The entrance to Hell is in Tijuana. This comes as no surprise to a thousand hung-over tourists who’ve woken up in TJ alleys with their wallets missing. But honestly, as I stare into the dark portal vibrating with screams and try to avoid the burning gaze of Lucifer himself, I have to admit I was not prepared for The Bad Place to be quite so… literal.
The Son of the Morning doesn’t look like the monster than I expected him to be: he’s a rich young business bro slumming it south of the border, with his crisp, tailored shirt cuffed up to reveal intricate tattoos on his forearms, a trim-fitting black vest, and sharp-creased charcoal slacks that make a pleasant contrast to his leather flip-flops. He’s the kind of guy I sling drinks for every night… except that if I look away from his hands they start dripping blood in the periphery of my vision. So I keep staring at his perfect fingernails, but then I start sensing the shadow of horns around his head and feel the heat of his empty, flaming sockets. If I look him in his pretty baby blues – totally normal – then the hands start bleeding again. I can’t win this game. As if he can hear the thought, he flashes me a smile. Veneers never looked so perfect.
“Listen, T,” he says conversationally, as if he and I met all the time in this dank sublevel of an empty parking garage, “I’m super sorry about this, man, but I’ve got to collect.” He shrugs with a what can you do kind of look. “It’s time, buddy.”
I don’t have a ready answer for this because I’m trying to retrace my steps over the last day or so. It had to have been one hell of a stew of pills I took to screw me up so spectacularly. I mean, okay, there was the speed I took this morning to get me out of bed, and plenty of drinks once I got to work. Miguel keeps such poor track of the inventory it’d practically be a sin not to take advantage of it. And his boss? Forget it. Dude has like half a dozen mistresses, a Maserati, and the ear of one of the cartel bigshots. I figure stealing from him counts like, in reverse on the sin-meter.
Focus, Taggart. What drugs did you take?
Well, my cousin Josh stopped by around closing time. Hadn’t seen him in a few years. Still don’t know how he tracked me down; I never told him I’d moved back from Jamaica. So we had, what – a few shots? A couple of rails? Yeah, that sounds right. Nothing there that would make me hallucinate like this. I mean, I’ve heard of people getting acid flashbacks from LSD stored in their fat cells and sticking their heads in the oven ten years later, but let’s be honest: I haven’t burned a fat cell in months.
Nope, no good reason for me to be seeing the devil in a parking lot, thank you. And sure, I’m frozen stiff, but I don’t have the paranoia I normally get from hallucinogens. They’re not really my taste, you know? Every time I tried shrooms or acid I’d get really bad trips… which, I mean, this is kind of a textbook example, what with the sublimated religious fears and all. But there’s simply no reason for it, not now!
I lick my lips and try to match Old Nick’s tone. “Sorry, guy, but I gotta go. Hit me up some other time, yeah?” I give him the double finger-guns and turn to go. I can’t remember where the stairwell is, but I decide to figure it out somewhere out of sight of the gaping maw of Hades. I make it all of two steps.
“Taggart Jameson Bagwell!” roars an inhuman voice behind me. The sound punches me in the back of the head and sends me sprawling. Either I had more than a few shots with Josh or the devil is just all done dicking around.
I roll over, and he’s walking casually toward me without a hint of the I will crush your bones and eat your soul vibe from barely a second before. “I get it, you know,” he says, crouching next to me and patting me on the shoulder. Do I feel claws in that touch? No, of course not. Just a hand with well-cared-for cuticles. “Nobody’s ready, and no matter what, they never actually believe that I’ll collect. It’s kind of by design, to be honest.” He chuckles. “Play my hand too early and they all scare straight.”
I resign myself to this utterly unbelievable occurrence. It’s either that or run, and I’m not up for another sonic punch to the skull. Plus, I can feel blood slicking off his fingers and am totally certain that if I move he’ll rip off my arm and eat it. The predator is never buried very deep with these business bros, and Beelzebub isn’t bothering to play coy. I wonder if I could make the sign of the cross before he dismembers me and don’t much care for my chances. Besides, I’m thinking God would just laugh if I tried.
“I don’t believe in any of this,” I tell him decisively. It’s hard to be firm when somebody’s got you on your back in a dirty car garage, but this is an argument I’ve rehearsed plenty of times. All that fighting with my parents had to be good for something, right? “We die and we’re done. Souls, heaven, the devil – that’s just people trying to avoid the reality of death. This… this is just a bad trip or something.” I blink my eyes hard, willing them to clear, for the scene to change. “I don’t even know if I’m hearing you right. Did you need a ride? You want my wallet? You can have it, man.”
