“Are you there?” Tina said when I’d been quietly lost in my thoughts for too long.

“I’m here.  My plan is still in play,” I told her. “I’m just waiting for the reaper to contact me.”

“What if he doesn’t?  Or what if it doesn’t work.”

There were a lot of “what ifs,” even some Tina wouldn’t think of.  Just making the trip to the Underworld wasn’t enough if I couldn’t find my way to the River Lethe. And it might be hard to smuggle things out of there, too.  “Maybe you should register for school,” I suggested.

Tina snorted. “I’d have to take all those remedial courses.  I barely made it through high school, you know.”

I did, but it wasn’t for lack of brains.  Tina wasn’t stupid; she just wasn’t interested.  Still, she would make the effort if it were our last chance. It would only be a temporary fix, at best, and I hoped it wouldn’t be necessary. “I know.  I still have the option for graduate school.”

“I feel like that won’t have the same effect anymore, regardless of which one of us hits the books.  She’s lost, Abby.  She misses him too much.”

There was a rap on my door, so I quickly said goodbye to my sister and closed the phone.  Since it was just after six in the morning and I wasn’t expecting anyone, the knock should have startled me.  But I was caught up in my thoughts and only absently walked through the living room to answer it.

The conversation with Tina and concerns about Jill were still floating around in my brain so it took me a minute to focus on the man standing in my doorway.  He was tall.  Very tall.  His chest was at eye-level.  It looked to be a very broad chest, but it was hard to be sure since he wore a thick, black overcoat.  My gaze traveled up until I found his dark eyes.  Dark, yes, but with strange grey pupils.  For a moment, I could have sworn I saw clouds whirling in those depths, but I shook my head and forced myself to break contact with the almost-hypnotic contact.

“Good morning.” His voice was just as deep and dark as the man himself.  He had a cool, relaxed stance as he faced me in the doorway, his hands settled into the pockets of his coat.

I closed the door a bit so that I could lean against it. “Morning.  Can I help you?” Searching my mind, I tried to remember whether I might have missed an order.  I couldn’t imagine he would need a love potion, even though he had a brooding edge about him.  No, he was decidedly sexy with a five o’clock shadow darkening that sharp, firm jaw.  And he was tough enough that he certainly didn’t need something to chase away annoying hangers-on.

Yeah, I was pretty sure this guy had not ordered any sort of potion from me.

“I’m here to discuss the trip you were hoping to make.”

In about two seconds, I realized who—er, what, he was.

“You’re the reaper,” I said, successfully managing to keep my lower jaw from dropping in wonder.

“Yeah, I’m one of them, anyway.”

“How many are there?” My research had been unclear on that point since most people never met a reaper and lived to tell about.  Or maybe more accurately, no living person ever met a reaper.

We both glanced to the side at the sound of female laughter.  I recognized one of my neighbor’s girlfriends leaving his apartment for her car. She glanced in our direction and waved.  When I turned back to my visitor, I realized he was staring at me.

One side of his mouth twitched before he said, “There’re lots of us.”  He removed a hand from his coat and scratched at his chin. “Wouldn’t you rather discuss this sort of thing in private?”

“Oh!” I yanked the door open and motioned him inside.  As he crossed the threshold, I wondered if I should have asked for some sort of identification, but then how many men would go around impersonating the grim reaper, right? “Um, can I offer you anything to drink?”

“No, thank you.  I stopped for coffee before I came.”

“You can drink, then?”

This time, the corner of his mouth did more than twitch.  It lurched upwards in a half-grin before he chuckled lightly and shook his head. “You’re more curious than I expected.”

My cheeks heated, and I lifted one shoulder as I motioned him to sit. “Well, I’m a college student, and this is research for me.”

“You’re a graduate,” he stated before dropping onto the couch.

Eyes wide in wonder, I took the reclining chair across from him. “You can tell that using your powers?”

“Abigail… er, Miss Mack, before I agreed to become a reaper, I was just a regular guy.  My only abilities now are specifically for use in my duties as a reaper.  You can think of it sort of like a job, and my powers are my tools.”

“Really?  Tools?” I couldn’t hide my disappointment. Still, I didn’t want to dwell on it when there was so much else to discuss. “Well, when can you take me to the Underworld?”

“Why exactly do you want to make this trip?”

“I’m a researcher.  A scientist. I’ve had an interest in the paranormal since I was a child, and I’d like to experience what happens there.”

