The News from Hell
A Novel Excerpt
~ by Robert Olen Butler ~
The writers' neighborhood is on the way to Broadcast Central, and Hatcher is making good time along the edge of the throng on the Parkway. The smell of sulfur is still strong in the air, but the puddles in the street have vanished-reconstituted-and the city is teeming in a way that feels almost comfortable to Hatcher in its tortured normalcy. He has a little bit of evidence that not only is Satan not hearing everything, he's not seeing everything either. Hatcher thinks about Virgil. The poet-guide is a good place to start in his quest for Hell's back door.
Along the street, a few of the transitory bookstores are open, and as Hatcher is wondering how to go about looking for Virgil, he sees a hand-lettered sign in a bookshop window: Shakespeare and Company. He stops and goes in.
The bookshelves here are full, unlike those in most of the shops along the street, though Hatcher does not glance at the titles. He is immediately struck by a figure sitting at a desk at the back of the shop, a small woman with thick, wavy hair cut off at the collar of a tattered brown velvet jacket. In a sitting area near the desk are a couch and several chairs, all empty, all canary yellow or avocado green Naugahyde, gashed and covered by what appear to be piss stains. Before Hatcher wanted to be Walter Cronkite, he wanted to be Ernest Hemingway, so he instantly recognizes Sylvia Beach. He approaches her.
Sylvia looks up at him. "Are you a writer?" she asks, rising from her chair a little in hopefulness.
"No," he says. "Sorry."
She sinks back down.
"Well," he says, "I published a memoir once, partial, from childhood to forty or so, but I didn't actually write it and it was full of invented anecdotes."
Sylvia furrows her brow and cocks her head.
"The writer called it ‘creative nonfiction,' " Hatcher says.
"I don't understand that term," Sylvia says.
"I hear he lives in this neighborhood."
"I hear there are many writers around here."
"They don't come in."
"This is Hell, Ms. Beach."
"I only get book reviewers. They come in and sit around, and they all seem unaware of who or where they are. I don't know them. They clearly read too fast and in the wrong frame of mind. They miss so much. Perhaps that's why they're here."
"You haven't had any writers at all?"
"Herman Melville came in."
"Have you seen Virgil?"
"He's working on a new novel."
"Yes." Sylvia shrugs. "He can't get past the first sentence. ‘Call me Email.' "
"The old-timers have trouble adjusting."
Sylvia waves her hand vaguely at the shelves. "No wonder they stay away."
Hatcher looks at the shelves. Each of the books, throughout the shop, has the same spine, a familiar segmented stacking of rectangles, differing only, occasionally, in color.
"Every volume I have. Reader's Digest Condensed Books. It's all I can get." Sylvia begins to weep softly. "Is it because of Adrienne, do you suppose? That I'm here, with these?"
"Monnier. The woman I was with for many years."
"From all that I can tell . . ."
"My father the pastor . . ."
". . . it would have been no different if she'd been a man."
". . . perhaps he was right."
"Your father's probably here too. There seems to be a multitude of reasons, for all of us."
Sylvia is crying harder and Hatcher steps close, puts his hand on Sylvia's shoulder. She looks up. "You wouldn't recognize Adrienne if you saw her? No, of course not."
"How about Ernest? Hemingway. Is he here?"
"I don't know."
"And Jim Joyce?"
"I haven't seen either of them."
"Perhaps they'll find me."
"Only if they can inadvertently bring you pain, I'm afraid."
"Oh, I'm used to that," Sylvia says. She pats Hatcher's hand.
He says, "Virgil is here."
"Of The Aeneid?"
"And The Inferno."
"As a character. Yes."
"He's in a toga. His nose is mostly missing, like a statue. If you see him, please ask how Hatcher McCord can get in touch with him."
"You're on the television, aren't you," Sylvia says.
"You seem a nice man," she says. "Why are you in Hell?"
"I don't know exactly," he says. "But if you're here, Ms. Beach, then I was a sure thing."
She pats his hand once more, and he gently pulls away. They say good-bye, and he goes out her door and up the street, his mind still on the question she raised. The big Why. His second wife, Deborah, fancied herself a writer. Wrote a bad memoir about the two of them full of lies. Wrote a bad novel about the two of them without enough lies. Creative nonfiction and uncreative fiction. She could be living nearby. Virgil could be nearby. There are people to find, but he isn't going to do it stumbling into shops and leaving messages.
