Sun tipped his cowboy hat back with his thumb while he took in the view. For him it must have been inspiring, even though he saw it every day. It certainly inspired me, but I was used to the city. We were in a beautiful spot, overlooking a rolling, green landscape. It would have been perfect if it hadn’t been for the dead body.
Doc Lilt finished his examination. He looked up. “There’s no doubt about it. God is dead.”
The joke didn’t get a laugh. Yes, a god was dead, but which one? And why out there?
Officer Sands said, “Hell, I’m not a doctor, but I could have told you the fade was dead just lookin’ at him.”
That was true. This old god had died ugly. The face was completely disfigured, covered with sticky ichor. I couldn’t help but wonder just what had been lost to the mortals, if anything. This god was forgotten. He was a fade, a god lost to time. He couldn’t have told you his own name if he’d been alive. Not his real name anyway. If only the humans of Earth knew how much they cast away over time. Then again, I can’t blame them. If I had a lifespan that short, I wouldn’t give a damn about things that happened centuries before either.
Officer Sands asked, “Is there any hope at all of identifying this guy for sure?”
Doctor Lilt was honest. “If he lived in a sanctuary, then no. Look at his clothes though. If we learn anything about him, maybe I can find some way to confirm his identity.”
“Such as it was,” Sands said. He had led us out here. We were high up and nearly as far out as you could go. We could actually see the boundary where our reality broke away into impossibility. That hazy edge, beyond which laid, well, no one knew. Every so often some idiot of a wanderer decided to brave the edge. No one came back. I hadn’t been that close for a very long time. Over a century, maybe.
“Strange place for a murder,” I said.
“What are the odds?,” Officer Sands asked.
Sands wasn’t sharp, but he wasn’t stupid. That was common for Pantheon City cops. He was a good cop. He could catch any criminal that wasn’t any brighter than he was. In Pantheon City, you almost have to be stupid to be a crook. That gave guys like Sands the advantage. Then again, when it was something like this, something out of the ordinary, they liked to call me in. I’m a detective. That’s all it says on my card, Detective Axiom. Most people call me Detective or just Ax. It’s a pseudonym. No one knows my real name, and I like it that way. Most of my believers are gone, so I don’t have the income that others do. That’s why I got the job. I could have gone to more steady work, but I’m talented at this. That made me something of a rarity among the gods. I was someone who could find answers.
The answer to the immediate question was obvious. “He didn’t happen to run into a killer out in the wilderness within spitting distance of oblivion. Someone knew he’d be here. And no one could have known this spot from any other unless they’re a frontier god like Sun here. More likely though? He had someone with him that he brought. Someone who took the chance away from the city and all the possible witnesses. Another possibility…” I let that dangle so that Sands could pick it up and feel like he had contributed.
“Someone followed him.”
“Right. So the question isn’t just who would want to kill a fade. It was this fade in particular. Who the hell would follow a nameless, forgotten god to the wilderness and murder him? What is there to gain?”
“Could it just be some maniac? Some serial killer type? We haven’t had one for near two hundred fifty years.”
“I thought it was longer than that. I suppose it’s a possibility. It sure isn’t likely though. The kind of sick god you’re talking about who gets his kicks murdering unfortunates, they have a full crop of faded gods in the sanctuaries. Plenty of targets. Plenty of hidden alleys and shadows. Why come out here? If it was that type, why follow him this far? And this guy isn’t just any fade. Look at his clothes. He’s somebody back in the city. What do we know about him?”
The rookie cop behind Sands looked almost afraid to say it. “We found a card on him. An ID card. He worked for the DemiUrge temple.”
“No kidding.” I wasn’t bothered the way the young cop was. This made things interesting for me. “So, if he had an ID card, a DemiUrge card, then he had some given name. He was Fade Stick or Fade Chair or something.”
Sands said, “Show him.”
I read the card through the plastic bag. “Fade Triumph. DemiUrge Trustee of the Central Temple. I’ll be damned. The Central Temple. This case could get ugly. Doc, how certain are you that you can identify him accurately as this Fade Triumph?”
