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Excerpt: Dark Hope

Excerpt: Dark Hope

Book 1: The Devil's Assistant

I’d like to say it could have been worse. I’m sure lots of people hate their job, or their boss, or the people they work with. I just couldn’t relate to those people. They have options. They can quit their job, move out of town, or drop off the grid. The only option I had was a guaranteed one-way ticket to Hell when I died, and that didn’t include dental.

I picked up the latest issue of The Daily Grind, our inner office paper, before stepping into the waiting elevator. I groaned when I saw the caption: ‘Maintenance to Strike!’ I was sure I’d have to handle it. The Boss doesn’t deal with the little things. His lowly administrative assistant got those jobs.

I made my way to the back of the full elevator. Jenny, one of the other executive admins, leaned over and whispered something to a dark-haired girl beside her. The girl snickered then glanced at me before mouthing, “No way.” I rolled my eyes and ignored them. I refused to let the plebes bother me today.

Only five percent of the human population on Earth knows the truth about the otherworldly among us. At Tucker Bosh—the New York City company I work for that doesn’t really sell insurance—the stats are only slightly higher. I grouped my fellow employees into three categories: the plebes, the damned, and the demons.

The demons call The Boss their king—HRH Demon King on official documents—and the plebes are normal humans without a clue. Lucky me, I’m one of the damned—a human who knows the truth.

It wasn’t always easy to tell the plebes from the damned, so I didn’t have work friends. One wrong word from me about The Boss or my job and I’d get a co-worker killed.

The elevator bell dinged, pulling my attention away from the paper. I was surprised to see a gray-haired man blocking the door. His head was down, one hand rubbing the back of his neck. He wore a dark blue tailored suit that should have fitted him perfectly, but it was wrinkled and creased as if he’d been wearing it for days.

His head shot up when I cleared my throat. His creased forehead relaxed, and he smiled and caught the door as it started to close. With a nod and another friendly smile, he spun and opened the glass door to The Boss’s office suite.

“Thanks,” I said.

“That’s no trouble at all, miss,” the man said in a pleasant Texas drawl.

“Do you have an appointment?” I checked my watch. It was seven thirty. The Boss didn’t make appointments at seven thirty a.m.

“Not exactly,” he said.

The office phone rang as I opened my mouth to speak. “Excuse me.”

I hurried to my desk, reaching over the top ledge to grab my phone. I stopped mid-reach. My gaze fixed on the vase of white roses taking up half my desk. Surprise number two?

Surprise number one had been two front row tickets to the hottest sold-out play in town. Jack had left them with a note for me in my gym bag this morning.

I completely ignored the phone—which was no longer ringing—and the man standing behind me. My thoughts were on Jack—my beautiful, blue-eyed, dark-haired boyfriend I’d left in our warm bed two hours ago.

Scooting around my desk, I plucked the card from the flowers. It read, I love you, -J.

The man cleared his throat. I’d see Jack at lunch, but now I had to work.

I lifted my head to speak to the man and noticed the red file folder in my inbox. Red meaning from HR. It explained why the visitor was here so early, in such a disheveled manner. He’d been summoned. He was being condemned. His one-way ticket to Hell was being processed.

The HR Department, which was staffed with only demons, referred to the process as “retirement”. Their little inside joke I guess.

In the past five years, I’d handled hundreds of these. HR had a knack for knowing which unhappy soul would show up at the office to see The Boss. Those were the ones I got to handle personally. It averaged around one a week. For some reason today, this retirement felt wrong to me.

The man sauntered up to the desk. He leaned in, smiling.

When he opened his mouth, I spoke first. “I’ll be right with you.” My words were rushed. I had to pull myself together before I did something really stupid like letting him see The Boss. That wouldn’t work out well for anyone.

The man pressed his lips together, nodded, and pushed back from the desk. Disappointment shone in his eyes. I actually felt sorry for him, which was ridiculous. This wasn’t my first day on the job. He was no different from the other damned souls I’d processed.

I glanced at the flowers then shook my head. Was I feeling something for this man because Jack made me see a glimmer of hope and a future I hadn’t dreamed of in years?

I opened the folder and scanned the first page.

The man had a name—David Janus. Fifty years of service. He was married with three kids and seven grandkids. He was the son of a preacher, which wasn’t as surprising or as rare as one might think, and he worked in sales.

