Grim Reality Series

I reap stupid people. Are you next?

What do you get when you cross a hockey mom with the grim reaper?

Me, Lisa Carron.

If being a depressed, frumpy, widowed mother of three wasn’t bad enough, I just found out I’m a grim reaper. I know what you’re thinking. Wow, that’s kind of sexy and full of awesomeness. Hardly. Oh, and my clients? Stupid people. Like I don’t get enough of that from the living.

Since Alaska is big and angels of death are few, I’ve been partnered with reaper extraordinaire, Nate Cramer. He’s strong, silent, and way too good looking for my recently widowed state. Oh, and he reaps violent criminals, so that should be interesting. Forget the danger and the hours of self-analysis it will take for me to find my reaper mojo. My biggest problem? Hiding it all from my overly attentive family and nosy neighbors.

Now that’s going to take a miracle.

Being a widow wasn’t as glamorous as it sounded. Unless a person had the money to grieve properly—say in a tropical country, drowning in endless Mai Tais—it really kind of sucked.

I should know. I’ve been a widow for a year now. Twelve long months of clawing my way through each day. My name is Lisa Carron. I’m a thirty-five year old, single mother of three, and today is the one-year anniversary of my husband Jeff’s death.

It was also a year ago today I started letting my appearance slide. Grief will do that to you. Lay you low and drag you into dark places you never thought you’d go. In my case it was carbs and elastic waistbands.

For the last year my kids had come first, my depression last. Tasks like dressing and combing my hair took a back seat to more important activities, such as lying on the couch and staring at the ceiling, or scouring the cabinets for spilled chocolate chips. None of my pre-widow clothes fit anymore. Still, I hadn’t been motivated to clear off my treadmill and fire that baby up.

One aspect of widowhood I had enjoyed was wearing black. I know that wasn’t a thing anymore, unless you’re an elderly lady from the old country, but I embraced it nonetheless—maybe a little too enthusiastically. Everything I owned was black.

I’d fallen into a rut and until a few days ago, when my daughter casually suggested I run a comb through my hair as to not scare the neighbor kids, I hadn’t realized how far I’d sunk. That was my Aha moment. It was then I’d realized my kids had weathered the crisis of their father’s death and emerged on the other side in far better shape than I had.

The revelation was bittersweet. I mean, kudos to me for being an awesome mom, but damn. My frizzy ponytail belonged on the backend of a horse, and my nails looked like I’d been buried alive and clawed my way out of the grave. In a word—I was a hot mess. What I needed was a long dip in Lake Lisa.

Determined to get my act together, I dropped off the spawn of my loins at my parents’ house for the weekend. Once back home, I popped a cork on a bottle of Riesling, sat at the table, and planned out two kid-free days. The excitement made me a little giddy—or maybe it was the wine—anyway, for the first time in a year, I sketched out a Saturday that was all about me.

That night I slept like a baby and when morning dawned, I rolled out of bed ready to face the day. A slight ache beat against the inside of my skull, but it was nothing a few aspirins hadn’t cured. Plus, the Riesling had totally been worth it.

I showered and headed to the Holiday gas station near my friend Vella’s hair salon. Getting my hair done was number two on my list. Buying my bucket of soda number one. The sugary nectar was the only legal substance I knew that gave me the sustained energy I needed to get through my day of errands—and sadly, the main reason I’d become a little fluffy.

Before I could shut off Omar, my ancient minivan, The Hokie Pokie, my mom’s special ringtone, erupted in my purse. A million terrible scenarios sped through my mind. Fine, maybe I wasn’t completely comfortable being away from my kids.

I flipped off the ignition and scrambled to find my phone. “Are the kids okay?”

“They’re fine, sweetheart.” Mom’s placating voice soothed my panic back to a normal level. A small plane from the nearby airport buzzed over the car. “Where are you? I hear traffic. Are you running errands?”

Translation, did you get your big butt out of bed?

“Yes, I’m at the Holiday station near Merrill Field. I’m getting gas,” I lied, not needing the lecture on the hundred ways soda could kill me. “Did you need something?”

“It’s sixteen degrees out.” Temperature update brought to you by my mother, the neighborhood weather monitor. “Are you wearing your winter coat?”

“No, it’s not that cold.” Refusing to wear my parka until it hit zero had been something I’d done since I was a teenager—a personal affirmation that I was an Alaskan woman. Plus, it irritated the hell out of Mom, so I’d kept up the tradition. Childish, I know, but some days I just needed that win.

“You and that stupid habit. One day you’re going to catch your death.” Her heavy sigh hissed through the receiver. “Anyway, what do you have planned for today?”

“I’m on my way to Vella’s to get my hair cut.” Vella was my best friend and supreme ruler of all hairstylists in the universe. “Possibly my nails.”

“Oh good, you were starting to look like a mangy Cocker Spaniel. Have her hit those roots with a little color too. You’ll feel better.”

Translation, she’d feel better.

Having grown up with Mom’s backhanded comments; I now ignored them—for the most part. I was secure in my frumpiness, and looked passably acceptable to be seen in public, though Bronte, my daughter, would argue that point.

“Mom, are you sure you’re okay keeping the kids this weekend? I can get them after my hair appointment.”

“Nonsense. We’re making ghost sugar cookies for Halloween, and your father is pulling out his gun collection later.”

In the background I heard a collective cheer from my twin sons. “Are you nuts? Do not let the boys anywhere near those weapons.”

“They’re just show pieces, honey. The boys will be fine.”

Show pieces my ass.

“Uh huh.” My father was a retired cop and had an unhealthy obsession with firearms. But arguing with my mother was pointless. It was a sad state of affairs when a fifteen year old was the most responsible person in residence. “Could you put Bronte on the phone?”

Several seconds of silence passed until my daughter came on the line. “Yo.”

“Hey, do me a favor and make sure the boys don’t touch Grandpa’s guns.”

She gave me her perfected annoyed teenager grunt. “How? They don’t listen to me.”

“You’re clever. Figure something out.” Bronte was more devious than both her brothers combined. It was a trait I stopped fighting and now used to my benefit. “If the boys come home unharmed, I’ll buy you those hockey skates you want.” Even though they weren’t top of the line the skates would still set me back. But my kids’ safety was worth it. “We’ll get them after I pick you up Sunday.”

Right after you pick us up?”

“I promise.” I couldn’t waffle or she’d think I was bluffing. “Straight from grandma’s house to the store.”

She was silent for a few seconds, but I had her. She’d been asking for new hockey skates since last season. “I’ll see what I can do.”

“Thank you, sweetie. Tell Grandma I’ll call her later. And hey…Mommy loves you.”

Bronte made a gagging sound and ended the call. I smiled, knowing nobody would be going near my father’s gun collection.

I dropped the phone into my purse and opened my van door. It squawked in protest, the loud kind that made everybody cringe and turn to stare. I kept meaning to have my dad look at it, but then I’d be subjected to my mother’s endless affirmations on how to bounce back from losing Jeff. Like she knew anything about being a widow. Sure, it might seem like my dad was dead when he sat in his chair watching TV, but he’s just quiet. I’m almost certain my mother hadn’t drained all the life out of him—yet. So I lived with judgmental looks and knowledge that one more thing in my life was falling apart.

The cold October wind swirled around me and slipped between the collar of my black polar fleece jacket and neck. Shivers rippled along my shoulders. I yanked the zipper up and walked to the front door, tilting my chin toward the sky. I hated when my breath flash froze the material of my jacket to my face. It was like getting a mini wax job, and considering the lack of attention I’d given my upper lip over the last year, I wasn’t taking any chances.

I pulled open the glass door to the convenience store and held it for a large, bald guy with bad manners and a worse looking trench coat. His dark eyes darted to me and then away again. Hunched and limping, he slumped past without as much as a thank you. Rude bastard. Normally I would have graced him with one of my famous snarky comments, but the way he skulked past sent a serious case of the heebie-jeebies up my spine. Instead, I ignored him and headed for the soda machine.

Something about fountain pop made it better than drinking it from a plastic bottle. Maybe there’s more fizz, less sweetness. Maybe it’s the straw. A lot of things taste better with a straw. That’s not a proven scientific fact, just my personal opinion. Let’s just way I have researched soda drinking over the years.

Mr. No Manners slinked past and around the back of the store to the refrigerated section. I focused on getting my jumbo beverage, not making eye contact with him. A cellophane wrapper crinkled behind me, drawing my attention. I glanced over my shoulder. The first thing I saw was firm, male buns. The man straightened and perused the artificial ingredients on a package of pastries.

I silently scoffed. From his trim physique and well rounded tush, it was obvious this guy had never enjoyed the luscious processed goodness of a mass-made pastry. He was too fit—too outdoorsy looking, with his healthy glow and casually tousled brown hair. He definitely gave off an Alaskan man vibe—I hike, compost, and brew my own beer from wild berries I picked myself. Yeah, I knew the type well. People like him rarely bought anything that contained more than three ingredients, and those pastries were only eaten by hardcore junk-foodies. I never touched them myself. The texture reminded me of soggy florist foam, or crumbling sheet rock. Not that I’ve ever eaten either.

Still—I might have been a grieving widow but I wasn’t dead. After one more appreciative look at him, I returned my attention to filling the vat of soda.

