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Authors: Lori Sjoberg

Grave Destinations (7 page)

BOOK: Grave Destinations
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“I’m here now,” he said, offering no excuse. He touched a hand to her arm and felt her pulse quicken beneath his fingertips. The curse nearly vibrated with excitement while Jack knew he’d despise himself in another hour.
Jessica bit her lower lip, her fingers twirling a strand of her hair. “Want to go back to my cabin? My roommates won’t be back for a couple hours.”
Damn, the girl moved fast. Usually, he had to put more effort into the seduction before getting down to business. Not that he minded. He felt no inclination to get to know her better. The lack of emotional involvement would grant him greater control over his baser nature, allowing it to take just enough to satisfy its hunger without causing Jessica any permanent damage.
Shoving the guilt aside, he gave Jessica a seductive smile. “Let’s go.”
Chapter 6
arvesting the soul was only the first part of a reaper’s job. The second half usually proved safer and easier, as the process required more mental than physical exertion.
Even though Ruby hadn’t thought so at the time, it probably worked out for the best that Jack left in such a hurry. Solitude granted her the privacy necessary to place the soul on its proper path without interruption. And while this particular soul showed no signs of malevolence, she disliked using her body as a holding pen for the recently deceased.
Still, she felt irritated and confused by Jack’s abrupt departure. One minute he’d been revved up and raring to go, the next he’d turned tail like a rabbit with a fox on its heels. His behavior made no sense to her, and she was not a woman accustomed to being left hanging. Next time she saw him, he’d better have a damn good explanation and an award-winning grovel.
She briefly considered going back to the bars to take the edge off her restlessness, but just as quickly abandoned the notion. The idea struck her as distasteful, which made her realize this particular itch could only be scratched by one particular man. So instead she changed into something more comfortable, raided the mini fridge, and ordered a double slice of strawberry cheesecake from room service.
About an hour later, Ruby finished her drink and set the empty glass beside the empty plate on the vanity. By now she’d regained enough of her mental balance to begin the painstaking process of placing the soul on the final leg of its journey.
She sat cross-legged on the bed with her hands folded on her lap, her heart rate slowing with each deep, cleansing breath. Closing her eyes, she envisioned the wide-open field behind her parents’ property in Georgia, a place she’d always associated with peace and solitude. Another breath, and the clutter slowly cleared from her crowded thoughts, each one tucking away into its own special compartment, to be dealt with later. She focused inward, shuttering her mind to the outside world, her concentration locked on the task at hand.
By now, the girl’s soul had acclimated to its change in condition, sulking but no longer making a fuss. Ruby sensed no malice in the girl, no taint of evil damning her spirit to an afterlife of unspeakable torment.
Thank God.
The damned usually had a pretty good idea about where they were going, and fought the inevitable with every ounce of their remaining strength. Unblemished souls possessed no such fear, making them much easier to guide through the portal linking humanity to the hereafter.
Muscles lax and heart slowly beating, her mind drifted into a trancelike state. It was only then that instinct took over and the portal contained within her body stirred to life. The process was similar to unlocking a door, a turn of the knob to another realm. Some reapers preferred to skip the touchy-feely routine, and instead utilized their mental abilities to actively trigger the process. It was more efficient, and a much faster way to place the soul on its proper course. But personally, she found the natural method to be less physically stressful.
Either way, the experience was far from pleasant. Actually, it felt like a great void bursting open inside her chest, a swirling black hole bridging humanity to the next realm. It wasn’t cold or warm, dark or light, peaceful or foreboding. It was simply . . . there, and the nothingness never failed to unnerve her.
Once it was fully activated, she relinquished her ties to the soul, guiding it with her mind toward the next step in its journey. It stopped short at the threshold, fearful of venturing into the vast unknown. With a patience she rarely afforded the living, Ruby coaxed the skittish spirit, soothing its fears with mental reassurances as she gently nudged it forward.
It’s okay, sweetheart. You have nothing to fear. Incredible things await you on the other side.
Just a little closer, she thought, and the portal would do the rest of the work.
Sure enough, the portal latched on and the soul stopped resisting, sweeping into the chasm like a piece of driftwood carried away by high tide. For the briefest of moments, Ruby felt awash in warmth, and love, and indescribable beauty. A sense of belonging that filled her heart to bursting. Then the portal snapped shut, leaving her with an emptiness that brought tears to her eyes.
