Once and Forever



The Psychic Detective

by Evie Owens 


Prologue

            The last thing Erin Healy saw—before the darkness swallowed her—was her partner, Rolly, rising up like an angel out of the flames that licked their way, bright yellow and orange, across the filthy shag-carpeted floor. Then, Rolly looming above her, his watery blue eyes turned to black in the smoky darkness.
            "You're a good kid," he said, gathering her up in his long ropy arms.
            That was also the first thing Erin remembered, when she woke up in the hospital. Rolly, coming to her rescue. But when Chief Dern came in to see her, and she told him what had happened, what little she could remember from the night when everything went wrong, he just shook his head. He stood next to her hospital bed and his mahogany-colored hands wrapped around the top rail of the bedguard stood out, stark between the peach blanket and the white cuffs of his shirt.
            "He saved me," Erin said again. And again the chief shook his head—once—No. "Officer Connors was shot," he said.
            Erin remembered that. The slow motion way that everything went to shit—the shouting, the gunshots, Rolly staggering to his knees then pitching face first to the floor. Her shoulder jerked so hard she stumbled back a step, even as her whole left side went cold and wet, like getting blasted with a fire hose, but when she brought her hand up to touch, it had come away hot and covered in blood. She'd stared at her hand, unable to comprehend the freezing cold oozing under the Kevlar vest, and the hot mess on her hand. She was shot. She was shot, too. Then something connected hard with the back of her head.
            She tried to turn, tried to figure out where the blow had come from, but as she twisted, her knees gave out. And the next thing she remembered was Rolly rising from the flames and coming over to her.
            "He moved me," she said again. She wasn't trying to argue with the chief, but it was true. She'd fallen not far from where Rolly had, and if she hadn't been moved—if Rolly hadn't carried her out of the crack house to where they found her across the street—she'd have burned along with him.
            "He shouldn't have gone back in," she said.
            "He never left," the chief said. "He died from the gunshot wounds. He was dead before the fire ever got to him."
            Now Erin was shaking her head. "He picked me up, Chief. I swear to you, he carried me out."
            "What nobody can figure out, is how you got out," he said. "Rolly never left. But you did."
            His hands hadn't moved an inch on the rail the whole time they'd been talking, but now he let go and the rail shuddered. "Well, you, five-hundred thousand dollars, and a duffle bag of heroin."
            "What?"
            "Healy," he said.
            Not Erin, like he usually called her. Not even Officer Healy.
            Erin was conscious of her own breathing—the harsh sound of it in her ears, the cold air, the chill expansion as it filled her aching lungs.
            "There were three bodies in that house," Chief Dern said. But her heartbeat was so loud that Erin had to concentrate hard to hear him. "And the department is missing extremely valuable evidence. I came to hear your side. Now I need you to hear mine. Internal Affairs is all over this. They haven't determined that your wounds were self-inflicted …"
            "What? Self—"
            Erin struggled to sit up, forgetting the tubes and monitors—sputtering, flailing. Chief Dern took a step back and watched her struggle for a moment, then he raised his hand. Stop.
            "They haven't determined that your wounds were self-inflicted," he said again. "But they haven't ruled it out, either."
            "Chief! I can't—you don't—"
            "I know what I'd like to believe. But we're not exactly in the business of believing, are we? You need to figure out what went down in that house. You need facts. You need evidence." He grabbed hold of the rail and the whole bed shook, the IV bags swaying on their metal hooks. "I need proof. And all you're giving me is a fucking ghost story."    

