75 - Rome
PRESENT DAY If the figure standing there heard the name, he gave no sign. The memories of exactly what Michael had looked like the first time had mostly slipped away, but I had just enough left to be almost sure that I was right–and I have to admit, I wasn’t thrilled with the discovery.
While it had been nice to be able to tell someone about my sins and seeing Amira again… well, that was complicated, but I wasn’t going to complain. The entire situation with Lazarus and Cerberus hadn’t exactly been a walk in the park though and I had a feeling that was still far from over.
Particularly if Michael was back. After all, he’d played a large part in getting me into this mess in the first place.
“Why did you do it?” I asked him. Even if he wouldn’t admit it, I knew who he was. “Why did you send me here?”
He didn’t answer, instead striding from the room. Now that I knew who he was–or at least who Father Antonio claimed he was–I thought that perhaps he would change in appearance, much as Cerberus had. But that didn’t appear to be the case, he looked just as I remembered him.
Maybe the memories of him have changed as well? My mind backed quickly away from that one. That way lie madness.
Instead, I followed him out of the room.
This apartment had the same layout as Amira’s several floors above, yet where hers had been homey and rather feminine, these rooms were barren and cold. There wasn’t a single bit of furniture and half of the plugs and light fixtures were missing.
I caught up to him just as he reached the door and put a hand on his shoulder. My intent was to get him to stop, to actually talk to me, but I got more than I bargained for.
The instant that my hand touched Michael’s shoulder, he spun. I couldn’t for sure even say which way he’d turned as he went from facing away to facing me in less time than the blink of an eye. Suddenly in his hand as well, he was holding a sword. I was no more an expert on swords than I had been upstairs with Cerberus’ human form, but it certainly looked sharp enough.
The blade was long and much thicker than Cerberus’ had been, more of a sword than a saber as I’d thought of hers. It looked heavy, the blade nearly four feet long if I guessed correctly, with a wide hilt leaving it shaped as a cross. There was no decoration on either blade nor hilt, but it seemed that there was a hint of red in the steel of the blade, something that couldn’t be accounted for by a reflection on account of there being nothing around to reflect.
The blade went right to my throat. I froze in place, knowing beyond the shadow of doubt that if I moved, I could very well lose my head.
“Listen here.” His voice was as deep as I remembered it, layered with more meaning that just the simple spoken words he used. “Due to … unforeseen complications, we’re on a rather tight schedule. If you prefer to stay alive, I would strongly recommend just following me and doing as you are told.”
If my mouth had been open–and if there hadn’t been a rather large sword pressed against my jugular–I would likely have snapped it shut with one of those comically audible snaps. As it was, I just stared at him in shock.
This was Michael? The archangel Michael? My memories of the prior conversation that I’d had with him were even more faded now than they had been when I’d first told the story to Father Antonio upstairs, but surely I would have remembered if he’d been quite so rude. And what did mean about unforeseen consequences? Somehow I’d always thought of angels as halfway between man and God in how much they knew. They weren’t all-knowing, that was God’s domain alone, but surely it had to be quite something to slip something past an angel.
“Did I make myself clear?” Micheal asked when I didn’t respond.
Clear enough, I thought mutinously. Not to mention that I didn’t exactly have much to say in the matter. Rock beats scissors, scissors beats paper, sword beats priest after all.
I started to nod, remembered the sword, and thought better of it. “Yes,” I said instead, a bit surprised at how level my voice was. Inside, that little voice of self preservation was screaming at me to run away, to get away from that sword. I briefly wondered where that voice had been when I’d stayed rather than run when the first sword of the day had appeared.
“Good” Michael said. “Now that that’s out of the way…” And the sword was gone. I didn’t see it move and I couldn’t have told you where he put it–where do you hide a four foot long sword anyways?–but it was gone. By instinct, my hand went right to my neck, feeling for a line of blood.
Nothing. That was good at least.
“So, where are…” I started to ask. Michael’s eyes lit and I abruptly shifted what I had been about to say. “So, after you.”
76 - Baghdad
SEVERAL YEARS AGO The hallways was every bit as brightly lit as the room before had been dark. After my eyes had finally readjusted to the light, I looked both ways, both for a way out and to confirm that I wasn’t actually just going crazy.
I found the way out at least.
