Fantasy Horror Mystery contemporary fantasy defund the police old world sorcery

Working Graves

By Curtis C. Chen
Nov 6, 2020 · 7,636 words · 28 minutes

San Francisco cable car at night

Photo by Matthias Mullie via Unsplash.

From the author: CONTENT WARNING: police protagonist, violence involving children.


The highest praise I can give Deborah Sorkowitz is that she ate her last meal on the job.

She was late to roll call that Saturday night. She was always late. I offered her a donut, but she just made a face, drank more coffee, and pretended to listen to our sergeant.

We took a detour through Cow Hollow before starting our patrol. The late-night crew at Mel’s drive-thru threw an extra handful of ketchup packets into our takeout bag. I drove while Deborah spread napkins across her lap and took small, careful bites of her food, not wanting to blemish the interior of our new Ford Crown Victoria. We were one of the lucky couples who had won the departmental lottery to trade in our old LTD.

“It’s ironic, you know,” I said.

“What?”

“That you ordered a Diet Coke to go with your bacon double cheeseburger and king-size onion rings.”

“I’m storing fat for the harsh winter ahead.” Deborah took another measured bite. “I don’t need more sugar—dammit!” Ketchup had spurted out the back of her burger. She swiped at our inaugural dashboard stain with a napkin. It was a valiant but futile effort. “Don’t need any more sugar. Only good thing Eddie ever did for me—taught me how to take care of my teeth.”

Deborah’s soon-to-be-ex-husband was a perfect gentleman to children and small animals. Everybody else hated him. Well, everyone except Deborah’s younger sister, Liz. But then, everybody also hated Liz after she slept with Eddie. “You hear back from your lawyer yet?”

“No time for love, Doctor Jones.”

“That would be horribly offensive even if I weren’t half Chinese.”

“Come on, Griff.” Deborah gestured at me with half an onion ring. “I can’t even make it to roll call on time. When the fuck do I have time for divorce proceedings?”

“You make time for important things.”

“This isn’t that important.”

“I’m going to say it again, let me organize your calendar—”

“You’re not my mother. You can’t tell me what to do.”

Deborah’s phone rang. She reboxed her meal-in-progress, shoved it back into the take-out bag, and pulled out her cell.

“Hospital,” she said to me, reading the caller ID before answering. “Sorkowitz. Yes, this is she... What? When?”

I pulled into the right lane and slowed down, looking for a place to stop. Deborah noticed and waved me off.

“And she’s there now?” she said into the phone. “Yeah, that’s fine. Thanks for calling. No, don’t bother. Bye.”

She snapped her phone shut and glared at it. I drove two more blocks before she spoke again.

“Eddie’s in the hospital,” she said.

“Do you want to—”

“No,” Deborah said. “Liz is with him.”

“What happened?”

“She took him clubbing,” Deborah said. “He saw some flashing lights, he had a seizure, I’m still listed as his emergency contact.”

I frowned at her. “Eddie knows how to dance?”

Deborah laughed once, almost like a cough. “Forget it. He’s her problem now.”

“That’s the spirit,” I said. “Let’s go hassle some ricers. I know a block in the Mission.”

“You sure know how to treat a girl.”

Sadly, there was no illegal street racing for us to bust that night, so we had a quiet patrol until two o’clock in the morning, when we caught what would turn out to be Deborah’s last call.

An elderly widow, Lydia Parsons, had been awakened by noises inside her house. She had come downstairs to find a small girl, maybe ten years old, huddled in a corner of the kitchen, shivering and clutching a can of soup. Mrs. Parsons did her best to calm the girl, wrapped a blanket around her, and dialed 911.

I pulled our car to a stop in front of the prehistoric duplex. The roof was missing shingles, the paint was peeling, and the light bulb over the front door flickered erratically.

“Nice house,” I said.

“Hey, I grew up in a duplex,” Deborah said.

“And look how you turned out.”

She smiled and made a fist, extending her middle finger skyward.

Mrs. Parsons let us into the house. The girl was still on the kitchen floor, slurping soup out of a giant ceramic bowl. Deborah talked to the girl while I took a statement from Mrs. Parsons. She said she had never seen the girl before.

I knelt down beside Deborah. The girl stopped slurping when she saw me.

“Hey there,” I said.

The girl began trembling.

Deborah took my arm and led me out of the kitchen. “She hasn’t said anything yet. No ID on her.”

I looked back at the girl. Her flannel pajamas were filthy. “Looks like she’s been playing in the dirt.”

“Or running through it,” Deborah shook her head and lowered her voice. “Did you see how she reacted when she saw you? Like she was afraid.”

I sighed. “Yeah.” There was an obvious answer for why a young girl would be running away from home and scared of an adult male.

“I don’t see any obvious injuries, but we should get EMS to check her out.”

