New York Times & USA Today Bestselling Author

Fourth Grave Beneath My Feet

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Chapter 1

Only two things in life are certain. Guess which one I am.
—Charley Davidson, grim reaper

I 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.

It sucked.

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 fl oral 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.

“How?”

“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.

“Time.”

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?”

“Apparently.”

“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?”

“Nope.”

“Then it stays.” I lifted my wrist and twirled the bracelet. “Look how sparkly it is.”

“And it goes so well with Margaret.”

“Totally.”

“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?”

“About me.”

“Oh, right.”

“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?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, that machine does the magic foam trick.”

Her dark head popped up. “No.”

“Yes.”

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?”

“You don’t?”

“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.

Cookie frowned.

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.”

Cookie frowned.

“She’s gone.”

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.”

“You mean—?”

“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.

Subtle.

“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.

Impossible.

 

Chapter 2

Doing nothing is hard. You never know when you’re done.
—t-shirt

It took every ounce of strength I had to tear myself away from the win­dow, wondering if Reyes Farrow had just dematerialized his human body. Then another thought hit: What the hell was he doing out there? And then another: Why was he so angry? It was my turn to be angry. He had no reason to be. And I would have told him that very thing if I’d felt any in­centive to leave my apartment and hunt him down. But my apartment was cozy. The thought of leaving it just to get in a fight with the son of evil incarnate made about as much sense as flying ants. Where was the logic in that? Ants were scary enough without giving them the ability to fly.

I walked into my living room, shaken and disoriented. “Reyes Far­row was outside. Just leaning against the bar. Watching the apartment.”

Cookie jumped up. She gaped at me for about ten seconds before hur­dling the couch and stumbling into my bedroom, nearly crashing through the window. She was almost agile where men were concerned. I didn’t have the heart to tell her she’d have had a better view from the living room, from pretty much right where she’d been sitting. Nor did I have the heart to tell her that he was already gone.

“He’s not there,” she said, her voice agitated and panicked.

“What?” I asked, pretending to be surprised. I hurried over and peeked out the curtains. Sure enough, he was gone. “He was there a minute ago.” I scanned the entire area.

She frowned at me. “You knew he was gone.”

I cringed, ashamed. “Sorry. You were just so into your gymnastics rou­tine, I didn’t want to break your concentration. Do you know how hard it would be to explain to the cops if you’d crashed through the window and plummeted to your death?” I refocused on the spot where Reyes had been standing. “But I swear, if that man is tailing me—”

“Hon, you have to go somewhere to be tailed. This would be more like stalking.”

She had a point. One that I could throw in his face if I were ever go­ing to speak to him again.

I bowed my head as Cookie continued to search the parking lot in the hopes that he would show up again. I could hardly blame her.

“While we’re on the subject, I think he dematerialized his human body.”

She jumped in surprise. “I thought that was impossible. Are you sure?”

“No.” I walked back into my cluttered living room, because another thought hit. Freaking ADD. “So, be honest. How broke am I?”

Cookie drew in a deep breath and followed me. She regarded me with a sad expression before answering. “On a scale of one to ten, you’re not on it. You’re more like a negative twelve.”

“Crap.” I studied my Jackie Kennedy commemorative bracelet with a great and terrible weight on my chest, then opened the clasp. “Here, send this back, too.”

She took it. “Are you sure?”

“Yeah. I was only pretending it went well with Margaret, anyway. Now, if it were black with skulls on it . . .”

“Sadly, I don’t think Jackie wore skulls all that often. You know, we still have a couple of clients who owe us.”

“Really?” This was promising. I wound around boxes to Mr. Coffee. He was the only action I’d been getting lately.

“Yep.”

When she hesitated, I knew something was up. I refreshed my cup and questioned her with a quirk of my brows. “Like who?”

“Like Mrs. Allen.”

“Mrs. Allen?” I stirred in creamer and fake sweet stuff. “She pays me in cookies. I’m not sure how that will help with the bills.”

“True, but she didn’t pay us the last time you found PP.”

PP, otherwise known as Prince Phillip, was Mrs. Allen’s rabid poodle. She should have called him Houdini. That dog could escape a locked bank vault. But actually, Cookie was wrong. Guilt had me biting my lip as I stirred, averting my gaze.

She gasped. “Mrs. Allen paid you?”

“Kind of.”

“And you didn’t share?”

“Well—”

“An entire plate of cookies, and you didn’t share? After I did all the legwork?”

My jaw fell open. “The legwork? You walked over to the window and spotted him by the Dumpster.”

“Yes, and I walked—” She crisscrossed her fingers to demonstrate a walk­ing motion, which I found humorous. “—to the window with my legs.”

“Yes, but I was the one who chased that vicious little shit seventeen blocks.”

“Three.”

“And then he bit me.”

“He has no teeth.”

“Gums hurt, too.” I rubbed my arm absently, remembering the horror of it all.

“He’s a poodle. How hard can he gum?”

“Fine, next time you can chase him down.”

After exhaling loudly, she said, “What about that Billy Bob guy? He still owes us money.”

“You mean Bobby Joe? That guy who thought his girlfriend was try­ing to kill him with peanuts? He traded that out.”

“Charley,” she said, her tone admonishing, “you have got to learn to keep it in your pants.”

“Not like that,” I replied, appalled. “He painted the offices for us.”

After a long, exasperated stare, she asked, “You mean the offices we are no longer in?”

I offered her a sheepish shrug. “Yeah, I forgot to cancel, and he painted them after we moved out. He was really happy that they were so clutter free.”

