SHE WAS TARA ON BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER.
Now she’s the author of Ace’s hottest new series— killer novels featuring Calliope Reaper-Jones, who doesn’t want to be daddy’s little girl anymore...
View our feature on Amber Benson’s Death's Daughter.Calliope Reaper-Jones so just wanted a normal life: buying designer shoes on sale, dating guys from Craig’s List, web-surfing for organic dim-sum for her boss...
But when her father—who happens to be Death himself—is kidnapped, and the Devil’s Protege embarks on a hostile takeover of the family business, Death, Inc., Callie returns home to assume the CEO mantle— only to discover she must complete three nearly impossible tasks in the realm of the afterlife first.
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NICE DOGGIE . . .
Cerberus turned its Snarly head, and the giant, jaundiced eye unblinkingly trained itself on my frozen form. The dog’s eye narrowed, and I knew without anyone saying anything out loud that I was only one slo-mo minute from getting digested.
The other two heads stopped their obsessive licking and raised themselves in line with Snarly head. They didn’t look nearly as mean as Snarly, but as I watched, something much worse began to register in their eyes: excitement. The big hellhound’s tail started thumping more quickly against the gate.
Then, without warning, Snarly head swooped forward, teeth bared, giant eyeball trained in one direction . . . mine. Frozen in shock, I could do nothing but stare as Cerberus, the guardian of the North Gate to Hell, prepared to make me its lunch . . .
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
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Ace mass-market edition / March 2009
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eISBN : 978-1-101-01451-6
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For the two special men in my life:
Dad and Adam
There are three people integral to the creation of this book: my awesome literary manager, Brendan Deneen; my equally fantastic editor, Ginjer Buchanan; and the man who started it all, my frequent collaborator and good friend Christopher Golden. Without their encouragement and support, Calliope Reaper-Jones would never have seen the light of day. I also want to send a shout-out to the singersongwriter Angela Correa, whose album Correatown furnished the sound track for the writing of this book.
My name is Calliope Reaper-Jones, and I think I’m losing my mind.
Okay, maybe I was being a touch melodramatic. I wasn’t completely losing my mind, but things were definitely getting a little screwy in my neck of the woods.
It was like the universe couldn’t help itself. It had to mess with you every once in a while—you know, just to make sure you were paying attention. I guess it reasoned that since we were all so busy being anal little worker ants, its job was to step in occasionally and shatter whatever carefully constructed illusions of normalcy we had created for ourselves.
Just to shake things up a little . . . for our sakes, of course.
Because, unlike us, the universe knew that illusions were just that: illusionary—and they could be destroyed with one well-placed roundhouse kick.
my kick in the pants came last Saturday: the day of my most recent blind date.
My next-door neighbor, Patience, had decided she was sick and tired of my sad ass feeling all sorry for itself—her words, not mine, but the sentiment was definitely correct. I mean, I hadn’t had a real date in, well . . . It was so pathetic an expanse of time that I didn’t even want to talk about it.
You see, my not-so “dream job” job had totally precluded me from having any kind of social life. Period. I spent all week working my butt off, so that when Saturday finally did roll around, I was too dead to the world to enjoy it. Plus which, my few pathetic attempts to “hook up” through craigslist were just that—pathetic.
I usually ended up in zombie mode until Sunday when—somehow mildly recharged—I’d get up, do my laundry, run a few necessary errands, then meet some girlfriends at whatever new “happening” breakfast place they’d decided we were going to have brunch at that weekend. They never bothered asking for my foodie opinion, just e-mailed me the address—for reference only, since I wouldn’t know a “happening” place if it hit me over the head with a shovel and whispered into my ear: “I’m a hot spot!”
Anyway, that’s enough about my pathetic excuse for a social life. Let’s go back to the blind date, and the day everything in my life went to hell in a handbasket.
Said blind-date guy was one of Patience’s office mates at Brown, Stimple, and Brown, Esquire, a big law firm uptown. I wasn’t exactly sure what she did there, but she had a really big television hanging on her wall, so it must’ve been something very important and unbelievably exciting—not. The legal world was nothing if not nail-bitingly . . . tedious.
Anyway, the guy she’d decided was my soul mate worked in a different department, but since they had mutual friends, she said it would be as “easy as pie”—her words again—to get him to take me out on the town one Saturday night in the near future, ending my fantastically long dating dry spell—hurrah!
Well, it turns out the “near future” was only two days after she’d told me about the idea in the first place. There wasn’t even enough time to get freaked-out about the whole thing. All I could do was take my Friday lunch break at Saks, and pray there was something on the designer sale rack that fit.
