But I was living out my life on the Coil first. Hell would just have to limp along without me till I was good and ready to go. All those things I’d resolved since finding out I was just dead weight, I was going to do. I’d save the whales and recycle. Read to the blind. Get a cat. Tell my aunt I loved her. Tell Dante . . .

I fluffed my hair out. The white took some getting used to. It sparkled even more than Ira’s wings. It was going to look great against my black Reaper robe. I’d paid extra for velvet piping. Oh, sure, I’d only get to wear it for a few minutes today, but it’d be here when I got back. I just hoped my friends would be, too.

And Dante . . .

I went looking for him, hoping to apologize for touching his scythe. Jeez, he usually liked me to touch his . . . never mind. Even though he was mad at me, at least we could walk over to the campus together while I picked up my robe.

But he must have left our apartment while I was in the shower, without even saying goodbye.

That was pretty petty of him. I was starting to feel righteously indignant. So what if I’d touched his skegging tool? Well, he had to be at the ceremony. I’d catch him there. We could fight it out and then make up like we usually did. I couldn’t help smile when I thought about how we liked to make up.

But that wouldn’t happen. I’d be breaking the few rules we had down here and Dante wasn’t likely to forgive me this time. I sniffled back tears, trying hard not to ruin my mascara. If it was over with Dante, then I didn’t have anything to stay for. I’d bring Conrad’s soul in. One look at Charon and some of the other denizens of Hell and he’d sing like a canary. Once he’d confessed, they’d grant my life back and I would probably never see Dante again.

I ended up redoing my makeup from scratch.

I still managed to arrive at school early. I picked up my robe, hung out in the caf with some of the other Reaper grads then finally wandered into the area set aside for the graduation ceremony. I took my place among my classmates in the seats marked “Reserved” in the front row. I felt like a big bundle of nerves as I checked my death watch. Time may not have been out of sync anymore, but the minutes crawled by as I waited to go up onstage.

There were interminable speeches and commencement exorcises and finally, finally, Professor Schotz strode onto the stage.

He retold the story of our “daring rescue” (his words) and managed to make us all sound very brave and noble. Even Rod. Especially Rod.

The engineers, who couldn’t be there due to time commitments, had endowed a chair in the name of Raul Manjay, the worker who’d been lost to the vortex first. A moment of silence was observed in memory of Rod and Raul, followed by a moment of screaming and yelling. It was a time-honored Hellish tradition and I, for one, felt it was much more cathartic than silent prayer.

Even while I appreciated the sentiment, I was anxious to get on with the ceremony. I had a lying, cheating, Deal-welching ex-boss to confront.

Dude, where’s my scythe?

“And now . . .” The voice of the Emcee (Evil Creature) boomed out over the assembled masses. And the rest of us, too. “It gives me indefinable pleasure to welcome this year’s graduates. Six bright personages who are being inducted into the Reaper Corps here today. Cadets, due to your bravery above and beyond the call, you are all graduating magna cum laude!

“With noisy melted rock?” I teased, feigning ignorance. I’d taken a semester of Latin in high school.

“With great honor,” Ira translated. Kali flicked the back of my head.

Ow.

“And to present your scythes to you today, we are honored to have our great Dark Underlord—make that Underlady. None other than Her Satanic Majesty herself. Everyone, please join me in welcoming Lucy Phurr.”

There was a smattering of polite applause. I craned my neck, anxious to finally see the ruler of Hell in person. Preceding Lucy, a mousy-looking woman with a bad haircut and an ill-fitting suit ambled onto the stage. I peered closer. Oh, wait. That wasn’t some lady-in-waiting or other attendant; that was the great queen herself. Huh. She seemed . . . ordinary.

Lucy accepted the microphone from the Emcee. Her pale lips moved but even in the front row I heard nothing.

Some underling trotted out and showed her how to turn the mic on.

“Thank you,” she said to him, nearly deafening us. He showed her how to adjust the volume. She thanked him again, this time at a manageable volume level and faced us. “And thank you all for inviting me to be part of your commencement ceremonies today. Before I hand out the scythes, there are just a few words I want to say.” The mic clunked on the podium and the crinkle of paper grated across the sound system and my eardrums. “Sometimes we forget, here in Hell . . .”

After five minutes of boring drivel badly delivered, I tuned her out. Even feeling smug about how much better a speech I could have written for her got old fast. This gal could use a good makeover and a huge PR campaign. I felt sorry for her. “Sympathy for the Devil”—now the campaign in my head had a theme song.

