“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Think about it,” the Devil replied. “They already have money, all of Hayato Yamaguchi’s worth, as well as other benefactors, I’m sure.”
“They have weapons. How they haven’t turned you into Swiss cheese yet is beyond me. Especially given your track record.”
“So just what is your ‘Pentagram Gang’ after?” He paused for a moment, giving me a chance to fill in the blank before continuing. “Lives. The lives of desperate people. Those who feel they have nothing to lose. The only ones who would be willing to risk the eternity of their afterlife for some petty reward.”
“Okay Mr. Know-it-all, what have you turned up then?”
The Devil sighed, “Nothing you don’t already know.” He rested his forehead in the palm of his hand. “A circumscribed pentagram was a symbol of the Old Guy. Not one of the victims you’ve encountered have appeared here for Judgment. There’s only one conclusion I can draw from that.”
“Somehow, he’s granted those individuals the ability to move between the realms I created after his banishment. He’s made a pact with them. Those who die after accepting this power are forced to join him in the Pit. At least, that’s my theory,” he said, scratching his head.
“I don’t know. I suspect that there’s another party involved. Whoever figured out how to make contact with him. This gang has to have a leader after all.”
“About that. I think I might have a--”
The Devil held up a single finger, cutting me off for a moment of silence. “Something’s come up,” he said, as if someone had just whispered in his ear. “There’s been some kind of cult activity recently in the small town of Milton.”
“I want you to check it out,” he spoke over me, “It could be a lead. Get going, we’ll talk more later.”
I rolled my eyes, gave a nod of acknowledgment, and headed for the empty archway.
Milton. If desperation was the trait they were looking for, this town looked like the place to find it. There were a lot of things you could say that Milton needed, but a new coat of paint was definitely a top priority.
Dark grimy streaks ran down the chipped paint on the siding of the town’s buildings. Those made of brick hadn’t fared much better. The bricks were all beaten up and the mortar was completely black in spots. An abundance of broken windows were left hanging from their frames.
Though many buildings lined ‘Main Street’, few held any businesses or residents. Many were vacant with boarded or barred windows. If you didn’t know better, you might mistake ‘For Lease’ as the town’s name.
The few restaurants that remained here displayed soft drink signs over a decade old. They gave me a strange sense of nostalgia. Their faded colors and dirty plastic didn’t quite match my childhood memories.
According to my notebook, Milton was an old hunting and fishing village. That was how its residents had chosen to remember it anyway. I could tell each one of them had contributed a little bit of their former lives to it's atmosphere. The town had failed to keep up with the times though.
The 14-Point Buck. The Trout Terrace. The Rabbit’s Foot. These were just a few examples of the ‘fine’ establishments that had survived the town’s economical drought. Out of those three, I decided the Buck looked the most appealing and headed for the door.
Inside I found a dimly lit diner full of scraggly patrons. The darkest corners of the place could have passed for a jail cell given a few alterations. The customers ate meals that ranged from mildly unappetizing to down right disgusting. Most, if not all of these dishes were served next to a tall pint of beer, probably out of necessity.
“You gonna order something?” said a large hairy main behind the counter.
“Yeah, I’ll have a...” I trialed off, looking from plate to plate, trying to find a dish less appalling then the next. “Actually, I’m not that hungry.”
“Order something or leave,” the man clarified, leaning closer to me with a scowl.
“I was hoping I could ask your guests a few questions abou--”
Almost in unison, half of the restaurant stood up. Between their hunting camouflage, dirty overalls, and discernible affinity for wearing boots, they were a rather intimidating looking bunch.
“Okay... enjoy your meal,” I said, as I backed toward the door.
Once outside, I heard a car door shut in the distance. Across the street, there was an empty parking lot next to an abandoned shop. As I moved further down my side of the road, a lone car came into view, parked far to the back and snug to the building.
A suspicious figure approached from the parking lot. As this person walked, they kept a constant and paranoid watch on their surroundings. To avoid standing out, I pressed myself against the dirty brick wall behind me. I focused, trying to stealth my presence while also fumbling through my jacket. If they looked in my direction, maybe I’d seem like another Milton resident stopping for a smoke.
As the suspicious person crossed the road, I could start to make out their features. The individual was a thin, scrawny man, in his mid-thirties. He didn’t appear to be in the greatest of health with dark bags under his eyes, a bony face, and greasy hair. He looked like what he really needed was a good night’s sleep. The man’s clothing was dark, yet otherwise normal attire, a tee shirt and black jeans.
When he got to my side of the street, he did one last paranoid scan of the area, then ducked between two buildings. I followed behind, slowly, giving him a decent head start.
The ground behind the building dropped off down a hill, but a staircase lead around to a balcony and a basement floor entrance. The door quietly latched shut behind my suspect. I waited quietly for a few minutes, but no one else came or went through this entrance.
There were no windows on this side of the building to peek inside, so I instead crept up and put my ear to the door.
I couldn’t hear much, but I managed to catch a stray word here or there. There were many voices talking, though most were too muted to make out. Whatever was going on behind this door, it sounded bad. One moment, I could hear chanting and cheering as a group, the next I’d hear loud arguing.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the Devil was right. If the pentagram gang was looking for a way to boost their numbers, a gathering in a place like this would be a great opportunity. Desperate people from a desperate place. The perfect source of volunteers.
I thought for a moment about Eddie. He was probably just a fringe case in all this. They couldn’t just threaten all of their members into joining, but what if they came willingly? They could even pose a serious threat to the well-being of the afterlife. And what exactly was all this manpower even for?
As I wandered, lost in my own thoughts, a glimmer of light caught my eye. My feet began to flicker from a bright glow shining out underneath the door. Rays of orange light flashed through slim cracks around the door frame.
I’d waited long enough, maybe too long. I turned the doorknob, but a deadbolt prevented the door from opening. I drew my gun and fired six shots into the door, surrounding it’s lock. Without hesitating, I kicked the busted door open.
Flames rose high from a circle drawn on the floor. Nine people stood in a ring inside the flames, their faces burning with pain. At the center of it all chanted an extravagant leader. Drawn inside the circle was the familiar pentagram and both glowed a deep bloody red.
