"A thrill-a-minute, laugh-a-minute, genre-bending
So when Dexter unexpectedly gets the opportunity to do an assignment for the Soul Pursuit and Apprehension Agency, he's all over it like a bad suit.
Assuming the identity of a dead mobster named of Johnny Black, Dexter is sent back to 1920's Chicago, to find Freddie 'Fingers' Finnegan, a runaway soul. But finding Fingers is the least of his problems, especially with Al Capone out to kill him, Capone's mistress in love with him, and his ex-wife demanding alimony.
Throw in corrupt police officers, loan sharks, rival Soul Chasers, and a grumpy imp and you have a recipe for hilarious disaster. And then there's Mr. Abbadon, the second most powerful demon in Hell with a vested interest in seeing Dexter's mission fail.
Click the "Read More" link below to read an excerpt from
You're A Dead Man, Johnny Black
Mr. Belial had two ways of calling you – loud, which meant you were in trouble, and extremely loud, which meant you were in deep trouble. Today he was positively screaming.
I popped my head over the top of my cubicle and saw him standing there, hands on hips, eyes aflame, smoke billowing from flared nostrils, horns glowing.
"Blackwell! My office now!" He screamed, before doing his trademark pirouette and stamping off on the little hooves that the other demons always teased him about.
"Ouch!" Leonard Pettigrew said from the next workstation, "Someone's peed in the bosses porridge. What have you done this time, Dexter?"
"Shut up, Leonard," I said. I had enough trouble on my hands without having to listen to the office equivalent of teacher's pet.
I logged off from my terminal (company rules), straightened my tie, and navigated my way through the maze of cubicles that led to Mr. Belial's office, a spacious cave in the corner of the room. Relieved and apprehensive faces greeted me as I passed by. Those faces said two things - one, I'm glad it's not me, and two, don't do or say anything to piss the boss off even more.
Me, I wasn't that concerned. I'd been yelled at before, threatened even. Belial was quick on the trigger when it came to handing out threats and curses but in truth he was a pretty minor demon, not even worthy of a job at the main prison, instead stuck down here with us suicides, managing the Accounts Receivable and Collections Department of the Hades Corrections Corporation.
I reached his office door and rapped on the solid oak frame. "Come!" He boomed from within. I swung the door open and stepped into Belial's lair. He was old-fashioned, our boss. Not for him the trappings of modernity that some of the other bosses preferred. No, Belial's style could best be described as contemporary warlock, with the only nod to advancement the computer terminal set on the pile of skulls that served as his desk. He was studying the monitor as I walked in. "Blackwell," he lisped, "the very bane of my existence."
"You wanted to see me, Mr. Belial?"
"Not particularly, no, but we all have our cross to bear." That struck him as particularly funny and his laughter boomed through the cavern. "Cross to bear, get it!" he laughed, "Get it. I'm a demon and I'm talking about…" He was suddenly serious again. "Oh, forget it, Blackwell. You suicides have no sense of humor. Now, why did you want to see me?"
"You wanted to see me, Mr. Belial."
"So, I did. Stop interrupting when I speak."
"Sorry, Mr. Belial."
"Blackwell, Blackwell, Blackwell, now why did I want to…ah yes…the Elysium Realty account, 90 days past due, explain.”
"Elysium Realty?" I'd never heard of them.
"Elysium Realty!" He screamed back. "That's what I said. What are you an echo?" He must have noticed I was sweating because his next question, spoken in a lisping whisper was. "You warm, Blackwell?"
"As a matter of fact, yes sir, I am." I was beyond warm. I was being slow roasted.
"Good!" Belial screeched and pointed a finger at the bellows servicing the furnace he had going in the corner. The bellows started inflating and deflating automatically. It was a neat trick, one of the few Belial was capable of. "Now where were we?"
"Ah yes! Elysium. Why don't you pay attention when I speak, boy? What about it?"
"The account is…overdue?"
"Yes, and why is it overdue?"
"Well to tell you the truth, sir…"
"Do I look like someone who's interested in the truth, Blackwell?" I looked at him then, this minor demon with his gray green complexion, ram's horns and eyes like hot coals and decided that he probably wasn't interested in the truth at all.
"Good." Belial said, performing the mind reading trick that was another in his limited repertoire. "Then at least we understand each other. Now, Get Out!"
