Devil's Advocate

February
15th

Chapter Six

by: Simon McDougall


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.

‘CLANK’

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.”

“We?”

“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.


April
19th

Chapter Seven

by: Simon McDougall


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.

SMACK!

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.”

“Just you?”

“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.

— * —

Clink!

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.

‘B514235’

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.

“Yes Sir.”

“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.


April
26th

Chapter Eight

by: Simon McDougall


“Hey! How’d today go?” Julia’s voice called from the kitchen. I closed the door behind me and began to untie my shoes.

“Good, I guess. For the most part.” I answered, trying to talk over the unattended living room TV. I stopped to turn it down as I headed toward the kitchen.

“I was watching that,” Julia said with a frown.

I shook my head, “You weren’t even in the room.”

“I was heading back in there in a minute. So, what did you mean by ‘for the most part’?” she asked, shaking a wooden spoon at me.

There were two pots on the stove. One was filled with boiling water and beside it another simmering spaghetti sauce. The smell of the homemade meatballs in the oven filled the room as they cooked.

“The boss wants me to work a job for Yamaguchi,” I sighed.

“What are you talking about? That’s great news! The boss only trusts his best to handle commissions from Yamaguchi. You should consider it an honor.”

“Sorry, I just don’t consider it an honor to work for that prick.” I shook my head.

“Fine, just pretend it’s a regular job and do your best,” Julia said, shaking her spoon at me some more.

Julia never used to make dinner. I could cook circles around her any day of the week. She’d been practicing a lot lately though, and a few times now she’d managed to pull off a meal that was nothing short of spectacular. I’d found myself looking forward to her nights off when she would cook.

She’d had a lot of time to practice since we’d moved in here. We lived in a house that the boss had graciously provided us. Well, provided Julia actually. We’d been here for about a year and a half. It was the first time we had really lived somewhere that felt like home.

We didn’t own the house. It’s hard to own a house when you claim to be ‘unemployed’. Fortunately for us, everything was taken care of.

Yamaguchi was the owner of the house, and quite a few other properties that the boss would lend out as needed. He had deep pockets, and the boss was greatly indebted to him for his help.

Whether it was shifting properties around or anything else weighed in monetary value, Yamaguchi had the cash flow to make it happen. The trade off was that he liked to keep his hands clean, and he’d always leave his dirtiest work for the boss.

The boss always painted his relation to Yamaguchi as a friendship, but now I wasn’t so sure. It was awfully convenient to have a ‘friend’ who can pay the bills, especially if they’re helping to pull you up the financial ladder alongside them.

We sat down at the table for dinner. As we ate, we talked about our plans for the future. Just like the boss, we had our own ambitions about moving up.

A future that involved not being indebted to the boss wasn’t on the agenda. We knew there was probably no way out when we started down this path. It wasn’t something we thought much about, as the benefits often outweighed the downsides.

Still, we always dreamed of hitting it big someday. We dreamed of being independent, but also of being in charge. Moving up was our goal, one way or another.

I looked around at everything we had now. We were pretty well-off. Our house was furnished with expensive furniture and fixtures. We always bought top shelf foods and never had to worry about making ends meet.

For now, we had found our place, and that felt good.

It was quiet for most of the evening. Julia had retired to the bedroom to read a book while I cleaned up the kitchen. I soon heard my name being called from the other room.

“Axel!” Julia called in a provocative tone of voice. Before I could respond, her voice called again, “Axel,” this time more seductively.

I walked down the hall to the bedroom to find Julia lying warmly on the bed. She looked at me with a devious grin as we made eye contact. I--

— * —

I shook my head and tried to shut out the memory. It wasn’t something I wanted to think about. Not now or ever. Thinking about our past only filled me with a sense of guilt. I moved on from that life long ago, and there wasn’t any part of me that wanted it back.

Knock, knock. There was no answer. I pounded a little harder on the door. “Hey Eddie, you in there?”

I turned the knob and cracked the door open. To my surprise, the door did not catch on its chain lock, but swung right open. The front door opened into a messy living room.

Trash littered the table and floor. There wasn’t much of a distinction between garbage and items of actual importance. The area around the living room table was carpeted, and on that carpet was a growing red stain.

Eddie lay on the ground, propped up against the foot of his couch. The surrounding area was covered in red fingerprints and smudge marks. His hands were covered in blood and clenched against a bullet wound in his chest.

“Hey Axel. Thanks for the help, I knew you’d come back,” he said delirious but sincerely.

I shook my head, “What happened to you?”

“They came back early. I guess they saw you leave here and thought they’d check in ahead of schedule.”

Eddie coughed up some blood and looked around in a dizzy haze. “Hang on, you’re gonna be okay,” I said to him. “This isn’t even the worst part. Having to wait in that damn line will make you wish you were still here bleeding.”

“Yeah, I don’t think that’s gonna happen.” In his dying state, his words were much clearer than usual. His chronic nervousness and paranoia were non-existent. He was making me worried, though.

“What do you mean?”

