New Debts – Chapter 6

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I stared at the church for several minutes. The setting sun painted the patchy white cinderblock walls orange. My stomach told me it was time for dinner, probably due to having skipped lunch on my walking tour of this nearly abandoned part of the city.  An idea suddenly occurred to me. I pulled out my pocket terminal and checked the time.  It was close to 5:00 p.m.; Sgt. Zeram would probably be getting ready for work and he might be hungry as well.

As I walked back toward the city proper, I was a few blocks from an area where a cab could reasonably be expected to pick me up, I  Abu a note from my pocket terminal asking if I could buy him dinner before he went on duty. My pocket terminal blipped at me: Abu calling. I answered.

“Bribing an officer of the law is a serious offense. Go to Mohammed’s Market on 17th between Zheng and Potomac so I can arrest you. Well, first you can buy me hummus and falafel, then I’ll arrest you.” He knew I owed him a favor for the report and was willing to take a free meal as partial repayment.

“Sounds good. See you in twenty minutes or so.”

During the trip to the restaurant I decided a few things. First, it was very likely that Rupert had discovered the woodcut panel in or around what I suspected was the Traveler Church.  Being a Traveler Worshiper simply didn’t fit with his character. However, I could definitely see him walking around, mapping out property lines, finding the panel somewhere and deciding to keep it as a historical artifact. It fit, with his character, with the long work hours he’d been keeping and with the notes and old deeds I’d found in his office.

Finding out information about Domingo Gutierrez was still a priority, I suspected he was also known as Father Domingo. I also needed to take a look at the police file. However, once I did those things I felt like I could put an end to this thing. Then go back and report to Kara that her uncle had simply died in a unforeseen accident. There was light at the end of the tunnel again. Finding the woodcut panel had thrown me for a loop for a bit, but I felt like I knew all the steps I would need to take to wrap up the investigation.

Abu was shamelessly flirting with a waitress in Farsi when I got to Mohammed’s Market.  He was being playful and not serious, I knew enough of the language to understand that. Abu was a married guy and I didn’t think he was the cheating type, but cops did have a saying: Trust me with your life, but not your money or your wife. I sat at the table and listened, amused, picking up every other word or so. After only a few seconds Abu switched to English.

“He’s going to pay for everything.  He’s my rich uncle.”

“He’s too good looking to be related to you.” The waitress shot back. I requested some tea and told her that I would indeed pay for anything Abu Zeram wanted to eat. She gave me a warm smile, made direct contact with her deeply brown eyes and said: “I’ll be right back with that.” in such a way that I might, might, have had impure thoughts for just a second.

Abu Zeram is a stocky guy of average height. He keeps a shaved head and was sporting a goatee that day. He was in his uniform, dark blue in color that has been the shade used by police for centuries. He was grinning at me knowingly.

“What?”

“I thought you were wanting to get back with your ex?”

“Who said anything about that? I’m just helping her out, to ease her mind. Also, is that any of your business?”

“Nope, none of my business. You can ease whoever’s mind you want to.” Still he kept grinning at me.

“You’re a prick. Stop grinning at me and eat your free food.”

We had a quick meal and changed the subject to work. He told me a little bit of departmental gossip. It saddened me that I recognized so few of the names. Not all that long ago I would have known everyone and all the different agendas and angles at play in the department. It was difficult to be was a stranger to a group I had once known so well. Still, it was good to do some cop talk.

Reminding him to send me the file would be unnecessary, so I didn’t do that.  Buying the meal served as reminder enough. Instead we just shook hands and I told him to be careful. He nodded and we parted ways. It was dark by then and I had a long walk in front of me, but that was okay. I was still riding the elation of feeling like the investigation was nearly wrapped up and even though I’d been walking all day, a long walk home after a good meal sounded just fine.

Traffic was heavy, it was the last part of rush hour. Everyone was trying to get home just like I was. As I walked I thought about Rupert and how he must have felt when he knew he wasn’t going to beat that train. I could identify with that feeling, I’d had a similar encounter after all. I’d just been luckier. Kara and David rose to mind. They would be working on homework from school by this time of the day. The kid had a good head for math, a subject that was always difficult for me. I was filled with a sudden and vicious desire to be walking home to them, instead of to my empty apartment/office.

