I have a habit of dying. I’ve taken the Big Sleep at least three times that I know of, though it never lasts more than a few minutes. Each time, I wake up changed, but not in any way normal people can see. Next time, I might not wake up at all, but between now and then, I have a job to do: to protect the Grey—the fringe between the normal world and the world of the purely paranormal, where ghosts roam and magic sings in neon-hot lines of energy across the empty space of the world between—and to protect the rest of the world from it. I am not a ghost or a vampire, not a witch or a sorcerer or a mage. I am just the unfortunate schmo who happened to touch death the right way and get stuck with the job. I’m a Greywalker.
Of course, I don’t have that title on my business cards or my office door. Mostly I pay the bills by working as a private investigator in Seattle, because ghosts rarely have checking accounts and vampires are notoriously parsimonious. Some days I wish I could go back to just running down background checks and looking for missing kids—except that always seems to lead me right back to the Grey. Once you’re in it, it doesn’t let you go. It’s hard on my friends, my family, and my love life, but it’s necessary and, in the end, I’m good at it. And I can’t really quit.
There was something deeply wrong with Lake Crescent; I knew it even before I saw the accident that wasn’t there. The ground seemed to hum and mutter as if a current raged beneath it. Cobwebs of colored light leaked from the Grey—that slippery place between the normal and the paranormal where ghosts are real and magic gleams like neon reflected in wet, black streets. The unreal light stretched in patches and strands over the soil and low-growing plants or dripped from trees like Spanish moss. Sudden bolts and globes of the same transient energy darted across my vision, apparently unnoticed by anyone but me. Under the wan February sun, I could hear the whispering of ghosts I knew would appear as solid as living flesh once the sun went down. I hoped I wouldn’t have to come back for them.
I could have written some of the weirdness off as the result of my altered interaction with the Grey since my most recent death, but I hadn’t seen anything quite like it anywhere else since I’d gotten out of the hospital. It wasn’t just me; the Grey itself was different there.
I’d come out to the Olympic Peninsula to work on a pretrial investigation for Nanette Grover—a lawyer who was a regular client of mine. I’d had to drive up into the mountains and try several sites around the lake before I caught up with the potential witness—an itinerant handyman/sometime carpenter named Darin Shea—whom she’d wanted me to talk to. He was a man of indeterminate age, race, and origin who spoke with a New England drawl as untraceable as the rest of him.
By the time I was done talking to him, I wished I hadn’t started. He seemed to say little of value but took plenty of time to do it, his slow, molasses voice wandering off the subject in long, meandering asides as difficult to break through as a wall. We stood on the deck of the Log Cabin Lodge, the main building of the Log Cabin Resort, where he was working for the day, on the Piedmont end of the lake. Though I should have been paying more attention, his speech was so boring that I found my attention wandering out to the cold expanse of Lake Crescent as it lay behind him, struck with orange and pink by the fugitive sunset cutting through clouds above and illuminated from below by hints of the Grey’s power grid in the depths of the dark, clear waters.
I listened to him with half an ear, taking notes while watching something burble out of the lake near the western shore—something dead white and man-shaped that seemed to slog ashore with the reluctant, spastic movement of a creature yanked forward on an invisible rope. I thought I saw a second figure on the shore, beckoning and calling in a voice that seemed to pluck the strings of the Grey and send a tingling electric sensation over my skin, but I couldn’t be sure....
I started to peer sideways at the strange scene, looking by force of habit for the eerie and hearing the hum and rattle of the grid swell as I did, but Shea waved a hand in front of my face. “Hey there, you listenin’ to me?” he asked.
“Of course, Mr. Shea,” I replied, reminding myself that I wasn’t here in search of ghosts, but of reliable testimony for Nan’s case—not that I was feeling positive about Shea’s reliability by then. I pushed my attention to the Grey back and focused on the handyman instead.