“That deal I mentioned. It didn’t go south. I double-crossed the wrong guys, Axel. They said I ain’t coming back from this one.” As Eddie spoke, my mind started racing with gruesome scenes of the previous day’s investigation.

“Do me a favor,” Eddie said. His voice was getting weaker. “Somewhere over there,” he pointed toward the kitchen, “I wrote their address down. Their headquarters are inside a big corporate building in Jameson. Pay them a visit for me?”

“Sure, you got it. I’ll give them a good, old-fashioned ‘talking to’,” I said, patting my side-arm.

Eddie smiled back at me. “Thanks pal. I should have got to know you better when we were still alive. Oh, and sorry this place is such a mess.”

After a final smirk, the expression faded from his face. His hands relaxed away from his wound and his head fell to the side.

A moment later and the familiar process started again. A circumscribed pentagram burnt itself into his forehead as his body caught fire.

Eddie burned away, leaving only the smell of his charred carpet behind. Although his surroundings burned from the flames, the fire itself did not spread. When Eddie was gone the flames stopped too.

I closed my eyes. I slammed my hands angrily onto the floor. Eddie might have been a low-life, but even he didn’t deserve this.

I tried to reassure myself about his fate. Technically, I didn’t know where he was sent to, but I had a feeling. There was only one place left he could go that I wouldn’t recognize.

The Pit. A fiery Hell to spend all of eternity. Given the choice, I hoped that Eddie had simply ceased to exist altogether. Anything would be better than going there.

I pulled myself together and headed toward the kitchen. There was a pile of assorted notes and papers on the countertop. The address that Eddie mentioned was probably somewhere in this mess.

After a few minutes of rummaging through what must have been Eddie’s idea of organization, something caught my eye. Underneath some other papers the letters ‘Mr. Ya-’ demanded my attention. I pulled the paper out from the others.

My heart sank when I saw the full name. ‘Mr. Yamaguchi’. It was a common family name, so in all likely hood it was a different person. Then again, during his life Eddie had often worked for the Yamaguchi that I knew.

The address seemed right. It was located in, Jameson, the next city over. The note said the address was for the Yamato Corporation.

Ghosts from the past always seem to come back and haunt me. I’ve never been able to escape from them. I reached down, patted my weapon, and smirked. I never cared for Yamaguchi. Maybe now I’d be able to voice my opinion on the matter.

I left Eddie’s apartment in the sad state I’d found it and headed outside. I planned to check in with the Devil’s contact in this city and ask around about the Yamato corporation while I was at it. I’d see what information I could turn up.

I clenched my fists as I walked down the street. Eddie’s death infuriated me, but I wasn’t sure why. Part of it was the idea that Yamaguchi could be responsible for it. There was also the idea that in an otherwise forgiving afterlife, there now existed a form of permanent death.

Had Eddie joined up with this pentagram gang? Or was this fate forced upon him explicitly as a twisted punishment. Could there be others who were being killed off with no chance of redemption?

I turned the corner and came across a familiar face. The bank robber from earlier and I were staring each other down. After an awkward few seconds, his expression grew panicked. He turned and tried to run, but I grabbed his arm.

“Wait!” I growled. I reached into my coat pocket and retrieved the money I had withdrawn for Eddie. With a heavy sigh, I handed the folded bills over to the misguided youth.

“What’s this?” he asked.

“A generous donation,” I said disheartened. “Do yourself a favor and stay out of trouble. Believe me, it’s not worth it!”

With that said, I walked right on past him. He stood speechless for a moment and then tried to yell his appreciation from a distance. I kept waking however, and didn’t stop to acknowledge his words.

What a failure of a criminal. The curious thought bounced around my head. He wouldn’t last two minutes in a real situation. You’ve got to have more than a ski mask and a duffle bag to pull off a bank heist. That’s a serious mission after all. Getting away scot-free from a job that dangerous was something only the criminally elite could manage.

— * —

“Deception Breaks the Bank.” After a short stare-down, the man blocking my path stood aside.

“Come on in,” the guard answered. As I entered the building, his eyes remained focused on the dark alleyway behind me.

The guard resumed his post, and payed no mind to my presence. It was assumed that I knew the way to my destination. I wasn’t planning to stay long. I was going to get in quickly, and get out as soon as I had made my presence known.

The corridor was dimly lit. I proceeded forward, ignoring the doors around me. I’d know when I was at the right one. I could hear loud music playing from down the hall. It got louder the further I traveled.

My path ended at a pair of double doors on the right. I carefully pushed one open as the music attacked my eardrums.

“Hey Axel, you made it!” a patron yelled to me. I gave a quick wave and took in my surroundings. Off to my right was a crowded bar manned by a lone bartender trying to keep up. Straight ahead was a stage, presently dominated by a DJ. A showgirl sat close by sipping a drink, having relinquished her stage for the moment.

Off to the left was the VIP area, and its permanent occupant, the boss. Sitting in luxury as usual. He’d been known to reserve this establishment on occasion. Whenever there was cause enough to celebrate.

