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Jump to the Prelude
Excited clapping startled Zach. His entire being cringed. He’d landed in a mysterious, wooden cave that was perfectly motionless. It was illuminated with comfortably dim ceiling lamps in all directions. The clapping echoed. Though the cave was filled with straight thigh-thick strings, there was plenty of room.
The strings ran parallel to each other in neat rows, right at his eye level. They weren’t wild like the spiderweb in the chaos, which had alternated between thinning and thickening or becoming visible and invisible. Those spiderweb strings had been organic because they’d been created through the interactions among people.
Unlike that web, these strings here were definitely inorganic. Amidst the pleasant scent of wood and polish, Zach could discern a hint of steel. Steel was an alloy, meaning that someone had to combine metals to produce it. And besides, regardless of the necessity of metal combination, nothing in nature could be as straight as these strings. Also, no set of straight things hung in the air in organized rows, when in nature. The likelihood was simply too low. Someone had intentionally set up the steel strings this way.
Joyful cheering was added on top of the echoing claps. Zach whirled around, grimacing at the dizzying noise.
“We’ve made it!” the shell said.
He sat on top of Shevlin, who lay unconscious on the floor at the end of the strings. Next to them stood Nora. Zach burned with questions about how the three of them had gotten here when so many reapers and lawyers had been against them. But first, that “end of the strings” was what drew his attention. Because, the strings ended in a forest of black towers. The towers were as tall as a person. And each straight string was attached to one such tower, as if, just like…
…for a piano.
The forest of black towers was actually the forest of tuning pins, which were anchored in the pin block. This part of the piano couldn’t be seen from the outside when the instrument was fully assembled.
Which meant that they were inside a piano.
Zach wildly looked around. The ceiling lamps had given him the illusion of being inside a well-lit wooden cave, but if he ignored those lamps, yes, those straight strings, they weren’t just any inorganic strings, they were piano wires. From the pin block, all the way to the opposite end, the strings ran through the inside of the piano. There, to the right, he could see the bent side. And above him was the main lid. And to the left, the hinge for the lid.
“How in heavens…”
“Zach?” the shell said. “You are Zach, right?”
Nora and the shell looked like they were on the brink of exploding with excitement. And Zach’s formlessness only seemed to intensify that sentiment.
“We knew you’d be back,” the shell said. “I’ve only known you for a short time, but I knew, you wouldn’t have pulled me out of the guestbook if you didn’t mean to go through with this, whatever ‘this’ is for you.”
“And so he gave me his coat,” Nora said, waving the shell’s black overcoat with one hand, “so I could avoid being frozen in time like everyone else. So I could help him, help you, help myself. It was his idea. Said that he wasn’t of this world, yet he was here, and as long as we stayed on the boat, no one would notice us. And once we got onto the platform, the coat would help me. Such a genius.”
“I try to help where I can,” the shell said.
And the two gazed at each other in that blissful, euphoric way in which infatuated couples gaze at each other. Thankfully, the two didn’t linger in that moment of affection for too long.
“And we paid attention to the sky,” Nora said, facing Zach again.
“That’s what Lady Song and Mr. Lee told us to do. Pay attention to the sky,” the shell said.
“They said that something will shimmer there if you make it back.”
“And indeed, you did shimmer.”
So, the owner couple was still on Zach’s side. That was a relief. If he had fought through all those reapers and lawyers outside, things would have been much more difficult and taken much longer. The owner couple had gifted him a shortcut.
“And you’re formless,” Nora said.
“Yes, like air but you’re still you,” the shell said.
“Very strange, but Lady Song and Mr. Lee told us to prepare ourselves for the strange.”
“Because we’ll get to live inside a piano.”
“That’s right, inside a piano, with you and Miss Conners.” Nora beamed.
“The four of us.” The shell beamed. “Speaking of which, we’ll need introductions.”
But first things first.
“Thanks for helping me and telling me all this,” Zach said. “But Nora, they’ll look for you. The afterworld police, I mean. And…”
“Call me Gussie.”
That felt strange, to call a man with the face of his murderer by a pet name. Then again, Gussie wasn’t Zach’s murderer. Gussie was friendly, although a bit whiny at times, and sat on top of said murderer, who had begun to fidget his fingers. The murderer’s eyeballs danced behind the closed eyelids. Zach had to hurry with sorting things out.
