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Jump to the Prelude
This isn’t me. I would never push Nora like that. I would never resort to such assholery.
Trying to find the tiny piece of himself that wasn’t Gus Shevlin, Zach clasped the armrests of his seat in the theater of the Eye.
His way of thinking disgusts me. See? There is a “his” and there is a “me,” which makes it possible for me to hate him without hating myself. So, I can’t be him, even though I am feeling what he feels as if I were him.
Despite this perfectly logical reasoning, Zach couldn’t take his eyes off the immense screen to eliminate the sense of existing together with Gus Shevlin. He was living through a day in Shevlin’s life as more than a witness. He was inside Shevlin’s head.
From the back alley of The Underwater Grille, the car carried him—them—through a short stretch of bright streets, then through the darkness, devoid of lamps or glowing signs. It felt both like an eternity and a second. Eventually, he found that the car had stopped in front of an imposing gate in Carningsby.
That scary-large gate and the waist-high brick walls stretching to its left and right looked familiar. They marked the boundary of a huge cluster of grounds and buildings—or so Zach had been told once upon a time, though he’d only ever seen the grounds around the edge and never the buildings. Carningsby as a whole was quite well-off, but this property was its largest. That was why Zach remembered the gate and the walls so clearly.
Everything inside the boundary was always quiet. Zach had often wondered what sorts of people went in and out of the gate. He’d done so on his way to and from church, where he could rely on getting a hot meal and some worn but clean clothes. He was the only man in Carningsby who worried about his next meal, but he had the right to wonder, didn’t he?
Really rich people must live in there, he guessed. A family with a long history of doubling and tripling its wealth. The upper class, who didn’t settle for any neighbors in any neighborhood; those who, when they couldn’t get the neighbors they wanted, bought a whole lot of land so that they didn’t have any neighbors at all. The monied and religious, who wanted their entire town to be rich and pious. But also, the tasteless, who didn’t mind having the ugly Luminary Theater as the only entertainment venue in town.
Zach had heard of big lawn parties in other towns, where the blessed class mingled with persons who were not from the same class, but in tolerable positions. Artists and athletes, for example. The famous ones. The shiny ones.
He’d wanted to be one of the shiny ones. Not as a goal, but as a byproduct of a successful musical career. He’d thought that he’d be surrounded by glamor and glitz, not because he tried to, but because there was gold, lots of gold, and fame, lots of fame.
But that never happened.
And regardless of what had become of Zach, the imposing gate in Carningsby blocked off the quiet property of some rich family that didn’t enjoy lawn parties or big crowds or filthy habits like drinking. It was better so. Without those lawn parties going on, he didn’t have to feel unwelcome yet again.
Then, when he realized that he was glad about the lack of joy in others just because he couldn’t be part of it, he felt sick. Yet, there was no denying the truth. In a way, he had to be glad about Carningsby’s general lack of taste. Here, no one told him to get lost because no one expected proper entertainment. If he had to leave Carningsby, he wouldn’t know where to go anymore—unless he went back home. And that meant complete failure.
Whenever Zach’s musings reached that point, he’d felt even hungrier than usual. He had the right to wonder, but had no resources to wonder for long. Better concentrate on the here and now. Better figure out what to play, how to play better, if he didn’t want to return home.
But now wasn’t then.
Now, thanks to Shevlin, the imposing gate, which Zach had always looked through from the outside, was opening.
Shevlin’s car drove through the dark grounds. Roads covered with fine gravel wound around bushes and trees. Everything was quiet. There was little wind. No movements could be discerned in the leaves or branches. Human sensory organs were inadequate for witnessing such infinitesimal changes.
Yet, logically, change had to be happening. The car was moving. It was pushing air, which had to affect the leaves and branches in some way. Time was passing.
But when Zach gazed out of the car window, the world seemed to stand still. He had to remind himself of the things he knew: for example, that the thin layer of recent snow blanketing the lawn was in the process of transforming from fluffy flakes to a sheet of ice. It did so at a glacial pace, which was why he couldn’t witness the change, but it was happening.
