In life, Odysseus had been a great man. Drawn into a war he hadn’t wanted to fight for the sake of alliances, pulled from his family, he’d done his very best to remain a man of honor and high morals. At least, by the standards of the time. He’d looked after his men like a father and tried very hard to bring them home safely again.
It hadn’t worked out well for him. He’d suffered almost ten years of punishment at the hands of the Gods for actions taken not by him, but by men under his command. True, he’d voluntarily taken responsibility for their actions, which was the right thing for a leader to do…but it was still something of an injustice to punish him as harshly as he had been (in a way – we’ll overlook the years he spent as a semi-brainwashed and luxuriously pampered ‘guest’ of Calypso).
The end result was that after his death – and even though he’d earned a place in Elysium with his wife Penelope – he’d joined Hades’s staff, working for Minos, who judged the souls of the dead. Now, he acted as advocate for any soul who felt they were being punished unjustly and could convince him of it. Since my office – the office of Pluto, Avatar of Hades – had remained unoccupied for almost two thousand years, Odysseus had had plenty of time to build up something of a backlog.
It had taken Melinoë and I five years to get things sufficiently organized to start looking beyond the enormous backlog of tasks I’d had to take care of myself. In the months since, he’d been in my office almost every day I was there, bringing petitions asking Hades to allow Minos to revisit his judgments. He was obviously very dedicated to his work.
Either that or it was a ham-fisted attempt to try to win my favor and work his way into my bed. He had, after all, supposedly had children with at least five women other than his wife. Considering how frequently he flirted with me, I wasn’t entirely sure which was the truth. Probably both. Men had had a different set of rules for relations with women – and other men – when he’d lived. They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks…the same is true for old souls, it seems.
I tried not to be offended. Eos and Penelope were both tolerant of it – for different reasons – and I found enforced political correctness more disgusting than his flirting. He flirted, but it seemed to be in the spirit of fun…that aside, he never treated me with anything less than total respect, so I let the flirtation go. And honestly, it was kind of fun. Usually.
“Good day to you, lovely lady,” he said in his soft, rich baritone, settling into one of the chairs across my desk from me. “How are you on this fine day?”
“When was the last time you saw the sun?” I asked, amused.
He considered the question for a moment, then shrugged. “The sun always shines in Elysium.” He smiled. “You?”
“Too many days ago,” I sighed. “Melinoë and I have been busy trying to figure out what to do with all of the terrorists that’ve been dumped in our lap. Yahweh has disowned them, Lucifer kicked them out for being too pig-headed to understand why they were being punished, which resulted in them being transported wholesale to Tartarus for reclassification.”
Odysseus winced appreciatively. “I follow the mortal news services. How many did you end up with?”
“Thousands. I’m thinking of asking Hades if we can just feed them to Kerberos and have done with it.”
He snorted a little laugh. “Indeed. I doubt that will go over well. I’m sure Hades can find a suitable punishment for them.”
I nodded. “True enough. So, who brings you here today?”
He slid a roll of parchment onto my desk. “Prometheus.”
I groaned, put my elbows on my desk and lowered my face into my hands. “Odysseus…”
“I know, I know,” he said apologetically. “But I have to keep trying. Nobody in the Underworld is being treated as unfairly as he is, especially considering all of the marvels mortals have produced thanks to his stealing fire and giving it to them.”
To be honest, I agreed with him. How was it fair that Prometheus, whose gift of fire to mankind had allowed them to enrich even the lives of the gods with their inventions, was still having his liver pecked out by an eagle every day after who knew how long? Unfortunately, it wasn’t my place to agree or disagree with Odysseus, at least out loud. My job, in this case, was simply that of an intermediary.
I lowered my hands to the desk. “You know Hades isn’t entertaining requests to review Prometheus’s punishment…”
“I have to keep trying,” Odysseus repeated firmly.
“I know, it’s your job. But Odysseus…when I gave him your last petition about Prometheus it burst into flame as soon as he saw who it was about. And that was what, six days ago? Seven?”
It was all he said, but it was the say he said it…so seriously, earnestly and hopefully that I knew there was no way I was going to say no. It wasn’t hard to see why he’d been such a popular leader of men; he was very charismatic.