At the sight of my entrance, the leader quickly finished his chant. He took off, dashing through a door at the back of the room. He passed through the flames without being burned, despite the anguished cries of those still inside it.
As the flames subsided, an enraged group of men and women turned toward me. Six members of the group broke away and rushed me. Panicked, I leapt backwards into the doorway and began to shoot my aggressors. Three of them fell before the fourth, a muscular thug with a scarred face, grabbed me by the arm.
He pulled me back inside and slammed me into the wall in one motion. Holding me pinned, he bashed the weapon from my hand. I might have been in trouble had he not gotten a shock when the bodies beneath him caught fire. He jumped back, out of the flames as they burned his ankles.
“Aarrrg,” I grunted as I fell to the ground. On impact I rolled away to escape the flames, the heat chasing after me. I jumped to my feet and raised my arms to fight when, to my surprise, everyone stood in place.
The remaining recruits, five men and one woman, stared in horror at the flames consuming my unfortunate victims. The fires died down, never leaving anything behind.
“That’s it? That easy and we’re gone?” said the man I’d followed here. The others remained speechless.
“Didn’t your runaway friend tell you that this was the consequence?” I questioned them.
“Yeah, but from one bullet?”
“He said we’d be stronger than this. He said we’d be able to change things!”
“He lied,” I answered, “And he left you behind. Is that the type of cause you want to join?”
“It didn’t used to be this way,” the scrawny man said, “Toni wouldn’t have let this happen!”
“Toni?” I asked.
“We used to play cards with him and bitch about this life.”
“That’s what this place was supposed to be. That’s how things were before he left.”
“I miss old Giuliani,” said the man who had pinned me.
“Yeah, did you know him?”
“I guess you could say that.”
“Old Toni said he was coming back. Said there was something he had to start, but he’d be back before long.”
“We don’t belong here,” one of the quiet few at the back of the room spoke up. “We don’t fit in here, not in this town or this realm. Toni said he’d get us out of here.”
It was true. This group didn’t look or act like the others I’d seen in town. They weren’t sporty or outdoorsman-like. They were a group of social outcasts, and probably always had been.
I reached down, slowly, picking up my gun by it’s barrel and keeping it within view. The disheartened group didn’t react, so I holstered my weapon.
“You don’t belong here? Then leave. That’s the power you traded for, use it. Stay out of trouble and lay low. You’ve got one slip up left for eternity. Unless you want to end up like them.” I motioned toward the char marks on the floor.
“And if they come looking for us?” Another quiet individual spoke as I reached the door.
“Run. Because if you join them, and we meet again, I won’t let you go a second time.”
With those words, I left. I didn’t look back. I didn’t want to see if they left or what direction they went in. I didn’t want to see them again. I didn’t want to be responsible for any more pointless death, because I knew there was going to be more. After all, this was only the beginning. Toni had said so.
Clenching my fists, I focused on home. My boss and I had a talk to finish.
As the Throne Realm faded in, I marched toward him, feeling like I had solved everything.
“It was Toni!” I yelled.
“What?” asked the man in the top hat.
“The cult. They knew him. They were his friends. He’s gotta be the one pulling the strings!”
“I sent Toni Giuliani to the Pit for his crimes. You know that.” The Devil paused to think for a bit, but I kept talking at him.
“Well, how about the initials M.G.?” I asked, trying to catch my breath. “Do those mean anything to you? Was ‘Toni’ short for something? Did he ever used an alias starting with ‘M’?”
“M.G.?” the Devil asked. “Oh that motherf--”
The Devil rose from his chair. In the several years I’d served him, I’d never heard him use such strong language, and he’d almost never lost his temper. He began to walk toward me, an incredibly unusual sight.
“Follow me,” he commanded as he walked through my archway. He faded away before my eyes. I looked over at the confused queue line casting me glances of ‘what now?’. I shook my head, sighed, and focused on sensing the Devil’s trail. It lead somewhere I wasn’t familiar with, in a realm I’d hardly ever visited. As the world faded out, for a short moment I could have sworn I saw the Devil still sitting in his chair.
I found myself standing on a long, winding desert road. The Devil walked a ways ahead of me, following the pavement. He had about a fifty foot lead on me. I started walking quickly to try and close the gap between us.
The intense heat didn’t seem to bother the Devil, despite his all-black attire. Though he walked calmly, he moved at a surprisingly quick pace. The back of his head remained an unusual sight for me. An occasional hot breeze billowed his curly hair and jacket behind him, but his top hat always remained firmly in place.
On either side of this barren highway was a vast expanse of sand. The land itself would be flat enough to see to the horizon if not for some plateaus in the distance. In the time that we followed this road, not a single car came by. The only landmark along the road was an isolated house a mile or so ahead of us.
“Where the Hell are we going?” I asked, still a good twenty-five feet behind the Devil.
“We’re going to have a little chat with Marco,” he answered, still flustered from before.
“Toni’s brother,” he sighed, “and likely also your ‘M.G.’”
“Toni had a brother? Why didn’t you tell me that?”
“Would you have cared before now?”
“I--” I paused, shaking my head, “I guess not.”
“As you’ve probably figured, that house in the distance is where we’ll find him. This place is his punishment, or rather, his attempt at redemption.”
“During his life, Marco was an infamously cutthroat crime lord. In his day, he was as bad as they came,” the Devil stood pondering his statement, “Or maybe he’s just caused me so much grief that I’ve forgotten any others.”
“He’s that bad?” I asked, trying to take in as much information from this impromptu history lesson as possible. It wasn’t often that the Devil opened up about the happenings of the past.
“He spent the first twenty-two years after his death being a royal pain in my ass. The last time I judged him, he should have gone to the Pit.”
“Why didn’t he?”
“I spared him. He’d gotten slow, sloppy. He’d grown tired of his own games. Marco asked for one last chance. He wanted to retire and put it all behind him.”
“And you let him off that easily?”
“Hey, I’m not as cold as you make me out to be!”
“But you really thought someone like that would change?”