This was, however, the biggest gathering I’d seen here by far.

“Look who finally showed up!” a voice called behind me. Through the darkness I could see the bright highlights of Julia’s pink and blue hair approaching from the left corner of the room. She had a drink in her hand, and judging by her lively demeanor, it wasn’t her first.

“Don’t sound so excited,” I said, contending with the music for the right to be heard. “I’m not planning to stay long.”

Julia shook her head, “You never stay long. For once just try to enjoy yourself.” I rolled my eyes at her statement. Her focus was directed elsewhere though.

“Hey!” Julia yelled into the crowd, “HEY!” Failing to attract the attention of a friend, she handed me her drink and bolted into the party.

I brought the glass of brown liquid up to my face. The strong smell of alcohol burned my nostrils and caused me to wrinkle my nose. After a deep breath, I took a swig of Julia’s drink, hoping to loosen up a little.

I didn’t drink much. I had only recently turned twenty-one, and never had much interest in alcohol. Julia on the other hand had been drinking the hard stuff since before I met her.

I looked out into the crowded room, hoping to find a familiar face. You could say I was among ‘friends’ here, but I preferred to think of them as only ‘acquaintances’. I tried not to get too attached to anyone. You never knew who would be coming back tomorrow and who wouldn’t.

Julia didn’t have this problem. She was able to befriend someone and still completely detach from them at a moment’s notice. I guess it was just her way of life. Very few loses had ever made her cry.

As I navigated the party, I stumbled across one of my few ‘almost friends’, a guy named Maxwell. We had been on a few jobs together before. “Max!” I waved to him.

“Axel!” he greeted me. “How you been?”

“Good I guess.” Max was a few years older than me. Well, more than a few, he was in his thirties. He always seemed impressed with me and how much I had accomplished at my age.

“Just good? You were part of the big heist weren’t you?” he asked with enthusiasm.

This party was in celebration of a recent job our gang had pulled off. It was a complicated collaboration involving most of the boss’s inner circle. We intercepted an armored van, emptied a bank vault, unloaded the loot in an abandoned warehouse, then ditched the van in a rival’s territory.

“I only played a small part. You know that.” We all had parts to play, but the heist itself was something way out of my league. My part involved nothing more than some research on the buildings and organizations we had to infiltrate.

“Hey, every part helps. A good job has to be like a well-oiled machine. Every gear has to play its part after all.”

“That might be true, but I don’t think I could manage what the others had to pull off.” Max laughed at my statement. There had been many other roles involved in the heist. Surveillance, research, resources, planning.

I was thinking of Julia in particular though. She had been working undercover these last few weeks as a mole within the bank. Just an innocent new bank teller. She’d still be working there for another week or two to keep her cover.

I talked with Maxwell for a few more minutes before someone new joined our discussion. A short, wimpy-looking individual with a rodent-like face. He made himself at home talking to Max for a moment before Max thought to introduce us.

“Oh, have you met Eddie?” he asked. “Eddie, this is Axel. Axel, Eddie.”

“Um, hi,” said Eddie, his voice trembling. “I’ve, uh, heard of you before.” Eddie’s eyes darted around, refusing to make eye-contact with anyone for more than a moment.

“Eddie’s a great guy,” Max chimed in, directing the conversation away from its awkward introduction. “Eddie is the guy you go to when you need to know something. Anything. Eddie’s your man. Am I right?”

“Yeah, I guess I’m, uh, pretty well informed.” Whenever Eddie spoke, there was an air of paranoia around him. He’d nervously look around as if he expected someone to be listening in. Even here, among friends, he seemed to have a guard raised that he would not let down.

“Oh really?” I asked. “Give me an example then.”

“Nope. Sorry. I, uh, don’t work for free.”

“Okay, how about I buy you a drink?” I offered.

“Drinks are on the house tonight. Besides, I charge, um, well, a lot more than the price of a drink.”

“How about a drink next time then. Hey Barkeep!” I yelled. We were only a short distance from the bar. “Give this guy a drink on me sometime later this week!” The bartender gave me a thumbs-up.

“Alright, fine.” Eddie said with a sigh. “What do you want to know?”

There was something I already had in mind. I looked over at the boss in his VIP corner. The large man sat comfortably in an armchair. Female attendants catered to his every need. Well, almost every need, I’m sure.

“The boss. What does he think of me?” I asked.

“You sure you want to open that can of worms?” Eddie replied. He paused a moment, but when I said nothing, he continued. “The boss thinks you’ve, um, gotten comfortable. Soft. He expects more from you in the future.”

“More?”

“Yeah, more. He thinks you have more, uh, potential. He expects you to up your game. If you don’t, then he intends to force you to by assigning you more, um, difficult jobs.”

“Difficult? What do you mean?”

“You know. Um. The type of work where a few guys enter a room, but only one leaves. And all that much, um, wealthier than before.”

The news rattled me, but I wasn’t surprised. I didn’t like to hurt people. The boss knew this. I had killed people in the line of work before. Twice. Both times in self-defense, and not without grief. It was something I’d prefer to avoid at all costs.