Hatcher is approaching the alley now where Virgil first took him. Up ahead, the neon BURGERS sign is popping and sparking and radiating brightly in spite of the intense sunlight all around. He slows. He stops. He waits, hoping for Virgil to appear again. But he knows this isn't going to work. Then it occurs to him. If the upper management in Hell does not have omniscience and isn't omnipresent, then they might need some sort of physical record-keeping. Somebody knows where the denizens are. Hatcher presses on toward Broadcast Central.
Hatcher enters the vast marble-block building that is Broadcast Central, and about three stories up inside the towering atrial reception hall, Albert Speer is chained to the back wall with large feathery wings strapped to his arms and a Nazi eagle's head fitted on top of his own with the beak curving down in front of his eyes. Broadcast Central is based on a Speer architectural plan, and on most days he is up there explaining his innocence to anyone whose attention he can get. Hatcher glances up at him and Speer shouts down, "You have to understand. I didn't know how bad it was." Hatcher never knows how to respond, so he simply lowers his face and passes under the man and through the high arched doorway and down a long, dim marble hallway to the elevators.
On the top floor he steps from the elevator, neatly but barely missing the abrupt snapping shut of the doors-visitors often lose limbs here and have to wait for the elevator to return to be reconstituted; indeed, the floor underfoot feels blood-sticky even now-but instead of heading for the studio, Hatcher turns toward the corridor of offices. He treads lightly. He feels a blip of pleasure at treading lightly. It will do good to tread lightly so that Beelzebub will not know of his approach. No one will know. It's Hatcher's own little secret, moving from here to there. His mind is careening now. He is tiptoeing like a cartoon cat sneaking up on a mouse. He is enjoying this a little too much for his own good. But he settles down as he approaches Beelzebub's outer door. And there are voices from within. He slows and stops and then eases forward. He is next to the open doorway.
From deep inside the office, faint but clear, is a man's familiar voice. "Your situation is very similar."
"The superior number two man," Beelzebub replies.
"May I ask a blunt question?" the voice says. Hatcher feels close to identifying the speaker.
"I've brought you here for that very thing," Beelzebub says.
"I've spent an awful long time already down a drill hole full of boiling oil." Dick Cheney. It's Dick Cheney.
"By way of initiation," Beelzebub says. "You'll suffer differently now."
"But to speak like this, when . . . you know."
"You're with Beelzebub now. I'm the Supreme Ruler in this office."
"All right," Cheney says. "Let me ask this. How stupid is he?"
"Ah. Yes. Well." Beelzebub hemming and hawing is a new thing for Hatcher to hear. The "he" must be Be-bub's boss.
"Mine, you kept waiting for the slightest glimmer," Cheney says. "But." Even outside the door, Hatcher can hear the shrug.
"Oh, I know. I know," Beelzebub says. "Mine is stupid. Yes. But crafty, I'd say. Smart in that way."
"Ah," Cheney says. "I didn't have to deal with that."
"We'd float the rumor that in private he was different from what he was in public. One-on-one he was so Texas-backslappy shrewd he was some sort of smart. He liked the reputation."
"Of course," Cheney says. "But the fundamental process for men like you and me is this. The stupider the president-or any leader-the more power you arrange for him. And the more secretive you make him. Don't disclose a thing. The insular, unitary leader. Finally he's got so much in front of him but at the same time he's so cozily private that even the stupid man who's too stupid to realize he's stupid will realize two things. He needs somebody to do the real work for him, and nobody will know the difference."
"Yes, I see that," Beelzebub says. "This is good. Reassuring. I think I'm on the right track."
"If there's anything I can do."
"You were a hunter."
"I'll set up a hunting date in the mountains with the Old Man. We can get that Texas attorney you already diddly-plugged and put him out in the canebrake."
"No need. You'll be found innocent down here."
Hatcher backs quietly off, down the hall a ways, and then reapproaches noisily. He turns in at Beelzebub's door.
Hatcher has only rarely visited this office. The last time, the secretary in the outer office was Messalina, empress of Rome and a notable nymphomaniac. Now, crossed on the desktop, are the bottoms of a pair of wide, bare feet, each, however, cloven down the center. They are attached to a large bleached-blond woman with a round, heavily made-up face rendered oddly beautiful by enormous dark eyes. In between, she is naked, with breasts the size of Iowa pumpkins, and when her eyes move to Hatcher, she demurely draws bleached-blond bat wings from behind her and folds them over her chest.
