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Death Down Below

Old Guy

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A Detective in Purgatory

I wanted to dance. My feet didn't seem to touch the ground. I felt like a man does when he's just fallen in love and hasn't yet seen his new heartthrob sitting on the toilet. You know what I mean. Before all illusions are smashed and ground underfoot.

So -- I felt good. Better than I did a few minutes -- hours? -- ago, that's for sure. Most anything would be an improvement over that. Imagine me, curled around half a dozen hot slugs, trying to breathe, while a couple goons drag me toward the edge of a pier. I couldn't recall swallowing any dirty water, so I must have checked out before they dropped me into the bay. Next thing I know, I'm walking along a gravel road, remembering the taste of warm blood in my mouth and the feel of rough timbers scraping at my back.

But I felt fine -- the way I feel the morning after a three-day binge, when I'm mostly sober and fresh from a hearty meal of dry toast and weak tea. Light on my feet, like I said. And ready for a little hair of the dog.

Around me lay a waste of sand and gravel, all in shades of gray. A dingy town grew closer with each feathery trudge. It had a broken down, shabby look -- the kind of place where a man might get a shot of whiskey -- or a knife in his ribs.

No sign named it. The first buildings on either side were boarded up. I could see the other end of the street and more gray desert not more than two hundred yards ahead. To say it was a small town was to overstate the case. The proverbial wide spot in the road takes up more space.

A hotel squatted on the right. I knew that's what it was because of the faded sign nailed over the door. 'Hotel' it proclaimed, though no town name was mentioned. I started that way, then noticed a saloon across the street. Immediately, my pitter-pattering feet veered in that direction. The establishment even had a name.

The Symbiotic Saloon.

Further down the street, next to the hotel, I saw a hardware store. Across the street from that was a café. Cheap Eats Café. But my feet strayed not from their righteous path. I fairly danced across the porch and through the batwing doors.

And stopped.

Death stood at the bar, one boot hooked over the foot rail. There were others in the room, but I saw only him at that moment. I knew who it was, no question. The thought that I might be dead began percolating through my skull. I slid back a step. No good. He grinned and beckoned me forward. "Pour my friend a drink."

A gray-haired man placed a glass on the bar and filled it with amber liquid. I could not resist the siren call of booze. As I bellied up, the bartender handed me a pack of cigarettes. "I think that's your brand," he said.

They were indeed. Crottin Cheval, the unfiltered coffin nails I'd learned to smoke during the Big War. The barkeep lit a match. I took a long drag.

Nothing much happened. The wave of good feeling I'd ridden into town began to slop around my ankles. Smoke drifted up from my chest.

"Here," said Death. "Let me fix those holes." He made a negligent gesture.

Fire stroked my guts and ribs. I tried to scream and emitted a girly squeal. Hot irons probed parts inside me that weren't intended for that sort of thing. Something clunked against the back of my head. It was the floor.

A century or two later the pain slid out of my sniveling hide and dribbled through cracks between the floorboards. It took several minutes of struggle and pig-like grunting to lever myself back up to the bar. I was still holding the cigarette.

Two drinks and as many smokes later, I felt more like my old self -- prior to the infusion of lead and that little trip off the dock.

Death tossed something on the bar. Five bloody, deformed slugs rattled to a stop beside my whiskey glass. Five. The gunsel who shot me had a revolver. He must have missed once.

"I can always put those back," said Death. I began to sweat.

The Reaper laughed. I was surprised. It was a wheezing kind of laugh -- with not a single cackle or menacing tone. In fact, it sounded kind of asthmatic. He nodded toward the bartender. "Old Guy runs this place. He'll help you with the case."

My detective paranoia returned -- a few hours too late. Whatever possessed me to meet crime lord and arch fiend Skipper Thrift down on the docks? "What case?"

Death was not to be hurried. "Old Guy, this clown is -- was -- a busted-down private detective and drunk named Donnie."

I stuck out my hand and smiled at the barkeep. "Donnie . . ." My tongue clove to the roof of my mouth. No lie. I never knew what 'clove to the roof of' meant until it happened. Not a sound escaped. Nor did any air come in. When the room started to spin, all thoughts of my last name vanished. My tongue unstuck. I stood there gasping like a fish on a flat rock.

"You don't have a last name anymore," said Death. "Forget it."

And just like that, I forgot it.

Death produced his creaky old man wheeze. "See how easy it is?"

Easy for him. I knocked back another shot -- to clear my head. Then I noticed the bimbo on Death's arm. How did I know she was a bimbo? Easy. The lady was blonde, had boobs the size of grapefruit and wore a dress consisting of at least two ounces of fabric. Bimbo.

My old smooth self came to life. "You gonna introduce me to the tomato?"

"This is Pookie," said Death, with another wheezy chuckle. I could get damn tired of that noise. The blonde winced, as if in pain.

