He’d changed in the year I’d been in a coma. He’d grown desperate and afraid, willing to give up everything that had ever meant anything to him just so he could keep control of Iver Public Relations.

Fear clogged my throat and panic filled my lungs as I realized Conrad, this man whom I had once revered and admired, really could club his own daughter to death.

Frightened and confused, Shannon cradled her wounded hand to her chest, a trail of blood trickling between her fingers.

They hadn’t noticed my return from the dead. I took a quick inventory of my situation. No feeding tube; I must have just had my massage therapy. I could feel an uncomfortable pull between my legs, though. Uh, oh. I was still leashed to that embarrassing bag.

I tried to imagine what I’d be thinking if someone wanted me to sign a contract in my own blood, wanted it badly enough to injure me for it. Shannon was probably thinking, “I should humor him.” No way was I going to allow that to happen.

“Don’t do it!” I shouted, finally getting my voice box in gear. What came out was more like, “Nnngghl,” and possibly some saliva. I tried again. “Shannon.” Closer. Close enough to get her attention.

“Kirsty! You’re awake!” She half rose from the guest chair. “You’re okay!”

Conrad strode over to the bed, waving the stapler at me menacingly. “Sign it or she won’t be!”

“Okay, Dad. I’ll sign. I’ll do whatever you want.” She took a step toward me. “Kirsty, I . . .” She sniffled. “How are you?”

“Oh, I’ve been deader,” I managed, stalling. I sat up on the third try. “Don’t do it, Shannon,” I begged, croaking the words out in the direction she’d been before the room started spinning. “You’ll be signing the rest of your life away.”

“It’s okay, Kirsty. It’s just a piece of paper.”

“It’s so much more than that.” I held my head still with both hands. I succeeded in stopping the room from spinning but without my hands to support me, my spine went spineless and I flopped back down on the pillow, panting with all the effort.

“Sign it or Kirsty dies.”

Killing me wouldn’t serve Conrad’s purpose, since he couldn’t use my soul twice and the first time was still in question before Hell’s courts. But threatening me might extort Shannon into giving him what he wanted.

“Please, honey. Do it for Daddy?” His face twisted into something that should have been a smile.

My gut twisted, too.

Selling your soul is supposed to slow the aging process so he should only have looked around forty. And he did, except that he’d put on weight and developed a shifty, smarmy appearance. His face was bloated and toad-like, a reflection of the man he’d become. No company would have trusted him with their public image if it hadn’t been for his soul Deal. Maybe they never would have.

I tried to recall what he’d looked like when I’d first met him. Maybe he’d always been this creepy and it was the Deal that had made me feel so warm toward him. He’d always been a father figure to me, and look what kind of father he’d turned out to be. One ready to trade away the life of his own daughter!

Willing strength into my limbs, I tossed back the sheets. The hospital gown slid down—who bothers to tie the gown on a coma patient? My arms felt rubbery and there was nothing fine about my motor skills, but I managed to disengage myself from my remaining medical tethers. Ouch!

I shoved myself to the edge of the bed using my hands to get my legs in gear. I slid off the bed and directly onto the floor, blue cotton pooling around me. I yanked the gown up over my flabby body. Time may be a great healer, but it’s a lousy beautician.

Shannon knelt on the floor beside me, pulling the gown up and beginning to tie it behind my neck.

I shrugged her off; covering my pale and saggy breasts was not our main concern at the moment.

Through gritted teeth, I told Conrad, “You’re going to have to kill me or I’m going to tell the world what you did to me.”

Conrad threw back his head and laughed. “Who’d believe you? It’s just some coma-induced hallucination. Reapers. Scythes. It’s quite a good story, though. Maybe you should write a book.”

I squinted at him, unfocusing my eyes and surveying the room. Skegging Reapers. They’re never around when you need one. I was on my own here.

“Shannon will believe me.” I turned to meet her gaze. “Won’t you?”

She looked confused and skeptical.

I doubted she’d buy my story, but the way Conrad pulled back a little told me I’d hit a guilty nerve. “Shannon, your wonderful dad here made a Deal with the Devil. He’s actually lousy at public relations.”

“Why, you ungrateful bitch! I made you everything you are today! Without me—”

“Yes, you did! You made me the incapacitated, atrophied coma victim I am today. Without you, I’d still have a life. You stole a year from me!” I looked down at my out-of-shape body. After a year of lying still, moving proved painful. I hurt. (Especially “down there,” and I didn’t mean in Hell. You try removing a catheter yourself.) I sagged. I had no home. No family. No career. No friends. Everyone and everything I cared about, and everyone who cared about me, was back in Hell.