“Okay. I’ll call it in. You good?”

Deborah shrugged. “This is the job.”

I nodded, turned, and smiled to myself. Deborah would never admit it, but she was having a ball. I was feeling it too. On the graveyard shift, we were usually stuck breaking up drunken brawls in a variety of public and domestic spaces. It wasn’t often that we got to do a genuine rescue of an innocent.

I called for an ambulance on my radio and asked the dispatcher to get in touch with Child Services. Then I went to find Mrs. Parsons. I walked her through the house, checking all the doors and windows. Everything was closed and locked. Nobody else was in the house, and nothing seemed to be missing.

I used the bathroom while Mrs. Parsons shuffled back down to the kitchen to check on Deborah and the girl. It was unusually quiet upstairs. All the sounds around me seemed to be fading away, and when I flushed the toilet, it was completely silent. I tried pinching my nose and popping my ears.

Mrs. Parsons screamed.

I ran down the stairs and drew my weapon. I pulled Parsons out of the kitchen doorway and looked in.

Deborah had fallen to the floor. Her face and neck were unrecognizable. I saw bone where her cheek used to be. Blood and flesh were splattered all over the linoleum. The girl had her back to me, standing over the body, looking down and shivering.

“Hey,” I said, scanning the scene for the assailant, “come away from there, kid.”

The thing that turned around was not a little girl. Its eyes glowed yellow, pulsing in an odd way that reminded me of incandescent light bulb filaments. The round baby teeth had been replaced by rows of jagged incisors. The thing’s skin was pale and wrinkled. Wet blood covered its lips and chin.

It looked straight at me.

I felt like my brain had stopped working. “Don’t move,” I said.

The girl-thing shuddered and took a halting step toward me. I couldn’t look away from its eyes. There was something in there, some kind of intent or intelligence.

“I said don’t move,” I repeated, raising my voice.

The thing took another step. It didn’t move like anything I’d ever seen. Everything about it was wrong.

“Please stop,” I said, dialing my tone up to eleven. “Kid, you gotta stop moving. Right now. Stop.”

The thing took a third step, opened its mouth, and made an unnatural noise, halfway between a snarl and a wail.

“STOP!” I shouted.

It ran straight at me, still making that hideous sound.

I fired into the thing’s chest. It didn’t go down until I had emptied my gun. I fumbled another clip into my weapon, then stepped forward to make sure it was dead.

The thing had fallen backward onto Deborah’s body. Its eyes and mouth were still open. There was no blood in its wounds.

I put two more bullets into its brain.

My hands were shaking. Deborah wasn’t breathing. I felt like I was going to throw up.

I turned around, heeding my instinct to clear the room and make sure there were no other attackers. Mrs. Parsons was sitting in the hallway, clutching her chest.

I don’t remember the next few minutes very well. My weapon found its way back into its holster. When the ambulance arrived, I was doing CPR on Mrs. Parsons. The paramedics pronounced Deborah dead on arrival. And the body of the girl-monster-thing had disappeared.

My shift ended at eight in the morning. By that time, I had been grilled by Homicide and Internal Affairs and chewed out by all sorts of brass. I kept telling the same story, the only one I knew, the truth I couldn’t explain.

Mrs. Parsons’ neighbors had heard my multiple gunshots and called 911. Dispatch had sent four more patrol cars. They had arrived shortly after the ambulance to find no sign of any ten-year-old girl. All they had seen was the mutilated body of my dead partner, her blood splattered all over the room, and my bullet holes everywhere. At least none of my rounds had ended up in Deborah’s body.

I couldn’t say anything that made sense. They all thought I had gone off the deep end.

Captain Doyle took my badge and weapon and suspended me for the duration of the investigation. I changed out of my uniform and sat on the bench in front of my locker for a long time, waiting for some epiphany to come along and put the world back in order.

The phone in my apartment rang just after two o’clock, waking me up. I let the answering machine get it.

“I beep. You talk.” BEEP

“This is Detective Shawna Burgeson, SFPD Homicide. I’m looking for Officer Griffin Jay. We need to talk. There’s a radio car on its way to your apartment right now—”

I rolled over and picked up the phone. “I hope they’re bringing coffee and donuts.”

“Wake up and get dressed. The car’s going to take you to the morgue. I’ll meet you there.”

“What,” I said before she hung up.

I got to the morgue before the detective. The temperature in the room wasn’t particularly low, but the pale fluorescent lights made it look cold. It smelled cold.

The Assistant Medical Examiner, Walker, found me staring at the cloth-covered lump on the table. I knew it was Deborah.

“I don’t need to see this again,” I said. “Why am I here?”

“We should wait for Detective Burgeson,” Walker said, fidgeting with his clipboard. He was young, Black, and the skin on his hands was as smooth as mine had been twenty years ago.

