Heid Me or Hang Me
The key needed an eternity to turn in the lock, followed by ages of metal squealing on metal as the bolt slid back. Sibyl had managed to manoeuvre herself to the middle of the room, her beaten body still wrapped into the blanket. She gave a cough-like sound of relief as the door finally opened. Two silhouettes were standing beyond it. One belonged to the Askirtay on gaoler duty, the other to that sawbones of a physician. Sibyl rushed out through between them as quickly as her weak legs allowed, not looking up once. Not wanting to meet anyone’s gaze. Not wanting them to see her blood-shot eyes, either.
“Wait, let me first check on—”
“Don’t you dare touch me!”
The physician made an attempt to follow her, but gave up after some steps.
“Fine. But let someone look at the wounds.”
She didn’t reply nor slowed down.
Out! Just out of here!
“Did you forget everything I taught you? Or just the part about how to not fuck up an entire mission?!”
I didn’t know what was missing…
Sibyl had just enough time to clean herself up and don fresh clothes before László had asked for – read demanded – her presence down in the counting room.
In some ways, his scolding was even worse than the chastisement. The whip had only flayed her body, sending her mind into a menacing, demeaning yet inarticulate state of helplessness and mortification. But László’s words hurt, burnt, cut deeply. His lashing was aimed at her very core.
When he finally finished, Sibyl didn’t know anymore where her head was in relation to her body. She had to fight hard against the tears forming in the corners of her eyes.
“What?! What is that? Are you gonna cry on me?!”
“Damn, László! Do you think I don’t know that I fucked up?!”
She quickly moved the back of her hand across her eyes. He frowned, but took out his cigarettes, which was a good sign.
“What was I supposed to do? Keep the pistol, so they would nick me for illegal gun possession?”
“There was no correct course of action anymore. That’s the whole point. You failed to prevent this predicament in the first place. And don’t you dare argue with me.” He opened the pack. “Do you mind?”
Sibyl sniffed and shook her head, and the Hungarian lit one of his cancer-sticks. He smoked half of the cigarette before speaking again, now in a more conciliatory tone.
“Nobody expects you to do perfectly right from the start, but, girl, this time you hit it hard!”
“And for that I was hit hard, and by a complete stranger?”
Her questions hovered somewhere between defiance and fishing for sympathy.
“Don’t you think Grau let Kask administer your punishment for a certain reason?”
“Yes. To show me humility.”
“Wrong. To avoid you being beaten by a person with whom you work and train, someone whom you meet every other day on the corridor. Bad for the morale.”
“How foresightful. But still – and please don’t yell at me again – I don’t understand why I was subjected to such a draconic punishment. And if you come up with ‘it was for your own good’, I throw something heavy at you.”
“Politics.” He did not yell. “You may not like to hear it, but the good Doktor had been indeed too easy on you on several occasions in the past – even by my standards. And you know what lenient a teacher I am.”
Sibyl deliberately declined to commentate on that subject. Too well she remembered the weapon cleaning excesses under his vigilant eyes. Every time an apprentice had brought a firearm that hadn’t been absolutely clean to László’s table for inspection, it had landed in a bucket full of muddy water, and the culprit had been bidden to start anew.
“With Sawatzki in attendance, Grau finally had to show rigour,” László continued. “His verdict may appear draconic and arbitrary to you, but acting soft-gloved in your case would have undermined his authority.”
“That’s not fair!”
“You forgot to stomp your foot.”
“She was driving him before her!” Sibyl insisted.
“She challenged him. Don’t be fooled: There is as much intrigue between the Houses as there is struggle against the Elders.”
“But I understood that Sawatzki stood beyond the single Houses due to her… gift.”
László took a particularly long drag and exhaled the smoke in a sharp jet.
“I wouldn’t use the term ‘beyond’. ‘Amidst’ suits better. As long as I know her, she had her nose in every House’s business, manipulating left and right. I reckon this freelancing makes her even less controllable.”
