I rose, utterly befuddled, from my kneeling position beside the corpse. “This guy is completely free of sins, Henderson. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

The coroner arrived, and I backed off to let him do his thing. He didn’t even acknowledge my presence. Most people considered me a freak and treated me like a pariah. That was difficult for me, but I’d learned to live with it.

No doubt these guys had seen many crime scenes gorier than this one, but it was way too gruesome for my taste. The deader’s throat had been slit open. Jeez, so much blood . . .

Detective Henderson grunted from behind me. “That’s mighty curious, Pete. This sleazeball—Manny Greer, street alias Manny The Snake—spent more of his life in jail, than out. How do you figure it? You losing your touch or something?”

There was no way to figure it. No one was without sin. Everyone had the evidence of their prior misdeeds riding their bodies. Only a few sensitive people, those with special acuity like me, could spot those manifestations.

And that was the way I made my living, as a police consultant: Pete Conklin, sin-seer par excellence.

But here was the conundrum: the sins were always there. I could see them clearly, clinging and crawling like tiny glassine worms on everyone. On me, on Detective Henderson, on everybody, living or dead. We were all human beings, after all, and sin naturally went along with that condition. Some folks had more of them, some less—but they were always there.

“No, Henderson, I haven’t lost it,” I said. “You want me to tell you about your latest sins? One of them is sitting on your left shoulder as we speak.” I watched him shiver and start to raise his hand, then abruptly catch himself.

“Don’t do that to me, Pete. Just don’t do it. I believe you.”

Isolating and extracting the sins of dead people could never, of course, provide names and places. Sins were mute. But sometimes, simply identifying and cataloguing them by their phenotype could lead to motives, and once in a rare while that would crack a crime like this one, when there was little else to go on.

I stripped off my latex gloves and tucked them into a plastic bag inside the satchel containing the tools of my trade: collecting vials and chemical fixatives, a few customized extraction tools, and a thick field identification guidebook. “I can only conclude that he’s been intentionally wiped clean. It might be that the killer didn’t want us to know about one or more of the dead guy’s sins. And that implies the perp had sin-sensing capabilities. Or that an accomplice did.”

“That’s interesting, but it doesn’t do us a whole lot of good,” Henderson said. “It’s not like we have a list of all you cootie-spotters back at the office.” He frowned and added, “Unless, of course, you’d care to provide us with one.”

I looked Henderson in the eye and shook my head. “You know I won’t do that. You also know better than to ask me.”

“Can’t fault me for trying. I know you’ve got lots of contacts within that . . . whatcha call it, that marshal-filly crowd.”

Hamartiaphily.” I’d corrected him at least a dozen times before about the craft name, derived from the Greek, meaning “love of sin.” “Yes, I personally know quite a few sin collectors out there. But I can vouch that none of them are murderers.”

Henderson only huffed in response. He knew the legal line as well as I did.

“There’s just one thing I don’t understand,” I said, waving an arm toward the corpse on the floor. “It would have taken a lot of time to do a full wipe. Especially if the victim was so heavily riddled with sins, as you claimed. Why go to all that effort, if only one target sin was the prey?”

Henderson shrugged his shoulders. “Maybe the cootie-snatcher could see ’em, but wasn’t experienced enough to type ’em. So he just grabbed ’em all, figuring that the target one was in the bunch. I dunno. Just guessing.” He scratched his forehead. “And going along with that, I suppose he didn’t want to take the easier route, which would have been to remove the body as it was and dispose of it where we couldn’t find it. Too much risk of discovery in that. But sitting here in this dive, he had all the time in the world.”

“Makes as much sense as anything else,” I said. “Look, Henderson, I have to get out of this place before I blow my breakfast all over your shoes. The stink of blood is really getting to me. Are you done with me?”

Henderson tilted his head toward the door, and I wasted no time leaving the murder scene.

****

I hate it when things don’t add up right—and they certainly didn’t in this case.

Another scenario had entered my mind at the crime scene, one which I hadn’t floated to Henderson. What if the murder had been committed by an overzealous sin collector, for no other reason than to glom onto a harvest of goodies that he could then sell to other hamartiaphiles on the open market? In other words, some sort of sick, psychopathic sin reaper?

