5ive and Dime: Part 3- Hell of a Job
Episode 3- Hell of a Job
There are certain things that one does not wish to hear or see when first being dragged kicking and groaning from the depths of the realm of the Sandman, whose sweetness has been, since the dawn of time, one of the greatest experiences available to humankind. The soulless blatting of an alarm is the most common of these intrusions, a mechanical annoyance that one can only blame themselves for having arranged to go off in the first place. In apartment buildings, sometimes it is the motion or noise from neighboring units that causes us to slip free from the loving bonds of Dreamland, losing out on the fluffy wanderings of the imagined. Perhaps one of the other well-known disruptions is the entrance of pets or children into the bedroom, either category of housemate having the innate ability to leap onto one’s altar of slumbering tranquility and land squarely, and almost without fail, on the genitals.
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For Tyler, it had been a minor thing, almost utterly unnoticed. There had been a perfect silence, into which slipped a faint rustling, as of something softly scraping the hardwood floor of the bedroom. In his parents’ house, there had always been at least the persistent hum of the air conditioning system pushing cool air through the house in the summer. As such, the little noises of his parents moving around the house hadn’t troubled him at all. However, in unit 206 of his Hell-bound home, there were no background noises to lull him or keep him in peace. As such, when his ears detected movement, a signal shot through his mind and brought him awake. Rolling from his side to his back, he propped himself up on his elbows, and pushed his eyes open halfway to see what had disturbed his slumber.
The bulldog demon officer from the previous day stood at the foot of his bed, cleaning under his claws with the tip of his dagger, tongue lolling out of the corner of his mouth, chest fluttering as he panted. This combination of imagery and the very fact that the officer, who had stabbed him twice just the evening previous, shoved Tyler’s body into an involuntary skitter back up against the headboard of his simple one-man bed, shrinking himself into a ball to present the smallest possible target to his potential attacker.
“Morning,” said the officer.
“Jesus Christ, do you mind,” Tyler snapped, fascinated by the wince the name of Jesus invoked in the demon. Eyes still aimed at his own hand, the demon slipped his dagger away, slowly turning his bulging eyes toward Tyler.
“I said I would be coming to get you,” the demon replied. “And just by the way, I have a name, and you should probably learn it. I tend to be the officer most often in this part of the sector.” Tyler just blinked at him, still taut as a rope about to snap in a storm. “I am named Tsume.”
“Well, good morning, Tsume, how the hell are ya, and would you mind not standing at the foot of my bed with a knife in your hand like some kind of end-of-days stalker who wants to make love to my ear or cut off my feet and use them to make gumbo?” Tyler slowly extended his legs and swung them over the side of the side of the bed, pulling on the socks and shoes he had barely possessed the energy to kick off before flopping onto the bed the evening before.
“I wouldn’t mind at all, but I did make it clear that I would be coming to collect you this morning, bright and early,” replied Tsume, shoving his hands into the pockets of his drab gray uniform pants. “Now come along, and don’t worry about changing your shirt. There will be a new one for you at the store.” Tyler made no effort to respond; considering the result of his prior attempts at conversational humor with the dog demon, he would come to less harm if he just kept his mouth shut and moved forward. Tsume led him out of the bedroom, waited for him to take a piss, then guided him out of the apartment, pausing just out in the hallway. Tyler raised an eyebrow at him, and the dog demon said, “You should lock your unit. Just use the CIR in the slot next to the handle, then select ‘lock’ from the menu that will appear on the door.” Tyler did so, still impressed with the modern pseudo-tech touch Hell had adopted for the modern era. Porn and the Pit, always on the bleeding edge of technology, he mused.
There were other people in the stairwell this fine morning, a Japanese man in a plain white button shirt and cornflower blue tie with a black attache case in hand, and a caramel-skinned woman with a sleek green dress, embroidered with fancy gold thread in various looping, hypnotic patterns. They both gave Tsuma a wide berth, and though Tyler issued each of them a ‘good morning’ as he passed by hot on the dog demon’s heels, both gave him a neutral glance of curiosity and nothing more in reply. Mr. Rogers may have been a polite and friendly neighbor, but clearly these folks were being a bit more suspect, not residing in the Land of Make Believe. For them, caution was the watchword, now and ever, it would seem.
Out on the sidewalk, the brighter native illumination of the morning declared itself for Tyler to plainly see, and a maddening heat shimmered up off of the pavement, slapping against him with all of the mercy of a crashing wave at sea. Native forces such as this, though not possessed of any consciousness, seemed nevertheless to be spiteful things toward humanity, and Tyler had to wonder if perhaps Hell itself had a personality that found the humans within it distasteful. “How far is the store from here, exactly,” Tyler asked.
“Just one block north,” Tsuma said, marching ahead without pause. Tyler maintained a steady pace and shortly caught up with the stout bulldog demon, slowing his gait to match him as he drew even with him. “Once I have delivered you there, Ms. Sellers will begin the training day with you. You are her replacement, you see, for she has received a commendation that will allow her to shift up in her duty.”
“Oh? What’s she going to be doing now,” Tyler asked.
