I had to talk to Aggie first. Back at the office I stared at the off white walls and the grey carpet. Aggie knew the look. “What’s the trouble today, Boss? It looks to me like we got it solved.”
“Does it? Does it really?”
“Oh damn it. Come on, Ax. What are we doing?”
“Do you really think that trollop they got in a cell killed Fade Triumph? Because I don’t. Hell, just lookin’ at her you can tell she couldn’t have done that.”
“Seemed pretty lethal to me.”
“In spirit maybe, but not in talent. You think she’s physically capable of murdering another god? Of making her way back to the city from the boundary all on her own?”
“I think you’re forgetting The Lost Throne.”
“The Lost Throne, Boss. It’s a stage play. It’s the one with the line everyone quotes. ‘You can’t see what I really am.’”
“Right.” Sometimes I forget that Aggie came from money. He used to live in a real ritzy part of town, surrounded by his fellow disbelief systems. He’s read all the books, seen all the plays, heard all the songs. “You’re saying that just because she looks like a dolled up city girl who makes her living picking off unmoved spirits in the bars, that she really might be a survivalist with killer skills?”
“You really can talk, can’t you, Boss?”
“Let me ask you something, Aggie. Do you really believe she killed the guy?”
“She had his money.”
“There is that. But see, I don’t think she killed him. I think something else is going on.”
“Well, that may be, Boss, but it’s not our problem.”
“That means we can’t look into it?”
“What I mean, Boss, is that we’re not getting paid. We start poking around in this, then we earn nothing, we waste time, and if we’re unlucky, we make some new enemies.”
“The Temple paid us plenty well.”
“You’re serious, Ax?”
“Yeah. I was hired to find a killer, and I don’t think I fulfilled my end of the contract. It’s time to find out. Aggie, if you want some time off, a long, extended vacation, then be my guest. Because I’ll tell you now that Moloch Winter pretty much told me to stay out of this business.”
“Oh great. But no, Boss. I started the case. I’ll finish it. If you’re right though, and I’m putting my ass on the line just out of principle, then I at least want my name on the door when it’s done. Where do we start?”
“Well you raised a pretty intelligent point. Just because Bible Lighter looks like a drifter doesn’t mean she couldn’t have done it. Let’s look into her.”
I can’t tell you how much I wish I could have taken the investigation elsewhere, but I had to go back to the Primum Mobile. That’s where we learned about Bible Lighter. It was the first place to find out more about her connection to Triumph. I didn’t go there until I got a call from Kachina Palm, a waitress that I paid from time to time to keep tabs on the clientele. She let us know when the august Saint Michael was back. It was no surprise that he was there quickly. The Primum Mobile was like his office.
Aggie and I split up inside. He started asking questions of a couple likely people about the girl. I went straight to the celebrities. Michael had already been told that I was back. “Ax. Always good to see you.” And for him it really was. Being seen with people was part of his career. Right then my name was back in the public eye. It wasn’t exactly the Tao Imbalance Case, but according to the papers a murderer was behind bars.
“Mind if I have a seat?”
“What can I do for you, Ax?”
“I’ve got a few questions about public enemy number one.”
“Well I hope you’re talking about that statuesque assassin, and not myself.”
“The girl. Bible Lighter. Let me ask you, Michael, were you surprised to find out that she might have killed the fade?”
“Might have? The stories I heard gave me the impression that she had confessed.”
I smiled. It was my gift to him. It was gossip. Payment, more or less for a little bit of opinion. He could suggest to people that ‘someone important’ didn’t think that Bible was really a killer. He wouldn’t drop my name, and it didn’t matter if he did. This particular rumor would start on its own no matter what. Being able to start it though? That was worth something to the man. Not much, mind you, but I wasn’t asking much.
Michael rubbed his cheek in a way that would stop anyone reading his lips. “I’ll tell you something, Ax. She came to me the day before, asking about newcomers. So when the fade started dropping drevens all over, I just thought it was right up her alley. For the right price, anyway. But that was the first time I’d seen her that I can recall. I found that a little strange, a little coincidental.”
“You never met her before?”
“No, but hey, you met her. You can see why I thought a relationship with such a well defined physiognomy might be good for business.”
Loki chose that moment to arrive. “Ax, my hero, how are you this evening?”
“Confused. Tell me something, Loki. The girl that the cops have. You know her?”
“The red letter Bible? I knew her a little.”
“From recently or before?”
