THE PRELUDE IN HELL
WET AND FACEDOWN on the sand the blank man shivers. Close behind him is a constant gentle hiss of water rushing past. He lies there blinking. Looking down and trying to remember--anything. His name. Who he is. Where. How he came to be here. Why he is wet, why cold. Why he doesn't know or remember.
He stands and wipes grit from cheek and brow then grimaces and gasps. His cheek is swollen and bruised, his forehead scabbed. The back of his head throbs. He touches there and finds a painful swelling. His entire body cut and bruised and stiff and aching. Sand abrades the lacerated soles of his feet.
What has happened to him?
The sky is starless black. No cloud or moon or differentiation. As if all surrounding is contained within some cavern.
The blank man turns toward the inky river. On the far bank begins a vast reach of blotchy ice that seems to glow with its own faint light here in this vast yet enclosed dimness. Something's moving in the water.
He must have just been in the water because he's soaking wet. But he doesn't remember being in the water. He doesn't remember anything before coming to here on the sand.
He surveys the shore. This side's very different from the other shore. Here the ground is like a beach. The hardpacked sand is blond. The breeze is light and warm and when it shifts from off the plain of ice across the river it contains a hint of chill. He could almost be on a beach just after sunset. If there were a sun. If there were an ocean. If this were a beach.
The clothes he wears are filthy despite being wet. He bends to sniff and nearly gags from the reek. Well there's plenty of water a dozen feet away. Might as well make use of it and wash himself and his clothes.
He faces the water and begins removing his clothes. He holds his jacket up before him to discern what tale it tells like some maltreated tapestry. Ripped and hugely stained with blood dried brown. He wonders if the blood is his. Something heavy in the right jacket pocket. He removes it and stares blankly at a fifth of Jack Daniel's whiskey in his hand, bottle full and seal unbroken. He reads every legible word of the white on black label. The smaller print impossible in this noxious light. He frowns and sets the bottle on the sand. Pulls off his flayed black T-shirt and winces at pain in his shoulder. Touches it as if examining someone else. Swollen and discolored and tender. His hiking shoes look fine but when he pulls them off his threadbare socks are stiff with dried blood. His buttonfly jeans are filthy but sound. He isn't wearing any underwear. He yanks down his pants and tears out a plug of scab where a gouge on his thigh has bled and dried stuck to his jeans. He screams and does a little rain dance on the gloomy shore.
Further mysteries are produced. A waterlogged pack of Swisher Sweets containing seven cigarillos, three of them salvageable. A saturated box of matches. A folded piece of soggy writing paper with a deckled edge, blue ink smeared beyond deciphering. A wet leather wallet holding cash, platinum charge cards, and a California driver's license with a thick silver coin taped to the back. Two round indentations in the tape where two other coins have been removed.
He frowns at the license. A blackhaired man with deeptoned skin and a constant five o'clock shadow. Nikkoleides Popoudopolos. Faintly familiar. Is that supposed to be him?
He rubs his bristly jaw and feels his wet and curling hair and brings a strand of it before his eyes. Best he can tell in this faint light it's black. He rubs his face with both hands to form an image from his touch but lacks the tactile vision of the blind.
A silver locket hangs around his neck. He unclasps it and dangles its flattened oval before himself and watches dull red light glint from its turning surface. Like a man trying to hypnotize himself. He thumbs the catch but does not open the locket. His attention caught by thick hard calluses on his fingertips. He holds them up before him and touches them against his lips to feel their rough. Bites down on one but cannot feel it. Bites down harder and does, barely.
His knuckles are scabbed. Has he been mugged? Survived a planecrash? Shipwreck?
He shrugs. It'll come back or it won't.
He opens the locket and something glinting falls to the sand. He squats and sweeps his hands across the fine grit. His knees hurt and the gouge in his thigh bleeds freely. The skin around it waxy.
There. He lifts it carefully from the sand and holds it in his palm and blows it clean. A narrow gold ring, unadorned but with a half twist in the band. He knows this means something but not what. He presses the ring against his cheek and shuts his eyes. Jemma had been out of town visiting her father, Hank. Missing her and thinking of the immutable past and the oncoming wall of the future he had visited a jeweler off Rodeo Drive. He'd demonstrated what he wanted with a strip of paper. You give it a half twist and then join the ends, see? His finger sliding on the surface, traveling round the twist like some funhouse ride. It's a twosided object that only has one side. Because of how it's joined. Offering up the paper strip. Marriage, see? The jeweler smiled and nodded, not understanding any of it but knowing money when it walked in his door, and told him he could pick up the rings in five weeks.
