Within The Summit's Shadow, The First Three Chapters
One ~ Andrew
Detective Andrew Gavin knew two things: one, he’d be in a world of shit if his Staff Sergeant knew he was back in this school yard. Two: if he was caught, he’d deserve every bit of shit that he got.
Shoulders twitching, he glanced around.
The yard teemed with kids. Just kids. One group was thwacking a baseball on a diamond beside him while others wandered, twittering and shrieking in packs here and there. Andrew assessed them, unsurprised that more than just a few had become familiar. He, on the other hand…? Even after all these months, if any one of these kids were asked: “Was a police officer on the school grounds today?” they’d answer “No”—and not just because of his plain clothes. Kids this age…hell, a full-blown brawl could erupt at their feet, and any of them who weren’t amused very likely wouldn’t care.
Which, ironically, was precisely why he had defied a direct order and returned here today. For another constant that could be counted on in junior high schools everywhere was that lunch hour was lethal; feeding time for bullies, and a forty-five minute lifetime of hell for their victims.
But not today.
Today Andrew didn’t give a shit that his Staff Sergeant had said “What is it with you and kids, Gavin?” before she closed the file on the little predator he’d been re-investigating, the one with a history of manipulation and murder. “Enough,” his Sergeant had commanded, then delivered what she’d clearly hoped was the kill shot: “Stop hassling this poor boy or I’ll suspend you. Again.”
“Then who protects his victim du jour?” he’d rallied, to her departing back.
“Someone paid to watch kids. Which you’re not.”
Bullshit, he thought now, and cranked a look to his left.
Violet Chamberlain, unaware that their contact had been included on his list of ‘You May Nots’ was a little husk of bones as skinny as the slats of the bench they shared. “You need to make me a promise,” he told her.
She peered at him, listless like she’d been on that first day he’d met her, back when a frosty fall mist had started to creep across the grass. When the trees, dead of foliage, had been as colorless as she was.
Now those same trees burst with green, and summer holidays—aka Violet’s safety—was finally in sight.
But there were still a few unpredictable weeks left.
Andrew’s shoulders twitched again and he regarded her, ignoring the vague stench of stagnant water that always clung to her miles-too-big clothes. “I’m heading west to the mountains soon,” he said. “My sister’s wedding. You need to promise to keep yourself safe while I’m gone.”
Violet tore a piece off the sandwich he’d brought her. “You grew up in the mountains,” she said.
Andrew nodded, and tore a chunk off his sandwich too.
“And you hated high school.”
“Yes.” He shot her a look. “And don’t you ever trust anyone who says that they didn’t.”
She did not reply. Didn’t need to. They’d covered this ground before because Violet, like all wounded kids, had a tendency to ask the same questions over and over. Not because she was forgetful or thought he was bullshitting. Instead Violet, again like all wounded kids, took solace in knowing that some people’s answers always stayed the same.
And so, knowing his script, Andrew cleared his throat like he always did, and said what he always said: “High school sucked, Little Girl.”
She beamed and his heart ached. Smiling usually made even homely girls pretty. Not Violet. Grinning turned her ghastly. Oddly puppet-like. “I have a question,” she said.
“Do you believe in ghosts?”
Andrew laughed, for this shift in gears, too, was typical. So was the impatient way she squeaked the straw in her juice box (which he’d also brought) whenever she thought he was taking too long to answer. “That noise is going to make me snap a crayon, Little Girl.”
Squeaky, squeaky, squeak.
He stabbed his own juice. “There’s no such thing as ghosts. Why the hell would there be? There’re enough spooky live people.”
Violet scowled. “Ghosts aren’t always spooky, Detective Andrew.”
He tried flattening her with a look, but she merely cleared her scrawny throat like a weak mountain starling. “Sometimes ghosts are just memories,” she said. “The past, haunting you.”
An unexpected chill crept up his spine. Haunted. The past. For weeks now, as his sister’s wedding in Jasper grew closer, nightmares kept pulling him back up Summit Mountain. His footfalls would pelt upon the uneven trail, an erratic heartbeat on the ground. He’d wake up filled with dread and be half-convinced that the fresh claw marks he’d find on his face were scratches from the trees in his dreams.
Dreams about Summit Mountain had always made him flail—and scratch himself.
Violet examined his scratches now. “Your ghosts hurt you,” she said softly.
A shiver crossed his heart, and he pushed it—and his dreams—away. “Ghosts,” he said. “Ghosts mean dead, Violet. How come every conversation lately takes us back to the grave? You thinking suicide again? Your boyfriend been planting ideas?”
