Straightaway's entertainment was, as far as Nick was concerned, one of the biggest hazards on the pier. Starting with Frankie Kahana, going on through the giant mermaid roof-balloon that had given the whole pier and the surrounding area an up-close-and-personal anatomy lesson and single-handedly sparked Murray's journal paper on the breeding habits of merpeople, and finishing with the latest guy, a fire-eater who'd narrowly escaped burning the restaurant to the ground.
Nick figured, if he was Straightaway, he'd have gone ahead and had the Contessa crew come on as exotic dancers. At least it would save on damages, neighborhood relations, and insurance premiums.
But Straightaway didn't see it that way. That, Nick supposed, was why the guy drove a Ferrari: temperamental, a bitch to get parts for, and performance-wise, only mediocre (at least in Nick's book). But the car was all statement, just like Straightaway's gigs.
So when Murray ran down the companionway, shouting "Guess what!" Nick put his head in his hands and groaned.
He'd been right to be concerned. Nick looked around the giant floating marquee, anchored to the pier by what Nick considered were inadequate lengths of cable, and to the Contessa on the harbor side. The floor was a floating inflatable, and the sides were semi-rigid polythene.
"Semi-rigid." Nick stared. "Not rigid."
"No, Nick!" Straightaway slapped his shoulder, grinning genially. "The deck moves, see? So the wall must move, also."
"Which means people get drunk and fall overboard, right? Am I right?" Nick turned to Cody for support.
"Well, Nick, I dunno." Cody looked uncomfortable, not willing, as usual, to force a confrontation when he wasn't sure of his ground.
Nick sighed and poked the wobbly deck with his toe. Not like he was sure of his ground, either. "Moving walls. Great idea. What else?"
The band were located up on the Contessa's deck, the bar on the pier, and the inflatable floor was the scene of the Enchantment Under The Sea dance. The semi-rigid walls were festooned with neon fish, spiky looking crabs and long, tentacled things that made Nick's skin crawl. Nick went home from the pre-gig assessment with an incipient headache and another huge question about why they were still in the security business at all.
After Cody had been shot they'd all agreed to take a break from detective work for a while. Not only because Cody was still recovering physically, but also because the shooting had made them all acknowledge the strain that the dangers of the job were placing them under.
Nick's chopper flights, Murray's programming gigs and the odd security job were keeping them in the meantime. Just. And Cody was well enough now to take waterskiing tours again.
Jobs like Straightaway's function were normally simple. It boiled down to protecting the coatcheck from petty theft, and keeping an eye on guys getting fresh with their dates, or with the waitresses. But that was in a venue with a roof, a stable floor and solid walls. In this strange, blow-up marquee, everything was going to be ten times harder.
But no-one else seemed to think so. There was a big crowd, laughing and swaying to the music and the strange undulations of the water-borne marquee. Murray, eyes alight, was covering the dance-floor-in reality, he was dancing with what looked to Nick like half the Contessa crew.
Nick was near the entrance, keeping an unobtrusive eye on those entering and leaving. And Cody was over by the bar. Leaning on one of those goddamn plastic-fantastic walls. It bulged behind him, tipping and reshaping itself under his weight, and Nick watched in horrified fascination. Walls shouldn't dothat.
Cody sipped his drink and leaned away from the wall to say something to the pretty, dark-haired bartender. Nick frowned a little, watching him-then froze. Something was reaching out from the wall, something long and fleshy and snakelike, extending a slender, questing tip toward Cody.
Nick's guts roiled. The walls might move, but they couldn't turn into snakes. He shoved his way blindly past an incoming group, ignoring their shocked gasps, and hurried toward the bar.
"Nick! What's wrong?" Cody grabbed his arm, tensing as he took in Nick's frightened look. "What's going on?"
"There was-" Nick stopped, licked his lips, and looked at the wall behind Cody. It was smooth and slightly shiny, and completely snake-free. He looked down at the floor, and saw nothing save more plastic. "Did you, uh, see anything?"
"What sort of anything?"
Nick gave a nervous laugh. "Nothing. Forget it, Cody." He pulled away abruptly and moved back to his position by the door. He felt Cody's eyes on him all the way.
Nick watched the wall by the bar from the corner of his eye, occasionally swinging around on purpose then turning back, trying to catch it at-whatever. Whatever he'd seen had no place at a dance. But every time he looked, the wall was its smug, smooth self.
But he was so focused on the wall, he missed Cody's change of position. When he realized Cody was gone he searched the room frantically. Murray was standing by the Contessa's hull with Mama Jo, and waved his hand airily at Nick's worry. "He'll be someplace around, Nick! Why don't you dance? It's really boss out there. The kinetic energy as channelled by the undulations is-"
Nick had just decided the disappearing snake had somehow kidnapped Cody when Cody walked in the entrance, large as life.