“For research?”

I had the feeling he didn’t quite believe me, and despite his assertion about his powers, I still had to wonder if he had some ability to read my mind.  I shrugged again. “Yes, research.  I’m planning on going to graduate school soon, and I’m considering making it the topic of my thesis.”

I saw a strange spark flash in his eyes and wanted to ask him about that, but instead I went on. “How did you know I finished college?”

“Escorting someone to the Underworld isn’t an excursion to take lightly.  I had to check you out before meeting with you.”

“Because there are a lot of people looking to steal the Underworld’s secrets?”  I could have bitten my tongue clean off.  I needed this man, and yet here I was letting my smartassery take over.

I was just about to apologize when he threw his head back and laughed.  It was a deep laugh that rumbled off the walls of my apartment and gave me the uncontrollable urge to smile.  I bent over with my elbows on my knees and brought one hand up to cover my mouth and chin to keep myself from laughing, too.

“Miss Mack, I don’t believe research is your only reason for going to the Underworld, but you seem safe enough.”

Swiping my palm down my lips, I whispered, “Story of my life.  Every guy thinks I’m safe.” More loudly, I said, “So, you know, you can call me Abby.  I mean, I’m trusting you to take me down below, so I think we should be on a first-name basis, don’t you?”

He leaned forward and stretched his hand towards me. “I’m Heinrich, but you can call me Ric.”

“Well, Ric, let’s get down to business.  When can we leave?”

“First, I have a soul to collect this evening, and since you’re a researcher, I thought you’d probably want to come along.”

I could feel the twinkle entering my eyes as I leaned forward. “I can witness the reaping?”

“If you want to.”

“I want to.  Absolutely.” Glancing at the clock behind him in the kitchen, I bit my lip. “What time will it be?”

His eyebrow lifted sharply. “Eight-thirty.  Do you have some other plans this evening?”

Inside, I bristled at his joking tone, but just smiled coolly. “No, I’m available.”

And that was the truth.  My only concern was whether I could get in touch with my contact in time to get the obols to pay the Ferryman to take me across the River Styx. I’d intended to make them using my alchemy skills, but it seemed there was a reason turning cheap metals into silver and gold was so rare. I’d never been able to master the process, so I would need to get them the old-fashioned way. I’d have purchased them ahead of time, but not knowing what sort of fee the reaper would charge for his service, there had been no way to know how much I could afford to spend on the silver coins.

I had no idea what I would do if I couldn’t convince Ric to let me go across the river.  And if he refused, I wasn’t sure what I could do if he tried to stop me.  But there was no use worrying about things I couldn’t control, so I stored that away in the back of my mind for now.

“Good,” he continued. “Now that we have that resolved, there’s the little issue of my fee.”

“Yes, there is.  What’s the going rate for taking people to the Underworld?”

He shot me a blank stare.“$1,000, plus expenses.”

I blinked, then shook my head, raising my hands in confusion. “What sort of expenses?”

“An airline ticket to New Orleans.  Plus other things, such as taxi fare, and so on.”

Of all the items I’d tried to imagine for my budget, airline tickets to New Orleans certainly hadn’t been on the list.  Strike that, two tickets, because I would need to get there, too.

“Can’t you just, you know…” I snapped my fingers. “Poof! And transport us there?”

One corner of his mouth twitched, but he kept his face straight. “Not in my toolbox. I can’t take anyone with me when I transport to a gate.  The gate I usually choose is in Belgium, but I thought an airline ticket to Belgium might be a little pricey.”

I’d been prepared to pay the reaper for his time, so this wasn’t a deal-breaker.  And honestly, his fee wasn’t more than I’d expected.  I had no idea what two tickets to New Orleans would cost me, but I thought they would surely be less than one halfway across the world.

After all, the phone call with my sister had pressed home how much I needed to make this trip.  I probably would have been willing to go more than twice as high for the chance to help Jill.  So, all in all, I couldn’t complain.

“Well, I always wanted to go to New Orleans,” I remarked, standing and putting my hand out to him.

“We have a deal then?” He got to his feet as well and glanced at my hand but didn’t take it. “Just like that?”

His eyes turned cloudy again as he glared into me.  I felt hot and cold all at the same time, gooseflesh rising on my arms.  But I refused to let him see me as anything but determined and steady.

“I’m very serious about this trip, Ric.  Of course, we have a deal.”

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