Ch. 21 – This Time (1)

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Current location: New York City.

Time: early 1919, again.

Again, meaning that it was this time now, though Zacharias Steele looked exactly the same as he’d looked last time.

A second chance, like none that Zach had hoped for, had been given to him. His soul was equipped with not only the memories past, but also with the new interpretations of such memories—interpretations that were only possible because he’d lived ten more years after this point in time, had been murdered, had met Flip and Flop, had met the women in black, had played the piano at the hotel between worlds for thirty years, and had come back to this point in time.

“You must be really very tired from the trip,” Gus Shevlin said. “I asked you, you here for the piano man audition at the bookstore?”

Zach didn’t care that Gus Shevlin was becoming impatient.

They stood in front of the vacated-looking bookstore, the one without a sign, across from The Underwater Grille. It was the same but different cold winter morning. The exhaust gas, the sunshine, even the barbecue sauce on Shevlin’s apron were the same, but different.

What transformed the same into the different was Zach and Zach alone.

This time, he knew that in the basement of that bookstore, there was a soon-to-open speakeasy called The Underwater Palace. He knew that this man, Gus Shevlin, would become a mobster and order the Carningsby residents to collude in murder. He also knew that Angeline had been Gus Shevlin’s mistress.

His Angeline, someone’s mistress! Mistress to a man who was married to the tragically pathetic Nora Shevlin! Nora Shevlin, the magma lady, whom he’d seen at the hotel between worlds, the lady who had terrified him before he’d ever run into Donald Todd again.

Nora Shevlin at the hotel had wanted to tell Zach something. That was why she’d wanted to stay at the hotel for more than a day. That was why she kept coming to the cocktail lounge. She’d said that she was waiting for her husband to die, and that he’d die soon. Although Zach didn’t think that she’d be the best person to rely on for an estimate of a person’s remaining life span, he did believe that she had good intentions. Angeline was right about that part. Nora Shevlin saw him as a friend. If she disliked him, she hadn’t shown it.

It must have been clear to the dead Nora that Zach at the hotel didn’t remember her at all. That was why she’d been waiting without overtly telling him how she knew him. If she’d pushed him, demanded that he recognize her, told the crazy story about him having been murdered, he would have run away from her. She must have known that. Or, since she was a woman who liked to pray to the Virgin Mary and Buddha at the same time, she could have been waiting for something supernatural to happen, something beyond the control of her and Zach. He didn’t think that she predicted exactly this would happen, but something supernatural had happened indeed.

Nora Shevlin, the magma lady, not so pathetic in her afterlife—that new image of her relieved Zach a bit.

But also, Nora Shevlin in her beforelife hadn’t been as pathetic as he’d initially thought. She must have known, or at least, must have guessed: her husband had another woman. That was why Nora wanted to make herself useful. So she sat in that den at the Grille, listened, watched, and prayed, even while the waiters laughed at her.

Had Angeline been unaware of Nora’s relationship to Gus Shevlin on the day she’d met Zach? When had she become Gus Shevlin’s mistress? Before meeting Zach or after? Nora had recognized Angeline’s emerald car, but that didn’t necessarily mean that Angeline and Gus had a sexual relationship at that point.

Which was worse? Was Zach the other man to Angeline, or was Gus Shevlin the other? Did the order in which they’d appeared in Angeline’s life matter?

Then, the worst possibility crossed Zach’s mind: was it possible that to Angeline, Zach and Gus Shevlin mattered equally, and in effect, neither mattered at all?

Jealousy. Anger. Regret. All three fogged up Zach’s brain. The first two were familiar. He’d felt them since the forest clearing with the women in black. But regret, that last one was new. Because, now that Zach remembered what had happened on this day, it was evident that he should have known better.

Something had always been off with his relationship with Angeline, though he’d not wanted to admit it. A girl from a nice family, with said family not pushing her to get married, and having the free time, money, and private space to meet Zach? Of course something was off.