“Gussie, I thought you wanted to go explore. Live life. Release.”
“What better way to live life and find poetic release than to devote myself to the love of my life?”
Gussie took Nora’s hand in his. The two gazed into each other’s eyes once more—
“Okay,” Zach said quickly, “but the police?”
Nora said, “If everything goes well, they cannot possibly find us here. Lady Song and Mr. Lee said so. I’ll be an eternal fugitive. At some point, I’ll land in the cold case pile and they’ll forget about me for all practical purposes. I love that. A fugitive. Can you believe it, Mr. Steele, I mean, Zach?”
“But the owner lady and her lover said that you need blood,” Gussie said. “She said that’s what we need for everything to go well. Otherwise, us hiding here can only be temporary because the afterworld police and the women in black can sweep through the innards of the hotel and find us. Do you know what you need to do?”
“I think I do,” Zach said.
He glared at Shevlin, who now groaned under Gussie’s weight. Shevlin had the dagger in his inside coat pocket. That was a starting point. Zach could cut the murderer’s throat. But then what? Sprinkle blood everywhere? How much blood was necessary? Was there enough of it inside this man? He was huge, but definitely not as huge as this piano. If Zach could get the owner couple’s guidance, he preferred to do so now rather than later.
“Where are they, Lady Song and Mr. Lee?” he asked.
“They said they’d be busy keeping everyone out of the cocktail lounge,” Nora said. “All the reapers and lawyers.”
“And the women in black,” Gussie said.
“But they see many things, Lady Song and Mr. Lee,” Nora said.
“Pictures. Many pictures,” Gussie said. “Those were their exact words, the words they wanted us to tell you. Lady Song said that you’d understand why they can hold their ground against the women in black. She told you not to worry, to focus on your task.”
Indeed, Zach understood. Lady Song’s knowledge—and that of Mr. Lee—prevented the women in black from treating them like everyone else. Trapping them in one world or ousting them from all worlds didn’t work. Perhaps Lady Song and Mr. Lee were the owners of all the hotels in all the worlds that Zach had seen in the chaos. Whatever the case was, they were strong enough to fight against the women in black for a while—but not forever.
And the bigger problem:
“I’m glad they can buy time for us, but if we’re here, how am I supposed to go out there and get Angeline?”
“Oh,” Gussie said.
“Wait, isn’t she…” Nora said.
“She isn’t,” Nora said.
“Is she not?” Gussie said.
The couple didn’t look so ecstatic anymore.
“The thing is,” said Nora, “when the shimmer descended from the sky, we couldn’t see you clearly.”
“Or Angeline,” Gussie said.
“Or the absence of Miss Conners.”
“Or the presence of Angeline.”
“And we just…”
“You threw the coat over us and we came here,” Zach said flatly.
The two nodded.
That was why they’d asked for introductions earlier. Zach was so formless that they hadn’t even realized that Angeline wasn’t with him.
“I have to go back out,” Zach said. “How do I do that?”
“You can’t,” Gussie said, and awkwardly smiled.
“What do you mean, I can’t?”
“Well, if you physically climb out of the piano right now, you’ll get to the cocktail lounge. But that’d be as much ‘back out’ as you can get without being attacked by the lawyers and reapers. They’re filling the lobby. And if I remember correctly, the cocktail lounge doesn’t even have a door, it’s just an opening, so they’ll notice your presence next to the piano pretty quickly.”
“What about the way we came here?” Zach asked. “Like when we left the Library of Records, what if I were to go directly up from here?”
“Then you’d appear on the platform. There’ll be the women in black and even more lawyers and reapers. Besides, I don’t know how you’d go up from here.” Gussie glanced up at the ceiling, filled with the lamps. “We don’t have that magic wood panel thingy that carried us up in the library.”
Shevlin groaned louder under Gussie. Nora pressed Shevlin’s shoulders down while Gussie made himself more comfortable on top of Shevlin. Shevlin made choking sounds.
One chance, Zach had thought earlier, and he had used up that one chance.
“I can’t seal myself here without Angeline,” he said.
Loud hammering from the outside startled all of them. Gussie almost jumped up from Shevlin. Nora pressed them both down. Zach made himself flat against the wooden wall. Someone was hammering on the lid.
“It’s me,” the hammerer hissed, a woman. “Lisa.”
© 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.