Some time later, Ruby woke from a deep, dreamless sleep. The only light in the cabin came from the alarm clock on the vanity. She groaned when the little red digital numbers shifted into focus.
Three forty-eight. She’d been asleep for less than four hours.
Groggy, disoriented, and more than a little annoyed, she kicked back the sheets while her eyes scanned the darkened cabin.
Funny, she heard no noise coming from the upper decks, no sounds in the hallway, so what caused her to wake?
As the fog of sleep lifted, her senses sharpened. The cool night chilled her bare skin, the room so quiet she heard her own pulse beating. Then she noticed it. Faint yet insistent, the scent of new death haunted the air, calling out to her like a siren song.
What the hell?
She’d been informed of only one death on the docket. Fate’s schedule ran with military precision, allowing no margin for error. Maybe the death was due to natural causes. A heart attack, perhaps, or one of the elderly passengers who’d passed away in their sleep.
But if that were the case, why was she sensing it so strongly? The souls of those who died through natural causes passed to the afterlife without the aid of a reaper, the transition so seamless it barely registered on a reaper’s radar.
Only one way to find out, she thought as she got out of bed and flipped on the light in the bathroom. Once her eyes adjusted to the glare, she dragged on shorts and a tank top and pulled her bed hair back in a ponytail. After a minute of searching, she slipped on a pair of sandals, pocketed her room key, and left the cabin.
Moving on instinct, she tracked death like a bloodhound, following the distinct hum up five flights of stairs and down a long, empty hallway until she stood in front of cabin number 862.
Oh, yeah, this was definitely the place. She sensed fresh death beyond the barrier of the door, so strong it pulsated through her body like an electric current. She tried the door, frowned when she found it locked. Then she knocked, listening for any signs of life inside.
“Good evening, ma’am,” a rich, baritone voice said from behind, and she nearly jumped straight out of her sandals. “My apologies, I did not mean to startle you.”
Ruby took a deep, calming breath, turned toward the voice, and smiled. He was a young man, tall and heavyset, with a rounded face and short black hair. His name badge read “Carlos,” while his uniform indicated he belonged to housekeeping. And housekeeping staff generally carried master keys, didn’t they?
“It’s all right,” Ruby said, adding a few extra layers to her accent.
She’d learned long ago the fine art of exploiting stereotype to her advantage. A lot of folks equated a Southern accent with harmless and ignorant. The assumption left them with a superior attitude and relaxed their guard, and that made it much easier for her to talk them into doing whatever she wanted.
“I was just trying to figure out how to get back in my cabin.” She feigned a look of exasperation as she propped a hand on her hip. “I accidentally left my key card inside, and my roommate took off with some guy she met at the karaoke bar. Is there any way you could let me in, sweetie pie?”
Carlos regarded her with wary eyes, his expression somewhere between interest and apprehension. “I don’t know,” he said, shifting his weight from one leg to the other. “I’m really not supposed to—”
“Oh, I understand,” Ruby interrupted with a casual wave of her hand. “I just thought it might be worth a try. I wouldn’t want to get you into any kind of trouble.” She met his gaze, holding it long enough to slip a suggestion into his mind.
It’s okay. Just this one time. Nobody will ever know.
“Well,” Carlos said, his head turning from side to side as if making sure the corridor was clear of any potential witnesses. “I guess it wouldn’t hurt to open it this one time. Just don’t tell anyone I did this or I could get into trouble.”
“Cross my heart and hope to die, I promise I won’t tell a living soul.” She smiled and winked, and a deep blush darkened his olive skin. She waited anxiously while he slipped the key card through the electronic slot and the little green light blinked twice. “Thanks a million,” she said as she slipped past him into the darkened cabin, the door clicking shut behind her.
She didn’t really need the lights to fulfill her duties, but she turned them on anyway. The brightness added a sense of security while dealing with the ugliness of death. Taking note of every detail, she searched the room to make sure she was the only living being present.
The cabin was actually a suite, much larger than the sorry excuses for cabins down on Ruby’s deck. The suite had two distinct sections: a sleeping area dominated by a king-size bed, and a sitting area complete with a sleeper sofa, dining room table and four high-back chairs, and an entertainment center with the usual electronics. The sliding glass door led to a private balcony, which at the moment afforded a view of the moon peeking through the clouds, its light reflecting off the choppy ocean waves.
