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I STOOD ON THE CURB looking up at the building. I was fifteen minutes early for my appointment with this mystery auditor.
The idea still irked. Emmie had nothing to audit, but I was here regardless, and ready to pick up the gauntlet if necessary. In fact, I spent the better part of the uptown commute planning counter arguments to whatever scam this might be.
The building wasn’t as nondescript as I expected. In fact, the architecture was beautiful, skewing toward the gothic, with pairs of gargoyles sitting sentinel along its ornate façade.
It even had a small murder of crows perched along its top ridge. I loved the Edgar Allen Poe feel, imagining the crows and the gargoyles watching me, even as I watched them.
“Creepy and cool.” I wrapped the last of my bagel into its wax paper, stowing it in my purse.
Did the gargoyles just move?
I peered at the roof line. It had to be a trick of light, but for a split second it looked as though the carved statues inclined their heads.
A large clock in the building’s façade showed it was nearly time, so I darted across the street, sprinting against the don’t walk sign to the curb.
The brass revolving door opened into a large lobby, and I stopped just inside, surprised at the inviting feel, with its plush seating areas and wide, semi-circular reception desk. The company’s logo sat just above in brass lettering. Memento Mori Auditors.
“May I help you?” one of the receptionists asked from behind the semi-circle.
“Yes, uhm…I have a one p.m. appointment with Ms. Mori,” I replied, hiking my purse higher onto my shoulder. “
“Are you Ms. Jericho?”
“You’re a little early. Please take a seat, and Ms. Mori’s assistant will call down when she’s ready for you.” The receptionist held out a small bottle of water, and then gestured toward the couches.”
I took the water and a seat near the windows. From this vantage point, the lobby’s initial welcoming feel faded a bit. The artwork was tasteful, but subtly macabre. Spent hourglasses, extinguished candles, and such. Not Disney’s Haunted Mansion, but definitely the same vibe.
Getting up from my seat, I walked around for a better look, passing a directory board. “Corporeal Procurement Administration?” I shook my head. “They’ve got to be joking.”
High heels clacked behind me, and I turned.
“Yes.” I recapped my water.
“I’m Marjory Praestes. Ms. Mori’s assistant. I can take you up for your meeting.”
I didn’t say anything, but made a mental note. Praestes was Emmie’s surname. Ordinarily, I’d chalk it up to extreme coincidence, but not this time. Perhaps the company was family run, and Em was somehow related. At this point, anything was possible.
We took the second elevator bank to the ninth floor, and when the doors opened the woman led me toward the farthest corner office.
Marjory knocked, waiting for acknowledgment. “You can go in. When you’re done, I’ll be at the desk by the elevators if you need anything.”
Thanking the girl, I watched her walk back at a brisk clip. There was no reason to be nervous, but for some reason, my palms sweat. I rubbed them one at a time on my slacks and then turned the knob.
“Ms. Jericho. Thank you for coming. I’m Angelica di Mori, CEO of this madhouse.”
The woman greeted me from behind a contemporary glass desk. She was a dead ringer for the elegant stranger in my dream. Down to the slingback patent leather stilettos. It was so uncanny, it startled.
“Come in. I promise I won’t bite.”
I nodded, feeling a little stupid for standing at the door like an idiot. “I’m sorry, I’m a little confused as to why I’m here.”
The door closed softly, and I walked to take a seat in one of the chairs facing her desk, but before I could sit, the woman walked around the other end and offered her hand.
“No need to be ill at ease. I’ll do my best to explain everything, and answer any questions you may have.”
I shook her hand once, and a calm settled over me. “I’m glad to hear that, because I’m at a loss.”
The woman didn’t sit. Instead she leaned on the edge of the desk’s beveled glass, her hands resting gently on either side.
“Before we start, I have one question. Did you open the box?”
I kept eye contact. “Obviously, or I wouldn’t be here, but you already knew that.”
Angelica’s mouth curved up on one side. “May I call you Louisa?”
“Why not?” I shrugged. “As long as we keep the same energy and I call you Angelica.”
The CEO raised an eyebrow this time, but didn’t say no. Was this how the meeting would go? A wit and parry with nothing accomplished?
“Ms. Mori, we’re both busy women, so why don’t we get to whatever it is you need from me. I can tell you off the bat, my knowledge of Emily Praestes is limited to her as a person. I know almost nothing about her life or its particulars, so I’m afraid I won’t be much help. She was a dear, but nonetheless, an enigma. I didn’t even know her surname until I sorted through her belongings posthumously.”
“I didn’t ask you here because we need information on Emily. It’s your connection to her that interests us.”
My stomach knotted at that. Was this woman for real? She seemed pleasant enough, but her tone was something else.
“I don’t follow. If this doesn’t have to do with Emily, then why did you send that box? What is it? Or more to the point, what’s in it?”
“The box is your first assignment, Louisa. Memento Mori is a fast-paced organization, and in order to keep things running smoothly, we need you up to speed as soon as possible.”
