Home was an amazing sight after a long day at work. I pulled into the driveway. The sound of the car engine sputtered off as I removed the key. I quickly grabbed my lunchbox from the passenger seat and headed toward the front door.
Carefully, I hopped from one stepping stone to the next. It had rained the majority of the day and the grass was soaked. At the front door, I inserted my key into the deadbolt. The bolt refused to turn, it was already unlocked. I slowly turned the handle and the same was true.
Instinctually, I turned toward the driveway, expecting my wife’s car to somehow be there. It wasn’t. She wouldn’t be home for another few hours. Probably for the best, I wouldn’t have to worry about her if something here was wrong.
‘Maybe she forgot to lock the door,’ I tried to reassure myself. I knew better though. Slowly, I opened the door and crept inside. I set my lunchbox on the floor and tiptoed forward.
The door hadn’t been forced at all. There were no scratches on the lock and no sign of tampering. I was either being incredibly paranoid about it, or someone was incredibly careful when they picked the lock.
From the entrance, the living room was just ahead. It was the first door on the left. As I approached the doorway, I peered around the corner, hoping to get the upper hand on any intruder. Although I could only see a quarter of the room from where I stood, a reflection on the darkened TV screen provided a peek at the other half.
With a deep breath I turned the corner to check the final quarter of the room. ‘Empty,’ I thought with a sharp exhale. As I let my breath go however, I heard the floor creak elsewhere in the house.
It sounded like it had come from the kitchen. After the one creak however, there weren’t any more stray sounds.
I stepped back into the hallway. The kitchen was at the end of the hall, a straight shot from the front door.
Nothing in the house was out of place so far. I looked around in the hallway, hoping for something I could use as a weapon. We didn’t have a gun in our house. I didn’t want one. I didn’t want the extra reminder of that life.
My best chance for a weapon would probably be a knife from the kitchen. Of course, that was providing I could get to the knives before the intruder got to me. And providing they didn’t have a gun. Okay, it wasn’t a good plan.
I crouched down and peeked into the kitchen from behind a cabinet. I couldn’t see much, but luck was on my side. The setting sun coming through the window had cast the shadow of the intruder across the kitchen floor. They were sitting in a chair at the table. If I were lucky, maybe they’d have their back turned and I could grab a knife.
Why were they at the table though?
Had I left something of interest there. Documents? Valuables? Nothing that I could remember. It didn’t matter what they were after though. I wasn’t going to let my new life be disturbed so easily.
With another deep breath, I sprung from my hiding spot, desperately sprinting across the room. I had no time to examine the intruder, my sights were laser-focused on the counter-top knife block.
Drawing the chef’s knife, the largest of the set, I pushed away from the counter and toward the intruder. I closed in for a quick strike.
Contrary to my hope, the intruder was facing me, not the table. As I glared at the intruder, their eyes met my gaze, unwavering. The seconds seemed to pass in slow motion as I took in the stranger’s appearance. They were unarmed, but even as my knife came just inches from their face, they didn’t flinch.
“Nice to see you too,” she spoke, raising a hand to wave. My knife crashed to the floor with a dull ‘clang’.
Her clothes were less conspicuous than they used to be. Her hair had grown out considerably and its bright colors had faded. There was no mistaking those eyes though. Julia’s eyes could pierce through anything.
Though the changes were subtle, this Julia was different. The wild, once-untameable girl had been subdued. Gone was the punk attitude and rebelliousness I’d become so familiar with. The Julia I’d left behind two years ago... had grown up.
“What are you doing here?” I asked.
“Don’t worry, I wasn’t followed!” she reassured me.
“But how did you find this place?”
“Oh please, you’re easy to find.” I stared bitterly at her. “Okay okay, easy for me to find. That better?” she added.
“What about Riccardo? Is the boss still out looking for me?”
“Actually... I am. He’s had me trying to hunt you down ever since you left. Don’t worry, I’ve been misleading him the entire time. He’s getting impatient though. I don’t know how much longer he’s going to believe me for.”
“He won’t be happy if he finds out... when he finds out.”
“I know,” she answered. “I won’t sell you out though. I promise.” The words came with an uncharacteristic sincerity to them. It felt like Julia had planned this conversation for some time.
“So why did you come here?” I asked. The entire situation had my hair standing on end. Seeing Julia brought up unwanted memories. Memories that I wanted to put behind myself. Memories I hoped would never catch up with me.
Julia stood up. She looked toward the floor, took a deep breath, then looked me straight in the eyes.
