One day Inspector Cole Dunavan finds he has been murdered and become a ghost. A ghost with no idea how being a ghost works. No one sees or hears him. He can’t move objects and initially can’t even walk through walls or closed doors. He learns to his horror that his body has not been found and the circumstances of his disappearance make it appear he had betrayed his marriage and was killed by his mistress … who has also disappeared. But the truth is the woman was an informant and he is still on earth because his obsession with a case put her in mortal danger. While he works at saving her, he struggles to communicate with his old partner, get straight with his wife, and learn the identity of his own killer.
He found himself standing in a parking garage with no memory except of his murder.
Those final sensations felt seared into his brain: the hard pressure of a gun muzzle behind his right ear; his body stiffened by surprise, horror, and anger; a cry of No, wait! rising in his throat…but all vanishing the next second in an explosion of pain that hurled him into darkness.
As he recoiled from the memory, however, reason overrode terror. Those could hardly be final sensations if he were able to remember them.
“Way to go, numbnuts,” he said.
The sound of his voice reassured him of his reality, too. So did feeling the back of his head. His exploring fingers found just short hair…no stickiness indicative of fresh blood, no matting indicative of dried blood. Certainly no bullet hole.
“You just had a bad dream.”
But if that were the case, how did he explain the amnesia?
He fought the panic threatening him again. Maybe he had been mugged and received a concussion. Tan lines on his wrist and ring finger attested to a missing watch and ring. Except how could he be on his feet if he had been hit hard enough to lose all memory, and even awareness of what city he was in? A quick examination of his clothes — grey suit, pin-striped shirt, tie striped in yellow, maroon, and grey — found no blood or other signs of attack. Nor did running his hands over his body — a lanky one better than six feet tall — locate any injuries. His chin felt smooth, free of abrasions. Except for his tie being loosened and shirt unbuttoned at the collar, he seemed ready to walk into a business meeting.
Meeting! The thought sent him reeling backward, staggered by a rush of anger, guilt, leaden foreboding, a pounding sense of urgency, and — insanely — images of…butterflies? He shook his head to clear it. Butterflies. That was crazy. The rest, though, seemed to indicate he was scheduled for an unpleasant but critically important meeting. Life or death important. But where was it? How could he find out?
The answer hit him a moment later. Duh. “Use your phone, stupid.” People at the numbers in it would know him.
He reached into his coat but to his dismay, found no phone. Not only no phone. Checking the rest of his pockets one by one found them all were empty. No billfold, no business cards, no keys, no loose change. Not even a handkerchief.
He ran for the exit arrow at end of the row. The garage entrance would have an attendant who could help him. But running, panic rose in him. His feet seemed to make no sound. Nor could he smell the exhaust of an SUV that passed him trailing blue smoke. His brain had been royally screwed up.
He was fighting hysteria by the time he reached the exit and charged up to the booth. “Help me!” he yelled at to the middle-aged woman inside. “Call 911! I need a doctor!”
The attendant never looked from her book.
He waved his arms frantically. “Hey!” But when she still did not respond, fear turned to fury. “Damn it…are you frigging deaf!” He slammed the glass with both fists.
Anger vanished in a blast of icy fear. Like his feet, his fists made no sound. Despite the force he put into the blow, he felt as if he hit a layer of foam rubber. Whatever happened had turned him into a total wack job. Unless he was not crazy but—
He cut off the thought. No! That was even crazier. He stumbled back from the booth.
Fine. Forget the attendant. At least some of the buildings around the garage must have a security force. One of those officers could help him.
He turned and charged up the ramp. Where he came face to face with a Lexus on its way in. He leaped sideways, but not fast enough. The left front headlight and fender caught him head on…and passed through him.
He stared down at himself, clutching his chest and abdomen, chaos roaring in him. But what he did not feel engulfed him in terror. His heart should be thundering. But he felt nothing beneath the hand on his chest. No heartbeat, no frightened gasp for breath. He felt only the remembered pressure of the gun muzzle against his skull.
Thrusting away the memory, he bolted from the garage and along the sidewalk outside.
What he thought just happened could not have. It was impossible…an hallucination! It had to be.
He halted at the corner. Look at him! He was real. Holding up a hand to the afternoon sky blocked the light. When he socked one arm with the other hand, his body felt solid.
Down the block two women came out of the building and up the hill toward him.
