About Me

Level/Game Design, the study of games, and game culture take up most of my time. I love to figure out ways to make levels tell a story by the placement of an off-center painting, a pile of rubble, or the color of a light. I've been modding with the UDK/Unreal III and the T3D engine. I'm totally at home with using level editors, Unreal Matinee, Kismet, Particle Editors, and the Unreal Material Editor.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Prologue and 1st Chapter of the book I'm working on, Ambitus.

Hey everyone,
Thanks for swinging by and taking a look at the prologue and first chapter of my book, Ambitus.  I'm currently five chapters in and am looking to have the book done sometime around July 2015.  Once that's happened, I get the fun task of finding an agent, shopping to publishers, marketing, blah, blah, blah.

Just a heads up, while this book is funny, it leans closer to the R instead of PG-13 rating.  That means there's some violence, though not a ton, and some rather creative profanity. Have fun!

Quick note (i.e. Legal Garbage):
This is a work of fiction.  All the characters, locations, and situations were created by myself.  Reprinting, republishing, blatant or sneaky theft, or any other claims of ownership is prohibited.  Doing any of the before mentioned things will bring down the wrath of some lawyer or another.

Ambitus
Prologue

I slammed into the charred concrete, spitting blood and a jagged tooth.  Gasping, the faint hint of sulfur and burning hair filled my lungs. I could hear laughter.

“We’ve got another, Carter.”

“Fucking Crispys.  I got fifty on him getting deported before the day is done.”

As I climbed to my feet, hacking, pain was shooting through my whole body from the burns.  My eyes struggled to adjust to the pale light.  I saw I was standing in a small pit, about 3 feet deep, in the middle of a barren lot.  A city that looked one part Chicago, one part ancient Rome, and one part punk-meets-Renaissance Faire rose in every direction around me. 

Two men, or men shaped things, sat a few feet away on a pile of large cracked stones.   Through the haze and grinding torment of what I was sure was a broken collar bone, it was hard to tell what they were.  They looked like men, but one was ashen grey with a heavily pierced and ornamented horn above his right eyebrow.  The other was the black of the void and had glowing amber eyes.  Swirling geometric tattoos shined and faded at random intervals across his body.

“Where am I?” I croaked, through ash and blood.

“Well, Mr. Crispy,” said the grey one, “you are in the city of malaise, melancholy, despair, discomfort, and acute annoyance…on the edge of Fegefeuer and Ifreann, my dear."

“Basically, you’re in the afterlife equivalent of Detroit, Baghdad, and L.A., in no particular order,” said the dark one.

“Oh, don’t be so dramatic,” said the first, with a flippant wave of his hand, “You are in the border city of Hell and the World. Welcome to Ambitus. And, judging by your rather, shall we say, deep fried appearance, we can safely assume that you’re not a Grey Walker, demon, or floofy assed angel.  No, dear boy. I’m confident in saying you’re a fresh immigrant from Dante’s rather slanderous Inferno.”

“Bullshit.  That’s not possible,” I said, “I was just having an extremely cheap beer, with an even cheaper woman, and listening to an even worse band…in Austin!”

“Not possible?” laughed the dark one, “I’m not sure you should be questioning possibilities when you’re the one that just fell, on fire mind you, from the sky, slammed into the ground, created a crater big enough to hold a Buick, and disturbed my tea with my dear friend, Carter.  It was rather rude, if I do say.”

“Just so,” said Carter while slipping off of the rock, “Look, a little memory loss is normal with fresh…well, fresh isn’t the right word at all...umm…nevermind.  Most Crispys can’t remember a damn thing when they first land here.  Sometimes it comes back, sometimes not.  So, here’s the rundown.  You’re dead.  Yes, yes, it’s all quite shocking, I know, but there’s nothing that can done about that now.  You’re dead, you were in hell for a stint, and have been deposited here.  If it helps, you’re the third this week and it’s our jobs, Bartholomew’s and mine,  to welcome you to your, I’m very sure, temporary new home.”

By this point, I was finally standing and had the chance to notice that I was missing a few articles of clothing.  Well, that’s only kinda accurate.  I was naked and my skin was covered in burns.

