Table of Contents
Jump to the Prelude
Once again, Zach stared at a person who looked exactly like himself. But that person acted even less like Zach than the double that he had seen in the guestbook’s memory of the hotel.
“Urgh,” said that other-Zach.
Just like Zach, he wore a green and purple checkered shirt, a pair of jeans, and dress shoes that didn’t belong with the rest of the wardrobe.
Very much unlike Zach, he kept trying to collect a nonexistent cape around himself even though that made his footing on the shaky basement floor even more insecure. This behavior was very much like Flop.
In fact, this was Flop, who’d changed his appearance significantly for the first time in his long reaper life.
“This feels weird,” Flop-Zach said in a teary voice. “No cape? No soft velvet? No belly?”
“You miss your belly, of all things?” Flip said, smiling to hide her nervousness.
She hadn’t changed her appearance at all—yet. The Habsburg-era poofy dress, the feather fan, all were still there.
“Okay, my turn,” she said.
While Zach, Lisa, and Gus Shevlin stared at her in awe, Flip adjusted her facial features an eighth of an inch at a time. A smaller nose. Higher cheekbones. Fewer wrinkles. An exaggerated Cupid’s bow upper lip, like one or the other famous motion picture star of the 1920s. But what mattered wasn’t that she was fashionable or young. What mattered was that she was becoming a person who had no resemblance to her original self.
Once she was done with her face, she proceeded with her clothing. A sleek knee-length flapper dress with fringes replaced the bulky dress that used to trail behind her. Gold jewelry. A hat. A smaller feather fan. Shoes with low heels. All black, of course.
She tottered briefly because she needed some time to adjust to her new bone structure. Then she grinned.
“This doesn’t feel as bad as I thought,” she said.
“Oh, no,” Flop-Zach said, as if this new Flip’s comment ripped his heart into pieces.
But this was what the reapers had decided they’d do.
Flop, pretending to be Zach and remaining at the hotel as a placeholder.
Flip, changing her appearance so that no one thought it suspicious that Flop didn’t accompany her. She and Zach, dressed in black, were going to pretend to be an entirely different reaper pair.
This strategy was formed because Flop refused to leave the hotel on an unsanctioned mission.
He was too scared, could Zach please understand?
Zach had said Yes, he understood.
“We need to go to the murk,” flapper-Flip said.
“The murk?” Zach asked.
“The murk that settles around a dead person. The darkness, the black mist that allows them to cross over to another world. And we’ll tell everyone on the way that Mr. Shevlin here is a lost soul, whose origin we must determine by going to the murk.”
“What’s a lost soul?” Shevlin asked.
“It’s someone who was due to die and expired, but wasn’t reaped by a reaper,” Flip said.
“Is that possible?” Lisa said.
“Yes, at least from what I hear,” Flip said. “The word ‘lost soul’ does exist and is thrown around here, after all. But I haven’t actually met a reaper pair that missed an appointment. Never in person. Because, it’s said, a pair that’s that neglectful doesn’t get to reap ever again.”
“What happens to them?” Lisa asked.
“They’re sent to hell,” Flop said, shivering.
“What is hell anyway?” Lisa asked. “A pit of fire?”
“It’s different for everyone,” Flip said.
“The worst that you picture, whatever that may be,” Flop said.
“The Supreme doesn’t presume that one person’s hell is another’s hell as well,” Flip said.
Lisa raised her brows, apparently impressed.
“Oh, you know what?” Flip said. “Flop, you have to change your clothes into something black.”
“I thought I was pretending to be Zach.”
“Yes, but Zach needs black clothes to change into. So, change your clothes to a black suit. And get yourself a mask.”
“Walking around in a mask is going to look ridiculous,” Flop protested.
“It doesn’t matter. Zach can’t change his face like we do. A half-face mask that covers one side of the face will do.”
Flop grunted, but did as told. What he came up with was a simple black suit that fit him perfectly and a plain black mask that covered the face from the entire forehead to the right chin. It was the sort of mask that men who weren’t into costumes begrudgingly wore to masquerade balls.
“Swap, quickly,” Flip said.
She, Lisa, and Shevlin politely turned around. Zach and Flop-Zach undressed and swapped clothes. Neither had enough composure to feel embarrassed. They had to move quickly, and had to concentrate fully on their every move, because otherwise they’d fall on the quaking hallway. And what a waste of time that’d be!
One shoe at a time. Toss it over to Flop-Zach. Then the other. Toss it. Get out of the jeans. Get out of the checkered shirt. Get into the black shirt. The black suit pants. Oh, the socks. Remove the socks, which were lavender, as usual, to match Zach’s purple suit. Wear Flop’s brand new black socks instead. Zach noticed that Flop took the lavender socks and grimaced. Understandably so. Zach had been running around in those all day long.
“Sorry,” Zach said.
“It’s what happens when you’re not a reaper,” Flop said, looking devastated that he had to wear those socks nevertheless.
“Hurry,” Flip said.