But that didn’t ring right. The victim may have had a lot of resident sins, true—and they were all worth something. But not much. The sins you’d get off any typical two-bit hoodlum like Manny simply weren’t that much in demand in this limited market. They wouldn’t appeal to any discriminating collector. It wouldn’t have been worth murder to obtain the small amount they’d bring.

Now instead, if you were marketing a juicy sin of, say, Adolf Hitler, one with a good provenance? That could bring a tidy sum—on up into six figures. Sins of notorious historical characters were always in big demand. I’d recently seen an old Pol Pot mass murder sell at auction for close to a quarter million dollars. But it would be hard to conceive how anything gathered from a local thug would be worth much to anyone.

I poured myself another glass of scotch and shook my head. No, the more likely explanation was the one Henderson was already running with. Still . . .

When all else fails, I thought, read the manual. I walked to my bookshelves and fingered the thick edges of the ten-volume compendium published by the Hamartiaphily Collector’s Guild. It held the definitive description of every known type of human sin that had been isolated and identified to date, close to fourteen thousand of them, catalogued in the Linnaean taxonomic scheme that governed the system: family, genus, species, subspecies. The volumes were printed on quality stock, with four-color glossy illustrations of the obverse and reverse sides of the best known collected examples. My eyes drifted to the even larger array of HCG supplements and updates that sat on the shelf below, many of the more recent ones as thick as the main volumes themselves.

The study of human sin was complicated and ever evolving. Where to begin?

I picked a volume off the shelf at random and flipped it open to a page showing HCG 14-54-13-230: family “murder,” genus “familial,” species “premeditated,” subspecies “sanctioned.” The illustrated example was a sin extracted from a Pakistani father who, with community approbation, had killed his unmarried daughter because of her promiscuous sexual behavior. It displayed as a brownish-mauve color, and because the collected example was quite “pure”—that is, the man had felt no sense of remorse after committing the sin—its shape was symmetrical and regular. Specifically, in this case it took the form of a stellated hexecontahedron.

A very attractive specimen, to be sure. It would certainly complement any serious hamartiaphile’s collection. But this was not going to get me anywhere. I closed the volume, re-shelved it and went online to check the hamartiaphily forum sites. Maybe something new had shown up there, something that might relate to last night’s crime.

It didn’t take me long to turn up an interesting post.

****

Every apprentice has a master, and mine was a rich old Dutch sin-seer and collector named Gerd Vanderhout. He’d taught me everything I knew about hamartiaphily, and had developed my youthful incipient talent for seeing what few others could see. I owed him everything.

In truth, he was more a father figure to me than anything else—which was easy to understand, since I didn’t even know who my real father was.

I drove to Gerd’s manor house, which was ensconced within a guarded residential enclave on the wealthy side of town. He appeared at his front door in response to my knock, a little bit stooped but still taller than me.

“Peter! How nice to see you! But . . . it is not our normal chess day—is it? Or perhaps this old man’s brain is getting addled. No matter: Welkom, come inside out of the rain.”

I entered the foyer, sat my soggy umbrella in the stand by the door and removed my raincoat. “Please excuse my unannounced visit, Gerd. No, it’s not Tuesday. But I have a problem, one that I hope you can help me with.”

“Ah!” Vanderhout raised one bushy, gray eyebrow. “Another titillating crime mystery, yes? Here, come into the library and let us have a glass of schnapps to take the night’s chill away. And you can also be the first to see my latest acquisition!”

Gerd had one of the finest hamartiaphily collections in the country, comprised of a huge number of unique, one-of-a-kind items. Many of them had been selected for display in the HCG catalogs, being as they were the best prototypical examples. Some were the only known specimens of a sin subspecies. Gerd himself had been a founding member and had served as president of the Hamartiaphily Collector’s Guild for a number of years, back in its early days. No one had better craft credentials than him.

And no one knew more of what went on in the trade at any given time. I’d often consulted with Gerd on police cases. The man was a fount of knowledge, full of insider information.

He poured a splash of liquor into two snifters at his bar. I took the one he offered and sat down in a comfortable wingback chair in front of the low wood fire burning in his fireplace. Gerd moved to one of his many mahogany display cabinets and retracted a vial, then handed it to me.

“Is it not exquisite? I obtained it from a collector in Cairo, just the other day. There was quite the competition for it, but I prevailed.”

The sin took my breath away. I could sense the energy of its spectral radiation leaking through the leaded glass of the container.

