CHAPTER 9: RED MARIE
“Luke. I know lifelong habits are hard to break, but please don’t be stupid.”
“Get out of my house.”
“Don’t be stupid Luke.”
“Out. Of my house. Now.”
“Luke. Don’t be stupid. And put the knife down.”
“I warned you what would happen if you showed up in my kitchen the last time we met. I thought I made my feelings very clear.”
“You did. And I still have the scars. As I’m sure, do you. Put the knife down, Luke, or I‘ll show you how it’s used.”
“I‘ve nothing to learn from you.”
Marie listened intently. Her father’s voice was so cold and full of hatred that she hardly recognised it. The stranger’s had an almost animal growl to it. It was the voice of a man who could do terrible things without a second thought.
“Ah, but there’s truth in that. How many have you killed now, Luke? More than my tally I’d bet. How many necks have you stretched by now?”
“At least one less than I should have. And if they catch you around the village they’ll see to it I stretch yours.”
“Then best I move along, perhaps. For both of us.”
“What do you want?”
“I’ve none for you.”
“It’s not for me I ask it. Wouldn’t want your money, dripping in blood as it likely is. No, not for me, but for my children, hungry and shivering under the bridge to guard against the wind. Hoping that father will bring back a crust for them to gnaw upon.”
“I owe nothing. Not to you or your children.”
The coldness in her father’s voice when he said that made Marie shudder. That was not how she remembered him. Even the stranger seemed taken aback.
“Come now, Luke. That’s not you.”
“I’ll say this once. You don’t know me. You don’t know who I am or what I can do. Get out.”
“Luke.” the stranger’s voice was softer now, almost plaintive “they’re starving.”
“Along with half the world.” Luke’s tone was pitiless “They’re nothing to do with me. I’ve got my own to look after.”
“Ah yes, your little girl…”
Marie started back from the door as there was a ferocious noise, a struggle, chairs being kicked over, hissing and cursing.
“Don’t you even think of it!” she heard her father roaring over the sound of the stranger’s frenzied struggling. From the sound she guessed that her father had him pinned to the table, perhaps holding the knife over his face “Don’t even talk about her! You try to get at me through her and you won’t have to wait for me to hang you, I’ll kill you right here where you stand!”
She heard the sound of boots scraping on the floor, someone of great weight being hauled roughly to their feet.
“Get out!” Luke said again, and she could hear the stranger being literally thrust at the door. There was silence.
Marie began to feel light-headed. The wood on her hands began to feel less solid, as if it was melting to mist. The sounds around her were more distant, as if they were coming through water. The Lethe water was wearing off, she was starting to wake up.
Not yet, she thought desperately, at least let me see him! But then she caught something.
The stranger was speaking, and she strained to hear the words before the room faded away totally.
“I didn’t come here looking…ight. I did not…to ro…r threate…ou, Luke.” She was only catching every second word.
“Strange day.” she thought she heard the stranger say “Strange day to greet another.”
And then she woke up.
The scar ran from her sternum to just above her navel, and was tightly stitched with coarse black thread. It didn’t hurt, but she didn’t know if it would ever heal. Maybe one day she could get the stitches re-done with different coloured thread so they didn’t stand out so starkly. Honestly, she didn’t really care. The relief of having the pain in her chest gone was all that mattered to her right now.
“How are we feeling, then? said Virgil from across the room.
She sat up in bed and looked at him. He was sitting on a bare wooden stool, his arms folded. He had changed from how she remembered him. Virgil the Time Ghost had once been shimmering and insubstantial, now he was as solid as marble, an impression that was helped by the fact that he was now grey, from his hair, to his skin, to his clothes. Purgatory had dyed its colours into him. But it was the same face, more or less, handsome and delicately featured, with a slightly cruel mouth and large piercing eyes. Right now, however they were filled with concern and relief.
“Hey you.” she murmured peacefully.
“Surprised to see me?”
“Not really”. she smiled “Knew you’d show up sooner or later.”
“Really? Bloody hell, I didn’t.”
“No. Came as a complete shock to me. You…you’re taking it remarkably well, are you sure you’re alright?”
“Oh I’m fine.” said Marie, snuggling into the covers and closing her eyes “Of course, if I thought you were actually here I’d hit the roof.”
