Sunday, September 13, 2015

27: Behind Locked Doors

As loudly as Jason was snoring, you’d think he’d have woken himself up. 
His room beneath the staircase in the apothecary was more of a storage closet than an actual room, the walls slanting with the slope of the stairs to a peak barely six feet above Jason’s cot.  The effect of Jason’s buzzsaw snore in such a confined space was awe-inspiring; it astonished the new arrival that Ben and Rosemary could sleep in the same building.
The figure swooped in close, rendering Jason’s features plain in the yellow-green glow of his heartlight.  Jason stirred; his eyes flashed open.  Almost instantaneously, he catapulted himself from the bed and to his feet, where he stood in a crouch, fully alert, hands balled into fists.  
“Who are you?” Jason whispered, staring at the light.   “Ramesh?  Is that you?”  The heartlight remained motionless.  “Milton?  Takashi?”  Jason’s eyes went wide.  “Oh, no…Emily???”  The light remained still; Jason’s facial expression shaded from alarm into puzzlement.  “Then…who…Will?”  The light bobbed once, very slowly.
Jason gritted his teeth, sudden fury filling his face.  “Who did this to you?” he spat.  “It was Ammerman, wasn’t it?  I’ll kill him.  I won’t even need a weapon, I’ll murder him with my bare hands.  Hold tight, buddy, I’ll go get Ben and Rosemary.”  Jason moved towards the door, but the heartlight swung right, blocking his path.  He stopped, his brow furrowed with confusion.  “You…don’t want me to get Ben?”  Another slow bob.
Jason stood bewildered for a moment.  Then, slowly, recognition dawned on his face.  Jason nodded.  “Okay.”  Then, more vigorously.  “Okay.  Nobody did this to you.  You did this to you.”  Another bob.  A smile of understanding.  “Okay.  All right.   I should have known.”  His grin grew even wider.  “And I bet I know just what you have in mind.  You go on ahead.  I’ll get dressed and meet you there.”  He paused.  “Harpoon?”  The light wagged from side to side; Jason nodded.  “You’re right.  Stealth mode.” 
Jason moved towards the door again, and the light moved again to block him.  Jason stared at it for a long moment.  “No hoodie, either?”  The light wagged from side to side again, much more vigorously.  Jason’s expression crashed.  “Okay.  I mean, I really think it boosts my ninja skills―but it’s your call, little bro.”

Will flashed straight through the wall and off in an arc over main street.  Within seconds, he was hovering before the door of Ammerman’s shop.  He gathered his wits; intangible or not, he would need to be careful from this point forward.  Under the circumstances, there was every possibility that Ammerman would have an employee on guard, and he couldn’t afford to arouse any suspicions.
Eschewing the door, Will passed directly through the stoop and into the blackness of the building’s foundation, feeling the subtle hum of solid matter all around him.  Slowly, being sure to keep his heartlight below floor level, he allowed himself to rise.  As his eyes rose above the floorboards into the storeroom, he rotated slowly.  The darkness was complete; there was no sign of anyone.  He slowly rose all the way up through the floor, then floated over to the door with the elaborate iron lock, and passed through it into the workshop.
The dying embers in the hearth were enough to provide a dim glow, revealing the workbench, the rack, the tools and cabinet.  Will noted that, unlike his first interview with Ammerman, there were no half-finished weapons on the shelves; the room had clearly not been used for its intended purpose for some time.  Yet there was no dust on the table or floor; no sign of disuse.  Hovering in place, Will allowed his mind to drift backwards.  Who are the Seraphim?  There was an instant of resonance, and he was restored to the flesh, naked and prone on the floor.  Or what was left of the floor, anyway; through blurred eyes, he noted that a chunk of it was suddenly missing, along with some of the concrete foundation below it and a sizable chunk out of the workbench.  The breathlessness and cold were not quite so bad as they had been during his first two incarnations; nonetheless, he grabbed a handful of coal from a sack near the hearth and flung it onto the fire.  Will scurried to the cabinet and opened it; as he had hoped, there were a couple of forging aprons inside, along with a diverse set of tools and many, many stacks of parchment crudely tied up with twine. 
Will wrapped himself in one of the forging aprons and warmed himself by the fire until his strength returned; then he opened the locked door from the inside, proceeded into the showroom, and crept to the main entrance.  He opened the door a crack; peering out, he saw a large, shadowy figure emerge from behind the stoop of Evan’s Dry Goods and dash across the street.  He let the figure in, then shut the door behind him as quietly as possible.
Jason and Will glanced at each other.  Will raised a finger to his lips, then pointed upstairs.  Jason nodded; the two of them crept quietly across the floor and through the workshop door.  Will closed the door behind them and lit a taper in the hearth, then used the taper to light the wicks of two of the lamps.  As he extinguished the taper and turned back to the room, he saw Jason, fist over his mouth, shaking with suppressed laughter.