“She is going to run the inter-city transport between Moonblade and Black Rock, the next city northwest of here,” said Tsuma. “She had been the first shift clerk at the 5ive and Dime for nine years, which has been the longest run at the post of any Condemned since it was constructed back in the 1960’s. The sheer tedium of the job drives most insane in a short time,” Tsume said, the ghost of a grin stretching his face on one side.
“How many people have held the post,” Tyler asked.
“You will be the twenty-sixth,” the dog demon said. Tyler’s pace slowed for a moment, brow furrowed as he felt a worm of an idea making its way slowly across his mindscape. Something was calling out to him, some tiny detail that now no longer seemed like a mere coincidence. Whatever it was, it remained on the fringes of conscious thought, something he hoped would work its way inside of the field of his notice before it could slip away into the ether.
The store came into view a few minutes later as they weaved in and out of increasingly large crowds of Condemned men and women going about their business, most heading off to their various duties across the vast city of Moonblade. For all intents and purposes, it looked like a near replica of the squalid little gas station/convenience store combination he’d wasted so many of his living hours at, but for a few differences. For starters, there were no fuel pumps out in front of the store, though there did appear to be a garage attached to the structure, which made little sense to him. The awning over the front of the store stood out, a fading yellow paint job chipping away in jagged strips as a snippet of hot wind blew down the street. Streaky, filthy windows fronted the shop, dingy sales signs blocking out most of the view into the store proper, and when they gained the edge of the lot on which it sat, he could smell the faint odor of something being baked in the little deli oven he guaranteed himself would be inside, just behind the counter and off to the side of the register.
“I really don’t want to do this,” he murmured.
“You don’t have to, if you’d like to delay,” Tsume noted. “I could always take care of your weekly Torment instead, give you a late start to the day.”
“Thanks, no, I’ll take it from here, fellah,” Tyler retorted blithely. It earned him another half-lidded glare from the dog-demon, but before stabbing could take place as before, Tyler hustled inside, cringing at the too-chipper ‘clang-clang’ of door bells suspended over the entryway when he stepped inside. Like the sector center and his residential building before it, the store was visible to him in the full spectrum of colors, both on the outside and now on the inside, granting him a true look at what awaited him.
Lit by the sort of cheap, long bulbs behind bumpy translucent ceiling panels that reminded him of the public schools in and around Philadelphia proper, Tyler took a long, sweeping look around the store’s interior. To his immediate left was a gut-high pastry case, fronted by hinged, see through plastic doors, many of the downward angled trays barren, save for crumbs and bits of sprinkles, the leavings of a flood of customers who have been in demand of such items. To the right, leading off approximately twelve, thirteen feet, was an aisle created by the arrangement of a mid-sized shelving unit, covered with all manner of sweets and candies. On the right side of the aisle, against the windows of the front of the store, were a self serve coffee station, a soft drink machine, and an assortment of cups and lids. At the end of the aisle was a narrow hallway whose entrance had a ‘Restrooms’ sign above it.
Along the righthand wall from the entrance door stood two open front cooler displays, filled with pre-packaged sandwiches, pizzas, and other lunch-style foods. Nothing stood out from where he currently observed the shelves, but he felt certain there was something not quite right there. Later, he thought. He took a couple of tentative steps further inside, looking at the stacks of various cases of beverages dominating the floor space ahead beyond the pastry cases, various brands he had never heard of, and which he felt certain would all turn out to be either parodies or mockeries of Mortal World labels.
Coming around the central area of the store, which was a wrap-around counter creating a kind of crater in the center-front of the store, Tyler recognized the sharp sting of some lemon-scented floor cleaner, as well as cooking eggs and bacon. Behind the counter, in a dark blue polo shirt and beige khaki pants, a woman with long brown hair swabbed a mop back and forth over what he assumed was spilled soda, given the crumpled aluminum can sitting up on a shelf near her. Past the woman, on her right, was a quick-time heating oven of the sort he had used in his previous job to heat up the breakfast sandwiches, nachos and pre-made pizzas he would pull out of the freezer storage in the rear of the store. A traction rug sat rolled up and pushed against the underside of the counter that fronted a small marble block where a cash register might normally belong.
To Tyler’s surprise, the marble block was attached by a thick black wire to what he assumed was an actual cash drawer. What’s that all about, he wondered. He cleared his throat meaningfully, and the woman looked up at him, her expression lifting from one of dull boredom to one of delight. She was what Tyler would have described as ‘Midwestern’, a broad, average-looking woman with no distinctly noticeable physical features until she smiled, an act that, while so simple and universal, lit her eyes with a brilliance and warmth that shared nothing in common with the hellfires that burned everywhere in the world they now shared in the afterlife.
“You must be Tyler,” she said, putting the mop in a bucket of grungy water and leaning the handle against the shelf on which sat her spilled and crushed can. “I’m Tammy, Tammy Sellers.” She lifted up a hinged section of the plain black countertop and extended her free hand to him, which he accepted briefly. “Come on back, son,” she beckoned, holding the counter section up so he could pass by her. When he stood in the central clerk’s area, the familiarity of it all came crashing down on him, depressing and maddening at once. He clung to the presence of Tammy and her greeting, however, to pull himself out of this onrushing funk for just a moment.
