On the last day of her life, Kat woke up with hundred dollar bills clenched in her fists and two hot men curled up on both of her sides.
Was she in heaven? she wondered. Since money and men were two main requirements of her ideal nirvana, she considered saying yes to her own question. However, a quick, more thorough sweep of her surroundings proved her wrong.
Well, first off, the men snoring on either side of her were too provocatively dressed to pass off as angels. Unless of course the new fashion trend was black latex briefs and studded leather harnesses, which she was sure they were not.
Also, there were no clouds, just pink and blue neon lights dancing on the textured ceiling, burning her crusty eyes. Instead of harps being played, a hip-hop song was being blasted on a loop, its cranked-up bass making the place hum. The vibrations reached the circular couch she was sprawled on, and it did nothing to ease her headache. If anything, the rumble made her realize where she was and what she'd done the night before.
That was worse than any headache.
Midnight Climax. This was the place. The trendiest, most diverse strip club in all of Las Vegas, serving all sorts of clients whose tastes were better off not mentioned in polite company—or at least, that's what the owner Andy liked to say. Kat's tastes were pretty tame and standard, so she had no idea why she'd chosen these BDSM performers. All she knew was that she'd been yearning for a crazy night, a familiar place where she could blow off some steam after. . . .
Kat blinked. She couldn't quite recall. Getting shit-faced had always tended to give her temporary amnesia. Slowly, bit by bit, her memories started to return. She began to remember the reason why she'd flown here on a whim.
The promotion. Yes. That had been the reason.
She had worked at Beaufort Farlowe, a branding company in downtown Los Angeles, as a projects manager. But not anymore. She'd decided to spontaneously quit after not getting the creative director position she'd been slaving for in the last two years.
There had been a company lunch yesterday, to celebrate the new appointment. She remembered the excitement, the anticipation, and the applause that followed when her colleague Landon Wyatt had gotten called as the new director.
Of course Kat had had to get up, announce her resignation, and stalk off without looking back. That Landon was a dick, and his promotion had been a joke. The whole event definitely deserved to be tainted by a rather scandalous scene. Didn't anyone know that she was the one who brought the biggest clients and closed the grandest deals for the past years?
Okay, there was no point going ballistic over it again. Kat was now in Vegas, her hometown, away from the mess. It wouldn't change the fact that she was newly unemployed. And she was pretty sure that the sly bitch Andy still had made her spend serious cash in this establishment.
Come to think of it, how much had she actually spent here?
Kat racked her brains, but try as she might, she couldn't get an exact figure. Being alone in this VIP table was not a good sign, neither was the number of bills tucked into these dudes' briefs. And what were those empty glasses doing around them? She hadn't drunk all those, surely?
A groan of despair escaped her lips. Of course she'd drunk them all. How else would she get this horrid headache?
Cursing herself, Kat struggled to get on her feet, gently pushing the barely-dressed dudes off of her. She managed to stand, but a wave of vertigo almost sent her toppling back onto the couch. Thankfully she caught herself right on time and grabbed the stripper pole for support.
And that was when she saw the strange figure lurking on the stage.
Surprise made Kat drop the dollar bills she was clutching. She peered closer at the glittery curtains, and while she couldn't see the figure anymore, she was almost sure that she saw a swish of black, a glint of something shiny. She could almost swear that it was hooded figure with some kind of a long metallic beak protruding from its front.
Or maybe it was an oversized penguin with a bejeweled muzzle. Kat was growing more and more uncertain with every second.
Perhaps it was a trick of the light? Perhaps it was a product of her—
"Aha!" a female voice boomed, competing over the deafening music. "The woman of the hour has awoken!"
Kat lifted her head towards the direction of the voice, only to see Andy. She was a voluptuous woman in her forties, dressed only in a paisley robe that didn't quite close over her bosom. In result, one of her breasts had escaped the confines of the fabric and was now jiggling around for anyone to see.
Unsure if it would be rude to point it out, Kat fought to keep a straight face instead.
Oblivious (or unconcerned) as always, Andy sauntered towards the granite bar counter and poured herself two fingers of scotch. Once her gaze fell upon the bills scattered by Kat's feet, her winning smile widened. "You know what I say. Whatever touches the floor is mine."
