By Tom Leins
The burn is horrendous and I struggle to look him in his good eye.
His only eye.
His face hasn’t healed, and he smells charred – like he has crawled out of the belly of hell itself.
Virgil is a tall man in a rust-brown suit. The severed nub of his thumb protrudes from the soiled looking plaster-cast on his right arm. He scratches his ruined face.
“Will you be able to get her back?”
I nod, and he wheezes with relief. He removes a creased photograph from his wallet.
The girl has hair the colour of melted caramel. She flashes the camera a tight smile, which never quite reaches her eyes. Her collarbone seems to be tattooed. I pick up the photo and squint. It looks like a flatlining heartbeat, with the words ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ tattooed underneath.
“Can I keep it?”
“I don’t need the photo back, Mr Rey. Just my daughter.”
I survey the hellscape in front of me. The horizon is a jagged blur of burned-out, skeletal-looking houses and abandoned office blocks.
The Underworld looms large in the middle: a labyrinthine subterranean nightclub presided over by an elderly tycoon named Harry Hades. It’s only a year old – built on the site a notorious crime scene. Ten boys were found in the vacant lot – their bodies entirely drained of blood. People said that the Bone Daddy did it, but I don’t believe in ghosts.
‘The Underworld’ is spelled out in lurid, neon lights. Underneath, in smaller lights, are the words ‘Abandon all hope, ye who enter here’.
I step past the expressionless, gargoyle-esque doormen and into the vestibule – my boots crunching on a bloody mixture of maggots, lice and dried pus. The grinding bass is so low it makes my guts churn.
There are nine doors, evenly spaced out. A word has been carved onto each door: Limbo. Lust. Gluttony. Greed. Wrath. Heresy. Violence. Fraud. Treachery. The Nine Circles of Hell.
I pause next to Lust. The door opens a crack and sultry laughter oozes through the gap.
I turn abruptly as Gluttony swings open. The room disgorges a tide of putrid slush into the lobby.
I choose Violence. One way or another, I always choose Violence.
The door opens with an infernal creak. A wave of evil, reeking heat takes my breath away. It’s as hot as hell and twice as ugly. The men drinking themselves into damnation are the worst of the worst. Child murderers. Spree killers. Degenerates. The violently unhinged. Sickness comes off them in waves. They rub shoulders, careful not to look one another in the eye – or spill each other’s pints. Their names are tattooed on their foreheads, their crimes inked on their knuckles.
My armpits feel rancid with sweat. Perspiration stings my bloodshot eyeballs. As I pass through the crowd, hushed voices rasp like flame. Yellow eyes glare at me from the gloom. Pale, naked girls drift around the room, drinks trays in hand. I grab a drink to try and alleviate the blast-furnace heat, but it tastes hellish, so I spit the fiery liquid back in the glass and place it on the next tray that passes my way.
At the back of the room, Harry Hades slouches in an obscene gold-plated wheelchair. A girl – Beatrice – performs a private dance for him. There’s a choke-chain wrapped around her throat – fastened to his wheelchair. Her movements are weary, her feet are calloused. She has been condemned to perform a relentless slow grind by a bored sadist.
Harry Hades is old. Not frail, but old enough to have lost his fear of death. He jerks the chain and the girl falls at his feet. He removes his tinted sunglasses. His eyes look dead.
“How can I help you, young man?”
His dentures are so big that he can’t close his mouth when he grins at me.
I hold the photograph up for his inspection.
“If you think she was here, she probably was.”
“I’m going to need her back.”
“I care little about what happens outside The Underworld, young man. I have everything I need down here. But no one steals a soul from my realm.”
I don’t have the energy to talk to this rotten old motherfucker – especially in this heat – so I throw a brutal right hook at his elderly face – crumpling his bone-structure like a scrapyard hatchback.
Streaky blood leaks from his broken mouth. He spits a mouthful at my feet and speaks in a nasal whine.
“How about I let my hell-hound off his leash?”
It’s an idle threat, and I let it hang in the air – like the stale smoke from his high-tar cigarettes.
“Do your worst, Hades.”
Crouched behind the wheelchair, attached to a second choke-chain, is a lean, tattooed guy with a flick-knife sneer and a mangled ear. Hades yanks his leash. He scampers across the floor on his hands and knees, before springing to his feet.
I forget his real name, but he’s a Scottish ex-bareknuckle fighter who was banned for life after killing two men in the cage. His torso is layered in clumsy prison ink: skulls, daggers, obscenities. In the middle of his chest is a brand-new tattoo of a three-headed dog with a serpent for a tail. It’s so new, the tattoo is still wrapped in clingfilm.
Hades unclips the chain, and I see the man’s muscles bunch and harden.
I don’t give him the time to make a move – I grab his leash and wrench his pale face towards my fist. Once. Twice. Three times. On the floor, he whimpers like a kicked hell-hound.
Hades attempts to scramble away from me, but his slip-on shoes look skittish – like hooves on a blood-slick abattoir floor – and his withered legs give way immediately. His forehead hits the concrete and blood as thick as mould oozes from his ruptured skull.
I place Beatrice on the vacant wheelchair and move towards the exit.
Cretinous faces leer at me, but no one makes a move to stop me.
I retrieve a complementary matchbook from the table next to the exit, strike a match and drop it in the pocket of one of the nylon bomber jackets hanging on the coat-rack.
Kick up the fire, and let the flames break loose.
I doubt these rotten bastards will even notice.
Bio: Tom Leins is a crime writer from Paignton, UK. His books include Boneyard Dogs, Ten Pints of Blood, Meat Bubbles & Other Stories (all published by Close to the Bone) and Repetition Kills You and The Good Book: Fairy Tales for Hard Men (both available from All Due Respect). For more details, please visit: