[CHAPTER 9]: Wrongs.
Aidan couldn’t pretend that the fool had just been confused when he had called him “Tristan.” Peter’s smeared gaze was too intense, too full of the pain that comes with guilt and the fear of hatred. He had called him “Tristan,” and he had meant it.
“But my headstone,” Aidan managed. “My grave.”
“Not yours,” the fool replied. “There is an Aidan Lawrence. Was, rather. He was nobody, even more so than you. He was also a terrible artist, unlike you. You’ve no idea how long it took me to find someone whom I could convince Sir Hugo was good enough to recruit for the company. I had to lie my ass off to–”
“Just…just slow down,” said Aidan. “Peter, I don’t understand.”
The fool sighed. “Right. Sorry. I need to explain from the beginning. But not here. I meant what I said; we need to hurry along, before Sir Hugo sends anyone. We’ll take the train and—shit, no, we can’t do that. It’s crawling with his spies.” He cast about amongst the gravestones for a moment, as if expecting some poor corpse to lift a feeble hand and point the way. “We’ll head for New York,” he said at last.
“You don’t sound very sure,” Aidan pointed out.
“I’m not, but it’s the best hope we have of staying safe. There’s someone there who might help. Might,” he added with a grimace. “Come on. I promise, I’ll explain once we’re far enough.”
Aidan had no choice. He adjusted the owl in his pocket and followed Peter through the uncut grass. Fireflies spun dizzily into the air. “What happens to us if we die?” he asked. It was a less touchy question than the earlier ones, and Peter seized on it.
“You go back to the road. You walk to the last lamppost again, and you decide if you want to cross the white bridge.”
“That’s really not so bad. Just like a board game.”
The fool shrugged. “You can get away with that a few times. But restart too often and your mind starts to go. Keep pushing yourself beyond that and, well.” He stepped over a flat headstone in the grass that simply read “Baby.” Aidan knew he didn’t want the answer, but he asked anyway,
He chuckled bitterly. “Well, Bare Bones, I once knew this actor. He killed himself, died, and then things got bad again. They never got better, actually, and so he just kept finding chances to off himself. But each time he did, he couldn’t remember doing it in the first place, so he kept crossing the bridge. Kept coming back. Eventually, he started to work out that he was stuck in some awful cycle, so he began leaving himself clues. But by the time he’d worked it out for good….”
Peter stopped and turned to face him. He had finished wiping away the paint and the difference was astounding. Gone were the sneering lips. They were thin now, almost invisible, drawn together in a stern line. Despite being deprived of white paint, his skin was still quite pale and his eyes—though they no longer blinked mercilessly behind black crosses—were still rimmed in deep shadows. Now he truly looked dead. A ghost of a ghost.
“We’re only meant to die once,” he said. “It’s not a release unless you move on. Without that, you just grow numb or go mad. Until you couldn’t care less whether you or anybody else lives or dies.”
“…which makes it very easy for someone to ask you to murder,” Aidan added quietly. The fool nodded and turned away again, leading them deeper into the graveyard.
Aidan asked no more questions. He understood. He still wanted to know the answer to the Aidan-Tristan fiasco and was still disgusted by all the fool seemed capable of, but now he was less of an inhuman monster in his eyes and more of a tragedy gone wrong—if it was possible for a tragedy to “go wrong.” He was an example, at the very least, of why you might never want to cross the white bridge. Aidan made up his mind, then and there, to never set foot on it again if he ended up back on the road someday.
It was almost morning by the time they reached the opposite side of the graveyard. Several miles of tombstones and winding gravel paths took them to a run-down metal gate with a dilapidated sign that read “Fairfield.” Peter ducked his lanky self under the gate and vanished. Aidan followed and soon found himself standing next to the fool in what looked suspiciously like somebody’s basement. His ears popped, fighting off static.
“Oh dear,” said Peter.
“What is it?”