I don’t know why I kept talking.

“She wasn’t breathing,” I said. “Her face was torn open. I didn’t know what to do. And the old woman—Parsons—she was having a goddamn heart attack.”

“You couldn’t have helped your partner,” Walker said. “Officer Sorkowitz’s neck was ripped apart. It looks like an animal attack. Her carotid artery was severed. She lost a lot of blood very quickly.”

I felt a morbid urge to laugh. “And what’s the bad news, doctor?”

“We can’t find the other body,” said a voice behind me.

I turned and saw a woman in a suit and tie standing in the doorway. She had a file folder tucked under one arm.

“Detective Burgeson, I presume,” I said.

I had already heard about the missing body during my earlier interviews. The prevailing theory, from those on my side, was that a wild animal had entered the house, killed Deborah, and then escaped while I was upstairs with Mrs. Parsons. The more popular scenario, put forth by those who didn’t believe me, was that I had lost my marbles and gunned down my own partner.

The problem was, neither theory fit with the actual physical evidence from the scene.

“Mrs. Parsons is awake,” Burgeson said, putting the folder down on a table and flipping through its contents. “I just came from the hospital.”

“She going to be okay?” I asked without thinking.

Burgeson nodded. “You probably saved her life, Jay. But we have another problem.”

She held up a picture. It was the police artist’s sketch of the little girl—before she had turned into a monster—based on my statement. Big eyes, curly dark hair, pointy chin.

“That’s your description of the girl you claim was in the house,” Burgeson said.

“She was there,” I snapped.

“Here’s the problem,” Burgeson said. She held up another picture. It was a sketch of a different girl: rounder face, narrower eyes, straight hair.

“Who’s that?” I asked.

“This is the girl that Mrs. Parsons described seeing in her house,” Burgeson said. “You notice anything different, Officer?”

My head was spinning. I staggered backward, and Walker pushed a stool forward for me to sit on.

Burgeson closed the file and folded her arms. “We’re working the case, Jay,” she said, “but now we’re looking for a wild dog that nobody saw and two different girls, each based on a description from a single witness.

“Now, maybe Mrs. Parsons’ eyesight isn’t what it used to be. She could have memory issues. I don’t know. But if we don’t find some actual evidence in the next day or two, it’s going be a lot easier to just close this thing on your head.

“You’ve got to give me something, Jay. What happened in that house? What happened to your partner?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t know anymore.”

Burgeson sighed. “That’s too bad. Because I’m going to get a lot of pressure from the DA’s office in the morning. And Internal Affairs can’t wait to throw you on a barbeque. I want to help you, Jay. But I need something to make sense here.”

“Join the club,” I muttered.

“Jay,” Burgeson said, “why did you reload?”

I glared at her.

She leaned down and got in my face. “You fired fourteen rounds. That’s a full clip, plus two.”

“I had to make sure it was dead,” I said through clenched teeth. “It wasn’t bleeding. So I put two in its head.”

“Right.” Burgeson found a chair and sat down facing me. “You’re talking about killing the ten-year-old girl who was in the kitchen, eating soup.”

“Not a girl,” I said. “It—changed.”

“Yeah,” Burgeson said. “I really wish you hadn’t put that in your statement. It just makes you sound crazy.”

“And perforating a ten-year-old kid is better, how?”

Burgeson shrugged. “We’re still not sure what you were shooting at in there.”

“Fingerprints,” I said, remembering the can of soup in the girl’s hands. “The girl should have left prints all over the kitchen.”

“Yeah, that was the good news,” Burgeson said. “The bad news is, we haven’t been able to match them. We ran through all our local records, plus California missing persons, and now they’re at the FBI. But a girl that young, unless her parents put her on file—I’m not holding my breath.”

I rubbed my eyes. I was getting a terrible headache.

Burgeson stood up. “I need you to look at something.”

She nodded at Walker. I shook my head.

“No,” I said.

“I need your help, Jay,” Burgeson said. “I need you to explain it to me again.”

She spun me around on the stool as Walker pulled back the sheet that had been covering Deborah’s body. Her skin was pale under the fluorescent lights. Half her face was missing. I could see her collarbone poking out of her chest.

“Tell him,” Burgeson said to Walker.

“We found all the flesh that had been torn from her body at the scene,” Walker said. “It had been left there, on the floor. Whoever—whatever did this to her, was not feeding. It was killing.”

My vision blurred and my face felt wet. I wiped the back of my hand across my eyes. It didn’t help much.

“What happened to Deborah?” Burgeson asked me.

She did her job, I wanted to say. She was a good person, and she should have had a better life, and she didn’t deserve to die this way.

But I didn’t say that. I stood up and walked out of the room. I walked until I found a bar, and then I got seriously drunk.