As I slid my thumbs along the edge of the plastic lid to snap it onto the cup, a deep voice shouted, “Give me all your cash.”

My head whipped toward the front of the convenience store. Mr. Bad Manners held a shotgun pointed directly at Doug and Roger, the mini-mart cashiers. Yeah, we were on a first name basis.

Like a heavy rock sinking into thick mud, the situation registered in my brain. Holy crap, it was a fricken’ holdup.

My fingers dug into my soda cup, my eyes growing wide as paralyzing fear rushed through me. I think I stopped breathing, not wanting to draw the robber’s attention. My first thought was of my kids. Things were finally getting back to normal. Well, as normal as they could be. No way was I going to attempt some adrenaline inspired hero crap that would no doubt get me killed.

From those thoughts of survival, my mind quickly jumped to the fact that I might be on the nightly news and probably should have dressed better. Random Thought Syndrome—I was one of its many sufferers.

The snack cake guy stood unmoving. It didn’t appear any of us patrons were looking to be local heroes, or from the robber’s crazed stare, a possible fatality.

Rock music from the local radio station filled the silence. I mentally urged Doug or Roger to start shoving cash into a bag, but neither moved. Unfortunately, it seemed I didn’t possess Jedi mind powers.

“Money! Now!” Sweat trickled down the robber’s stubbly face and he waved the shotgun at the boys. His head flicked several times to the side, as if he had a nervous tick. Nervous tick equaled itchy trigger finger as far as I was concerned.

“Don’t shoot, sir,” Doug finally said. He reached toward the cash register and punched a button. The till dinged and the drawer slid open. “I’m just gonna get a bag to put the money in, okay?”

Good move, Doug.

“Hurry up.” The robber glanced around the store, his gaze lingering on me longer than I liked, before darting back to the cashier. “And don’t trip the alarm.”

Doug nodded. His hair, a substantial sandy blond fro with a huge comb sticking out the side, bounced up and down like a dandelion puff bobbing in the breeze. Plastic bags crackled as he attempted to work it free it from the pile. Cars sped along Glenn Highway beyond the large glass windows, completely oblivious to the ensuing robbery and the innocent patrons inside. My heart beat against my throat and my mouth went dry. Taking a sip of my soda was tempting but the scene with the tyrannosaurus rex from Jurassic Park kept playing in my mind.

Don’t move. Don’t even breathe. Maybe this monster wouldn’t notice you.

Seconds ticked by and still Doug fumbled under the counter. I knew these two college guys weren’t the brightest bulbs in the string of lights, but seriously, how hard was it to get a stupid grocery sack?

Doug crouched slightly, and when he straightened, he held a big ass revolver aimed at the bald guy.

Time seemed to slow.

Several things happen at once. The robber’s eyes widened, comprehension that the cashier now sported some serious firepower dawning. His gun jerked up, and before I had time to drop to the floor, Doug pulled the trigger.

The revolver exploded, catapulting the criminal backward into the stand of chips. He slithered to the white tile floor in a cacophony of crumpling cellophane. The ringing in my ears ricocheted through my head and my feet seemed rooted in place. Nobody moved. We just stood there with our mouths hanging open.

I think I spoke for everyone in the mini-mart when I finally muttered, “Holy crap.”

An aftershock of adrenaline surged through me. I slung my soda aside and raced toward the robber. Hopefully he was injured and not dead. I’d had enough of death for a lifetime.

Mr. Snack Cake seemed to have the same idea and sprang into action. He barreled around the corner, shouting, but I was too amped up to make sense of his gibberish. I dropped and slid the last foot, stopping when my knees plowed into the robber’s ribs.

The good-looking guy waved his arms at me. “Don’t touch him!”

Too late. Sorry, but when I see a scraped elbow or somebody with a hole the size of a frozen pizza in their chest, my ninja paramedic skills kick into action. I pressed my fingers to the robber’s neck, checking for a pulse. Nothing. My hands drifted across his chest, but there was no place to start compressions. Not that it would have helped. Doug’s shot had hit the man dead center—no pun intended.

Mr. Snack Cake skidded to a stop beside me.

I glanced at him. “He’s dead.”

His eyes grew to the size of silver dollars. “I told you not to touch him.”

Obviously the sight of a corpse was completely freaking out this guy. Good thing I’d developed a rather unhealthy obsession with CSI shows after my husband died. I knew what to do. I looked over my shoulder at Doug. He still held the revolver, his hands shaking, and appeared to be in shock.

“Call 911.” His eyes tracked to my face but I don’t think he understood me. “Doug.” I used his name, trying to snap him back to reality. “Put the gun down and call 911.”

The weapon clattered to the floor and he fumbled for the phone. Using the dead guy’s shoulder for leverage, I tried to push to a stand. The sensation of being pulled downward tugged on my arms. I struggled to my feet and tried again, but couldn’t yank my hands off the robber.

Mr. Snack Cakes leapt over the body and gripped me around the chest. His hands locked directly between my boobs. Granted, this was the most action the girls had seen in over a year, and normally I would have been flattered, but I preferred to be groped more privately—with fewer dead people around.

“Hey, pal, mitts off the boobs.” I fought against his hold but my hands remained glued to the dead guy.

“I told you not to touch him.” He tugged, but I still couldn’t straighten, or remove my palms from the robber’s body.

What happened next was like trying to wipe sticky fingers with a paper napkin. No matter what, the napkin clung to me—just like the robber did.

I was still bent over, as if locked in a deadly game of Twister, when the cute guy heaved himself back and finally dragged me free. I won’t swear in public, but I’m almost positive he groped my boobs again.

I couldn’t be certain because at the same time I heard a zipper-like rasp and found myself reeling backward. Mr. Snack Cake caught me before we both fell into a postcard stand. I’d barely righted myself when the dead guy’s body lifted from the tile and hurdled toward me. I folded in on myself, bracing for impact. But instead of colliding, the mini-mart robber passed through me. Somebody screamed like a little girl—I’m pretty sure it was me.

The man holding me gripped my hands, curling them into fists. “Hold him, Lisa!”

Every instinct had me spinning to see where the robber had gone. Nothing made sense. Had I just imagined the man passing through me?

“He’ll run if you let go,” the cute guy said into my ear.

“Let go of what?”

That question was quickly answered as the robber snapped back through my body, slicing me with an icy chill that cut through my bones. A shudder rippled through me and my mind couldn’t comprehend what I was seeing—Mr. Bad Manners.

His translucent body flickered, and a dark aura pulsed around the form. I screamed again and attempted to violently shake off the good-looking guy’s hold. I’m certain it was one of those spastic, hyperventilating convulsion. Not pretty, but I wasn’t apologizing for my freak-out.

“Stop fighting me,” Mr. Snack Cake yelled.

Yeah, right. Every survival instinct screamed for me to get away from the ghostly entity glaring at me. I dug my boots into the tile floor and pushed backward, but couldn’t get traction. Any movement I made tugged the apparition of the bald guy with me. The darkness around the robber grew and enveloped me. His anger beat against me as if it was my own emotion. It invaded my personal space, choking off my breath and the scream hovering in my throat.

The ghost yanked against my hold, which disconnected his dark aura from me. I gasped, inhaling a lungful of air. Then he jerked again, yanking me forward. I stumbled over something and when I looked down I saw the mini-mart robber’s body lying in the same place he’d fallen, except now a pool of dark blood seeped from under his back.

My gaze darted to the ghost attached to me and then down at his body. I screamed—again. I mean, I was all about the paranormal, but in a romantic way—fallen angels—sexy vampires—pretty much any immortal who wanted me to be the focus of his world—but not an angry ghost of a violent criminal.

The cute guy leaned in. “Whatever you do, don’t let go of him.”

Not that I could. My fingers ached from the living guy’s grip, and my nails gouged my palms. He turned me toward the back of the store, which automatically dragged the apparition of the robber with us. “I’m taking her to the bathroom to get cleaned up and calmed down,” he said to the boys. “Lock the doors until the police get here.”

At this point, he frog-marched me and what I now believed was a ghost, toward the back of the mini-mart.

The apparition fought our every step. “Let me go, you stupid bitch.”

Wow, harsh. Logic shrieked I shouldn’t argue. I’d seen the Amityville Horror. No way did I want blood seeping out of the walls of my house. It was hard enough getting red wine stains off the carpet.

“Shut up, Leroy,” the cute guy said.

That silenced the robber’s ghost. Crap, were these two partners? Had I just become a criminal sandwich? Nausea rolled through me. Maybe if I puked on Snack Cake’s fancy hiking boots, he’d let me go.

“How do you know my name?” The spirit stopped struggling. “You a cop?”

Cute guy lowered his voice so only we could hear. “You wish I was a cop.”

Chills slithered down my spine at his tone. Who the hell was this guy? The darkness pulsing around Leroy’s ghost intensified and my head started to swim. It felt as if he was sucking the life from me. Blackness crept around the edges of my vision.

Don’t pass out. Don’t pass out.

Damn it, I’d been determined to get my life on track. It looked like the first day of my new life might be my last.

We entered the bathroom. The smell of industrial cleaner filled my nose and the flickering fluorescent lights intensified my headache. He kicked the door closed, sealing us inside the white tiled tomb.

