THE TURNING AWAY
by Casy Dee
He trudged through the streets, head down, hands shoved into the pockets of his black wool jacket, loosely curled dark hair obscuring his face; all the better to avoid catching anyone’s gaze. Now and again his head would come up, scowl firmly in place, his eyes scanning the horizon listlessly. He didn’t much care where he was going; he just wanted to get as far away as he could. He had definite plans to walk until he’d worn himself down to oblivion, and then to rinse and repeat until Arizona became waterfront property and his only company was cockroaches.
The bars installed over the broken windows of every building he passed, or the vacant eyes of the derelicts, druggies and prostitutes on the corners and alleyways should have clued him in that he was in one of the worst parts of the city. Had he been concerned about his safety, he might have paid a little more attention, especially after nightfall. Luckily for him, he wasn’t. He liked the night, and the denizens of old city didn’t scare him. Safety was no longer an issue for Gabriel Camden; he was already dead, and no living thing could touch him.
He thought it appropriate that he walk about at night rather than full day. He’d watched enough movies and television to know that pop culture dictated that proper ghosts haunted at night, but he wasn’t exactly a proper ghost. Gabriel Camden wasn’t sure what he was, other than dead. Rules that governed other spirits didn’t always apply to him; he was something different.
He had developed a few theories over the past hundred or so years; he’d had plenty of time to think on it. He’d not exactly been normal in life; as a spirit-talker he’d used his connection to the dead to guide restless spirits to the other side, so it followed that being different would continue after his death. His other theory was that the way he’d died was to blame. His soul had been permanently bound to his skull; the magic involved in the binding could be responsible for the differences between him and the average restless spirit.
The one thing he was almost certain of was that the magic wrapped up in it was to blame for the geas that prevented its destruction . and therefore his own.
Gabriel’s lips twisted in a wry smile. He’d tried everything imaginable to end his existence; the geas was a strong one. He wasn’t certain he was right that his skull was the focus point, but it made sense. He could feel the connection between his soul and his skull; it anchored him to earth and limited how far he could travel. More than about thirty miles and he weakened; fifty, and he began to lose the ability to hold his form. He also had to return to it to recover his energy; he called it sleeping, but he didn’t dream. It was a handy enough analogy, though, and the closest parallel he could think of. After about fifteen waking hours he began to feel fatigued. He could ignore the pull to return to a point, but like a rubber band drawn too tight, it would eventually snap him back. He’d dissipate once he’d gone too long, and pushing himself that hard meant he’d take twice as long to recover–eighteen hours instead of the usual nine. He’d wake inside his skull, feeling weak and confused. He thought of it as his own version of a macabre genie bottle.
He wasn’t sure exactly what happened while he slept; he just knew that for a short blissful time, he felt absolutely nothing. Not that knowing would matter; he had no choice, a common theme in his life. He thought he‘d be used to it by now, but it still rankled.
Walking until he dissipated from sheer exhaustion was a good plan, and he’d even enjoy its execution, save for one thing. He was being stalked. He’d been walking until sunset faded to twilight, and then into full dark, but the spirit chasing him was relentless. Most would have given up, but not her. If anything, she was pursuing him with ever increasing determination as the night wore on. His scowl deepened, annoyed at the interruption of one of the few things that gave him a modicum of pleasure, his evening marred by yet another needy spirit demanding his help.
Gabriel cast a backwards glance, forcing himself to slow his steps. Any faster and he’d have been running. He’d hate to admit that he was running away from a teenage girl, and a dead one at that. He growled under his breath, irritation setting his teeth on edge, and ducked down another side street, zigzagging his way through the city.
Sudden movement in the corner of his eye caught his attention and brought his steps to a halt. He paused to investigate more from reflex than from any true desire to see what was happening in a dirty back alley in the junkies’ corner of the city.
Someone was in trouble; his first impulse was to help, as inane as that was. A short, muffled, feminine scream reached him, followed by sounds of struggle. He ducked into the alley, muttering under his breath about things that didn’t concern him, telling himself not to get involved.
She was in danger, all right. A mortal likely wouldn’t have seen anything amiss, but to Gabriel’s eyes the alley was bright as day. A giant of a man had a girl pinned against the wall, and his hand closing around her throat told Gabriel that what was happening was anything but consensual. Despite the chill air, she wore a thin black t-shirt and a short, black skirt. A tattoo of a red rose covered her thigh, the splash of color standing out garishly on her pallid skin. Street kid, he’d wager.
Gabriel assessed his options; he’d be able to offer little in the way of help. Not much of anything in the alley for him to use as a weapon. The fact that he couldn’t physically touch any living matter made the logistics involved in a fistfight fairly complicated. If he was at full strength, he’d stand better odds, but he’d purposely worn himself to the edge of his limits. Gabriel chewed his lip as he thought hard. He could interact with the living if he wanted to; they saw him as a normal man. Sometimes a witness was enough to scare off a potential attacker. He kicked some gravel as he moved closer to get the man’s attention.
The man swiveled around at the intrusion; Gabe’s eyes were drawn to the flash of steel from a big hunting blade with a serrated edge he held in his other hand. Great. So much for scaring him off.
“You want a piece of her, pretty boy? Wait your turn.”
Gabe thought of the restless spirit closing in on him as he stood there, chasing him, making demands he couldn’t stand to force himself to fulfill. Not now, not tonight. He looked at the girl again, abject terror freezing what would have been a pretty face into a caricature of itself. She needed his help.
Gabe’s jaw tightened as he stared back at the man in disgust, “No,” he replied, his voice dripping with venom as he turned on his heel and stalked away. He had no business involving himself with the living.
