Silently, Will took stock of his surroundings. Hearth to my back, workbench against the wall to my right; blessing stone and receipt on the bench. Hands tied behind me. Seated. Jason tied up and seated to my left. Ammerman and five of his men in front of me, well across the room, guarding the wall with the only door. Well, not five men, technically. Four men and Emily. Ammerman and Emily with crossbows. Emily with her bow pointed at me. Looking…how? Does she look eager to use it? Not really. Definitely not smiling, though. Stern, maybe.
Look her in the eye. Yes. Like that. That’s right, Emily. You told us there was something weird in this room. We wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for you. What if I broke free and ran for that door? Would you shoot me? Maybe. Maybe not. Ammerman would, though.
Oh, for Chrissake. Louis is still wearing that goddamn waistcoat. Does he SLEEP in that thing?
Dying’s not hard. I do it all the time. But if I die…Ammerman walks away with both the receipt and the stone. Plus, there’s Jason; his path back won’t be as easy as mine. And Emily. Ammerman’s still got Emily. And he says a reckoning’s coming.
Think, Will. What would James Bond do?
Wait a minute. How do I know who James Bond is?
Jason took stock of his surroundings. Stop pointing those crossbow at my little bro, you bastards! I’ll kill you!
There was a lot of rope around him, and it was really, really tight. Jason squirmed, but he was held fast. They’d done all too good a job with the knots. Ben always said that one of life’s greatest pleasures was being surrounded by competent people. Not as true when those people are kidnappers.
Behind him, his hands worked desperately at the ropes that held them. There was pain in his wrists, but he set it aside. He felt it building inside him, the towering rage that he’d come to both dread and savor, but he knew that it wouldn’t be enough to deliver the two of them from their predicament. I can’t just lose control this time. Not when one of the people I’m facing is Emily.
I have to be angry. But I have to be smart, too. I have to play for time. I have to keep them talking.
“Will,” said Ammerman. “I treated you like a free man. Like an equal. I gave ye answers an’ I offered ye my patronage. More’n once.” He nodded at Emily. “I took in yer friends, gave ‘em a place to work, honest pay. In return I ask…nothin’. I invite you t’share info with me, on yer own time, in yer own way.” He paused, then continued, his voice deadly. “And how’d ye pay me back? Ye break inta my store, try an’ take what’s mine.” He shook his head. “Honest t’ God, boy, I tried to play ye straight. Can’t for the life o’ me see what I did t’ye to deserve this. I thought y’were a better man. Guess Ben’s poison just ran too deep,” he concluded, “jes like it does in that ‘un over there.”
“Poison?” Jason was practically shouting, writhing in his chair, twisting against his bonds. Will ruefully noted that a few coils around the wrists had been deemed sufficient to hold him; Jason, on the other hand, had been transformed into a virtual rope-mummy. “I guess you’d know a thing or two about poison, having killed Milton with it! And two more of your own men!” He turned his attention to the men guarding the door. “You guys listening? You listening, Emily?” Jason’s eyes were wild. “Ammerman’s been killing his own people! Which one of you is going to be next?”
“No, Jason,” Will said. “He hasn’t.”
Still writhing in his chair, Jason shot Will a sidelong glance. “What are you talking about?”
“Ammerman hasn’t killed anyone. Have you?” Will looked him in the eye. “They’ve been killing themselves.”
Ammerman stared back for a moment. Slowly, he nodded. “Ye can put two ‘n’ two together. I’ll give y’ that.” He stood ramrod straight. “Couldn’ta stopped ‘em if I’d wanted to. Three free men. Three patriots. Men who’d do anything to respect th’ sovereignty o’ man over ‘is own mind.” He paused. “You know how long it took Ramesh to do ‘imself, after hearin’ that angel talk? Thirty seconds. We’d barely stood up from the bench, barely got out th’ workroom door. Ramesh turns t’me, reachin’ inta his pocket. ‘Mr. Ammerman,’ he says, ‘I go to make men free.’ Pulls out a razor, opens up his own throat, right there in front o’ me. Man died in my arms, smilin’ all the while. That’s th’ way he was. A job needed doin’, he’d roll up ‘is sleeves, dive right in. That was Ramesh. Free man. Loyal man.”
