Fiction: Death By Any Other Name

By John McMahon and Zoe Zhao

He spread the suit out over the bed and patted the sleeves smooth and called to Z over his shoulder, “Hey baby, come check this out”. Z responded that she was working but promised to see the suit when she was done.
“Christ, you must be the only broad in this city who doesn’t want to talk about clothes.”
“ Talk about clothes? Maybe pick up the clothes you already have, that's a talk we might have, about clothes.” 
“This isn’t clothes. This is vintage Armani. It’s for work.”
Z’s English was strong but when it came to certain sounds her native Mandarin was stronger so when she said ‘no shit sherlock’ the phrase was reduced to a series of jaw wobbling shushing sounds. 
“This is what Sean Connery wore in Dr. No, this is that cool Sinatra style. Maybe I’ll open with Witchcraft tonight, you know how I do it? With that tin pan alley schmooze? Channel old blue eyes, maybe do it in a Scots accent as a tribute to Connery, would ya think about that?”  
He played piano at a joint called Americano OK which packed in Shanghai's hipster youth while still attracting the middle-aged perverts with a VIP room that featured mirrored floors and caucasian cocktail waitresses who served drinks bare-assed under their ruffled mini skirts.
They weren’t hookers per se but they weren't strangers to the concept either. Most of them did these gigs as a last-chance money grab, pushing middle age. They were mutton sold as lamb, but to the drunk businessmen, it didn’t matter. It wasgielow pussy and like much of Chinese cuisine, the oddity created the appetite. 
It was a lounge act, drunken piano crooner, Tom Waits doing Dino on the Friars dais. It was his dream job, tinkling the ivories with a sweating glass of scotch sat next to a goblet that customers stuffed tips into even if he had to move 10,000 miles from home to do it. He was there five nights a week playing into the wee hours.  
The mohair suit hung on him as if it had been fit by the best tailor in the city but he paid less than $100 US and it was in perfect condition. The cut was impeccable, the stitching still tight. He continued to pat it until he felt more than heard the faint crackle of paper in the breast pocket. 
“Son of a bitch” he yelled out
“Now what's the matter?”
“There’s something in the pocket, a piece of paper that wasn't there when I tried it on before.”
“You bought at Lucky’s?”
“Yes, I bought at Lucky’s”
“How many times I gotta …”
But he cut her off, mumbling insults as he dialed the number for Mr. Lucky’s Odds and Ends pacing off the seconds, waiting for the connection to be made.
“ Lucky” he answered
“Son of a bitch, what's in that suit pocket?”
“Oh… Doc. It’s probably a curse, you know everything in my shop curse right?”
“ What kind of curse?”
“Well as I understand these things, that suit probably gonna make you famous right? We talked about that. But, in that pocket is your death certificate - you understand?”
“No I don’t understand you ghoul, what the hell does that mean?” 
“It’s a death certificate, got your real name on it, if anybody ever say your name while you wear that suit, you dead sucker.”
“God damned Daoist curses... but I get famous right?”
“Very famous, but only as long as certificate stay in pocket.”
“Can't destroy it of course or something horrible happens right? Like all my skin peels off or I have to shit fire for the rest of my life?” 
“Probably you get poor, your girl leave, you get caught with some dope in your pocket and go to secret foreign friend prison for all the rest of your life. Or, you know something like this; Chinese curse needs some irony.”
“Yeah, well may you live in interesting times you cock sucker!” Doc sneered before cutting off the connection.  
Z heard him come into the room behind her and without looking up from her tablet asked,” is it cursed?”
“Of course it’s cursed, damn it.”
“Everything in that shop is, so of course it is.” She gave him a withering glance that softened until she continued, “it is a nice fit.” 
He looked down and found he was wearing the suit but had no memory of putting it on. “Listen it’s not that bad” and he explained the workings of the curse to her, trying to convince himself.
“Almost no one knows my real name here, Just you and no one does at the club, I’m Doc so you see?”
He was stood in front of her desk making his case, looking for a loophole in the curse as he always did. With little more than a glance, she knocked twice against his wooden ankle with the tip of her pen.
“That was different’, it was a trick, anyway I'm getting used to them, I walk alright and those shoes are magic.”
“Can you run down to shop and get me a cool drink?”
“Sure, take their side” he yelled, turning to admire the suit in the bedroom's full-length mirror.
“Ok hunny but remember you only ever understand less than half what happens here. Hon Chinese mapped out the human nervous system when your long-nosed ancestors were still grooming each other in caves, so don’t do nothing stupid.” 
“Right sweet cheeks, I know round eye no good, but may I point out that some of your people are still grooming each other in caves? So maybe the culture took a little backslide somewheres along the way.” 
Z spoke mandarin while Doc glared at her through lowered lids until she finished and he turned on his wooden feet and wobbled off to Lucky’s shop for further clarification.
His first set at Americano OK wearing the suit was an epiphany. It wasn’t that he was a vessel or medium for the music to come through. He played it, he played the way he always did but better. It wasn’t a drastic improvement, it was just hitting the right nuances every time. Every note mined, every iteration found. His energy flowed out to the crowd and they hummed with it. When he’d finished the second set he’d had more than an entire bottle of scotch and almost three packs of smokes. The customers kept sending him drinks so that the waiter had them lined up around the overflowing tip jar.   
