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Heaven and Earth: Episode Three

Mac O'Roni

Now, when you die your life goes on.
It doesn’t end here when you’re gone.
Every soul is filled with light.
It doesn’t end, and if I’m right,
Our love can even reach across eternity.
I believe. Oh, I believe.

Forever you’re a part of me,
Forever in the heart of me.
I would hold you even longer if I can.
Now the people who don’t see the most
Can see that I believe in ghosts,
And if that makes me crazy, then I am,
‘Cause I believe. Oh, I believe.

There are more than angels watching over me,
I believe. Oh, I believe.

—“I Believe,” Diamond Rio

     It was as Gambit expected. The thieves objected, strongly, to the idea of going out after a possible demon. The assassins, always spoiling for a fight, cheered the plan, though not a one of them excepting Bella Donna had any respect for him or his thieves or intended to do what he told them to do unless Bella Donna made them, which she undoubtedly would.
     “If dis is what Tante Mattie wants us to do, dat’s what we gon’ do,” Emil argued, relieved that he wouldn’t be the only one going along.
     “We follow our patriarch,” Bella Donna announced. “Where he goes, we go.”
     “You gon’ get us all killed,” Theoren warned.
     “You gon’ be dere,” Gambit said calmly, “’cause Tante Mattie tol’ me dat’s de way it’s gotta be. You can all hide in de storm sewers for all a’ me.”
     “You think we gon’ let you t’ieves have all de fun?” an assassin named Fifolet sneered. “If dey’s fightin’ t’do, you better jus’ leave it t’us. Everybody knows t’ieves ain’t no fighters, nohow.”
     “Considering Remy could kick your sorry ass from here to Lafayette, Fif, mebbe you better rephrase dat,” Bella Donna said. “’Bout de only one here you could fight better dan be Lapin.”
     “Hey, at leas’ wait ‘til I’m outta d’room, hahn?” Emil complained.
     “If we wait f’you t’leave us alone before we start talkin’ behind you back, Red, we’d never get t’do it at all,” Mercy observed.
     “Jus’ what exactly are we s’posed t’do t’night?” Genard Alouette asked, always the most sensible one. “How do we fin’ a demon, an’ how do we fight it, an’ what do we do if people start dyin’? Dey ain’ dat many of us lef’ t’begin wit’, ya know.”
     That was only partly true. There were hundreds of guild thieves in New Orleans, and scores of assassins. But the Masters, the ones who were the true Thieves and Assassins, were an endangered species. There were only nine such thieves, two of which were more or less useless for fighting, being an accountant and a librarian, and only five master assassins. Only twelve real forces altogether. That should have been more than enough, given a single opponent. But they didn’t know their opponent this time, And with the exception of Gambit himself and possibly Zoë, who hadn’t said a word one way or the other yet, none of the thieves believed they could beat this thing with an army, let alone the tiny force they had.
     A correction. Emil was certain he could be no help in facing a real demon. However, in spite of some fears and reservations, he couldn’t honestly imagine a situation that Remy couldn’t handle. Since childhood he had held his cousin in esteem that approached hero worship. Even though he was a grown man now, a lot of those childhood ideas still had a hold over him. As much as life had taught him that no man was immortal, he couldn’t make himself believe, nor did he want to believe, that Remy could die.
     “Findin’ dis t’ing ain’ gon’ be no problem, Gen,” Gambit said. “I figure it gon’ come lookin’ f’us. Or mebbe I should say me.”
     “What makes you say that?” Zoë asked.
     “Red t’ought de demon’s message was intended f’me. Seems reasonable enough, an’ why not? Everyt’ing else roun’ here want me dead. An’ Tante Mattie seemed pretty sure it was aft’ me, too.”
     “We should jus’ han’ ‘im over. Mebbe it’ll go ‘way an’ leave us alone,” Gris-Gris muttered low.
     Bella Donna rounded on the assassin, ready to fight, but Gambit raised his hand and she stilled to listen.
