A brisk wind circled Heavy Nicodemia’s downward spiral carrying a thick fog and tiny droplets bit whatever flesh they touched. The air reeked of the salty fresh scent from the docks below, even as high as the cathedral. The building’s spires disappeared into the mists above, their upper reaches as concealed as the false stars above. Somewhere, a blues trombone burdened the night with its misery.
My footsteps rang against the fiberstone floors when I entered the massive church. Night had fallen, and when life got hard, the residents of the Heavies fled religion like rats flee a sinking ship. Inside the church, Cecilia stood facing the altar, her priestly robes lit by the dim flame-like flickers of the artificial lighting.
I opened my mouth to speak, but closed it again when I heard the click of a cocked weapon to my right.
“It’s good of you to come,” said Saint Jerome from his seat on the back pew. “Saves my boys a trip.”
Cecilia turned, and the haunted look in her eyes turned fast into a scowl. “Not in my church,” she said to Jerome.
I raised my hands, palms out. “If you’re taking requests, I’m going to put my vote in for ‘not at all’.”
“You have a lot of nerve, Demarco,” said the Saint. “Betray me and then walk back onto my turf? Takes a lot of balls.”
What lies had Sam dropped on him to make me out to be disloyal? Better yet, why did Saint Jerome think I was ever on his side. “I did your job just like you said, Jerome. Swapped the papers and got out.”
Jerome pulled himself to his feet. “You framed me. I don’t know where you found the papers to do it, but you did. Very clever, too. Now, even the slightest hint of trouble and Trinity’s going to turn on me.”
“That was already true and you know it.”
His face turned red and spittle flew as he spoke. “Paper lasts forever, Demarco. It’ll outlive both of us.”
“Seems maybe it’s not much of a feat.”
Saint Jerome raised the gun, smooth and steady. Despite the rage apparent on his face, his aim stayed rock solid. “Things got complicated when you bugged out, Demarco. I don’t like complicated.”
Somewhere deep in the church, a door slammed. By the smug look in Saint Jerome’s eyes, I figured his goons were on their way back.
I needed a new tack, and fast. “You’re not going to disrespect the cathedral’s sanctuary, are you, Jerome?”
“He’s not,” snapped the priest.
“No need to if you stay put.”
“What if I don’t?”
Cecilia said, “Both of you stop. This is not appropriate for the church and you know it. Jerome, if you shoot him, you’re done here. Your sanctuary from Trinity will no longer apply in this church. Jude, if you make him shoot you—”
“You’re as bad as the priests upstairs,” I said. “I should have seen it coming. Are you going full machinist like the others?”
“What are you talking about?” Cecilia’s brow furrowed in anger and offense.
“Machinist. You must have heard. It’s all the trend in the Hallows these days. They’re even starting to convert down in Onegee.” I took a step back and leaned against the high back of a pew. I almost got away with lowering my arms, but a gesture from the saint told me not to push my luck. “Seems there’s nothing wrong with conflating the Holy Trinity and Trinity of the station’s AI. Makes for an interesting philosophical debates, doesn’t it?”
“Shut it,” said Jerome.
I said, “Priest, will you listen to my last confession before this guy plugs me?”
“Forget it, Demarco,” said Jerome. “I’ve heard enough.”
I said, “I wasn’t talking to you, Jerome, though I’ve had some very sinful thoughts you might be interested in.”
“I said enough!” Saint Jerome’s face reddened. In the church’s flickering lights he looked like the devil himself. “You’re going to walk out the back door right now, and I’m going to follow.”
“Since when do you do your own dirty work?” I asked. My feet moved as slow as I could manage, but we moved toward the back door. “Where are your goons? Where’s Sam?”
“Jerome,” Cecilia said, her voice brooking no dissent. “Stop.”
To my absolute surprise, Jerome stopped.
She continued, “We can fix this with Demarco’s help. He can get what you need to make things right.”
“We never shoulda trusted him.”
“Think about it, Jerome. He can stop Lauder. He can change your paperwork back.” Priest Cecilia put a hand on my shoulder. “I’ve known him for a long time. He’s always trying to put things right, even if he doesn’t always succeed.”
