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Ryan lifted the chair an inch off the cement of the makeshift restaurant patio, ensuring the cheap plastic legs wouldn’t catch and buckle as he pushed it in for Persephone. Waiting until Hades was seated, he pulled up his own chair and tested the stability of the table, shifting it slightly to the left to eliminate the imbalance the parking lot pavement created.
“This is unique,” Seph murmured, her bright-blue eyes looking over a group of young men jostling down the sidewalk, their leather jackets covered in metal spikes and chains. “How does one make one’s hair stand straight up like that?”
“Glue,” he replied and thanked the server as she set menus on the table. “I’ve been following the Pirithous scent across three provinces, and I’m certain the guy I’m looking for is following the festival circuit.” He sat back and scanned the street. “It could be difficult to locate him in the crowds since an unleashed dog will attract attention, but at least I’ve narrowed the hunting zone.”
It had taken months of research, followed by months of tracking, to pinpoint his target, but he was glad he had good news for his master.
Spat in a fit of rage by Hades upon the kidnapping—failed kidnapping—of his lovely wife, the centuries-long hunt to fulfill the curse on the Pirithous bloodline had consumed the lives of the three brothers who united to form Cerberus. Every male carrying the bloodline was sentenced to be hunted and dragged into the underworld by the three-headed hellhound. Ryan was finally on the tail of the final one, and he needed to act fast.
One sighting of a hellhound would trigger the curse in the bloodline, turning the man’s thoughts and desires darker. With a second sighting came action, the craving for blood and death settling in and taking hold. The third brought with it physical changes and bloodlust, a morphing of the body into a clawed predator whose sole purpose was death. Those with stronger wills fought the instinct to kill longer, but once the bloodline had a taste to kill, Cerberus was all that stood between the Pirithous and a rapidly growing pile of bodies.
Hades reached behind him and gave him a quick squeeze on the shoulder. “You’ve done well, boy.” He opened a menu and nodded slowly. “Greek selections. Good choice of kitchen, Orion. Even if the ambience leaves much to be desired.”
The small outdoor patio was little more than a parking lot enclosed by portable barriers and packed with plastic outdoor furniture adorned with large umbrellas advertising local breweries. Traffic sped along the road, horns blaring, while small crowds formed and began to zigzag between the cars, the performers already gearing up hours before the festival was set to begin. Guitars and violins fought against speakers blaring Top 40 songs, the lounges and bars lining the street beginning to fill with patrons eager to get an early start to their weekend.
It was an ideal location to observe the busking festival that would flood the narrow street for the next three evenings, kicking off the summer event season in the small prairie city of Saskatoon and bringing his target into his scope.
The server returned to their table, and he snapped his attention back to the menu. “Three souvlakis, two gyros, a Greek salad with extra olives, and three sides of tzatziki.” When Seph arched a brow, he smiled. “And three orders of baklava, please.”
“Add three ouzos to that,” Hades interjected, reaching across the table to take his wife’s hand. “I refuse to toast with water.”
Seph smiled over at him. “And toast we shall, Orion.” Her elegant hand plucked his phone from the table and began flipping through his photos, cooing over the older shots of him and his brothers. “At least I have one boy who’s still loyal to me.”
“You know you still have their loyalty,” he stated in defense of his absentee brethren. “You just don’t have their hearts. And you never needed those anyway.”
She brought the phone to her chest with an exaggerated sigh. “My babies have been taken in by a succubus and a siren. Allow me my moment to wallow.”
Hades chuckled, accepting the ouzo from the server with a thanks. “My dear, you only wallow when you have an audience eager to appease your thirst for adoration. Now let’s toast.” He lifted his small plastic cup and waited for them to do the same. “To Orion. May his final hunt be swift, and his final kill be glorious.”
Ryan pulled a few bills from his wallet and tossed them into the open saxophone case, eliminating the young musician from his list. All his research pointed to a thirty-two-year-old, and the fresh-faced saxophonist was definitely nowhere near his thirties.
He re-entered the throngs of people swarming the street, staying tight to the outer edges as he carefully unfolded his map to jot a quick note. Six of the eleven performers he’d encountered so far remained on his radar. He’d revisit their busking locations in hound form later to track their scents and, if luck was on his side, to make a positive identification of his target.
Joining a small crowd gathering around an artist crouched on the sidewalk, he inched closer to get a good look at the man.
“He’s good,” a woman whispered to him. “Not quite as good as Maestro, but his prices are fair if you’re into the whole space-and-planet thing.”
Adding a mental note to revisit the site of the potential Pirithous later, he watched the man work silently over a piece of paper, his hands angling scraps of cardboard and cans of spray paint with a practiced flair. When the piece was complete, he held it up for the crowd, taking the highest bid within seconds.
Arching a brow at the woman beside him, he leaned down. “That’s impressive.”
She nodded, opening her large messenger bag and pulling out a thick plastic bag. “It’s good, but this? This is impressive. I just bought this down at the five corners. Amazing, isn’t it?”
He glanced down, his breath catching as he recognized the image on the paper. “Who did that?”
