Above his corpse, Conrad’s spirit rose. Most people’s souls look like healthy, younger versions of their favorite incarnation, but in Conrad’s case, instead of a handsome, young man, he retained his toad-like, smarmy bastard look. That must have been how he truly saw himself.
“You’ll never take me alive!” he shouted.
“But you’re not ali—” Dante began.
Conrad turned to flee, but Dante was an old hand. In one smooth motion, he activated his scythe and hooked the blade around Conrad’s feet, sending him crashing to the ground. In a ninja-esque move that struck me as very sexy, Dante leapt across the room and pinned the escaping spirit to the floor.
“Cuffs!” Dante called.
I pawed through the pockets of his robe and produced a pair of rusty iron manacles linked together with a length of clanking chain. Dante was so old-school.
I slapped them on Conrad just like we had in Reaper practice sessions.
I helped Dante haul Conrad to his feet. The newly dead shade fought and struggled, but with both hands secured behind his back, he was no match for two trained Reapers.
Without meeting my eyes, Dante said, “You sacrificed your remaining life for her. That was very noble.”
“Do you think I shouldn’t have?”
“Absolutely not, you little—” Dante clapped a hand over Conrad’s mouth.
“No, I have to say I’m glad you did.”
“And you, Dante.” I pulled him in close. “You were willing to give up everything for me. To go dirt-side again, even though you don’t want to.”
“For you, cara, I would give my all.”
Conrad made muffled noises and rolled his eyes.
I laughed. “Let’s get this skegger home where I can tell you I love you, too. And show you. In private.”
We tried the teleportation method, but apparently it doesn’t work when there are three on one scythe and we weren’t willing to separate now that we were finally together. So we had to walk to Hell. Again.
We hurried through the wall and the void. We had a brief battle with the gee-gnomes. I was tempted to let them sting Conrad but I was a professional now. I did my duty, getting a defiant soul home. We skated across the Good Intentions and slid down the slippery slope. Finally we crossed the Soul Train tracks and met Char as he was just about to push off with another load of the recent dead.
Char had updated his drag inspiration by a few decades since I’d seen him last. Today he was wearing a knock-off of Lady Gaga’s meat dress, much to Cerberus’s slobbery delight. If it hadn’t been a miniskirt at the beginning of the day, it was now. Cerby licked his chops, looking very satisfied.
“Hey, guys. Good to see you again. Girlfriend, I love your new look! You just can’t go wrong with leather pants. But what’s with the stupid matching grins?”
WE DROPPED CONRAD, still protesting and fighting his bonds, at Hell’s Cells. We filled out the paperwork as fast as our veins could provide ink, but the processing took ages. Midnight chimed all across the city when we finally left Hell’s Cells and headed for home. Our home. Where we lived, together.
My lips were frozen in a blissful smile. Every time I looked at Dante, he blushed. I knew exactly what he was thinking, because I was thinking it, too. I couldn’t wait to get home and demonstrate exactly how I felt.
The trip across town seemed to take forever, but at last we arrived back at our apartment complex. I was tempted to race up the three dangerous flights of stairs but I wanted to appear casual, so I reined in my desires and started to saunter across the dusty courtyard.
Only a step or two in, Dante grabbed my hand, drew me close, and kissed me.
Whoa! It was a real kiss this time—no tricks. No distractions. No interruptions, either. None until the long-dry fountain burst into a shower of crystal-clear water, spraying us. And the cat that always sat there.
Dante brushed my damp, white hair from my shoulders and chased me, laughing, up the stairs. Upon reaching our apartment, he fumbled with his key, opening the door on the third try. We tumbled in, nearly tripping over little Jenni in the foyer.
“Shhh!” Dante whispered.
I giggled some more. “Why? We’ve never cared if the neighbors heard us before.”
“That’s why I was late getting to you, cara. Before I could round up the judge and Colin, I first had to settle your aunt and Leslie in our guest room.”
Oh, of course. I felt ashamed of myself for not thinking about them. I was still the selfish kid who hadn’t appreciated them. And now I had a second chance to tell them I loved them. And I would. First thing tomorrow. It would be inconsiderate to wake them, wouldn’t it? This was going to be a do-over for me. I hadn’t done anything like this as a teen, but now I was sneaking a boy into my bedroom. Trying to be quiet and not get caught only added to the mood.
