Episode 4- Sartre Had the Right of It
The walk home from his first shift at the 5ive and Dime had gone by without incident, the only notable difference between leaving his building and returning to it the slight shift in the amount of ‘daylight’ coming down from the infinite darkness overhead, and the fact that he now walked alone. Tyler thought he should have perhaps grabbed a windbreaker from his closet that morning, so as to have someplace to stuff his hands as he walked along. The pants pocket felt like a move that would make him just look awkward, as though he were some deviant trying to develop a way to travel while jerking off. Angular and spider-like, he just didn’t look natural walking around without a coat to put his hands in as he moseyed along.
Yet the light levels and solitude did not push out entirely another observation the young Condemned man made as he sauntered toward his Hell-bound home; he was starting to see more of his environment in full living color. The buildings flanking his own, for instance, were not red brick; they were, in fact, constructed of bricks of various shades, though red did dominate, chromatically speaking. A black Mercedes-Benz, of the sort Tyler recalled seeing in plenty of films and television programs depicting officers and parades of the Third Reich, rumbled down the road on his left, barely keeping to the cracked asphalt of the roadway. The smog the vehicle spewed in its wake affected him far worse than any cigarette could, a thick, oily gas cloud that put him in a fit of coughing deserving of a seventy-year-old Teamster with emphysema. He hacked into his fist for a moment before waving his hand in front of his face to clear his vision and nostrils, and marching onward toward home.
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As he came alongside the nearer building flanking his own, now noting those non-red bricks mentioned previously, Tyler heard the muffled drones and murmurings of conversation. Taking one last drag from his cigarette before pitching it into the street, Tyler looked up the steps to his building, and saw there Rory and a couple of folks he didn’t recognize. The ex-priest had a yellow reflectorized vest on over a plain brown t-shirt and dusty work jeans, a pair of heavy steel-toed boots on his feet, his hands on his hips. Standing in profile view to Tyler as he came up the steps, he could see that Rory was actually smiling, which seemed a rare enough thing among the Condemned that Tyler had met thus far. Speaking with him was a tall, waifish woman with skin so white it made Tyler think of a blank word document in Microsoft Word, curled hair red enough to blend in with the native rock and ‘concrete’ sidewalks of Hell, and wearing a stunning, flowing green dress the shade of young summer grass. While Rory smelled of sweat and cement dust, Tyler could almost taste the woman’s fruit-inspired perfume, a strawberry-something-or-other that might have been delightful in a lesser quantity. May as well have unscrewed the cap and dumped it on herself, he thought as he joined them, hands in his back pockets.
The woman was in mid-sentence, and stopped abruptly, turning her eyes, a dazzling shade of green that matched her dress perfectly, toward him. When she turned the rest of her head to him, Tyler saw that she had a small tattoo just behind her right ear in the form of an arcane symbol he didn’t recognize. “Hello there, young sir,” said the woman in a light, distinct Irish accent.
“Hey there,” Tyler replied. “Tyler Evans,” he said, offering his hand. The woman curtsied, then took his hand hesitantly.
“Tabitha Quinn,” she said. “I understand you and Mr. Temple here are new to the building,” she said. Tyler felt an expression of glee burst onto his face as he put up a high-five for Rory, which he dutifully obliged him. Tabitha flinched, though only slightly. Tyler brought his hand slowly down to his side, his smile fading.
“Tabitha?” She blinked at him. “What year did you die?”
“1725,” she answered evenly. “I, I still struggle with some of the more modern customs I’ve seen brought down here since I passed, particularly from your America. Many of them seem almost, violent, to me.” Tyler sniffed, thumbing his nose before crossing his arms over his chest.
“Not as bad as the ‘rule of thumb’, I imagine,” he quipped, which earned him a cross scowl from the Condemned Irishwoman. “Hey, sorry, but you kind of opened the gate on that one. I mean, pot calling the kettle black.”
“What my young friend means to say, Ms. Quinn,” said Rory, putting a firm hand on Tyler’s collarbone, thumb hooked perfectly over it through the thin fabric of his work shirt. Tyler held still, the pressure not quite enough to hurt, but clearly indicative of the potential for pain. “Is that we may have some habits that seem troublesome, but rest assured, they’ve improved as history has rolled forward. Well, with a few exceptions,” he said, pulling his hand away and shrugging his shoulders, palms up. Tabitha’s dour frown leavened a touch, until she turned her attention once more to the ex-priest.
