CAN’T GO BACK
Note: This Spirit Knights story takes place between Ethereal Entanglements and Ghost Is the New Normal
The drive from Portland, Oregon, to Toppenish, Washington, hadn’t taken long enough. Detective John Avery stood on wet, neatly-trimmed grass in a sea of tombstones with a scattering of tall trees standing sentinel. Rain tapped on his unprotected head, soaking his dark hair, and slid down his trench coat. The chill seeping into his collar and down his back seemed fitting and deserved.
He had a thousand things he’d rather be doing, like investigating homicides, fighting magically mutated cockroaches with his bare hands, and paperwork. Paperwork sounded like heaven compared to the reason he drove three hours to spend the Sunday after Thanksgiving in this dismal graveyard. On the other hand, this seemed more pleasant than visiting his ex-wife. Dead bodies didn’t scowl or throw his own words back in his face.
No, they did worse. They did nothing at all.
Taking a deep breath, he forced himself to trudge the rest of the way to Wes’s grave. He remembered looking the other man in the eyes and pulling the trigger. It had rained then too. They’d met in the yellow light of a streetlamp on Division Street, between a parking lot lined with shrubberies and the corrugated aluminum walls of a factory.
Avery had been too clumsy in his needling and prodding. In retrospect, he realized he’d been fighting the magical compulsion tainting his mind, subconsciously hoping someone would realize what had happened and help him. But Wes had asked questions. Prying questions. Dangerous questions. Avery couldn’t even remember those damned questions anymore. His head had filled with righteous, rage-tinted panic. Fake panic. Mind-numbing panic.
Four years, three months, and six days ago, he shot fellow Spirit Knight Wes Saluskin, a member of the Yakima Nation, five times in the chest. To protect and serve a corrupted Phasm. Like a good little dog.
As a homicide detective, he’d had no trouble making the murder impossible to solve. The rain had done half the work for him anyway.
Confessing now would be the right thing to do, but no one would understand. If he told a regular cop he’d committed a crime while under the influence of a deranged ghost, he’d be handed over to a prosecutor with the expectation of spending the rest of his life in a loony bin. That fate served no one, and it wouldn’t make anything right for Wes.
Especially given he’d spent his entire adult life hunting and fighting ghosts. Including those five years tainted by one. During that time, he just hadn’t done anything about his master. Because he’d been a puppet.
He stopped at Wes’s headstone. Water splashed on the black and white granite flush with the ground. Stuffing his hands in his pockets, Avery stared at the carved letters and numbers. Wes had been thirty and married with his second child on the way. Because of the distance and demands of his job, Avery had only met the wife once and didn’t remember her name. He wondered if the kid turned out to be a boy or a girl. Maybe he should find them and…
…do what? Confess? Send anonymous money he didn’t have? Take them into his pathetic little life?
Guilt churned in his gut. His actions had taken away a husband and father. He remembered doing it with perfect clarity and perfect purpose.
Covering his face, he tried to banish the memory of that night. Gunshots rang sharp and crisp in his head. Blood exploded and stained a blue polo shirt. Two black eyes widened in surprise. The body crumpled to the gravel on the side of the road and lay in a stream of water sluicing into the street. Red faded in the meager light, disappearing into a sewer grate. Avery pressed the gun barrel to the back of Wes’s head and fired three more times, to be sure about the kill. He scooped up the four shell casings and pocketed them without giving Wes another glance.
Later, he’d put the shell casings in a box. That box now held fourteen casings–every one from a bullet used to kill a fellow Knights. He kept it in his closet, where skeletons belonged.
Avery swiped water off his face and forced himself to look at the stone. A few other Spirit Knights knew, and they understood. They excused him from responsibility. His hand did it, not his heart, mind, or soul. But forgiveness would never come from anyone who mattered. Wes couldn’t sit up in his grave and absolve him. Wes’s Phasm couldn’t even do that because Avery had destroyed it already.
“I’m sorry,” he murmured. “I wish you’d beat me to the draw that night. Maybe things would’ve turned out better for everyone. Especially Caroline.” Thinking about his ex-wife again reminded him of another heaping load of guilt.