There were a lot of cops at Deborah’s funeral. I didn’t want to get too close. There were still too many questions, too many accusatory stares.

I felt like an idiot, hiding in the shadow of a tree in my dark suit and sunglasses. I could barely hear the eulogies. I filled in the blanks with my own words, thinking about all the things I would never get to say to Deborah or about her.

It was a short ceremony. Most of the people left in one mass, but a few lingered. An older woman stood by the casket until everyone else was gone, then walked away slowly. She wore a plain black dress, and her short, dark hair laid flat against her round face.

She was halfway across the lawn before I realized she was headed straight for me. I started to turn and walk away.

“Griffin Jay,” she said.

I stopped and took off my sunglasses to get a better look at her. “Sorry. Have we met?”

“You were Deborah’s partner,” the woman said. “I was her mother. Mira.” She spoke with an accent, maybe Eastern European.

“I’m very sorry,” I said. My mouth felt dry.

“Tell me what happened that night,” Mira said. “The night she died.”

“Didn’t the detectives go over this with you already?” I asked.

“They were not there. You were.”

I shook my head. “You wouldn’t believe me.”

“Did it have yellow eyes, glowing like light bulbs?”

My blood froze. I hadn’t told anyone that particular detail, not because I would ever forget it, but because I wasn’t sure how to describe it, and it honestly hadn’t seemed significant among all the other crazy shit I had put in my report.

I stared at Mira. She stared back at me.

“What. The fuck. Was it,” I asked.

“We don’t talk here.” She turned and started walking. “Follow.”

I drove my own car and followed Mira’s red pickup truck to a small townhouse in Noe Valley. Inside, I sat at the dining table, fidgeting while she made tea and set out biscuits. The walls were decorated with paintings of fruit. Ceramic owls filled a glass display case in the corner. Everything smelled like… potatoes?

I described what had happened on Saturday night for what felt like the thousandth time. I didn’t even feel sad or angry anymore—just tired. I wanted to be done with all of it. Maybe I was even done with being a cop. My father was long dead; why was I still doing this job?

Mira listened to my story, sipped her tea, and ate a single biscuit after I was done. I waited for her to say something. The hot tea burned my tongue.

“I would like you to look at something,” she said.

She got up, disappeared down the hallway, and came back with a thick photo album, which she set down on the table in front of me.

“What, you keep mugshots around just for fun?”

“Please humor me.”

I sighed and opened the album. The first page was all baby pictures. I saw a much younger Mira cradling her daughters in both arms. The next page was more of the same. No husband in any of the photos, I noticed.

I froze on the fourth page. Near the bottom, tilted sideways under the yellow cellophane, was a portrait of the ten-year-old girl who had eaten soup in Mrs. Parsons’ kitchen and then turned into a monster and killed Deborah. She was smiling in the photo, but she had the same curly brown hair and pointed chin and big, round eyes.

I jabbed a finger at the picture. “Who is this?”

Mira leaned over to look. “Are you sure? Please take your time.”

Now I was angry again. “This is the girl. The one who was at the house, who—turned into a monster. Who is she?”

Mira looked up at me with sad eyes. “That is my daughter, Elizabeth.”

Deborah’s sister. The one who was still sleeping with Eddie. I stood up and pulled out my cell phone.

“Excuse me,” I said, walking away from the table.

Mira waved her hand. My phone screen flickered and died before I could finish dialing Burgeson’s number. I abused the touchscreen and buttons for a moment. Nothing responded.

“Sit down,” Mira said.

I looked back at her. She had seemed matronly before, like someone’s grandmother, but now she was commanding, almost regal. I sat back down at the table.

“I need to call someone,” I said.

“Who?”

“The detective working Deborah’s murder. You remember Deborah, right? Your other daughter? We just came from her fucking funeral?”

“And what will you tell the detective? That Deborah was killed by ten-year-old version of her sister? Already they think you are crazy.”

“So what should I tell her? You seem to know what’s going on. You want to share with the rest of us? Maybe help catch your daughter’s killer?”

Sadness flickered across Mira’s face. “And if that killer is my other daughter?”

I didn’t share her sentiment. “She’s still a killer.”

The sadness on Mira’s face turned into something darker. “You are police. You have never killed?”

My stomach clenched up. I vividly recalled each recoil as I pulled the trigger that night, firing fourteen bullets into what I thought was a monster. After doing everything I could think of to de-escalate the situation. Not firing until I had believed my own life to be in extreme and immediate jeopardy.

But that’s not enough, is it? That’s the same thing any number of cops have said, after shooting a Black man in the back, after gunning down a twelve-year-old child in broad daylight, after kicking in the door to an EMT’s home and killing her in her sleep. And none of those motherfuckers were in the right.

