“There’s a guest here for you, John.” Louis wore the same pretentious waistcoat as ever, the same stupid little blond beard, the same snotty expression. He spoke the words with a trace of a French accent. How can it be that I recognize his accent as French? Will asked himself. Or even know that such a country as “France” exists?
Ammerman’s back was to the front door; he and Dion were face-down in a repair job, working with what might have been a faulty crossbow trigger. “Toldja, Louis, I got no time fer that now,” he grumbled.
“I think you may want to consider making an exception this time, sir.”
Ammerman looked up, annoyed. “Damnit, Louis, I said…” He caught sight of Will and stopped short. “Might ought be yer right,” he said, slowly. “Job’s yours, Dion.”
Ammerman stood up from the bench at which the two of them had been working and strolled over to Will, giving him the once-over. It seemed to Will that he looked tired; nobody had been putting in longer hours during the harvest season than Ammerman’s crew. “Well. Been waitin’ a while fer this. Let’s have us a chat, you an’ me.” He turned towards the locked workshop door, paused, then turned again, towards a hallway leading out of the showroom towards the rear of the shop. “Bitta privacy fer a while, Louis.”
On the way down the hall, Will passed an open doorway, beyond which was a small, ill-lit workroom. Inside, a pale, slender figure sat at a small workbench, stringing a longbow. Her eyes glanced up, met his. She startled a bit, then pulled her eyes away, wordlessly, and returned to her work.
Ammerman led Will to a small, dusty alcove behind the stairs. Two oaken chairs, aged but still sturdy-looking, sat next to a small, round wooden table. Rays of sunlight filtered in through a dingy window in the back wall. He sat, then gestured for Will to do the same.
“We talked before, some time ago now.” Ammerman’s right middle finger flicked at an imperfection in the grain of the table. “You know what I believe. I believe in life, fer ev’ry man an’ woman. I believe in liberty. I believe in th’ right of ev’ry man an’ woman in Haven t’ pursue his or her own happiness. Not the happiness what’s decided fer ‘em by this ‘community’, or by any man in it.” He paused, looking out the window. “Three good men―three damned good men―gave their lives for those ideas, last coupla weeks.” Then, back to Will. “A lotta folk in this town, they don’t think I mean it, when I say these things. They think it’s all a game I play t’ git ahead. That what you think, boy? Think I’m a false patriot an’ a hypocrite?” He leaned in. “Or do you think I mean it, when I tell ye that every thing I done, an’ every thing I do, I do fer the purpose o’ makin’ all men free?”
Will looked him in the eye. He had been thinking about that very question for some time. Slowly, he nodded.
Ammerman nodded back. “Then we got us a basis t’ work from, boy. An’ make no mistake, there’s work needs doin’ in this here town, an’ on this planet.” He leaned back in the chair, regarding Will coolly. “’Course, yer gonna need t’ accept me bein’ a bit suspicious towards ye. I see a young man come inta town, doin’ things ain’t been done before. Extr’ordinary things. An’ shortly after, my men start dyin’, extr’ordinary ways.” He shook his head. “I ain’t sayin’ it was you. Don’t think it was, in fact. On accounta I know who done it. An’ a reckonin’’s comin’.” Will saw Ammerman’s eyes flick back down the hall, towards the room in which Emily was working, and he felt a sudden chill. “But that’s neither here nor there. Point is, I ain’t got reason t’give ye no charity, if y’see my meanin’.” He paused. “No such thing as a free lunch, son. Somebody always pays, one way or another. Got taken in once or twice by free-lunch offers myself, but this ol’ dog’s learned a few new tricks since then. I ain’t no charity man. What John Ammerman is, he’s a trader.”
He sat up straight. “Terms o’ the deal are, even swap. One answer f’r one answer. I show ye my card, ye show me yers. Ain’t negotiable. Deal ‘r no deal?” He raised an inquiring eyebrow.
Will licked his lips. “Mr. Ammerman,” he began, “I know that you think that I know things, and that I’ve been hiding them for my own purposes.” Swallowed. “But that just isn’t the case. I’ve been telling the truth. I don’t remember anything of Earth other than my name and age. I really don’t.” He drew in a breath. “I could tell you lies, I suppose, make up answers to your questions, in order to get more out of you. But, as you put it, I don’t think that’s a very good basis for us to work from.” He spread his hands. “I wish I could tell you more. I have a million things I want to know. But I just don’t have a lot to bring to the exchange. Whether you believe that or not, it’s the truth.”
Ammerman had his fingers tented in front of his chest. He’d been watching Will very, very carefully throughout his soliloquy. At length, he spoke. “Ever occur to you, son, to ask yerself why ye talk th’ way you talk? I’m a man what remembers things. Reckon I remember how teenagers talked, back on Earth. Reckon I hear Jason grunt his way through things, or Emily all proper-like―diffr’nt types, those two, but both teenagers, ye see. But you, Will? Ye don’t talk like no teenager I ever met, nor heared of. You talk weird, son, an’ no mistake.” He frowned. “But that’s neither here nor there. I know a thing’r two about not bein’ b’lieved, son. Weird talk or no, might be yer tellin’ me th’ truth.” He reflected for a moment, then leaned in. “So let’s try this instead. How about I ask you a question, ye give me the best answer you can, even if it’s jes yer best guess. I’ll settle fer that. Fer now.”