Old Snatch rocks back on his heels and chuckles tolerantly. A Rolex dangles prettily from his tanned wrist. “Your soul’s not in your wallet, buddy. And money? Pssh, gimme a break, man. I got it all.” He leans forward and looks me right in the eye – confident, wealthy, strong. “I am here to take you to Hell, T. You’re about to have a massive coronary infarction, age forty-two, and you have shown over and over and over again that you belong to me.” He pokes his finger at my chest. “And you’re lying about not believing. You’ve known it all along.”
Ice worms up my spine at his words and my heart starts beating even more wildly. It hurts, almost like a heart attack. “No,” I say stupidly. “No.” All the Sunday School lessons I haven’t thought of in decades are scrolling through my head with shocking clarity. The devil claims his own and drags them down to an endless sea of woe. Be good, Taggart. Be better. Ironclad arguments against religion are banging up against my childhood catechisms, but all I can get out is, “No.”
“Now there’s a word you should have started using, like, thirty years ago,” Satan laughs as he pats me gently on the shoulder. “Not much point now.”
I struggle to make sense of all of this, to find some frame of reference. It’s hard to argue with someone who flat-out denies the validity of your viewpoint, and I never thought I’d be arguing with the Prince of Darkness that he doesn’t exist. A scrap of theology floats to the surface for me. “I can repent.”
The angel of the bottomless pit is amused. “Deathbed repentance? Go for it, buddy.”
I rise up on my elbows, surprised. “Really?”
He nods, his smile darkening. “Oh yeah. Let’s hear it.” He puts his finger back on my chest and pushes hard. “Pray to your God, Taggart. Beg for His mercy.” The finger pushes harder and harder, and it’s starting to hurt. His baby blue eyes disappear as endless flames fills his eye sockets. I grab him by the wrist, but his arms might as well be made of stone. I grunt and gasp in pain. “Make it count!” he laughs, sharpened teeth flashing. I feel my flesh split apart under his finger as it pushes through skin, flesh, and bone.
I can’t help it. I scream and cry, battering at his arm, at his face. “Oh, God, no! Help! Stop, stop! Please, God, stop!” The words are spouting out of me like a geyser, and I hear them without having any control over what I’m saying. The pain is making me crazy. “Oh God Jesus, help me! Save me! Oh, God, I’m sorry, please stop! I repent, I’m sorry, save me! Jesus God!” Anything to make it stop. My cries devolve into hysterical babbles as I buck under the pain. His finger is worming toward my heart. Oh God, save me! I can’t even form the words, but I cast the thought out with all the intention and truth of heart a human being can muster.
The pain only gets worse, and something inside me dies one more tiny little death. I’m hitting my head against the concrete, and only whines are getting out of me now. I have no idea what the Dark One thinks about all this, because my eyes are screwed shut. My world is shrink-wrapped around the burning wound in my chest.
And then it’s gone. I curl on my side and sob uncontrollably, clutching at the memory of that evil invasion. When I dare to put my fingers to it, they find whole cloth and unbroken skin. Disbelieving, I let my hands roam around my torso. No wound anywhere. No blood. The memory of the pain still sears my mind and sends shuddering aftershocks down my spine, but my flesh reports nothing. It never happened.
Abbadon the Destroyer pats me on the back and helps me sit up against a concrete support column, his human guise once more in place. “Pretty good show, T. Real heartfelt stuff. Those are the messages that get through, let me tell you. So… how long should we wait? I mean, what’s the turnaround time on salvation?” He smirks at me, and I have nothing to say. I am shaken in more ways than one. My tormenter gives a sigh of mock sorrow. “He’s not coming for you, Tag. It doesn’t work that way, no matter what anybody says. You get what you earn, and He knows it. You begged Him to save you, to make the pain stop, and He didn’t. You know who did?” He gives me an encouraging smile. “Me. I’m your God. I’m the One you’ve listened to, the One who has given you what you want… and so you’re mine. All mine.”
I want to shake my head, to tell him to get lost, that he’s wrong… but I’m numb. And he is right. This is the sum total of my choices, of the life I’ve led. It was fun while it lasted.
The Prince of the Power of the Air puts a hand under my arm and helps me stand. I’m shaky but manage to stay upright. He hooks an arm through my elbow and leads me toward the spinning portal of darkness. “I’m not gonna lie, bro,” he says conversationally, as if he hadn’t just tortured me to the edge of sanity. “This won’t be awesome for you. That is the point, I guess. But you’ll be among like-minded souls. That’s something, right?” He cocks his head. “Well, it’s not, actually. It just makes it worse. Again… kind of by design.”