Even if they were never held officially accountable, I can’t fathom how they live with themselves after doing something like that. I sure as hell couldn’t. I’d rather die than have to go on, knowing that I’d killed an innocent person, always afraid I might do it again.

So was I just imagining all this, making up a ridiculous fantasy to give myself a way out? Was my mind fabricating an elaborate delusion so I wouldn’t have to deal with the consequences of my failure to do my job as a cop, as a civil servant, as a human being?

But it wasn’t just me. Burgeson. Walker. Mira. They all saw the same inexplicable things I did, had all the same questions I had.

Well, maybe not Mira.

“My dad was a cop,” I said. “He’s the reason I even considered putting on the uniform. I do the job because I want to help people like he did. Even when they don’t want my help, even if they don’t trust me because I wear a badge and carry a gun. Even if they’d rather kill me than accept my help.

“That’s what I always promised. But the night that Deborah died…” I sucked in a breath. “I took an oath to serve and protect.” I looked up at Mira. “I’m sorry I couldn’t protect Deborah. I’m sorry I failed her.”

I didn’t say what I was thinking: It should have been me. I should have died instead of her.

Mira’s eyes were sad again. “You are good person, Griffin. I’m sorry you are mixed up in this…” She shook her head and waved one hand in the air. “Go home. Thank you for telling me everything.”

I gritted my teeth. “No.”

Mira glared at me, and I nearly pissed my pants. “Go home, Officer Jay.”

“I can’t go home,” I said, holding my voice and bladder steady. “You know why? Because I fucking live here now. I live in a world where things I can’t explain kill people I love”—my brain sparked a little at my use of the word in relation to Deborah, but I’d have to deal with that later—“and I can’t do anything about it. But you.” I pointed at her and hoped she wouldn’t bite my finger off. Her face kind of looked like she might. “You know more than you’re saying, and I want to hear it.”

“This is not for you.”

“The fuck it isn’t.”

“Please leave.”

I held up my dead brick of a smartphone, which I’d been vainly attempting to revive. “What the hell did you do to my phone?”

“Maybe you need upgrade.”

I stood up, not bothering to catch my chair before it toppled to the floor behind me. I yanked the rubber case off my phone, then smacked the screen against the corner of Mira’s table until it cracked. I took the dead phone in both hands, broke it in half, and dropped it on the floor.

“I’m going to go home,” I said, surprised at how out of breath I was, “and I’m going to kill myself, because I can’t live in this world.”

“You can’t.” Mira stood. “You cannot do that. It’s a sin.”

“Is there something about me that makes you think I would care about that?”

“Deborah would not want—”

“Deborah’s gone!” I slammed a fist against the table. “Just tell me what the fuck she died for, so I can rest in peace!”

Now that I’d said it out loud, I felt a rush of calm. I wasn’t afraid of Mira anymore. I didn’t have to be afraid of anything ever again. Death is the ultimate freedom.

“You are very emotional right now,” Mira said, her voice shaking. “You shouldn’t make big decisions when you are feeling emotional.”

I was crying. When had I started crying? “That sounds like a great way to avoid ever actually doing anything that fucking matters.”

Mira dropped back down into her chair and buried her face in her hands. When she raised her head again, her eyes were red and her cheeks were wet. I don’t understand how some people can cry so hard but stay so quiet.

“I love my daughters. Both my daughters,” she said. “I don’t want them to suffer like I did. I don’t want them to know about their power.”

“What power?”

Mira sighed. “Where I was born, they call us czarownica. It means…” She seemed reluctant to continue.

“Sorcerer.” The word just popped into my head. How did I know that?

Mira frowned. “Usually people say ‘witch.’”

“That’s a sexist term.” I realized I was channeling Deborah’s progressive attitudes, but right now, that seemed like a bit of comfort. And it was the least I owed her and her mother. “So you’re a—magician?”

“Magic is a stage show,” Mira spat. “What we do is real. And dangerous. That is why I don’t want my daughters to know. But…”

“Elizabeth found out.” I was starting to get the picture. “And without your guidance—”

“She doesn’t listen!” Mira exploded. “She never listens! You think I could teach her anything? She refuses to learn. From anyone.”

Deborah had said about as much, on more than one occasion. “You know what she’s doing. Do you know how to stop her?”

Mira wiped her nose with a napkin. “It is not that simple.”

“She murdered Deborah in cold blood. Am I next? Are you?” I leaned forward. “How the fuck do we stop her?”

Mira cocked her head at me. “Why do you say ‘we’? I told you. This is not for you.”

“I don’t care. I’m in it now, and I’m not leaving until it’s done.”

“Even if it kills you?”

I laughed out loud. “Hey, two birds, one stone.”

Mira frowned. “What?”

I caught my breath. “I just told you, I’m okay with getting dead over this. And if I have the option to go down swinging, I’ll take it.”

“You cannot fight her,” Mira said. “You have no power. And you know bullets don’t work.”

