Dante repeated his gracious gesture. “Sergeant Colin Schotz. May I present Kirsty d’Arc, your new recruit.”
Instead of shaking my hand, he hauled a raft of papers out from under his arm. “These are the required readings. The prof’s already distributed them in class. I’m doing a huge favor for Dante here, letting you enroll partway through the semester. You’ve got a lot of catching up to do.” He got all up in Dante’s face. “And she’d better not fail. Got that?”
Sergeant Schotz spun around and started away, black robe flaring out behind him. Suddenly he turned and came back to me as if he’d remembered something.
“Welcome, my dear. Welcome.” I faced the professor again. Mostly. “Don’t let him intimidate you. We’re all playing on the same team here. Or, at least, I am.”
“Only if you make the cut,” one half of his mouth said, corner slanting downward. “There’s no team in I!”
The professor winked at me with his good, brown eye. Half his face was now the sergeant’s, complete with eye patch. Could the sergeant still see? “Don’t pay any attention to him, Ms. d’Arc. I may be schizophrenic, but at least I’ll always have each other.”
This time when he turned, he did march away.
Okay, that was disturbing. And it was going to be distracting if he—they—couldn’t keep it together. I’d have to figure out a way to pay attention to lectures in class.
Dante rocked up and down on his toes. “So, what did you think of my boss?”
He looked so pleased I couldn’t tell him Colin was both odd and scary. “I’m looking forward to his teaching.”
“He’s a great professor. And a terrific drill sergeant. You’ll like them. He’s amazing.”
“Well, he’s something, all right.” He. They. I had a distant memory of Char and Dante talking about a he that was a they the day I arrived. Since Colin Schotz was in charge of the Reaper Corps in addition to his teaching role, I would really need to impress him if I was ever going to get back to the Coil in time to warn Aunt Carey about Conrad.
“What’s his story?”
“Story? What do you . . . Oh, the soldier and the scholar thing? Okay. You know how, when you get here in Hell, you assume the form you believe yourself to be?”
“Yeah . . .” I said slowly. No, wait. The new decisive me was more sure than that. “I mean, yes, I do know that.”
“Colin had two dominant incarnations and he can’t decide which him is the him he wants to be down here. So we get two instructors in one.”
“Can he keep track of stuff, like what homework he assigned the day before?”
“You won’t need to worry about that. Professor Schotz teaches only the in-classroom work, while Sergeant Schotz is in charge of the fieldwork. But do not let the professor’s kindly demeanor fool you. You must be sure to have all the readings and homework done on time or it’s . . .” He sucked air between his teeth, generating a slashing noise as he drew a finger across his neck.
“He’ll kill me?!”
“Oh, no. I mean you’ll have to repeat the semester. Now, we’d better hurry.”
No kidding. No way did I have time to repeat anything. I looked down at the stack of papers in my hands. “Do I go to class now or do I go home and start reading these?”
Dante looked at his watch. “Neither. It’s time for lunch. I hear they have deep-fried ectoplasm on a bun. Yum.”
Dante strode toward the cafeteria at a good clip, his robe flaring out behind him as Professor Schotz’s had. I’d grown to love that look and couldn’t wait to get a robe of my own.
If I passed, of course.
I followed Dante. I’d been in Hell long enough that ectoplasm on a bun sounded good to me, too. As I walked, I shuffled through the papers Professor Schotz had given me instead of watching where I was going. I’d believed I was headed toward the cafeteria, but when I arrived at the door and pushed on the handle to walk through it, I stumbled down an unexpected step. I nearly turned my ankle as I hit hard-packed dirt instead of marble tiles. The door slammed shut behind me, the bolt clicking into place.
I’d landed in an unkempt courtyard. Now what? I did a quick reconnoiter of the space, which looked desolate and unused. All brick walls and no windows. I didn’t see another door and a couple of abortive attempts told me this one had locked behind me. What I did see was another person. Or, you know, being. Tall, dark and not exactly human, she leaned up against a wall watching me coolly, toying with a cigarette. She reminded me a bit of my former coworker Indira, only without the blond streaks. And with a few extra arms.
“There’s a trick to it, you know.” She smiled, teeth brilliantly white against her dusky skin.
I couldn’t help but smile back. “No, I didn’t know that. I’m new.” While I didn’t have to breathe anymore, I did need to force air over my voice box in order to speak. I took a deep breath to say more, but accidentally inhaled an unpleasant mouthful of cigarette smoke. You’d think I’d be used to smoke, what with all the fire down here, not to mention the brimstone and cusswords, but I hadn’t been exposed to tobacco smoke since Lord Roland Ecks and his pipe when I’d stumbled across the time machine. I started hacking up a lung, a little worried that might be more than just an expression down here.
