Read an Excerpt
A Dante Walker Novel
By Victoria Scott, Liz Pelletier
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2013 Victoria Scott
All rights reserved.
I'm in a slump, off my game, throwing up bricks, swinging and missing.
I'm having an off year.
My boss isn't pleased, and he's not the type of guy you want to piss off either. He's the ultimate a-hole who doesn't buy excuses, even the champion ones I'm slingin'. But hey, it's a job. And generally speaking, I'm damn good at it.
I am The Collector.
It's not as bad as it sounds. I'm kinda like Santa Claus. We're both jolly guys with a passion for frosted cookies, the color red ... and sorting souls. My job is simple: weed through humanity and label those round rears with a big red good or bad stamp. Old Saint Nick gets the good guys, and I get the fun ones.
Two years ago, I was just your average seventeen-year-old guy. That's a lie. I've never been average. I look like a movie star and move like an athlete. That didn't change when I kicked the bucket. It's okay to be jealous, to covet me. It's a delicious sin—tastes like chicken. But don't envy my success as a collector. I earned it. Like Michael Jordan, I shot until I never missed. If there's a bad soul anywhere on planet Earth, I can smell him out and turn him in. Bag and tag.
Boss Man runs the Underworld, and I'm his number one guy up top. I'm so good, in fact, that I train the other five collectors on how to be more awesome. It doesn't take a genius to understand the game: collect souls that are sealed.
Seals are our friends. I say it slowly, because patronizing people is fun.
It's an easy gig. So easy, I've been bored lately. Maybe that's why my numbers have slipped. But don't fret. I got this. I've never met a hurdle I didn't like.
In fact, stumbling toward me is a herd of business suit–clad men way too old to be this wasted. What are they even doing on New Orleans's Bourbon Street? Being creepers, that's what. A guy with Dumbo-sized ears breaks away from the pack and heads toward a girl half his age. His arms swing in great big circles until yellow liquid splashes from his plastic yardstick drink.
Way to bring your A game.
The girl turns toward her friend in an obvious attempt to avoid eye contact with Drunk Ogre Man. But no matter. He whirls her around, shows her his colorful beads, and attempts to pull up her shirt. That's the deal, right? Beads for boobs? Not this time. Homegirl slaps him and storms off, her heels click-clacking down the paved road.
Ogre stares after her, and his friends howl with laughter. His red-rimmed eyes go big for a second, and then he starts laughing, too. He got off pretty easy, all things considered. But we're not done yet. Or better yet, I'm not done yet.
I gaze at the guy in a way only I can. A warm yellow light crawls over his skin and flickers. It almost appears as if his body is on fire. This light is his soul, and I can see the thumbnail-sized rectangles called seals that partially obscure it. Seals come from being bad, or as I like to say, exciting. If I could come back from the dead, the things I would do. I'd go out with a bang. But I can't. And unfortunately, collecting leaves little time for recreational activities, if you know what I mean. So I just keep punching the clock and doing what I do best.
Amidst the dude's mini black seals, there are other seals. Our seals. Collectors' seals are bigger than the ones you get automatically when you sin and therefore do a lot more damage. In order for Boss Man to know who's done what, our seals are different colors, and already this guy looks like Rainbow Brite. Now he'll have one more to add to the others. I flick a finger, and a sizzling red seal—the length of a human palm—attaches to his light. He didn't feel a thing, but he certainly deserved it. His soul light dims just a little more than before. Once his light is completely covered, it's over. Finis! We'll collect his soul and bring it downstairs. I form my hand into a gun. "Pow!"
Another one bites the dust.
Today I'm playing my part on Team Hell like a heavyweight. The game works like a gas gauge. On one side is hell, on the other is heaven. That little orange bar tips back and forth between the two, depending on who has the most souls. Collectors are Boss Man's insurance policy that Big Guy (A.K.A., lord of the heavens) doesn't win, but he should chillax. No one ever gets the upper hand. If they did, it'd mean the gates of heaven—or hell—would spill open onto earth.
Or some fairy-tale crap like that.
After Boob Man is gone, I stand in the doorway of the Cat's Meow bar, watching people do the same things that led me to where I am now. This city is one of our standard posts. Since there are billions of people and only six collectors, we have to concentrate on specific areas, or we'll never get anywhere. Most people go to Judgment Day, which may or may not mean eternity in hell, so Boss Man likes to bring them in before that happens if he can. And New Orleans, well, it's one of the easiest places to make quota.
Seals fly from my fingertips with ease. I don't have to think too hard about it, and for that, I'm thankful. I like this part of my job, the nameless faces. Collecting souls is nothing personal. I'm an equal-opportunity sealer. I'm not sure I could do it any other way.
