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Carl Scutner wondered, for a brief moment, what it would feel like to punt his wife off a cliff.
"Would you shut up in there?" he yelled from the sofa. Between the noisy construction crew down the street, the whimpers coming from the dog cage that sat in the corner, and the pots and pans his wife was banging around in the kitchen, the baseball game on television had become nearly inaudible. "Jesus Christ, I can’t hear myself think!"
Lydia appeared at the kitchen doorway. "Like there’s anything worth hearing in that so-called brain of yours."
"Woman, I swear to God . . ."
"Here." She handed him a fresh beer and sat on the edge of a hideous orange chair, its matted fabric dingy and stained. "Cubs losing?"
Carl let out a belch. "As usual."
Lydia looked down. Crumpled fast food wrappers littered the floor. A glob of ketchup had leaked onto the carpet. As the construction noises down the street grew louder, so too did the whimpers from the cage. She glanced at the telephone, then couldn’t stop staring at it. Her breaths became shallow.
"They haven’t called, Carl."
He took a drag from his cigarette. "They’ll call."
"You always say that. You’re not always right."
"Lydia. They’ll call."
"They better," she said, wringing her hands. "I don’t want to do that again."
"It’s up to them, not us. You know that."
Lydia picked through her mousy hair with a trembling hand. She shot a resentful glance at her husband and his ever-expanding beer gut, then sniffed the air. "It smells like shit in here."
"It is shit."
Lydia looked at the dog cage, into the big brown eyes staring back at her. "Maybe we should let him out for a little while."
"Are you kidding me? The last one got halfway down the driveway before I caught him." He took a swig of beer. "You’re getting sloppy."
"I’m just—" She stopped and looked around. "Did you hear that?"
She listened. "I thought maybe—the back door—"
"Alarm system’s on." He stubbed out his cigarette on the arm of the sofa. "Would you knock it off? You should be used to this by now."
Unnerved, Lydia grabbed his empty beer bottle and walked into the kitchen. "At least let me feed the poor thing."
Carl gestured at the bowl of kibble on the floor. "He’s fine. Too fat as he is, if you ask me."
Four things happened next.
The construction crew grew louder, so Carl grabbed the remote and turned up the volume as high as it could go. This just so happened to coincide with a home run, which prompted Carl to let loose with a torrent of obscenities.
And so, as the living room erupted into a sustained cacophony, Carl never heard the bottle shatter on the kitchen floor. He never heard his wife’s tortured screams. And he certainly never heard the intruder enter the living room; in fact, he didn’t even realize she was there until she was right in front of him, her eyes peeking out from beneath a black hood, her nose almost touching his.
"Hello, Mr. Scutner," she said, extending a thin, pale finger. "Goodbye, Mr. Scutner."
"I’m sorry you had to see that," she said a few moments later, opening the door to the dog cage. "Are you okay?"
The little boy inside nodded his head, his eyes blurred with tears. She took his hand and led him across the living room, careful not to let him get too close to the scorching remains of his captors.
"I have to go now," she said, grabbing a phone and dialing 911. "But I need you to be brave and do one thing for me." She handed him the phone. "Just tell them who you are and that you’re at fifty-one Forest Drive. Then go sit out on the front steps. Can you do that?"
He wiped his nose and nodded.
"Good boy. And don’t tell anyone I was here." She smiled and raised something that looked like a knife. "It’ll be our little secret."
The news reports that aired later that night were confusing, to say the least. A married couple by the name of Carl and Lydia Scutner were found dead in their home, victims of an apparent murder-suicide. All evidence pointed to the fact that they were the suspects the police had been hunting for a while now, the monsters responsible for kidnapping and holding for ransom at least a dozen children from the suburbs of Chicago over the past six months. Small, fresh mounds of dirt in the backyard indicated that a few of those children had never been returned.
No cameras were allowed inside the house. Too gruesome, the police said.
The little boy was clearly still in shock. The descriptions he gave of what had happened—the Scutners bursting into flames almost instantly, without burning a single other item in the house, only to self-extinguish a few minutes later—were too ridiculous to be taken seriously. The police smiled politely at his tales and ruffled his hair, while his parents were so overcome with relief that they barely listened to a word he said. And the media, clearly of the opinion that children should be seen and not heard, were perfectly content to snap photo after photo of the adorable tear-stained lad, yanking the microphone out of his face the moment he started to embarrass them with talk of spontaneous magical fires.
No one listened to him. And it was about that time that the child realized why the girl had told him to remain silent: because no one would have believed him anyway.
Who would have believed that his savior was merely a teenage girl wearing jeans and a plain black hoodie? Who would have believed that she simply appeared inside the house, set the Scutners ablaze with nothing more than a jab of her finger, and then disappeared just as quickly?
And so he kept the little secret.
"Looks like Zara’s at it again," the old bat’s voice crackled.
Lex ignored this jolly piece of news and stared out the car window at the blurring foliage of the Adirondacks. The leaves were just beginning to change — a few splotches of yellow, a speckle or two of red. Though a chill had settled in the air, she had opened her window far wider than just a crack, and neither the loud gusts of wind nor the occasional chattering of teeth issuing forth from the passengers stuffed into the tiny back seat had prompted her to close it.
"Keep it down, Pandora," Lex’s uncle replied into his Cuff, the staticky, ether-infused communications device around his wrist. "I’ve got rookies in the car. Don’t freak them out any sooner than we have to."
"But this is getting ridiculous!" the voice rasped back through the Cuff. "First those mail bombers in Houston, then that rapist in Nebraska. Now kidnappers in Chicago! Ever since that little snake found herself a new scythe, she’s been going hog-wild!" There was a pause. "I guess we should count our lucky stars she hasn’t come after us."