When I got back to my desk and booted up my computer I realized that ol' Bellyache was right after all. There was an account for Elysium Realty and it was overdue. Now how had I missed that one? The item in question was three months residency for a guest - for that read prisoner - named Freddie 'Fingers' Finnegan, a recent transfer from Underworld Prison Resorts. I also realized immediately why I didn't know about it.
"Hey Lenny," I said, "What do you know about Elysium Realty?"
"Elysium Realty?" His voice came back from the other side of the partition.
"Yes, Elysium Realty," I said. "The account you just transferred over to my roster."
"Oh, that Elysium Realty," Leonard said, then after a short pause, "I had permission."
"From whom?" Leonard corrected, and then answered, "Mr. Belial, of course."
Of course, Leonard was Belial's favorite, employee of the month for each of the twenty-six months that I'd worked here and probably for eternity to come.
"Thanks a ton, Lenny," l said. At least the contact information was up to date. I picked up the phone and dialed Elysium.
"Elysium Realty. Your Real Estate Partner for Eternity," a breezy voice answered on the first ring.
"Hello, this is Dexter Blackwell calling from Hades, I'd like to speak to…Gabrielle St. Peter in your accounts department, please."
"One moment, please." Muzak streamed down the line, I thought I recognized Led Zeppelin's ‘Stairway to Heaven’ being played by a one-fingered organist. Thankfully, I only caught the fade out chorus before the hold soundtrack switched to an advertorial, some guy explaining in dulcet tones why Elysium Realty was the best choice for your permanent vacation.
"This a Gabrielle," a voice cut in. It had the singsong quality of Mary Poppins on happy juice.
"Gabrielle, this is Dexter Blackwell at Hades Correctional. How are you today?"
"Wonderful," she sang. "How are you, Dexter?"
"I've been better to tell you the truth, but hey…How's the weather up there?"
"Just heavenly. Yours?"
"Hot as hell."
"How can I help you today, Dexter?"
"Well, Gabby…May I call you Gabby?
"Gabrielle will be fine."
"Well, Gabrielle, my boss has been chewing my a…sorry, on my case, about an unpaid bill. Freddie Finnegan? I believe he's one of yours?”
"One moment please." The one-fingered organist returned, this time playing 'Too much Heaven' by the Bee Gees.
"Dexter? I've checked my records and Mr. Finnegan is indeed one of ours, but we have him at Underworld."
"Well, I can assure you Gabrielle, that Mr. Freddie 'Fingers' Finnegan is very much here at Hades, and our account hasn't been paid for three months."
"Well obviously your account hasn't been paid," Gabrielle said, her breezy voice suddenly acquiring a cold front. "We've been paying Underworld for Mr. Finnegan's accommodation."
"Problem is, Gabrielle, we've been housing and feeding Fingers for the last three months."
"Mr. Finnegan is at Underworld."
"Look Gabrielle, why don't you check your records again, I'm sure you'll find there's been some mistake…"
"We don't make mistakes at Elysium, Mr. Blackstock."
"So, will you check?"
"You won't even check?"
"Like I said, we at Elysium do not make mistakes."
"Okay, then Gabby. I'm all out of options here. I'm going to have to charge him back."
"Charge him back?"
"Yes you know, set him free, turn him loose, put him out on the street and tell him to scoot."
"Well, I hardly see how that's possible."
"Mr. Finnegan is at Underworld."
"Right, that's it Gabby, I'm setting him free, don't come crying to me when you have Mr. Fingers Finnegan running around scaring the holy bejesus out of your prospective customers."
"Ah, bite me," Gabrielle said and hung up.
I rushed to Belial's office. "Blackwell," he hissed as I entered. "What have you done now?"
"I said what have you done now?" he screamed, his voice rising with every syllable.
"Nothing, Mr. Belial," I stammered. Even by his standards this was a tantrum that demanded respect.
"No," he said. "Nothing is what you normally do. This time you most definitely have done something!"
"But what? What have I done?" I asked in my most innocent tone, although I knew very well what I'd done. I'd failed to collect on the Elysium account.
As if to confirm this he asked, "Tell me about Fergie Vinegar?"
"I think you mean Freddie Finnegan."
"I know what I mean. Tell me." The last line was delivered in a lisping whisper that was somehow worse than all the screaming Belial could muster.
