The tattoo is gone when we get to the body, but when the doctor squats near its forehead he finds out that from a strange angle you can see smoothness, like a burn scar. No-one knows what it is—except me: I've seen one recently. I again know a secret I shouldn't; it feels like I'm trespassing on dangerous ground.
"One minute," I say to Valeriu, and zee follows me down the hall, out of earshot. "When you were out cold, the tattoo on your arm was fading and it seemed like that's what was killing you," I say, "and it looked exactly like that photo. This is what it would look like if the special ink hadn't gotten to you in time, right? It would have faded entirely, and then what? You'd have died?"
"Oh yes," zee says, "I would have, and it's precise, too—to the infinitesimal universal tick between then being destroyed and now being created—and you know why? Because Ellahmut is a sick fuck, that's why, and doesn't wait longer than he has to. Listen, this isn't exactly public knowledge so it's preferably on the down-low but Rallayh doesn't care if people know it so I'm only saying this to appease the human-powers-that-dictate, okay?—but when a Saint has a Revelation we're not entirely alive. Part of us has to become transcendent, pass through that needle to get to the star, you get me…Revelations cannot no way no how pass into the human realm so we have to go the other way and bring back what we can—we make a portal on our worldly selves with normal ink, and that portal is used up in the transaction, and when we get back we have to fill the portal, the tattoo, with consecrated ink to keep the doorway closed, otherwise Elalhmut could reach in any time and snatch our life away…he isn't like the others, he's different, he's not someone you want to ever ever get involved with if you're not dead, those fuckers in death-cults have no idea, okay, he's a twisted piece of shit—we have to strike a deal with him every time we go through and the only reason he lets it happen is because we're not quite human and so not quite his property—but if we're there longer than the deal allows he takes us; it's a part of that bargain, the thing that started the big ball rolling, the deal he made with the others in the molten light of creation."
I need to sit down; here I am, finding out about the essential secrets of the universe just like that. I collapse in stages: shoulders, waist, hips, knees, ankles, like a dismantling machine, and lean against the wall. Valeriu crouches next to me, knees leaning against my arm, speaking into my ear like a childhood friend.
"But you haven't seen a fading portal before," I say.
"No-ooo, not so I'd recognise it, no," zee says. "Never happened to me before and the only book on it has kind of a sketch in the margin?—unclear, see, I trust your eyes but I don't trust your judgment—the monk wasn't a Saint because patently obviously and first of all he still has a penis."
"But when prophets take the ink…"
"Oh, the transformation, oh I see what you mean, yeah, actually—that's when the deal's struck, and if you don't have a god backing you Eallhmut has no reason to honor his half of the bargain and will just be all like hah, fuck this idiot, and you're dead—nice idea, but utterly wrong because corpses from failed confirmations have bright clean tattoos—but I think you're on the right track, because from what you said about how the monk died it sounds like Mr Death getting grabby…also, doesn't 'Mr Death Getting Grabby' sound like the title of a post-structural musical? Kind of a fucking head-trip, won't ever get made."
"If you pretended it was a Revelation? It totally would."
And Valeriu, the Saint, a godly being—laughs, not forced but uncontrolled: zeu head drops onto zeu knees. The dopamine rush hits all the way to my fingertips; they tingle. I bite my lips so I retain some dignity.
"Fucking big tattoo," zee says, and nope. That does it.
Sniggering like idiots when there's a dead monk down the hall…well, whatever. Thank you for my humanity, Al As-lh-yn, Al El-lh-mt.
"Dude, poor guy," I say. "I don't even think he was really aware of what he was doing."
"No," says the Saint, "probably not…I should take another look at the mark on his head…if we can get a clear picture of it that will do some narrowing because if we're really lucky the asshole who put it there will be the same kind of asshole who thinks Saints use secret words or eldritch symbols and we can get a peek inside the asylum."
"Seems obvious this has something to do with Saints in general, right?" I say. "Or you in particular."
"We attract two elements of society: the tortured and the religious, one group much larger than the other—and the latter will never become Saints, fitnah…much as R and company might like to have devoted mannequins a Saint's worship is a little less voluntary and a little more essential like a headache or a talent or just an illness—when I was a child it was like every room having an extra shadow—you can't pry open a working ticking brain like that without doing some damage somewhere—at the very least we're metaphysical sports and when we move we creak in obvious ways…no, there's no hidden Saint around, this is the work of someone obsessed with Sainthood perhaps positively perhaps not. Maybe I spotted someone's mother dying of cancer way back when, and now they're exacting revenge?"