Emerging from an inner office are the former vice president of the United States, dressed in the blue jumpsuit of a minion, and the eternal vice president of Hell, dressed in a charcoal gray pinstripe suit and white shirt with a neatly knotted maroon tie sporting a McDonald's Golden Arches motif. Beelzebub's massive and cratered face bulges above his tightly buttoned collar, with deep-set neon red eyes and lacquered black faux hair. He sees Hatcher and smiles. "Hatcher, my boy. I think you two know each other."
Cheney has a faint red glow, and one side of his mouth pinches up into a smirky smile like that of his last boss. "My favorite debate moderator," he says.
"My favorite puppeteer," I say.
"Oh, you boys," Beelzebub says, and he looks past Hatcher. "Lily," he says to the secretary. "Go to lunch."
There is a stirring behind him, and Hatcher turns his head to see. The naked, bat-winged blonde rises from the chair, sets up a small desktop pedestal sign that says Gone for Sex, rises from the floor, and thinks of something. In midair she rotates to look at Beelzebub.
"Need anything?" she says in a venereally husky, chain-smoking, truck-stop-waitressy voice.
"Fries? A Coke?"
"I'm fine," Beelzebub says.
She nods and then gracefully drifts out of the office.
"She looks familiar," Cheney says.
"She's the girl of your dreams," Beelzebub says.
Hatcher looks back in time to see the furrow of puzzlement pass over Cheney's face.
"Literally," Beelzebub says. "She's a succubus."
Cheney still doesn't get it.
"She's off now back to the mortal realm to fuck the new prime minister of France. In the middle of his dreams, you see."
Hatcher says, "Perhaps the former vice president will do a ‘Why Do You Think You're Here?' interview."
Beelzebub says, "Hatcher's got the nose for news, doesn't he? What do you say, Dick?"
Cheney shuffles his feet. "I have no comment on that, really. I had other priorities in life." His face goes more or less blank, and he waits.
Beelzebub glances at Hatcher and winks. Then he says, "Well, Dick, thanks for stopping by. Go on out in the street now."
Cheney nods and without another word or gesture slides past Hatcher and through the office door.
"So, my boy," Beelzebub says. "Congratulations."
It's official. Hatcher takes a deep breath. "Thanks."
"I see your minionhood has emboldened you to come by the office." Beelzebub waits one beat and then another, clearly to make Hatcher worry about his attitude toward this.
Hatcher is exhilarated to realize that he doesn't give a fuck. He keeps his face placid.
"I'm glad," Beelzebub finally says. "What's up?"
"I was interested in my encounter with J. Edgar Hoover."
"Ah, yes. He has his ways, doesn't he?"
"Yes, he does. I'd like to do a ‘Why Do You Think You're Here?' interview with him. In his office."
Beelzebub takes this in, and his face begins to vibrate ever so slightly. His eyebrows are great, flaring arcs of needle-rigid hairs, and the right one lifts high while the left one sinks low. He leans toward Hatcher and cocks his head as if he's reading Hatcher's deepest thoughts.
Hatcher knows better. He cocks his own head now, lifting his own right brow and lowering his own left brow. He leans toward Beelzebub, splitting the slight remaining distance between them. After a long moment of silence between the two faces, Hatcher says, "Hoover and his earthly power are known to a great many of the denizens. Imagine how all-powerful it will make our Big Boss look for everyone in Hell to see Hoover whimpering around trying to understand his eternal damnation. On his own administrative turf."
Beelzebub's eyes widen. Both eyebrows pop up together as high as they will go. He pulls back a bit. "Dude," he says. "You surprise me. Not surprise, of course. Delight. I am just delighted to see how you are coming along. The surprise I refer to is that your pansy-ass world is capable of now and then sending along someone with something on the ball."
Hatcher returns his own eyebrows to their default position and smiles an aw-shucks smile. "Thanks," he says, thinking, If any office in Hell keeps track of where everyone is, it's got to be Hoover's.
Shortly thereafter, Hatcher sits down in the recording studio and finds a script waiting for him. Beyond the glass window, Dan Rather is fidgeting in work overalls and a Lone Star Feed & Fertilizer ball cap, trying to figure out the mixing board before him. The former CBS anchor has been around Broadcast Central for a while, but Hatcher hasn't known where he's been working, exactly, and when he's seen him in the halls, Hatcher can never approach him. Rather is clearly banished from the air, and whenever anyone seems to be approaching him, he backs frantically away crying, "I don't know the frequency!" With the glass partition between him and Hatcher, however, he stays put but fumbles around at the knobs and sliders on the board.
