. “Hello. You are to be joining Glyph’s crew?”

Jon-Luc managed to drag his eyes up to her face. “Yes ma’am.”

She nodded. “I used to paddle with them, ride with them, ride on them sometimes, once upon. They tell you they are a perfect blend, yes yes, all together, all one with the waves, yes?”


Zufi shook her head. “Always there are currents, you see, always there are treacheries, because the crew reflects the sea, and the sea is all things: destroyer of sustenance and giver of food, killer and giver of life, she soothes wounds and pours salt in wounds too, she lifts you gently up and slams you cruelly down, yes? The sea is one thing that contains oh so many things, and so it is with the crew.”

“Ha,” Marla said. “So one of them might have killed Ronin?”

The Bay Witch cocked her head. “I will tell you about Ronin. He was once a warrior of the sky. He was the divine wind.”

“A Kamikaze pilot?” Pelham said. “During World War II?”

“They taught him only to fly! But not how to land.” The Bay Witch shook her head. “He loved his country. He loved the sky. He watched the planes smash into great ships and erupt in gouts of flame. His purpose, his service! But his plane failed, his engines died, he glided down, close to the water, far from the target. He tried to set off his bombs, tried to boom boom, but nothing happened. He sat and waited, ashamed of his failure. His plane hit the water. Even then it did not explode, it only broke apart.”

“And he survived?” Pelham said.

The Bay Witch nodded. “He floated on wreckage. He floated for seven days and seven nights, very significant, he went through the door of death and looked around and came back out again.” Zufi leaned forward, water dripping from her chin to plop plop plop on the table. “And the sea spoke to him. The ocean herself! So rare, such a rare thing.”

“Hallucinations aren’t that rare,” Marla muttered, but Zufi went on.

“The ocean told him, I saved your life, you are mine now. You will serve me always in all things. And so kamikaze became Ronin. The man moved by the waves. He drifted. He drank rain until he learned to drink seawater. The ocean taught him oh so many things. He came here, to Hawai’i, eventually, and I met him – this was long long after the war, yes, when the Japanese were welcomed for their wallets and not hated for the actions of their ancestors anymore, and so he blended in, became the wise old man of the beach. He looked for likely ones. Prospects. He recruited me, and Glyph, and others, some others, he taught us to be one with the waves, but that means: to contain multitudes.” She fell silent for a moment, staring at the puddle on the table, or somewhere farther away.

“He was a great man,” Jon-Luc said. “At first he just gave me some pointers about riding my board, but later, he taught me lots of things.”

“He had a sadness in him,” Zufi said. “An empty place where home used to be. He knew somehow deep inside he had failed his country, even if his country had failed him by asking him to die in fire in the sky. The waves never carried him home, never never in all the drifting years. He felt himself an exile, oh, yes, ”

Marla thought about Reva, the god of the wanderers, and resolved to have a little talk with him about Ronin, too.

“We spoke, not long ago,” the Bay Witch said. “Ronin came to see me, we were still friends, he was still my teacher, but we had not seen each other in oh such a time. I left the crew long ago, I did not get along with Glyph, we had different ideas: I believed in protecting the life of the sea, he believed the sea should be protecting him, I wanted to sink whaling ships and he wanted to catch bigger waves and ride higher on the ocean’s strength.” She paused. “He would say it a different way, a way to make me sound crazy and bad and make him sound smart and good, but people always say things that way, don’t they just. I missed Ronin, and I was happy to see him when he came, but he was sad so sad. He cried, salt tears, tears because the ocean had destroyed his home. He grew up in a little fishing village in the east of Japan, and…”

“There was an earthquake, and a tsunami,” Pelham said.

Marla frowned. She’d seen some of the footage on TV, a wall of dark water sweeping across the land, burying fields, houses, and fleeing cars. She shuddered.

“Ronin knew it was coming,” the Bay Witch said. “He knew the sea, knew its patterns, could read the likeliest futures in the swirling chaos, the chaos that is only part of a pattern too large to perceive, and he tried to intercede. He performed rituals, he implored, he hoped to speak to the sea again, but she would not talk to him, and his magics… . He had great magics. But there is no force on earth like the tsunami. He had family there still, in those coastal lands, and he tried to warn them, he sent letters, he made calls, but they did not believe him: the man he claimed to be, the name he dredged up from the past, that man had died long, long ago in the war, he could not be alive anymore. The waters rushed in, and the ones he loved were lost in the dark waves.” Zufi licked her lips. “He came to me, after, to talk, to tell me he had… lost his faith. Strange, strange. How could I reassure him? Imagine a wise and ancient monk on a mountaintop, coming to a young one, a student at the temple, and asking for reassurance? What could I say? The ocean, it moves in mysterious ways?” She laughed, bitterly, the first hint of bitterness Marla had ever heard from the woman. “I told him the ocean does not care if we live or die. It is vast and deserving of worship, and it rewards devotions, sometimes, a bit, but there is no shortage of life. It gives and it takes. He knew, he knew, but he thought, he had a personal relationship, because once, the sea spoke to him.” Zufi shook her head. “He swam away from me. He came here again, and he sat on the shore, and he didn’t go back into the water anymore. He forsook the sea, as he believed he had himself been forsaken.”

Jon-Luc swallowed hard and nodded. “That’s true. He said he was getting too old, the ocean was getting too rough for him. He still came to the beach, he still gave us tips, but he didn’t go out on the water anymore.”

“They’re a group, though,” Marla said. “The wave-mages, they’re like a hive, drawing power from each other, right?”

Zufi nodded.

“So having their eldest, most powerful member renounce his powers, that can’t be good for the group as a whole, can it?”

“It would have weakened them,” Zufi said. “Yes, all of them.”

“Huh. So from a certain twisted point of view, killing Ronin might look like a necessary evil, or maybe even self-defense. So tell me, Zufi. This guy Glyph – is he capable of murder?”

“Anyone is capable of anything, if the current flows just right,” Zufi said. She stood up. “I am sad that Ronin is dead. But he was sad to be alive. Perhaps he is happier now. But if someone killed him, yes, I want them to be sad, too. They should not gain from my loss. You will find them, Marla?”

“I’ll do my best,” Marla said. “And now I’ve got a good idea of where to look.” She paused. “Assuming my enemies don’t kill me first.”

Zufi frowned. “Who’s trying to kill you?”

Marla shrugged. “Nicolette. My brother. Who knows who else.”

“I could stay and help you,” Zufi said, thoughtfully. “Let me ask: if you die, will you still be able to repay the favor you owe me?”

Marla hesitated. She didn’t have anything against telling lies, but when you were talking about a bargain made with another sorcerer, it was better to be straight. “No. I’d rather live, but if I die, I might actually be able to do you an even bigger favor.”

Zufi didn’t ask for details. Marla didn’t understand how her mind worked, even remotely, but the Bay Witch just nodded. “Okay okay. I will swim home instead.”

“Fair enough. But before you go – look at something for me.” She took Death’s ring from her pocket and slid it across the table.

The Bay Witch picked it up, holding it in the palm of her hand, then chewed on her lower lip. After a moment, she shook her head. “Magic. Not of this Earth.”

Marla grunted. “I could tell that much.”

The Bay Witch nodded, and slid the ring back across the table. “Viscarro might know more, the spider, the hoarder, the wanter-of-things, but he is dead, his soul chopped up, consumed by the monster you set loose on Felport.” Zufi said that entirely without noticeable rancor, but Marla winced anyway. The Mason had killed a lot of good people in her city. Along with nasty-but-useful people like Viscarro.

“I will go now. Tell Rondeau I said: What is it I should say?”

“Hello?” Marla hazarded.

The Bay Witch considered. “Aloha,” she said after a moment, and then walked down the steps, across the sand, and into the sea, where she vanished.

11. The Dead, Walking on the Beach

Marla found Arachne seated on a broad, flat stone beside a pool of water fed by a stream that plummeted off a higher cliff, and could have been called a waterfall by someone feeling sufficiently generous. The kahuna was weaving together a mat of vines and leaves and grasses. That was how she worked her magic, apparently, though Marla didn’t know the details – she’d never been much of a maker, so it wasn’t a discipline she favored. “Aloha,” she said, leaning against a tree, after making sure there weren’t any bugs or lizards on the trunk. Hawai’i was too damned fecund by half.

Arachne ignored Marla until she’d finished plaiting together a few more bits of plant fiber, then looked up. She was in her forties, probably, with long black hair woven into intricate (and, doubtless, magically significant) braids, dressed in a skirt of ti leaves. She was topless, apart from a cascade of shell necklaces, which was actually more modest than the swimsuits a lot of the tourists wore on beaches. She looked at Marla, her face expressionless. “Aloha,” she said after a long moment. “What can I do for you, Marla Mason?”

“I was wondering if you know anything about a pack of surfers, led by a guy named Glyph?”

“They have no ‘leader,'” Arachne said. “They are a collective. Glyph is more connected to the secular world than some of the others, so he is often their spokesman. I suppose they showed a certain deference to their eldest member, Ronin. He has, sadly, passed away.”

“I know. He was murdered, and they’ve hired me to find out who did it. Any ideas?”

“Why ask me?” Arachne said.

Marla thought about that, and decided she might as well go with honesty. “I don’t know anybody to ask. The locals haven’t gone out of their way to make me feel welcome..”

Arachne half-smiled. “All right. You did me a good turn, and you have been discreet about our dealings, so I am willing to help. I fear I cannot offer much: the wave-mages have no enemies, as far as I know. They spend most of their time in the water, drawing their power from the sea – its motion, its depths, the life that teems within it, the deaths that sink down. They use their power to help the very sea that gives them that power. They have no goals – they just want to be connected to the ocean, which they know is their mother, and their father, and their confessor, and their grave. How can people with no goals make enemies?”

“Good question.” Marla crouched down and leaned her back against the tree. “I guess that’s been my problem all along – too many goals. What can you tell me about Ronin?”

“He was old. Older than I am, and I am older than I seem. He came from Japan, originally, though he has lived here for a long time. Do you know what the name he chose means?”

“Ronin? It’s some kind of samurai, right? My friend Rondeau made me watch a movie called Ronin once, but it was just some crime thing.”

“A Ronin is a masterless samurai,” Arachne said. “It means ‘wave man,’ which is appropriate for a sorcerer devoted to the sea, but more specifically it means someone carried by the waves. Someone given over to the waves, and taken wherever those waves take him. I met him a few times. I gather he had a dark past, that he had performed terrible acts, and that he had chosen to give up his own personal agency in favor of letting the sea guide his actions.” She shrugged, and began weaving again. “How can a man who makes no decisions make an enemy? A mystery.”

“It couldn’t have been a random attack, though. Whoever did this has big magic, and used it to cover their tracks.”

“Perhaps a dark sorcerer hoped to steal his power?” Arachne said. “We’ve had experience with such people before, as you know. Everyone who comes to Hawai’i wants something, it seems. Our fish. Our soil. To own the beauty of our islands, and make them ugly in the process.”

“Right. So it must have been an out-of-towner, then.” Marla had read enough mystery novels to know that people always wanted to blame atrocities on outsiders.

