Devil's Advocate

November
23rd

Chapter One

by: Simon McDougall


“Dark and Stormy,” I muttered to the bartender, handing him my card. In the dim lighting, you could just barely make out the image decorating the front of it: A grinning imp wielding a fork, my boss’s idea of a joke. The card itself was for “business” and it could get me anything I wanted, as long as I didn’t draw too much attention to myself. Some people might abuse such a privilege, but for me, there just really wasn’t much I desired. Even now, I was strictly here on business.

Looking around, I tried to scout out the bar. The dim light made it difficult and it would be a few minutes before I could find my target. Fortunately for me, he either didn’t understand the concept of laying low, or didn’t care.

Pushing several of the bar’s patrons aside, a broad-shouldered silhouette emerged from the crowd. Slamming a large wad of cash onto the counter he exclaimed, “Whiskey on the rocks!” Pausing a moment at the bartender’s questioning glance, he continued, “and keep the change!”

The bartender’s gaze on the figure intensified, but he humbly accepted this gracious tip and started pouring the drink. Finishing my own, I set down my glass with a loud “clack” and faded into the shadows at the back of the bar.

Waiting patiently for my target to finish his drink, I reached down and drew my weapon, A custom piece that I was quite proud to own. A semiautomatic pistol made of polished steel, with etched writing decorating the slide. The inside of the etching was cast in silver giving it an extra shine, even here in the shadows.

The language of the etching was like nothing I could read, however I’d been informed once that it read something akin to “O misguided souls, judgment cannot be escaped”. My boss gave it to me as a reward for acing my first job. I’ve taken good care of it ever since.

After he’d been babying it for what felt like an hour, my target finally finished his drink. As he set down his glass, I placed the barrel of my gun firmly against his skull. With all the ambient chatter and noise, those surrounding us remained unaware of the situation before them.

“Hi there,” I greeted sarcastically. This small bit of showboating proved to be a poor choice. As I fired my weapon he ducked down and kicked his bar stool into me. My bullet took out a bottle or two behind the counter as my target ran toward the door.

Two more shots missed their mark as I stumbled after him in my disoriented state. Shards of glass fell from the front door and I could feel the bartender’s cold gaze staring me down. I took off after my mark yelling behind me “Just put it on my card!” As I left the building, I caught a glimpse of him running down an alleyway.

Following behind, I turned the corner and found he was already halfway up a four story fire escape and moving quickly. I fired several more shots at him only to have them ricochet off the rusty metal.

Continuing my pursuit, I leapt up to the bottom rung of the ladder. The rusty steel scraped my fingers as I pulled myself up. Around and around the three remaining flights of rickety stairs, I was dizzy when I reached the top.

I kicked off of the railing to clear the extra foot or two above me to the top of the roof. My torn fingers screamed as I pulled my body up over the ledge. Once I was on my feet again, I took off in a sprint after my target. Across the long rooftop from me, he hesitated a moment. Backing up for a running start, he managed to cross the four foot gap to the next roof, only having to catch his balance on the other side.

Making the jump effortlessly, I found myself on the next rooftop, gaining ground on my target. My pursuit continued across a few more rooftops before my target dropped down the side of another building. Looking down I could see him on the lower half of another fire escape.

I took a deep breath and jumped straight for the ground. Such a jump probably could have killed a normal human, but this wasn’t my first time attempting such a feat. As I hit the ground I stumbled on my three point landing and it took me a second to get to my feet.

Out the alleyway and across the street, my target disappeared into another alley. As I crossed the empty streets I heard the sound of shattered glass hitting the ground. A window was smashed out on the side of a condemned building.

Not wanting to follow into an ambush, I opted for the front door instead. Ignoring the warning signage posted around the door and windows I fired a few shots at the door frame, releasing the latch.

Inside, I was surprised to find the remains of a somewhat furnished home, and not an the empty hallways of the apartment house I had expected. The walls and furnishings of the home were all charred and there was a musty smell filling the air. Whatever the fire hadn’t destroyed the water damage from putting it out had.

Far to my left a small amount of light from the street lamps outside was reflecting on a pile of shattered glass. On the floor next to it some roughly cut plywood and a box of nails. Lucky for my target, this last window hadn’t been boarded over yet. Unlucky for him, it seemed like this was the last one remaining.

Leaving the living room area, I found some stairs to the upper floor just before the kitchen. Next to that a door leading to a dark basement. “Damn,” I muttered to myself. If I head the wrong way he’ll have an opening to get out. Glancing into the kitchen up ahead, I noticed a heavy looking dinner table. “…Worth a shot I guess,” I decide to myself.

After dragging the dusty table in place, I headed up the opposite stairs. It might not lock him down there, but at the very least I’ll be able to hear the table move if he comes back up that way. I head slowly up the stairs, weapon at the ready.

My target’s name is Toni Giuliani, and he’s an individual who’s actions have warranted his soul be rejudged. My job is a little different from that of most people. I am responsible for tracking down individuals who continuously disturb the peace. An afterlife should be peaceful after all, right?

I am contracted into my position for reasons I have no memory of. Part of the contract I signed, or so I’ve been told. I don’t really have a problem with that. I don’t really mind the job, and I trust that I had good reasons for signing up for it.

