The visitor drowned at Hollows Reef while Ambrose Sabala, mid-snorkel, was making a gleeful mental inventory of the morning’s haul—not of fish, but of books. Ambrose drifted over the dull, trampled coral beds with ears full of seawater, snorkel mouthpiece firmly clenched in his teeth, three-pronged pole spear dangling, and did not hear the sirens wailing louder and softer and louder again as emergency vehicles raced along the folds of the ocean highway. He had raided the Friends of the Library bin outside the Schefferville Library that morning, and with one ten-dollar bill taken away a stack of first editions in good and even mint condition. A Bret Easton Ellis, stowed in someone’s luggage, then unpacked and left behind—no doubt to make room for a resin tiki or a seashell mug. A biography of Robert Louis Stevenson, also unread. An untouched copy of The Marriage Plot, or anyway one that had been touched only in order that it might be used to flatten a dozen photographs of a bat mitzvah and family surfing lessons. Ambrose pulled his spear back taut on its rubber sling and released it halfheartedly in the direction of a triggerfish, which failed to react except to swerve away slowly from the empty triple threat of his barbed prongs.
Meanwhile, a quarter-mile east along the beach, the fire engine was just pulling into the crowded Hollows parking lot. Lifeguards floated above the drowned man, taking turns diving down, trying to figure out how he had tied or tangled himself in the cracks of the massive, sunken stone slabs that lay partly buried in sand a hundred yards offshore. Just up the beach, a scuba instructor in charge of the morning’s first batch of tourist divers from the majestic Schefferville Cliffs Resort Hotel told his group to continue struggling out of their wet suits and enjoy the complimentary bottled water while he went to see if the lifeguards needed a scuba diver’s assistance.
Ambrose’s booklust was so all-consuming that after convincing himself he should probably head back to town to open the shop, he managed to cross the sand, unchain his scooter from the fence half-hidden in lilikoi vines, and putter away from Hollows without ever having the slightest idea that a man had drowned a short distance away, possibly while he was paddling around gloating about his finds.
Later that morning, he started hearing rumors from people coming into the shop but still didn’t think anything in particular about it. Not until Anisi came in and told him the whole story, dropping off his midmorning iced coconut mocha, did he realize that he must have been there all the time it was unfolding.
“So Lucas goes down—”
“Borrezo, he’s working at Tauai Dive Adventures now, yeah?”
“He goes down and finds the guy has chained himself there with a bicycle lock.”
“I know. The fire truck has a bolt cutter on it but try using one of those underwater. With a dead guy staring at you.”
“They made Lucas cut the lock?”
“No, but dude’s gonna have nightmares about that one for sure.”
“So who did cut him free?”
She shrugged. Skinny, heavily tattooed, all kinds of iridescent colors against her brown skin. They had lived together once for a little while, when Brose was back and forth between the Mainland; heading to LA had made it relatively easy to break up without totaling their friendship. She worked at Java & Kava, just across the street. The coffee counter where she pulled shots was like the central switchboard for the Coconut Hotline.
“Dive rescue was on the scene by then, I guess. But still, chills. I haven’t seen Lucas yet. Usually he’s in by now for his chai banana latte.”
Brose slurped a fat strawful of his drink. “How’s the Kava book cart doing?”
“Whyn’t you come see for yourself? I never check it. I have a Bindle now. It’s waterproof.”
“Never thought you’d let yourself get chained to the digital tether,” he said.
“What tether? It’s wireless. Look at all these fat fucking books you have to haul around. What if you ever had to move shop? What you gonna do in the next tsunami?”
“Build a raft out of ’em,” he said. “Anyway, I’ll take you up on that bin-check. It’s slow.” As he opened the door to let her out, he gestured back at the shady interior, the teetering piles and shelves crammed with books. “Now these are wireless.”
She snickered. “Come on, my break is pau. I gotta get back.”
He picked up an armload of trashed books, including a waterlogged copy of The Alienistand one nameless book, ruined by someone slapping a Tauai Localbumper sticker around it to hold the decaying jacket together, so that all you could see of the original cover was the name Dan Brown. He locked the knob from the inside and pulled the door shut as he followed Anisi into the street. A rental car almost didn’t stop—the driver had a guidebook open on the steering wheel and was consulting a cell phone in addition—but somehow they Froggered two lanes without mishap. Anisi sashayed up the steps and into the musically pulsing interior of the J&K, where the hiss of espresso machines and the roar of grinders fought to drown out the beat of reggaeton and local hits from the island’s only station, KTAU (“Indy Island Radio, Bradda!”).
Ambrose hung back and idled on the porch, glancing at handbills pinned up around the door.
Twin Trees Keiki Surf Contest! Grommets 12 and under! Scouts welcome!
Slack-key guitar! Ukulele concerts! Custom lessons from a former roadie for Suns & Daughters! Also hauling and painting!
Roommates wanted! Share our pono treehouse! We are a chef, a musician, an artist, and a beginning yoga instructor. No drugs or dogs!Mahalo!
