FIRST GRAVE ON THE RIGHT (Chapter One)
Better to see dead than be dead.
—CHARLOTTE JEAN DAVIDSON, GRIM REAPER
I’d been having the same dream for the past month—the one where a dark stranger materialized out of smoke and shadows to play doctor with me. I was starting to wonder if repetitive exposure to nightly hallucinations resulting in earth-shattering climaxes could have any long-term side effects. Death via extreme pleasure was a serious concern. The prospect led to the following dilemma: Do I seek help or buy drinks all around?
This night was no exception. I was having a killer dream that featured a set of capable hands, a hot mouth, and a creative employment of lederhosen when two external forces tried to lure me out of it. I did my darnedest to resist, but they were fairly persistent external forces. First, a frosty chill crept up my ankle, the icy caress jolting me out of my red-hot dream. I shivered and kicked out, unwilling to acknowledge the summons, then tucked my leg into the thick folds of my Bugs Bunny comforter.
Second, a soft but persistent melody played in the periphery of my consciousness like a familiar song I couldn’t quite place. After a moment, I realized it was the cricketlike chime of my new phone.
With a heavy sigh, I pried open my eyes just enough to focus on the numbers glowing atop my nightstand. It was 4:34 A.M. What kind of sadist called another human being at 4:34 in the morning?
A throat cleared at the foot of my bed. I turned my attention to the dead guy standing there, then lowered my lids and asked in a gravelly voice, “Can you get that?”
He hesitated. “Um, the phone?”
“Well, I’m kind of—”
“Never mind.” I reached for the phone and grimaced as a jolt of pain ripped through me, reminding me I’d been beaten senseless the night before.
Dead Guy cleared his throat again.
“Hello,” I croaked.
It was my uncle Bob. He bombarded me with words, of all things, apparently clueless to the fact that predawn hours rendered me incapable of coherent thought. I concentrated super duper hard on concentrating and made out three salient phrases: busy night, two homicides, ass down here. I even managed a reply, something resembling, “What twirly nugget are you from?”
He sighed, clearly annoyed, then hung up.
I hung up back, pressing a button on my new phone that either disconnected the call or speed-dialed the Chinese takeout around the corner. Then I tried to sit up. Similar to the coherent-thought problem, this was easier said than done. While I normally weighed around 125 … ish, for some unexplainable reason, between the hours of partially awake and fully awake, I weighed a solid 470.
After a brief, beached whale–like struggle, I gave up. The quart of Chunky Monkey I ate after getting my ass kicked had probably been a bad idea.
In too much pain to stretch, I let a lengthy yawn overtake me instead, winced at the soreness shooting through my jaw, then looked back at Dead Guy. He was blurry. Not because he was dead, but because it was 4:34 A.M. And I’d recently had my ass kicked.
“Hi,” he said nervously. He had a wrinkled suit, round-rimmed glasses, and mussed hair that made him look part young-wizard-we-all-know-and-love and part mad scientist. He also had two bullet holes on the side of his head with blood streaking down his right temple and cheek. None of these details were a problem. The problem resided in the fact that he was in my bedroom. In the wee hours of dawn. Standing over me like a dead Peeping Tom.
I eyed him with my infamous death stare, second only to my infamous fluster stare, and got a response immediately.
“Sorry, sorry,” he said, stumbling over his words, “didn’t mean to frighten you.”
Did I look frightened? Clearly my death stare needed work.
Ignoring him, I inched out of bed. I had on a Scorpions hockey jersey I’d snatched off a goalie and a pair of plaid boxers—same team, different position. Chihuahuas, tequila, and strip poker. A night that is forever etched at the top of my Things I’ll Never Do Again list.
With teeth clenched in agony, I dragged all 470 throbbing pounds toward the kitchen and, more important, the coffeepot. Caffeine would chisel the pounds off, and I’d be back to my normal weight in no time.
Because my apartment was roughly the size of a Cheez-It, it didn’t take me long to feel my way to the kitchen in the dark. Dead Guy followed me. They always follow me. I could only pray this one would keep his mouth shut long enough for the caffeine to kick in, but alas, no such luck.
I’d barely pressed the ON button when he started in.
“Um, yeah,” he said from the doorway, “it’s just that I was murdered yesterday, and I was told you were the one to see.”
“You were told that, huh?” Maybe if I hovered over the pot, it would develop an inferiority complex and brew faster just to prove it could.
“This kid told me you solve crimes.”
“He did, huh?”
“You’re Charley Davidson, right?”
“Are you a cop?”
“A sheriff’s deputy?”
“A meter maid?”
“Look,” I said, turning to him at last, “no offense, but you could have died thirty years ago, for all I know. Dead people have no sense of time. Zero. Zip. Nada.”
“Yesterday, October eighteenth, five thirty-two P.M., double gunshot wound to the head, resulting in traumatic brain injury and death.”
