The Trouble with Twelfth Grave (Charley Davidson #12)

by Darynda Jones

1

Coffee: A warm, delicious alternative to hating everyone forever.

—TRUE FACT

Few things in life were more entertaining than haunted houses. The people living in said haunted houses, perhaps. Or the time-honored tradition of watching paint dry because, sadly, most haunted houses were not actually haunted. I sat on a hardwood floor next to a Mrs. Joyce Blomme, a woman who swore her house was inhabited by the dead—her words—and waited with bated breath for a ghost to appear. Egads!

Just kidding.

My breath rarely bated. Being the only grim reaper this side of eternity, I didn’t scare easily, especially after getting an inquiry like the one I’d received from Mrs. Blomme. I got a crap ton of the things. People swearing their houses were haunted. Imploring me to cleanse the offending abode of the evil that lurked within. Assuring me I was their only hope.

What can I say? Word gets around.

Mrs. Blomme was everything one would expect a grandmother to be. She had salt-and-pepper hair in rollers, a floral housecoat, ragged slippers with threads poking out around the toes, and reading glasses dangling around her neck. Ink stained her fingers, probably from crosswords, and a pinch of white powder smudged her cheek and the tip of her nose. So, either Mrs. Blomme liked to bake or she was a cokehead. I leaned toward the former.

On any other day, I would have explained the situation more clearly to the elderly woman. Yes, I could see the departed. As the grim reaper, I ferried lost souls—those souls left behind after their initial offer of a one-way trip up—to the other side, when they were ready. Basically, that entailed me standing there while the departed stepped into my light, a light that could be seen by them from anywhere in the world, and crossed over.

So, yes, I could see them. I could also talk to them and arm-wrestle them and style their hair. But seeing the departed and convincing said departed to go into the light were two very different skill sets.

Yet there I sat—in the dark because Mrs. Blomme swore the dead were easier to see that way, and well past my bedtime because Mrs. Blomme said they mostly showed up late at night—listening to a fascinating tale of angels and demons. Of heavens and hells. Of gods and monsters!

Mostly because I was doing all the talking.

Mrs. Blomme, poor thing, was scared speechless. In her defense, and to her credit, the house was indeed haunted. But I was too busy soliloquizing the struggles of the past few days of my life to pay that fact much mind.

“And then,” I said, raising my voice in preparation for the big finale, “he shoved me against the wall and disappeared into a swirling sea of smoke and lightning.”

I moved my hands in a circular motion to demonstrate the aforementioned swirling mass, then turned to Mrs. Blomme to check her reaction. It’d been a hell of a tale.

To my delight, Mrs. Blomme’s eyes were saucers. Her mouth hung open and her breaths came in tiny, sharp pants. Unfortunately, her state of absolute terror had little to do with my harrowing tale and more to do with the twiglike boy standing in the doorway, his mouth full of crackers.

We had already met. His name was Charlie, too, only spelled differently, and he liked riding his tricycle and painting the walls with his mother’s markers. Her permanent markers, if the walls were any indication. Soap and water could only do so much.

“There!” Mrs. Blomme pointed toward him.

He was adorable, all dark hair and skinny limbs.

Mrs. Blomme didn’t agree. She clawed at my arm and shrank in to my side, peering over my shoulder to look at the boy while using my body as a shield. Clearly, if the fecal matter hit the fan, I would be sacrificed.

She whispered into my ear, ever so slowly, enunciating every word. “Do you see him?”

The moonlight shone in his mischievous eyes as he cradled a plastic dinosaur in one arm and a silver gravy boat in the other. No idea. His fists held as many crackers as each could carry, and he had to carefully maneuver his load to stuff another orange square into his mouth. Then he smiled at me with orange-dusted lips.

I smiled back a microsecond before his mother appeared out of nowhere to scoop him up and carry him down the hall, disappearing into the darkness.

Mrs. Blomme squeaked and hid her face. That didn’t surprise me. What did surprise me was her reaction—or lack thereof—to the little girl named Charisma sitting cross-legged in front of us, listening as I regaled the horrors of the past week.

Charisma blinked up at me, sipped the last of her juice through a cup with a twirly straw, then asked, “So, he’s not your husband anymore?”