I was in a long hallways made of the same plain blank stone–or possibly concrete–that had made up my cell. There were doors on both sides, spaced about ten feet apart. Looking one way, there were over a dozen doors, including an identical door at the end of the hallway. The other way though, ended with the unmistakable metal double doors of an elevator. There was no sign of indicator of current floor, nothing but a single round silver button on the side which I assumed would bring the elevator down to me.
So far as being crazy, Private Jackson was nowhere to be seen.
I knew that I’d heard him and I had pretty good evidence that at the very least something had been going on–how else had I gotten out of not only the handcuffs but also the locked and barred doorway? Each door I passed had a thick steel door bar latched into place and a rather solid looking padlock locking it into place. My bar had been raised–although I hadn’t heard that part–and my padlock had been completely removed and was lying on the floor.
Someone had to have done all of that.
Someone now conspicuously absent.
Well it won’t do me any good to just stand her wondering about it, I chided myself. If anyone comes down and finds you just standing here in the middle of the hallway, there’s going to be Hell to pay.
Since the elevator was the only way that even could have been construed as a way out, I went that way. I wasn’t fond of the idea of taking the elevator up–or down I supposed–that seemed like a good way to get myself trapped in a box. On the other hand though, it didn’t seem like I had much choice in the matter. All I’d seen were other cell doors–completely solid, so I couldn’t even look in to see who else had been drug down here; although I did have to wonder how they kept air circulating in those rooms, I hadn’t thought to look–and the elevator.
When I got there though, the last door on the right was different. Rather than the solid metal of the cell doors, barred and with hinges built into the wall so they couldn’t be removed, this door had hinges on my side and nothing that I could see keeping it locked at all. There wasn’t even a keyhole on the knob.
Elevator or mystery door. Elevator or mystery door.
A ding from the elevator made that decision for me. Whoever it was, there was someone about to discover me and I had to do something about it right now. I could either take my chances with them or with the door.
I choose the door.
Luckily, it was unlocked. I threw myself through into more darkness, immediately turning and pushing my full weight against the door to hasten its close. Hydraulic pressure kept it from slamming and I had just enough time to see the elevator doors start to open–thankfully they opened slowly–before the door I’d thrown myself through clicked shut. I just had to hope no one had heard the click. It had been quiet enough, it had to have been quiet enough.
And just like that, I found myself back in the darkness. Luckily, this time it wasn’t completely dark. Somewhere high above me–at least 30 feet, likely more, a red light of some sort glowed. It also showed a set of metal stairs, alternating upwards back and forth, ascending into the darkness.
Not something I particularly wanted to chance in the darkness though. Not if I didn’t have to.
I was in luck though. Immediately beside the door I’d just come through, there was a light switch. I flipped it on, hoping that the light in the hallway would be enough to cover any light leaking from around the doorway.
77 - Chicago
SEVERAL WEEKS AGO “A penny for your thoughts?” Mrs. Claire’s words brought me sharply back. I didn’t know how long I’d been standing there thinking, but she was still sitting on the floor, although sitting up now. That was something. Out of habit as much as anything, I offered her a hand and, once she’d taken it, helped haul her to her feet. I barely even felt the strain, as light as she was.
“I was just thinking about what I’m going to do next,” I admitted. “Everything’s just gone sort of sideways recently.”
“I know the feeling,” she said, smiling again up at me. “How about a fortune telling?”
I blinked at her. “A fortune telling.” I knew my voice was flat, but I couldn’t quite help it. “You know that I’m a priest right?”
She nodded. The black with the white collar tended to give it away, even to non-believers. Come to think of it, I didn’t know what she believed.
“And that we’re specifically forbidden from that sort of thing.” That was Old Testament right there, all of the way back in Deuteronomy if I remembered correctly. “Not to mention that you said it yourself that you’re a fraud.”
If anything, her smile widened. “Well then there shouldn’t be a problem, should there? It’s not forbidden if it’s not actually divination, is it?”
I blinked at her. I guess that was true, at the very least by the letter of the law. “But then why do it in the first place?”
She turned away from me, walking over to a shelf towards the back of the room where a truly impressive collection of small boxes–each approximately the size of a deck of cards–stood on small clear stands. She debated for a moment, finally deciding on a plain white box with only a golden circle on it. The circle had some sort of detailing, but before I could make it out, her hand was covering it. She turned again, gesturing at the table she’d sat at before.
“I’ve found that going through the motions is a good way to help you think. The meaning of each of the cards is so vague that they could apply to any number of situations. If you’re still in the process of working through a tough decision, your subconscious has often already made the choice. And that will come through in how you see the cards. People always see what they want to see.”
