One of the shorts from my book, Remnants. I had some fun writing this one, where I decided to try a dark comic take on the business of Hell.
Simon Sinek said “Customers will never love a company until the employees love it first.” Richard Branson said “A business has to be involving, it has to be fun, and it has to exercise your creative instincts.” And Mark Cuban said “Know your business and industry better than anyone else in the world. Love what you do or don’t do it.”
Cooper Green thought those were fine sentiments, and probably ones the shitheads up the ladder believed. Personally, he thought that if the drones felt like hanging themselves in their dim basement cubes, you probably needed a better corporate philosophy. Then again, it was Hell. Maybe that was the point. Not that he was complaining, personally. Upper management was as cushy as it got.
There were perks – women, power, and a certain amount of immunity from the day to day punishment of Hell. All it took was a bit of work and a sensible head, and a guy could live very comfortably down here. The women were intoxicating – the power even more so.
Thanks to Reagan and the big business boom of the Eighties, Hell had restructured. Cooper looked out his office window, at the view around him. Skyscrapers filled the skyline, their bases coated in Hell’s characteristic rime of frost and ice. Their tops soared into the red-black clouds of the Nether, and disappeared into the haze. Rivers wound their way through the landscape, neither cold enough to fully freeze, nor warm enough to melt completely. Cooper could see ice floes and smaller, darker dots in the waters – souls that had been ‘downsized’, or never brought into the ladder into the first place, still paying penance.
The box on his desk – a small intercom – buzzed, and he swiveled away from the window. He pressed the blinking button on the base.
“Mr. Green? The eleven o’clock meeting is starting.”
He clicked the button off and sighed. When he was alive, he had thought meetings were hell. What he understood now was that they were just an invention of the place. It seemed to him that if there was a way for middle management to waste time, it was through meetings. The worst part was that he had eternity to deal with them.
He straightened his tie, and stood, then left his office and its bland beige walls and single Ficus in an equally bland grey pot behind. He walked past Sharon, his secretary, a skinny blond with shark’s eyes, who happened to be wearing a light grey pantsuit. She had her head down over her computer, and was typing away. A cross-stitched plaque in a frame on her desk read ‘The Beatings Will Continue Until Morale Improves’ in cursive script, with a spray of small flowers in each corner.
He strode past, and into an unremarkable hall, then into another, and another, until he came to a large room, its walls and door set with glass. He pulled the door open, and went inside. He was greeted with the sound of light chatter, the attendees already gathered, most just waiting on him. He nodded to a couple, pale men and women in suits, and the occasional demon, horns sprouting from their heads, silver Rolex glittering on their wrists.
He took the seat at the head of the table, and the room quieted. He nodded to the man next to him, Harold Carter, and the meeting began. Carter cleared his throat.
“Well, uh, Mr. Green. Profits are up. Our investments in modern surveillance equipment and fracking technologies are paying off. We expect a bit of a backlash with the inevitable whistle-blower or two, but nothing we can’t handle. Furthermore, contracts and acquisitions seem to be increasing at a rate of four percent a year, and research into sustainable…”
Cooper started to tune out. He wasn’t really interested, but he was expected to listen to the drivel day in and day out, because if Hell was anything, it was the expectation, and the meeting of expectation, of punishment. He allowed himself the daydream of the days when the Inquisition had control of the oubliettes and racks of the old system, and imagined Harold stretched out and screaming while a hooded priest scorched his flesh with brands.
The voice that snapped him out of his daydream sounded insistent. Everyone was looking at him, and he wondered for how long he had drifted away. He looked up, to find Sharon standing in half in the door, her headset around her neck. He cleared his throat.
“Sorry to interrupt, but it couldn’t wait. The Senior Partners are asking for you.”
A small shiver passed up Cooper’s spine. The Senior Partners were the old guard, the fathers of Hell. They were the driving force behind the restructuring, and the brains behind the investments and interests on Earth. They were also known for being the hardest, most disturbing things in creation. If they wanted to see you, it was serious.
He straightened his tie, and stood, then gestured at the room in general. “Carry on.” He said, and left. Behind him, voices picked up again.
Sharon led him down a short hallway that led to elevator doors flanked by more Ficus’. He pressed the ‘Up’ button, and waited.
“Anything else, sir?” Sharon was still at his elbow. He had almost forgotten her. He shook his head.
“No, thank you.”
“Very well. Good luck.” She glided off, down the hall and back to her desk, leaving him alone with his thoughts.
