by E. J. Noyes
Morgan Ashworth isn’t having a good day. The award for Minion of the Year is slipping out of reach, and she has to administer an afterlife package to one of her human employees. An employee she’s attracted to. An employee who’ll soon know Morgan isn’t quite what she seems.
Jane Smith was having a great day. Until her hot boss dropped a bombshell. It’s time for Jane to complete the questionnaire to decide where she’ll spend her afterlife. Oh, and her boss is immortal and also Death’s Head Minion. Yes, Death, as in the Grim Reaper.
Jane decides to bargain—if Morgan needs her to sign the afterlife document, she can use her unlimited resources to help Jane with her bucket list. Seems straightforward. Except for the matter of their mutual attraction, and the fact one of the items on Jane’s list is “Sleep with my boss.”
The more time Morgan and Jane spend together, the more they realize mutual attraction barely scratches the surface. But can Jane heal the broken heart Morgan has nursed for centuries? And will Morgan risk loving, then losing, another mortal woman when she knows it means an eternity of heartbreak?
GCLS Goldie Awards
Reaping the Benefits—Winner, Contemporary Romance: Long Novels and Finalist, Ann Bannon Popular Choice.
FROM THE AUTHOR
"Writing this book turned into a lesson about me breaking out of a comfort zone. I can say now with all honesty and no self-shame that once I was done being out of the comfort zone, I jumped right back in, rolled myself in a blanket and hunkered down in the soft warmth of my favourite point of view (POV). If anyone reading this knows my previous work, you’d know that they all have one thing in common aside from the whole WLW theme. They’re written in first-person POV. Sweet, sweet first person.
I’ve spoken about my love of first person before so I won’t bore you with another essay about how great it is. But I will bore you with a micro essay about why I decided to go against my natural grain and write Reaping the Benefits in third-person POV.
I spent 80% of the time I should have been writing complaining on Twitter about writing third person until finally some lovely knowledgeable people stepped in, probably because they were sick of me whining, and offered to take a look at my unfinished pile of words. The intervention turned out to be exactly the right kind of kick in the butt I needed to charge through and git it done. So I did. Friends, I wrote a whole book in third person. Medal, please."
—E. J. Noyes
Pin's Reviews - The story is quite eccentric with its paranormal context but in fact is a pure romance at heart with a nice dose of humor. The book is written in third person, from the point of view of both protagonists, which is not common for Noyes, but it is executed perfectly. With all main elements done well, this makes an awesome read which I could easily recommend to all romance fans.
Deb M. - I’ve read many love stories that entertain the idea of soul mates, but this one does something even more interesting. This one explores the depth of love and its ability to transcend death. This story plays with the idea that love has no limits or boundaries. Its exploration provides a unique setting for this heartfelt romantic tale. At its core it remains a romance. The love story between Jane and Morgan is tender and sweet. It’s so cleverly and delightfully done; I’ve never read anything quite like it before. Noyes possesses the ability to see a story where others don’t and turn that into something unique and captivating. She uses rich storytelling and engaging characters to enthrall and delight us.
It’s fresh and original. It’s everything you crave when you want to dig into a great romance. I highly recommended it.
Orlando J. - I'm spectacularly smitten with Death, to be specific with E. J. Noyes' personification of death as Cici La Morte in this new and most wondrous book. Cici is not one of the main characters but she is the fulcrum about which the whole plot rotates. She simultaneously operates as a beautiful symbol of our fascination with the theme of death and loss, and as a comedic but wise Greek chorus guiding Morgan through the internal conflict threatening to tear her very soul apart. All of E. J. Noyes' previous books have had emotionally charged first-person narrative, so I was curious how her switch to writing in the third person would play out here, but it really works. Despite many lighthearted and genuinely funny moments I found that this book not only had E. J. Noyes' signature ability to make me cry, but also fascinating ideas and philosophies about grief, loss, and hope.
Jill H. - The writing style is engaging, the narrative and story line works well, ably assisted with good editing and spot-on proofing. It was also a welcome escape from the grim realities of life! At times as a reader it was difficult to see how this relationship dynamic between Jane and Morgan could be resolved in the short or long term. But the author managed this, providing the reader with a satisfying ending.
Kath D. - Loved this book. Loved the unusual storyline, the way it was written and the main characters. It was fun and put a smile on my face. The writing is superb and the characters extremely likable. I can see this being a series of Jane and Morgan adventures. More of the same please.
Jasmine - This is easily one of the best books I have read this year! E. J. Noyes does not disappoint! This was such a unique story idea and it totally blew me away. The pacing of this book was wonderful, the way Morgan and Jane's relationship grew and blossomed in the mundane work moments, the adventures, and the cozy familiar moments was flawless. The chemistry between Morgan and Jane was intense and their love scenes were steamy and perfect.
