I stepped into the office. Apollyon sat in the window sill, and Danny was shuffling papers about. He would pick a sheet up, scribble a handful of words, then just as soon he would set it down and pick up another. Each time he wrote he mumbled to himself, but he dropped this habit when he noticed me in the doorway.
“Well look who decided to be useful after all. Are you finally clean? All thirty two floors must be out of hot water by this point, so I certainly hope so.”
“Don’t talk to me that way,” I responded, taking a seat in one of the chairs across from the desk. I cupped my face in my hands and let out a deep breath. “It’s been a rough couple of days.”
“And if you keep moving at that rate it’ll be a rough couple of millennia before we’re done. Hey, look at me; ya did good this morning. Thanks to our friend Nathaniel we know that the body, mind, and soul can be separated.” Danny tossed down the pages he was holding and sank back into his chair. “We know the parts are distinct, now we just have to figure out exactly how. We need to do more research.”
“More? Wasn’t the whole point of this to answer the question?”
“If it were as simple as killing a man, it would’ve been answered already,” Danny pointed out. Sitting back up and sliding the papers around, he elaborated, “There are so many theories to try, so many definitions to uphold, so much to simply think about!”
“So what’s next? You’re the one who knows what he’s talking about, so where do we go from here?”
“I can keep plenty busy in this office, doing all the brainy bits. I never would’ve thought it, but I’ve actually taken a liking to it. I’ll stay up here in this penthouse, figuring out which tests need to be done, and you go out on the streets to keep the test subjects in fresh supply.”
“How many people are we talking about?” I questioned.
“All of them for all I care. If we run out we’ll move to another city.”
“But when does it stop?”
“When we’ve answered the questions!” Danny shot, bringing his fist down on the desk and scattering the papers. He set out to arrange them again, and sighed, “Every last question.”
Neither of us talked for some time. But with questions on the mind and divine vision at the ready, true silence was hard to come by. We didn’t speak, but nonetheless, we were forced to know how the other felt.
“Well anyways, I just came here to ask: what do we do with the body?”
“We? Nothing. I’d love to go out on an adventure Aidan, but there’s too much to be done up here. Besides, I can’t just leave Apollyon. She hasn’t moved from that spot in the window all day, and I doubt she’ll be moving anytime soon. As for you, buy a boat and lay the man to rest at sea.”
“Won’t that be suspicious?”
“Ah yes, I can see the headlines now. ‘Millionaire moves to California and buys a boat, police investigations are underway.’”
“I’ve been meaning to ask you about the fortune as well—”
“Keep it. As long as we’re using it for a good cause, I couldn’t care less which one of us technically owns it. Just don’t let me starve, or Apollyon for that matter, and all will be well.”
“And the estate?”
“If it’s not too much trouble, I’d like you to keep it in your name. I never plan on going back to that place, but I couldn’t bear to see it changed from the way it was.”
I nodded, and turned to leave him to his work. Before I could however, I had to mention one last thing. I pulled a photograph out from my pocket. Half of it had been soaked in blood, and was difficult to make out. But the other half was clear: two children. One was a pale boy with a frown on his face. He was only halfway in the picture, though the way he blurred as he ran away suggested that he didn’t want to be in the picture at all. The other child was an Asian girl, whose hair flowed into the overlying splatter of red.
“This was folded up in his wallet. I can’t be sure it tells us anything, but it was there, in case you wanted to know.”
I laid it on the desk and turned away. Danny could bother himself to his heart’s content with the picture for all I cared, as long as I never had to look at it again.
Under the circumstances, it felt like purchasing a boat should have entailed more complications. And yet, within a mere day of killing a man, I became the owner of a lovely little vessel. I named her Morgen’s Lament, after a girl I used to know. Her picture is still around somewhere, but that’s another image I could go the rest of my life without.
Before tainting the craft with my wicked intentions, I decided to take her out to sea, just once. It was a lovely day after all. The breeze was cool, and the sun was just about to touch the horizon. Even the rhythm of the waves held a reminder from my younger days.