Except I did have one friend left on the Mortal Coil. One person who’d remained loyal to me through thick and thin, through sick and sin. I was going to do whatever it took to keep her from suffering the same untimely demise I had. Plus, there was no way I was letting Conrad get any more time on Earth. Lucy Phurr had totally screwed up my original plan with her stupid gift of life. I needed a new plan. I had always been fast on my feet—well, not literally at the moment, but . . . Ah-ha! Got it. Now I just have to . . .

With grim determination and a little help from Shannon, I managed to haul myself up. It was a short distance from where I swayed to where Conrad stood, wielding the stapler. With every bit of strength and willpower I possessed, I put one foot in front of the other. I moved like a zombie—dead gal walking—but I moved.

“Don’t come any closer, Kirsty. I swear I’ll brain you.”

“Do it, Conrad. You took my life from me once with that skeggin’ stapler. Go ahead and do it again. I dare you!”

I lurched another step toward him. I glanced behind me, where Shannon stood frozen, her eyes wide with fear.

“I love you, Shannon. You’ve always been a great friend to me. Like the sister I never had.”

Only a few steps remained. It was more than I could manage with my wasted muscles and weakened lungs. “Go ahead. Make my day,” I said to Conrad. I threw myself the remaining distance, more falling at him than tackling.

A moment’s hesitation, then bam! I heard more than felt, the sound of the heavy metal stapler crashing into my skull.

Bam! Bam! Crunch!

Shannon wailed.

Maybe I did, too.

While having one’s skull pounded like an old stump makes a distinct sound, it wasn’t enough to alert anyone outside this room. No nurse or doctor would come running and save me.

Then the pain slammed into me. My head throbbed like nothing I’d ever experienced before—not even when a five-hundred-pound air-conditioning unit had squashed me like a bug. I cried out, screaming in pain and fury.

Conrad hit me again—bam!

The pain was so great I couldn’t breathe, and that felt very different now that breathing was important to me again. I shuddered, slithering back down to the icy-cold floor. I realized I was counting, getting slower and slower.

Well, you can’t blame a gal for dying.

Everything went black . . . and then my soul sprang free. Half-naked, pale and saggy Kirsty lay on the floor, one side of her poor shaved head a different shape from the other. At last, I was really dead. I glanced down at myself—the spirit version of me—to see I sported the same fit body and kick-ass outfit I’d worn to my graduation.

“Bastard!” Shannon smashed a bedpan (empty, thankfully) on Conrad’s wrist. He dropped the stapler onto the bed with a howl. It bounced once, the impact causing it to open like a great, gaping mouth. It left a gory outline in red smears and gray bits.

Shannon reached for it, keeping her eyes on her father.

“No, don’t!” I screamed, not wanting her to get fingerprints on the blunt instrument that had orchestrated my final demise. But she couldn’t hear me anymore.

She wrapped her fingers around the black metal, ready to defend herself with Conrad’s weapon of choice. Why couldn’t he have used a gun like a normal person?

I heard another bam! Not like a stapler hitting a skull, but sort of a whoosh-bam. Where had I heard that before?

“You murdering bastard!” Shannon yelled, hands spasming on the stapler. “You did this. All this time I thought you cared about her. You killed my best friend. First you stole her life and then you killed her.”

Ah, now she believed me.

“Yes, I did. Just as she says. But sweetheart, I did it for you. I did everything for you.”

The whoosh-bam sound echoed again, just behind me, but I kept my attention on the family feud.

Conrad turned to me, eyes narrowed. “You! No. I’ve got something to offer. Let’s talk!” For a moment I thought he could see me, but he was looking over my shoulder. I spun around. Dante stood behind me in all his Reaper glory, the way I’d first seen him. His robe billowed out behind him, eyes furious, expression dark and grim.

I sagged with relief. I’d been expecting him. What I hadn’t expected was for him to be flanked by Sergeant Schotz and Judge Julius.

“Well?” Dante asked, half turning toward his escort.

“I’ve seen enough. His confession will stand.” The judge nodded, bad hairpiece flapping up and down with the movement.

“Thank you, Judge. And Sergeant, because that proves I mistakenly reaped Kirsty before her time, I know you’ll be confiscating my scythe again and sending me back to the Mortal Coil. I’ll turn myself in as soon as—”

“Forget that, Reaper Alighieri. It’s obvious this creep tricked you, so I’m lettin’ it slide.”