We stop at the lip of the swirling break in reality. It’s all too much for me, all this sudden reordering of my existence, and I’m more or less shut down. I can feel the darkness pulling at me, yanking at the skin on the backs of my hands like it wants to tear it off, but I am as passive as a neutered bull in the slaughterhouse. I’m done.
But then The Wicked One puts a blocking arm in front of me and keeps me from stepping forward into doom. “Hang on. There might be another option for us here.” I turn toward him slowly, my brain hardly registering what’s being said. “Hey. Hey, look at me.” He waits for my eyes to travel up to his face, and he gently says, “Taggart, do you want to go to Hell?”
The screams of the damned draw my gaze, and I swear I can hear my own voice among them. “Of course not,” I husk out, my throat still raw from screaming.
He chucks me on the shoulder playfully. “Good! I didn’t take you for one of those. ‘I’ve been bad, I deserve it!’ Pssh. Idiots.” He pulls me away from the entrance to his domain and leans me against a nearby Chevelle that looks like it hasn’t moved in ten years. “So, let’s get this straight: I have every right to chuck you through and leave you screaming for eternity. You with me?”
I am not ‘with him,’ but I stay silent, incapable of doing otherwise. He takes this for assent. “All right, then. Since I’m, y’know… me, I can come up with other options. And as it so happens, there are some things that are… easier to do when you’re mortal.” He waits as if he wants me to say something, but my mind is still trying to reboot after a blue screen. With a shrug, he plows on. “I could have you do a little something for me, and maybe we could put off Hell for a while. Who knows? You play it right, and maybe we forgo the fire and brimstone entirely. How’s that sound?”
Something inside me manages to hit the Escape key and bring up the command line. “You… want me to serve you.”
The Father of Lies thinks this is the funniest thing I’ve said yet. He throws back those perfect blonde curls and laughs. It feels like the concrete should crumble at the sound, but everything here is solid except me. “You make it sound like a medieval morality play. No offense, my dude, but you’re no Goethe. This is just some after-hours work, you know? Paid under the table. Benefits received but not reported.” He gives me a level look, laughs evaporating. “Unless you just want to settle up right now.”
The mouth of Hell still gapes just a few feet away, and I decide that no matter what, I never want to see it again. “Deal.” He grins and sticks out a hand, and before I can think, I shake it. Our palms meet with the sound of glowing-hot steel sliding into water. I just made a deal with the devil. I can’t believe any of this.
“Now this has got to happen, like, quick,” grimaces the handsome monster, “so let me tell you what’s up.” He pulls his hand from mine, and a scrap of paper gets left behind. It has an address in Mariana Matamoros on it. “You’re gonna meet one of my guys at four AM tomorrow…” He checks his Rolex and corrects himself. “Make that today, not much time… and he’s gonna give you something.”
I feel cold in my stomach. “One of your guys?”
He flashes his bright whites at me. “Not like he’s got horns or something. Just a dude. Name is Tiago, late twenties, long hair, sorta dirty, might be strung out on something. I told him to be chill, but… well! Don’t let him stab you.” He thwaps me on the shoulder again, chuckling. “He’s expecting you.”
I’m not even sure I can get in and out of that area safely in the middle of the night. I dress local and my Spanish isn’t the worst, but I’m, like, six-foot-three and super white. Blonde, even when I haven’t showered in a week. Plus, there’s just something in my face that says American even after all these years away. It’s why my boss puts me on nights all the time – I make the tourists living dangerously on Avenida Revolución comfortable. “No stabs. Right. What is he giving me?”
He manages to loom in my vision without moving a muscle. “You don’t need to worry about it. Understood?” I nod my head, throat constricting. “It’s nothing, really. You could hold it your hand. Don’t, though. Bring a bag. And do not drop it.” The King of Babylon keeps jumping from laid back to menacing without any space in between, and it’s really giving me a headache.
“Okay,” I mutter, looking at the ground. Maybe this will be easier if I just don’t look at him. “Once I’ve got it, then what?”
“Well…” he hedges, and despite myself, I look up. His smile is hesitant now. “I need you to take it across the border.”
We started with the gate to Hell, and somehow it keeps getting weirder. “You want me to smuggle something into the US?”
“Well, yeah. Can’t be one of mine, like, really one of mine. There’s rules.” He picks at non-existent dirt under his nails, nonchalant.
I know I shouldn’t, but it comes out before I can help it. “What is this I’m taking?”
