To Free a Ghost: A Tale of Zodom
by Stuart North
It was the night before my life began again when the ghost came calling at my door.
“Hello,” I said.
“Hello,” said the ghost.
“A fine evening.”
“If you say so.”
I noticed the ghost was shivering, though it was not at all cold. Something like eyes peered out through the mess of hair hanging over his face and there was a sickly smell coming from him, like old sweat mixed with syrup.
I said, “I’m afraid that I have little money. But if you’d like a hot cup of kasha...”
“I don’t want money or kasha,” the ghost said. “I want to speak to you, Shaliol Quickfingers.”
I blinked once. The ghost’s voice was insubstantial like its body, a fleeting thing. It came to me like snatches of speech caught on a breeze. I could so easily pretend I’d never heard it. I looked back a moment to see that we were still alone, then ushered him into the small, cramped quarters I called my home.
The remains of my work still covered the table. I cleared them to one side and sat down. From the kitchen door the warm light of the butter lantern cast its glow.
“You know my name,” I said. “That means that you know my real profession. You must also know that I’ve retired from all that.”
“No one retires from that.”
He looked about the room, still shivering. He licked his lips. “You used to be one of the best ever, so they say. They said you could pick any lock in Zodom.”
“I could pick any lock in any city in the world. But, like I told you, that’s in the past now.”
A chair shifted in the kitchen. Shifted and was silent again.
The ghost was staring at the pile of metal parts that occupied half of the table like the hoarded bones of small animals. “What are those?” he asked.
“They don’t look like any locks I’ve ever seen.”
“That’s because they’re in parts.”
“Were you disassembling them?”
“No, the opposite actually. It’s my profession. I learnt to make locks before I learnt to pick them. But won’t you sit down?”
“Sitting is painful for me.”
I looked at the shivering figure holding himself with his reed-thin arms as if he would fly apart. I said, “How far gone are you?”
“About three days.”
“Are you sure you don’t want any kasha, or perhaps some spittle tea? It may help to sooth the pain.”
He shook his head. “We need your help.”
“All of us. Sleen addicts.”
I pushed back the chair. “Look,” I said. “I don’t know what anyone told you but I was never into that game. Burglaries, jail breaks, that was the extent of it.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“We need you to free a man.”
“Oldom Ferdoma. Do you know him?”
“The sleen milker?”
“Aye,” I said. “I know Oldom. Knew his father as well. When was he put away?”
“A few days ago. Oldom likes to drink, just like his old man. Likes to get into fights too. He got into a big one with a bunch of Captain Anur’s men a few days back. They busted him up good and threw him in the drunk cells over on Fort Street.”
“So Oldom’s indisposed. Can’t you go to another dealer?”
“Isn’t Robos still in business?”
“Not since he got mauled by his own milk mother.”
“Dead. Sleen poisoning.”
I sighed. “The Fort Street prisons are pretty heavily guarded. How’d you expect to get me in there?”
“We thought you’d have an idea.”
I shook my head. “You want my advice? Sweat it out for another day or so. If I know Anur, he’ll have a finger in the pie somewhere. It’s not in his interests to keep Oldom locked up and off the streets.”
“That’s the thing. In this instance it is.”
“You’ve heard about the break-ins over on Mansion Hill?”
“Who hasn’t?” I smiled. “I heard even Ushma himself got targeted.”
“Ushma, Molassar, all the fatcats. The Merchants’ Guild have come down hard on Anur. He can no longer sit back and do nothing. He needs a scapegoat.”
“And that scapegoat is you?”
He nodded. “Who better? Us sleen addicts, we’re ghosts. We can walk through a crowd of people in broad daylight and nobody would know we’re there. We can take whatever we want whenever we want. We’re the perfect thieves.”
He raised his arm, let it fall. “Look at us, Shaliol. We can barely lift a pouch of coins between us, let alone a chestful of them.”
“So you’re saying you’re not responsible. Fine. So who is?”
