Authors: Darynda Jones
For the Mighty, Mighty Jones Boys, Danny, Jerrdan, and Casey.
You are the reason I breathe.
Even in my wildest dreams, I never thought I would get an agent like Alexandra Machinist or an editor like Jennifer Enderlin. I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating. I’m not sure what I did to deserve you. Maybe it was that stretch as a volunteer at the local nursing home. Or the time I pulled that kid out of a burning building. No, wait, I never pulled a kid out of a burning building.
’Kay, I’m going to keep working on that. In the meantime, thank you so much to Jen, my spectacular editor, and everyone at St. Martin’s Press and Macmillan. You guys rock so hard.
To Alexandra, my own personal Superwoman, and everyone at the Linda Chester Literary Agency.
To the wonderful Whitney Lee at the Fielding Agency and the super-savvy Josie Freedman at ICM. Thank you guys so very much.
To the super-talented Liz Bemis at Bemis Promotions. Just, wow.
To my very own Charley Davidson, Danielle Tanner.
To my family—you know who you are—and my friends. Thank you for liking me. Or pretending to like me. I appreciate the effort either way.
To the goddesses of LERA and the Ruby Slippered Sisterhood, my other family.
To Bria Quinlan, Gabi Stephens, and Samira Stephan for help with translations.
To Commander Murray Conrad. Thank you for letting me bug you on a continual basis without arresting me.
And a special thank-you to my readers, especially those readers who stayed up the night before this book was due to give me feedback: Danielle Swopes, Tammy Baumann, and Kit Carson. I totally owe you guys a mocha latte. Or a small island.
GRIM REAPERS ARE TO DIE FOR.
—T-SHIRT OFTEN SEEN ON CHARLOTTE JEAN DAVIDSON, GRIM REAPER EXTRAORDINAIRE
“Charley, hurry, wake up.”
Fingers with pointy nails bit into my shoulders, doing their darnedest to vanquish the fog of sleep I’d been marinating in. They shook me hard enough to cause a small earthquake in Oklahoma. Since I lived in New Mexico, this was a problem.
Judging by the quality and pitch of the intruder’s voice, I was fairly certain the person accosting me was my best friend, Cookie. I let an annoyed sigh slip through my lips, resigning myself to the fact that my life was a series of interruptions and demands. Mostly demands. Probably because I was the only grim reaper this side of Mars, the only portal to the other side the departed could cross through. At least, those who hadn’t crossed right after they died and were stuck on Earth. Which was a freaking lot. Having been born the grim reaper, I couldn’t remember a time when dead people weren’t knocking on my door—metaphorically, as dead people rarely knocked—asking for my assistance with some unfinished business. It amazed me how many of the dearly departed forgot to turn off the stove.
For the most part, those who cross through me simply feel they’ve been on Earth long enough. Enter the reaper. Aka,
The departed can see me from anywhere in the world and can cross to the other side through me. I’ve been told I’m like a beacon as bright as a thousand suns, which would suck for a departed with a martini hangover.
I’m Charlotte Davidson: private investigator, police consultant, all-around badass. Or I could’ve been a badass, had I stuck with those lessons in mixed martial arts. I was only in that class to learn how to kill people with paper. And—oh, yes—let us not forget grim reaper. Admittedly, being the reaper wasn’t all bad. I had a handful of friends I’d kill for—some alive, some not so much—a family of which I was quite grateful some were alive, some not so much, and an
with one of the most powerful beings in the universe, Reyes Alexander Farrow, the part-human, part-supermodel son of Satan.
Thus, as the grim reaper, I understood dead people. Their sense of timing pretty much sucked. Not a problem. But this being woken up in the middle of the night by a living, breathing being who had her nails sharpened regularly at World of Knives was just wrong.
I slapped at the hands like a boy in a girl fight, then continued to slap air when my intruder rushed away to invade my closet. Apparently, in high school, Cookie had been voted Person Most Likely to Die Any Second Now. Despite an overwhelming desire to scowl at her, I couldn’t quite muster the courage to pry open my eyes. Harsh light filtered through my lids anyway. I had such a serious wattage issue.
Then again, maybe
died. Maybe I’d bit it and was floating haplessly toward the light like in the movies.
“… I’m not kidding.…”
I didn’t feel particularly floaty, but experience had taught me never to underestimate the inconvenience of death’s timing.
“… for real, get up.”
I ground my teeth together and used all my energy to anchor myself to Earth. Mustn’t … go into … the light.
“Are you even listening to me?”
Cookie’s voice was muffled now as she rummaged through my personal effects. She was so lucky my killer instincts hadn’t kicked in and pummeled her ass to the ground. Left her a bruised and broken woman. Groaning in agony. Twitching occasionally.
“Charley, for heaven’s sake!”
Darkness suddenly enveloped me as an article of clothing smacked me in the face. Which was completely uncalled for. “For heaven’s sake back,” I said in a groggy voice, wrestling the growing pile of clothes off my head. “What are you doing?”
“Getting you dressed.”
“I’m already as dressed as I want to be at—” I glanced at the digits glowing atop my nightstand. “—two o’clock in the freaking morning. Seriously?”