Toni Giuliani is a man who’s been judged before, several times in fact. He’s shown time and time again that his only goals in this “life” are to cause chaos and ruin. This time he’s wanted for several counts of corrupting the souls of children. He’s been using them to do his bidding over the last year and my boss has finally had it with his actions.

Children are… easily manipulable. The souls of those who died young are more susceptible to becoming corrupt, spoiled, rotten. Once a soul heads down that path it can be almost impossible to reverse the damage. Their morals warp and they become unable to distinguish right from wrong, good from evil. Once they go down that path, usually the only thing that awaits them is “The Pit”.

Bombings, fires, gang wars. Things that cause chaos and destruction. This was Giuliani’s topical M.O. Never did he seem to be seeking any personal gain, he just seemed to have a love for the disorder of it all. He’d drawn enough attention to himself, now it was time to end it.

My sweep of the upstairs was almost complete. One more room lay before me, the door cracked open. I peeked inside. The room was illuminated dimly through the cracks of a poorly boarded over window. Creeping through the doorway I jumped at the sound of shuffling across the room.

I took aim at an upturned mattress in the corner, focusing for a minute on the sound. I breathed a sigh of relief and fired a few rounds into this unusual hiding spot. I only had a moment to revel in my false victory before a panicked rat darted out from behind the mattress.

A tremor shot through my body as all my muscles tensed back up. I let out a disgruntled groan as I turned and rushed back toward the stairs. I had yet to hear any sounds of escape from my impromptu barricade.

Reaching the bottom I relaxed seeing the table right where I’d left it. I shifted it just enough to open the door. If it came to it, this would hopefully delay Giuliani long enough for me to land a shot… presuming of course that I didn’t need to rush back through. I started down the cellar stars, realizing with how long I had taken, I was probably walking into an ambush.

Each step echoed into the darkness. The rough wooden stairs indicated the unfinished nature of the basement. The cellar floor was littered with water damaged possessions. In the corner was a partitioned off room, presumably hiding the home’s boiler and electrical box.

The damp, moldy smell attacked my nose as I approached the small room. While the rest of the basement was lit by tiny windows along the foundation, the boiler room was pitch black.

“Come out quietly and I’ll make it quick,” I bargained with the darkness in front of me. As expected I received no response. With a soft sigh I stepped into the doorway. My eyes were beginning to adjust to the darkness and I could start to make out some silhouettes. A boiler, an oil tank, an electrical box, and a small workbench. No one was in here.

As soon as this fact sunk in I spun around toward the doorway, almost too late. An outlined figure swung an object in my direction. Almost losing my balance in a sidestep I could see the outlined object resembled a crowbar, presumably from the workbench. I raised my gun and fired at his armed shoulder.

Giuliani’s injured arm dropped the weapon as he ran back toward the stairs. I manage to clip his ankle before he can get there.

“Any last words?” I smugly ask, looking down on his injured body. He remained silent, only glaring at me in the darkness. “Nothing to say for yourself?” I continue. “Alright then, it’s not me you have to answer to anyway.”

I raise my weapon, taking aim at his forehead. “This is only the beginning!” he exclaimed in pain. Gasping his breaths, he added, “This is so much bigger than you or me. It’s just too bad I won’t get to see it all go down.”

“Enough from you!” I answered, pulling the trigger. Giuliani hit the ground lifeless. I felt truly relieved for the first time tonight. Letting out a sigh of relief I focused my thoughts on home. After a moment of focusing my surroundings began to dim and this reality faded from existence.


March
22nd

Chapter Two

by: Simon McDougall


After a moment in darkness, the world around me faded back into being. I stepped out from a familiar stone archway into a large castle hall. Braziers lining the walls lit the room, providing a peculiar ambiance brighter than they seemed capable of. A bit to my left there stood a long line of people on a chained off red carpet.

Behind me, the mass of people led out through a doorway much larger than the one I had entered through. Shadows enveloped the line further back, shrouding it’s existence. In the other direction the mass of people led to several stairs and a raised platform. Atop that, a throne.

I walked in parallel to the red carpeted line, drawing closer to the throne. Before I could reach it I heard the sound of torches going out. Starting at the back of the room, the braziers extinguished themselves one by one. As the shadows enveloped me I laughed to myself and thought, ‘Oh good, a show.’

Above the throne opened two burning eyes and the glint of a smirk that could rival that of the Cheshire Cat. A moment later two braziers in front of the throne burst to life, revealing the identity of this insidious grin.

The man standing on the throne had shoulder-length black hair in tight curls, crammed under a large top hat. He wore a black leather jacket with a white button up shirt and a blood red tie. Finishing off his overly black ensemble was a tattered pair of black jeans.

With arms stretched wide, he shouted to the crowd in a deep voice, “Tremble before me mortals, for I am the one known as the Devil. Your souls are your own no longer, they will forever belong to me. I shall pass judgment upon you for your actions in life. Those who lived justly will be rewarded as such and those who have sinned will face consequence. Take solace in this afterlife you are about to enter, for if you find yourself before me again, I may not be so forgiving.”

Abruptly, his voice shifted to a higher, more lighthearted tone as he added, “…Yup, I think that’s about it. Anything I’m forgetting Axel?” My heart sank as I heard the mention of my name. Suddenly I found myself soloed out in a pillar of light.

“Uh…” I panicked, searching for words.

