© Keith Jackson
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A constant wash of emotion pushed up from New Avalon as I drifted above its streets, safely above the drag of teeming feelings: happy, sad, depressed, joyful, loving, hating, trying, anticipating, hoping. It enveloped me in a kind of wavy, viscous mush of amalgamated thoughts that I'd come to know so well.
I sensed voids below me; an intersection of roads - a meeting of a concentric Orbital and the radial Avenue that I had been following. New Avalon had six Orbital roads and eight Avenues. The segments in between were called villages, except the circular centre, which was called The Hub. I’d loved the bustle of the centre. I used to spend all my time there - and I'd been killed there.
From the moment I'd expelled my last, pain-ridden, despairing breath I'd become a disembodied thing with no eyes to see with, no ears to hear with and no nerve endings to feel with. In death I'd become pure sense. I felt, somehow, all that was around me. My physical interaction with the material world wasn’t nearly as good as my perception, though. It was all I could do to move a tiny shot-glass on a ouija board. A particular one. The one owned by Inspector Gillian Haller. The first thing I’d spelled out on it, long ago, was someone killed me - a man had followed me from a bar in The Hub, dragged me down a small alleyway and stabbed me repeatedly because I'd said no to him.
The Avenues jutted beyond the city limits and spread out across the Somerset Levels, finally connecting with older roads that snaked and twisted round farm borders, over streams, across marshes and past private estates until they found their way out of the plain and wetlands - rising up to the Poldon Hills to the north, joining the ten-lane M5 in the west and passing through meadows and out to the east. Flying high above the city always calmed me and helped me climb out of my bouts of self-pity. It was a place of peace, even if I couldn't feel the cold breeze, and see, truly see, the moon and its silvery glints through gently scudding clouds. I would hover, all the geometric glory of New Avalon below me made small and insignificant by the star-pricked great emptiness above. Sometimes I would yearn to loft myself ever higher and dilute myself to nothing in ever-expanding space. I couldn't, though. Something kept me in range of the clamour of the living.
I held myself still in the night air above the intersection for a few moments then turned my perception downwards, sensing angles, lines and curves. Buildings hulked and cars skittered across my senses. Everywhere emotion surged, ebbed and flowed as the living went about their business.
I can’t explain what it is to be dead; to be nothing but perception and memory. After all, what’s love without those butterflies in your stomach? What’s sadness without that feeling of a hole inside you and hot tears running down your cheeks? I knew what emotions were, but I couldn’t truly, physically feel them any more. I felt them intellectually. I felt merely their ghosts, as I was a ghost myself.
I often wondered if I’d get closure if my murderer was found and punished. In flights of fantasy I would see myself walking through wafting clouds towards the golden gates of Heaven and ever-lasting peace. I doubted anything would change, in reality. I would still drift and the only change would be his being jailed for a few decades. Maybe, another fantasy told me, when he died I could catch up with him and exact my own retribution. I liked that fantasy a lot.
I felt a stab of despair arc up from the city. I’d felt its kind before. Someone was dying at the hands of another. The imperative to follow it to its source built up in me as it always did. I began to descend, accelerating hard. In seconds I was in a little bedroom in a shabby flat in a nondescript housing block in the centre of Meme, a village that tried to be better but always failed. I curled round the warmth of a bare lamp while a man squeezed the life out of a girl. I felt his determination to punish her - to end her. I felt her slide towards death, terror fading to sad acceptance as her muscles began to go limp and her body sagged. Coherent thought fled her and I felt something leave her and wash past me, diffusing into the night. As usual I tried to follow, but, as usual, something prevented me from doing so.
The man stood up. I felt his exhilaration and the germ of a need to do it again, soon.
I had to get to Gillian.
Back up I went, away from the sad scene and into the night. I made for Landsdown, a village almost opposite Meme, but closer to The Hub. I felt its familiar grid of alleys and a particular intersection where the police hostel nestled, looking unobtrusive next to the grand Neo-Brunel architecture of the New Avalon Train Station. I passed through a window vent she always left open and flowed into her living room, just as she leaned forward and picked up a glass off a little, battered table. The warmth of red wine pervaded my senses as I swirled round her, trying to ignore old memories of snuggling on my sofa in my jim-jams with a good book and a mellow wine.
Gillian didn’t do snuggling in the evenings, but she did need wine to get through each night.
