Winner of the Joanne Harrison Hopkins Literary Achievement Award 2014
Kira Lane looked around in confusion. She was in a closed cavern with huge stalagmites and stalactites jutting from the floors and ceilings. In some places they had grown to such an extent that each met to form pillars. Flames flickered behind the rocks and cast shadows along the walls.
Despite the fires, however, there was a deep chill to the place. Kira’s attention was caught by the movement of a red curtain that was situated behind a tall podium. Screams echoed around the cavern in earnest.
“Where in God’s name am I?” she asked herself.
“You won’t find God here. He wouldn’t set foot in this place,” said a voice from the curtain.
“Who said that?” asked Kira.
“Thanatos is the name, and I’m the secretary to Beelzebub himself,” said a blonde man walking out from behind the drapes. He adjusted his tie and looked down at her from the podium. The man was almost seven feet tall, give or take a few inches, and wore a navy suit.
“Beelzebub? Where in hell am I?”
“Right now, the atrium,” Thanatos said.
“But I was in my car going to work,” said Kira confused.
“You were. Until that semi took out one of your back wheels. You ended up swerving into that preschool just like you wanted.”
“I never wanted to swerve into a preschool.”
“Listen, sweetheart, you’re here because you’ve had malicious thoughts all your life. Like the time you were babysitting little Billy Thorton and wanted to drown him in his bath. Or the time when you had the urge to push that woman off the side of the subway ledge in time for the nine o’clock blue line. And this morning, when you wanted to run over all those preschoolers and use the little blonde girl as a hood ornament. Just to name a few.”
“I never wanted to—”
“Luckily for you, you’ve had the restraint not to act on your impulses. Which is more than I can say for the guys we usually get down here,” Thanatos continued.
“Look, buddy, I’ve never done any of those things, nor did I want to,” Kira said indignantly, getting to her feet.
“You’re right. You haven’t done them. Yet. But you have most certainly wanted to.”
“Look, I don’t know what you’ve been smoking—”
“—but I don’t belong here. I haven’t done anything wrong!”
“Not yet, as I’ve been saying. But you will. Which is why you’re here. The Big Man doesn’t want any more people checking in, or, strictly speaking, checking out,” Thanatos said.
“What does that have to do with me?” asked Kira.
“Heaven’s getting too crowded, especially with all those wars recently. That President Bush was great for business. They’ve already added two levels and are starting on a third. All because some people with mental hang-ups are offing others left and right. That’s where you come in. Mr. All-Mighty wants us to scare those who are fated to start bloodbaths and hopefully rehabilitate them. As soon as heaven can keep up with reincarnating people and build enough new levels, we can stop conducting therapy sessions. Albeit, terrifying therapy sessions that would probably get us arrested anywhere else.”
“What if you can’t rehabilitate the person?”
“They stay here and are tortured forever.”
“And what am I here for? I haven’t done anything and I’m not going to,” Kira said angrily.
“Let’s see….” He brought out an enormous book and started rifling through the pages. “Marker, Mitchell, Lace, ah, here we go. Lane, Kira. By September 2nd of the year 2015 you will have strangled three dogs, drowned four cats, and killed over one hundred spiders.”
“What’s wrong with that last one?”
“You’ll capture them, place the poor things in glass jars, and roast them over the fire place until they pop,” said Thanatos gesturing with his hands.
That actually sounds like fun, Kira thought.
“That is exactly the mentality that will make you want a bigger challenge.”
“A bigger challenge?” asked Kira.
“You’ll want to start on people next. You know? Like all those other famous serial killers. Jack the Ripper. Charles Manson. Ted Bundy. Oprah Winfrey,” Thanatos explained.
“Oprah Winfrey’s a serial killer!?”
“Yes. When she’s not making people sob uncontrollably she’s out back on her estate hunting down baby pandas. Then she hunts down the baby pandas’ handlers. Maybe she’ll give you her autograph when she gets here.”
“Oprah is a profound speaker. She’s touched the hearts of people everywhere with her advice. There’s no way she’s that kind of person,” Kira said defensively.
“I don’t understand why you humans worship her. She makes people cry for a living.”
“You… you…you’re just a…a…”
“Rank ass bastard not fit to spit upon?” he asked.
“Exactly!” she said.
“Yes, well, you and the high reining king of evil are on the same wavelength in that respect. Anyway, would you like the tour?”
“The tour of where you’ll be staying. That is, if you fail to be rehabilitated.”
“This way then.”
Thanatos held the curtain back for her and led the way down a long set of stairs that led deeper into the bowels of hell. The stairs spiraled down along the walls of a circular chasm which was deep enough that Kira couldn’t see the bottom. The screams she heard earlier got louder with every step she took.
“So what exactly are the ‘bowels of hell?’”
“Hell’s nothing but bowels, dear. You realize that when you stay here long enough.”
