Blood on the Water
The receptionist at the desk of the Shady Palms Beach Club gave me the once-over. I could tell from the look on his face that he didn't like the look of mine. I understood his feelings. I didn't like my face much either. It was a stitched-up mess that even a mother would have trouble loving. Then again, so was the rest of me. I put my hands in the pocket of my trench coat and leaned forward.
"So how about it, pal?" I asked, letting him look over every scar and stitch-mark on my face. "You figure you can let me in?"
He was a string-bean in a suit, his wine-colored tuxedo matching the carpet and walls in the swanky lobby. His eyes looked like they were planning to fall out of his sockets. "W-well, sir, the Shady Palms Beach Club, has a rather e-exclusive clientele." Shady Palms was an upscale resort town, maybe an hour south of Los Angeles. It was small, but growing like a weed in the California sun.
"I look like I come here for a tan?" I reached into my pocket and forked over a fin. The receptionist eyeballed the creased bill, and then tucked it under his pocket. He gave me a slow, tortured nod, like he had just agreed to let me spit on his mother's grave. I just gave him a wink. I didn't care too much about looks.
One of my eyes is green. The other is blue. Some of my fingers are fat and others are thin. I got a road map of scars crossing my face, with slightly different shades of skin. My hair is brown and thin and dead. I got thick arms and legs and stand about a head taller than everyone else in the room – even if that head is the ugliest one there. A fedora, worn gray suit and vest and battered trench coat cover up more scars and a slab of a nose. Everything about me is patchwork – including my memories.
The only real memories I have are of the War, starting with waking up on a slab in some Nazi castle in the Black Forest. It seems that the Germans had embarked on mad scheme to win the war, after the tide had turned against them. Groups like the Ahenerbe, the SS's group of deranged occultists and Aryan nuts, turned to black magic, alchemy and terrible sciences from their country's past. They stapled together the corpses of their enemies, assembling men like jigsaw puzzles to fight again. I was the prototype. A bunch of unlucky GIs got themselves cut up and rearranged, fused together into one tough mug. The name of the dog tags around my neck was Dwight Harrow. That's what I've been calling myself ever since.
The Nazi mad science program ran into one major snag – a group of devoted Airborne soldiers, chosen because of their strange natures, called the Black Eagles. Seconded to the Office of Strategic Services, the Black Eagles were in charge of finding out all of Hitler's nasty mumbo-jumbo – and shutting it down. They rescued me before the Nazi eggheads could condition my brain, pulled me out of the Black Forest Castle, slapped me in a uniform and put me to work. I already had the training of at least half-a-dozen soldiers. Extra strength and toughness made me a valued member of their squad.
After the war, the Black Eagles were disbanded. Sure, there were more spooky things to fight, but the OSS had always been bad bosses, and post-war paranoia only made them worse. We went our separate ways. I headed to Los Angeles and got to work as a private investigator, taking care of weird cases for Hollywood's rich and famous.
Of course, we still kept in touch. That's why I was here, barging into Shady Palms like a warty toad leaping into a flower garden. My team's medic, a good-natured Okie named Winthrop Guthers, lived out near Shady Palms, running a gas station. He had a wife and a daughter, the kind of normal life he had dreamed of during the war. See, Guthers' had been born with a set of hands that glowed, and healed whatever they touched. Those magic mitts could have been a divine gift, but the folks fleeing the Dust Bowl saw it as devil's work, forcing him to hide them away.
Guthers did that after the war too, unable – or just unwilling – to travel far outside his house. It kept his powers hidden away, but when his teenage daughter Alma vanished while hanging around with the silver spoon crowd at the Shady Palms Beach Club, he couldn't go and find her himself. That's why he called me.
I asked him if I could do the job for free, but Guthers wouldn't have it. I talked him down into just giving me a little dough. As I walked through the lobby of the Shady Palms Beach Club, looking out at the wooden Tiki statues in the corner, and the wide windows overlooking the crystal blue water and bone white sands, I figured I was being overpaid. I'd do an investigation in a paradise like this for free. I didn't know that after it was all over, I'd know that every paradise has a price – and it's usually one that has to be paid in blood.
I walked past the lobby and stepped out onto the patio, overlooking the water. The waves were coming in, easy and regular as a heartbeat. A couple kids in bathing suits were playing volleyball or getting ready to surf. I scoped some a pair of dames going by, each dressed in a banana yellow suit and a white towel. I wouldn't mind unwrapping them. The whole place seemed exclusive, luxurious and beautiful – the kind of joint where I would usually only see the closed door.
Then I noticed a little wooden bar on the edge of the patio, serving tropical drinks in fat wooden glasses. If there's one thing a good shamus knows, it's that a well-greased bartender can give you more than just some booze. I took off my trench coat and tucked it under my arm. My suit did a good enough job on its own hiding the twin automatics in crossed shoulder-holsters. Then I went over to have a drink.
I sat on a barstool and set down a twenty. The bartender was an overweight guy in a pink Hawaiian shirt with a moustache that looked like a smudge of dirt. "You got any drinks that ain't loaded down with flowers and fruit?" I asked.
"We just got rum," he replied. "I don't got to put nothing in it.
"Then don't. Get me a glass. And keep the change." While he grinned at his good luck and put away the bill, I popped out a snapshot of Alma Guthers. She was a petite strawberry blonde teenager with a short pigtail, with just the right mix of a girl's age and a woman's figure to make her father worry. Poor Winthrop was plenty worried now that she was missing. "You ever seen her? Around here, maybe?"
The barman lowered his eyes. He didn't even want to look – because he didn't want to lie. "Can't say that I have. We get a lot of people at Shady Palms, sir. Old, young – all kinds. I can't really remember one from another."
