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Jump to the Prelude
These had been the three times Zacharias Steele had fallen in love with Angeline Conners all over again.
When he’d realized that she, too, only wanted the bare minimum so that they could keep the world out of their love.
When she’d taken care of him in his most sick and miserable state.
When it was clear that she didn’t want to burden their relationship with talks about a future together; she asked of him nothing more than music.
And as Zach looked back, pacing the theater of the Eye, those three times were so characteristic of his naïveté that he snorted. How did he possibly think that Angeline could have trusted him with her baby? He, the unrealistic, the needs-to-be-taken-care-of, the good-for-nothing-except-for-playing-the-piano kind of man, being responsible for a baby?
Impossible. And that had nothing to do with Gus Shevlin. Zach had to admit that, although it hurt.
And because it hurt, he wanted to hurt his murderers—somehow transfer the pain to another person who deserved it more. That was a much easier subject to ruminate about than determining what to do when it was Angeline’s time to come to the hotel.
At the hotel, Nora Shevlin had claimed that her husband was going to die soon. Zach hadn’t believed her earlier, but based on the surprising initiative that she had shown by giving Angeline money, clearly, Nora was a person of more cunning than met the eye. Maybe she’d poisoned Shevlin. Maybe she had designed his death and her own death so that Gus Shevlin would die for sure, but only do so after she did. That way, she could avoid being charged with murder in beforeworld. Maybe even in afterworld. Zach wasn’t sure.
Anyway, the thought of Nora Shevlin poisoning her mobster husband to death gave Zach great pleasure. There was no better way to control the timing of death without getting your hands bloody than using poison. Based on that same logic, Gus Shevlin had killed Zach with the poisoned suit. That mobster deserved to be killed in a similar way. What beautiful irony.
But speaking of controlling the timing, it was odd that Donald Todd and Nora Shevlin had died at around the same time. And Nora had sounded so happy and certain about her husband’s impending death. Had all of them been poisoned? Whatever had happened, Nora had seemed eager to tell Zach something. She could help him while she was at the hotel. And the shell could help him too.
“That can’t be me. I’m not him,” the shell was still saying, on the floor and looking sick. “I want to leave.”
“Me too, but let’s all be patient here,” flapper-Flip said. “Zach, do you have everything you need? Maybe we should leave. I’m worried about Flop. I don’t think anyone will believe he’s you when he starts gorging on the cookies, even though he looks exactly like you.”
“Okay. Just a few more minutes. I’m trying to think of a way to—” Zach paused.
He’d meant to say, a way to punish all one hundred and seventy-six people who conspired to kill me, minus Angeline. And Nora. And anybody who didn’t laugh while I was dying. Anybody who felt the slightest remorse…
…which was going to be difficult to determine. Perhaps, impossible. Flip had better stay uninformed about that part. He didn’t want to burden her. And she was right, they had to return quickly to avoid getting Flop into trouble.
“I’m trying to figure out what I should do once I return to the hotel,” Zach said.
Flip nodded at the vague answer. She still looked worried.
“Can we do it elsewhere?” the shell said. “On the way back, maybe?”
He glanced at the screen. There, Shevlin was yelling at his men in front of Angeline’s apartment. It was dawn, and it seemed that the men had failed to capture her overnight.
Zach’s heart hammered with hope. Angeline had managed to stay free. But he had seen her at the theater on the day of his death. That had to be two nights after this scene on the screen, assuming that Todd had “warned” Zach with the piano-lid attack one night after Shevlin had begun planning the suit murder.
Angeline, at the theater, risking her own freedom—at this thought, Zach felt something warm and fuzzy in his stomach rising up and clogging his throat. Really. How easily he had jumped to hating Angeline. Between the time on the screen and Zach’s death, Angeline could have fled to another state. She hadn’t. She had come to the Luminary to warn Zach, although she’d used puzzling words. She’d said she loved him, and that was the truth, and the only truth that he wanted to believe in.
“I gotta go,” the shell said weakly.