“So help me.”

“I won’t help you kill my daughter.”

“Then help me find a way to stop her without killing her.”

“Go home, Griffin. This is not for you.”

“Fine.” I stood. “But just FYI, on my way home, I’m going to stop by Liz’s house and have a quick chat with her. That probably won’t go so well. But hey, I have nothing left to lose. My partner’s dead, they took my badge, I’m probably going to fucking prison soon. I might as well tie my own noose instead of waiting for someone else to string me up.”

Mira stood and glared at me. “Stay away from Elizabeth.”

“Try and stop me, witch.” I turned to walk out of the house.

Something cool and clammy clamped around my wrist. I turned back to see Mira’s hand on me, holding me in place with surprising strength.

And then the entire world… shifted.

I’ve been skydiving once. It was for a cousin’s bachelor party, and his best man thought it would be funny to shove me out of the plane before the instructor finished her countdown. He didn’t think it was funny afterward, when we were all on the ground again and I broke his nose.

Those first few seconds falling through open air were some of the most terrifying of my life. Tumbling head over heel, not knowing which way was up, unable to stop myself or get my bearings—it wasn’t just the disorientation, it was the sense of being powerless, not having any idea of how to save myself because I barely understood what was happening in the first place.

That’s how I felt when Mira touched me. All my senses were turned inside out, and I had a dim notion that there were things around me that I hadn’t been aware of before, but those perceptions were dwarfed by the overwhelming feeling of envelopment, like being submerged in water. But this was a body of water that inexplicably made things more clear, not less, and what I saw and heard and smelled and felt stretched all the way to infinity—above, around, and below me—and strained my comprehension of what the universe was.

Then something hit me on the head, and Mira’s house blinked back into existence around me, a murky physical veil over the incomprehensible vastness of the cosmos. I realized I was lying on the ground, my whole right side ached because I’d fallen down, and Mira wasn’t holding on to me anymore. I sat up and saw her sitting on the floor across the room, her back against the glass case now full of toppled ceramic owls. Her hand shook and—glowed? Was it glowing yellow, like a goddamn light bulb?

Mira made a fist as my eyes met hers. “I was wrong. You do have power. But you don’t know how to use.”

It took me a few tries to make my voice work. “So fucking teach me.”

She shook her head. “Is too dangerous.”

“More dangerous than me confronting Elizabeth alone?”

Mira mumbled something in another language and struggled to her feet. “I come with you. You do exactly as I say. And you make phone call first.”

She stood next to my broken cell phone and held a hand over it. The parts levitated and reassembled themselves in midair, finally rising up into her palm as a whole device again. She lifted the screen toward me, and I saw it light up, good as new.

“Maybe I should go home,” I muttered.

“No,” Mira said, and her tone was final. “Now we are both in this.”

I called Burgeson while Mira gathered supplies. It took me several minutes to explain why the detective should run the fingerprints from the Parsons house against Elizabeth Sorkowitz’s records.

“Deborah’s sister was asleep. In the emergency room, at least a mile away,” Burgeson reminded me. “We’ve got eight witnesses.”

“Were they watching her the whole time?” I asked. “Can every single one of your witnesses swear that she didn’t leave that waiting room until morning?”

Burgeson paused, then said, “Where are you, Jay?”

I hung up and turned off my phone.

Mira didn’t say a word as we started our drive. I didn’t ask what she had put into her pink duffel bag. I turned on the radio to fill the awkward silence, but Mira turned it off again—without touching it—and gave me an annoyed look.

“So what’s the plan?” I asked. “We do have a plan, don’t we?”

“She will know if I am too close,” Mira said. “You are sure the detective will come?”

“Yeah.” Burgeson wasn’t an idiot. “We’ll beat her there by a few minutes, but yeah.”

“Then you only must detain Elizabeth for a few minutes.”

“And if she tries to…?” I waved one hand in an attempt to sign do some sorcerer shit?

“Distract her,” Mira said. “Touch her, your skin to her skin.”

I didn’t like where this was going. “Is that going to do the same thing as when you touched me? Because that was not pleasant.”

“It will be worse for Elizabeth.” Mira sounded sad but determined. “I believe… I hope it will knock her out, and she will be unconscious when the detective arrives.”

“But if it doesn’t knock her out?”

“She will be disoriented. You can restrain her, yes?”

I wasn’t sure I’d be able to do anything while I was freefalling through an existential void of endless despair. “When you touched me, I felt—lost. I didn’t know which way was up. I’m not sure how much I’ll be able to do in that state.”

“It will be worse for her,” Mira repeated. “You must hold on to her. Don’t let go. She will struggle. She may lose control of her body.”

“I’m sorry, what?”

“Vomit, perhaps. Or…” Mira flapped a hand over her belly. “Discharge bladder and bowels.”