     “Gris-Gris is right,” he said. “Chances are good dat I’m all dis t’ing wants, or it wouldn’t ‘ve let ‘Mil go las’ night. Dat’s why I want t’do dis alone, t’keep de res’ a’ you out’n it. Genard is right; dey ain’ enough of us lef’ t’risk on somet’in like dis. Dis a democratic guild, so we gon’ put it t’vote. Who here t’ink we ought t’ stan’ toget’er, an’ mebbe die, an’ who here t’ink I ought t’ face dis t’ing alone?”
     “I’d like t’make a third proposition,” Tante Mattie drawled sardonically from the council room’s doorway. “I propose we all take turns smackin’ you upside you damn fool head.”
     “All d’ose in favor?” Emil quipped, raising his hand. Gambit wilted him with a glare. His glares were particularly effective since his eyes tended to glow menacingly when he did so. No one else quite dared to laugh at the joke.
     Tante Mattie came into the room and stood behind Gambit’s chair. She wore a large rucksack slung over her shoulder. “You all comin’; dis ain’ debatable,” she said. “An’ you all gon’ be dere t’fight if you gotta. Remy’ll do mos’ of it, I’m sure, since he de one d’demon be after in de firs’ place. ‘Sides dat, he got de bes’ chance of any of us. We gon’ be his insurance policy, an’ make sure dis t’ing don’ get a chance t’hurt ‘im.”
     She unzipped the bag and started pulling out waxed paper bundles. She distributed these among the thieves and assassins, looking for all the world like the slightly harried mother of a number of unruly teenage children. She plunked a bundle down on the table in front of Remy. He didn’t have to open it to know that it contained one of her enormous homemade “po’ boy” sandwiches.
     “I wish you’d reconsider gettin’ de whole guild involved in dis, Mattie,” he said.
     “I won’t. Now shut up an’ eat.” She picked his sandwich up and slammed it into his chest as though passing him a football. He obediently unwrapped the po’ boy and took a big bite. He was surprised to discover that he was actually kind of hungry. He needed no coaxing to finish the sandwich.
     Lunch over, the Assassins returned to their own Safe House and the Thieves settled down to play the waiting game, each in their own way. Emil and Mercy shot billiards while Genard beguiled the time with Solitaire. Claude paced from room to room like a restless ghost, Theoren disappeared in his usual manner, and Zoë meditated in her room. There was a time when Remy would have been chalking up his cue, ready and willing to show cousin and sister-in-law a thing or two about pool. But that was before he became The Boss, and a rift opened up between himself and his old friends. He wondered if his father had felt this way. He supposed so, to some extent. But the truth was, Remy had never really felt a part of this…organization. Or this family.
     He went back to the library, where he was at least assured of privacy, and sat in the big wingback armchair by the bookcases, but he didn’t read. He didn’t think he could possibly concentrate on a book. His insides were all working loose in a nervous jitterbug that he would die before he would allow to show. Never let on that you are subject to normal human fears and foibles, that was the mantra he had lived by since long before he became Remy LeBeau. All his life, in fact, and wasn’t that a sad commentary, ladies and gents? You bet your shit-stompin’ boots it was.
     He sat back in the chair, his long legs stretched out before him and crossed at the ankles, and closed his eyes. He wasn’t quite meditating, but he wasn’t exactly not meditating, either. He forced his breathing to slow down and even out, and he focused on his own heartbeat, listening to it, feeling the rapid, nervous beatbeatbeatbeatbeat gradually turning into a reasonably sedate beatbeat, beatbeat, beatbeat. Not a natural state for him, and he was already more than halfway asleep. If someone were to walk into the room right then, they might have thought he was actually sinking into the upholstery, becoming a part of the chair. They might even have thought that there was no one in the room at all. Remy had a remarkable ability to disappear when he wanted to.
