I raised an eyebrow. From what I’d gathered from the tobacco stains on her fingertips, giving up vices wasn’t Kali’s strong suit. She raised her eyebrows back at me in exaggerated innocence and held out her hands in a gesture of surrender—tripled. “Honest. And let me tell you, giving up human hearts was a skeg of a lot easier than cigarettes. I’m just saying.”
Ira giggled. He’d recently taken up smoking himself as part of his new, rebel-without-a-cloud image. The giggling so went with that.
“Okay,” he continued. “I couldn’t actually get preferential treatment. I know. I tried. Anyway, angels only get one chance to be mortal and live a human life so I want to make it a truly awesome one. That’s why I’m studying to be a Reaper. I need to make some decent Karma Kredit points if I’m going to live the good life.”
Dante’s role as proctor involved him swaggering up and down the aisles between desks, looking severe, right hand resting on the hip where his confiscated scythe no longer hung. Having met Sergeant Schotz, I was sure that Dante’s confiscated scythe was under lock and key somewhere and only Schotz had the key. It was no one’s vault but his own. Dante halted when he reached my little group, laying both palms flat on my desk and leaning in. Keeping his voice low, he asked, “Is there a problem here, amici?”
I blushed. “We’re just trying to figure out how to handle this so we all pass. Any advice for us?” I tilted my head and tried to look appealing—either sexually appealing or appealing for help, I wasn’t fussy.
He leaned in closer still. “Do I have any advice? Sì.” He cut his eyes at the other members of the class and lowered his voice to a sexy growl. “What you three need to do is try to answer all the questions correctly.” He stood up and moved to the next group.
Well, that was helpful—not! Somebody would not be getting laid to rest anytime soon.
“So, Ira. Are you going up first? Or you, Kali?” I stared at my teammates apprehensively.
Ira looked thoughtful, while Kali picked worriedly at her cuticles—all thirty of them. A few long moments passed in silence.
I drew a deep breath and bit the bullet. “My guess is that he’ll ask the questions in the order he taught the work. He’d want us to learn from this exercise as much as from anything else we did in class. Which means he’s going to ask the easiest questions first. And that means I, as your weakest link, should go first.” I started to stand but Kali grabbed my arm—in several places.
“No. That’s what he’ll anticipate us thinking so he’ll put the hardest questions first. Ira, you go.” She certainly wasn’t sparing my feelings about being the weakest link. She looked at me with her face all screwed up, her eyebrows drawing in close. “We’re all in this together,” she said. “No offense?”
“None taken,” I assured her. “I was late joining the class.” I shrugged. “And I’m not a supernatural being or anything . . .” My stupid eyes burned a bit. I was not going to let my teammates down. Or my aunt.
“Okay. Okay. I’ll go.” Ira stood just as Amber and Crystal headed to the front of the room, cheered on by their respective teams.
While we’d been futzing around, gossiping and trying to choose our first spokes-being, Dante had returned to the front of the room and set up a tiny tableau consisting of an hourglass, a bell and a hammer. Never had three ordinary objects seemed so ominous.
The three examinees stood shoulder to shoulder at the front of the room. A drop of sweat trickled down Ira’s cherubic face. Amber and Crystal looked shaken, no doubt at the prospect of competing with each other.
Professor Schotz smoothed out his paper. “As soon as you know the answer, raise your hand. First person to raise his or her hand gets to respond. Answer to the best of your ability. I’ll decide if the answer is correct.” The professor tapped his own chest, indicating there was no higher authority than himself. “If nobody answers, everybody standing up here fails. No marks given for vagueness, stalling or faking it.”
“Remember, I was a student once myself, lo these many, many decades ago so I know all the tricks. No telepathy, either.” He stared pointedly at Kali. “Don’t make me get the tinfoil hats!”
He held out his sheet of paper. I squinted at it but no way could I make out even word one from where I sat.
“First question.” He ran one finger down the page. “In three sentences or less, describe a Reaper’s responsibilities.”
All three hands whipped ceiling-ward but only Amber’s stayed up. The others struggled as their arms were forced back down and pinned to their sides by magic. There was no question about who was going to answer the question. And what an easy question it was, too. Oh, skeg. He was starting at the beginning. I should’ve gone first.
“As you can see, I’m using a spell to determine who raised their hand first. In this case, our Ms. Amber has the floor. Go ahead. A Reaper’s responsibilities are . . . ?”
