Late last year and so far this year my major project has been writing The Wrong Stars, a space opera adventure coming out from Angry Robot this November. You can read the announcement about it here:
Yesterday I finished drafting it. I think it came out well. In the next couple of weeks I’ll revise it and then turn it in and see what my editor thinks.
I’ve written about 90,000 words this year (not all on the novel; some stories and game writing are in there, too), which is a hell of a start for the first quarter of the year.
Next plans: write some stories (including one a month for my Patreon, but maybe more, too). Do a low-key kickstarter for a collection of Marla Mason stories, just to round out the series fully. Do a kickstarter with my wife this summer for a collection of our Xmas/holiday stories, to be ready in time for winter holidays. Write a novel, maybe about Elsie Jarrow, maybe about Shadya Shahzad.
Sometimes I’m stunned by how lucky I am getting to do what I love.
Yes, yes, years are arbitrary constructs with no inherent meaning, blah blah. So are laws, governments, borders, money, gender, race, social structures, religion, and sports. That doesn’t mean they aren’t real, and for me, the end of one year and the start of another has always been a potent time. An opportunity to look back, and look forward, and note long-term patterns, and make course-corrections as necessary.
It’s been a crap year in a large sense. You all know. But I’ve dwelled on the bad a lot; I’m going to think about the good now, in retrospect.
I read a bunch of books. I had the bright idea to finally start tracking my reading using Goodreads, which is simple, and since I started doing that in May I read or re-read about 70 books (there are a bunch of comics collections in there inflating the numbers; I average a book or two a week, as I have for decades). I did a year-in-review essay for Locus about my favorites, but I really liked I Am Providence by Nick Mamatas, Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire, Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff, Hard Light by Elizabeth Hand, and The Pleasure Merchant by Molly Tanzer (the latter not new in 2016, but new to me). (People keep trying to friend me on that site or whatever. I literally just use it to track my reading. Don’t be hurt if I use it for nothing else. It’s not personal.)
A few years back I decided to spend more time with actual humans instead of sitting alone in my house and reading and watching TV all the time, and as a result my life changed vastly for the better. (Though it cut way into my video game time.) This year I’ve kept up some vitally important relationships, deepened others, and met some new people who became rapidly essential to my mental health and well-being. They know who they are. I’m cranky and misanthropic upon casual acquaintance but effusive with those I adore. What can I say: I have a limited number of settings. I had more wonderful dinners, and long talks hanging out on my couch, and strolls around nice places, and beers on patios, with those friends than I can possibly enumerate.
There were good parties too! Ais’s birthday party on New Year’s Day was fantastic and I got to talk to some amazing people who I can’t even mention without it looking like name-dropping. Heather’s birthday party was a fantastic rager as usual. The Bacchanal party at Jeff and Katrina’s was epic, as was the later vodka and caviar party. Open mic at my friend Elliotte’s Unicorn Estate was fun, too, reading some poems and singing Kimya Dawson’s “Alphabutt” with Ais to some kids. Heather and I had a great barbecue in the summer (and saw old friends we hadn’t seen in ages!). Jeff and Katrina’s hobbit-themed wedding anniversary/second wedding was a fantastic party. My birthday party (I turned 40; seems improbable, but there it is) was marvelous too and I got sooooo much good whiskey I won’t need to buy a bottle until sometime in the spring, I suspect.
Still doing WhiskeyHorror with Katrina on a regular basis. We saw many not-very-good movies, and a few great ones. (Maybe I should keep track of the movies I watch too? It’s getting a little “quantified life” up in here.) The whiskey was always good, and likewise the company. My screwball comedy-watching buddy Amy moved away to Seattle (sob) but I’m watching stuff with Effie sometimes, which helps assuage the terrible etc. I also wrote in cafes occasionally with Effie, and Erin, and Daryl, which makes me feel less cataclysmically alone as an artist and so on.
We took good trips: a couple of jaunts up to Cazadero to stay in our friend Mark’s B&B. He’s great, his kids are great, the place is great, the food is great (there’s a bakery attached!), and it’s a glory and a joy to spend the occasional weekend there. We jaunted down to Santa Cruz once or twice. Over the summer we spent a few days at Disneyland and California Great Adventure with River, who had the best imaginable time (it was pretty fun for the grown-ups, too; our hotel had a rooftop bar!). In November I stayed a week in Portland thanks to the kind hospitality of Jenn and Chris; I ate so much, drank so much, video gamed so much, and made variously merry. We had some good visitors here, too. My high school buddy Millard was in town with his family and we ate barbecue and hung out one day. Dawson did his annual visit and stayed over for a few days, and we talked of many things, and also drank of many things.
I went to a bitter Valentine’s sing-along show with Three Drink Circus, and it was great fun, and I think the only show I attended all year! Weird. Oh, no, wait, I got Heather tickets to Amy Schumer for our anniversary so we went to that and it was good too.
Saw a short film, The New Year, based on my story “Happy Old Year”: Elsie Jarrow brought to life. I should be able to send you all a link to that shortly as it’s expected to be generally available soon online. [Edit: it just went live at https://vimeo.com/169591118! Watch!]
