How to be Death
All Calliope Reaper-Jones ever wanted out of life was a fabulous job in New York City and a really hot boyfriend. But now, she's the brand-new President of Death, Inc. With the Board of Death breathing down her neck and her dad's copy of How to be Death (A Fully Annotated Guide) unopened, Callie's really feeling the tension. And when the guide book is stolen at a fancy formal dinner, Callie has to figure out how to be the boss--before the powers held within the book get out and destroy humanity forever...
Call it a knack, a talent, a penchant . . . a proclivity. Call it what you will—my ability to inject myself into whatever nut-ball scenario crossed my path was, without a doubt, one of the most defining characteristics of my personality. If I were a wittier dame, I’d say that Trouble was my middle name, but since I’m more Clueless than femme fatale, I think I’ll leave the film noir–isms to someone with a better grasp of the material. Needless to say, for those who’ve crossed my path . . . to know me is to wish you’d never met me.
The reasoning for this particular turn of phrase is two-pronged: While part of me is still a twenty-something girl who possesses a hard-core fashion obsession and a propensity for getting into ridiculous scrapes that invariably involve my friends—and even causal acquaintances—(Prong Number One), there is another, more all-encompassing aspect of my personality that’s a real stinger of a Prong Number Two: I am, for lack of a better euphemism, Death . . . the Grim Reaper . . . or just as aptly . . . the Girl Who Can Wish You Dead.
They all pretty much apply.
And now you see why most people wish they could go an eternity without stumbling across my path. There is no human being in existence—barring suicidal depressives and doomsday cultists—who wants to get all up in Death’s business, yet to humanity’s consternation, I’m like a bad penny: I just keep turning up.
Death and taxes—you can count on us.
Now I haven’t always been the head gal in charge of the passage of human souls from one plane of existence to the next. No, I was once a quasinormal human being wannabe who worked in a nice little white cubicle honey-combed inside the right-angle confines of a tall Manhattan skyscraper, doing all the grunt work for the Vice-President of Sales at a company called House and Yard—they make the majority of the house and yard crap you see the overtanned, overplasticized hucksters who populate the Home Shopping Network shilling.
Being the assistant to a tyrannical boss who likes making your life a living Hell just for the fun of it, well, that sucks in its own right. But when your erstwhile boss turns out to be a Supernatural baddie who’s been making your life miserable in order to keep you under her Wagnerian thumb just in case she ever wants to use your family connections to try and take over Death . . . somehow that’s even suckier.
Hyacinth Stewart—said Wagnerian Blonde and plus-sized ex-model extraordinaire—had done exactly that. It was only sheer luck she and her cohort, a Japanese Sea Serpent God named Watatsumi, hadn’t succeeded in dong away with me and assuming the Presidency of Death, Inc., in my stead after my father—the last Death—had been murdered by his arch-nemesis, the Ender of Death or “Marcel,” as the bloodthirsty pain in the ass liked to be called. It was also a testament to the love and help of my friends Jarvis, Runt, and Kali and my younger sister, Clio, that I was still alive and kicking to take over my dad’s job once all the fallout was over.
Without them—and one other person, who I won’t mention because just their name dredges up an achy, hollow place in my heart—I would’ve been mincemeat. Which meant that because so many people had endured so much suffering and given so much of themselves (like their lives) to get me installed as the President of Death, Inc., I had no business disparaging the job, regardless of how badly I hadn’t wanted to take it.
I just had to ignore the little voice in the back of my mind that liked to remind me of how unprepared I was for the job, that kept whispering: You’re just a girl—and a not even an erudite one at that. True, I loved the very pedestrian triumvirate of fashion, shopping, and food, but that didn’t mean I was a total airhead, incapable of running the show—I had a college degree and I knew PowerPoint, for God’s sake.
Still, no matter how much ammunition I gathered against its insidious undermining, the voice persisted, letting me know I had no business being in charge of Death, Inc., especially when it was run exactly like a corporation (hence the heavy-handed “President and CEO” title I now bore like a cross) and needed a boss with business acumen, smarts, and finesse. Three things I wasn’t really sure I 100 percent possessed. Sure, I’d been a damn fine assistant in my day—for as much as I hated the job—but that didn’t mean I was capable of assuming the helm of a multinational conglomerate and not running it into a sandbar.
Yet here I was, the titular head of a giant, multinational, multidimensional conglomerate, whether I wanted the job or not.
All these thoughts ran through my brain while I stared into the gaping interior of my Louis Vuitton overnight bag, trying to decide if the skimpy, white rhinestone-encrusted string bikini I wanted to bring along on the trip made me look slutty or not.
