So I left the station and headed into the city. I had to wind my way around small streets and alleys, places that most gods didn’t frequent. I could keep an eye behind me then to make sure I wasn’t followed. I don’t know if I ditched some Temple flunky early or if I was just paranoid, but I got to a Hundred Nineteenth and Qof without noticing anything that bothered me.
I checked the place to make sure that no homeless god or vagrant heresy junkie was hanging around. Then all I had to do was sit and wait for the off duties that I was condemning to an act of irrational courage. How far was I really willing to take this? Could I win? My enemy was one of the oldest institutions in the city. And Moloch Winter was not someone you wanted to piss off. He should have faded long ago, but he was still there, hale and healthy, rich beyond most gods’ dreams.
When he was young he was a ruthless warrior of a god. He made his fortune from the necessities of ancient mortal life. They even sacrificed their children to him from time to time. Blood money in the most literal sense. A thing like that is a powerful amount of devotion though. He was feared for having a soul blackened by his own worship. All of us have crazy followers. Not all of us had mountains of blood devotion to invest when the banking started. Moloch started rich and he stayed that way. The predatory instincts that he had developed by feasting on the newborns of his own adherents had given him the survivor’s mind he’d needed to buy a permanent base of power in the city. On his own, he’d have failed. Instead he joined the DemiUrge Temple. Back then it was called the DemiUrge cult, but time grants legitimacy to anything. To be fair, the Temple preached some of the more tolerant and inclusive practices. It was only the shadowy leadership that tarnished it. Even most Urgists didn’t trust the gods behind the Temple. They accepted it because those gods were the ones that made their Temple more than just respectable. They made it influential, powerful. When you’re serving the will of the Cosmos’s creator, then isn’t it right to want to hold sway over the city of the gods? I doubt that most Urgists put that much thought into it.
My brooding ended when my new allies arrived. Sam was true to his word. Hell followed him. I knew Hell by reputation. She wasn’t just tough. She was unyielding. Could she hold out if she was outnumbered in a gunfight miles from anywhere? We’d find out.
She was tested before she was through the door. I saw Sam. Then I saw Hell. Hell took a half step, and then flew into the doorway with her arms outstretched to stop herself. Hell was on her face. In the next instant Sam was on his ass.
There was Ares. His big damn revolver pointed right at me. I wish I had moved faster. I wasn’t sure what was happening until I was in his sights. The son of a bitch smiled. Sam did the natural thing, but Ares warned us, “If anyone reaches for a weapon, Ax will be dead before they can fire it.”
“You die next,” Hell said. So she wasn’t the worst choice.
I said, “He doesn’t care. You want me to tell you what’s happening, Ares?”
“You going to listen?,” Sam asked him.
I assured the officers, “He came here to talk. If that wasn’t it, I’d already be dead.”
Ares loved this. It was the price I paid for the flat tire incident. “Following you wouldn’t get me anywhere, Ax. I knew that. I wondered who was gonna come out of that station next though. They led me right to you. Not their fault really. Who’s crazy enough to shadow a pair of gun toting, off duty cops with an axe to grind?”
“Speaking of grinding axes,” I said, “why aren’t you gonna kill me? Why the hesitation? That’s not like you.”
“I kill when killing is called for.”
“You make a living at it, so the call must come pretty often.”
He shook his head. “No. For the most part, I’m deterrent.”
“Fair enough. You didn’t answer the question. Why am I still talking? I don’t know what to say until I know what you’re looking for.”
“It’s what the Temple’s looking for that has me bothered. There are other guys on the streets, asking questions, peeking in corners. I thought this Triumph thing was all sewn up. What do they know that I don’t?”
I was a little confused. “The Temple has its people searching? What are they looking for?”
“That’s what I’m asking you. You don’t know?”
“Ares, I’m more concerned with what I’m looking for. Come to think of it though, I’m finished looking. I just need to go get it.”
“What do you mean?