Someone had pushed the book cart to the deck’s far corner. Paper signs were duct-taped to either end: Take One, Leave One!and Take One and Leave a Few $$$! The stock had been slightly depleted since yesterday and there was a buck in the can. Money was money, but sometimes a prize volume turned up in trade for something shitty. Weird books came to Castaway by all different avenues, he was starting to learn. Uncle Byron had warned him the carts weren’t usually profitable, but it was still wise to diversify. He inventoried the one at J&K every few days like a trapper checking lines, ever hopeful. He slotted the armload of freebies onto the top shelf and skimmed the assorted titles to see if anything worth snagging for the store had turned up. Nothing. Trail guides always sold quickly, but the only new one on the cart looked like it had been through a flashflood rescue situation, dumped here to lighten the load before its rattled owners had hightailed back to an actual continent rather than the weathered slopes of a not-terribly-old volcano. Perhaps the Dan Brown and Caleb Carr would be tempting changeling-bait for the book menehune, those magical fairies with the ability to turn bestseller dross into rare-book gold.
“Hey, Ambrose, you still buying books?”
Turning, he saw Kailani Nakoa sipping milky coffee at the deck rail. She was one of his mom’s old friends; he had known her for years. Graying, a little plump, still worked too hard considering how little she ever had to show for it. Sad eyes.
“Aloha, Auntie! Yeah, somehow Castaway Books is surviving for now, even without Byron around. I’m always looking for new books—new to me, I mean. Used is fine.”
“I was about to come see you. I got some boxes I filled up cleaning.”
“Vacation rentals, ah? Sweet. Visitors ditching books, that’s my prime source of supply. Happy to take a look.”
“A lot of places I clean, if the owners spend time there, they want the books to stay. But the management companies, they tell me throw ’em out. Don’t like to waste ’em, though, yeah?”
“If I can use ’em, it’s a few extra bucks for you, Auntie. Bring ’em by the shop anytime.”
She gave him a kiss on the cheek, but he glimpsed something troubled in her eyes as she slipped away. Worries ran deep in her life. Rain falling on the ocean, she’d said once, and he’d never forgotten, even though he couldn’t remember why she’d said it. An old woman’s tears are like rain falling on the ocean. They were probably talking about Cutty, one of the times he’d been in jail. One of the manytimes. When he was out, burglaries crept up, tourist luggage was liberated from cars, all the usual houses were broken into . . . until he went away again and crime declined. In some ways, Auntie Kailani seemed more relieved when he was in county, because then at least it couldn’t get any worse. He’d had some OD scares; he’d been in rehab; he’d left the island and come back in what amounted to a crash landing. Brose and Cutty had been friends as kids. It was gut-wrenching to watch him willfully throw himself over the edge. Brose’s own mother still asked about him, though he couldn’t bear to tell her what had happened to the funny, mischievous little kid she’d known. The island was an increasingly distant dream to his mom, and with time it appeared to be turning into a fantasy of itself—like the dreams of paradise the first-time visitors kept bringing over with them, stoked by the tourist bureau, the airlines, and the hotel industry.
As Ambrose footed aside a chicken that was pecking at a piece of mahi-mahi fallen from a taco, he thought again about the man who had drowned at Hollows while he was snorkeling that morning. What kind of delusions must that guy have been harboring to chain himself in fifteen feet of water, with no chance of changing his mind once he’d closed the lock? Was it supposed to be some kind of Houdini escape stunt? Suicide? The whole thing was bizarre.
Ambrose fit his key into the front door of Castaway Books and stepped inside, making a beeline for the biography section. A stray curiosity, but as usual it claimed him. He fell deep into a life of Houdini and didn’t surface, except for the usual bookselling transactions, until someone rapped on the rear door.
The door opened onto the shopping village parking lot. He kept it closed because the fish trucks threw guts in the Dumpsters and it could get rank. He opened it now to see that Auntie Kailani had reversed her old car up to the door with the hatchback raised. A couple cardboard boxes full of books sat among the cleaning supplies.
Ambrose carried them in and set them on the counter, seeing an average assortment of paperbacks, at first glance nothing of note. He was wondering how much he could afford to offer, just to help her out, when she let him off the hook.
“I have to run, Ambrose. Got my grandson to pick up. Maybe you can take a look and call me later. Tell me if you want any of them.”
“Okay, Auntie,” he said, relieved not to have to disappoint her right away. “Looks decent. I’ll call you in a little bit, yeah?
When she was gone, he started unpacking and making stacks. It was as dreary a collection as he had feared. Some were the sort of books that sold by the pound for use in furniture store displays. Reader’s Digest abridged novels, old textbooks. Maybe some local realtor could use them for staging an open house, but it wouldn’t be worth his while to waste shelf space on them. Even taking them off her hands, he’d be incurring the cost of driving them to the recycling center. At this point they weren’t books so much as “mixed paper.”
There were a few old mystery paperbacks, lightly furred or spotted with mold, their once-golden edges faded to the color of a water stain. Also, there were water stains. They looked like rejects from a hoarder’s estate sale. Auntie needed to clean a better class of house. He slammed a few Barbara Cartland romance novels down with a sigh, then dug to the bottom of the second box.
