I self-published my debut novel “The Soul Detective” earlier this year. It’s available online on multiple platforms. Sample downloads are also available to get a better feel for the novel.
To purchase or read a larger excerpt go to:
Hope you enjoy.
We cruised down into Styx, the road curving back inland a ways before finally making its way through the city toward the river. More shanties had been erected on the outskirts since the last time I’d been here. Of course, every time I came to Styx there were more buildings and more shanties.
I drove the Floater up the main drag, catching the envious eye of more than one hopeless Soul. With the light of Hell beginning to fade to a dull red, the yellow on the Floater gleamed. It was a beacon of hate for so many who had nothing. I picked up the pace and raced toward the New Souls Entry.
I drove into the employee parking lot. A guard came out of his makeshift hut, hand held at shoulder height.
“S.D. Achilles,” I said, flashing my identification card. “The Boatman is waiting for me.”
He waved us through.
We walked down a few corridors before we reached Jed’s latest secretary, a woman as squat as the building. She wasn’t here the last time I’d ventured this way. My guess was she wouldn’t be here the next time I came. Jed the Boatman’s secretaries didn’t stick around. Not many good Souls in Styx did. They wanted out as fast as possible.
We stood waiting for the secretary to address us. The kid kept one eye on my back – making sure I wasn’t leaving him – while the other eye wandered toward the screams at the front of the building, toward the processing line.
Constant screams of “I’ll repent” and “I’m sorry” echoed off the walls.
“May I help you?”
“Yeah, we’ve got an appointment with the Boatman,” I told the secretary.
She sighed as though if she exhaled hard enough I’d disappear.
“He’s not in right now. But quitting is in 20 minutes, he’ll be back then.”
She stared at us, one then the other. Jimmy stared at me, wondering what we should do.
“C’mon,” I said, “let’s go look around.”
“Um, you shouldn’t wander …” she began.
I didn’t hear the rest of it.
“Is your Sanctifier in your pocket or your backpack?” I asked, patting mine gently through my coat.
“It’s in my pocket, like you told me.”
“Good. Be ready to grab it.”
“Let’s head down toward the docks.” I actually heard his jaw drop. “Don’t worry,” I said, “we’re on the safe side. But be ready in case some Soul breaks free from the Butterfliers. A simple stun should put them down until they’re caught.”
We started down the worn dirt path that led to the docks. This close to quitting time, I knew some of the Butterfliers would be ready to knock off early.
“Those are Butterfliers,” I said, pointing at a pair of men, dragging their quarry toward the processing office. They wore heavy black boots, the kind used to kick people with effect. Their pants and long-sleeved shirts were dark-blue jeans, made darker from liters of sweat. I thought wearing a suit was hot.
The two walked past us, dragging a Soul on his ass by the collar of his shirt. I nodded. They nodded back, their eyes drifting from the curve of my Stunner to my eyes. “They call them Butterfliers because back before they used Tazing-Sticks, they used to carry nets on sticks, like the kind you see butterfly hunters use. It was the most popular method to catch Souls. Heads up!”
A Soul had gotten onto the dock quicker than his captors expected. The Soul, a small, Asian teen, sprinted up the beach. The Butterflier didn’t show much care. The Soul wasn’t about to go anywhere. It was either run to the processing plant or run and jump in the river and swim back to the other side. Eventually you were going to get caught. Stupid Souls didn’t realize that if they went along with the entire process, things would be much easier.
The boy came sprinting right at us. I stepped out of his path.
“Ssst, stop!” Jimmy yelled. He reached into his pocket.
By then it was too late. Asia shouldered Jimmy, sending him sprawling. The boy had nearly reached the processing plant when he realized that wasn’t going to do him any good. Jimmy looked up at me. I shook my head in disgust.
