Back when I was just starting out, the Devil revealed that the information he gave me before every mission came from others who, like me, were contracted to him.
This puzzled me. When I first arrived in Hell, I had to stand in the long queue line that I now walked by every day. When I first met the Devil, he knew all there was to know about me and every aspect of my life. Not just me though, he also knew everything about the lives of everyone before me and everyone after me in line.
I then asked him why the Devil needed informants in his Afterlife. Why did he need lookouts and investigators in the different realms he’d created? When he was tasked with judging someone’s soul a second time, why did he have to rely on only the information passed to him?
He replied in an ominous voice, “Why would the Devil need information about the souls he’s already condemned? Surely he’s just going to torture them for all eternity.” The Devil paused, carefully choosing his words. “Why burden him with the knowledge of the infinite souls below when he’s already burdened with that of the infinite coming in from above.
He could tell I was confused by his words. He attempted to clarify himself with another profound statement, “How about I put it this way: I’m not omnipotent, I just work here.”
Whenever I tried to pry further into the matter, the Devil would always redirect the conversation. The best answer I could ever get from him was that he wasn’t that different than anyone else in the Afterlife, he simply considered himself the ‘most qualified’ to run the show.
I thought to myself how handy the ability to just know everything about a person would be as I walked the streets of Marcus.
Marcus was a scum-filled city in one of the lower realms. Home to those who lost their way long ago. Lowlifes and criminals. Not everyone of course but, as far as I was concerned, the majority.
Sirens seemed to always be blaring in the distance, and everyone on the streets looked like they had something to hide.
I had a few stops to make. Hopeful sources of information. Some of them were informants for the Devil. Others were just ‘well informed’. The type of people willing to tell you anything if you can pay them well.
One such person was an acquaintance of mine from my former life. The Devil had his contacts, but this wasn’t one of them. His name was Eddie, and he could be a reliable and trustworthy source of information. For the right price. Unless someone outbid you for his service. Okay, maybe not so reliable and trustworthy, but he still proved to be an excellent source of information time and time again.
Eddie was a bit of a low life. He had been a drug dealer at times during his life. Although my exchanges with him in life had always been brief, he had never failed me personally. I never learned Eddie’s last name, heck, I wasn’t even positive that ‘Eddie’ was his real name. It was the name that his exceptional, though sometimes disputed reputation was attached to though.
He lived in a run down apartment house in a rough neighborhood of the city. Some of the windows were broken and boarded over. The building’s siding had poorly painted graffiti tags on it. Sadly, this was one of the nicer looking buildings on this street. I let out a sigh and climbed up the cracked concrete steps to the building’s entrance.
The door hung crooked and scraped on the floor as it opened. Inside was a musty hallway with dingy, water-stained walls.
At the end of the hall, I headed upstairs. Each stair creaked under my weight. With every step I felt like if I stepped too heavy, I might go right through. I grabbed hold of the railing to easy my tension, but it shook, loosely hanging from the wall.
It was about nine months earlier that I had first run into Eddie in the Afterlife. I had come to investigate the deaths of three members of a drug ring. I saved Eddie’s life in the process, as apparently he too had managed to piss off the murderer.
He told me I should come find him here if I ever needed his help. Eddie said that even here he was as informed as ever and that he had plenty of information to sell, as well as some other things.
“Man, you’re like an angel,” he said to me after I had taken down his would-be assassin. “If only you’d been around the first time,” he added, referring to his life above. Eddie was killed just a few months before I got out of my criminal lifestyle. Even if his death didn’t affect me much, it still had some bearing on my decision to move on.
Knock, Knock. I waited in front of his apartment. I could hear him scurrying around through the door. After about a minute, he finally cracked it open. He opened the door only the two inches that its chain lock would reach and peeked his head out from behind it.
“Axel!” he greeted nervously. “What can I, uh, do for you?”
Eddie was a scrawny guy. He had a small amount of facial hair, not enough for a proper beard or mustache, but as much as would grow on his rat-like face. Those straggly whiskers only added to this rodent-esque appearance.
“I was wondering if you’d answer a few questions.” I glanced at the door chain, then back to him, hoping he’d take the hint. “Can I come in?”
“Yeah, um, you see, now’s not a good time.” He answered. “There’s something I, uh, have to do. It’s important. I don’t have time to chat.” Suddenly, his eyes widened, like he had an idea. “Wait, do you have any cash?”
I sighed. “Who do you owe, how much, and when are they coming for it?”
“Who’s not important. They’ll be here in about an hour though.” He dug around in his pocket and pulled out a folded piece of note paper. “This is how much I’m supposed to have.”
I shuddered at the number in my hand. “Yeah, a deal, uh, went south on me. I’ve only got about half that. This is the third time in the last few months I’ve come up short.”
“Well,” I said, “someone’s not going to be happy with you.”
“I know!” he exclaimed. While he talked, he had a nervous tic that he couldn’t quite stop. “So, you’ll, uh, get me that money, right pal?”
“Then you’ll talk?” I asked.