“I suppose it’s more likely it was someone close to him,” she said. “Aren’t most murders committed by those who know the victim? Though I hate to think so. One of the others in the collective, perhaps? It is hard to imagine any of them striking against Ronin, but they are certainly powerful, and probably capable of hiding the signs of such a crime. As I said, they aren’t hierarchical, so there couldn’t have been much of an advantage in killing Ronin… but there may be currents and schisms and conflicts in their group that are unknown to me. It’s hard to know how close they are, truly – if they’re more like a family, or more like a nest of ants.”

“Families kill each other all the time,” Marla said, thinking of her brother.

“This is true,” Arachne said. “Is there anything else I can help you with?” Her tone said she hoped not.

Marla brushed a many-legged, winged thing away from her face. “You ever heard of a guy named Reva? Claims to be a god of the lost and the exiled?”

Arachne frowned. “I sensed the arrival of a minor power, and heard rumors, but I have not encountered this being myself. You have?”

“He introduced himself, yeah. He thinks I’m primed to become one of his worshippers, I guess.”

Arachne grunted. “Serving a god is a tricky business.”

“I don’t serve anyone,” Marla said. Or anyplace. Not anymore. “Anyway, thanks. Sorry to bother you.” She stood up.

“Wait,” Arachne said. “I doubt it is important, but… the wave-mages, they occasionally recruit, and they have been grooming a new member, a boy named… John? Luke? Something like that. He shows some natural aptitude for magic, and has the appropriate reverence for the sea, but he is not… hmmm… ‘assimilated’ yet? He may be able to give you a more informed perspective on the group than I can, since he knows them, but is not yet fully of them.”

“Hey, a lead’s a lead,” Marla said. “I’ll talk to him. Do you know where I can find him?”

“He works at a dive shop called Handsome Bob’s, in Napili,” she said. “Beyond that, I do not know – he is often out on the water.”

“Thanks – uh, mahalo, Arachne. I owe you one.”

Arachne bowed her head in acknowledgment. “I shall keep you in mind if I need future assistance. I wish you luck in your investigations. Ronin was… a good man, or at least, a man trying to be good.”

“That’s all any of us can do,” Marla said. “Though some people don’t even bother. Aloha.”


Marla found Pelham looking down at one of the seven sacred pools. “What, you don’t want to go for a dip?”

“It looks enticing,” he admitted, “but I thought it would be ill-advised to be submerged in water, in case you had need of my assistance.”

“My visit went off without a hitch, though I don’t know if I accomplished much. Arachne did suggest someone I could talk to, though. You up for the drive back around the island?”

“Of course. But, may I suggest you stop for a meal along the way? I fear you don’t take proper care of yourself.”

Marla sighed. “I’ve always been better at taking care of other people, and by ‘taking care of,’ I guess I mean ‘beating up.’ Sure, let’s eat. I bet you have a place in mind, right?”

Pelham drove her to Mama’s Fish House, a restaurant on the North shore, about halfway back to Lahaina. At first, she objected because it was too fancy, but Pelham started going on about how she was married to a god, her worth exceeded those of diamonds and gold, and she agreed to eat there just to get him to shut up. The restaurant was nestled in a gorgeous cove and surrounded by palm trees, the walls of the building mostly windows, and thus largely open to the air. The place was decorated with tiki sculptures and outrigger canoes and oversized bird cages – it might have been kitschy anywhere else, but this was Hawai’i, and they were probably actual local antiques. The hostess led them to a table near a window, and a delicious sea breeze wafted through, cooling them as Marla read the menu. “Wait,” she said, “this thing tells you the name of the guy who caught the fish.”

“Let’s hope it tastes good, then,” Pelham said. “Or you’ll know the man to whom you should complain.”

“Ha.” Marla was a long way from being a foodie – she tended to think of food as fuel, and got by on jerky, peanut butter, power bars, and boiled eggs most of the time. Really enjoying food seemed like an indulgence, and indulgences were for the weak… but what was the pressing reason to be strong? Sure, Nicolette and Jason were apparently coming to try and kill her, but Nicolette had never been half as good as she thought she was, and Jason… well, she still had hope she could talk to him, and talk him out of whatever he was doing, and anyway, he wasn’t going to get the drop on her. Whatever chance they’d had to kill her had been blown as soon as Death told her about it, as far as she was concerned. Forewarned was forearmed and all that. Eating something opulent wasn’t going to put her in mortal danger.

They ordered lobster guacamole to share – so that’s what heaven tasted like, good to know – and she got the stuffed mahi mahi. Pelham ordered prawns, and welcome to them. Marla thought the things were too rubbery by half, though Pelly said she’d just never had a good one. They chatted, and it was pleasant. He was a lot less deferential than he used to be. Traveling the world for a few months had been good for him. He actually told her some jokes, though his delivery could’ve used a little work, and –

Marla dropped her fork, and it hit her plate with a clatter. She half rose from her chair, craning her head to look out the nearest window. Pelham looked at her with alarm until she shook her head and sat back down. “Can’t be,” she muttered.

“What’s wrong?” Pelham twisted in his chair to look out the window. “Did you see something?”

“Someone. Someone who’s supposed to be dead – damn it, who is dead, she must be. Probably just someone with a resemblance… . Listen, I’ll be right back, okay?” Marla tossed her napkin onto the table and rose from her chair again, winding her way through the tables toward the walkway that led out of the restaurant. She caught a glimpse of a woman with short blonde hair, in a white silk blouse and flowy white pants, disappearing around a stand of trees.

Marla followed her, soon reaching a small but gorgeous stretch of beach, a miniature cove adjacent to the restaurant. A family was posing on an outrigger canoe (or a prop recreation of one) on the sand while the mother took photos, and a few other tourists were wandering around, but the woman was down by the water, alone. It was hard to tell from the back, and from this distance, but the way she carried herself…

The woman turned, looked at Marla, and raised her hand to wave.

Marla hissed in a sharp breath, the same sound she might make if she’d inadvertently burned herself. Even thirty feet away, there was no mistaking the angular beauty of Susan Wellstone, Marla’s onetime rival for the rulership of Felport. Susan had dropped her plans to assassinate Marla and seized the opportunity to become chief sorcerer of San Francisco instead, but that hadn’t made the two of them any friendlier, so seeing her was never a pleasure.

But this time was worse, because Susan was dead, murdered many weeks ago on the West Coast. So what was this? A ghost? Ghosts tended to haunt specific people or places related to their deaths, so what would Susan’s shade be doing outside Mama’s Fish House? More likely it was someone wearing an illusion to fuck with Marla’s head.

As Marla approached, she let her goddess-vision rise, dispelling all illusions… but the woman by the water’s edge didn’t change at all. “You’re not a ghost,” Marla said, stepping beside Susan. “You’re not wearing a glamour of bent light and twisted perception, either. So what the fuck are you? Evil twin? Or, ha, good twin? A clone? Did Susan make herself a backup body and download her consciousness?”

The couldn’t-be-Susan looked at Marla, her gaze disconcerting as always because of her heterochromia: one eye was green, the other blue. “You’re going to die,” she said. “Your past is catching up with you – and your future is catching up with you, too, and isn’t that so much scarier? I don’t know why I’m not dead anymore – I was, they tell me I was – but I’m glad to be back, so I can see your suffering, followed by your end.”

“Threatening me never worked out that well for you when you were alive,” Marla said.

“Ah, but you had friends then, Marla. You had power, and influence, and artifacts.” Susan – no, not Susan, don’t buy the bullshit – knelt and reached into the sea, cupping her hands and lifting up a measure of glistening water. “But you let all that go, didn’t you?” Susan opened her hands, and the water poured out onto the sand. Marla gasped, doubling over and vomiting up all the water she’d drunk at lunch, and pretty much everything else in her stomach, too. A simple but nasty bit of sympathetic magic, entangling the handful of sea water with the water in Marla’s belly – pouring one out had caused the other to come pouring out as well. Marla straightened, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand, the surge of nausea thankfully passed. She looked around, but Susan’s double was nowhere to be seen, and the family by the outrigger canoe was staring at her with horror.

“Stay away from the prawns,” Marla called, and they turned away, talking amongst themselves. No one showed any gratitude anymore. Kneeling – not too close to her puke – Marla scanned the ground and tried to find a trace of Susan’s footprints, but this was a popular restaurant, and a lot of customers had come down this way, so the sand was pretty well crisscrossed. With her goddess-vision still active, Marla scanned the beach, in case Susan had draped herself in a glamour, but there was no one here but ordinaries. She trudged back up the beach toward the restaurant.

Pelham was still at the table, fretfully twisting a napkin. Marla sat across from him and took a long sip of ice water to clear out her mouth. “Are you all right?” he asked.

“I think those old enemies Death mentioned have made their first move,” Marla said. “They’ve got better tricks than I expected, I’ll give them that. Way beyond what Nicolette or my brother could come up with alone. Makes me wonder who else is in on this little vendetta.”

“What should we do?” Pelham asked.

Marla shrugged. “Lay traps. Get prepared. But first, we’ve got a murder to solve.”

“Surely the case can wait, if your enemies are attacking – ”

“That wasn’t an attack. It was a taunt. And I wouldn’t give them the satisfaction of changing my plans just because they did a little something like raising the dead.”


“Are you Handsome Bob?”

The grizzled, white-bearded, sun-roughened man behind the counter grinned, showing incongruously white and shiny teeth. “Look at this face. You’re telling me that ain’t self-evident? Yeah, I’m Bob. What can I do you for?”

“You’ve got a kid working for you,” Marla said. “His name’s John, or Luke, or – ”

“Jon-Luc,” Bob said. “His parents are French, or from French Polynesia, hell, I forget which. He mess up a transaction or something?”

“Not at all,” Marla said. “He recommended a great snorkeling spot on the road to Hana, and I just wanted to thank him, and see if he had any other tips.”

Bob grunted. “Normally I’d be offended you aren’t asking me, but I have to admit, even though I’ve lived here twenty years, that boy knows more good hidden spots than I do. He’s out back hosing off some equipment.”

Marla and Pelham went where he directed, down an aisle full of dangling snorkels and facemasks in assorted styles, and out the back door to a little concrete slab where a boy of perhaps nineteen with a shaggy blond mop of hair stood, washing sand off a row of brightly colored body boards.

“Jon-Luc?” Marla said, and the boy turned off the water and looked over, his face open and guileless.

“Can I help you ma’am?”

“I think we have a mutual friend,” Marla said. “Glyph? My name’s Marla. I’m… helping Glyph out with something. You know what I’m talking about?”

The boy swallowed, and nodded.

“Great,” Marla said. “Want to take a break? I’ll buy you a soda.”


Jon-Luc cleared it with his boss, then walked with Marla across the parking lot to a little restaurant that specialized in mixed plates, that uniquely Hawai’ian collision of Pacific and Asian cuisine, and secretly one of Marla’s favorite things about life on the island. The three of them took seats around a metal table under an umbrella in one corner of the wooden deck, just a few steps from the beach and a few yards from the ocean. Marla was hungry, having lost most of the lunch she’d eaten at Mama’s Fish House, so she ordered the kalua pig and cabbage plate, which came with the traditional one scoop of macaroni salad and two scoops of rice. Jon-Luc and Pelham made do with iced tea, and once they were all settled, Marla gave Jon-Luc her best friendly smile and said, “So, which one of your friends murdered Ronin, anyway?”