“This just gets better all the time,” I muttered. “So what’s in the bag?”

Mira shook her head. “Things I don’t want to use.”

“If you don’t want to use them, why bring—”

“They will steal Elizabeth’s power,” Mira said. “I hope they will not steal her life.”

I stopped asking questions for the rest of the drive.

I started seeing spots in my vision while we were still in the elevator headed up to Liz’s apartment. It only got worse as I led the way down the hall, and Mira wasn’t much help.

“Take deep breaths,” she said as we stopped in front of Liz’s door and she rummaged in her bag of tricks. The doorway was outlined in that same weird incandescent glow I’d come to associate with “sorcery,” and the walls on either side shimmered with a fainter version of the same light.

I described this as best I could to Mira, and she shook her head. “You go in first. Cage will not stop you. I will follow, as soon as I can.” She poured something that looked like water from a mason jar into another glass jar filled with dried herbs and flowery bits. The mixture smelled like rotten eggs as it rehydrated, and I refrained from asking if the odor was going to give us away.

Whatever happened next, I just wanted to get it over with.

I kicked in the door and rushed through, turning in a circle to clear the room, grabbing the wall to steady myself against the dizziness I felt. There was a fireplace directly in front of me. A sliding glass door on my right led to a small balcony overlooking the bay. A short staircase to the left led up to a darkened loft.

Now that I was inside the perimeter of the “cage,” as Mira had called it, I wasn’t seeing anything else that seemed supernatural. I turned to check on Mira through the open doorway. She was still hunched over her bag, engrossed in adding a dark red powder to her vegetable soup.

“Who the fuck are you?”

I looked toward the fireplace, where the voice had come from, and saw a woman standing there in a t-shirt and sweatpants. She had long, dark, curly hair; pale skin; a pointed chin; and round eyes. The same eyes as Deborah’s. Except that Liz’s eyes were glowing orange, just barely. I wonder if they’d always been like that and I’d just never noticed.

“Griffin Jay, San Francisco Police, and you’re under arrest.” I held up the spare handcuffs I’d brought from my car.

Liz narrowed her eyes at me. “On what charge? I want to see some ID. Where’s your badge? Where’s your fucking warrant?”

I slowly inched toward her as I talked. “My partner’ll be here any second.”

“Wait a minute.” Liz leapt backward and out of reach just as I went for her wrist. “You’re not a detective. You’re him. You’re Deb’s partner.” Her eyes widened. I guess I’d gotten close enough for her to recognize my face. “You fucking shot me! Fourteen times! Jesus, from everything Deb said about you, I thought you’d be a little more hesitant to shoot a fucking kid!”

My heart leapt into my throat. Words tumbled out of my mouth. “It wasn’t a kid. It was you. You disguised yourself. Using sorcery. And I saw through it.”

Liz narrowed her eyes at me. “Who have you been talking to?”

“Your mom.”

We both glanced over at the kitchen counter, where her phone was charging. She made a break for it. I launched myself over the couch and tackled her, making sure to get a hand around one of her forearms.

It wasn’t quite as bad the second time, falling into the unknowable. Maybe Liz just wasn’t as powerful as Mira was, or maybe her lack of training meant that her power didn’t fuck with me quite as much as her mother’s did.

It was still a lot of fuckage.

We must have hit the floor pretty hard, but I didn’t feel it. All I was aware of, other than tumbling through a vast unfeeling cosmos, was a buzzing sensation that was numbing my hand and traveling up my arm, as if I had grabbed onto a live electrical wire. Liz herself had transformed into a blinding orange blob that hurt my eyes, and I had to look away.

The rest of my universe was a mass of swirling light particles against a black backdrop. The glowing dots ranged in color from bright white down to a dull, campfire-ember orange, and they moved in patterns that sometimes seemed like flocks of birds, other times like rising smoke or running water. I tried to focus on anything I might be able to pick out of that mass, partly to distract myself from being burned by Liz, partly because I wanted to know just what the fuck I was looking at.

And then Deborah appeared.

I wasn’t sure what I was seeing at first—honestly, I wasn’t sure of anything anymore—but the collection of particles that smeared into streaks and swirled together became, unmistakably, my dead partner’s face and body. Still wearing her uniform, whole, before she’d been mutilated by her sister.

She reached out a hand and smiled at me.

My shoulder was starting to go numb now—where the fuck was Mira, and how would I even know if I died in here?—but I kept my grip on Liz’s arm as the lights that were momentarily Deborah reformed themselves into a different shape: still human, but older, more masculine, and definitely someone I recognized, despite not having seen him in the flesh for too many years.

“Dad?” my voice echoed inside my head. I probably wasn’t actually hearing sounds, but my brain didn’t know how else to interpret what was happening.

