The doorknob was surprisingly cold for how hot it was that day. A blister of an afternoon, triple digits. Darrell half-expected the cheap gold paint to slink off in his palm as he turned the handle, leaving behind the bare alloy core like a freshly molted reptile. He half-expected it to burn. To sting. To hurt. Because he knew that’s what was waiting for him inside the apartment. Room 404. The same number as the Internet code for Page Not Found. A digital signpost. You’re lost. Turn back. Nothing to see here. In the Japanese language, four has the same pronunciation as death. No way it was a coincidence, of this he was sure.
Darrell stared at the room placard just below the peephole until his sight went out of focus. He made the numbers 404 transform, they shuffled and stretched, elastic, until they spelled out their true meaning as Darrell saw them. A warning: Death O’Death. That would be a funny name for a pirate, Darrell mused as he cautiously inched the door ajar. His mind was a Jolly Roger. He imagined someone pulling a burlap sack over his head from behind. Pictured his body, still dressed in a suit and tie, decomposing in a warship brig. Bobbing languidly over sea currents in a light beam cast by the full moon.
A stench emanated from the apartment that made the entire hallway smell like a punch in the face. Sour blood, aggravated cartilage. Humid, internal. Would it be death plus death, two times death, or death squared? Darrell thought about math, and counted the number of times he took the fall for something just to maintain the status quo.
Darrell paused in the entryway. He felt timid now that this place wasn’t just an abstraction and needed to check things out, mentally prepare. The room was largely empty save for a brass floor lamp and an Art Deco dining set splayed out in the middle of the main living area, where someone left a cheap lighter and wireless drill on the table in the same spot you might place a bowl of fruit. Under one of the chairs, a trail of white towels laid out neatly end over end led Darrell’s eyes down the hall, around a corner, where a faint sound could be heard from their perceived destination. Like someone tapping a nail into some lumber with a dessert spoon, followed by a drowsy, closed mouth groan. Possibly gagged. Darrell feared for each of his body parts individually, but especially his fingers on his left hand since he had just begun to learn the guitar.
For a brief moment, he considered turning around, bolting out of there. And then some. He could abandon his shady office job, where it was his duty to falsify how much certain packages weighed for reasons unknown to him. He could sell everything he owned, change his name, hideaway in some backwoods town. The Pacific Northwest, probably, where he could learn to fish, make friends with the regulars at the local bowling alley. Then one day, on his way to the bathroom following an unsuccessful back left corner, seven pin spare, he would help a little girl win a stuffed animal in the crane game, a turquoise elephant she would name Frida. Afterwards, the little girl’s mother, around the same age as Darrell, drop-dead gorgeous, miraculously single, would offer to buy him a ‘thank you’ beer. And by their third or fourth date, Darrell might finally be able to forget about the disturbing letter he received anonymously that morning, in the real world, lightyears away from the fairy tale in his head, which told him to come to this specific place at this specific time for a very important matter. Alone. No questions. No police.
Darrell assumed it had something to do with the company he worked for. Things happened behind the scenes that didn’t make anyone jump for joy, necessarily, but business was good and the checks cleared. He ran through the possibilities, trying to convince himself this was all an elaborate test put on by Management and not the work of some sadistic blackmailer really into sick, self-righteous allegory. Champing at the bit to punish Darrell for his sins, lest he change his ways, do the right thing, whatever that might be. Darrell had to acknowledge the bright side, however teeny, of not having any significant others or anyone to target threats at, just this once.
Whatever the letter’s true intention, Darrell thought there was a good chance, a 60/40, he figured, any sacrifice he made would be rewarded. And for that, he felt empowered to make a choice.
“Death O’Death,” Darrell laughed to himself in quiet, choppy bursts as he stepped inside. His look was irreducible.