“JV’s not my boyfriend.” Her face corkscrewed. “And I’ve told you and told you—sometimes dead would be better.”
Goddammit, she had no clue what killing herself really meant. He, on the other hand…the dreams trickled back. He knew more about suicide than he’d ever forget.
And God knew he’d carve out his own soul to forget.
Violet eyed him. “But sometimes dead isn’t better.” This, quietly. “Sometimes ghosts just wish they were alive.”
Another palpable sheet of ice spilled through his chest, this time a sensation he knew. Panic attack. What the hell? It had been years since he’d had a full-on panic attack. Scrambling for distraction (and hoping Violet couldn’t tell), he tore open the package of cookies he’d tossed between them.
She plucked one. “You brought these more for you than for me.”
Always. His head bobbed and he took a handful, still shaking.
“You eat too much sugar,” she said.
“You ain’t my mother,” he shot back, relieved to breathe normally.
“And you do have ghosts.”
For Christ’s sake. She could be such a little dog with a bone.
“And your ghost did hurt you.”
She looked so sad his scowl crumbled. “Violet,” he said, “there’s no such thing as ghosts.” Yet even as he said it, memory unveiled a face, one he hadn’t seen in a lifetime, one that had forsaken even his dreams. Beth. Her name lit, a butterfly landing, then flitting away as he tried grasping her image. Her beloved, homely image….
“You’re lying,” said Violet. “In fact you’re thinking about your ghost right now.”
Yes, Beth was sort of a ghost—because he had as good as killed her, right?
Squeaky, squeaky, squeak. Violet fiddled with her juice box. “Your ghost is why you wear that creepy necklace, too.”
“Wrong.” Relieved to be arguing, Andrew pulled his ankh out from under his collar, disquieted by how it felt like he was also pulling out of the past. “And it isn’t creepy. See?” He pointed to the ankh’s oval loop at its top. “Protective circle. And this?” He traced the stylized cross hanging off the loop, not Christian per se, but instead nebulous, open to interpretation. “This reminds me to always have something to believe in.”
“Except you don’t believe,” Violet retorted. “In anything.”
He frowned but was pretty sure he looked more startled than stern.
“No wonder you have ghosts.”
He shot a hand through his hair. “Violet…we’re here to talk about you.” And her so-called ghost—JV, the little spook everyone but him thought was harmless, even persecuted. What bullshit. JV Austin had gotten away with killing a vulnerable kid before. He was homicidal. Violet was suicidal. Theirs was a match made in hell.
Yet—“Detective Andrew,” Violet chided. “You know I hate talking about me.”
No, she hated being lectured about suicide.
Suicide. The word latched on and dragged him back up Summit Mountain, wind whipping at his back. Blowing his hat off as he ran, heart a dark drum in his throat….
Violet tugged his sleeve. “Your ghost, Detective Andrew. What’s its name?”
“Patrick King,” he blurted, trapped back there, on Summit.
“Patrick?” Violet goggled him. “You mean your ghost’s not a girl?”
Her slack-jawed expression yanked him back to the school yard, and “No,” he answered, relieved. “The girl from back then isn’t dead.” I just murdered every good thing between us. But this part he left silent—and Violet looked too befuddled to know he had not spilled it all.
“This Patrick King.” She squeaked her juice box. “Was he your JV?”
His bully? “No.” He stared evenly back at her. “I was his.”
Shock softened her, making her look sweet at last. “Detective Andrew, I don’t believe that. You’d never hurt anyone.” Squeaky, squeaky, squeak. The juice box, erratic now. “This Patrick King,” she said. “You face him. Face him at your sister’s wedding.”
Ice scored his gut. Not possible. Patrick, unlike Beth, really was dead.
“And while you’re at it, face the girl, too.”
His jaw dropped. “How did you know there was also a gir—”
“Because you just said so.” Violet rolled her eyes. “‘The girl from back then isn’t dead’.” She squeaked the juice box louder now, pissed off. “What’s her name? She must be a real piece of work.”
Sweet Beth McBrien, ‘a piece of work’? Andrew nearly laughed, yet…Beth had been a piece of work. And only Violet, his little girl, would be able to pick that up without really knowing anything at all. “You know Violet, your intuition could power a small city.”
“Yeah? Well, so could your e-vase-iveness.”
A word she’d learned from him, and pronounced slowly for it was still brand new. Andrew smiled. “I’m allowed to be evasive. I outrank you.”