I grabbed his arm, letting him look right into my scarred face. "I guarantee you'll remember me, buddy. Now how about spilling on the girl?"
"L-look, Mr. Thorne don't—"
"Roland Thorne. He owns the Shady Palms. He likes everything nice and quiet, in the town and the club. You start raising a stink, and you may find yourself in some trouble. I don't want none of that, so how about you go and ask about this girl somewhere else?" His eyes darted around. "I'm the wrong guy to ask anyway. I'm just the bartender here! I serve drinks and that's it."
"So who would I go to if I'm looking for something more?"
The answer came from the side, a low purr that made me forget all about the sap behind the bar. "How about you try looking at me?" I turned around and did. I liked what I saw. She was tall, wearing a dark blue dress with thin straps and no back. Her long dark hair was done in an artful bun, sparking with pearls. Her skin was pale, but she didn't seem worried about the sun. I could see why. This dame was too cool to burn. She offered me a smile. "The name's Leucothia."
"That's a mouthful."
"So am I." She grabbed my glass of rum and gave it a sip. "Now, you say you're looking for some information?"
"Lost girl. Name of Alma Guthers."
"I see lots of girls. Lots of guys too. But none like you." She pointed to my face. I got the feeling she didn't mind the scars. "There's something unique about you." Leucothia leaned forward. "You're alone. In this place. Maybe in this world. You got a name?"
"Dwight Harrow." I took the cup from her and drained it. Leucothia folded her hands and watched, but it wasn't like she had a front row seat at the freak show. The dame didn't mind me. That was for certain. She smiled at me as I set the cup down on the counter. "And yeah, maybe I am different. What's it to you?"
"I think I'm the same way."
Before I could say anything else, I heard boots on the patio. I turned around to see a trio of Shady Palms cops coming my way. I didn't think they were there for the Mai Tais. The two cops on the right were the usual tough thugs with badges and guns. The guy in the middle looked like he had swallowed a beach ball, with a thick white moustache dividing his face. He rested his hand on his revolver as he looked me over. "Mr. Harrow?" he asked. "I'm Kent Crabbage, the chief of police here in Shady Palms. Will you come with me, please?" He sounded impatient. "Mr. Thorne wants to meet you."
I looked back at Leucothia. "You know about Alma Guthers?"
"Then we'll have to talk later."
Leucothia nodded. "I'm looking forward to it."
"And this Thorne guy, you know about him?"
She laughed. "I should," she said. "He's my husband."
That was the last thing she said to me before Chief Crabbage grabbed my arm. I didn't want to piss off the local lawman any more than I had to, so I just nodded and went along. They took me back to the lobby and then up a flight of stairs. Getting hauled upstairs didn't bother me. That's usually where the big fish like to swim. If Roland Thorne was the one I was angling for, at least this would give me a chance to hook him.
The cops took me a penthouse suite. The place looked like a cross between a Tahitian hut and an ultramodern office. Tiki statues stood in the corner, along with bubble chairs and miniature palm trees. Thorne himself was behind a fat slab of a mahogany desk. He looked like the kind of guy who would spend an hour on his outfit before going to the store for some milk. His blue suit and pearl gray ascot were perfectly folded. His hair gleamed with brylcream, solid as a rock. Some tropical flower with too many petals poked out his lapel.
He had a bodyguard too, a regular gorilla in a Hawaiian shirt. His arms bulged with muscle, barely fitting into their sleeves. He had copper skin, and tons of angular tattoos running along his face. There wasn't a hair on him. The bodyguard was smiling, like his jaw was stuck that way.
Thorne was talking on the phone when we came in and didn't bother to hang up. "That's right, Dick – your investment in Shady Palms Resorts is gonna bear fruit by the end of the year, and I'm talking a windfall. Not only that, but I'm thinking of expanding. Where? Oh, you know – Miami, Malibu, Atlantic City. Yes, I know the land there is already spoken for. Don't worry about that." He smiled like he'd told a joke only he would get. "Well, thanks for the investment. Don't worry. You'll profit soon." He hung up and looked at us. "Ah, Crabbage. You got our latest guest?"
"I don't plan on staying long, Mr. Thorne—" I started.
"That's great. Because a freak like you is not gonna spend another second in the Shady Palms Beach Club." Thorne looked to his bodyguard. "Tino, get over here." He looked back at me as Tino walked in front of his desk. "Tino's an honest-to-god islander shaman. His people ride around on sharks and commune with volcano spirits on a daily basis." He grinned as I looked at Tino's tattooed arms. "What I was saying? Oh yes – you're going to leave. But not before you tell me exactly what it is you're doing here."
"I'm a detective. I'm looking for a missing girl." I looked over Tino's shoulder, glaring at Thorne. "Her name's Alma Guthers. She ought to be celebrating her sixteenth birthday soon. You got a line on her, by any chance, Mr. Thorne?"
Roland Thorne just smiled. "I'm gonna give you a little tip, Mr. Harrow. I'm more than just a resort magnate. I've got power in Shady Palms – I control all the right people. And what's more, I'm reaching out." He turned around, looking through the tinted windows at the wide blue carpet of the Pacific Ocean. "Oh yes. I'm reaching out to the true powers in the world. And they're gonna follow my every wish."
"So where's the Guthers girl?"
He turned around and nodded to Crabbage's cops. "You just don't get it, do you? I figured a guy with a scarred up face like yours would have learned to avoid trouble. Well, I guess we'll have to give those scars some company."