Continued at my day job as senior editor at Locus, working with Liza and the rest of the staff to make the news make sense and tell you what you should read and highlight great writers and all that. I still like it a lot.
I took some concrete steps to get my disarrayed finances in order. Not exciting, and not super fun to talk about, but see above re: turning 40. It’s probably time to deal with all those things, so I am.
I wrote about 310,000 words this year, about a novella’s worth more than I did last year. There were two novels in there: Liar’s Destiny, the fourth Rodrick and Hrym novel in my Pathfinder Tales series. I’m not sure when that one will be published at this point; you’ll know when I do. The other book was Closing Doors, the last Marla Mason novel, which is out to Kickstarter backers now and will go on general sale around February 1. There’s an audiobook coming later this year too. I only published one novel in 2016, Liar’s Bargain, my favorite Rodrick and Hrym book.
I also sold a brand new novel, potentially the first in a series. Signed the contract and everything. I’ll tell you about it later this month, probably.
The majority of my writing was stories! This was my first full year of doing the Patreon, and that accounts for a full dozen stories: “Unfollowed,” “The Witch and the Womanizer,” “A Pathway Up and Down,” “The Doorman,” “The Downstairs Neighbor,” “Soft Open,” “Bound by Grace,” “Six Jobs,” “Barrow of Ulthar in: The Tomb of the Bibliophage,” “Invidiosa vs. the Chamber of the Dead,” “Sophie of Two Worlds,” and “Under the Tree.” (And you can read them all, and eight more from 2015, if you back my Patreon at www.patreon.com/timpratt. For like a dollar.)
Other stories include “Heavy Game of the Pacific Northwest” for Associates of Sherlock Holmes, about Col. Sebastian Moran hunting bigfoot; Marla Mason story “The Atheist in the Garden” (started in 2015, but not finished until early 2016, so I’ll count it); humorous fantasy “Kaylee the Huntress” for UFO 5; “But You Can’t Stay Here” for Mixed-Up, an upcoming anthology of flash stories and cocktail recipes; an erotica story (I dusted off my old pseudonym); “Murmured Under the Moon” for an upcoming SF/fantasy anthology; “Firecracker,” my first straight crime story, for an upcoming noir anthology; “A Sea Serpent in a Bathtub” for another fantasy anthology; and I co-wrote holiday story “It’s a Wonderful Carol” with Heather Shaw. That’s 20 (and a half) stories! Pretty good. Really nice to be centering story work in my life again. I also wrote a few book reviews, and a TV review (of Stranger Things; my first publication in F&SF!).
Goals, abstract and specific: Keep spending time with humans I like. Stay on top of the financial stuff. Get back to the reasonably healthy lifestyle I had going before the holiday food and booze bombs started to fall. Help my son run his first tabletop RPG games. Write an Elsie Jarrow novel. Do a collection of Marla Mason stories so I can tie a bow around the whole series. Do a collaborative collection of mine and Heather’s holiday stories. Fight against the rising tides of fascism.
Happy new year, all. May it bring you joy and peace.
I’m doing a Facebook fast because it was stressing me out post-election (I’m still following the news and reading stuff, just sourced differently, with fewer memes and commenty scream-fests, and I’m still on twitter because it’s way easier to control my experience there; I can mute some stuff when the howling inside grows too loud and unmute things when I’m better able to cope). The only downside is that Facebook is where I have habitually posted my too-long-to-tweet comments, but then I remembered: I have a blog.
I had a very Berkeley moment this morning at my local grocery store, the Berkeley Bowl (locally famed for its great cheap produce and expensive everything else and old hippies parking their carts sideways in the aisle to block the entire pathway as they gaze raptly at lentils and people occasionally getting into screaming matches over the limited spots in the parking lot; I live walking distance so ha ha).
I had a cart full of Thanksgiving ingredients and went to the register with the shortest line (because the joint was already jammed at 9:30 a.m.) and, as usual in such cases, it proved to actually be the longest line. There was one woman in front of me, of the down-vested fortysomething clearly hikes all the time local variety, standing at the register holding a handbasket that contained three vegetables. As I arrived she sent her clearly hapless husband off in search of some cheap berries they’d seen someone else buy. She was just… standing there. At the register. While the cashier waited patiently.
Resigned to the fact that she wasn’t going to tell me to go ahead of her (to be fair, I did have a ton of stuff in my cart), I said, “Do you mind if I start putting my stuff on the conveyor belt?” I would have simply done so, but she was standing just exactly completely in the way.
She beams at me and says “No, you can wait. You’re young.”
Reader, I did not ram her to death with my cart.
In due time hapless husband arrived, with the wrong, full-price berries, and they engaged in a vociferous whispery snipe-fest about his relative competence versus the relative clarity of her instructions. I could have told them where the cheap berries were, but, you know. The cashier could have, too, and he didn’t feel moved to do so either. She finally puts her three vegetables on the conveyor belt and I throw the divider down and load up my stuff behind it. Then hapless husband wanders off to look at gourds or something and she starts yelling across the store that he has the money and has to come back and so on. Finally they managed to pay and depart with their vegetable bounty. The whole experience only sapped about ten minutes of my life.
