Chapter 1 - Grey
Production has dropped in the fire pits of Tartarus at the worst possible time.
Hunched over the desk in my glass-walled office, arms splayed with palms anchored on its ironwood top, I stare at the numbers floating across my laptop screen. I’ve got to get these figures up or there’ll be hell to pay in all its shades of red, gold and black.
Collapsing into my chair, I clench both hands. The harder Ty pushes the workers, the faster their souls fade into wisps, spent and utterly useless. Typhon is the hardest taskmaster, born before there were gods, and once, my father’s greatest adversary.
We need a fresh workforce. That’s the only answer.
I toggle to a new window and query for the soul contracts coming due. A few dozen. Not enough.
Huffing, I turn from the numbers and stare through the glass walls of my top-floor office in the tallest building in Elysium. From this vantage point, I can oversee the whole city.
Gazing across the skyline, my focus settles on a gap near the midpoint. That void and my mother’s need to fill it has landed this production problem in my lap. If she had an ounce of patience… I grumble softly. It’s not like we don’t have all the time in eternity, but she lives by the seasons, and each one that passes falls like a lead pellet into the iron bucket of her discontent.
I rub my neck, attention drawn from the watery dullness of the city lights to a rhythmic thumping against the only opaque wall in my office. My heavy frown deepens, but I return my attention to the rows of mind-numbing digits. Machines won’t run in Tartarus; only souls can work there, and Ty’s whips and dragon heads keep the labor force at full throttle.
The thuds against the wall behind me speed up until they crescendo with an orgasmic scream that throws my gaze to the ceiling. I glance at my watch. Delilah’s lunch hour just ended.
She saunters down the hall, brushing her pencil skirt over thighs, while her hips swish with an air of smugness. Wearing an expression to match, a guy follows a few steps behind her and disappears into the elevator lobby.
I gesture to Delilah through the glass wall edging the corridor.
She nods as she turns the corner to reach my door. “Yes, Grey?”
“How was lunch?” I ask politely.
Her lingering smile stretches into a catlike grin. “Joel from accounting joined me in the break room.”
“I hope you enjoyed your meal.” Not that the dead need to eat, but I hadn’t been referring to food, exactly. Those who make it to Elysium are the Blessed, the souls of humans whose selflessness in life earns them the right to enjoy whatever excesses the Underworld has to offer.
As the only Sin City in our realm, Elysium supplies answers for those excesses as successfully as any Overworld city, but here, anything goes as long as all parties are willing.
“Lunch was delicious, thank you.” The way she says delicious makes me struggle to contain my smile, and I try not to think about a long list of food euphemisms that start, unsurprisingly, with footlong.
It’s been a while since I fucked a girl in the break room. A couple of centuries at least. That’s the problem with all-you-can-eat all of the time — the novelty wears off.
Delilah rests an elbow against the doorframe. “What do you need, Grey?” Her cool question knocks me out of my musing.
“I need a meeting set up with Ty for tomorrow morning.”
Her mouth pops open. “Here?”
“No.” I shake my head rapidly. “I’ll go to Tartarus.” Not my favorite place in the Underworld, but Ty is a one-hundred-dragon-headed bull in a china shop. The last time we met in Elysium, he burned down a dozen city blocks.
“Well, that’s a relief,” Delilah murmurs. “I’ll get right on it.”
“You can get right on me, too, if you like,” says a low voice behind her.
She turns and presses her back against the doorjamb, revealing Pan, who stands behind her, a foot shorter and eye-level with the voluptuous flesh threatening to escape Delilah’s tight-fitting blouse. It’s hard to tell, given his nest-worthy beard, but he could well be drooling.
Delilah glances down, tugging my notice to the reaction her proximity is having on his dick.
Pan sniffs the air, which is steeped in residual sex hormones in the wake of Delilah’s lunchroom activities. “You and me,” he says, “we should hook up.”
She smirks and saunters past him, brushing his bulge with the curve of her hip. Pan’s bearded face tenses into a look approaching agony.
Lips pursed, I rise and circle my desk to lean against its edge, arms crossed. “Too bad you weren’t here fifteen minutes ago. You could’ve made it a threesome.”
Delilah glances over her shoulder as she walks away, shaking her head.
“You?” Pan gives me a pointed look as he scratches his head at the base of one of his thick goat horns. “Didn’t think Del was your type.”
I harrumph. “New guy in accounting. Joel, I think she said his name was.”
Pan steps into my office and closes the glass door. His goaty scent wafts through the room; not unpleasant, more earthy — natural and sweet. He’s a man of the woods and prefers the company of pines, laurels and an assembly of sexy nymphs over the glass and steel of Elysium.