Catherine C. - E. J. Noyes never disappoints and this book is another added to one of my favourites. What I love about Noyes is every book is different and unique from the other which is what makes her such a special writer. The way she has me completely entrenched into the story has me wanting to read or listen to her books over and over again, it's addictive. I highly recommend the book.
Jenna F. - E. J. Noyes is an amazing writer. I have read all of her books and no two books have even a remotely similar plot. She constantly pushes herself to be a better writer. This book is no exception. This book was such a fun twist on what everyone normally thinks about life, death, and the afterlife. I loved the dialogue between the characters as well as the plot development. It was a lot of fun to read!
Betty H. - This very unique story line turned into a beautiful story that had me experiencing a multitude of emotions, from humor to heartbreak and everything in between. The paranormal aspect works beautifully in the novel. Ms. Noyes made the supernatural aspect of the story seem like a normal part of life. The characters are well developed. The ideas of life, death, and the afterlife are handled in a manner I would have never thought about, but which works well in the book.
The Lesbian Review
If you’re looking for a lesbian romance, but with a twist of something different, I recommend Reaping the Benefits. It’s sweet, sexy, and fun.
Cathie W. - Wildly unique and completely unexpected, Reaping the Benefits wasn’t a hard sell given the expertise with which the author has been able to entertain me with every book published. The letting go of reality to fall into a paranormal underworld is a most unusual backdrop for a love affair but here we are, and I enjoyed every minute of it. Despite the uniqueness of the scenery and its characters, Morgan and Jane’s developing attraction eventually directs Morgan to contemplate everything. The intensity of her introspections coupled with her musings with Death is as bizarre as it is incredibly interesting. This author never fails to entertain me in the most unusual ways that leaves me ruminating over her words long after The End.
Only an idiot would try to have one hundred and twenty-three afterlife packages checked, approved, encrypted and uploaded by the end of the day. Clearly, Morgan Ashworth thought, I’m an idiot. An idiot who should know better by now. Stuffing potato chips into her mouth in a desperate attempt to quiet her grumbling stomach, Morgan pulled a black tablet from the bottom drawer of her desk.
She swiped across the Theda logo—a tasteful, stylized T that Cici La Morte regularly grumbled about. Apparently the logo looked far too much like the “stupid scythe” of Death folklore. It did look exactly like that, which Morgan had known when she’d designed it over a hundred years prior. Despite the fact she was actually Death, Cici hated her Grim-Reaper image, and the logo was one of the few things Morgan could use to tease her boss.
Slowly scrolling down a list of names, Morgan upended the bag until the remaining chips cascaded into her mouth. She was contemplating opening a second when her phone rang. Cursing the name on the display, she frantically chewed and swallowed, then answered with a faux-cheerful, “Olivier. To what do I owe this pleasure?” As if Olivier doing something wrong or complaining—either of which, or both, would be the only reason for his call—could count as pleasure.
The man who responded did so in a baritone accented with a mongrel mix of pretty much every European language imaginable. “Morgan, this damned program of yours keeps telling me there’s an input error for one of my contracts and will not allow me to submit it to you.”
“Well then, there’s an input error and you can’t submit it to me until you’ve fixed it. Simple.” Contemplation turned to conviction, and she grabbed another bag of chips from the snack stash in her middle desk drawer.
Morgan could visualize him puffing himself up as he rebutted with an indignant, “I don’t see how. The package was administered exactly the same way I’ve been doing it for the past one hundred and sixteen years.”
“Did you run a verification protocol?”
The long, silent pause told her he hadn’t.
Morgan imagined banging her head on her desk would produce less of a headache than the one this conversation was giving her. “Olivier, the afterlife package protocol is very simple. Visit the recipient, explain your purpose, give them the package to complete. Run the verification protocol before you leave to ensure nothing has been missed and then consolidate the data ready to forward to me. The same way you’ve been doing it for, what is it that you just said? One hundred and sixteen years?” Another few chips were sacrificed to try and appease her annoyance.
His refusal to answer told her he’d tried to shortcut the process yet again. His deflection using a pointless question confirmed it. “What are you eating?”
Olivier sniffed. “You Americans are so uncouth.” Disdain dripped from every word.
“Yes, I have heard you say that before. And technically I’m a Briton, as I know you know.” It’s not like the British accent wasn’t obvious. The way she formed words had remained with her despite centuries of inhabiting countless bodies, each one with a different voice.
Another deflection, this one weaker. “Every time I telephone you, you’re eating.”
She usually was eating something, so he wasn’t far off the mark. “That’s because unlike you, I’m required to realm-hop more than a few times a year, and as you know it expends a great deal of energy. In fact, more days than not I have to make multiple trips to Aether.” Morgan crunched another few chips extra loudly. “Because I need to give La Morte updates on her Minions, their completion percentages, their successes and of course, their failures.”
He spluttered and mumbled a few random syllables before he eventually managed to articulate weakly, “Well…some of us travel around multiple countries many times a day.”
