- and the -
For most of the departed souls that passed through Limbo the whole ordeal was nothing short of a terrifying surprise. In the blink of an eye they were alive, confident that the sun would greet them the following day, then all of a sudden they were staring into the hooded face of a grim reaper, who led them beyond the horizon to drop the departed off into the afterlife.
At least, that was how most people came to Limbo. For Kingston Raine and his friends, ‘normal’ was one mystery they had yet to unlock. While time was certainly on their side in deciphering that riddle, the present was met with bills, work, laundry, dishes, uniquely empty wallets, and the mundane of life after death. As such, Kingston, Joanna, John, and Catalina were now crammed into their closet-sized office, listening to the woes of a short, thin man by the name of Felix Strella.
Felix sat awkwardly in front of Kingston’s desk and realised he had no idea what to do with his hands. He held them on his thighs but that didn’t feel right, so he squeezed his fingers between each other. That didn’t work either, until at last–
“How can we help?” asked Kingston, while offering the gentleman the sincerest of smiles.
Felix glanced over his shoulder and quickly shied away from the others in the room. There was the imposing Little John, who sat on the edge of the windowsill in an effort to appear less gargantuan than he actually was. It didn’t help. Despite almost sitting down John still towered over everyone in the room. He was also built like a juggernaut and wore a suit that cost at least three times that of what Felix was wearing. Next to John and sitting on the two seater sofa was Catalina. She wore a radiant turquoise dress that hugged her hourglass frame. Her black hair was braided into a thick plait that fell over her shoulder. Next to her, and closest to Felix, was Joanna, who was tall and lithe with long light brown hair in thick curls. She wore a fine maroon blouse with black business pants. She had a heart warming look in her eyes that nearly melted Felix. He knew Kingston and John were lucky bastards to have companions like these in his life. Felix finally glanced back at Kingston, who was tall, slim, with a head of dark brown hair. He wore a dark grey suit that fitted him remarkably well. From reputation alone Felix knew that Kingston had talked his way out of a hundred deadly situations without even breaking a sweat. So there Felix sat, outclassed in brawn, youth, looks, and brains, knowing they were all picking out every little idiosyncrasy of his. He finally dug into his jacket pocket and removed a discoloured and battered letter.
“I held onto this for forty years while I was alive,” he said. With the greatest care he unfolded it. “I had this on me when I died. Holding onto it might be my biggest regret. I met this girl, Claudia, when I was eight. We went to the same school, lived nearby, then two years later her family moved away. A year after that my family moved away as well. By some miracle we moved to the same town as Claudia. Once again she was in my class. We recognised each other and became friends. Her family moved away again but she and I wrote to each other all the time. When she was sixteen she ran away from home and I met with her in New Orleans to make sure she was okay. I tried to show her around but what did I know of the city? I took her back home. My home, that is. My dad called her family and asked what they wanted to do about her. Her parents insisted that she come home immediately so we took her back to the train station. Her parents thought I was a bad influence on her but we still found a way to send letters to each other without them being intercepted. When I was eighteen I was offered a job in Belgium, so I went to San Francisco to see Claudia for what should not have been the last time. I told her I wanted to marry her. She smiled and told me the same. She gave me this letter, hoping that it would keep me sane while we were apart.”
Through the corner of his eye Kingston saw Catalina and Joanna both lean forward to see what Claudia had written. Kingston smiled to himself when Felix returned the letter to his pocket. Joanna pulled back with mild annoyance, while Kingston gave Felix a solemn nod to show that he was still paying close attention.
“Travelling on your own can change a person and I made a few mistakes. I heard she made a few of her own. I broke her heart, she broke mine, we lost touch. There are some days when I don’t think about her at all. There are others when I still can’t get her out of my mind. I just want to know what became of her. Is she still alive? Did she ever get married? Does she even remember me? Is she happy? I’ve tried asking around but everyone seems to be too busy, or I’m always in the wrong department.”
Kingston was sure he could have all of that information within an hour. Unfortunately, this was the first case they’d had in weeks, and an hour’s worth of work was hardly going to pay the rent. Kingston glanced across the room and saw Catalina rest her hand on her chest, touched by Felix’s story. Joanna squeezed Catalina’s other hand to comfort her, while John glanced up at the ceiling as he imagined how Claudia’s life might have turned out.
