When demon Saul persuades comic book artist Tom to sign over his soul in exchange for a night of passion, little does he know what lies in store. Demons can’t fall in love—or so he’s been told—but he finds himself smitten and attempts to destroy the contract, desperate to save Tom from an eternity of torture.
With Saul and Tom forced to run, a showdown between Heaven and Hell ensues as the angels and demons argue over who owns Tom’s soul. But does either party have a stronger claim than Saul?
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|Publisher:||NineStar Press, LLC|
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.48(d)|
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I enter the pub, saunter to the bar, and settle on one of the stools. This isn't the most salubrious joint on the block and the stool wobbles precariously on uneven legs under my weight. I grip the counter for a moment, until equilibrium returns, and then assess the situation. So long as I don't make any sudden moves, I should be safe. The last thing I want is to fall on my arse. Not the kind of first impression I'm hoping to make on my mark.
The barman waddles over and raises an expectant eyebrow. He scans my attire. From the twist of his lips, I deduce that he agrees with my own belief: I look wildly out of place here. Nonetheless, I don't suppose he's going to toss me out. Money is money whether it comes from a lint-lined pocket in a pair of faded, torn jeans or from a genuine leather wallet, produced from the inner pocket of a bespoke suit jacket.
I had planned to plump for a reliable half-pint of Old Peculiar, but then the guest ales catch my eye. "A pint of the Green Daemon, thanks," I say as I place a tenner on the sticky bar top.
What can I say? I have a sense of humour — sue me. Besides, I love the little devil figure grinning out at me from the label. And, hey, I am wearing a green shirt and beautifully coordinated tie today. It must be serendipity.
The barman sets the beer in front of me and drops a handful of change beside it. I scoop up the coins and thrust them into my pocket. Then I lift the glass to take my first sip. It's not bad; there's a fruity aroma. I'd probably pair it with an Asian fusion dish, if that sort of thing interests you. But I'm not here to entertain or offer culinary advice. I have work to do.
The mirror behind the bar gives me an excellent, if somewhat smeary, view of the room, and it doesn't take me long to spot my mark again. He's in the corner seat — the darkest spot in the pub — and is nursing a half-pint of something that looks suspiciously like a girly cider. Geez, the guy is staring into the glass like it's a fricking crystal ball. What is it he expects to see in there — a masterpiece by Dalí?
Hey, I'm not mocking the guy. He's actually pretty cute in all his dorkish glory. If you're into that sort of vibe. One look at him, sitting there like a dejected puppy, is enough to convince me I'm on the right track. I can even guess his wish. Oh yes. Numero tres for this dude. Sex, sex, sex. The poor sap looks like he hasn't been laid in a lifetime, if ever, and as a fellow man — or close enough — it's my duty to help him out. If he happens to sign a little contract in the process, all the better ... for me, anyway.
I've decided on my play, but I watch the guy for a few more minutes, choosing the best approach. The trick to a successful signing is to make the initial contact count. I should probably have an honorary psychology degree since the most important part of this job is reading your mark. You have to know what they want, but more than that, you have to know how they want it. You've got to understand how people tick. Know what I'm saying?
Take this guy. We can see he desires sex, but what does he like? Is he into blondes or brunettes, curves or willows? These are all vital questions because I need to know how to alter my appearance before I go over to him. Yeah, you heard me right. The things I do for this job! Believe me, temporary loss of my favourite anatomical parts is the least of it.
Once again, it makes one long for the good times past. Back then it was a simple matter of two choices. First, male or female, depending upon my target, and second, handsome or deformed. Most wanted the devil to be handsome. I guess it was easier to sin if you looked upon a pretty face while you were about it. However, there were always a few who wanted to be truly horrified by what they were doing, to feel the weight of it. In those cases, the traditional horns, cloven hooves, and tail were my attributes of choice.
Nowadays, people are so picky. So many choices, so many new and convoluted kinks to work into the equation. This guy doesn't seem to be the kinky type on the surface, but you never can tell. Does he want the sweet girl next door? Does he want a dominatrix, all whips and leather? Does he want ... a man?
I temporarily lose my train of thought, and my jaw drops quite of its own accord.
Even as I jabber away, I have been keeping half an eye on my mark. He completely ignores the young waitress attending the couple two tables down from him, but his gaze is captured by a waiter who's just exited the kitchen. The man is lean but toned, and he flicks his head to shift choppy brown locks out of his eyes as he adjusts his grip on the plates he carries hurriedly across the room.
I confess I didn't see that coming. Not on this occasion.
My guy's practically salivating as he follows the man with his gaze. Given the flush in his cheeks, I wouldn't be the least surprised if he had a hard-on; although, it's impossible to verify that with the table in the way.
One thing is clear: this wasn't a chance encounter. No, he's been waiting to catch a glimpse of this guy. Suddenly, I understand his reason for choosing this completely hideous pub. No. Scratch that. They do have a pretty good list of guest ales. Let's call it a semi-hideous pub, in the interest of fairness.