     The room was very private—no one quite dared enter the patriarch’s sanctum sanctorum without express permission though neither he nor his father had ever made an issue of it—but he began to feel as if he weren’t quite totally alone nevertheless. Maybe it was just heavy memories—the world seemed full of them these days—but somehow it felt a little more than that. It felt like a ghost. No big deal. This was New Orleans. There were ghosts on every corner and in every room. But he was afraid he knew this ghost, knew it very well, and he felt a dull stab from the general region of his heart.
     “Papa?” he ventured. His voice was slurred and he sounded almost drugged. There was no response, not even a cold draft. Well, what had he expected? His father had never exactly been the chatty type.
     The room was stuporifically warm, it seemed, and growing warmer. All just a side-effect of the relaxation technique he used, just as was that feeling that he was not alone in the room, undoubtedly. He stretched indolently, and his left arm fell limply off the arm of the chair, dangling long, his loosely curled fingers just brushing the plush burgundy-colored carpet. And for whatever reason, probably the last twitchy remnants of his nervous agitation, he lapsed into an old childhood habit: he twisted his hand at the wrist and began plucking at the undercarriage of the chair, that ancient, sort of filmy black fabric that felt like mummy wrappings in dry dead tombs covering the springs and wood laths and whatever the hell else was on the underside of old wingback armchairs.
     It hardly mattered to him, what the average construction of such a chair might be, because he quickly discovered that this one had a distinctive peculiarity. His self-induced stupor fell away instantly and he sat forward, completely alert. His hand found an open slit in the fabric and he reached in. His fingers touched heavy leather. He grabbed the small, neat rectangle and carefully drew it out. A book, a very old-looking book.
     And then his heart gave another stab. Not just a book. A journal. His father’s, undoubtedly. It was old, but still far too new to have been his grandfather’s. Jacques LeBeau had, after all, died in the late 1920s, and was almost completely ga-ga for some twenty years before he finally gave up the ghost, without question too far gone in the head to record sensible thoughts or even to want to try. When the Elixir of Life stopped working, it seemed to do so with a vengeance. Remy was just as glad he’d never had the opportunity to take it.
     Still, a journal didn’t fit what he knew of his father. He couldn’t picture the stolid, confident, and relatively unimaginative Jean-Luc LeBeau ever sitting down with his old fountain pen and jotting down his inner thoughts. He had a hard time believing that his father had inner thoughts, and he had considerably more imagination than the elder LeBeau. Jean-Luc was the sort of man who never appeared to have so much as an instant of doubt, thoughts translating instantly to actions, and not the type to dwell on decisions once made, whether time proved them right or wrong in the end. A big part of his success as patriarch had been due to this uncanny ability to move on, to register mistakes without hesitation and keep on heading down the road, certain never to make the same mistake again. It was a characteristic that Remy did not in any way posses.
     He opened the journal, confident that, in spite of having been carefully hidden—or at least, sufficiently hidden, since no one ever sat in this chair except his father, and now himself—it would be completely empty, except maybe a name and a date on the inside cover, printed in his father’s dark, heavy, no-nonsense script. He just wanted to see that signature, if it was there at all, and that date. And maybe he’d flip through the pages, see if anything fell out. A cash register receipt, maybe, slipped between the pages and forgotten. Just something. Anything. Something to connect this dismal-looking book with its cracked black covers to his father, and thereby his father to himself, tenuous as such a connection might be.
     The signature was there, right on the flyleaf, and so was the date. Earlier than he had expected, and by quite a lot. 1898. Old enough to have been his grandfather’s journal, after all. But the name was Jean-Luc LeBeau’s, not Jacques, and the handwriting was unmistakable. He looked at that steady penmanship for a long time. He thought most of that handwriting analysis stuff was bullshit, at least as bullshit as astrology, but in his father’s case you could tell a lot from the height of his capitals and the tilt of his script. Large. Upright. Clearly legible. Completely without ornamentation. Pragmatic.