“‘Son’? How old do you think I am, Tammy?”
“Doesn’t matter how old you are, Tyler, I’ve been dead for almost eighty years,” she replied. “I imagine I’ve got a few years on you.”
“Fair enough,” he said. “So, what’s first?”
“First, come with me,” she said, grabbing the handle on her mop bucket’s wringer and the mop itself. “We’re gonna go into the back and get this dumped, then grab you a shirt and name tag. I already had one made up yesterday when they told me you’d be coming. Lift the door, if you would,” she said, and he did so, following her out and to the left, toward a red swinging door at the rear of the store. As he walked along, he took a peek at some of the shelves here at the back, and nearly yelped like a wounded animal. Lining the shelves at the rear of the store, unseen by anyone coming in unless they specifically came back here, was an array of bloody body parts and organs arranged in plastic bins, all neatly categorized by bodily system.
There was even, on the tall bottom shelf, a row of whole heads, mouths taped or sewn shut. The eyes rolled and stared dumbly up at him, and one, the bald, pale head of a man with graying eyebrows and a tattoo on his severed neck, screamed unintelligibly at him from behind a thick cover of duct tape. Tyler ducked down to get a better look at the tattoo, and saw the twin ‘S’ shaped lightning bolts of a neo-Nazi. Or maybe a first generation member of the Third Reich, Tyler thought with a start. If what Tammy said is true, that she’s been dead 80 plus years, then we probably stop aging after death. With this macabre revelation rolling about in his head, he hustled to catch back up with Tammy as she shoved the mop bucket through the red door into the back of the store.
Tyler recognized the setup beyond the door, with an open slop sink to the right, a closet-like office to the left, and the cooler/freezer access just past the slop sink. He wiggled himself into position and helped her dump the bucket after Tammy removed the wringer, and he set the bucket upside-down in the little concrete square to let it drain and dry. “Thanks,” she said.
“Feet first, you know,” Tyler replied. “I basically had this exact same job top-side until I got murdered yesterday morning.” Tammy frowned a little, nodded, and slipped past him into the little office, pulling open a creaking metal drawer on the right side of the narrow desk shoved into the space. From within she pulled out a dark blue polo shirt, with the logo ‘5ive and Dime’ stitched in lime green print on the right side of the chest and a pocket on the left. Over the pocket she pinned a black plastic name tag, which already bore the name ‘TYLER’ in label maker block lettering.
“Here you go, Tyler,” she said, handing it up to him from the office’s lone chair. He held the shirt, waiting for her to turn away, or to at least make a show of closing her eyes. “Waiting for an invitation?”
“I’ll just nip around the corner,” he began, shirt bunched up in his hand.
“Son, we’re in Hell,” she said sardonically, head leaning on her fist. “Do you really think this is the time or place to give much of a shit about modesty?” Tyler shrugged his shoulders, pulled his old work shirt off, and pulled the new one on over his head, tugging at the hem and brushing his hair back. “Okay, all you’ll ever need to really do back here is log yourself in and out. Go ahead and press your CIR in here,” she said, pulling another small black cube of marble out from its spot on the desk. Tyler made a fist, pressed the ring into the set indentation, and pulled his hand away after the cube made a loud ‘chick-clack’ sound like an old time card punch. “Okay, now follow me,” she said, rising from the chair and heading back to the cashier’s area behind the counter. Tyler glanced around the store, surprised that while they had been gone, no one had come in. “First thing’s first. Humes like you and I, the Condemned, we pay for stuff with the reader here,” she said, tapping the marble cube on the check-out counter. “But demons don’t use CIRs, they have their own paper money they use. When a demon comes in and buys something, you ring it up on this,” she said, pulling a flat, silvery calculator-looking device from the side of the cube and setting it flat on the countertop. “Just scan the items,” she said, pointing at the hand scanner, much like the one Tyler had been using for years, “add up the total, and subtract it from what they give you.” She pushed the button marked ‘CHANGE’, and the drawer popped open with a ‘clang’, revealing numerous strips of what looked like very old parchment, labeled with swirling infernal script and stamped with a number in their central space. “Easy enough, right?”
“Keep the shelves stocked from the storage in back and keep the place clean, handle the purchases at the register. Follow the baking schedule on the over door, and everything should be just fine. You’ve worked this kind of place before, you said,” she asked, planting her hands on her hips.
“Yeah, since my junior year of high school,” Tyler replied. “Except for the, ah, ‘unique’ selection back by the rear door there, this place is almost exactly the same as the one I died working at.” Tammy quirked an eyebrow at him, seemingly confused for a moment, before she made the ‘O’ with her mouth of recognition.
“That section, yesssss,” she said, eyes darting back and forth. “The heads still fuck me up. There’s one back there, must’ve been about five, six months ago, just showed up and started screaming in German. Well, I think it was German, it only sounded that way for a few minutes before it changed to English. It’s all relative, I suppose,” she said with a sigh.
“How do you mean?”
