When I was younger, my pop wanted me to take up police work. At parades, I would be perched up on his shoulders with my small finger pointing at the rows of marching men. Crimson and gold uniforms flashed by us. White confetti littered the streets while horns were raised, blaring with fanfare. When the police officers came on through, Pop would say in his deep, but mild German accent, “See them? There goes a bunch of honorable men. You’d do fine in a position like that one day.”
Seventeen years later, I stared down at his bullet ridden corpse with the pistol still smoking in my hand. I wondered if he thought we were so honorable then.
The rest of that day was spent in a dingy building somewhere. For hours, a cig was nestled between my fingers, poisonous wisps blurring my vision. The skin underneath my eyes became outlined with dark lines, and my head was only supported by one weakened—and guilty—hand. The shaking stopped, but my mind kept replaying that moment over and over.
That’s when a fellow showed up beside me. His hair was dark, disheveled. His clothes showed signs of age. He wore a smile, and I couldn’t tell whether it was meant to be mocking or comforting.
And his eyes . . . there was something odd about the eyes. They were sort of auburn, scorched with a slight hint of crimson. The next thing I knew, he put his hand on my back, congratulating me on a job well done.
That night I’d met my first demon.
And much to my misfortune, that was also the night I became a Whispie—something I’d soon regret.
It was on a June night in 1925, five years from the night I became a Whispie. The city lights were ablaze everywhere you turned, and the sound of parties and dances were heard from every street corner, every building. Where there was a party, the intoxicating stench of alcohol followed. I had my hands in my pockets for warmth even though the evening temperature wasn’t all that bad. My new partner, Ben, stared at me like he was going to say something. I stared back at him, but I didn’t know what to say. This was his first time on the “Special Force”, and I had no words of comfort for him. Yep, they had just stuck him with me, hoping that I’d ‘enlighten him’, or something along the lines of that. Good thing he didn’t need enlightenment—or so I thought.
“You ready, Bobby?” he asked.
“I think the better question is, are you ready, Ben? I mean, you don’t have to be here if you don’t want to. This ain’t a walk in the park, and—”
“Oh I can do it! I’m no coward.”
He said that, but he wasn’t hard-boiled either. The poor fellow had the heebie-jeebies. It was written all over his pale face. He needed a drink before attempting this.
The two of us hurried over to our destination, quicker than the rats on the street. I grabbed his hand and pulled him against the brick of the old building just below the steps and away from the lamp light. I wiped the sweat from Ben’s hand on my coat. What were the guys back at headquarters thinking? Busting into a bigshot bootlegger’s domain was never easy, and I didn’t need Ben spooked.
Two young ladies, both flappers, made their way to the place near us. We kept ourselves quiet. Once we heard the door shut we revealed ourselves to the artificial light. I pressed down on my hat to cover my eyes a bit. Ben still shook.
“Pretend it’s a regular party, and you’ll do fine,” I assured him. His expression relaxed a little. I knocked on the door. It swung open almost instantly, and as expected, we were greeted to a pair of pinstripe-suited men.
They looked the two of us over with dark, near black eyes. Scowls were on their faces, their muscles tensed, but I knew they wouldn’t do anything unless we gave them a reason to. Half the time the ones that answered the door were the weakest of the bunch anyway. When we got to their boss, that’s when we had to worry. Still, the way they looked at us with such inviting eyes, Ben’s expression was everything but right. His body recognized something irregular with the two fellows in front of us, but his mind was still trying to figure it out.
“We’re here to do a little business with Mr. Russell,” I began, “so if you would let us in, we’ll be out before you know it.”
Without saying a word, they moved aside and allowed us to continue our way in. They were much more compliant than the last joint I had to investigate, and that saved time. Ben, being close enough, his breath unsteady, whispered out,
“Those were demons, right?”
Ah, so his mind finally came through. Poor unsure rookie. No amount of reading could have prepared him for the real thing.
“Yeah, the place is chock full of ’em, I can guarantee you that. Just watch your step, and don’t make yourself look like an easy target. The brutes love it when they smell fear, or just about any other negative emotion on you. Makes them feel more important than they probably are…”
For a brief moment I was brought back to thinking about that cold hand on my back. An involuntary shiver scampered up my spine.
