The Dead Life
A flash of too-bright light illuminated the dead girl's face for an instant as the crime scene photographer snapped a picture. Jason shook his head and muttered, half to me and half to himself. "Nineteen, Ruben. Nineteen. Had her whole life ahead of her."
I didn't answer as I stared down at the body. Jason had helped the medical examiner cut her down from the closet, and the scarf she'd been hanging from had left ugly marks around her neck. I bent and reached out to brush her dark hair away from her face. My semi-translucent fingers went right through the fine strands, and I grunted at my own absentminded mistake. Three years had passed since the night a stray semi-truck on an icy road killed me, but sometimes I still forgot I didn't have a real body anymore.
Jason went to confer with the medical examiner, who scratched notes on a clipboard. He returned a few moments later. "She thinks it was suicide."
I frowned. The way the girl's body had been found clearly implied suicide. She'd even left a note, two words--I'm sorry. Still, I couldn't shake the feeling that there was more to the situation than we were seeing. "I want to look into it more. I'm not convinced she killed herself."
"What, then?" Jason said. I could hear the impatience in his voice. It had been a long day, and we'd been on our way out of the station for the night when this call had come in. If not for the call, he could have been home hours ago.
"She should still be here," I said. "They always stick around for at least a little while. But I can't feel her presence anywhere. It's strange."
"No offense man, but I think things stopped being strange the day ghosts became more than just a superstition."
"Where's the guy who found her?"
"I want to talk to him."
Jason sighed. "Some officers already took his statement. He doesn't know much."
I nodded and made my way to the front door of the apartment anyway. The place was small and undecorated, but tidy. We'd checked for any signs of forced entry as soon as we got here. The fact that there was nothing out of place only served to reinforce Jason's theory that the girl--Cassandra--had killed herself.
I passed through the yellow tape that crisscrossed the doorway. Jason muttered a curse behind me, and I turned to watch as he attempted to untangle his foot from the tape. At least he'd followed.
He was a reliable partner, if a bit reluctant. Not many people would have put up with chasing after the hunches of a dead detective, but Jason always had my back. We were something of a joke in the homicide unit, the rookie and the ghost, but we worked well together. He respected my ten years' experience on the force prior to my death, and I was just glad to have the work. Murder cases were few and far between these days; it was too hard to get away with killing someone when their spirit might linger behind to tell the police exactly what happened. Sure, less crime was good for everyone. But it still felt good to have some work to break up the monotony of my ghostly existence, even if it did just turn out to be a suicide.
A balding man in a dirty t-shirt leaned against the wall with folded arms and an air of casual disinterest. We approached him. "Michael Garrett?" I said.
"Just Mike." He straightened and stuck his hands in his pockets.
"Mike. You're the one who found Cassandra?"
"I'm Detective Vasquez, and this is my partner, Detective Reese. I know you've already given a statement, but I wanted to ask you a few more questions."
Mike shrugged. "Sure, but it's like I told the other cops--I didn't really know her. Just came to get my rent. Been trying to get rent from that girl for two weeks now."
"You're the landlord here?"
"And she lived here alone? No roommate or boyfriend or anything?"
"No, just her. Used to have a boyfriend who would stay over sometimes, but I haven't seen him in months. Haven't seen anyone else here, either."
I nodded. "Do you know where we could find this boyfriend?"
Mike shook his head. "I don't even know his name. White guy, average height. Dark hair--brown or maybe black. I might recognize him if I saw him again."
"Did she have any other family? Anyone we should notify about her death?"
"I don't know. She worked at Providence Elementary School as a cook or something. You might try asking them."
I nodded to Jason, who gave Mike a card with his name and phone number. "Thank you for your time," I said. "Please let us know if you think of anything else."
Mike nodded and shuffled to the stairs. I turned to Jason. "I want to go to the elementary school."
His face fell at the prospect of going anywhere but home. "Now?"
"Of course not now; no one will be there this time of night. Meet me there first thing tomorrow morning."
He cocked his head and looked me straight in the eye. "You're just going there to inform them about her death, right? She killed herself--there's no investigation here."
The medical examiner walked past us with a black body bag on a gurney. "We don't know anything yet," I said, "and since Cassandra's not here, we can't ask her what happened. We have to consider all the possibilities. She deserves that." I played on Jason's sympathies, knowing that was always the easiest way to convince him to do anything. But just in case he still had doubts, I tried another approach. "It'll be good, old-fashioned police work. No dead victim to talk to, no spirit to point us in the right direction for evidence. We'll have to do all the hard work ourselves for once. You think you can handle that?"