Sibyl frowned. After all, Grau was the Head of one of the Houses of the Greats. An Eskravin. He should not need to align his decisions with the vagaries of a scheming bitch. His verdict had been supposed to be a demonstration of his authority, a display of his power. But in fact it had displayed Sawatzki’s.
And what means “as long as I know her”?
“How old is she really?”
“It would be indiscreet to tell.”
The Hungarian gave a crooked smile and tapped the ash off his cigarette. She knew from experience that he could never stay angry with her for long.
“I’m sorry that your puppy licence has run out like this.”
“It wasn’t fair,” repeated Sibyl.
“At least you are not moaning about it.”
“I wouldn’t have had you whipped. But that doesn’t mean you did not deserve it.”
She swallowed hard.
“What else is in store for me?”
“Don’t you feel punished enough?”
I do. Thanks for asking.
Sibyl, who had been standing until now, eased herself against the edge of one of the lower tables, keen to keep her back straight.
“Did you take anything against the pain yet?”
She shook her head.
“You weren’t so concerned about my well-being last night.”
A bitter thought that was, and Sibyl knew it, but László let her get away with it.
“How’s your back?”
He tossed her a package of Aspirin.
“To take the edge off. And don’t you dare give me any hard-arse stuff.”
For a moment she considered to refuse it on principle, but the pain still carving across her back suggested otherwise.
“The Countess will be staying a couple of days. I reckon you have no intent to run into her again and that you going to watch your steps.”
He took another drag, watching his apprentice pull a face.
“A word of advice, though: Sawatzki does not consider herself a mere medium. She has dedicated herself to uphold the purity of faith; to show us lowlifes the true path – her path, I don’t have to emphasise.”
“Is that so far away from what the Doktor does?”
“You have to keep in mind: Grau seeks for knowledge. Sawatzki seeks for power. This leads to two utterly different approaches.”
“What do you seek for?”
László shrugged his shoulders.
“Why, male enhancement.”
Despite herself, her pained back and her still ringing head Sibyl couldn’t help but smile. Yet she hesitated before asking.
“What would have been your punishment of choice for me?”
“Forcing you to wear dresses.”
He ground the stub of his cigarette meticulously in the overflowing ash tray.
“Wanna have your coat back?”
The smug sneer on his broad face was enough to let Sibyl’s mood drop some notches, if even possible. At least he knew nothing about her actual castigation.
“What can I do for you, princess?” the Armourer queried from behind his vast counter.
Oh, how she hated being called that! It always seemed to imply that she has not had to work hard for her status, that everything had fallen into her lap.
“Why don’t you risk a guess?”
“Mihkel! Number 17!”
It took the young man referred to as Mihkel some minutes to appear from a door behind the line of counters, a safe deposit box under his arm (the Armourer, of course, could not be bothered to fetch the box himself). Whilst Mihkel hoisted the steel drawer onto the counter, his master was busy enjoying his obligatory coffee. Sibyl felt her patience running thin.
“Tonight, if possible.”
The Armourer obligingly took care of her request – after helping himself to another cupful from his Thermos.
One day I pee into that damn thing!
Finally the red-haired man retrieved her weapons from the box and laid them out on the spotless marble.
The bayonet-like blade.
Two full magazines.
One single round, calibre 9 mm x 19 Parabellum.
He rotated his colossal ledger on the table top and shoved it to her.
“You signature, if it please you.”
Sibyl placed her name under the listing. The blade went into its scabbard in her right bootleg. The first magazine found its place in her holster. She took the pistol and shoved the second one into the gun’s magazine well.
“Try not to misplace it this time,” the Armourer quipped.
Give it a rest.
Sibyl worked the slight with a determined frown – the metallic sound echoed dramatically in the vast hall – and pushed the control lever down, thus uncocking the hammer again. Annoyingly, the Armourer did not so much as flinch at the dry click. She stowed the USP and snatched the last round, stuffing it into her pocket while turning to leave. Feeding it into the magazine right here would have taken the verve out of her exit.
