Blaze is top tier associate for Hellfire International, specializing in the trade of human souls for life's most prized experiences and possessions. The firm has sent him to Los Angeles to enter negotiations with the funds manager of a non-profit children's association. With gains rivaling those of any job Blaze has taken in the past, the pressure becomes more intense and complex than he ever could have expected as he tries to bring the innocent woman to trade her very being for her greatest most subdued worldly longings. The cocky young associate must resort to a new form of manipulation to seal the deal and mark the greatest career move of his immortal life.*

Chapter 1: The Warhill Trade

It is my daily puzzlement how I can wake up each morning and keep doing the same thing. I'd like to wrap it all up with the statement, "all in a days work," however I believe it is much more than that. It's eternal corruption and it makes a smile twitch at the corner of my mouth. It's my nicotine, caffeine, and hell, God knows it's my sweeping addiction.

Oh. Am I confusing you? Maybe a little, let's backtrack… We, all of us worldly, ethereal, hell borne, creatures are usually suited for some form of employment. I, perhaps, would even venture so far as to argue in the case of some drunken homeless git. His energies are daily exerted to guzzle some rank alcoholic beverage. In this he is doing himself a service, therefore, working. So we're all employed, whether we realize it or not. Some of you are even in my league and are not aware of it.

Nevertheless, I can proudly say my current profession is one of sheer purpose and self-satisfaction. Mind you, there are downs to it; the first being eternal damnation, but once you get past that, it really isn't so bad. I was actually concerned for my eternal wellbeing for a time, but I suppose you learn to forget it, not think about it much.

So, if you were standing next to me in the break room of your common gray office building, and you asked me what it is that I really do for a living, this is just what might occur:

I would take a purposeful sip of my coffee, turn up the cuffs of my sleeves and ask you earnestly, "You really want to know?"

After that of course you would shrug back in your casual way, "Well yes, I asked, didn't I?"

It would be then that I would turn from you, sweeten my coffee a bit more, an unreadable smile would creep to my lips, and you might even find it the slightest bit amusing when I say, "I'll tell you, but I'll have to kill you."

It's always about here in these conversations that I marvel at the stupidity of the human race—the sheer and utter ignorance that makes my job so much easier. I'm not complaining, goodness no, but a little challenge might liven things up at times. Further, you really might think they'd have the smallest inclination what might be going on, yet they rarely do.

So you're sitting there waiting for my answer and it seems like I've been stirring my coffee for an unbearably long amount of time. This is where I give you the chance to leave, you can always leave, but of course you're staying. Some sadistic inner curiosity is drawing you in…

I'm facing you again and I hand you the cup, a friendly gesture in the workplace, you suspect nothing. So I tell you, I answer your itching question, and you tell me I'm crazy. We'll chuckle together and I'll raise a single brow as I bring the coffee to my lips. You're unsettled by my answer, perhaps a little numb, but you fake nonchalance and mask my action. You bring the coffee to your lips and…

I retrieve a small red flip book from my back pocket and tally down the score. I cluck my tongue and scrutinize it for a moment:

Hellfire International:

2011 Fiscal Calendar: 1,965,432,001 Trades

Recent Acquisitions for the month of January:

And in this blank space I will make a single tally. You'll be dead by then of course, but now you guess what I do for a living…

"Soul Trading" has been a respectable profession since the dawn of time. A few swift sacrifices and you're well on your way to wealth and constant employment; traveling is also another one of the perks, not to mention complete health benefits, immortality included. Don't even ask about a union, the last guy that mentioned it to the management was sent to "Eternal Scorching" in the basement next to Human Resources. In the early nineties they had us carrying pagers when a new trade was available in our assigned territories; it's a new type of business now that the internet and mobile phones have plowed their way through the times. Business is booming and bigger than we could have possibly anticipated and as a hot young trader, like a steamy meatlover's pizza fresh out of a New York oven, I swoop in as the caring brother, the fervent lover, a gentile boy scout, with any angle that breaks your resolve, and you'll make the trade for me before you know it… because I'm just that good.

Sometimes I have lunch with this rogue agent named Blythe, she's alright for conversation but mostly she's got news about the soul market that other associates aren't privy too. Strictly speaking we're not supposed to cross lines, Hellfire Associates and do-gooder types but Blythe's agenda is purely personal and you can't really blame someone for that. She's in the business of forcing people to give up their worldly shit to question themselves, I'm not sure if that's a Buddhist thing or something, but in my world, the world of two markets: the Black Bond Market and the White Bond Market, it's all about acquisitions… Blythe isn't in any market especially but sure deals with the "Whites" a lot these days.