“An unscheduled stop.” He ran a finger along the edge of a dusty chest of drawers. “Fairfield Cemetery leads to a catacomb in Leipzig, which leads to a graveyard in Denmark, which leads to Sicily, and so on. This place is new. Someone’s recently made it Both.”
Aidan glanced nervously at the various imposing characters that loomed out of the half dark. A water heater, flanked by two washers and a dryer, stood humming an ominous tune. He tried not to think about what had to happen for this place to become Both, but it was no use. There was a body, or bodies, somewhere nearby. They were buried in the walls or the floor and maybe stuffed in the chest of drawers, just like the underbelly of The Masque was loaded with corpses.
Peter succeeded in finding a circuit breaker and the basement flooded with light. The change between vague, mysterious shadows cast from the glow of machinery to the bright, familiar illumination of florescence should have been comforting. But the objects which came into view left comfort half a cry behind a firm desire to run.
A pair of latex gloves lay at the foot of a low bench. Spread across its stained surface were all manner of sinister tools. Hammers, nails, scissors, shears, toothbrushes…barbed wire, whipped cream canisters and empty olive jars; nothing had escaped the same stains as the bench. All was coated in dried blood and flecks of white.
“I think,” said Peter calmly, “we should go.”
As soon as he said it, the washers kicked on. With a banging and thumping that made them both jump, they whirled through their brief cycles. Peter and Aidan stood frozen as the machines shuddered against the wall. It took them a moment to realize that someone was coming down the stairs.
“Hide!” the fool hissed, shoving Aidan to the ground. They ducked under the bench and held their breaths as a pair of thick black work boots descended into the basement. “I didn’t leave these lights on,” a deep voice rumbled after a moment, perplexed. The boots stopped moving. Aidan dug his fingers into the nearest thing he could reach for support. Unfortunately, the nearest thing was Peter’s upper arm. By some miracle, the fool managed to stifle a grunt of pain. Together they waited on tenterhooks, pleading with the silence to let them go unnoticed. It was a good thing Aidan didn’t have a heart; it would have burst out of his chest by now. Black-boots was moving around on the other side of the room, carefully checking corners. They heard him open the washers one by one and heft something heavy out of each. Blood and water splattered the ground in runny drops.
Black-boots was humming to himself. It sounded a bit like a song Aidan had heard Eastling play on the piano once—something involving Beethoven and the moon. As he hummed he opened the dryer and began dumping his mysterious bleeding objects inside. That proved to be took much. Peter squirmed out from under the bench and leapt to his feet, grabbing a hammer from the arsenal of tools. “Hey!” he shouted.
Aidan cursed himself for being stupid as he, too, crawled into view and grabbed a weapon, which turned out to be half a scissor. Feeling foolish and terrified, he brandished it in his skeleton hands and stood beside Peter, facing the biggest man he had ever seen. Black-boots was nearly seven feet tall, broad-shouldered, and looked like what might happen if a lumberjack married a yeti. He was wearing a damp, blood-splattered apron over his clothes, and his scraggly black hair and beard seemed to bristle on their own at the sight of the two intruders. A pair of bushy eyebrows contracted in anger over stormy grey eyes, and Aidan decided that this was a sure sign that the man was insane—as if the gore hadn’t given it away. Any normal person would have been terrified to see a walking skeleton in their basement.
In his hands was a body. Battered, bruised, and broken, it hung limply in his meaty palms. It was just barely distinguishable as a woman.
“Put that down,” Peter ordered, his voice slightly higher in pitch than usual.
Black-boots dropped the corpse. It kissed the ground with a wet thud.
“…better,” the fool muttered.
“You’ve come from Sir Hugo?” demanded the rumbling voice.
Peter hesitated. He was too late to hide his evident shock, and even Aidan wouldn’t have believed him when he nodded and said, “Yes. Just checking up on things.”
Two rows of chipped yellow teeth showed themselves as Black-boots smiled. “Right. You can tell Sir Hugo everything’s just fine. Nine and counting. Shipping them out tonight.”
“Lovely.” The fool flashed a brilliant smile to outdo Black-boots’ twisted one. “Now do you mind telling us the way out so that we can report to him?”
