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Chapter One The Debt
Being damned is a real headache. But what’s worse is not knowing whether you are or not, for certain. I had the idea crop up that I might be while a passenger in a sheep cart, en route to make a collection. Neither the nagging thought nor the bouncing ride—the driver seemed to be trying to hit every rock and dip in the road—helped to still my hangover, my other headache. One green upsurge after another struck my inner ear, and my stomach responded promptly with a deep, churning gurgle. Please. Find the ruts in the road and stick to them, eh? He didn’t heed the silent pleas I pelted the back of his head with, and I got sick. Had to keep a hand submerged into the wool of one awfully hungry-eyed sheep’s chest the remainder of the ride to keep it from eating the pink puddle of halfdigested wine and bread. Not that I cared about the sheep; I just didn’t think I could
take the sight of something eating my sick. I was nauseated enough already, and dry heaving is the pits. We rode on. Hot as hell, even with the sun going down. The sun, I compulsively checked it. Late. I swore at it every time I looked and saw it wasn’t obeying me, refusing to retain its buoyancy in the sky. A lot like me last night, I mused bleakly. Drunk and unable to keep eyes open, sapped of laughter and stories, rest the only thing now desired. Fading, fading . . . I swore again, squinting at it. The stubborn, glowing arse. “We’re here,” the driver said. “Get out. Yer lucky I was comin’ this way.” “My thanks.” “Wait—what did you do in my cart, tramp? What is that?” I ran. The city’s walls were like a bowl, a bowl too small to hold so much despair. And it was boiling over. The homes seemed to have shaken themselves of their owners, everyone was out on the street, a froth of humanity taking up every inch of public space. Crying, falling and collapsing into one another’s arms, fitfully beating themselves about the head, roaring with grief while burying themselves in the chests of friends. The sorrow of the place was palpable. Even the ones that’d cast stones, spat and cursed—they too had had their minds changed, thrust into belief by what they’d seen. The armored men with short swords to threaten and corral the disturbed masses, they too looked put off their swagger. They chased people back to their homes shouting, “Nothing more to see here!” but it was done with a frog in each young soldier’s throat. Plain as the considerable Roman noses on their faces. They were scared as well. I ignored all that. I had a job to do. I cared not a drip who they nailed to what. “One side. Pardon me. Move.”
Evidence enough that everything had happened before I got there. Still, I passed through the market, the stables, and finally the gate leading out to the other side of the city. Maybe there’d be hope. I bypassed the hill. The smell of recent lightning like burning dust hanging in the air. He’d been taken down, but His compatriots to the left and right were still tacked up, dead. A few trails around the outside of the town’s stone walls led me to a sandy clearing. Dead trees, dirt and stink. My sandals were borrowed—I’d left in that much of a scramble—and they hurt my feet. Still, I scooted along like a rat seeking a hollowed knot in the baseboard, in search of my quarry. The quarry. The little pouch, weighted by thirty pieces of silver, wasn’t here, with him. I found him, the debtor, easily enough. Chased off the crows to get a better look. In the twin black stripes, the shadows of dangling legs, no sign of the debt I needed to collect. I looked into his purpled, bloated face as if it might suddenly pop open its eyes, see it was me, and wetly hiss an answer. No. He remained as silent as you’d expect—and want—a corpse to stay. He hung there, shifting with each hot breeze that brushed this way, shoulders dappled in crow shit and what the birds had to abandon when I’d walked up, the meal they were making of his cheek. I kicked at rocks and idled there for a few minutes. That limp corpse with the face the hue of boiled beets my company while I struggled to think of what to do next. In the failing light, I continued searching the immediate area, desperately. Through the brush, in the crooks of the bony tree he’d decided to end it all from. “Where’d you stash it, Iscariot?” An answer came, but not from the right lips. Near, though. Terrifyingly near. I whipped around, scanning the surrounding shadows. It’d been too close to have
been further than a tall man’s step away, but there was no one in the clearing with me besides the hung man. You’re too late, quote the darkness. Same as magpies, I figured, these entities. Attracted to places like these. Looking for someone to come grieve so they could wing in, whisper suggestions. Revenge. Suicide. That sort of thing. Whatever they were, they didn’t want names, didn’t have any use for names, and if they had them, certainly they didn’t share them. While words certainly were their power—balled up and dropped into ears thirsty as sponges—titles they wanted not. Too late. You are much, much too late.