She glared, he glared back, and they duked it out, gaze-to-gaze, until her lips twitched. Then she laughed. “Detective Andrew, that grouch face might work on your criminals, but it never works on me.”
No shit. Violet Chamberlain had him by the throat at every angle.
“Now.” She fastened a bony hand on his wrist. “I want you to make me a promise.”
He looked down. Her little fingers were all spider web veins and sharp angles.
“We’re friends, right?”
“Right,” he answered. To hell with his Staff Sergeant.
“Then promise. Promise that when you go back to your mountains you…you’ll face your ghosts.” She paused. “Promise—” Her voice broke.
Andrew’s gut sank.
“—promise that you’ll look in the mirror and see…a really nice man.” She looked down, and Andrew’s heart clenched as a tear, opaque and quivering, plopped on top of her juice box. “A man who’s been a really good friend to me.”
Aw, no. “Little Girl—”
“You promise!” Her head shot up, and her hand wrung his wrist. “Promise me you’ll be happy.”
“Vi—,” he began, then a shadow sliced between them, too dark to be a cloud scudding over the sun. Aw, shit—was he caught? He glanced up.
A boy, lanky and in a ball cap, ambled past them, so close it was odd to have not noticed him before.
Violet tracked his gaze. “Do you know him?” she asked.
Andrew shook his head, but…something about the kid was familiar. He watched him.
“I do.” Violet said. “He’s nice.”
“Oh?” Hope flared and pulled his gaze back to her. “Nicer than JV?”
“Yes.” She nodded, no hesitation, and Yes! Andrew echoed, silent, and swung to look at the boy in the ball cap again.
A black mass of shadows, human shaped, pulsing, levitated in the spot where the kid had been. Andrew choked and “The Dead Boy?” he rasped.
“Detective Andrew?” Violet tapped his arm. “What’s wrong?”
The Dead Boy, that’s what was wrong, and “Why?” he croaked, barely aware that he’d said it out loud. The delusion, like his panic attacks, had not surfaced in years. So what the hell was it doing here now? “Not real,” he whispered, then flinched when the thing waved to him.
“Hi, Chickenshit!” it called.
Cold sweat gripped his skin. The Dead Boy. He’d defined the thing long ago, to a therapist he’d seen when he’d been just seventeen: “The Dead Boy comes when I remember things that make me feel all fucked up.”
“You mean you hallucinate when you feel stressed or scared?” the therapist had reframed.
“Yes.” He’d nodded then, and nodded now. A delusion. The Dead Boy was not real.
Yet as the school bell called Violet back in from lunch, The Dead Boy remained on the now-empty ball diamond, a human-shaped mass looking like it had been coughed out of a sewer.
“Hallucination. Delusion,” Andrew repeated, but the thing did not disappear, and the next morning, when he climbed into his car, it was slouched in the passenger seat. “You need me, Chickenshit.”
Hallucination. Delusion. Andrew ignored it. Refused to engage.
The Dead Boy remained. Taunting him. Swearing. Reeking like a sewer. Then, on the day before he was due to head home to the mountains, on the day Violet swallowed pills, he woke up alone—and that had been the one thing he was grateful for as his feet pounded down the hospital corridor, searching for her room. But when he crossed the threshold and came face to face with JV, an unearthly howl had resounded beside him as the kid grinned at him in glee. Andrew recalled shouting “No!” but The Dead Boy didn’t listen. It unclipped Andrew’s sidearm and “Die, fucker,” it growled. Then it aimed and fired a bullet straight between JV’s eyes.
Two ~ Elizabeth
Elizabeth McBrien had been blindsided. Played. And so what if she’d lied when Shaynie Gavin called her up, asked that she play at her wedding? “I can’t possibly fit it in,” Elizabeth had replied.
But Shaynie, all game, set, and match, merely said “That wasn’t what your agent told me.”
Damn Pansy! Elizabeth scrambled. “I’m a classical guitarist,” she said. “There’s nothing contemporary on my set list.”
“I don’t want contemporary,” said Shaynie. “I want Moonlight Sonata.”
A whipcrack of pain took Elizabeth’s knees out, and “W-why?” she choked, sinking to a seat. “Why would you ask for that?”
Shaynie’s voice had been quiet. “Because it’s the sound of two people in love.”
The breath Elizabeth caught hurt, like a slap on the insides, and it took what felt like decades—no, fourteen years, ‘Beth’—to find her voice. Took even longer to bite back everything old scars and self-protective vitriol wanted to say. Longer still to remind herself that Shaynie Gavin, of all people, was not trying to be cruel. Heck—she didn’t even have it in her to be mean. And so, more excuses: “You do realize I charge now, when I play.”