“I know one way.”
Aidan saw it coming. Black-boots stooped, in a motion surprisingly quick for one so enormous, and whipped the mangled body from the floor like a dishrag. There was barely time to duck before the miserable thing went sailing across the room. Peter wasn’t so lucky. The corpse smacked into him, its arms and legs flailing. Aidan was about to rush to his aid, but Black-boots grabbed his arm. There was a sharp crack.
Breaking an arm is designed to be an excruciatingly painful process. But when that same arm is ripped clean off, it has a nasty tendency to set the rest of your remaining bones on fire. Aidan collapsed with an agonized cry at Black-boots’ feet, incapable of fighting back as the yeti lifted him into the air.
“Let’s see how it all fits together,” the deep voice growled above him. “Knee bone connected to the thigh bone, thigh bone connected to the back bone, back bone connected to the neck bone….” He was level with Aidan now, eye to eye socket, and one of his gigantic fists clutched Peter’s discarded hammer. At such an intimate distance, even through all of his crippling pain, one thing hit Aidan harder than any anticipated blow: this man was alive.
The hammer flashed above his skull, swinging downward forever and making him wish he knew how to properly close his eyes. But the pain never came. Instead, a blue blur filled his field of vision, parrying the hammer with a pair of rusty shears.
“I’d rather see how you fit together,” Peter hissed.
Wild and desperate were the depths of the fool’s eyes, and Aidan knew at once that he was about to do something stupid. “Peter,” he cried, “don’t!”
Black-boots’ muscles were bulging as he fought to drive the hammer into that infuriating, impish face, but Peter’s determination was greater. He raised the shears to force his attacker’s arms up and gave a condescending chuckle. “Not so easy now, is it?”
An enraged snarl escaped the giant’s throat. He swung his hammer high into the air, leaving his chest and stomach exposed. Peter seized the opportunity and aimed high, driving the shears into his neck. Black-boots gurgled blood. It spouted from him in thick waves, splashing over the fool’s face. He drew back and watched as the giant fell.
Aidan felt sick. “You killed him,” he said.
“Of course I did.”
“Don’t you think you’ve killed enough people?”
For a second, Aidan thought Peter was going to attack him, too. He looked awful, dripping in red, the corners of his mouth twitching into a scowl. “And…and besides,” Aidan added, “we’ll just have to deal with him all over again. He’ll just cross over the bridge, right?”
The red-stained scowl trickled into a contemplative frown. “Maybe. It will be up to him. But, for the moment, we’re not going to be ripped apart. Speaking of which, where’s your arm?”
They searched through the blood and broken things. Aidan was about to give up when the fool knelt and gave a soft, “Oh.” He straightened, holding the upper part of the arm. “I think one of us stepped on it. Sorry, Bare Bones.”
There wasn’t really a proper response to this sort of situation. At least, Aidan couldn’t think of how you were meant to respond to your disembodied arm being in two pieces, one of which had been crushed into a fine powder. He took the intact piece from Peter, holding it awkwardly in one hand. Something boiled inside him, something between laughter and tears. It was so absurd. So very absurd.
“Sorry,” the fool said again. He sounded as if he meant it. “That wasn’t the one you paint with, was it?”
It was. The thought hadn’t even crossed his mind when Black Boots had ripped the vital limb from its socket. But now that it was here, crushed into pieces….hysterical panic threatened to swamp his brain. He barely even noticed Peter tugging on his shoulder and didn’t hear when the fool spoke.
“Tristan,” he hissed at last, giving him another nudge. “Let’s go, eh? Up the stairs, find a way out? Get back on track?”
“Yeah,” Aidan nodded absently. “Yeah, let’s.”
They ascended from the blood-stained depths of the basement into a hallway that could have belonged to any random middle-class house. Peter was dripping Black Boots’ blood on the carpet. The crimson stains followed them past several doors, and Aidan could just see a glimpse of a comfortable sitting area when a door to their left produced a soft ‘thump, thump, thump,’ followed by the meekest, most pathetic whimper he had ever heard.
