Silence, terrifying in its abruptness, replaced the rush of water and the muffled sound of fists pounding against splintering wood and screams filtered through a cloth gag.
The absence of sound coiled around her and she opened her eyes to darkness. Her hands were unbound, her face ungagged and her hair fell in soft black waves over her shoulders and down her back.
He’d loved her hair. Spent hours running his fingers through it.
She closed her eyes against the memories. They were too close. If she thought about them, she might be sick.
“Welcome,” said a voice, deep and full of understanding warmth.
She opened her eyes again. A black man seated at a small table smiled at her. Neither man nor table had been there a moment ago.
“I’m dead,” she said. It wasn’t a question. She could still feel the water rushing into her lungs, the wood of the makeshift casket they’d dumped her in splintering under her fingernails.
She looked at those nails now. Perfectly manicured.
“You are,” agreed the man. When she looked up again, the table held a chess set and a second chair. A clear invitation, and one that she accepted.
“What is this, orientation?” she asked, moving a pawn.
“Not going to ask where your soul is headed?” The man moved his own pawn in response. A rookie move, and so obviously done that it must be a trap. She moved another piece.
“I try not to ask questions I already know the answers to,” she said.
His move, then hers, then his again, before he answered. “No, this is not orientation. I need a favor.”
She froze, one hand over the board. “Why would I want to do Death a favor?”
The man smiled, his perfect white teeth flashing against his dark skin. “Because there are a hundred souls in Hell who want to play with you and only one in Heaven who pleaded your case.”
Mark. The name fell onto her tongue and she swallowed it back. The name of someone who brushed her hair, who believed she had a soul worth saving. She moved a knight.
“It is I who will decide if Mary Ann Cantry goes to heaven, or if Agent Loosestrife goes to Hell. That,” the man said, calmly making his own move and taking her knight, “is why you would want to do me a favor.”
She slid a rook in beside his bishop, stifling the curl of hope that kindled in her heart. “What’s the favor?”
“The man who ordered you and your beloved killed was your old handler. You knew him as Kudzu, but his real name is Ralph Anders. He stole something from me.”
Death moved his queen, smiling as he slid it next to her king. “I want you to get it back for me.”