Climbing the corporate ladder can be hell….
As a collections demon, Zavier grants his “clients” one wish in exchange for their souls. His job sucks, but once you make a deal with Corporate South, they own you. The trouble is, Zavier’s not a very good collections demon, with his tendencies to spurn authority and find loopholes to help deserving clients out of their contracts. He’s under scrutiny from the head of his department, who would quite literally like to see him burn. He just needs to close a simple deal to get upper management off his back. Instead, he meets Ryan.
Ryan is desperately searching for a way to save his dying sister. He doesn’t believe in magic and demons, but he’s out of options. Zavier’s not what he expects in a demon, and even more unexpected is the strong sense of familiarity—very intimate familiarity.
While trying to free Ryan from his contract, Zavier discovers secrets unscrupulous even by South standards. Exposing them could cost Zavier everything, but it might be Ryan’s only hope.
Ryan Monroe glanced around his sister’s room. Whoever designed this place couldn’t have created an environment less conducive to healing if they tried. He sat in the hard plastic chair, butt long past numb, and held his sister, Maggie’s, hand as she slept. His eight-year-old niece, Mya, lay sleeping, curled against her mother, head resting on Maggie’s shoulder. Maybe he shouldn’t have let Mya stay up late watching cartoons, but with her mom so sick, he indulged her from time to time. Her long blonde hair was pulled into a messy plait that ran down her back, stray tendrils of hair sticking out here and there. He thought it looked cute. Mya disagreed. She wanted her mom to come home so her hair could get braided right.
His gaze slid to the blue silk scarf that draped over the pillow instead of Maggie’s usual blonde curls, and his gut clenched as it did every time. He looked to the crazy cocktail of drugs sliding through Maggie’s IV tubes into her frail body, willing them to work a miracle. Ever since she’d been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, Ryan had offered up prayers and begged for help from any higher power that would listen. Maggie probably would have ragged on him if she’d known. His family tended not to believe in what they couldn’t see. Still, he figured they could use all the help they could get. He knew that very few people survived this disease, but if anyone could beat it, Maggie could. Heck, she’d beaten this recent bout of pneumonia, hadn’t she?
When his phone vibrated in his pocket, he pulled it out and checked the caller ID. Seeing a familiar name, he rose, exited the room, and then nearly got run down by a tech that couldn’t see past the ultrasound machine she muscled down the hall. Ryan jumped out of the way, then claimed a spot next to a linen cart parked against the white-painted cinder block wall. He swiped his thumb across the screen to answer the call.
“Hey. Any word yet?”
“No, we’re still waiting on the doctor. Once we talk to her, Maggie should be able to go home. I know she wants out of here. If they do one more test or jab her with one more needle, someone’s going to get hurt because Maggie’s going to freak on them.”
He glanced back into his sister’s fishbowl of a hospital room to watch his two girls sleep for a moment. Then he closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the cool wall.
“Seems cruel that this is taking so long. Why don’t I come over? I’ll close the shop and bring you something to eat. No need for you to deal with this alone.”
“No, that’s okay. I appreciate it, though. Maggie’s the one dealing. I’m just here to help and support her.” Ryan clamped down on the tendril of worry that snaked its way through his system. Clearing his throat, he continued. “Besides, it shouldn’t be too much longer—I hope….” Again, he studied his sister and niece. The thought that he might never see her again, that she wouldn’t be there for her little girl, had a stranglehold on him. He scanned the hall, anxious to see a familiar face amongst the swarm of white coats.
“Ry? You still there?”
“Yeah. Sorry. My mind is on Maggie, as always these days.” He choked out the words.
Ryan searched the hall. What is taking so freaking long? Ryan had to rein in the urge to march down to the nurses’ station and demand they page the damn doctor.
“No problem. It’s a rough time for everyone.” Sympathy and concern filled Jason’s voice.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do if the news is bad, Jase.”
“We’re going to focus on the positive. Does she have the crystal necklace I gave you?”
