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Excerpt under the spoiler tag:
[spoiler]1Only two things in life are certain.
Guess which one I am.
—CHARLEY DAVIDSON, GRIM REAPERI sat watching the Buy From Home Channel with my dead aunt Lillian and wondered what my life would’ve been like had I not just eaten an entire carton of Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate Therapy with a mocha latte chaser. Probably about the same, but it was something to think about.A midmorning sun filtered through the blinds and cut hard streaks of light across my body, casting me in an ultra-cool film noir effect. Since my life had definitely taken a turn toward the dark side, film noir fit. It would have fit even better if I weren’t wearing Star Wars pajama bottoms and a sparkly tank top that proudly proclaimed EARTH GIRLS ARE EASY. But I just didn’t have the energy that morning to change into something less inappropriate. I’d been having lethargy issues for a few weeks now. And I was suddenly a tad agoraphobic. Ever since a man named Earl tortured me.
The torture. Not his name.
My name, on the other hand, was Charlotte Davidson, but most people called me Charley.
“Can I talk to you, pumpkin cheeks?”
Or pumpkin cheeks, one of the many pet names involving the fall fruit that Aunt Lillian insisted on calling me. Aunt Lil had died sometime in the sixties, and I could see her because I’d been born the grim reaper, which basically meant three things: One, I could interact with dead people—those departed who didn’t cross over when they died—and usually did so on a daily basis. Two, I was super-duper bright to those in the spiritual realm, and the aforementioned dead people could see me from anywhere in the world. When they were ready to cross, they could cross through me. Which brought me to three—I was a portal from the earthly plane to what many refer to as heaven.
There was a tad more to it than that—including things I had yet to learn myself—but that was the basic gist of my day job. The one I didn’t actually get paid to do. I was also a PI, but that gig wasn’t paying the bills either. Not lately, anyway.
I rolled my head along the back of the sofa toward Aunt Lil, who was actually a great-aunt on my father’s side. A thin, elderly woman with soft gray eyes and pale blue hair, she was wearing her usual attire, as dead people rarely changed clothes: a leather vest over a floral muumuu and love beads, the ensemble a testament to her demise in the sixties. She also had a loving smile that tilted a bit south of kilter. But that only made me adore her all the more. I had a soft spot for crazy people. I wasn’t sure how the muumuu came into play, with her being so tiny and all—she looked like a pole with a collapsed tent gathered about her fragile hips—but who was I to judge?
“You can absolutely talk to me, Aunt Lil.” I tried to straighten but couldn’t get past the realization that movement of any kind would take effort. I’d been sitting on one sofa or another for two months, recovering from the torture thing. Then I remembered that the cookware I’d been waiting for all morning was up next. Surely Aunt Lil would understand. Before she could say anything, I raised a finger to put her in pause mode. “But can our talk wait until the stone-coated cookware is over? I’ve been eyeing this cookware for a while now. And it’s coated. With stone.”
“You don’t cook.”
She had a point. “So what’s up?” I propped my bunny-slippered feet on the coffee table and crossed my legs at the ankles.
“I’m not sure how to tell you this.” Her breath hitched, and she bowed her blue head.
I straightened in alarm despite the energy it took. “Aunt Lil?”
She tucked her chin in sadness. “I—I think I’m dead.”
I blinked. Stared at her a moment. Then blinked again.
“I know.” She sniffled into the massive sleeve of her muumuu, and the love beads shifted soundlessly with the movement. Inanimate objects in death carried an eerie silence. Like mimes. Or that scream Al Pacino did in The Godfather: Part III when his daughter died on those steps.
“I know, I know.” She patted my shoulder in consolation. “It’s a lot to absorb.”
Aunt Lillian died long before I was born, but I had no idea if she knew that or not. Many departed didn’t. Because of this doubt, I’d never mentioned it. For years, I’d let her make me invisible coffee in the mornings or cook me invisible eggs; then she’d go off on another adventure. Aunt Lil was still sowing her wild oats. A world traveler, that one. And she rarely stayed in one place very long. Which was good. Otherwise, I’d never get real coffee in the mornings. Or the twelve other times during the day I needed a java fix. If she were around more often, I’d go through caffeine withdrawal on a regular basis. And get really bad headaches.
