ost of the dead men get off the train when it reaches South Station. A few remain, at least in the car that I've been riding in. I can't really vouch for what's going on in the sleepers up and down the line as I don't think they're in the same place that I am.
With a pocket
full of moaning, jingling oboli, I skip up the steps into the overcast night. A
wind is blowing in from the nearby harbor, carrying a scent of dead things and
rot. Then again, the few Quick in the
vicinity are probably picking up the same scents that I am. There aren't many
where I stand, glancing left and right on the edge of the storied Financial District,
but a few blocks away the so-called Combat Zone is a-bustle with prostitutes,
johns, pimps and extremely lost tourists. Ever since my death, I've hated
cutting through that part of town. The mark of Oblivion is just so strong on so
many of the faces I see that it's unbearable. It's easier to skirt up and
around, through the Financial District and across Boston Common and the
'When you're dead, you take what you can get.
It isn't much past
10 as I edge my way through the sagging
relics of swan boats in the
I stop and look up. She's staring at me...well, she would have been staring if she'd had eyes instead of a black and bloody rag. "Yes? Is there anything I can do for you?"
"Don't go back there, Erik. It's a bad place for you tonight. I'm seeing your future right now, boy, and it's full of shadows." She hops down off the swan boat and stumps right up to me, and somehow, all I can think is that her breath is terrible. You'd think death would clear up that sort of thing.
"I know the deal you cut on that train, boy. It stinks. Could smell it clear from South Station."
I've long since given up trying to lie to Oracles. It doesn't pay, and they have a way of making Fate bite you on the ass if you piss them off. So I shrug and gently push her away with my good hand - the one without the steel spines in it – and back off a few steps. "Look, it's no big thing. I got out of that poker game with my skinmask intact and a few new oboli, and we still had a few hours of travel time left. The four of us playing poker got to talking, and all that went down was that Chillheart-"
"Whatever. Coldheart agreed to check to see if the woman I've been looking for had been Harrowed lately if I'd just go back to my original Haunt. I'd been planning on stopping in anyway, so what's the big deal!"
She waddles up to me, looking like a mummified duck. The image is comical, and I can hear the other Erik whispering Go ahead. Have a good chuckle. Sure she's got a sensa humor... I tell him to go screw, but it's still hard to keep a straight face as she stomps over.
"Listen, Erik, I'll warn you three times 'cos you've got a good heart on you, if not such a good head. This is two. Doing what a Spectre asks you has never done nobody no good no how no way no when."
"It's harmless. I'm just going home. Oh, and are you being intentionally rustic to make what you're telling me sound more authentic, or do you just naturally slip into down-home dialect?"
"Don't give me any of your lip. I've been sassed by bigger than you and twice as ugly, though lookin' at you that ain't as easy as you might think. And here's something for you to think about: what did Coldheart tell your Shadow to do when you got there, hmm? Hear you've been getting pretty good at lighting fires, boy. Want your Shadow to get twitchy at your big Fetter? They've already had one 'accident' this spring back at your precious little consulting firm. A little one, of course. I'm sure you had nothing to do with it."
Her tone is mocking by the end, and I hate to admit it, but part of me thinks that she's got a good point. Coldheart hadn't seemed too friendly before I pulled a straight flush on the next-to-last hand of the poker game. Why would he care if I went home, anyway?
She's making sense, you know. Suddenly, the other Erik is chiming in. Coldheart scared the bejeezus out of me, and that's saying something. Why don't we go to that bar down the end of the Common, the one all the weirdos hang out in? It's early, you'll Skinride a nice buzz - it'll be a party.
Waitaminute. My other half warning me off? Interesting. He could be trying a little reverse psychology on me, or maybe he just doesn't want me to get that shot of home-cooked Pathos that hitting my Haunt would bring. Some Slumber would go down nicely right about now, too.
On the other hand, if I do what the other Erik tells me, I go out, spend a few more Pathos and maybe step on a few local toes. That means either a fight or losing face, and either way my Shadow gets his jollies. I don't like this one bit.
"Third warning, Erik. You go in there, you'll regret it." I really think heading back to the office would be a bad idea.
"The woman you're looking for is long gone, Erik. You're not going to find her here."
She's right. This is really starting to worry me. Look, I'll even lay off hassling you for a few days if you just take her advice and skedaddle.
"Last time I'm telling you, son. It's been foretold."
Look, your old girlfriend still lives around here. Why don't you go Skinride her, get some cheap thrills?
That does it.
Making my apologies, I back off, thank the rag lady for her advice, and
double-time it down
He's saying, C'mon, man, this is insane. We don't want to do this. Jesus Christ, Erik, you're going to get us both wasted.
I don't care.