“Perhaps t’is so, and I hope that’s the truth of it. Any ro’, Mr. Evans, wasn’t it?” Tyler nodded as her eyes shifted to him once again for a moment. “I was just informing Mr. Temple here that a few of us long-timers from the building would like to hold a sort of informal welcome wagon for the new folk.”
“How many of us are there,” Tyler inquired, pulling out a cigarette and lighting it.
“There’s three of you this time ‘round,” Tabitha answered. “Yourself, Mr. Temple, and Mrs. Rogers.” Tyler raised an eyebrow at Rory, but he didn’t seem to notice. “We’ll give you some time to change out of your duty attire and come meet us up on the third floor, in the commons room.”
“We have a commons room,” Tyler asked. “What is this, fucking Hogwarts?” Rory snorted appreciatively, and even Tabitha seemed to soften toward a smile.
“I’ve rather enjoyed those books since they showed up,” said the Irish woman.
“Good to know there’s solid reading to be done in Hell,” Tyler commented.
“Aye, and it’s better than the trash that comes flashing about on that television thing they put in all of our units,” Tabitha said. “Give it an hour, then we’ll meet you up there.” She turned on her heel and headed inside swiftly, her step bouncy, energetic. Tyler watched her head up the stairs inside the entrance, the door of the building swinging slowly shut behind her. Rory whistled softly.
“Quite the looker, isn’t she,” Rory asked.
“Sure, if you like that sort of thing in a woman,” Tyler responded. Rory gave him a probing look, and Tyler said, “You know, old-fashioned, a little uptight.”
“She’s from the 18th century, Tyler,” Rory said.
“She’s had time to adapt, I’d think,” Tyler countered. He leaned in closer to the middle-aged Condemned man and whispered, “Did you tell her you used to be a priest?”
“Good lord, no,” Rory rasped in reply. “Tell an 18th century Irish woman I used to be a good Catholic priest, that I gave it up for Jack Daniels and Jim Beam? She’d like as not try to arrange to have my balls cut off and rammed into my mouth, all with a rusty pocket knife!” Tyler made placating hand gestures and took a measured half-step back from him.
“All right, all right, we’ll play it cool, no mentions of that shit.” He gave Rory an obvious up-and-down look. “So what kind of job they have you doing?”
“Construction and repairs,” Rory said with a sigh. “Come on in, I’ll tell you a little about it before the meeting. By the way, have you met this Rogers woman she mentioned?”
“No, no idea who that is,” Tyler said, following Rory up to the second floor, and down to unit 204. “Are you serious?”
“What?” Rory pressed his CIR into the slot under the doorknob, and after a solid ‘clack’, turned the knob and pushed the door open.
“Dude, I’m right there in 206,” he said, pointing to the next door down the hall. Rory smiled at him and gave a thumb’s up.
“Very nice, friend. Come on in, let me give you the tour,” he said. Tyler followed him inside, and found himself utterly lacking in surprise when the apartment turned out to look exactly like his own, with the exception of different clothes in the bedroom closet and dresser, and the towel hanging on a rod in Rory’s bathroom was dark blue, rather than green. When they returned to the living room, Rory indicated that Tyler should take the lone chair available, while he darted off into the kitchen area and returned with two bottles of dark brown glass. A sticker on each bottle simply read, ‘BEER’, with a picture of a horse underneath.
“You have got to be kidding me,” Tyler said, taking the cold bottle and pressing it against his forehead. “I didn’t even look in my fridge, come to think of it. I was so dead tired by the time I got home yesterday, I checked out some TV, then I just kicked my shoes off and dropped onto the mattress.”
“Not I, young master,” said Rory, twisting the cap off of his beer and sitting criss-cross on the floor a few feet away. He took a long swig of beer, then got up and nipped into the kitchen again for a moment, returning with a wide, circular ashtray, which he set on the floor next to Tyler’s seat. Tyler lit a smoke, took the cap off of his own drink, and sipped. The brew, bitter and tangy, nonetheless provided a narrow measure of enjoyment and relief. “I decided to check the whole place out best I could. There’s not much, and the programming on the television isn’t anything to write home about. Not that we could write home, of course. But you get what I mean.”
“Yeah, I do. My own place is pretty much exactly like this. Doesn’t seem like they want to exactly encourage having company.” He thought it over for a moment, then said, “Do you suppose that’s why there’s a common room here? Like, maybe every residential place in the city has one or two of them for the Condemned?”
“I’m thinking that’s bang-on,” said Rory. “Place my foreman took us to today after we checked in, there had been some kind of big fight between these tiger demons and bird demons, completely wasted the front of a gym of some kind. About three, four buildings north of the place was another building, looked almost exactly like this one here,” Rory said. “I think all of our kind get put in places like this.”