Then the cashier couldn’t find a price for the dinner rolls I bought and after much debate and consultation and walking over to the service desk and back again, they gave ’em to me for $1.39, which was a number they clearly and unapologetically just made up at random, but which we all knew was probably at least two bucks too cheap, so happy times.
I said to the cashier, “It’s going to be a long weekend, huh?”
He nodded gravely. “I’m just hoping the rain will keep some people away.”
This WhiskeyHorror report is a bit belated because I didn’t have time (I’m trying to work on a novel, mostly), but I wanted to get to it eventually: a while back we drank, uh, some kind of whiskey, and we watched He Never Died.
I came into the film with just some vague bits of knowledge: Henry Rollins was in it, and it was about vampires or immortals or something, and it was supposed to be good. I watched with my wife Heather and my stalwart WhiskeyHorror companion Katrina, and none of us had great (or low, either, to be fair) expectations.
It’s one of my favorite films I’ve seen all year. There’s a great tradition in crime fiction and cinema for “the wrong man” plot (pretty sexist, I know, sorry, that’s what it’s called), where an innocent/ordinary person is implicated in a crime and pursued by authorities, or pursued by criminals or enemy spies for reasons they don’t understand, or both. It’s an approach that’s been played straight in, say, The Fugitive, or The Wrong Man, but it’s so fundamental to crime stories that it’s been parodied a lot too, as in The Big Lebowski.
The Wrong Man is the initial premise here, too: Rollins’s character Jack, who appears to be a depressive shut-in who does little except sleep, walk to the diner, and sit unmoving in a chair thinking about screams, is confronted at home by angry criminals who make threats and demands. This may be the first time I’ve seen a wrong man plot where the man didn’t care why he’s been targeted; Jack doesn’t ask questions, and doesn’t exhibit any curiosity about the situation: he just wearily beats the guys up and throws them out, exhibiting supernatural capabilities in both violence and endurance, but no particular joy in the use of his powers. He’s less like a monster or superhero and more like a guy who finds a puddle of cat vomit on his kitchen floor at four in the morning and resignedly cleans it up before returning to bed.
The violence escalates from there, naturally, with the criminals haplessly attempting reprisals that never quite work out for them. The stakes get higher when Jack’s teenage daughter – a total stranger to him – shows up at his door hoping to make a connection with her father (and find a couch to crash on between benders, admittedly)… but this is not a guy with a capacity for connection. For example: at first it seems like he doesn’t even realize the nice waitress at his regular diner is flirting with him, but gradually it becomes clear that he does, and he just doesn’t care, because he’s too tired for all that business. He mostly can’t be bothered to deal with anything unless it directly impacts him, and in the face of threats and ultimatums he just shrugs, or doesn’t react at all: he’s like Bartleby the Immortal.
I’ve never seen a better depiction of the terrible weariness of being an immortal, of seeing everyone you know and care about die, again and again, until it just burns you to emptiness. Jack’s not some sighing vampire looking bored at an orgy, as we’ve seen in so many films: he wouldn’t bother with an orgy in the first place. This is more like chronic depression. His performance for most of the film is just a blankness of affect, punctuated by sighs, that somehow circles all the way back around and becomes charisma again. It’s weirdly a joy to watch. I’m a fan of a lot of Rollins’s stuff, but expressiveness as an actor is not one of his strong points, so the movie plays to his strengths, and in those moments when the weariness crumbles to reveal true emotion underneath (at one point quite dramatically), he plays it well, and the contrast is satisfying.
Jack’s character has all kinds of hidden depths beneath that stoic surface, and when his routine is disrupted, the movie becomes less about depression and more about addiction and backsliding into using… except Jack’s addiction is to violence (and, um, other stuff. I’m trying to not be monstrous about spoilers here). Eventually, almost despite himself, he does get to the bottom of why people are trying to kill him, and we get revelations about who and what he is – there’s some lovely misdirection about the nature of his supernatural qualities early on that points toward the right mythic space but in entirely the wrong direction, which I appreciated. The revelation was both perfectly right and not totally obvious (at least to me, and I’m usually a good guesser-of-movie-surprises).
It’s barely a horror movie, really, though there’s some gore and shock and horror. It’s really a character piece and a meditation on the intoxicating pointlessness of violence. Recommended.
I thought I’d catch you all up on my various excitements!
My new book Liar’s Bargain is available now. It’s the third book in my Rodrick & Hrym series about a con artist and his best friend, who happens to be a magical talking sword of living ice with the soul of a dragon. (For sword & sorcery fans, imagine Elric and Stormbringer if they had a relationship kind of like Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser). All the books are standalone adventures, and this one is my favorite: it’s my “suicide squad” novel, with Rodrick & Hrym forced to go on dangerous missions with some other individuals of questionable morality in order to avoid execution. I’m really pleased with how it turned out, and I hope you like it.
