Chapter 1 (partial)

Most people don’t notice their souls, until they go missing. I didn’t. Not much anyway, but when my soul was stolen, it left a void like an empty, colicky stomach.

I felt it on this frigid evening, as I stood on the street corner in the rough part of a mid-sized town that should have been named “Armpit of the Midwest,” smoking a cigarette, and hoping the summoner didn’t spot me before I spotted him. While I waited for him to exit the diner where he regularly took his Wednesday night meal, a prostitute approached me.

In the sexiest voice she could muster, she said, “Hey, handsome. You looking for a date?”

Because I was open, I heard her soul say, “He looks like a clean, nice guy. Maybe he’ll want a fifty-dollar night so I can pay my pimp. I’m starving. I want to eat, but I have to pay Daddy.”

There was more, always more. A never-ending stream of hope, regret, fear, joy, loss, gain. I trained myself to listen, so if she felt it and I wanted to hear it, I heard it. I tuned in for a bit longer and then closed myself off from her. Her life was crap, but she had her soul. I knew how to take it from her, but her miserable life would be even worse without it.

From my wallet, I took out a twenty, and she eyed it nervously. I politely blew my smoke away from her and waited until she glanced up at me. Her eyes, half-closed in a poor attempt at seduction, widened in surprise.

“Get out of the cold and get some food,” I said, handing her the bill. She snatched it and scurried past me.

It wasn’t that I spoke in a harsh tone. It wasn’t that I gave her a menacing look or any look in particular. Anyone who looks at me, really looks at me, can tell something is wrong. They know something is missing, even if they can’t say what it is. I knew how she felt. Looking at my eyes is like looking into the eyes of a dead man.

I took my last drag, rolled the hot rock out of the end of the butt, and pocketed the filter until I could find a trash bin. My phone rang, and I cursed myself for leaving it on while working. I whipped it out, noted that it was Mikayla. Whatever she wanted could wait, but if I didn’t answer, she would keep calling.

I answered with, “Busy. Call ya later,” and then turned off my phone. As I stuffed it back in my pocket, Beauford Darby, stepped through the front doors of the diner.

In eight years of searching, I have learned there are all sorts of reasons that nefarious folk want souls or parts of souls, and all of them would rather use any soul than their own. My source, the guy who ran the local head shop, said that Darby liked to brag about his extra-curricular activities more than he purchased items. However, a few Saturdays back, he picked up several black candles while rambling about how he planned to summon something mean and nasty from The Nethers to exact revenge on someone who wronged him. What he hadn’t told the shop owner was that he also planned to use the soul he stole from his insurance agent to pay for it.

As I followed him, I listened. He broadcasted so loudly that I almost clapped my hands over my ears in reflex. I heard no clear sentence, just a mass of garbled hate that spewed out of him like the possessed kid in The Exorcist. I shoved that aside and focused harder. Underneath all the anger was fear, and under the fear was terror. The terror came from the insurance agent’s soul. When I focused on him, I heard words.

“I want my body. It’s a crappy body, but I want it. I miss my wife. It’s cold here, and why is there never any light?”

I bared my teeth and ran for Darby.

My footsteps gave away my approach, so when Darby turned to face me, he hosed me with pepper spray. “Get a job! You won’t get my money,” he yelled at me.

Eyes and nose burning like mad, I wrapped my arms around him and rammed him against the side of the building. His head rapped against the bricks, stunning him.

“Give Reggie back,” I demanded. “This is your only chance to cooperate.”

Darby gathered his wits and tried to fight me. I spend at least four evenings a week at the gym, which comes in handy when I go up against a panicked mage. Darby was no lightweight. He kicked the hell out of my shin, but I held him and kept his arms pinned at his sides.

“I can’t give it back,” he shrieked and tried to kick me again. “I need it to pay the demon.”

“Use your own damned soul,” I said.

There are a few ways to get a soul out of someone. A pro only needs a whisper of physical contact. An amateur, like me, needs a stronger connection. Since I didn’t intend to put my mouth on any of Darby’s orifices, I pressed my forehead to his, linking our third eyes. I spoke words that released Reggie’s soul from Darby and called it to me. Maintaining focus was near impossible, what with my eyes and nose burning as I choked on pepper spray. As Darby tried to knee me in the groin and screamed for help, Reggie flowed from the tangle of hate into me, instantly filling the void. The desire to curl up in a ball and weep out of sheer joy overwhelmed me, but I pushed it aside so I could finish the job.

I cast a binding spell that, as long as I lived, prevented Darby from stealing souls. When I finished, I heard the snicking sound of a lock. One thing about magic and spells: it’s cool when you know they work.

Angry tears thickening his voice, Darby said, “You’ve damned me.”

Two sets of hands grabbed my shoulders. “You damned yourself,” I spat at him as the hands jerked me free of Darby and slammed me onto the concrete.

“Aw, bro, you totally covered him in pepper spray, and he still kicked your ass,” one of Darby’s saviors commented.

With my eyes blurry and streaming tears, I couldn’t see, but it felt as though three men pinned me to the ground.

With my lips swelling and snot pouring out of my nose, I mumbled, “Have fun in Hell, Darby.” A foot connected with my ribs.

“Hey! Jeez, lay off,” the man holding my right arm said. “The cops will be here soon. We got him. He can’t bother you.”

Darby started crying then. Oh, there would be Hell to pay, or whatever corner of The Nethers Darby’s demon hailed from, and he knew it. He roared in frustration, and shortly after, I heard feet eating pavement.

“Where are you going?” the man on my left arm called.

“Would one of you, maybe, go in the diner and get a glass of milk to pour on my face, please?”

“Milk?” the left arm monitor asked.

“Yeah, it stops the burning,” I said.

“You get sprayed enough to know that?”

“No. It’s like when you eat spicy food. Milk neutralizes capsaicin.”


“The stuff in hot peppers that makes them hot. That’s why it’s called pepper spray.” My lips were really starting to swell and talking hurt.

“Oh, huh. That makes sense now. Okay, Tom, you go.”

I felt the men shift around to keep me pinned, and after a few minutes, Tom poured milk over my face. It helped, but I already felt awesome. Even though my face was on fire, I floated on the high of having a soul again, even if it wasn’t mine. I felt so good that I started laughing, and I continued to laugh even when the cops arrived.

They gave my face another milk bath, followed by two glassfuls of ice water, before they cuffed me. One of the officers took my wallet, car keys, and phone from my pockets.

“Cameron Vance,” he said, reading my name from my driver’s license. “Long way from home, aren’t cha?”

“I am,” I said as the other cop stuffed me into the back of their squad car.

The front doors closed, and the cop who ID’d me said, “The guys that grabbed you said you were beating up on somebody. Wanna tell us what that was about?”

“Beauford Darby. He stole something from a client of mine. I took it back.”


“Yeah, Reggie Phelps.”

“The insurance agent with all the billboards?” the other cop asked. I shrugged. “He never reported any theft to us. You a P-I?”

“No, and he wouldn’t have reported this.”


“Because Darby didn’t steal Reggie’s car or his watch. He stole his soul.”

They murmured. Most likely, the police thought I was crazy or high. Even if I passed every drug test in the book, believing I was on something was easier than believing the truth.

I relaxed against the seatback. Reggie’s soul was mine for as long as it took me to post bail, if there was any, and get back to him. That was too long and not long enough, so while the police drove me to their precinct, I savored feeling whole again.