Her room was functional: one sofa, the little table and a rarely used tv. Scuffed magnolia paint adorned walls bare of any pictures and a single lamp threw weak light round the dreary room. The only other items on the table were a small shot-glass that rested, upside down, on a ouija board. I gathered myself and contracted round the smooth glass, making it rattle ever so slightly - just enough for Gillian to momentarily freeze and then slowly put her drink down next to it. Dark hair, laced with grey, fell around her shoulders. The more I contracted myself the more detail I could perceive of the world. I couldn’t do it for long and the price was steep: ten minutes of this would leaving me floating for many hours, unable to move myself and barely able to think coherently. When you are nothing but thought, such an experience is awful to go through. It’s akin to putting yourself into a coma. I had to do it, though. The need to see killers caught burned deep in me.
I gathered myself as she put a slender finger on top of the shot-glass. In my heightened state I could even feel her pale pink nail varnish.
‘Tell me,’ she said, as I pulled what energy I could out of the warmth of her finger.
I pulled in even tighter and slowly spelled out Death. Meme. Port Street. Flat Two. Still there. Hurry.
She let go, grabbed her handbag and keys and was gone. Exhausted, I drifted up to the lamp and slowly diffused across the ceiling like smoke rising from a fire, while my senses faded.
I don't know how much time passed me by but as my thoughts took shape once more Gillian was asleep on her sofa. An empty wine bottle rested on the table and her black shoes had been kicked to one side. The shot-glass was right end up, which meant she'd got him. I left her to another lonely sleep and took myself to the night sky. I felt satisfaction, but it was tempered with sadness for the poor girl.
I knew the same thoughts haunted Gillian. I'd felt her anger and sorrow more times than I could count. Days after her son's fourth birthday, he'd been taken. She endured nine weeks of desperate hope until one of her colleagues came with news that a body had been found trapped in the long fingers of a weeping willow that leaned over the wide Huntspill River, just a few miles from the city. So far in her career only two killers had eluded her; mine and her son's, and it was Alfie's death that had made her turn to the ouija board. Gillian needed answers; she needed to catch Alfie's killer and needed, at a deeper level, to just try to speak to him one last time and tell him she loved him and missed him dearly. Once she'd exhausted normal avenues she'd turned to paranormal paths. For her it was merely the logical extension of her enquiries - logical for her state of mind, anyway. My first message to her had sent her wild - she'd thought it was Alfie. It had taken weeks for her to calm down enough to focus on my messages - only for me to find she was the very person who had investigated my death and found nothing.
I expanded to my normal size and got on with my routine: my sweeping of New Avalon, searching for my murderer. I knew I would know him. As I had left my body I'd felt him and nothing would make me forget such coldness. Common sense suggested he'd be long gone. But I had a feeling, so I trawled the villages for him, trying to be organised and thorough, but instead finding myself bouncing from place to place, like a ball on a roulette wheel, randomly settling on places to search.
I headed towards Branton; a place of small, crowded houses, untidy parks, cheap bars and tired shops. It had been one of the first villages to be completed twenty two years ago and only had another three to go before its scheduled demolition and rebuild. I came down low over the roof-tops of the Newland Meadow housing development, an area laid out in the usual grid pattern, settling into the sticky mush of humanity as I got lower. Population-wise, this was one of the densest parts of New Avalon and I had to contract myself more than usual in order to fight through the dragging tide. I aimed for the next intersection, deciding the house right on the corner would be the first to be searched. It would make a good frame of reference for my night's work, making sure I didn't go to the same place more than once - surprisingly easy when you could only feel.
I hoped for open windows or air vents: I didn't like going much smaller than that, not only because of the tiring effects of the contraction but also the claustrophobia of very small spaces - when you are used to spreading like a cloud, being squashed through a small hole makes you very anxious, believe me.
I reached the house, felt an open window and got inside a tiny bedroom in seconds. A baby slept in a cot, bathing me with feelings of contentment. I felt her fingers bunch into little fists as she dreamed of warmth and security. I paused for a while, thinking of what could have been, but hurriedly pushed the thoughts away before depression came my way again. I searched the rest of the house and then the rest of the street until the sun rose, alarm clocks trilled and people began waking to another day. I'd found nothing. It was time for me to stretch out and relax for a while.
Gillian perched on the edge of her sofa, familiar glass in her hand. I rattled the shot-glass and waited for her to put her finger on it.
Searched all last night, I spelled out. Nothing.
'There's something you need to know,' she said.