Angelica stopped with her finger over a glass-paneled button built in to her desk. “Is there a problem?”
“I don’t mean to be rude, but I think there has been some sort of misunderstanding.”
“You’re talking as if I work here. I only came because your letter said this meeting was in reference to Emily, yet you just said that wasn’t the case.”
Angelica sat at her desk and folded her hands on the thick glass. “It is in reference to Emily, and her connection to you, but it’s suddenly clear she didn’t explain her connection to us.”
“No, she didn’t. Emmie was a dear friend. She was also down and out, though I did my best to help. People on the street don’t trust easily, so I didn’t pry.”
The CEO paused for a moment, keeping her eyes on me. “I know. It’s part of the reason you’re here. I have to ask. Do you know what Praestes means?”
“I know it’s straight up Latin, but other than that?” I shrugged. “I didn’t google it.”
She nodded. “It has multiple meanings, but they all boil down to one thing. Guardian. Or Keepers, as it pertains to us. Emily was a Keeper. A very good Keeper, and she will be missed among our ranks.”
“I’m sorry.” My brows knotted at that. “I know you think you’re explaining, but you’ve only confused me more. Emmie worked here?” I hesitated a moment. “As in held a paying job.”
“That’s a matter of semantics.”
I stopped the woman there. “Hold on. Emmie lived in a tent. A TENT. That’s NOT semantics.” I emphasized the words. “If you’re saying she worked here, yet received no remuneration for her time and service, then we have a problem. A problem I will bring to the labor board. Even if that means I have to personally deliver the complaint. This office doesn’t strike me as a charity with volunteers. Your shoes have red bottoms, or didn’t you think I’d notice? They’re Louboutin, and when last I checked, they ran an average of seven hundred dollars per pair.”
I sat back, perspiring. I knew my face was red, but I didn’t care. No one took advantage of Emmie and got away with it. Especially not someone like Madam CEO, who listened without so much as a flicker of emotion.
“Well, you are certainly observant, I’ll give you that,” Angelica replied. “A superior quality in a Keeper, regardless of level.”
I blinked at the woman.
“Perhaps we should start over.” Angelica spread her hands. “I’m not used to having people here completely ignorant of who and what we are.” She pressed a different button on her desk. “Margie, can you ask Cade to come in. Thanks.”
“He’s on a case, but due back shortly.”
Angelica nodded. “As soon as he’s available, then.” She released the intercom, and then folded her hands. “Let’s start at the beginning, shall we?”
I didn’t respond. I had nowhere to be. My stomach growled, and I hoped the elegant woman didn’t notice. I wasn’t hungry when I woke up, but now both my appetite and my curiosity were piqued. Especially since I was the one who drew the line in the sand.
“It would be great if you let me take your silence as a yes.” Angelica angled her head, waiting.
I nodded. Unusual or not, this was proving itself interesting, but I didn’t want to obligate myself other than getting to the bottom of Emmie’s involvement.
“You said Emmie was a Keeper. Maybe start there. I know the root, so give me the how, what and why,” I offered.
“I think background context would be more appropriate,” Angelica replied. “It’s why I asked if you knew about the name Praestes. The company’s official name is Memento Mori—”
“Also Latin,” I interrupted, but then lifted a deferential hand. “I’m sorry. Interrupting is a terrible habit, and one Emmie didn’t appreciate in me.”
The stylish woman smiled. “Passion and self-possession. It’s no wonder Emily thought so highly of you. You’re correct about the company name. It is Latin. It means remember you must die. Sort of like ashes to ashes, dust to dust, but without ecclesiastical fanfare.”
“That’s not very cheery.”
Angelica shrugged. “Perhaps not, but it’s accurate.”
“If you audit death, I’m assuming you’re attached to the IRS.” I gestured to the office door. “I saw the department list in the lobby. Death and Taxes.”
I didn’t mention the Corporeal Procurement Administration. It sounded too creepy to assume anything.
“D and T is technically just a death department, but we call it death and taxes as an inside joke.” Angelica smirked, amused. “No avoiding either, right?”
“Its sister department is the one that applies to Emily.” She lifted a hand my way. “And you.”
Unease made me fidgety, so I folded my hands to stop from picking at my cuffs.
“Memento Mori isn’t affiliated with any government agency. We are a firm unlike any other, in that we have existed in one form or another since time began. We’ve modernized, have multiple departments, thousands of employees, and me as its perpetual CEO. I told you my name is Angelica di Mori, but it’s clear you have a grasp for dead languages enough to figure out its true meaning.”
I blinked at the woman. If she wanted to play Guess My Name, how hard could it be? Her first name was easy enough. Angelica was a derivative of the word Angel, and the prefix ‘di’ referred to the root of a surname, usually as the word of. Together that translated to Angel of…
My eyes widened at the elegant woman behind the desk, and she inclined her head. “It seems my faith in your deductive skills wasn’t misplaced. Yes, I am Angelica di Mori, otherwise known as the Angel of Death.”
