Read an Excerpt
p r o l o g u e
Gerald had many duties at the dispensary, but the one h e liked best was making “deliveries.” He would come into the shop and work the register when they needed him to—that was a given—but when they asked him to go out in the fi eld, well, that was even better. He looked forward to those days like a little kid gearing up for Christmas morning.
Luckily, he had no competition in the deliveries department because he was the only one with his own transportation: Molly, a bright red Vespa he’d bought with his own money. Money he’d earned from three years as a paperboy, doing a
hideously early paper route that meant getting up at the butt crack of dawn and bicycling all over his neighborhood until every last paper had been delivered. He liked the biking part and the throwing–the–newspaper part, but he hated the earlymorning part.
It was the reason he’d applied for the job at the dispensary: The place didn’t open until eleven in the morning.
And sleep was something Gerald prized very highly. Especially after being deprived of it for the last three years. Not that he was out all night partying or anything—he just liked to stay up and watch movies. And getting up early confl icted with this.
The paper route had confl icted with it, too, but he guessed he’d just wanted to buy a Vespa more than he wanted to get sleep.
Oh, Molly, Queen of the Vespas.
She was the apple of his eye: cherry red with black trim and shiny chrome details. She purred like a little baby kitten and rode like a dream. He loved that machine more than anything else in the world.
Riding her around town, doing the deliveries for the store . . . he was The Man. He got to look cool and wave at the old ladies who congregated outside Mable’s Beauty Parlor and gun the engine when he passed the kids playing outside the elementary school.
Damn, he loved his job.
But today there was no time to tool around town and make the rounds. Today, he was traveling outside of his normal area, over to the Pacifi c Coast Highway to make a delivery to one of those fancy beach houses wealthy people lived in, but only on the weekends.
It took him twenty minutes to reach his destination, a small bungalow—smaller than he’d imagined a rich person would own—between a stand of other mini bungalows, their identical beige stucco jobs a bland attempt at the trendy adobe style that was all the rage in town. He pulled Molly off the highway, wheeling her into a protected spot over by a row of tall hedges, then headed up the private road leading to the bungalow’s tiny carport.
Of course it was only after he’d already rung the bell he realized he’d gotten the bungalow number wrong. He waited, hoping no one was home so he could just jog over to the right bungalow and make his delivery without some irate rich lady yelling at him for disturbing her.
He counted to sixty, and when no one came to the door, he decided he was home free. He was just about to turn around and go when he felt a pinch in his lower back. This quickly turned into a burning sensation that spread across his torso and down his legs. He tried to scream, to call out for help, but a gloved hand appeared in front of his face, covering his mouth and muffl ing his cries.
He made one last attempt to escape, thrashing against his attacker like a fi sh on a line, but he was hooked fast.
After that, he didn’t remember anything.
o n e
C A L L I O P E
My name is Calliope Reaper–Jones and if I were a dessert, I like to think I’d be “Death by Chocolate.” Not that I’m looking to turn myself into a chewy, gooey, sugary mess anytime in the near future, but if you know me, then you also know my choice of “dessert self” is not only literal, but kind of meta, too. Because even though I’m still an ocean away from my late twenties, I am the sole proprietor of a bizarre business. One I can honestly say keeps me on my toes twenty–four/seven/three hundred and sixty–fi ve days a year:
I am the twenty–fi rst century Grim Reaper.
Death Not by Chocolate.
Seems like a joke, right? I assure you it’s not.
I am the president and CEO of Death, Inc., a multinational conglomerate specializing in the collection and transportation of the recently deceased from Earth to the Afterlife. Once there, the souls are released into their own cultural and/or religious sections of Heaven and Hell, where they are rewarded or punished for their Earthly deeds before being recycled back into the soul pool for reassignment.
My dad was Death before me—I inherited–slash–won the job after he was kidnapped and then murdered by the Devil and my older sister, Thalia. And though it wasn’t a career path I would’ve previously seen myself pursuing, I’ve actually discovered I’m not too terrible at the gig.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m still learning—but, luckily, I have peeps in my corner who keep me from embarrassing myself on a daily basis: my brilliant, techno geek, younger sister, Clio; my Executive Assistant, Jarvis, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of the Afterlife; and my talking hellhound pup, Runt, who makes life better just by existing—though she hasn’t been around nearly as much as I’d like because she’s been helping her dad, Cerberus, and my boyfriend, Daniel, clean up Hell.
