Following Arati had been nothing but boring. If she was setting us up, then she was an expert at seeming like a lonely nobody while Agnosticism had followed her. He was more than happy to hear that I didn’t want him shadowing her anymore. He wasn’t as pleased about what I’d found out.
“Let me get this straight, Boss. Our theory right now is that Fade Triumph, a lowly charity case that the Urgists peeled out of Annwn Sanctuary, somehow uncovered a Temple plot to use illegal funds to sabotage the frontier. Instead of reporting it or ignoring it, he took the money. With the best of intentions of course. Then he was killed for it, and the Temple set us on the trail of a fake robbery in order to divert attention away from their schemes.”
“Well when you say it like that it sounds silly. You got one thing wrong though.”
“You said he did it with the best of intentions. I don’t make that assumption. Maybe he had a heart of gold. Maybe he was just a thief who found the score of the century. Either way the Temple’s motive stays the same. They can’t have us uncover a couple million drevens earmarked for bribes and sabotage.”
“They can always say it was for something else.”
“Actually they can’t. See big organizations, even religious organizations, have to report their funds to the city government. You can’t just have an extra few million lying around without the city knowing about it.”
“Right. And even if they wanted to report it as non directed funds, when they do spend it, they have to say what it was for. So they hide a fortune and use that to make sure their ongoing wealth and power schemes stay in place. I hate to say it, Boss, but it sounds too far fetched. Besides, there are a few problems with it.”
“You mind if I say ’em anyway?”
“Fade Triumph was seen spending a lot of money out in public. If he had stolen a couple million, then he would have gone into hiding. He wouldn’t have gone out partying. Not even at an upscale club. Even in the unlikely event he had just gotten piss drunk on illegal money, the Temple would have wasted him right away when they found out what he was doing. They also would have done it in town, not out on the frontier. Of course you could say that because the body was found on the frontier it adds credibility to your theory.”
“I do say that, Aggie.”
“Yeah, you’re right. Still, how the hell would the Temple know to set up their counter scheme at the Primum Mobile before the fade started showing up there? Bible Lighter put in her appearance before he showed up. It’s also true that Triumph didn’t show at the club until after the two hundred grand was lifted from the bank.”
“I know. That’s the part the bothers me.”
There was a knock at the door. “Come in,” we both shouted. Maybe we shouldn’t have. There was all seven and half feet of brawn and horror that the city knew as Ares Hammer. Aggie shot up out of his chair and fumbled at his desk for his gun.
I told him, “Relax, Aggie. If he were here for anything like that, he wouldn’t have knocked.”
“You don’t know that,” the big guy said. “I try to mind my manners.”
“Have a seat, Ares. What can we do for you?”
I could tell from his voice that he wished he wasn’t the messenger. “We heard that you visited Ganesha Walker.”
I gave Agnosticism a glance. He knew what I knew then. There was more truth than fantasy to my theory. Aggie picked up on the question he was supposed to ask. “How would the Temple know who gets seen in prison?”
“Try to hide something from the Temple,” Ares told him. “You went to see Saint Michael and Loki again. You went to the soup kitchen that the fade used to work at.”
What was strange about that was that it told us we hadn’t been followed. Those three places in particular could be sources of information for the Temple. Why would Ares drop that? “Does it matter where we go?”
“I only know that I’m here to offer some health advice.”
“Stay away from the case?”
“There is no case, Axiom. Not anymore. No one’s payin’ you for this.”
“You know, my young partner here said the same thing before we started.”
“Is that so?”
“We finish what we start.”
“Right. Well, let me tell you two things, Ax. I’m gonna talk plain, so I’d appreciate it if the nondenominational wonder there would keep his hand away from that heater.”
I nodded to Aggie, and Aggie swept the pistol into a desk drawer. He took a seat just out of easy reach. That was more than enough for Ares’s confidence. The war god inhaled a big burden of atmosphere. “Ax, I admire you. I mean that. You’re the kind of god who is the real thing.”
“What’s that mean?,” Aggie asked.
Ares was awfully casual for a guy whose presence is a death threat. “I’m an Iconist, kid.”
