“Another homicide coming in.”
Ann Stilson poured herself a cup of coffee from the big 30-cup urn next to the sink, and stirred in a packet of the depressingly bad non-dairy creamer. Another homicide to handle tonight and all she wanted to do was go home. Go home, kick her shoes off, watch the Daily Show and sleep in till eleven. That sounded fantastic, but instead she was now officially 15 minutes past the end of her shift with one more dead man to deal with before she could start her weekend.
She was in her department’s part of the morgue, a bleakly antiseptic low-ceilinged room that was all white tile and fluorescent light, although it was homier here than it was down the hall in the part of the morgue where they stored and cut the meat. A coffee maker, two sofas, wobbly coffee table, one derelict armchair, a refrigerator; not much, but better than stainless steel autopsy tables. Then there were the half-dozen Bottle Trees lining the wall. Tall racks holding the sleek Klein Bottles that contained the patients. She didn’t really understand how the Bottles worked, although she knew their properties as single-sided edgeless containers played a role in containing ectoplasm. She didn’t know many details about what the pathologists did with the bodies either, or what the cops did with the crime scenes, and didn’t worry too much about it.
Her job was all about dealing with the patients after they came out of the bottle.
A paramedic she didn’t know brought the patient in and got her signature for him.
“How was he?” she asked as she initialed his receipt.
“Not great. Freaking out, screaming at the ambulance, rattling the windows, usual stuff. Kept trying to follow the body while we loaded it up. I don’t think he was a really together guy even when he was alive. His medical records say we had him in the emergency room once for a heroin overdose.” The paramedic shrugged as he handed her the carbon sheet of her copy.
“How’d he go?”
“Shotgun, looks like. Someone kicked in the door of his apartment and just blew him away.”
“Yeah. He was pretty traumatized about it. All we could do to get him into the Bottle. Can I get that pen back from you? Thanks. Detective Meyer’s going to be coming by to check him in an hour or two, or whenever he finishes with the scene. You have fun with him.”
“Thanks,” Ann said, picking up the bottle. The paramedic took his clipboard and left.
Most people, at least the ones living in well-off first-world countries, don’t get to see many Shades in bad conditions. Polite society keeps death at a distance, uses hospices and funeral parlors and kind-eyed clergymen to keep an arm’s length away from inevitable. They see spectral grandmothers quietly watching christenings and graduations, peaceful ghosts pacing their familiar halls, maybe the occasional merry soul dancing at their own wake.
It’s left to society’s cleaning crew, the cops and ambulance jockeys and hospital staff, to deal with the real ugliness of passing. Dying tranquilly in a nursing home bed is one thing, but dying with a shotgun load of metal pellets in your chest, that brings out the worst in people.
That’s what Ann was thinking to herself as she finished her coffee, delaying the inevitable for a minute before opening the Bottle and introducing herself to her patient. Arnold Roberts was his name, according to the tag on the Bottle.
He poured out like smoke when she unstoppered it, colorless and rippling as he took form. Medium height, slight build with pipe cleaner limbs and a face too big for his head framed by long stringy hair.
“Mr. Roberts? Arnold? My name’s Ann, and it’s nice to meet you. I’m here to help y–”
He started screaming. It went on for a while.
Ann poured herself another cup of coffee. This was pretty routine, and usually the best thing to do was wait for them to tire themselves out. A few minutes went by and she was feeling the beginnings of a headache around her temples, but at last he stopped.
“Hello, Arnold. I’m Ann, Ann Stilson. You’re in a safe place and I’m here to help you. Would you like to sit down?” She herself sat down on the old couch opposite the Shade. The edges of his shape were less distinct, his form paler. He didn’t seem to be a very strong Shade and his fit had taken it out of him. She gently smiled at him, and after a minute or so he drifted over and sat down on the other couch.
“Do you understand where you are, Arnold? Or what’s happened to you?”
No answer. His eyes were wide, and he wasn’t quite aligned with the couch, resting about an inch above the cushion. She knew this meant he was still very nervous.
“You’re in the hospital, Arnold. There’s not really a gentle way to say this, but you’ve passed on.” immediately he shimmered, shaping momentarily losing definition. It was an act of will to maintain his shape, no matter how minor. “We’re in the morgue now, and I’m a counselor, the person who’s here to help you with your transition. I understand how hard this is for you to deal with, so we’ll take our time, all right?”
“Oh god, I’m dead. I’m really dead.”