After the Devil was deposed from offi ce for trying to take over Heaven, God installed Daniel as the acting “Steward” of Hell, with Cerberus, the former Guardian of the North Gate of Hell, as Daniel’s second–in–command. Together, they were dismantling the old bureaucracy and setting up a new business model based on the platform my dad used to revamp Death, Inc. Their plan included a complete overhaul of Hell—which required doing a lot of community outreach to get the populace involved.
I hadn’t had a chance to go to Hell to see what they’d accomplished because I’d been so busy running Death, but my Executive Assistant, Jarvis, said they were making slow progress.
The kind of reformation Daniel had planned for Hell had occurred in Purgatory decades earlier when my dad had taken over Death. Back then, the Afterlife had been a much more archaic place, and Purgatory, in particular, was a cesspool. Instead of being a way station for the recently deceased, it’d been used as a penal colony of sorts, where the dead were locked away in antiquated prison cells on an indefi nite basis, with absolutely no recourse to get themselves released back into the soul pool for recycling.
My dad had changed everything, forcing the old guard out so he could then bring Death into the modern era, creating a whole new Purgatory modeled after a corporate business structure.
Thus Death, Inc., was born.
Those who chose to continue their gainful employment with Death had to change their way of thinking—because the new Death, Inc., had more in common with Wall Street than Riker’s Island.
The last holdouts were the Harvesters and Transporters— they’re the guys who do the actual collecting and shepherding of souls into the Afterlife—and they liked things the way they were. They had zero interest in changing their mindset, preferring the old, heavy–handed techniques to my dad’s new logicbased, corporate way of doing business.
When they got wind of what my dad was proposing, they did the only corporate thing they would ever do: They unionized.
They thought this would give them some control over my dad’s “invasive” changes. And though it gave them more leverage than they would’ve otherwise had, it never brought them the ultimate power they were seeking.
The union did fi ght and win the right for the Harvesters and Transporters to continue to wear their Victorian “ghoul garb”—as my dad called it—on the job. My dad thought their over–the–top Victorian costumes and props made the wrong impression on the newly deceased, but he’d had to cave to their demands when the union had promised to defend their rights to
“free dress” by going on strike. Once they discovered this technique worked, the union used it to strong–arm my dad into doing what they wanted on a regular basis.
In the little time since I’d been appointed president and CEO
of Death, Inc., Uriah Drood, the all–powerful head of the Harvester and Transporter’s Union, had twice pulled the strike card
out and waved it in my face. We’d been at loggerheads from the moment we’d met, and he was just looking for an excuse to make my life miserable. Well, at least ours was a mutual “unappreciation” society: I didn’t like his sneaky, underhanded way of doing business, and he just didn’t like me, period.
It made me proud to think someone as abhorrent as Uriah Drood found me so nauseating—though perhaps it wasn’t the wisest choice to add him to my roster of enemies. He was the vindictive sort, and I knew our strained relations were going to come back and bite me on the ass some day.
But I kinda felt that way about a lot of the enemies I’d made, including my arch–nemesis, the Ender of Death.
The Ender of Death was the only one of my enemies I hadn’t personally cultivated. He wanted me dead purely because it was in his job description. To this end, he’d offi cially challenged me to a single–combat throw down where only one of us could come out alive. I’d hedged, putting the challenge off for as long as I could, but the day of reckoning was fast
approaching—and I was pretty sure the outcome was not going to be in my favor. I was a lover of fashion and food, not a fi ghter of supernatural bad guys. A fact that Marcel—Marcel was the human name the Ender of Death went by in this incarnation—was well aware of.
I didn’t want to die, but I’d made a bargain with Marcel and
now it was time to pay up.
You see, my older sister and the Devil had staged a coup on Death, Inc., and Heaven, and I’d asked Marcel to back off the “kill death business” until I could stop them. To my surprise,
he’d agreed to my request, so long as I promised to duke it out with him once I’d set Death, Inc., back to rights.
He’d been true to his word, staying out of my business while I did what I needed to do. But now that everything had (mostly) returned to normal, my verbal promissory note had finally come due.
I didn’t like it—I mean, who liked getting killed?—but this fi ght to the death was going to happen and there was nothing I could do to stop it.