But maybe now that she knew, I could explain the whole coffee thing.
I was curious enough about her death to ask, “Do you know how you died? What happened?”
According to my family, she’d died in a hippie commune in Madrid at the height of the flower power revolution. Before that, she really had been a world traveler, spending her summers in South America and Europe and her winters in Africa and Australia. And she’d continued that tradition even after her death, traveling far and wide. Passport no longer needed. But no one could really tell me how she died exactly. Or what she did for a living. How she could afford to do all that traveling when she was alive. I knew she’d been married for a while, but my family didn’t know much about her husband. My uncle thought he might’ve been an oil tycoon from Texas, but the family had lost contact, and nobody knew for certain.
“I’m just not sure,” she said, shaking her head. “I remember we were sitting around a campfire, singing songs and dropping acid—”
I used every ounce of strength I had to keep the horror I felt from manifesting in my expression.
“—and Bernie asked me what was wrong, but since Bernie had just done a hit of acid himself, I didn’t take him seriously.”
I could understand that.
She looked up at me, her eyes watering with sorrow. “Maybe I should have listened.”
I put an arm around her slight shoulders. “I’m so sorry, Aunt Lil.”
“I know, pumpkin head.” She patted my cheek, her hand cool in the absence of flesh and blood. She smiled that lopsided smile of hers, and I suddenly wondered if she’d perhaps dropped one hit too many. “I remember the day you were born.”
I blinked yet again in surprise. “Really? You were there?”
“I was. I’m so sorry about your mother.”
A harsh pang of regret shot through me. I wasn’t expecting it, and it took me a moment to recover. “I—I’m sorry, too.” The memory of my mother’s passing right after I’d been born was not my favorite. And I remembered it so clearly, so precisely. The moment she parted from her physical body, a pop like a rubber band snapping into place ricocheted through my body, and I knew our connection had been severed. I loved her, even then.
“You were so special,” Aunt Lil said, shaking her head with the memory. “But now that you know I’m a goner, I have to ask, why in tarnation are you so bright?”
Crap. I couldn’t tell her the truth, that I was the grim reaper and the floodlights came with the gig. She thought I was special, not grim. It just sounded so bad when I said it out loud. I decided to deflect. “Well, that’s kind of a long story, Aunt Lil, but if you want, you can pass through me. You can cross to the other side and be with your family.” I lowered my head, hoping she wouldn’t take me up on my offer. I liked having her around, as selfish as that made me.
“Are you kidding?” She slapped a knee. “And miss all the crap you get yourself into? Never.” After a disturbing cackle that brought to mind the last horror movie I’d seen, she turned back to the TV. “Now, what’s so groovy about this cookware?”
I settled in next to her and we watched a whole segment on pans that could take all kinds of abuse, including a bevy of rocks sliding around the nonstick bottom, but since people didn’t actually cook rocks, I wasn’t sure what the point was. Still, the pans were pretty. And I could make low monthly payments. I totally needed them.
I was on the phone with a healthy-sounding customer service representative named Herman when Cookie walked in. She did that a lot. Walked in. Like she owned the place. Of course, I was in her apartment. Mine was cluttered and depressing, so I’d resorted to loitering in hers.
Cookie was a large woman with black hair spiked every which way and no sense of fashion whatsoever, if the yellow ensemble she was wearing was any indication. She was also my best friend and receptionist when we had work.
I waved to her, then spoke into the phone. “Declined? What do you mean declined? I have at least twelve dollars left on that puppy, and you said I could make low monthly payments.”