“Well, that’s just fantastic.”

Her enthusiasm seemed disingenuous. It was weird.

“Surely, someone  else owes us money,” she said.

Then it hit me. The answer to all our prayers. Or at least a couple of them. “You’re right,” I said. Reyes Farrow owed me and owed me big. I grinned at Cookie. “I solved a case. I am due my usual rate, plus medical expenses and mental anguish.”

She looked hopeful. “What case? Who?”

The determined set of my jaw told her exactly who I was talking about. She got that faraway, dreamy look in her eyes. “Can I help collect?”

“Nope, you have to get all this stuff sent back. How  else are we going to eat for the next month?”

“I never get to have any fun.”

“It’s your own fault.”

She cleared her throat. “How is any of this—” She spread her arms wide. “—my fault?”

“That’s what you get for leaving me unsupervised. Don’t you have return receipts to fill out?”

She lifted a handful. “Yes.”

“From your apartment?”

“Fine.” She took the receipts and started to leave me to my own devices. She would never learn. “Oh,” she said before opening the door, “I took your remote, so don’t even think about it.” That was so uncalled for.

After she left, I sat down and tried to think up a plan of action. If only I could get ahold of Angel. If anyone could find that low-down, dirty—

“How did you do that?” I jumped at the sound of a voice coming from behind me. It was high.

The jump. Not the voice. I pressed my hands to my heart and turned to the thirteen-year-old departed gangbanger who went by the name of Angel Garza. He stood in my apartment, wearing his usual jeans and dirty T-shirt with a bandanna wrapped around his head. “Angel, what the hell?”

“What do you mean, what the hell? What did you do?”

“What?” I asked, trying to calm my heart. I didn’t normally get that scared when Angel popped in.

His dark brown eyes narrowed in question. “How did you do that?”

“I don’t know. What did I do?”

“I was at my cousin’s quinceañera one minute, then here the next.”

“Really?”

“Did you do that?”

“I don’t think so. I just thought about you, and you were there.”

“Well, stop it. That was weird.” He hugged himself and rubbed his arms. “This is cool. You never come when I need you.”

“I’m your investigator, pendeja, not your lapdog.”

“I can’t believe that worked.”

“What are all these boxes?”

“Did you just call me pendeja?”

Then he noticed me at last and got the familiar look in his eyes. “You’re looking good, boss.”

“And you’re looking thirteen.” Throwing his age in his face always worked. He bristled and turned to study my new cheese pot. He  wouldn’t like what I was about to ask him, so I stood and faced him head-on, my stance set, my expression hard. “I need to know where he is.”

Surprise straightened his shoulders a moment, but he caught himself and shrugged. “Who?”

He knew exactly who I was talking about. “He was just here a min­ute ago, standing outside my apartment building. Where is he staying?”

Frustration slid through his lips. “You’ve stayed away from him for weeks. Why now?”

“He owes me money.”

“Not my problem.”

“It will be when I  can’t pay your salary.” To pay for his investigative services, I sent an anonymous cashier’s check to his mother every month. He couldn’t use the money in his rather sparse condition, but she could. It was a perfect arrangement.

“Shit.” He disappeared through a wall of boxes. “Every time you get near him, you get hurt.”

“That’s not true.”

He reemerged but only partly. “What’s a Flowbee?”

“Angel.” I put a finger under his chin and stroked the barely emerging growth of hair that peppered his jaw. “I need to know where he is.”

“Can I see you naked first?”

“No.”

“You want to see me naked?”

“No. And yuck.”

He straightened, offended. “If I was still alive, I’d be older than you.”

“But you aren’t,” I reminded him gently. “And I’m sorry for that.”

“You aren’t going to like it.”

“That’s okay. I just need to know where he is.”

“He’ll be at Garber Shipping in the warehouse district tonight.”

“At a shipping warehouse?” I asked, surprised. “Is he working there?”

Reyes had money. Lots and lots of money. His sister told me. So why would he be doing manual labor for a shipping company?

After Angel took a long moment to nibble at a hangnail, he said, “Depends on your definition of work.”

After being stunned speechless by Reyes’s new job title, I walked toward my front door, wrapped a hand around the knob, then rethought what I was doing. I was going to face Reyes Farrow. Unarmed. Reyes had never tried to hurt me directly, but he’d been out of prison for two months. Who knew what the man was capable of? He’d probably learned a lot of bad habits since leaving the big house. Like cheating at poker. And uri­nating in public.

Even though I wasn’t much for carrying firearms—every time I car­ried a gun, images of it being wrestled away from me and used to end my life always flashed before my eyes— I headed back to my bedroom for Margaret. I figured, when facing a dirty, lying scoundrel like Reyes Far­row, one couldn’t be too careful. Or too armed. So I slid a belt through the loops of my jeans, holstered the Glock, then snapped the clasp closed.

After another deep breath, I headed out the door only to lose steam when I came to the stairs. The same stairs I’d taken a gazillion times be­fore. They looked steeper somehow. More dangerous. My hands shook on the rail as I paused on each step, working up the courage to take the next, wondering what in the name of thunder was wrong with me. True, it’d been a while since I’d ventured out, but surely the world hadn’t changed that much.

When I finally made it down two flights of stairs to the first floor, I studied the steel entrance door to the complex. It sat ajar, not quite closed, and daylight streamed in around the edges. I forced one foot in front of the other, my breaths shallow, my palms slick with a nervous energy. I reached a quaking hand for the vertical handle and pushed. Daylight rushed in, flooding the area and blinding me. My breath caught and I pulled the door shut. Leaning against the handle for support, I took in long gulps of air, and tried to calm myself.

