“Hellbend for Leather,” Jude-Marie Green

Aug 20th, 2009 | By | Category: Prose

My business card reads “Russell Light, Impresario to Hell.” I hand it out to acts with potential and we do business at Flames Bar & Grill. I like the décor here: deep booths upholstered in maroon leather, flocked red velvet wallpaper, chromed barstools. Pete the bartender keeps the lighting low and moody. My clients like the ambiance, too. Prestidigitators and illusionists who are willing to work in Hell enjoy the dark, mysterious look of the bar.

When I’m bored, waiting for a client to show up, I’ll flick flame from my fingertips and light the candles on each table. A parlor-trick kind of power, completely useless back home, I use the Flaming Fingertips to dazzle people and light candles. That scary little Frenchman from Cirque loved my trick, and after some serious dickering, I sponsored a few of his acts. But that’s another story altogether.

I had just turned down a group of Goth kids. Black leather and vampire fangs fake or (shudder!) real won’t entertain a few dozen grouchy demons.  I was doing the kids a favor; disappointed demons exact revenge in ways Dante hadn’t ever considered. You’d never know it from the way they flipped me off as they slithered out of the bar. I sighed and waved to Pete for a fresh drink.

Pete set me up with a rum and coke, then sauntered off behind the bar.  He never bothers me, never charges me, and never complains about my clients. A long time ago I set up a gig for his useless brother-in-law, a street-corner magician whose tattered silk top hat was better than his act. The demons hated his show, but kept him as a pet. Pete’s almost hysterical in his gratitude.

“Russell, someone here for ya,” Pete yelled across the room.

I looked up and saw Joe, The Devil’s Messenger. Joe darted over to me. “Got a message for you, Russell,” he said, “from your brother.” He scrunched his face and somehow managed to look like my brother, the devil, Lucifer, the great Satan, yadda yadda yadda. “‘RUSSELL!”  Those damned pets of yours are clogging up the River and making one Hell of a mess. ‘Take care of it.’ End message.” He massaged his face. “”The messages from your brother sure hurt, Russell.  Oh, and that annoying demon Jasper wants to know when the next entertainment will be.”

I said, “A few salamanders are clogging up the Styx? Jeez, why is he bothering me on my day off?”

My visits home are short because I just can’t stand the heat.  A while back I came up with the idea of constructing a fire-proof suit. Hellbend-salamander leather would have protected my delicate skin; just a pair of gloves would have been an improvement, but I cancelled my plans to turn the creatures into leather. I just didn’t have the heart to slaughter them. I deposited them in the River Styx and hoped they gave old Charon the occasional fright.

Joe shook his head. “Not just a few. I flew by the area, to give you a report, you know? The water’s fairly boiling with them. Must be millions. They’re causing problems with Charon’s boat, and you know how he hates that.”

“Don’t sweat the salamanders. They’ll float down the River and over the Edge before long.” I leaned towards Joe and lowered my voice. “I heard Charon got a new boat recently,” I said. “He’s been keeping some of the fares for himself, hasn’t he?” I loved to dish the dirt with Joe. He knows all the good gossip.

Pete brought over another round of refreshments for us and we talked for a while. Finally Joe stood up.

“I’m being summoned,” he said. “What should I tell Jasper?”

I made a rude gesture. “He’s always nagging me and he’s never satisfied with the entertainments. ‘You call that funny, Russell?’ ‘I could do better than that, Russell.’  ‘A damned soul could do better than that, Russell’. Phooey. Tell him to jump in the lake. That should annoy him sufficiently.”

Joe laughed. “Take care of yourself, Russell.”

I busied myself with flaming rum, a stupid grin on my face. It’s always great getting news from home. Even messages from my brother. I reviewed what he said, shaking my head. The Big Evil was upset about a few lizards. Then I considered what the message said exactly. “Those _damned_ pets of yours.”  Uh oh. This could be trouble.

I thought about how I’d planned to dispatch the salamanders.  “Hey Pete!  I need the services of that crocodile hunter. You still have the number?”

Pete has his ways.  He made a call and not ten minutes later we heard a motorcycle engine screaming in the parking lot. A few moments after that she walked into the room, backlit by the afternoon sun, a tall and well-built figure clad in jeans and a purple tie-dye Grateful Dead tee-shirt. She looked at Pete, who gestured to me. She walked over to my booth.

I don’t walk on cloven hooves. I leave that bit of drama for my brother. So when I say my first glance of Janthia Theophilus shook me to my toes, you know I mean it. My toes, five on each foot, shook.

I stood up to greet her, showbiz-like, with a big touchy-feely hug.

