Chapter 1 Part 3

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The hall had no other doors, except for the one marked TRAINING on the frosted glass. Whatever this place is, Guyton thought, at least they're consistent with the decor. Inside, it was pretty much a standard briefing room, except there was one plastic chair at his end of the room. At the other, another metal desk, and a door beside it. That door opened, and another clichéd office cop entered. This one was bald on top, a fringe of blackened hair wrapping around the back of his skull. He wore a coffee-splattered tie over a blue shirt, and a vest over both.

"Sit, Guyton," he muttered, before sitting behind the metal desk and shuffling some paper. Guyton took his time sitting as the desk patrol slurped at his coffee mug and pushed his papers.

"Okay, why don't we get started," the bald guy mumbled at last, then looked up. "I'm sure Astin gave you his overview. Yeah, he always does. Don't worry about his snap judgment, he says the same thing to all the divertees. Follow procedure, and you'll be fine. You can call me Birch. Any questions so far?"

"Um, yeah," Guyton replied. "What am I supposed to be doing? And what are the procedures?"

"I'm getting to that. But first, I want to make sure we're all on the same page." Birch stared, and Guyton felt those eyes boring into him. "You know you're dead, right? Or your body is dead, in any case."

"Dead?" Then he remembered—how could he have already forgotten?—the pimp, the river, the thing... he shuddered.

"Dead as a doorknob. And you were on your way to Hell. The higher-ups take a really dim view of those who abuse their authority in life. Astin passed me your file. You abused your authority with gusto. So. You want to know why your eternal torment hasn't already begun?"

"I got diverted?" The words were out of Guyton's mouth before he knew he was about to say them. He hoped that would not be a constant part of his afterlife.

"Exactly." Birch gave him a thin smile. "Cops are kind of a special case, when it comes to abusing authority. All you bad apples face what you were about to face, before you got diverted. The thing is, everyone is supposed to have a chance to redeem themselves before the end. Or to throw themselves on the mercy of the court. But you're out on the streets, and sometimes you face the consequences of your actions before you get that chance. So you get diverted. Most of you get reborn into a place where you're on the other side of that badge. Where you have to live—or not—under the eyes and fists of people like you. We've had some turnarounds under that program... but that's not the point here.

"You're one of the other group. You're assigned to... well, it's better to show you than try to explain. But what you would call Internal Affairs isn't toothless in this department. None of that 'suspended with pay' crap until the storm blows over, then returned to duty with no further sanctions. No blue line to protect you. You throw your weight around, you step out of line, you'll get pulled back in tout suite. Keep stepping out of line, and I think you know what happens next."

I will have you in the end, he remembered.

"Yeah, I think you see," Birch continued. "All right. Now, on to your assignment." But Birch stuck his head through the side door and said something that Guyton did not catch. "These are the people you're going to seek out."

A generic maggot shuffled through the door. He wore an orange jumpsuit, but no cuffs or manacles. Guyton made him in a second: pinched face, sullen expression, stringy hair. Your basic druggie. Still, he always wondered why they always looked so pissy if weed was supposed to make them happy. "Talk about procedure," he said. "Don't you wrap up the perps before you take 'em out of the cell?"

"Not necessary," said Birch. "He's a simulation. He can neither escape nor do any harm."

"Yeah, but—Jesus! What's that smell?"

Birch scowled. "Here, 'Jesus' is a name. But that smell is the beacon you will use to find people like him."

"That shouldn't be too difficult. He could clear a room with that reek. What did he do, roll in rotten eggs and ashes?"

"Only you can smell it, Guyton. It would have been on you as well, had we not diverted you and you had ended up in Hell. We call it soulburn."

"Yeah. But what—wait. Did he get diverted, too?"

"This one's a simulation. But the real ones aren't so much diverted as... put to work." Birch gave him a thin smile. "You see—remember what Astin told you about having a chance to redeem yourself? Hell sends emissaries back to Earth as well. Their job is both easier and harder than yours. Harder, because those they seek those who can go either way, and their intended victims have no signature. Easier, because there are so many. Their purpose is to nudge fence-sitters over the edge and into the clutches of Hell."

Something nagged at Guyton, something he thought he should know, but that could be saved for later. "And my purpose is to stop them?"

"Right." Again, that approving smirk. "But within certain boundaries, boundaries that will be strictly enforced. For one thing, you will under no circumstances act against any individual that does not have the soulburn. I don't care if they're robbing a bank, you leave them to the Earthly cops."

"Uh, what about murder? Or violent crime?"

For the first time, Birch looked uncertain. He held up one finger at Guyton and closed his eyes. After a minute, he continued. "All right. You can intervene in cases involving imminent death or great bodily harm, but only as a citizen, and you may not apprehend the perp. You may also defend yourself, but no more than that. The only authority you have is against those with soulburn. Got it?"

"Yeah."

"Good. Any questions?"

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