“Please,” said the voice. “Please, help.”
They exchanged glances in the hallway, and Aidan was ashamed to be thinking the same thing that was so clearly written on Peter’s bloody features. Neither of them wanted to stop. They wanted to move on, to not get involved in whatever mess this was. For Peter to feel that way was one thing, but Aidan didn’t have the excuse of having killed himself too many times to care about other people’s fates. With no small amount of disgust at his hesitance, he tried the handle. Unsurprisingly, it was locked.
“Here, let me,” Peter sighed. The fool took a step back and then aimed a firm kick. It was a very well-practiced move, and the door sprung wide open.
Inside were crates. They were the right size for large dogs, but not so much for humans, which were what they contained. There were five of them, and each held a woman. Four of the ladies were corpses. The smell they putrefied the air with was atrocious, at least so Peter’s expression indicated. Aidan moved into the room while he stayed at the door with a sleeve over his nose.
The fifth crate held a girl both younger and darker-skinned. Her hair had been shaven and her clothes were a mass of sweat and blood. She was too thin, and her trembling hands gripped the bars of her crate with the last ounce of strength she had to pull herself up and face her saviors. However, when she saw Aidan, she simply began to cry.
“No,” she sobbed, letting her hands fall and sinking down inside the crate. “No, no, no, no….”
“It’s okay,” Aidan said. “We’re going to get you out.”
She shook her head and lay where she was, sobbing into the ruined folds of her shirt.
“Peter,” Aidan called, “I could use your help.”
“Oh, like she’s going to feel more comfortable with me” the fool shot back. “Blood stains are much more pleasant than bones.”
“I meant with the crate.”
Peter joined him and knelt beside the crate door. He examined it for a moment and then straightened. “No good. I’ll need a couple of things. Let me search the house.”
Aidan nodded. He waited until the fool had left before speaking to the girl again. “What’s your name?” When she didn’t respond, he took a few steps back and sat cross-legged on the floor. “That man is gone,” he said. “My friend…well, he killed him. I lost an arm. But you’re safe now. We can get you home, or to a police station, or wherever you’d like.”
“I’m hungry,” she whispered.
“I’m sure we can find something. There’s bound to be something here. We’ll look as soon as we get you out.”
She lifted her head just a bit and looked at him, her thin brows wrinkling in a frown. “Who’s your friend? With the red hair and the blue coat?”
“He’s called Peter.”
“Um, yeah,” Aidan replied. “How do you know that?”
“And what’s your name?”
He hesitated. “I’m not sure, any more. How do you know Peter?”
She forced herself to sit up, her arms shaking with the effort. “He killed my dad. You may as well leave me in here, unless you can promise that he won’t harm me. And even then….” She smiled wryly and wiped a tear from her eye. “And even then, I won’t believe you. So I suppose it doesn’t matter. Guess I’m dead no matter what, huh?”
“That’s not true,” said Aidan. “I swear we won’t hurt you. I’m sorry about your dad. What was his name?”
The fool came back, carrying two bulging key rings. “Why pick locks when you can just open them, eh? This might take a bit.” He sat down in front of the crate, completely oblivious to the tension and shock that permeated the room. Aidan and the girl let him work in silence, each wary, each absorbing things the other had said. Finally, Aidan could take it no longer.
“I may be slightly busy at the moment. What?”
“You can work while you talk. Tell me about Aidan Lawrence. And Tristan Hathaway.”
The fool cast a glare over his shoulder. “What, now? Bare Bones, this is a fairly terrible time, and the young lady doesn’t need our drama.”
“She’s part of it. She’s Aidan’s daughter.”
Peter dropped the keys. “She’s what?” He stared at the girl in the crate, and as he did Aidan saw recognition blossom in his eyes. “…that’s right. That’s right, he had a girl. What were you, five?” Her only response was a stone-cold stare that made him look down and pick up the keys again. “I’m sorry. But your dad was a deadbeat, pardon the pun. He was a terrible artist, an alcoholic, a junkie, and he kept horrible company. I probably gave you a better life in the long run.”