Gabriel checked the street as he exited the alley, cursed softly and took off at a jog. The hell with acting as if he wasn’t running from her, the spirit was right behind him. He had to get behind a threshold; sometimes it was enough to discourage the newly dead from following, and she had the look of the very newly dead. He ducked into a diner just as he felt her fingers pass through his sleeve. He heaved a sigh of relief, closed his eyes, and leaned against the door. He’d made it. He was inside, safe for a little while.
Gabriel headed to the back of the diner and slid into a booth, materialized a cup of coffee and pretended to sip at it, fading into the background. He could have ordered coffee, if he’d had a mind to, but it would have been a waste. Though he could hold the cup, the coffee failed to wet his tongue and had no taste. He had no need to eat or drink, but he’d gotten very good at faking it to help him blend.
The spirit waited outside, forlornly peering into the window. Gabriel avoided her gaze. He knew what she wanted from him, same as all the others that had come before, and he was sick of being used. Find her body, get revenge, find her dolly, or whatever else she needed to move on.
She was young, he’d guess age fourteen, although she was dressed much older. It was hard to tell in these times, when children seemed to need to be adults so soon. He shook his head in confused disbelief; he didn’t understand it. He hadn’t had much choice but to grow up quickly; he’d been put to work wherever it could be found, loaned out to farmers and ranchers that needed extra hands.
Ruthlessly, he tore his gaze away from her. There had been so many of them lately. More than usual, and it unnerved him. His standard policy was to ignore them as best he could. If one was truly persistent, he’d help . . . eventually. Gabriel knew aiding them was asking for trouble. Help one, and two more took their place, and what’s more, the little leeches didn’t deserve it. They cared about petty, trivial things. They didn’t really need him; they just wanted him to do their dirty work. If they truly wanted to move on, they would.
He passed a hand over his face, tired and lonely and frustrated with his lot. He hadn’t asked for this. None of it. The waitress came by and asked if he needed a refill; he shook his head in the negative, despite the urge to answer her, to initiate conversation, to do something, say something to keep her talking to him if only to prove that he wasn’t like the spirit he’d left outside. He broke eye contact and looked to the table; he missed conversation, missed feeling like he was alive, but he’d be breaking his own rule about contact with the living if he engaged her beyond what was necessary. It only led to more pain, as he well knew.
The dead girl pressed her hand to the glass, too new to death to realize it didn’t actually obstruct her. He growled in frustration, torn between staying and going.
“Everything all right, sugar?” the waitress asked as she passed by again.
Gabe blinked, “Yes. Fine. Excuse me, I have to–” he broke off.
He slid out from the booth and headed to the restroom. Finding it occupied, he strode over to the sink, turned on the faucet and pretended he’d come in to wash his hands. He studied his reflection in the mirror as he waited; he looked remarkably like any other living man in his mid-twenties. With high cheekbones set in an angular face, a full mouth, a strongly defined jaw and a square chin, he’d be considered handsome enough, for all the good it did him, even despite the scar bisecting the right corner of his top lip. He concentrated for a moment and blurred it out. He cared less about his looks, they were pointless to the dead, but he hated the scar and the memories it represented.
He’d been happy to see longer hair make a comeback; his thick shoulder-length dark mop didn’t even warrant a second glance. Gabriel had gotten quite good at matching his appearance with the current era, but it was less taxing to appear as close as possible to his true form. He favored vintage jackets as a sort of cold comfort, but in dark jeans, a long-sleeved black t-shirt under his wool pea coat and boots, he looked the part of a modern man.
When the other occupant left, Gabriel passed through the wall and out into the night air. He darted right, escaping down the back alley. She’d go away eventually, with or without his aid. The rest of the most recent batch of them had. Most figured it out for themselves; a little time as a spirit had a way of convincing them they were better off on the other side. Some weren’t so easy, and those were ugly . . . ugly and cruel. He tried not to think about it much, not anymore.
Back when he’d been alive, he’d done his best to help them, and he had helped many restless spirits to find peace before he’d gone and joined them in death. He’d been naïve, thinking he could do some good with his gift. He’d been stupid, and his blind trust had gotten him killed. Dead, bound to his skull, and damned to walk the earth forever.
The spirit found him again the next day; somehow they always knew how to find him. She didn’t beg, she didn’t plead; she just tried to touch him. Gabriel was fairly certain that they didn’t know that he could see them until he acknowledged their presence, and equally sure they knew he was different from them in some fundamental way. He could just ignore her . . .
Gabriel rolled his eyes and looked at the spirit of the dead girl. “All right. Show me what you need to.”
It would be helpful if she could speak, although conversations with spirits were fairly one-track. Most had the intelligence of a collie by the time they’d been dead more than a day or two.
Her eyes lit up and she clapped her hands together. At least someone was happy. He slogged along behind her, giving in to the inevitable. She moved swiftly, periodically checking over her shoulder to ensure he was still following. At least he’d have something to occupy his time, even if he’d rather be forced to sit through a teen angst film fest rather than play show me with a newbie spirit. She hadn’t said a word; obviously she hadn’t figured out how to talk. Not many stayed around long enough to learn how, and he sincerely hoped she wouldn’t either. Ideally, this would be a quick and simple case. He’d follow her to the body, explain that yes, she was indeed dead, and encourage her to move on. Case closed.
She led him to a neighborhood that had been upper middle class twenty years ago, but location and age had rendered it undesirable. Once the criminal element had moved in, it had gone from undesirable to dangerous. Gabriel sighed; he had the feeling that this wouldn’t be a pretty death, not in this part of the city.
The spirit paused at the end of the street, her brow furrowed in confusion. Perfect. She likely couldn’t remember where to go. He caught up to her, irritation setting his face into hard lines. His jaw worked as he stared down at her, her features clearly broadcasting her misery. She wilted under the force of his glare and then spread her hands wide and shrugged.