“It would make it easier to keep track of us all,” Tyler reasoned. “Which, by the way, brings me to a curious consideration, and one I wonder if you’ve thought about at all. This is Hell, right?”
“Um, yeah,” said Rory, taking a sip of his beer.
“And yet, we seem to have a pretty good deal of creature comforts here. I mean, nobody in this building’s precisely pushing a boulder up a hill over and over again.”
“Nobody in this building is Sisyphus, Tyler,” said Rory. In a patient tone he added, “And just by the by, that’s Greek mythos, not Judeo-Christian in origin. Still, I’m glad to see the public education system didn’t entirely fail you, wherever you’re from.”
“Bryn Mawr, suburb of Philly,” Tyler replied. “Just, bear with me here,” he said, taking a long drag off of his beer. “I realize that none of the major religions seemed to know about the differentiations going on down here, that there’s two separate classes of human souls in Hell, but it just seems strange, you know? I mean, why give us any sort of freedom at all? Who decides if a person ends up Damned versus being Condemned? Where’s the line in all of that?” Tyler felt his breath coming on in short, sharp bursts, as though he were hyperventilating, and he stopped himself where he stood, realizing only after taking a moment to be silent that he had begun pacing. He looked to Rory, whose face had transformed into a mask of concern. Tyler didn’t even know when he had gotten up out of Rory’s chair, much less why he felt so suddenly panicked.
“Tyler, bud, now just calm down,” said the ex-priest. “Take a drink, maybe, take some of the edge off.” Tyler did so, and despite feeling patronized, he also felt glad to have taken Rory’s suggestion. The cool, bubbling stream of brew down his throat loosened the muscles in his neck and back, allowing him to sink back down into the chair with a sigh. “Tyler? What’s got you so rattled?”
“I don’t know,” the young clerk confessed, shaking his head. “I just feel like I’m on the very outer edge of understanding something, that I’ve been getting hints since I arrived down here, pointers toward something behind the scenery, just out of sight. I know, I know,” he said, stopping to finish off his beer. “That makes no sense, I get it. Did you ever feel that way, Rory?” The ex-priest was still giving him a concerned look, though it had faded a bit now that Tyler seemed to be regaining control of himself.
“I did, for a brief time,” Rory said. “When I was in seminary, preparing to take my final rites to enter fully into the priesthood. I had been studying the olden demonology, as at the time, exorcism was still an accepted practice in the Church. I didn’t want to be an exorcist, you understand, but I found the history and the stories, the testimonials, to be among the most fascinating things I had ever read regarding the whole of the organization. I felt, drawn, as it were, to discovering the darker secrets and practices of the Church.
“Well, one day, when I was purusing one of my favorite tomes of demon lore, the book snapped shut on me. I chalked it up to nothing but an errant gust of wind in the library where I was studying, since there was a number of windows standing open along the north-facing windows of said space. I asked father O’Keenan if I could borrow the book for reading and taking notes, the better to formulate an essay on demons old and possibly new. He was delighted that I had taken such an interest.
“Well, as I was writing out the information on the little yellow card he gave me, I spotted what looked like a queer little mark on the back of father O’Keenan’s neck. I risked a closer look, and it turned out to be a symbol that I had seen somewhere before, and recently. Later that night, sitting in my room at the school, I found the symbol, a tiny thing and barely worth mentioning. It showed up on the neck of one of the demons in the tome’s illustrations. I flipped through and found it, but the caption under the picture was not help. Neither was the passage itself that followed the picture.”
Tyler made a twirling ‘get on with it’ motion with his hand, swigging the last of his beer. “Don’t mean to rush you, padre, but there’s about forty minutes before this little shindig, and I’d like to take a shower before going upstairs to partake.” Rory cleared his throat and proceeded.
“Sorry, sorry, I did say I was going to give you the short version, right? Well, the point is, I never found out what that symbol meant, or what I was supposed to be finding by way of it. I’ve seen it a few times since, but always at a distance, or for only long enough to blink. And so, I was certain for a short time that it was something important, that it was worth looking into, but in the long run, I think that might have been just an oddity, and nothing more.” Rory stood up and carried his and Tyler’s empty bottles over to the edge of the kitchen, depositing the cans in a round black trash can. “It’s like my mind needed something to focus on, to pull me away from stressing out about my final rites and joining the Church as a full-fledged priest. You might be doing something similar, though, to tell the truth, if that’s what it is, you’ve got it way worse than I did.”