The waiter-god, his work completed, strolls back into the kitchen, leaving the door swinging to and fro in his wake. My guy watches it like a hawk long after it ceases to move, no doubt hoping for a repeat performance. When the door stays resolutely closed, he shifts his attention back to his untouched drink.
I confess that the revelation threw me for a moment. Even a seasoned professional such as myself can occasionally be caught off guard. No one's perfect, after all. But I'm nothing if not adaptable, and it doesn't take me long to bounce back and rethink my plan of attack.
I'll be able to keep my man-parts for this one — always a blessing — but one thing still needs to be decided: how should I appear to him? The obvious option is to turn myself into the waiter. I'm guaranteed a good reception that way, and yet I'm tempted to try something different and approach him in my own form.
Now, I don't like to brag, but I consider myself to be quite the looker. Well, you're looking at me now. Wouldn't you agree? And I'm actually not too dissimilar from the object of our guy's affections. Sure, my hair's darker, closer to black, but I have a toned, compact figure like him and commensurate sharply defined cheekbones. Why not give it a try? I can always make a second approach as the waiter if this one goes pear-shaped.
My mind made up, I hop down from the bar stool and amble towards the gents. I move nice and slow, with a good sway of the hips that stays on the right side of being camp. I want to make sure he gets a good look at me as I pass, and judging by the weight of the gaze I feel upon me, I've succeeded. Time for step two.CHAPTER 2
I don't know what I'm doing here. Well, I do, but I'm trying not to admit it to myself. I can't pretend that I'm here to meet someone — who would I have to meet? This isn't the sort of place you frequent for the amazing ambience, nor the sublime cuisine. Really, I don't even want this drink that sits before me; I only bought it because you can't go into a pub and sit for an hour without ordering something. Do I like cider? I can't recall ever trying it, but it's my go-to beverage here, the first thing that pops into my head when asked what I want. Ordering a Coke seems too juvenile. Not that it matters, I suppose. To date, I've left every drink untouched and I feel no enthusiasm to go against that precedent today.
A door hinge squeaks to my left. I look around. And there he is, at last. He doesn't look at me — not so much as a glance. Why would he? Nevertheless, I follow him with my gaze as he carries two steaming plates to a table across the room. Job done, he turns and strides back towards me.
Part of me begs him not to suddenly notice me and catch me staring. The other part longs for him to meet my eye and smile. Of course, in my daydreams, he does that and more. In fantasies, he captures my gaze, approaches, sits beside me, takes my hand, leans in, his lips brush mine, and ... Well, you get the idea. The reality is that I don't even know his name. I do know that he's straight. He only flirts with the few female customers, and I once caught sight of him embracing the waitress before the kitchen door swung closed. It's utterly hopeless; I realise that. Yet I can't seem to let go.
I first encountered Mr Tall-Dark-And-Handsome a few weeks ago. I was walking by and spotted him delivering meals to a table by the window. God, but he looked gorgeous. The next day, I found myself taking the same route. The day after that, I ventured inside, and over the past few weeks it's become my lunchtime routine. Not once has he so much as registered my presence. That's nothing new — most people don't. However, just seeing him brightens my day.
I fear my actions border on stalking, but I aim to stay on the right side of that invisible line. Nothing can come of this. I have no designs. There is no 'us' in the future. Nonetheless, here I sit, day after day, basking in a few precious seconds of his presence.
The truth is I'm lonely. How do all those couples out there do it? How do they find one another and form relationships? I mean, I've had partners before — I'm not that sad virgin mainstream media make out all nerds to be — but nothing meaningful, nothing lasting. Is there someone out there for me? How will I ever find Mr Right when I seem to be invisible to the population at large?
I'm pondering this life dilemma when another patron captures my attention. He was seated at the bar with his back to me, and I'd not given him more than a passing glance, but now he stands and heads towards the toilets, affording me an opportunity to see him better.
He's handsome. That's my first impression. A subtle sway to his hips lets me appreciate his slim, toned frame. He reminds me of the waiter in a vague, external way. They're both tall and dark. Yet, there's something more to this guy — an aura — that makes him stand out. He doesn't look directly at me; however, as impossible and unlikely as it seems, I get the sense that he knows I'm there and a shiver runs down my spine.
When he enters the gents and the door swings shut behind him, I release a breath.
What am I doing? First the waiter, now this stranger. I should get up, walk out, and never return. However, my body makes no attempt to follow through on this fine suggestion. I tell myself that my mind is made up. This fascination with random men whom I can never have is at an end; I'm turning over a new leaf. My legs choose not to believe me. Either that or they're simply ignoring me and forming a splinter party within the democratic body of Thomas Ives.
I glance at my watch. It's too early to go home. Neither do I feel inclined to head back to the office. I finished ten panels this morning, so it's not as if I have any urgent work to complete; I'm well ahead of schedule already. Another twenty minutes here won't hurt. Maybe thirty. After that, I'll definitely leave.CHAPTER 3
I spend a couple of minutes in the gents just waiting, entertaining myself by reading the graffiti (mostly misspelled) and avoiding the many dubious wet patches on the floor, some of which I don't even want to contemplate. Normally, I'd drag my stay out a little longer, but my nostrils can't bear any more, so at the count of one hundred I remove my jacket, drape it over my arm, and head back out to the bar.