Morgan hmmed. “Yes, I’m aware of how much every one of La Morte’s Minions travel, and you clock up no more interstitial transit than anyone else.” She paused, waiting for him to rebut, and when he didn’t she told him something he already knew. “The verification protocol won’t work because too much time has passed between implementing the person’s afterlife package and when you’re trying to verify it. Go back, apologize to them for the inconvenience and have them open their package file as if they wish to make a change. You should then be able to complete the verification protocol and send the package to me as normal.”
“Okay. Yes. I will do that,” he said stiffly.
“Good, thank you. And, Olivier, this is the fifth time you’ve had an issue this quarter. I haven’t spoken to Cici about it yet because it’s been nebulous, but if another mistake like this happens again, I will tell her and I will recommend disciplinary action.”
Olivier sounded like he was being strangled with one of his Italian silk ties. “Yes, okay. Goodbye then.”
Her reply was given in the polite you’re an idiot tone she’d perfected over the centuries. “Excellent, thank you. Goodbye, Olivier.” Morgan was certain she heard him say Bitch in Czech under his breath as the call cut off. Chuckling to herself, she murmured, “That’s Boss Bitch to you.”
She’d finished her second bag of chips and uploaded two afterlife packages—one hundred and twenty-one to go—when a data packet pinged through from the Oceanic region. Morgan’s sigh sounded more like a goat being strangled. Make that…three hundred and sixty-four afterlife packages to check, approve, encrypt and upload.
“Damn you, Bethany…effing…Harris.” Ugh. All month, Morgan had watched the Minion responsible for the Oceanic region climb higher and higher in her turn-in percentages, and in the process inch her way closer and closer to the Minion of the Year Award.
The nerve of Harris! She’d only been doing the job for thirty-six years. She was a newbie, a greenhorn, a pup, a…a…cheater, obviously. Somehow, she’d managed to tweak her completion rates to show the highest of any Minion, when she only had a total population of forty-two-point-three million people under her care. Morgan scribbled a note on her blotter. Audit Harris’s figures?
If high blood pressure was an issue, Morgan would have exploded by now. Not only was she responsible for overseeing all Cici’s Minions, ensuring the validity and integrity of every completed afterlife package worldwide and running the facility that housed the data, but for the past ten months she’d been traveling almost daily to multiple locations within North, South and Central America to issue said afterlife packages. All because the Minion previously in charge of The Americas had declared out of the blue that he was done, burnt out, over it—for real this time—and had asked to be relieved of duties indefinitely.
And according to Cici, explained through pouting lips and accompanied by fluttering eyelashes, Morgan was the obvious choice to cover the region until a replacement could be allocated, because she was the only person Cici fully trusted. And nobody, mortal or immortal, in all the realms could resist Cici La Morte when she turned on that charm. Oh, Morgan had tried. But her weak protests had been smothered by Cici’s trademark flattery, charm and an appeal to her ego. Sneaky.
Morgan crumpled the second empty chip bag into the waste basket. “Oh it’s nothing, Morgana!” she said, adopting a high-pitched voice. “Not even a billion people total. I neeeeed you, my darling. Besides, you’re more than capable of balancing The Americas and your regular duties. You could do it in your sleep. It doesn’t matter if you get a few hundred thousand contracts behind, the next Minion can easily dedicate a year to catching up—isn’t that why you insisted we have such a large buffer between contract administration and death? Think of the end of year award. Kiss kiss, bye now, love you.” Okay, so maybe Cici hadn’t sounded quite like that, but close enough. “Not even a billion people,” Morgan grumbled. Bethany Harris probably didn’t even know what a billion was.
Morgan knew the moment she reached for her teacup that the tea was stone cold. Perfect. One couldn’t function without hot tea. She carried her tablet to the corner of her office that housed a neat alcove with a small bench and sink, kettle, her favorite bone-china cups and teapot along with her precious stash of Assam tea she collected from the London Tea Exchange every time she made a trip home.
Home. Morgan frowned. Could you call a place home if you hadn’t lived there in over three hundred years and if home was the specific place you’d made with the only woman you’d ever truly loved? She’d lived in San Francisco for centuries and it still didn’t feel like home. Perhaps home was merely an abstract concept. “Perhaps,” she mumbled. “You should stop having existential thoughts when you should be concentrating so you can get back to work.” She filled the electric kettle, scooped a careful measure of tea into the teapot, and while water boiled, read through an afterlife package on her tablet.
By the time the kettle had clicked off, Morgan had uploaded one more data packet. Wonderful. At the rate she was going, she might have them all done by close of business. Close of business the day after the day after tomorrow that is. She poured water into her teapot with the same loving care as always, collected a fresh cup and saucer and set everything on her desk. The tea needed to steep, which she knew from experience was just enough time to grab something more filling than chips.
The staff kitchen down the hall was empty save for Jorge, one of Theda’s tech staff, who sat slumped at a modern IKEA-esque table, nursing a steaming cup of coffee. The newborn baby at home probably explained why he looked like he needed a solid thirty-hour block of sleep. As she approached, he straightened, offering a smiling yet exhausted, “Ms. Ashworth.”
