I rode out into the city at 8:00 a.m., unsupervised. Ascanio hadn’t left anyone to babysit me. Maybe he decided I wasn’t worth to keep an eye on. Maybe it slipped his mind. Both possibilities were equally unlikely, which meant whoever followed me was staying way back, tracking my trail. By the time I stopped by the blue house to hide the care package for the little girl, I’d sprinkled wolfsbane on my tracks twice. It wouldn’t stop my tail, but why make it easy for them?
Twenty minutes later, I rode up to St. Luke’s Methodist Church on the edge of Tuxedo Park.
In the wake of the destruction brought about by the slow-motion magic apocalypse, the affluent of Atlanta fled north. Neighborhoods like Tuxedo Park had the added bonus of being older, with historic mansions which fared much better than modern office towers and high rises. While the skyscrapers fell and crashed, places like Villa Juanita, the ten thousand square foot signature Tuxedo estate, suffered no damage, still as opulent as they had been a century and a half ago.
St. Luke’s Church straddled the divide between the wealthy of Tuxedo Park and the new business center that had sprung up along Peachtree Road. Calling it a church was a bit of an understatement. The massive cathedral, built with brick and white concrete, occupied five acres with its grounds and auxiliary buildings. A testament to the stoic values of Gothic Revival, the entire complex was a fortress, a hospital, a school, and an administrative center all arranged into a single neat rectangle with the cathedral front and center, looking like a smaller cousin of Notre Dame.
A stretch of lawn bordered the cathedral, the killing ground, another fun real estate peculiarity of our apocalypse. A long walkway cut through the lawn, leading to a wide terrace before the stairway to the church. The terrace was filled with cut flowers. Roses, lilies, and wildflowers rested on the pavement, with candles burning between the blooms and small wooden crosses. The city had turned this space into a memorial to Pastor Haywood. A few mourners still remained, three days later, sitting on the low stone wall bordering the terrace.
I rode to the side parking lot, dismounted, tethered Tulip, and walked up to the doors on foot.
A middle-aged white man with a receding hairline and wire-rimmed glasses met me at the entrance and gave my tattered cloak a long glance. Under the cloak, I wore a green t-shirt, a pair of comfortable brown pants secured by a belt holding pouches of herbs, silver dust, and other useful things, and a pair of running shoes. Nothing special.
This morning I had opened the smaller weapons crate and pulled out two knives identical to the one I lost yesterday. I also carried a leaf short sword, with a 22-inch-long blade that was about 2.1 inches across in the widest part. At a pound and eleven ounces, it ran on the heavy side, and the weight and the leaf profile made it a good slasher. The cloak hid all that, but it couldn’t hide Dakan, my spear. My grandmother had a huge problem with that name, because the closest translation of it to English would be Stabby. She claimed it wasn’t a proper name for a weapon, so after the first Dakan broke, I offered to name the new one Sharpy McStabbison, the Son of Stabby, after which she groaned and left my quarters, followed by a throng of her advisors all giving me reproachful looks.
Dakan rested in two parts in the sheath on my back. When screwed together, it reached 6 feet. The two shafts protruded over my right shoulder, easy to grab, and the sentry at the church door clearly had trouble figuring out why I was carrying two metal sticks on my back.
After a few awkward seconds, he decided to stop pondering my weapon choice. “How may I help you?”
I took out my Order ID. “My name is Aurelia Ryder. I’m investigating Pastor Haywood’s murder.”
The man flinched slightly. “It’s awful. It feels like a nightmare…” He caught himself. “Would you mind waiting? The Bishop is in residence and she may want to speak with you.”
“I don’t mind.”
“Please follow me.”
The inside of the church was ten degrees cooler. Soothing light streamed into the reception area through the stained-glass windows tinted in a dozen shades of blue and red. Through the open doors, I could see the inside of the church, rows and rows of wooden pews with cobalt cushions, the raised pulpit, and the simple wooden lectern upon it. There was no opulence in this church; everything was well made but restrained.
I had done some reading on the topic of Methodists while riding the leyline to the city. The Methodist had always viewed healing as an important theological theme and after magic wrecked the world, they focused on it with even greater intensity. As a result, the Methodist congregations swelled, and there came a need to have a point person for large geographical areas, usually a Bishop, sometimes elected, sometimes appointed. The Bishop I was about to meet was responsible for the entirety of North Georgia. She could open many doors. She could also slam them shut.
A side door opened, and a middle-aged woman in a beige business suit walked in, the man who had met me following close behind. The woman was in her mid-fifties, with straight black hair cut in a flattering bob and features that hinted at East Asian heritage.
The woman held her hand out. “Hazel Chao. I’m the Methodist Bishop of North Georgia.”
I shook her hand. She had a firm dry handshake. “Aurelia Ryder, knight of the Order.”
“A pleasure to meet you, although I wish it was under better circumstances. Why don’t we talk in the garden?”
I followed her through the side door, down a hallway, and through another door, to the outside. We emerged into a large courtyard garden, with the cathedral directly behind us and auxiliary buildings on the three sides, each rising to three stories high and topped by turrets on the corners.
“A good place to weather a siege,” I noted.
“The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters,” she quoted.
“And monsters necessitate castles,” I said. “Although I doubt Antonio Gramsci had our kind of monsters in mind.”
She gave me a surprised look and smiled. “And I just showed my own bias. I didn’t expect you to be well read.”
“My family emphasizes education. Between stabbing people, of course.”
“Of course.” She glanced at the man. “It’s okay, Gerald. I don’t believe the knight will harm me and if she tries, I’m not sure you could stop her anyway.”