“She—I mean we, don’t believe in that stuff. You know that.” A long silence stretched over the phone line laden with Jason’s irritation. “Nonetheless, she’s wearing it.” Ryan closed his eyes, rubbing at the headache that began pounding there. “She doesn’t know that it’s anything other than a nice gift from me, though.”
Maggie had listened to Jason’s last few suggestions for natural healing methods. She shot all of them down with scientific explanations as to why they wouldn’t work that neither Ryan nor Jason fully understood.
“You Monroes are the masters of skepticism. If you’d just open up to the possibilities—.”
“Don’t start.” Ryan couldn’t handle any outrageous comments or lectures about more things under heaven, yadda, yadda. Not right now.
Jason sighed. “Sorry. Time and place, and this is most definitely not it. Just know I’m sending all the good news vibes I can muster your way. I want Maggie to be well again too.”
“Thanks.” He couldn’t resist smiling. Jason was just being Jason.
His best friend owned and operated a little shop called The Mystic Corner that catered to a clientele into the occult. He often joked that Jason should have named his place “The Rock and Twig Emporium” because of all the herbs and colorful stones on display.
“Look, I’m going to dig through my books and see if I can find some other health and healing information. We’re not going to stop until we find a way to get Maggie healthy again.” Ryan wanted to latch onto the confidence in Jason’s voice and let it recharge him. After months of standing strong through Maggie’s testing and surgery and chemo, his own well of strength had started to run a little low. Still, he couldn’t quiet that skeptical little voice in his head.
“I appreciate the offer, I do, but do you really think the cure for cancer is hidden in one of those crazy mumbo jumbo books of yours?” He shook his head. “For now I think I’m going to stick with modern medicine.” Before Jason could say anything more, Ryan saw Maggie’s doctor approaching her room.
“Jase, it looks like we’re about to get the verdict. I’m sorry to cut you off, but I have to go.”
“Just think about my offer, Ry. Call me later. Let me know what the doctor says.”
“I will. I promise.”
Ryan shoved his phone back in his pocket and pushed all thoughts of Jason and his nutty ideas from his mind as he hustled into the hospital room after the doctor. He rounded the foot of the bed, reclaiming his seat in the rock-hard guest chair.
Dr. Burns stood on the opposite side of the bed looking competent and capable in her green scrubs and white lab coat, a stethoscope hanging around her neck, and not a single dark hair out of place. Still, something about the doctor’s demeanor set his heart to pounding like a drummer on speed. Her face had no expression, but in her eyes Ryan saw the hint of sadness.
The doctor placed a gentle hand on Maggie’s arm. His sister’s eyes fluttered open, and a small, tired smile spread across her face. Ryan forced himself not to put his head down and tune out everything. I don’t want to hear this.
“How are you feeling, Maggie?”
“Better, Dr. Burns. Much better than I felt a few days ago at any rate.”
“That’s good. I want to take a quick listen to your lungs.”
Ryan rose to lift Mya from the bed, but the doctor waved him back into his seat.
“I can work around her.”
After a brief examination of his sister’s lungs, Dr. Burns hooked the stethoscope back around her neck. “The good news is your lungs are greatly improved. In fact, we’re going to send you home today.”
“Thank you. I can’t wait to get back to my own bed and get some real food.” She glanced at Ryan. “I don’t care about the calories. We are stopping at the Burger Palace.”
“Whatever you want, Mags.” He forced a smile. The doctor smiled as well, but then her demeanor turned grave. Ryan didn’t need to hear the words. The sympathy and regret on the doctor’s face spoke volumes.
“We got the results of your other tests back. I’m sorry to say that the chemo has had very little effect on the tumor in your pancreas. I wish I had better news for you, Maggie. I really do.”
Ryan’s breath hitched in his chest. He sat there frozen. Disbelief tumbled through him. Blood rushing through his veins drowned out every other sound in the room. This couldn’t be happening. Not to Maggie. She could defeat any disease.
“S-so, there’s nothing more you can do for her? No experimental treatments? Nothing?”
“I’m afraid not. The only treatment options we have at this point are palliative. We can make the time you have left as pain free as possible, but beyond that….”