By the end of the first week with the suit, the bar was packing in those in the know. Doc was stopped by a man in flash clothes, arms draped over bimbos to either side sitting at one of the VIP tables on the way out with the flick of his business card. “Hey man, that was top notch, why don’t you give me a call, and see if we can get you out of this dump and onto TV.” The man said all at once, smoothly, with no room to interrupt his words, like he was used to saying them.
Back in the apartment, Doc took the suit off carefully, He was exhausted and soaked with sweat but the suit was dry, its pressed creases still sharp. He hung it in the closet with care, snapped on his galoshes, and took a long hot shower before joining Z in bed where she was deep in her own dream world. 
In the morning when Doc swung out of bed he took a header straight to the floor, he’d forgotten to put in the extra effort to manipulate his wooden feet again. They were lazy to react as if they had been starved of blood and were now asleep except they had no feeling.
The result of another of Mr. Lucky’s dirty curses. He had sold Doc the beautiful black patent leather shoes promising that when he wore them on stage they would let him move like Fred Astaire or Michael Jackson even. That they would be so light and reactive that without them his feet would feel as if they were made of wood. Yes, he took them and yes he wore them that very night and tore the place up from the floor up with his fancy footwork. He barely played the piano all night but sang and danced his way through hours of old crooner tunes. His feet never tired. 
As soon as he took the shoes off after closing he found his feet turned to wood from the ankle. Identical to his flesh feet down to the ingrown toenails and fungus cracks but hard as sugar maple. A blonde wood with ox-blood-colored veins running through it. They had no feeling at all. He tried putting the shoes back on and walking away but they would only get so far from the stage and then wouldn’t move another inch. Doc slipped on a pair of sandals and shuffled back to their apartment to complain to Z.
Now paired with the suit, his performance had wowed the crowd. So what if he would drop dead if someone said his name while he wore the suit. He was 10,000 miles from his home and the only name anyone but Z knew him by was Doc Harmony, the piano man. He found the card the sleeze had slipped him and flipped it between his fingers. 
Back in bed he rolled over and clasped a still sleeping Z by her thin shoulders and whispered into her ear “We made it baby, I'm going to be on TV.” But she only farted through her thin underpants in response. 
In two years Doc went from band leader of Big Bang, Shanghai’s most popular late-night show to host of the whole damned extravaganza. Z and Doc used to joke about how bad Big Bang was unless you could understand it, then it was unbearable. It was an all-purpose entertainment smorgasbord and like most smorgasbords, it contained low-grade ingredients and was poorly constructed but somehow delicious to the masses. 
It was loud and low-brow covering everything from celebrity gossip to sketches with little people and scantily clad women wearing as little as the censors would allow. Doc took on the role of a lovable goofball, a funny foreign friend who could sing and dance and the audience loved to see a round eye sing.
Doc’s rocket trip to national success was facilitated in no small part By Tony Mr. Chang, the man in the flash suit who had flipped him his card. A dope-smoking playboy from a rich family. Tony kept a stable of talent for the access it granted him to nightclubs and parties.  
As his fame increased Doc was offered Vegas but he played Macau, they wanted him in New York but he did Singapore instead. He felt if he could keep half a planet from anyone who might remember his name he was safe. But he never felt safe. He had ten identical suits made and wore them in a roulette. Giving full on perfomarnces every night wasnt in his best interest anyway. Always keep them wanting more. 
He had been a minnow in the mighty big pond of Shanghai nightlife and now he was a whale shark. Doors were open to him everywhere, parties were non stop and the paparazzi followed him relentlessly. Z had never thought she and Doc were forever so as he disappeared into his fame she held no resentment, he was a selfish and narcissistic boy by nature. As a believer in rebirth and overlapping life cycles she was sure the two of them were linked and would be together again in some way.  
As he became more and more recognizable he became more and more paranoid. He surrounded himself with handlers and security. Z left the penthouse apartment they had been living in thanks to the TV studio and returned to her old place. Doc thought it was temporary, and barely noticed, until it was too late.
The sands of time continued to fall and the wheels of fate to turn but so did the squirrely factors of chaos and coincidence continue their juggernaut dance through time and space and so it came to an afternoon when Doc was crossing from the studio to his waiting car followed respectively by his entourage after a performance for big government brass, a performance that demanded the extra edge the suit gave his performance when a face singled out of the mass of shuffling humanity about him.
The features leapt from his memory as the man raised his hand smiling widely and zap, in the time it took to blink Doc found himself on the desolate bank of a reeking river. 
He recognized that fat ang mung face as one of his childhood buddies, one of his crew, his closest friends that he had walked away from 20 years ago pledging to never see again in quest of fame. He recognised him as if no time had passed, and the prick had yelled out his name.
On the banks of the river he felt the pocket of the suit and sure enough, the death certificate was gone. Christ's sake Doc swore. 