I had to hope that Ares would believe me. I was telling the truth, but sometimes it’s harder to convince with the truth than with a lie. “I found something.”
“Is that a fact?”
Sam said, “You want to trust him, Ax?”
“I’d rather live through this, if it’s all the same to you. Ares, the money that Bible Lighter stole was given to her. She was paid to take the fall for the murder.”
“You can prove that?”
“Not yet. We’re going to get the money. That’s what this is about.” I saw that Ares was confused. For a moment I saw Sam’s hand twitch. Thank the Cosmos he didn’t reach into his jacket.
Ares said, “You’re going to get the money? The cops already have the money.”
“Not that money. That was a trick, a distraction. The money that Bible Lighter led us to is what we were supposed to find. It’s not what Fade Triumph actually stole though. He didn’t take a couple hundred thousand. He took a couple million.” I saw Hell’s face. She was as stunned as Ares. I kept explaining. “The Temple had a hidden pile of drevens. Triumph found that out and and made off with the money. The Temple had to cover that up by setting him up for another robbery.”
“Now how the hell can you prove that?”
“I can’t until I get where I’m going. I’ve got other leads though that tell me that the whole story is bullshit. The fade at the Primum club wore a suit that came from J.C. Forest.”
“I know the place. I own a couple of his suits myself.”
I didn’t doubt that. Ares was a bloodthirsty savage, but he was well dressed. “We can’t find the suit, but we don’t need it. Forest himself showed me the measurements he took of the man he made the suit for. They don’t match the body that ended up in Doc Lilt’s morgue.”
“I know the measurements of the guy that bought the suit. And I can prove it. We know the size of the body that was picked up near the border. That’s a big part of how they identified him. The suit that Triumph wore to the club wouldn’t have fit the body that ended up in Doc Lilt’s office.”
Ares had to try to find the flaw. “A mistake?”
“Who made the mistake? One of the city’s most professional and sought after tailors? Or Doc Lilt who is a licensed, city sponsored physician that’s been absolutely solid on all details required of him for at least four hundred years?”
“What does it mean?”
“It means that the story that was too good to be true isn’t true. And we’re going to break it open. The Temple leadership is involved in some shady things, secret things. I can prove it if only I get to the border and get the money. Ares, you told me that you serve the Temple, not Winter. If you meant that, then tell him you lost track of Sands, and let us go.”
“I can’t tell you that, Ares. Not even under the gun.”
“You don’t get it, Ax. If you’re tellin’ me the truth, and I know you are, then I’m coming with you.”
Sam and Hell looked at me without knowing what they wanted to hear, but I did know. Ares was only one more gun, but he could make the difference out there. I knew that Ares was already convincing himself, but he did still need something to sell him that this was the path to take. I knew exactly what to say to get him on our side, and like everything else I’d told him, it was the truth. “You’ll be risking your life.”
“We think we’re up against eight or more guns. With you, we’d have six, and only four of us would be real, experienced fighters.”
“That kid you run around with. Where’s he?”
“He’s waiting for us.”
“A battle of the gods.”
“You’d be on the side of right.”
“Well, now that’s just a bonus.”
* * * * *
Hell proved herself valuable right away. I knew my way around the area well enough, but it was Hell’s territory. She led us through those creepy, crooked streets. No one would have looked any of us in the eye. We got to a Jormungandr platform through a backdoor that was supposed to be locked. I kept watching for people on the train that were watching us, but no one cared. It took us all the way to the garage at the edge of town.
“Nice rig,” Sam said.
“It belongs to Sun Smith.”
Sam smiled, “Squirrelly old bastard is prepared for anything.”
Hell asked, “Can you really get us all the way to the boundary? I know how to get through town—”
“Yeah, that was impressive,” Ares said.
She continued, “I don’t know about the frontier past the main roads.”
“I got here,” I told her. “We’ll get there all right. We won’t even use any of the highways. No one will have any idea where we are. Get ready for a long car ride though.”