Will raised an eyebrow.  Jason leaned in close, whispering:  “The...the apron…it…” With difficulty, he stifled a guffaw, then struggled to get his breath back.  “in back, it doesn’t, it doesn’t close up all…”  Red faced, he shoved his fist back in his mouth, then mimed putting on an apron, then running out of apron three quarters of the way around his body.  His shoulders shook.  Will waited him out.  Jason gathered himself back together; then looked up, saw Will staring at him with a self-conscious expression and his back pressed to the wall, and dissolved in a fit of silent laughter.  This from a guy whose favorite outfit is the rotting carcass of a gigantic space fish, Will thought.
Eventually, the two of them managed to get down to business.  “Emily said she saw The Light coming out of this room.  We have to try to figure out where it came from,” Will whispered.  “I’ll start with the hearth, you take the cabinet.”  Jason nodded.  Will proceeded to the hearth, and gave a grunt of frustration.  “Oh, jeez.  I lit a fire in here.  If I’d been smarter, I’d have looked up the flue first, when I was disembodied…”
“Yeah, well, nothing to go killing yourself over,” Jason mumbled, thumbing through the stacks of parchment.  “Good grief.  Look at this all this crap.  ‘Crazy Al acknowledges receipt of two full-stirrup heavy crossbows, along with fifty bolts of ammunition, in exchange for twenty iron dollars.’  I swear, he’s kept every single receipt for anything he’s ever sold in here.  This’ll take hours.  Though I somehow doubt that he’s got a copy of The Light in paperwork form…”  Will sifted through the bag of loose coal, then began inspecting the floorboards, looking for any seam or imperfection that might indicate a trap door.
Let’s see, Will mused.  If someone managed to obtain The Light, where would they hide it?  He began rummaging through a set of barrels and supply crates.  
“You know,” Jason mumbled, “you can have Emily.”
Will turned and stared.  Is this really the time for this discussion?  Nonetheless, he found himself responding.  “She’s not really yours to give,” he replied, “or mine to take.  Besides which, she hates my guts.”  Will shook his head.  “I kinda suspect Emily can have Emily.”
Jason smirked as he continued to rummage through the contents of the cabinet.  “Well, yeah.  That’s not the way I meant it though.  And she doesn’t hate you, not really.  I’m just saying…well…I don’t think I’m really deserving…it would be a good idea for me to…to try…”
Will abandoned his search and turned to face Jason.  “Look, Jason,” he said, “you’ve got to stop doing this.  This beating yourself up, I mean.  Everybody in this town thinks you’re amazing but you.  And I’ve seen the way women look at you; if there was a list of Haven’s top ten eligible bachelors, you’d be on it.  I have no idea why you would think…”
“Will,” Jason interrupted, “I used to hit women.”
            That stopped him cold.  “What?”
Jason had abandoned his search as well.  He was staring at a point on the wall about three feet above Will’s head.  “There was…there’s these memories,” he began.  “I can remember…well, sports.  Soccer, I think.  I remember being…well, really, really good.  And being the big local celebrity, and everybody wanting to be with me.  And there’s this blond girl, and she was with me…only, after a while, she didn’t want to be…”
Jason shook his head, and he clenched his eyes shut.  “And…and I remember thinking, she should love me.  Why doesn’t she love me?  And I remember…”  His voice shook.  “…and I remember her, both hands clutching at her nose, and blood running through her fingers, and her eyes wide…and I remember…”  Jason clenched his jaw for a moment.  He gathered himself.  “…and I remember looking down.  And there’s this clenched fist, with a ring on it.  Yellow gold, with a blue stone.”  He paused.  “And it’s a black fist.  It’s my fist, Will.  Because I remember it hurts.  But it’s…a good kind of hurt.  And there’s…” He gulped.  “There’s blood on my fist, Will.  There’s blood on the ring.  On the stone.”
The two of them sat in silence for a long moment.
“Jason,” Will said, “there has to be a reason.”
“There’s no excuse!  No excuse, Will!”  Will had to frantically gesture for Jason to keep his voice down, and Jason was struggling to obey.  “A man who puts his hands on a woman is lower than a dog!  A man who puts his hands on a woman isn’t a man at all!”
Will shook his head.  “I know, Jason.  And I agree.  But I didn’t say an excuse.  I said a reason.  They’re not the same thing.”  He crept across the room to where Jason sat hunched in the corner and grasped him by both shoulders.  Jason’s head was thrown back to the ceiling, his eyes still clenched closed, his face a rictus of pain.  “Look, Jason…I know you.  And…yeah, what you’re describing…it’s terrible.  I won’t lie to you about that.  But…this isn’t who you are.  It can’t be.  There has to be a reason.”
Jason’s eyes were still clenched shut.  “The reason, Will,” he whispered, “is that I get angry.”
