Rapture – J. R. Ward

Grave. And not as in serious. As in headstone and freshly disturbed earth, as in a body down under, as in ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Matthias was naked on a grave. In the middle of a cemetery that stretched out as far as he could see. First thing he thought of was the back tats he’d made his men get, the ones of the Grim Reaper standing in a field of marble and granite slabs. Fucking ironic, really—and maybe he was going to get sliced and diced by a sycthe at any second. Try saying that three times fast. Blinking to clear what little vision he had, he gathered his limbs closer to his torso to preserve warmth, and waited for the scene to shift back to his reality. When nothing changed, he wondered where the wall that he’d been trapped in for an eternity had gone. Had he finally gotten free of the cloying, crowded torture pit? Was he out of Hell? With a groan, he tried to push himself up, but it was hard enough to just lift his head. Then again, finding out firsthand that those religious nuts had been right about a lot of things kind of made a guy want to take a nap: In fact, sinners did go down under, and not to Australia, and once you were there, the suffering made all the stuff you’d bitched about aboveground look like Universal Studios on a free pass. There was a Devil. And her living room sucked. Although the Holy Rollers hadn’t gotten everything straight.

Turned out Satan didn’t have horns, or a tail; no pitchfork or cloven hooves, either. She was a bitch and a half, however, and she did wear red a lot. Then again, brunettes looked good in that color—at least, that’s what she told herself. With his left eye, the one that worked, he blinked again, bracing himself for a return to the dense, hot blackness, with the screams of the damned ringing in his ears, and his own pain ripping up his throat and exploding out his cracked lips. … Nope. Still on a grave. In a cemetery. Buck-ass naked. Taking it all in, he got an eyeball full of white marble tombs, and family plots marked with angels, and ghostly statues of the Virgin Mary—although the low-to-the-ground headstones were far more common, as if the runts of the litter had taken over the place. Pine trees and maples threw shadows across scruffy spring grass and wrought-iron benches.

Streetlamps glowed peach at their tops like candles on a birthday cake, and the winding lanes might have been romantic in another place. Here they weren’t. Not in this context of death— From out of nowhere, scenes from his life passed by his eyes, making him wonder if he wasn’t enjoying a second shot at dying. Or a third, as was the case. There was no happy-happy in the retrospective. No loving wife or beautiful children, no white picket anything. Just dead bodies, dozens of them, hundreds of them, all ones he had killed, or had ordered killed. He had done evil, true evil, during his lifetime. Forcing himself to sit up off the loose dirt, his body was a jigsaw that didn’t fit right, its bits and pieces jammed into sockets and joints that were sloppy in some places, too tight in others. But that’s what happened when you Humpty Dumpty’d yourself, and the medical profession and your limited healing powers were all you had to put things back together.

Shifting his eye over to the face of the grave marker, he frowned. James Heron. Jesus Christ, James Heron … Ignoring the fact that his hand was shaking, he traced the deeply engraved letters, his fingertips sinking into what had been carved into the polished gray grantite. A ragged breath left his chest, as if the pain he suddenly felt behind his ribs had bullied the oxygen out of his lungs. He’d had no idea that there was an eternal reward, that your deeds were in fact counted and weighed, that there was a judgment that came on the heels of your heart’s final beat. That wasn’t what the pain was about, however. It was the knowledge that even if he’d known what waited for him, he wouldn’t have been able to do anything differently. “I’m sorry,” he said, wondering exactly who he was talking to. “I’m so fucking sorry. …” No answer.

He looked up at the sky. “I’m sorry!” Still no reply, and that was okay. His regrets were jamming up his head so there wasn’t a lot of room for third-party input anyway. As he struggled to get up on his feet, his lower body buckled and sagged and he had to rely on the headstone for balance. God, he was a mess, his thighs pockmarked with scars, his belly riddled with keloids, one calf nearly stripped off the bone. The doctors had worked relative miracles with their bolts and rods, but compared to what he had been born like, he was a broken toy repaired with duct tape and Super Glue. Then again, suicide was supposed to work. And Jim Heron was the reason he’d survived for another two years. Then death had found him and claimed him, and proved that the earth just borrowed souls. What was on the other side were the true owners.

Out of habit, he looked around for his cane, but then concentrated on what he was more likely to find: shadows coming for him, either those oily creatures from down below, or the human variety. Either way he was fucked: As the former head of XOps, he had more enemies than a third-world dictator, and all of them had guns or guns for hire. And as a reject from the devil’s playground, it went without saying that he hadn’t gotten out of jail for free. Sooner or later, someone was going to come after him, and even though he had nothing to live for, ego alone demanded that he put up a fight. Or at least make a halfway decent target out of himself. He started off with a limp, and continued on with the grace of a scarecrow, his body jerking in a series of spasms that culminated in a messy gait that hurt like hell. To conserve warmth, he tried to wrap his arms around himself, but that didn’t last. He needed them to compensate for the lurching. With his zombie shuffle and his scrambled, what-the-fuck head, he walked on, crossing the scratchy grass, passing the graves, feeling the brush of the chilly, damp air across his skin. He had no idea how he’d gotten out.