Gerald gave me a suspicious look and went inside.
The Bishop and I strolled down the path. On the right bees buzzed around delicate pink flowers of mountain laurel. On the left, rhododendron bushes were ablaze with bunches of raspberry red blossoms. Blue-eyed grass and bluestar bordered the path, offering purple and blue flowers. They must’ve had beehives somewhere on the premises.
“I will be blunt,” Bishop Chao said, “The death of Pastor Haywood is a huge blow. On a personal level, he was one of my dearest friends. His contribution to the Church and to the people of Atlanta cannot be overstated. Whoever killed him tore a gaping hole in our city. I will help you in any way I can.”
“In seeking answers, I have a responsibility to his congregation and to the city at large. He meant a great deal to a great many people. He was beloved, yet he was murdered with such shocking violence and for unknown reasons.”
She had put a lot of emphasis on that unknown. Atlanta viewed Pastor Haywood as a saint. She had just warned me that if I found out any unsavory secrets that led to his murder, the responsibility for ruing the memory of the holy man would rest on my shoulders. Interesting.
I had to stay in character, so it was my turn to reach for fancy quotes. “For each one will bear his own load.”
Bishop Chao glanced at me.
“My load is to discover who killed Pastor Haywood. His sins, whatever they were, are his load. Your load is to deal with the consequences of his loss. Think of me as a tool. I do not take sides. It’s not up to me what people do with my findings.”
“I see,” Bishop Chao said. “Perhaps this is a conversation I should have with the Knight Protector.”
Oh, Nick would just love that. “Perhaps.”
If Pastor Haywood had done something sordid, the blow to the Church would be devastating. Questions would be asked. Did the Bishop know and if she didn’t why not? As an heir of Shinar, I sympathized, but it wasn’t my problem.
Bishop Chao sighed. “So how can I help you, Knight Ryder?”
“Shortly before his death, Pastor Haywood was approached by a man about ‘Christian relics.’”
The Bishop frowned. “Really? What kind of relics?”
“My source isn’t sure. They were preoccupied with cookies at the time. I do know that Pastor Haywood left in a car the next day and returned several hours later.”
“Nathan?” Bishop Chao asked. “Are you sure?”
“Why is that unusual?”
“He got car sick. He preferred to walk or ride a horse. Also, many of the people he ministered to didn’t have a vehicle. He didn’t want to set himself apart.” She smiled a sad little smile. “He really did get terrible motion sickness though. He vomited twice on the way to his own ordination. We had to coax him back onto the bus, because he declared that since Jesus walked, so would he. And that was thirty years ago.”
“So these relics must’ve been very important to him?”
“Yes. I can’t imagine what would make him get into a car, especially with someone he didn’t know. I don’t understand why he didn’t call me. He always called me about things like that.”
“Was it common for Pastor Haywood to authenticate relics?”
Bishop Chao sighed again. “It happened. Nobody likes to talk about it, but holy relics are a big business. Especially Christian relics. Ninety nine percent of them are fake, but that one percent can perform miracles.”
Not all miracles were benign. A few years ago, the rod of Aaron was found in Egypt. When cast down, it created an enormous unkillable serpent which devoured several dozen people, before the army finally managed to drown it.
“Nathan had the gift of discernment,” the Bishop continued. “But he was selective with his expertise. Five years ago, the Catholics asked him to authenticate nail clippings from a saint, because they wanted an independent expert. Unfortunately, the clippings didn’t belong to a saint. They don’t know where they came from, but they induced madness in the devout. Nathan lost three days to delirium. After that, he was very careful.”
“And you’re sure the request didn’t come through the Church?”
“Absolutely. I will check, but since the clipping episode, all such requests are forwarded directly to me.”
So, either they approached him on their own or she was lying. If she was lying, she was an incredible actress, because she seemed genuinely surprised.
“You have to understand,” she said. “Nathan didn’t care about money or prestige. Whatever they showed him had to be truly extraordinary.”
“Who are the most prominent relic hunters in the region? Who would have the kind of reputation that would lure a man like Pastor Haywood away from his church?”
Her face twisted with disdain. I might as well have asked her who were the best pimps in the neighborhood.
“I would have said Lloyd Chapin, but he died three or four years ago. Besides him Darryl Knox and Dakota Mooney. Darryl and Dakota used to be married. They had some kind of falling out, and rumors say Dakota shot him in the a… upper posterior. Now they can’t stand each other. There is also Lorenson. I don’t know his first name. I’ll ask Gerald to give you a list. These are not nice reasonable people, Knight Ryder. They are the kind of people who cross an ocean filled with monsters, climb into dark tombs filled with horrors, and then sell what they find to the highest bidder. They will shoot you for a dollar. If they decide that you are interfering with their business, they will retaliate.”
“Thank you for your advice.”
A hoarse, eerie growl rolled through the grounds. The hair on the back of my neck rose.
Behind us a door banged. Gerald hurried down the path toward us.
“What is it?” Bishop Chao called.
“There is a large redneck… I mean local man. A very large local man asking about the knight. I tried reasoning with him, but he’s insisting, and he has a dog. A very angry dog.”
Another growl, a deep angry rumbling born in a huge throat.
“That’s my cue. Thank you for your time, Bishop.”
She nodded. “Come to me if you need anything.”
I started down the path.
“Beware of the dog,” Gerald called after me. “Excuse me, Bishop. I think I should give the ER a heads up.”
One “very large local,” one pissed off dog, and the hospital on high alert. Just another morning in Atlanta. And they said you could never go home again.