They call me Harry.
Despite what you may have heard, I’m nothing special. Trust me. But after you make it through a couple bad jobs, word gets around. You get on some short lists. They call you again. For transports, mostly. Escorts. To be honest, I haven’t been too picky about the clientele lately, although I do have a little guilt about that. But I gotta pay the rent, same as you. Heaven’s fun to work with and all, but Hell pays better. I figure when I win the lottery, I’ll donate my services to the Big Guy full time.
But that’s not what you wanna hear about. So here goes.
The first time I died was because of an angel on her way back to Heaven. It was kind of a big deal. Angels are majestic fucking creatures after all, and holy books all over the world are full of people falling to their feet and renouncing their sins at the sight of one. Physical manifestations of God’s grace and all that. Good things happen in their wake, I can tell you. Miracles. And you feel like a million bucks for days after.
That’s why the priests keep them shrouded – big, thick sunglasses; hoods; long coats; that sort of thing – and why they pretty much never speak. Supposedly that’s cheating. Supposedly people have to choose on faith or whatever, unswayed by angelic or demonic presence. It’s a bunch of horseshit, frankly, because both sides break that rule all the goddamned time. (Just don’t quote me on that.)
So here’s a cosmology lesson for you. The planes of existence aren’t all connected to each other. It’s fucking complicated, but basically it works like this. You can go from A to B and from A to C, but you can’t go from B to A, so if you’re on B, and you want to get to A, you gotta go through C.
Don’t ask me. I didn’t make the rules.
Earth is pretty much in the middle of everything, like the crossroads of existence. The Norse weren’t wrong about that. That’s why it’s so fucked up. We get the shit from everywhere. It’s also why there are so many transport jobs, and why it’s so risky. For all the lawyers and politicians we have – more per capita than just about anywhere, I’m told – Earth is still a mostly lawless, immoral ball of dirt, so if you’re looking to pinch someone from the other side, it’s better to try it here than just about anywhere else in existence.
Only you can’t get to Heaven directly from Earth. You can go through Purgatory, but since that’s basically Hell-Lite, it’s not anyone’s preferred path. Next best thing takes you through three higher planes, which is fine since any number of nexuses on Earth can send you up one. You just need a ley line that runs in your direction, kinda like making sure you’re on the right track at the train station.
Used to be we listened to the geomancers and were careful where we built our shit. The Chinese still have the good sense to follow the rules of feng shui (for the most part), but the rest of the planet is all fucked up. Turns out there’s an upward-facing nexus at the top of the Hyatt Regency just outside O’Hare Airport, Chicago.
I was supposed to wait in the lobby until the angel showed up with her retinue. I was to nonchalantly follow in a separate elevator along with the rest of the crew, who were all milling about like we were waiting for a cab or something. And that’s pretty much exactly how it started. She came in like a pop star with monks for groupies. When they got into the elevator, I put down the magazine I wasn’t reading and followed.
Only I got stuck behind some members of a wedding party. This was a Sunday – angels try to do their traveling on the Sabbath – and the family were all leaving town after the wedding the day before. As the elevator stopped at each of their floors, they had to take like five fucking minutes to say their fucking goodbyes. By the time I got to the top, shit had already gone down.
Bodies slumped in the hall. Blood. A muffled scream from one of the rooms. The door was open, and I froze.
The monks and priests who organize this shit like to keep it all nonlethal. Fuckers. And they won’t fight themselves, which is what they hire us for. It was a condition of our employment that we could carry nothing more than a baton or a whiffer. I chose the latter, which, if you don’t know, is basically a battery-powered electrostatic air purifier with a blessed cross on the front, or maybe a reliquary of some kind. Fits in your hand. Blows holy air.
I’m not even joking.
If you get them in the eyes, it’s kind of like mace to a demon. Stuns them, blurs their vision, maybe puts them down, but also wears off quick. Holy water is better, but that does permanent damage and has even been known to kill, so it wasn’t allowed.
I thought about leaving. I really did. The pay wasn’t that good. But there were those tiny screams, like an animal – a bird or a puppy – helpless and crying. I cursed and pulled the whiffer and crept toward the room. I was alone in a hall full of the dead. I peered with one eye around the open door.
The demons were all in suits. They had dropped their disguises and their burned, ripped, skinless, deformed faces created quite a contrast with the Armani. They had the angel on her knees. One of the demons, a succubus with a pinned-open skull, held the angel’s arms behind her back. A male scourge demon had the angel’s head in his hands. He was forcing her mouth open while a second male stood over her and pursed his scaly lips. Two more stood by the door. They watched the action with their backs to me.
I fought back a gasp. A caustic ooze, full of fire and sin, bubbled up from the demon’s throat and fell in frothing drops into the angel’s open mouth.
Now, this is heresy, I know, but God has some fucked up sense of humor. He set it all up so the path of Good is full of patience and tenacity and wisdom and being the bigger person but not getting a big head about it and all that kinda crap. Being a saint is like swimming upstream. Every. Fucking. Day. It’s exhausting.
Meanwhile, falling into Hell is like falling down a hole. You don’t have to do much of anything except be lazy and not pay attention. God waits for us to choose, but the Devil claws at us, all the time, and it takes effort just to stand upright in the same damn place, let alone to climb upwards to Heaven.
All that means is that the artifacts of Heaven – like my stupid whiffer – repel demons, force them away, while artifacts of Hell – like the foam – have the opposite effect on angels. Demon venom is like heroin to the other side, only once it gets inside, the angel is corrupted.