Across a long white bridge, there was an island from which came a terrible racket. Screaming and groaning and crying and weeping. At the far side of the bridge, a giant blue demon wielding a battle ax waved him across. 
“What the fuck is this now”?
Doc looked around but there was nowhere else to go so he crossed the stone bridge from which he could see pools of blood and gore swirling in the dark waters of the river. The acrid smell of smoke and rotting flesh got stronger as the choir of pain and suffering became increasingly louder.  
The demon waved him on with an almost friendly gesture and called him by name, “C’mon over Martin” as Doc made his way across the bridge.”Let’s see what’s up with you.” 
“I'm dead?”
“That you are, let's see how things went.”
The demon unrolled a tattered scroll made of the skin from a dog’s carcass. “Here it is,” the demon shook his head reading, and then disappeared the scroll. “Seems like you got mixed up with some black magic my friend.” 
“Yeah, but you know I was tricked, you should go after Mr. Lucky he sold me the damned suit.” 
“That's not the way this works, you're going to be doing some penance before you cycle back.” 
“Is this hell?”
“Naruka, but yes. To you, it will be hell.”
“And English is the language of hell?” 
“There is no language in hell, only the screams of the punished. I am Phya Yom the guardian and judge. I have been here for all time and will be for all time to come. You will serve first as a pee pred, a hungry ghost. You will roam the spirit plane as a giant with a pinhole mouth and an insatiable hunger for human feces which will instantly turn to red hot coals in your belly. You shall serve this for the time it takes a boulder to be reduced to sand by the tides of the ocean and then you may cross the bridge.” 
Doc began to protest but again he was transformed in a blink into a pred. He found himself in the urine-tinted landscape of the spirit plane that exists like a dirty film over the human world. Human things were like toys in the landscape he inhabitited. His limbs were bone thin and he could only move in a shuffling gait. The faint smell of raw sewage in the air created rippling hunger pains through his guts as he ever followed the stench in his loping uncoordinated gait. 
During his time of wandering the hunger for feces never ceased and the excruciating pain of the burning in his belly always followed. He saw other pred but they ignored one another, competing as they were for the same thing. Occasionally a child or some other human with the right kind of eyes would see him and he would have to flee to dark places in fear they kept a sacred relic that produced a head-piercing vibration to the pred.
Days and nights remained the same but time lost all meaning. Generations of humans came and went. Empires rose to flourish and faltered and fell again. He only ever thought about one thing, where he might get to suck some shit through his pinhole until the burning in his throat and gut became too much and he would run off and hide in the darkness again.  
Then the night came, like any other night in his endless wandering and yearning that he came back to Phya Yum’s bridge, and the blue giant waved him across once more. 
“Hey Martin, here we are again, your days as a wandering Pred are over”. Doc returned to human form just as he was the day he died and the endless desire for human feces vanished as it had begun eons earlier.
“You are now permitted to enter Naruka for your punishment.” 
“My punishment? What have I been doing for the past”… but Doc was at a loss for words to even ask about time passing.
“That was your time for reflection, now you will serve punishment for each of your sins before you can be reborn.”
And with that, the giant lifted his great ax and the entrance to Naruka opened with the parting of a dark fog. Doc had his first look at the body-strewn, gore-covered island where all those who had sinned were flayed, dismembered, torn apart by giant birds, hammered through, and bisected by demons with cross saws.
The naked and damned were impaled on trees that grew only spikes and others were boiling in vats. Those who were not actively being tortured wandered or crawled about screaming and pulling their viscera behind them like mad meat vendors selling their own guts. Brains were exposed and men and women careened blindly with their eyes popped from their heads.
The rounds of torture became almost like a job, standing in line waiting to be vivisected or gouged to pieces. Left crawling and fumbling in pure bodily suffering until the human form healed, and then rotate.
One of the tortures was to exist as a mutant. There were chicken people, goat people, fish people. He was a donkey person and in these forms they were flogged and poked by demons with spears as they walked in an endless circle around a great stone monolith. As they tred though they gossiped among themselves about what sorts of crimes they had committed and how many and in what manner of torture they suffered in a language made up of screams and sobs unique to Naruka. 
Eons of pain and suffering among the damned passed and Doc was none the wiser for it. Still one day he saw Phya Yom on his bridge and went to him. Just as casually as ever Phya Yom greeted him by name. “Big day Martin. Your name is off the list, you're going to be rebirthed.” 
Doc just barely heard this before he found himself suddenly trapped in a kind of meat tunnel struggling for breath. I’m being born, he realized. I’m being born with total consciousness. He was pushed into the cold bright room through the almost bone-crushing opening that was his mother's vagina and snatched up by the feet, slapped across the backside bathed, swaddled, and handed over to his mother who nuzzled him with her sweat covered, exhausted looking face, a face immediately familiar as Z and by her side beaming at his newly born baby boy his father, Mr. Lucky.
Doc yelled out at the universe when his consciousness cleared and he became a blank slate, an infant again screaming its first protest against his mother's breast. 

John McMahon is a painter and writer who has spent the last twenty years traveling and working. His work can be seen on platforms and publications all across the English speaking world.