Aftertown graphic novel 2.2

by dm gillis

read part 2.1 here

Frame #155 (October 22, 1911, 11:00 p.m.) The Thumbelina and Relentless Sisters’ Circus: The green colour of Roaring Girl is the result of a chemical reaction between its high alcohol content, synthetic wormwood and other addictive but mysterious ingredients. Arch Spectre Brother Amos Borgiasangelo drops a sugar cube into his glass, and stirs. I watch him as I come to. We’re inside of a cramped, ramshackle circus trailer. My revolver is on the table between us.

I’m aching for a drink.

“You have the shadow,” Brother Amos says, recognising my addiction.

I try to look away from the bottle of Roaring Girl, but can’t.

“You’ve lost a lot of blood,” he says, pouring a glass for me. “Sugar?”

I shake my head, “No.”

The Girl’s not a pleasure for you, is it? You don’t want it sweetened?”

“Sugar’s for dilettantes,” I say, and take the glass.

I knock it back awkwardly, still laying on a cot. Brother Amos lights a hero, and offers it to me. I take it.

“You have Pixie to thank for your survival,” Brother Amos says, and sips his drink. “She dressed the wound.”

“Why a clown,” I say, really looking at him now. “I understand that you’re hiding in a circus, but why not something else, more….”

“Dignified?” He looks back at me with sad liquid eyes.

“Yes.”

The Fetish Guild is the sanctioned Church of the Imperial Guild system, and perhaps its most powerful institution. Before his fall from grace, Brother Amos Borgiasangelo was its Arch Spectre, the Tapestry’s Living Spirit. The Church’s most powerful man.

“It’s fitting, no?” Brother Amos says, smiling a little. “For a fool having fallen so far. An angel become terrorist.”

Maybe, but I wonder if he’s fallen or only moved from one esteemed role to another. As leader of the Fetish Guild, he wore preposterous vestments of gold woven silk and precious stones. Now, as the State’s extreme villain, his vestments are just as absurd. A flaccid hat. A tattered tweed jacket with a large brightly coloured flower in its lapel. Orange trousers, too short. A rumpled tuxedo shirt. Ruined boots. Scant but effect clown makeup.

“And they fear you most of all,” I say.

“It’s good to have enemies,” he says, pouring me another drink. “It gives one reason to rise out of bed.”

“But you did nothing wrong,” I protest.

He sits back in his chair, with nothing more to say.

He’s right. The Guild system needs its enemies, like a boozer needs a drink. The Chan Cult and the Ulster Coven fill the void. But each is merely newsreel montage and narration. Neither occupies space in the world. And for a silent few, newsroom analysis of their activities is far too clever, scripted, answering only the simplest of questions. An obvious product of hidden machinery, fashioning treason out of reasonable doubt.

But Arch Spectre Brother Amos Borgiasangelo is real; he’s tangible. There’s no need to manufacture his grim expression. It sits across from me, right now. The Guilds haven’t even stripped him of his title, or replaced him on his throne. His value as antagonist remains in his title, and all of what it means. A simple rewrite of history, a reinterpretation of meaning, now makes him master of a pantheon of demons. He remains the Arch Spectre. People who ask why or how, disappear.

“I loved the clowns in the circus, when I was a child,” he says. “To me, they were magic. Religion is a form of magic. I have merely traded places. My father chose the Fetish Guild for me when I was very young. We were very wealthy, of course. As a Novice, I’d hoped it would be a place of intellectual and spiritual contemplation. But it’s a wicked den of cunning statecraft and murder. I said as much, when I attained my final Office. And now I am here.”

“…hiding beneath their noses.” I toast him, and gulp back my glass in a single swallow.

“Yes, and that is another good reason to be a clown.”

“But you’re still called Brother Amos. Doesn’t that raise suspicion?”

“The authorities understand it as nothing more than an old clown’s sarcasm. After all, what wanted terrorist in his right mind would hide so close to the surface? Would you like another shot?”

