Read an Excerpt
The Lord of the Underworld showed up with the dust bunny and a pizza.
Lucy Bell decided she was probably hallucinating again. She ignored the figure looming in the arched doorway and focused on the dust bunny.
"Right on time, Otis," she said. "I'm hungry."
The dust bunny chortled a greeting and bounced across the glowing green quartz floor. He stopped in front of the massive quartz throne where she lounged, the black skirts of her bridesmaid dress draped over one arm of the grand chair.
She leaned down and scooped him up. Clutching his warm, fluffy body steadied her nerves and her senses. Otis, at least, was real. She risked another glance at the doorway. The Lord of the Underworld was still there. He was the one with the pizza box. Usually Otis carried it in two of his six paws.
"Hades, I presume?" she said, going for cool and polite. She had discovered the hard way that strong emotions tended to exaggerate the visions, making them more intense.
Hades held out the pizza box and smiled a slow, satisfied smile. "I've been looking for you, Persephone."
"Why?" she asked, deeply suspicious. "I'm already in hell."
"I'm here to take you back to the surface."
"Is that right?" You had to be skeptical when it came to hallucinations. The brain was easily deceived by the heavy paranormal atmosphere in the Underworld. Best to run a test. "Let me have a slice of pizza first."
Hades raised the lid of the pizza box. "Looks like cheese and olive."
"My favorite. Mostly because that's the only kind Otis delivers."
"The small size, I'm afraid."
"That's probably because Otis can't carry the large size. He's small, too."
She sat up, plopped Otis on her shoulder, and rose from the quartz throne. The skirts of the long black gown fell to her bare feet.
Hades walked toward her and stopped a short distance away. She sensed he was wary of alarming her. He was treating her like a wild creature that he did not want to scare off.
He held out the pizza box. She glanced at the label. ollie's house of pizza. all four food groups in each delicious bite. That was reassuring. Everyone in the Dark Zone agreed that Ollie's was the finest pizzeria in the neighborhood.
"Help yourself, Ms. Bell," Hades said.
Cautiously, half expecting the Lord of the Underworld and the pizza to vanish at any second, she reached into the box and picked up a slice. She took a bite. The tang of cheese and olives and Ollie's unique tomato sauce hit her senses.
She took another slice of pizza out of the box and gave it to Otis, who accepted it with his usual enthusiasm. He gripped it in one paw and went to work, devouring it in quick, efficient bites.
"Okay, the pizza is real," Lucy said.
"You're lucky the whole pizza made it all the way to this chamber," Hades said. "There were several times along the way that I thought seriously of helping myself to a slice. By the way, I'm real, too. Gabriel Jones. Guild security."
His voice was rich and resonant, not at all like the ghostly howls of the apparitions that blocked the entrance of the quartz chamber every time she tried to leave.
Close up, Jones certainly looked like a Guild man. He wore boots and a lot of khaki and leather. He carried a flamer on his gear belt and an impressive knife, the only weapons that worked in a reliable manner in the heavy paranormal atmosphere of the Underworld. And then there was the amber. It was embedded in the buckle of his belt, in his Guild signet ring, and in the knot of the leather cord he wore around his neck. She knew there was probably more hidden in the heels of his boots.
If he was the real thing, the amber would be tuned. You couldn't navigate the Dead City and the maze of underground tunnels the long-vanished Aliens had left behind without tuned navigation amber. The members of the Ghost Hunters Guilds, the monopolistic organizations that handled security in the Underworld, were obsessive when it came to nav amber.
She was obsessive about it, too, because most of her work was done belowground. She never went anywhere without at least a few pieces on her person. She had worn a tuned amber bracelet, tuned amber earrings, and a dainty ankle chain of tuned amber with her black gown. She would have worn an amber necklace as well, but the bride had insisted that all the bridesmaids wear the black crystal necklaces she had given them.