From under a pulped copy of Fate Magazine, 1968, he pulled a softbound volume the size and shape of a notebook, covered in a dark green material that felt like textured leather. His first impression was that it was wet, slippery, but he laid it on the counter and studied it until he proved to himself that it was dry as powder, soft and smooth. The patterned texture resembled scales, rounded and overlapping. Snakeskin? It looked expensive, the sort of material you’d reserve for a wallet or designer purse. With growing bibliophilic excitement, he gently opened the cover to a title page of parchment-colored paper.
By W. S. Wetherfell
A Study Of Sunken Pictoglyphs
Associated With A Geognostic Network
Waiting To Be Activated For
Global And Personal Transformation
(As Illustrated By The Author)
Except there were no illustrations.
Next stop, the Internet.
Specifically, that small, exclusive corner of it to which his Uncle Byron had introduced him shortly before departing to ransack the globe’s far-flung bookcases—even then, in retrospect, preparing Ambrose to receive the burdensome bequest of Castaway Books.
Wetherfell and his book warranted not even a stub on Wikipedia, but the denizens of Byron’s exclusive collectors’ forum had bragged about keeping certain works out of Wikipedia entirely. Ambrose started a thread with the title of the work and made one brief query to see what anyone might know about it. Then he returned to the book itself.
The whole thing was printed on the fake parchment; the pages felt slippery, as if no ink would ever dry upon them. The printing job looked antiquated, but numerous clues in the book indicated that it was of recent production, a specimen of the riotous variety that self-publishing had afforded eccentric authors to propagate without a care as to whether the world actually wanted them. It was enough that the authors wanted them! Of most interest, the last dozen or so pages of the book were left blank for notes, and these had been almost completely filled with an elegant cursive script.
The door jingled and he started to say his usual tourist-friendly, “Aloha!” But as he lifted his eyes from the book, his greeting died into “Al . . . ohhhh . . .”
“Hey, brah, my ma says you got some money for her you wanna give me.”
“Cutty,” he said. “Not sure Auntie is cool with that.”
Cutty sucked air through teeth the color and texture of coarse, wet sand. “No, man, she’s cool. She asked me could I swing by.” He pushed up against the counter, fingers frantically drumming on the nautical map laminated there, beating a tattoo on Tauai. To his own surprise, Ambrose found that he had instinctively hidden Wetherfell’s notebook under the counter. “She asked me!”
It seemed reasonably unlikely that Cutty would have descended on the bookshop other than at his mother’s request, but caution was always warranted when Cutty came around. He’d have to be on high alert for shoplifting, if nothing else. Cutty wore only a pair of ratty khaki board shorts and there wasn’t much in the shop he could have hidden in them. But even so.
“Lemme just call her,” Ambrose said. “We hadn’t agreed on a price.”
“Right on.” As Ambrose dialed Kailani’s number, Cutty said, “How you been, anyway?”
Ambrose watched his hands. Cutty wanted something. Money, that went without saying. But there was an anxious jitter he knew from their teens.
“You heard about the old dude who died at Hollows?” he blurted. And there was the old Cutty. He had a secret but he wanted to boast, couldn’t contain it even though he knew he should keep his mouth shut. “I was working for him! Kahuna’s apprentice kine ting.”
Considering how to get rid of Cutty most efficiently, he said, “Cutty, if I give you money for these books, it’s not gonna make it to Auntie. I know you better than that.”
“Shit, Brose, you know me, true! But I been working with her, helping out, cleaning houses to make some cash. You call her up, brah, she tell you.”
Kailani wasn’t answering. Island-style reception. She was no doubt out on some windy road, tucked way back in the folds of the cliffs. He made a judgment call.
“Tell Auntie I give her twenty for the books,” Ambrose said. “But I only give ten to you now, and the rest to her next time I see her.”
“Only ten? The fuck, brah?”
“These books are shit, Cutty! There’s one I have to run down might be worth more to a collector, but I need more time on that. For now . . .”
Ambrose held up a ten.
Cutty scowled, his premature age lines like twin knife wounds alongside his thin, jagged mouth. Then it uptwisted at the corners, like sutures jerked too tight. Cutty took the bill.
“Maybe your old kahuna should have taught you some money-making spells.”
“Dude wasn’t into any shit like that,” he said, halfway to the door, anxious to blow his cash. “Old Wetherfell just wanna stare at fucking doodles on the rocks.”
Ambrose didn’t let out his breath till the door had settled and Cutty’s shadow cleared away. He went to the website for Tauai Tides, the little local paper that was half come-on to the tourists and half purveyor of their worst nightmares. “Timely as the Tides, and Just as Accurate!” Visitors coming in from the airport, picking up the local paper to see what was happening, were treated to listings of community events, church-sponsored luaus, “The Morning Mahalo,” and hair-raising reports of entire families swept from rocks by rogue waves, dengue fever outbreaks, toddlers maimed by monk seals, convertible drivers and passengers killed by falling coconuts while speeding along scenic coconut-tree-lined drives, hikers washed from slippery trails to certain deaths on rocks below, and drownings . . . many, many drownings. In January, the visitor death counter reset to zero, and the articles that led with “First Fatality of the Year” soon crept up to “Fourth Since February,” usually rounding out to a couple dozen by Christmas. The Chamber of Commerce couldn’t wait to reset the mortality counter, but the local journalists seemed to take a mordant glee in their reportage. As tourist dollars soared, would the island set new records for spending and fatalities? Throw in a handful of shark attacks, and Happy New Year!