“Yes,” I say.

“Last one,” Brother Amos says.

He pours. I drink.

That’s three. That’ll do, for now. I sit up on the cot. My arm throbs. Three hits of the Girl isn’t enough to mask the pain. It’s only enough to make me functional.

“They’re preparing a pyre outside,” I say, remembering. “Surely you don’t plan on burning some poor fool.”

“It’s an Aftertown tradition,” Brother Amos shrugs. “When the circus is in town, somebody burns. It’s usually just some forgotten soul, from beyond the Guild boundary. But our customers have paid their admission. They’re entitled to a proper spectacle.”

“But how can you expect to win people over doing this?”

“This is a circus,” Brother Amos says, checking his gold pocket watch. “It’s not a parliament. Now, it’s nearly midnight. Why don’t we go out to see how things are moving along?”

I stand, holster my revolver and follow the Arch Spectre. Outside, we walk through a yard full of bizarrely costumed circus performers, idle between acts. The teeming, brightly illuminated midway is just beyond. At a large trailer, we come upon several punks with Mohawk haircuts, lazily guarding the entrance. They step aside for the elderly clown. I follow him up the steps and through the door.

Inside, there’s a wall of surveillance shytube CRTs. The midway, tents and approaches to the circus are carefully observed. Watching are three young men, keenly focussed. They answer telephones and monitor data screens.

At the back of the trailer is a blindfolded man, tied to a chair.

“Our headliner for tonight,” says Brother Amos, as we approach.

The blindfolded man’s head rolls from side to side, as though he’s been drugged. He is dressed in ragged clothes, but he’s clean-shaven. His hair is neatly trimmed, and he is vaguely familiar.

“He’s not a derelict from beyond the Guild boundary,” I say. “This isn’t some forgotten soul.”

“Correct,” says Brother Amos, as he removes the man’s blindfold.

I recognise him immediately. It’s His Eminence Morley Wilks, Chief Magistrate of the Imperial Retribution Guild. He squints in the light, and mumbles unintelligibly.

“Opium,” Brother Amos says. “He won’t feel a thing.”

“It’s still wrong.”

“The Guilds are wrong,” Brother Amos says, his eyes gone fiery.  “Wrong in far too many ways to mention. You know it, Mr Roseland. Perhaps better than most, as you move so freely back and forth through the story. This man is responsible for the deaths of uncounted guiltless people, and is answerable to no one. Until now.”

“How can an unidentifiable pile of ash be understood as a political statement?”

Brother Amos retrieves a bloody handkerchief from a table, and unfolds it. Inside are a severed thumb and forefinger.

“All Imperial Guild members are fingerprinted for ease of identification. Such is the level of distrust within its structure. These will be delivered, with the pile of ash, to the Ministry of Allegory tomorrow morning.”

He checks his pocket watch again.

“Nearly time,” he says, and signals for someone to come for the Chief Magistrate.

“And one more thing, Mr Roseland,” Brother Amos says. “If I am a devil, then I am a devil built of their clay. I am a product of the Imperial Guilds, perhaps their greatest creation. Burning this member of the Aristocracy will be a radical, new iconoclasm. He is a symbol, to be torn asunder. And I am allowing you to witness this because you know I’m right.”

He pauses to catch his breath, then says, “You could be very valuable to us in the future, Mr Roseland. Or not.”

Valuable?

There’s a moment of silence between us. The old man seems strangely young again, as though he has only recently discovered a thing named injustice, and is setting out for the first time to confront it. Believing, as every young man does, that he is the first to ever do so.

And I recognise, not for the first time, how good and evil rarely differ.

The Chief Magistrate mutters as he is dragged past me by two punks. He’s being moved to the centre of the midway, where the spectacle will take place. As he disappears out of the door, Brother Amos consults with a man at the CRTs. He listens to news and nods. Then he walks toward me, placing his hand on my shoulder, as though we are old friends.

“Intel Sect knows,” he says. “We must hurry. They’re on the way.”