     Remy’s own handwriting was anemic and downright loopy. He more often wrote in manuscript, and when he had to sign something he inevitably scribbled it into complete illegibility. He was more than a little ashamed of it. Jean-Luc had always put his son’s sloppy script off to the way the nuns at the Catholic school he’d briefly attended had tried to make him right-handed. Remy himself wasn’t so sure. After all, he was nearly ambidextrous to begin with. Maybe handwriting analysis wasn’t bullshit after all.
     He finally managed to tear his eyes away from the signature and turned to the first page, thinking that one at least may have something written on it, maybe just a practical and completely dull recording of where the journal had come from—a Christmas present, perhaps, or a birthday. He had perhaps known better. If his father had anything at all to record in such a book, it wouldn’t be trivialities.
     Waste not, want not. His father was born in the tail end of the Victorian era, though he retained few if any of that uptight age’s sensibilities, had lived through two world wars and not just a depression, but a Great one, and he was not the type to discard something as useless just because it was old. The first entry on the first page was not from 1898, or even 1900, or 1910. It was dated April 21, 1922, and it was brief—just a couple of sentences. The first sentence was “Vote of Confidence registered in my favor, 10-3.” Terse. The second sentence was phrased just as curtly, though with considerably more emotion hidden just under the surface. “Papa cried.” To underline the sentiment, Jean-Luc had signed the entry as “Judas.” The page was torn a little, an extension of the tail of the s, from the violent pressure of the nib.
     The opposite page was dated with a year of 1941. As he had suspected, his father was not really the journaling type. This one was again just a few sentences, dealing with the guild’s repeated failure to attain the Momentary Princess, that fabulous and unbelievable jewel, but their success in keeping the thing from Hitler’s clutches. Being the imaginative sort he was, Remy was almost overawed by the wealth of history which was completely omitted as inconsequential here in his father’s journal. Jean-Luc LeBeau could never quite understand why Remy was so interested in the dead past, probably because he had lived too much of it himself, though he’d encouraged the interest as any good father would. Clearly, though, his father had never been interested in preserving the past, or the present which was soon to be the past. As Jean-Luc had many times observed himself, he had next to no imagination.
     The next entry commemorated the birth of Henri LeBeau, and there were no actual sentences, just a record of the bare facts: the exact hour, the full name, the birth weight. On the next page, as if it had happened on the following day instead of nearly seventeen years later, was a fairly lengthy (for Jean-Luc) record of a theft.
     “The Antiquary’s clan took the child from the hospital before we had the chance. It turns my stomach to think of that poor kid growing up with that freak, but the council informs me that I have no right to contest his claim. After all, the boy is now the “property” of the Guild, which is all they say matters. They’d rather he was there than here; scared to death of him, every last one of them. Ridiculous.”
     Suddenly the room was cold. The child was, without question, himself. “Papa din’t steal me,” he muttered. “It was d’Antiquary all along.” He wondered. Before we had the chance. If his father had gotten there first, would he have grown up a LeBeau? It seemed at least possible. How much different would he have turned out if life hadn’t had ten years to kick him around before Jean-Luc came along and taught him how to kick back?
     The next few entries were all concerned with him, and all of them were surprisingly loquacious. Apparently he had been quite a thorn in his adoptive father’s side, though just as clearly he was not an unwelcome one. In one passage Jean-Luc indelibly recorded his feelings upon witnessing a Little League game, the state championship up in Baton Rouge. He praised Remy’s pitching, calling him “Nolan Ryan in miniature,” and then spent a long paragraph describing how bright, happy, and beautiful “the boy” looked with the sun in his hair and a genuine smile on his face. “He scares me sometimes,” Jean-Luc had written. “Surely nothing so perfect was ever really intended for this world. What if God realizes He made a mistake, and takes him back?”