“‘Exquisite’ is an understatement. I’ve never seen its match for color—and such perfect symmetry! Family ‘avarice,’ if my eyes don’t deceive me. Although the shape of the crenellations seems atypical for that class.”

Gerd beamed. “That’s because it is a previously undiscovered species, Peter. The provenance is somewhat shaky, but the specimen’s conformation speaks for itself. I think it will justify a brand new HCG category entry—if my instincts are correct.”

I handed the vial back to him and took a sip of liquor. After Gerd replaced the precious item on his shelf and sat down in the chair next to me, I briefed him about the case. Then I handed him a printout I’d made of a recent hamartiaphily forum post.

“This looks like a new person on the scene. Have you any idea who he is? He’s trying to hawk some low-level sins that you might get from a petty criminal like our victim.”

Gerd glanced at the sheet. “No, I do not recognize the user name. I presume he uses an overseas anonymizer service, like many in our trade do?”

I nodded. “Yes, I tried to trace him, only to run into a dead-end IP routing address in Romania. It’s going to be difficult to officially track him down and follow up. Particularly since I have to abide by Guild rules. Naturally, I’d never reveal the identity of a fellow sin-seer to others outside the craft. That’s a given. Still, we are talking about murder here.”

“Which makes this a difficult situation for you. If, however, we are truly dealing with a renegade seer, we may be obliged to take matters into our own hands. What is the expression . . . ‘clean up our own house’?”

“But how do you propose to do that? I question the wisdom of going in that direction. If it’s our man, he’s clearly very dangerous.”

Gerd reached over and patted my arm. “Let me make some discreet inquiries, Peter. In the meantime, try not to fret. Everything will seem better in the morning, when the rain stops and the sun comes out.” He smiled and stood up. “Would you fancy a game of chess? That will help take your mind off these . . . distasteful subjects.”

****

I left Vanderhout’s residence late. The rain had stopped and a thick fog had drifted in to blanket the wet streets. As I drove home, I noticed that I was being tailed. Probably Detective Henderson or one of his lackeys.

This business was getting complicated.

What was worse, I discovered that someone had entered my apartment and gone through my things while I was gone. It had been a subtle job, and I might not have even noticed it—except that I’m scrupulous about filing my data CDs. I noticed that a pair of them were out of order in my desk file drawer. Looking further, I found other small hints of intrusion.

Henderson again, no doubt. I felt the heat rise behind my collar. The bastard! Who did he think he was dealing with?

Fortunately, there was no way he could’ve found any sensitive information on other sin-seers, even if he had scraped my computer’s hard drive clean. Those data were safely stored where no one could find them without tearing the place down to its foundation. Still, I felt irate. I’d confront the son of a bitch in the morning and demand that he back off on me.

Or maybe not. It wouldn’t be wise for me to cut off my nose to spite my face. The fact was, I benefited greatly from my relationship with the police. By my consulting agreement, ownership of any sins I extracted from murder victims for identification transferred to me. And Lord knows I enjoyed a small but very tasty supplement to my regular consulting income when I sold the best of the little buggers on the open hamartiaphily auction markets.

I took a deep breath and calmed myself down. There was one good thing, at least: It didn’t matter if Henderson knew about my relationship with Gerd Vanderhout. Gerd had never made any pretext of hiding his involvement in the craft. After all, it wasn’t an illegal activity. He was above reproach. And, while he might be questioned in the matter, Gerd was under no legal obligation to cooperate. The courts had been clear on that.

Clear in more ways than one, actually. Physical sins couldn’t be admitted as evidence in any court of law. Who but a few could even see them? And how could a judge objectively believe a person’s claims to be able to do so? Likewise, any descriptions, classifications or analyses relating to the sins, even by persons known to be “expert seers,” were inadmissible. One might as well admit court testimony from a palm reader, or a clairvoyant. We in the craft were fairly well-insulated from the law, and that included freedom from search warrants and court injunctions related to hamartiaphilic affairs.

To be sure, individual sin-seers might help the cops with difficult cases, as I routinely did. But any information we provided was strictly on an unofficial “background” basis. I knew that some in the Guild took a dim view of my relationship with the police—but I’d always cleaved closely to the spirit of our craft guidelines pertaining to non-disclosure. I had my reputation to maintain, after all.

I took a shower and got into bed. I had almost fallen asleep when a horrible thought entered my head: What if the surveillance and the break-in had not been Henderson’s doing?

What if other interested parties were in play?