The two Butterfliers who’d dragged the Soul past us earlier were back outside. They were laughing and pointing in our direction, more specifically in Jimmy’s direction. We both heard them. Jimmy looked at them and stood up. The embarrassment was no longer on his face. There was a different look there, something I hadn’t seen in him. He pulled out his Sanctifier and ran off in the boy’s direction, back toward the river. It took the kid three or four shots before he nailed Asia, knocking him to the ground. The boy thrashed back and forth holding his left arm, water splashing. His screams sent the two Butterfliers into gales of laughter. The Butterflier who’d lost the boy went and retrieved him. He dragged the teen toward the processing plant, nodding thanks as he passed the kid.
The kid walked up to me, a grin from ear to ear. He must have looked like that when he passed his driver’s test. A beautiful smile. One a parent would love whole-heartedly.
“How many times did you miss him?” I asked.
The smile vanished.
“But I got him.”
“Yeah, and if he’d had a Sanctifier himself, you’d be the one squealing like a little girl.”
He put the Sanctifier away, all feelings of success gone. Good.
We headed toward the processing plant, but stopped when we got to the still-chuckling Butterfliers. I took out the headshot of Milan Beswyck.
“Hey, you two ever seen this one?” I asked. “Came through recently.”
“We see an awful lot of faces, pal,” the first one said, shaking his head. “Don’t remember her if I did see her.”
The second one whistled. “Wish I had seen her. She’d of been a nice one to chase down. Push around on the boat. What do you think, Burt? Wouldn’t you have liked to have nabbed her.”
Burt took a second look. “Yeah, that ain’t half bad. Course, we get lookers a dime a dozen down here. You’re a Soul Detective, did she get called up or what?”
I looked them both over. I didn’t want to give these two yahoos any satisfaction, but maybe it’d help spark something.
“Guess so,” I allowed. “The Big Boss wants her up, I gotta go find her.”
“Now why am I not surprised a broad like that gets called up, eh, Burt?” the second one said.
They looked at each other and grinned. I’d heard enough.
“You boys watch what you say. Just because you’re on His good side now doesn’t mean it’ll last.”
Their grins stumbled quicker than a drunk over a curb.
We walked to the door of the plant. I opened it at the same time the Butterflier who’d taken in Asia came out.
“Thanks again for taking that guy down,” he said to Jimmy.
“Yeah, well, I should have had him down quicker,” the kid said.
I held the photo out. “Ever seen her.”
He looked at it. “Oh, hell yes, I seen her,” an accent dripping from the South, probably Tennessee. “I won’t ever forget that face. She was pretty as a prayer.”
“Anything particular you remember about her, other than her looks?”
“Well,” he looked out toward the river, thinking, “she’s kind of made a name for herself. After I’d taken her into the plant I tossed her in line with all the others. I went outside for another run. When I come back I was dyin’ of thirst. So I went to the water fountain. You know, to get a drink. I set down for a spell since quittin’ time was coming up. At this point she was bein’ processed. That’s when I hear her start yelling. Not loud at first, but kind of impatient like. Like she was tryin’ to get her point acrost but it wasn’t gettin’ acrost. Then she really starts yellin’ and everybody turns to look. Even other Souls that were bein’ processed got real quiet like. Everybody in the place is lookin’ at her.”
“What was she yelling?” I asked.
“Well, sir, I heard all sorts of pleas and cries and screams, every sort of ‘scuse ‘cept the one she came up with. At the top of her lungs she’s yellin’, ‘That isn’t me!’ ‘That isn’t me!’ ‘You got the wrong person!’ And I remember thinkin’ well, shoot, I ain’t heard that one before. Naturally, her yellin’ lights off the rest of the damned Souls. They all start yellin’, ‘That ain’t me either.’ And anything else they can come up with. You know, they say if you live long enough you’ll see everything. Well, I don’t know who said that, but after hearin’ her say what she said, I believe that proverb to have been said by someone in the Afterlife. Cause now I seen everything.”
He looked back at her photo.
