I ran on. Reaching the slippery slope, I dashed downward, slipping, falling, tumbling ass-first on the Good Intentions. It didn’t hurt, though. It felt like a dream from which I was just now waking. I continued to fall, my surroundings becoming more and more dreamlike. In the way of dreams, I knew I wasn’t really here.
Where would I wake? The Coil? The slippery slope? Or home?
And when had I started thinking of Hell as home?
I AWOKE BLEARILY. It had all been a dream. Except not.
I opened my eyes just wide enough to see I was still in bureaucracy’s staff lounge, just down the hall from the courtroom where my appeal had been so cruelly denied.
In my peripheral vision, I noticed dark stains on the pillow—tearstains or drool marks or venomous leakage. Who knew? They were long dry, so not from me. Ick.
I rocked up so quickly my head spun.
“Oh. You’re awake. Finally. Bene.” Dante put down his book.
“How long have I . . . ?”
“How long have you been asleep? About half an hour.” He shook his watch and held it to his ear, before shrugging and turning his attention back to me. “But it’s so difficult to tell.”
“Difficult to tell when I’m awake?”
“No, silly. Hard to tell how much time has passed.” He held out his wrist. The little hands were wringing across the face. It looked very alarmed. “How are you feeling?”
“Like death warmed over—literally. I’ve been to Hell and back. No, wait. It’s so confusing.” I scrubbed my hands over my face. My cheeks felt tight, as if tears had dried there.
Dante moved to my side, kneeling on the floor next to me. He grasped my hand, peering at me till I met his gaze. “Kirsty, I’m so sorry. If only I hadn’t made arrangements to get the wrong stapler. If only I hadn’t scythed you wrongfully in the first place. I can’t begin to—”
I placed my fingers on his lips. Okay, maybe I used my whole hand and I was not that gentle.
“Look. Nobody made me jump in front of Conrad.”
Dante started to speak again. It came out as “gihcr fab gkoin.” I still had my hand across his mouth. I ignored his interruption and continued.
“Like the judge said, I’ve treated Hell as a way station. As if I were just passing through. Maybe that’s true for most souls, but I’m not most souls. I’m still alive, but now I get that I’m going to be here a while longer. I know Conrad forged my name on that amendment, but I have no way of proving it unless I can get that stapler. Yes, yes.” I acknowledged his attempt to speak again. “The right one this time. But even then, there’s no guarantee my appeal will be granted. They may deny it for the second and final time.”
Sybil had looked up the rules a while back. There were no further appeals on appeals of appeals. That held little appeal.
Dante nodded vigorously, my entire arm going up and down with the motion.
“So here’s what we’re going to do. You are going to take me down to Pit U. And we’re going to enroll me in the Reaper Academy. Yes, yes, you were right. You were right. I was wrong. Happy?”
I didn’t want to hear it right now so I left my hand on his lips. It felt kind of nice.
“Sdi wod?” His eyes bored into mine—no, not literally.
He grasped my fingers, gently drawing my hand away from his mouth. He kept hold of my hand, though, whether for comfort or to keep me from rendering him speechless again, who knew? He grasped my other hand in his free one and we sat there, holding hands.
“Why now?” he asked. Probably for the second time.
Although I trusted him completely, I still wasn’t ready to let him know my new plan: to become a Reaper so I could travel back to the Coil and scythe Conrad. Why not? Dante had done it to me, hadn’t he? Only a few hours ago, I’d wanted nothing more than to get my own life back—to make it all about me. Now my main motivation was to keep my aunt safe from Conrad’s evil clutches.
I knew Dante wouldn’t approve. The Reaper Code included some sort of prime directive about noninterference. And Dante lived and died by—well, existed—by that code. Dante’s integrity was one of his best features—that and his amazing cheekbones—but when it came to saving my aunt, I couldn’t let anything interfere, not even the Reaper I loved. Instead I answered his question with something almost as true, something I’d been thinking about for a while now.
“I’ve seen a lot of injustices since I’ve been down here. And that may be just the way things are in Hell, but I want to be in a position to help enforce the few rules we do have. Like when I first got here and Loki tried to roofie me—that isn’t acceptable behavior, even here.”
Dante paled and his mouth turned hard at the corners. We’d never spoken about my close encounter of the perv kind when Dante had rescued me from that skegging trickster.
