Check out Ragnarok and Roll, a new collection of short stories by Keith DeCandido, available September 15th from Plus One Press. Enter to win a signed copy of the book, and attend the launch party for the book tonight in NYC!
Cassie Zukav has always been a bit of a weirdness magnet. Strange things always happened to her, even before she came to Key West for vacation and never left. She’s dealt with sea monsters and nixies and dragons, and shares her room with the ghost of an old wrecker captain, whom only she can see and hear.
Now she spends her days leading scuba diving jaunts and her nights at Mayor Fred’s Saloon watching the house band, 1812, rock the joint. But when 1812 takes a break, they’re replaced by Jötunheim, a band everyone but Cassie loves. Their lead singer is Loki, the Norse trickster god, who is trying to bring about Ragnarok-the end of all that is. Cassie learns that she’s a Dís, a fate goddess, from Odin himself, the Allfather of the Norse gods.
She’s the only one who can stop Loki from destroying the world. And then things get really weird…
“Undine the Boardwalk”
“It’s an open-air bar—can someone please explain to me, in words of two syllables, why the hell we can’t smoke in there?”
I barked a laugh as I heard that complaint from the circle of people huddled outside the entrance to Mayor Fred’s Saloon on Greene Street, puffing away on their cigarettes. I was approaching that entrance, and the gathering of the smokers’ union told me two things: 1) I wasn’t late for the start of 1812’s set because their keyboardist, Jana, was one of the nicotine hounds, and 2) Larry was in one of his moods again.
Larry was short—and not just the way lots of people look short to me because I’m a 5’11” woman, I mean his-head-came-up-to-my-boobs short—with a thick white beard and an unruly shock of white hair, which was barely held in check by a Tampa Bay Rays ballcap and a sloppily tied ponytail. Replace the Rays cap with a cowboy hat, and he could play the lead in the bio-pic of the life of Walter Brennan.
“I understand why they don’t want people smoking in enclosed spaces, second-hand smoke makes everything smell like a chimney something died in, and so on. I understand that. I really do. But this place doesn’t have a roof. Yes, the pool tables are enclosed, so don’t let people smoke there. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.” He puffed on one of his Menthols and caught my eye. “Hi, Cassie.”
“Hey, Larry. I’d ask how you’re doing, but your rant covered most of it.”
Next to Larry was Paolo Jiminez, who kept the cigarette between the fingers of his prosthetic hand, the acquisition of which signalled the end to his career as a local bar musician. He ran the sound board at Mayor Fred’s these days. “This way is so much better. I always hated coming home after a gig with all my clothes smelling like smoke.”
“C’mon, Jiminez.” Jana exhaled smoke into the humid Key West air. “You smoke like a fucking chimney. Your clothes smell like smoke when you come home now.”
Paolo shook his head. “I don’t take up smoking till I stop making music.”
The last of the four was Mira, the Goth waitress, who pulled her cell phone out of her apron and hit the button to activate the screen. “I gotta get back inside. Cassie, you want your pint?”
I nodded. “Please.”
She looked at Larry. “You ready for your coffee, or is it still Coke?”
Larry considered it while puffing down the last of his cigarette. “Nah, keep it on Coke. I’ll go hot a little later.”
I shook my head. Larry was the textbook definition of “regular.” I’d never gone to Mayor Fred’s when Larry wasn’t either at his usual spot at the back corner of the bar, at a pool table hustling tourists (he called it “educating“), in the bathroom, or out here smoking.
But he never drank alcohol. It was always either a soda or coffee, the latter with a metric ton of sugar added. I often wondered how he ever slept.
“I still got my mojito,” Paolo said.
Mira just rolled her eyes and went in through the entrance that had a giant fish hanging over it. She didn’t ask Jana for her drink order, since she was part of the band, and they were taken care of directly by Ihor, the bartender.
“I should probably head in, too.” I started toward the fish.
Jana dropped one cigarette onto the ground and stepped on it while simultaneously taking out another to light. “Oh, hey, Zukav, couldja do me a favor?”
I stopped and turned to look at Jana. “I guess.”
“My guy’s coming to see us tonight.” Jana’s voice lowered, and she actually sounded shy. You have to understand that shy is pretty much the last word anyone would use to describe Jana. “Couldja keep an eye on him, make sure he has a good time while we’re on stage?”