Sleep evaded me for the rest of the night, while my brain tried to corral all the alternate possibilities.

Maybe it would be best for me to play it straight with Henderson.

****

Detective Henderson leaned back in his chair and exposed the soles of his shoes to me. “So let me get this straight, Pete: You think you were tailed last night, and you think someone broke into your place. Anything taken?”

“No, but—”

“Anything damaged?”

“No, Henderson. Nothing was harmed.”

“Have you received any threats recently? Any reason to believe somebody is wanting to do you wrong?”

I stared down at the dust bunnies lying on the floor under Henderson’s desk. “At first I thought it was your own guys, poking around to glom onto my confidential information. I intended to confront you about that. But then it occurred to me that it might have been somebody connected with Manny Greer’s murder. Maybe making sure the job was done cleanly enough. It freaked me out. I . . . I want some investigation done. And some protection.”

“Okay, duly noted. I’ll send a tech over to check things out, see if we can find anything tangible. And I’ll try to arrange a squad car to swing past your street more often on its regular patrol. Understand, that’s only because we’re colleagues, of a sort. Call it professional courtesy. But there’s no way I can pull anybody off their assignments to baby-sit you full-time. Do you own a handgun?”

“No! Guns frighten me, Henderson. I’d never—”

“You came here wanting my help. That’s what I’m giving you, best I can. If you feel like you’re under threat, I’d advise you to buy a gun, and carry it. The only thing to be afraid of with firearms is having the wrong end of one pointing at you. Better that you have a say in that, if it ever comes down to it.”

I felt a clot of phlegm lodge in my throat. It wasn’t the thing I wanted to hear him say at that moment.

Henderson lowered his feet from the desk and rose from his chair. “Look, Pete, you of all people ought to know how things work around here. Do you actually think we’re gonna give priority to some dead hoodlum that nobody gives a shit about, when there are a hundred other unsolved murder cases more pressing? Personally, I couldn’t care less about Manny’s physical sins—or, as you claim, the strange lack of same. Nor what happened to them, if in fact they got plucked. Manny ended up right where he deserved to be. Regardless, there’s one big problem with his case: You won’t reveal the names of your sin-seer buddies for us to check out. You told me that none of them were murderers. Forgive me, but I happen to hold the opposite view.”

My head spun. He was right, of course. I knew the name of every sin-seer in North America. At least one of them was a murderer. And evidence indicated that I might be the next victim. But I’d taken a solemn Guild vow. Breaking it would destroy me, just as sure as having my throat slit.

“I . . . I just can’t do that. I wish I could, but I can’t. I’m sorry.”

“Fine, that’s your right under the law. But it seems to me you’re making things more complicated for yourself, Pete. We can’t help you if you don’t help us.” He paused, looked down at the floor, then said, “There’s one other thing I ought to mention to you.”

“Another thing?”

Henderson moved to the front of his desk, crossed his arms and leaned back against it. “The Commissioner’s been reassessing our consulting contracts. Budget crunch time, that sort of thing. I hate to have to tell you this, but he’s teetering on the edge of canceling yours. Not enough bang for the buck, he says. You know how it is: ‘What have you done for us lately?’ Sorry, but . . . there it is.”

All the blood seemed to drain from my head at that moment, leaving me dizzy. “But, but—what about the Strauss case, just a few months ago? You told me yourself that the sin of incest I recovered was helpful in cracking it!”

Henderson shrugged his shoulders in that aggravating, condescending way he had. “Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t. The jury’s still out on that one—literally. Who can say what we would have uncovered with our own legwork? How about the other two hundred-and-some-odd cases you’ve been called in on, besides that one? I count maybe a couple of useful leads you’ve given us in all that while. At most.”

“Heck, I know there were a few more than that, Henderson. What about—”

“Be honest about it, Pete. You’ve been sucking on the public tit for a long time, and you’ve done pretty well with it. The good times can’t last forever. You know that.”

Shit. This couldn’t be happening to me. How else could I make a living? I had no formal education, no skills save one: seeing sins. I opened my mouth to speak, but no words came out.

“Look,” Henderson said, “I’ll do what I can for you, but no promises.” He walked to his office door and opened it, a less-than-subtle invitation for me to get out of his hair. “You have to understand, Pete. A lot of folks around here just don’t appreciate your kind. To be more precise, you give ’em the creeps. Hell, you even give me the creeps sometimes. Best you go on home and play with your cootie collection, and let me handle things on this end, eh?”