Twenty years ago, he married a woman he loved with everything he had. She stood by him through mountains of endless work in two jobs. Until he became a monster and drove her away. Now he lived in apartment, sending half his paycheck to her and their teenage boys. They all deserved so much more from him.
If only he could explain. A fantasy lived in his head, where he turned up on her doorstep, convinced her to take him back, and slid into their lives again. He didn’t need to remarry her, he just wanted to touch her, to hold her, to listen to her tell him about her day. His sons would trust him again, tell him about their girlfriends, sports, school, hopes, and dreams.
And somehow, he’d live with the knowledge he’d murdered five men, starting with Wes, and made his family detest him by becoming the worst kind of husband and father.
He flipped his coat aside and snatched his gun out of its holster. This nine millimeter Glock hadn’t killed Wes. Like he’d done every time he met one of those five men, Avery had carried a backup weapon that night, one that couldn’t be traced to him even by analyzing the bullets.
No, this weapon belonged to the Portland Police Department. Using it now would solve a lot of problems. He’d never have to see those memories again. His family could carry on without having to deal with him. Justice would be served. Someone would figure out he’d killed Wes and the man’s wife would get some closure. The fallout of all the craziness since he’d been freed of that Phasm’s control–including those mutant cockroaches–would be someone else’s problem.
It all sounded pretty good.
Pointing the gun at himself, he stuck his thumb over the trigger without releasing the safety. If he decided to shoot, it wouldn’t be an accident.
He’d stared down the barrel of a gun before. His five years as a patrol cop had happened during a peak time of gun violence in Portland’s history. Too many close calls had motivated him to bust his butt for his shield. This marked the first time he saw a gun pointed at him without a shred of confidence that he could talk down or distract the potential shooter.
His life insurance policy would be void and his bank account hovered close to zero, but his police benefits and 401k still listed Caroline as the beneficiary. She’d get a windfall to help take care of the boys in the absence of his child support payments. Their college bills would be a challenge, but that was true regardless.
With a start, he realized he had no idea if his boys intended to go to college. Did they have girlfriends? He frowned and considered the possibility one or both might be gay. Neither would have confided in him. Not after everything he’d said and done to them. Untangling all that would take time and effort.
Muttering a stream of obscenities, he holstered his gun.
“I may be a lot of things,” he told the headstone, “but a coward isn’t one of them. I’m sorry, Wes. I tried to resist. That wasn’t good enough. I’ll make this right. Somehow.”
He turned and stalked to the parking lot where his car waited. As he reached the door, it sprang open and he hopped into the driver’s seat. The door shut and the engine revved.
“Where are we going?” the car asked as it trundled across the empty lot.
“Home.” Avery left a pause, then he added, “I mean Caroline’s home.”
Stirin, the spirit inhabiting the sedan, couldn’t raise an eyebrow, but he could spike his gauges. Over the twenty-four years since he’d bonded with Stirin, Avery had learned to read that and knew he’d surprised his sprite. “Are you sure?”
“No. But we’re going there anyway.”
The house looked the same. He’d spent countless Sunday afternoons mowing the lawn and trimming the shrubs, and he could almost believe he’d never stopped. Drooping flowers huddled around rhododendrons in the raised beds he’d built for her, though she’d already taken in her potted plants. In a week or two, she’d pull out the Christmas decorations and drape lights all around the front porch. He used to do that.
The rain had stopped on the way here. That damned depression in the concrete of the front walk held a puddle, like it always did. At least a thousand times over the eight years he’d lived here, he’d stepped in it and soaked his sock through his shoe. Both boys had spent hundreds of hours splashing in it. The dog they no longer had used to prefer it to her water bowl.
This one house had a ridiculous number of magical protections, courtesy of a witch he once veered dangerously close to having an affair with long before the Phasm sunk its claws into him. He’d been stupid and arrogant. Maybe that had made him easier to corrupt. Maybe he’d been on that path already and the Phasm only gave him a nudge.