"Never mind about Pookie." Death glanced at the woman. She gave him a quick smile -- the kind of lip spasm a woman gives a guy who ain't been nice to her. Ordinarily the sight of a damsel in distress brings out the palooka in shining armor in me -- but not this time. I mean, this was Death, not some wimpy shipping clerk who likes to punch his old lady. Too bad for Pookie. I didn't want to collect any more bullets.

"So -- you mentioned a case?" I avoided looking at the blonde, which was damn difficult.

"Murder," said Death. "A murder right here in Purgatory."

Now I know Purgatory is a place in Utah, but that gravel and sand outside didn't look much like Utah. I was cool. "Pu -- Pu -- Pu -- "

"Pur-ga-tor-y," said Old Guy. He spelled it out. "The place where sinners go to expiate less serious sins before they are wafted up to Heaven." The way he said it confused me, mostly because I had no idea what 'expiate' meant. But it didn't matter. The nuns in grade school had pounded enough religion into me that I got the drift of the situation.

Panic threatened to overwhelm me. I barely managed to keep from bolting. Two things kept me there by the bar. I squeal like a girl when I run off in a panic and, as near as I could tell, there was no place to go. A calming mantra helped a little. Oshit-Oshit-Oshit-Oshit.

Might as well play detective. A quick swallow of booze and a long drag on my cigarette and I was ready. "S-so -- t-tell m-me about this mu-murder? Who got wh-wh-whacked?"

"Guy named Red," said Old Guy. "Petty thief, grifter, card shark, second story man. Not very good at anything, except in his own mind."

I shook my head. The whole Purgatory/Hell thing was still kinda murky. "So what do you care that he got bumped off? Sounds like he was headed for the Lower Forty anyway."

"No," said Death. "His chances for Paradise were slim, to be sure, but he could have redeemed himself." The Reaper smiled. "If Red were truly evil, he would have gone direct to where he could learn plate tectonics from the bottom up."

Old Guy and Pookie must of heard that one before, but they laughed anyway. So did I. Death's sense of humor was like mine -- best appreciated by a group half in the bag.

"Well," I asked, "why not just get Red back? Start the lad's Purgatory servitude all over again." I liked the sound of that phrase. Purgatory servitude. It would impress my friends. Too bad I didn't have any.

Old Guy answered. He seemed to know all the angles, that old fart did. "The lawyers are working on it. We will surely get him back, but that could take decades -- centuries. Red's probably chipping furnace clinkers. A little time in Hell might improve his outlook, but we ought to get him back as soon as we can. If we find the killer we can make a straight swap."

I tried a joke. "Lawyers? Where did you get lawyers? I figured them all for Hell."

Nobody laughed, except me.

"The good ones are all in Hell," admitted Death. "That's why it takes so long to get any action out of the court system."

For the first time, I noticed the other men in the room. There were five -- three playing cards at a beige-topped table, one asleep on a bench in the back, and one slouched at the far end of the bar. None were paying the slightest attention to Death, Old Guy, me or Pookie.

Now I ain't much to look at and Old Guy was an ordinary sort, but Death's getup should have attracted attention. His black Raiders cap wasn't unusual, nor would anyone look twice at the black boots and jeans. I gotta tell you though, his long black duster and well-worn scythe marked him as unusual, to say the least. That paraphernalia, taken with his pale skin and glowing red eyes made old Death stand out in any size gathering.

Then, of course, there was Pookie. No red-blooded guy could avoid running appreciative eyes over that figure -- not if he was still breathing. No sirree. There was magic at work in that room. Death had 'em all under a spell -- no doubt about it. My suspicions were hardly formed when things changed.

Old Guy glanced at Death and received a slight nod. An instant later, one of the card players called for two cards, the sleeper in the back farted, and the guy at the end of the bar raised his empty glass. "Hit me again."

The bartender eased down that way, bottle in hand. "Joker, meet Donnie. He's going to look into Red's murder. Donnie, this here's Joker. He fancies himself a gunfighter."

Joker nodded, but kept silent. He didn't look much like a gunslinger, in spite of the Colt hanging at his hip. I've known a couple of bald, pudgy shooters, so that wasn't the problem. No, it was the light pink shirt embroidered with purple daisies. A shirt like that just don't look right on a cold-eyed killer.

Old Guy went on with the introductions. "The drunk in the back is Bilko. He only wakes up to drink, so he's not a likely suspect."

"I'll be the judge of that," I said. After all, if Old Guy was a detective they wouldn't have brought me in on the case, right?

"That's Doc Stag sitting at the far side of the table. The gent with his back to us is Deacon." Stag nodded in response and Deacon turned around and touched his hat. The other player slapped his cards down and sat back, pouting.

"The sniveling card player is Ronin," said Old Guy. "He's just learning to play five card draw. So far the lessons have been expensive."

"This can't be all that's in Purgatory," I said.

Death glanced at Old Guy. "Quick, ain't he?"

The old fart laughed. I could easily get to dislike Old Guy.

"What's so funny?"