Saint Jerome’s voice came out gruff and quiet. “He swapped in the wrong papers.”
Was that why he’d sent Sam after me? I remembered seeing Richard Ruiz swapping those same papers. His must have ended up in the files instead of mine. “You’ve got the wrong guy.”
“Bullshit.” Jerome jabbed me in the back with his gun.
“There was someone else in the government center,” I said. “Someone like me.” I turned and faced Cecilia. “How many others are like me? How many are excommunicated.”
“The church isn’t involved in that and you know it.”
“Like hell it isn’t. The church and the AI are one and the same. Religion is just another branch of Trinity’s community and soul mandates mixed together. If Trinity excommunicates someone, the church knows it. It must.”
For several long seconds she showed no expression, then she gave a slight nod. “Ten,” she said. “There are always ten.”
“Plus Richard Ruiz,” I said. “The hacker. I saw him in the government center. He switched the papers and left evidence to frame you.”
“Frame me?” Saint Jerome’s chuckle originated deep in his chest. “You misunderstand, Demarco. We’re guilty of it all. What those papers did was take away our immunity.”
Cecilia swallowed. “For years we’ve used our influence for the betterment of our community by bringing in art from outside.”
“From Earth,” I said. “Stolen fair and square.”
“Provenance isn’t the important thing,” she said. “Authenticity is.”
Something finally clicked. “And discovering that something you’ve traded is fake would make your immunity diminish. Suddenly you can be held accountable for your crimes, and it just happens that you’re in the middle of a turf war. It’d be nice to get that Karma immunity back.”
Jerome said, “I don’t trust you, Demarco.”
He was a smart guy. It took a lot more than a cheap Nicodemian firearm to make me help him get back on top of his pedestal. But Cecilia. She’d always been a guiding light for me.
“How did you get involved in all this?” I asked her.
Jerome jabbed the gun my direction. “Walk.”
I walked. The back entrance to the main sanctuary stood only a dozen feet away. Once I stepped outside into the church’s inner hallways there might not be a reason for Jerome not to shoot me.
“I do it because it’s the right thing,” Cecilia said. “Bringing our past forward allows the church to better establish its dominion. The art we bring preaches the word of God and shows everyone that the Catholic church has inspired people for thousands of years.”
“You mean it shows that the Catholic Church has always hoarded its treasures,” I said.
Before I reached the door it burst open and Sam thundered in. He took in the situation and said, “Sir, Frank’s guys are at the back trying to get in.”
“Sam Wash,” I said. “Back under the Saint’s fold, I see.”
Sam shot a nervous glance at Jerome.
“No, I get it,” I said. “You thought you’d take a shot at independence. Now you see the advantage in a continued alliance.” The air in the room was as tense as a badly tuned guitar. “Does the Saint know what you said about him when you found me in Onegee?”
This time, Sam’s glance at the Saint had a hint of fear in it—the kind of fear that dripped with guilt.
But the Saint laughed. “One of the first steps in keeping your Karma clean is making sure your employees don’t mess up your good name.”
Realization dawn on me slower than a drop from the top of the Hallows. “He was faking it.”
Sam opened his mouth to answer, but the Saint gestured for silence.
It was all the distraction I needed. I lowered my shoulder and bowled forward through Sam. He shouted. Saint Jerome fired two shots, missing wide. Running, I let the dark of the church corridors swallow me.
“Get him!” roared Jerome.
They followed, lights flaring as they approached, but I was too fast. I knew these hallways. They were the same as the churches in Onegee and the Hallows. Only these were decorated with the paintings of local artists. Abstract, blocky images of crosses and gods. Stations of the cross were revealed as Saint Jerome moved closer. Simon picking up the cross. Jesus wearing the crown of thorns. I ducked down another hall, sure that I could remember where the paths led.
All I needed was the way out.
Somewhere far away, the sound of gunshots echoed through an open space. It could have been the sanctuary or outside of the church. It could have been anywhere.
Darkness embraced me. Saint Jerome and Sam were far enough away that the lights surrounding them didn’t reach me.
More gunshots, closer this time.