The kid went all wide-eyed, mouth falling open, but Marla kept smiling. He looked at Pelham, who nodded encouragingly. “Uh,” Jon-Luc said. “I don’t know. I mean, I don’t think it was any of my friends.”

Marla leaned across the table toward him. “Here’s the thing. Somebody cut Ronin’s throat, which means he had an enemy. Except he didn’t, because as far as I can tell he spent literally all his time out paddling around in the waves with his buddies. So if I’m looking for suspects, I have to look first at his friends. You get it?”

Jon-Luc pushed some hair out of his face, sighed, and shook his head. “I get it. But I don’t think you do. Glyph and them… they’re like one person. They have to remind themselves to talk out loud when I’m around. None of them would try to kill Ronin – that would be like trying to kill your, I don’t know, your lungs or heart or something.”

“Come on,” Marla said. “There’s no conflict in the group? No disagreements on philosophy – some who want to save the whales, and some who want to kill the whalers? Anything?”

Jon-Luc shook his head. “No way, they’re in perfect harmony, with nature and with one another, they – ”

“They tell all the newcomers that,” a kindly voice said. “But it’s not true, oh no, not true at all, how could they be all one mind when even one mind is all full of contradictions and conflicts and inner voices shouting, shouting over everyone and each other and everything?”

Marla twisted around in her chair, grinning at the woman in a dripping wetsuit standing on the steps down to the beach. “Well, this is really turning into a reunion show. Nice to see you.”

“True true, I am very nice to see,” the Bay Witch agreed.

10. Revengers Assemble

The first thing Crapsey heard when he woke up, slumped on the couch in Dr. Husch’s office, was Elsie Jarrow saying, “They’re so adorable when they sleep. Like lobotomized little puppies.”

“Do you mean Crapsey and Nicolette in particular,” Dr. Husch said, “or just… those who require sleep?”

“I know!” Elsie said. “I love unclear antecedents too!”

Crapsey sat up, groaning. His tongue felt like it had been replaced in the night by a mummified rodent – which, given his proximity to Elsie Jarrow, wasn’t an impossibility. “Buh,” he said.

Elsie sat perched on the edge of Dr. Husch’s desk, dressed in a dark green pencil skirt and a white blouse, clearly raided from Husch’s wardrobe. Her lips were heavily lipsticked crimson, and her hair – dry, now – was red as molten rock. Crapsey looked down at his hands, saw the streaks of red on his fingers, and tried to remember if things had gotten that crazy. He sniffed, and was relieved: not blood, just dye from Elsie’s damp hair. Nicolette was sleeping on the floor by a potted ficus, and while she was dressed, her shirt was on inside out. Crapsey had slept with Nicolette a few times before, because even though her weird shoulder-stump-thing freaked him out, she was the only game in town, but he’d never seen her as passionate as she was last night. Probably the way Crapsey would feel if he got to sleep with one of his idols. Except he couldn’t think of any idols he’d want to actually sleep with. He loved the comics of Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, but…

Nicolette’s eyes opened, she sat up, and grinned. “Today we eat the world, yeah?”

“First we torment and kill Marla,” Dr. Husch said. “After that… what you do is your own business.”

Elsie had an oversized coffee mug in her hands, and she put her nose close to the rim, inhaling deeply. “Did you know, Nicolette, now that the good doctor has unshackled me, I can draw enough power from the Brownian motion of the steam rising from this coffee to light up an entire city? And by ‘light up’ I mean ‘devastate with a relentless storm of fireballs’?”

“That’s badass,” Nicolette said. “You’re badass.”

Crapsey rolled his eyes. One of the few things he liked about Nicolette was her absolute refusal to be impressed – she’d even backtalked the Mason a few times, until she realized one more slip of the tongue would get her turned into a smear on the old monster’s boots. But she was kissing Elsie’s ass. Sometimes literally.

“You’ll learn a lot from me,” Elsie said. “Just be sure you do what I want with that knowledge. You showed me last night you can take direction, so keep that up, and we’ll be fine.”

“What happens now?” Crapsey croaked. “And where can I get some of that coffee?”

Dr. Husch pointed at a large French press on the edge of the desk, and pushed a cup toward him. Crapsey grinned at her, but she looked away, a lock of blonde hair falling across her eyes in a seriously fetching way. She’d declined to take part in the debauchery the night before, withdrawing in disgust – though presumably keeping them under observation and guard – and Crapsey was bummed about that. Elsie still looked pretty much like his old evil boss, and sleeping with Nicolette was always a one-way-ticket to Regretsville, but now that her wounds had been healed, Dr. Husch was irresistible.

“Doctor Prettyface agrees I get to run operations,” Elsie said. “After all, telling me how to kill somebody is like telling a Django Reinhardt how to tune a six-string.”

“What’s a Django?” Crapsey said.

Elsie crossed her legs, gave him a smile patronizing enough to wilt his traditional morning erection completely, and said, “We’ll put our team together, and then we’ll teleport over to Hawai’i, and start making Marla’s life miserable.”

“Uh,” Nicolette said. “I don’t… I mean… I’m not a big fan of teleporting. Last time I did that…” She gestured at her empty sleeve.

Elsie’s look of concern was so convincing Crapsey had to concede it might be real. “You poor thing! One of the nameless many-limbed horrors of the in-between ripped your arm off?”

Nicolette nodded, looking away, clearly embarrassed. Crapsey had only teleported a few times, when the Mason really needed to get somewhere fast, and he’d never had any problems… but ripping holes in space and stepping through to somewhere else was dangerous, and there was a double-digit-percentage chance that some interdimensional predator would try to eat you on the way through. Or maybe not predators, and maybe not eating – the Mason had told him once that teleporting took you through the machine room of the universe, and it was possible Nicolette had lost her arm to the whirring gears of some incomprehensible cosmic engine, like a kid in a factory getting his hand caught in a drill press.

“Something tried to tear my leg off once when I teleported,” Elsie was saying. “But I just ripped its arms off instead. Nasty things, they melted into a sort of silvery sludge as soon as I brought them through the portal with me. I dumped the remains in a pond, it killed like a thousand fish, really interesting, they grew extra eyes and then their brains exploded, poof!” She laughed, deeply and genuinely. “Nasty fuckers, those beasties-in-between. I actually learned another way to travel somewhere quickly – a Sufi mystic taught me the secret of Tayy al-Ard, ‘the folding of the Earth.’ Instead of ripping holes in reality and stepping through, you stay in one place, and the Earth moves under you, and puts your destination beneath your feet. Doesn’t work for groups, though, so I couldn’t pull you along. Besides, I prefer the old hole-tearing Western form of teleportation – it comes with a much bigger chance of disaster.”

“You could teach me the… Tayy, whatever,” Nicolette said.

Elsie chuckled. “Oh, that’s cute. No, I couldn’t. No more than I could teach a toddler to fly a fighter jet. Actually, the results would be equally hilarious. If you’re too scared to teleport, you can book a ticket on Hawaiian Airlines or something and catch up with us on your own time.”

Nicolette narrowed her eyes. “No, I want to go, it’s fine, I’ll teleport. I got one arm ripped off already, so what are the odds of it happening again?”

“Exactly the same odds you’d have if you still possessed both arms,” Elsie said kindly. “The fact that it happened once before doesn’t affect the probability of it happening again – not in the slightest. That’s simple statistics. But there’s no reason you should know about statistics or probability, after all. They’re only fundamental underpinnings of chaos magic.”

“I love what a bitch you can be,” Nicolette said, with apparent sincerity. Crapsey looked at Dr. Husch and raised an eyebrow, but there was no making a connection with her – she just turned up her nose and looked away.

“I’m as changeable as the colors in an oil slick all right,” Elsie said. She hopped off the desk and clapped her hands. “Dr. Husch has given us the run of the asylum. I figure we’ll fling a couple of the inmates – sorry, patients – Marla’s way, just to cause trouble. Then we’ll step in more directly and have some fun.”

“Can’t we just kill her?” Crapsey said. “And Rondeau, too. Especially Rondeau.”

“So many vendettas! Who can keep track? No, just killing her is boring, it would not fatten me up or make me drunk with power at all. We will have a plan, and it will be an extremely complicated plan – ”

Nicolette raised her hand. “Not to agree with Crapsey or anything, but… a plan? Really? Shouldn’t we just jump in and make some moves and see what happens, surf the probability waves, stir up some shit and cause a ruckus?”

Suddenly Elsie had a wooden ruler in her hand, and she slammed it down on the desk with a resounding crack. “Nicolette! What is chaos?”

Nicolette blinked. “Disorder?”

“Yes. What necessarily precedes disorder?”

“Um. Order?”

“Good girl! Chaos magicians don’t hate order, silly, we love order. If we were just relentless champions of entropy, you know what we’d get? A static universe, with all the particles evenly distributed, and no heat. Everything still, and unmoving, and dead. That’s the kind of world the Mason, the last inhabitant of this fine body, wanted. It’s not the kind of world I want. I love plans, Nicolette, and the more complicated the better. I want a big crew, and lots of moving parts. A team of criminally insane sorcerers, and assorted other malcontents and grudge holders, all secretly pursuing their own agendas, looking to backstab and scheme and further their own interests, working at cross-purposes and getting into fights and squabbling and storming off in a huff…” Elsie’s eyes rolled back in her head, and she shivered all over.

“Is she… having an orgasm?” Dr. Husch asked. “Because she looks like she’s having an orgasm.”

“Either she is,” Crapsey said, “or she was faking it exactly the same way last night.”

Elsie pushed a hank of hair out of her face, bit her own thumb hard enough to draw blood, then smiled. “Sorry. Just thinking about all that potential disaster gets me… . Ahem. The more complicated the plan, Nicolette, the more possible ways it can fall apart. And that falling apart is basically the kinetic energy that feeds my power – and yours, too, I guess, not that I’ve seen any power out of you yet.”

“I did not release you to grow fat off disaster.” Dr. Husch glared. “I want Marla miserable, and then I want her dead. Your plan is useless to me if it doesn’t achieve those ends. And, much to my surprise, it turns out I have an informant of sorts in Marla’s camp. Rondeau called me last night for a friendly conversation, unaware of how my loyalties have shifted. Marla knows you’re coming.” Husch paused. “Not you, specifically, Jarrow, but her enemies – Rondeau summoned an oracle, which gave Marla a warning, in general terms. You will not be able to take her unawares.”

“It’ll be way more fun with an informed opposition anyway!” Elsie said. “What’s the point of a war if one side of the conflict thinks it’s a vacation instead?” She leaned over the desk and patted Husch’s folded hands. “It’s okay. If the plan works, misery and death, just like you wanted. If the plan fails spectacularly, I’ll get a nice power surge, and, eh, then I’ll just pop Marla’s head like Nicolette pops her pimples, okay?”

“I care only for results,” Husch said.

“I guess we’d better get started, then! Let’s meet the new recruits.”

“I think these are the best prospects.” Husch pushed over a pile of folders, and Elsie picked them up and flung them at Nicolette, who snatched one out of the air but, lacking a second hand, got smacked in the chest with rest.

“Read!” Elsie barked. “Summarize!”

