Thursday, February 27, 2014

Ten Acts of Penance - A Serialized Release

*Note:  Welcome to Ten Acts of Penance, a serialized work which shall be released through my blog in installments averaging 2-3/month. Each chapter will be archived separately, though the book will build toward a cohesive whole. For anyone joining midstream, each chapter will for the most part be able to stand on its own, but this intro and a link to the prologue  will be provided with every release, as it will serve as a reference/launching point for any ensuing chapter. As with pretty much anything I present here, I welcome feedback and suggestions in the comments section, as they will prove very useful when I edit for a final draft of the completed book.

I hope you enjoy! 

Ten Acts of Penance

A Serialized Release

And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away…
Revelation 21


It was as though a bit of consolation from God.
To bestow such a thoroughly inhospitable morning with such tinges of beauty. For it was cold; brutally so. The first snow of the winter had fallen, but then the temperatures had done the same, precipitously so, bringing with them inhuman gusts of chilled air, and sculpting puffs of downy flakes into frozen, crystallized clumps. The roads were what worried Liam the most. Plows had cleared most of the snow--save for the thin sprinkling which had fallen in the hours since--but it was the frozen slick which lay beneath that posed the greatest danger. He did not wish his family to go out in these conditions, but Emma had already missed dance class the previous Saturday and she didn't want to miss again. "She really wants to go," his wife Moira said, offering her best attempt at a reassuring smile. "It's only a few miles."
His wife and daughter bundled up and he went to the door with them and when he opened it the cold punched him like a frozen fist. His body tensed and quivered and his lungs frosted. But then he noticed the beauty. When the wind stopped it was like a perfect and still sea of white. The tree branches were sheathed in frozen silver and as the wind whispered back to life the smaller branches swayed and clinked like a forest of chimes.
He leaned down to kiss Emma but she had already bounded out the door, into the cold, darting across their snow-crusted lawn to the car. “Emma!” Moira called, following their daughter. “Wait. The car’s not unlocked yet.” Liam caught the screen door on its back-swing; it was frozen to the touch. He shuddered in the doorway as he watched  Moira unlock the car and help Emma—who was so heavily layered that she required the assistance—into the back seat.
“Bye Daddy!”  Precious breath spiraled out from the backseat as Moira buckled Emma and then stood back up and started to shut the door. “I love you!”
He called back out to her but no sound came at first, so frozen had his lungs become.  The car door slammed shut just as he found his voice.
“I love you too!”  Had she heard him? Moira scampered into the driver’s seat and he watched her turn the ignition with tremulous fingers. The car sputtered faithlessly to life, and Liam watched as Moira backed it out of the driveway. The tires spun and spit as she attempted to drive forward now, but finally they gained purchase and slowly rolled away. He stared out after them, into the unblinking whiteness, until the sound of wheels crunching over frozen snow grew fainter and could be heard no more.

Emma loved the first snow of the season, always had. She would part the drapes of their large bay windows in the living room and stare out with big eyes as though their house had been plucked by a giant hand in the still of night and set down in some arctic paradise. Best of all was if school had been canceled, because she got to stay in her pajamas as late as she wanted, have hot chocolate and a big breakfast, then bundle up and venture out into the powdery wonderland. She savored those first few steps outside, because everything was hushed and beautiful and the snow was new and undisturbed, save for fleeting, tiny tracks from intrepid animals and together they would try to figure which tracks were which.  “It’s perfect, Daddy,” she would say, and he could only nod and squeeze her small, mittened hand, because, he knew, it was.

