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By Lori Sjoberg
eKENSINGTON BOOKSCopyright © 2013 Lori Sjoberg
All right reserved.
Chapter OneDeath never took a holiday.
No, Death was the consummate workaholic, more steadfast and diligent than the U.S. Postal Service. Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stayed the agents of Death from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.
Always the professional, Death never discriminated, taking young and old, weak and strong, healthy and infirm. It couldn't be bought, or bullied, or reasoned with. Death had a mission and come Hell or high water, it would be accomplished.
For David Anderson, today was an easy day. As one of Death's more seasoned agents, he'd been given the task of training the newest inductee in the tools of the trade. And with only two terminations on the day's docket, it wouldn't take too long to drink the memories away.
He looked down, checking his watch. Shit. Time to move. He gulped the last of his soda then crumpled the can and tossed it in the trashcan near the curb.
"Let's roll," he told Adam Javorski, his latest trainee. He gave a slight nod to the left before sliding on a pair of dark tinted sunglasses. "We're due for our appointment."
"Appointment?" Adam asked, looking confused. Then the light bulb went off in his head. "Oh. Yeah, right. Appointment." David's gaze slanted over to his apprentice. The kid looked bright enough. Tall and rangy, with sharp brown eyes and distinctive Eastern European features, he had the look of a man always on the watch for trouble. Which made sense. He'd been a cop in his mortal life, fiercely dedicated to protecting and serving. Well, up until his last assignment, which is what led to his current situation.
"So when's this going down?" Adam asked with a youthful exuberance, and David let out a mental groan.
Newbies. He couldn't remember a time when he'd ever been that green. Stopping at the bustling intersection, he closed his eyes and focused inward, tuning out the sounds of early rush hour in downtown Orlando. "Not for another seven or eight minutes," he said, homing in on the low-grade buzz pulsing through his veins. The vibration was barely distinguishable, but nevertheless, it was there.
"How do you know?"
"I can feel it." When the light changed, they crossed over to Washington. The last thing David wanted was to be late so he picked up the pace, moving around a homeless man camped out on the sidewalk, a foul odor radiating from the overflowing shopping cart holding all of his worldly possessions.
Adam glanced over at him, a bewildered expression on his face. "You can feel death?"
"Of course." Then he remembered mortals couldn't feel death, couldn't scent mortality like a bloodhound. He cursed under his breath. It had been so damn long since he'd drawn mortal breath he was beginning to forget the little things. Or was it more of a choice? He suspected it was the latter.
"How?" Adam asked, intrigued. "What does it feel like?"
The pair cut through the park, paying no attention to the cluster of small children squealing with glee as they tossed chunks of bread to a trio of greedy mallards. They were close now; David could feel it. The buzzing had intensified, growing stronger and more insistent as it rumbled inexorably toward its macabre crescendo.
Deciding they had enough time for a quick lesson, David came to an abrupt halt at the edge of the park and Adam quickly followed suit. "Close your eyes," he ordered his trainee.
Patience was never one of David's strong points. He gritted his teeth and counted to ten. "Just close your eyes, dammit, I'm trying to teach you something."
Adam shot him a guarded look but complied without further question or comment.
"Now quiet your mind. Ignore everything but the sound of my voice."
After a few moments, Adam said, "Okay."
"Do you notice a low hum in the background?"
"I thought you said to ignore everything but the sound of your voice."
David let out a low growl before clamping down on his temper. "I did," he said, jaw clenched. "But now I'm telling you to listen for the hum. Can you hear it or feel it?"
Adam stayed silent for what seemed like forever. Then his expression shifted to one of near wonder. "I feel it! It's kind of like a low electrical current, right?"
For the first time in days, David smiled. The kid might not be a lost cause after all. "Yes. Very good. That's what you need to focus on. The stronger the sensation, the closer you are to the point of death."
He paused to scan the area, making sure no one noticed. Of course, he had nothing to worry about. People were such creatures of habit, scurrying about their daily lives, oblivious to the forces working around them. Tourists snapped pictures in front of the fountain while locals hurried along the sidewalk, eager to reach their destinations. A bus eased up to the curb and opened its doors, letting passengers off while others waited to board.
Adam opened his eyes. "How's this going down?" he asked, his eyes scouring the scenery, searching for any traces of imminent doom.
"I have no idea," David replied, leaning back against a weathered oak. He watched the bus pull away from the curb, spewing out a cloud of noxious exhaust as it merged into traffic. Out of habit, he checked the time again. Less than a minute.
"What do you mean, you don't know?" Adam's brows crinkled. "I thought you knew what was going to happen."
David shook his head and felt a trickle of sweat run past his temple. So much for fall in Florida. Late October, and the temperatures were still cranked above ninety. "Nope. The docket only gives a place and approximate time." He watched while Adam's face scrunched up in obvious confusion. He vaguely remembered giving his handler the same expression when he was new, so he decided to fill in the blanks. "Look, if you really want to know the exact details ahead of time, you can request it. But from my experience, you're better off knowing as little as possible."