"Cody! Where the hell have you been?"
Cody took Nick's arm, looking at him narrowly. "Needed to use the bathroom. Nick, what's up? I don't think I've ever seen you so tense."
"I couldn't find you! You weren't anywhere, and there's-" Nick clamped his mouth shut.
"And there's what?"
"Too many people," Nick said lamely. The last thing he wanted to admit was his snake-vision.
Cody nodded, accepting the explanation. Back from Vietnam, Nick had struggled with crowds. In fact, back then, he couldn't be around people at all, not unless he had Cody beside him. "I'm sorry," Cody said, lowering his voice. "It was my idea we should split up tonight. Kinda dumb, huh?"
Nick bit his lip. "Not dumb," he said huskily. "It made sense. But I just-I saw-"
"Hey, I know." Cody slipped an arm around Nick's shoulders. "It's okay, big guy. I'm right here with you."
Nick nodded, not correcting Cody's assumption that he was talking about a war flashback. That, at least, made sense. "Thanks," he muttered, and followed Cody to the bar.
This time, the snakes came from the floor, and there were two of them. Nick stood, staring in unbelieving horror, as the obscene things rose upward, blind heads turning this way and that. One, then the other, twined about Cody's ankles then slid up his legs toward his knees.
"Cody!" Nick tackled him, sending him sprawling, then grabbed him by the shoulders, dragging him away from the nightmare beasts. "Cody!"
"Nick!" Cody turned the tables on him in an instant, slamming him to the rocking, rolling floor and pinning him down. "What the hell are you doing?"
Nick was dimly aware of a ring of inquisitive faces peering down at him, but he didn't care. He stared into the confusion and fear in Cody's eyes then wrenched himself free, raising up so he could see Cody's legs.
Like he was half-expecting, there were no snakes.
Fear grew inside him and he rubbed his eyes. "Saw a snake," he muttered indistinctly.
"A snake?" Cody looked at him long and hard, then around the floating room. Above, several voices started talking at once.
"Nick," Cody said, low and urgent. "Nick, are you sure?"
Nick blinked once, looked down and wrapped his arms around himself. He knew exactly what he'd seen. Something that couldn't possibly exist. "No," he said, barely shaping the word.
Cody got to his feet and pulled Nick up with him, keeping an arm around his partner. "Nothing to worry about," he said loudly. "My friend here's just a little drunk."
Nick winced, but didn't contradict him. It was as good an explanation as any.
"What the hell is going on?" Straightaway arrived with Murray at his side. Murray looked worried. Straightaway just looked furious.
"Nick's not well," Cody said without preamble. "I think I better take him home."
"Nick! What's wrong?"
Straightaway cut Murray off. "I paid you bozos for security, not to leave before the party's even begun. He can't do it on his own!" He pointed at Murray.
Nick rubbed his eyes again. "I'm fine, man. Just slipped, that's all." He studiously ignored the look Cody was giving him and manufactured a smile for Murray and Straightaway. Neither of them looked convinced, but Straightaway at least threw his hands in the air and left them alone.
"Nick, you gotta get out of here." Cody sounded really worried. Nick risked a glance at his feet, and felt a rush of relief at seeing them snake-free.
"What's wrong? Is it the heat? I'm finding it oppressive myself, but do you know, without the actual sun's rays, I'm coping admirably."
"Yeah, it's real hot, Boz." Nick shivered and avoided Cody's gaze. "That's what it is."
"If that's how you want it," Cody said carefully. "I'll be at the bar, okay?"
Nick watched his partner walk off regretfully. He hated to hurt Cody's feelings. But they needed the money for the job and Straightaway was right, Murray couldn't do it on his own.
Murray was patting his arm and saying something soothing. Nick interrupted him. "Listen, Murray, can you do me a favor? Can you stick to Cody like glue? Stick to him and if he, uh, gets in any trouble, needs any help, you call me, okay?"
"Well, sure, Nick." Murray hesitated. "Why?"
"Just...just a hunch," Nick said lamely.
"Okay!" Murray said cheerfully, and went.
Nick carefully turned his back. When he looked at Cody, he saw snakes. So the answer was not to look at Cody, which sounded simple, but wasn't, not if you were Nick. He looked at Cody the same way he breathed-automatically, to fulfil a deep, elemental need. To keep himself alive.
A little after midnight, the dance was drawing to a close. There were a few customers left, slow-dancing to the romantic late-evening tunes, and a few more at the bar. At last, Nick allowed himself to turn and look for his partners.
Murray was leaning on the bar, looking as though he was well into his Marlon Brando impersonation. And Cody was back against the wall, grinning and holding a glass. Around him writhed not one, not two but seven-no, eight-of the loathsome snakes.
