All These Things That Once Were

This is another short from my book Remnants, which you can get here.  It’s about love and loss and spider-things between worlds.

 

All These Things That Once Were

I wake at five a.m. to a cool room and an empty bed.   I reach out for Keri, and find her spot cold. She’s been up for a while.

Shit, I think. After so many years, it’s hard to get back to sleep without her. I lie under the covers for another minute, soaking in the warmth, and then throw them off. The cold air hits me all at once, and I wince. I run a hand through my hair, rub my eyes, and stand. The carpet is cool underfoot as I walk to the door.   The knob turns easily, and the door swings open on quiet hinges. The hall is dark, and I pause for a moment in the doorway. I don’t smell coffee brewing, or hear the television.

That’s weird.

I start down the hallway, and stop in the bathroom.   I leave the light off – the small window by the medicine cabinet lets in enough light, and I don’t feel like shocking my eyes awake just yet.   I finish, and leave the room, the sound of the toilet tank filling the space behind me with an almost metallic hiss. I step into the hall, and my feet sink into the deep pile carpet. It already feels warmer than when I first set foot on it, and it seems softer. I frown to myself, and write the sensation off.

Maybe Keri cleaned it the other day.         

The hall opens up into our living room. I can see the silhouettes of the couch, TV, and recliner in the pre-dawn light. I stop in the middle of the room, and try to check the clock, but I don’t see it on the wall.

Weirder and weirder, though she may have taken it down to clean, as well.

            I settle for checking the display on the cable tuner. It reads 5:30, and I make a mental note to reset the clocks. I turn back to the wall dividing the kitchen from the living room. The shutters are closed at the bar, and light spills out from under the door between rooms. I breathe a sigh of relief. I was starting to get a bit worried. I step to the door, and push it open. It swings easily, and I step through.

Sunlight hits me full in the face, and I throw an arm up to shield my eyes. Underfoot, sand stings the soles of my feet, and I can feel heat rising from the ground.   In the distance, a long butte rises above the desert floor. Its shadow stretches across the sand, but even as I watch, it grows shorter. I turn in a panic, looking for the door, but it’s gone.

What the fuck…

The soles of my feet are starting to ache from standing in the hot sand. I stand there anyways, trying to process what just happened. I woke up, peed, and walked down the hallway, into the living room, and into the kitchen…except it wasn’t a kitchen.

Are you sure you woke up? Could still be dreaming.

I crouch, and grab a handful of sand, and let it slip through my fingers. The grains are warm in my hand, and I can smell that dry, dusty smell that goes with summer days too long without rain. I stand, and I can feel the first beads of sweat forming on my forehead, and under my arms. I look up at the sun again, and figure it must be mid-morning already. Which means it’s not even the hottest part of the day yet.

I look behind me again. There’s still nothing there other than what looks like miles of endless dunes. With a sigh, I head toward the butte in the distance, because dream or not, it’s my best chance of finding some shelter, and if I’m lucky, maybe a little moisture in the shade. On top of that, it wouldn’t hurt to see if I could climb it, to get a better view of the surrounding area. I’d hate to die in the desert because I didn’t realize a town, or the sea, or even a forest were just over the next rise of dunes. I pinch myself, hard, and it hurts, but I don’t wake up. With a sigh, I start off towards the rise in the distance.

2

A couple of hours later, and the soles of my feet feel like they’re on fire. The sun is high in the sky now, and my skin already feels like it’s baking. I can feel dust in my throat, scratching the back of my trachea, and I manage to work up some spit and swallow, hoping for a little relief. It helps some, and I lick my lips, trying to get a bit of moisture in them as well.

I stop for a moment, to give the stitch in my side a rest, and look around. My footprints extend as far as I can see behind me, barely obscured. They seem to go on forever, back and back, until they’re obscured by the rise of a dune. In front of me, the butte is closer now, and I’m just beginning to see details – cracked red rock with streaks of orange and gray running through it like veins. The shadow it throws is shorter now, but no less inviting at this point. I give it another minute, and start off again. If I can keep this pace, I figure I should reach it by early afternoon.

Something strikes me as I’m walking, the sand shifting and sliding under my feet, making it feel as though someone’s rubbing fine-grain sandpaper on my already aching soles.

Are all deserts like this?

            I rack my brain, trying to remember elementary school lessons, biology, geography, anything really. I’m having a hard time recalling whether or not there should be cactus, or snakes, rodents, spiders, or scorpions, and coming up with blanks. I hope I wake up soon.

