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I am trying to break my habit of dying. I’ve had my turns on the dance floor with death at least three times that I know of. So far, it has never lasted more than a few minutes and I hope I won’t be staying longer anytime soon. Although I fear my next pas de deux with the Reaper will be the last and lasting one, I prefer to put that bow off as long as possible.
Each time I’ve died, I’ve awakened changed in ways normal people can’t see. These unexpected and unwanted adjustments have stuck me with a strange job: to protect the Grey, the fringe between the normal world and the world of the purely paranormal, from which rises the ghosts and monsters of our collective nightmares, where magic sings across the blackness of this world between worlds as clouds and lines of gleaming energy. Sometimes I must also protect the rest of the world from the Grey and things that are birthed there. I am not a magical creature myself—at least not in the way a ghost or a vampire, a witch or a sorcerer, is. I’m just the leg man and general dogsbody for the thing that guards the place; I’m a Greywalker—Hands of the Guardian, Paladin of the Dead.
None of these titles are on my business cards or my office door. As far as the normal world of Seattle is concerned, I’m Harper Blaine, private investigator. It’s the job I was doing long before an angry man killed me and helped introduce me to the Grey. I continue to do it partly because I’m good at it and largely because ghosts tend to stiff me on the bill. Some days I long for the boredom of background checks, personal–injury fraud, and missing persons handed off from an overworked police department. But something always seems to lead me back to the Grey, whether I want it to or not. My friends and family—such as they are—get the short, hard end of the stick too much of the time. I am sorry for that and I know I owe them something better. When the living nightmares are bleakest and thick around me, these ties are all that keep me anchored to what is good and right and human, and I will hold those things close, because this is not a job you quit—it’s one you die from.
The news called it a ghost ship. I didn’t detect any ghosts from the outside, but the boat was enshrouded in thick, colored skeins of Grey fog and ghostlight in gleaming, watery shades: aqua and cerulean with thin whispers of violet twining through them all. I didn’t see any ghosts per se, but there was definitely something paranormal going on—more than any reporter was likely to credit.
I stood in the fog near the end of B dock, waiting, looking at the Seawitch. The insurance paperwork called the old wooden boat a fantail motor yacht, designed by someone named Ted Geary—which I guessed was a big deal. I’ve dealt with boats before, but I’m certainly not an expert and a lot of the technical information about this boat meant nothing to me. It had a long, low profile—relatively speaking—with a round stern and rakish angles that exuded a Jazz Age sense of power. I knew the family had money—the boat wasn’t the only expensive object the insurance company that had hired me had covered for them—but the vessel wasn’t flashy; in its current derelict and stained condition, freighted with mystery, it was grim.
By all reports—official and speculative—the Seawitch had cruised away from its berth in this same marina twenty–seven years earlier and vanished from the knowledge of men, taking four passengers and one crewman with it. They had never returned but the boat had; suddenly and without any sign of hands aboard, it had simply been found one recent morning, standing at the end of its old dock. The derelict boat had been moved to B to rest with the abandoned, broken, seized, and foreclosed vessels until the truth of its reappearance could be ascertained.
The story in the newspaper claimed that the boat had sailed into port under its own power, but, really, the Seawitch seemed to have arrived under cover of the strange, low–hanging morning fog that had swelled around the edges of the Sound and skulked below the bluffs every June morning in Seattle that year, making the hills and spires of the city appear as islands afloat in a haunted sea. Here it was, a lost ship piloted by no one living, returning to its berth after being presumed lost with all hands. Of course, that wasn’t quite the truth of the matter but it was close enough. And it raised the hit rate at the news Web sites by a thousand percent, which was far more important than veracity; advertisers pay for eyeballs, not for unvarnished truth.
The insurance company had paid the claim long ago, and when the Seawitchreappeared, they were far more interested in where the boat had been all this time and why it wasn’t a hotel for fish at the bottom of Puget Sound than in unraveling any ghostly sea stories. They felt it far more likely that someone had defrauded them than that the boat and its crew had somehow vanished and remained hidden for all this time. They wanted prosecutable answers.
The case would have landed back with the original investigator but he’d retired, and since freaky circumstances are my specialty it didn’t take long for the file to end up on my desk. This case had the smell of something that would taint your life and haunt your dreams for years afterwardm, so I wouldn’t have blamed anyone who passed on it, especially since insurance investigations of this kind don’t come with high–end recovery fees—just lowball hourly wages and the occasional dinky bonus. Insurance investigators are sometimes known to play fast and loose, so once the cops got involved, my colleagues were even less interested in contesting my assignment.