The corner of Jason's mouth turned up in a sly grin. "Of course I can handle it. I just hope you can keep up, old man."
"Watch it, kid. Another decade and I'll be younger than you."
"Why do you think I'm getting my punches in while I can?"
We walked down the stairs together and I watched him get into his car. "See you tomorrow morning," I said.
He saluted as he drove away, off towards home and the arms of his loving wife, who probably had dinner waiting for him. I remained alone on the corner of a dirty downtown street. The wind rushed through a nearby alley and sent a crumpled sheet of paper skittering through my feet, but I didn't feel it--not the paper, or the wind in my hair, or the cold that came with the dark. I spent that night as I'd spent every other night for the past three years. Sleepless, I wandered the city with my fellow spirits, all of us lost souls trapped in a world that wasn't meant for us.
The next morning, Jason and I found ourselves sitting on a couple of miniature plastic chairs in the Providence Elementary School cafeteria. Or rather, Jason sat, and I hovered in a seated position somewhere near the chair's surface. A young cafeteria cook named Kali sat across from us. She'd cried when we'd told her about Cassandra and now traced an aimless design across the table's surface with a cobalt blue fingernail.
Kali glanced up at Jason, her lip trembling as new tears spilled down her cheeks. "I don't understand. I can't believe she would do something like this. I mean, I know she had a rough childhood or whatever." I raised my eyebrows, and Kali explained, "She was a foster kid, so she moved around a lot until she finally aged out of the system. Some of the homes were pretty bad. But she seemed okay."
"So you don't have any reason to believe she would kill herself?" I asked.
Kali shook her head vigorously. "No. Not at all. She never seemed depressed. I mean, there was this thing with her boyfriend, but it ended a long time ago. She seemed fine."
Jason looked bored, but I pressed Kali for more information. "What thing with her boyfriend?"
Kali scowled. "His name was Daniel--Daniel Hargrave. They started dating about a year ago, and things were good at first. But a few months in, he turned into a jerk, yelling at her for stupid things or getting jealous whenever she talked to another guy. Controlling, you know? There were a few times where she didn't show up to work just because he just didn't want her to come in. It was bad."
I glanced at Jason and knew we were both thinking the same thing; these were classic indicators of domestic abuse. Maybe we were on the right track with this Daniel person.
As if to prove to me that he took the investigation seriously now, Jason asked the next question. "Do you know if he ever hurt her or threatened her?"
"No, I don't think she let it get that far. We talked about him a lot, and I think she finally realized how bad things were. She broke up with him about six months ago. It was hard for her at first, but she got over it. She was doing fine." Kali's face darkened and she stared back down at the table. "At least, I thought she was doing fine."
"We'd like to ask Daniel a few questions," I said. "Do you know where we could find him?"
Kali's eyes went wide and she shook her head. "Oh, no--I don't think he's here anymore. He's--well, like you. Dead. But I think he passed on, or disappeared. Whatever it is you guys do when you go."
I clenched a fist under the table. Damn. I'd thought we had something.
Kali's eyes had a distant, empty look, as if she were trying to think of something. "You don't think Cassandra killed herself because of what happened to Daniel, do you?"
I wasn't sure if she was asking me or just wondering to herself, but I answered anyway. "Why? What happened to Daniel?"
"He hanged himself. A couple weeks ago. I didn't say anything to Cassandra. I didn't want to be the one to tell her, if she didn't already know. And if she did know, I just assumed she wouldn't want to talk about it. Maybe if I'd asked her, tried to get her to talk to me--maybe she wouldn't have...."
The girl dissolved into a new stream of tears. Jason hurried to comfort her. He was better at that sort of thing than I was, being alive and all. Sometimes, people just needed a pat on the shoulder or a hand to hold, and I couldn't provide that. Maybe that was better; even in life, I hadn't been much of the comforting type.
I felt awkward just standing there, so I left them and went outside to think. Jason met me at the car a few minutes later. "I guess that rules the boyfriend out as a suspect," he said.
"Yeah." I couldn't explain why that disappointed me so much.
"So we're done with this, right? We'll go back to the station, file a report, and call it quits."
I shook my head. "Not yet."
"Oh come on, Ruben. This is pointless." Jason was a level-headed young man who seldom lost his temper or even so much as raised his voice. I could tell he was trying very hard not to raise it now.
"It's not pointless," I said. "It's our job to do a full investigation."