“So is Ganesha,” I told him. When Ares frowned, I said, “He’s got an elephant tattooed on his hand.”
“You can’t be an Iconist Ganesha and drop a bridge full of gods to their deaths.”
Aggie had to ask, “What the hell are we talking about?”
I said, “It means that he doesn’t like people like Michael and Loki.”
Ares corrected me, “Actually Loki I got no issue with. He’s… or is it she’s? Anyway, Loki’s pretty much the crazy, greedy, antisocial little bitch that the mortals imagine. Updated, but still Loki. Michael on the other hand. Saint Michael shouldn’t be a drug peddling pimp. Not even a high priced, classy one.” Ares must have decided in that moment that Aggie was worth talking to. He looked him in the eye like he mattered for the first time. “I am what I am, kid. I don’t have a lot of direct followers left anymore, but I still get devotion from the mortals. I return that by being the god I’m supposed to be. A lot of my old brothers in arms have settled down. Tu Harbor is an accountant now! Me though, I’m still a god of war. I always will be. I get prayers from mortals. Sometimes articulated, sometimes just dreams or desperate wishes. They don’t usually know they’re praying to me. They just offer some hope or bargaining, and I’m the closest thing to the concept they’re looking for. Soldiers and fighters. Not always on the battlefield either. Sometimes the conflicts are oh so civilized, but the instincts you need aren’t. By being a god of war, I keep a little piece of their hearts even if they would never willingly give me anything. And I give them what I can, a little bit of courage or savagery when it’s needed. I help them win the battles that matter to them. That’s what I’m here for. We all know that we can’t really do much, but by the Cosmos, I’ll do what I can. It’s my purpose. I serve with honor. If I decided to be a carpenter or a painter, then it would dilute my power.”
Aggie wasn’t certain he understood. “What does that have to do with Ax?”
“Well, I’ll admit that I don’t know who Ax is supposed to be. I can only guess that he’s fulfilling his role. I know he’s devoted to it though. He’ll chase down a lead on a case that serves no purpose and might get him killed. That’s strength. I think you might have it too, kid. You took on this lifestyle for a reason, didn’t you?”
You could tell that Agnosticism was feeling just a little too complimented to be comfortable. “I, uh, I really don’t like to talk about it like that. No offense.”
“None taken. Ax, let me tell you, if you keep this up, and I have to stop you, I’ll really regret hurting you. Or your partner here.”
“You won’t kill us, I take it,” I asked.
“Not if I can avoid it. I almost wish you’d back off this thing, but then if you did, I wouldn’t give a damn about you anymore. Being a god is hard. Not a lot of real choices if you’re true to yourself.”
“What’s the other thing?,” I asked him.
“The other thing?”
“You said you had two things to tell me.”
Ares stood up. He handled his coat like he was about to put it on. He considered his words very carefully. “Sometimes it don’t matter who gives your orders. I serve the Temple. I don’t serve Moloch Winter.”
With Ares gone, Agnosticism had to decode that. “What was he trying to tell us? Do you know for certain, Boss?”
“Right now it just means exactly what he said. It might mean more depending on what we find out.”
“What’s our next move?”
“We’re going back to the frontier.”
* * * * *
Getting out of Pantheon City wasn’t going to be all that easy. Ares had showed up and warned us to be on the lookout for trouble. I wasn’t worried about our safety all that much. It was a concern, but that really wasn’t going to be the Temple’s first plan. They would try to derail the investigation as much as they could. We had to assume that we were being watched.
We headed down to Limbo Station to get on the Jormungandr. The train tracks that circled the city and ran through it were known as the Jormungandr. It was one of many projects started by one of the city’s favorite mayors, Odin Four. He had been Mayor several times, and always contributed to the infrastructure and transportation of the city. That’s why a disproportionately high number of our buildings and neighborhoods have Asgardian names.
