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It may not be nice to fool Mother Nature, but to be fair, she started it.
Once again, I’m the puny human Keeper stuck cleaning up the magical world. I’m Cleopatra O’Keefe, owner of the Florida bar directly on the line between the human and magical worlds. Oddities are the norm.
The fact Poseidon spends more time sashaying his speedo clad, exceptionally fine butt around my bar than he does managing his seas doesn’t help. He’s pissed off the entire mer race, who considers murderous rampages a reasonable response. Not helpful. Plus, Gaia decided that upending the balance of the entire freaking planet is a rational solution. My job, to combine the human and magical worlds, is a teetering mess.
Let’s see, who else can jump into this mix? Hades? Perfect.
His grand scheme involves me rounding up Gaia before she blows the Earth sideways and tucking her into Tartarus to chill in the void for a few millennia. Some plan, right? My problem is, gods don’t make requests. Ludicrous? Yes. Saying no? Not an option.
Did I mention it’s Bike Week? I’m up to my cheeky shorts in bikers, booze, and shenanigans. I multitask like a boss, but this right here — this stuff will kill me. I need a drink.
Lightning snaked along the horizon, highlighting the dancers on the yacht’s spacious deck in strobed motion. Glasses, cutlery, and plates whipped off the stern in the rising wind, a death spiral into a sea sick of plastic. Unseen below the cresting seas, mer men sharpened their blades, their faces a composite of anger and disgust.
On the starboard gunwale, a woman materialized. Exotic and curvy, her skin a coppery chocolate framed by twisting curls, she moved toward the stern. After selecting a glass of wine from the tray, she stood on the periphery, watching the drunken gyrations punctuated by an occasional stumble when the ship hit a pronounced swell.
“Who are you, Sweetheart?” A man in shorts and an expensive fishing shirt, looking surprised, eased next to her.
“Friends call me Gigi,” she replied, sipping and steadfast in the sea’s motion.
“I didn’t see you board.”
“Oh, I just arrived.” Her tone, unamused, accompanied a slight lift of an eyebrow.
“Well, you’re on my ship, so perhaps you might enlighten me?”
“Are you aware you’re leaving a wake of plastic and trash? Is defiling my sea your normal?”
“Who’d you say brought you?”
“I didn’t, but it’s irrelevant; I’m not staying.”
Gigi finished her drink, leaned over the ship’s rail, and nodded.
Along the smooth sides of the yacht, mer men placed hands, suctioning up the fiberglass composite, pulling themselves from the sea. As their tails left the brine, Gigi waved a vague hand; with a shimmer, scaled legs replaced them.
“Thank you for the wine. I’m afraid I can’t stay for the afterparty.”
To his gape-mouthed stare, she winked and faded as a mer man disemboweled him with a razor-sharp shell blade, guts cascading across the pristine white deck, followed by the thud of life leaving.
Shrieks filled the night, the splash of the departing mer an inadequate finale.
The paddleboard nosed onto the beach; broad callused feet stepped into the swirling surf, a spinning caress that tickled his ankles as he lifted the big board with ease and marched toward the bicycle tucked under the pier’s pilings.
“Smooth ride?” I eased away from the heavy timber holding up my pier and bar, The Boogie, and grinned.
“The passage rocks, Keeper, but the world? Not so much.”
“You know I’m not a fan of alchemy.”
“Come on, I brought a pineapple; I’ll make you a smoothie.”
Guru leaned his board up next to the bike and both faded from view. If taken piece by piece, he wasn’t a traditional hottie, but Guru exuded an aura that was irresistible. Long copper colored dreads, full of sand, dirt, twigs, or other flotsam, smooth light brown skin, green eyes the color of ripe limes, and sculpted lips that warmed up the root chakra in a bolt of sexual bliss. He wore board shorts that were too tight and showed off an impressive set of glutes, a serious package, and thick, powerful legs. Stocky, but not heavy, Guru emanated masculine power. I liked him, just not that way.