They should be smart enough to recognize one of their own. Surely not exactly the same, but in the same vague category. A man in league with a necromancer and the products of devil-baiting: pot and kettle really when you think about it. “Be gone.” I threw a rock, limply. Scuttling of taloned three toed feet, scraping stone and dirt. A crack when one of them collided with a dead branch. A hollow chuckle, herk-herk, as they made their escape. “Go!” I shouted after them, just to make sure they got the message. Perhaps they could divine the future, saw I would fail. And if they knew that, maybe that’s why there were here—to come size up their next meal. I imagined my soul would taste past its prime and would require plenty of mustard to be even passably edible. To avoid that from ever happening, I needed to find that silver before their cousins come along to collect. As if knowing that was where my mind had jumped, the darkness tolled with a hush: Yes, you do. I dashed from the clearing, my hands cold and my heart in my throat. Back in town, I started posing questions to those that looked unlikely to report a man asking about debt money, especially a debt owed by a man of such recent and enormous notoriety. A few refused to even look at me after I told them what I sought, some shut down completely refusing to say another word. Luckily, one pointed me in the directions of another. I walked that way. Each face I came upon in succession was uglier, a more severe example of lifelong poverty and bad living than the one before it. One improbably hideous woman told me the debtor had voluntarily parted ways with the money, hours before hanging himself. I was glad because that meant it wasn’t stolen off his corpse. If that’d been the case then I’d never find the pouch. I continued asking around, and after weeding out a couple of false leads—not their fault, apparently Iscariot wasn’t sure who he should take it to—and a week of sleeping in alleys, I got on the right track and traced it to its end.
During that time though, pure misery. I didn’t like the city to begin with, especially now with the hubbub getting worse, sourer. I was thankful for when the population halved, rumor being they went to put Him behind a boulder. Fine by me. Made getting around town easier, no foot traffic to compete with. Morning arrived and with it, I appeared at the Temple’s door making good use of its bronze knocker. “Unfortunately, the money has already been spent,” the scabby little priest told me on the Temple’s front steps. (He refused to allow me inside.) He said they’d used it for real estate of all things. I told him it was important, that I had bosses to answer to, that I could be in some serious trouble if I didn’t bring it back. Why Iscariot hadn’t just left it with someone with a note so I could pick it up was beyond me. I mean, the amount he’d received in exchange for betrayal was the exact amount that he owed to us—clearly that was what he wanted it for. And yet he tried to launder it, and in turn himself? Stupid. I left the Temple behind with my teeth on edge. No denying it; this was bad. On me. Impossible to get around it, too. The only other option was to do as he’d done and find a low-hanging branch and some rope . . . No. I’m smart, I can figure this out. Besides, I wasn’t about to steal any rope from someone’s backyard while they were out putting the fella behind that rock to incubate or whatever they thought was going to happen by putting Him back there. I’m in deep enough shit as it is. I sighed. I was a drunken idiot. This wasn’t on him, anymore, the debt. It’d shifted to me now. He tried to do the right thing despite it being entirely too late. He’d made a colossal mess of things, looked at all of the broken pieces—and that’s putting it lightly—and tried to put the glue to it. “Those pieces weren’t just broken, they were crushed to powder,” I told his ghost. “Could’ve just left it, your offering for forgiveness could’ve been to make things easier for me.” It was me who was
fastened to the burden now. And that burden had been spent, dropped back into circulation. So I did what any man facing unknowable horrors would do. I went looking for peace at the bottom of a glass. How, you might ask, seeing as how I had no money? Well, I have my ways. Picking a lock isn’t exactly difficult once you understand the fundamentals that all locks share. Like getting coy girls into bed. A few lifted trinkets hocked at a back alley vendor who was missing his right hand and I had enough funds for a final farewell party to throw in my own honor. Sure, I would’ve liked to use that ill-gained coin to pay his debt (and thereby my own) if I could’ve. But it had to be the exact thirty pieces, not any thirty pieces. Rules. I blew my last night on earth chasing away the thoughts of what they might