Both Zach and Flip were surprised to see that the shell had gotten up while Zach was absorbed in his regret and Flip was absorbed in observing Zach.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Flip said.
Like a drunkard, the shell stumbled toward the golden door to the side of the theater. He grabbed its handles and pulled it open.
At once, he was flung back with the door, which flapped, hanging on its hinges. A strong wind blew into the theater, making all their hair flutter. They covered their faces with their hands and arms. The three chairs shook.
“What is this?” Zach said.
“The murk in its raw form!” Flip said.
What the doorframe revealed was dark, foggy, and fast—a storm of moving images. It was as if all the film which recorded the lives of all humans had been scrambled up and dropped from the sky so that the wind whipped them and threw them in all directions, out of order. Yet, despite the speed and strength, which made their eyes water, Zach could discern all kinds of actions in those images: humans walking, talking, kissing, holding hands, fighting, eating, sleeping…
The wind pulled Zach from his feet. He clung to an armrest. Climbed down along the chair. Pressed himself flat against it.
“Silly!” Flip told the shell. She bravely struggled toward the door against the wind. “You’re his lost soul, no one else’s. You only get to follow him to see if he’s you. You don’t get to walk around the worlds as you please. Then anybody could witness anybody’s life. That’s against privacy laws.”
“Obviously he isn’t me, he’s too mean!” the shell said. He’d also taken cover behind the chair that Zach was using as a shield.
“I wouldn’t be so sure that you aren’t as mean as him,” Flip said. “Silly people are more than capable of doing mean things without even realizing. And besides, of course he isn’t exactly you. I keep telling you, you’re you and he’s he. The whole lost soul thing was just a strategy to get the Eye to show us all the versions with the same face as you.”
“Oh yeah? You call me silly? Then what about this? He can’t be the Gus Shevlin you’re looking for. There’s absolutely no way.”
Flip ignored him. She was putting all her weight in each step. Her contour wobbled. Her entire body enlarged. With her next step, the theater shook. And with the next, it shook even more furiously at her mass. But her footing was becoming more secure. She was becoming heavier. In that way—expanding, extending, becoming invincible against the wind—she approached the murk. And finally, she shut the door.
Panting, she said, “What?”
“What, ‘what’?” the shell said.
“You said something about ‘He can’t be.’ ”
“He can’t be the Gus Shevlin you’re looking for, I said.”
“What are you talking about?” Zach asked. He got up although his legs trembled and he had to clasp the armrest again.
The shell groaned, pulling himself up and sitting in the chair. It felt odd to have a figment of memory, which lacked any sort of life history, treat you like a child.
“Because,” the shell said, “you told the Eye that I’m a lost soul. It thinks I’m a lost dead person. ‘Dead’ is the operative word here. The Eye only showed the dead ones who looked like me. Unless it lacks such a filtering function. Does it lack such a filtering function?”
Flip stared at the shell, answering neither in the affirmative nor in the negative.
The shell continued. “But whoever you’re looking for, he isn’t dead yet, is he? Otherwise, you would’ve seen him back at the hotel. You wouldn’t need to be looking for him this way. You’d be searching the hotel.”
“But this is the Gus Shevlin who killed Zach,” Flip said, frozen to the spot. “I searched for the exact phrases I used while I was on the storm clouds with Flop, on the day Zach died.”
“You sure you have that good of a memory?” the shell said.
“I am a reaper,” Flip said indignantly. “I may not remember what I was before I became a reaper, but everything thereafter, I do remember. I have a memory that stretches eons.”
“Be that as it may, a person can’t be dead and alive at the same time. The Eye showed us this guy because he’s dead. But the person you’re looking for isn’t dead yet because he’s not at the hotel. So, the Eye isn’t showing you the correct guy.”
The only possible explanation struck Zach. He glanced at Gus Shevlin on the screen, then at the shell, then at Flip.
“Or, this is the correct guy and he did die,” Zach said. “And we just missed him as we left the hotel.”
© 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.