8 - For I Have Sinned
Case of the Partially Missing Barber
The inside of Mother’s palace was everything any of her children could wish for; tastefully decorated, spotlessly clean, and her steady stream of gentlemen callers came and went quietly through the back door with no euphemism intended.
A grand portrait of Mother loomed over everyone in the entry hall with her customary look of stern disappointment. It looked somehow even less pleased to see, through the great ornate doors that were the only entry for the public, a panicked Kowalski scrambling up the steps like his life depended on it. And the two gunmen racing behind him, also like his life depended on it.
Kowalski’s relationship with his mother was both incredibly complicated and yet, seemingly impossibly, entirely imaginary; something which baffled even the most high-brow of metaphor like some kind of superpositioned cat. She, as the oblivious half of this estrangement, often wondered if numbers might be more convenient than names, and he…
Well, he sometimes hoped that if such a strange parallel world existed with mothers in the plenty that his might be the outlier - that out there somewhere might be a mother who wasn’t perpetually displeased with her children.
He would continue to live in blissful ignorance, never knowing the truth of the matter.
He reached the great doors at the same time as the gunmen. Their window to put some subtle holes in Kowalski’s back had closed, however, so the three of them just kind of stood there awkwardly frozen in the moment. Kowalski, with his new trousers torn and the collar of his bedraggled shirt matted with blood, scowled evenly between the two gunmen who, in their dapper black jackets and identically waxed-up hair, glowered back at the reason they now had to work during their lunch hour.
Incidentally, the gunman on the right, who we will call Kevin so as to maintain his anonymity, spared a fair share of his glares for his partner who had insisted they spend their morning renting the biggest truck they could find instead of having a decent breakfast.
His stomach rumbled plaintively. And loudly.
As if coaxed forth by the sound, or perhaps by the palpable sense of violence premeditating in the air, a little head poked out from behind one of the elaborately carved doors. The rest of a dishevelled young maid followed, tiny fists clenched on tiny hips, and squawked, “Shoes off!” Kowalski slipped out of his loafers without preamble because, despite her pitchy voice carrying the authority of a grain of sand in a toilet bowl, he felt oddly compelled by the two rows of previously unnoticed and heavily armed palace guards behind her.
So did the gunmen apparently, who stopped reaching into their jackets like they were door-to-door shade salesmen and stooped down to tear at the laces of their heavy boots. For once his lace-less loafers offered a practical advantage, instead of just being the height of comfort and fashionability. He tore past the guards and into the palace before the gunmen had gotten down to their socks.
The interior of the palace smelled of talc and abandonment issues. He attracted stares, glares, and swears from just about every ant with eyeballs and less dirt splattered across their clothes - which honestly wasn’t that many of them. All manner of grubby, degenerate-looking beggars milled about the entry hall. In some places they slept, and in some places they were so settled down they might have their own home-owner’s association. Many were lined up for an audience with one of Mother’s aides, but most just looked happy to have a roof over their head.
Kowalski wove between the curdled mass of ants until another pocket-size maid, this one carrying a stack of linens folded high enough that she had to lean around it to see where she was going, yelled, “No running!” He slowed to a less breakneck pace, which ironically was more dangerous to his personal health, and aimed for one of the passageways on the side of the hall; anywhere he could lose the gunmen would do. A quick glance behind him saw them padding quickly forward on bare feet.
Inside the passage lounged more of the pungent petitioners, though these huddled in wailing clumps and their grubby faces were streaked with tears. Kowalski nearly tripped over a sobbing pair of bums hugging it out on the floor before he found another line of ants leading off into an adjacent hallway. He made a split second decision and flipped out his badge, then tramped up the queue to find wherever it was going. Anyone that thought this was an abuse of line etiquette got the badge shoved in their face, and immediately changed their minds.
It was actually an abuse of power.
Kowalski’s original plan had been to show his badge to the palace guards and throw them at the gunmen, but he’d changed his mind half way up the steps. Any official interference would come with an extensive series of questions, which would inevitably expose Grenda’s so far hidden involvement. Spelter would be forced to tip his hand early, and things would get real messy real fast.
No, until Grenda finished the autopsy he had to let Spelter think he was the only loose end - and the more frayed the better.
He reached the grumbling head of the queue, which ended in a small dimly lit room lined with a handful of curtained booths. An elderly ant with a long patchwork skirt and a stiff leg limped out of one of the stalls. She blew deeply into a tissue, and her puffy red eyes didn’t see Kowalski bump past her as he practically dived into the vacant booth.
Inside was a plain wooden bench and not much else. A mostly opaque lattice window set into one of the walls showed the silhouette of someone stretching their back, and as soon as his weary buttocks hit the seat a bored-sounding young girl’s voice spoke from the other side, “Welcome, child, to the Palace of Mother. What sins would you confess before her today?”
Oh - one of those booths. The thought of scampering away before it did him any harm crossed his mind, but that would incur the kind of bad luck that would see him cornered by the gunmen in a burning acid factory full of rusty bone saws. Besides, all he really had to do was keep her talking until they lost his trail, and who had more sins at his fingertips than four time Russiant roulette champion Kowalski the Brave?
He’d start her off with an easy one.
“Yesterday I threw up half a bottle of Honey Ant’s Reserve on my Alcoholant’s Anonymous counsellor.” He realised she was probably too young to drink, so he added courteously, “That’s very expensive rum by the way, but it was his bottle so I really dodged a bullet there.”
After a pause, the girl piped up, “Do three rosa-“
“He wasn’t happy about that at all, so he smashed the bottle and tried to stab me with it. He chased me out of the clinic waving it above his head. They fired him on the spot, last I heard.”
The gears turned in her head and, with a bit less confidence, she said, “Recite the Pledge before each meal and-“
“It’s a real shame, because he bet me fifty dollars I couldn’t finish the bottle. Which I did do, before it came back up. So I guess my sin is Greed, because I still want that fifty dollars.”
“Let me go get my supervisor. Mother provides,” said the girl, and a chair scraped across the floor behind the lattice. A heavy-sounding door opened and closed and Kowalski was left to his own devices.
He levered himself off of the chair and tiptoed over to the door. Through a small gap in the frame he squinted out at the queue, and the floor fell out of his guts. There, off to the side and half in the shadows, was one of the gunmen. He looks like a Kevin, Kowalski thought. Kevin was watching the booths and muttering into a walkie-talkie like someone that wasn’t about to abandon his post to have lunch.
Kowalski’s stomach whined at the thought.
The door behind the lattice swung open again, and Kowalski scampered back to his seat like he’d been caught peeping into the women’s locker room rather than at his probable demise. After some settling in the chair, a sterner, more aged voice spoke this time - she must have been at least twelve. “I hear that you’re overburdened with sin, child. I’m here to walk Mother’s path with you, for as long as it takes to save your soul. Please, child, let us begin.”
And there it was, served up on a silver platter; an invitation to while away the rest of the day in this musty booth, and a reason to do so standing watch outside. If his was a particularly intensive exorcism they might even bring him a bite to eat.
Anyone would forgive him for running with it. Or, more accurately, for hiding with it. For leaving the rest up to Grenda and fate.
Anyone except himself, he realised.
He stood up from the bench and took out his badge. “Police, open up!” And he jumped through the lattice.