New Debts – Chapter 5

Click here to read chapter 4.

After I took a few deep breaths and got a hold of myself, I started trying to figure out what to do next. Clearly, Kara hadn’t known about this wooden plaque, or she would never have sent me to look into Rupert’s death. Her mother had almost certainly been through the apartment, but the plaque was still here, so that meant probably no one had found it. A family member trying to protect the reputation of a deceased relative, and the family, would certainly have burned or trashed something like this.

There are all kinds of churches in the Last City. Religious traditions traveled here from all over the planet. There are all stripes of the pillars of the religious world from before the Golden Age thriving to greater and lesser degrees. Humanity’s religious views survived the sudden discovery of alien intelligence on Mars, in form of the Traveler, without a problem. Religious institutions are flexible when they need to be, or when their followers need them to be. I’m not a churchgoer myself, but I’ve got no problem with those who are.

The sad, delusional, monstrous people who began worshipping the Traveler right after the Collapse are another story. It wasn’t a huge group of people, but their story has become a legend in the Last City. Growing up, you hear the story on the playground at school, complete with totally incorrect details and gory conflations added for dramatic effect.

As a teenager and an adult, you learn what has more or less been discovered to be the truth by historians and the general public. Then you don’t talk about it anymore, because it’s considered socially ugly to do so. The story boils down to this: In the chaos that followed the Collapse, a growing number of people began worshipping the Traveler as a god, in spite of the fact that it was totally inert and no longer dispensed wisdom or technology or anything much other than shade. I would guess a god that can’t answer you back and tell you when your deeply held beliefs are wrong is actually more comforting in some circumstances.

These people were actually some of the very first city founders. These were days when you could get killed for gasoline, or ammunition or food. It was an extremely tribal existence.  You found a group of people who would take you in and you did your best to help the group, because if you weren’t useful and helpful you might well be left behind.

The Hunters were doing their best to bring people in and the Titans were doing their best to protect them, but they couldn’t be everywhere. Besides, it wasn’t—and still isn’t—the job of the Guardians to keep tabs on what religious leaders are telling their flocks. They’re Guardians; they guard. They’re not society’s hall monitors. At least, that’s the explanation you’re given when you find out that somehow, in the heart of the newly founded Last City, the Traveler Worshipers had begun making human sacrifices to the Traveler, but the Guardians somehow knew nothing about it.

No one knew anything, apparently. The evidence of the crimes of the Traveler Worshipers wasn’t discovered until well after they’d left the city and disappeared. If it seems strange to you that several hundred people, who were devoted to the idea that the Traveler was God, would then leave the presence of that god, it seems strange to me as well. Apparently they were displeased with the crowding that was beginning to set in as the city’s population grew. Probably they also wanted some more privacy for their bloody rituals.

So they left the city, making it known that their people would make annual pilgrimages back to the big orb in the sky, and set off into the wilderness to found their own utopia. They were never seen alive again. Some Hunter or other eventually brought back news that the group had been found by the Fallen, and were slaughtered en masse. Shortly after that, the mass graves of mutilated corpses were discovered where the Traveler Worshiper community had made its home in the city.

Most people took the end of that story as an example of “good riddance,” but the children living in that utopia weren’t guilty of anything. It wasn’t their fault their parents were crazy.  Thinking about those kids bothered me.

After staring at the woodcut panel for a while, I finally picked it up. The police hadn’t searched his home. Either Kara’s mom, Eileen, hadn’t been through the house very thoroughly, or she’d found this and decided not to say anything to save the family shame. In spite of the historically blood reputation of the Traveler Worshipers, you still got knots of them popping up every so often. You heard about small groups of people found in abandoned warehouses meeting to pray to the giant orb. There hadn’t been any other instances of religiously motivated murder stemming from Traveler worship, at least not that I’d heard about. But still, admitting to being a Traveler Worshiper was basically on par with admitting to being a member of a violent hate group or death cult. It was admirable to a certain extremely small portion of the population. To everyone else it was just monstrous.

The panel was finely made, the detailed carvings done with a careful hand, and the wood had clearly been painstakingly sanded and polished. It felt heavy and solid. I set the panel down on the desktop and then searched the rest of the house. I didn’t find any other surprises, thankfully.

