I gathered myself and went to knock on the door. Before I could reach it, the doorknob turned and a familiar face greeted me.
“Well, look what the Devil dragged in,” the woman taunted, standing in the doorway.
She was about my height, but irritatingly an inch or two taller. Long straight blonde hair stretched halfway down the length of her back. Physically, she looked like she couldn’t be older than twenty-five. In reality though she was actually thirty, two years older than me.
“Shut up Julia, you knew I was coming,” I snapped at her. “Let’s just get on with this.”
“Fine, fine. Come in then,” Julia said, holding the door and motioning inside.
The inside of her house always surprised me with its tidiness. When I knew her, she wasn’t remotely someone you could call ‘tidy’. Julia used to be a bit wild and unpredictable. That was a long time ago though.
“Take a seat,” she said, having directed me into the kitchen. “Can I get you anything?” she asked, irritated, as she opened the fridge.
“No, I’m fine. Tell me what information you have before I decide to leave without it.” I answered. My patience wore thinner with every passing second. Julia rolled her eyes and poured me a glass of water. She sat down across the table from me after getting an iced tea for herself.
“Axel, I know you don’t want to be here, but it’s not going to kill you to have some patience,” she said condescending me. “If you want to hear what I have to say, you’re damn well gonna be polite.”
“Alright!” I exclaimed, and took a deep breath. I took a moment to try to push all the reasons I couldn’t stand Julia out of my mind. As calmly as I could, I asked, “So, what is it you wanted to tell me?” Impressed, or at least satisfied with my new tone, Julia began her story.
“There’s been some strange occurrences in town lately. I thought you might be able to make some sense out of it.”
“Okay, what’s been happening?” I asked.
“I guess it all began a few weeks ago. I started noticing some rough looking individuals around town. When they first arrived, they spent their nights terrorizing the local bars. Nothing big, just some roughhousing and harassment, but more than we usually see around here. Soon, the police got involved and these newcomers stopped their trouble-making. I’ve still seen them around, but they’ve been keeping out of trouble.”
“Do you remember anything specific about them? Anything identifiable?” I questioned.
“Nothing specific. They just all feel out of place. If I didn’t know better, I’d say that they don’t feel like they belong in this realm. They all look a bit… brutish?” she said, fumbling for a better description. “They’re altogether rough looking. Some of them had scars, others had obscene or crude tattoos. Not to sound discriminating, but they just don’t seem like the usual candidates for this particular afterlife.”
“Sounds like a group of individuals I ran into a little bit ago. Is there anything more you can tell me about them?”
“Oh, I’ve just gotten started,” she replied. “I’ve been working with the police department to try and keep tabs on their whereabouts. They refuse to take any direct action against them, but they agree that something seems unusual. First of all, the police keep losing track of them. As far as I’ve been told, these individuals will disappear down an ally never to be seen again. Either the police are flat out incompetent at their jobs or these individuals have been vanishing like you do.”
She paused for a moment to cast me a questioning glance. When I refused to give her any information, she continued, “Honestly I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a bit of both. But anyway, here’s where it gets interesting. There’s a gunsmith downtown. In his life, he was renowned for his craftsmanship. Around here, he scrapes by on what work he can get. There’s not much interest in weaponry here, and the police only need his expertise every so often. I suppose sometimes there can be a downside to being an upstanding citizen in life.”
“So you think he’s turned to supporting criminal activity to keep his business going?”
“Don’t you try and get ahead of me!” Julia exclaimed. “So, up until a few weeks ago, rumor was that he planned to close up his shop and find a new line of work. In the time since then though, he’s spent more time in his shop than ever. The strange thing is that his shop’s been locked up tight. Besides him, the only people seen going in or out of it have been those shady individuals I mentioned.”
“So whoever they are, he’s making them weapons,” I commented. “Lovely.”
“This definitely doesn’t sound like a group of random thugs.” Lost in thought, she sighed, “Organized crime. All this shady stuff,” Julia paused and gave me a serious look, “Honestly, it’s starting to remind me of old times.”
At those words I slammed my hands down on the table. “We’re done here!” I yelled in frustration.
“Axel,” she called after me.
“I don’t want to hear it!” I dismissed her. “Thanks for the info, I’m leaving.” Without looking back, I stormed out the front door.
I began to wander the streets, trying hard to not to think of the past. Unable to stop them, thoughts of ‘old times’, and another ‘boss’ I once worked for, soon overtook me.
Julia died when she was only twenty-four, but I knew her long before then.
— * —
“Come on Axel, it’s over here!” an enthusiastic voice called out. An energetic and fearless girl led me along a winding path of city streets. The neighborhoods became more dilapidated and run-down with every turn we took.
“Where are you taking me?” I questioned, trying to keep up.
“I told you already! I know somewhere we can earn some money.” she answered.
“Yeah, but where?”
“We’re almost there,” she replied, dismissing my question.
Though she kept racing ahead of me, I maintained a focus on her short, bright, pink and blue hair. Eventually, she stopped in front of a decrepit looking butcher’s shop and waited for me to catch up.
“Just follow my lead,” she said, trying to reassure me.
We entered the shop, which was somehow still open and in business despite its outside appearance. As we approached the counter my companion looked around, checking to see that there were no other customers inside.
“We’ve come to see the big man,” she said. “Tell him Jewel is here.” One of the two butchers behind the counter motioned toward a door into the back room.
“This way,” he said in a deep voice, leading us into the next room. We came to a walk-in cooler. The large man opened the cooler door and waited for us to enter. Without hesitation, Julia walked right in.