“Good morning,” she said warmly, bee-lining for the cookie jar. “Is everything okay? Where’s the rest of the team?” Morgan fished out a handful of choc-chip cookies and dropped them on a plate. She studied the pile, then added a few more.
“Out for an early lunch. Except for Jane.” His thick, dark eyebrows furrowed. “We’ve been having trouble with server bank three. It’s nowhere close to an emergency, but it’s still running a few degrees hotter than we’re comfortable with. She’s down there now, rummaging around and muttering to herself.” His face relaxed into a knowing smile. “We thought it best to give her some space, so…early break.”
“Ah. Of course. Very good idea.” Jane Smith, Morgan’s Head of Data Integrity, was a tyrant when it came to her servers and her data. She was also an incredible team leader, well liked and respected by the other staff who also knew exactly when to leave her to work her magic. As did Morgan. “Well, good luck. Perhaps you should take her some chocolate or something as an offering?”
“I might try that if she bites my head off again for not handing her the flashlight fast enough,” he deadpanned.
“It’s more serious than I thought, better make it chocolate and a coffee then…” Morgan popped a cookie into her mouth, and smiling around the mouthful, made her exit. But not before she’d nabbed one of the two dozen cupcakes an employee had brought in and left for everyone to share. Morgan had already eaten three.
She’d approved and archived another seventeen afterlife packages and almost finished her tea when movement outside the glass that made up two of the four walls of Morgan’s office drew her attention away from her screen. The glass was both blessing and curse. Cici had insisted upon it, stating emphatically that a boss being visually available was a steady comforting presence for employees. Given the number of Minions Cici had had over the centuries, Morgan supposed she knew what she was talking about. But seeing her reflection when she looked up sent a slow roll of unease through her and she avoided the glass as much as she could.
Jane walked past with her head down, focused intensely on her tablet, mumbling to herself. Tucked tightly under her arms were assorted cables, hard drives and a motherboard in a plastic sleeve. Jane paused to tap frantically on the tablet screen, and from within the confines of her office Morgan watched a cable work its way loose from under Jane’s right elbow. It slid free inch by inch, despite Jane’s contortions to keep it in place, and after a few seconds the cable dropped to the ground like a snake falling from a tree. Jane looked to the ceiling, shook her head and bent down to collect the offending piece of hardware.
Of course, the movement had her bending over with her ass directly in Morgan’s line of sight. Oh boy. That was, ahem. She’d once overheard a new employee—who she’d let go for the unnecessary and judgmental comment—describe her as Plain Jane. Clearly they’d never paid attention, because Jane Smith was anything but plain.
If you paid attention, which Morgan had to admit she often did, then you would notice Jane’s brown eyes were kind and shone when she spoke of things she was passionate about, like her love of wrangling data and servers, her family and some pop culture Morgan didn’t understand.
You’d notice the way her glossy hair curled around behind her ears, and the shine of red through it. You’d notice the genuine warmth in her smile and the way it made her eyes and nose crinkle. You’d notice Jane came across as confident and concise while directing her team but she could turn instantly into a quiet, watchful and attentive listener.
And you’d notice—
Jane straightened and with comical slowness turned around until she was staring directly into Morgan’s office. Morgan, who if she’d been paying attention instead of ogling an employee’s ass, would have realized Jane had caught her boss in the act of checking her out.
Morgan’s gaze snapped back down to her desk. Yes, very busy and important in my office doing ordinary everyday data storage things that a human would do. Not checking out your very nice, ahhhh…that’s so inappropriate…ass. She made some gestures with her pen and tapped her tablet, hoping it looked like working, and at the edge of her vision Jane made a hasty retreat.
When she was sure Jane had gone, Morgan looked up again, letting out a long breath. She was getting sloppy, being caught out like that. Not that she made a habit of checking Jane out but, well…actually, what constituted a habit? At least once per day wasn’t a habit, was it? And it wasn’t like she was objectifying her, but more that Jane had some thing that always drew Morgan’s attention and not just visually.
She reminded Morgan of Hannah in some ways—smart, tenacious, tender, attractive, quietly witty. Oh no, stop that line of thought right there. Morgan gave herself a metaphorical head shake. Less fantasizing about the employees, and more focusing on approvals and archiving so you can get to Aether and back again before tomorrow’s sunrise.
An alert on her tablet signified a fresh afterlife package to be actioned in The Americas. Joy, another thing to do. Raising her teacup to her mouth, Morgan swiped to check the identity and location of the person she’d have to see to administer the package. Maybe the person wouldn’t mind if she turned up at one a.m. the second Tuesday four months from now which was probably the only time she had free in her schedule. Morgan read the name and birthdate, stared at the accompanying identification picture and almost choked on her mouthful of tea.
Well, this might be awkward.