“Oh,” I said, reining in my skepticism. “Well, I’m not a cop.” I turned back to the pot, determined to break its iron will with my infamous death stare, second only to—
“So, then, what are you?”
I wondered if your worst nightmare would sound silly. “I’m a private investigator. I hunt down adulterers and lost dogs. I do not solve murder cases.” I did, actually, but he didn’t need to know that. I’d just come off a big case. I was hoping for a few days’ respite.
“But this kid—”
“Angel,” I said, disappointed that I didn’t exorcise that little devil when I had the chance.
“He was an angel?”
“No, his name is Angel.”
“His name is Angel?”
“Yes. Why?” I asked, becoming disenchanted with the Angel game.
“I just thought it might have been his occupation.”
“It’s his name. And believe you me, he is anything but.”
After a geological epoch passed in which single-celled organisms evolved into talk show hosts, Mr. Coffee was still holding out on me. I gave up and decided to pee instead.
Dead Guy followed me. They always—
“You’re very … bright,” he said.
“And … sparkly.”
“Uh-huh.” This was nothing new. From what I’d been told, the departed see me as something of a beacon, a brilliant entity—emphasis on the brilliant—they can see from continents away. The closer they get, the sparklier I become. If sparklier is a word. I’ve always considered the sparkles a plus of being the only grim reaper this side of Mars. And as such, my job was to lead people into the light. Aka, the portal. Aka, me. But it didn’t always go smoothly. Kind of like leading a horse to water and whatnot. “By the way,” I said, glancing over my shoulder, “if you do see an angel, a real one, run. Quickly. In the opposite direction.” Not really, but freaking people out was fun.
“Seriously. Hey—” I stopped and twirled to face him. “—did you touch me?” Somebody practically molested my right ankle, somebody cold, and since he’d been the only dead guy in the room …
“What?” he said, indignant.
“Earlier, when I was in bed.”
I narrowed my eyes, let my gaze linger menacingly, then resumed my hobble to the bathroom.
I needed a shower. Bad. And I couldn’t dillydally all day. Uncle Bob would stroke.
But as I stepped toward the bathroom, I realized the worst part of my morning—the let there be light part—was fast approaching. I groaned and considered dillydallying despite the state of Uncle Bob’s arteries.
Just suck it up, I told myself. It had to be done.
I placed a shaky hand on the wall, held my breath, and flipped the switch.
“I’m blind!” I yelled, shielding my eyes with my arms. I tried to focus on the floor, the sink, the Clorox ToiletWand. Nothing but a bright white blur.
I totally needed to lower my wattage.
I stumbled back, caught myself, then forced one foot in front of the other, refusing to back down. I would not be stopped by a lightbulb. I had a job to do, dammit.
“Did you know you have a dead guy in your living room?” he asked.
I turned back to the dead guy, then glanced across the room to where Mr. Wong stood, his back to us, his nose buried in the corner. Looking back at dead guy number one, I asked, “Isn’t that a bit like the pot calling the kettle African-American?”
Mr. Wong was a dead guy, too. A teeny-tiny one. He couldn’t have been more than five feet tall, and he was gray—all of him, almost monochrome in his translucence, with a gray uniform of some sort and ash gray hair and skin. He looked like a Chinese prisoner of war. And he stood in my corner day after day, year after year. Never moving, never speaking. Though I could hardly blame him for not getting out more with his coloring and all, even I thought Mr. Wong was a nut job.
Of course, the mere fact that I had a ghost in the corner wasn’t the creepiest part, and the moment Dead Guy realized Mr. Wong wasn’t actually standing in the corner, but was hovering, toes several inches from the floor, he’d freak.
I lived for such moments.
“Good morning, Mr. Wong!” I semi-shouted. I wasn’t sure if Mr. Wong could hear. Probably a good thing, since I had no idea what his real name was. I just named him Mr. Wong in the interim between creepy dead guy in the corner and normal walking-around dead guy he would someday become if I had anything to say about it. Even dead people needed a healthy sense of well-being.
“Is he in time-out?”
Good question. “I have no idea why he’s in that corner. Been there since I rented the apartment.”
“You rented the apartment with a dead guy in the corner?”
I shrugged. “I wanted the apartment, and I figured I could cover him up with a bookcase or something. But the thought of having a dead guy hovering behind my copy of Sweet Savage Love gnawed at me. I couldn’t just leave him there. I don’t even know if he likes romance.”
I looked back at the newest incorporeal being to grace me with his presence. “What’s your name, anyway?”
“Oh, how rude of me,” he said, straightening and walking forward for a handshake. “I’m Patrick. Patrick Sussman. The Third.” He stopped short and eyed his hand, then glanced back up sheepishly. “I don’t guess we can actually—”
I took his hand in a firm shake. “Actually, Patrick, Patrick Sussman the Third, we can.”