The Reaper lit a slim black cigar. "Your reputation precedes you, Donnie. As a detective, your skills amounted to skirt chasing and draining whiskey bottles. I'm amazed you figured out that Purgatory must contain multitudes."

I felt my face grow red. It's always embarrassing when someone praises your abilities.

"The dead drift in and out," said Old Guy. "And Purgatory is everywhere and nowhere, all at once. There are other small towns," he made a vague gesture, "somewhere out there. The thousands and millions of ordinary sinners are paying for their pedestrian sins in whatever way their own brand of religion prescribed."

"True," said Death. "But irrelevant. Donnie only need worry about those who were here at the time of Red's -- ah -- murder -- death -- second death." He wheezed again. "Obviously, we have a problem with definitions. Red was dead when he got here."

I slapped a quick rhythm on the bar. "Red was de-e-ead when he got here. Sounds like a good beginning for a country song." Nobody laughed. Pookie winced.

"That is a problem," agreed Old Guy. He looked at Joker. "What do you think? Is it murder to kill a dead guy?"

"A philosophical conundrum for sure," mused Joker. "Can one be deader than dead? Is death a wave or particle? If a dead man gets killed in a forest . . ." The gunfighter sighed and shook his head. "We need a semantics guide."

"Never mind that crap!" snapped Death. "I exist outside of space and time. 'Neither wave nor particle be', as a famous minion once said. I am but a doorway . . ." He glared at Joker. "Now you've got me doing it!"

Old Guy held up both hands. "Let's just state, for the record, that Red was murdered."

"I so state," said Death.

The only sound for a minute or so was the slap of cards.

I broke first. "Okay. Red is dead. I guess the next step is for me to interview the witnesses and then talk to everyone else who could be involved. Do you have a list?"

Death nodded. "Good. Good. Donnie's ready to play detective." He wheezed again. Pookie and I both cringed. Again a wheeze. Pookie dumped her handbag on the bar. The Reaper grabbed an inhaler and took a shot. I was amazed. Death had asthma.

It took two shots to get him back to normal -- normal for him, I mean.

He handed me a list of names written in fancy cursive. "These are the souls who were here when Red met his -- ah -- his end. None have left and I have blocked this section of Purgatory to new arrivals. One of those is the killer.

It was a short list. Besides the six men in the bar, there were only four other names. Pookie's name wasn't on the list. Neither was Death's. I pointed that out.

"I wasn't here. And Pookie had no motive."

I opened my mouth, then shut it. If Death wanted someone dead, he took care of it and nobody asked any questions. Pookie, on the other hand. Oooooo, I'd like to get her on my hands! I decided to interview her later, when Death might be off on errands.

He may have read my mind. "I'll be here until you catch the killer. I have minions to run things until I get back." Thoughts of me and Pookie evaporated.

I changed the subject. "Where did the killing take place?"

Old Guy pointed toward the batwing doors. "There. Just inside the doors. Red was coming in for his nightly dozen."

Well, jeez. This ought to be simple. "Who was here?"

"I was. Bilko was sleeping in the back -- where he is now. Joker was playing cards with Doc Stag and Deacon."

"That's all? Where was -- ah, what's his name? -- Ronin?"

Old Guy frowned. "I don't know. You'll have to ask him."

"What about Pookie?"

"She was with me," snarled Death. "I told you -- she has no motive."

"Pookie didn't know the -- uh, the deceased?"

"Oh, she knew him. He'd been in Purgatory a long time. But she had no reason to kill him." Death gave me a nasty look. "I think I've said that several times now."

"Okay. Okay. I get your drift. Where can I interview folks?"

Old Guy nodded toward the back of the room. "That hallway leads to the rear door. We have a store room on the right and a small office on the left. Use the office."

I waved the list. "What about the others -- the ones who ain't here?"

"You'll have to run them down. They won't be far away. Who do you want first?"

"How about you? Were you here when the murder took place?"

"Sure. I was behind the bar -- as usual." Old Guy looked around. "Who wants to tend bar for a few minutes?"

"I'll do it," said Death. Old Guy reluctantly handed over his wiping rag and followed me to the back.

"Some problem with Death minding the bar?" I asked.

"Oh -- he does all right. It's mostly a beer and shot crowd. We seldom have to mix anything more complex than a rum and coke." Old Guy glanced back. "He has a hell of a time making change, though."

"That's funny. You'd think Death would have a good head for figures."

"Oh, he has a head for figures. Just not the numerical kind."


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Damn, OG! Tell me again why you aren't the King of Pulp Fiction?

Fav lines:

...the kind of place where a man might get a shot of whiskey -- or a knife in his ribs.

The wave of good feeling I'd ridden into town began to slop around my ankles.

Something clunked against the back of my head. It was the floor.

A calming mantra helped a little. Oshit-Oshit-Oshit-Oshit.

If Red were truly evil, he would have gone direct to where he could learn plate tectonics from the bottom up.

No, it was the light pink shirt embroidered with purple daisies. A shirt like that just don't look right on a cold-eyed killer.

Oh, he has a head for figures. Just not the numerical kind.