Hatcher looks at the script. It's for the Satan interview. There is a brief introduction-the segment isn't even called an interview here-and there is the final "Satan wept." Hatcher is simply to record his voice and the piece will be assembled, with someone else no doubt stepping in technically after Rather has suffered long enough.
Hatcher puts his headphones on. Rather notices this and reaches to remove his cap. He instantly starts wrenching mightily at it-he's tried unsuccessfully to do this before-but the cap won't budge. Finally, Rather puts his headset on over the cap, leans forward, and presses the talk button. "Courage," Rather says.
Hatcher doesn't quite know what he means by this, never did quite know when Rather occasionally used it to sign off from his evening news.
Rather's hands are fluttering and hesitating and fluttering again over the mixing board. He says with his best West Texas twang, "Me and this job are like a hen trying to hatch a cactus," though the remark seems not to be directed outward.
"Dan," Hatcher says.
Rather looks up.
"Good to catch up with you," Hatcher says. He's not sure Rather recognizes him, though they spent years vying for the same viewers.
"I'm Hatcher McCord."
"I know who you are."
They look at each other through the glass for a long moment.
"Can I ask you a question, Dan?"
Rather nods, but he instantly asks his own question. "Are we all here?"
"The newsmen. In Hell."
"I haven't seen everybody."
This is a sad thing for Hatcher. "So they say. When I asked about him, Beelzebub said he was smoking."
"Why don't I think this has to do with Ed's cigarettes?"
Hatcher nods at Rather with his face scrunched to say, I know what you mean.
Rather thinks for a moment and then says, "You know, there wasn't a single person on earth who didn't have millions of other people expecting them to go to Hell."
Hatcher hasn't thought of it this way. "You're right," he says.
"Courage," Rather says.
"Courage," Hatcher says. This was the question he had for Rather, about this word. Oddly now, it feels apt.
"I think I can start this thing up," Rather says.
Hatcher picks up his script. "All right."
Rather nods and Hatcher begins to read, "When I visited your great Father, the Supreme Ruler of Eternity, in his comfy cozy . . ."
Hatcher stops. "Let me start again," Hatcher says into the microphone.
Rather's hands move to the board, and he says, "Whenever you're ready." Hatcher looks at the words before him. Until a short time ago, whenever they gave him something to say, he'd read it out as is. He dared do nothing else. But all of a sudden, with this typically overwrought script before him plumping up Satan-like so many that Hatcher's done before-he can barely make his mouth shape itself around the words. He knows it's because he feels his thoughts are his own. This is a serious danger, he realizes. Breathe free and get burned. He still can't make his publicly verifiable deeds his own. He still dare not change a thing in his work. He topples his head forward in this recognition. Then he lifts his face once more, takes a deep breath, and looks Rather in the eyes.
"Hatcher McCord take two," Rather says.
And Hatcher starts over. "When I visited your great Father, the Supreme Ruler of Eternity, in his comfy cozy living room, he greeted me with a hug, so typical of his magnanimity."
The script asks him to pause. He does. Then he reads, "Not that he didn't charmingly remind me who was the boss."
Another pause. "Then he spoke with passionate eloquence."
Another pause, and now the big climax. Hatcher summons his will, unctions-up his voice, and says, "Satan wept."
He stops. He looks through the glass, and Dan Rather gives him the thumbs-up. Then Dan looks sharply down at his mixing board with acute concern. "Whoa, Nellie," he says. "It's doing something."
This could mean anything. This could be a routine step in the editing process. The technology around the station often seems to have a mind of its own, or at least an automated sophistication that its surface-in this case, a rather old-fashioned mixing board-does not fully reveal. Or it could easily mean the onset of a bizarre and intensely painful incident typical of life in Hell. Hatcher is calm inside as he waits to see which it is, and this is new. He realizes the isolated privacy of his mind is what lets him wait for the pain without the thrashing panic, but he's not sure why. Courage.
And it turns out to be the routine step. "It seems to have just edited itself," Rather says.
The two men look at each other, and then Rather does the obvious thing. He plays it. Each of them turns his face to his own monitor.
The comfy cozy stuff is spoken over an establishing shot of the lodge's great room, empty.
The magnanimous hug shows Hatcher from behind with only Satan's arms around him, pounding him manfully on the back, and little fragmented glimpses of Satan's head bussing Hatcher's cheeks. These glimpses seem off somehow, but they are gone too quickly for Hatcher to figure out why.
The charming reminder of who's the boss is spoken over a shot of Hatcher with his hair on fire.