Work had gotten more dangerous in recent days. I had started carrying a concealed gun in preparation for the next time things turned rough. I had no intention of using it for anything but survival though.

“Okay, what about--?”

“Julia?” Eddie answered, cutting me off.

“Yeah, how’d you know?” I asked.

“Please. No one says your, name around here without mentioning hers in the same, sentence. Julia is the boss’s little princess. He’d give her anything she wants if it, um, kept her happy. He’s not about to make her do anything she don’t want to.”

“Sounds about right.” I sighed.

“He knows she’s loyal to a fault. And she is. To both you and him.”

“What if--”

“Nope. No more answers. I already gave you two drinks worth for the price of one. I’m not in the, uh, habit of giving discounts.”

Eddie’s expression grew smug. “Alright then,” I shook my head, “Maybe next time then.”

“Next time you’d, uh, better bring some real money with you though.”

I turned and headed into the crowd to search out Julia. I had kept my cool during our conversation, but secretly my stomach was churning. I needed some time to think, and wasn’t about to bug Julia with all the news I’d received.

When I did find her, she was having quite the time with her friends. I couldn’t bring myself to tell her anything except that I was heading home.


May
15th

Chapter Nine

by: Simon McDougall


I tracked down two of the Devil’s contacts, one in Marcus and one in Jameson and asked them what they knew about the Yamato Corporation. After talking to them, as well as a multitude of townsfolk, the evidence was pretty damning.

The company itself appeared about a year ago, and with it came a huge increase in local crime. Break-ins and petty theft nearly doubled overnight, but more importantly, people started going missing.

As the newest source of local employment, in a world where local was all you had, residents flocked to its doors. Rumors claimed that in this last year, about one in three job applicants had gone missing. One in ten employees had vanished as well. To anyone who valued their life, the Yamato Corporation was a place to stay away from. If you believed the rumors at least.

Supposedly, the head of the company had quickly amassed local gangs into a serious crime syndicate. They had been acting in ways far more organized than ever before. The streets of Jameson had formerly been a place where you feared entering the wrong gang’s territory. Now it was a place you should fear the streets altogether.

The Yamato building towered over me from my alleyway vantage point. The skyscraper was far taller than any of the structures around it. It seemed intentionally placed here as if to make its presence known.

It was a little past midnight, and while much of the building was dark, an office near the top floor glowed brightly like a beacon.

Having only a loosely defined plan, I crossed my fingers and hoped everything went smoothly. Emerging from my cover, I walked out to the side of the road. I reached down and grabbed a chunk of pavement from the edge of a pothole. It was a good sized chunk, and was comprised of several layers of older asphalt.

With a solid grip on its rough surface, I hurled the artificial rock toward the side of the Yamato building. On impact, the strength of my throw served to shatter both the chunk of tar and the large lobby window it struck.

Two security guards came running toward the sound of raining glass. This was my chance. Hugging the building, I made my approach. I concentrated intently on my stealth.

Though it was not something I’d had much luck with before, I had met a few masters of stealth in the afterlife. By focusing on their art, these individuals could render themselves unperceivable to lesser minds.

The guards split up, one staying inside by the broken window, and one coming out to investigate. I took a deep breath and waited beside the door. As the guard opened it, I tried to slip behind him into the building. With some quick footwork, and by sucking in my stomach, I managed to squeeze by without alerting him.

I continued forward and around the corner out of sight, stepping softly all the way. I breathed a sigh of relief that my trickery had worked. The halls of the building weren’t well guarded, and I was able to lessen my stealth.

This lightened ability I was much more comfortable with. It allowed me to easily fool security cameras and the peripheral vision of others. A direct confrontation would break my deception, but as long as I remained careful, I could navigate the building at my leisure.

I wandered the halls searching for a stairwell. There were an abundance of elevators, but it seemed like stairs had gone extinct. The building seemed rather boring, especially for a supposed criminal headquarters. I began to feel I was in the wrong place.

After what seemed like a hundred wrong doors, offices, training classrooms, and maintenance closets, I finally found a door labeled ‘Stairs’. Not a moment too soon either, as I was about to give up and ride the elevator. Probably to my death.

I looked up the stairwell and felt a wave of vertigo. The stairs seemed to continue forever toward the roof. With a sigh, I began my dizzying climb. There were thankfully no cameras or guards in this unused tower. I relaxed and continued at my own pace.

When I reached the top, I spied out the window for a glimpse of what I’d be walking in to. Every floor leading to this one resembled the first. This one however was significantly different.

It resembled the front lobby, but much classier. Marble flooring replaced the vinyl floor tiles of the lobby below. Large marble support columns also decorated the room. The stone motif continued behind the desk where, no surprise, there awaited even more stairs. A grand staircase of stone lead straight then up and out of sight to the left and right.

On either side of the desk, stood a guard. They both appeared to be rather bored and inattentive, but with the open floor providing little cover, I didn’t think I’d be able to sneak past them. Stealth or no stealth.