“I’ll take that as a no then,” the Devil concluded. “Welcome to Hell! Enjoy your stay everyone.” With that he sat back upon his throne and the lighting of the room returned to normal. Mortified, but realizing I shouldn’t feel surprised, I approached the throne before me.

“Really boss? Was that necessary?” I inquired. The man in front of me who referred to himself as none other than the Devil, this was who I reported to. The contract I mentioned earlier? I’m contracted to the Devil. For a reason I don’t remember, a memory that was taken from me, I am bound to do his bidding.

“Come on now,” he replied, “don’t be such a poor sport. Someone has to keep you on your toes after all.” I rolled my eyes at his spiting attitude. “How’d it go?” he asked, changing the subject.

“I got him boss.”

“I know,” he replied, nodding toward the line in front of him. My eyes traced it back, and I sighed with relief knowing that Toni Giuliani was somewhere at the back of it.

“He didn’t put up as much of a fight as I thought he would.” I added. “He must have known I was coming for him.”

“Maybe. Maybe he was tired of running,” the Devil raised his brow at me, “Or maybe he just wasn’t expecting you to come for him after all.”

“I don’t know. The whole thing doesn’t quite feel right,” I shook my head. “Maybe I’m just over-thinking things. I’m gonna go get some rest.”

“You do that. I want you back here bright and early though,” he smiled gleefully. “I’ve got another job for you.”

“You’ve always got another job for me,” I replied, rolling my eyes again. I started toward a doorway at the back of the chamber.

“Good Night,” he chuckled as I left the room.

I navigated my way down the dark stone corridor to a heavy wooden door with torchlight creeping through it’s cracks. Inside was a warmly decorated room.

In one corner sat a lavishly decorated bed, fit for old-fashioned royalty, complete with curtains draped around the edges. Across from the bed stood a large wooden wardrobe and a vanity mirror. The floor was mostly covered by a large red area rug, with only a small border left on all sides exposing the stone floor underneath.

Pictures of exotic scenery decorated the walls, photos of locations across the different realms of the afterlife. Waterfalls, beaches, forest woodlands, vast plains, most were locations I had never seen myself.

This was my room, but I wasn’t the one who decorated it. My boss decorated it while I was away on an early mission. It was his answer to the fact that all I asked for was a bed to sleep in.

As I passed by the mirror, I couldn’t help but notice my disheveled appearance. The dust from the condemned house had found it’s way into my dirty-blonde ‘mop’, and made my hair look convincingly grey.

My tan leather jacket also collected a fair amount of dust and debris on it. As I removed it, I shook it out toward the corner of my room then hung it on a hook near the door.

I quickly got ready and dove onto the bed, anxious for this day to be over.

I awoke several times during the night, dreaming about a life I try not to remember. Tossing and turning through the night, morning eventually came.

‘Morning’ here meant only that the mysterious ambient lighting had returned to my chamber. There were no windows in my room, in fact, there were none at all in this castle. The castle itself only consisted of a few halls and beyond that nothing. That’s the extent of this realm.

The afterlife, ‘Hell’ as my boss calls it, is divided into different realms each with their own characteristics. To put it simply, the concept started out as different ‘levels of Hell’. Maybe you’ve heard of the expression? The level system worked well under previous management, but things were simpler then. And a bit more cruel.

Conditions became a bit more hospitable once my boss took over, or so I’ve been told. Since then, Hell has grown into a home for many different types of people from different times and places. The residents of Hell are separated out to avoid the chaos and mass culture shock that would occur if they were all lumped together. Though my boss still refers to this place as Hell, it is actually the only afterlife, there isn’t a Heaven. He just keeps the name because he finds it intimidates the newcomers.

Lost in my own thoughts, I wandered into the throne room. As I approached the throne, my boss disappointedly uttered the phrase, “You’re late.”

“Aren’t I always?” I asked without hesitation.

Just because you’re always late, doesn’t mean it’s an excuse. I don’t remember putting ‘arriving late is acceptable as long as it’s a regular occurrence’ anywhere in your contract.

“So who’s my target today?” I asked, changing the subject.

“Jonathan Weiss. A man who burned his family to death… twice.” He smiled with amusement at his own statement. “You’ll find all the info in your notebook, as usual.”

I reached down and felt the notebook in my pocket. Somehow, my notes were always waiting for me before a mission.

Glancing over the notes, I reply, “Alright, so just a run-of-the-mill pyromaniac, sounds easy enough. Where can I find him?”

“Suburbia 672,” he answered. “Now get going. I heard he’s held up in a mansion on the west side of Mabel. The police are planning to raid it later today. Get there before them, because you know how that’ll probably end.”

‘It won’t be pretty,’ I thought to myself. “Alright, I’m going,” I replied, heading toward the door.
As I walked through the empty archway, I imagined the streets of Mabel. Concentrating on that image, I felt the throne realm fade away.

Mabel, a small suburban town from the 1990’s. Towns in Hell are usually named after their first resident. It makes for a fun variation of names. Realms on the other hand are a little bland. My boss needs to find some originality, because ‘Suburbia 672′ does not roll off the tongue very well.

As everything faded back in, I found myself on the north end of Mabel, a decent way from where I wanted to be. I started walking toward the west side mansion. As I made the journey across town, I flipped through my notebook to try and familiarize myself with my current foe.

