Iridescent glimmerings, like a biblical flash flood, coursed across the abysmally long wasteland of El Doscientos, Mexico’s most mundane highway. Designed specifically for the traversing of Costa Alegre, the nation’s long knob of a hip, the highway shot like a varicose vein out toward the roasted skin of the shoreline.
Leaving the dusty ocean winds of Puerto Vallarta and heading south along the continent’s ever tapering legs, the car’s outside temperature gauge read an unforgiving 106°. It was a clear challenge to the highway’s omnipotence that the car, with its faded paint and scuffed bumpers, attempted the crossing in the first place. Clearly the black asphalt, a syrupy batter of revolution, cattle ranches, and salted mangos, baked by a hundred years of electromagnetic radiation into a crispy tongue that longed to suck the rubber right off the wheels of any passing vehicles, should win handedly against the numbly designed compact–yet sporty–hatchback.
A strangely hypnotic music filled the tight cabin of the vehicle. Even with the two adults in the front seats chattering on about their professional lives, the young boy could make out every word crooned by the man’s wispy voice. The rapid combination of consonants and vowels sent the thin child’s mind off into an exciting but disturbing direction.
Straight to hell, boys.
Go straight to hell, boys.
The meaning of the song’s ponderous words never quite coalesced in the boy’s mind. He knew it wasn’t good, that the man was telling him to go to hell. That was a bad word. He was quite certain of that. But the boy was less certain as to the specific crime he had committed to earn the man’s condemnation. This perplexed him, made him anxious and afraid that an adult’s hand might shoot out and grab him the same way it had when he had hit another boy in preschool.
He had mouthed the words to the rhythmic tap-tap-tap of the song, listening curiously as the voice spoke of Christmas and Coca-Cola. Surely those were good things, surely this man was a good man, singing a good song. And yet, there he went again, telling the child that he was damned.
Go straight to hell, boys.
It distressed the boy but he did not stop singing the words. Instead he continued with something called “procaine” and a “rock man’s grooves” and “rat poison,” all the while watching the broken cement structures and dying dogs whisk past outside his window. He saw tattered clothing hanging loosely around gaunt figures; dry gulches that begged for cars to crash into them, spilling precious liquids onto their unquenchable existence. The land itself was half-starved and crazed, as desperate and foreboding as the voice in the song.
They were not traveling particularly fast, but when the car hit a pothole so enormous that even Evel Knievel could not have flown across its width, the passenger side wheel dropped, wedging itself into the mouth-like canyon, sending the rear end of the Mazda up into the air where it spun like a top before doing a series of somersaults. The car came to a rest against a large ficus, its vitals, crushed but still steaming, having spilled out into the dirt, soaking the dry dust in oil and transmission fluid. In ICU, doted on by his maternal grandmother who had flown down the day after the crash, the boy lay quietly staring out the window at the sixty-foot tall steel statue of a swordfish erupting from the pale cement of the shoreline promenade. On the first morning in the hospital he had a conversation entirely in Spanish, a new language for him, with a woman who had died in the same room two seasons past. By the end of the week he’d met over a hundred former patients and began to realize that his grandmother and doctors were unable to share in the experience. They called it PTSD and gave him valium. He knew that he was part of a fateful transaction. His parents had been taken from him. In exchange, he could now see and speak with the dead.
Thirty years later he thought not of the crash, but of the song, realizing that he had done just as the voice had commanded. Obeyed it thoroughly.
He was in hell.
Now, a spindly if not darkly handsome man, he stood motionless on the edge of a precipice, holding a small package under his arm, eyes locked on the building across the channel of bodies in front of him. The torrent of people smashed into carts, pushed through doorways, obliterated all solid objects, smashing them into the smallest of molecules which became a fine powder that clung to the sweaty faces and arms of everyone around. ‘Soul dust’ was what the bundle had called it.
The bundle–originator of his oppression.
At night, while his body rested, the bundle spoke to him, soothingly enforcing its supreme control. The man would lay perfectly still, chest rising and falling to the rhythmic pulse of the digital clock’s hum, as ribbons of gold lace sliced into his mind, cleaving through the stem of his nervous system, repairing it with new, foreign strands of metaphysical tissue.
At first, he had feared its probings, its constant voice. But it had so delightfully reassured him, brought him offerings of sex, money, heightened his sight. Oh, the sight. It was glorious to use the sight, to delve into everything, not just the dead, to truly see the plain of existence for what it was. The man spent those first months just looking around him, beholding the beauty in every molecule of the world.
