Pulse. Flash. He stood in the crowd, eyes flinching from the strobe, offset with the throb in his lungs from the bass, the brush of erratic sweaty palms around his shoulders. The painted concrete floor stuck to his leopard print shoes as he turned to watch the gaping faces frozen in instances of light.
The mop-water smell of old booze seeped up from the floor, cut with the tang of perfume overburdened by smoke and perspiration. He breathed deep.
Where he stepped, frenzy followed, a fever pitch of bodies grinding out of beat. He pulled his hand from his suit pocket and snapped his fingers to an old song only he could hear.
By the bar, a girl swayed on tall heels, head thrown back, walnut colored hair raking across the studs in her belt, catching on scratched steel rings circling her hips. Her hands pulled at the pockets of the boy leaning against her, his eyes glazed and ringed with smoke.
The man in the suit raised his fist and snapped his fingers again. Young faces spun to him, jaws slack, then spread in hazy smiles. He arched a finger and they followed, their hands twined together.
The thrum of the club rolled across the midnight pavement as the man slicked down the street, the young lovers weaving behind him.
The snap of his fingers quickened, the click of his heels chattering lively over the pavement. He pirouetted into shadows beneath an old rail bridge. The youths followed, their bright eyes cutting the dark.
A wide pipe gaped in the bridge wall. Their shoes splashed over the wet ribs of corrugated steel. The tunnel sloped into the earth, growing hot, the water turning to sludge, and the air to steam. The man’s curls sunk limp into his starched collar.
The youths abandoned their shoes to the suck of mud and glanced behind at the shrinking pinprick of dim light.
Metal walls gave way to stone, a dark glow shining through fissures in the rock.
The man in the suit pulled an herb-wrapped candle from his jacket and lit it in the flame licking along the wall. Smoke danced from its end, spinning soft strands that wrapped around the youths. Their heads rolled on their necks, tossing, as the smoke constricted in tight spirals and dragged them forward.
The man in the suit waved the candle and danced, wrenching the smoke cord taut around the straining couple, their wide eyes gone red at the whites as he lunged them into a vast cavern.
The plies of smoke rose, drifting up into the darkness, carrying the youths off the floor, high into the cave’s stone roof. The man slipped the candle into his breast pocket, letting the smoke line trail from the corner.
The steam rolling off the slow river hid the rise of smoke writhing around him. He handed the ferryman a coin and sang as they crossed.
On the far side of the river he leapt in the air, twisting, reeling in the chain of smoke, dragging the choking youths to the sulfur floor. His song swelled as he danced into the blackness.
Cold grew around them, blue and steaming in the belching heat from the walls. The man pressed the candle flame to his throat. He moaned as the smoke turned black and crumbled away from the youths. They toppled, gasping, rubbing purpled throats.
“I can hardly fail to see what you’ve brought me, though I may puzzle at how. Do I smell fennel?” A coal man with ice eyes stepped out from the reach of dark.
“Uncle! I bring a trade.” The man in the suit lifted the youths by their chins and kissed them, each in turn, drinking deep. He laughed. “Their sweat, drink, and song still fresh on their lips. Taste!”
The coal man opened his mouth wide. Blue heat wavered from his throat and engulfed the boy, swallowing all but ash.
The girl dropped, her belt chiming as the man in the suit caught her against him. The coal man smiled.
“Quite a treat, nephew, but is the trade fair?” He grasped the girl by her arms, smoke curling from under his palms. Her scream guttered in a gasp.
“You’ll know when you taste her. She’s one of ours. She danced to my song before I began to play it.”
“And if I wish to take my taste tomorrow?”
The man in the suit dropped his grin, his snapping fingers stilled. “Shall it be said that Thanatos cannot pay his debts?”
“Shall it be said that Dionysus trades cheaply?”
The man in the suit laughed. “It is said, and has been said, and shall be said again, uncle, but I am Acratophorus, always.”
Crooked women in wispy rags crawled from the tunnel and wrapped the stunned girl in charnel robes, petted her hair with twisted fingers and whispered mothy secrets as they led her into the dark. The coal man watched after, his ice eyes tracking the swing of her amber honey hair.
“The trade is fair enough to ruin my swindler’s reputation, uncle.” The man in the suit snapped his fingers twice and held out his open palm.
The coal man reached into his robe. He withdrew his fist and pressed it into his nephew’s hand. The man in the suit clamped his fingers around the ember fist and squeezed.
“How many more, after this one?”
“I’ll be back.” He pried the vial free from the cinder fingers.
“Don’t drink it all at once. Not like last time. Charon’s ferry nearly sunk with the weight of the aftermath.”
“I will drink them every which way, and each one differently. Don’t you worry.” He held up the glass vial, letting the cold blue light play over the dark liquid inside. His thumbnail scraped at the leather and wax seal.
“Will you drink it here, with me?”
The man dropped the vial into the pocket of his suit. His face shined.
“As much as I love your company, uncle, I think I’d best take this one to go.”
“A stay would suit you, twice-born. But suit yourself.” The coal man turned back down the dark throat of rock and swallowed himself in shadow.
Dionysus licked his burnt lips. He paid the ferryman double for speed and panted, dreaming of Persephone’s Pomegranate Wine.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Sarah Read writes upsetting things late at night after long days of editing, knitting, reading, and building LEGOS with her son. Her work can be found in the upcoming Exigencies anthology from Dark House Press.