"Freddie Finnegan," I said. “Otherwise known as Fingers - a petty thief and bag snatcher from Chicago, Illinois, United States of America. His specialty was mugging old ladies. Unfortunately for Fingers one of the little old ladies gave chase and cornered him in an alley. Unfortunately for the little old lady Fingers turned and got mean. He was executed in the Electric Chair in 1927. He spent his first…"
"Did I ask for a history lesson?" Belial screeched ascending the volume scale again.
"But you asked…"
"What I want to know is why you released him?"
"I released him?"
"Again with the echo! Yes, you released him. Why?"
"I didn't release him!" I said emphatically. I wasn't taking the rap for that one.
"You deny that you released him," Belial hissed. In the darkness of the cave his eyes glowed redder than ever.
"Of course I deny it. I didn't do it."
"One moment please," Belial said, sounding for a moment as pleasant as the Elysium receptionist. He depressed a button on his desk and, again using his Elysium tone of voice, said. "Leonard, would you come in here for a moment please? Thank you, Leonard."
While we waited for Leonard, Belial got to work on the bellows, getting the furnace up to a searing temperature. "Ah," Belial said as Leonard arrived at a sprint.
"You wanted to see, me Mr. Belial?" Leonard panted.
"Yes, my boy," Belial said with what passed for a smile on his face, "I'm sorry to involve you in this rather sordid matter but I need you to provide some clarity on a point of order."
"Yes sir," said Leonard eagerly.
"You were privy to Blackwell's conversation with Ms. St Peter of Elysium Realty?"
"Yes sir, I was, although he was shouting so loudly that I daresay the whole office heard him, and might I add sir, that his level of customer service left much to be desired."
"Quite, quite. You heard Blackwell authorize the release of this Vinegar low-life?"
Leonard looked confused for a second before making the connection, “Ah, yes, Finnegan… I specifically heard him say…"
"Now wait just a goddamn minute…"
"Silence! You will speak when spoken to Blackwell! Leonard, please continue…"
"Well sir, I distinctly heard him tell Ms. St. Peter, rather rudely I thought, that if the account wasn't paid, he'd see to it that Mr. Finnegan was released. I believe he said that he would personally see to it."
Belial looked at me with a 'well what do you have to say for yourself’ expression on his face. When I said nothing he said, "Well, Blackwell, what do you have to say for yourself?"
"I was bluffing!" I blurted out, and realized immediately that that was a mistake.
"Bluffing!" Belial ratcheted the volume up again. "Bluffing! Do I look like I'm in the business of bluffing!"
"No sir, you…"
"No sir, you…"
"Do you know who came to see me this morning, Blackwell?"
"Mr. Abbadon." Abbadon was Belial's boss, Head of Finance, Security and Welfare, a real ball breaker, known throughout the company as 'The Destroyer'. "And do you know what Mr. Abaddon suggested, Blackwell?”
"That I transfer you to global warming duty, working the big furnace. How would you like that, Blackwell?"
"I wouldn't like that at all, sir."
"No, you wouldn't like that at all, would you? Which is why you are going to grasp, with both hands, the lifeline I'm going to throw you."
"What lifeline would that be?"
"You're going to Chicago to bring back Fergie Vinegar."
"Chicago, Chicago, a wonderful town," I found myself humming as I walked toward the Seventh Circle. I was going to Chicago, and not just any old Chicago, no siree, I was going to Chicago, 1927. That was like a vacation at a theme park named Gangsterland.
I was still buzzing when I reached the headquarters of the SPAA, the Soul Pursuit and Apprehension Agency. The receptionist was a rather attractive Succubus. She was filing her nails and talking on the phone when I walked in. She motioned me to a seat and continued her conversation.
"So I told him. I don't date stiffs. I mean where's the fun in that. I prefer someone with a pulse. So he says, who needs a pulse when you've got a permanent stiffy? I mean, can you believe this guy? Listen Suz, I gotta go. Someone is here. Mmm, kinda cute for a stiff. Okay, bye. Oh wait, CBGB 's Friday night? Okay, gotta go. Kisses." She returned to her nails, now applying a coat of varnish.
"Er, excuse me miss…" She stopped me by holding up a finger on the unvarnished hand, while blowing on the other. Eventually she looked up and said, in a frigid tone, "Yes?"