****

There have been a few times in the past, always under severe emotional distress, when I’ve been tempted to extract my own sins—even though I know that would lead to an excruciating, painful death.

It was one of the first lessons Gerd had taught me, many years ago: sins are symbiotic to a human. We cannot live without them. If we are separated, the power of our mutual longing will inevitably lead to human dissolution. Even the excision of a single sin from a living person could result in madness. A few unpublished, illicit experiments conducted by the HCG in its early days had confirmed that. Gerd had once let me read some of those private accounts. They were horrifying.

Just as one could never undo a sin he’d committed, so too could that sin’s physical manifestation never be removed from a living body without severe psychical repercussions.

I stood nude in front of my bathroom mirror, looking at the horde of sins infesting my own body, from bottom to top, writhing languidly like so many crystalline larvae, occasionally exchanging positions, always on the slow move. They formed a colorful secondary skin, unseen by all but a few.

It was easy to remain professionally detached when viewing the physical sins that rode upon others. But it was never easy for me to witness the evidence of my own wrong-doings, all my many prior sins of both thought and deed. How could I have accumulated so blasted many of them in the span of my short life? Hundreds and hundreds of them, infesting every square inch of my body—each one a reminder that I was nowhere near the person I wanted to be. Even more distressing was knowing that I’d carry them to my grave—and beyond.

It was not a pleasant concept to consider.

I watched as a new sin appeared in the center of my chest, right above my heart, gleaming with the spectral glory of fresh birth: family “hatred,” genus “self-loathing.” I didn’t recognize the species and subspecies. I’d have to consult my HCG directory to nail them down.

****

“Gerd, I’m sorry for the intrusion,” I said. “I think I’m in big trouble. I’ve got to speak with you, and it can’t wait.”

The old man ushered me into his foyer. “Forgive me, Peter,” he said. “I have some guests in the library. Business matters. Please, would you mind waiting for me in the parlor? It should not take more than a few minutes for me to finish up. Pour yourself a drink in the meantime. I will be with you as soon as I can.”

Gerd went back into the library. I heard a loud voice from within the room, muffled by the thick door: “But for Christ’s sake, it’s the Sin Of All Sins! And he has it! We know he does.”

I crept closer to the door and put my ear against it.

Gerd’s voice: “As I said before, he would have told me if he did. I am sure of that.”

The first voice: “So you continue to claim.”

Another voice, heavily accented: “The man conspires with the police. He is not to be trusted. Regardless of his prior relationship with you, Vanderhout, we have good reason to be suspicious.”

First voice: “We know it’s not in his apartment. If he does have it, it’s hidden. We must find out where it is.”

Gerd: “You are making a big mistake. Bigger than you know.”

Accented voice: //laugh// “Really, Vanderhout! Is that intended as a threat? You cannot threaten us. You may have held power in the old days, but no longer. Now you’re just a weak old man, a has-been.”

I heard sounds of movement and took that opportunity to retreat to the parlor until the men left. When they did, a minute later, Gerd rejoined me. I could see the signs of emotional distress written on his drawn face.

“Sorry, Peter,” he said. “Some unpleasant business, as it turned out—but no matter. What did you need to tell me?”

“Many things, Gerd. But now it seems more imperative to ask you to tell me things. I overheard some of the conversation from your library. It . . . seemed to cut close to home.”

Gerd sighed and bent his head down. He ran one hand through his sparse gray hair and grunted. “Och, Peter. Things are spinning out of control, as you guessed. Those men are convinced that you harvested a special sin from Manny Greer. The one we all crave to own: the Sin Of All Sins.”

“But of course I didn’t! The man was wiped clean, Gerd. I told you that. Nothing was there. Nothing!”

“I know that, and I believe that. Others do not.”

“But why would anyone think that a low-life scumball like Manny would harbor such a hamartiaphilic treasure? It doesn’t make any sense!”

“You are letting your brain speak instead of your heart, Peter,” Gerd said. “Do you honestly think that sins select people according to their class in society? Do you believe that powerful sins are only destined to be affixed to powerful people? If so, you are wrong. Dead wrong. You have learned nothing of what I taught you!”