“Janthia,” I whispered into her delicate ear, “is that a knife?”

“I use this one to skin snakes,” she said as I stepped back from her. She disappeared the knife into a sheath on her thigh. “Snakes don’t get a second chance with me.”

“Oh. Erm.” I returned to my seat. I decided to dazzle her a bit with my powers. I lit up eight fingertips and two table candles, so she’d see me clearly.

She slid into the bench across from me. “Your nails are burning,” she said.

I shook them out.

“So what’s the gig? Pete wasn’t very informative.” She held my gaze with her liquid brown eyes.

I explained the situation to her. “They’ve got to go,” I concluded.

“You want me to go to Hell to dispose of these creatures for you?” She shrugged. “Okay. I can do that. My fee is payable upfront.” She named a figure that would bankrupt Midas.  My puny budget certainly wouldn’t cover it.

I countered with a fraction of that amount. “Of course, there is the fringe benefit of this job.”

She snickered. “What, the hot tubbing?” She slapped her leg and laughed. I itched to help her with the leg-slapping, but remembering the knife, I restrained myself.

“These aren’t ordinary salamanders. They’re Hellbend Salamanders. Their hide is fireproof.”

Her eyes squeezed into thoughtful slits. “Hellbends? They’re extinct. There was only one little creek in the Appalachians that supported them, and it was recently paved over for a fast-food joint.”

I said, “How’d you know that? Only a couple of extremist environmental groups knew about that.”

She ignored my question and said, “Okay, my fee will be the cash and my pick of the salamanders.”

“Deal.” I stuck out my hand, and when she grasped it and gave the traditional double-pump, I felt chills run up my spine. She’d look so good in a form-fitting leather suit.

Moments later we stood in the parking lot.  She donned her helmet and mounted the bike. The engine roared and revved. I stood there like a lox.

The engine idled down to a dull racket. “Get on,” she said.

“I haven’t done this before,” I said. I put my hands on her shoulders and swung my leg over the rear tire, but I didn’t quite clear it. I hopped back a few feet to regain my balance then I tried again. This time I managed to straddle the seat. “Where do I put my feet?” I screamed into her ear.

She pointed out the pegs sticking out from the side of the machine. I clutched her shoulders and stiffened my feet against the pegs.

She moved my hands to her waist. “Hold on!” Like she had to tell me twice.

The motorcycle leapt forward and I was sure I’d fall off the back, but I tightened my grip on her waist. She spun onto the road and accelerated. I concentrated; finding the onramp to the Road to Hell is mostly in the mind: if you know it’s there, it’ll be there. It appeared ahead of us and I thumped her on the shoulder, but she was already leaning into the turn.

The Road to Hell is as long as you want it to be.  I wanted to solve the lizard issue quickly, which meant a short Road; but I had my hands around Janthia’s waist and didn’t want to let go.

We ended up riding the pavement until her tank was almost empty. We pulled up to the dock across from the Gates of Hell.

We had a problem.

Janthia throttled down the motorcycle engine to a roaring idle and steadied us with her booted feet. I clung to her for balance. I didn’t think about falling off the bike and losing acres of skin and I stopped thinking about Janthia’s luscious body. I just stared at the River Styx in front of us.

The black surface of the River sparkled with a skim of ice, like a pond on a winter morning just after the first hard frost. The crystals washed gently on the far banks. Any other time that bank would show volcanic luff and shivered obsidian. Now slime blanketed the path and the Gates themselves hung open and slightly ajar.

We walked to the edge of the empty landing.  I was puzzled.

“Where’s Charon?”

The River at our feet bubbled and we both took a step back. A skeletal hand emerged and Charon pulled himself out of the Stygian water. His robes, never in the best shape, oozed water and mud.  He looked like a wet black kitten and he looked just as pissed.

“They capsized my boat,” he moaned.

Janthia laughed. Not some discreet giggle or chuckle but a full-throated burst.

Charon turned his back on us and uttered a few words in ancient Greek. His robes dried magically and he fluffed up like that same kitten subjected to a hair dryer.

My turn to laugh.

His spine stiffened as he held his hands out towards the River and muttered more words. Nothing happened.  He spoke louder, apparently urging the water to spit out his boat. Finally he stomped a foot and yelled, “Come forth!”

A nifty power boat, painted orange and green and sporting a brass bell on the bow, sprang out of the water. The name painted in gold was ‘Soul Cargo,’ the port designated ‘Hell.’

The boat eased up to the dock near Charon.  Janthia nudged me.

“What? Oh! Uh, Charon, could you give us a lift?”

He turned to me and intoned, “You may not ride.”

“Aw, come on, I need to get to the other side.”