Cookie bent over the sofa, grabbed the phone, and pushed the end-call button while completely ignoring the indignant expression I was throwing at her. “It’s not so much declined,” she said, handing the phone back to me, “as canceled.” Then she took the remote and changed the channel to the news. “I’ve put a stop to any new charges on your Home Shopaholic store card—”
“What?” I thought about acting all flustered and bent out of shape, but I was out of shape enough without purposely adding to the condition. In reality, I was a little in awe of her. “You can do that?”
The news anchor was talking about the recent rash of bank robberies. He showed surveillance footage of the four-man team, known as the Gentlemen Thieves. They always wore white rubber masks and carried guns, but they never drew them. Not once in the series of eight bank robberies, thus their title.
I was in the middle of contemplating how familiar they looked when Cookie took hold of my wrist and hefted me off her sofa. “I can do that,” she said as she nudged me toward the door.
“Simple. I called and pretended to be you.”
“And they fell for it?” Now I was officially appalled. “Who did you talk to? Did you talk to Herman, because he sounds super cute. Wait.” I screeched to a halt before her. “Are you kicking me out of your apartment?”
“Not so much kicking you out as putting my foot down. It’s time.”
“Time?” I asked a little hesitantly.
Well, crap. This day was going to suck, I could already tell. “Love the yellow,” I said, becoming petty as she herded me out of her apartment and into mine. “You don’t look like a giant banana at all. And why did you cancel my favorite shopping channel in-store credit card? I only have three.”
“And they’ve all been canceled. I have to make sure I get paid every week. I’ve also funneled all of your remaining funds out of your bank account and into a secret account in the Cayman Islands.”
“You can funnel money?”
“Isn’t that like embezzling?”
“It’s exactly like embezzling.” After practically shoving me past my threshold, she closed the door behind us and pointed. “I want you to take a look at all this stuff.”
Admittedly, my apartment was a mess, but I still didn’t know what that had to do with my card. That card was a tool. In the right hands—like, say, mine—it could make dreams come true. I looked around at all the boxes of super-cool stuff I’d ordered: everything from magical scrubbing sponges for the everyday housewife to two-way radios for when the apocalypse hit and cell phones became obsolete. A wall of boxes lined my apartment, ending in a huge mountain of superfluous products in one specific area of the room. Since my apartment was about the size of a Lego, the minute amount that was left was like a broken Lego. A disfigured one that hadn’t survived the invasion of little Lego space aliens.
And there were more boxes behind the wall of boxes we could actually see. I’d completely lost Mr. Wong. He was a dead guy who lived in the corner of my living room, perpetually hovering with his back to the world. Never moving. Never speaking. And now he was lost to the ecology of commerce. Poor guy. His life couldn’t have been exciting.
Of course, it didn’t help that I’d also moved out of my offices and brought all my files and office equipment to my apartment. My kitchen, actually, making it completely useless for anything other than file storage. But it had been a necessary move, as my dad had betrayed me in the worst way possible—he’d had me arrested as I lay in a hospital bed after being tortured by a madman—and my offices had been above his bar. I had yet to discover what possessed my own father to have me arrested in such an outlandish and hurtful manner. He’d wanted me out of the PI biz, but his timing and modus operandi needed work.
Sadly, the bar was only about fifty feet north of my apartment building, so I would have to avoid him when coming and going from my new work digs. But since I hadn’t actually left the apartment building in over two months, that part had been easy. The last time I left was to clear out my offices, and I’d made sure he was out of town when I did so.
I surveyed all the boxes and decided to turn the tables on Cookie. To play the victim. To blame the whole thing on her. I pointed at an Electrolux and gaped at her. “Who the hell left me unsupervised? This has to be your fault.”
“Nice try,” she said, completely unmoved. “We’re going to sort through all of this stuff and send back everything except what you’ll actually use. Which is not a lot. Again, I would like to continue collecting a paycheck, if that’s not too much to ask.”
“Do you take American Express?”
“Oh, I canceled that, too.”
I gasped, pretending to be appalled. With a determined set to her shoulders, she led me to my own sofa, took boxes off it, piled them on top of other boxes, then sank down beside me. Her eyes shimmered with warmth and understanding, and I became instantly uncomfortable. “Are we going to have the talk again?”