“Sorry.” She dropped the butt on the ground amid a pile of others, grinding it beneath her boot. Then she pushed off from the wall and came toward me. “I know I shouldn’t smoke, but it gives me something to do with my hands.” To illustrate, she put her hands on her hips, crossed her arms over her chest and patted her long straight hair. That left one free hand to hold her textbooks. “I never know what to do with them.”
“Really?” I gasped, coughing fit mostly over. “I would’ve thought having three pairs would allow you to do all sorts of things simultaneously.”
“Too bad it doesn’t work like that. Three sets of arms, but only one brain. You should have seen me try to learn piano.” She rolled her eyes. She only had two of those. “On the other hand,” she said with a grin, “I can beat you in keyboarding with two hands tied behind my back. Hands down.”
I laughed. “You’re like a one-woman arm-y.”
“Good one. I gotta hand it to you, it’s not often someone comes up with a crack I haven’t heard before. I’m Kali, by the way.”
“I’m Kirsty.” I shook her extended hand, eyeing the other five. “So, what’s the trick for getting back out of here?” I gestured toward the locked exit.
“Oh, it’s easy. Stand back.” She waved her hand over the lock mechanism. The lock exploded, pieces flying all around us. “You just have to be a god.” She gestured for me to precede her through the doorway.
“Thanks. I’ll remember that for next time.” I walked through the door and she followed. “Doesn’t that piss off the maintenance staff? Having to constantly replace the lock?”
“Nah, they got some guy who fixes things the same way I destroy them.” She shrugged. “I’d prefer that, actually, but you get what you get in the way of god-like powers, right?”
I nodded. The last god I’d met hadn’t impressed me much, but Kali seemed pretty decent. “So what’s a nice god like you doing in a place like this?”
“I got bored with the whole deity thing so I’m studying to be a Reaper. How about you?”
“Me, too. Not the god thing. Just the Reaper thing.” I touched my chest. “Late enrollee.”
“Cool. Maybe we can be study partners. Listen, I gotta go see a man about a god, but I’ll see you in class.” She headed down the hallway while I reoriented myself and took a step toward the cafeteria. From halfway across the mezzanine, Kali called back to me, “Hey, Kirsty. You didn’t ask me what I was the god of.” She had a big goofy grin on her face.
“Hey, Kali,” I called. “What are you the god of?”
“Nothing special,” she yelled, continuing to stride backward as she spoke. “Just, you know, death, destruction, chaos and those earring backs that always go missing.”
I nodded once, trying to look knowing and blasé. One of my earrings went plop at my feet, its little butterfly back suddenly gone. I’d had my ears repierced last month, but if I was going to hang out with Kali, maybe I shouldn’t have bothered.
I was so scoring her as my study partner! Being the god of death and destruction would give her a hell of a leg up on the rest of the class. Or an arm up. Whatever.
Kali had reached the edge of the mezzanine and was about to turn down the hallway when I shouted, “What about socks in the dryer? They always go missing, too.”
“Nah. That’s been assigned to Poseidon’s portfolio.” She waved all her right hands. I could hear her laughing as she moved down the hallway and out of sight.
I pushed my way through the cafeteria door, getting the right one this time. I found Dante with two yellow trays in front of him—the kind with little plastic partitions so that one mystery food doesn’t touch any other mystery food. Maybe the cafeteria staff feared a fatal food chain reaction.
“Hey. Where you been?”
“Took a wrong turn. Met a god. You know. No big deal.”
He nodded without really looking at me. He took a bite of his lunch and made a note on a napkin that was already covered with inky scrawls. Black ink this time. But I supposed it made sense to use actual ink in academia—if you tried to take notes in class with a blood-pen, you’d probably pass out before the lecture ended.
I chewed in silence as Dante scribbled away. Since I’m very much the patient type—not—as soon as I’d taken a couple of mouthfuls, I tried to read his chicken scratchings upside-down. No luck; it had to be in Latin or Italian or something. I had a couple more bites and then I asked, “muff fu iting?” He looked at me oddly but didn’t answer. I swallowed and asked again. “What’re you writing?”
“Nothing, really. I’m just toying around with the idea of updating something I wrote a long time ago.” The tips of his ears pinked. My Reaper was hiding something.