“Maestro Mike,” she said, holding the charcoal artwork gingerly for his appraisal. “This page was completely blank when I walked by and within thirty minutes, I had this.”
“This” was a perfect likeness of Hades and Seph in their reception room, the detail precise down to the arcs of the throne arms. The contours of his mistress’s favorite dress, the placement of Hades’s hand on hers, even the slight tilt of Seph’s chin was captured flawlessly.
He swallowed hard and glanced toward the end of the street, seeing nothing but hundreds and hundreds of people. “And this Maestro is that way?”
“Sure is.” The woman smiled, easing the piece back into its protective bag. “On the left side, near the coffeehouse. Better grab one before they’re all gone.”
“Thanks. I intend to,” he muttered as he began winding his way toward the five corners.
The accuracies in the artwork were too precise to be a coincidence. If any gods or nymphs had decided to come topside to play among the humans, he needed to know about it. He was too close to tracking down the elusive Pirithous to have it thwarted by a mischievous deity, and he had enough distrust in the Olympians to be wary of any “coincidences” that could affect his work.
The crowd huddled around the coffee shop was large and tight, onlookers inching into every open space to gain a better view of whatever was happening on the sidewalk. Knowing his chances of worming his way through were slim, he remained on the outskirts and scanned the area for recognizable faces.
“Last piece of the night, folks!” a man called out, the top of a paper visible over the group. “Do we have a starting bid of thirty?”
As numbers were shouted out, he worked his way into the openings provided by the people moving on to the next artist, his gaze locked on the spray-painted depiction of the entrance of the underworld being held up. “One hundred,” he called out, tugging his wallet from his back pocket.
The man ducked out of view for a moment, popping up with the shake of his head. “Sorry, man. Maestro’s passing this one on to the lady in green. Come by tomorrow.”
Frowning at the refusal, he watched as an elderly woman accepted her artwork with a giddy smile, the rest of the losing bids murmuring their disappointment while they slipped back into the moving swarm on the street.
Jostling his way to the front, he waited while the guy finished packing up a box of art supplies strewn around the paint-splattered cement. “What time will you be back here tomorrow?”
Twisting a lid onto a jar of murky water, the young man shrugged. “Dunno, man. We’ll probably be on site around noon to get the most of the light.”
Glancing around the street for any sign of the artist, he exhaled. “I’ll be here.”
Ryan watched the red light turn to green and shoved his motel room door open. He tossed his keycard onto the dresser alongside his wallet and phone.
It had taken nine hours of walking the festival streets, but he was confident he’d managed to identify all possible targets on site, the worn map in his back pocket now covered in notes and reminders. Several of the performers had been eliminated at a glance by age and another dozen were female, but the rest would remain candidates until he was able to narrow the city block the Pirithous staked out to work.
The Maestro had made the list, with the uncanny replicas of the underworld he’d seen touching a tad too close to home for his liking. If there was a deity on his turf, he wanted to know who he was dealing with.
And if it wasn’t a deity inspiring the art and the images truly were coincidental, he wanted one of the stunning pieces to bring down to his mistress.
Toeing his shoes off, he flipped his laptop open and sunk onto the bed, his feet aching from the hours spent pounding the pavement. He opened a Word document and unfolded his map, entering his night’s notes and adding a few observances he hadn’t bothered documenting on site.
The possibility the Pirithous was a festival follower, not a performer or artist.
The likelihood the bloodline had wandered the area before setting up in a specific location.
The odds the line wasn’t present the first night.
He’d stalked the festival circuit enough by now to know many of the traveling artists were rabid about the spots they chose to occupy for the duration of their events. But there were others who sauntered along and set up shop wherever an opening presented itself. Some were local, others touring. All types were identified in his notes, the wanderers highlighted in green, the meticulous choosers in red, locals in blue, and tourers a bright orange.
His brothers enjoyed giving him a tough time about his spreadsheets, notes, maps, and charts. Bo and Alex had witnessed his documentation methods hundreds of times over the centuries and while they had the tendency to tease him about his color-coding and his use of fonts and shorthand, he knew they were grateful he was the one who kept the records. It freed them up to track, to hunt, to do what came naturally to hellhounds on a mission.
But this time, he was alone. It was up to him to study, to sniff out and follow their target until he needed to call his brothers in for the final takedown.
Alex was living down in California with his fiancée, managing the local tavern and chasing rabbits through Joshua Tree National Park where the love of his life, Charlotte, worked as a ranger.
Bo and Sage, his wife and soul mate, were back in Seattle where she was finishing up a doctorate in art history and he was running his own business. Restless and miserable for most of his existence, Bo was finally settled and happy.
The search for the Pirithous may have been their duty, but it wasn’t their obsession. Their hearts were tangled up with women who loved them, challenged them, and put them in their place when necessary. They weren’t like him. They didn’t live and breathe obedience to Hades and Persephone. They garnered no pride from the hunt, no sense of accomplishment for a job well done.
But he did.
Glancing at the time, he flipped through his notes again.