It was cold, and dusk was descending fast by the time I was done with him. The ghosts around the shore began showing themselves as silver mist that moved in human shapes, and the sound of wind that breathed icy words. The uncanny queerness of the place made me anxious to get home—or at least down into the flat land and streetlights before full-on darkness hit—with the hope that I could let the strangeness lie for once. Of course, that is not the way my job works.
The road on the northeastern shore of Lake Crescent was narrow, twisting, and prone to dive down suddenly into unexpected gullies and through shadows of ghostlight. But even without the disturbing persistence of the Grey, the route was treacherous. Deep shade beneath the cedars and firs harbored dirty piles of snow between icy patches of bare ground and slicks of black ice on the asphalt surface of the road, so spotting a car rammed up against a tree beside the tarmac didn’t even seem unlikely. The flames coming from under the hood didn’t look quite right, but when a normal person sees someone struggling to exit a burning car, his first thought is not, “It’s just a ghost,” but something a bit more visceral, like, “Holy shit! ” which was exactly what went through my own mind.
So I steered my Land Rover onto the frozen loam at the roadside and bailed out of the front seat to run for the other driver’s door and wrench it open. But my hands passed through the flame-flickering material of the Subaru Forester with only a phantom sensation of heat while someone else’s terror and pain washed over me. I flinched back from the melting face that stared from behind the unreal glass, and then I backed away. Was it my own fear I felt or his . . . ?
The ghost wafted out of the memory of his fiery death, following me, mouthing words without sound and bringing along the odor of searing flesh and melting rubber, hot steel, and burning cedar. I retched at the smell. I couldn’t fall back any farther without standing on the road, so I put up my hands as if I could hold the smoldering specter at bay with the gesture alone. The ghost stopped, just touching my out-turned palms. A sparkle of gold and a flicker of Grey bent between us where his searing memory of fire struck against the shield I had unconsciously raised. I held my ground at the ragged edge of the asphalt.
The ghost’s voice trembled off the Grey surface between us as if it were a speaker: “Not an accident. Not an accident.”
I could feel the vibration of it in my head and chest. I nodded but still held him away. “All right, I believe you. What happened to you? What’s your name?” He was not the first ghost I’d seen and he wouldn’t be the last, but he was the first willful spirit I’d encountered in the nine months since I’d been shot in the back. This ghost felt horrible, exuding terror and fury and need while his memory burned in icy flames and remembered agony, resonating through the barrier between us and slicing into me.
The smell and sensation made my stomach flip, but I swallowed the lump of revulsion and held still. “What’s your last name, Steven?”
But he didn’t seem to understand me, or at least his answer didn’t sound like a last name. “Blood Lake. My family . . . We should never have let them . . .” he said, then started fading away.
I forced my protections aside and pressed my hands into him, trying to make a stronger connection even though the feel of him made me gag. I couldn’t grab onto him as I should have been able to do, so I let myself slide deeper into the Grey, closer to his own plane. He firmed up a little, but I still couldn’t get much of a hold on him. He was thin and weak, as if whatever gave him substance was fading or distant and only his ardent need for help allowed him to manifest at all. “Steven. Steven, listen to me. Tell me your whole name or where you’re from. Anything. Help me find you, or I can’t help you.”
“Le—” And he fell apart in a drift of dust and smoke.
The burning car remained a moment longer, sending memories of flame and sparks into the silvery air of the Grey. I stared at it, hoping to memorize the license plate before it vanished into the mist, but I got only part of it. I tried backing out a little and reaching for the temporaclines—the layers of time and memory that accrue in the Grey like silt—but they were slippery and knife-edged, and I couldn’t seem to find the right one. I eased back out of the Grey and into the normal, looking for any sign of the accident, but I found nothing of it in the near-dark. It was long gone.
Disturbed, I returned to my truck and headed it back down the road that would connect to Highway 101 to Port Angeles and then to the ferry back to the Seattle side of Puget Sound. I felt haunted all the way home even after the strangeness of the area had faded away.