Gerd walked to the credenza in the parlor and poured himself a drink, his hands shaking visibly as he did so. “Sins are totally egalitarian by nature,” he said. “They do not care if you are Manny the Thug, or Genghis Khan the Conqueror. They only want to be. To manifest. To cling.”

“To be with us,” I said.

“Yes. To be with every one of us. It is the only way they can achieve their bliss.”

“And so Manny managed to glom onto the greatest sin in all the world?”

“According to my informants, yes. Look at it this way: We swim through an endless sea of sins, each of them desperate to gain connection with us. You and I can only see the ones that have ‘made a landing,’ so to say. And it does not take much to hook one. Just an impure thought, in many cases. Your man Manny apparently latched onto a . . . what’s the word? A real doozy. The biggest doozy of them all. Or so I am led to believe.”

“Incredible. But who could ever know that about Manny?”

“Someone who is both a sinner, and a sin-seer too,” Gerd said. “Someone who wanted that sin for himself. Someone who is determined to obtain it at any cost. My visitors tonight were not working for themselves. They are obviously agents, in it only for the money. Their strings are being controlled by a higher person, unknown to us.”

“But Gerd, tell me what sin could possibly be worse than, say, genocide, or serial murder? Or running scams on elderly people? Or bilking corporate investors out of millions? Manny couldn’t have managed to top those. He was too stupid. What exactly is the Sin Of All Sins?”

The old man shook his head slowly. “Not anything we can conceive by way of speculation, Peter. It is something beyond our imagining. The Holy Grail of our Art. The quintessential sin, comprising a superfamily that subsumes all the others below it.”

“If that’s true, couldn’t we project what it might look like from taxonomic analysis of known sin shape families?”

“Some have tried to do so,” Gerd said. “I have seen various hypothetical renderings. The best guess is that it takes the form of a hyper-icosahedron. We think it must have enormous spectral energy. But who can know for sure?”

He raised his eyes and looked at the high chandelier in the center of the parlor. “Considering the stakes involved, perhaps it would be best for you to stay here with me for a time, for your own safety. I have plenty of spare room in this dusty old mansion. I will call in some old friends of mine who owe me a favor, to act as . . . bodyguards.” He looked back down at me, lifted his eyebrows, and smiled.

I nodded back to him. I could buy a toothbrush at the local drugstore in the morning.

At this point, I was scared. The chances that I’d get any substantial help from the police were slim, and so I was thankful for Gerd’s offer of protection.

****

Sins occupy a space just a tiny bit removed from the one that most people can see. They are like the steamy fog that rises from a hot asphalt road after a shower in the middle of summer. Nothing but humid air, really—but you never see it until after the rain and the sun conspire to bring it out.

Me, I was sick of being able to see them. As I lay restlessly in the unfamiliar bed, I cursed Gerd for developing my latent talent in the first place. In the end, it hadn’t been worth it.

And worse thoughts came to me. For example, if every man and woman alive were infested with sins, how could anyone ever hope to enter Heaven? Jesus Christ may have been able to cast out sins from the living, but I saw no evidence that anyone else had ever done that.

Furthermore, what possible good could it do to “forgive” one for their sins? The sins didn’t care. Ironically, they were sin-free. Whatever strange form of independent vitality they possessed, they had the same imperative as all other life forms: strive to exist. That is all. You might as well forgive a person for the e-coli that inhabited his gut. To me, it seemed an illogical concept.

The Bible defined the worst sin as blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, the only unforgivable sin. But surely it couldn’t be that obvious, else we’d have already seen its manifestation in plentitude. Even so, since no one could actually understand the mystical nature of the Holy Spirit, maybe there was something to that notion. Maybe it took an incorrigible sinner like Manny to stumble upon that most perverse of thoughts or deeds.

And perhaps the physical manifestation of the Sin Of All Sins was not really all that breathtaking or complex to behold. It might be hard to identify, crammed amidst other sins. Maybe its spectral energy was actually not very strong. It very well may have disguised itself like that. Maybe it looked like the humblest of everyday sins.

I rolled and tossed in bed, trying to will my brain to stop operating. These thoughts worried me. Worried me deeply.

I knew that you couldn’t destroy a sin’s physical manifestation, even after the death of its original host. An early HCG study group had done experiments using all kinds of solvents, strong acids, flames, liquid nitrogen, noxious gases, you name it. All were totally ineffective. Sins were robust, and had an extraordinarily long physical lifetime. The oldest well-documented extant sin I knew about was HCG 28-147-1-1, a singular genus. It had been extracted from a religious relic, the knucklebone of St. Agothis, who had died in the third century C.E.