After taking the month of May mostly off writing (apart from one short story), I’m ramping back up this month, working on my novel Closing Doors, the final book in my Marla Mason urban fantasy series. So many threads to wrap up! Who will be the new co-ruler of the underworld? Will the Bay Witch ever call in that favor? Will I reveal what, exactly, Rondeau even is? Will Marla forgive her enemies or take this last opportunity to smite them? I’m taking a full grand finale fireworks extravaganza kitchen sink approach to this last book, and it is fun. Also sad as hell, but I’m trying to focus on the fun. (There will probably be a Marla Mason collection with a new long story at some point in the not-impossibly distant future, and I’d say there’s a 85% chance of me writing a novel featuring her old foe/occasional friend Elsie Jarrow, so it’s not like I’m done with the whole world forever… but still, I’m wrapping up Marla’s story, and after almost 20 years with her, that’s big.)
I’m working on the next Patreon story too, of course, and it will be along by month’s end as well. It seems to be shaping up as something weird and cheerful and life-affirming, which seems like the kind of story we need right now.
With its wry humor, imaginative world-building, and love of books ― in more than one way, as is possible in a fairy library ― reading this novelette was an absolute pleasure.
My family is taking an actual vacation soon after his school is done, spending some time in Southern California (mostly at Disneyland). I look immensely forward to not thinking about anything more pressing than riding rides and eating cheeseburgers every day.
House of the Devil is a technically impressive imitation of ’70s horror movies (some of which I quite enjoy! I’ll watch the hell out of Black Christmas, say), but in the end, it just doesn’t amount to much.
It has a few nice moments (the sudden death in the car in the graveyard gave me hope!), but was mostly a whole lot of empty time-filling. I just don’t find ’70s hair and clothes and furnishings diverting enough to make up for the lack of… much of anything at all happening. I’ve often said the greatest sin of art is to be boring…. and both myself and my longtime horror-watching partner Katrina found it dull dull dull. If it had been a half-hour-long short, it would have been great, though. (I’ve watched and enjoyed some of writer/director Ti West’s other shorts, especially “Second Honeymoon” from V/H/S.)
It was way too much about form and not enough about content, basically.
Many viewers loved it, which may be an indication that my brain is rotted and my attention span degraded and that I don’t have the patience for slow rising tension… except I’ll happily watch, like, a found-footage movie that has 70 minutes of doors creaking and curtains twitching and ten minutes of actual monsterghostdemon action, so I don’t think that’s it. I suspect the real reason this one didn’t work for me is just that I’ve just got the wrong set of nostalgia receptors.
We also watched the first episode of the Scream TV series, and while it too is largely an homage to old horror (namely its namesake, that most ’90s of slasher franchises), it also managed to be fresh and lively and self-aware in a way that I found charming and entertaining. (The cast is way too damn white, though.) We’ll keep watching it.
Sixteen years ago today I started blogging, though back then we called it “online journaling.” That journal, called Tropism, evolved from a series of regular “novel dare” posts (back before NaNoWriMo started, groups of writers would get together and “dare” each other to write a novel in a month, and post about their progress. Okay, feeling old now).
I used to keep meticulous handwritten daily journals, but the online journal replaced that almost entirely. I kept updating Tropism pretty regularly for years, moving over to Livejournal when that was the big thing (oldness intensifying), and now I’m here, where I post super intermittently. It turns out I like Twitter better for short bursts (I am pretty active there, @timpratt), and back in 2013 I started doing regular private journaling again. Writing just for myself was a good idea, because of all the mysteries and secrets in my life that must never be shared with the public, lest the Ones Who Dwell Between The Lines emerge and devour you all.
But this blog still remains, for the occasional long movie review, writer-process-post, or other very occasional eruptions of essay-like structures. It’s not what it was. None of us are who we were. (Except that one guy. Change your shirt, guy.) But it’s still something.
Anyway, that first post still dwells on the web, if you want to read it. (You can even hit “forward” and keep reading, at least until the links start breaking eventually, though I can’t imagine why you’d want to.) Twenty-three-year-old me! Ha, that kid had no idea.
As an enticement to get people to contribute to my Kickstarter for Closing Doors, the last Marla Mason novel, here’s a Marla story that has never appeared online before: “Manic Nixie Dream Girl”. If you like it, you can show your appreciation by hurling money at me or encouraging others to do so, or both.
“We’re looking for a monster,” Marla said. “Except at this point we’re pretty sure it just looks like a person.”
The small, white-whiskered old man sitting in the velvet armchair across from her nodded thoughtfully. “Ah,” he said. “A person. That narrows it down. There are only about eight hundred and twenty-five thousand of those in San Francisco. Closer to seven million if you consider the Bay Area as a whole. Can you be any more specific than ‘a person’?”
Marla shrugged. “We heard it was in a body that appears male, so that cuts the options in half, except it’s clearly a shapeshifter or has the ability to hide itself with illusions, so never mind. It’s not very nice. It seems to literally gain power from killing people and eating them, or consuming them in some way that might as well be eating them.”
Sanford Cole, the legendary and immortal (so far) figure recently awakened (again) from magical slumber to serve as chief sorcerer of San Francisco, stroked his neat little beard. “The city has been troubled by a shapeshifting creature in recent days. I’ve had trouble narrowing down its location through divination – and as you know, that’s one of my strengths – because its form is so malleable. It could be your monster, I suppose. The city is woefully short of battle magicians since our former leader Susan Wellstone’s tragic demise and the defection of many of her people to neighboring organizations, so I haven’t tasked anyone to track the creature down yet.”
