Something is wrong with the souls of Chicago's dead. Ghosts are walking the streets, and Agent of Death Madeline Black's exasperating boss wants her to figure out why. And while work is bad enough, Maddy has a plethora of personal problems too. Now that Gabriel has been assigned as her thrall, their relationship has hit an impasse. At least her sleazy ex-fiance Nathaniel is out of the picture--or so she thinks...
“Legs in the air, heels toward the ceiling. Crunch, quick!”
I lay flat on my back, legs extended up, and started crunching as the instructor counted off reps. After about three movements the atrophied muscles in my abdomen started to scream for mercy. My legs dropped toward the ground.
“Uhuhuh. No, no, no,” the instructor said to me as he walked around the classroom checking our form. He was a tall, handsome AfricanAmerican man with the demeanor of a drill sergeant. “Keep those legs up.”
He grabbed my ankles and jerked my legs back into position. I tried to remember why I had made this asinine New Year’s resolution to lose weight in the first place. Beezle had laughed for a full half hour when I told him I was going to an aerobics class.
“You should be going with me, too,” I’d said. “Except that you’d scare the crap out of all the fit people.”
Beezle had patted his round tummy indignantly. “I’ll have you know that I am the perfect shape for a gargoyle.”
“Yeah, a gargoyle that gets out of breath going to the kitchen for snacks,” I’d replied.
“Better to get out of breath in pursuit of chocolate than in pursuit of a fitness you will never achieve,” Beezle had said.
I’d sworn then and there to lose thirty pounds by June. In retrospect, this was a stupid thing to say out loud, because if I didn’t lose the weight, Beezle would harass me about it for the rest of my life.
“Fifty more!” the instructor shouted.
I groaned and glanced at the clock. Aside from my possibly fruitless pursuit of rockhard abs, I had a secondary motive for getting up at the ungodly hour of five A.M. and making my way to the local YMCA. I had a soul to pick up, and that soul was Harry Lopardo, presently crunching his way up and down on the mat next to me, scheduled to depart this earth in about eight minutes. Harry was a superfit middleaged guy who could easily have been in one of those magazine ads for protein bars. He had that nobodyfat look.
If I knew that I had only eight minutes left on my sand timer, I would definitely be doing something besides crunches. It would probably involve getting Gabriel, the unrequited lust of my life, naked as quickly as possible. Of course, there was a universe of obstacles in the way of that happening.
See, I’m an Agent of death. What that means is that once a week I get a list of names, times and places. The names are souls whose deaths have been foreseen by Agency prophets. My job is to be in the right place at the right time to take the soul to the Door. I’m not sure precisely what’s behind the Door, but I know that the soul has a choice of many worlds.
Death is a bureaucracy. It’s ordered, and filled with paperwork, and pretty much everyone is on a needtoknow basis. As a lowly Agent (a crappy job I inherited when my mother died) my needtoknow ranking is pretty low.
“Leg lifts, slow, then quick, go!” the instructor shouted.
I looked at the clock again. Two more minutes. Thank the freaking Morningstar, because I wasn’t sure if I would be able to bend at the waist ever again if this went on for much longer.
“Fifty more, fifty more . . . Is that all he knows how to say?” I muttered.
Harry looked over at me and grinned. “I know it’s tough, but if you stick with it, you’ll see results.”
“No talking!” the instructor shouted.
I huffed and puffed my way through another few reps, and then Harry’s legs dropped to the ground and he clutched his chest. His face turned purple.
I came to my knees and called out to the instructor. “Hey, you should call nineoneone! I think this guy is having a heart attack.”
Everyone in class turned to look at us. I took Harry’s hand. “It’s okay, it’s okay; just look at me.”
People started crowding around. The hiphop music that blared from the speakers kept running, out of sync with what was happening in the room.
“Clear the way, clear the way; give him some air!” the instructor said.
I dropped Harry’s hand and scooted back behind the crowd. This gave me the perfect opportunity to disappear.
I pushed my wings from my back and winked out of sight.
Even though I was invisible I still had to follow the laws of physics. That meant that I had to work around the knot of people surrounding Harry and slip through an opening to get to his body. A second after I knelt beside him again, he breathed his last breath.
His soul came drifting up from the body, attached by a band of ectoplasm. Harry looked down at himself with confusion, then up at me. His eyes widened when he noticed my wings.
“A heart attack? Seriously? I was in great shape,” he said. “Are you the grim reaper? Or some kind of angel?”
“A little of both,” I said, and this was true. My father was Azazel, a fallen angel, and my mother had been an Agent of death. I was also distantly related to Lucifer, and he loved to remind me of that fact.