'Your case is being closed.'
I couldn't hold myself tight as I absorbed the news. I expanded out and wished I could punch and kick the walls. Slowly I gathered myself. Why?
'Too long ago and no leads. Everything is going to be archived tomorrow.'
Mum. Dad. They know?
'Yes, I spoke to them this morning.'
'They accept it.'
My mum had argued against me moving to New Avalon. She couldn't understand why I wanted to move away from the North East, where all the jobs were. She couldn't get it into her head that the South West was safely far away, and that was all I'd wanted - distance from her. I could picture her putting the phone down, her mouth a thin line, going through all the arguments we used to have and still thinking herself in the right.
‘Are you still there? Gillian asked.
I tried to move the shot-glass, but couldn’t.
‘Sorry,’ she said, looking round like she might be able to catch a glimpse of me.
I left her little room and drifted upwards, spreading so far apart that my thoughts began to feel distant and other-worldly. It made the anger less sharp. I felt more regret than anything as I reached cloud level. No one would be punished for doing this to me. No one now, other than me, was looking for him. I spread even further, feeling like I was on the edge of sleep. The last shadows of anger disappeared and my regret was swamped by contented emptiness. I felt as if I could just drop over the edge of consciousness and not return. If I could have smiled, I would have. It didn't last long, though: as quickly as I accepted and welcomed emptiness I felt a contraction. Slowly, involuntarily, I shrank back to my normal size. My thoughts quickened and sharpened and dislike for my condition yet again bubbled up. There wasn't going to be any respite for me, it seemed.
I had no real feeling of time passing. The sun rose, the sun set. The tide of human emotion ebbed and flowed in phase. But I just existed. Weeks passed by as I continued my pointless search, contacted Gillian, and felt her pangs of disappointment each time she realised it was me and not Alfie.
Weeks turned to months and winter came to the city, bringing short days and bitter nights. Decorations and lights festooned buildings and draped across streets. A holiday feeling began to pervade the city. I hadn’t contacted Gillian for weeks. She’d been hitting the bottle hard, so hard that I'd tried to talk to her about it, but she'd just crossed her arms and refused to touch the shot-glass. The few times I'd contacted her since she'd ignored me as soon as it was clear I was not Alfie. So, with just a few days left until Christmas I thought I'd pay her a visit.
The window was shut. I drifted round to the other windows: they were all shut too. I found my way to the main door of the building - that was open, at least. I flowed up stairwells, along corridors and gathered myself outside the door to her flat. There was nothing but the keyhole. It wasn't worth it, I decided, and began to drift towards the stairs. But I stopped again. I should do it, I told myself. Just a few seconds of pain squeezing through the narrow gap to check she was ok was worth it, wasn't it? It was the right thing to do. Especially at Christmas. Especially since she was on her own.
I swirled round her door again. The keyhole felt claustrophobic, threatening and sharp. To pass through it would feel like being pushed down a narrow pipe lined with razor wire. I began to force myself in before I chickened out. It took four seconds of hell to get through. I hung in the small hallway for a while, trying to forget the experience.
There were only three doors leading away from the hall; one to a tiny kitchen, one to an equally small bedroom and one to her bare living room. That door was ajar and I easily flowed around it and into the familiar room. Gillian sat in her usual place, perched on the end of her sofa, a file on her knee and papers scattered around her feet. Something about the room didn't feel right, though. I constricted down a little so I could feel more detail. Almost straight away I realised what was wrong; no shot-glass and no ouija board.
No way to communicate.
I felt round for anything else small enough to move. Anything that she would notice, but there was nothing. I hovered above her, wondering what to do next, wondering how I could attract her attention and wondering why she'd hidden the board and glass. How would she get to hear about killings in time to catch murderers? How would I be able to tell her if I tracked down the bastard who'd done this to me? And what about Alfie? I just didn't get it.
I drifted down closer to her head, trying to ignore the stream of emotion emanating from her. I didn't like getting close to heads - the nearer I got the more wearing the flow of thought became, increasing in intensity until it felt like the mental equivalent of raging toothache. Still, I closed in - mainly because I had an idea. Her hair: thin, light and not too difficult to wrap round. A good pull of her hair and she'd know it was me.
Closer in I went, her stream of consciousness hurting me more and more. Rational thought told me to stop, to expand away from her, but closer I went. I was now wrapped round her hair. I was in a perfect mental storm - a constant, shrieking, howling cacophony.