“And it’s right about now that you’re realizing that you are naked, right?” asked Bartholomew while also sliding off his rock, “As the official welcome committee to our, ahem, fair city, here’s a shirt, shoes, and pants.  Don’t worry if they’ll fit, they will.  Oh, and call me Bart.  Only my mother, and this dandy, calls me Bartholomew” He said while handing me a bundle black and brown rags. A buzzing, high pitched song started coming from Bartholomew's coat.

“One second,” he said as he fished a glowing phone from his pocket.

“You have…phones here?” I asked with voice of someone that is sure to wake up any second.

“We’re in the border of the world and hell,” mumbled Bart while shaking his head, “Not fucking Amish Country.”

As I began pulling on my pants, roughhewn and what felt like made out of cheapest part of forth least favorite cotton grower’s garbage scraps, Carter ambled up to me and clapped his hand on my extremely tender shoulder.

“So, let’s get you squared away, right?  As my illustrious companion, Bartholomew, the 3rd duke of Philadelphia is taking this call…”

“Wait,” I said, “Duke of Philadelphia? We don’t have Dukes or Lords or whatever in the US.”

“That attitude will get you nowhere, young man,” Carter quickly replied, “As I was saying before, senor rude-a- saurus, Bart is getting the location of a halfway house for the recently hell flung, and it is my job to let you in on the rules of our little town.”

“Rule 1,” he said while waving his fingers about,” is that that most rules do not apply here.  They are dictated by who owns what district.  Some are hell laws, some Heaven, some average human laws, and some are complete nonsense where even gravity gives them the side-eye.  That means, in a Hell dominated district, things like petty theft and murder, which is usually petty as well, are perfectly fine.  Do the same in Heaven controlled area, and, well…you will find that some heavenly beings can be downright hellish. My advice, stick in the Jericho district.  It’s full of crime, sure, but its human controlled and has the best Thai outside of Bangkok.”

“Rule 2 is that, even here, money is important, so you will have to find a job. And that reminds me, may I see you hand? The left one, if you please,” he asked.

Gingerly, as if he was putting his hand on something distasteful, Carter placed his pale grey palm on top of my rather grimy and singed one.  He paused for a moment, eyes squinting with concentration. A few beads of sweat appeared on his forehead, only to be immediately dried by the dust clogged wind. 

“This is going to…tingle a bit,” he said just before he clasped my hand firmly.  Between our palms, there was a quick flash of light, the smell of hot metal, and a feeling that ranked right up there with grabbing a curling iron that was set to max for that past 12 hours.  A yell escaped my mouth as I yanked my hand back from him.

“What the fuck, man?” I screamed as jumped away and looked at my hand, half expecting it to be burnt to the bone but, instead of charcoaled skin, it was healed except for what looked like a brand in the middle of my palm.  I kept trying to figure out what the shape was, but every time my eyes focused on it, it would seem to shift its shape, its lines blurring.

“That’s, for lack of a better word, you,” he replied with a shrug, “Think of it as a simulacrum of your “you-ness”. It will act as your I.D. and debit card.  Before you ask, yes, there are banks here.  Most are in the Hell controlled areas, but, they came up with them, didn’t they?”

“Is there a third rule?” I asked, still trying to shake the image of my “me-ness” swirling around on my hand.

“There used to be but, it was repealed about 50 years ago.  You should have seen the party that day.”

Bart walked back up to us, slid his phone back into the pocket of his jeans, and throwing a massive arm around my shoulders, which nearly caused me to black out.

“Well, good news,” he said, completely ignoring my obvious agony, “Headquarters found a place for you.  It’s on South Racker Street.  You just go three blocks that way,” he said while gesturing down the closest graffiti and neon strewn street.

“Once you reach South Racker, you turn left, go another 2 blocks, and look for the building that has an old guy playing checkers, by himself, in front of it.  Tell them that we sent you.  They’ll hook you up with a bed.  Do you have any skills from before? Doesn’t matter, they’ll figure out some job for you.  Now if you hurry, you can be there before the Sweepers come out, which gives you about 20 minutes.  You want to be inside when that happens,” and with that, he gave me a small push in the direction of my new home.

