Pride & Purgatory

Pride & PurgatoryFinalistDel hates her job ferrying souls from Purgatory to Heaven–she deserves to be an angel, but she was unable to control her earthly vices when she lived. She’s stuck with the consequences, until Archangel Gabriel offers her a chance to investigate mysterious deaths of pure souls. If she can find out who’s behind the deaths, she might have a shot at her angelic dream.

Sounds simple enough, except she’s accompanied by Reece, a Lust Temptor from Hell. No, seriously. He works for “the other side,” and he’s really good at his job. All dark-Irish sexuality, Reece has decided his next conquest is going to be Del.
So now she’s got to find a killer–who may be a Dark Prince of Hell–and keep her pride at bay. While avoiding the temptation presented by Reece. And all before the imbalance of souls causes the universe to implode. Right. Just another day in Purgatory.

Theme song: Flesh & Bone by The Killers

First chapter:

Another day, another four thousand souls. Del Brío sat in her usual corner booth, watching the goings on in the Coliseum-sized room known as the Lounge. Black lacquered tables, bar stools and booths, and an endless parade of newly departed souls blinking into empty seats, waiting to determine their fates. Del resolutely kept her back to the wall—the golden panels reflected more than the candle light—and shoved an errant lock of hair from her eye before facing the hulking, dark African man approaching her table.

“Are you ever going to escort your charge?” Zuma rarely spoke to her, but his demanding tone never failed to irritate.

“He’s not going anywhere,” Del snapped. “I’ll get to him in my own damned time.” Damned time was accurate. For three hundred years, she’d ferried some of those souls to heaven, while witnessing others fall to temptation.

And she’d be doing it for an eternity more.

Slowly, if only to annoy Zuma more, she stood and stretched. He huffed away—the most emotion she’d seen in him for decades—and she smiled. Cabrón. The asshole had self-appointed himself a manager in the Lounge, though he had no more power than any other ferry. In fact, she held more sway with Gabriel, the archangel who presided over them.

Her gaze locked on her charge. He was dressed in tan fatigues and had dirt smudged on his cheek.

She sauntered through the tables, avoiding the other ferries and the temptors. A dance, choreographed over the centuries. No one touching. No one talking to anyone but the souls appearing in their zones.

The lock of hair fell into her eye again, and Del swiped at it, narrowly missing a Wrath temptor. He glared at her and she responded with the haughtiest expression she could manage. It was a look she’d perfected during her life on Earth. After all, she was the daughter of a powerful Spanish don. Keyword: was.

She broke the eye contact and growled to herself. She hadn’t been the daughter of a powerful Spanish don for centuries, but apparently not long enough to forget it. Here, she was merely a ferry. And she hated it.

“‘Scuse me, luv,” an Irish brogue skirted her ear at the same time a strong, warm hand landed on her hip.

“Wonderful,” she muttered, forcing the immediate giddiness down, wishing stomach acid could disintegrate it like food.

Reece O’Connor was one of the most successful Lust temptors in the Lounge. Rock solid muscles underneath a simple black tee-shirt. Chestnut hair cropped short and eyes so dark they seemed black. Oh, but it was the look he could give when he wanted someone that had her pulse jumping to an erratic beat. And now he was rubbing against her as he passed, going so far as to let out a low moan as he angled himself for full-body contact.

She pushed him away before her physical interest became noticeable. “Knock it off.”

“You wound me, Adeline.” He grasped his chest, where his heart would be. “I’m only doing my job.”

“It’s Del,” she said through her clenched teeth. “Your job is to tempt the souls. Not ferries.”

“And am I tempting you, luv?”

“Hardly.” The lie easily flew from her lips as she pinned him with a cool look and pointed to the newly departed. “Save your antics for them.”

Temptors and ferries didn’t mingle, as a general, unspoken rule, unless you were new and didn’t know any better. If the inevitable apathy didn’t stop such foolishness, the veterans would. Ferries like Zuma, who seemed to wait until someone did something he felt was inappropriate before he deigned to acknowledge any other individual in the Lounge.

A few decades ago, Reece had begun plaguing her with innuendos and teasing. She tolerated his presence because it was flattering, and over time she got used to him. Not enough to be completely immune to his charms, but enough to resist. She only occasionally had fantasies about his hands now. Plus, he was amusing, in a flirty, time-killing sort of way. An added bonus was seeing Zuma’s glower when he noticed—like now.

