It was a botch job, an embarrassment to the division and my standing as chief. It hangs onto me like a bad smell and there’s no shower strong enough to wash it off. I was stripped of my position, of course, excommunicated by the hierarchy. The only thing remaining is my existence, and I’d love to be rid of that too.
We’d infiltrated a murder-suicide about-to-happen. Family Homicide was my orbit; infanticide, matricide, patricide and my specialty — interfamily murders. I hustled down the corridor, hardly noticing the odor of smoke. It was always there, in stronger or fainter degree, depending on what else was going on around the building. Fire was a constant around that place.
A new guy was working with me — Horton. He’d qualified by successfully offing his family and then himself — no survivors, leading story on the local news for 48 hours. Shortly after he transitioned to Hades and met me, his mentor. I’ll spare you the gory details; the little children lying slaughtered as their mother died of shock, the blood-soaked stuffed animal that told the story in one money shot on the news. It was spectacularly horrific enough to inspire a flurry of backslapping and high fiving around here, kudos, and a recommendation for me. Yes, I had subtly engineered Horton’s mind until he thought my murderous plans for the family were his idea. After tracking him for several months, I’d finally penetrated Horton’s consciousness during a prolonged binge of booze, mutant weed and porn. Three days of no sleep had blurred his brain nicely and made him vulnerable to suggestion of a demonic nature — allowing me to introduce myself, as the song says.
And now Horton and I were working together — he’d sat in on a few jobs in the last few weeks, we were on top of the paperwork, and today, he was flying solo under my watchful eye. We had a depressed fellow on Long Island in our sights, and it was going to be easy work nudging him into a murder-suicide with the wife in the next couple of hours — or so I thought.
The brushed-steel corridor of our high-tech building was whisper-quiet with its glass-wall views of the pandemonium outside. There, the fires raged, where new inductees to Hades burned to death over and over for the first few weeks. It’s considered purifying. Smoke and ash clogged the air — so thick you choked, and died of a heart attack or asphyxiation. But the minute the agony was over, you revived, and it happened all over again. Funny thing about hell, death is never permanent. There’s only one state of being: undead.
Sweaty, soot-covered men with fewer qualifications than me toiled out there with old-school pitchforks, prodding newbies into the roaring flames. My unit and I got to stay in the building with air-conditioning and ice water. Lunch was brought in, dinner too. We never left. We never slept. Otherwise, it meant instant demotion to outside, stoking the blistering blaze. The pressure, to use a cliché, was intense.
After my introductory torture by fire, they informed me that whatever crime I’d committed at TOD (Time of Death) was what I would labor at day in, day out for eternity. That’s how I got assigned to Family Homicide.
Jogging down the corridor, I passed endless rooms crammed with pale men hunched over desks, piled high with paperwork. Files of death certificates, arrest warrants, stays of execution — confetti that showers individuals wedded to crime — were piled on desks, tables, chairs, the floor, choking every inch of elbow room. Paperwork was crucial to verify our sometimes fallible surveillance and intelligence. It was excruciatingly boring work, usually reserved for cop killers, and as I chugged down the hall, a swarm of hornets materialized around a man falling asleep at his desk. One moment his lids were drooping closed and the next his eyes bulged at a cloud of angry buzzing overhead.
“I’m awake! I’m awake!” he screeched. Too late, the hornets dove, stinging his eyes, face and every pore of exposed skin. The office door slammed shut, blanking out his cries for help.
I barely noticed. The urge for sleep was unending, and some fresh horror always materialized to thwart it. That’s Hades for you.
I sprinted the last few yards of steel corridor to the End Room, where we conducted End Days as a unit. The room was kept in cool, semi-darkness, with dozens of monitors showing our target at home alone, losing control of his own mind as we silently invaded — it could take years to work up an End Day.