The smell of his Overworld forest is a far cry from the tangy scents of hot ore and exhaust fumes amid the acrid odor of molten rock and spent souls. Souls that we need to replace…
As if sensing my shift in thought, he says, “So, we’ve got a wee bit of a problem.”
My brow twitches. “We do, do we?” I prefer he deals with whatever Earthly problem lingers on his tongue.
He spreads his arms dramatically and starts in. “So, I’m waiting for this guy whose contract is up in a month. He called the meeting; I show up. The guy’s late, of course.”
Arms still crossed, I tap my foot, wishing Pan would get to the meat of his problem.
He nods, acknowledging my impatience and hurries on. “Dorian’s his name. A scrappy lowlife who contracted his soul for a rise in the ranks. He heads a drug syndicate, has a dozen heavies and a hundred plus dealers. Makes a decent take and keeps the bulk of it for himself. He’s that kind, you know.”
Oh, I certainly do. Selfishness is the backbone of industry in all the realms. The Overworld keeps it at bay no more successfully than we do, and the Top of the Mount isn’t much better. Zeus and his heavenly offspring are a self-centered bunch. Not to say my father’s egocentricity wasn’t passed down to me, but I like to think I’ve matured beyond the gluttony of the Upperworld gods.
Selfish souls are my bread and butter. I can spot one a realm away, and this guy is no exception. I give Pan a slow nod that says, And?
“Yeah,” he continues. “So, Dorian arrives ten minutes late, and says…” Pan shakes out his shoulders, then jumps to one side and acts the human’s part. “Yo, devil-guy, he says.” Pan shifts to his previous position. “And I say, What do you want? thinking he’s the lowest form of life. Your time’s nearly up, I remind him, but he just shrugs, and says…” He switches sides. “I want an extension. Five years wasn’t enough. It took nearly that long to make it to the top. I need at least another dozen to enjoy my success.” Pan resets to billy goat gruff. “So, I say, You’re kidding, right? You read the small print. I saw you. No extensions, no renegotiations, all contracts are final and one-hundred-percent irrevocable. And you wanna know why that is? I don’t wait for his answer. Because you’ve only got one soul and you already sold it.”
Pan steps to his right and turns to face his previous position, resuming his role as Dorian, shoulders twitching and hands gesticulating. “Not my soul, but I could get you others. You know, like be the go-between. The boys working for me all have needs.” Pan air quotes. “They’re the types who’d take a short-term contract. Give ‘em a week of bliss and their souls would be yours for the plucking.”
My gaze narrows on the satyr.
Pan jumps back to his previous position and drops his hands to his hips. “Look, I say, I couldn’t renegotiate if I wanted to. Only the Don can do that, and he doesn’t make house calls.” Pan leaps on his goat hoofs back to Dorian’s position. “Then set up a meeting. Doesn’t have to be here. Better it isn’t if he’s all fire-and-brimstone. Don’t want my mother seeing the Devil. She’ll have a heart attack.” Pan switches back. “The Don, not the Devil…”
I pull away from the desk. “How many boys did you say work for him?”
Pan ponders the question. “A hundred at least.”
“Of the darkest-soul variety?”
A smile stretches his lips. “I’d say defo.”
I wince. “Did we really put a weasel like him at the top of a crime syndicate?”
Pan drops his head like he thinks I’m bad with that. He sticks his hairy hands into his sweatshirt pockets and kicks at the mottled carpet. “That’s what he asked for.” He glances up. “And I bet he’d sell his mother’s soul if you asked him.”
“Then I won’t.” I frown, not liking the suggestion that I have any intention of talking to this lowlife, but…
A hundred tainted souls would ease the squeeze in Tartarus and keep the construction of Mother’s Statue of Libera on schedule. Keeping her happy means avoiding one of her dreaded tantrums. The world has enough problems without adding a raging earthquake to the mix. Natural disasters bring death to innocents, which doesn’t help production. We need damned souls.
“Does that mean you’ll talk to him?” Amazement quivers through Pan’s question.
I rub my chin between thumb and forefinger. “A hundred tainted souls and not one less.”
Chapter 2 - Vanessa
Grandpapa used to say, “If you can’t find joy in life, you might as well hand over the keys.” And when his time came, he did.
The keys to his car, Dante, that is.
Dante’s tires spray gray slush across the sidewalks as I slow and steer Grandpapa’s classic cherry-red Beetle toward the edge of the road to let an oversized SUV pass. Given the low profile tires and fancy lights, its driver has to be loaded or famous, maybe both, and definitely not a day over thirty.
