Authors: T.A. Pratt
Tags: #occult, #fantasy, #urban fantasy
A Marla Mason Novel
by T.A. Pratt
For Anne, who knows Marla even better than I do
LET ME TELL YOU A STORY
Thanks ever so much for seeing me. We may as well get started, don’t you think?
Let’s scroll through the mortal timeline and look in on Marla Mason, exiled sorcerer-queen, driven from her beloved city of Felport as punishment for her considerable sins and sent to languish in a tropical paradise, specifically Maui, second largest of the islands in Hawai’i.
We’ll take as our focus one particular afternoon when she sat barefoot in the sand near the surf, behind the vast resort hotel where she lived in rather more luxury than she felt comfortable with, courtesy of her best (and almost only) friend, Rondeau.
He sprawled beside her on a towel printed with pictures of jolly green carnivorous plants, watching her wiggle her toes in the sand. Rondeau grunted. “You took your boots off. I didn’t realize they came off. I thought they were permanently fused to your footmeat.”
“I can kick your ass just fine barefoot,” she said, but absently, her eyes on the waves, her mind even farther beyond.
“Feeling homesick?” Rondeau turned his head and slurped from a straw plunged into a plastic tumbler jammed in the sand, drinking a concoction that was mostly fruit juice but not inconsiderably rum. He didn’t have the stomach for booze and drugs he once had, having inherited both a slew of psychic powers and a nervous constitution recently, but he imbibed as much as his body would allow.
Marla dug her feet deeper into the warm sand. “I live in Maui, in the kind of hotel where if you call room service at three a.m. and demand a well-done bison burger and a bucket of champagne, they bring it in fifteen minutes. My bills are paid by my rich best friend, so I never have to worry about how to pay for the buffalo and bubbly. I get to tell people, with a straight face, that I’m an occult detective. I have an office in an old bookshop that I’m increasingly sure is actually magical. Nobody’s tried to kill me in two months. I have absolutely no cares or responsibilities. The hardest choice I have to make on any given day is whether to spend the afternoon napping or swimming. My life is objectively wonderful, the sort of existence most people dream of. What do you think?”
“You really hate it here, huh?”
“Of course.” Marla flopped back into the sand, exchanging a view of the endless expanse of blue-green water for the endless expanse of blue sky. “I know I’m ungrateful, but fuck it. I was sent away from the city I loved, where I had useful work to do, and now... I don’t even know why I get out of bed in the morning. I mean, I’m sure Elba was nice too, but exile sucks.”
Rondeau nodded. “Elba? You mean that black British actor? Yum. Is he staying at the hotel?”
“I love having you around. I never even finished high school, but you make me feel educated. Elba’s the island where Napoleon was exiled, the first time. In the Mediterranean. He stayed there for about a year, then escaped and regained his empire.”
“Ha. Are you getting ideas? I don’t think I’d make much of an invasion force, but I’m up for it if you are.”
“Napoloen got his throne back, but he only got to sit on it for about three months. Then he got beat down again at Waterloo. His enemies stuck him on a much uglier island after that, and he died there. So, no, Napoleon’s not the model I want to follow. At least they made him king of Elba. What am I? I might as well be one of those tentacley things clinging to a coral reef, slurping microorganisms out of the passing waves.”
“Aw, come on, like you said, you’re an occult detective now – ”
“I’ve had two clients, Rondeau. Two.”
“Sure, but one of them was a shark god.”
“I’m not saying they weren’t quality clients. But helping a shark god recover his stolen teeth, and giving a snooty kahuna a hand dispelling a ghost? They don’t exactly qualify as a life’s work. I used to do stuff that mattered. I saved California from a frog god
a jaguar god, beat up the king of nightmares, and sent Death himself back to hell with his head hung low. And that was just this year. “
Rondeau took another slurp. “Business will pick up. You’re still new here, and I get the sense the native Hawai’ian sorcerers don’t like outsiders from the mainland much. Probably that whole history of invasion and subjugation and overthrow. But word will get around – you’ll have more cases than you can handle. I’m sure at some point a squid god or a sentient volcano or a malevolent animate tiki statue will get out of control, and boom, you’ll get the call.”
“Promises, promises.” Marla looked up at the perfect blue sky, a few fat clouds floating past in stately procession. A beautiful day, but every day here was beautiful, and what she wanted more than anything was to feel that autumnal bite in the air, like she would back home. It was October already, and back in Felport, the sidewalks would soon be covered in crisp, crackling leaves, people would be breaking out their scarves and coats, and in a month or so the first snowfall would begin. In a month or two here... things would be pretty much exactly the same as they were now. She’d have to take a trip to the east side of the island if she even wanted a reliable chance of seeing
. “I don’t even know if I’m cut out to be a detective. A protector, a guardian, sure – I can handle duty to a place, or even an ideal, in a pinch. But if you’re a detective, you have to work for
, and you know I don’t get along with those. Do you think it’s a good idea for me to be working with the public?”
“I think you’re good at helping people,” Rondeau said. “Which is funny, since you mostly don’t like them. But when you were the protector of Felport, what were you protecting, anyway? A bunch of buildings? Or the people who lived in them? Would you have stayed on as chief sorcerer if nobody lived there?”
Marla sighed. “Yes, fine, point taken. Mostly I just like getting in fights, and helping people out can make that happen. If you don’t have enough enemies of your own handy, volunteer to take on somebody else’s. But nobody’s even asking for my help right now. What’s the point?”
“Your whole life changed.” Rondeau slurped the last dregs of his rum. “It’s going to take some getting used to. But look: life is chaos. We both know that. If you don’t like how things are going? That’s okay. Things will change.”
