Ch. 37 – New Day In Afterworld, Continued (6)

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The nib of Charlie’s pen wavered over the guestbook that lay on the front desk. Partly, this was because the hotel was still shaking ferociously. But mostly, it was because Charlie hadn’t decided yet whether or not he wanted to write in a new entry for Gus Shevlin, a lost soul who didn’t already have an entry written in blood.

Flapper-Flip and reaper-Zach eyed the nib expectantly while they leaned over the front desk from the lobby side. Across from them, Charlie cleared his throat. Flip and Zach took a step back, a little bit embarrassed. They could feel the stares of everyone else in the lobby—on them, on Charlie behind the front desk, on the guestbook, and on Shevlin, who gazed back at the onlookers with a broad grin.

Noticing the audience’s interest in Shevlin, Zach frowned. What was so fascinating about that guy?

Then Zach realized: Shevlin acted as if he were on stage. The glistening, trembling chandeliers seemed to make him think so, even though the lights never pointed at him. It was his theatrical behavior that invited people to look at him, those gestures that welcomed the attention. And those gestures, amusingly, were the elements that made this shell most similar to the original Shevlin. Acting all gregarious, taking up too much space, voice booming when he greeted this and that random lady after he had the chance to prevent her from falling on the shaky floor—all such conducts were so Shevlin, the one from the Luxury Hodgepodge Kingdom.

The only time this shell version ceased to smile was when a valet with a silver cookie tray walked by. When that happened, the shell’s eyes widened. He grabbed several cookies at a time to stuff his mouth. Every time. Without fail. As if he’d never before seen and tasted cookies. Zach guessed that this never-ending excitement for repetitive events was what it took to survive inside a guestbook’s memory.

“I’ve never seen a lost soul before,” Charlie said.

Startled, Zach faced Charlie. This wasn’t the time to be pondering about the shell’s peculiarities.

“You do realize that we’ve had a lot of trouble today?” Charlie asked. “This very guestbook here decides to attack one of the hotel employees, flies off, takes a trip around the whole establishment, and returns as if nothing happened. On the same day, an earthquake happens. Then, you turn up with a lost soul. And the aforementioned employee who was attacked still cannot be found anywhere. He evaporated. We looked everywhere. At first, I just wanted to make sure that he’s all right, but now? Something’s very off, isn’t it?”

“I agree with you,” Flip said. She spoke in a friendly, ready-to-work-with-you tone. “Strange. Very strange.”

Zach cleared his throat softly. Charlie’s people were looking for him. Flop looked like Zach right now. Luckily, Flop wore a checkered shirt and jeans instead of Zach’s usual purple suit. Also, Lisa was with Flop. She looked like an important person at a big corporation, which meant that she looked like a rule follower, which meant that Charlie’s people were unlikely to suspect her of roguery. Maybe some of her traits could overshadow Flop’s nervousness.

But for how long? What if Flop ran into Alpha and Omega? And the twins loved talking to Lisa. They’d ask questions. And the moment Flop had to explain himself, everyone would know that Flop wasn’t Zach even though he looked like Zach.

“And what’s up with that mask?” Charlie said, frowning at Zach.

“A fashion choice,” Zach said. “It’s the new thing.”

“Huh. I gotta catch up with that fad,” Charlie said dryly.

Zach shrugged.

“Your voice sounds familiar but I’ve never seen you around,” Charlie said. He turned to Flip. “Neither have I seen you before.”

“Oh, I’ve been around for a long, long time,” Flip said. “But of course, we each have our jobs to do and don’t get to socialize very much, do we?”

“Huh,” Charlie said. He narrowed his eyes. “So, you found this guy loitering in the murk without his reapers, while you were on your way here with your own deceased.”

“Correct,” Flip said.

“Who did you reap?”

Flip quickly glanced at Zach. “Eh, he’s around here somewhere,” she said.

“Where, exactly? What’s his name? What’s his room number? And which lawyer was assigned to him?”

When Flip faltered, Zach intervened.

“We can’t just reveal our deceased’s information.”

Charlie stared coldly at them. “All information is in the guestbook anyway. But if you don’t want to tell me, I could knock on every single door of every guest who arrived in the past twenty-four hours and ask them if they know you.”

Seemed that Zach had intervened the wrong way.

“Look,” he said, “we just need to remove this lost soul from this property because we think we made a grave mistake in bringing him here.”

