Death and relaxation, p.19
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       Death and Relaxation, p.19

           Devon Monk

  His dark hair was cropped short, making his deep eyes seem even wider, his heavy lids languid. Even though he wasn’t smiling, I got the distinct impression he was laughing at me.

  “Hey,” I said, straightening. I glanced around the station. No one else was here.

  “How is your health?” he asked.

  “My what?” I didn’t like the idea of Death asking me if I was sick.

  “Ah, I may not have stated that clearly. How are you?” His eyes glinted with something I was pretty sure was humor.

  “Very funny. I’m good. What can I do for you?”

  “I am here to inquire on the methods for acquiring a license to do business.”

  “All right. You want to see Bertie over at City Hall for that. She’ll have the forms you need to fill out. I’m glad you’ve chosen a job so soon.”

  “Is it not in the contract that I must do so?”

  “Sure, but sometimes it takes time for a deity to decide on an occupation.”

  He raised one eyebrow. “I am not a creature of doubt or indecision, Reed Daughter.”

  “Delaney,” I corrected absently.

  “Of course.” He paused. For a creature who didn’t doubt, it looked like he was weighing a decision.

  “He wasn’t frightened,” he finally said.

  “Who?” I belatedly realized he must be talking about Heim.

  “Your father.”

  His words hit me like a falling building. He must have taken my silence as a tacit invitation to continue.

  “I waited for him, gathered his soul. He had questions. Several.”

  I swallowed and nodded, a hundred questions of my own crowding out my words.

  “What did he ask?”

  “That I look after you.”

  Okay, forget the shock over him talking about my dad’s death. This was a bigger shock.

  “Why? Why would he ask you to do that? Is that why you’re here? Did you agree to do it? Why me? He has two other daughters, you know. Wasn’t he worried about them? Was he worried about us?”

  He waited a moment longer, probably to see if I had anything else to say. I did, but I needed a few answers before I tore off into a pile of new questions.

  “I assumed it was out of love.”

  I waited. He didn’t say anything more. “Which question were you answering?”

  “The first.”

  “Okay.” I sighed. I hadn’t slept in almost twenty-four hours. I was tired. “Is that why you came to Ordinary?”

  “I came for a vacation, Reed Daughter.” He pointed one finger at his T-shirt, as if that made it obvious.

  “Which is why you’re telling me about my father’s death?”

  He frowned, looking confused. “Is that not what you wished to ask me?”

  I opened my mouth to tell him no, but that was a lie. “I did. But I didn’t expect you to talk about it. Not really.”

  “Ah, then.” He gave me a stiff nod. “I must be away to secure my business license.”

  I had a hundred other questions besides the half a dozen I’d already asked that he hadn’t answered. But he was already walking back to the door, gliding silently in his shiny shoes. “Is he a ghost?” I asked.

  Death paused, his hand on the door latch. “Perhaps you should ask him if you see him again.”

  And then he pushed out into the daylight, a colorful, unexpected shadow.

  Chapter 19

  “DON’T BE such a baby.” Myra shoved my shoulder as we walked to the building, rain spattering us with tiny, halfhearted drops. “It won’t kill you.”

  “I hate rhubarb.”

  “Which should make judging even easier. If you can stand it, it’s a good recipe.”

  “Or it’s a terrible recipe because it tastes the least like rhubarb in a rhubarb recipe contest.”

  “Just give your honest opinion.”

  “I honestly don’t want to do this.”

  “A little less honest than that.”

  She opened the door to the great hall, which was in truth the only hall on our festival ground, great or not. Built of brick and shingled with cedar, it was plenty big enough for the exhibits that couldn’t stand the mercurial moods of coastal weather.

  Quilts started at the right and lined two walls, all of them having something to do with rhubarb. The art was on that side of the building too, hung on pegboard stands that created aisles.

  Food things such as canning, dried herbs, smoked meats, and drinks took up the left side of the building. The middle space carried an odd variety of art, from chainsaw statues and dream catchers to a ten-foot beast welded out of spare parts and gears that looked like a caveman in a porcupine hat carrying a battle-axe and a Colt .45.


  “Rhu-ban the Barb-barian,” Myra said with a straight face.

  I laughed. “You are kidding me.”


  “Who made that big hunk of metal pun?”

  “Ben and Jame, and the rest of the fire department.”

  “I want to see it.” I started toward the thing, but before I got more than six steps a hand landed on my arm, sharp fingers squeezing.

  “Delaney,” Bertie chirped happily. “I am so pleased you’ve made it. Come with me.”

  There was no arguing with a valkyrie when she had it in her mind to get a person somewhere. So I let her pull me along, and took in the rest of the show as best I could.

  A lot of entries this year. Maybe almost double from last year. The outreach of adding in more judging categories had really helped boost participation.

  About halfway across the building I realized there were a lot more people at this end of the room than needed to be there for judging.

  A crowd of about sixty people milled around the metal chairs set in straight rows in front of a long table with white table cloth and a skirt of blue. The long table was for the judges, twelve empty chairs behind it so that the judges were facing the audience.

  “Why are there so many people here?” I asked Bertie. “The rally hasn’t even started.”

