All In The Job
by Claude Needham
At best I'm sure to lose my job. At worse.... who am I kidding there is no worse, this is hell and it's bad, bad, bad all the way down.
Mr. S., as he likes to be called, has history's sickest deviant minds working for him. Not so back in the early days of hell – when it first opened. Urk the Mean and Gronk the Ornery were hard workers and meant well; however, being sat on by a flatulent mammoth was about the best worst they could come up with.
Mr. S. has always relied upon a team of ex-human writers to come up with this stuff. Without knowing it that writer guy, Dante, gave Mr. S. some of his best material for centuries -- expanding hell into a multilevel affair and adding a bunch of circles of this and that. When Dante finally arrived in person we threw him an Employee of the Month party and gave him the Best Suggestion Award before tossing his butt into the Ninth Circle of Hell.
"No rest for the wicked" and "No reward for the misguided," I did those in needle point. Mr. S. has them hanging on his wall framed nicely in carved walnut frames with just a hint of gold antiquing. Tastefully framed and the best damn cross-stitching of my short carrier. That was just before I received my tail. Now, with rush-rush assignments piling up Billy-boy has precious little time for needle point. Or at least that was the case until this morning. This afternoon, who knows?
"Frank, you like your job?" Bill made conversation with the new guy, a trainee. First in months. You don't suppose Mr. S.'s lackies suspect something do you?
"I suppose. Just started this morning, but so far it's a step up from hanging around upside down getting my guts ripped out."
"You got that right" Bill chimed in, "Damn sight better than the alternative, almost a cush job if anything along those lines was possible here in Hell Central."
Glancing over at his new partner's fumbling efforts Bill sighed once than got down to the work of training his unsuspecting replacement. "here, Frank, It's like this. Blue copy in the top box, red copy in the folder and yellow copy is sent to main administration. That's how it is done. They won't tell you that downstairs but believe me that's the way that works. After an eternity or two one picks up on these kinds of things."
And so the rest of the morning went. Frank was a terrific student, "he'll be ready to take my place as a field operative in no time" Bill thought to himself than winced once more reminded of his situation.
"Bill, you off your feed today?" Apparently Bill's near constant stream of wincing, whining, whimpering and wailing had not gone unnoticed by his new assistant. No one in hell likes to be asked "what's up?" Everyone is well aware of what in fact is up, and it is only too painful to be reminded of where one is not.
Bill turned toward his new assistant and motioned him to take a seat in the chair across from his desk and the both of them continued to sort the endless piles of soul collection forms stacked to the side. "Since this is your first day on the job and likely my last, you have a right to know what you're up against. Ever wonder how it is in a place without death that we have 'job openings'?"
Recognizing a rhetorical question when he heard one, Frank sat silent waiting for Bill to continue.
"Well, periodically some folks just go missing. That's something not mentioned in the brochures or the training films. And, don't fall for that "they musta been transferred" bilge, soul collection is the only job in hell. Folks just go missing. One day they leave work at the usual time, the next day they don't come in."
"What about the demons walking around dishing out punishment? Aren't they on the job?" Frank asked genuinely curious.
"Boy, don't those guys at induction do any training these days?" Bill looked over toward Frank, leaned forward slightly and lowered his eye glasses to peer at him over the rims -- a look Bill had once employed on Earth to capture the attention of his graduate students in philosophy. "Frank, you are missing the symmetric beauty of hell's punishment system. Those receiving the punishment are tormented by the getting, those dishing it out are tormented by the giving."
Grabbing yet another pile of forms for processing Frank asked casually so as not to appear too stupid, "Without a conscience how could forking out punishment bring torment to the giver?"
Have you ever given a pitchfork or whip a close look? Trust me normal tools don't have fish hooks and cattle prods built into the handles."
"Well, why doesn't the giver just stop? No pain for either if they stop."