I blushed and wanted to look away, but I forced myself to meet his gaze. I felt awkward talking about Loki. I blamed myself a little—I had gone off with a stranger, after all—but mostly I was mad. Nobody should take advantage of a woman in need.
I was also uncomfortable not telling Dante, a good and honest man, the whole truth about my reasons for wanting to become a Reaper.
“Going to the Reaper Academy is a good idea, cara. And if, by the time you finish your course, you choose to pursue your appeal, you will be well positioned to retrieve the stapler yourself.”
I nodded. That wasn’t my plan, but it was close. The timing would be awfully tight. I would have to leave the second I matriculated and got a scythe of my very own in my grabby little hands. But let him believe that if he liked. I’d do what I had to do and then come back. I knew I wasn’t going to tire of Dante and leave him. I just needed to save my aunt and then we could be together forever. Now or in fifty years. I had two months to figure out some way to make it all work.
Either way, we’d be together.
I pulled out my hellphone. “I’m calling Charon. I need to let him know I lost my appeal.” Char was gossip central. I only needed to make this one call and he’d tell everyone who’s anyone in Hell my bad news. Plus he’d just kill me if he wasn’t the first to know. I didn’t want to find out if he could really do that.
Dante squeezed my free hand as I hit the speed-dial button for Char. He was 666.
“Girlfriend!” Charon answered.
I yanked the phone from my ear and lowered the volume. I quickly filled him in on the judge’s ruling. As soon as I got to the words “appeal denied,” he screeched, “You’re staying! I missed you so much these past four hours. Eternal damnation just hasn’t been the same without you.”
I grinned. That was just like Char to make light of something he knew must be killing me. He wasn’t much for listening to your problems, but he was great at cheering you up.
“Oh really? I can tell by the trance music blasting in the background how you’ve been in mourning since I left.”
“Honey, I know you really wanted to go, but it’s hard for me to be sad that you’re staying.”
Before the call got maudlin and I bawled in front of Dante yet again, I made plans with Char to go clubbing real soon. Char liked to party hearty, until he was nearly clubbed to death. And I could use both a night out to forget my problems and a good friend’s companionship. Plus a powerful demon in your corner is never a bad thing.
He agreed—I could hear him nodding, horns scraping against the phone. Then I clicked off and turned back to my Reaper.
“Andiamo,” he said. Whether that referred to love or bullets, I didn’t care. Holding hands, we left the courthouse together.
For some reason, it had turned unreasonably cold. I longed for the polar bear fleece hoodie Dante had bought me. Suddenly I remembered telling Shannon on my last day on Earth that it would be a cold day in Hell before I saw the inside of a classroom again.
Oh, look. I’d been right.
The trek across Hell from the Reincarnation Station and courtrooms should’ve taken about half an hour, but we kept running into friends who had already heard the news and wanted details. Most of the souls and demons we ran into seemed really happy I was staying. Either I’d made more friends down here than I ever made on the Coil or misery just loved company. No, I realized, I had made friends who honestly liked me. I began to see why Dante didn’t mind staying.
If life is what you make it, well, then afterlife is too.
EVENTUALLY DANTE AND I arrived at the university. He led me over to the Registrar’s Office, where he leaned over the counter and rummaged in a drawer until he found a brochure on joining the Reaper Corps. He handed it to me and I flipped it open. “Reaping 101. No prerequisites required.”
I hadn’t realized I’d been holding my breath until I read the requirements. I mean, why would I notice, when I didn’t need to breathe?
Anyway, I’d been worried that the requirement for becoming a Grim Reaper would be that one needed to be actually dead. But apparently not. Thank G—er, someone.
I scanned the text, checking out the curriculum. “Reap What You Sew: Styling your Robe.” I hated to dress like everyone else and had plans to jazz up my robe with sequins or piping or something. I’d ask Charon for help with that one. I recalled Char asking Dante to help him re-glue some unstuck sequins to his horns during my very first crossing of the Styx. If he could glam up his big, scaly horns, then he could make my Reaper robe sparkle like a teenage vampire.
“Stick Handling: You and Your Scythe.” I’d played hockey in high school, as well as in my past lives so that class ought to be a piece of cake. She shoots, she reaps!
“Death Coaching: Don’t be the Rude of All Evil.” I was a PR professional. I could fake sincerity with the best of ’em.