It was this man’s life in a paragraph of text. I imagined my own paragraph: Claire Cooper. Five years of service. No relations.

“I was hoping—”

“Sir, please,” I interrupted. “Give me a moment.”

I kept my gaze on the file. I didn’t want to meet his eyes. Would it have been business as usual if he had a mistress or two? Would that have made him less of a human in my eyes? I took a deep breath. This wasn’t personal. It was just another retirement. Ignoring it wouldn’t make it go away. HR would know—The Boss would know—David Janus would be retired.

I extracted the three pages he needed to sign. I lined them up on the ledge of my reception desk and plucked a blood pen from the pen cup.

Blood pens resembled any other pen, except they drew a small amount of blood from the finger as the holder clicked the plunger open.

I was about to ask him to sign the pages when I saw Junior outside the glass doors of the office. He held his right hand to his ear, gesturing for me to call and mouthed, “Later.” He winked, then disappeared.

From the corner of my eye, I saw Janus shift his weight. “Miss.”

Disregarding him, I gaped blankly at the empty corridor. Why would Junior, The Boss’s oldest hellspawn, want me to contact him? I remembered the phone call I’d ignored and pressed the log button on my desk phone. My heart sank. The number was Junior’s extension.

What the hell was going on? First I have the best morning ever, then I get emotional over a retirement, and now The Boss’s oldest hellspawn wanted to chat.

“Miss,” Janus barked.

I stared at the man whose life was over. “I have three documents for you to sign, Mr. Janus. Please use my pen.” I held out the pen, but he didn’t take it.

“I was hoping to see The Boss. I think there’s been a mistake.” He wiped his forehead with his handkerchief.

“No one sees The Boss.”

“So, this is it,” he said, slapping his hand on the desk and making me jump. “After fifty friggin’ years. All I get is a snot-nosed redhead sayin’ ‘sign here.’”

For a minute I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t change his fate. Once the deal was struck there was no choice, no matter who struck the deal. My mother made the deal with the Devil, not me, yet I’d inherited the debt, making me just as screwed as Janus.

I couldn’t stop any of this from happening. Seeing The Boss wouldn’t help him. If Janus continued down this path he’d lose more than his life.

“I can assure you, sir, I’m fully qualified to handle your retirement. I don’t have fifty years of experience, as you do, but I am completely capable of reading you the fine print necessary to complete the process. If you choose not to cooperate, then you will not get the severance package, which includes an indisputable natural death and the seventy-two hour grace period that will allow you to say goodbye to your loved ones.”

I read this so often I had the passage memorized, which was the only reason I was able to get through the spiel today.

“Any refusal on your part to sign the documents will mean immediate forfeiture of all remaining benefits, which includes the aforementioned severance package. As I’m sure you know, they always suspect a family member when foul play is involved, and your life insurance doesn’t pay out for suicide. Do you have any questions?”

The pain in his eyes and the strain in his voice were heart breaking. His shoulders drooped as he said, “This is the worst day of my life, and you couldn’t give a rat’s ass if you tried.”

I swallowed. There were no words for him. I couldn’t help him. “I’m sorry,” I said.

He snatched the pen from my hand and clicked it open, drawing a small amount of blood into the chamber, and signed the documents. As if on autopilot, I verified the signatures, collected his company-issued credit card, and handed him a red box with a white bow on top. He opened the box, snorted, and chucked it back at me.

No one ever took the gift. Probably because it was a cheap gold watch or maybe it was the unsigned thank-you card curled inside the band.

Janus stomped away from my desk and punched the elevator button with his fist. I shouldn’t care, and not because I’d become jaded over the last five years. I shouldn’t care because he made his deal—just like the rest.

I shoved the three documents and his credit card into the red folder. I couldn’t save him anymore than I could save me.

I gazed at the flowers again and remembered I would see Jack for lunch. He was the reason I got up in the morning. I loved him. He was the thing that kept me sane. I needed him, and I really wished I were still curled up in bed with him instead of staring at a red message light from the oldest hellspawn in existence.

I took a deep breath, picked up the phone, and pressed voicemail. In the five years I’d worked here, Junior never came to The Boss’s office. Not willingly.