“I found you,” said my father. He was also in his patrol uniform; that was his badge number, and there was his holster on the left side of his equipment belt, and the pouch of horrible hard candies that he always carried instead of extra ammunition clips. “I finally found you, Griff. We might not have much time here, so I need to tell you—I want you to know I’m proud of you, son. I’m proud that you followed in my footsteps. I’m proud that you’re still police, even after what happened to me.”

I probably wasn’t crying, either, but again, my stupid brain. “I don’t know if I can do it anymore, Dad.”

“What are you talking about, Griff?”

“I can’t be a cop anymore,” I said. “I thought we were the good guys. But the whole system’s broken. I can’t be a part of it anymore.”

My father looked at me with sad eyes. “If you’re not in the job, I won’t be able to find you again. You can’t quit, Griff. Your story’s not done yet.”

“They’re killing Black people in the streets! They’re killing kids!”

“But you’re not. Listen to me, Griff.” His voice and image wavered. “It’s always been fucked. Okay? It’s your job to unfuck it. To protect the people who are going to make things better.”

The numbness had made its way up to my neck, and I was starting to feel woozy. It was getting harder to stay focused on my father’s ghost—if that’s what it even was.

“I couldn’t protect her,” I said. “My partner. Deborah. But I was willing to shoot… to kill… a child…”

“Not a child. You saw the truth,” Dad said. “It was never a child in that room; it was an illusion, a trick. You didn’t make a mistake. You were fooled.”

My head was tingling, and not in a good way. “Couldn’t… stop…”

“Listen to me! I didn’t know this before, Griff, but you have a gift. And now that you know it, too, I can help. But I can’t find you if you’re not in the job.”

My vision, or however I was perceiving things in this weird place, was starting to go. “That… doesn’t… make sense.”

“You have to stay connected. It won’t be easy, but you have to stay in it. I’ll do what I can to help, but you have to stay—”

The universe whirled and blinked, and suddenly I was back on the floor of Liz’s apartment, my entire body shot through with pinpricks, and the scent of decaying vegetation filling my nostrils. My shirt was wet, soaked through with Mira’s stinky potion.

I looked up and saw Mira dragging Liz’s limp form onto the couch. Her entire upper body, from her head to her waist, was drenched. Dark, wet clumps clung to her designer t-shirt. She might have peed her pants; it was hard to tell.

“Liz,” I croaked, rolling onto my side. “Is. She?”

Mira looked back at me. “She is alive. And her power is gone.” She knelt down next to me. Her round face was flushed, and her dark hair was plastered to her skin with sweat. “You saw something else? In the other place?”

“How… do you…?”

“You spoke. I didn’t know the language.”

“Maybe… shouldn’t talk here.” I sat up with great effort. “Hard to explain…”

I looked back at the front door and saw that it was undamaged, as if I’d never kicked it in. I gaped at Mira.

“Handy trick,” I said.

“We tell detective we came to talk to Elizabeth,” Mira said. “You and I. Then we have argument with her. Throw things.” She waved toward the kitchen, where apparently she’d had time to stage a convincing mess while I was away. “They will believe?”

I nodded. “Domestic disturbance always sells.”

Mira frowned. “I don’t know what this means.”

“Don’t worry about it. I’ll handle Detective Burgeson when she gets here.” I studied Mira’s face. “Are you okay? Did Liz—attack you?”

“I am not hurt,” Mira said, her voice tight. “Elizabeth cannot control her power. That is why you see her that night. That is how we could stop her.”

“I’m—” I swallowed a lump in my throat. “I’m glad she’s still alive.”

“Her life is cut,” Mira said bitterly. “Her blood is thinned. My family’s power dies when I die.”

I spread my hands. “I’m sitting right here.”

Forensics went back to Mrs. Parson’s house and, lo and behold, matched the fingerprints from all over the kitchen to Elizabeth Sorkowitz. Burgeson re-interviewed her witnesses from the hospital, and like all witnesses, none of them was really sure what they saw or when they saw it.

Nobody could figure out exactly how Liz had gotten a random ten-year-old girl and a vicious attack dog involved in her scheme to kill her sister and split the insurance money with Eddie, but nothing else made sense to the detectives.

Internal Affairs kept me on ice for a few more weeks, but after turning my entire life upside down and inside out, they reinstated me.

Some days it’s harder than others to put on the uniform. Every time another cop screws up in the line of duty, I feel it in my gut, and I think again about ending it all.

But I’m in therapy now. That helps. We talk about my Dad a lot. He hasn’t reappeared yet, and I don’t know how to summon him—if I even have that ability—but I’m still on the job. I want to make sure he can find me.

And every Sunday afternoon, I have tea with Mira.


Data?1536085760
Curtis C. Chen

Curtis writes mostly science fiction and fantasy. MOSTLY.