For everyone out there who has read EMBRACE, did you ever wonder about Claudia, the girl that Violet bumps into at Hades and at the pizza place the night she has dinner with Phoenix?
Claudia was one of those characters who I always believed had a story to tell. So here it is – a little side story from the world of exiled angels and Grigori. I hope you enjoy it!!
My feet tangled beneath me and I stumbled forwards, almost taking a nosedive. I found my balance, hitched my backpack up and powered on. I couldn’t believe it – I was going to be late, again, and Giuseppe was going to kill me. No, worse, he was going to fire me.
Last time was ‘the last time!’ he’d said, as he shook his finger at me, blowing aside the greying curls that usually fall over his eyes.
But I needed that job. I needed all of my jobs. So I kept running, knowing that by the time I arrived at the pizzeria I’d be in desperate need of deodorant. Plus, I was still in my Hades wait-staff uniform, another thing that never went down well. Working a full cycle of shifts at Hades and the opposite at Giuseppe’s had me slogging from 9 a.m. to 1 a.m. seven days a week and constantly running from one side of the city to the other in the thirty-minute gaps between shifts.
I rounded the corner, almost there.
Giuseppe would forgive me. And if he started yelling, I’d just cry. That always worked. He was a tyrant, but the man couldn’t handle tears.
I pulled up short of the restaurant when I heard an all too familiar whistle. Panting, I looked around. The second I spotted my brother, Sean, my stomach churned.
What now? What more could possibly go wrong? As if our lives didn’t suck enough already.
Sean was hidden in the shadows of a doorway across the street. I put my hands on my hips and waited. If he wanted to talk to me he could damn well cross the road. I could sense one of his heavy sighs. He was only three years older than me, but he’d assumed the man-of-the-house role a while back and since then he acted as if he was twenty-two going on fifty.
‘Real discreet, Claudia,’ he said harshly, crossing the road before pulling me to the side of the pavement. He was wearing his street clothes, which meant he hadn’t been working one of his legit jobs today. I tried to ignore that reality.
‘Sean, whatever it is, I don’t have time. I’m late for work again. Giuseppe will give my job to one of his five million cousins if I don’t hurry up.’
His expression softened. I wasn’t the only one who worked constantly. There was a time when all Sean did was study for his med degree and chase girls, but those days were well and truly gone. Everyone thought he’d have this amazing future, become some kind of medical saviour. And I guess he had – just not in the way he’d thought: he was our family’s saviour. After what Dad did, Sean had been the one who kept us all going, kept us together and safe. But things had changed. He looked over his shoulder. He was scared.
I grabbed hold of his clammy hand. ‘What is it?’
He shook his head, more to himself than for my benefit. ‘We have to go, Claudes. We have to pack up and leave.’
‘But, but . . . we need more time! We don’t have the money yet!’
‘Shh!’ he hissed, his eyes urgent as he looked up and down the street. ‘I have it. I called in a favour. Claudia, we have to finish this. We’ll give them the money after your shift tonight and then we’re out of here. All of us.’
‘Why? I mean, if you have the money, wasn’t that the whole point? If we give it to them won’t they leave us alone? This is supposed to be the final payment.’
We’d worked so hard for the last year. It had all been leading to this. Every single cent we’d made had gone to them.
‘They’ll never leave us alone, Claudia. I . . . I don’t know how but they know things . . . They can do things that normal people can’t. I . . . I saw one of them this afternoon . . .’ He paled and grabbed me by the shoulders to steady himself. ‘I can’t even tell you, it was so horrible. I just know we have to go. We have to get Taylor and Mum away from this place.’
He was right. Deep down, somehow we’d always known the men who Dad had been mixed up with before he died were not normal, even if we hadn’t wanted to admit it to each another. That was why we’d been working so hard to pay off Dad’s debt. Whatever gambling mess he’d gotten himself into, it had ended up costing a lot more than just interest and I knew I wasn’t the only one in my family who suspected his death wasn’t really the result of a car accident. Sean and I had never told Mum about what his body looked like when we’d gone to identify him. We never would.
I nodded in agreement about leaving. ‘I can ask for my pay tonight. Here . . .’ I fumbled in my bag, pulling out my wallet. ‘I have my wages from Hades, too.’
Sean sighed with relief as he took the money; my contribution was definitely important, but he was the one who earned the big bucks. He’d given up everything to do so; I knew he couldn’t be doing anything good to bring in that kind of income. I wished I could hate my father for it. But he was a victim, too.
‘I’m going to get us away from all this, Claudia. We’ll go somewhere else and start afresh. We’ll get Taylor into a good school. You’ll be able to go back to art school. Everything will be better.’