I had been here a time or two before. On the west side of town was a mansion on a hill that didn’t really fit in with the rest of the town. Mostly ranches and small two-story houses, this mansion dwarfed the neighborhood with it’s three stories and about five acres of property.

After a half hour’s walk, I reached my destination. Several police cars sat outside the gate of this monstrous residence, as well as an unmarked black surveillance van. The officers were gathered near the front gate, debating on whether to act.

Two of the officers broke away to block my approach. “I’m sorry, there’s a police investigation on this building. We’re going to have to ask you to leave,” said one of the officers, pulling out a flashy badge.

I reached in my coat pocket and pulled out a badge of my own. “FBI,” I responded. The two of them suddenly straightened out their posture and nodded in acknowledgement. “You can leave this to me,” I continued. “In fact, you’d best get out of entirely, just in case something goes wrong. I’ll take it from here.”

The officers nodded with a “Yes sir,” then returned to inform their companions. Within a minute or two they’d all left except the one surveillance van. I could care less about it as I headed past the gate and up the hill.

It’s amusing to see that the police here believe there’s such a thing as the FBI in the afterlife. Just a remnant of obedience from their former lives I guess.

When I reach the top, I knock on the large door in front of me. As I do, it creaks open eerily, taunting me to step inside. I creep through the unlatched door, then close it firmly behind me.

I found myself in a large living room. A dim chandelier lit the room from high above. To my right was a carpeted area with a couch, two armchairs, and some tables between them. All centered around a fireplace.

On my left was a staircase leading to the second floor and a balcony over the living area. Further left was a long hallway. Finally, at the back of the room was an archway leading to a dining room.

A moment later, a man emerged from the darkened dining area. The man was in his thirties, wearing a grungy tee-shirt and jeans, and carrying two glasses of wine. His features were difficult to discern in the current lighting, but it was highly likely this was the man I was after.

“Come in, come in. Sit down,” the man said, motioning toward the armchairs in the living area, and nearly spilling his wine in the process. “Honestly, I have to say, I was expecting those cops to be my lucky guests this afternoon.”

His words were said with a noticeable pompousness to them. He seemed to be pretending, at least to himself, that he was in fact the owner of this house. “Sorry to disappoint you,” I replied sarcastically.

“Disappoint? Oh, not at all,” he smiled wickedly, “Your reputation precedes you, and the honor here is most certainly mine.” I cast him a questioning glance and he continued, “You are the Devil’s Hitman. I’ve heard stories of you. You appear mysteriously from the shadows and kill those of us who cause the worst ‘problems’ for the people around us. Then you disappear again, just like that. The fact that I could be considered an individual of that caliber is quite the honor indeed.”

“So you’re Jonathan Weiss then?” I asked, unimpressed.

“Of course I am. Who else would be lord of this manor?” he questioned, then added resentfully, “At least until it’s owners return from their month long vacation that is. Not that I plan to leave them much to return to.” He chuckled, amused at his claims. “Now come in and sit down, I don’t want to feel like a rude host.”

“I’m fine where I am.” I replied, short on patience.

“Suit yourself,” he countered, settling into an armchair, then turning it to face me. He set what was presumably ‘my’ glass of wine on a side table and began to sip his.

Still standing by the door, I grew tired of his charade. I pulled out my notebook and took a few steps toward the deranged man. As I approached him, I straightened up my stance and tried my best to put on an intimidating face. Opening my notebook, I began to read its contents.

“Jonathon Weiss, I hear you like to burn people,” I declared to him, “And you know why I’m here.”

“As I said before, your reputation precedes you. You’re here to kill me… for good. To make sure I can never harm anyone again. To reduce me to nothing,” his tone darkened. “Am I about right?”

Clearing my throat and reciting a line I had long since memorized, “The Devil has determined that your soul must be judged once more. When you die here, you will find yourself before him again. His decision represents your fate from here on out.” I began to smirk as I described his future. “You won’t be reduced to nothing. However, if he does find you deserving of the worst fate possible, you’ll be sent to the Pit, a fiery chasm you’d find much more fitting to the name ‘Hell’ than this place.”

“…but we’ll get to that in a minute,” I added, determined to play his annoying game right back at him. “Just for fun, let’s look back at the sins you’ve been accused of.” With a deep breath, I began to read my notebook.

“When you first arrived here, you were charged with the crime of murdering your own family. You burned yourself and them to death one night in a fire you set upon your own home. When they arrived here, they bargained for your afterlife. They claimed you were just sick. That you needed help. And that they’d make sure to find you that help so that you could continue to be a family.”

“My boss, being the generous guy that he is, decided to honor their request, knowing full well that this could happen again.” Ignoring the crazed smirk growing on my target’s face, I continued, “And it did. Although this time your family was a little less interested in your well being.”

“I notice that this time, you decided not to join them. Was burning that one time too much for you?” I taunted him. “Soon however, people started asking questions. Your daughter’s teacher began to ask why she hadn’t been in school. Running out of excuses, you rigged the emergency exits overnight and the next morning you set the school ablaze.”

“Suddenly, you’re the talk of the town. Of course, no one can prove it was you, but deep down they know. People start casting you dirty looks wherever you go. One night you were out drinking at your usual bar when the cold gaze of your fellow patrons stated to wear on you. You tossed a homemade explosive behind the counter and ran for the door. Half of the street witnessed you leaving the scene as the bar lit up. Now, they could prove it was you.”