One minute. I just needed a minute to gather my wits. They were always running amok, wreaking havoc.

“Ms. Davidson?”

Without thought, I drew the gun from my holster and aimed toward the voice coming from the shadowy entranceway.

A woman gasped and jumped back, her eyes wide, gaping at the bar­rel pointed at her face. “I—I’m so sorry. I thought—”

“Who are you?” I asked, holding the gun so much steadier than I thought possible, considering the irrational state of my insides.

“Harper.” She held her hands up in surrender. “My name is Harper Lo—”

“What do you want?” I had no idea why I was still holding the gun on her. Normally, nice women with no hidden agenda whatsoever didn’t scare me. It was weird.

“I’m looking for Charley Davidson.”

I lowered the gun but didn’t holster it. Not just yet. She could turn out to be psychotic. Or a door-to-door salesperson. “I’m Charley. What do you want?” I cringed at the sharpness of my own voice. Why was I behaving so badly? I’d eaten a good breakfast.

“I—I’d like to hire you. I think someone is trying to kill me.”

I narrowed my eyes, took in her appearance. Long dark hair. Tall and curvy, full figured in a very pretty way. Soft features. Neat clothes. She had a baby blue scarf tied loosely at her neck, the ends tucked into her dark blue coat. Her eyes were large, warm, and captivating. All in all, she didn’t look crazy. Then again, neither did most crazy people.

“You’re looking for a PI?” A girl could hope. I hadn’t had a job in two months. Apparently. I glanced up toward Cookie’s apartment.

“Yes. An investigator.”

I took a deep breath and holstered Margaret. “I’m kind of in between offices at the moment. We can talk in my apartment, if that’s okay.”

She nodded briskly, fear evident in every move she made. Poor thing. She clearly didn’t deserve my surly side.

With head hung in shame, I started back upstairs. They were much easier to climb than to descend. That wasn’t usually the case. Especially after a two-month veg-a-thon. My muscles should have atrophied by now. “Can I get you anything?” I asked when we reached my apartment. I was only slightly out of breath.

“Oh, no, thank you. I’m fine.” She was eyeing me warily. Not that I could blame her. My people skills needed a good honing. “Are you okay?” she asked.

“I’m fine. The wheezing will go away in a minute. It’s been a while since I took those stairs.”

“Oh, does this building have an elevator?”

“Um, no. You know, I’m not sure it’s wise to go into someone’s apart­ment who just pulled a gun on you.”

She’d been busy perusing the mess that was my office- slash-apartment­slash- ballroom-area-when-the-dancing-bug-hit. She dropped her gaze in embarrassment at my words. “I guess I’m a little desperate.”

I offered her the chair and I took the couch. Thankfully, Aunt Lillian still wasn’t back from Africa. After picking up a notepad and pen, I asked, “So, what’s going on?”

She swallowed hard and said, “I’ve been having strange things hap­pen to me. Bizarre things.”

“Like?”

“Someone has been breaking into my house and leaving . . . things.”

“What kinds of things?”

“Well, for one, I found a dead rabbit on my bed this morning.”

“Oh.” Taken aback, I crinkled my nose in disgust. “That’s not good. But I’m not sure—I mean, maybe it was suicidal.”

She rushed in to stop me. “You don’t understand. A lot of things like that have been happening. Rabbits with their throats cut. Brakes with their lines cut.”

“Wait, brakes? As in car brakes?”

“Yes. Yes.” She was starting to panic. “The brakes on my car. They just stopped working. How do brakes just stop working?” She was scared. It broke my heart. Her hands shook and her eyes filled with tears. “And then my dog.” She buried her face in her hands and let the emotions she’d been holding at bay rush forth. “She disappeared.”

Now I really felt bad about the Margaret thing. I chastised her with a glare. Margaret. Not Harper. Sobs racked her body as all her fears spilled forth. I scooted forward and put a hand on her shoulder. After a few minutes, she began to calm, so I started my questions anew.

“Have you called the police?”

She pulled a tissue from her coat pocket and dabbed at her nose. “Over and over. So much so, they actually assigned an officer to vet my calls.”

“Oh, really? Which officer?”

“Officer Taft,” she said, a hard edge leeching into her voice. Defnitely no love lost there.

“Okay, I know him. I can talk to him to get—”

“But he doesn’t believe me. None of them do.”

“What about your brakes? Surely they could tell if they’d been tam­pered with?”

“The mechanic couldn’t say it was foul play specifically, so they just dismissed that like they did everything else.”

I leaned back and tapped my notebook in thought. “How long has this been going on?”

She bit her lip, glanced away in embarrassment. “A few weeks now.”

“What about your family?”

Her fingers smoothed the edge of her scarf. “My parents aren’t really the supportive type. And my ex-husband, well, he’d just use it against me every chance he got. I haven’t told him.”

“Do you suspect him?”

“Kenneth?” She scoffed softly. “No. He’s an ass, but he’s a harmless ass.”

Proceeding with caution, I asked, “Is he paying you alimony?”

“No. Not any. He has no reason to want me dead.”

I wasn’t so sure about that, but decided to go along with it for now. “What about work colleagues?”

I’d embarrassed her again. She blanched under my questioning gaze. “I don’t really—I don’t work. I haven’t had a job for a while now.”

Interesting. “How do you pay your bills?”

“My parents are very well off. They basically pay me to stay away from them. It works out well for the both of us.”

