In this supernatural adventure, Getter and Sneaker – with their friend Gregory, a Scottish Retriever soul murdered in Hell 150 years ago – battle Pragons, make their way through the Wormholes, sing for their supper, convince Satan of his danger, save baby Golems, and finally retrieve the souls they were hired to bring to Heaven Gate.
Even Indiana Jones would have a hard time keeping up with Soul Retrievers.
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An excerpt from Warn the Devil.
When people die, their souls go to Purgatory where it’s decided whether they go to Heaven or Hell. The process is not perfect; an occasional clerical error is made and an innocent is sent to eternal torment.
When a soul is sent to the wrong place, the person who cared most about the deceased when alive (not always the obvious choice) begins to have disturbing dreams, sometimes visions, and a distinct feeling of unease, as if the universe is out of balance somehow. Through a priest, or perhaps a counselor or therapist, the loved one is put in touch with certain specialists. Armed with information and pictures, and a large check, the specialist goes into Hell, finds the misplaced soul, and returns him or her to Purgatory by way of Heaven Gate for proper processing.
There is risk. If the specialist dies in Hell proper, his or her soul is trapped there for all eternity.
Soul Retrieval is a secret to all but a few, though it has been going on for centuries. Retrieval helps restore the balance between Heaven and Hell, policing the bookkeeping of Purgatory, keeping the demons of Hell honest. These specialists who risk damnation are known, among those who know of them, as Soul Retrievers.
My shoulders tightened and my stomach clenched into a hard lump as I turned my old pick-up onto an obscure dirt road in the Colorado Rockies. I paid little notice to the feeling. For a Hell Cop tenseness is the natural order of things. The tension grew stronger the farther I drove up the narrow road.
I began to pay attention. There was a different vibe to the area this time that had nothing to do with the six inches of melting late spring snow. It almost felt like a premonition that this trip to Hell was going to be different. But, I didn’t believe in premonitions so dismissed it. The tension remained.
I reached a particular clearing in the middle of a large Aspen grove without incident. Except for the new snow, the place looked the same as always. I pushed a button on my Find, a half electronic/half magic remote control device that looked like it had had an encounter with the Fires of Hell. Which it had. It’s used to navigate into, out of, and throughout Hell. GPS for the underground. Nothing happened.
I pushed again and searched the road ahead looking for a shimmer that opened the way to a back passage into Hell. My stomach tightened into a hot knot. Where was the shimmer? I exited the truck and stood on the pristine snow in the middle of the road. I pointed the Find ahead. Pushed the button—several times. Nothing. I knocked the Find against the truck door. Nothing. It was always up ahead, maybe a hundred feet, maybe a hundred yards, but there. I had a soul to retrieve. I had no time for this simple operation not to work.
Then I stopped and thought about it. Why wasn’t the shimmer up a ahead where it almost always was? Almost always? I already felt stupid as I turned around and looked behind me. The shimmer shimmered a couple hundred feet down. The premonition I didn’t believe in began to seem slightly plausible.
The way to Hell was open. Though I’d been down that road many times the usual ritual of apprehension gripped my stomach and squeezed. I bent over and threw up a nice restaurant breakfast. Two minutes of breathing deep and walking in circles was enough to get myself together, stuff the fear back in its little black brain box, and drive through the shimmer.
The scraggly trees crowding the hidden road seemed more sinister than usual. The branches reached out aggressively. The air coming in the open window crackled with the anticipation of peril. I closed the window. It didn’t help. This trip into Hell was going to be different, I just knew it. In Hell, different meant dangerous. Danger I can handle, the build up is what gets me. I kept driving.
A high rock wall cul-de-sac formed the end of road. I parked facing out and got my gear together. That premonition settled between my shoulder blades. I couldn’t reach it, so I ignored it. One thing I couldn’t ignore was a faint set of tire tracks in the dust. They were troubling. I was the only one to use this back entrance to Hell. I thought about it, but I had a soul to retrieve, so the matter would have to wait. But still….
I zipped up my dark camouflaged, fireproof jumpsuit, shrugged on my backpack, and strapped on my gun, an over-sized revolver loaded with 22 gauge shotgun shells filled with Hellshot. A short Tai Chi form calmed me down. Thirty seconds of moves with my two-part walking stick – bo staff got my senses on-line. I pressed another button on my Find and walked into the blank stone wall.
- * * *
Inside the weeping black rock of the passage I considered what might get in the way of what I came to do. I knew Mephisto, Head of Helland Security, was going to cause trouble. I knew of the Prophecy, which Mephisto believed in, that said I was going to be important to the future of Hell. I knew I’d run into Captain Boam again.
I could handle all that. Or ignore it, as in the case of the “Prophecy” that I didn’t want anything to do with. I had been hired to find the soul of a young man and take him to Heaven Gate. “The soul comes first,” is at the top of the largely unwritten Soul Retriever Code. I had retrieved all but one of the souls I’d gone after, and nobody can blame me for that one. Matthew Ainsly would not be the second.