Mouth slack, I sat and stared. Perhaps the title was figurative. She seemed a serious dragon lady, so hey.
“No, Louisa. My title is not a metaphor.” Angelica chuckled as though reading my mind. “It’s a hard thing to wrap one’s head around, but I am the CEO of Death Central, and yes, I am the Angel of Death. Though some know me as Azrael.”
Was this woman for real? I opened my mouth, but closed it just as fast. Everything over the past two weeks was beginning to make sense. What I didn’t know was my role in all this crazy. I cleared my throat, hoping I didn’t look as uncomfortable as I felt.
“Uhm, you don’t shift or manifest into anything unusual, right?” I had to ask. “Like a strange shimmer, or a buff, silhouetted man-shadow?”
Angelica snort-laughed at that, and the unexpected reaction sent heat crawling up my face. She was about to say something else when I noticed the CEO’s eyes tracking past my shoulder toward the office door.
“Relax, love. Angelica doesn’t do parlor tricks. She leaves that up to me…”
I JERKED AROUND at the deep, rich voice. Holy hottie! When Angelica announced she was the Angel of Death, an uneasy lump dropped from my throat to my stomach, but now it dropped to my panties.
The man standing in the doorway was nothing short of a Greek god. It figured. If Angelica was the Angel of Death, then why would she surround herself with anything less?
“Louisa, I’d like you to meet Cade Praestes. Cade is a Level Five Keeper. I requested he join us because I’ve asked him to be your trainer.”
I squashed the butterflies zinging around my belly. Still, after a four year dry spell, who could blame them stretching their wings at this kind of man-candy?
Angelica got up from her chair with an armful of files. “Cade, I have meetings this afternoon, but Louisa deserves a complete explanation. Take her to lunch. Explain everything.”
He raised an eyebrow at that, and she nodded. “I mean everything. The who, what, where, and why.”
I was out of my element, and Cade, however gorgeous, added to my feeling of ineptitude. The sentiment didn’t sit well with me, so when he held out his hand, I didn’t move.
I forced a deadpan expression onto my face. “Thanks anyway, but I think I’m good.”
Hottie or not, I had no idea who this guy was in Death Central’s pecking order. For all I knew, he could be one of the seven archangels, or Hermes himself, flying delivery routes loaded with souls.
“Louisa,” Angelica walked with her files to the front of her desk. “As insane as it sounds, I am who I say I am. All I ask is that you listen with an open mind.”
I glanced between them. Keeping an open mind would be a hell of a lot easier if it wasn’t churning with questions. “Let’s start with an easy one. For shits and giggles, how many people at Memento Mori have the surname Praestes?”
Angelica shrugged, sparing a look for Cade as he waited by my chair. “As I said, the name means guardian. So the surname is a choice given all Keepers. Cade is level five. It’s the highest level in Corporeal Procurement. After that?” She shrugged. “We don’t need to get into that now.”
I had to ask. “What exactly do you procure? Because last I checked, corporeal meant bodily.”
“It certainly does, and then some.” Cade winked.
I shifted in my seat, crossing my legs away from him so my butterflies calmed down.
“While it’s true corporeal means of-the-body, for us it just means human,” Angelica continued. “That’s an important distinction because all Keepers are human, regardless of level.”
“Why are all Keepers human?”
Angelica’s red-soled foot tapped, and she checked her watch, obviously late for tea with St. Peter. Or Satan. “Shouldn’t you concern yourself more with what we do, rather than our state of being?” She raised a perfectly-arched eyebrow, and I didn’t answer.
“Who better to understand the human condition?” she replied. “To feel empathy and kinship with the souls of the departed.”
Cade nodded, but added a caveat. “That’s not to say we’re given a pass. Keepers are held to a higher standard because of our position.”
I was trying to absorb it all. “I believe you are who and what you say, but there’s still that rational voice at the back of my head telling me this can’t be.”
The CEO put the files down and moved between her desk and the wall of windows facing the street. Lifting her face to the light, she spread her arms. Her sleek elegance disappeared, and in its place was an ethereal, almost fae-like visage.
Mouth agape, I stood from my chair, and if that wasn’t enough, my knees buckled an instant later when translucent wings sprouted from the woman’s back, shining in the afternoon sun.
Cade caught me before I ended up on the floor, settling me in my chair.
“Now that’s what I call a parlor trick.” My eyes never left Angelica, despite my weak attempt at humor.
Angelica shrugged, her shimmering wings bobbing with her shoulders. “Extreme times require extreme measures. You are meant to be a Keeper, Louisa Anne Jericho. Emily knew it, and so do I.”
Buckle up my Lovelies, because Louisa Jericho is in for the ride of her life! If you want the rest of the Jeepers Reapers, click the download button below! Or read in KU...
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