I looked towards the pizzeria. I could hear Giuseppe’s booming voice.
‘I’d better go.’ I threw my arms around my brother and he hugged me back briefly.
‘I have to go organise a few things. Stay in the restaurant until I get back, then we’ll give them the money and we’re gone.’
I bit my lip nervously, but nodded. ‘Be careful, Sean.’
He mustered a small smile. ‘Don’t tell anyone, okay? We have to just disappear.’
He was looking around again, pulling his hoodie over his head. Whatever he’d seen had more than frightened him.
‘I know. I won’t.’
* * *
I watched the clock on the wall. Giuseppe yelled at me for twelve minutes, which was a long time even for him. I tried to turn on the waterworks but they didn’t come; I don’t know if it was because I was too petrified something might go wrong with Sean’s plan or if I was just too excited about the prospect of finally being free of Dad’s legacy.
Sean had known about our father’s gambling when he was alive. Apparently, a few weeks before the accident Dad had broken down and told him he was in trouble, that the people he owed money to were dangerous and would come after him. Sean had dropped out of university and started his first shift at a bar that night. I remember yelling at him the next day – not knowing why he’d done it – calling him a ‘deadbeat loser’.
I went through the motions – collecting dirty plates, loading them up on my already tired arms. At least working here, the customers didn’t get too drunk or hands-y – some nights after a shift at Hades my overly pinched ass was sorer than my feet. Here, I just had to put up with being yelled at. At least this would be my last six hours of that.
I took a deep breath while making my way to the next table, topping up their wine glasses. Everything was about to change. If Sean and I could just pull this off, if we could get Mum and Taylor packed up tonight, then by tomorrow . . . By tomorrow we could be starting our new life. I could get another job and actually use the money for something I wanted. I knew the first thing I’d buy – paint.
‘Pizza, Claudia!’ Mario yelled at me from behind the wood-fired oven.
I collected the three scorching pizzas, one resting against my wrist, but I was used to it; I’d been working there for over a year and my arms had burn scars that I was sure would never go away. I delivered the plates and noticed new customers seated in the dinky corner. We were obviously full – that was always the last table to go.
I headed over, recognising one of the diners. Violet Eden and I had gone to the same school, but I’d been ahead of her and apart from the one community art course, we had rarely crossed paths. Now this was twice in as many weeks, as if she was suddenly supposed to be in my life.
I could see her looking at me, panic all over her face. Last time I saw her she was at Hades with some hottie, getting drunk on the sly – half her luck. Anyway, she’d obviously forgotten my name. It’s so easy to tell when people do that – maybe because it happens to me all the time; all they see is my bright red hair. I flicked my hair back so my name badge would be in full view as I stopped in front of her. Relief flooded her features the moment her eyes latched onto it.
‘Hey, Violet,’ I said.
‘Hey, Claudia. So this is the other place you work at,’ Violet said, recalling the place of our last conversation. At least she’d remembered that.
‘Yeah, unfortunately.’ I smiled, but something about her was off. She was tense, sitting high in her chair, holding the menu with an almost desperate grip. She looked a little frightened. I leaned towards her, about to ask if she was okay, before stopping myself; I barely knew her, and I was about to know her a whole lot less once this city was in our rear-view mirror. Instead, I decided on something more neutral. ‘Shitty tips and crap boss, but it works,’ I said with a shrug, stepping back a little.
Violet smiled awkwardly, eyes darting between her dinner partner and me. I looked at him for the first time and almost fainted right there.
‘Claudia, this is Phoenix,’ she said, leaving things up in the air.
I wasn’t much help. I was speechless. He was beautiful; utterly, earth-shatteringly and painfully beautiful. Did people like this actually exist?
He had a strange presence, some kind of alluring humming was coming from him and I . . . I just wanted to dive in, lose myself in it.
I felt as if he knew exactly what I was thinking. I stared. I wasn’t usually brazen with guys and especially not ones who looked like that but I couldn’t bear to take my eyes from him, even though he was just staring at his menu, completely uninterested in me.
‘Pleasure,’ he said, now looking over to Violet.
But when he spoke something came over me, a feeling that was both foreign and not, as if it wasn’t mine but had been moulded from me somehow. A sureness . . . that Sean had been right. We needed to leave this city, get as far away from here as possible. I knew the light-bulb moment had something to do with Phoenix.
I swayed, overwhelmed, putting a hand on their table for support.
Violet was watching me strangely. Fair enough – I was ‘macking’ on her dinner date. How did she get all these adorable guys around her?
