“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.”
“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.”
“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.