Dying Echo: A Grim Reaper Mystery #4

Dying Echo: A Grim Reaper Mystery #4

It’s been years since Casey Maldonado visited her hometown, and the only reason she’s returning now is to get her brother Ricky out of jail, where he sits after being ...

About The Author

Judy Clemens

Judy Clemens spends her days in rural Ohio, where she writes, spends time with her family, and eats too much ...

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Chapter One

Alicia McManus made seventeen dollars and thirty-three cents in tips on the day she died. Ten hours on her feet, four of them because Bailey, the other waitress, had called in sick, even though everybody knew she was just hung over. Alicia normally wouldn’t have minded, but lunch and dinner were both slower than a glacier, maybe because it was Thursday, maybe just because the food at the restaurant wasn’t anything to get excited about. She shoved the money into her purse, not bothering to put it in her wallet. She’d have time for that when she was home with her feet up and the TV on. Maybe Downton Abbey. Maybe that cooking show with the chef that yelled at everybody, except that was a little too close to what she’d been around all day. Or maybe she’d just find the local PBS station, with the reruns of that guy from the seventies who painted with watercolors and spoke in that quiet, soothing manner. Nothing gritty. Nothing dark. Just elevator music for the eyes.

Maybe Ricky would come over. He’d rub her feet and let her sit there with her eyes closed while he talked about his day. He would tell her stories, and she’d listen quietly until he said something so silly she had to laugh and he’d stop rubbing and scoot onto the sofa with her, and maybe they’d make out for a while until they had to decide whether or not he was staying. Most often he wouldn’t. He usually wanted to, but she was too tired from her job, from the day, from everything. But tonight… maybe she’d let him stay tonight.

She swung her bag over her shoulder, waved to the dishwasher and the cook—he wasn’t good enough to call a chef—and let herself out the back door. She stopped outside, breathing in the crisp night air, and looked up at the ski slopes, lit brightly in the heavy darkness. They were a dream from where she stood, hazy and dim, like stars behind thin clouds. Even at that time of year, without the snow, the ski resorts were a popular tourist attraction. People would pay big money to ride the lifts up the mountains and view all those changing leaves. Not something Alicia would use her pitiful paycheck to experience. Not when she and Ricky could simply walk up on the rare occasion they had the same day off.

At the base of those expensive slopes sat the real restaurants. The ones with actual customers who paid decent tips and wouldn’t slap her ass when she walked past. But those restaurants were pickier about who they hired. They’d want ID and a real Social Security Number and tax information. A few propositions and less than stellar cuisine were sacrifices she was willing to make for anonymity. It wasn’t hell to work at The Slope. Just a dull sort of limbo.

She tore her eyes from the mountains and headed toward her apartment. It was a poor excuse for a home, but it had the necessities. Room for a bed, a bathroom, and a tiny kitchen more suited to a kindergarten playroom than a grown woman’s place. The apartment had come furnished, which was the best situation for her, the only situation really, unless she was prepared to sleep on the floor and eat cold ravioli out of a can. Except then she’d have to buy a can opener. Her landlord was okay. He’d fixed the shower that one time, and replaced the outside light bulb when it had burned out. He never made her feel creepy, never spoke to her in any way other than like a dad, or a…well, a landlord. So she was content. But that would have to stop soon, her contentment. She’d been in town longer than she’d been anywhere else in the past almost twenty years. It wasn’t safe. Not for her, not for anybody. Especially now that she’d messed up. She’d tried to be good. She really had.

So much for good intentions, and all that.

She liked being there. It was a pretty town. Her apartment was decent, and her job was okay. The name Alicia—genteel but not unusual—was one of her favorites. Lots of nicknames so people didn’t get too used to any one thing, which was great. She’d always liked nicknames. They made her feel loved in a weird sort of way. Ali. Lisa. Leesh. She got called all of them. When customers and the manager weren’t calling her honey. Or sweetie. Or hey you, girl with the menus.

And then there was Ricky. When she left town she’d be leaving him, too. He was the type of thing she needed to avoid. Always had in the past. But other guys in other towns at other times had been different. Fun and empty. She hadn’t counted on Ricky being so…whatever he was. He didn’t care she was older than he was. He didn’t care she wasn’t chatty and bouncy. He seemed to actually like her for who she was. Well, who she was as he knew her. But she supposed he’d get over it when she left. She supposed they always did.

Although she might not. Not this time. This could be even worse for her than losing Wayne, way back in that other lifetime. It would be far, far easier to leave now, though, before Ricky had a taste of what she could really offer, easier than to wait until her presence tore his world irreparably apart.

A sound, like a footfall on gravel, came from behind her, and she stopped, glancing over her shoulder. A plastic bag blew across the pavement, scuttling like a frightened animal. It wrapped around a light post, then wriggled away, scraping against the brick of a building before wafting into the air and down the block. She shook her head at her nervousness and continued walking.