The best part about the open floorplan was that Jane had an unobstructed view right into Ms. Ashworth’s office, and she took advantage of the sightline at every opportunity. The second-best part was that the location of Jane’s cubicle meant she could see people approaching, giving her plenty of time to pretend she wasn’t ogling while working. Movement in her periphery alerted her to a visitor and Jane ducked before Leah’s stack-of-paper swat found its mark. Squirming, she held both hands up to ward off another attempt. “Hey! What’s that about?”
“Stop it.” Leah held the papers to her chest, her face a mix of exasperation and pity. Mostly pity.
Jane kept her hands up until she was confident that Leah wasn’t about to launch another sneaky attack. “Stop what?”
“You’re daydreaming about her right now. I can always tell. You get that look.”
“I don’t have a look,” Jane mumbled. “I’m just thinking. About work stuff.” She glanced at her boss’s glass walls, then just as quickly forced her gaze back to her desk when she realized what she’d done. Thinking about work stuff was right, except it wasn’t her job she was thinking about. It was Morgan Ashworth, at her desk, teacup in one hand and the other absently tugging her left earlobe.
“Uh, yeah, you do have a look. It’s a little dreamy, a little horny and a little sad.” Leah leaned down to speak quietly near Jane’s ear. “But mostly, it’s pathetic. Woman up and ask her out, or move on. My strong vote is for move on. She’s your boss, actually more than that, she owns a very successful data storage company and is smoking hot. She could screw anyone she wanted. And she probably does. Ten bucks says she has some hot, rich model boyfriend or girlfriend waiting for her at home.” Leah straightened and glanced into Ms. Ashworth’s office. “Actually, make that twenty bucks. She has fresh flowers delivered every day.”
Jane’s tone was drier than dust. “Thanks for the ego boost.” And the depressing mental image of Morgan Ashworth and her wealthy, model-perfect partner. She made a mental note, yet again, to actually use her gym membership and try to eat more salads. Maybe win the lottery? Jane cheered up marginally when she pointed out, “As for the daily flowers, they’re also in the break room and bathrooms, so I think it’s that she just likes flowers.” And not that aforementioned hot, rich, did I mention hot, partner sent them to Ms. Ashworth every day like some Hallmark declaration of love to tide her over before she went home for hot rich sex every evening.
“Maybe.” Leah raised a placating hand. “But I’m just being a realist and a friend. I really think you need to get over this. You should get out and meet women, be a human instead of a robot communing with computers all day.”
Jane snorted out a laugh. “Right. I barely have time for the necessary things in my life at the moment without adding trying to get to know a woman to the mix. Did you know, every date I’ve been on in the past three years, the moment I mention Mom I can literally see their eyes glaze over, like it’s all they can do to not run screaming then and there. Actually, you know what? One did run. Not screaming, but she ran.”
“Newsflash. People are selfish dicks.”
“Yeah, they are,” Jane agreed, trying not to sound as down as she felt about the idea. “It’s not like I’m asking them to marry me plus my mom as a package deal. I just want someone to spend time with, doing normal things and to help with my, um, urges.”
“What about a hookup? Trawl dating sites or go to a bar and find someone to help you blunt the edges of those…urges.” Leah bounced her eyebrows.
Jane laughed again, but it was one of disbelief instead of humor. “Oh sure, I can already see how that’s going to go. Thanks for the orgasm, now I have to rush off so I can go home and get my mother into bed.”
“Do it during the day then,” Leah shot back. “You have an hour for lunch, plenty of time to satisfy any urge you might have. Trust me.” Grinning, she nudged Jane’s shoulder with her hip. “Are we still on for drinks after work?”
“Sure, why not. I could use some more emotional evisceration.” Jane tried for a self-deprecating smile but had the feeling the expression looked more like she was constipated.
“It’s for your own good. Every time I see you staring at our boss instead of actively trying to find yourself a girlfriend, a little piece of my soul breaks off and floats away. I’ll come by once I’m done with payroll and drag your ass away from that tablet.”
“My ass in front of this tablet is the thing that keeps all the servers running. No servers running means no Theda which means no cushy job for you.”
“Yeah yeah, hero of the day. Your medal is in the mail.” Leah’s head pat was a perfect mix of grateful and condescending. “I’ll see you later. Try not to wear your eyeballs out thinking about work.” She air-quoted the last three words. “You’ll need them tonight to check out hotties at the bar.”
Jane offered a mock salute as Leah backed away and then turned to walk down the hall. In the fracas of trying to avoid Leah’s paper swatting, her Wonder Woman figurine had been knocked out of line. Jane turned the figure so she stood at an angle to Batwoman. Tipping Wonder Woman forward, Jane whispered, “Kate Kane, your strength is only outmatched by your beauty.”
Jane dropped her voice a register, adding some gruffness. “Diana of Themyscira, indulge me with some grappling. Of the Sapphic variety.” She scoffed and moved both figurines so they were facing forward again. “Nice come-on lines, Jane. No wonder you’re single.”
