Death comes for everyone. For Nena, Death comes for her, but doesn't collect. She's instead picked up by a mysterious group led by a man named Scratch, and they won't let her go now that she's Death Touched.
As Nena tries to understand what that means she learns that a threat has arisen that promises to upset the delicate balance between the living and the undead. The threat proves especially dangerous to her when she becomes the target of one of the Corrupted, a creature of Death who's sole purpose is to destroy living and undead alike.
Her only solace amid the dark is the hope that she can somehow escape the Agency and her own changes before she finds herself too deep in the supernatural world.
She didn’t understand life until she died.
It was that night when everything changed. That fateful evening when Nena Tacita found herself at her friend’s crowded apartment. The occupants of his hovel weren’t other people, they were computer parts. Large and small, broken or awaiting a chance at a new life in another tower. He already had six of them set in an old server box in his bedroom.
Nena sat on the short bed with its wrinkled sheets and dirty clothes. She was a young woman of twenty-five with a heart-shaped face ringed by long brown hair that flowed over her shoulders. Her jean-clad legs were crossed and a large t-shirt covered her well-rounded bosom. In her lap was her large purse, and on her lips was a frown.
“There’s got to be something else you want to do besides type on that thing,” she scolded the pale figure who sat before three computer screens on the wall opposite where she sat.
He was a young man of twenty with a round face and short black hair. Thick, black-framed glasses covered his unblinking eyes as they switched between two of the screens. His fingers moved faster than his eyes as he typed away and occasionally clicked on the nearby black mouse. “Nope.”
Nena groaned and fell back onto the sheets. She checked her watch. “Come on, Matt, it’s almost seven. How about we go get something to eat and see a movie?”
“Can’t. Too busy saving the world.”
She rolled her eyes. “Seriously? Out of all the excuses you could give me you choose that one?”
Matt paused and spun around in his chair to face her. He pushed the bridge of his glasses up against his nose and pursed his lips. “I am being serious. What I’m working on is going to save the world. And with this-” He leaned back and tapped a square pin that was attached to his shirt with a picture of thick, black-rimmed glasses on the front, “-I know we can do it. My lucky pin hasn’t failed me yet.”
Nena sighed and sat up so she could swing her legs over the side of the bed. “Yeah, but who’s going to save you and your lucky pin? I told you I was going to come here tonight to drag you out of your cave, and now you’re giving me excuses about saving the universe.”
“The world, but it might branch out into that, too,” he corrected her.
Nena pursed her lips as she stood and shouldered her bag. “You know I only get these nights off once every few weeks from the hospital, and you’re still going to stiff me a hamburger and a movie.”
He pushed his lips out in a pout. “You don’t believe me, do you?”
She grasped the strap of her bag and sighed. “It’s not that I don’t believe you, Matt, it’s just a little hard to believe.”
“That’s the same thing.”
She frowned and marched up to his side. “Fine, show me.”
Matt grinned and spun around to face the screens. A couple of taps and a dozen windows opened on two of the screens. He tapped the left-hand screen with its black box of primitive commands. “I spent half the day trying to decipher this code. It’s something to do with a Project Endzeit. That means ‘end time’ in German. Corny name, huh? A few more days and I think I’ll have it.”
She pursed her lips and her eyes flickered down to him. “Is this paying your rent?”
He grinned up at her. “And then some. Whoever this guy is he’s loaded.”
Her eyebrows crashed down. “Did you take another job from one of those creepy message boards?”
He frowned. “It’s an online job site for professional hackers, but yeah. So what?”
“So the last time you did that the guy turned out to be stalking his ex-girlfriend, and you were helping him hack into the security cameras around her apartment,” she reminded him.
He winced. “That was just an oversight. This new guy came recommended by the Merry Men.”
Nena pursed her lips. “That group of hackers? They’d steal a penny from their grandmother and hand it to a stripper and call it a good deed.”
Matt’s face fell. “I’m a hacker, too, ya know.”
She sighed and set her hand on his shoulder. “Listen, Matt, I know this is exciting for you and all, but don’t you think you’re being a little too cocky? I mean, you’re going to get caught some day and I don’t want to see my oldest friend go to jail for the rest of his life.”
He looked up and flashed her a grin. “Maybe, but at least I’ll have you to see me on visitor’s day.”
She snorted. “I’m not bringing you any escape tools in a cake.” Her eyes flickered to the unused screen. It showed a black screen saver. “What’s going on there?”
Matt blushed and cleared his throat. “Nothing-” Nena reached over and grabbed the mouse. He tried to wrestle it from her. “No! Don’t!”
She flung the clicker over to the far screen and awakened it. On the screen was a browser window with a picture of a mostly naked woman in a compromising pose. The name of the site was Wanton Women. There were two dozen tabs at the top with equally salacious titles.
Nena looked down at her blushing friend and gestured to the window. “That’s why you need to get out more.”