The blank man's hand closes over the ring. He'd wanted to marry her but for some reason couldn't. Why not? Some fear not of marriage but of what it would portend for her to marry him. And she had never known he wore it near his heart for that day when perhaps he could remove it from the locket and slip it on her finger and clasp her hand and never let her go.But here is the ring. So clearly that day never came.
He tries to conjure her face but cannot fix an image. What he does remember pangs his heart. But at least a name has caught in his memory's sieve. Jemma. His precious Jem. Something to hold on to.
The wind shifts and he gets downwind of himself. Let's take that bath, buddy pal. You can play detective when you smell better.
He clutches his filthy clothes to himself and leaves his small pile of artifacts on the warm sand and heads toward the river. He tests the water with a toe and the toe goes numb. This is gonna be bracing. He takes a deep breath and wades on in until he's
sitting naked on the inner shore the blank man shivers, wet and staring at the sand. He blinks. Freezing water hisses past before him. He clutches a wrungout bundle of wet clothes. Beside him on the sand a full bottle of whiskey. A wallet. Cigarillos. A box of matches. A silver locket. Are they his? The clothes he's holding are dry and ragged and stained. Are they his? Why doesn't he know?
He opens the wallet. Cash and credit cards, an odd coin, driver's license bearing a stranger's picture with a long Greek name and an unfamiliar address. He looks at the picture and touches his own face. The pictured face is shaven. His own is prickly with an early beard. The remaining items hold no meaning for him either, though he pauses over the gold ring in the locket. Maybe he can trade or sell it for something useful.
He has a small and tender bump on the back of his head. A cheek and shoulder feel a little bruised. His feet are sore. A fresh pink scar puckers his thigh.
He realizes he's thirsty. He considers the whiskey. But alcohol has never quenched any kind of thirst he's ever had. He knows at least that much. No, a big long drink of water first.
He stands and walks down to the river, where he bends and takes a good long look at
whiskey wallet cigarillos matches locket. The naked blank man blinks at unfamiliar things. The ragged clothes on which they're piled are dry though he is not.
He stares at the driver's license and touches his thickbearded face. He frowns and shrugs and flips the license away. Cracks the whiskey bottle and sniffs. Now this he recognizes. He puts his mouth to the bottle and lifts the bottle high and swallows. Poison, jesus christ it burns like lye. He staggers gagging toward the river where he splashes in the shallows and bends with hands on knees and vomits whiskey and little else. He dryheaves for a while. When the sickness passes he cups his hands and splashes water on his
face up on the sand the blank man stares at murky redblack air. He sits up gasping as if remembering that he has an appointment and has overslept.
A dozen feet away downshore a man stands watching him. Short and muscular and hairy. His beard mere thickening of his curly black hair. Eyes a piercing blue. He is armored in bronze. Cuirass, plated girdle, greaves, leather sandals, a helmet with flared nosepiece and a horsehair crest on top. In his hand a long wooden spear tipped with a flat bronze blade shaped like a narrow leaf. On the sand at his feet a long black case, feminine in shape, with silver latches and a handle on one side.
The armored man watches the blank man struggle to his feet. The blank man glances at the unfamiliar objects on the sand before him. Empty whiskey bottle on the sand. Jewelry. Some litter. Oddly the most familiar thing the blank man sees is the armored man he faces now. He feels perhaps he knows him. Knew him anyway some lost where.
The air is hot and the blank man begins to sweat. The armored man stares past him and his bright eyes do not waver and his tone is flat and without color as he says Hola, Orfeo.
The sound of the name opens a door in the blank man's mind. An ancient door long locked and safeguarding a room held deep within a house containing many rooms. He raises his hand palmout in the old way and in the language of the Achaian before him says, "Hola, friend. Are you come to tell me who I am?"
The helmet swivels slowly but still the eyes do not meet his. "A man may only tell himself that thing."
"I am charged with several duties." The stern face gives the impression of a grudging smile. "First I bear two gifts."
"There's an old saying about Greeks bearing gifts."
"I have heard it many times." The Achaian fumbles in his cuirass until he draws forth a roll of human parchment that has flattened in the metal breastplate. He offers the scroll and the blank man hesitates and then takes the parchment and unrolls it and reads the illdrawn letters inked in red dried russet.