I concentrated on his voice from the message. “Summer sun and falling rain have only you to call my name. If ever joy and comets come, the end of ocean’s eyes are one. Blue and deep the windows see, as far and wide as yonder be. The willow breaks and I must need the one who means so much to me…I’m sorry about before. I can’t wait to see you. I’m coming up.”

I’m not sure how many minutes passed, but at some point, the phone timed out, clicked off voice mail, and started an annoying busy signal. I was still holding the phone, trying to determine exactly what had happened.

I hung up the phone and stared. What the hell was that? I picked up my coffee, wishing it were a double espresso.

“A love poem?” I said. I pressed the call log again. His name was still there.

The intercom buzzed, and I nearly dropped my coffee. The mark on my right forearm tingled and burned. Symbols appeared. I had no idea what they meant and was too scared to ask. The four characters resembled Chinese script, but they were actually from a long-dead ancient language.

I clenched my fist as he made the blood of his mark boil.

The intercom buzzed again. I glanced at my watch—it was early for The Boss to be in the office. I quickly checked my desk. Everything was in order—just the way he liked it. Retirement complete, no messages, no meetings until later. Maintenance was planning to strike, but he’d ignore that. Okay, breathe. Now find out what he wants.

I pressed the intercom, ignoring the pain on my arm. Be polite. Be courteous. “Yes, sir.”

“Come here.”

He didn’t look up as I entered the office. Usually his desk was the picture of organization, but today he was moving papers around as if he’d misplaced something.

A slight chill made goose bumps on my arm as I closed the door. It always struck me as peculiar that he liked his office cold given his realm was Hell.

His voice was dispassionate and clipped as he said, “I need you to fetch something.”

I straightened. He wanted me to leave the office?

In a casual tone hiding a deeper meaning, he asked, “Who sent the flowers?”

My mouth went dry. I couldn’t speak. His stark black eyes were on me now—waiting. The Boss had one rule that could never be broken. No ordinary human or plebe from the office could know who he was. If I told anyone, they died. Period.

“Jack,” I said quietly.

After a moment of studying me, The Boss dropped his gaze to his desk. He was dressed completely in black. His shirt was open at the collar—no tie. His black hair was cut short with a few streaks of silver running through it. He had a strong jaw and angular nose. He was attractive—as always—but frightening.

I stood there, waiting for his command, but it never came. After several more minutes I asked, “What do you want picked up?” which came out more agitated than it should have. Crap. He had me on edge with the flower question, but that was no excuse.

He was staring at me again. His intense eyes flared as he sent a jolt of heat through my mark. Be polite, be courteous, and be quiet. I bowed my head. He dialed the mark down a few notches.

“You will go downtown and see a man named Wylan James.”

My head popped up, and my eyes widened.

He ignored me and continued, “He has something for me. Tell him I sent you, and he’ll give you what I need.”

The words came out of my mouth before I could stop them. “I’m not allowed downtown by myself.”

My survival instincts were forgetting several key bits of information. First, his mood—grizzly bear. And second, he didn’t give a rat’s ass about me. Why should he care if the druid mob that ran the Underworld—or downtown, as he liked to call it—had threatened to kill me if they caught me down there alone again?

He kicked up the heat on his mark. I clamped my mouth shut so I wouldn’t scream, or say anything else to piss him off.

“Return to me by noon.”

* * *

Trying to ignore the nagging unease in my gut, I headed to the motor pool. The Boss knew I wasn’t supposed to go to the Underworld alone, so why was he sending me?

The Underworld was the place between the three realms and Earth. I remember thinking it sounded so exotic. It turned out to look a lot like New York City. The only real difference between the Underworld and Manhattan was the cops. The druids ran the police. They were the law keepers of the Underworld, but they weren’t police. They were the mob, and they were as corrupt as any member of organized crime on Earth.

The druids were the reason I didn’t go downtown alone. The first time I’d been sent, a ruthless druid named Johnny Flash trapped me in a circle of salt surrounded by rabid dogs for three days. They made me promise to get Maintenance dental by the winter solstice.

The Boss said no to dental.

I was barely sixteen, but I learned three very important lessons that day. The Boss cared nothing for me—no one gets dental, and druids were not to be trusted. Ever.