Steel and Stones
The black coat became quite weighty as he kept carrying it over his arm. Of course Andrus had inspected it – the item hadn’t been as exciting as the pistol that had been wrapped into it, but admittedly less dangerous. A heavy leather duster, fitted and double-breasted. And it was expensive; obviously tailored and made of real leather, not the faux stuff. He had not tried it on, though, for it had appeared to be too tight around the shoulders even if not buttoned up. And it just had seemed weird to put something on that belonged to a girl. Creepy. Almost like sniffing at it.
Once more it was close to midnight, and the train yard had yet again turned into a silent world of steel, of forgotten power. Mighty steam locomotives were sleeping on the tracks, their bodies black, dreaming through the Ages of Diesel and Electricity. Through the narrow alleys they left Andrus headed towards the old roundhouse, switching now and then between the aisles. The rough gravel ground and grated under each step. Andrus stopped and listened into the moon-lit darkness. Nothing. Just cold star light and sleeping iron around him.
Still silence. He swallowed, then tried it a bit louder.
“Hello? Bloofer lady?”
Andrus startled and almost jumped. He whirled around. The young woman from the graveyard stood motionlessly on the path he just had walked. Like two nights ago, she was dressed in all black – and armed.
“How did you—”
“I see that you have brought something for me.”
Andrus didn’t answer at once. It hadn’t been the sole surprise that had caught him off guard. There was something about her presence that took his breath like an electric jolt to his stomach.
“Uhm, yes. Sure!”
He unfolded the coat clumsily. The way she was observing his action – standing bolt upright and with a slight frown on her face – made him feel even more edgy. Was she crossed with him? Or should he attribute it to the stern aristocratic trait, which was far more evident in her now that the two of them weren’t cowering behind some mossy tombstone?
The woman took some oddly stiff steps towards him, and he helped her into the coat. She moved almost awkwardly into the duster whilst Andrus was holding it open, a sharp contrast to the cat-like agility she had sported before. When the heavy material came to rest on her body, she hissed and arched her back.
“Thank you for keeping it safe,” she said, deliberately ignoring his question. “After kind of stealing it – together with my gun.”
Andrus let his shoulders slouch.
“Am I in trouble?”
He saw her jaw muscles working, but then she sighted.
“No. No, I reckon you’re not. Just don’t tell anyone.”
“That tall old bloke from last night already outlined the importance of my discreetness in a very convincing manner.”
“I’m sure he did.”
“And with special reference to my general well-being,” Andrus added huffily.
“Look,” the girl expounded in a softer voice, warming up the slightest bit, “things got out of hand that night on the graveyard. You weren’t supposed to be involved into it.”
Now it was for Andrus to frown. Her even paler look and the dark shadows her eyes lay in hadn’t gone unnoticed by him. So hadn’t her stiff moves and the chaffed corners of her mouth. He doubted that she was just under the weather.
“Are you in trouble?”
“Hadn’t got much sleep due to this scavenger hunt, if you must know.”
That was fair enough. Forcing her out by withholding the coat had not been the most gentleman-like course of action he could think of. Yet it had been the only way to see her again. She was good-looking far beyond the point of mere prettiness, owning that stabbing dark, almost transcendent beauty. She was sporty and tough and smart. But what was truly intriguing him, what was dragging him to her was the gloomy, enigmatic aura of hers. His acting on the graveyard had been fuelled by it. His idiotic hide-and-seek with the constables. His returning to the funeral parlour, first to warn her, and then again to recover her stuff. Last but not least he could not elude the acerbic erotic of boots and heavy leather. Of weapons and impending violence.
“Hadn’t got much sleep due to this scavenger hunt, if you must know.”
That came out sharper than she had intended. Hopefully it would end any further investigations on his side regarding her recent experiences. But since they already were on the topic:
“How did you even know where to search?”
“I didn’t. I only saw the policemen march you off without your coat and holster. When I went into the parlour to look for them, I virtually ran into that coffin.”
