Death comes to those who wait. And to those who don’t. So either way… —Charlotte Jean Davidson, Grim Reaper
There was a dead clown sitting in my living room. Since I wasn’t particularly fond of clowns, and it was way too early for anything coherent to come out of my mouth, I pretended not to notice him. Instead, I let a loud yawn overtake me and was headed toward my kitchen when I was hit by a jolt of panic. Nothing screamed awkward like greeting the dead in my birthday suit. I glanced down to make sure my girl parts hadn’t been compromised. Fortunately, I had on a white tank and pair of plaid bottoms. My girls, also known as Danger and Will Robinson, were safe.
I mentally made the sign of the cross as I padded through my humble abode. Trying not to draw attention. Wondering if the dead clown, with his gaze following my every move, had noticed me. My apartment was a comfy cross between a storage room full of pillows and a broom closet, so it wasn’t a long journey. Nor an especially enlightening one. Though I did come to a rather morbid conclusion in those few fleeting seconds. Better a dead clown in my apartment than a live one.
My name is Charlotte Davidson. Charley to some, Charlotte the Harlot to others, but that was mostly in middle school. I was born with a decent set of curves, a healthy respect for the male anatomy, and a slightly disturbing addiction to brown edibles. Other than that—and the fact that I’d also been born the grim reaper—I was about as normal as a surly girl with a private investigator’s license could be.
I strode toward Mr. Coffee with lust in my eyes. We’d had a thing for quite some time now, Mr. Coffee and I, and there was just enough of him left for one more cup. No need to make a fresh pot, to get him all hot and bothered. I popped the cup into the microwave, set it to nuke anything unfortunate enough to be caught within its grasp for 30 seconds, then raided my fridge for sustenance. Eating would keep me awake for at least another five minutes, and my one goal in life for the past couple of weeks was to stay awake at all costs. The alternative was exhausting.
After an epic search, I finally found something neither green nor fuzzy. It was a hotlink. I named it Peter, mostly because I liked naming things and partly because it seemed like the right thing to do. As soon as my java was piping hot popped him into the microwave. Hopefully the radioactive environment would sterilize Peter. No need to have little Peters running around, wreaking havoc.
As I stood contemplating world peace, the exorbitant price of designer underwear and what life would be like without guacamole, Peter beeped. I wrapped him in stale bread and ate him whilst loading my coffee up with enough imitation product to make it a health hazard. After a long draw, I plodded to my overstuffed sofa, sank into it and looked at the dead clown. He was sitting in the club chair that cattycornered my sofa, waiting patiently for me to acknowledge him.
“You know, I’m not really fond of clowns,” I said after taking another sip.
Seeing a dead person in my living room was hardly a surprise. Apparently, I was super duper bright, like the glowing lens of a lighthouse in a storm. The departed who didn’t cross when they died could see me from anywhere on Earth and, if they so chose, could cross through me to get to the other side. That was pretty much the grim reaper gig in a nutshell. No scythes. No collecting souls. No ferrying the departed across a lake day in and day out, which would probably get old.
“I get that a lot,” the clown said. He seemed younger than I’d originally suspected, perhaps 25, but his voice was rough from too many cigarettes and late nights. The image conflicted with the bright mural on his face and curly red hair on his head. His saving grace was the lack of a big red nose. I seriously hated those, especially the squeaky kind. The rest I could handle.
“So, you got a story?”
“Not really.” He shrugged. “Just wanted to cross.”
I blinked in surprise, absorbed his statement, then asked, “You just want to cross?”
“If that’s okay.”
“That’s more than okay,” I said with a snort. No messages to love ones left behind. No solving his murder. No hunting down some memento he’d left for his children in a place where no one in his right mind would ever think to look. These situations had all the creamy goodness of piece-of-cake without the added calories.
He started toward me then. I didn’t get up, didn’t think I could manage it—the coffee had yet to kick in—but he didn’t seem to mind. I noticed as he stepped forward that he wore a ragged pair of jeans and his sneakers had been painted with magic marker.
“Wait,” he said, pausing midstride.
He scratched his head, a completely unconscious act from his previous life. “Can you get messages to people?”
Damn. The bane of my existence. “Um, no. Sorry. Have you tried Western Union?”
“Seriously?” he asked, not buying it for a minute. And it was on sale, even.
I dragged in a long, deep breath and tossed an arm over my forehead to show how much I didn’t want to be his messenger then peeked out from under my lashes. He stood there, waiting, clearly unimpressed.
“Fine,” I said, giving in. “I’ll type a note or something.”
“You don’t have to do that. Just go to Super Dog right down the street and talk to a girl named Jenny. Tell her Ronald said to bite me.”
I scanned his clown getup, the reds and yellows of his hoodie. “Your name is Ronald?”
With a grin, he said, “The irony is not lost on me, I promise.” He stepped through before I could question him on the bite me part of his comment.