~*~


 Chapter One

Two months later


            The phone rang.
            Martin Sterling groaned and rolled over. When it rang again he reached for it, but missed, his hand landing with a thud against the bed frame.
            "The only way to stop the ringing is to answer it, you know," Rose said, gliding into the room.
            Perfectly coiffed, as always, she trailed her red, manicured nails along the edge of the tall dresser. Her signature scent, tea rose, wafting ever-so-lightly in her wake filled his nose like a chemical assault. He sneezed.
            "A real assistant would answer it for me," he grumbled, rubbing his eyes.
            Rose shrugged. "As far as I'm concerned, you assist me. Besides, it isn't stabbing me in the ear drums."
            The phone rang again and this time his hand landed on it. He hit the "Answer" button without opening his eyes. Followed immediately by "End."
            Silence and relief. But it wouldn't last.
            He slid reluctantly out of bed and shuffled into the bathroom. He was brushing his teeth when the phone rang again.
            "Get that, won't you?" he asked around the brush, knowing full well Rose would do no such thing.
            She was still laughing as he stumbled back to the nightstand.
            "Martin?" his mother said, the moment he answered. "What in the world took you so long? What are you doing? Are you alone?"
            His mother had only a vague idea of what his being a so-called "private investigator" involved. By careful design on his part, of course.
            "Good morning. Yes, I'm alone. And thanks to someone very rude, I'm also awake. Now."
            "It isn't rude to call at 9 o'clock in the morning."
            "But it isn't strictly necessary, either. Can we agree?"
            She ignored that. "Are you okay? You sound–"
            "Busy?"
            "Well. I was going to say 'tired' but—"
            "I'm working. That's all. I'm in the middle of something."
            At that, she had to keep her suspicions to herself. The alternative—having to address the truth about her son—always came a little too close to the danger zone for her.
            "I'm sorry," she said, confusion edging into her voice. "I didn't realize."
            "It's—" But before he could finish, Rose loomed up and snapped her fingers under his nose.
            "Heads up, bright boy," she said in a breathy stage whisper, as if his mother might be able to hear her. Which was absurd, since Rose had been dead for years—twenty that he could vouch for personally—and his mother had never once heard a thing.
            The whole 'talking to the dead' gene must have trickled down his father's side of the tree. It was hard to say for sure, since he split when Martin was ten.
            "Company coming, hon," Rose whispered, waving toward the front of the house.
            "Mom," he said. "I have to go."
            "What? Right now? But—"
            "There's someone at the door. I'll call you later."
            She was still protesting as he clicked the off button.
            He turned to Rose. "Who is it?"
            Rose went to the door and then—the strangest thing happened. She turned, looking confused or…maybe even afraid. He moved toward the door and she lurched in front of it, extremely un-Rose-like, thrusting her arms out to the sides as if she were actually some kind of barrier. "Don't answer it."
            "What?"
            She shook her head. "I can't—I don't—"
            He reached for the doorknob and without warning Rose dashed down the hall. Or more accurately, she dashed through him and down the hall and the next thing he knew he was leaning against the wall, shaking uncontrollably, cold to the marrow. The doorbell rang again.
            "Seriously?"
            No answer.
            When he opened the door there were two women at the bottom of the steps. One of them was Amber, an old friend of his. Sort of. And as far as he knew, Rose had no problem with her. But the other one was a stranger. The other one stared up at him for several long moments, as if he wasn't what she'd expected to find.
            Well that made two of them.
            How had this cool blonde with the even cooler gray eyes startled his usually unflappable Rose?
            The woman looked him up and down in a way that made Martin feel like he'd left his body and was seeing it through her eyes, and that was when he realized. Oh. She was a cop.
            Great. And there he was, tweaking like a meth head.
           