The sudden reliance on prior experience made Zach feel vulnerable. Prior experience—that was all he could trust without external stimuli. Unless the snow actively froze in front of him, he only knew that it could potentially do so based on his experience. His “knowing” involved no reasoning, definitely not a conscious one. He simply wasn’t the kind of person who spent his days ruminating about the laws of physics. He did what he did and trusted other beings—animate and inanimate—to do what they did, openly, without treachery. Hence, Zacharias Steele: always limited by his experience. The thought scared him.
And when a shining mansion appeared in the distance, and that appearance surprised him greatly, he was scared further. There were people noises, laughter, and the clinking of glasses.
Gus Shevlin got out of the car right in front of the mansion. Just on the facade alone, there were more than twenty windows on two stories. Zach couldn’t count them all because Shevlin proceeded too quickly. Two footmen held the front door open for him. And just like that, a world that Zach had never imagined opened up:
The pious Carningsby residents, all so very well off and blessed by God with sobriety, were giggling and dancing. Drinking. Liquor. Those amber liquids were definitely not water. And when there was transparent liquid in one of the glasses, it wasn’t water either; Zach could smell the alcohol: vodka.
These giggling, drinking, dancing people were the people whom Zach hadn’t been able to name to the women in black. But they were the people who Zach knew. He recognized their lipsticked lips moving, mustaches twisting, and golden earrings glittering. There were some non-residents too: the venue owners who had refused to hire Zach. Politicians whose faces Zach had seen in the papers. Actors. Singers. Boxers.
Lanterns glowed, making the jewelry glitter on the women’s wrists and earlobes. Watches and cufflinks of the men reflected the light. Kisses were stolen behind the elaborately carved indoor-fountains. Hands brushed against each other, either because of secret affections or just after a handshake that sealed important business decisions.
Hundreds of big and small conversations overpowered the live music. Yes, music. Bands that Zach had only seen in New York City had been invited here, to this secret location, sheltered inside the quiet-seeming property.
And because Zach was Shevlin in the theater of the Eye, he knew that everyone had expected to see those great bands here, tonight. Several hours’ drive away from the roasted meat and truffles, motherships with inebriated mates were being hijacked by Shevlin’s friends. That was what they called each other. “Friends.” Everyone was everyone else’s friend as long as they made money for each other or guaranteed a good time. And those who couldn’t do that—someone like Zach—couldn’t be their friend. As simple as that.
Of course, there were those in the crowd who secretly wanted Shevlin dead, and Shevlin knew that. But enough people wanted him alive. Too many relied on him to import the real stuff. A portion of such loot was watered down to be sold to the masses, but many barrels were saved for the consumption of the wealthier class. Some of those wealthier clients were right here.
Knowing that the crowd here loved and hated him but mostly wanted him alive, Gus Shevlin navigated it with confidence. He had no reason to fear anyone. He made sure that he paid tributes to all the right people and didn’t get into trouble on other people’s turf. When something needed to be done and he could be of help, he was glad to help. In return, they let him protect himself from greedy people who didn’t know their place. That was all.
When people waved at him, he waved back with his childlike, gregarious laugh. And as soon as he turned away from his acquaintances, he returned to being his stealthy, menacing predator-self.
He was looking for someone.
More people came up to him. They loved him. They owed him. Look at what he built here, in Carningsby! It had been his idea to build a little pretend-holy town so that certain assets could be sheltered more safely and reputations could be managed. Anybody who was friends with Gus was free to use Carningsby in return for a suitable payment. Politicians loved Carningsby because it proved that their ban on liquor had worked, albeit partially. Bootleggers loved it because they got to meet politicians who nevertheless wanted booze.
A steady flow of quality liquor and a nice, presentable facade, all in return for a little bit of payment and babysitting a stupid pianist? How amazing was that?
When Shevlin’s thoughts arrived here, Zach shivered in his seat at the theater. He was scared of these people’s ability to hide their true intentions. He was scared of Gus Shevlin, for manipulating him and his career for a decade. But most importantly, he was scared of his own vulnerability.
All this time, he’d believed that the property surrounded by the imposing gate and the waist-high walls was a quiet one. Also, he’d believed that Carningsby was what it pretended to be: a sober-town, pious, holy. There had simply never been any contrary evidence. Yes, Donald Todd had been there, but he’d been one anomaly. Every town had at least one drunkard, and Todd had been that drunkard.
