But I could hear.

“Oh, my God!”

“Kirsty!”

“She’s breathing on her own, Doctor!”

The exclamations tumbled over one another. I could hear the doctor ordering people back as she and the nurse leapt into action. I could feel them reattaching the little cardboard disks of the heart monitor. Then the near-painful squeeze of the blood pressure cuff. Shaky fingers drew back my eyelid and painful light burned into my brain.

I couldn’t see. I was blind.

Trapped!

I drew another loud, wet breath. My lungs burned and my throat ached. I hurt everywhere. Pain meant life. I’d kick-started my body into operation. Maybe that was why it had worked this time—my dying body had reached out in desperation and yanked its lost soul home.

I wasn’t dead yet. I was going to live. Was I going to wake? What if I didn’t? What if I was trapped in this useless carcass—aware yet unable to do anything—for years and years and . . .

I hadn’t suffered from claustrophobia since I first arrived in Hell but I sure did now. I’d been desperate to get back in my body. Now all I wanted was out again.

I threw myself upward, away from the body. I’d bounced away before, but now I was stuck, imprisoned. The judge had promised me my life back if I could find proof that Conrad had tricked me. But I couldn’t find that proof of Conrad’s forgery—specifically the ensorcelled stapler—if I was stuck in here. I had to get out! We’d agreed that being stuck in my comatose body wouldn’t qualify in the eyes of the courts of Hell as “getting my life back.” I didn’t deserve this corporeal punishment. There must have been a mistake! Would Dante report me missing? Would he assume I’d gotten what I wanted? I hadn’t, and if I was stuck in here, I couldn’t see about getting the mistake corrected. I panicked and ricocheted about inside my carcass like a fly stuck in a very small, person-shaped room.

“Doctor. She’s spiking. Blood pressure through the roof. It’s as if she’s having a panic attack.”

Cold air hit my chest as the doctor yanked my gown open. A frigid circle of metal pressed into my flesh. “Her heart rate’s out of control! Nurse, hand me that syringe of Valium, stat! Stand back. I need room to work!”

Valium? Why had she brought Valium if they were just going to pull the plug? My mind worked at lightning speed. I was trying fight, flight, and get the fuck outta here all at the same time. Oh, I realized. The Valium hadn’t been on hand for me, but in case Carey or Shannon fell apart. But now I was going to get it. I couldn’t afford to be sedated. I had to get out. I had to . . .

Sharp pain pierced my bicep. They’d disconnected my IV drip so they’d had to inject. Now more than ever I had to . . . oh, my. I felt pretty good now. Maybe I’d just take a moment to enjoy the flashing colors on the backs of my eyelids and then I’d do . . . whatever it was that was so important.

My brain felt hazy, as if a fog had risen up inside my body. A fog just like the one I’d blundered into my first day in Hell. It blanketed my brain in soft cotton. I lacked the energy and the will to escape. Peace descended. Maybe I actually was dying. I felt suspended in that dreamy space between waking and sleep. I was happy. Or at least not unhappy. Maybe just numb. I was good at numb. Lotsa practice. Go with my strengths.

I listened as my family, friend and evil ex-boss kept vigil. The doctors urged them to go home. The hospital staff would watch over me and call them in the unlikely event I awoke.

Finally, late in the evening, only Conrad remained at my bedside. I knew him by his breathing and non-stop string of business calls. The medical staff had long since departed, although they popped in now and then to take my pulse and change the embarrassing bag. A steady stream of Valium had been added to my saline drip, but I was still breathing on my own.

I heard the sound of metal scraping on tile as Conrad drew a chair over close to me. He patted my cheek and ran his hand down my shoulder. Shoving the short sleeve of the hospital gown up a bit, he left my bicep exposed. Based on what I’d seen while floating, it wasn’t much of a bicep. I could feel how shrunken and weak my body had become in the months I’d been comatose. I felt wasted in every sense of the word. Thank you, Valium.

Conrad stroked my arm for a moment then pinched me. Hard. In my mind I gasped, but my physical body just lay there, breathing shallowly.

“So. You’re not dead yet, eh? That’s good. I never wanted you to die, Kirsty. I was . . . I am really fond of you. And so is Shannon. I sometimes felt like I had two daughters, you and Shannon. Especially after you came to work for me.” He stroked a thumb over the sore spot where he’d pinched me, although whether to soothe me or erase the red mark so he wouldn’t get caught abusing the patient, I didn’t know. He’d pinched me really hard.

