Fights in The Nine usually ended up in one of two ways; either you won, or you were dead—again—and found yourself in the Gnashing Fields. The winner wasn’t so much the problem. The dead guy, he was bad for business. Not my business, of course. I worked for The Judas Agency, A.K.A. The Disaster Factory. They thrived on death, dismemberment, and destruction. My friend, Dan, was a different story. He was a conservative guy straight out of the 60’s. He owned Hula Harry’s. One of the only torture free establishments in Hell. I wasn’t about to let a couple of beefeaters bust up his joint with their brawl. I laced my fingers into my Knuckle Stunner and pulled it out of my pocket. There was no need for subterfuge. By the time either of them registered my involvement in their little sideshow, the first guy was flat on the ground.
The Knuckle Stunner was a Hellion-made weapon that somehow scrambled the circuits in the brain. The harder you hit someone, the thicker the scramble. I had set the first guy on purée and was headed for the second when he put his hands up in surrender.
“Sorry, man. He wouldn’t stop bugging me! What was I supposed to do?”
“First, you’re in a bar where you can’t get drunk.” It was true. Booze didn’t work in The Nine because, well ... Hell. “You have no excuse for acting like a stupid frat boy. Second, grab your new buddy and drag him out of here. You’re both banned for two weeks.”
“What? That’s not fa—”
I cut him off by raising my Knuckle Stunner in his direction. “If I have to drag you both out, it’s six weeks, and you don’t want me to pick the drop spot. I know a lot of back alley cesspools with your name on them.”
Frat boy didn’t say another word. He just nodded, bent over, and dragged his penance toward the door.
“Any of you good citizens willing to help this young man out?”
I looked around the bar. Everyone seemed unusually preoccupied with their tabletops.
“A free drink for anyone who helps him.” Dan wandered in behind me. The yellow button-down he wore was so thin you could almost read the tag on his undershirt, but somehow, he made it work.
The bar came to life with the sound of scraping chairs and shuffling feet. I half expected another fight to break out over who got to help him. Hard to believe a free drink full of impotent booze could be so effective.
“Thanks for your help, Gabe—again.” Dan smoothed out his thinning hair and turned to look at me. “You do so much around here I feel like you should be a partner.”
I shoved the Knuckle Stunner back into my pocket and turned away from the gaggle of makeshift rescue workers. “No, thanks. I have enough irons stoking in the fire. I can’t keep them all hot as it is.”
Dan laughed. “Still, I owe you for everything you have done for me around here.”
“You owe me nothing. Spending time here is a pleasure. Besides, where else can I hide out from all my responsibilities?” I put a hand on Dan’s shoulder. “Speaking of hiding, I finished my little project in the back room. Why don’t you come take a look?”
Hula Harry’s was an unusual place for many reasons. Yes, it was a torture-free establishment. That in and of itself made the place an oddity in The Nine. Most establishments thrived on some sort of violence or cruelty as a form of entertainment, all fully endorsed by Hell’s management, of course. Hula Harry’s was different. It was just a local bar filled with Woebegone souls looking to pass eternity any way they could, even if they couldn’t catch a buzz.
The original Harry, whoever he was, had built the place entirely out of crushed cars. The walls were bricked with cube shaped monstrosities of rims, axles, and Detroit steel. The multi-colored marvel was a sight to behold. It also made Hula Harry’s one of the most solid structures in the area.
We strolled past the bar, made from old school bus doors, and headed into the back. “Your storeroom’s as safe as a titanium piggy bank. No one will lay a hand on your precious inventory now.”
Dan peered around the seemingly empty room, seeing nothing but a few shelves— that, and the false wall I had installed to hide his valuable stock.
“That’s incredible, Gabe.” He lowered his voice so the nearby patrons wouldn’t overhear. “What’s the secret to getting in?”
I motioned him away from any prying eyes, then I reached down and hit the hidden catch in the wall. The door swung away and revealed Dan’s treasure trove of black-market goods. Case after case of sugar-loaded soda. We didn’t waste time with the diet stuff. We were in Hell after all.
“Fantastic.” Dan clapped me on the shoulder. “Keep this up, and I’ll have to hire you on full-time for sure.”
I laughed. “I wish. Working here would be a lot more fun than my regular gig.”
“I don’t know how I’m going to pay you back for all of this.”
I shrugged. “This was nothing. I’ve learned a trick or two along the way. Sometimes you have to keep the good stuff hidden.”
That was true. I had a black-market shop of my own. A place I used to pour my heart and soul into. That was before my appointment at The Judas Agency. Now I seemed too busy to even keep my own place running.
“Not just the door. The supply line too.”
Dan pointed over to a gadget my Agency partner, Alex, and I had set up in the corner. I had no idea how the thing worked, but it transported cases of liquid gold straight to Dan’s storeroom from a warehouse I’d arranged Topside. Like I said, booze did nothing for a wayward Woebegone sentenced to an eternity in The Nine. Soda, however, that still held all its reminiscent sugary goodness ... as long as you could lay your hands on some. I, as it happened, specialized in procuring this sort of hard to find item in my off time. I kept Hula Harry’s in soda, and Dan, in turn, kept the local Woebegone happy ... ish.
“Don’t worry about it. Just don’t get caught with that thing. If The Agency finds out I swiped one of those transporter gadgets for you, we’ll both wish we were ...” I stopped short. “Well, we’re already dead, but you know what I mean.”
Dan nodded as he secured the secret storeroom again.
“Don’t worry. They’ll never find it now that you built this hidey-hole.”
We strolled out of the storeroom, and a Woebegone woman walked over from a nearby table. Her eyes darted from side to side, never quite meeting anyone’s gaze. A Freshborn—a Woebegone straight out of the Gnashing Fields with no recollection of who she was or how she got here. Every Woebegone cycled through the Sulphur Pools over and over each time they died in The Nine. They suffered a perceived eternity in unending pain and suffering only to be reborn right back here in The Nine, clueless and vulnerable. It made them ripe for any lowlife to pick up as something known as a Disposable—a slave to be used and reused again and again for any number of horrible atrocities.
I had a friend who had made it her mission to rescue as many of these Disposables as possible. I kept telling her she couldn’t save them all, but she was stubborn.
“Dan, this is Rita. Another one of Zoe’s rescues. Can you give her a job here until she gets back on her feet?”
I gestured in her direction, making her flinch, then lowered my hand in a more careful motion. “It’s ok. We’re here to help. We’re not going to hurt you.”
She still wouldn’t meet my eyes. “Okay.”
It was all she said before taking a step back to clasp her arms across her body in apprehension.
“Sure. No problem.” He motioned for her to follow him. “Come over here, and we’ll get you started.”
They went behind the bar, and Dan introduced her to another woman. Another Freshborn further on her way to recovery.
A motion at the front of the bar caught my attention, and I looked up to see my partner, Alex, come through the door.
“There’s a firestorm on the horizon,” she announced. “If anybody wants to scurry home, you better make a run for it now. That smoke front isn’t waiting for anyone.”