The room spun. His heart hammered against his rib cage. Maggie’s lips quivered as she fought to keep a smile plastered on her face, determined to stay positive and strong. She nodded as the physician continued to speak, but Ryan couldn’t hear the words over the anguished wailing in his head. Unbidden, a picture of Mya filled his mind. Her sad, scared eyes looked down at a casket that gleamed in the sunlight. No! He reined in the denial before it spewed forth into the room. His throat burned with it along with the urge to rail at the doctor.
“I’ll go get your discharge paperwork ready. I’m so sorry, Maggie. I wish I could do more.” Dr. Burns bowed her head and slipped out of the room to give them their privacy.
Maggie clutched Mya’s small body close. The girl squirmed in her mother’s too-tight embrace. Maggie’s gaze shifted to him, her hazel eyes bright with unshed tears. He couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe. Everything inside him went cold and numb. Maggie pressed a kiss to the top of Mya’s head, then shifted her to one arm while she reached out to Ryan with the other.
He took her hand and squeezed as though that connection could keep her from slowly slipping away. Then he lowered his head to rest against their clenched hands.
“Ry, it will be alright.”
An angry laugh bubbled out of him. Typical Maggie, trying to reassure him, to take care of him, just as she’d done since they were young. His pretty, popular sister who always made it clear that picking on her geeky little brother would not be tolerated. Now, it was his turn to look out for Maggie, to protect her. But how could he help when the danger grew inside of her?
Lost in his grief, he stared unseeing at their joined hands. Then Jason’s voice invaded his thoughts like a terrifying beacon of hope. He couldn’t believe he was seriously considering this, but he’d do anything for Maggie. What did he have to lose? Nothing. Nothing but Maggie, and he’d be damned if he’d let that happen.
RYAN DROVE for what seemed like years, but in fact, only twenty minutes had passed. Still, after getting Maggie tucked into his apartment, he needed to get some air and clear his head. He needed to escape all of the fear and sadness that packed into the walls of his normally spacious apartment, making it now seem claustrophobic. He needed to settle the emotions ricocheting around inside him, keeping him keyed up yet worn out.
As though on autopilot, he’d pulled up in front of The Mystic Corner. He lucked into a parking spot in front of the two-story structure that contained the store on the ground level and Jason’s apartment on the second floor. Instead of getting out and walking to the door, though, he sat staring at the glow from Jason’s window. As dusk turned to night, a nearby streetlight flickered to life, casting oddly shaped shadows on the dash of his vehicle.
Exhaustion dragged at him. He wanted to lie down and go to sleep, but his mind wouldn’t quiet. He wanted to close his eyes and pretend today never happened. That Maggie wasn’t sick. That his biggest worry was finishing the ad design for the conference program by the looming deadline.
Instead, he’d climbed on an emotional rollercoaster and couldn’t seem to get off. Blowing out a long, heavy breath, he leaned his forehead against his steering wheel and willed his mind to settle. What the hell am I doing? He glanced up at the lit window again.
“This is stupid. Just knock on his door.” If Jason started in on the woo-woo stuff, he’d simply tell him to back off. That he had no time for crazy fantasies. But what if it’s real? What if something in Jason’s collection of lunacy can work?
He wanted to save Maggie’s life, and if he could find a single plausible option, he’d jump on it. But he had a better shot at getting struck by lightning.
He jumped when the Addams Family theme ringtone disrupted the quiet. Ryan grabbed his cell out of the cup holder and answered.
Before he could utter a word, Jason’s voice came over the line. “You coming up, or would you rather sit in your car all night?”
“It’s been the day from hell, Jase. I needed some space so I could clear my head. I didn’t mean to come here. I really should go home and check on Maggie.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. I know you, Ry. You won’t be able to start thinking clearly until you unload. Get your ass up here now.” The call ended.
Ryan stared at the phone for a moment and then climbed out of the car. He walked to the door adjacent to the store that led up to Jason’s apartment. By the time Ryan had climbed the stairs, Jason stood in the entrance holding a glass of chardonnay out to him. Sympathy shone in his eyes.
Ryan accepted the glass and sipped as he trudged inside and collapsed onto the soft maroon suede couch. Closing his eyes, he let his head fall back, weighed down by the stress of the day.