“Well, everybody starts sounding like they speak your native tongue after enough time passes,” Tammy said. “None of us actually is, though. The words get changed in the air down here, make it so everybody can understand each other, except for the infernal words. You know, the language the demons speak when they don’t want us to know what they’re saying to each other?” Tyler nodded, though he hadn’t yet heard any demon speaking in a language he didn’t comprehend. He didn’t doubt that it would happen eventually, though; after all, this was only his second day in Hell. “Anyhow, we’ll be quiet for a little bit before the first rush comes through, which is precisely why I’ve got all the donuts in the ovens right now.” A cheerful bell chimed, and she winked at Tyler. “Speaking of, there they be,” she said, spinning away from him and crouching down to the oven as the twin bells over the entrance door jangled, announcing the arrival of a new customer. “You want to get this one,” she asked him, and Tyler simply grunted his assent.
As Tyler sauntered up toward the counter on his side, his eyes drifted up to the racks of cigarettes above his head, a curious thing now that the fear of cancer was gone. The ashtray, half-filled with crumpled butts, under the counter did not escape his notice. The customer who had come in turned out to be a Condemned young woman, who put a bag of some kind of salt and vinegar chips on the counter and a tall, narrow can of red metal simply stamped with the words ‘Iced Tea’ in bold black print along its side. Tyler scanned the items, the total cost showing on the small calculator device next to the marble block.
“Press your ring to the block,” he said, hoping this was the proper response. The woman did, and in a flash, Tyler saw a display of golden light, as before at his home, show up on the countertop, showing a ‘- 32 credits’ in plain English before disappearing. The marble box trembled, and the woman poked her finger at what looked to Tyler like empty air. The numbers on his side flashed a ‘0’, followed by a whir from the marble box. The woman just looked at him evenly, and he said, “Bag for these?”
“Yeah,” she muttered. Tyler pulled open a plastic bag on a pair of narrow rails on his side, set over a knee-high pedestal, and dropped the bag and can in, pulling the bag up and handing it to her.
“Have a nice day,” he said out of habit, and the woman gave him a glower that could have withered an oak. When she left out the exit door to her right, Tyler’s left, the young clerk made an exaggerated grimace and turned to Tammy. “Did I say it wrong?”
“We don’t say that down here,” Tammy replied, sliding the last of the donuts into place from the back side of the display cases, keeping her back to him as yet. “I usually just go with ‘cheers’, which seems to go over just fine. Everybody’s different, though. There’s one guy,” she said, closing the last case and standing up, setting the hot tray down on a sinkboard next to the quick-bake oven and pulling off the oven mitt on her right hand, leaning on the counter to her side. “He’s in here every day around nine, quarter after, since I started working here. Hume, Condemned like me and you, but he’s always in a chipper mood, like nothing can get him down, you know? It’s a little annoying, some days, but others, it’s the highlight of my morning. And this guy, he hasn’t got it very easy, he gets six hours of torment every week, and has since he died way back in 1657 from pneumonia.”
“Wow, a veteran, then,” Tyler said.
“Precisely. So this guy, he’s got no good reason to always be so cheerful, but he is, and it’s driving me crazy,” Tammy went on, as another customer came in. She rang the man up, his only request a pack of cigarettes. Tyler noticed that the boxes were all one of five colors; red, gold, silver, dark green, and light green. There were no brands here, no corporations trying to compete for profits. It’s like a communist nightmare, and I’m living it, he thought with the ghost of a chuckle in his head. “So one day, I ask him, what’s got you in such a good mood all the time, man? I mean, how can you always be so pleased with yourself? And do you know what he says to me?”
“Not a clue, else I would’ve tuned you out by now.”
“Fresh,” she jabbed with a childish grin, snapping a nearby hand towel at him. “He looks at me and he says, ‘I’m always happy because when I was hanged for heresy, I told my captors and my executioner that I would see them all in Hell some day, that my crime of declaring God a lazy git and a deadbeat father figure to humanity would prove far less awful than what they had decided must be done to me. And about ten years ago, I did finally see the last of them, the man who pulled the lever to drop me through the gallows. They are all Damned.’ That’s what he said to me, Tyler. The people who killed him, who put him here? They’re beneath him now, left to suffer forever, while he gets to walk around free most of the time.”
Tyler considered this for a moment. Surely the man Tammy spoke of must have done something more than say some bad words about God to wind up even a member of the Condemned, particularly if he led an ethical life, right? Wasn’t that how Jixa had partly explained the classification system in Hell? He reasoned that there must have been some other act that had landed him outside of the realms of the Heavens, but whatever it was, it hadn’t been awful enough or frequent enough to get him put on the bottom rung of existence, because the man had clearly avoided the worst of eternal fates.
Tammy had been saying something, and Tyler had missed it. “I’m sorry, what was that? I went somewhere in my mind for a minute,” he admitted.
