You need a fierce imagination to get along in Hell, and yet creative thinking is not appreciated here, and change is practically a dirty word to the old coots who run the place.
They’d all but shunned me for eight decades, in spite of my perfect record in retrieval— until the day disaster struck and the Old Boys came crawling on their bellies to ask for my help. It must have irked them to see me admitted to their gloomy inner sanctum, especially since I’d chosen to conjure up a short chain-mail skirt and spike heels for the event.
“Gentlemen,” old Hairstone said to the assembly, “This is Letha Rivers, the …um …head of our retrieval department. She’s here to explain why we have just received word of a third unretrieved runner. “
Hairstone and the dozen gray-suited, stiff-necked toadies turned to glare at me. As head of Retrieval Center, I was the natural target for blame and I’d gone into that dark, smoke-filled conference room expecting to take the brunt of their displeasure. Fortunately I could meet their accusing looks without cringing.
“My best operatives have worked these cases,” I assured the Old Boys. “Standard procedures were followed to the letter. By all accounts, those RUBs should be back in Hell by now.”
Hairstone cleared his throat, an indication that he disapproved of my derogatory term for those souls who try to avoid their inevitable destiny by escaping Hell and hiding out Topside. The Old Boys call them runners; we who track and retrieve the escapees call them RUBs, short for Really Uncooperative Bastards.
Colonel Lucian examined his pipe and asked, “If the procedure was followed, Miss Rivers, why are the runners still missing?”
A question I’d asked myself and my operatives several times, and even though I finally had an answer, I hesitated to share. The Old Boys weren’t going to like it. “To catch a RUB,” I said, deliberately using the word that so unsettled them, “you have to think like a RUB. When the retrieval procedures were laid out, they worked beautifully.”
The Old Boys nodded, smug in their confidence that traditional methods never faileth. “Indeed,” declared Boyle, “which leaves us with only one conclusion—in these unresolved cases, the procedures were not properly implemented.”
“I assure you they were.” I had no intention of buckling under the combined weight of their arrogance. “The only explanation is that the RUBs are not following the normal escape pattern. They have changed their approach. Therefore we’ll have to change the way we pursue them.”
This pronouncement was met with stunned silence. I looked from one fuddy-duddy to the next, trying in vain to will them into rationality. “Well, boys?” I said at last. “Do you want the RUBs back or not?”
“No need for haste,” Boyle opined.
Hairstone agreed. “We don’t want to rush headlong into anarchy.”
“Anarchy? I’m not talking about turning the sulfur pits into hot tubs! I’m merely suggesting that we adapt our methods to the times.”
“Really, Miss Rivers—”
“Newcomers aren’t what they used to be,” I went on. “These days half of them arrive without a working knowledge of Hell’s most basic premises. And ever since those Jehovah’s Witnesses started coming in, the orientation counselors have had their hands full just trying to convince them of our existence! Like it or not, gentlemen, Topside is changing and we must change with it.” I was prepared to go on for a while about the desirability of new ideas, but just then the red phone in front of Hairstone rang, sending a thrill of dread through us all. That phone was a direct line to the other side, for use only in the event of catastrophe, such as another Big Bang.
With admirable stoicism, Hairstone lifted the receiver and put it to his ear. Hairstone listened; the rest of us, without breath to hold, waited in tense anticipation until the call ended. They’re a cliquish bunch in Heaven. Almost never speak to anyone outside the Gates, and it goes without saying that no one here is their kind. If Heaven was calling, the situation was more ominous than we’d realized. Hairstone hadn’t spoken a word, but the twist of his mouth as he replaced the receiver confirmed our worst fears.
“Heaven has become aware of the problem,” he informed us heavily. “They have conducted their own investigation Topside and have met with failure.”
“What?” Boyle lost his cool in light of this revelation. “But …but …that’s impossible! Why, they are aware of every sparrow that falls—”
“Nevertheless,” Hairstone said shortly, “they cannot find the runners. They’ve checked every nook and crater in the universe. This puts us in a difficult situation. I have been informed that, if we do not retrieve these runners within twenty-four hours, the wrath of God will descend upon us like a plague of—well, you remember. Miss Rivers,” he turned to me with resignation in his face, “do whatever you must, but do it quickly. I want those damned RUBs contained!”
* * *
Over the years I’d given considerable thought to how our retrieval methods might be improved. Topside had seen great success in criminal retrieval by using psychological profiles, and it seemed to me that the same course would prove useful in our own search efforts. Having been given carte blanche by Hairstone and his cronies, I went straight to the office of Dr. Carl Young, one of the orientation experts who counseled newcomers.
“Hell, ain’t it?” joked chubby, rosy-cheeked Dr. Young. He was referring to the couch upon which I reclined for lack of another choice of seating.
“Yes,” I said. “Mind if I sit on the floor instead?”
“Not at all. In fact, I’ll join you and have my lunch at the same time.” He made himself limber and settled easily into a tailor’s position, spreading his sandwich and fruit on the floor between us.
“Help yourself,” he offered. “Sprouts and cucumber sandwich? Crisp carrot sticks? Or perhaps you’d prefer a nice, shiny apple? Hmmm?”