“Fine.” I’m not actually sure why I agreed. Perhaps just a vague sense of curiostiy. Perhaps seeing the world tearing at the seems, what I’d always known to be true suddenly roughening out. Perhaps I just didn’t have anywhere else to go. John Smith had almost certainly taken his car with him after all.
I sat at the table across from her. “What do I have to do?”
With a slight smile, she handed me the deck of cards she’d been shuffling idly. I could see the figure on the back of the box more clearly now, it was on the back of each of the cards as well. It was a golden ring all right, but it was also a serpant eating its own tail. Something about that set me on edge, but I couldn’t quite put a finger on it.
“All you have to do is choose the cards. I’ll tell you what they mean.”
She pointed at the center of the table. “The first card is for what is. Hopefully it’ll give us a bit of insight into the whole situation.”
Fine. I drew the first card.
78 - Chicago
SEVERAL WEEKS AGO There was a man in black armor sitting on a white horse on what could have been a field of battle. He had a black flag with a design something like a flower on it. There was only a single word beneath the drawing.
I looked back up at the card. On a closer look, it wsn’t a man at all riding the horse, it was a skeleton.
Well now. I wondered if perhaps Mrs. Claire had stacked the deck. This was her domain after all and she was a self-proclaimed fraud. Perhaps this was her way of letting me know? It didn’t seem like there could have been a better card for the ‘present situation’ as it were.
Mrs. Claire seemed to understand what I was thinking. “It could be Alex, I guess, if what you say happened is true. But Death doesn’t always represent a physical death. More often it’s related to letting go. Perhaps you aren’t meant to keep looking into the situation.”
I guess there was some advice after all. It didn’t feel right though. If what Mrs. Claire had first said, about this being a way to communicate with your subconscious mind was true, then my subconscious just felt confused.
“Okay,” I said, “what’s next.
Mrs. Claire nodded and pointed to the table to the left of where I’d put down the first card. “The second card goes here. It represents what was, something that occurred in the past yet has a bearing on your current situation.”
The figure that granted me was upside down, wearing some sort of red tights and a blue shirt. He was hanging from what was unmistakably a cross. Along the bottom of the car was written three words:
THE HANGED MAN
I looked up, troubled thoughts springing to mind. Had anyone actually mentioned to her that Alex had committed suicide? I vaguely remember it coming up while I’d been there, but did she remember it? It just seemed too convenient. I suddenly wondered just how it was that Alex had died. Neither he nor his brother had ever mentioned that particular detail.
But I said nothing. Instead Mrs. Claire said. “The Hanged Man. Interesting. There are ties to Christianity, of course, particularly in the Crucifixion. St. Peter, I believe it was, was crucified upside down. So perhaps that’s you?” I shook my head.
“Although in general the Hanged Man actually signifies a crossroads, that someone was forced to make a decision. Specifically that you should just let go. That sometimes things are beyond your control.” I shrugged. That sounded a lot more vague and here I was still reeling from seeing the Hanged Man in the first place.
Taking my silence to indicate understanding, Mrs. Claire pointed to the right this time. “The third card; what will be. This card represents the future, potential. What the current situation will lead to if it continues on its present course.
There was an obvious angel on the card, completely with golden hair and wings, blowing on a trumpet. A number of naked people stood beneath, all with gray skin and standing in gray boxes. Mildly perplexing. Beneath it all was a single word.
Mrs. Claire launched right into her explanation. “They say Judgement is a picture of the Last Judgement, something you should be familiar with.” She looked up at me and smiled, but I didn’t return the smile. Perhaps an odd feeling for a priest, it wasn’t something that I looked forward to. Don’t get me wrong, what came after sounded Heavenly, but the Armageddon sounded like a quite literal Hell on Earth.
“The angel is either Gabriel or Michael, depending on who you talk to. Gabriel is the messenger, but it’s supposed to be Michael who heralds the second coming, isn’t it?”
I nodded vaguely. Truth be told, I didn’t actually know. Angelology had never exactly been a forte of mine.
But Mrs. Claire wasn’t looking at me any more, she was looking right over my shoulder, her mouth hanging slightly open. I turned and immediately looked upwards. There was a man standing right behind me, a man with long silver hair and an ageless face. I turned back to the card, then back to the man. It couldn’t be…
The man spoke. He had a deep voice, layered with meaning. “You called?”