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Judy Clemens

The Grim Reaper's Dance

For Nancy Clemens, mother and friend

Acknowledgments

The world of trucking is not one with which I was familiar before writing this book. I would like to thank Dan Hunsberger, co-owner of Home Again, Inc., for his invaluable help in understanding what goes on in the business. Thanks also to Scott Schmucker for his stories about life on the road. If anything in the book does not follow the actual way the trucking world works, it is my fault. I claim artistic license, and I’m sticking to it.

Lee Jay Diller, owner of Northwest Recycling here in Ohio, was the inspiration for Davey Wainwright and his scrap yard. Thanks for all your help, Lee!

Jenny Baumgartner entertains my questions about hapkido and helps me figure out how Casey can defend herself (and beat people up). It is so fun to have a friend who knows this stuff, and who is willing to talk about it. As her husband said, “I can guarantee that nowhere else in the country are two women returning from grocery shopping and talking about nun chucks.” Thanks also to Master Doug Custer, who encourages my interest and answers whatever questions I throw his way.

Thanks once again to Lorin Beidler, MD, for answering medical questions. I know Blue Lake’s sleepy ER is not what he’s used to, but when you live in the sticks things are a lot quieter than in the Big City.

My uncle, Randy Thomas, was generous with his farming wisdom, and took time out of his busy work day to tell me about Midwest crops and land ownership.

Barbara Peters and Annette Rogers are enthusiastic and constructive editors who make the process fun. Jessica, Marilyn, Nan, and Rob, you make publishing a pleasure. Monty, you were a blessing from the very beginning. May you find peace in your new place. Thanks to all at Poisoned Pen.

Thanks to Nancy Clemens for reading the first draft and making sure it made sense.

And always, thanks to Steve, Tristan, and Sophia for supporting my career.

Chapter One

“This here’s my daughter Katie. She’s thirteen and lives for marching band. Plays the flute. You wouldn’t believe the way they work them kids. She’s in better shape than I ever been.” Evan the trucker laughed and patted his sizable gut, which almost touched the steering wheel of the semi.

Death gave out a snort, chin to chest, mouth open. The trucker’s conversation obviously wasn’t interesting enough to keep the Grim Reaper awake, and the lack of traffic on the sleepy highway gave no relief from the steady clicking of the tires on the pavement, or the view of flat Iowa and Kansas farmland. Casey wasn’t having trouble staying awake, having slept the first seven hours of her escape from Clymer, Ohio, despite the throbbing in her arm from the injury in a knife fight only hours before. Her wrist hurt, she was bleeding from the gash in her shoulder, and so many terrible things had happened she should have, by all rights, been kept awake by mere horror. Instead, her body had shut down into a sleep so deep the trucker’s pit stops hadn’t even awakened her. Evan had finally poked her, saying he wanted to make sure she wasn’t dead.

Death had gotten a real kick out of that.

“And this one?” Now, Casey pointed at the other girl in the photo hanging from the dashboard.

“Susanna. Just turned seven. First grade.” He shook his head. “Can you believe how they got them little kids reading? Books and math and every other thing. It’s crazy. All I remember from first grade is going up against Willie Yonkers to see which one of us could spit the farthest.” He grinned, revealing two missing teeth. “He always won. And wouldn’t you know, he’s the one made it big today.”

Casey’s eyebrows rose. “Willie Yonkers spits for a living?”

Evan barked a laugh. “Wouldn’t that be a good one. No, Willie’s a businessman. Owns his own place. He’s the boy in town who made it. It’s a good job.”

“Don’t you have a good job?”

“Oh, sure, I love it. Wouldn’t want to do nothin’ else, most of the time, anyway.” He gave a ghost of a smile, then patted the steering wheel. “These reefers are fun to drive.” Refrigerated trucks, he meant. “But Willie…” He leaned over a bit toward Casey, stopping when a brush with Death’s arm made him shiver. “Willie’s got the whole shebang. Brand new house. New car every summer. Wads of cash he don’t know what to do with. All for ordering other people around, sitting behind his desk in his fancy clothes. Lots of folks would kill for a job like that. Heck, they’d kill for any job at all.” He sighed, leaning the other direction to set his elbow on the door. His sudden silence left space for the rain to fill as it pounded on the windshield and cab. The wipers worked overtime, back and forth, back and forth…

Casey glanced once more at the photograph where Evan’s arm draped over the shoulders of a plump, pretty woman with frosted hair. Virginia, he’d called her. Ginny. His older daughter stood behind him, a hand on his shoulder, and the younger sat on his lap. “But,” Casey said, “does Willie have a family?”

Evan laughed. “Sure does. A son in college who hates him, a wife that left him, and a daughter who’s not exactly the kind I want my Katie hanging around, if you know what I mean.”

She knew. “So you’ve actually got it much better than Willie, don’t you, Evan?”

He grinned again. “I do, I know it. My girls are waiting for me about forty miles down the road. And this time? I’m staying for a good long while. I’ve been working my tail off and I need a break. You’ll have to catch another ride from there, darlin’.”

“Sure.”

He sighed. “Still, it’d be nice to have the cash sometimes, to set my family up the way I’d like. I drive by Willie’s house sometimes, just wishing…”

Death groaned, tilting toward Casey, and she scooted over, not wanting to feel the chill that always accompanied an accidental touch.

She looked out her window at the water that ran in sporadic rivulets down the glass. Cash wasn’t just a luxury. You couldn’t live without it. So shouldn’t that, in turn, mean that if you had a lot of it you’d live well and long? With all her money, stashed away in the bank, she should live forever. She just wouldn’t have the family to spend it on. Not since they’d been—

“Oh, shit.” Evan stomped on the gas and spun the steering wheel to the right. Casey clutched the dashboard, panic rising in her throat. Two construction vehicles sat across the road in front of them. The cab of the semi skidded sideways on the wet pavement as the trailer pushed forward, not ready to stop on such sudden demand. Evan spun the steering wheel the other way, trying to reverse the skid, but there was no going back.

The semi hit the dump truck with a force that sent Casey hurtling against her seatbelt, breath knocked from her lungs, neck snapping sideways, head cracking against the window. Metal screamed as it tore, tires squealed, and blood splattered across Casey’s arms and face.

The movement stopped almost as suddenly as it started, and Casey lay against the door, heart pounding, hands shaking. She blinked. “Reuben?” She struggled into an upright position. “Omar?” She wrenched her head around, neck already stiffening.

No, it was not her family. Not the accident she dreamed of every night—and sometimes during the day.

It was Evan Tague, the trucker.

Evan lay scrunched between sheets of metal. They used to be his door. Now they were sharp knives, cutting through him, shearing him almost in two as he gasped for breath, eyes wide.

“Evan!” Casey struggled out of her seatbelt, clambering over the seat to grab Evan’s hand, which still

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