~*~

"He's not what you think."
Erin eyed her friend Amber. "He's exactly what I think."
"MmHmm." Amber shook her head. "Way to keep an open mind there, cop shop."
Erin glanced up at the man, framed now in the door. Six feet tall. Maybe six one, she thought, noting that he was barefoot. Wide shoulders. Forbidding glower under dark disheveled hair. The thin white t-shirt and charcoal colored sweatpants slung low across his hips had the effect of making him look almost naked, even though he was fully covered. Or maybe that was the way he was shaking. Like he'd just climbed out of a freezer.
"I can hear you, you know," he said, in a voice so rough he must have dragged it across the floor of every bar in Old Town. And up the steps.
So raw it made her own throat hurt.
"Don't sulk, Martin," Amber said. "It makes you look like a sociopath."
"Sociopaths don't look like sociopaths," Erin said. "That's the problem with sociopaths. This guy's just hungover."
The man's wide sulky mouth lifted at one corner. But only for a second, before he turned and glanced back inside the house. "What brings you to my door so early on a …" He turned his glare on Amber again. His voice ground to a halt and he coughed, gave an impatient wave. "Day. With the police?"
"Let us in." Amber hiked up the steps, forcing him back inside the house. "And I'll tell you."
Erin couldn't help smiling as she followed Amber through the door, but once inside she had to stop and stretch, tilting her head carefully from one side to the other. Her shoulder still hurt like a mother sometimes.
Amber caught what she was doing. "Next time," she said, her eyes soft with concern, even though her words sounded careless, "you ought to try dodging the bullets, instead of catching them."
Erin gave her a narrow look, aware that the man, Martin, was watching.
"Martin," Amber said. "I'd like you to meet my friend and neighbor, Erin Healy."
He looked down at the hand Erin held out and she looked up into the most amazing brown eyes she'd ever seen—dark around the edges, lightening to gold. Fiery, but not warm.
He took a quick breath and, as if making a difficult decision, took her hand. "Hello—"
His eyes might not have been warm but his hand was. Or not warm, exactly, but alive—like a wire. Biologically electric. Like holding the beginning of something in the palm of her hand.
"Erin," Amber said, continuing the introduction, "this is Martin Sterling."
"I'm confused," Martin said, looking from Erin to Amber. "Unless you've joined the police force, babe—"
"They should be so lucky," Amber said. "No. We're not here on police business. Well, we are, I guess, but not officially. Remember that crack house fire a few months ago? In Brookland?
Martin blinked, shook his head. "I don't watch the news."
The way he said it reeked of boredom but Erin couldn't help noticing the way he kept surveying the room, searching the hall behind him at ten-second intervals as if looking for somebody. He clearly wasn't home alone, but there was no sign that anyone else was there.
Amber pointed at her. "It was a bust, or it was supposed to be, but the place burned down with all the drugs, money, and everybody involved inside of it. Everybody except Erin."
His gaze slid to back to her, sharpening to a fine point. "How did you get out?" he asked.
"I'd rather not talk about it with an audience."
"Audience?"
She gestured down the hall. "I'd rather talk when you're alone.”
"You better not mean me," Amber said. "Because seriously? I've already heard it."
Martin shrugged. "I'm as alone as I ever get."
Erin took a breath. Took a beat. Weighed the circumstances. The man had to be a con artist. She knew Amber believed him, but people didn't talk to the dead. That was an act.
But when he reached past her for the door and said, "Well this has been … fun … but I've got a hangover to nurse here and a natural aversion to the police so if you don't mind…"
Chief Dern's words rang in her ears—All you're giving us is a fucking ghost story—even as a vine of disbelief, so strong, so absolute it could have been made of stone, wove itself through her rib cage and around her heart.
It was galling, was what it was. Coming here. But fine. She was running out of time. Hell, she was out of time. If they closed the case … if they brought her up in front of the review board … her job—and let’s be real here, her job was her life—hung in the balance. Whether she believed this man could talk to the dead or not, she had nothing to lose.
Nothing.
She closed her eyes and conjured the bits and pieces she could remember. "It was like they were expecting us. They started shooting the second we hit the door. I don't know which one, there were two of them." And it was dark and they were all facing each other, she and Rolly on one side of the shitty little coffee table, the two dealers on the other and everybody had guns in their hands…
She opened her eyes only to find Martin staring fixedly down the hall. "My partner went down first," she said, the words coming easier now that he wasn't watching. "I took a hit in the shoulder…" And maybe on the back of the head, except that made no sense. How could she get hit on the back of the head when she was looking at everybody? It was all out of order… She must have hit her head when she fell… "The next thing I remember is Rolly—my partner—picking me up and carrying me out of the house. He went back in but didn't make it out again."
Martin shook his head as if to clear it, and turned away from the hall. His gaze swept over her, up then down. "That's a real drag, but—"
"The coroner's report says my partner died on the spot. Gunshot wound to the chest."
"He got shot again, after he carried you out?"
"The first shots were fatal. According to the coroner, Rolly was dead when he hit the floor. There was no way he could have carried me out of the house."