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HA i'm in the story for the whole thing no killing me off early in the peace .....been there done that already

Wheres the rest OG this one gots me hooked from the start :thumbsup::thumbsup:

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I felt like a man does when he's just fallen in love and hasn't yet seen his new heartthrob sitting on the toilet.

Not so much sitting on the toilet as kneeling at the toilet with her head over the bowl and that expensive seafood dinner coming back for a review. :lol:

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To Die in Purgatory

Old Guy settled in behind his desk and lit a cigar. He didn't offer me one. I examined the office as I fished for a cigarette.

It was a cozy place, with book shelves lining the wall behind his desk. In one corner a set of deeper shelves jutted into the room. Those were piled with scrolls. Yellow and tattered, the scrolls looked very old. In fact, everything in the office bore the stamp of time.

Tall filing cabinets occupied the wall opposite his desk -- wooden cabinets dark with stain and age. Each file drawer face sported a faded yellow label with neat, printed script I couldn't read. I blinked. The letters seemed to crawl into slightly different configurations. My stomach lurched. Probably it was the booze.

Paintings and photographs crowded the wall above the cabinets. Some were old. Some were very, very old. Various people crowded the images, yet one face seemed to be present in each one. Old Guy. I looked around. He was watching me, a bored expression on his face.

"Relatives?" I asked, indicating the pictures.

He nodded. "A few of the folks you see are related. Some to me."

His answer told me nothing. I stepped closer to the cabinets and studied a painting. A single armored man stood in the center of forest scene, one foot propped on a pile of obviously dead men. Whiskey has rotted a lot of my brain cells, but I recognized the plumed helmet and armor of a Roman soldier -- a centurion I supposed. Some of the bodies bore hacked scale armor -- others appeared to have depended on over-lapping layers of riveted leather for protection. The central figure brandished a bloody short sword and held a plain shield at his side. Old Guy's stern visage glared out of the painting, his gaze directed over my left shoulder, as if more enemies were in view.

"The artist took certain liberties," said Old Guy. He blew a smoke ring at the ceiling. "I can't remember ever propping my foot on a pile of dead Germans. Not at that time anyway." He waved me to an antique chair. "Take a load off. Tell me what you need to know."

He wasn't going to explain about the old photographs and paintings. I sank into the chair and took out a notebook. "Who the hell are you?"

"It doesn't matter. Shall I describe what I saw the night Red was -- ah, murdered?"

"Okay. I'll play along. But you'll have to tell me what your -- um, something about who you are -- what you do. It's standard procedure."

"Very little is standard around this place, Donnie." He shrugged. "Suffice it to say that I run the bar -- the Symbiotic Saloon. I also live here. Everyone has to have a place to store the inevitable junk one accumulates over time. This is my place."

I wasn't going to get much more -- not on purpose. "So tell me what happened to Red."

Old Guy leaned on his elbows, eyes focused on nothing -- at least on nothing I could see. "It was strange. He came through the batwing doors and stopped -- as if he'd run into a wall or something. Then he started dancing and hollering."

"Dancing? What kind of dancing?"

"Not ballroom dancing. Not like anything I've seen before. Legs flying, arms flailing and such wailing! Kind of like he was being electrocuted, bitten by serpents and calling hogs -- all at the same time."

"How long did this display go on?"

"Hmm. Ten -- fifteen seconds. Seemed longer. Red has -- had -- an awful voice. Not over twenty seconds, I think. Then he collapsed. By the time I got to him, he was dead."

I paused, tapping my pencil on the notebook. "Dead? How does a dead man become a murder victim? I'm having problems with Death and Purgatory and -- well, all of it."

"This is no time to get into the religious aspects of the Afterlife, Donnie. Your own experience will enlighten you -- have no fear of that. You and Red are a lot alike."

Ice crawled into my gut. I began to sweat again. "How am I like this Red guy?" My words came out in a squeak.

Old Guy smiled tolerantly. I hated him. "Red committed no murder. Nor did he do any of the few other things that earn one a trip direct to the furnaces of Hell. His crimes involved too much strong drink and a weakness for the embraces of his neighbor's wife." Old Guy grinned. "There were many entries in his records concerning quarts of cooking oil, plastic sheeting and several females of bad repute."

I swallowed, trying to clear the dust in my throat. Certain memories flooded back. After a fit of coughing, I managed to speak again. "How do you know all this? What records?"

He laughed and handed me a cold beer. "Here. Drink up. And don't worry. A few hundred years in Purgatory will clear your slate."

I guzzled half the bottle at one go. "But -- how do you know?"

"Donnie, the business of the Afterlife requires a sizeable bureaucracy. You didn't think the whole affair could run on the wave of a righteous hand or flick of a forked tail, did you?"

"Well -- I don't think -- I mean . . ." My mind darted around like a trapped rat.

"Some, like me, are servants of the Afterlife Corporation. We've been around since -- well, since the Beginning. Others are contract workers. We bid out some services."