“I never thought they’d look so…”
My attention moved back to Ben. “Human? But your head just knows something isn’t right with ’em. I’m surprised you haven’t seen one until now. They’re everywhere nowadays.”
It was true; demons flocked to where a high concentration of sin was. It wasn’t like people didn’t know about them, they did. The creatures just preferred operating at night, specifically in speakeasies. That’s where we came into play. Demons owning juice joints was never good news.
We went further in. The path we’d paved to get inside had already closed up again with bodies. Everywhere we turned, a human or demon was right there, only inches away from our faces. We tried to avoid dancing black heels from stepping on our toes, or the swinging glasses threatening to spill on our clothes. We were successful with the latter half, but Ben almost ended up tripping some poor old dame onto another fellow. Not to mention, I could barely hear myself think among all the chatter going ’round the place. The stink of alcohol hung everywhere too. I never could stand that stuff— not even when it was legal to sell it.
“Come on, let’s hurry it up,” I ushered. It was only a matter of time before Ben got himself into trouble.
Ben knew to stay close, or he’d get lost in the frenzied crowd. We fought through the ocean of dancers and musicians. Finally, we reached the stairs and went up them. At last we were away from the swarm, although the occasional shout was still heard from below. The two of us passed a few closed doors in a rather narrow and dim hallway before stopping at the last door to our right.
My brow furrowed. What kind of bootlegger left his door unguarded? Before I had time to ponder, Ben, to my surprise, knocked. Three times at that, but no answer came from the other side.
“Ben, you idiot, you don’t just knock like that!” I snapped. Didn’t those guys teach him that knocking at an unguarded door of a bootlegger was supposed to be handled carefully?
He shrugged his shoulders, his oversized jacket bunching up. “Sorry, Bobby. I must’ve just done it out of—”
Ben, whose sentence was abruptly silenced by the sound of old and toxic lead cutting through the air, sank down by my side. His head had been stained red from the path the bullet took into his skull. He fell down to the ground, dead.
My body wanted to freeze, but I wouldn’t allow it. I reached for my gun—
There it was again; the crack through the air. A second later, I was forced to kneel. Pain tore through my leg. I stole a glance. Around the small inflicted area, blood soaked the fabric.
Heart quickening, and acting on my instincts, I aimed the gun at the end of the hallway, shooting at any place where the bullet may have come from.
Was the attacker invisible?
Was he fast?
It was no use. The holy water coated bullets shot off in every direction, but neither a cry of agony, nor body, showed. The only sound I heard were the panicked screams from the floor below us, brought on by the gunfire.
Another blow. I couldn’t see properly. The gun fell from my hand. My chest felt as if it were on fire, my lungs struggling to fill themselves with air. It’d all happened too fast. My mind went blank.
And then, everything went dark.
The next time I opened my eyes, I was sitting in some fancy red chair in front of a desk. It looked as though the president himself owned those things. I gave the surrounding area a quick glance. Nothing was in the room but the chair and the desk. Music—and I’m sure that it was Charley, My Boy—played in the background. I tried moving my legs, and although it didn’t feel like I just got shot anymore, I couldn’t move them whatsoever. Same with my arms. My body was stuck to the chair, bound by invisible strings. I tried again, my heart quickening with each pull.
“It’s no use struggling. I suggest you stop before you hurt yourself.”
In the blink of an eye, a man appeared right at the desk. He was a tall fellow, much taller than me. His black hair was combed neatly back, and his outift—well, let’s just say I couldn’t afford it. There was something in those dark eyes that was unsettling; the red flag that the man was anything but human. I could only assume this creature was the all-famous, eccentric, talented, and criminal Mr. Russell. Yeah, I never even saw a picture of him. All I knew was that I would know the man when I saw him. And by God, if he wasn’t the richest, cleanest looking fellow I’d seen in a long time. On top of that, the man was a negro—something I hadn’t anticipated on seeing.
“Where am I? Where’s Ben?”
“Dead. Up at the Pearly Gates as we speak. As for you, well, let’s just say God wasn’t as forgiving as you thought he’d be. Now Robert, I’m assuming you along with your partner were here to arrest me. Care to tell me why?”