But the news of that morning’s drowning was still meager. “Diver Drowns at Hollows Reef . . . 73-year-old Watson J. Wetherfell of Sonoma, California . . .”
“Wetherfell’s book!” Ambrose whispered. Kept reading.
“. . . Chained to the rocks in an apparent suicide, he entered the water Monday night and waited in 15 feet of water as his oxygen ran out . . . Discovered by snorkelers Tuesday morning . . . Investigators seeking any individuals with knowledge of his activities prior to Monday night.”
“Fucking Cutty.” No wonder he wanted to brag but was afraid to. What else does he know? And what about . . .
Ambrose slid the slick green book, Wetherfell’s book, the dead man’s book, out from under the counter and leafed to the last few pages.
I have secured the services of a local guide, a trustworthy-seeming fellow, part-Hawaiian, although I am disappointed that any knowledge of the authentic Kahuna traditions, as espoused by Max Freedom Long, is clearly lacking from his education, no doubt due to the lingering influence of Christian missionaries and their attempted eradication of the old ways. Perhaps I can take this one under my wing once the ritual observance has been completed, making him a member of my “Ohana.”
“Fucking Cutty,” Ambrose said again, a phrase he had uttered many times. “And you, Wetherfell, a fucking terrible judge of character. ‘Trustworthy’?”
A reply had appeared to his post on the collectors’ forum. The message was from Bibliossifer, an irascible sort whose opinion Uncle Byron had valued highly.
Bibliossifer Re: Wetherfell’s Reef Runics
Antiquarian <Reply #1>
Posts: 4,407 This guy is a flake. Not that he didn’t sometimes grab a live wire. That’s what happens when you actively peel away reality’s insulation. He believes (believed? is he still alive?)
“Not right this minute,” Ambrose muttered.
in an interconnected network of pictorial nudes for the global mind,
It took Ambrose a minute to deduce that Bibliossifer had either mistyped or been autocompleted into posting “nudes” when he’d surely meant “nodes.” Reading on confirmed it.
basically the intersection points of ley lines, sacred hotspots that had to be activated by meditating in their presence. Claimed (on dubious evidence) that certain ancients predicted climate catastrophe, rising sea levels, everything we’re seeing today, but unlike say Nostradamus they did something about it. The runes were somehow key to humanity’s survival. Unfortunately, for him, the runes tended over the ages to have wound up in dangerous or inaccessible places. He was booted out of Tibet for trying to climb onto the roof of the Potala. Nearly died in Burma/Myanmar—first of snakebite, then at the hands of the police. Exposure and dehydration almost took him in New Mexico. I can’t imagine the quality of meditation in any of those conditions could have been very good.
Ambrose typed a reply.
Castaway2.0 Re: Wetherfell’s Reef Runics
Dealer <Reply #2>
Posts: 273 It looks like the remaining site was underwater, an offshore pictoglyph here on Tauai. He died on paradise in 15 feet of water. Picked the wrong assistant.
Survived every manner of hardship for 70-plus years. Finished off by Cutty in three days.
Is this a book we should snag? And how much can the Collective get together for it? Fell into the hands of a good woman who could badly use a few $ and has no desire to keep it.
Less than a minute later:
Bibliossifer Re: Wetherfell’s Reef Runics
Antiquarian <Reply #3>
Posts: 4,408 Definitely get it out of circulation. I think we can put $500 toward its safekeeping.
Castaway2.0 Re: Wetherfell’s Reef Runics
Dealer <Reply #4>
Posts: 274 Thx. Will advance the $$$ and get reimbursed from the pool.
Bibliossifer Re: Wetherfell’s Reef Runics
Antiquarian <Reply #5>
Posts: 4,409 It’d be worth seeing if he had any other books with him.
Ambrose glanced at the pile of tattered Cartlands, parted the pages of the topmost, a well-thumbed copy of Lord Ravenscar’s Revenge. Inside the cover was an inscription, black ink, cursive: “To my dearest W., himself the soul of Romance and my own Lord R. In love eternal, your darling C.”
Castaway2.0 Re: Wetherfell’s Reef Runics
Dealer <Reply #6>
Posts: 275 Looks like we got them all.
Even then wondering what else Cutty might have made off with.
His cell phone lit up. Kailani. “Hello, Auntie! Good news!”
“Yeah? Ambrose, I sent Cutty over there, did he—”
“He’s been and gone. I paid him ten toward a twenty and I’m holding the rest for you, yeah? But in the meantime, one of these books, I’ve got a collector who’ll take it for a pretty good price. How’s five hundred sound?”
“Five hundred, no joke?”