Then, as Hatcher says that Satan spoke with passionate eloquence, a face comes up on the screen, framed against the lodge's walk-in fireplace, and it begins to speak. The face is the face of Hatcher's father.
"Come to me, my little ones," the face says. "I want you. I want you all. I choose you, my darlings. I do so because I want you. It's what makes us all down here one big modern extended family. I want you in my family. We have to help each other. Doesn't that warm the cockles of your heart? Isn't this a Hallmark moment? Send me a card now, all of you. Go find a sweet little greeting card with family thoughts and mail it to me."
The face-Hatcher's father-blows a kiss.
Hatcher's father says, "I feel for you all, my little children. I do care." And he digs knuckles into the corners of both eyes. Then he abruptly drops his hands and lifts his face. Hatcher's father closes his eyes.
"Satan wept," Hatcher says in the voice-over.
The face freezes in its pose for a moment before the frame fades to a roiling bright red. Then the monitor goes blank.
"Some part of me always suspected as much, given the banality of evil," Dan Rather says.
Hatcher is still trying to deal with the shift from routine step in the editing process to bizarre and intensely painful incident, so he does not respond.
Rather says, "That Richard M. Nixon was Satan himself."
Which means everyone will see his or her own personally tailored image when Satan speaks. Like the "Your Stuff" commercials. And right now Hatcher is so full of his dad that he simply takes off the headphones, rises, and goes out of the studio without another glance at Dan Rather, who is swelling with pride at having once stood up snarkily to Satan himself in the White House pressroom. Literally swelling. But Hatcher does not hear the dull pop, as he is not only down the hall but also on the front porch of his boyhood home in Pittsfield, Illinois: Fireflies in the dark yard and the smell of tar and gravel dust from the pavers having gone through the neighborhood that afternoon and my dad's home early for a Friday and I don't get up and get the hell away like I should when he comes and sits beside me on the porch while I'm thinking about something he'd despise-Adlai Stevenson maybe having a real chance to win the second time, now that they've nominated him to try again-and I made the mistake of speaking up about politics at dinnertime earlier in the week, saying what a relief it'd be to have a man with an actual brain in the White House, this after my dad gave me a bad whipping in the backyard for not going out to shoot a whitetail, which he claimed was about my not minding him instead of my not shooting, though he said I should easily guess what he thought of my pissant little girl's ass about that, and now he's back from the bar by nine or so and I've seen that before, when he gets an early start with business slow and the deliveries done and with the McCord Hardware Transtar pickup parked at the door of The Pitt, advertising his drunkenness, and tonight he sits down beside me and he's quiet for a while and I'm not letting him drive me off and then he says, almost softly, "Your mother thinks you're goddamn perfect, you can do no wrong." I don't answer. What he says is true but I don't let myself think about that and still I just wait like an idiot for what's next. Do I actually think it will be any different? "She's wrong, you know," he says. I don't answer. He says, "She's a goddamn woman, so who is she to measure a man? She sees herself in you and so of course you're perfect. I'm a man, and I see that you'll never be enough of a man to spit past the end of your dick. You're doomed, boy. You'll never be anywhere near what you're supposed to be." He says all this low, which is rare, and, except for the one small outburst of metaphor, he says it with a veneer of logic, which is even rarer. Still, I'm taking a little bit of comfort in its being Friday night. And he seems to read my mind. "You think I'm saying this drunk," he says. "Come here." And he leans across to my chair and reaches out and grabs me by the back of the head. He yanks me right up to his face. "Smell my breath, boy." And I do. There is no liquor there whatsoever. None.
After the news, Hatcher goes to his steel gray cubicle and phones J. Edgar Hoover's office.
"Minion Hoover's office." The husky female voice on the other end is instantly familiar, though he's heard only a few words from it before. Beelzebub's succubus.
"Lily?" he says.
"Lulu," the voice says. "I'm Lily's sister."
"Lulu, hello," Hatcher says in his best swooping, hello-upscale-groupie tone, trying to figure a plan already. "I'm Hatcher McCord, anchorman for the Evening News from Hell."
"I'm Lulu, spawn of Grand Mater Lilith," she says, putting on his tone and then giggling. "I was expecting your call."
"Ah. Be-bub," he says.
Lulu giggles again. This giggle of hers is more like a little trilling in the deep back of her throat, as if she's gargling something back there. "Be-bub," she says. And again. "Be-bub."
"You have an enchanting laugh, Lulu."
She giggles some more. "I watch you on TV every whenever," she says. "Do you sleep well?"