“Ah, think you’re dreaming do you?”
“Hallucinating or something…” she murmured sleepily “Lethe probably wearing off.”
“Well then.” said Virgil brightly, for he was always one to see the positive side of a situation “Since you don’t think I’m really here, maybe now would be a good time to explain how I got here so when you realise that I actually am here it won’t be such a shock?”
“There were many words there.” Marie murmured “And I understand but little.”
“Right. Well…” Virgil began.
“Hey where’d you go anyway?”
“You. You went away. Ran away when the big…when the thing came.”
“Yeah. Where’d you go?”
“Ah. Well, that’s a tricky question.”
“Because the answer is really weird and not a little disgusting. Alright, here goes: The bomb that Mabus used to destroy the council, it wasn’t a normal bomb. Y’see, call me arrogant, but I think the whole reason behind the bomb was to kill me. Mabus is afraid of Temporals, has been since he killed the first council, Aodh, Baako. Jedda. He was scared that if a large group of Temporals ever worked together to joined forces to bring him down it might be too much for even him to handle. They’re pretty much the only things in all of space and time that are powerful enough to be a danger to him. That and old age. And one of Mabus’ greatest defences has always been secrecy. After he killed the first council he set out to erase every trace of himself. Every reference, every witness. He tried to make himself disappear. And it seems he did such a good job that even the Almighty can’t find him now. He just disappeared from history. But there was one loose end he couldn’t tie up. Me. Because how do you kill a witness who’s already dead?”
“You’re grey now. You look pretty.”
“Thank you. Now, as mentioned before I am dead, and was until recently a ghost. Nothing could harm me, bullets, fire, explosions, nothing. If that had been a normal bomb that destroyed the Hotel Baur Au Lac, I wouldn’t have even felt it. Literally. Marie, that bomb almost killed me.”
“Again. I don’t know the science of it, but the explosion ripped me apart and I almost ceased to be. And I have a rough idea how he did it.”
“How?” said Marie, now starting to become more alert.
“Well, you know that dark and mysterious past of mine?”
“It’s to do with that. Suffice it say I felt like that once before. And I think I know where Mabus got the know-how to rig a bomb like that. But that’s my point. I don’t deny that his purpose was to wipe out the council, but if that was all he wanted to do he could have used a regular bomb. The fact that he went to the trouble of rigging a bomb that could kill a ghost means that I was the main target. He knows I’m the one witness to who he is and what he’s done. “
“So when the bomb went off, what happened?”
“I felt…can you imagine what it’s like being a piece of tissue paper in a fire? That’s what it felt like, like bits of me were turning black and ripping away in the heat. But it was also…it was like being slammed against a brick wall. You were that wall Marie. You were the nearest person to me when the bomb went off. I was, I was almost gone but a little part of me was mixed with you. Your soul, little grains of what I was…
And you carried me around inside you. And slowly black turned to grey, I began to recover myself piece by piece, remembering my name who I used to be.”
“That was you, wasn’t it? In the version of my old village that Mabus created. You helped me remember everything. You helped me escape.”
“Sorry I couldn’t more.”
“Shush. You did plenty.”
There was silence, for a while.
“What was it like?”
“Well. Do you know what it feels like to be you?”
“No.” said Marie.
“Neither did I.” said Virgil “Until I stopped. And then you came here and your soul turned solid. It was like I was a fish in a lake that had been frozen suddenly. I was being pressed in on all sides. Terrible weight bearing down on me. And the more I remembered the larger my soul became until…well, until they had to cut me out of you just to stop you exploding.”
“Did you ever get the feeling that you’re life has become a little odd?”
His only reply was a soft snoring from the bed.
“Oh Marie.” he said sadly, looking at his grey hands “I think you’ve gone and gotten us into a lot of trouble.”
Virgil was beginning to feel that he was being imprisoned, just when he most wanted to feel that he had been set free.
Angela was showing him his bedroom, something he hadn’t needed for centuries. He sat on the bed almost gingerly and bounced gently, testing the springs. The room was absolutely bare except for the bed and floorboards.
“Haven’t slept in so long. Think I’ve lost the knack by now.” he muttered.
“Do you know why she’s here?” Angela asked.
Virgil nodded solemnly. “Yeah. Caught it all on the inside.” he said ruefully “Look, this is a bit Bastille for me, do you have anything slightly more comfortable?”
