I looked at the bulletin board behind Crusty's sales desk. There was an advertisement for Hermes Delivery Service, and another for the All-New Compendium of L.A. Area Monsters—"The only Monstrous Yellow Pages you'll ever need!" Under that, a bright orange flier for DOA Recording Studios, offering commissions for heroes' souls. "We are always looking for new talent!" DOA's address was right underneath with a map.

"Come on," I told my friends.

"Give us a minute," Grover complained. "We were almost stretched to death.'"

"Then you're ready for the Underworld," I said. "It's only a block from here."

18. ANNABETH DOESOBEDIENCESCHOOL

We stood in the shadows of Valencia Boulevard, looking up at gold letters etched in black marble: DOA RECORDING STUDIOS.

Underneath, stenciled on the glass doors: NO SOLICITORS. NO LOITERING. NO LIVING.

It was almost midnight, but the lobby was brightly lit and full of people. Behind the security desk sat a tough-looking guard with sunglasses and an earpiece.

I turned to my friends. "Okay. You remember the plan."

"The plan," Grover gulped. "Yeah. I love the plan."

Annabeth said, "What happens if the plan doesn't work?"

"Don't think negative."

"Right," she said. "We're entering the Land of the Dead, and I shouldn't think negative."

I took the pearls out of my pocket, the three milky spheres the Nereid had given me in Santa Monica. They didn't seem like much of a backup in case something went wrong.

Annabeth put her hand on my shoulder. "I'm sorry, Percy. You're right, we'll make it. It'll be fine."

She gave Grover a nudge.

"Oh, right!" he chimed in. "We got this far. We'll find the master bolt and save your mom. No problem."

I looked at them both, and felt really grateful. Only a few minutes before, I'd almost gotten them stretched to death on deluxe water beds, and now they were trying to be brave for my sake, trying to make me feel better.

I slipped the pearls back in my pocket. "Let's whup some Underworld butt."

We walked inside the DOA lobby.

Muzak played softly on hidden speakers. The carpet and walls were steel gray. Pencil cactuses grew in the corners like skeleton hands. The furniture was black leather, and every seat was taken. There were people sitting on couches, people standing up, people staring out the windows or waiting for the elevator. Nobody moved, or talked, or did much of anything. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see them all just fine, but if I focused on any one of them in particular, they started looking ... transparent. I could see right through their bodies.

The security guard's desk was a raised podium, so we had to look up at him.

He was tall and elegant, with chocolate-colored skin and bleached-blond hair shaved military style. He wore tortoiseshell shades and a silk Italian suit that matched his hair. A black rose was pinned to his lapel under a silver name tag.

I read the name tag, then looked at him in bewilderment. "Your name is Chiron?"

He leaned across the desk. I couldn't see anything in his glasses except my own reflection, but his smile was sweet and cold, like a pythons, right before it eats you.

"What a precious young lad." He had a strange accent—British, maybe, but also as if he had learned English as a second language. "Tell me, mate, do I look like a centaur?"

"N-no."

"Sir," he added smoothly.

"Sir," I said.

He pinched the name tag and ran his finger under the letters. "Can you read this, mate? It says C-H-A-R-O-N. Say it with me: CARE-ON."

"Charon."

"Amazing! Now: Mr. Charon."

"Mr. Charon," I said.

"Well done." He sat back. "I hate being confused with that old horse-man. And now, how may I help you little dead ones?"

His question caught in my stomach like a fastball. I looked at Annabeth for support.

"We want to go the Underworld," she said.

Charon's mouth twitched. "Well, that's refreshing."

"It is?" she asked.

"Straightforward and honest. No screaming. No 'There must be a mistake, Mr. Charon.'" He looked us over. "How did you die, then?"

I nudged Grover.

"Oh," he said. "Um ... drowned ... in the bathtub."

"All three of you?" Charon asked. We nodded.

"Big bathtub." Charon looked mildly impressed. "I don't suppose you have coins for passage. Normally, with adults, you see, I could charge your American Express, or add the ferry price to your last cable bill. But with children ... alas, you never die prepared. Suppose you'll have to take a seat for a few centuries."

"Oh, but we have coins." I set three golden drachmas on the counter, part of the stash I'd found in Crusty's office desk.

"Well, now ..." Charon moistened his lips. "Real drachmas. Real golden drachmas. I haven't seen these in ..."

His fingers hovered greedily over the coins.

We were so close.

Then Charon looked at me. That cold stare behind his glasses seemed to bore a hole through my chest. "Here now," he said. "You couldn't read my name correctly. Are you dyslexic, lad?"

"No," I said. "I'm dead."

Charon leaned forward and took a sniff. "You're not dead. I should've known. You're a godling."

"We have to get to the Underworld," I insisted.

Charon made a growling sound deep in his throat.

Immediately, all the people in the waiting room got up and started pacing, agitated, lighting cigarettes, running hands through their hair, or checking their wristwatches.

