Gunslinger Girl Short Story: A Christmas Errand
Victor Hilshire knocked against the jamb of Triela's open door.
"Ready in a minute." The teenager finished tying her long hair into two slim ponytails. She wore a tailored three-piece blue-grey suit and a light brown tie. The close lines of the suit showed her coltish figure, and as she shrugged her jacket into place, the well-worn tan of her holster peeked under her left armpit.
Victor nodded and looked at her, noting he needed to take her again to see the tailor, as the top button of the vest was once more starting to strain. Nature will always follow its course, no matter how futile we make it. He shook his head.
She sheathed her bayonet across the small of her back and reached for her trench gun in the closet.
"Not today, Triela. Well, bring it if you want, but I don't think we'll need it."
The teen gave an efficient nod and checked the shotgun's magazine, then put it over her shoulder. "You never know."
That's right. You never do know, do you?
Hilshire smiled as Triela gave each of her six bears a pat, and thought of the one he had wrapped in festive red and green paper in his room. Today was L'Immacolata Concezione, the start of the Christmas season. He looked at the small white paper shopping bag by his foot and the five plain identical boxes, each the size of a cigar humidor.
As they drove out of the Social Work Agency compound and into the chaos of Rome, Hilshire broke the usual silence. "Triela, what do you know about the spirit of Christmas?"
"Well, it brings me Steiff bears." She looked out the window.
"Okay. Seriously, you bring me Steiff bears. And seriously, thank you. I know they are seriously expensive. Why are you seriously asking?"
"You're in a mood. Still upset about him?"
"Pinocchio? No. Just that time of the month." She unholstered her SIG-Sauer P-232, ejected the magazine and checked it. Conversation over.
Victor nodded and grimaced, in part in sympathy, in part to hide his own pained thoughts. If this hadn't happened, if you hadn't been taken from Tunisia, what would you be doing now? What would you be hoping to grow up to be?
We'll never know, will we?
In silence, they arrived near the Church of Santi Michele e Magno. Just down the street, Saint Peter's Square was filling with people for the night's activities. They parked as close as they could, but it was still two blocks away.
Hilshire picked up the shopping bag as he closed the door. "Let's leave the shotgun in the trunk, okay? There's no need where we're going."
Triela, face still stormy, gave a curt nod. Her eyes flashed a spark of curiosity at sight of the bag, but she said nothing.
They mounted the steep stairs leading to the church. At the square atop the stairs, Hilshire gestured to the plain white and ecru two story facade, seemingly being compressed on either side by the darker and taller buildings.
Hilshire entered. "This church is dedicated to Saint Michael the Archangel."
"I gathered. Who's Mango?"
He glanced back. Triela was innately curious. He knew that would crack her stony silence eventually. "The Bishop Saint Magnus of Anagni. Do you want to know about him?"
They stopped in the anteroom. "Good, because that's all I know. The Archangel Michael, on the other hand…"
Triela gave a soft sigh.
"As I was saying, the Archangel Michael we did learn about in Germany, so I can tell you a little about him." He stole a glance behind. Triela stared at him, halfway between a glare of annoyance and the attentive and open eyes of a student. "He's the patron saint of the police and the military." He gave a small sweep to encompass them both. "And us, as well."
"I didn't know cyborgs had a patron saint."
Hilshire ignored the last barb as he made the sign of the cross at the opening to the sanctuary. It was lit, but poorly attended. Only three others were present. He walked between the pews, then between the facing chairs separating the parishioners from the altar. At the altar, he made the sign of the cross, knelt, and carefully removed each box from the bag and laid them neatly in front of the stone table. Crossing himself one last time, he rose and walked back to Triela, still waiting in the anteroom door.
Her eyes overflowed with questions.
Hilshire tilted his head at the rear-most pew. He whispered, "Sit. Whatever happens, you are to do nothing. Is that understood?"
Her aches forgotten, she nodded quickly. Again, she was the eager student, hungrily waiting for him to continue as she sat.
He sat next to her. "Normally Ferro does this, but she's sick this time, so I drew the short straw."
"What is 'this', anyhow?"
"Well, you know how our cleanup crew - hey!" His hand lashed out to snare her wrist as she tried to launch herself past him. It was like grabbing a statue, the muscles and bone alike unyielding. She broke free of his grasp easily, then caught herself and glared at him.
"There - in the side door. Do you see him? Do you?" Her eyes had a manic gleam, and her whisper turned low and strained.
"I said, sit down. Do nothing. This is neutral ground. Do I make myself clear?"
Her neck so tensed her throat seemed to vanish into a metal vee, she nodded and obeyed. Then, he turned to where she pointed.
In the shadow there stood the silhouette of a lean boy about her age, his unkempt hair hinting a light hue in the gloom of the side doorway. The outline was tensed, ready as well to launch toward them. A hand on his shoulder stayed him, nothing more.
Another man older and more composed walked past him. The face was new to Hilshire and he readied his phone to snap a photo of this newcomer. The man picked up the five boxes and left.
"That was him!" Triela sat as commanded, but her body was a coiled spring, ready and straining.
"Probably it was. This is neutral ground. Even the Director needs to go to confessional now and then." He paused. "Especially him, I would think."
"What was this all about, then? What are we waiting for? Let's follow them!"
Hilshire stood. "No, that's not part of the bargain. We do this every year, and we agree to leave each other alone from start to finish."
"Why? What could be in those stupid boxes that-"
Hilshire held up his hand and stilled her sentence mid-breath. "As I was saying before, when our cleaning crews determine one of the bodies is, or was, rather…" He waved his gloved hand, dismissing his previous attempt. "At any rate, when we have the body of an important member of the Padina, we treat it with respect."
Triela nodded, not to agree, just to indicate her impatience that he continue.
"Those were the wallets and cremated ashes of five major players in the Padina we took down the past year. This way, their families will have something bury."
Triela struggled to make sense of it, and that eased away her fury. She took a few deep breaths and followed Hilshire out of the church.
As they descended the stairs, the so-called Salita dei Santi Michele e Magno, Triela fished one question out of the many in her mind. "Hilshire? If something happens to us, will they do the same thing?"
"You never know."