Authors: Jocelynn Drake
“Exactly. This is about one of your recent clients.”
“I hope this isn’t more Russell Dalton shit. I really don’t think I can tolerate another word about that man,” I grumbled, resting my arms on my knees.
“Dalton. Dalton. Dalton,” the grim reaper muttered to himself as he flipped through several sheets of paper on his clipboard before he found what he was looking for. “No, it’s not his time just yet. Though it doesn’t look as if you’ve been much help with his case.”
“I’m not taking responsibility for his death whether it comes today or ten years from now. He dug his own grave.”
“And you threw the dirt in after him.”
“Whatever,” I said with a wave of one hand. “He got what he deserved. If this isn’t about Dalton, then which of my clients do you have a problem with?”
“It’s a young woman by the name of Tera Cynthia McClausen.”
It took me a moment to remember who he was talking about when I heard the entire name, but my stomach clenched when I suddenly focused on the first name. Tera. She had never given me her last name and I had never thought to ask. It would be on the paperwork she filled out, but I never looked that shit over.
My tattoo on Tera’s back had brought the grim reaper to my door, and I had a very good guess as to why he was there.
The angel feather
. It had done something to mess up the flow of souls. Whatever it was, the grim reaper was calling me out and this was one of the last guys on this planet I wanted to go a few rounds with. There really was no winning.
For now, the best plan was to play ignorant for as long as possible. “What’s the problem with Tera?”
“She was on my schedule to die and you’ve ripped her from my sheet!” he exclaimed, slapping his clipboard against his knee. “I can’t have screwups on my watch. This isn’t the kind of job where you can let souls slip through your fingers. When a person is slated to die, they have to die. Every soul must be accounted for.” As he spoke, he punched the clipboard with one slightly pudgy finger for emphasis.
“What are you talking about? Did I extend her life or something? What’s the big deal if she lives a few weeks or months longer? She seems like a good person, and the world wouldn’t be a particularly bad place if a good person lived a little longer.”
“It’s not a matter of good and bad people, I’m afraid. I also haven’t the time to go into a discussion of morals and the silly concept of right and wrong. It’s a matter of when their time is due. Tera’s time is up.”
“Fine. She has to die,” I said, throwing up my arms in frustration. She was a nice person, but I doubted that I would be able to sway the grim reaper on the matter of death. “How does that involve me? All I did was give her a tattoo before cancer finally took her life.”
“You know what you did.”
“’Fraid not. Please, enlighten me.”
“You made her immortal! I can’t reap her soul.”
My mouth hung open for several seconds and I swear my heart actually stopped in my chest.
I was up a serious shit creek with this one. There weren’t true immortals in this world. Vampires could be killed with a well-placed stake and the elves were simply a long-living race. Even the witches and the warlocks had found spells to extend their lives by a considerable amount, but everyone died. Tera was immortal? To hell with the cancer that I had been hoping to give her an edge on, I had fixed it so that even all-mighty death couldn’t touch her.
I was screwed. On the one hand, I had death haunting my tattoo parlor, angrily tapping his clipboard of names for the chopping block. On the other hand, if the warlocks and the witches got wind of this massive screwup, they would squeeze me for information on how I did it and then kill me. Unfortunately, I didn’t know which was worse.
Pushing to my feet, I kept one hand on the wall to steady myself, as my legs were reluctant to support me. “Okay. Okay. Let’s just discuss this slowly.”
“Discuss this slowly?” the reaper repeated incredulously. “There’s nothing to discuss. She’s immortal, Gage. In case you’ve forgotten the definition of that simple word, it means that She. Can’t. Die. You’re keeping me from doing my job!”
“I get it. She can’t die. This news is all a little unexpected.”
“Is it? You know what caused this.”
The angel feather.
Yeah, I knew what had caused this. “I didn’t expect it to have this kind of effect on her. I’ve never used that ingredient before. Never thought to.”
“So you took a chance with some powerful magic without actually considering the consequences of your actions? What were you thinking?”