“We wish we knew. Until we do, Anur is going to keep Oldom in custody till we all go into fatal withdrawal and start to die off, which will be in about a day or so.”
I looked at the ghost standing in my home and said, “I still don’t know your name.”
“My name? What does it matter?”
“I like to know the names of the people I’m doing business with.”
The ghost rose up a little. “My name was... Berevind.”
“And you want me to spring Oldom for you?”
“It’s not a matter of want, it’s a matter of need.”
“And the payment?”
“Anything. Name it.”
I glanced toward the kitchen where the lamp still cast its waxy light. I felt my heart beating, though whether from fear or elation I couldn’t say. Something inside me seemed to perch on an invisible tightrope above an endless abyss. I wet my tongue, parted my lips and said: “The Gigimintu. Do you know of it?”
“The Soul Prison?”
“That’s the one.”
“What about it?”
“I can break any lock in existence but I can’t make myself invisible. Could you... get inside?”
“If you get me past the main gate, yes.”
I hesitated, but just for a moment. “Then here is my price: retrieve something for me. Do that, and I free your friend. Deal?”
A sad smile appeared in the region of his face. “I can’t really say no, can I? I suppose there’ll be dangers?”
“Only if you’re careless. You can’t work alone. Get about three or four more of your brothers and meet me in the prayer grounds in an hour’s time? I need to get my things ready. All right?”
“Then leave me.”
And just like that, I realized I was alone.
Had I slept? I wondered. The words were already fading like a dream. I got up from the table and went into the kitchen.
Hollea sat where I had left her. She was staring at a patch of wall with idiot intensity, an unreadable expression on her face. I knelt beside her and tried to look her in the eye.
“My dear,” I said, “I have to go away. But when I return I hope to bring you with me.”
“And when we are both together again, we will leave this vile city and never look back.”
I kissed her gently on the forehead, and went back into my workroom.
It was a different room from the one I’d left. I cursed lightly and smiled. The ghost had been right, damn him. Men like me never retire. We only ignore our past and hope it doesn’t come knocking at our door one night.
* * *
The Gigimintu is a vast, crumbling edifice that sits like a turd in the middle of the Temple District. No one knows who built it. Records go back to the first priest-kings who carved their names into the dead books before their souls were carried away to rest forever in its stygian depths.
Some think it a relic from the time of the lizard-folk. You can still see carvings from that ancient inhuman civilization scattered about Zodom and, every so often, some devilish device will turn up in the bazaars that no one will have the faintest idea what to do with.
My own devices jangled in a satchel by my shoulder as I made my way along Pilgrims’ Road. I hadn’t touched them in years and, though they had rusted a little with the passage of time, the very sight of their jagged edges and saw-toothed gears had stirred old memories in my mind.
The memories were unpleasant.
I tried to focus on what lay ahead. My job tonight would be twofold, two very different locks for two very similar prisons. The second one would be a cinch: just a solid old mechanical slip-lock that would take time to crack but would pose no special problems, provided I stayed alert. The first one though, that would be tough, and in more ways that one.
The prayer grounds were empty when I arrived. I stood there and relaxed my gaze. After a few minutes, a flicker of movement caught my eye. The sleen addicts had gathered under the shadow of one of the arches, more out of habit than to avoid detection, I suppose, since they were almost invisible. They must have been watching me all that time, waiting for me to see them. They didn’t look particularly annoyed as I approached.
There were three of them. Or maybe four. I was hazy on the exact number because being in the presence of a group of sleen addicts does that to you. Nothing about them seems to make the least impression on your senses. It didn’t help that they all looked the same, too.
One of them stepped forward, and I realized it was the ghost I’d met earlier. I had already forgotten his name. “I apologise...” I began, but he cut me off abruptly.
“Where’s the entrance, Shaliol? I want to get this over with.”
We went through an archway into another space, this darker and danker than the first, then another archway, and a series of ill-lit alleyways that wound back and forth like a maze.