I laughed at his blatant reference to this popular but entirely false myth. “Thanks, but I don’t eat. I’m protesting the menu.”
We don’t have actual bodies to nourish—only the ones we imagine for ourselves— so eating is optional. Like so many activities, we engage in this one merely to remind ourselves of that other world. I think our pretense is a sad commentary on just how hard it is to abandon all hope of mortality.
My objection in this case is not to grasping at memory, but to the food itself. All our meals are vegetarian, a tradition started by old man Cain himself, who steadfastly contends that his refusal to eat rotting animal flesh is what landed him here in the first place. Be that as it may, I’m holding out for a double cheeseburger.
As Young ate, I told him what we knew about the missing RUBs, the pressure from Heaven to find them, and how we’d conducted our investigation so far.
“We’ve searched all over Topside, checked every computer and vending machine— sometimes a runner will hide there until he finds a suitable body to possess.”
“Why would a Breather open himself up to possession, I wonder?” Young picked an imaginary sprout from between his imaginary teeth.
“Well, New York cabbies are pretty much susceptible by nature. And for a while now there’s been a rash of New Age channelers who feel special when a RUB gets into them. They’ve screwed up the whole process of karmic evolution by passing along the nonsense these wacko demons tell them.”
“Hmmm,” said Young. He chewed and pondered the possibilities. “Sounds as if you have a large area to cover. And yet you’ve always retrieved the runners before? What new hiding place might they have found?”
“That’s why I need your help. I was hoping you could put together a profile, a psychological profile. Like the ones Breathers use to track down serial killers. You see, the procedure for retrieval was set forth centuries ago, long before the concept of orientation counseling. It seems to me that your understanding of these disruptive souls could be of help to me.”
“Surely you don’t expect me to share information I received during group sessions. That’s confidential, you know.”
“But these RUBs are dead!” I protested. “Patient-therapist confidentiality can’t extend beyond death, can it?”
“I’m dead, too,” Young pointed out. “The best I can do is to give you some feedback, based on a general understanding of the state these souls are most likely experiencing at this time. Death carries with it certain stages: disbelief, denial, anger, and adjustment. Naturally the anger stage is quite a bit more pronounced in the souls who come here.”
“Well, sure,” I said. “That’s why they run, and why they don’t care how many Breathers they hurt in the process.”
“Exactly.” Young beamed at me. “The sort who end up here are less likely than others to have compassion anyway. Finding themselves doomed to Hell for all eternity makes them even testier.”
“But there’s something different about these three—Boyd, McGill, and Havers. They haven’t followed the pattern. They’ve eluded us for far longer than is normal.” I was desperate help and had no compunction about admitting my failure to the man who’d been my first friend in Hell.
“Where do you think they’d go? And why can’t Heaven find them?”
Young took his time materializing a pipe. It was both charming and infuriating to see him imagine a match with which to light it. I produced a cigarette, lit it with my fingertip, and waited as patiently as I could for his response.
When he finally spoke, there was a twinkle in his eye. “Perhaps they’ve been done away with. Coshed. Given cement overshoes.”
“Doctor,” I said, “if we ever get cable here, don’t subscribe. Besides, these RUBS are just as dead as the rest of us. How could anyone murder them now?”
“Frankly, my dear, I think you should try some de-stressing techniques. As you say, the runners are already dead. If, therefore, they exist, they can be found. You simply haven’t looked in the right place.”
“We’ve looked everywhere, I tell you! And so has Heaven. There’s not an inch of the universe that hasn’t been scoured.”
“There must be,” Young insisted.
“Well, every place except—” I’d had a thought so ludicrous it could only be truth.”Everywhere except The Bowels.”
Every time and place has its Hell, even Hell itself. Here among the stench of sulfur and the sting of brimstone, the plodding minds and palpable misery, we still consider ourselves lucky not to be in Gehenna, nicknamed The Bowels. It’s a sort of primordial sea of anguish from which Hell sprang. Before night and day, before earth and sky, there was chaos—a dark, swirling storm of amoeba-malevolence, from which all evil was formed. We aren’t happy with our lot, but at least we remain close enough to Topside that we can remember and indulge in pretense. The Bowels are rumored to prevent even that vicarious joy by drowning out all memory in a deluge of agony, regret, and remorse.
“The doorway is open,” I said hesitantly. “No guards. I could go down there and—”
“There are no guards because they aren’t needed!” Young said, alarmed. “No one goes willingly to Gehenna. My advice to you, my dear, is to forget this. If those runners are in the Bowels, they’ve already been punished for sins committed Topside and here.”
I stood up and straightened the jeans and sensible shoes I’d imagined in preparation for my descent. “Punishment isn’t my job, Doctor,” I reminded him. “Retrieval is. I’m not going to let these RUBs spoil my perfect record. But thanks for your help.”
The task before me was daunting, yes, but necessary. Nothing would stop me from retrieving those RUBs and restoring my capture record to its pristine condition. It was a matter of pride. Which, come to think of it, was a sin that had helped get me where I was.
Young appeared in the corridor, looking ridiculous in a hastily imagined safari costume. “Mind if I tag along?” he asked, and offered me his arm. “I’ve been dying, so to speak, for a break in routine.”