“I wanted you to know you were right,” she said. Her voice cracked slightly as she said the words. Her eyes were starting to swell up, but she kept herself from crying. “You were right, and I should have left with you. I should have run far away from that bastard and his gang!”
I’d never truly heard her badmouth the boss before. Julia’s repentance made me wish things had turned out different, if only for a moment.
“I’m sorry,” I uttered, not knowing what to tell her.
“Don’t be. It’s my fault.”
“You could still run away you know.”
“No, I couldn’t. My phony reconnaissance is the only thing that’s kept him away from you this long. If I left, who’d throw him off your trail the next time he finds a lead?”
“You don’t have to...”
“Don’t tell me what I have to do!” she said, clenching her fists. “I’ve been keeping tabs on you for the last year. It’s a nice life you’ve got going for you here. I don’t want to see that go to ruin too.”
“Don’t try to change my mind. It’s been made up for a while now. I only came here today to tell you to be on your guard. I don’t know if Riccardo will find you or not, but I’m going to try my hardest to make sure he doesn’t.”
Julia got up from her chair and rushed past me while looking at the floor. She headed toward the front door.
“Julia! Wait!” I yelled, grabbing her arm.
“Don’t do this Axel. Don’t make this harder for me.” She turned to face me. “I came here to say goodbye. You had your closure, now it’s my turn to leave.”
Without warning, Julia reached her hand around my neck and pulled me in for a kiss. It was short and bittersweet, but left me standing dumbfounded.
“Don’t think too much about it. Besides, your wife will be home soon,” she said halfheartedly with a wink. “Goodbye Axel. And good luck.”
As she walked through the hallway, she called back to me one last time.
“And you were right, it was fun. While it lasted.”
The next thing I knew, I heard the front door shutting behind her. Though it had been so long since I had left her behind, the truth of the matter weighed heavily on my heart. I’d probably never see Julia again.
— * —
I trusted her, at first, but I soon grew skeptical of whether she had succeeded in leading the boss astray. When I heard she died, I’d hoped she’d taken my secrets with her. As more time passed by, I believed it to be true. Then he came for me.
He took everything. I guess I needed someone to blame for the fact that I couldn’t protect them.
The warehouse to the north stood out in the neighborhood like a sore thumb. The old building seemed to predate the nearby homes by at least a decade. Its thin steel walls had rusted over the years, leaving the exterior brown and patchy.
The complex was fenced off from the neighborhood, though it apparently hadn’t stopped many vandals from tagging the walls. In a few spots, the fence had been cut and was stitched back together with thick wire.
With no one around to take notice, it was simple enough to scale the eight-foot fence. I leapt down to the ground and headed around to the front of the structure.
A large rolling door marked the entrance to the warehouse. Two padlocked latches held the door closed. I reached for my weapon and again grasped only empty air.
‘Guess I’ll find another way,’ I thought to myself with a sigh.
The building was two stories tall, with small windows cut every few feet along the second story. I traced them around the building looking for anything I could climb on.
Behind the structure, I found a dumpster next to a large shipping trailer. The trailer was around nine feet tall and an easy climb up from the dumpster lid. The second-story window was within reach.
I didn’t have anything to break the window with. Withdrawing my right hand into my leather jacket, I pulled the open cuff tightly into my fist. I placed my protected hand against one of the window’s eight panes of glass and, with a sharp motion, shattered it.
After clearing away any broken shards, I reached my hand through and unlocked the window. The window rotated along it’s horizontal axis and I carefully slipped underneath it.
Despite its many windows, the warehouse was pretty dark inside. Along the second story perimeter was a ten-foot-wide balcony overlooking the rest of the warehouse. In the far corner of this balcony sat an old desk and chair.
As I walked toward the desk, I found I had a pretty clear view of the empty floor below. There didn’t seem to be anyone else in here. I pulled out the chair to rest my worn-out legs.
It was about ten minutes before she showed up. In the far corner, her dark, cloaked figure faded into being.
“Hello,” she called in her deep, disguised voice. “Anyone in here?”
“Up here,” I waved cautiously. I poised myself, ready to strike at the first sign of an ambush.
“Well get your ass down here then!” Julia yelled after removing her hood.
I grabbed the railing and swung myself over the side, dropping to the floor below. The impact of the concrete sent shots of pain along my sore limbs.
“Let’s get this over with,” I said to her. “What do you want from me, and why should I trust you?”
At the mention of trust, she tossed my gun through the air towards me. I caught it, considered aiming it at her for a moment, then placed it in its empty holster.
“I’m on your side,” she said without warning. “That’s what you want to hear isn’t it?.” Julia had a point, but I wasn’t satisfied yet.