I nodded slowly. It was too much to take in all at once. "You actually request bids for -- ah -- for services?"

"Of course. Major companies bid on the work. The Afterlife pays well -- and on time."

"Right. Right." A horrible feeling rose up in my chest. "Who? I mean -- what company has the contracts now?"

"Halliburton, of course. Who else?"

I cackled with glee. "God. I know some Democrats who would love to know that."

He laughed again. "Let's get on with the murder investigation. Okay?"

Yes, we were back to that. I clamped my jaws shut, closing in a wave of panic and maniacal laughter. I had to investigate the killing of a dead man. A thought occurred to me. "What about the body? I'll need to see the body."

Old Guy shook his head mournfully. "No body. When folks die in Purgatory their -- ah, remains vanish away -- cease to exist. Even a corpse steeped in booze, as Red's was, simply wafts into the empty places between planes of existence."

I thrust away a sudden vision of bodies being sucked into black voids. My mind was in bad enough shape without the intrusion of stark insanity. I stared at my notes. "So -- so this Red fellow danced and sang and dropped down dead -- then disappeared?"

"That's about it, though it stretches the imagination to call his gyrations 'dancing', or to label that hellish caterwauling 'singing', but there it is." Old Guy stood up walked to the door. "Who shall I send in next?"

"Um -- I -- ah, send in that Joker guy. The gunfighter."

"I know who Joker is." He went out, thankfully leaving the door part way open. I didn't want to be closed up inside that ancient horror of a room, even though the elderly bureaucrat was no longer in it with me. On impulse, I slipped around the desk and sat in Old Guy's chair. At Gumshoe School they taught us to take control of the situation, especially when interviewing suspects. I hadn't been much in control so far. It was time to let these dead bozos know who was boss. The chair was identical to the other one.

I opened the right hand drawer, hoping to find a cache of cigars. Instead, two bottles of Old Stump Blower lay cradled in a riot of papers, gum wrappers, and empty cartridge boxes. A delighted squeak escaped me as I reached for a bottle.

Something popped. Pain shot up my arm. A tiny horned demon hopped out of the dark recesses of the drawer and pointed a pitchfork at me. "'ands orf!" he cried. "Keeps yer bleedin' 'ands off this 'ere booze!"

"Sorry," I mumbled, sucking on my sore fingers. "Sorry." I used a knee to push the drawer shut. Joker walked in just then.

"Been at the old bastard's booze, eh?" He chuckled and displayed a series of scars on his hands. "Won't do you any good. I've tried. That damned guardian never sleeps." Joker sat down in the chair I'd recently vacated, laughing all the while.

So much for showing the bozos who was boss. I flipped my notebook open and gripped a pencil in my throbbing hand. "You were in the bar the night Red was killed?"

"I was playing cards with Stag and Deacon." He described events leading up to Red's death in much the same terms as Old Guy had. I wondered if they'd discussed the case. Most certainly they had. Death would have gone over the same ground before realizing he needed a professional and called me in on the case. A sudden spasm of anger washed over me. What if my foolish trip down to the docks to meet Skipper Thrift was instigated by the Reaper, all because he required a detective in Purgatory? I took a deep breath and shoved the anger aside. Nothing I could do about my demise, even if my suspicions were correct.

Besides, I hadn't been doing all that well as a gumshoe. My office was a rat's nest at the back of an old warehouse. I had no secretary. Such clients as came my way were all too often fat harridans looking to squeeze a few more dollars out of an ex-husband. I had yet to encounter the fabled big-breasted blonde with easy morals and too much money.

Fantasy waned. I had a murder to solve. "Any idea who might have killed Red?"

Joker shrugged. "He was a decent sort, for a drunk. Red had been here a long, long time. Death is a way out of Purgatory. Perhaps it was a mercy killing."

I hadn't considered that angle. "That's in interesting thought. How long was he in for?"

"An indeterminate stretch, just like the rest of us. Certain conditions have to be met. Regret, you know, and admission of guilt. That sort of thing." The purported gunfighter smiled. "I never knew exactly what his crimes were. It's considered bad manners to ask."

So only Old Guy knew what brought folks to Purgatory -- at least, he claimed to know. "All right," I said. "I won't ask what brought you here. I'll probably have more questions, once I've talked to everyone."

"You won't find answers at the bottom of a bottle," he said, sneering. "As for me -- my so-called crimes were those of pride and ambition. Jealousy brought me here. Pure jealously."

Jealousy? I had a sudden feeling that old Joker was going to be in Purgatory a good while. As for his attitude toward drinking, I'd seen that oh-so-superior expression on countless faces before. Doctors, wives, friends, cops. Perfect strangers lifting my sodden carcass out of an ice choked gutter. Same wry look, same inane comment. "Are you sick, or just drunk?"

Both, I'd always say. Except I usually couldn't talk.

I shook off the pleasant memories. "Send in Deacon."

He was back before I had time to explore any other desk drawers.

"You probably better come out here," he said. "Ronin's been murdered."