“Of course not. But being faced with his own mortality, I think anyone would make the same cowardly choice. He’s spent the last eighteen years here without incident.”
“And where does Toni fit into this?”
“The pair of them used to be a duo. Whenever one was involved, sure enough the other one would be. But that changed around the same time.”
“Toni settled into Milton and laid low until recently.” I concluded.
“That’s right. Toni stopped being a problem. The brothers split and Marco continued his trouble-making.”
“But it’s been so many years. Could they have been in contact with each other?”
“No, that would be impossible. If they did conspire on recent events... they did so a long time ago.”
“So do you think Marco’s dangerous?” I asked.
“Maybe, I don’t know for sure.”
“So that’s why we’re walking...” I trailed off.
“Better than being ambushed, right?” the Devil asked with a smirk.
We approached Marco’s lone desert house. Bright and pristine white paint to help repel the extreme heat. The house was a little small, though no smaller than my first house. There was a porch in front with a few dusty chairs.
“Well, here we are.” The Devil said, trying to sound enthusiastic.
We crept up the porch and stopped in front of the door. In a sharp contrast to the rest of the house, the door was painted jet black. While everything around us seemed to glow in the sun, this door absorbed any light that dared to come near it.
“Prepare yourself,” the Devil warned. I took a deep breath, clenched my fists, and braced myself for what could be inside. The Devil reached for the door, clenched his own fist and... casually knocked on it.
“Come in,” a raspy voice called from inside.
The Devil reached for the knob and slowly opened the door. I don’t know what I expected to see inside. A suited man, armed to the teeth, ready to blow our brains out? A burly man wielding a battleaxe? Maybe a psychopath strapped with a vest of dynamite. What I wasn’t expecting was a harmless old man.
Marco looked to be about a hundred years old. His skin was wrinkled and discolored in spots. He sported a passing resemblance to Toni, though if you weren’t looking for it you probably wouldn’t notice. Though he lounged on his couch, he was dressed rather formally for the occasion, with a button up shirt and khaki pants. He wore dress shoes, and had his feet up on a coffee table.
“Welcome to my home,” he greeted, extending his arms. “I don’t get visitors here very often.”
“Wasn’t that the point?” asked the Devil, unimpressed.
“Yeah, so? In eighteen years, you couldn’t bring yourself to visit even once?” Removing his feet from the table, Marco leaned forward and motioned toward a pair of wooden chairs on the far wall. “Come on, make yourselves at home already.”
The Devil entered the room first. He dragged the two chairs to the center of the room, facing them toward Marco. The Devil sat down in the chair he’d placed farthest from the door, all the while the impassive look remained stuck on his face.
“I know it’s not quite as comfortable as the chair you’re used to, but you could at least try not to look like you’re in pain,” Marco taunted the Devil. Turning to me, he said, “And you must be Axel, the Devil’s right-hand. I’ve heard stories of you. Word travels faster in this afterlife than you’d think.”
I tried to look friendly as I took the other chair. Before I could sit, Marco cut me off with an exaggerated handshake. “So what’s it like working for this guy?” he asked me nonchalantly. “I bet he’s a hardass!”
I sat down silently, mouth half-open, not sure how to respond or if I even should. Marco meanwhile, returned to his couch.
“Has he ever told you that you aren’t the first person to serve him?” Marco asked with a smirk, “Oh yeah, there’s been tons of them. You’ve had more predecessors than I could count. I was responsible for breaking quite a few of them in,” his smile grew. “Well, perhaps it was more breaking them outright, but the point remains.”
“Ahem,” the Devil cleared his throat, “We’re here on business.”
“Of course,” Marco nodded, “My brother’s not causing trouble again is he?”
“Your brother’s gone,” I replied coldly.
“Really? That’s unfortunate. I’d hoped he’d given up his bothersome ways.” At another annoyed look from the Devil, Marco put away his friendly attitude and spoke seriously, “Alright, then why have you suddenly decided to pay me a visit?”
“You haven’t aged well,” answered the Devil in the same joking tone that Marco had been using.
“That’s what happens when you’re left alone with nothing to do,” replied Marco. “You get tired and old.”
“Drop the act!” I yelled. “Awhile back I found a document with your initials on it. You’re the kingpin of the pentagram gang, aren’t you?
“That’s a little ludicrous, isn’t it? I’m sure there’s a lot of individuals in this afterlife that share my humble initials.” Marco looked from me to the Devil, hoping for a reaction to my accusation. “Come on Devil, the two of us go way back. You don’t believe this nonsense do you?”
“Sorry, I wouldn’t call a couple of decades ‘way back’, especially the way I remember them happening. So, what exactly have you been up to all this time?”
After pacing around the room, Marco had returned to his seat. “A little of this, a little of that. Retired life isn’t all that bad, you should try it sometime.”
“I’ll pass.” The Devil’s tolerance of Marco’s antics was running out. “People are disappearing from my afterlife,” he said with a stern gaze, “You can imagine how that makes me feel.”
“Yes, you used to have quite the temper,” taunted Marco. He turned toward me and added, “Trust me, you do not want to piss this guy off. There might as well be a volcano hiding under that top hat.”
“Last chance,” the Devil declared. “Tell me what you know about the disappearances! What have you done?!”
“Now, that sounds a lot like a threat,” Marco said unphased by the Devil’s anger. His lighthearted demeanor had faded, but Marco showed no restraint, meeting the Devil’s gaze head on. “Tell me, just what exactly are you planning to do to me? Send me to the Pit like you should have?”
The Devil’s patience had worn thin. He rose to his feet. From the inside of his coat, the Devil pulled out a remarkably familiar gun. Identical to mine in almost every way, it sported a black finish unlike my polished silver. Etched into the side of this weapon was the same lettering mine had, however, his glowed a deep bloody red.
“Enough of your bullshit!” the Devil’s voice boomed. The windows had darkened and all the light seemed to be sucked out of the room. The Devil’s voice had an odd echo to it. I was startled when I realized what I was hearing.
Before me stood no less than three of the Devil. One stood to Marco’s right, one to his left, and one in front of him. All three had their weapon pointed at his head.