He ran to meet them. “Ladies! Can you help me?”
They kept moving without missing a beat of their conversation.
“Please!” Desperate, he reached for the arm of the nearest woman. “Look at me! You see me, don’t you?”
The arm slid through his grasp as though greased. He started to grab for her again… and froze, staring at the reflection in the glass doors. It mirrored the women and the street, and the building across the street. But not him.
Cold, cold ice filled him. That gun, the explosion, the darkness swallowing him…not a nightmare, he thought in despair. Not an hallucination. Memories. It happened. And he died.
He turned his back on the reflection. It helped relieve the shock. Though shock did not so much fade as disappear under the sense of foreboding and urgency. He gladly focused on that in place of his terrible final moment of existence. Spirits supposedly hung around because they had unfinished business, right? Judging by the pressure in him, he had some major loose end to tie up.
Logically, he would think it involved settling with whoever killed him, or the circumstances that earned him a bullet. Except that idea brought no resonance in him. The foreboding shouted danger. With him beyond danger, it meant someone else was the target. Because of him, maybe.
That would account for the guilt. The urgency indicated he had no time to waste removing the danger.
He scowled skyward. “But how the hell am I supposed to do that with no frigging idea what the danger is and who’s involved?” Trying to dig that out of the Black Hole in his mind, all he came up with was the stupid butterfly image. Which just made his gut lurch with another kick of guilt.
Being a ghost needed to come with a guidebook, he reflected irritably. Since it did not, he better start figuring things out for himself. Beginning with who he was. Where was fortunately no longer a question — up the hill rose a pyramidal skyscraper that could only be the Transamerica building, which made this San Francisco. Hopefully he could identify himself as easily. Once he had, he should know who he had to save and from what.
Since he had been murdered, might there be a story about it in the newspapers?
He turned to the doors behind him. Now he recognized them as the entrance to Two Embarcadero Center. The stores in the shopping arcade included a newsstand. He reached for the door handle. It slipped through his fingers. Just as that woman’s arm had. Shit. Did that mean— He ended the thought, shaking his head at his own stupidity. Duh. “You’re a ghost, numbnuts. You have no material substance. So how can you hold anything material?” But being a ghost, he also had no need to open the door. He could walk through it.
A thought that lasted until he crashed into the glass.
He staggered backward in disbelief. Hitting the door had the same foam rubber sensation as pounding the attendant’s booth but…what blocked him? If people and door handles moved through him, the reverse should be true. He tried again, this time holding his hands out in front of him as he walked forward. His hands met the surface and…stopped. He tried more force, slamming his shoulder into the door. In vain. He just smashed against it again…the glass withstanding him painlessly and soundlessly, but stubbornly impenetrable.
Alarm flared in him. Unless he could go where he wanted to, how was he going to do what he needed to do?
At the edge of the Black Hole, something stirred. He froze, afraid to move for fear of losing it. It had something to do with going through a wall. Gingerly, he teased the memory out where he could see it…and found an image of someone named Harry Potter…trying to reach platform nine and three-quarters. Except Harry got through by running at the wall and the forceful approach had already failed here. Wait. When Harry thought he was about to crash, he closed his eyes.
Okay…try that. Closing his eyes, he walked forward, counting strides. Two…three…four.
On five he opened his eyes and grinned. Yes! He was in!
Wasting no more time, he hurried through the mall to the newsstand in 1EC.
Once there, though, he found nothing above the fold in either the Chronicle or the Examiner about a recent murder that might be his.
All the papers gave him was the date: Sunday, August 29. Useless information since the date of his last conscious memory still lay buried in the Black Hole.
He stalked away from the newsstand. Terrific. No way to check the papers. Since no one appeared to see or hear him, that also ruled out asking about himself. He ran both hands back through his hair. Now what?
His fingers met a ridge of scar under the hair above his left ear. As they did, a tingle shot through him. Slowly he traced back over the scar. Touching it brought a lightning series of sensations and images. The deafening noise of combined music and voices. Standing with his back to a bar thinking that the saving grace of being stuck at Fort Riley when you were twenty and single was Aggieville, Kansas State University’s campus village, full of bars and coeds. Two men angrily facing each other, one a preppy type with a big wet spot on the front of his trousers and the other with a military burr haircut and an empty beer mug in his raised hand. His remembered self stepping between the two…and stars exploding in his head.