I pretend to trip over the leg of a chair as I pass my mark's table. Clichéd, I know, but sometimes the classics are the best. I shoot out a hand to steady myself and the table wobbles, spilling his drink. (The glass is still so full I don't even need to go for an all-out knock-over move.)
"Aw, geez. I'm sorry, friend." I right myself and offer an apologetic smile, running a hand through my hair at the same time to give him a flash of my biceps.
"It's fine. Really." He looks a little like a deer caught in the headlights. It's actually pretty cute.
"Let me buy you another. No, I insist," I add when he opens his mouth to protest.
I mark my territory by leaving my jacket on the seat beside him. Then I wander to the bar and place the order.
"Mind if I join you?" I ask when I return with our beverages. "It's so dull to drink alone, don't you think?" He's still looking startled, but I take the lack of resistance as an affirmation, and after setting the drinks on the table, I wriggle into the seat next to him, taking the place of my jacket, which I move onto my lap. I push his drink across the short space between us. "The name's Saul."
"Thomas. Thomas Ives."
"And do people call you Tommy?"
"No. Tom. Sometimes."
From the tone he uses, I interpret 'sometimes' as 'never'. It seems a good opportunity to remedy that, not least because it offers me an in.
"Well, a pleasure to meet you ... Tom." I roll the name gently off my tongue so it sounds like a purr. Let him imagine hearing me say it in bed. To give him a moment for this reflection, I take a sip of my drink. The action makes him reach for his, too, although all he does is nurse it between his hands. I nod towards his T-shirt. "Cap or Iron Man?"
"Who'd win the fight? Cap or Iron Man?" (Another trick for soul-scamming in the modern age: know your pop culture.)
He ponders this for a moment. Obviously it's a deeper and more poignant question than I'd thought. I'll have to remember that for the future. Perhaps I'll bring it up again at some classy literary event and see what reaction it gets.
"Iron Man," he decides at last. "It'd be close, but Iron Man has the better weaponry."
"I'd plump for the Cap myself, but then I've always been partial to a blond."
I punctuate this statement by giving him a quick look up and down. He gulps and lowers his gaze to his glass. An attractive blush mottles his cheeks.
It's a bold move so early in the conversation. I couldn't have made my interest more obvious if I'd held a flashing neon sign above my head. But I find I'm starting to enjoy myself. He's a bit of a nerd, but Tom has looks, and I'm as partial to a pretty face as any man. Given my nature, I'm pretty fluid. Girls or guys. I'll swing either way — and anywhere in between.
My plan had been to seduce him as myself — get his juices flowing and all that jazz — and then offer him the waiter to sweeten (and hopefully seal) the deal. Now, I'm experiencing a change of heart. Why not set myself a little challenge and make myself the main reward?
Yep, if he signs on the dotted line, he gets one night of unbridled passion with yours truly. Not to blow my own trumpet or anything, but it'd be a much better deal for him. I'm fairly certain the waiter's straight, for one thing. I wouldn't be surprised if he's feeling up that waitress out back even as we speak. For another ... Well, let's just say, no one — male or female — has ever finished a night with me feeling in any way ... unsatisfied. If you get my meaning. I've got the moves, baby. Austin Powers, Don Juan, Casanova. They have nothing on me.
"So, what is it you do, Tom?" Time to get the conversation moving again.
He starts. "Do?"
"You know, for work, employment."
"Oh." He visibly relaxes. "I do artwork. On comic books and graphic novels."
Figures. "Must be fun. Get to set your own hours a bit?"
He nods. "As long as I meet my deadlines, I can go into the office whatever time I please."
"Sweet. Nothing like beating the nine-to-five daily grind. What I wouldn't give for such a life. With me, it's nose to the grindstone day in and day out. One toe out of line and the boss hails down fire and brimstone. And trust me when I say that you don't want to be on the receiving end of that!"
His eyebrows arch. "Damn. Sounds rough. What is it you do?"
Finally, Tom is engaging and things are looking up. (Hopefully in more ways than one.) "Oh, I guess you could say I'm in procurement. Of a very particular kind."
Nothing more to add, comic boy? Never mind. Luckily, I have enough skill in conversation for the both of us. "Say, I was going to grab some lunch. Want to join me?"
"Nah. I've seen the food coming out of that kitchen. I was thinking somewhere a little nicer. My treat," I add, in case the thought of the bill puts him off.
He's slow to answer. He even takes the first sip of his drink. It's done in an effort to disguise the fact that he's thinking hard about what to do, but it doesn't fool a pro like me.
"Yeah. Sure. Why not," he says eventually.
Praise the Devil! I down the last of my half-pint (Old Peculiar this time) and set the glass firmly on the table. "Did you want to finish your drink first, or are you ready to go?"
"No. I mean, yes, we can go."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Souls for Sale"
Copyright © 2018 Asta Idonea.
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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