“Cost isn’t an issue,” Shaynie answered, then the game-changer: “And it won’t be just an engagement. It’ll be an audition. I’ve invited investors from Jasper’s newest resort—The Ammolite. They’re looking for a headliner, and they want to hear you.”
Without her prior knowledge or agreement? Without Pansy’s knowledge or agreement? “My agent—”
“—said that since we’re old friends I could call you directly. That’s why I have.”
Damn Pansy again! Still, a headlining gig at a mountain resort. A recurring, international audience…
“It could be the break of a lifetime,” Shaynie stated the obvious, then paused. “If you’ll play at my wedding.”
A tiny pause, then “Yes,” Shaynie agreed. “It is. But, Elizabeth, please don’t be mad.”
Mad? Speechless shock wasn’t mad. Heart-thrumming terror wasn’t mad. Still, she was mad. “Shaynie, how dare—”
“Elizabeth, I know you don’t want to see Andrew.”
“Damn right I don’t want to see Andrew! Right now I don’t even want to see you.”
“Your brother will not get another shot at me, Shaynie Gavin.”
Quiet. An acre of it. Then “Don’t you think it’s time you got a shot at him?”
Yes. No. Please…please what? Please let me see him just one more time. Please don’t ever make me face him again. “I’ll…get back to you.” She’d hung up then, and called Pansy, blasted her for a now impossible choice: the lady…or the tiger?
Or, rather, The Ammolite or the tiger?
In the end she’d designed the contract herself and, in a last-chance effort to dissuade the bride, had included a diva’s list of demands—and a dollar figure that still made her blush.
Shaynie Gavin had signed without one word of haggle.
Then the nightmares started.
First would come scent. Honeysuckle, so strong she could taste it on her tongue. Then sound—birdsong. Squirrel chatter. A thought: The mountains. The forest. I’m home. And then he (who was he?) would be just a voice, seduction in her ear. “I took your clothes off,” he’d say.
In every dream she’d look down and be shocked to be naked.
Then he’d gather her, her back to his front. “Let me love you,” he’d whisper.
The shout, a blast from the trees, was a voice she’d recognize till she died.
“Drew?” Stiffening in the stranger’s arms, she’d try searching. “Andrew?”
“Forget him.” The presence, jerking her wrist, would make her run the opposite way, feet assaulting an old mountain trail she knew far too well, pounding up its ascent.
Andrew, though, would gain from behind. “Beth, don’t! Stop!”
“Drew!” Breaking free, she’d try running toward him, but trees she thought she knew would always loom far bigger than she remembered, and offer clearings she did not recognize. “Drew? Andrew?”
“Bethie, help me!”
A surge of terror (and, though she hated to admit it, hope) would shove her to his voice and she’d get close. Always, just beyond her reach, she’d catch a glimpse of his shoulder. A flash of pant leg. But then a necklace (always the same necklace!) would flop down from a spruce bough. Then another. And another. Dozens of others, clinking together like—“Wind chimes from hell.” For the pendants swinging from the necklaces were crosses. Sort of. They had strange loops at their tops, creating an ambiguous shape that reminded Elizabeth of one of those old pictorial illusions: Who do you see? The old hag or the beautiful lady? Sometimes she’d definitely see crosses with loops, other times the pendant looked like two number twos, one properly formed on the right, yet the left one backward. As if the digits faced each other—in a showdown.
His hoarse voice, a song she’d never forgotten, would pull her through the dangling loop-crosses, sending them into somber jangles. “Drew! Where are you?”
“Here!” he’d cry, and “Stop!” The stranger behind her would yank her close again, the peak of his ball cap knocking against the back of her head.
She’d wake panting, sweaty.
Just like now, the undies and chemise she’d worn to bed a silky puddle on her floor, baffling as always, because she could never remember stripping—only that she was naked in all of the dreams. Stooping, she gathered the night things, one palm braced against the bed to steady herself against the nightmare that wouldn’t fade.
Something crunched against her hand.
A violet, dead and brittle, was shattered upon her palm, clinging there like a pattern of tea leaves. A chord of unease traveled through her, and she held the wrecked flower, staring at it. “You’re giving me nightmares, Andrew,” she said, half expecting his voice from her dream to call back to her—“Help me!” Or maybe the other shout, the one that made her heart crack, end to end.
“He’s killing me, Beth.”