The bride was a clothing designer. She had chosen black and white as her wedding colors. She had thrown a tantrum when Lucy had shown up with the amber. Lucy had removed the obvious pieces for the ceremony and then put them back on for the reception.
When she had awakened in the Underworld of the Dead City, she had discovered that all of her tuned amber had vanished. The only item of jewelry left was the black necklace. She had given it to Otis, who adored it. Every time he showed up in the chamber, it was dangling around his furry neck. She glanced at him and saw that he was no longer wearing it. What did that signify?
Now Gabriel Jones was standing so close she could feel his body heat and an aura of energy. That was reassuring. It was also disconcertingly intriguing. Her senses stirred.
He looked formidable and dangerous, but he had very nice shoulders. Everything about him radiated power and control. She liked his amber-brown eyes. Fierce but not in an intimidating way, at least not at the moment. More like the eyes of a man who has been looking for someone for a very long time and has just found her.
He studied her while she munched the pizza.
"I take it the after-party didn't end well," he said.
She glanced down at the crushed skirts of her long gown and sighed. She didn't have a mirror, but she knew she probably looked as if she had spent a hard night in a dark alley. Possibly several nights. Time had become fluid. That happened when you got lost in the Underworld. There was no day or night in the tunnels. The maze of quartz corridors and chambers radiated an eerie acid-green light day in, day out. As far as the experts could tell, they had been doing so since the long-vanished Aliens had disappeared.
"The after-party was a disaster," she said. "Long story."
"When did the dust bunny show up?" Gabriel asked.
"I don't know. I made it to this chamber and collapsed. The dust bunny appeared at some point. I've seen dust bunnies from time to time in the ruins but I've never had one approach me. I could tell he expected me to follow him but I . . . couldn't. He vanished. I assumed I'd never see him again. He came back with a pizza. That's when I named him Otis. I know he's been trying to lead me back to the surface, but I can't get through the psychic gate blocking the door."
Gabriel glanced at the entrance. "I didn't have a problem entering."
"Neither did I, obviously." She glared. "It's getting out that's the big issue here. Do you think I'd still be hanging around in this horrible chamber if I could break through the barrier?"
Gabriel glanced at the entrance again. When he switched his attention back to her, there was a thoughtful expression in his eyes.
"No," he said.
"Let's hope you can get out," Lucy said.
She sounded pissed off, but she didn't care. It was probably not a nice way to treat the man who said he had come to rescue her, but she was not in a good mood. She was irritated, because she was pretty sure she knew where the conversation was headed. Gabriel-assuming he was real-was concluding she was delusional because she had spent so much time in a strong paranormal environment without the steadying influence of nav amber.
What really annoyed her was that he was right. True, she wasn't delusional all the time, but she was definitely suffering recurring bouts of nerve-jangling visions. Deep down she was terrified that she was in danger of getting lost in a world of paranormal nightmares. When she got scared, she got mad.
Otis finished the last of his pizza and chortled.
The dust bunny resembled a large wad of dryer lint. He looked adorable because only his innocent baby blue eyes and the tips of his ears were visible at the moment. His second set of eyes, the ones he used for hunting, were closed and hidden by his gray fur. Dust bunnies were cute and cuddly. Until they weren't. As the saying went, by the time you saw the teeth, it was too late.
Lucy finished the last of the pizza slice, dusted crumbs off her hands, and looked at Gabriel. "How did you find me?"
"Finding people who get lost down here is one of the things I get paid to do," Gabriel said. "Illusion Town doesn't have its own Guild yet, so the local authorities coordinate with the Cadence organization. When they realized you had vanished into the tunnels, the police asked us for assistance. I pulled the assignment."
She took another slice of pizza and narrowed her eyes. "I didn't just vanish, you know. I was kidnapped."
She waited to see how he would take that news.
He watched her with an unreadable expression. "I was told you'd had too much to drink at a wedding reception, did some drugs-Chartreuse-at an after-party, walked home alone, and wandered into the Dead City ruins. The theory is that you got disoriented from a combination of booze, drugs, and the heavy paranormal currents inside the ruins. You went into one of the towers and found a flight of steps that took you down into the tunnels."