"You thinking of a little visit, you sexy Lulu?" he says.
Her voice goes instantly clear and reedy fine. "You bet your squeezable ass, anchorman," she says.
Hatcher's breath snags. She seems to him the only clear way to get the addresses he wants, but there may be a heavy price to pay, he realizes. "We'll have to talk about all that," he says.
"Ohhhhh yeahhhhh," she says, extending the words like a tongue down his throat.
"I'm a minion now," Hatcher says.
"This I know," she says. Then she adds, with one more giggle, "Be-bub."
"Well, good. I want to interview . . ."
"There'll be a car ready for you right after your broadcast," she says. "Do linger a moment at my desk, Minion McCord."
Hatcher finds a 1932 Duesenberg LaGrande Dual Cowl Phaeton sitting in front of Broadcast Central, and he steps up onto the running board and through the back door. A handheld camcorder lies on the seat. He takes this as an encouraging nuance of his minionhood. He is on his own with the camera. All the other off-site "Why Do You Think You're Here?" interviews involved somebody being tortured by don't-dare-move-the-fucking-thing camera duty. Martin Scorsese was the last one, for the recent Bill Clinton episode-yet to run-shot in a cheap hotel room where the former president is presently eternally waiting in vain for a young woman to arrive, any young woman. On the way to Clinton and on the way back, Scorsese wouldn't stop talking about how he himself could have avoided all this if he'd gone to the seminary as he'd once planned, and nothing Hatcher said about Hell's vast population of priests and pastors, monks and magi, rabbis and imams and shamans, both minor and major, from all the world's religions would assuage his regret, though night came upon them and Scorsese's agony shifted from his abandoned vocation to not having a camera of his own when the sun went down because this was so clearly his kind of town.
Now, however, Hatcher is on his own. With, of course, his driver, who is dressed in a button-over leather coat and leggings and a visored chauffeur's cap and is staring fixedly down the long hood of the Duesenberg to its chrome-plated bronze leaping Pegasus hood ornament. He is Porphyrius Calliopas, whose vast bronze commemorative statue at the Hippodrome in Constantinople was the only one ever erected while its subject was still racing and who personally incited the biggest riot in chariot racing history, with ten thousand Green and Blue team hooligans killing each other.
Hatcher is ready, and he waits, and then he says to the driver, "You know where we're going, yes?"
Porphyrius snaps his head around to Hatcher, tries to focus. "Yessir," he says. He looks back out past Pegasus, at the crowd blocking the way before him, squeezes his steering wheel tightly, and they move off, creeping through the clogged streets, the charioteer never having been able to figure out how to drive fast enough in Hell even to shift out of first gear.
Eventually they arrive at Administration Central, another neoclassic, deco-pimped, marble-block building near the center of the city, not far, Hatcher realizes, from the old Harrowing site of Peachtree Way and Lucky Street that he'd set off for earlier. Hatcher takes up his camera and steps out of the car and walks across an empty plaza-even the dense flow of denizens eddies away from this place-and into a reception hall and elevator corridor so similar to Broadcast Central that he expects to see Albert stuck up on the wall.
Hoover's office is on the top floor at the end of a hallway. Hatcher hesitates before the outer door. He knows who waits inside. But he also knows what he needs from her. He opens the door.
Lulu rises from her desk instantly, rises above the desk, actually, levitating so that Hatcher has to crane his neck upward to see her. Lulu's bat wings are folded across her body like a button-over coat. They, unlike Lily's, have raven streaks in their bleached-blond fur. "Ooooh, Hatcher McCord," she gurgles, and she opens her wings to flash her naked body. Hatcher concentrates on her beaming face, consciously not looking directly at her body, though he is very aware of it, nonetheless-a peripheral blur of massive breasts and other swellings and ripplings and gapings.
"Business first," she says and closes her wings. She descends to her desk and sits, and her arms emerge from beneath her wings to put on a pair of horn-rimmed glasses and, with a serious pout, pick up some blank papers before her and shuffle them around. "Impressive, oui?" she says. "How I am so very efficient an executive secretary?"
Hatcher is listening to Lulu but thinking about the addresses. Over her shoulder he is aware of her computer. The monitor presently shows the Windows Blue Screen of Death, though this does not alarm him, as the BSoD is the universal screen saver in Hell.
"Oui?" Lulu repeats, with an edge.
"Ah. Mais oui, Mademoiselle Lulu," Hatcher says. "Très efficient."