I was tired and I had no idea what the hell to do next. I didn’t want to leave the woodcut here and I didn’t want to take it with me. I thought about the situation while I paced around Rupert’s living room. The apartment may once have been his private domain, but that wasn’t true anymore. A variety of people now had access to this place, though somehow the little wooden square shaped bombshell hadn’t been found until now. It had to be found soon, though. I decided to take it with me. I needed to find out more about this thing and more about Rupert.

I walked back to the study and picked the woodcut panel off the desk. It fit inside my coat and stayed in place without a problem when I held a hand underneath it. I turned out lights and as I was opening the door to leave, another thought occurred to me: by taking this thing with me I was passing up the opportunity to let it be some other person’s problem to tell Kara that her uncle was probably some kind of weird religious nut. I stopped and closed my eyes. When the temptation to just walk away from the problem had passed, I left the apartment, making sure the door was locked behind me.

I got a cab to take me back to my office, which is also where I have my home. The wood block slowly warmed against my side as I held it under my jacket. It might have been part of my own body by the time I got into the privacy of my office. I hid the thing in a safe in my desk. I put the woodcut under the entirely illegal pistol I kept in the safe. I’d been a cop long enough that I understood there were times when it was better to be tried by twelve than carried by six, so I kept a pistol around. The safe held enough evidence that night to get me a felony conviction and a reputation as a mentally unstable zealot.

Sleep came eventually, but not until my brain had exhausted itself having imaginary conversations with Kara. My alarm got me up before sunrise. I had one of those nice moments lying in bed where you don’t remember all the problems from yesterday for a couple of minutes. I was in the shower, steaming hot water cleaning the sleep out of my head, before my brain started turning the same problems over and over again. What would I tell Kara? Why did Rupert have that woodcut panel? Where did it come from? Did anyone else know about it? Did it have some connection to his death?

The hot shower apparently shook something loose because I suddenly made a new connection. Domingo Guttierez t.w.c., also known as Father Domingo. It was suddenly blatantly obvious that “t.w.c.” was Rupert’s abbreviation of “Traveler Worship Cult.” My eyes popped open and I slapped the wall of the shower stall in excitement. There was suddenly a reason for Rupert to have a Traveler Worship icon that didn’t make him a dangerous cult member.

He’d been investigating the land ownership of several pieces of property that had once been owned by a Father Domingo. Father Domingo had, maybe, been a member or even a leader of the Traveler Worshipers. The deeds with his name on them had certainly fit the time frame for when they had been in the city. It also made sense that religious devotees would give land to their church through one of its leaders.

I knew from Rupert’s notes and files that he didn’t just rely on records when researching land titles. He got out and looked at the property itself. He walked around on it and took pictures.  He talked to people about the history of the land and who owned it. Maybe, he found the woodcut while he was looking around the land once owned by Father Domingo. That whole area was part of an industrial park now. Executor Hideo’s massive manufacturing complex was absorbing that area for an expansion of his plasteel production operations.

I managed to get myself out of the shower and get dressed while thinking about all of this. I was supposed to meet with a suspicious wife today about looking into her partner’s suddenly very busy work schedule that often left her smelling of unfamiliar perfume. I was going to have to cancel that meeting. I needed to find out more about Father Domingo to see if I could confirm that he was Domingo Gutierrez, if he had a connection to Traveler Worship, and if he had lived in the city at the time that cult had been active and popular. I needed to go to the sites that had been owned by Father Domingo and see what was there. Finally, I needed to get a copy of the police investigative file on Rupert’s death. Reading the file in the light of this new connection to Traveler Worship might give rise to something.

I sat down at my desk terminal and pulled up the pictures I’d recorded of the Father Domingo deeds yesterday, dismissing a couple of system notifications first. Yesterday afternoon, when I’d begun to suspect that Father Domingo and Domingo Gutierrez were the same person, I’d recorded the deeds with my electronic eyes and sent them wirelessly to my desk terminal. I pulled up a map of the city and started figuring out where the Father Domingo land was exactly.

When I had a map marked with all the locations that Father Domingo had owned, I sent the map to my pocket terminal. Before I shut down my desk terminal, I sent a quick note to Kara, telling her that I was working on the investigation and that I would call her soon. I grabbed my jacket and hat and hit the door.

While walking to a coffee shop up the street, I made a couple of calls on my pocket terminal. I rescheduled my meeting with the suspicious wife. Fortunately the delay worked for her as well; she said she had something unexpected come up at work and was just about to call me to reschedule. Lucky break there. My next call was to Sergeant Abu Zeram.