“Thank you, sir,” I said. “If you remember anything else, let The Boatman know, and he can get in touch with me.”
He nodded and walked off, back toward the docks. We went inside.
The Boatman’s secretary looked up as we walked into the waiting area.
“There you are,” she said. “He’s ready for you.”
We followed her to another door. She knocked twice and opened the door to let us in.
The area around the River Styx didn’t smell like anything but fear. Inside The Boatman’s office it smelled like the ocean; like the salted sea crashing on the beach, carrying its wonderful scent as far inland as the wind could manage. His office walls were lined with solid oak bookshelves crammed full of seafaring novels, nautical books, books filled with maps of the world’s oceans from ages past and ages present. Maybe ages future. Maps scrolled and folded plugged every inch of space between the books and the shelves. In one corner stood an early 20th century diving suit, the kind that looked like heavy canvas and a helmet built like a small automobile. In another corner rested Neptune’s trident, giving off a light all its own.
The Boatman sat in front of us, facing away. His head and shoulders visible above the back of his chair. In front of him was a bay window the length of the room. Through it stood the River Styx, in all its glory. The foreground displayed the sandy beach cascading down to the docks. A few boats continued their shuttles from Hell’s side to the far side of the river. The boats took their time, while the Souls panicked, trying to escape through foolproof gates like rats trying to stay afloat of sewer waters. Above, the sky, blood red and slightly darkening. The heat from the window was tangible.
The Boatman was watching the scenery, a wisp of smoke floating from the cigar I knew he held between his lips. Because of his height, we could see he wore a black hooded sweatshirt, the hood resting on his wiry shoulders that towered above the chair’s back.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” his voice deep, raspy. I’d never been able to figure out if the voice was his, or if millennia of smoking cigars had done that to him.
“It’s something,” I said, not quite agreeing.
“You know what I’d love to see?” he asked, “I keep imagining, hoping I guess you could say, to one day see one of those poor Souls get dumped from the escalator and not turn toward the gates. I wish he, or she if you will, would swim toward this side. Maybe signaling for one of my boats to pick him up. I want him to hold out his arms to a Butterflier and say, ‘Don’t worry about me boys, I’m here and I deserve it. Just tell me where to go. I’m all yours.’”
A deep inhalation hinted at a long pull on the stogie. The exhalation into the air above his head confirmed it. His chair turned clockwise toward us, going from midnight to six. He stared at us.
The kid’s gasp was barely audible, thank His Highness. I don’t think the Boatman heard it, and if he did his eyes bared no hint. He sized us up, first me, then the kid, where his gaze settled. The kid took it. I was impressed. The Boatman’s eyes, coal black in their cavernous sockets and bloodshot red around the rims, gave him a pupil-less, hollow look. His skin, whiter than bone, gave him a skeletal appearance. The cheeks were indented, like he’d missed more meals than he’d made. His head was completely devoid of hair. I didn’t know if he shaved or if he’d woken up one morning hairless. Knowing the Boatman, it could’ve gone either way.
“Good to see you, Achilles,” he rasped at me, still looking at the kid. “Been awhile.”
“Sign of the times, I guess. Got a smoke, Jed?”
I knew asking for a cigar would break his concentration on Jimmy. It worked.
Jed was tall enough to make you think he might be standing, not sitting. Nearly his entire midsection rose above a desk that matched the bookshelves in color and materiel. He pulled on a drawer in the desk and produced a long, thick cigar. I could almost smell it through the salty air.
I leaned across and gently pulled it from him.
“Sit down, both of you.”
The Boatman nodded at the kid. “You bringing one back?” he asked me.
“Yep,” I said. “Kind of playing reverse Soul Detective, you might say. I was told this one slipped into Heaven while Peter was playing with himself.”
The kid’s head snapped so quickly in my direction I heard his bones crack.
That’s when the Boatman started laughing. A long, deep rumble, up through those lengthy lungs, through that smoke-lined esophagus and out between his skull-like teeth.