“Then o’ course, Milton. Not big on th’ sight o’ blood, but a helluva man. Cared about choice. Never hearda a man cared about choice more. ‘John,’ he tells me, ‘people who lack their own memories cannot make informed choices, and an uninformed choice is no choice at all. Above all, human beings must be free to choose.’ Took belladonna. Hard death, that. Painful. Stayed with him through it. Watched his heartlight take wing.” He nodded. “An’ then neither one of ‘em came back. Our memories didn’ come back, neither, which we figgered meant they’d failed to do th’ job. So Takashi went next. Warrior, that one. ‘I go to seek my comrades’ souls, Mr. Ammerman, and to seek the freedom of all mankind.’ Commits seppuku. Right out behind the shop. Fearless man, Takashi.”
The faces of the men guarding the door radiated stern pride; Emily’s expression was one of sheer astonishment. They knew, but she didn’t, Will thought. She was the only one he didn’t tell. “Their own choice,” Ammerman continued. “Never knew braver men. Died to make men free. My guess is, they’re still out there. Still tryin’. Still tryin’ t’ fight their way through t’ Asphodel. To this ‘Skeinhall’. That tower, from the vision. Hope they succeed. But if’n they don’t,” he concluded, eying Will, “I got me one hell of a contingency plan.”
“What about the people who died defending Haven against the hillmen, Ammerman?” Jason sneered. “What about their lives. What about their souls?”
“Mencks,” interrupted Ammerman. “Hillmen ain’t all one tribe, boy. The ones that came fer us, they’re Mencks. Call ‘em by their name. They deserve that much from ye.”
“Mencks, then!” Jason shouted. “You sold them weapons! Don’t deny it!”
“Deny it? Why would I deny it?” Ammerman looked genuinely surprised. “Let me ask ye a question, boy. Who’ye think th’ hillmen are?”
“They’re…savages! Everyone knows that! They raid, and they steal, and…” Jason spluttered to a stop.
“Y’ever stop t’ ask yerself, boy, where it is hillmen come from?” Ammerman moved closer, never taking his finger off the trigger, then crouched down lower, his eyes level with Jason’s. “Let’s say a soul arrives here on Elysium, doesn’t happen t’ come down ‘round Haven, nor Tianchao, nor Himmelgarten, none o’ them ‘civilized’ places. No. He, she maybe, finds hisself, herself in the wilderness. An’ that’s where he or she finds th’ help he or she needs t’ incarnate. Poof, he’s a hillman. You know what made ‘im a hillman? Dumb luck, boy. Nothin’ else but blind, stupid luck. That’s man’s a soul jes’ like you or me, landed in the wrong spot. Hell, coulda BEEN you or me. But o’ course, they can’t come inta Haven outta th’ hills, can they?” Ammerman sneered. “Ben won’t have it. Cuz then they’d be a hillman spy, wouldn’t they?”
Ammerman’s face grew hard, and he moved closer. “Yer Ben’s lil’ dog, aren’tcha? Ben’s lil’ spaniel. You wanna know where else hillmen come from?” Another step. And this time, serious anger filled his voice as he spoke. “We all seen what th’ ‘community’ does with folk what it don’t care for. Murderers and thieves, sure. But also those what just don’t ‘fit in’ with Ben’s way o’ doin’ things. People what ain’t ‘civilized’ enough for th’ prevailin’ standard. Troy an’ Oscar f’r instance, what loved each other th’ wrong way fer Ben’s taste. Men like Rube, ain’t quite right in th’ head. What does he do with people like Troy? Like Oscar? Like Rube? Like me, if he coulda got away with it? Where does he send ‘em?” He was right up in Jason’s face. “He sends ‘em away. And guess where they end up? You wanna know who the hillmen are, dog boy? The hillmen are us.”