“Seriously.” She threw something else. Her aim being what it was, the lamp on my nightstand went flying. The lampshade landed at my feet. “Put that on.”
But she was gone. It was weird. She rushed out the door, leaving an eerie silence in her wake. The kind that makes one’s lids grow heavy, one’s breathing rhythmic, deep, and steady.
I jumped out of my skin at the sound of Cookie’s screeching and, having flailed, almost fell out of bed. Man, she had a set of lungs. She’d yelled from her apartment across the hall.
“You’re going to wake the dead!” I yelled back. I didn’t deal well with the dead at two in the morning. Who did?
“I’m going to do more than that if you don’t get your ass out of bed.”
For a best-friend-slash-neighbor-slash-dirt-cheap-receptionist, Cookie was getting pushy. We’d both moved into our respective apartments across the hall from each other three years ago. I was fresh out of the Peace Corps, and she was fresh out of divorce court with one kid in tow. We were like those people who meet and just seem to know each other. When I opened my PI business, she offered to answer the phone until I could find someone more permanent, and the rest is history. She’s been my slave ever since.
I examined the articles of clothing strewn across my bedroom and lifted a couple in doubt. “Bunny slippers and a leather miniskirt?” I called out to her. “Together? Like an ensemble?”
She stormed back into the room, hands on hips, her cropped black hair sticking every direction but down, and then she glared at me, the same glare my stepmother used to give me when I gave her the Nazi salute. That woman was so touchy about her resemblance to Hitler.
I sighed in annoyance. “Are we going to one of those kinky parties where everyone dresses like stuffed animals? ’Cause those people freak me out.”
She spotted a pair of sweats and hurled them at me along with a T-shirt that proclaimed
GRIM REAPERS ARE TO DIE FOR.
Then she rushed back out again.
“Is that a negatory?” I asked no one in particular.
Throwing back my Bugs Bunny comforter with a dramatic flair, I swung out of bed and struggled to get my feet into the sweats—as humans are wont to do when dressing at two o’clock in the morning—before donning one of those lacey push-up bras I’d grown fond of. My girls deserved all the support I could give them.
I realized Cookie had come back as I was shimmying into the bra and glanced up at her in question.
“Are your double-Ds secure?” she asked as she shook out the T-shirt and crammed it over my head. Then she shoved a jacket I hadn’t worn since high school into my hands, scooped up a pair of house slippers, and dragged me out of the room by my arm.
Cookie was a lot like orange juice on white pants. She could be either grating or funny, depending on who was wearing the white pants. I hopped into the bunny slippers as she dragged me down the stairs and struggled into the jacket as she pushed me out the entryway. My protests of “Wait,” “Ouch,” and “Pinkie toe!” did little good. She just barely eased her grip when I asked, “Are you wearing razor blades on your fingertips?”
The crisp, black night enveloped us as we hurried to her car. It had been a week since we’d solved one of the highest-profile cases ever to hit Albuquerque—the murder of three lawyers in connection to a human trafficking ring—and I had been quite enjoying the calm after the storm. Apparently, that was all about to end.
Trying hard to find her erratic behavior humorous, I tolerated Cookie’s manhandling until—for reasons I had yet to acquire—she tried to stuff me into the trunk of her Taurus. Two problems surfaced right off the bat: First, my hair caught in the locking mechanisms. Second, there was a departed guy already there, his ghostly image monochrome in the low light. I considered telling Cookie she had a dead guy in her trunk but thought better of it. Her behavior was erratic enough without throwing a dead stowaway into the mix. Thank goodness she couldn’t see dead people. But no way was I climbing into the trunk with him.
“Stop,” I said, holding up a hand in surrender while I fished long strands of chestnut hair out of the trunk latch with the other one. “Aren’t you forgetting someone?”
She screeched to a halt, metaphorically, and leveled a puzzled expression on me. It was funny.
I had yet to be a mother, but I would have thought it difficult to forget something it took thirty-seven hours of excruciating pain to push out from between my legs. I decided to give her a hint. “She starts with an
and ends with an
Cookie blinked and thought for a moment.
I tried again. “Um, the fruit of your loins?”
“Oh, Amber’s with her dad. Get in the trunk.”
I smoothed my abused hair and scanned the interior of the trunk. The dead guy looked as though he’d been homeless when he was alive. He lay huddled in an embryonic position, not paying attention to either of us as we stood over him. Which was odd, since I was supposed to be bright and sparkly. Light of a thousand suns and all. My presence, at the very least, should have elicited a nod of acknowledgment. But he was giving me nothing. Zero. Zip. Zilch. I sucked at the whole grim reaper thing. I totally needed a scythe.
“This is not going to work,” I said as I tried to figure out where one bought farming equipment. “And where could we possibly be going at two o’clock in the morning that requires me to ride in the trunk of a car?”
She reached through the dead guy and snatched a blanket then slammed the lid closed. “Fine, get in the back, but keep your head down and cover up.”
“Cookie,” I said, taking a firm hold of her shoulders to slow her down, “what is going on?”