The two cops ran to restrain me. One grabbed my hand, but I pulled free and slammed a fist right into his forehead. I felt his head change shape under my blow. My fingers hurt – but I knew I hurt him more. He stumbled back. The other copper grabbed my shoulder. I moved to strike him, but then Chief Crabbage slammed a nightstick into the back of my head. I crumpled. The two cops grabbed my arms and held me up.
Thorne hadn't turned away from the ocean. He was still looking out at the sea, following the waves with his eyes. "Just consider this a friendly warning," he said. "Tino? Get to work."
That's just what Tino did. His fist buried deep into my chest. I could feel my ribs bend as the breath left me. It felt like getting walloped by a tsunami. The next blow struck the side of my face. I looked up at the ceiling, feeling teeth rattle in my skull. The Nazis had built me big and made me able to take a few punches. But Tino just threw a few more blows than I could handle. He worked over my stomach and my skull.
I lost count of the number of punches. Then I lost everything else. Darkness closed around me, tinged with splotches of red.
I woke up in the gutter. I felt like a controlled demolition had taken me down. I cracked my eyes open and the sunlight hurt worse than Tino's punches. I managed to stand up and take a look around. I was near the main drag of Shady Palms, a broad street decorated by palm trees and boutique shops. Well-dressed tourists strutted around. They wouldn't give the time of day – not to mention some spare change – to any bum, especially one as ugly as me.
I grabbed my fedora and set it on my head. Keeping low, I walked onto the sidewalk. I heard an engine drawing near and risked a look up. It was a cherry red corvette, one of those neat little two-seaters that seem to glide over the street without ever touching it. I got a look at who was behind the wheel. Leucothia Thorne was wearing a silver scarf over her dark hair and big round sunglasses. She looked like she knew how to handle a vehicle.
Her auto came to a stop right in front of me. "Oh no," she said, looking at me. "Mr. Harrow, what happened?"
"Your husband, sister. He and his goons didn't like me hanging around their resort. They tossed me out – but worked me over first." I walked over to the car and rested a big hand on the door. "I gotta say, your hubby's a real peach of a fellow."
"Roland has his problems," Leucothia replied. "His benefits too." She opened the door and motioned for me to sit down. "Can I do anything to help? Maybe give you a ride?"
"Sure. But first I'd like to know what you know on Alma Guthers." The case came first, even when a red hot dame was trying to edge it out of my mind.
Leucothia considered the question. "You're in no shape for that now. Let me take you somewhere. You got a hotel room?"
She was probably right. I felt like the different pieces of me were all dripping in different directions. If I didn't get a little rest, I'd fall apart. "Payphone first. There's one down the street. Then the EZ Value Motel on the edge of town." I slumped in the seat and reached for my hip flask. I had a sip as Leucothia started the car. That helped.
She turned the corner and came to a payphone. I got out and made one call, to my office in Los Angeles. The heat on the glass made it like an oven. I didn't want to stay for long, but the call was worth the discomfort. It picked up on the first ring. "Sophie?" I asked. "How you doing? How's the business?"
"I've got some good cases, boss." Sophie Gold was my secretary. She was a good girl, working for me while taking classes at UCLA. She was as sharp as a pin and could burst any bubble. I've learned not to underestimate her. "Some starlet's worried about her summer place being haunted. We got some zombie sightings in Santa Monica, and the LAPD wants your advice on that Satanist shindig coming up. How's the Guthers case coming? Did you find your friend's daughter yet?"
"Almost. But I'm gonna need some help from you, kid. You don't got any classes tomorrow?"
"No, Dwight, not at all." There was real concern in her voice. "Are you okay?"
"I'm working on it. Get down her. Take the Caddy – and bring some guns."
"Sure thing, boss. Which ones?"
I considered the questions. "As many as you can fit in the goddamn car. See you here."
"Okay, boss. I'm on my way." We hung up together.
I walked out of the phone booth, my legs feeling about as stable as match sticks supporting a cement building. I got into Leucothia's car and she started to take me back to the EZ Value Motel. I looked her over. The wind was making her hair billow behind her, like a little bit of midnight right there on the street.
"I still want to know about Alma Guthers," I said.
"Then we'll talk. Tonight. I'll be at the Kon-Tiki Lounge on Ocean Street. Meet me there." She started the car and sped down the street. She moved quickly through Shady Palms. I watched her spin the wheel. I liked everything about her. Maybe she was stringing me along. I didn't care. I figured she'd be worth it.
We reached the EZ Value Motel, some cheap flophouse on the edge of town. I looked back at her as I walked up to my room. "Sister, what exactly have you and your husband gotten into out here?" I wondered.
She just smiled and sped back into the street. I smiled back. I couldn't help it.
I went into my hotel room and collapsed onto the bed. I had a pair of cigarettes and another slug of booze while laying flat on my back. Then I put my head on the pillow and closed my eyes. Sleep took me in a matter of seconds.
Sophie Gold woke me up a little after sundown. I heard the creak of the door, whining like a beaten dog, and then her soft, hesitant footsteps on the dirty carpet. I sat up and gave her a lopsided smile. "Sophie," I said, as I sat up and reached for my coat. "Enjoying the sand and surf?"
"I just got in, boss." Sophie was had dark hair, cut short, and a pair of round spectacles. She wore a tweed coat and matching skirt. She looked like she ought to be working in a library, except no librarian packed a snub-nosed revolver in her purse. Sophie sat down on a chair opposite the bed. "You stink of alcohol," she said.
"Maybe I just stink."
"Maybe. How goes the investigation on the Guthers girl?"
I brought her up to speed, giving her a quick summary of how I got pounded by Roland Thorne and his pet cops. "He's mixed up in this. The lousy snob didn't even bother denying it. And I got a feeling he's mixed up in something else too – something right up our line." I stood up and reached for my coat and hat. "Thorne's playing around with dark powers and he has something to do with Alma Guthers' disappearance."