Shuddering, she cupped the dead violet in her hand. It had to have been caught in her hair yesterday when she’d busked in Stanley Park and had several posies tossed her way. Guys liked to flirt with musicians who were too busy chording to rebuke them. She leaned her forehead against her cool, bedroom windowpane. What would Drew Gavin say if he knew that sometimes men flirted with her now?
A lash of old words scorched her, and she wrapped her arms around herself much like the boy in the ball cap from her dreams, a savior her mind had conjured because here she was, about to go home, face the tiger. She stared out at Vancouver’s leaden sky. Today rain hid the coastal mountains, a range of the Rockies vastly different than the heights and grandeur of the summits back home. In Jasper the elevations always made the town site feel snug and small, and the sky there was hardly ever drizzle gray, instead an endless soar of unbroken blue. Home. Her soul had stayed there, just like—“Stone Tape Theory,” she murmured. Rocky Mountain folklore contending that emotions left imprints upon the rocks, that the mountains somehow captured both heartache and hatred. “Love too?” she whispered.
The old locals in her memory replied “You never really leave here”, voices hushed and grave, just like back when they’d been guest lecturers in grade school.
Were they right? Was that why, despite everything, the Alberta Rockies were still able to pull her home in her dreams? Her gaze latched back onto the crushed violet petals, now showered onto the sill.
Their broken state unnerved her somehow. She looked away.
The contrast, glancing from the bright window to the dimness of her bedroom, made shadows flare, one shaped so distinctly like a child in…a hospital gown? that Elizabeth recoiled, blinking.
The illusion remained, an imprint upon air, and for a moment Elizabeth fancied the hospital johnny to be wrecked and bloodied. “Anxiety,” she croaked and blinked rapidly, forced the image away. Her imagination, the dreams, everything was all just anxiety, a self-styled Stone Tape Theory calling out of the Rockies where once she’d been crippled by shyness. Low self-esteem. Back then bouts of panic had concocted the craziest things in her head and now…she turned back to the window.
The imprint of the image reappeared, the rain on the glass making it look like the little girl was weeping. “What’s—” Elizabeth cut herself off before adding ‘wrong?’ and “Crazy,” she muttered instead, raking a hand through her hair. Blackmailed into seeing Andrew again, who wouldn’t have nightmares and anxiety attacks and see hurt little girls like she had once been? And maybe it was normal that her imagination, filled with dread, had concocted a protector—the boy in the ball cap. Except…
Except in her dreams she ached to turn her bare body into him. To pull him into her. “A boy.” Her skin crawled. “I dream about seducing a teenager.” And while she didn’t know how this was all connected to Andrew, she was nonetheless certain that somehow, some way, he was to blame for this too.
Her cell chimed and she awakened the screen, a smile filling her face at the text. Kyle. R you still leaving today to come home for the wedding?
“‘Are’, Kyle, not ‘r’,” she murmured, automatic, then typed Yes
Ping! Dont worry Elizabeth, I will still be yore date
'Don’t’ she typed back and ‘your’, hating correcting him, but keeping the promise she’d made when he told her how badly he wanted to read and write—“Properly,” he said, so earnest. “Please, ’Lizabeth. Don’t let me get away with mistakes.”
Because he might struggle with school and be only thirteen, but Kyle King was still bright enough to know when he was being patronized.
And sure enough, a reply chimed back. Thanks J for YOUR help.
Grinning, she typed Dez and I will both need dates. Mind escorting two older women?
A second smiley face. Anything for you and Mrs. M
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the sweetest kid in the world, right here on my phone. See you soon, buddy. She set her cell aside, closed her eyes.
A new image flared, again like an imprint left after a bright light. The boy in the ball cap, his back to her, always his back to her, and even though she knew he was just anxiety, his imagined whisper still made a shocked splash of tears hit her eyes. “Hurry home,” he said. “Kyle’s dying.”
Three ~ Andrew
Surrounded by the Rockies, and with every amenity at his disposal in this luxury room in the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge, Andrew could not obsess about the shooting right now. Besides, it was his sister’s wedding day. He could not obsess about the shooting right now.
He couldn’t not obsess about the shooting right now.
Internal Affairs had cornered him before he could flee the city, making no bones about their incredulity: “Your statement, Detective Gavin. Let’s go over it again.”
And again. And again.
He told them most of what he knew. How Violet had been tethered to a respirator in her hospital bed after her suicide attempt. How JV had been there too, his mouth sliding in satisfaction when Andrew entered the room. The kid had said something, but…what? The words crouched just beyond the border of memory, occasionally snapping forth, but always too quick to be grasped.