Will shook his head.  “No.  Jason, I know you get angry.  I mean…well, nobody knows that better than me, right?”  If anything, Jason looked even more miserable.  “Okay, low blow, sorry.  But…look.  Jason, look at me, all right?”  Very gradually, Jason lowered his chin, and opened his eyes.  “Jason, you spend all day, every day, trying to make people happy.  And most of the time, you succeed.  Especially with women.  It is absolutely impossible for me to square that with what you’re describing to me.  I believe you.  I believe that you did it.  But there has to have been a reason.”
“Will,” Jason said, “You know about Delia, right?  The hillman spy?”
            Will nodded.  “Yes.  Everybody knows about that, Jason.  And there isn’t a single person who doesn’t understand what happened.  You got taken advantage of, and pumped for information, and discarded when you had no more to give.  And everybody is furious about it.  Nobody blames you.  You did nothing wrong.”
“Did you know,” said Jason, “that I went hunting for her, afterwards?”
Will nodded.  “The whole town did.  Her and Imre.  They hunted for them, but they were gone.  Back to the hillmen.”
“No,” Jason replied.  “Not hunting.  Hunting.  As in, I brought my longbow with me, Will.”
Will’s hands, which had been locked on Jason’s shoulders, slid slowly off.  “Jesus,” he muttered.
Jason’s eyes were brimming over.  He nodded slowly.  “If I had found her, I would have killed her.  And Emily…”  Now he was beginning to lose control.  “She was…just…so special.  So in control.  And she…she made me feel better about myself, afterwards.  Like…like I was worth something.  And so…when she didn’t feel the same, about me, as I did about her…”  Jason looked down at his hands, which had tightened into fists.  And then he released them, and they fell bonelessly into his lap, and his shoulders shook with silent sobs.
Will shook his head.  Then he gathered Jason to him and held him as he cried.  “No,” he said.  “No way.  Never in hell.  Absolutely not.  You would never do it, Jason.  You would never, ever hurt Emily.”
“No!” Jason moaned, his voice muffled by Will’s shoulder.  “No!  Never her.  And that’s why it has to be you, Will.  Don’t you get it?  It has to be you.”  He lifted his head and stared Will in the face.  “Because if it’s you, if it’s someone who deserves her, I can let her go.  I can stay away.  And I’ll never, ever have to worry about…about what I might do.”
Will frowned at him.  “You would never do it.  And whether you deserve her, or whether I deserve her, is irrelevant anyway.  Deserving has nothing to do with it.”  Will shook his head.  “She’s hers, Jason.  She can’t be earned.  Nothing you or I might ever do entitles us to her.  Or to anyone else.”
Jason stared at him for a moment, snuffled, and nodded.
“Besides,” Will added, “we all know that there’s only one man who’s truly worthy of her.”
Jason looked up in surprise.  “Who?”
Will stared solemnly at him.  “Louis,” he replied, straight-faced.
They stared at one another for a moment.  Then their composure dissolved, and they collapsed into a puddle of barely-controllable laughter, Will with his fist in his mouth to stifle it, Jason literally pounding at the floor.  In time, it subsided.  Will fielded a grateful glance, then whispered, “Okay.  We came here for a reason.  Back to work.”
They shuffled through endless reams of paper, casting them aside into a growing pile in the center of the room.  After a long interval, it occurred to Will that he hadn’t heard from Jason; turning, he saw him sitting on the floor by the cabinet, reading from a large piece of crinkled parchment.  “Jason?”
Jason’s voice was eerily quiet.  “We’ve got him, Will,” he said, his voice toneless.  “We’ve got him.  Jesus Christ.  I can’t believe this.”
Will crossed the room and began reading over his shoulder.  “Henry, Lord of the…Mencks?  Lord of the Mencks, the Blessed of Refi, graciously accepts from John Ammerman one hundred eighty-seven longbows, with assorted strings, nine thousand eight hundred…”  Will stopped short.  “The Mencks?  Ben mentioned them to me at some point.   I can’t quite remember what…”
“Hillmen, Will,” Jason breathed.  “The Mencks are hillmen.  They’re the same hillmen that raided us six weeks ago.”  He looked up.  “Ammerman’s been trading with the hillmen!  He’s been selling them weapons, Will!”  He stood, fists bunched.  “I can’t believe this!  They killed nineteen people! Claude and Ibrahim died permanently!  Claude played in my first soccer game!”  He was pacing restlessly.  “And Ammerman sold the hillmen the weapons they used to kill him!”
Will was staring down at the parchment.  Unlike Jason, he had read the whole thing.  “Actually, I don’t think they were, Jason...”