I watched the guards for several minutes, trying to learn anything I could from them. Unlike the guards at the front door, these two did not dress like security. Instead, they both wore casual street clothes.

They certainly didn’t seem like professionals. If I had to guess, these were just street punks looking to make a quick buck working for the infamous Yamato Corporation.

On the opposite wall from the desk and stairs were two elevators. One of them had a ‘down’ button and one had an ‘up’. Neither elevator went the opposite way. It was almost like a building within a building. This floor acted as a hub between the offices below and the crime syndicate above.

The ‘up’ elevator had an ‘Out of Order’ sign hanging on its door. Not that I would have taken it anyway, but with my options narrowed, it looked like I’d be going through the idiots at the stairs.

Staying out of sight, I gave the door a little nudge with my foot.

“Hey, did you see that?” one of the men asked.

“No, what was it?”

“I don’t know, I swear that door just budged.”

“Nah, you’re imagining it. I told you to get some sleep before today’s shift,” the second man chastised.

I gave the door another good kick.

“I just saw it again! I really think there’s something there.”

“You go check it out then,” his partner answered aggravated.

The first man began walking toward the door. I took a few steps down the stairs so I wouldn’t be immediately visible. The dimwitted guard entered the stairwell. As soon as the door closed I rushed him. Catching him off-guard, I threw him over the railing. He crashed into the stairs one level down. He was knocked unconscious, but he’d live.

Now to see if the other one would be so easy. I concentrated again, attempting to hide myself from his perception as I opened the lobby door. Taking soft steps, I entered the room.

“Stop right there! This floor is closed,” the man yelled. So much for that idea. I started walking more casually and put my hands up, playing innocent.

“Hi, I’m here to see Mr. Yamaguchi.” The guard pulled out his weapon.

“Where’s Frank?” he asked.

“Who? Your friend? He was in a hurry to get downstairs. Security was asking for him. I guess some punk kid broke the front window and they needed the extra help.”

“Oh. That’s funny, I haven’t heard anything on the radio.”

“Yeah, they said the radios are down right now too. Something about interference on the channel. I told them I’d pass the word along on my way up.”

“How stupid do you think I am?” asked the guard as he took aim at me.

“You’re making a mistake. Yamaguchi’s not going to be pleased if you shoot all his visitors.” I began to walk toward the man. He kept his gun pointed at me as I approached, but he was too hesitant to shoot.

“Last warning,” he said, casting me a dirty glare.

“But you haven’t given me a chance to answer your question,” I responded.

“What questi--”

WHAM!

I threw myself into him, knocking his gun aside and punching him in the face.

“Pretty stupid,” I answered smugly. I hit him one more time and knocked him out. After he hit the floor, I kicked his weapon across the room and continued on my way.

‘I... hate... stairs,’ I thought as I climbed the last flight. The rest of the building had been incredibly quiet. I was starting to get anxious. Was no one here tonight? Shouldn’t there be more guards?

I stopped at the second floor from the top. At every floor, there was a sign that listed its occupants. The sign above this door simply read “Yamaguchi”. Apparently he was the whole floor.

I opened the door and found myself before another pair of security guards. It would have been a problem had they not already been unconscious on the floor. I drew my weapon and carefully crept forward. Someone must have arrived before me. I expected an ambush, but everything remained still.

I approached the only real door on this level, the other doors being a locked bathroom, an elevator, and the door I came through.

The door had a large, frosted window, and through it I could see the silhouette of a man at a desk. With my weapon focused on the man, I threw the door open.

The office was huge. As I climbed through the building, the floors had tapered and were much smaller than the ground level. Even so, it still left an impressive amount of space for the executive office.

It was largely empty space, with some personal decorations on the far left and right walls. The entire back of the office was a window overlooking the city below. In front of that window was a large desk, offering at least three or four workspaces worth of room. There at the desk however, sat the man I desired to have a ‘chat’ with.

Hayato Yamaguchi was a slim Asian man in a blinding white suit. He had short jet black hair, which was spiked back. He had a devious smirk at almost all times, and never left the comfort of his office without wearing a pair of sleek sunglasses.

My heart raced when I saw his face. I clenched my teeth and walked toward him, weapon still pointed at his greasy head.

When I entered the room, he seemed calm. He was completely unaware of the fact that ninety percent of his staff had been incapacitated. Some by me and apparently some by another intruder. My blood was boiling though and my mind wouldn’t take the time to worry about that now.

I had seen Yamaguchi threatened before, and he’d always kept his cool, never looking bothered or in distress. The moment he saw my face however, brought a look of horror to his.

“It’s you!” he yelled, pinned backward to his leather chair. “Stay away from me you monster!”

I’m not sure what kind of welcome I was expecting, but it wasn’t that.

“Hi there,” I smirked. “About time we had a little chat, isn’t it?”

“Stay back!” the man cried. Any shred of his dignity had suddenly gone out the window. At his request, I stood still.

“I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say you aren’t running the show here, are you?” Yamaguchi might have his goons to do his dirty work, but I couldn’t imagine him being behind this ‘pentagram gang’.