do to me with a cheap woman and even cheaper drinks, bad wine with twigs and purple silt floating around in it. I decided to forgo a bed altogether, and slept in the gutter. The next morning, that was where they found me. That was also where they burned me. I didn’t put up a fight. What would be the use? I accepted it with open arms, each one of them upturning their earthenware jugs of oil on me in turn. I was sick and the world was spinning. Maybe being burned to death would be better. I wondered why it was that the sorcerer loan shark I was employed with decided this as a way of dismissing an employee, burning them alive. I suppose this is maybe where the term “getting fired” comes from. Either way, I was happy because it’d be over now. The money, the money, the money. It was always, and always is, and always will be about the goddamned money. Chasing the money, finding the money, returning the money. If only I hadn’t slit the throat of that baron because he’d “accidentally” killed my sister. If only I hadn’t subsequently gotten chased down by
his men and shot with poisoned arrows. If only I hadn’t gone to the old man in the woods who was rumored to be a healer for help. If only I’d said “Never mind, I’d rather die!” when I saw that slow smile he developed when I told him I’d do anything to live. If only I’d realized that the congregation of fire-eyed things populating his front lawn of his shack weren’t just hallucinations brought on by the poison but his employees. Here they were now, pouring oil over me. Shrouded, hunched, probably just ex-drunks recouping debts like me. “Have mercy,” I asked them and when I saw one actually hesitate, a flicker of humanity still buried in him, I brayed. “Oh, I beg it, good sirs, have mercy!” I was mad, still drunk and sick—so sick—of it all. The one who’d taken a moment to hear me out was the same to reach into his pocket and produce the tinder. A flick of the wrist, a spark, and I went up. I made inhuman screams, flailed, and before long, something inside—I felt it as well as heard it—popped. I wanted to toss and thrash more, to try and put myself out, but I was unable to move. I laid there, my screams died in my throat, and I became still. Even then I did not die. I couldn’t cry out, “Why?” but I certainly thought it. The question I sent beaming out again and again and again. This made no sense. I should be dead, I was as good as dead, burnt to a cinder, but . . . I could still hear, still feel every drop of agony. “Find it,” they told me, in a chorus. I could do nothing but just lay there, listen with melted ears. “What?” I wanted to ask. “What’s happening? I thought this was over.” I couldn’t ask. My jaw had fused shut, my teeth clenching tight—immovably locked together. I couldn’t see them either, my eyes had popped like the flesh of a sausage. But apparently my thoughts rang like faraway bells to them, and they could hear my internal bewilderment just fine.
“The thirty pieces. Find them, return them.” “But . . . I should be dead. How can I find them if I’m—?” “Our lord is unlike the one so recently slain here. Ours rewards failure with a deeper trust.” “What does that mean?!” No answer. Their footfalls grew distant, then fell away altogether. The city had still been mostly empty that morning, and no one had seen the man get burned alive in the middle of the street apparently. I laid there and
listened to my husk crackle and hiss as it cooled. I drew in a breath, smelled overdone meat, and sighed. What now? Some early riser nearly stepped on me, screamed, and bolted off. I supposed they’d collect the town guard. Fine. They trooped up a minute later, rolled me in a blanket that smelled like horse dung, and carried me off to the cemetery, one of the guards put on the pointless task of asking around to see if anyone saw anything. While I was carried between four sets of arms wrapped in my shit-stained rags, black as a pastry that’d been forgotten in the oven and as awkward to maneuver as a statue, I thought on the first fact of how, now, I knew I was damned. We turned a corner, shuffled along, one guard commenting on how I smelled like stew that’d turned. Another laughed. “Someone must’ve really hated him.” I ignored the Romans’ further jibes at my expense and decided to just enjoy being carried like luggage through the streets. Just wait, though, I silently warned them. Some barbed string of bad luck will slither its way into your life someday, too. Knot itself around you to the point you’d do anything to find the man with the scissors. Of course, you’ll pay dearly for that snip, friend. Trust me, the crispy critter you’re now carting off to some ignominious lot to inter. I know. Those thirty pieces. Find them, they said, my “coworkers.” If I could’ve gotten my jaw to open, I would’ve cursed. The silver would spend just as it had before