As he followed up the long steps to the pier, I felt a light swat across my ass.
“Are you slowing up, Keeper?”
Was I? No way, I ran these stairs every day. I shot him a side eye and took in the smirk.
“Funny guy, you had me for a moment, Guru. Brief.”
We laughed, and I laid my palm on the ornate wooden ship’s door, visible only to those with a magical signature. It swung open, and I entered, Guru’s wide feet padding across the decking behind me.
For the uninitiated, which encompasses most of humanity, learning the backstory might help. Boogie Beach, a sleepy Florida beach town, lay south of Daytona, with decent surfing and a low key vibe. My bar, The Boogie, or The Boogey as my magical patrons called it, had the distinction of being on the line between reality and extraordinary, which meant I ran a pub on the doorway to all worlds. Shifters, witches, the fae, wizards, merpeople, the Greek dudes, you name it. If it liked to drink, it showed up and I could see it, which was my entire skill set.
By that, I meant I couldn’t magic my way out of a tough spot. I had my wits and deep well of dumb luck. Last October, the order of the worlds changed, leaving me wielding an outsized amount of power for a bartender. While it’s an honor to belong to both worlds, an upended world order required adjustments from everyone. Some are slow learners.
The pineapple flipped in the air, and I snatched it, drawing my big knife. The knobby skin sliced away in long strips. With the flat blade, I pushed the top and tail to the side.
The leafy top and bottom of the fruit vanished into the bag he wore at his waist. Guru being Guru, he’d plant and nurture them by nightfall.
I chopped, including the core, because this was Guru and I didn’t need a lecture on waste. Fruit, ice, and the juice of three limes landed in my blender, followed by two bananas.
Guru munched the lime rinds while I mixed the smoothie, pouring it into a huge beach cup with a lid.
“What did you see that drew your concern?” I asked.
This was new, as of last October. Before, asking for information from a magical led to punishment because their world disdained the human one. Forging new relationships based on mutual respect took time. We were learning, an uneven work in progress.
I held his eyes, and he nodded.
“So weird. Unlearning, I mean.”
“The sea is sicker,” he added. “I spoke with several mer people and they have concerns.”
“Last week you said it was the forest.”
“The mother is not healthy, Patra. This is not going away.”
“Since October, the world’s vibe is better, Guru.”
“Yes, but it’s a bandage. The infection is untreated.”
His eyes blazed herbaceous fire, and I stepped back one step. How insane it is to be peers with, well, to be real, with a demigod? I mean, what the actual, right? These people smite. Jeez.
“Making the human world recognize that magic is real, and that gods are multiple is problematic for many countries, Guru. I’m working on bringing them into the Triune.”
“Hmm, I don’t envy you the task. Messy love-addled dark-ages dwellers. Humans are enamored with the most specious bullshit.”
“That’s an oversimplification.”
He stared at me, swallowing while my heart managed two beats out of every three, then barked a laugh. “Perhaps. You are a credit to your race, Keeper.”
My race. Well, I’m a race of one, so it’s not as though I burst out of a crowded field. Still, it’s indicative of magicals to see me as human. After that October night on the beach, you’d think word might spread, but old habits, and they’re on both sides, died hard.
“Keeper, I used to believe the simple elimination of humans was the answer,” Guru raised an eyebrow.
“Extinction of any species creates cascading reactions on the earth, Guru. It’s a finesse issue, not a get pissed and go nuclear one.”
“You plant a seedling of hope, waiting for growth,” Guru snorted. “Time does not give two shits, Patra. It is relentless.”
I nodded, looking up as Pook and Bingo, my pelican shifter regulars, stomped through the door, pushing and shoving each other.
“Boys.” I tapped fish ales and passed them across the bar. “There are ten thousand lady pelicans on our little section of the Halifax River. I’m confident there’s enough ‘come hither’ for everyone.”