“You don’t say,” Charlie said. For a few seconds, the glass parts of the chandeliers seemed to clatter more loudly in agreement.

“Well, don’t you agree that he has to leave?” Zach said. “Look at the guests. They’re getting restless.”

“I am aware of that. But when I am making manual entries in the guestbook, I do have to ensure there’s no foul play involved.”

Indeed. The ink that hung at the nib of Charlie’s pen was pitch-black, not red like the rest of the entries. That pen’s ink wasn’t made of Charlie’s blood or anyone’s blood. It was something else, an exception, therefore special.

“You don’t seem to agree that I should ensure that there’s no foul play involved,” Charlie said.

“No, no, we completely agree,” Flip said.

“Yes, of course,” Zach said.

“And if you think it’s reasonable to involve a guest who must be stressed enough because of his recent death,” Flip said, “well then, he must be here somewhere…”

And she looked around the lobby. Many people glanced back at her curiously.

“Are you going to pick a random person or what?” Zach whispered.

“No, I’m looking for the actual guy Flop and I reaped most recently.”

“But you don’t look like yourself. I don’t look like Flop. He won’t recognize us.”

“I have a sense that this one won’t find that odd at all.”

“What?”—was all Zach could say, because lo and behold, Flip waved enthusiastically at a man who was about to exit the hotel with a tall lawyer in glasses.

“Excuse me!” Flip said. She began running toward the door.

“One moment,” Zach told Charlie.

“Oh, you’re not leaving the lost soul here—” Charlie said indignantly.

But Zach ran after Flip.

“Excuse me, hello, sir?” Flip kept saying.

The man at the door and many other people stopped and whirled around to see what this tumult was about. Flip came to a panting halt in front of the dead man and his lawyer. The dead man was wide-eyed and in his sixties. He wore a silver locket necklace, which he clutched in one hand as if he were afraid it might fall off his neck.

“I just wanted to tell you that I still believe what I said earlier,” Flip told the man. “Those are gorgeous cats, sir. Clearly, they’ve been well taken care of.”

The dead man stared at her. The lawyer stared at her. Zach stared at her.

Mouth agape, the man pointed at Flip. “You’re…”

“I’m…” said Flip, widening her eyes, trying to guide the man to the right answer without letting everyone know that she wanted a specific answer.

Now, the man pointed at Zach and said once again, “You’re…”

“I’m…” said Zach, because he thought it best to mimic Flip.

“You’re the reapers who reaped me,” the man said.

Amazing. Unbelievable. Miraculous.

You’re the reapers who abandoned him in the middle of the lobby when the ground was shaking like this?” the lawyer said indignantly.

“Yes, we are them,” Flip said.

The lawyer looked perplexed because Flip sounded so proud to admit that.

“We have reaped this virtuous man from beforeworld,” she said while nodding enthusiastically at Zach. Then she turned to the dead man and said, “Haven’t we, sir?”

“Yes, they have,” the man said.

“A master occultist, he is, aren’t you? He knew exactly when we were coming to reap him.”

“I did,” the occultist said.

“And we talked about his cats a lot.”

“Yes, my cats.”

The occultist opened the locket on his necklace. It contained a picture of two black cats.

“Aww,” Flip said.

“Aww,” Zach said, because the cats were truly cute.

“Listen, sir,” Flip said, “remember that man we brought with us on the boat?”

“The man,” the occultist said, wide-eyed, confused.

Uh-oh. Could this cat lover lie for them quickly enough? Zach could pretty much hear the man’s brain circuits burning up at the desperate attempt to make quick connections.

“Yes,” the occultist finally said. He smiled broadly. “Yes, I remember.”

“Wait, what are you talking about?” the lawyer said.

Flip didn’t let the lawyer distract the occultist. “That big man over there, in the thick wool overcoat, yes?” she said.

“Yes,” the occultist said.

“Objection. Leading question,” the lawyer said. “What the hell is this about?”

“It’s about a lost soul,” Flip said smugly. Now that she was certain that the occultist was going to cooperate, she seemed to think it best to push harder. “This man needs to talk to Charlie for a brief moment so that we can help a poor, poor man get a proper trial and release. So, sir, if you’d be so kind and take five minutes to go to the front desk with us and verify our statements? Hmm?”

© 2022 Ithaka O.

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