“Uh, okay,” I said, more confused by Jana’s tone than her request. “Who is this guy, anyhow?”
“I’m tellin’ ya, Zukav, this guy’s the one. His name’s Russ, and he’s just…”
Paolo rolled his eyes. “Here we go again.”
Larry adjusted the bill of his cap. “We’d just got her to stop talking about this fella.”
Jana snorted. “Yeah, by listening to your sorry ass piss and moan about indoor smoking.”
“It isn’t indoor smoking! There’s no roof!”
“Anyway,” Jana said with a glare at Larry, “Russ is just awesome. I really think he’s the one.”
“Like Alfredo” I asked. The previous “the one,” Alfredo had lasted all of a week.
Paolo put in, “Or Christian?”
I added, “Or Jelani?”
“Or that funny-looking one with the bad hair,” Larry said.
I grinned. “Isn’t that all of them?”
“Fuck you all.” Jana shook her head. “Look, I know I ain’t got the best track record ever, but this guy’s seriously awesome.”
Larry looked up at Paolo. “What’s the difference between ‘awesome’ and ‘seriously awesome’?”
Paolo shrugged. “For me, it means he puts out on the first date.”
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.” Larry made a face. Key West had as many gay people per capita as San Francisco, so I never understood how an island lifer like Larry could have such a problem with homosexuality. It was the mention of actual sex between same-gendered folks that squicked him, not gay people themselves, given that he was friends with Paolo and Ihor and Adina, one of the other waitresses.
Regarding Jana with amusement, I asked, “So when do we meet this hunka hunka burnin’ love?”
Jana looked past my shoulder and broke into a huge grin. “Right now! Russ!” She started waving with both hands, her lit cigarette gadding dangerously about.
I turned to see someone who, I swear, was tall, dark, and handsome approaching. He had perfectly combed dark hair that was barely affected by the Key West winds, yet had no evidence of product. (As the owner of a rat’s nest of blonde curls that usually needed garden shears to untangle, I was jealous.) He had lovely hazel eyes, a solid jawline, cheekbones you could cut glass with, and perfect teeth when he smiled.
Something about him made me feel more than a little nauseated—what my uncle Harry used to call a queasy feeling in his gizzard.
“Hey, baby,” he said as he leaned down to give Jana a very long, very deep kiss.
“Get a room,” I said when the kiss threatened to go on into the night. I also had to resist the urge to punch him, and I wasn’t entirely sure why.
“Oh, sorry,” Jana said sheepishly when she came up for air. Sheepish is another word I had never used as an adjective to modify Jana. “Russ, this is Cassie Zukav—she’s 1812’s biggest groupie.”
I supposed I deserved that. “Hi.”
He offered his hand, and I returned the shake, noticing a smooth, firm grip and uncalloused hands—and a sudden urge to grab his wrist and break his arm. I swallowed, quickly letting go of the handshake, but damn. I am most assuredly not a violent person—I wouldn’t even know how to break someone’s arm on purpose—but something was just off about this guy, and not just because he made Jana turn goofy.
“Is that something you can make a living at, being a groupie” he asked with a lovely voice.
I considered and rejected several retorts, but decided to tamp down the revulsion and play nice. “Sadly, no. I work at a local B&B and also at Seaclipse, one of the local dive shops.”
“Same place Bobbi and I go to dive,” Jana added, referring to her bandmate and oldest friend, 1812’s guitarist Bobbi Ann Milewski.
“I’m a bit of a diver, too,” Russ said. “Maybe I’ll check your place out.”
After introducing Larry and Paolo, Jana practically dragged Russ into the entrance under the fish. “C’mon, you need to meet the rest of the band.”
“Okay, baby. Nice meeting you all,” Russ called back as he let Jana guide him in.
The three of us stared after them for a second or two.
Paolo broke the silence. “I would totally hit that.”
Larry winced again. “What do you think, Cass?”
“I totally wouldn’t hit that,” I said honestly. “Or maybe I would, but with my fist.” And there’s the violence again. Sheesh.
“Of course not.” Larry smiled. “Your young man’s already in there.”
I assumed that meant that Rance Demitrijian was in the bar.
Before I could reply to that, Paolo got a wolfish grin. “Fine by me, I ain’t needin’ the competition.”