Their neighbor Pete, a small, graying widower, would usually be out shoveling his driveway and Liam would grab a shovel and help him. Emma would grab her sled and hoof through the snow across Pete’s yard and he would see her coming and withdraw from his coat pocket a jangling ring of keys.
“Come along, then,” he’d say, and she would follow him around to his back yard, where neighbor kids loved to come when it snowed because he had the very best hill. It was long, deep and sloped down to a surprisingly vast meadow. In the spring and summer the meadow filled with flowers and birds and the kids loved to come to his yard in those months too, so they could scamper down the great hill and run and laugh in the meadow. Once Moira and Emma had worn matching sundresses and come to the meadow to run and dance and Liam had snapped a photo of them at the most perfect moment, as the fading light of sunset washed over them, and they were more perfect than angels. But so many people had taken to cutting through Pete’s yard that some time ago he’d erected a fence, which he kept locked, only opening it for those whom he wished to let through. Children always were permitted, but Pete was far less indulgent with adults. He would hold court in a rickety-looking wooden chair and sometimes joked with the children, asking them to identify themselves by their full and formal names, last name first, followed by first then middle. Knightly, Emma Rose, delighted in doing so and her giggles could be heard long after the door had swung open and she’d gamboled past.
Liam looked out now at the tracks Emma had made in her jaunt across the lawn. He worried again that she hadn’t heard him and this worry became heavy within him, like an anchor.
He released his grip on the screen door, and it swung back and clanked loudly against the frame and he expected for a moment that it would shatter like ice. He pushed the front door shut and stood for a while, inert, too cold to think or move. When at last he thawed into locomotion, he trudged in his stocking feet into the kitchen, poured some coffee and shuffled into the living room, where he sunk into the easy chair across from the mantle. He sipped his coffee and it warmed him and he gazed at the photos atop the mantle. Mostly pictures of Emma, and most of the rest of all three of them. His life, all that mattered, in frames. Moira had insisted on keeping his citation for valor on the mantle too, which he appreciated but was always a bit embarrassed about. Valor and vanity did not make good bedfellows.
Not that he wasn’t proud of his calling and his service. He was a 21-year veteran of the force—having joined when he was 21, in fact-- and had given his all to his duty and had the respect of his peers. “Liam Knightly is, quite simply, the finest detective we’ve ever had,” Captain Kowalski had proclaimed at the ceremony where he’d received his citation. Again he’d been simultaneously humbled yet abashed—every other honest man and woman who walked a beat or served their community were every bit as deserving of accolade as he. But his parents would have been proud, and he’d wished they could have been there. They’d reminded him more than once through the years that his given name carried with it a meaning and purpose, and that his chosen field was anything but circumstantial.

And so he appreciated the award and the words of his captain but knew to whatever degree each might be warranted, such estimation did not owe to being the very smartest or very toughest cop around, for he was neither of these things. He was pretty smart, observant, read and understood people well. But there were a dozen people on the squad whose IQs easily eclipsed his. He was reasonably tough, but not someone who would strike fear in your heart were you to see him coming towards you in an alley. Not like Sergeant Moberly, the 310-pound ex-pugilist whose square, battered features left little mystery as to his former vocation. And not even like Detective Mallory, one of two females walking the beat and who’d bested every single man on the force in arm-wrestling, save for Moberly, of course. No he wasn’t the toughest but he was as tough as was required, and he did not desire to be any more so than that.  He kept his gun locked in a safe on the highest shelf of his and Moira's bedroom closet; he’d known of too many tragedies of children getting a hold of their parents’ guns.  He wasn’t the smartest or toughest but had he been inclined to accept any measure of felicitation it would have been that he was if nothing else, dogged. Relentless. A keeper of his bond.  The word “unsolved” and the notion of a “cold case” were anathema to him, for they were freighted with unpalatable connotations of injustice. For 21 years he had seen every case through to the often bitter end. He knew no other way. And so he was grateful for the commendation but thought to himself upon receiving it that it owed more than anything to his ability to have stayed alive as long as he had.
He sipped more coffee and its warmth soothed him and he found himself drifting off so he placed the mug down on the stand adjacent the easy chair, beside the phone. Sleep came quickly.
~                    ~                    ~                    ~                    ~              
When the phone rang, he knew.
He could not consciously fathom how a ring could sound different than any of the infinite number which had preceded it, but he’d had the terrible responsibility to place such calls on more occasions than he’d care to remember, and more than once the person on the receiving end had later shared that this was indeed the case. It was merely a ring, a sound—but it presaged the death of his world and so too of him and only now could he fathom it.

From those terrible times when he’d borne the sad duty of placing the call or paying the visit, he’d also learned that those on the receiving end pray instantly to awaken, that their sudden nightmare be revealed to be just that. He’d seen their faces and watched whole pieces of them die when they could not awaken. And in this way his torment in this moment was different, worse, if only because his experience now denied him of those fleeting moments of denial.
He staggered to the front door and threw it open and the frozen air lashed at him and he felt nothing but stared out at the yard. He could hear the sirens and they sounded close, less than a mile off, and the bile churned in his stomach and he doubled over where he stood and was sick. He could still see the prints Emma had left as she’d crossed through the first snow of the season on the way to the car. They trailed away and were filling with more snow and would soon be gone.
What consolation he had somehow ascribed to God not one hour ago, he could not recall. He cursed God now, then went to the mantle and grabbed the picture of his wife and daughter in their sundresses. He stumbled up the stairs to his and Moira’s bedroom, clutching the framed picture to his chest. It occurred to him that he should have dispatched of his citation, for what he was to do was the most cowardly of all acts. He went to the bedroom closet, and reached for the highest shelf.
~                    ~                    ~                    ~                     ~       
He was in the wrong place.
He had awakened to a shimmering vision of golden light which was not of the world he had once known. It emanated from a panel of pearled gates, three to a side, in front of which stood a man. In one hand was clutched a ledger, inscribed with the most ancient of text; in the other was a reed, gleaming from the inside out with the same golden brilliance as the gates at which its owner presided. The man wore simple, white robes, and his hair and beard were thick and white as well. From a pocket within his robes protruded a ring of crossed keys—one gold, one silver.