“My name is Nate.”

I craned my neck to see if he was talking to me. “All right.” Nice to meet you seemed a little inappropriate for the situation. “Listen Nate, you need to tell me what the hell is going on because I am seriously about to lose it.”

“Let me get rid of him first, and then we’ll talk.” His voice softened, the creepy killer tone lessening.

“Get rid of him?” I scrunched my face and laced my words with my infamous sarcasm. “Where do you think he’s going? We’re in a frickin’ bathroom of a mini-mart.”

Me and my big mouth.

“Pick!” Nate waited a few seconds before shouting the word again. “Pick!”

“Pick?” What was I supposed to pick? The ghost or me? Life or death? My fingers ached from his crushing grip. I wiggled, trying to get away, but he continued to hold me in place. “I pick life. I want to live. Don’t kill me.”

“Me too,” Leroy’s ghost said.

“It’s too late for you, Badder.”

I didn’t know who Badder was, but when Leroy began to fight me again, my keen sense of deduction kicked in, telling me it was the ghost. Several times he tried to jerk away, but kept rebounding like a rubber band. His arms passed through mine, cutting my bones with a searing cold. My head pounded, feeling like it was about to shatter. Any minute I was going to embark on a psychotic episode of epic proportion.

A bright, blue light suddenly appeared at the end of the bathroom near the toilet. All of us stopped struggling and stared as the sink disappeared behind the elongating glow. The light widened into a rectangle and the intensity dimmed. Breath caught in my throat when an actual door appeared, and then slid open. Leroy Badder’s mouth sagged and his shoulders slumped. At least I wasn’t the only one stunned by the sight. Nate, however, appeared perfectly calm, like an elevator arriving in the Holiday bathroom was a normal occurrence.

My attention drifted back to the far end of the bathroom and the man standing on the other side of the door. At least I thought it was a man. Something about him didn’t look completely human. Maybe it was his coal black eyes, or perhaps the tiny bumps protruding from the front of his skull that reminded me of horns. Despite what was certainly an unfortunate birth defect, the man’s head was a perfect oval. A solid sheet of sable brown hair slicked along the top and sides like glossy frosting, and the creases in his black suit were so sharp they looked as if they could cut. Mafia attorney popped into my mind.

Beyond him the room glowed red. Not like those red light bulbs hookers use to advertise their services, but more like a roaring fire burned nearby. My first impression? Modern Gates of Hell. But that would be ridiculous, right? I mean, I was standing in a mini-mart bathroom.

“I’ve got him, Pick.”

Nate’s words snapped me out of my trance. “That’s Pick?”

“Yes.” His gaze slid to mine and he lowered his voice. “Don’t let him touch you.”

Like that even had to be said. “Yeah, no problem.”

I must have been in shock, because I should have been freaking out. It wasn’t every day you saw an elevator to Hell in a convenience store bathroom. My life was hockey games and laundry, not…well, not whatever this was.

“Nate.” Pick’s voice carved through the tension like a hissing blade. “Punctual as usual.” His gaze tracked to me and his thin lips pulled into a white, feral smile. “And who do we have here?”

This Pick character gave off a seriously eerie vibe.

“A new recruit,” Nate said.

I had no idea if they were talking about me, and it didn’t matter. At this point I was doing good not to pee myself.

The attorney guy pulled a clipboard from a file pocket mounted near the entrance and scanned an attached paper. “Leroy Badder?”

“Yes.” Nate didn’t move or release his hold on my hands. “He just robbed the convenience store—or tried to.”

Pick ticked a mark on the clipboard and placed it back into the pocket. “You’ve been quite the troublemaker, Mr. Badder.”

“Yeah, well, let me go and I’ll show you just how bad I can be.” Leroy tugged against my hold, pulling me toward the elevator.

Panic shot through me. Nate had specifically said to not let Pick touch me, and I had every intention of complying. Once again, I dug the thick heels of my boots against the slick tile floor, and lunged backward.

Nate’s grip tightened and he leaned in, pressing his mouth against my ear. “When I tell you to release him, let go.”

“Gladly.” Though I didn’t know if my fingers would open after being crushed for so long.

Leroy shook his arms, which caused me to chomp down on my tongue. I bit back a string of name calling, most of which were less than flattering references to his mother.

“Now?” I shuffled my feet, trying to avoid Badder’s stomping boots. Then the ghost braced his foot against my thigh and hauled backward. “Now?” I shouted.

“Now!” Nate’s grip slid from my hands to my waist, holding me steady.

With the help of Leroy’s thrashing, my fingers uncurled and released the ghost. Leroy hurled toward the open door, as if being sucked in by a giant vacuum, and tumbled into the elevator. He lay for a few seconds, looking around. When his gaze tracked downward, his eyes widened and his mouth rounded in a silent scream. Before he uttered a sound, Leroy dropped out of sight. The scene reminded me of the coyote on one of those Road Runner cartoons. Seconds later, the cry he hadn’t voiced wafted up and out of the elevator to Hell.

Pick stood in the doorway, plucking invisible lint from his suit until Leroy’s voice faded. I stumbled backward and out of Nate’s hold, hitting the door. My fingers fumbled for the handle, but Nate flicked the deadbolt to lock.

“Let me out.” My hands shook so badly I couldn’t maneuver the latch back. I had no idea who or what Pick was or where Leroy Badder had disappeared. What I did know was that I wanted to be as far away from these guys as possible. I pointed. “I’m not going in there.”

“Calm down.” Nate grabbed my shoulders and spun me to face him. “You don’t have to but we need to talk before the police get here.”

I stared at him, not sure I trusted anything he said. My fingers curled around the handle of the door. No way was I dropping my defenses so this guy could toss me through the fiery Gates of Hell. Nate released me but kept his hands raised, gesturing for me to stay put. I didn’t move—was unable to move.

He faced the elevator. “Our transaction is complete.”

Pick tipped his head in acknowledgment and straightened. “Until next time.”

With that, the door slid shut and compressed into a thin line of light, shrinking until it vanished completely. Nate walked to the other end of the bathroom. “It’s over.”

I didn’t release my death-grip. “What was that? Who are you? Where did Leroy go?” My questions flowed like verbal diarrhea. “Am I dead?”

“You aren’t dead, but Leroy is. That doorway was a portal, and Pick is what’s called a porter. He escorts souls to their appointed destination.”

“Appointed destination? You mean Hell?”

Nate shrugged. “Not necessarily, but in most cases, yes.”

“What do you mean, in most cases?”

He stared at me, his blue eyes never wavering from my face, but didn’t answer.

“What are you?”

Nate took a deep breath and exhaled. “I’m a grim reaper. It’s my job to get souls to the porters.”

I didn’t know whether to laugh or run screaming from the restroom. There wasn’t enough liquor in the world to drown the images of the things I witnessed. Not enough soap to scrub away the feel of Leroy sticking to me. And there was no denying I might have completely lost my mind.

Nate cleared his throat. “And you’re a grim reaper too.”

Okay, I’d definitely lost my mind.

Las Vegas! All expenses paid!

Normally, a trip like that would be a dream come true for a widowed, mother of three, who just happens to be grim reaper. Here’s the thing though, situations rarely work out as I imagine they should. And usually not in my favor.

This time isn’t any different. Instead of the endless free drinks and gambling I’d been hoping for, I get the opposite—demons, water zombies, and a bimbo ghost roommate, who gives new meaning to the phrase dead drunk.

But it’s not all bad. I’m making new friends, learning spectacular reaper skills, and saving souls. I just hope I don’t lose mine before I can get the Underworld all sorted out.

Las Vegas! All expenses paid!

Normally, a trip like that would be a dream come true for an overworked, widowed, mother of three. Here’s the thing, though; situations rarely worked out as I imagined. And usually not in my favor. So, when my boss, Constantine, offered—well, not actually offered…more like handed me—the plane ticket to Vegas and told me in no uncertain terms I’d be attending the GRS annual convention, I was instantly suspicious.

GRS stands for Grim Reaper Services, of which I, Lisa Carron, am their newest grim reaper. And sadly, the least adept. I was getting better, but I’d been a reaper for less than a year and had nowhere near the skills my partner Nate possessed.

And don’t get me started about Constantine. He’s our crazy hot Alaskan leader, but I still hadn’t decided if he was human. Actually, I’m scared to be alone with him. Not in a hockey-mask-psycho-killer way. More like, if I was ever pressed up against his body, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to stop my hands from roving to his forbidden zones. I just couldn’t be trusted in a situation like that.

So here I was in sunny Las Vegas, seven kid-free days, and none of it costing me a dime. I should have been giddy, spinning around the baggage claim area like Maria in The Sound of Music. But, like I said, circumstances were never what they seemed. I couldn’t shake the feeling that this week had nothing to do with Lisa time and everything to do with other people’s agendas. Even so, I planned to take advantage of the numerous luxuries the hotel spa had to offer.

The airport’s electronic doors slid open and the hot desert air enveloped me. Exhaust clawed at my throat. I gasped and squinted against the blinding Vegas sun. How did people live in this heat? The better question might be, why? Sixteen degrees and accumulating darkness—that’s what I’d left behind in Anchorage. Las Vegas was like anti-Alaska.