“Do you know where you’re going?” the ghost hissed.
“I saw another entrance on the other side.”
“There’s always another entrance to any building. The one you saw was too exposed. This one has fewer guards but has a tougher lock to break. Here we are.”
A lone portal sat embedded in the wall. To the left and right of us hung rows of tiny bronze lanterns in which bowls of naphtha softly flamed. Some other mineral gave a stinking greenish murk to the cramped alleyway.
I unslung my bag and spread it on the ground. A quick glance at the door told me what I’d need. I picked out my tools and set to work.
As I’d predicted, the lock was a hard one and, up to this moment, I hadn’t known if I could still do it. But the work went far more easily than I’d imagined. So easily that it surprised me. None of the ghosts distracted me; in fact, they were so quiet I quite forgot they were there.
When I heard the click of the lock coming open, I prodded the door and watched it swing into darkness. I turned to the lead ghost. “Are you ready?”
He shrugged. “Perhaps. None of us is a brave man, but we’ll do what you say.”
“Then let me tell you what I need.”
* * *
It wasn’t a long story. Or a sad one. Just a story of a foolish young man who thought he could do anything he liked until the day he found he couldn’t and his wife was taken away. Not taken away in body, but in something far more precious, her immortal soul, as punishment for the crime he himself had committed.
The ghosts were attentive listeners. I told them of how that sundered soul now resided deep in the belly of the place they called the Soul Prison, in a small clay jar guarded by mindless automatons of flesh and bone who never left their posts and never lowered their guard, men that no thief could hope to distract for love nor money.
I told them where my wife’s jar might be found, and the identifying symbol. I told them of the wardens whose job it was to feed the guards and change them when they got too tired to stand, and who alone could see every soul that resided in that place, whether it be clothed in flesh or clay, men who would see the sleen addicts not as ghosts but as burning bright beacons, through the goggles of green and red glass which they wore at all times of their endless vigil.
But of the rest of it, of the merchant Ushma, and the crime and the punishment which had led to my twenty years of hell, that they didn’t need to know.
The ghosts hovered by the door, waiting for my final words.
“I’ll wait for you for an hour. After that we’ll meet in the Talit Teahouse. Good luck.”
* * *
I knew I had the easy part of the job, but sometimes it’s better to put yourself in the thick of it, where the very closeness of danger fills your mind entire. Waiting only breeds anxiety.
I’d taken up position by the side of the alley, midway between two of the little bowls so as to avoid as much of the light as I could, but the alley was narrow, and anyone passing would have seen me.
Zodom is a noisy city. At every hour of the day you can hear the buzz and hum of the human hive. Voices, male and female, young and old, outlandish accents and barbarous tongues, and everywhere the clink of coins. But as I crouched there, taut as a bowstring in the shade of that vast gloomy pile, I began to notice that I couldn’t hear a sound.
It was eerie. Worse than that it was terrifying. Even in the countryside one hears sounds, the cries of birds, the rush of a stream. I had never before experienced total silence and once more I began to feel as if I were dreaming, this whole desperate enterprise nothing more than another torment of my mind. An endless silence, an endless nothingness...
Was this what it was like to be Hollea, every hour of the day?
The thought repulsed me and I flung it away. I thought instead of my former life. I’d not meant to, but like a desert flower given water, it had begun to bloom again, thorns and barbs intact. It was a vast, virulent weed I’d forgotten about but which now infested the rooms of my mind in their every nook and cranny.
I found myself reliving every lock I’d ever picked, every geometric puzzle of steel my mind had solved, my fingers had dissolved to empty air and darkness. I had always thought the lock the only thing that mattered, never what it protected, or hid, or kept away.
I didn’t know then what I knew now. Some doors should never be opened. The words echoed in my mind like a mantra, as the procession of locks flew apart under my fingers.
Then I realized that an hour had passed and no one had returned. I got up, stretched my legs, and made for the rendezvous.
* * *
Copyright © 2016 by Stuart North