When Samantha Black shares her sandwich with a dog, his owner, Jon—a homeless man living in the Las Vegas storm tunnels—gives her a poker chip worth a fortune from the exclusive casino, Buried Pleasures. All Sam has to do is cash it in. Sam is in Vegas for one reason only—to get her friend, Evie Holt, away from sinister magician, Darian Fox, who holds her prisoner in an effort to force Sam to perform at his club, Illusions. A neon circus tent of strange and mystical acts, Illusions is one of the biggest draws in Vegas, and he’s hell-bent on including Sam in his disturbing plans.
The shadowy Magda Gardener will do anything to keep Sam from cashing in that chip. She knows that Buried Pleasures is the gate to Hades and cashing in the chip is a one-way ticket across the River Styx, which runs beneath the storm tunnels of Vegas. Jon is really Jack Graves, owner of Buried Pleasures, and Graves is really the god of death, himself, and if things aren’t already confusing enough, he and Magda know what Sam doesn’t. Sam is the last siren. That her song can kill is only the beginning of her story. Jon wants her safe on his side of the River, protected from Fox’s hideous magic. But even Death fears Magda Gardener, who is none other than Medusa, and the gorgon has her own agenda. If Sam is to understand her heritage and win the battle against Darian Fox, not only will she have to trust her heart to Death, but they’ll both have to work for the gorgon, whose connection with Sam runs deeper than any of them could imagine.
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Jon and Samantha: Salvation by Death
The mind-boggling project designed to offer flood protection to a city built on bedrock and totally surrounded by mountains had begun in the seventies. The individual segments reminded her of giant hollow Lego blocks made of concrete. Originally there was to be over a thousand miles of tunnels beneath Sin City. They were all designed to channel the waters of any flash flood that threatened the financial heart of the city into Lake Mead, some thirty miles away. The project was never finished, but there were still an impressive two hundred miles of storm tunnels beneath the city, and they now provided shelter for the homeless who didn’t mind playing the odds that their meager belongings wouldn’t get washed away in the next deluge. They also had provided a hiding place for murderers and thieves and who knew what else?
And apparently God hung out down here, too. Who could have guessed? Though she didn’t see any of the dreaded scorpions she’d heard so much about, she imagined she could hear them skittering across the floor in the dark. “Ever been stung by one? Scorpion, I mean,” she asked absently.
“They don’t bother me much,” came the reply.
She saw the graffiti on the walls as well as if she’d been walking in the sunshine, and yet the darkness around her was almost a physical thing, a thought that almost made her laugh, since it was obvious she no longer had the physical capability for feeling it.
Did the dead sleep? She only wondered because it seemed that she slept or lost consciousness, or just drifted off for a while. Maybe eventually she would lose consciousness altogether and that would be the end of it. Maybe the whole recycling thing just took a while to kick in. Strange, that thought didn’t disturb her either. Still, Jon had said she was going to a very nice place. When she woke up, if that’s what she did, she came to herself hearing the click, click, click of the dog’s toenails on the concrete.
To her surprise the surroundings had changed. There was water – not just the constant water on the floor of the storm tunnels, but more like a lake or a reservoir. A boat rocked gently at the end of a stone dock in front of them. For a moment she thought they had ended up at the Venetian with its canals and boats. But there were no red and white striped poles, and the boat wasn’t right. It was broader, higher prowed.
As she took in her surroundings, she saw that they were still underground, and she remembered reading somewhere that at one time the whole basin in which Las Vegas was built had been a large inland sea, and that there was still a sea of water beneath the bedrock. She’d heard that people who built homes outside the city and drilled wells down through the bedrock had an endless supply of fresh water, even in the dry desert.
They were walking toward the boat, her body still safely carried in Jon’s arms with her consciousness still floating above.
A man she assumed to be the boatman stood waiting for them. He was dressed in a flowing dark cloak, his face obscured completely beneath a deep hood. As he looked down at her body in Jon’s arms, what little light there was caught the shine of his eyes just enough to dispel the disturbing sense that the hood was empty.
After a long silence, he looked up at Jon and shook his head. “I can’t take her,” he said, examining her limp body. “You know the rules.” His voice was like the scratching of dry twigs in a storm, and no matter how hard she listened, she heard no breath, no heartbeat. For some reason that disturbed her far less than the fact that she couldn’t see his face.
“Take me where? Where are we going?”
The two men ignored her.
“Know the rules? I wrote the damned rules,” Jon said, and once again she felt the vibration of his voice in spite of being separated from her flesh.
“Then you know if she hasn’t cashed in the chip, I can’t take her.”