The question of bikini sluttiness aside, my real problem wasn’t what I was packing, but what I was packing it in. My obsession with high-end retail was legendary; I was a conspicuous consumer right out of the pages of Thorstsein Veblen’s perennial classic, The Theory of the Leisure Class. Recently, I’d been working hard to curtail my excessive love of luxury brands in favor of a more economical shopping approach, but truth be told, I was finding it to be a very daunting task, indeed: the Louis Vuitton weekend bag was just another symptom of my luxury addiction gone out of control.
I’d seen it sitting all by its lonesome in the window of Barneys—seriously, I wasn’t even in the store, I was standing on the sidewalk minding my own business, thankyouverymuch—and it’d just looked so darn cute and adorable I couldn’t resist saving it. Besides, I was going to the Death Dinner, arguably the most important event on the Death, Inc., calendar, and I needed to look presentable now that I was the Head Honcho in charge of everything.
At least that was my rationale.
Being the President of Death, Inc., had its advantages—and a very generous living stipend was one of them—but before I’d accepted the job, I’d made a resolution to myself that I would get my shopping problem under control. To that end, my Executive Assistant, Jarvis, had put me on a budget.
A very small budget.
In my heart, I knew keeping my mitts off the money and doing exactly as Jarvis instructed were the only ways to make my resolution a reality, but it was just too damn hard—and I was too damn weak. When I’d put my corporate card down on the counter at Barneys and rescued the Louis Vuitton weekend bag, I’d blown Jarvis’s budget for the month in one fell swoop.
As soon as I stepped foot out of the store, the guilt set in.
Using an old tactic from my shopping-whore days, I immediately ripped the tags off the bag so it would be harder to force myself to return it, but that made me feel even guiltier—and instead of being excited about my overpriced, monogrammed cowhide purchase, all I felt was ambivalence. I couldn’t really enjoy the thing because it was a verboten purchase, but I couldn’t bring myself to give it back because deep in my heart of hearts I loved owning something so deliciously extravagant.
Feeling the kind of shame a puppy does when it pees on the carpet, I’d hidden the bag under my bed (behind a bunch of dust bunnies and an old snowboard that I’d only used once, to deleterious effect—a broken collarbone that, because of my immortality, had healed in three hours instead of three months), but since Jarvis was so familiar with my predilections to excess, the subterfuge only lasted, like, two seconds.
Like a shark scenting blood in the water, he’d gone right to the source of my guilt, snagging the offending bag from under my bed and brandishing it above his head like Martin Luther with his ninety-five theses.
“And what is this, pray tell?” Jarvis said in his clipped British accent—an accent that still sounded strange coming out of the mouth of the lanky, hipster body Jarvis had appropriated after I’d accidentally wished him dead.
“It’s, uhm . . . a bag?” I said innocently.
One bushy, brown eyebrow kinked in derision—and for, like, the thousandth time since Jarvis had acquired his new body, I marveled at how bizarre it was to see the old Jarvis expressions on this new, angular face.
“Oh, really?” he rejoined, trilling the r in “really” like no one’s business, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “A bag, you say? I would never have guessed.”
Jarvis had been an extended member of my family for as long as I could remember—growing up, he’d been my dad’s long-suffering Executive Assistant and then, when my dad was kidnapped and I was named interim head of Death, Inc., in his stead, he’d become my own Man Friday. Over the past year we’d had our ups and downs, mostly because I’d had zero interest in running Death, Inc., and my bad attitude had peeved him to no end, but I knew when push came to shove and I needed someone in my corner, Jarvis would always be there. A fact he’d proven again and again as he’d helped me extricate myself from one ridiculous scrape after another, never once complaining about my ineptitude. Okay, he might’ve complained once or twice, but that was it and he was probably more than justified.
Anyway, it was still strange to think that the Jarvis I’d known as a child—the tiny four-foot-eleven frame, goat haunches (you read that right—Jarvis was a faun in his previous incarnation) and thick Magnum, P.I–era Tom Selleck mustache—was gone, replaced now by the long-limbed, emaciated body standing in front of me, shaking the Louis Vuitton travel bag in my face like it was anathema.
“And wherever did you find said bag?” he’d continued, glaring at me.
“Uhm, wow, I have no idea how that got there . . .” I hedged, but this only garnered a “tut-tut” from Jarvis, whose hand-on-hip stance brooked no argument.
Jeez, I couldn’t get anything past the guy. He knew my every trick, tell, and twitch . . . and he wasn’t buying even a word of my dissembling. I might as well have just finished off every sentence with “And, yes, I’m a big fat liar!” and been done with it.
“Okay,” I sighed, feeling bad for trying and failing to pull a fast one—mostly I felt bad about the failing part, but I wasn’t going to tell him that. “I know exactly how that bag got there and it’s not pretty.”
Jarvis nodded, gesturing for me to continue.
“I fell off the wagon.”
