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Jump to the Prelude
A foolish drunk old man, Donald Todd. But that was what addiction did. It turned off your brain and preoccupied you to the point of not noticing that the guy who’d punched you earlier stood behind you and observed you. And Zach had plenty to observe because there was plenty of liquor inventory for Todd to explore.
Rows of shelves with boxes and cases lined the walls of a grand, high-ceilinged hall that could pass as the exhibit hall of a major national museum. And because lining the walls didn’t provide enough storage, more shelves with boxes and cases formed dozens of aisles that were so long that from the entrance, it was impossible to see their ends. Bright ceiling lamps illuminated those aisles so that Todd had no problem reading the labels on the bottles.
This unexpected grand scale of the storeroom was probably why Todd laughed like a madman right now, as he frisked about like some cartoon giant-deer character in a magical forest. From the main lounge area, no one would expect the storeroom to be this large and well-ventilated. In fact, no one would think to expect anything of the storeroom. Its door was too inconspicuous and it didn’t look larger than a door meant for a broom closet.
But like in so many other cases, the beforeworld laws of physics (particularly the rules that governed what could overlap and what not) were irrelevant at the hotel. Hence this “back room,” the size of a grand exhibit hall, could exist, with enough liquor to satisfy Todd for a thousand lifetimes. And even with that amount of liquor, there was plenty of remaining empty space to echo his excited footsteps.
Zach watched him as he appeared between the aisles, then disappeared, and reappeared, wildly looking around.
“Hea… Hea… Heavenly Whiskey?” Todd said, reading a label. “Never heard of this brand before.” He went on to read a few more—a painfully slow process. “E… ter… nality. Met…Meta… morphosis. The… Reaper’s Kiss… Say, you think anyone will notice if I grab two?”
Todd appeared in one of the aisles, holding a bottle in each trembling hand. He smiled broadly—until he realized that the person standing at the open door wasn’t Mina, but Zach.
“Hey, I don’t mean no harm to anyone, all right?” Todd said defensively.
“That’s what they all say,” said Zach. He approached Todd.
“Stop right there, you devil!” Todd said. He backed away. “Or ghost! Whatever you are! I am not afraid of ghosts! I am God’s child, and, and—”
Todd didn’t recall much more than that from the church sermons he must have slept through countless times.
“I am not a ghost, I am not the devil,” Zach said, coming to a halt—mainly because his ears hurt from Todd’s loud yells.
“You must be one of those, otherwise, otherwise—”
Zach raised his brows and waited for Todd to figure out what he was otherwise.
“—otherwise I’m imagining you.”
“Some imagination, to have me break your nose.”
Todd seemed to agree that imagining such a thing made no sense, because he just said, “Get away from me!”
Zach didn’t move. He let Todd continue backward along the aisle. Todd kept eyeing the open door behind Zach. As long as Zach stood between Todd and that door, there was no easy escape. And if Zach had shut the door, Todd would have gotten the message: there is no escape at all, easy or otherwise.
But Zach didn’t. You couldn’t drive the prey to desperation without expecting a violent reaction. And Zach didn’t want to waste time on unnecessary fistfights. Better to let Todd hope that he had a chance of escape, no matter how slim that chance.
So. Now that Zach had Todd all to himself, where to begin?
“Tell me what happened to Angeline,” Zach said.
“Who is Angeline Conners?”
“Don’t pretend you don’t know her. She knew you.”
“Well, a lot of people knew me. Doesn’t mean I knew all of them back.”
“Who do you think you are? A celebrity? The president?”
“I was the owner of the Luminary.”
“People knew me. I don’t remember all the names of all the women I ever met, let alone the whores—”
“I’m not talking about the whores.”
“I don’t know no Angeline.”
“You were there. When I was on the stage, dying, and when two men dragged her out.”
Todd shivered and dropped a bottle. The storeroom’s ventilation system quickly spread the strong odor of fragrant Heavenly Whiskey. The amber liquid formed a trail between Todd and Zach.
“Damn it,” said Todd, carefully put down the other bottle, knelt down, and tried to collect the liquid despite the glass shards.
What a pathetic loser. If collecting liquid in beforeworld was futile, in afterworld, it was outright lunatic. Everything was more formless here.
“Stop acting stupid and answer my questions,” said Zach.
“I’m not talking to you, ghost, devil, whatever you are.”
“If you aren’t, how do you know what happened to Zach?”
“Because I am him!” yelled Zach, exasperated. “I am Zacharias Steele without being a ghost or a devil. I waited thirty years in afterworld for you and a couple others to die, come to this hotel, and run into me. You and a couple others who conspired to kill me, that is.”
“Everyone conspired to kill you!” Todd glared up at Zach. His hands were wet and sticky with whiskey, but he didn’t seem to mind at all. He left his hands deep in the puddle. “Why are you bothering me? I’m not the only one who did it. If I hadn’t done it, they would have killed me and found someone else instead.”
“Everyone who participated, and Mr. Shevlin’s boys.”
“You call him Mr. Shevlin? What is he, your boss?”
“My lawyer said that if I don’t make any further mistakes, I might be able to avoid going to hell.”
He was talking about his afterworld lawyer.
Zach snorted. “Is that so.”
“She said I’ll be punished, but not go to hell. So I’m not going to fraternize with devils and ghosts, and especially not devils and ghosts who pretend like they aren’t one, all right? Excuse me.”
Todd grabbed the one remaining bottle and marched toward Zach. All Zach had to do was to remain standing right where he was, blocking Todd’s way.
