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.