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One of my squatters who acted as a cabdriver and went by the name of Edwin usually kept his yellow cab at the corner of Pierrepont and Hicks. All I could do was hope he was there now. As I ran thunder exploded beside me as if bombs were being tossed at me, but what was coming my way was a hell of a lot deadlier and scarier than any bomb.
I didn’t look back as I ran. I knew I’d see more of Brooklyn melting away and being replaced by a desolate mountain terrain, and in the middle of all this Al Zaoud and his horde of murderous cutthroats would be riding their demon stallions at full gallop. In my mind’s eye I could imagine those horses’ eyes shining bloodred and froth pouring from their mouths and steam blowing out of their flaring nostrils. I knew they still had to be a half mile or more away, but I couldn’t shake this sensation of them being directly behind me. I could almost feel on the back of my neck the pungent steam that they’d be exhaling; a steam that would smell no different than burning sulfur.
I wanted to kiss Edwin full on the lips when I saw him sitting in his cab where I hoped it would be, and given that he resembled a bloated bullfrog with a really bad complexion, that was saying something. I jumped in the back of his cab and told him to start driving. “Go over the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan and head uptown towards the Bronx,” I ordered him breathlessly. “And there’s an extra fifty for you if you ignore the speed limits.”
“Unusual weather we’re having,” he stammered out dumbly, his reflection in the rearview mirror showing a dead fish paleness to his face, his eyes wide open but with little life in them. Squatters have a defense mechanism where they go catatonic whenever they’re confronted with the fact that the reality they’ve adopted isn’t real. He was close to shutting down, but I didn’t have time to pull him out of the driver’s seat and take his place. I looked behind me and could see that the Brooklyn landscape was erasing quickly. Al Zaoud and his horde were close enough now that I could make out the severed heads tied to their horses’ manes.
“If you don’t start driving now I’ll put a bullet in the back of your skull,” I yelled at Edwin. “I swear to God I will!”
“Jesus, what’s the rush?” he muttered half under his breath. Even if he looked directly at Al Zaoud and his murderous horde he wouldn’t acknowledge their existence. But he pulled away from the curb and headed toward the bridge and away from Al Zaoud. He wasn’t going nearly fast enough but at least he was moving. I reached over the back of his seat and pinched the top of his right ear and gave it a hard twist.
“Ow!” he cried.
“Give it more gas or I’ll bloody rip your ear off!”
He gave it more gas and the tires squealed. Al Zaoud was still gaining on us as more of my Brooklyn faded from sight, but at least we were moving now at a more reasonable speed. At least we had a chance. If Al Zaoud’s reality causes a ravine or mountain to materialize in his path, that would slow the bastard down enough where I might be able to escape him. Still, though, the buffer between us was disappearing quickly, and if something didn’t change it would only be a matter of seconds before I’d be pulled into his godforsaken reality.
“You better damn well floor it! And if you as much as touch the brakes I’ll fucking kill you!”
“Jesus, Mike, what’s gotten into you?” Edwin cried, but the taxi leapt forward as he pushed down on the gas pedal. The car did a little side-to-side jig as he almost crashed up, but he got it back under control and had it speeding over the bridge. We were maybe three quarters over it when the other end of the bridge faded away, replaced by Al Zaoud’s hellish world. I watched as one of the zombies jumped from the middle of the bridge but never made it into the East River as he disappeared beneath the rocky terrain that replaced my reality. I guess given a choice of being drowned in the river or crushed under tons of rock and soil there wouldn’t be much of a difference as far as that zombie was concerned
Edwin had the cab shaking again as he almost lost control for a second time. “I’m gonna crash up with the way you’re making me drive,” he cried out.
“Don’t you dare slow down!”
He didn’t slow down, but he started blubbering. “The cops are going to throw me in jail and take away my hack license. I don’t know what I’ll do without my hack license. Jesus, Mike, you’re killing me here.”
I laughed at that. A nervous, excitable, near hysterical laugh. It wasn’t me that was going to be killing him. If Al Zaoud caught up to us, it would be that crazy medieval warlord killing him for all eternity. And besides, my reality didn’t have any squatters acting like cops, at least none that I’d ever seen, so he had nothing to worry about on that front.
“Let me deal with any cops, you concentrate on getting us the hell out of here.”
“What’s the rush? For Chrissakes, what’s the rush?”
I didn’t bother answering him as he continued to blubber away, but I did let out my breath when I saw that we caught a break. A ravine appeared between us and Al Zaoud. It wasn’t steep enough to stop him for long, but it would slow him down, maybe enough for me to escape him.
I started walking west on Montague Street so I could see whether the Manhattan skyline was still there, and it was, at least mostly as I remembered it. I’m sure some of the buildings were wrong, but it still seemed very real to me even though I knew it wasn’t. After I stood gaping at the skyline for what seemed like an eternity but was probably only minutes, I headed south toward Coney Island. I don’t know why exactly but I guess I wanted to see how much of my version of Brooklyn existed. I knew many of the street signs I passed weren’t right—they were from other neighborhoods, and some of them from other boroughs. And then there were other street signs that were too blurry to make out. But none of that mattered, because by then I knew where I really was. Still, though, I kept walking. At one point, I stopped to look at my reflection in a storefront window and realized that I was wearing a cheap suit and a fedora. When I was alive I never wore a hat, and almost never wore suits, and certainly never the fifty-nine dollar variety that I had on. At the time I was murdered I was wearing jeans, tennis sneakers, a polo shirt, and a leather jacket, which was what I usually wore when I worked my job as an investigator. Still, on seeing my reflection in that window, the suit, scuffed up shoes, and hat seemed right
I was somewhere in Bay Ridge when this man who looked like he’d been dropped in from the eighteenth century wandered into view. I was never much of a history buff, but that was the way he looked given his blue satin waistcoat, frilly silk shirt, and knee-length breeches, as well as his overall shaggy appearance. As he shuffled toward me, he looked almost like he could’ve been an extra from a zombie movie, although one set several hundred years in the past. His expression was a rictus of fear, and there was only deadness in his eyes. I gave him a wide berth as he ambled past me and watched as he staggered to the front of an eight-story brick building. He stood transfixed for a long moment, and then all at once started clawing at the brick wall and violently smashing his face against it, and he did this quietly without ever uttering a sound.