And let’s face it, Prometheus really had suffered more than enough. I wish I knew why Hades was so unwilling to consider at least changing his punishment. Actually, I found it more likely that he was already considering it – or possibly had been for some time – and was simply annoyed by the frequency of Odysseus’s petitions. Change comes slowly to the gods, especially mine.
“All right, I’ll take it,” I said, scooping up the scroll, “but I’m not giving it to Hades for at least another week. And I don’t want to see another one about Prometheus until you’ve heard from me about the results of this one. All right?”
Odysseus beamed at me. “Those terms are acceptable to me. I have a few others as well…” He swung a satchel around onto his lap and began rummaging in it.
“Of course you do,” I muttered tiredly.
It was barely 10:00 in the morning.
Oh, don’t get me wrong. I didn’t mind the time I spent with him in the slightest. As I said, I agreed with what he was doing and frequently with his petitions. A few of them had even been taken seriously enough for punishments to be eased significantly and, in one rather spectacular case, rescinded altogether.
When I looked up from my desk I realized he was watching me with obvious concern. I smiled at him. “Don’t mind me. It’s been a long week.”
“I can bring these back in a couple of days,” he offered. “Most of them have been waiting for someone to look at them for more than a thousand years.”
“All the more reason to look at them now,” I held out my hand for the next one. “They’ve waited long enough, don’t you think?”
He nodded. “Absolutely. Have I told you lately how much I respect your work ethic?”
“Not lately.” I flicked my fingers in a ‘come on’ gesture.
He chuckled and laid the next scroll in my hand. “This one is for Mikos of Carthage, who was sentenced to…ah…” he referred to a small notebook and frowned, “…I’d rather not read that out loud.”
I unrolled the scroll, blinked, blushed furiously, and quickly rolled it back up. “I don’t blame you. I’ll bring it to Hades’s attention. That’s…just weird.”
And so it went. We finished up looking over the day’s petitions just before lunch, and I only rejected two of them without needing to ask Hades about them. Murderers both. I take murder as seriously as my Patron.
As Odysseus left, Melinoë appeared beside my desk with a soft pop. “I delivered the scrolls to Father. He was less than thrilled to see another petition about Prometheus so soon after the last.”
“That’s why I was going to wait to give it to him,” I muttered. I relied heavily on her assistance in the office, but she definitely did things in her own way, and in her own time. Frequently in ways that made little sense to anybody else. In this case, I had a sneaking suspicion that she was having fun tweaking her father a bit. “Did he torch this one too?”
“Oh yes,” she said dreamily. “He sent it to burn in the Phlegethon.”
I blinked and looked up at her. “He burned it in a freaking river of fire?”
She sighed happily. “I got my poetic streak from him, I’m sure of it. It was quite beautiful.”
Maybe she just liked fire. Who was I to judge?
Melinoë was the only daughter of Hades and Persephone, and had grown up to be a Cthonic nymph – a nymph of the Underworld – as well as the muse of madness and nightmares. Which wasn’t nearly as awful as it sounded; she’d worked with people like Edgar Allen Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, and Jim Henson. If she was a little strange, that was all right. After all, she wasn’t nearly as weird as she’d been ten years ago when I met her; I’d been a bit unsettled by her pitch-black eyes and weird sing-song way of talking then. Now there was a bright ring of purple iris around her huge pupils, and her voice had softened and become melodic.
Even if she did occasionally drift back towards madness, it was a charming sort of madness. Nightmares, as she’d noted on several occasions, didn’t need to be frightening things and could be loved too. Jim Henson had known that, and now I did too. I loved her like a little sister, even if she was a couple of thousand years older than me.
“I think you’re probably right,” I agreed. “What’s next on my calendar?”
I’d stopped trying to keep a calendar and let her maintain my schedule at her whim. She had an oddball way of organizing things, and I’d quickly given up trying to understand it. She kept my life orderly, which was all that mattered. Even if she filed reports about Hecate under ‘Scary-pants’ instead of anyplace one would ordinarily look.
“Hecate is coming before lunch to deliver a complaint,” she said thoughtfully.
Speak of the devil. “Wonderful. When is she arriving?”