A short, slender woman lay stretched out on the bed. She appeared to be no older than twenty-five, with long brown hair and a fair complexion. Tattoos marked her arms and ankles, while a simple gold barbell pierced her belly button. Her body was stripped naked as the day she was born, and she was absolutely, positively dead.
“Well, at least you died with a smile on your face,” Ruby murmured as she stepped closer to the foot of the bed.
The woman’s soul had already broken its bonds with the flesh and was hovering about two feet above the mattress. It still retained its human form, a hazy figure unaware of the fact it no longer needed to conform to its prior bodily constraints. Its movements were erratic, confused, and distressed by its sudden change in condition.
“It’s okay, sweetheart, I’m only here to help.” Ruby reached out with her mind, latching on to the woman’s spirit and drawing it toward her. To soothe the soul she sent out wordless reassurances, promises of peace, of answers, of a resolution for all its earthly troubles.
The soul gave only a token resistance, merging with Ruby’s body in a wash of warmth and unsettled energy. Little by little, it distilled to its base form, a swirling mass of condensed power with enough strength to fire the human spirit. The energy spiked when the soul became fully aware of the death of its body, its essence a tangled knot of confusion, disbelief, and panic.
What? Dead? No, that can’t possibly be right. I’m on vacation, dammit! If I’m dead, who’s going to take care of my baby girl? It better not be Darryl, that good-for-nothing son of a bitch. Oh, God, I never got around to making a will! Who’s going to get all my stuff? Oh, no, no, no . . .
Ruby closed her eyes while she concentrated on containing the soul, shielding her mind from the barrage of alien emotions. It was either that or feel everything the soul was experiencing, and she held no desire to ride shotgun on another gut-wrenching journey through the stages of grief.
Five minutes later she was ready to leave, eager to put space between herself and the corpse. Acting on impulse, she snatched the room key off the nightstand and slipped it in her front pocket. She took one last look at the body, wondering how the young woman had died. There were no marks on her skin, no obvious signs of trauma to hint at a cause of death. The only pharmaceuticals in sight were a bottle of ibuprofen and a prescription for birth control, so overdose was probably out of the question. And then there was that goofy grin on the woman’s face, so disturbing when considered against the pallor of her skin and the faint stench from her final bowel movement.
Stumped, Ruby filed the information in her mind for future reference and headed for the door. In all her years, she’d never encountered an unscheduled death. Or was it scheduled, and no one bothered to inform her?
The second she got back to her cabin, she grabbed her cell and started dialing. She began with Dmitri, the recently appointed leader of her unit in Orlando, but got dumped straight to voice mail.
“Great.” Now what? She sure as hell wasn’t going to try Samuel. Even if she had his number saved in her list of contacts, the big boss gave her the creeps. She thought about it and then called the only other person she could think of who might be able to point her in the right direction.
“Hello?” The voice sounded husky, and feminine, and more than a little sluggish.
“Sarah? Is that you? Did I wake you up?” Shoot, in all the excitement, she’d forgotten about the time. She’d been trying to contact Sarah’s other half. He was Ruby’s former mentor, her former lover, and her longest and closest friend.
“No, I’m awake,” Sarah replied, and Ruby realized she’d just interrupted something besides sleep. She heard a low masculine voice in the background, one she immediately recognized as belonging to David. “So, uh . . . how are you doing?”
“I’m all right.” Ruby bit her lower lip while she tried to think of something intelligent to say. She’d only met the woman once, back when Sarah was still mortal and had yet to cross paths with Fate. Anyone who made David that happy was okay in her book, and she got the impression Sarah liked her as well. Still, some women got their panties in a bunch when another woman called their man in the middle of the night. Hopefully, Sarah wasn’t the type. “How’s your training going?”
“Oh, it’s . . .” Sarah paused, as if searching for the right choice of words. Finally, she said, “It’s fine. Different. Six months, and I still have so many questions. I can’t wait to get my lab up and running.”
“Your lab?”
“Yes, of course,” she said, her voice lifting with enthusiasm. “David and I rented an apartment with an extra bedroom so I could set up my lab equipment. You know, tests to run, hypotheses to confirm or disprove. I’m looking forward to putting some blood and tissue samples under the scope.”
BOOK: Grave Destinations
7.76Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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