Marla smiled. “I’m happy to volunteer my services. Monster hunting is kind of my thing these days.”
“I will give you what information I have on the creature,” Cole said. “But may I have a few moments alone with our mutual apprentice?”
Marla glanced over at Bradley, who was standing in a corner of the suite, in the deepest shadow he could find, as if trying to disappear, or at least go unnoticed. “Sure. But, ah, you know, he’s not exactly our Bradley – ”
“I know,” Cole said. “But he’s close enough.”
Marla sat fidgeting in a chair in the hallway outside Cole’s suite, in one of the luxury hotels on Nob Hill, flipping her dagger into the air and catching it by the hilt, over and over. After about fifteen minutes, Bradley – B to his friends – came out, looking visibly pale and shaken, and leaned against the wall beside her. “That was weird,” he said. “Sanford Cole was, like, congratulating me on everything I’ve achieved. Sanford Cole. He was court magician to Emperor Norton! He kept the city from falling into the sea during the 1906 earthquake! And he says he’s proud of me.” B shook his head.
Marla snorted. “B, you’re the defender of the multiverse, a position so badass it even freaks out gods. Of course Cole’s proud of you.”
B winced. “To be fair, I’m just a fragment of a fraction of the defender of the multiverse, an autonomous node budded off from the greater collective over-mind and imbued with all the awesome powers of any ordinary mortal who happens to be a pretty good psychic. This, standing before you, is as human as I get these days, and once we track down the Outsider, I’m not even sure what happens to me – if I get absorbed back into the ur-Bradley or sent to live on a farm upstate or what. It is weird, being locked down in one branch of the multiverse again, in a single isolated version of myself. Like being blind and deaf and tongueless.”
“Yeah, your life is one of interminable suffering, and so on. Let’s maintain focus, B. Did Cole tell you about this shapeshifter thing?”
B nodded. “Something’s going around drowning people in bath tubs, toilets, and swimming pools, mostly young men who just moved to the city. There’s a new tech boom, so lots of new people are moving here, getting high-paying jobs, paying three grand a month for shitty studio apartments, driving up rents, pricing out longtime residents, and so on. Cole figures the shapeshifter is some local sorcerer pissed off about gentrification, striking back at the brogrammers, but maybe it’s our guy.”
“What do you think? Any inspirations fizzing in that psychic brain of yours?”
He shook his head. “The Outsider is almost impossible for me to sense – it’s from outside the multiverse, so it’s not under my jurisdiction, and it’s really good at cloaking itself from conventional divination. Cole says whenever he attempts to narrow down the location of the thing that’s drowning people, he just gets visions of puddles, fountains, the bay, various bodies of water. Not exactly the same failure mode, you know? And the method of killing is totally different, too, from total devouring to drowning and leaving the bodies… But the Outsider did spend a long time buried beneath the desert in Death Valley, so maybe it’s decided to go with a watery-murder theme now that it’s in wetter territory. Who knows how that thing thinks? Getting inside the Outsider’s head is like trying to figure out the inner life of a virus. Or a prion disease.”
“So Cole’s monster might not be our monster at all. Still, it’s worth checking out. If nothing else, killing something would be good for my morale. Do we have any place to start, or are we just supposed to hang around damp places and hope for the best?”
“There’s a survivor,” Bradley said.
Erich Shiriam sat in his tiny one-room apartment in the Mission, jittering in a high-end office chair and intermittently gulping at an energy drink. He was bug-eyed and wild-haired and his shirt was turned inside out, but Marla didn’t know if that was typical of his nature or an expression of his trauma. She did know she was sitting on a dirty futon and there were piles of dirty clothes and take-out boxes everywhere and it was pretty gross.
“Sorry to make you come here, I know it’s, uh, but it’s just, I don’t even like leaving the apartment after what happened, I’m afraid to go out and get… I don’t know… my therapist says I have situational agoraphobia so work is letting me telecommute for a while and I’m hoping – ”
“So you met a girl and she tried to drown you?” Marla interrupted.
Erich blinked at her, then looked at B, who shrugged affably. “That’s right, yeah.” Erich spoke slowly, frowning, and he was probably trying to remember why he’d let these people into his place, and why he was talking to them at all, but before he could go too far down that road Bradley must have given him another little psychic nudge, because he snapped back into focus. “Right. So, look, I went to MIT, I’d never been on the West Coast at all, not even to visit, but I’d heard about San Francisco, how cool it was, how hip, how everything was happening here, you know? Also how it never snows, which after all those years in Boston, that’s pretty great by itself.”
Marla liked a good winter storm, herself, but she nodded agreeably. Bradley could have probably just ripped the knowledge they needed out of the guy’s brain without them having to endure a conversation, but he preferred a more delicate approach.