The Jormungandr was the fastest way to get where we were going. The trouble was, we were trying to stay one step ahead of the Temple. If they could figure out what we were doing next, then they might get word to one of their contacts outside the city. So we couldn’t take the direct line. That was no problem. The tracks crisscrossed all around our patchwork metropolis. As far as the Temple knew, we could have been headed out to one of their branches or to City Hall or Ganesha’s old offices or anything.
We set up a pattern of lines to take that moved us from one area to another. If you start in the Limbo Division, then move to Gladsheim Division where things are rich, well kept and clean, then move to low maintenance, poor Hades Division, then you could spot anyone following you. No one could blend in with every area.
That problem was solved, but the Temple had deep pockets, and if I was even half right, then they had every reason to be determined to stop us. I wondered if there might not be spotters, gods watching for us, at various stations. If we got on a particular train, then the Temple might figure it out. So we had to somehow spot the spotters and sabotage their efforts.
By the time we hit our third stop, we were ready to double back to the Nirvana Division on the other side of Limbo. Before we could take that step, we had to make sure we were away from any interested eyes. We took the time to enjoy a respite in a nearby station diner. As expected, the place wasn’t too lively. It was the wrong hour. Aggie had really learned a couple tricks. He picked a table that was away from anyone else, and hard to watch without getting caught. We didn’t want to look around though. That wouldn’t make a difference. You can always hire a pair of eyes in any part of town where the drevens don’t flow from fountains.
The waitress was perfect for that because she had to be aware of the place anyway. It wasn’t suspicious for her to be looking around. She got to our table and we ordered a couple coffees. Aggie glanced at her nametag and said, “So, uh, Eastern Philosophy. That’s quite a name. A broad concept.”
“Yeah,” she said with a voice that had to be perpetually tired, “too broad. It keeps me waitressing for a living.”
“You want the story of my income?”
I said, “You want a five dreven tip?”
“Fellas, the coffee’s only gonna run you two and a half drimes.”
“That almost sounds pricey,” I said.
“Hey, you’re a in a fine establishment. We clean the coffee pot out once in a blue moon. That costs extra. All right, you can smile at a joke so I’ll tell you. A lot of young mortals who first learn about world perspectives away from their own countries become enamored with it. They kind of lump it all together though. Eventually they learn more and I lose their devotion to some rich bitch in Gladsheim or Olympus with a name like Tao or Nirvana.”
“I was serious about the five drevens.”
“Pal, you’d better have a proposition that my husband won’t mind.”
“You’ve got to do it right. We need a lookout. If anyone here keeps looking our way, I want to know who. But you have to let me know without letting them know. Got it?”
“Are you a cop or are you runnin’ from the cops? Cause if it’s the second, I’ll do it for free.”
“Well thanks, sweetheart, but we pay for this kind of help. And we’re the ones running but not from the cops.”
“In that case, I’ll bring you a couple of menus so you can take your time.”
We took our time deciding. We muttered a conversation about the cricket match on the radio earlier, trying to look like we were talking business. Eventually, after she’d refilled our cups, Eastern gave us what we were looking for. She was so perfectly casual, didn’t even glance at the guy she described. “Bald guy in the drab suit and shitty tie near the door. He looks at you two more than he looks at the girls at the table next to him.”
And we had a winner. We couldn’t move right away. We had to finish our coffee and seem indifferent to the moment. We could catch sight of him as we were leaving. If we saw him again, it wasn’t anyone’s imagination.
We headed back to the station and appeared to argue about our path for a minute, careful to make it look like we were going to keep on moving into the city. We managed to do it convincingly enough that we had to check the map of the train lines. Turning around to see the map showed us the shitty tie.
He ducked behind something to avoid being seen, too late naturally. Aggie and I got in line at the ticket booth. The necktie couldn’t leave until he knew where we were going. So they didn’t have people at every station. That made sense. The temple had followers all over though. A phone call to whatever idiot happened to be close gave them unreliable help. Well, the trail would break.
While Aggie bought three tickets, I wandered away to smoke a cigarette. It wasn’t hard at all getting behind our mystery dweeb. I didn’t make a move until Aggie was walking our way. The tie was watching Aggie closely. Once he realized that Aggie was eyeing him, the guy turned to move off. Too late. I was there behind him. “Oh! Hey. Uh, excuse me.”