Christ, I couldn’t enjoy any of it. I saw the most magnificent sunset, yet all I could see were his oddly coloured eyes. I smelled the sea, yet all I could smell was his blood. I felt the waves, yet all I could feel was the knife, plunging into his chest. The worst part wasn’t that I had to think about these things—it was that I didn’t much mind the thoughts. As a whole, my present situation didn’t repulse me.
There, on my first trip aboard Morgen’s Lament, I knew that my balance keeping days were behind me. Instead I was tasked with a much larger role. I was figuring out the very nature of balance: identifying the motivations of the keepers and destroyers, the whys and hows of the system which very well may govern humanity. Figuring out if balance is the system at all, and if it isn’t then why not, and if it is then why not something else? And these questions didn’t even take up an entire wall!
When I brought Morgen’s Lament back to harbor, the sun was over the horizon. There was quite a lot on my mind as I walked back to my building, so the first time she spoke to me, I didn’t quite notice. She was more assertive the second time around.
“Hey! I’m robbing your crippled ass, pay attention!”
I turned around to see a woman pointing a gun at me. She didn’t even try to conceal it. There were people all around us, yet they all passed by while she held her arm extended, pistol pointed at my head. The lower half of her face was covered by a white bandana with a black crown at its center, but that hardly made her invisible.
I had to laugh. I couldn’t help it, even if her soul told me that she’d likely shot people over less. My amusement managed to turn more heads than her threat to my life, and that just made me laugh all the harder. San Samarra, home to some of the most jaded fucks on Earth. I took out my wallet and handed her every last dollar.
“Take it,” I said between laughs. “You’ve earned it.”
I turned back towards my destination. I can’t say what it was that struck me so funny. Thinking back on it, my journey to answer the questions could have ended right then and there. It would’ve been quite the ending. But perhaps that was why I laughed: the way a single act, and not even a well thought out one, could put an end to so much.
It might have also had to do with the whiskey I drank while out at sea. Hard to say.
She had my money, but I felt her soul seize up. Confusion, it looked like. Rather than coercing somebody out of a few stray bills, she had amused somebody out of well over a hundred. When she finished processing what had happened, I found that she wasn’t nearly as gracious as I would have hoped.
She followed me. She kept her distance, suspecting I wouldn’t notice, but there was no doubt that she was after me. I could only suppress the urge to laugh even more. She had no idea what she was in store for.
I saw that Liam was stationed at the door. It seemed he was always there, although that can’t have been true, since he still had time for sinning. He held the door open with his grin bold as ever, and when I made it a few steps into the building, he called after me.
“Mister O’Moran sir, do you know her?”
“Aye, I know her,” I said, turning to bask in the look on both of their faces. In hindsight, I should have seen the similarities between them. She’d lowered her bandana, allowing me to witness her expression in all of its baffled glory. “Let her in.”
Liam nodded, and the woman stepped forward. She was deeply uncomfortable, that much was clear. But better yet, she was stuck. She couldn’t decide what to do, so she went along with the blatantly treacherous flow of events. She followed me to the lift in a trance, and didn’t say a word on the way up. When we reached the top I stepped out to the lounge, which still held the heap of odds and sods from the guest rooms. She was so preoccupied she didn’t even find it strange. She only followed me, eying everything that wasn’t nailed down.
“You’re free to take whatever you want of course, lord knows I can’t stop you. But if I could make a suggestion, I think you’ll make the best of your time by helping yourself to the safe. I can show it to you, it’s right over here. Do you have a name?”
“Tonya,” she answered in a daze.
I led Tonya to a guest room: the one where Nathaniel’s blood was still seeping its way into the floor. She fell to her knees the second she stepped in, gagging at the sight and the smell and the death. Unlike Nathaniel she didn’t go down with a single strike of the cane, but she was subdued, even if it took a while. I set about using the rest of the rope to tie her to the free chair, face to face with Nathaniel. She would have quite the rude awakening.