"We've done a full investigation," he said through clenched teeth. "It's our job to solve crimes. There's no crime here. The girl killed herself, and that's awful, but there's nothing we can do. There are other cases we could be working on--cases with real, live people still waiting to find out what happened to their loved ones. She has no next of kin, and we haven't even found anything to indicate foul play. There's no justice to be served here."
I shook my head again. "There's too much that doesn't make sense."
Jason sighed. "Like what? What doesn't make sense?"
"For starters, why would she do it? We don't have anything to indicate that she was depressed or suicidal."
Jason raised his eyebrows and gawked at me. "We don't? You think she had a happy, fairytale life growing up in foster care? You think she was just fine when she found out her ex-boyfriend committed suicide? She hanged herself, just like he did. That doesn't tell you something? Kali put that together in two seconds, and she's not even a detective."
"Daniel didn't treat her well. She was a smart girl and she got out of the relationship. I don't think she'd be that broken up over his death--not enough to kill herself."
"We don't know that."
"Exactly," I said. "We don't know anything, because she's not around to ask. Spirits always stick around for at least a few days, but she's gone. It doesn't make sense."
"So she passed on a little earlier than normal. What's the big deal with that?"
I threw my hands out to the side. "I don't know. But I know it's important, and I'm going to keep looking into this until I figure it out."
Jason rolled his eyes. "Of course you are. That's what you do. You always get so caught up in these cases because you--" He clamped his mouth shut before he could finish.
"What?" I asked.
"Never mind." He dug the keys out of his pocket and walked around to the driver's side of the car.
"Tell me," I insisted. "Why do I get so caught up in these cases?'
"Because you just don't have anything else to live for."
I frowned. The accuracy of his statement shamed me. My entire existence had been reduced to an obsession over homicides and suicides--over death. But what meaning could I give this endless dead life if not for the work I did with the police department?
"I'm sorry, man," Jason said. "I didn't mean it like that."
"I know," I said, brushing off the offense. "Let's go."
Jason unlocked the car and got in while I simply slid through the door to the passenger seat. He started the engine and we drove away from the school. For several long minutes, there was no sound but the soft rush of tires on the road beneath us.
"Ruben," Jason said, breaking the silence. "Why do you think you're still here?"
He had never asked the question, though we'd been partners for almost two years now. I didn't know how to answer him. There were so many theories--science, religion, philosophy, even magic. Each one tried to find reason and explanation for what had happened five years ago, when all living people suddenly acquired the ability to see the spirits of the dead. Not all of the dead--just the ones still stuck here, the ones who hadn't passed on to whatever came after and beyond this world. Heaven, perhaps, or Hell, or some sort of afterlife that was neither of those things. Maybe nothing. I didn't know, and I certainly didn't know why I hadn't gone yet.
I shrugged in response to Jason's question. "I wish I knew, kid."
Jason nodded. We drove in silence for a few more minutes before he asked, "So, what's next, boss?"
I knew he still thought this was a wild-goose chase, and maybe he was right. But he knew I wouldn't rest easy until we'd looked at every possible angle, and I appreciated that he was willing to do that with me. "We can look up Daniel's obituary. It's a long shot, but maybe it will tell us something."
Jason nodded, then started tapping his fingers against the steering wheel. I'd learned a long time ago that he seemed to do his best thinking in the car, and had a habit of tapping his fingers whenever he was mulling an idea over. I waited for him to tell me what was on his mind. "Are we sure Daniel's gone?" he said. "Kali just said she didn't think he was here anymore, but he's only been dead for a couple weeks. Maybe he's still here."
"Do you think you could find him?"
He was talking about the connection between spirits that existed as a mild, ever-present buzzing sensation. With a little practice, one spirit could use it to find another. I'd often used it to track down homicide victims for questioning, and the lack of such a connection was how I'd known Cassandra's spirit had already left this world when we found her body. I hadn't thought to use it for Daniel because I'd just assumed he was already gone, but maybe Jason was on to something.
"I have to know who I'm looking for," I said, "but if he's still here--yes, I think I could find him."
We found Daniel's obituary online as soon as we got back to the station, then spent a couple hours lurking on his social media pages. There hadn't been any activity in months--long before Daniel had died--but we were able to get a glimpse into enough of his life to help me find him. There were photos of him and Cassandra together, always smiling in that sickeningly cute way couples do at the beginning of a new relationship. He seemed to be a normal, happy young man--but then, that was the whole point of social media. If not for the things Kali had told us, I wouldn't have guessed they'd had problems.