“You’ve come to the right place,” said Kingston. He gave Felix a genuine smile of appreciation. “We’ll need a few of your details, her details, locations, dates, addresses, that sort of thing.”
“Over here,” said Joanna. She reached for a clipboard, sheet of paper, and a pen.
John saw his girlfriend still leaning forward in baited curiosity. “I think Catalina is dying to see what’s in that letter.”
Felix shrugged. “It’s just Claudia wishing me luck in Belgium.”
Catalina stared off into the distance as she imagined the most romantic words of encouragement ever penned. Then she remembered that Felix’s story hadn’t worked out for the best. She instinctively touched her silver bracelet, the one John had given her on their anniversary. She wondered if that’s what became of the afterlife; that every ex-lover tried to track down some old flame.
“Are you looking to meet with her again?” Kingston asked.
“Kinda, yeah,” said Felix. “I mean, after so many years you’d think she would be easy to put out of my mind, you know? But she’s that one girl I was always sure I would bump into again, where I would be just standing on the street and she would walk by, then we would recognise each other and instantly all would be forgiven. I even went back to San Francisco a few times but her family had moved away again. I took that as a sign to let her go. I should kick myself for letting her go that easily.”
“What was her full name?” Joanna asked. Felix turned to Joanna and gave her all the details he could remember.
John moved over towards Kingston and sat on the edge of the desk. “I could check with the seers and find out where she is.”
“Good thinking,” said Kingston. “I’ll go over to Records and see if she ever came through Limbo.”
Catalina caught their attention, raised her left hand, and tapped her ring finger. “You should find out if she’s available to meet him.”
Kingston looked back over to Felix. “So you had the letter while you were alive for exactly forty years?”
“Yes. She gave it to me a week before I turned nineteen. I died two weeks before turning fifty nine. Pneumonia.”
“How long have you been in Limbo?”
“Eleven years,” said Felix.
“So she would be around seventy,” said Kingston. He looked back to John. “She might still be alive.”
Joanna glanced up at Felix. “Were you ever married?”
“Four times,” said Felix.
Kingston and the others shared a look of caution. They knew it was only a matter of time before Felix ran into every ex-wife and ex-girlfriend he ever had. Still, they finally had another case, and it was certainly one of the more acceptable ones to deal with, not like tracking down a cheating couple or someone looking for revenge.
Kingston looked over to his friends and saw a wave of relief from each of them; all quietly singing Felix’s praises for bringing a case to them. Perhaps this was a return to good fortune. Then Kingston’s attention shifted to the front door and a new sense of wonder overcame him. Joanna heard it as well. Someone in heavy shoes was hurrying along. By the sound of things, they were pausing at every door to read the name on the front. Kingston glanced back to Joanna and saw her instincts register the same: Someone in a hurry is looking for us.
The door burst open and an hourglass figured woman with fiery, curly red hair stormed inside. She wore a battered blue dress that had clearly seen better days and she carried with her a distinct whiff of sulphur that could only have come from Hell. She took one startled look at the five people staring back at her and she gasped. “Which one of you is Kingston Raine?”
John, Catalina, and Joanna all pointed at Kingston. Kingston quickly sized up the frenzied woman.
No weapons. On the run with only the clothes on her back. Dominant personality.
“I’m Kingston Raine,” said Kingston Raine.
The woman darted inside and flung the door closed behind her. She paused and stared at Felix, who seemed to cower against the force of the frantic redhead. “Who are you?”
“Please tell me you’re a lawyer!”
“No ma’am, just a -”
The woman nearly shrieked. “Is anyone here a lawyer?”
Catalina winced at the volume and, with one eye closed to ease the ringing in her ears, she raised her hand. “Almost.”
Kingston rose from his chair and came forward. “I thought you were looking for me?”
“I am. But I need one of those as well. You’re definitely Kingston Raine, right? You help people?”
Kingston pulled his shoulders back and smiled at the woman. “I am, and I do.”
“Good. My name’s Danielle. I’m seeking amnesty in Limbo. You have to help me get it.”
Kingston looked to one side. He was sure he heard those words correctly but he was equally sure that he was the last person in the realm who should be qualified to deal with that kind of request. His concentration was broken when he heard a scuffle from down the corridor as two men shouted at each other.
“I’m telling you she’s down there!”