As I recounted these events, he began to laugh under his breath. Ignoring his sick pleasure, I reached my last few notes, “No one’s been able to track you down for a few days now. You’ve been keeping quiet. An anonymous tip, however, was left with the police department, and sure enough here you are waiting for them…” I trailed off, putting the pieces together in my head.

Figuring out what had been nagging at me for a bit, I looked up at Weiss. On his face was a huge grin. In his hand he had what looked like a remote detonator which he depressed as I glanced up at him.

“Aww, Hell.”


June
5th

Chapter Three

by: Simon McDougall


After the burning sensation subsided, I found myself back in the throne realm. This time though, I was standing in the queue line and not next to it.

Normally, after a particularly horrible death, the memory of dying will be removed from a victim. They retain the knowledge of how they died, but are spared the remembrance of it. In my case, I’m not so lucky. I get to remember the feeling of death, like burning for instance, every, single, time.

I waited somewhat impatiently as the front of the line drew closer. Fortunately at least, I get to cut almost all the way to the front of the line when I die. My boss still makes me wait a bit though. He insists that if I didn’t have to wait at least that much that I wouldn’t learn my lesson.

There only appears to be loosely draped chains preventing someone from leaving the queue line. I used to wonder why everyone waited patently to be judged instead of attempting to flee. The moment you try to step over or under the chains, your body will refuse to move. Almost as if it were protesting the action, you cannot move over the threshold no matter how hard you try. My guess is that everyone must try that at least once somewhere in the back of the line.

“Things went well I see.” My boss greeted me, when I had finally reached the front of the line. Not in the mood for his games, I rolled my eyes, shook my head, and walked right past him toward the door.

“You know your hair’s on fire right?” he called after me as I left the room. After his comment, I realized that I had been smelling a faint burning scent for a while now. I pulled the tattered remains of my jacket up over my head to pat out any remaining embers.

I returned to my room, hung my coat, and got ready for bed. Despite my somewhat charred state, in the morning both me and my clothes would be reset to their original appearance.

The next morning, when I returned to the throne room, I was determined to confront my boss over the previous day’s mission.

“Axel, we’ve got a problem,” he spoke as I entered the room.

“You’re damn right we do!” I answered. As I turned to face him, I continued, “You knew that bastard planned to blow me up didn’t you?!”

“And if I did?” he responded with a firm look.

Hesitating, I countered, “Then you should have told me that before I left!”

“Maybe I had faith that you’d figure it out in time,” he immediately replied with a smile. “Furthermore,” the Devil continued, “If you hadn’t been so cocky and overconfident about things, maybe you wouldn’t have given him the time to blown you up in the first place.”

I let out a hard sigh as I realized this was no longer an argument I could win.

“Now, as I was saying,” he said pointing behind me toward the queue line, “We have a problem.”

I glanced over my shoulder at the line, then back at my boss and replied, “Don’t we always have a probl–” I turned around for a double take once the peculiar image had sank in.

At the head of the line stood a heavily charred man wearing remnants of plain looking, 1700’s-era clothes. He held a blackened straw hat over his chest and nodded at my acknowledgement of his presence.

Try as I might, I could not hold back from asking the man, “What the hell happened to you?”

With an unimpressed expression on his face, the man replied, “I got blown up!” In hindsight, his answer should have been pretty obvious.

“Oh,” I hesitated for a moment, feeling like the idiot of the room, then sighed and added, “I know the feeling.”

“I got that impression,” the man replied sarcastically, casting a questioning look at my boss. “I really don’t see how this fool–”

“This is Axel,” the Devil cut him off, trying to break the tension. “He’s my sort of ‘first-in-command’ and he’s the best person qualified to help you.” After a moment’s pause, he tacked on, “Of course, he’s also my ‘only-in-command’, so if you’ve got a problem with his help then you’re out of luck.

I didn’t know whether that last part was an attack on me, the charred man, or both of us. Knowing my boss, it was directed at both of us.

“What’s going on?” I asked the two of them.

“This is Eli. As you already know, his night went just about as well as yours did,” the devil smirked. “Apparently someone in his village has taken to blowing things up. Since you’ve recently become the expert in such matters, I thought you could give him a hand with his investigation.”

“That’s not quite it!” the man hastily added. “My village, no, my entire realm is made up of simple folk. These last few nights, several of the main buildings in our town square have been violently detonated. First the library, then my general store. I got word that the town hall was already hit while I was standing in this god-forsaken line of yours!” He paused for a moment after his outburst.

“And how is this anything that needs my attention?” I asked my boss, somewhat ignoring the prudish individual in front of me.

After composing himself, the man named Eli continued, “No one from my realm could have the know-how or the supplies to cause explosions of this magnitude. Short of loading the buildings up with manure and hoping for a good enough bang, it’s just not conceivable.”

I was apparently still giving him a look like he was crazy because he then glared a bit and added, “And yes, I would have noticed the smell. I was in my building when it went up.”

“Based on the location and importance of the targets, Eli believes the next attack will be on the church.” the Devil added. “It’s probably nothing more than an unhappy villager wanting to make a name for himself. Even so, I’ve got a bad feeling about it and I’d like you to go back with him and at least help with a steakout tonight.”

“Alright, alright,” I said, walking toward my archway. “So where am I going?”