"That's why you'll find every giver two or three levels deeper in hell than where they started. It only takes two or three times for most folks to figure out the pain you've got is better than the joyless pain ride they've got in store for you at the next deeper level in hell."
"Well, that at least explains the less than enthusiastic whippings. I just thought Lucy, eh, I mean Mr. S. had a bunch of shiftless lazy demons."
Bill looked quizzically at Frank wondering how a hell-newbie could know Mr. S. used to be called Lucifer and come to think of it no one has dared refer to him by that other nickname. Not since the rather unpleasant affair a few millennium back.
At that moment, having finished the pile of forms given to him, Frank reached toward yesterday's pile to grab a new handful of forms for processing. Bill leaped into action diving for the pile knocking Frank to the floor in the process. Casually as possible while lying on the floor in a tackle, Bill turns to Frank, "Oh, never mind that pile. I'll handle those myself -- later."
Frank looked over to Bill clutching the small pile of unprocessed forms.
"One of the contracts needs special handling" Bill volunteered as an explanation.
Picking themselves off the floor Frank dusted his trousers, "No problemo there Billy boy. We'll leave that handling to the guy with seniority."
"Seniority, seniority, like that helps. It's always the senior dudes that disappear dropping off the face of hell."
"Look Bill, I'm the trainee, you're the trainer. But it doesn't take much experience to tell you are a bit over the edge, stressed, worried, and generally freaked out."
Perhaps this straightforward, obviously observant, new trainee was someone that Bill could confide in. Bill made a decision. Not the big decision, just a decision. He resolved to tell Frank the story, the whole story before end of shift by which time Bill must make a much bigger decision – his biggest decision.
Still clutching the small pile of forms to his chest Bill motioned with a glance for Frank to retake a seat and he plumped his weight into a seat next to him.
"It was a morning like any other, I began my early morning rounds of soul collection."
"Imagine this, camera in from somewhere high and outside the city, coming in over the top of an urban city late at night. Few lights are on and no visible traffic. Shimmering reflections reveal a river dividing the city. A bridge crosses that river. That's the bridge where it all started."
"As per usual, first a cracking glow then wham I'm teleported to whatever rube is ready to sell his soul. Looking through my clipboard, I find bupkis, not a scratch of a memo concerning this stop -- another friggin' unscheduled stop -- as if I didn't have enough work to do."
"It was late in my shift, almost done for the day, the road was deserted with remnants of a light rain glistening on the asphalt. I was in my prime -- tip, top shape. When it came to soul collection I was good. Get in and get out. No fuss no muss. But this was an unscheduled stop -- and those never went by the book."
"Not seeing anyone in the immediate area I walk out onto the bridge to check the railing – ninty-nine percent of the time, that's where you find them – at the rail. As I make my way onto the bridge I hear something from over-head -- is a slight "ahem". Looking up I notice on an over-head beam a guy sitting with legs dangling over the water side of the beam."
"Scrambling about, I make my way out onto the same over-head I-Beam, couldn't be standing on a nice building ledge somewhere, no this rube has to pick a bridge. And, does he opt for the rail like a normal jumper? Nope, he's got to sit on the top of the dang overhead. Such is the way with unscheduled stops. I plops myself down beside the guy and make ready for a collection."
"The guy was youngish, neat and polite looking. He turns his face toward me with a wistful smile and starts conversation like we was sitting on a park bench not the watery-side of a bridge tower."
"I've been expecting you." he says all matter of fact like.
I tell him straight away, "I'm not a cop and if you're looking to get saved or collect sympathy you'll have to wait for the boys in blue."
"I know who you work for." he says to me, "Kind of a family acquaintance you might say."
"Oh, boy" I thinks to myself, "I've got myself either one of those wackos – this should be easy."
The guy continues smooth as silk, "Contrary to the minority opinion opinions I don't think I'd actually qualify as wacko. But if you prefer..."
"Nah, none of my business. I'm here to offer you a deal. Whatever you want, it's yours. Just a little paperwork and my boss will make any dream you want come true."