Larry stared at him. “You do remember what happened with Mickey and Perla, right?”
“Hey, I saved her a lot of grief—ain’t like he was gonna tell her he pitched for the other team too.”
“What do you think, Cassie” Larry asked me.
“Well, the last person who used ‘awesome’ in her presence got a ten-minute tirade about how stupid and overused that word is, and the last person to call her ‘baby’ got kneed in the groin, so I’d say it’s true love.” I shook my head. “But I don’t like him.”
“I don’t know,” Larry said, “I kind of like the cut of his jib.”
Both Paolo and I stared at him. “You know,” I said, “I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone use that phrase in real life.”
“Let’s go inside.” Paolo dragged on the last of his cigarette and stomped it out. “I need to see more of him.”
I felt I needed to see less, but didn’t say anything.
Thing is, this wasn’t just me not liking the guy Jana was dating. I’ve always been kind of a weirdness magnet, finding strange-ass shit, and knowing things I shouldn’t know about, and so on. Recently, I learned I’m one of the Dísir—a fate goddess. I found this out from, of all people, the king of the Norse gods. Yes, really. This means I notice things that other people can’t even see.
Looking over at the table near the ficus tree that Mayor Fred’s was built around, I saw Rance Demitrijian sitting there nursing a pint. I hadn’t been sure that Rance was going to make it. He’s a special agent with the Monroe County Field Office of the FBI, and his ability to make it to Mayor Fred’s depended on his caseload. Rance was also a diver; we’d actually met at Seaclipse, and started hanging out at Mayor Fred’s together.
Larry liked calling him my “young man” because he was weird like that, but the truth was, I had no idea what we were to each other. Yeah, we hung out at Mayor Fred’s and went diving together, and yeah, we could talk for hours about pretty much anything, but we’d never actually kissed or been on a date. Though I had seen him naked, when he was almost killed by a nixie. I mean, I’m at the same table at Mayor Fred’s from Thursday to Sunday night regardless of whether or not he is—and he’s not always, since work keeps him busy—and as for Seaclipse, that’s him hiring me to dive with him. That’s not a date.
The evening rolled merrily on, 1812 playing their usual three sets, an impressive range of rock-and-roll cover songs, some famous, some obscure, all hard-rockin’. While they played, Russ sat at the bar, not far from Larry’s seat, charming the shit out of everyone. At one point, when it was particularly crowded, Rance went up to get fresh beers for both of us, since Mira was a little too crazed dealing with a group of needy drunken tourists. Rance stood near Russ and Larry, and it took about a year for him to get back to the table, as he was talking to Russ.
Now, to be fair, Rance can babble, but Jesus.
“I thought I was gonna die of thirst,” I said when he came back with the two fresh pints.
“Alcohol dehydrrates you, so it’s not like this is gonna help all that much. You probably should’ve asked me to get some water from Ihor, too, though that probably would’ve meant I’d have to take two trips, since I think we all remember the last time I tried to carry three drinks.”
“It’s a figure of speech, Pedantic Boy.” I chuckled and sipped my beer. “So what were you and Jana’s new beau talking about?”
Rance shrugged. “Just talking about how much he liked it here. Said he’s been all up and down the Florida coast, but this is the place he likes best. He and Larry are getting along remarkably well, too. Usually it takes Larry a week or so to get to liking someone.”
“Tell me about it—he wouldn’t even talk to me for the first week.”
“Well, that’s because he thought you were a tourist. And to be fair, you were one, then.”
I nodded while sipping more beer. My plan had been to visit Key West for a week or two before going back home to San Diego. That was almost a year ago now.
“You okay, Cassie” Rance sounded concerned.
Shaking my head, I said, “I don’t know. There’s something about Russ I don’t like.”
“Is this a Dís thing” Rance and Bobbi both knew about my unexpected second life as a fate goddess. It wasn’t something I told everyone, but they were the two living people I was closest to these days.
“I don’t know—I think so. Any chance you can check him out?”
“I’ll stop by the office in the morning and run him, sure.”
As soon as he said that so casually, I got nervous. “This won’t get you in trouble, will it?”
