There was a knife sticking out of my abdomen and blood seeping into my brand-new silver camisole top.
How the fuck would I get the stain out?
This was all wrong. Where was the pain? Surely, it should hurt more. I needed to pull the blade out, because, nope, foreign objects did not belong in my body, not unless they vibrated and came with a five-year guarantee.
“Don’t,” the man said. “You’ll bleed out.”
How was he still alive after the beating he’d just taken? Baseball bats, classic hoodlum weapon, and then the massive dagger plunge to finish off. They’d stabbed him in the fucking chest. How was he talking to me?
He should be dead.
I should be dead.
How was I still standing?
My legs gave out.
Ah, there it was. My knees hit the ground, tearing a hole in my favorite jeans—stretchy enough to fit snugly without constriction. Jeans that hadn’t fit me for months, but finally did once more, and now I was going to die. All those hours at the gym for nothing. I should have had an extra sugar-frosted donut with the cream filling at work yesterday. Fuck, I should have gone for the chocolate éclair instead and made it count.
Warm numbness spread through me, and my breath came fast and shallow. Was this it? The end? Oh, God. I was going to die in a dirty, manky alley, all because of too many margaritas and a misplaced hero complex.
Fuck you, alcohol.
I couldn’t even call for help. My clutch bag containing my phone was somewhere at the foot of the alley. I’d dropped it when the hooded figures grabbed me.
The man groaned. “Closer, please. Come …”
He shifted, so a shaft of moonlight illuminated his face. Dark tendrils of hair had fallen across his forehead and into his cocoa eyes. He was too pale. Deathly pale. I had to get to the mouth of the alley and get help for us both.
“No. Too late,” he said. “I need you to come here. Please.”
He was one of them, so if it was too late, he’d know. If it was too late, then there was no help for us.
I crawled toward him, knife still stuck in my numb body, and grazed his outstretched fingers with mine. He grabbed my hand with surprising force.
“Will it hurt?” My voice trembled. “Will it?”
His face contorted in a snarl, and he hauled me toward him, fangs aimed at my throat.
There was no point in screaming.
Forty-Eight Hours Earlier
You’d think being dead and having all the time in the world would make ghosts a little more patient.
You’d be wrong.
But it did take patience to work with them, and it was my job to train the staff that processed the new arrivals. The ground floor of Soul Savers Inc. was my playground, and processing was my baby. But as much as I loved my job, I hated training newbies.
Right now, that newbie was Lisa Tripp, twenty years old and scorer of top marks in all the written assessments. It was my task to make sure she did just as well in face-to-face encounters as she did on paper.
Lisa faced off with the frail, ethereal form of one Dorothy Meadows, aged eighty-seven on her last birthday, owner of two cats, a budgie, and a two-bed apartment. Dotty, as I’d come to know her, had been stuck in the waiting room for the past two weeks. Dotty was not happy. Neither Lisa nor Dotty knew they were being watched by moi. The tiny monitor in my office was linked to all the cameras in processing. All I needed to do was make notes and file a report to recruitment. No intervention allowed.
Dotty glared at Lisa from over half-moon spectacles she no longer required, being dead and all. “Now you listen here, young lady,” she said. “I want a pickup, and I want one now. I’ve done my time here. I’ve made my peace, and I’m done waiting.”
The demands and the threats were all par for the course, and there were at least forty more like Dorothy sitting in the waiting room, waiting for their number to be called.
The only thing keeping them halfway occupied was Cryptic Cove, the hottest, longest-running drama playing on the small TV bolted to the wall. The waiting ghosts were enraptured by the shenanigans on screen. The storyline was convoluted, fast-paced, and steamy. But once the episode ended, there’d be moans and groans and banging on the wards that separated the staff from specters, accompanied by demands as to what the fucking holdup was.
The only way to do this job effectively was to focus on one dead person at a time.
“Excuse me, young lady, are you listening to me?” Dotty asked Lisa.
Lisa continued to tap away at her keyboard.
Come on, woman, answer her.
Dorothy snapped her fingers in front of Lisa’s face.
Lisa looked up with a bored expression. “It doesn’t work that way, all right. You get picked up when you get picked up.” She shrugged. “It’s not something we have control over. Pickups are allocated by Underworld, so are Deadside allocations. You’re down for Deadside, but you don’t get shifted for … let’s see … another six months.” Her smile was smug.
Seriously? There was no need to look so pleased about it.