He rubbed his face and banished those thoughts. They helped nothing.
“Are we going to lurk here for a while and leave again, or is this the time you muster up the balls to go talk to her?” Stirin asked.
“Shut up,” Avery grumbled.
“I’m not the one–”
“I don’t need a pep talk.”
“Then act like it.”
Avery took a deep breath and tapped the car door. When it opened, he stepped out and leaned against the roof and the top of the door. “Maybe I should leave my gun here. So Brian doesn’t try to take it and shoot me.”
“Probably a valid concern.”
He removed the holster from his belt and tossed it to the passenger seat. His trench coat followed. Nothing else offered itself as a reason to delay any longer. The longer he waited, the worse things would get, and this would already be awful.
Taking a deep breath, he patted Stirin on the roof and left the car behind. Too late, he noted he still wore his badge on his belt, as if he needed that to get into the house. Habit had put it there this morning. As he reached the sidewalk, he tugged it off and stuffed it into his pocket.
On the way to the front door, he avoided the puddle and realized he had no idea what to say. Worse, Caroline hated it when he showed up without warning. The custody arrangement said he was supposed to give at least an hour’s notice before trying to get a random visitation. But he didn’t come to drag the boys out for a torture session. He came to talk to her.
He rang the bell and heard its achingly familiar two tones. No matter how many bells he rang for his job, this particular one always sounded different, even when he ran across the same brand. This one was home. The first tone went on a hair too long, then the second rushed over it and cut itself off too soon. It echoed in the hardwood entry and up the stairs, but disappeared in the carpeted living room to the side.
Thudding footsteps in the hall made his blood race with terror. He had no idea which of them would answer the door. Caroline might even have a boyfriend, a thought that made his stomach churn. Shouldn’t he know that? Though he’d been here a few dozen times since the divorce, he barely remembered those visits. His lapses made sense, because the Phasm hadn’t wanted him to have a solid grounding. Losing his family had pushed him deeper into the abyss.
The door opened as panicked thoughts of fleeing tore through him. She stood there with a pleasant smile, her graying brown hair held back in a ponytail. Glasses she hadn’t needed five years ago perched on top of her head and she wore a gold chain around her neck that disappeared under a shirt in the same light blue as her eyes.
Her smile evaporated and her eyes flattened. “What do you want, John?”
He longed for that smile to be directed at him so much he thought he’d been punched in the gut. Mentally, he gasped for breath, but his lungs were fine. His mouth opened and he groped for some way to express everything. Anything.
She rolled her eyes and turned to shut the door in his face.
“Wait. Please.” He held up his hands in surrender.
To his horror, she paused and looked at him with her brow raised. “What for?”
“I…” He swallowed, his mouth dry, and wished he could just kiss her. In the movies, that’s how men solved this kind of problem. If he did that now, she’d slug him with her mean right hook–the one he’d helped her develop. “Something happened. I came to…” Words tangled in his throat and refused to pour out.
“What’s wrong with you?”
“I love you.” He had no idea why that came out of his mouth. It made him sound like a creepy stalker, the kind that wound up climbing in through the window and murdering the object of his desires. “I didn’t mean that. I mean, I did, because I do, but I know that’s not–”
She slapped him. Sharp, stinging pain exploded across his cheek. “How dare you,” she spat. “How dare you come here and say that after everything you’ve done to us.” She prodded him in the chest with a finger and forced him to stagger back. “After calling me so many different names I don’t even know if you remember who I am. After bringing the boys back with bruises from a fun weekend with dad. After sabotaging my attempts to get a restraining order against you. After convincing other cops to pull me over and ticket me for no goddamned reason. How dare you.”
He didn’t remember doing most of that but had no doubt it had happened. As he stepped off the porch, backing away from her accusations, he could see she held things back, things that hurt so deeply she couldn’t say them to his face.
The gun solution sounded good again.
Caroline froze, her finger still jabbing the air. “What?”
He took another step back and tried to ignore the storm of conflicting emotions raging inside. If he hadn’t left his gun behind, he thought he might have pulled it out now and used it on himself. In front of her. Like the worst person imaginable. How could he even consider that? She’d be traumatized, have nightmares, wrestle with being grateful and horrified at the same time.