they’d been placed into Iscariot’s shaking, clammy palms, when they’d been regular coins still, before they’d had a mark put on them by all of this. I saw them scattering into the world like a pitched handful of seeds on a blustery day; filtering back into that vast pool of commerce and changing hands over and over and over, melted down and reminted when the coin changed as it inevitably would. Regardless of how far they flew, I’d have to find them. They would be what coaxed the hand to wave, to make the lips say whatever needed saying to hoist the curse from me that until then kept death in the traditional sense, permanent, from being mine. Irony reared its head when I awoke in Potter’s Field some time later. Sure, I was thankful for the subterranean vacation, time to heal my wounds, but I had to shake my head when it hit me that where I reemerged was exact plot of land that the priests had bought with the silver; a graveyard for foreigners. The Potter’s Field—or Field of Blood, as it is sometimes known—had been my temporary spot of respite. When I punched back up through the dense, red soil, it was night. My flesh was no longer blackened to a creaking carapace but was once again restored. I was dressed, in proper burial clothes—a simple robe, trousers of burlap, old sandals. None of it mine, gifts of modesty for the grave-bound provided by the Temple priests. My hair had even grown back where it’d been burned off, shoulder length as it had been. Nonetheless, I didn’t feel like myself. I felt exhausted, sore all over, with a sour feeling in my stomach. It was a deep bite in my guts like I’d never experienced; it felt a promise that I’d never be hungry again in my life. Rising up and falling over to slump against my headstone etched Feliks Canicus, I was both chagrinned and pleased. At least they’d spelled my name right. But at the same time, it was my real name, the name I was born with. No one in all of Galilee knew this name. My stomach gave another painful twist.
Across the gritty crimson soil, a man approached. I thought it might be one of the Temple priests, coming out with a pitchfork to send this undead individual who dared rise up in his boneyard back to the land of the dead. I tried getting my legs and feet to cooperate, preparing for my bludgeoning. Really, I was in no mood. I knew I was damned now, knew that I’d failed to secure the thirty pieces and with my soul on the line, I had experienced that moment all gamblers detest: when all of their potential winnings get swept away with one long drag of the dealer’s arm, cleanly and fairly robbed. The man was carrying a torch, coming closer at a leisurely rate as if seeing people rise from the grave was as common to him as bird migration in the fall. I threw my hands out before me, the wobbly glob of orange topping his flambeaux too bright for my freshly-healed eyes to stand. Blocking my eyes, I tried to muster a caution to stay back, but my throat felt clogged. He spoke Aramaic, which was the tongue I’d been raised with, but I’ll go ahead and translate as I did before. I prefer English, honestly. “Feliks?” “Know many people who climb out of their graves?” I retorted, still backing away. I kept glancing behind me. The headstones were small and would be easy to trip on. I didn’t like the torch in his hand, it sparked recent memories. I’d have a strange relationship with fire the rest of my days, I knew then. The man snorted. As he drew nearer and I could make out his face better when he angled the torch down away from his face so its flare wouldn’t obscure him, I saw he was dressed like the others, the ones that’d found me in the gutter and set me ablaze. Dark cloak of some cheap, patched material, a hood of some light fabric— light of both color and weight—and a pair of goatskin sandals. He wasn’t as clean as the higher ranked tax collectors were, though. His toenails were long and yellowed, his fingers crooked like those of a woman’s who’d picked up the bad
habits of her instructor and had spent an entire life working a loom improperly. He was bearded, much like anyone in that area of those days, caramel skin and hooked nose, heavy brow and brown of eye. His voice had a jelly-soft cadence, easy. “You failed,” he said, but with a smile, “and secured the contract in the process. I’m here to be your intermediary, your teacher on how to progress from here.” “I don’t follow. I never signed anything—” Silly to fight it, now. Liar to the end, me. There was never a need to put ink to anything to make it binding, a contract could be signed with words. Sigh. I’d nodded, said yes. “The contract had two sections to it. If the terms were met, the second section would never become necessary. Only upon failure of the initial terms did it switch to the next.” I’d forgotten all about the