“Car ride?,” Hath asked.
Ares told her, “It’s a mortal expression. They call vahanas cars.”
“No,” Sam said, “we call cars vahanas. They had ’em first.”
For a war god, Ares wasn’t one for argument. He just nodded. “Right. That’s right.”
Mortals lead different lives. For us there’s nothing like a long car ride. When I was on my own, the ride was an act of concentration and planning and boredom. It was different with other gods in the vahana. I was grateful for any forks in the road that meant I had to pay attention. The long stretches of winding dirt road weren’t filled with boredom with Sam, Hell and Ares. It was awkward. I had hoped that Sam and Hell would provide the conversation since they worked together, but I was getting the impression that they weren’t really friends. They obviously trusted and respected each other. They didn’t seem to appreciate each other’s company. It was just like Sam to bring office tension along to a gunfight.
Surprisingly enough, it was Ares that tried to break the ice. He asked Hell Hath, “Your name, is it supposed to be funny?”
She told him, “About three hundred years ago I decided to try switching my sex. About sixty years or so after that I knew I wanted to stay a woman. I thought a name change was appropriate. I was surprised that no one else ever thought of it.”
“What was it before?”
“I’m a child’s idea of hell. Most of my devotion comes from little ones who think that hell is under their bed or in the dark corner of their room.”
“Right. You keep the toddlers in line. I guess being a cop is natural to you.”
I don’t think any of us were unaware, but she said it anyway, “There are a lot of Hells and Satans and the like in the police force. Only about half of them are on the take.”
“That’s better than most,” Ares said.
Sam and I said together, “No, it’s not.”
Ares just shrugged. Sam and Hell asked him why he was helping us. He explained it. Ares was a simple god, so it made sense that Moloch would underestimate him. He had his values though, and he sure had courage. He knew what kind of city he wanted to live in. I gave him the chance to fight for that. Really fight, the thing he loved the most. Doing the bidding of the wealthy usurpers had its perks, but Ares was the kind of hard bastard who wanted to fight for something worth his mettle. I was glad he was smart enough to talk before he decided to kill me.
So I could deal with an awkward vahana trip through the country. I didn’t say so out loud, but I wondered how my partner was going to react when we got there. This wasn’t what he was expecting. I was supposed to arrive with a squad of cops armed to the teeth. Instead I had three brave souls and a few pistols.
As it turned out, Agnosticism reacted dramatically. We pulled into Sun’s place using the back way that wasn’t easily seen from the Icarus side. Aggie was watching for us though. I can imagine him sitting at a window, staring out at the opening between trees moment after moment. Speaking as someone who’s been alive for centuries, I can tell you that minutes spent that way can be an eternity, let alone the hours that Aggie had to deal with. So he wasn’t in a chipper mood when we got there.
We weren’t out of the vahana for two seconds before Aggie was there with a shotgun pointed right at Ares. I wasn’t even certain where he had been hiding to get that close. The kid was smart. Ares was fast and strong, but not even he could quite reach Aggie if he had to. In true Ares fashion, he held his hands up casually and tilted his head like he had been asked a question he didn’t know the answer to. “How’s it hangin’, kid?”
Aggie kept his eyes on the monster I’d brought. “You want to tell me what’s happening?”
Ares told him, “Relax. I’m on your side. You just saw me arrive with Ax.”
“Yeah. Maybe he brought you here knowing that I’d get the drop on you. That sounds like him.”
Ares considered that. “Yeah. It does. Is that what you were planning, Detective?”
“Nope. Aggie, calm down. I couldn’t get the cops. I mean, I got two cops, but we need all the help we can get. Just be glad Ares is on our side.”
“Is he? He’s a Temple thug. Due respect, Boss, you’re gonna have to give me a bit more.”