Liam stepped forward, toward the gates and toward the man, for he must tell him there had been the gravest of mistakes. But now he stopped.
For now he could make out that there were others walking before him, a woman and a child—a girl. He called out but they did not turn; he ran toward them, but got no closer.

“Knightly, Emma Rose.”

Liam’s heart, which had died once on this day, froze.
The man looked up, and offered the child the kindest of smiles. He withdrew the key ring and inserted one into the center gate before which they stood. It swung open and there was the sound of chimes and now the man said, “Come along, then.”

Liam watched as his wife and child moved on past the gates and now he was moving, closer at last, but as he neared the scene began to fade. The gates were reshaping, losing their brilliance, and the man in the robes was changing too. His hair darkened slightly from white into gray, his attire shifted and discolored, and now his possessions transformed as well: the golden reed dulled to a darker, mahogany hue, and the gold and silver cross of keys twisted and jangled into a key ring of more pedestrian variety.
The gates were closing and Liam ran for them, for the woman and girl who stood beyond them, watching him, waving to him. It was too late. Again, too late. The gates closed and he could not see past them but he saw now that they were not of pearls but of wood, and their sentinel was one he knew.

“Pete,” he said to the little, gray man, who sat in a rickety-looking wooden chair reading from a ledger. The man raised an index finger.
“A moment,” he said.  “Name, please.”
Liam stared. “It’s me,” he said. “It’s Liam.”

The man looked up. “Ah yes. Knightly, Liam Will. We’ve been expecting you. But you shouldn’t be here, you know.”

He’d been right about that. Liam looked around him. All which he’d awakened to had transformed completely and he was, far as he could tell, back home, next door, in Pete’s backyard. Pete regarded him patiently.
“You are seeing what I wish you to see,” he told Liam. “That which you are capable of seeing and comprehending. Yours is a soul not yet moved on.”

“But I’m dead. I...”

“Yes. We know. And you must know that what you did was an affront to God. And, he heard you, if you must know.”

“Heard me?”

“Your last mortal words.” Pete’s voice lowered. “In which you mentioned HIM.”

“I am sorry.”

“He knows this too. But the word of the Lord is sanctified, irrevocable.”

“Then why am I here? Why torment me by showing me my daughter, my wife? Losing them put me in hell already. If I cannot join them now, why not cast me there and be done with it.”

Pete twirled the key ring around his finger. The keys clanked. “I said what you did was a sin. But why would you presume the Lord to be unforgiving?”

Liam stared at the keys.
“You will let me in?”

“Ah well, matters such as these are never that simple.” Pete slowly unfolded himself from his chair and arose with a groan. “I’ve been sitting here too long,” he said, and now his voice dropped to a whisper. “HE owes me something of a leave, after all. And I do think I’m overdue for an adventure. But we must determine here and now what it is this means to you, what it is you’re prepared to do.”

“To be with my family? Anything.”

Pete stretched his back, nodded, and leaned on his cane.
“I thought as much. Then it’s decided. We leave immediately. Ten Acts.”

“Ten Acts?”

“You’re a smart man,” Pete said. “You see things. You were a great detective. The best.  There is always a price to be paid.”

“Ten Acts of penance.”

“Each greater than the lifetime of your cases combined; each greater than that which precedes it. We will travel to different places, different times.  I shall be known only by you. Tell me—how is that you were able to solve every case brought before you?”

“It was my sworn duty to do so.”

“Indeed. But so too for all who shared your calling. Few succeeded as you did. Look inside. What drove you?”Pete slowly raised his cane and touched the tip of it to Liam’s heart. It suddenly blazed alive with the same golden incandescence as had the reed. Liam closed his eyes as vivid memories along with every emotion he’d experienced with each case flooded over him. Mystery, resolution, joy, pain.
“The people,” he whispered. “Parents, children, siblings, friends. They deserved resolution.  Truth, peace, justice.”

“Yes,” Pete said. “And so too shall those you are to encounter. Your duty is now to them. They have seen injustice, darkness, evil. Do you renounce those things?”


“And you will as is required do battle?”

“Yes. But may I know—why ten?”

Pete twirled his keys again and slipped on a worn-looking, beige jacket and a gray flat-cap, as if from nowhere. “Many reasons,” he said wistfully. “There are Ten Commandments, ten clauses of the Lord’s Prayer. Ten plagues of Egypt. Ten trials for Abraham. Ten is your price of redemption.”

Liam looked at the closed wooden gates, wishing he could see beyond.

“Then,” he said, “I shall pay it.”

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