“Lucy ought to fire her speechwriter—with real fire,” I whispered to Kali. She nodded and yawned. You’d think with six hands she’d put one over her mouth.

The speech went on and on and on. I fidgeted until Kali flicked me again. Ow.

“And on that note, I’d like to call the graduates to the stage.”

M’Kimbi punched me in the arm, grinning. “She is addressing ourselves. We must go to her now.” He dashed to the stage, shouldering Horace out of the way. Ira bypassed the stairs and flew to the front. I ended up near the back of the line, glad there were only six of us now, then appalled at myself for that selfish thought. Why, if Rod were here, I’d be glad to see him—at the back of the line, that is.

“C’mon. C’mon.” I jittered nervously. I had a scythe to get and an aunt to save.

“Before we begin to distribute your scythes . . .”

Oh, seriously, lady. Now what?

“I’d like to call Reaper Alighieri up on the stage. Dante, dear. Where are you?” She shaded her boring brown eyes and scanned the crowd. “Oh, yes. There he is, in the back. While we wait for Dante to make his way up to the stage, I’ll just entertain you with an amusing anecdote, shall I?”

She told some dull tale about a soul Deal she’d once made. I barely listened, although the name Faust seemed familiar. Instead I searched the crowd for Dante. He stepped past me on the way to the podium without so much as a glance in my direction. By the time Lucy Phurr finished her speech, Dante stood before her and my feet had started hurting.

“To show my appreciation for the part you played in averting the recent crisis, it is my pleasure, Reaper Alighieri, to reinstate your rank of Reaper First Class before this assemblage and permit you the right to come and go between Hell and the Mortal Coil as you see fit in the execution of your duties as Reaper.”

She shook his hand while we whooped and yelled. I was proud of him, finally getting to go dirt-side again. I wondered if we could partner up on some of the more difficult reaps that lay ahead of us. After I finished living out my life on the Coil, that is. And if Dante ever agreed to speak to me again. And if they still let me be a Reaper when I returned from rescuing my aunt and having a life. I suspect that going AWOL your first day on the job is something that goes in your personnel file, even in Hell.

Dante left the stage and Lucy Phurr began calling us over to the podium one at a time.

She congratulated each new Reaper warmly and personally. It took for-skeggin’-ever: Ira, M’Kimbi, Horace, Kali. Only Amber remained behind me.

It reminded me of my high school graduation, when I felt like a jittery bundle of boredom. Of course, when I’d looked out into the audience on that day, in addition to my friends, Aunt Carey and Leslie had been there, smiling proudly.

My friends were here today, too. Charon and Claire. Sue and Bob. I hadn’t expected Sybil to get the day off, but there she was, right down front. She waved. I gave a tiny finger wave back, but she kept waving, getting wilder and wilder until she resembled a crazy helicopter. What the skeg? She smiled hugely, gesturing and pointing at the two nice young women sitting beside her. They looked awfully familiar. Who could they . . . ? Oh, my God! I must have been thinking that so loudly that the air turned blue despite the fact I hadn’t said anything out loud. “Oops,” I said to Amber, waving the rotten-fish fumes away. Amber narrowed her eyes at me. Well, excuse me. What’s a little more sulfur in Hell? Then I remembered what had made me take the Lord’s name in vein and turned back to the audience. I couldn’t believe my eyes. There sat Aunt Carey and Leslie—the youthful, healthy versions.

Carey looked so proud. And a little dazed. They must have only just arrived in Hell. Sybil had broken all protocol to bring them to my graduation. I was so touched.

Wait. Wait! Aunt Carey and Leslie were here? Now? At my graduation? I stared at Sybil. She mouthed, “Car accident,” grimacing in sympathy.

The whole family could be together again.

But I still wanted my life back, didn’t I?

And Conrad still needed a soul to buy his extension with. If he couldn’t get Carey’s, then who would he go after? Who would he try to trick into trading their soul for his?

I had a horrible inkling.

“Kirsty d’Arc!”

Oops. I’d made the Queen of Hell call me twice. My bad. I crossed the distance to the podium.

“It’s nice to finally meet you, Kirsty. You’ve been causing quite a stir since you got here.”

I probably should have been nervous, but really, I was preoccupied and unimpressed. I shook her hand, wondering if I should curtsy. “Thank you, Ms. Phurr.”

“Oh, please. Call me Lucy.”

Just hurry up and give me my skeggin’ scythe, I wanted to say, but didn’t.

“You’ve proven yourself a worthy denizen of Hell, Kirsty, and a contributing member of our little subterranean society. It’s my great pleasure today to present you with your scythe and bestow upon you the time-honored title of Reaper, Grim or otherwise.” She produced my beautiful new scythe, waving it around as she spoke.