The muzzle of the gun hadn’t moved at all. It looked like Ares was just a little nervous which was a hell of a thing for him. He didn’t mind dying, but like this? He told my paranoid partner, “Aggie, I had your boss under my gun back in town. He’s only here because I let him live. I want to see this through as much as you do.”
“Unless you were just trying to find out for sure where he was going.”
I really wished I had an answer to that. Hell was the one who said the next words. “Look, this guy threw me through a door the moment I met him—”
“I barely pushed you,” Ares protested.
“—but he’s here to help us. Put down the gun.” When that didn’t happen soon enough, Hell warned him, “Put down the gun or I have to do something about it.”
Aggie’s eyes didn’t blink. “Anyone reaches for anything, even Ax, and I waste this bastard.”
Sam wasn’t trying to be a hard ass. He was just trying to reason with Aggie when he said, “You realize that if you pull that trigger that you’ll die for it. You can’t hit me and Hell both. Ax, don’t even bother.”
“I wasn’t going to,” I said. I hate to seem useless, but I thought it was best to let this play out. I had nothing to offer.
Ares wasn’t capable of cringing, but he did almost flinch. “Déjà vu. Wasn’t too long ago I was the one in your place, kid. You want to get shot by your friends over this?”
“I’m not convinced they’ll draw, but I’ll do what it takes. How do I know you’re not working for the Temple?”
“Kid, I wish I could prove it to you. I do. Look at it this way. Suppose I was really out here just to play for the other team. How would I do that? Does Sun got a phone? I don’t even know which way to go to get to someone to trust. Do you have any idea how long it’s been since I’ve been on the frontier?”
Aggie thought about it. “Is he right, Ax?”
“Yeah, Aggie. I think he’s hit on it. I’ll admit, I wasn’t sure you weren’t doing the right thing, but I don’t know how he could be a double agent where he is. And he had to have thought of that.”
“He could still turn on us.”
“Aggie, for two million drevens either of the cops or even the old pioneer could turn on us. We need the help. Beggars can’t be choosers.”
“Good enough.” At last Agnosticism let the muzzle lower. He was still pointed at Ares. Just enough that the big man didn’t move.
Ares did smile though. “Ax, your partner’s really got some bones. This is twice he’s gotten the drop on me. I really hope he’s not an enemy when this is over.”
Aggie told him, “You do what you’re supposed to, and we’re clean.”
I could finally get down to business. “Where’s Sun?”
* * * * *
Sun had been keeping an eye on the Icarus place. He and Aggie never let it out of their sight for long. The real advantage we had was that it was easy to keep watching them without being noticed. “How are we going to get what we came for though?,” Sam wanted to know.
Sun had a map on the table. It was a hand drawn thing, but it had enough on it to show us what we needed to know. Sun had been doing this a long time. He pointed. “The Icarus house isn’t far from these cliffs here. In fact, he and I even talked about it a few times. In four decades or so, if the cliffs keep moving in, he’ll have to relocate.”
“Not good,” I said.
“What’s not good about it?,” Christianity asked. We let him sit in. He was harmless enough, and when we weren’t keeping direct contact with him, Sun chained him to a heavy beam that not even Ares could break.
Aggie, Hell and even Sun looked at me curiously. They agreed with Chris. What was wrong with the cliffs? Ares had a tactical mind though. He told them, “If they got the money there, then they have a way to get rid of it. We can’t just break in and chase them. The moment they know there’s trouble, then someone’ll take the money and rush to the cliffs to throw it over.”
“Two million?,” Hell asked.
“I think it’s actually more than that,” I said, “and yeah. The Temple wants to hold on to the money of course, but if it’s discovered, that’s more than the money is worth to them. They can replace it. Maybe not easy, but they can replace it easier than they can explain why they had it in the first place.”
“And we can’t have someone down there to get the money?,” Aggie said.
Sun told him, “Long way down. If it scatters, then you’d be searching for a long time to get enough of it to prove anything. I got to say, I’d like to see that many notes in the wind. I’ve lived a long time and I never seen that. It’s not worth it to see it though.”