Unfortunately, the one dress I fell in love with at first sight, a beautiful DKNY silk number that was marked down to a ridiculous forty-three bucks, was way too big. No matter how I tried to cinch the waist, it looked like I was wearing a mumu. Empty-handed, I went back to work feeling—for the first time in my life—slightly perturbed that I wasn’t twenty pounds heavier.
That night, I was stuck in the office until eight thirty collating four copies of my boss’s son’s book report, by which time all the stores were closed, or getting ready to close. I knew right then and there it was gonna be Saturday afternoon or nothing.
When I got home, I set my alarm for nine thirty, determined to get up, brush my teeth, and go find something slinky, sultry, and cheap to wear on the blind date. I had decided that even if the guy was a total dog—which he probably would be, with my luck—I was gonna look hot, and take somebody yummy home, even if it only turned out to be my old standby: Ben and Jerry.
That night, all tucked up in my little Battery Park City bedroom, I fell asleep with visions of department stores in my head, more excited about a Saturday than I’d been in a long, long time.
Had I known what the next day was going to have in store for me, I don’t think I would’ve slept a wink. Needless to say, I was completely clueless, so I slept like a baby . . . on Ambien.
the day did not even start well.
First, my alarm decided to not go off.
I’d set that sucker, checked it twice—I can be a bit OCD when I feel like it—and even made sure the alarm was set to buzzer rather than radio. I knew it was going to have to be one of those screaming “alarm only” mornings if I was going to make myself crawl out of bed at a quasireasonable hour, so I took, like, extra, extra precaution.
So, of course, no alarm meant no wakey-wakey on time. Which in plain English meant that when I finally did get up, it was one (!) in the afternoon.
The next thing I discovered was that all the water from every tap in my apartment was boiling hot. The scalding water made it almost impossible to brush my teeth, let alone take a shower or wash my hair, so now I was stuck stinking my way into what was supposed to be a brilliant Barney’s shopping-excursion day.
Weird, but not unheard of.
In fact, only six months earlier the entire building had been without water for two days, in which time I learned the true meaning of the term “Irish bath.” Take it from me, not the best way to make friends on the subway.
In retrospect, I guess I should have seen all the above weirdness as a sign. But at the time—and you have to believe me here—it did not seem like a big deal, definitely not strange enough to warrant an exorcism of the old homestead.
It wasn’t until I got to the front hall of my building that I realized I might very shortly be in the market for the phone number of the local Catholic church.
The monster was blocking the whole length of the entranceway to my building. His back was to me, his front facing the window-paneled door. (I guess so he could watch the traffic?) I say it was a he, but that was only a hypothesis. I just could not imagine any self-respecting female—monster or not—ever getting as pudgy as this thing was.
Strangely, I wasn’t frightened of the big guy, not even as I was getting my first glance of its tremendous bulk. I don’t know how to explain that other than to say that there was something about the creature that was . . . soothing.
At the time, I had no idea what kind of monster the thing was, but if I really think back on it, I’d have to guess it was probably, at least, part dragon. I mean, it had a long, scaly brown tail, huge brown haunches, and a row of blue triangular-shaped flaps of skin that ran the length of its back. So, it was either a medium-sized dragon, or a smallish dinosaur. Take your pick.
Luckily, it didn’t appear to notice my arrival—which I took as a good thing—but I played it safe by standing still as a statue on the bottom step of the stairwell, trying not even to breathe if I could help it. I was a lot of things, but super idiot wasn’t one of them. If the dragon/ monster thing wanted to sit in my front hall and watch the traffic go by out the window, like a dog, I wasn’t gonna be the dum-dum who disturbed it.
As quietly as I could, I backed my way up the front stairs until I hit the second-floor landing. Then I hightailed it up the next four flights until I was back in the relative safety of my own apartment.
After taking a moment to catch my breath, and have a shot of the Bailey’s I’d had in the back of my fridge since Christmas, I sat down on my couch and made my plans: I was gonna go next door, get a witness, and then go back downstairs. Patience would see the dragon/ monster and freak out, verifying the fact that I was not losing my mind.
There was just one slight hitch in my plans: She wasn’t home.
I thought about knocking on some random person’s door and trying to get them to go see the dragon/monster with me, but I was too scared it might have gotten bored in the interim and left—which would’ve made me look like a real nut job—so I put an ix-nay on that one.