They're not snakes,, Nick realized, paralyzed with horror. It was worse; the things were tentacles, equipped with tiny distinct suction cups. And each was wrapping itself around Cody's body, folding itself in and around its fellows, gripping him tight.
"Nooooooooooooo!" Adrenaline jolted through Nick and he charged across the terrible floating room. He grabbed Cody and tore him away from the wall, away from the clinging, revolting tentacles.
He heard Cody's sharp cry, Murray's shout, and a woman screaming, then he was rolling on the ground, his partner in his arms.
"Nick, stop it. Stop it!"
"No! It's not safe, it's trying to take you and I won't let it, Cody! I won't let it!" He made it to his feet again and saw the things again, sliding along the wall toward their new location. With a roar of fury, Nick charged.
The harbor was cold, and slimy, and wet, and there would be no fee. That would go toward the repair of the inflatable marquee. Nick, shivering and dripping, looked at his feet while Cody turned on every last charm-bone in his body to placate Straightaway.
Nick looked over his shoulder. The marquee, listing a little drunkenly to one side, was dark and quiet now. There were no tentacles, no snakes, and there'd been none in the water either.
Nick squeezed his eyes shut. Was he going crazy? He knew what he'd seen, but he also knew no way it could have been real. Cody had felt nothing of the attacks. Murray had been standing right beside him, and seen nothing.
So that meant there'd been nothing to see. It had to.
"Huh?" Nick jolted back to himself to see Straightaway striding off down the pier.
"Come on, buddy." Cody put an arm around him. "Let's go home, okay?"
Nick nodded, and let Cody start walking them toward the Riptide. No-one asked him anything, and his eyes filled. He'd ruined the job, acted crazy and nearly drowned, and his two best friends were content to wait for their explanation.
Back on board the Riptide, Cody poured coffee for everyone. Nick pulled his wet shirt over his head and flung it down the stairs, then dropped on the couch wet jeans and all. He lowered his head and clasped his hands behind his neck, staring at the floor. Clear as day, he could picture the grasping, seeking tendrils gripping at Cody, owning him, taking him. Nausea roiled in his gut.
"Nick! Nick." Cody sat down beside him and put an arm around him. "C'mon, guy. We're outta there now. We're home, we're safe."
Nick sat up a little, blinking at the light. Cody was talking about Vietnam; he didn't realize the real danger had been lurking in Straightaway's horrible plastic room.
Murray pulled the rattan chair closer and sank down in it. He put a comforting hand on Nick's arm and turned worried eyes on Cody.
"He'll be okay, Boz. It's crowds, huh, big guy? The crowd, and that weird light in the marquee, and I guess we've all been pretty stressed the last few weeks."
Nick put a hand over his eyes. He had been stressed, it was true, but could that really bring on an attack of PTSD so weird that he saw his partner attacked by tentacles no-one else could see? It didn't make sense.
He raised his head, looking from Murray to Cody. "It wasn't the crowd," he said quietly. "I don't know what it was. Maybe I'm going crazy, I dunno. I saw-things-"
Nick stopped, staring at Cody. There were no tentacles, not here on the Riptide. But Cody's dark blue hoody was halfway unzipped, showing his chest and the top of his abs. And crawling up his body was a raised scarlet rash.
"Cody! What the hell's that?"
Cody glanced down casually, then unzipped his hoody the rest of the way. The red, angry marks extended from his navel to his pecs. He scratched at them absently.
"It's nothing. The girls I took out yesterday wanted to go scuba diving around Catalina, so I took them down. One of them got in a little trouble-we saw a lionfish, which is really rare as far north as this, and she was trying to get too close-and when I was pulling her out I scraped myself on the reef."
"You-" Nick grabbed Cody's knees, staring at the rash. It looked exactly like the marks of tiny, clinging suction cups. "Why'd you take them scuba diving? You know we said no diving, not yet!"
"Yeah, but I was fine, Nick. It's nothing. Buddy, I need you to calm down, okay? I'm worried about you."
"You're worried about me?" Nick shook his head. "No way, Cody. No way." He stared harder at the rash. It wasn't his imagination-in the few minutes they'd been sitting there, it had turned darker red, and spread lower down Cody's abdomen. "That rash is getting worse, Cody. Murray, call an ambulance. Right now."
"An ambulance? Nick, no!" Cody grabbed Nick's arm, but Nick wasn't having any of it. he shrugged Cody off and rounded on Murray.
"Now, Boz! Tell 'em hurry!"
Murray almost ran for the phone, and Nick turned back to Cody. "Shut up," he said decisively, grabbed Cody's shoulders and sat him down on the bench seat. "Are you feeling okay?"
"Yes!" Cody's eyes clouded for a moment. "Well, I guess. I thought it was the heat, or just that I was worried about you..."
"Tell me, man. Tell me right now."
