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Embrace the Grim Reaper
By Judy Clemens
Poisoned Pen Press
Copyright © 2009 Judy Clemens
All right reserved.
Chapter One And then Death turned to her and said, "The only reason I didn't take you that day, Casey, was—"
"—it wasn't my time to go. I know. I know." Casey shook her head. Looked at the pebbles under her sneakers.
Death gave a warm, throaty chuckle. "No. No, Casey, that wasn't it. Not at all."
Casey closed her eyes. Opened them again. "Then why?"
Death smiled. "I didn't take you then, love, because it's so much more interesting this way." Death looked down the highway. "Someone's coming."
Headlights approached, and Casey watched as the two bikes—big Harley-Davidsons—roared beneath the overpass, stopping in the small dry patch at the side of the road. The silence when they hit their kill switches was complete, except for the drumming of the rain on the concrete above them.
The first man eased a leg over his bike and shook his head, beard and braid splattering rain, like a tattooed dog after a bath. He rubbed his eyes, hooked his thumbs in his belt loops, and looked ahead on the road, into the driving rain.
The second man, larger than the first, his bald head and shaven face speckled with raindrops, laughed loudly. "Hooeee! That's some dumpin'. Thought they was gonna poke right through my face!"
The first one grunted, turned, and stopped, looking up the stony embankment. "Well, I never. You okay up there, darlin'?"
The bald one jerked around, his eyes finding Casey in the midst of the stones and stumpy weeds. He squinted into the grayness, as if expecting more creatures to pop out from the shadows. "You all alone?"
Casey saw nothing beside her anymore but a sense of something lingering, like the air hadn't quite closed itself behind Death.
"I'm okay," she said.
The first guy gestured at the rain. "Little wet, maybe?"
She glanced at her sleeping bag, dry except for the corner, where drips from a tile in the overpass had created a sodden triangle. Her clothes were dry, as was her backpack. She'd found shelter just in time, as the wayward sprinkles had started falling, blurring the afternoon into a misty smear.
The hairless biker reached into his saddlebags and pulled out a rag to wipe his face, leaving a greasy slash across his cheek. He tossed the cloth onto the bike's seat and used his tongue to work at something in one of his back teeth while he studied Casey, glancing behind him only when a truck roared past in the opposite lane, spraying water as far as the shoulder, just short of the men.
"Where you headed, sweetheart?" the other one said. "Don't see no wheels here."
Tires screeching, the world spinning, metal rending—
Casey pulled her knees up to her chin and rested her arms on them, her head at an angle to avoid hitting the road above her. "Nope. No wheels."
She shrugged. "Walking. I just follow the road as I feel like it."
He nodded. Looked at the rain. Looked at her. "Well, you want a ride when this rain stops, you got one." He jerked his chin up the highway. "We're headed east. Toward Pittsburgh."
She turned her head. "I guess I could be going that way."
The bald guy studied her a moment longer before shaking his head once, hard, like she was nuts. That was okay.
Casey watched as the two wiped down their bikes. Checked the tires. Pulled the straps on the leather saddlebags tighter, keeping out the rain. Sat on their bikes, their backs to her, heavy boots crossed in front of them at the ankles.
This was not one of those moments she'd considered. Alone by a sleepy highway with two very large, very tattooed men. No idea who they were. No idea what they were like, except they were dressed all in black, one with a skull embroidered on the back of his jacket. She rubbed her eyes with the heels of her hands. The bikers were still there when she stopped.
Gradually the downpour diminished, the thunderous pounding easing to individual splatters, and then to nothing. The sun didn't come out, but the day lightened, the clouds a thin veil across the sun. Casey considered the bikers, and their offer. She felt no animosity from the men. No sense of threat. Was she ready to move on?
Not much here, on the rocky ground along a highway.
She swallowed. Looked at the motorcycles. They weren't cars. Or even vans. Didn't have four tires, or air bags.
And she was really, desperately tired.
"I'll take that ride, if you're still offering."
The bearded biker pushed himself off of his bike. "Sure thing, hon. You can ride with one of us, strap your stuff to the other."
"Thanks." She gathered up her possessions. There weren't many of them. She hadn't even bothered to take out anything but her sleeping bag and a bottle of water. She folded up the damp bedroll and tied it to the top of her backpack, scooting the whole lot behind her down the rocky embankment. When she reached the bottom she eased upward, stretching her sore muscles. A sleeping bag hadn't been enough to protect her bones and body from the hard, uneven surface. She rolled her neck, but stayed aware of where each man stood, primed for self-defense should her sense of their intentions prove wrong.
"I'll take that." The larger man held a hand out for her backpack.
Casey hesitated, then lifted it into his arms.
"We ain't got no helmets," the other guy said. He sat astride his hog, fingers on the key.