I stood in the dark, waiting for the world to move on, taking slow breaths of stale air. Deep under the church where nothing ever moved, I could finally consider what Saint Jerome’s plans meant for the greater community. He made himself valuable to Trinity by bringing in the art that eventually got traded up to the Hallows, only to be sequestered in a museum and never appreciated by anyone. Right there was a reason to doubt the long-term stability of his plan, but what if a painting traded in this way was discovered to be a forgery? What would Trinity do?
This explained why Saint Jerome had holed up in the church. The sanctuary of the citadel made it someplace he could exist even if his status with the AI had dropped significantly. But how much could it possibly have dropped? He had been part of a system that brought in dozens if not hundreds of works of art. When I stared out into the dark, my eyes focused on the memory of the Garden of Earthly Delights. That third panel was a squalor of pain and darkness writ large in oil and color. Its gruesome images danced before me, a promise of a hell to pay for our earthly excess.
But it was the back of the painting that interested me most. That faded image on the wooden panel depicted something I’d seen before, and there in the dark, my brain felt like it might finally make the connection. The world in a bubble. The bottled landscape. I’d seen the whole thing somewhere.
Then, I knew. The whole plot fell into place, and in order to untangle it, I was going to need help. My first thought was of Beck. With her at my side, we could accomplish anything. But she wasn’t at my side. In fact, she was part of the problem. Saint Jerome clearly didn’t consider himself an ally, and his enemy Frank Lauder likely wouldn’t be much help. Retch—well, I figured I could count on Retch, but he was only able to do so much.
It was time to depend on the last best hope of the private investigator. The police. Maybe it was finally time to step up and have a chat with police officer Anders.
Once the gunshots stopped, I worked my way through the cathedral’s tunnels to a back exit. An eerie silence lingered over the darkened streets. Lights along the fiberstone cobblestones flickered yellow like the flames of dying torch. Far away, police sirens sounded, echoing off mist-shrouded buildings. I stood, unsure where to go in the quiet of the darkening night. I chose to go back into the warehouse district to make a wide circle around the area immediately surrounding the church.
After only half a block, I found the first body. A man in a suit sat slumped against the warehouse wall, plastic gun still gripped in his dead fingers. He had a gray fedora that matched his loosely tied tie. One of Lauder’s men.
Not far from him lay one of Jerome’s people. A young man wearing a cross. His weapon was missing, and his pale face pressed against the cobblestones. These boys were dead because of Jerome’s war. They were dead because for years he siphoned the funds that might have raised them from poverty. Instead, he used their poverty to recruit them into his gang. He created a community for them that would eventually lead to their deaths.
I continued on. The police would deal with these bodies, but this wasn’t the circumstance I wanted to be in when I had my chat with the blue. They’d see me as a suspect. I picked up the plastic gun Lauder’s man had used in the fight. It closely resembled the gun Beck had picked up, but the barrel was a deep orange. The man carried his extra bullets in the pocket of his suit, so I took them. Sin hadn’t finished with me yet.
More bodies lay in the streets. Either nobody survived the battle, or the injured had been taken away already. These gangs took care of their own. They likely had ways to help those in need. I could only hope. The police closed in, their lights flashing over the rooftops above. Picking up my pace, I jogged farther from the cathedral.
Right into a cluster of Frank Lauder’s men.
A dozen guns pointed my way as soon as I rounded the corner. Frank held up a hand to signal his people to not shoot.
“Jude Demarco,” said Frank. “Good to see you again.”
“Wish I could reciprocate.”
His smile widened. “You’ll be our guest.”
“I’ll take a rain check,” I said.
“We need to have a chat.” Lauder drew a small pistol and pointed it at me. “Now seems like a good time, don’t you think?”
And that is how I discovered the location of Frank Lauder’s hideout.
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Bio: Anthony W. Eichenlaub's short fiction has appeared in numerous publications, including Little Blue Marble, On Spec Magazine, and the anthology A Punk Rock Future. His novels range from pulse-pounding technothrillers to the adventures of irresponsible scientists on a colony planet. In his spare time he enjoys woodworking, video games, and working in his garden. Support him at: https://www.patreon.com/AWEichenlaub