I picked up my pace after that trying to put some distance between us, and it was only seconds later that I left Brooklyn and found myself someplace entirely different. Instead of the Brooklyn streets where I’d been walking for hours, behind me now were meadows and a mountain range that was of such lush greenness that it seemed more like a painting than anything real. The sky that had been a grayish white in my version of Brooklyn was now a deep blue, and the sun that had earlier been missing behind New York smog and clouds was shining brightly overhead. Off in the distance were groves of a tall and thin variety of pine tree that I’d never seen before, as well as other types of trees, shrubs, and plants that were foreign to me, and up ahead past rolling meadows was a sparkling ocean made up of different shades of blues and aquamarines that were very different from anything I’d ever seen of the Atlantic Ocean from Coney Island.
I trekked across the meadows toward the ocean, and as I got closer I could see palm and coconut trees along a crescent-shaped beach, and in the middle of this a person lying on a lounge chair.
I had to climb down a steep incline of rocks to get to the beach, and as I did this, I could see that the person was a woman wearing a floral-patterned beach cover-up, her hair a perfect silver. There was an empty lounge chair next to her, and between her chair and the other was a small drink stand on which sat a glass containing a brownish-orange drink with a hibiscus flower floating in it.
She heard me approaching and turned her head toward me. She was wearing sunglasses so I couldn’t see her eyes, but her expression at first was one of disinterest. That changed as she smiled thinly at me, and with a wave of her hand, invited me to sit next to her. She looked ageless yet not young with perfect, unwrinkled skin and a slender, attractive body. If it wasn’t for her well-coifed silver hair, she could’ve passed for being in her thirties. After I settled into the lounge chair next to her she held out a manicured slender hand and introduced herself as Olivia Danville, her accent sounding as if she came from England and was from money.
“Mike Stone,” I said.
When I took her hand I expected to feel something cold and clammy. After all, we were both dead. I was surprised to find how warm and dry her skin felt.
“Where am I?” I asked.
That caused a wan smile to form over her lips. “Where do you think you are, Mike?”
“I’m guessing I wandered from my version of hell into yours. Yours isn’t bad. We’re on a tropical island in the Pacific?”
“Very good, Mike. Yes, my reality, or hell, ended up being Kapalua, Maui. We’re on probably the nicest beach on the island. Not the biggest by any stretch, but the prettiest.”
As I looked out at the ocean I realized it wasn’t just the two of us out there. There were others in the water. I could make out several bodies that were floating face down before they sank, and only a minute later an elderly woman’s face popped up out of a wave before she disappeared for good. Olivia must’ve noticed me staring at these drowning people, but she didn’t comment about them. Instead she asked me if I knew how I died.
“Yeah,” I said. “It would be hard to forget this soon. It only just happened.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“It was only a few hours ago that I was fatally shot, and then the next thing I knew I was in Brooklyn wearing different clothes than what I had on when I died and without my chest ripped open by a .45 slug. Except it wasn’t really Brooklyn, only a version of it that I somehow created. And now I’m in your version of hell, which lucky for you happens to be Hawaii.”
She shifted in her chair to get a better look at me. I couldn’t see her eyes because of her sunglasses but I knew she was staring at me intently. She shifted again in her chair so that she was back to gazing out at the ocean.
“Do you know what you did to end up in hell?” she asked.
“Yeah, I know exactly why I’m here.”
We sat quietly after that for several minutes. When she spoke next it was to ask me why I thought I ended up in her version of hell. I told her it was probably because her version was stronger than mine. “Somehow I got sucked into yours, although I’m guessing if I walked back to where I came from I’d find myself again in Brooklyn.”
She picked up her drink and brushed the flower away from her mouth so she could take a sip. She carefully placed the glass back on the stand. “Your level of awareness is quite remarkable,” she said. “Out of the billions of souls here in hell only a tiny percentage have any sense of awareness, and very few of those would know what you already do this quickly after dying. Do you feel sick yet?”
“I feel fine.”
“Incredible. You should’ve been feeling quite ill by now.”
“Why is that?”
“It’s what happens when you’re pulled into a stronger reality, at least for the first few times in that same reality.”
A larger wave than any of the others crashed onto the beach, and it washed a man’s crumpled body onto the shore. The suit he wore was badly torn and he was covered in seaweed, and from what I could tell it looked like the type of suit someone would’ve worn in the early nineteen hundreds. His face was hidden from me, but from how unnaturally bloated and white his hands and exposed skin looked I would’ve guessed he’d been in the water for months, if not much longer. It probably shouldn’t have surprised me as much as it did when he pushed himself to his knees and crawled back into the ocean, and he soon disappeared under another wave.
“Those souls out there drowning,” I said. “What is it with them?”
“You should be able to explain that as well as I can.”
"Bodies mount up as the double dealing and revenge gather apace. The blurb on the book describes it as a "fast-paced, edge-of-your seat crime novel," and it really does live up to the hype. Add this to your holiday reading list for a piece of escapism." Morning Star
I have two new stories out:
A new Archie story, Archie's Been Stolen, in the latest issue of Ellery Queen.