And bathing him in sweat when they got close enough to almost decipher.
“Doesn’t matter.” Because anything JV had or hadn’t said paled in comparison to what Andrew did remember: that snarl, unearthly and all-too familiar. That presence, reeking and rotten beside him.
“Die, fucker,” The Dead Boy had said.
How could he tell IA that a delusion he’d been seeing since he was only sixteen had executed JV?
He couldn’t. So he lied:
“Why were you covered in blood, Corporal Gavin?”
“Because I tried resuscitating the deceased.”
“After shooting him in the head?”
It wasn’t the first time he’d tried fastening a shattered skull together. “Who’s your ghost, Detective Andrew?” Violet had asked.
IA had yanked him straight out of memory: “You claim JV Austin was pointing a gun at Violet Chamberlain. So where is it, Detective? The gun?”
Andrew sat soldier-straight. “JV’s mother had raced to the hospital when the school told her he’d ridden there in the ambulance with Violet.” True. “She threw herself on his body after I’d discharged my weapon.” Possibly true. “She must have taken his gun and hid it.”
“Or gotten rid of it.”
Another lie. There was no gun—and IA was not stupid. “Are you certain, Detective Corporal Gavin? Certain there was a gun?”
Hell, no. All he was certain of was that JV Austin had something a thousand, a million times more lethal than a gun. Bloodlust. Sadism. But no one had believed him before the shooting, and they sure as hell didn’t believe him now, not with a dead kid, a missing gun, and definitely not if he told them the truth: that a delusion had pulled his own trigger.
“Oh, fuck that, Defective.”
He looked, and The Dead Boy was slouched against the wall, wrecked lips, broken teeth. “You put that predator down, Officer.” A black, shiny beetle, staggered out of one empty eye socket.
Stomach acid bolted up Andrew’s throat. “Delusion,” he whispered. The Dead Boy was just a delusion. Grasping the windowsill, he forced himself to look at what was really there: the Rockies, so majestic they looked photo-shopped. “Home,” he breathed.
Yes. Violet’s voice breathed back. Face your ghost, Detective Andrew.
Screw that, Little Girl. Today he was lucky to be allowed to face his own sister; IA had weighed in on the wedding too: “You’ll be accessible at all times while you’re out of town, Detective?”
He’d held up his cell phone, face so stony it made the words ‘fuck you’ redundant.
IA was undaunted. “You realize that if you were headed out of province the answer would be no.”
“Am I under arrest?” Have spade, call spade.
No, Detective Andrew! Tell the truth! Face your ghost!
He shook it all off and pulled his ceremonial red serge off its hanger, touched the corporal’s bars on its sleeve. “You’re relieved of your duties pending an investigation, Detective Corporal Gavin” “Fuck you, IA.” He buttoned up the scarlet tunic. Buckled his boots and grabbed his Stetson.
“Suspension is the least of your worries, Chickenshit.”
“Fuck you too,” he told The Dead Boy, and dragged a weary hand down his face. It stung. He looked in the mirror.
“What the—” His right eye was blackened. Scratches scored his cheek. “How—” he began, but the nightmare flooded back, the one that had tossed him onto old Summit Centre Trail during his nap this afternoon. The Dead Boy had taunted him—“Why is it so quiet?”—and Andrew ran, branches biting him. Scratching him…
“Oh, bullshit. I scratched myself.” Hit himself too and wasn’t this just great? Looking like someone kicked his ass on his sister’s wedding day. “Tell me,” he said to his twin in the mirror. “How many ways can one man be so fucked up?” He adjusted his Stetson so a shadow fell atop his bruised eye. Maybe Shaynie Grace would be so preoccupied with her groom she’d not notice. But, just in case she did...he fished his ankh out from under his collar. “A little luck might be nice.” After all, protection was protection—from delusions or from frantic little sisters.
Or ghosts, Detective Andrew.
“Hush, Little Girl. I need to go now, and pretend I’m not crazy.”
“Right.” The Dead Boy still slouched at the window. “Good luck with that.”
Downstairs he marched, head up, shoulders back (and for Christ’s sake, smile!), fully aware of the thrilled gasps owing to his formal attire. A possible murder charge hung in the gallows. Rumors, filthy ones, polluted the reputation he already held as a sullen loner and rogue. Didn’t matter. Nothing and no one could take away what it meant to him to be a Mountie. Not ever.