I grabbed Dante’s hand and dragged him into our sexy Arabian Nights bedroom, where I threw myself on the bed and pulled him down after me. I laughed, I moaned, I might even have screamed a little if we weren’t trying to be quiet. And also? Dante put his hand over my mouth. When he wasn’t busy either kissing me—and man, was kissing great when you didn’t need to breathe—or telling me “Ti amo,” over and over.
“I love you, too,” I answered, so, so glad I’d chosen to stay. There’s no place like Hell. There’s no place like Hell. There’s no place like . . . oh, yeah, right there!
I would have clicked my heels together but I wasn’t wearing any shoes.
SOME THINGS ARE worth waiting for. And one of them is pillow talk.
“Dante,” I said. “Can I ask you a question?”
“Hmmm?” He nuzzled my shoulder.
“Why don’t you want to go back to the Coil?”
“I thought I explained. Nobody gets me up there.”
I waited. He’d either elaborate or begin the next round. I was okay with either option.
He rolled on his back and scratched his chest. “It is like this. Back in my day, when we visited someone, we stayed for many days. Sometimes weeks. And while there, your host threw lengthy parties. They would invite their friends and neighbors and serve much wine. On one occasion, a group of writers and philosophers were drinking and a challenge was issued. There may have been a bet involved. It was so long ago, I don’t remember. I do remember locking myself in my room with more than one bottle of wine and emerging three days later with my ‘epic’ poem about Hell. It was the ultimate ‘Mary Sue.’ ”
“Mary Sue?” I’d never heard the term before. Assuming it was a term and not an ex-girlfriend. One time, in the heat of passion, he called me Beatrice. I didn’t speak to him for days.
“Oh.” He shrugged. “Mary Sue, or in my case, Marty Stu, is a writing term for when an author places themselves in their story as the best and brightest character. In my case, I wrote about myself being the only person on Earth so admirable and so worthy that Lucy invited me for a tour d’Hell. And when I got there I found all my enemies being sorely punished. I regret to say, Kirsty, that it went on and on and on.”
I yawned hugely. I hadn’t realized discussing poetry could be even more boring and obscure than the poems themselves.
“So,” he continued, somehow mistaking my yawning for interest, “my poem is circulated among our group, much like those emails of today in which you are directed to forward it to five friends or dire events will befall you. All my close friends found it hilarious. But as scribes made more and more copies and it traveled outside my immediate circle, people began to take it seriously. They thought I was that arrogant. That full of myself.”
“And in conclusion . . . ?” I yawned again, making the words sound weird. Hopefully that would hurry him up so we could get back to the cuddling.
“And in conclusion . . .” He laughed, leaning over to kiss my forehead. “In conclusion, now students today are forced to study it, scholars analyze it and academics deconstruct it. And no one realizes it was supposed to be funny. It’s like telling a joke and having it fall flat—flatter than the Coil.”
“Uh, Dante. You do know the world isn’t flat, right?”
“But of course I do. Galileo drops by regularly.”
“Oh.” I yawned again. “I guess you guys were contemporaries, eh?”
“I suppose you would consider us so. What’s a few centuries between scholars?”
I chose not to answer that. My eyelids grew heavy and I figured we might as well nap while we recovered enough for round two.
Just before I drifted off, Dante mumbled, “I love you.”
“I love you, too. You can scythe me anytime.”
I don’t know how many times my hellphone played the Reaper Corps theme song as I struggled up from the deepest, darkest depths of REM sleep.
“Baby, take my ha—”
I’d been sleeping the sleep of the dead, of course. How else would I sleep? Finally I surfaced into consciousness.
“ ’Lo?” I answered, silencing Blue Öyster Cult mid-lyric.
“Kirsty? You’d better get down here right away.” Kali’s voice crackled from the tiny speaker, sounding as distressed as I’d ever heard her. I half sat up, rubbing crusty dried gunk from my eyes, the corner of my mouth and . . . never mind. Despite having no psychic abilities at all, I clearly foresaw a shower in my future.
“To Hell’s Cells.”
I thumped the heel of my hand against my forehead, trying to dispel some of the got-some brain fog. I had a memory once, I just forgot where I put it.
A recent memory floated within reach. I grasped for it, almost had it . . . Ahhh. Now I remembered. Dante’s friend Monroe had told us the holding facility where he worked needed an extra pair of hands. And Kali was nothing if not handy. She had six of ’em, after all.
