Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Excerpt: Be the Death of Me (The Guardian Chronicles #1) by Rebecca Harris

Published: August 25, 2013 Phoenix Flying, Inc.
Genre: YA Paranormal

Goodreads Summary:

BILLIE FOSTER is a seventeen-year-old with a bit of an attitude problem. It wasn’t long ago that she had it all: booming social life, loving boyfriend, anything and everything a beautiful, popular teenage girl could want. That is until her life is taken by a violent and mysterious fire, leaving her trapped in limbo, alone and jaded in the afterlife. Upon arrival, Billie is put to work, assigned to the organization known only as THE GUARDIANS, a group of spirits charged with the task of keeping the living alive. But Billie is no “employee of the month.” Fed up with her cynicism and total disregard for authority, her boss, THE CAPTAIN, gives her an ultimatum: work with a partner or face the consequences of her carelessness. TUCKER REID is a charming and hardworking member of the Self-Sacrifice organization, and much to Billie’s dismay, exactly what The Captain orders. Right off the bat, Tucker proves he's not afraid to keep her in line, refusing to back down from what he knows is right. Little does Billie suspect, however, that Tucker carries with him secrets of his own. Can they work together? Or will their differences be their ultimate downfall?

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/22324884-soul-twister?from_search=true


Excerpt

Chapter 1:

I can still see it sometimes.  Smell it.  Taste.  Touch.  If I squeeze my eyes shut against a stark, bare reality and flood my mind with memories, it's almost as if I'm back there.  The scent of the smoke, the feel of the cool linoleum against my back, the color of a world going up in flame, I haven't lost it.  Not yet.  I keep them only if I try, and I'm not ready to surrender just yet.  I refuse to give them up, terrifying and grim though they might be.  The sound of a strangled cry, the taste of ash, thick on my tongue.  I can... I can...
“Goooooood morning!”  The voice breaks through my strained reverie, severing my past like a cold blade.
I groan and wish for something to throw at the small, black box hanging over my head where a thick female voice rings through the crackling P.A. system.  “It’s time for the daily announcements!”
I settle for giving it the stink-eye and step into a well lit hallway, scuffing the toe of my shoe against an immaculately clean floor in frustration.
“All personnel are reminded that floors 460 through 462 are off limits until further notice.  Offices on 460 and 461 have been relocated to 290, while all offices 462 are still missing.  Your cooperation is appreciated as we try and locate them.
“New arrivals are asked to please check-in at Room 111 before being placed.  If you have any questions or are unsure of where to go, please follow the sound of perpetual screaming or simply check at the second floor information kiosk,” the voice says, the same sugar coated voice I’ve heard every day for the last four years.  “It promises to be another exciting day, so let’s remember: The world looks brighter from behind a smile!”
The intercom system clicks off with a short pop, the echoes dying away and leaving me in silence.  I run my fingers habitually through a sheet of glossy, blonde hair, leaving all thoughts of the past behind me, walking with neither direction nor destination in mind.  The hallway stretches out before me in a relentless metaphor; an ongoing journey into madness, a never-ending walk of shame.  Enclosing me are shades of white.  White on cream.  White on pearl.  White on silver.  White on white.  The floor, ceiling and walls seem to sparkle with an unattainable shine, glimmering with the cleanliness of perfection.  I continue my trek, rhythmically placing one foot in front of the other.
I’m not really sure what I thought death would be like before I got here - I never was one for organized religion - but it wasn’t this, this metaphoric halfway house built with smoke and mirrors.  Behind the shadows lie only want and crisis.  Want smothered by work, crisis covered by career.  Acceptance hides beyond, acceptance many of us never reach.  There’s no future to look forward to and nothing behind us but memories so lovely, so painful, we’d choose a second death rather than face our pasts.  So we fall in line.  We live and not live.  We wait.  For what, I’m still not sure.