Lucky me. I not only got the case; I knew the cop.
And so I stood in the shreds of morning mist, waiting for Detective Rey Solis to arrive, show me aboard, and explain why the Seattle Police Department was involved in what should have been a matter for the maritime lawyers and insurance actuaries to scrap over in court. Something large and dark—maybe an otter hunting in the salmon run—splashed in the water beside the dock and made me jump.
In the swirling fog, the sound of footsteps on the floating cement dock bounced off the water in a disorienting fashion. I turned my back to the boat and the unseen otter and stood still, waiting for someone to emerge. Solis, looking like a specter in his dark raincoat with his wet dark hair plastered against his head, seemed to resolve from the murk as he drew close enough to see me, and I him. He nodded to me and stopped at the foot of the steps someone had provided for boarding the Seawitch.
I wasn’t so sure of it, but I nodded back. “Morning, Solis. How did you get stuck with this one?” I knew he’d been promoted to detective sergeant not long ago and he probably had the seniority to avoid an assignment like this one. Homicide had been separated from other major crimes a few years back and this sort of thing wasn’t their usual beat. They were still top dog where any suspicious or violent death was concerned, but the vagueness of the jurisdiction might have put it in some other agency’s bailiwick or given a senior officer an excuse to push it onto someone else.
He cocked his head in what I thought of as his half shrug, but didn’t explain himself. His aura didn’t give him away, either, but it rarely does.
I can’t say I was unhappy to be working with Solis—he’s a good detective and I respect him—but I’d never thought Solis was comfortable with me or the creepy cases I seemed to attract, so this was going to be interesting, most likely in that Chinese–curse sort of way.
“Well,” I started, not sure what I should say, “I’m glad it’s you. Better than working with someone new.”
He gave another small nod and turned to look at the Seawitch. “She does not look like a ghost ship, does she?”
“Looks solid enough,” I replied. The structure was intact as far as I could tell. I was more than ready to go aboard and not worried about the physical side of the boat: I couldn’t recall ever being seasick except when experiencing the sensation of the world heaving underfoot when I’d first been introduced to the Grey. I’d gotten over that eventually.
Solis led the way on board, up a set of plastic stairs that were a little too short—the last step to the deck was about eighteen inches above the last riser and a couple of feet away across empty air. With my long legs it was only annoying, but Solis, being five inches shorter than I, had to stretch a bit. He then used a key on the padlock affixed to a makeshift hasp on the main hatch. Someone had taken a drill to the original lock inset in the narrow wooden door and the remains sat loosely in their case, making a metallic rattle as Solis pushed inward.
“Did your guys drill the lock or was it that way when you got here?” I asked.
“It was one of the Port Authority employees,” he replied, stepping inside, since there was no room to move any other direction with me standing on the side deck behind him.
“They can just do that?”
“Yes, if safety is in question.”
The boat didn’t seem like a hazard—just a bit old and abused—but in this day of terrorism, I suppose the thinking was, Who could be sure that it wasn’t a bomb or a floating biological attack waiting to happen?
I nodded as Solis watched me slip through the doorway. I nearly recoiled at the smell inside.
The room reeked of mildew and wood rot. We’d walked into a huge upper salon with scattered sofas and tables around the room and sturdy wooden cabinets and shelves built into the walls below the window line. The cream and blue upholstery on the seats was striped with green and black stains, and the filthy blue carpet felt moist and spongy underfoot. The matching blue curtains had rotted to shreds, and the tables and cabinet doors were warped and discolored. From inside I could see out in almost any direction between the ruined hangings. I would bet the sun shining on all that glass had done its part to advance the rot, and at the same time, the spotted windows made the room seem both open and trapped in its own personal fog bank.
I sneezed and coughed a little as the smell aggravated my nose and throat. “Ugh,” I muttered. The movement of the boat was barely noticeable, but the stink was compensating for the lack of mal de mer.
“It is unpleasant,” Solis responded. “It’s worse below.”
“Oh . . . goody,” I replied, turning my attention back to the room around us.