*

Another hour, and the sun is merciless. A snatch of song is echoing in my head, and I shake it to clear it, but it persists.

‘Dem bones

‘Dem bones

‘Dem dry bones

Repeat, ad nauseum.

I hate you, brain.

*

Another hour, or at least I think so. The rock is closer now, but its shadow is so short, I’m starting to worry that if I make it there, it will be only to cook like an egg on a sidewalk.

Sizzle, sizzle, motherfucker.

             The thought makes me giggle, and my lip splits when I do. I can feel a trickle of blood slipping down my chin, and I wipe it away.

Get a grip.

            The thought strikes me that I don’t even know if Keri is safe. My gut twists a bit, and I hope to God this didn’t happen to her.

No, no – there were no other footprints. Just yours. 

            I spare a glance behind me, where a single line of impressions vanish into the distance.   In front of me are only rippled dunes, and that rock, looming like a monolith from an earlier age.

*

I can’t tell how much time has passed, but the rock is so close, I can make out more ridges and colors and individual spars that jut from it like natural handholds than before. I speed up my pace, and immediately regret it. My body rebels, and my legs flail for a minute before I go down into the sand. It billows up around me when I hit, dust getting in my eyes and nose and throat.   I cough, trying to get it out, and sit up. I rub the sand from my eyes and realize I am at the base of the rock.

I stand, and look behind me. There is a furrow in the sand, and another realization hits me – that I dragged myself the last few feet to my destination. I walk over to the rock, and lean against it. Despite baking in the sun all day, it is surprisingly cool.   I sink down, and close my eyes.   Just a short nap.

*

It’s dark when I wake, and I can feel a chill biting through the air. I feel weak, but not hopeless. I look at the furrow in the moonlight, and a shiver runs through me. Not quite hopeless yet.

I stand, and my knees protest and try to give out.   I fight them, and am rewarded with a brief shooting pain in my feet once I get my full weight on them. Once up, I start to walk around the butte, letting one hand trail against the rock wall in case I need the support. It takes a while to reach what I think of as the edge, or the corner, of the rock, the silence of the desert broken only by my stomach, which has begun to complain.

I rest for a moment, leaning into the cool stone, and hope I find something other than sand soon. My vision threatens to blur, and I shake my head to clear it.

Doesn’t matter, keep going.

The thought comes clear as a bell, and sounds like my dad.   I take its advice, and start moving again. After maybe fifteen minutes, I come to the other side of the rock, and my heart sinks. The only thing there is more sand, stretching away mile by mile into the distance. I slump against the rock, and nearly fall into the opening in its side.

It’s a crack in the stone, maybe three, four feet across, and about five feet high.

You must be this tall to ride the rock. Also, this looks like a good spot for a giant spider to hide.

            I hate you, brain.

            I stick my hand in and wave it around for a minute, then pull it back. I breathe a sigh of relief when I see it is neither covered in webs nor spiders. It only takes a second for me to make up my mind after that, and I duck into the opening, taking care not to smash my head into the rock above. I take two steps, and there’s a sensation of wind, of something sliding, and when it stops, I’m standing on a city street.

3

It’s dark here, and a light breeze is blowing, carrying with it a cool mist. The street I’m standing on is paved with what looks like black cobblestone that glistens in the light from the gas lamps that line it. Despite the fact that I still have no idea where I am, I feel a momentary rush of relief at being in a city, where there will be food, water, and phones. I can already feel my muscles relax, the cool air and moisture relieving some of the aches from being in the heat for so long.

I begin to walk down the street, keeping to the sidewalk.   I start to lay out a plan in my mind – find a public place, find a phone, call a cab, and get home. I don’t bother to work out details just yet, since plans can change at the drop of a hat. I walk down the street for a minute or two, not really paying attention to my surroundings, when I’m forced to stop. I’m in front of a building taller than all the others.

It must be at least 100 stories, and when I tilt my head up to see the top, the clouds rolling above it give me a touch of vertigo.   I tilt my head down and look at the front of the building. Double doors, each six feet wide by ten feet tall dominate the front of the building and break up the stonework. I consider those doors for a moment. I’m not sure why they’re so big, or why the building is so tall in an area where all the other structures seem to be only about ten stories at the most.   The best I can come up with is that this may be some sort of public works building, and if so, there may be a billing clerk or a janitor still working who will let me use the phone.

I start for the doors, and reach for a handle, when I hear it. The sound travels in sharp clicks across the hard stone of the city’s streets, moving like a wave. As it gets louder, I can hear the beginnings of echoes bouncing off the surrounding buildings. Accompanying it is a sound like fabric rustling. It reaches me, and I feel a shiver work its way up my spine, forcing the hair on my arms and the back of my neck to raise as though I had just walked into an electric field.