I wish someone had told me that I would end up as literal debris, the flotsam and jetsam, the proverbial punch line of death.  No one told me death had a wicked sense of humor.  There's a darkness here, behind every glistening corner, in each labored step.  It fills me with a sick sort of laughter, building in my stomach, burying itself in my throat, dying on my lips.
Don’t get me wrong.  I wouldn’t exactly call snuffing it a laugh riot.  Funny?  No, that can’t be right.  Scary?  Definitely that.  But there’s something else, too.  Something I’ve overlooked or forgotten.  What’s the word I’m looking for…?
“Billie Foster, please report to Human Resources.  Immediately.”
Oh yeah.  Inconvenient.
I choose to ignore the command ringing through the P.A. system and continue my walk.
“That means now, Billie!”
I roll my eyes turn back the way I came.  “Alright, alright!  I’m going.”
I take the first right I come to.  Then a left, a right, another right, two more lefts and one very odd yield along yet another spotless corridor before I reach my destination.  Headquarters.  Human Resources.  The heart and soul of our department, quite literally the center of operations.  We come here for assignments, our promotions, our demotions.  Called Human Resources for a reason, HQ is constantly bustling with not exactly “life”, but with a strange alternative.  My colleagues, my people, come and go, eager for jobs, hoping for groundwork.  Waiting for the moment they’re given a new assignment, another precious human life to protect.
Every assignment is given a file, every file sent here to be stored and organized  humans still in trouble, those yet to be assigned.  The entire left wall of the sixty-first floor is lined with hulking, black cabinets, filed alphabetically by last name.  Thousands upon thousands.  Millions upon millions.  Billions upon…
One might assume that with such an array of files to choose from these fortresses of folders might differ in some way, that surely there would be some method to determine one from the next.  But, no.  These files, these humans we’re left to categorize and sort are all the same, yet the single definable quality of these cabinets is one they all happen to share.
They’re all locked.
In the center of the wide room, resting on pale gray carpet is an oddly shaped, though familiar desk.  It curves into a circle of cherry colored oak, meeting at the back where a crystal clear tube stretches from the floor to the ceiling.  There’s a loud sucking noise as I enter, like that of a high powered vacuum, and a round, black canister shoots up and out of sight.  I watch as the outgoing message disappears.
I smile at the girl sitting behind the desk.  “Hey, Abby.”
You would think accidentally overdosing in a hippie-filled tent at Woodstock would put a serious damper on one’s sunny disposition.  Yet, she’s a genuine sweetheart despite being stuck here with the rest of us.  Maybe that’s why she works reception; I know I would never have the patience to deal with the idiots that come in and out of this department all day long.
“Hi, Billie!” the flower-child calls.  Abby’s cocoa cheeks pull into a smile, revealing perfect, white teeth.  Her bright pink shirt contrasts nicely against the dark beauty of her skin and hair.  “I heard you might be stopping by.”  Her laughter is light and easy.
“I think everybody heard,” I grumble, resting my elbows on the granite countertop.  “Miss P.A. better watch out.  I’m going to find out where she’s hiding one of these days and take away her magic microphone…and then beat her with it like it’s a sock full of nickels.”
“Oh, go easy on her.”  Abby’s brown eyes twinkle as she passes me a small slip of wide-ruled paper.  “The daily announcements are probably all she has going for her.”
I almost don’t hear.  My eyes grow wide at the sight of the three words written across the scrap of paper in my hands.  Three words that were it possible, would send a ripple of shivers across my skin.

