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Last Chance for Love

By:Emma Shortt

Last Chance for Love - Emma Shortt

Chapter One

The sight of the stapler ricocheting off the wall greeted Ripley as she opened the door to her office. “You’re angry with the stapler because?”

Her colleague and friend, Lucia, snarled. “These targets are bullshit. How many have you been asked to collect? Because I tell you now, there’s no way in hell I’m gonna be able to hit my quota.”

It didn’t take a genius to work out what Lucia was whining about, and Ripley sighed. “You got your numbers for Christmas?”

Lucia nodded and held up a crimson envelope decorated with several sprigs of holly. “Hot off the press, and did you see what they’ve decorated the God damn envelope with?” She stabbed a finger at the offending leaves. “I mean geez, the reindeers last year were bad enough, but this? It’s all over the actual list as well. Garlands of the shit.”

Another sigh joined the first, and Ripley ran a hand over her tired eyes. “They’re trying to get us in the holiday mood. It is the boss’s son’s birthday after all.”

Lucia snorted. “It’s one of his birthdays, not really even his real one.”

“Whatever, wait till they start sending those iced cookies round. I didn’t hear you moaning about them last year.”

Lucia shifted in her chair and eyed her friend. “What about you?” she asked, ignoring the cookie reference, because they both knew it was so true. “What the hell have they hit you with?”

Ripley cast an eye over her desk, searching for a splodge of crimson. “I don’t know. I don’t think I’ve had my targets yet, at least I haven’t seen the envelope.” One handed she lifted a pile of papers and moved her keyboard but saw nothing beyond the usual whites and grays. “Nada. And less of the hell references please, it’s a bit too close for comfort.”

Lucia scowled. “I bet they don’t get worked as hard as this down there. Honestly, Rip, I don’t know how they think we can keep up this sort of pace and stay sane.”

Ripley shrugged. Her friend was right, not that it made any difference, there was nothing they could do about it after all. Targets were targets, and they’d both be reamed out in their yearly appraisal if they didn’t hit the Christmas ones, not to mention the oh-so crippling guilt.

“Depends on your definition of insanity, Luce,” she said after a moment. “Trouble is they’ve no choice but to keep upping the quotas. Death rates are outrageous at the moment despite all the advances in health care, too many natural disasters. Plus our recruitment problem isn’t helping any.”

“Any wonder?” Lucia asked. “This is hardly the most glamorous job going is it?” She tapped a finger against her chin and leaned across the desk. “Let me think. Outrageous hours, awful pay, crappy uniform. Need I go on?”

Ripley’s gaze travelled down the black robe covering her entire body and nodded. “Yeah the uniform sucks no doubt about it.”

“And now with these Christmas targets.” Lucia’s scowl deepened. “It’s going to be a nightmare.”

“It was a nightmare last year,” Ripley reminded her. “When we had to collect seventy-five each. You remember that? We did it though didn’t we? The competitors got nothing.”

Lucia leaned back against her chair and crossed her arms, the movement accentuating her startling large breasts. Once again, Ripley wondered how Lucia’s assignments took her seriously when she could poke the eye out of dinosaur with her cleavage. Okay yes, she supposed they couldn’t actually see the boob action, but even underneath the somber black robes the outline was pretty obvious.

“Last year’s got nothing on this year,” Lucia insisted.

Ripley sighed. “Okay, fine, I’ll bite. What did you get?”

“One hundred.”

Ripley gaped at her friend, suddenly understanding what all the bitching was about. “In a day? You’re not serious?”

“Yeah, they’re pretty much turning it into a production line, aren’t they?” Lucia shook her head. “I worked it out earlier—borrowed your calculator by the way—one hundred in a day, not even including any breaks, means I’ll get about fifteen minutes with each person. Fifteen minutes!”

Ripley propped her scythe up against her desk and took a deep breath, the number swirling round her brain. “Fifteen minutes? I guess I should be grateful the calculator didn’t go the same way as the stapler.”

“Well bear in mind my math is shit, but I think about fifteen minutes yeah.”