sorcerer’s contract, that chicken scratch hand packed onto one parchment when four or five would normally be required, detailing what he expected of anyone in his employ. “I was late, I know.” I relaxed a little. He was nothing but a bureaucrat. I could deal with a bureaucrat who was just coming here to do what bureaucrats do best; remind people of how they failed to live up to expectations. And he did, smiling all the while. “Not just late,” he said, “but very late. The money was to come back to our mutual employer, and since it’s now out in the open, being turned over from one man to the next, it’ll be impossible to track.” “Yes, I know that as well. And now,” I looked at my hands in his torchlight, “I’m given another chance?” “You’ll have boundless chances, Feliks.” I let my expression beg him to elaborate. He said, “Those thirty pieces of silver are very important. You may not know it now, but what happened here will affect incalculable number of things henceforth. Historically speaking, those thirty pieces of silver are of enormous
anthropological value. To have them, in one place, would increase their value beyond the thirty pieces they represent, into a limitless fortune miniaturized.” “Anthropological?” It was a term I’d never once heard before, and even more complicated when he’d said it, in its rudimentary form that took nearly a half minute to say from one end of the word to the other in Aramaic. A flash of impatience and annoyance crossed his gentle face. He reached into his robes and produced a small satchel. For a moment I thought it was going to be the silver pieces, somehow gathered back up from where they were circulating all through town—and probably beyond, by now, since I’d been “dead” approximately a week—but no. It was simply a small mummified set of fingers, making a V by gray connective tissue, what looked like the fore and middle finger of its original owner. With it, also coming out of the satchel was a ripe, red apple. Polished to a shine that threw off the torch’s glow beautifully, as if lit from within. My stomach didn’t respond to the apple, my guts were still too afflicted for that, but it was the apple’s unexpected beauty I couldn’t peel my eyes from. It was like the picture of an apple, when you think of an apple. The apple. He handed me the set of fingers, hardened to the point their joints refused to move at all. Not that I attempted this, but I expected them to dangle flaccidly like the legs of a hanged man. They remained rigid as if carved from wood. I took them into my palm and stared at them, not at all repulsed by how dry and horrible they looked. I’d looked worse myself not so long ago, remember. Then he handed over the apple. I held the two items in my cupped hands. The set of fingers and the apple. I looked at the giver of these things in bewilderment. “Eat it,” he said. “The apple, that is.” “As if that really needed specification,” I said. “Go ahead.”
“Why? Is it poisoned?” His patience-washed stare stood in for a spoken answer. I shrugged and snapped the first bite out of the fruit. Splendid. I chewed, watching the man watch me eat. My stomach responded to the food hesitantly, ringing against it like a shield might toll when struck by a spear. But then it warmed to it, welcomed it, rumbled like a jungle cat purring instead of a rabid dog issuing a sputtered death rattle like I expected. Short lived, that bliss. Enormous thoughts struck me, rushing into my skull like a water bladder under a waterfall’s rush—too much, too fast! Agony. I dropped to my knees and grabbed at my head and screamed. It roared, this inundation of knowledge that came on like an army behind a succumbing bulwark. Marching, steady, mirthless. It felt like millennia of anguish, packed and balled and dropped into tiny, tiny seconds. Just as quickly as it’d come, it stopped. I looked at my dropped items, the set of fingers and the apple. The apple, where it had rolled to the edge of the circle of orange light, grew boils and shifted into the shade of a gray like the underside of a flipped-over dead thing. It collapsed in on itself, leaving only a sooty spot in the grass where its roll had terminated. I looked up at him, still too besieged to stand. “That was all knowledge,” he said. Even though I was able to translate it lickety-split, as he said it, I knew he was speaking what would one day become French. Somehow, I knew. Then German, “Specifically: language, and a full view of the timeline for you to use as a guideline of sorts.” Russian: “Similar to another piece of fruit once given to someone else, but different. It’d be kind of a waste of time to put all of that redundant business in there, shame and what-have-you.” English: “Especially for someone like you, Feliks. Your eyes were plenty open even before you became a taxman, I believe.”
