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Jump to the Prelude
When the piano lid opened up, it was like watching the sky open up all over again. With the lid, its ceiling lamps also moved up, up. In their place, the blindingly bright stage light of the cocktail lounge illuminated the cave that was the inside of the piano.
From there, Zach, Gussie, and Nora looked up. The entire world began shaking again—the piano itself, the ground on which it stood, everything. Gussie didn’t belong here. That hadn’t changed. The lid had to be shut again. Whoever had done it had to undo it. And that “whoever” was Lisa, the giant, who stared down at them while blocking some of the stage light.
No; to be more precise, they were tiny and she was the normal-sized one. Her demeanor still gave her the air of a respectable, middle-aged woman who’d spent a good chunk of her life in a corporate career—if you could ignore the mud and grass hanging from her hair and clothes, both of which had looked polished once upon a time. Now, it seemed, she couldn’t care less about her appearance. Perhaps she’d never cared about it beyond its practical results; she’d only adopted the corporate look because it got her something she wanted. Climbing the corporate ladder. Appearing to be calmer than she actually was. Those sorts of things.
But now, she was dead. And if mud and grass were going to help her achieve her goal, she was going to damn well keep them as part of her look.
“I’m glad you’re all fine,” she said.
Her voice shook the air so fiercely that Zach dispersed.
“Sorry,” Lisa whispered.
Nora and Gussie hugged each other, trying to stay upright in the earthquake. They waved at Lisa.
“Where are the reapers and lawyers?” Zach asked from multiple directions.
He’d failed to collect himself in the same size as earlier. And that got him thinking: why do I have to be the same size? What did “size” mean anyway, for someone like him, for someone who’d been robbed of his body? He could be any size now, just like the reapers. He might not have all the same powers that they have, but this power, this dispersing and recollecting skill, was something he could use. So, instead of aiming for the same size as Nora and Gussie, Zach took up more space.
Just a bit more.
He hovered around Lisa, around the entirety of the cocktail lounge. It still smelled of his cigarettes: tree bark and leather. Behind the counter, Mina stood, frozen in blissful oblivion. Though she couldn’t see him, her very presence and the familiar smell made Zach feel at home.
“They’re just on the other side of that veil,” Lisa said, pointing off the stage.
“The veil?” Gussie said.
Lisa reached into the piano. She held her palm at Gussie and Nora. They hesitated, considering Shevlin. But when Lisa offered to pick up Shevlin with the other hand, Gussie and Nora gladly climbed on Lisa’s palm. The quaking had already begun; might as well let Gussie see what was going on before the lid was shut again.
Everyone except Shevlin, who limply hung between Lisa’s fingers, looked where Lisa pointed.
A dark veil filled the frame of the opening that led out of the cocktail lounge. Beyond the veil was the lobby, which was usually bright and noisy. But now, it only seemed dimly lit and all conversations were muffled because of the veil. Faint black and white figures moved beyond that—the lawyers and reapers, oblivious to what was happening here. They were either busying themselves with shipping other guests out of the hotel or still discussing the dramatic disappearance of Gus Shevlin on the platform. Or, they could be alarmed at the renewed shaking of the hotel.
“What is that veil?” Zach asked.
“Koe and Joe,” Lisa said.
Zach, Gussie, and Nora gasped in disbelief. But Lisa grimly nodded.
“Apparently, reapers don’t get to act on their own personal definition of justice, and some reapers don’t like that. And also apparently, the vulnerable point of the hotel’s operational philosophy is that it is too forgiving of its guests. Me and this jerk here, for example”—Lisa shook Shevlin, making his limbs sway helplessly—“got into a fight and destroyed hotel property, the lawn. But we weren’t kicked out. This isn’t the normal kind of hotel. If people were kicked out for destroying property and getting into fights, too many people would be doing that, hoping to get a chance to escape death.
“So, combine those two—Koe and Joe’s desire to realize justice and the hotel’s philosophy that all guests deserve to stay and be treated as respectfully as possible, no matter what they do—and the result was that no one questioned Koe and Joe giving this jerk a glass of whiskey. Neither did anyone question me when I said that I wanted one too.”
“How does giving you two whiskey have anything to do with justice?” Gussie asked.
“That, my dear friend, is because that allowed Koe and Joe to time Shevlin’s exit to Zach’s return.”
So, Zach had been right earlier. He’d thought that Koe and Joe were looking straight at him, through the ceiling of the cocktail lounge, through the atmosphere of the hotel. They had. They’d been waiting for Zach’s return to the hotel, knowing that Zach had limited time to capture Shevlin. Once they’d seen Zach up in the sky, they’d handed Shevlin over to X, the lawyer.
Lady Song and Mr. Lee had given Gussie and Nora guidance to get Shevlin here after that point. And right now, Koe and Joe, the reapers, had changed their shape into a veil to block the opening.
“Lady Song and Mr. Lee could have gotten rid of that opening completely,” Lisa said. “But they didn’t want to. That would have drawn more attention. It was better to have Koe and Joe throw a veil there, so it looks like the cocktail lounge is just dimmer than usual. Maybe no one in the lobby noticed that it’s dimmer because the lobby is so bright in comparison.”
Zach was touched and surprised that so many people were helping him in so many different ways. Koe, Joe, Lady Song, Mr. Lee, Lisa, Nora, and Gussie—they were people he barely knew or people who he’d thought he knew only at the professional level. But they were risking so much. For him, for Angeline.
There were people like Gus Shevlin and the Carningsby murderers in this world. But also, there were the ones who helped even when they didn’t have to.
“They said not to get too sentimental,” Lisa said, with a knowing grin. “Koe and Joe, I mean. They said to focus on getting things done. Okay?”
“Okay,” Zach said. His voice, even to him, sounded teary. He couldn’t fake dryness.
“They said that all of them are only helping as much as they can without getting caught,” Lisa said.
“That’s still a lot more than most people would do,” Zach said. “And you, you didn’t have to do a thing, but you’re here.”
“I told you. This is the best last adventure that I hadn’t dared dream of.”
Gussie and Nora nodded in agreement.
That didn’t lessen Zach’s deep gratitude for them. If anything, their describing this situation that way made him more grateful.
There were people who helped because they thought they had to. On the other hand, there were people who helped and got something out of that experience, which compelled them to continue to help. That was just brilliant. Forced charity never lasted. Somehow, Zach, the naive young pianist who didn’t know how to help himself, had managed to surround himself with people who knew how to help both themselves and others. He’d been murdered, but he had that. You never knew how life and death could surprise you.
“I’m here as a second barrier,” Lisa said. “If other reapers and lawyers notice that something’s off and come here, in the worst-case scenario, I could put this jerk in my pocket and run like crazy.”
“I’ll toss him in the river and see if he sinks or swims,” Lisa said. “But until things come to that”—she looked around the cocktail lounge—“Zach, I can see you’ve obtained a superpower since we’ve parted, but it is just you here, right? I thought you were bringing your girlfriend.”
“Yeah, about that,” Zach said. “I think I know what to do. There is only one way to bring her here without going through all the lawyers and reapers out there.”
And he considered the object that scared him enough to undo all the nostalgic effects of returning to his eternal home: the piano.
© 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.