Selling a mortal on murder takes skill, and it takes particular finesse to sell one on the murder of a family member — blood being thicker than water and all that. Family homicide required a lot more boundary-busting than say, the murder of a friend. It’s easy getting a mortal to randomly kill someone they don’t know. But terminating a person they’ve known since birth...well let’s just say humans need help with it — and that’s where someone, excuse me, something like me steps in.
“Hi guys, how we doing?”
My unit looked up from various tasks with the weary hatred that meant business as usual. Horton was at the command console, whispering into his headset, keeping up a steady chatter, beaming straight into the target’s mind.
“C’mon do it. What are you a pussy? Life is shit. You know you want to...”
I gave Horton a thumbs-up and leaned in to get a better view.
His name was Arlitz. Ian Arlitz. Wife and daughter the lights of his life. He had a so-so career heading up customer service departments and now the departments were dissolving — and rematerializing in India. Arlitz couldn’t see his future, so he thought there wasn’t any.
“This isn’t right, this isn’t right,” his thoughts were saying.
“There’s nothing ahead of you. Might as well end it and take the family with,” Horton answered.
Natural Born Killers flickered silently on Arlitz’ flat screen, while Marilyn Manson sucked any hope out of the air. Horton had covered all the bases in terms of getting him past the usual mortal inhibitions.
“Maybe it’s for the best.”
“Yessss. She’ll be home soon, why drag this out any longer?”
Everyone in the End Room electrified at the sound of Arlitz’ front door opening. We heard a distant, “Honey, I’m home,” coupled with, “Hi Daddyyyyy.”
“Do it, now’s the time. Do the right thing,” Horton whispered.
Arlitz put down the remote and picked up his .45 caliber. He was icy calm, a good sign. Checked the chamber — loaded — and snapped it back in place. He pointed it at the door, pretending to feel a shot recoil, and then placed the muzzle in his mouth, pantomiming another shot. When he lowered the gun, it accidently nudged the remote, and the music switched — to Frank Sinatra.
My crew did a collective and silent, “Ohhhh shiiiittttt.” I signaled everybody to keep cool. No problem. Temporary delay. We could still get him back on track.
At first it was kind of a joke. Frank sang “Strangers in the Night” — a song of transient, meaningless sex if you listen only to the chorus — so the mood was still on course. After that initial shocked and frozen moment in the End Room, snickers all around. Then came “Fly Me to the Moon,” which can have slightly suicidal undertones if one is sufficiently depressed. We were used to frequent pauses during an M-N-S, and so far this was nothing out of the routine.
“Ready. Aim.” urged Horton.
Arlitz raised the .45 as a pair of footsteps pattered down the hall...
I indulged myself in the music, happy to let it play. I’d enjoyed Sinatra a very long time ago, and this was a tiny moment of escapism snatched from the jaws of an impending, senseless death in the stupefying march of senseless deaths that made up my waking hours. As I’ve already mentioned, there are no sleeping hours in Hades.
In that tranquil, stolen pause, “That’s Life” began to play. Right away, things skewed, because the song is about rolling with punches and taking a philosophical perspective when things go wrong. Every verse has humor, wisdom and a little self-deprecation — instant buzz kill at an M-N-S. I yelled to Horton, “Put on Reservoir Dogs!” but it was too late. Arlitz’ gun hand began to waver. We could tell from the expression on his face that a ray of light had penetrated his darkness, disturbing the perfect landscape of despair we’d so artfully painted. Arlitz jumped to his feet, swatting himself in the head repeatedly. Our brain-tap sputtered and died. All we saw was Arlitz dumping shells out of the gun as his little girl burst in. By the time his wife entered, smiling, even our room surveillance fizzled. Six months of work shot to shit.
Every so often, a job goes bad, so at first it was no tragedy, even though hell had to be paid, of course. All of us were stricken with a plague of invisible lice that had us leaping and scratching, tearing at our flesh. Now and then a dwarf would dash in and stab one of us in the guts, mid-conversation. But eventually, the price was paid, and Arlitz was old news.