The wooden door to my office suddenly blackened and grew a layer of nasty looking moss. The brass knob grew tarnished, then crumbled to dust as the door collapsed in a decayed pile. A woman stood on the other side, barefoot and dressed in the tatters of what had once been a richly appointed black gown. Her skin was a pasty, pale greenish-white color, and her hair hung in lank tangles past her shoulders. As she glided unevenly into the room, her glistening, cataract-coated eyes fixed on me.
“Pluto,” she croaked in a broken voice, “I have come to file a complaint about Thanatos.”
I sighed heavily. “My door, Hecate. Why can’t you leave my poor door alone?”
I’d been absolutely terrified of her the first time I’d met her. Now I knew from experience that most of her appearance and behavior was an act, carefully crafted to produce precisely that response in people. She was, after all, the patron goddess of necromancers and dark magic, among other nasty things. These days, her creepy behavior just irritated me. My door was replaced at least once a month because of her theatrics.
“It was in my way,” she rasped. Her voice was like nails on a chalkboard, and both Mel and I shivered involuntarily. “My petition?”
“Speak your grievance, Hecate,” I said formally, “but please leave my chairs alone this time. I have more meetings this afternoon and don’t have time to replace them.”
She smiled thinly, but stopped short of my chairs and pointedly kept her hands away from them.
“Thank you,” I said. “Now, about Thanatos? Honestly, I don’t understand how you two manage to step on each other’s toes so often.”
She made a face. “You will understand when I explain. Fifteen years ago, I met a middle-aged sculptor at some crossroads in the mid-west United States. There we entered into a bargain: I would give him inspiration, fame and fortune for fifteen years, in exchange for his soul and service for the first ten years of his afterlife. I’m redecorating, and prefer to get art directly from the source, you see.”
I smiled faintly and made a ‘go on’ gesture with one hand.
“His sculpture was magnificent, earning him the respect and fame he wished for,” she said. “He died last night, and by all rights should now be mine for ten years. But Thanatos has claimed his soul and taken it for judgment. Apparently, the sculptor spent the last ten years sleeping with every willing young woman who crossed his path and even died in bed with one of them.”
“So?” I asked, confused. “Why does Thanatos think that entitles him to take the man’s soul for judgment.”
“The sculptor was married,” Hecate said with obvious amusement, “to three women at the same time.”
“Ah.” Yeah, that would do it. The gods of the Greek pantheon might frequently turn a blind eye to multiple sexual partners, but violations of marriage were serious. Hera had probably had a word with Thanatos about it. “What would you have me do?”
“All I ask is what is mine by right.”
I considered that for a moment, then nodded. “Fair enough. It sounds to me like you have the stronger claim in this case. I’ll bring it to Hades’s attention this afternoon.”
She bowed politely. “That is all I ask of you.” With that, she turned and left without another word.
Mel frowned at what was left of my office door, moldering on the floor. “I’ll get that cleaned up and replaced, shall I?”
“Please,” I said wearily. “Sorry.”
“Not your fault,” she replied jauntily, skipping lightly over to the mess and making it vanish with a weird, twisting, fluttering gesture of hands and fingers. “You have one more appointment before lunch.”
A man’s face peered around the edge of the doorway and looked in. His complexion was swarthy, with a thick tangle of curly black hair on top of his head and a neatly trimmed beard threaded with little flecks of silver framing a handsome, rather noble face. He wore a simple black silk yarmulke on top of his head, and had it held in place with a silver clip.
“Jesus!” I exclaimed, rising and moving quickly around my desk to greet him.
He beamed. “In the flesh,” he said cheerfully, stepping the rest of the way into view.
He was never what I expected, even after having known him for a while. Almost every depiction of him in classical art and literature is of a wise, noble-looking man in traditional Middle Eastern robes or similar garb. He certainly had the wisdom and nobility down…but there he stood in my doorway, wearing worn blue jeans, a blue and green plaid work shirt with the sleeves rolled up, plain work boots, and an orange down vest that looked like it had escaped from the 1980’s and clashed horribly with the shirt. A simple silver cross dangled from a chain around his neck, along with a Star of David.
The vest had a ‘Save the Whales’ patch inexpertly sewn onto it.