As I walked away, I could hear Carter whisper to Bart, “South Racker Street?  Who owns that this week?”

“Imp Heads,” Bart replied.

“I’ll up that wager to one hundred and make it deported by the end of the afternoon.”

                                                                              ***

The walk seemed longer than Bart mentioned.  I passed buildings covered in intricate graffiti that glowed, sparkled, or absorbed the light like painted stripes of black holes.  Signs were posted that read “Newbies need not apply.  We’re looking for long term employees.”, “Girls! Girls! Girls! Tits and Tails!”, and “Hottest chili outside of the 3rd circle” fought for wall and window space with posters for bands, clairvoyants (Need to contact the living?  Ask for Madame Duvet!”), dog sitters (hellhound or standard), and a few for a courier service that would bring goods between the city and the world called Grey Walkers.

At the corner of Maiden and South Racker, a large white marble columned gallery was displaying new art from Raphael, though, in this place, I have no idea if they meant the painter or the angel.  Hell, it could be the same guy. 

The people standing on the corners, under lees, and against the flier covered walls ran the gamut from human crust punks to half-angels in drag to demons in pinstripe zoot suits.  Humans with Egyptian slave collars and loin cloths stood next to kids with neon hair and smartphones, arguing about the merits of vodun magic, Bach vs Mozart, if the Roman Aqueducts will outlast the Mayan Pyramids, or deep dish vs New York style.  Each conversation was more animated than the last and came at me in every language, dialect, and volume. 

Eventually, I did find the house with the old man playing checkers.  His face’s wrinkles were deep enough that I felt that I should be able to look through them and see the wall behind.  His smell was nearly visible. Above the green flecked door was a sign proclaiming that the building was called “Newb-vana”.     

“Two guys told me to come-“

“First door on the left,” interrupted the old man in a voice that wasn’t so much soaked in nicotine and whiskey but had found a way to boil them down to their purest essence and then burn the shit out of them.

“Thanks,” I muttered as I climbed the cracked concrete stairs, opened the door, and stepped into the house.


Chapter 1
At this particular moment, you will find me doing the second best thing I do: running for my life.  The sound of my feet smashing against the trash covered alley was only slightly muffled by the thrashing of my pulse in my ears and the sound of several large and angry gentlemen attempting to catch me.  A heavy and only just recently empty bottle exploded off the wall behind me in a shower of green shards, briefly reflecting the neon of the surrounding bars.

“Where are you going, Grey Walker?” bellowed a low and definitely not human voice, that was far too close for my liking, “We have things to discuss!”

“And I’m sure that conversation will be an affable and productive one, Gruber, but I fear I must decline.  I have other pressing matters that require all my blood to stay firmly within me,” I shouted over my shoulder, arms pumping wildly.

You see, the gentlemen behind me are former business associates who have an insane idea that I cheated them.  I call it insane because, despite the fact that they’re absolutely right, they have no proof. Well, no tangible proof anyway.  Which, apparently, is not stopping them from attempting to introduce my face to some rather unpleasantly rough surfaces in a repeated and prolonged fashion. 

As Gruber, the Large-and-Ugly, behind me has bellowed, I’m what you would call a Grey Walker.  We have the unique ability to transport items to and from Ambitus and the living world by piercing the Grey Veil that separates the land of the living and the never ending hell of the dead.  “What, oh dear narrator, is the Grey Veil?” I hear you ask.  Well, it’s a thick, membrane of protoplasm, ill and sweet wishes, and several sciencey dimensional jargon that no one really understands and just takes as a given.  Look, have you ever pushed through a hundred sticky, undie damping feet of sentient cotton candy snaked with demonic barbwire and the persistent shrill screech of lovesick cat?  No? Well, that would be much nicer than pushing through the Grey Veil.  As to why we do this, usually it’s for the pay, prestige, the occasional Walker groupie, but mostly because it really pisses off the higher ups and the ones down below. 

Normally, our cargo is pretty mundane. we carry notes to loved ones and new music from the world but, a few of us will smuggle designer drugs from one of Hell’s apothecaries to random cartels in the third world or weapons that tend to make a very big mess of whole political regimes and start new ones that have leaders with titles like Glorious or Exalted.  All of this is, of course, highly illegal and, four out of five of us never make it past our third year on the Walk.  Whether it’s a knife in the dark, getting hit by a car because you came out of the Grey and onto a highway, or the Veil itself eats you, no one stays on the Walk without a few scars. 