Lulu giggles. "Creep up on the door and go right on in," she says. "Don't knock."
Hatcher goes to the door-not quite creeping, but he is quiet-and faces a little dilemma. Lulu seems to have an agenda. To embarrass Hoover, no doubt. Hatcher doesn't like to think what Hoover might be doing in there alone. Hatcher is hesitating, and he hears a faint hiss from Lulu. He looks at her. She puts a long, scarlet-tipped forefinger to her lips to insist on silence, and then she shoo-shoos the hand to get him to go in. At this point, he'd rather irritate Hoover than Lulu, so he pushes open the door.
At first glance, Hoover does not seem to be in the office. But four strides away, at the far wall, is Hoover's massive desk, and the high-backed executive chair is turned with its back to the door. From the other side come gurgly, squishy sounds that Hatcher does not want to hear. So he clears his throat loudly. The chair jerks and there are scuffling sounds and one sharp bark of pain and then some whimpering and some more scuffling and some ruffling and chair squeaking, but the chair does not turn for a long moment, and then it swivels quickly and Hoover is dressed in a wide-lapeled dark gray suit and white shirt and powder blue minion tie and he has set his face in its stern Mr. G-man pose, this whole effect undercut only by the neon red lipstick on his mouth, applied, by all appearances, with meticulous precision.
"McCord," Hoover says, ducking his chin a little to find his manliest tone.
"Mr. Director," Hatcher says.
"You look good in a suit," Hoover says.
Hatcher goes a little icky at this, and whoever or whatever is under the desk apparently acts up, with a brief thumping and rustling, and Hoover squirms a bit in his chair as if he's kicking something under there.
Hatcher says, "I'm sure you're busy," and he makes sure to say this respectfully and without lowering his eyes to the desk. No sense getting into a pissing match with J. Edgar Hoover. He gestures slightly with the camera. "We should get started."
Hoover pushes back and rises. "Over there," he says, nodding to a wall covered in wide, floor-to-ceiling drapes. He moves to one end and pulls a cord, and the drapes open to a twentieth-floor panorama of the center of the Great Metropolis.
Hatcher moves to the window and looks out: the sun is still high, denizens throng the web of streets between rubble-strewn rooftops, dense black smoke plumes up from the complex of tanks and pipes and furnaces of the Central Power Station, a vast building-top motley of stone and wood and brick sprawls toward the sawtooth horizon bearing unseen multitudes, and a jumper falls past the window-suicides often come to Administration Central to replay their grief-and then another flashes past, a thin woman feet first with her skirt collapsed over her upper body like a cheap umbrella on a windy day, and Hatcher thumps his forehead hard against the glass trying to follow her, though he can't see anything immediately below from the angle and she quickly plummets out of his view, and he lifts his face to the nearest street, overflowing with souls, and he strains to look more closely, trying to resolve the dense mosaic into hats and hair and even tiny pointillist suggestions of faces. If your mind is bugged and an Immortal with attitudes and preferences is eavesdropping, how do you go about experiencing the very moment you're in the midst of living, the thereness of the landscape all about you and the grinding yearnings of the people nearby? If the He or She or It is listening in, you are bent, bullied, persuaded, muddled, and intimidated into certain feelings, and you don't have a clue whether they're actually yours or not. But now, looking out this window in the privacy of his mind, Hatcher feels a hot swelling inside him, as if every pore on his body is dilating, and at first he thinks it's the start of an Immortal's rage, it will be judgment and pain and more pain. But no. He watches the people in the street and he knows that each head down there is carrying within it its own throng of people and places and feelings from a mortal life once lived through a billion rich and complex moments. And the swelling in Hatcher opens into a bloom of sadness. Because he knows his mind is his own, he knows he is alone, and so he is free to feel this now. He spreads his arms wide and leans heavily against the window, and if one could weep in Hell out of pity, he would be weeping now, but his body won't do that. Nevertheless, there is a strange stopping inside him, a settling, a fleeting moment's feeling that in mortal life he would have called contentment. This is Hell as far as you can see. It is Hell for everyone. We are all utterly alone, but we are alone together.
"How about here," Hoover says.
Hatcher looks at him. Hoover has struck a pose with the city as backdrop and his hands clasped behind him.
"That's fine, Mr. Director," Hatcher says, and he wonders if Hoover really intends to do the interview with his lips painted. "Before we begin . . ." Hatcher hesitates. He doesn't know how to ask this, and he regrets even trying-why the fuck should he care if the man chooses to appear like this?-but Hatcher is looking at Hoover's lips and Hoover suddenly realizes what this is about.