“How so,” Tyler asked, getting up and heading toward the door.
“Well, I was about to enter a whole new phase and way of life,” said Rory, opening the door for Tyler. “It was clear, after a little bit of time, what I had been anxious about. You’re already in Hell, though, Tyler. So, what’s got you a bundle of nerves?” Tyler, face going blank, could have cursed his neighbor and, thus far, only friend in Condemnation. As he stepped out into the hall, Rory closing the door gently behind him, Tyler tried not to think too hard on the question posed. Instead, he headed into his own apartment, grabbing a fresh change of clothes and using the shower to clean up. Here his expectations were at once met, and not quite so. The water was scalding, which could only have surprised him if he had the memory or awareness of a goldfish. The pressure, however, could have passed for excellent even in the Mortal World.
Allowing himself to remain still under the stream, Tyler Evans let his mind go blank.
Tyler made his way slowly up the stairs from the second floor to the third, his hand on the railing, but his eyes glued on the wallpaper. Capering little goblins danced about on its rust-red background, hook-nosed cretins in fantasy-style tunics and leathers. Several of them appeared to be throwing spears at human figures that fled ahead of them, their faces contorted in soundless screams. Halfway up to the third floor on a narrow landing he paused in his climb, watching this tableau run its course on one stretch of the paper.
The pursuit ended with the goblins skewering the humans and falling upon them, ripping them apart in a feast of meat and inky, blotchy blood. Rory came up the steps behind him, clapped him on the shoulder, and said, “Whatcha lookin’ at, friend?” Tyler looked to Rory, then back to the wall.
The goblins had gone back to their original, unmoving state. Yes, they were still mid-pursuit of humans, but nothing had returned to an animated motion. “Um, nothing,” Tyler stammered. “Just, uh, noticed the little pictures for the first time, I guess.”
“Well, don’t dawdle,” said Rory. “We only got a couple minutes before things are supposed to get started.” Rory headed up the next set of steps into the third floor hallway, leaving Tyler on his own. The young Condemned man watched Rory turn left and wave at someone unseen, then go down the way and out of sight. Tyler returned his attention to the wallpaper, which was still unmoving, but had changed in the brief moment he had been watching Rory. One of the groups of goblins stared out at him from the wall, a pair on the left end of a block of the repeating images, and a set of six on the right end.
Just ignore it, he commanded himself, heading up the steps and following in Rory’s wake. You’re grasping at straws, looking for some greater purpose or pattern to avoid thinking about the fact that you’re in Hell, forever. When that last word echoed through his mind, the notion seemed perfectly logical. Of all of the aspects of an afterlife, Tyler had always found the most terrifying of them all to be the concept of eternity. Be it Heaven, Hell, or anything in between, the very idea of being aware of the passage of time and being caught in it for the duration seemed enough to drive a person utterly insane.
But can a soul go insane, though? If madness is an affliction of the chemicals and processes in the brain, how can a soul experience it, no matter how fancy the meat-like wrapping around it? Tyler allowed a fake smile to light his face as he passed by the doors to units on the third floor and found his way to an archway that had no door in it, opening on a large, rounded sort of study or den. Several men and women stood about or sat on cozy looking couches, the walls lined with books and several bits of brick-a-brack, the nature of which he could not even begin to guess. The commons room had a dusty smell, one he immediately linked to the many books about the room, most of them likely untouched for quite some time.
Of the others in the room already, he recognized Rory and Tabitha, and the caramel-skinned woman he had spotted that morning when he was heading out of the building for his first day of duty. She now wore a simple blue blouse with no frills or design, and a loose pair of black jeans. Her feet were bare, a detail he found charming, if a bit too casual for a function ostensibly put together to greet him, Rory, and the as-yet-unseen Mrs. Rogers to the local Condemned they shared the building with. At the moment she engaged in hushed conversation with another woman Tyler did not as yet know, a short, rotund white woman with shoulder-length black hair, a colorful cardigan and pale blue sweatpants, and a smile that simply should not have been possible in Hell.
“Into the fray we go, souls brave and knees knocking,” Tyler mumbled to himself. He approached the pair of ladies with a tilt of the mouth, not quite a grin, but a hair more friendly than the flat affect his expression fell to in moments of neutral engagement. His mother had once jested that he had a statue’s range when he wasn’t actively engaged with others. Despite the sting of such words from his own mother, he couldn’t deny the truth of her assessment. He got a few feet away and stood with his hands behind his back, waiting for either of them to directly address him before interjecting into their conversation.