Like all Shades, his voice sounded flat, hollow, mechanical. They vibrated the air through force of will, the same way they reflected light, and the result sounded utterly unnatural to anyone used to the sound of speech produced by biological machines. Words formed without lungs, lips, tongues or teeth, the speech of the dead sounded like an imitation of text-to-speech software relayed through a cheap speaker. Most people found it unsettling, but Ann was used to it.
“Yes. I’m sorry.”
“Really dead. Jesus, I’m dead.”
“It’s OK, Arnold. It’s natural to feel overwhelmed by it, believe me, but you’re still here, and we can help you move on, get past this, to–”
“Get past this? I’m dead!”
“Yes, you are. But death isn’t the end, Arnold, and you have me to help you with what comes next.”
“What is that? What does come next? I have no body, no pulse, I’m…I’m not even sitting on this couch!”
“It’s all right, Arnold. It’ll come in time. As for what comes next, a lot of that will be up to you. But for right now, we want to help you find your feet, so to speak. You’ve just been through a seriously traumatic event–
“Yeah, no kidding! I saw them put me in a body bag!”
“And that’s got to be hard to deal with. But my job is helping people deal with things like that, and I’ve been doing my job for a long time and am pretty good at it. For right now, let’s not worry about what happened. Let’s start with who you are, learning about your identity as a person.”
“What, are you kidding? Is this some Dr. Phil crap?”
“I’m going to be working with you for a while, Arnold, and I’ll need to get to know you. But more than that, your existence after death is defined by your self-image, by who you believe and know yourself to be. You’ll be stronger, more clearly defined, if you have a more conscious awareness of who you are to yourself. Does that make sense?”
“So tell me about yourself, Arnold. Introduce yourself to me.”
“Man this is like a meeting. ‘Hi, I’m Arnold, and I’m dead.’ Do I get a chip after I’ve been dead a month? Never mind. OK, so you know my name, I guess if we’re in the hospital you’ve got my medical records so you know I’ve had trouble with drugs, I guess. I’ve been clean for a month though, was turning it around. Guess that turned out to be a waste of time, huh?”
“Time spent improving your life’s never wasted, even now. If you’ve been successfully fighting your addiction, your mind and will are going to be better prepared for this stage of your existence.”
“Healthier afterlife, huh? Awesome. I get to be a better ghost, hooray me.”
Privately, Ann was glad he hadn’t been in a drugged state when he died. Chemically altered minds tended to be even worse at handling the transition than usual. She had a long scar on her left arm from a Shade who’d died from too much meth. He’d about torn the whole room apart, a screaming twitching poltergeist. That was when they’d bolted the furniture to the floor.
“You get to be a better you. Don’t worry right now about being a Shade, just think about being Arnold Roberts. Can you tell me about your history?”
It was Ann’s preferred practice with homicides, to start them off with open-ended questions and let them explore their own sense of self some at the outset. They’d talk about what they were comfortable with, she’d get a picture of who they were, and then they’d be ready to move into the more specific targeted questions of the standard assessment. She’d found that most violently transitioned Shades didn’t do well if you started asking them about specifics immediately, and they didn’t like feeling like they were working from a scripted questionnaire. It made some of them angry, some of them just panicked or froze up, some came apart entirely under the stress of having to think too concretely too soon.
So Arnold talked, he rambled, and she interjected now and then to keep him from derailing onto overly negative tracks but mostly gave him his head and let him talk about himself, making notes occasionally but primarily just focusing on general impressions. He was smart, not very introspective, avoided talking much about what she guessed was a traumatic childhood, and was probably not being honest with her or with himself about how recovered from his addictions he’d been.
After about 40 minutes he was calmer, more focused, more physically concrete in appearance, and better aligned with his surroundings, which meant he appeared to actually be sitting on the couch now instead of floating a little above it. There even began to be a slight olfactory component in his manifestation, a combination of cigarette smoke and cheap incense that wasn’t pleasant, but was a good sign that he was starting to feel much more together. As with the way Shades looked and sounded, their smells were inhuman and artificial, but for counselors they were almost always welcome, since a Shade who manifested a scent was in pretty stable condition.
That was good, because that was when the door buzzed. The detective.
“That’s a police officer, Arnold. They’re investigating your death. Do you feel ready to discuss it with them?”
“Um. Wow. Question I never thought I’d be hearing. Pretty weird, right? Nah, I mean I guess you have to say that all the time, this is normal for you.”
“I totally understand your being nervous. You’re doing really well, though, I mean that, and we want to make sure your passing is resolved.”
“You mean you want to catch my murderer. OK.”