Nicolette sat down on the floor and scanned through the files. “Uh, Norma Nilson, the nihilomancer. She projects her emotions, making others feel what she feels, and since she thinks life is horrible and meaningless, she’s kind of a bummer to be around. Everybody in her apartment building died of starvation before she was locked up – they just stopped caring enough to eat. All the people who came to check on their friends or family who lived in the apartment got caught in the field of depression, too, until somebody with magical connections figured out what was going on. Ugly stuff.”

“She’s a maybe,” Elsie said. “Nihilism is boring. If we could get her to project, say, Dionysian frenzy, that could be something. Might be possible. Brain chemistry can be hacked.” She sat back down on the desk and turned to Husch. “What about that other psychic, Genevieve? The one who knocked me out last time I tried to escape? She’s got some power we could use.”

“She escaped herself,” Husch said. “Her current whereabouts are unknown.”

“She’s friends with Marla anyway, I hear,” Nicolette chimed in. “Marla helped de-crazy her.”

“Hmm, that could be a real challenge, if she got involved on Marla’s side,” Elsie mused. “It would be nice if this wasn’t a total one-sided blowout. Okay, who’s next?”

“The Beast of Felport.” Nicolette opened a folder and removed a single sheet of paper. “Not a lot of info here. An animal unknown to science. Relentless killing machine, cunning, difficult to contain, apparently immortal, seems to be connected to this area somehow, though nobody’s sure why – maybe a supernatural protector? Ha, kind of like Marla was, except whatever it’s protecting isn’t the populace. Hates people, tries to kill them all, pretty indiscriminately. Wants to wipe the city off the map, it looks like. Maybe it just really like trees and mud. Currently wrapped in a dream that makes it believe it’s running around primal uninhabited Felport, all happy and unconscious.”

“Hmm. No, I don’t think so. I like people I can talk to. Relentless killing machines don’t scheme or plot, anyway. Capital B Boring. Next.”

“This guy calls himself Everett Malkin – claims to be the first chief sorcerer of Felport, from hundreds of years ago.” Nicolette shook her head. “He’s got some kind of magic, but it’s not clear if he’s super-powerful or anything, and apparently Marla tricked him into getting locked up here without much trouble. He really hates her, though, so he’s got that going for him.”

“I think we have enough personal grudges against Marla in this crew already,” Elsie said. “One more and we’ll be in danger of having a quorum, far too much unity of purpose. Next!”

“Roger Vaughn, and his reincarnation, the younger Roger Vaughn – ”

“Vaughn? That idiot?” Elsie blew a raspberry. “He worships an evil sea-god that doesn’t even exist.. Pathetic. If I worshipped an imaginary sea-god, you’d better believe it would start existing, and quick. Next.”

“Gustavus Lupo, the skinchanger.” Nicolette looked up from the pages in her lap. “Didn’t he make a giant body out of corpses or something once?”

“That was just a rumor,” Dr. Husch said. “It was an unrelated flesh golem. No, Lupo is…”

“I told Nicolette to summarize,” Elsie said and, amazingly, Husch fell silent – possibly because she was afraid the chaos witch would ugly her up again. Crapsey didn’t like the way the power dynamic was shifting here. It felt kind of like an ocean liner starting to capsize.

“Lupo can… Ha! You ever hear of the Napoleon complex? When a crazy guy thinks he’s Napoleon?”

“Yes. I also know about people trapped on desert islands, men lying on psychiatrist’s couches, people crawling through the desert, and other gag comic-strip clichés.”

“Well, if Lupo thinks he’s Napoleon, he turns into Napoleon. Like, physically, it’s not just an illusory light show, he really changes. And he has the strategic and tactical knowledge that Napoleon had, and he speaks French, and all that.”

“His impersonations are more convincing when the subject is living,” Husch said. “I think he establishes a sort of… psychic link, and mirrors their minds directly. For the dead, he gets the knowledge from somewhere, perhaps the minds of some scholar or relative somewhere, but the artifice is less perfect.”

“What’s Lupo doing in here?” Crapsey said. “Sounds like he’s a crime boss’s dream. Perfect impersonations on demand.”

Husch shrugged. “He lost control. Replicating so many minds grievously damaged his own – when he impersonated someone, he forgot almost entirely about himself and his own identity. He’d turn into people he encountered randomly on the street, sometimes. Then he would become convinced they were doppelgangers, monsters impersonating him, and he would try to murder them. Any actual identity he once had is in shreds and fragments. I’ve tried to coax out the ‘real’ Gustavus, but… it’s been a long time, and we’ve made almost no progress. His rooms are full of mirrors, so he can see his face, and remember who he is, but if he so much as sees a photograph of another person, he takes on their form, and in the absence of external reinforcement or new people to imitate, he just… blurs.”

“So what good is he to us?” Nicolette said. “If he’s too crazy to follow orders?”

“Oh, I can control him,” Elsie said airily. “I can’t heal him, or anyway I won’t, but I can pick a person for him to impersonate and stir in a little compulsion to lock down that shape until we want it to change, not a problem. But who should we turn him in to? Does Marla have any dead lovers? Ooh, maybe her dead apprentice?”

“Her brother,” Nicolette said. “They’ve got some kind of messed-up history. Lupo could impersonate – ”

“No, no, we’re going to recruit her actual brother,” Elsie said. “It’s on my to-do list for later this morning.”

Husch frowned. “Jason Mason is just a criminal – a confidence man. He has no real knowledge of magic. You want to recruit him to your team?”

“Of course!” Elsie said. “It’ll be a disaster. I can’t wait.” She reached out and touched Husch’s cheek. “Your skin, I swear, it’s like porcelain. Which is to say, I could shatter it with a hammer. Now, I’ll do this job for you, I’ve made an agreement, and I’ll stand by it since I haven’t figured out a way to knock down your binding spells yet, but you have to give me the good stuff, quit holding back. Who do you have locked up in here who can do some real damage?”

Dr. Husch sighed. “Yes. I thought it might come to that. Let me show you.”


“Elsie Jarrow and Roderick Barrow?” The chaos witch laughed. “I can’t decide if that sounds like a firm of lawyers or a vaudeville duo.” They were in a small room just off a remote hallway of the estate, a space unremarkable in most respects – except for the fact that one wall was an unbroken sheet of black volcanic glass, so imbued with magics that it made Crapsey’s wooden jaw ache.

“He calls himself Barrow of Ulthar now,” Dr. Husch said. “Though his full title is Lord of the Maggotlands, Protector of the Ravenous Dead, Dispenser of Injustice, Bestower of Maladies, Emperor of the Cinderlands and the Megalith Isles… well, I can’t remember the rest of it. He’s a Dark Lord, basically.”

“Of an imaginary fantasy universe,” Elsie said.

“He is very good at imagining. Barrow was a pulp science fiction writer in the 1930s, and after he suffered a mental breakdown, he began to imagine himself living in a sword-and-sorcery world of his own devising.” Husch spread out a few photos on the desk – they showed swords, animal pelts, some kind of giant dead snake, and misshapen skulls. “These are all… imports, you might say, or rather apports, from his fantasy world. He is delusional, but he’s exothermically delusional. I almost tried to recruit him to run this operation, but I was afraid I might accidentally unleash his monstrous horde upon the Earth.”

Elsie smiled. “And, what, you thought I’d be safer? I wonder about your sanity, doctor. Maybe my craziness is contagious. Though I’m feeling much better in this body. Chronic agony tends to distort your worldview.”

“He’s also very resistant to direct communication,” Husch said. “Anyone who enters Barrow’s physical presence is pulled into his fantasy world. The results are seldom pleasant for those so absorbed. He incorporates visitors into his narrative, generally as enemies. And Barrow of Ulthar’s enemies don’t tend to live long. His fantasy alter-ego used to be a hero, actually, with a destiny, on a quest to save the universe. But I sent Marla Mason into his dreamworld in an attempt at therapy, hoping she could thwart his quest, and show him his world was an illusion. This was many years ago, back when she was just a mercenary, really…”

“She fucked it up?” Elsie said.

“On the contrary, she did just as I hoped. She showed Barrow he was not a hero fated to save a world – that he was just a man, fragile and flawed and entirely capable of being defeated. Alas, he did not respond by becoming lucid and returning to this reality. Instead he decided that, if he didn’t have a destiny, he would make his own destiny, and that if he couldn’t be a hero, he would become a conqueror.”

“I’m so over conquerors,” Crapsey muttered, running his fingers along the wall of obsidian glass that separated Barrow’s room from the rest of the Institute.

“We could still use him,” Elsie said. “Or his power, anyway. Let me in to see him.”

“He’ll think you’re a rival sorcerer,” Husch warned. “He’ll try to kill you.”

“Many have tried,” Elsie said. “Few have triumphed.”

Few? Crapsey thought. Then again, how surprising was it that Elsie had died already, and more than once?

Husch removed her necklace, revealing the small golden key that had been hanging between her breasts all this time. Lucky key, Crapsey thought.

“Ooh, there’s power there.” Elsie leaned forward and sniffed. “You’ve got yourself an artifact, don’t you?”

“This object maintains Barrow’s captivity,” Husch said. “Among other things. It’s called the Key of Totality. An item of power that comes from Barrow’s own imaginary universe, actually, which might be why it’s so effective against him.” She put the key into a small hole in the black glass wall – though Crapsey wasn’t entirely convinced the hole had been there a moment ago – and gave it a twist. A rectangular section of rock slid away, revealing darkness inside. “It’s basically an airlock,” Husch said. “The door to his room will open after this door closes behind you. Are you sure you want to do this? Our Dark Lord is more powerful than you realize.”

“I love meeting new people.” Elsie stepped into the wall of black glass, and the door slid closed after her, the whole becoming seamless and solid again.

“I hope she doesn’t die,” Husch said. “Or… I don’t suppose she’s solipsistic enough to want to usurp Barrow’s power?”

“Elsie’s not really a builder,” Nicolette said. “Or, if she builds something, it’s just for the joy of demolishing it later. I’ve been spending my whole life kicking over sandcastles, but Elsie likes to build the sandcastles herself and then kick them over – probably because she makes better sandcastle than your average asshole with a pail and shovel does. But she’s been trapped in a box for a long time. I doubt she’d want to be stuck in another box, even one made of imagination.”

“Uh. How will you know when she wants to come out?” Crapsey said.

Husch shrugged. “The spells of binding here are meant to keep Barrow and his various emanations in captivity. It should be possible for Jarrow to get out – assuming she isn’t murdered in my patient’s dreamworld. But either way, we should – ”

A knocking sound came from beyond the obsidian wall. “Yoo hoo!” Elsie called, voice muffled but cheerful. “Open, says me!”

Husch touched the key, which pulsed golden light, and twisted it again in the keyhole, making the door in the wall slide open again. Elsie came out, hair mussed but otherwise unchanged. She had an object the size of a soccer ball, wrapped in a brown fur, tucked under her arm. “Okay,” Elsie said, “Barrow and I made an arrangement. I’m done.”

“You were there only moments!” Husch said.

Elsie waved a hand. “Messing with time is a specialty of mine, and in a fantasy world? Please. The rules are so much more elastic there, you don’t even really have to break them, just stretch them a little. I spent a couple of weeks with the Dark Lord, and helped him deal with some rebellions in the provinces – I think he’s killing externalized representations of inconvenient parts of his psyche, like guilt and empathy, in the form of peasants and revolutionaries, it’s pretty interesting – and this is my payment.” She patted the object under her arm. “It should come in handy.”