"What makes you think I want something."
"Must be. The transporter only drops me on site of a pending transaction. Someone, somewhere, wanting something."
"I know what you mean. My job is a bit like that too. So, do you have the contract?" he replies reaching out with no never mind – life he's done this time after time.
All unscheduled collections are weird but this one is weirder than weird. I look down at my hands as they automatically reach in to pull the contract from the inside coat pocket. "Yes" I say looking a little deeper into his eyes trying to penetrate the dark. There's something familiar about this bloak. I just can't put my finger on it.
"Well, let's get on with it." he says looking back into my face square blank on.
There's that sense of familiarity again only stronger, "You don't want a little foreplay? Some explanation...who I am, who the boss is, why I'm here, what's with the contract...?"
The stranger watches Bill as he pauses poignantly waiting for him to respond, "Nope."
Bills starts to read from the standard salvage contract, "In the event of ..." Bill glancing toward the water continues, "... you know... a jump... are you willing to grant, concede or abandon salvage right on any asset real or otherwise which have not been previously allocated by will or other instrument of estate divestiture? etc. etc."
"Yay, yay, yay, let's sign this thing and get on with it." The guy interrupts simple as that.
"Don't you want to ask suspiciously 'what kind of asset'?" I ask the guy more than a little put off rhythm.
"But, it might be a trick. You know something you weren't calculatin'. You know something like well, maybe a.. your soul?" I fill in the blanks for him.
"Well, you know what they say. Caveat Emptor. (buyer beware)."
For some reason I felt I had to excuse myself to him, "Believe me this isn't my chosen profession. As a kid I had a very different picture of what I'd be doing about now. But alas, forsooth, fort wit and otherwise. I've always had this kind of knack for being in the wrong place at the right time with the right people for the wrong reason."
The guy looked at me, then the contract, then back to me.
More annoyed than anything else by his undue nonchalance. "You do understand this is the standard contract to trick you out of your soul?"
"Yep" he says calm as could be.
"And you still want to sign it?" I ask him challengingly.
"You have your work to do. And I have my work to do. At the moment signing this contract is what I have to do."
I hand him the contract and standard self-filling blood pen. He signs then slips over the edge toward the water below. Stunned, contract in hand, I bleep out of there before there's time for him to hit the water. I couldn't wait to get back to something more traditional and "by the book."
Frank say quietly listening to Bill's rendition of yesturday's events then asks him quite ingenuously, "So what's the problem? You have an unscheduled collection, a salvage job. That should up your quota and put you in line for a promotion. I don't get the big deal."
"There'd be no big deal, except I've already called ahead like the arrogant over zealous moron I am announcing the extra soul for my stats. Now I have to turn the soul in and I can't."
"Why can't you? You didn't lose it did you?"
"Wish I had, wish it had never come into my hands. It has and now I have to do something... but what? I can't turn it in, and if I don't there won't be a circle of hell deep enough for the upset Mr. S. is sure to go into."
"Why can't you turn it in?" Frank asked eyebrow raised in an odd fashion.
"I thought I was a real cold fish, hard-boiled, tough nut to crack but it turns out there remains a line I won't cross. I've collected souls from scumbags, little old ladies, and even a few infants. When it comes to collecting souls I've done my job, done my job well, done my job without hesitation or regret. I thought I'd seen it all and I've done it all without a hint of hesitation. Now I've got a contract in hand that I just can't bring myself to turn in." Bill finished with a sigh slumping into his chair.
"Bill, without a soul or conscience how can it possibly matter who or what the contract represents. None of this should bother you."
"That's exactly right, it shouldn't bother me a bit. But it does. This is one contract that come what may I just can't turn in, and hell knows "what may" is pretty serious stuff down here."
Frank stood from his chair looking more formidable than an assistant trainee should look asked Bill in a very pointed fashion, "Exactly why can't you turn in this contact?"
