I stood there, staring at the bar, for a good five minutes. I knew it was a trap, it had to be, but at the same time this was my only lead.
Several cars drove by, their drivers gawking at me while I prepared myself. I took a deep breath and began to cross the road. I reached down and felt the weapon holstered at my side, taking comfort in its presence.
As I got closer, I noticed a brand new window in the door to the Truth in Shadows. The window still had factory stickers on it. Recalling a few nights before, I felt guilty for having shot out the poor guy’s window.
I entered the shady bar. The lighting was much dimmer than usual, and I could only just make out the bartender due to some accent lights around the bar.
As my eyes adjusted, I could tell that the entire room was packed. Almost every seat was taken, but due to the lighting, all the faces looked blank. As I approached the counter, the barkeep looked up at me with a scowl.
“I believe this is yours,” the man grumbled, handing me my long since forgotten debit card. “Today’s already paid in full, and then some. I took the liberty of charging your card in advance,” he continued, smirking. “What can I get you?”
“Rum and Coke I guess?” I shook my head at the situation and took a seat. I didn’t feel up to a drink, especially in the presence of such ominous company. The way he asked it, I didn’t feel like I had a choice in the matter.
As the barkeep fixed my drink, I began to catch glimpses of the other patrons. I thought it was my imagination at first, but as I started to make out their features, the crowd seemed too familiar.
My eyes adjusted more to the darkness and my fears began to come true. The other patrons of the bar were all individuals I had tracked down before, all souls I had brought to judgment. Each and every one of them I had encountered already, but most importantly, not one of them belonged in this realm!
The faces started to sink in, and memories of past missions flooded back to me. These men were brutes and killers, all of whom I’m sure would give anything for a shot at revenge. The realms that these souls had been condemned to were, after all, not the most hospitable.
The only soul I couldn’t recognize was a hooded figure in the corner. For whatever reason, this person was dressed in baggy clothes and a hoodie with the drawstrings pulled tight. I can imagine there are a number of people that wouldn’t want me to recognize them. Still though, I found it peculiar that only this one out of the crowd decided to stay anonymous.
My drink soon arrived. I sipped at it as I contemplated my next move. I didn’t have long to think about it before several of the dark figures closed in on me.
A moment later a hand clamped down hard onto my shoulder and I felt the sharp pressure of a knife against my back. A broad-shouldered man towered over me. I recognized him. He was a cold blooded killer, known for mutilating his victims.
“We’d like to have a quick word with you,” the man said. The knife against my back pierced through my jacket and poked cold against my skin. “And your good friend the barkeep, has kindly requested that we take our ‘conversation’ outside.”
Upon mention of himself the barkeep quickly turned away, pretending to look busy organizing some liquor bottles. The hand on my shoulder and knife on my back began to move, guiding me out of my chair.
The other individuals formed a circle around me, each wielding knives. Together they escorted me out the door and around into the alleyway. They formed rows blocking off either exit and threw me into the middle.
I looked around and noticed that the fire escape I had climbed last time was unfortunately missing its bottom two levels. They looked like they had been ripped from the wall, leaving large holes where the supporting bolts had been. I could jump pretty high, but not high enough to reach it. There was a second story window, that I could maybe reach though.
As I thought about my escape plan, the gang began closing in. Three individuals broke away from the crowd. Two in front of me and one behind me. The man to my front right came at me first. I sidestepped his knife and elbowed him in the back of the neck.
I drew my weapon and shot the man who had approached from behind. He fell to the ground clutching his shoulder. During my counterattack though, the last individual caught me off guard and cut a decent gash in my side. I grabbed his arm as quick as I could and threw him back into the crowd.
I managed to wound several of them with some hasty shots before the entire crowd closed in on me. Attacks came from all sides. Having a gun becomes useless when all you can do is dodge and counter. Whoever invented the adage ‘Don’t bring a knife to a gun fight’ had obviously never had the odds reversed on him.
Strength in the afterlife isn’t tied to an individual’s muscles. What value would muscles be to a soul? Strength here is measured by strength of will. As such, even a scrawny guy like me can hold his own against a burly murderer or two. A whole bar’s worth however is still a bit much.
After repeated knife strikes, elbows to the face, stomach, and just about everywhere else, I felt down for the count. I almost wished they’d just kill me and get it over with, at least then I’d be back home. Somehow though, that didn’t seem to be their intent. I laid on the ground, helpless, trying to regain my strength.
“Not so tough now, are you?” questioned the broad-shouldered murderer from the bar as he kicked me hard in my side. A few other blurred insults came from the crowd as I struggled to stay aware of my surroundings.