“What is it?” Husch said.

“I know!” Elsie said. “I love surprises too! All right, it’s time to get things going. I know not much time passed here, but subjectively it feels to me like we’re running late, so you’re all on Jarrow time now. We’ve got a bit more work to do on the mainland, but there’s no reason we can’t start softening Marla up now. The road to hell wasn’t built in a day. Let’s go see Gustavus Lupo, teleport him over to Maui, and put him to work.” Elsie draped her free arm around Nicolette’s shoulder. “What were you saying before, about how most of Marla’s enemies were dead? What are their names? And do you think we could get some pictures of them?”

9. Seeing the World

Pelham rolled across a one-lane bridge on the winding, narrow, gloriously scenic road to Hana, then adroitly squeezed the black convertible onto the minuscule shoulder to let an impatient local in a mud-stained Jeep swoop around them and speed away.

“I was worried this drive would stress you out,” Marla said. They were only travelling about fifty miles, but it was going to take between two and three hours, because the Hana Highway was as twisty as a grifter’s wit, following the coastline through tropical rainforest on a route that included something like sixty bridges, many of them one-lane, plus an effective infinity of blind curves. The trip was stressing Marla out, because two parts of her nature were in conflict: she hated driving, but she was also a control freak. At least with Pelham she was in good hands. When Rondeau had driven this way, they’d nearly died about 125 times, by Marla’s count. This wasn’t a trip to take when you were in a hurry… but unless you had a helicopter or a boat handy (or were willing to brave the risks inherent in teleportation), there was no other way to reach the eastern side of the island.

“Oh, no, this is lovely,” Pelham said. “I suppose it might have made me anxious when I first left Felport… but since then I’ve driven the road of death in Bolivia, and the Deosai National Park Trail in Pakistan – after driving across a wood-and-rope bridge suspended over a chasm, a few blind curves and one-lane stretches are nothing to get worked up about.”

“Ha. I guess not. I’m going to have to get used to the new you, Pelham – I’m still thinking of you as the guy who never left Felport, who’d barely been off the Chamberlain’s estate.”

“The past few months have been most instructive, Mrs. Mason. During our time together I gained some inkling of the divide between my theoretical knowledge and the practical application of that knowledge.” He had a faraway look in his eyes – a trifle worrisome in a man driving along the edge of a cliff towering over the ocean. “I have experienced so much since then. Great kindness and casual cruelty. Amazing food and filthy rooms. Learning a language from books and tapes is quite different from speaking the language with people. I was groomed for service, but the world is so much larger than I ever realized. Thank you for that – for sending me out.”

Marla had been a few places over the years, but always for business, and she’d never explored like Pelham had – had never wanted to, with all her attention focused on Felport’s well-being. “You don’t have to stay here now,” Marla said. “With me, I mean. We can be – bonded, or whatever – without you having to live in a little room under the stairs emptying my chamber pot and cooking me rashers of bacon.”

“With your permission, I may go traveling again,” Pelham said. “But for now, you are in danger, and you are my friend as well as my mistress, and I would prefer to stay and assist in whatever way I can.”

“Ha. ‘Mistress.’ Careful calling me that in public, all right? But I’m glad to have you. I could use the help.”

He glanced at her sidelong. “Mrs. Mason. You’ve changed, too, if you don’t mind me saying. I can scarcely remember you ever admitting to needing help before.”

She sighed, gazing out the window as they passed the burned-out hulk of an old pickup truck someone had shoved into the trees on the side of the road. “I don’t claim to be the smartest person in the world, but if there’s one lesson I’ve learned this past year, it’s that there are some things you can’t do on your own. Being self-reliant is still important to me, don’t get me wrong… but losing almost all my friends and allies has given me a new appreciation for the ones I have left. You included.”

“Aren’t we on our way to see another of your friends now?”

Marla snorted. “I wouldn’t go that far. She’s a kahuna named Arachne, though she’s not as… spidery as the name would imply. She’s into the weaving thing, though, mostly magics of binding and separating. She weaves together nets and rugs and whatever else as part of her ritual. Arachne’s native Hawai’ian, pretty much a nature magician – you know how much I love those – and I helped her out with a ghost not long ago. She wasn’t too grateful, though. I think she was pissed off that she needed help at all – and, yes, I know, I can relate to that. Seeing me again will probably annoy her – but apart from the surfers who hired me, she’s literally the only sorcerer on the island I’m on speaking terms with. The local kahunas aren’t big fans of haole sorcerers from the mainland. Hard to blame them, since the last haole magus to show up on Maui was an asshole of a guy who turned rival sorcerers into sharks. But you’ve already heard that sob story, and I don’t feel like telling it – we’ve got a long drive ahead of us. Tell me what you’ve been up to.”

Pelham recited the list of places he’d visited – Malaysia, South America, bits of Eastern Europe, a lot of Southeast Asia, none for more than a few days at a time – and some of the difficulties he’d encountered. Apart from the Nuno, he’d also had run-ins with the iron-toothed Abaasy of Turkey, a Tokoloshe in South Africa, and a Colo Colo in Argentina. The glamour Marla had placed on the steamer trunk had proven an irresistible attractant for minor magical beings, something she hadn’t anticipated – there weren’t a lot of loose supernatural creatures in the streets of Felport, and she hadn’t realized quite how wild some of the remaining wild places in the world could be.

“Did you see anything nice?” Marla said. “I’ll feel like crap if it was all monsters, all the time.”

“Oh, no, it wasn’t all being chased by terrifying or bewildering creatures,” Pelham said. “And, given my extensive studies in magic, I generally knew what I was dealing with, and how to banish them, or at least avoid being harmed. There were many beautiful things. A forgotten temple in Indonesia, still intact, and more ancient than some civilizations. The Hang Son Doong cavern in Vietnam, where holes in the ground above admit water and light sufficient for a small forest to grow over the centuries, creating what is essentially a jungle under the earth – that was like something out of an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel. The Metéora monasteries in Greece, built atop towering pillars of rock, almost literally castles in the air.” He smiled, his expression going all soft and faraway. “I even met a woman. Nothing serious, of course, just a fellow traveler, but… . Yes. There were beautiful things.”

“Good for you, Pelham. I’m glad to hear it.”

Pelham blushed, adjusted the convertible’s mirrors in a completely unnecessary way, and continued briskly. “I went to Lake Paasselkä in Finland, thinking it might be a good place to sink the glamoured trunk – the lake was formed by a meteor impact, and there are strange magnetic anomalies associated with the place, along with other purportedly supernatural qualities. I decided the magics on the trunk and in the lake might interact badly, alas, but before I left, I saw the Paasselkä devil – a ball of light that seems to move almost consciously. Eerie, and beautiful, and despite the fierce name, I did not find it frightening at all.”

“What is it? The devil thing, I mean.”

Pelham smiled. “I have no idea. Isn’t it wonderful? The world is so big, Mrs. Mason. So full of mysteries, vistas, experiences. At home on the estate, growing up, I thought the world was very small – after all, I could see the whole thing on a globe, or a map. I read books, and believed the whole world could be contained in those books, and in a sense, I suppose they can. But the guidebook is not the experience. Knowledge received cannot compare to knowledge directly perceived.”

“Damn, Pelham,” Marla said. “You’ve managed to make me feel positively provincial, which is a pretty good trick for a guy who didn’t leave the grounds of a mansion for the first few decades of his life.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t say that. There is something to be said for the intense knowledge you have about Felport as well. My experiences were wonderful, but in many ways they were shallow. Spending only a few days, or sometimes only a few hours in a place, I could take away only surface impressions – startling and moving impressions, often, but not deep ones. To truly know a place takes a long stay, and the sort of devotion you gave to Felport. When, in my youth, I expressed dissatisfaction with the constraints of living on the estate, the Chamberlain told me that the world was small, but the gardens were vast – meaning, or so I understood her, that close attention could make a place seem to expand, containing multitudes. In my perfect world, I would spend a few months, perhaps a year, living in a place, thereby going a level or two deeper than the average tourist does, before moving on. Combining breadth and depth of experience, and trying to achieve some sort of balance.”

“But wouldn’t you feel, I don’t know, adrift? Not having a proper home?”

“I think home is where you make it, Mrs. Mason. Even if you make it in the inside of your own head.”

“Huh. I – oh, wait, this is close enough.” Marla directed Pelham to pull over into the big gravel parking lot, still half full of cars even this early in the day, surrounded by verdant hills. “Arachne likes to hang out in the woods around here. If I wander around a bit she’ll notice me soon enough.”

“We’re near the Seven Sacred Pools, aren’t we?”

“Yeah, that’s right, you read guidebooks. It’s a pretty place – waterfalls feeding pools, tropical birds, all that. Rondeau likes it over here, except for the drive being a pain in the ass, and all the walking you have to do to see everything. He’d be happier if they’d move the whole park closer to the hotel so he could wander over after his morning Bloody Mary.”

“The effort to get here is surely some of the appeal, though,” Pelham said. “If it were easy, wouldn’t it be less satisfying?”

“Huh. If you say so. I’ve always been more results- and destination-oriented myself. Look, I’m going to head up that hill over there, and try not to kill myself scrambling around on the lava rocks. Arachne doesn’t hang out on the hiking trails with the tourists. But if you want to go hike around, feel free.”

“Shouldn’t I accompany you?”

Marla shook her head. “Not yet. Arachne can be… prickly about outsiders. She pretty much sits in the woods and broods about tourists from Japan and the mainland US all day, as far as I can tell. The ghost we had to banish was some haole who jumped down a waterfall, landed badly, drowned, and ended up haunting the area. She doesn’t mind the ghosts of locals, but haoles like you and me… We’re all invasive species as far as she’s concerned. She probably hates the surfers, too, which is why I think she might be able to give me some nasty gossip about them. I figure nasty gossip is a good thing to hear in a murder investigation.”

“I can find no fault in your methodology,” Pelham said. “I have my phone if you need me. I suppose it might be pleasant to walk. And if you get in any trouble, I should sense it.”

“Arachne doesn’t scare me. Nobody’s managed to kill me with withering scorn yet, and I doubt she’ll be the first.” Marla got out of the convertible, tightened the laces on her boots, and gave Pelham a wave before going up the hill.

It was great to have Pelly back… but he was different. Probably he was just changed from having his horizons expanded and everything, but he seemed preoccupied, too, like there was something weighing on his mind. Pelham wasn’t the sort to share his troubles – having been trained all his life to ease trouble for others – but if he wanted to suffer in silence, that was his business. He did say he’d met a woman on his travels – maybe that was it. Nothing could mess with you like romance, in Marla’s experience, which was why she avoided it as much as possible.

A long green frond brushed her cheek as she tromped up the slope among the greenery. Nature. She’d never even liked going to the park back in Felport, and now she lived on an island that was half jungle. She liked to say that all of civilization was based on the effort to get away from nature, but talking to Pelham had made her reconsider certain of her bedrock assumptions. Maybe her dislike for wild places was just part of her need for control, and her distrust of things she couldn’t control. But she’d believed herself in complete control of Felport, and look how that had turned out.

The surfers who’d hired her were wave-mages, like the Bay Witch, and that meant they didn’t try to dominate the waves: they just worked with them, and chose the right one to get them where they wanted to go. Maybe they had a point. And maybe, damn it, she was kind of provincial.