“It’s bad?” Jason eased down on the couch next to Ryan.
“They can’t help her. She’s got maybe six months.”
“Shit, I’m so sorry, Ry. I really am.” Jason squeezed his knee. “Have you given any thought to what you’ll do, you know, when…?”
Ryan raised a trembling hand to cover his eyes. Every cell in his body vibrated. His skin felt tight. In a sudden burst, he shoved to his feet and chugged his wine. He resisted the urge to chuck the glass across the room. Instead, he set it on the coffee table with a snap of glass on glass, then paced to the window. He rested his forehead against the cool pane and stared out into the darkness.
“I’ve thought about it too damn much. Every day. The future without Maggie is terrifying. I love Mya like crazy, but she needs her mother. I’m not equipped to be anyone’s father. Hell, some days I can barely take care of myself.” The words caught in Ryan’s throat as panic choked him and tension pounded at his temples.
“God, this sucks, Ry. No one should have to suffer through this, especially not Maggie.”
Ryan turned and met Jason’s blue eyes. The ever-present sympathy stared back at him. He hated that look. He didn’t want sympathy; he wanted everything to go back to normal. He leaned back, letting the wall hold him up, and blew out.
“What am I going to do, Jase? I can’t lose her. Mya can’t lose her. It’s not right.” His voice cracked and rose a bit as he spoke.
“I-I’m so sorry. I wish I had the words.” He rose from the couch and crossed to Ryan, laying a hand on his arm. “What about clinical trials of new drugs or treatments?”
Ryan shook his head. “Maggie’s going to do some research to see what she can find, but we can’t count on that. I don’t know what to do.” He dropped his head and stared at the dark hardwood floor.
Silence stretched out for a long moment. Jason remained beside him, stroking his arm, offering support. All of the crazy thoughts from earlier whirled in his mind, pounding to get out, to be put into words.
His head whipped up and he grabbed Jason’s shoulders, clutching them like a lifeline. At his sudden explosion, shock flashed over his friend’s face. “Help me, please.”
Jason sputtered. “What? How?”
“There must be something in one of those dusty tomes you collect. Anything.” Ryan couldn’t believe the words coming out of his mouth. Somehow the logical side of his brain had lost control of the wheel and crazed desperation now drove the bus.
“I already told you, Ry, I haven’t found anything.” Jason averted his gaze, but Ryan caught a glimpse of knowledge. He knew that look. Jason never could keep a secret from him.
“What? What did you find?” His grip clamped tighter on Jason’s arm.
“Ow.” Jason tried to pry Ryan’s white-knuckled grip loose.
Ryan eased his grip, but persisted. “Tell me.” His body trembled. Pressure built behind his eyes.
Jason studied him for a long moment and then sighed. “I know you don’t believe in all of the crazy crap that I do. Why would you even consider going this route without exhausting every other scientific possibility?”
“Because Maggie doesn’t have the time it will take to weed through all of the research and red tape that comes with clinical trials. Neither one of us can afford a maybe at this point.”
“Ryan, there are no guarantees with anything.”
“Jason, come on.” He gave him a light shake. “You’ve been pushing all manner of teas and crystals and other New Agey stuff on me for years. Why are you holding back now?”
Jason refused to meet his eyes as he blew out a shaky breath.
“Jase, what if it were me or someone else that you loved? Wouldn’t you be willing to go to extremes?”
“It is someone I love. I care about both of you, more than I can say. That didn’t end just because we stopped dating.” Jason’s eyes gleamed with unshed tears and endless worry when their gazes met again.
Ryan closed his eyes as a wave of exhaustion swamped him. “Then help me save her.”
He opened his eyes and watched Jason’s shoulders slump. “But, you don’t even believe…. I couldn’t bear it if something bad happened.”
Ryan huffed out a bitter laugh. He released Jason and shoved a hand into his hair. “I know, but I’ve got to try. I’m claiming temporary insanity. Right now, I’m willing to be converted. Make me a believer. Prove me wrong, Jase. Help me see that there really is more out there than I can even begin to imagine and that it can work miracles.”