“I said, do you have any questions for me? About the job, or anything else down here? I’m supposed to stick around through the full shift to help out, teach you any little tricks I can think of, which aren’t many. I’d say if there’s a trick to being in this place, hit the library down the road before you head home for the day. Reading beats watching television all the damn time, and there’s not a whole lot of leisure activities to be found around town aimed at our kind.” Tyler looked out through the window in the exit door for a moment, spotting several packs of demons roving up and down the sidewalks, conversing among themselves, gesticulating wildly. They really did come in all shapes and sizes, though he had already observed a few sort of vague guidelines for their composition. Being dead longer than he, and by a long bit, he supposed Tammy would have a wealth of information to dump off on him, if he posed the right questions.
“All right, I’ve got one that comes to mind straight off,” he said, grabbing one of the three ancient-looking stools in the clerks’ area and sitting on it. “The demons. They’re said already that there are several classes of them. What’s the breakdown on them, and how do you tell them apart?” Tammy snagged another stool, setting herself up nearer the checkout counter but turned partly toward him, leaning her left arm on the counter, head cradled in the palm of her hand.
“Well, let’s go from the top on down. First, there’s the Morningstar, Lucifer himself. Below him, there’s the Dukes Abaddon and Samiel, and the Dutchess, Lilith. Beneath them are the Fallen, though we don’t see or hear much of them. Next come the chancellors, who are sort of like governors in Hell. Every city or region has one, and they’re in charge of the works. After them come the brokers, who do a lot of the wheeling and dealing folks have written stories about for centuries, the guys and gals who strike deals with mortals for their eternal souls. Below the brokers come defilers, and they are some psychotic fuckers as a whole. You don’t want to spend any kind of time around a defiler. Beneath them come the torture or task masters, then fiends, then imps, and then the Condemned and Damned.
“For all the demons, you can generally tell which order they belong to by their size overall. As big as chief Decker is, he’s just a task master, and that pile of metal who’s always hanging around him, Telman? He’s a fiend. Every demon has a mark that indicates which order they belong to, too, so when in doubt, look for that. I can’t draw for shit, or I’d show them to you, but after a while, you’ll get used to seeing them. Anything else?” Tyler mulled over this information, hopping down off of the stool as a pair of stout toad-like demons came waddling in, heading right back for the ‘unique’ section Tyler had cringed at before. When the toads came up to the counter, each one of them eased a bleeding head onto the counter, the little bar code tags dangling on parchment strips from the ears of the heads. Tammy scanned them, and said, “That’ll be fifty-six bucks,” she said, and the larger of the two demons produced several crisp, clean pieces of infernal money from a pouch on his hip, handing them gently to Tammy. She rang the purchase, and pulled change for the demons, who both had a mark on their yellowish shoulders that was the same as the one Tsume had on his. “So, what were they, Tyler?”
“Imps,” he replied. “They had the same mark as the officer who walked me here, and he assured me himself that he is in fact an imp.” Tammy nodded, and Tyler reclaimed his seat.
“I wouldn’t sit down, dear,” Tammy said then, as a host of Condemned humes came almost single file through the entrance door then, the tiny bells clattering a staccato beat. “That early rush I mentioned? This is the start of it.” She reached under the counter by his knees and pulled a second marble cube out, setting it at another register to his right, pulling down the ‘Please use other register’ placard and setting it on the floor. “We’ll talk more when these folks are all done.”
Tyler smoothed out his shirt, wiped the fake customer service smile off of his face, and prepared to see what Hell offered in a morning rush of business.
The morning rush, it turned out, could have gone far worse, or better, depending on the arrival of one of two different fiends who routinely made appearances in the store. One of them did, in point of fact, the last customer in a barrage of mixed company sacking the shelves for every treat the 5ive and Dime offered. Tammy and Tyler certainly felt the press a couple of times, but they worked in tandem quite well, and the fluid motion of the customers seemed like it was going to be nigh-mechanical in its efficiency. Then, Tammy looked to the entrance door, and Tyler heard a groan that put him in mind of the twin sisters of Marge Simpson from the iconic American cartoon.
The demon looked, at first, like normal man wrapped in sagging, filthy wraps of bandaging, until he began moving toward the racks. Then, his form blurred into a savage, whirling dust devil, flinging packages and merchandise around the store without mercy or pause, a narrow, almost skeletal arm snapping out here and there to secure selections from among the inventory. Several ceiling tiles buckled and fell down around him, and when the demon made his way to Tyler’s register, the young Condemned clerk flinched as a whole column of cigarettes came crashing down into his head, each packet bouncing off of him like children on a trampoline. The cold, ice blue eyes of the demon shone at him with destructive glee, and he scanned the packages it had set down on the counter.
“Seventeen bucks,” Tyler said with a curl of his upper lip, displeased with this beast. It reached into its bandage wrappings, slapping an infernal note stamped with a ‘20’ on it on the countertop. Tyler opened his register, handed the thing three singles, and asked, “Want a bag,” even as he saw that the bags had been blown to the floor behind him in the creature’s presence.
“Yes,” the thing replied in a voice so soft, so distant, it may as well have been coming from the other side of the planet. Tyler fetched a bag, put the demon’s treats and blue cans marked ‘Cola’ in it, and handed it over. The whirling nasty moved away, once again turning into a whirling vortex of aerial force, knocking shit around and giggling childishly. Tyler planted his hands on his hips and looked around the store, teeth grinding.