“Only thing, Auntie. I just want to make sure . . . were these books from the house of the visitor who died this morning at Hollows? I mean, it seems like they’d want to get that place cleaned up fast, but still . . .”
“No, Ambrose, I been busy with school and taking care of Kai today, haven’t done any cleaning. Those are all from yesterday and last week, yeah?”
“Okay. That makes it simpler, then.”
Simpler but not for him.
“Come by, I’ll write you a check, okay? Just you, though. No Cutty.”
“Thank you, doll. I be over tomorrow, yeah?”
“Oh, Auntie, one more thing. Cutty said you were—he was helping you clean houses? It sounded a little—”
“What? I can’t let that boy in no house with his record! You know better than that!”
“I know Cutty, that’s true.”
“I think maybe he asked if he could throw some of his old books into my boxes. I said okay to that. Oh no . . . Ambrose, were they stolen?”
“Don’t give it a thought. If anything, he’s getting them from the library bins just like me. No worries, okay?”
“If you say so. I gotta go, this little bird needs feeding.”
“Tomorrow. Five hundred.”
“Yah, that’s good news! I find you!”
“Oh, and hey, you know where Cutty’s living these days? I have another ten bucks for him. Is he still up in Schefferville?”
“No, I don’t think so, he lost his car and he’s down somewhere in Honukai now. He won’t tell me where.”
But Ambrose had a good idea where to start looking.
Up Lauhala Canyon, behind the Road’s End Market (technically three miles shy of the actual end of the road), was a depressing cluster of unfinished vacation homes, stranded when the regulators preemptively declared the area a flood zone, triggering insurance costs equal to a second mortgage on each property. All stood on 30-foot columns accessible by stairs that were never finished and in some cases had been partly dismantled. Squatters, in a shifting muddle of loose affiliations, moved through the houses while ownership passed from bank to court and back to bank again. Actual floods had followed the prophetic rezoning and left high mudlines on the pilings under a dense wrapping of vines. Ambrose parked his scooter under a spreading albizia that had grown like a weed in the time since construction stopped. The late-afternoon sun blazed; the air was still and humid this far from the ocean. As he waded through the saw grass, crickets stopped their chirring, like a sentry system working in reverse.
He nearly tripped over a bicycle abandoned at the edge of a concrete pad, then entered the shade cast across the carport by the house above. He stopped before a tent pitched on the concrete, with a pair of familiar, ratty board shorts draped over the angular spine like a khaki flag.
“Cutty! It’s Ambrose! Got your ten bucks, man.”
A slow unzipping, and Cutty emerged blinking, eyes far away. “Hey, brah. Ten bucks, you said?”
“How much was Wetherfell paying you?”
Cutty’s eyes widened and he started to pull back inside, but Ambrose held out the ten-dollar bill and he paused on the threshold of the tent, torn.
“Guess he wasn’t paying you enough to keep you from stealing his stuff, huh?”
“What’s your deal, Brose? He was just some tourist idiot. I mean, I didn’t want to see him dead but he was asking for trouble, disrespecting the ancestors, yeah? Fucking haole thought he was some kine kahuna. I was supposed to be his fucking kanaka lucky charm or some shit.”
“You’re fencing his books, Cutty. That makes me an accomplice. Your mom, too, for that matter. I don’t like to see Auntie in trouble for shit you pulled.”
Cutty looked disbelieving and made as if to brush him off. “Nobody cares about no books, brah. Woulda been a lotta trouble for twenty bucks.”
“You could be in trouble! One of those books you bagged was like his diary. He talks about hiring you. If cops ever read that thing—”
“You turning me in, Brose?”
“No, man, I just want the story. Listen, seriously. I’m not turning you in, fool. But I need to know. You stole the books before he died, right?”
Cutty fell over backwards into the tent and gave a huge sigh. Then, almost immediately, he came out on hands and knees and sat cross-legged in the entry. Resigned. Ambrose heard irritated voices arguing overhead in the squat. “Keep it down, brah, don’t want none a them having dirt on me. C’mere. Closer. Hit?”
Cutty had gone back in for a blunt, apparently. He lit it now, the fragrant, dense smoke puffing up like incense to appease the squatters overhead. Ambrose took a short toke, noting that what little flower it had was skunky. He settled opposite Cutty on the concrete pad and passed the doob back.
“I met him at the rental, up Icehouse Road. I was hanging with my mom while she cleaned the place, stocking towels and shit. When he showed up, we got to talking. He was way into my mom cause she’s pure Hawaiian, yeah? But the kahuna stuff, shit, he wasn’t getting nowhere with her. She’s all about Jesus. So I kind of start answering his questions. He knew about the runes out at Hollows. Wanted to know about diving, where he could rent equipment, find a guide, all that. I talked him into hiring me.”
“His last mistake.”
“Hundred bucks a day, Brose, to drive around with him. Told him I could get him the kama’aina discount wherever. It was good work for me! Easy! I just turned on the natural charm, you know.” Coarse beachy smile. “I had to put up wit a lot of bullshit, though. He wanted to see the heiau, back of Uncle Lucky’s, said it had some connection to the runes.”
