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 cleavage. 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 gay?”
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.”
He shifted his nonexistent weight, cleared his throat, and tried again. “More v-voluptuous.”
“I have curves,” I said through a clenched jaw. “Have you seen my ass?”
“Heavier!” he blurted out.
“I weigh— Oh, you mean he likes bigger women.”
“E-exactly, while I on the other hand—”
Duff’s words faded into the background like elevator music. So Marv liked big women. A new plan formed in the darkest, most corrupt corners of Barbara. My brain.
Cookie, otherwise known as my receptionist during regular business hours and my best friend 24/7, was perfect. She was large and in charge. Or, well, large and kind of bossy. I picked up my cell phone and called her.
“This better be good,” she said.
“It is. I need your assistance.”
“I’m watching the first season of Prison Break.”
“Cookie, you’re my assistant. I need assistance. With a case. You know those things we take on to make money?”
“Prison. Break. It’s about these brothers who—”
“I know what Prison Break is.”
“Then have you ever actually seen these boys? If you had, you would not expect me to abandon them in their time of need. I think there’s a shower scene coming up.”
“Do these brothers sign your paycheck?”
“No, but technically neither do you.”
Damn. She was right. It was much easier to just have her forge my name.
“I need you to come flirt with my mark.”
“Oh, okay. I can do that.”
Nice. The F-word always worked with her. I filled her in and told her the deal with Tidwell, then ordered her to hurry over.
“And dress sexy,” I said right before hanging up. But I regretted the sexy part instantly. The last time I told Cookie to dress sexy for a much-needed girls’ night out on the town, she wore a lace-up corset, fishnet stockings, and a feather boa. She looked like a dominatrix. I’d never been the same.
“S-so, she’s coming?” Duff asked.
“Possibly. She’s watching hot guys on TV. It all depends if her daughter is there or not. Either way, she should be here soon.”
As I sat waiting for my BFF, I took note of all the women in the bar that night. Calamity’s was kind of a cop hangout. Women certainly came in, just not by the droves. But this place was packed and noisy, and at least 75 percent of the patrons were women. Which was odd.
I’d been coming to the bar for years, mostly because my dad owned it, but partly because my investigations office was on the second floor, and in all that time, I’d never seen the place so disproportioned in favor of the feminine mystique except that one time I talked Dad into bringing in a male revue. He’d agreed for two reasons. One: I’d batted my lashes. Two: He thought a male revue was a guy who came in, tried the food, then did a review in the paper. I may or may not have encouraged that line of thinking. Dad would probably have taken it better if I’d been over eighteen when I suggested it. He wanted to know how many male revues I’d been to.
“Counting this one?” was apparently not an appropriate reply.
Someone put a plate of food in front of me.
“Compliments of the chef.”
I glanced up at Teri, my dad’s best bartender. She knew I was working an infidelity case and probably guessed that I’d struck out, thus the comfort food. The heavenly aroma hit me so fast, I had to force myself not to drool.
“Thanks.” I took a slice off the plate and sank my teeth into the best chicken quesadilla I’d ever had. “Wow,” I said, sucking in cool air as I chewed, “Sammy really outdid himself.”
“What?” she said over the crowd.
I waved her on and continued to eat, letting my eyes roll back in ecstasy. I’d been enjoying Sammy’s concoctions for years, and while they were always mouthwateringly good, this was incredible. I scooped equal parts guacamole, salsa, and sour cream onto the next bite, then went in for another trip to heaven.
Duff watched me eat while standing wedged between the back of my barstool and the guy standing next to it. His left half was inside Duff’s right. The guy looked up, searched the ceiling for air vents, turned to his left, his right, then … three … two … one …
He shivered and stepped away.
Happened every time. The departed were cold and when people stood inside one, the hairs on the backs of their necks rose, goose bumps shot across their skin, and a shiver ran down their spines.
But Duff wasn’t paying attention to the guy. While he pretended to center his attention on me, he kept a weather eye on the door to the kitchen, glancing over every few seconds, chewing on a nail.
Maybe the door to the kitchen was really a portal to heaven and if he stepped through it, he would cross to the other side. No, wait.
As I sat there stuffing my face, I began to wonder about something. I’d checked out Mrs. Tidwell’s Friendbook page while researching Mr. Tidwell for more pictures. I liked to take every precaution when approaching a mark to make certain I could recognize him or her when necessary. I got the wrong guy one time. It ended badly.
I dug my phone out of my jeans again, found Mrs. Tidwell’s profile, and clicked through her photo history. Sure enough, when they got married a little over a year earlier, Mrs. Tidwell had been much heavier. She’d clearly lost a lot of weight, and she’d kept a log on her page with her progress, losing over one hundred pounds over the past year. While I cheered her dedication, I began to wonder if Mr. Tidwell would share my enthusiasm or if he’d liked his wife better before.