I couldn’t help but conclude that if she weren’t around, they’d no lon­ger have to carry her. Perhaps her parents were even less supportive than she imagined.

“What do they think of this situation?”

She shrugged. “They believe me even less than Officer Taft.”

She had me at Officer Taft. While we weren’t exactly enemies, we weren’t really friends either. We’d had an encounter once that ended in him cursing at me and storming out of my apartment. I tended not to forget such encounters. That one involved his sister, who’d died when he was very young. He got testy when I told him she’d stayed behind for him. Some people were so touchy when I told them their departed family members had taken up stalking.

“Okay,” I said, “I’ll take this case on one condition.”

The tension seemed to ooze out. I wasn’t sure if that was because I was taking her case or she really was that afraid for her life. “Anything,” she said.

“You have to promise to be honest with me. Once I take this case, I’m on your side, do you understand? Think of me as your doctor or your therapist. I  can’t repeat anything you tell me in confidence without your express permission.”

She nodded. “I’ll tell you everything I can.”

“Okay, first, do you have any idea, any suspicion at all of who would want you dead?”

Most people, when threatened, did, but Harper shook her head. “I’ve tried and tried. I just have no idea who would want to hurt me.”

“Fair enough.” I didn’t want to push her too hard. She seemed fragile as it was, and my shoving a gun in her face couldn’t have helped.

I took down the names of her closest family and friends, anyone who might be able to corroborate her story. Attempted murder was no laugh­ing matter. Neither was stalking or harassment. The fact that her imme­diate family wasn’t taking her seriously alarmed me. I’d have to pay them a visit ay-sap.

“Do you have a place to stay besides your  house?” I asked when I was done.

Her hair fell forward with another soft shake of her head. “I  haven’t thought about it. I guess I really don’t. Not anywhere safe.”

That could be a problem. Still . . .  “You know, I might have just the place. It’s like a safe house, only it’s a tattoo parlor.”

“Oh . . .  kay.”

She seemed open to the idea. That was good. “Awesome. You sit tight while I get this information to my assistant across the hall, then I’ll take you over.”

With an absent nod, she studied a box on the sofa beside me of col­lectible Kiss action figures.

“Yeah,” I said, agreeing with her bewilderment, “a lot of caffeine went into that decision.”

“I can imagine.”

I started across the hall, thrilled about the prospect of rubbing my new client in Cookie’s face—not literally, though, as that could be awkward—and almost ran down Mr. Zamora, the building’s superintendent.

“Oh—hey, there,” he said. He was shorter than me, pudgy with salt- and- pepper hair that always seemed to be in need of a good conditioning. And he always wore sweatpants and T-shirts that had seen more abuse than narcotics. But he was a good landlord. When my heater stopped working in mid- December, it took him only two weeks to get it fixed. Of course, it took me knocking on his door in need of a warm place to sleep to get it that way, but one night on his sofa, where I’d suddenly developed night terrors and epilepsy, and that puppy was running like a Mercedes the next day. It was awesome.

“Hey, Mr. Z.”

He was carrying a small ladder, a drop cloth, and a gallon of paint. And he was headed to the apartment at the end of the hall. What the heck? When I’d first moved in, I wanted that apartment. I begged. I pleaded. But no. The owners weren’t willing to shell out the money it would take to renovate it. And now he was renovating it? Now they were willing?

“What’s going on?” I asked as nonchalantly as possible.

He drew to a stop in front of me, key at the ready. While Cookie’s apartment and mine were right across the hall from each other, the end apartment spanned the length of both of ours with the door perpendicu­lar to the main hall. It was like taking both of ours and putting them together. Since it’d suffered major water damage a few years ago and the owners lost the insurance money at the casinos before they could finish the renovations, it’d sat vacant for years. Which made no sense to me whatsoever.

“Finally finishing up this apartment,” he said, pointing with a key. “Got some construction guys coming in this afternoon. Might get noisy.”

Hope blossomed in my chest like a begonia in spring. My apartment was way too small now with all my new stuff. I could totally use bigger and better digs. “I want it,” I said, blurting it out before I could stop my­self.

He raised a brow. “Can’t let you have it. Already have a tenant.”

“No way. Mr. Z, I’ve wanted that apartment since I first looked at this place. You promised to put me on the list of possible tenants.”

“And you are on the list. Right below these people.”

I gasped. “You mean, you cheated?”

“No. I took a bribe. Not the same thing.”

He started for the door again. I took a menacing step in front of him. “I bribed you, too, if you’ll remember.”

With a snort, he said, “Was that a bribe? I thought it was a tip.”

I was now officially appalled. “And I offered to pay you more than what I was paying for this cracker box.”

“You dissing my building?”

“No, your ethics.”

“If I’m recalling this right, you offered to pay fifty dollars more a month for this apartment.”

“That’s right.”

“For an apartment that’s twice the size of yours.”

“Yeah, so? It’s all I had at the time.”

“From my understanding, the new tenant is paying three times what you pay for yours. And paying for all the repairs.”

Crap. I probably couldn’t afford to do something like that. Maybe if I sent back the espresso machine. And the electric nail gun. “I cannot be­lieve you went behind my back like this.”

He picked up the ladder. “I don’t think renting out an apartment is going behind your back, Ms. Davidson. But if you feel that strongly about it, you can always kiss my ass.”

“In your dreams.”

After a soft chuckle, he disappeared into the apartment. I got a peek at the new drywall lining the walls, all fresh and unpainted. Clearly, I’d missed something.

I strode through Cookie’s door, cursing my bad luck. And bad hearing.