“Six months!” Dotty shook her head, jowls quivering. “No. Not acceptable.”
Lisa made a meh face. “Meanwhile, you have several options for placement depending on your influence level. Get into the cubicle so I can—"
“I don’t want a placement, you silly girl! I want to move on.”
Lisa leaned across the counter and locked gazes with Dotty. “And I want a better-paid job and a hot guy on my arm. The only difference between you and me is that I still have time to get what I want. You’re bloody dead. So, get in the fucking cubicle so I can fucking process you.”
What the actual fuck? My heart pounded hard in my chest. This was unacceptable.
Dotty blinked in surprise. “You can’t speak to me like that?”
“Like fuck, I can’t.” Lisa crossed her arms under her breasts. “And you know what else I can do? I can hit a couple of buttons and allocate you to purgatory.”
Dotty’s eyes widened. “Please. Please, don’t … I just. I just want to move on.”
Lisa shrugged. “Yeah, and you will. To purgatory. There’s no wait for that trip.”
Wait a second, was she actually going to allocate Dotty to the big P. I gripped the pen tightly in my hand, my report half-filled in front of me. The rules were clear. I wasn’t meant to intervene. I shouldn’t. I pulled up Lisa’s work record and scanned her allocations.
Mother of lint-filled navels! Lisa had allocated five spirits to purgatory pickup in the past week. Five!
Spirits that had done bad shit in life. Murderers, abusers, anyone who’d caused severe pain or torment to others got allocated to purgatory. We called them malignants. But these spirits were rarely dumb enough to venture into an allocation center because there was no hiding your sins once you were dead. The Underealm database had information on these souls, and they were hunted by the reapers directly. In the five years I’d worked here, I’d only ever seen two purgatory allocations, and both those were spirits brought in by a ghost mob. Yeah, ghosts had time on their hands, and they liked to help clean up the streets.
But Lisa had allocated five, and from the looks of it, was going for a sixth.
I was out of my office and at the processing desk in less than ten seconds. The bitch was already in the purgatory file and inputting Dotty’s details.
Dotty’s eyes fixed on me through the blue-tinged ward wall. “Seraphina, help me.”
Lisa’s shoulders tensed, and then she turned to me with a concerned expression on her face.
“Oh, Miss Dawn, I’m so glad you’re here. I’ve never done a purgatory allocation before, but I’m afraid Ms. Meadows has admitted to wishing to do harm to the living. I feel, based on her admission, that she should be placed onto the purgatory pickup.”
I nodded slowly. “She did, did she?”
Dotty shook her head vehemently. “She’s lying.”
“I am not,” Lisa snapped.
It was literally her word against Dotty’s, or it would have been if I hadn’t been watching.
“Tell me, Miss Tripp. Why do ghosts make the journey here?”
Lisa opened and closed her mouth a couple of times.
An ember of anger sparked in my chest. I offered her a cold smile. “Let me remind you. They come here to find peace because they’re dead, and they’re stuck, and we’re the only people who can help them move on.” The spark of anger burned hotter behind my eyes. “We’re the only allocation center for several hundred miles, and it’s our duty to ensure the dead are taken care of until the reapers can swoop in and do their job. It’s our duty to be compassionate, kind, and, above all, patient.”
Lisa blinked up at me, and for the first time in a long time, I was grateful for my five-foot-seven height.
“I was patient,” she lied to my face.
“No, you were uninterested and rude. You’ve also allocated five souls to purgatory in the past week.”
She sucked in a sharp breath, then pressed her lips tightly together. “They were dangerous.”
Father of devilish lies! Indignation momentarily stole my words. I inhaled through my nose and fixed a cold smile on my face.
“No, Lisa. The only dangerous person here is you. Pack your shit and get the hell out of here. You’re fired.”
“You can’t fire me. You don’t have the authority.” She stood taller.
My tenuous grip on my inner zen slipped, and lava bubbled up inside me. My hand was around her arm before I could stop myself, and my body went into auto mode, hauling her across the front office and out into the back.
I released her with a shove. “Get the fuck off this floor. Now.”
I slammed the door in her face and walked back over to Dotty, who was flickering with agitation.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean to cause trouble. I just … I want to move on.”
I took a breath to compose myself and push the anger back down. “I know, Dotty. I know.” I signed Lisa out and logged into the system. “Let me see what I can do, sweets. Just give me a moment, okay?”