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Sneak Peek at Dark Horse, Chapter One

 

 

“Dinner time, Huck,” I called out, tapping my fingers next to the bowl.

A forty-year-old-man came around the corner on all fours. His naked skin hung flaccid, and his knees stuck to the crappy linoleum floor. The tags on the dog collar around his neck tinkled.

Hate-filled, shit-brown eyes stared up at me. I grinned.

“You call that dinner—” he started.

I grabbed his face by the jaw and squeezed tight. “No talking back. Bad dog.”

Indecision warred on his face. He wanted to hit me. Kill me, if he could. But he was thinking back to the last time he had made those attempts. It didn’t end well.

For him, at least.

A moment passed, and he lowered his eyes. I dropped my hand away and patted his head mockingly. “Good mutt,” I said without any of the positive inflection I’d use on a real dog.

I left Huck McKinley to his dinner of dog food covered in hot sauce, not feeling the least bit bad. Some would say I was more than a little fucked up. Cruel.

They were right, of course.

But I was a demon by trade. It was sort of in the job description.

A hundred years ago, I died. More accurately, I was murdered—by my ex-husband, to be exact. He was a piece of shit too, but that was a whole other can of worms I didn’t often like to open.

The point was I died and came to the Afterlife.

Because I wasn’t in the bottom forty percent of humans that had to serve punishments for their transgressions on Earth, and I wasn’t in the top one percent that automatically went through the proverbial pearly gates, I had to get a job. That’s how I became a demon.

My time in the realm of the living had mostly held pain. It was what I knew. What I was good at. I took that pain and I turned it on assholes like Huck McKinley. He had also died, except he was a wife beater, and he ran dog fighting rings that had killed hundreds of animals.

That was how he ended up here under my tender loving care.

Where is here? Hell.

Huck took a bite of food and gagged. He spat it out all over the floor, grasping at his throat. Murder shimmered in his eyes.

How cute.

“You bitch—”

“Ah-ah.” I wagged my finger back and forth. “We talked about this. Dogs don’t speak—”

He let out a growl that might have scared me a hundred years ago. Now?

I cracked my knuckles and grinned. He launched off the floor, saliva dripping from his lips, hot sauce mingled with bits of dog food staining his chest.

As he came up, so did my knee. I struck him square in the face. A crack echoed in the room. He flew through the air, crashing into the wall with a loud bang. He dropped to the floor, an indent of his disgusting body left in the drywall.

I tsk’d.

“Now you’ve done it, Huck.” I walked over and picked him up by the back of his neck. My demonic strength was a godsend in moments like this. I tossed him in a wire metal crate and latched the door.

He groaned.

I hummed under my breath as I lifted my Apple watch to my face. “Play ‘Baby’ by Justin Bieber.”

Huck let out a slew of profanities that were drowned out by the tween’s obnoxious singing. I bobbed my head along to the music as I started for the front door.

“Wait—wait!” he yelled out for me. I paused at the exit. “You can’t leave me like this. Please—” He cut off when I grinned manically.

“Should have thought about that before you were a bad dog.”

With that, I stepped outside and closed the door.

All along the street sat ordinary cookie-cutter houses. They spanned miles. Every house was actually a prison containing a bad soul that had fallen into that lower forty percent of the human race that needed to be punished. How long each person served before being recycled and sent back to the realm of the living differed, but the houses didn’t. The only thing separating each of them was the number on the door. Each one was special to the soul inside it. I was currently in charge of a dozen or so. People that ranged from pedophiles, to Huck McKinley, to emotionally manipulative twats that stole from their kids.

Each of their crimes were different in act and severity, but the outcome was not. They’d landed themselves in Hell, and it was my responsibility to punish and rehabilitate them before they were wiped clean of all memories and sent back to try again.

Two houses down, Malachi the Dreaded stepped out of a door. He let out a low sigh of exhaustion and straightened his blood-soaked tie.

“Long session?” I asked.

He took one look at me and wrinkled his nose in distaste. I knew what he saw. A twenty-something-year-old body with leather pants and a black corset. I wore knee-high black boots with a chunky heel. My red hair hung loose around my shoulders and not a weapon or speck of blood was in sight.

“Very,” he said after a pregnant pause. “You?”

“Not terribly so. I’m enjoying this case. I’ve already got another fifty years planned out for this guy.” I hooked my thumb toward the door behind me, and Malachi’s eyebrows inched up in barely discreet incredulity.

“Hmm.”

I had to give it to him. He didn’t say what he was clearly thinking. Must have learned from that asswipe, Karen. It wasn’t exactly a secret that my methods of punishment were unusual. On the contrary, it made me an oddity for a demon.

It also made me the best at our job.

Anyone could hammer nails in a kneecap or shove bamboo under someone’s nails. I was a true master of torture. A connoisseur, of sorts.

Not every demon saw it that way, though. Our profession generally attracted people that barely came in just above the forty percent. Shitheads that liked the idea of taking out their daddy issues on other people. People like Karen the Horrible.

A couple of decades back, I got assigned a case she wanted. Thinking she could get it back, she had openly challenged me to a duel. She and the others like her assumed I chose the punishments I did because I was weak. How wrong she was.

Malachi must have been there, or at least heard the stories. Then again, almost every demon had. The open snipes stopped after that day, even if the wandering eyes didn’t. Oh, I heard the whispers through the grapevine, and over the years, several of the newbies had started to wonder. New demons always had something to prove. A bone to pick. It came with the territory. The demon guild was one of the most cutthroat in the Afterlife, and they had a tendency to judge or maim first and think later.