"Everyone believes I got stoned and fell down a dust bunny hole? That's crap. I'm a professional weather channeler. Do you really think I'd be that stupid?"
"The energy inside the Dead City is . . . unpredictable."
"I'm well aware of that. I can handle it." She ate some pizza and gestured toward the box. "There's another slice. Help yourself."
"Thanks." He took the last slice of pizza out of the box. "There is also a theory that you were depressed because your ex recently filed for divorce."
"It was an amicable divorce."
"Didn't know there was such a thing."
"It was just an MC, okay? Not a real Covenant Marriage."
An MC-Marriage of Convenience-was little more than an affair with a few legal provisions attached. Either party could end it simply by filing the paperwork. A Covenant Marriage, on the other hand, was extremely difficult to terminate. It was not unheard-of for some people to conclude it was easier and a whole lot cheaper to arrange for an unwanted spouse to suffer a lethal accident.
The last thing she wanted to talk about was the fact that she had been dumped. Time to move on.
"I assume you found me because you followed Otis?" Lucy said.
Gabriel took a healthy bite of pizza. "He certainly got my attention."
"He approached me in the Dead City ruins near the Storm Zone Wall about an hour ago. I was trying to locate the staircase you might have used to go into the Underworld."
She thought about that for a beat. "You knew where to start the search? Sounds like my message to Veronica got through. Amazing. The kidnappers drugged me at the reception, you know."
"Did they?" Gabriel said, his tone a little too polite.
She knew disbelief when she saw it. She sighed and reminded herself he had no reason to believe her version of events.
"By the time they put me in a cab I was hallucinating wildly," she continued. "When I got out of the cab I was at the edge of the Storm Zone, so I ran for the nearest hole-in-the-wall. I managed to get on my phone long enough to leave a message for my friend Veronica. I knew she was working that night. I only had a few seconds. No time for a detailed message, so I texted my location."
"Storm Zone Wall."
"The cops told me that much. They said that when your friend saw the text she didn't know what to make of it at first. She thought maybe you were at an after-party that was being held near the Storm Zone. When she got home in the morning, she realized you hadn't returned. She filed a missing persons report, but the police wanted to wait the usual twenty-four hours before they got serious about opening a case. Evidently your friend insisted they send a search and rescue team into the ruins to start the search immediately."
Lucy smiled. "People, especially men, tend to do what Veronica wants them to do."
"I haven't met the lady, so I'll take your word for it. Your father was notified, and he put pressure on the locals, as well. The result was that after forty-eight hours of searching the ruins and the nearby neighborhoods, the authorities decided they needed outside help. The Cadence Guild was contacted."
"And here you are. I must admit this is pretty damn impressive rescue work."
"I lucked out when Otis showed up with the pizza. He was wearing this around his neck." Gabriel reached into the pocket of his leather jacket and took out a dainty black crystal necklace.
A thrill of relief splashed through Lucy. "That's mine. The bride gave identical necklaces to all of the bridesmaids. After Otis showed up with the first pizza delivery, it occurred to me that someone might notice the necklace and follow him down here. I gave it to him."
Gabriel nodded appreciatively. "It was a good plan. It worked."
"I couldn't think of anything else to do. I was trapped in this room. The kidnappers took my handbag, my wrap, and every piece of nav amber that I had on me. They didn't bother with the necklace, because it wasn't amber. How long have I been gone? I've lost track of time."
"The wedding reception was three nights ago."
Lucy glanced at the stack of empty pizza boxes. There were five of them. "That's what I was estimating. Otis arrived soon after I crashed in this chamber. I've been waiting for the effects of the drug to wear off before trying to follow him back to the surface. But every time I think I'm coming out of the fog, I get hit with another wave of hallucinations. The visions are absolutely unbearable when I get close to the entrance."