“I happen to know Uncle Lucky said he’d shoot you, you ever set foot on his land.”
Cutty raised his hands, innocence incarnate. “I look stupid? I took him up the cliffs by E’e’ki, showed him the rockfall where we used to used to get high, told him it was the ruins of a old temple built by menehune. There’s so much graffiti and shit carved on those rocks, he believed me. We did stuff like that, drove all over the island for three days. At night he did some purification rituals. Finally he was ready for the big dive at Hollows. I took him out to the rock once in the day, just swimming like, so he knew where it was. His plan—and this was all his idea—he gonna dive down and chain himself to it! Yeah, brah! Like a sacrifice! He had full tanks to stay a good long time in some kind of trance or meditation. That Lemurian bullshit, you know? He said all these stones around the world were connected, and he had the wisdom from all the rest of them, and this was gonna be his last one. They all charged up from Wetherfell giving ’em a look, and it only take him meditating over the last one for the whole thing to switch on. Then . . . I don’t know what after that.”
“Then he died.”
“That sure as fuck wasn’t the idea. Don’t know what went wrong. The real plan was, I swim out with him, make sure he’s all set up, then I go back to shore and drive his car to the house so it don’t get towed or broken into. This is all around midnight, yeah? Then I’m supposed to drive back at three in the morning and pick him up. Only . . .”
“You were too busy ripping him off.”
“Old dude was leaving the island the next day, Brose! Soon’s his ritual was pau. So I boosted a few things from his luggage. Books, a watch, an old phone . . . not worth shit, by the way.”
“You’re a fucking idiot. You didn’t think he’d have gone after your mom? Get her fired? Make sure she could never find another job cleaning houses? You let her in for a lot of trouble!”
Cutty clenched his jaw, looking off to one side, as it occurred to him that this had not occurred to him.
“I just figured . . . he’d come out, wait around for a while, ditch the scuba gear, and walk back. Wasn’t far. Guy was gonna be all enlightened and shit, why should he care if a few, you know, material possessions went missing? Next thing I hear, some kid spots his body in the reef the next morning. I almost shit! Sorta keep waiting for the cops to come around. But so far the only one who seems to care is you. Shoulda known that if books were involved, you’d be all over this thing.”
“If you didn’t kill him then why should you worry? Looks like suicide to everyone else. Or maybe just an accident. Locked himself up and what, dropped the key?”
“Wasn’t no key, brah,” Cutty said. “It was a combination lock. And not the old kine, neither. New kine use letters for remember easy, I guess. He made me set it up for him, how I know. I checked his tanks, double-checked the combination. I was doing him fair, Brose. Deciding to steal the stuff was a last-minute thing. Like, fuck it, he’s leaving, never gonna see him again, why not, right? But out in the water with him, as he chained himself up, I freaked a little. Just before I head back to shore, I think I see something come out the lava tubes. Don’t know what he was conjuring. I mean, I don’t believe in that shit so much, but he had me going.”
“So what was the combination? You remember?”
“Sure. Easy one. Hollow, like the reef.”
“Like your head,” Ambrose said, already walking away.
“Brose! My tenner!”
Ambrose dropped the bill into the weeds. Kept walking.
Hollows at dusk. The sun was still in clouds, somewhere above the horizon, as Ambrose waded into the meager surf. The beach was scattered with the evening’s loyal gathering of sunset worshipers. He followed their gaze to the peaks that rose above the water, green eroded pyramids that made him wish he could write like one of the authors of the books he sold. Something about the coastline brought out the poet in him, but he couldn’t make it work. There was a huge mound that swept roundly down and sharply up again into a narrow ridge with distinct pinnacles. On certain nights, the old Hawaiians had climbed to the highest point closest to the sea, lit spears, and hurled them off flaming into the night. You didn’t have to believe in magic to get carried away with visions in this place, especially at twilight. But if he were a writer, how could he possibly describe it? The massive mound looked like a pregnant belly, that much was obvious. But the jagged ridge of rock between the belly and the sea, what words could do justice to its simultaneous simplicity and complexity? Curves and crenelations? A scattering of fingers? Two fangs and a nose?
With a shrug, he slipped in up to his chin and started kicking toward the reef. He hadn’t brought his spear with him and he wasn’t about to spend any real time underwater. The sea was so warm that it barely registered as separate from himself. Amniotic. Along the beach, below the peaks, tiny flashes popped and glinted—wedding pix were happening despite the occasional cloudburst. Rain swept from land to sea, gray sheets dragged across the beach like a bridal train. He thought of Kailani’s words again: rain on the ocean, an old woman’s tears. How much did they raise the water level? The open sea was vast and wide, this little speck of volcanic rock scarcely registered, let alone the littler specks upon it. What did it all matter? Cutty was a fuckup. And? He felt shitty for old Wetherfell, dying out here alone in the water, abandoned though he wouldn’t know it until too late, ripped off by his bought-and-paid-for local friend. Some kama’aina discount . . . ten percent off the time you’ve got left. Done. Pau.