“I’m afraid so.”
“Cook—” I tried to rise and storm off, but she put a hand on my shoulder to stop me “—I’m not sure how else to say that I’m fine.” When she looked down at Margaret, who sat nestled inside my hip holster, my voice took on a defensive edge. “What? Lots of PIs wear guns.”
“With their pajamas?”
I snorted. “Yes. Especially if they’re Star Wars pajamas and your gun just happens to resemble a blaster.”
Margaret was my new best friend. And she’d never funneled money out of my bank account like some other best friends who shall not be named.
“Charley, all I’m asking is that you talk to your sister.”
“I talk to her every day.” I crossed my arms. Suddenly everyone was insisting that I seek counseling when I was fine. So what if I didn’t want to step out of my apartment building? Lots of people liked to stay in. For months at a time.
“Yes, she calls and tries to talk to you about what happened, about how you’re doing, but you shut her down.”
“I don’t shut her down. I just change the subject.”
Cookie got up and made us both a cup of coffee while I stewed in the wonders of denial. After I came to the realization that I liked denial almost as much as mocha lattes, she handed me a cup and I took a sip as she sat next to me again. My eyes rolled back in ecstasy. Her coffee was so much better than Aunt Lil’s.
“Gemma thinks that maybe you need a hobby.” She looked around at the boxes. “A healthy hobby. Like Pilates. Or alligator wrestling.”
“I know.” I leaned back and threw an arm over my eyes. “I considered writing my memoirs, but I can’t figure out how to put seventies porn music into prose.”
“See,” she said, elbowing me. “Writing. That’s a great start. You could try poetry.” She stood and rummaged through my box-covered desk. “Here,” she said, tossing some paper at me. “Write me a poem about how your day is going, and I’ll get started on these boxes.”
I put the coffee cup aside and sat up. “For real? Couldn’t I just write a poem about my ultimate world domination or the health benefits of eating guacamole?”
She rose onto her toes to look at me from behind one of my more impressive walls. “You bought two electric pressure cookers? Two?”
“They were on sale.”
“Charley,” she said, her tone admonishing. “Wait.” She dipped down then popped back up.
“These are awesome.” I knew it. “Can I have one?”
“Abso-freaking-lutely. I’ll just take it out of your pay.”
This could work. I could pay her through my Buy From Home purchases, though that might not help her keep her lights on or continue to have running water. But she’d be happy, and wasn’t happiness the most important thing in life? I should write a poem about that.
“You do realize that to use any of this stuff, you have to actually go to the grocery store.”
Her words shoved me deeper into the pit of despair often referred to as buyer’s regret. “Isn’t that what Macho Taco express delivery is for?”
“You’ll have to buy food and spices and crap.”
“I hate going to the grocery store.”
“And you’ll have to learn to cook.”
“Fine,” I said, letting a defeated breath slip through my lips. I had a fantastic flair for the dramatics when needed. “Send back everything that involves any kind of food preparation. I hate to cook.”
“Do you want to keep the Jackie Kennedy commemorative bracelet?”
“Do I have to cook it?”
“Then it stays.” I lifted my wrist and twirled the bracelet. “Look how sparkly it is.”
“And it goes so well with Margaret.”
“Pumpkin butt,” Aunt Lil said.
I looked up from my Jackie Kennedy commemorative bracelet. Now that she knew she was dead, I would never have to go through that surge of panic at the prospect of her insisting on cooking for me for two weeks straight. I almost starved to death the last time. I held up the bracelet. “Do you think this bracelet is too much?”
“Jackie goes with anything, dear. But I wanted to talk to you about Cookie.”
I looked in Cookie’s direction and frowned in disappointment. “What has she done now?”
Aunt Lil sank down beside me and patted my arm. “I think she should know the truth.”
“About Jackie Kennedy?”