“It’s…it’s a lot more than that, and you know it!” Jason spluttered. “They’re not like us! The Mencks eat people!”
“Ye sit by yer cozy lil’ hearth, in your cozy lil’ room at Ben’s place, an’ ye talk to me about ‘savages’, an’ their ‘savage’ ways. But ye ain’t been there, boy.” There was the stare again, the one that could have cut through steel. “Ye ain’t been out in th’ wilderness, livin’ in a skin tent, no crops, huntin’ an’ gatherin’, with winter comin’ on. Meanwhile…meanwhile, some dog boy an’ his lil’ friends, they keep wanderin’ out into yer lands, killing everything they can an’ scarin’ away everything they can’t. An’ you know what that dog boy and his friends call this? They call it a huntin’ party. A party.” He spat on the floorboards, then turned on Jason, enraged. “You think huntin’s a party for the Mencks, boy? And what d’ye think they do, out there in the hills, no crops, dead o’ winter, when the party’s over? What d’ye think they eat?” Inches from Jason’s face, a savage whisper: “What would you do, dog boy? What would you do to survive?”
“That doesn’t change the fact that you gave them weapons. You sold weapons to people who threaten our community!”
Hearing Jason discuss the hillmen, Ammerman had been on the edge of losing control of himself. Now, however, he had his grip back. He stepped back and rose to stand straight, crossbow still in hand. “’Community.’ When ye an’ Ben say that word, ye use it to build a wall up. Build a wall between people. ‘Man over here, he’s part o’ th’ community, he’s civilized, he’s got rights. Man over there, he’s an outsider, a savage, he’s not no rights.’ But ye can’t build no wall ‘round rights, boy. Every man an’ woman’s got ‘em. Right to trade. Right to know what’s goin’ on. Right to bear arms in his ‘r her own defense. Wanna know who my community is, boy? Wanna know who I got a responsibility to? My community is every man and woman in the world. In both worlds. Hillmen included. Hillmen very much included.”
“In his own defense? They came into our town! They killed our friends!”
This time, there was pain behind Ammerman’s stare. He gave a flick of his head to his men. Louis―always the attentive little twerp, thought Will―snapped to attention, scrambled back into the showroom. Returning with a chair, he placed it behind his boss. Ammerman kept the crossbow raised as he sat. “Started up on Greta’s Bluff, of course. Coupla Henry’s representatives, lit ‘em a signal fire, make contact with my boys. Just their luck that goddamn crazy Russian found ‘em first. Two men dead, one of ‘em no more’n a boy, barely ever held a spear in his life. An’ Ben calls ‘em spies, as if you’d send an untrained kid to spy, an’ have ‘em light a great big fire besides.” He scoffed. “But I hadta play along, of course. Toe Ben’s line. Might be I could make some use of it, get people lookin’ in the wrong direction. And so, that night,” he continued, “we had everyone lookin’ north, as was th’ plan. Little Bill was s’posed to lead off th’ south side patrol off on a goose chase. He did.” Standing by the far wall, Little Bill crossed his arms and stared at the ground. “Mencks slipped in behind. Brought ‘em in here, inta th’ shop. Loaded ‘em up with as much as they could carry. So they can hunt what they need to survive. So they don’t have to live in terror o’ us. In return, they granted me ownership o’ the Holy Gift.” Ammerman’s hands clutched at the edge of the chair, his knuckles white. He scratched at the floorboards with the toe of his boot, right at the edge of the gap Will had made when he’d incarnated. Ammerman stared at the hole. “S’posed t’ slip right on back outta town. Only, one man outta Bill’s patrol, he turned back. Hadda piss ‘r sum’n. And that man, he sees th’ Mencks, an’ starts screamin’ up a storm. ‘Light the signal fire! Raiders! To the trenches!’ An’ all hell breaks loose.” He blinked. “Nineteen Havenites dead. Y’know how many Mencks? Do ye, dog boy? D’ja even bother t’ count th’ corpses afore burnin’ ‘em? Sixty-two. Half of ‘em permanent. One of those dead the same kid what died up on Greta’s Bluff, but nobody cared to check, did they? Because Mencks don’t count. Mencks ain’t even people.” He took a deep breath, then continued. “Mencks die a spell more often than us; ain’t got no margin fer error. Thirty one souls gone to The Light, an’ winter’s comin’ on. All on account o’ they took a trip inta Haven t’ buy some bows. Figger they deserved it, boy?”