Still, his Stetson, no matter its angle, hid nothing from his sister. “Oh, my God!” She rushed to him, a swish of white silk. “When I told her to take a shot I didn’t mean literally.”
“What happened?” she gaped.
“Well…” I’m crazy. And it happened way back when we were just kids.
“Andrew. I’m so sorry.”
She was sorry? He was the crazy one. “Shaynie—”
“The terms of her pissy contract hold her accountable too,” she spat, and Andrew blinked, panic cresting inside. What the hell was going on? Had he just blanked out for part of this conversation? He cast about for The Dead Boy, certain the thing must be watching.
It was. Perched on a window sill, the thing laughed silently.
His sister grasped his arms. “Are you still staying at our old place after the wedding?”
Away from the scrutiny he now lived within back in the city? Hell, yes. He nodded.
“Good,” she said, so rabidly, he wondered, wildly, if maybe she was just as crazy as him.
She spoke through clenched teeth. “It will do everyone a lot of good to be back here.”
"Maybe you should stay too,” he tried jousting, but his mouth felt like cotton. “Shave these rough edges off your temper.” He attempted a grin. “You always were happier here at home than me.”
“Oh, please. I remember when no one was happier here in Jasper than you.”
Yeah. With your ghost, Detective Andrew.
He flinched and Shaynie tucked her hand in his arm, stomped them up the aisle to her groom, a hockey player the size of Goliath, who gawped at Andrew’s black eye. “What’s the other guy look like?”
Andrew couldn’t answer. Passing him his sister’s hand, every memory flashed, right back to the day his mother had brought the wee pink bundle home, crouching low so he could see. “She smiled at me, Mama! The baby smiled!”
“Oh, Andrew. Shaynie Grace is too new to smile.”
She’d been wrong. Shaynie Grace had smiled. On that day and every one after. He’d been her hero. She was his little friend. And he’d never been good at anything, but he had been good at protecting her. So now….give her away? But I’ve lost so much.
Their gazes met and for a moment he wasn’t sure if the tears there were hers or just a reflection of his in their identical eyes. “I love you, Andrew,” she said, hushed.
Good Christ. He wanted to bawl.
“Me too, man,” said Goliath, his new brother. His family. Andrew exhaled, oddly relieved. Shaynie Grace had someone new to look after her now. So if he went to prison…
Screw that. He wouldn’t be going to prison.
Sometimes dead is better, Detective Andrew.
He set his sister’s hand into Goliath’s—Cameron’s—big paw. “Be happy,” he said.
Cameron beamed. “You’re next,” he answered.
Yeah, right. As Violet so often pointed out, he didn’t even have a girlfriend. Hell, today he didn’t even have a date.
Shaynie stretched on tiptoe, kissed his injured cheek. “For the record,” she said, “I am furious about this.”
“I’m sor—” he began, but was hustled off to the side as an officiator began the ceremony. Music softly accompanied and Andrew froze. Moonlight Sonata? In strings? Only one person played it like that. Dry mouthed, he turned.
A guitarist had her eyes closed, at one with her music. But…porcelain skin. Reams of rich caramel hair…his belly dipped, disappointment or relief, he wasn’t sure. All he did know was that the guitarist was not Beth McBrien.
Still, that piece. Their piece. Moonlight Sonata. He listened and a feeling responded inside, so empty and aching it felt like his heartbeat echoed. Who are you? He gazed at the guitarist and when she opened her eyes, a staring contest began, ensuing throughout the reception and breaking only when she set her guitar aside as a waiter, clearly besotted, approached her with a frothy cupcake from a stack on a tray.
Andrew imagined feeding her the sweet frosting from his finger. Tasting it off her pink tongue. What’s your name? He started toward her.
A granite gaze stopped him in his tracks. Dez McBrien. Beth’s mother. He approached her.
“You never cease to amaze me, Corporal.” She accepted his hand. “All the women you could dance with and I’m the lucky lady?”
“Seems to be a night for surprises.” He glanced back at the guitarist, at Beth.
Dez led them out onto the slick cedar terrace, tricked out tonight with tulle and lilies, a dance floor. “So what’s the plan? You going to man up and re-face my daughter?”
“You’ll let me?” The Gavins and McBriens had shared Christmas for years, and he’d stuck to the tradition even after Beth had left Jasper. Hell, especially after Beth had left Jasper. Would she once—just once—come home?