As far as he was concerned, the less he knew, the less he had to purge from his mind afterward. Just how many times had he stared into the face of death? To be honest, he'd lost count. Maybe that was for the best, too. In his six decades of harvesting souls, he'd witnessed every act of savagery known to man. First, he'd been shocked. Then revolted. Eventually, he'd gone numb. Now he viewed the world through the jaded eyes of an ambivalent spectator, always watching from a comfortable distance.
The sound of tires screeching jerked him from his thoughts. Like countless times before, familiar events unfolded. Horns blared, tires screeched, and metal crunched against metal in a twisted symphony. Somewhere in the distance, a woman screamed. And then everything grew quiet, leaving only the smell of burnt rubber and the faint whimper of the dying.
Time to get to work.
The accident had blocked traffic in all directions, creating a rush-hour nightmare that would take hours to unravel. David wove a path between the idling vehicles, leaving Adam no choice but to follow in his wake. The stench of gasoline grew stronger as they got closer, until they reached the intersection and the scene came into view.
It was a wonder she was still alive. The young woman's broken body lay pinned inside the wreckage, the steering wheel crushing her chest like a vise. Her ribs were shattered, puncturing her lungs, making each desperate gasp increasingly painful.
Her passenger got the better end of the bargain. He died on impact; his mangled remains barely recognizable among the tangled heap of metal. Already, his soul was separating from his body, confused and chaotic in its search for some semblance of order.
David rounded what was left of the front end and sank down beside the passenger side door. "Take the driver," he ordered Adam before turning his attention back to the passenger.
"How?" Adam asked. He kneeled down by the driver's side window, taking in the sight of a life soon to expire.
"Just do it like I told you!" David barked, too occupied to hold his trainee's hand. Already, a crowd was forming, human vultures eager to witness carnage, so long as it wasn't their own. Sirens wailed in the distance as emergency vehicles rushed to the scene. They needed to finish the job and get the hell out of Dodge before the cavalry arrived or anyone got suspicious.
David opened himself up and the soul swept into his body, drawn in by the unspoken promise of warmth and answers. He could feel its essence now, could feel the swirling tempest of love, hate, unfulfilled hopes and dreams, and regrets. When the soul realized its body was gone, there was a sharp spike of bitterness, disappointment, and undiluted despair, and David thought, right there with you, pal.
"David?" Adam called out from the opposite side of the car. "A little help over here?"
It took him a few seconds to respond while he waited for the soul to settle down and make itself at home.
"Yeah?" David finally said once he regained his composure.
"Could you come over here, please?" Moving around the back of the wreck, he crouched down beside Adam. His eyes tracked briefly to the dying driver, her breaths coming closer, her life force bleeding out. A trickle of blood seeped from the corner of her mouth, but she didn't seem to notice or care. "What is it?"
"She's not dead, yet," Adam whispered. "I think I can save her."
David studied the driver for a fleeting moment, assessing her condition. Already, he could smell the sharp tang of Death, waiting to swoop down to claim its prize. "No, you can't," he said with a shake of his head. "She's not going to make it."
"How do you know that for sure?" Adam asked, his tone ripe with accusation. He tugged on the handle, but the door wouldn't budge. "She's still alive. If I can figure out a way to get her out of the car, maybe I can—"
"No, you can't," David interrupted, his patience exhausted. He grabbed Adam by the shirt collar and dragged him away from the window. "I know you mean well, kid, but let's get something straight. You are an agent of Death, not the angel of mercy." He gave his apprentice a good shake. "Stop acting like a Boy Scout and do your damn job. If you need to comfort her until she takes her last breath, that's your choice, not mine. Do whatever the Hell you have to. But do not forget why you're here." He nodded toward the woman. "She will die, no matter what you try to do. Get over it."
He let Adam go and shifted closer to the window. "Take it easy, ma'am," he said calmly, digging deep for a slice of compassion but coming up with crumbs instead. "Adam's going to take real good care of you."
The woman's gaze drifted up, distant and unfocused. Her mouth cracked open but no noise came out. Then a strangled moan escaped her lips and her eyes went blank.
David grabbed Adam's arm and dragged him over to the door. "Time to pop your cherry, boy."
Sarah Griffith took a deep breath, straightened her spine, and then strode through the double doors of the Auburn Green Retirement Community. She ignored the pungent scent of disinfectant as she crossed the modest lobby and approached the reception desk.
The middle-aged woman manning the desk was speaking on the phone, her tone calm and reassuring. "Yes, Mrs. Duncan," she said while she scanned the chart on the counter. "Dr. Jamarcus is visiting with a resident at the moment. If you like, I can have him give you a call once he's available." She glanced up over the rims of her glasses and silently mouthed, "I'll be right with you," before ressuming her telephone conversation. "Uh-huh. Yes, ma'am, of course. You're very welcome. Have a blessed day."