“I thought I heard someone with you. I appreciate the enthusiasm mate, but when I said to get more test subjects, I didn’t mean right this moment. There are still loads of things to get straight before we’re ready for another test.”
“But with Nathaniel it only took—”
“He was different. That test was just to make sure the question we’re asking is valid. We’re not done with him either by the way; you still have to get him out of here, and the sooner the better.”
“What’ll we do with the girl in the meantime?”
“Keep her tied up I suppose.”
“Well, I’m going to see about getting the stiff into a suitcase. Let me know when you’ve made any progress.”
Tonya was still unconscious when I came back to the guest room some minutes later. I stepped around her and set my suitcase on the floor, away from the red pool near the chairs. Then I worked at untying Nathaniel. Many of the knots were swamped in blood, and they wouldn’t move. The same could be said about his joints. All of his limbs had gone stiff, and even when the bonds had been wrestled apart, he continued to sit upright.
It was clear he wouldn’t fit in the suitcase I’d picked out, or any of my other suitcases for that matter. Even if his joints could bend, there wouldn’t have been enough space. As I was scratching at my beard in search of a solution, my eyes caught a glimmering piece of metal. I looked at Nathaniel again, and then back to the suitcase. It could work.
Bending down on my cane, I picked up the kitchen knife. First the arms. I hacked away at his shoulder, and the initial swings were effortless. The blade sliced through the skin and slid out with ease, then gashed through the muscle and could be pulled out with a bit of force. But the bones were a problem. No matter how many times I gave them a dull whack they just, wouldn’t, break.
I tried bending and twisting the shoulder in every direction, but still, nothing. I settled on brute force. If I could pull out his mind, then surely his arm would be no matter. I yanked and yanked, and just as the joint popped apart, Tonya’s eyes popped open. She didn’t take it well. She shrieked and struggled against her ropes, but she accomplished little. Still, she was louder than I was comfortable with. I dropped Nathaniel’s arm and raised my cane to strike.
Just then someone came storming in through the hallway. The intruder had a bandana pulled halfway over his face, just like Tonya’s: white with a black crown. He brandished a pistol as well, with what I could only guess was a silencer on the muzzle. I nearly fell backwards from the startle he gave me, and I had to lower my cane for balance. He didn’t say a word. He began untying Tonya, shifting his gaze between the ropes and me. I should have recognized his smug, arrogant, sinful soul the moment he stepped into the room. But I could only stand there, staring at him, trying to figure out where I’d seen him before.
Tonya was still shrieking when she was untied. She wouldn’t go with the intruder. He pulled her towards the door, but she only pulled back, flailing at him with every free limb. Finally he struck her across the cheek. That got her running. Rather than running with the intruder however, she was running away from him. Tonya sprinted from the room, and the intruder chased after her.
I was left alone. I bent down to pick up the knife, but something else drew my attention. Tonya’s gun sat beside her chair. I picked that up instead, and walked into the hallway in search of two unwanted guests. With the noise Tonya made, it wasn’t difficult to find them.
They were out on the terrace. Tonya was cowering at the far edge, while the intruder knelt in front of her with his hands on her shoulders. He spoke softly to her, in a voice that sounded so familiar.
When Tonya saw me walking onto the terrace, she stood up. She stopped screaming. Looking directly at me, she went limp. Her body cascaded over the railing and fell thirty two floors to the ground, and her soul showed no signs of regret.
The stranger turned and faced me. His bandana was lowered, and that’s when I was able to recognize him.
“I thought we agreed to stay out of each other’s affairs,” I reminded him, pointing my pistol in his direction.
“Yeah, I thought so too you sick motherfucker!” he shouted, flashing his firearm as well. “I—”
Liam fired at the ground beside me. While he was aiming elsewhere I charged at him, unleashing my wrath through my cane. He covered his head and his pistol was knocked from his hands. It joined Tonya’s body, thirty two stories down.