He wondered what the Partners wanted with him. He hoped for a minute they hadn’t heard him thinking earlier. He knew some of them could do just that, and for a moment he imagined himself on the rack in Harold’s place. Just the phantom pain of hot brands made him squirm in his Hugo Boss, and he forced his thoughts away from that line of thinking. Instead, he wondered if it was a promotion, though he’d been in his current position for less than a thousand years.
The elevator doors dinged, and slid open on silent tracks. He went inside, and pressed the button marked ‘P’. The doors closed again, and there was a momentary lurch as the elevator started, and then accelerated. Music, piped in through hidden speakers played something by Alanis Morisette, arranged on bagpipes.
After a time, the elevator slowed, and slid to a stop. The doors opened, and Cooper stepped off into a hall of cream marble veined with gold. He walked to the arch at the end of the hall, and stepped through, into a reception area. Sharon was sitting there, behind a desk made of the same marble. Well, not his Sharon, but one of the many. She looked up, and smiled, the expression never reaching her dead eyes.
“Mr. Green? The partners are expecting you.” She gestured to the doors to her left, a pair of solid gold baroque things that must’ve weighed a ton each.
“Thank you.” He straightened his tie again, and stepped to the doors. He picked the right one and pulled, and it opened on silent hinges. Beyond, the room was pitch-black. He took a deep breath, and entered. The door closed behind him.
He’d been wrong. The room wasn’t black, exactly. There were shifting colors of the dark, if you could call them that, like shades of black to near-gray that had been loaded into a giant projector, and someone kept switching the slides. He stood in the dark, and waited. A part of him hoped he wouldn’t need to actually see the partners. Better men than he had lost their minds for less.
Something moved in the darkness, or at least gave the illusion of movement, and he felt a pressure in the room, as though someone, or several someones, had entered.
The voice was deep and mellow, and not exactly loud, but definitely demanding of attention. It spoke in his head, no words disturbing the air around him, no great wind from their passage stirring the room, and still he felt as though a wind blew into him.
“GLAD YOU COULD COME.”
“Yes, sirs.” He said. He hadn’t been sure about speaking out loud, but he also hadn’t had time enough to consider alternatives. “How can I help?”
“WE’VE WATCHED YOU.” A second voice, this one almost feminine. “YOU DO GOOD WORK, DESPITE…INCONSISTENCIES.”
He frowned at that, and a flutter of fear scurried through him. The deep voice continued. “WE’D LIKE TO OFFER YOU AN OPPORTUNITY.”
Cooper found himself deeply relieved. He breathed it out, and hoped he wasn’t being too obvious.
“YOU NEED NOT WORRY ABOUT FLAYING TODAY, MR. GREEN. YOU MAY RELAX.”
Well, that answered his question.
A third voice, thick and rich and possibly British, picked up. “EARTH, MR. GREEN. WE HAVE AN ASSIGNMENT. WHAT SAY YOU?”
Cooper thought about it. A dispatch to Earth meant a few things. Real food. Live women. As much as he liked them in Hell, sometimes you found a fun one up top. A real opportunity for advancement. Power, when he returned. Another part of him, the cautious and paranoid part, born in fire and blood and a few hundred years of agony, whispered that it was also a good opportunity for failure.
“WELL, MR. GREEN?”
He realized he had been thinking it over long enough to appear odd. He also realized it was something he wanted after all. Maybe even a chance to make partner. He pushed away the nagging voice that told him it was a bad idea, and spoke up.
“I’ll do it.”
The feminine voice spoke again. “GOOD, GOOD. WE ARE WELL PLEASED. WE WILL SEND DETAILS TO YOUR SECRETARY.”
“PLEASE SEE YOURSELF OUT.” The British voice.
The shades of gray faded to pure black, and the feeling that there were others in the room drifted away, and Cooper stood alone in the dark. After a moment, he turned on his heel and left, the door booming shut behind him once again.
The Senior Partners worked fast. Sharon was standing beside her desk when he returned, holding a manila envelope. He took it from her, and thanked her, then closed his office door behind him. He sat at his desk, and laid the envelope down, then leaned back in his chair. He stared at the envelope for a minute; still wholly unconvinced he wasn’t making a huge mistake. With a sigh, he grabbed his letter opener, and slit the top of the package open.