“Well, fuck,” he grunted, moving out from behind the counter to start putting things to rights. “That thing’s a walking goddamn disaster. Literally,” he added, grunting as he stacked 12-packs of ‘Cola’ back into position.
“That’s Bluster,” Tammy said, sweeping up debris into a pile along the outside of the clerk’s area. “I’ve heard it said he used to be a Condemned like us. He’s worked his way to fiend-class, so I can’t really say ‘Boo’ to him, you know? Could start all kinds of trouble, and I don’t want anymore of that than I have to have. Oh hey, careful there,” she said, too late. Tyler had been reaching down to scoop up another 12-pack when he jammed his hand onto a shattered bottle end, fierce pain lancing through his palm as he lifted it up and held it open, gripping the wrist with his opposite hand. Tammy guided him back behind the counter and wrapped a plain white towel around his hand while he sat on a stool, waiting for the wound to close on its own. When it did a minute later, he wiped the remaining blood away and sagged, head hanging down.
“Jesus,” he mumbled. “Well, that’s one hell of a crash course in rushes here, isn’t it,” he asked as he resumed helping Tammy put the store back to order. They managed to get everything back in place inside of a half an hour, the damage blissfully limited by the moving whirlwind’s limited time in the store.
“This could have been worse, you know,” Tammy said, putting a frozen pizza in the quick-time oven and setting the timer. “You see how big the doors are, how much space is in the aisles?”
“Well, they’re only that big because I got tired of having Decker smash in half the windows to get in here every Friday to do his end-of-week binge. He’d be knocking shit over, pushing people out of his way, the whole nine just so’s he could get his fix of sweets and get back to the office for the end-of-week wrap-up.”
“What’s that,” Tyler asked, snatching a pack of smokes out of the shelves overhead and turning his register’s CIR reading block toward himself. He scanned the smokes, then pressed his ring to the reader. The little yellow holographic display came up, and showed him his starting balance: he had five-hundred credits, according to the screen. Would he like to spend five right now to buy the smokes? Fuck yes I would, he thought, adding a lighter and scanning it, making the total of six credits. He tapped the ‘Yes’ button, turned the block back around, opened the pack, and lit one up. As he took that first glorious drag, Tammy leaned the tip of her own cigarette toward him, and he obliged her in a light. He chuffed a cloudy stream of cerulean smog out of the right corner of his mouth, and for the first time since arriving in Hell, felt a moment’s peace. The sleep he had dropped off into the night before hadn’t really been peace, but rather, a dreamless nothingness in which his mind seemed to go into a silent standby mode. This, though, this was the peace of appeasing an addiction, one that had once and would probably again ride him like a foul capuchin bent on making him feel like shit in the long run.
“All of the sector chiefs get an end-of-week wrap-up meeting once a week with the chancellor of Moonblade,” Tammy said. “Condemned residents can write a request to speak directly with the chancellor themselves, but he doesn’t answer most of the time. In fact, I can’t think of a single time he has, so I stopped bothering about twenty years back. It’s just a waste of time.” Tyler took another drag, smiled, and snickered.
“Anybody ever write a letter to Lucifer,” he asked jokingly. Tammy chortled right along with him, shaking her head. “I know, I know, ridiculous to even think it,” he added, waving a hand dismissively at the idea. “Just thought I’d say it.”
“Could you even imagine that,” Tammy said, still snickering. “I mean, you’d need a forklift to cart around balls big enough to try something like that! Man alive, Tyler, it’s good you’ve got a sense of humor. You’re going to need it, being stuck here on your own come tomorrow.” Tyler agreed, and as another customer came in, he stubbed out his smoke in the ashtray beneath the register, and proceeded to continue on with his work.
Tyler learned a great deal from casual conversation with Tammy through the remainder of that first shift at the 5ive and Dime. He learned that the 1:1 ratio of time from the Mortal World to Hell and Heaven was no accident, but rather, a design instituted by God in order to help his mortal creations adapt to the eternal environments they found themselves in after death. He also learned that the reason he had seen no children under the age of 12 throughout the day was that children under that age were considered innocent by all standards, and so passed up into the Heavens, regardless of religious lineage. Tammy also informed him that spouses winding up in either location together were discouraged from finding one another.
“Familial ties are considered extremely dangerous by both demons and angels,” Tammy told him when he had asked why that was. “Sometimes even siblings and close cousins are kept apart whenever possible. It helps maintain the pseudo-caste system they’ve all got set up for us.” Tyler supposed he understood the rather unpleasant logic in this. After all, if a husband and wife both wound up in Hell as members of the Condemned, they might very well cease to find the place unpleasant, so long as they were together.
What reason then, if God’s so great, have the angels got for doing it Up There too, he wondered. This felt like the most dangerous sort of question, so he left it go for the moment and just tuned into what Tammy was telling him. She went on to tell him about the many different sort of duties the Condemned could be seen tending to in Hell, including the one she was going to be taking up, running an inter-city transport train between Moonblade and Black Rock. Another duty she told him about was a duty called ‘roping’, which Tyler discovered was at once intriguing and unpleasant.