His brows drew together. “I don’t understand.”
“Yeah, well,” I said, going into the bathroom, “join the club.”
As I closed the door, I heard Patrick Sussman III freak out at last.
“Oh, my god. He’s just … hovering.”
It’s the simple things in life, and all that crap.
* * *
The shower felt like heaven covered in warm chocolate syrup. Steam and water rushed over me as I inventoried each muscle, adding a mental asterisk if it ached.
My left biceps definitely needed an asterisk, which made sense. The asshole in the bar last night wrenched my arm with the apparent intention of ripping it off. Sometimes being a private investigator meant dealing with society’s less-than-savory characters, like a client’s abusive husband.
Next, I checked my entire right side. Yep, it ached. Asterisk. Probably happened when I fell against the jukebox. Stealth and grace, I ain’t.
Left hip, asterisk. No idea.
Left forearm, double asterisks. Most likely when I blocked asshole’s punch.
And then, of course, my left cheek and jaw, quadruple asterisks, where my block proved utterly useless. Asshole was simply too strong and too fast, and the punch had been too unexpected. I went down like a drunken cowgirl trying to line dance to Metallica.
Embarrassing? Yes. But strangely enlightening as well. I’d never been KO’d before. I thought it would hurt more. Somehow, when you’re knocked senseless, the pain doesn’t show up till later. Then it’s a cold, heartless bitch.
Still, I’d made it through the night with no permanent damage. Always a good thing.
As I tried to work some of the soreness out of my neck, my thoughts turned to the dream I’d had, the same dream I’d been having every night for a month. And it was proving harder and harder to vanquish the remnants after I woke, the lingering touches, the fog of hunger. Every night in my dreams, a man appeared from the darkest recesses of my mind, as if he’d been waiting for me to fall asleep. His mouth, full, masculine, would sear my flesh. His tongue, like flames across my skin, would send tiny sparks quaking through my body. Then he would dip south, and the heavens would open and a chorus singing hallelujah would ring out in perfect harmony.
At first the dreams started small. A touch. A kiss light as air. A smile I could see only in the periphery of negative space, finding beauty where I’d never expected. Then the dreams developed, became stronger and frighteningly intense. For the first time in my life, I’d actually climaxed in my sleep. And not just once. In the last month, I’d come often, on more nights than not, in fact. All at the hands—and other body parts—of a dream lover I couldn’t see, not fully. Yet I knew he was the epitome of sensuality, of male magnetism and allure. And I knew also that he reminded me of someone.
I figured my dreams were being invaded, but by whom? I’ve had the ability to see the departed all my life. I had been born a grim reaper, after all. The grim reaper, though I didn’t discover that little jewel until I was in high school. Even so, the departed have never been able to enter my dreams, to make me quake and quiver and, I admit, beg.
As far as my ability goes, there’s nothing particularly special about it. The departed exist on one plane, and the human race exists on another, and somehow—whether by freak accident, divine intervention, or psychological disorder—I exist on both. A perk, I suppose, of grim reaperism. But it’s all quite simple. No trances. No crystal balls. No channel surfing the dead from one plane to the next. Just a girl, a few ghosts, and the entire human race. What could be easier?
And yet, he was something more, something … not dead. At least he seemed that way. The person in my dreams radiated heat. Dead people are cold, just like in the movies. Their presence will fog your breath, make you shiver, stand your hair on end. But the man in my dreams, the dark, seductive stranger I’d become addicted to, was a furnace. He was like the scalding water rushing over me, sensual and painful and everywhere at once.
And the dreams were so real, the feelings and responses his touch evoked so vivid. I could almost feel him now, his hands sliding up my thighs, as if he were in the shower with me at that very moment. I could feel his palms rest on my hips and the length of his hard body press against my backside. I reached behind me, ran my fingers along his steel buttocks as he pulled me onto him. His muscles contracted and released underneath my touch, like the tide’s flow and ebb under the sway of the moon. When I forced a hand between us, slid it down his abdomen to encircle his erection, he hissed in a breath of pleasure and hugged me to him.
I felt his mouth at my ear, his breath fan over my cheek. We had never spoken. The heat and intensity of the dreams left little room for conversation.
But for the first time, I heard a whispered utterance, faint and almost imperceptible. “Dutch.”
My heartbeats skyrocketed, and I jerked to attention, glancing around the shower, searching for ghosts in cracks and crevices. Nothing. Had I fallen asleep? In the shower? I couldn’t have. I was still standing. Barely. I clutched the shower valves to keep myself upright, wondering what in the crazy afterlife had just happened.
After steadying myself, I turned off the water and grabbed a towel. Dutch. I’d distinctly heard the word Dutch.
Only one person on Earth had ever called me Dutch, once, a very long time ago.
FIRST GRAVE ON THE RIGHT Copyright © 2011 by Darynda Jones