"Fat chance," Kat mumbled and proceeded to pick up her hard-earned cash. "You already got enough from me, you crook."
"Blame Taylor over there." Andy tipped her glass to gesture at the sleeping blond. "He got you wrapped around his finger."
Because it was embarrassingly true, Kat's face turned red. "He wrapped me on his finger on your command."
"Well, you needed a fixer-upper! That's why I told dear Marcus to join in too," the older woman said cheerfully, pouring another glass of scotch and offering it to Kat. "Now take this, girl. It will make you feel better."
The only thing she should be consuming right now was aspirin, but she found it nearly impossible to say no to scotch. Not when it was offered so nicely.
"That's top shelf." Andy grinned proudly as Kat wobbled to the counter to fetch her drink. "I'll give it to you for half the price, and I'm putting in on your tab."
Kat froze mid-grab and retracted her hand. "Seriously? This is the first time we've seen each other in two years and you create a tab just for me?"
"What? It's a fair deal!" She takes a sip and gulps temptingly for Kat to see. "Or you could give me your necklace and I'll give you all the top shelf scotch you can drink."
Kat scowled. Sly bitch. Of course she wouldn't give anything for free. Andy might be an old friend and a trusted confidante with the recent ordeal, but she would never leave any business opportunity unexploited. She also had this weird fascination with Kat's necklace. She would always pitch up an offer for it, regardless of what conversation they were having.
Well, the necklace was sort of cool, Kat had to admit, with its gold chain and its pure black obsidian pendant. It looked like an artifact, something that should be displayed in a museum, not worn by a corporate girl who had no interest in jewelry whatsoever.
Come to think of it, the necklace never did go with anything she wore, that's why she preferred to tuck it inside any top she put on. Even Andy found out about it by accident, in the form of Kat tearing open her blouse in a wild drunken party. That had been the only time anyone ever saw it.
It was too regal and too intricate to be displayed in plain view, but that was only a part of the reason why Kat would never put a price on it. Her mother had given it to her, and she'd been wearing it since . . . forever. She'd never taken it off, never let anyone lay their hands on it, not even her dad.
Besides, no one would just sell their dead mom's last gift, right?
And now that her precious necklace—and more of her money—was at risk, Kat came to realize that one more drop of alcohol would probably send her to a hospital and have her flatlining within two seconds. She had to leave before temptation got her killed.
Shaking her head, Kat pushed away the glass ("Oh, you're missing out!" Andy warned.) and hobbled towards the club's exit.
The hot June sun bore down on Kat's hangover with the force of a sledgehammer. The sound of traffic and the rumble of busy people didn't help matters either. Everything about the heat and the noise almost caused her to slink back into the neon-lit premises of Midnight Climax, but the last thing she wanted was to look like a scalded vampire.
And so Kat went on the move, walking quite fast for someone who was in terrible pain. She was on the verge of keeling over, but she stubbornly soldiered on, stumbling and bumping into people along her path on the Vegas Strip, which was booming with tourists as usual.
The crowd she didn't mind. What got into her were the looks of wariness (and sometimes disgust) shot towards her by a considerable percentage of that crowd. It compelled her to check her reflection on a building's shiny window.
Jesus Christ. Had she really walked around looking like this? Black hair a rat's nest, brown eyes overbright and bloodshot, lips dry and kind of cracked. Yikes. Even more yikes was her gray jacket and white shirt, both stained with some brown substance. Her pencil skirt was facing the wrong way; the slit that was supposed to be at the back was now flapping on her kneecap.
No wonder she'd gotten so much bad attention.
Kat tried to fix what she could, which wasn't much. There was nothing she could do about the stain or her actual face. The flaky bits on her lips really had to come off, though, especially since they resembled ground cereal.
She stepped close to the window, her hand poised and ready to pluck. But then she noticed the tall black figure reflected on the glass, a stark contrast to the bright surroundings.