‘Ropers’ were members of the Condemned who helped tormentors and torturers among demon-kind locate the Damned who had managed to successfully flee from their current session of agony. The job only went to those Condemned who actively requested it, however, and the constant need for new ropers arose from the fact that most ropers ended up becoming imps after a time, doling out little doses of punishment themselves.
“It takes a lot for that to happen, though,” Tammy explained. “Only the Dukes, Dutchess, the Fallen or Lucifer himself can turn a mortal soul into a demon. It does happen, sure, but there’s not a spate of it going on. They usually have to bring in a new roper once, maybe twice a year, and that’s it. Given how often demons kill each other off, it’s not like there’s an overpopulation problem.” This, naturally, led to Tyler asking how it was that demons could die permanently, and Tammy knew the answer to this as well. She informed him that there were certain special weapons or techniques that could ‘extinguish’ a demon or a mortal soul, which didn’t actually destroy them, but rather, forced them to rematerialize in ‘The Void’. Death there, though, she informed him, was absolutely permanent. Or at least, that was what she had been told, and what all of the literature on the subject she’d read stated, over and over again.
“So The Void is the toilet bowl of Creation, in other words,” Tyler posited, checking the clock and seeing that he had just an hour left to his first shift. “Once you go down the pipes there, there is no coming back.”
“Disgusting way of putting it, but yeah, that’s about the half and whole of it,” she replied. Something outside caught her attention, and Tammy slowly made her way over to the small section of the window front of the store and peered outside. Tyler clambered down off of his stool and took a step her way, his curiosity piqued.
“What’s going on,” he asked.
“Oh, shit,” Tammy rasped, backing swiftly away from the window. “Oh shit, oh shit, get down,” she hollered, dropping to the floor. For Tyler, the warning came too late. Transfixed, he watched as a half-skeletal pterodactyl wearing a camo field uniform came crashing through the glass storefront, a thrashing jaguar-man in its talons, wings and body knocking everything it flew into akimbo. Thousands of shards of glass raked Tyler’s face and torso, and the jaguar-demon collided with him at full speed, knocking him clear into the wooden counter backing. He crashed through it, breaking every bone in his back on impact, dragged in indescribable pain along under the immense heat radiating off of the jaguar-demon’s bare back, the stench of burnt fur choking what little air he could drag down into his chest out of him. Curses in an unknown tongue and the sharp shrieks of the reptilian flier filled his failing ears, a cacophony of chaotic noise that quickly faded as the jaguar was dragged off of him.
Everything faded to black, then flashed back into full color, as Tyler found himself, whole and undamaged, standing outside of the store, looking in through the massive hole the two combatants had created when they crashed through the store’s facade. He could see Tammy laying prone on the wreckage-strewn floor, and heard the whoops and hollers of nearby demons in uniforms similar to Tsume’s as they cheered on the fighters wreaking havoc inside. Tyler raised his hands, looking at them as he flexed shaking fingers, his whole body feeling like it wanted to vomit from every available pore in his skin.
He had just been killed.
And he had come back in one piece, in Hell.
If anyone could be said to have had a couple of really bad days despite the fact that it could technically be worse, Tyler would have liked to meet them. He shook his head, and started tentatively toward the gap in the 5ive and Dime’s outer wall. As he took the first few steps, he heard someone off to his right say in a tone that brooked no argument, “Stay right where you are, Evans.” He moved only his eyes, spying chief Decker, his brow furrowed, teeth clenched as he angrily stomped toward the store, piling in through the gap, tossing Tammy outside like a sack of potatoes. She landed, screaming, in a heap a few feet away, which birthed more laughter and hooting from the nearby clutch of demonic officers, whom Tyler could see all looked like close cousins to Tsume, dog demons all. He helped her up to her feet, both of them grunting and groaning as he helped brush plaster dust and bits of glass off of her shirt and trousers. Together they stood staring into the store, watching in grim fascination as Decker clouted both the pterodactyl thing and the jaguar demon about the heads and chests, pounding them like they were amateurs and he was the grand master of some brutal form of martial art.
When he was finished with them, Decker carried both demons out by the scruff of their necks, tossing them in opposite directions. “Go home, and sleep it off, both of you,” he snarled, cracking his knuckles as he waited for them both to go their separate ways. When they had a good hundred yards between them, and with the dog demons having taken to heel (likely to avoid having goaded the whole incident on, Tyler guessed), Decker approached him and Tammy, serpent hands on his hips. “Sellers, Evans, sorry about the, ah, damages my people caused,” he said awkwardly. “How long’s it been since my people caused this much destruction in the store, Sellers? Two, three weeks?”
“Almost two months,” she replied in a hollow voice. “Tyler here got killed.”
“Really? Your first post-death smokeout,” Decker said, seemingly surprised and, dare Tyler say it, apologetic? He lowered his head so that his face was closer to Tyler’s, and asked, “Was it bad?”