The door to a bar was right by me at that moment, of course. Between wanting to go back and ask the waitress for her number and wanting to go into the bar and drink everything there I had what felt like a down and dirty street fight in my head for a couple of minutes. I won and kept walking. I wouldn’t give in to temptations that would lead to temporary pleasure and long term problems.  Not today anyway.

Finally, I got home otherwise unscathed and flopped into my desk chair with a sigh. My feet ached and I was ready to turn my brain off for a while. What I was going to do instead was start reading the file Abu had probably sent me by then. I also need to do a public records search and a search of the Last City’s Archives for Domingo Guttierez.

When my desk terminal came online the same system notification window came up again. I was pretty sure it was the same window that popped up this morning when I started looking at the Father Domingo deeds. Instead of just clicking through it I read it this time. The terminal was asking if I wanted to connect to an external wireless hard drive. I frowned and sat back in my chair. What wireless hard drive? I hadn’t brought in any new equipment. Hell, I hadn’t brought anything home with me except some blisters on my feet. Except, there was one thing I’d brought home with me recently.

I bolted forward in my chair, all the weariness gone from my body. It was just a block of wood with carvings on it, wasn’t it? Could I have somehow completely missed what the Traveler Worshiper Icon really was? Before I did anything else I severed the connection between my desktop terminal and any connections outside my apartment and the connection between my pocket terminal and my desktop. Finally I made sure that my eyes weren’t connected to the desktop terminal, which involved sending commands from my pocket terminal to my eyes.

It wasn’t until I was sure that the desktop terminal was electronically isolated that I opened my desk safe and took out the woodcut panel. A second of close examination revealed that it wasn’t a solid piece of wood. It was a beautifully crafted and very finely constructed wooden box. The joins in the wood had been made to match the wood grain as closely as possible, but you could see them when you looked closely.

Careless, I thought, I’d been carless to miss this. The box thump as I dropped it to the top of the desk and stood up to pace around the room. It seemed that there was some kind of an active electronic storage device inside the woodcut box. I couldn’t imagine what would be on such a thing. My impression of the woodcut had been that it was an almost primitive religious icon. There could be almost anything hidden in there. Then I remembered that I’d found the panel laying in a drawer underneath a tablet terminal in Rupert’s desk. He’d figured out the same thing I’d just stumbled on.

Was the storage device in there two centuries old? It was certainly possible. A piezoelectric battery would generate enough power to run a small hard drive. It seemed like I had seen small portable hard drive with a piezoelectric battery for sale the other day. It had only been 80 or so terabytes, but all you had to do was shake it a bit and the piezoelectric battery would generate enough power to run it for quite a while.

Getting someone to do a secure download of the drive was an option. That would have been wiser than connecting it to my own terminal. However, that would potentially entail showing someone the woodcut panel and having to explain where I got it and what I was doing with it. The Traveler Worship symbology was simply too inflammatory to pass without comment. I didn’t want to reveal the existence of this thing to anyone else yet. Not until I’d had a chance to talk to Kara.

Another option was to crack the hard drive out of the wooden box it was contained in.  There was risk there as well though. I might damage the drive and I was becoming more and more curious as to what was on there every second.

I stopped pacing and sat down at the desk again. It only took one click to connect to the external drive my terminal kept asking me about. Nothing obviously terrible, or even exciting happened. A new icon named “Denise Walters” appeared on my terminal. The name meant nothing to me. I selected the icon and it opened a new window showing a single text file entitled: Meditations on the Light.

The file opened when I selected “Meditations on the Light”.  Three hours later I got up and made myself a cup of coffee, then went back to reading. I read all that night. When I finally shut down the terminal and locked the woodcut back in my safe it was nearly dawn.