“He has a few distinguishing marks. He wasn’t totally faded. So I can get you a positive ID soon enough. When I get back to my office that is.”
Sands asked me, “You need anything else, Detective?”
“No, I’ve already looked around. Have your men keep up the search just in case the murder weapon or anything else might turn up under a bush or a rock. I don’t hold out much hope though. Sun, can you take us back to town?”
He nodded his head. “S’what I’m here for.”
The drive back was quiet. I guess Sun knew that I was busy thinking. We didn’t have much. Some fade died a tragic death. It happened and usually no one cared. One less forgotten god begging for change and drinking himself to destruction. This was only strange because of where it happened. And because of the ID card.
Usually I’m just like any Earthly detective. I investigate infidelity, do background checks. Sometimes I get to look into shady property deals. Every so often a case like this comes along. The kind of thing that can get a god into trouble. The kind of thing that most of us would never want to touch. A murder mystery. Who would kill a nameless god so far from the city where we all live? I had to wonder which pillars I was shaking just by knowing about it.
Pantheon City is a beautiful place if you can afford that beauty. Me, I don’t have too many believers left in the mortal world. So I don’t get the natural income that a more recognizable god does. Like so many gods who can’t afford a middle class life, I work for the surplus devotion brought in by more famous concepts. There aren’t a lot of gods in Pantheon City willing to poke into anyone else’s business. So I get paid well enough to make it worthwhile. This time I wasn’t sure I’d get paid at all in the end. Who was footing the bill? The city government officially, since I was working with law enforcement. But would they really pay off if I was looking into the DemiUrge temple? Then again, by the end of this, they might be paying me to stop.
I guess Sun didn’t have a lot of work to do that day because he was willing to drive me straight to the Temple. When I got out, he called me to the driver side window. “Mister Axiom, I got to ask you something.”
“I found that old man out there. I think I wasn’t supposed to. There was a general order to do relief work for a few days. I didn’t do that because I was all caught up. I thought you ought to know that. And if there’s anything I can do to help you, let me know. I mean that. I been out there on the edge for a long time. I ain’t afraid of nothin’.”
“I appreciate that, Sun. I’ll let you know.” I watched him drive his rumbling utility vahana away. It was hard to imagine him driving anything else. Now that was one rugged god. Most of us are so spoiled in the city. Those cowboy types that expand the tableau at the edge, they’re hard the way the rest of us used to be, back in the days when gods fought, before we became civilized. I prefer the modern world. A god can be so much more these days. There are still things to be said for that bygone era though. It was savage, but at least it wasn’t just the daily grind. I wonder how mortals cope with it?
I phoned my assistant Aggie to have him head over right away. I needed a little time for the calls to get through to the Temple before I went in anyway. Sands told me that they were supposed to be expecting me. I figured I could wait until they sent one of their little misfits out to fetch me. I knew better than to take them by surprise. I wouldn’t get anywhere that way, and then they’d resist the investigation with all the influence they had.
Aggie got there before anyone inside decided to see if I was at their door. “Hey, Boss. This ought to be fun. Who are we here to see?”
“Whoever they want me to see. We’re investigating one of their unfortunates, a fade.”
“He was murdered out in the wilderness.”
“They brought you out there for a dead fade?”
“Happens every day, I know. This one’s different though. If his face hadn’t been crushed, he would have looked healthy. His clothes were expensive. He wasn’t just some speck hanging on to the fringes of society.”
Aggie nodded. “One of those outreach guys. Someone they took in and clothed and fed and so on.”
“It’s good for the Temple to be seen doing charity work. Besides, it’s estimated that a quarter of their followers are fades.”
“Now how the hell can anyone know that, Boss? I hope it’s true though.”
“Why’s that, Aggie?”
“Because it would mean that a fourth of their support comes from gods that don’t matter.”
Aggie offered me a cigarette. I didn’t get to enjoy it. After a puff or two, some acolyte in a nice, clean cut suit came out, smiling in that polite way they had for visitors. “Are you Detective Axiom?”
“That’s me. This is my assistant, Aggie Hill.”