Marco began to laugh hysterically. “Not in a mood for games, huh?” he asked. “I guess I can’t blame you, an eternity on that throne would get to me too.”
“Marco Giuliani, you stand accused of bringing chaos to my afterlife! However you plead is irrelevant. I sentence you to an eternity of suffering in the Pit!”
“I wouldn’t do that!” a voice called out. Next to the Devil on the right was the mysterious hooded man I’d unfortunately come to know so well. To the Devil’s head, he held a gun of his own. “You forgot to tell them your plan boss.”
“Right! Of course!” Marco exclaimed. “Old age isn’t kind. It doesn’t really suit me, does it?” As soon as he asked his question, his appearance began to change. No longer was he a helpless old man. He continued to get younger until his appearance was the spitting image of Toni. Marco was nearly identical to his brother.
“Oh well, it’s of little consequence now,” Marco continued. “Suffice it to say, I’ve put into place some countermeasures should any harm come to me.
I stood helpless, not wanting to act for fear of making the situation worse. What would happen if the Devil were killed here and now? I didn’t want to risk finding out.
“Let’s just say we predicted your arrival rather easily,” the hooded figure spoke. “I think you’d better lower your weapon before someone gets hurt.”
The Devil complied. I went from helpless to paralyzed. He lowered his weapon and returned it to the inside of his leather coat. Finally, he raised his hands in the air to surrender.
“Good,” Marco gloated, “Glad to see the all mighty Devil be so submissive. It’s been fun catching up, really, but now I’m afraid I’ve got to take my leave.” Marco walked around the Devil on the left and headed for the door. Keeping aim at the Devil, the hooded figure followed after Marco.
“See you soon Axel,” he said. The way he said it made me assume that, underneath his hood, a wink must have accompanied the statement. The pair left the building, slamming the door behind them.
“Dammit!” the Devil cried. He dropped to his knees and slammed his fists on the floor. In that moment, I realized that there was now, once again, only one of the Devil in the room.
“Now what?” I sighed.
“We head home. Come up with a plan,” the Devil said. Though his words were clear, there was none of his usual confidence behind them. “I hate being right,” he commented, rising from the floor.
“That old man act would have fooled anyone. There’s no use being upset over it.” I knew my words were wasted breath, but it was all I could think to say.
“Not about that,” the Devil replied. “Marco has made a pact with the Old Guy. I’m afraid there might be no stopping him now.” The Devil sounded defeated. I had never heard him so distraught.
“How? He’s been stuck here all this time, just like you said.”
“Because I was blind and stupid!” he yelled. All the fires of Hell roared in his voice. “I let this happen!”
“Hey, calm down. Start from the beginning, tell me what’s going on here.” I asked.
“Marco and Toni are twins! I sent Toni to the Pit. How could I have been so stupid?!”
“I don’t get it,” I shrugged.
“Twins share a soul. I’ve told you that before. By sending Toni to the Pit, I was indirectly sending half of Marco as well. Toni made a deal with the Old Guy, and Marco’s reaping all the benefits!”
“What?” The weight of the situation almost knocked me from my feet. Twins share a soul. That was a lesson I shouldn’t have forgotten. When a twin dies during their life, their ‘half’ of the soul is always sent back to the world of the living. Sometimes a surviving twin will still feel the presence of their counterpart, like they’re being watched over. That isn’t far from the truth.
Marco had used this to his advantage. He’d tricked his own brother into condemning himself just to reap the rewards. Now the Devil’s description of “as bad as they come” seemed fitting of the fake old man.
“I shouldn’t have come here,” the Devil stated. “I’ve left myself vulnerable. They could have ended me right then.”
“But they didn’t,” I added, “so there must be something they want from you.”
“Yeah,” he trailed off. Though the Devil tried to look tough, I could see how broken he really was. He stood there in shock. For the first time in an eternity, he didn’t feel he had control of the situation.
“I’ll go after them!” I exclaimed, trying to take charge. “You should head back to the Throne Realm. I’ll bring an end to this.”
Upon seeing my determination, the Devil regained some of his composure. “Alright! Now that’s what I pay you for!”
“You don’t pay me,” I said unimpressed.
“Details, details,” he closed his eyes to focus for a minute. “They went to City-Life 452, just north of Jameson. If you hurry, you should be able to catch up to them.”
“Near the Yamato Corporation, makes sense.” I shut my own eyes and focused on the street corner I’d infiltrated the building from. It was the closest I’d been to the north end of the city, so it would have to do. I’d have to be quick!
“Good Luck,” the Devil said with a nod.
The ever-present sound of sirens greeted me as I arrived in Jameson. I took a deep breath as I opened my eyes. The rancid smell of trash filled the air, causing me to gag. Once I recovered, I peered out of the alley, toward the Yamato building.
A new window had been installed in the days since I’d broken it, and a pair of armed guards now stood watch outside the building. For fear of being recognized, I turned and headed to the opposite end of the alley. I had to get to the north end of town, and quickly, or I might lose my lead.
There were three cars parked on the roadside. My quickest option would probably be to ‘borrow’ one of them. I headed toward the nicest of the three, a slightly sporty looking sedan. Before I could force a way in, I thought better of my decision. A blinking red light on the dashboard told me that I should probably try one of the junkers first.
The run-down old coupe across the street likely wouldn’t have an alarm. Looking through its windows, all the doors appeared locked. I tried them one by one and found that the driver’s side back door was busted and didn’t lock at all.
I climbed over the seat and started messing with the ignition. Hopefully it would be in the same condition as the rest of the car. I tried jiggling the ignition around, but it wouldn’t turn.
Remembering an old trick, I reached into my pocket and pulled a paperclip off of my notebook. I inserted the clip into the ignition, wiggled it around, and gave it a turn. It took a few tries, but finally...
Click, click, vroom.
The ignition unlocked and the engine turned over. These old junk heaps usually had worn out or broken ignition pins. You’d be surprised at the number of old cars you can start with just a screwdriver or a paperclip.
I threw the car into gear and sped away. The broken old engine chugged as it came up to speed. If its owner were home, I’m sure they must have recognized the sound by the time I turned the corner.