“- hasn’t been a day goes by I don’t think about it,” the dark-skinned woman was saying as Tyler tuned in. She gave him a flash of a smile, all square, perfect teeth, pearly white, flawless. That smile did not reach her eyes, however, which held to Tyler’s opinion a guarded look. Smart woman, he thought. This is Hell; proceed always with caution. “Hello, mister,” she said, letting the ‘r’ roll and hang as she offered her hand. Tyler accepted lightly.
“Evans. Tyler Evans. And you?”
“Kelly Marshall,” she replied, sliding her hand free of his. Her palm had been so smooth, Tyler suspected she could slide it out of a vice without effort. “Five years Condemned. Did your Assignment Representative tell you why you’re here?”
“Mostly because I’m, well, I was, an atheist,” Tyler replied. The minute twitch of Kelly’s nose and upper lip, hummingbird-swift, did not escape his notice. Fair’s fair, he thought as he asked, “And you?” Kelly’s right hand came up to a large golden hoop earring depending from her ear, left arm bent to crook her opposite hand into the bend of her elbow, eyes averted.
“I may have been a little too harsh towards certain people,” she offered feebly. Tyler, smelling a rat, nonetheless refrained from digging around any further, instead angling himself to the other woman and extending his hand, which she took forcefully.
“Margaret Rogers,” the husky woman said in a pleasantly enthusiastic voice. “I was in much the same boat as you, Tyler, though, I pretended I was a Christian for a long time,” she said, letting go.
“How do you mean ‘pretended’,” Tyler asked, tucking his hands into his pockets and swaying exaggeratedly forward and back, looking around Margaret at a table laden with paper cups filled with a dark red juice. He held up one finger to pause her reaction, looped around her to grab one for himself, then returned to his previous spot, taking a quick sip. Whatever the stuff was, it was sweet enough for his liking. He lifted the cup in a ‘salut’ to Margaret, who cleared her throat before answering.
“I mean that I went ahead and told people I was a believer,” said Margaret. She looked down, shuffling her feet. “It was better that way, given what my husband and I did for a living. You see,” she said, looking up and twirling her free hand, “we ran a non-profit charity out of Boston that focused on helping out single parents. We helped them establish jobs, get low cost or free daycare, and educational assistance if their children needed some special attention. We were trying to do good for our community,” she said. “And Ben and I, we agreed that we would try to stay unaffiliated with any religious organizations, to help avoid the awkwardness of explaining that only half of the folks running the show could be genuine about it.”
“So your husband was a believer?”
“Very much so,” Margaret responded. She took a sip of her drink, and started shaking her head faintly. “But he knew full well I wasn’t, and he never once tried to hold it against me. He loved me for who I was, and for twelve years, we got on better than any two people have a right to. Of course, now he’s in Heaven, and I’m stuck here. Condemned,” she said, her voice fading.
“If you’d rather not talk about it, I understand,” Tyler said. “I’m sure Kelly’d tell you not to worry about sharing today. It’s not like anybody in this building is going anywhere right now.” He took a long drink, sighed with relief, and said, “Right, Kelly?” Kelly made a small noise of closed-mouth agreement, then made her way away from the former non-believers. Tyler leaned in toward Margaret and whispered, “Methinks someone rode her high horse all the way to the devil’s front yard.” This got a surprised chuckle and smile, and he felt better about the overall encounter for it. Margaret seemed to strike a chord with him, and he had felt a strangely native impulse to make her feel better.
He took a quick peek over to Rory, who had fallen into introductions with Kelly. Tabitha maneuvered around the two of them, joined by a man who had been sitting quietly over by the unlit fireplace. Trying to remain as unassuming and inoffensive as possible, Tyler thought of the man as simply Asian, not daring to even attempt to guess which was his country of origin. When the pair came up to Tyler and Margaret, the man nodded at them briefly, then took a half-step to his right, allowing for the Irishwoman to draw closer.
“Mister Evans, it’s good to see you again,” she said amiably. “This is Toshiro. He’s been with us now coming on three years.” Toshiro and Tyler shook hands briefly, then returned their attentions to Tabitha. “I meant to inquire before, what duty did you end up getting assigned?”
“Oh, they’ve got me manning the register over at the 5ive and Dime,” Tyler replied. Toshiro whistled and shook his head. “What?”
“I heard about what happened there today,” said Toshiro in heavily accented English. “The flying lizard and jaguar-man, right?”