But I guess I'm going to have to learn. I shove my hand into my pocket and rub the sleeping white envelope. I can almost feel it pressing against my thigh, as if it's alive. As if it has tongue and teeth.
I spin around and see Max running toward me in a gray Armani shirt. "Dante. Oh, Dante. Seal me! Seal me so hard!" He grabs my hips and pumps his toward mine. "Oh, Dante! You're so hot when you seal souls."
I shove my idiot-of-a-best-friend off me and laugh. Max dances around in a circle with one leg pulled up, and people move away as if he's mentally unstable. He and I are the only collectors that like to remain visible to the living. The other four roll incognito. Max finishes his dance and brushes his shoulders off.
"What the hell was that?" I ask.
"My new move," he says matter-of-factly.
My fellow collector is six years older than me but acts like he's thirteen. We met a couple of years ago after he kicked the bucket and came onboard. He talks so fast, I have trouble understanding him sometimes. I like to think he was the World's Best Car Salesman before he croaked.
Max spreads his arms out and gestures to his suit. "Hey, what do you think of my new threads?" The only thing Max likes better than money is the stuff money can buy.
"Not too bad."
"Not too bad?" He covers his heart in mock offense. "Shit. This work of art is on the cover of GQ. Know what else? George Clooney wore this very suit to a party last weekend."
"No, he didn't."
Max runs a hand over his clean-shaven jaw. "No. No, I guess he didn't. Think anyone else would buy that? I might try it on the honeys tonight. Oh, check this crap out." He reaches down and tugs his pant leg up. The gold cuff wrapped around his ankle is decorated with Smurf stickers. "One of the other collectors did this after I crashed last night. Can you believe that mess? I can't get the damn things off."
I roll my foot around, feeling my own cuff pinching my ankle. The heavy restraint enables collectors to walk the earth. It allows us to eat, breathe, and carry on a normal existence among the living. It also allows Boss Man and the other collectors to know where we are if they're close by. A little Big Brother if you ask me, but then again, we're given the option to remove it, if you call breaking off your cuff and dying a final death an option.
Max elbows me. "Who're you fantasizing about?"
"No one. I'm thinking about these damn cuffs. I wish there was a way to stay here without them." Max doesn't realize I know exactly where these cuffs came from. And I can't tell him. The only reason I know is because Boss Man explained it while training me for my pending promotion. Maybe I shouldn't be proud that the devil tells me his secrets. But I am.
"Well, there ain't. So you can just get over that one, pretty boy." Max rubs behind his neck and squints against the sun. "At least we're able to get out of hell from time to time. Besides, why are you even tripping about it? Everyone knows you're getting promoted to Soul Director. Then it's permanent placement on earth, hombre. It's like you hit the Underworld jackpot. Speaking of jackpots, I feel like gambling. I've got the itch."
"I bet you've got the itch," I say.
"You're nasty, you know that? Just foul." Max walks backward away from me, bumping into people as he moves down the street. "You nasty, you nasty. You mama said you nasty!" And then he's gone. Vanished into thin air.
I shake my head at his dramatic exit. I feel bad for not mentioning the envelope. But he'll just make it into a big deal. I pull it out and stare at it. Inside is the name of my target: Charlie Cooper. Boss Man wants her soul, says he'll forget my recent downslide if I deliver. This is unusual. He typically doesn't pinpoint specific people, and I hate that it's going to make things personal. But I'm not here to question, only to do my thang.
It's not like I have much of a choice.
I'm on it, I told Boss Man when he handed me the envelope. Like white on rice.
I didn't say the last part. He wouldn't appreciate the humor.CHAPTER 2
Hittin' the Hooch
I'm standing outside a two-story colonial house in a neighborhood so sweet I feel like gagging. Cooper is spelled out on the brick mailbox. I'm in the right place. As if I wouldn't be.
The front door is painted a rich, bright red. The corners of my mouth curl into a smile. Have I mentioned my love affair with red? It's a beautiful, trusting relationship. Nothing coated in such a wondrous color could ever be bad. I stride up the walkway, run my hand over the red wood, and sigh. Then I see something that ruptures this magnificent moment.
At the end of the walkway is a cat. It struts with arrogance. You'd think it just won the Nobel Prize. But it didn't. Know why? Because it's a freakin' cat. In case you missed the memo, I. Hate. Cats. I loathe them. They're built with creepy little teeth and finger blades. I don't know about you, but I'll pass on that freak show.
The cat sees me and rolls its eyes. It does. I swear it. In my head, I imagine punting it across the street. I throw my arms up like a human goal post and scream, "It's good!"
Behind me, I hear a click. I spin around and see an old woman who clearly thinks she's a young woman glide through the red door ... She's wearing a silk kimono that shows way too much old-person leg. Her processed blond hair is sprayed out around her face, and she's wearing more makeup than Lady Gaga. Without noticing me, the woman bends at the waist and reaches for the morning paper.