“Simple-Life 63, the village of Christine.”

“Right, got it.” I yelled back, almost to the door.

“Axel!” the Devil called. I turned abruptly only to have a flashlight thrown in my face.

“I figured that would work better for you then a lantern… you know, just in case.” He smirked at me once more.

“Yeah yeah, have your fun. I’m sure you’ve been blown up once or twice in your day!” I replied.

“We didn’t have explosives in my day!” he laughed. With that he nodded in Eli’s direction. The man then faded away and was returned to his realm.

I headed through my archway and followed suit, feeling the world fade away.

I soon found myself in a small village square. I was surrounded by rough wooden buildings. Off in the distance I could see acres of farmland spanning toward the horizon. Looking around, I found a trail of black building wreckage. I followed it with my eyes until I had to turn around.

Behind me was a great stone structure with a steeple towering overhead. There were stained glass windows along the front and sides of the church. Two heavy wooden doors formed the entryway.

“Axel!” I heard behind me. I turned around to see Eli waving to me. He hurried over to my location and began to inform me his plan.

“I’ve got to go gather the village elders. We’re not used to dealing with disaster like this. I plan to bring a few fit individuals back to help us with our watch tonight.”

“So should I tag along or–”

“No,” he cut me off, adding, “I think it’d be best if I talked to them alone. They are… traditional people who aren’t particularly trusting of outsiders.” He again gave me that questioning gaze from earlier. “Stay here and familiarize yourself with our church.”

“Alright, I’ll look around a bit.”

“And be CAREFUL, please. We don’t need any more disruptions.”

With that request, he left and headed toward some residential looking buildings on the further edge of the village. Presumably this was a temporary town hall for the elders to gather in.

I turned around again and walked up the stone steps leading to the church doors. With a hard push one of them creaked open and I walked inside. Before me was a large hall, much bigger than it had seemed from the outside. As I walked down the aisle, colored light beams from the stained glass were shining all around.

On the back wall of the church, behind the alter, was the largest stained glass window of all. A large colorful depiction of Jesus shined light across the room. He had a particular smile that if I didn’t know better would kind of resemble my boss’s.

It amused me that such a large group of people, having died and met the Devil himself, would continue to go to church every day and pray to their lord. Maybe I was missing something in this picture, but to me it just seemed illogical.

I continued to explore the church until I was confidant I had the entire building covered. During that time, Eli returned with a group of men to help with the steakout. From afar, I could see him pointing around and giving orders to his men.

A few minutes later, he gave me a position as well, “Stand guard over there and watch the windows.” He pointed to the far corner between the back of the church and the forest. A location that was almost completely hidden from the sight of the village.

As I opened my mouth to argue, he cut me off with “I appreciate your help Axel, however I must remind you that the other villagers are not so keen on receiving help from outsiders.” Through his tone of voice, I really couldn’t tell if he was sincere about appreciating my help or not. “Please just take your position and leave the rest to us.”

On that abrupt note, he again turned and left, taking his own position near the front doors of the church. Feeling a little defeated, I wandered over to my corner in the back. Between me, Eli, and his men we had the entire perimeter surrounded. There was no way anyone was getting inside without a fight.

The afternoon passed by slower than waiting in the Devil’s queue line. Every hour there was a horn that would sound somewhere in the village. This obnoxious sound was presumably a stand in for the church bell we had sealed off access to. The horn, like the bell would have, sounded once for every hour past noon it was.

I watched as the skyline above the trees turned a bright orange. If it hadn’t been for the sun starting to set, I wouldn’t have believed the horn sounding. I counted it out to seven, in disbelief that it could be only seven o’clock.

Darkness started to settle in around me. I reached to my side and drew the flashlight I had clipped to my belt. At least searching by flashlight was a little more interesting. I scoured the line of trees for anything out of the ordinary. The beam of light cast shadows that danced between each tree.

From my corner I could see lantern light shining around the building. Our perimeter line cast a glow upon the entire building… except mine of course. My corner stayed darkened with only quick flashes of light keeping would-be arsonists at bay. I felt disadvantaged to the others, but stayed vigilant. Who needs to be able to see anyway?

The night continued quietly. No signs of movement, no sounds except wildlife, nothing out of the ordinary.

SMASH! I turn around to see the shattered remains of the Jesus window rain down onto the ground. In the midst of the shimmering glass shards a dark figure leapt toward the forest. Behind me, the glowing lanterns began to close in to my location.

None of them were missing, the line hadn’t been breached. The mysterious figure had somehow been hiding inside already.

Wasting no time, I took off in a sprint toward the forest. I picked up speed, running much faster than the average human. The villagers wouldn’t be able to keep up, but I’d rather they not get hurt anyway.

Shining my flash light in front of me, I caught faint glimpses of a silhouette. I closed in on them. When I was less than twenty feet away, close enough to almost make out their features, my attention got directed elsewhere.

A loud boom echoed through the forest. I immediately pivoted around to see bright orange flames at the forest’s edge and smoke billowing high. My mission’s objective returned from the back of my mind. I could hear my boss’s would-be words echo in the back of my head. “You had one job Axel!”

I tried to shake off my feeling of guilt and returned to the chase. I drew close to the arsonist once more, determined to bring him down so that at least something good could come of tonight.

Just a few feet behind, I reached out for a grab… WHAM!