“But, sir. I—”

Judge Julius cut in. “You’re arguing with your boss, Dante? Don’t look a gift scythe in the mouth. This is Hell. We play favorites.” He opened his own mouth, fluorescent light glinting off his demonic fangs. “Besides, I had to study your poems in school. For that cruel and unusual punishment, you belong in Hell.” He raised his gavel and whoosh-bammed away.

Sergeant Schotz nodded, lowering his gaze to stare grimly at my half-naked body lying on the floor.

I moved to try to cover myself, but my hand passed right through the blue gown and my own chest. Dante quickly moved in to cover it for me, succeeding where I had failed. I needed to learn that trick.

“Too bad,” Sergeant Schotz said. “ ’Fraid you can’t get your old life back now.” He nudged my shoulder with his foot, causing my arm to flop once.

Shannon squealed. What had it looked like to her? Zombie Kirsty rising from the walking dead?

The sergeant lowered his head. When he raised it again, Professor Schotz looked at me, face crumpled with commiseration. “But at least you’ve cleared your name. Both of you. And you, Kirsty, have a good job and a good afterlife waiting for you back home.”

Home. Yes, sir. That was where I was going. But I had one more thing to take care of first.

The whoosh-bam sounded once more, judge and professor transporting away.

Dante nodded to me gravely. He raised his scythe handle to shoulder height, ready to activate it. “Conrad Iver. You sold your soul, and I have come to collect.” He coughed. “I hath come to collecteth thine soul, I mean.”

He activated his scythe. The two purple lights shot out, up and down from the handle, the top one arcing out to form the blade. You have to admit, it’s pretty impressive. I couldn’t wait to try my own.

“I can still make it worth your while. I can get you other souls. Not just one or two. I can get you as many as you need. What’s your weekly quota?” Conrad weaseled and wheedled, turning my stomach with every whiny word. “I’ve got some homeless folk lined up who think they’re giving blood.”

And then he laughed. Not the evil-villain “Bwahahaha!” that I expected. No, this was a little friendly chuckle, like an in-joke shared between old friends.

That was it. The last straw. My blood simultaneously ran cold and boiled. Above Dante’s head, the clock ticked. Only seconds remained in the anniversary hour. My old body had been weak and useless, but my Hell body was in great shape. I leapt across the room—charging right through the hospital bed—and snatched the scythe right out of Dante’s hand.

Before Dante even had a chance to scream, “Don’t touch my scythe,” I’d whipped around and sliced it through Conrad’s body.

“I’ll see you in Hell, you skeg-hole!”

Conrad’s eyes flew wide and his red face grew redder. Staggering backward, he crashed into equipment, falling to the floor, clutching his chest. Shannon dropped the stapler and rushed out the door, screaming for help.

In seconds, the room was a hive of medical personnel shouting things like “stat!” and “clear.”

“Oops,” I said, retracting the scythe and handing it back to Dante. “I think this is yours.”

“Dammelo!” He snatched it from my hand angrily. I noticed the absence of blue smoke. I really was back on the Coil. “Don’t you know by now you’re never supposed to touch anyone else’s scythe?”

“That’s just an old wives’ tale. I researched it and there’s no evidence. Besides”—I sidled up to him, feeling confident and powerful—“this is the third time I’ve touched your scythe.” I traced a finger down his chest. “And nothing’s happened . . .” I gave him my sexiest smile. “. . . Yet.”

Behind us the doctor called Conrad’s time of death, citing heart attack. And mine, citing blunt trauma. Strangely, it didn’t seem to matter anymore. I’d spent a year trying to get my life back and now all I wanted was my afterlife.

The medical staff began to pack up their gear. Hospital security took possession of the stapler, dropping it in a clear plastic bag. They led Shannon away, sobbing. I hoped a few of those tears were for me.

Dante and I were alone now, except for the dead bodies, but that was okay. Some of my best friends are dead people.

“So . . .” I moved another inch closer. “Is there anything of mine you’d like to touch to make us even?”

Dante looked exasperated, pursing his lips and furrowing his forehead. A tiny muscle in his cheek jumped. He gripped my shoulders. Was he about to shove me away? I guess I deserved it.

Apparently not. Slowly, he lowered his face until his lips were just a breath away from mine.

“So you think you’ve won, don’t you, you little bitch?”

Not exactly the romantic words I longed to hear.

But wait, Dante’s lips hadn’t moved. I’d know if they had because they were barely a millimeter from my own. We looked at each other, eyes crossing with the proximity, and then at Conrad’s body, which was still lying on the floor where he’d died, awaiting the coroner.