I hauled my ancient, massive suitcase toward the line of taxicabs, beads of sweat instantly forming across the bridge of my nose and forehead. The material of my long-sleeved T-shirt clung like a second skin, and the sun reflecting off the pavement, plus all the altitude changes, made my head throb. My flight had left Anchorage at midnight and I’d spent several hours wandering around the Seattle airport, waiting for the tram to start up so I could get to my concourse. Tired didn’t describe my current condition.

Now I understood why people huddled like vampires inside the dark, cool casinos. Sit at a slot machine receiving free drinks, or venture into the blistering heat to stare at Hoover Dam. I know what my choice would be.

“Cab?” A valet waved me over and pointed at the first cab in the long line waiting at the curb. His tone was all business. “Right here.”

I lopped toward him, but he’d already focused on the person behind me, and was moving to the next cab. I shoved my bag toward the cab driver. “The Venetian, please.”

“Excellent.” He grinned, his white teeth gleaming against his dark skin. “Please, get in and enjoy the air-conditioned comfort of my cab.”

His thick Indian accent and invitation made him sound like a commercial for the cab company. While he manhandled my suitcase toward the trunk of the car, I climbed into the back seat. A sigh hissed from me when the cool air hit my skin. I tossed my jacket and purse next to me and leaned my head against the back of the seat. My eyes drifted closed. Several thumps vibrated against the back seat, sending a pang of embarrassment through me. No matter how many times I’d packed and unpacked to thin out what I’d need, I still ended up with far more clothes than I could possibly wear in a week.

I lifted my head and opened my eyes, squinting against the sun streaming through the front window. For the first time I noticed the older man sitting in the front passenger seat. “Oh, hello.” He didn’t respond. Maybe he didn’t speak or understand English. Now committed to the acknowledgement, I repeated my greeting. “Hi.”

His head snapped around, his eyes widening. “Are you talking to me?”

“Yes, I am.” Mystery solved about not understanding English. I smiled. “You’re smart to stay in the car. That heat is killer.”

“Very funny,” he said, glaring. Then he shifted to face me.

“Crap.” The downside of being a grim reaper was that I was always on the job. The right side of the man’s head wavered like one of those heat mirages on the road. “You’re dead.” I scowled at him. “Aren’t you?”

“Yes, I am.” His lips pursed for a second, looking dubious. “How can you see me?”

“Just one of the perks of my job.” The trunk slammed, making me jump. Conversing with ghost tended to be off-putting to those who couldn’t see them. I rushed on. “I’m a grim reaper. If you’d like to cross over, I can help you with that when I get to the hotel.”

The cab door opened and the driver slid in, cutting off my conversation with the spirit. “Venetian, you said?”

“Yes please…” My gaze cut from the rear view mirror to the identification card fixed to the dash. “Rashid.”

“Yes, very good.”

“Cross over?” The spirit launched into a tirade as the cab pulled away. “And leave this bonehead to run my company into the ground? No thank you.”

Family drama, so not what I needed right now. After a minute of trying to ignore the ranting specter, I realized the only way to shut him up was to talk over him. “Rashid, does it always get this hot in Vegas?”

“Oh, yes.” The cabbie smiled into the rear view mirror. “But you’re in luck—it’s not supposed to get above ninety this week.”

“That’s lucky?”

His white-toothed smile reflected back at me, his head nodding vigorously.

I groaned. “How can you stand it?”

“I’m from India.” His gaze darted from the road to the mirror, and then back again. “My parents moved us here when I was twelve and opened the taxi business. When my father passed away a year ago, I took over.” His smile widened. “Las Vegas is my home now. I love it here, heat and all.”

“And if you spent less time enjoying the sights and more time working—” the ghost grumbled.

Again, I cut the spirit off before he hurled himself into another lecture that only I’d be privy to. “I think it’s wonderful you love where you live.” Glancing at the ghost, I added, “I’m sorry about your father’s passing.”

“Thank you. It was a great loss for the family,” Rashid said.

“Of course it was.” His father straightened, jutting his chin upward and crossing his arms over his chest. “I held this family together. Obviously, the entire household is lost without my guidance.”

“But…” Rashid caught my eye in the mirror again and grimaced. “To be honest, he was a miserable man.”

“Miserable?” The spirit’s head whipped toward his son.

I sunk deeper into the seat, bracing myself for the wave of anger I knew would hit me in a few seconds.

“If working eighty hours a week to put food on the table for my family made me miserable, then I’m guilty.” Like a blast of Vegas heat, the ghost’s resentment pounded me—yet another the neat side effects of being a grim reaper.

“He was never happy with anybody or anything,” the cabbie continued.

“What was there to be happy about? You’re all a bunch of boneheads. Never listened to anything I said.”

“On and on he’d rail about how we didn’t appreciate what he’d built for us,” Rashid said.

“Yes, I’m getting that,” I mumbled to myself.

“Because you didn’t.” His father waved his hands in the air. “I’d barely been dead a month before this one—” He jabbed a finger at his son. “—started taking Sundays off. No respect. No respect!”

“Call me optimistic, but I like to think he’s happy and in a much better place now.”

Instead of the sarcastic snort I wanted to make, I pressed my lips together and nodded, giving him my best empathetic expression. “I’m sure you’re right.”

“Lazy dogs, every one of them.” The ghost glared out the front window. “Your mother and I should have never reproduced.”

“I’m certain he’s exactly where he wants to be,” I replied. That wasn’t a lie, just the comforting truth Rashid, and every other person who’d lost a loved one, wanted to hear.

“I loved my father and I miss him, but I don’t miss his constant complaining.”

“Ungrateful…” The spirit faded, taking his angry mojo with him.

That’s one downside of being a grim reaper. People think the ability to see the dead is cool. What they don’t realize is that the afterlife isn’t all white light and feathers. Sometimes it’s just a lot of cranky ghosts that have their ectoplasmic panties in a wad.

Laying my head against the back seat, I let my eyelids drift shut. The driver switched topics and began regaling me with Las Vegas trivia. The combination of the cool air and my exhaustion made concentrating on what he said impossible, and after a few seconds, I dozed off.

When the taxi pulled to a stop in front of the hotel I snapped awake, sitting forward with a jolt. A young man in a gray suit yanked open the door. “Ma’am.”

“Oh…yeah.” I blinked a couple of times, my lids scraping across my eyeballs. Still trying to get my bearings, I scooped up my purse and jacket, and scooted out of the cab. “Thanks.”

Either Las Vegas had denser gravity or my exhaustion was making it difficult to move my legs. Though Rashid had parked under the hotel’s covered entrance, out of the sun, it was still hot, and I was anxious to get to my room and crank up the AC.

“You made it.” Nate’s voice sounded behind me. “I was getting worried.”

I pivoted to face my partner and couldn’t help scowling a little. He’d arrived the day before and had time to rest. As usual, his sandy-brown hair lay perfectly tousled, looking carefree yet stylish. “Were you worried or irritated?”

“I’ve checked us in.” He smirked, not answering my question, and then handed me a small envelope. “The room number is on the inside of the booklet.”

“Great, but…” I glanced at him. “We’re not rooming together—right?”

“You wish, Carron.”

“You wish I wished, Cramer.” Okay, it wasn’t the best comeback, but I was tired and either needed alcohol and something covered in cheese, or a bath and twenty-four hours of comatose sleep.

The sound of my suitcase hitting the ground thunked behind the cab, followed by the rattle of its wheels running across the tiled drive. With a pearly white smile in place, Rashid wheeled the bag to me. Before I could fish money out of my purse, Nate handed him a stack of folded bills.

“Thank you, sir.” Rashid’s smile widened. “You’re very generous.”

“And thank you for a clean, air-conditioned ride.” I said, hooking my hand around the handle of my suitcase. “And information about Las Vegas. Truly enlightening.”

“My pleasure.” Rashid gave a slight bow and pulled a business card out of his front shirt pocket. “Call me for all your taxi needs—except on Sunday.”

Nice. My own personal driver. I had no intention of leaving the casino, but I’d learned long ago my plans and fate usually raced along different tracks, sometimes colliding. I accepted the card. “I certainly will.”

“Here, let me get that.” Nate took the suitcase from me and wheeled it into the hotel.

My eyes narrowed on his broad back. Something was up. He was being exceptionally considerate and I didn’t like it one bit. I strode into the hotel after him, my senses on high alert. Again, lovely cool air greeted me when I entered the lobby. A myriad of dings, rings, and bleeps filtered in from the casino. At the sound of their taunting call my energy rallied. Maybe a few rounds of slots would help me unwind before crashing.

Scanning the grand entrance, my gaze skated over the opulent décor and landed on the milling crowd. My steps slowed to a stop. “Whoa.”

Nate turned to me. “What?”

“Is it just me or are there a ton of ghosts in here?” At least half the people were spirits, floating through the living, talking, and some looking rather lost. Alaska didn’t have near this number of spirits. “Is this usual of Vegas?”

“Probably.” Nate guided my suitcase toward the elevators. “Don’t worry about it now. We need to get to the GRS meet-and-greet.”

“No.” I groaned, my shoulders slumping as I stomped after him. “I need a shower and sleep.”