I grabbed his hand and broke his little finger. Of course he let out a shrill holler. Even a tough guy will usually scream like that when he’s not expecting it. A couple people looked over, so I had to whisper, “Make a scene, and I’ll break something other than your finger.”
“I, I can’t, I, what are you gonna do?”
“You’re getting on that train with us. Aggie even bought you a ticket.”
Aggie pulled his coat open to let the guy see the gun. “Don’t argue.”
“You, you ain’t gonna just shoot me right here.”
“You’re right. I’ll stab you instead.”
His eyes got even bigger. “I’m jussa fact’ry line man. I’m nobuddy.”
“You’re here watching us. You were ready to call someone to let them know which train we boarded. Right?” He didn’t say anything, but the answer was in his eyes. “Are you alone here? Or is someone else watching?”
I had my hand poised to grab his broken finger. I could tell that he wasn’t capable of lying under that. “I-I-I’m alone. I was jus suppose ta call, I was suppose ta find out where you was goin’. I don’ even know who I was gonna call. I jus have a number.”
I handcuffed him to my wrist. “Right. Come on, pal. You’re going where we’re going.”
The goofy little guy sat in between us, wedged uncomfortably between a concealed gun barrel and a hidden knife point. The train pulled out before I decided to say anything. “What do you believe in? Are you an Iconist? A Oneirist? A Temporalist?”
“Didn’ mention the biggest religion in the city. I’m an Urgist.”
“You were contacted by a Temple?”
He glanced down at his hand. “Can I not answer that?”
“For now. Aggie, get his I.D.”
While the little guy grunted, Aggie fished around in his pockets until he produced a thick wallet. It wasn’t thick with money though. He was just the kind of guy that didn’t throw things away. Aggie read the name. “Christianity Garden. This isn’t even a driver’s license. You can’t drive a vahana?”
“I can, they jus won’ let me.”
“I bet that’s a great story,” Aggie said. “So tell us our names now.”
He’d beaten me to it. I wanted to say that. The kid had really learned. Christianity looked from one of us to the other. He was genuinely bewildered. “I don’ know. Who are you?”
I told him, “You had a description then. Not names.”
“I don’ e’en know why I was follawin’ you. Where we goin’?”
“You’ll know that when we get there.”
“Aw, come on, man.”
“Shut up. You don’t talk unless we ask you a question.”
The city passed outside the windows. Pantheon City was a bizarre patchwork of settings. We moved from the rough, dusty working sector to the gleaming banking guilds to the tenements to the warehouses, all with fast transitions. When you’ve only got so much area to work with, you can’t blend one area into another. The barriers between one kind of life and another are narrow.
I guess poor little Christianity hadn’t seen that much of the city lately, because he seemed fascinated by it, he almost didn’t notice when the train official walked by to check that we all had tickets. Aggie reached into his coat to show all three ticket stubs. Christianity shook his wrist a bit. That jangled the handcuffs. The official noticed that. He must have been a veteran of the lines because he looked more curious than concerned. He’d already seen things a lot stranger than that. I told him, “I have a special allowance. I’m not a cop, but I work with the department. I’m licensed to transport suspects.”
I got out my deputy card. The official checked it close, twitched his moustache in approval and nodded. “All in order. Is this gentleman dangerous?”
“No. I wouldn’t even hire him as an exterminator.” That got a chuckle and solved the problem. The guy hadn’t even asked for I.D. He didn’t know who we were, only that he was free from the responsibility to care.
Christianity was so dejected that his little ploy had failed. “I ought to have tol’ him you broke my finger.”
“I’d have just told him that we’ll see you to medical assistance when we get to our destination. Which happens to be true, by the way. Just sit where you are and try to enjoy the ride.”
“I got to be at work, you know.”
“I’m afraid you’re just going to have to be late.”
“Where we goin’?” Then he yelped when Aggie gave him a prod with the gun barrel.