The Yamaguchi I knew years ago might have been able to orchestrate something bigger, but this hysterical, horrified mess of a man couldn’t hope to stand in his shadow. I cast him an angry look and extended my weapon arm toward him.

He flinched. He was pathetic. What had him so terrified of me? A man who I had never seen fear death, now practically begging for his life.

“I should kill you here, for what you did to Eddie. Unfortunately, I’ve got a hunch that you won’t come back from that either.” I lowered my gun and pointed it at the floor. Motioning my left hand toward him, I said, “Answer my questions, and I’ll let you live.”

“There’s nothing I’m going to tell you!” he answered. His voice was fearful, despite trying to sound confident. I took another step toward him. My gun was still pointed down, but I was ready to shoot him at a moment’s notice if he tried to attack me.

“Stay away I said!” I stopped again. Yamaguchi pulled a handgun out from under his desk and pointed it at me. I raised mine to match. “I’ve seen the crime scene photos. I know what you did to Vinny!”

I stood in a bit of a daze. “I didn’t do anything to the boss,” I blurted out, almost as a reflex.

“I’ve never seen so much gore! It was inhuman!” I was dumbfounded at his words.

“What the hell are you talking about? I don’t know who killed him, but it sure wasn’t me. He made sure of that. He killed me before I ever got the pleasure!”

“Lie all you want, but I’m not going to give you the chance to do the same to me.” He raised his weapon and placed the barrel against his temple. “I leave this world in a way of my own choice. Not at the hands of a psycho like you.”

“Wait--” BANG!

The sound echoed through the room. Yamaguchi fell limp in his chair, his white suit stained crimson. I stood, staring blankly at his body. I felt guilty, but I wasn’t sure why. I had came here to either get answers or put a bullet in him myself. Why should this outcome be any different. Maybe it was the fear in his eyes.

The room filled with the smell of burning leather as the flames took his body. All that remained was a melted chair and charred silhouette on the desk.

“Don’t feel bad for him. He wasn’t a good person.” A voice spoke out from behind me.

I turned to find a cloaked individual leaning against the back wall of the room. I hadn’t heard them come in.

They wore a long, hooded overcoat. Despite the office’s bright florescent lighting, I couldn’t see their face. All light seemed to stop at the edge of their hood, leaving a void of darkness underneath.

“You’d better get going,” the man said. He spoke in a soft, but masculine voice. I was almost certain this was the mysterious benefactor who had helped me escape the alleyway brawl a few weeks earlier.

“What’s your deal? Why are you helping me?” I questioned them.

“I never liked him much,” the man gestured at the singed chair. “Thanks for taking out the trash.”

“How long have you been there?”

“I’ve been standing here the whole time. Guess you two weren’t very perceptive.”

“So you’re the one that took out all the guards?”

“Not very perceptive at all it seems.” The man sounded amused with himself.

“So what do you want with me. You’ve helped me twice now, you must have some agenda.”

“These guys are using you Axel. You don’t even realize you’re a pawn in their game.”

“And you don’t want that? So what am I to you?” I asked, trying to make sense of the man.

“Isn’t it obvious? You’re my knight!” he laughed. “You rush headlong past their defenses hoping to check the king. Whether I’m ready for you to make your move or not.”

“So you’re using me too then?”

“Well, if you really feel you have to label it. I suppose so.” I felt like I could almost see a smirk on his face through the darkness.

“Now it’s time for you to leave,” he continued. “The alarms should be sounding right about... now.” Right on cue, a loud, fire alarm type sound started ringing through the building.

“I wouldn’t take the stairs if I were you. Maybe the elevator though.” He pointed his black leather glove toward the hall. “Unless you plan to jump out the window that is. But I doubt even you could survive that fall.”

“I thought the elevator was out of order.”

“Oh, right,” the man struck his hooded forehead with his palm. “No, it works fine, I put that sign up. See, that’s the problem with these guys, no one questions the little stuff like that. They’re hopeless, really. Unlike you.”

I shook my head at this wildcard of a person. I didn’t know whether or not to trust them. With the alarms ringing though, I didn’t have much choice in the matter. I turned and headed toward the door.

“Now go do your disappearing act. They’ll never check the elevator anyway. I’m sure I’ll see you again soon.” I turned back to question the man, but he was already gone.

When I reached the elevator doors, they opened with a ‘ding’ before I even pushed the button. My guardian angel again I presumed. From around the corner, I could hear the stairwell door open and footsteps approaching. I quickly closed the elevator door.

As the elevator descended through the building, I concentrated on home. By the time it arrived in the lobby, I was already gone.


May
31st

Chapter Ten

by: Simon McDougall


“Goodbye Alex!” my wife called as I walked toward the driveway. “Have a good day at work.”

“Bye-bye daddy!” added my 2-year-old, mimicking his mother’s wave.

He stood next to her, holding tight to her pant-leg. He looked up at her occasionally, to see if he should continue waving. He’d soon have to compete for her attention though. We had another coming any day now.