A year later though, he came howling back like a freshly roasted inductee. First wind of it came when Satan dropped by and slammed a book down in front of me. (If you thought he sat on a dark throne in the bowels of Hell, intoning in a basso profundo, it’s not like that; he’s a hands-on kind of guy.)
“Have you seen this?” he barked.
Of course he knew I hadn’t seen it, there are no books in hell. I squinted at the title: Triumphing Evil by Ian Arlitz. A non-committal wheeze exited my larynx starting with ahhh and ending in ummm.
“Imbecile! This is a how-to manual for potential murder-suicides to screw up demonic possession through the power of positive thinking!”
The book flew up and knocked me in the jaw before bursting into flame. As ashes drifted to the floor, Satan screamed in my face what I already knew — our numbers were down; demonic takeovers were at an all-time low, especially around New York, usually rich territory, where Arlitz was counseling and inspiring the mentally ill and chronically depressed. As a result, Family Homicide registered record-lows, and news had reached the top. Horton and I were in deep shit.
“I just don’t understand,” Satan spat as he stomped out the door, “how somebody as talented as you could bungle something as important as this.”
Horton waited for his chance to speak with me alone, and found it at the urinal. He whispered so softly, the trickle of pee almost covered what he was saying. “All the guys wanna know — you’re so evil, so well-qualified, you shoulda known Frank Sinatra was a bad influence. But you let the poison play. You tapped your pen along to it! It just don’t add up Chief...” His eyes were pleading. What a relief to see an expression other than bored hatred.
“The truth...I shouldn’t be Chief of Family Homicide.”
I raised my voice a little. Maybe I was past caring. “You heard I shot my fiancée and had sex with her corpse before blowing my brains out, right?”
“A classic M-N-S, no coaching necessary. That’s how you qualified, Chief.”
“No, no, the acting medical examiner miscalculated — he was hung-over and filling in for the regular guy. M-N-S went down on the examiner’s report. But it wasn’t, not really.” I spilled my secrets as Horton stood there dumbfounded, zipper still down. The real story was, after carelessly showing off with a firearm, I fatally wounded the love of my life — an accident, a terrible one. I called 911 as she gently bathed me in her blood, wanting to say, ‘I love you’ and ‘I’m sorry.’ But being an arrogant man, completely blocked in my emotional expression, the only way of expressing my love was through sex. So I made love to her, weeping in anguish, as she bled out. She forgave me with the slightest nod and breathed, ‘It’s okay,’ as the whites of her eyes rolled up. I blew my head off as emergency rescue pounded down the door.”
Horton stuttered, “Y-You didn’t, it w-wasn’t...”
“They never checked, Horton. The autopsy report arrived before I did, and the hierarchy was so dazzled with my primo badass paperwork the greedy bastards couldn’t wait. They bulldozed verification and instantly made me Grand Chief Demon of Family Homicide. It was bound to go bad.” Horton looked at me like he’d just pissed on his own pant leg. Heavy footsteps sounded in the hall. I’d heard footsteps like those before. They belonged to the pitchfork fiends outside. They were coming for me.
“Jayzus Jumpin’ Kee-rist,” Horton muttered.
An explosion of sparks and smoke extinguished everything. Somewhere beyond the black, a cracked bell tolled.
When consciousness returned, I was lashed to a stake at the top of a huge, as-yet-unlit bonfire. The sky above, clotting rapidly with bruised clouds, offered no hope. Behind me, Horton shrieked, “I’m not an accomplice!” as unseen hands roped him to my back. Below, a slavering mob yowled as Satan recited a laundry list of my transgressions.
Grinning, gibbering inductees, fresh from their own fires, rushed up to the pyre and set us alight with their burning limbs. It was clear; there wasn’t going to be any reviving this time around. As searing flares rose around us, and our screams wafted away in smoky puffs, I whispered with my last breath, “Horton, I can’t be a hundred percent sure, but Sinatra might’ve been on to something.”