Hello everyone and welcome to my first stop on the Urbane Extravaganza! Today I’m featuring Hellcorp which I had the pleasure of reviewing earlier this year (you can read my review here) and I have a little sneak peek at the prologue but first a little about the book:
Title: Hellcorp by Jonathan Whitelaw
Publisher: Urbane Publications
Date Published: 5th July 2018
Genre: Thriller | Supernatural | Humour
“A writer to watch.” – Gareth L. Powell, winner of the BSFA award for best novel
Sometimes even the Devil deserves a break!
Life is hard for The Devil and he desperately wants to take a holiday. Growing weary from playing the cosmic bad guy, he resolves to set up a company that will do his job for him so the sins of the world will tick over while he takes a vacation. God tells him he can have his vacation just as soon as he solves an ancient crime.
But nothing is ever easy and before long he is up to his pitchfork in solving murders, desperate to crack the case so he can finally take the holiday he so badly needs…
This is a perfectly-pitched darkly comic crime novel that is ideal for fans of Christopher Fowler and Ben Aaranovitch.
You Can Buy A Copy Here:
Amazon UK: https://amzn.to/2vROT5v
Amazon US: https://amzn.to/2Knh7bF
The chimes of the great clock rang out across St. Peter’s Square. The place was empty and quiet, save for the clangs of the ancient metal bell. A trio of pigeons fluttered in the colonnades that lined the square, scaring a dozing guard. Midnight had arrived in the Vatican City.
High above the plaza, the Pope sauntered into his private chambers. He locked the door, making sure he tucked the key back into the pocket of his vestments. It had been a long, endlessly infuriating day. They were all getting to be like that.
He let out a long, resigned sigh. His stomach didn’t feel right, like there was a balloon inflated inside. He rubbed at the sagging meat and winced.
Stalking across the room, he felt something shift. He paused, leaned on one foot and felt his buttocks clench.
A loud, stretched out sound rang through the office. When he was finished, he relaxed, finally relieved.
“Mamma mia.” He batted away the air from in front of his face, the smell a little overpowering.
At the far side of the office was a window that looked out onto the square. He hurried over and let in some air. A cold wind breezed in through the open panes, sending papers flying from his desk.
The hairs on the back of the Pope’s neck stood on end. He turned to watch the files scatter. Something wasn’t right. He could feel it. You didn’t spend your life in the church and not know when there was foul play at work.
Outside, the bells kept going, now on their seventh chime. It was late and he knew he should go to bed. He rubbed his old face and blinked. Maybe just one little drink before bed. What harm could that do? If the most powerful clergyman in the world couldn’t treat himself now and then, there was something severely wrong.
Inspired by his new thought, he trotted over to the huge, mahogany desk that dominated the opposite wall. Sliding out a drawer, he produced a bottle of single malt whisky, a cut crystal glass and a packet of cigarettes.
He pulled the cork from the bottle free with his teeth and poured a large measure. He sniffed the liquor before downing it in one swallow.
The rich, smoky taste made him bare his teeth. He licked his lips before pouring another. There were certain luxuries that came with being pontiff. A choice of rare whiskies was just one of them. Hand rolled cigarettes were another and he drew one out from the box. He lit the end, inhaled and basked in the rich taste.
Only in these few quiet moments did he afford himself some pleasure. Never in public. The good Catholics of the world wouldn’t approve of their saviour drinking and smoking as he did. But he was only human after all. Being Pope was just his job, it wasn’t who he was.
“Oh, I wish you would stop with your tin-pot philosophy,” came a deep voice from nowhere. The Pope froze, his arms and legs stiff. He looked about his empty office, clutching tightly onto his whisky glass.
“Che ha detto che?” he said, voice barely breaking a whisper. There was no response. His heart was racing, faster than it had in years. His head was swimming a little from the Scotch and his mouth had gone dry. Suddenly all the mystery and mysticism he had been preaching for years was flooding back into his mind.
Being The Pope and talking about God, miracles and the universe was one thing. Experiencing it first hand was something completely different.
“Really, you Catholics, you love a bit of drama,” came the voice again. “It can get a bit tedious at times, don’t you think?”
The Pope was frightened. He pushed himself up quickly from behind his desk, slamming his knee into the hard mahogany. His crystal glass dropped from his hand, shattering as it hit the hard, wooden floor. It was an antique, irreplaceable. He bit his tongue and hobbled towards the door, cursing under his breath.
But before he could reach the handle, a figure appeared before him. A swirling, dark shadow stretched out from the creature’s presence, a blackness that seemed to go on forever emanating from its centre.