“If I get caught, yeah. And if anyone else had asked, I wouldn’t do it without it being part of an investigation, but your instincts tend to be pretty good on these things, so we’d better check him out and be sure. Besides, we don’t have any big cases pending, so a Saturday morning will be pretty quiet. It’ll be fine. If I find anything, I’ll tell you about it at the dive.”
I smiled. I was running an afternoon dive at Seaclipse tomorrow that Rance had signed up for. So had Bobbi, actually. “Thanks, Rance.”
By the time 1812’s third set started, Russ had made friends with pretty much the entire bar. Even Chet, 1812’s bassist, said a whole sentence to him. Hell, it took me four months to get a second word in sequence from Chet.
Which just kicked up the queasy gizzard again. Rance wasn’t just being flattering when he talked about my instincts. After all, the last time I didn’t like someone that everyone else adored, he tried to destroy the world.
When the final set ended, Rance had already gone home. Jana and Russ had left before teardown, which earned a grumble from Bobbi. Then again, Bobbi and Jana hadn’t been on the best of terms lately, after Jana temporarily left the group for another band. They’d probably get over it—they’d been friends since they were little kids—but it made things a mite awkward.
After the happy couple left, I went over to say goodnight to Bobbi.
“Can you believe this shit” she said without preamble as she latched her battered black guitar case shut. “This better not be the start of a new trend.”
The drummer, Ginny Blake, chuckled. “C’mon, Bobbi, she’s in love. Cut her some slack.”
I added, “Yeah, tall, dark, and perfect probably wanted to get her home for the post-concert booty call.”
“Nah, it’s Jana’s fault, not Russ. He’s a good guy.”
How much of this stemmed from my bad feeling about Russ and how much was Bobbi’s still being pissed at Jana, I couldn’t tell, but it annoyed me that even Bobbi had fallen under this guy’s spell.
And I was genuinely worried that it was an actual spell.
Changing the subject, I made an offer. “I can help haul stuff if you need it.” Years of carrying air tanks around had given me upper-body strength that was greater than that of the average 5’11” amazon.
“Nah, we got it. See you at Seaclipse tomorrow?”
As I left, Larry was, of course, the only one still sitting at the bar, with only the remnants of 1812, Ihor, Paolo, and the two waitresses left besides him.
I headed to the Bottroff House, the bed-and-breakfast where I not only worked, but also lived. I got a good night’s sleep, woke up at eleven, and managed to pull myself together enough to get to Seaclipse on Stock Island—the next island in from Key West—in plenty of time for the afternoon dive.
Bobbi and Rance were both already there and suited up by the time I pulled into the driveway in Rocinante, my ancient Ford F-150 pickup truck. It was just the two of them for the dive, so we hopped onto Chico, one of Seaclipse’s three boats, and hit the Gulf of Mexico.
Once we were far away from the coast, and any prying ears, Rance said, “So I ran Russell A.L. Kamen.”
“Two middle initials” I only didn’t roll my eyes because I was steering a boat. “How pretentious is that?”
Bobbi put in before Rance could continue, “You ran Jana’s boyfriend?”
“I asked him to,” I said. “There’s something about him I don’t like.”
After pausing for a second, Bobbi said, “Okay.”
Now I hesitated. “You okay with this, Bobbi?”
“Jana’s still my best friend, even if I totally want to rip her face off right now, and if you don’t like him, he needs to be checked out.”
And this was why I told Rance and Bobbi about being a Dís. “So what kind of horrible person is he?”
Rance shrugged. “Born in Florida to Anne O. Kamen, no father listed on the birth certificate, though Anne was married to someone named Lawrence St. Joseph, but they split up nine months before Russ was born. Even money he’s the father and may not even know it. Anyhow, they live on a boat that’s been docked all up and down Florida, which tracks with what he was telling me last night about how he’s, well, lived all up and down Florida.” He smiled.
I didn’t. “So that’s it?”
Another shrug. “No criminal record, nothing stands out. He and his mother hire the boat out for tours and things, and their tax records indicate that’s their source of income. Not that it’s much of a living, based on those records, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of their clients pay cash and it doesn’t get reported.”
I pounced on that. “You can investigate them for that, right?”
Rance just stared at me. “Seriously? Every tour boat in the state takes money under the table. It’s really not that big a deal and not worth the paperwork an investigation would generate, especially once I got to the part about my probable cause.”
I knew that, of course, but I was grasping at straws.