After taking another calming sip of Bailey’s, I did the only rational thing a person could do in my situation: I called Animal Control.
“I’m making this complaint anonymously,” I said tersely. “There’s a big monster dog in my front entranceway, and I need you to send someone out to get it!”
The woman on the other end of the line kept asking me for my name, but I wasn’t stupid. If I gave it to her, then everyone would know I was the weirdo caller, and I might actually end up in Bellevue before my blind date could save me.
Finally, sick of her wheedling for more information, I blurted out the address and hung up. Then, I raced to my bathroom, which was home to the only window in my whole apartment that looked out onto the street in front of the building, and rolled up the shade, ready to watch and wait for the man with a big net to come and catch my monster.
I waited a long time. I called again. I ate some peanut butter out of the jar, returned to the bathroom, and waited some more.
At six thirty my buzzer sounded. I was sitting hunched over the lip of the bathtub, furiously filing my nails with a weather-beaten emery board. I quickly sat up straighter, so I had a better view out the window, and craned my neck to see who was at the front door.
I could just make out a man-sized shape on the stoop, and my heart began to beat inside my chest like a nasty little ball-peen hammer.
Damn, had Animal Control traced my phone number to my apartment?
It was only when I peered closer that I saw that the Animal Control guy was carrying a bouquet of . . . flowers?
Crap! It wasn’t Animal Control . . . it was my blind date! I had totally forgotten about him!
I had always thought of myself as a normal kinda gal, and normal gals—even if they saw a giant dragon/ monster in their front hall—did not let said monster interfere with a possible encounter with Mr. Right. I was gonna have to pull it together, stop being a wuss, and answer the door.
I ran to the living room and pushed the button on the intercom.
“Shit! I mean, hello . . . ?”
“Uhm, is this Calliope?” a dreamy voice said, sounding uncertain.
Maybe this date won’t be such a dud after all. The guy is definitely in possession of one helluva sexy voice.
I nodded, pleased with Patience, then realized that the guy wasn’t standing in front of me and probably thought I hadn’t heard him.
“Definitely! This is, uh, definitely Calliope Reaper-Jones!” I said in an overloud voice.
There was silence as the blind date digested what I’d said.
I couldn’t believe what an idiot I sounded like. He must’ve thought I was one of Patience’s slow friends. I don’t know what it is with the opposite sex, but I just can’t seem to keep an intelligent thought in my head when there’s an attractive man in my vicinity.
“I’m Brian. I work with your friend Patience,” he finally replied.
“That’s my neighbor,” I burbled back at him like a ninny.
Once again, radio silence from Brian, the blind date.
“Okay, yeah, your neighbor.” He cleared his throat. “Uhm, I don’t mean to be rude, but can I come up?”
“Come up?” I asked smartly.
“Yeah, uh, come up to your apartment?”
“I don’t know if you want to do that,” I said. “There’s a big, fat dragon/monster thing in the front hall.”
I clapped my hand over my mouth, almost jarring my front teeth loose in the process.
“Just kidding! Just kidding!” I screeched through my fingers. “Come on up!”
I buzzed him in immediately so I wouldn’t have to hear the sound of his shoes hitting the pavement at a terrified run.
“Crap!” I said out loud.
Then I caught sight of myself in the mirror that hung above the living room couch.
“Crap!” I said again, this time in reference to the fact that I looked like a homeless woman.
I couldn’t believe what a rat’s nest my hair was. I had on absolutely no makeup, and I was wearing an old, comfortable pair of Juicy sweats. Good for an intense shopping expedition. Not so good for a blind date.
Not knowing which mess to address first, I nearly sat down on the couch and gave up, but instead, my brain thankfully switched into autopilot and sent my body on a fact-finding mission to the bedroom.
Figuring, with the five flights of stairs Brian, the blind date, would have to traverse to get to my door, I’d have seven minutes to get myself together, or forever hold my peace.
Tripping my way across my messy bedroom floor, I threw open the closet door and grabbed the first thing that caught my eye: an adorable little jumpsuit I’d gotten on sale at Saks. It was made of organic white linen and felt just like butter on my skin.
Even though it had been kinda scrunched in the corner of the closet floor when I picked it up, it didn’t look that wrinkled in hand, so I gave it the sniff test, which it passed with flying colors—yea! I yanked off my sweats and slipped on the jumpsuit, zipping it up so quickly I caught a little piece of my boob in the zip’s teeth.