Closer in I went.
And then something happened. The storm died down to a bearable hum - an almost pleasant background of gentle, general feeling. And something else: even as I felt my own presence - my own occupation of space, albeit a shape-shifting, amorphous blob-like shape, I began to feel a shadowy, nebulous, other thing. I felt as though I was sitting - perched on the end of a sofa. I felt as though I was looking at a glass of wine, and I felt a need to reach out to it, to put the glass to my lips and drink until the sadness that felt like a leaden ball in my stomach went away.
With a huge jolt I realised I was somehow in her head, feeling her physical presence and her needs. Possession. The word hit me hard and I reflexively pushed away from her. As I expanded her hair moved, loosening a lock that was tucked behind her right ear so that it fell away and tickled her cheek. I gathered into a ball in a corner of the room, as far away as I could get, still feeling the shock of feeling her.
She looked round as she tucked her hair back behind her ear. 'I wondered if you'd find a way to tell me you were here. I'd hoped not. I hoped I could just forget you, safe in the knowledge that you wouldn't be able to communicate. Never thought about my hair. Clever. Anyway, I suppose you want an explanation.' She sighed. 'The sack. That's what I'll get if I don’t clean up my act. They were very clear on that. My success rate counts for nothing. They know about the booze and they know about the board, but not you, thankfully. I have to have counselling and I'm off the line until they decide I'm fit again. I'm sorry, but this is it. I can't lose my career on top of everything else. You need to find someone else who uses a ouija board. You need to leave me.' She looked round the room and then down at the floor between her feet. 'Sorry.'
The last word felt so lonely, despairing and pleading that I left. I felt so lost that I didn't even feel the pain of the keyhole.
I left her alone. Weeks passed me by and I didn't move. Light followed dark and cold followed rain. Time moved along in its relentless march while below me New Avalon carried on. I stayed above the city and tried not to care. Sometimes I felt the lancing pain of someone having their life taken from them, but I had no one to tell and I didn't try to follow the fleeting things that fled their dying bodies.
I didn't search for my killer, either. I had no energy for that. In the first few days after leaving Gillian I'd hoped I would just stretch out and dissipate, since my existence now had no point whatsoever. That was not to be, though, and so I wallowed in thousands of unanswerable questions as winter passed to spring and the mood of the city brightened with the lengthening days. Even I couldn't remain unaffected as the first blushes of summer filled the parks with weekend revellers. Finally I stirred and moved back down into the streets. I wanted to do something. I just didn't know what.
I passed over the roofs of Meme then swooped low over Crawford Avenue. Traffic and trams moved in ordered, automated rows. All too quickly I had to rise back up, this time over the roofs of Radley, where large houses lined wide roads edged with broad pavements dotted with elm and birch trees. The centre of the village had been given over to a landscaped park; a square kilometre of beautiful lawns, immaculate play areas, graceful ponds and leafy trees providing much-needed summer shade. It was just the place to go and relax with a cold drink, a good book or some friends. I settled into the wide canopy of a great oak, feeling the leaves ripple gently in the scant breeze. The park was fairly busy and I could feel a contented hum of emotion from all directions. I expanded a little and let my thoughts slow down. I wasn't in any rush to do anything, after all. Hours passed as I kept dimly aware of people coming and going, using the tree as temporary shade, or for leaning against whilst reading, or locking into a passionate embrace. Sometimes the passion sizzled in both minds equally, but more often than not it was imbalanced, or even sometimes absent from one or the other. A shame, but I didn't really care about such things any more.
As the sun began to dip towards the west and shadows stretched eastwards across the grass, a couple walked against the tide of departing people directly towards the tree. Something made me contract and quicken my thoughts as they approached. As they came under the canopy I came down from the branches and snaked down the trunk until I was just above heir heads. From her I felt adoration. From him I felt cold hate.
Recognition: a sudden, massive mental smack. It was him. It was my killer. I shrunk down even more and got even closer to them so I could pick up their emotions and feel their forms in more detail. I resisted the urge to concentrate on him. Instead I focussed on her, his next victim. All I could sense was an overwhelming puppy-like love: so new, and so special. She loved him and wanted to be with him forever.
My first instinct, now shock had given way to elation at finally finding him, was to fly to Gillian as quickly as I could. I burned bright with the need to see him punished. I began to move and then I halted as grim realisation hit me - I had no way to tell her that I'd found him, and there would be no evidence anyway. A germ of an idea wormed into me. I tried to shy away from it but it hooked me. Like someone resolving to look at something horrible, while every fibre screamed not to, I steeled myself to get closer to him. His mind was as cold as a razor and I could feel a powerful impatience: a need to kill her.