“Later.” He pressed the up arrow. “Put your suitcase in your room and come back to the third floor.” His attention zeroed on me. “Attendance is mandatory—especially yours.”

A niggle of foreboding surfaced and the hair on the back of my neck stood on end. I cocked my head. “Why especially me?”

The elevator to our right dinged, settled, and the doors slid open. We shifted, staying out of the way to allow the car to empty, and then entered.

When the doors closed, Nate punched the three and twenty-six. Still not looking at me, he said, “There are some people you need to meet.”

The elevator lurched and started upward. I gripped the handrail, breathing deeply. Normally, I avoided elevators whenever possible. My induction into reaperhood had involved a convenience store shooting, an angry ghost, and the elevator to Hell. Even though I accepted my fate as a reaper, sometimes I still had problems reconciling the whole other world concept, and elevators seemed to be my trigger.

I focused on Nate and ignored my roiling nerves. He had a way of talking around things and I’d learned direct questions got the best results. “What people?”

“Other GRS personnel.”

“Can’t I meet them tomorrow?” I watched for any sign that he was keeping something from me. His lips pressed together and for a second his nostrils flared before he schooled his expression again. Bingo. Flaring nostrils were always a dead giveaway. “What aren’t you telling me?”

“Nothing.” He scowled but didn’t meet my eyes. Liar. The elevator hiccupped to a stop on the third floor and the doors glided open. Before exiting he looked at me. “Thirty minutes, Carron, right here.”

“Yeah, yeah.” I punched the close door button three times, causing Nate to hop over the threshold as the metal slabs slid shut. “Jerk,” I said to the empty car.

The elevator spit me out on the twenty-sixth floor. With no small amount of effort, I wrestled my suitcase through the doors that kept trying to close on me, and down the carpeted hall. Finally, I found my room. After a couple of attempts with my keycard, the light flashed green and I pushed the door open. At last, home away from home.

The room was gorgeous, decorated in shades of beige and gold, with a few accents of red artistically tossed about. The furnishings were a little over the top, but I wasn’t about to complain.

First things first. I found the thermostat and cranked up the air. The motor kicked on. Nice. A sigh eased from me. Next, unpacking. Some people lived out of their suitcases when they traveled. Not me. I needed to nest—make the room my own.

I unzipped my suitcase and pulled out my cosmetic bags—yes, I had two. Like my clothes, I hadn’t been able to pare down the contents and I’d ended up dumping all my girl supplies into my bags. Better safe than sorry. I strode into the large bathroom and began unpacking my arsenal of beauty paraphernalia. Makeup, perfume, and lotion lined the sink like tiny soldiers, ready for any cosmetic mission.

I picked up the fancy soap provided by the hotel. A list of organic products went into making the luxury bar: oatmeal, avocado, olive oil. I didn’t know whether to bathe with it or eat it. I gathered all the products and tossed them into my cosmetic bag, hoping tomorrow the maid would replenish my supply. By the time I went back to Alaska, I’d be fat with luxury hotel products. Did I mention I might have hording tendencies?

Sounds from the hall drew my attention. Leaning my head out of the bathroom, I listened. Someone was talking—or loudly slurring—directly outside my room. I inched forward and pressed my eye to the peephole. A head full of blond curls swayed into view. I couldn’t see if there were more people with her, but no doubt the woman was drunk and probably trying to find her room.

As quietly as possible, I folded the safety latch over the door. It was doubtful the drunken woman could get in, but I wasn’t taking any chances. On and on she mumbled about finding her key, tottering back and forth. She was persistent, I’d give her that much.

How long was she going to stand there, fumbling and blocking my door? Eventually I’d have to leave. When I pressed my eye to the hole again, the woman looked up. For a split second her image wavered and then she chirped, “Beep, beep.”

Before the information registered and I could jump back, the blonde stumbled through the solid door—and passed through me. An icy chill sliced to my bones. Doubling over, I spun to face the ghost.

“What the hell?” I glared at her and slowly uncoiled my body. “This is my room.”

The blonde staggered, raising her translucent arms out to her sides. Her body swayed right and left until finding her balance. Then she straightened and slowly turned toward me, holding up her index finger. “I beg to differ with you, madam.” She pointed a garish neon pink fingernail at her chest, stumbled back a few steps, and then righted herself. “This has been my room since New Year’s Eve, 2000.”

“Really?” Another icy shudder rippled through me. “You’ve been haunting this room for over fifteen years?”

She wobbled, and glowered at me. “Haunting?”

Crap. I hated when ghosts didn’t know they were dead. Informing them that they’d passed on was like telling people their loved one had died. Only in this case the loved one was her. “Yeah, I hate to be the bearer of bad news but…” I took a deep breath and plunged forward. “You’re dead.”

She stared at me for a few seconds and then burst out laughing. “I know I’m dead, silly.” An instant later she sobered. “Wait. How can you see me?” She tilted her chin down and pinned me with a stare. “Are you dead, too?”

“No.” I rubbed my arms, trying to scrub away the lingering effects of getting body-slammed by a spirit. “I’m a grim reaper.”

“Cooool.” The word leaked out of her like air escaping a balloon.

“Yeah, cool, but we have a problem.” Not chancing more contact, I stepped into the bathroom doorway, dearly hoping she would leave. “I’m here for the next week. So, either you let me help you cross over, or you find somewhere else to hang for the next seven days.” I gave her a placating smile. “Okay?”

“Yeah,” she said, waving her finger at me. “That’s not gonna happen.” After an ungraceful pivot, she made an unsteady beeline for the bed—my bed, and flopped down on it, patting the comforter. “But…” She closed her eyes. “There’s plenty of room for both of us.” Again, her eyelids popped open. “Do you snore?”

“Not that I know of.” I moved to the side of the bed, staring down at her. “Why are you drunk? Are you always wasted?” I’d never encountered an intoxicated spirit, and had assumed everybody converted to a non-inebriated state when they passed away. “Were you drunk when you died?”

“Gin and tonics, no, and yes.” Slowly, she rolled to her stomach and rested her head on her hands. “I’ve been at a party.”

“A ghost party?”

“I’m not sure.” She furrowed her brow. “I mean, there were ghosts, but also living people.” Her confusion melted and a dreamy smile spread across her face. “It was in this guy’s suite upstairs. He’s amazing.”

“Is he a ghost?” I’d never heard of the dead and living mingling at a party, but what did I know about the afterlife, except that there was one? “Cuz, maybe you could stay with him.”

Her eyes drifted shut again. “I don’t think Big C is dead.”

“Big C?”

“Yeah, the hottie who threw the party.”

I didn’t even want to know why they called him Big C. A quiet snore resonated from the spirit. “Hey.” I nudged the bed with my knee. “What’s your name?”

“Tandy,” she whispered before sinking back into a drunken snore.

“Great.” I glared at her for a few seconds and then whirled and stomped to the bathroom. Why had I actually entertained the notion that this week might be relaxing? Or at the very least, that I’d have my own room? “It frickin’ figures.”

I finger-combed my short, platinum hair and then spritzed it with hairspray. After that I flicked a coat of mascara along my lashes, then brushed my teeth. Standing back, I assessed my reflection. With only thirty minutes to primp, this was as good as it got. I retrieved my purse and room key, tossing Tandy a final glare. Hopefully she’d be gone by the time I got back.

No way was I sharing my room with a spectral party girl for seven days. If that meant hunting down Big C and pawning Tandy off on him, then that’s exactly what I’d do.

The V V Inn has a ghost problem. When the lurking specters draw the attention of Constantine, head of Grim Reaper Services, he calls in the only local who can return the remote resort to its former tranquility, Lisa Carron—resident Alaskan reaper.

Still new to the death gig, Lisa accepts the job. After all, how much trouble could one ghost be? Once at the hotel, she learns that not only is the inn full of the dearly departed, she’ll also be working for vampires. Throw in Asa, a young vamp hot enough to melt the Arctic ice, and Lisa realizes she’s way out of her element.

Asa didn’t know what to expect when told a reaper would be working on the property, but Lisa certainly wasn’t it. Blond and curvy, she’s very easy on the eyes. Tasked with helping her, Asa soon realizes that not only can she provide the dead a peaceful passing, but offer him solace in a way no other woman can.

Lisa

I stare at Constantine, certain I heard him wrong. “What do you mean I have to do this reap alone?”

He continues to scan the green blips on the radar. I still haven’t gotten used to the idea that those dots are people who are about to die. “Nate is on another assignment and this reap needs to get done—ASAP.”

Reaping, that’s my job. I’m an Angel of Death, a grim reaper of idiotic spirits for GRS, Grim Reaper Services. People who die in stupid ways are my clients. Lucky me. Nate, my partner, reaps violent criminals. Way more impressive than my job, and more dangerous. Admittedly, I’ve grown to depend on Nate and the thought of doing an important reap on my own is daunting. “Where am I going?”

“North of Fairbanks, near Coldfoot.” Constantine straightens and looks at me. “These are…special clients. I’m trusting you’ll get this done quickly and quietly.”

“Special? As in particularly stupid?”

“Far from it.” He steps past me and heads toward a desk. “The inn you’ll be traveling to is owned by a friend of mine.” He tears off a sheet of paper from a small tablet and hands it to me. “Finesse and discretion are mandatory.”