An on-ramp to the highway was only a mile away. I wondered if this clunker could even make it to highway speeds. I gave the engine a little more gas. It coughed and sputtered reluctantly, but it did speed up.
Heading northbound, I watched for any road signs that could give me a clue where to go. As the buildings flew by my search felt futile. They could have gone anywhere. I carefully pulled out my notebook, hoping the Devil had given me more to go on.
‘NORTH’ it read, in all capitals. ‘Couldn’t you be helpful for once,’ I thought to myself. Just then, sirens wailed and blue lights flashed behind me. I guess the car’s owner did recognize the sound of it leaving.
I didn’t have time to stop though. I was prepared to give this cop the best chase this junker could manage. I sped up to seventy-five, eighty, and struggled to hit ninety. The engine roared its objection.
I wasn’t sure how long I could keep this speed. I checked my mirror to see if I was keeping any distance from the patrol car behind me. I had to double-take at what I saw. Next to the cop, a shiny black sedan was keeping pace. No, wait, they were gaining on me.
Leaving the cop in the dust, the black car quickly pulled up next to me. Sitting in the driver’s seat was none other than Marco’s hooded bodyguard. There was no one else in the car. The mysterious hooded man gave me a very casual wave, then motioned forward. He pulled ahead, going well over one-hundred miles per hour.
As he drove forward, the now setting sun reflected off his car, almost blinding me. He put a few car-lengths of distance between us before reaching out the window and waving again.
The harsh glare from his car soon faded though, as the entire vehicle began to disappear. While speeding down the highway, the entire car vanished to another realm! As I sat with my mouth hanging open, I forgot for a moment that I was still being chased by the police.
If my enemy could manage a stunt like that, then surely so could I! With the gas pedal to the floor, and the police cruiser gaining on me, I tried to focus on following Marco’s lackey.
While I’d normally close my eyes to focus, that didn’t seem like a good idea while going ninety on the highway. I narrowed my mind, clearing out any thoughts that didn’t pertain to leaving this realm. Now to extend that focus to bringing the car as well...
The usual, calm fade in of the new realm was replaced with a sharp ‘whoosh’. I held on to only a detached steering wheel as I rocketed through the air. Fortunately, the transition seemed to have slowed me down to a less deadly thirty-or-so miles per hour. I crashed onto the ground and rolled forward onto a large paved area.
I must have passed out mid-roll because I awoke several minutes later, face-up on the tar and surrounded by a group of unfriendly looking men. My head pounded as I looked around, trying to get my barrings.
We seemed to be in the middle of a manufacturing yard. Several large steel buildings were connected by this paved lot. Off to one side were flatbed trailers for shipping and a crane for loading them.
Turning my head back to center, I saw the group of thugs part to make room for their hooded leader.
“Where’d you learn to drive?” he taunted.
I tried to reply, but hadn’t yet caught my breath. He reached out his hand to help me up. Not left with much option, I accepted his help. I’d be better able to defend myself from a standing position anyway.
“There you go, all better now,” he said, still speaking down to me. I stood in a daze, looking around at his thugs. They didn’t look particularly smart, and there were only about ten of them, if I counted right. I could take them.
I reached down to draw my weapon and my heart sank. Try as I might, I was unable to grasp the empty air where my gun should have been holstered.
“Looking for this?” my hooded adversary asked, holding out my missing weapon flat in his hand. He altered his grip, raising the gun to point it at me. As he did this, his circle of subordinates did the same.
“I don’t get it,” I stated, still dazed. “Why lead me all the way out here just to kill me? You could have taken us out back at Marco’s.”
“No, unfortunately, Marco wants you alive,” he stated, sounding annoyed. “Can’t argue with the big man. However,” he motioned side to side with my weapon and the circle of his underlings parted, “that doesn’t mean we can’t have some fun in the meantime.”
“And just what is that supposed to mean?”
“I’ll give you a ten second running start. When I reach ten, my friends here are going to open fire. They’re going to cause you as much pain as they can without killing you. Lucky for you, the boss doesn’t trust them with live rounds, but you’ll find that their non-lethals still pack quite the punch. Also-”
The pavement cracked next to my left foot.
“You’ll find I have pretty good aim too.”
I could feel the twisted smile underneath his hood.
“You can’t be serious,” I replied.
“Two...” he continued. “Cover is that way you know.” With his new weapon, he motioned at the opening of the circle behind me. “Three...”
I looked around. There was nothing here that could help me. No immediate cover, nothing that could be used as a weapon, and no way to fend off this many assailants without getting my ass kicked.
Not having any other option, I had to play along. Behind me was the front gate of the property, and the city streets beyond it. The sun had set and darkness was settling in. I took a deep breath and started running.
“Ha, five.” He was certainly amusing himself at this point. Or, I suppose that I was amusing him.
I was pretty fast when I had to be, clearing the gate before he reached ‘six’. I turned the first corner I came to and began to weave between the buildings.
What was the point of this game he was playing. I could escape now. I should escape now. A few moments to focus is all it would take. But if I left now, I wouldn’t be able to track him down again. I’d lose my only lead. With Marco’s identity revealed, his occupation of the Afterlife was only going to speed up. I couldn’t leave, and my opponent knew this. I was being played, and in more ways than I thought.
He’d likely reached his ten count by now. I could keep running, but I wouldn’t get any answers that way. As I passed a dumpster I noticed something sticking out, propping up the lid. I pulled out what appeared to be a large rod of scrap metal. It was about three feet long with square edges and a sharp bend sheared near the top. A discarded desk or table leg. Not quite the crowbar you’d find in a horror movie, but it should pack a punch anyway.
I took cover behind the dumpster, lying in wait.
Footsteps approached. I couldn’t see anything from my hiding place. I got nervous as the steps grew ever closer. As if on cue, the street lights in the neighborhood lit up. A shadow of my stalker was cast down the alley. At first, I couldn’t see anything distinguishing. Soon, he turned his body back, gazing over his shoulder and out toward the street. This quarter turn was enough to cast a shadow of his weapon onto the pavement.
