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Jump to the Prelude
Under any other circumstances, Gus Shevlin might have gotten angry at Zach’s flamboyancy. This guy, acting like he owns the bookstore, Shevlin might have thought. Or, he might have concluded, Something’s off, I have to get him killed. But in the second iteration of the day on which Zach and Gus Shevlin met, Gus Shevlin was in a good mood because it seemed that he’d met a soulmate in the form of Zacharias Steele.
Everything worked to Zach’s advantage. At his slightest pull, the bookstore door flung open so energetically that it slammed on the neighboring wall. Zach didn’t let that fluster him.
“Oops,” he said, grinning.
He held the door open for Shevlin and beckoned with the same flamboyant gestures that Shevlin liked to use. Shevlin roared with laughter.
“I like a confident, ambitious man,” Shevlin said.
“Me? Confident? Ambitious? No,” Zach said, in exaggerated humility, as he took off his baggy cap and hugged it along with his briefcase.
“Oh, no. Yes, you,” Shevlin said.
“I just don’t like to overthink things.”
“I can see you’re not a young man who overthinks, but thinking you do. And not just thinking. Strategizing.”
“Well, thanks, Mr. Shevlin.”
Shevlin entered his own bookstore. Zach followed him in and shut the door. The dust made them both cough, but the quiet, compared to the streets filled with honking cars, helped Zach concentrate on his opponent.
“I was keeping this venture secret, as much as possible,” Shevlin said. “Only people who’re already on my payroll know about this. You must have been paying great attention to get wind of it.”
“Is that so.”
“Say, who was it that told you?”
Shevlin had taken up the spot in the center of the small space. But this time, Zach didn’t make himself smaller, letting Shevlin have all the room. Zach took a step forward. As he did, the entire mass of air in this small space shifted with him. Even the air was on his side, pressuring Shevlin. Zach grinned.
Either because of that push from the air or to avoid losing the much-needed space for his big gestures, Shevlin took a step back. He didn’t seem particularly offended. In fact, he seemed too perplexed and impressed to be offended. No one had ever dared to invade his space like that.
Before Shevlin changed his mind and decided to get angry, Zach leaned against the wall, freeing up more room between them. Zach didn’t want Big Blond Babyface mad just yet.
“Pardon me?” Zach said.
“Who was it that told you?” Shevlin said slowly, patiently.
He, too, didn’t want Zach to get offended. He liked Zach too much for that.
“Oh, just some things you hear on the streets,” Zach said.
“No.” Shevlin grinned. “None of my people talk about these things on the streets. Tell me who it was.”
“As I said, I didn’t hear much and from no one worth mentioning.”
Shevlin became still. Stiller than Zach had ever seen the man be. No grand gestures. No roaring of that baritone laughter. Shevlin simply stood and stared.
Zach had to suppress a shiver. He’d wondered how this flamboyant man had kept himself out of the media as a successful mobster; this attitude, now, was the answer to that question. Gus Shevlin was capable of becoming very, extremely still—if he wanted to.
Finally, Shevlin said, “A man of few words?”
“A man of necessary words. When I need to talk, I’ll talk.”
“I like that.”
That was the thing with power-seekers like Gus Shevlin. You’d think that they wanted every single person in the world to obey, bend to their will; but occasionally, when someone pushed back a little, they were easily impressed.
“So, you want that door fixed or not?” Zach said, pushing himself from the wall, standing straight and tall once again.
“I’d very much like to get it fixed,” Shevlin said.
“So, this is just my idea, so let me know if I’m getting this wrong.”
Zach put the briefcase and his cap on the floor. He approached the wall behind Gus Shevlin. Like last time, its surface looked as if it were divided into two halves, left and right, with the left side double-layered with bricks. But this time, Zach knew that the right side was a completely separate wall—a door-wall, designed to slide left. He punched the exact spot of the special brick-button—
—with too much force. The door-wall creaked and rattled as it slid open. But also, the brick-button broke apart. Cracks appeared in the surrounding bricks.
Zach gasped. He hadn’t intended to break the thing. For some reason, he had a supernatural strength in this iteration of his beforelife. First, the bookstore door had swung open so energetically that it had slammed into the neighboring wall. Then, the air mass indoors had shifted with his taking a step toward Shevlin. Now, this. What was supposed to have been a simple punch had resulted in breaking the device that Gus Shevlin was so proud of.
Zach glanced back at Shevlin.
Shevlin’s jaw had dropped. “How did you know…”
Zach suppressed a sigh of relief. The destruction of his cherished button mechanism seemed to be of secondary concern to Shevlin. What surprised that giant man more was that Zach knew about the mechanism at all.
“It’s a very easy trick, Mr. Shevlin,” Zach said. “Easy, for any real mechanic. But, you see how weak this thing is?”