He swarms at me like a cloud of locusts, all glamour extinguished, and I can see the horns and the claws and the flame and the tail. One great taloned hand wraps around my face and lifts me from the floor. All the joints in my spine pop as I dangle helplessly. “It’s a soul, you sack of shit,” he growls. “A soul worth a hundred like you, one of the great ones, and I need it and you will take it because you do what I SAY!”
He drops me in a heap on the concrete. I’ve pissed myself somewhere in the last few seconds. I gather myself on all fours and cower at his feet. My body is numb, and my hands are shaking. I don’t dare to look at him.
Silence reigns in the parking garage until I hear a little sigh. “Whooo,” the Great Lord of Darkness says, his voice once again in the human register. “I get a little worked up sometimes. My bad.” A flip-flopped foot enters my field of view, tanned and pleasantly veined, and nudges me. “Come on, man, get up. We’re good.”
I have no desire to move, but once again he’s pulling me to my feet, brushing me off, putting me to rights. He pretends not to notice the dark spot on my jeans. “Sorry,” I manage.
He quirks a lopsided grin at me. “No sweat, buddy. We understand each other, don’t we? This is, like, uber-important to me. I’m trusting you. I’m helping you, right? So don’t screw this up for us. You take the package and get it through the border. Has to be a neutral party, and technically, that’s you. Now you’ve got your passport – I know you do – so go get it and hop on this, okay? You one hundred percent must be across by sunrise. Non-negotiable. Any later than that, and I will personally jam bamboo slivers under your fingernails for the rest of eternity.”
My fists clench at the sure knowledge that he means exactly that. “Who do I take it to?” My voice is steady even though the rest of me is shaking. Bodies are weird.
“Couldn’t be easier,” Ba’al says soothingly. “Get past the crossing and just keep walking. Someone will come up alongside you, say your name, say hi, and you hand over your bag. Then you never have to worry about it again.” He pats my shoulder. It’s a thing with him, apparently. “In fact, they’ll drop an envelope in your pocket at the same time. There’ll be enough in it for some good food and few nights at a decent hotel. Or for a few hard hits of the expensive stuff.” His deep, mocking chuckle says I know which one you’ll choose. “Just a little gift.”
“Thanks,” I whisper, wishing I could drown in a swimming pool of boiling smack right this second. A bonfire lit under a twenty-thousand-gallon spoon, and me sinking in the melted nectar above. It was what I came to this God-forsaken parking garage for in the first place. Seeing Joshua out of the blue had hit me hard, and as soon as he bailed I put in a call to a dealer I hadn’t talked to in more than a year. I wonder why he never showed. Maybe the devil killed him. Maybe he was the devil all along, and I never knew it.
“So get going, Taggart. Tick tock, you know?” His braying frat-boy laughter sounds like a young Brad Pitt, but when I look up, he’s gone. The lot is empty except for me, a few rusty cars, and a puddle of urine dissipating in the nighttime heat. The glowing, howling portal is gone. Was it ever there? A deep ache in my chest where a fallen angel’s finger wounded me says yes it was. I stumble toward the stairs.
Hauling myself up the stairwell clears my head a little, enough to start planning. Back to my room first, to grab my passport and a backpack. The clammy chafing on my thigh adds a fresh pair of pants to the checklist. Then across the city to the slums. It’s a few miles, and it won’t be safe. For the first time since moving here I wish I had a car. Normally it just makes you a target, but it’d get me in and out of the slums so much faster. Marisol has a dirt bike, but I haven’t talked to her in weeks, and she’ll just stab me if she sees me. I’m trying not to get stabbed tonight. I mean, I even paid for her clinic trip, but give a girl an STI, and she becomes an unlikely candidate for late night favors of any sort.
I bust into the street at a jog, calculating how long this is all going to take. No sleep for me until this is over. When it comes to that, I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to sleep again.
Then a spotlight hits me. “Taggart Jameson Bagwell,” booms a voice from the sky. I freeze. A helicopter? The police? Impossible. The voice is off somehow, like it’s a bunch of people speaking in perfect unison. And there’s no sound of helicopter blades.
“What the hell?” I mutter, blinded by the glare.
“You have been judged, James,” comes the clarion voice. James? “No, uh, Taggart. You have…” the words break off with a fluting cough that sounds like heavenly choirs barking. It crests, subsides, breaks off, and then starts again.
I edge backward, trying to get out of the spotlight. This is deeply messed up, and I’ve got places to be.
“Ahhh, shit,” says the voice of Heaven, and then everything goes black.