"This is the burn, Ronald."
The air cracks open pushing a rush of heat and ash into the suburban basement.
"But, but, you're a cop, you're supposed to protect," Ronald says spitting on his stained t-shirt cowering in the corner.
"You sell children to the depraved, Ronald."
"What about redemption? I can change."
The heat intensifies until Ronald screams, convulsing as his soul splits from his body, forcibly inhaled into the abyss. The portal turbulence and flames retreat just as quickly as they began, leaving the basement quiet again. Ronald's lifeless body slumped over in the dark corner, his empty eyes staring into the nothingness.
"No redemption." Dylan mumbles.
Dyan releases the abducted children from their wire dog kennels and calls for backup. A small girl runs to him and hugs him as tightly as her little arms can hold on. It's astounding, even with the events of the past couple of weeks, even with seeing the horrible side of humanity, she still has hope.
I am beyond that.
They call me a soul collector; I find the worst of the worst. The souls who aren't winning that get-out-of-jail card. They go straight to the burn.
Saturday morning, they send a new soul mark, Carrie Douglas. City Hall Park. I don't even get the weekend off.
This could be a tough extraction if there are people around. I arrive early and sit on a park bench feeding the birds, trying to get a plan together.
It is the first day of the city's spring festival, the brightly colored tents, flowers, and music bring crowds in anticipation, then I see her. A woman in her mid-20s, brown hair, glasses, nothing particularly unusual about her. She paints children's faces and hands each a balloon. Her smile is honest, there are none of the signs. Nothing in her aura, none of the emptiness in her eyes.
I need to talk to her.
Tossing the rest of the birdseed to the pigeons I approach her booth, she looks up at me.
"I usually paint younger faces, but I am an equal opportunity face painter." She says with a smile.
Nothing wrong here.
"This face would need a lot of paint. Hi, I'm Dylan Newcastle." holding out my hand.
"Hi, Dylan." She responds, shaking my hand. Still none of the dark shit that I usually get from a mark.
"Carrie Douglas, nice to meet you," she says.
"Hey, this may sound really forward, and I can understand if you say no," showing my best smile "but, would you like to have a coffee sometime? I am a detective in the city, you can call my office to verify." I hand her my card.
"I thought I recognized you, from the news, you rescued all those children," she responds
"Well, it was a collective police effort."
My standard answer.
"I don't drink coffee, but how about McGregor's Pub on 5th street at 8:00?" she asks
"Oh. ok, sounds great," I respond.
Was not expecting that
"You still want that face paint?" she asks.
"You've seen the real me, so no point now."
McGregor's corner pub.
Arriving early, she is already waiting outside; I like this girl.
"Hi, again. Ms. Douglas." walking up to the curb, "this is a nice place."
"My dad used to own it, I guess it holds a bit of nostalgia for me," she says.
We enter the pub; the decor is a warm mix of wood, brass, and various colored Tartans.
"Hiya, Carrie, haven't seen ya in a bit." the bartender calls out,
"Who's the lad?" the man says eyeing me up and down.
"Owen, this is detective Newcastle. He saved all those kids over in Rochelle last week."
"What are ya drinkin' detective?" Owen's face eases.
"Beer would be great, thanks" I reply.
We take a seat at the bar.
"Sorry about the once over, Owen means well," Carrie says "Since my dad passed the regulars like me to check in from time to time, they are like family."
"If you don't mind me asking, how did your dad die?" I'm looking for anything that might be suspicious.
"Cancer. It was a long hard road, I was in college, then med school, I told myself I was pushing to be the best for him. Pushing myself to learn more about the disease. Hoping maybe I could contribute to a cure, but I was really just trying to escape seeing him in pain."
I might have pushed it a little too far.
"Anyway," Carries says with a deep breath, "I work for Vitale Research now, in their genetics lab, we are working on some exciting breakthroughs in cell re-engineering."
"Wow, all that and you paint faces too?" I interject to lighten the mood.
"I try to volunteer for a lot of things." She replies
"Enough about me." she says, "You have a much more exciting job, Mr. Newcastle, tell me about it."
"Please, call me Dylan," I reply.
The night continues as we chat effortlessly about life in and out of work.
Be careful, Dylan. She is a mark, at any moment you have to take her soul.
I just don't understand why.
"This has been a delightful evening, but I'm about to turn into a pumpkin." Carrie smiles,
"I would like to see you again. The way you approached me today, took some guts, it was direct and honest. It reminded me of my dad."
