Technically in every way, Kyle was the first person I ever killed.
Just in case you were thinking that might have been what been what I did Above or something. I’m not in Hell because of murder.
I certainly have an aptitude for it though.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a pretty good guess why the Madame chose me for that first mission, but, standing in front of the her beneath the hellmouth, I really thought she regretted her decision.
She did not look happy and Aric was still silent –standard practices for both but I didn’t know that yet – and I stood between them, aware I had overstepped my bounds, yet unapologetic.
Killing Kyle had felt right. It had felt good.
The Madame asked Aric to leave and then we were alone.
She didn’t speak for a long moment and my mind started to think about just how close we were the Kennel. I knew it wasn’t true, but for a moment I thought I felt the floor shake with their feral growls.
“It takes a unique type of person to do the jobs we do,” she had said finally.
As far as I know, no one has ever asked to join the Bureau and been granted their request. For a moment then, I thought about it. I thought about chasing the feeling I had. I thought about asking for another mission.
But I didn’t.
Without another word, the Madame left and I went home.
It would be a year before she contacted me again and even longer before we began our current working relationship.
Sitting in her office with that new file, reflecting on my first mark, I was keenly aware of everything I had learned since then.
The Madame was continuing with the details of the case. In addition to removing the eyes and fingernails, the victims had evidence of both pre- and posthumous sexual assault.
Ah. So that was why she wanted me. Ever since that first job, creeps had become something of a specialty of mine – a specialty and a preference, really. Turns out, when I cut off a head or remove a stomach, I prefer the recipient to be a real piece of work.
And this one was.
I closed the file. “When do I leave?”
“Tomorrow at nine.”
I have a standard appointment every Thursday night at eleven. The Madame knows this. If she was asking me to work on a Thursday night at all, she really wanted this guy.
“Excellent,” she said. “You’ll receive a communique later tonight with a copy of the file and additional information.”
“Alright.” I stood up to leave.
“Thank you, Zosia.”
I almost paused because the Madame didn’t say that – ever. Instead of turning back, I hurried home to wait for the communique.
My place was on the outskirts of a wealthy part of the Underworld. It overlooked a large park – something like Central Park if Central Park during the day were like Central Park at night and Central Park at night was like actually being in Hell – and the safety level was moderate. Still, I had added a few locks and when I got to my front door, one of them was open already.
Taking a moment, I turned to look at the darkness of the park and its many trees.
I unlocked the rest of locks and slowly pushed the door open. Inside, I heard the shower running.
Now, living Below, you learn a few things about evaluating danger and it struck me that a criminal wasn’t likely to take a dive before committing their crimes. My moment of panic melted into annoyance and I marched into my bathroom and pulled the shower curtain back.
The man inside my shower jumped and nearly slipped, catching himself on the curtain rod.
“What the fuck are you doing here!”
“Taking a shower!” He stepped out, leaving the water on and dripping all over the floor.
“What’s wrong with your shower?”
He shrugged. “Too far.”
“Why do you always make me regret giving you my spare keys?”
“Ah, don’t worry. I’ll be out by eleven before your special date arrives.”
“Ian, it’s Wednesday.”
He frowned. “It is?”
“I swear…” I tore a towel off the wall and threw it at him. “Stop standing in my bathroom naked! I have seen enough dicks today.”
He caught the towel but didn’t put it on. “Are you afraid that people are going to get the wrong idea?”
“I’m really not.”
I left and went into the kitchen. Ian followed, trying the towel around his waist.
“No,” I said pointedly. “Just didn’t know I was going to be coming home to company.”
“I’m sorry about that,” he said with a tone that sounded like he meant it. “I didn’t think you would be home yet. I heard you were at the Bureau.”
I paused for a moment and then spun around. “How did you hear that?”
He shrugged again, but there was something coy about it.
My mouth dropped open. “You got it?”
“Ian, that’s great!” I took a bottle out of the cupboard along with too shot glasses. “I mean, I’m still kind of irritated with you,” I added with a look. “But congratulations.”
He was grinning. “Thanks.”
Ian had recently been tapped for the Reaper program. It’s a sister organization to the Bureau but decidedly less violent. Instead of, ahem, helping the living into the afterlife, Reapers actually just help ferry souls. They show up after death has already occurred and show the newly dead the way to the River.
(Or the Gates. It’s my understanding that it can occur differently for different people.)
For as long as I had been Below, Ian had been my best friend. And for as long as he had been my best friend, he had wanted to be a Reaper. I think he originally thought he wanted to have a job like mine – the demon gig, not my day job – but after hearing the descriptions of some of my grislier missions, he became adamant that Reaping was the place for him.