~*~ 

What was up with Rose? Freaking out? When was the last time Rose freaked out over anything? He'd never seen her act like that and he kept looking at Amber's police officer friend, trying to figure it out.
Amber waved her hand in his face. "Hey hot shot! This is the part where you come in. We need to know what happened in that house before it burned. She needs to know. But everybody in there is dead. Get it? So we came to you." She made an impatient gesture in his direction. "Go. Do your thing."
His thing. Martin almost laughed out loud. He was still so cold he was shaking like a drug addict and Rose was gone. He couldn't communicate with the living right now, let alone the dead. "You sleep with a girl once in high school and she thinks she can order you around for the rest of your life."
That one would order you around even if you didn't sleep with her, Rose said, from somewhere behind him.
He smiled. Glad to have her back.
"It was twice," Amber said, bristling. "And even if you put the two times together they didn't add up to one good—"
"That's not how I remember it," Martin said. Even though that was pretty much exactly how he remembered it. "I believe the words 'thank' and 'you' were—"
Amber bristled. "Oh please. I—"
"What exactly is your thing?"
The words, spoken in a low clear voice, cut through their bickering.
Erin shrugged, then winced and brought her hand to her shoulder. "I mean I know you supposedly talk to the dead. But how do you do that? Exactly?"
Show me.
His least favorite words.
Her mouth was a straight line—the shortest distance from here to there—and when he looked into her cool gray eyes, so terrifyingly perceptive, he felt the shock of something that he would have called recognition. Except that made no sense.
This woman didn't believe anything without scientific proof, that much was clear, and that should have annoyed the fuck out of him. But instead it made him want to show her something. Made him want to show her plenty.
She let go of her shoulder. "And how much does whatever you do cost?"
"I'm a private investigator," he said, aware that he was snarling. "That's what I do. If you want me to investigate this fire it will cost you by the hour."
"Seriously, Martin," Amber said, "Don't—"
He turned to glare at her.
"I mean it," Amber said, undaunted. "It took me forever to talk her into coming here. And she's running out of time. She's already on suspension and they're about to…" She motioned at Erin. "What did you say they were going to do? Close you out if—"
"Close the case," Erin said. "And if they close the case as inconclusive my suspension will have to go before the Board and—"
"She'll lose her job," Amber said. "Bottom line."
Silence.
The woman's spine remained rigid, her shoulders back and squared, but as she bowed her head, the arch of her neck—a thing of beauty—rang with such pain it silenced everything and everybody else. "And that's what I am," she said, her naturally low voice even lower, directed at the floor. "My father was police. It's what I grew up with. It's all I've ever wanted to do. It's what I am."
Martin didn't know what to say. Half of him wanted to wrap her in his arms. Warm her, unbend her. But the other half—the larger half, truth be told—was already running in the other direction. He didn't work with the police. He'd tried, back in the day. Back when he thought maybe he could turn this curse into something useful. Something less curse-like. But his methods weren't visible enough for the police. Or documentable. Or hell, just say it, reliable.
Not even he could argue with that.
He'd spent his life dealing with the fact that the dead are as human—and therefore fallible—as the living.
Tell her no, Rose said. Tell her to find another occupation. Something less dangerous.
Martin turned, following the sound of her voice, to find Rose peeking down the hall from around the corner.
It was all so un-Rose-like that for a good long moment, all he could do was stare.
"Martin?" Amber asked.
"Right." He brought his attention back to the women in front of him, nodding as if he'd just come to some sort of decision. "I've got a full case load right now. I'm afraid I can't help you."
Amber reacted immediately. "Bullshit!" She poked him in the chest. "What do you mean you can't help her?"
Her friend, on the other hand, just nodded. Once. And turned to leave.
"I don't work with the police," he said.
Particularly when the officer in question was the kind of woman who evoked such a strange mix of visceral responses in him.
He recognized skeptics instantly, and this woman was so skeptical he’d probably have to drown her to convince her it was raining. He'd given up the need to convince people years ago. And yet … something about Erin Healy made him want to prove himself. And even more inexplicably, something about her made him want to take her in his arms and …
And that was crazy.
No. Bottom line, Rose was right. He opened the door, ignoring the thoroughly disgusted look Amber gave him as she stalked past.
It's for the best, Rose said in a soft voice as he closed the door behind them.
And there was a sense of relief. But there was also a sense of … something else. Something he couldn't quite define.
Or didn't want to.
He looked at Rose. "We've been together twenty years now. Since when do we turn away someone who needs help?"
She lifted her chin, lips pressed flat. Her stubborn look. "She didn't bring any dead with her. How were we supposed to help?"
She had a point there, but he couldn't help noticing the way she refused to look him in the eye. And that was when it hit him, the word for that thing he didn't really want to define.
It was fear.