When she looked up to make sure nobody had overheard her roleplay, she noticed the seat behind her boss’s desk was empty. Ms. Ashworth had probably ducked out of the office for her usual lunch break, where she obviously didn’t get lunch because she always came back and ate two grilled cheese sandwiches—one of her favorite snacks judging by how many of them she ate. That, and the ever-present teapot on her desk seemed to comprise her diet. She must have a killer personal trainer to keep a body that…well, utterly incredible.
Jane had to stop herself banging her head against her desk. Leah was right. She was pathetic. She snatched up her tablet to check the temperature in the server room and then moved on to monitoring data transfer rates. Exactly what was needed—something requiring concentration to take her mind off her hot boss. Scratch that. Very hot boss.
Her very hot boss appeared by her side so suddenly that Jane barely suppressed her squeak of surprise and only just managed not to gawp. Morgan Ashworth was attractive in a way that was almost unreal. And unfair. Blessed with a bone structure you’d sacrifice a kidney for. Full, sensuous mouth. And those eyes. The brightest blue like a clear summer sky. Her boss was immaculately attired in one of her suits—a skirt today which showed off killer legs—with flawless makeup, and blond hair down and curling around her shoulders.
She was the kind of woman that made Jane feel simultaneously aware of her neglected libido and self-conscious about her own appearance. Despite the fact her beauty was cool and glacial, Ms. Ashworth was never anything but warm and friendly, kind and professional. It was more that she felt unattainable, set slightly apart from everyone else. Set slightly apart from her, as in so far out of Jane’s league she was practically on another dimension.
Ms. Ashworth placed her left hand flat on the desk, inches from Jane’s. Jane glanced down at their almost-touching hands, her attention drawn to the ring her boss always wore on her pinky. It looked like cheap costume jewelry made from dull gold, if it was even genuine. A chipped, unevenly cut milky blue stone was set in the claw on the weirdly shaped band, and made no sense on the finger of a woman who clearly didn’t lack money.
“Jane, can you come and see me before you leave this afternoon?”
As usual, when she heard that voice, Jane had to suppress a small shudder of pleasure. Her boss was undeniably British, the accent carried by a voice that was warm and low, calm and soothing. She swallowed the nervous lump that had taken up residence in her throat. Jane congratulated herself when her response was both steady, and somewhat articulate. “Yes, sure, of course.” Articulate and repetitive. Well done.
“Wonderful.” Ms. Ashworth paused, her brows creasing in the middle. “I heard there’ve been some issues with server bank three today. Have you managed to wrangle it into submission?”
“Hmm? Oh! Uh, not yet, no. The temperature is steady, but still higher than I want. The server room temperature is spot-on, so it’s definitely a hardware issue. If it doesn’t behave soon then we may need to take it offline to get a closer look.”
“Whatever you think is best.” She smiled warmly. “I’ll see you later this afternoon.” Then she was gone in a swirl of expensive-smelling perfume, leaving Jane feeling like an idiot teen with a crush.
Groaning, she dropped her forehead onto her desk. Wonder Woman toppled over, landing against her right ear. Perfect.
Everyone but she and Ms. Ashworth had left for the day—Leah to lip-pursed disapproval at the news Jane was staying back, and would meet her at the bar later—when Jane logged off her computer and tablet, and set the latter on to charge in the small fireproof room where all portable company devices lived overnight.
Jane knocked on her boss’s open door, startling Ms. Ashworth who was eating a huge cookie, the last bite of which she hastily stuffed into her mouth before brushing crumbs off her desk into the waste can. “Jane, come in and take a seat.” Smiling, she straightened the purple silk scarf knotted like a floppy bowtie around her neck.
Scarf days were Jane’s second favorite day. Her favorite day was when Ms. Ashworth wore one of her three-piece suits complete with tie and pocket square, somehow managing to look dapper and feminine all at once. Dapper, feminine and so sexy it almost stole Jane’s breath.
Ms. Ashworth drew in a long audible breath, looking strangely discomforted. “I need to discuss something important with you, and uh, I’m afraid I’ve been put in a somewhat unusual and unexpected position. Frankly, it’s thrown me for a bit of a loop.”
“Are you firing me?” It came out both incredulous and terrified, and very loud. Jane fought to dial herself down a notch. “Because I’ve only been late a handful of times, and it’s because of my mom and I’ve always worked through my lunch hours to make up for it.”
Ms. Ashworth’s eyebrows shot up, and her hands shot out as if trying to stop Jane’s rambling speech in its tracks. “Oh, goodness no! Nothing like that. I apologize for startling you.” She collected a black tablet from the edge of her desk and came around to sit next to Jane who tried very hard not to notice the way her boss’s skirt slid up to expose an expanse of smooth, toned thigh. “I thought you knew that I’m incredibly happy with your work. You’re an asset to the company and I greatly value your assistance.” She smiled, her eyes creasing at the edges which made her seem even younger than what Jane guessed to be not-even-thirty. Leaning in, Ms. Ashworth confessed, “Between you and me, you’re indispensable to Theda.”
