The car was hot from the sun, and I pulled my fingertips from it as I slunk past. Excitement layered itself over my skin like a second aura. Hunched and furtive, I followed Josh in his first-day-of-school jeans and tucked-in shirt as he wove through the parking lot toward his truck. Yes, it was the first day of school, and yes, we were ditching, but it wasn’t like anyone ever did anything the first day. Besides, I think the seraphs would forgive me; it was one of their marked souls I was going to try to save.
Josh turned to me as he stopped, crouched behind a red mustang as he tossed his blond hair from his eyes and grinned. It was obvious this wasn’t the first time skipping for him. It wasn’t the only time I’d ditched school either, but it was the first time I’d done it with a posse. I smiled back, but as Josh’s gaze went behind me, his smile faded.
“She’s going to get us caught,” he muttered.
My yellow sneakers with the skull and crossbones shoelaces ground into the pavement as I turned to look. Barnabas was skulking properly between the cars, his dark eyes serious and his expression grim. Nakita, though, was casually strolling, her arms swinging and her perfection absolute. She was wearing a pair of my designer jeans and one of my short tops, looking better than I ever could with her dark hair shining and her black toenails glinting in the glorious sun. She hadn’t painted them that color, it was natural. Normally I’d hate Nakita for her looks alone, but the dark reaper didn’t have a clue how pretty she was.
Halting in a crouch beside me, Barnabas frowned, the scent of feathers and sunflowers coming off him. The angel masquerading as a high school senior in his faded black jeans and even more faded band T-shirt was twice fallen: first when he was kicked out of heaven untold millennium ago, and now for having switched sides in the middle of heaven’s war. Guilt had kept him with me, maybe, since he’d failed to keep me alive when I’d been targeted for death. Perhaps it was anger at his old boss, Ron, the light timekeeper, who’d lied to both of us in his quest for supremacy. Or it might possibly be Barnabas thinking I had answers for the questions that Ron’s betrayal had raised. Whatever the reason, I was glad Barnabas was here.
“Nakita hasn’t the faintest idea how to do this,” the reaper grumbled, brushing his frizzy brown curls out of his eyes and squinting. The two had been on opposite ends of heaven’s war, and it didn’t take much to set them off on each other.
I cringed, waving for her to crouch down, but she just kept walking. Nakita was my official guardian, assigned to me by the seraphs since I had accidentally damaged her perfect understanding by teaching her what it was to fear. She didn’t fit in anymore with her dark brethren, and I was possibly the only one who might be able to help her understand, seeing as it was my memories and fears that had changed her.
Technically, as the dark timekeeper, I was her boss, but in all things earthly, I was the smart one. She, though, knew my job and what I was supposed to be doing. Trouble was, I didn’t want to do it heaven’s way. I had other ideas.
“Get down, you ninny!” Barnabas hissed, and the petite, beautiful, and deadly girl looked behind her, confused. Over her shoulder was the trendy purse I’d given her this morning to complete her look. It matched her red sandals and was absolutely empty, but she insisted on carrying it because she thought it helped her blend in.
“Why?” she said as she approached. “If someone should stop us, I’ll simply smite them.”
Smite? I thought, wincing. She hadn’t been on earth very long. Barnabas fit in better, having been kicked out of heaven before the pyramids because he believed in choice, not fate, but Nakita once told me rumor had it he’d been ousted for falling in love with a human girl.
“Nakita,” I said, pulling at her when she got close, and she obediently dropped to a crouch, her long hair swinging. “No one uses that word anymore.”
“It’s a perfectly fine word,” she said, affronted.
“Maybe you could try smacking people instead?” Josh suggested.
Barnabas frowned. “Don’t encourage her,” he muttered, and Nakita stood.
“We should go,” she said, looking about. “If you can’t get the mark to choose a better path before Ron sends a light reaper to keep him alive, I’m going to take his soul to save it.”
With that, Nakita started walking for Josh’s truck. Take his soul was a nice way of saying kill him. The enormity of what I was trying to do fell on me, and my shoulders slumped.
I was the new dark timekeeper, but unlike the dark keepers who came before me, I didn’t believe in fate. I believed in choice. The entire situation was a big cosmic joke—apart from part about me being dead. The old dark timekeeper thought that killing me, his foretold replacement, would give him immortality. No one had known whom I was until it was too late to change anything and I was stuck with the job until I could find my real body and break the bond with the amulet that kept me alive without it.
Josh rose, peering at the parking lot’s entrance through the mustang’s windows. “Come on. Let’s get to my car before she takes the front seat. I’m not driving with her shotgun.”
Knees bent and keeping in a crouch, we started after her. Barnabas was vastly better at this soul-saving tuff than me, knowing how to use his amulet and experienced at finding people marked for an early death in order to save them from reapers like Nakita. That he had switched sides to stay with me was as weird as me being chosen as the new dark timekeeper to begin with. Neither of us agreed with heaven’s philosophy of killing someone before they went bad, but if I’d been fated to become the new dark timekeeper, I could’ve done far worse than win Barnabas’s loyalty. Nakita didn’t trust him and thought he was a spy.
“Uh, guys?” Josh said, and I froze when I followed his gaze to the squad car parked before the school. Beside it was a woman in uniform, hands on her hips and looking our way.
“Crap!” I yelped, dropping. Josh was right beside me, and Barnabas had never risen above the level of the car. “Get down!” I almost hissed at Nakita, and yanked her toward the pavement. My pulse hammered. Okay, I know. I was dead, but try telling my mind that. It thought I was alive, and with the tactile illusion of a body, who was I to tell it different? It was embarrassing. If I was simply sitting, nothing—but the minute I got excited, the memory of my pulse started up. It was so unfair I had to deal with all the physical crap of being scared when I was already dead, but at least I didn’t sweat anymore.
My back pressed against the car we were hiding behind. Beside me, Josh looked worried. “It’s Officer Levy. Do you think she saw us?” I whispered. Just freaking great, I was already on the woman’s radar. She had tailed me speeding to the hospital when Nakita had almost killed Josh two weeks ago. Yup, she’d smited him, but only halfway. I wouldn’t call the two of them friends, but at least Nakita wasn’t trying to kill him anymore.
Crouched before me, Nakita started to rise. “I’ll smack her.
“No!” both Barnabas and I shouted, tugging her back down.
Josh was peeping through the windows. “She’s gone.”
Son of a dead puppy. How am I supposed to save some guy’s life if I can’t even sneak out of the high school’s parking lot?
[. . . ]