Ammerman ground his teeth. “That’s the price. That’s th’ price o’ Ben’s ‘community’. There’s always a price, boy. Nothin’ in this world comes f’r free.”
There was a long, uncomfortable silence. “All on you, Ammerman,” Jason spat. “You set it up. Your fault.”
Ammerman gave a long sigh. “Might be yer right, boy. Might be that pissin’ patrolman’s fault, or God’s. Dunno. Not the issue here, neither.” He stood. “The issue here is, yer in my store, behind a locked door, takin’ what’s mine. Yer thieves. An’ I’m standin’ my ground.”
Jason seemed to be running out of steam, so Will broke in with a comment. “Explain something to me, Ammerman. Why did you tell me you were going to kill Emily? For that matter, why’d you employ her in the first place?”
“Why’d I take ‘er on? So you’d have reason t’ come around, ‘course.” Will darted a glance at Emily, but couldn’t quite read her reaction. “Course, she’s worth it in her own right, ain’t she? Honorable. Loyal. Free woman. If you were half as honorable, might be you holdin’ that crossbow, insteada sittin’ there in its sights.” He glanced back at Emily, then to Will again. “And as for killin’ ‘er, I didn’t make no threat ‘gainst her. Wouldn’t hurt my princess f’r nothin’.” Oh, my. Will flicked another glance at Emily. Was there, perhaps, just a tinge of red in her complexion?
Ammerman forged ahead, unconcerned. “I said I knowed who done it. An’ I did. I said a reckonin’ was comin’.” His eyes roamed the room meaningfully. “An’ here it is. Point is, I knew ye’d be back, if’n you thought she was facin’ trouble. Had to have you, boy, for reasons that oughta be clear to ye now. ‘Course, never dreamed ye’d come back as an intruder. That was yer choice, boy. Freedom’s all about choices. Ye made ye a bad ‘un.”
“Okay, Ammerman,” Jason said. “You’ve made your point. It’s time to end this. If you’re as ‘honorable’ as you say you are, you won’t just murder us.”
“Murder? You’re off yer rocker, boy. A man shoots two intruders in his own house, that ain’t murder, that’s self-defense. Like I said, standin’ my ground.”
“You have to know what’ll happen,” Will said. “Jason’s on his first body, and I can incarnate any time I want. The minute you kill us, we’ll head straight back to the Redoubt, then turn around and tell the whole community about your scheme. You’ll all be executed. Exiled. Forbidden to reincarnate in Haven.”
“What evidence’ll you have, boy? They search this room, they won’t find a thing. Except of course, two corpses. Behind a locked door that those corpses got no reason to be behind. Two young men who got every reason to hate me an’ mine.” He leaned in to accentuate the point. “And all o’ this in a middle o’ a mysterious murder spree against my employees. One o’ these two young men, why, he’s new in town, inn’e? Got abilities nobody can explain. Half a witch, that ‘un. Half the town thinks he’s guilty o’ the murders already. Other one?” Ammerman gestured at Jason. “Why, he’s Ben’s young protégé. Kinda makes ye wonder who gave the orders t’ have ‘em break in, don’t it?”
Will felt a slow, sinking feeling in his stomach. I was right. He’s no fool. He’s been two moves ahead of us this whole time. And we walked right into his trap. We’ve given him exactly the excuse he needs to make his play for control of Haven.
