Banshee Cries: Excerpt from Winter Moon

a novella of the Walker Papers

SUNDAY, MARCH 20th, 2:55 P.M.

Cell phones are the most detestable objects on the face of the earth. Worse than those ocean-variety pill bugs that grow bigger than your head, which were on my personal top ten list of Things To Avoid.

My life had been a lovely, cell-free zone until nine weeks, six days, and four hours ago. Not that I was counting. On that fateful day I got an official business phone to go with my bullet-proof vest and billy stick. I’d even been given a gun to go with my shiny new badge.

I wanted those things about as much as I’d wanted to bonk my head on the engine block I’d sat up beneath when the phone rang. I rubbed my forehead and glared at the engine, then felt horribly guilty. It wasn’t Petite’s fault I’d hurt myself, and she’d been through enough lately that she didn’t need me scowling on top of it all.

The phone kept ringing. I rolled out from under the Mustang and crawled to her open door, digging the phone out from under the driver’s seat. “What?”

Only one person outside of work had the phone number. As soon as I spoke I realized that a politer pick-up might have been kosher. The resounding silence from the other end of the line confirmed my suspicion. Eventually a male voice said, “Walker?”

I turned around to hook my arm over the bottom of the car’s door frame and did my best to stifle a groan. “Captain.”

“I need you-”

These were words that another woman might be pleased to hear from Captain Michael Morrison of the Seattle Police Department. Then again, if he was saying them to another woman, there probably wouldn’t have been the slight tension in his voice that suggested his mouth was pressed into a thin line and his nostrils flared with irritation at having to speak to me. He had a good voice, nice and low. I imagined it could carry reassuring softness, the kind that would calm a scared kid down. Unfortunately, the only softness I ever heard in it was the kind that said this is the calm before the storm, which happened to be how he sounded right now. I crushed my eyes closed, face wrinkling up, and prodded the bump on my forehead.

“-to come in to work.”

“It’s my weekend, Morrison.” As if this would make any difference. I could hear his ears turning red.

“I wouldn’t be calling you in-”

“Yeah.” I bit the word off and wrapped my hand around the bottom of Petite’s frame. “What’s going on?”

Silence. “I’d rather not tell you.”

“Jesus, Morrison.” I straightened up, feeling the blood return to the line across my back where I’d been leaning on the car. “Is anybody dead? Is Billy okay?”

“Holliday’s fine. Can you get over to Woodland Park?”

“Yeah, I-” I tilted my head back, looking at the Mustang’s roof. Truth was, I’d been futzing around under the engine block because I couldn’t stand to look at the damage done to my baby’s roof any more. A twenty-nine inch gash, not that I’d measured or anything, ran from the windshield’s top edge almost all the way to the back window. From my vantage, thin stuffing and fabric on the inside ceiling shredded and dangled like a teddy bear who’d seen better days. Beyond that, soldered edges of steel, not yet sanded down, looked like somebody’d dragged an axe through it.

Which was precisely what had happened.

A little knot of agony tied itself around my heart and squeezed, just like it did every time I looked at my poor car. The war wounds were almost three months old and killing me, but the insurance company was dragging its feet. Full coverage did cover acts of God–or in my case, act of gods–but I’d only said she’d been hit by vandals. In the meantime, I’d already spent my meager savings on replacing the gas tank that somebody’d shot an arrow through.

My life had gotten unpleasantly weird in the last few months.

I forced myself to find something else to look at-the opposite garage wall had a calendar with a mostly naked woman on it, which was sort of an improvement-and sighed. “Yeah,” I said again, into the phone. “I’m gonna have to take a cab.”
“Fine. Just get here. North entrance. Wear boots.” Morrison hung up and I threw the phone over my shoulder into the car again. Then I said a word nice girls shouldn’t and scrambled after it, propping myself in the bucket seat with one leg out the door. Bedraggled as she was, just sitting in Petite made me feel better. I patted her steering wheel and murmured a reassurance to her as I dialed the phone. A voice that had smoked too many cigarettes answered and I grinned, sliding down in Petite’s leather seat.

“Still working?”

“Y’know, in my day, when somebody made a phone call, they said hello and gave their name before anything else.”

“Gary, in your day they didn’t have telephones. Are you still working?”

“Depends. Is this the crazy broad who hires cabbies to drive her to crime scenes?”

I snorted a giggle. “Yeah.”

“Is she gonna cook me dinner if I’m still workin’?”

“Sure,” I said brightly. “I’ll whip you up the best microwave dinner you ever had.”

“Okay. I want one of them chicken fettuccine ones. Where you at?”

“Chelsea’s Garage.”

Gary groaned, a rumble that came all the way from his toes and reverberated in my ear. “You still over there mooning over that car, Jo?”

“I am not mooning!” I was mooning. “She needs work.”