"Oh god." Sophie lowered her eyes. "That poor girl. Do you think she might already be—"
"There's a chance. She was playing around with some dangerous people." I set the fedora on my head. "But I got to get a bigger picture. The hall of records should still be open. Go and see what you can find on Thorne and his resorts. Check the local papers, the gossip in bars, anywhere you can glom a little info. I heard him mentioning making some major business plays. Keep all the heaters in the Caddy. No need to bring them out just yet." I checked my watch. "I gotta dangle now. I've got me a date with Roland Thorne's wife."
"His wife?" Sophie shook her head. "Boss, I think you might be getting in a little too deep."
"Could be. But for Private Winthrop Guthers, I'll touch bottom." I reached out and took her hand. Her fingers were thin and delicate. In my misshapen mitts, they looked like roses among weeds.
She gave my hand a squeeze. "Well, you just be careful. Do you want me to drive you?"
"Nix on that, sweetheart." I walked over to the door. "The night air will do me some good."
I headed out of the motel and hit the street. The moon was just coming out and the night air felt like a cool caress on my skin. A light breeze was coming in from the ocean. I could hear the waves, over the engines of cars, strains of music from the restaurants and clubs, and conversation of everyone on the sidewalks. Shady Palms' nightlife was just starting to heat up. I walked past tourists in pastel suits and shining gowns, making my way down streets that gleamed with neon and moonlight. The Kon-Tiki Lounge wasn't hard to find. Torches blazed in front of it, next to a pair of giant Tiki statues.
I walked inside and had a look around. Everything in the joint was done up in light wood paneling, like it was made from a hundred canoes stuck together. The place was packed. Some big band in the corner was banging out a jazzy island tune. I looked around for Leucothia Thorne. I didn't have to look long.
She eased through the crowd like she was made of water. Her hair was undone, spilling over her shoulders. She had a cigarette holder in one hand. A single line of smoke rose from the end of it, curling around her arm and face. I stood stock still, waiting for her to approach.
When she stood right across from me, she reached her hand out and touched my face. Cool fingers traced out my scars and patches of skin. "I've got a private booth," she said. "Come and join me. I do hope you're hungry."
"Baby, I'm starved."
I followed her across the restaurant. She had a quiet booth in the corner, out of the reach of the crowd and the band. The waiter brought some tropical drinks and two plates of fish, swimming in spicy sauce. I munched on the food for a little, watching her more than my fork. After gobbling down half the fish and most of the giggle juice, I finally decided to start talking.
"So," I said, skewering a chunk of fish. "There's something I been wondering."
"About little Alma Guthers?"
"That too, but let me ask you something else – what does a twist like you see in a bum like me?"
Leucothia smiled. "Mr. Harrow, I see that you are different from every other man here. Just as I am different from every other woman."
I stared at her pale skin and dark hair, watching the way she handled a fork. "You don't look too different."
"Looks can be deceiving. You, for instance, appear to be a man. But I know that is not the case."
I felt a shiver run through me. "Oh yeah? Then what exactly am I?"
"A puzzle. Lots of different pieces, jammed together. None of them really fit. Just like you don't fit into this world." Her hand moved across the table, walking like a crab until it reached my arm. Her wrapped themselves around it. "Just like I don't fit. Even with Roland."
"What is Roland doing?" It was time to get back to the case. "And what does it have to do with Alma Guthers?"
She shrugged. "Alma enjoyed Roland's company. Many women do. He does have a certain charisma, like he spreads the myths of tropical paradise wherever he goes. She joined his inner circle of friends, of which I am a member. They engaged in…strange rituals, to truly know the sea."
"A cult." I had suspected as much.
"That's such a small word for what Roland is leading, Mr. Harrow."
"Call me Dwight." I leaned forward, peering across the table. "And tell me more."
"I'll tell you everything, Dwight, and show you it too – but not now. Later, at my mansion, at midnight. You'll see everything you want to." Leucothia increased her grip on my hand. "Dwight, men like Roland try and touch the infinite, to become more than human by working with powers they can never understand. But you don't even have to try. You're not human. You never were."
Was she right? I didn't know. I tried to think back to before the War, before I was pieced together. It was like watching a slideshow from half a dozen lives, spliced together. I remembered small work on small farms before the Dust Bowl, running down back alleys in big cities, going fishing with parents I couldn't name. "I got human memories," I finally said.
"Puzzle pieces – nothing whole. They are remnants of past lives. But none of them are yours."
I didn't know how she knew it, but Leucothia was speaking the truth. Those memories didn't belong to me. And what did? Leaping out of planes with the wind ripping at my skin, the pulse of a rifle's recoil as I gunned down Kraut infantry and the horror of what the Black Eagles and I found of the Third Reich's maniac experiments. But the memories of the Black Eagles were there too, and Private Guthers' simple friendship. They taught me what humanity meant, even when it seemed that there wasn't enough of it to go around.
"What about Alma?" I asked. "What did she have to do with Roland's kooky cult?"
Leucothia's hand slid away from mine. Her skin seemed slick, like she had just been bathing. "Join me in my house," she said. "The Western edge of town. Near the docks. At Midnight. Now, why don't you join me outside?" She stood up and I followed her. Leucothia Thorne didn't even have to ask for the check. I guess her husband owned the joint – along with everything else in Shady Palms.
The two of us walked outside, stepping into the neon and moonlight. Suddenly, Leucothia gripped my arm. She pointed down the sidewalk. Two men were coming through the crowd. It was Tino, Thorne's bodyguard, and one of the off-duty cops, now wearing a bad gray suit that didn't hide the bulge under his arm. I guessed they weren't here for the tropical drinks.