I suppose it was fortunate for hamartiaphiles that the plane sins occupied was only slightly askew from normal sight. Otherwise, collectors couldn’t have appreciated their individual beauty.

And they were beautiful, to be sure. Each one splendid in its own illicit, unique way. Collectors assumed that the Sin Of All Sins was the most beautiful item in all the world. Some would kill for it. Beyond its inestimable tangible value, its ownership would secure one’s legacy forever in the annals of the Hamartiaphily Collector’s Guild.

Which was, I thought uncomfortably, just the sort of thing that would appeal to a person like Gerd Vanderhout.

****

I awoke to find myself tied immobile in a chair in Gerd’s library, with the residual scent of chloroform in my nostrils about to make me retch.

“Please forgive me for this, Peter,” Gerd said.

A couple of other elderly guys I didn’t recognize stood on either side of me. One of them held a small pistol in his hand.

Henderson had been right. True fear is facing the business end of a loaded gun. I tried to look away from it, but couldn’t. That small dark hole at the end of the barrel seemed to grow larger and larger, until it subsumed everything else in my vision.

I heaved once against my bindings as a surge of adrenaline coursed through my body, bearing its primary chemical instruction: fight or flight. I could do neither. Somewhere inside my head, panic quickly evolved into an odd sense of detachment. The room, the people inside it, the situation itself became surreal. I found my voice, surprised that it was so coherent under the circumstance.

“It’s not like I couldn’t expect something like this to happen, Gerd,” I said. “You were my last hope, and now you’re betraying me for the sake of your own greed. A variant of HCG 3-14, as I reckon it. I can see it blooming on your chest right now, ready to be born. Bright as a new star. Weighing down your wings even further.”

My fingers teased at the knot that restrained my wrists behind the chair. Gerd’s ancient accomplices were obviously not accustomed to this kind of sordid business. The knot was loose enough for me to unravel, given time.

“I had to be sure,” Gerd said. “Surely, you can understand that. It is much too important for me not to follow up on.”

You killed Manny Greer, didn’t you? Or had someone in your employ do it. And when your assassin came back empty-handed, you figured he missed reaping the target you were after. I don’t know why I can’t see the evidence of your crime crawling on you, but it must have been you.”

“Camouflaging sins is a little trick I never taught you, Peter.” Gerd sighed. “And yes, sadly, my newest apprentice has a long way to go before he becomes a competent seer. Not like you. You were my pride, my best student. But your moral compass is . . . how can I say it? Too precise, too true for this business. You do not yet have the fire in your gut to play our game well.”

“So what is to come? Your geriatric henchmen here try to beat the truth out of me?”

Gerd stepped closer to me. “No. We simply remove one of your sins, and see if your ensuing distress produces the answer we need to hear.” He held a sin extraction tool in his hand. “And later, we discuss your ultimate disposition. Considering our position under the law, it is doubtful that you will cause us any problems. After all, who ever believes a sin-seer’s testimony? We are all charlatans, yes?”

Gerd laughed at his own joke.

My breath caught in my chest. “Don’t do it, Gerd. For the love of God, leave my sins alone. You know I’ll confess to anything if the pain is great enough. Any tortured soul would. It won’t do you any good! Best you just kill me now.”

Gerd only shrugged and stooped over me. I felt the slightest twinge in my upper arm.

And then, terror.

It was the horror of separation, of infinite, melancholic longing. A pit of blackness beyond black opened up before me: the loss of all hope. Worse than death, a fate that granted no mercy, no succor. A pain beyond imagining, for all eternity. I screamed.

“You only need to reveal where you hid the Sin Of All Sins, Peter,” Gerd said. “And then I will replace what you are missing, make the pain stop, make you whole again.”

I screamed again, but by that time I had loosened the cords that held me in the chair. I leaned hard to my left and the heavy chair fell over into the codger who held the gun. He went down, crying out when he hit the floor. Did I break his hip? Another sin for me to bear. In my terror I gained strength, loosened the rest of my restraints and grabbed the firearm, which had slid a short way away from him. I stood and pointed the weapon at Gerd. “Put it back! Put it back now!”