I hope today she'll have something on my latest assignment, a twenty something do-gooder that has landed herself a position at Warhill Youth Medical, a non-profit research foundation for juvenile cancer, charged with funds distribution. Warhill Youth Medical was the brainchild of late Winston Warhill, a lifelong philanthropist and billionaire that wrote a series of books on inner happiness and sexual satisfaction. Needless to say he lived a life unmarred by the services of Hellfire International and was viewed as a painstaking waste of effort on the part of the "high stakes" traders in the eighties. The loss of Winston Warhill was as biting a flagrant insult as if each of the traders had been sent their own personal copy of "Bed of War: 300 Pages of Necessary Sexual Counsel." To make up for this loss, Hellfire had been targeting the heart of Warhill's remaining assets, devoted specifically to Warhill Youth Medical and some poorly received nonprofit that encouraged Feng Shui in day care centers. Olivia Lidenhause is my client of sorts today and as I gaze half-heartedly at her plain and blandly professional headshot, I snort into my coffee, shutting my laptop and spinning aimlessly in my swivel chair.

This apartment is my favorite, on the upper east side of Manhattan, with a fabulous street view and wide glass windows that surround the living room and kitchen. I treated myself to these digs about a year ago and haven't found much of a reason to relocate ever since the Thai café a block away introduced the most hellishly spicy and amazing curry known to man. I'm almost bored sometimes, but the thrill of the chase and the risk of the work lights a fire under me and forces me out of my swivel chair and into the shower. That happens today, and I wriggle off the dress shirt, wrinkled from the night before and throw it into the "burn pile" growing in the corner of the bathroom; I've no need to wear anything twice. Gloria will growl about waste and hobble around in her squat Mexican fatness that always reminds me of a peach with legs and pick whatever the night before brought in. She's tolerable for cleaning lady and I guess she comes with the rent so I can't complain.

As I step out of the scalding stream of water, I approach my next project, my face. The mirror is fogged over with steam and I must rub away a circle to see my face clearly. Who will I be today? The face stays the same you see, in structure, but your mind can change the man and determining the best man for my new client is the trick. The light in your eyes can change if you wish to stir hostility, romance, kindness, weakness and the particular hue I go for today is what I call the "stunner." It has worked without fail, the failsafe, the "go-to" and until I'm instructed otherwise, the "stunner" will be my weapon of choice.

I go to my closet and find the Armani suit and the latest silver Oscar de la Renta complementing tie. I don't bother to check the mirror this time, I know how it looks, and as I grab my keys and wallet, slipping on a pair of black John Varvatos, I throw my "stunner" shades over my eyes and head out the door.*

You can sense me before you see me coming, you're the doorman as I exit the loft suites, gulping as you wonder if you're latest paycheck could buy just one of my shoes; you're the woman walking her dogs in an overpriced and hardly used workout suit wondering if I've checked you out… I have, and I wish I've checked out the doorman; you're the ten year old on your bike and you can't keep your eyes off me for some reason so you plow into a sidewalk elm, losing your secondhand Power Ranger lunchbox. As I make my way out of a taxi on 1st street you're the hormonal teenage girl at the bus stop that just dropped her books into traffic to fumble for her camera phone. Passing by the corner grocer, you're the seventy year old woman who has just experienced her first orgasm in twenty years as I flash you my "stunner" grin, adjusting my glasses before I bite into the Danish I grabbed back on 1st street. I hear your thoughts before I see you when I reach "Devilsfood" at 4th street, and you wonder why I've eaten if we are supposed to meet for breakfast.

"Can you blame me for being hungry," I address the spindly thin woman before me, blonde and terse and wearing white as always. Her cat eyes are drawn thick and narrow and the only color in her face comes from the bright red lipstick painted over her small pouty mouth. You might think her twenty, but she's not, she's preserved, liked me. This is Blythe.

"Whatever," she sighs and plants herself at a window-side seat, daring me to join her. "You're looking dapper," she comments tonelessly as I place myself across from her, wiping the last of the Danish frosting on the red checkered curtains to my right.

"For a client," I answer, fidgeting for a menu, I'm hungrier than usual on "first days." I order something devilishly high calorie when our server flits by and find my desperation temporarily subsided enough to turn my attention back to Blythe.

"Another do-gooder," I begin, "Non-profit sort of girl, Olivia Lindenhause." I pull out my phone and bring up the picture under my work profile.

Blythe takes the phone from me and examines the picture with her classic expressionless appraisal. "Twenty-two, recent Berkley graduate, highly optimistic, product of the foster system, vulnerable, virginal… easy," Blythe nearly tosses the phone back to me. "You soul shopping again? If you are, there isn't anything immediate to worry about with her except the fact that she practically wants nothing out of the world… finding something to bargain will be the obstacle, if any."

I'm disappointed by this news. Trading Olivia will be the greatest move of my career yet, the catalyst to the top floor, an office with a view, a greater list of supernatural skill… "There isn't anything I can bargain for, that she wants more than life itself? There is always something," I insist.

Blythe rolls her eyes as she takes a terse sip of lavender tea that has just been placed before her. "I don't know everything, Blaze. Perhaps this could be fun for you, finding out… no?" She makes a face at me that's both mocking and riddled with pity.