I give an unladylike snort. “I’m sorry, have we met? Finesse is not my greatest skill.”

He places his hands on my shoulders and slowly rubs. Sparks of electricity shoot down my arms. “I have faith in you, Lisa.” My heartbeat quickens. I’ll admit I’ve imagined Constantine and me in a few hot and heavy positions, but I’ve never told anyone. Not even my best friend Vella. There are two problems with my fantasy about Constantine. First, I’m not sure he’s human. Secondly, if he’s not, getting jiggy with him might be like supernatural crack. What if he ruins me for other men? It’s not a chance I want to take. Plus, he’s never offered.

A sigh slips from me and my shoulders slump. “I’m not getting out of this, am I?”

He lowers his hands. “Nope.”

I look at the paper. “The V V Inn. Never heard of it.”

“It’s very upscale. Only the most elite clientele stay there,” he says.

I’ve lived in Alaska all my life. There are a lot of expensive remote lodges that serve the wealthy, but I’m surprised I’ve never heard of this one. Not even a mention. “When do I leave?”

Constantine hands me another sheet of paper. “In three hours.”

My mouth drops open when I look at the electronic ticket and charter flight information. I give a huff of protest. “I’ve got to make arrangements for the kids. I can’t just drop everything.”

My argument falls on deaf ears. Constantine stares at me with his beautiful, but unwavering, silver eyes. “You’ll figure it out.”

When I agreed to be a grim reaper they told me there would be village travel. But I didn’t think I’d be venturing out so soon—and so alone. “I’ll see if my mom can watch the kids.” I fold the flight information and shove the paper into my pocket. “I got this.”

He gives me a soft punch in the arm like we’re buddies. “I knew you’d come through for me, Carron.”

“Yeah,” I grumble. “That’s me—reliable.”

With only three hours until my flight I walk to the elevator, the list of things I need to do already swirling in my mind.

“Lisa.”

I glance back at Constantine.

“Remember, discretion.”

My brow furrows. “Yeah, I got it.”

What does he think? I’m going to tell my mom I have souls to reap so I’ll need her to watch my kids? Hardly. When my parents found out I took the plunge and got a job at GRS after my husband died, they weren’t all that thrilled. What would they say if I told them I was actually an angel of death and not a case manager at an employment agency? Either I’d be medicated and committed, or my mother would be. Lying by omission was the best course of action.

On the way home I call Vella and make arrangements for the kids. I also pull into a convenience store and buy some junk food. It’s a guilt purchase. Yes, I’m not above bribing my kids into compliance.

By noon I’m sitting on the jet, trying to relax. For some reason this job doesn’t feel right. Why such a rush? Why me? And who are these special clients? I hate not knowing what I’m getting into. Hopefully Constantine’s request for discretion is because the spirit is rich or famous. Maybe I’ll be reaping a sheik or a movie star. My mind delves into all sorts of possibilities. Maybe I’ll be reaping Elvis. Now that would be cool.

The flight to Fairbanks is uneventful. The airport is packed from all the tourists and I have a hard time locating the charter service I’m to take to the inn. I stare at a small glassed-in kiosk in the far corner. There’s no discernible marking to indicate this is the company I’m to use, or that it’s a charter service at all. But from the vague directions on my instructions this has to be the place.

I stop in front of the glass. “Hi.”

A young guy looks up from his book and smiles. “May I help you?”

“Yes.” I drop my carry-on bag and hold up my sheet of paper. “I’m supposed to catch a charter to the V V Inn. Is this where I do that?”

His eyes widen slightly and then travel down my torso and back to my face. “Are you sure you’re going to the V V Inn?”

This pisses me off. Maybe he’s used to wealthy clients that aren’t dressed in capris and flip flops. “Lisa Carron.” I stare at him, as if my name should answer all his questions.

He checks his computer and then looks back at me, his smile tight. “Yep, you’re on the schedule.”

No shit, Sherlock. “Great. What now?”

He opens the door next to the glass and ushers me in, relieving me of my bag as I pass him. “I’ll take you to the lounge and the pilot will get you when it’s time to board.”

“Thank you.”

The corridor he leads me down is narrow and rather dark. After a minute he stops at a smooth wooden door and opens it. “You can wait in here.”

To say I’m surprised when I step inside is an understatement. What I thought would be a utilitarian waiting area turns out to be a plush lounge. So this is how the other half lives.

Leather furniture is arranged in groupings, making conversation easy. I zero in on the snack bar—mainly the beverages supplies. Everything from bottled water to wine.

“Make yourself comfortable.” The guy sets my bag on a luggage rack. “There’s snacks and drinks.” He points to a computer. “You’ve even got free internet access. The only thing you can’t do is watch porn.”

I cock an eyebrow. “Oh darn, how will I spend my time?”

He smirks and I realize he was joking. Funny. He glances at his watch. “It will probably be about forty minutes until you board. Remote for the television is on the table. Bathroom is behind you. And if you have any questions just pick up the black phone and hit one. It’s a direct line to me.”

“Thank you,” I say again. I won’t lie, I’m anxious for him to leave so I can enjoy the room. Rarely do I get time alone. Never in such a posh environment. I nod. “I’m sure I’ll be fine.”

“I’ll let them know you’re here.” He leaves, shutting the door behind him.

For forty minutes I bask in the luxury of the lounge. Strawberries, honey roasted peanuts, and chocolate wafers. I try to open a cabinet labeled coffee, but it’s locked. No matter, I’d rather have a glass of wine.

Too soon I’m ushered out the room and onto a plane by a stoic, heavily bearded pilot. He looks more like a lumber jack but in Alaska that’s not unusual. With as few words as possible he gets me settled in one of the eight seats. Besides the pilot, I’m the only passenger. There’s no safety briefing beyond buckling up. I ease forward to look out the window. I don’t love small planes and I send up a silent prayer that we won’t crash. Maybe being a grim reaper on the job gives me added protection—at least I hope it does.

My stomach does a little flip when the nose of the plane lifts, pulling us into the sky. Fairbanks isn’t a huge place and within minutes we’re beyond the city limits and flying over bush Alaska. Rivers wind across the county side. While still at a low altitude I scan the ground passing below us. Even though they’re tough to spot, I catch a glimpse of two moose in a stand of trees. They look like brown dots and I probably wouldn’t have seen them if one hadn’t been walking.

But soon we’re too high to make out details so I relax. The flight is just over an hour, maybe two depending on the winds. On a map, Coldfoot doesn’t look that far, but Alaska is a lot bigger than people think.

The drone of the engines eventually lulls me to sleep. I must have been more tired than I thought because I wake up when the plane banks left, into a pass. I scoot forward to look out the window again. Cabins dot the landscape but when we enter the pass any sign of people disappears.

The mountains rise on both sides of the plane. Thin waterfalls pour out of cracks in the rock face, dropping hundreds of feet. My stomach lurches slightly and I feel the plane nose downward. I press my face to the window, trying to see where the pilot plans to land.

A couple minutes later the narrow pass opens to wide tundra. Groves of trees spot the landscape and a river branches to the right. The beauty of the area takes my breath away. I’ve lived here all my life but I never get tired of the scenery.

I glance down, my eyes rounding. Below the plane is a pack of what looks like wolves. No way, they must be huskies. Maybe somebody at the inn runs a team. They appear a lot bigger than any huskies I’ve ever seen though, but it’s hard to tell from this height. When the pilot banks the plane I glimpse the inn.

At first I’m not sure what I’m seeing. The place is huge. In the middle of nowhere, sat a long main building with a wing off the back. Dozens of buildings litter the area. Some look like cabins. Others are bigger, maybe apartments. It’s like a hidden wonderland. If this is how the rich and famous live, sign me up.

As the plane approaches, I wonder what my room will be like. I could handle a few more days of luxury accommodations. We touch down on a wide gravel strip and taxi to a hangar. Several vehicles are parked and I see a man standing near a black SUV, obviously waiting for the plane.

He’s hot. Not just good looking, but rugged and sexy in flannel and jeans. Just the way I like them. It’s nice to know that even though I’ve been a widow for over a year I’m not dead inside. I appreciate a nice tush or rock hard abs as much as the next gal.

The plane stops and the engines power down. I stand, slightly hunched and sidle between the seats to the door. After a minute it opens and the Alaskan sunlight streams in. I glance at my phone. It’s nearly seven p.m. That’s another thing I love about summer here, twenty four hours of daylight above the Arctic Circle.

As I exit the plane the hot guy offers his hand. “Watch your step.”

I attempt an easy smile and accept his assistance. The last thing I want is to end up face down on the ground. “Thanks.” His hand is hot. Not sweaty, ick hot, but the kind of warmth that seeps into my skin. I ignore the shiver that ripples through me. “I’m Lisa Carron.”

“Yeah, we heard you were coming.” He let’s go of my hand. “I’m Jon.”

“Nice to meet you, Jon.” From his tone I get the impression he’s not thrilled about my arrival. Is that because I’m a reaper? I’m not sure how to broach the subject so I just dive in. “So, do you know why I’m here?”

He picks up my bag from the ground where the pilot set it and walks toward the black SUV. “Yep.”

I take a couple of skipping steps to catch up with him. “What were you told?”