Gabe shook his head in annoyance, “You think we’re close?” he asked in clipped tones. He tried to engage them as little as possible, but some things had to be asked.
She opened her mouth, but nothing came out. Frustrated, she mouthed, “I think so.”
Good. She had half a brain, at least. It was an uncommon spirit whose force of personality was exceptionally strong, or their drive for some sort of resolution was so great that they maintained their sense of self. From death on, if they didn’t cross over, they began to lose their individuality. Eventually they dissipated entirely, and he hesitated to think what became of them then, or they became violent, angry, and insane. At that point, there was nothing he could do for them. Although rare, some spirits went poltergeist, feeding off of the energy of the living to sustain themselves. It was chilling to watch and he’d stop it if he could, but if he learned anything by his death and his worthless afterlife, he’d learned he was woefully unqualified to help anyone. Still, he was the only help she’d get, qualified or no.
She’d definitely maintained her sense of self. That made things both easier and harder. She was obviously aware that she was dead, and in considerable distress because of it. If he had to hazard a guess, he’d say she was the genuine article, a restless spirit legitimately in need. He laughed bitterly as it occurred to him that he no longer had to worry overmuch if a spirit was sincere or merely a malevolent trickster. Too bad it never occurred to him that all spirits might not be inherently good before he’d died.
“I’ll start checking the dumpsters,” Gabe said.
Her kohl-lined eyes filled with tears at his words. He arched an eyebrow and addressed her sternly, “No sense in that. Waste of time, and trust me, you don’t have it to waste. Take that side,” he said as he pointed to the opposite end of the street.
He stalked off, muttering to himself about the delicate dead. Say the slightest thing about their corpses, and they broke down. Hell, he saw his skull every day; it meant nothing. Sure, his old mentor, Jim Coyote Moon, would’ve had words with him about his lack of compassion, but he was helping her, like he’d asked him to.
It had been Jim that convinced him to try to fulfill the obligation of his gift. He said it might be the key to Gabriel’s freedom. Gabriel couldn’t end himself, though he’d tried; the geas wouldn’t allow it. He was trapped in a half-life, unless Jim was right and he could buy his way out by helping restless spirits.
Gabriel smirked at the thought as he sifted through a garbage bin for traces of the girl’s body. Jim wouldn’t have put it that way. Jim would’ve told him he should help her because that’s what he was made to do. The corner of his mouth quirked up in a half smile as he remembered how they’d met. He’d been testing his boundaries, seeing how far he could go, when he’d spotted the old Comanche sitting by a fire, chanting. Not many people ventured in the wilds of Oklahoma all alone; he was curious. Gabriel was barely holding his form at that point. He was far from his skull, and great distances rendered him amorphous. Gabriel attempted to fade into the background to watch the old man, but Jim stared right at him. Stared right into his soul, it felt like. Jim took one look at the bitter set of his mouth, the hard line of his jaw, and the helpless fury behind his dark eyes and told the spirit that he had to wait until Jim spoke with the ancestors, but he’d get to him next. The old man had a way of taking the bluster out of someone with just a look and a few words.
Gabriel had stalked over to him, fists clenched and held at ready. Jim laughed and called his bluff. He knew full well that spirits could be dangerous, but the old spirit-talker had dealt with them for far too long to be intimidated. His laughter imbalanced Gabriel, at once diffusing his anger and igniting his interest. He waited, watching the arrival of the ancestor spirits in awe. He saw their mouths moving, but their words were not for him. Gabriel decided that he didn’t know as much as he thought, and if he ever hoped to find release he’d better start learning.
Jim gave him an ultimatum: help those that came to him in need, or he’d refuse to tell him a thing. Eventually, Jim taught him all he knew, and Gabriel was saddled with an obligation to help the restless spirits that sought him out. Jim said he’d find his path that way, and that way alone.
So here he was, hip deep in dumpster leavings, looking for a dead girl. He’d helped spirits for the last thirty years, and he was tired. He felt no closer to release than when he started, and he’d decided somewhere along the way that Jim was wrong. It was solely out of respect for the old man that he continued to help them at all; he didn’t truly believe he’d ever find a way out.
Gabriel levered himself up and over the edge of the dumpster and then went to find the girl. He found her sitting on the curb, her head in her hands. Memories of Jim were enough to stay the sharp comment on the tip of his tongue, but regardless, the spirit was going to be upset by his words.
“I can’t stay any longer. If you are still around tomorrow, we can look again,” he offered. At her look of dismay, he realized that his attempt at tact had fallen a little short. “Look, just try and remember where you died, okay? I’ll try to come if you call me,” he said in a softer tone.
She nodded sorrowfully and pulled her skimpy lace top a little lower over her exposed midriff.
He arched a brow, “How old were you?”
She had the grace to look embarrassed, held up both hands, and then three. Thirteen, and wearing that garb in this neighborhood? He was struck by how small she was, compared to him. She weighed no more than a hundred pounds and barely reached his shoulder. That, coupled with her age? She’d have hardly stood a chance if she’d been attacked, and he’d stake good odds she had been. The vast majority of spirits that came to him had met a violent end.
He shook his head, “Sorry I asked.”
Gabe’s form tightened and thinned, reinforcing the urge to return to his skull. He needed to sleep, and soon. If he’d allow it, he could have just dematerialized and let the connection to his skull draw him back, but he preferred to walk the miles in order to work out what he knew about his current case. He found himself thinking of it as his case the minute he started following her into old town. She was young, someone should have been looking for her, but he guessed the burden fell squarely on his shoulders now. Wonderful. Things just kept getting better.