I spent the next morning finishing reports for Nan, but I couldn’t get the ghost’s words out of my head, and from the corner of my eye, I continually caught a flicker of something Grey that looked almost like a charred skull. Before I took my reports to Nan’s office, I gave in to the phantom harassment and ran a search through the Department of Licensing database. From the partial plate number and the first name, Steven or Stephen, I got about two hundred hits; filtering for the make and model of the burning SUV, I got three.
A bit more poking got some additional background information on the three names and I printed out the pages to read at Nan’s office. Since she was prepping for a trial that looked to be lengthy, it was hard to guess how long I’d have to wait for her to be free to talk to me.
I walked from my office to Nan’s, liking the feeling of moving through a familiar place again where the Grey seemed less volatile and dangerous. After some chitchat and paperwork, Nan’s secretary set me up to wait in the firm’s library. The space was about twice the size of Nan’s office and lined with floor-to-ceiling shelves filled with mostly outdated law books and periodicals. Most firms have no need for an extensive library anymore—they just subscribe to the LexisNexis system online and do their research from their computers, as I do a lot of the time—but Nanette’s firm kept the room intact, using it as an additional meeting room. The acoustic deadening of a foot of leatherbound pages lining the walls made it an ideal space for recording depositions and discussing sensitive matters. No sounds penetrated in or drifted out of the room once the door was closed, and the few spooks around the place were as dull as tax law. I huddled over my printouts and drank coffee until Nan came in.
“Is that my report, Harper?” She was as uncreased and unemotional as a slab of ebony.
I looked up, tidying my pages into a pile and pulling out the folder full of reports from my bag. “No. This is your report.”
I slid the folder across the table and watched her read it. Nan reads frighteningly fast. In a few minutes she looked up at me. “So, what are your thoughts on this witness?”
“He’s a problem,” I said. “I can’t get a background on him so far—he won’t even supply one himself. The best I could get was that he’d been in the area off and on since he was sixteen, but he wouldn’t say how old he is now and he doesn’t have a driver’s license—though he does seem to have a truck, which isn’t registered to him. He feels unreliable to me, even though he has a solid reputation as a worker with the locals. He was overly chatty in a way that made me think he’d been coached, so I don’t feel confident about his information, and his manner of speaking would drive the judge and jury crazy. He volunteered some additional data I was frankly suspect of. With no fixed address or verifiable status, I think you’d be hurting your case if you put him on the stand. If your opponent wants to use him, all that might be in your favor, but he still feels shady to me.”
Nan arched her brows only enough to notice. “Feels shady. Expand on that.”
I gave it a moment’s thought before I obliged her. “Well, to be crude about it, you can’t tell what age, race, or region he’s from and, unless he cleans up really well and changes his speech and mannerisms, that lack of identity will make a Seattle jury distrust everything he says. And at this point I can’t say they’d be wrong. He talks around the point pretty well, but when you tear it down, his information just isn’t solid.”
Nan nodded. “So you’ll need to confirm or eliminate his facts and nail down his background.”
“If you think he’s worth it, I’ll keep digging on Shea, but that’s going to take me away from the King County side of the investigation.”
“True. How long will it take?”
“I’m not sure. It’s going to be legwork and combing the ground every step of the way. There’s also another case that’s come up out there—a cold case missing person that might be a homicide.”
“Related to my case?”
“Doesn’t look it, but it’ll be a lot of the same interviewees, and I’d like to dog it down as long as I’m there.”
Nan’s face could have been sculpted from ice-cold bronze for all the emotion she usually displays. She didn’t even raise an eyebrow this time, but I knew she was annoyed from the way ragged orange spikes flashed in her aura for a moment. “We’ll be in court in less than a month, Harper. How long do you think the additional Clallam County investigation will take?”
“I’m not sure,” I repeated. “I’d like to get David Feldman to take over the King County work. You know Feldman’s solid. He did a lot of the background on that body on the freeway case a few years ago.”