“Um, only recently. In fact I think I met her at the same time I met that unfortunate bank robber you were asking about last time. I’m sorry I can’t be much more help than that.”
“That’s plenty of help. Thanks, you two.” They told me what little they could. Where else Lighter had worked that they knew of. Who knew her and so on. Aggie had asked around, and he discovered pretty much what I did. The ‘murderess’ was new to the scene.
We got around to interviews with Lighter’s friends. The reporters had already picked their patience clean, but we managed to get what we needed. Were they surprised that Bible was a killer? Did they think she really had it in her? Well that depended. They weren’t really stunned, but none of them would have considered her a real criminal before. Did any of that mean that she hadn’t killed Fade Triumph? No. But it did put a serious dent in that theory. The strange thing was that Bible didn’t seem to have much of a history. Pantheon city is a big, sprawling place. Bible could have been from any part of the city. That apartment we found her at was something new. She hadn’t been there long. So what we had was a confessed killer who had only recently moved to the area, had managed to find a major mark, easy to seduce and pluck, and had done it all with very little effort. It even looked like she had help getting into the Primum Mobile. No one there could confirm it, because that would mean their job. It was already looking suspicious, but not hopeful. Not yet. The first step is almost always easy. Where could we go from there?
We looked into the suspect. It was time to look into the victim. We already had everything about him we were going to get from the Temple. We had the impressions from his fellow believers, the ones he worked with, the ones that knew him. It had previously occurred to me that they were all just a little too eager to tell me that they didn’t know him that well. For a guy who could steal that kind of fortune with a signature, he didn’t sound like someone who had loads of friends and admirers. I wanted to know more about the man from before he had a name, when he was just a fade, and not Fade Triumph. Aggie and I headed over to the Annwn Sanctuary. Annwn was a lousy neighborhood, which was to be expected. Sanctuaries weren’t kept in nice areas.
Fades who slept on benches or roamed into nicer areas found themselves escorted to a sanctuary. It was one of the great controversies of the society of gods. Did we really have the right to separate these poor, down and out souls from the rest of civilization? I wanted to say no, but I remembered just how many forgotten gods there were when I saw it. It was a vast, sweeping tent city. Tarps held up by sticks, cardboard boxes, and sometimes just staked out bits of territory were what the fades called home. It stretched out so far, gods living off scraps and fighting among themselves weakly. The fade problem wouldn’t have been a problem if only there weren’t so damn many of them. No one knew just what percentage of the population was faded. You couldn’t count them. They didn’t have names. They didn’t remember who they were. If they tried to take a name, they would forget it by the end of the day. Give them a few drevens though, a little job with a little sustenance, and they could survive, even claim a new identity. There weren’t enough drevens around to support all those gods that were past the point of receiving their own devotion.
If you were someone like Moloch Winter you could thrive. I doubted he’d seen any natural income for decades, but there he was, living the life. Gods who were forgotten eventually passed out of existence. Some liked to imagine that a better reality awaited beyond Pantheon City. It was a nice idea. We all dreaded old age. I know I said that we fear death more than the mortals, but more than that we fear the end times. You can be forgotten by the mortals. You can stop receiving any devotional revenue from your followers. But those same fickle mortals won’t just drop the image. They won’t let you pass on fast. Some lingering notion survives on the fringes of mortal culture but without so much as a name or label to make it anything more than a faded god begging for pocket change.
I’m not a rich guy, but I donate some drevens every week to various fade funds. It’s a drop in the bucket, but if a faded god can live a single day with a real sense of self, then it’s worth it. Naturally I had extra money in my pockets to hand out to a few fades. I wasn’t there for charity though; I wanted to talk to the ones who were. There were plenty of charity outfits around the sanctuaries, some representing temples and religions, others without any religious affiliation, provided just out of a sense of divinity.
The DemiUrge Temple had several soup kitchens and handouts serving sustenance and handing out small amounts of drevens to the poor and the faded. The luckiest of the fades there got noticed. Fade Triumph was one of them. Instead of just getting a bowl of food and a pocket full of coins, he got a job serving the soup. He had the recognition of some fellow gods. That’s not as good as the recognition of the mortals, but it helps. He grew a sense of responsibility and he became one of their little pet projects, a former fade who could live a real life, a symbol of hope for the city gods to cling to.
I had Aggie talk to the fades at the edge of the sanctuary. I didn’t think any of them could be much help. Most of them couldn’t remember where they were that morning. They sure couldn’t recognize a fade in a photograph who hadn’t been around for a while.