There were other courses required to get your baccalaureate in Reapage, but I figured I could handle most of them. As Dante had told me a while back, Reapers did more than just reap. They were Hell’s SWAT team, Swiss Guard, customs agents, bounty hunters and apparently the referees in various sporting events. In short, they were the only trustworthy beings in Hell. And wasn’t I off to a great start by lying about my reasons for joining up? I planned to misuse my scythe the instant I got it.
I checked out the reading list. While there were a couple of actual textbooks, I was relieved to find that the required reading consisted mainly of photocopies of the relevant sections of the major religious tomes: the Bible, the Koran, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the Torah, and a novel titled Good Omens. Go figure.
The more I read, the more I knew I could do this. The course lasted two semesters. The five-week classroom portion was already two weeks along. Then the practicum activities in the field took another two weeks. Seven weeks in total, five for me. That was cutting it close to the day when the judge would rule me dead if I didn’t show up with the stapler of the damned. If Coil time proceeded along the same space-time discontinuum I’d observed in the hospital, then I had only another two months to earn my scythe and get back to the Coil to rescue my aunt. And it might not even be that long; time was passing more and more erratically as, well, time passed.
It suddenly occurred to me I didn’t have enough Karma Kredit points for tuition and I said as much.
“All retraining courses are free,” Dante responded. “It’s covered under the GI Bill.”
“G.I.? Weren’t those the slippery things on the hill on the way in?”
“Nah, those were Good Intentions—other people’s. This is Grim Intent—your own. Same acronym, different meaning. Capisci?”
Right. Because that’s not confusing at all. “So, you’re saying the courses are all free if you’re grimly intended?”
“That’s right. Life isn’t the only place where the best things are free.”
I nodded. That settled it, then. I had grim intentions. The grimmest.
“I think we’re ready now,” Dante called to three large creepy beings with leathery wings, pointy horns, forked tongues and tails who had been completely ignoring us. Now they descended on us like commissioned salesmen. That’s when I discovered that the “Demonic Procession” course had nothing to do with pomp and circumstance as I’d assumed when I’d seen that brochure a while back. Instead, demons were in charge of processing paperwork and they were devilishly good at it.
While the forms were confusing and the administrators scary, being processed by a demon turned out to be pretty painless. After only a couple of hours (Hell time) I had a student card proudly displaying my student number (XXXIVb) and a cafeteria pass.
Dante had disappeared somewhere around the ninety-minute mark, telling me to wait for him in the nearby reception area.
I’d read the syllabus three times by the time Dante finally showed with another guy in tow. The man had Professor written all over him. Not literally, but he looked like something out of a publically funded version of Hogwarts. Long white hair merged seamlessly into a long white beard. A huge smile beamed from his kindly face, causing little laugh lines to crinkle around his eyes and the corners of his mouth. He had on khaki pants and matching shirt under his Reaper robe, which he wore open like a suit jacket. There were even suede patches sewn onto the robe’s elbows. I didn’t know a robe could have elbows, but his did.
Dante gestured toward me. “Professor Colin Schotz, may I present your newest pupil, Kirsty d’Arc. Kirsty, Professor Schotz.”
From Dante’s deferential manner, I wondered if I should rise and curtsy. But they’d come to me and I was a woman (this time ’round), so I just held out my hand to be shaken or kissed or whatever passed for a formal greeting here.
“On your feet, student! There’s a professor present.”
I looked around. Hadn’t Dante said there wouldn’t be any cops or military here?
I hadn’t even been a Girl Scout, let alone a soldier, but there’s something about having those particular syllables shouted at you that makes you leap to your feet, backbone ramrod straight and be all you can be.
I stuck out my hand. “Pleased to meet you, Professor.”
Instead of shaking my hand, the professor saluted. But it wasn’t the professor now. Same body, different head. Apparently this guy had two heads like Bob the Barker, who worked with my friend Sue Sayer, except in this guy’s case they appeared only one at a time. The new head sported an extreme buzz cut and the body had lost its preoccupied academic stance and assumed a rigid military bearing. A jagged scar ran across his face, starting at the right side of his hairline and traveling down toward the left corner of his mouth, disappearing into the craggy frown lines on his clean-shaven jaw. A black patch covered his right eye. He had fierce blue eyes—I mean, eye—whereas kindly Professor Schotz had had warm brown ones.