Marla was so deep in thought that she walked right into a spider web. She wiped the threads from her face, scowling. Life had been a lot easier when she was absolutely dead certain about everything.


Pelham carefully locked up the car, adjusted his broad-brimmed hat – he’d gotten a terrible sunburn on his scalp in South Africa, and didn’t want to repeat the experience – and started toward the nearest trailhead. While he would never be able to dress down to the level of, say, Rondeau – those Aloha shirts! – he’d realized early in his travels that his preferred garb of waistcoats and cravats and perfectly-creased slacks and mirror-shined black dress shoes was impractical, regrettably anachronistic, and tended to draw attention. He had adjusted. Life was about adjustment.

Today he wore a white linen shirt, a tropical-weight sports coat in pale tan, and khakis, with (of all things) hiking boots. He’d felt a bit disloyal dressing down to such a degree while once more in his mistress’s direct employ, but Marla hadn’t commented, and he knew intellectually that she didn’t care what he wore. Overcoming decades of training on the proper attire and behavior of a valet was difficult… but he’d come a long way.

A Hawai’ian man, wearing a blue rashguard and long black shorts, fell into step behind him as Pelham walked along the trail winding through the trees. “Aloha,” the man said.

“Good morning,” Pelham said politely, still walking.

“How’s Marla doing?”

Pelham stopped, scrutinized the man, and shook his head. “I am afraid I do not know you, sir.”

“You do, though. We met in Nepal. I was a little shorter then.” The man paused. “And female. And, you know. More Nepalese. You were feeling awfully homesick, and I made you feel better.”

Pelham exhaled. “Of course. Ms. – Mr. – Reva. I should have realized your… demeanor would be different, here.”

The god shrugged. “Not ‘Mr. Reva,’ please, just ‘Reva.’ You and me, after how close we’ve been, it’s kind of silly to be formal.” He leaned close, put his hands on Pelham’s shoulders, and gazed into his eyes. “Let’s talk.”

Pelham took a step back, clearing his throat. “Ah, can we talk without… such intimacy? I mean no disrespect, and I realize our past history might cause confusion, but I confess I find it disconcerting now that you are in a different body – ”

Reva frowned. “Now that is weird as hell, Pelham.”

“What is, sir?”

“You didn’t – look.” He called out to a middle-aged man trudging past on the trail with a grim expression on his face. “Hey!” Reva shouted. “Come here for a minute. I want to talk to you.”

The man walked over, a strange, faraway look in his eyes, and stopped in front of Reva.

“Where’s your home?” Reva asked.

“Hot Springs, Arkansas,” the man said.

“Beautiful little town,” Reva said. “There’s a swimming hole near there, deep and still, in an old quarry, as nice as any tropical lagoon, isn’t it?”

“Sure is,” the man said, eyes locked on something far off, perhaps in the past. “Went there with my wife on our first date, if you could even call it a date – we were both about sixteen. We swam out to the float in the middle, and she kissed me, and…” He sighed.

“Tell me what troubles you, friend.” Reva rested a hand on the man’s shoulder.

“This is supposed to be our second honeymoon. Our first honeymoon was just a hotel room in Little Rock, nothing special, so we thought for our twentieth anniversary we’d do it up right, but my wife got a stomach bug from some bad fish I guess. I was moping around the room all morning, and she was moaning in the bed, and finally she yelled at me to go do something so we wouldn’t both waste the whole day, and here I am, did that whole long drive by myself, and now I’m just walking in the jungle, and what’s the point, when she’s not here?”

“Head on back,” Reva said. “When you get there, she’ll be feeling better, and she’ll be sitting out by the pool, wearing that new swimsuit she bought, and she’ll be just as pretty to you as she was when you were both sixteen. Go into the pool with her, slip back behind that little fake waterfall they have, and believe me, you won’t regret it.” He paused. “And you’ll get a free upgrade to first class on the flight back home, how’s that?”

“That sounds good,” the man said, and Reva took his hand off his shoulder. The man shook his head, eyes focusing, and looked around. “Ah. I should get back to the hotel and check on my wife.”

“Safe travels, my friend,” Reva said, and the man gave a wave and hurried down the hill.

“Magic,” Pelham said. “And a rather kind sort of magic, too. But what was that meant to show me?”

Reva looked around, then sat on a big rock by the trail. Pelham eased down beside him. The god said, “When I meet somebody who’s not in the place they consider home – one of my people, whether they’re a traveler, an exile, or just a tourist – I can sort of… cut through the bullshit. I talk to their deepdown parts. They can’t lie to me then. They tell me their true feelings. And I help them when I can. Since I’m a god… I usually can. I talked to you the same way in Nepal, at first.”

Pelham frowned. “I have no memory of that. But I suppose I wouldn’t, would I? I don’t think I’m comfortable with you having direct access to my secret thoughts, to the levers and axles of my mind. Especially considering what happened between us later – ”

Reva shook his head. “No, Pelham, there was no coercion – that’s not how I do things. I can’t make you do anything you don’t want to. I did get a sense of your loneliness from our talk, and in that body, with that brain, I thought you were cute, and one thing led to another… but everything that happened was consenting adult stuff. Don’t worry, you don’t do much for me now, this body is pretty firmly heterosexual.”

“Even so,” Pelham said. “To be laid bare that way, to have no choice but to answer your questions… .” He shuddered. “You are not human. You cannot understand why your actions trouble me. It is important for me to remember that.”

Reva sighed. “I guess you could see it as an invasion of privacy. And you’d be right. I am an invader of privacy. It’s just how I get things done, right or wrong – it saves time, and gives me confidence that I have all my facts straight. You can disapprove. I don’t mind – all I can tell you is, I try to use my power to give people better lives. Anyway, I thought I’d talk to you the same way here, but… it doesn’t work. Which is weird, because Hawai’i isn’t your home, and if someone’s away from home, my power always works – ”

Pelham shook his head. “But I am home. I am back with Mrs. Mason. Wherever she is – that is my home.”

Reva clapped his hands together, delighted. “Right! I’ve seen that before, in some lovers, but never in a case like this. But you and Marla have a magical connection, a supernatural bond… it makes sense. She’s your home, but you’re not hers.” He winced. “No offense, I’m sure you’re important to her – ”

Pelham shrugged. “It is the nature of our relationship. It does not trouble me. Unlike non-consensual hypnosis and seduction by a god.” His shuddered at the thought. No wonder he’d felt so instantly comfortable with Reva in his – her – previous form; the god had known just what to say to him, just how to behave, to win Pelham’s trust and affection. It was horrible, but perhaps no relationship between a mortal and a god could ever be truly consensual – there was always going to be a fundamental imbalance of power in the god’s favor. Something withered deep in his heart. A beautiful memory had been made ugly forever.

Reva winced. “Look, I promise not to try to shortcut around your conscious mind again, okay?”

“How noble of you to promise not to do something you are no longer able to do, immediately after trying and failing to do that very thing.”

“Look, we have to move on from this, all right? We’ve got other things to talk about, and anyway, I’m glad you’ve found your home again. So how’s our plan working?”

Pelham closed his eyes. He was involved with this creature now, and he believed Reva did mean well when it came to Marla, so he tried to suppress his revulsion. He said, “Marla seems interested in finding out the murderer’s identity. You were right, I think, that having a difficult project would help take her mind off her exile. But she is still not quite herself. She has renewed her connection with her consort, the god of Death, which may prove beneficial to her outlook, but I am unsure. She seems… uncomfortable in her relationship with him. He did bring another distraction, though – he says her death is imminent. Her enemies are coming for her.”

“My powers aren’t much good when it comes to looking into the future – I’m a here-and-now sort of god – but I’ve gotten a sense of forces gathering, too. From everything I’ve observed, Marla’s tough. The future’s not fixed. Don’t give up hope.”

“I have not.” Pelham was offended at the suggestion. “She has faced terrible foes before, and triumphed. I just worry… she does not have as much to fight for, now. Her city is lost to her. Death is trying to woo her with tales of how wonderful her afterlife will be, in his company. I do not believe she would willingly let her enemies kill her, but what if she lacks the fire, the passion, that has always given her an edge? What if, at the crucial moment, she cannot muster the will to stop her foes from killing her?”

“That’s why she has friends like you.” Reva clapped him on the shoulder. Pelham remembered the god’s touch, using different hands, and shuddered. “And friends like me, though she doesn’t seem to appreciate it. And you say her husband is trying to convince her to choose death? I might have to go have a talk with him.”

“Are the two of you acquainted?”

“Nah, he doesn’t even know I exist. On the scale of gods, Death is like a crowned head of Europe, and I’m chief of an island village so tiny it doesn’t even have a name. Compared to a mortal, or even a sorcerer, I’ve got a lot of power – but compared to Death, I’m an insect.”

“Then what does that make mortals, or sorcerers, to Death? Microbes? Parasites?”

“Exactly,” Reva said. “That’s why things like him shouldn’t be giving mortals advice about their life choices. Which is something I might point out to him.”

“It is brave of you to confront him,” Pelham said carefully

Reva sighed. “You’re thinking things like me shouldn’t be giving advice to mortals, too, aren’t you?”

“The thought had occurred to me.”

Reva nodded. “You have a point, but I do know what it’s like to be human, unike Death. When I instantiate like this, take on a local form, I become a person, with the drives and limitations of a person… mostly. Anyway, talking to Death isn’t all that brave. When you can’t die, Death is a lot less intimidating. I doubt talking to him will do me any good, but I can try. Marla may be his wife… but she’s one of my people. Her home is lost, but if we can help her find a new home, or at least realize that she might someday find a new home, she’ll be okay. Keeping her busy is a good first step.”

“Trying to find a murderer, and prevent yourself from being murdered, is certainly one way to keep occupied. Tell me, Mr. – ah, Reva. Do you know who killed this man, Ronin?”

Reva nodded. “I do.”

“Will Marla’s investigation lead her to ask you?”

The god of exiles stroked his chin. “Hmm. It’s possible, sure. I already introduced myself to her. She knows I know the surfers. She might get around to interrogating me.”

“Will you help her, if she questions you?”

“Depends on whether or not she can figure out the right questions. Just keep an eye on her. I’ll be around.”

“I don’t like deceiving her,” Pelham said. “I had a hard time telling her I just happened to come to Hawai’i, when you are the one who told me she’d been exiled, told me she might need help. And now, having met you again, to keep that fact from her as well – ”

Reva hmmmed. “I think it’s better if she doesn’t know we’re trying to guide her life – she strikes me as the contrary type, one who’d say ‘no’ just because we asked her to say ‘yes.’ But if you feel like it’s a betrayal to keep the conversations we’ve had a secret, do what you must.”

“I was taught to be utterly trustworthy. But I was also taught that there are things one’s master or mistress need not know, things they shouldn’t be bothered with, things they would not benefit from knowing, that might trouble them, and that can therefore be concealed… but it is so hard to know whether this qualifies.”

“You’ll do the right thing, Pelham. Whatever that turns out to be.”

“Mrs. Mason will be most unhappy if she finds you’ve been meddling in her life.”

“I’m a god. Meddling is what I do. It’s what she does, too – I’m just trying to find new things for her to meddle with. Take care, Pelham. Enjoy the scenery. And remember, we’re not conspiring against Marla – we’re conspiring for her.”