Obviously, she’d landed the job. Only Reapers need apply.
“So what’s up?” I asked. Dante rolled over and opened his eyes. I held a finger to his lips to keep him from speaking. He kissed my finger softly and my insides melted. No, not literally.
“What? I missed that, Kali. Say again, please.”
“I said, something weird went down with that soul you brought in. That Conrad guy. You didn’t use another Reaper’s scythe on him, did you? Because if you did, I think we’ve finally figured out what happens when you do.”
As Kali described the scene in the cells, all the blood drained from my face. My stomach flip-flopped and my heart clenched.
To be continued in Book 3 of The Reluctant Reaper series, Esprit de Corpse: Hell Is Where the Heart Is.
THEY SAY WRITING is a lonely profession, but that has not been my experience. I can’t remember exactly when, why or how I decided to write a book about a Grim Reaper, but since then, I’ve had help and encouragement from so many people that I’m worried I’ll miss thanking someone. So if you aren’t named here, please know that I appreciate your help more than words can say.
Over the years, several people read, reread and helped me rewrite various versions and chapters of this book. Great big thanks to Debra Jess, Kay Lynne Simpson, Lisa Stone Hardt, Lauren Stephenson and Joan Leacott for their feedback.
Thanks to the members of the QuinceApple brainstorming group for their input on bits and pieces and marketing materials along the way. Special thanks to creative stimulators Bonnie Staring and Tina Christopher.
Thanks to my awesome agent, Rosemary Stimola and her equally awesome assistant, Allison Remchek. The amount of time and effort they put into this series speaks of their faith in my potential. And thanks to my fabulous editor at Simon & Schuster, Adam Wilson, for liking my book enough to publish it and for working with me to make it the best book it can be.
Grazie to Elisa Rolle for the speedy Italian translations.
My biggest thanks to my friend and mentor, Kate Freiman, for not just giving me feedback and encouragement, but for always being there for me, sharing her wealth of knowledge and squealing with me at each milestone of success.
Thank you all!
I PUSHED OFF the doorframe and got right up into Dante’s chauvinistic (but handsome) face. “Now you listen to me, bucko.” I was mad. Really mad. I’d never called anyone “bucko” before in my life. I wasn’t even sure what it meant, although it reminded me of an interesting four-letter word. “Just because you’re seven hundred—”
The lights dimmed and flickered. I clapped my hands over my ears to shut out the terrible screeching noise, like universes being ripped apart. Suddenly, a massive, horrific demon complete with horns and forked tail appeared before us. Shannon looked up from her client call: “Callyouback,” she squeaked. She didn’t so much hang up the handset as drop it somewhere near the cradle. I could tell from her trembling jaw and brand-new lack of breathing that she could see it, too.
As Dante had done, the demon had materialized facing Shannon, who cowered behind the big oak desk. With his back to us, he hadn’t noticed Dante and me.
I could see him clearly now, his personal twister left somewhere along the slippery slope or dusty red trail. Conrad’s dark red skin stretched tight over misshapen muscles. His hooves and the spike at the end of his tail were the same articulated gray chitin as his curved and pointy horns. The horns scraped the ceiling tiles, raining white flakes down on his shoulders like the dandruff of the damned. Pointy leathery wings sprouted from his shoulder blades. They didn’t look like they’d support his weight and might have evolved less as flighty appendages and more as extra places to stick talons.
From where I stood, I couldn’t see his face and I was very, very glad. I had enough to take in as it was. He was the most horrible creature I’d seen on the Coil or in Hell, the conservative business suit doing nothing to counter his overall ghastly appearance.
I nearly jumped out of my skin. His body may have grown oversize and grotesque, but his voice hadn’t changed. It was the same light, smarmy tone that had wrapped his junior account exec around his little finger, which was now scarlet, clawed and not so little.
“Dad?” Shannon whispered through chattering teeth. She leaned as far away from the scary monster as the ergonomically correct chair would allow, while at the same time, reaching out one hand toward him. Talk about your mixed messages.
“I thought you said he couldn’t teleport,” I whispered to Dante.
“Must have gone to see whoever it was that ensorcelled your stapler and got a one-time pass,” he answered, keeping his voice low and his eyes on demonic Conrad.
I ground my own teeth and leapt forward, thrusting myself between them, just as I had done a year ago with Conrad and Dante. “Conrad!” I shouted, gaining his full attention.