“And?” I prodded.
“And setting it to music.” He looked down at the paper again. “You’re from now, right?”
“Yeah, from now minus ten months or so, but I try to keep current.” I took another bite. “Au courant,” I added, thinking of Lord Seiko Kobe, the time engineer. We’d become friends once I apologized for tricking them. He seemed to understand I’d had no choice. I should call him to let him know our coffee date for next week was still on, although by now he’d have heard about my reanimation interruptus. Nothing moved faster than gossip, in this world or any other.
Shoving the food into one cheek with my tongue, I said, “Though it’s hard to know when now is, what with time being so weird.”
“What would you think if I redid my epic poem to music? Maybe the kids stuck studying it today wouldn’t hate me so much.”
He looked nervous. Along with my mouthful, I swallowed the flip answer I’d been ready to give. I considered what I knew of his poetry, which wasn’t much. I’ve never read any of it, but I figured I knew what it was about: death, misery, punishment and suffering. So I asked him, “You mean like a funeral dirge or a country-and-western song?”
“No!” He did that squinty thing with his eyebrows that he does when he’s not happy. “I mean rap. Hip-hop.”
Hip-hop? His fourteenth-century epic redone as rap? I found it difficult to get my head around that. “Are you telling me that in all these centuries it’s never been set to music?”
“Well, yeah, some guy in the sixteen hundreds wrote a symphony inspired by it. I met him once when he came through here. Nice guy. I think he’s an accountant now.” He moved his chair forward to yank his Reaper’s robe out from under one of the legs. Then he sat down again, brushing dust from the hem. “It didn’t catch on at the time, though.”
I grinned. “You know what they say. If it ain’t Baroque, don’t fix it.”
He glared at me. “If you don’t want to hear it, just say so.”
“No, I do. I really do want to hear it.” Well, I did now that he’d roused my curiosity. I never could make much sense out of the classics. Maybe a rap version was just what I needed—just what the modern world needed.
“You’re not thinking of going back, are you?” It was out of my mouth before I thought. And with real fear in my voice. There was a pretty good chance I wouldn’t get my life back if, when the time came, I was off saving Aunt Carey’s life instead of showing up for my last-chance appeal. I really didn’t want to be stuck in Hell without Dante. He was by far the best thing that had happened to me since I got here. Or possibly ever.
“Nah. I’ll find a deserving rapper and let it leak through.”
“Leak through? I’ve heard of divine inspiration, but Hellish inspiration?”
“Just listen, okay?” He looked around. The cafeteria was nearly empty, with only a being or two remaining, chowing down on their mystery food of choice. Using his index fingers as drumsticks, Dante beat a 4/4 rhythm on the table.
Twisting up his lips, he did a fair imitation of those scratching noises DJs make by moving a record back and forth. I grabbed a couple of clean napkins, wiping half-chewed ectoplasm off the table. Keeping the beat, he began to rap:
“So I’m cruisin’ thru de woods one day,
Da year is thirteen-ten.
I’m huntin’ me a leopard,
Or maybe a dragon.
“I’m gettin’ kinda tired,
’n’ wandered off da path,
I fell into a valley
And landed on my ass.
“I felt a little queasy,
From fallin’ an’ from fear.
I saw in great big writin’,
‘’bandon hope when ent’rin’ here.’ ”
He stopped drumming and flipped over the napkin. Would this thing never end? Wait, why could I still hear drumming? I looked around the cafeteria and saw three or four beings keeping time with their . . . appendages. Maybe Dante was on to something.
“I know that I was chosen,
I ain’t gon’ tell no lie.
Lucy Phurr does like me,
Cuz I’m a way cool guy.
“I found myself a mentor,
He wore a homespun gown.
He led me to the center,
And we went down, down, down.”
His voice went lower and lower and lower as he repeated the last word. I realized I too had been keeping the beat. It was really rather catchy. I found myself wanting to know what happened next.
“Hey, that’s pretty good. You’re not such a bad poet, after all.” I grinned to show I was kidding.
His cheeks flushed. He looked down, toying with his watch. “Grazie. It’s just that—oh, for the love of . . . We’ve got to get you to class. Colin is going to be furious if you’re late on your first day.”
We grabbed our stuff and raced through the unhallowed halls.
DANTE LEFT ME at the classroom doorway with the whispered instruction to grab a seat. I stood there a moment, panting heavily from my run, out of the breath I didn’t actually need. I watched him stride to the front of the room where Professor Schotz was writing something on the chalkboard.