“I’m sorry, Lina.” He hadn’t called her that in years. The nickname rolled out, just like those other stupid words he wanted to take back. “I’m so, so sorry.”
She peered at him, suspicion narrowing her eyes. “Are you drunk?”
Avery snorted, finding the question absurd. “No. I haven’t been this sober and clear in a long time.”
“Did you come here to tell me you’re in a program or something?”
This had been a mistake. He took another step away from her and into the puddle. The splash made him look down. Not facing her nudged his courage enough to say more. “Or something, yeah.” He swished his shoe through the water, wishing she could just understand instead of forcing him to spit out the words.
“This thing happened at work. The other job. I tried to shield you from it, and that was stupid.”
She neither interrupted nor turned her back on him, which he took as a positive sign.
“I’ve done some terrible things over the past few years. I…became something I’m not proud of. It was like digging a hole from inside it, only I didn’t know I was digging and couldn’t figure out why the dirt kept landing on my back to bury me. Then someone came along and…” He struggled with the metaphor, not sure how to explain without saying too much or not enough. “Someone took my shovel and hit me in the head with it, I suppose.”
Caroline shifted her weight from one foot to the other. Avery looked up and saw her smirking at him. “And now you’re here to make amends?”
The mocking lilt of her voice told him everything he needed to know. This road would be a long, hard slog. If he chose to follow through, the reward probably wouldn’t get much better than civility. “If you’ll let me, yes.”
“Mom? Is everything okay?” Brian, their elder son, approached from the kitchen.
Caroline glanced over her shoulder. “It’s your father.”
Brian stopped before he reached them and crossed his arms with scowling glare. “I’m not going anywhere with you,” he snapped. “I don’t care what the judge said. I’m done with this crap.”
“No.” Avery rubbed his eyes with a finger and thumb. He had to keep his temper in check or they’d never believe he could change. Why didn’t he just tell them what happened? Because they’d think he lied, that’s why. It’d be another ploy, an excuse. “I didn’t come here to pry you out for a visit. I just want to talk for a while.”
“About what? How much of a disappointing failure I am?”
“About how much of a disappointing failure I am.”
Brian sneered at him. “Is that supposed to be funny or something? Throw my words back at me? Whatever. Get out and leave us alone. Go get shot on duty so we can collect the check.”
“Brian.” Caroline shooed him away. “We’ll talk later.”
“Don’t listen to anything he says, Mom.” Brian jabbed an angry finger at Avery, and he knew he deserved it. “He’s just trying to worm his way back in so he can ruin our lives again!”
Caroline sighed and stepped onto the porch with Avery, shutting the door. “Look, John. I’ve been seeing a therapist. We all have. Maybe you should too. I’ll give you the name so we can all see the same one. She can help us work everything out together.”
He longed to take her hand and just hold it. Only one thing let him keep that impulse under control–crossing his arms over his chest. Then she cringed away from him, so he took a step back to give her space. “I don’t know if I can afford that.”
What tiny hope showed on her face disappeared and her eyes hardened. “This is about the support payments.”
Avery wanted to slap himself. “No, it’s not about money. If I didn’t need to pay rent and eat, I’d give you everything I have. That just doesn’t amount to much. Give me the name and I’ll see what I can do. Maybe my benefits will cover it.”
Caroline recited the woman’s name while he tapped it into his phone to look up later. “I want to make you promise to do it, but I don’t trust you anymore. You can’t walk up and apologize and say you’ve changed, and just erase everything you did.”
“I know.” Despite wild daydreams to that effect, he hadn’t expected much.
She gave him a strained smile. “But I do miss…I miss the man I married. He was a good man. Charming. Thoughtful. A little dark sometimes, and a workaholic, but still here. He fought the good fight because it needed to be fought. I miss him.”
Avery looked down at his hand. At least once a day since he’d been freed of the Phasm, he’d picked up his wedding ring and thought about putting it back on. Then he returned it to the back of his sock drawer and walked away. He didn’t deserve to wear it again.