"I appreciate that. I'm not sure what got into me." I laugh, "But I'm glad I did."
We exchange numbers and leave the pub, standing on the street corner. Something doesn't feel right, my senses are on alert.
"Hey, can I get you a ride?"
"Nah, my apartment is only a couple of streets over. I've walked this neighborhood my entire life, I'll be fine."
With that, she walks across the street and into the darkness. I'm on fire inside, there is something about to happen and it is not natural.
Running across the street, staying in the shadows following her, the light from her phone glows on her face, she is oblivious to the car parked at the top of the street. Whoever is in that car is casting a serious black aura, the only penetrating light in the murk is a burning cigarette.
There is the evil intent.
The car starts up and pulls away from the curb; it moves towards her picking up speed; my walk turns to a sprint, but I won't make it.
"Carrie, get off the street!"
She turns in time to run up her apartment stairs, the car bumps up on the curb, just missing her as it careens into the side of the adjacent building, the impact throws the driver into the alleyway.
"Are you ok?." Trying to gauge her shock level, "Must have been a drunk driver." hoping she buys it.
"It, it wasn't." she whispers with tears in her eyes, "there are people trying to intimidate me."
Neighborhood windows light up as people wake up and funnel out into the street to see what all the noise is about
"Go inside," we hear sirens wail in the distance. "I'll take care of this."
The driver is writhing in pain but still alive and worse yet, smiling.
"Who sent you?" I spit in anger.
"Screw you," he laughs, coughing blood, "I can't die, I made a deal, and when I recover, I am coming back to mess her up."
"Wrong answer." and with that I rip his soul from his body, leaving it in limbo, this is true torment, he will wish he could burn after a million years of dark isolation.
'How are you doing?' I text Carrie after the last officer has left the scene.
'Can you come up? I need to talk.' her text responds.
She rings me in and I find her sitting in the dark.
"It's all taken care of. The driver had a blood-alcohol level that would have put down an elephant. Unfortunately, he didn't make it."
"Dylan, the Onyx Group has been pushing me to sell them my research, they have a defense contract that would benefit from my cell regeneration data. They want to build genetically enhanced soldiers. Soldiers who can take catastrophic damage, regenerate, and still fight. It is madness. My work is to help people like my father, not to make killing machines.
"You should move to a safe house," I reply. "I can ..."
"No, they will not intimidate me," she responds.
"Ok, but you need to be careful, at least for the next few days, I'll figure out who is doing this, I have a lot of unique connections."
I open the door to my apartment, it's been a really long night. The pungent smell of brimstone burns my nose.
"Hello, Dylan." the voice hammers my brain like a migraine.
"I'm really not in the mood," I respond.
"I could tear your spine from your miserable, frail body, you insolent worm." the voice says from the darkness.
"Why do you want her so bad? She has done nothing wrong."
"She is bad for business." the voice replies.
"Seriously, she finds a cure for one of the worst diseases in history and you want to drag her to the underworld? You are such a goddamn hypocrite"
"If you don't deliver her to us, we will make an example of you and her, we always get what we want, you know this."
and with that, the apartment becomes still.
"God, I need to work for the other side.
I wake to a new day, the smell of spring flowers fills my apartment, the earth is so beautiful this time of year.
'I am going into the office, please call or text if you need anything.' I send her a text first thing.
I get to the office and just shuffle papers around, worrying about Carrie, then I get a response.
'They took it'
'My research data and samples, gone. Can you come and look around? I don't trust anyone here.'
I show my badge, which gets me as far as the Vitale lobby. Carrie meets me to show me the research area.
"Anyone have access to your data?" I ask.
"Only my assistant Ishak Nalli, but he called in sick today. He and I started the same day here, he would never jeopardize our work"
"Yet you became the research director, and he stayed an assistant?"
"Do you have his address?" I ask.
I arrive at the apartment of Ishak Nalli, the drawn curtains hide any activity inside.
Something doesn't feel right.
Going around the back and up the fire escape; I reach the top floor to find broken glass on the landing. Someone came through the balcony.
Inside the apartment, I instantly feel the pain, the intensity is overwhelming. It is Ishak, his aura is dimming, he is praying.
"Ishak" I call out waiting to hear footsteps or other movements, but nothing, the place is clear.
He is lying on the living room floor; bleeding and bruised; they cut him up pretty badly. This was a brutal interrogation.