The panic eased to mild concern. “Oh…well thank you. I really enjoy working here.” And staring at you in your office while indulging in fantasies, she finished off in her head.
Ms. Ashworth sighed, seeming almost reluctant to continue. “Jane, there’s no point in dancing around the subject, and I regret having to do this here in a work environment, but for the sake of efficiency, I’m left with no alternative.”
For a brief, hopeful moment, Jane thought her boss might be about to follow up with an I’m attracted to you speech, but instead Ms. Ashworth passed her the tablet which displayed an open document. “It’s time for you to fill in your afterlife questionnaire package.”
Jane’s face felt like it had melted downward. “I’m sorry. What?”
“Your afterlife package. Surely you know what that is?” It came out with not a small amount of incredulity.
Of course Jane knew what it was. Everyone in secondary school learned about Death’s Minions and their afterlife packages. And if kids didn’t attend school, a representative made a home visit with a handy information packet to help the parent or guardian explain that afterlife packages ensured Death placed you in an appropriate afterlife realm.
“Yes, no, I mean, I know about it, but why are you giving it to me?”
Ms. Ashworth held out her hand. “Morgan Ashworth, Head of Transition Operations for Death.” With the hand still outstretched, she waggled her fingers.
Jane took the offered hand, simultaneously aware of how warm and smooth her boss’s skin was, and that she was holding Morgan Ashworth’s hand. What she’d just been told registered in some deep part of her brain, but she couldn’t quite make the pieces fit into a logical picture. She released the hand, spluttering, “Wait, you’re…you’re, one of them?” Her voice squeaked embarrassingly. “You’re a Death’s Minion?”
Ms. Ashworth straightened. Her expression was haughty, as if she couldn’t believe Jane was asking such a thing. “Yes. But I’m more than just one of them. I’m in charge of all of them.” She ran both hands down her stomach, smoothing her blouse. “Both a liaison and a supervisor would be the best way to define my role.”
“But…you’re…you,” Jane said, well aware of how idiotic it sounded. She paused, frowned and sifted through a dozen thoughts, before eventually asking, “How can you be one of them?”
“Yes, I’m me. And as to how I can be one of Death’s Minions, that’s easy. I simply am. What were you expecting?” She flashed a teasing smile, her voice dropping to sepulchral tones. “A demonic being? Horns and capes and fire and swirly brimstone gas?”
Jane’s cheeks heated. “No, I mean, I don’t know. I’d never really thought about it. But, I didn’t, I mean…” She puffed out a breath. “Ms. Ashworth, if you’ll excuse me and the fact my brain seems to have fallen out of my ears, but it’s not every day you’re handed your afterlife package and are also told your boss is one of Death’s Minions. I mean, obviously I know they, um, you exist, but not…right in front of me.” Oh God, she’d had a crush on one of Death’s Minions for the past eight years. Jane swallowed hard.
The teasing smile softened. “That’s true. I’m sorry to spring it on you this way, but as I said, I felt it best for expediency sake.”
“Yes. These packages are somewhat time-sensitive.”
Time-sensitive. Jane’s heart double timed and her throat felt as though someone had grabbed her and begun to squeeze. The words rasped out. “Am I about to die?”
Ms. Ashworth reached over to give her hand an encouraging pat. “No, you’re not about to die.”
“Then why now?”
“Because I’m very busy, Jane, and I have quotas to keep up.”
Quotas. Of dead people. What a morbid concept. “What if I just don’t fill it in and sign it? I mean, I still die, right?”
“Yes, of course you’ll die. But you will remain stuck in what people call Limbo.” She air-quoted that last word. “And will become what is commonly referred to as a ghost.” Ms. Ashworth’s eyebrows drew together. “Most importantly, you’ll affect my completion averages in a negative way. And I really can’t afford to let that happen. I’ve won the Minion of the Year award every year since its implementation one hundred and eighty-three years ago and I’ll be damned if I let Bethany Harris take it from me this year.”
She’d won what award when and who was doing what now? Jane fumbled for an answer and managed a weak, “Oh. Um, congratulations?”
“Thank you.” She brushed lint from her shoulder. “I know it may seem silly to you, Jane, but I deserve this award. Not only do I work harder than all the Minions combined, it was I who brought this whole process into the modern era. No more messing around with triplicate copies of paper or physically delivering the packages to every afterlife sector upon a person’s death. Now it is all tablets and servers and automation, and my mistress can find what she needs in the fraction of a second.”
Realization dawned in a wave of excitement and panic. “This…isn’t a data storage facility for hire is it?”
Ms. Ashworth smiled indulgently. “No. You are head of data integrity for the facility that stores all the world’s death contracts for past, present and future.”