“Did you know Mr. Z rented 3B?”

Cookie looked up from her computer. “No way. I wanted that apart­ment.”

“I did, too. Who do you think our neighbor will be?”

“Probably another elderly woman with poodles.”

“Maybe. Or maybe a serial killer.”

“One can dream. What do you have?” She nodded toward the paper in my hands.

“Oh, right. We have a client.”

“Really?” Her surprise wasn’t completely unexpected. It’d been a while. But it was a little offensive.

“Yeah. She just showed up. Maybe those ads we’re running on late- night radio are working.”

“Possibly, but I still think they’d work even better if they were in En­glish. Not many people speak Japanese around  here.”

“Honestly, Cook, you act like I don’t even want any new clients.”

She reached over and snatched the paper out of my hands. “I wonder where I got that idea from.”

With a confounded shrug, I glanced behind me to make sure Harper wasn’t at the door; then I spoke softly to Cook. “I need you to find out everything you can about her. I need family members, work and volun­teer history, parking tickets, whatever you can get.”

“You got it. Where are you going now?” she asked as I headed for the door.

“Harper believes someone is trying to kill her, so I’m taking her to the safe house.”

“Sounds like a plan.” After the door clicked closed, she yelled out, “We have a safe house?”

 

Chapter 3

Welcome back. I see the assassins have failed.
—t-shirt

After a battle of epic proportions, where my legs wanted to go one way while my head told them to go another, I strode with Harper past my dad’s bar and down the alley toward our makeshift safe house. I couldn’t help but scan the terrain like a soldier in hostile territory. Oddly enough, Harper did the same thing. We looked like tweakers as we passed busi­nesses, college students, and the occasional homeless person.

I decided to try to lighten the mood. “So, what did you always want to be when you grew up?” I asked Harper.

She walked beside me, arms crossed at chest, head down, and fought to smile.

“It’s just up here,” I said, saving her from having to respond. “Pari’s a saint. Only with full sleeves and a bad attitude. Other than that, you can totally count on her. Mostly for questionable advice, but we all have to be good at something, right?”

“Do you think you’ll catch him?” She couldn’t quite wrap her head around anything other than her immediate danger. Clearly she did not suffer from ADD.

“I’m going to do my best, hon. Cross my heart.”

“I’m so tired of feeling helpless. Guess I should’ve taken karate or some­thing, huh?”

I liked her thought process, but even martial arts didn’t guarantee a long and prosperous life. “Don’t beat yourself up over this, Harper. There are crazy people out there. People you can’t reason with or even begin to understand without being a licensed psychotherapist. There’s no telling what set this guy off.”

She nodded, acceding to my expertise on crazy people. I grew up with one in the form of Denise Davidson, the stepmother from hell. She could teach the son of Satan a thing or two.

“Here it is,” I said, pointing to a screen door. Remnants of red paint framed the wood around the back entrance.

Harper stopped and looked around the alley. We were at the back en­trance of a seedy tattoo parlor. Her confidence in me seemed to wane a bit.

“It’s totally safe. I promise.”

After a hesitant nod, she said, “Okay. I trust you.”

Maybe she really was crazy. “And Pari has a really cute apprentice.”

A shy grin spread across her face. She seemed so innocent and un­worldly, yet she was simply beautiful. I wondered what her life had been like. Hopefully, I’d find out as the case went on.

“A teacher.”

I was just about to open the door when she’d spoken. “I’m sorry?”

“A teacher. You asked me what I’d always wanted to be. A teacher.”

I gave her my full attention. “Why didn’t you become one?”

She shrugged and looked elsewhere. “My mother didn’t approve. She wanted me to be a doctor or a lawyer.”

While I couldn’t imagine her as a lawyer, I could definitely see her as a doctor. She seemed the nurturing type. Then again, doctors weren’t all that nurturing. Maybe a nurse. Still, I could definitely see her as a teacher. She would’ve made a great one. “I hope all your dreams come true, Harper.”

“Thank you,” she said in surprise. “I hope yours do, too.”

I offered an appreciative smile. “Most of mine involve a man who is more trouble than he’s worth, but it’s a nice thought.”

She laughed softly, covering her mouth with a hand. Her mouth was too pretty to be covered.

We stepped inside Pari’s shop. She had a desk up front, but her office sat in the back, past the studio, a corner space the size of a moth’s testicles with a nice view of the Dumpster across the alley. I heard a few huffing sounds coming from underneath the desk, so I strolled in, half hoping to catch her doing something illicit. Her apprentice was hot.

She had computer guts scattered over her desk. Wires and gadgets of all shapes and sizes littered every available inch of counter space.

It seemed like every time I walked into her parlor, she was busy with something technical, which seemed to go against the grain of her artistic nature. Then again, she always was a little grainy.

A thumping sound wafted toward me, eliciting an evil grin. I was such a perv. “Hey, Par,” I said, hitching a hip onto her desk to peer over it nonchalantly.

After a mighty struggle that involved a sharp crack and a few gur­gling sounds, she popped her head up. Her hair, a thick black mop that some would call a mess while others—namely me—would call a work of art, seemed to have grown attached to the wires she was working on. She spit out a microscopic piece of plastic while fishing the wires out of her do with one hand and shielding her eyes with the other.

“Fucking hell, Charley.” She closed her eyes and felt around her desk blindly for her sunglasses. Pari had been able to see what normal folk re­ferred to as ghosts since she’d had a near-death experience when she was twelve. She couldn’t make out the shapes or communicate with the de­parted. She just saw them as a gray mist, so she always knew when one was near.