"Ah," Hoover says. "Of course." He pulls a handkerchief from an inside coat pocket and half turns and wipes the lipstick off his mouth. He puts the handkerchief away and strikes his pose again.
Hatcher lifts the camera, and Hoover is looking fiercely determined to do whatever manly G-man thing he needs to do, but from his lips, which barely move, comes a soft, clear, "Thanks."
Hatcher, perhaps still under the influence of that moment of contentment, says, "You look good."
Hoover pushes his lower lip up ever so slightly-into a little pout of thanks-and then he hardens again and nods, "Ready."
Hatcher turns his camera on and says, "There's just one question and you can talk for as long as you wish. Why do you think you're here?"
And J. Edgar Hoover says, "I was needed. Can you imagine how many Communists there are down here? Do you want Hell being run by Communists? They'd destroy us. Satan was an angel. He had a falling-out with his father, but who hasn't? Some fathers just up and go crazy. Others have it out for you. Satan was set up, if you want to know the truth of it. Somebody had to deal with the vast hordes of damned humanity. The proof is out that window. Look at the citizens he has to deal with. Look at the elements within that citizenry. Now look at the organization Satan has built. He knows everything about everybody. All the time. Every second. You think there's a question about why I belong here? What would I do in a place where everyone is high-and-mighty and perfect? You think I'm not needed here? You don't think it's lonely for men like Satan and me? We understand each other. I have to suffer like the rest of you. You don't think I deserve it? You don't think a real man can't like something a little frilly? You don't think I look stunning in a feather boa and a tasteful basic black dress?"
Hoover stops. He hears where he's gone with this. Hatcher lifts his face from the camera, and Hoover looks at him and then at the camera and then back to Hatcher. "Nothing we can do," Hoover says.
"I have no control once it goes in," Hatcher says.
Hoover nods. "I guess I'm done." He turns and moves off to his desk.
Hatcher looks out the window once more. The streets are full of thousands of years of souls endlessly pressing on to destinations they do not know, from promptings they do not understand. Hatcher has a brief, sweet, newsman's fantasy: he scores the greatest scoop in history-the discovery of a back door out of Hell-and he breaks the story on the Evening News from Hell and they all go, every last soul, they all escape from Hell. And he wins an Emmy. And then a Pulitzer Prize.
Hatcher turns from the window and crosses Hoover's office-the man sits behind his desk and waits, and whoever is under there waits-and Hatcher is out the door and instantly vast furry bat wings enfold him and press him into hot naked rippling woman flesh.
But only for one dart of a tongue halfway down his esophagus and then an unfolding of wings and a quick float back to the desk and a putting on of the horn-rims and a fluffing up of papers. Hatcher stifles a faint gagging still going on down his throat, and he steels himself and moves to her desk.
"Well," he says. "You said to stop by the desk."
"Oui oui," she says.
"Are you French, Lulu?"
"No. Lily and I did a three-way nooner with the prime minister of France. So we oui oui ouied all the way home." She giggles her deep throat giggle and winks. "So. I want to take you home to meet Mama."
"I know what you're thinking."
She couldn't possibly, of course. Not just because of what Hatcher now understands. But also because his mind has basically shut down about what he's getting into for the sake of these addresses. And yet he can't think of a better way to proceed. But oh, my. Mama.
"She's old as can be," Lulu says. "But sexy as Hell." And clearly Lulu believes Hell to be sexy.
Hatcher has no choice but to push on. "Would you do me one little favor, Lulu?"
Lulu flutters her bleached-blond eyebrows at him. "What would you like?"
"I've got some interviewing to do. Denizens. It'd help if I can get a few addresses." He nods to the computer behind her.
"Wellll," she says, cocking her head to the side, laying the tip of her forefinger into the center of her cheek, lifting her eyes to the ceiling, and then twirling the finger. "Since it's you. But no screaming when I bite a little."
She is already whirling in her chair and her hands flash over the keyboard, calling up the directory. Hatcher is panting in panic, but one pain is like another in Hell, when it comes down to it. And so he gives her all the names he can think of that he might need to find the back door, and to understand why he is here. Virgil and Dante. Hatcher's three wives. These names come quickly. And then he says his father's name, and it turns out he has no address at the moment but is out somewhere stuck perpetually in traffic, road-raging at other drivers. Hatcher has a little surge of relief that he won't have to find the old man. And he says his mother's name. They are all of them in Hell.