“I’ll tell you anything you want. You know me. I know everything there is to know about this city.”
I shook my head. “Alright, I’ll see what I can do.”
“Thanks friend,” he replied. He seemed to calm down a little. “I knew I could count on you. You’ve always had pretty deep pockets for someone who keeps their hands clean.”
I laughed, nodded, and began to walk away. Compared to someone like him, I guess you could say I used to keep my hands clean. There were some jobs I would just never do. Even so, there were plenty of times that pushed that limit, or even bent it.
I began to walk uptown toward a bank I knew. It was about a twenty minute walk, so I’d have plenty of time to make it there and back before Eddie’s ‘guests’ arrived.
As the streets passed me by, the neighborhoods started to change. With each block they became a little less disheveled and a little more respectable. I soon reached the commercial district. First came the fast food restaurants, then some local shops.
Finally I reached the high end of the area. Banks, lenders, and insurance companies lined the street. Mixed into the bunch were a few expensive stores and classy restaurants. Classy for this dump of a city anyway.
I shouldn’t really look down upon this city. It’s really not all that different from where I first got started. Maybe though, that was part of the reason I saw it in such a negative light.
I soon reached the ‘First National Bank of Marcus’. The large brick building had about ten stone stairs leading up to it, with a raised railing on either side. The railings each ended in a decorative pillar, about three feet tall and a foot wide, with a large sphere on top.
A paved sidewalk also led around the side of the building, where several ATM’s waited, sunken into its brick wall.
I pulled my debit card out from my jeans pocket. The menacing imp depicted on it seemed to cast me a dirty look as I inserted him into the machine. A few keypresses later and the cash started pouring out. I leaned in close to the machine and removed the bills. Carefully folding them over, I tucked my withdrawal into the inside pocket of my jacket.
No sooner had I stashed the bills when an alarm began to sound. After a momentary panic, I realized that I wasn’t the cause of the alarm. The sound was coming from inside of the bank.
I crept around to the front of the building and casually leaned against one of the pillars, facing the road. Waiting. Sure enough, in about a minute, a man in a brand new ski-mask came running out the door. As he rushed down the stairs, I stuck my foot out and hooked his ankle.
He landed hands and face against the sidewalk. By his feet lay a large sports bag. The bag had been hastily zipped up and wasn’t quite closed. Through the gap in the zipper I could see large quantities of ruffled bills wrapped in stacks for a teller drawer. The robber’s haul made my own wad of cash look minuscule.
I reached down, grabbed the man’s collar, and lifted him to his feet. He was scrawny and slightly shorter than me. Keeping a hold on his clothing, I used my other hand to pull the mask from his face.
The man had a surprisingly clean appearance. Clean-shaven and slightly baby-faced, he was probably in his early twenties. He didn’t really look like a criminal. The ski-mask had protected him from the fall, however he as starting to develop a slight bruise on his nose.
“Who do you work for?” I asked the robber, casting him an intense gaze.
The man panicked. “No one. Just me.”
“I swear. I try to stay the hell away from the gangs around her. Honest, I just needed to pay my bills before I end up on the street.”
I raised my fist toward him. The spineless robber flinched at the sight of it. “You aren’t with anyone?”
“Don’t hurt me. I’m just a punk kid looking for a break. You know how it is around here.”
Sirens started blaring in the distance. I let out a deep sigh and let go of the pathetic excuse for a criminal. “Get out of here,” I said to him.
“Really?” he asked. He reached down, grabbed his bag and tried to take a step away from me.
I reached for the handle and yanked the bag from his hands. “You don’t get to keep that! Now get lost!” I threw the bag up to the top of the bank’s steps. Relieved of his riches, the man turned and ran down the road and out of sight.
As the sirens drew closer, I decided it would be best if I vanished as well. I headed down a side-street and tried to put as much distance between myself and the bank as I could.
About a third of the way back to Eddie’s, I slowed myself down to a walking pace. I patted my coat pocket to feel for the wad of cash it still held inside. ‘Would have been a shame to lose that,’ I thought to myself.
As I headed down to Eddie’s neighborhood, I would unconsciously pat down my pocket every so often. I wasn’t used to carrying money around with me, and for some reason it made me feel uncomfortable. Vulnerable.
I thought about the bank robber. Just like me, he needed money. I could relate to that. There was a time when I was short on cash too. My work-issued debit card might get me all the money I could ever need, but that didn’t make the money any more ‘mine’ than the robber’s haul.
There was a time when I might have abused this privilege. But everything changed pretty quickly once I started working for the boss.
— * —
I set my silverware down on my plate. Thoroughly satisfied with my meal, a juicy 12-ounce ribeye steak, broccoli, and potatoes, I searched for my wallet. I flipped through my bills, past the tens and twenties, and pulled out a fifty dollar bill.
I placed it on the table and slid it under my half-empty glass of water. It wasn’t for the check, but rather the tip. Having already paid the waitress, I started walking toward the door.