“I read that doctors believe coma victims can hear what’s going on around them. I keep up on this stuff, you know.”

Hmmm. So was he telling me this just in case I woke up? Talk about hedging your bets. Conrad always did think ahead. I would have shaken my head in ironic admiration, except I couldn’t move. All I could do was lie there and listen to his poisonous spiel. Even the pretty colors no longer distracted me.

“I want to explain to you why I made the Deal for my soul in the first place. I’m sure Shannon’s told you she developed a rare blood disorder when she was just a toddler.” He paused.

Yes, she’d told me, but if he was waiting for acknowledgment, he’d be waiting a long, long while.

He cleared his throat, perhaps moved by his own story. Maybe even he fell for the ol’ Conrad Deal–induced charm. “The doctors couldn’t do anything. My baby daughter was going to suffer greatly and then die. But there was this experimental drug. Not covered by the Ontario health care system. The cost was beyond me. I was just a young account exec back then, barely thirty years old and working for a big PR firm for trainee wages. But someone knew someone and eventually I met this . . . witch, I guess you’d say she was. The same one I got to charm your stapler when I needed your blood.” Oh, great. I was already pretty sure Conrad had something to do with that little fiasco, but it was nice to finally get confirmation.

If only Judge Julius were here.

“For a reasonable fee, the witch put me in touch with a purchaser of souls. I sold mine so that I could afford the medication Shannon needed.”

He paused so long I thought he was done, but he must have just made a pit stop on his jaunt down memory lane, because he sighed and continued his pathetic rationalization.

“You’re probably thinking I should have just traded my soul for a miracle cure. But that would have meant I already got what I bargained for and would have to go to Hell right then and there. Shannon would have grown up an orphan, since her mother died not long after she was born.”

This I knew. Losing a parent—both, in my case—had been something that bonded Shannon and me together on a deep emotional level over the years.

“So, instead, I negotiated for a successful PR firm and twenty-five more years. That way I could take care of Shannon and still keep my family together.”

I could sort of see why Conrad had gone with his plan. But did he really have a point or was I falling for his manipulation yet again?

“Shannon’s doing fine now. The drug she needs has been added to the list of approved treatments and so now the Province of Ontario pays for it instead of me. But still . . .” He faltered. He actually seemed to care. “I had to keep it up. I had to.”

Maybe I’d been wrong about him. Maybe he was a good guy who’d made a bad decision. Plus, I really had thrown myself in front of Dante’s scythe.

No, goddamnit! I was doing it again. Making excuses for him. Of all the creatures I’d met in Hell and on the Coil, my earthly boss was by far the most evil. I’d cast him in the role of father figure, but as of this moment, I was casting him out!

I recalled how he’d tried to steal my soul without asking. It was true he had a lot resting on his shoulders and that kicking me to the curb hadn’t meant much to anyone except the four—no, three—people who’d been at my bedside today.

But he’d gone about it all wrong. If he was going to steal a soul, he should have found someone old and down on their luck years before the deadline and arranged to buy that person’s soul. Someone who would have been grateful for a few good years. He could even have lined up a couple of contingency souls in case one passed on before the appointed time. If I, in my drugged-out state, had come up with this plan that was obviously the lesser of two evils, then the only reason he hadn’t thought of it was because he hadn’t bothered. I was there. I was handy. I was easy. And I had been a very good employee. Now I was getting mad again. Maybe the Valium in my saline drip was wearing off.

A monitor pinged close by. I needed to calm down before they upped my dosage.

“I’m sorry about forging your signature on that amendment, Kirsty. I just panicked. I’d come here and extracted the blood from you before a Reaper guy—not the dark-haired one that scythed you, but a different one, showed up demanding the paperwork.”

Then Conrad’s voice changed. He sounded predatory and insincere.

“That Reaper came back just now to tell me the verdict. I’m so sorry. I didn’t think it would go down like this. I promise, when the next Reaper comes for me in two months, I’ll tell him the truth.” His voice still sounded wrong. I could hear him lying. Funny how he’d always managed to convince me—and everybody else for that matter. I recalled that I’d felt the same thing when he’d been weaving his spell around my ex-colleagues when he’d announced my untimely coma in his crappy memorial speech, which was essentially: “Kirsty would have wanted us all to go back to our desks and work.” Not!