“What in the world does this monstrous machine do?” Cookie asked from somewhere near the kitchen. A box appeared out of nowhere, hovering unsteadily over a mountain of other boxes.
I smiled in excitement. “You know how sometimes we order coffee and it comes with that incredible foam on top?”
“Well, that machine does the magic foam trick.”
Her dark head popped up. “No.”
She looked at the box lovingly. “Okay, we can keep this. I’ll just have to carve some time out of my schedule to read the instructions.”
“Don’t you think she should know?” Aunt Lil continued.
I nodded. She had a point. Or she would have if Cookie didn’t already know. “Cook, can you come here a sec?”
“Okay, but I’m working out a system. It’s in my head. If I lose it on the way over, I won’t be held accountable.”
“I can’t make any promises.”
She sauntered over, shaking another box at me, a disturbing kind of joy in her eyes. “Do you know how long I’ve wanted a salad spinner?”
“People actually want those?”
“I think that was one of those four A.M. purchases where I’d lost all sense of reality. I don’t even know why anyone would want to spin a salad.”
“Well, I do.”
“Okay, so, I have some bad news.”
She sat in a chair that catty-cornered the sofa, a wary expression on her face. “You got bad news since you’ve been sitting here?”
“Kind of.” I tilted my head discreetly to my side, indicating a presence.
I did it again.
She shrugged in confusion.
With a sigh, I said, “I have news about Aunt Lillian.”
“Oh. Oh!” She looked around and questioned me with a quirk of her brows.
I gave a quick shake of my head. Normally, Cookie would play along, pretending she could see Aunt Lil as well, but since Aunt Lil had finally caught on to the fact that she could walk through walls, I didn’t think that would be appropriate. I put a hand on hers and said, “Aunt Lil has passed away.”
She shrugged in confusion. Again.
“I knew she’d take it hard,” Aunt Lil said by my side. She sniffled into her sleeve again.
I wanted so badly to roll my eyes at Cookie. She was not getting my hints. I’d have to try harder. “But you know how I can see the departed?”
A dawning emerged on Cook’s face as she realized Aunt Lil had caught on at long last.
I patted her hand. Really hard. “She’s here with us now, just not as you will remember her.”
“Yes,” I said, interrupting before she could give anything away. “She has passed.”
Cookie finally grasped the entire concept. Not just a little corner of it. She threw a hand over her mouth. A weak squeak slipped through her fingers. “Not Aunt Lil.” She doubled over and let sobs rack her shoulders.
“I didn’t think she’d take it this hard,” Aunt Lil said.
“Neither did I.” I looked on in horror as Cookie acted out that scene from The Godfather. It was even more eerie from this close proximity. “It’s okay,” I said, patting her head. Really hard. She glared through her fingers. “Aunt Lil is with us incorporeally. She sends her love.”
“Oh, yes,” Aunt Lil said with a delirious nod. “Send her my love.”
“Aunt Lil,” Cookie said, straightening and looking beside me. Only on the wrong side.
I nodded in Aunt Lil’s direction again, and Cookie corrected her line of sight.
“Aunt Lil, I’m so sorry. We’ll miss you so much.”
“Aw, isn’t she the sweetest thing? I always liked her.”
With a smile, I took Aunt Lil’s hand into mine. “I always liked her, too. Until about fifteen minutes ago.”
* * *
I decided a shower was not out of the question and hopped in as Cookie took inventory and Aunt Lil decided to see what Africa looked like from her new perspective. I wondered if she’d ever figure out how long she’d been dead. I certainly wasn’t going to tell her.
Hot water was one of the best therapies in the world. It washed away stress and soothed nerves. But Rottweilers were even better. Ever since a gorgeous Rottie by the name of Artemis had died and become my guardian—against what, I had no idea—I found my showers more challenging than usual. Mostly because Artemis loved showers, too. She didn’t come around that often, but the minute I turned on the water, there she was.
“Hey, precious,” I said as she tried to catch a stream of water in her mouth.