‘Hi,’ I said, trying to recover, looking at Phoenix. ‘Can I take your order?’
Violet cleared her throat. ‘I’ll have the Diavola pizza, thanks.’
I saw Phoenix smirk. He was looking at her so intently. She had her eyes cast down, avoiding his. I almost reached out and slapped her. It wasn’t so much that I’d been unlucky in love with a string of guys who fitted into the live-and-learn category, it was more that I had never had anyone look at me the way he was looking at her at that moment. I couldn’t imagine anything more heavenly.
Phoenix glanced my way briefly. ‘The same, and a glass of the Cabernet,’ he said dismissively.
I nodded, writing it down, trying to process the overpowering emotions I was experiencing. Yet again, I was suddenly so sure that I had to leave – had to get away.
I staggered away from the table, torn between a desperate need to escape them and wanting to grab hold of Phoenix. But with each step my mind seemed to clear. I had no idea what was going on, but the feelings that had started to stir when I’d been near him stayed. The weirdest thing of all was that I felt as if Phoenix had been trying to help me. I shook my head – crazy. He didn’t even know me.
I went to the bathroom to pull myself together. Whatever had just happened, it didn’t matter. We were leaving. Everything would be okay. I splashed water on my face before heading back out to the busy restaurant, grabbing some empty glasses from a table as I passed. That was Giuseppe’s rule, ‘Never waste a walk anywhere; you go to the kitchen, bring something with you! You leave the kitchen, you take something out!’
‘Pizza! Claudia!’ Mario yelled.
I grabbed the pizzas and got back to work, avoiding Violet and her friend. When I spotted Giuseppe I even dared to ask him for my pay at the end of the shift. He spat out a string of words in Italian and marched off. I smiled. For Giuseppe, that meant yes. I actually felt bad that I would have to leave without saying goodbye.
‘Pizza! Claudia!’ Mario yelled, again from behind the oven.
I made my way over to the two waiting Diavolas, Violet’s order. I delivered the food to her table quickly, trying not to look at Phoenix. Now that I’d managed to get my head straight, I didn’t want to risk it becoming muddled again, or do something stupid like throw myself at him right in front of Violet. I couldn’t trust myself around that guy so I concentrated on my other tables, hoping that I might be able to make some extra tips.
When the peak-time slam was over, I offered to start on clean-up. It was usually the job everyone avoided, but I wanted to do something nice for Giuseppe and it meant I could daydream about where Sean and I would take the family.
Taylor would be so excited. She hated her school. We’d had to move her into a public one six months ago because we couldn’t cover the private tuition fees. She didn’t complain but the new school didn’t have a music department and I’d heard her crying every night for the first few weeks. She had an amazing voice – I’d never heard an eight-year-old like her – and she loved choir. There was something about her – she was good. Sean and I both knew it – of all of us Taylor was the best. She had the potential to do something amazing with her life, make a difference. And Sean and I would do anything to protect her so that she would.
I started wiping down the prep benches and putting away ingredients. I wouldn’t care if I never ate pizza again. Pizza and the occasional pick-up from the kitchen at Hades had been the basis of all our family meals for the past year – there is only so much pepperoni one person can take.
I hummed to myself as I worked. This was it. Everything would be better once we were gone. We’d done the best we could, paid off Dad’s debt and now it was time to get on with our lives. Maybe Sean would go back to med school. Maybe Mum would be happy again and let go of some of her guilt. I think she knew what Sean and I had to do to keep us all safe – she just couldn’t bear to talk to us about it. Mum’s pride had been stripped away, but with this new start . . .
I tied the rubbish bags and used my back to push open the alley door that led out to the bins. Caught up in the disgustingness of my shoes sticking to the dirty ground, I didn’t even look behind me and backed right into what felt like a brick wall. A very human-shaped brick wall, that is.
I dropped the rubbish and tried to spin around, but an arm closed around my neck and started dragging me into the darkness while I gasped, watching the kitchen door slam shut.
Above the sounds of my scuffling feet and strangled whimpers I could hear the world around me – the traffic, the hustle, the buzz of voices. But they were so far away. Already I feared I would never again be a part of it all – a part of life.
I screamed, struggling to get away, but the person dragging me was so strong, it seemed effortless for him to counter my attempts until, suddenly, he released his hold on me so fast I fell to the ground. Too scared to look around and face my captor I scrambled to my hands and knees, my sights fixed on the kitchen door. If I could just get back inside . . . But the man grabbed the back of my shirt and pulled so hard the fabric ripped.
I heard a growl. I froze: whatever noise it was, it was not human. Did he have an animal with him? Before I could stop myself I spun around in a crouch to see him and a terror I’d never believed existed overcame me.
