After a long, silent, and awkward walk, we reach the gunsmith’s building downtown. ‘Friedrich’s Armaments & Ammunition’ read the sign overhead. There was nothing particularly spectacular about this building. It blended in with all the others on the street. A hardware store sat on the left of the building and a video rental on the right. Both adjacent buildings proudly displayed their ‘Open’ signs in the broad daylight outside. This one however remained closed.
The street was rather busy at this hour, and cars continued to drive by our building as we stood before the locked entrance. The hours listed on the shop window suggested that it should be open. Looking inside, there was no sign of the owner or any employees. The front counter sat unmanned at the back of the sales floor.
“It says they should be open,” I commented to my uninvited partner. After a momentary pause, I drew my weapon and took aim at the large glass window. “How about we fix that?”
“Put that away!” Julia yelled as she frantically looked around. Satisfied that no one was watching us, she pulled out some lock-picking tools and knelt before the door.
“Or, I guess you could do that,” I holstered my weapon and watched her work. Shooting out a shop window on a busy street might not have been discreet, but kneeling down to pick a lock didn’t seem much better. I watched her hands move, meticulously feeling around inside the lock. I never learned how to pick a lock. Even back in my old life, I always had Julia around to do it. These days I just couldn’t be bothered to. It’s quicker to just break in and move on, especially when you won’t be around long enough to worry about getting caught.
The lock turned with a ‘click’ and we hurried inside. There were some display cases around the walls of the shop. Inside them, various guns of all shapes and sizes were on display. I walked over to a nearby case to inspect it. A slight layer of dust covered the glass, obscuring from view the fine details of its content. A dingy padlock secured the case shut. It didn’t seem like it had ever seen much attention.
The whole store followed this theme. Dusty cases and grimy fixtures that wouldn’t pass even the most lenient of white glove tests. We approached the back counter, and found it in much the same condition. A layer of paperwork cluttered the desk, but it too had it’s own dusty covering. No one had cleaned up in here for quite some time. It appeared as if the owner had outright abandoned it.
As I examined the gunsmith’s workspace, a dust-coated letter caught my eye. It sat on top of the pile, separated from the rest by an empty envelope. A few keywords in the letter caught my eye, but I didn’t get a chance to read it before I was interrupted by Julia.
“You hear that?” Julia asked. She moved toward the back of the room, trying to locate the sound. After listening for a moment, I could hear it too. From the other side of the wall, I could hear a low humming accompanied by a high pitched, grinding noise.
“Yeah, it sounds like some sort of machinery,” I replied, and placed the letter into my coat pocket. I walked over to meet Julia next to a door to the backroom. I took hold of the doorknob and slowly cracked it open. The sound intensified, but from the small crack, I couldn’t see where it was coming from.
I took a deep breath, and drew my weapon. I looked to Julia, who gave me a nod of approval. Taking aim, I kicked the door open. On the other side, we found a room cluttered with various metal and woodworking tools.
Unable to discern much from the door, I made my way into the room, heading toward the source of the noise. From the doorway, it did not seem like anyone was in the room. If not for the grind of the power equipment, I would have assumed no one to be home.
The sound echoed through the room, causing me to jump. Heart racing, I continued forward. I soon found the source of the noise, a lathe left unattended. It had managed to completely carve it’s way through a metal cylinder which then fell to the floor. It couldn’t have taken more than a minute or two to cut through it. It probably hadn’t been running for long. I switched off the red power switch on the side of the tool just as I heard a thud across the room.
I turned to my right and there lay two men, now unconscious, on the floor. Julia stood above them, catching her breath. Unarmed, she had beaten the two into submission, without even breaking a sweat. Having been on the other end of her wrath more than once, I almost felt pity for the guys on the floor.
“This way,” she yelled, throwing open a fire door. “They went out the back.” Without waiting for me, she bolted through the exit and onto the street again. I carefully stepped around the unconscious men and pushed my way through the door. Across the street was red sedan with its engine running and a driver at the wheel. Two rough looking men were forcing another into the back seat of the car. The captive man had disheveled hair, blackened hands, and wore grease covered overalls.