I leapt from my cover and brought the blunt edge of my bat against the side of his head. Swift and hard. The man hit the ground. I waited for a moment, watching for any sign of combustion. Good, he was still alive. For the moment anyway.
I could hear more footsteps in the distance. Although I’d usually choose to avoid such physical violence, the extra adrenaline rush it provided was appreciated. I grabbed the non-lethal gun from my enemy and continued forward to find a new vantage point. Carrying this gun in my right hand and the make-shift bat in my left, I felt like some kind of escaped murderer, looking for his next victim.
I left the alley and crossed the street, staying out in the open for as little time possible. Dodging between buildings, I heard footsteps again. I peeked around the corner, but it was only a civilian. I waited a moment for them to pass by. I heard a rustling ahead. Expecting another civilian, I leaned into view.
One of the shots bounced off the brick of a building behind me with a dull thud. The other bullet struck my left shoulder. The jolt of pain was enough to cause me to drop my bat. I fired back at my attacker.
Two shots to the chest and one to his forehead was enough to knock him briefly to the ground. He looked up at me with a glare as I delivered a kick to his face. His head hit the ground, knocking him out.
I reached toward his weapon, intent on reloading mine, when I heard others converging on my location. I’d given away my position by using the stolen weapon against him. Two men appeared from the road ahead of me.
“Well what do we have here?” one said to the other.
“Looks like you thought we’d let you get away with picking the others off one by one.”
My right arm and left leg screamed in pain. I dropped my other weapon and did my best to stay on my feet. I turned and tried and run from the two of them. I managed to walk three steps before my escape was cut off by their hooded leader.
The men fired again and several rounds struck my back. I winced in pain and fell to my knees. Even as I looked up at my rival, I could not make out his face under the shadows.
“Good, you caught him. Guess you two win the grand prize,” he congratulated them, though there was an ever-present tone of sarcasm when he spoke.
He pointed a familiar silver handgun at me as I rose back to my feet.
“So your boss wants me alive?” I asked. “Then take me to him.”
“Not today,” he replied with a laugh.
The sting of being hit with live ammunition always takes a few seconds to kick in. I stared down toward my chest looking for blood. I didn’t see any blood. I didn’t see any holes in my jacket. Behind me, two bodies collapsed to the ground.
I stared at my nameless rival, angry and perplexed. A red-orange glow filled my peripheral vision.
“So what do you want from me?” I asked, gritting my teeth.
“I’ve told you before, you’re going to help me. Now, are ready to put away your attitude and listen?”
“It’s not safe to talk here. More of my grunts will be here any minute. They’ll have no doubt called in reinforcements too. There’s an old building across town to the north, an empty warehouse,” he pointed in its direction. “We’ll talk there.”
“And why should I believe that it’s not another ambush? After all your games, why should I trust you now?”
He placed my gun on the ground and slid it over toward me. I retrieved it then lifted it to point at him.
“Not good enough,” I answered.
“Fine,” he sighed, “How about this?” Slowly, he pulled back his hood revealing his face. The first thing to catch my eye was long blonde hair, tucked down underneath his overcoat coat, followed by a pair of strikingly familiar eyes. Rounding off his appearance was a slender, feminine face.
“...Julia?” I stood speechless.
“Sorry, expecting someone else?” she asked, in her normal voice.
“You’re working with them?”
“I told you, we can’t talk here. Meet me at that warehouse.”
“And what are you going to do?” I asked. She removed her coat and tossed it aside.
“I’m going to blow off some steam,” she replied. As she talked, she had vanished in front of me. I followed the sound of her voice out toward the road. Though she had abandoned her hooded coat, she remained just as swift as her alter-ego. “Actually,” she moved again, too quick to follow, and returned to the same spot, “you mind if I borrow this?”
In her hand, she was again holding my weapon.
“I should get myself one of these,” she joked. “Now get moving!” With a wave, she vanished again. As I began to walk away I heard the sound of gunshots in the distance and the pained screams of one of her subordinates.
Shaking my head at the matter, I pressed forward with more questions than ever. My sore limbs ached as I tried to work toward a running pace.
‘She’s working with them.’ The thought wouldn’t leave my mind. ‘I knew I couldn’t trust her! She’s been playing me all this time...’
‘No,’ the argument raged inside me. I tried to clear my thoughts and focus on running. Though I tried, I couldn’t escape thinking about her.
There had to be more to this. I had to trust her. She wouldn’t betray me.
‘But the last time...’ Did I still blame her? It wasn’t her fault. Was the blame justified after all this time? As much as I tried to forget her involvement, on some level, I knew I still blamed Julia for the death of my family.
Home was an amazing sight after a long day at work. I pulled into the driveway. The sound of the car engine sputtered off as I removed the key. I quickly grabbed my lunchbox from the passenger seat and headed toward the front door.
Carefully, I hopped from one stepping stone to the next. It had rained the majority of the day and the grass was soaked. At the front door, I inserted my key into the deadbolt. The bolt refused to turn, it was already unlocked. I slowly turned the handle and the same was true.
Instinctually, I turned toward the driveway, expecting my wife’s car to somehow be there. It wasn’t. She wouldn’t be home for another few hours. Probably for the best, I wouldn’t have to worry about her if something here was wrong.
‘Maybe she forgot to lock the door,’ I tried to reassure myself. I knew better though. Slowly, I opened the door and crept inside. I set my lunchbox on the floor and tiptoed forward.
The door hadn’t been forced at all. There were no scratches on the lock and no sign of tampering. I was either being incredibly paranoid about it, or someone was incredibly careful when they picked the lock.
From the entrance, the living room was just ahead. It was the first door on the left. As I approached the doorway, I peered around the corner, hoping to get the upper hand on any intruder. Although I could only see a quarter of the room from where I stood, a reflection on the darkened TV screen provided a peek at the other half.
With a deep breath I turned the corner to check the final quarter of the room. ‘Empty,’ I thought with a sharp exhale. As I let my breath go however, I heard the floor creak elsewhere in the house.
It sounded like it had come from the kitchen. After the one creak however, there weren’t any more stray sounds.