After a while, I started to feel the connection as a vague tingle at my fingertips. It spread and grew stronger as we clicked through more photos, and soon, the tingle became an electric current coursing through my entire being. I just needed to focus it.
"I think that's enough," I said, turning away from the computer. I closed my eyes and visualized Daniel's face in my mind. The buzzing energy became a pull, and I followed it out of the station.
Jason barely had time to grab his gun and keys from the desk as he ran after me. "He's still here, then?"
I gave a curt nod, not wanting to break my concentration.
"Great. So where are we going?"
"I'm not sure yet. Just drive."
We got into the car and I gave Jason directions. They were very general at first. Drive south. Turn east. Keep going. As we got further into the city, the pull grew stronger. I closed my eyes and made Jason drive around the same block a few times until I was sure we'd found the right building. He knew better than to bother me when I was trying to track down a spirit, so he didn't say anything, and it wasn't until we got inside that I realized where we were. This was Cassandra's apartment building.
I no longer needed to rely on the connection to find Daniel. We hurried up the stairs to Cassandra's unit. The yellow police tape had been stripped from the entrance, and a mop in a bucket of sudsy gray water propped the door open. Jason pushed the door further and called out, "Hello?" When no one answered, we stepped inside together.
Another spirit stood in the center of the living room. His back was turned and he didn't seem to notice us until I spoke his name. "Daniel?"
"Yes?" he responded.
"We need to ask you a few questions," I told him.
Daniel turned. His dead eyes were hollow and bloodshot, his clothes disheveled, his dark hair in tangles. He wore an expression of amused frustration, like a hunter discovering that his quarry has outwitted him. Jason looked at me, and I knew that what we were seeing unnerved him. We had both seen countless spirits driven insane by the never-ending monotony of a lifeless existence. The crazed, animal look in Daniel's eyes was beyond any of that.
"You found out, didn't you?" Daniel's voice quivered on the thin line between control and madness. His mouth stretched into a mean, crooked grin that did nothing to reassure me of his sanity.
"Found what out?" asked Jason.
"What I did," Daniel said. "How I killed her."
How he killed her? The pieces clicked into place. "You were haunting her," I said. It happened sometimes when a person died. Most spirits still craved contact and interaction with their living loved ones, and some would hang around whether they were welcome or not. Based on what we'd learned in the past several hours, I wouldn't have put it past Daniel to disrespect Cassandra's boundaries. He could have tormented Cassandra in any number of ways since his own death. Perhaps that had driven her to kill herself; I'd heard of similar things happening before.
Daniel shook his head. "You're not listening, detective. She didn't do this to herself. I killed her. I strung her up by the neck and left her in that closet."
That was the last thing I had expected to hear. "You're dead," I said to Daniel. "You can't kill anyone. You can't even touch a living person."
"But I can touch their soul."
Jason looked at me for an explanation, but I was just as confused as he was. "Explain yourself," I said.
The lines around Daniel's mouth deepened as his mouth stretched in disgust. "Cassandra was everything to me, and she threw me away. I killed myself to get away from that pain, but I got stuck here. So I watched her sometimes. I knew we could be happy together again. We could have been together forever--immortal. Immortal and dead." He cackled at his own joke. An instant later, his smile fell flat. "But she would never take her own life. So I figured out a way."
"Did you find someone to kill her for you?" I asked. "Who was it?"
"You still don't get it," Daniel sneered. His intense hostility took me by surprise. He gestured to the hallway that led to Cassandra's room. "You saw the crime scene. Did it look like there was someone else in that room with her when she died? No. I killed her myself."
The idea was still so impossible I couldn't comprehend it. I didn't even want to think of the implications. A spirit who had figured out how to kill would be far more dangerous than any living murderer. How could anyone hope to stop a killer who couldn't be contained in any cell, couldn't be executed, couldn't be threatened? But none of that answered the question how, if what Daniel was saying was even true.
"You seem confused," said Daniel. "I'll show you what I mean."
Before I could say anything, he lunged at us. Jason's hand instinctively went to his gun, but before he could aim it, Daniel melted right into his body. He didn't come out the other side like he should have.
Jason convulsed. His eyes rolled back in his head, and for a few moments, he hovered above the floor in a way that should have been impossible for a living person. He reminded me of something out of a horror film--something possessed. I realized with dread that was exactly what was happening. I clutched at my hair with one hand, unable to do anything but watch.
A spirit emerged from Jason's body, but it wasn't Daniel's. It was Jason's.
Jason's spirit gaped as he stared at his body. He turned to me, shouting. "What the hell is this?"