The Bowels are accessed by means of a narrow tunnel that spirals down and down and down. As we followed it, our perception grew steadily dimmer, blocked by the echoing wails and moans that filtered down from Topside—the pain of Hell’s most pathetic victims.
My form was slipping and Dr. Young must have been equally insubstantial because I couldn’t hear his footsteps or smell his pipe. Experimenting, I tried to imagine a cigarette and found I couldn’t even produce fingers.
“You still there, Doctor?” My voice leaked out, no longer focused through a mouth, but at least it reached its target.
“The essence of me, anyway. Disconcerting, isn’t it?”
“You’ve mastered understatement. This is worse than the time I chased that RUB into a church.” I was blathering, pouring out conversation hoping to maintain a link between my consciousness and Young’s.
I thought I heard him chuckle. “What happened?”
“Oh, I got a bit singed,” I said lightly, “when the priest freaked and threw holy water at me. I thought I looked particularly innocent that day, but the priest wasn’t fooled.”
“He had spiritual vision, eh?” We had descended twelve levels in an instant, moving faster now that we were no longer encumbered by the illusion of walking. Just in front of us was the pit from which the first slimy denizens of Hell had emerged. It had taken a miracle to provide the catalyst for their cohesion into sentient beings—the kind of miracle that only Breathers can perform when they sin and sin big. We had old man Cain to thank for our existence, his being the act that started it all.
“Miss Rivers.” I felt Young’s spirit stop suddenly. “This is lunacy. I’m practically writhing in agony, and you must be suffering as much.”
“It’s a bit uncomfortable,” I said. In fact, I was aching from the unbearable torture of having my immortal soul pulled in all directions at once. Every ounce of my will was straining to hold my spirit together, and I knew that will hadn’t a chance when pitted against the infernal forces of darkness. The agony would become unbearable if I went any nearer the pit. I would lose my soul to the winds of Gehenna where all the pieces of me would wander in tormented separation for eternity.
Young waited for my decision. His own pain mingled with mine and I realized that our spirits were mingled, too. Retrieving RUBs had lost importance; I only wanted to be back in my own private Hell, where I would gladly imagine the same old daily grind in relative comfort. I tried to recall the sensation of returning but that ability was lost to me, too.
Panic was everywhere, filling the narrow tunnel, trying to attach itself to the pieces of my ragged spirit. There was something else, though—more immediate fear and pain than could be accounted for by our two souls.
“What is that?” I wondered, and the thought flew everywhere.
“Let’s go.” Young’s meaning came into me.
At first I thought terror had multiplied around him. Then I felt the probing plea of another soul. “Have you come for me?”
“What’s wrong with you?” I directed a shot of anger at Young. “That’s the RUB!”
“Doctor?” Pleading. “Dr. Young, I need …help. I’m trying, but it’s so hard to let go. So hard to stop believing.”
Young’s essence moved closer to the edge of the pit. “I know, Boyd.”
His words flowed through me, through the haze of agony that hovered above the pit. “‘If the soul is a substance and can exist in its own right, why, then, is it joined to the body?'”
Boyd faded a bit and from deep in the pit I felt him answer, “‘All reality is corporeal; soul calls for an immaterial material.'”
I sensed Young’s satisfaction and his determination that we two were alone at Gehenna’s door. “We imagine our existence, just as we imagine our world. It’s habit, but habit can be broken if we turn loose our willingness to abide by the rules.”
Boyd’s epiphany felt like a thousand daggers hurled from all directions. It was followed by a flash of silence so profound I knew it had been heard throughout the universe. And then Young’s will snatched mine away from the precipice and pulled it upward, toward the doorway to Hell. As soon as I was able to reimage myself, I landed a solid smack across the back of his still-forming head.
“What are you, nuts?” I shouted. “I could’ve had him! What the Bowels were you thinking?”
Young calmly imagined a match and lit his restored pipe. “I was thinking, my dear, that I could fulfill my obligation as a therapist and release that soul from its torment. If we cannot escape our destiny, at least we can bring about a conclusion. A soul has no physical form in which to reside. It is dependent upon its own belief in itself for survival.”
“The RUBs. You convinced them they don’t exist?” The realization stunned me. “That’s murder!”
“Perhaps,” he said calmly. “Or assisted suicide. But you mustn’t dwell on it. Write your report and resign yourself to losing more RUBs in future.”
“Hah! The Old Boys won’t stand for this. Do you have any idea how much trouble you’re in?”
“I don’t believe they will argue with me,” Young said confidently. “In fact, I’m sure they will encourage us to forget this incident altogether.”
“But we can’t just forget what’s happened here!” I protested.
“Exactly, my dear.” Young smiled pleasantly at me. “And every time we think about it, we will be reminded that we don’t have to exist either.”
It was a cunning plan and one that, having been set in motion, would grow until it encompassed and profoundly altered all that we were. Hell is stagnation, and now one man with a resistant mind had corrupted the very heart of that world. I glanced at Young and felt the memory of a smile where I imagined my lips to be.
(This story first appeared in Murderous Intent Mystery Magazine)