By the time Gabriel regained awareness the next day, morning was long behind and edging into afternoon. He materialized and headed toward the library, hoping that the dead girl had found her body and decided to move on while he slept. He didn’t bother trying to seek her out; if she needed him, she’d find him.
Gabriel stared up at the glass and steel multi-storied building that housed the library, glad that his skull was now in the care of an art collector that appreciated city life and all its amenities. Where his skull went, so did Gabriel.
He prided himself on keeping abreast of modern culture; movies and television helped, and passed time. Reading, however, was pure escapism. Gabriel shot a sidewise glance towards a spirit that entered the library a few minutes after him. He hadn’t seen this particular one before, but it was yet another teenage girl. That was number five? Six? He hadn’t exactly been keeping count. His brow creased, he wasn’t sure which was more disturbing, the fact that the afterlife seemed to be running a special on teenage girls lately, or that his afternoon was going to be interrupted by another one.
He steadfastly ignored her as he wandered through the aisles, hoping she’d give up and go away. She kept her distance, but followed him as he browsed. He studied her surreptitiously; not newly dead–by the way she moved, thresholds were no barrier to her. She’d kept her face concealed in the oversize hood of her blue sweatshirt, but by the skull and crossbones pattern on it, her canvas high-tops and holey jeans, he suspected she was in her teens.
Gabriel made a noise of consideration and selected an old favorite to read. If she was going to leave him be, he was more than happy to return the favor. He certainly didn’t need another case before he’d finished the first. He shook his head in irritation; he’d rather not think about it. He settled into his favorite chair and attempted to lose himself in the story, ignoring the intrusive thoughts of the spirit from the night before. He read for hours, content that for once the dead were leaving him alone. Still, he’d thought the girl from yesterday would have found him by now.
He heaved a sigh, re-shelved his book, and left the solace of the library for the city streets. The teenager in blue followed at a distance, as she’d done at the library. He’d rather she didn’t, but he wasn’t about to tell her so. He still held out hope that if he didn’t acknowledge her she’d go away. He narrowed his eyes at light dusting of white on the ground and the iron grey sky; snow must have fallen while he was inside. Cold didn’t bother him, the dead never felt the cold, but it would make looking for the girl’s body more challenging.
Gabriel added wear, dirt and frayed cuffs to his jeans, and traded his coat for a threadbare army surplus olive-drab field jacket as he came into town, not wanting to look as if he had anything worth stealing; he’d rather not be bothered by any distractions now that he’d decided to help. He’d find her, get her to move on, and then get on with spending as much of his afterlife as possible sleeping. Next time he was suckered into picking up a case, he wouldn’t make the mistake of promising to come back to help. She’d probably just sat there all morning and waited for him without even trying to find her body on her own.
“Lazy spirit doesn’t even deserve my help,” he grumbled under his breath.
He found the girl where he’d left her the night prior, sitting on the curb with her head in her hands. She looked up at him as he approached, her tear-streaked face suddenly hopeful.
“You didn’t find it?” he asked her, his voice sharp and lightly accusing.
She gave a hand wiggle that he took to mean “sort of,” and then stood and began walking; he took the hint and followed her a couple of blocks past the area they’d searched the night prior and down one of the narrow alleyways. Gabriel spotted the dead girl in blue from the library a fair distance away; he’d hoped she’d gotten bored with following him around. Apparently not. He tried to concentrate on the business at hand, but her presence was distracting.
His current client was waiting for him where the alley dead-ended into a wall. The other spirit’s presence shouldn’t bother her; he knew the dead were aware of each other on some level, but were prevented from directly communicating. They were truly alone in the afterlife, aside from freaks like him. To him it seemed cruel beyond measure, but many things were where being dead was concerned. He turned his back on the spirit in blue and headed down the alley.
His client looked at her feet, then back at him and shrugged. Gabriel stared at the snow dusted asphalt in confusion for a moment before he realized that she was trying to tell him that she remembered being in that spot. He knelt down and swiped his hand over the ground to clear the snow away. The dark bloodstains could have easily been mistaken for something more innocuous if someone didn’t know what they were looking at. Gabriel had seen enough death to know it for what it was. The arc of blood spray on the alley wall and the sheer quantity of it on the ground spoke volumes. Someone’s throat had been slashed.
“Looks like you were killed here and then your body was moved,” he picked up something small and shiny and held it up for closer inspection. “This your earring?”
She shook her head no, but mouthed what looked like a name. The spirit of the girl knelt beside him, misery plain to see in her face. The image of her own lifeblood spread across the cold dark alley had taken her harder than most. Her body trembled; she scooted back until her body lodged partially through the alley wall, as if she could escape what she was seeing. Her mouth opened in a silent scream as tears poured down her face. Gabriel sat back on his heels and waited for it to pass.
She stood suddenly, her expression changing to a coy smile. She laughed and leaned against the wall, then her smile faltered before it slipped away altogether. Terror contorted her face; she clawed at her mouth as if trying to move a heavy hand that covered it. Gabriel knew she no longer saw him at all. She was acting out the last moments of her life. Her body was flung back violently against the wall, her throat open and exposed. She shuddered and then dropped in a heap. A moment later, she rose and began the scene again from the beginning, caught in a vicious loop. She was breaking down on him. If she continued like this, she’d shorten the little time she had left.
“Hey!” he snapped his fingers. “Look, you need to stop this.”
She paused for a second, but then continued on as if she hadn’t heard him at all.
Gabe tried again, “The earring. You looked like you recognized it.”
This time she did stop, a little bit of sanity returning to her eyes. She nodded after another long moment of hesitation. He’d broken the cycle. Good.
“Your friend . . . you saw her before you died?” he asked.
The spirit shook her head in the negative.