~*~ 

They drove awhile in silence before Amber said, "I'm sorry, honey. I never in a million years would have expected him to say no."
Erin shrugged. Then laughed. "So. You knew Martin in high school. Like, knew him knew him."
Amber blew out another annoyed-sounding breath, then gave a little hum. "He was hot in high school. The closest thing to Trent Reznor, back in the day. Dark and brooding and—"
"And he's not now?" Erin asked, remembering the disheveled hair and the glower, the low growl of his voice. Oh yes. Still hot.
Amber snorted. "Yes. But it was different. He wasn't so anti-social, back then. He was dark and broody but also available and he could have any girl he wanted. And he wanted a lot of them." She laughed.
"Including you."
Amber gave a happy sigh. "We were together for like, a minute. But it was a good minute."
No matter what she might say in front of the man.
Erin smiled and Amber shook her head.
"Thank you for taking me to meet him," Erin said. And she was surprised because it was true, she really was grateful. The women she used to think of as friends at the station had all faded on her after the fire. And she understood. Nobody knew what to make of it. Of her. She practically had cop-killer status, for God's sake. Rolly was dead and she wasn't and nobody could figure out why.
So she understood, but it still left her out here in the cold. With no access to her files. No evidence. No help.
The fact that her neighbor went out of her way to take her to meet that Martin Sterling guy might have been ridiculous, but it was the closest thing to friendship she'd encountered in what felt like forever.
All of a sudden there were tears in her eyes and when Amber pulled up in front of the row of townhouses where they lived, three doors apart, Erin had to look away—blink fast—before they ended up on her face.
"Well I hate to say it because, you know, I think everything happens for a reason. But that was a waste of time," Amber said, as they climbed out of the car. "I still can't believe that rat bastard said no!" She hefted her big bag onto her shoulder, then held out her arms for a hug.
Amber was the huggiest person she'd ever met, but for once, it didn't make Erin want to laugh. Instead, she stepped into her friend's arms and hugged her back as hard as her sore shoulder allowed.
"Thank you," Erin said. "That was the nicest thing anybody's done for me in a long, long time."
When Amber let go and pulled back, Erin tried not to interpret the look on her face as pity. "If there's anything I can do to help, you let me know," Amber said, and started up the sidewalk. "Anything at all."
Erin started down the walk, already focused on the next move, because that was the first thing her father—and then Rolly, when she'd partnered with him—taught her. Three-quarters of doing good police work was persistence. Sheer dogged persistence. She wasn't giving up. She couldn't give up. What was the alternative?
She turned toward her own front door and that was when she saw the detective. Nathan Campbell. It took a moment to place him out here, out of context, and he was always a bit of a lone wolf around the station, so they hadn't interacted much. But he used to be Rolly's partner.
Her stomach clenched. What was he doing here?
He walked toward her, not looking at her, and after a few steps he stopped to look down at his phone.
So Erin walked past him. Past her house, and down the block to the little playground where she took a seat on an empty bench. She wasn't sure he would follow her. And when, a few minutes later, Detective Campbell walked up and sat down on the other end of the bench, she wasn't sure she should stay. He set some stuff on the bench between them, including a brown paper bag which he opened.
"Detective Healy," he said, still not looking at her. He rustled around in the bag, took out a sandwich, and unwrapped it.
            "Detective Campbell."
            "We're not talking," he said, his mouth full of food.
            Two young kids barreled onto the playground, followed by their mother. Erin watched, facing away from the man on the other end of the bench. "Right."
            "I was very sorry about your father."
            She swallowed. Three years later, she missed her father every day with every fiber of her being. He was killed just two months before she joined the force and at the time she'd mourned the fact that he hadn't lived to see it. But now she was grateful he didn't have to see her get suspended. Didn't have to watch her drag his name through the mud.