They had managed to give me the Broderick back in their boss's office, but now I was ready for them. I turned back to Leucothia. "Wait here for a second," I said, and then walked straight down the sidewalk. I didn't bother going for my pistols. Drawing iron here and getting into a gunfight would draw too much attention and slow me down, besides attracting every cop in this little burg. I'd have to take them down fast – just using my fists.
The cop noticed me first. I saw his lips curl back and his eyes go wide as I broke into a run. The sidewalk wasn't that crowded. I got to him quickly, just as he was going for his gun. "Goddamn shamus!" he roared, trying to draw his revolver. "I'll blow you in half!" He got the gun half out of his coat before I grabbed his wrist and forearm. He wouldn't let go, so I broke his arm over my knee. The cop started to scream. I grabbed the back of his neck and slammed his face into the wall. He clammed right up.
People around us were starting to notice. A few screams ran through the crowd. I ignored them. So did Tino. He just smiled at me, grinning as he walked forward. I snapped open the cylinder of the cop's revolver, poured the bullets out and tossed it away, my eyes still on Tino. I focused on his mouth. His teeth were the wrong shape and he had too many of them. Just as he got close enough, I realized what they were – shark's teeth.
Roland Thorne hadn't been lying. Tino was some South Seas shaman, an honest-to-god shapeshifter who didn't mind taking a shark's chompers when he was trying to ice me. He lunged forward, moving too fast for me to stop, and took a big bite into my arm. I gritted my teeth, feeling each of those sharp-edged teeth cut into my skin. My sleeve was soaked in blood. If he kept biting, he'd have the whole arm torn right off.
I couldn't knock him off, so I didn't. Instead I braced myself and pulled the arm back, yanking Tino with it. I swung him around and let his coat reach the burning lawn torch before the Kon-Tiki Lounge. The floral fabric lit up and Tino pulled back, gasping as flames rose across his shirt. He managed to tear it off – just before I delivered a heavy right hook straight into his shark teeth.
The teeth left his mouth in a cloud. They scattered across the street, rattling on the cement and falling into the grass. Tino swung at me again, long stingray spines sliding out of his fingers. He aimed for my throat, trying to stab one of those long white needles into my jugular. I let him swing and then thudded a fist into his gut. He curled up. I put my elbow against his skull and he hit the sidewalk. A few more kicks and he wasn't going anywhere.
"I'm gonna find out what your boss is up to," I said. "You seem like a smart guy, so I'm gonna give you a chance – get out of Thorne's service or I'll gut you like the fish you are." I swung my boot against his chest, just to drive the point home and then turned away.
By now, most of the crowd had scurried away. Leucothia was left. She ran to me. "Dwight…" she whispered, grabbing my hand. "You were magnificent. No human could have taken that damage. No human could have fought with such speed and such skill."
"And here I thought all I did was mash a couple mugs wouldn't stay out of my way." I looked back at the street. A black Cadillac was speeding our way, already sliding up to the curb. Leucothia started to run, but I grabbed her arm. "It's jake," I said. "She's a friend."
The Caddy came to a stop and Sophie looked out the window. She saw the blood on my arm and gasped. "Boss!" she cried. "You're hurt! I got a fist aid kit in the car, come on in and I'll patch you up!" Sophie was a good girl. No matter how many times I got roughed up, she never seemed to be any less worried to see me wounded. Then she looked up at Leucothia. "And who is this?"
"Leucothia Thorne." I looked from Leucothia to Sophie. They looked like they were planning to fight. I turned back to Leucothia. "I'll see you later. Your mansion at midnight still sound good?"
"Nothing could sound better." She gave me a final smile and then drifted back into the crowd, vanishing like spilled water on a hot day.
I watched her go, then walked around and got into the Cadillac. I slumped into the passenger seat and Sophie handed me a set of bandages, quickly tying them on and letting me put on the pressure. If she was confused by how I got a shark bite in a fistfight, she didn't bring it up. Instead, Sophie started the auto and headed down the street, going back to the EZ Value Motel.
I turned to look at her. "You don't like Leucothia?"
"No, boss. She's trouble. You don't have to be an expert to see that. Either she's working with her husband or playing some angle of her own. Either way, she's using you." Sophie sighed. "I'm sorry. Maybe I'm being a little paranoid. But I don't want to see you get hurt. Not anymore."
"I can take a little hurt, kid. And I think you're misreading Leucothia. She knows me. Soon as she saw me, she knew me." I thought about what she had told me. She knew right away I wasn't human. That's what attracted her to me. She had pierced to the core of me, like a diamond bullet fired straight at my heart. "But enough about her. What info did you pick up on Thorne's company?"
Sophie sped down the street, keeping her eyes on the road. "They're expanding. Thorne has seen nothing but profits and doesn't appear to be getting any poorer. Since buying up every business bigger than a corner lemonade stand in Shady Palms, he's managed to expand and keep expanding. But here's the funny thing – Thorne's collecting investors and money for some major moves, in various other resort locations. Miami, Malibu – you name it. Problem is, those places are already bought out."
"So how will he muscle in?" I thought over Leucothia's words for a few seconds. "He'll get his friends to help."
"In the Mob?"
"In the sea." I shook my head. This case was getting worse the deeper I went. "According to Leucothia, Thorne's been using his resort here as a cover for a major cult. They worship the sea. It does their bidding, so maybe they'll use that to trash the rival businesses. I guess they give the ocean sacrifices in return."