I narrowed my eyes, my brow furrowing. “What the hell do you mean by that?” I spat. “And how the hell do you know my na—”
“Ah, I’m asking the questions here, Robert,” he cut in. “I may answer your questions after you answer mine.”
So the guy wanted answers. Well then he’d get them. I struggled to lean forward, but it was all in vain. In a heated tone I responded, “You’re breaking the law, Russell. Selling illegal liquor is bad enough, but the stuff you’re selling is violating the Fau-Griff Act of ’20. And on top of that, you bumped off one of our men. Something like that is gonna put you on a train back to Hell in no time.” I tried to recollect those last few moments before blacking out. What the hell happened? I remembered seeing Ben get shot, but I was only shot in the leg…did I faint? Why would I faint?
“That right? Because last I recalled, I paid you all very good money to keep quiet about all of this. A little more money in those bulls’ pockets should keep things running smoothly. They’re willing to overlook two dead bodies for the right price,” Russell replied as he reached into a small compartment in his desk. A cig was soon in his hand. He only put it up to his lips, and the end suddenly lit up. His now gleaming eyes never left mine while I was hung up on his words. My heart stopped.
“See, you didn’t exactly survive that last gunshot. Shouldn’t have tried snooping into things that were none of your concern. Hopefully the bureau will know better than to try a little stunt like this again.”
I felt a lump rise up in my throat. Didn’t…survive?
“My apologies, but…you’re dead. Nothing more than a soul, spirit, ghost–whatever the hell you want to call yourself. What happens next depends on how well you cooperate.”
“Cooperate? What do you mean, cooperate? I’m dead for Christ’s sake! You, or your men killed me! And, if I am dead, then shouldn’t I be meeting up with St. Pete?” I shouted at the demon, my voice uneven. This could not be happening…
Russell only chuckled and shook his head. “You aren’t innocent, Bobby. Mind if I call you Bobby? ‘Course you don’t.” The demon leaned against the desk.
“Anyway, by default your soul belongs in Hell. I did you a favor by keeping your soul here long enough for you to make a simple choice. I could just send you down there; however, it hasn’t been a picnic since the end of the Great War, and you’ll be waiting in line for your torture for quite some time.” He paused to take a smoke. “So what’ll it be; work for me, or be eternally damned down there?”
So I sat there in that chair, feeling lightheaded. My head throbbed; I felt as though I were about to chuck up all over the floor. Dead? No, I couldn’t be dead. Things like this don’t happen to young people like me. It didn’t happen to me. I wasn’t even given a second chance! Isn’t that what God did? I must be dreaming, yeah…but, isn’t that what everyone who thinks they’re alive believe when they’re dead? I was shot square in the chest after all. And, by default my soul belonged in Hell; by default. What had I done? What…
And then, my pop came lingering into my mind, the painful memory of seeing him just lying there on his kitchen floor. The smell of blood all over him, and it had been all my fault. I felt my left hand start to quiver again, the only thing I could move. Christ, I couldn’t even slump into the seat.
It must’ve been an hour before I finally found my words again. Glaring at him, I said, “You want me to work for you…why?”
“I wasn’t speaking French there, Bobby. But yes, I want you to work for me. And I don’t need to give you a reason. Just think of me as the lesser of two evils.”
Once again, I stumbled to find the right words to put together. Russell was very much a demon, there was no doubt about that, so he probably wasn’t feeding me any lines when he said he’d send me straight to Hell. That much I believed. What I had trouble with was what would happen to me if I agreed to his deal.
But then the floor below my feet grew hotter, as if Hell’s flames were teasing the soles of my feet. I felt myself being pulled downward, like some invisible force had grabbed hold of my ankles and were pulling on them as hard as it could.
“Time’s running out, Bobby,” the demon said. “Now or never. Tick tock.”
The force grew stronger, and it wouldn’t let up. The heat was felt up to my torso. I swore I could hear screaming in the distance, the screaming of thousands if not millions of tortured souls. Heart ringing in my ears, I made the choice any damned man would do in my situation. I blurted out, “Alright, I’ll do it!”
The corners of the creature’s mouth turned upwards; his teeth barely showed, the gleam in his eyes seemed to grow brighter. It was charming, yet horrifying at the same time. At that moment, I knew I would regret my words.
“Glad to do business with you.”