Suddenly I felt myself get picked up by the collar. I could vaguely make out the person who had me. It was the hooded individual from the back of the bar. I prepared for the worst as they pulled me in close to them. A soft voice whispered a single word into my ear.
Suddenly, wind was whipping by me as I was tossed through the air. I felt a hard impact as glass shattered against my head. Dazed and disoriented, I stumbled to my feet.
I found myself in the second story apartment, as a confused family stared awkwardly at my abrupt entrance. Wasting no time, I ran out their front door and toward the roof.
Strength in Hell is based upon an individual’s will… and whoever just threw me sure had a strong one.
I summoned the last bit of my strength and hopped across a few buildings to find a place to hide. I sat down a moment to rest amongst the herbs in someone’s rooftop garden.
Below, I could hear the angry mob kicking in doors and scouring homes in search of me. I couldn’t help but feel bad for the lives I had just interrupted. I’d be sure to put in a good word for them with my boss when I got home. Home. I struggled to focus on the place.
I envisioned the Throne Realm, with it’s gray stone walls and red carpet. I thought of the queue line, the throne, the hallway to my room. My room itself, involuntary decorations and all. It’s really hard to focus when you’re bleeding out from bruises and knife wounds. The world began to faded away, then back in, then away. I wasn’t sure if I was beginning to transport myself home or just passing out.
Eventually, just as I heard the door to my roof kicked open, things faded out completely. I managed to get my eyes open again, just for a second. I was awake only long enough to see a red carpet of disgruntled souls and a well-dressed man in a top hat running toward me.
— * —
It wasn’t until the next morning that I woke up in my bed. As I struggled to open my eyes, I could see the Devil waiting in my room. He was sitting in a small wooden chair in the corner, leaning it back against the wall on two legs.
“About time you woke up,” he joked at me, landing his chair on the floor.
Still in a daze, I rolled my eyes and turned my head away.
“They didn’t belong there.” I replied, trying to find my thoughts.
“Hmm?” the Devil questioned.
“The men who attacked me. They weren’t supposed to be in that realm. Neither was the arsonist from Christine.” I struggled to piece together my memory.
“So something was up after all.” He paused a moment to think. “If the souls of the dead really have learned to move between the realms, then our problems are just beginning. Why don’t you stay here and rest for a few days,” he added as he got up and headed toward the door. “Gonna need you in good shape if things keep up this way.”
“This is only the beginning of something much bigger than us,” I said as he reached the door.
“Nothing. Just something Toni Giuliani said to me the night I caught him.”
“Hmm,” he paused to think again. “Let’s hope it really is just ‘nothing’ then. Get some rest Axel.” My boss turned and left the room.
As I lay in my bed my fight wounds continued to burn and sting. Every inch of my body felt beaten and sore. Ordinarily, I heal up pretty quickly. Deep wounds of the soul though can sometimes take much longer to heal, and I certainly felt wounded. I closed my eyes again and decided to get some much needed rest.
— * —
The next few weeks passed by uneventfully. I got back on my feet within the following day and a half and returned to business as usual. Across all the realms there seemed to be a universal rise in crime rates. Each and every one of my investigations however turned up empty.
I managed to catch a few regular criminals here and there, but no one involved in the events of that night. The few individuals that did seem to be involved in unusual activities turned out to be nothing but pawns or blind accomplices. Not one of them had any useful information to provide.
Honestly, at this point I wished that I had done more than just wound those bar thugs. At least one fatality would have been one soul we could interrogate. Maybe then we’d have some answers.
Meanwhile however, my boss was intent on sending me to talk to the one person in the afterlife I wanted nothing to do with.
“Of all people, why do I have to talk to her?” I asked.
“Because, she says she has information on what’s been going on. Last time I checked, that’s more than you can say,” he taunted me.
“Fine! I blame you for any mental trauma that comes of this though,” I scoffed as I walked toward my archway. “I’ll report back if she tells me anything interesting. If she wastes my time though I’m going to waste yours and take the rest of the day off.” Without looking back for a reaction, I headed through the stone arch. I envisioned a secluded rural street corner I’d grown too familiar with over the last few years.
I walked down the street, stopping in front of a small two story house. It was a white house with baby blue shutters and some decent hedges forming a parameter around the front lawn. The house itself was older, and a bit of a fixer-upper. I walked up the steps and hesitated at the doorway.
In each realm, the Devil had one or two individuals who would keep tabs on things and contact him if something was unusual. Cops, reporters, investigators, and people with shady pasts. Those were the usual volunteers. Unfortunately for me though, an ex-girlfriend from my former life just happened to be one of them.