I pounded my fist against the wall before taking a few steps toward the balding man, still seated on the gleaming wooden bench. “I thought I would try to help her. It’s like I said, she’s a nice person. This world could do with a few nice people after all the scumbags that I run into on a regular basis. Helping someone isn’t a crime.”
“But making them immortal is a crime against nature, and you’re going to have to pay the price for it.”
“What are you talking about?” I demanded warily, halting in my steps toward the increasingly frightening figure.
“In three days, I need a soul. On my checklist, it’s Tera McClausen, but I’m more than willing to change that name to Gage Powell to suit my needs.”
“You can’t do that!”
“You can’t kill me to fill in for someone else. That just can’t be legal in your world.”
“And who are you going to report me to? Until a few minutes ago you didn’t even know I existed.”
I shoved both hands into my hair and tightened my fingers, wanting to pull my hair out in frustration and sheer desperation. This couldn’t be happening. The grim reaper was going to cut my life short because I fucked up by trying to do something nice for someone else. A low growl rumbled from my throat, my eyes scanning the tattoo parlor as if I was trying to find some way of escaping, but you couldn’t outrun death. I could tattoo myself using the same angel feather, but I had no desire to be immortal. I just didn’t want to die in three days. I was hoping to have a little more time. And even if I escaped, that didn’t mean the grim reaper couldn’t start going after other people in my life in an attempt to exact some revenge for screwing up his job.
“I wish it didn’t have to be this way.” The man sounded tired and genuinely sorry about the situation. His round shoulders slumped and he sagged a little on the bench where he sat. “After glancing over your paperwork, it looks like you’ve still got a lot that you need to accomplish in this world, but I will reap you if I have to.”
Dragging in a slow, cleansing breath, I unclenched my fingers and dropped my hands back down to my sides. There had to be a way out of this. I had gotten myself into some nasty scrapes in the past and had managed to ease my way out of the messes with a limited number of bruises, scars, and broken bones. I could still fix this.
“You said that you don’t need the soul for another three days,” I started. There was only one way to fix this and I could feel my stomach starting to knot. A bad taste was forming in the back of my throat.
“Yes, three days from today,” he confirmed.
“And you just need a soul.”
“Preferably Tera’s soul, but I will take yours in trade. Only yours.”
“I’m not going to kill some random person off the street just so you can meet your quota,” I snapped irritably. “What if I can make Tera mortal again?”
“Then you are in the clear.”
“And there’s no way to extend the time she has? Three days is so little time before she dies from cancer.”
The grim reaper heaved a heavy sigh, as if he had heard this argument far too many times in his long career of collecting souls from the living. Lines dug deep furrows in his face, signs that this job was weighing heavily on his own soul, assuming that the grim reaper was still permitted to keep his soul. “I’ll see what I can do, but at the very least I need her soul available to me three days from now. Extensions happen, but they are extremely rare. I’ll put in the appropriate paperwork for you.”
A light-headed giggle escaped me. My neck was no longer necessarily on the chopping block, though Tera’s was back on it. But in trade, I might have actually managed to extend her life longer than she originally had in a legal, happy, grim-reaper manner. It was the best I could ask for.
“Okay, you work your magic with death paper pushers and I’ll work on Tera. Hopefully, at the end of three days, everyone will be happy in some way,” I said, trying hard not to look too closely at what was currently left of my sanity. I didn’t think it was a good thing to spend the afternoon examining futures with the personification of death. It only led to panic and bargaining for things you didn’t necessarily think you could accomplish.
Tucking his clipboard under his arm, he pushed slowly to his feet again; some arthritis in the knees was probably beginning to slow him down. “You have a deal. I will see you again in three days.” And then he was simply gone.
I blinked a couple of times, wondering if I had hallucinated the whole thing. Did I really just have a conversation with the master of death in which I argued trading my soul for Tera’s? A part of me felt dirty from the idea of conspiring with another person to end someone’s life, but then again, no one was supposed to be immortal. I was just undoing a mistake I had made. If I was lucky, Tera was completely oblivious to my mistake and I would be able to fix this without her ever being the wiser.