“Take me where? Are you coming too?” she asked Jon. Still she got no reply.
“What the hell do you mean, she hasn’t cashed in her chip? Dancy delivered her right to the door to do just that.”
“He’s right,” Sam agreed, though she was no longer sure the men could even hear her. How long had she been dead now? Would Jon cease to be aware of her at all after she’d been dead for a while? He wouldn’t if he were God, she reasoned. “Some woman named Magda Gardener told me I should wait till tomorrow. I shouldn’t have listened to her,” she added. “I wouldn’t be dead now if I had gone ahead and cashed in the chip like I wanted to.”
But the two men still didn’t respond. She was beginning to suspect that being dead was going to be a major pain in the ass.
Jon carefully laid her down on the cool mosaic floor. She only now realized that it was mosaic, something with an astrological motif, she thought, her cheek pressed against the dark bicep of the Sagittarian archer. Her attention was drawn away from the mosaic when Jon slid his hand into her pocket and pulled out the chip. It glowed golden in his hand as he turned it over and over again. She didn’t remember it doing that when she held it. Probably just a trick with the lights.
“Should have cashed it in when I had the chance,” she said. “You can have it back if you want. It won’t help me now, will it?”
He simply stuck it back in her pocket and cursed under his breath. Then he stood and paced back and forth in front of the boatman. “Well that’s a damned inconvenience, isn’t it?”
The boatman nodded beneath his hood. “Sure as hell is. I was expecting her. She had reservations. Had everything ready for her, just like you said. Looks like I made the trip for nothing.” He shrugged, and the cape rustled as it settled back around his body. “Not like I have anything else to do, I guess.”
For a moment the two men stood in silence, looking down at Sam’s body resting against the mosaic of the archer. Then the boatman heaved a hard-put-upon sigh and asked, “What will you do now?”
“Take her back,” Jon replied, and the dog whined softly and plopped down next to her. “I have to, don’t I? She would have been happier here, and safe,” he added as an afterthought.
“Pity,” the boatman said. “Gonna be a rough ride for her now. You know I’d take her if I could.” He nodded across the expanse of water, and for the first time, Sam realized she couldn’t see the other shore.
“Oh, I don’t blame you, Chuck,” Jon said. “You’re just doing your job.” The dog offered a soft woof of agreement.
“You think that bitch, Magda, had anything to do with the mix-up?” the boatman asked.
“Oh, I have no doubt.” Jon ran a warm hand along Sam’s cheek and she was surprised that she could still feel it. “Well, nothing for it now. Can I borrow your cloak? She’ll be cold when she returns, and it’s a long way back.”
“Of course.” The man shed his cloak in a sharp snap that sounded like the canvas of a sail slapping in the wind and, in that instant, the world went black and Sam could no longer see the tunnel around them. For a moment she had that feeling of falling, the kind of falling that jerks you awake from the dream world to find that no, you’re still safe and sound on your bed. Only it was more of a rough and tumble, as though she were struggling with the fall, somehow being tossed about, riding first a rollercoaster, then bouncing high on a trampoline, then being dragged feet-first down steep stairs, her head banging on each step.
She yelped and reached out desperately to feel Gus’s soft fur close to her body and, as she groped in the darkness, her hand came to rest first on Jon’s chest and then on his stubbled face. And there was substance—her hand, flesh and bone, touching flesh and bone. His breath was warm against her cheek, and the smell of ozone and deep forest peaked as he whispered, “It’ll be all right, Samantha. Don’t be frightened. It’ll be all right. I have you now. You’re with me.”
Then his lips brushed hers and she wrapped her arms around his neck with the urgency of one who was afraid of falling. His breath! She tasted his breath, she needed his breath. She had none of her own, and the rising panic felt as though it would smother her with its weight. “Shh, Samantha, shh! I have you now. You’ll be all right.” He spoke softly against her lips. “You’ll be fine. I promise.”
She clawed at him, desperate to hang on, desperate to breathe, fighting claustrophobic dizziness that felt as though she were being sucked down a drainpipe.
She might have screamed or she might have only imagined it, but Jon kept up a soothing, soft chatter that she struggled to understand above the ringing in her ears. Then she felt like she was being shoved back in her body, down her own throat and up under her ribcage, a suitcase being hastily stuffed over-full, as though somehow she had expanded in her time outside herself. In the beginning, she was certain she was being suffocated, but when she gasped the first blessed breath of air, it was accompanied by a bright flash of searing pain, and the lights went out with her clutched in the arms of the homeless man, the dog whining softly at her side.