Authors: Darynda Jones
Tags: #kickass.to, #ScreamQueen
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For Michael and Cathy,
who make Saturday nights more entertaining
than a night at the Comedy Club
wonderful readers, for braving another adventure into the world of Charley Davidson. Once more unto the breach, my friends. May this journey bring you joy, laughter, and lots of warm, fuzzy feelings.
A special thanks (and my undying gratitude) as always to my incredible agent, Alexandra “The Powerhouse” Machinist, my amazing editor, Jennifer “The Genius” Enderlin, and to all the teams at St. Martin’s Press, Macmillan Audio, and Janklow & Nesbit Associates. I’m ever so grateful to have you! And thank you to the ultra-talented narrator of the audiobooks, the lovely Lorelei King.
And a note to Loren … LOREN!… who left me for another writer. Or, well, a lot of other writers. But it’s okay. No, really, *sniff* I have Nick now. It’s all good. But I wish you the very best, mister!
Thank you to Eliani Torres! How you put up with me and my constant overuse of certain words that I’m not going to list here for fear of sending you into cardiac arrest, I’ll never know. Thank you so much for your wonderful, mad skill. And to my betas, Theresa, Cait, and Rhiannon. Your input and ideas were invaluable. Theresa, I owe you big-time! Thank you for coming through with such flying colors during that initial crunch.
Thank you thank you thank you to my extraordinary Grimlets! Your generosity is insane. Please know how much you mean to me. And a special thanks to Jowanna, aka Mama Grimlet, who makes me giggle in all the right places.
To all of my family and friends for your love and support. Where would I be without you? (Don’t answer that.) And a special thanks to my writing buddies, the incomparable Jacquelyn Frank and the super hot CL Parker. And since we’re on the subject, thank you
much to J.R. Ward for talking me down off the ledge seconds before I toppled over. Love you all!
And last but not even close to least, to my assistant Dana, the torrential, exuberant, effervescent, gale-force whirlwind beneath my wings. You amaze and inspire me to be the best I can be every single day.
A blank is the only thing I draw well.
“A girl, a mocha latte, and a naked dead man walk into a bar,” I said, turning to the naked dead man sitting in my passenger seat. The
naked dead man who’d been riding shotgun in my cherry red Jeep Wrangler, aka Misery, for two days now. We were on a stakeout. Sort of. I was staking out a Mr. and Mrs. Foster, so I was definitely on a stakeout. No idea what Naked Dead Man was on. Considering the fact that he looked about 112, probably blood thinners. Cholesterol medication. And, judging from the state of his manhood, which I couldn’t stop seeing
every single time
I turned toward him, Viagra. If I were to hashtag that moment, my status would read something like #impressed.
I gave him two thumbs up, then looked back at the house again, happy to be sitting in Misery. The Jeep, not the emotion. I’d just picked her up from the car hospital two days earlier. She’d had several surgeries to fix her broken girlie bits because a raving lunatic rammed into her. He’d knocked her into a state of mangled disrepair and me, as I was in the driver’s seat at the time, into a state of oblivion. I stayed in that state long enough for Mr. Raving Lunatic to cart me off to a deserted bridge to kill me. He failed and died in the process, but Misery had paid a high price for his nefarious machinations. Why did bad guys always try to hurt the ones I loved?
And this one had succeeded. Misery was hurt. Bad. No one wanted to work on her. Said she couldn’t be saved. Said to give her over to the scrap yard. Thankfully, a family friend with a body shop and a few incriminating photos, which just happened to have found their way into my possession, agreed with great reluctance to try.
Noni kept her for two long weeks before calling to tell me that he’d almost lost her a couple of times, but she’d pulled through with flying colors. When I got the green light to go pick her up, I tore out of my apartment so fast, I left a dust trail behind me, along with a flummoxed best friend, who’d been telling me about the couple in 3C. They were apparently newlyweds, if their energy to do it—her words—all night every night was any indication. I hurried back to her, however, because I didn’t have a car and I needed a ride.
When we picked up Misery, Noni tried to tell me everything he’d had to do to her to get her up and running, but I held up a hand to stop him, unable to bear it. This was Misery he was talking about. Not some random Wrangler off the streets. This was
Wrangler. My best friend. My baby.
Holy cow, I needed a life.
I had to hand it to Noni, though. Misery was good as new. Better than I was, anyway. Ever since that night, I’d been having problems sleeping. I suffered from debilitating nightmares that left me screaming into my pillow, and I jumped every time someone dropped a feather.
But at least Misery was okay. Like, really okay. It was weird. Her cough was gone. Her sluggish response time was no longer an issue. Her reluctance to wake up in the mornings as she sputtered in protest every time I tried to fire all engines was nonexistent. Now she started on the first try, no groaning or whining, and she purred like a newborn kitten. How Noni had managed to fix her insides as well as her outsides I’d never know, but the guy was good. And Noni was my new best friend. Well, after Misery. And Cookie, my real best friend. And Garrett, my kind of, sort of best friend. And Reyes, my … my …
What was Reyes? Besides the dark and sultry son of evil? My boy toy? My love slave? My 24/7 booty call?