“I an unconvinced Mrs. Mason would appreciate the distinction,” Pelham said.

8. Meet Elsie Jarrow

“You can’t be serious.” Nicolette stared at the immense cube of granite, twenty feet to a side, decorated with inlaid gold in eye-watering patterns and etched with strange runes that seemed to shift and writhe without every losing their essential symmetry. “You’re really going to let her out? I thought you were just screwing with me.”

Dr. Husch walked around the cube, her long black dress rustling. Crapsey wasn’t sure what was going on, but from the way Nicolette was acting, it was pretty major. They stood in a large gray room in the basement of the Blackwing Institute, lit by harsh white overhead lights, looking at the world’s most boring sculpture, as far as he could tell. They were attended by at least a dozen orderlies – a whole harmony of human-looking homunculi – arrayed and waiting in the room’s shadowy corners.

“You don’t think I should release her?” Dr. Husch said.

“No, I think you definitely should. I just can’t believe you will.”

Oh, Crapsey thought. It’s a box. “Who’s in the box? Or, what?”

“Her name is Elsie Jarrow,” Dr. Husch said. “She is easily my most troubled patient.”

Nicolette gave a long raspberry, spraying spittle. “Please. She’s so far beyond ordinary notions of sanity that calling her ‘troubled’ is like calling cancer psychopathic.”

“If cancer were sentient,” Dr. Husch said, “it would be psychopathic. Speaking of cancer… I’m not sure if you’re aware, but Jarrow’s body died some months ago. She was absolutely riddled with tumors – she had been more cancer than clean flesh for years, of course, but her own mastery of chaos magic kept her physical form in more-or-less working order. Unfortunately… she tried to escape, as I think you know, this past winter, and she expended the last reserves of her power when she attempted to break through the wards on the Institute’s walls. She had precious little strength left for life support, and couldn’t control her own decay. I was unable save her physical form.”

Nicolette whistled. “She transcended completely? I mean, I knew she could leave her body behind to cause trouble in disembodied form, but she doesn’t even have a home base made of skin and bone and meat anymore? She must be like a wind made of fire now.”

“The death of her physical form doesn’t seem to have diminished her presence at all, no,” Dr. Husch said. “She had been experimenting with astral projection anyway – she tried to get out of the Institute via the phone lines once, and it almost worked. She’s still trapped in the cube, now, though the bed and the chairs and tables inside don’t do her much good anymore. She is wholly bodiless, and… she doesn’t like it much. She says the pain of the cancer made her crazy, and now that she has no body, and thus no pain, she’s thinking more clearly. It could even be true, I suppose – she was never capable of a ruse before, being far too irrational for deception. But she seems lucid, and wants a new body, and she’s willing to do almost anything if I can get her one.”

“What, you want an organ donation? And my whole body’s the organ? Elsie’s my hero, but I’m not willing to die so that she might live.” She glanced at Crapsey, who swallowed hard.

Shit. How many bodies had he stolen over the years, at the Mason’s orders, or – be honest – at his own whim? How many souls had he consigned to infinite oblivion, how many bodies had he used like puppets? Letting Elsie have his body would probably count as justice. “Fuck that,” he said. “Nobody’s taking my body, you got it?”

“Both your vessels are too weak.” Husch stood staring at a spiral of gold twelve feet high. “When she was free, in those last days before her capture, anyone who came within a dozen yards of her developed tumors. She was chaos walking, and cancer is nothing but cells who have lost all sense of order – she became a living carcinogen, and that poisonous aura was a side effect of her power that she couldn’t turn off. She caused bone marrow cancer, mostly. That’s why some people called her Marrowbones.” Dr. Husch paused. “That, and because in a moment of… I won’t call it clarity, but, maybe, misguided compassion? She had the idea that she could save the people she’d poisoned with her presence by magically removing all their diseased marrow.”

“Human osso bucco,” Nicolette said. “Yum.”

Husch’s dress rustled as she turned toward Crapsey, though with the veil it was impossible to tell if she were really looking at him. “Do you know what happens to a person when all the marrow in their bones instantly vanishes?”

“Uh. No.”

“Bone marrow produces red blood cells, platelets, and white blood cells, and regulates the lymphatic system. Let’s just say the people she ‘cured’ would have preferred the cancer. They at least had a chance of short-term survival with treatment.”

Crapsey furrowed his brow. “So she’s a, what… disease sorcerer? A cancer-mancer?”

“Cancer-mancer!” Nicolette said, and guffawed, actually bending over and slapping her knees. “That’s a little rhymey-wimey, there, Crapsey-wapsey.”

“What would it be called?” Dr. Husch mused. “An… oncomancer? No, ‘mancer’ is Greek and ‘onco’ is Latin, not that a little thing like that ever stopped people from talking about ‘polyamory’ or ‘genocide’ – ”

“Okay, professor boring,” Nicolette said. She turned to Crapsey. “Nah, cancer’s not Elsie’s thing. I mean, it’s one of her things, but it’s just a side effect. The purpose of a tea kettle isn’t to whistle, that’s just something it does in addition to its purpose. See, Elsie Jarrow is just like me.”

“Elsie Jarrow is to you as the sun is to a forty-watt lightbulb,” Dr. Husch said. “She is a force of unstoppable entropy with a will. But, yes, she is a chaos magician. She gets her power from disorder, and she is excellent at generating disorder as well. So powerful that, after she lost her mind and her self-control, her mere proximity was enough to drive cell division mad in the bodies of any creatures unlucky enough to come within range. And her mortal form was never much good at containing such a force of disaster.”

“Huh,” Crapsey said. “So she’s basically a tsunami made of tumors, but she’s on our side. Okay. What’s the plan?”

“We have to find a body that can withstand the stresses of having a woman who is essentially the living incarnation of chaos bound inside it.”

Nicolette snorted. “What, like a robot body? Sounds like anything fleshy would turn into tumor soup in a few seconds.”

“Elsie is very… sensual. She wants flesh.”

“Flesh is weak, lady,” Nicolette said. “Take it from the chick with one arm. Flesh is grass.”

Crapsey whistled. “Wait. You’re… you’re going to use her, aren’t you? The… the host?”

“Very good.” Dr. Husch might have been praising a bright student. “My orderlies are bringing her down right now.”

“What?” Nicolette was annoyed, and when Nicolette was annoyed, things tended to get broken. “What are you talking about? Crapsey’s not even from this reality, how the hell does he know anybody who could withstand – oh.” The chaos witch blinked, and a smile crept across her face. “No shit. That’s wicked. I like it.”

“I’m so glad you approve.” Dr. Husch spoke with enough condescension to wither even the mightiest egomaniac, though it didn’t dent Nicolette’s sudden good humor.

A few moments later, a pair of orderlies appeared, one pushing a wheelchair that held a slumped, apparently catatonic woman, the other holding a shotgun with the barrel wrapped in copper wire and plastic flowers – some kind of magical ordnance, Crapsey figured. The woman in the chair hardly seemed like a threat, but it was definitely better to be safe. She had once been a destroyer of worlds, an unstoppable conqueror – or, at least, the host for one.

“Evil mirror-universe Marla,” Nicolette said, walking around the chair and shaking her head. “She doesn’t look so scary now.”

“The cloak was the scary thing,” Dr. Husch said. “This poor child was just the host the cloak chose.” She knelt before Beta-Marla, lifting up her chin with two fingers, and looking into her blank-staring eyes. “She’s spoken a few times during her stay here, but just whimpers, really, and mostly, she’s been like this. I don’t think she’s ever going to recover.”

Crapsey just stared at the woman in the wheelchair, awash in memories. This was the Marla Mason from his home universe – the version of Marla that put on the white-and-purple cloak and then never taken it off again, her mind utterly dominated by the cloak’s malevolent intelligence, reduced to a puppet for an alien master. She still looked about twenty, smooth-faced and with the beauty of youth, because the Mason hadn’t seen any incentive in aging, and had woven her defensive magics strongly. The Mason was unmatched as a sorcerer, and claimed it was because magic in her home universe was denser than magic here – she could brush aside spells in this world as easily as a man brushes away cobwebs. But she needed a human host to operate in this reality – said it was like a scuba diver’s air tanks, or an astronaut’s space suit. The Marla from this universe had managed to trick the Mason into temporarily separating from her host, and defeated her that way – but it had left the host an almost-empty shell, with Beta-Marla’s long-dominated mind tattered and shredded and almost entirely gone.

“I just hope she’ll be strong enough to survive possession by Jarrow,” Dr. Husch said. “She looks so frail…”

“Let’s find out.” Nicolette drew her glittering silver hatchet.

“No!” Dr. Husch shouted, but Nicolette stepped past her and swung the weapon down in a smooth, swift arc toward Beta-Marla’s skull.

The blade just barely touched the skull, shearing away a few strands of hair, before rebounding hard enough to rock Nicolette back on her feet. Beta-Marla didn’t react at all.

Damn,” Nicolette said. “You know, when I stole this hatchet, I thought I might be able to use it to kill the Mason. Guess that wouldn’t have worked.”

“The Mason told me it’s an impressive weapon,” Crapsey said. “But she said unless it was wielded by a god, it wouldn’t be able to hurt her, not really.”

“Huh. Well, apotheosis is on my to-do list anyway.”

“Please refrain from swinging axes at my patients,” Dr. Husch said wearily.

Nicolette shrugged, a strange-looking gesture from a one-armed, hatchet-wielding woman. “Whatever. If this axe had hurt her, there wouldn’t be much point in giving her body to Elsie anyway. I don’t really understand why she’s still invincible though – the cloak is gone, Marla sent it off to a whole other universe, supposedly. This thing in the chair is just a husk.”

“The host body was soaked in the Mason’s magic for over a decade,” Crapsey said. “Marinated in it. Irradiated. Whatever. And the Mason wrapped that body in every kind of protective spell she knew – and she knew a lot. You could drop an atom bomb on this body and it would come walking out again without a scratch – assuming it has a mind to tell it to walk.”

“So it’s safe to say she would be immune to cancer? And… other stresses?” Dr. Husch said. “I have speculated, but…”

“I’m not a doctor, or even really a sorcerer, but, shit, yeah. The Mason thought bodies were disgusting, so she made this flesh as unchanging and impregnable as possible.”

“Then let’s give Jarrow her new vessel,” Husch said.

“Uh.” Nicolette cleared her throat. “I’m all for unleashing devastating horrors on the world, but… Elsie’s just gonna eat us, then take this body, and leave. This is Marrowbones we’re talking about. She’s not trustworthy.”

“Nicolette, shut up, please. I have access to objects of power that make your little hatchet look like a fingernail clipper. Precautions have been taken. If Jarrow doesn’t do what I want, she’ll be back in this cube in moments. I do not need your advice on how to contain my patients. I am a professional.”

Professionals don’t let dangerous prisoners loose on murder-for-hire gigs, Crapsey thought, but didn’t figure that was a productive line of argument, so he kept his mouth shut.

“Now then,” Husch said. “Let’s crack open the seals.” One of the orderlies handed her a hammer and chisel, and Nicolette took out her hatchet again.