When people crossed, I could see their lives. I could tell if they’d been happy, what their favorite color was, the names of their pets growing up. I let my lids drift shut and waited. He smelled like grease paint and iodine and coconut shampoo. He’d been in the hospital waiting for a heart transplant. While there, he decided to make himself useful, so he dressed up like a different clown everyday and visited the kids in pediatrics. Each day he’d have a new name, something funny like Rodeo Ron or Captain Boxer Shorts, and each day they had to guess what it was from his voiceless clues. He couldn’t talk well near the end, and while gesturing was difficult and left him exhausted, he felt it was better than freaking out the kids with his gravelly voice. He died just hours before a heart had been found. Despite my original assumption, he’d never smoked a day in his life.
And he loved a girl named Jenny who smelled like baby oil and sold hot dogs to put herself through college. Jenny would be the part of this whole grim reaper gig I hated most. The people-left-behind part. I could feel their hearts contract with grief. I could feel their lungs fight for air. I could feel the sting of tears behind their eyes at losing someone they loved, someone they were sure they couldn’t live without.
I sucked in a sharp breath and pulled myself back to the present. Ronald was a cool guy. I’d have to look him up when my time was up, see how his eternity was going. I sank further into the sofa cushions and took a long draw of coffee, absorbing the caffeine, letting it spark and reawaken my brain cells.
Glancing at my Looney Tunes wall clock, I bit back the despair I felt at finding it was only 3:35. I had hours to go before dawn. It was easier to stay awake during the day. Night was so calm and relaxing. But I couldn’t let myself fall under. I’d managed to dodge sleep like it was an ex-boyfriend with herpes for almost two weeks straight. And when I didn’t, I paid the price.
The mere thought of that price gave me unwanted butterflies in my nether regions. I pushed it from my mind as heat from the sultry night wafted around me like a heavy vapor, seeping into my skin, suffocating any thoughts of comfort. Utterly annoyed, I sat up, pushed a dampened strand of hair out of my face, and made my way to the bathroom, hoping a splash of cool water would help, and wondering how the heck the night got so sultry. It was freaking November. Maybe global warming had amped up its game. Or a solar flare had pushed its way through the magnetosphere and was cooking us all alive. That would suck.
Just as I reached for the light switch, wondering if I should buy sunscreen, a sharp stab of arousal sparked in my lower abdomen. I gasped in surprise and grabbed the doorjamb for balance.
This was so not happening. Not again.
I glanced at the faucet longingly. Water would set things right. Couple of splashes and I’d be back to my normal curmudgeonly self in no time. I flipped the switch, but the overhead just flickered as though gasping for air then died out. I flipped again. And again, before giving up. Mostly because the definition of insanity came to mind.
The wiring in my apartment demoted the term code violation to an understatement. Thankfully, I had a nightlight. It cast a soft glow in the bathroom, allowing just enough illumination for me to maneuver my way to the sink without stubbing anything vital. I stepped to the mirror and squinted, trying to syphon every last atom of light the universe had to offer out of the atmosphere. It didn’t help. My image was nothing more than a shadow, a ghost-like apparition, barely existing.
I stood there contemplating that fact when a ripple of desire gripped me again, seizing me with fierce, delicious claws, trembling through me so hard I had to clamp my jaw shut. I clutched onto the vanity as the fervor bathed me in a sensuous heat I couldn’t fend off. It seeped inside me, lured me to the edge, led me to the dark side. Hungrily, I parted my lips and parted my legs and gave it room to grow. And grow it did. It built up strength and power, its tendrils pushing into me, swirling and pulsing in my abdomen.
My knees buckled, and I shifted my weight to my palms as the pressure grew more intense, forcing me to fight for every breath I took. Then the sound of another’s breath mingled with my own, and I glanced up into the mirror.
Reyes Alexander Farrow—the part-human, part-supermodel son of Satan—materialized behind me, his powerful shoulders glistening as steam rose around him, giving the impression he’d just come from hell. He hadn’t, of course. He’d escaped from hell centuries ago and was currently pissed as hell at me for binding his incorporeal body to his physical one. But that knowledge did little to lessen the effect.
I blinked to see him more clearly. “What are you doing here?”
He lowered his head, his dark eyes piercing me with an angry glare. The butthead. It was my bathroom.
But I’d bound him. I’d bound his incorporeal body to his physical one. How was he even there? How could he be?
“You summoned me,” he said, his deep voice tight with animosity.
I shook my head. “That’s impossible.”
He reached an arm over my shoulder and braced his hand against the wall in front of me. To tower. To dominate. To make sure I knew I was trapped. His lean body pressed against my backside as he braced the other hand against the wall to my right, completely imprisoning me.
His hard gaze locked onto mine. “Is it impossible because you bound me like a dog to a chain?”
Oh, yeah. He was definitely pissed. “You left me no choice,” I said, my voice quivering, not nearly as confident as I’d hoped.
He lowered his head until his mouth was at my ear. “And you leave me none.”