Thanks for the invitation. As a matter of fact, I will come in.
I breeze past her into the house. I'm sure she felt something, but her eyes persuade her otherwise. That'd be my shadow kicking in, the thing that allows me to become invisible whenever needed. It's the only kickass ability collectors have, thanks to our cuffs.
Inside the house, I catch the scent of old people. You'd think the young girl would cancel out the smell of dinosaur, but it doesn't. Not even close. I wonder where the chick's parents are and why they aren't around.
Every inch of the house is covered in flowers and lace and screams tacky. It's like Martha Stewart vomited, and this is the crap that came out. I shake my head. These people need an interior designer. Stat. Mother would never have let this happen. She had refined tastes, and Dad was boys with Benjamin Franklin. Thinking about my father makes me remember That Night, and my stomach lurches.
A muffled voice creeps down the stairs. I'm too far away to hear what's being said, but I know it's her. Heading up, I imagine what kind of chick I'm dealing with. If Boss Man wants her soul, she's got to be pretty bad, and I always did dig the bad chicks. In fact, most things I dug when I was alive were bad. Guess that's how I ended up here. Most people got this thing in their head saying they'll be with Big Guy when it's all over. But let me tell ya, spend every day living only for yourself, every day indulging in little sins thataren't that big of a deal, and one day I may be showing you the ropes in hell. Amen.
At the top of the stairs, I shake off my shadow, making myself visible again, and run through the rules in my head. I can do pretty much anything to bring this girl in, but I can't physically hurt her. All collectors know hurting a human could trigger war on earth between Boss Man and Big Guy. Everything else, though, is fair play. And I'm not above pulling some dirties to get what I want. I swim a hand through my hair. It's showtime. I push her door open ... and my chin drops.
Her bedroom is painted a blinding shade of pink, and glittering posters drape her walls. A queen-sized bed stands in the middle of the room, shrouded in a sheer pink canopy. So many pillows litter her duvet that I'm sure she must sleep on the floor. There isn't a surface or shelf that isn't covered with glass figurines. It's a room built for a seventeen-year-old who still believes she's a princess.
My target has her back to me and is blabbering away on a retro corded phone. It is, of course, decorated in pink and white rhinestones.
"I know. I know. This final is going to be way hard. Like, ridiculous hard."
Her voice has the slightest Southern ring which might have been endearing, had I not been pressed for time. Boss Man made it crystal clear I have ten days to complete this job, and I always come in under deadline. There's too much riding on this to screw up. If I deliver this one measly soul, I'll be promoted to Soul Director. Like Max said, that means permanent placement on earth. And let me tell you, never having to visit the Underworld again? Serious motivation.
I knock once on the open door and sigh.
"I don't think I'm sleeping from now until finals are over. If I don't get an A in this class, my grandma will skin me alive and make it look like an accident."
Come on, get a clue. I knock again and clear my throat. The girl spins around. My eyes widen at the sight of her. This is the girl Boss Man is after? She looks like a porcelain doll ... beat three times with an ugly stick.
I take it all in: glasses, frizzy blond hair, a spray of pimples, and a stick figure so not attractive on a seventeen-year-old girl.
"Oh. Em. Gee. I have to let you go. There's a guy standing in my doorway," she says into the phone. Then, quieter, "Yes, very. I've got to go. Tell ya later." The girl hangs up, and an enormous grin stretches across her face. She grabs a lock of blond hair and curls it around her finger. "Hi."
"Hey," I say. "Your grams let me in."
"Oh, yeah? You here from the pharmacy?" She continues smiling like a lovesick moron. I can't help but smile back.
"No, I'm here to see you," I say, which apparently pushes her over the edge. The girl's eyes widen, and she does this whole nervous laugh thing. I shake my head, but it doesn't affect her. "Are you Charlie?" She nods, and her expression changes. Only slightly, but I pick up on it. She's surprised I know her name. "I just moved here. My mom knows your grams. She said I should come by and introduce myself. Said we might get along. Name's Dante."
Charlie's blue eyes study me from behind her thick glasses. "Where you from ... Dante?"
"Phoenix." Lying has always come easily to me. Don't judge.
"Why did you guys move to Peachville?"
"Mom got a new job here. Said she always wanted to move to Alabama. Something about the trees in the fall." Here's a free tip: adding details to lies makes them more believable.
She nods her head as though I said something profound, then turns and walks to her window. For the first time, I notice she's wearing purple jeans. My God, it's like she stepped straight out of an '80s movie. Her wavy hair falls to mid-waist, and I think how she looks better this way. From the back.
Excerpted from The Collector by Victoria Scott, Liz Pelletier. Copyright © 2013 Victoria Scott. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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