“Hey, Sarge. How’s life?”

“I’m living the dream, Bird. Pulled third shift last night.”

I checked the time. “Sorry, man, I probably woke you up, huh?”

“Nah, caught a domestic call about 04:00. Nasty. Husband and wife screaming, kids crying, the parents both got injuries and each one swears up and down the other one hit them first. Both of them drunk and high. Two kids, little ones. We arrest both of them, of course. Let a judge figure out who’s telling the truth. The woman starts crying about who’s going to take care of her kids when we put the cuffs on her. She claims her folks are dead and her husband’s people don’t want anything to do with them. I explain to her about how Children’s Services will take care of them and she just gets real quiet and thoughtful for about two minutes.”

Abu also got quiet. I just listened without saying a word. I had a suspicion about where this was going to go. “So, then she pipes up and says her mother is alive, and she lied and she’s real sorry and please call her mom to come pick up the kids. What do you think I did then, Bird, my man?”

“You checked the kids for injuries.”

“That’s exactly what I did. She didn’t want Children’s Services involved because they would get the kids a medical checkout as SOP. If she couldn’t use them as leverage to get out being arrested, she didn’t want them in the system where they would be looked at too closely. So, I check the kids. Both of them, a six year old boy and a seven year old girl, have belt marks all up and down their backs and legs.”

“So, at that point we’re looking at a felony child abuse investigation instead of a misdemeanor domestic disturbance call. The whole thing gets turned up a notch. You know the drill. I was just trying to decide whether I should go break mom and dad’s fingers or clock out and go home.”

I grunted. “Probably better to just go home, Sarge. Sounds like you had a tough night.”

“Yeah, probably better. Did you call just to listen to me complain?”

I explained what I needed and Abu gave me the appropriate amount of grief about being a damned civilian, and what’s worse a damned civilian who was pretending to be police, before he agreed to help me out. He was already on his way home but said that he was going to be back on duty at 6:00 p.m. that evening and that he would send me a copy of the file then. I thanked him and promised him beer and sexual favors. He declined on the basis that he’d already had one venereal disease cured and didn’t need another. We laughed and hung up.

In reality, getting that file was nothing to laugh about. If Abu’s captain found out he’d sent a full death investigation file outside the police department (even family members of the deceased didn’t get the whole file), my old sergeant was probably looking at a formal reprimand going into his permanent file. A demotion was more likely. Abu knew all that and still hadn’t hesitated to help me out.

The coffee shop supplied me with some caffeine and a sausage biscuit. I could have walked to the “Domingo Land” as I was beginning to think of it, but I decided to call for a cab so I could get started as quickly as possible. The area I was going to look at that day was about twenty square kilometers all told.

I ended up walking just about every meter of that twenty kilometers. Some areas were fenced off, but nobody was really around any of it. The area had been partially bulldozed to prepare for new construction, but there were still plenty of structures left. There were old warehouses, shops, abandoned tenements and parking structures. I was hoping to find some more Traveler Worshiper artifacts somewhere, but I had no luck with that. I walked all day touring this nearly deserted section of the Last City, listening to the sound of trucks coming and going near the river where Hideo’s existing manufacturing facilities were in full swing.

Most of the streets were in a grid pattern, and that meant most of the buildings had their entrances facing one of the cardinal compass points. At around four in the afternoon, I noticed one building that was different. It sat at an angle on its lot, with the main double door entrance facing northeast. It was a broken down old cinderblock building, barely standing. The doors were standing open, and when I entered, I startled a bunch of crows. The carrion birds fled through a large circular window at the opposite end of the building from me.

The building stood on a gentle rise that give it an unimpeded view over Hideo’s manufacturing complex and across the river. There was just one big empty room inside. When you stood in the middle of the room, the Traveler was framed perfectly through that large circular window. I reflected that it would have taken some experienced carpentry work to frame in that circular window. Looking out through that window in the morning, the Traveler would have shone like a diamond in the light of the rising sun.

That feeling of unease was creeping over me again. The feeling of walking in a dead man’s footsteps. As soon as I’d seen it, I was pretty sure this wasn’t just some abandoned building. It felt like a church. Except, if I was right, this church had been where the Traveler Worshipers killed people in tribute to their mute god.

Chet Kirkham

Been playing since Y1. Currently expanding the Universe with fiction.