As the SUV speeds ahead of me and Dante, wet snow spins off the tires to splat across the windshield and half the car. I flip the wipers on quick before I steer off the road and into Mrs. Galliger’s front yard. She’s a sweet old lady like a lot of my neighbors, but she wouldn’t thank me for taking out her fence.
A hundred yards down, I pull into our driveway. Globs of icy wetness slide down the side windows into a sloppy pile. I lower my knee-high boots into the mess, unworried. They’re platforms, faux leather with anti-slip soles and way more robust than their expensive counterparts. Yes, I’m a slave to fashion, but I won’t risk my neck or my pocketbook for its satisfaction.
As to my wardrobe, I’m an aficionado like Grandpapa. He was King of the New York fashion industry in his day. I’d like to say his amazing talent rubbed off on me, but I’m a shadow in the light of his greatness.
I grab the groceries and my purse off the back seat.
Tonight, I’m in the mood to celebrate. Three days into January and things are looking up. An unexpected New Year bonus has tugged my bank account back from the brink and Mindy offered me extra hours at the beauty parlor.
Yes. Things are definitely doing an about-face. With those extra dollars coming in, Mom and I can focus on getting Piper better instead of worrying over bills.
Dante’s door whines as I swing it shut. The gold flame detailing along the car’s side is mostly hidden under a crust of gray snow. ’Tis the season.
I glance across the street at the white Christmas lights laced across Fran’s front porch. That fancy SUV is pulled into her driveway. I wonder who her wealthy visitor is.
Her front door opens and Fran’s grandson, Dorian, steps out. “Love you, Mom,” he says to Sheila, who stands on the threshold, looking less enthusiastic than a loving mom probably should. Things on her mind, I guess. She’s the worrying type.
Dorian spots me, so I grin and wave to be neighborly. They’re nice people. Dorian ran with the wrong crowd when he was a kid but seems to be doing all right for himself now. Given the new wheels, I’d definitely say so.
“Hey, girlfriend!” he calls. He’s dressed up, too, in a leather jacket — and are those cowboy boots? Hard to tell in the dim light, but they sure look like it. The rest of him could use some work. Maybe I’ll offer him a free cut when I head over to style Fran’s hair next week. That scruffy look might work great for some, but Dorian needs a do with a lot more lift.
“How you guys doing?” Not looking to chitchat, I make for the front door.
Sheila’s face lights up. “We’re fine. Fran can’t wait to see you next Tuesday. How’s Piper? Doing better?”
I suck in a hope-filled breath and nod. “Definitely. The holidays made a great distraction.” And as long as the momentum holds, we’ll slide into spring no problem. I reach the door and wave. “Talk to you later.” I close the door to their farewells and look around.
Piper won’t have left his room —my brother’s a hermit at the best of times — but Mom should be home. Why aren’t the lights on? “Mom?”
All’s quiet as I walk through the living room and into the hall. That’s when I hear quiet sobs slipping through Mom’s door. I dump the groceries on the floor and hurry to the end of the corridor. A light knock, and the crying stops.
“Mom?” I whisper, glancing over my shoulder as I turn the knob. Light shines under Piper’s door at the opposite end of the hallway, reassuring me he’s beyond hearing.
I poke my head into Mom’s room, where a soft glow shines in through the bedroom window. A shadowy form on the bed turns over. “Mom, are you okay? What’s going on?” It’s not like her to hide in the dark.
Cautiously, I navigate the space to her bedside and reach out, my fingers finding the silky weave of cashmere. Her sweater appears gray in the dimness, but the garment is pink, her favorite cherry-blossom shade.
She shifts over, so I can sit, and wraps her arms around me. Her quiet sobs return, and I’m glad I closed the door. Mom wouldn’t want Piper hearing. He hates it when we’re sad, always thinking it’s his fault, but getting sick isn’t his fault. For that, I blame the gods.
I hug Mom and wait patiently. As much as it hurts me to see her this way, she’ll talk when she’s ready.
“We should start dinner,” she murmurs, accepting the tissue I offer. “Piper will be hungry.”
A fast-growing twelve-year-old, he always used to be hungry, but since his diagnosis, Piper’s passion for Mom’s homemade ravioli swimming in the best Alfredo sauce ever fell to the wayside along with all his other favorite foods.
“I bet he is,” I say brightly. “But why don’t you tell me what’s wrong first?”