Beta-Marla moaned, and whispered something. Crapsey knelt down beside her, and her vague eyes seemed to fix on him. He should look familiar to her, at least, assuming she’d had some degree of consciousness during her long years of being dominated by the Mason. “What is it, sweetie?” he said, though looking at her face reminded him of his old boss and tormentor.

“Kill me,” she whispered, eyes fixed on his.

“What did she say?” Dr. Husch demanded.

“She wants us to kill her,” Crapsey said.

Dr. Husch clucked her tongue. “Can’t be done, dear. I’m sorry. But this should be oblivion, which is the next best thing.” She placed the chisel at a seemingly arbitrary point on the face of the cube, and struck it with the hammer.

The face of the cube split open, dividing one of the spirals of inlaid gold into asymmetrical not-quite-halves. White light poured from the inside, which was furnished like a rather Spartan dorm room or an upscale prison cell – single bed, sink, toilet, shower stall, desk, chair, polished steel plate for a mirror. There was nobody inside, but there was a sort of disturbance in the air, something like a heat shimmer, but streaked with colors… the most beautiful colors

“Avert your eyes,” Dr. Husch said, and Crapsey wrenched his gaze away to stare at his feet. “There’s a force field preventing her from getting out, but it’s permeable from this direction – there’s nothing to stop you from going inside if you’re entranced. As homunculi, my staff and I are immune to her charms, but the two of you aren’t, probably. Orderlies, wheel in the new vessel.”

Beta-Marla reached out as if to clutch Crapsey’s sleeve when the orderlies pushed her wheelchair toward the cube, but she either didn’t have the strength, or didn’t have the strength of will. Poor thing. She’d just escaped from hosting one malevolent parasitic entity, and here she was, about to be enslaved by another. The kid never had a chance.

Then again, if she hadn’t been possessed by the cloak, she probably would have turned out a lot like the Marla Mason from this universe, and she was pretty much a total bitch, so whatever.

Crapsey risked a glance at the cube. The orderlies pushed the chair inside and stepped back, but they couldn’t get out, of course, because of the force field – theirs was a suicide mission. Good thing they were mindless man-things and not actual people. That close to Jarrow’s essence, the orderlies slumped like melting snowmen in hospital scrubs, their flesh liquefying into a slurry that stank like rising bread mingled with melted plastic.

“Does the vessel suit you?” Dr. Husch called.

The shimmer in the air vanished, and then Beta-Marla began to glow, a bright green aura enveloping her, and sparks started to fly up in the air.

“Shit,” Dr. Husch said, and Crapsey was actually surprised to hear such a basic profanity from her. “I was afraid the Mason might have made her host impregnable to possession.” Crapsey nodded, because the one time he’d tried to take control of the Mason’s body himself, he’d bounced off her protective barriers like a handball hitting a stone wall –

The green shimmer vanished, and Beta-Marla stood up from the chair, her back to Dr. Husch and the others. She stretched her hands up in the air, rolled her head around on her neck, then did a few toe-touches and deep knee bends before turning to face them.

Crapsey was astonished. He was used to seeing this woman’s face, of course, but while in the Mason’s control, it had almost always been blank and expressionless, more masklike than animated flesh. As the semi-catatonic Beta-Marla, her face had been slack and empty of everything but flashes of despair. But this

This woman looked happy. More than happy. Joyful, all twinkling eyes and dazzling smiles.

“I like it!” she shouted, and did a little pirouette, twirling on one foot. “Wowza! This body is cherry, Dr. Jigsaw, truly fine, damnfine, really fine. I had a little trouble getting in, I couldn’t pop the locks with any finesse, so I had to break a window with a brick, more or less, but that’s okay, I didn’t mess up any of the optional extras.” She pressed her hands against the invisible barrier keeping her inside the cube and grinned, so widely it looked like her face might split apart. “Knock, knock? Who’s there? Let me. Let me who? Let me OUT!”

“You have… control of yourself?” Dr. Husch said. “You know if I suffer injury, or lose consciousness, you’ll be snatched out of that body and back into the cube – ”

Elsie Jarrow rolled her eyes, then flopped onto her back on the floor dramatically. “It’s okay, Doctor Mom, I know, if I melt you I’m totally grounded, the deal is done, lemme free, lemme free!”

Dr. Husch made a series of arcane gestures – she looked like a guy on a runway waving in three or four planes at once – and Elsie did a little somersaulting roll out of the cube, springing to her feet. “New friends!” she shouted at Crapsey and Nicolette, then whirled toward Dr. Husch. “First thing’s first! Give me the stuff! The stuff the stuff the stuff!”

Dr. Husch summoned another orderly who’d been lurking in the shadows, and he came forward carrying a bottle of dark red fluid.

“Is that blood?” Crapsey said. “Is this some blood magic thing?”

“Ha,” Elsie Jarrow said. “You ever try dyeing your hair with blood? It’s total crap! Gets all crusty and when it dries it ends up looking brown.”

“It’s hair dye,” Dr. Husch said as Elsie snatched the bottle and a proffered comb and went back into the cube, to the sink.

“If I can’t be a redhead, I’d rather be dead,” Elsie said. “Help a girl out, would you, baldie?”

Nicolette, who’d been uncharacteristically speechless during this whole exchange, smirked, then stepped over a melted orderly to help the most deadly chaos magician in the world dye her hair.

“Is she for real?” Crapsey said. “She’s, like… not what I expected. I mean, she’s not… all supervillainous and everything.”

“She’s always tended toward the manic,” Dr. Husch said. “It would not be correct to call her bipolar – she is monopolar. Elsie Jarrow can be warm, and vivacious, and even fun… but she’s responsible for rivers of blood. Half the time she doesn’t even mean to cause the damage she does. The other half of the time… she does mean it. And it’s a lot worse when she means it.” She sighed. “This is going to take a while. We’d best make ourselves comfortable.” She summoned an orderly, who carried over a couple of plastic lawn chairs.

After nearly an hour of hair ministrations, Elsie declared herself satisfied with the dye and stripped off the red-stained shirt she’d been wearing, dropping it on the floor. Crapsey found himself getting a little aroused at the sight of her in just a bra, even if it was boring hospital-issue underwear – hell, it wasn’t like he’d had much experience with fancy lingerie in the nightmarish dystopian world he’d called home. A girl with no festering sores on her body had been a big treat over there, and he hadn’t exactly been rolling in willing scantily-clad women since he crossed over to this universe.

“Husch. Lipstick me. I know you like to wear that red red red. Or you did before your lips got torn into little pieces. Which means you don’t need it anymore. Give.”

Husch handed her a tube, and Elsie lavished her lips in scarlet, then took the hem of Husch’s veil and used it to blot. “Perfecto.” She turned to Crapsey and gave him a dazzling smile. “You. Want to have sex with me right here on this concrete floor? I’ve got this body! Gotta use it!”

Crapsey winced. “I would, I mean, but that body used to belong to my monster-boss – ”

“Okay, too much talking, you missed your window, big boy.” She turned to Nicolette. “You? And me? And the floor? I like the one-armed thing, I bet only having five fingers makes you work a lot harder, am I right?”

“I’m not into girls, and I hate both the people you look like in that body, but you are Elsie Jarrow, and I will so absolutely fuck you,” Nicolette said.

“Stop!” Dr. Husch said. “We have work to do, things to discuss, plans to make.”

“Dr. Jigsaw is a buzzkill,” Elsie Jarrow said. “Lift that veil, pretty lady. ”

“I am not sleeping with you.”

“Oh, don’t worry, I’m not in the mood anymore, but you’re pretty prudish for a sexbot, even one with a PhD.” She glanced at Nicolette. “The doctor here was invented as a sex homunculus for her creator, did you guys know that? He gave her all those smarts so she could read the Kama Sutra or recite lyric poetry while she gave him handjobs or whatever, and then she goes to college and gets advanced degrees, just like she’s people. Her maker wouldn’t like banging her now, though, she’s all damaged. The veil. Up.”

Husch backed away, arms crossed, the faint blot of scarlet lipstick on her veil reminding Crapsey of a spreading bloodstain. “You don’t give me orders – ”

“I’ll kill Marla for you, okay? And anybody else who annoys you. Don’t get all unyielding, it makes me cranky. Just. Lift. The. Veil. Let me get a look at what they did to you.”

With trembling hands, Dr. Husch raised the black netting and revealed her face. She was worse than Crapsey had expected. He hadn’t been the one to cut her up, but only because she brained him with a blunt object before he could carry out his boss’s orders. The Mason had done the deed, tearing her into pieces. She’d been stitched back together… but her face was a nightmare of bright red lines, a map of scars so pronounced they looked drawn on with red Sharpie. Her face was like a photo shredded and taped back together, with none of the edges quite lining up anymore.

“They sure did a number on you, didn’t they?” Elsie said. “These hands, right here, they ripped you up, didn’t they?” She wiggled her fingers. “Well, let me fix you up, then.”

Husch tried to jerk away when Elsie reached out for her, but some magic snared her, and the chaos witch pressed her palms against the doctor’s face. Husch twitched and writhed and moaned for a moment, battering uselessly at Elsie, then tore free and fell to her knees. The doctor looked up.

“Uh,” Crapsey said. “Doc. Maybe look in that mirror over there?”

“What have you done to me?” Dr. Husch said, her voice no longer rough and shredded. She rushed to the mirror, and looked at herself – at her smooth face, restored to its original classical perfection.

“Fixed you.” Elsie sat down in the middle of the floor, pulled one of her feet up close to her face, and sniffed her own toes. “Not just your face, either. The whole caboodle. Boobies and nethers and all. Did you guys know she’s hairless as a hypoallergenic cat from the neck down? Her maker was a perv.”

Husch paid no attention, just staring at her own face, touching her cheeks with her fingertips. “The biomancer, Langford, he said there was no hope, that my skin couldn’t heal like a human’s, that it lacked the elasticity – ”

“Eh, all true, but broken things are my whole, um. Thing. I can increase disorder, but you know how double-edged magic is, I can run the progression back the other way, too, and create order. There, poof, you’re pretty again, yay.” Elsie seemed bored with the whole situation now – she was chewing on her big toenail – and Crapsey got a sense of just how unsettling it could be to work with her. She was changeable as the moon, as the sea, as…

Well, the whim of a lunatic devoted to chaos.

“No offense, but what the fuck?” Nicolette said. “You fixed something? Increased order? That just… isn’t something I’d expect the great Elsie Jarrow to do.”

“That’s exactly the point.” Elsie spat out a toenail. “Half my power comes from doing the unexpected. A lot of the time even I don’t know what I’m going to do. That approach has worked out for me so far. Except for killing everyone I ever knew and loved or even liked, and being imprisoned for all those years, and everything. Otherwise it’s been a rock-solid strategy. Besides, I don’t mind creating order. I like it! Build those towers high! The more complex you make something, the bigger the mess it makes when it collapses.”

Crapsey was mulling that over when Dr. Husch’s cell phone rang. She looked at the screen and said, “What in the world…” She put the phone to her ear. “I didn’t expect to hear from you,” she said, walking toward a corner of the basement, presumably for privacy.

“We’re gonna have fun,” Elsie said, standing up, and walking toward Crapsey and Nicolette with her arms outstretched. “I’m in the mood again. What do you say? Three-way, right now? We’ve only five hands among us, but we can make do, right?”

7. Death Makes an Offer

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.”



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