"Oh." Sophie gulped. "You don't think poor Alma—"
"Maybe. A poor girl from an honest family getting torn to shreds by high society scumbags? It wouldn't surprise me." I sighed. "But there's something else. If that's the case, then Thorne and his pals need a go-between. The ocean doesn't seem very talkative. They need someone who knows the score, with the power to work with the ocean. Even a cut-rate shaman like Tino couldn't handle that."
We had reached the EZ Value Motel. The bleeding on my arm had stopped. Sophie changed my bandages while I stared out the window at the moon. It was big and round, a silver eye looking down at us and laughing at what it saw. Maybe it had a right to. But now it was time to get serious. Thorne was packing some major occult firepower. I'd have to match him – and go one step further.
"Go inside and get some rest, kid," I told Sophie, handing over the keys to the motel room. "In maybe an hour we'll start heading to Leucothia's house. Then we'll finish this whole rotten job."
"You still want to see Leucothia?"
She was the only woman who didn't seem to mind my scars. She was the only woman who figured me out in a matter of seconds. "She understands me. That's all there is to it," I said. "Now go and get some rest." I turned away from her, not even watching as she opened the car door.
Sophie walked away and I started loading the cannons. Having half-a-dozen or so cut up memories floating around meant I had enough training memorized for half a squad of soldiers. I knew just how to handle each gun that Sophie had brought. I smiled at some of the bigger guns. It never hurt to be prepared. For what I was getting into, I figured I'd need every last bullet.
Just before midnight, Sophie drove me over to the Thorne estate. It was a sprawling mansion, all cream stucco and sharp edges, at the edge of town, overlooking the ocean. It had a few docks, jutting out into the sea. A few speedboats were moored there, waiting to be used. I looked out at the waves as Sophie drove to the gate. They were choppy and tipped with white. It was like the whole ocean was restless. The two large double doors were open. I just had to walk inside.
Slowly, Sophie drove the car up to the doors and came to a stop. "You sure you want to do this, boss?" she asked.
"It's a midnight date, kid. I think I can handle it. Be back in an hour or so to pick me up." I gave her a lopsided grin, and then opened the door. Sophie just shook her head as I stepped out and walked across the cobblestone driveway to the manor.
I headed inside. I found Leucothia Thorne in a little patio courtyard, right past the main gate. There was a Moorish fountain in the middle, filling the cool night air with the gentle trickle of water. Leucothia was sitting at a glass table, making a pair of drinks. She wore only a nightgown. It was loose and light, billowing in the wind like it was made of smoke. I watched her hands as she diced limes with a thin knife and squeezed the juices two glasses. For a while, I just stood in the shadows and watched.
Leucothia finally looked up at me and held out a glass, like she had known I was there the whole time. I walked over and took it from her, draining half of the drink in a single sip. "I take it your dear husband ain't home at the moment?" I asked, resting in one of the wicker chairs.
"He has business with the ocean. The fool."
I expected as much. "Why do you say that?"
"He thinks he is greater than what he is. You don't have that problem." She pointed at my chest. "You know exactly what you are. You know what you were made to be."
"A patchwork Nazi killer," I replied. "A jumbled-up puzzle. Nowhere near a normal human being." I looked into her dark eyes. They seemed darker than the ocean's depths. I began to wonder how she could read me like a book, how she knew me better than I did. "I'm not human, sister. And neither are you."
"Yes." She whispered it as she came closer. Her arms went around me. "They call my people Nerieds, Rusalka or Silkies. Roland summoned me – and with ritual and magic he thought he could control me. He tries to make me fit into his little human world of business and petty greed. But I don't belong here. And neither do you."
"Holy Hell." I stepped back from her, realizing why her skin felt so damn cold and why she could look straight into my mind. "You're the go-between. You're the ocean's representative. You're the one behind all of Thorne's power."
"Yes." She took a step towards me and I moved back, going closer to the fountain. "But he has no power over you. Dwight, do you realize what we can do together? You'll join his cult. You'll be his muscle and help him expand. And when the time is right, you'll destroy him and we'll take over everything together."
"I don't want no cash, sister. Not from that."
"Money? Such a pathetic, human concept. You and I know better." Her lips curled back. Her skin seemed to get slick, like she'd just pulled herself out of a swimming pool. "We can have true power. We'll have all of the strength of the ocean and the connections and profits of dry land. We can rule both worlds."
I listened to her proposal. Maybe part of me even wanted to agree. It wasn't the dough. I never was a greedy man. It was something else, that I knew I'd never get no matter how much money I raked in, or how strong I was – respect and acceptance. At the end of the day, Leucothia was right. I ain't a man. I never had been.
But then I thought about the Black Eagles, and Winthrop Guthers. I thought about poor little Alma. I thought about Sophie. I knew I couldn't agree to anything Leucothia was offering. I shook my head. "Sorry, sister," I said. "Go look elsewhere for a stooge. I bet you won't have to look hard. After all, there's plenty of fish in the—"
Something burst out of the fountain and wrapped around my neck. It was rubbery and wet, tightening around my throat and yanking me back. My head cracked into the cement side of the fountain. Everything went red and white and blue. I tried to breathe and grabbed what was grabbing me.
It was a tentacle, a thick band of dark orange flesh. Suckers lined its bottom. I felt them cutting into my skin, ripping off patches as it pulled the life from me. I couldn't even hear myself choking. I tried to pull the tentacle away, but another thick tendril burst out of the water and grabbed one of my hands. It was like arm wrestling with a length of steel.
Through the haze of pain, I saw Leucothia walk in front of me. "I hope you change your mind," she said. "But I've got to go now. There's a ceremony, out on the water in Roland's private yacht, which I must supervise. Roland is to make his monthly sacrifice to the great ocean gods."