“That you were here to take care of our ghost problem.” He pulls the back door open and tosses my bag on the seat. Then he turns and looks at me. I skid to a stop. His eyes, though a beautiful hazel, are unwelcoming. “That you’re some kind of grim reaper.”

The fact he knows surprises me. “Not some kind of grim reaper. I am a reaper.”

His brow furrows and he nods. “Okay, you are a reaper.”

“I know it’s hard to believe but it’s true.”

“Get in.” He opens the driver’s door and slides onto the seat, shutting it in my face.

“Okay.” Jackass. I circle the SUV and climb in. We’re silent for a few seconds as he shoves the car into gear and edges onto the road. Tension zings between us. Always one to try and fill an awkward silence I start to ramble. “You may not believe this but the supernatural world does exist.”

He snorts and looks at me like I’m a complete idiot. “Really?”

“Yeah, really. I don’t expect you to understand.”

“Do you even know where you are?”

I’m not sure what that has to do with anything, but I give him my sweetest smile. “An Alaskan resort for the most—” I lift my hands and make air quotes. “The most elite.”

He gives me a look crossed between confusion and wariness. After a few seconds he focuses on the road. “Okay, because for a second I wasn’t sure you understood the scope of this.”

“Don’t worry, Jon, I get it.” I cross my arms over my chest and nod. “Discreet and quick. Those are my orders.”

We don’t speak again until we reach the inn. It takes all my effort not to gawk and gush at the sight of the building. The place is bigger than I thought, like a ginormous plantation mansion in the middle of bum frickin’ nowhere. Despite the bright sun, the place has an ominous feel. As I exit the SUV I notice the windows are draped or sealed in some way. Maybe it’s closed for the season, which would be weird because summer is prime tourist time in Alaska.

Maybe the ghost I’m to reap has caused so much havoc they had to shut down the place. I follow Jon up the steps to the sprawling front porch and into the inn. It takes a few seconds for my eyes to adjust, but I see the interior is impressive. Soaring ceilings, wood everywhere, definitely a hangout for the wealthy.

“Why is it so dark in here?” I ask.

Jon snickers but doesn’t answer my question. “Asa, this is Lisa.” He drops my bag on the ground. “Seems she’s a reaper and… she’s all yours.” He walks to the registration counter and leans against it, scowling at me.

“Ignore him,” a male voice says from my right. I turn to see another guy walking out of the shadows. “Jon’s a little short on manners.”

Wow, he’s drop dead gorgeous. Young, buff, and all Vin Deisel-ish, I think my panties just caught on fire. “Hi.” My voice comes out a little too breathy. When he gets closer I see he’s in his mid-twenties. Suddenly I feel like a cougar. Down girl. “Asa, is it?”

“Yes.” He strides toward me in a way that makes me think military. Maybe it’s his straight posture. Maybe it’s the fact that he’s sporting a shaved head and wearing dog tags. Stopping next to a wall, he flips on a switch for an overhead light and I get the full effect of the inn’s interior—and him. Both are impressive. “So you’re going to rid us of our ghost?”

My eyes are drawn to the others in the room. Not people, but spirits. Three that I can see. “Ghosts.”

“Excuse me?” he says, as if not understanding.

I take a deep breath. “Do you know you’ve got a lot of dead people walking around here?”

Halloween wouldn’t be complete without a good haunting, or without some wayward spirit messing up my plans. My name is Lisa, and because I’m a grim reaper, I’ll be spending All Hallows Eve trying to capture the ghost of a serial killer instead doing normal things like trick-or-treating with my kids, or drinking wine while I pass out candy.

Yep, that about sums up my life.

The only good things I have going for me tonight are the gigantic sack of Halloween candy stuffed in my purse, and the fact that Nate isn’t too bad to look at. No doubt, the evening will be a night to remember…if I make it out alive.

Chapter One

 

I walked into the living room and stopped beside my mother. “What’s up?”

Crossing her arms over her chest, she flicked her head toward the couch. “Your father is dead.”

Being a grim reaper made me an expert on the dead. Death followed me everywhere, meowing like a needy cat, winding around my legs, and tripping me up. Most of the time I could ignore the dead if they weren’t on my to-do list, but sometimes death invaded my life like a stinky cat box, demanding to be scooped up and disposed of properly.

While my gaze traveled over my dad’s outstretched body, I lifted my can of soda and took a couple of healthy swallows. Then lowering the can I said, “You know he’s going to start to stink if you leave him there too long.”

Mom made a clicking sound with her tongue and rolled her eyes. “He’s not really dead, Lisa, he’s acting.”

Clearly he wasn’t dead; otherwise I would have been shuffling his spirit off to Hal, my porter, so he could deliver my dad to the spirit realm. But since my parents didn’t know about my job at Grim Reaper Services, I kept that comment to myself. “Are you sure he’s not just napping?”

“Of course I’m sure.” A smile creased her mouth and she looked at me. “He got a part in the community theater’s Spooktacular Extravaganza. He’s playing a corpse.” Returning her focus to my dad, she sighed. “Isn’t he wonderful?”

Though I didn’t think playing the part of a corpse taxed one’s ability as an actor, my mom obviously believed dad was pulling off the performance of a lifetime. I grimaced against the look of admiration, and dare I say lust, that sparkled in her eyes.

“Okay then.” I gave myself a mental shake, trying to erase any hint of the idea that my parents might still get busy in the bedroom. “Are you sure you don’t mind having the kids tonight?” It was Halloween, and earlier today I’d gotten a call from my boss, Constantine. He had a special assignment for my partner and me, which never boded well for me for a lot of reasons. Not getting to take the boys trick-or-treating was the least of the inconveniences I was sure to encounter tonight. “They can get kind of wild from all the sugar.”

“Of course I don’t mind. We have the whole night planned.” She held up her fingers and ticked off the rigid schedule she’d devised for the evening. “First we’re getting dressed up in our costumes. I’m going to be a witch.”

“Fitting,” I said.

“Then—” Her voice increased a few decibels, trying to drown me out. “We’re trick-or-treating downtown for an hour. That gives us just enough time to get to the theater for the Spooktacular Extravaganza. It’s going to be so much fun, the boys probably won’t even miss you.”

“Of course they’ll miss me.” I bristled against my mom’s backhanded comment. “I’m their mother.”

“Of course you’re they’re mother, but I’m grandma.” She straightened and folded her hands in front of her stomach. The pose was what I referred to as her victory stance. Anytime she thought she’d out argued somebody, she struck that pose. “Grandma’s are always more fun than moms.”

“Mine certainly was.” I mumbled, giving her a tight smile, deciding the subject of who was more fun was not worth arguing over—because clearly it was me. “Anyway, thanks again. Bronte is staying at Fang’s house tonight, but she knows to call here if she needs anything.”

“Fang.” A curt snort ejected from my mom. “What kind of name is that?”

“Hmong, she’s from Vietnam.” My daughter’s best friend was a tiny Asian girl, who had embraced the American culture after moving here from Vietnam. With Fang’s overbearing mother and sixteen siblings, I felt confident this year Bronte wouldn’t get into much trouble. If she did, I’d know about it within ten minutes. “I’m going to say goodbye to the boys.” I leaned in and gave her a kiss on the cheek. “I’ll call tomorrow morning before I pick them up.”

“Okay, honey.” The look on her face made me pause, like she knew something I didn’t. “Don’t work too hard.”

“I won’t.” I stopped. “Are you sure you’re okay with this?”

“Go.” She pointed toward the door. “We’ll be fine.”

After a few more seconds of scrutinizing her, I pushed away my suspicion that something was up, and looked at the brown floral couch where my dad still laid. The corner of his lip quivered as he exhaled, and I was pretty sure he’d fallen asleep. Yeah, he was a true professional. “Tell dad to break a leg when he wakes up.”

“He’s acting, not asleep,” my mom called after me.

“Well then, tell him to break a leg after he stops acting like he’s asleep.” I stopped into the foyer. “Boys, come give me a hug.”

Thunder, made by four little feet, pounded up the stairs from the basement game room. The twins rounded the corner, slid across the wooden floor in their socks, and barreled into my open arms. I loved my boys. They’d kept me sane after my husband died, and they made me laugh with their shenanigans. But were they ever a handful at times.

“Why can’t you take us trick-or-treating, Mom.” Breck squeezed my waist, blocking off most of my oxygen intake.

“I’m sorry, honey, I have to work.” I pried his arms from around my waist and knelt. “But grandma and grandpa are going to make sure you have a great time.”

Bryce wrinkled his nose and dropped his voice to a whisper. “Grandma smells like bologna and she’s always hugging us.”

“She hugs you because she loves you.” I leaned toward them and matched his whisper. “And she smells like bologna because of the preservatives. That’s what holds her together and stops her from turning into a mummy.”

Their eyes widened. “Really?” they asked in unison.

“Oh, yeah.” I nodded and stood. “Otherwise…” Extending my arms in front of me, I moaned, doing my best mummy impersonation. “Brains. I want brains.”

“Mummies don’t eat brains,” Bryce scowled.

“Yeah, Mom.” Breck shook his head. “That’s a zombie.”