When they cleared, he had found himself on a stretcher, with a paramedic asking how many fingers she held in front of his face. “Your buddy clobbered you with his beer mug,” she said.
His wry thought had been that as an MP, he was usually the one breaking heads.
Memory of the incident broke off abruptly as a buzz like a low grade electric current spreading through him, followed by a startled yelp and a head of corn-rowed brunette hair leaping from beneath his chin.
He jumped backward. “Jesus!”
In front of him, a blonde girl stared at her brunette friend. “What’s the matter?”
The brunette grimaced. “There was this, like, icy cold spot.” She pointed to where he had been standing. “And I got an electric shock.” She rubbed her arms. “Like, you know, from a doorknob when you’ve rubbed your feet across the carpet? It was totally weird.” Shuddering, she hurried off down the concourse.
“I didn’t, you know, like it either,” he called after her. Though the sensation had been more disconcerting than uncomfortable. Still, he moved out of the way by a planter to think back over the recovered memory.
At the same time, he tried watching around himself to avoid another walk-through. With a start, he found himself able to look all directions at the same time. Vision no longer depended on what direction his eyes pointed. It was, to quote the brunette, totally weird. It also made him dizzy and would not turn off, now that he discovered it.
After several excruciating minutes of vertigo, he managed to focus forward and shut out the rest except as a kind of extended peripheral vision. Then he returned to the bar memory.
While it did not give him his name, it did suggest the way to learn more about himself: check his body for other scars.
Invisibility theoretically gave him the freedom to strip down right here, but he cringed at the idea. It smacked too much of a naked-in-public dream. No…the men’s room upstairs was a better place.
Outside its door shortly, he paused long enough to close his eyes, then walked forward.
Would the trick take him through this door, too?
It did. He felt no barrier, and opening his eyes after a few steps, he found himself inside.
To keep clear of anyone else using the facilities, he moved to the far end of the basin row.
A glance in the mirror as he shrugged out of his coat halted him for a moment. Like the store window, the mirror did not reflect him. The indisputable proof of his nonexistence chilled him again. As soon as he stripped to his boxers and laid his clothes across a basin, he turned away from the mirror.
“Cross your antennas for luck, butterflies.”
Nothing on his chest triggered any memories, just told him he had black hair. Checking his arms, a peculiar set of scars on his right wrist and hand caught his attention. An arc of four, each about a quarter inch long, on the inside just below the base of his thumb and an arc of similar scars on the upper side.
He ran his other thumb across them. What would do that?
The answer came abruptly: teeth. Remembered pain shot up his arm. Along with it came memory of kneeling on a man’s back, yelling: “Let go! Quit resisting!” as he struggled to free his wrist from the man’s mouth and wrestle the douchebag’s arm back for cuffing.
Cuffing? Of course. He was a cop. He had been one for nearly sixteen years, since finishing his hitch in the Army. Was that why he was killed? If so, why had being shot surprised him?
No answer came. Nor did his name.
In growing frustration he identified other scars: healed fractures in his left hand and right forearm, scars from knife cuts, other scars from burns caused by deflecting a thrown cigarette and from a tail pipe while wrestling a suspect from beneath a car. None gave him his name, only told him what kind of cop he was…one who hated losing foot chases and who hung on to suspects he caught no matter what.
Then a surgical scar running the length of his left thigh brought up another memory…of hanging on the door of a suspect’s car and being dragged under the wheels…ending up on a stretcher again. This time the face of his sergeant glared down at him. “Dunavan, why the hell do you
have to be a fucking John Wayne?”
Relief and elation swept him. Finally! His name was Dunavan. Coleman Douglas Dunavan.
He waited for the Black Hole to release the rest of his memory.
Frustration and despair boiled up in him. “No! Damn it…no!”
Cole slammed a fist into the towel dispenser, then each of the stall doors…the sensation of punching marshmallow only adding to his frustration. Shit, shit, shit! He had know why he was here! A life could depend on it! What was holding back the memories? What the hell did it take to release them!
Not the abuse of men’s room fixtures, anyway. He ran his hands through his hair. Okay, fine…if he had to keep fighting the Black Hole…so be it. Hanging on and plugging away was what earned him the nickname Bulldog, after all.
He wheeled back toward the basins to dress…and stopped short. His clothes were gone!