Jarvis raised the other eyebrow, making it seem as if two hairy caterpillars had overtaken his forehead.
“I didn’t even go in the store—it was in the window and I couldn’t just leave it there—so I used the corporate card—”
Jarvis winced, a pained expression pinching his face at the mention of the “corporate card,” but I soldiered on.
“And now I feel like a jerk, so I put it under the bed and I can’t even enjoy it. It’s terrible,” I said as I flopped onto my mattress, the fluffy purple comforter I’d bought online poofing out around me.
The pained expression slowly melted into a wide-lipped grin as I continued:
“I mean, I feel exactly like the dude in A Clockwork Orange—reconditioned to feel only disgust for my old, bad habits,” I added, staring ahead glumly.
Having said my piece, I waited for the traditional Jarvis tongue-lashing to begin, but to my surprise, he circumnavigated my expectations and, with a weary sigh, sat down on the bed beside me, making the comforter poof even more.
As I batted at the comforter, trying to unpoof it, I decided the room I’d grown up in seemed much smaller whenever the new and improved Jarvis was in it. It was as if his long, skeletal frame took up space in the fifth dimension, displacing more matter in our third-dimensional world than it was supposed to.
“Keep it,” Jarvis said, patting my shoulder.
Those two words were like a shot of adrenaline straight to my heart. I immediately sat up straighter, my brain wary and wanting confirmation on the validity of the words I’d just heard Jarvis utter.
“Really?” I said, not believing him, but really, really wanting to.
He shrugged, his shoulders encroaching on earlobe territory.
“We’re attending the annual Death Dinner and Masquerade Ball and you’ll need a carryall. So, I suppose it wasn’t the worst of purchases.”
It was weird to think the fake excuse I’d conjured up for myself as I stood outside the plate glass window of Barneys’ happy-shopping-funland was now the exact rationale Jarvis was using to allow me to keep the bag.
It was like Jarvis had pawed his way into the confines of my mind and implanted a brainwashing device that scrubbed out the old Callie in favor of the more mature Callie 2.0. Or was the answer even simpler than that: Was I just embracing my new job with enough verve that I was starting to think like Jarvis?
This idea was kind of unsettling, but not as unsettling as I’d expected it to be. Over the course of the last few months, I’d found I had a bit of a knack for the whole Death thing. I mean, this was no “duck to water” scenario, or anything so instinctual, but with each new task or problem I overcame, there was the growing awareness I wasn’t a total dunce at the job. My dad had set the reins of Death, Inc., in my hands for a reason and I was determined, now that he was gone, not to let him down.
Which meant in the future I was going to have to think a lot more like Jarvis than I wanted to—and I was also going to have to tamp down the persnickety voice in the back of my head that said I wasn’t good enough for the job. If I could do those two things, then I might actually—Heaven forbid—have a chance at making a go of the family business.
“FYI: That thing totally makes you look slutty.”
Startled out of my thoughts, I looked up to find my little sister, Clio, standing in the doorway to my bedroom, hands on hips, face squirming with disgust as she focused on the tiny, white rhinestone-encrusted bikini top I held in my hand. I quickly dropped the now noxious piece of fabric back onto the bed, watching as the long white ties dangled off the edge of the comforter like spandex mealworms.
“You really think so?” I said, knowing she was right, yet till wanting to take the damn thing with me anyway. It might’ve been a slutster piece of clothing . . . but it was my slutster piece of clothing, and besides, it made my butt look amazing.
“I know so,” she shot back, rolling her eyes. “But don’t let me stop you from embarrassing yourself.”
I decided to let the potshot pass without comment. Instead, I stared down into the empty weekend bag, willing myself to get a move on. I had a wormhole-calling lesson in fifteen minutes and then Jarvis, Runt, and I were heading to the Haunted Hearts Castle, where the annual Death Dinner and Masquerade Ball were being held.
“I wish you were going with us,” I said to Clio—and I meant it. I’d started to rely on her counsel, as far as the day-to-day running of Death was concerned, and not having her keen mind with me at the Death Dinner made me nervous.
She may have just turned eighteen that summer, but she was the smartest person, other than Jarvis, I knew. With her techno savvy (she could hack her way into any computer) and intuitive knowledge of how people operated, I’d been more than pleased when she’d decided to eschew college for a year to work at Death, Inc., helping me put the company back in order after it was almost demolished by the Devil and our not-so-dearly departed older sister, Thalia.
The two of them had staged a coup on Purgatory, murdered my dad—who’d been the President and CEO before me—and nearly destroyed the Hall of Death, where the Death Records for all of humanity were housed. They and their cohorts had worked hard to decimate the employee pool at Death, Inc., so that now we were dangerously understaffed, a problem we were still trying to remedy. I’d met with five possible replacements for Suri, the Day Manager of the Hall of Death, but none of them had had the chutzpah and class of the young woman who’d lost her life defending the records from my older sister’s evil clutches.