The only major problem was that I didn’t have even the beginnings of a clue as to how in the world I was going to make her mortal again. Causing immortality had been a complete accident on my part. But I knew that an accident wasn’t going to save my ass. I needed help. Serious, experienced help and I needed it
. . . before the clock ran out on my brief reprieve.
Jogging through the parlor, I burst out the back door and pounded up the wooden stairs to the second floor where Trixie was supposed to be sleeping. I hated to disturb her, but I didn’t have any choice. I had to find a way out of this mess. The elf could catch up on her sleep later. Throwing open the door, I saw Trixie peer out from the bedroom doorway and look down the hall at me.
“I need you to do me a favor.”
“Sure,” she replied, sounding a little taken aback by my sudden appearance.
“Can you open the parlor for me today? Feel free to grab a few hours of sleep and open it late. That’s fine with me. I’ve got an errand to run that I have to do right now.”
“Don’t worry. I’ve got it. Is everything all right?”
“Not in the slightest,” I muttered under my breath. “One other thing, can you look up the information sheet that Tera McClausen filled out yesterday when I gave her the tattoo? I need to call her.”
“Yes—I’ll lock the doors downstairs, but I want you to lock this door behind me. If someone is looking for you, or whatever tale you want to tell me, then you need to try to protect yourself by locking the goddamn door.”
To my surprise, a bright smile graced her beautiful face. “Thanks, Gage. I’ve got it.”
I hoped so. It was bad enough my ass was in the fire. I wasn’t sure that I would be able to protect her at the same time if things suddenly turned ugly. But I could try.
“If you want, you can wait to open until either Bronx or I get to the shop,” I offered as I turned to leave and pull the door shut behind me.
Trixie’s wonderfully light laughter danced through the small apartment before finally sliding around me. “I’ll be fine, Gage. Run your errand. I’m not completely helpless.”
“I know,” I mumbled, feeling more than a little silly for treating her like some witless damsel in distress. For her to have survived this long in this neighborhood, she had to have learned to take care of herself. “Just be careful.”
Closing the door behind me, I descended the stairs, listening for the telltale click of the lock being shoved into place on the door before I finally entered the parlor again. I locked the back door and checked my pockets for my keys and wallet before exiting through the front door. I had only one chance of finding a way out of this. I just hoped that my old tattooing mentor Atticus Sparks was still in the area.
Or at the very least, still alive.
he drive across town took only a few moments, but the results were not as I had hoped. I turned into a parking lot that was situated just a few buildings from where his shop was located. With a quick glance around to take in the few people wandering the sidewalks, I jogged to the building and skidded to a sharp stop in front of dirt- and dust-covered windows. The sign over the shop was missing, and gazing inside through the dirt revealed an empty storefront that hadn’t been used in what looked to be years.
I stumbled a couple of steps backward, clenching my fists at my sides in desperation as I looked up to the second floor. Sparks had always used the second-floor apartment as his residence. I knew it too well after spending the better part of four years sleeping on a narrow cot in a room the size of a closet while I was going through my apprenticeship. It had been anything but a comfortable period of time for me, and I certainly wasn’t getting laid, but I
busy learning everything that Sparks could possibly teach me about the tattooing world.
“Sparks!” I bellowed up at the second floor, hoping against my better judgment that he might actually have stayed in the building but had moved his shop to another part of town. There was no answer, no movement in front of the windows, which looked just as dirty and empty as those on the first floor. Passersby gave me a wide berth as I cursed under my breath. Sparks had packed up shop and moved on to some other tantalizing spot. At least I hoped that was the case.
“Damn it, Sparks!” I growled, kicking the door to the shop. I could find the old man, assuming that he was still alive, but it would mean using magic, and I was in enough trouble already. The man had never been big on advertising and I didn’t expect to find his name in the white or yellow pages. He lived by the creed that the best kind of advertising was word of mouth, mostly because it was free.