“Well, we could book you into the four-star hotel across the street.”
“Funny. Fine. Just send up the hair vest with my bread and water, I’ll change after dinner.”
“Hair shirts are in short supply. However if you genuinely feel the need for spiritual redemption…”
“Save it. Didn’t have much use for the capital G when I was alive, certainly don’t have time for him ever since he left me languishing on the mortal plane like loose change that’s fallen down the sofa.”
“Fine, be glib. Or alternatively, accept that this is your very last chance for redemption. Face your sins, accept the pain of chastisement and let your wrongs be purged from you.”
“Wow.” said Virgil “And they say all the fun girls go to hell.”
“Speaking of which…”
“Yeah, I know. I know all about it. Marie’s going into Hell to rescue her old Dad. It’s not like she’s keeping it a secret. It is basically her defining motivation. And I know what you’re going to ask me.”
“She’s not going.”
“Oh yes she is. Absolutely she is. Who’s going to stop her? I know she don’t look so impressive lying there drugged out of her little noggin, but unless you’ve got a Temporal stashed around here in the broom closet she is the most powerful thing in this place. If she takes it into her mind to go to X, Y or Z all you can do is hope you’re not standing on any part of the alphabet that’s in her way.”
“You won’t try to stop her?”
“Don’t as a rule attempt the impossible anymore. Learned that the hard way.”
“But you’re a Temporal, aren’t you?
Virgil frowned “How’d you know that?”
“Marie told me all about you.”
“I don’t know. She just told me about you. Why, is that a problem?”
“No, not at all, I’m just wondering if maybe you know something that I don’t. I don’t think I’m entirely here, you see. There seem to be gaps in my memory, but I can’t tell if they’re new gaps or the old gaps I had already from that time I went crazy.”
“You went crazy?”
“Right. So that’s one thing I know and you don’t. That’s encouraging. Anyway, I have no idea if I can still shift time. When I was a ghost I couldn’t and I don’t think me being solid now is going to change that. Mariana once told me that being a Temporal is something physical, it’s in your genes. My genes were lost in the wash a long time ago. Anyway, even if I could still do it, I wouldn’t.”
“You’re not going to stop her?”
“Girl’s gotta do this. She’s come too far now. That girl’s endured more than we ever could and we don’t have the right to tell her what’s best for her.”
“So you’ll just stand by while she waltzes blithely into the inferno?”
“Stand by?” said Virgil coldly “Stand by? No. I’m not going stand by. Because when the time comes I’ll be waltzing blithely right alongside her.”
“We decided on a name for it.” said Hoss holding the bottle out to her.
The bar was a mass of activity, barrels of Lethe were being taken off the truck outside and stored in the cellar. Once set down, the words “Raw Lethe! Do not drink!” were scrawled on the barrels in big black letters. Since giving his entire stock to the imps Hoss had been making daily trips to the river to replenish his supply. Hoss knew that he had most likely lost the custom of the imps for a very long time, it would take Gameral and his crew years to work their way through the supply he had given them, longer if they paced themselves. However Hoss seemed not to mind in the slightest, happily whistling a tune while helping the movers set the barrels down. In fact the whole bar seemed to be alive with cheerfulness. Maybe it was the fact that sustained activity was so rare in Purgatory. A chance to do something, even if it only involved stacking barrels, was seized with relish. Marie watched with interest, sitting on the bar with her feet dangling.
“Named what?” she asked.
Hoss turned around and showed her the last surviving bottle of Lethe in the city. It was now around two-thirds full.
“Yeah, whenever we discover a new type of Lethe we give it a name. Like, the most popular kind we have is called “Green Cupid”, that makes you remember when you were in love. Or “Sated Black” makes you remember a really good meal. We decided to call this one “Red Marie”.”
“Thank you.” said Marie, touched.
“We still ain’t sure what it does exactly. Do you remember what you saw when you were under?”
“I was in my old bedroom. My father was arguing with someone in the next room.”
“Hmm. Doesn’t sound like a big seller. Who was he arguing with?”
“I don’t know. I think he wanted my father to give him money. They argued and then my father threw him out.”
“That’s all you remember?”
Marie close her eyes and tried to recall.
Strange day to greet another.