Ammerman read his expression and nodded. “Don’t matter how much folks hate me an’ mine. That’s too much evidence to ignore. An’ here’s you, defendin’ yerselves with stories ‘bout angels, an’ magic rocks? No, son. I don’t think it’ll be me exiled an’ executed. Might ought be two young men’ll git th’ boot, though. Might be ye’ll take Ben with ye, too.” Jason lurched in the chair; Ammerman pointed the crossbow at him and he slumped back. “Yessir, Will. It’s like I said, first time we met. This ol’ dog here, he’s learned him some new tricks, since comin’ t’ Haven.”
Ammerman eyed Will. “But there’s another way.” His lips drew back in that same calculating smile Will had seen the previous day. “You two boys about t’ die, no doubt about it. But ain’t no reason you gotta get drummed outta town as murderers. You can still stop that. You, Will, an’ no other. There’s another way. An’ ye see it, don’t ye?”
Will swallowed. “I think I do, Ammerman.”
He nodded back. “I knew ye would.” His voice became passionate. “Bit of a pickle, ain’t it? Another whole world, Asphodel, got that barrier on it, th’ STYX, keeps us off Earth. Can’t no dead man cross it. No Seraphim, neither. My men are still out there, tryin’.”
“Your men, Ammerman?” Will glanced at Emily.
“Their own men, o’ course.” Ammerman made a dismissive gesture. “Figure o’ speech.” He paused. “But a dead man who can put on flesh when he wants to, as many times as he wants to…a man like that travels t’ Asphodel…well, that is a whole different animal, ain’t it? That is a whole other ball game.” Try as he might, he couldn’t keep the smile off; it was fighting for control of his face. “And ye can see it, can’t ye? Ye can see just how it could be done. Might not be fun for ye…but it’d work, boy. Ye know it would work.”
Will nodded. I can see it. It could be done. I mean, it’s insane, but…it could work. Maybe. He found himself nodding again. “You want me to set men free.”
“YES, boy. I want ye to bring that barrier down. I want all my memories back, and I want every man free to go where he pleases, heaven or earth.” He couldn’t contain his excitement; his hands twitched on the crossbow stock, his feet shuffled. His eyes were alight, his voice full of purpose. “Give us back what was taken from us! What we’re owed! Bring my men back! Yer the one, boy! Yer the one Refi saw comin’!”
Will’s mind was working frantically. He’s orchestrated the whole thing. From the moment he saw the images in the divine gift, he knew how he’d make this happen. And he’s got us where he wants us. He’s holding all of the cards. He’s taken every single factor into account.
Every factor except one.
“And the way you seek to promote this freedom,” Will said, “is by murdering two people in cold blood and framing them for murders that they didn’t commit, which were in fact suicides that you yourself inspired and encouraged. And by running a third, entirely innocent man out of town.”
Ammerman’s face crashed. “Damnit, boy. Ain’t nobody innocent here. You knew what Ben’s guilty of, yer blood’d run cold. An yer the burglar, son, not me. This is a matter o’ principle.”
“If your principles tell you that everything you do is right, what you have aren’t principles. What you have are excuses.”
“Excuses ain’t the point!” Ammerman was shouting now. I’m under his skin, Will thought. I’m under his skin, and I’m in his head. And for all his planning, he’s taken one critical thing for granted, and he doesn’t realize it. But Ammerman was off on a rant, and he didn’t appear to be cognizant of much of anything. “Freedom’s th’ point! You can take back what’s been stolen from all o’ us! Ye make it sound like I’m th’ bad guy here, but this is all on account o’ a choice you made. If’n ye’d been one o’ mine from the start…”
“One of yours?” Will glanced again at Emily.
“…it’d never have ended like this.” It was clear at a glance that all the joy had gone out of the conversation for Ammerman. His face bore an angry scowl. His patience was exhausted. “In any case, boy, it’s yer decision. An’ make no mistake, yer about t’ make it.” He lowered the crossbow towards Jason’s chest. “I got me a dog t’ put down. I been waitin’ a while t’ do this.”