“We can’t just go breaking down every door we come to.”
“But we have to get her back!”
Kingston glanced over to John. “John? We’re going to need a few moments of privacy.”
“I’m on it,” said John. He rose from the edge of the desk, towered over everyone in the room, then nudged his way past Danielle. He stuck his foot against the base of the door and kept the handle secured in his mighty fist.
Kingston waved Danielle over to the front of his desk. In just fifteen seconds she had become a far more interesting client than anyone Kingston had seen in the last year. But along with that came the nagging voice in the back of his mind that told him she probably couldn’t pay for their services. “What seems to be the problem?”
Felix squeaked in his chair and interjected. “Excuse me, I’m kinda in the middle of something.”
Danielle glanced at Felix and narrowed her eyes. “It can wait.”
Felix leaned back in surprise, then he looked apologetically to Kingston, Catalina, and Joanna. “Yes, I suppose it can.”
Danielle turned back to Kingston and clasped her hands together. “I’ve been incarcerated in Hell against my will for no fault of my own. I have spent my whole life trying to escape and now that I’ve done it I am seeking amnesty in Limbo.”
The voices from down the corridor grew louder. “I can only scan one room at a time!”
“And yet she still gave you the slip.”
“Well then. Come and give me a hand.”
John loosened his tie, flexed his fingers, then jostled his shoulders about as he prepared himself to wallop the two men if they tried anything underhanded. He secretly hoped they would because he hadn’t delivered a good punch in months.
“Who’s chasing you?” Kingston asked.
“Two of the bounty hunters from Hell,” said Danielle.
“Are they any good?”
“Better than most. I was put on Alpha Security.”
Kingston felt a burst of adrenaline that had been missing for a year. “I’m guessing that’s the highest?”
“Yes. It’s me and two other people. You have to help! Please! I can’t go back to prison! I need everyone to help me!”
Joanna turned to a fresh sheet of paper and began scribbling. “I’ll notify Death. Maybe he can help.”
Catalina nodded towards John. “And he’ll stop those two from getting in here. I promise.”
“Damn straight,” said John.
“I do know a lawyer,” said Felix. “Maybe he can assist.”
Kingston leaned back and smirked at Danielle. “Well, well. You’re in here for twenty seconds and you already have everyone helping you.”
Danielle closed the distance between them. She was on the verge of dropping to her knees and grovelling. “Please, I know all about you! Even if they take me back to Hell right now I know you’ll find a way to break me out again. Promise you’ll help me!”
Kingston dropped his mouth open to promise, then he caught himself. “Careful there.”
Danielle pulled back and now bordered on tears. All of a sudden she seemed to shrink in size as the desperate need to escape settled into a quiet urge. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to try and force you.”
Catalina shook her head. “Force him to do what?”
Kingston smiled at their newest client. “Danielle’s a muse.”
Danielle gave a quick desperate nod. “You’re right.”
“So?” asked Catalina.
Joanna leaned over and whispered to Catalina. “She puts ideas in people’s heads.”
Catalina shrugged. “Everyone can put ideas in people’s heads.”
Kingston looked back at Danielle. “Don’t test it. You want our help so behave yourself.”
Danielle stepped back and sniffed. “I will. You four have amnesty here. You know how to get it.”
Kingston drew in a deep breath and knew that wasn’t true. In fact, he had no real idea why he was still allowed in Limbo at all, considering that he had never technically been alive. But he had no intention of prodding that mystery just to get an answer.
One of the voices from the corridor dropped to a whisper. “I’m getting something from in here.”
“Let me see,” said the other voice.
Felix glanced around the room and turned to Kingston. “I really don’t want to be involved in this.”
Kingston pointed to under his desk. “Then I suggest you hide under here.” Kingston grabbed all of the loose paperwork and carried it into the small tea room behind their office, where it would hopefully be more secure.
Catalina darted forward and tidied the rest of the desk, as it seemed to be standard procedure to trash their office whenever someone came looking for Kingston or Joanna. Kingston returned and loosened a few buttons from his suit and shirt.
“Everyone ready?” he whispered.
Everyone in the room nodded, even Felix, though no one saw him because he was hiding under the desk.
“Well this is a situation,” said one of the voices from the corridor. Then, there was a gentle knock at the door.
Kingston felt a burst of amusement. “Who is it?” Then, quickly, he turned to Danielle. “How many people are chasing you?”