“So I got here,” Erich went on, “and mostly I just worked a lot, you know, sixty-hour weeks, sometimes eighty-hour weeks during crunch time, the start-up standard. Sometimes I’d go out to clubs and bars and I’d see those San Francisco girls, with the piercings and the straight black bangs and the cool tattoos and the motorcycle boots and the heavy eyeliner, and I tried to make it with a few of them, but mostly they seemed to be laughing at me or bored by me, you know? They’d let me buy them drinks all night but then they’d leave with some hipster wearing tiny pants and giant glasses, or else with another girl. The only real date I had was with another programmer, who also went to MIT, and I mean, I could’ve stayed in Boston, right?” He took a breath. “But then one night, I was sitting in this little hole-in-the-wall burrito joint, and I met her. Llyn.” He spelled the name, and Marla grunted. Was she Welsh, or just pretentious?
Erich went on. “She was… she was just this hurricane of a girl, you know? Tiny, maybe five-foot-one, barefoot, wearing a short skirt and a shiny top and about eighteen hundred scarves in all different colors, bangles on her wrists, ankle bracelets, red and green streaks in her hair, ukulele hanging on a strap on her back, purse made out of a plush toy squid. She ordered a big bowl of jalapenos and then just sat down across from me, looking at me with these huge blue eyes, popping peppers into her mouth and grinning. We ended up walking around and talking all night. She told me she was an art-school drop-out who was into doing sculptures with found objects, and that she spent a lot of time busking on her ukulele for the tourists, and that she liked meeting people who were new to the city because they still had a sense of wonder, and did I want to go back to my place, so, ah…” He blushed, and Marla rolled her eyes. B must have given his sense of propriety a little nudge, because he said, all in a rush, “So we could do some molly and she could suck my cock and then make me pancakes.”
“And you said yes,” Marla said. “Hell, who can blame you? A manic pixie dream girl straight out of twentysomething director’s wish-fulfillment indie film offers you a totally San Francisco experience, why wouldn’t you say yes? So what happened?”
He looked down. “This place is pretty tiny, but one of its good qualities where I lucked out is the bathroom.” He rose and went to a door with a crystal knob and opened it up, beckoning them to look inside. The bathroom was almost as big as the rest of the apartment – clearly it had been the master bath, and his “apartment” had been the master bedroom, before this house was chopped up into tiny units. The floor was tiled in honeycombs of white and blue, and there was a pedestal sink and a toilet in a fetching shade of teal porcelain, but the space was dominated by was a huge claw-foot bathtub with a showerhead suspended above it.
“She came in, and we made out for a while, and then she wanted the tour, which was kind a joke, but whatever. She looked at the bathtub and her eyes got real big and she said we had to take a bath together. At that point I still had no idea what she looked like naked, every time I managed to get a scarf off her there were ten more underneath it, so I jumped at the chance. She took my clothes off and put me in the tub and sat on the edge while it filled up, and I mean, she had her hand in the water, and it was pretty nice….” He trailed off. “The tub filled up, and I asked her when she was going to get in with me, and that’s when she pushed me under.”
Marla nodded. Her first thought was: serial killer dresses up like cliché quirky girl to exploit the fantasies of young brogrammers, preying on the tech elite as a symbolic protest against the inevitable horrors of gentrification. But Cole said it was weirder than that, and it got that way.
“She was strong. Crazy strong. Couldn’t have weighed more than a hundred pounds, but pushed me under like it was nothing, one hand on my forehead, one on my chest. I looked up at her through the water, and I guess it was just the drugs, but… her face changed. Her body, too. Rippled like water, became translucent, it was like, she became water, but her hands were still solid. After a couple of minutes she stopped holding me down and left.” He shrugged.
B frowned. “Wait, so how did you survive? Did someone come resuscitate you?”
He shook his head. “I’m good at holding my breath. Have been since I was a kid, when I went swimming lot with my dad, and I just kept at it. Winning breath-holding contests was my party trick in college. I mean, I’m not like those free divers who can stop breathing for twenty minutes, but two or three minutes? Sure. Once I realized she was trying to drown me I thought I’d better just play dead, and it worked. I think I would have freaked out a lot harder if I hadn’t been on drugs, honestly. Molly saved my life.”
“No sign of her when you got out of the tub?” Marla said.
He shook his head. “No, she was just gone. There were lots of puddles, though, all over the hardwood in the main room, like she’d dripped tons of water around. I called the cops, they took her description and told me not to pick up strange women in burrito shops anymore, that was it.”
Marla nodded. Cole said there’d been half a dozen drownings so far, but he’d managed to keep it out of the news, so Erich didn’t realize he’d narrowly avoided joining an ever-growing body count. “Well, thanks for your – ”
“Wait,” B said. “There’s something you’re not telling us.”
Erich frowned, and B pushed, and Erich moaned. “Okay, fine, she left one of her scarves, it’s under my pillow. I know it’s stupid, it’s sick, but it still smells a little like her, she was so hot, I can’t help it – ”
“Show us,” Marla said.
Erich went to his futon, lifted up a pillow, and picked up a long piece of ragged seaweed. He rubbed it against his cheek, sighed, and handed it to Marla, who took the slimy thing in her hands. “A… scarf,” she said.
He nodded. “Smells like, I don’t know, vanilla and baby powder and the cherry soda I liked when I was a kid…”
The thing in her hands smelled like salt and rotting fish to Marla. “We’ll have to take this, but on the plus side, we won’t tell the cops you withheld evidence, okay?”