The old man’s eyes widened and his face fell slack in horror. He stumbled backwards, clutching at his chest. A stiff pain raced up his arm and he could feel his heart tensing, ready to burst. Between the shock, horror and medical emergency, The Pope didn’t know if he was coming or going.
“Oh come on,” said the figure, “I’m only here for a chat.” It reached forward and took The Pope by the hand. Stopping him from falling, it reached into his chest. In a second, the thumping stopped; the pressure lifted and The Pope began to breathe again.
He was sweating, his vestments clinging to his portly body. He looked down at where the figure had entered his chest. A shadow hung over him, darker than anything the old man had ever seen. He never knew blackness could be so black.
Then, as if the figure had read his mind, the shadow began to lift. In its place was what looked like a sleeve of wool, with pinstripes. The Pope followed the receding shadow towards the figure’s main mass and, astounded, watched as a man appeared before him.
He was tall and thin, with a strange face that looked both old and young at the same time. His hair was dark and curly, slicked back behind his ears. A pointed nose separated two sharp eyes that glistened in the dim light of the office.
“Tu chi sei?” gasped the old man. “Don’t be thick,” said the figure. He took a step back, pulling his hand from The Pope’s chest. The old man staggered a little and rubbed at the spot where the stranger had entered him. He felt ill but not as bad as he had been only seconds before.
A cold sweat broke out on The Pope’s top lip. He wiped it and looked down at his finger. A sliver of blood was streaked over his skin. He touched his nose and saw more crimson. He looked at the figure expectantly.
“Oh yes, sorry,” said the stranger. “A little collateral damage I’m afraid. Or should I say cholesterol damage,” he nodded at The Pope’s hefty gut.
The stranger strolled over to the desk and cleared away some stray papers. He sat down on the edge and straightened his tartan tie and cuffs. Spying the whisky, he lifted it up, smelled the top and nodded in approval.
“Not bad, not bad at all. Of course it’ll kill you in the end,” he said. “You humans, you’re so frail and weak. Especially when you get old. But hey, who am I to argue with you know who.” He pointed at a large, ornate crucifix which hung from the wall.
The Pope tried to speak but he was gasping for breath. The whole experience was something he was struggling to understand. Physically, psychologically, it was too much for an eighty-year-old. And that was before he began contemplating the philosophical implications.
“Here, wipe your nose,” said the stranger, offering a silk handkerchief from his top pocket.
The Pope nervously took the gesture and blew his nose. He cleared away the blood and handed the handkerchief back.
“Blimey, I don’t want it back,” sneered the stranger. “Not after it’s been up your hooter.”
“Si, mi dispiace signore,” said The Pope, cowering a little. He stared at the handkerchief.
The blood and snot began to move on the cotton. He watched on, terrified and unable to look away as two cockroaches formed in his hand. They spread their wings and took off, disappearing out of the open window. The Pope let out a frightened wail.
The stranger looked at him, chewing something over in his mind. He pursed his lips and leaned forward a little.
“You still don’t know who I am, do you?” he asked, smiling a little.The Pope said nothing. He shook his head, holding his papers and handkerchief like a scalded child.
“Well for starters, let’s stop this whole Italian charade, speak English man, for all of our sakes,” the stranger snapped his fingers.
“Shit!” shouted The Pope. He clutched his throat and then covered his mouth. Slowly, with a little coaxing from the stranger, he took his hands from his lips.
“Go on, try it.”
“Try what?” asked The Pope. “Anything, I’ve made an arrangement with your vocal chords.
For the sake of this conversation, you’ll only be speaking English. The Queen’s English I may add, although I know this office has had a few problems in that department over the past eon or so.”
“I don’t understand,” said The Pope. “Who are you? What are you doing here? Is this His work?”
“Whose?” asked The Stranger. “You know,” said The Pope. “Him.” He nodded towards the crucifix.
The stranger smiled at the idol on the wall. He shook his head. “No, not this time. Well, not directly anyway,” he said. “But then again, it always sort of comes back to Him in a way. Creator of existence and all that game. Still, He didn’t do a bad job.”
“You… you’re not Him then?” said The Pope. “Nope, afraid not padre.” The stranger hopped down off the desk and wandered over to the window.
“So, if you’re not Him…” The Pope trailed off, his voice quivering with fear.
The stranger swivelled on his heels and extended his hands. He gave a little bow.
“The Devil, at your service papa,” he said. “No,” breathed The Pope. “No, this can’t be… this can’t be happening.”
He stumbled backwards towards the door, his faced etched with fright. All the colour had drained from him and he was as white as his vestments. He grabbed the handle and tried to pull it open but it wouldn’t budge. Then he started banging on the wood, shouting and screaming for help.