Inside was an address, printed on a small white card, and a photo. It was of a small man, balding, with a paunch. He wore a pair of khaki shorts and an Old Navy t-shirt with sneakers. He was grilling something, and talking to someone off-camera. Overall, he looked like a typical middle-class happy guy. Cooper disliked him immediately. He wondered what the big deal was.
Another sheet of paper fell out of the envelope, and Cooper picked it up, and read it.
- TOPPER IS PAST DUE ON HIS CONTRACT. YOUR ASSIGNMENT IS TO COLLECT. BE ADVISED, MR. TOPPER HAS SLIPPED THREE OTHER COLLECTIONS AGENTS. WE CONSIDER MR. TOPPER TO BE AN INVESTMENT ON OUR PART, SO YOU HAVE TWO CHOICES. CONVINCE HIM TO PAY, OR TERMINATE HIS CONTRACT WITH EXTREME PREJUDICE.
Yancy? The name made Cooper feel a pang of sympathy for the poor man despite his distaste. Still, he had reneged on his contract. Nothing to be done for it now. If a man named Yancy hadn’t wanted to be picked on, he should’ve just paid.
He leaned forward and pressed the button on the intercom. “Sharon?”
“Yes, Mr. Green?”
“Hold my meetings and calls. Also, arrange for travel to Earth.”
“Yes, Mr. Green,”
He snapped the intercom off, and leaned back in his chair. He had a little bit until Sharon had everything arranged. He glanced up at the framed poster on his wall, an image of a man pushing a stone up a hill. Underneath, in a bold font, it read simply, ‘Persistence’.
The path to Earth was in a small room on the twenty-fifth floor. The room was all gray metal, with a man-sized ring cut into the wall. The surface of the ring was an oily black that shone wetly. Cooper straightened his tie, and took a breath, and tried to keep himself from tapping his foot in impatience.
The tech to the right of the portal smiled at him, the horns on his face shifting as he showed his teeth. “Sorry, Mr. Green. This happens sometimes.”
He bent over the console in front of him and banged on it, once, then twice. There was an electronic squeak from the console, and then the room began to fill with a low-pitched hum. The portal in front of Cooper began to move clockwise, in a sluggish swirl of black liquid. Cooper looked over at the tech, swathed in his grey jumpsuit and still bent over the console, and cocked an eyebrow.
“Is that it?” He asked.
The tech looked up. “Hm? Oh, yes. Feel free to hop on through whenever you’re ready, Mr. Green.” He went back to adjusting dials and buttons.
Cooper took another breath, unsure he was ready for what was next. His chest felt tight, but he managed to ignore it. He stepped forward, and gripped his briefcase tighter. Closer to the portal, he could see individual ripples in the black. He stared at them, swirling around and around, then made up his mind, and stepped forward again.
There was a brief pulling sensation, like he was being drawn out like taffy, and a rushing sound that filled his ears, like wind in a tunnel. He felt pain, significant and distant at the same time, and then a popping filled his senses. Everything abruptly stopped, and he closed his eyes as the black around him turned to white. A moment later, his body lurched, as though he had been thrown off balance, and he opened his eyes as he stumbled a step forward. He managed to catch himself before he ended up face down on the ground.
When he was righted, he saw he was standing in an alley behind a Wal-Mart, pallets stacked to one side, dumpsters to the other. He blew out the breath he’d been holding, set the briefcase down, and straightened his hair and his tie. Then, he picked up the briefcase, left the alley behind, and made for the street, where he could hail a cab.
On the cab ride over to Yancy’s home, Cooper tried to think of how he would handle the situation. He could go with threats – force a vision of unending torture and misery on the man, until his will broke, and he surrendered. He could offer to buy the contract out. Nothing like a pile of money to wrap up a transaction, though it would be seen as a loss, and he wasn’t sure that was what the Senior Partners were looking for. The words ‘extreme prejudice’ came back to him, and he discounted that option. His third option was to reason with the man, explain to him how contracts made in good conscience should be followed through. He could explain how, by not paying, the man was only cheating himself. How, if he would finish this contract out, there was always the possibility for another, with greater rewards.
Cooper smiled to himself. He liked the latter option. It would mean new business for the company, new assets, and a solid win in the books. He could almost taste the promotion.
The cab pulled up to the curb in front of a modest two-story Dutch Colonial, the lawn neatly mowed and edged, the sidewalk swept clean. He got out of the cab (there was no need to pay the cabbie – the man would wait until Cooper decided he wasn’t needed), and walked up the front path to the wood and glass front door. He took a moment to straighten his tie, raised his fist to knock, and – the door opened.
