As an Agent of Death, Madeline Black is responsible for escorting the souls of the dearly departed to the afterlife. It's a 24/7 job with a lousy benefits package.
Maddy's position may come with magical powers and an impressive wingspan, but it doesn't pay the bills. And then there are her infuriating boss, tenant woes, and a cranky, popcorn-loving gargoyle to contend with.
Things start looking up, though, when tall, dark, and handsome Gabriel Angeloscuro agrees to rent the empty apartment in Maddy's building. It's probably just a coincidence that as soon as he moves in demons appear on the front lawn. But when an unholy monster is unleashed upon the streets of Chicago, Maddy discovers powers she never knew she possessed. Powers linked to a family legacy of tarnished halos.
Powers that place her directly between the light of Heaven and the fires of Hell...
Release date: November 30, 2010
Print pages: 304
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Listen to a sample
I hate it when a soul goes all stubborn on me. It doesn't happen as often as you'd think. Most people understand that they're dead and want to move on. Maybe it's because they think heaven is waiting for them. Maybe it's because they believe they'll be reincarnated as the Princess of Monacodoes anybody want to be reincarnated as the Princess of Monaco anymore? Maybe it's because they're just tired of this world. When I show up to escort them to the Door, they know why I'm there and they're ready to go. But sometimes, like today, a soul doesn't want to leave its earthly body.
Mrs. Luccardi didn't want to leave her catsall fifteen of them. People get very attached to their pets. In fact, I've seen a fair number of people more attached to their pets than to their children. I understand that they feel like their little four-legged buddy is part of the family. What I have to make them understand is that they are dead, and can no longer feed, groom, or cuddle little Muffy, Flopsy, or Fido. It can be a delicate job, convincing the recently deceased of their new status.
"Mrs. Luccardi, you're dead," I said. "You can't take care of your cats anymore. Someone else will have to do that now."
I fought the urge to cover my nose as I said this. Mrs. Luccardi was recently deceased and therefore immune to the reek of cat piss that permeated her doily-covered living room, but I was very much alive and getting tired of breathing through my mouth.
Aside from my burning need to breathe air unscented by eau de cat urine, I had two other pressing reasons for getting Mrs. Luccardi out of there. First, I had a potential tenant coming to look at the empty apartment in my building in twenty minutes, and I didn't want to piss off a possible source of income by showing up late. Second, some of Mrs. Luccardi's precious darlings were contemplating her cooling body with "buffet" in their eyes. I did not want Mrs. Luccardi to see her babies gnawing through her flowered housedress to flesh and bone. That kind of thing tends to traumatize the newly dead and prevents an Agent from an efficient escort to the Door.
If the soul doesn't enter the Door, then it becomes a ghost. Agents don't like ghosts. They're untidy. The presence of a ghost means you can't close your list, and if you can't close your list, you have to file extra paperwork to explain why you can't, and I absolutely hate doing any paperwork at all, period. So I really wanted Mrs. Luccardi to leave her carnivorous little fuzzballs and come with me, pronto.
I hadn't even untethered her soul yet. Her incorporeal self floated above the body on the plastic-covered sofa, bound by a thin strand of ectoplasm. I was supposed to cut this strand with magic or my silver knife and release the soul. The knife, along with my Agent status, had been passed to me by my mother when she died.
In life and death, Mrs. Luccardi was a small, thin woman with a head of white curlsthe kind of old lady my mother used to call a "Q-tip." She glared at me through red plastic spectacles.
"I don't care if I'm dead, missy. I'm not leaving my babies," she snapped. "Besides, look at you. I'm supposed to believe you're an Agent of death? You're covered in flour."
"I was in the middle of making a pear tart dotted with gorgonzola. You're an unscheduled call. Besides," I said, pointing to my back, "don't you think the wings are a clue?"
She continued to eye me with suspicion. Okay, so a ten-foot wingspan of black feathers probably looked a little incongruous with my "Kiss Me, I'm Irish" apron and my fuzzy blue house slippers. Patrick was always telling me I would have less trouble if I presented a more imposing image, if I looked a little more Reaper-like. I always tell him that it's pretty near impossible to be imposing when you're only five feet tall and generally described by others as "cute as a button."
Of course, if Patrick had shown up for his scheduled escort of Mrs. Luccardi, I wouldn't be here at all. He'd called me fifteen minutes ago, said he had a "personal emergency" (read: a date with a hot guy), and begged me to take this pickup for him. I'd agreed because I owed Patrick a favor or two, but I couldn't be held responsible for my appearance.
"Listen, Mrs. Luccardi," I said through gritted teeth. "You're going to a better place. I'll make sure that someone comes to take care of your…; babies."