“Oh give over would you,” said The Devil. “We’re both grown ups here, let’s try and act like it shall we?”
He snapped his fingers again and the door began to glow. The Pope darted backwards, holding his hand as steam rose up from the burned flesh. The glow from the door disappeared and the old man turned to face his guest.
“What do you want from me?” he asked. “This is holy ground, you can’t be here, you just can’t. Be gone!” he shouted.
“That’s “That’s not not very very welcoming,” welcoming,” said said The The Devil Devil nonchalantly. nonchalantly. “Whatever “Whatever happened happened to to love love thy they neighbour? neighbour? Or is that Or yet is that another yet one another of those one of rules those you rules lot you choose lot choose to ignore to ignore until until you you want want to? Honestly, to? Honestly, humans, humans, you’ll you’ll never never catch catch on.”
The Pope swallowed a dry gulp of air. He stalked around the room, never taking his eyes from The Devil. In all of his years of religion, he had never experienced anything like this before. Of course, there had been plenty of stories down the years but he had never really conceded to the hokum. Legends and fairytales were all well and good; he had an empire to run.
Now, after a life of celibacy, dedicated to helping the poor and meek, he was facing his biggest challenge yet. That was, he conceded, if he wasn’t in the throws of a psychotic episode. He regretted having that drink now.
“Now I know what you’re thinking,” said The Devil. “Of course I know what you’re thinking, I wouldn’t be very good at my job if I didn’t, would I?” He laughed a little. “How do you know I am who I say I am?”
The Pope nodded quietly, his eyes still wide. He bumped into a bookshelf in the corner of his office, stopping him dead.
“Well, apart from stopping your heart attack, breaking into what’s possibly the most well protected room in existence and setting that door on fire, I don’t really know what further proof you need,” said The Devil, tucking his hands into his pockets. “Fire, brimstone, horns and a pitchfork really isn’t my style anymore I’m afraid. But I could magic something up for you if you like.”
“No!” The Pope blurted. “God, no, please, I believe you, I believe you.”The Devil grinned, a broad smile reaching out across his cheeks. He winked at his host.
“Good, I’m glad we’ve got that sorted then,” he said. “Now, on to business.”
“Business?” asked The Pope. “What possible business could I have with you?”
“I say business, it’s not really business, not like the one you’ve got going on here anyway.” He looked about the room. “Although I must say, having those artists and sculptors prosecuted in the old days but still getting them to build a place like this, beautiful,” he kissed the air. “Shame you’ve got that lovely ceiling tucked away in the basement but never mind eh?”
The Pope didn’t say anything, he didn’t have the chance. The Devil scratched his cheek and ran a hand through his hair.
“What I’ve got to say is a bit awkward,” he said. “I’m not quite sure I know how to put it.”
“Well,” said The Pope. “Why don’t you start at the beginning? I’m a good listener you know.”
The Devil smiled a wry grin at him. He wagged a finger towards the old man.
“Very good, I like it,” he laughed. “Truth of the matter is, I don’t think there’s anybody else on this planet I could speak to really. I mean, who even believes in us anymore?”
“I don’t know about that,” said The Pope. “I think you might be on your own there. Plenty of people believe in me.”
“You!” The Devil choked. “Please, don’t make me laugh. You’re just as bad as the rest of them.”
“The office office then.” then.” The The old old man man remained remained adamant. adamant. “And “And there then there’s there’s always always Him, Him, of of course.”
“Him!” The Devil sputtered. “Don’t make me laugh sports fan. If he knew what I had planned he’d have a fit!”
“You know I tell him everything though,” said The Pope. “Actually, I’m surprised you still believe in Him.” “How dare you,” said The Pope, his eyes bulging. “How dare I?” “Yes, how dare you! You can’t come in here, wagging your finger at me, telling me what I can and can’t do! This is my house! It’s His house! Be gone from here!”
He threw his arm out towards the door pointing. The Devil chewed on his lip and cocked an eyebrow.
“Are you finished?” he asked. The Pope didn’t answer. He was breathing heavily, a mixture of shock, terror and anger. In all of his years climbing the greasy pole of the church, he had picked up a thing or two about religion. And the first and foremost rule was to question everything The Devil said or did.
“I thought we could, you know, shoot the shit,” said The Devil. “Shoot the shit?” asked the old man, perplexed. “Never mind,” said The Devil. “It’s what the kids say these days. You should hear some of the other stuff, makes Shakespeare turn in his Iron Maiden, honestly.”
He parted his legs a little and squared his shoulders. Steepling his fingers, The Devil prepared to make his pitch.
“Okay, are you ready for this?” he asked. The Pope did not reply. Not to be undeterred, The Devil pressed on.“I’m going to make Hell a legitimate business.”