“I miss him too,” he murmured.
“Be that man again, John. Whatever happened, whatever you’ve been struggling with, he’s still in there. It’s been a long time since you apologized to me for anything, so I can believe maybe something changed, this time for the better. But you have to prove it. Anyone can put on an act for an hour, and I’m not that big a sucker anymore.”
Nodding, Avery shifted and stuck his hands in his pockets. “I understand.” He wanted to hold her, so he took a step back to make keeping his hands to himself easier. “You’re in charge. I’ll call this therapist. Maybe we can do a supervised visitation next weekend? All of us go to a park or something? Just be near each other without interacting?”
Caroline’s smile ticked up in one corner. “Maybe you should take the boys to a boxing gym and let them beat you up.”
He thought she meant that as a joke, but he decided to take it seriously. A gym he knew would suit the purpose well. “I’ll set something up and text you.”
She nodded. “Committing to a visit and showing up on time would be a big step forward.”
Before he could come up with a way to respond, she opened the door and disappeared inside.
Mulling over his options, Avery returned to Stirin. He clipped his badge onto his belt again and slid inside.
“So? How’d it go? Are we fleeing the possibility of disciplinary action?”
“No. It went…worse than I hoped, but better than I expected. I’m glad I didn’t have my gun. Also glad I came. I think. We’ll see.”
Stirin drove out of the neighborhood. “That’s something. Where to? Home? Another graveyard? A bar?”
A drink sounded good. He felt like a pile of sharp edges in need of dulling. Worse, as houses flitted past the window, the enormity of the task ahead of him settled on his shoulders. The boys hated him. Caroline would give him the benefit of the doubt if he could prove he deserved it. Wes…could never be appeased.
If he tried to do his job right, then success or failure mattered much less than if he waited until things got out of control. Not the cop job, though. He’d never stopped doing detective work. Maybe he’d roughed up a few suspects he shouldn’t have, and maybe he’d shot a few suspects who didn’t deserve it, but he kept doing the job to avoid getting fired. His controlling Phasm had seen the value of having a pet cop.
No, he had to do the other job. Spirit Knights only had one way out–feet first. Dereliction of that duty led to things worse than death.
The sprite’s gauges spiked with surprise. “Isn’t that the ground zero for all the magicky stuff we think might go wrong in the next few days?”
“And that’s where you want to go.”
“You’re aware you currently have no weapons or armor especially useful against ghosts and other magical phenomena?”
Avery pursed his mouth and wished his sprite could be a little stupider and go along without thinking much. Just once. “Yes.”
“This sounds like a dumb idea. The kind of dumb idea that leads to getting dead. I’m not a fan of those ideas.”
“What would you like me to do?” Avery sighed and covered his face. “Portland is my responsibility. No one else on the force will be able to handle it. They’ll all be too busy denying reality while giant blue cockroaches eat people.”
“Exactly how do you plan on handling it? By shooting them with regular bullets? Letting them eat you so they get fatal indigestion from your guilt-induced idiocy?”
With another heavy sigh, Avery considered severing his bond with Stirin to protect him, except that would make the job harder. Even if his sprite stayed out of it, Avery still got benefits from his existence. “Doing my job is not idiocy.”
“Doing it without the tools you need is. You don’t approach a dangerous perp without a gun and a bulletproof vest. Why would you go up against a magical monster without a weapon and armor that work against it?”
Avery rubbed his eyes. Arguing with his sprite gave him a headache, probably because of their bond. “Are you taking me there or not?”
“I’m taking you home so you can get some rest.”
“Maybe you should call your mom,” Stirin snapped. “She might put up with your crap better. Oh, wait. She’s dead. Because of you.”
Avery pressed against the ache growing in his temple. “Pull over.”
“Pull over or I’m jumping out.”
The gauges spiked with annoyance, but Stirin turned into a strip mall parking lot. “You’re not thinking rationally.”