Casey laughed under her breath. No helmets and a motorcycle on a rainy day. Not the smartest method of travel. But then, it probably wasn't interesting enough for Death to take her that way.
On the other hand, maybe it was.
She stepped up to the bike, and got on.
Chapter Two "Not a good day for ridin', huh?" The trucker at the counter laughed, slapping his knee.
The bikers walked past him and the other truckers sitting along the counter, ignoring the obvious comment.
"Order what you want, darlin'," the bearded biker said when they were seated. "S'on us." He yanked a sticky menu from behind the napkin dispenser and pulled a pair of glasses from inside his leather vest.
"No," Casey said. "I'll pay."
He peered at her over his lenses. "You don't look much like you should be turning down gifts."
"Oh, but I should be." She pulled her wallet from her pocket and set two crumpled twenties on the table. "It's my treat."
Her two new friends looked at each other until the bearded one shrugged and turned back to his menu. "Your call, sweetheart. You want to pay, we'll be sure to let you."
The bald one grunted a laugh, his eyes on the list of daily specials.
After they'd ordered Casey sighed, letting her head fall back. She was damp, cold, and tired. The patty melt and fries would help. She hoped.
"So," the hairy one said. "Where you headed, exactly?"
Casey brought her head back up, avoiding his eyes. "Somewhere. Anywhere."
"Oh. So it's like that?"
A voice from the intercom announced a name, garbled with static, and said the shower was available. One of the truckers at the counter stood and tossed some bills by his empty plate before loping toward the back of the truckstop. Casey watched him go with longing. A shower. Oh, to be clean, and warm.
The bald biker leaned back in his chair, balancing on two of its legs. "We're going to State College. Harley rally. Welcome to join us."
Casey outlined a design on the tablecloth with a finger. "Thanks. That's ... kind of you."
Their food came then, steaming and fragrant. Casey tucked into her meal, forgetting all but the taste on her tongue, and the warmth in her belly. She came back to the present gradually, her eyes meeting those of her companions, their eyes sparkling as they regarded her across the table.
"Um. Hungry," she said.
The bearded one laughed. "Guess so."
She smiled briefly before finishing the rest of her food and downing the large glass of milk.
"I suppose you'll want dessert now," the hairy one said.
"Oh. No. No dessert for me. But you guys ... if you want it, you go ahead."
Baldy grinned. "Don't mind if I do." He ordered and devoured an extremely large banana split.
When they'd finished Casey felt full, warm, and even dry. Content.
"You ready to get goin', sweetheart?" Her bearded friend stood beside his chair, a hand on its back.
"Oh. Sorry." She got up and followed them outside, where the men put away their tarps and swung their legs over their bikes, balancing their rides, their feet on the ground. Casey hesitated.
"Everything okay?" Her driver was waiting.
"Sure. I ... it's just, I think this is where I get off."
He looked around. "Here?"
"Yeah. But thanks. Thanks so much for everything. The ride. The offer. I ... it was nice."
He studied her face. Shook his head. "S'your call, darlin', but you know, some of these others ..." He waved a hand at the parking lot.
"Yeah. I know."
The bald guy got back off his bike and unstrapped her bag, holding it out to her. "Would'a been fun at the rally."
She took her pack. "Yes. Yes, I'm sure it would've." She attempted a smile.
He sat back down and saluted. "Then good luck, whoever you are. Wherever you're going."
"Thanks. You, too."
"Never did get your name," the other one said.
"No. No, you didn't."
He shook his head, but any more words were drowned in the starting of their engines. Lifting a hand in farewell, he eased his bike back onto the road, his buddy following.
Casey watched them go until they were just specks, disappearing into the gray horizon.
Chapter Three "Any chance I could hitch a ride for a while?" Casey stood beside the truck, her heart pounding.
The trucker, clean from his shower, hesitated, his foot on the running board. "Where you goin'?"
She jerked her chin toward the road. "That way."
The trucker pursed his lips, his eyes narrowed. "I'm going down southeast. Ending up in West Virginia."
He shrugged, switching the toothpick in his mouth from one side to the other. "Gonna be a few minutes. Need to fill up on gas, check the tires."
"That's fine. I'll go in and use the ladies' room."
He nodded, and swung himself up into the cab.
The restroom was a typical one-person affair, smelling of industrial-strength air freshener, with a stack of paper towels sitting on the sink underneath the broken dispenser. Casey locked the door and set the backpack on top of the closed toilet lid. Digging through her bag, she found her brush and yanked it through her hair, ripping through rats' nests, bringing tears to her eyes. Slipping a ponytail holder off of the brush's handle, where she kept a collection of them, she pulled her hair back and banded it there, out of her eyes. She should've done that before going anywhere on a motorcycle.