But like with so many other “off” things (such as the mysterious downward spiral of his non-career), Zach had swept those oddities aside. It wasn’t his nature to ruminate about problems he couldn’t solve. Ignoring was his coping mechanism.

If a beautiful, intelligent woman said she liked him, he didn’t protest. He didn’t try to figure out why the beautiful, intelligent woman liked him out of all men in an incredibly fascinating, big city.

If there was no audience in the cornfields, he left the cornfields. He didn’t try to cultivate musical interest in those who didn’t naturally possess the love for music.

Even in afterlife, if he had stage fright, he went off the stage as infrequently as possible so that he didn’t have to keep choosing between playing and not playing. He didn’t try to solve the mystery of why, just why he was so terrified of the audience.

His actions were based on logic: ignore the uncontrollable, invest in the controllable.

And in beforelife, most importantly, he’d been in love. Stupidly in love. Logically and emotionally, there’d been only one way: ignore the red flags.

But now? Now he realized that he didn’t have a coping mechanism at all. Ignoring problems couldn’t be called coping. He’d fled from the problems. That had saved him a lot of time over the years, but in the end, he hadn’t enlightened himself one bit.

He wasn’t sure if he still loved Angeline. He also wasn’t sure whether Angeline had ever loved him. But now, he considered the possibility that Angeline might have been aware of his tendency to avoid addressing the underlying causes of problems. And he regretted his earlier choices.

Also, he doubted his earlier interpretations of events. Maybe Angeline thought that he’d known about her mistress status all along. Maybe she thought that she’d given him enough warning when she told him about the suit. Maybe he’d never known Angeline at all.

Who was she? How had she shown up in front of him at the most opportune moment? And why?

Questions after questions. He needed information.

Last time, he hadn’t had any dots to connect because there’d been too many of them, all over the place. A person who’s living forward simply can’t know what clues to look for. Is this event a meaningful dot? This encounter with a stranger, this handshake, this exchange of names—will it become something more significant later, or is it just a soon-to-be-forgotten blur in the canvas that is life?

Back then, after leaving The Underwater Grille and Nora Shevlin, Zach had concluded that she and Gus Shevlin were mere blurs.

Had the encounter with them been memorable? Sure. But Zach hadn’t formed a lasting relationship with the Shevlins. The key memory of that day, the dot that Zach connected to all following dots in his beforelife, ended up being Angeline Conners. What use was it to try to remember other unsettling experiences that had happened on the same day?

Moreover, in the following years, Zach had seen and heard of all sorts of people. People who bet on midget boxing matches and laughed harder the more blood the boxers spilled. People who raped and embezzled and election-rigged for fun and profit. Worse, people who killed and discriminated against and justified all other disgusting acts in the name of their God. Gus Shevlin in Zach’s memory had been nothing compared to such mean but fascinating people.

Frankly, subconsciously, Zach must have thought that Gus Shevlin had amounted to nothing. You heard mobster names and saw mobster pictures in the papers. Gus Shevlin had never been in the papers. If he’d succeeded with his bootlegging business, most of the city would have known his name. So, the lack of notoriety implied that Gus Shevlin hadn’t made it big. Zach had never heard of him again until Angeline had shouted the name at the moment of Zach’s death. If she hadn’t done so, Zach never would have guessed that the baritone voice of his killer belonged to Gus Shevlin, the man he’d met only once ten years ago.

This time, he had a good chance of connecting the correct dots. Now Zach knew: apparently, Gus Shevlin had become a successful bootlegger and mobster, and mysteriously quietly so.

How had this man, this Big Blond Babyface, become the mobster who could compel an entire town to keep its mouth shut about a murder? So morbidly planned, too, to have Zach die while on stage. For what, for being Angeline’s other man? But Zach’s relationship with Angeline had lasted for ten years. Shevlin could have had Zach shot on the streets at any moment.