“But I saw her first,” Pook grumbled.
“I shagged her first,” Bingo grinned. “I win.”
Eyes rolling, I glanced through the wall. Thanks to a spell, it’s transparent and allowed me to see into the bar on the non-magical side. The lunch rush finished, Charlie, my best bartender, had twenty tourists and a handful of locals well on their way to lubrication. Still, I’m the Manager, so I palm through to my office and out to the human bar.
Last fall Charlie and I had a run in of sorts, he made it clear he’d like to bone his boss, but I’m holding that at bay for now. While it would take my edge off, which I could use, I’ve got a heaping plate to juggle and adding workplace romance is a pain my ass didn’t need.
Am I getting old? Shit, I hope not.
I wandered through The Boogie, chatted with a couple locals, nudged the dishwasher to get Charlie more glassware and took a mental inventory of the liquor. By the looks of it, I needed more of that obnoxious cotton candy vodka, a case each of Jameson and Ketel One, and two cases of Jack Daniels.
“Crystal Head Aurora supplies holding?”
Charlie nodded. “Haven’t seen him in a week.”
‘Him’ referred to Jonesy, a rich guy with a huge boat, a swanky condo, and bottomless cash. My kind of regular. His vodka was pricey, and he drank it like it was Titos. Another win.
“Is he traveling?”
“If so, he didn’t mention it, and that’s not his style. The man loves talking up his next big deal.”
True. Jonesy was a first order braggart. I suppose if you made a fat pile of jack and felt insecure, braggadocio is your A-game. My guess was he had package issues. Still, he’s in here like clockwork, so his absence was odd.
Phone in hand, I tapped the number.
“Boogie Beach Police Department.”
“This is Patra, Manager at The Boogie. One of my regulars has been a no-show for a week. Any chance y’all can do a wellness check?”
“Yes, Ma’am. Who is the individual?”
“Westminster Jones. He’s at The Gables and keeps a yacht at Three Eagles Marina.”
“We’ll send a car around to check.”
“Thanks. Remember, we’re having our police appreciation event next week.”
“Posters are up everywhere, Patra. That’s the best event for us the entire year, takes the edge off Bike Week.”
Bike Week was king. Nine days of non-stop party, crazy drinking, and tons of music. It’s a dead president’s pump of epic proportions for beach businesses, and we made bank; enough to set the year. The rest of the months ranged from break-even to decent. Bike Week brought mad cash.
I disconnected and grinned. My ulterior motives were in full swing. If seafood bribery helped, dropping a grand on a mess of shrimp and beer was a reasonable exchange. I had it bad for a cop who didn’t know I was alive. We’d see.
A couple hours later, my phone rang.
“Patra, you didn’t hear it from me,” the dispatcher confided, “but your gut was right on the wellness check. Mr. Jones was found deceased on his boat.”
“Oh, no! I’m sorry to hear this. Jonesy was an interesting man.”
I looked up at the half case of Crystal Head Aurora and sighed. I’d be dusting those funky skull shaped bottles for a while.
Jonesy, being a wheel of sorts, got the news trucks rolling. Crazy Jay, at the marina, shot me a text saying he’s buried in reporters and that it didn’t appear that Jonesy went out in any natural fashion. His words were, to wit, “the dude exploded.”
Weird. The beach and the line co-existed in full-blown neutral for months; there weren’t any simmering disagreements to portend an attack. Clueless humans aside, the magical and Vapor entities showed me an intention to cohabitate with the real world. It’d been, in my eye, a reasonable transition.
So, while a decomposing body could explode, one in an air-conditioned yacht was not a candidate for blast-factor 9000. A magical, with minimal effort, had a plethora of options to blow a human to pieces. Vapors too, I imagined, although I was still trying to understand them. Natural laws didn’t apply.
Color me alarmed. And curious. What the hell was Jonesy doing that pulled dark attention toward his bubble of opulence?