The water from the tap was surprisingly cold, and heated up slowly. When it finally reached lukewarm she splashed it over her face, rubbing her eyes until she saw spots. She finished off with her toothbrush, scrubbing her teeth in circles, the way they taught in elementary school.
So, not perfect, but better. At least she felt human again.
The trucker was waiting for her beyond the gas station, chewing on his toothpick and glancing at his watch.
"Sorry," she said.
He lifted his chin in response. "You can stash that—" he gestured to her backpack "—behind your seat."
She walked around the front of the cab, freezing when she reached the passenger door, staring at the handle. Months, it had been. Many of them.
Door buckling, air bag punching her face, the smell of smoke and rubber and oil, the sound of someone screaming ...
"You getting in or not?" The trucker unlatched the door from the inside and pushed it open.
"Yes. Yes, I'm coming." Casey took a deep breath. Held it. Climbed up into the cab, shoving her pack into the space behind her seat before strapping herself in. Only then did she let out her breath in a tightly-controlled hiss of air.
Clenching her hands into fists on her lap, she kept her head down, swallowing thickly as the truck pulled into traffic. The air in the cab felt close, and sweat trickled down her scalp as she concentrated on not being sick.
"You okay?" The trucker squinted at her across the seat.
"Yes. Yes, I'm fine."
She would be. She would be.
Several miles down the road she took a deep breath and licked her lips. This was a new day. A new day, with Death sitting in the middle of the bench seat, between her and the driver, looking for all the world like a ride in a semi was boring as hell.
Casey raised her head and looked out the windshield.
The road seemed different from where she sat, high above the smaller vehicles, looking down at the drivers' legs as they passed. Once in a while she saw hands, busy with eating or talking or holding a phone. Sometimes even driving. Every so often she glimpsed a face peering up into the cab before she could turn away.
The trucker wasn't talkative. No jokes from him about motorcycling in bad weather. In fact, the only time he spoke was to ask Casey to pull a CD from the glove compartment. A classical one. Beethoven's Seventh.
After a few hours they'd passed through many small towns. Seen many courthouses and schools and churches. Neighborhoods of turn-of-the-century homes. Queen Annes. Victorians. Some re-painted in original colors, some broken into apartments. Some just broken. Railroad tracks, taverns, the never-ending array of fast food.
Sometimes Casey would see a factory on the outskirts of town. New ethanol plants, car manufacturers, food conglomerates. This town, the one they were approaching, had an appliance factory. HomeMaker. Casey recognized the brand. Dishwashers. Refrigerators. Stoves. Anything to make your life more convenient. She hadn't used any of them in quite some time now.
"We'll be stopping here," the trucker said. "Need to walk around a little. Get some coffee."
He found an old restaurant, The Burger Palace, with a truck turnaround, and parked out back. "You coming in?"
"In a minute. Think I'll get out and stretch first."
"Don't make me wait."
He left her there and walked across the cracked pavement, up the rise to the restaurant. Casey looked down the street toward what appeared to be the center of town. Glanced at the sky. Still no more rain. And getting on toward late afternoon.
She was tired of sitting.
Climbing back up into the cab—holding her breath in an attempt not to hyperventilate—she pulled her backpack from its crevice, found another crumpled twenty in her wallet, and wedged it into a corner of the CD player. The trucker should find it there.
By the time she'd made it partway down the street, to where she would turn a corner and be out of sight, she looked back to see the truck pulling out of the parking lot, headed her way. She ducked behind a tree to watch him go by.
He didn't even glance in her direction.
The old Midwestern town—Clymer, Ohio—was like many she'd seen already that day. Clean, quaint, but basically deserted. No mad rush of workers making their way home after a long day, or even neighbors talking in their yards. But she did come across an old-fashioned pharmacy, a bakery, a bank, and what looked like a seller of antiques.
A block past the center of town—a stoplight and Walk/ Don't Walk signs—she stopped and stared at a church, its sign proclaiming, "Strangers Welcome," and "Feeling the heat? Try Prayer-Conditioning." Casey let her eyes roam over the thick stone walls and up the front peaked roof to the bell tower. A chill ran through her, and she glanced sideways.
"Beautiful building." Death stood beside her, hands linked loosely in front. "Do beautiful things happen inside?"
Casey shifted on her feet. "I don't know. They could."
"But you're not going in."
"It doesn't look open."
"Um-hmm." A smile played on Death's lips. "I don't suppose you've tried the door."
"I'm just saying ..." The smile widened.
"You're always 'just saying.' It would be a lot easier if you would 'just do'." The heat in her own words surprised her, and she swallowed forcefully.
Excerpted from Embrace the Grim Reaper by Judy Clemens Copyright © 2009 by Judy Clemens. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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