  “People like to watch judges when they’re eating.”

  “Watch judges?” I repeated. “Watch us eat?” I bit back a groan. I was going to have to clench my teeth in my best courtroom smile to keep from sticking my tongue out and gagging in front of these people.

  “Maybe I should be an art judge. I could judge art.” I tried to keep the panic out of my voice. “I’m good at art. Just ask Mrs. Heather.”

  “Your first-grade teacher?”

  “Best thumbprint turkey artist of the class right here.” I lifted the thumb on my free hand.

  “Nonsense,” Bertie said. “All these people are here before the rally even begins because of your schedule, Delaney. I knew you’d be working crowd control and being very busy over the next three days with your police work, so I decided to move up the judging date of the edibles. Luckily, everyone was able to modify their schedules to be here. I do love a town that pulls together in times of crisis.”

  “Crisis? How many edibles?” I was totally panicking. “Which categories am I judging? How many categories?”

  “Two. Drinks, dear. And savories.”

  “No pies?”

  “Not the sweet pies.”

  I didn’t know why that made me feel better, but taking on a wet pink mess of pies eye to eye without a convenient dog under the table to feed it to seemed like the highest level of insanity.

  “I need a dog.”

  “What?” she asked.

  “Nothing.” I squared my shoulders and tugged my hand, but she was not letting go. Valkyries were also smart. “How bad can it be?”

  “Oh.” She frowned. “I forgot this is your first time.”

  “What? What was the ‘oh’? It’s going to be bad? How bad? Bertie, how bad?”

  “It’s going to be lovely,” she lied through her pretty, straight, sharp white teeth, her short white hair puffed up like a halo atop her head. “Just sit here at
the end of the table. I’ll gather the other judges and your assistant.”

  “I get an assistant? To feed me?”

  “Delaney,” she said with one eyebrow raised. Ah. I had finally hit the end of Bertie’s patience. “I’m not dragging you to your grave. You would know.”

  “Is it an option?”

  “Oh, it could be arranged, dear.” She shoved me down into the chair with a firm finality that made me wish for another explosion, or maybe a friendly class-five hurricane.

  “Now, much like death,” Bertie said through her smile, “this will be much more pleasant than you think. Food, drink, and all the men you could desire.”

  I angled a glare up at her. “Are you selling me a castle in the sky, Bertie?”

  “I am comforting you and promising you glory for your bravery on this battlefield,” she said quietly, and with the tone most people would associate with someone complimenting a six-year-old who had made a gold-star thumbprint turkey painting.

  Deities and creatures always showed their true nature, right in front of us all, even if most of us didn’t know to look for it. Still, it had been a while since Bertie had threatened me with my own grave.

  “What’s the assistant for? Really?” I asked.

  “Didn’t you read the information I sent you today?”

  “Some of it?”

  “Delaney. You’re an officer of the law. I expect you to take this seriously and pay attention to details.”

  “I will. I was just”—staring at Ryder—“distracted by work.”

  “Don’t worry. I’ve put you in very good hands.”

  And then she was off, swooping down on some other poor, unsuspecting soul in the crowd.

  Valkyries made amazing party planners.

  Bertie gathered the judges, who all took their places at the table with a lot less complaining than me.

  I was surprised to see Fawn Wolfe, one of Jame’s sisters, at the end of the table, but decided maybe it was a bit of brilliance to have a werewolf among the judges. They had amazing sense of taste and smell.

  Frigg took the chair next to her and gave me a big wink, while she waved to the audience. Next to her sat our postmaster Chester, a mortal, and his niece Aluvia, the lead chef from the The Kraken, our one high-end restaurant.

  The last chair was taken by big, tall, dark-haired, bearded Tomas, who was our local Leshy. A guardian and creature of trees and forest in his native land, here Tomas spent most his time as the second-in-command at the public library.

  So we had two creatures, one deity, two mortals, and me. Pretty nice showing. I scanned the crowd, waiting for the starting gun, or whatever would be used to kick off this event. I was also taking note of the nearest trash cans in case I had to barf.

  The audience settled into their seats. Mortals I knew, tourists I didn’t, and a smattering of creatures. I even caught sight of Herri in the back, her arm around Chris Lagon, who looked exhausted and sad. It looked like Herri was there to keep Chris on his feet, or maybe had been the one to talk him into attending the judging event.

  He wasn’t taking the death of Heim very well, not that there was an easy or correct way to grieve the loss of a friend.

  Herri caught my gaze and gave me a small smile and nod. She was there in support of Chris, which was really nice of her.

  I looked through the crowd for Margot, Chris’s girlfriend, and didn’t see her. Not that I expected her to be there. She and Chris hadn’t been seeing each other for all that long. I couldn’t blame her if she wasn’t into rhubarb.

  Dan Perkin had been sitting and twitching in the front row since I first walked in, his baseball hat shoved down hard on his head, his eyes flicking around the room, and then coming back to focus on me like I was the only light in the place.

  I made eye contact, gave him a polite half-smile, and ignored him.

  How many other people in the audience were competitors and how many just liked to watch people eat? And who was my assistant?