The concept kind of floored me. Most guys strayed when their wives gained weight. Tidwell seemed to be straying for the opposite reason. Maybe he felt threatened by her new look. She was a knockout.
I panicked when Tidwell stood to leave. He threw down a few bills, then started for the door, and I realized this night would be a complete bust. I was really hoping for a money shot to put this case to bed. With my optimism dwindling, I began contemplating my schedule to set up a second attempt when Tidwell stopped. His gaze locked on the front door. I looked past him and almost gasped at the raven-haired vixen walking through it. The moment our eyes met, Barry White started playing through the speakers overhead. The lights dimmed and a smoky, sultry kind of aura centered on the newcomer.
Coincidence? I think not.
Enter Cookie Kowalski. Loyal, stalwart, and just the right size. Cookie walked toward me, her expression a mixture of curiosity and hesitance. Surely she wasn’t worried I’d get her into trouble.
And she was dressed to kill. She wore a dark pantsuit with a long sparkling frock and a silver scarf opened at the neck to reveal her voluptuous attributes.
“You saucy minx,” I said when she sat beside me at the bar.
She grinned and scooted closer to me. “This is okay?”
I looked her over again. “It’s fantastic. And it definitely did the job.”
Tidwell sat back down at his table, interest evident in every move he made. I gestured toward him with the barest hint of a nod. She did a quick scan of the room and let her gaze pause a fraction of a second on Tidwell before refocusing on me.
But she still wasn’t convinced. “So, if you were a guy, would you be into me?”
“Hon, if I were a guy, I’d be gay.”
“Yeah, me, too. So, what do I do?”
“Just give it a sec. He’ll probably—”
“The man at the table behind you would like to buy you a drink, darlin’,” Teri said. Her brows rose as she waited for a response. Sobriety clearly came late in life for her, but she was what my father would call a handsome woman, with long dark hair and striking hazel eyes. Still, she’d seen too many illicit rendezvous, complicated hookups, and bad one-night stands to be overly impressed. Experience had hardened her.
I could be hard. If I practiced. Gave it my all.
“Oh,” Cookie said, caught off guard, “I’ll take a whiskey sour.”
Teri winked and began practicing her magic.
“A whiskey sour?” I asked Cook.
“Your f-friend seems nervous,” Duff said, and I agreed with a nod.
Cookie stared ahead as though standing before a firing squad. “Liquid courage,” she said. “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”
“That’s what they said about nuclear energy on Three Mile Island.”
She cast me a horrified look.
I fought a grin and tucked a small mic into the folds of her scarf, pretending to adjust it. “Look, all you gotta do is open the lines of communication. I’ll be able to hear everything he says.” I tapped my ear to indicate the receiver I was wearing. “Just see how far he wants to take things. Unfortunately, him buying you a drink does not prove infidelity.”
Her pallor turned a light shade of green. “I have to have sex with him?”
“What? No. Just, you know, see if he wants to have sex with you.”
“Do I have to make out with him?”
Oh, wow. I never realized how uneducated Cookie was in the ways of extramarital investigations. She was more of a behind-the-scenes kind of gal. I just figured she’d know what to do.
Teri set the drink down. Cookie grabbed it and took a long draw.
“Don’t do anything that makes you uncomfortable,” I said as she took another hearty swig. “Just try to get him to proposition you. Now, turn and offer him a salute. Let him know you’re interested.”
Before I could coach her further, she did exactly that. She turned to him, her back rigid, and saluted.
Jessica’s table of airheads burst out laughing. I closed my eyes in mortification and said through gritted teeth, “I meant lift the glass.”
“What?” she asked through equally gritted teeth. “You said to salute him.” She was starting to panic. I could feel it radiating off her in waves. “I thought maybe he was in the military.”
“It’s okay, just calm down.”
“Calm down?” She turned back around. “You calm down. I’m completely calm. I’m like deep water that’s deep and still.”
I wrapped a hand around her arm and squeezed to coax her back to me. She drew in a long breath and let it out slowly, forcing herself to calm.
“Better,” I said, giving her another minute to recuperate. “Okay, if he hasn’t penciled you in as a loony, go over there and strike up a conversation.”
“What? Me? What?”
“Cook, you can do this. It’s just like high school only without the socially crippling aftereffects of failure.”
“Right. High school.” She gathered up her courage, eased off her chair, and stepped to his table.
And she transformed. She became confident. A true mistress of her own destiny. I almost giggled in triumph while I took another bite and listened in.
“S-so, you’re s-setting him up?” Duff asked.
I wiped my mouth, then checked the recorder in my pocket to make sure it was set to record. It would suck if we went to all this trouble and ended up with no proof. “Not so much setting up as taking down. He’s the one trolling the clubs with the intention of cheating on his wife. We’re just giving him the opportunity and giving her the proof she needs to move on.”
It wasn’t until I heard Jessica snickering that I realized I was talking to Duff too openly.