“I got crushed to death after being made into a dartboard for flying bits of window glass,” the Condemned young man retorted hotly, folding his arms over his chest. “What did you think, it’d get put in my Top 10 Things to Do Today?” Decker pursed his lips, eyes narrowed, but he made no motion to indicate he was going to make Tyler eat his own shitty attitude.
“I suppose I deserve that,” the gorilla-demon said instead, all the while still maintaining that cool, collected ‘Ron Perlman as Hellboy’ tone and quality of voice. He reached down to his belt, opening a small yellow box on his right hip and pulling out a small net baggie containing five strange little bronze cubes. He handed them down to Tyler, who turned the bag this way and that, eyes bugging out wide as he recognized the design on them. They looked like the puzzle boxes from the ‘Hellraiser’ film franchise, though there were a few differences in the symbols on their sides. “Those are Restoration Configurations, Evans. You can use one now to patch up the store, put it back to normal. It’s either that, or I send out a work crew to fix the place up. Take your pick.” Tyler wasted no time, pulling open the bag and taking one of the small cubes between thumb and forefinger. “Okay, smart choice. Now follow me,” he said, guiding Tammy and Tyler over to the hole in the storefront. “All right, just push your thumb onto one of the black dots in a side’s center, then set the cube down right here,” he said, pointing to the point where the rubble began.
Tyler did as the gorilla demon instructed, and the cube began floating upward, humming with a low, steady drone. There issued from it a blast of darkness, inky black nothing that swallowed Tyler’s vision for the briefest moment. When it snapped back, the cube was gone, and the storefront restored. He peeked through the small gap in the window’s many signs, and saw that the interior had been returned to normal as well, which pushed a sigh of relief out of his very core.
“Thank you, sir,” he said to Decker. “What in the name of this place was all of that even about,” he asked, pocketing the remaining cubes.
“Oh, those two tribes have never gotten along, they’re always fighting over turf and who gets to torture who,” Decker said casually. “The cat tribes have always enjoyed playing with war criminals and mass murderers among the Damned, and the flying terrors like to be swift and brutal about it, but they like going after the same sorts. They break out into this little feud pretty frequently, which is why I’ve sent most of the flying terrors off to sector eight, where most of them live in this city. The dog tribes usually just goad them on, and don’t think I didn’t see those little troublemakers standing over here too before I made myself known.”
Tyler shook his head, and Tammy patted him on the back before disappearing back inside of the store. Decker was about to leave, but Tyler stayed him with a hand on his massive wrist. “Wait, chief Decker, I’ve got a question.” Decker just raised an eyebrow down at him, ever patient, it seemed. “Tammy was telling me earlier that the Condemned can write letters to their chancellor asking for a sit-down, right?”
“Right. Do you want me to send one along later in the week? You can just drop it off at my office, I’ll take it with all the others.”
“No, no,” Tyler said, shaking his head, feeling foolish for what he was about to propose. “I’d like to write one to Lucifer.” Decker held perfectly still for almost a full minute, tension building in the space between the two men’s eyes as the silence passed unchecked. Finally, Decker grunted.
“Okay, kid. You want to write a letter to Lucifer? By all means, do it and bring it to my office. I’ll send it up the flagpole.” Tyler smiled, thanked him, and started to head back inside, pausing as he opened the door and Decker said, “Just, don’t get your hopes up for a response, okay?” Tyler just gave him a stupid grin, nodded once more, and headed inside.
It was about forty minutes before the 5ive and Dime’s second shift clerk, a prematurely balding man of middle years, wearing the thickest glasses a man could without being declared legally and practically blind, came blundering in. Hank, his name was, and he didn’t even pause to do more than give Tyler his name before telling Tyler that he could take off, that he would handle things from there. Tyler grabbed another pack of smokes, a red can of ‘Cola’, and headed outside, pleased that the red cola turned out to taste exactly like Coke. He lit a cigarette, and looked out at the streets as several strange, boxy vehicles blurred past, running down Condemned and running Damned and several demons alike as they went. Tammy stood next to him a minute later, watching with him as several injured demons tried to gather themselves and their victims of torment up off of the pavement, the Condemned left largely to their own devices.
“So, what did you think of your first day,” Tammy asked him, lighting her own smoke, blowing a set of perfectly formed rings in the dank, reddish air.
“I think it’s a hell of a job,” Tyler said. “And I think I have a lot to learn yet. More than any of that, though, Tammy,” he said, pulling the cigarette out of his mouth and pointing at the demons in the street with it. “I think they might be just as screwed by this whole system as we are, and they don’t even know it.” Tammy made a ‘hmm’ noise, clearly intrigued by the idea, then clapped him on the back.
“Well, she’s all yours tomorrow morning,” she said, starting away. “Try not to get killed again tomorrow. Might set a bad trend.” Tyler laughed, but he took her words to heart, and thought them over as he headed for home.
Hell may have been eternal, yes. He might be Condemned forever, yes. And he might die at any given time, only to be reborn in the same state he was in at that precise moment, the memory of the pain in his mind but not within his newly formed astral flesh, yes. But at least it doesn’t seem like it’ll be boring, he mused, letting himself really take in the infernal scenery of the city around him. And that’s got to count for something.
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