This bearish old man was a head taller than Zach. But Zach had the advantage of steady hands. As Todd passed by, Zach firmly grabbed the man’s arm—the one connected to the hand holding the bottle. Todd didn’t dare shake Zach off, lest he sacrificed yet another precious bottle of liquor.
“You think because you were one of the many who killed me, you’re getting away with it?”
“It’s not just me who thinks that, but also my lawyer, is what I’m saying. I had to follow Mr. Shevlin’s orders.”
“So he was your boss.”
“His boys would laugh if I’d say that. I wasn’t in the mob like them. Now them, them really bad people. Bootleggers who kill people to protect their profits, and other people who don’t mess with their profits but still bother them. But me? Not me. I’m just a law-abiding citizen—”
“That’s right. Mr. Shevlin was their boss, not mine, nor was he the boss of anyone else from Carningsby. We just paid them for protection and some goods. And when we were told to bring that purple suit to you, or to put something on the suit, or to come sit in the audience as witnesses that Gus Shevlin had nothing to do with your death, we did it, is all.”
The many pieces of new information spun around in Zach’s head. Gus Shevlin, a bootlegger, a mobster, had ordered the Carningsby residents, who’d been paying protection money and receiving goods, to participate in Zach’s death in tiny bits here and there. And Angeline had something to do with Gus Shevlin.
Zach doubted that Todd’s lawyer had lied about Todd not going to hell. The lawyers of afterworld didn’t make deals for their clients. Their role was to ensure that their clients paid whatever was due based on their actions in beforeworld. They advised the clients to be truthful; otherwise, punitive measures would be imposed on them. Once at trial, the lawyers presented the cases in front of the Supreme and the Supreme sentenced the worst of the crop to hell. Others released, finishing the process of death.
If the lawyer thought that it was unlikely for Todd to be sentenced to hell for handing the poisoned suit to Zach… Well, Zach believed her. Her opinion was based on countless years of lawyering. Then, with an even greater likelihood, other Carningsby residents would avoid going to hell; some might even avoid any sort of punishment.
But they’d grinned, those lips that Zach had seen through the blinding stage lights, hadn’t they? They’d not only wanted him dead because they were scared of Gus Shevlin, but also because they’d had fun while killing him. A whole town, pretending to be so pious, but receiving goods from bootleggers and killing an innocent pianist!
The thought of them not paying in some way made Zach hot and dizzy with fury. The problem: how to punish them, when there were so many and Zach didn’t know each of them individually?
And how to punish Todd?
And what about Angeline? How was she related to all this? Angeline didn’t live in Carningsby. Maybe she’d somehow found out something that she shouldn’t have found out. There was the possibility that she’d been threatened by the mobsters. Maybe they’d said they’d kill her and her whole family. Angeline came from a nice, well-off family with brothers and a father who loved her enough to not demand immediate marriage to the next Joe Schmo who’d have her. That part of her story, Zach believed. It was impossible to not believe that part. No husband would have let her meet him. So how could Angeline possibly have anything to do with the Carningsby residents and mobsters?
But no. Gus Shevlin had a personal relationship with her. Angeline hadn’t been a mere innocent bystander. That meant that Angeline could have lied about many things, including her family.
What mattered was the order of events. Zach needed to know who knew whom at what point in time, who went where, and who did what.
“Will you let go now?” said Todd.
“What?” Zach said. He let go of Todd’s arm without thinking.
Todd hurriedly hugged the bottle with both shaky arms and scurried past Zach.
“You didn’t tell me what happened to Angeline,” Zach said to his back.
“I know no Angeline, but that woman who was dragged out that night was Gus Shevlin’s mistress. She was never supposed to be there.”
Something sharp and hot clogged in Zach’s throat.
“Wait,” he said. He went after Todd.
But Todd hurried toward the open metal door—where Mina appeared. She held both hands behind her back. She trembled a little, but smiled sweetly.
“You’re not done until Zach says he’s done,” she said.
“Get out of my way, bitch,” said Todd.
He hugged the liquor bottle closer and stormed toward her, apparently to tackle her while protecting the bottle. But this time, Mina was prepared. From her back, she produced a metal baseball bat and smashed Todd on the head.
With a faint moan, Todd collapsed on the floor. The bottle dropped and shattered. More amber liquor drenched the floor.
“This guy,” said Mina, shaking all over her body from excitement.
“Are you all right?” Zach asked.
“Am I all right? Of course I am. I just smashed him in the head with a baseball bat.”
Mina laughed. It sounded unnatural. She didn’t look all right at all. But of course, people who’d been about to be attacked and hadn’t been, only because they’d attacked first, couldn’t look entirely all right.
“I’m sorry he’s unconscious now,” she said. “You meant to ask him a question?”
“Yes. But don’t be sorry. He deserved it.”
“Yeah. Well.” Mina sighed and tapped the wet floor with the baseball bat. “I’m going to go lie down now. I’m so exhausted.”
“Sure. Of course.”
“I’m going to close the door since no one will be out in the lounge to see if anyone’s coming.”
“But I don’t think Koe and Joe will come looking for this guy, and that’s all that matters, right? They probably think he’s sleeping. You want the bat?”
Mina tossed the bat to Zach. He caught it. The part that Mina had held felt warm against his palm. He stroked the middle of the bat with his other hand. That part felt cool. Odd, how the combination of warmth and coolness gave him a sense of balance—a sense of grounding.
“You take your time,” she said.
He nodded. “See you tomorrow.”
She walked out. Zach gazed down at Todd. The door closed.
Suddenly, Zach didn’t hold the bat in his hand anymore and Todd vanished.
© 2022 Ithaka O.
All rights reserved.This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.No part of this story may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author.