“You built an underworld portal?”
“Me? No,” said Duke. “Came with the place.”
“Who’d want that?”
Duke gave me a look. His eyes didn’t have the old sparkle.
Then again he looked better than the last time I saw him. A year ago Doris and I sat with Duke on a log beside the Mississippi. His time was running out. On Halloween he’d stabbed himself to death on our doorstep.* The way he explained it, he had seventy-two hours to wander the Earth, to figure out the meaning of his life. My guess was he didn’t get the job done before he ran down the clock. Then those kids appeared out of nowhere in their black hoodies. They hauled Duke away and that was that. Until now.
“Who wants a portal?” Duke said. “Jesus, Fatman. You think Mother Teresa built these joints? We’re talking about the robber barons. Pillagers. Plunderers.”
“I’m not saying they had scruples. But a bunch of zombies in the underworld, what help you get from them? No offense.”
“You set your mind to it, you can get a lot done down there. Depending on who wants what. We’re not zombies. Please.”
“How about we sit down? You keep the wine cellar?”
“The bodily needs, I’m over that. Eating. Breathing. Shitting. Et cetera. Frees up mental space. Plus the supply line questions. You’d go nuts trying to score a bag of Doritos in the underworld. Forget about arugula.”
“Doris still talks about the terrible chow.”
“She’s lucky she got out. Food, that was the least of her problems.”
Duke negotiated that deal. After Doris was kidnapped by the undead and held for ransom, Duke went up against the underworld’s deep bench of legal talent to spring her. He lied and double crossed them. That seemed like the best option at the time. **
“The wine cellar, it’s like you left it. Maybe light a couple bottles…”
He motioned for me to follow. We passed through the boiler room. A maze of pipes hooked up to an antique furnace. It roared, hissed, threw off waves of heat. Duke pulled open a thick door. Inside, a dirt floor. Shelves stacked with dusty bottles. A rough table surrounded by four chairs. Upon it a lantern, a corkscrew and four glasses, these covered with a white napkin and set upside down on a tray.
Duke grabbed a bottle and opened it.
“I thought you were done with that.”
“I am. You’re not.”
I shrugged. He filled a glass and pushed it toward me.
“Fatman,” Duke said. “You know why I’m here?”
“I got no idea.”
“I feel your pain.”
“Who says I’m hurting?”
“Pointless to prevaricate.”
“Tell me then. Why are you here?”
“To set things right, my friend. To set things right.”
Tomorrow: About those pearly gates.
* See Duke Is Dead for the complete story.
** Ditto, Fatman Descends.