“You’re not helping.” He shoved the door open before the car stopped and jumped out. “Go home. I’ll see you later.” Walking away from his closest and only real friend, he shrugged on his trench coat and clipped his badge onto his belt. Up the street, he saw the freeway, so he headed in that direction. Sooner or later, he’d find a bus or MAX stop. At worst, he’d spend an hour or two on foot to reach Chinatown.
“Whatever’s eating you, I don’t want to hear about it,” the bartender at Nine Cans said as Avery sat on a stool and leaned against the slab of polished cherry between them. “There are giant mutant bugs in my basement. I can’t run tunnel tours down there until that’s taken care of.”
“Thanks, Ki. Your sympathy is overwhelming. I thought bartenders did the listening thing.”
“This one listens better when there aren’t giant mutant bugs in his basement.”
Avery waved to brush the point aside. He hadn’t really come here for a drink or to find a friend. For the moment, he only needed to gird himself for his self-appointed task. “They’re staying in the cellar?”
The Native American man shrugged his broad shoulders. “They’re not coming up into my back room. If they’re visiting someone else, you’d hear about that before me.”
“Not unless there’s a body.” Avery snagged a pretzel twist and snapped it in half. “I’m going down there.”
Ki looked him over and frowned. “You seem to have forgotten your sword, Knight.”
“I have my gun.”
His brow raised, Ki set a tumbler on the bar, dropped in a few ice cubes, and poured whiskey. “Sounds semi-suicidal. Like copping out on your responsibilities.” He pushed the glass at Avery.
“I could wait until they breed.” Avery tapped the glass and tried to think of a reason not to down the whole thing. Common sense covered it, except he’d chucked that out the window when he decided to come here.
“You could get backup. Isn’t that what officers of the law do?”
Avery did know two other Spirit Knights in the area. But he needed to do this alone. At least, he needed to take the first step alone. Bringing someone else to help diluted the principle. Which sounded stupid even in his head. He stuck with it anyway as a decision already made. No sense offending Stirin for nothing.
He shrugged and sipped the whiskey. “They have other problems to deal with, and I owe them one anyway.”
“Uh-huh. If you want to get down and shake your booty with those things, I won’t stop you. Not my job. I’m going to be mad if I have to deal with your corpse and your ghost, though.”
“You and me both.” Avery swirled the liquor, trying to decide if this counted as stalling, girding, or information gathering. Stalling seemed likely. He pressed on with it anyway. “You ever seen anything like these bugs before?”
“Nope. I’ve seen dragons, ghosts, creeps, raw magic, unicorns, shapeshifters, crawlers, and even polite teenagers. But not bugs.”
The list made Avery smirk. “I guess there’s nothing else for it but to get down there and take care of business.” He knocked back half the remaining liquor and set the glass on the bar. Drinking it all struck him as dumb. Dumber than what he planned to do, anyway. “If I’m not out by dark, I’m probably not coming out.”
“Fantastic. If you die and I have to haul out your corpse, I’m taking your wallet and maxing your credit cards.”
“Too late. Way ahead of you on that one. You can have the cash either way, though.” He retrieved the entirety of his current net worth and tossed five one-dollar bills on the bar.
Ki sighed and shook his head. “Cheap as always, Detective.”
Avery waved with false cheer and plunged into the back room. He removed a heavy cardboard box from the trap door to the basement and snagged a flashlight from a stack beside it. Only a few planks of wood stood between him and a potentially gory death.
“I’m an idiot. I should turn around and come up with a better idea. Pick up some new weapons to replace the ones I lost. Get help. Wait. Delay. Forget about it and move on.”
Caroline’s words echoed inside his head. Of course, she’d never know about this. Even if he died down there, she’d only hear something about an animal attack in the infamous Shanghai Tunnels.
That didn’t matter. This fight needed fighting. His job–both his jobs–needed doing. Once upon a time, he needed no other reason to do the right thing. Now he had one more in Caroline. And Wes, and the other good men he’d killed. His sons. Every dream he’d destroyed and every life he’d shattered deserved his best.
Portland Detective John Avery kicked open the trap door and climbed down the ladder, ready to face whatever fate awaited him.