In that lay the problem. That behavior had broken way too many souls before their punishment was up. They weren’t fully healed, and then those souls went back to the living realm to make the same shitty life choices that led them right back to Hell. Talk about a broken system.

Malachi idled warily, as if waiting for me to decide what I wanted. He likely didn’t want to seem openly rude and run the risk of winding up on the other end of my legendary temper. Taking pity, or rather tired of my own mind games for the day, I waved at him and hit the home button on my watch.

My body de-materialized as I teleported into the demon dorms.

Several people took notice. I walked past the reception area where Diego the Dastardly was on duty. He gave me a wink and a sexy smirk, flirting shamelessly despite me having turned him down twice now. Still, I smiled back and inclined my head toward the gawking new girl next to him.

“Fury,” she said in a low whisper.

“In the spirit,” I chimed as I went by. Diego chuckled, his deep voice following after me.

Some of the oomph left me as I climbed two flights of stairs, but I kept my shoulders back as people passed me in the hallway. Some idolized me, like the girl downstairs. Usually that worshipping phase wore off after they had a few years to settle in. Right about the time the punishing and their new reality finally got to them. She was as green as they came, but that wouldn’t be the case for long, and when life after death became the new norm, it wasn’t so easy for most.

There was a reason over seventy percent of our new recruits dropped out in the first six months and transferred to a new guild. Everyone was earning their way toward one of two things: retirement, or the chance to be recycled. Most wanted to be recycled.

In the Afterlife, everything was what you made of it.

On Earth, you get what you get by happenstance, but either way—you get it.

Money. Opportunities. Race. Ethnicity. When you were recycled, your circumstances and start to life were all completely random, and it was utter bullshit.

One thing I learned in dying was that most people preferred the bullshit. They’d rather play the lottery and hope they got an easy ticket in the next life, and maybe an easy ticket into heaven.

I was never one for believing in chance. Whenever fate had a choice, it fucked me over. So, I opted to take the hard route.

Become a demon. Earn my spot.

My own little piece of heaven.

Literally.

I sighed at that thought as I opened the door. A full-size bed, half kitchen, and tiny bathroom. Everything I needed was in these four walls. By this point in my career, I could have left the dorms. Moved into my own little place in one of the lower circles of the Afterlife. Settled down with another demon and lived in . . . boring blah.

I refused. Instead, I was biding my time, saving every single second I earned for the big ticket. A place behind the golden gates.

On Earth, I’d been no one, but here—here I would be someone. Here, I already was.

Sort of.

It was an ongoing process.

I started for the bathroom, ready to strip out of my badass (and uncomfortable) outfit, run a nice hot bath, and drink a few beers.

Maybe whiskey instead.

It could really go either way after dealing with Huck all day.

I was just reaching for the buttons on my corset when my watch started to ring.

Incoming call from . . . Jake.

I threw my head back and groaned. Why? What could Jake from Afterlife Resources possibly want?

I weighed the merits of ignoring his call till tomorrow, but my curiosity got the better of me. I wanted to know what reason my resources officer would have for calling me this late in the evening.

My thumb hit accept before I could think it over more, but instead of a voice picking up on the other line, my body de-materialized once more.

I had only just registered that I was teleporting when I appeared in the hallway outside his office. His personal assistant, Francine, blinked in surprise.

“I’m sorry, but Jake is not available right now—”

“Well, I hate to break it to you, Francine, but I didn’t come here by choice.” I motioned to myself, happy I hadn’t stripped first. I was so not feeling an orgy tonight.

Francine adjusted her glasses and picked up the phone on her desk. “Let me just call and see,” she muttered, dialing his extension. Never mind that she could have just knocked on the door, or yelled, or better yet—Jake could have just given either of us a heads-up. I leaned against her desk and tapped my fingernails impatiently on the shiny veneer surface. “Your name is . . .” She left it open-ended, waiting for me to answer.

I gave her a hard look. You’d think I hadn’t seen her once a month for the last thirty years.

“Fury.”

She sighed. “Which Fury? Fury the Great? The Awful? Oh, I know—”

“Just Fury,” I said, pinching the area between my brows and closing my eyes. A hundred years ago, I’d been an angry, murdered dead girl when I chose my name and profession.

How was I to know that Fury was essentially the ‘Jessica’ of the Afterlife?

“Oookay,” she drawled passive aggressively. We both waited for Jake to pick up. When he did, Francine said, “I have a ‘Fury’ here for you. She said you summoned her.”

“Which Fury?” I heard him ask.

If my eyes could shoot fire, I would have melted the phone. I leaned forward over the edge of the desk and said into the receiver, “The Fury. The one you called after—”

The line went dead, and my lips parted.

Why that piece of—

His door opened. Jake stood there, wearing a wrinkled suit and chipper smile that always made me a little stabby.

“Hey Fury, why don’t you come in and take a seat?”

I shook my head, heading into his office. The door closed behind me right as I sat in the metal-framed chair. Outside, the second sun was setting.

“Why did you summon me?” I asked, cutting to the chase. He hummed to himself the whole way to his chair, and then took his sweet time sitting down. I waited expectantly.

Finally, Jake said the last thing I ever expected to hear.

“I want to send you back to Earth.”