"Ronin! The bad card player?"

"The same." He gave me a malicious grin. "He was a jerk. Everyone here hated him -- except maybe Old Guy -- and Bilko, of course. I'm not sure Bilko even knows he's in Purgatory. A kindred spirit to you, sir. Stays drunk all the time."

I followed Joker back out to the bar room. My mind was in turmoil. Ronin, dead? Was it another singing, dancing death? Why had he been such a bad card player? How can I get even with Joker for his sneering comments? And what about Pookie? Death insists she had no motive to kill Red. Did she harbor any grudges against Ronin? More important -- did she have plenty of dough and round heels?

Is she the fabled blonde?


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"Not ballroom dancing. Not like anything I've seen before. Legs flying, arms flailing and such wailing! Kind of like he was being electrocuted, bitten by serpents and calling hogs -- all at the same time."

I don't remeber seeing you down the pub...........how do u know my entrance routine :rofl::rofl:

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Bar Hound

The first thing I noticed was the stink. Burned jock straps smell like that. Don't ask me how I know.

Old Guy must have noticed my odd look. "It's brimstone." I was glad I hadn't blurted out anything concerning torched jock straps. He handed over a slim, black cigarillo. "Light up one of these. It kills the smell."

"What happened? Joker said Ronin had been whacked."

"Something like that. Anyway, he's gone. And he may not be the only one." He nodded toward the front of the room. Death sat at a corner table, Pookie at his side. He was talking on a cell phone and the conversation wasn't a happy one.

"We were gathering everyone here," said Old Guy. "You know -- so they'd be handy for your questioning. Ronin was right here at the bar, complaining that the beer was too warm."

I took a shallow drag off the little cigar. The things were vile, but they did eliminate the brimstone odor. "Was Ronin always complaining?"

"Oh, yeah. But that was just his nature. A natural born whiner."

"So . . ." I noticed there were extra folks in the room. "I don't know all these people."

"Right." Old Guy waved three rogues in our direction. He made introductions. "Archie, Canuck and Geg. Three good lads, save for some minor problems with the commandments, especially in reference to coveting of various things. This here is Donnie. He's been brought in to figure out who rubbed out Red. And now Ronin."

The three lowbrows murmured the usual insincere pleasantries and retired to the card table, where Doc Stag and Deacon had a game going.

"Tell me what happened to Ronin," I said.

"He didn't sing or dance, that's for sure. Just stopped -- in mid-complaint -- and said, quite plainly, 'Running Dog Imperialist Warmonger'. Then he collapsed, like a cartoon character. As if someone let the air out of him."

I stubbed out the horrid cigar. "I think my taste buds are dead now. Did Ronin habitually spout such nonsensical phrases?"

"Naw. At least -- I don't think so. We could seldom really understand what he was saying beyond the usual 'beer too cold' and stuff like that. I never heard him speak that way before."

"He said that line then collapsed?"

Old Guy nodded. "And that's when the room began to stink of brimstone." He frowned. "I think I caught a whiff of that after Red did his thing too. But he was right in front of the doors. If there was a puff of brimstone smell, a lot of it might have drifted outside."

"You spoke of another possible victim?"

"Shep. You ain't met him either. Couple guys looked in all his usual hidey holes and found nothing. Nada. Not a trace."

I looked around. Two men killed in plain sight. One probably rubbed out elsewhere. None of it made sense. I looked at Old Guy. "What should I do?"

"Interview the rest of the guys. I don't think you're going to find anything, but you might as well go through the motions. Death is calling in some markers. He may find something -- or he may not."

I set up at a table in the back and interviewed each man in turn. The results were exactly as Old Guy foretold. Nada. Every witness told the same tale. They saw nothing much and knew nothing at all about murder and brimstone. Whatever was going on had them spooked, but their response was to put on a truculent attitude and order more beer. Task completed, I went back to the bar, intending to puzzle over my notes and take on a load of booze.

Death upset my plans -- as he does with most folks.

Old Guy saw him coming and put a fresh beer on the bar. The Reaper drank off a goodly quantity before he spoke.

"I found 'em. Both Shep and Ronin are shoveling magma down in Hell Nine. The admin staff down there admit they can find no record of the transfers -- just like when Red went down the chute. But they won't release them without a court order." He twisted gnarled hands together. "I wish I knew what this was all about."

I put my notebook away and essayed a joke. "I can't help you with motive and method, but I can tell you what it isn't about." I paused for dramatic effect. Old Guy and Death waited. A smidgen of common sense tried to curb my tongue -- and failed. "Well," I continued, grand hand gesture and all, "it ain't about oil."

Old Guy said something filthy.

Death smiled. It was not a pleasant sight. He wheezed his wheezy laugh. "A sense of humor can be a deadly thing. You're not out of this case. Not yet."

"But -- what can I do?"

"Legwork. You and Old Guy. We still don't know what happened to our guys. Something or someone snatched them down to Hell for no reason." Death turned his mad red eyes in my direction. "Who's next?"