“Oh, yes,” Shevlin said, and laughed. “You didn’t even punch it that hard.”
“Exactly,” Zach said.
“That asshole probably didn’t even use real brick!” Shevlin stopped laughing when his thought came to that. His cheeks flushed in anger. “I’ve never seen this kind of fake brick before.” He knelt on one knee and examined the pulverized pieces. “What on earth…”
“Charlatans are willing to fake all sorts of things to cut corners,” Zach said quickly. “I’m guessing that the guy who built this wasn’t a real mechanic. Because, you see, Mr. Shevlin, you don’t want a door this loud, do you? If you’d wanted to tell the entire world that there’s something down there, why would you have a door like this here? And you don’t want the door this fragile, either, breaking apart at every punch.”
“Exactly my thought!”
“I say, you need this thing to be smooth but strong. It has to work elegantly, with the gentle poke of a finger—gentle enough for ladies to open the door. Isn’t that so?”
Now Gus Shevlin seemed a little more spooked than earlier. Uncanny, he must be thinking. This guy is reading my mind.
Zach wanted to proceed while the surprise lasted, and before common sense signaled Shevlin to get the shady mechanic out of here.
“So,” Zach said, clapping his hands together, “before I bring my toolbox and get this fixed the way you want, let’s do a simple test. Could you please step inside, to that side, and we’ll close the door and you’ll punch it from there, and I’ll check what it looks and sounds like from here?”
“But it’s broken, isn’t it?”
“My guess is that there’s a matching button on the other side, isn’t there?”
“I just know the stuff I should know.”
“Sure, okay. Hold on.”
Readily, Shevlin stepped inside and stood at the top of the staircase that led down to the Luxury Hodgepodge Kingdom.
“Great,” Zach said. “Now, let’s close this thing.”
“Closing it works the same way,” Shevlin said.
He punched the special brick-button from his side. The door-wall creaked closed, slowly.
“Let’s just let it close all the way,” Zach said.
Shevlin nodded. The door closed fully.
“I’d be happy if the door were half as loud as this,” Shevlin shouted from the other side.
“I see,” Zach said absentmindedly as he looked around the dusty floor.
There, amidst the dusty footprints, the loose wheel from the handcart, and the crowbars, lay what he was looking for: splintered wood pallets.
Zach picked up a splinter and broke it apart into smaller pieces, about as long as his pinky finger. Then he squeezed those pieces into the space surrounding the remnants of the brick button. Every crack, every hollow, he wanted to fill with the splinters so that the button couldn’t budge. But there were too many cracks and hollows, and too widespread.
How useless, his sudden power. All it had done was to destroy the mechanism that he wanted to use to trap Shevlin. The splinters didn’t remain stuck in the cracks. They weren’t made for that. Zach needed glue, or something like plaster…
“You think you can fix it?” Shevlin said from the other side.
“Absolutely,” Zach said, trying to sound calm.
“Should I open the door again?”
The splinter strategy wasn’t going to work. Zach looked around. The only other tools that he could use were… the crowbars!
He picked up a crowbar and kicked the bottom part of the door-wall, right where it met its neighboring wall. That simple kick created a crater. Brick dust dispersed on the floor.
“What was that?” Shevlin said.
Hurriedly, Zach continued to kick, kick, to make the crater about as long as the crowbar.
“I’m getting out,” Shevlin said.
You try that.
Zach grinned and knelt on the floor. While Shevlin kept punching the brick-button from his side, Zach grabbed the door-wall by the crater that he’d created, stopping it from budging.
“What the hell!” Shevlin shouted from the other side.
“Just one moment, Mr. Shevlin!”
Zach stuck the crowbar into the crater. Then, quickly, at waist height, Zach punched more bricks in a long strip. There, too, he stuck a crowbar.
“Now, try again?” Zach said.
Gus Shevlin punched the brick-button from his side. Zach watched as the door-wall fidgeted. But it failed to slide open because of the crowbars’ resistance. The door loudly creaked, but didn’t move aside.
“Damn it, it’s completely broken now!” Shevlin said.
“One step at a time,” Zach said.
He looked around the room. Would have been nice if there’d been more crowbars, but this would do for the time being. He only needed Shevlin to stay out of the way for a few minutes.
“What’s wrong with this thing?” Shevlin said.
“Let me examine it, sir.”
“Well, how long is it going to take?”
“I have to go get my tools.”
“Damn it, then I’m supposed to sit around here, for how long?”
“Just one moment, I won’t be long.”
“You need to be more specific than that!”
Zach picked up his briefcase, wore the cap, and opened the door leading out. The car noises and pedestrian chitter-chatter entered the bookstore.
“Zacharias?” Shevlin said, sounding worried.
“I’ll be right back,” Zach said.
A blatant lie. Now, it was time to find Angeline.
© 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.