“So this madness in cancelled.”

“No,” he says. “And it’s not madness, if I have failed to make myself clear. It’s revolt. But we must move faster. Less ceremony than planned.”

We exit the trailer, and struggle though the throng.

By the time we reach the unlit pyre, His Eminence Morley Wilks is handcuffed to the post.

Brother Amos looks up and scans for something in the midnight sky.

“There,” he says, pointing.

The dim silhouette of a lighter than air Intel Sect airship slowly approaches.

“They’ll open up with machineguns,” I say, looking round at the dense multitude.

The Chief Magistrate, and the pile of dry wood he stands on, is now the centre of the mob’s universe. They’re chanting, “Burn, burn, burn.” Their fists are in the air. There are hundreds of them, delirious. Altogether, they are a lone rabid dog.

A man in black leather stands nearby, holding a torch. His face is pale white. It’s Mr Chalk. Seeing me, he smiles. Revealing rows of teeth, filed into points.

Brother Amos takes to a small stage to address the crowd. He holds out a hushing hand, and the crowd is faintly calmed.

“This is a gift,” he shouts. “From me to you.”

The mob cheers. They don’t know the identity of the victim, and they don’t care.

“Let the fire take this sacrifice, and thereby cleanse us all!”

Cheering and chanting resume in earnest.

Then there’s a panicked cry, “Intel Sect!”

Brother Amos steps down from the stage.

“They’ve entered the compound,” he says.

All seems quiet for a moment, as the mob comprehends the presence of advancing Agents. Then the chanting and screaming becomes louder and more frenzied.

Brother Amos signals Chalk to light the pyre. He does. The flames start slowly, but soon shoot skyward. The Chief Magistrate begins to scream, despite the opium. He is already turning to smoke. His clothes are consumed, and the old judge writhes nakedly in the blaze.

Finally in range, the machineguns of the Intel Sect airship open fire. The mob panics and the weak are trampled. I dive beneath the stage, as fifty calibre shells tear up the ground only inches away.

Minutes later, the machinegun fire is distant, as are the screams.

I’m still beneath the stage, when I see the wheels of a long graceful vehicle drive up and stop. The back door opens, and I see a pair of high, well polished black boots step out.

“Hmmm,” I hear a familiar woman’s voice say. “If I were a certain Matthew Roseland, courageous member of the Shamus Guild, where would I be right now?”

It’s Melville, General Invisible of Intel Sect. She stoops down and peeks under the stage. I smile back, weakly.

“Did you get him?” I say, struggling to get to my feet. The pain in my arm is nearly unbearable.

“Get who?”

“Brother Amos, of course.”

“Oh, him,” Melville says, sardonically. “No no no. Powers that be believe he’s far more useful to us out on the street, especially after this. He’s blossoming into quite an asset, you know.”

An asset?” I say, having painfully gotten to my feet.

“Yes, an asset. Just look at what a great favour he’s done for the Imperial Guilds tonight.” Melville nods at the pyre, continuing to burn. The almost skeletal remains of Morley Wilks still stand handcuffed to the post, proving the near-absolute durability of the human body, even after the ghost has long gone.

“How can you endure this,” I say, “day in and day out?”

“It’s just a story, Matthew,” she sighs. “I suffer what’s written.”

Frame #176 (October 24, 1911, 9:00 p.m.): I wake in an alley with an empty bottle of Roaring Girl in my hand. I sit on the wet cobble, my back against a wall. There’s a yellow light bulb swinging above my head. I check for my revolver and wallet. They’re missing.

To my left, at the end of the alley, flames pour out of an open upper floor window. A woman in a crowd of people on the ground screams that her lover is trapped inside. There’s a lethargic fire engine siren in the distance. An Intel Sect airship floats effortlessly over the scene, shining an arc light on the knot of people. No terrorists here. Only lives going to hell.

There are unseen corners in every story. Irrelevance on the edge of events. If only I could remain on the edge….

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