I got closer and I got smaller. With morbid fascination I began to shrink around his head, feeling ever more detail. His hair was long and wavy. His nose was slightly kinked to the left. His cheekbones were high and defined and his lips were thin. He smiled with a warmth not matched by his mind. I got closer and I got even smaller, pushing against the stream of his thoughts. Strangely it was easier pushing in closer to him than it had been with Gillian: maybe it was his focussed, cold, determination - he simply did not have complexity of emotion. Even so, the pressure was considerable. I moved closer, becoming ever more scared at the idea that was now blossoming in me. Get even closer, that idea exhorted. Get so close you can feel his body. Get closer. Experience it. Learn from it. Take it. Take him and walk to the police station in Fairfax Square and make him speak. Make him confess to my murder. It was the only way. I needed it. I got closer. It began to hurt. My mental experience began to give way to a shadowy sense of physical being as his body began to imprint on my mind. I felt a twinge in his back as he leaned in to kiss her. I could feel his hands rub her back, pausing briefly as they met her bra strap. I caught citrus hints of her perfume and the tickle of her hair on his cheek. I could feel myself pressing into his head and I felt his puzzlement at the feeling; he felt it as a pressure on his head, like a tight motorcycle helmet. I felt his perspective overlaid on mine. It was dizzying.
Then, without warning, I was fully inside his head - physically inside. The stream of thought was gone. My expanded sense of self was gone. I felt whole and solid. I wanted to let go of the girl and step back - and his body did just that, clumsily. I felt his confusion. That helped me pinpoint the essential him. I surrounded him and squeezed down hard. His thoughts shrank to nothing, leaving nothing but the vestiges of his fear behind. The body was mine. I looked around me, seeing the real world through real eyes. It felt so good, but I couldn't allow myself to be side tracked by the beautiful colours and sounds.
'Dave, are you ok?'
I focussed on her. Lips as red as her dress. A beauty spot tattooed onto her right cheek and hair tumbling down over her shoulders. She looked worried.
Go away, I tried to vocalise. 'Graaaaar' came out of his mouth, with a dribble of spit.
'Dave, please. I don't like it when you mess about.' Her brow crinkled in a mix of worry and annoyance.
I made him step back and promptly fell down. She reached down to help and I waved her away, hitting her square in her jaw in the process. She backed away, holding her chin with confusion filling her wide, dark eyes as she watched me fight to get back on my feet.
Slowly I rose up in front of her. 'Go away. Now.' It came out much more clearly this time.
I pushed her hard, hearing her gasp in pain and shock as she bounced off the tree trunk and fell to her knees. I turned and lurched away, ignoring her cries, aiming for the path that led to the Brintree Road exit. I accelerated into an ungainly run.
I barged through sturdy, old-fashioned doubled doors and into the public waiting area of the police station. People briefly looked up at the commotion but just as quickly looked down again, too wrapped in their own problems to care about anything else. I banged my fist roughly on a scratched counter-top, staring at a bored-looking sergeant, who made a great show of taking a sip from a huge mug of tea before slowly rising up from a bare desk and leaning on his side of the counter with a seen-it-all-before look on his face. Before he could open his mouth I said, ‘Gillian Haller. Get her. I confess to the murder of Milly Stevens.'
Elation flooded over me as police officers crowded round and bundled me down a dingy corridor towards a cell. All I had to do was hang on in inside him for a few days until I could make him confess in front of a judge, giving some details of my stabbing that only me, him and the police could know and then I could fly out of his head and leave him to rot.
Just a few days. It was worth it.
I was used to the routine: up at dawn, meagre breakfast, work, food break, work, food break, shower, lock-up, sleep, repeat and repeat and repeat. Seven months, two weeks and three days so far.
I couldn't get out of his head. As soon as his life sentence had been passed I had tried to fly from him. But I couldn't get out. And he knew it. With every passing day I got more desperate and he got stronger. I could feel his rage.
Tonight was going to have to be the night. I had goaded Phil Adams for weeks. Tonight the fight would kick off. He was a no-chance lifer. He had nothing to care about. I was going to take the fight all the way.
A second death. A chance to end properly this time and to take him too. It was worth it.