“She went missing, then?” At her nod, he continued the line of questioning, “One week, two weeks, or longer?”
She held up one finger. One week.
He sighed, “Okay. We’ll probably never find your body now, and I’ll wager your friend ran into the same sort of trouble as you did. Why don’t you just move on while you still can? I can show you how. I’ll keep an eye out for your friend, but odds are she’s already passed through the veil.”
She shook her head angrily. She held up her hand. Five.
“Five what?” he asked. He hated charades. Violently.
She pointed to the earring, then to herself, then to the spot on the asphalt. Oh. He cursed under his breath.
“Five missing?” he guessed, “Street kids, like you?”
She nodded emphatically and then pointed to him.
“Me?” Gabe flung his hands up in the air, “Oh, for . . .” he growled in irritation. “Did you miss the fact that I’m dead? There’s not a whole lot I can do.”
“Bull!” said a voice from behind his right shoulder.
His nostrils flared, he pressed his lips in a thin line and turned to face the interloper. It was the spirit from the library that had been trailing him all day. She pulled the hood of her sweatshirt down so she could glare at him unobstructed.
“It’s mine. The earring, it’s mine. He killed me, and you’re just going to sit back and let him do it again, aren’t you?” she demanded.
Gabriel managed to open his mouth, but couldn’t force out any words. The girl was a dead ringer for his twin sister Maggie. Same hair, same eyes, same voice.
“Cops don’t care about us. We don’t exist. I would do anything to stop this creep, but I can’t. You could stop him, but you don’t even care!” she accused.
He shook his head, “No, I–“
“I’ve been watching you, and I know what you can do. Don’t try to lie to me. You have a gift, and it’s your responsibility to use it to help those that need it.”
He flinched. They’d been Magdalene’s words . . . her last words.
He closed his eyes, seeing it again as it played out in his memory. Sunday, and they were fishing. It was a rare moment of semi-leisure; they both worked from before sunrise to after sunset most days. Satisfied with his catch, he stretched out in the sunshine, letting the heat soothe the ache of tired muscles as he listened to Maggie sing. Their guardian was away, Gabe’s work was done, and for once they’d have full bellies when they went to bed. Such fortune was rare, and he was determined to savor it.
When a spirit intruded upon the afternoon, he did his best to ignore him. He tried to hide it from Maggie, but she’d known. Maggie was furious that he’d do such a thing, but he just wanted one afternoon of freedom, and he didn’t think it was too much to ask that the spirit wait a little longer. She shouted at him, and Maggie never shouted. She said they were just sad, lost people, and they needed him. He’d shouted back that he was tired of taking care of everybody else and stormed off in a fury. His temper had gotten the best of him; he didn’t mean it. He’d never thought of Maggie as a burden. Never.
He’d done as she asked after he cooled off, but when he came home that evening she was gone and their guardian had returned early. Gabriel had been beaten bloody for neglecting his evening chores and letting his sister run off. He touched the scar on his lip, remembering.
He found her lifeless body face-down in the river. Gabriel would’ve done anything for her, but he hadn’t been able to save her. He blamed himself. Still did, to this day. He couldn’t remember much of what happened after he found her. He’d lost himself for a while, gone nearly insane from guilt and regret. He’d walled those memories off, refusing to think of them, or of her. Over the years, it had simply become habit to direct his thoughts away from the pain. Seeing the ghost of the girl that looked so much like Magdalene had brought it all back to him in one terrible moment.
The spirit of the girl snapped her fingers in front of his face, “Hey, glow boy . . . am I boring you?”
Gabe blinked rapidly and pushed the shadows of memory from his mind. Upon closer inspection, there were differences between this girl and Maggie. Her hair was a shade lighter, her face a little fuller and softer, and her eyes were dark green, not chocolate brown. He shook his head, not trusting himself to speak when his thoughts were so scattered and chaotic. He pressed a hand to his chest; it hurt, though no heart beat within. He could never deny Maggie anything, and looking at her near image, he found he still couldn’t.
“I’ll find him,” he whispered, “and them, too,” he amended, looking to the young spirit who had pleaded so desperately for him to help her missing friends.
The young one nodded, but looked a bit confused; he couldn’t blame her. If he watched someone having a conversation with empty air, he’d be confused too.
“Your friend, the one with the earring, she’s here too. Can you sense her?”
Acidic laughter came from behind him, “All I know is something is there. I can’t see anything.”
Gabriel shot her a quelling glance and looked back to the younger girl, waiting for an answer. She just shrugged helplessly.
Gabriel gathered his wits together. If he was to help the missing girls, he needed a little more to go on than a bloodstain in an alley. He closed his eyes and drew in a deep breath to fortify himself. Even after more than one hundred years as a spirit, some habits seemed perpetually ingrained upon on his psyche.
“Tell me what you know,” Gabe said to the spirit in blue.
Some of the swagger went out of her at his request; her shoulders slumped and she shook her head, “Not much. When I try to remember, I just can’t. It . . . hurts.”
He nodded his understanding; Gabe was intimately familiar with how strange the rules of the afterlife could be. He wished death came with a manual.
“Do you remember what he looks like?” he asked.
She nodded, “He looked like a normal. Big man with brown hair, lighter than yours, blue eyes. He was kinda hot. He said he wanted to buy me a meal. It happens, sometimes. I went with him, but I said we had to walk ’cause I don’t get into cars. Last thing I remember,” she paused, her brow furrowed in thought, “his hand was around my throat and he was dragging me . . .” she glanced around, “here, I guess.”
“Can you watch for him? Tell me if you see him again?” he asked, looking to both spirits.
“Yep,” said the older spirit.