Once they were outside, Marla handed the seaweed to Bradley. “Well?” she said. “Does this look like a scarf to you?”
“Seaweed. But I looked into Erich’s mind and I could see the psychic tampering. I fixed it while I was in there. Took care of his agoraphobia, too. But I left his caution about picking up ukulele girls in bars.”
“You’re such a humanitarian, B. Can you use this scrap of slime to track down our mystery woman?”
“Pretty sure she’s not actually a woman,” Bradley said, “but I’ll do the psychic bloodhound thing, sure.”
“It’s not the Outsider, is it?”
B shook his head. “I don’t think so. We don’t know what forms this nixie or kelpie or whatever has taken in other attacks, but in this one, it showed a pretty sophisticated understanding of human psychology and expectations – more than that, it seems to have a sense of humor, which isn’t a quality we’ve noted in the Outsider. I mean, the ukulele? Infinite scarves? That’s comedy, right?”
“Manic nixie dream girl,” Marla said. “That is pretty funny, except for the death by drowning. Okay, do your thing, and let’s find our monster.”
They wound up on the western edge of the city, down by the ruins of the Sutro Baths, the once-vast swimming pool complex on the beach that had been reduced by demolition and fire to concrete foundations and a few vestigial fragments of the old buildings. The place was usually popular with tourists who came to hike, take in the shattered grandeur, and look out at the ocean and the nearby Seal Rocks, but today it reeked of rotting fish, and the wind from the sea was salty and stingy, and it was just generally vile and unpleasant. “This place is awful, let’s go somewhere else,” Marla said, but B grabbed her arm.
“Somebody cast a keep-away spell over here,” B said. “A strong one. Of course, I’m immune, but your puny mortal mind is no match for the magic.”
“Who’re you calling mortal,” Marla muttered, shaking his hand off.
“Well, you’re mortal at the moment. Here, let me clear your head.”
“No thanks.” She ducked her head and stomped down the path toward the ruins, the stink making her eyes water, the wind battering her, the fear that she would slip and fall and be swept away and die (even though lately she couldn’t die) growing ever stronger until –
– she broke through the bubble of the spell and blinked at the calm sea, breathed in the brisk salt air, and didn’t worry about death a bit, as usual. B stepped up beside her. He pressed the rag of seaweed to his face, sniffed, then pointed. “Down there, by the waterline, there’s a cave. I’m pretty sure there’s not supposed to be a cave, but somebody made one.”
“Let’s have ourselves a cave invasion, then.” They picked their way down the rocks to the beach, and Marla saw the shadow in the cliff wall where the cave must be. She drew her dagger – the only possession of value she had at this point, apart from her motorcycle – and stepped carefully, boots sinking into the soft sand, toward the darkness. “Fiat lux,” she muttered, activating her enhanced night vision, but she didn’t need it: the blackness of the cave was an illusion, and once she stepped inside, it was lit by battery-powered camping lanterns resting on rocks and hanging from pitons hammered into the cave walls.
An old man wearing a pair of black swim trunks and nothing else was sleeping in a brightly-colored hammock swaying in a metal stand, next to an iron cauldron that would have done the witches from Macbeth proud.
Marla exchanged a glance with B, who shrugged and leaned against the damp wall of the cave. He generally left the heavy stuff to her, which was the way she liked it.
Marla walked over, put her boot on the hammock, and dumped the old guy out.
He sprang up, sputtering. “What the shit?” His eyes – they were red-rimmed, matching the burst veins in his nose – went wide and he shouted “Llyn!”
The contents of the cauldron bubbled up into a fountain, which turned into the watery semblance of a girl, translucent except for a few scraps of seaweed that sort of looked like hair, and teeth made of shards of shell. The nixie hissed, the water around her mouth boiling in the process, and started to climb out of the cauldron.
Marla lashed out with her dagger, right at the thing’s face. It screamed and fell back when the blade cut across the indentations it had for eyes. Marla slashed down in a looping s-curve through the nixie’s body, and water splashed everywhere, seaweed and shells splattering back down into the cauldron. The old man gaped. “What – what did you do?”
“This knife was made for me by the god of Death,” Marla said. “Forged in an awfully hot hell, a lake of fire conjured by the imagination of a dead guy with a lot of guilt but not much imagination. This blade can cut through anything I want it to. Stone, steel, astral tethers. Water molecules. Don’t worry, your nixie will get her shit back together eventually, but right now a large portion of her anatomy has been reduced to hydrogen and oxygen atoms, and it takes a girl a little time to recover from that.” She held up the knife. “Now, what should I cut you up into?”
“I won’t fight.” He held up his hands. “Did Sanford Cole send you? I – I don’t recognize his authority, you know. I’m a sea witch, my people have been here since the Egg Wars, and – ”
“Hush. The structural hierarchy of the city’s magical community could not interest me less. You were murdering innocent people with your little water goblin there. Why?”
He hugged his arms around his pale pigeon chest. “These new people. They’re destroying the whole culture of the city. Altering the place’s personality. Driving out the artists, the creative people, the ones who make it a world-class place to live. Soon it’s going to be nothing but young technocrats, consuming without creating.”