  Bertie plucked assistants out of the crowd and ushered them up to the table, introducing them to the judges, and then moving quickly away to snatch up the next person.

  She was obviously having the time of her life.

  The buzz and thrum of conversation had a friendly, excited tone to it.

  Well, that was what we wanted, after all. These festivals were about getting people together to share their passions, hobbies, and ideas. Yes, it brought money into the town, but in many ways the biggest strength of it was drawing people together.

  I saw him before he saw me—tall, dark, walking easy in his work boots and jeans, he moved like a man who had spent his life in deep forests, head tilted just a bit, eyes bright, movement fluid and graceful for a guy in flannel and boots.

  Ryder Bailey.

  My heart raced faster. My skin warmed. I liked watching him when he didn’t know he was being watched. Took my time to soak in his details.

  He hadn’t shaved, and his thick, dark hair was tossed by the wind. He looked like he’d been working, and might have changed his dark gray T-shirt, but not the brown and green flannel shirt he had rucked up to his elbows. His hands were long-fingered and strong, his forearms muscled and nicked with a couple of old scars.

  He was a man who worked with his hands for a living, a man who worked with his body for a living, a man who strolled through a crowded room and caught the eye of every person without knowing it.

  He reached the edge of the seating area and tipped his head up to meet my gaze.

  That direct stare stoked the heat under my skin, and I held my breath so I could savor the fire roaring across my nerves.

  How could a man I’d known all my life make me forget what I was doing, forget my job, this town, and everyone in it?

  I was here to judge the contest, to keep the peace, to find a murderer, to change someone’s life by making them a god. That to-do list was enough to satisfy anyone.

  But all I wanted, all I could think of, was what it would be like to stand up, walk over to that man, and devour him with my mouth.

  He blinked once slowly, but it didn’t break the spell. And that soft, almost intimate, and certainly hungry curve of his lips didn’t do anything to put out the fire smoldering in me.

  The connection that I could practically feel thrumming gently over my skin like a fingertip slipping up and down my spine was amazing. Addictive.

  I wanted more.

  I wanted Ryder.

  Bertie suddenly appeared in front of Ryder, smiling and talking quickly as she took his hand to lead him to where ever she wanted him to be.

  I inhaled, exhaled shakily. I’d been staring. And if anyone was watching me, they’d caught me at it.



  I kept my gaze somewhere safely toward the back of the hall, my face neutral. Bertie walked down to the far side of the stage again just as footsteps on stage approached me.

  “Evening, officer,” Ryder said, his voice much too low, too full, too throaty for a concrete community hall in the middle of an old cow field.

  “Reserve officer. You might want to take your seat. I think Satan’s about to start the torture.”

  He pulled out the empty chair next to me and settled in it, his wide shoulders brushing mine before he shifted slightly to make room.

  “What are you doing?”

  He rested his forearms on the table and smiled at the audience. “I’m your assistant.”




  He wasn’t looking at me. “Have you found any way to refuse Bertie when she’s on the warpath to acquire volunteers?”

  I groaned.

  He agreed with a nod.

  “When did she get you?”

  “This afternoon when Jean sent me out of the file room. I would have been much happier doing menial paperwork.”

  “So noted. At least you don’t have to eat this crap.” I mimicked him, smiling out at the crowd.

  See? I could do this. Be a happy person helping out her community one plate of gooey pink fruit at a time.

  “Honor and duty, officer,” he said.

  “Stuff it, Bailey.”

  He chuckled then cleared his throat. “Here we go. Smile for the cameras, darlin’.”

  His voice, low and intimate, rolled through me, and I laced my fingers together on top of the table to keep from reaching for him. He was so close that our hips and legs were almost touching.

  But there would be no touching here. This was serious business.

  Bertie took the stage with the strut of a professional ringleader, and then gave a short speech on the history of the Rhubarb Rally that ended with her thanking the community for being so flexible with their hours and allowing for a change of judges under such terrible circumstances.

  She asked for a moment of silence for the passing of Heim, a good man and judge who had served on the rhubarb panel for the last two years.

  The crowd complied. While I bent my head, I also watched the reactions in the audience. If our guilty party really was connected in some way to the rally, they would be here.

  Everyone lowered their heads, except for a couple parents who were busy trying to keep their children quiet.

  Dan Perkin didn’t lower his head. He scowled and messed with the brim of his hat, as if even this slight delay of him winning first prize was an indignity he refused to endure.

  Then Bertie thanked everyone and, in an arresting, uplifting voice, introduced the judges and announced we would begin with the savories, of which there were twenty-three entries.

  I groaned quietly through my teeth, and Ryder chuckled.

  He pulled a pen out of his pocket and clicked the top of it. “Don’t worry. I’ve got your back.”

  “You might want to get a barf bucket instead.” One of the food handlers set a small plate with a wedge of necrotic pink cheese in front of me, along with a clean plastic fork and napkin.

  “Thank you,” I said with fake enthusiasm. “How exciting.”

  She left a glass of water within reach.

  “Round one.” Ryder produced a white sheet of paper.

  I picked up the fork. I quickly decided there was no way I’d be able to fake a smile through the whole thing, but keeping a straight face was something I had long practice with.

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