He’d wait, breath locked in his chest, but...Stay away from my daughter. Dez had never had to actually say it. For not only did Beth never come home, when he’d walk through Dez’s familiar front door, it was like she didn’t even have a daughter. No pictures, no mementos, not even Beth’s name was ever breathed, and it was like every other guest at the table knew not to ask. Still, he’d wanted to. A million times ‘Beth’ had danced on his tongue, yet before he could say it Dez would glare, a look so sharp he could feel its teeth, and he’d stay quiet. Furiously quiet. He knew damn well she had pictures of Beth. Lots of pictures of Beth. She just hid them whenever he came around. As though he had forfeited the right to even look at her.
Yeah, well, didn’t you, Detective Andrew?
Ah guilt. The gift that kept on giving.
Dez eyeballed his face. “Who hurt you?”
“Why? Want to slip them a twenty?”
She laughed, a staccato bark. “It was sweet during the ceremony, how tough it was for you to give your sister away.”
“Uh-huh. Being a big brother was the only thing that ever redeemed me.”
“You know better.” She dropped his hand and looked at him, hard. “Thank you for the dance, Corporal.”
“It’s Detective Corporal,” he said to her receding back, knowing the distinction was lost on a civilian, but wanting the last word anyway.
She re-assessed him from over her shoulder. “No. It’s not Detective or Corporal. Not right now.”
Oh, perfect. News of his suspension had traveled home. And while no one knew everything (hell—even he didn’t know everything), small towns made up what they didn’t know. It sickened him to think what they’d probably made up about him. “Fuck,” he whispered.
A tsk matched a feather touch on his elbow. He looked, and “You.” His sister. He thrust his chin toward Beth. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“You have to ask?” She smiled. “Isn’t she beautiful?”
“Oh, please. Like you haven’t been watching her all night with all sorts of dirty in your eyes.”
His jaw hardened.
“When did she hit you?”
He gaped. “Seriously? You thought Elizabeth did this?”
“She is tougher than you think, Andrew. She always was.”
Tough? No. Smart? Yes.
Shaynie’s lips pursed. “So if not her, what did happen?”
I have no fucking clue. About anything. “Just drop it, okay?”
“Andrew, it looks like a ballpoint exploded over your eye.”
He sighed into the ceiling.
“Was it retaliation for your bull-crap suspension?”
His ‘bull-crap suspension’? He stared at her, his little sister, the most peaceable person he knew. Yet right now her face was sullen and it unsettled him to know she’d learned the expression from him. Still—“Internal Affairs is just doing their job, Shaynie Grace. A kid is dead. I’d investigate too.”
“No, you wouldn’t. You have more loyalty than that.”
Loyalty? At least one person here would never believe it. He looked around. Found his ghost.
“—and that’s what got you into this mess in the first place,” added Shaynie. “Loyalty and being protective.”
Oh Christ. Like he deserved a trophy. “Right. Temper and impulse had nothing to do with it.”
Shaynie exhaled and “Why,” she said, “can you never see yourself the way others do?”
She fell quiet and began shifting, one foot to the other.
“What now? Your glass slippers sore?”
She sneered and he liked it. Pissing her off was far better than worrying her. But then, softly, “Elizabeth used to see the real you,” she said.
“Yeah.” He ignored the sting. “Did she ever.”
“You need her.”
No, I want her. Big difference. “What I need is for IA to declare a clean shoot, not a woman.”
“Elizabeth’s not just a woman.” Shaynie paused. “Drew.”
He glared but could feel his gaze aching to track to the right, to the enchantress there, so different than the girl he once knew.
“Andrew, go. Talk to her. You’re so…broken.”
“And you think she wants to fix me?”
“Yes.” His sister lifted her nose. “Otherwise she wouldn’t be here.” She marched away and he looked then, to where Beth stood under Dezilla guard. He still did not fully recognize her. That fat field mouse who once couldn’t walk without tripping over her own shoes wasn’t even a glimmer of memory in this regal creature’s eyes. Time had not just been kind. It had been magic. His eyes clung to the places her dress, some kind of starlight colour, clung to. Ah, irony, he thought. You are such a prick.
Their gazes locked and his heart skipped. But then her eyes slid to his bruises and he read her expression. Satisfaction. Then dismissal.
She turned, floated away on feet that looked like they’d never so much as stubbed an elegant toe much less tripped.
My, my Bethie. Of all the things he thought he’d feel when he saw her again, pissed off had never made the script. ‘It’s good to see you’ had. ‘I’m sorry’ definitely had. But the need to tell her she was a haughty bitch?
Oh, yeah. He cocked a brow as her perfect heart-shaped ass glided away and, plucking stemware from a passing tray, he took Violet’s advice, followed his ghost.....