The sun broke through the bottom deck of clouds and began to melt against the horizon. There wasn’t room between cloud and sea for the whole disk to show itself. He slipped on his mask and chomped the snorkel’s mouthpiece.
The angle of light was severe, the shadows almost black between the rocks. Where the reef dropped off, he saw long, rectangular slabs that looked like toppled dominoes. Geologists said it was a natural formation, but the local space-case Lemurians declared these the remains of an old temple, predating even the ancient menehune of Hawaiian folklore. It had to be pre-Hawaiian because the Hawaiians themselves had never worked with slabs like that; even the ruins attributed to the little people were built up stone by stone.
Signs of the morning’s emergency rescue were evident down below. Ambrose fought the faint current to keep himself in place. Raking marks on the largest slab had cleared it of some of the slime, revealing the vague etchings of humanoid figures and some others that might have been mountains, birds, waves. He took a breath and dived to the slab, looking about in the surrounding rocks. Fish scattered first, then came close in case he stirred up good eats. The surrounding reef was full of holes; it was rare to see a moray eel, even rarer to see an octopus, but he sought something rarer still.
There it was, hanging limp, a black tube like seaweed looped through a wrist-wide hole. He shot back up to the surface, blew his snorkel clear, then dived down again and went straight to the severed cable.
It was looped through the rock, pulled snug. It must have been a pain to cut, especially with a body in the way. Poor old Wetherfell. Well, your book was being taken out of circulation, no one else was going to follow in your watery footsteps . . . if you could call them that. Finsteps? Two fingers and a nose, Ambrose reminded himself. He was not the author of this story but its reader. He needed to see how it ended, even if he was the only one who finished it.
He followed the cable till he came to the lock and saw the letters, scrambled.
Once more to the surface. The sun was a fat wedge now, top and bottom bitten off, sinking fast.
Another deep breath, then back down to the lock.
He rolled the letters until they came into line: H-O-L-L-O-W.
The lock popped open.
What the . . . ?
With the lock in his hand, free of the chain, he kicked to the surface. He read the word again.
He had thought for certain that Cutty had fucked the old man when setting the combination. Wetherfell had picked an illiterate assistant and trusted him to spell; that was the ending he’d expected. In a darker moment, Ambrose had wondered if maybe Cutty had spelled it wrong on purpose, to trap the old man here. But Cutty wasn’t evil, or even wrong. Somehow he had gotten something right.
It made no sense.
Ambrose gazed down between his fins as the sun commenced its final plunge. There had to be some explanation, some other clue. Once more, he dived, kicking back down to the slabs. A last flicker of orange light cut through the shallows, painting the reef with a mesh of green and gold, like a net woven of water that fish had spread to trap humans. The pictoglyphs caught and held the glow, seeming to catch fire from within, convincing him in some dreamy, wish-riddled part of his mind that he could read them, that they had reserved their meaning for just this moment, and just for him. Wetherfell had charged up the spell then died before completing it—but the ritual needed a living witness, someone to give it completion by coming away with its meaning.
Ambrose felt himself switch on. Enlightenment or whatever. Like Cutty, he sensed he was stealing away with something that shouldn’t belong to him, something revealed in the magic light when he hadn’t intended to look.
He realized that his mouth was open and the snorkel mouthpiece had drifted out. His mouth gaped, filling with water. In a daze, he was about to suck in seawater as if it were a breath. He sputtered, shoved the rubber piece back between his teeth, panicking as if he had come close to drowning.
At the same moment, the glyphs went dark. The sun had set. He was left to paddle back to shore in gray dusk, rain passing over him on its way to the open sea, and for some reason he found when he stripped off his mask that he was crying.
Thirty minutes later, rambling back into Honukai, streets full of tourists, bars pumping reggae and hula tunes, he parked his scooter in the alley behind the stores. He let himself into the cluttered dark of Castaway Books and up the stairs to his flat above the shop. He had put Wetherfell’s book in his safe. Switching on the stove to boil a kettle, he opened the green journal to the very last line and read:
Preparations are finished for the final observance at Hallows Reef. When next I write, I will be a changed man.
So it hadn’t been Cutty after all. Wetherfell thought the name of the reef denoted holiness instead of merely holes. A misunderstanding, but a fundamental one. And fatal.
Ambrose felt slightly better about Cutty. Slightly worse about everything else.
Wetherfell hanging there, chained, desperately trying HALLOW over and over, never once switching the A to an O; so fixed on his idea that he never saw the obvious alternative, not even when his air ran out. Or maybe he had waited till the very end to even try the lock, still hoping for his magic breakthrough. Naïve or dogmatic, but either way doomed.