I stepped back into the hallway. The kitchen was at the end of the hall, a straight shot from the front door.
Nothing in the house was out of place so far. I looked around in the hallway, hoping for something I could use as a weapon. We didn’t have a gun in our house. I didn’t want one. I didn’t want the extra reminder of that life.
My best chance for a weapon would probably be a knife from the kitchen. Of course, that was providing I could get to the knives before the intruder got to me. And providing they didn’t have a gun. Okay, it wasn’t a good plan.
I crouched down and peeked into the kitchen from behind a cabinet. I couldn’t see much, but luck was on my side. The setting sun coming through the window had cast the shadow of the intruder across the kitchen floor. They were sitting in a chair at the table. If I were lucky, maybe they’d have their back turned and I could grab a knife.
Why were they at the table though?
Had I left something of interest there. Documents? Valuables? Nothing that I could remember. It didn’t matter what they were after though. I wasn’t going to let my new life be disturbed so easily.
With another deep breath, I sprung from my hiding spot, desperately sprinting across the room. I had no time to examine the intruder, my sights were laser-focused on the counter-top knife block.
Drawing the chef’s knife, the largest of the set, I pushed away from the counter and toward the intruder. I closed in for a quick strike.
Contrary to my hope, the intruder was facing me, not the table. As I glared at the intruder, their eyes met my gaze, unwavering. The seconds seemed to pass in slow motion as I took in the stranger’s appearance. They were unarmed, but even as my knife came just inches from their face, they didn’t flinch.
“Nice to see you too,” she spoke, raising a hand to wave. My knife crashed to the floor with a dull ‘clang’.
Her clothes were less conspicuous than they used to be. Her hair had grown out considerably and its bright colors had faded. There was no mistaking those eyes though. Julia’s eyes could pierce through anything.
Though the changes were subtle, this Julia was different. The wild, once-untameable girl had been subdued. Gone was the punk attitude and rebelliousness I’d become so familiar with. The Julia I’d left behind two years ago... had grown up.
“What are you doing here?” I asked.
“Don’t worry, I wasn’t followed!” she reassured me.
“But how did you find this place?”
“Oh please, you’re easy to find.” I stared bitterly at her. “Okay okay, easy for me to find. That better?” she added.
“What about Riccardo? Is the boss still out looking for me?”
“Actually... I am. He’s had me trying to hunt you down ever since you left. Don’t worry, I’ve been misleading him the entire time. He’s getting impatient though. I don’t know how much longer he’s going to believe me for.”
“He won’t be happy if he finds out... when he finds out.”
“I know,” she answered. “I won’t sell you out though. I promise.” The words came with an uncharacteristic sincerity to them. It felt like Julia had planned this conversation for some time.
“So why did you come here?” I asked. The entire situation had my hair standing on end. Seeing Julia brought up unwanted memories. Memories that I wanted to put behind myself. Memories I hoped would never catch up with me.
Julia stood up. She looked toward the floor, took a deep breath, then looked me straight in the eyes.
“I wanted you to know you were right,” she said. Her voice cracked slightly as she said the words. Her eyes were starting to swell up, but she kept herself from crying. “You were right, and I should have left with you. I should have run far away from that bastard and his gang!”
I’d never truly heard her badmouth the boss before. Julia’s repentance made me wish things had turned out different, if only for a moment.
“I’m sorry,” I uttered, not knowing what to tell her.
“Don’t be. It’s my fault.”
“You could still run away you know.”
“No, I couldn’t. My phony reconnaissance is the only thing that’s kept him away from you this long. If I left, who’d throw him off your trail the next time he finds a lead?”
“You don’t have to...”
“Don’t tell me what I have to do!” she said, clenching her fists. “I’ve been keeping tabs on you for the last year. It’s a nice life you’ve got going for you here. I don’t want to see that go to ruin too.”
“Don’t try to change my mind. It’s been made up for a while now. I only came here today to tell you to be on your guard. I don’t know if Riccardo will find you or not, but I’m going to try my hardest to make sure he doesn’t.”
Julia got up from her chair and rushed past me while looking at the floor. She headed toward the front door.
“Julia! Wait!” I yelled, grabbing her arm.
“Don’t do this Axel. Don’t make this harder for me.” She turned to face me. “I came here to say goodbye. You had your closure, now it’s my turn to leave.”
Without warning, Julia reached her hand around my neck and pulled me in for a kiss. It was short and bittersweet, but left me standing dumbfounded.
“Don’t think too much about it. Besides, your wife will be home soon,” she said halfheartedly with a wink. “Goodbye Axel. And good luck.”
As she walked through the hallway, she called back to me one last time.
“And you were right, it was fun. While it lasted.”
The next thing I knew, I heard the front door shutting behind her. Though it had been so long since I had left her behind, the truth of the matter weighed heavily on my heart. I’d probably never see Julia again.
— * —
I trusted her, at first, but I soon grew skeptical of whether she had succeeded in leading the boss astray. When I heard she died, I’d hoped she’d taken my secrets with her. As more time passed by, I believed it to be true. Then he came for me.
He took everything. I guess I needed someone to blame for the fact that I couldn’t protect them.
The warehouse to the north stood out in the neighborhood like a sore thumb. The old building seemed to predate the nearby homes by at least a decade. Its thin steel walls had rusted over the years, leaving the exterior brown and patchy.
The complex was fenced off from the neighborhood, though it apparently hadn’t stopped many vandals from tagging the walls. In a few spots, the fence had been cut and was stitched back together with thick wire.
With no one around to take notice, it was simple enough to scale the eight-foot fence. I leapt down to the ground and headed around to the front of the structure.
A large rolling door marked the entrance to the warehouse. Two padlocked latches held the door closed. I reached for my weapon and again grasped only empty air.
‘Guess I’ll find another way,’ I thought to myself with a sigh.
The building was two stories tall, with small windows cut every few feet along the second story. I traced them around the building looking for anything I could climb on.
Behind the structure, I found a dumpster next to a large shipping trailer. The trailer was around nine feet tall and an easy climb up from the dumpster lid. The second-story window was within reach.