“Everything except the weather.” Marla rose and walked off by herself, though Rondeau got the last word, or at least, the last long-suffering sigh. She couldn’t blame him. Even Marla wasn’t enjoying her own company lately.
She walked barefoot, letting the warm water lap at her feet. Sometimes she thought about walking the entire perimeter of the island, a journey of some 120 miles. The island was shaped something like a barbell, or the number eight, or an infinity symbol, and a better sorcerer could probably come up with some ritual purpose for such a walk, sketching out a symbol of power footstep by footstep... but Marla only considered the journey because it would be complicated and annoying and full of treacherous cliffs, and it would give her something to
. But doing that would be too much like a tiger pacing back and forth inside a cage, and when she finished the circuit, she’d just be back where she started. It was absurd to feel trapped, she knew.
She wasn’t actually confined to Maui – she could go anywhere in the world, except for Felport, where she was forbidden to enter by magic.
Why did that sting so much?
There were billions of people on Earth who’d never go to Felport. Who’d never even
But there was nowhere else in the world she’d ever felt needed, and nowhere else she wanted to be, and nowhere else she wanted to go.
Sad, isn’t it? A woman of action, with no particular actions to undertake.
Clearly, something needed to be done.
MURDER BY THE SEA
We’ll skip ahead a bit and settle on the morning when Marla finally got her third case.
She sat on a stool behind the counter in her office on yet another fine autumn morning, sipping occasionally from a cup of coffee that had gone cold half an hour before, looking at a newspaper full of local news that didn’t interest her. The office was actually an antiquarian bookshop in Lahaina, not far from the resort where she spent her nights. As a bookshop it was a failure, since it was situated in a bit of hidden space invisible to the eyes of passing tourists and local ordinaries. She’d inherited – or stolen, or maybe looted – the office from its previous occupant, a deranged sorcerer who’d made the mistake of antagonizing a local shark god – Marla’s first case as a detective had ended with that man being transformed into a shark by his own magic and dumped into the sea, to contend with the furious spirits of those he’d wronged.
Because Marla had no interest in the traditional occupations of ordinary private detectives – outing cheating husbands, or doing background checks, or acting as stalker-by-proxy for jealous boyfriends – the bookshop acted as a useful barrier to entry. The first qualification she required of a client was the ability to
her in this hidden space, which required a certain amount of magical acumen.
Unfortunately, no one was looking for her, as far as she could tell. She’d hoped helping that kahuna on the Hana side of the island get rid of a ghost would lead to some word-of-mouth business, but Arachne had seemed profoundly annoyed to have to ask for assistance, and probably hadn’t told anyone.
So on this morning, like so many others, Marla sat pretending to go through the motions of a morning at work while secretly brooding over the closed-down avenues of her life. Rondeau perused the shelves and tried to keep her spirits up. “I swear, there are new books here,” he said. “Look at this one – a bound volume of old
s, heavy on pictures of tribal men wearing penis-sheaths and not much else. I
I would have noticed this one before.”
Marla spun her scythe-shaped letter opener around on the wooden counter. Not that she had any letters to open. She’d sent postcards to everyone she knew on this mortal plane when she first moved to Hawai’i, vicious bitchy missives for the most part, but no one had written back, not even her onetime closest allies. She gestured around the room, with its twelve-foot-high oak bookshelves, its rippled windows of old glass, its dangling brass light fixtures. “There’s magic in this place, beyond the concealment spells. I haven’t figured out exactly what yet. Something to do with small-scale matter transportation, some attractant associated with empty spaces on the shelves. I
the bookshop transports forgotten books here, maybe based on how long it’s been since a human touched a particular volume. There are tons of ancient-ass books from all over the world here, and I think they’ve been snatched from libraries and garage sales and charity shops, most of them total junk, I’d guess – old medical textbooks, Reader’s Digest condensed books, potboiler novels from the 1940s.”
Rondeau laughed. He was wearing an aloha shirt patterned with sailboats in an eye-watering combination of reds and pinks and purples and blues. Back in Felport he’d favored whatever hideous things he could unearth from the back shelves of vintage clothing stores, and he’d adapted his fashion sense to life in the tropics admirably “So, what, the bookshop is magically looking for rare books by the dragnet method? Scoop up enough forgotten shit and you’re bound to get a first edition of, I dunno,
. That’s worth more.” When Rondeau looked at her with a raised eyebrow, she shrugged. “I’ve got a bookshop now, so I looked it up, all right? I don’t think there’s a book in here that’s even in the top one hundred most valuable first editions, though.”
“Good thing I’m filthy rich. Especially since you’ve never had any customers, or sold a single book. Working in an invisible shop really cuts down on your walk-in trade. You could sell books on the internet, I guess, though that would require the ability to use a mouse, which I know you’ve never quite mastered.” Rondeau had made a healthy sum when he’d sold his night club – a Felport institution that came with certain magical amenities, making it attractive to powerful sorcerers – before joining Marla in exile. Though in truth it was more that she’d joined
. She had no particular interest in Maui, or anywhere else, apart from Felport – the one place she was forbidden to ever return, upon pain of painful death. When Rondeau had asked her if she’d like to tag along with him to paradise, she’d shrugged and said “sure.” This was as good a place as any to molder.
“You could advertise, you know,” Rondeau went on. “Not for the bookshop, for the other job. I know you asked that shark god to tell all his friends you were open for business, but what kind of friends does a shark god
? Manta rays? Jellyfish? We need the kind of people who actually come up on