It was standing across the street, below the colorful sign that read: Live fast, die young. Kat's focus shifted from her face to the shadowy form, and this time she could see it clearly. It bore no resemblance with the penguin thing she'd thought she'd seen a while ago. Only the beak stayed true to that image, large and sharp-looking, poking out from the opening of the cloak's hood. Its beak seemed to be made of bronze, shining under the sun and the signs.
Creepy? Extremely. But the thing that truly spooked Kat wasn't the beak's resemblance to the mask of bubonic plague doctors. It was the feeling it gave her. The eyeholes, which were black and empty, still gave her the sensation of being watched.
And the funny thing was, no one else seemed to notice the super scary mask. In fact, no one else seemed bothered by the presence of the cloaked figure at all.
Now, could this be a Halloween costume? Maybe, but it was June. Could this figure be a performer? Maybe, but it wasn't exactly performing. It was just standing there ominously.
Kat decided to stop trying to figure it out and just make a break for it.
The pressing throng of people along The Strip made navigation difficult, but it made it easier for her to spot the oddity in her surroundings. Twice now she'd seen the figure slinking around, blending in with the crowd but at the same time standing out.
By this time, Kat was already certain that she was the only one who could see it. No one had given it a second glance, although it didn't belong in the color and bustle of Las Vegas. Her head was full of questions, but her instinct to flee from danger overruled logic.
With her clumsy feet she trudged on, ignoring the thrum of fear pounding in her chest and the coldness spreading all over her body. It reached even her necklace, making her feel like she was wearing a string of ice chunks around her neck. She couldn't believe she was being followed by a bubonic doctor wannabe. A few times now she'd stopped to hail a cab, but she hadn't been able to board into one, even though they were cabs in front of every establishment.
Sheer bad luck? It could be. But the longer she stopped, the closer the figure got.
Kat knew this because when she tried to argue with a woman over a parked cab, the figure reappeared approximately five feet in front of her. Yes, it was standing right in the middle of the street. The sight of it up close and unbothered by traffic sent her system into panic. Needless to say, she let the woman get the goddamn cab, and now she was openly running. She swerved through familiar corners, bursted into groups of tourists, and basically caused an uproar.
Now she was approaching a crossing, shivering with the strange freezing sensation. The street was pretty busy, but she didn't bother slowing her pace in her determination to keep going. She gave no care anymore; she'd do anything to escape that monster.
This strong desire was precisely why she didn't see the Range Rover speeding from her right.
The expensive car zipped past boundaries, scattered alert individuals, and continued to skid closer to Kat like an excited dog bounding towards its owner. Death was hungrily closing in on her, and she was much too absorbed in her escape to notice its swift and merciless arrival.
And the car would have plowed Kat down if it weren't for the strong gust of force that pushed her back to the edge of the street.
The loud screech of tires filled the air, mixed with gasps and even screams. Kat landed right on her butt, her head narrowly missing the concrete base of a street sign. Pain erupted in her backside and her hands, which she'd used to prevent herself from completely getting flattened on the sidewalk.
Shit. What the hell had just happened?
Blinking rapidly, she looked around. The Range Rover had abruptly rolled to a halt. Many onlookers were starting to gather around the scene, most of them with their phones out.
"Are you alright?" an elderly woman standing behind her asked, reaching out towards her.
Kat merely nodded, ignoring the old woman's outstretched hand. Her voice and her mobility had completely abandoned her.
From the fancy car a portly man in a blue track suit clambered out of the driver's seat. For a while he spun around in a dazed circle to survey the outcome, then his beady eyes found Kat.
With the help of the whispering people behind her, she got to her feet. Her knees were still wobbly, but she forced herself to meet the driver halfway as he approached.
She swallowed hard. "I'm really sorry. I didn't see—"
"Are you okay?" he warbled in a shaky voice. There were beads of sweat trailing down his pale face. "I didn't hit you, did I?"
Okay. He wasn't yelling at her for crossing without warning. That had to be good, right?
"I'm fine," she began to say, but the rest of her words flew out of her head when she saw the figure beside the Range Rover.
She tried to step forward in an urge to keep running, but her body was stiff all over. For the first time in her life, she was petrified with fear.