I stood, staring into the cooler. The perimeter of the room was adorned with large meat carcasses hanging on hooks. Toward the back there were pallets containing boxed items. I couldn’t see any other exits though.
After a low growl from the butcher and an urgent look from Julia, I reluctantly entered the room. The butcher took one last look around and nodded, presumably to his coworker. He then turned and followed us, shutting the door behind him.
The butcher cast a murderous look toward me as I stood petrified by the blood on his white coat and concerned of its potential origin.
“Axel,” Julia harped under her breath, tilting her head and signaling me to move. I looked down and noticed a small recess in the floor by my feet. Upon noticing it, I quickly moved aside and joined Julia.
The butcher bent down and pulled on the small handle embedded in the floor. With what looked like little effort, he lifted open a rather large insulated trap door revealing a staircase. As soon as it was open, Julia darted forward once more. I followed behind, forced forward by the broad-shouldered butcher bringing up the rear.
Julia led the way, navigating through several basement hallways. We found ourselves in a darkened room with a desk. Across the desk from us sat another broad-shouldered man, this one wearing a stylish, and expensive-looking suit. As soon as we were in the room our butcher escort turned and left, closing the door behind him.
“Why if it isn’t my little Jewel,” the man at the desk said in a heavy accent.
“Hello boss,” Julia replied to him with a bow.
“What is it you need from me today?” he asked, casting a curious glance in my direction.
“This is Axel,” Julia replied, motioning toward me. “He’d like to work for you.”
“I-I-I-uh-” I stammered, shocked at this announcement. Sometimes I wished Julia would run things by me first. By now though, I was used to it. “Um, yeah, that’s right.”
“I see,” the mafia boss replied. “Well, if my Jewel recommends you, that’s good enough for me,” he said with a smirk. “I’ve got a job for you then. It’s something of a,” he paused, searching for a friendly word, “delivery.”
“A delivery?” I asked, fearing the worst. “What is it? A body?” I questioned, afraid of what I had gotten myself into.
“A body?” the boss repeated, letting out a huge laugh. “Where did you find this greenhorn, Jewel? Ha! Nah, what I’ve got planned for your delivery is something more,” he paused again, choosing his next word with a thoughtful smirk, “recreational.”
“Recrea–” I started to reply, “Oh, of course!” I tried to regain my composure. The mafia boss picked up a briefcase from behind his desk and laid it out in front of us.
“This shipment is for my good friend Mr. Yamaguchi. Jewel, you remember him?”
“Yes sir,” she replied confidently.
“Good. Let this be a test of your friend’s abilities. Axel was it?” he asked.
“Let this be the start of a great business relationship between us,” he said with a cheerful tone. His expression then grew serious once again and he added, “Oh and don’t get any funny ideas kid. This stuff’s measured down to the milligram. If its recipient doesn’t receive what he paid for,” his gaze fixated on me, “Well, let’s just say he won’t be happy. And neither will I.” He handed me the briefcase.
“I won’t let you down sir,” I said, with all the courage I could gather.
As we left the underground hideout, the nervousness and fear in my stomach soon became relief and exhilaration. I turned to Julia in disbelief and said “I can’t believe we did that.” As the reality of the situation sunk in, I turned and asked her, “You’ve been working for him a while, haven’t you?”
“Did you really think I was making much bank at my gas station job?” she questioned, shaking her head. “A friend introduced me into this as a favor,” she said, smirking at me. “And now I’m paying it forward.”
I shook my head at her. Lately she’d been treating me like royalty left and right, and now I knew why. “Let’s go out to dinner!” she exclaimed.
“Uh, uh, uh,” I stuttered, looking down at my new accessory.
“It’s a briefcase Axel,” she said, patronizing me. “Most businessmen carry one. Besides, you look good with it.” I felt my cheeks turn bright red. “Maybe someday you’ll have a nice suit to go with it.”
I laughed at the thought as we began walking across town. Once we reached familiar territory, we sought out a favorite restaurant of ours. Lately Julia had been treating me to dinner at a fancy steakhouse. Today I thought I’d return the favor.
After a moment at the door, the waiter seated us at a booth next to the window. After sitting down, I anxiously slid my briefcase under the table, trying not to look conspicuous.
As we looked over our menus, I heard Julia’s voice call out, “Axel!”
I looked up at her, but she was still staring intently at her menu. “What?” I asked her, confused.
“I didn’t say anything,” she replied.
A moment later, I heard it again, “Axel!” This time it sounded like it was coming from somewhere around me. I looked across the restaurant, but couldn’t find the source of the voice.
— * —
I turned my body around, and found myself standing in the street with Julia running toward me. As she drew closer, she slowed down and brushed her long blonde hair from her face.
“Are you okay?” she asked, with a worried expression.
“Yeah, why wouldn’t I be?” I snapped.
“Well, for starters, this is the sixth time you’ve walked by my house.” I looked around, taking in my surroundings for the first time in awhile. I was only about four houses down from Julia’s despite how long I’d been walking.
“Oh,” I said with a shrug.
“What is it? What’s going on with you?” Julia asked.
“Nothing,” I said, as I began to walk away. “I have an investigation to start.”
“Why don’t I come with you then?”
“I don’t need any help from you.”
“Okay, let me rephrase that,” she countered. “I’m continuing my investigation,” she put an extra emphasis on the ‘my’. “You’re welcome to tag along though. You know, just in case I need backup,” She added with an unwelcomed wink.
I let out a long sigh. “Fine, but don’t get in my way.” With that, we began the walk downtown. Reluctantly.