"Count our lucky stars? She found a scythe, Dora. Which means she also found an ally."
"Which means," Pandora added, "that once again, we’re screwed eight ways from Sunday."
They exchanged a few more words before hanging up. Uncle Mort glanced at Lex’s twitching eye, then turned his attention back to the road and absent-mindedly ran his finger up and down the scar across his face. "You okay?"
This was precisely the forty-third time since they had left her parents’ house in Queens that Uncle Mort had asked her this. Lex had been keeping track.
"I don’t know, are you okay?" she shot back, also for the forty-third time.
After her twin sister’s funeral in New York City, Lex and Uncle Mort had gotten back in his cheddar yellow ’74 Gremlin and taken off on a road trip to fetch the rookies. And ever since they left, Lex had turned into such a jittery pile of nerves that she’d chewed through no less than fifty packs of gum. The constant supply of truck-stop coffees probably wasn’t helping, either.
She just couldn’t turn off her brain. It toiled and hummed like a factory, ceaselessly churning out worries and concerns and the dreaded what-ifs. It never quit—not when they stopped for food, not when they’d gained two new passengers, not even when she slept. Or didn’t sleep, in her case. Most nights she just stared at the dingy hotel ceilings and picked at her long, dark hair, replaying what had happened, worrying about her sister, wondering what would happen now that they were almost back in Croak.
In the car, she began compulsively flicking the cheap plastic lighter decorated with a skull and crossbones that Uncle Mort had bought her at a truck stop somewhere in Ohio. She was thankful that they were together, at least; Uncle Mort could be a pain sometimes, but in the way she imagined an older brother would be—annoying, but protective. And with the added benefit of being a total badass.
He ran a hand through his black, electrocution-style hair, then shot her another concerned look and leaned over. "Do you need to stop?" he said in a quieter voice, in a tone that suggested he wasn’t talking about urinary demands.
"No." Lex shrank in her seat a little. "I . . . discharged back in Buffalo."
"Good girl. Should only be another hour or so, okay?"
Lex sank farther into her standard-issue, thermoregulated black hoodie and pulled the hood over her head. The thought of having to discharge—even the ugliness of the word itself—made her feel so diseased. Fittingly, a hospital flew by her window just then, its stark concrete façade mocking her copious dysfunctions.
She thought back to where she’d been nearly three months earlier: on her way to Croak for the first time with a rap sheet so long and terrible that her fed-up parents had decided to send her away for the summer to live with her uncle, in the hopes that he’d straighten her out. Of course, they’d had no idea that his idea of straightening her out meant informing her that she was a Grim and proceeding to give her a crash course on how to reap mortal souls. Not exactly the kind of thing one can describe in a pamphlet.
It had started out so well, though. For the first time in years, Lex made friends; hell, she even snagged a boyfriend. And true, she didn’t agree with everything the Grimsphere stood for—letting murderers go free without punishment was at the top of her list, and she’d had more than a few urges to deliver her own idea of justice—but overall, it was turning out to be the best summer of her life.
Until it all turned into a steaming pile of crap. The abnormal abilities that at first had turned her into the best Killer in Croak soon morphed into something much more sinister: the ability to Damn souls, a foul, unspeakable act that resulted in everlasting torment. And before she could even figure this out for herself, Zara—a fellow Junior, a Grim-in-training—jumped right in to twist it to her own advantage. Not only did Zara murder almost a hundred people under the radar all summer long, but she also devised a way to Cull Lex’s Damning ability for herself.
She did this by using Lex’s twin sister, Cordy, as bait.
And Lex had fallen for it.
That wave of nausea arose yet again. Lex bent over to pick through the bag at her feet, her sister’s old backpack. In it sat a few clothes and Cordy’s old stuffed octopus, Captain Wiggles, along with two items Uncle Mort had invented just for Lex: a Lifeglass—an hourglass-shaped device that stored and recorded all her memories—and a Spark, a flickering glass bulb that measured her life force. The Spark he’d made for Cordy was in there too, although it was just a bright, glowing ball now—
Lex gulped another breath, sat back up, and closed her eyes. This drive will be over soon, she told herself. You’ll be home.
Because despite everything that had happened, Croak was still her home, and she loved it. The quaint streets, the rolling hills, the complete and utter lack of a Starbucks—all the things that she’d initially hated about the small town, she now missed with a burning passion. Being a Grim, traveling through the mind-numbing space that was the ether, Killing targets, delivering their souls to the Afterlife—it was what she was born to do, and Croak was where she belonged.
It was the citizens in it that were the problem. Very soon she’d have to face the townspeople, whom she hadn’t seen since Uncle Mort had whisked her out of town two weeks earlier. What could she possibly say to everyone? They must hate her for letting Zara escape with the ability to Damn whomever she wanted, wherever she wanted.
Still, she’d get to go back to the job she loved. She’d get to see Driggs and be kept up until two in the morning by his incessant drumming. She’d get to see her friends.
Friends that she’d be putting in danger. And it wasn’t as if things were going back to the way they were. She’d have to be on her guard at all times. She’d have to control her vengeful urges even more vigilantly now. She’d have to find Zara and stop her.
And she’d have to see Cordy.
Lex anxiously shoved the lighter into her pocket. She couldn’t avoid her sister forever. Cordy was waiting for her, just on the other side of the great hereafter, and by now had undoubtedly learned that she was dead because her dumbass sister had been too stupid to realize she was being manipulated. Lex didn’t know what to expect. A cold, unloving stare? The silent treatment? The angriest bitch slap of all time?
Lex grabbed the handle and cranked the window down as far as it could go. She stuck her head out into the frigid air, letting the wind sting at her face, futilely hoping to numb her thoughts.