Danielle backed away from the door. “When an Alpha escapes all of the reserve bounty hunters are put onto the case. They drop everything else. There’s about five million of them.”
John flexed his fingers again. “This is gonna hurt …”
One of the men from behind the door called out. “We are looking for the woman. The redhead. We mean no disrespect and no harm. We are only doing our jobs. We need to transport her back to her holding cell. She is very dangerous.”
“He seems reasonable,” said Kingston. He looked back at Danielle as though he was weighing up the benefits of getting involved in her situation or not.
“Don’t let them take me!” said Danielle.
“Don’t worry, we can teleport out of here,” said Kingston.
“There!” said Joanna. She folded up her letter to Death and dropped it into the air. It fell splat onto the floorboards. “That … was supposed to disappear.”
Danielle pressed herself against the far wall. “They’ve put a lock on us.”
“So … no teleporting?” Kingston asked.
“No.” Then she shrieked at the men behind the door. “I’m not going back with you!”
The spokesman from the corridor called out. “But if you did I would really appreciate it.”
“Me too,” said his gruff friend.
“Not in a million years!” cried Danielle.
“But, ma’am? We’re starting to have the place surrounded. If you could just find it in your heart to surrender, I can go back to my wife and children and tell them that I did a good job today and no one got hurt.”
John’s shoulders fell. “Oh, that is low.”
Danielle glared through the door and seemed to increase in size again. “Tell the truth.”
“You got it,” said the bounty hunter. “Our ninetieth wedding anniversary is coming up in a few weeks. All of our children will be there. So if you could just let me tell my beautiful wife that she looks radiant as we close our ninth decade together in the afterlife, you would really touch my heart. And I’ll put in a good word for you and I’ll make sure no one botches your paperwork unfairly.”
“The bastard is making this difficult,” muttered John, as he shook his head and squeezed the door handle as tight as he could.
Kingston peered over to Danielle as he realised their problems were reaching a new high. “That guy isn’t a muse himself, is he?”
Danielle shook her head as though the question was impossible to answer. “I don’t know, I’ve been locked up for longer than he’s been alive.”
“Be careful John,” said Catalina.
“I’m trying,” said John, as he wrestled with the door handle.
“We’re finally having a piñata at the party as well,” said the bounty hunter. “I’ve always wanted one. Can you just open the door and we’ll come in and be gone very quickly? No one needs to cause a fuss.”
Kingston looked back to Joanna and gave her a quick nod. “Time to use the grappling hook.”
Joanna’s eyes almost shot out of her head. “We haven’t even had a practice run at that!”
“And I am not climbing three storeys in this dress and falling to my death,” said Catalina.
Kingston sighed and looked from person to person. “There’s no other escape route, no secret trapdoor, there might be the option of teleporting but I doubt that’s available to us right now. The only way out is through that corridor. And I’m sure the longer we talk to those two the less likely it’ll be just two of them we’re dealing with.”
Joanna sighed and looked over her business outfit. “Ah hell. I’m not exactly in the best of running shoes.”
“Me neither,” said Catalina. Worse still, she was wearing a dress that limited her speed more than the shoes would.
“Should I just stay here?” asked Felix, as he peered out from under the desk.
“That’s probably for the best,” said Kingston. He turned back to Danielle. “Do these guys have any known weaknesses?”
Danielle shrugged and was still wide eyed with the panic of escaping Hell. “Not that I know of.”
“Can you give them some?”
“Can you make them terrified of a seven foot tall Nottinghamian?”
“Ooooo,” said John, grinning. “I like that one.”
Danielle faced the door and focussed through the wood. “We have a terrifying giant in here! He’s at least ten feet tall and built like a dreadnought!”
“And he’s from Nottingham,” whispered John.
“And he’s from Nottingham!” shouted Danielle. She then shook her head in confusion at that one.
“Is his name John?” asked the bounty hunter.
John smiled in surprise. “Uh … yeah?”
“John! Buddy! It’s Francis! We met at the Games a while back. How are you guys doing? Hey, is Catalina in there as well?”
Joanna looked around all the players in the room and the words tumbled out of her mouth. “Uh oh.”
John slumped forward and rested his forehead against the door. “Yeah, yeah she’s here.”
“Oh that’s awesome! I’m glad to see you guys are still together after all that.”