Emily had been silent the whole time, invulnerable behind her crossbow and behind the armor of perfect composure. Now, at last, she stepped forward, lowering the crossbow. “John,” she said, “if you told the town meeting what you told us…about the hillmen…about the raid…I know that they’d listen to you. It doesn’t have to end like this, with blackmail and killing. What you’re saying makes sense. We can do this the right way. We can talk the community into…”
“Hush now, lil’ girl,” Ammerman muttered, sighting down the crossbow. Jason was struggling, his hands writhing behind him. “Liberty ain’t subject to a majority vote. I ain’t goin’ t’ them an’ beggin’ ‘em t’ do the right thing. I know what th’ right thing is. I’m doin’ it.” He sighted down the bow at Jason.
“John.” There was a slight tremble in Emily’s voice. “John. This is my fault. This whole situation. I…I betrayed you. You have to let me explain…” Jason was squirming in his chair, his muscles tense.
“I said hush, princess. You think I didn’t know you were out there in the showroom, that night? Think I didn’t know you’d tell Ben an’ his?” He chuckled. His voice was vacant, his finger tense on the trigger of the crossbow. “All part o’ the game. I don’t blame ye. Yer just a lil’ girl what can’t keep a secret.” Will glanced at Emily. Her expression was impassive; her complexion scarlet. “I knew that as soon as you told me about Will. ‘Bout him listenin’ in on ye, pretendin’ t’ be what he wasn’t. When you called’m…what was it…the Hairy Lil’ Bastard?’” He chuckled. “Well, he’s that, all right. Cain’t keep nothin’ t’ yerself, can ye? Too much a straight shooter fer that. Truth is, I respect ye th’ more for it.” He sighted down the crossbow again. “Here’s yer revenge. Yer a straight shooter, so shoot straight.”
Will looked Emily straight in the eye. For the first time, I know EXACTLY what to say to her. “Ammerman. You’re a monster.”
Emily raised the crossbow, and aimed at a point directly between Will’s eyes. Off to his left, in his peripheral vision, Will could see Jason writhing wildly in his chair. Emily spoke, her voice perfectly calm. “I want to thank you, John.”
“Fer givin’ that ‘un to ye? Yer mos’ welcome, child. Fire at Will.” He snorted a laugh.
“Not for that,” she said. “For teaching a new dog some old tricks.” She turned and discharged the crossbow directly into Ammerman’s hand. As she did so, out of the corner of his eye, Will saw Jason, still fully bound, lurch up onto his feet, pulling the chair up with him. He then hurled himself straight up into the air, and drove his full weight backwards, crushing the chair into kindling beneath him as he fell.
Ammerman dropped the bow, howling in pain. Jason catapulted forward, hands somehow free, the frayed remains of the ropes that had bound him to the chair slumping down his torso. The men on the back wall barely had time to react before he was on them, a whirlwind of fists and feet. As Ammerman doubled over, clutching at his hand in pain and shock, Emily reached up high with the crossbow, then brought the stock down hard into the base of his neck. He crumpled.
Will’s contribution to the melee was to sort of shuffle-hop sideways his chair over to the workbench, where he valiantly labored to pick up the receipt with his mouth. He had no idea what he was planning on doing once he had it, but fortunately, by the time he made it over to the bench, Emily had already liberated a small leather knife from the tool cabinet and was sawing away at his bonds. As they came free, Will clutched the stone under one arm―it really IS strangely light―and the receipt in the other, and ran for the workroom door, where Jason was doing terrible, terrible things to people. Emily was right behind him; they burst from the workroom, through the showroom and out into the early morning light. Will ran back into the shop long enough to plant a solid kick between Louis’s legs; he then reemerged, Jason following him, and side by side, the three of them ran like hell.
As they made their getaway, Will heard a voice in the distance behind them. “Yer traitors! Traitors t’ th’ whole human race! I won’t fergit this, I swear it! JOHN AMMERMAN’S A MAN WHAT REMEMBERS!”