MY OFFICE.  NOW.

I hold it up for Abby to read.  She teases me with a grimace.
“Any idea what he wants?” I ask, wadding the paper up in my hand.
She smirks the way she does whenever she’s holding back something juicy.  “I don’t really know if I should say…”
“Oh come on, Abby!  If the Captain wants to see me, you know it’s got to be important.”
The Captain: our department head.  The Boss.  The Chief.  The Man with the Plan.  The Big Kahuna.
“Well,” Abby fidgets, nervously twirling a strand of raven hair between her fingers.  “Rumor has it you’re going dirt-side.”
“Are you kidding me?”  I bounce on the spot.  This is a joke, right?  One of those candid camera shows?  Surely there’s been some sort of oversight.  Why would the Captain give me another assignment?  Especially after what happened last time.
She shakes her head.  “About time if you ask me.  Suspension or not, you deserve a second chance.”
“A seventh chance, you mean.”
She swats a hand at me.  “Not important,” she shrugs.  “What is important is that the Captain thinks you have what it takes.”
I flash a final, half-hearted smile, and take the hallway on the left.
Maybe Abby’s right.  So what if I have the worst record of anyone in the department?  So what if six people haven’t exactly lived as long as they should have?  Nobody’s perfect.  People make mistakes.  Just because they died on my watch doesn’t necessarily make it my fault…
Right?
I find my way to the Captain’s office, a room I haven’t seen in ages and yet still manages to fill me with a sense of overwhelming dread.  The door is closed upon my arrival; big surprise.  I didn’t exactly expect him to adopt an “open door” policy in my absence.
“Get your ass in here, Foster,” a deep voice rumbles before I have the chance to knock.
When first entering the spacious, well-lit office, one might assume it’s like any other.  The décor is business chic - a large, wooden desk, several comfortable looking chairs, ornamental brass lamps and a grand expanse of window revealing a blindingly blue sky.  That is until you realize the crystal sky is actually a mural, and the window nothing more than a wall painted to resemble a perfect afternoon, the swirls of wispy, ethereal clouds and sublime rays of sunshine no more than an artist’s rendering.  My money's on Cézanne.  I heard he used to hang around these parts.
The man who has ordered my presence is older but not elderly; in his early fifties.  Built like a steel beam, his sharp face is decorated by a trimmed, bristle-brush mustache.  A plate of thinning red hair parts neatly to one side shimmering slightly beneath the soft haze of light each of us wears like a glowing badge of honor.  If you can find any honor in dying, that is.  Rumor is he died of a rogue bullet in the 1940s.  Or maybe it was the 1840s.  No one knows for sure.  He’s the sort of man who is just as likely to have been a priest in his former life as a hired assassin.
As usual, he’s dressed head to toe in black.  Slimming, yes, but also providing him with the unfortunate side-effect of appearing like an Irish country-western singer.  Ladies and gentlemen, put your hands together for Johnny O’Cash!
“Foster,” he greets me with a glare, as if reading my thoughts.  In his right breast pocket is a single white flower, clean and pure.  Beautiful, though unnerving and a bit effeminate for someone so rough around the edges.
His scowl is to be expected.  “Hey, Cap,” I say, trying to crack a smile.  “You wanted to see me?”
“Sit,” he gestures to a chair positioned on the opposite side of his desk.  “No doubt Abby has already told you why you’re here.”
I offer him a flippant wave of my hand.  “Are you kidding?  No way.  Abby would never…”
I stop when I see the look on his face.
“She may have said something, yes,” I finish quickly, looking away.
“You’re probably wondering,” he goes on without missing a beat, “after years of consecutive failure…”
“Thanks for the reminder.”
“…why I’ve decided to give you another assignment.”
“Can’t say it hasn’t crossed my mind,” I allow.  What I’m really wondering is if it’s possible for a complete non-entity to suffer a head injury, because the Captain is showing definite signs.
He reclines in his chair, settling into the posture of a man who knows he’s in a position of power.  “I have my reasons,” he states calmly, staring me down from over the top of a pair of square, wire-rimmed glasses.
I shift awkwardly in my seat as the seconds tick by and the silence drags on.  “You aren’t going to say I know something you don’t know, are you?” I say finally.  “Because as a teenage girl, I may have an issue with that.”
“Cut the crap, Foster,” he snaps, reverting back to the Cap I know, love and fear.  “I’m giving you this assignment because I can.  End of story.  Do you want it or not?”
“Of course I want it!  I’ve been cooped up without work for months.  I’m going crazy here.”
“I’ve had to pull quite a few strings to get you back on the job,” he goes on grandly, almost as if he expects me to kiss his ring in gratitude.  “Need I remind you what happened to your previous assignments?”
“I’d really rather you didn’t.”
“First up, Thomas Reynolds.  Recent graduate from Yale Law, 4.1 GPA, top of his class.  An up and comer with nothing but a bright future ahead of him.  And what happens?”  He pauses, waiting for me to fill in the blank.
I bite the inside of my cheek and answer.  “He’s electrocuted.”
“He’s electrocuted!” Cap shouts.  “By the faulty switch on a toaster oven no less.  An easy save, and yet…”  He allows the obvious to go unsaid.  “Then there was Sylvia Meyers.  Recently remarried.  Found the love of her life for the second time at age 46, and just when she thinks she’s going to spend the rest of her days in wedded bliss….BAM!  Head on collision.  Quite nasty.”  He bows his head for a moment in mock bereavement.  “After her came Ian McDoyle.  Drowned.   Marcus Harper.  Fell out of a twelfth story window.  Ellie Samson.  Walked into oncoming traffic.  Arthur Redding…”
“Yeah, I get it, Cap!” I interrupt.
“I don’t think you do,” he counters quickly.  “I really don’t.  We are here to help those still with purpose to fufill their calling.  It is our job, our duty to keep these people alive.  And you, little girl, have failed spectacularly.  I suppose that’s why it is such a tragedy.”
“What’s a tragedy?”