And she’d been just one of the many casualties we’d had that day.
I’d inherited a job that was in flux, that needed my complete and utter attention—and since my old boss Hyacinth was officially MIA (she was actually spending her time jailed in Purgatory for the part she played in the Death, Inc., coup, but no one in the human world knew that), I’d gotten laid off from my assisting job at House and Yard just in time to devote myself full stop to rebuilding the company.
Because I’d been so busy, at first I hadn’t missed my old life: the Battery Park City apartment I’d had to give up, my friends (who I never really saw anyway), and the City of New York itself. But now things had started to settle down and I was beginning to feel a burning yen for my past existence. I liked Newport, Rhode Island, where Sea Verge, the family mansion, was located, but the provincial city was not New York. There were no all-night diners, the shopping was boutique-centric, and everyone I’d ever known there had either fled or was married with a bunch of rug rats. So needless to say, the Mommy and Me crew weren’t really interested in hanging out with a cosmopolitan, single gal newly arrived from the wilds of Manhattan.
Having Clio in my direct orbit made everything a lot easier. I could talk to her about anything, and no matter how dorky I sounded, she never judged. After my dad’s death, she’d spent a few months living with her boyfriend, Indra, a Hindu God who’d carved out a human existence for himself making Bollywood musicals—hiding in plain sight, if you will—and though I’d pretty much written him off as a narcissistic jerkoid when I’d first met him, I’d had to eat my words when he’d shown himself to be a stand-up guy, sticking to Clio like glue during the crazy emotional roller-coaster ride she’d endured in the aftermath of our dad’s death. I was a little shaky about the age difference—I’m talking millennia here—but other than that, I was all for the relationship.
But I would’ve been a liar if I hadn’t said I wasn’t a little disappointed when Clio chose to spend the weekend helping Indra shoot his new film rather than coming with me to the Death Dinner. I knew I was in good hands—Runt, my hellhound pup, was a master at sniffing out bad guys, and Jarvis was just aces, in general—but, still, I was gonna miss having my little sister to lean on.
“You know I’d go with you in a heartbeat, but Indra really wants me to be there for the shoot,” Clio said, ripping me out of my thoughts again and back into reality.
“I know,” I said.
“It’s his first nonmusical and he’s really nervous about it,” she added, the tendrils of her short pink hair framing her face like starfish arms.
Clio and I were both part Siren, which accounted for Clio’s stunning good looks and feminine demeanor (sadly, the stunning good looks had missed me by a mile), but even I could see that the gift of beauty was a double-edged sword. Clio had spent a good chunk of her high school career hiding her features behind thick, black plastic-framed glasses and a shaved head, in hopes she could stave off the bevy of lovesick men who followed her everywhere.
Not a chance.
Poor Clio, all she wanted was to be taken seriously—an impossibility when your high school teachers develop inappropriate crushes on you, giving you A-pluses even when you’re purposely turning in D-minus work.
“Well, you know you’ll be missed,” I said, trying to hide my disappointment. “But I totally get it. Mr. Sex on a Stick needs you.”
Mr. Sex on a Stick was what I called Indra whenever I wanted to rile Clio up. I hadn’t coined the term, a magazine had that dubious honor, but it was still my favorite way to harass my sister. I don’t think she particularly enjoyed the fact that her man was an object of sexual fascination to millions of horny housewives across the world.
“Gross!” she said, coming into the room just long enough to grab a pillow off my bed and lob it at my head.
“I’m just saying—” I bleated as the pillow connected with the side of my face.
“Get packed, butthead,” Clio mock-growled at me. “Jarvis wants you down in the library stat for your wormhole-calling lesson.”
And with that piece of info imparted, she flounced back down the hallway, leaving me to finish my packing in peace. I sighed and started pulling clothes from my closet, nicely folding a trio of light summer dresses and a white linen pantsuit into my weekend bag so they wouldn’t get too wrinkled. Some PJs, socks, and underwear rounded out my wardrobe, but it wasn’t until I’d pretty much filled the bag to the brim that I had a change of heart about my slutster status. Picking up the string bikini from its resting place on my bed, I covertly slid the wanton thing between the folds of the white linen suit, where it disappeared nicely inside the similar-colored fabric.
Slutster or not, I was gonna look fine in that bikini . . . and if the man-whose-very-name-made-me-nauseous-with-unrequited-love-whenever-I-thought-about-him was there and he just happened to see me looking all hot and sexy? Well, that was just an added bonus.
Eat your heart out, Daniel, I thought as I zipped up my bag and hoisted it off the bed, ready for whatever Trouble came my way.
I just hoped it was the kind punctuated by a capital T.
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