That said, it is something that I do rather well and get paid the insane kind of cash that would normally start, at least, a minor protest on most college campuses amounts. The only real problem is that I’m also appallingly lazy and have a tendency to lie rather badly when under stress.  So, when I’m just not in the mood, I’ll fake a delivery receipt, take the second payment, and be on my merry before most can figure out that they’ve been screwed.  Unfortunately, this tends to get people a smidge vexed.  To avoid clients from finding out who I actually am, I’d normally use a fence that deals with the all the paperwork and halfhearted apologies for me, but he recently came down with a trifle case of beheaded.  Hence, I’ve become very, very good at running.  So good, in fact, that I routinely win marathons…or would…if I bothered…which I don’t.  Honestly, who has the time to just run for the sake of running?  Besides everyone here, I guess, since they’re dead or immortal or a tragically humorous combination of the two things.

“You owe me a delivery, shit bird!” Gruber screamed while pulling a nasty, but clearly hastily made, stick with a nail through it from his coat.  And this is the kind of people that I’m forced to deal with.  A man… okay, a demon, that can’t even spend the time to get a proper cudgel and instead just puts a nail in a piece of tree and calls it a day.  Where’s the style? The flair for the dramatic? The ominous evil of a well-honed and blood stained weapon?  I don’t know why I bother.  Savages, the lot of them.

Sadly, I should have been paying more attention to the alley ahead and less to the lack of quality thugs and enforcers because I happen to notice that alley ended in a large fenced dead-end at roughly .25 seconds before I slammed into it, felt my face smoosh against the cage, and bounced back onto my ass with thump that knocked loose at least 2 of my designer filling. Yes, designer fillings.  That’s a thing.

“Ah, shit,” I grumbled, struggling to my feet and noticing the long rip in my pants.
“Do you have any idea how much these pants cost, Gruber?  Even the slightest clue?”  I asked as they caught up, “These are custom made in Florence with wool hand spun by a seventy year old virgin with advanced arthritis.  It’s a three year waiting list to just get fitted.”

“And I’m sure that someone cares deeply,” the large, frog faced demon burped through his sore covered lips, patting the stick into his left hand and walking forward with the same smug satisfaction of a tiger that’s cornered a mentally deficient fawn, “Isn’t that right, Clinch?” Gruber asked the small, bespectacled demon to his left.

“Oh yeah boss.  I’m feeling overcome with regret. I might have to see my shrink,” the little demon quickly agreed, its high pitch voice tearing into my ears while its rat lizard faced bobbed up and down rapidly, “I’m worried that this will go on my record. This might cost me that fancy promotion.”

“Now, Walker, there’s a little matter of an undelivered package, an angry client, and, what I’m sure is a mistake, falsified receipt,” Gruber said while punctuating each point by jabbing his peasant stick repeatedly into my chest, “Care to explain?”

“I’d love to, if you could stop rib fucking me with that twig,” I replied, swatting away the stick.  Smoothing back my hair, adjusting my coat and tie, and upon realizing that there was little point in further adjusting when you have a giant rip from knee to crotch in your pants, I sighed and continued, “First off, that delivery was made on time and to the proper location.  You have the receipt to prove it, with the correct signature and, as you can see, I clearly don’t have the package anymore.  Using your nearly Sherlockian power of deduction, I’m sure you can see that it is indeed you that is in error.”

“But we talked to Shazz and he…,” Gruber started to mumble with a tone that displayed his confusion at the dramatically different direction that this conversation had gone then he was expecting.  Normally, at this point, he would be a good several minutes into his famous “Do we look like someone you should cheat?” speech and waving a firearm around menacingly, while the other person was wailing in that particular way that rustled certain lower and more unsavory parts of his anatomy.

 “Second, I don’t really care that the client is upset because you assholes are always angry, and third…wait, what was the third thing?” I asked.

“Falsified receipt,” quipped the rat lizard faced, Clinch, which got him a stern glare from his much larger, but equally inept higher up.