Will nodded. Ammerman gave a small smile of satisfaction. “All right, then. First question. First time you died here’n Haven, ye brought yerself round faster than any man ever has before. Ever. So…best guess, boy. Ye think ye got lucky? Or ye think ye can do that again? An if so…how many times? How many lives ye think you got in ye? Four or five, like a normal man? Nine, like a cat? Or more, maybe?”
Will looked down at the floor, gathering himself. “I don’t know for certain. I barely know how I brought myself back the first time. I know that the way I did it isn’t the usual way. Isn’t the way it’s supposed to be done. But, Mr. Ammerman…” Will brought up his chin, looked him dead in the eye. “I have been thinking about it, a lot, since then. And I don’t think I was lucky. I think I can do it again. And I don’t think it’s going to get harder for me. I think,” he concluded, “that I can do it as often as I want.”
Slowly, Ammerman nodded. “Now that’s a hell of a thing, young man,” said Ammerman. “That is a hell of a thing. An’ if yer right, it’s even more important than ye might think.” Will thought he could see a crack in Ammerman’s steely demeanor. Somewhere behind the intensity of his stare, there was a flicker of something else―ambition? Hope? Then the mask came down again, and it was gone. “Yer turn, boy.”
“Who are the Seraphim?”
Very, very slowly, Ammerman’s lips peeled back, exposing yellowed teeth. His smile held nothing in common with Jason’s exuberant outburst of delight, or Emily’s soul-warming glow. With Ammerman, even a smile was calculating, predatory. It was the smile of a shark. But it was a smile, and it was unmistakably genuine.
“That is the right question,” he said. “That is the right question, boy. That question tells me yer ready. So I’m gonna change the terms of our agreement, jes a little bit.” He stood, squaring his shoulders to Will. “So, what I’m gonna do is this. I’mma give ye my offer first, an’ yer answer next. Accept the offer, and ye get more than jes’ one answer, boy. Accept the offer, and ye get ’em all. All of ‘em I got t’ give.”
There was the stare again. His voice was solemn, rich with the anticipation of a great victory. “Are you ready, Will, to accept me as yer formal sponsor, in place o’ Jason? T’be a part o’ my operation? Are ye ready t’put it all out there on the line? To live or die…” He laughed, suddenly and a bit wildly. “No, that’s not right, not for ye, Will…to live and die…in defense o’ the sovr’nty o’ each individual?” He extended his hand.
Will looked at his hand. Accept the offer, and ye get ‘em all.
Will looked at his hand, and thought about what Emily had said to him. Maybe, if I’m with him, people will pay attention to what he says, instead of to how he says it. John seems to think that maybe there’s something more to me than people see right now. Maybe what I need is a push. Maybe he can give me that.
Will looked at his hand. Will thought about Emily’s hand, raised to him in greeting, tattered and bloody from making arrows for John Ammerman.
Will looked at his hand, and he thought about Emily, working down the hall. He thought of the look on Ammerman’s face, as he’d looked down that hall. I know who done it. An’ a reckonin’s comin’.
Will looked at his hand, and then up at John Ammerman. Will looked at his hand, but did not take it. And, slowly, Ammerman’s smile faded, and he lowered his hand.
“All right. Not ready yet.” His tone was cold. “Won’t say I’m not disappointed. Need yer skills, Will. Need ‘em in the worst way. But yer not mine to command. An’ I’ll hold up my end. You gave me part o’ an answer t’ my question. An’ you’ll get part o’ an answer t’yours in exchange.”
He paused. “Th’ Seraphim are real, Will. No doubt o’ it. Not a scrappa doubt. They’re real. Angels? Th’ Seraphim might as well be gods, truth be told. An’ th’ hillmen’re right; ‘twas the Seraphim what made Elysium.” His eyes were alight as he spoke, with devotion or with madness, Will could not say which. “An’ it’s them, Will, it’s the Seraphim, what made us forget our lives. It’s them that’re holdin’ onto th’ key t’ our freedom, t’ our memories, t’our birthright. But it’s us…” He pointed to himself, then to Will. “…it’s us that’s gotta take that key, that birthright, back from ‘em.”
A long pause. Will sensed that their conversation was over. He stood. Ammerman nodded to him, but he didn’t extend his hand again. “You know where t’ come, an’ what t’do, if’n ye want the answers t’yer questions. There’s more t’know, boy. Much more. But I gotta know I can trust ye afore I let ye know it.” He straightened out his tunic, glanced back down the hall, at the workroom, where Emily still toiled. “Meantime, ye an’ I, we both got our own work t’do. Might be we’ll find we got work in common, real soon. ‘Till such time as you realize that? I reckon ye can show yerself out.”
Will walked the hallway, this time without looking through the side door, crossed the showroom, exited the building, descended the stoop to the street. He had what he’d come for, or at least a piece of it. He had an answer. And yet, he couldn’t turn his mind to what he’d been told about the Seraphim. All he could think of was the predatory look Ammerman had directed towards the room in which Emily had been working. And his words echoed in Will’s mind.
I know who done it. An’ a reckonin’s comin’.
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