This Pirithous had evaded his meticulous documentation, but not Bo’s intuition. While Ryan believed their last takedown was the final one, Bo had insisted for years there was one more, one they’d missed. His ego hadn’t allowed him the luxury of acknowledging he may have been mistaken, and it was that weakness he was paying for now as he worked alone, paying the penance for his arrogance.
Closing out the document, he did a quick search for Maestro Mike, hitting on a poorly constructed website. His eyes strained to read the dark blue print on the black background as he spent a few minutes hunting for the image gallery.
And what a gallery it was.
The guy was incredibly talented, his smooth watercolors rivaling his detailed charcoal works, both competing against the lifelike acrylics and photo-quality pencil sketches. Stunning ink prints were discounted, and the vibrant spray-paint originals were two-for-one.
The subjects of the pieces ran the gamut from pastoral scenes to night club dancers, each medium carefully chosen to suit the image the artist was conveying. He took his time looking through the gallery, mentally cataloging the number of works pulled from the underworld.
And there were many.
Persephone was a popular theme in the painted pieces, Hades more so in the charcoal. Even Dionysus made an appearance in an intriguing watercolor highlighted with ink.
The alarm on his phone buzzed on the dresser, and he bookmarked the website for a closer perusal later. He ran his hands over his face, set his laptop on the nightstand, and stared at the bargain-basement painting on the wall.
He’d been chasing ghosts alone for six months, living out of cheap motels and his car. And now he was close enough to taste the freedom this final kill would bring.
Freedom from the weight of Hades’s curse on his shoulders.
Freedom from the human world.
Freedom from the hunt that had consumed him for centuries.
Freedom from the heaviness of his failure.
He rose to his feet, slid his keycard into his pocket, and tugged his shoes back onto his protesting feet. There were few precious hours between the closing of the bars and the rising of the sun, and he needed to make good use of the limited darkness he had.
The motel was only three miles off of the festival, nestled among discount car lots and warehouses that had seen better economies. Slipping into the shadows, he stripped down and nudged his clothes behind a dumpster before dropping to all fours as the transformation took hold.
His nose wrinkled at the stench of rotting meat in the alley and he looked back at his clothes in annoyance, knowing he’d be hunting down a laundromat in the morning. Staying tight to the empty buildings, he kept his ears tuned in to the few cars on the road. He ducked into doorways as the threats drove past him and made his way to the bridge leading to the deserted festival street.
Keeping his muzzle to the pavement, he tracked up one side and down the other, the overpowering odors left behind from the multitudes of food vendors hampering his progress. The few scents that caught his attention were little more than reminders of his evening.
The faint lilac of Persephone.
The sharp herbal of Hades.
Chuffing in annoyance, he crouched in the doorway of the coffeehouse and laid his head on the sidewalk, no hint of a god or deity wafting in the air.
And no hint of the Pirithous.
If the bloodline was in the area, the chemicals used by the artists had overwhelmed the scent. The muskiness of the Maestro’s charcoal combined with the heady odor of the pastels to fill his nose and coat his tongue. The tang of paint and turpentine cut through enough to burn his throat and water his eyes.
With his last hope for the night yielding nothing more than a headache, he scanned the area one last time and trotted back toward the bridge, one eye on the storefronts for a dry cleaner.
“No way we can salvage the fan, Mike,” Logan called out, holding up the balding paintbrush. “We’ll have to hit up the art store before we take the street tomorrow.”
Mike wrinkled her nose and shook her head. “I’ll make do with the others. I’m not paying a king’s ransom for a replacement when I can order it online for half the price.” She paced the length of the basement floor, stretching out the kinks that had settled in her back from sitting on the sidewalk all evening. “And I don’t care how big a pain in the ass it is, I’m hauling the easel over in the morning. I’m too old to sit on cement for twelve hours.”
Logan collapsed the easel for her and set it by the door before he loaded the rolling tote with paper pads and canvases. “I’m tossing an extra set of pastels in here. You’re getting low on the reds in that open pack.”
Giving her apprentice a smile, she waved him toward his cot. “I’ll deal with this later. You rest up.”
He side-eyed her, pushing himself to his feet. “It’s four a.m. This is as later as it gets, Mike.”
Flipping open her collection of brushes, she ran her nail across the plastic seal of a new canvas. “Just need to get a few images down before I lose them,” she muttered, laying out her paints and sitting cross-legged on the floor. “I’ll yell if I need you to help me to my feet in an hour or two.”
Logan rolled his eyes and flopped onto his bed. “I’m gonna be pissed if I wake up and you’re still painting.”
“Yeah, yeah. Either I do this now or I lay awake for three hours and do it then. Sleep, young grasshopper. You have much carnie-calling to do tomorrow.”
She ignored his grumblings as she roughly sketched out a new piece, glancing over only when his breathing became steady.
He was a good kid, an unpaid graffiti artist she’d picked up in Montreal the previous summer, wasting his immense talent on the boxcars and fences he was using to hone his skills. Twenty-two and floundering, he’d jumped at her offer to accompany her across the country during festival season, with a cut of the profits and training during their downtime sweetening the travel deal.
Running her fingers over her round brushes, she selected the thickest and set to work bringing her vision to the canvas.
End of Excerpt