Light glinted off its shiny chrome surface, practically mesmerizing me. I reached for it, but she whipped it away again.

“I’m not going to give you this scythe, however. At least, not right now.”

What the skeg? Hell was all about temptation, and my patience was at an end. I considered shouting, “Let’s do lunge” and diving for my scythe to rip it from her grasp, although that kind of behavior might come back to bite me on the ass someday.

“Excuse me, ma’am. I thought I’d earned—”

“Well, Kirsty. I’ve got a special gift for you. Instead of a scythe, I’m granting your appeal!” She sounded exactly like Oprah during one of her “Favorite Things” episodes, complete with little hand-claps and a big, toothy smile.

“You’re what?” I shrieked.

“Yes, I know. It’s hard to believe. Well, away you go now. Have a nice life.”

She gave a dismissive little gesture and I levitated, like a puppet, drifting away from the stage. Away from my friends. My family. My afterlife. Dante.

“Nooo!” I screamed, unheard over the applause. Applause? Oh, great. Was everyone glad to see me go?

My soul flew faster and faster, passing through Hell’s roof, scaring the skeg out of ol’ Sol as he drove his chariot along, dragging daylight behind him.

I was getting my life back, which was what I wanted, right? But how the skeg was I going to reap Conrad without a scythe to call my own?

Chapter 14
Karmageddon

MOMENTS LATER, I bounced into my body. I drew a great gasping breath and tried to open my eyes. It took three tries since they were nearly crusted shut with dried tears. Had I been crying in my sleep?

I lay there, trying to absorb what had just happened. I had just been handed everything I wanted. Shouldn’t I be happy?

“Nooo!”

Blinking some more, I looked around. Ow. Talk about a stiff neck.

The hospital room was exactly the way I’d dreamed it over the months I’d been away—except for the tragic tableau before me.

Just as I’d feared, now that Conrad couldn’t steal my aunt’s soul to guarantee his extension, he’d found another person he was willing to sacrifice. Someone with no family except her father.

And he didn’t even need to. There was no way I could locate the stapler and find a way to get it to Judge Julius in the few remaining minutes before the anniversary was up. Conrad could have just waited and his original extension would be granted. He didn’t know that, though, and so now it was up to me to do something to save Shannon’s life.

And I would, just as soon as I could remember how to make my muscles work.

I willed myself to move or yell, but fog wrapped my brain and my muscles refused to answer when I called. The spirit might be willing but the flesh was damn near useless. I could only watch in a daze as Conrad wheedled and pleaded with Shannon to sign the contract amendment.

“Okay, Dad. Okay. Calm down and let’s talk about this.” She sat in a plastic guest chair, papers and office supplies scattered on the wheeled bedside table in front of her. She must have been doing office work while she sat with me. What? I wasn’t scintillating company?

“Sign first, then we’ll talk.” Conrad waved a thin sheaf of papers at her. His fingers covered the heading, but I knew exactly what it read: Contract Amendment.

“Sure, Dad.” Shannon’s voice had a “don’t make the crazy person crazier” tone. She picked up an ordinary pen. “Where do I sign?”

“Not with ink,” Conrad grabbed up another office item from Shannon’s temporary workspace. Even dented and speckled with Liquid Paper, I’d know it anywhere. He pressed the little release button on the bottom, allowing my old stapler to swing open like a huge, gaping jaw. My heart pounded, but even so, I could still hear the click of the staple dropping into place, its chiseled points reflecting light like a pair of vicious fangs—the vampire of the stationery world. “It has to be in blood!”

He hoisted the stapler as Shannon shot a hand up to protect her face. In a flash, Conrad slashed the stapler across her upraised palm.

“Dad, what the hell?”

“Now sign it!” he ordered, shoving all the other papers to the floor and dropping the contract amendment onto the bedside table. “Sign it,” Conrad repeated, tossing a fountain pen on top of the document. He brandished the stapler in a threatening manner. She examined her hand, her palm seeping blood from the fresh scratches.

“Okay. Okay.”

He moved toward her. She reared back, the plastic chair back creaking like a cry for help.

“Use that.” He pointed the stapler toward the fountain pen. “Draw the little lever back to get some blood inside.” He raised the heavy metal stapler again. Surely he wouldn’t—couldn’t—bash Shannon’s head in to get the blood he needed. How could he do that to his own daughter? Originally Conrad had sold his soul to save his infant daughter’s life, but now he was willing to sacrifice hers to save himself.