She barked playfully, the loud yelp echoing off the walls of the tub. I reached down and rubbed her ears. The water ran straight through her, so she was dry to the touch, but she tried so hard to catch the thick droplets on her tongue.
“I know how you feel, girl. Sometimes the things we want most seem completely out of our reach.”
When she jumped up on me, her stubby tail wagging with delight, her weight sent me crashing against the tile wall. I clutched on to the showerhead to keep my balance, then let her lick my neck before another stream of water captured her attention. She dived for it, almost knocking my feet out from under me. I totally needed a shower mat. And shaving my legs with a Rottweiler chasing every splash of water known to man was like taking my life into my own hands, but it had to be done.
After semi-successfully shaving my legs with minimal blood loss, I turned off the water and nuzzled her to me. She licked my left ear, her front teeth scraping the lobe and causing goose bumps to spread over my skin, and I laughed out loud. “Oh, thank you. I needed that ear cleaned. Thank you so much.”
With another yelp, she realized fun time was over. The wonderful world of waterworks had stopped, so she dived through the exterior wall and disappeared. I wondered if it was wrong that I took showers with a dog.
I dried my hair and pulled it into something that resembled a ponytail, dressed in jeans and a white pullover with a zippered collar, then inspected myself in the mirror. No idea why. I’d only change back into my pajamas in a couple of hours anyway. Why did I get dressed? Why did I bother? Why did I shower, for that matter?
I pumped a dollop of lotion onto my palm and rubbed my hands together as I examined the nasty scar on my cheek. It was almost gone. On anyone else, it would have remained a constant reminder of events better left forgotten. But being the grim reaper had its benefits. Namely, quick healing and minimal scarring. Nary a shred of visible evidence to support the reasoning behind my sudden case of mild agoraphobia. I was so stupid.
I took the lotion I’d been rubbing into my hands and smeared it across the mirror. White streaks distorted my face. A definite improvement.
Growing more annoyed with myself by the second, I strolled to the window to see if my traitorous father was at work yet. He seemed to be coming in later and later. Not that I cared. Any man who would have his own daughter arrested while she lay dying in a hospital bed after being tortured almost to death didn’t deserve my concern. I was just curious, and curious was way on the other side of concern. But instead of seeing my father’s tan SUV, I caught sight of one Mr. Reyes Farrow, and my breath stilled in my chest. He was leaning against the back of Dad’s bar, arms folded at his chest, one booted foot leveraged against the building.
And he was out.
I knew he would be, but I had yet to see him. He’d been in prison for ten years for a crime he didn’t commit. The cops caught on when the guy he’d supposedly killed tied me up and tortured me. I was glad he’d been freed, but to get there, Reyes’d used me as bait, so we were once again at an impasse. I was mad at him for using me as bait. He was mad at me for being mad at him for using me as bait. Our relationship seemed to hinge on these impasses, but that’s what I got for falling in lust with the son of Satan. If only he weren’t so deliciously and dangerously hot. I had such a thing for bad boys.
And this particular bad boy had been dipped in a lake of beauty when he was born. His arms corded with muscles across a wide chest; his full mouth, too sensual for my peace of mind, sat in a grim, moody line; his dark hair, forever in need of a trim, curled at his neck and tumbled over his forehead. And I could just make out his thick lashes as they fanned across his cheeks.
A man walked past him and waved. Reyes nodded, but then he must have felt me watching him. He looked down in thought then up directly at me. His angry gaze locked on to mine, held it for a long, breathless moment, and then slowly, with deliberate purpose, he dematerialized, his body transforming into smoke and dust until there was nothing left of it.
He could do that. He could separate from his physical body, and his incorporeal essence—something I could see as easily as I saw the departed—could go anywhere in the world it wanted to. That didn’t surprise me in the least. What surprised me was the fact that, while incorporeal, no one else could see him. But that man had waved. He’d seen Reyes standing there and waved. That meant his physical body had been leaning against that brick wall.
That meant his physical body had dematerialized, had vanished into the cool morning air.