“Maybe he’s just a jerk you don’t like,” Bobbi said.
“But he isn’t a jerk. Hell, even Larry and Chet like him, and they don’t like anybody. That’s what worries me.”
We got to the spot where we were going to dive—or, rather, they were. Since it was an odd number of people on the boat, I didn’t have to go down, since no certified diver would go down without a buddy. And I suddenly didn’t feel like it anyhow, preferring to stay up top and brood about Russ.
Unfortunately, brooding was all I could do. There was nothing legitimate on him, and I couldn’t go to Jana with, “I don’t like him.” For one thing, that was what I had said about all her other nine hundred boyfriends over the past year. For another, she didn’t know that I was a Dís, and I wasn’t about to tell her now. Discretion had never been Jana’s strong suit.
This went on for two weeks. I went to Mayor Fred’s and brooded, Russ had a grand old time chatting everyone up, 1812 rocked the house, and Jana got more and more attached.
That last part was really creepy. Every second she wasn’t on stage, she had her arms around him. She didn’t go outside to smoke, she didn’t help with set-up or teardown—which was making Bobbi crazy—and she giggled.
Okay, I’ve only known Jana for a year, but giggling? Not in her lexicon. This is a chick who pretty much defined cynical Goth, complete with the stringy hair, black nail polish, cigarettes, and “bitch, please” attitude. She not only didn’t giggle, she routinely mocked people who did.
Finally, one Sunday night between sets, Bobbi came up to me and said, “We have got to do something about this.”
“What did you have in mind?”
Flailing her arms, Bobbi cried, “I dunno! Do whatever Dís thing you do!”
I flailed my arms right back, mocking her a little. “I don’t even know what that is! Seriously, this didn’t come with an instruction manual.”
Shaking her head, Bobbi looked over at where Jana, Russ, and Larry were chatting away like they’d known each other forever instead of less than a month. “C’mon, Cassie, you stopped a dragon, a nixie, and the end of the world—you can’t stop this?”
I opened my mouth, and closed it, helpless. I had no idea what to do. Each of the occasions Bobbi mentioned, I was either being given explicit instructions or it was easy to figure out what to do. Bobbi didn’t even know about the thing Rance and I found in the Gulf of Mexico, not to mention that sea monster back in San Diego…
Russ and Jana wandered off, and Bobbi and I went up to the bar to refresh our beverages. While Ihor poured my pint and prepared her screwdriver, Larry said, “Cassie, where’s your young man tonight?”
I rolled my eyes at the phrase. “Off on a case. It sucks, but at least he gets overtime.”
“Maybe you two can take more dives together.” Bobbi waggled her eyebrows.
“Oh, please. It’s not like those are dates.”
Bobbi looked at Larry. “When it’s me, Rance, Cassie, and someone else, she always buddies up with him. Always.”
I glared at her as Ihor handed me my pint. “Right, because the conversation is so scintillating when we’re underwater.”
“Well, I think it’s high time you two started having a proper courtship,” Larry said. “I mean, look at those two.”
He was pointing at Jana and Russ, who both had big smiles on their faces as they approached the bar. Jana was holding up her arm and waving her hand back and forth. “Look at this!”
“Stop moving your hand so fast, and maybe we can,” I said with a smirk.
She held her hand right in front of my face, and I saw a diamond ring. This on a woman who’d never owned a piece of jewelry that didn’t have a skull on it.
“We’re gettin’ married!” Jana squealed, a verb that also had never applied to her.
Based on the look on Bobbi’s face, she wouldn’t have applied it, either, and she’d known Jana since they were six. “Seriously?”
“Ain’t it great?”
“That’s wonderful.” Larry had a big grin on his face. He raised his coffee mug. “To the happy couple!”
“Screw that.” Russ walked up to the bar and slapped a credit card down on the bar. “Everyone gets champagne on me, Ihor.”
That got a rousing cheer from everyone in the bar—well, except for me and Bobbi. We exchanged worried looks.
Ihor whipped out two bottles of champagne, the popping corks echoing off the walls, and started pouring into the plastic cups he kept around for occasions like this when he didn’t want to create three dozen dirty glasses at once.
Everyone took a cup with the exception of a couple of tourists who chose that moment to walk out, another tourist who’d been there all weekend and had been prominently displaying his one-year chip from AA the whole time, and Larry.