“Is that him?” I asked, as I caught up to Julia by the side of the road.
“I think so,” answered Julia. “Who else would it be?” she added sarcastically.
After closing the gunsmith in the back of the car, the two men drew their weapons and began to fire at us.
“Get down!” I yelled to Julia. We took cover behind a car parked on the side of the road. A nearby mail collection bin cried out in pain as stray bullets ricocheted inside of it. We remained pinned in our position as we heard their car start to move away.
The gunfire stopped as the car rounded the corner. I heard it accelerate into the distance. I stood up and looked around, trying to think of a way we could catch up to our attackers. A moment later blue flashing lights began driving toward us. ‘Oh, great,’ I thought to myself, sheathing my weapon. It was then that I noticed that Julia was frantically flagging down the flashing lights.
As the police car pulled over, Julia leapt across the hood and got in the passenger side. “Get in!” she yelled to me. Left with few options, I got in the back seat of the vehicle, effectively arresting myself.
“He a friend of yours?” the officer asked, as we rushed forward.
“Something like that,” replied Julia, spitefully.
I don’t like the police. I never did. I never had any reason to. Growing up, they were always getting in my way. And these days, they were always getting in my way! Albeit for different reasons. They really don’t appreciate hearing, ‘The Devil sent me to kill someone.’ They just won’t let that excuse fly, even if they’ve met the guy themselves. This was Julia’s realm though, and apparently I was going to play by her rules.
We rush along the road, following in the path of the getaway car. A few long minutes pass as Julia explains the situation to the officer. She pauses for a second or two any time she has to explain anything otherworldly to him. He seems to shrug off her complicated subject matter and just focus at the task at hand.
“I’ll send a squad in to detain your suspects,” he said, reaching for his radio. “I’ll tell them to make it a priority. Things might get messy if they don’t arrive before the suspects regain consciousness.”
Our trail, delivered to us by radio from other cops, takes us down a country road on the edge of town. When we arrived at the getaway car, we found it sitting in the road, abandoned. Several police squads had arrived before us. They had the scene blocked off and some officers were searching the area. One of them broke away from the group and came to our window.
“The car was empty when we found it,” he said with a sense of urgency. “They’ve taken refuge in a nearby home. A woman was able to escape her house, but she says her husband and child are still inside. We’re awaiting orders sir.”
“Aren’t they helpful?” I said, letting out a sigh. I reach for the door handle before remembering that I can’t let myself out. Julia sees this and I toss her an angry glare.
“We’ll take care of it,” replied Julia before our officer could speak up. She leapt out of the car and headed toward the building.
Almost leaving me behind, my officer soon realized why I had not followed Julia and turned around to let me out.
I took off in a sprint trying to catch up with my ungrateful partner. I reached the house to find a crowd of policemen trying to calm down the panicked wife and mother.
“Don’t worry, we’re gonna get them out of there,” Julia reassured her. “Come on already!” she called to me, heading toward the front door. In her hands, she held a gun borrowed from the police. I ran to her side as we made our approach.
The house itself was light brown with green shutters. It was a lone ranch-style house on a large plot of land. The immediate yard was well maintained, but surrounded by a rolling field of tall grass that trailed into the distance. When we reached the front door, we found it slightly open. Its latch was busted and the handle hung awkwardly from its splintered home.
Julia nudged the front door open slowly and shuddered at the sight inside. Shaking off her startled appearance, she stepped into the house. Together we walked through the home’s well kept living room to the catastrophe in the kitchen beyond it.
Spread across the kitchen floor lay the body of a man. He laid in a pool of his own blood emanating from a gunshot wound in his forehead. The expression left on his face was a look of aggression and even in death his fists stayed clenched. This was the body of a loving husband who died fighting to defend his home.
‘I’ll make sure he gets sent back here quickly’ I thought to myself. It was the least I could do for the trouble this family had faced.