Harry watched the class instructor giving his lifeless body CPR. “So I guess if you’re here, that means that CPR isn’t going to do too much for me.”
I shook my head and held out my hand. “Will you come with me?”
You have to give the soul a choice. They have to choose to go with you, or stay and haunt this earth forever. Choosing to be a ghost also creates a lot of annoying paperwork.
Harry put his hand in mine. As he did, he looked me up and down critically. “I meant what I said, you know. If you stick with the class, you will definitely see results.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” I said. “Got any fitness tips for an overweight gargoyle?”
The laws of Lucifer’s kingdom said that once you are a thrall, you are always a thrall. You can be passed from owner to owner but you can never, ever be free. I really did not want to be Gabriel’s owner. But I didn’t want him to belong to someone else who would abuse him, either. So mostly I left him alone and avoided making direct requests of him that he would be forced to follow.
This meant that I spent a lot more time flying solo than I used to, unless Samiel decided to come with me. Samiel was Gabriel’s half brother and he’d recently become a part of my household collection of oddities. He frequently came with me on pickups because he had an insatiable curiosity about anything and everything to do with humans, but Beezle had insisted that Samiel stay home this morning and watch a movie with him. The gargoyle had been strangely mysterious about the choice of film, too, so I just hoped that he wasn’t making Samiel watch something icky, like a really bloody horror movie.
I was flying lower than I usually do, close to the rooftops, which is why I saw the ghost.
It was walking in circles on the sidewalk, which was odd behavior, even for an apparition. Every once in a while it would walk toward the brick exterior of a building and bounce off, almost as if it didn’t know that ghosts could drift through solid objects.
I lowered myself to the ground, so focused on the specter’s weird behavior that I bumped into a kid with a hooded sweatshirt and backpack making his way to a nearby bus stop. The kid stopped and looked behind him, alarmed. Seeing nothing, he continued on, his shoulders tensed as if waiting for an attack.
That was stupid of me. I shook my head and continued on toward the ghost, who was still walking in circles near the newspaper boxes on the corner. As I approached I saw that it was a twentysomething male, and he was talking to himself.
“Got to get to classcan’t stopgot to go nowsorry redhave to gocan’t staydon’t make me staydon’t make me staydon’t make me stay.”
He was dressed in that slouchy, wornout style that a lot of college students favored. As I got closer his voice rose in a crescendo.
“No, can’t stopcan’t staysorry reddon’t make me staydon’t make me stayDON’T MAKE ME!” He walked into a building, bounced off the wall and walked back, bouncing off again like a record with a skipping needle.
“Hey,” I said, putting my hand on his shoulder. “Hey, do you need help?”
He turned on me in terror, his hands raised and his wrists crossed in front of his face as if expecting a blow. “No, can’t stopdon’t make me!”
I held my own hands up so that he would know that I wasn’t going to hurt him. “Hey, it’s okay. It’s okay. You’re safe. Can I help you? Can I bring you somewhere?”
Maybe I could convince this soul to go to the Door. That would probably win me points with J.B., even if he wasn’t my direct supervisor anymore. J.B. hated ghosts. He took the presence of every lost soul as a personal affront to his ordered universe.
The ghost had lowered his hands, but when I asked if I could bring him somewhere, he got that panicky, trappedanimal look again. “No, can’t stopgot to godon’t make me stay!”
I didn’t know if he’d been damaged in life or in death, and I didn’t usually intervene in the afterlives of ghostsonce the soul has made their choice to haunt instead of go to the Door, an Agent is pretty much out of it. But this ghost was acting so weird, I couldn’t believe that the Agent who had been sent to do his pickup had left him like this. I thought I’d better get him off the streets.
I called an Agent response team and gave them my location.
“Agent Madeline Black, north side, near the bus stop at the corner of Clark and Wellington. Yeah, I’ve got an unruly ghost here.”
I gave the dispatcher some info on the ghost’s behavior and he told me to wait until the response team arrived. I tucked my phone in my pocket and settled in to babysit.
They didn’t keep me waiting long. A few minutes after I’d called, three burly guys who looked like Navy SEALs came flying in. They all wore black shirts and black cargo pants and had the unsmiling look of military men on duty.
“Agent Black? We’ll take it from here.”
I stepped back to let them do their thing. The leader of the squad approached the ghost with his hands in the air, indicating that he meant no harm. The ghost had gone back to walking into the wall over and over again.
I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned around. J.B. stood there, glaring.
“What’s up with your ghost, Black?”