Ripley frowned. “Well I guess I can see why you’re worried.”

“Is that all you can say?” Lucia demanded. “Aren’t you pissed about this?”

Ripley shot her friend a long overdue glare. Of course she was pissed, as Lucia well knew. Everything about this damn job pissed her off. She hated the hours, hated the uniform, and above all, hated the responsibility. Nothing quite said job satisfaction like collecting a crying child’s soul from the still living arms of her parents. Shrugging off her robe, Ripley tried to banish the image of the golden haired six-year-old of earlier. Nasty though it had been, the simple fact was if she hadn’t done it that child would be burning in the flames right about now, ergo the responsibility and crippling guilt part.

“Totally pissed,” Ripley replied as she secured her robe-flattened hair. “I mean really where’s the flexi-time benefits I heard mentioned on recruitment day? Not to mention the generous annual leave?”

Lucia stuck her tongue out though Ripley wasn’t fooled. She could see a hint of a smile on her friends face. Sometimes, well most times really, levity was the only way to deal with their situation, though when the time came, that levity disappeared. She and Lucia might joke in the office but out in the real world the souls of the dead counted on them for their ticket above. Neither woman had failed yet.

Still, one hundred in one day….

“Seriously, Luce,” Ripley began, trying to get her mind around the logistics of such a number. “You know how it goes. Either we collect the souls or they end up down below.”

Lucia frowned at the reminder, her brief smile disappearing. “Yes but we can’t collect them all, Rip. It’s impossible. I mean come on. One hundred in a day? Do you think you can do that?”

Ripley hung her robe up on the door hook, her mind playing over the other souls she’d so recently collected. One had taken her almost a full hour to shivvy into action. She hadn’t wanted to leave her baby son.

“We’ve got no choice have we?” she said. Even though deep down she knew fifteen minutes per person was asking for trouble. It took time to rip a soul from a body and carry it above, and often, said soul did not want to go. Realistically, factoring that all in, they’d be lucky to get eighty. Ripley shuddered at the fate of the other twenty. “Even if they ask us to collect a thousand like it or not we’ve got to try.”

“Yes but—”

“On Christmas of all days, we have to give it everything,” Ripley interrupted. “You know it’s the only day of the year our competitors actually go looking rather than waiting. If we don’t put the effort in, our souls could end up in the flames.”

“I know this damn it, but it doesn’t change facts,” Lucia said. “We need more staff.”

Ripley plopped herself behind her own desk and nodded. “That we do. I wonder how the recruitment department is getting on?”

“Shit, probably,” Lucia replied. “I wasn’t joking earlier. I can’t see anyone willingly taking this job on. How many new recruits have come on board in the last three years? Ten? Twenty maybe? Out of how many tens of thousands of dead people?

Ripley frowned wanting to deny the numbers but well aware they were about right. “Yeah, the odds don’t go in our favor that’s for sure.”

“Because no sane person would take this job on. Fucking hell, we wouldn’t have ourselves if we’d been given the full five-oh.”

Ripley couldn’t deny that either. She and Lucia had been recruited by the former boss of the Reaping team. He’d since been fired for dodgy recruitment practices, as the two of them knew only too well. Trouble was once you signed up for Reaping, you were pretty much stuck. The minimum term was a century. Both Ripley and Lucia were only five years in.

“Maybe we’ll get a bunch of volunteers from the Christmas collections?” she suggested.

Lucia snorted again. “Um, yeah. And maybe the bosses’ll go for my shorter robes idea, not.”

A knock on the door interrupted what would have surely been another tirade from Lucia on the uniform policy. She didn’t work the whole black-robe-here-comes-Death-thing very well, and was very vocal about that fact.

Moments later they sat perched on Lucia’s desk, a crimson envelope decorated with jingle bells in Ripley’s hands.

“Well?” Lucia prompted, casting said bells a scathing look. “Open the damn thing already.”

Ripley tore the envelope undone and, as always, looked down her list to the total at the bottom. The number was the most important thing after all.

“Same as you,” she said. “One hundred.”