That’s what demons do. Take a little good out of the world. Every. Fucking. Day.
To her credit, the angel struggled, but there were too many of them. Bastards. Unless an angel is one of the heavenly warriors – and there’s not many of them left these days – their power is not strength but grace and compassion, and while that’s great and all, it doesn’t do shit for you in a fight.
But those gurgles . . . And the fear in her eyes. And the knowledge that, if she swallowed too much of that crap, she’d never be allowed back into Heaven. It was too much.
I burst in with the whiffer and hit the two demons standing by the door. They turned and I got ‘em right in the eyes. They screamed and clawed at their faces. The others stopped. The angel dropped to the floor. Her eyes glazed. She was tripping hard on devil goo.
So, demons can play dead. It’s one of their many tricks. In the rush, I didn’t have a chance to check the hall. I took a risk and paid for it. One of the bodies on the floor wasn’t a victim. He was a guard. Playing possum. That’s why the others just waited. They saw him sneaking up behind me.
I felt a stab in my back. I went down. They laughed. I’m sure they all thought I was good as dead. And I should have been.
I mentioned before that I’d survived a couple bad jobs. There’s a reason for that. Turns out I’m immune to demon venom. It’s rare, but it happens, kind of like how some folks way back when were immune to the plague (which Hell totally started, by the way). Different demons have different kinds: shit that burns, shit that rots your flesh away, shit that drives you mad. So far, none of it’s done so much as give me a headache and a killer craving for Cheetos.
But still, being stabbed fucking hurts. So there I was cringing on one knee from the venom-filled talon some asshole hellspawn just jabbed into my back and with nothing to defend myself but a fistful of God’s holy farts.
The demons lifted the angel off the floor. She stumbled to her feet as they dragged her to the back toward a chair by the window. I could see downtown Chicago in the distance. Meanwhile, I was losing blood, and at any moment the demons would realize the venom hadn’t done the trick and would dispatch me the old fashioned way.
I didn’t really see where I had much of a choice, ya know? So I charged forward, tackled the angel, and crashed through the window. Sometimes it’s good to be husky.
Did I mention we were on the twelfth floor? That’s a loooooooong way down.
I’d like to say there was a pool at the bottom or a terrace just below. I’d like to say the hotel’s linen service was making a delivery at that exact time and that I landed on a pile of sheets.
But nope. Pavement city.
Didn’t hurt too bad seeing as how I died on impact.
And no, I wasn’t worried about the angel. Angels’ feet never touch the ground. The angel would float to a stop. The angel would be fucking fine.
All other things being equal, I should’ve gone straight down to the bad place. I haven’t been particularly evil, but I can’t say I’ve done much to swim upstream either. But seeing as how I died sacrificing myself for one of the Holy Host, I caught a break and ended up in between. Where the deals are made.
Technically, Limbo isn’t really anything, but what my mind saw was an endless hall of meeting rooms. I sat in one, behind a fold-out table – bureaucrats are cheap bastards everywhere – for what seemed like an eternity. And it probably was. I wasn’t sure what to expect. From what I heard, sometimes you got a deal from one side, sometimes from the other, sometimes both declined and you waited there in one of those rooms.
I’m not sure what I expected, but it for damn sure wasn’t the bonus plan. Reps from both sides showed up and sat next to each other, expressionless. They slid their deals to me across the table. I said I needed a minute to look things over. You know, because it was such an important decision.
Sitting there alone in that room, eyes moving from packet to packet, I had a crazy thought. I lifted the pen-shaped needle they provided and pricked the index finger on both my right and left hands, then pressed them onto each deal simultaneously.
Guess what? No one had ever done that before, and apparently I shorted out some major shit. The deals canceled each other. Black was white. White was black. Whatever. I don’t know. But while they were running around trying to fix it all, I got sent back. I think they just wanted to be rid of me.
So there I was back on the pavement in front of the hotel, lying in a pool of my own blood. People are screaming. Next to me the angel is still tripping balls on demon spooge. I got a good look at her then. Wow.
I might have had a religious experience if a gang of Hell’s hooligans wasn’t about to come down and rip my face off.
So I stood up, wiped off the blood, smiled at the gasping bell hop, grabbed the angel’s arm, and bailed.
You’d think that would have been the hard part. You’d think that after beating demons and saving an angel and jumping from the twelfth floor and dying and shorting out the whole sorting system and coming back, things would have gotten a little easier. You’d think.
But you’d be wrong.
The universe has rules, as you probably know – things like the fucking gravitational constant and the conversion of matter to energy and don’t cry over spilled milk and dropped toast always lands on the buttered side. Supposedly everything is set up so that anyone can die seven times without a hitch. I guess they thought that would be enough of a buffer. I mean, you’re only supposed to die once, right? But then Jesus brought Lazarus back. And himself. And the bones of the prophet Elisha are supposed to resurrect anyone who touches them.
But for all of human history, that’s how it’s been. Onesies and twosies. No one’s gotten close to seven. In fact, as far as I know, the most anyone ever died was three times, and that was a fucking exceptional case. But since no one ever hit seven, no one knows what happens when you get there. Some people say the whole cycle of life and death breaks. Some say you meet God. Some say you just stay dead, except that this time nothing can bring you back (except maybe the Word of the Head Honcho himself).
Seven times. That’s what the universe was built for. That’s important.
They call me Harry, but my real name is Harriet. Harriet Chase. And this is the story of how I died seven times.
art by Reynan Sanchez