J.B. had a thing for me, and if I didn’t have a whole lot of unsettled lust for Gabriel, I might have had a thing for J.B., too, because he was pretty much as hot as it gets. Six foot plus, body of a runner, green eyes, black hair that sticks up in every direction because he spends a lot of time tugging at it.
Unfortunately, he acts like a stickinthemud most of the time. Also, he was presently pissed at me because his mother had put a spell on him to make him act loveydovey toward mepart of her master plan of getting a child from Lucifer’s bloodline into her own bloodline. I didn’t know why this was my fault, but once the spell was broken, he’d decided to take out his mother issues on me.
“It’s not my ghost, Bennett,” I said, trying to control my anger. “I found it acting like this.”
“This is the fourteenth one this week,” he said, his eyes troubled. “I want to know what the hell is going on.”
The ghost screamed, and I turned back to see that one of the response team guys had wrapped his arms around the ghost’s to restrain him. Another member of the team pulled out a small black device that looked a lot like a remote and pointed it at the ghost’s eyes. A laser sight appeared on the bridge of the soul’s nose.
The ghost struggled in the Agent’s grip, his cries louder and more frantic. “Can’t stopKEEP GOINGSORRY REDI AM THE SCREAMI AM THE SCREAMI AM THE SCREAM!”
The other Agent pressed a button on the remote. It didn’t seem like anything had happened, but the ghost abruptly went limp in the Agent’s arms. One of the other guys stepped forward with a binding rope.
“How could fourteen ghosts end up like this in one week? Who was supposed to do their pickups?” I wondered aloud.
J.B. was silent behind me. I turned to face him and saw that his jaw was clenched.
“What?” I said.
He looked like he was struggling with some decision; then finally he said, “They weren’t scheduled.”
“Fourteen unscheduled deaths in one week? And they all ended up like this?” I looked at him with dawning comprehension. “You think it has something to do with the fallen.”
“Doesn’t it usually?” he said. “Every time something weird and freaky has happened around here in the last few months it’s come back to Lucifer. And the weird and the freaky have happened more frequently since you acknowledged your bloodline and came into your powers.”
“And so you think I might have something to do with it?” I said. “You know, you accused me of murder once and you looked pretty stupid after when you found out that I hadn’t been lying about Ramuell.”
“I’m not accusing you of anything. I’m just saying that you are Lucifer’s child.”
“I’m not Lucifer’s child,” I said. I could feel my magic pulsing underneath my skinnever a good sign. Even though I had made great leaps and bounds in controlling my powers, I still was at the mercy of my emotions.
“Really?” he said, with a pointed glance at my right hand.
My right palm was covered with what looked like a henna tattoo of an uncoiling snake. Unfortunately, the tattooing had not been voluntary. I’d been branded by Lucifer’s sword, and I wasn’t happy about it.
I shook my head at J.B. “I’m Azazel’s child, and my heritage has nothing to do with this in any case. I don’t know what’s causing this.”
“Maybe I should just have you followed,” J.B. said thoughtfully. “You’ll probably stumble onto the solution accidentally. That seems to happen a lot.”
“I resent the implication that I’m ThreeStooging my way through life. I am the only person who’s ever survived the Maze,” I snapped. “And may I remind you that you should look to your own backyard before you start making wild accusations.”
“You think my mother has something to do with this?” J.B. snorted. “She’d never be able to keep a secret this big from the rest of the faerie court.”
“She managed to keep the fact that she wanted a child of Lucifer’s bloodline secret,” I reminded him.
“What motivation would she have for murdering mortals and leaving them like this?” J.B. said.
“What motivation did she have for trying to have me raped and killed?” I said, and as soon as I said it I was sorry. It hung in the air between us like a living thing.
As if by speaking it aloud, my memoriesthe ones that I tried so hard to suppress over the last monthcame rushing back.
The Mazea swarm of demons, a giant spider, my demon half brother trying to destroy me utterly.
Nathaniel’s face possessed by rage, Nathaniel’s hands holding me down.
Gabriel turning away from me in disgust.
“It wasn’t real,” I muttered to myself. My face was covered in sweat, and a blast of cold January air made me shiver.
“Maddy . . .” J.B. said, and he lifted his hand toward me.
“No,” I said, and backed away, trying to get myself under control, trying to forget again. “I’m not doing this with you. You can’t be my friend when you feel like it and shout at me the rest of the time. Whatever your mother did, I had nothing to do with it, and I suffered far worse at her hand than you did. You were embarrassed by a love spell. She tried to break me, my heart, my mind, my body.”
“But she couldn’t,” J.B. said, and his eyes were hard to read.
“She couldn’t,” I agreed. “And I won’t let you or anyone else do it, either.”
Then I turned and flew away, and he didn’t try to follow me.
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