Extending from the kitchen was a long hallway. Julia approached its first closed doorway and threw it open. Ahead of her she found stairs leading to the basement.
“Go ahead,” I said to her. “I’ll check the rest of this floor.” She began down the stairs and I closed the door behind her, leaving it just off the latch in case she needed an escape route.
Weapon drawn, I slowly made my way down the hallway. To my left was an open bathroom, followed by a small bedroom. At the end of the hall, I could see into the master bedroom.
I followed the hallway as it curved around the corner and found myself face to face with one of the rather unkempt looking thugs from earlier. Behind him was the last bedroom door, shut tight.
My eyes met with his as I scrambled back around the corner. Behind me, holes burst in the wall where his bullets had just barely missed their mark. As he started to follow, I rushed back and threw my entire body weight into his stomach.
He moaned and let down his guard. I took the opportunity to smash his hand against the wall, releasing it’s grip on his gun. With one more good strike, this time to his head, I was able to take him down.
I stepped over his unconscious body and opened the door to the last bedroom. Empty. Thanks in-part to the guard they posted, they had successfully bought enough time to escape.
The gunsmith was gone. We hadn’t even determined if he was being escorted here of his own will or whether he had been kidnapped. The bastards did however leave one surprise. They left behind the body of an eight-year-old child, whose blood painted the back wall of his bedroom, as a parting gift.
I turned and began walking back out to the kitchen. I took solace in at least knowing that this family wouldn’t be kept apart for very long. I’d make sure to see to that, even if the Devil objected.
I met up with Julia again in the kitchen. For once she looked a little winded, as she had had her own encounter in the basement. We flagged the police in from the front door and watched as they awoke and apprehended our two respective knock-outs.
“This actually turned out pretty well,” I said to Julia.
“Of course it did, you had me, didn’t you?” she replied, holding back a smirk. I shook my head at this statement. As helpful as Julia had been, I still wasn’t ready to admit it. As we followed the police out of the building, I felt relieved and somewhat accomplished to have acquired a lead to my investigation. I couldn’t help but wonder just what I’d find out from questioning these men.
‘BANG. BANG. BANG.’
Just a few feet in front of me, the two restrained individuals dropped to the ground dead. Both shot in the head and one through the neck as well. I couldn’t see an assailant from where I stood and there was no reason to look. Surrounded by the fields of tall grass, they’d be long gone before I’d ever find them.
“Sir!” An officer came running to his superior. “We’ve lost contact with the other squad. Their last update confirmed they had found two trespassers unconscious at Friedrich’s. How would you like us to proceed?”
While the police discussed their situation, my attention was directed elsewhere. I had approached the bodies to examine them when, an emblem began to etch itself into their respective foreheads. Several straight line segments formed, connecting one by one, while a curve circled around the edges. Together they formed a pentagram, which seemed to be burned into their very skin. I bent down to examine one of them, but got pushed back by a sudden burst of heat.
Before me, the two bodies violently burst into flames. Within a minute or so, they had completely burned away. They left no trace behind. No smoke, no ash, and no dust. It was like they had never even existed.
“What the hell just happened?” asked one of the officers nearby.
“I’m not really sure,” replied Julia, trying to make sense of the situation.
“They’re gone. Gone for good,” I answered them. “So much for my lead.”
“What do you mean?” Julia questioned. “They’re dead, shouldn’t they get sent to the Devil to be judged again? You can just interrogate them there. Isn’t that your usual method?”
“No,” I replied, clenching my fists. “They’re gone.” Julia looked at me in confusion. The police officers, out of their element, returned to their own business. “When someone dies, their body fades away and they get sent for Judgment. When that happens, I can feel it. I can tell where they go.” I paused for a moment, and shook my head. “I’ve been all over the afterlife, and I have absolutely no idea where it is that these two were sent.”
Julia stood speechless before me. “I knew it was a bad idea to trust help from you!” I yelled, my anger escaping from me. “Thanks for the backup. What would I have ever done without you?” I turned and walked away from the situation. Away from Julia.