The sound makes my stomach twist into a knot, and fight or flight kicks in. I step away from the doors, and sprint for the nearest alley. I slip into a dark sliver between buildings, my breathing coming a bit harder after my run. Out in the street, those echoing clicks are coming closer. It takes a minute for my eyes to balance the light gray outside with the deep black of the alley. When they finally adjust, I press myself against the wall, and inch to the corner.   What I see nearly pushes my mind to the edge.

Men from the waist-up, they’re wearing nearly identical clothing – three piece suits I suspect wouldn’t be out of place in Victorian England, and top hats. From the waist down though, they are all brass and steel that gleams in the light from the gas lamps. An oval platform extends from their waists horizontally, providing the base for eight legs crafted from that same brass and steel, cogs and gears intermeshing with each step. The legs themselves are about the same size as a man’s leg, but articulated like a spider’s, beginning with a thick thigh that joins to a round knee, and then tapering to a point where their feet should be. This is the source of the sounds that even now echo louder than before.

As they pass, I can hear them speaking, a language that seems to consist of clicks and glottal stops.   They approach the double doors I had been standing at only moments earlier, and I can see the devices strapped to their backs, made from more brass and steel, each with a green light glowing steadily. Brass cables run from the backpack to a small box on the back of the oval platform. Smaller gears and cogs spin on this backpack, and occasionally, it emits a small puff of steam.

Where the hell am I? Is this a dream? Why am I not awake yet? God damn it, wake up! WAKE UP!

            I close my eyes, and take a deep breath, forcing my thoughts into some semblance of quiet, and my racing heart to slow.   I count to five, and try to ignore the smells of damp concrete and ozone that follow rain, try to block everything out.   I open my eyes again, and my heart sinks a little more. I am still in an alley across from those spider-things, and what feels like miles from hope.

They had stopped talking, and one was reaching up with a steel and brass leg, the point pressing into a section of wall I couldn’t see. After a moment, he withdrew it, and pulled a watch attached to a chain from his pocket. He said something to his partner, snapped it shut, and put the watch away.

Inside the building, machinery comes to life, and I can hear a faint ‘click’, and then a whirring noise that grows louder by the second. I creep from my hiding place, crouching low, and moving until I was still pressed against the building, in some shadow, but behind the two.

The whirring sound seems to have reached its peak, and I can see the doors sliding open, first pushing out, and then sliding away from the entrance. I can see through the narrow opening, where green lights line the edges of the floor, and black stone walls absorb the light. One of the spider men steps forward, already beginning to pass through the ever-widening gap in the doors, and I make up my mind.

I move from cover, coming fast and low behind the two, making a beeline for the opening. Something tells me I need to make it over the threshold, have to make it over the threshold. One of the men hears me – I don’t know how over the sound of the doors – and begins to turn. I adjust my course, zigging behind him, and grab a thick cable on his backpack. I don’t slow, and use the cable like a sling, pivoting on one heel and pulling at the same time. It comes away in my hand, thick red-black fluid splashing on my hand and arm as it does.

The spider-thing screams – a high-pitched sound, like metal on metal – and its partner turns towards me. Too late though, as I kick myself away and slide under its legs like a man desperate for home base. My shirt rides up, and I can feel the cobblestone corners grinding into my skin as I slide across them. I close my eyes, squeeze them tight – if I miss, if I’m short, I don’t want to see the end coming. Something cold and hard grazes my ribs, and I slip past the doors and into that sensation of the world moving around me.

4

The first sensation I feel is that of cool grass on my skin. The second is a breeze that smells of lilac and green grass. I open my eyes, and push myself to my knees. I sit there, watching green blades wave in the wind, and breathe a sigh of relief. My ribs are throbbing, and I lift my shirt to check. There is a shallow furrow along the skin, and I can feel some bruising, but it feels like I got off easy.

I stand, and take note of a tree and scattered bushes in the distance. Beyond the tree, a field of wildflowers bow their heads as the wind passes by. It’s pretty, but no doorway means no exit. I sink back to my knees, and try to think.

Maybe if I dig a hole. That’s a threshold, right?

            I look around again, and recognize the flora.

The tree has to be a maple, the bushes are those lilacs I smelled the first time, and I’m pretty sure those flowers in the field are daisies. Maybe I’m home already?