I willed the bad memories away. I’d get in and out before anyone knew I was there. I had no choice. No one refused The Boss.

The motor pool was dead. Shiny black town cars were parked neatly in almost every available spot of the big underground garage. The normally bustling atmosphere was quiet. It always was the Monday after a big Underworld event. The guys had all worked the weekend, driving the executives to and from Fight Night, so they had today off.

I spotted the manager, a burly demon with wiry black hair.

“I got your car ready, Miss Cooper,” he said with a smile. The glint of red in his eyes sparkled as he motioned to the smaller man behind him. “Your usual guy is out—stomach flu—and with the fight being this past weekend—”

“I understand. You’re short-staffed,” I said, stopping his explanation. My polite smile faded when I sensed the new guy’s veil.

“This is Frankie,” the manager said. “He’ll be your driver today.”

Frankie appeared to be in his early thirties, and the harsh line of his nose and jaw gave him a stern demon-ish look. I was being stereotypical, since he was a demon, but he triggered my veil detector. The anxious feeling in my stomach—the response my body had to being near a veil—wasn’t helping to settle my nerves. He shouldn’t have been veiled. It wasn’t necessary. Not down here where humans weren’t allowed.

There wasn’t much physical difference between the beings of the three realms and humans. The pagans, druids, and demons veiled when around humans to hide what was different. Frankie’s veil wasn’t just out of place. It was wrong. His veil made him appear more like a demon.

I checked my watch. Frankie was busy typing on his phone, but if we didn’t leave soon I’d never make it back in time.

“I need to see a man named Wylan James,” I said. “It’s important business for The Boss.”

Frankie’s eyes were blank, but his hardened expression was smug. “Hold your horses, toots. I gotta make the log entry before I can leave.”

“I have to be back by noon,” I said.

“Frankie,” the motor pool manager hollered, “get goin’—that’s a VIP you’re driving.”

“All right, already.” Frankie shoved the key into the ignition.

Finally. I waved a thank-you to the manager.

I looked up when Frankie muttered a curse. He was stabbing at the GPS, trying to clear the screen. I only caught a glimpse before the screen went blank, but I was sure the last destination had been somewhere in Paradise—which was impossible. No one who worked for The Boss could go there.

The three realms weren’t exactly vacation destinations. I’d never been to Hell—thank God, but it was technically possible to go. My soul would be trapped in Hell when I died. Demons were souls who had already died, but had enough power or privilege to get out of Hell. While it wasn’t impossible for Frankie to go to Paradise—the druid realm—what reason would the Druid King have for allowing him passage?

I checked my watch again, but before I could tell Frankie I’d wait for the next driver, the car lurched forward, and we were off.

I considered asking him to return to the garage, but I really didn’t have time to wait. It was a quick pick-up—in and out, no big deal.

Ignoring my unease, I picked up my newspaper and settled back into my seat.

The entertainment section was taken over by the Fight Night debacle. The fight—Underworld’s biggest event—became an uncontrolled brawl after several small fights broke out in the arena. The entire event had to be shut down. For the first time in a hundred years, Fight Night was cancelled.

I shivered when the tingle of the threshold passed through me. We’d crossed into Underworld. Buffered by the car, it wasn’t much different from a change in the cabin pressure on an airplane.

My eyes widened as a white van screeched to a stop in front of us. Frankie slammed on the brakes, throwing me forward into the back of the front seat.

Four tough-looking goons piled out of the white van that was now blocking the road ahead. I gripped my phone to call for help. Panicked, I glanced at Frankie to see if he was okay.

I froze when I spotted the gun he pointed at my chest.

I gasped. “What are you doing?”

He grinned and then pulled the trigger.

I expected agony to rip through my chest. When I only felt a sharp pain, I lowered my gaze to see the damage, but there was no hole in my chest. Instead, there was a blue-feathered dart.

My eyelids drooped. Frankie had his phone to his ear. I couldn’t hear what he was saying. He smirked at me, continuing his conversation. I was going to pass out.

I fought to keep my eyes open. Frankie ran a hand through his hair, drawing the illusion away. His dark hair changed to a mousey brown, and his eyes glinted a muddy caramel. I understood now why he’d been veiled.

“Angel…” I accused, just before I blacked out.

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