Ask me about life after death.
—T-SHIRT OFTEN SEEN ON CHARLEY DAVIDSON, A GRIM REAPER OF QUESTIONABLE MORALS
The dead guy at the end of the bar kept trying to buy me a drink. Which figured. No one else was even taking a second look and I’d dressed to the nines. Or, at the very least, the eight-and-a-halves. But the truly disturbing part of my evening was the fact that my mark, one Mr. Marvin Tidwell, blond real estate broker and suspected adulterer, actually turned down the drink I’d tried to buy him.
Turned it down!
I felt violated.
I sat at the bar, sipping a margarita, lamenting the sad turn my life had taken. Especially tonight. This case was not going as planned. Maybe I wasn’t Marv’s type. It happened. But I was oozing interest. And I wore makeup. And I had cle**age. Even with all that going for me, this investigation was firmly wedged between the cracks of no and where. At least I could tell my client, aka Mrs. Marvin Tidwell, that it would seem her husband was not cheating on her. Not randomly, anyway. The fact that he could’ve been meeting someone in particular kept me glued to my barstool.
“C-come here often?”
I looked over at the dead guy. He’d finally worked up the courage to approach and I got a better view. I figured him for the runt of the litter. He wore round-rimmed glasses and a tattered baseball cap that sat backwards on top of muddy brown hair. Add to that a faded blue T-shirt and loosely ripped jeans and he could’ve been a skater, a computer geek, or a backwoods moonshiner.
His cause of death was not immediately apparent. No stab wounds or gaping holes. No missing limbs or tire tracks across his face. He didn’t even look like a drug addict, so I couldn’t tell why he’d died at such a young age. Taking into account the fact that his baby-faced features would make him look younger than he probably was, I estimated him to be somewhere around my age when he’d passed.
He stood waiting for an answer. I thought “Come here often?” was rhetorical, but okay. Not wanting to be perceived as talking to myself in a room full of people, I responded by lifting one shoulder in a halfhearted shrug.
Sadly, I did. Come here often. This was my dad’s bar, and while I never set up stings here for fear of someone I knew blowing my cover, this just happened to be the very same bar Mr. Tidwell frequented. At least if it came to a knockdown drag-out, I might have some backup. I knew most of the regulars and all of the employees.
Dead Guy glanced toward the kitchen, seeming nervous before he refocused on me. I glanced that way as well. Saw a door.
“Y-you’re very shiny,” he said, drawing my attention back to him.
He had a stutter. Few things were more adorable than a grown man with boyish features and a stutter. I stirred my margarita and pasted on a fake smile. I couldn’t talk to him in a room full of living, breathing patrons. Especially when one was named Jessica Guinn, to my utter mortification. I hadn’t seen her fiery red hair since high school but there she sat, a few seats down from me, surrounded by a group of chattering socialites who looked almost as fake as her boobs. But that could be my bitterness rearing its ugly head.
Unfortunately, my forced smile only encouraged Dead Guy. “Y-you are. You’re like the s-sun reflecting off the chrome bumper of a f-fifty-seven Chevy.”
He splayed his fingers in the air to demonstrate, and my heart was gone. Damn it. He was like all those lost puppies I tried to save as a child to no avail because I had an evil stepmother who believed all stray dogs were rabid and would try to rip out her jugular. A fact that had nothing to do with my desire to bring them into the house.
“Yeah,” I said under my breath, doing my best ventriloquist impersonation, “thanks.”
“I’m D-Duff,” he said.
“I’m Charley.” I kept my hands wrapped around my drink lest he decide we needed to shake. Not many things looked stranger to the living world than a grown woman shaking air. You know those kids with invisible friends? Well, I was one of those. Only I wasn’t a kid, and my friends weren’t invisible. Not to me, anyway. And I could see them because I’d been born the grim reaper, which was not as bad as it sounded. I was basically a portal to heaven, and whenever someone was stuck on Earth, having chosen not to cross over immediately after death, they could cross to the other side through me. I was like a giant bug light, only what I lured was already dead.
I pulled at my extra-tight sweater. “Is it just me, or is it really warm in here?”
His baby blues shot toward the kitchen again. “Hot is m-more like it. S-so, I – I couldn’t help but notice you t-tried to buy that guy over there a drink.”
I let my fake smile go. Freed it like a captured bird. If it came back to me, it would be mine. If not, it never was. “And?”
“You’re b-barking up the wrong tree with that one.”
Surprised, I put my drink down – the one I bought myself – and leaned in a little closer. “He’s g*y?”
Duff snorted. “N-no. But he’s been in here a lot lately. He l-likes his women a little… l-looser.”
“Dude, how much sluttier can I get?” I indicated my attire with a sweep of my hand.
“N-no, I mean, well, you’re a l-little —” He let his gaze travel the length of me. “— t-tight.”
I gasped. “I look anal?”
He drew in a deep breath and tried again. “H-he only hits on women who are more s-substantial than you.”
Oh, that wasn’t offensive at all. “I have depth. I’ve read Proust. No, wait, that was Pooh. Winnie-the-Pooh. My bad.”