I got up and approached her desk "I have an appointment with Special Agent Doppelganger." I handed her my appointment slip. She read it while continuing to blow on her nails, then picked up the phone, cradled it in her shoulder and dialed.
After a brief wait she said. "I got one of Belial's psychos here to see you. Uh ha, okay, okay. I'll tell him." She replaced the receiver then said, "Doppelganger said to wait," and went back to her nails.
I sat back down and took in my surroundings. The SPAA had some pretty nice digs. The reception had white marble floors and walls with an inlay of the Agency's logo - a firefly in a jar - set into the wall above the receptionist's desk. Under the logo was the motto, 'We find 'em and jar 'em'. Frosted glass, also bearing the agency's logo, this time in a repeating motif, separated the reception from the elevator foyer. The furniture was modern and modular, in primary colors accented by clever recessed lighting. There were some impressive looking paintings on the walls.
The receptionist noticed me admiring the art. "You like?" she asked.
"Yes, erm, who…"
"That’s 'The Concert' by Vermeer, and that," she said indicating a painting of a ship on a stormy sea, "is a Rembrandt. Don't ask me what it's called. A friend of mine, Lilith, seduced the curator at the Gardner Museum to get those," she added proudly.
There was a knock on the glass panel to my left. I looked up to see the silhouette of a man. "That will be Doppelganger," the receptionist said. "Go on through."
I approached the glass panel, which slid back to allow me in. On the other side was a tall thin man, slightly stooped, with thick, steel gray hair brushed away from his forehead. He wore wire-framed glasses that seemed to magnify his pale blue eyes.
"I'm Doppelganger," he said, extending a hand and delivering a crushing squeeze, "You must be Belial's man, Blackwell."
He was already turning as he spoke and now set off through the foyer at pace. By the time I caught up with him he had started down a flight of stairs, taking them three at a time. At the level marked U3, he scanned a security card and pushed through, holding the door open until I arrived. We stepped into a busy, well-lit office, which was almost the exact opposite of the sterile and silent workplace I was used to. This place was buzzing with sound and activity. There was the delicious aroma of coffee in the air and, in contravention of the strict no smoking policy in Hell, a haze of cigarette smoke.
"Hey Bozo, you got that report yet on the MacNeil case I asked you about?" someone shouted.
"Go to hell!" someone else shouted back.
"Already there, digweed!"
"Do your own shovel work!"
"Ah come on, give it up."
Doppelganger strode towards an office at the end of the corridor, crossed the small room and slid behind the desk. Bringing up the rear, I arrived just in time to hear the end of his question.
"…want to be an agent?"
"I'm sorry?" I said panting. I was clearly out of condition after two years riding a desk.
"I said why do you want to be an agent?"
Now, don't get me wrong, I would love to be an SPAA agent. It beats ten kinds of crap out of working in the Accounts Receivable Department, but my understanding was that only ex cops, bounty hunters and hitmen got to work for the Agency, along with your regular assortment of Trolls, Goblins, Imps and the like.
"Why do I want to be an agent? I thought I was here for training."
"Only SPAA agents are authorized to track down runners. So in order for you to go after Finnegan we have to swear you in as an agent. The chief insisted on it."
"Mr. Abaddon. He wants this official. Also, as an agent you can get out of here without too much red tape. Otherwise, Mr A. would have to get a special dispensation from the boss man."
"You mean, Beelze…"
"Don't say it!" Doppelganger hissed. "Not unless you want a dip in Fire Lake. Blasphemy's still a serious offence in these parts."
"I thought Fire Lake was just a myth?
"Don't you believe it. They can still toast you. Especially for blasphemy."
"What I don't understand though is why you need me at all? Surely the SPAA has the resources to track down Finnegan without my help?"
Doppelganger shushed me with a finger to his lips, then leaned forward and indicated for me to come closer.
"I asked myself the same question," he whispered. "Why is Adaddon so determined to send an amateur after Finnegan? Only answer I can think of is, Abaddon doesn't want Finnegan caught."
"But why, if that's the case, send someone after him at all?"
"Abaddon has to be seen to be doing the right thing. Finnegan’s escape is a big blow to the company. It's not just the revenue the company is losing or even a prestige thing. The reputation of the business as a reliable supplier is at stake. Who wants to do business with a prison where souls can just walk out on the say so of a mere clerk, and a suicide at that?"