The misting threatened rain, but lapsed into its usual Roseland sputter. Two blocks away, music pumped out of the open door of a club, Red’s, according to the glowing sign. Pink neon promised, Girls! Girls! Girls! like a dinner bell ringing in my mind. Neighbors open late improved my chances of remaining unnoticed by familiar eyes within the aristocracy of my kind. The high-and-mighty didn’t frequent this rundown part of town, either. The neighborhood wasn’t as bad as Old Town, but it appeared to be heading in that direction, more grunge and broken streetlamps than I recalled. The gloom didn’t stop the handful of patrons heading in and out of Red’s, but the promise of nude women never did.
The joy of being home again met the disquiet of changes to my city: the grunge, unfamiliar car designs, an oversized phone with a blazingly bright screen a man carried, and the illuminated glasses his buddy wore on his nose. It only seemed like minutes for me, but on the other side of the shadows, time worked differently. I imagined I had been away from this side of the veil a few years, maybe more.
A tag dangled from the key, and I read the security code on it making sure I had it right before opening the door. There were two locks, one on the glass door and another on the sliding security cage, which squealed terribly.
Autumn Twilight Restaurant smelled like stale peanuts, moth balls, and spilled beer hiding somewhere near the stage. It needed a sweeping, too. Even with only the green glow of the exit sign, the layer of dust on the floor was visible revealing a number of shoe-prints.
Red light blinking in time to beeping, the security panel in the side hall beside the stairs called me. I hurried over and punched in the code. Satisfied with my numbers, the blinking red light turned a solid green.
Formerly a hotel with a lobby and dining room on the bottom floor, the wall between the two rooms had been replaced by a row of pillars opening the floor up. I recalled watching a jazz band jam away on that stage back when jazz was still cool. The second floor had been turned into a balcony floor overlooking the stage, a brilliant idea. It made the restaurant feel warmer and more inviting.
Self-conscious of intruding ears, I padded quietly up the stairs across the second floor landing, and up to the third floor. The hallway still appeared like an old hotel, but the small service doors had been boarded up in an attempt to look more like part of the wall. They didn’t really. They appeared more like cupboard doors without handles. The doorway on the left opened to a room with a desk bathed in the glow of the computer monitor; the office. On the right, the first room down the hall was the break room complete with humming refrigerator, sofa, coffee maker beneath cupboards, table, and chairs. No window, glowing numbers on the microwave oven cast a blue glow. The next room was empty, and the one after actually had a bed and table. And garbage. Someone had left a pile of paper food containers and on the bed table and floor along with a few plastic bottles. I frowned at all the cleaning the place needed. The fourth room brought my feet to a halt.
The green glow from the exit sign in the hall crept into the windowless room revealing a coffin against the wall. Leaning into the shadows between worlds, I peeked at the pale form of the coffin rising out of the darkness. An old hotel room seemed like an odd place for a coffin. At my former residence, I had kept a coffin in a basement. Reinforced with steel and welded shut, I had used the box as a safe to hide documents and my expensive sword. This coffin resembled mine, and for a moment, I thought it was mine, but even in the pale ghost-light I could see it was all wood. Stepping back into the world, I approached the box.
My Itoril eyes could make out the shape, but the ambient light wasn’t enough to read details. I closed my eyes and flipped the light on. Waiting for my vision to adjust, sneaking peeks, I heard the floor groan beneath my feet and the walls answer with crackles.
A bed table stood beside the coffin, and on it a metronome. I started the pendulum swinging, imagining the device left behind by a jazz man, and listened to the tock sounds.
I lifted the coffin lid and leaned it against the wall.
Like my coffin-safe, this box didn’t have a cushion or a pillow for sleeping on. The red liner felt smooth, but the bottom appeared too high. Switching my gaze between outside and in, I estimated the height of the bottom to be a good six inches from the ground. Lifting the side of the coffin up, I found the bottom flush. Why was the bottom so thick? Running my hand along the inside edges, I felt along the smooth liner finding nothing unusual.
Taking a deep breath, I gathered my strength and dove into the silence of the shadows between worlds. The pendulum slowed to a crawl, fading into a ghost, and the rest of the metronome followed along with the bed table, pale forms nearly frozen in time.
The coffin turned pale then ethereal revealing the skeleton of a double-bottom with an inch gap. Inside the gap, near the head of the coffin, a rectangular shape caught my attention. It appeared like cardboard or heavy folded paper. A wire connected a lever to a round peg.
I returned back in normal time watching the coffin become solid, and sound snapping in my ear. The pendulum ticked.
Lining up my hand with where I had seen the hidden peg, I hit the bottom. A pop, and the entire floor of the box bounced shaking loose. Pushing down on the near side made the back side lift far enough to grab, and I pulled the thin false bottom out and set it on the carpet.
Pretty sneaky, and I could only think of one man that would have devised a secret compartment in a box that resembled my old coffin: Steve Reynolds.
Picking up the heavy parchment, I unfolded it. A plastic card slipped out falling onto my lap. I picked it up and read my name, Kandy Knight, above a fourteen-digit number pressed into the plastic. It appeared much like a credit card, but without an expiration date or magnetic strip. I felt a square bulge in the corner, an embedded smart chip. The backside contained service instructions for a financial institution where I assumed I’d find my money.
I read the letter written on the inside of the parchment.
I’m terribly sorry, but your coffin was damaged by looters. This replacement was the best I could do. I’ve entrusted your return with Peter Gray, and by now I imagine you two are getting along famously. This is my gift to you, your exit from Itoril politics and your life on your terms.
This is your time.
After reading the letter again, I glanced around the room as if I might find an answer written on the wall somewhere. All I could fathom was that some part of Steve’s plan had gone wrong.
“Who’s Peter Gray?”