"Dispatch this is detective Newcastle I have an assaulted man with possible internal injuries, sending you the address. Please hurry."
"Ishak, who did this?" I ask.
"I, I don't know ..." he coughs
"But they know where my sister lives. They said they would kill her. I brought them the research they wanted, I gave them as much as I could." he is wheezing, struggling just to breathe.
"The research needed more testing, I told them, but they wouldn't listen."
I am overcome with a peaceful feeling; it is intoxicating; the drab colors of the apartment melt into a vibrant white. This is the calling, a soul extraction, only the good kind. I step back away as a being of pure light descends holding out a hand to Ishak, he has a look of tranquility as his soul steps out of his body.
The angel looks at me; I try to utter some explanation, but my voice is empty, and in an instant, they vanish. The room returns to the disarray of death. The EMT sirens pull up, but Ishak is beyond the help of this world.
God, I hate my job.
Carrie clutches a cup of tea, just staring at it. I search for comforting words, but there aren't any that will fix this.
How do I protect her, I'm not even sure I can? She needs to know the forces at work here, I could tell her the truth, about me, about everything, but I've been lying for so long I don't even know what that is.
I just need to fix this.
"Dylan, my research had mixed results, it needed so much more work. The mice we tested became violent, some killed themselves, some even cannibalized the others."
"How would this affect humans?"
"We don't know, we were so far from that stage." she pauses,
"What if we go public with this?" she asks.
"They would bury it." I reply "The Onyx Group owns news channels, social media, they have their fingers in everything, and they have a well-groomed reputation. We don't even know if it is them."
"What do you mean?" she looks at me with even more worry, "Who else could it be?"
"I just mean, we need to look at all the details, it doesn't seem like Onyx would go to these lengths if you haven't proven this works with humans."
"Still, I'll look into them, I'll keep in touch,"
"Please be careful," she says.
I miss her smile.
I drive downtown, children are playing in the park, the world seems so oblivious to the dark side; I long for that innocence, Carrie is the one thing I have seen in a long time that makes me feel hope for the world.
I go to my apartment and begin the ritual, I can feel the heat as the portal opens, the fire slips through scarring the cheap carpets. That's coming out of my deposit.
I find myself standing in the underworld, I call out, "Hades. Or whatever you are going by this week. We need to talk."
There is nothing, but lost souls wandering past, they don't even notice me drowning in their madness.
"Hades," I call out again.
Without warning, I am transported to an enormous throne room, I could probably throw up right now, I guess I've arrived.
"What do you want, collector?"
"I am here to ask for leniency for the soul Carrie Douglas," I can barely stand.
"Why should we grant your request," The voice hurts my being.
"She can no longer continue on the path that made her a mark," I utter.
"We altered her path, she will live her life, however, you have chosen your path. The chaos unleashed because of your negligence is on you."
"What chaos?" I ask.
In an instant I am back in my apartment, my entire body hurts.
"Yeah, thanks for nothing," I mutter.
I really need sleep.
The cacophony of traffic and car horns wake me, I can hear people yelling in the streets below, this is normally a quiet corner of town.
Wow, I feel like a slug. What time is it?
I reach for my phone; it is sitting on the charger, don't really remember plugging it in.
The screen lights up showing 250 notifications. What the hell?
Then I see it.
This can't be real. The date is wrong. It is almost 6 months since the day I traveled to the underworld; but that was just last night, I know there is no concept of time in Hell, but I was there maybe an hour?
I thumb through the messages, so many from Carrie.
'Dylan, where are you? Please call me.'
'I am not sure if you are OK, please forget the investigation, just come see me.'
The messages continue on and on until the very last one.
'Dylan, this is probably the last message I can send to you, I don't know if you are alive, but whoever stole my research did test it on humans, the results were catastrophic. They lost control and now it is spreading, the world is about to go mad. The government has asked me to work on a cure, I am not sure where I am going to be, some secret location, they won't even tell me. I hope you get this message, I really hope you are OK.'
I get off my bed and go to the window. Across the landscape there are fires everywhere, people are running to the bridge to escape the city.
Then I see it, an army of blood-covered sub-humans, mutated creatures, running in all directions.
This is madness.
The only thing that matters to me is getting out of the city and finding Carrie to make this right. To tell her the truth about everything.
"I guess Hell burned me on this one, they wanted this all along," I mutter as I pack up.
Someone is screaming in the apartment below me.
Time to go.