Chapter 28: Goodbye
Holly and Ned sat together in Ned’s dining room starling listlessly at the broken Walkman sitting in the center of the table. The discovery of the Walkman on the street had filled them with a sense of elation at having made some progress in their search, but it had been short-lived when they realized that its discovery ind icated Ernie was ind eed missing.
Holly ran her hand against the worn buttons and the faint scrawls in the back that spelled out Ernie’s name. She hoped he was okay.
Lavina bustled into the room with a fresh pot of coffee and a platter of pastries. She had not been pleased initially with Ned bringing Holly back with him, but he had taken her to the kitchen and shared with her the story Holly had told him outside St. Ives.
Even Lavina’s insecure jealousy was overcome by the sadness of the story, and she had set about making them all comfortable in the best way she knew how – by cooking for them. There had been no end to the del icious sweets produced in the kitchen, and the coffee seemed to be in infinite supply as well.
The silence was broken by the sudden stentorian ring of the telephone, sending Holly bolting upright in her chair in surprise at the sound. Ned picked up the call.
“Hello? Oh, hi Rhonda.” Holly craned her neck anxiously. Did she have news about Ernie?
“Really? Is he OK? Hmmmm. OK, Elston you say? Yeah, we’ll be over in a few minutes.” He slowly put down the phone. Holly asked impatiently, “Well, what did she say?”
“They found Ernie. He’s in pretty bad shape. They’ve got him up at Elston Memorial. The doctors aren’t sure if he’s gonna pull through.”
Holly’s eyes moistened again. “Well, we have to go see him.” She stood up purposefully and grabbed her coat from the rack in the corner. Ned pushed the front door open for her and smiled wryly at his wife as they stepped out into the cold again.
Ames and Cobb both brea thed a long sigh of relief as they sat down in their car and started the engine, waiting for the heater to kick in. Once their backup had arrived, the warehouse was a non-stop circus of detectives, beat- cops, and forensics experts. It seemed like Foster had called in the entire force to the scene.
Ambulances had arrived at the scene shortly after Ames had called them in, but were now all gone, hurtling towards hospitals as fast as they could go. The man that was shot, identified as Mike Turner by the license in his wallet, was declared dead on arrival by the paramedics, but the victim, whose name was still unknown, was barely clinging to life and had been sped away in an ambulance quickly.
Turner’s death came as no surprise – few men could survive five bullets to the chest from moderate range. The other man’s survival came as a surprise to both Ames and Cobb. He had been beaten badly, and both detectives had their doubts as to whether he’d make it through the night. Only time would tell.
Cobb and Ames had answered hundreds of questions already, and there were going to be plenty more tomorrow, especially about the shooting and their abandonment of the car accident. Questions would have to wait for now, though; both of them had agreed that they needed to go and check on the victims of the car accident. It was the least they could do after abandoning the scene.
“So did you hear about that guy, Turner?” Ames asked as he leaned back wearily against the headrest.
“No, what about him?” Cobb replied.
“Apparently, he killed his wife’s boyfriend earlier today after he found them in bed together. Beat him to a pulp with a baseball bat, and did a fair number on his wife, too.”
Cobb shook his head. “Well, I can’t say I’m sad to see him gone, then. Especially after seeing what he did to that poor guy.”
Ames nodded in agreement. “So where we heading? Were you able to find out where they took the car wreck people?”
Cobb replied as he looked over his shoulder to back out into the street, “Yeah, they all got taken to Elston Memorial.”
“Elston?” Ames exclaimed. “Wasn’t Schumann closer?”
“Yeah, but apparently some nut took a shotgun into the mall on Franklin and went crazy, so Schumann was full of gunshot victims.”
Ames chuckled wryly. “Well, nev er a dull day around here, huh?”
“No kidding. Well, they took the guy here to Elston as well, so we can check up on both of them, and let that Mendocino kid know what’s going on, all at the same time.
“Nothing like killing three birds with one stone,” Ames commented as they careened down the road.
Joel opened his eyes and noticed immediately that he was back in the strange room of his dreams. Directly in front of him was the old man, roll of cloth beside him, still looking intently at the mass of threads in his lap. He continued to ignore Joel.
Joel looked around slowly. The room was exactly as it had been the last time he had been here. The candle flickering on a low table, the infinitely long dark room stretching out behind him, light peeking in through a solitary window in the distance. Yes, this was definitely the room in which he’d found himself a few hours ago. What was he doing back here?
“Joel.” He started at the sound and stepped back as the speaker strode out from the shadows behind the old man.
“Don’t worry,” the man smiled warmly. “I’m not here to hurt you.”
Joel looked the man up and down. He was dressed in a long thin robe, a rich dark brown in color. His features were nothing special – he appeared to be an average middle-aged man in every respect. A thin black cord lined his neck, and his robe hung loosel over his broad shoulders.
His skin was dark, but seemed to shine strangely as well, and the air was filled with a pleasant freshness as he strode towards Joel and extended his hand towards him. Joel glanced in confusion at the old man, who sat, unperturbed by the strange man.
The man laughed. “Oh, don’t mind Qismah, he’s married to his work. He doesn’t pay attention to anything except those threads. Come, I have plenty to show you. I’m sure you have questions, and hopefully I can answer some of them for you. I am Hospes.”
Joel took his hand, marveling at the warmness exuded by it on his own chilled limb. Hospes led him beyond Qismah, to the back of the impossibly long room, talking as the went slowly.