The driver grabbed her by the shoulders. "Miss? Shit, you're pale." He turned to the onlookers. "Can someone call an ambulance?"
This was supposed to be the part where she'd refuse the ambulance profusely, but she wasn't overcome with her hate of hospitals like usual. Her gaze was fixed on the bubonic plague doctor wannabe.
As if on cue, the figure started to pull back the sleeves of its black cloak, revealing human-shaped hands covered in leather black gloves. Deliberately and almost tauntingly, it removed the gloves as well. Then it raised one of those slim hands to its face, smoothly taking the mask off.
And Kat found herself staring at the most gorgeous man she had ever clapped eyes on.
To say that Kat was surprised would be an understatement. In fact, she gasped and staggered back, her heart doing cartwheels inside her chest.The cloaked man had the face of a model: high cheekbones, a straight nose, well-shaped lips, and the most flawless pale skin. Even though his swept-up hair was platinum blond, his thick eyebrows and lashes were brown. His jaw was so chiseled it could probably cut diamonds. His irises were pale gray, the color of storm clouds, and the
"Your death is overdue," Mr. Michaels recited as he reached for Kat. "Hell is waiting for you, Katalina Donovan."Kat couldn't be more perplexed, but she also couldn't be more pressured. Because of this, sharp instincts she didn't know she possessed had taken over her body. Instead of screaming (which was her go-to response to dangerous situations), she grabbed her rock-hard pillow, smacked Mr. Michaels across the face with it, and lobbed it at his crotch for triple damage.
Kat's vocal cords retraced into her throat and disappeared completely."I am Calix." The man calmly rose from the couch. "There is no use for stealth and subtlety now, so I will not bother with it anymore. Today is the last day of your life, and I have come to take you to the Underworld. To Hell, to be precise."She gaped at him, but she studiously avoided looking directly
Kat's go-to principle in life is to keep fighting. Keep struggling. She always told herself that if she'd go down, she'd go down swinging.She tried to stay true to that now, with the blade of Calix's spear pointed at her throat. Oh, she was scared, but there was no way she'd just give up.Calix felt her need, her fear, but forced himself to hold his position. He didn't wa
With a thud, Kat and Calix landed right into apartment B3, crumpling down on the hallway like a pair of marionettes whose strings were snipped off. She fell on her knees, him right on his face. The door didn't close by itself, but one look confirmed that the weird room was well away now. Staring back at her was her parents' bedroom, dark and unbelievably dusty but otherwise normal. No gold, no candles, no antique tables, and definitely no non-red schnitzel Demons.Kat never thought she'd consider the scrape of t
The sunlight slanting through the windows became gray. The walls were washed in black. The only things visible were the outlines of the watercolor frames, the dim glint of the metal knobs, the faint silhouettes of Kat and Calix facing each other. It was as though a drop of ink had fallen into their world, casting a darker shadow over everything it touched until the whole scene was in black and white.It should have scared Kat, but it didn't. She was too livid, too indignant, and it made her believe that the darkness was coming from her.Meanwhile, Calix was frozen in his spot, his eyes flicking around as though searching for something. She expected him to be scared out of his wits because of what she'd done, b
"We follow the trail, then we wait for the darkness to return," Calix recited into Kat's ear as she tried to navigate her way in the pitch-black. "The mortal soul will be the only thing visible at that moment. If he does not resist, we will simply open the gateway—the room where I took you—and read him his sins. After that we will—""—open another portal, this one leading to Hell, where he will be welcomed by the Demons and accompanied to your master's court to be judged," Kat finished exasperatedly. "You've told me nine times already, and I've only started counting an hour ago.""I am only being thorough," he reasoned.Well, the guy was noth
Darkness enveloped the surroundings, immediate and sinister, settling over everything like a thick, hazy grayscale filter. The music had slowed to the point that the tune was nonexistent. The falling pipes were frozen midair. The hands of the clock in the distance were unmoving.It seemed that time had stopped, but Kat and Calix were unaffected. They exchanged dubious looks, her face pale and nervous, his pink and bright. The event clearly injected life into him, but it made her not want to move. Not y