“There she goes again,” Jessica said loud enough for me to hear. “What did I tell you? Absolute freak.”
The gossip girls burst out laughing again, but I could hear Jessica’s high-pitched crow above the others. It was the one thing that drove me crazy when we were friends. She had a nasally, piercing laugh that reminded me of the stabbing scene from Psycho. But that could’ve been wishful thinking on my part.
I’d made the mistake of being honest with her when we were freshmen. She seemed to accept the fact that I could see ghosts. But once I told her exactly what I was, that I was the grim reaper and that the departed could cross through me, our friendship shattered like a house of glass, cut as the remnants showered down on me. It left some fairly deep scars. Had I known our friendship was so fragile, had I known it could be severed with a single truth, I wouldn’t have thrown so much of myself into it.
Afterwards, all bets were off. She told the entire school what I’d said. What I was. Thankfully, no one, including herself, believed it. But the betrayal cut deep. Hurt and vindictive, I went after—and landed—the boy of her dreams, a senior basketball star named Freddy James. Naturally, that did nothing to reconcile our friendship. Her venomous spite multiplied tenfold after I started dating Freddy, but suddenly, I didn’t care. I’d discovered boys on a whole new level.
My sister, Gemma, knew the moment it happened. She accused Freddy of stealing my virginity. But saying Freddy James stole my virginity would be like saying Hiroshima stole a nuclear bomb from us. Theft didn’t fit into the equation.
As Jessica and her friends snickered across the way, I ignored them, knowing indifference would bite more than anything I could say. Jessica hated to be ignored and it worked. My disinterest seemed to be eating her alive. The abrasive texture of anger and hatred raked over my skin like sharp nails. That girl had issues.
“Sorry about the salute,” Cookie said to Tidwell.
He gestured for her to sit. “Not at all. I found it enchanting.”
Despite everything, Tidwell was a good-looking man, and clearly articulate. Now I had to worry about another possible outcome altogether: Would Cookie fall for his charm?
“I’m Anastasia,” she said, and I tried not to groan aloud. Normally noms de guerre were fine on a job, but we were in my dad’s bar. We knew half the people here, which came to glaring light when someone called out to her.
“Hey, Cookie!” an off-duty officer said as he strolled in and took a seat at the bar. “Looking good, sweet cheeks.”
Cookie blinked, taken aback, then smiled and said to Tidwell, “But everyone calls me Cookie.”
A most excellent save.
Oops, incriminating evidence number one. It would seem Marv liked noms de guerre, too. I’d turned so I could see them through my periphery and watched as they shook hands. Cook mumbled something about how nice it was to meet him. He said likewise. And I took another bite of quesadilla, fighting the urge to moan in ecstasy. Sammy had definitely outdone himself.
Still, I had to get over it. I had a job to do, damn it.
I turned toward them, my expression one of complete boredom, and snapped a few shots with my phone. Phones made close-up surveillance so easy. I pretended to text while zeroing in on my target. When Tidwell leaned forward and put a hand over Cookie’s, I almost became giddy. Not really a money shot, but pretty darned close.
But then I noticed something. A darkness in his gaze I hadn’t seen before. The more I watched Tidwell, the less I liked him. Almost everything out of his mouth was a lie, but there was more to my discomfort than his deception. He reminded me of one of those guys who sweeps a girl off her feet, marries her after a whirlwind romance, then kills her for the insurance money. He was a bit too smooth. A bit too personal with the questions. I’d have to do a little more digging where Mr. Marv Tidwell was concerned.
“What is that?” Tidwell asked. His voice had hardened and the emotion that dumped out of him startled me.
“This?” Cookie asked, suddenly less certain.
He saw the mic I’d hidden in the folds of her scarf. Crap on a quesadilla. Before I could scramble out of my seat, he reached over and ripped it off her, dragging her forward in the process.
“What is this?” he demanded, shaking it in her face before curling it into his fist.
I rushed toward them. The investigator in me continued to take a couple of shots for good measure. They’d be blurry, but I had to take what I could get. Cookie sat stunned. Not because she was caught, I was certain, but because of his reaction. I would have been stunned, too. He went from charming admirer to raging bull in a matter of seconds.
His face reddened and his lips peeled back from his teeth in a vicious snarl. “Is this a game? Did Valerie put you up to this?”
Valerie Tidwell was Marvin’s wife and my client, and clearly he suspected that she suspected his extracurricular activities. The entire bar fell silent as I hurried forward, weaving around tables and chairs, snapping shots as I went, wondering why on earth Cookie was digging into her purse. I didn’t have to wonder long. Just as I got to her, she pulled a gun, and all I could think was holy freaking crap.
“Cookie!” I said as I skidded into her.
But before I could do anything, Tidwell lunged across the table and grabbed Cookie’s wrist. He knocked her back into me and we all three started to tumble to the ground the exact moment a sharp crack splintered the air.
Copyright © 2013 by Darynda Jones