I dig my hands into the grass, past loose roots and into fertile soil that surrounds my fingers. I can feel the dirt work its way under my fingernails, and can smell the rich loam.   A memory, of a farm where Keri and I had spent a summer, picking blueberries, comes to me, and I can feel a smile working its way across my face.

God, I hope she’s okay.

I pull my hands out and stand, wiping the dirt from my fingers on my t-shirt.   It’s not like it’s getting any dirtier, at this point. I turn in a circle, scanning the horizon for anything – a farmhouse, a road, even a telephone pole in the distance, but all I see are fields of grass and wildflowers dotted by the occasional tree.

I stop, and start to head for the tree at the edge of the flower field, when the earth trembles. It’s mild, like a hiccough.

California? I think.

I’m halfway to the tree when it comes again, stronger this time, a tremble and a shake. I stop, and look behind me. The field is still, grass and flowers and wind silent. I turn back, and the ground shakes once more, this time strong enough to make me stumble. I catch myself before I end up planted face-down in the dirt, and shoot a glance over my shoulder.

What I see there makes me stumble back, despite myself. The ground is furrowing itself, a long line of earth pushing up and out. It’s roughly five feet wide, and making a beeline for me.

God, I hope that’s Bugs Bunny.

Something tells me it’s not, and I turn and run, a knot forming in my stomach, and in my ribs almost immediately. I’m almost to the tree when I hear the sound of sod ripping free from the earth, and spare a glance back.

Something is bursting free from the ground, and I catch a glimpse of purple scales, so dark as to be almost black, banded with grey, and a mouth of concentric rings of teeth that seem to spin in the thing’s head. It stands straight up from the hole it emerged from, and waves in the air for a moment before diving back into the earth, auguring through it like a dolphin through a wave.

I pick up speed, and pass the tree, my thighs burning from the run.   Wildflowers brush my legs, and I kick the occasional head off of one, sending petals flying on the breeze that has picked back up. I can smell their perfume, and I think of Keri, even as the monstrosity behind me gains.

There is the sound of wood splintering behind me, and I know that the worm is gaining. I know without a doubt that it has already split the tree I just passed, and I know that before long, I’ll be ground to so much meat in its jaws.

The thought spurs me on, and I push as hard as I can, though I can feel every muscle in my body threatening to cramp, and my breath is coming ragged.   Tears make their way down my face, and for the first time, I realize I am sobbing. I zig and zag across the field, and I think of Keri, and how I just want to see her one more time.

I don’t want to die, oh God, not here, not like this, oh God, WAKE UP

I don’t wake up. Instead, I come to the end of the field, to an edge that’s perfect and smooth and round, and that drops off into nothing. It doesn’t fall into darkness, or a ravine, or anything else, it’s simply nothing beyond that point. I stop, and turn to look behind me, and the earth begins to rise under my feet. I know what’s next, and I will not be a part of it.

I launch myself up and back, and fall into the nothing.

5

The world moves around me, slides around me, and I am falling, and then, I am not.

I land on cold tile, and it makes a sound in my head like a ripe melon. I wince, and push myself to my feet, and rub the back of my head. It’s still early morning here, soft light slipping in through a window over a kitchen sink. I stand and stretch, my back making tiny popping noises, then look around.

A woman is in the kitchen – an actual human, and my heart skips a beat.   She is standing with her back to me, one pale shoulder peeking out from her nightgown, dark hair spilling over the other. My heart skips again, and then again, when I spot the birthmark on her shoulder, shaped a bit like a strawberry.

Keri.

I look for another minute, just taking her in. She doesn’t turn, but then, maybe she didn’t hear me fall. I step to her, and reach out. I brush a stray strand of hair from that bare shoulder, and lay my hand there. For a minute, she is all warm skin and life, and then, she is sand.

Her body collapses in on itself, dissolving into sand that swirls and eddies as it falls. It fills the air and the sunlight with motes of dust, and trickles through my fingers.   I grab a handful, even as the bottom drops out of my heart.

So close…

I turn away from the sand, and notice the door to the kitchen is still swinging from my fall. I watch it as it arcs back and forth, back and forth, each swing shortening the opening, and sending a shadow jumping on the wall.

Swing.

I ignore the feeling of my heart trying to break, and watch that door.

Swing.

Almost closed. I reach down, and grab a full handful of sand, and put it in my pocket. I grab a knife from the block on the kitchen counter, just in case.

Swing.

The arc is as small as it can get now. No more time. I take a breath, and wait for it to swing my way one more time. I catch it as it opens, and step through.