The other one nodded, but then flickered in and out, her form growing staticy and indistinct. She was running out of time; she had another day at best. He had no idea why some spirits seemed to be able to hold on to the material world for longer than others, he just knew that the quicker they passed over, the better. He made a noise of deliberation and glanced between the two spirits. He shrugged; he’d never thought to act as a medium before, he wasn’t sure it would work.
“Your friend has a stronger presence here and she’ll help me, but you’re going to be destroyed if you don’t move on. I honestly don’t know what would become of you, but I don’t think it’s a good thing. I’m going to find out what happened to your friends, okay? I swear it, but you need to move on.”
“Who is she?” the other girl asked softly.
Gabe shrugged, “Don’t know. She doesn’t speak. Small,” he held up his hand at his shoulder to indicate her height, “skinny . . . looks half-starved. Short blond hair.”
“Cindy? Is it Cindy? What do you mean she’ll be destroyed?”
“Exactly what I said,” Gabe snarled in irritation, “It’s a bad way to go; I know that much. Now, if you don’t mind?”
“I’m Misha. Tell her. Tell her Misha said she needs to go,” she insisted.
The last thing he wanted was names to go with the faces. He stayed as detached as possible for good reason.
“Fine,” he said to Misha and then turned his attention back to the other girl, “Are you Cindy?”
Gabriel rolled his eyes, “I’m Gabriel . . . are we all friendly now? Can I get to the point? All right, look. Misha is here. She wants you to go while you still can, okay?”
Cindy flickered again, her face wavering between sorrow and indecision.
“Glow boy, you may look like an angel, but you sure don’t act like one,” Misha critiqued. “You kinda suck at this.”
“I’m not that Gabriel,” he shot back.
Cindy’s lower lip trembled, and suddenly she looked every bit the thirteen-year-old runaway that she was. She was terrified. Gabe closed his eyes and sighed.
“What’s wrong?” Misha asked.
Gabe pressed his lips together, “She’s scared to cross over. I’m going to have to show her how.”
If he was still calculating karma points on this case, than this little bit was a bonus round. Jim Coyote Moon would have been proud. Not only had he become a personal tour guide to the other side, but he had to deal with the snarky critical comments of a spirit that could not only speak, but couldn’t seem to shut up. On top of that, he was expected to catch a serial killer. He was no detective or police officer, or even a living man with a handgun. He was dead, and he had no idea how he was going to stop a living killer. Still, he’d been a man of his word in life, and he was still one in death. He’d help them somehow, starting with escorting Cindy to the border and giving her a not-so-gentle shove across.
“Help how? It’s easy to go, what’s hard is staying,” Misha argued.
Gabe’s jaw clenched, “Not for her, apparently. I need to help her, and you need to go away for me to do that. Make yourself useful and see if you can find the killer, eh?”
Misha flipped him off and stalked away. Good to know he hadn’t lost his charm. He turned back to Cindy and arched an eyebrow. “I’ll get you to the border, but it takes your will to cross. I can’t do this more than once a night, so if you hesitate it’s all over for you. You won’t last another day, understand me?”
She nodded again. Gabriel concentrated and put his hands out to hers. He made his form thin and translucent, cursing the necessity of it. This was the only way to make the connection he needed in order for him to aid her, but it made him exceedingly uncomfortable. She rested her shadowy hands on his, locking her blue eyes on his gaze trustingly. They couldn’t exactly touch, it was more akin to them both occupying the same space, but it was enough to waken the terrible frustration and resentment hidden inside of him. He’d never feel the warmth and comfort of a simple hug, or even the touch of a hand. He’d been consigned to the living hell of his current existence by trying to help a lost soul like the one standing across from him, and he couldn’t help but feel more than a little bit bitter about it.
Like her, the one responsible for getting him killed had looked innocent, and also like her, she’d begged for his help. She’d asked Gabriel’s aid to save her brother from a gruesome and painful death. Of course he’d believed her, and she had led him directly into a trap.
Far from the innocent she portrayed, she’d been twisted and evil, an ancient poltergeist, powerful enough to have living lackeys. She’d wanted to steal his soul. Gabriel had lain helpless while one of her “priests” flayed him alive, painted mystic symbols on his skin with his own blood, and then tore his beating heart from his chest. He died as a sacrifice on a stone table as the seemingly innocent spirit mocked him.
When he’d regained consciousness, he’d found that his remains had been destroyed, save for his skull. Sick, scared, and reeling from the enormity of the wrongs done to him, he’d tried to flee. It was then the true horror of what had been done to him became clear. He tried to cross the veil, but the way was blocked. He was trapped in life-in-death.
Gabriel had tried to cross over more times than he could count since that day, and every time his path was barred. Now here he was, guiding yet another soul to where he could never go. He would give her something he could never have, something he could touch for just long enough to know what he was denied. This was more than just uncomfortable for him; it was torture. He tried to block it out, concentrating on the job at hand.
“Listen to me very carefully, Cindy. Okay?”
She nodded her ready agreement, though she’d lost none of her fear.
“I’m going to take hold of you. Don’t fight me.”
He thinned himself further, took control of the essence of her soul and reached for the etheric. “Reach for it and let go,” he commanded.
She crossed. One moment, one instant of peace . . . and then he was violently rejected. He picked himself up from the ground. Had he been of the flesh, he would have likely broken every bone in his body. He was undamaged, at least on the outside. More’s the pity; he wished he could feel it, feel something other than bitter rejection. He cried out and swung his fist at the brick wall. It didn’t help; he just felt stupid.
“Hey glow boy, you gonna just stand there all night?” Misha asked as she rounded the corner.
Gabriel curled his lip in a sneer, “Shut. Up.”