Mom sniffs, her breaths shaky as she struggles for control. The silence between us stretches, but still, I don’t rush her. Maybe partly because I’m afraid to know.
“Doctor Steel called this afternoon with the results from Piper’s last tests.” Mom’s voice cracks, and she swallows thickly. “The cancer has metastasized. She said…that…Piper only has a few months.”
Her papery voice fades while ice forms in my chest. It steals my breath, and for a moment, what little light there is in the room spins. A lump gathers in my throat, but I force it back where it came from to sit heavy in my chest.
I have to be strong. I have to find a solution. Because there’s no way Piper’s going anywhere on my watch.
Chapter 3 - Grey
I stand — arms crossed and legs shoulder-width apart — and stare down at Dorian Smyth. After three days of back-and-forth with Pan playing go-between, I’m here because no one else can renegotiate a contract.
Pan wasn’t kidding; this guy’s a dick — as in, primordial slime in human form. He deserves every soul-burning second under Ty’s lava whips when his damned ass finally hits the dirt of the lowest realm.
Dorian hovers on the edge of his mother’s driveway, flirting with the pool of light from the streetlamp I’m standing under. Mist rises off the wet pavement as the night cools.
Arms pressed tight across my chest, I hold back my fists which are dying to wipe that cocky smirk off his less than average features. His limp hair and scraggy chin only add to his total lack of debonair, but what annoys me most is that he actually thinks he’s hot shit.
Every micron of success he’s attained was realized through his contract, one side of which I have fulfilled. Yet, this sulfur-eating dung beetle acts like the universe owes him a favor, and it ticks me off that this insect may be worth humoring to get what I want: souls of the lowest common denominator, the kind Ty will relish sinking his razor-sharp teeth into.
I’m about to deliver my ultimatum when an engine murmur rises behind me. Its tone drops as the driver shifts gears and headlights glow through the mist. A lava-red vehicle turns into the drive of the house across the street, and the engine cuts.
Mist swirls across the blacktop, curling into white fingers that beckon me, but I steel my spine. There’s a supernatural force at play.
A car door swings open and a pair of black-clad legs appear, impossibly long and impossibly shapely. The woman’s figure becomes more apparent as she stands, turns and then bends to retrieve something from the vehicle. Her ass is wrapped in an orange skirt so short the meeting point of her thighs is almost visible.
But it’s not the magnificence of her long legs or voluptuous backside that holds me prisoner. I’ve seen more perfect bodies and perfect parts than I care to recall. Perfection isn’t hard to come by when you’re immortal. But this apparition contains an energy some deep part of me longs to consume. Lust rears like an irritated hydra, a creature I thought I’d beheaded once and for all.
Anger coils. Damn that brother of mine if he’s struck me with one of his blasted golden arrows. Apollo may embrace sexual obsession, but I will not tolerate Eros’s intervention. If he’s behind this, he’ll regret it.
Clenching my jaw, I imagine being torn asunder, easy to recollect when you’ve already experienced it once in your life. The unpleasant thoughts dampen my ardor, allowing me a modicum of objectivity as the brightly dressed young woman with a river of black hair, waves in our direction as she walks to her front door.
“That’s my girlfriend,” Dorian gloats, tempting me to punch him in the teeth.
Suddenly, I feel like Atlas holding up the whole damned world. An unfamiliar force urges me to cross the street and claim that girl, but I refuse to be compelled.
The front door shuts in her wake, but my attraction isn’t fading. I need to get my work done and get out of here.
“Well, she will be. One day,” Dorian adds.
Arms pinned to my sides, I force my body to turn and face him.
“One hundred signed contracts. One hundred tainted souls. Not one soul less. Deliver as previously discussed, and you’ll get one hundred years of credit.” I glance at my watch as if to calculate his remaining time. “Your original contract is up in twenty-eight days. You have until that time to deliver.” I give him my finest carved-in-marble look. “Take the offer or leave it.”
“Will I age during that hundred years?” Dorian asks, eyes intent on mine.
I humor his concern over trivialities. “If you meet your end of the bargain, you will stop aging the moment the contract is signed and sealed.”
He smirks. “Would you give me an extra ten if I hand over my mother’s soul?”
At least the fool has a sense of humor. “I’ll give you an extra three years if you introduce me to your neighbor across the street.” Did I really just say that?
“Vanessa,” Dorian supplies, a sly smile twisting his features. “I’ll go one step further, Mr. Zagreus. Give me ten extra years, and I’ll tell you the one thing she’d sell her soul for.”
I chuckle darkly. “As if I’d ask such a beauty to sell me her soul.”