"Leave while you can," Charon told us. "I'll just take these and forget I saw you."

He started to go for the coins, but I snatched them back.

"No service, no tip." I tried to sound braver than I felt.

Charon growled again—a deep, blood-chilling sound. The spirits of the dead started pounding on the elevator doors.

"It's a shame, too," I sighed. "We had more to offer."

I held up the entire bag from Crusty's stash. I took out a fistful of drachmas and let the coins spill through my fingers.

Charon's growl changed into something more like a lion's purr. "Do you think I can be bought, godling? Eh ... just out of curiosity, how much have you got there?"

"A lot," I said. "I bet Hades doesn't pay you well enough for such hard work."

"Oh, you don't know the half of it. How would you like to babysit these spirits all day? Always 'Please don't let me be dead' or 'Please let me across for free.' I haven't had a pay raise in three thousand years. Do you imagine suits like this come cheap?"

"You deserve better," I agreed. "A little appreciation. Respect. Good pay."

With each word, I stacked another gold coin on the counter.

Charon glanced down at his silk Italian jacket, as if imagining himself in something even better. "I must say, lad, you're making some sense now. Just a little."

I stacked another few coins. "I could mention a pay raise while I'm talking to Hades."

He sighed. "The boat's almost full, anyway. I might as well add you three and be off."

He stood, scooped up our money, and said, "Come along."

We pushed through the crowd of waiting spirits, who started grabbing at our clothes like the wind, their voices whispering things I couldn't make out. Charon shoved them out of the way, grumbling, "Freeloaders."

He escorted us into the elevator, which was already crowded with souls of the dead, each one holding a green boarding pass. Charon grabbed two spirits who were trying to get on with us and pushed them back into the lobby.

"Right. Now, no one get any ideas while I'm gone," he announced to the waiting room. "And if anyone moves the dial off my easy-listening station again, I'll make sure you're here for another thousand years. Understand?"

He shut the doors. He put a key card into a slot in the elevator panel and we started to descend.

"What happens to the spirits waiting in the lobby?" Annabeth asked.

"Nothing," Charon said.

"For how long?"

"Forever, or until I'm feeling generous."

"Oh," she said. "That's ... fair."

Charon raised an eyebrow. "Whoever said death was fair, young miss? Wait until it's your turn. You'll die soon enough, where you're going."

"We'll get out alive," I said.

"Ha."

I got a sudden dizzy feeling. We weren't going down anymore, but forward. The air turned misty. Spirits around me started changing shape. Their modern clothes flickered, turning into gray hooded robes. The floor of the elevator began swaying.

I blinked hard. When I opened my eyes, Charon's creamy Italian suit had been replaced by a long black robe. His tortoiseshell glasses were gone. Where his eyes should've been were empty sockets—like Ares's eyes, except Charon's were totally dark, full of night and death and despair.

He saw me looking, and said, "Well?"

"Nothing," I managed.

I thought he was grinning, but that wasn't it. The flesh of his face was becoming transparent, letting me see straight through to his skull.

The floor kept swaying.

Grover said, "I think I'm getting seasick."

When I blinked again, the elevator wasn't an elevator anymore. We were standing in a wooden barge. Charon was poling us across a dark, oily river, swirling with bones, dead fish, and other, stranger things—plastic dolls, crushed carnations, soggy diplomas with gilt edges.

"The River Styx," Annabeth murmured. "It's so ..."

"Polluted," Charon said. "For thousands of years, you humans have been throwing in everything as you come across—hopes, dreams, wishes that never came true. Irresponsible waste management, if you ask me."

Mist curled off the filthy water. Above us, almost lost in the gloom, was a ceiling of stalactites. Ahead, the far shore glimmered with greenish light, the color of poison.

Panic closed up my throat. What was I doing here? These people around me ... they were dead.

Annabeth grabbed hold of my hand. Under normal circumstances, this would've embarrassed me, but I understood how she felt. She wanted reassurance that somebody else was alive on this boat.

I found myself muttering a prayer, though I wasn't quite sure who I was praying to. Down here, only one god mattered, and he was the one I had come to confront.

The shoreline of the Underworld came into view. Craggy rocks and black volcanic sand stretched inland about a hundred yards to the base of a high stone wall, which marched off in either direction as far as we could see. A sound came from somewhere nearby in the green gloom, echoing off the stones—the howl of a large animal.

"Old Three-Face is hungry," Charon said. His smile turned skeletal in the greenish light. "Bad luck for you, godlings."

The bottom of our boat slid onto the black sand. The dead began to disembark. A woman holding a little girl's hand. An old man and an old woman hobbling along arm in arm. A boy no older than I was, shuffling silently along in his gray robe.

Charon said, "I'd wish you luck, mate, but there isn't any down here. Mind you, don't forget to mention my pay raise."

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