“Excuse me, but have you seen my son?” a woman dressed like a tavern wench asks when Gemma steps out of the hotel. With quivering hands, she holds up her phone to show a picture of a young boy in a parrot costume. “He jumped off the small diving board and then I lost track of him. Nobody saw him in the water, so I know he’s alive. Please keep a look out for him. His name is Cody.”
The detective nods and leans away from the frantic woman as she says, “I’ll watch for him and mention it to the staff. You should do the same. Maybe stand somewhere high where he can see you.”
Nodding and clutching her phone, the guest wanders off to join her husband who is talking to a lifeguard. Gemma watches the couple walk around the pool and climb up a fake volcano that is pumping steam into the air. Spotting Dawn, the detective pushes through the crowd of pirates, mermaids, skeletons, wenches, and old fashioned naval officers. She notices that many people simply put on fake eye patches and beards while doing their best pirate imitation. Stopping at a table full of beer mugs and buccaneer-themed food, Gemma watches a woman dive into the pool and come out near the stairs. A little girl tries to do an imitation off the smaller board, several people waiting to help her if she is in trouble. The crowd pushes forward and blocks her view of the pool, so she grabs a plate of food and ducks under the rope to greet her host.
Licking her lips and stretching across a cushioned deck chair, Dawn is dressed like an over-the-top Pirate Queen. A fake hook is on her right hand and she deftly uses it to get at her food, which is being held by an unmoving staff member. Her hat is gigantic with three ostrich feathers coming out of the band and a pheasant tail curled out of the back. The extravagant jacket is made from crimson velvet and gold embroidery, a silver compass dangling on a chain that is sewn into one of her pockets. Polished black boots and matching pants finish the ensemble that leaves the detective in awe. With a friendly wave of her hook, Dawn directs her guest to a skull-adorned throne and taps a live parrot on the head.
“You look like the daughter of Captain Hook and Liberace after she became obsessed with Jack Sparrow,” Gemma states when she sees the makeup and fake tattoos on the hotelier. She rubs at her own eye patch, which is nothing more than fresh bandages. “There’s a woman searching for her son. Is your security going to do anything about that?”
“They’re looking and I told her to check the lost and found later,” Dawn replies while scratching her golden eye patch with the hook. She claims a rapier that is covered in meat and pineapples, the makeshift skewer too ungainly for her to easily eat from. “Maybe this was a bad idea. Don’t want to lose my other eye. Next time, we’ll use dirks and maybe some flintlocks filled with tiny candy coins. Now, what are we going to talk about? It’s always business and threats with you. I want us to bond tonight.”
“I doubt we have enough in common for that to happen,” the detective says as she is handed her own sword. Using a cloth napkin, she pulls the first piece of beef off the blade and takes a bite. “The truth is that I already know some stuff about you. Born on Long Island and lost your father to a collapsed house. Never stood out as a child and failed to finish college. Then there was your time at Raven’s Hold and you came out as a successful entrepreneur. Honestly, the only interesting part of your life is the present.”
Swinging her legs off the table and into Gemma’s lap, the other woman repeatedly clicks her heels. “I was a boring child with problems. Now I’m an exciting adult with eccentricities. It’s not worth talking about, so maybe you’re right that we only have the game. Such a shame because I have so few friends. Some of them are even real.”
“Excuse me,” a man dressed as a pirate says as he approaches the ropes. He bows his head and wrings the hat in his hands, the small feather frayed beyond recognition. “I can’t find my daughter. Have you-”
“No! Now stop interrupting.”
“Could one of-”
“No! Now if you don’t find her by midnight then grab a woman and make a new one.”
“Stop interrupting and go walk the plank.”
With tears in his eyes, the man drops his hat and wanders to the highest diving board. He puts out his hands for a lifeguard to bind them with rope, the restraint loose enough for him to easily break. The other guests let him climb the ladder and gather around the edge of the pool to watch him dive. It is more of a clumsy fall with flailing legs that results in a back first landing and a loud groan of sympathy from the crowd. The man’s arms spread upon impact and remain splayed even when two lifeguards fish him out of the water. Carried to the volcano, he is placed on one of the lower niches and handed a cocktail for his trouble. His eyes remain closed and he whimpers, but nobody can figure out if it is out of pain or missing his daughter.
As the party continues, Gemma scans the guests and picks out several people who appear to be searching for something. They are holding out phones or wallet pictures, their faces etched with stress and sorrow. Whenever one of them talks to a hotel employee, they are escorted to the volcano, which is glowing to give the illusion of spewing lava. Turning back to Dawn, she notices the brief flicker of a smirk on the other woman’s face. Placing her food on the table, Gemma opens her mouth to speak when the parrot begins cawing like a raven. The animal only stops when one of the female staff members holds out a pomegranate that has already been sliced open.
“You’re going to ask me what I did,” Dawn moans as she draws a flintlock pistol. Aiming the weapon at her mouth, she fires a jet of orange juice that makes her gag. “That was a terrible idea. Just like asking me that question. First of all, you can see what’s going on. No reason to ask for me to spell things out for you. That’s all I have. So I guess I didn’t have to say first of all. I probably forgot the other points.”
“Never thought you would target children,” Gemma growls, fighting the temptation to put a bullet in Dawn’s head. Tearing her bandages off, she reveals her injured eye, which makes several people look away. “This is going too far. Either bring them back now or tell me where I can find them.”
“As usual, you think me a monster when I’m merely a playful imp,” the hotelier states while cleaning her face. The click of the detective’s gun and feel of metal against her forehead makes her giggle, a burst of madness in her eye. “Unbalanced cop kills beloved businesswoman? Crazy officer murders innocent pillar of the community? I’m sure the headlines would be hilarious if you pull that trigger. None of them will mention saving the lost children. You might even be blamed for them being found too late.”
“Where did you put them?”
“I’m done playing your game.”
The lights dim and a thick darkness consumes the edge of the pool as Dawn hisses, “The game ends when my husband and I say it is. The children were taken by someone else. How about you do your job and look for them? Not like anybody could get very far with so many kids to carry. I release you from your celebration to be a hero. Dig deep into this mystery and make the bad guys pay. Preferably in large denominations because banks don’t take blood and body parts.”
Her ears filled with the sound of her own heartbeat, Gemma lets her thumb run along the hammer of her gun. With a mumbled curse, she puts the weapon away and storms out of the roped off area. The crowd seems to shift and move to create a winding path that leads the detective to the door. Staring through the door, she can see that only the two people manning the front desk are inside. Blinking her injured eye to see if things improve, Gemma takes a cleansing breath and steps into the surprisingly frigid lobby. She jumps at the sound of the door locking behind her, the party on the other side hard to see in the tinted glass.
“I’m not letting you win this round, Dawn.”