The world slides around me, and I think of Keri.

Hell, Inc.

One of the shorts from my book, Remnants.  I had some fun writing this one, where I decided to try a dark comic take on the business of Hell.

 

Hell, Inc.

Simon Sinek said “Customers will never love a company until the employees love it first.” Richard Branson said “A business has to be involving, it has to be fun, and it has to exercise your creative instincts.” And Mark Cuban said “Know your business and industry better than anyone else in the world. Love what you do or don’t do it.”

Cooper Green thought those were fine sentiments, and probably ones the shitheads up the ladder believed. Personally, he thought that if the drones felt like hanging themselves in their dim basement cubes, you probably needed a better corporate philosophy. Then again, it was Hell. Maybe that was the point. Not that he was complaining, personally. Upper management was as cushy as it got.

There were perks – women, power, and a certain amount of immunity from the day to day punishment of Hell. All it took was a bit of work and a sensible head, and a guy could live very comfortably down here. The women were intoxicating – the power even more so.

Thanks to Reagan and the big business boom of the Eighties, Hell had restructured. Cooper looked out his office window, at the view around him.   Skyscrapers filled the skyline, their bases coated in Hell’s characteristic rime of frost and ice. Their tops soared into the red-black clouds of the Nether, and disappeared into the haze. Rivers wound their way through the landscape, neither cold enough to fully freeze, nor warm enough to melt completely. Cooper could see ice floes and smaller, darker dots in the waters – souls that had been ‘downsized’, or never brought into the ladder into the first place, still paying penance.

The box on his desk – a small intercom – buzzed, and he swiveled away from the window.   He pressed the blinking button on the base.

“Yes?”

“Mr. Green? The eleven o’clock meeting is starting.”

“Thanks, Sharon.”

He clicked the button off and sighed. When he was alive, he had thought meetings were hell. What he understood now was that they were just an invention of the place. It seemed to him that if there was a way for middle management to waste time, it was through meetings. The worst part was that he had eternity to deal with them.

He straightened his tie, and stood, then left his office and its bland beige walls and single Ficus in an equally bland grey pot behind. He walked past Sharon, his secretary, a skinny blond with shark’s eyes, who happened to be wearing a light grey pantsuit. She had her head down over her computer, and was typing away. A cross-stitched plaque in a frame on her desk read ‘The Beatings Will Continue Until Morale Improves’ in cursive script, with a spray of small flowers in each corner.

He strode past, and into an unremarkable hall, then into another, and another, until he came to a large room, its walls and door set with glass. He pulled the door open, and went inside. He was greeted with the sound of light chatter, the attendees already gathered, most just waiting on him. He nodded to a couple, pale men and women in suits, and the occasional demon, horns sprouting from their heads, silver Rolex glittering on their wrists.

He took the seat at the head of the table, and the room quieted. He nodded to the man next to him, Harold Carter, and the meeting began. Carter cleared his throat.

“Well, uh, Mr. Green. Profits are up. Our investments in modern surveillance equipment and fracking technologies are paying off. We expect a bit of a backlash with the inevitable whistle-blower or two, but nothing we can’t handle. Furthermore, contracts and acquisitions seem to be increasing at a rate of four percent a year, and research into sustainable…”

Cooper started to tune out. He wasn’t really interested, but he was expected to listen to the drivel day in and day out, because if Hell was anything, it was the expectation, and the meeting of expectation, of punishment. He allowed himself the daydream of the days when the Inquisition had control of the oubliettes and racks of the old system, and imagined Harold stretched out and screaming while a hooded priest scorched his flesh with brands.

“Mr. Green?”

The voice that snapped him out of his daydream sounded insistent. Everyone was looking at him, and he wondered for how long he had drifted away. He looked up, to find Sharon standing in half in the door, her headset around her neck. He cleared his throat.

“Yes?”

“Sorry to interrupt, but it couldn’t wait. The Senior Partners are asking for you.”

A small shiver passed up Cooper’s spine. The Senior Partners were the old guard, the fathers of Hell. They were the driving force behind the restructuring, and the brains behind the investments and interests on Earth. They were also known for being the hardest, most disturbing things in creation. If they wanted to see you, it was serious.

He straightened his tie, and stood, then gestured at the room in general. “Carry on.” He said, and left. Behind him, voices picked up again.

Sharon led him down a short hallway that led to elevator doors flanked by more Ficus’. He pressed the ‘Up’ button, and waited.

“Anything else, sir?” Sharon was still at his elbow. He had almost forgotten her. He shook his head.

“No, thank you.”