“Thank you, Clinch. Third, how dare you claim I would do that?” I asked while pushing a finger in Gruber’s chest.

“Well because we…”

“Do you know how hard I work to get your packages through the Veil every other week? Do you even have the slightest idea how little I charge you because I thought we had a nice report?”

“I know you work hard, but you see…”

“Or how about how I bought all those candy bars for your cousin’s kid’s school?”

“That was good of you, but as I was…”

 “Nevermind the fact that they immediately melted and ruined one of my rugs and, that they were mostly made of arsenic.  Did I come chasing after you while screaming about Little Demon Johnny Sonofabitch’s poorly made confections?  No, I did not.  I was a gentleman about it and realized that, despite my ruined floor decorations, my money went to help the less fortunate.  So I say good day to you, sir,” and I pushed my way past the two demons and walked back down the alley in the kind of self-righteous huff that can onlys be pulled off when you think you’ve gotten away with something.  Or at least that was the plan…

I got about ten feet away when I heard, “Wait a minute…I don’t have a cousin.”

“And isn’t this his first delivery with us?” asks Clinch.

To give credit where it’s due, I’ve pulled this “your cousin’s kid” thing probably five times and, I’ve always managed to get a decent lead before they figured it out.  So, despite the fact that they can’t be bothered to threaten me with real weapons, as a man of my position deserves, I do have to applaud them with at least being this quick. 

“Yeah…something is wrong here” replies Gruber while picking at a scab on his face that was thick enough, and ancient enough, to fossilize, get dug up, put in a museum and studied.

While they tried to figure out how this turned from a chase into a scolding, I took a deep breath, reached out my hand, and pulled apart the seam of nothingness.  A swirling, reaching mass of not light undulated between the cracks in the wall in front of me.  The neon lights dimmed as the Veil attempted to pull all energy into itself.

“Great…Gonna ruin my shirt too.  This is Egyptian cotton, dicks. I wonder if I can expense the cleaning bill.  Probably not.  I’m sure if falls under “personal expenses” and, the last thing I need is get some damn accountant down here screaming again and being all ‘You have to fill out form 4986B for consideration for replacement or remuneration of personal property’,” I mutter and leap into the tear in reality as shouts of “Schools down here don’t even sell candy!” ring out behind me.

***
 
I have the momentary sensation of falling and going up at the same time before slamming into the stretchy substance that acts as the ground in the Veil.  I instantly puke.  Thankfully, the Veil is highly absorbent.  I should mention that this happens every time I do the Walk, and has nothing to do with running a full mile flat out with a small child’s weight of alcohol brewing in my stomach.  And I don’t remember asking your opinion about how much I drink and no, I’m not being defensive…ahem.

What passes for the air swirls with a grey fog.  Well, not entirely grey.  It’s more of the grey of old meat that still has the hint of pink to it, but you get the idea.  If pleasant was a town, this place would be the shadier part of the industrial complex on the wrong side of the tracks…in another town…in a third world country.

Souls, either going towards hell or heaven or getting shipped to bodies, shot through the mist in a rapid blur of screaming, elated, or, on the very rare but confusing occasion, bored faces.  The bored ones, I found out several years ago while on a bender in Tibet with the 12th reincarnation of the Dalai Lama, are souls of the cosmically unlucky and continually reincarnated.  These poor bastards are usually doomed to live out several dozen lifetimes as janitors, mail clerks, shipping consultants, or bathroom attendants in those types of nightclubs where everyone is insufferable and drinks start at the GDP of Guam and go up from there.  Apparently, it’s part the infallible plan to punish those that weren’t so much evil as they were bland and, if all the world is a stage, each one of them would have been cast as the backup houseplant.

Looking around quickly told me that I had exactly zero idea where I was.  You see, every…let’s call them district, of the Veil has a color, a smell, or just a general feel that you can use as a landmark.  These usually correspond to the general region of the world that they’re linked to.  For instance, the Veil that links to Brazil is a very bright blue and gets progressively more green as you near Sao Paulo, though it does give the distinct impression that, even naked, you are overdressed.  On the other end, England feels very old and has an even thicker fog about it and, you always feel like you’re being just slightly but, undoubtly, judged for some indiscretion that only it knows.  Greece feels even older but has the smell of goat cheese and old men, while America feels like all of them put together, but with a slightly greasy feel to it (depending on the state, the grease level increases, decreases, or gets replaced with the smell of cilantro or Gold Bond Medicated Cream). 