He laughs bitterly.  “Everything about you is tragic, Foster.”  He composes himself and lets the subject drop.  “I’ve taken time out of my busy schedule to set this up.  It wasn’t easy, let me assure you.  The Elders were not quite so forgiving.  But with a little persuasion they’ve agreed to give you another chance.  A final chance.”
I nod in understanding.  The Elders.  The end all, be all of the afterlife.  Some say they are death itself.  Others refuse to speak of them, fearing their name above all else.  Nobody has ever seen them, at least not that I know of.  No one knows where they are, who they are, what they are.  “Better to not ask questions,” I’ve been told on one too many occasions.   I try my best to contain a shudder.
“Consider this a probation run,” Cap goes on.  “You do well on this assignment, and things might just turn in your favor.”  I bite my lip to keep from smiling.  “However,” he adds dramatically, “in the unfortunate, and might I add, likely event this turns out comparable to your other catastrophic forays, your future will take a very severe turn for the worse.”
“Worse than already being dead?”
“Being on probation,” he goes on, letting my comment slide, “there are of course certain conditions you must agree to before going back in the field.”  He folds his strong, aged hands together.  “Protocol that will be followed to the letter.”
I nod again.  “Yeah, sure.  Just name it.”
“You will report back to me daily.  I expect full coverage regarding your new assignment.  I want to know his every move.  Where he goes, what he does, who he talks to.”
“He?” I pick up on one key word.  “Is he cute?”
Again, he ignores me.  “While some may find your techniques of protecting a tad unorthodox, I find them dangerous.  Your indolent, devil may care attitude will not work this time, Foster.  Do you know what happens when you ignore the rules?”
“Fun?” I answer with a sly grin.  “Happiness?  Laughter?”  He continues to glare, and I manage to turn my laugh into a hacking cough.  “Come on, Cap.  Lighten up.”
“This is a human life we’re talking about,” he scowls.  “Do not tell me to lighten up.  You cannot succeed at this job simply by winging it.”
“I’m hurt, Cap.”
“This is not a joke.”
"It's like you don't know me at all."
"Foster."
“I'm sorry, but that’s who I am.”
“And that is why every last one of your assignments has ended in failure!”  His face has gone the color of an overripe tomato.  Odd, considering that like the rest of us, he has no blood circulation.  He calms himself by slicking his hair along the sides, and smoothing his copper mustache.
“Which is why,” he jumps back in as soon as he’s composed enough to refrain from launching over the desk and strangling me, “the Elders and I have come to the decision that from now on you will work with a partner.”
A full and abrupt silence fills the room.
“Excuse me?”  My eyebrows rise practically to my hairline.  “I must not have heard you correctly.  I could have sworn you said…partner.”  I sneer even saying the word.
The Captain’s lined face breaks into a genuine smile.  “I did.  Did I not mention that before?”
I fold my arms across my chest and glower.  “You seemed to have skipped over that tiny jewel of information.”  I set my jaw in an attempt to look fierce, a kitten trying to pass as a lion.  “Sorry to burst you bubble, Cap, but I can’t work with a partner.  I won’t.”
“You can and you will,” he states as if the conversation is no more than a giant waste of his time.  “It’s one or the other, Foster.  Work with someone, or don’t work at all.”
“But…I…you…you can’t do this to me!” I stammer.  “You just…can’t!”
“It’s already done.”
I know the subject is no longer open for debate.  I may as well be arguing with his sky-painted wall.  “Well, who is it then?” I pout.  I can’t help it.  My five year old instincts emerge before I can stop them, leaving me dangerously close to puffing out my cheeks and throwing a tantrum on the floor.
The Captain chuckles, no doubt amused by the immense amount of restraint I’m showing.  “They’re bringing in someone from the sacrifice division.  Someone we feel is deserving of a promotion.  Not a terrible idea, if you ask me.”
“Sacrifice?!?” I explode.  “Are you kidding me, Cap?  Those guys are such martyrs!  And why do they get special treatment, huh?  What’s up with that?  Why do they get rewarded just because they died?  Hello?  We’re all dead!”
“Jealousy doesn’t suit you, Foster.”
“If you want my opinion…”
“I don’t.”
“…I can do this job on my own.  I don’t need someone from downstairs watching my every move.”
“Oh, now that hardly seems fair,” he smirks.  “Better downstairs than upstairs,” he points a malicious finger to the ceiling and I know he’s speaking of the Elders.  “Am I right?  Or should I ask them to look in on you personally?”
My mouth gapes open.  “No…  I didn’t mean….  I’m sorry…”
“Easy, Foster,” he croons.  “Everything will be alright so long as you keep your head down and play nice with your new teammate.”  He smiles.  “Or should I say, schoolmate?”
“Schoolmate?  What are you talking about, Cap?”
“You did attend West Rosemont High four years ago, did you not?”
I nod.
“As did he.  Small afterlife, isn’t it?”  He flips through several pages, bending them back over the clipboard.  “Ah, yes.  Here we have it.  Mr. Tucker Reid.”
The name doesn’t ring a bell.  “I don’t know who that is,” I mumble through stunned lips.
“Then it sounds like you two will have plenty to catch up on now, doesn’t it?”  The Captain pushes a small, black button on his boxed intercom system.  “Abby, please send Mr. Reid to my office right away.”
Mr. Reid?  I’ve been here four years and he’s never once called me anything other than “Foster”.
Steady footsteps resound from the hallway a moment later, coming to a sudden halt just outside the room.  The Captain straightens his collar and turns expectantly to the door.
“Foster,” he says, proving my point.  “Meet your new partner.”




About Rebecca Harris:


Rebecca Harris discovered her passion for books at an early age. Presently, she works as a bookseller where she spends far too much time dreaming up new stories from behind the cash register. When she's not writing she enjoys reading classic literature, listening to the blues, and solving crossword puzzles. She currently resides in Tennessee where she lives with two very spoiled cats.


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4 comments:

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