I fidget, uncomfortable with the idea of being uncomfortable. "I haven't had a challenge in some time, I suppose," I utter to myself, disliking this prospect. "You could say my success has made me complacent…"

"I don't see a downside, then," Blythe states matter-of-factly, ready to move on to other subjects. "Any news on unsuccessful candidates?"

I am bored and agitated after this; I want a dossier, a profile more than a picture, and that pathetic explanation from Blythe. I'm dressed to kill and I look it, but this doesn't feel easy and I don't like it. "I think I'm going to talk to Grim before I take the jet to L.A.," I sigh to myself more than anyone.

"Your boss is an ass," Blythe hisses into her teacup.

In our business, I'm not sure if that's a compliment or not. *

The detour downtown takes longer than I'd hoped. I reach the Bank of America and proceed straight through the employee clearance, to a courtyard with a single silver elevator. I'm greeted by a pleasant electronic voice as I walk through the sliding door with a sickeningly perky "ding." As the doors close behind me, tinkling elevator music plays with a chorus of falsely cheery voices singing the Hellfire jingle, "A single price to pay, in just a day, wash your problems all away, Hellllfiiiire International!" followed by a soothing female voice, reading off a scripted spiel, "Hellfire International, the leading innovators in unique and modern trades to suit your singular lifestyle and needs. Contact one of our associates and professional traders and we can formulate a plan for you. Come by our Manhattan office Monday through Thursday, 9am to 5pm for immediate servicing. Also, visit our food court and recently added Starbucks for your enjoyment and convenience."

The doors slide open for me and I'm relieved to be away from the obnoxious advertisements; our marketing team has never been able to deviate from the banal worldly appeal of "jingles"; I shudder internally.

Grim has a street side office, level with the sidewalk and I must embark on a flight of stairs from the lobby to get there. I know he'll hate that I've come unannounced, or that I've come at all, but frankly, this is a business of being assertive.

"Your paycheck should have come by direct deposit, I don't deal with that sort of shit here!" he growls without looking up from his desk as I enter into his characteristically smoky office.

A fat cigar smolders out of the corner of his mouth and his great black mustache ruffles as he pours over the papers before him. His nostril twitches as he comes to realize I have not left yet. He has a grumbling expression on his large squat face and his heavy brows shade beady black eyes that narrow at me as I come to sit in the chair before him. He's the type of guy that still wears suspenders, eats everything he sees, and smokes in hospitals; he's a legend of our kind, one of the oldest.

"What's with my new client?" I blurt out, smarmy and relentlessly arrogant. It's the only way to get anything you want around here. Grim can deal with it. "I have no background on this kid!"

Grim's eyes narrow to slits, bobbing his black brows in daring. "You think, we have the time to prepare a profile for every single trade?" he blares.

"It's a Warhill Youth Medical case, we have profiles for all of our targets," I state plainly. "I need dirt on this chick to get something done."

Grim eyes me for a moment, taking the cigar out of his mouth to bite his lower lip, hesitating. "Give me a moment," he grumbles, ruffling beneath his desk.

A manila folder is flung at me some minutes later and that bland pallid photo of Olivia gazes back at me again.

"You get the challenge case, Matty," Grim nearly laughs, his face gleaming. Matty, for Mathius Blaze, Grim has known me since the beginning; he knows how much I hate that. "She's a real devil, once kicked a man in his jewels in a Whole Foods for stealing the last of lactose-free milk out of her cart… and I see here that she once paid her Netflix bill late… real piece of work." Grim throws his head back in a wicked cackle.

I've got the Virgin Mary for a project and it should be easy, but I'm just pissed.

"You'll find something, pour over that on the jet and I'm sure you'll get your wits around." Grim says.

I exit ruffled, adjusting my tie as I close the door to the office behind me, echoes of Grim's cackling following me down the stairs to the lobby. My huff continues as I board the helicopter waiting for me at the top of the bank building, and then the jet to LA is cramped and angering. I look too good to feel this way, I tell myself, but the brood doesn't end when we touchdown. I keep it together, shrug it off, stuff my mouth with the complimentary can of Pringles beneath my seat, and strut down the ramp, rubbing my sunglasses on my shirt sleeve. I hope my next supernatural skill after promotion is a theme song for my entrance, because I'm sure it would be "Sharp Dressed Man," by ZZ Top today.

Warhill Youth Medical Charity Group is based in Beverly Hills, overlooking the palm trees and smog of Los Angeles. This city does nothing for me except perhaps promise something venereal and contagious and makes my dermatologist squirm when I come back to better air in the east; immortality doesn't come with flawless skin, perhaps after my promotion I'll consider negotiating for that.

It's around 3pm when I'm dropped off at a bakery on the far side of Vine and I stretch my arms, loosen my mind, and prepare myself to "work."