But me she could see from a mile away. My brightness seemed to grate on her. It was funny.

After inching her sunglasses away from her reach a third time, she opened her eyes and glared at me. It must have been painful. I could only hope she didn’t have a hangover.

She sighed and ducked back under the desk.

“Is your guy down there with you?” I asked.

“My guy?” She grunted, apparently trying to reach something. “I don’t have a guy.”

“I thought you had a guy.”

“I don’t have a guy.”

“You have an apprentice.”

“That’s not a guy. That’s Tre.”

“Who is a guy.”

“But not that kind of guy. How did you get in  here? My office door was locked.”

“No it wasn’t.”

She popped her head back out and glanced around. “Really? It should have been locked.”

After she ducked back down, I asked, “Why? What are you doing?”

“. . . Nothing.”

She’d hesitated far too long. She was totally up to something. I leaned over to inspect her work. “Looks to me like you’re rewiring your phone line.”

“No, I’m not,” she said defensively. “Why would I do that?”

If liars  were the main course at a Shriners convention, she’d be a pork chop.

“Okay, fine, don’t tell me. I need to leave a client with you a few days. Can we use your spare room?”

“There’s only a couch, but it’s comfortable.”

“That’ll work. This is Harper. Harper, this is Pari.”

“Hey, Harper,” she said, but before Harper could respond, a shower of sparks lit the area. A rustling sounded from under the desk and was fol­lowed by a solid thud as Pari slammed into the underside of it for the ump­teenth time.

Doubtful that phone lines sparked like that, I leaned over again. “Seriously, what are you doing?”

“Did you see a spark?”

“I’m going to show Harper to her room. Try not to kill yourself before I get back.”

“Okay, lock the door on the way out.”

“O—”

“Wait!” She popped up again, an idea lighting her face. Her heavy liner narrowed as she patted the desk, searching for her sunglasses again. I let her get them that time. She slid them onto her face, then said, “I’m doing you a favor.”

I hitched my hip back onto her desk. “Yes.”

“And favors need to be repaid, right?”

Wondering where she was going with this, I said, “Yes.”

“Go on a date with me.”

“You’re not really my type.”

“Come on, Chuck. One date and I’ll never ask again.”

“No, really, you’re not my type.”

“You know how you have this incredible gift for being able to tell when someone is lying?”

I glanced at Harper. She seemed very interested all of a sudden. I shrugged. “Yeah.”

“Well, I’m thinking about dating this guy, but I can’t quite get a read on him. You know, I can’t tell if he’s being truthful with me or not.”

“Do you suspect him of anything in particular?”

“Not really. I just thought you could show up—” She added air quotes to emphasize the deception “—then just sit with us a minute. You know, just long enough to get a read on him.”

“I don’t really read people.”

“Feel him, then.”

“Fun, yet awkward.”

“You know what I mean. Tit for tat, lady. Take it or leave it.” She looked past me. “No offense, Harper.”

“Oh, none tak—”

“So?” Pari said, interrupting poor Harper, who was finally getting a word in. “My couch for your mad skill.”

“Well, since you put it that way.”

“Sweet. I’ll text you the place and time.”

“Wonderful. I’m going to show Harper the couch.”

“Okay.”

I figured our conversation was over, but no sooner had she ducked behind the desk than she popped right back up again. She reminded me of a toaster pastry minus the icing.

“Wait a minute. Where have you been?”

“Around. Just kind of hanging out in my apartment.”

“For two months?”

“Pretty much.”

“Hmm. Okay, well, lock the door!” she yelled. She was so pushy.

“She’s interesting.”

“Yes, she is.” I led Harper around a tight corner, made tighter by the boxes of supplies, and into a small back room. “It’s not much, but no one will think to look for you here, I’m certain of it.”

She took it all in with a gracious nod. I could tell she wanted to scrunch her nose in distaste, but refrained out of kindness. “This is perfect,” she said instead. What a great sport.

“Okay, I’m off to do investigative stuff. I’ll come back later tonight. You gonna be okay here?”

“Sure, I’ll be fine.”

I put a hand on her arm to draw her attention away from her new sur­roundings. “I’ll do everything in my power to find whoever is doing this to you. I promise.” A tiny smile lit her face, and if I wasn’t mistaken, she was a little re­lieved. “Thank you.”

After leaving Harper standing in the middle of the tiny room, I spotted Pari’s apprentice, Tre. He was working on a girl’s tat who looked torn be­tween anguish and desire. I could hardly blame her. Tre was like a Long Island iced tea: tall, unassuming, delicious enough to wet your whistle as well as other places, and packed a lethal punch when you least expected it.

“Hey, Chuck,” he said, nodding at me between buzzes of the needle. The fact that deep down inside, tattoo artists must enjoy the infliction of pain on others was not lost on me. I wondered if that trait spilled over into his personal life. I could handle pain if that’s what he was into. Not a lot, but . . . 

“Hey, you,” I said, only a little worried I’d make him mess up. Mis­takes were so permanent. Like nine-months-after-prom permanent.

He paused his efforts to ask, “Do you just call me you because you can’t remember my name?”

My shoulders wilted. “Darn. You caught me. No, wait, it’s  here some­where.” I tapped my temple in thought as he went back to his task. “Oh, right, is it Serving Tray?”

He shook his head, his brows drawn in concentration.

“Is it Lunch Tray?”

“No,” he said with a soft chuckle.

“Is it Ashtray?”

He paused again, and the girl shot daggers at me with her huge dark eyes. She was either jealous or in so much pain, she just wanted it over with, and I kept interrupting.

