"Gladiator meets Monty Python is this hilarious, thrilling adventure."
However, when a strike at the Soul Pursuit And Apprehension Agency leaves them short handed, the agency is forced to call on Dexter's help again - and he's more than willing to assist.
This time he's going back to 44 BC, to find the hedonistic Roman General Tullius Bacchus. But it's not going to be easy, especially with an unwilling host, a giant barbarian, traitorous senators, a megalomaniac Roman emperor reincarnated as a blind beggar, rival soul chasers, and a determined money lender to contend with. Not to mention Pandora Jain, the most beautiful woman in the known universes who also happens to be a duplicitous, conniving bitch.
And then, of course, there's Jitterbug, Dexter's not so helpful imp sidekick, who is determined to drink his way through every tavern in Rome, while bemoaning the loss of his bobbit.
Click the "Read More" link below to read an excerpt from
Johnny Black, Gladiator
October is the performance assessment season in Hell, a time that all in the Accounts Receivable department, other than Leonard Pettigrew and myself, look forward to with dread.
Leonard, of course, is our boss Mr. Belial’s favorite, serial winner of the employee of the month award and undisputed suck-up champion of Hades Correctional. Me? I couldn’t be bothered either way. Belial doesn’t like me so I know that each of my performance metrics will be rated some variation of ‘crap’.
I’d been back in the Accounts department for six months now since my brief career as an SPAA agent had come to an end. My trip to Chicago 1927 was a distant memory and any initial hope I may have had of getting another soul chaser gig had long since evaporated. Instead it was back to the mundane daily slog of chasing down unpaid bills from Elysium Realty, Pearly Gates, Purgatory Palisades and the other providers of blissful permanent vacations.
“Blackwell!” I heard Mr. Belial yell, and I looked up to see him standing in the doorway of his office, tapping his hoof as he always did when he was impatient. At least his horns weren’t glowing, which would have been a sure sign that he was annoyed.
I logged off from my computer, grabbed my personnel file and headed for Mr. Belial’s office, passing Leonard Pettigrew on the way. Leonard’s somewhat angelic smile seemed inappropriate for hell, but I could see that his appraisal had gone well. This was only to be expected of course, Lenny had long since mastered the art of massaging Mr. Belial’s flimsy ego, and in Belial’s book that counted for much more than work performance. For example, all of us in the department knew that Belial has a complex about his short, stubby horns, and it was common knowledge in the company that the other demons, especially Mr. Abaddon, liked to tease him about them. Leonard, of course, had jumped all over this and Mr. Belial only had to walk into the office before Lenny would say something like, “Have you done something with your horns, Mr. Belial? They look magnificent today.”
By the time I reached Belial’s office, he was still bathing in the afterglow of having his ego massaged by Lenny for the past two hours. This was a good thing, perhaps he’d go easy on me today.
“Step into my lair, Blackwell,” he lisped in a voice that was almost civil.
I entered Belial’s cave-like office and heard the heavy oak door close behind me and Belial trip across the floor in mincing little steps. He slid behind his desk made of skulls that all came from the Battle of Nineveh (or so he had once told us over a few jars at the company Hogmanay party).
Belial shuffled a few papers on his desk. “Blackwell,” he hissed without looking at me, “My own personal Armageddon. Another year, another deeply inadequate performance, hey.”
“I said, another year, another…”
“I heard that part, I just don’t understand.”
“Oh, you don’t, do you? Well, I‘ve been looking over your quarterly figures and…”
“I think you’ll find they’re among the best in the department, sir. If you look…”
“Shut your festering yap, bungalow boy! That’s not my point.”
“Well, what is your point, sir, if you don’t mind my asking? I think you’ll find that my figures…”
“Do you want to do my job, Blackwell?”
“No, sir, I’m just…”
“Then don’t presume to lecture me on how to do it!”
I took a deep breath and shut my yap. It was pointless arguing with Belial when he was in this mood. Already I could see his horns taking on a faint glow and his eyes flashing like hot coals in the dim light of the cavern.
“Your figures are not the issue here, I still haven’t forgiven you for the Fergie Vinegar affair.”
“Shut up!” Belial screamed.
“Releasing a soul from hell just to get some vacation time in Chicago. Did you really think I would let that slide, Blackwell?”
“But, I didn’t…”
“You deny it?”
“Of course I do!”
“Do I have to bring in Leonard to testify as to the veracity of my declaration?”
“No,” I said, “I guess not.” Doing that would have been pointless. Leonard would just agree with everything Belial said, even though it was common knowledge that Belial himself had released Freddie Finnegan, or Fergie Vinegar as he called him, in order to win a bet with Mr. Abaddon.
There was a knock on the door. “What is it now?” Belial screeched. “How am I supposed to get any work done with these constant interruptions?” The knocking persisted. “Oh, come in, come in whoever you are! Just stop that infernal hammering!”
The door slid open and in stepped Special Agent ‘Dope’ Doppelganger of the Soul Pursuit and Apprehension Agency, or the SPAA, as they are known in these parts.
“Mr. Belial,” Doppelganger said. “I need to speak to you on a matter of some urgency.”
“I’m a little busy right now!” Belial shouted. “Can’t it wait?”
“I’m afraid not.”
“Oh, very well. Blackwell, we’ll continue your inquisition later.“
“Oh no,” Doppelganger said, “Blackwell needs to stay. This concerns him.”
“I’m afraid that is quite out of the question,” Belial said, “Blackwell is a valued member of my team. I can’t just go releasing my staff willy-nilly, every time the SPAA holds up a hoop. I simply won’t do it.”