“Very well. Good luck.” She glided off, down the hall and back to her desk, leaving him alone with his thoughts.

He wondered what the Partners wanted with him.   He hoped for a minute they hadn’t heard him thinking earlier. He knew some of them could do just that, and for a moment he imagined himself on the rack in Harold’s place. Just the phantom pain of hot brands made him squirm in his Hugo Boss, and he forced his thoughts away from that line of thinking. Instead, he wondered if it was a promotion, though he’d been in his current position for less than a thousand years.

The elevator doors dinged, and slid open on silent tracks. He went inside, and pressed the button marked ‘P’. The doors closed again, and there was a momentary lurch as the elevator started, and then accelerated. Music, piped in through hidden speakers played something by Alanis Morisette, arranged on bagpipes.

After a time, the elevator slowed, and slid to a stop.   The doors opened, and Cooper stepped off into a hall of cream marble veined with gold. He walked to the arch at the end of the hall, and stepped through, into a reception area. Sharon was sitting there, behind a desk made of the same marble. Well, not his Sharon, but one of the many. She looked up, and smiled, the expression never reaching her dead eyes.

“Mr. Green? The partners are expecting you.” She gestured to the doors to her left, a pair of solid gold baroque things that must’ve weighed a ton each.

“Thank you.” He straightened his tie again, and stepped to the doors. He picked the right one and pulled, and it opened on silent hinges. Beyond, the room was pitch-black. He took a deep breath, and entered. The door closed behind him.

*

                He’d been wrong. The room wasn’t black, exactly. There were shifting colors of the dark, if you could call them that, like shades of black to near-gray that had been loaded into a giant projector, and someone kept switching the slides. He stood in the dark, and waited. A part of him hoped he wouldn’t need to actually see the partners. Better men than he had lost their minds for less.

Something moved in the darkness, or at least gave the illusion of movement, and he felt a pressure in the room, as though someone, or several someones, had entered.

“MR. GREEN.”

The voice was deep and mellow, and not exactly loud, but definitely demanding of attention. It spoke in his head, no words disturbing the air around him, no great wind from their passage stirring the room, and still he felt as though a wind blew into him.

“GLAD YOU COULD COME.”

“Yes, sirs.” He said. He hadn’t been sure about speaking out loud, but he also hadn’t had time enough to consider alternatives. “How can I help?”

“WE’VE WATCHED YOU.” A second voice, this one almost feminine. “YOU DO GOOD WORK, DESPITE…INCONSISTENCIES.”

He frowned at that, and a flutter of fear scurried through him. The deep voice continued. “WE’D LIKE TO OFFER YOU AN OPPORTUNITY.”

Cooper found himself deeply relieved. He breathed it out, and hoped he wasn’t being too obvious.

“YOU NEED NOT WORRY ABOUT FLAYING TODAY, MR. GREEN.   YOU MAY RELAX.”

Well, that answered his question.

A third voice, thick and rich and possibly British, picked up. “EARTH, MR. GREEN. WE HAVE AN ASSIGNMENT. WHAT SAY YOU?”

Cooper thought about it. A dispatch to Earth meant a few things. Real food. Live women.   As much as he liked them in Hell, sometimes you found a fun one up top.   A real opportunity for advancement. Power, when he returned. Another part of him, the cautious and paranoid part, born in fire and blood and a few hundred years of agony, whispered that it was also a good opportunity for failure.

“WELL, MR. GREEN?”

He realized he had been thinking it over long enough to appear odd. He also realized it was something he wanted after all. Maybe even a chance to make partner. He pushed away the nagging voice that told him it was a bad idea, and spoke up.

“I’ll do it.”

The feminine voice spoke again. “GOOD, GOOD. WE ARE WELL PLEASED. WE WILL SEND DETAILS TO YOUR SECRETARY.”

“PLEASE SEE YOURSELF OUT.” The British voice.

The shades of gray faded to pure black, and the feeling that there were others in the room drifted away, and Cooper stood alone in the dark. After a moment, he turned on his heel and left, the door booming shut behind him once again.

*

                The Senior Partners worked fast. Sharon was standing beside her desk when he returned, holding a manila envelope. He took it from her, and thanked her, then closed his office door behind him. He sat at his desk, and laid the envelope down, then leaned back in his chair. He stared at the envelope for a minute; still wholly unconvinced he wasn’t making a huge mistake. With a sigh, he grabbed his letter opener, and slit the top of the package open.