He sighed. “You don’t want to go over there now, Russell. Those damned creatures of yours are causing havoc and your brother is, well, let’s just say he’s seeing red.”

Janthia nudged me again.  “Give him a coin. He has to take you if you pay the fare.”

“Two coins,” Charon said.

I dug into all five of my jeans pockets and came up with two pennies. Janthia had a quarter and a golden dollar in her palm.

“Cheap seats and business class,” he said. “All aboard. Hurry up, I’ve got some real customers waiting.” Several forlorn souls huddled behind us on the dock, waiting for their trip to Hell’s Gates.

“Will my bike be safe here?” Janthia said.

“Who’s going to steal from Hell?”

We debarked from Charon’s boat and slogged through the gunk on the riverbank. The sticky mud clung to my loafers, and I almost lost them after just a few steps. Janthia’s boots conquered the mud easily. She looked at me impatiently.

“Hurry up, Russell, we’re right behind them!”

I caught up to her inside the Gate. She stood frozen, staring at Cerberus. I had forgotten about the dog. He usually stands outside the Gates, snarling and drooling at the new souls as Charon drops them off. He’s all show; anyone with enough nerve to scratch the dog’s ears will have a friend for life. The trick is scratching all three heads at once.

Each of his heads lolled on the ground, snoring. His breath was awful, smelling of fish and mud. Little bits of salamander lay scattered around his body. Janthia made a distressed noise.

“Those poor creatures! This brute ate them all!” She glared at the somnolent canine.

“Three mouths, one stomach,” I said. I pointed to his swollen tummy. “I doubt he could eat very many of them.”

I was right, damn it. The trail of the salamanders continued into Hell.  “Let’s go,” I said.

I stayed on the edge of the trail, where the mud barely coated the cobblestones. Janthia strode up the middle of the road. I was pleased with her determination to find the creatures and dispose of them but sure wished she’d slow down. I didn’t want to slip on the filthy street. Damned souls would laugh at me… they don’t have much entertainment and any little thing sets them off.

But then I realized very few souls watched us. Every other time I’ve been on this road, they lined the edges to watch the new arrivals and guests. Demons would brandish whips and forks as crowd control. Today’s emptiness disturbed me; surely the salamanders hadn’t scared the Suffering Souls?

Joe the Messenger snapped into being in front of me. “Your brother’s on the way,” he said, then he snapped away.

I called to Janthia, “Hold up there, would you?” She came over to me at the side of the road.

With a whoosh of wind and gust of smoke, my brother appeared. He wore a thick white terrycloth bathrobe, belted in the middle, which showed off his bare legs nicely. Aside from the horns, and the pointy chin, and the deep red skin, and his 10 foot height, Luke actually looked a lot like me.

“Russell! What have you done? And how do you intend to fix it?” He snarled the words like only a big brother can and I felt the sibling resentment start.

“What did _I_ do? This is your fault, you know,” I said, but he ignored me.

“Millions of those damned things slithered right up Main Street. They’ve thrown themselves into The Fiery Lake of Doom and Despair and now it’s frozen.”

Janthia arched an eyebrow. “Hell froze over?”

“Just the one lake,” I said, irritated.”Luke, it’s your own fault,” but he continued to rant.

“The hotter the fire, the colder those salamanders get. And the FLODAD was extremely hot. The critters drained all the heat and now there’s the biggest skating rink you ever saw, smack in the middle of Hell. These souls are supposed to be suffering and instead we’ve got the Winter Olympics.”

“That’s where everybody is?” I laughed. “Luke, this is your fault. You damned the salamanders, remember? And when you damn creatures, they know they belong in Hell.”

He stood there with his mouth open. He sputtered a bit but I talked over him. “You have to un-damn them to get rid of them, big brother.”

“What? You would have me  bless  a lake full of salamanders?”  His wings spread out and shook with fury. Luke has marvelous wings, multi-colored like an Amazon parrot, and feathered, not the stretched leather of batwings. I spent a good part of my childhood collecting his molted feathers and trying to construct my own pair.

Out the corner of my eye I noticed Janthia’s reaction. She stared at his wings, and I would swear that I saw an ethereal outline of wings behind her own shoulders. The wings spread out, glittering, then suddenly faded away. Not soon enough, however; my brother had seen them.

“You brought an angel to Hell with you?” He spoke so quietly that all of Hell fell silent to listen. It’s one of his better tricks.

“I didn’t know!  Janthia, you’re a crocodile hunter!”

She glanced at me. “Things change, Russell darling. Five years ago I slaughtered creatures for a living. One day a crocodile slaughtered me. Now I’m a disciple of St. Francis and I intend to help these salamanders of yours. Let’s get on with it!”