I look down the corridor because I hear a noise; there's a few faces looking at us. "I think some of your supplicants want to know what you're doing," I say.
"I'm a rock star," says the Saint. "A lot of times they're more desperate than crazed groupies because rock stars don't determine their fate…well, neither do I—but they don't seem clear on that. We should go back in. Could you grab that marker we left behind in the abbott's rooms?—or maybe something from your bag, so we can trace the symbol?"
"Sure." We split. I go to my bag because I doubt the marker is fine enough to capture any detail and come out with a blue washable, just in case we fuck it up. The supplicants don't stop me passing, although one seems like she might want to ask me something, and then stops before she says anything. Good, because seriously, back off, lady. I don't think Saints break zua contracts. Keep your pants on.
When I get back, I find out they've come up with a better plan than tracing: the doctor is taking high-saturation photos and running them through various filters on his phone to see what comes up.
"Have you tried UV?" I ask. I give my pen to the Saint, who walks it around zeu fingers like an expert.
"Nothing much," says the doctor. "We should try to get as much info as we can just in case the mark deteriorates further, and if that doesn't work, I know a supply warehouse that stocks metainks. If the abbott okays the expense, of course."
The abbott nods. "Yeah, whatever you need."
"A botle of ink detection formula shouldn't run that high," says the doctor apologetically, but the abbott obviously doesn't care, and is getting more and more nervous.
"I have to leave," he says. "I have appointments. Deacons, back to your jobs, and this is clearly confidential just in case you didn't work it out already. Saint, may I leave the head medic as a liason? And medic, you have enough help to run the infirmary whilst you're taking care of this?"
The doctor nods. "We'll be fine."
"Sure," says Valeriu. "Leave the good doctor and the head of security, and I don't care about the rest." Zee gives me back the pen. "Can you do the tracing?" zee says.
The corpse doesn't smell yet—won't for another few hours maybe. His mouth is open; beyond the white teeth like gravestones is a mass of wet redness, fouling purpling black. His throat is closing up, trapping a bubble of decay waste in his stomach. As I crouch down next to his forehead I picture a roach crawling up, wriggling to get purchase on the pressing walls of his oesophagus. Its little feet hook into the tube—material like a sausage casing—past the mucus that coats it and into the flesh. The image is so vivid I have to close my eyes and pause before continuing. I've seen dead bodies before. No big deal. I decide I'm going to draw this image of the roach as a series of miniature panels in a single frame—like a comic book.
The design on his head is just a little flatter, a little shinier than the rest of his skin. Even the natural pigment is gone, I realise, sucked into some great unknown. If this were me lying on the table or even the slightly olive-skinned and tanned Saint, the mark would be clear, but this man's complexion is very fair. I push on his chin to get a better angle, but it's no good: rigor.
"Can you bring a flashlight or something around here so I can see the reflection on his skin?" I pull on it, gently, experimentally, to see if the design can be straightened.
Silence. After a few seconds I turn a little and see the Saint holding a flashlight staring at something no-one else can see, then moving into a spot and picking an angle. Zee turns the light on and it's not horrible: I can see the difference between the normal, oily skin and the dry tattoo design fairly well.
"Can you do any better?" I say.
"No, this is the best place," zee says. "Smallest amount of error in my answer given the problem and the angle of your eyes."
Uh, okay. I start tracing, and it's slow. It gets easier when I realise the dead monk has very light freckles—a bit of skin without any is more likely to be a part of the tattoo. The Saint can't see what I'm doing so of course after about thirty seconds zee loses patience.
"Head medic, hold this please," zee says. "No, not like that…to the left—here, let me move your fingers…hold the light there."
Zee crouches next to me, blocking my light. "This is a little wrong," zee says, then licks zeu thumb and wipes out about half of my work. I give zeu my pen—which of course zee should have had from the start. I move out of the way; the saint scoots over to where I was, then starts drawing.
It's odd—I'm not watching an artist sketch. Instead I'm watching a CAM setup as it processes and executes a design: a little lag, a sure line, more lag, a new line that links up precisely with the first. What's even weirder is that the Saint doesn't draw things in a human order, but in fragments that would make sense to a machine: there's a queue of things to draw, and they're drawn in the way that is most efficient.
The design comes together later for me than it obviously did for the Saint, because I hear zee muttering before I understand what would be so upsetting. When I see it, I don't really understand. It's ominous, but it doesn't mean much to me: the palm and wrist of a hand, rendered without shading but with a nod to realism, a symbol in the centre. I recognise it but it seems weird to find in this mystical setting.
"A ship's wheel," I say. "The standardized control symbol. I don't get it. The fuck do keyboards have to do with this?"
"He's saying he controlled this monk," says the Saint.
"I mean, yeah, but we knew that," I say. "But the way he's saying it is weird. Why would anyone agree to be tattooed like this? Does the person behind it have some dirt on the monk, or I don't know, did the monk owe him money? Did the monk have a secret grudge? And the drawing sucks."
"Yeah, right—it's strange, it's clumsy—look, the symbol's not in the centre of the palm but in the centre of the hand, which is just wrong, wrong, disobeying flagrantly like an untuned piano, visually speaking, and the guy who drew the hand is really good but there are mistakes that make no sense—they're not a part of the way the hand should look—they don't belong in that drawing."
"It's like he got someone to draw the hand for him and then edited the images he wanted together. Or maybe he stole the drawing of the hand from somewhere and didn't notice all of the extra lines when he was done putting it through filters," I say.
"We can search that," says the security officer. "We should get a print and a photo of the trace for the cops."
"When are they getting here?" asks the doctor.
"I called them and said we were doing internal investigations first. They're giving us until five until they come to pick up the body and verify. I'll ask them to look around for the original drawing of the hand."
There's a knock on the door and a deacon pokes his head in. "Saint," he says, "I'm so sorry, but…"
"I'm done," says the Saint. "Wait for me in the corridor." The deacon vanishes. "Use the ink-detection anyway, head medic, all right?—just to be extra specially certain…better make that special-ink detection because I'm not entirely convinced that this is normal tattoo ink, and remember that we used this," zee waves the washable pen and puts it on the table near the door, "so you'll need to make sure they give you something formulated to react only with tattoo inks, and something else that only reacts to specials so we can get a handle on it— and oh…better make sure he doesn't have consecrated ink anywhere, including the forehead because who knows. My Apprentice will oversee everything—and I'll ask you about it later, fitnah…I'll send someone to find you in a few days."
And zee leaves, just like that. "Favour," I say, but the door swings closed; no response. An image prints itself onto the back of my eyes from where it burns in my forebrain: Valeriu, three-quarter profile, hand caught midway in flipping up the cowl of zeu habit, presiding over a room full of rapt attention without trying, looking only at me. I feel lightheaded and queasy; my palms sweat.
"Are you okay?" asks the doctor.
"I'm not used to dead bodies," I say. "Come find me when there's something else to report."
I stagger up the stairs. Whenever I pass someone I straighten and pull up my feet so they step lightly, even though it makes my head spin. I've been mainlining adrenaline since I arrived at the confessional in Al-mah-ben—even my dreams were jumpy, fraught with anxiety but senseless.
I remember what this is: I've woken from a fugue. When I was running for days at a time: after the first night outdoors under a leaf pile so you don't get picked up, coat lapels folded together, bugs falling down your neckline and grit on your tongue, the days are bubbles. While they last they're perfectly clear but they pop and when they do you can't piece everything together right. You get inside a house in the warm and you have a bath and there are clean socks and you have no idea what just happened to you. Now the only thing that's clear to me is this: I don't know a thing.
I knew this guy, a groupie for one of those cute, bouncy girl bands. He liked them since he was in secondary school, but it didn't dominate his personality, I thought—he had a few t-shirts, went to their concerts when they were in town. He was attractive enough, especially once he filled out. One night he got a backstage pass—and disappeared. When he came back it was three years later and he looked a decade older and he said, "It was just one night and then I got home." A bubble.
I get to the room; I lock the door. I kick off my shoes and lie down under the covers, bandaged feet in my hands. I've learnt a lot of things about myself but nothing that deals with my problem. Stay, listen, report back. Ask my questions. Then I leave.