“My name is Helios. Helios Journey.”
“Helios? I was driven here by a Sun god.”
“He’s lucky. Even though I’m a sun god, my name was never up in lights.”
“That’s funny.” It was like that. Gods and religions and sometimes philosophies were all in Pantheon City. And all of them had a lot of duplicates. Duplicates in name, anyway. Every one depicted a varying point of view on the same idea. Some gods, like Allahs, Jehovahs, and Christianitys had massive numbers. That’s why we’ve got the last names. Every one of us has to register it to make sure the name’s unique.
I doubted there had been crowds of Helioses around even in the heyday of Greece. They had their time, but even back then other Greek gods were the real stars. So why he wasn’t Stone or Cloud or something else common instead of Journey I didn’t know. He must have thought it sounded cool a couple thousand years ago. And who was I to judge? I chose the last name Axiom. I wondered if I’d ever met him before. When you live as long as we do, you tend to forget everyone you’ve met. That can be dangerous because some people will remember you even if you’ve forgotten them.
Helios was talkative enough, but I let Aggie entertain him. I was considering our surroundings. The Central DemiUrge Temple was the seat of the largest, most powerful religion in Pantheon City. Is was a massive building. Big and ornate. Small fountains and gardens were everywhere. I hadn’t been in there for a long time, so I didn’t mind the show. Helios was pointing out artwork and architecture all the way. The temple workers showed great discipline, ignoring us, but staying completely out of the way.
I waited until we were in the elevator to ask the most important question I could put to our tour guide. “Has the Temple spoken to the police department?”
He almost looked startled at the question. “The police sent someone over. I believe the office of Public Relations spoke to someone.”
They had an office of Public Relations. Fair enough, they were highly visible. But speaking to the police? I wondered if Helios realized the implication. It meant that the DemiUrge Temple considered this an issue they had to control in the public eye. “Right. Is that where you’re taking us?”
“You? No. I was told, or rather I assumed that your interview was important. Listen, Mister Axiom, I’m not actually supposed to talk to you about this. I’ll tell you that I didn’t know the victim at all. I’m not sure I met him. That’s probably why they had me bring you in. I can’t answer any questions.”
“I could ask you something about the outreach program that brings fades out of the sanctuaries into the city proper.”
“Uhm, well, sir, I’m afraid I won’t be answering any questions related to your investigation. Don’t worry though. I’m not taking you to Public Relations. If I could ask you to be patient, we’ll be there soon enough.”
“Where are we going?,” Aggie asked.
“To the top balconies.”
Aggie looked at me. I just nodded to assure him he had the right idea. We were going to a part of the Temple that not a lot of people got to see. The corners of this megalithic building were open to the air. They had hanging gardens and spectacular views of the city, of all reality as far as most gods were concerned. A square foot of the floor probably cost more than the average home. Aggie was clearly intimidated. So was Helios, apparently. He must not have been a balcony man either, even though he worked in the Temple. I have to admit that within my own detective detachment, I respected the reverent silence instinctively. Helios led the way to a particular view, tucked away right in the exact southeast corner of the temple. There he was. His back was to us, and he turned with the drama you’d expect from the stage. He had slicked back dark hair and perfectly angled, aggressive features. And those piercing eyes. You felt like he knew everything you knew and more. Moloch Winter. Some people said he was the most powerful god in the city. I wasn’t conspiracy minded, so I knew that wasn’t true. In spite of the ‘hidden government’ theories, the Mayor of Pantheon City really was the most powerful god in town. There were differences though. The Mayor was Mayor for only twenty six years. Moloch was always going to have his place.
He smiled in a way that should have indicated warmth, but I felt the reptilian rage underneath it. Strangely enough, I got the impression that it wasn’t me he was angry with. He held out his hand. “The famous Detective Axiom. It’s good to finally meet you.”
We had met before, but that was centuries ago under my real name. I wasn’t about to drop the hint. I shook his hand like he was a poker buddy. “I make the headlines, I suppose. You manage to avoid them.” I could hear Helios’s shudder.