“I thought you might take that position,” Doppelganger said. “Which is why I brought this.” He produced a note from his pocket, written on the pink notepaper that Abaddon was known to favor.
Belial didn’t even bother reaching for the note. “Pulling rank are we?” he sneered.
“Not at all, it’s just…”
“Tell you what I’m going to do,” Belial interrupted, “I have a young fellow here, tremendous potential, tremendous. Leonard Pettigrew, is his name and I…”
“I’m afraid that won’t work, Mr. Belial. You see Blackwell here already has some experience, and…”
“Experience! The way I hear it, it was the imp, Jitterbug, who did all the legwork capturing Vinegar. Blackwell was merely a bystander by all accounts.”
“Even if that were so,” Doppelganger said, “Blackwell has put in some hours in the field. With the strikes at the moment we are seriously short-handed and I simply don’t have the time, nor the manpower, to train a rookie. Besides, this assignment calls for someone with experience in fencing.”
“Fencing? I don’t see how…”
“Blackwell was on the fencing team at school.”
This of course was untrue, but when I looked towards Doppelganger he was staring unflinchingly at Belial.
“Nonsense,” Belial said, “According to my records, Blackwell’s only extracurricular activities at school were the Chess Club and the swim team. Fencing? He has all the poise of an inebriated Cyclops.”
“I assure you that Blackwell is an accomplished fencer.”
Belial turned to me, eyes flashing, horns glowing, a scowl on his hellish features, “Have you actually done any fencing, Blackwell?” he glowered. “And don’t lie to me. I’ll know if you’re lying.”
“Oh yes, sir,” I said without missing a beat. “I can honestly say that I have done quite a bit of fencing. “
Belial seemed to concentrate very hard for a moment as he tried to detect any hint of a lie in what I’d just said. “Oh, very well,” he blurted out eventually. “You have me over the proverbial barrel, Agent Doppelganger. I’ll release Blackwell to your jurisdiction. But I don’t like it. I don’t like it one bit.”
“Thank you for your co-operation, Mr. Belial,” Doppelganger said, “I’ll be sure Mr. Abaddon hears of it. If you’re done with Blackwell, can he…?”
“Oh, just go!” Belial shouted. “Get out of my sight.” Then to me he said, “I hope you realize, Blackwell, that I’ll now have to rate your performance down from ‘crap’ to ‘extremely crap’.”
“Thank you, sir,” I said and left with Doppelganger.
“That was pretty sharp, back there,” Doppelganger said as we headed for the Seventh Circle of Hell, where the SPAA had their offices. “How did you manage to outwit Belial like that? These demons are normally pretty sharp picking up on lies and untruths.”
“I wasn’t lying,” I said. “I really have done quite a bit of fencing.”
“Sure, I worked in my Uncle Jerry’s chain-link fencing business two summer’s running.”
“Why exactly is fencing important anyway?” I asked.
“Because you’re going back to Rome, 44 minus.”
“I believe they call it B.C. upstairs.”
We took the subway to Abraxas Junction, which was a station short of the regular stop. “I’m afraid we’re going to have to leg it from here,” Doppelganger said. “There may be some bother up ahead.”
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“Just a bit of industrial action, not usual around here, come performance appraisal time.”
“What are they protesting about?”
“Oh, the usual stuff, more money, more vacation time, longer lunch breaks, better expense accounts.”
We turned a corner and could now see the impressive façade of the SPAA offices, a white marble building that seemed somehow to blend into the mountain-face behind it. The frosted glass front depicted a huge sandblasted rendition of the agency’s symbol, a firefly in a jar. There was a large crowd picketing out front with placards and banners. They were chanting something and as we approached I could make out some of the words, “One, two, three, four, we don’t work here anymore,” or something along those lines. I could also read some of the placards, one read, ‘We may be dead, but we ain’t dumb’ another, ‘Abandoned by Abaddon’, yet another carried the message, ‘To Hell With The Devil’.
We hustled and muscled our way through the crowd and entered the building. Last time I’d been here there’d been an attractive Succubus on reception, today the stand-in receptionist was an old friend of mine. Jitterbug sat behind the desk with a scowl on his red face and a cigar stub clenched firmly between his teeth.
“Agent Dope Doppelganger,” he grumbled as we entered the foyer. “The very personage I’ve been waiting to see. How much longer am I going to have to play desk jockey? Five more minutes of this and I pick up a placard and join those deadbeats outside.”
“Not much longer now,” Dope assured him. “You remember Blackwell?”
“Yeah, of course. Mister Makin’ Whoopee with the dames of Chicago.”
“How are you, Jitterbug?”
“About as good as an ice-cube in Satan’s armpit.” Jitterbug said.
“Blackwell here’s going to Rome.” Dope said.
“Bummer,” Jitterbug said and buzzed us through.
I followed Dope down to the SPAA Detectives bureau on level U3. The workspace was nowhere near as rowdy as it had been the last time around. In fact, there was only one agent in the entire place, and he was sitting at his desk and floating paper planes across the office.
“Haven’t you got work to do?” Dope growled at him.
“You want I should join the choir outside?” the agent growled back.
“No, I want you should go upstairs and relieve Jitterbug on reception.”
“Wonderful,” the agent said. “I joined the agency to answer phones and file my nails.”
We reached Dope’s office and he motioned me to a chair. “Look Blackwell, I gotta be honest with you, normally I wouldn’t send a rookie on a job like this. Freddie Fingers is one thing, but this individual is a big shot with a lot of heavy hitters for friends. You up for it?”