By the time the ambulance arrived, Cody was definitely ill. Gray in the face and sweating, and with the rash extending over most of his torso, redder than ever. The paramedics rushed him onto a stretcher while Nick and Murray hurriedly told what they knew.
Two hours later, Cody was safely in bed at Harbor Memorial, sleeping comfortably. But two IV lines and the oxygen tube to his nose spoke of the close call.
"How did you know?" Murray asked quietly. He was sitting in the plastic chair under the window. Nick had pulled his own chair close to the bed, and was holding Cody's hand. "I-I never realized anything was wrong with him, even after you asked me to keep an eye on him."
"I didn't either, not until I saw the rash." Nick breathed deep, thinking of the terrible tentacles. The thing from under the sea, the enchantment under the sea. Trying to take Cody? Or trying to warn Nick of the thing that had already attacked Cody, and would have taken him if they hadn't acted when they did?
"What did you see at the dance?" Murray was still watching Nick. "Cody said you were having war flashbacks. But... well, I'm pretty sure I've seen you have those kind of flashbacks before. On our last case, for example. And they've never made you attack a wall."
Nick nodded. "Yeah, attacking a wall and nearly drowning myself's a new one."
"So are you gonna tell me what you really saw?"
Nick hesitated, then shrugged. Crazy or not, the tentacles had saved Cody. Not that Nick had any plans of re-entering the floating marquee to thank them. After all, he had no idea what their intentions had been.
"Things like tentacles," he said hoarsely, looking at Cody's face. "Coming from the walls, the floor. Wrapping around him, trying to take him."
Murray sucked in a sharp breath. "So when you attacked the wall...?"
"Tentacles. Yeah." Nick gave a short laugh. "Crazy, I know."
"But there was something attacking Cody, Nick. Something no-one else could see."
"Not tentacles, though."
"No, not tentacles. But look at it this way. You saw Cody under attack. Because of what you saw, we got home early, and we were able to get him the help he needed in time. You know what the doctor said-he must have gotten a lionfish spine lodged in his flesh, and the venom's been releasing slowly all this time. The venom itself isn't usually dangerous, but tonight he started having an allergic reaction-Nick, if you hadn't seen what you did, if we'd just let him go to bed, he could have gone into anaphylactic shock. He might have died."
Nick lowered his head, shaking. He knew all that, he'd heard the doctor just as well as Murray had, but he hadn't dared to think about it.
"It's okay, pal." Cody's whisper made Nick raise his head again, and he managed to smile through suddenly wet eyes.
"Yeah, it is," he said huskily, "no thanks to you. Next time I say no diving, listen, willya?"
Cody grinned and squeezed Nick's hand. "Yeah," he agreed softly.
Five minutes later, the nurse came in and hustled Nick and Murray out. But five minutes after that, Cody was unsurprised to hear stealthy footsteps outside his room.
"Didn't think she'd keep you out long," he murmured without opening his eyes.
Nick slipped into his chair and took Cody's hand again. "No fucking way I'm leaving you alone."
"I know. Boz okay?"
"Yeah. He didn't want to go without me, but I made him see he needed to sleep."
"Like you don't."
"Need to be with you more."
At that, Cody opened his eyes. "I need you too," he disclosed, tightening his fingers around Nick's hand.
Nick nodded, unsurprised. "I know." He hesitated. "Before... how long'd you been awake?"
"How much did I hear, you mean?"
Nick nodded once.
"All of it, I think. The tentacles... you told me in there you saw a snake." Cody's eyes filled with sympathy. "I'm sorry, buddy. I'm sorry you had to see that."
Nick sighed. "I'm not. Not if it meant saving you. Ah, Cody-I don't know if I'm going crazy, I don't know what the hell I saw, you know? The only thing I know is, I can't lose you."
"I don't think you're crazy." Cody looked at him seriously. "I think you saw what you needed to see. I just hope...I just hope if it'd been the other way around, I hope I'd've seen something too. I hope I'd have seen enough to save you."
Nick's eyes filled with tears. "You wouldn't have," he said with conviction. Cody looked surprised, worried; then grinned as Nick went on. "Because if I'd agreed not to dive, I wouldn't have dived, and been bitten by a goddamn poisonous fish!"
"It didn't bite me! And you've flown that chopper I don't know how many times when you've promised me you wouldn't!"
"Well, maybe I have, but it never got me bitten by a fish yet. Or even a seagull!"
"You don't know when it will!" Cody retorted, and Nick, with an affectionate grin, laid his head down on the bed next to Cody's ribs.
"So maybe next time I'll keep my promise, too," he said, and laid his arm across Cody's stomach, where the angry red rash had faded to pale pink, barely discernible marks. Cody rested his fingers in Nick's hair and Nick smiled.
"Dragons," he whispered. "If it came to that, you'd see dragons."
Cody stroked Nick's hair. "Let's not test it out," he whispered back.