Old Guy wiped at a spot on the bar. He was not happy with the situation. I could tell. He'd already polished that same spot at least five times. "What do you want us to do?"

"Everyone stays in the bar," said Death. "I've put a dissonance field in place. Anything comes in or out of this room will be visible -- regardless of it's normal state."

I looked at Old Guy. "He lost me. I mean, he was speaking English and all -- but he left me back at the post."

He tossed his bar rag aside. "Hell creatures are normally out of phase with us. That's a fancy term that means they're invisible to our eyes. And not just invisible. We can't hear, taste or smell them either." He tapped his nose. "Though they sometimes leave a small essence -- in the form of brimstone stink."

A bit of light leaked in. "So if one comes in -- we'll see it?"

"Exactly," said Death. "Though we won't be able to stop whatever demon or hellion it might be. I have no dominion over Hell creatures."

"But . . ." Various scenarios flashed in my mind -- all horrid. "What's the point?"

"Once we've seen the critter," said Old Guy. "Then we can follow it back to Hell. Find out who sent it. Maybe put a stop to the deaths."

A whole host of objections sprang into being. "Yeah, but . . ."

Death silenced me with a glance. "Don't worry. Chances are pretty good that I can get you back. Better than even, in fact."

I started to scream then, but my yammering senses froze solid as a gaping hole appeared in the floor. Flames flickered at the edge of the hole. A huge black hound rose up into the room, as if riding an elevator. The beast surveyed the waiting crowd with sad, yellow eyes.

"Uh-oh," the thing rumbled. "This ain't good."

Someone shrieked in horror. I don't think it was me. The hound moved with blinding speed. Another shriek. Old Guy was over the bar. His hand gripped my arm. He dragged me toward the hole. This time I did scream. A vast dark shape loomed close, then began to drop down. The edges of the hole started to retreat.

"Come on," cried Old Guy. "He's getting away!"

I felt Death's bony hand on my back. He pushed. Old Guy pulled.

Fire brushed my face. I spoke several liturgical phrases.

We fell into blackness. A pair of yellow eyes peered up at me, then winked out.

"Relax!" yelled Old Guy. "There's no danger -- until we get to the bottom!"

That was when I pissed myself.


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The Rounding Error

"Careful," said Old Guy, guiding me around a bent, twisted wretch scrubbing the floor.

I shuddered as we passed the poor creature. The thing glanced our way with soulful, suffering eyes, then bent back to its task -- rubbing the heated iron floor plates with a well worn toothbrush.

"Don't waste any sympathy on that one," snarled Old Guy.

"Why? What did he do to deserve that kind of punishment?"

For once, the old fart's cool demeanor deserted him. "Do!? What did he do!? Tortured millions of innocent parents -- that's all! Ooooo! If I had time I'd go back and kick him a few times." His hands formed claws encircling an imaginary neck. "Don't get me started!"

I was at a loss. "But -- who is he?"

"Only the guy that invented billions of kids' favorite TV character."

Comprehension dawned. A low growl rose in my throat. I stopped and glared murder back at the worthless bastard. "You don't mean the creator of Bar . . ." Old Guy clamped a hand over my mouth.

"Don't speak that name aloud," he hissed.

I struggled in his grasp. "Let me go! He doesn't deserve a toothbrush! I want him to suffer! Suffer!" The foul fiend bent to his work, shivering in spite of the heat.

"He suffers. After he cleans a mile or so of floor plates, they lock him in a room for a month of videos, all starring his hideous creation. Oh -- he suffers."

Old Guy dragged me away from the nasty, misbegotten worm, still busy with his far too lenient punishment. Sanity slowly returned. After a few yards I wrenched myself free.

"Where are we going?" I asked. "How far is it?"

"The Accounting Office. It's just around the bend."

The black stone walls gave way to windows coated with coal dust and dried sweat and vain hope, all leached into grisly patterns on acid-etched surfaces. Beyond the glass I glimpsed vast angular shadows, not unlike the saurian shapes of working oil wells. Interspersed were glowing dynamos and towering cubes lit from within by a leprous glow.

I stared like a yokel in Times Square. "Cool. What kinda setup is that?"

"That's the computer room."

"No! All that machinery is a computer?"

"Of course. What did you expect in Hell? A box with IBM stenciled on it?"

"Well . . ." For all I knew, my office computer might contain gizmos just like those in Hell's computer room -- only smaller. That would explain a lot about how it frustrated and enraged me. Not to mention the electricity it consumed.

We stepped into a huge cavern lit by flaring torches set high on the walls. Old Guy led me around to the right. "The office is this way. You don't want to get anywhere near the sorting pens." He snickered. "Not yet."

The cavern floor held multitudes of wailing sinners arranged in endless lines, snaking back and forth. It looked just like the setup at my local theater complex. In fact, a couple of the goons cracking whips over the sniveling hordes looked familiar.

Old Guy stopped in front of a rusty iron door. "Here we are. Let's step inside and see what mischief my old pal Francisco is up to."

