Table of Contents
Jump to the Prelude
—and sudden humidity greeted him. Zach had successfully crossed the invisible barrier. He was charging through the air, toward the island—or so he assumed. From the outside, he’d seen through the mist, through the hotel’s walls and ceilings. But from the inside, the usual mechanisms that limited the perception of the insiders exerted their effects on him as well. He couldn’t see the cliff clearly.
Yet the limited perception was better than that chaos out there. Zach focused all his being on the string that led to Gus Shevlin, who stood in the shaking manual elevator. That allowed Zach to continue forward, downward, to his enemy.
He had to reach Shevlin. He had to stop the mobster from leaving the island. Then he had to find Angeline in the chaos. The idea of returning there terrified him, but without her, all that he’d gone through up to now would be futile. He hadn’t begun this journey for his own safety. If he’d cared about his safety, he would’ve stayed out of Donald Todd’s way the second he’d recognized the drunkard at the cocktail lounge. But he hadn’t. He wanted revenge, eternal love, everything that he deserved because he hadn’t deserved to be murdered—
A gust hit Zach right in the core. He let go. But before he was flung out of the barrier, he managed to catch the string once more.
The women in black knew that he had returned to the hotel. But Zach wasn’t going to let them kick him out so easily anymore. They’d probably thought that he was going to cry and give up in the chaos, completely lost and without help, but that hadn’t been the case. So, this time, too, whatever they were expecting wasn’t going to be the case.
“What is that shimmer?” Shevlin said, pointing at Zach in the sky. “Do you see that too?” he asked X.
That reaction, and the way in which Zach could grab the string by focusing on it, both indicated that Zach had ceased to be a regular afterworlder. It was a disadvantage and an advantage. He couldn’t punch Shevlin in the face but he could confuse the hell out of that murderer, that arrogant man who thought that he could use any means to claim what was “his,” even when he had no right to claim people as if they were objects. In fact, even objects didn’t deserve to be claimed by someone so irresponsibly greedy like Shevlin.
Through the mist, Zach glided along the string.
First, reach Shevlin. Then think what to do next.
X, the woman with the best fashion sense that Zach had yet seen in any lawyer, rose in the elevator like a modern office warrior. It seemed that the shaking of the elevator didn’t influence her as much as it did Shevlin. She held up her palm at Zach. At once, he was blasted back.
“I don’t know what you are,” X said, “but this is not the way to go about this.”
Her tone made Zach feel hollow. It wasn’t because she sounded accusatory. It was because she sounded so professional and detached that an argument for or against understanding seemed futile.
“Everyone has regrets,” X said, taking a step forward in the elevator. She kept pushing with her palm. Zach kept fighting against her force. “If everyone were to get to resolve their regrets,” she said, “that’d just lead to more regrets for other people. The cycle would be endless.”
But wasn’t that the point of these worlds? That the cycle was supposed to be endless?
“Return to where you’re from,” X said.
Rage swelled up in Zach. This was where he was from! And the open fascination on Shevlin’s old babyface sparked fury, bordering on mania.
Zach pierced through the shield. X gasped and backed away. Quickly, Zach dived toward Shevlin. The fascination on Shevlin’s face turned into puzzlement.
Puzzlement turned into mild alarm.
Mild alarm turned into fear.
Zach loved seeing fear on the old babyface.
Another push flung Zach back. He wildly looked around. Reapers and lawyers stood on the lawn. They were so numerous that they looked like black and white stones on a damp, green, and quaking board for the game of go. They held up their hands at Zach in the sky.
Koe and Joe were there, in the back, near the hotel. They didn’t join the others in blocking Zach out of this world, but they didn’t help Zach either. They meant to stay out of the conflict. Zach didn’t not appreciate their neutral stance, but at the same time, he had too many opponents to actively appreciate neutrality. He needed allies, damn it.
X had lowered her hand. She turned the handle of the elevator. It moved down while Shevlin grinned at Zach. The mobster thought he was victorious.
While Zach struggled against the shield that the lawyers and reapers were holding at him, the elevator with Shevlin and X neared the platform. The shell gazed up. Zach couldn’t see his face. But Zach could see Nora, sitting in one of the two shaking boats by the platform. Under the shell’s overcoat, she was grinning.
Nora wasn’t a person who’d grin at Zach’s defeat. But she’d grin at her husband’s failure.
“What!” Shevlin said. He’d spotted the shell on the platform.
X looked. First, she seemed mildly startled. Then, she said, “Sometimes the events of before- and afterworld tangle up to the point that there are multiple guests with the same appearance…”
She stopped turning the handle.
She looked at Gus Shevlin, standing next to her, in all black clothing, from the fedora to the overcoat to the suit underneath to the shoes.
Then she looked at the shell, on the platform, wearing a black fedora but no overcoat. The shell wore a dark gray striped suit. His shoes were two-tone: ivory and black.
“Koe and Joe brought you here,” X said, pointing at Shevlin. “But you”—she turned to the shell—“who brought you to the hotel?”
“I have always been at the hotel,” the shell said cheerfully.
“You work here?” X said, alarmed, glancing from Shevlin to the shell.
“No,” the shell said.
“Then you’re a guest.”
“I think so.”
“What do you mean, you think so? No more than one hotel guest can be moving right now.”
“Well then, that must mean that I am not a guest.”
Having said that, the shell jumped. He caught Shevlin’s sleeve. He pulled Shevlin out of the elevator, headlong. The murderer screamed. X leaned out, trying to catch him and failing.
The shell dragged Shevlin by the legs toward the boat with Nora. Shevlin kicked and cursed. He reached into his overcoat. The dagger! That had to be what the murderer was going to take out. The fact that no one had bothered to confiscate it infuriated Zach.
The shell probably didn’t know about the dagger, specifically, but he got alarmed. He let go of Shevlin. Then, surprisingly, before Shevlin scrambled up, the shell recovered his purpose. The shell pushed Shevlin down with one foot on the chest. Standing on that one foot, the shell used the other foot to trample on Shevlin’s lower arm.
Screaming in pain, Shevlin removed his hand from the inside coat pocket before he could take out the dagger. He tried to push off the shell. The shell grinned. He trampled and trampled and trampled on Shevlin’s hands and face and chest and everywhere else.
“You will do no bad things anymore,” the shell said, slightly out of breath. “Your wife told me everything. You will do bad things no more.”
On the lawn, the attention of the reapers and lawyers was split between holding the invisible shield at Zach and following the conflict at the bottom of the cliff.
X jumped out of the elevator. The shell promptly stopped trampling. He dragged Shevlin to the boat. Shevlin was motionless like a sack of potatoes.
X marched toward the shell. It was then that Nora jumped out of the boat, holding the shell’s black coat over her head. X yelped at the new opponent. Nora used that bewilderment to scurry to the shell and her beaten husband.
“Ready?” she said.
“Ready,” the shell said.
“Ready,” they said, together, toward Zach.
Nora flung the coat over herself, the shell, and Shevlin. X jumped to catch the coat before it landed on the three of them.
Too late. The coat pressed the three down into the platform, just like the guestbook had pressed Lisa and Zach down through the floor of the basement.
The reapers and lawyers on the lawn gasped. Even the external pull on Zach, from the women in black, subsided.
No pull, no push.
This was his one chance.
He shot along the string, which was being pressed down into the platform along with Gus Shevlin.
Down, Zach was sucked into the platform as well.
Under it should have been the river. Lots of water. Lots of wetness and breathlessness. Instead, Zach found himself amidst rows of very straight, horizontal strings that were as thick as his thighs and hung at his eye level.
© 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.