Del leaned back against the nearest table and kept one eye on Zuma while she chatted with Reece. Her charge could wait a little longer. The other ferries were taking plenty of souls to Renewals, so the delay of one wouldn’t be noticed.

“How did he piss you off this time?” Reece drawled, knowing exactly what she was doing. She supposed he welcomed any chance to further tempt her, so never complained about being used to annoy another ferry.

She shrugged. “He all but ordered me to do my job.”

“Well, we can’t have that.” His brogue nearly masked the sarcasm, and earned him a glare.

“And yet here you stand, talking to me when you’re supposed to be tempting.”

“I’m still doing my job, sweet Adeline.”

“Too bad you’re wasting your time, temptor,” she said, trying to ignore the thrill of pleasure tingling each vertebrae at the way her name rolled off his tongue.

His only reaction was a quick tense of his jaw before he smiled—like a cat who just found cream. “We’ll see.” He nodded behind her. “Looks like your soul is about to be tested again.”

She spun around in time to witness another Wrath approaching the man in fatigues. Filthy, opportunistic temptors. “You worry about your own…” she said, turning back to Reece, but he was already gone.

Honestly. If there was anyone else in the Lounge to help relieve the unending boredom, she would take it. How dare he think he could tempt her?

He can see your soul, a small voice in her head reminded her. One of the perks of an eternity in the Lounge was soul vision—and souls had swirls of color, like an internal aura. Most of them, anyway. They never saw pure white in the Lounge—those souls went straight to Heaven. Instead, ferries and temptors saw one of seven colors representing the vices. The man in fatigues, for example, had a healthy amount of orange swirling in his soul. The color of wrath.

Del assessed the scene before her. The soldier—rightfully her charge—didn’t have enough orange to indicate he’d fall. Yet that wasn’t stopping the Wrath from trying again.

“Second time’s not going to be a charm, either,” she said, stepping between them. She waved at the temptor, dismissing him. “Run along, now. You had your chance.”

That might not have been her best idea. The Wrath turned on her, eyes lit with unholy fire. At least, it seemed that way. He definitely wasn’t happy, but that was his thing, so she wasn’t too worried. All she had to do was get the soul out of the Lounge and the Wrath couldn’t follow.

“You cannot interfere with a temptation,” the Wrath bellowed at her.

“He’s already resisted once. You don’t get another turn.” She motioned to the soldier. “Let’s go.”

The soldier looked between her and the Wrath, making his decision quickly. He grabbed her hand before she could avoid it.

A desert. Hot sun scorching the back of her neck. Men in similar uniforms in two parallel lines. A military jeep honking the horn to pass the soldiers on foot. The sound of men singing as they trotted along. An overwhelming feeling of camaraderie. The third from the front, not even winded from the exertion. She could run for another twenty miles and hold a conversation, despite the heavy backpack and rifle in her hands.

Dust kicking up to her nostrils, leading to a sneeze. While her eyes are closed, she steps out of line slightly, and her boot slides off the asphalt to the dirt. She recovers quickly. The officer at the front of her line steps off to the side to reprimand her, and the ground shakes. A flash of light eclipses the sun and the noise drowns out all the sudden shouts and screams around her. The world becomes mercifully black and quiet a second later.

Del yanked away and forced her trembling hand to his shoulder, where clothing separated their skin. Another “perk” of being a ferry—one even the temptors didn’t have—was reliving the soul’s death if they touched hand-to-skin.

While she calmed her stuttering heart, she led him to a white door along the heavenly side of the Lounge and all but shoved him through it, into nothingness.

Black surrounded them, obstructing their sight, blocking all sounds, and if the soul still breathed, the vacuum would have stolen its air. Once the door sealed shut behind them, the blackness transformed to infinite space, with stars and galaxies offering dim lighting.

The soldier grabbed Del’s shoulders in reaction to the immediate loss of flooring, but slowly eased his grip.

“I used to look up at the stars when I was camping. But they were never like this.”

There was no need for her to comment. Seeing them from Earth was patently different from being among them. The first time Del saw them this way, she was awestruck, too. Now, they were just the backdrop for something better.

“Who are you?” he asked.

“I’m Del, and I’m a ferry. I’m going to—”

“A fairy?” He twisted to look behind her. “You don’t have any wings.”