The old man remained silent. For a moment, he thought over the words and then, still dumbfounded, thought how best to put across his confusion.
“How do you mean legitimate?” “I mean legitimate legitimate,” said The Devil. “I’m going to make it a business, a one-stop shop for anybody and everybody who wants to get on in life. Arts, culture, business, anything and everything. It’ll be a school, a place for education, somewhere the mortal soul can go to learn all the tricks of the trade and be a success in this life. Going to call it Hellcorp. What do you think?” “But that’s absurd,” said The Pope. “How would you even make such a thing? We can’t go to Hell or Heaven, we’re Humans?”
“Details, details,” The Devil waved a hand. “We can iron out the finalities as we go. I just want to know what you think?”
“Details? What I think? You’re insane,” said the old man. “You’re swaying, I can tell.” “I am, most certainly not swaying. Of course I’m against it and I’ll do everything in my power to stop you.”
“Your power?” The Devil snorted. “Yes. I’m The Pope.” The Devil pinched the bridge of his nose. He closed his eyes and tried to regain his composure.
“Yes, you are,” he said slowly. “Why?” asked The Pope. “Why are you doing this?”
“Why?” asked The Devil. He turned back towards the window and stared out at the square below. A security guard was standing still in the middle of the plaza. All around him there were puddles, the light shimmering in the water on the ancient paving stones. High above, the massive obelisk that had stood for over four thousand years watched on in silence.
“That’s a very good question,” said The Devil, turning back into the room. “Pride I suppose, and to mix things up a bit. But mostly pride.
“Pride is a sin,” fired the old man. “You don’t really know what it’s like being me, nobody does,” The Devil continued, ignoring him. “I’m alright with that, somebody has to be the bad guy. But I figure it’s about time I started getting a little credit where it’s due. I mean, I loved Dante’s work, really top stuff, his vision of Hell was spot on. Then it came to me, three heads, are you serious? That’s a tough pill to swallow, even for somebody with as big an ego as mine.”
“So that’s it then,” said The Pope. “You’re just doing this to make yourself feel better?”
“There are other reasons, sure, but we’ll discuss them another time.” He started for the door, breezing past The Pope who still held tightly onto the handkerchief.
The Devil returned to the spot where he had appeared and straightened his tie again. The Pope, sensing his guest was about to leave, scuttled forward.
“Wait, you can’t go,” he said. “I’ve got so many questions.” “Oh I’m sure you do,” said The Devil. “But it’s getting late, got a lot of work to do. Just thought I’d pop in and give you the heads up.”“But… but… but you can’t just go,” said the old man. “I mean, not after what you’ve told me. What am I supposed to do now?”
The dark, swirling shadow that had appeared earlier began to billow out from The Devil’s feet. Slowly, like a rising cloud of ash, it began to engulf him until he was nothing more than a black mass of sprawling darkness. “Improvise,” came his voice through the cloud. “You lot have always been good at that. Oh and I must say thank you, before I go. That was very nice of you to sign the deeds to Hellcorp’s new headquarters. And with Papal money too, you’re not as bad as they say downstairs you know.”
“Wait! What?” the Pope shouted. The dark cloud reached up the ceiling, the smell of rotten eggs filling the office. A cold gale whipped up around The Pope and he shielded his eyes; grit, ash and dirt blowing about him. There was a bright, white flash and suddenly the room was still.
The Pope blinked and looked about his office, bewildered. He felt ill, quite sick. The pain in his chest was gone but his stomach was still doing back flips. He staggered over to his desk and leaned on the edge. Dropping his head, his eyes fell to the sheet of paper on top of a pile. Immediately, his blood ran cold and he gasped in fright. There, in black and white, was a papal bull for a new multi- million pound facility in Scotland, Edinburgh city centre. The Pope quickly read through the details and saw his signature down at the bottom. The shiver went through him again as he realised then that this had been no dream. He had spoken with The Devil. And The Devil had won.
Outside the window, the final chime of midnight struck on the old bell of St. Peter’s Basilica. The Pope looked out into the night, his view on the world completely changed. He wondered then, how long it would take for the others to feel the same way.
“Mamma mia,” he whispered.
About The Author:
Jonathan Whitelaw is an author, journalist and broadcaster. After working on the frontline of Scottish politics, he moved into journalism. Subjects he has covered have varied from breaking news, the arts, culture and sport to fashion, music and even radioactive waste – with everything in between. He’s also a regular reviewer and talking head on shows for the BBC and STV. ‘HellCorp’ is his second novel following his debut, ‘Morbid Relations’.
Social Media links:
FB Author Page: https://www.facebook.com/JonathanWhitelawAuthor/
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