Moloch only smiled. “You can go now,” he said over my shoulder. Helios’s departure was swift and loud.
“How can I help you, sir?,” I asked.
“Helios neglected to introduce your companion.”
“I’m sorry. This is my assistant, Aggie Hill.”
“Aggie?,” Moloch said, as he offered his hand. “Is that Agnosticism?”
“Yes sir,” Aggie replied, almost covering his hesitation.
“That fits your occupation, I suppose. An Agnosticism would be the natural choice for a detective.”
Aggie admitted, “A lot of us represent a refusal to consider religion. That’s not exactly explorative.”
“I suppose not,” Moloch said. “Then again, what’s in a name? The best gardener we have is Pluto Fingers. You wouldn’t think a death god would be good at raising plants.”
“I thought Pluto was an underworld god, not a death god,” Aggie said.
“That depends on your point of view, or rather it depends on the point of view of the mortal worshippers. Our Pluto represents death. Or so he says. He can kill a conversation, so I believe him.”
Humor from Moloch seemed unsettling. I smiled politely. “Mister Winters—”
“Please, it’s Moloch. I hope you won’t mind my calling you Detective?”
I nodded. “Call me what you like.”
“Detective, do you know why you’re here?”
“I’m investigating a murder. A fade named Triumph was killed out of town. He was one of the Temple’s projects.”
Moloch smiled like he didn’t mind, but the flash of anger in his eyes was from the old days. “You could phrase it that way. The Temple’s outreach program brings forgotten men and women from poverty to a place in society.”
“There are thousands of forgotten gods. How many do you really help?”
“An old argument, and not a valid one, Detective. Because we can’t help them all, we shouldn’t help any?”
“I would have asked, if you can help so many more, then why spend the kind of money it takes to keep this Temple as it is? You’ve got golden apples right here on the table like they’re in every home. And I’ve seen four bowls of them since I walked in.”
“You can have one if you like.”
“And, Detective, you didn’t understand my question. Do you know why you’re here? I don’t mean at the Temple. That part is obvious. Do you know why they brought you to me?”
I understood his question the first time. You have to be careful just talking to someone like Moloch Winter. You can’t let him control the conversation. “All right. Why would you be the one to see me? Why not some shlub working in the Temple’s employment office?”
“You’re speaking to me because I intend to pay you four times the government amount.”
“For what?” If he intended to pay me off, then I wasn’t certain it was healthy to refuse.
“No need to worry, Detective. I know my reputation. I’m not trying to prevent you from doing your job. I want to make certain that you do the best you possibly can.”
“You care that much about the death of a fade?”
“The death of a fade? No. I know that might not sound terribly religious of me, but it does happen all the time. The murder of a fade, though? That’s something else, especially since that fade lived here under our protection. I’m about to tell you something that I don’t want to see in the papers, and I assure you that God Olive will be looking for the same answers you’ll be after. I want as much privacy as I can afford.”
“I can understand that. Moloch, I want you to understand something. You have your reputation and I have mine. I’m not in the habit of taking payoffs. I do my job. I don’t talk to the press if I don’t have to. That’s not just to protect the interests of my clients. It’s also to protect the interests of any victims. Fade Triumph might have been a nobody, but I don’t like seeing any dead god examined in the public eye with the newspapers as a microscope. I also keep quiet to protect my own interests. The Temple is a major player in the city. You might not know this, but the Temple has hired me several times over the past century and a half.”
“I did know that. You come highly recommended. Do I have to ask my question again though?”
“I’ve already answered it. I don’t give promises that I can’t keep. See, if I find something that I think the papers need to know about, then I’ll do what I have to do. That’s only if it’s necessary. And that’s just going to have to be good enough, because I’m investigating this with or without your bonus.”
“Bonus? You don’t understand, Detective. I’m paying you to find something. I want you to take us on as a client in a related case.”
“I don’t understand.”
“We haven’t told anyone yet, and I expect this to be held in confidence. Before his murder, Fade Triumph stole two hundred thousand drevens from the Temple. If you can get the money back, then I want it. Whether you can or can’t, I want to know who has it.”