He was incredibly tall and eerily thin, except for his shoulders which were twice his width. He sneered at me, as if enjoying my fear, and ran a hand through his bright white hair that stood out like a beacon against his black outfit.
‘You should not have tried to leave. You belong to us.’
Oh God, help me!
I looked desperately towards the end of the alley.
‘No, no!’ I stammered. ‘We . . . We have your money! My brother will be here any second. We have all of your money!’
The man watched me with hungry eyes, making me shuffle back.
‘Your brother needs to be taught a lesson. You’re it.’
He was going to kill me. Sean would come to get me in an hour and he’d find me dead. I didn’t want to die.
‘Please!’ I panted between fear-filled gulps. ‘Please, we’ll do anything. We’ll get you more money!’
‘Should’ve thought of that before,’ he growled. Then, with a shrug, ‘But they don’t send me to negotiate.’
I backed up until I hit the wall, sobbing, and let out a final scream.
The man moved fast, inhumanly fast, grabbing me by the hair and pulling me to my feet.
All I could think about was Taylor. I prayed that she would at least go on, that Sean would find a way to keep her safe – I knew he would.
The tall blond winked as his hand moved back. He was going to beat me to death and from the look in his eyes – he was planning to take his time.
But he stopped before he hit my face, his arm dropping as his attention was drawn to the end of the alley.
I strained under his tight grip to see what he was looking at. Someone was walking towards us.
I started to scream again, a high-pitched desperate holler for life.
The man yanked me savagely, twisting me so my back was against him and his arm, once again, was around my neck.
When the person coming down the alley was only metres away I saw who it was: Phoenix, Violet’s friend. But he looked different. Stony-faced, his cold eyes were fixed on the man holding me. Suddenly, I didn’t know if things had just improved or not.
‘This is not your business,’ my attacker said menacingly.
Phoenix shrugged like he didn’t have a care in the world. He didn’t look frightened at all.
‘Just made it mine, Cherub ,’ he said, speaking the last word with venom.
‘She’s our property,’ the man snarled.
Phoenix didn’t respond. I panicked that he was going to just walk away – if he did, I would be dead.
Footsteps pounded down the alley and another figure came into view.
‘Violet!’ I screamed before I could think. ‘Violet! Help me!’
The man yanked my head back, his grasp on my neck tightening while his other hand clamped down over my mouth.
I kept my desperate eyes on Violet.
Oh God. What had I done? I’d just brought her into all of this. She couldn’t help me, how could she? She was just a girl, younger than me. She was watching, petrified. If I had another chance I’d yell at her to run.
Phoenix whispered something harshly at her but then he turned back to us, a new resolve on his face as he positioned himself between Violet and us.
‘Release her,’ he said quietly, his voice reverberating against the alley walls.
I felt the man back up half a step and then do something strange – it felt as if thick syrup was poured over me, covering me entirely and then hardening, like glass, impenetrable glass. And I was locked within.
He threw me down, my head smacking against the ground, and looked at me with absolute hatred as he commanded, ‘Kneel before me.’
I couldn’t stop myself. I wanted to kneel for him even though deep down I was still there, still petrified; he owned me. I had to do as he said.
I crawled to his feet, blood dripping from my head, and knelt before him.
‘Beg me to take your life,’ he spat at me.
My mind fought feebly – Sean was supposed to come for me. Was this the price I would pay for dreaming? Would this be the price Sean would pay, too? My heart pounded with fear as the tall man morphed into something terrifying and creature-like. Maybe I was already dead and in some kind of hell? Either way, I was in absolutely no doubt that I must do as I was told.
‘Kill me. P-p-please,’ I stuttered, tears streaming down my face.
‘No! Let her go!’ I heard Violet scream.
But it was all too far away now.
‘Claudia! Claudia, run !’
She may as well have suggested I fly. Did she not see the terrible things surrounding me?
The man pulled me up, spinning me to face Violet and Phoenix, and put a hand flat on either side of my face, holding me still.
‘If you want her, come and get her,’ he challenged, adding another word at the end I did not know, ‘Grigori .’
He lifted me off my feet, holding me out towards them.
Pain registered distantly; people were not supposed to be held in mid-air by their heads, but I was helpless, completely disconnected, locked inside my glass prison.
And I knew what he was going to do, as surely as if he had told me himself.
Violet launched herself towards me, panic-stricken but brave, eyes on mine, arms outstretched. She knew too.
Then I saw Phoenix and everything – all the pain, the fear, even the feelings of entrapment – vanished.
I was me and I was not afraid.
I was at peace.