"Oh, no. Harold, my son, will come and have them all taken to shelters. I'm not going anywhere. I have to look out for them." She crossed her arms, set her jaw and looked for all the world like she had no intention of moving in the next millennium. I wondered how, exactly, she expected to prevent Harold from having the cats taken away when she didn't have a corporeal self.
Unfortunately, I didn't have time to argue points of logic with the illogical dead. I glanced at my watch, a slender, silver-linked affair that had been a thirteenth birthday present from my mother. I really had to go. The potential tenant was scheduled to knock on my door in fifteen minutes. It would probably take me that long to fly home.
"Polly Frances Luccardi, will you permit me to untether your soul and escort you to the Door?" I asked.
"Polly Frances Luccardi, will you permit me to untether your soul and escort you to the Door?" I asked again.
"I already told you, no!"
I felt the familiar buildup of pressure in my chest that accompanied a magical binding. It was what I imagined it would be like to drown. My lungs and heart felt as though iron bands squeezed my organs; my rib cage felt like it was collapsing. If I asked again and she refused, the binding was sealed. She would never be escorted to the Door, but would haunt this Earth forever.
"Polly Frances Luccardi, will you permit me to untether your soul and escort you to the Door?" I asked. The pressure increased and I gasped for breath.
"For the last time, no!"
My heart and lungs reinflated; my ribs sprung back into place. A surge of power pushed out of my fingertips and snapped the tether holding Mrs. Luccardi to her body. A lot of Agents untethered agreeable souls using magic, but I didn't like it. I don't know what a binding felt like to anyone else but it made me feel like elephants had been tap-dancing on me. Give me a silver knife and a straightforward cut any day. Unfortunately, I could only use my knife on the cooperative. No one knew exactly why, but souls that refused the Door had to go through the rigmarole of a binding.
"Polly Frances Luccardi, by your own words and of your own volition, your soul is bound to this earth for eternity," I said, a little breathless.
"Fine. My babies!" she cried, holding her incorporeal arms out to the cats that were now starting to nibble her corporeal body's ankles.
Whatever. I got out of there before she realized that her little Snoogums was about to make her former shell into breakfast, lunch and dinner. If I had more time, I would have tried harder to convince her to go to the Door. Now I would have to file more paperwork, and Patrick would have to file more paperwork, and he would bitch about it and I would bitch about it and J.B., our supervisor, would be an annoying bastard about the whole thing because he's very insistent on closed lists. But I'd deal with that later. First, I had to get home in time to show the apartment, and I had only a few minutes.
Death is just another bureaucracy, and in a bureaucracy so large, sometimes people fall through the cracks. There are plenty of reasons why people don't get an Agented escort to the Door, and they don't all have to do with kitty love. If a person suffers a violent death, they may leave their body involuntarilysnap the tether that binds them to their mortal self and flee in anguish and madness before an Agent arrives. Sometimes a soul will allow itself to be untethered, come along quietly and then break away from the Agent before they arrive at the Door, fearful of what lies behind it.
Sometimes an Agent is hurt or killed and that person's list may lie dormant for an hour or two until replacements are notified. If that happens, the window of opportunity may closesouls might break their own tethers and wander free, or just refuse to be escorted, like Mrs. Luccardi.
Any of these possibilities creates ghosts, souls that will never pass through the Door. Ghosts have an annoying way of begetting other ghosts, showing up when an Agent is trying to work and convincing the confused deceased that they're better off haunting this mortal coil than taking their chances with the Door.
The thing is, you can't force a soul to be untethered and escorted. The soul has to choose the Door. Like so many mystical things, three is the key number. If the soul is asked three times and refuses the Door, then the Agent metaphorically wipes his hands and the soul becomes a ghost. The Agent is magically bound to leave them alone.
Of course, there are lots of ways around the "asking thrice" rule. You can tell people whatever they need to hear for as long as it takes to get them to agree to be escortedlike Heaven exists and that's where they're going, or they will join their beloved Ethel, or whatever.
I can't attest to the veracity of any of that. All I know is that every Monday I get a plain white envelope in the mail. In that envelope is an ordinary piece of white paper with a typed list. The list has the names, locations and death times of people I'm supposed to escort. I go to the appointed place at the appointed time, take out my knife and untether the soul. Then I tell them something pretty and take them to the Door. I don't even know what they see when they open the Door. My vision goes black as soon as they touch the doorknob, and returns when they're inside. The only time I'll get to see what's behind the Door is when I get escorted there myself, and someday I will. Nobody outruns death. Not even death's lackey.
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