"Good afternoon, Ms. Griffith. Dr. Patel is expecting you," the woman said once she hung up. She leaned forward and pointed to the left. "He's in his office. Down the hall, third door to the left."
"Thank you." With a cordial nod, Sarah hurried down the narrow hallway, a sense of foreboding creeping up her spine. Dr. Patel was a busy man. He never requested a meeting unless her grandmother was causing trouble. Again.
What was Grandma Pearl up to this time? Tarot card party gone awry? Séance to contact John Wayne? Coup attempt? When it came to Grandma Pearl, the possibilities were endless. What had once been a harmless eccentricity had turned into full-blown psychosis.
Like mother, like daughter. Hopefully, not like granddaughter. The possibility haunted her thoughts on a daily basis.
"I appreciate you coming on such short notice, Ms. Griffith," Dr. Patel said when he spotted Sarah standing in the doorway. With his usual genial demeanor, he motioned to the chair on the opposite side of his desk. "Please, have a seat."
"Thank you," Sarah replied with a practiced smile, trying her best to conceal the underlying apprehension. This was the second retirement home for her grandmother in less than three years. With her schedule, the last thing she needed was the added task of hunting down another facility willing and capable of taking on a seventy-six-year-old woman suffering from the advanced stages of dementia. "I'm sorry I couldn't make it any sooner, but I was in the lab all morning and didn't get your message until just a short time ago."
"Perfectly understandable." Dr. Patel adjusted his glasses while he scanned over his notes. "I know you're a very busy woman, so I'll try to be as brief as possible. There has been another incident with your grandmother." His voice contained a note of compassion that probably went a long way toward soothing belligerent patients and grieving relatives. "She's currently under mild sedation and is resting in her room. In the morning, if she is lucid, I'll re-evaluate her condition."
Foreboding turned to dread as Sarah wondered what her grandmother had been up to this time. "What happened?"
Dr. Patel glanced back down at his notes. "Pearl became disruptive shortly after lunch was served. She insisted that Dolores, another one of our residents, was going to die tomorrow and that she should put her affairs in order." His focus shifted up, meeting Sarah's gaze. "You can imagine how Dolores took the news of her untimely demise."
"Oh, God." Sarah leaned back in her chair and rubbed a hand across the back of her neck. "I'm so sorry."
"It seems your grandmother has quite the preoccupation with death. Although I must admit, it's somewhat common among people her age."
"It's not a preoccupation with death. My grandmother considers herself psychic." Boy, was that an understatement. Her mind flashed back to the "Palm Readings by Madam Pearl—$5" sign, blazing bright neon in the front window of her childhood home on Bay Street. Her friends would snicker behind her back while her dates played along with Grandma, hoping a little bit of understanding would yield something more rewarding later in the evening, in the backseat of their daddies' cars.
Thank God they never heard about her mother. She never would have lived it down.
"Yes, so we noticed," Dr. Patel replied, his Indian accent taking on a lyrical quality. He clicked the top of his pen a few times before setting it down on top of his desk calendar. "I'm afraid your grandmother's outbursts are becoming more frequent and pronounced. If her behavior continues along this line, I'm concerned she may become violent."
Sarah's nerves jacked up to critical. Please don't boot her out, please don't boot her out, she mentally chanted like a prayer. While she loved Pearl with all her heart, she didn't have the resources to care for her grandmother on her own. An in-home nurse was way beyond her budget. With her demanding schedule at the lab, she wasn't home enough to keep watch over her, and the thought of Pearl wandering off on her own gave Sarah the shivers. "Is there anything you can do?"
Dr. Patel picked up his pen again, clicking it a few more times before setting it back down. "For the short term, I'd like to increase the dosage of her medication. With your permission, of course."
"What would it do to her?" Sarah asked, the memory of her mother in an anti-psychotic stupor still fresh in her mind. The last thing she wanted was a repeat performance by her grandmother. "I don't want her drugged senseless."
"She won't be," Patel said with a shake of his head. "I firmly believe in quality versus quantity of life, Ms. Griffith. The increased dosage would only serve to calm her down and make her less prone to episodes like the one we witnessed earlier today."
Sarah fell quiet for a moment, weighing her options. In the past six months, she'd come to respect Dr. Patel and valued his opinions. While he had the business acumen of a seasoned administrator, he was also a doctor, one deeply committed to the care of his patients. Which meant he didn't strike her as the type to unnecessarily dope up little old ladies. Still, she bristled at the notion of drugging her grandmother into submission. While Pearl had her quirks, she was a warm, loving woman who deserved to live out the remainder of her life with some semblance of dignity.
"Can I speak to her, please?" she asked. "Perhaps, if I talk to her, I can convince her to tone down the Miss Cleo routine."
"And if that doesn't work?" Patel asked, his expression doubtful.
"If it doesn't work, I'll authorize the medication." She flashed Patel a hopeful smile. "When can I see her?"
Excerpted from GRAVE intentions by Lori Sjoberg Copyright © 2013 by Lori Sjoberg. Excerpted by permission of eKENSINGTON BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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