Gerd, obviously shaken, replaced the sin on my quivering arm. Relief flooded through me. “Peter, I know you are distraught right now, but you must understand how important—”

“Distraught! You’re a master of understatement, Gerd.” My hands shook as I held the gun. I fought a momentary impulse to squeeze the trigger. “Sorry, I’ll take my chances elsewhere, if you don’t mind. Down on the floor, now, everyone. Don’t move a muscle. And read my lips, Gerd: I don’t have your God-damned sin!

Where to go? I didn’t know. I reclaimed my keys and wallet, ran out of the manor to my car and drove off, spinning wheels in the driveway, trying to reclaim my sanity.

I was sure that part of me would ever remain back in Gerd’s library, hovering over the edge of that black, bottomless pit of despair.

****

I drove for days, determined to put as much mileage as I could between me and those who would seek me out. Every tick of the car’s odometer made me feel incrementally safer. I finally holed up in a small town in Idaho, and called Henderson a week later.

I never would have expected his gravelly voice to sound so comforting to me.

“Pete! Where the hell are you, man?”

“As close to nowhere as I can get. Probably not close enough.”

“Well now, that’s a real pisser. Here I go to the wall for you with the Commissioner, and get your consulting contract extended for another two years. Then you up and disappear on me!”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “Things got complicated. I got confused, and . . . scared.”

I told him everything that had happened to me since the last time I saw him.

“Very interesting,” he said. “But what you don’t know is that Gerd Vanderhout was found dead in the library of his home last week. Gunshot to the skull, apparent suicide.”

I felt the blood rush to my head. My mind spun. It was a double irony. Manny Greer, an incorrigible sinner, ended up dead for a sin he didn’t commit. And Gerd Vanderhout, the consummate collector, ended up dead for a sin he didn’t possess.

“It wasn’t suicide, Henderson. Someone killed him. A rival sin-collector, trying to steal a prize they thought he had— something that doesn’t even exist except as an imaginary figment in the minds of these insane people.”

“You have solid evidence of this? If so, you need to come back and give us your statement. We’ll protect you. Set you up in a witness protection program, if need be.”

I sighed. “No. It’s nothing but informed speculation on my part. In any case, I’m better off where I am.” I looked down at my feet, then added, “Henderson, let me ask you something: Are you a religious man?”

“No, not particularly. Why do you ask?”

“Because I’ve been thinking lately that God doesn’t want us to be able to see sins like I can. It’s unnatural and ultimately corruptive. Even more perverse is collecting them like they were so many pretty baubles. After looking into that dark pit of despair at Gerd’s place, I realize I can’t do it anymore. I just can’t.”

There was a long pause on Henderson’s end.

“See the tears fall from my cheek,” he finally said. “You think you’re something special, being able to see sins. And maybe you are. But I’m no slouch at it myself. I witness sin all the time, in my own way. And I too look into that dark abyss, every single day. The difference is in how we deal with it. You’re running away from it. I fight it, and try to bring justice to the wronged souls who can no longer speak for themselves. Make a stand, Pete. Here and now.”

I looked out at the highway. An empty logging truck roared by, heading North toward a farther nowhere.

“You sound like an avenging angel.”

I heard him snort into the phone. “You don’t have to believe in God to do right. But if there is a God, I’ve got no patience with him. Yeah, sure, sure. We might all have to pay for our sins someday. But I’d rather present the check in the here and now. Come back to me, Pete. Help me catch the bad guys, make them pay now. I’ve been toying with some ideas about how we can work together more closely. Up the ante, so to speak. Maybe become a little more proactive at this game . . . “

Every gut instinct I had, even after all I’d been through, told me to protect the anonymity of my Guild colleagues. But instincts can prove to be wrong. The closest thing I ever had to a family had shown itself to be rife with lunatics, single-mindedly pursuing an impossible chimera, doing terrible things in the name of their craft.

And Henderson had nailed it: I was indeed running away, just like a frightened child who refused to confront the source of his fear. Perhaps I was trying to run away from myself. If so, I’d never find solace.

One thing was certain. The Guild killings wouldn’t cease. Not unless I helped stop them.

Another logging truck rumbled past, this one filled with cut timber, heading South.

I made my decision.

“There’s a lot a names on my list,” I said. “At least a couple of them are murderers. Think you can sort them all out?”

Henderson chuckled. “It’s what I do, Pete. If you give me the bullets, I’ll produce the retribution.” He paused, then added, “Welcome back . . . partner.”

****