* * * *
Here's the short version. Your name is Niko. You're a real true Rock Star. The reason you are is because you signed a deal with us a long time ago. We'll skip the fact that you've got the chops to have made it to the top without us. Your problem, not ours.
You were also quite the alcoholic junkie asshole back in the day, but your name in red on the dotted line took care of that double plus good. Well, the alcoholic junkie part, anyway.
So you straightened up and flew right and got rich and famous and everything else you bargained for, but then you went and fell in love with some babe. Maybe you forgot the "implicit chattels" part of your contract, or maybe you just didn't care. I don't know. Anyway, she got sick and died. You're not a very roll-with-the-punches kind of guy, and you got pissed off and came down here to bring her back. Which should explain a lot about your current condition, physically and otherwise.
A while back you fell into the river Lethe and forgot who you are, because the water washes away a lot more than dirt. At least I think you fell. You might have jumped. Either way, you keep on going back to the river, and every time you do it's like hitting reset. Blank slate time.
You've been doing this a lot longer than you'd want to know.
Armor Boy's been sent there to throw you in the river with a chain around your ass to keep you from ever remembering any of this and resuming your little quest. I didn't send him but I was able to use him to give you this message and your Dobro. I'm hoping it'll help bring you back to yourself, but for all I know you've forgotten which end of the thing to hold.
Don't let Armor Boy's sparkling conversation fool you. He brought the gifts because I made him, but he's mainly there to kick your ass. Try not to make it easy for him.
Sports book now puts it at 9,000 to 1 against you--IF you hand this guy his hat.
Got a lot riding on you, cowboy. Don't let me down.
No signature. Niko sounds his heart for some response but he finds none. This note concerns some stranger.
He looks up from the sweatstained parchment. The armored man stands patient and unblinking, a living statue on the sand. "Do you know what this says?"
"I do not care what it says."
"I see. Well, thanks for delivering it." Niko smiles. "Have a nice day."
A glint of amusement in the bright blue eyes. "My duty is not discharged."
"Ah. Well. Worth a try."
The Achaian merely stands there. His gaze includes Niko only in the sense that Niko stands within his field of vision. As if the Achaian can see a horizon on the endless plain on which they stand.
Niko gathers his belongings and nods at the Achaian. "See you," he says, and makes to step past him but the bronzetipped spear comes to the fore.
"Can't we talk about this?"
"I am not sent for conversation."
"But we are countrymen."
"There are no countries here."
"Well we are ancients of a sort."
"There are no ancients here."
Was there a falter in that gaze? "I have no quarrel with you. According to this I'm after those who sent you."
"I am those who sent me." The Achaian takes his gaze from that haunted private distance and looks directly at Niko for the first time. His expression yields nothing. "This time with you is a respite from afflictions I endure without surcease. Nothing you can say or do will sway me from that reprieve."
Niko's slow nod belies the sudden prick of anticipation and fear within his chest. "All right. One thing more?"
The armored Achaian merely stares. Niko indicates the carrying case on the sand. "This note says that belongs to me."
"It is your second gift."
The Achaian sets the black case on the sand without taking his gaze from Niko and steps back three paces and transfers the spear to his left hand.
Niko eyes the spear as he steps toward the case and kneels before it on the warm sand. He flips a latch and the Achaian tenses. "I don't think it's a weapon," Niko says. And undoes the latches and opens the case and regards the gleaming metal thing encushioned there.
"Not a weapon?"
Niko shrugs. "No more than any musical instrument. I think it is a kind of lyre. See the strings?"
"If the strategy is to bore an opponent to death perhaps. Music is a wasteful vice."
"I'm going to take it out."
The Achaian shrugs but does not relax his grip upon his spear. Still Niko feels that the Achaian will not murder him but means to engage him according to some code. He pulls the heavy unfamiliar instrument from the case and holds it awkwardly as he squats there on the sand. Polished metal glinting dull red light. He frowns at the long neck with its inset metal bars. Raps the metal body with his knuckles and it gives a dull and hollow gong. Well, if it is a kind of lyre then it stands to reason the strings are meant to be plucked.
He cradles the foreign metal thing and just before his callused fingers touch the strings he has a sense of the instrument fitting itself against him with the nonchalance of a longtime lover settling with her partner into bed. Cold metal body. But the startlement of that sensation dissolves in the wash of memories that inundate him when his hands touch the strings and deliver him to himself and the dread knowledge of who he is and what has led him into Hell.