I poured two shots of fire-vodka and we toasted and drank. I had just tipped the glass back when my doorbell sounded.
Ian followed me to the door.
“Miss Scorch,” a man in a dark suit greeted. He looked over my shoulder and nodded. “Mr Flemming.”
Ian nodded back.
I held out my hand and the man put a thick black file into it. He nodded again and then disappeared into the night.
Shutting the door, I began to open the file as I walked to my couch. Settling in amongst the cushions, I pulled out the papers and began to read. Much of it was the same as the earlier, with a few details added now that I had accepted the mission.
I looked at each page closely because I knew there must be something else. The Madame had been acting so strange…
I finally found it. Underneath everything else was a note in spidery handwriting. As I read it, my heartbeat slowed.
Seventeen victims total. Twelve requests. Eleven blocked. Get him.
The Madame knew the perpetrator. She’d been trying for him for a while – eleven previous requests, four of which had been denied by higher-ups.
We had the opportunity now and she wanted to get this guy while we could.
Technically, personal involvement like that in the Bureau is…not really allowed. But, then again, neither is breaking someone’s faith and I’ve done that too.
I could do this.
Tucking the note away when I heard Ian approaching, I splayed the rest of the file out over my coffee table and we went over it together. Since Ian was a Reaper now, it was okay. We’d been doing it before as well, but now it really was just asking for a consult.
Reaping, of course, isn’t as tactical as what I do. If the demons are Hell’s army, the reapers are the diplomats. Reapers are given a list of souls to collect and they simply have to go and get them. Every once in a while, a soul will wander off and the reaper will really have to search for them, but that’s really as exciting as it gets.
The only time reaping is comparable to finishing a mark is when a deal is struck. Some of the things you’ve heard about Hell aren’t true, but one of the things you have heard about the Devil is– he loves to make a deal.
Now, thousands of people die every day. Obviously, most of them can’t offer the Devil anything of interest – let alone something that could save their soul. Most are trying to barter their way into Heaven – which can’t be done – and realize too late. The Devil will make a deal, but he isn’t patient about it.
But, if you are quick and make a tempting offer, he just might accept.
Of course, when a soul is being collected, it’s the reaper they’re with, not the Devil himself. One of the reaper’s most important jobs is evaluating the deals being offered and sending the contenders along.
I have to admit, I’m a little jealous of this part of the job. A demon’s victim never gets a chance to make a deal.
Looking over the files, Ian wished me luck with my mission the next night. He might not have the stomach to do it himself, but he supports the actions of the Bureau. Most people Below do.
(However shockingly, there are those in Hell who do not. The rumors that flow around the underworld have spawned the creation of several organizations that seek to end not only the Bureau, but the entire concept of demons. This movement has been spearheaded by the Crestians – or the born-too-late-Christians who refused to live by God’s law in life but have chosen to adhere to it in death. Nothing can come of this, of course – you can’t upgrade yourself out of the underworld so all you are really doing is depriving yourself of swearing for no good reason – but piety is heady thing and they must be getting something out of it, I guess.)
The next day, I worked two sessions and refused an application for a third. That left part of my afternoon open. I could have gone to visit Ian or Petra, my trainer at the Bureau. Instead, I chose to cash in a little on my wages before my…meetings later.
Capitalism reigns here, of course. Hellions have jobs. Some of them are less…conventional than the ones they had above, but the damned can’t just sit back and warm their feet off of the burning hellfire. One of the first things they do after you arrive Below is establish your employment options.
You can tell them which job you want. That doesn’t mean you will get it, but it’s always a good idea to try. When I arrived, I told them what career I wanted and they were kind enough to oblige. I’ve been told most aren’t that lucky.
My clients schedule sessions and pay me through a system maintained by a room of accountants somewhere. Only special clients get time outside of my regular work day. A working girl keeping regular 8-5 hours may seem strange, but it is not too out of place Below. To get an evening appointment with me, a client has to have been a regular client for over a year, pay extra, and have a certain je ne sais quoi.
To be clear, I don’t fuck clients for anything other than money. Some of the others trade sessions for memberships and exclusive opportunities. A great deal of my clients are power players in Hell – in politics or sports or entertainment. But they all still pay me in actual money.
And they pay me in spades.
Money is important in Hell and it can get you a lot, but it can’t get you everything. When the Madame approached me about joining the Bureau in a more permanent capacity, I’d had just enough experience to know that money wasn’t the most valuable thing she could offer me.
As part of her job – a crucial part – the Madame has to monitor what is going on Above. Obviously, she can’t do this on her own and there are hundreds of rooms with hellions watching the goings-on of the living and reporting back.
