Excerpt from Secondhand Souls

Secondhand Souls


(Selected from the Great Big Book of Death: First Edition)

1. Congratulations, you have been chosen to act as Death, it’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it. It is your duty to retrieve soul vessels from the dead and dying and see them on to their next body. If you fail, Darkness will cover the world and Chaos will reign.

2. Some time ago, the Luminatus, or the Great Death, who kept balance between light and darkness, ceased to be. Since then, Forces of Darkness have been trying to rise from below. You are all that stands between them and destruction of the collective soul of humanity. Try not to screw up.

3. In order to hold off the Forces of Darkness, you will need a number two pencil and a calendar, preferably one without pictures of kitties on it. Keep it near you when you sleep.

4. Names and numbers will come to you. The number is how many days you have to retrieve the soul vessel. Do not be late. You will know the vessels by their crimson glow.

5. Don’t tell anyone what you do, or the Forces of Darkness etc. etc. etc.

6. ­People may not see you when you are performing your Death duties, so be careful crossing the street. You are not immortal.

7. Do not seek others of your kind. Do not waver in your duties or the Forces of Darkness will destroy you and all that you care about.

8. You do not cause death, you do not prevent death, you are a servant of Destiny, not its agent. Get over yourself.

9. Do not, under any circumstances, let a soul vessel fall into the hands of those from below—­because that would be bad.

Part One

Do not be afraid
Everyone before you has died
You cannot stay
Any more than a baby can stay forever in the womb
Leave behind all you know
All you love
Leave behind pain and suffering
This is what Death is.

—­The Book of Living and Dying
(The Tibetan Book of the Dead)

Day of the Dead

It was a cool, quiet November day in San Francisco and Alphonse Rivera, a lean, dark man of fifty, sat behind the counter of his bookstore flipping through the Great Big Book of Death. The old-­fashioned bell over the door rang and Rivera looked up as the Emperor of San Francisco, a great woolly storm cloud of a fellow, tumbled into the store followed by his faithful dogs, Bummer and Lazarus, who ruffed and frisked with urgent intensity, then darted around the store like canine Secret Service agents, clearing the site in case a sly assassin or meaty pizza lurked among the stacks.

“The names must be recorded, Inspector,” the Emperor proclaimed, “lest they be forgotten!”

Rivera was not alarmed, but by habit his hand fell to his hip, where his gun used to ride. Twenty-­five years a cop, the habit was part of him, but now the gun was locked in a safe in the back room. He kept an electric stun gun under the counter that in the year since he opened the store had been moved only for dusting.

“Whose names?”

“Why the names of the dead, of course,” said the Emperor. “I need a ledger.”

Rivera stood up from his stool and set his reading glasses on the counter by his book. In an instant, Bummer, the Boston terrier, and Lazarus, the golden retriever, were behind the counter with him, the former standing up on his hind legs, hopeful bug eyes raised in tribute to the treat gods, a pantheon to which he was willing to promote Rivera, for a price.

“I don’t have anything for you,” said Rivera, feeling as if he should have somehow known to have treats handy. “You guys aren’t even sup- posed to be in here. No dogs allowed.” He pointed to the sign on the door, which not only was facing the street, but was in a language Bummer did not read, which was all of them.

Lazarus, who was seated behind his companion, panting peacefully, looked away so as not to compound Rivera’s embarrassment.

“Shut up,” Rivera said to the retriever. “I know he can’t read. He can take my word for it that’s what the sign says.”

“Inspector?” The Emperor smoothed his beard and shot the lapels of his dingy tweed overcoat, composing himself to offer assistance to a citizen in need. “You know, also, that Lazarus can’t talk.”

“So far,” said Rivera. “But he looks like he has something to say.” The ex-­cop sighed, reached down, and scratched Bummer between the ears.

Bummer allowed it, dropped to all fours, and chuffed. You could have been great, he thought, a hero, but now I will have to sniff a mile of heady poo to wash the scent of your failure out of my nose—­oh, that feels nice. Oh, very nice. You are my new best friend.


“I’m not an inspector anymore, Your Grace.”

“Yet ‘inspector’ is a title you’ve earned by good ser­vice, and it is yours forevermore.”

“Forevermore,” Rivera repeated with a smile. The Emperor’s grandiose manner of speaking had always amused him, reminded him of some more noble, genteel time which he’d never really experienced. “I don’t mind the title following me, so much, but I had hoped I’d be able to leave all the strange happenings behind with the job.”

“Strange happenings?”

“You know. You were there. The creatures under the streets, the Death Merchants, the hellhounds, Charlie Asher—­you don’t even know what day it is and you know—­”

“It’s Tuesday,” said the Emperor. “A good man, Charlie Asher—­a brave man. Gave his life for the ­people of our city. He will long be missed. But I am afraid the strange happenings continue.”

“No, they don’t,” said Rivera, with more authority than he felt. Move along. Moving along. That it was Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, had put him on edge already, sent him to the drawer to retrieve the Great Big Book of Death, but he would not give weight to more reminders. Acknowledge a nightmare and you give it power, someone had told him. Maybe the spooky Goth girl who used to work for Charlie Asher. “You said you needed a ledger?”

“To record the names of the dead. They came to me last night, hundreds of them, telling me to write down their names so they are not forgotten.”

“In a dream?” Rivera did not want to hear this. Not at all. It had been a year since all that had happened, since the Big Book had arrived, calling him to action, and he’d walked away. So far, so good.

“We slumbered by the restrooms at the St. Francis Yacht Club last night,” said the Emperor. “The dead came across the water, floating, like the fog. They were quite insistent.”

“They can be that way, can’t they?” said Rivera. The Emperor was a crazy old man, a sweet, generous, and sincere lunatic. Unfortunately, in the past, many of the his insane ravings had turned out to be true, and therein lay the dread that Rivera felt rising in his chest.