“Not that kind of ferry.” She grit her teeth and forced a smile. “I’m your escort to Heaven.”

“What was that other place?”

“Purgatory.” Over the centuries, she’d learned not to get complex. The souls didn’t care that it was their last chance to either go to Heaven or Hell. That Salus and Malum had decided all non-pure souls should be given one more shot to choose their fate. That they only had seven chances to get it right. Or completely wrong.

And if they weren’t pure and they didn’t fall to temptation…well, they ended up like Del or Reece. Purgatory was reserved for those who had commitment issues.

“Everyone in Purgatory speaks English?”

Del contained her growl before answering. She was still trying to recover from the unexpected death vision. Why did she have to get a chatty one? “You hear what you understand. Like the bible story of speaking in tongues.”

The soldier was silent for a beat. “I’m not a Christian.”

“It doesn’t matter,” she said, shrugging. “What you believed on Earth is irrelevant next to reality. Everyone comes here.”

A few seconds later, they floated toward a large cloud of gas.

Stars shone through the vaporous structure, filling the space with bright colors and radiating outward in sunburst patterns. Yellow and white stars burned the brightest, but plenty of red, blue, green, and purple stars helped create a full spectrum. Astronomers referred to it as a nebula.

“Is that Heaven?” the soldier asked.

Del nodded. The sight of it never failed to awe her, while simultaneously filling her with regret.

She turned to the man beside her. “You probably won’t remember this after you go back, but don’t blow your next chance. Stay pure.”

“Go back?”

“Your soul is going to be reincarnated.” She didn’t elaborate. There was no need. He wouldn’t remember after Gabriel cleansed him.

As they neared, a colonnade came into view. There were seven openings created by the columns, which were the gates of Heaven. Del maneuvered the soul toward the second gate—Renewals—by rote. Her focus, however, was on the largest gate at the end of the colonnade. The gate behind which the pure souls became Guardians. Where Del might have gone, if she’d been able to control her vices better.

“Del.” A deep voice pulled her gaze from the main gate.

“Gabriel,” she said, smiling to mask her thoughts.

He gave her a knowing look, then ushered the soul through the gate. His blond, curly hair caught and reflected the bright golden light filtering from the entry, giving him the appearance of a halo. Angels didn’t have halos like human artists depicted, and only the archangels had wings.

Del lingered outside Renewals for a little while, both to avoid going back and to wait for Gabriel. However, it didn’t look like he was going to return this time. Plus, another ferry was on her way with her charge, so Del needed to leave. She didn’t mind if the other ferries knew she regularly visited with Gabriel, but she’d rather not be seen waiting for him like a lost puppy.

With another wistful look toward the other gates, she floated toward the Lounge. “I’m a ferry,” she reminded herself. That was all she’d ever be. She’d had seven chances to be an angel, and she’d blown every one.

She would have made a great angel. After three hundred years, she should have accepted her fate, but she couldn’t seem to let go of the strong desire to be a Guardian. While not as prestigious, she’d settle for a position in Miracles. Or Euthanatos. But the closest she’d get to Heaven was outside the gate of Renewals, and the light from within was so bright she couldn’t even see what it looked like.

Unlike the dim lighting in the Lounge, at which she’d arrived. She shook off her self-pity and pushed through the door and stepped into chaos.

****

The Lounge was a segregated mess of bodies. On one side, huddled together like scared doves, were the ferries. On the other side–truthfully, more than half of the Lounge–were the temptors, shouting and some swinging at each other. Only a few of the temptors stood back, refusing to get involved in the fray.

Del sought out Reece—the only one likely to talk to her. Not surprisingly, he was one of the voyeurs.

He leaned over to speak in her ear, a move meant to add intimacy. “Ah, sweet Adeline. You came back to me.”

“I didn’t feel like loitering.” She pulled back and shouted over the noise. Reece didn’t need to know the specifics. “What’s going on here?”

Rather than try to yell, he pointed to three souls sitting in the middle of the room. They didn’t look any different than any other soul to enter the Lounge, so their presence alone didn’t tell her a thing. She switched her vision to see the color.

Muddy, indistinct brown.

“Why are they brown?” It wasn’t one of the colors of a vice. Not even close. And if they were pure, they would be white—and never appear in Purgatory.

“I don’t know. But that’s what’s got everyone in a tizzy. No one knows who should be tempting.”