Sibyl moaned mildly.
“Not the most original hiding place, was it?”
The boy shrugged his shoulders.
“I waited afterwards, but I bet the fuzz haven’t let you go any time soon. I really didn’t take your gun to get you in difficulties – I just want you to know that. When you sent a replacement yesterday night, I just wanted another chance to tell you. So I didn’t hand your coat over to your… boyfriend.”
My what?! Oh… very clever!
“Actually, that was my father in law.”
But his crestfallen expression raised a smile on her face, and he saw through her spoof.
“So, since you are not married and have your stuff back, is there any chance for you not being mad at me anymore?”
“Why, I’m not mad at you.”
“You didn’t show up.”
The girl bit her lip, obviously considering how to put her words.
“I screwed it up myself pretty well, to be brutally honest. My folks weren’t exactly thrilled about how things had turned out. Believe me, I would have preferred to meet with you last night.”
“Where were you?”
“But surely you told them about these weird beak-people. How were you supposed to deal with something like that?!”
She had kept cool around the ghoul. But even for her the birdie-guys must have been a real bummer! However, she was obviously not in the mood to deepen the discussion.
“I appreciate your… commitment. And I’m convinced of your good intentions, albeit they got me in quite a scrape. But who knows how it would have turned out else.”
“So, that’s it, then?”
“What else did you expect?” she replied sceptically, all uptight again.
What had he expected? That she would chat with him about their grand shared adventure? That she would be thankful for his knightly help and selfless support?
Andrus gave a resigned groan, gathered what was left of his self-esteem and made a run for it:
“I have hoped you would spare me the embarrassment of confessing to you that handing over the coat and stating my motivation was not the only reason for wishing to meet you again.”
“And all this in one sentence…”
The stern expression remained, a mien almost unreal on her even face and hard to read in the darkness. Yet in her voice lay good-humoured mockery instead of sole sarcasm. Had he put her off? No, she was amused!
“Andrus was it, right?”
“Yes, Andrus. But you can call me Andi.”
He held his hand out. She hesitated, but then took her glove off and shook it. A firm, yet undoubtedly feminine grip.
“My name is Sibyl. But you can call me Sibyl.”
The reflex of turning him down, of keeping everybody on distance was back immediately. And then? Go back to that sarcophagus Vilms & Järvi? Suffocate under the weight of dusty rules and outworn commandments?
Not this time.
Even if her pain were to be twice as bad, Sibyl would have stayed – just to create some distance, both spatially and emotionally. She wasn’t exactly in a hurry to run into Sawatzki again, either. The worst thing that could happen here was the second half of the night being wasted with something else than her wandering through the city’s nocturnal streets.
“What are you up to?” Sibyl asked as she followed Andrus to a huge locomotive, her gait stiff due to her still burning back. The advancing healing process and László’s Aspirin could only do so much against thirty-nine strokes to the blood.
“Mind some climbing?”
Why would I…?
The boy stuffed some stones from the track bed into his pockets, and with a jump he was on the footplate at the loco’s front. She got the feeling that Andrus wasn’t doing this for the first time, because the next second he was already on top of the boiler. Sibyl sighed and grabbed the hand rail. A faint smell of sooth and oil and metal reached her as she hauled herself up on the footplate. This action alone provided her with sharp flashes of pain, so scaling the boiler would be interesting. Above her she could see Andrus puzzling about her incapacity – two nights ago she had hurdled tombstones.
“Do you need a hand?”
He reached down whilst making sure to have a good grip at the steam dome. Sibyl hesitated long enough to make him feel uncomfortable, but in the end took the hand offered to her.
“You sure you are alright? You’re rigid as though you have swallowed a stick – or got it into you by some other way…
A reference to anal penetration – how very mature, Andrus. And so womanising.
“Try rose hip tea.”
“Against muscle stiffness.”
“And you are familiar with the naturopathic potential of rose hip because…?”
“A friend of mine studies medicine,” he stated proudly, “and when she started, her aunt gave her a book about naturopathy.”