Inside was an address, printed on a small white card, and a photo. It was of a small man, balding, with a paunch. He wore a pair of khaki shorts and an Old Navy t-shirt with sneakers.   He was grilling something, and talking to someone off-camera. Overall, he looked like a typical middle-class happy guy. Cooper disliked him immediately. He wondered what the big deal was.

Another sheet of paper fell out of the envelope, and Cooper picked it up, and read it.

YANCY TOPPER

43

  1. TOPPER IS PAST DUE ON HIS CONTRACT. YOUR ASSIGNMENT IS TO COLLECT. BE ADVISED, MR. TOPPER HAS SLIPPED THREE OTHER COLLECTIONS AGENTS.  WE CONSIDER MR. TOPPER TO BE AN INVESTMENT ON OUR PART, SO YOU HAVE TWO CHOICES. CONVINCE HIM TO PAY, OR TERMINATE HIS CONTRACT WITH EXTREME PREJUDICE.

Yancy? The name made Cooper feel a pang of sympathy for the poor man despite his distaste. Still, he had reneged on his contract. Nothing to be done for it now. If a man named Yancy hadn’t wanted to be picked on, he should’ve just paid.

He leaned forward and pressed the button on the intercom.   “Sharon?”

“Yes, Mr. Green?”

“Hold my meetings and calls. Also, arrange for travel to Earth.”

“Yes, Mr. Green,”

He snapped the intercom off, and leaned back in his chair. He had a little bit until Sharon had everything arranged. He glanced up at the framed poster on his wall, an image of a man pushing a stone up a hill. Underneath, in a bold font, it read simply, ‘Persistence’.

*

            The path to Earth was in a small room on the twenty-fifth floor. The room was all gray metal, with a man-sized ring cut into the wall. The surface of the ring was an oily black that shone wetly. Cooper straightened his tie, and took a breath, and tried to keep himself from tapping his foot in impatience.

The tech to the right of the portal smiled at him, the horns on his face shifting as he showed his teeth. “Sorry, Mr. Green. This happens sometimes.”

He bent over the console in front of him and banged on it, once, then twice.   There was an electronic squeak from the console, and then the room began to fill with a low-pitched hum. The portal in front of Cooper began to move clockwise, in a sluggish swirl of black liquid. Cooper looked over at the tech, swathed in his grey jumpsuit and still bent over the console, and cocked an eyebrow.

“Is that it?” He asked.

The tech looked up. “Hm?   Oh, yes. Feel free to hop on through whenever you’re ready, Mr. Green.” He went back to adjusting dials and buttons.

Cooper took another breath, unsure he was ready for what was next. His chest felt tight, but he managed to ignore it.   He stepped forward, and gripped his briefcase tighter. Closer to the portal, he could see individual ripples in the black. He stared at them, swirling around and around, then made up his mind, and stepped forward again.

There was a brief pulling sensation, like he was being drawn out like taffy, and a rushing sound that filled his ears, like wind in a tunnel. He felt pain, significant and distant at the same time, and then a popping filled his senses. Everything abruptly stopped, and he closed his eyes as the black around him turned to white. A moment later, his body lurched, as though he had been thrown off balance, and he opened his eyes as he stumbled a step forward. He managed to catch himself before he ended up face down on the ground.

When he was righted, he saw he was standing in an alley behind a Wal-Mart, pallets stacked to one side, dumpsters to the other. He blew out the breath he’d been holding, set the briefcase down, and straightened his hair and his tie. Then, he picked up the briefcase, left the alley behind, and made for the street, where he could hail a cab.

*

            On the cab ride over to Yancy’s home, Cooper tried to think of how he would handle the situation. He could go with threats – force a vision of unending torture and misery on the man, until his will broke, and he surrendered. He could offer to buy the contract out. Nothing like a pile of money to wrap up a transaction, though it would be seen as a loss, and he wasn’t sure that was what the Senior Partners were looking for.   The words ‘extreme prejudice’ came back to him, and he discounted that option. His third option was to reason with the man, explain to him how contracts made in good conscience should be followed through. He could explain how, by not paying, the man was only cheating himself. How, if he would finish this contract out, there was always the possibility for another, with greater rewards.

Cooper smiled to himself. He liked the latter option. It would mean new business for the company, new assets, and a solid win in the books.   He could almost taste the promotion.

The cab pulled up to the curb in front of a modest two-story Dutch Colonial, the lawn neatly mowed and edged, the sidewalk swept clean. He got out of the cab (there was no need to pay the cabbie – the man would wait until Cooper decided he wasn’t needed), and walked up the front path to the wood and glass front door. He took a moment to straighten his tie, raised his fist to knock, and – the door opened.