Ainsly dropped dead an hour after he crossed the finish line of the Wildflower Triathlon. While it might be bad form, and PR, especially after posting his personal best, 3:16:34, it was no reason to be sent to Hell. That his best friend had been caught cheating and Matthew had briefly been implicated probably didn’t help. Purgatory really needed to overhaul their bookkeeping department. His wife had the strange dreams and the uneasy feeling that things were not quite… finished. She found her way to Father Henry and then to me. She hired me to regain the correct balance of right and wrong, good and evil, for Matthew, for her, and for the universe.
* * *
I walked on, a touch more alert, a bit more cautious at the occasional shimmers that made my ears pop when I stepped through. I’d been in Hell enough times to know that beside basic preparedness and alertness, worrying about “something” or a “feeling” before it happened was a waste of time and energy.
After the third shimmer Wylie E. Coyote showed up. Wylie is about eighteen inches long, six high, half sharp toothed mouth, half thick scaly body with seven legs, four left, three right. He runs in clockwise circles, snapping his formidable jaws at my boots. The pesky, persistent little creature has shown up every trip since I started going to Hell on my own. Running in circles like he does makes me feel like a puppy chasing its tail. I’ve shot, stabbed, and stomped poor Wylie twenty some times, but he, or she, I’ve never looked that close, always returns. I’ve grown fond of the annoying beast, so in the spirit of demon-human relations, I spun in puppy circles and flicked him away with my staff until I reached the next shimmer. My good deed for the day, to that point.
I reached the end of the tunnels without any problems. That in itself being different. The hot glare of Hell was visible only a hundred feet away. I stopped. The dangerous part was just ahead. I studied the flake covered tunnel walls for the Sling Spider’s lair. I didn’t for a second think there wasn’t one just because I hadn’t encountered anything else nastier than Wylie. A Sling Spider lay ahead.
On the right side I saw an obvious gap in the flaky scum that covers the tunnel walls by the opening. Staff at the ready, I approached, one eye on the gap, the other scanning for a trap.
Motion sets off a Sling Spider. One of its thirteen legs cuts the anchor strand. The elastic web slings it against the victim. Quickly paralyzed, the victim is dragged into the spider’s lair to wait, conscious but immobile, the spider’s dining pleasure.
I slowly peeked into the gap. There it hung, two foot long body, three-foot long legs, multi-faceted orange eyes watching with arachnid patience. A backpack with one strap cut lay just inside the gap. It took me a few seconds to process what that might mean. I searched deeper into the shadow. My heart hammered. There was something else in there.
Next to the spider, wrapped in a web-silk cocoon, hung a body. Male, I think. Mind awake and active, eyes frozen open in terror, he waited to die. I studied him for some time, looking for some evidence he saw me. Then withdrew when I realized how cruel that would be.
I steeled myself for the inevitable conclusion. He was a dead man. Even if I killed the spider and managed to carry him back to Life, there was no medical miracle to reverse the deterioration of his body. The spider toxin liquefied the bones first then the major muscles, then the minor ones and the organs. The brain remained aware of it all until the end. Usually when the spider sucked the last juices from the liquefied body.
I slowly looked in at him again. Did I know him? Was he a Retriever? If not, who was he? How and why did he get here? Those tire tracks took on a new meaning.
His eyes turned toward me. I stopped speculating, frozen by the hope that sparked in his eyes. Will you save me? Can you save me? Can I be saved at all?
Slowly, I moved my head side to side. No. There’s no hope. I’m sorry.
His eyes dulled, turned to the patient spider. Turned back to me. The terrible question obvious. Will you end this misery for me?
Again, I moved my head. Yes.
His eyes glistened in the pale light that filtered in from Hell proper. A tear streaked his cheek. Maybe he nodded his head. Acceptance.
Back pressed against the cave wall, I breathed deep. Accepted what I had to do. I drew my gun. Checked it. Another deep breath. I took a slow step in front of the opening. The Sling Spider stared at me with impassive orange eyes that sparkled in the light. I had no reason to kill it. It followed its own nature.
I raised the gun.
The man closed his eyes.
I shot him.
The spider didn’t even twitch.Once clear of the gap, I replaced the spent shell. My hand shook. Once I got control of the shaking I reached in with my staff and retrieved the back pack.
As usual, I sat at the cave entrance, ate, drank and took in the spectacular view of the rugged, barren boundary lands. I thought about burying the dead man, but there’d be no bones to bury and no place to bury them.
Who was he? No Hell Cop would carry a civilian backpack that big and heavy. I heard water sloshing, but there were other items in there too. I didn’t look. I didn’t want to know. I felt bad enough having to kill a stranger. If it was someone I knew…?
On the way back to Life I’d look. There was probably a next of kin somewhere.
Not happy with the inauspicious beginning to the retrieval of Matthew Ainsly’s soul, I stashed the backpack, and strode down the rocky path into Hell.
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