He stalked off in the opposite direction, too heartsick and angry to engage in further conversation. Couldn’t she see what doing that had cost him? Didn’t matter, did it? All she cared about was what she needed from him. He’d been stupid to get involved in the first place. Screw the street kids and screw the dead brat that sure looked like his sister but certainly didn’t act like her, and screw the whole world. They’d have to find another whipping boy. He’d had all he could take for one evening.
“Hey! Where are you going?” Misha asked.
Gabriel ignored her.
“You said you would help. You promised Cindy. Gabriel!”
He froze; it had been a long time since someone had called him by name. Gabriel squeezed his eyes shut and bowed his head. She was right, as much as he hated to admit it.
He sighed, set his face in a mask of indifference and turned to face her, “I’m done for tonight. I’ve used up too much energy,” he lied. He turned on his heel and began to walk away, “I’ll be back,” he felt compelled to add. He glanced at her over his shoulder, his dark eyes hard and his voice harder, “I keep my word.”
He would, though he wasn’t sure why it still mattered to him and he was even less sure how he’d accomplish it. He figured that the best thing to do would be to stake out the area. The killer had used the alley at least twice; odds were he’d return. This part of the city was full of plentiful victims, if someone was just willing to wait for them. The killer had to be nearby; even in old town someone would have noticed him going any sort of distance dragging a corpse. He could use Misha to watch the area in his resting hours. Once he found the killer, he’d go from there. He thought better on his feet anyway.
Gabe looked heavenward and threw up his hands, “It’s not him? I’ve been chasing him for blocks. You said it was him this time.”
Misha gave a chagrined smile, “I saw him this morning, but that guy wasn’t him. It just looked like him from the back.”
He sighed, “Yeah, okay,” Gabe dug deep for patience, “look, we’ve been out here all day and most of the night. If we don’t find him soon, we’ll have to try again tomorrow.”
Misha nodded agreeably and set out in the opposite direction.
He’d been returning to this area for days hoping to catch the killer before he struck again, but thus far it’d proved fruitless. Another day or so and he’d have to figure out how to convince Misha to cross over while she still could.
Gabriel did another pass and was ready to call it quits when he spotted Misha storming down the sidewalk toward him.
“I found him. You have to hurry,” she said.
Gabe’s jaw tightened, the muscle in his cheek twitching, “Show me.”
Gabriel followed as Misha flew at breakneck speed down the alleys and back streets of old town.
“Him. That’s him!” Misha insisted, pointing at a large man’s rapidly retreating form as he strode purposefully down the sidewalk.
“I’m on him,” Gabe acknowledged; Misha trailed close on his heels.
The stranger led them to a yellow house with peeling paint and a look of indifferent dilapidation in a squalid residential area a mere two blocks from where Cindy was murdered. Apparently home repair was not on his list of high priorities. Gabriel thinned his form, and passed easily through the front door after him. He heard the killer moving around in the kitchen adjacent to the front entry, and decided to do a quick check elsewhere while he was occupied. He wanted to make sure it was the right guy; as focused as Misha seemed this time, he knew spirits were easily confused. Gabriel looked to her and motioned for her to stay with the killer while he searched.
The search took moments; the place was neat and organized with few possessions or furniture on display. He’d about decided that the man either was not the killer or killed his victims elsewhere when he spied a nondescript door in the bedroom closet floor. It looked like a simple plumbing access panel, but instinct told him to investigate further. He passed through it and descended a set of steep wooden stairs into a rough dirt-walled cellar. His guess was that the cellar was a new addition; it had been excavated for a purpose.
The cellar was dark, but Gabriel didn’t need much light to see. Once his mind absorbed what he found there, he wished to hell that he could un-see it. It was the right guy. Bodies . . . seven of them, in various states of decay. The oldest of them had been cast aside carelessly on a pile of discarded pipe, lumber and trash in the corner as if they were just garbage, whereas the newest were laid out carefully on chairs and couches as if they were on display. One was secured to a bed frame, her face covered by a ski mask turned backwards. He clenched his fists at his sides; they were all young, female, and naked. From the marks of abuse on the body of the nearest victim, he could tell that their deaths had been violent and painful, and if he was not mistaken, the abuse had continued after their death. Cindy had gotten lucky; she’d died before he’d been able to do to her what he’d done to the others. He moved closer so that he could see the faces more clearly, or what was left of them.
Gabriel froze, recoiling. He recognized them. All the teenage girls following him over the past few weeks, the unusual influx of restless dead . . . suddenly it made sickening sense. They’d been trying to get his help, but he’d ignored them. If he’d intervened, there wouldn’t be seven bodies staring back at him accusingly. He pressed a hand to his stomach as he noticed a large, poorly drawn rose tattoo on one of the victim’s thighs. Memory flashed him back to when he’d seen her in the alleyway, tears streaming down her face. He could have stopped it. He hadn’t even tried. He’d let more girls die because he didn’t want to be bothered, and then he’d left their spirits to flounder, alone and lost. Maggie would have been so ashamed of him.
Gabriel dropped his head, nauseated, fighting back the tide of guilt. He heaved a deep breath and pushed it aside. He made himself look at the bodies again, letting the image burn into his memory. He knew what had to be done.
A cracked whimper startled a yelp from him. The corpse tied to the rusted bed frame moved. He cursed softly; she was alive. That complicated things. So much for his plan.
“He’s coming down!” Misha called out from the floor above.
Gabriel thought furiously; if he didn’t put a stop to the killer now, the girl could die before he was able to get help. He wasn’t sure if he had enough energy to engage him, since the concentration necessary for a fight burnt massive amounts. At first, he’d thought he’d produce a little smoke and tell a neighbor that the house was on fire; it was far easier to get assistance for a fire than it was to get someone to call the police. They’d discover the bodies, put out a warrant for the man, and then he’d rot in prison. When the other inmates got wind of what he’d been doing to kids, he’d probably get a shiv in the kidney. His original plan would take time he no longer had, not with a living girl to worry about.