He found himself face to face with a good-looking younger man, wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase similar to his own. He had what looked like a three-hundred dollar haircut, and was tanned.   The man smiled at Cooper.

“Can I help you?”

“Yes, I’m looking for Yancy Topper.”

The man’s smile turned sympathetic. “Ooh. I’m sorry.   I’m afraid Mr. Topper has already paid his debts. He’ll be unavailable for…uh, eternity. Also, you know the rules. No double-dipping.”

Realization crept up on Cooper. One of two things had happened. Either the partners had sent a back-up, and the kid had done his job for him, , or one of the other principals had come in – Beelzebub, or Abaddon, or Sammael, maybe – which meant Yancy hadn’t been all that concerned with double-dipping himself.   He frowned back at the kid.

“Well. You retired his contract, I assume?”

“Yes. Oh, I’m sorry.” He stuck out a hand. “I’m Kendall Franks.”

Cooper took it and shook it. “Who sent you?”

“Abbadon and Associates.” Ah, so that answered his question.

Cooper ran a hand through his hair. He blew out a breath. “Well.   What now?”

Kendall shrugged. “I’m going back. Promotion and all, you know.”

Cooper nodded. “Yeah.   Say, how about some lunch? I haven’t had a good meal in about a hundred years.”

Kendall seemed to consider for a moment, then he smiled again.   “Sure, come on in.” He opened the door, and Cooper followed him in, down a short hall, past the living room, where Yancy was sitting on his couch, clutching his chest, the handle of a knife sticking out. That explained ‘extreme prejudice’. They moved on into the kitchen.

Cooper set his briefcase down, and Kendall did the same.

So,” He said, and rubbed his hands together. “What shall we have?”

*

            They made steak. Big, nicely marbled, medium rare New York strips, with a salt and pepper crust, and a baked potato and a glass of Yancy’s bourbon. While they ate, they talked.

“So, how long have you been doing this?” Kendall asked.

Cooper shrugged. “Collections and contracts? About five hundred years. More so in the past thirty, though. You?”

Kendall whistled. “Five.”

Cooper grunted around a mouthful of steak. “Newbie, eh? First time up top?”

“Yeah.”

Kendall moaned in pleasure, and took another mouthful of food, chewing slowly.   After he swallowed, he chased it with a sip of bourbon. “God, I miss this. All I need is a good lay, and who needs Heaven?”

A thought crept into Cooper’s brain, and it shone brightly for a moment. He suppressed a grin.

“I know. Women, booze, and good food. Throw some cash in there, and a guy could live until he dies all over again.”

“Who said anything about dying?” Kendall said. “We could live like kings up here, with the right set-up.” He took another bite. “GOD, this is good. I could just cum.”

“What if, eh?” Cooper said.

Kendall stopped with the fork halfway to his mouth. He pointed it at Cooper. “You sound like you have an idea.”

Cooper shrugged. “I have an unfulfilled contract. Want it?”

“For what? Hell’s already got my soul. What do I get out of it? Why don’t you sign it?”

Cooper shrugged. “Set in my ways, I guess. Look, I can make it out for an indefinite number of years up top, with the option for renewal, and when you’re bored, a position with Lightbringer and Partners.”

“Kendall dropped his fork, and wiped his hands. “What do you get out of it?”

“One less competitor in the field.” He waved a hand around him. “And a full contract. Nothing in there about whom or what could accept it, just that it had to be accepted.”

Kendall picked up his drink and swirled it, watching the liquid slosh against the sides. He was silent for a long time. Finally, he said “Give me the contract.”

Cooper had it out, before the last syllable left the kid’s mouth. He passed it over to Kendall, who signed without a second glance. When the ink was dry, Cooper placed it back in his briefcase, and stood. He shook Kendall’s hand.

“Good luck, kid. We’ll send someone up to take care of that mess in the living room. Enjoy your new life.”

Kendall was smiling ear to ear. He shook Cooper’s hand back. “Thanks, man. Thanks. This is brilliant.”

Cooper disentangled himself, and left the way he’d come. The cab was still waiting. He got in, and as the cab pulled away from the curb, he pulled a phone from inside his suit, flipped it open, and dialed 911. There was a ring, and someone answered.

“911. What’s your emergency?”

“There’s been a murder.” He gave the operator the address, and hung up. After a couple of minutes, he could hear sirens in the distance.   He smiled to himself, and sat back in his seat.

            Cooper Green, Partner sounded better and better.