“The dead speak to you as well, then, Inspector?”

“I worked homicide for fifteen years, you learn to listen.”

The Emperor nodded and gave Rivera’s shoulder a fatherly squeeze. “We protect the living, but evidently we are also called to serve the dead.”

“I don’t have any ledgers, but I carry some nice blank books.”

Rivera led the Emperor to a shelf where he stocked cloth and leather-bound journals of various sizes. “How many of the dead will we be recording?” Something about dealing with the Emperor put you in a position of saying things that sounded less than sane.

“All of them,” said the Emperor.

“Of course, then you’ll need a substantial volume.” Rivera handed him a sturdy leather journal with letter-­sized pages.

The Emperor took the book, flipped through it, ran his hand over the cover. He looked from the book to Rivera and tears welled in his eyes. “This will be perfect.”

“You’ll need a pen,” said Rivera.

“Pencil,” said the Emperor. “A number two pencil. They were quite specific.”

“The dead?” said Rivera.

Bummer ruffed, the subtext of which was: “Of course, the dead, you tree-­bound squirrel. Haven’t you been paying attention?” Rivera had still failed to produce any treats and had ceased scratching Bummer behind the ears, so fuck him.

Lazarus whined apologetically, the subtext of which was: “Sorry, he’s been an insufferable dickweed since he was given the powers of a hellhound, but the old man likes him, so what are you going to do? Still, it wouldn’t kill you to keep some treats behind the counter for your friends.”

“Yes, the dead,” said the Emperor.

Rivera nodded. “I don’t stock pencils in the store, but I think I can help you out.” He moved back behind the counter and opened a d ­ rawer. When the Great Big Book of Death had shown up in his mailbox, he’d bought the calendar and the pencils as it had instructed. He still had five of the pencils he’d purchased. He handed one to the Emperor, who took it, inspected the point, then dropped it into the inside pocket of his enormous overcoat, where Rivera was fairly sure he would never find it again.

“What do I owe you for the book?” asked the Emperor. He dug several crumpled bills from his coat pocket, but Rivera waved them off.

“It’s on me. In ser­vice of the city.”

“In ser­vice of the city,” repeated the Emperor, then to the troops, “Gentlemen, we are off to the library to begin our list.”

“How will you get the names?” asked Rivera.

“Well, obituaries, of course. And then perhaps a stop at the police station for a look at the missing persons reports. Someone there will help me, won’t they?”

“I’m sure they will. I’ll call ahead to the Central Station on Vallejo. But I can’t help but think you’ve got a big task ahead of you. You said you need to record all of the dead. The city has been here, what, a hundred and sixty years? That’s a lot of dead ­people.”

“I misspoke, Inspector. All of the dead, but with some urgency about those who passed in the last year.”

“The last year? Why?”

The Emperor shrugged. “Because they asked me to.”

“I mean why the emphasis on the last year?”

“So they won’t be forgotten.” The Emperor scratched his great, grizzly beard as he tried to remember. “Although they said lost, not forgotten. So they won’t be lost to the darkness.”

Rivera felt his mouth go dry and his face drain of blood. He opened the door for the Emperor, and the ringing bell jostled his power of speech. “Good luck, then, Your Majesty. I’ll call the desk at Central Station. They’ll expect you.”

“Many thanks.” The Emperor tucked the leather book under his arm and saluted. “Onward, men!” He led the dogs out of the shop, Bummer kicking up his back feet against the carpet as if to shed himself of the dirty business that was Alphonse Rivera.

Rivera returned to his spot behind the counter and stared at the cover of the Great Big Book of Death. A stylized skeleton grinned gleefully back at him, the bodies of five people impaled on his bony fingers and rendered in cheerful Day of the Dead colors.

Lost to the darkness? Only the last year?

Rivera had bought the pencils and the calendar as the Big Book had instructed, but then he’d done absolutely nothing else with them except put them in the drawer by the cash register. And nothing bad had happened. Nothing. He’d peacefully taken an early retirement from the force, opened the bookstore, and set about reading books, drinking coffee, and watching the Giants on the little television in the shop. Nothing bad had happened at all.

Then he noticed, just below the title on the Big Book were the words “revised edition.” Words that had not been there, he was sure, before the Emperor had come into the shop.

He pulled open the drawer, swept the pencils and office supply detritus aside, and pulled out the calendar he’d bought. Right there, in the first week of January, was a name and number, written in his handwriting. Then another, every few days to a week, until the end of the month, all in his handwriting, none of which he remembered writing.

He flipped through the pages. The entire calendar was filled. But nothing had happened. None of the ominous warnings in the Big Book had come to pass. He tossed the calendar back into the drawer and opened the Great Big Book of Death to the first page, a first page that had changed since he’d first read it.

It read: “So, you fucked up—­”

AHHHHHHHIEEEEEEEEEE!” A piercing shriek from right behind him. Rivera leapt two feet into the air and bounced off the cash register as he turned to face the source of the scream, landing with his hand on his hip, his eyes wide, and his breath short.

Santa Maria!

A woman, wraith thin, pale as blue milk, trailing black rags like tattered shrouds, stood there—­right there—­not six inches away from him. She smelled of moss, earth, and smoke.

“How did you get—­”

AHHHHHHHHIEEEEEEEEE!” Right in his face this time. He scrambled backward against the counter, leaning away from her in spine-­cracking dread.

“Stop that!”

The wraith took a step back and grinned, revealing blue-­black gums. “It’s what I do, love. Harbinger of doom, ain’t I?”

She took a deep breath as if to let loose with another scream and there was an electric sizzle as the stun gun’s electrodes found purchase through her tatters. She dropped to the floor like a pile of damp rags.