“Maybe auntie tried to make a point with that.”
“Be it how it may; I had to play guinea pig.”
“Well, I hope my pain eventually disappears by itself.”
I’m a quick healer.
They were sitting side by side on the large boiler, beholding the picturesque landscape of a train yard at night.
“If you dragged me up here because of the view, I’ve got bad news for you.”
“It’s for a game,” Andrus proclaimed. “Wanna play?”
“I don’t play silly games.”
“But this is a good one.”
He retrieved the stones from his pockets.
“See that wrecked one?” He pointed over to the rusted carcass of a Decapod on the neighbouring track. “We throw by turns. Each time one of us hit into the smoker, they can ask a question.”
“Which the other one must answer.”
Sibyl made no attempt to conceal her opinion on that: infantile, predictable and with disputable entertainment value.
But what the heck…
She took one offered stone from his palm and throw; a gentle toss, back straight. After an unerring trajectory it disappeared into the smoker, trailing a cascade of clonks.
“How long did you wait for me after they’d got me? You know, at the bloody graveyard.”
Andrus weighted the stones in his hand.
“Two, maybe three hours.”
“They dragged you out, and I went in to look for your gun and coat. Since you didn’t wear them, I assumed you had been able to hide them in time.”
“Wait a minute: By then the reinforcement was there to secure the site.”
Sibyl made an interrogative gesture.
“The new constables went straight to that cremator. Must have been quite the show.”
“And you sneaked in behind them?”
“In hope to keep a girl out of further trouble you have met only a mere half an hour ago.”
He shrugged his shoulders in an almost apologising way. Had he really taken the risk of being caught upon himself without prospect of reward or advantage?
“Believe me, once I had your gun, I made a very quick exit! I hid again, and some time later the fuzz sealed the place up. When you didn’t show up – not by choice, I reckon – I committed my last felony for that night by breaking the seal to place the note for you.”
“Huh,” she uttered, and as Andrus realised that she wasn’t about to say any more, he sent a stone over to the iron ruin with true aim.
“Did the police beat you up?”
“Did they strip-search you?”
“No! And that have been two questions.”
“You asked more than one, too!” he complained.
“Because you did not answer my original one to my utmost satisfaction.”
She scored again.
“This Black Mass, was it meant to be more than a mere excuse for getting drunk?”
Sibyl could tell to have hit a nerve with that one, because for the first time Andrus turned his eyes away from her for more than a few seconds.
“The way we met was… suboptimal. Getting hammered on a graveyard – that isn’t me. If Taavi hadn’t forgotten to rent a film, we would have stayed in his parents’ telly room.”
“And got hammered there?”
“Presumably. But at least far more civilised – and with more resources.”
He avoided going into further details by tossing his next stone. Like its predecessor it disappeared in the smoker.
“Did you consider not meeting me tonight?”
“I’m very attached to my coat, so ‘no’. But I must say I had ambivalent feelings.”
Whether to slap you in the face or knee you in the groin…
“Me, too. Especially in the light of the very irritating first—”
He paused in mock astonishment:
“What was that?! Your mouth distorted! Was that… could that have been a smile?!”
Could have been.
As though it had given a silent signal, the questions now moved away from the recent events and to liberating negligibilities. About his connection to the train yard – he had preserved himself every little boy’s fascination with trains. About her favourite actor – a topic on which Sibyl had no opinion whatsoever.
As this game went on, she could not help but notice a certain detail.
“It isn’t exactly difficult to hit.”
“No. The whole idea is to learn about each other.”
Sibyl sighed. What else had she expected? What more than a charade for herself, some distraction to numb her symptoms?
“It’s very late. I have to go.”
“Wha— did I say something wrong?”
“No. You just made me forget time.”
She glided daintily down the boiler, descended the few steps from the footplate and landed on the ballast with a soft groan.
After some steps Andrus’ last stone clanged within the wreck beside her. She looked back and up to the boy.
“Will I see you again, Sibyl?”