I took the more likely path. I went to the soup kitchen that Fade Triumph worked at before he had a name. I already knew that it was staffed by the same temple workers that were there when Triumph was there. I had checked that on our first day at the temple.
“How can I help you?”
She really fit the charity worker stereotype. She looked like some naïve, plump little goddess who made up for being a vague version of a minor concept by throwing herself into meaningful work. I liked her right away though. She was instantly friendly. And she wore spectacles. I always respect gods that can notice their own little infirmities. Not much about her was faded, but her eyesight was a problem. “My name is Detective Axiom. I understand you knew this man?”
She looked at the photo and squinted. “I’m not sure. Should I know him?”
“He used to work here.”
She nodded hard like she should have guessed that. “Sorry. You’d think long lives would imply long memories, but I see too many faces to keep them all where my brain can reach them. Is he in trouble?”
“No, ma’am. He’s dead.”
“Oh! He’s the one I read about in the paper?”
“He was found out near the boundary. You knew him?”
“Well no. I can’t say that I really knew him. He was a fade. I know that might sound terrible since I work with them, but you can’t really know gods who don’t know themselves. They stumble into each other, but they don’t shake hands.”
“They’ve got to be able to do more than that to work here. Even if they are just serving soup.”
“They get extra for the work.”
“I’d hope so. Miss White, I’m looking into a murder case. I’ll be honest, I don’t think you can tell me anything of value. How long was he working here before he got picked up by the Temple?”
“I wouldn’t be able to tell you. Some fades work at the soup kitchen regularly. Others are gone in a day. So he might not have been here long at all. The Temple people, they always take all the volunteers we have when they decide to bring a few fades to the city. That’s by our demand. We can’t choose one on the merits of their character.”
“You don’t really believe that.”
She sighed. “No, I suppose I don’t. I try to because for every one that is given a new chance, there are countless others that don’t even get a bowl of soup. It helps to think of them as a crowd. The papers, they said that he might have stolen some money from the Temple? I really wish I didn’t have to say this, but I’m surprised they let any of our fades work in the Temple proper. Give them a new start in life, but I wouldn’t trust any of them with my money, let alone with the church’s money.”
A lot of gods might hear her talk like that and sneer. Not me. She can say all that and more, I won’t bat an eye. Because she’s down there in the hard part of the city doing what she can. If that doesn’t give her an idealistic view of the poor, and she still struggles, then I respect that.
None of that brought me to any real lead in my investigation, but every so often you run into the information you need just by getting near it. Muse White might not have known much that could help me, but our conversation had been overheard by someone who had an interest. One of the kitchen staff popped out for a cigarette so that she could talk to me. I was about to call out to Aggie, but this slip of a goddess grumbled at me, “You knew Triumph?”
“I didn’t know him.”
“But you’re looking into him.”
“Is he really dead?”
She had my interest with that question. “I was asking myself the same thing for a little while. I hate to break it to you, but yeah. He’s gone.”
She frowned at her shoes. “Son of a bitch got himself killed.”
“You haven’t been reading about it?”
“Not really. I knew Triumph.” She looked at me, and I could see the intensity. “Do you know who did it?”
“There’s a goddess in custody.”
“You know why she did it?”
“The general assumption is that it was for money.”
“Yeah. The whole city runs on devotion, doesn’t it?”
“It’s not like we’ve got a lot of choice. And two hundred thousand drevens is enough to tempt about anyone.”
“What?” She was shocked.
“That’s what he took from the temple. Two hundred grand.”
“Who told you that?”
I started to think the conversation was going nowhere. “There’s a bank withdrawal.”
“Uh-huh. Look, mister, I don’t know what’s going on, but Triumph didn’t steal no two hundred thousand. He stole a few million.”
For a second I thought I’d learned something. Then I repeated her question. “Who told you that?”
“He did. We talked about it. He found some money that no one was supposed to know about. He hoped I could figure out how to get it.”
“A million drevens?”
“A couple million.”
“Why are you telling me?”
“You’re a cop, ain’tcha?”
“No. Private Eye. My name is Detective Axiom.”
“You’re that guy!”
“That’s what they tell me.”
“Lemme talk to you, all right?”
“Get in the vahana.”
“No, not now. I gotta get back to work. I’ll see you later?”
I gave her a scrap of paper with an address and a time on it.