Del perked up a bit. After doing the same thing for so long, it was a wonder she hadn’t gone insane. Some ferries did. Most settled for apathy. Thanks to Reece, Del’s days didn’t completely drag, but it was still merely existing. This…this was new. And new didn’t happen in the Lounge.

“So the sharks are going to attack at once?” She pointed at the temptors.

He smirked. “Sharks?”

“Well, they seem to be circling, and they’re pretty frenzied. It’s an appropriate analogy.”

Touché.” With a glance at the ferry, he said, “And what of your kind? Mice?”

“Most of them. They probably don’t know what to do either. We have to wait for you to do your thing, so there’s no reason for them to get involved in the argument.”

“Mmm. Speaking of that, I’d love to show you how I … do my thing.”

Snorting, she rolled her eyes to detract from her quickening pulse. “I wonder if the Council knows what brown is supposed to mean.”

“If anyone does, I’m sure they would.”

“Maybe I should go ask them. I talk to Gabriel regularly.”

“Yes. You’ve said.” He sighed and nodded toward the three frightened-looking souls. “Looks like the show is about to begin.”

She followed his gaze, glad to have something else to concentrate on. Do his thing, indeed. The man was a walking hormone.

Three groups of seven temptors stalked toward the tables. One of the female temptors glanced over at Del and Reece, her eyes narrowed. Her full lips formed a pout before she spun on her toes and refocused on one of the brown souls. The woman’s long dark hair perched on her shoulders in fat curls, reminding Del of puffy clouds sitting low in the sky. Without any reason at all, Del decided she didn’t like the pin-up-looking temptor. Absently, Del reached up and fingered her own unevenly hacked hair—shorn with less care or consideration shown a sheep. Punishment for a mistake made long ago.

She pushed her memories down into the recesses of her mind. No sense in regretting her past now. Her hair was never growing back and she couldn’t change her fate. Instead she turned back to the woman sauntering toward one of the souls. All curves and legs, this woman had to be a Lust. She was the type of woman men wanted to fuck, and other women wanted to be.

“You have nothing to be envious of,” Reece said to Del. “Some of us prefer hard bodies—and the challenge of finding the softness underneath.” His gaze drifted over her athletic frame.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” But she knew he knew. He probably saw the swirls of green in her soul. “And why would I be envious of a temptor?” She couldn’t quite keep the derision from her tone.

“Ah, there’s the purple I’ve come to love so much.”

She turned her head, not willing to acknowledge his mention of her pride.

“Insinuating temptors are less than ferries doesn’t make it true, Adeline. We’re evenly matched, you and I.”

“Yet one of us is closer to Hell than the other, aren’t you?” she said in a saccharine voice.

He smirked, letting the insult roll off as he usually did. “You’re not so far from it, luv.”

“You’ve been threatening to tempt me for decades. And failing to do so. I’m not exactly trembling in fear.”

He brushed his lips against her ear. “You’re trembling with something.”

Her breathing hitched and she swatted him away, annoyed. That he was correct only irritated her more. She turned and watched the action on the floor, welcoming the distraction. Del had never seen more than one temptor approach a soul at once.

While they had approached in a unified manner, the temptors’ organization fell apart as they got close. They pushed, shoved, and jostled themselves into better positions, as if the souls were likely to succumb to the first temptation they encountered.

At the first table, the young woman shrank back, her eyes wide. If she had the opportunity to bolt, she no doubt would. A Lust slid into the stool beside her, and grasped her hand in a reassuring—and restraining—gesture. A Pride squeezed in on her other side and whispered in her ear. The Wrath and Envy temptors got distracted arguing with each other, and didn’t notice when the woman accepted two shot glasses of amber liquid from the Gluttony. She threw them back one after another. With a whoop, the Gluttony pushed the others away and dragged the woman to a yellow door. The other temptors grumbled and argued, back to the chaos Del had first witnessed.

What did those idiots think would happen? Humans often turned to alcohol when they were overwhelmed. She turned away, shaking her head.

“Something amusing?”

“No.” She’d forgotten Reece sat beside her, and she’d already insulted his kind once. Better not to share her current thoughts.

The process at the other two tables appeared the same—temptors crowded around the table. Another triumphant shout at the far table. Another fallen soul. At the middle table, though, temptors shuffled away in defeat. When the last one failed, Del pushed herself to her feet and sighed. Time to work.

 

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