At any given hour, at least one of those rooms isn’t being used.
I work for the key and the code that gets me inside one.
These rooms make up several sub-terrain levels of a nondescript building just a few blocks away from the Bureau. They are small, with just enough room for a desk and chair. On the desk is a large monitor and keyboard.
To work the system, you can type in a postal code, a location, or a name. The employees each have postal codes and regions that they manage – it certainly wasn’t surprising to me how ingrained the postal service is into Hell – and monitor for the Madame.
I monitor a single person.
To be clear, Elle isn’t the only person I miss among the living – I do have surviving family after all – but she is the one I worry about the most.
That day she was at home, cooking and reading a magazine. Frank Sinatra was playing – one of her favorites – and it seemed like a good day. I was pleased to see that because those didn’t happen often.
I watched her for awhile.
I could have checked up on anyone. I’m assuming that what the Madame believes I do when I spend so many hours in the room. But I never have. It’s a dangerous slope, checking up on the world. It’s something the Bureau monitors closely. Before I officially joined, I had to meet with a psychologist to make sure I wasn’t going to run off and try to remain Above and resume my life.
(That has happened before. Demons that go rogue don’t get too far though. There are always bigger and badder demons that get sent out after them and bring them home to the Hounds. Once, a particularly crafty demon evaded several capture attempts and the Devil brought the Hounds Above to track him down. It didn’t well for the demon. The Hounds, however, had a good time.)
I passed the assessment, but I am still careful about not overdoing it in the room. Checking in on Elle is one thing. Trying to live my life through a computer screen would be going too far.
And I only check up on her because I’m worried. Worried that something might upset her and that no one else will notice.
I looked away from the screen for a moment and saw that a red light was on in the upper corner of the room. Every room in the Bureau has a light like this. When it’s on, it means that the Devil's visiting.
Lucifer pays a lot of visits to the Bureau proper and its satellite locations. (That includes the Kennel – the Devil loves to check on his dogs.) He can show up with no warning, of course, but he usually lets the Madame know before he leaves the Den.
Shutting off the monitor, I gathered my things to leave. If the Devil was there, security would be heightened and I needed to get to the real Bureau in enough time to prepare for my new hit.
The city was bustling as I crossed the few blocks to the Bureau. It was just after five and all the business-hellions were leaving their office jobs and heading home to what was hopefully the more fulfilling part of their afterlife.
Inside the Bureau, security was heightened. And by that, I mostly mean that security was actually visible. In addition to the normal precautions, there were hulks in black suits in every hallway. I passed them wordlessly and headed toward the gym. I thought about what would bring Lucifer to the office that day. It wasn’t that he was negligent, it was that Madame Dusar was very good. There was really never any reason for the Devil to stop by.
I turned to see a pale man with light eyes smiling at me. “I’m Niall, Madame Dusar’s assistant.”
“I’m glad I caught you,” he continued. “Unfortunately, we won’t be able to go forward with your mission tonight. You’ll receive another communique tomorrow with the updated plan.”
I frowned. I’d never had a hit rescheduled before. “What’s going on?”
“Just an unexpected visit from the king. It’s…slowing things down.”
I nodded and Niall disappeared.
Since I had already made it through security, I decided to stop at the training center and see my trainer. When I arrived, I tried to read Petra for a clue about what was going on.
As usual, it yielded no results. Petra had been a Mossad instructor Above and if there was ever one person who could keep a straight face, it was her.
But, when she approached me, I realized it wasn’t her training that was keeping her from divulging information, it was that she didn’t have any herself.
“He’s interfering, that’s what he’s doing,” she said. “Can’t be here for any good reason. Ariadne has everything under control. He’s meddling.”
Petra had strong feelings about men interfering with woman at work.
“He needs a wife,” she said. “Someone to occupy his time.”
“Sure,” I said sarcastically. “Because being King of the Damned leaves him so much free time.”
Petra gave me a stern look. I shrugged. “He’s probably just touring or something. Isn’t he required to stop by at least once a year?”
She frowned. “Yes,” she said reluctantly. “And it has been awhile since he’s been here.” Her eyes narrowed and she looked me over. “What are you doing here?”
“Had some free time myself and thought I’d practice the combos you taught me last week.”
Petra stared at me for a moment longer than she needed to, her eyes narrowing into slits – but she always did that. Strictly speaking, she didn’t approve of my day job.
But she did like my drive – and my left hook.
She nodded to the punching bags before her. “You can take one of them.”
There were a few other demons I recognized in the gym. As a rule, I didn’t accept other demons as clients, though there were one or two I had held sessions with before I took up with the Bureau. One of them was using another bag on the opposite side, but he didn’t acknowledge me.