Gabriel fervently wished he could use a telephone, but every time he’d tried it, the person on the other end had said they heard only static.
The killer tramped down the staircase as Misha trailed behind him. She stood rigid, tight-lipped, and seething with rage, waiting for Gabriel to do as he’d promised. Gabe recognized him immediately. If he’d only stopped him then . . . no. No sense in worrying about what he should have done. He’d do it now.
The killer’s breath froze in the air as he exhaled; he’d routed air conditioning to the cellar. The man had built his own meat locker. Disgusted, Gabe watched as he went to each of the less decomposed corpses, arranged their limbs and caressed their bodies. He simply ignored the ones that had putrefied.
The killer stopped in front of the bed frame last, and stared down at the living girl, “We were interrupted, princess. I was hoping you would have died while I was out. I don’t like the killing part as much when you can’t struggle,” he said with a gentle smile.
She whimpered again as her body shook in helpless fear, “Please?” she begged in a ragged voice, “please let me go. I won’t say anything, I swear.”
He knelt down next to her and placed his large hand over where her nose and mouth should be, “You’ll be so pretty. You’ll be perfect. I’ll take good care of you . . . we’ll be happy.”
Gabriel began to coalesce, fury riding him hard. The killer was at least four inches taller than Gabe and would have outweighed him by forty pounds, but by the virtue of his amorphous nature, Gabe was at an advantage; you couldn’t hit what you couldn’t touch. Gabriel was less limited; he couldn’t connect with skin, but the man was clothed. Rage bubbled up inside of him; he gripped the man’s shirt and yanked him back hard, snarling as he pulled him off the frightened girl. He could have stopped this, should have. What had she already been through, thanks to him?
He felt his hand lose solidity as his emotions got the better of him, shattering his concentration and making him lose command of his material form.
The man stumbled back, but regained his footing and then wheeled to face Gabriel. Cursing his lack of control, Gabe bent down and scooped up a discarded piece of conduit from the trash pile. He refocused, intent on seeing this through, and swung hard at the man’s head. He managed a glancing blow, but it hardly gave the large man pause. The killer made to tackle Gabriel, but there was nothing for him to grab. Gabe bared his teeth and growled at the man, daring the killer to come for him.
“How did you get down here, pretty boy?” the man demanded. He circled Gabriel warily, “And what have you done to my girls?”
“Wha– Your girls? You’re insane. How many of them have you killed, you demented bastard? Huh?”
The man just grinned.
“How many?” Gabriel shouted, swinging the pipe at him for a second time. This time it connected solidly with his jaw. The killer collapsed in a boneless heap, striking his head hard on the dirt floor as he fell. Gabriel raised the pipe for another swing. The man deserved to die for what he’d done. He cried out and let it fly, stopping just short of contact. As sick and depraved as the man was, he couldn’t stomach killing him, not while the man was lying unconscious at his feet, anyway. Misha looked to him, nodded, and smiled before fading away. She’d gotten what she came for; she knew Gabe would bring the man to justice. She could let go, now.
Gabe ran a hand through his hair, sweeping the dark curls back out of his eyes. He had little time left; he’d burned too much energy and he keenly felt the draw to return to his skull. He turned his attention to the kidnapped girl. She was panting, and her skin shone with sweat; he needed to get her medical attention, and quick. Gabe spotted a cell phone on the floor. His lips twisted in a wry smile as he opened the killer’s phone, dialed 9-1-1 and dropped the phone near the girl’s head. She flinched at the contact; he winced in sympathy. She’d have a rough time surviving this, but she would survive it, thanks to two restless spirits who wouldn’t take no for an answer. “Help’s coming. You’re going to be safe now,” Gabe said as gently as possible. “Look, I can’t be found here, okay? I dialed 9-1-1, the phone is right next to you. Tell them what happened.”
He thought he saw her nod. It wouldn’t matter if she talked; they’d trace the call and send out a police car. Gabriel opened the front door and the door to the cellar to make things easier for them and then settled in to watch over the girl until the police arrived. He could hold on a little bit longer; he owed her that much.
“I’m sorry Maggie,” he whispered, he’d never said it before. “I’ll make it right. I swear it.”
He closed his eyes and rested his head on his knees, allowing the memories of his twin to come back to him. He missed her. His throat constricted; he’d failed her, thanks to a fit of temper and thoughtless words, and nothing had been right since. Maggie’s dark eyes flashed as she accused him of squandering the gift he’d been given. He turned away, blind with anger, unable to swallow his pride and face the shame behind her eyes. He’d turned away, and he’d lost her.
He’d been a fool, rationalizing doing next to nothing for the restless dead, telling himself they were finding their own way. What would Maggie think? He’d let his death become meaningless, because what had he done with his afterlife? How far away was he from becoming a monster, like the one that had done this to him? Had she managed that, she’d have won. After his murder he’d just given up, and that would’ve hurt Maggie worst of all. What would she say if she could see him now?
He saw her smile in his memory, swore he heard her voice in his head, “She’d say it doesn’t matter that you’re dead. Maybe you were meant to be this way.” She grinned, her smile brightening like a ray of sunshine, “It’s never too late, Gabe.”
He opened his eyes, looked at the girl he’d managed to rescue, shivering and scared, but alive. He’d saved her, and that was something. One thing was for certain, he could no longer refuse to see that the spirits needed his help. Maybe Jim Coyote Moon was right, that in aiding them he’d find release. Maybe he was wrong. Didn’t matter. He wouldn’t turn away, not anymore.
©Casy Dee – The Turning Away
©Erin Allen – Artwork