“That’s a pretty concise synopsis, if you discount that it doesn’t cover the scale of the damage done,” Tyler replied sardonically. “On the plus side, I got killed during the whole thing.”
“Ohhh, first post-death death,” said Toshiro gravely, frowning at Tyler. “I remember mine, very bizarre. My first torment, the devil they assigned me was a bit zealous, crushed my skull in with his foot. I rematerialized half a mile away, which was very lucky. It took him nearly an hour to locate me, which is time off the clock one way or the other.” Tyler absorbed this information, and thought about the true horror of what the Damned faced. There was, for them, no true respite, only momentary relief while they fled the agony waiting to be inflected upon them. He wondered how the hand-sized woman had fared in her flight from the sword-wielding beetles, his memory of the swiftly glimpsed pursuit burning in his mind. I hope she avoided them for a long time. Even better, maybe she’s still leading the chase. Maybe, she’ll never be caught. Yet as pleasant a thought as this was, he knew it couldn’t be true.
In Hell, hope didn’t float; it sank like an RV tire with a switchblade sticking out of it.
“What is it they’ve got you doing down here for a duty, Toshiro,” Tyler asked, keeping his tone as respectful as possible.
“You know, it’s odd,” Toshiro began, his forehead wrinkling contemplatively. “I was an audio technician for Kenzaki-TV in Tokyo before I died, and when I got here, they made me an audio technician for Pit TV, which is headquartered nearer the center of the city. Many of the people I have met since arriving in this building have been given jobs that are similar to what they did in life.”
“Not all,” Tabitha snapped, perhaps a little too quickly. When the two men gave her matching looks of curiosity, she excused herself to the nearby ladies room off the commons. Tyler did a double-raise of his eyebrows, a Vaudevillian maneuver, and this elicited a smile from Toshiro that caused the many wrinkles of his face to show.
“If it is not too rude of me to ask, do you know why you were sent to Hell in the afterlife,” the Japanese engineer asked. Tyler made a small shake of his head to indicate he didn’t mind the question.
“I was an atheist,” he replied. “I don’t know if that’s the only reason I wound up down here, though. I mean, Jixa, my Condemnation Assignment Rep, he said that was the main reason, and that the reason I wasn’t Damned was because I was mostly ethically sound.”
“Hmm, that doesn’t sound too strange,” said Toshiro. “My own rep told me that there are many different Heavens, and that there are many different regions of Hell. He said to me that members of most faiths have one of each assigned to them, though there is, clearly, a great deal of crossover.” He sipped his punch and sighed, looking away from Tyler. “I am here mostly because of an infidelity, you see.”
“Yes,” said Toshiro, still not looking at Tyler directly. “I was a Shintoist in life, and still maintain that this is yomi, the world of the dead, though I have understandably modified some of my previous views. I suspect that it was because of my infidelity that I have not joined the kami of my family to watch over the generations to come, including my own children.”
“Dude, pretty harsh on yourself there,” Tyler opined. “I mean, you obviously feel pretty bad about what you did. Wasn’t that enough?”
“Sure, I feel bad about it now,” Toshiro said, finally meeting Tyler’s gaze. There was pure iron in that look, a certainty that nothing could shake, not even the demon tribes of Hell. That look alone filled Tyler with a heavy dose of respect for the engineer. “But I did not cleanse myself of kegare after the fact, not even after confessing to my wife what I had done. I performed the daily Harae, the weekly one, and the monthly and annual ones, but in all of them, though I went through the motions, and though my family forgave me, I never actually felt bad about what I had done. This is why I am here, Mr. Evans, in yomi. Until I can earn my place as ujigami, I must remain here.”
Tyler didn’t understand the terminology Toshiro used, though he suspected he could get clarification if he just asked. For the time being, however, he didn’t want to trouble the man with specifics, instead thanking him for his time and making his way over to Rory, who was sliding one fingertip along the spines of a stretch of books on one wall. He leaned in close to the ex-priest and whispered, “So, find anything out about Kelly?”
“Indeed I did, thanks to Officer Friendly over there,” he whispered back, pointing over his shoulder. Tyler followed his finger, and saw standing over by the commons room doorway a familiar and unsettling figure, its arms folded over its chest.
“What is Telman doing here,” Tyler rasped, staring at the living armor demon, its twin crimson orbs glowing darkly in its visored helmet, seeming to project its stoic malice directly at him.
“Tabitha says that whenever the local demons hear of gatherings of more than a couple humes, they take an interest. I imagine they don’t want us putting our heads together to try and start trouble.”