Catalina arched her eyebrow at John. “What did he say?”
Kingston began nodding. “Okay, he’s a muse.”
“What did he mean by that?” Catalina asked again, as she turned from one face to another.
Joanna gave Catalina a sympathetic smile, though it didn’t look all that convincing. “He’s just being tricky. He’s from Hell, after all.”
“But he knows John! And John knows him!”
Francis the bounty hunter tapped on the door again. “John? I really need to get Danielle out of there. She’ll be safe with me. You’ve probably already seen that she’s caused a bit of mayhem in that room, making you all do things you normally wouldn’t do.”
“I don’t know,” said John. “I do crack heads open quite often.”
“But I bet you feel super guilty about having to do that, right?”
John slumped forward again. “Yeah. Sometimes.”
“Hey, do you want to come to my anniversary? I’ve invited a whole bunch of people and they would love to meet you.”
“Don’t you dare!” snapped Catalina.
“I shouldn’t,” said John.
“Oh, you can bring Catalina as well.”
“I’m never going back to Hell!” cried Catalina.
Kingston held his hand up to silence the room. He followed that up by whispering to Danielle. “Is there any way of you getting him to shut up?”
Danielle cowered again as she realised that she was losing control within only a few minutes of being free. “I don’t know, he’s better at this than I am.”
That caught Kingston by surprise. “So a bounty hunter is more powerful than an Alpha Prisoner?”
“No, but I haven’t exactly had anyone to talk to in a very long time, so I’m out of practice.”
“So start practicing!”
Danielle screamed at the door. “You lot out there! I’ve survived Hell for longer than any of you and I have spat in Satan’s face more times than I dare count. I have escaped more often than you’ve brushed your teeth and I have made it all the way into Limbo. You are trespassing! I have declared my right to amnesty and protection and only Death is able to send me back! None of you have the powers to do so, so you can all go back to Satan and tell him you failed because this woman outsmarted you!”
The room fell silent. Danielle puffed again and slowly got her breathing down to normal. Out in the corridor it was quiet, broken a few moments later by Francis’ friend.
“That does kinda make sense.”
“You idiot, she’s only messing with us,” said Francis.
Danielle shrieked again. “Death will not let me leave until he’s heard my case!”
“I’ve heard he does that,” said Francis’ friend.
“Yeah, but … don’t you want our commission?”
“Yeah … yeah, I almost forgot about that!”
Joanna caught Kingston’s attention. “We’re stuck. We need to get out.”
Kingston looked over to Danielle. “If those two are unconscious will the teleport lock be lifted?”
Danielle shook her head in confusion. “I don’t know.”
“Yes,” muttered Felix, from under the desk. “It requires great concentration to lock someone from teleporting. Even if all you do is distract them for a few seconds you usually have a shot at getting out. Unconscious is an automatic win for you.”
Kingston turned back to Joanna. “Okay. John and I will create a little mayhem. As soon as you can, teleport Danielle out of here.”
“Will they have bounty hunters waiting for us when we get to Death?” Joanna asked.
“You’ll have to take her somewhere safe and we’ll come and find you,” said Kingston.
Joanna shook her head and mouthed, ‘Where?’
Kingston winked at his girlfriend.
Joanna leaned back, unsure if she read his signal correctly. Then the perfect hiding spot appeared to her and she winked in return.
Kingston whispered to Danielle. “Go with them. First, though, we need those two at a severe handicap.”
Danielle screamed at the door. “You two are going to feel like you’re black out drunk the moment you realise what I’ve said!”
Kingston nodded to John. “Now.”
John flung the office door open, lunged forward, and punched both Francis and his cohort at the same time. He glanced down the corridor and saw a dozen more bounty hunters from Hell charging up towards them. John roared in excitement.
“No one told me it’s my birthday!” John hurled himself down the corridor in thunderous strides and barrelled into everyone he could. He landed in the middle of the heap with a frenzied look in his eye.
Kingston hurried after him. “John? Time to go.” Kingston reached out, grabbed onto John’s leg, and focussed with everything he had. They squeezed themselves out of reality … and landed in front of an impressive art deco building, clad in brown brick with a large curved ceiling. High above were the gold letterings of Death Inc. Blocking the entry to the foyer were five hundred and sixty three bounty hunters from Hell.