I could see right through his highly manipulative rhetoric now. He sounded pathetic and slimy. Apparently I had just enough bodily control to roll my eyes, even if I couldn’t open them.

“Only problem is, Kirsty, I don’t have a soul anymore since I already sold it. I doubt they’ll let me trade mine for yours. But I’ll do everything I can to get you your life back. To save you. I’ll talk to your aunt. She loves you so much and has been so miserable since you’ve been in here. And she’s gotta be, what? Sixty? Sixty-two? She’ll be happy to trade her life for yours. I’ll talk to her and to the Grim Reaper. No one’s ever out-negotiated me!”

Awww, that’s sweet. I knew Aunt Carey loved me more than enough to agree to trade her life for mine. I had finally learned that, although I still shuddered when thinking about what an ungrateful brat I’d been, never recognizing all the sacrifices she’d made after taking me in and raising me.

Wait. What?

I struggled against the Valium-induced brain fog.

He was lying! Trying to play me! Hedging his bets. Now, if I got the stapler and proved he’d tricked me, he wouldn’t lose his extension and go to Hell—he’d just flash a brand-spanking-new contract amendment. He’d get yet another innocent victim to sign away her soul on his behalf.

And the victim he had in mind just happened to be my beloved Aunt Carey.

Under no circumstances would I want Aunt Carey to trade her soul for mine. And that wasn’t even what was going to happen. She would be trading her soul so he could get another extension regardless of whether I got my life back or not. But knowing Conrad, that’s what he’d tell her. I knew that sly tone of voice—he believed he’d won.

Over my almost-dead body!

I couldn’t let it happen. I had to get back to Hell. While I hadn’t made quite enough effort on my own behalf, I would defend my aunt to the death—and from beyond the grave!

I needed to take this skeggin’ bastard down.

Struggling against the tethers of modern medicine and the natural order of things, I battered my soul against the shell of my physical body. But that wasn’t working any better now than it had before. Since the definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over and expecting different results, I decided to try the rational approach instead.

For a change.

I concentrated on relaxing, taking the deep, centering breaths Dante had once told me not to. Thinking of Dante calmed me.

Slowly I stopped panicking and began pushing against my bonds with deliberate, focused effort. I started to see results. I could feel whatever holds a soul inside a body stretching, loosening its metaphysical grip. I guess I’d been so close to death for so long that the ties that bind had weakened. Just as I decided I’d exhausted my mental and emotional reserves and was going to need a short nap before trying again, I felt the ethereal umbilical cord snap and my soul floated free.

I could see again! Looking down, I noticed the room was empty now. As empty as the body lying lost and alone beneath me. Even Conrad had gone. Time must have passed while I struggled to freedom.

Since time was so wonky, I had only a couple of months or so until Conrad would try his evil tricks again. I’d better hurry.

When Dante had first brought me to Hell, we’d walked a long and winding road. But I’d somehow transported almost instantaneously backward from Hell to my body today when I’d fainted. Despite screwing up my eyes and my courage, I couldn’t duplicate that journey. I was desperate enough that I even tried clicking my heels together and saying, “There’s no place like Hell. There’s no place like Hell. There’s no place like Hell.”

I guess I’d just have to walk. Or at least run/float. No newbie anymore, I charged through the hospital wall and along the path Dante had led me on that fateful day. As I ran, I checked my pockets. When I’d disembodied my soul again, I found myself in the same outfit I’d donned this morning: black leggings, an oversize purple T-shirt and my usual hiking boots. Uh-oh. No coins. In fact, since I wore leggings, I had no pockets, either. Well, Charon would just have to front me. He knew I was good for it and besides, nobody rips off a hugely powerful demon like him. He’d hike up his evening gown, toss off his high heels and chase them down.

Like a bat into Hell, I raced home as fast as my insubstantial legs would carry me, red dirt flying under the awesome hiking boots Dante had given me on my second day in hell. I really covered ground. When you don’t need to breathe, you can’t get winded.

I charged right through a huddle of gee-gnomes. Two of the little creatures leapt at me, colliding midair where I had been a moment before. They must have stung each other because when I looked back, their bodies lay on the ground, bubbling and mutating. Serves them right. What goes around, goes to ground. Or something.