“What possible trouble could we start,” Tyler muttered dryly. “The most useful talent any of us has is an apparent inability to permanently die, unless we somehow wind up in this Void they’ve mentioned. We’re not exactly X-Men over here.” Rory shrugged his shoulders, and returned his attention to the books ostensibly. “So, what did you find out from our fine metal friend about her?”
“Kelly Marshall, thirty-one years of age when she died in 2003,” Rory said quietly, taking a step to his right. Tyler followed suit, keeping an eye on the others gathered in the room to ensure they had maintained privacy for the moment. “Devout Christian, a member of the Lord’s Shield Baptist Church out of New York City,” Rory continued.
“Weren’t they associated with the Westboro people,” Tyler asked.
“Loosely, yes, and they shared a lot of the same methodology. Protesting at funerals, carrying signs around in public places, giving people in the LGBT community a really hard time. Our Ms. Marshall apparently was involved in one of their more heated altercations back in early ‘02, when her church’s minister and leader set them up in Central Park with a megaphone and started belting on about how the Lord brought down the towers because of the Sodomites of the Big Apple.” Tyler wrinkled his nose up, disgusted by such antics even now. Yet the story Rory was now talking about sounded familiar, though he would have been only fifteen or sixteen when it happened.
“I think I remember reading something about that or hearing it when I was in high school,” Tyler said. “Wasn’t there some kind of riot?”
“Indeed there was,” Rory said. “It was a huge brawl, and in the middle of it, when Kelly there was trying to get away from it, she got right furious at the people who came and disrupted her people’s little gathering of hate. So instead of just hightailing it and regrouping later, she picked up a rock and chucked it at the nearest gay person she could see. Clocked a young man right upside the head, dropped him to the ground screaming with blood running out between his fingers. She took off after that.”
“Whoa,” Tyler replied, shaking his head. “So what happened to her then?”
“Nothing legally,” Rory said, finally turning to face Tyler as they reached the edge of a sofa along the outer rim of the commons room. “Nobody ever figured out who threw the rock, since it was cold out and she’d been wearing gloves. But that young man she pegged with the rock? He lived, but she never once felt bad about what she did, told everyone she confided in about it that he was just another fag getting what he deserved. Justified it by saying that people like that were supposed to be stoned to death.”
“So to sum it up, she was a holier-than-thou cunt,” Tyler said.
“Pretty much. Although, she did do a lot of volunteer work after the whole mess, working with the homeless and abused women’s shelters. Hey, incoming,” Rory said, angling himself toward Margaret as she approached, once again all smiles. “So, we three merry Muskateers have been welcomed in by the home crowd, though I can’t imagine this is everyone in the building,” Rory said in a more conversational volume.
“No, but it’s all right,” Margaret replied. “Frankly, it seems most people here don’t like to gather in big groups from what Mr. Kenzaki told me.”
“Toshiro?” She nodded. “Yeah, he seems pretty on the level to me,” Tyler said. “Tabitha seems okay too. But seriously, I’m not so sure how I feel about Kelly, given what Telman told Rory here.”
“Oh?” Rory pulled Margaret aside and began relating to her what he’d told Tyler, while the young Condemned cashier set his now-empty cup down on an end table and made a bee line for the living armor demon by the commons room door. Telman’s arms came down to his sides as Tyler drew close, his right hand gripping the pommel of a short sword sheathed at his hip.
“Easy, Tin Man, I’m not gonna try anything stupid,” Tyler said, hands up dismissively. The demon let its hand drop slowly to its side, eye-lights dimming faintly. Tyler had initially believed every word of what Rory had relayed to him about Kelly, particularly when he considered her initial reaction to his confession that he’d been an atheist in life. Yet the moment Margaret had drawn aside with Rory, a tiny voice in the back of his mind echoed through his mind that such things might be exactly what a demon would say, a lie conveniently offered to keep the Condemned in one location from trusting one another, banding together. It would be just the sort of subtle move a tyranny would employ to maintain its grip on the populace, and Hell was nothing if not a tyranny. “I’ve got a few questions for you, though. Out in the hall,” he added, pushing past Telman on one side. The momentary contact as his shoulder brushed against the demon sent worms racing through his skin, but Tyler controlled his trembling long enough to walk a few yards down the quiet hallway from the commons room entrance.
Telman followed him, and cocked his helmet-head to one side, eye-lights now shining white. “Curious, human, that you should feel so emboldened as to interrogate me,” the demon said softly. “Please, proceed. This may prove amusing.”