“How long have you been here?”
“Well, Luci has never been good at keeping secretaries for extended periods of time. He ends up sending them to one of the rings before too long. Currently, I hold the longest record of not getting roasted.”
“How long’s that?”
“Oh, two…three hundred years? Honestly, I’ve lost count. When you live somewhere where there’s nothing but sorrow and misery, you tend not to count the days, or years, that you’ve been stuck here. It’s just depressing.”
They traveled in silence until they reached the end of the staircase. By this time the screaming had become so unbearable Kira had to cover her ears.
“How do you stand it?” she screamed over the clamor.
“Oh, right. Sorry,” Thanatos apologized, handing her a pair of ear plugs.
Kira placed them in her ears and immediately the screams of the damned receded.
“This way, please,” he said, motioning to the first door on the left.
“What’s up with the ear plugs?” Kira asked following him.
“They’re specially equipped to keep out the screaming but still allow you to hear everything else.”
Thanatos opened the door, which led to a catwalk that oversaw a ring surrounded by fire. Below were hundreds of people on racks. Some were being dangled from the ceiling by chains attached to their thumbs. Demons with hideous horns, cloven feet, and jutting fangs rotated wheels that slowly stretched the sinners’ limbs apart. The prisoners’ faces were contorted into soundless screams as they were manipulated like Gumby. The ones hanging from the ceiling eventually fell and left their thumbs. The severed nerves and tendons that were left reminded Kira of streamers.
“Brings a new meaning to pride cometh before the fall, don’t you think?” Thanatos asked.
Kira watched as one of the demons became overzealous, alleviating the poor man of his limbs. “That’s so gross!” she said.
“Keep in mind that your fate will be just as gruesome.”
“I don’t mean the limb popping. I can handle that. I mean the demons! They’re so gross!”
Thanatos sighed. “This is going to take longer than I thought. And I don’t even make over time.”
“Whatever. Just get me out of here,” Kira demanded.
Thanatos opened the door for her and led her to the next one. It led them onto another catwalk. Here demons looking somewhat canine were pushing people into pools of ice water. There they thrashed about trying to get to the surface while the overseers pushed them back under with paddles and staffs. By the time the prisoners were fished out their limbs and expenditures were black. The demons weren’t exactly being gentle when removing them from the tanks, which was evident as one of the damned smacked against one of the tanks and lost a couple of digits.
“Proof that envy is a cold emotion,” Thanatos said.
“Will they grow back?” Kira asked as the demons picked up the appendages and dragged the man away.
“I guess that’s good.”
“Not really. It’s so they can relive their torture over and over again. If they couldn’t regenerate they wouldn’t last too long. And we wouldn’t want that now, would we? It’s supposed to be a punishment after all.”
They went back to the hallway and went through more rooms, each more gruesome than the last. Yet considering all that she saw, Kira felt perfectly at ease. Enlightened even. She had no ideas there were so many ways to hurt people. She would have to write them all down before she forgot. Damn it! Where was a pen when she needed one?
Finally, they had made their way to the last room when Kira realized something peculiar. “Hey, why are all the doors on the left?”
“Because the left isn’t right. You know? Like how sinistrality is the act of being left handed? People used to think the left hand was unclean. Not really a surprise, considering what they used to do with it.”
“I still don’t get it.”
“You know how in some cartoons when they’re trying to decide whether or not to save the person they’ve been messing with the whole episode? Like Bugs Bunny and Yosemite Sam. The little guy with wings and that ridiculous halo is sitting on his right side and the one with the horns and the pointy pitchfork is sitting on his left side. The left side represents all things evil. El Diablo can’t stand anything to be on the right side. Honestly, I think it’s a waste of space. He could put in a spa or something, but noooooo. Everything has to be all kinds of ‘Abandon hope, all ye who enter here’ type of crap.”
“What if you turned around, then wouldn’t the doors be on the right?” she asked.
Thanatos gave her a stricken look. “Well, damn. I guess you’re right. I never thought about it before. Too busy cursing my fate to notice, I guess. Just don’t tell the boss man,” he said as he led her through the last door. This room had a pit that was full of men and women looking confused. There were no demons. No screams. No instruments of torture. Just a bunch of people sitting or standing. Some were even playing Texas Hold Em.
Kira looked down into the pit in confusion. “I don’t understand. Where’s the torture? The misery? What’s their punishment?”
“Currently, there is none. We haven’t had time to think of one. These are the people who would sometime in the future cause a massive decline in the population. Not that I think that’s a problem. You humans breed like rabbits.”
“So this is where I’ll go?”
“If you don’t decide to behave, and I suggest you do. This place is the ultimate time out.”
