When George Soto turns twenty-six, his life is less than perfect. Stuck in a dead-end job, watching his friends pass him by, it’s quickly starting to feel like he’s going nowhere. When he finds a strange ritual meant to contract a demon, he doesn’t imagine it could possibly work.
Until there’s a demon standing in his living room.
George doesn’t know what a contract with a demon entails, but it seems like a great opportunity to get revenge on his awful boss. Gradually, he and the demon—an abrasive entity who calls himself Jack—form an alliance.
But as things heat up between them, George almost doesn’t notice the increasing darkness in his life. The nights are longer, the shadows grow heavier, and the world around him seems to be distorting.
|Publisher:||NineStar Press, LLC|
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.43(d)|
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BITTER ALCOHOL RUNS down his throat, burning like liquid fire. It's sheer force of will that keeps George from choking, even though he's sure what he's drinking has got to be at least half ethanol, half nail polish remover. He slams the shot glass on the table and sputters, struggling to breathe past the burning in his throat. Tears pool at the corners of his eyes; he blinks them away to the sound of his friends' raucous laughter.
"One more down the hatch!" Matt exclaims. "Keep this up and you might catch up with us!"
"Might," echoes Alex. "Optimism is a beautiful thing."
George wipes the tears from his eyes before narrowing them at his friends. He can take a joke as well as the next guy, but after the day he's had he'd prefer a little sympathy.
"Come on, jerks, quit harping on me just because I got here late."
"An hour late," interjects Josh, like this is a point of extreme incredulity. "To your own birthday party."
George snorts, glancing around at the motley assembly of the three friends who make up his "party" — Matt with his hair mussed, Alex hanging half off his barstool, and Josh slamming another empty shot glass on the table. "You guys are the best I could get for my birthday? Oh man, my life is tragic."
Josh reaches over and punches him in the arm. It shouldn't hurt, except Josh sometimes doesn't realize his own strength, so it hurts a lot. George subtly shifts his numbing arm as he swipes at the other man. Across from him, Matt is laughing again. Maybe it's the alcohol settling into his veins, or maybe Matt's laugh is just so damn contagious, but George finds himself grinning back.
He can feel his foul mood fading away, and he's glad for it. It's not like getting a mountain of paperwork forced on you by your boss is a weak reason to be pissed off. Still, it's his damn birthday — he deserves to have a good time.
"Sawyer's an ass," Matt says, still snickering as he reaches for a shot of his own. "It's not like this is a surprise."
"Still. He had to have known you'd have plans," Josh pipes up. It's true; they have an office birthday calendar, and people have been congratulating George on having made it through another year all day long. (Not Sawyer, of course, but George's jaw would have hit the floor if his boss had.)
"Like I said: ass," Matt says, at the same time Alex mutters, "Satan incarnate."
Matt slams the shot glass on the table, remaining still for a few seconds as the burn of alcohol fades away. His sharp hiccup dissolves into a round of snickering. The flush on Matt's face reminds George that his friends have been drinking for a solid hour longer than he has. He finds himself moving to snatch his own shot from the tray before anyone else can get to it. The last thing he wants is to end up the most sober person at his own party.
He tosses back the alcohol and winds up coughing, stunned by the burn of fiery liquid. He's got no clue what these shots are, but for the way they taste he hopes they cost his friends a small fortune.
"Take it easy," Alex mutters to Matt, who's still giggling. "If you pass out, no one's dragging your sorry ass back home."
"We'll just call Lila to come get you," Josh says with a wicked grin. The threat has the desired sobering effect. Matt blanches and shrinks back into his seat.
"God, no. Last time she chewed me out, I couldn't stand to look at myself for days. That woman has a way of tearing you down and putting you back together again with nothing but her disapproval and the brute force of your own shame."
He shudders. George and Josh exchange sly looks, and both lean forward in anticipation. It's only a few seconds before Matt's disturbed expression melts into something gentle, and he smirks down at the table. "God, I love her."
Alex rolls his eyes. George reaches for another shot with one hand, high fiving Josh with the other. "Every time!"
There are several guarantees every time he goes out drinking with his buddies. At some point, he and Josh will get into a drinking competition ("I'm Irish, Soto, you don't stand a chance," Josh always says, before being soundly outdrunk by George). Whatever food they order will be thrown around. Two people will get into an argument about something stupid. And Matt will wax poetic about the love of his life, Lila Cooper.
George presses an empty glass to his lips and grins into it. He might be a year older, but some things never change. Even if they're all getting older now, and it seems like very few things want to stay the way they have always been.
It makes sense, of course. They're not college students anymore. Alex isn't top of his class; instead, he's slaving away behind a desk at a publishing agency. Josh has stopped dreaming of being a journalist and is actually trying to get there. Matt's doing his damnedest to carve out a life for himself, whether it be clawing his way up at his firm or proposing to his longtime girlfriend. It seems as if everybody's life is on a rapid collision course with new and better things — the only one staying right where he's always been is George.