In general, my clients don’t acknowledge me in public. There are exceptions of course, but most of them don’t. I’m not sure if its driven by embarrassment or delusion – it’s quite possible they are trying to convince themselves they don’t pay anyone for sex – or professional respect.
I’d like to believe the latter, but I’m no longer that naïve.
I had only just started my workout when a siren sounded and the lights pulsed three times. I stopped punching and caught my swinging bag. The sound cut off abruptly and then a calm voice spoke over the loudspeaker, telling us to evacuate the building.
The hellions inside moved quickly for the exits. I’d never had to evacuate the Bureau office before, but no one else was panicking, so I didn’t either. Maybe it wasn’t that uncommon. We shuffled through the hall and toward to the elevator.
Suddenly, there was a flurry of movement and a group of people passed through the crowd. Among them was Madame Dusar, immediately followed by the Devil himself.
The hallway hushed. Every hellion stilled. The atmosphere even heated up a few degrees.
That’s how I knew it was him.
As you’ve likely heard, the Devil takes many forms. Today, he was tall with dark hair and a terrifying scowl. Above, demons could make their eyes flare red with anger. Below, only the Devil’s eyes were red. They were always red. It’s the only thing about his appearance that is constant.
As he walked, he looked down the hall a moment and I thought his blazing eyes landed on me.
After they passed, the hallway let out its collective breath and started moving again, perhaps a little faster than before. In the crowd, I saw a familiar face: Fiona Townsend.
Aric may have been my first partner, but Fiona was my most frequent. She was beautiful – in a very dark way – and the most frightening person I had ever met.
I’m a little bit in love with her.
Her icy eyes caught mine in the crowd. “Scorch!”
On her way over to me, she only shoved two people – which was actually pretty good for Fiona.
“What are you doing here?” she asked. “Are you going on a mission without me?”
She smiled, which I returned as I shook my head. “Just came to work out.”
That was only a half-lie, which was pretty good for me.
Fiona nodded. “Well, it seems you picked a bad night for that.”
I nodded, craning my neck to look over the crowd. Down the hall, I saw a few hellions in dark suits walk briskly past.
Like archangels, fiends were hellions with a little bit more power than other hellions. And with that power came some extra work – chiefly the protection of Lucifier in high-risk situations. (Oddly enough, that usually meant meetings in Heaven) His ordinary security detail already featured some of the best demons in the Bureau. So, if the fiends were out…
I didn’t voice my suspicion in the crowded hallway. There was too great of a chance that I could be wrong. Maybe those figures hadn’t been fiends, just business men from the Bureau. The rising feeling of unease in my stomach could just be from skipping dinner.
I turned to find one of the suit-clad men addressing me.
“Come with me.”
Giving an innocent look to Fiona, I followed. It was always best just to do what the fiends told you. I hadn’t interacted with them a lot, but I knew they weren’t wired for humor or sarcasm. Any attempt to subvert them was automatically perceived as a direct threat to the primary.
And threats to the primary were eliminated.
The fiend led me down the halls, through a room, and then into the Madame’s private hallway. Finally, he tapped a spot on the wall and an elevator door appeared.
“It’s time for you to go.”
I stared as the doors slid open. It looked like a regular elevator inside.
“This is Madame’s Dusar’s private elevator. She has given permission for you to use it tonight, as well as her private car. It’s waiting for you upstairs.”
“What’s going on?”
“You haven’t been granted clearance to know that.”
I didn’t move.
“Get in the elevator, Miss Scorch.”
I should have gotten in then. I knew it too, but the good sense I had before fled and I resisted.
“I’m under orders to put you in this elevator.”
“I’m not getting in there until you tell me what is going on.”
“You aren’t in any danger, Miss Scorch,” he said. “If you remain here, however, you will be detained.”
"So that's what this is about." I shook my head.
After closing my eyes for a moment, I got in the elevator.
It was darker than I expected outside and I realized I had been in the Bureau for longer than I thought. I took the car that was waiting for me – because if I didn’t, I would be very late. I did have the driver drop me off a few blocks away from my house. I wanted to be a little late.
When I turned onto my street, I could see the figure waiting on my doorstep.
He couldn’t have been waiting long. I knew that.
“I’d apologize for being late, but I think you expected that,” I said as I took out my keys and opened the door. He stepped inside and I followed, locking the door behind us.
“I need a drink,” I continued, throwing my bag on the table by the door. “Do you want one?”
I didn’t wait for an answer and he followed me into the kitchen. I could feel him behind me as I made the drinks. I handed him his without looking back and took a long drink of my own before I turned back to meet the red eyes that waited for me.