Kira looked back into the pit. This is so boring. Could they have at least put in some kind of animal? Maybe with rabies? Yeah. Rabies sounds good. She made a note to tell the owner. They turned to leave and Thanatos led her back toward the atrium. By the time she climbed up the mountain of stairs Kira was all but ready to pass out. “How…are you…not…dying?” she asked, panting.
“Technically, I’m not alive. But to answer your question, I was floating a little bit off the ground. That’s one of the perks to being an immortal,” Thanatos explained with a shrug as he removed his earplugs.
“You cheater!” Kira said peeved as she did the same.
“Thanatos! Where are you!?” bellowed a disembodied voice.
“Shit,” Thanatos muttered. “In the atrium!” he said louder.
An imposing man materialized into the room. His hair, which reached his shoulders, was black and he wore black leather pants with a red silk shirt. He was ruffling papers and muttering to himself. “What to do… what to do… Thanatos!” the man yelled in an English accent.
“Yes, Oh Great King of Evil?” asked Thanatos.
The man looked up from his papers and looked around. “Oh, there you are,” he said when he spotted Thanatos. “I have no idea how to torture these new sacks of shit. And I don’t have anyone to oversee the torture down in that new ring. Honestly, if I was in charge of the world, I sure as bloody hell wouldn’t be down here. He’d be down here instead!” The man sighed. “What’s my schedule for the rest of the week look like?”
“Let’s see,” Thanatos said as he pulled out a date book. “7:00 AM torturing. 11:00 AM lunch. 12:00 PM more torture. 12:00 AM sleep. And it’s pretty much the same for the entire week. Hades also wanted to know if you were coming to that United Underworlds conference. He said to RSVP. Persephone needs to know how much baklava to order.”
“I knew it! When will I have time to do my regular rounds on top of adding all this new shit?” He sighed again. “Tell Hades I might not make it. Unless I can find someone to oversee the new ring while I’m gone on top of finding a mode of torture, I’m staying here. And I really wanted baklava,” he pouted then materialized out of the room.
A horrendous scream ripped through the atrium moments after the man’s departure. Then, as quickly as he left, he reappeared.
“Ah, nothing like a good execution to soothe the nerves,” he said, stretching his shoulders.
“Did you kill another one?” Thanatos asked disapprovingly.
“Well, if I don’t kill one every now and then they forget who I am,” the man said shrugging.
Kira watched this exchange in confusion. Here was this guy—she assumed the Devil—who had challenged God himself and landed the worst punishment known to man. Somehow she expected him to be a little more…a little more…doom and gloom. Instead he acted like an overworked business man.
“And who might you be?” he asked, giving her a once over.
“Kira Lane,” she said. “And who are you?”
“Snippy, isn’t she?” he said to Thanatos. “I am Satan, Beelzebub, The Devil, etcetera, etcetera. Basically the excuse people use when they do bad things.”
“Pretty sure. Cause if not I’d like to know why the bloody hell I’m doing all his work!” he grumbled. “Why isn’t she down with the others?” he asked Thanatos.
“She’s one of the special cases, Lord Lucifer,” Thanatos explained. “She’s here for judgment.”
“If she’s here, then she’s past judgment. That’s why they call it Hell. So you might as well put her with the others,” Lucifer said with a dismissive wave.
“How do you know I haven’t changed? You’re just gonna send me down there without some kind of trial?” Kira asked indignantly.
“Well, why not? I’m too busy to deal with you. I have places to be, people to torture, and new systems to set up. I don’t have time to babysit a silly little chit such as you. Besides, I am a bad man. Why wouldn’t I do bad things?” he asked tauntingly. “Furthermore, how do you know you have changed?”
“Cause I haven’t had one evil thought since I set foot in this shit hole. That’s why,” Kira said, striking a proud pose.
“You were more disgusted with how the demons looked than the man getting his limbs ripped off. You laughed when you saw the ring of gluttony when they were forced to eat rats, toads, and snakes because it reminded you of Fear Factor. And you wanted to make sure you wrote down all the new and improved ways to torture people. I think that’s grounds for damnation, don’t you?” Thanatos asked.
Kira sputtered. “Don’t tell him that! Whose side are you on? I thought we were bonding a little!”
The Devil laughed. “You’re right barmy, you are. You think he’d lie to me? Ha. He knows what’ll happen if he doesn’t obey,” he said darkly.
Kira stared at him in confusion. “What does barmy mean?”
“Really, you are thick. It means daft. Loony. Mad as a hatter. Christ, you Americans need to get educated. Don’t even remember your native tongue, do you?”
“I still don’t understand.”
“It means you’re crazy. It’s all right. I don’t understand him half the time either. He’s British,” Thanatos confided in her ear.
“I’m not crazy!” she shouted indignantly. “My thoughts might be a little more colorful than most, but that doesn’t mean I’m crazy.”
The Devil gave her a thoughtful look. “How would you like a job?”
“What?” Kira asked.
“A. Job. Good Lord, you’re dumb. Does that mean you don’t want it?”
“What does that job entail?” Kira asked.
“Well, for starters, you’ll be the overseer for that new ring. You’ll be able to maim, slice, dice, and deface to your little black heart’s content,” he said, making it seem splendid.
“Okay. What happens if I refuse?”
“You’ll be tortured forever, of course,” he added, looking at her as if she were stupid.
“I accept!” she said hurriedly.
“Wonderful! Thanatos, get the lady a uniform. And tell Hades I’ll be able to make the conference. Baklava, here I come,” the most evil entity on earth, or rather under it, sang.
“Before you go, are you going to supervise her?” asked Thanatos.
“I suppose I should. Make sure she knows what she’s doing. Like where to inflict the most pain. We’ll have to give her some tools.”
“Tool wise, I’d like a gun and a knife,” Kira requested.
“That’s all? You don’t need any whips? Thumbscrews, presses, iron maidens?” Lucifer asked perplexed.
“Nope. Just the knife and the gun. Probably an air rifle. Always wanted an air rifle.”
“Well, Thanatos, get her what she needs. And get her some demons to assist her.”
“I don’t need any assistance. But in the meantime, do you have any rabid animals?”
Lucifer materialized back into the atrium of Hell and stretched. The United Underworlds conference had gone well. Persephone was as lovely as ever and the baklava was even better than he remembered. Now it was time to check on the new trainee and see how she was doing. But before he could leave, his secretary burst in from behind the curtain.
“Lord Lucifer, we have a problem. She’s having fun,” Thanatos said flustered.
“So what? She’s enjoying her work. There’s nothing wrong with that,” said Lucifer dismissively.
“No, you don’t understand. She’s having too much fun! She’s giggling and laughing and ruining the despairing vibe of the place.”
“All right, all right! Don’t get your knickers in a knot. And stop being such a pansy arse,” the Devil said, not understanding his employee’s antics. She was just a woman. How much trouble could she be?
He teleported himself to the new ring to see for himself what all the fuss was about and looked over the railing connected to the catwalk that allowed him a bird’s eye view. Lucifer expected it to be the usual misery and woe, but this? This just took it to a whole new level. Kira was slicing it up with that machete Thanatos had found for her. Every which way she was severing tendons and muscles, whistling while she did so as if she were on a Sunday morning stroll through Central Park.
He found it odd, though, that she would let them run after she carved them like Thanksgiving turkeys. Then she pulled out the air rifle she requested and started hunting them down. She aimed for the legs; he supposed to completely cripple them. When the poor victim couldn’t move she’d jump them and slice their abdomen open. And she was indeed giggling. While Kira was taking care of her individual targets, little rabid animals took care of terrorizing the rest. Skunks, squirrels, and chipmunks launched themselves at the inmates left and right. Some would fling themselves at faces and some would latch onto pieces of vital anatomy no one should have a rabid little animal attached to. It made him want to cup himself.
It wasn’t until Kira cut out a man’s stomach, popped the sac and spilled acid over his face did he think that maybe, just maybe, things were going a little too far.
He pulled out a cell phone and hit a number on speed dial. It rang for about three seconds before someone picked up on the other line.
“Hey, Michael, put Gabriel on the phone. I need to speak with him,” Lucifer said into the phone. “What do you mean who is this? Who else has a 666 number?” he said peeved. “Well, tell him to put the bloody horn down and come to the phone. We have a situation down here.”
Kira was bored. She looked around at the cloudy, puffiness, and brightness of Heaven. They had taken her big knife and her air rifle. Worst of all they put her in a stupid white robe with a dangly new halo. She missed her black leather and horns. And her rifle. And her big knife. Worst of all they put this stupid tickle belt on her whenever she had thoughts that were “not appropriate.” All she wanted was to go back to the darkness and misery but apparently she was too violent. And now her punishment was a permanent stay in heaven.
“How are you enjoying your stay in heaven?” asked one of those stupid archangels.
“I hate it. I hate this stupid peace and harmony theme you’ve got going on. I hate that there are no weapons of mass destruction and I hate this stupid dress,” vented Kira.
“Now, now, we’ve been over this. It’s a robe,” corrected the archangel.
“Like it matters,” Kira pouted.
“Well, if you would at least try to be a little more productive it might not be so bad. We have arts and crafts over by the big cumulonimbus cloud near the Pearly Gates.”
“Yippee,” she said sarcastically.
“If you’re not an artsy person, then maybe you’d like to play bingo?”
“Arrrgh! Enough!” Kira screamed. She stood up and began to tap her ankles together while reciting “There’s no place like Hell, there’s no place like Hell, there’s no place like Hell.” She opened her eyes only to see she was still in this awful, happy place. “God damn it!”