“Forget I asked,” he said, a boyish smile lighting his features.

What a heartbreaker. No wonder Pari’s female client base had tripled since he started working with her.

“See ya round, handsome.”

He winked and went back to work with a grin sparkling in his eyes. I felt sorry for the girl.

On the way back, I cut through the parking lot and made a beeline for Misery, my cherry red Jeep Wrangler. In the semi-open space of down­town Albuquerque, I felt naked. I’d been naked in public once, so while this definitely synthesized that level of discomfort, this was different. More raw. More acute. More feral.

“He misses you, you know.”

I spun around to see a statuesque African American woman walking past me toward the back of Dad’s bar. I’d seen her a few times in the last few weeks and figured she was the new bartender Dad had been planning to hire when I refused the job. He’d wanted me to give up my PI business and work for him. Silly rabbit. She stopped and offered me a friendly, I-come-in-peace smile. To say that she was stunning would have been an understatement. She was like a shimmering skyscraper, jutting proudly into the sky and daring the world to try to knock her down.

“Your father,” she said, elaborating. Her exotic eyes held me captive for a full minute before she turned back to the bar. “You’re all he talks about.”

Clearly she knew about our falling out, but I had no use for anything she’d just told me. Even if it were true, my father did not deserve my forgiveness at that moment. Nor my attention.

I climbed into Misery and sank into her faux leather seats. She fi t like a big red glove and felt just as warm. Well, not literally. The weather was chilly and her plastic windows were frosted over. I turned the key to let her warm up. She roared to life, then settled into a purr. It’d been a while since the two of us had had any alone time together. We’d have to talk later, but for now, we had places to be and suspects to see.

Harper had given me her address, and I wanted to check out her dwelling before diving in too deep. If the person stalking her had left another threat, I wanted to see it for myself. One could judge a lot about a person by how they left threatening evidence. Was the culprit violent or just menacing? Would he really harm her or did he just want to get that rise out of her? That control?

She lived in the gated Tanoan Estates, and I didn’t know if entrance would require Harper’s express permission or not. I dragged out my PI license just in case. It might help. It might not.

After pulling up to the gate, I offered the uniformed security guard a placating smile.

He stared, unimpressed.

“Hi,” I said.

He offered a brisk nod. Still unimpressed. I’d have to up my game.

“My name is Charley Davidson. I’m investigating a situation with one of your residents. Have you had any break-ins recently? Any alarms going off?”

He lifted a shoulder. “Alarms go off every now and then, mostly by the residents themselves. And we have the occasional break-in, but they’re pretty rare here. Can I ask who hired you?”

“Harper Lowell. She lives on—”

“I know where she lives.”

When I raised my brows, he tipped his hat back to scratch his head.

“Look, we’ve gotten a couple of calls from her, but we’ve never found any evidence of foul play on site. No signs of a break-in. No footprints or cars parked near her house. And she never could describe the intruder. If there was an intruder.”

“So, you think she was lying?”

“No,” he said with a noncommittal shrug. And now it was his turn to lie. “Not so much lying as . . . mistaken.”

“You mean paranoid.”

He thought a moment. “Overzealous.”

“Ah. Okay. Well, you don’t mind if I check it out, do you? Ms. Lowell gave me the key and the security code.”

“Knock yourself out. I’ll just need to record your license-plate number.”

“Do you record the information of every nonresident who comes through?”

“Sure do.”

I offered him my best smile. “Is there any way I can get a copy of the most recent pages?”

He shook his head. “Not without a warrant.”

Darn. I made a mental note to set Cookie on that. She had a knack for getting protected documents without a warrant. I was pretty sure that was her superpower.

After he took down my information, I drove through the estates un­til I came to Harper’s house. Tanoan was one of the nicer parts of Albu­querque. At least Harper’s parents did that much for her.

And Harper was doing everything right: Gated community with uniformed security guards. Active security system. Triple locks on all the doors. I went from room to room, checking for any signs of foul play before I hit the kitchen. It’d been something like an hour since I last had a cup of coffee. Surely she wouldn’t mind.

To my utter delight, she had one of those machines that used those in­dividual cups and made one serving of coffee at a time. I may have ordered one of those. I’d have to go through the boxes when I got home.

I searched her cabinets, wondering where I’d be if I were a K-Cup be­fore coming to the conclusion that I’d be in heaven, that’s where. Filled to the brim with grinds of shimmering black gold. I opened the last cabinet door and jumped back in surprise. A stuffed white rabbit sat against a can of beets. Normally white rabbits, especially stuffed ones, didn’t bother me, but there was something creepy about having one in a kitchen cabinet.

Staring.

Judging.

I started to reach up and take it down, then stopped myself. This was evidence. True, it wasn’t particularly incriminating or overtly threaten­ing, but it was evidence nonetheless.

And it was scary. Its eyes weren’t on right, and its neck looked like the stuffing had been pulled out so that it sat lopsided on its little shoulders.

I left it there and exited Harper’s  house unnerved and un-caffeinated.

After informing the security guard of what I found, leaving him unim­pressed again, I gave him my card and made him promise to keep an eye out for anything out of the ordinary. Then I started for home with my tail tucked between my legs. According to Angel, Reyes was going to be at that warehouse tonight, so I had some time to kill. I could do that on my sofa just as easily as I could running around Albuquerque like a chicken with my head cut off.

Wait. Somehow the word chicken struck a chord. I played with it in my mind. Rolled it over my tongue. Then came to a conclusion: It was me. I was a chicken butt. I was suddenly scared of everything.