I came to my senses a moment later, flat on the ground. My target had turned and elbowed me in the face just as I reached out for him. I could hear footsteps leaving the scene. By the time I was on my feet though the footsteps had stopped.

I scoured the trees with my flashlight. The footsteps hadn’t trailed off far away, they had just stopped. The trees in this area weren’t very dense and there didn’t seem to be anywhere to hide. The arsonist had vanished as mysteriously as he had infiltrated the church.

As I looked around, something caught my eye. On the ground next to where I had fallen was a flat piece of paper. The paper looked pristine, it hadn’t been there long. I picked it up and was dumbfounded by it’s contents.

Here, in the middle of this realm of god-fearing farmers… was an advertisement flier for a bar. A modern bar, not an old fashioned tavern or pub. In fact, this particular bar looked familiar. “Truth in Shadows”. After a moment, the location sunk in.

“Truth in Shadows” was where I had found Toni Giuliani just a few nights earlier. But how could this flier be here in this realm?

Not wanting to stick around and get hell from the villagers for letting their church blow up, I decided to follow this new clue while the trail was hot. Focusing for a minute, I brought myself back to the street corner from several nights ago.

I materialized across the street from the bar and waited for a minute, contemplating the trap I had to be walking into.


July
15th

Chapter Four

by: Simon McDougall


I stood there, staring at the bar, for a good five minutes. I knew it was a trap, it had to be, but at the same time this was my only lead.

Several cars drove by, their drivers gawking at me while I prepared myself. I took a deep breath and began to cross the road. I reached down and felt the weapon holstered at my side, taking comfort in its presence.

As I got closer, I noticed a brand new window in the door to the Truth in Shadows. The window still had factory stickers on it. Recalling a few nights before, I felt guilty for having shot out the poor guy’s window.

I entered the shady bar. The lighting was much dimmer than usual, and I could only just make out the bartender due to some accent lights around the bar.

As my eyes adjusted, I could tell that the entire room was packed. Almost every seat was taken, but due to the lighting, all the faces looked blank. As I approached the counter, the barkeep looked up at me with a scowl.

“I believe this is yours,” the man grumbled, handing me my long since forgotten debit card. “Today’s already paid in full, and then some. I took the liberty of charging your card in advance,” he continued, smirking. “What can I get you?”

“Rum and Coke I guess?” I shook my head at the situation and took a seat. I didn’t feel up to a drink, especially in the presence of such ominous company. The way he asked it, I didn’t feel like I had a choice in the matter.

As the barkeep fixed my drink, I began to catch glimpses of the other patrons. I thought it was my imagination at first, but as I started to make out their features, the crowd seemed too familiar.

My eyes adjusted more to the darkness and my fears began to come true. The other patrons of the bar were all individuals I had tracked down before, all souls I had brought to judgment. Each and every one of them I had encountered already, but most importantly, not one of them belonged in this realm!

The faces started to sink in, and memories of past missions flooded back to me. These men were brutes and killers, all of whom I’m sure would give anything for a shot at revenge. The realms that these souls had been condemned to were, after all, not the most hospitable.

The only soul I couldn’t recognize was a hooded figure in the corner. For whatever reason, this person was dressed in baggy clothes and a hoodie with the drawstrings pulled tight. I can imagine there are a number of people that wouldn’t want me to recognize them. Still though, I found it peculiar that only this one out of the crowd decided to stay anonymous.

My drink soon arrived. I sipped at it as I contemplated my next move. I didn’t have long to think about it before several of the dark figures closed in on me.

A moment later a hand clamped down hard onto my shoulder and I felt the sharp pressure of a knife against my back. A broad-shouldered man towered over me. I recognized him. He was a cold blooded killer, known for mutilating his victims.

“We’d like to have a quick word with you,” the man said. The knife against my back pierced through my jacket and poked cold against my skin. “And your good friend the barkeep, has kindly requested that we take our ‘conversation’ outside.”

Upon mention of himself the barkeep quickly turned away, pretending to look busy organizing some liquor bottles. The hand on my shoulder and knife on my back began to move, guiding me out of my chair.

The other individuals formed a circle around me, each wielding knives. Together they escorted me out the door and around into the alleyway. They formed rows blocking off either exit and threw me into the middle.

I looked around and noticed that the fire escape I had climbed last time was unfortunately missing its bottom two levels. They looked like they had been ripped from the wall, leaving large holes where the supporting bolts had been. I could jump pretty high, but not high enough to reach it. There was a second story window, that I could maybe reach though.

As I thought about my escape plan, the gang began closing in. Three individuals broke away from the crowd. Two in front of me and one behind me. The man to my front right came at me first. I sidestepped his knife and elbowed him in the back of the neck.

I drew my weapon and shot the man who had approached from behind. He fell to the ground clutching his shoulder. During my counterattack though, the last individual caught me off guard and cut a decent gash in my side. I grabbed his arm as quick as I could and threw him back into the crowd.

I managed to wound several of them with some hasty shots before the entire crowd closed in on me. Attacks came from all sides. Having a gun becomes useless when all you can do is dodge and counter. Whoever invented the adage ‘Don’t bring a knife to a gun fight’ had obviously never had the odds reversed on him.

Strength in the afterlife isn’t tied to an individual’s muscles. What value would muscles be to a soul? Strength here is measured by strength of will. As such, even a scrawny guy like me can hold his own against a burly murderer or two. A whole bar’s worth however is still a bit much.