"Who—who—" I tried to choke out.
"Who? Oh, darling, what does it matter? Let these apes die, ending their pathetic, greedy, wretched little lives. But if you must know, it's that girl you were interested in – Alma Guthers. She was perfect for Roland's purposes. He invited her into his inner circle and then kept her until this moment."
So Alma was alive – at least for a little longer. That would have been a good thing, except I was in no position at all to rescue her. I glared at Leucothia as I struggled with the tentacle. She leaned forward and planted a kiss on my forehead. Her lips felt cool and welcoming. She walked away slowly, her long legs making her whole body sway with each stride. Even though I knew what she was, even though I knew what she was a part of, I still couldn't take my eyes off of her.
Leucothia Thorne walked right out of the courtyard and left me to die. I closed my eyes, trying to conserve energy and get as much oxygen in as possible. The tentacles tightened. It was going to snap my neck. Breaking free wasn't an option. I'd never have the strength.
I forced my eyes open, trying to find anything that could help. Then I saw it – the knife Leucothia had used to dice up the limes. It lay on the edge of the table, resting on a tray, the blade still covered in green pulp and juice. It was out of reach – but not by much.
I lunged for it, striving forward with all of my weight. I reached out with the nearest arm. The tentacle doubled its grip, trying to pull me back. My throat felt like it was gonna rip in half. My vision was a slideshow of black and white. I couldn't feel my fingers, but I saw them brushing the edge of the knife. I told them to move. They did. The knife got closer.
My fingers wrapped around the blade's handle and then I had it in my fist. I slid it back, stabbing it into the underside of the tentacle trying to break my arm and ripping the knife out. A gout of blackish blood spewed onto the moonlit patio. It looked like tar. The tentacle let go. I jammed the knife into the tentacle going around my throat. This one didn't want to let go. I kept pressing, sawing it back and forth. Black blood spread onto the ground.
A little air started to get back into my lungs. I sucked it in and kept going. My arm didn't slow. The tentacle weakened its grip.
Then it was gone. I fell forward, falling onto my face. I rolled over, dropping the knife and going for my pistols. I stood up, an automatic in each hand. The tentacles lunged forward. I started shooting. I pumped fat slugs into the tentacles. My ears were ringing and I didn't stop until the guns were empty and the tentacles were splattered in bloody pieces around the fountain.
I collapsed on the bench behind me. I focused on breathing for a while, listening to footsteps pounding to the courtyard. The door slammed open and I looked up with tired eyes. It was Sophie, her snub-nosed revolver in her hand. She looked around for any sign of danger and then ran to me.
"Sophie…" I said. "You were…right."
"Dwight, you're okay?" she asked. "You look terrible."
The suckers had ripped off bits of my skin. I was bleeding, but nothing too deep. I sucked in another lungful of air and came to my feet. I started to reload the pistols. "You were right about Leucothia," I said. "She was trouble. That dame's not even human. She's got to go."
"Dwight, are you sure? You said she understood you." Sophie cared about my heart, as much as she cared about my body.
"She does. She's still got to go." I slammed in two new clips and slid the cannons back into my shoulder-holsters. "The guns in the car – they didn't go anywhere?"
"Nope. I've got the Caddy parked right outside."
"Good. We'll get as many guns as we can. We'll take one of the Thornes' speedboats. Roland Thorne and all his cultist buddies are on the water tonight, making some kooky ritual on a private yacht. Alma Guthers is there too."
"We'll rescue her?"
"That's right, kid – and we'll kill anyone who gets in our way." I felt like my seams were starting to tear and I'd fall apart if I took a couple of steps. Every bit of me hurt. I wasn't in the mood to play around.
A few minutes later and Sophie and I were sharing a speedboat with a small arsenal of weapons. She got behind the wheel and set it into the ocean. She had a little trouble, but picked it up quickly. "It's a piece of cake, boss," Sophie said, steering the boat further into the moonlit ocean. "And you know, I've always wanted to spend some time at sea. But this isn't exactly what I had in mind."
I used a pair of binoculars to scan the water. It was late and there was only one yacht floating around in front of the Shady Palms resort. I knew they weren't there for the party. I nodded to Sophie and pointed into the distance. "Well, maybe when this is done, we'll hang around here, take in the sun. That sound good?"
"I don't know. After fighting some psychotic cult here, don't you think the whole place would feel a little…tainted?"
I shrugged. "Hell, sister. What isn't?" We were approached the yacht now. I double-checked my weapons and raised the binoculars again. We were coming alongside. Things were going to get messy.
Thorne's yacht was a like floating pearl palace. The binoculars let me get a look at the deck. There were at least a dozen people aboard, all dressed in formal tuxes, like they were going out to some big budget benefit. Most of them had long knives or revolvers. I spotted Chief Crabbage and some of his men, packing rifles and shotguns. Tino was nowhere to be found. The shaman must have wised up and split.
Roland Thorne himself stood near the stern. He had a long serrated machete in his hands. Someone was crouched at his knees, a thin body with a bag over her head. Thorne took off the bag. It was Alma Guthers. The poor girl looked terrified. She'd be screaming if she hadn't been gagged. There was a bruise over her eye, but other than that, she looked unharmed. I doubted she'd stay that way. Leucothia Thorne was near the railing, alone and watching the whole thing. I didn't let my gaze linger on her.
Sophie brought the speedboat in closer. The ocean was really churning now. The boat bumped up and down. I set the strap of a tommy gun over my shoulder and grabbed a grappling hook and a long length of rope. I was planning my attack, but something told me to hold off. The instincts of six dead soldiers were crying out to wait and I listened to them.