Into the black suit jacket. Pick up the mask. Put it on. The mask fit Zach perfectly and could be secured behind his head with a strap.
Zach glanced at Flop. Flop glanced back, having finished getting changed at about the same time. Adopting Zach’s physical features had given Flop the ability to move more quickly. No surprise there. Without a belly as large as Flop’s, anybody could move three times faster.
“Done,” Zach said.
Flip, Lisa, and Shevlin turned around to face Zach and Flop.
“They changed positions,” Shevlin said, grinning, pointing from Zach to Flop.
“Everyone will believe that he is a lost soul,” Flip whispered to Lisa. “If not literally, then figuratively. He’s so confused.”
“Do you think he’ll be fine?” Lisa asked in a low voice. “I mean, won’t he say something, well, compromising?”
“We don’t have a choice,” Flip said. “He has to come with us. It’s his face that we need. And not to get the case file, by the way. As long as we’re claiming we don’t know who he is, he has no case yet. We’re going to the Eye.”
“What’s that?” Zach said.
“It’s what sees everything that has ever happened. It’s what enables the Sin Research Division to make the case files. An omnipresent camera, so to speak.”
Of course. There had to be something like the Eye. Zach had never previously thought about the mechanism of sin research, but there had to be an objective way of witnessing what happened and what didn’t.
“And the Eye will just let us access it? Him? Her?” Zach asked.
“It,” Flip said. “I haven’t approached it with a lost soul before, but I hear that doing so is the only way that people who aren’t employees at the Sin Research Division will get to talk to it.”
At that moment, the ground jolted more ferociously than all the times before. All of them fell on the floor. They yelped and moaned. Upstairs, everyone in the lobby screamed and grunted.
“We have to get him out of here,” Flip said. “He doesn’t belong. The hotel has unlimited capacity, but one unwanted piece is enough to destroy the balance. And for anyone who isn’t a reaper or a lawyer to leave the hotel, we need a boat. And for that, we need to convince the concierge that this lost-soul guest deserves to be put in the guestbook. That’s what will put him on the waiting list for the boats.”
“Come, let’s go,” Zach said to Shevlin.
“I’m not going with a shady man in a shady mask,” Shevlin said, acting like a child once more.
Zach would have groaned if he hadn’t been so tense. “Come, I’m not a shady man. I’m pretending to be a reaper. Don’t you want to leave the hotel?”
“Leave?” Shevlin said.
“Yes, I want to leave.” Shevlin’s eyes twinkled.
“Then come with me,” Zach said.
Shevlin grabbed Zach’s hand. It was time to guide this big old baby out of here.
“This has to stop!” said a man from upstairs. “First the guestbook goes crazy, now this?”
“It’s Charlie,” Zach said.
“Who’s Charlie?” Lisa asked.
“The concierge,” Flip said.
“You, put the trays down,” Charlie shouted. “Put them anywhere. Check the basement. And you, check upstairs. What do you mean, how far upstairs? As far as you can go. Go, go, go!”
Charlie, the chubby-bellied concierge who liked to bury his face in paperwork without moving any other body part except for his sharp eyes, was getting impatient. He couldn’t bury his face in paperwork with the hotel shaking like this. He had to use his arms to avoid falling. He had to tap dance to remain standing. Charlie didn’t like that.
Quick footsteps followed Charlie’s orders. Trays were put down on the floor and on the front desk, it sounded like, generating metallic clinks.
“We have to leave now,” Zach said.
“Oh, no,” Flop whimpered.
“Will you stay with him until you leave?” Flip asked Lisa. “Please?”
Lisa placed her hand on Flop-Zach’s shoulder and nodded firmly at Flip. “I will. Good luck.”
“Thank you for all your help,” Zach said.
“Thank you. This is the best last adventure ever. Better than any that I could’ve hoped for.”
Something warm and fuzzy filled Zach’s stomach. Many strange things had happened to him recently. Meeting Lisa had been among the few pleasant ones.
“Be careful,” Flop said.
Flip nodded, then sprinted to the staircase with amazing alacrity that she hadn’t been able to showcase in a poofy dress. Shevlin waved goodbye and let himself be dragged upstairs by Zach. Judging by the footsteps, the valets were coming downstairs.
Zach wondered what was the better strategy: rush past them, or pretend to be all calm and collected and answer all questions?
“Stop right there!” Charlie said.
Half a dozen valets crowded the landing behind Charlie, who glared down at Zach and Flip.
Zach froze. Charlie looked angry, very angry.
To Zach’s left and right, Flip and Shevlin had frozen too.
“Why are you here?” Charlie asked.
“What do you mean, why are we here?” Flip asked. She sounded more confused than belligerent. She was trying to buy time until she came up with a more useful statement or question.
“Why are you in the basement with your deceased in tow?” Charlie asked.
“I am a lost soul,” Shevlin said.
Zach looked at Shevlin. Surprise, surprise. The man was still grinning his silly grin.
© 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.