Victorious, I stepped back and pointed my pistol at him once again. “You’re going to do what I say. You understand.”
He nodded, but that shit eating grin crept across his face. “Would you believe I shot at a rat? You might not care, but for the sake of my pride, I had to at least tell you. I’m getting killed because I shot at a fucking rat.”
I looked at where he’d fired. Starting there and leading back into the lounge was a faint trail of pink.
“Lad, you’d better hope you’re a bad shot. Come on, back to the guest room. If you try to run you know what’ll happen.”
I wasn’t sure what to expect from him. He could have overpowered me, and I didn’t even doubt that he could outwit me if the situation were right. He was smug, but he deserved to be.
He remained complacent as I brought him to the guest room. I set down the gun to tie him up, and as soon as I’d done it, I realized what a perfect opportunity I’d provided. But he didn’t take it. Instead, he smiled and helped me tie the ropes. I looked over the knots he’d made. They were just as solid as the ones I would have tied.
With Liam secure, I went to check on Apollyon. She wasn’t in the office, nor was Danny. I found both of them in the kitchen. He was lying on the floor beside her, and he looked ill, even for a dead person.
“Not the friendliest visitor, is he? I think I liked Nathaniel better.”
“I’m fine. Apollyon too, she was grazed at the worst. Tell me all about what happened later. I missed most of it. Right now though, I think you have some unfinished business.”
“Are you sure we shouldn’t keep him around? You know, for the tests? Half the work is already done.”
Danny shook his head. “He’s risky. For now let’s just try and not get arrested. Sound good?”
I left Danny and Apollyon to themselves, and walked back into the guest room. Liam was still sitting in the chair. Still tied down.
“You know,” he said, “I’m not questioning your system here, but that body’s gotta leave this building eventually. I don’t mind looking the other way.”
I tapped at his neck. “What’s this? The black crown, what’s it mean?”
“It’s hard to explain. We’re sort of like a gang.”
“We are, but it’s like, bigger than that. I can’t think of the word. It starts with an S.”
“And what’s this gang of yours called?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know, nobody says.”
“Somebody must,” I prodded, reaching down and grabbing the knife. “Think real hard now.”
“I’m telling you, I can’t—”
He grimaced as the knife ripped across his chest, but his pride smothered any trace of a scream.
“We can do this for as long as you’ve blood left to lose. Now try again; what does the crown mean?”
“It means your mother was a whore and your sister—”
I slashed out again, making a cut directly on top of the old one. “You know what it means. It’s on your lips, I can see it. What’s the crown stand for?”
His grin returned. “There are scarier people than you Mister O’Moran, and I work for them every night. The name is secret because if people knew the size of this gang, this, this syndicate, that’s the word! If people knew the actual size of this syndicate, they’d be trying a hell of a lot harder to end us. But without a name for something, people have a harder time piecing it together. That’s why—and I’m sorry Mister O’Moran—I can never tell you.”
Smug bastard. Nathaniel had been no challenge. Clarence was cake. Tonya, I hadn’t even been trying. Yet this doorman, this smug bastard, sat bleeding from the chest and smiling like he didn’t even realize it.
“Do you know about the tower of Babel, Liam?”
“No sir, I don’t.”
“You should. Back in the early days of the Earth, the people all spoke the same language. These were the people of Babel. Together, under one tongue, they could do things that nobody today would dream of. One day they built a tower, just so that they could speak to the lord. And do you know what the lord did Liam?”
“No sir, what did He do?”
“The lord saw what the people were capable of, and so He destroyed their tower, and He took their language!” and with that, I stabbed him in the jaw.
Blood trickled down the corner of Liam’s mouth, spilling forth from his shit eating grin.
“Fascinating. Tell me another story.”
I laughed and walked to the doorway. “Get some sleep. There will be plenty more tomorrow.”
The next morning, Danny was livid.