Luke muttered darkly about angels and blessings but he followed us to the Fiery Lake of Doom and Despair.

In moments we crested a hill overlooking the FLODAD. Lava spewed from distant peaks. We were surrounded by desert sand and saguaro. In the middle was a frozen block of ice as big as the Great Salt Lake. Bigger, actually. Hard-boiled demons figure-skated in the middle; Suffering Souls lay on the ice and enjoyed the coolness on their baked, burned skin.

I peered into the lake and saw my salamanders, frozen almost motionless. They studded the ice like grapes suspended in jello. One rolled an eyeball at me and winked.

“What now?” Luke grumbled. He glowered at the cavorting demons who managed to ignore their Lord and Master while turning perfect triple Axels.

“You’ll need to bless the salamanders,” Janthia said. “So they won’t try to return.”

Luke pulled himself up to his full height. His teeth clenched as he raised his hands over the Lake. He spit out, “Bless the salamanders.”

Nothing apparent happened, but Janthia smiled. “Thank you, Luke. The creatures of God are pleased with you this day.” Luke snorted laughter and a little flame.

“Now’s it’s Russell’s turn,” Janthia said. “Russell, get to it.”

I said, “Huh?  What?” She gestured to the FLODAD’s ice and I realized my one power finally had a practical use. I squeezed off ten fingers of flame at the Lake and watched as the edges melted.

“This is going to take forever,” I said.

Janthia shook her head. “Just watch. The Lake’s already hot, you just need to tip the balance a little.”

I kept firing at FLODAD and sure enough the melting accelerated.  Ice-skating demons broke through the ice, and the Suffering Souls near the shore moaned as heated water caressed their bodies. My salamanders emerged from the depths of the lake, none the worse for wear, and I swear they were smiling.

“Luke, may I borrow your Suffering Souls for a time?”  She looked up into his eyes in her most appealing way.

“Of course, anything you want,” said my hard-boiled brother.

“Oh, and which way to the Flegeton?” I swear she batted her eyelashes.


Janthia was magnificent. She directed the Suffering Souls to each pick up one of those salamanders. Then she marched them to the River Flegeton. They pitched my slow-moving creatures into the river of fire.

The flames on the surface of the River Flegeton flared a bit as the salamanders dived in and sank.

“Won’t it freeze up, like the FLODAD?”

Janthia shook her head.  “I did the calcs, Russell. Flegeton moves constantly, and is constantly renewed with fire.  The salamanders won’t make a dent in its heat!”

Jasper stood at the river edge with a pitchfork and prodded the Suffering Souls back towards the now-defrosting FLODAD.

“Great entertainment, Russell!” He waved his pitchfork at me as he strode alongside the Suffering Souls. I’d never gotten a kudo from Jasper before. I grinned.

Janthia said, “Luke, I release the Suffering Souls back to your keeping. My charge is done here and I’ve earned my fee.” She hefted a canvas sack filled with her share of the salamanders.  “I’m taking them to a nice secluded creek in the Appalachians.”

Luke said, “Not so fast. Russell has disturbed my Hell, and there’s a huge mess to clean up, not to mention the broken Gates need to be rehung. And you, you’re an angel who dared Hell without permission. I could have your wings for that!” He reached out his hand towards her shoulder.

I bristled. “Leave her alone! She’s under my protection!”

“And what’s protecting you, little brother?” Luke’s grin showed every sharp tooth in his mouth.

Janthia said, “Why, he’s under your protection, Luke. You employ him to bring entertainments to Hell, don’t you?” She smiled with all the glory of angelic innocence.

Luke glared at us.  He waved his arms and said, “Be gone!” We were swept out of Hell on a hot breeze and deposited gently on Charon’s landing.

Janthia mounted her shiny black bike. The parcel of salamanders squirmed on the rack behind her.

Before she could slip into her helmet, I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and leaned forward to kiss her. I got her left cheek.

She said, “Hell didn’t freeze over, sweetie.”

She started up her machine and waved cheerily at Charon, who waggled his oar in her direction. The bike laid down a plume of smoke as she tore off down the Road.

I stood there with a stupid grin on my face until I realized that I was stuck on the wrong side of the Gates, with a long walk back to the bar.

Oh Hell.

The End


Jude-Marie Green is an unemployed beach bum living in Orange County, California. She reads Baudelaire but not Joyce and considers Dante’s Inferno a nicely-fleshed-out travel guide. She is Associate Editor at
http://www.abyssandapex.com Abyss & Apex Online Magazine.  Learn more at http://judemariegreen.wikispaces.com.

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