He found himself face to face with a good-looking younger man, wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase similar to his own. He had what looked like a three-hundred dollar haircut, and was tanned. The man smiled at Cooper.
“Can I help you?”
“Yes, I’m looking for Yancy Topper.”
The man’s smile turned sympathetic. “Ooh. I’m sorry. I’m afraid Mr. Topper has already paid his debts. He’ll be unavailable for…uh, eternity. Also, you know the rules. No double-dipping.”
Realization crept up on Cooper. One of two things had happened. Either the partners had sent a back-up, and the kid had done his job for him, , or one of the other principals had come in – Beelzebub, or Abaddon, or Sammael, maybe – which meant Yancy hadn’t been all that concerned with double-dipping himself. He frowned back at the kid.
“Well. You retired his contract, I assume?”
“Yes. Oh, I’m sorry.” He stuck out a hand. “I’m Kendall Franks.”
Cooper took it and shook it. “Who sent you?”
“Abbadon and Associates.” Ah, so that answered his question.
Cooper ran a hand through his hair. He blew out a breath. “Well. What now?”
Kendall shrugged. “I’m going back. Promotion and all, you know.”
Cooper nodded. “Yeah. Say, how about some lunch? I haven’t had a good meal in about a hundred years.”
Kendall seemed to consider for a moment, then he smiled again. “Sure, come on in.” He opened the door, and Cooper followed him in, down a short hall, past the living room, where Yancy was sitting on his couch, clutching his chest, the handle of a knife sticking out. That explained ‘extreme prejudice’. They moved on into the kitchen.
Cooper set his briefcase down, and Kendall did the same.
So,” He said, and rubbed his hands together. “What shall we have?”
They made steak. Big, nicely marbled, medium rare New York strips, with a salt and pepper crust, and a baked potato and a glass of Yancy’s bourbon. While they ate, they talked.
“So, how long have you been doing this?” Kendall asked.
Cooper shrugged. “Collections and contracts? About five hundred years. More so in the past thirty, though. You?”
Kendall whistled. “Five.”
Cooper grunted around a mouthful of steak. “Newbie, eh? First time up top?”
Kendall moaned in pleasure, and took another mouthful of food, chewing slowly. After he swallowed, he chased it with a sip of bourbon. “God, I miss this. All I need is a good lay, and who needs Heaven?”
A thought crept into Cooper’s brain, and it shone brightly for a moment. He suppressed a grin.
“I know. Women, booze, and good food. Throw some cash in there, and a guy could live until he dies all over again.”
“Who said anything about dying?” Kendall said. “We could live like kings up here, with the right set-up.” He took another bite. “GOD, this is good. I could just cum.”
“What if, eh?” Cooper said.
Kendall stopped with the fork halfway to his mouth. He pointed it at Cooper. “You sound like you have an idea.”
Cooper shrugged. “I have an unfulfilled contract. Want it?”
“For what? Hell’s already got my soul. What do I get out of it? Why don’t you sign it?”
Cooper shrugged. “Set in my ways, I guess. Look, I can make it out for an indefinite number of years up top, with the option for renewal, and when you’re bored, a position with Lightbringer and Partners.”
“Kendall dropped his fork, and wiped his hands. “What do you get out of it?”
“One less competitor in the field.” He waved a hand around him. “And a full contract. Nothing in there about whom or what could accept it, just that it had to be accepted.”
Kendall picked up his drink and swirled it, watching the liquid slosh against the sides. He was silent for a long time. Finally, he said “Give me the contract.”
Cooper had it out, before the last syllable left the kid’s mouth. He passed it over to Kendall, who signed without a second glance. When the ink was dry, Cooper placed it back in his briefcase, and stood. He shook Kendall’s hand.
“Good luck, kid. We’ll send someone up to take care of that mess in the living room. Enjoy your new life.”
Kendall was smiling ear to ear. He shook Cooper’s hand back. “Thanks, man. Thanks. This is brilliant.”
Cooper disentangled himself, and left the way he’d come. The cab was still waiting. He got in, and as the cab pulled away from the curb, he pulled a phone from inside his suit, flipped it open, and dialed 911. There was a ring, and someone answered.
“911. What’s your emergency?”
“There’s been a murder.” He gave the operator the address, and hung up. After a couple of minutes, he could hear sirens in the distance. He smiled to himself, and sat back in his seat.
Cooper Green, Partner sounded better and better.