“No. There was something else. Something that I can’t remember but…it’s important. I keep trying to remember but it’s like trying to catch water, it keeps slipping away from me.”
Slowly, she took the bottle from him and held it in her hands. She turned it over and over, the red Lethe rolling gently inside it, glinting ruby.
“It’s something I’m supposed to know. I can feel it. And when I finally catch it, it’ll make everything clearer…”
Without realising, she had lifted the bottle to her lips. Hoss snatched it back from her.
“Hey. You don’t want that.” he said firmly.
“I need to know…”
“Marie.” he cut across her “This stuff ain’t good for anyone. Everyday I see old souls come in here and say “Hoss, give me something that makes me feel alive.” And they sit here and they drink this stuff for hours and hours. I guess they think that if they drink enough they can actually get back to their lives. That the memories will become real. And I give it to them because there’s nothing else to do. They aren’t leaving here, not one in a million does. But for all that, Angela’s right, she’s got the only way to get them out of here and all I’m doing is holding them back. This stuff isn’t good for you. I gave you some to put you under so they could cut that Virgil fellah out of you, and that’s fine, but I don’t want you drinking anymore of this stuff.”
He sat down beside her.
“Did I ever tell you how I started all this?”
“No.” said Marie.
“Well. Way back, I mean waaay back, I was in Angela’s school.”
“Wait, wait.” Marie interrupted “You were one of her pupils? You?”
“One of her pupils? I was top of the class. I was close to redemption, I actually was.”
“I broke. Just like Tristan and Hannah and that other fellah. Couldn’t take it anymore. Headed out into the desert to drink from the Lethe, wipe my mind. But I wasn’t stupid. I wasn’t going to start drinking the second I got there and then have to go wandering the desert not knowing myself from Eleanor Roosevelt. So, I was going to bring a bottle and take it back with me and drink it at home. So I went out into the desert, reached the Lethe, filled the bottle and headed home. And I still wasn’t sure if I wasn’t going to do it. I stopped going to the school but I kept that bottle in my room under my bed. Like a gun that you know’s there. Months passed, still didn’t have the courage to do it.”
“Is that why you and Angela fight? Because you left the school?” Marie asked.
“Hell, child. That’s reason one on a list of seven million. Finally I had the blackest of all black days. Sat in the corner of my room, staring at that bottle. And that bottle just stood under the bed staring right back at me. Like it was saying “Go on. Do it. I dare you.” And then I started thinking (which is the last thing you do in that situation) and I started remembering the mess I made of my life, and how much I hated this place, and how close I’d come to getting out but I was just too damn weak to do it and something in me snapped but good and I leapt up, took that bottle and I took a single slug of it and the back fell out of my head like someone had put a sledgehammer to the thing.”
“You wiped your memory?” Marie breathed.
“Nope.” Hoss smiled “‘Cos you see it didn’t work. If I had drunk more, then yeah, I would have been a vegetable. But something had gotten mixed up with the Lethe. I had left it sitting for too long, it had gone off. And I think there might have been something in the bottle from when it was used before. Anyway, what happened was I spent the next three days reliving this really nice time I spent walking through a cornfield and the sun was just….the colours were all, blue and yellow it was…well, anyways I recovered my memories which I wasn’t supposed to do. But now I was interested. So I started to experiment, bringing back bottle of Lethe, boiling them, mixing them with regular water, freezing them, what not. Adding anything I could think off. Coming up with all these different formulae for different memories. And then others got wind of it, starting buying bottles off me. Eventually it just turned into this.”
He swept a hand across the bar.
“Do you wish you hadn’t?” Marie asked.
Hoss shrugged “I dunno. Part of me says, I did something that makes life here a little easier for folks. Part of me says, life here ain’t supposed to be easy, and that’s the point. And I ain’t helped anybody. But I know one thing, this is not what you need. You’re not like us. You weren’t sent here, you came on your own, which means you can leave on your own. Or so I’d guess.”
“I’m not going to Heaven, Hoss.” said Marie quietly.
Hoss frowned “Still set on that are you?”
“Yes. Please Hoss. I feel it’s something important. It’s something I need to know.”
“I am such a goddamned pushover.” he muttered and tossed her the bottle “Small doses.” he told her “And most importantly, do not breathe a word of this to Angela. “