I smiled and waved back to them as I got in the car. “See you at dinner time!” I answered them. They stood waving in the doorway as I started the car and drove away. That image remained burned in my mind. I didn’t know it, but that was the last time I would ever see them.

My commute to work was always a peaceful drive. We lived in the suburbs of a big city which, unfortunately, was the biggest source of jobs in the area. I shouldn’t complain though, the city was much nicer than where I was from.

The road was lined with autumn-colored trees. Their leaves spiraled in the wind ahead of me, appearing to move in slow motion. It was a nice area.

We’d only moved here about a year and a half ago. The winters here were a little colder than I’d prefer, but other than that, this was where I wanted to be. This was where we would raise our family. Safe and far away from the world of gang violence, chaos, drug deals, and fallen comrades.

I arrived at my workplace, an overwhelming corporate building, one of many that crowded the city. I drove further down the street to a parking garage. It was two blocks from the company, but at least they covered the parking fee.

My work day was nothing spectacular. I was a grunt, filing papers for a big-name law firm. There was no clear path for moving up here, with most positions requiring a great deal of education. It did pay the bills though.

As I shuffled through the large mass of papers on my desk, an executive figure entered the filing room. He looked around, disappointed at its disorganized state.

“Alex, I thought we told you to clean up in here?” he asked in a condescending tone. The man was in his early fifties. Whether it was his age or the suit he wore, he seemed to feel justified in treating me like a kid. “And what about that Jenkins’s case. You’re going to have that to me by the end of the day, right?”

“Yes sir,” I answered nervously. “I was just about to put it together.” I wasn’t. But I had plenty of time to work on that later.

“Good,” he nodded. He stood awkwardly for another few seconds, struggling to utter a forced compliment or a thank you. When that failed, he simply smiled, turned and left the room.

As my day dragged on, I became more and more aware of the clock. I awaited the end of my shift anxiously. When the time came, I dropped the Jenkins’s file onto the executive’s empty desk with a audible ‘flop’ and headed to punch out.

My car waited in the parking garage where I’d left it. After a long day, I almost wished it could drive itself to pick me up. I turned the key to unlock my door, but the lock offered no resistance. “Great, I forgot to lock it,” I complained to myself, shaking my head.

I sat down in the drivers seat, and briefly looked over my possessions. Nothing seemed missing or out of place. With everything in order, I inserted the key into the ignition. For some reason I hesitated to start the car. Leaving the key in its off position, I got back out and examined the cabin a little closer.

Barely visible, there were two black wires running down from the steering column. I traced them as they went below the floor mat and under the driver’s seat. A crude black box hid an improvised explosive device in the shadows. It was something I hadn’t seen in a long time.

With my keys still in the ignition, I locked the door and shut them inside. I calmly walked toward the stairs and back out the way I came. If someone wanted me dead, they’d likely be nearby waiting to hear an explosion. I moved as quickly as I could without attracting any unwanted attention.

In my peripheral vision, I could see two men following me down the street. They acted just as casual as I was, but apparently we weren’t fooling each other. I turned inside a grocery store, hoping it would look like I had forgotten to pick something up after work.

As I turned into the building, I got a better glimpse of the men who followed me. I recognized them, they were Riccardo’s men. These two young men had been recruited by the boss back when I was still around. At one time they had idolized me. It was sad to see them so easily manipulated, but I knew where their loyalties lay. They’d likely stop at nothing to end the individual he’d labeled as a ‘traitor’.

I ducked into an aisle, keeping watch in a mirror that faced the door. Sure enough, the two men entered right after me. They split up at the entrance to comb the perimeter of the store.

How did they find me here? The question burned in my mind. I had taken careful steps to bury my past. They shouldn’t have been able to track me down. Unless...

No. Julia wouldn’t have betrayed me. If she had, they’d have found me years ago. If she’d been willing to rat me out, they’d have ended my life before hers. With her help, I’d been able to avoid the boss until now.

I remembered the last time I’d talked with her. A panicked phone call, unknown to my family. She’d called me at work about a year ago. She told me our password, something we’d established so I’d know she hadn’t been compromised. Julia told me that she thought they were on to her. She had called to say goodbye.

A few days after that, her name was in the paper. ‘Died in a fatal car accident’ the headline read, but I knew that was just a cover up. A pain that I had tried to forget stabbed at my heart. The situation only made the pain that much worse. Julia’s death was in vain, and soon, mine would be too.

I had to find a phone and warn my family. If these goons were after me, the boss had to know where I lived.

At my first opportunity, I made a mad dash for the door. I expected to hear gunfire and shattering glass but the only sound was that of traffic. Maybe they hadn’t seen me. I turned the corner and headed down an adjacent street. In a few seconds, they followed behind me. If they had guns, they weren’t using them.

Turning another corner, I ducked down into a subway station. If I was quick enough, I’d be out of sight before they turned the corner. I could take the subway, but hiding in an enclosed space was probably a bad idea. It’d be best to keep my options open.