“Save the whales?” I asked, amused. “Not ‘Save the Humans’?”
“Already tried, man,” he drawled, smiling widely. “What they did after that is all on them.” Instead of shaking my proffered hand, he gave me a hug and kissed my forehead. “Hiya, kiddo.”
“Hi yourself,” I said warmly, returning his hug. “I wasn’t expecting you. Come and sit down! Will you break bread with me? It’s almost lunchtime anyway.”
“As long as you don’t want me to turn water to wine or anything like that,” he joked. “It’s gotten a little boring.”
“Mel, will you -” I started to ask, but she vanished with a pop before I could finish.
Jesus blinked. “Huh? But…”
I shrugged and gestured to the chairs at my desk. “I think she’s a little bit telepathic. She’ll be back in a few minutes with some sort of food that you’re in the mood for without even asking what you wanted. It’s just how she is.”
We sat down together on the same side of my desk, leaving the big chair on the other side empty. Some visitors I accorded a little extra courtesy and honor to, and the only son of Yahweh was one of them. He might or might not actually be the biblical messiah – I don’t think even he knew for sure – but he was one of the most genuinely good people I’d ever met. Also, as the Avatar of a monotheistic deity who presided over three of the oldest living religions in the world, he deserved a bit of extra politeness.
“I hope it wasn’t too difficult, absorbing all of those souls,” he said sympathetically. “I think Dad just really got fed up, and you wouldn’t believe what Lucifer had to say about how whiny they were.”
“Oh, I’d believe it,” I sighed. “I spent three straight days listening to it myself as we tried to filter all of them through judgment and into appropriate punishments.”
Jesus shivered a little. “I shudder to think what Hades is gonna with some of them.”
“I don’t want to think about it either.”
Mel reappeared with a brown paper bag. “Grinders!” she said cheerfully as she plucked a white paper-wrapped bundle out and looked at something written on it. Then she handed it to Jesus. “Meatball!” She pulled out a second one, checked it, and handed it to me. “Italian sub!” She pulled out a third, set it on the desk, then handed Jesus a bottle of cream soda, a bottle of root beer for me, and a grape soda for herself. Then she sat down behind my desk and started unwrapping her lunch.
“That’s totally wild,” Jesus said, obviously amused and impressed. “Not ten minutes before I got here, I was thinking about getting a meatball grinder for lunch.”
Mel beamed, then tucked into something that looked like a cheeseburger sub with spaghetti in it. I didn’t ask. For a moment, it looked like Jesus was going to, then he thought better of it and tucked into his lunch.
A little while later, he lobbed the crumpled up wrapper into a trash can against the wall, wiped his mouth politely on a napkin, and smiled across the desk at Mel. “That was perfect, thank you.”
“You’re very welcome,” she said primly, still working on her own.
I’d finished mine about the same time as him and sipped my soda. “To answer your question, it wasn’t too bad. Tartarus is very flexible, and only a few were really bad enough that they’ll require Hades’s personal attention.”
“Very few people are really and truly evil,” Jesus agreed. “I’m glad to hear it wasn’t too bogus a task.” He shifted uncomfortably. “Since, you know, I’m kinda here to ask another favor…”
Oh boy. “It never hurts to ask,” I replied gently.
He nodded. “Yeah, that’s what I’m told. Well…you know…Dad told me to ask if we could, like, expand part of Limbo into the Underworld and get some help maintaining it.”
I considered that for a moment, then shrugged. “All I can do is pass the request on to Hades and let you know what he says. He’ll probably need some time to think about it, but it doesn’t sound like that bad an idea. Why now?”
“Gettin’ kinda overwhelmed, you know?” He sighed. “Even with all the angels, as the Agnostics and Atheists get more numerous, we’re gettin’ more and more of them. Since they’re like, fallen Catholics or lapsed Jews or whatever.”
For a moment I thought about asking if he surfed, but nodded instead. “I can imagine. I’ll ask Hades. He might want to talk to Yahweh about it in person.”
“That’s cool,” Jesus said, obviously relieved. “I’m sure Dad won’t mind. He and your boss always seem to get along pretty well.”
“Funny old world, isn’t it?” I smiled.