She was talking about Reyes. Reyes Alexander Farrow. My husband. Or, well, I hoped he was still my husband.

“I’m not sure,” I admitted.

After bringing down a bloodthirsty cult a few days ago, then devouring a malevolent god—’cause apparently that’s what I do—I’d succumbed to drowning my sorrows in a bottle of tequila named Jose. Three innocent people lost their lives that day, and there was nothing I could do about it. It was a bitter pill, one I was having a difficult time swallowing, so I’d been contemplating entering a hell dimension to save a handful of other innocent people who were trapped inside. Reyes convinced me to send him instead.

Just another day in the life of Charley Davidson.

That’s me, by the way, Charley Davidson. PI. Grim reaper. Screwup extraordinaire. Oh, and let’s not forget my newest designation: god. Not the God, but a deity nonetheless. A title I never imagined would be thrust upon me and one I never wanted.

Then again, so was my husband. A deity. A celestial being with the power to give life. To create worlds. To convince me that his plan was best when it was anything but.

Thus, I sent my one and only husband into a hell dimension via a pendant that housed a glittering stone called god glass. Probably because God, the God, made it.

I rested my head on the cool wall at my back and thought about that moment. The doubt that’d been roaring in my head. The doubt I should have paid heed. The doubt I ultimately ignored.

The workings of the god glass were quite simple considering its complex nature. It was, after all, a hell dimension of vast proportions set inside a stone set inside a pendant. Something so fragile that housed something so terrible.

To send someone to his doom, one simply placed a drop of the target’s blood on the god glass then said his name.

The pendant, through the machinations of a howling tempest, would reach out and draw the person’s soul inside, locking it there for all eternity. But with Reyes, the storm took every molecule of his being, not just his soul. I assumed it was because of his supernatural status, but now I wondered if there’d been more to it. At the time, however, that fact hadn’t registered.

Reyes’d had a job. One simple job. He would jump in, get the lay of the land, then jump back out when I called his name. A process that was supposed to be easy according to a six-hundred-year-old rumor. It stated that to retrieve a soul from the god glass, the person who originally sent the soul inside need only reopen the pendant, say the target’s name, and the soul would be freed.

Rumor was wrong. I know because that’s exactly what I did.

I called. I screamed. I whispered. I begged. And still no husband.

Distraught and disoriented, I came up with a plan. I would go in after him. I would have Cookie, my best friend and confidante, send me inside.

I would have to trick her, of course. She would never willingly send me to hell. But I would leave her a note explaining how to get me back out. In theory, because I’d apparently stumbled upon a flaw in the process. But I figured go big or go home.

Just as I was about to put my plan into action, the storm erupting out of the pendant changed. It became darker. Smoke swirled around me, and heat saturated every pore, rushing over my skin. Electric. Almost painful.

Then the pendant became too hot for me to hold. I dropped it seconds before an earsplitting explosion rocked the apartment. It slammed me against a wall, causing my vision to darken around the edges and my lungs to burn from lack of oxygen. I fought to stay conscious but didn’t dare move.

The storm shifted. Smoke, thick and black and alive, pooled around me. I’d looked up, tried to focus, but just as I was able to take in air, a dozen souls desperate for escape rushed through me, into my light and, in turn, heaven.

Their stories flashed before my eyes. The souls’. Innocent. Condemned for centuries by a madman.

A priest who’d somehow come into the possession of the pendant was using it for evil. He’d sent soul after soul inside. A widow who’d spurned his advances. A man who’d refused to sign over part of his land to the church. A young boy who’d seen the priest in a compromising position. And on and on. More than a dozen lives destroyed by one man.

The priest had been locked inside as well by a group of monks who took him to task for his evil deeds, but I didn’t feel him cross. Then again, he would’ve gone to hell. This dimension’s hell. Perhaps he already had.

After the souls crossed through me, all from the same time period, the 1400s, I waited. Three more beings were inside the god glass. A demon assassin named Kuur. A malevolent deity named Mae’eldeesahn. And my husband.

I would never forget the vision before me as I waited. The smoke had filled the room and churned like a supercell lit by occasional flashes of lightning.