The worst part is, he's not sure he wants it any other way. Maybe things are better if they don't change at all. Change is risky — you don't know what it could bring. After all, he's happy enough where he is now, right?
Sure he is. His life is great. He doesn't have anything to complain about, except for his miserable boss. Everything else is fine. It's goddamn great.
Happy birthday to me, he thinks, before raising his arm to order another round of shots.
Screw Sawyer and his paperwork. Screw his crummy job. Screw being twenty-six and single, his closest friends being his old college buddies, and his useless cat.
Tonight is his party, and he's going to have a good time if it kills him.
IT IS WELL past midnight by the time the group finally stumbles out of the bar. They must look ridiculous, swaying on their feet, snorting with laughter and muttering to each other as they giggle into the night air. George supports himself against Josh or Alex, swaying between the two and clinging to their arms whenever he needs the help staying upright. On Alex's other side, Matt is listing heavily against the buildings as they pass them, staining his shirt sleeve with brick dust as he drags his body along.
"It's cold," George mutters, even though it's June, and it really isn't. "Am I the only one who's really freaking cold?"
"Yes," Alex says, and then makes a noise of disgruntlement as George grips onto his shoulder for balance. Matt snickers again, and nearly winds up toppling over. They all stop in the middle of the sidewalk for a second to watch him regain his balance, arms flailing and feet scrabbling for purchase. When he finally does, he lifts his head with a glowing sort of victory. George thinks it would be better suited for a conquering hero than a drunk guy who managed to not fall on his ass, but Matt has a penchant for the dramatic.
Once they've ascertained they aren't about to lose Matt to the comforts of a hard sidewalk, they stumble on. George has no clue where they're going; his place, maybe, since his apartment is the closest, but he's pretty sure they're still blocks away. No one thought to get a taxi when they left the bar, apparently, because walking long distances while drunk is so much fun.
George trips over an invisible crack in the sidewalk and curses as he almost goes sprawling. Jesus Christ, he should have called a damn Uber.
"Ah man, I have to pee," says Josh. He lets a few seconds pass in silence before repeating himself, only to reassure them that nothing's changed, "I have to pee so bad."
"Shut up, Josh. Just. Shut up," Matt mutters, bracing himself against the brick building as he sways. "Now I'm gonna have to go too."
"I need to pee."
"Peeing's for the weak," Matt says.
"Next person who says pee, I'll kick 'em," declares Alex, swinging his fist in a clumsy arc for good measure. Alex is a grouchy drunk. He's not surly, and he won't actually fight anyone (most of the time), but he's got no problem telling people to shut up. He also has zero depth perception, so any actual attempts to fight someone would end poorly. George keeps an eye on Drunk Alex, because he's a riot without meaning to be.
"Just go in the street," George mutters. At this point, he's tired of hearing them talk about it.
This seems to be good enough for Josh, who turns to the closest alleyway and lets his hands drift to his pants. Well damn, George wasn't actually serious. He opens his mouth to intervene, but Matt gets there first, pushing himself off from the wall to throw an arm around Josh's shoulders. "No, no no," he says. "This is how we get arrested."
Josh frowns at him, then down at his half-zipped fly. "But I have to go."
He's not going to shut up until he's able to go, and everyone knows this. George begins scanning the mostly-dark street in the vain hope of finding somewhere that hasn't yet closed for the night. A post office, a restaurant — hell, even a gift shop would be good enough, as long as it has a bathroom.
Most of the shops on the street are locked up tight, windows darkened and sign on the doors flipped to Closed. Big surprise, and just George's luck, too — now he's going to have to listen to Josh whine for another however-many blocks.
That's when his gaze lands on what has to be an actual God-given miracle — or, at least as close as you can get to that in urban Rhode Island. It's a little bookshop devoid of any sign on the door, or any indication it hasn't closed up yet. The store window is piled with mountains of books, but behind them, the light is clearly on. It is a beacon on the otherwise dark street, warm glow singing out to George's drunken mind.
"Hey," he says, pointing towards the shop. "Try there, it's still open."
Josh looks that way, and his face lights up. He's not the only one who's relieved. Alex mutters a "Thank God," as he follows Josh down the sidewalk, and Matt runs a hand through his hair as he trails behind them at a more sedate pace. George huffs what isn't quite a laugh, following his friends to the friendly looking little shop at the end of the street.
They push open the door to the light sound of bells. George's gaze drifts up to the instrument fixed on top of the door; it is a glowing silver bell, engraved with black symbols he's too short and too drunk to make out. It's a nice bell, he thinks. Nicer than anything where he works, including the computers. (God, his office has shitty computers. Maybe this place is hiring?)
He's just starting to drift down a weird road of thought when a door behind the counter opens, and a figure steps out. It's a slender young man, clothed in shadow. He wears a gray button-down and black jeans, matching the shade of his hair exactly. His eyes shine like two hot coals, and black stains the palms of his hands; it takes George a bit too long to realize this is ink. The only thing remotely colorful about the guy is his skin, a warm brown that stands out against his monochrome clothing. Dark circles rest under eyes that regard the group in the middle of his shop with wariness.