The body that now contained Daniel's spirit answered. "I forced your soul out of your own body, the same way I did with Cassandra's. And now that I have control of your body, your life is in my hands. I can do whatever I want with it."
With a jolt, I realized what Cassandra's fate had been. Jason's eyes went wide as he came to the same awful conclusion. "Ruben, do something!"
Daniel's crazed, wicked smile appeared on my partner's familiar face. He tossed Jason's gun from one hand to another, back and forth, watching it like a child playing with a ball. He aimed it at me, then at Jason's spirit. "Bang!" he shouted. Jason flinched, and Daniel snickered. Then he raised the gun to his own head--to Jason's head.
We were both as helpless as Cassandra must have been. Jason took two steps towards his possessed body. "Bang," Daniel said again. His finger tightened on the trigger.
The gunshot cracked. Blood sprayed out the other side of the skull, and the body crumpled to the ground in a lifeless heap. Jason gave me one final, anguished look before some unseen forced yanked him out of the physical world, and he vanished. It was like he'd been sucked into a black hole; one instant he was there, and the next, there was only empty space.
I'd seen dozens of souls pass on before, but it was usually more of a gradual fading away. I'd never seen one go with that much force and violence. The thought of what it could mean tormented me as I watched Daniel rise from my partner's body.
"You killed him," I said, still in shock. This couldn't be happening. It was impossible, unthinkable. In desperation, I tried to find the connection to my partner's spirit. It should have been easy; I knew him well. It should have been instinctual. But there was nothing, not even the faintest tingle. Jason was gone.
I wanted to strangle Daniel, slam him against a wall, beat that smug grin right off his face. But nothing I might do would hurt him. "Where did he go?" I demanded.
Daniel shrugged. "He's gone. Passed on, perhaps. Or not. I've never seen anyone else but Cassandra leave this world quite like that. Have you?"
"No," I said. His apathy sickened me. More than that, my own helplessness sickened me.
Daniel stared at his hands. "Do you see what I can do? What a horrible thing I've discovered?"
His ability was horrible, something no spirit should ever be able to do. If he continued to exist, he could kill others like Cassandra and Jason or even teach other spirits to do the same. I shuddered to think of the devastation a few ghostly murderers could cause. I had to warn someone, help them figure out a way to stop this before it got out of control. Not that I saw much hope of stopping it, but I'd be damned if I didn't try.
Before I could say or do anything, I felt a gentle tugging sensation in my core. I looked down at my hands. They were slowly but unmistakably becoming more translucent, fading away into thin air. I had no doubts about what was happening. The time had come for me to leave this world; I was passing on.
I'd waited so long for this moment, but now that it was here, I wanted nothing more than to stay behind. I couldn't go--not yet. If I left, there would be no one to stop Daniel, no one to warn humanity of the danger he presented. Why was this happening now?
Daniel smiled at me in wicked triumph, as if he knew what I was thinking. Looking at that smile and remembering how it had contorted Jason's face as Daniel possessed his body, an idea occurred to me. Why do you think you're still here? Jason had asked me that question just hours before. I hadn't been able to answer him then, but maybe I could now. I was the only one who knew what Daniel could do. Perhaps I'd remained here to stop him from ever doing it again.
But how? I was out of time and options. The answer, I realized, had been standing right in front of me this whole time. Daniel. Inspired by his own murderous tactics, I gritted my teeth and tried to cling to this world as long as I could.
I reached for his arm. At the same time, I found the connection to his soul--a connection I knew well after the hours I'd spent honing in on it. I latched onto it and pulled myself into him. I wanted to join our souls so that when I passed on, he would come too.
Our spirits seemed to reject each other. I felt pain more excruciating than anything I had ever felt in my life, or perhaps the pain was made unbearable by the fact that it had been so long since I'd felt anything at all. Daniel screamed and struggled to free himself. I hoped the end was near; I wasn't sure how much longer I could hold on.
The connection started to slip as the pain intensified. Daniel fought just as hard as I did. He let out a shriek as we watched our feet fade into nothingness. This was the end. I embraced it, welcoming the slow relief that came as I passed into the unknown. I had accomplished my task. Together, Daniel and I succumbed to the force that whisked us away from this world, away from the dead life.
I felt myself disconnect from him. A light appeared in front of me, so bright that I could not only see it, but feel it, hear it, and even taste it in every fiber of my being. Somewhere in that light, I thought I could sense Jason's spirit. I smiled.
Finally, I was free.