Using my own headstone to get back up, I tried to fight with my own seasick equilibrium. I could see past his veneer as this humble helper now. This man enjoyed my pain, enjoyed being able to create it in someone. Before the apple, I was a base tramp, dumb and wily and fine with it. After, everything took on a measured quality. I became what I call “acutely observant,” or what I’ve heard called given the Card Sharp’s Eye; the knack to see fissures in all things and people, how best to exploit them, manipulate them. To put it simply, I knew where everyone, with just a glance at them, how to get their goat. Where it was tied, what kind of knot held it, and precisely how many pokes with a knife it’d take to fully rend it to my benefit. I hated myself a little, then. Not even the owner the Card Sharp’s Eye was immune, it seemed. But at least it was better than being burned alive and left to be buried in a shallow grave. I picked up the fingers from the ground where I’d dropped them. As soon as they were back in my palm, he reached into the satchel again and took out a coin. It sang when he flipped it over to me. I snatched it out of the air. It was like all money of the era and area, Octavian in profile on the front side and a human depiction of Fortune on the reverse, holding a palm branch. “A silver stater of Antioch,” he said with a slight air of burden, like either this was a highly boring topic for him or he was more sympathetic to my quest of drudgery than I’d originally thought. “Is this one of the pieces?” I asked. “One of the ones he owed to us?”
“I wouldn’t be so bold as to use the word ‘us,’ Feliks,” he cautioned with a smirk. “You and I do not share this task. This is yours and yours alone. But, yes, this is one of the pieces Judas owed to us. This is one of the pieces he gave to the Temple, and the same piece they used to buy this place.” He fanned out his arms grandly to indicate Potter’s Hill all around us. He dropped them to his sides with a stereo slap. “The remaining twenty-nine are yours to find.” My eyes shifted from one palm to the next, from the coin in my right to the set of fingers in my left. I held up the fingers and waved them at the man. “Still doesn’t explain the story behind these.” I was speaking German, by accident. I corrected; back to my soft, familiar Aramaic, but when I spoke again, it was just as easy as it had been when using the German. Weird. Probing them in the air as if poking a set of eyes with them, I asked if they were to be my weapon. “Put the coin between the digits,” he suggested. A little clumsily, I did. “What now?” And just as I asked, the fingers snapped, curling in on themselves like a pair of snakes working in tandem to hug the coin into
the little loop they made. It startled me and I dropped the finger-coiled coin. The silver stater was hugged in there tight. “That is how you’ll know that the particular piece of silver you’re seeking is one of the right ones.” After a moment, the fingers unclenched—making this disgusting sound like a dead rat being wrung out like a wash rag—and the coin fell from its double phalange binding. I stared at the coin. One of twenty-nine remaining. “How long do I have?” I asked, unable to help the weight in my voice. His lips spread into a rictus, possibly his estimation of a smile or just what his face did when amused. “As long as it takes. But once they’re all collected, you have to pass them on. And they must be used in payment to betray. Only then will the contract be broken.” “Then what will happen?” The smile disappeared from his face, but it remained in his voice. “By the time you’re through, it’ll be what you want more than anything.” He took one step back, then another. He was abandoning me with my new encumbrance, gently letting me know I had no accomplices, no one at all to aid me in this matter. “What will I want?” I asked, but my answer sifted out without him even needing to speak. It would be then the same as it was now—to not be doing this. I must’ve frowned. “It’s you, isn’t it? I’ve heard they can change forms. It’s you who tricked me into this!” I moved forward, every intention of dashing the brains from his skull with my very hands. “You do not get to make threats in this matter,” he bellowed with a voice unhuman. His form changed drastically when I was less than one step away; gone was the beatific image, his costume, his parody of Him. Now he was as I knew him,
as the curer of poisons—so long as you wouldn’t mind agreeing, at the peak at your most dire hour, to help him. And worse. His hair became a whirlwind of gray about a face that shriveled and had its eyes roll back. The absent sockets replaced themselves with an otherworldly flickering, like two puddles of burning oil, spied from the bottom of twin wells. His teeth all elongated, and became fanged.
“You will do as you are told!” he shrieked, with what I couldn’t help but notice was a mad glee. And with that, disappeared. Laying in the dirt where the fright had thrown me, I lowered my gaze to my upraising hands. I still held the coin and the fingers. The tools of my burden, now drenched in the dark. All that remained of the sorcerer as far as a hint he’d ever been there was the lingering whiff of smoke. Or maybe that was just me, still stained with its smell.
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