“Why are you working for them? What’s up with the disguise?” I tried to come up with more questions, but the best I could add was, “Why have you been toying with me?”
“You’re fun to mess with, why else?” Julia taunted. “I couldn’t risk you recognizing me and blowing my cover. You have a habit of... how can I put it nicely... being dense?”
I cast Julia an unamused look.
She sighed and continued, “I’ve been investigating this just like you have. Call it a morbid curiosity, but I couldn’t look the other way on this one.”
“So you joined them?”
“I’ve infiltrated their organization. I’ve gotten in tight with Marco. It was the only way to learn his plan.”
“That’s not your job!” I blurted out.
“And what exactly is my job? Sit pretty at home while the Afterlife quite literally goes to hell? No thanks, I’ll take my chances.”
I stood gritting my teeth. I wanted to say something, but I could understand her perspective.
“Besides, what exactly has your investigation turned up? I know everything Marco has planned. Believe me, if you keep wandering around, aimlessly looking for leads, people are going to get hurt.”
“Well, maybe if I hadn’t wasted all my time trailing an undercover freelancer who-- Wait, you know what Marco is planning?”
“I know everything, and that’s why I need your help.”
“Remember that recruitment you busted in Milton? The ritual with the large pentagram.”
“I remember,” I said shaking my head. “All those souls, one slip-up and they’ll burn.”
“Now imagine inflicting that fate on entire cities of unsuspecting people.”
“Marco’s found a way to make it happen. He’s constructing special pentagrams in ten major cites. If he gives the signal, they’ll burn. Then all his men have to do is go in and clean up the mess. Extinguish everyone caught in the ritual--”
“And send the souls to the Pit!” I concluded. “That’s the deal he made with the Old Guy?”
“Precisely. He’s untouchable. If his men ever lose contact with him for over six hours, they’ve been instructed to carry out the order. But what’s worse is that’s only his fail-safe plan.”
“Then what’s his real goal?”
“To rule all of the Afterlife, throne and all.”
“He’s going to overthrow the Devil?” I asked.
“That’s his plan.”
“How’s he going to infiltrate the throne realm?”
“I don’t know yet. It’s the only thing I haven’t been able to get out of him. I think he’s still trying to figure that part out.”
“Could that be why he wanted you to capture me alive?”
“It could have something to do with it, yes. That’s why I want you to stay away from Marco! Let me handle him from here onward. He trusts me.”
“And you want me to take out the pentagrams?” As much as I hated the idea of taking orders from Julia, something had to be done about them.
“Yeah. I’ve already sabotaged four of them. I need you to tackle the other six while I plot Marco’s assassination.”
“And if anything goes wrong, they’ll only be a six-hour buffer before ‘Hell’ has a new meaning.”
“You’ll have to be stealthful,” Julia insisted, “If Marco suspects anything’s wrong, that’s it. It’s over.”
“Alright. I’ll handle it.”
“Give me your notebook.” Julia held out her hand. She scribbled a note down on a blank page. “This is a list of the remaining six locations. Address, city, realm. They shouldn’t be hard for you to find.”
“And how do I contact you when it’s done?”
“You don’t,” she said in a cold tone. “We’ll meet here again in seven days. That even gives you one day to screw up--”
Sounds of voices came from outside the front door of the warehouse.
“Shit, they must have followed me here!” Julia exclaimed.
The door rolled open slightly. A voice from outside said, “You tracked them here, you go in first and check it out.”
The man slowly crept into the warehouse. Julia sighed and whispered to me “There’s always one that gets away, isn’t there?”
“Huh?” I asked, but she didn’t reply.
Julia’s subordinate held his non-lethal gun out in front of him. He drew closer and aimed at Julia once he got a look at her face.
“Wait, aren’t you the one that--”
“Yup,” Julia answered.
With one fluid motion, she had drawn my gun from its holster and fired at him. He hit the ground and began to burn.
She then turned and fired several rounds up into the window I had entered through. Julia handed my weapon back to me and pulled her hood back over her head.
“Quick, hide.” She whispered. Julia pointed to a small metal staircase leading to the floor above. I broke into a sprint while she moved to intercept those at the door. I laid low to the floor and listened as they entered the warehouse.
“What’s going on in here?” One of the goons asked. “Oh, boss, what happened to--”
“The target killed him and escaped through that window,” Julia said in her deeper voice. There was a short pause. “What are you waiting for? After him!”
Her followers promptly marched out the door and onto the trail she had set for them. Julia sighed again, “God they’re dumb.” As she headed toward the door, Julia turned to say, “Seven days Axel. Don’t be late.”