Bill turned the contract face up, pointing to the name beautifully inscribed on the dotted line, "See, the name? Jesus Christ. It's a salvage contract for the soul of Jesus Christ. How can I possibly turn this in?"
There was an audible crack in the chamber followed by a flash of blinding light, Bill looked up from the contract instantly running the emotional spectrum from misery to abject horror. Standing before him was Mr. S., and he was not a happy camper. "Let me get this straight, you are refusing to turn in a rightfully collected salvage contract on a soul which by all rights now belongs to me?"
Instantly assuming the appropriate posture of groveling in the dust, Bill replied softly with a tad less whimper than he expected from himself, "Begging your pardon, your mastership, technically the soul is not yours until turned in by the dutifully appointed collector, which in this case is me." Then noticing a slightly defiant tone in the response quickly covered with, "you miscreant lowly servant, sir."
Looking yet another shade horrifying, electricity cracking from every pore Mr. S. demanded with out stretched hand, "Then, as the dutifully appointed collector hand over the hell-damn contract."
A hollow emptiness opened in the pit of Bill's stomach, his life in hell was over as he knew it, a situation that couldn't get any worse was about to get as worse as it could get, Bill was doing something no other collector in hell had ever dared -- he tore the contract in half – poofing it from existence as if it had never been signed. Impossible to speak, frozen by anticipation of hell knows what Bill waited in horror for what was to follow.
A pause, then another pause.
Finally, Mr. S. Reverting back into the guise of Frank set down in a chair casually moving aside a few remaining unsorted collection forms – the job which Bill had been training him in.
Looking down at Bill's still groveling form Frank reached down poking him in the shoulder motioning toward the opposite chair. "Bill what am I going to do with you? You've horribly failed my little test. There's no way I can promote you and I can't leave you here to let any of the other candidates know about this little test. What's to be done?"
Less intimidated by Frank's visage and slightly encouraged by the lack of instant agonizing retribution for his recent defiance of all that is unholy, Bill ventured a response, "Beg pardon sir, what promotion? We, or I, er all of us soul collectors were under the impression this was the only job in hell."
"This hell yes, but you don't think this is the only hell do you? Ever since that Chicken Colonel showed up a few years back I've opened a chain of hell franchises. You were in line for a franchise my boy -- a hell of your own. If you'd just turned in the salvage form you'd be boss of your own hell this very moment – you'd be the big cheese, the crispy king of your own territory."
Bill wondered for a moment whether it would have made a difference in his decision if he'd known the reward. Shaking his head Bill ventured aloud what he thought he was only thinking to himself, "No it wouldn't have matter. Even if I knew I couldn't have turned in the form. I just couldn't bring myself to do it. In spite of everything to my surprise there's a line I won't cross. It just didn't seem right."
"And that is the rub there Billy Boy, you've still got an active soul."
"But, you collected mine eons ago. Or, at least one of your collector's did. How can I have a soul?"
"You can't sell, give, trade, or in any other way barter your soul. All you can do is forget you have one and allow it to atrophy into practical non-existence. I thought your soul was shriveled and gone. I should of waited another millennium or two. But with these nifty franchise profits I pushed the testing schedule up a bit. My mistake. So, no franchise for you. It's off you go. Can't have you ruining business by blabbing all over the place, now can I?"
"Off to where?" Bill asked trying not to imagine the incredible torment reserved for those collectors failing Mr. S.'s franchise test.
"Well, can't have you in my hell, and I can't very well foist you off on any of my franchisees, wouldn't be fair now would it? So, I've made a little arrangement with you know who upstairs. They've agreed to take my failures into a job relocation program for retraining as guardian angels. Same people skills, slightly different orientation."
Bill couldn't believe what he was hearing, just before he poofed from his office in hell never to return from his new assignment as a guardian angel in training.
"Yep, Billy Boy, it's off to Heaven with you."