            While she wondered, almost idly, if the detective was here to hurt her, she calculated the distance between them and the kids on the play equipment. Calculated the pain that would shoot through her shoulder if she had to brace her weak arm on the back of the bench to run the other way.
            The detective chewed. "I worked with him, when I was new on the force. He was a good man, your father. Good police."
            She nodded, once, and took a deep breath, so deep it made the knot of scar tissue in her shoulder hitch. A welcome pain.
            "That's why I'm not talking to you now," Detective Campbell said. "Well, that and my sister-in-law."
            "Your sister-in-law?"
            He took a drink, swallowing loudly. "Amber Winston is my wife's stepsister."
            "Small world," Erin said.
            "Weird world, that's for sure. And I might not give a shit about pissing off a so-called witch but I can't afford to piss off my wife. Not about something like this, at any rate."
            He laughed in a way that made it clear he made no bones about pissing his wife off when he thought it was worth it.
            Erin kept her eyes on the kids while he finished his sandwich and the sun grew weaker. Summer was over and as the air cooled a whoosh of wind rattled the treetops and a golden blizzard of leaves drifted to the ground. But for some reason it felt like she was falling and he was watching. "Chief Dern said—"
            He cut her off. "Chief Dern doesn't know that I'm not talking to you. And another thing you don't know is that Karl Werner just took early retirement. Effective immediately."
            He laughed, sounding amused at the whole situation, even as his words struck like shards of ice into her stomach.
            He gathered his stuff and left.
            It was touch and go then, so much anger and regret stuck in her throat. Sharpening—jumbling like stones—as, for the second time that day, tears welled in her eyes and she worked to blink them away.
            Finally, after another minute, she drew a full breath. And let it out. Time to go. She put her hand down and … there was something on the bench. A 9 x 12 pocket folder. Her heart pounded several hard beats until it sank in that it was too thin to be the case file.
            When she opened it, photos slithered into her hand. Photos from the crack house fire. And right there on top was a picture of her partner, Rolly.
            Not that she'd have recognized him from this picture—his own mother wouldn't have recognized him from this picture. He was burned over so much of his body that his remains barely looked human anymore. A wisp of smoke, in fact, was still curling from his body when the crime scene tech snapped the picture. But there was a label across the bottom. Det. Roland Connors.
            She ran her finger over the glossy surface as a tiny bit of relief trickled into the river of grief flowing through her veins. It wasn't the case file, but it was something. And it had come from someone at the station.
            But even that tiny relief was short-lived. She flipped through photo after photo of the meticulously documented crime scene—all of them in color, though that made no difference when a structure burned as hot and fast as that one did. They might as well all have been black and white. And considering the absolute lack of evidence, they might as well all have been pointing at her.

~*~ 

            Roland Connors couldn't help smiling as Nate loped out of the park. Even though he wasn't sure what the detective was up to. Even though he was pretty sure it was no good. Make that definitely sure. He'd practically raised the man, hadn't he?
            Of course, he'd half-raised Erin, too. Taken her under his wing when she joined the department. Taught her everything her old man would have wanted her to know.
            That was the problem, wasn't it?
            That was the whole goddamn problem.
            He watched her open the folder. Watched the play of emotions cross her face. So primal. So human. So remote from who he was now.
            What he was.
            Rolly brushed his fingers through his hair. It wasn't how he'd pictured it. Death. He'd never expected to still be worrying about Erin. Wasn't that the whole point of dying? To put all worldly worries and cares behind you? Move on to something better.
            And it was better, damn it.

            So how come he kept coming back…
~*~
For the rest of the story, buy the Once and Forever anthology here.


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