“Ahhhhh!” I screamed, trying not to rip skin, as I yanked the zipper back down. There was a huge red welt on my left breast, but I ignored it, this time being a little more careful with the zip as I reworked it back up into position.
Digging my way through the messy pile of dirty clothing that surrounded my bed, I found my favorite pair of cream kitten heels under a crumpled skirt and slipped them on, silently cursing myself for not having gotten a pedicure recently. The bright purple nail polish I’d loved when I’d had the girl put it on three weeks ago looked like toe fungus now, all old and chipped.
There was nothing I could do about the would-be fungus, so I ignored it, making a run for the bathroom to slap on as much makeup as I could in the space of sixty seconds. Makeup done, I grabbed an elastic band from one of the crappy cultured-marble vanity drawers and scraped my rat’s nest into what I hoped was some semblance of a ponytail, praying Brian, the blind-date guy, wouldn’t notice a few errant pieces of hair sticking out here and there.
The doorbell rang just as I was putting on the finishing touch, something I used only for special occasions: a spritz of Chanel No. 5.
And voilà! I was ready to rumble . . . or at least have dinner. As unbelievable as it seemed, I had gotten ready for an important date in less than seven minutes. A bloody miracle.
I threw open the door, hoping against hope that Brian, the blind date, looked like Clive Owen. I knew in my soul that with a voice like that, the body had to match.
“Is Brian here yet?”
Patience stood in my doorway, holding a thick manila folder in her hand. She looked amazing, as always, her thick blond hair hanging loose and curly around her angelic little face. She was like a miniature version of that doe-eyed French actress Julie Delpy. If she weren’t so nice, I would’ve totally hated her.
I mean, the little bitch was wearing a tank top and bicycle shorts—and her butt looked good in them. So not fair!
“Hello . . . ? Earth to Callie? Is your date here yet?”
“Not yet,” I stuttered.
“Did he stand you up?!” she said incredulously, ready to go beat him up for me, bicycle shorts and all.
I shook my head, trying to reconnect to reality.
“No, I mean, he’s not here yet because I just buzzed him in, and you know, there are five flights of stairs, so . . .” I trailed off.
Patience raised an eyebrow at me, then rolled her eyes.
“Here,” she said, thrusting the manila folder into my hands. “Make sure you give him this.”
I nodded vigorously.
“It’s important, Callie. For work.”
It was like she didn’t trust me to give the guy a stupid manila folder. Jeez, I wasn’t a total screwup . . . was I? The look on her face gave me pause, but I brushed it away. Of course Patience didn’t think I was a screwup. You didn’t introduce screwup friends to hot guys from work. It just wasn’t done.
“I will give him this manila folder if it’s the last thing I do,” I said.
“Make it the first thing you do, and I’ll be happy,” she called over her shoulder as she walked to her door and let herself in, leaving me alone in the hall.
Something niggled at the back of my mind. I tried to ignore it, push it to the nether regions of memory where the bogeyman and the My Little Pony Universe still resided from childhood, but suddenly the thought would not be laid to rest.
“Oh, Jesus!” I choked out, making a desperate run for the stairs.
What was I thinking!! I let the blind-date guy come right into the building, even though the big, scary monster might still be in the lobby! And all because I wanted to look hot! I am a screwup, after all!
I took the stairs two at a time, my kitten heels double clacking so loudly behind me that it sounded like the Easy Spirit basketball team was overrunning the stairwell.
“Shit,” I said under my breath as I almost went down the third flight headfirst.
I reached the bottom of the last set of stairs after what seemed like an eternity. My hair was in my face, and my cheeks were red from exertion, but I had made it. I was almost in the lobby, and I was gonna save my blind date if it killed me.
“Get away, foul beastie!” I screamed, brandishing the folder Patience had given me as I leapt off the last step, my velocity pushing me toward the front doors. I felt a sudden lurch, and I was falling face forward, the cool, green marble tile of the front lobby coming toward my unprotected face at amazing speed.
I felt two strong hands grab me from behind, and instead of hitting the floor face-first like I had predicted, I was suddenly on my feet, kitten heels making one loud, final clack as I caught my balance.
“Thank you,” I said as I looked up into the face of my savior. My blind date . . . Brian.
“You’re welcome,” he said, smiling. “That was almost a bloodbath.”
He was shorter than me. That was the first thing I noticed. Shorter and fatter than me, with a large head, and small round John Lennon glasses perched low on his long nose. If he had been maybe seven inches taller, I might have been thanking Patience, instead of cursing her heartily in my head.
“You’re . . . Brian?” I said weakly. He nodded happily.