We could laugh with him. Hell understood the problem now that it was pointed out. “So we have to move in from the cliff side and take them where they can’t run as easy.”
“Wrong,” Ares said. “They can run easier on the other side. They just don’t have an easy way to dispose of the money that way. But give a god a vahana that can travel the roads out here, and he’s gone, money in hand. We probably wouldn’t ever see it again. If he’s loyal, then it goes back to the Temple one way or another. If he’s not, then he takes it for himself, and then it’s even harder to find.”
I asked Sun, “How many vahanas do they have?”
Sun said, “Three. They keep two sheltered on one side. A third’s on the other end of the place.”
“Damn,” I said. “Well, it was too much to hope that they wouldn’t know what they were doing.”
“Why’s the money still there though?,” Sam asked. “I understand that it might be dangerous to bring it back to the city, but why is it still sitting with Icarus?”
I was thinking the same thing. “I don’t know. It seems they’d move it as soon as they could just to get it away from this area. There’s something wrong about it.”
Aggie said, “Maybe they just don’t trust their other contacts out here.”
“That’s possible,” Ares said. “They’ve got to have other people to make it worthwhile, but do they really want any of them knowing how much money actually gets funneled out here?”
“Secrets are traps,” I said. “They don’t have a bunch of hired guns over there for no reason though.”
Sun said, “I’m glad it’s still there. Fightin’ for it might be hard, but followin’ it has more risks.”
I considered his arsenal. The crazy old bastard had a lot of guns out there. More than was legal, that’s for sure, even out at the boundary. If I had a name like his, then I’d probably have the same thing squirrelled away somewhere. “Here’s what we do. We attack from the front, as though we aren’t thinking about the cliffs. That drives them out of there. From the other side we have two or three of us ready to follow whoever runs out. Catch him off guard, take the money and rush cross country to a vahana that we’ll have waiting. Win the fight or lose, if we can get the money to town, we have the evidence.”
Ares already knew it was the answer. “I like it. Who takes which position?”
Sun said, “I got that good rifle. Who’ll cover us from a distance?”
“I’m the best with a rifle,” Ares said, “but I’m also the best close up and you’ll need me hitting them in the door. Imagine the rats scurrying away when I’m ripping them right in the face.”
Samael said, “Hell’s exceptional with a rifle. She should be the cover.”
She nodded. I thought I saw a bit of regret in her eyes. I think she wanted to be there to see the criminals flee. “I can hit what I’m aiming at. I’m also fast enough to change positions if I have to.”
“Good,” I said. “Then we need Aggie, Sam and Sun covering the rear. They’ll be the best to follow anyone out there.”
“Except you,” Aggie said.
I shook my head. “No. Sun’s the man to track someone out here. Especially with another frontierman on the other side. Icarus might be an amateur by Sun’s standards, but the rest of us would lose him. Probably even me.”
“Besides,” Ares said, “Axiom is also muscle. He’s with me. We knock on the door. The rest of you get ready to run.”
“I want you close to the house,” I told them, “in case they don’t run. With just two of us at the front, they might try to hold the fort. If it looks that way, you need to break in from behind and even the odds as much as you can.”
Ares thumped the map with his finger, “Do we have any idea at all where in the house they have the money?”
“No,” Sun and Aggie both admitted at once. “It could be anywhere in there.”
Ares was grim about that. He had to have enjoyed the thought of the battle to come, but he wasn’t certain we were going to win. “So, if they run, we can hope that the cop and the kid can take the money from them. If not, then we don’t worry about the money until every one of them is either dead or bleeding enough to wish they were. It’s got to be hard.”
“Any objections?,” I asked.
There weren’t any. Not even from the cops. They were law and order types, but they understood necessity. They had both been in hopeless situations before. So we went over it as many times as we had to. Six gods ready to raid a boundary home, not even certain how many enemies we had.