Five long years came and went before the man realized that which his new partner could not offer him–intimacy. As he aged, it was the one thing he craved but could never approach. Women’s sweet bodies and beguiling smiles would be replaced by aging flesh, blown off the muscles and bones, leaving a desiccated carcass. He learned to push the sight off as best he could and to be quick about his business. There just wasn’t time for building a more substantial relationship.
Everywhere he looked he saw the same thing–life passing into oblivion. The only moments of peace he could find in the carnage was when he was working, being used, focused on something other than his own despair. When all he could see was the dying, it was a comfort to be with the dead.
A clanging of lid on pot snapped the man out of his thoughts. He was positioned in a eddy created by two hotmeats sellers, their carts planted on either side of the steps he looked down from. Waiting, he watched for an ebb in the river of people, a momentary lull when he could leave the safety of his step and enter the stream of the dying.
There! the bundle called out to him. Go now!
His feet stuttered but moved forward into the street. Five starving children surrounded him, ten hungry eyes pawing at him, begging for him to save them from death–why did children always know?–then they were pushed on downstream, the current sending them to the next worn rock jutting from the water’s rise. The man raced to the other side of the street, clambered to the curb top and mounted the walkway in a leap that defied his weak frame.
Sweat cascaded down his temples, the hair on his head sticking fetidly to his scalp like the fur of a bloodied animal after it had been slaughtered. He took one more look at the turmoil of the street and then pushed his way through the tall azure colored wooden doors.
The courtyard’s cracked cement was empty of people and he sighed in relief. The noise from the street had not diminished much but at least he was more alone. At least he wasn’t forced to see their traumatized existence any further, their cycle of birth and death repeated over and over.
At the far edge of the courtyard the young man stopped and lightly rapped against a door. He looked back the way he had just come, fearful of being followed, but he saw nothing. The bundle would have told him anyway, but he still used his flesh and blood to satisfy his irrational fears. They were, after all, one and the same–his fear and his flesh.
Thick paint marks from countless coatings ran like waves across the otherwise plain white door that opened before him. A serious young woman beckoned him in. She wore a traditional sari dress the color of burnt ochre. Somehow the outfit was never able to push out of style even after a thousand years of continual use. Like sex and hunger, it refused to be cast aside by modernity. The man watched as the shapely figure underneath it withered and blew away.
Inside, the cement floor had been fractured by a large object that cracked its surface and chipped away a large gouge. The wall, once a pale green, was busy turning a suffused brown that seemed bent on achieving the color of decomposing meat.
The man’s skin went prickly, his whole body registering the presence long before the next door opened to the adjoining room. His bundle, tucked carefully under his arm, vibrated and glowed in an other-worldly light that he knew the woman could not see. In the room, he took two well placed steps before coming to a halt and turning to face the other ‘mediary.’
The other man was Thai and a few years older than August. His ‘talent,’ as August had felt already, was intuitive in nature–an empath. This was a critical moment, as the two parties examined each other, their bundles sinuously intertwining in an ether that spread out into the center of the room. The young man was again reminded of two dogs meeting for the first time, determining each other’s scent, cross-referencing it against their personal databases of hundreds of other dogs they had ever met.
Good, the young man’s bundle pronounced.
The other ‘mediary’ nodded, indicating that his bundle had also accepted the arrangement.
The young man wondered about such seemingly unnecessary rituals. Surely the bundles knew exactly who each other were. Had known before this meeting, would always know. Regardless, they performed the same action whenever they came together in the physical world.
“August 19,” a heavily accented Russian voice said from the other side of the room. “It took you long enough.”
He ignored the Russian’s reference to his handle as well as the small barb about his tardiness. “You have my payment?” August asked.
A small sigh lifted like a resigned smoke signal above the two men. “Yes,” the Russian man stated. “You, know, twenty million is not easy to come by.”
“Thirty million!” August corrected him. “I specifically stated thirty. Not ten, not twenty, but thirty.”
“Easy, my friend,” the Russian said. He put a hand up reassuringly. “The payment is in your account. I was just discussing the first installment.” He turned around the screen of a small terminal that showed a bank account. The transaction window indicated a transfer had already been made into August’s account. “You will get the second amount as soon as we have our successfully completed cipher.”
“You will have it, and I expect the entire sum.”
The man nodded, affirming the deal. “Where would you like to sit?”
The other ‘mediary’ was already seated in a tarnished metal chair facing toward the doorway. Beside the man was a rack of computers set into a climate controlled chamber. It rested heavily on the floor, umbilicaled to a battery array on a cart. A French-African man smoking a cigarette sat beside the rack, his hands moving swiftly over a terminal’s keys.
“There,” August stated and pointed to the corner behind the Russian who had to turn himself around to see the small cushion that August was referring to. He turned back to August, shrugged, and moved out of the way.