Ann opened the door. The detective was a heavyset man, broad-shouldered, medium height, hair blond turned gray and receding from his wide forehead. He wore a cheap suit with no tie, and had his shield hanging from a chain around his neck.
“Ms. Stilson? I’m Detective Meyer, homicide. If your patient’s up to it, I’d like to get his statement, anything he remembers about it.”
“Come in, Detective. Coffee?”
“Sure.” He sat down on the couch opposite the Shade while Ann went to the coffee machine.
“Mr. Roberts, I’m Detective Meyer, and I’ve been working on your case. I’m going to ask you a few questions. If you can’t remember, don’t worry about it; I’m sure Ms. Stilson’s told you that with a traumatic, er, passing, your memory’s likely to be a little scrambled. Totally fine, we work with what we’ve got. Ah, thanks,” he said, taking the Styrofoam cup Ann handed to him. She sat down on the couch next to Arnold.
“So, Mr. Roberts, do you remember anything about today?”
“Um. It’s kind of…I think I remember things but it’s like something painted on glass and then shattered, you know? A lot of pieces and I don’t know how they fit. Does that make sense?”
“Absolutely. I hear that a lot, totally normal. So, do you remember getting up this morning?”
Do you remember around what time you got up? Do you remember what you had for breakfast? Are there any faces you remember? What about last night? Do you remember talking to anyone? Shades’ memories of their passing tended to be kaleidoscopic, and the more abrupt or traumatic the death, the worse the fragmentation, so it was no good asking things like “who kicked open your door at approximately 11:30 AM and blasted you in the chest with a shotgun?” The police had learned to approach these things laterally, getting the stained-glass shards of dead men’s memories and adding them to the other puzzle pieces they had to work with. Ann had heard it all before, of course, more times than she could count and then some, and she didn’t listen anymore to the content of the questions or the answers. Instead she watched her patient, listening intently to his intonation, observing the coherence of his outline and integrity of his features. Arnold was apparently doing well, but murder victims could be like Mt. St. Helen’s, and it was vital to catch the warning signs before they blew their tops. The furniture was bolted down and the detective would have checked his gun at the morgue door as per policy, but she could easily see him getting strangled with that badge chain if Arnold were to go poltergeist. It had only happened a few times in this morgue, and none of those had been fatal, but worldwide there had been eleven investigators or mortuary workers killed by homicide victims in the past year. That was the kind of statistic that encouraged attention to detail.
Arnold was continuing to do well as Meyer picked at the minutiae of his life. He was composed, free and forthcoming with the details he could remember, not stressing out about the things he couldn’t. It was going smoothly.
Then the detective asked about romantic or sexual partners, and things changed fast.
For just a minute Arnold seemed to be thinking about it deeply, a thoughtful frown on his face. Then for a second his expression changed to one of epiphany, then one of anger, then it blurred out altogether as he started losing control.
“MONICAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!” the Shade wailed suddenly, rising up from the couch as a vaguely man-shaped pillar of roiling smoke.
“Shit!” Ann hissed between her teeth.
The detective stood rapidly, dropping his notebook and reaching for the holster he’d apparently forgotten was empty.
There was a WHUMP! of compressed air and the detective was thrown up and backwards to bounce off the tiled wall.
Ann was already moving, as calmly and smoothly as she could towards the Bottle.
“THAT BITCH!” screamed the Shade. “THAT BITCH AND CHARLIE!”
There was another rush of air and the cop was thrown again, this time forward into the couch, which was a mercy.
“THEY SET ME UP!”
Ann had the Bottle, and was moving to the Shade, doing her best to maintain a stillness, to avoid drawing his attention.
She activated the Bottle just as he began to marshal another telekinetic blow, siphoning him into the container.
She tried to do it gently, tried to keep from tearing him apart, but he wasn’t making it easy. He was screaming again, magazines from the coffee table where rising in a whirlwind behind him, and the bolted furniture was rattling. Then, screaming still, he was drawn into edgeless mouth of the Bottle, and she sealed it shut.
“Well, that’s back to square one. If I were you, I’d start looking for this Charlie guy.”
Meyer picked himself up off the floor, wincing as he rubbed the back of his head. “I think I know where to start looking. Think his murderer getting caught will help him move on?”
“You never know. I’ll worry about it tomorrow. I’m going home, and you should go upstairs and get that looked at.”
The detective picked up his notebook and stuck into his pocket, and Ann took the sealed Bottle and hung it on the tree.
The smoky ectoplasm swirled inside the bottle as she turned out the lights and closed the door.