“Don’t you think you’re overreacting?” she yelled back as I kept walking. “What’s this really about?” she asked, probing further. “Why are you always so angry with me?”
In that moment, I lost control of my temper. I turned toward Julia and yelled something I knew would put her in her place, “It’s your fault they’re dead!”
Julia stood speechless and I continued my exit. Behind me, I could hear one of the remaining police officers ask her “Should we detain him for you? He IS leaving a crime scene.”
“No, let him go.” She replied in a disgusted tone. “He’s got his own demons to deal with.”
— * —
After a bit of wandering, I returned home, welcomed by the expected taunts from my boss.
“So, did she waste your time?” the Devil’s voice boomed.
“Yes! No. Yes,” I shook my head, “I don’t know.”
“Well you were gone all day. You did say that would mean she wasted your time,” he replied.
“We had quite the day.”
“Julia followed me on an investigation,” I explained with a sigh and added, “Much to my dismay.”
“So she was helpful then,” he said with a grin.
“Yeah, I guess. I mean no, she ruined everything!”
The Devil’s gaze intensified. “Axel, don’t let your past cloud your judgement. I have no time to deal with your childish squabbles.”
“Yes, she was helpful,” I replied, gritting my teeth. “But only slightly.”
“Were you able to find any clues?”
“We captured two individuals for questioning, but they were shot dead by an unknown assassin.” I tried to regain my composure.
His expression grew puzzled at my words. “The only new arrivals I’ve had from that realm were a distressed man and his son.”
“Not them. Though if you could get them home in a hurry,” I paused, feeling guilty. “We were partially to blame for their family being torn apart today.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” he replied. “Now what of your suspects?”
“They’re gone.” I hung my head down toward the floor. “Moments after they died, their bodies burst into flames. I’m not sure about their souls, but they didn’t come here.”
“That’s unusual,” he replied with an odd hesitation to his voice. “Do you have any other clues?”
“Yeah, this.” I flipped to a blank page in my notebook and sketched out the circumscribed pentagram. “This appeared on their foreheads just before the flames took them.”
“That symbol!” The Devil’s puzzled expression turned cold and serious, “I haven’t seen that in a very long time.”
“What does it mean? A pentagram is supposed to be a symbol of the Devil isn’t it.”
“That was its origin, yes. However the symbol itself is very old. It can mean many things to many people. What it has to do with your investigation, I’m not quite sure.”
“But you just said that it’s your symbol. If anyone knows something about it, wouldn’t you?”
“What I said was that its origin had to do with the Devil. I never said that its origin had to do with me.” The Devil laughed at the confused look on my face. “It’s not my symbol Axel, it’s his.”
“Oh.” Though he spoke cryptically, I understood his words. He was referring to whom he usually called ‘former management’. “You mean The Old Guy?”
“That’s right. Axel, keep up your investigation in the coming days. I’m going to have to do some research of my own. This whole situation is becoming a little unsettling.”
“Understood. I’m going to turn in for the night.”
“Get some rest. I fear the worst is yet to come.”
“Yeah,” I replied halfheartedly. When I reached the doorway I turned and added, “Two dead civilians, two incinerated suspects, three escaped criminals, and one missing gunsmith. Not to mention several incapacitated, and potentially dead, police officers. Today did not go according to plan.”
“When does it ever?” the Devil replied with a sigh.
As I headed down the long hallway to my room, I thought hard about the clues I had to work with so far. Once in my room, I reached to take off my jacket and realized that I actually had one more clue.
I pulled out and unfolded the letter I’d swiped from the gunsmith’s desk. For the most part, the letter didn’t reveal any shocking information. As expected, it confirmed our theory that he’d been commissioned by an unnamed criminal organization to provide them weapons in exchange for a ‘generous salary’.
When I’d nearly given up on it, I found there was at least one interesting detail from the letter. At the bottom of the otherwise typed letter was a handwritten signature that simply read ‘M.G.’
“Ha!” I cried out. I had my lead. It may not have been the lead I was expecting or hoping for, but it was definitely a start.