“Maks, we’re ready when you are,” the man at the terminal said.
“Good, good,” the Russian replied, repositioning himself so that he could both view the monitor and the now seated ‘mediaries.’
August mounted the cushion, folding his legs into an envelope and set the bundle down into his lap. The coarse, mint green cloth unfurled slowly. August gently ran his gaunt fingers along the length of the remains, searching, communing, until he stopped over a section that hummed and vibrated, sending a signal not from itself but from the young man’s own nervous system, joltingly down his back, through his outstretched arm and into the hand. August quickly peeled back the thin gold foil and brought it up to his mouth. He noted that the form on his lap was now less than half covered in the material, its twisted flesh startlingly exposed.
Every time he used the bundle on a job he had to peel a small portion of the remaining foil off. That was the agreement, and when the foil was gone, the spirit was free and so was the ‘mediary.’ August was not allowed to choose the jobs. He was guided by the bundle, told what to do and where to go in order to enact the next part of the deal. But the bundle knew what August wanted, took jobs that would satisfy those needs. It was a breakneck process, though, and August’s body had paid the price. He was weary, spent, and now only half way through the gold foil. The thought of having to digest the other half made him shudder.
There was a moment even before the foil met his tongue where he could taste the metal, its flavor tinged with an acrid rust not unlike the taste when he ran a high fever, the tinny oxide of his blood seeping onto his palette. He stuck the thin sheet into his mouth and swallowed, immediately feeling the effects. His eyes rolled back, lids fluttering, and he sucked in a sharp, caustic breath. The wave continued through his body, tearing him from the room, shoving him into the atoms of the walls, the cement, the brown sandy dirt under the building, through a clothes line outside and a sky blue shirt wafting in the breeze of the motorists on the main street. As his being saturated the area, August became aware of the other entities–the other bundle and its ‘mediary,’ a half dozen graves in the neighboring yard, malevolent spirits of elephants and wild birds, insects and bacterium.
August had been instructed to never touch the bundle’s mummified body, let alone ingest the gold wrapping that covered its shriveled naked body. He was introduced to its original ‘mediary’ through a mutual acquaintance, a flamboyant haruspex who had been hoping to impress the young man. August grew quickly tired of the older man’s constant advances. But he was interested in the child.
August had heard rumors of the strange soul, horrifically bottled up inside the small corpse, trapped and forced into servitude–the kumantong. As soon as he had gotten within a hundred meters of the gate surrounding the estate, he could feel it, like an icy warmth, caressing his heart. Inside the palatial building it took every ounce of his mental control to keep the intoxicating pulse from enfolding around him. By the end of the visit, he knew he had to possess it. Over the next month he formed a plan, stealing it from the wealthy woman who did not even know how to properly use it. The being made its intent perfectly obvious, confusing the two guards at the gate, and keeping the woman from waking as August walked in the front door and took the golden corpse away.
He drew his being back to the body seated on the cushion, feeling the boundaries of the room enclose him.
“I’m ready,” he stated.
The Russian handed him a small photograph and a tweed jacket. In the photo a plump man with thinning hair sat at a long table wearing the same jacket.
“He died two days ago?” August asked, rubbing the jacket between his fingers. He knew the answer, but it helped him concentrate to have an affirmation.
The Russian nodded.
August closed his eyes and opened himself up to the image of the man in the tweed jacket. He was propelled off into the world, surging out from the broken building, out past the city limits, over an ocean, to a city on the opposite side of the planet. He could feel the man’s presence, and his being honed in it, circling around it, until August stood at the door step of a large home in the suburbs of Philadelphia. In a moment, he felt the other bundle’s ‘mediary’ standing behind him.
A heavy, wood door vanished as August pressed into the building. He circled the lower floor until he came to rest in the dining room. Seated at a darkly stained mahogany table August found the spirit of the man in the tweed jacket. The spirit was planted in the high-backed chair at the head of the table, arms laid carefully on the warm wood surface, a perplexed look on its face. It didn’t look up as August came closer. It just sat there, waiting.
As he moved closer the sensation of confusion grew stronger. When he was just a few feet away, he raised his hand, an oddly physical act for the communication that would occur, and focused his awareness on the feelings emanating from the spirit. Now it was the other ‘mediary’s’ turn to tether their connection to the rack of computers in the derelict room. August felt the vision of the space grow in his awareness like each of his eyes could see separate locations simultaneously.
Turning back to the spirit he saw the memories, most immediate first, of the man, a party, children running and playing, white wine, an elaborate meal of pot roast and Spanish tapas. The man was gripping his chest, a frantic look on his face. Then the scene changed, and the man was walking to the bathroom, earlier in the day a shower, the prior week, work. This was where August needed to be.