But everything else had been tranquil in Carningsby. Zach had never so much as heard a loud noise on the streets. He’d never seen a great inflow or outflow of people. Since he had never witnessed such things, had never heard of such things, and his prior experience told him that there was no reason for a town to be so very different below the surface versus above the surface, why should he have found anything suspicious?
He knew the answer by now: because when an entire town is against you, it’s easy for its residents to manipulate what you see and what you hear. And when that happens, you cannot rely on prior experience anymore. All you’re left with is logic, a questioning mind, a penchant for pondering. And since you never know when an entire town will trick you, you have to be vigilant—always.
Instead of surrendering to his grumbling stomach, Zach should have pushed his imagination about the owners of this property. What did they do? How come they had so much money? How come everyone in Carningsby was so well-off? Why, if they were so well-off, were they willing to hire Zach and Zach alone? Did they really hire Zach and Zach alone? Did they really only watch church plays, with so much money to spare?
Such questions might not have given him the correct answers, but at least he would have been alert enough to suspect why Todd was acting the way he did when he wanted to take Zach’s old suit and give him a new one.
Everything had a reason. Everything had a cause and effect. Logically, even in the somber town of Carningsby, something had to be happening, at all times, because someone elsewhere in the world was always doing something.
As long as time passed and stuff moved, snow became ice, albeit at a glacial pace. Leaves and branches shook in the breeze, no matter how impossible it was for a human to notice the process. And Carningsby couldn’t be immune from the violence and law-breaking of the outside world.
Shevlin kept rambling internally: what better way to ensure that the pianist boy couldn’t accomplish a thing on the Angeline front than to literally stop him from accomplishing anything at all?
The venue owners everywhere in the City had made up the appropriate excuses without needing specific instructions from Gus.
They claimed that Mr. Steele, you missed your appointment, it isn’t now, it was two hours ago. Don’t bother playing.
They also claimed that Mr. Steele, you were supposed to give that piece of paperwork to that person over there but he didn’t receive it and now we have a different piano player, sorry about that.
By the way, Mr. Steele, the reason you’re not even getting an audition anymore is that you have a reputation: you’re tardy, you’re unreliable, and such behavior simply doesn’t work in your favor in this great big city.
In hindsight, Gus should have just gotten rid of that pianist boy from the beginning. To hell with Angeline’s boredom. That bitch had always been too proud, unwilling to accept her lot. Gus, who also had an idiot for a father and a weakling for a mother, had felt sorry for Angeline, in a way. He shouldn’t have.
Sure, Angeline had said that the boy was merely a way for her to kill time, but obviously, she’d lied. There was no other explanation. Unless she was planning on raising the baby with Zacharias, why would she rat out Gus?
Well, it wasn’t too late for him to change. He was going to have the boy killed and Angeline, too, after the baby. And until the baby, he planned on keeping her in his house. Yes, in his very own house, with Nora. Since Nora had stabbed him in the back by fraternizing with Angeline, she couldn’t possibly feel insulted by him wanting the mistress’s baby under his care. The two women could be kept in separate rooms. If they dared collude again, he’d have no choice but to kill Nora. Even his wife couldn’t take his one offspring from him.
Unless that offspring turned out to be someone else’s. But there was no way of telling for sure. Not with any certainty. And having the effect might as well be the truth. A baby raised as a Shevlin needn’t know that it might not be one. Even if it ended up knowing that it might have grown up as a non-Shevlin, that would be many years later. And by that time, Gus will have made sure that the child was intelligent enough to see that growing up as his son or daughter was a thousand times better than growing up as some broke pianist’s offspring.
Once Angeline was removed from the picture, there’d be no one to talk. The problem of the mole would be solved. And with Zach killed publicly, many others who’d considered ratting out Gus would get the message: mess with Gus Shevlin, you’ll die and no one will be able to trace the crime back to him…
But Angeline, that silly girl. Gus had thought her smarter than this. Maybe she was drawn to failures like that boy because that enabled her to think that she was more powerful than she really was. Maybe in their little world, which only consisted of Angeline Conners and Zacharias Steele, she was the winner by default because he was the loser. The boy didn’t know that she was using Gus’s money to buy his groceries or invite him to tea or gift him a tie, or—
© 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.