Reaching out a hand, I flagged down one of the more bored looking souls, who screeched to a stop a few feet away.

“Whatcha yous want?” asks a soul with a face that could only belong to the kind of third tier truck driver that, even in death, had oily stubble and whatever passes for soul pit stains.

“Good of you to stop,” I say, slightly embarrassed, “I happen to make the leap in here without much planning and appear to be slightly lost and need some directions.”

The soul and I both look around at the swirling grey, completely land mark free surroundings, for several moments. Slightly exasperated, he says, “Are yous new?  Look around!  It’s not exactlys like I can tell yous to take a right at the third McDonald’s yous comes across.”

“Well, where are you headed?” I ask.

“Look, pal, I just go where the boss sends me.  Which, in this case…” he says while fishing through a pocket and then pulling out a transparent, crumpled piece of paper, “…crap, is Gary, Indiana,” He says with a look that is some middle ground between depression and the kind of quiet anger that happens right before a bar breaks into the kind of fight that can only be seen in the lowest budget westerns.

“I guess that explains the lingering smell of sulphur, decay, and the feeling that I’m going to get mugged,” I say while, as discreetly as deemed socially acceptable, transfer my wallet to my front pocket.
“Yeah, well at least yous don’t needs to spend the next eighteen or so years being born and raised in a city where I’ll probably gets assaulted for having the wrong color shoes,” he adds.

“At least you get to grow up where the Jackson Five started.  That’s something, right?” I ask, uncertainly.

“Little Michael, nots withstandings, it woulds be nice to get a job somewheres wheres I drives around pineapples or something, ya know?  Whatever, if this goes to Gary, then if you goes that way,” he says while pointing a translucent appendage, “Yous will end up in Chicago. And if yous go that way,” he says while pointing in the opposite direction, “Yous will end up in Cleveland. Nows if you’lls excuse me, I’ve got an appointment with a tight squeeze, bright lights, and someone slapping my ass.”

“Look, I realize that you’re setting me up for a cheap joke but, frankly, I’m not falling for it. I have a bit more class than that.  Though, if I’m being completely honest, I’ve paid for less,” I say with a shrug.

“That’s a shames.  I nevers have to pay,” says the soul as it peels away, leaving the lingering smell of diesel and pastrami.

And for the third time today, I had no idea what to do.  Cleveland is a no fly zone for Walkers since we held our convention there in 79’.  Something to do with “irreparable damage to social services”, a sudden and pronounced rise in prostitution, unexpected spike in hauntings, and unpaid bar tabs that went into the excess of something resembling the national budget for Tomahawk cruise missiles.  And while I’ve never been someone that particularly cared for, or even understood most rules, the angelic and demonic hosts of Cleveland had standing orders to “deport” us back to the city on sight.  In other places, this was normally enforced with a strictly worded reprimand and a “don’t let the sun set on you” warning, in Cleveland, it was shoot to kill.  Since most of us are, at least some degree, dead, this meant that the shooting could involve, what most sane/not dead individuals would call, irresponsible amounts of bullets entering your delicate person with the sole hope that maybe one would be the one to put you permanently down. 

That left walking the hour to come out in Chicago, getting my bearings, and popping back through the Veil to get home.  Normally this wouldn’t be an issue, beyond the completely unhealthy amount of exercise that is built into an hour of walking, but my watch told me that it was Janurary 3rd, and I long ago learned that Chicago winters aren’t something you deal with.  They’re something that only the strong, or certifiably insane survive, and only a scar covered barely, with the aid of clothes that were made for the fiercest Siberian tundra.  Several years ago, there was an official inquiry from Heaven and Hell into Chicago winter, and while no one could officially claim who started it, both confirmed it as a complete success for their perspective side.  At least, I could console myself, the cold wasn’t actively targeting me, and its general hatred of everyone was evenly distributed. So, nearly resolutely, I began walking to the city. 