The spirit’s emotions were tugging at August as he sorted through the memories. Overwhelming doses of guilt and loss washed over him. Images from the spirit bubbled to the surface of August’s consciousness: two small children, a woman with auburn hair. Those had the strongest pull. August felt the spirit crying, a strangely corporeal act for something otherworldly to perform. He pushed those images away and delved deeper into the spirit’s memories of work.
August found a broad desk set under a wall of books. Strong light shone in through a tall window. The desk was neatly ordered, papers stacked in folders, a laptop, phone, a picture in a small frame of a family. The memories kept playing back like a movie running in reverse.
“Yes, that’s it,” August heard the Russian exclaim. Back in the derelict room, they were watching the images at the terminal, following August into the spirit’s memories.
August allowed the spirit’s memory to move forward and saw the man’s lips speak words, words that rang out in his mind, tolling like the bells of a cathedral.
The words kept up their steady stream, continuing for a full four minutes and thirty-two seconds before the final one was uttered by the figure in the spirit’s memory.
“That’s the end of the cipher,” the Russian stated.
August heard the voice but did not remove his awareness from the spot. Instead he probed the spirit for the meaning behind the cipher. It was a challenging effort to be forceful enough with the dead man’s residual self without scaring it off. It threatened to dissolve into the ether of the spirit’s shadow just as August focused more intensely upon it. August was prepared for that, and he backed off before the vision vanished completely.
“The signal is fading. You’re losing him, damn it!” the Russian blurted.
August ignored the man and his outburst. It was completely irrelevant, as the man was, as all men were. If only the Russian knew what August could see in him, the information that August had already gleaned from the man’s soul. All ‘mediaries’ soul-dropped to some degree. It kept them safe, and ensured a more level playing field.
August held onto the vision of the spirit, his extended hand rising above the seated apparition. As he spoke to it of the two children, the woman with auburn hair, August felt the spirit’s emotions flare white hot and the signal became clearer.
Yes, stay focused on the living.
Again August plunged into an older, less clear, vision of the office, the desk, the man in the tweed jacket, gently guiding the information being presented. The man was speaking again, although it was in a far away voice that August knew was simply his thoughts, gibberish-like and unstructured. Within them, though, August fought to find the right combination, grabbing great piles of information and sorting through them. It was buried under a stack of travel directions, internal memorandums, and theatre programs, memories of dinners and gym lockers, images of street corners all arranged by lamp configuration.
The name shot from the maelstrom glowing with intent.
“Out!” commanded the Russian.
August heard the word and slowly began to let the images fade away. As his awareness exited the past, leaving the office and entering the dining room, he again saw the apparition seated at the table, still crying, still alone. August felt its despair, its loss, and could not stop the emotions from entering his own consciousness.
August halted the retreat just long enough to leave something behind. A tiny flower petal fell from his outstretched hand, dropping soundlessly through the dead air, and coming to rest on the spirit’s head. A shimmer moved across the dark hair, passing through the tweed jacket and headed all the way down to suede loafers, crossed under the chair.
The last image that August saw was of the spirit’s head turning to suddenly see him. There was an acknowledgment in the eyes, a light, that August knew from many other such encounters. As August faded away, the spirit rose from the table, awash in a brilliant light, and disappeared.
Back in the dirty concrete room August sucked in a sharp, deep breath as his awareness recentered itself into his body. Across the room the other man with his bundle was standing, one hand rubbing away the aftereffects of the event.
August wrapped the partially gold covered remains up in the mint green cloth, uncurled his legs, and lifted himself off the small cushion. Maks, the Russian, gave his shoulder a firm squeeze and smiled, elated by the ordeal’s outcome. He showed August the final bank transfer before instructing his tech to break the place down and get them out of the building.
August stepped out of the building, back onto the sidewalk with its cacophonous bustle and stopped, observing the rhythm and pace of the many people packed onto the small market lane. He was happy with the work he had done. The money didn’t matter, even though it was triple the largest amount he’d ever received. Instead, for the first time in a long while, he felt a stronger purpose filling him, a purpose that carried with it a kernel of hope, for not just him, but also the souls that he was hired to prey upon.
Straight To Hell
Words and Music by Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon and Topper Headon Copyright (c) 1982 NINEDEN LTD. All Rights in the U.S. and Canada Controlled and Administered by UNIVERSAL – POLYGRAM
INTERNATIONAL PUBLISHING, INC. All Rights Reserved Used by Permission Reprinted by Permission of Hal Leonard Corporation