Jason clutched him in a fierce hug. Ryan returned it with the same intensity, glad to have someone to share his burden.
Jason blew out a breath and pulled free, then turned and walked out of the living room. His footfalls sounded on the hardwood floor as he made his way to his office.
The momentary quiet closed around Ryan. He swayed, and then his knees buckled under the weight of an emotionally exhausting day. He moved to sit on the edge of the couch as he stared at the window. The interior lights converted the glass to a mirror, blocking out the dark of night. Why couldn’t all be right with the world? Why couldn’t this be just another night hanging out with his best friend? A tingle of anxiety started in his shoulders and crept up his neck to the base of his skull. He replayed his conversation with Jason and began to question his sanity.
What the hell was he thinking? Before he could overanalyze matters Jason’s reflection in the window snapped him back to reality. He continued to stare at the reflected image until something landed in his lap. He glanced down to find a brown leather-bound book. The cover boasted an embossed pentagram surrounded by three rings. In the rings was a series of what he guessed were Latin words.
“What’s this?” He pushed upright from his slouched position.
“A book on demonology.” Jason reclaimed his seat.
Ryan lifted a trembling hand to stroke it over the smooth material, skimming his fingers over the eerie symbols stamped into the leather. Possibilities and panic washed through him.
“I don’t believe in this stuff.” He whispered the words as he traced the ominous design. Who the hell was he kidding? He’d do anything necessary to save Maggie.
“I was reading through this after our call today and came across a summoning ritual for a demon who can grant wishes. From the sound of things, they have the power to give you anything you desire. No limitations.”
Ryan jerked his head up. Disbelief warred with hope. “What, like a genie from hell?”
“Sort of. It’s called a collections demon.”
“What exactly does it collect?” Ryan’s gut clenched.
Jason paused, reluctant to make eye contact. Not good. So not good.
“The collector grants you one wish in exchange for—your soul.”
“What? Are you out of your mind?” Ryan shoved to his feet. The book hit the floor with a thump. “What are you thinking? Hell, what am I thinking? Demons? Jason, are you kidding me? They don’t exist.” He barked out a mirthless laugh as he dragged a hand down his face. Ryan rounded the coffee table to pace in front of the two large bookshelves and the wall-mounted television hanging between them. He couldn’t catch his breath. Crazy had just reached a whole new level. Conversation over. Then he glanced at the book again, still lying on the floor. Something deep inside refused to close the door on even the remotest, most off-the-wall possibility for a chance at a full life for his sister. No matter the cost.
“Are you sure about that? Can you say beyond a shadow of a doubt that they aren’t real? Can you prove magic and all things paranormal are figments of fevered imaginations?” Jason bent over and retrieved the volume from the floor.
“You’ve seen the evidence that I collected on my ghost hunts.”
Ryan rolled his eyes. “Recordings of the groaning and creaking of a settling building.”
“Are you sure about that? Are you one hundred percent positive?”
Ryan glanced at the book. He shook his head. “When I asked for help I was thinking something more along the lines of a potion or a poultice. Something long forgotten about that contains miraculous healing properties.”
“For your sake, I wish I’d found one of those for you, but this is all I’ve got.”
Ryan held up his hand, stopping Jason from saying anything further. “Let’s back burner the issue of demons for just a second. For this so-called miracle to happen I’d have to offer up my soul on a silver platter. What the hell! You can’t be serious?”
“This is why I hesitated giving this to you. It’s a lot to ask anyone to give up. I don’t know that I would be willing to do it.”
He threw his hands up, then let his arms flap down at his sides. “Why on earth would you think I’d be willing to do it?” A small part of his brain goggled at the words coming out of his mouth. What the hell! This talk of soul-sucking demons made an unbearable situation even worse. His heart squeezed as his world tilted on its axis.
“I just told you I didn’t want to mention this, but the choice needed to be yours. If this could actually work and I said nothing—” Ryan looked at Jason’s pained face, then back at the book. “We’ve slammed right into desperate times, Ry.” He gestured with the book. “I’d call this desperate measures.”