After repeated knife strikes, elbows to the face, stomach, and just about everywhere else, I felt down for the count. I almost wished they’d just kill me and get it over with, at least then I’d be back home. Somehow though, that didn’t seem to be their intent. I laid on the ground, helpless, trying to regain my strength.

“Not so tough now, are you?” questioned the broad-shouldered murderer from the bar as he kicked me hard in my side. A few other blurred insults came from the crowd as I struggled to stay aware of my surroundings.

Suddenly I felt myself get picked up by the collar. I could vaguely make out the person who had me. It was the hooded individual from the back of the bar. I prepared for the worst as they pulled me in close to them. A soft voice whispered a single word into my ear.

“Run.”

Suddenly, wind was whipping by me as I was tossed through the air. I felt a hard impact as glass shattered against my head. Dazed and disoriented, I stumbled to my feet.

I found myself in the second story apartment, as a confused family stared awkwardly at my abrupt entrance. Wasting no time, I ran out their front door and toward the roof.

Strength in Hell is based upon an individual’s will… and whoever just threw me sure had a strong one.

I summoned the last bit of my strength and hopped across a few buildings to find a place to hide. I sat down a moment to rest amongst the herbs in someone’s rooftop garden.

Below, I could hear the angry mob kicking in doors and scouring homes in search of me. I couldn’t help but feel bad for the lives I had just interrupted. I’d be sure to put in a good word for them with my boss when I got home. Home. I struggled to focus on the place.

I envisioned the Throne Realm, with it’s gray stone walls and red carpet. I thought of the queue line, the throne, the hallway to my room. My room itself, involuntary decorations and all. It’s really hard to focus when you’re bleeding out from bruises and knife wounds. The world began to faded away, then back in, then away. I wasn’t sure if I was beginning to transport myself home or just passing out.

Eventually, just as I heard the door to my roof kicked open, things faded out completely. I managed to get my eyes open again, just for a second. I was awake only long enough to see a red carpet of disgruntled souls and a well-dressed man in a top hat running toward me.

— * —

It wasn’t until the next morning that I woke up in my bed. As I struggled to open my eyes, I could see the Devil waiting in my room. He was sitting in a small wooden chair in the corner, leaning it back against the wall on two legs.

“About time you woke up,” he joked at me, landing his chair on the floor.

Still in a daze, I rolled my eyes and turned my head away.

“They didn’t belong there.” I replied, trying to find my thoughts.

“Hmm?” the Devil questioned.

“The men who attacked me. They weren’t supposed to be in that realm. Neither was the arsonist from Christine.” I struggled to piece together my memory.

“So something was up after all.” He paused a moment to think. “If the souls of the dead really have learned to move between the realms, then our problems are just beginning. Why don’t you stay here and rest for a few days,” he added as he got up and headed toward the door. “Gonna need you in good shape if things keep up this way.”

“This is only the beginning of something much bigger than us,” I said as he reached the door.

“What’s that?”

“Nothing. Just something Toni Giuliani said to me the night I caught him.”

“Hmm,” he paused to think again. “Let’s hope it really is just ‘nothing’ then. Get some rest Axel.” My boss turned and left the room.

As I lay in my bed my fight wounds continued to burn and sting. Every inch of my body felt beaten and sore. Ordinarily, I heal up pretty quickly. Deep wounds of the soul though can sometimes take much longer to heal, and I certainly felt wounded. I closed my eyes again and decided to get some much needed rest.

— * —

The next few weeks passed by uneventfully. I got back on my feet within the following day and a half and returned to business as usual. Across all the realms there seemed to be a universal rise in crime rates. Each and every one of my investigations however turned up empty.

I managed to catch a few regular criminals here and there, but no one involved in the events of that night. The few individuals that did seem to be involved in unusual activities turned out to be nothing but pawns or blind accomplices. Not one of them had any useful information to provide.

Honestly, at this point I wished that I had done more than just wound those bar thugs. At least one fatality would have been one soul we could interrogate. Maybe then we’d have some answers.

Meanwhile however, my boss was intent on sending me to talk to the one person in the afterlife I wanted nothing to do with.

“Of all people, why do I have to talk to her?” I asked.

“Because, she says she has information on what’s been going on. Last time I checked, that’s more than you can say,” he taunted me.

“Fine! I blame you for any mental trauma that comes of this though,” I scoffed as I walked toward my archway. “I’ll report back if she tells me anything interesting. If she wastes my time though I’m going to waste yours and take the rest of the day off.” Without looking back for a reaction, I headed through the stone arch. I envisioned a secluded rural street corner I’d grown too familiar with over the last few years.

I walked down the street, stopping in front of a small two story house. It was a white house with baby blue shutters and some decent hedges forming a parameter around the front lawn. The house itself was older, and a bit of a fixer-upper. I walked up the steps and hesitated at the doorway.

In each realm, the Devil had one or two individuals who would keep tabs on things and contact him if something was unusual. Cops, reporters, investigators, and people with shady pasts. Those were the usual volunteers. Unfortunately for me though, an ex-girlfriend from my former life just happened to be one of them.


November
6th

Chapter Five

by: Simon McDougall


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.

“Y-yeah.”

“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.

“Axel!”

— * —

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.