That gaze reminds him of being scrutinized at work. Unconsciously, George straightens up and offers the bookstore owner his best smile.
"Hi," he says. The owner frowns.
"Sorry, we're closed for tonight."
The thing that hits George first is the preciseness of his words. The guy sounds like he's trying to cover up an accent but isn't quite managing it. Every syllable is pronounced. Still, this does nothing to distract from the silken smoothness of his tone, like liquid metal running down a slanted surface. It washes over George, stirring faint, unfamiliar memories of someplace far away from here.
"We figured." Matt's making his best effort to be charming too, giving the owner his best smile. "We just wondered if we could use your bathroom?" The guy takes in the swaying cluster of drunk men in his shop for a few more seconds before he shakes his head, slow and cautious. "Sorry, boys. I can't let you in here right now. I'm a little busy."
He gestures with his hands to the mountains of books and papers littering the counter. It's a complete mess, though it honestly doesn't seem out of place with the rest of the store. George glances at the array, and his eyebrows shoot up. The guy isn't joking about being busy. This is more work than Sawyer threw at him tonight.
There are stray pages scattered everywhere, with drawings and symbols liberally spread throughout them. He can't help noticing the pen on the table and a few papers that look half written. Is the guy writing a book or something? George frowns, taking a step closer without realizing, but he's blocked by Alex's body suddenly in his way.
"Sorry, we know it's late —" Alex starts, ever the diplomat. "Like, really late — and you didn't ask for a buncha drunk idiots in your shop —"
"Hey, what're you?" demands George.
"But we'd really appreciate it."
"He'll pee his pants," George sees fit to contribute. "He's done it before." The glare Josh sends him could burn a hole in the floor, but George has been on the receiving end of drunk slander from him enough times that he isn't a bit sorry.
The bookstore owner glances between the group, taking in the obvious desperation on Josh's face and the tipsy friendliness on Matt and Alex's. Maybe he decides they're pitiful, or at least too drunk to be much more than a nuisance, but he finally buckles with a beleaguered sigh. "All right," he says, gesturing to the back of the store. "Come on, whoever's gotta go can go."
Josh breaks out into a wide grin. George huffs in relief, glad he won't have to listen to his friend's complaining all night; his attention is still focused on the papers littering the counter. The bookstore owner doesn't notice as he begins to lead the group back, opening the door behind the counter to a dimly lit hallway. "Okay, buddy system," Matt declares, clumsily clapping Josh on the back. "Let's go, buddy."
"Pal," Josh says before almost tripping over his own feet.
Alex snorts, taking the rear in case either one of them decides to topple over. The poor bookshop owner doesn't deserve to deal with that, on top of the drunk nuisances crashing his place in the middle of the night.
"Come on, man," Alex says, but George waves a hand at him.
"I'm gonna wait outside. Don't take too long."
He holds his breath until the door shuts behind them with a click. He waits a second, listening to the thud of footsteps moving down the hallway. There is no danger of anyone coming back. He's alone.
George has no clue why he was waiting for that, but as soon as he's certain he's got the room to himself, he springs into action. He was brought up right; his mother always told him not to snoop, and to never touch things that don't belong to him.
Unfortunately, George has always been an insufferably curious bastard. He's never been good at keeping his nose out of other people's business.
He hears a door in the back of the shop click shut, and that settles it. He's moving before he knows it, peering over the desk to take in the mass of papers there.
He couldn't say why he was intrigued by them from a distance. Maybe he was curious as to exactly what this poor guy was working on to keep him at work until one in the morning. Maybe his drunk brain just thought the drawings looked cool. He really couldn't say; but as he gets closer, it becomes obvious he's looking at something he couldn't have anticipated.
A lot of the half-scribbled pages seem to be written in code — a strange alphabet of jaunty symbols he can't make heads or tails of. He peers at them for a moment, frowning, before moving on to the nearest page in English.
This is a strange one: Methods Of Gathering Graveyard Dirt.
"The hell?" George mutters to himself before moving on. There's a well-worn page titled Circle Casting Rituals. Another goes into detail about various herbs used to cure stomach aches. There are entire books talking about moon phases, guides to plants and spices, and pages devoted to various healing rituals. It's like he's stumbled upon the weird collection of a cross between an herbalist and a witch doctor.
He pulls off his glasses and presses his fingers over his eyes, as if hoping the spells will be gone when he opens them up again. He's out of luck. His hands continue to shuffle through the eerie pile, almost out of control, as he takes in page after page of impossible titles.
Okay, thinks George. This isn't weird. This isn't creepy at all. Hell, this is the most normal thing I've seen tonight.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "How We Sell Our Souls"
Copyright © 2018 Emilie Lucadamo.
Excerpted by permission of NineStar Press, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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