A car came toward her, then passed, its lights flashing across her path and the storefronts, which were all closed this time  of night. Tourists hardly ever found their dank little section of streets, not even during the day. There was really no point staying open past eight. Waste of money and electricity. Much better to be home, or better yet, in the nicer part of town. Alicia hardly ever went up there, though. Maybe with Ricky, when he felt like getting out. She preferred the quieter, darker, shadow life in the non-tourist streets. Fewer people, fewer chances to mess up. She rounded the corner and looked up the street toward her apartment. It was a house, really, with the basement made into a separate living space. She didn’t mind being underground. In fact, she sort of liked it. It was like a cocoon. Or a cave. Perfect for her.

The neighborhood was quiet that night. Nobody was out. Televisions flickered behind curtains, or could be seen right through the front windows. Crickets chirped in the cool night, probably one of their last hurrahs of the season, and a breeze ruffled the trees. Alicia stopped outside her door and breathed in again. This Colorado air was the best. Better than the humidity of northern Florida, or the frozen tundra of Alaska. This was fresh and cool, sort of like those days she’d spent in New England several years ago. Not like the weather of her childhood. That was different from all of the others.

She let herself into her apartment and flipped on the light in the tiny entryway. The mail lay scattered on the floor where the landlord had dropped it through the slot, and she picked it up. Nothing personal, of course. Coupons for the pizza place. An envelope saying that “Yes! She could own her own home!” And a promise that the local water company would give her the purity she deserved. Wouldn’t that be something.

She dropped her purse onto the floor and stretched. It was good to be home. She walked past the kitchen door into the living-slash-bedroom and turned on the light. She turned a slow circle, happy in her little nest, and made her decision. A decision that would affect many people in the coming hours, days, and much, much longer. She decided that, “Yes. It was a good night for company.” She pulled out her phone and dialed Ricky. “Want to come over?”

A smile colored his voice. “I’ll be there in ten minutes.”

He was knocking on the door when she emerged from the shower. She let him in, locked the door behind him, and dropped the towel.

He raised his eyebrows. “And hello to you, too.”

She laughed, and he scooped her up, carrying her to the bed. She held him there for a moment, her hands on either side of his face, and studied him. “You’re so good to me.”

His eyes went serious, and he tucked a strand of wet hair behind her ear. “Just returning the favor.” And then he kissed her. Two hours later she jerked awake. Ricky was getting dressed.

“Where are you going?”

He glanced over, then bent to kiss her. “Would you believe an early morning delivery? As in early early. Four am. Do these people really need to host a breakfast before the break of dawn?”

She frowned. “I was hoping you would stay.”

His face softened, and he sat on the edge of the bed. “I would like to. Believe me. It’s not every day I get the offer. Can I take a raincheck? For tomorrow, maybe? If you can take two nights in a row.”

She laughed. “I think I could manage it.”

He tugged on his shoes and kissed her again. “You’re beautiful when you’ve just been ravished.”

She gave him a weak punch. “You got me all sweaty, you know. Now I have to take another shower.”

He laughed and stood up, pulling on his jacket. “Go back to sleep. There’s plenty of time for a shower in the morning.”

“I guess.” “Goodnight, love.”

She sighed, snuggling under the covers. “‘Night. Love.”

He ran his fingers gently over her face, then let himself out, with the soft snick of the lock moving into place.

She tried to go back to sleep, but couldn’t. She had to pee. Why did sex do that? Why couldn’t she just fall asleep in the warm aftereffects like they did in the movies? Well, she had fallen asleep, actually, when Ricky was still with her. So it  was his fault, for getting out of bed and waking her up. She’d make him pay the next time.

Smiling at the thought of what exactly his consequences would be, she slipped out from under the covers and padded across to the bathroom. She took the time to wash up, rebrush her teeth, and run a comb through her hair. When she was done, she went back out to the living room.

A man she recognized was sitting on her bed.

He smiled. “Hello, Lizzie. It’s been too long. Way, way too long.”

She spun around, but the hallway was blocked by another man. She knew him, too. He was another one of the Three. Which meant….She whipped her head right and left, but saw only the man on the bed. He smiled again, and tilted his head sideways. “You looking for him?”

She followed his gaze to the corner, where the third man crouched on the floor. Just seeing him made her skin crawl. Those blank eyes. The pasty skin. She shuddered. All of her personal belongings—measly as they were—had been spread out on the floor in front of him. A couple of books, some money, the picture of her father. The third man picked up the photo and dangled it between his thumb and forefinger. He held a flaming cigarette lighter under the corner.

“Say good-bye to Daddy,” the first man said.

Alicia closed her eyes. But she didn’t say good-bye to Daddy.

She’d done that many years before.

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