“Shit,” Jane breathed. Then came a louder, panicked, “Shit! I need to get another backup routine in place, snapshots every half hour instead of every hour. We need more physical storage capabilities. I want to set up another fire-and-quake-proof server housing and physical backup room. We need more system redundancies in case of primary data restoration failures, housed in multiple locations even.”
Her boss’s eyebrows were slightly raised, the edges of her mouth lifted as she listened to Jane’s runaway thoughts. “We’ve been doing okay with what we have already, and it’s survived a few natural disasters. And besides, you have no idea what it was like when rooms full of paper contracts went up in flames. Compared to three hundred years ago, we have an abundance of data security.”
“Yes but that was then, and now I know what’s on the servers. I just…” She made a helpless gesture. “I would like it to be better, safer.”
Ms. Ashworth rested the tablet on her thighs. “Well then, whatever you think we need, at whatever cost.”
“It could get expensive.” Her brain had already tallied past six figures.
A dismissive wave. “That doesn’t matter. Theda houses an essential, irreplaceable service for the world’s population, and I have unlimited resources for whatever I need. Send me your ideas and a meeting request to get the process rolling.”
“Unlimited? Like…that’s not an exaggeration?”
“No. Literally unlimited funds, manpower, work and storage space.” She leveled a gaze at Jane. “There is no way we could do what’s required of us if we were constrained by something like finances.”
“I see,” Jane said. Death apparently had perks.
Smiling, Ms. Ashworth turned the tablet around, holding it up like a magician who’d just performed a trick and was waiting for applause. “So, here it is. Are you ready to begin?”
Jane stared at the screen which displayed a basic form with details already filled in—her name, birth date, social security and other important personal details. It looked exactly like the sample they’d been shown as adolescents, which confirmed this whole thing wasn’t just some practical joke. “I…no, I’m not.”
Ms. Ashworth turned her head, leaning in as if she were hard of hearing. “Pardon me?”
“I said, no I’m not ready to begin. I can’t just make a snap decision about where I’m going to be when I’m dead. I need to take some time to think about this and look over my options.”
Her boss clearly tried to suppress a sigh and failed. “How much time exactly?”
“I don’t know. A few days? A week maybe?” Jane straightened, squaring her shoulders. “With respect, you’ve just dumped something rather big on me. I don’t think it’s unreasonable for me to request some time to think about it.”
The barely concealed exasperation broke free in a slightly terse, “Fine, okay. But people don’t tend to take time with this, Jane. You are the first person in a very long time who has ever asked for an extension, might I add without even listening to an explanation or seeing the documentation. I have an excellent spiel, very informative, one I’ve delivered literally millions of times.”
“I’m sure you do, Ms. Ashworth. And I’d love to hear it, but perhaps when I’m not trying to process the whole other issue of…who you are in the scheme of things.”
Ms. Ashworth massaged the bridge of her nose. “Fine. But I must impose a deadline. Let’s say one week from today. I need this done. Otherwise…” She trailed off, letting what remained unspoken linger between them.
Jane did not want to be anything resembling a ghost. Trying to ignore her churning stomach, she nodded in confirmation. “One week.”
“Wonderful.” Smiling, Ms. Ashworth tapped the screen and moved to the printer in the corner of her office which had begun spitting out a multi-page document, leaving Jane to sit dumbly and stare at her hands.
The more Jane tried to process what had just transpired, the more confused she became. So she focused instead on the sounds behind her. Her boss—wait, no Death’s Head Minion…Minion…was she even human?—humming cheerfully as she flicked through and straightened papers, a stapler crunching, then the slow rhythm of heels on the wooden floor.
Ms. Ashworth handed her a sealed envelope. “Here’s a copy of the questionnaire for you to peruse.”
Jane held the envelope to her chest. “Thank you. I’ll check it out ASAP.” She knew she was blushing and felt heat creeping up her neck. “Um, is that all you needed to see me about?”
“Yes, that was all.” Ms. Ashworth smoothed her skirt down as she slipped around the desk to her high-backed leather chair. “Before you go, can you please check everything’s clear for upload on banks two and six? I’m going to have some large packets of data going through tonight. And let me know what you’re going to do with bank three so I can plan accordingly. Oh, and don’t forget to send me a meeting request to discuss strengthening the data security and hardware and whatever else you feel necessary.”
Jane’s blink of disbelief felt like it was done at half speed. Surreal didn’t even begin to cover it, as if this was nothing out of the ordinary for Ms. Ashworth, when Jane felt like her life had just been turned on its ass. “Sure…I’ll get right on all of that.”
Ms. Ashworth flashed her a winning smile that would have ordinarily turned Jane weak-kneed if she hadn’t already felt so wobbly. “Marvelous, thanks so much.” When Jane made no move to leave, she added, “That’s all for now.”
“Okay…thanks.” Jane forced a smile, then rushed from the office feeling like a complete fool. Well. That had been as far from an I’m attracted to you speech as you could get. What an idiot she was.