Russ didn’t even pay attention to the AA tourist, instead looking at Larry. “C’mon, man, how often does a guy get engaged?”
“Happened to me twice. And alcohol puts me right to sleep.”
Ihor laughed. “Dude, we got a cot right in the back.”
“Look, just take my word for it, all right” Larry was angry now. “I don’t drink, and I won’t drink—not for you, not for anybody. Ain’t worth the risk.”
Russ glared at Larry for a second before turning his back on him. “Fine. Everyone else raise their glass! I’m marrying the most beautiful woman in the world, and I hope everyone except this asshole is happy for me!”
Everyone in the bar cheered loudly with three notable exceptions: me, Bobbi, and Larry.
I will give Jana this much: being stupid in love didn’t do anything to diminish her musical ability. The last set of the evening was some of 1812’s best. Jana was a music teacher for kids during daylight hours, and she was damn good at it. For the band, she played keyboards, guitars, mandolin, and accordion, all of them incredibly well, plus she sang lead on about a third of the songs. Tonight her playing was just superb, and her junkyard growl on vocals was amazing. It was enough to make me cry.
Unfortunately, her attitude was making Bobbi cry. After teardown, she just looked at me and said, “Em’s.”
Em’s was an all-night eatery on Duval that catered to people who were kicked out of the bars at three a.m. and wanted to nosh on something before bed. I actually was desperate for sleep—I’d had two dives that afternoon, and they’d been rough—but the look on Bobbi’s face indicated that she needed to have words.
We ordered a large basket of conch fritters with fries—Em’s made the best fries in the Keys—and two coffees, and sat across from each other.
“We gotta do something, Cass. I mean, Christ, married?”
I nodded. “Okay, maybe we talk to his mom.”
“How’re we supposed to do that?”
While popping a fritter into my mouth after dipping it in Em’s special sauce, I said, “Rance knows where their boat’s docked. We just go in and say hi.”
“Okay, and what do we ask her? Why’s your son a weirdo?”
I pretended to think about it. “Maybe we should be more subtle.”
“Call it a hunch, but I don’t think we’ll come up with a good gameplan at three in the morning after ten beers and one glass of shitty champagne.”
“I only had four, but yeah, I see your point. Fine, we’ll talk tomorrow at Seaclipse.”
The next day at Seaclipse, I walked in to see both Rance and Bobbi all in their neoprene outfits. Bobbi stood with hands on hips, looking frighteningly resolute. “After the dive, we go to the boat.”
I frowned. “What boat?”
Rance turned to look at Bobbi. “You told me that this was entirely her idea—that was how you sold me on this.”
“It was her idea.” Then she stared at me. “Right?”
I shook my head. “Bobbi, what are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about going to see Russ’s mother on their boat.”
The previous night’s conversation burbled forward from a haze of beer. “Yeah, okay, that was my idea, but I thought we weren’t going to do anything until we figured out a gameplan.”
Primly, Bobbi said, “I have a gameplan. We go in and ask her what’s wrong with her son.”
I put my head in my hands. “No, that was the plan we came up with while drunk, and we both agreed we’d need something more subtle.”
“We will be subtle. Her son is marrying my best friend, and I’m gonna be the maid of honor, which means I need to consult with the mother of the groom to plan shit.”
I frowned. “Jana asked you to be maid of honor?”
Bobbi looked down at the floor guiltily. “Well, no—and if she did ask, I’m not sure I’d say yes. Jana quit the band—again—because, and I quote the voicemail message she left this morning at 8am, ‘I want to devote all my spare time to my sweetie-pie.’”
“She called him her ‘sweetie-pie’?”
I blinked. “Wait, she called you at 8am?
Again, Bobbi nodded.
“She was conscious at 8am?”
“I know, right?”
“Yeah, this is dire.”
Rance raised his hand. “Okay, I haven’t been following this with any kind of comprehension, but I agree that Jana’s behavior could charitably be described as odd. There’s something extremely peculiar going on here, and we need to get to the bottom of it. Talking to his mother seems like the proper next move.”
As usual, Rance summed up in fifty words what anyone else could say in ten. “Let’s do it.”
Ragnarok and Roll © Keith DeCandido, 2013