I leaned against a wall at the bottom of the stairs and waited. Only one of the men ran past me. They’d split up above-ground. I attacked, hitting the familiar man hard in the side, then in the face when he turned to strike back. He stumbled backward, but shook it off.

My muscles were weak and my reflexes were slow. I’d gotten soft in the four years since I’d started over. I couldn’t win this fight. In the corner of my eye, I could see two security guards approaching, armed with nightsticks. Maybe I could take advantage of them.

I gave my assailant a low kick, knocking him from his feet. As security approached, I ran as fast as I could out of the terminal. I escaped inside the first business I came to, a large hotel.

I ran to the counter and picked up the phone sitting on it.

“Excuse me sir, you can’t--”

“It’s an emergency!” I yelled, shutting up the receptionist.

“Beep beep beep! The number you’ve dialed cannot be reached,” said an automated voice on the receiver. I tried again. And again. The same message played each time.

“Dammit,” I yelled, drawing the attention of everyone in the lobby. They’d disconnected my home phone. I began to panic. Everything I knew was at risk. I had to get home. That’s all I knew.

I ran outside, waving my arms, trying to hail a cab. I only made it a few steps when I felt a hard blow to the back of my head. Everything went black.

When I awoke, there was a black bag over my head. My hands were bound to the back of the wooden chair I sat in. My feet were tied to either chair leg. As I struggled to wake from my stupor, I became aware of the familiar voices around me.

The bag was lifted from my head. It took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the bright florescent lights of the room. The boss’s familiar mug soon came into focus.

“Axel my boy, it’s been awhile,” he sneered at me. “Oh, I’m sorry, it’s Alex now, isn’t it? How insensitive of me.”

“What do you want from me?” I barked at him.

We appeared to be in the kitchenette of a hotel suite. Damn, my luck. I’d managed to hide in the same hotel the boss was in. The two men from earlier were there as well as a few others.

“What do I want?” the boss mocked me. “I only ever wanted what was mine. Didn’t I treat you well Axel?” I didn’t answer. “As I recall, I gave you two a lot. Money, a roof overhead, a chance at a decent life? Never asking for anything in return except your valued service.”

I glared at the man as he pretended to pity himself. “The terms of your employment were simple Axel. Either you paid off your debt to me or you continued to work. Was that so hard to understand? And to make matters worse, you corrupted my little Jewel.”

My breathing grew heavier as I imagined my hands around the boss’s throat. I tried to free them, but my efforts only caused the restraints to bite deeper into my flesh. From the feel of them against my skin, they were comprised of either zip ties or a fine cord. The blood dripping down my wrists caused me to hesitate on trying any further.

“She was never the same after you left you know. Her undying loyalty started to waver. She grew soft, like you. She stopped following orders and began to act on her own.” His voice grew angrier as he continued. “She could have had a future, but you selfishly took that away from her.”

“Shut up you prick! Like you’d ever understand what--”

WHAM!

The boss drew a pistol from a kitchen drawer and struck the side of my head with it. My heavy breathing had begun to sound like a growl under my breath.

“Now now, I don’t think you want to be talking back to me,” said the boss. He screwed a long suppressor onto the end of the barrel and loosely aimed in my direction. “Where was I?” he asked.

“Somewhere between me owing you money and having taken Julia from you,” I replied spitefully.

“Oh, that’s right. Julia was like family to me you know. That’s why I always treated you two so well. But you took that away from me. So now, I’m going to do the same to you.”

“You already took her from--” I stopped dead when I realized what he meant.

“Yes, but you still have more to lose,” he answered. “You took my money, but you’re dirt poor now. There’s nothing on that avenue I can take from you. Jewel was my family, so how about I take yours?”

I opened my mouth to object, but the boss tightened his aim at my head.

“You’ve tried so hard to start a new life. Did you really think you’d pull it off? Did you really think I’d let you go so easily? Sorry boy, but no matter how far you run, you’re not off the hook.”

“My men are rounding up your wife and son as we speak. I’ll be personally paying them a visit after I’m done with you. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but it doesn’t look like they’re going to survive the day.”

“You sick bastard! I’ll never let you get away with this!”

“No, I suppose you wouldn’t. You’ve always had quite the resolve. That’s why I’m not going to make you watch. I’m not dumb enough to let you live that long.”

“AAAAARRRRGGGG!” I struggled to break my restraints one last time.

“Good riddance Axel. Give the Devil my regards.”

BANG!

— * —

The sound of the gunshot jolted me awake. Even though I never really heard the shot, it haunted my dreams.

I had this same nightmare every night for at least a year after those events. Lately I hadn’t been as bothered by it. Maybe I was moving on. Tonight however, the dream had come back with a vengeance. It felt as real as the night it happened.

I don’t know what my contract to the Devil says. I don’t know why I work for him. He must have given me something important though. I know this because in exchange, I’m forbidden to look for my family. They are forever lost to me. Despite the pain, I can’t part with the image of them waving goodbye that day. I’ll hold onto it as long as I can.