We had several stops to make. It would have been impossible to get all the way there with no one noticing the cuffs, but it was only tricky getting through town without anyone really caring. I kept Christianity with me the whole way, always away from the crowds, near the trains. Aggie picked up our tickets each time, always paying with cash notes so that we left no trail.
At long last the city limits arrived. You can actually feel it when you get to the edge of Pantheon City. Just look out the windows and you can see the kind of horizon that you never see in town. That wasn’t the thing that shifted gods in their train seats though. There was some strange sensation of disconnect. Pantheon City wasn’t just buildings and streets. That was only the physical manifestation that let us all interact in a meaningful way. Underneath that were the concepts, questions and belief bridges that held it all together. When you got to the edge of the city it all slipped into a different sort of existence. It wasn’t dreven powered existence or faith mechanics that created the sensory world outside the city. It was the push of change instead. In the city it was all establishment. We changed there due to our own personalities and the acceptance of the mortals that fed us. Outside, in what we called the frontier, things were different. It wasn’t just the frontier because the rough explorer gods worked it. It was the frontier because it was the potential for expanded consciousness. Or at least that was the prevailing theory. As gods, we represented both the primal and the complex. That’s why so many ‘gods’ represented ideas and philosophies like existentialism, physics, or psychotherapy. Hell I’ve met more than one UFOs. They don’t tend to like the name because the clumsy plural, but it’s what their followers worship one way or another. Or at least it’s the idea that their imaginations are devoted to.
The frontier wasn’t a home for ideas. Faith flowed naturally to the city, but not the wilderness. You had to be tough to make it out there. If you didn’t reach out to your followers, then you didn’t get the devotion you needed to keep from fading. What’s more, you were not as solid as you were in the city. In town it wasn’t easy to kill someone even with weapons made for that specific purpose. Out in the nature that surrounded our home we were much more vulnerable. That’s what had killed Fade Triumph. You could beat someone to death with a rock or a club or your bare hands. That wasn’t practical in the city.
That’s what I thought the feeling was at the edge of the city. Mortality. It crept up in a way that some hated and others loved. It was truly awe inspiring for me. I always felt more alive with death that much closer. I don’t know what that says about me as a person. I guess I have more in common with Ares than I’d like to admit.
I also just loved the frontier. In my past, back when I went by my real name, I’d had many careers. Most gods just plod through their jobs, and even the ones who do well find a career and keep to it. They follow a particular path. I was never like that. I did a lot of different things. I didn’t know it then, but I think I was training for my role as the Detective. I know a little bit about a lot of different things. Centuries spent working all over the city gave me the experiences I needed to follow a suspect through the ghettoes or the high rises. I could even make it in the frontier. I wasn’t a survival expert like the god we were going to see, but I could live out there. I knew how it was done.
The Jormungandr moved through the frontier, but only so far. No one felt safe having the tracks too close to the boundary. Not even the gods who lived out there. Christianity was bothered by it. When we had passed out of the city his eyes had gotten big and starry. You could tell that he had never been out there. Aggie had crossed the limits a couple times with me, and he wasn’t happy about returning.
Christianity wasn’t just distracted by the strange sensation. He was also amazed by the surroundings. We were in a rinky dink train station, but that was just a couple small buildings. All around the world was green with grass and trees or blue with open sky. He had spent his whole life closed in by buildings. For the first time he was seeing a landscape that was truly open. It wasn’t just a park or stadium. This was possibility as far as you could see. “So, so, why would the Temple want to follow you out here?”
I should have just given him enough of a bump to shut him up, but I didn’t. “They didn’t know where we were going. Now we’re going to sit over there and wait. Our ride will be along shortly.”
He nodded and sat. Not even his busted finger could keep the wonder from his face. In spite of it all, I think I had done him a big favor taking him out of the city. We sat on a bench, all alone. The people in the ticket booth and the guy sweeping all left us alone. I think the guy sweeping the floor looked like he might want to start some friendly discussion, but I gave him the kind of look that let him know I wasn’t a prospect for conversation.
I don’t know how long we were there. I tend to lose track of time outside the city. It just doesn’t seem as important. We were waiting for the ark. You could only get so far by train, and that wasn’t far enough.