“Keep the change,” I said as I walked past her. She smiled slightly and wished me a good day. I hadn’t seen this waitress before and could tell she was new. If she thought her ‘change’ tip was generous, she’d be in for a surprise when she reached the table.
As I passed through the front door, I could hear the cries behind me of “Sir!” but I kept walking. Her coworkers would fill her in soon enough. I was a regular here. When I wasn’t working, I’d often come here for lunch. I patted down a money clip in my coat pocket. Sometimes I would come here while I was working too.
The staff used to protest my generous tipping practices, so I told them my parents were wealthy business owners uptown. Apparently they believed me because they haven’t said anything since. Supposedly, this was the best steakhouse in the city and I could see why. It was miles above the one I used to settle for. It made their steaks seem like fried leather.
Across the city from my indulgent lunch, I was to meet with the boss in his uptown headquarters. He’d recently upgraded his workspace from the ‘underground meat bunker’, as we had nicknamed it, to an upscale office building.
The building itself was a shared space with individual floors, offices, and cubicles for rent. It made for a good cover. Any number of unfamiliar people could enter in a single day without raising suspicion.
Even in his new headquarters, the boss still reluctantly resided in the basement. There were two basement levels to this building. The first level you could reach by simply pressing the elevator’s ‘B’ button. The second required pressing ‘B’ followed by a specific passcode using the other floor numbers. If done correctly, the elevator would keep going past the first basement floor and arrive at the boss’s secret level.
The code changed once a month, and more often if someone’s access needed to be revoked. The only other way to access the basement level was an emergency tunnel leading away from the building. It was quite the impressive setup. The secret floor wasn’t even listed in the building’s official floor plan.
The building was a hand-me-down given to the boss by his close friend and occasional business partner, Mr. Yamaguchi. Yamaguchi was the only important person outside our gang who knew of its secret floor.
I entered this month’s passcode into the elevator. It wasn’t a long code, but any incorrect entry would send the elevator through all its stops before letting you try again. This made brute-forcing the code impractical, as not even the emergency stop button could reset the timer.
The elevator made no ‘ding’ as it reached the secret floor. I stepped out and headed for the boss’s office. This floor wasn’t all that different from the others. Most of it was dedicated to being free-form workspace for our gang. A mismatched collection of couches, tables, desks, and chairs provided our members a worry-free work environment.
A clear path cut through the workspace. It was a straight shot from the elevator to the boss’s office. Large, bulletproof windows along the wall allowed him to watch over his subordinates at all times. This only worked one way however as the windows were tinted.
Several acquaintances greeted me on my way across the room. I didn’t do much work here, but I did make pretty frequent trips to the boss. I was well-known enough around here, for one reason or another.
Julia and me had become some sort of mini-celebrities around here. We were the stars of the show, at least among the younger recruits. Together we had pulled off some pretty crazy jobs. Julia’s charisma had gotten us out of many close calls. When coupled together with my commendable assistance, we could accomplish anything.
A darkened reflection stared back at me from behind the glass of the boss’s door. Beneath the window hung a plaque that read ‘Vincent Riccardo’. That was indeed the boss’s name, though only a handful of people were allowed to call him that. The majority of us simply called him ‘The Boss’.
I reached for the doorknob, then reconsidered and knocked on the wood first.
“Enter,” the boss’s voice called from inside.
I tried to look as casual as possible as I entered the boss’s office. His presence still made me incredibly nervous, even after all this time.
His office always seemed remarkably clean for a crime-lord, not that I’d been in many others to compare. Everything seemed to have a proper place except for a few papers scattered across his desk.
Several locked file cabinets were spread across the room, likely not all containing files. On the left wall lived a rather large fish tank and some exotic ocean-fish, an addition new to this location. Since we were underground, there were no outside windows in the office. That might have been why he had such large ones facing our workspace.
I closed the door behind me, and approached the boss. With a nervous grin, I laid out the clipped money onto his desk.
“It’s all here?” the boss asked me with an intimidating stare. I’d take it personally, but he treated almost everyone with this untrusting skepticism.
“Very good, Axel. Well Done,” he congratulated me. “You didn’t have any trouble with him?”
“No, everything went as planned.” As he debriefed me, the boss flipped through the money clip, counting his earnings.
“There’s more here than I asked for.” The boss looked at me curiously.
“Yeah. He was rather impressed with our quick service. He said he’d included a tip and asked me to inform you that you’d be his first choice next time he’s in the market.”
“Nicely done boy. As usual, you can expect your cut at the end of the week.” I nodded in acknowledgement. “Now, on to new matters. I have another job for you. It’s been commissioned by my good friend Hayato Yamaguchi. I expect you’ll handle it with the same precision you show me.”
“Of course,” my voice cracked.
“I know you aren’t very fond of him,” the boss said with a sigh. He folded his hands and his gazed intensely into my eyes. “Just think of him as a stepping stone. You should use people like him to get ahead. If you do, you might one day find yourself better off than they are. I know I certainly hope to be.”
He smirked maliciously. I had never heard the boss be so callous about his ‘friend’, and I doubt I would again.