It's not far to the old office from
A few of the more intelligent ones have also figured out that whatever loathing I have for them, I have in spades for myself. After all, I didn't try to save her, either. Those are the wraiths that stay the furthest from me when I'm in town.
The lights are on in the old office. Someone's working late, probably the owner. Whatever else you could say about my former employer, he didn't push anyone any harder than he pushed himself. It's well past 10, but the pre-midnight oil is blazing away. Goody for him, I think. He's not on salary.
phantom teeth, I step through the door leading to the stairwell. Ghostly wings
unfurl from my back and carry me up to the fourth floor. I'd
traded learning some basic
It looks the same to me as it did back in the first days of my death. Oh, the nameplates on the desks have changed, but the same magazines are strewn across the table in reception, and the same miasma of hatred, fear and self-loathing still stews in the atmosphere. Even the map that gave me my little souvenirs - the metal spines through my right hand - still hangs in the same place on the wall, placid and malign. I laugh, and fade through the door into Joel's office.
He's working late, and he's not alone. His formality still astonishes me, though - it's getting near 11, and he's still wearing a tie. His hair's gone a little grayer, and it looks like he's put on a few pounds, but otherwise Joel looks much the same as he did when I drew paychecks from him instead of Pathos.
The computer at his desk is on, open to a spreadsheet that has to be this month's financial numbers. They're appalling, and not because the company is in any kind of trouble. What's insane is how well the firm is doing. The bottom line has risen considerably since I shuffled off the mortal coil.
Bullshit. That's my dark half again. The numbers always were this good. He lied to you when he said there was no money for a raise. He was keeping it for himself and laughing when you believed his lies.
I've got no response.
As I said, he's not alone. His secretary is in there with him, giving him (of all things) a neck rub. There's got to be something extracurricular going on here - last I heard as a living man Brigit was making less than her expenses, and Joel wouldn't give her overtime hours. Either he's rescinded that little declaration, or there's something else that's up. I don't much care, to be honest. Brigit and I had never gotten much past some drunken necking at the Cock'n'Bull once, and jealousy just isn't on my agenda any more.
Faintly, in the background, I can hear Yanni on the office stereo system. The other Erik starts digging up memories of days when that damned CD would be in from 8 in the morning until 7 at night, with me slaving away at my desk the whole time listening to the same thing over and over until I wanted just to scream and smash the CD player. We couldn't change the CD, though. We weren't allowed. It was corporate policy.
I'm losing my calm.
Now Brigit's hands are sliding under his shoulders. Joel's making satisfied little grunts as his hands move over the keyboards. He's upping a client price here, adjusting a payment schedule there, and changing a commission percentage over in column J.
Oh, good, now even Brigit's gone over to the enemy. Remember the bitch sessions the two of you used to have? I’ll bet Joel's heard every word of those now. You’re dead, why keep the confidence?
It's too much. I back away.
Chickening out of watching a live woman give a live man a backrub? God, you were a prude when you were alive, but this is something else. Just hop on in. Skinride. Brigit always gave you good backrubs when you were breathing. Don't you want just one more?
No, I scream silently into my own head. No, I don’t want one more, and no, I don't want to see what's happening here, and no, I do not want to be here any more. We – I – am leaving. I turn on my heel, prepare once again for the pain of walking through a solid door.
He's paying your replacement more than he paid you.
I stop. I can't move, can't think. All I see is a curtain of red, pure rage. The bastard. Then, suddenly, I'm sitting in the back of my head staring out through the other Erik's prison bars.
Sucker, he says to me. All I can do is howl.
Now we're going to take care of that prick once and for all, and you're going to help me do it. I try to fight, but not as hard as I could, I think. I don't know. Part of me wants to do this.
Brigit's hands are back on Joel’s neck, strong fingers working along the vertebrae. "Yes, a little harder there…” is what I think he's mumbling.
I can feel my face tighten in a smile. “A little harder.” I can hear the other Erik say with my voice. And I can feel the terrible, terrible pressure that my mind brings to bear with Brigit's fingers.
The snapping of Joel's neck is almost anticlimactic. One minute he's lolling forward, the next his tongue is lolling obscenely as it swells out from under his thick moustache. Brigit steps away from the corpse, staring at her hands with wide blue eyes and screaming. I feel sorry for her.
Gotcha, the other Erik says, and suddenly I'm in control again. I feel sullied. I feel dirty. There's a fat dead man in a chair, and I'm responsible, and I find myself praying to God that Joel goes straight to Oblivion so I don't have to face him and tell him what I've done.
Disgusted with myself, I walk through the bookshelf and the wall, back into the reception area. Brigit is on the phone to the police, yammering hysterically and crying. She must have left Joel's office while I was regaining control. It means nothing to me.
Out of force of habit, I turn to the big bay window at the office's front. I used to see the woman I loved out that window.
Tonight, I see gray swaddled rags.