Oh, God, I thought to myself.
“This is for you,” I said, thrusting the folder into his chubby hands. He took it, flipping through it before smiling back up at me. It was obvious that he was smitten. I was probably the most attractive female he’d ever touched.
“You didn’t see that big dinosaur-looking monster I mentioned down here when you first came in, did you?”
I looked around the lobby. Nothing. And then it hit me—if there had been something here, it would have eaten Patience when she came home. I couldn’t believe I had spent the entire afternoon hidden in the bathroom waiting for Animal Control because I was losing my mind, seeing things that were obviously not real.
Brian gave me a quizzical look, but shook his head.
“Sorry, no dinosaurs. But I did see a cowboy in his underwear playing a guitar in Times Square.”
since brian had saved me from certain facial disfigurement, I went to dinner with him. He was a nice guy. Short, but nice.
I was gonna kill Patience . . . right before I checked into Bellevue.
If I had any doubts about my sanity, they were not assuaged during the rest of the weekend. I spent all of Sunday hiding in my apartment, afraid to so much as turn on my television for fear of seeing more freaky things that would confirm my diagnosis of insanity. Feeling a little bit better when I crawled into bed that night, I said a quick thank-you in my head and closed my eyes, hoping Monday morning would put the weekend craziness into perspective.
I woke up late. So, instead of walking to work—which is the only exercise I get these days—I decided to take the subway. Now, I love the trains, but taking them in the mornings, and after work, is like willingly cramming yourself into a tin can of sardines—and smelly sardines at that.
Not something I enjoyed doing even on mornings when I was running late. Still, I really didn’t have a choice—the only other option was to take a cab, which would cost a small fortune, and probably make me even later.
So, that was how I found myself standing in a rickety subway car, holding on to a sweaty pole and praying someone would get off at the next stop so I could finally grab a seat.
I was totally minding my own business—trying to find my iPod headphones that somehow always ended up at the bottom of my purse wrapped around a tampon—when, suddenly, a homeless man was standing in front of me, staring at me with dark, hollow eyes.
Now, normally, I would just throw some change a few feet in the other direction, causing a homeless person free-for-all, but this guy didn’t even blink when I tossed a handful of quarters at the heavyset Hispanic lady who was taking up the whole row of handicap seats behind me. I felt a little bad about sending Mr. Homeless in her direction, but then I figured she was taking up all the handicap seats so she was fair game.
But instead of freeing myself from the Homeless Man’s eye-embrace, something strange happened. Something I had never experienced in my two years of Manhattan living—living that had exposed to me to lots of unseemly things which were rather scarring to my delicate countenance.
Instead of chasing the coins I’d thrown, the homeless man dropped to his knees—in a crowded subway car no less—and, looking up from his position of supplication on the dirty subway car floor, he wiggled his greasy eyebrows seductively at me, his eyes full of awe, and blew me a kiss.
That was not the bad part.
Here’s the bad part: As the car came to the next stop . . . Mr. Homeless leaned forward, and tried to kiss my feet through my Marc Jacob sandals!
The only way I could get the dude to cease and desist was to throw myself out the subway car doors right before they slid shut. Needless to say, I ended up engulfed in morning-rush-hour commuter traffic. I was lucky a gaggle of Wall Street number crunchers didn’t trample me and my knock-off Kate Spade bag right there on the subway platform.
All of this alone was heart-attack-inducing enough, but the worst part was yet to come. As I was free-falling out the subway doors, I actually thought I heard Mr. Homeless say:
“You’re next in line, Mistress Calliope.”
How the hell did Homeless Man know my name! I mean, I understand the guy intuitively sensing that I was a lovely thing of exquisite beauty that needed her feet kissed every once in a while, but c’mon, this was no idle beauty worship hit. This guy had some kind of agenda, and it probably included stalking me all day, then following me home to my sixth-floor walk-up and putting all my underwear on his head before murdering me in my bed.
So much for good, old Monday-morning perspective, I thought miserably.
when i got to work, immediately all my own worries were forgotten in favor of my boss’s needs.
I started the morning in what was turning out to be a fruitless search of the Internet for a restaurant that did organic dim sum. Easier said than done. I mean, have you ever eaten organic dim sum? Well, I hadn’t, but my boss, Hyacinth Stewart, had.
She had gone to some hoity-toity party on the Upper East Side the night before, and the hostess had bragged for hours about the organic dim sum she had served, and how Jennifer Aniston only ordered from the place whenever she was in town.