Where he was headed. What day, month, or year it was. Clothes. Shelter. Food. Weaponry. Once he had secured the basics, he would worry about the rest of it. Assuming something didn’t take him out first—after all, a wounded predator became prey fast. It was the law of the wild. When he came up to a boxy stone building with wrought-iron fringe, he assumed it was just another tomb.

But the Pine Grove Cemetery name across its pediment, and the shiny Master Lock on the front door suggested it was a grounds crew facility. Fortunately, someone had left one of the windows open a crack in the back. Naturally, the thing stuck like glue to its position. Picking up a fallen branch, he wedged it in the crack, and heaved until the wood bowed and his arms clenched up tight. The window budged and let out a high-pitched screech. Matthias froze. Panic, unfamiliar but hard learned, had him twisting around and searching the shadows. He knew that sound. It was the noise the demon’s minions made when they came for you— Nada. Just graves and gaslights that, no matter how much his adrenal gland suggested otherwise, didn’t turn into anything else.

Cursing, he threw himself back into the effort, using the branch as a winch until he had enough space to squeeze through. Getting his sorry ass up off the ground was a production, but once he had his shoulders inside, he let gravity do the rest of the work. The concrete floor he landed on felt as if it had refrigerator coils in it, and he had to take a TO, his breath dragging down his throat, his gut going into a twist as pain sizzled in too many places to count— Overhead, fluorescent lights flickered in the ceiling, and then glowed steady and sure, blinding him. Goddamn motion sensors. The upside was that as soon as his eye adjusted, he had a clear shot at all kinds of mowers, weeders, and wheelbarrows. The downside? He was a diamond in a jewelry case, ready for the grabbing. Over on the wall, hanging from pegs like the skins of dead animals, sets of waterproof overalls were a wardrobe waiting to happen, and he threw a bottom and a top on. The things were built to hang loose, but on him they flapped like boat sails. Better. Better with the clothes, even though they smelled like fertilizer, and chafing was going to fast become an issue.

A baseball hat on the counter had the Boston Red Sox logo on it, and he pulled the thing on to conserve body heat; then he looked around for anything he could use as a cane. The longhandled spades were going to weigh too much to be efficient, and it wasn’t like any of the rakes were going to help. Screw it. His immediate mission critical was getting away from all the overhead light raining on his gimpy little parade. He exited the way he’d come in, forcing himself through the open window again and landing hard on the ground. No time to bitch and complain at the impact; he had to get moving. Before he’d died and gone to Hell, as it were, he’d been the pursuer. Shit, his whole life he’d been the hunter, the one who stalked and cornered and destroyed. Now, as he returned to the darkness of the graves, all the intangibles of the night were dangerous until proven otherwise. He hoped he was back in Caldwell.

If he was, all he had to do was stay under the radar and gun for New York City, where he had a stash of supplies. Yeah, he prayed this was Caldwell. Forty-five minutes south on the highway was all it would take, and he’d already broken and entered. Hot-wiring an older-generation car was a skill he could also resurrect. A lifetime later, or at least it seemed that way, he came up to the wrought-iron fence that rimmed all the RIP acreage. The thing was ten feet high, and top-hatted with spikes that in an earlier life had probably been daggers. Facing off at the bars that kept him on the side of the dead, he gripped them with his hands and felt the cold of the metal grab back. Looking upward, he focused on the heavens. The stars overhead actually twinkled. Funny, he’d always thought that was just a saying.

Inhaling, he drew clean, fresh air into his lungs, and realized he’d grown used to the stench in Hell. In the beginning, it had been what he’d hated most, that nauseating, rotten-egg stink in the sinuses that invaded the back of his throat and traveled down to poison his gut: More than a bad smell, it had been an infection that had entered his nose and taken over from there, turning everything that he was into territory it owned. But he had become inured to it. Over time, and in the midst of suffering, he had acclimatized to the horror, the despair, the pain. His bad eye, the one he couldn’t see out of, watered up. He was never going to make it up there to the stars. And this respite was probably just a way to heighten the torture. After all, there was nothing like a period of relief to revitalize a nightmare: When you returned to the shithole, the contrast sharpened everything up, wiping clean the acclimatization, the illusory Ctrl-Alt-Del resetting things to the initial shock he’d felt. They would be coming again for him. It was, after all, exactly what he’d earned.

But for however long he had, he was going to fight the inevitable—not with hope of evasion, not for the possibility of a reprieve, but simply as an autonomic function of his hard wiring. He fought for the same reason he’d done evil. It was just what he did. Pulling himself up off the ground, he wedged the better of his two feet into the bars and shoved his weight higher. Again. Again. The top seemed miles away, and its distance just made him focus more tightly on his goal. After a lifetime, his palm locked on one of the spikes and then he linked his arm around the vicious point. Blood was drawn a moment later as he swung his leg up and over the fence’s head and shoulders, one of those sharp-and-pointies biting into his calf and taking a hunk out of it. There was no going back, though.

He’d committed himself, and one way or the other gravity was going to win and take him down to earth—so better it be on the outside than the inside. As he went into a free fall, he focused on the stars. Even reached a hand up to them. The fact that they just got farther and farther away seemed apt.

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