Amber took a small step forward. She usually enjoyed attention, but today she looked like she’d rather be under a rock. She licked her lips and stared at the floor.
“A Reaper’s responsibilities are as follows . . .” Now she raised her head and looked so far upward that only the whites of her eyes showed. “One.” She held up her perfectly manicured index finger. “When on the Mortal Coil, a Reaper will apprehend any soul or shade not traveling to Hell of its own accord. Two . . .” She raced on, as if afraid she’d lose her momentum. “When in Hell during peacetime, a Reaper will answer calls of distress and maintain some semblance of peace as decreed by his or her own judgment. Three . . .” At this point she realized she’d neglected to hold up a finger on two and seemed to get confused by all the advanced math involved. Finally she sorted it out by clasping both hands behind her back. Out of sight, out of mind; she was no mathlete. “Should Hell be under attack, the Reaper Corps will rise and defend our home unto the death.”
You know, I’d studied that passage, too. But I’d been so focused on memorizing the words, it wasn’t until I listened to Amber that I actually comprehended what was being said. What did they mean, “during peacetime?” When did Hell go to war? Did we fight with the next Hell over? I knew there were other Hells and other Hell dimensions. It was in one of the handouts.
What if I got asked a question about Hell going to war? Panicking, I leaned over and whispered my question to Kali.
Keeping her eyes focused straight ahead, she grabbed a pen and paper, scrawling one word across it: apocalypse.
Ah, now I remembered. I sagged back in my chair, adrenaline draining from my body. At some point in the undefined future, Hell would go to war with Heaven. In the meantime, most disputes were solved by playing ice hockey every second Tuesday.
Professor Schotz rang the bell enthusiastically. “Very good, Amber. Please take your seat and send up another of your team members. That is indeed the correct answer, right out of the textbook, and it segues nicely into my next question.”
M’Kimbi jogged to the front, high-fiving Amber on the way.
“Can a Reaper, who is either an immortal being”—he nodded toward Kali and Ira—“or an already dead soul like most of the rest of us—except you, of course, Kirsty.” He smiled in my direction.
I squirmed in my seat, wishing he hadn’t singled me out like that. And I wished he’d finished the question. Or had he and I’d somehow managed to miss it?
Behind me Rod made a rude noise.
“Can a Reaper die?” the Professor finally finished his question. “Ira?”
The angel stared straight ahead, shoulders back. The big bulge under his hoodie twitched and I wondered if he was nervous. He claimed it was a backpack but you never saw him get books or snacks from it. And I’d never seen a wing-shaped backpack before.
“Yes, Professor. In some extreme cases, sir, an individual, whether mortal or immortal, can die a permanent death whereby they disappear and are not to be seen again on any plane: Heaven, Hell or Mortal Coil. They just sort of fade away.”
Professor Schotz nodded and rang the bell absently, as if he hadn’t really been listening. The bell hung from a little stand and now I noticed it had a string tied to its clapper. So if the bell is rung by yanking on the string, what then, was the hammer for? I swallowed hard, not looking forward to seeing a demonstration or worse yet, feeling one.
“Yes, Ira. That is also correct. Thank you.”
Ira walked back to his seat. I wanted to acknowledge his triumph but somehow the subject matter was a big ol’ buzzkill. Kali caught my gaze, nodding. She went to the front of the room.
“Question three. Where do these doubly dead souls go? Yes, Crystal.”
“They get fed back into the death cycle, sir.” She grinned hugely, obviously very proud of herself.
“I’m afraid not, Crystal.” He held out his hand like a surgeon. “Hammer!” Dante slapped the small hammer into Schotz’s outstretched palm. I shivered in my seat. Here’s where we find out what the hammer is for.
“Thank you for playing along, Crystal. Have a nice afterlife.” He tapped her hard on her dyed blonde head with the hammer.
“Ow.” She rubbed the spot. “What is up with that? It, like, hurt, you . . . whoa!” A strong wind rose inside the classroom, whipping papers and pencils off desks. I yanked my hair out of my face, squinting against the stinging dust.
At the front of the room, Crystal began to spin as if she were in the midst of her own personal tornado, like the Tasmanian Devil in the cartoons. The swirling vortex whipped her out of the room, not via the door, but directly through the wall—without damaging the wall. It was like when I’d first been scythed up on the Coil and some physical laws still applied while others went out the window.
The room remained silent for a long moment as the papers and dust settled and then it erupted into a chorus of questions.
“What just happened?”
“Where’d she go?”
“Is that fair?”