“Well, Joel, you were supposed to have been here some time ago, but Qismah had to improvise a little when things didn’t go as planned with Mr. Turner.”
What was he talking about?
Hospes laughed again. “I suppose you’re a little confused, aren’t you? Well, welcome to the afterlife, Joel – or the gateway to it, anyway.”
Joel gaspe d in surprise. “You mean… I’m…”
“Dead? Yes… Or truly alive, depending on how you look at it.”
Joel was taken aback by his guide’s flippant attitude. If he really was dead, he didn’t think Hospes should be laughing about it.
“Oh, I’m sorry, Joel, but I think you’ll find that there are worse things than dying.” Hospes continued along past Qismah’s position.
“Like I said before, Joel, the last time you were here, I was supposed to greet you and give you ‘the talk,’ as we call it, but Qismah ended up putting you back out there, due to an unexpected development with Mr. Turner.” Hospes motioned to his right, and Joel saw, to his amazement, another bewildered man following another robed figure, just beyond a mysterious glass partition.
“We do our best to keep track of things around here, and Qismah does a fine job of keeping things running smoothly, but we’re far from fortune tellers, so every once in awhile something slips through that has to be dealt with, like what happened tonight. It makes things harder, for you especially, but I think you can handle it.” He stopped abruptly and turned to face Joel.
“Well here I am, prattling on… What about you? Do you have any questions?”
Joel had plenty. He was still unclear about where he was and what was going on. But where to begin?
“Ummm, well, what exactly does – Qismah – do?”
Hospes smiled. “Qismah is the weaver. You see, Joel, you interact with lots of different people. Your choices and your actions affect a lot of different things, even if you don’t see those effects first hand. Qismah is responsible for keeping the system sane, for making sure the knots get tied properly…” Hospes could tell he was losing Joel.
“Here, it might make more sense if you could see some things.” He motioned to the left wall, where Joel saw a window that he hadn’t noticed before. He peered out, looking over the lush jungle, but then it faded, replaced by a beaten man in a hospital bed.
“Joel, meet Ernie. You saved his life, but you didn’t even know it until now. In fact, that man you tried to save today when you were shot was a good friend of Ernie’s. But that’s beside the point right now.
“When Qismah retied your knot, you went and got in that car accident, but if you hadn’t, a police car carrying two detectives would have been hit by the speeding car instead, and Ernie would have died in the meantime. But now, thanks to you, he has a chance.”
“But will he be OK?”
“I don’t know. Like I said, we’re not fortune-tellers. But I do know if you hadn’t done what you did, he would have died. And here’s another interesting fact,” Hospes continued as the hospital scene faded, replaced by a scene that Joel recognized. He was standing on the train, holding the door for a man running towards the train.
“You held the train for Mike this morning, a man who would later kill his wife’s boyfriend and would try to kill Ernie, the man you ended up saving.”
“So I’m actually responsible for Ernie’s almost-death?” Joel asked.
Hospes nodded. “Sort of, but not really… It’s complicated. That’s the point. Your entire life s one big complicated knot of events and interactions. Most people don’t realize that, but I think you do, to some extent at least.”
Joel remembered some of the late-night conversations he’d had while in Asia . What Hospes was saying made sense in a lot of ways.
“So now I’m dead?”
“Yes. But your time had come anyway. You were supposed to die from an unexpected heart failure, which is what brought you here in the first place, but then, like I said, Qismah retied your knot. But he tied it in such a way that would bring you back here while fixing things. It’s not yet Ernie’s time – at least, we don’t think it is. Like I said before, this isn’t fortune- telling.”
“What is going to happen to that guy, Mike?” Joel motioned beyond the transparent partition to his right. Hospes shook his head.
“I don’t know, really. That’s all up to the judge. My job is to answer your questions. Do you have any more?”
Joel remembered suddenly that he was dead. What about his father? His mother?
“Can I see my parents?”
In response, an image of his mother, huddled by his father’s side in a hospital room, faded in the window.
“Your dad’s going to be all right. And your parents will grieve, to be sure, but they’ll move on eventually. And someday they’ll be having the exact same conversation we’re having now.”
Tears came to Joel’s eyes as he considered the finality of everything Hospes had told him. He was so young! He had so many things he had wanted to do, but now he wouldn’t get that chance!
Hospes wrapped his arm around Joel’s shoulder and walked him towards the door at the end of the room.
“It’s not so bad, Joel. I think you’ll like the eternal afterlife.”
“Am I going to heaven or hell?” Joel asked. It seemed the logical question. If he was going to be spending eternity somewhere, he wanted to know whether his tears were warranted.
Hospes chuckled. “I was waiting for that one. It’s a good question, but I don’t have the answer. It’s up to the judge. But if you want my opinion…” He opened the door and motioned for Joel to walk toward the streaming light the poured from the opening.
“I think your chances are pretty good.”
Three rooms from where Mr. and Mrs. Mendocino cried together over the loss of their son, tears of a different kind were being shed. Both Rhonda and Holly hugged Ernie close as he came to and uttered a few indecipherable words. He was going to be okay.
Out in the hall, Ames and Cobb listened incredulously as Heather explained that Joel Mendocino had been killed in the accident. It was a lot for two tired cops to take in, after all that had already occurred that day. Without Joel’s help with the tattoo, they’d never have found out about the fight club, and the poor other guy would probably be dead…
Ames and Cobb stopped by the Mendocino’s hospital room to express their condolences, then walked out to their cold car. It had been a long day.