Ryan stared down at the floor again. He considered Jason’s words and hated the fact that he might be right. But summoning spells, really? As much as he wanted to deny it, the smallest seed of hope took root in his mind. He pressed his fingers to his eyes.
“You know I’ve got friends who are into Wicca, witchcraft, even Voodoo. They’ve performed spells and rituals, and they’ve worked.”
Ryan lifted his head and cocked an eyebrow.
“Okay, it’s hit or miss. But you asked for my help and this is all I can offer right now. I can keep looking for an alternative.”
Ryan wanted to tell him to do that. He wanted him to dig until he found something somewhat medically plausible. He wanted time to stand still while they searched for a viable answer. He wanted to ignore the hope or desperation nagging at him to at least consider his friend’s off-the-wall suggestion.
Jason brushed a hand over the tome resting in his lap with the reverence of a true collector, then opened it and turned the pages with great care.
Ryan cleared his throat. “What exactly would giving up my soul mean? Will I still be alive but unable to feel emotion? Or, once my soul is taken, would I die?” He jammed his hands into his pockets and walked to the shelf that held framed photos. He picked up one of Jason, Maggie, and himself. He wanted the old happy and hardy Maggie back.
“I have no idea. You know I do believe in this mumbo jumbo, as you call it. But I’ve nevermessed around with dark forces before, and I didn’t plan to start now. Honestly, there’s a part of me that’s hoping you won’t either. ”
“Then why give it to me? Why get my hopes up?”
“Because if there is even a chance….” Jason shrugged. “You’re my best friend. I love you, man, and I don’t want to lose you. But I couldn’t sit here and watch you die inside along with Maggie as you frantically search for a cure that may never come.” His almost inaudible voice broke on the last word. Ryan turned to look at Jason. Pain and worry to rival his own echoed in his friend’s eyes, his trembling hands, his slumped shoulders. Jason’s entire torso rose and fell as he sucked in a heavy breath.
“I didn’t say it was an ideal or even a vaguely good option. But if it’s real and it works—” Jason shook his head when the words wouldn’t come.
Ryan walked back to the couch and claimed the spot next to him. He eased the book from Jason’s hands. The musty smell of old paper wafted up. The aged, yellow parchment crinkled as he flipped to the page Jason had marked. Unfamiliar symbols decorated the edges of the paper, and in the center, elegant calligraphy detailed the ingredients needed and the ritual that would possibly summon a demon.
What if? The words whispered in his mind, preventing him from slamming the book shut and shoving it back at Jason. He forced his next words out of a throat gone dry. “Where would one find the necessary ingredients, should they want to perform this ritual?”
“I’m pretty sure I’ve got everything you’ll need in the shop.”
“Christ.” He dropped his head. “Come on. Let’s go down and get this stuff now. If I lose my mind and actually decide to try this, I’d rather have the stuff ready to go.”
They pushed to their feet and headed for the back staircase that led down into the shop. When they reached the door that separated the living area from the store, Jason inserted the key into the lock and then paused. He looked back over his shoulder at Ryan. “It will be okay.”
“I hope you’re right. I really do.”
Jason nodded and turned the key.
Ryan’s stomach dropped at the loud click of the lock disengaging. The shop door swung open, and Jason entered, flicking on the lights. Ryan hesitated, doubt and disbelief dancing in his stomach, making him a bit nauseated. He tightened his muscles and fisted his trembling hands. Standing tall, he stepped over the threshold into the store. Whatever happened next, nothing would ever be the same again.
Undercover Boyfriend by Jacob Z. Flores eBook
Finding Family by Connie Bailey eBook
Fire and Snow by Andrew Grey eBook
Wolfsong by TJ Klune eBook
Bombs and Guacamole by BA Tortuga eBook
Five Times My Best Friend Kissed Me by Anna Martin eBook
The Cattle Baron's Bogus Boyfriend by Nicki Bennett eBook
Power Play by Avon Gale eBook
Debt by K.C. Wells eBook
Dreamers' Destiny by Tempeste O'Riley eBook
Requires site membership
The Paranaturalist by Ki Brightly Paperback