A squared–off arrangement of the furniture defined a lounge area that faced the rear of the living room–like space—I knew real hard–core boat people would have called it the saloon, as it was labeled on the plans, but damned if I would. I wondered why the seats were oriented to the back until I figured out that the entire rear wall was made of wood–and–glass panels that folded aside to open the back of the space to the round, covered aft deck. Passengers could sit inside reading, chatting, or eating while enjoying the outdoors without having to be in it—back when the interior was still clean and dry—and if the weather went sour could still use the area just by pulling the doors across. Judging by the moisture level, the weather had invaded at some point, doors or no doors.
“Could we open those up and air this place out a bit?” I asked.
Solis considered it, then nodded and went to open up the doors himself, scowling at me when I moved to help. I ignored him. The sooner we had the boat open and full of fresher air, the better, as far as I was concerned. It wasn’t as if we were trampling up a clean crime scene here. Whatever had happened aboard the Seawitch, it hadn’t taken place recently.
I touched the nearest of the folding doors and felt a cold frisson race up my arm and across my scalp. I must have gasped or twitched, because Solis cocked his head and glanced at me from the corner of his eye.
I shook him off. “Just one of those creepy feelings.”
He grunted, nodded, and went back to opening doors. Once we had the back of the boat open, fresher, cold air rushed in, swirling around and, to my eyes, raising filaments of violet, blue, and green energy off the floor and furnishings as if the magical residue of whatever had happened in the boat had dried out like sea grass left on the shore. The fine threads were the same colors I’d observed outside. I helped Solis shove the last of the resisting, warped doors aside and took a moment to peer harder at the Grey—that thin space of magic and possibility lying between the normal and the paranormal worlds.
The misty material of the Grey was acting stranger than usual here; instead of the foggy, airy movement I normally saw, the boat seemed to be filled with two separate Grey fluids that refused to mix. The brew flowed and crested in the space as if held in an agitated fishbowl, the walls warped and rough around it. At the far end and to the right was a staircase where one of the substances flowed down, taking all the amethyst color with it as well as the cerulean and emerald, while the other remained above, showing only thin watery shades of blue and green. The air felt colder in that area, piercing right through my jacket like winter ice.
I stared a moment longer at the strange tide of the Grey. It looked . . . as if something powerful had passed through the boat from back to front, sinking down where it found access and leaving this lingering stream as a reminder. How long ago had it been at full flood?
I turned my attention back to the normal world, to Solis, who was frowning at me nearby.
“This . . . evidence of something foul that brought you here—is it downstairs?” I asked, thinking about the direction and flow of the energetic traces.
He raised his eyebrows. “Yes. Come with me.”
He continued to frown as he turned to lead me to the scene of whatever crime the SPD suspected had happened aboard. Judging by the way his usually quiet aura spiked and jumped, I’d rattled him—which was no mean trick.
We bypassed the rest of the upper deck and I followed him down the narrow staircase—a “companionway,” to sailors—submerging into the oily, swirling Grey. For an instant I thought I was drowning, the rising spectral liquid bringing a cold recollection of a certain teenage summer when I’d gone swimming with my cousin Jill and not entirely escaped my first brush with death. Jill had not escaped at all. I was glad I was behind Solis and he couldn’t see me jerk my head back in suddenly remembered terror as the uncanny fluid seemed to rise over my face and push into my mouth and nose. In a moment the sensation passed as I continued to breathe normally, but my heart was still racing for a while afterward and the scent of the sea stayed in the air around me as long as we remained aboard the Seawitch.
From the foot of the stairs, Solis lead me forward along a narrow corridor that ran about a third the length of the boat. As we walked I felt colder and colder and the sense of damp became oppressive. I realized I was slowing, as if I were fighting a current and feeling tired from it. Nearly to the end of the hall, Solis, who was several steps ahead of me, stopped and turned toward a narrow door on his left.
I moved to catch up with him—he hadn’t even opened the door yet—but a sudden blast of wet cold smacked me down. I stumbled to one knee, bowing my head against what felt like a deluge of icy water. Solis whipped back to stare at me and took a step away as I planted my hands on the walls and shoved my way back to my feet. Keeping my hands braced, I stood firm and shook back my hair with a sharp flip of my head. Water from my drenched locks spattered against Solis’s coat and face—seawater that reeked of dying things struggling in poisoned currents.
He caught his breath short and stared at me, his head pulled back, murmuring under his breath, “Madre—”
I took a couple of steadying breaths and fought off the sense of being battered by a riptide only I was caught in. “Welcome to the freak show,” I muttered.