     As strong and emotionless as he liked to portray himself even when nobody was around to see, Remy began to cry. The journal slipped out of his numb fingers and fell unheeded to the floor. There was no holding back the tidal surge of grief and loss, even if he had really wanted to try. He hadn’t cried for his missing father; he would do so now. Jean-Luc deserved that much. He turned around in the chair and sobbed into the cushion, his arms thrown around it as though around the broad shoulders he had, as a child, sobbed into once or twice, when the world got too hard to take. He wished he had done that more often. Certainly he’d needed to, but even as a child he hid things inside where they could fester and hurt. He’d killed his heart in slow degrees, he realized, but it was good to know that it wasn’t entirely dead yet. There was enough of it left to hurt like a sonofabitch now.
     Emil had come to the door to invite Gambit to a poker game the others were getting up. He had just raised his fist to knock when his actions were arrested by the first sounds of the patriarch’s sobbing. Stunned, he just stood there, unable to credit what he was hearing. As far as he was concerned, Remy couldn’t die, and Remy didn’t cry.
     And then the wild, almost hysterical cackling began. Electrified out of his daze, Emil pushed open the door without knocking, hard enough that the knob slammed into the wall and the door rebounded, nearly hitting him in the face. “Boss? You okay?” he asked.
     It was as if nothing strange had been happening at all, though he had been fast enough to catch the sudden movement as Remy spun around in the chair so that it appeared he’d been sitting normally. His cheeks were damp but there was no way to prove it was with tears—those strange black eyes never showed bloodshot veins and there was no telltale puffiness around the lids. Gambit looked at his cousin as if it were Emil who was exhibiting signs of possible madness. “I’m fine, Red. Jus’ fine.”
     “I t’ought I heard…I heard you laughin’,” he ventured cautiously.
     Remy nodded. “I did laugh. I jus’ got to t’inkin’ dat my frien’s up in Wes’chester wouldn’ ever b’lieve dat Remy LeBeau ever did somet’in as mom’s homemade apple pie wholesome as play Little League baseball.”
     “Okay,” Emil said slowly, drawing the word out and twisting it into approximately eight syllables. “Um, well, I jus’ come by t’ask you if mebbe you wanted t’play a li’l poker.”
     “T’anks, but no,” he said immediately. Emil’s overly expressive face fell. He nodded and withdrew from the room.
     “Wait,” Gambit said. “I t’ink mebbe I will play. You go on ahead, I be right behin’ ya.” Emil brightened visibly. He closed the door and headed off down the hall. Gambit picked the journal up off the floor and looked at it. He dried his face on the lapels of his coat and bent down to slip the book back into its original hiding place on the underside of the chair. He would look at it again later. Maybe his father had had the courtesy to answer a few nagging questions. Like the one about just where he’d disappeared to and why. He straightened up, and leaped backward as his eyes met another pair, shockingly green and ringed with gold, the pupils no more than thin slits. For an instant he was certain they were the eyes of a demon. Then he scowled.
     “Murph, get outta here,” he said, swatting the big tabby bitchcat off the back of the armchair. Cats prowled the guild safe house with an amusingly proprietary air, as if they were the Patriarchs, with big capital “P”s. They belonged to no one, they were just there. Few of them had names. Murphy was an exception, and the only reason Gambit had named her at all was because of the argumentative, “top cat” attitude she consistently exhibited. She was the Law around here, all right. The cat gave him a huffy “well I never” look and sauntered out the door.
     He looked around the library one last time before heading off for the common room, as if searching for the creature he’d thought he’d seen. He wasn’t looking for monsters, though. He was looking for ghosts. He couldn’t see any, if he had really expected to be able to, but once again he was aware of a second presence in the room, and he was fairly certain it wasn’t feline. “I miss you, Papa,” he said, voice hushed. He seemed to feel a heavy hand on his shoulder. His father hadn’t had thief’s hands; he’d had dock-worker’s hands. Nevertheless they were hands that could be as light as the breeze when they needed to be. Rumpled in spirit but feeling a little better than he’d felt in perhaps the whole of the past year, Remy went to join his guild in a game of cards.
     He was feeling magnanimous. He might even let someone else win a hand or two.

To Be Continued...