“Well isn’t this just splendid! Let’s go over the list, shall we? To begin with, even if there weren’t any evidence, this place is in a state; this office is covered in papers, the lounge has a heap of rubbish piled higher than either of us, one guest room is covered in blood, and the other is filled top to bottom with questions. But oh no, that’s not the half of it! There’s a corpse sitting right below the terrace, and as if that weren’t enough, there’s another up here in the bloody penthouse!
“But wait, there’s more! There’s a living witness to all of the above, and where might he be? Gone! Escaped, disappeared, we’ve no idea where he is! Do you know what this means Aidan? We’re fucked! From every possible angle we are completely, without a doubt, fucked!”
He collapsed back into the office chair. He glanced over the papers on the desk, and in one sweep he pushed them to the floor. I could only watch him act like this for so long.
“We can fix this. First we get Nathaniel out of here, which we already know how to do. Then—”
“You don’t get it, do you?” Danny asked, glaring at me. “This is what happens when somebody tries to answer the questions. They get fucked. I don’t know why, but it happens every single fucking time.”
“But all of those things you said about getting into Heaven—”
“Guesses!” he shouted, pounding his fists on the desk. Tears welled in his eyes as he told me, “All just guesses. How should I know how to get into Heaven? I’m sorry to break it to you Aidan. These questions aren’t the solution. For Christ’s sake, they’re only the last hope. And what’s more, even if answering the questions is a one way ticket to paradise, we haven’t answered a single one of them. We’re fucked Aidan. Completely fucked.”
“Well would you rather grasp at what little hope there is, or give up? Because we may be fucked, but mate, that’s never seemed to stop you before. So defier of death, philosopher of ages, answerer of questions; what do you want to do?”
“I’ll tell you what I want to do. I want to walk out to that terrace and jump. The only thing stopping me is that I know it wouldn’t make a difference.”
“Fine then. Jump and take that damned rat with you. I’m going to go toss a couple of limbs into the sea, and if I get arrested or shot on the way there, then I’ll be sure to meet you for a drink in Hell.”
“They don’t serve drinks in Hell. I asked.”
For the first time I can remember, Liam wasn’t at the door. In his place was a much simpler soul. The new doorman didn’t grin, and he didn’t sin. He merely opened the door for a man toting two severed arms.
I took Morgen’s Lament out of harbor and onto the sea. It was a nice day. Not quite like the last, but good all the same. The sky was blue, as it tended to be, and the waves were gentle. Before too long there was nobody in sight. I tossed the arms overboard, watched them delve below the surface, and I felt just a little bit better.
Going out to sea became a ritual for the next few days. I would throw his legs overboard, and I would feel just a little bit better. The next day I would throw his torso overboard, and again, I would feel just a little bit better. The next day I would throw over the rags used to clean his blood from the guest room, and again, I would feel just a little better. It was only on the final trip that something remarkable happened.
It was a pleasant day like all the others: not a cloud nor person in sight. In my hands I held the head of an innocent enough man. At least, a man who never deserved to be in the path of the question bearers. I stared into his perpetually open eyes for a long while. One was still brown and the other still blue, though both had yellowed over the days. From my pocket I retrieved a pair of dark aviator sunglasses. They’d been taped together. Not quite the same, but as close as I could get them. I placed the sunglasses over Nathaniel’s eyes, and then I dropped his head into the sea, along with the kitchen knife and a bottle of whiskey.
That’s when I was struck by lightning. From the clear blue sky came an immense light, more intense than I ever thought possible. It brought me to my knees and I raised my hands to block the brilliant glare, but it shone straight through me, illuminating my very soul. Kneeling aboard Morgen’s Lament, I heard the angel Gabriel speak the words of the lord.
“Aidan my child, a great storm is approaching, as humanity has sinned for far too long. But fear not, for there is yet hope. In three years’ time, there shall be a convergence within your city. This convergence shall have the power to cleanse the world of sin. But be weary, for this convergence shall also have the power to set forth the great storm. I give unto you the question; is humanity worth saving? Go forth my child, and lead them.”
© Ray Underscore Thompson, July 2015