Tiffany and Amber just squealed.
The professor waited for the commotion to die down. Dante tapped the hourglass, raising a single eyebrow at the professor.
“Did you think there’d be no penalty for an incorrect answer? We cannot have mistakes—forgive me, Dante—in the Reaper Corps. Ms. Crystal has been cast out. As you know from the readings, there’s quite an honored tradition around casting out.”
Tiffany and Amber squealed louder. Professor Schotz shook his head and raised his hands in a placating gesture.
“Now, girls, please. It’s only temporary. She will have the opportunity to retake the in-class portion of the training with the next group. Hopefully she’ll do better next time. It was obvious to me from her answer that she was not nearly as familiar with the coursework as a Reaper needs to be. Once you’re out in the field, there’s no room for error. Souls are at stake!”
Crystal’s BFFs settled down, apparently realizing they still had an opportunity to carry out their plans to be reincarnated together. Since they intended to pool their Karma Kredit points, this was just a temporary setback for them. Once they’d been assured their friend was safe, they turned their attention to more important things—like re-sheveling their disheveled hair and makeup.
I’d been nervous before but now I was a total mess. I didn’t want to spend five more minutes in this or any other classroom. I’d been lucky to join this class partway through. To have to start again, this time from the beginning . . . no. Just, no! I had a deadline and time was moving faster and faster.
After a few more minutes, Professor Schotz called the class back to order, carrying on where he’d left off. Rod swaggered to the front of the room, replacing his fallen teammate. The swagger was obviously false bravado as sweat dribbled down his Neolithic forehead. He shouldered his way in between Kali and M’Kimbi, flashing Horace a shaky thumbs-up.
“Now,” Professor Schotz began again. “Can one of you give me the correct answer? Where do doubly dead souls go?”
Nobody raised a hand. They all just looked around as if the answer were written somewhere in the room.
The hourglass pinged, startling me. I hadn’t realized the answers were timed. “C’mon, people. No answer within the allotted time earns all three of you a failing grade.”
M’Kimbi promptly raised his hand. At a nod from the professor, he answered, “No one knows, sir.”
“Sadly, that is correct. You may be seated.” Professor Schotz gave the bell a halfhearted shake. Damn. I should have had that kind of question. There were so many things I didn’t know I’d be sure to get it right.
But the nature of the questions about a soul’s final death was depressing as Hell. I knew we dealt in death but the life of a Reaper had seemed exciting: chasing down errant souls, bringing in cheaters like Conrad Iver. Now I wasn’t just nervous, I was scared and depressed. I was glad we were going to that new Mexican place after the final—if we got out of this alive. I might just indulge in a little firewater later. It would help me let off steam.
One by one, my classmates answered their questions, cycling through until every team except for mine was on its last entrant. With Kali at the front and me as yet untested, we still had two to go. I had already bitten my own nails down to the quick. If Kali had still been sitting next to me, I might have started on hers.
The professor shuffled his single sheet of paper, which was a skill in itself. I dug my nails into my palms as he asked the next question. “What happens if you shout the magic word Expelliarmus?”
Choruses of “Huh?” and “Wha—?” filled the air. Even I went, “What text was that . . . ?” And then I realized why it sounded familiar and wished I was up there.
Kali grinned. “It’s a disarming charm, sir. It sends another wizard’s wand flying.”
Dante burst out laughing. “I didn’t think anybody would get that one right, Professor.”
The professor actually giggled as he rang the bell for Kali’s answer. “Well done, Kali. Do you know why I just asked a ridiculous question like that in the middle of an exam? And this is an aside, not part of the test.”
Kali shrugged, all six shoulders moving in unison. “Because you’re a big Harry Potter fan?”
“Yes, there is that. But what it’s supposed to demonstrate is that it’s important to keep up with trends and behaviors back on the Coil. And that it’s important to keep a sense of humor. Death can be a real downer.”
Professor Schotz looked over the heads of the three students at the front of the room, settling his gaze on me. When he continued, I had the sense he wasn’t talking to the entire group anymore.
“Ours is a depressing business at times. We have to deal with bargain breakers, rip people from the bosoms of loving families, and when we make friends here in Hell, often they leave just as we’re getting attached to them.” He smiled, raising his hands to embrace the entire class once again. “It’s important to make the most of your death. You only live . . . well, as many times as it takes.” He removed his glasses and polished them on his robe again, leaving a greasy smear on the dark fabric and not really cleaning the lenses at all.