“For the love of…” This just kept getting better and better! Now he was supposed to run around
half naked while—
Belatedly, he realized he wore the missing items. He stared down himself, shaking his head. Son of a bitch. Weird, weird, weird.
He headed for the door. If death limited him to one outfit, it was a good thing he died decently dressed, not been blown away in his sleep, so he spent ghosthood in bare feet and whatever he wore to bed. Or worse, whacked during sex. He could be taking care of his unfinished business with it all hanging out. That image made him cringe and laugh at the same time.
Which ended abruptly as he crashed into the door.
Way to go, numbnuts. Closing his eyes, Cole decided maybe he was glad no one saw him.
Outside the men’s room he peered around at the concourse, considering what to do now.
There must be an investigation into his death. Maybe seeing what they had in the way of evidence and suspects would help him learn what held him here. So he needed to visit Homicide.
As he started for the escalator, an uneasy thought struck him. Could he leave Embarcadero Center? Ghost stories always had them haunting specific places. A scene from some old movie played in his head…the ghosts of airmen who crashed in the African desert trying to walk away from their plane, only to find themselves circling back to it.
Downstairs, he approached the Sacramento Street exit with caution. To his relief, nothing blocked his way, nor pulled him back when he dodged across the street. He appeared free to go where he wanted.
Now it was just a question of reaching the Hall of Justice. Take the bus? He could ride free. Only a bus would have other passengers not only walking through him but standing or sitting in the same space he occupied. Cole grimaced. What about flying? He was a ghost, after all.
Except, he had no idea how to go about flying. Flap his arms? That sounded ridiculous, even with no one seeing him. He would walk. The Hall was only about two miles away.
After a few blocks, though, impatience to arrive turned the walk to a jog, then a lope. Zigzagging through the South of Market, Cole noticed he maintained the pace without effort, and on reaching the Hall’s front steps, was astonished to realize he felt no trace of fatigue. He was ready to run another two miles. Or a marathon. So…no matter how many trips across town he might have to make, he could keep going? That was good to know.
Inside, Cole considered the elevator, and gave up that to walk on and pass through the stair door. Pushing buttons had to be as impossible as picking things up. Taking the steps two at a time, he raced up to the Investigation Bureau on the fourth floor. It felt bizarre not hearing his footsteps. The bare concrete walls and un-cased windows of the stairwell usually made every little sound echo.
He paused in mid-step. Usually? How often had he come up these stairs?
Continuing to climb, he decided it must have been often. This felt so familiar. When he reached it, the Bureau corridor and its walls hung with photographs of SFPD officers on the job felt familiar, too. Then as Cole passed Burglary’s door on the way to Homicide, he realized why.
He was a detective. He had been one for almost seven years…assigned to Burglary…working the cases in the Mission District.
He stopped short, visualizing his desk inside…case folders stacked on it and the deep window sill beside it. So why was he killed? Burglars were not usually violent individuals. Still… Cole closed his eyes and stepped through Burglary’s door. Past the counter, through the inner door into the main office, he headed for his desk. Stan Fontaine and Gail Harris sat at their desks, typing reports.
He waved. “Hi, guys.”
Neither looked up.
No surprise there, but if only one would see him. When the identity of his killer and an explanation for this foreboding and urgency might be in one of his case folders, not picking things up sucked! Since association seemed to be triggering memory recovery, he had to hope that just
seeing or touching the right folder—
A photograph by the telephone interrupted the thought. Four children, a brindle dog, and a woman with a Dolly Parton bustline and a kinky mane of bright red hair sitting on the steps of a Victorian. His family.
Guilt stabbed him. How could he remember he was a cop before remembering Sherrie and the kids? He and Sherrie had been married longer than he carried a badge. His family meant much more to him than the job. After growing up with his cop father an absentee dad, he worked hard at not inflicting that on his own kids. He made a point of being there to help them learn to ride bikes and shoot hoops, for birthdays, Travis’s school wrestling matches, and Renee’s music recitals. Especially, how could he remember that Aggieville brawl without remembering Sherrie Trask had been the nurse waking him every hour to take his blood pressure and shine a light in his eyes?
Cole ran his fingers across the photograph. God, he wanted to go home and see them. If only it were less urgent that he find out what brought him back.
Reverberation in him squeezed his chest and brought an icy wave of realization. Oh, shit. Sherrie and the kids were part of what brought him back. Whatever caused his guilt andforeboding also threatened them.
He bolted for the door.