Jarvis told me I was being a fatalist, but I was pretty sure this was what one would call “pragmatic” thinking. I knew my chances for coming out of the duel with my life intact were pretty slim and I just wanted to get it over with. I’d done some checking with my friend, Kali, who was a member of the Board of Death, and she’d reassured me that upon my untimely end, at least two (or three) “possible” Deaths would be called up to vie for my job.
I’d worried my boyfriend, Daniel, would be up for the job
again—he’d been a challenger my fi rst time at bat—but since I’d drunk from the Cup of Jamshid and been a sitting Grim Reaper through one annual Death Dinner, Daniel was safe.
After being the Devil’s (now former) protégé for so many years,
Daniel was too involved with the politics of Hell to want to take over the reins of Death, Inc. At least he didn’t have to worry about that now.
To reassure me even further, Kali had done something highly illegal. Something that could’ve gotten her kicked off the Board of Death if anyone had discovered her transgression: She’d dipped into the Death Records and retrieved the names of two “possible” Deaths. Thankfully, one of them allayed my fears and gave me the faith to finally accept my fate.
If I died during my battle with the Ender of Death, I would leave this Earth knowing that at least one of the next “possible” Deaths was more than fi t for the job.
And how did I know so much about a random name Kali pulled from the Death Records, one might ask?
Well, because this “possible” Death was anything but random.
She was my baby sister.
Though it was almost unheard of for two siblings to be “possible” Deaths within successive generations, Kali said it had happened once before. As a member of the Board of Death, privy to certain secret information, she’d had her suspicions Clio was a “possible” Death. But she hadn’t known for sure until she’d pulled Clio’s Death Record and read what was written inside. She’d wormholed to Sea Verge—my familial home in Newport, Rhode Island—immediately after reading it, so she could let me know what she’d discovered. I don’t know why, but after she left, I decided not to tell anyone what I’d learned. Not even my most trusted friend and Executive Assistant, Jarvis.
No one really believed I’d be out of the job so quickly that the next generation of “possible” Deaths would need to be called up—and maybe the need wouldn’tarise. Maybe the impossible would happen and I’d kill Marcel instead of him killing me. Stranger things had happened . . . but I wasn’t betting on it. I was prepared to meet my end—and knowing Clio would have the opportunity to battle for my job made me feel kind of okay about my (possible) impending demise.
I’d never really wanted to be immortal, to live forever while my human friends slowly withered and died. Though I knew fi rsthand Death wasn’t the be–all and end–all—heck, I was the gal in charge of making sure human souls got to their preordained Afterlife destinations—it still didn’t stop me from disliking the process.
On more than one occasion, I’d asked Jarvis why the Afterlife worked this way. Why humans needed to die and be reborn, why each body a soul is housed in gets its own personality, and when that body dies and the soul is recycled, that personality is destroyed, never to be used again? But all he had to say on the subject was this: That’s the way things are and we shouldn’t question it.
Well, screw that. I lived for questioning things. So I’d done a lot of thinking about God’s system and I’d come up with a few hypotheticals that might give an answer to my unanswered question.
The one I liked best went something like this: God just wanted to experience everything. Through us, his/her creations, he/she gets to do every job, be every kind of personality, try every kind of sex, be in and out of every kind of love, feel every emotion, enjoy every kind of pain or bliss. I’ve decided that maybe God is just the biggest voyeur in the history of History—and instead of chasing down meaning, we should just enjoy our lives as best we can, so that God can then enjoy them through us.
Radical, I know, and probably not right, but it was my hypothesis and I was sticking to it. There was an order to the world. One I couldn’t see, but at least, as Death, I was privy to the Afterlife, so that, though I still missed the people I loved who’d died, I knew their energy lived on.
That somewhere my dad, and even my older sister, would be born into other human bodies and get to restart the game of life.
And who knew, maybe I’d accidentally run into them again—or if I was feeling sly, I could cheat and access my dad’s Death Record to fi nd his next incarnation. (I was still angry with my sister for almost murdering me, so I would not be seeking out her Death Record.)
But I kept these thoughts to myself because no matter how much I wanted closure with my dad, if I found him again, well, it wouldn’t be him anymore. Whatever magic it was that made him “him” would be gone, and, in the end, it would just be me being selfi sh, wanting to hold on to something that didn’t exist anymore.
And if I’d learned anything from my time as Death, it was
this: Being selfish sucked.