I didn’t have anything to break the window with. Withdrawing my right hand into my leather jacket, I pulled the open cuff tightly into my fist. I placed my protected hand against one of the window’s eight panes of glass and, with a sharp motion, shattered it.
After clearing away any broken shards, I reached my hand through and unlocked the window. The window rotated along it’s horizontal axis and I carefully slipped underneath it.
Despite its many windows, the warehouse was pretty dark inside. Along the second story perimeter was a ten-foot-wide balcony overlooking the rest of the warehouse. In the far corner of this balcony sat an old desk and chair.
As I walked toward the desk, I found I had a pretty clear view of the empty floor below. There didn’t seem to be anyone else in here. I pulled out the chair to rest my worn-out legs.
It was about ten minutes before she showed up. In the far corner, her dark, cloaked figure faded into being.
“Hello,” she called in her deep, disguised voice. “Anyone in here?”
“Up here,” I waved cautiously. I poised myself, ready to strike at the first sign of an ambush.
“Well get your ass down here then!” Julia yelled after removing her hood.
I grabbed the railing and swung myself over the side, dropping to the floor below. The impact of the concrete sent shots of pain along my sore limbs.
“Let’s get this over with,” I said to her. “What do you want from me, and why should I trust you?”
At the mention of trust, she tossed my gun through the air towards me. I caught it, considered aiming it at her for a moment, then placed it in its empty holster.
“I’m on your side,” she said without warning. “That’s what you want to hear isn’t it?.” Julia had a point, but I wasn’t satisfied yet.
“Why are you working for them? What’s up with the disguise?” I tried to come up with more questions, but the best I could add was, “Why have you been toying with me?”
“You’re fun to mess with, why else?” Julia taunted. “I couldn’t risk you recognizing me and blowing my cover. You have a habit of... how can I put it nicely... being dense?”
I cast Julia an unamused look.
She sighed and continued, “I’ve been investigating this just like you have. Call it a morbid curiosity, but I couldn’t look the other way on this one.”
“So you joined them?”
“I’ve infiltrated their organization. I’ve gotten in tight with Marco. It was the only way to learn his plan.”
“That’s not your job!” I blurted out.
“And what exactly is my job? Sit pretty at home while the Afterlife quite literally goes to hell? No thanks, I’ll take my chances.”
I stood gritting my teeth. I wanted to say something, but I could understand her perspective.
“Besides, what exactly has your investigation turned up? I know everything Marco has planned. Believe me, if you keep wandering around, aimlessly looking for leads, people are going to get hurt.”
“Well, maybe if I hadn’t wasted all my time trailing an undercover freelancer who-- Wait, you know what Marco is planning?”
“I know everything, and that’s why I need your help.”
“Remember that recruitment you busted in Milton? The ritual with the large pentagram.”
“I remember,” I said shaking my head. “All those souls, one slip-up and they’ll burn.”
“Now imagine inflicting that fate on entire cities of unsuspecting people.”
“Marco’s found a way to make it happen. He’s constructing special pentagrams in ten major cites. If he gives the signal, they’ll burn. Then all his men have to do is go in and clean up the mess. Extinguish everyone caught in the ritual--”
“And send the souls to the Pit!” I concluded. “That’s the deal he made with the Old Guy?”
“Precisely. He’s untouchable. If his men ever lose contact with him for over six hours, they’ve been instructed to carry out the order. But what’s worse is that’s only his fail-safe plan.”
“Then what’s his real goal?”
“To rule all of the Afterlife, throne and all.”
“He’s going to overthrow the Devil?” I asked.
“That’s his plan.”
“How’s he going to infiltrate the throne realm?”
“I don’t know yet. It’s the only thing I haven’t been able to get out of him. I think he’s still trying to figure that part out.”
“Could that be why he wanted you to capture me alive?”
“It could have something to do with it, yes. That’s why I want you to stay away from Marco! Let me handle him from here onward. He trusts me.”
“And you want me to take out the pentagrams?” As much as I hated the idea of taking orders from Julia, something had to be done about them.
“Yeah. I’ve already sabotaged four of them. I need you to tackle the other six while I plot Marco’s assassination.”
“And if anything goes wrong, they’ll only be a six-hour buffer before ‘Hell’ has a new meaning.”
“You’ll have to be stealthful,” Julia insisted, “If Marco suspects anything’s wrong, that’s it. It’s over.”
“Alright. I’ll handle it.”
“Give me your notebook.” Julia held out her hand. She scribbled a note down on a blank page. “This is a list of the remaining six locations. Address, city, realm. They shouldn’t be hard for you to find.”
“And how do I contact you when it’s done?”
“You don’t,” she said in a cold tone. “We’ll meet here again in seven days. That even gives you one day to screw up--”
Sounds of voices came from outside the front door of the warehouse.
“Shit, they must have followed me here!” Julia exclaimed.
The door rolled open slightly. A voice from outside said, “You tracked them here, you go in first and check it out.”
The man slowly crept into the warehouse. Julia sighed and whispered to me “There’s always one that gets away, isn’t there?”
“Huh?” I asked, but she didn’t reply.
Julia’s subordinate held his non-lethal gun out in front of him. He drew closer and aimed at Julia once he got a look at her face.
“Wait, aren’t you the one that--”
“Yup,” Julia answered.
With one fluid motion, she had drawn my gun from its holster and fired at him. He hit the ground and began to burn.
She then turned and fired several rounds up into the window I had entered through. Julia handed my weapon back to me and pulled her hood back over her head.
“Quick, hide.” She whispered. Julia pointed to a small metal staircase leading to the floor above. I broke into a sprint while she moved to intercept those at the door. I laid low to the floor and listened as they entered the warehouse.
“What’s going on in here?” One of the goons asked. “Oh, boss, what happened to--”
“The target killed him and escaped through that window,” Julia said in her deeper voice. There was a short pause. “What are you waiting for? After him!”
Her followers promptly marched out the door and onto the trail she had set for them. Julia sighed again, “God they’re dumb.” As she headed toward the door, Julia turned to say, “Seven days Axel. Don’t be late.”