I hung back. "Who is this Francisco?"

"The chief bookkeeper. Bean counter honcho. Come on."

Francisco proved to be a twisted dwarf, with purple hide and beady orange eyes. One glance told me he was not born of woman.

"Well, well," he cackled as Old Guy dragged me into the office. "Is this an offering?" A dozen or so tattered-looking bats hung along one wall. They tittered and squeaked whenever the sawed-off purple horror spoke.

My guide laughed immoderately. "This is Donnie. He's a detective and he helped me track a little problem to your very own doorstep, Cisco."

The little monster muttered something I didn't understand. One of the bats fell dead and I didn't feel so good myself.

Old Guy clotted Francisco on the ear. "Knock it off! We ain't working for the IRS." I felt better right away. I'm not sure why. Maybe the dwarf stopped sending a sicky-poo spell in my direction -- or maybe it was because I was so glad not to be mixed up with the IRS.

Before any other witty remarks were passed, a big black hound blundered through the door. The card player known as Deacon was clamped in his jaws. The animal gave a kind of doggy shrug and dropped his burden. "I didn't sign on for no complications," moaned the hound. "I'm outta here." He vanished, leaving an eye-watering dose of brimstone behind.

"Blast!" cried Francisco. "He wasn't supposed to bring that carrion here! I'll get a couple helpers and have it dragged away."

Old Guy collared the purple ninny and dragged him back. "This here carrion is one of the reasons I'm down in this flaming paradise instead of drinking a nice cool MGD."

"MGD? You drink that swill?" Obviously, old Francisco was anxious to change the subject, though he had a good point there -- about the swill and all.

"Never mind about my beer," grumped Old Guy. "Let's talk about your accounts and why some of my clientele have been forcibly dragged off to the magma caverns."

"Magma caverns? Dragged off?"

"Don't play footsie with me, Cisco." Old Guy grinned. "I think you have a little problem with the books. Eh?"

Francisco paled. "The books?" he squeaked. "What books?"

Old Guy nodded. "Okay. Come on, Donnie. Let's go see the Chief Clerk."

"Wait! Wait!" The dwarf, now nearly pink, clutched at Old Guy. "I can explain!"

"So get to explaining." Old Guy sat down. I found a chair opposite the now silent bats. Deacon jerked suddenly and sat up.

"Where in the Hell am I?" he yelled.

"The Accounting Office," said Old Guy.

"The what?" Deacon looked around. "The where?" He caught sight of Francisco and scrambled over next to me. "The who?"

"Never mind," I said. "The purple critter is going to explain how you got here."

"It's this new computer system," whined Francisco. "The numbers don't come out right. No matter what we do, at the end of each month we're always short a couple sinners."

Deacon tugged at my sleeve. "It sounds like a rounding error."

"Be quiet. What do you know about computers?"

"Not much. But I know the damn things are dumb. You ever seen a robot assembly line in operation?"

I shook my head. "Never been near one." Anything to do with an assembly line looked too much like work.

"Start it doing a bad move and a computer controlled robot will keep doing the same thing over and over and over." Deacon shook his head. "Kinda like me and all them wives."

"Forget your wives," said Old Guy. "Tell me about this rounding error."

"Yeah," agreed Francisco. "If we can fix this problem, I might move up to Auditor."

"You need tech support," said Deacon. "I don't know nothing about code."

"Argh!" cried Francisco. He cursed again in that strange language. "Tech support! Those guys are evil!" Two more bats hit the floor.

Old Guy took out his cell phone. "Never mind. I'll get help from the contract outfit."

And that's all it took. The Halliburton guy fixed Francisco's bad code in a few minutes. On the way out he swept the floor, organized all the paperwork, and gathered up the dead bats. Those guys can do anything.

"What about the other guys?" I asked as we headed back for the elevator.

"They're already back at the saloon," said Old Guy. "There are several ways to get there from Hell." He grinned. "And vice-versa."

I ignored the jibe. "We going back the same way we came down?"

"Yeah. Why?"

I snarled and flexed my hands. "I wanna work over the fiend scrubbing floor plates."

Deacon looked at me kinda strange. "What floor plate scrubber? And why do you want to beat him up?"

So we told him. He started foaming at the mouth and ran all the way to the elevator. We never saw the floor plate cleaner. His month in the sound chamber had started while we was fiddling around in Francisco's office.

I was heartbroke. Breaking that nitwit's toothbrush would of been good -- real good.


Okay - there it is again. :doh2:

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The black stone walls gave way to windows coated with coal dust and dried sweat and vain hope, all leached into grisly patterns on acid-etched surfaces. Beyond the glass I glimpsed vast angular shadows, not unlike the saurian shapes of working oil wells. Interspersed were glowing dynamos and towering cubes lit from within by a leprous glow.

was quite lovely, despite the content. :thumbsup:

And the line by Deacon, Where in the Hell am I?! made me snort so loudly I woke up the dog :rofl:


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