I knew my impression wasn’t good, but I wasn’t about to admit it. Lowering my arms, I glared at them with my best, you’re dumb look. “I know that. Grandma is a zombie mummy. Duh, shows how much you guys know.”

“She is not.” Bryce crossed his arms over his chest and gave me a skeptical glower. “There’s no such thing as zombie mummies.”

“Whatever you say.” I grabbed my purse off the hook, but turned back to and stared at them for several exaggerated seconds. “But…you might want to make sure grandma eats a bologna sandwich before bed. You know, so you don’t wake up to her trying to snack on your brains.” Both of their mouths sagged open, which was highly satisfying for me. I smiled and then chirped, “Bye.”

With that, I opened the door and headed into the crisp October afternoon, the boys’ conspiratorial plans whispering after me. I knew it was a little cruel to tease the boys, and even crueler for my mom, but all of them gave as good as they got, and usually gave a lot more than they got. A chuckle rumbled from me. I hoped my mom liked bologna sandwiches. I was fairly certain that’s what the boys would be requesting for dinner—and a before-bed snack—and would be on her nightstand in the morning.

It was one o’clock when I pulled into the GRS parking lot. I parked my new, black Ford Explorer next to Nate’s Suburban. I’d like to say that I missed my old van, Omar, but I didn’t. Not even a little. My sleek black SUV totally mirrored the badass grim reaper I strove to become. Maybe I wasn’t badass yet, but at least I wasn’t a bumbling idiot anymore. Plus, I now possessed the mega cool ability to reap supernatural creatures because I was the granddaughter of Death. Sure, it was something like eleventy-million times removed, but it still counted, therefore I got the choicest reaper swag. Thanks, Hal. He’d kill me if I ever called him grandpa.

I headed into the building and took the elevator directly to the seventh floor Command Center. When the metal doors slid open, chaos bombarded me. They called it the Halloween crazy because it was Grim Reaper Services busiest night of the year. Every ghost, ghoul, and idiot came out of the woodwork on Halloween.

Many people went out of their way to be reaped by yours truly, performing epic feats of stupidity no sane person would attempt. Not all of them were idiots. For instance, I once reaped a woman who was killed by a runaway-shopping cart. When it hit her, the cart pushed her into oncoming traffic. Completely not her fault.

Then there were the other kind of people, the ones who did stupid things and paid with their lives. Like snowmobiling across thin ice with pumpkins on their heads. Dumb and dead. It was as if Fate had created Halloween especially for me. Thanks, Fate.

I joined my rock solid, and fiercely gorgeous boss, Constantine, on the riser in the center of the room. Radars lined the platform, and currently dozens of green blips bopped around the screens. Each blip represented a person, and for whatever reason, they were slated to die. Reapers rarely got a close-up view of the screens. It was GRS’s policy to keep the reaper in the dark until their client’s scheduled time of death arrived. That way we wouldn’t be able to prevent it. Knowing myself all too well, that was a prudent procedure to have in place.

“Hey there.” I smiled and shoved my hands in the back pockets of my jeans—again—because I couldn’t trust myself around him. Whenever I got near Constantine the urge to lean into him nearly swallowed me. The only thing that kept me from acting on the impulse was my doubt about him being human. I now knew that a variety of paranormal creatures existed, I just didn’t know where he fit into the picture—and I wasn’t sure I wanted to find out. “What’s the special assignment?” Instead of looking at him, I kept my eyes fixed on the green dots. “I don’t have to reap a troll or something like that, do I?”

“Not tonight, Carron.” Unable to stop myself, I looked at him. He had grayish-silver eyes that I could fall into, and creamy brown skin that reminded me of a perfect cup of coffee. “Let’s go into my office. Nate will meet us there in a minute.”

A tremor skittered down my spine when he wrapped his fingers around my upper arm. My gaze traveled from his face to his hand. His grip was gentle but firm, and when he maneuvered me toward his office, our bodies touched. Heat raced along my hip and thigh. Yowza, it had been way too long since I’d received any serious male attention, and I suspected I projected that onto Constantine.

At six feet something, he dwarfed me, making me feel feminine. That in itself was quite an achievement, and probably made him all the more attractive. I knew it was pathetic, but it was all I had.

He released me as we neared his office door, and then led the way inside. With a businesslike wave toward the chairs, he indicated I should sit—so I did, because that’s what a smart person did when Constantine told them to do something—followed orders.

The door closing sounded behind me, and a few seconds later my partner Nate dropped into the black leather chair next to me. “Hey, Carron.”

“Hey, Cramer.” My relationship with Nate had grown into something comfortable, like an old pair of shoes. Though, I secretly wished it was a lot sexier than that—it wasn’t. He’d kissed me once, but that was because I’d exorcised a pretty nasty demon from him. So, more a kiss of gratitude than lust. Though we kept things platonic, there was no denying he was nice to look at. I lifted my eyebrows in question. “Do you know what this special assignment is?”

“No.” He shook his head. “But with our luck it will be unpleasant.”

“No doubt.”

“It won’t be so bad.” Constantine shoved a file toward us. “All you have to do is capture the ghost of Samuel Parker.”

“Who’s Samuel Parker?” Nate asked.

Constantine motioned toward the file. I opened it to reveal an old black and white, eight-by-ten photo of a handsome thirty-something man. His features were dark and alluring, black hair, brown eyes, high cheekbones, straight nose, and if I hadn’t already known who Samuel Parker was, I might have been excited about wrangling this particular spirit. “Samuel Parker used to own the City Center Theater,” I said, glancing at Constantine. “Built it, as a matter of fact, right?”

“Yeah.” He leaned back in his chair and folded his hands over his flat stomach. “What else do you know about him?”

“He was charming, wealthy, and one of the elite in Anchorage society during the 50’s.”

Nate shrugged. “Doesn’t sound too bad. So what’s the catch?”

“The catch is,” I continued, “that Samuel Parker was thought to be a serial killer. Three women, I think, right?”

“Four,” Constantine corrected. “You’ll find all the history and police report in that file, so brush up on it before you head to the theater.”

“Wait. We have to go into the theater?” I asked.

“Yes.” He arched a black brow. “Is there a problem?”

Cringing, I scooted back in my chair and away from the file. “No problem beyond it being the creepiest, most haunted place in town.”

“You’re a grim reaper, Carron.”

“Why do you always say that when I voice concern about an assignment? Just because I’m a reaper doesn’t mean I can’t get hurt, or in this case, die. Remember—serial killer?”

“You’ll be fine.” He waved away my argument. “Nate will keep you safe.”

My lips pinched into a constricted smile and I glanced at my partner. There was no doubt he was a skilled reaper, but over the months, I’d proven I was every bit as good—maybe even better because of my ability to reap the paranormal. There were things I could do that no other reaper could. He stared at me, as if waiting for my objection. I forced my smile to widen, but kept silent.

At one time, the City Center Theater had been the social hotspot for plays and performances. Though many people had moved to Alaska for adventure, or because they were running from something, i.e. the law, they’d insisted on maintaining the social standards they had in the lower forty-eight. But after a string of murders, a few of which took place right in the theater, the City Center Theater had closed and never reopened.

“The current owner, Lizzy Git, will meet you at the back entrance at five o’clock. That will give you time to look around and set up.” Constantine tapped the file. “Familiarize yourself with this stuff. It might come in handy.”

I shuffled through the pictures. The next four after Parker’s photo were young women. It looked as if all the pictures had been taken sometime in the fifties. The last photo was of an older woman, maybe pushing forty, dressed in bell-bottom pants, a peasant blouse, and a brown leather headband. She reminded me of Janice Joplin, and looked like she was straight out of the sixties. I angled the photo in order to read the name written on the bottom.

“Evelyn Git?” My gaze cut to Constantine. “Any relationship to the current owner?”

“Aunt,” He replied. “She used to be quite the socialite and party thrower. It was never a problem until the 1963 Halloween party.” Leaning against the chair again, he resumed his folded hand pose. “It’s a cold case, but her niece suspects she met her demise at the hands of Samuel Parker.”

During my time as a grim reaper, more than my fair share of ghosts had beaten me around. It didn’t surprise me to hear that Parker had continued his killing spree beyond the grave. Surprised? No. Scared? Yes. A little sick to my stomach at the thought of spending the night in the theater? Definitely.

“We got this.” Nate closed the folder and stood, tucking the file under his arm. “We’ll keep you posted on our progress.”

“Yeah.” I stood and gave Constantine a smile I didn’t feel. He was never quite as good looking when he sent me into one of these dangerous, and possibly fatal, situations. “Unless…you know…we’re dead.”

He returned a grin. “Report back anyway—even if you’re dead.”

“So heartless.”

I trailed Nate out of the office and stomped across the command center to the elevator. This really wasn’t fair. I’d followed procedure and blocked vacation time off on the calendar. Vella and I had made plans. We were going to dress up in fuzzy pajamas, and then to ensure a stellar candy haul, we’d take the boys trick-or-treating through the rich neighborhoods. Then, while the boys gorged themselves on sweets and watched Halloween cartoons, we were going to drink wine and hand out candy and heckle the teenagers who didn’t bother dressing up.

My night had been planned. Staking out a haunted theater, and the very real threat of death was so not what I wanted to do on Halloween.

 

 

 

 

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