“I-it’s for research purposes,” he argued as he snatched the mouse from her and minimized the browser window.
She stood straight and snorted. “Uh-huh. And I’m the Queen of Sheba.”
He spun around to face her and held out his hand. “Nice to meet you, Queenie.”
She swatted his hand away and half-turned toward the door to the bedroom. “If you’re not going to go out with me tonight than I’m just going to go home. Sleep is better than sticking around here listening to you tap away at that thing.”
“Wait.” He grabbed her arm and looked up into her eyes. “How about tomorrow night? My treat?”
She pursed her lips. “You promise?”
He crossed his finger over his heart. “Cross my heart and hope to die.” Nena’s expression faltered a little and she turned her face away. Matt winced. “Sorry. I forgot your mom taught me that one.”
She shook herself and gave him a hollow smile. “No, it’s fine. I mean, it’s been two years now. You’d think I’d get over it.”
Matt squeezed her arm a little. “But seriously, anywhere you want to eat, and then any movie you want to watch.”
Her eyebrows raised and her lips curled up into a sly smile. “Any movie?”
He cringed. “Within reason. To protect my sanity.”
“You mean insanity, but I’ll think of something we both want to watch,” she assured him as she gave him a wave and left the room.
Matt’s living room was so small that Nena only needed to take a couple of steps before she was at the front door and out into the dingy hallway. Wallpaper peeled in large strips and settled onto the stained and browned carpet on the floor. Doors with patches, and some bearing their holes, lined both sides of the narrow hall. A few flickering bulbs lit the passage as Nena made her way to the rickety staircase and down the creaking steps to the lobby. Once beautifully tiled, there were now large patches of only dark plaster.
Nena stepped outside and was greeted by a chilling breeze. She shivered and wrapped her coat closer around herself. The streets were deserted as she walked down the stoop and onto the cracked sidewalk. A few ancient cars of dubious paint jobs sat along the curb as her shoes clacked with each lonely step.
Nena’s eyes flickered to all the dark spots along the street. There were many thanks to the broken streetlights and dark, abandoned apartment buildings.
“Couldn’t you have picked a better place to live, Matt?” she mumbled to herself as she tightened her grip on her bag strap. She tensed as a newspaper shifted in a nearby alley. “Like maybe a prison?”
Nena jumped as the funeral march began to play. The sound came from her bag. She rolled her eyes as she stopped and rummaged in her bag. “Great timing, Dad. . .” She found the cell phone and pressed it against her cheek. “Dad, I’m kind of busy.”
“I just wanted to ask you out on a date this weekend, Cauliflower,” came the teasing voice on the other end.
Nena rolled her eyes. “Not that name, Dad, and I’ve got to work all weekend.”
“What about next week?”
“Probably that, too.”
“How about next year?”
She snorted. “Do you ever give up?”
“Nope, so what about a lunch date? My treat.”
Nena sighed. “You know you don’t have to do that. Feed me, I mean. I’m not getting along that badly that I’m starving to death.”
Her father chuckled. “He’d have his hands full with you, but I’m not trying to feed you all the time. I just want to see how you’re doing.”
“It’s called email, Dad. You have my-”
Nena spun around. Her loose grip on her phone meant the machine went flying. It crashed onto the pavement and the glass front shattered into a million pieces. The screen went black.
A pair of black boots stepped up to the broken phone. They belonged to one of two young men in their early twenties. One was dark-skinned and dressed in over-sized pants and a loose coat. The other was lighter and wore a bandanna around his head.
It was the darker baggy pants who spoke to her. He had a crooked grin on his lips as he picked up the broken phone and turned it over in his hands. “Damn. That was a nice phone, too.” He glanced at his friend. “How much do you think we could’ve got for it?”
He shrugged. “I dunno. Fifty bucks.”
“Fifty bucks. That’s a lot of dough.” He returned his attention to Nena and held up the phone. “So who’s gonna pay for this, huh?”
Nena frowned and took a step back. “That was my phone.”
The man laughed. “It wasn’t gonna be for much longer, and that’s why you gotta pay for it.” He tossed the phone away and held out his hand to her. “That means hand over the bag.”
Nena wrapped her hands around the strap of her bag. Her heart thumped in her chest as her eyes flickered over the area. The mouth of an alley lay on her left. Lit streetlights lay at the far end of the shadowed route with another alley crossing over hers halfway in-between.
The thug noticed where her gaze lay and frowned. “You’re staying fucking here-” Nena turned to her left and shot off down the alley.
The pounding of her heart matched her feet as she sprinted through the puddle-riddled alley. She heard shouting behind her, but didn’t look back.
Nena heard a gunshot and felt something hot rip through her chest. Her feet stumbled and she fell to the cold ground, landing on her back. Out of the corner of her eyes she glimpsed a red pool of liquid slip out from beneath her.
Her eyes widened. Is that. . .my blood?