“Why did you tell Rory those things about Kelly Marshall,” Tyler asked, hands tucked in his pockets, swaying back and forth in an effort to seem nonchalant. The demon brought its head back up and maintained an attentive stance.
“He asked why she was here in Hell,” Telman said. “Her violence Damned her, but her charitable works raised her status to Condemned prior to her demise in 2003. She died of smoke inhalation when the apartment building she lived in caught on fire, thanks to the laziness of an electrician, Garth LaBelle. He too is here in the Pit, though he is among the Damned for his crimes.” Tyler detected none of the malice he thought he had felt on the bus, or when they had eyed each other across the commons room. There was, in fact, a sort of void of emotion, one that made him think Telman might not be a demon, after all, but some bizarre kind of afterlife-robot. “Why do you ask, Tyler Evans?”
“I ask because there’s no real reason for you to give us that kind of information, or to share ours with anyone for that matter. I mean, it’s sort of an invasion of privacy,” Tyler said.
“Privacy is a privilege best reserved for demons, angels, and the living, Tyler Evans,” intoned the armor demon, folding its metal arms over its chest once more. “The Condemned should not concern themselves with protecting or shielding the details of their mortal lives. You are all, after all, in the same boat.” Tyler, feeling deflated, let his outward hostility sink, his shoulders slumping, chest retracting.
“You have a fair point there, Tin Man. Sorry. It just seemed like a thread to pull at for the moment, you know? Although, I do still have another question or two, if you’re willing to answer.”
“I have time, Tyler Evans, and no reason to lie to you,” Telman said. “At least, for now.” His hackles raised once more, though now only on the inside, Tyler considered his approach carefully. He cast a quick glance about, collecting his thoughts, and arrived at his next inquiry.
“Why are you here right now,” he asked, checking to see if anyone from the commons room had drawn to the doorway to eavesdrop. So far, clear, he thought. “I mean in the building, by the way, not here in Hell.”
“I was alerted that there would be a gathering of at least five or six residents of this collective domicile,” Telman replied. “I felt this warranted light observation, particularly given the inclusion of the witch, Tabitha Quinn.” Tyler did a double-take, eyebrow raised.
“Wait, you mean the lady who invited us to this thing, the Irish gal? She was a witch? Like, ‘pointy hats and broomsticks’ witch?” He heard a tired sigh escape the demon’s helmet, Telman rolling his head on his unseen neck and putting his ‘forehead’ in his hand.
“Your modern understanding of the olden folklore is distressingly afield,” the demon groaned, showing a flash of personality at last. “She did indeed practice the magics of witchcraft, which included setting curses upon her enemies and defiling sacred places in order to conjure some of our very own imps to your world to do her bidding. This was always temporary, of course, and a severe breach of the Laws of Creation.” The demon’s eyes flashed yellow, then returned to their usual dull red, and his demeanor returned to its militant, stick-in-the-mud readiness. “I must go now, Tyler Evans. See to it that this meeting of yours disperses before too long.” The armor demon marched right past him, brushing him aside like so much fluff, leaving Tyler pinned against the wall to stare after him.
“Wait, how am I supposed to do that? I’m not in charge of these people,” he called after Telman. The demon paused at the top of the stairwell, looking at him.
“How you do it is no concern of mine, human. Just see to it that it is done, and soon.” With that, the demon descended the stairs out of sight, leaving Tyler to sag away from the wall. Telman’s armor body had a great deal of sharp angles and rings around the joint plating that had looked fiercely lethal. One of those rings had barely brushed against Tyler’s chest when he bulled by him, but it had left the young man’s shirt and flesh neatly cut open, blood pooling over his belly.
He sighed, and headed to the commons room, where he informed Rory and Margaret that he was going to get going for the evening. When the ex-priest asked after his wound, Tyler joked that he had decided Telman looked like he needed a hug, a jape that got a good laugh and thankfully left his fellow newcomers forgetting to ask for the truth. A quick thanks then he gave to Kelly and Tabitha and Toshiro for making introductions, begging off further socialization so he could go to his unit for the remainder of the evening to relax and prepare for his first day at the 5ive and Dime on his own.
In his own unit, a good hot shower, some English muffins from the fridge (stocked God only knew how or when) and a beer seemed to put him in just the right physical and mental mood to make good on the promise of getting ready for the next day. When he crawled into his bed after an hour of mindless television on Hellscape TV, Tyler was just about good and ready to sleep the whole night through.
And just as he was about to drift off into what he hoped would be another dreamless night of slumber, a stray thought passed through his mind, one he would chase through the darkness of sleep- who informed Telman of the gathering?
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