Because of the all-encompassing fog, you can easily become lost within the Veil, which is the most benign of its dangers, walking through the Veil sounds a significantly easier than it really is.  Beyond the constant threat of being lost, falling into one of the close-enough-to-make-no-difference bottomless Soul Pits, or getting attacked by a swarm of Dead Eater worms, there is also the roaming demon con artists that will attempt to keep you trapped in an endless conversation till you agree to whatever terms for whatever fake service they are offering.  You can think of them as metaphysical aluminum siding salesmen.  Their theory is that if they can tempt souls before they even get to bodies, well than they don’t have to deal with the whole “being subtle and indirect” malarkey that World assigned demons have too.  Thankfully, Heaven doesn’t send out missionaries to the Veil.  When asked why, you’ll usually get an incredibly snooty answer that mentions “freewill” and “predestination”.  To be honest, I think it’s just because angels are lazy and can’t be bothered to fill in the proper forms to move a heavenly host there.  Not that I particularly blame then.  I had once needed to expense a cab ride to heaven and gave up after page thirteen of the “Request for an Expense Request” form.  The problem with being the cosmic representation of Order is that, if Hell is for sinners, than heaven is for chartered accountants. 

In the Veil, you can always tell when you’re near a city by the amount of souls flying around, and with a population that topped 2.5 million, I knew I was there by the fact that the souls started to blot out the rest of view around me and their pace had slowed down to near reverse.  That’s right folks, even in death, you have to deal with traffic, and being dead does nothing to ease the road…err… bifrost rage.  For miles around, souls, packed incorporeal pseudopod to disgruntled face, trudged forward at the pace of a snail’s brisk morning walk.  Some were floating, some sitting, and a few were sleeping where they stood.  And floating from one soul to the next, to my great surprise was Frank, the absolute worst soul collector that Hell ever had.  Because the recruitment rate in the Veil is already fairly low, Hell figured that he couldn’t do much to hurt their numbers, yet, within six weeks, recruitment dropped twenty percent.  Despite his tendency to talk souls into actually joining Heaven, he was a useful informant.  Standing three feet tall and having the proclivity to babble, Frank had the threatening nature of a hedgehog, which meant people spoke around Frank a considerable amount more than they should simply because they did not notice or care that he was there.  Patting my pockets for the mandatory sugar cube that I already knew he, like all imps, would be begging for, I walk up and watch Frank try his latest pitch.

“Hey, buddy, have you thought that this whole being born and living thing might not be worth it?” Frank asks in a helium like voice to an extremely annoyed looking soul of a person that was destined to either trouble shoot computers or possibly takeover a small island with a fist made of the lowest grade pig iron.

“I’m just waiting for my turn, okay?”

“I mean, look, it’s a mess of trouble just getting into the World, right?  You have to sit in isolation for nine months and then you get shoved out into light, naked and covered in blood,” Frank said, sticking his tongue out in the universal “that shit is gross” gesture.

“I understand but…”

“Plus, you have to deal with a man wearing a mask slapping the shit out of you.  Once that’s all done, you get to wait another two years before you can even somewhat communicate with anyone,” Frank says, waving his arms at the unfairness of it all.

“Is it really that bad?” asks the soul with a hint of skepticism that was slowly turning into self-doubt.

“Oh, it’s just the worst.  I would skip it, personally,” Frank says while putting a painfully slender and knobby red arm over what passes for the soul’s shoulders.

“But, what happens after all that?” the soul asks.

“Well, look around you,” Frank says while gesturing to the tens of thousands of other souls, “Most of these people are going to go through what I just described and you know what happens?”

“N-n-no,” the soul says, tears forming in the corners of its eyes.

“It turns them into bastards.  Nearly every single one of them will come out angry and go into the ground the same way.  That’s just no way to live, is it?” He asks while wiping away the soul’s tears, and then his own, with a ratty handkerchief, stained from the tears of others who had been asked the same questions.

“I suppose not, but what other choice is there?” the soul asks with pleading in his voice.

“In fact, I happen to have a workaround for you.” Frank says while digging into the satchel that never seems to leave his side.

“Wha-What do I have to do?” the souls asks.