Marla snorted. “This new wave of people moving in isn’t any different from the old waves of people moving in. The hippies pouring in here in the Sixties changed the whole nature of the city, too. The Beats changed things before that, in the Fifties. The people who came for the gold rush in the 1850s – I assume those were your people, Mr. Egg War – changed the hell out of the place too. Unless you’re Ohlone, bitching about the arrival of Spanish missionaries in the Eighteenth century, I don’t really want to hear it. Some of these new tech people are assholes, I’m sure, but some of them are perfectly nice people who heard San Francisco was a great place to live, and wanted to move here, so they did. Didn’t you just have a tech boom like ten years ago? Gods. You should be used to this. Stop bitching and move to Oakland until the next inevitable bust in the economy drives the technorats out of San Francisco again if you hate it so much. Seriously, it’s gotta be more than that. What made you start murdering people? Did you get kicked out of your apartment so some douche-bros could move in?”
The old man lifted his chin. “I am a sorcerer. I can live wherever I choose.” He sighed. “But my favorite bar, where I went every day for decades, was closed and replaced by an artisanal toast restaurant.”
B whistled. “Damn, dude,” he said. “That is rough. I mean, murder’s still wrong and everything, but… damn.”
“Call Sanford Cole and tell him we caught his murderer,” Marla said. “Tell him if he wants to reward us with riches and resources they’d be welcome.”
Marla and Bradley sat on the steps leading down to the beach at Aquatic Park in North Beach, watching the sailboats cruise around the bay, and looking at the fog-shrouded towers of the Golden Gate Bridge. They were eating double-doubles, animal style, they’d picked up from the In-N-Out Burger a few blocks away.
“Wow, I missed cheeseburgers,” B said. “Being an omnicognizant super-god living in a pocket watchtower dimension overseeing the complexity of the multiverse is great, but there’s a real dearth of local restaurants. I should do something about that.”
“Just visit us mortals, and part-time mortals, more often,” Marla said.
“Should’ve gotten sodas,” B said. He reached toward her bag. “Let me get a drink of–”
She slapped his hand away. “That’s not water for drinking.” He raised an eyebrow, so she picked up the plastic liter water bottle and shook it up, stirring the sand, flecks of seaweed, and jagged shards of seashell at the bottom around. “While you were talking to Cole’s people about securing Mr. Sea Witch, I was having a chat in the cave with Llyn, who’d mostly reconstituted herself, and she’s agreed to go traveling with us.”
B laughed. “You’ve got a nixie in a bottle?”
“Well, I’ll have to dump her in a pond, or at least a full bathtub, if I want her to appear in human-sized body again – she needs more volume for that kind of thing – but, yeah.”
“You haven’t had the best luck in the past, taking on murderers as allies. Squat, Nicolette, your brother…”
“Oh, Llyn’s not a murderer, she was a murder weapon. She was under a compulsion to serve old what’s-his-egg. I broke the chains of his spell with my dagger, and she’s promised to repay me with a month of service, then she’ll go jump in a lake somewhere.”
“Mmm. Don’t nixies historically drown people just for fun?”
Marla stashed the bottle back in her bag. “She assures me she’s entirely harmless. You know I’ve got a trusting nature. Besides, some creatures need to be drowned. We need all the allies we can get if we’re going to face the Outsider and deal with my other problems. Me, you, a magical knife, and a motorcycle aren’t going to get the job done.”
“Ain’t that the truth.”
Marla’s phone rang. Cole. She handed it to her former apprentice. “You talk to him. I’ve been thanked enough.” She hated talking on the phone, and it was fun to boss her occasionally all-powerful friend around again.
Bradley spoke, listened, grinned, and then handed the phone back to Marla. “Cole gave us a line of credit, so we can afford to sleep in the kind of motels that don’t have bedbugs without having to steal or mind-control people first.”
“Good. Being a wealthy patron is more fun than having one, but I’ll take what I can get.”
“Better news,” Bradley said. “Cole tasked his whole psychic corps over to me, the ones he uses to detect threats to the city, impending earthquakes, stuff like that. I got their brains networked together and made them look for dead spots, places they couldn’t see.”
Marla whistled. “The Outsider blocks divination, but if you can find those blank spaces on the psychic landscape…”
“Yep. They’re pretty sure the Outsider left the city this morning, headed east. Their network only covers part of California, and they lost the bubble of nothing around Lake Tahoe, but…” B shrugged. “It gives us a direction, at least.”
She stood up. “To the Marla-cycle, young Bradley.”
He groaned. “We’ve gotta get a sidecar or something.”
“Oh, yeah,” she said. “A sidecar is so much cooler than riding bitch.”
“That’s offensive,” Bradley said. “You’re offensive. I’m offended.”
“I do my best,” she said.
Marla’s story is coming to an end; help me send her off with style. Check out the campaign page and see how you can get an exclusive coffee mug and other goodies. Also there’s a video with lots of pretty art and, at the end, me wearing a purple-and-white velvet cloak. You know you don’t wanna miss that.