“Meditations on the Light” was actually the diary of Denise Walters, a girl who’d been an adolescent in the heyday of the Traveler Worshipers. She was supposed to be recording her thoughts about the Light and the Traveler in the hard drive as part of her coming of age in the church. Instead she co-opted the drive as a private place to record her thoughts about life. It looked like she made an effort to use the drive for it’s original intended purpose.  “Meditations on the Light” began with choppy thesis statements about the beliefs underlying Traveler Worship. A lot of those lines had the feeling of being quoted from somewhere. My guess was that Denise began by just recording things she’d heard in sermons, or from her parents.

Within a few hundred words though, Denise began writing her own things that didn’t really have much at all to do with religious reflection. Things about her friends, school, parents, her concern about her own looks and how she compared to other girls, the occasional mention of a boy. I hadn’t grown up with any girls, had never read a girl’s diary, but all this seemed pretty typical to me.

I like Denise. She was smart and funny. She’d inserted dates on most of her entries so I knew that the diary covered about three years of her life. There were a lot of interesting historical details in there as well. Things that Denise would have thought of as facts of life but that gave me a better appreciation of what the early days of the city were really like. She mentioned being sick of having to haul water, a new latrine being dug for a neighbor, an extension of the electrical grid that meant she didn’t have to help dip candles or charge solar powered batteries anymore.

In the last year of her writing she started writing about religion a lot more. She finally got back around to thinking about her faith. On reflection that’s maybe what was intended in giving her the woodcut and drive to begin with. Her father had made the box for her and her mother programmed a word processing program onto a portable computer so Denise could write. They made a suggestion for how to use the gift and then left her alone to make her own decisions.

I learned three important things from the diary. One: Domingo Guttierez and Father Domingo were indeed one and the same. Denise began referring to him as Mr. Guttierez and as his influence and reputation increased in the Traveler Worshiper community he gradually began to be known as Father Domingo. There were no other notes or records in Rupert’s files about how he made the connection between the Father Domingo on the deeds and Domingo Guttierez.  I bet he didn’t know who Father Domingo was until he’d read this diary.

Two: There was absolutely no mention of anything indicative of violence as a part of Traveler Worship in Denise’s diary. That raised a few possibilities in my mind. Maybe children were shielded from the murderous part of Traveler Worship. That didn’t really make much sense to me though. If you wanted true believers who were willing to do violence for their religion you caught them young. Sure, they would be traumatized at first, but by the time they were Denise’s age killing people as tribute to God would just be a part of life. Or, perhaps, there was such a strong prohibition on speaking about those practices that Denise simply knew she shouldn’t write about them or refer to them in any way. The issue with that theory was that nothing at all in the diary from the daily details to the more mature considerations of her faith gave any hint that human sacrifice was a part of Traveler Worship. If there was fire I expected there to be at least a little smoke.

The other possibility was that history was simply wrong and human sacrifice wasn’t actually a part of Traveler Worship. That idea just wouldn’t fit in my head. It kept occurring to me as I read and I kept rejecting it. Traveler Worshipers killed people in a terrible and misguided effort to appeal to the only source of hope in a nearly destroyed world. That was who they were.  It was a known historical fact backed up by physical evidence and recorded statements of the witnesses who’d found said evidence.

Three: The Traveler Worshipers had left the Last City to begin spreading their message.  When they left they were going to be accompanied by two Guardians. A couple of Hunters who Denise referred to repeatedly as Shepherds, with the capital S.

I’d heard vaguely about groups of Guardians who identified themselves as somehow apart or separate from rest. Praxic Warlocks, The Pilgrim Guard Titans and the Hunters known as the Six Coyotes. Citizens of the city tended to think of Guardians as a single unit but there were clear divisions, alliances and philosophies within the Guardians. Maybe the Shepherds were one of those groups.

I was out of my depth. Guardians are sometimes secretive, often opaque and always carry some history with them. A lot of them are history. The Guardians who don’t die violently tend to live a long, long time. Even longer than the two hundred some years a normal person can expect. The name Shepherds was completely unfamiliar to me and I doubted that the public archives would have any information. Hunters had the reputation for being reclusive and secretive even for Guardians.

If I was going to get reliable information about some Guardians I needed to talk to a Guardian. Fortunately, I knew one Guardian personally: Balan. I already owed Abu for the help he’d given me, it looked like it was time to incur another debt.

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