“Glad you asked,” He says and produces a small leaflet from his bag and presents it to the soul, “If you’ll look in here, you’ll see the best solutions from the Old Firm.  We’ve got vacations, staycations, and occupations that can satisfy any discerning customer.  We’ve got deals that can ease the bones, mend the joints, relax the mind, strengthen the core, and reintroduce vigor to certain…ahem…appendages.  And we do all of this for nearly free.”

“That all sounds great, but I don’t have any joints or bones,” The soul says, pointing one nearly see-through tentacle at his mostly shapeless body.  Sadly, even in life, his body would probably be mostly shapeless as well, “And what do you mean by nearly free?”

“Ah, yes, well, you see, there’s the small matter of that we get to keep your soul.”

“But I am a soul.”

“Too true,” Frank says.  A long awkward silence follows.

“So let me get this straight, you give me the chance to do whatever I want for an undisclosed amount of time and, then, you own me?”

“Own seems like such an unnecessarily harsh word,” explains Frank, a hint of desperation creeping into his voice, “It’s more like…indentured servitude.

“And what happens during my “indentured servitude”?” Ask the soul testily, all traces of the previous worry and hopelessness gone.

“We, umm, well…,” Frank stammers and then explodes out, “We put you in a lake of fire and torture you so that your screams can power Belial’s ice cream maker.”

“What flavor?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean what flavor of ice cream?”

“Oh, ah…spumoni,”

“That’s disgusting.  I think I’ll take my chances with life.  Good day,” and with that, the soul turns away from the sputtering Frank.

Frank never closes on a deal, ever.

Shaking my head, I saunter up to Frank , who looks as crestfallen as an imp could possibly be, and given the nature of how imps, and therefore, Frank, is treated by Hell, Heaven, and the just the general populous, that is a testament to how bad he feels.  His ears drooped nearly past his knees.

“Morning,” I say to Frank whose expression is saying that he likely is contemplating what a gun barrel tastes like and if it will be better than what happens if he misses his recruitment quota.

As he looks up, the look of depression is instantly replaced with a look of abject terror as his eyes met mine.

“M-m-m-morning Walker,” He stammers while fumbling with his suspenders.  I once asked Frank why he wears suspenders when he doesn’t have pants, and he replied, “To hold my thumbs when I’m thinking.”  I had decided that it was best to not ask what his suspenders were attached too, as I like to keep my lunch traveling in only one direction, “Sorry about that last job.  The buyer said that there wouldn’t be any guards.  How was I supposed to know that the asshole forgot to mention a security system with attack dogs?  Just don’t hit me in the face, okay?  It’s my money maker.”

“Good Lord, Frank…sorry…Calm yourself,” I say as I toss him his sugar cube, which he catches like an over-excited yorkie, “Granted, I do owe you at least one authoritative backhand, but you might be able to redeem yourself.  You see, I had to make an unexpected jump over and, considering I never cross the Veil for free, I was hoping you might have overheard, with those obscenely red, floppy ears, of someone looking for a delivery or pickup.”

Frank holds and pets one of his ears while saying, “Look around you, Walker.  Do you think I get anytime to leave this place and listen?  They’ve got me working twenty hour shifts!”

“We’re not in the physical plane, Frank.  Twenty hours doesn’t really mean much here. Are we talking afterlife hours or Earth hours?”

“That’s my point!  Watches don’t work and it’s not like anyone comes by and says, ‘Time for lunch.’  So I have no clue when I’m supposed to get off.”

“Come on, Frank,” I say while holding up and shaking another sugar cube, “Who’s a good boy? Hmmm?  Who’s a good boy that wants another sugar cube?”

Frank drops his ear and starts jumping around me as if his feet were made of extremely excitable springs, “I do I do I do I do!”

“Good,” I say and move the sugar cube just underneath his ridiculously large nose, “Then you’re going to tell me who is looking for what and what they’ll pay.”

Frank stops jumping and squawking long enough to blurt out, “The James brothers!  They’ll looking for a shipment to get moved tonight!  Lots of cash.  Now let me have the cube!”

I toss Frank the other cube and pat him on his elephant skinned head, “Good boy, now, where do I find these gentlemen?”

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