He was all those things, but he was also my almost fiancé. All I had to do was say yes to the proposal he’d written on a sticky note, and he would be my fiancé for reals. Until then, however, he was my almost fiancé.
No, my soon-to-be fiancé.
Yeah, that’d work.
I turned back to the naked dead man, stuffed a couple of Cheez-Its into my mouth, and confessed my latest sin.
“I’m just kidding,” I said through the crackers, regretting the fact that I’d tempted him and now had no follow-up. No punch line. “I don’t know any ‘girl, mocha latte, dead man’ jokes. Sorry to get your hopes up like that.” He didn’t seem to mind, however. He sat staring straight ahead as always, his gray eyes clouded and watery with age, oblivious of my charm, my clever repartee, and my intellectual wit. He was ignoring me!
“Cheez-It?” I offered him.
“Okay, but you have no idea what you’re missing here.”
I could only hope that one day he’d actually talk to me; otherwise, this was going to be a very one-sided relationship. I dusted Cheez-It gunk off my hands and went back to a drawing I’d been working on. Since he didn’t talk, I had no way of finding out his identity. And in my attempt to avoid eye contact with Naked Dead Man’s penis over the last couple of days, I’d also avoided several key clues as to said identity. First, he had a long scar that ran from under his left arm, over his rib cage, and down until it ended at his belly button. Whatever had caused it couldn’t be pleasant, but it could be vital in identifying him. Second, he had a tattoo on his left biceps that looked very old-school military. It was faded and the ink had spread, but I could still make out an eagle with its talons gripping a United States flag. And third, right underneath his tattoo was a surname, presumably his:
. I’d taken out my memo pad and pen and was drawing the tat, since I had yet to find a camera that could photograph the departed.
I did my darnedest to draw the tat while simultaneously balancing the Cheez-It box against the gearshift, within arm’s reach, and keeping an eye on the Fosters’ house. Sadly, I sucked at two out of three of those tasks. Mostly at drawing. I’d never gotten the hang of it. I failed finger painting in kindergarten, too. That should have been a clue, but I’d always wanted to be the next Vermeer or Picasso or, at the very least, the next Clyde Brewster, a boy I’d went to school with who drew exploding walls and houses and buildings. No idea why. Alas, my destiny did not lie within the lines of graphite or the strokes of a paintbrush, but at the whim of dead people with PTDD: post-traumatic death disorder.
Oh, well. It could have been worse. Clyde Brewster, for example, ended up in prison for trying to blow up a Sack-N-Save. Thankfully, he was better at art than at demolitions. He’d asked me out several times, too. #Dodgedabullet.
“I know you’re not really into baring your soul,” I said, eyeing Mr. Andrulis’s bare, naked soul, “figuratively speaking, but if there’s anything you want or need, I’m your girl. Mostly because not many people on Earth can see you.”
I added a shadow on the eagle’s face with my blue ink pen, trying to make it look noble. It didn’t help. It still looked cross-eyed.
“And those who can see the departed usually see only a gray mist where you might be. Or they’ll feel a rush of cold air when you walk past. But I can see you, touch you, hear you, pretty much anything you.”
Maybe if I added highlights on its beak, it would look more like an eagle and less like a duck.
“My name is Charley.”
But I was using a pen. I couldn’t erase. Damn it. I had to think ahead. Real artists thought ahead. I’d never get into the Louvre at this rate.
I tried to scratch off some of the ink, bracing the memo pad against my steering wheel. I tore a tiny hole in the paper instead and cursed under my breath.
“I’m the grim reaper,” I said from between gritted teeth, “but don’t let that bother you. It’s not as bad as it sounds. I’m also a private investigator. That’s not as bad as it sounds either. And I shouldn’t have given your eagle eyelashes. He looks like Daffy Duck in drag.”
Giving up, I wrote the name underneath the eagle-ish-type drawing, consoling myself with the fact that abstract art was all the rage before pulling out my phone and snapping a shot of my masterpiece. After angling it this way and that, trying to get the focus just right, I realized the eagle looked better when turned on its side. More masculine. Less … water fowl.
I saved the best one and deleted the rest as a car pulled up to the Foster house. A nervous thrill rushed up my spine. I put down my pen and memo pad and took a sip of my whipped mocha latte, forcing myself to calm as I waited to see who was driving the gold Prius. I was spying on the Fosters, who lived in a modest neighborhood in the Northeast Heights, because I’d been asked to by a friend of mine. She was a special agent with the FBI, like her father before her, and this had been his case, one of the few that went unsolved under his watch. I was trying to help her solve it, though
might be a strong word. If my hunch was correct, and I liked to think it was, I had insider information that my friend’s father was never privy to. Mr. Foster owned an insurance company, and Mrs. Foster ran the office of a local pediatrician. And approximately thirty years ago, their son was taken from them, never to be seen again. I was about 100 percent certain I knew what happened to him.