Jason was well past listening, though.  “I mean, for Chrissake!”  He snatched the parchment up out of Will hands.  “One hundred and eighty seven longbows!  Over two hundred crossbows!  Enough arrows and bolts to kill every man and woman in Haven a dozen times over!”  He slammed the parchment down on the bench.  “How could he possibly have managed it?  I mean, he’d have needed a wagon to get that many bows out into the hills!  There’s no way he wouldn’t have gotten caught!  Did he just have his men slip out of town with one or two at a time with a couple of bows each, or…or…”  He pulled up short.
Will stared up at Jason, watching as the pieces slid into place in his head.  Jason looked down at him, eyes glassy with shock.  “The south perimeter patrol that night.  Little Bill was in charge.  All the real scouts, me and the hunters, were on the north perimeter.  Because that’s where Ammerman had told us the hillmen were active.”  He shook his head, then more vigorously, as if to dislodge something from inside it.
Will nodded.  “We never thought to wonder how the hillmen knew where to go to find all of the weapons, or why Ammerman got cleaned out while hardly anyone else lost any property at all.  Now we know why.  They knew because Ammerman told them exactly where to go, and how to get there.”  He gestured at the parchment.  “It wasn’t really a raid at all.  The Mencks were there on Ammerman’s invitation.  It was a straight-up business deal.” 
“So…Ammerman makes a profit, and even better for him, everybody winds up terrified of the hillmen, so he’ll go on selling weapons as fast as he can make them!”  Jason’s hoarse whisper was growing louder and louder as he worked himself into a towering rage; Will raised a finger to his lips, and he lowered his voice again.  “And he kept a receipt.  That’s the part I don’t get.  He kept a receipt!  Like it was nothing to be ashamed of!  Who the hell does that?  Is he an idiot?”
“I don’t quite understand that part either,” Will said, “but he’s no idiot.  And in any case, that’s not what matters right now.”  He gestured again at the parchment.  “Take another look.  Read the whole thing.  Look what he got in exchange.”
Jason stared for a moment, then bent down to pick up the parchment.  “…and other associated sundries, in exchange for this Holy Gift of the Angelic Host.”  He looked up again.  “What?”
“Ammerman’s obsessed with the Seraphim.”  Will rested on his haunches for a moment.  “They’re a legend of the hillmen, some kind of supernatural beings, angels or even gods.  He thinks they’re real.  He told me that they created this planet and that they took away our memories.  That they were ‘the key to our freedom’.”  He reflected for a moment.  “And now, he’s got their ‘gift.’   What does that mean?”
“The souls of Ammerman’s people have been disappearing completely,” Jason said, “It could be some sort of ultimate weapon, one which kills people completely, body and soul both.”  He squatted beside Will.  “But if it was that kind of weapon, the Mencks would never have traded it for a few hundred bows and arrows.  They just would have used it on us, wiped us out.  Plus, Ammerman wouldn’t have used it on his own cronies.  He’d have used it to take control of Haven, or get rid of Ben, or something.”  Jason stared straight again, thinking.  “Emily said he’s got The Light in his workroom.  That’s gotta be the gift, right?”
Will frowned.  “I have no idea.  But whatever it is, it has to be in one of two places.  Either it’s somehow become part of Ammerman himself, in which case we can’t touch it, or it’s still somewhere in this room.”  Will hesitated.  “Jason, where’d you find that receipt?”
“Under this bushel basket over here”
“No.  I mean, where specifically in the basket.  Do you have the other papers it was tied up with?”
“It wasn’t tied up.  It was wrapped around this rock that was weighing down a stack of…”  Jason’s eyes darted up to meet Will’s, then the two of them scurried back over to the basket.
The stone was grey and disc-shaped, worn perfectly smooth all over, as if it had come out of a river, perhaps two feet in diameter.  At opposite ends, it bore depressions in the unmistakable shape of a pair of hands.   Jason squatted to lift it, tensed his muscles, heaved; then a surprised look crossed his face as he stood up with no difficulty at all.  “Light as a feather,” he said, walking it over to the workbench and setting it down.
They stood at either end of the stone, facing one another.  “Two sets of hands,” Jason muttered.  In his left fist he held the parchment receipt.  “Milton and Ammerman, both in the workshop with The Light.”
“Big hands, too,” Will said.  His own were far too small to fill the prints in the rock.  “Yours might fit.” 
Jason gave Will the receipt, then placed his hands on the stone.  “Mine are too big…wait a minute…did the imprints move?”  The two of them looked at one another, then down at the stone.  Will held out the receipt towards Jason, and this time, he didn’t let go when Jason reached out to touch it. 
The two of them watched as the rock on Jason’s side of the stone flowed like clay, the handprints swelling and deepening.  “Always keep the receipt,” Will said, quietly.
They lowered the receipt to the workbench, releasing it simultaneously.  The handprints remained unchanged.  They looked across at one another, then placed their hands in the two sets of indentations.

And there appeared an angel.

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