“Yeah,” the girl snarled, her eyes brimming with angry tears. “Otherwise I might’ve ended up in a cage in some psychopath’s house or something.”
“…I somehow get the impression that was your own fault.”
“You’re a bastard.”
“It’s possible. I really don’t remember.”
“Not nice.” He finished working his way through the first key ring and set it aside.
“Tell her why you killed him, Peter,” said Aidan.
“Are you enjoying this, Bare Bones?”
He shrugged. “No. But she deserves to know. We both deserve the whole story.”
Peter stopped, slamming the keys down. “Fine. Fine. I killed your father, burned him alive, because that’s what I do for Sir Hugo Averick. Because he’s a monster who’s been building his perfect company of souls for centuries. Because I couldn’t remember a time I didn’t do as he asked and because I just can’t seem to care, anymore.”
“I thought you said my dad was a terrible artist?”
“He was. But he was an artist, which was all I needed. An artist who wouldn’t be missed, except for by an annoying little girl. An artist whom I could make indistinguishable from any other skeleton, so that Sir Hugo would believe I’d collected someone new instead of…brought back someone old.”
The fool said this with a pointed glance at Aidan, who sat up a bit straighter as understanding began to sink in. He let Peter go on, not wanting to interrupt, wanting to make sure that he was right.
“…you were so close,” the fool sighed. “You had found something, I was sure of it. I let you get away with it, let you keep working. I wanted you to be right. I wanted you to show me something I couldn’t ignore. Sir Hugo watches me night and day; there was no chance in hell I was doing any investigating on my own. I needed someone else to satisfy my theories and unrest. And you were so close….when he found you out and made me send you back to the road, I made up my mind to bring you back and let you finish what you’d started.”
“Why don’t I remember anything?” Aidan asked. He was starting to get overwhelmed. “This would have been so much easier if you’d let me keep my memories.”
The fool smiled a bit and shook his head. “You were…you are a good man, Tristan. No one would ever believe any lie you told. It’s why you were caught the first time. You had to truly think you were Aidan Lawrence if I had any chance of smuggling you back in.”
“So where’s my dad?” interrupted the girl. She had been listening attentively, her hands gripping the bars again. “Where did he go, in all of this?”
Peter shrugged. “No idea. All I did was kill him. He might have crossed the bridge, or he might have passed on. Who knows?”
“No,” she cried. “That’s not good enough!”
He raised an eyebrow and started to say something, but she interrupted him, her voice wild with fury and heart-break. “I’ve spent all of this time looking for him! I’ve tried everything! I…I got my godfather killed for this, and you…you sit there and tell me that you don’t know what happened to him?! You killed him just as some…some cover-up?! That he was nothing?!”
“What do you want me to say?” Peter replied. “I can’t change what I did.”
A wretched, animal sound of loss tore itself from her throat. She struck the bars of the crate with both palms and…the door opened. For a brief moment the tension of the situation diffused, and all three of them stared numbly at each other. Then Peter offered her a hand. Her fury wrestled with her, playing out in tremors and tears, but at last she reached out and let him help her from the crate. Her legs were not strong enough to hold her, but she crawled and collapsed in his arms, sobbing into his blood-stained blue coat. Aidan watched the miserable scene in silence, feeling sick and regretful, though he had done nothing wrong. “I promised we’d get her to safety,” he said quietly.
Peter nodded. “Give her a minute. We’ll look; this guy’s bound to have a phone. We’ll get the police here and she’ll be all right.”
Aidan watched him stroke the girl’s back, soothing her as she shivered and sobbed against him, and knew that that was farthest from the truth. He saw in the way her hands clutched Peter’s sleeves that she was never going to be all right—not really. It was a sad state of things when your only comfort came from the man who had ruined your life.
(TCOS continues on Thursday evening. In the meantime, follow us on Instagram @companyofsouls!)