What was the penalty for sleeping with the enemy?
February 9, 2014
A VG Serial: Night Side of Dark
The sanctuary of the church was lit by candles on a small hand-carved table behind the baptismal font and thin shafts of pale light working their way through stained glass windows rising above the crucifix. Beastly shadows cowered in the corners, mostly where candlelight or daylight never shone. A raw chill had settled among the wooden pews early in the winter and had not yet departed.
The only sound Celia heard was her own footsteps on the stone floor. They echoed like faint pistol shots in the dark nooks and crannies of the sanctuary. She slowly and deliberately looked from left to right and back again as she eased past the columns and toward the lectionary. She had placed her hands in the old woolen military coat hanging loosely on her shoulders, and one held tightly to the Lugar. Her fingers had grown so numb they could no longer feel the trigger.
She saw no one.
The light was so dim that she had arrived before her shadow.
Celia knew she was not alone.
He was somewhere in the darkness waiting for her, and he was never late.
The chimes struck nine times. The final chime wailed on long after the clock struck nine o’clock.
Celia heard the flutter of wings like a restless wind among dried tree leaves aloft in the high ceiling, up amidst the rafter and giant beams cut more than three centuries ago.
She moved as quietly as possible to the confessional, pulled back the curtain, and instinctively jammed the pistol into the dark chamber.
It was empty.
She stepped in, sat down, and silently began counting off the seconds in her mind. Celia and Caples Gusarov, through the years, had spent a lot of time together in confessionals.
They were safe. And quiet.
But she did not remember either of them ever confessing. Or repenting.
Staying alive. That was all that mattered.
Completing the mission. That was all they cared about.
If they died, their souls were damned. They had been damned years ago.
Confessions would have perished in time and space.
Repentance would not have saved them.
Gusarov broke the silence.
He sat on the far side of the small window where sins, both large and small, committed in innocence or with malice, were traded for forgiveness and remorse. One-way tickets in and out of purgatory were sold for a price. The tickets out of hell cost a little more and were a lot more plentiful.
Celia could hear him cursing himself.
And his age.
They both were killers.
“What has Lincoln found?” Gusarov asked. His voice was gravel.
“Nothing yet,” Celia said.
“You spent a lot of time with the old man,” Gusarov said.
“Lincoln thought Kreisler knew where the painting might be?”
She paused while Gusarov coughed again.
“He didn’t,” she said.
“Tell me about the old man.”
“He is Jewish. He must be eighty years old, maybe older. It is difficult to tell,” Celia said. “War takes its toll on people and often makes them old before their time.”
“What did the old man know about the painting?”
“He repeated the legend.”
Gusarov laughed. It was bleak, listless, and devoid of humor.
“We all know the legend,” he said.
“Lincoln thinks it’s a lie.”
“But still he looks for it.”
“He follows orders.”
“Like a blind man in the dark.”
“Aren’t we all.”
Gusarov turned, leaned forward, and placed both elbows on the small shelf beneath the window. He stared at the faint outline of Celia’s face, framed by a hint of candlelight.
How long had he known her? Ten years, maybe a few months less.
How many jobs had they taken together? He lost track of them long ago.
How many men had she killed? He never kept count.
Celia could walk through the door and away from the carnage as easily as walking past playful children in a spring garden, as though no guns has fired and no one had died.
She had never heard their screams.
He could not forget them.
Once Gusarov had been in love with her.
Then he feared her.
Now he was too old for either fear or love.
All he wanted was to live until the sun rose again.
And get paid for his troubles.
One was as risky as the other.
“What did the old man tell you?” Gusarov asked.
“He believes the painting exists.”
“Has he seen it?”
“He is as blind as Lincoln.”
“He is a man of faith.”
“Fools have faith,” Gusarov said. “The wise are connected only to the facts.”
“And where do you stand, Caples?”
“I follow my gut,” he said.
“It will get you killed,” Celia said.
“Not yet, it hasn’t.”
Silence hung like a delicate veil between them.
Gusarov’s eyes bore deep into her soul. They were searching for answers.
He knew she had them. Celia always did.
She never lied to him.
But she never told him the whole truth either.
For a decade or more, he and his life had depended on her. He no longer trusted her. He no longer trusted anyone. Not even himself.
“What are you not telling me?” Gusarov asked.
“You are paying me to keep you informed,” Celia said. “I am keeping you informed.”
“What secrets are you hiding, Celia?”
“When Lincoln knows, I will know,” she said. “When I know, you will know.”
“Where is Lincoln now?”
“He left before I woke up.”
“You did not see him go?”
“Did he kiss you goodbye?”
The words were caustic and cutting, accusing her and condemning her.
Celia snapped her head around. It was the first time she had made any effort to look at Caples Gusarov since she seated herself in the confessional.
His face was old. And tired.
So was the sneer that slashed his face.
Celia’s eyes burned.
Her stomach knotted.
The grip on Lugar tightened.
Her hands were no longer numb.
She could feel the trigger now.
“Are you sleeping with him?” Gusarov spit out each word.
Her eyes had turned to embers. They spoke for her.
She had nothing to say to him.
“Are you sleeping with Ambrose Lincoln?” It wasn’t a question. It was a demand. His loud voice reverberated throughout the church.
“What I do is no concern of yours.” Her words were seething.
“I will not have you sleeping with a man who wants me dead,” Gusarov said.
“Lincoln has no interest in killing you,” Celia said.
“What makes you so sure of that?”
“If he did, I would be sitting here alone this morning.” Celia shrugged. “You would be rotting with the worms.”
“I’m warning you. If you sell me out,” Gusarov said, “I will kill you.”
The Russian stood and burst out of the confessional. His feet fell heavy on the stone floor. His fists were knotted. His face had grown as red as the glow from the candles as he walked past. His breaths came in short growls.
It was the first time she had felt like smiling all morning.
Chapters of Night Side of Dark will be published on Saturday and Sunday.
Please click the title, Night Side of Dark, to read more about Caleb Pirtle III and his novels on Amazon.