I saw Thorne raising the machete. "Lords of the Deep!" he cried, shouting over the roar of the ocean and the engine of his yacht. "You keep your end of the bargain! I'm about to keep mine! Send forth your servant! Let them receive your sacrifice!
The water in back of the yacht started to shift. It went white as snow. I was close enough now so that I didn't need the binoculars. I set them down and raised the Thompson. Then I saw what was coming out of the water and realized a sub-gun wasn't gonna be enough.
Massive tentacles, each big enough to wrap twice around the yacht, split from the surf. There were at least six of them and I could make out what they belonged to, resting in the water. I saw glassy eyes, big as bowling balls, and a torpedo-shaped body. It was some kind of giant squid, big enough to wrestle a submarine and win. Luckily, I had just the thing to sink that squid.
I reached into the back of the boat and scooped up a bazooka. Not many detectives packed rocket launchers. Not many detectives dealt with the kind of creeps and spooks that I did. I still had a few contacts in the army, who didn't mind letting a few surplus weapons slip through the cracks and into my hands. I balanced the rocket launcher on my shoulder.
"Boss?" Sophie asked. "Won't that make them notice us?"
"Yeah. So we'll have to move fast." I pressed the trigger. The bazooka belched flame. Thunder sounded over the waves. The missile slammed into the side of the squid. Red fire rose up from the white water. Droplets sprayed over me, like sudden rain. The squid's tentacles writhed madly. I didn't think I killed that squid – but I did slow it down. I had the attention of everyone on the yacht. Now it was time to get to work.
I grabbed the grappling hook, swung it around twice and let it fly. I'd scaled dozens of castle walls and guard towers during the War. This was the first time I've done it over the water. The hook hit the railing. "Keep sailing around the yacht, kid!" I told Sophie. "If you see them bump me, then head to shore and don't slow down!" Before she could say anything, I leapt out of the boat.
Rifle shots cracked past me. One burned past my shoulder, sudden heat against the ocean's chill. I hit the side of the yacht and started climbing. My big arms yanked on the rope and then I hit the railing and pulled myself up. My boots hit the deck. I looked over all the cultists.
Thorne pointed his finger at me. "You scarred-up freak!" he shouted. His handsome features split with pure rage. "You come onto my boat! You ruin my sacrifice!" He pushed down Alma and raised the machete. "You're screwing up everything!"
"Sorry for crashing your party, Roland." I brought up the tommy gun. "But you kidnapped my friend's daughter. Drop the blade and I'll go easy on you."
He didn't even answer, just nodded to Crabbage. "Blast this sideshow reject apart!"
The cops went for their guns. The poor bastards didn't stand a chance. I spun the tommy gun to face them and opened fire. I unloaded half the clip, pouring a long, rattling volley of hot lead into Crabbage and his fellow officers. Crabbage himself got a shot off before I buried some bullets in his tubby gut. He grasped his chest and tumbled backwards, striking the railing and falling into the water. The rest of the coppers were blasted to bites. I walked forward, working them over with bursts until they were finished.
The rest of the cultists made their move. Some jumped overboard, falling into the water with heavy splashes to try and swim to shore. Those were the smart ones. The rest pulled knives and guns and tried to rush me. I gunned them down. Bullets ripped through formal tuxedoes and upper class flesh. The Thompson's fat slugs tore off limbs and ripped out innards. Bodies spilled on the white deck, blood shining in the moonlight as they went down.
Thorne came at me with his machete. "Patchwork freak!" he shouted. He looked almost surprised, like he couldn't believe this was happening to him. I raised the tommy gun and gave him the last couple rounds. It blasted his head in half. He skidded to a stop, right before his feet.
For a few seconds, it was quiet on the yacht. I walked forward, moving to Alma. The tentacles were rising up behind her. Alma looked at me, tears running down her cheeks. Her eyes were wide with terror. I didn't blame her. I had to get her out of there.
"Dwight." Leucothia's voice was soft. I turned around. She stood before me, hands behind her back. Her dark eyes gleamed in the moonlight. Her long hair seemed to float in the air, like she was swimming on dry land. She moved towards me slowly, nearly floating across the deck. "You've done it. You've killed every one of those pathetic men."
"Yeah, baby," I replied. "I sure have."
"We're better than them, aren't we?" She reached out and touched my cheek. Her fingers were cool. "You can't hide your own nature forever, Dwight. You know you're different. You always will be."
"Sure." I grabbed her arm and held it. "I ain't human. But I ain't like you." I saw the machete held in other hand, hidden behind her back. She was planning on stabbing me, soon as she got close enough. I pulled her to the side, then wrapped both hands around her waist and lifted her up. "Now go on and meet your god."
I hurled Leucothia over the side of the boat. She flew over the railing, screaming all the while. Her scream was cut short. A tentacle wrapped around her. The ocean had wanted a sacrifice. It had gotten one. The tentacle pulled Leucothia Thorne into the ocean. That was the last I saw of her.
I looked at Alma. I knelt down and removed the gag, as gently as she could. The poor girl was shivering. She was terrified and she had every right to be – looking up at a man built like a tank with a face of fused-up scraps, covered in blood and smelling of gun smoke and death. She saw a monster. Maybe that's what I was.
"It's all right, honey," I told her. I took her hand and helped her up. We walked over to the grappling hook. Sophie had the speedboat right below the deck, ready to pick up me and Alma. "Come on, now. Let's get you home."
We got her down the line and into the boat. Sophie wrapped a blanket around her and cleaned the bruise on her forehead. I looked away, keeping Alma Guthers from seeing my face. She'd been scared bad enough already. Sophie started the engine and turned away from the yacht. We sped towards shore, away from the deep ocean.