This one’s cheating a bit. I started it in 2006, because I had a central concept and some characters I liked, so I started writing. Then a couple of chapters in I realized the plot I had wouldn’t really work, so after meddling around trying to fix it I put it aside in 2008, leaving it until I could come up with a plot that worked better. I still don’t have one, but here’s the opening anyway.
The address on his uncle’s card was not what Donnie had expected. He had assumed that Uncle Jerry’s office was in some boring concrete-and-glass box, with white walls and earth-tone wall-to-wall carpet, but the number picked out in crumbling gold leaf on the fanlight over the door here was 618, and the number on the card was 618, so this must be the place, gargoyles and all.
He pushed open the big black door and stepped into a shadowy hallway where yellow glass bowls hanging from tarnished brass chains cast warm light across dark wood wainscoting, red-papered walls, and a black marble floor. A narrow stair of bare wood led up to the next floor.
“Suite 202,” the card said, so Donnie shrugged and headed up the well-worn steps.
The upstairs corridor looked very much like the downstairs one, save that the floor was polished hardwood instead of marble. Three doors of dark wood and frosted glass opened off it, two to the right and one to the left; the glass panels in the two on the right glowed warmly, while the one on the left was dark.
The one on the left had the number 200 on the glass in gold paint, and nothing else. The first door on the right bore the number 201, and below that the name “Emerson & Fay.” That left just one choice, and sure enough the last door, numbered 202, said “Orpheus Retrieval Co.” Donnie knocked lightly on the glass, then tried the knob.
It turned, and he opened the door as footsteps sounded somewhere within.
“Hello?” Donnie said, leaning around the door.
“Donnie boy, that you? Come in, come in!” His Uncle Jerry was marching across an anteroom toward him, hand outstretched. Before Donnie quite knew what was happening he had been hauled into the office, Uncle Jerry’s left arm around his shoulder while Uncle Jerry’s right hand gripped his own, pumping it energetically – the man was old, positively ancient, white-haired and leather-skinned, but still amazingly vigorous, and far stronger than he looked. “Let me show you around!”
“Thanks, Uncle Jerry,” Donnie managed.
“You’ve never been here before, have you?”
“Well, take a good look!”
Donnie took a good look, at the big antique wooden desk, the computer on the desk that looked as if it had been there since the twentieth century, the phone that looked older than that, the answering machine so ancient it used cassette tapes rather than digital memory, the glass-fronted shelves of badly-assorted books in mismatched bindings. Four sturdy metal-framed chairs stood in front of the desk, and a worn leather-upholstered swivel chair stood behind it. A once-lush but badly worn Persian carpet covered most of the floor. Two doors led to inner rooms, and two windows had a view of tall maples and a small parking lot.
There was nothing in sight that gave any hint of the present century.
“What do you think, eh?” Uncle Jerry asked.
Donnie swallowed. This was a crucial point, he knew – he could either tell the truth, or do his best to suck up.
He had never been a good liar. “It looks a bit old-fashioned,” he said.
“Old-fashioned? Old-fashioned?” Uncle Jerry clapped him on the back. “It’s fuckin’ ancient! Pretty much everything but the computer’s older than you are, Donnie, and if we didn’t need the computer – hell, sometimes I think we should have hidden it somewhere, but it’s so goddamn handy having it there for the appointments and billing.”
“Oh,” Donnie said. He looked around helplessly.
“Come on into my office,” Jerry said. “We’ll talk there. My partners are due in about twenty minutes, but I wanted to talk to you before they got here.”
Donnie nodded. “Okay.” He allowed himself to be led across the room and through one of the inner doors.
He had expected a small, cramped space in keeping with that front office, but instead he found a spacious, modern room – it was like stepping through a time warp, back into the twenty-first century. A flat-screen TV hung on the wall above shelving that had probably come from IKEA, the desk was broad and open, an elliptical trainer stood in one corner, and there wasn’t a trace of polished brass or oiled wood anywhere.
“Have a seat,” Jerry said, gesturing at a chair as he settled into his own desk chair. Donnie obeyed.
He perched warily on his seat while Jerry leaned back and laced his fingers across his belly, studying his nephew. For a moment neither spoke; then, just as the silence was growing uncomfortable, Jerry said, “So, do you have any idea what we actually do here?”
“Uh… well, the name says ‘retrievals,’ so I assume you get things back for people.”
“Got anything more specific?”
Jerry snorted. “That’s too bad,” he said. “I’d hoped you were bright enough to make a guess, or that maybe your mother had let something slip.”
“Sorry,” Donnie said. “I never gave it much thought.”
“I suppose there’s no reason you should. Care to make a guess now, though? Maybe work out a little?”
“Well… you keep that front office looking like something out of a BBC period piece, and I assume you’re in this weird old building deliberately, so your customers must want something old-fashioned, not high-tech. And you call the company ‘Orpheus,’ so – something to do with music? Locating rare old instruments, maybe?”
Jerry laughed. “Good guess,” he said, “but wrong. About the music, I mean. What else did Orpheus do?”
“Got torn to pieces by maenads. That doesn’t help.”
“He went into the underworld to get his wife back.”
Donnie thought about that for a moment as Uncle Jerry looked at him expectantly, then said, “You track down lost wives? I don’t see why you’d want to look old-fashioned…”
“No, the other part.”
“What other part?”
“Where he went to find Eurydice.”
Baffled, Donnie said, “The underworld?”
Donnie considered that carefully. Then, very slowly, he said, “You operate underground? In the sewers and subways?”
“No!” Jerry threw his head back and pulled at his white hair with both hands. “Jeez, kid! The underworld! The afterlife! The land of the dead! We bring things back from the land of the dead!”
Donnie licked his lips and watched Uncle Jerry warily, not saying anything until the old man had straightened up again.
Uncle Jerry stared at him expectantly.
“From the dead,” Donnie said at last.
“Yes! From the land of the dead, the realm beyond, the next world. We go there, we find things, and we bring them back.”
“What sort of things?”
“Two sorts, mostly – souls and answers. Every once in awhile it’ll be something else, something that shouldn’t be there, but mostly it’s dead souls and straight answers.”
Donnie stared at his uncle.
“Uncle Jerry,” he said, “are you trying to tell me you bring people back from the dead?”
Uncle Jerry smiled. “Now you’ve got it!” Then the smile vanished. “But it’s not what you think, not really. We mostly find answers, or bring back ghosts, rather than bringing people back to life. To resurrect someone you need an intact body, and usually whatever killed them the first time will kill them again – and that’s assuming we can find the right soul and fetch it back in time in the first place, which, frankly, we usually can’t. What we do isn’t easy, Donnie, it’s not easy at all.”
“I didn’t think it was possible.”