“Gotcha,” I said.
The relief washed over Jimmy’s face like a baby coming up through a Baptismal dunking.
“Jesus, Achilles, this one must be brand new,” the Boatman smiled, his laughter dying to a soft chuckle.
“Jed, meet Jimmy Rodgers,” I motioned with my head at Jed then Jimmy. “Kid, meet Jed the Boatman, overseer of all things the River Styx.”
Jed stood up, his head nearly touching the ceiling, and offered a thin, wiry hand to Jimmy. The kid stood up and shook it, shock still on his face.
“We haven’t done that in a while have we,” the Boatman asked.
“No, it’s been awhile since I’ve been down here, and even longer since I’ve been down here with a partner.”
The kid’s head snapped toward me again. I avoided the gaze.
“Well, what can I do for you?” the Boatman asked.
“I’m here about a woman …”
“A woman? You don’t see that much at all,” the Boatman interrupted.
“That’s the same thing I was thinking,” I said.
“Why didn’t they send Duvalier?” a look of confusion on the Boatman’s face.
“Good question,” I told him. “I’ve asked myself that one several times the last couple hours. I’ve never been sent to bring back a female, and I don’t know any male Soul Detectives that’ve ever gone to fetch a female Soul.”
He knocked ashes from his cigar into a gold-lined ashtray. “Me either, now that I think about it. At least, no guy Soul Detectives have come to me asking after lady Souls. And I can’t recall any lady detectives looking for guys.”
He took another draw on the cigar. Exhaled at the ceiling.
“What’s her name?”
I took out Milan Beswyck’s headshot.
“Ahh, Ms. Beswyck,” he said.
“You know her?” I asked, surprise showing on my face.
“I never met her, but everyone here in the office has heard of her.”
“Well, they brought her in June 13, four days ago,” he said, that confusing look returning to his face. “I’ve watched …
“Four days ago?” I cut him off. “That’s impossible. You sure you aren’t mixing her up with another top-notch beauty. Her file didn’t have a Death Date, but she has to have been here for at least six months, maybe a year.”
“Oh no, I’m not confusing her with anybody,” he said. “And like I was saying, I’ve watched the tapes a couple times and still don’t know what the hell she was crying about.”
“Tapes?” the kid asked.
I stared at him. He didn’t look, but I know he felt the heat of my gaze.
“We have video surveillance in the office, in case things get out of hand or one of my guys gets accused of something,” Jed explained. “The next time one of my boaters gets accused of grabbing someone inapporpiately, it won’t be the first and definitely won’t be the last. So we set up cameras to make sure my guys are doing honest work.”
I cut in. “What’d the tapes show?”
“Well, they bring her in and she’s crying, like all of ‘em are,” he said. “But when she gets to the processor, she starts screaming that they have it wrong, she isn’t who they say she is. Funny thing is, we’d never heard that excuse. That’s why we all know about her. I mean, word spread like wildfire around here. Usually the gossip is about who is fucking who in the office. Or if some serial killer gets processed, everyone wants to see him. I’ve got decent people working for me, but they’re just as curious as the next. So a new excuse from a Soul who doesn’t think she should be processed is as hot a story as anything we could make up.”
He took another toke.
“Why would she say it wasn’t her?” I asked.
“No idea. You know how it is, any excuse to get out of this place. To tell you the truth, I’m shocked it’s taken this long for someone to come up with that one. But I don’t think anyone has used it before because this is the Afterlife. They don’t make mistakes, and everyone down here knows that.”
I glanced out the window and noticed the sky appeared a bit bloodier. Soon it’d be dark. And even I didn’t like being out then.
We said our goodbyes, and the kid and I headed for the door.
“Hey,” the Boatman called after me, “a sailor learns awful early to trust his instincts out on the open sea. Mine is telling you to watch your back on this one, Achilles.”