I pulled off Academy and into a shopping center to stew in my own astonishment. I was a chicken of the most cowardly kind. Like a roosting hen. How can the grim reaper do her job if she’s a roosting hen? Sud­denly every sound, every movement, caused an adrenaline dump the size of Australia to flood my system. This would so not do. I had to get my act together.

I looked at Misery’s dash. Being with her was comforting on some level, but not as comforting as my sofa. Then it hit me. An atrocity I’d overlooked for years. I’d never named my sofa. How could I do that to her? How could I be so callous? So cold and selfish?

But what would I name her? This was big. Important. She couldn’t go through life with a name that didn’t fit her unique personality.

Filled with an odd sense of relief at the new goal in life, I put Misery into drive. I could worry about being a roosting hen later. I had a sofa to name.

With renewed energy, I pulled back onto Academy—after hitting a drive- through for a mocha latte—and had just started for home when my phone rang.

“Yes?” I said, illegally talking on the phone while driving within the city limits. Scoping for cops, I waited for Uncle Bob to stop talking to whomever he was talking to and get back to me.

My uncle Bob, or Ubie as I most often referred to him, was a detec­tive for APD, and I helped him on cases from time to time. He knew I could see the departed and used that to his advantage. Not that I could blame him.

“Get that to her, then call the ME ay-sap.”

“Okay,” I said, “but I’m not sure what calling the medical examiner ay-sap is going to accomplish. I’m pretty sure his name is George.”

“Oh, hey, Charley.”

“Hey, Uncle Bob. What’s up?”

“Are you driving?”

“No.”

“Have you heard anything?”

Our conversations often went like this. Uncle Bob with his random questions. Me with my trying to come up with answers just as random. Not that I had to try very hard. “I heard that Tiffany Gorham, a girl I knew in grade school, still stuffs her bra. But that’s just a rumor.”

“About the case,” he said through clenched teeth. I could tell his teeth were clenched because his words were suddenly forced. That meant he was frustrated. Too bad I had no idea what he was talking about.

“I wasn’t aware that we had a case.”

“Oh, didn’t Cookie call you?”

“She called me a doody-head once.”

“About the case.” His teeth were totally clenched again.

“We have a case?”

But I’d lost him. He was talking to another officer. Or a detective. Or a hooker, depending on his location and accessibility to cash. Though I doubted he would tell a hooker to check the status of the DOA’s autopsy report. Unless he was way kinkier than I’d ever given him credit for.

I found his calling me only to talk to other people very challenging.

“I’ll call you right back,” he said. No idea to whom.

The call disconnected as I sat at a light, wondering what guacamole would look like if avocados were orange.

I finally shifted my attention to the kid in my backseat. He had shoulder-length blond hair and bright blue eyes and looked somewhere between fifteen and seventeen.

“You come here often?” I asked him, but my phone rang before he could say anything. That was okay. He had a vacant stare, so I doubted he would have answered me anyway.

“Sorry about that,” Uncle Bob said. “Do you want to discuss the case?”

“We have a case?” I said again, perking up.

“How are you?”

He asked me that every time he called now. “Peachy. Am I the case? If so, I can solve this puppy in about three seconds. I’m heading down San Mateo toward Central in a cherry red Jeep Wrangler with a questionable exhaust system.”

“Charley.”

“Hurry, before I get away!”

He gave up. “So, the arsonist just got serious.”

Sadly, I had no idea what he was talking about. Uncle Bob was a hom­icide detective and rarely worked anything but murders and the like. “Okay, I’ll bite. Why are you trying to find an arsonist? And why is he just now getting serious? Was he only kidding before?”

“Three questions, one answer.” He mumbled something to another of­ficer, then came back to me. “And that answer is because our arsonist is now a murderer. The building he torched last night had a homeless woman in it. She died.”

“Crap. That would explain why you’re on an arson case.”

“Yeah. Have you heard anything?”

“Besides the Tiffany Gorham thing, no.”

“Can you put out some feelers? This guy is getting sloppy.”

“Wait. Is this the one who makes sure the buildings are empty before starting the fires?”

“The one and only.  We’ve linked him to four fires so far. Same MO, right down to the timing device and accelerant. Only this time he didn’t get everyone out. This homeless woman didn’t happen to visit you, did she?”

“No, but I’ll see what I can dig up.”

“Thanks. I’ll bring the folder on this guy over tonight.”

“Sounds good.” He was only coming over for Cookie. He had such a crush.

“So, have you talked to your dad?”

“Oh, no, you’re breaking up. I can hardly—” I hung up before he could question me further. Dad was not open for discussion, and he knew it.

The minute we hung up, my phone rang for a third time. I answered. “Charley’s house of Cheerios.”

“Your uncle called,” Cookie said. “He has a case he wants you to look at.”

“I know,” I replied, faking disappointment. “I just got off the phone with him. He told me all about how he needed you to contact me im­mediately, and you refused. Told him you had better things to do. Like funnel money into off shore accounts.”

“Did you know you ordered a neck massager? This thing is great.”

“Are you getting any actual work done?”

“Oh, yes! I got the addresses you needed, but there’s not much on the brother. He’s never received a single utility bill.”

“Maybe his parents are paying his utilities, too.”

“That makes sense. I’ll check into their accounts, see what all they’re paying for. But I do have a work address on him and an address for Harper’s parents.”

“Perfect. Text them to me.”

“Now? Because this feels amazing.”

“Only if you don’t want me to file embezzlement charges against you.”

“Now it is.”