The answer, somehow, was in the words—or in between them. Wherever Ambrose looked, he saw them. Towers of books rose all over the room, occupied every surface. He still hadn’t decided which ones were going downstairs to be sold, to become the book some customer didn’t realize they’d been looking for all along, and which were going to stay up here a bit longer, to be picked at and possibly read by Ambrose first. A truly beat-up copy of Moloka’i, atop an only slightly less dog-eared paperback of The Hunger Games. Tristram Shandy, which he’d never started, and 2666, which he had yet to finish. And these had only just displaced the previous stack, itself topped by Wolf Hall and Night at the Circus. Whatever he decided on tonight, there was no such thing as finality, for tomorrow he would just pull in another haul of lively, silvery, restless book-fish, and one of them would instantly shove the rest aside, its glyphs briefly flickering brighter than all the other words caught in the vast shadow-skeins of the evening shore.
He settled on The Hunger Games.
As was far from unusual, he dozed off with his finger marking his place in a passage he would never remember having read when he awoke some unclear amount of time later. Normally at this point he would close whatever book he was reading and switch off the bedside light, but tonight he lay listening for a repeat of whatever sound had woken him. A noise from the sidewalk below his window?
Rising, he opened the window over the street. It was never fully sealed so the night noises barely increased, but at least now he could put his head out and check the highway in both directions. Across the highway, the shops opposite were dark, quiet, deserted; while beyond the storefronts, the valley peaks were shrouded in rain and mist. Between black blots of cloud, the stars were stunningly bright but did nothing to illuminate the street. Honukai shut down early, and there were no bars except in restaurants, so silence prevailed. Few cars had any reason to come down from the Schefferville Cliffs at this hour. A cool, damp breeze shouldered past him into his flat and he started to retreat, because these winds were hell on books. But then he saw a movement just below, maybe a dog nosing around near the shop entrance. He leaned a bit farther out and saw someone standing on the threshold, holding the door ajar, hoping not to be seen.
“Hey!” Ambrose cried.
The figure didn’t stir. His first thought was that Cutty, having discovered the journal was worth $500, had come back to rip him off. But the stranger was too pale for that.
“Hold on,” he said and threw himself across the room, negotiating his way in the dark, then quickly flying downstairs into the shop. The only light came from the glow of the computer by the register. That was troubling in itself, but at least it didn’t blind him as he approached the front door. It was closed now, but not locked, and he opened it.
The visitor, burglar, or late-night customer was gone. A sudden surge of passing rain swept down the highway and concealed a pallid, naked shape, like a large white frog, limping around the corner, out of sight. Ambrose realized that even though he hadn’t passed the threshold, his feet were wet. He backed up and saw that he’d been standing in a puddle.
Now he hit the lights.
A watery trail ran from the back of the shop to the front door, and he had tracked through it as he crossed the floor. The rear door to the parking lot was ajar. Maybe he had left it open when he came back from Hollows. He was willing to admit the possibility.
one thing he hadn’t done was drip water all over the inventory. Damp patches caught his eye all the way from the back door to the front counter. Small puddles trembled on the covers of books, dripped down the sides of paperback stacks. Next to the register, it looked as if someone had spilled a glass of water over the laminated maps, and the floor behind the counter was so puddled that he thought maybe the explanation for all of this was that some old, corroded pipe had finally burst in the ancient building. But then why had it stopped leaking?
The computer screen caught his eye again, reminding him that there was probably more to it than plumbing. It should not have been aglow when he came down into the shop. It would have been in sleep mode all night, unless someone disturbed it.
But the screen was not only on, it was still open to the collectors’ forum, where he had been typing earlier. Ambrose touched the keys and his fingers came away damp. Leaning close to the screen, he saw that a post had been made, according to the computer clock, only moments ago.
Whoever made the post had done so from this computer, taking advantage of his login.
Castaway2.0 Re: Wetherfell’s Reef Runics
Dealer <Reply #7>
Posts: 276 Fluke? My plan wrked altho mperfectl. I need feign deat to aid in my unchaning. I retrn only to rtriev my prizd BOOK, and yu shal hear frm me no more whil te contintnts occpy thr curnt postion.
Yr Nwly Amphbs Assoc,
As Ambrose watched, another post appeared immediately following:
Bibliossifer Re: Wetherfell’s Reef Runics
Antiquarian <Reply #8>
Posts: 4,410 Drunken posting may result in forum privileges being revoked, young Mr. Sabala. Don’t embarrass your uncle. Serious discussion only. Now excuse me while I go get hammered.
Ambrose refrained from responding, refrained from deleting the offending post. He might well want it as evidence. But of what? A hacker? Burglary? The obvious target of the intruder was safe in the safe upstairs and the stairs were perfectly dry. And what of the dampened stacks around the shop? There was little of value set out, the first-edition case was locked, and nothing appeared to be missing. He kept no cash in the shop and the register drawer was untouched. No inventory out of place. Except . . .
Near the register, he had sorted Auntie’s books into two stacks, one for sale, the other to be hauled off for recycling. As soon as he saw the stacks, he shivered and swore: “Uncle Byron, the fuck you get me into?”
Much as Wetherfell’s body would be reported missing from the morgue the next morning by the Tauai Tides, one memorable title was mysteriously absent from the top of the recycling stack:
Wetherfell’s own inscribed, water-stained copy of Lord Ravenscar’s Revenge.
“Wetherfell’s Reef Runics” copyright 2017 by Marc Laidlaw. First appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, January/February 2017.