The effort that Shevlin had put into the staging of the murder told Zach that Shevlin must have expected a great deal of pleasure from his death. Why did Angeline know such a mobster, to begin with? And why did she lie to Zach?

This time, Zach planned on keeping his eyes wide open.

“Hey, son, seriously, are you all right?” Shevlin said.

Zach looked up, at that giant babyface of Shevlin’s. “No, sir,” Zach said.

“No, as in, you aren’t all right?”

“No, as in, I’m not the piano man, but I am here for the bookstore. I’m the mechanic.”

“The mechanic?”

“The mechanic.”

“You’re not my mechanic.”

“I thought you didn’t like your mechanic.”

Shevlin took a moment. “Where’d you hear that? What did you hear?”

“Nothing that’d get anyone in trouble, but I did hear something about a very special door.”

Gus Shevlin, that hated Big Blond Babyface with a baritone voice, frowned. He looked around the streets, at the cars that drove past, and at the numerous pedestrians. His looking around didn’t change a thing. Cars kept driving past; pedestrians kept walking. That lack of change seemed to calm him.

He nodded toward the briefcase in Zach’s hand and asked, “That briefcase can’t be your toolbox.”

Zach shrugged. “I didn’t know what kind of tools I’d need, or whether you’d want me to work on that door. I don’t like carrying baggage. Slows you down. This is just for taking notes, if needed.”

“You aren’t dressed like a mechanic either.”

“Well, that’s not all I do,” Zach said. The ease with which he lied surprised him, but didn’t deter him. “I do anything and everything worth taking risks for. When opportunity comes knocking, I’m ready to grab it.”

“And you see this as an opportunity,” Shevlin stated.

“Of course, Mr. Shevlin. One hears things.”

“What things?”

“Things about things to come.”

Shevlin narrowed his eyes and scrutinized Zach: the shabby suit fished out from the church donation box, that briefcase, that baggy cap, and the long fingers that had turned red from the cold.

Zach didn’t look away or fidget.

“Where are you from?” Shevlin asked.

“From nowhere you’d know, or anybody else would know.”

“Where is that exactly?”

“Look, I’m not here to talk about where I was before. I’m here to discuss what you want now. We must concentrate on the here and now to take advantage of everything that we can take advantage of. Don’t you agree, Mr. Shevlin?”

Gus Shevlin stared at Zach.

Zach thought it worthwhile to push just a little more, and said, “You’re not one of those people who, in the ‘here and now,’ concentrate on the ‘anywhere but here and anytime but now,’ are you?”

Gus Shevlin chuckle-snorted.

Gus Shevlin, exposed! A young man, suddenly appearing from nowhere, using the exact words that he thought! If Shevlin had known just how exposed he was, he would’ve been spooked, even as the person who was to become a mobster. Lots of big, criminal people were suspicious. Donald Todd was one of them.

But Shevlin didn’t know. Thus, the effect of being exposed must have felt like destiny to him. For, once he got over the initial surprise, he grinned broadly.

“I am absolutely not that kind of a person,” he said.

“Good, I’m glad to hear,” Zach said, “because I think when two people meet—two people who’re always curious in their hearts, always willing to explore, people who always approach this great big city like an ambitious newcomer—then great things can be accomplished.”

Shevlin nodded grimly. “So, say, you think you can make that very special door actually work?”

“Absolutely.”

Shevlin continued to nod, then said, “I don’t think we’ve properly introduced ourselves—though you seem to know a great deal about me already.”

“I’m Zacharias Steele.”

“Gus Shevlin.”

They shook hands, as firmly as last time.

“That’s a proper handshake,” Zach said. “Shows a man’s strength of character.”

Shevlin stood there, stunned that Zach had taken the words out of his mouth.

”Well then, shall we?” said Zach.

And just like Gus Shevlin had led Zach into the bookstore last time, Zach led Gus Shevlin this time.

© 2022 Ithaka O.

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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.
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