“Two hundred thousand?”
“How in the hell could a trustee fade get ahold of that kind of money?”
“Triumph had been with us for four years. He was, or at least he seemed to be, remarkably devout. He attended services and lessons without fail. He lived here at the Temple without much social life beyond our walls. I can’t say he was a popular man, as he kept to himself. He was trusted though.”
“Trusted with a fortune like that?”
“No. Triumph was a trustee. He ran all kinds of errands for us all over the city. He made deposits and account transfers for us at the Midas Bank.”
“You trusted him with Temple accounts?”
“He had limited access. He had the authority to deposit and to move money from one account to another with the proper, signed documents from the Temple. Somehow he must have forged some order that let him withdraw some money. The bank shouldn’t have let that happen, and we don’t know how he did it yet.”
“How many other people know this?”
“You and I right now. A few other very loyal Temple men and women.”
“I’ll want to talk to them all. I want every bit of information the temple has on Fade Triumph. The records of his employment and pay. I want to know what his position was, what his duties were and who he had regular contact with. I’ll want to speak with anyone who can tell me about his private life.”
“I have here a list of names. Gods that Fade Triumph regularly associated with here in the temple. You’re welcome to speak to all of them while you’re here. They will all take time out of their schedules upon your request.”
“I appreciate that.”
Again I saw the old Moloch for a moment, that barbaric creature who had slain enemies, strangers and sometimes even allies without conscience. “I want you to find the person who has the money, Detective. I don’t know if Triumph had an accomplice, or if he himself was robbed somehow. I don’t imagine he pulled this off on his own though. Someone used one of our outreach fades to rob us of drevens that we use for the betterment of the city and its citizens. I intend to see them pay for that.”
I had work to do before I left the temple. I checked their accounting, their personnel records and asked around about Fade Triumph. I got the impressions I needed of the man. He was friendly but quiet. Not many of the Temple people knew him well. The few that interacted with him regularly were the ones he worked with. Those few enjoyed his company. And somehow the ones that knew about it weren’t surprised to find out that he had stolen a fortune. One thing that talking to a lot of people tells you is that people don’t know what the hell they’re talking about.
He had some kind of life outside the Temple, but not much of one. Most of the time when he left the Temple building it was for work. No one knew where he went apart from that though. Recently Triumph had been out of the Temple late at night a few times, coming back in a real good mood. That made sense. If he had just ripped off the Temple for two hundred thousand, then he was rich. What I didn’t understand was why he would come back at all. Loose ends to tie up? Getting his affairs in order? It bothered me, but I’d known criminals to do dumb things like that. Even if I couldn’t figure that out, it didn’t necessarily mean anything.
We went through his things. The Temple had living spaces on a few floors. The higher up you were, the more important you were and the more space and luxury you were afforded. Moloch undoubtedly lived on the top floor where we met him. Triumph was as close to the ground as you could get.
His room was small but livable. By the standards of a fade from a tent city sanctuary, it must have been paradise. But for this fade it wasn’t enough and that got him killed. He had the typical stuff, reserved, Temple style clothing. A few nick nacks like street people accumulate. Scraps of paper with information on them, mostly work related. We took those in case there was more there than we thought. The thing that really got our interest was something Aggie found. “Hey, Boss. I got the cork to a wine bottle over here.”
“Color me surprised.”
“I sure am. This is from a bottle of viaticum.”
That opened my eyes. It looked like Triumph had been spending some money. We don’t have the same kind of food and drink in Pantheon City that the mortals do. We live off the devotion we receive. There are a lot of things it can be used for. Outside of the city there are farms and plantations that grow all kinds of things. Any ritual that mortals perform can be fermented into what passes for our alcohol. Viaticum wasn’t something anyone had a lot of. It was rare wine, extremely expensive. I’d been alive a long time, and I’d only had it a dozen times. The good thing about it? Most wines, fine wines in particular, were stamped both on the label and the cork so that you knew exactly where it came from and where it was sold. It was a lead, and a very tempting one. This might tell us what Triumph was doing after he took the money.