“You need money. And snow tires. And more than six inches of clearance. You ain’t gonna drive it til spring, Jo, even if you do get it fixed up.”

“Her,” I said, sounding like a petulant child. “Petite’s a her, not an it, aren’t you, baby,” I added, addressing the last part to the steering wheel. “Look, are you gonna come get me or not? It’s even a paying gig. Morrison called and wants me to go over to Woodland Park.”

“Arright.” Gary’s voice brightened considerably. “Maybe there’ll be a body.”

* * *

Morrison glared magnificently when I arrived with Gary in tow. The two of them facing off was wonderful to behold: Morrison was pushing forty and good-looking in a superhero-going-to-seed way, with graying hair and sharp blue eyes. Gary, at seventy-three, had Hemingway wrinkles that made him look dependable and solid instead of old, and his gray eyes were every bit as sharp as Morrison’s. For a few seconds I thought they might start butting heads.

But Morrison pointed at Gary and barked, “You stay here.” Gary looked as crestfallen as a wet kitten. I actually said, “Aw, c’mon, Morrison,” and got his glare turned on me. Oops.

“It’s arright, Jo.” Gary gave me a sly look that from a man a few decades younger would’ve had my heart doing flip-flops. “I bet there’s a body. You can tell me about it at dinner. You need a ride home?”

“I’ll take care of it,” Morrison said in a sharp voice. Gary winked at me, shoved his hands in his pockets, and sauntered back to his cab, whistling. I choked back a giggle and turned to follow Morrison, tromping through a truly unbelievable amount of snow. It’d started snowing in mid-January and as far as Seattle was concerned, hadn’t stopped in the two months since. Even the weathermen merely looked stunned and resigned, mumbling excuses about hurricane patterns in the south having unexpected consequences in the Pacific Northwest.

“What is it with you two?”

“So what’s going on, Captain?” We spoke at the same time, leaving me blinking at Morrison’s shoulders and starting to grin.

“What is it with us? Me and Gary? Are you serious?”

“He answers your phone.” Morrison was talking to the footprints in the snow in front of him, not me. My grin got noticeably bigger.

“Only the once. That was like six weeks ago, Morrison. And who told you that, anyway?” I wanted to laugh.

“I’m just saying he’s a little old for you, isn’t he?” Morrison’s shoulders were hunched, as if he was trying to warm his ears up with them. I grinned openly at his back and lowered my voice so it only just barely carried over the squeak and crunch of snow as we walked through it.

“All I’ll say is, you know how they say old dogs can’t learn new tricks? Turns out old dogs have some pretty good tricks of their own.”

Morrison’s shoulders jerked another inch higher and I laughed out loud, the sound bouncing off tree branches black with winter cold. Snow shimmered and fell off one, making a soft paff and a dent in the snow below it. Morrison flinched at the sound, head snapping toward it as his hand dropped to his belt, like he’d pull a weapon. My laughter drained away and I followed him the rest of the way to a park baseball diamond in silence.

He climbed up snow-covered bleachers, making distinct footprints in the already walked-on snow, compacting it further. I put my feet in precisely the same places he’d stepped, fitting my sole print to his exactly. We had the same size feet, and in police-issue boots his prints were indistinguishable from mine, at least to the naked eye. A forensics officer could probably tell there was a weight difference between the two of us-in Morrison’s favor, thank God-but for the moment I enjoyed the idea of stealing along behind the captain, invisible to anybody trying to track me.

Morrison stopped on the step above me and turned so abruptly I nearly walked into him. I rocked back on my heels, one step below him, my nose at his chest height as I frowned up at him. “Thanks for the warning.” I hated looking up, physically, to Morrison: we were the same height, down to the half inch that put us both just below six feet, and any situation that made me look up to him made me uncomfortable.

Of course, the reverse was also true, and I’d been known to wear heels just so I’d be taller than he was. No one said I was a good person.

“Tell me what you see.”

Assuming he didn’t want me to describe him-which, had he not been so antsy about the snow falling from the tree a few moments ago, I’d have probably done just to annoy him-I turned away, looking over the baseball diamond.

It was buried beneath two feet of the wet, heavy snow that had made my jeans damp from tromping through it. I shook one foot absently, knocking snow off my boot. I’d lived in Wisconsin for a winter, so snow wasn’t entirely new to me, but this was ridiculous for Seattle, and I said so. Morrison huffed out a breath like an annoyed bull and I puffed my cheeks, muttering,

“Okay, fine. I see snow.”

Well, duh. Clearly Morrison wanted more than that. “Snowmobile tracks. I didn’t even know people in Seattle owned snowmobiles. Um. Footprints around the diamond, like people’ve been playing snowball.” I thought that was pretty clever. Snowball, like baseball, only with snow, right? Morrison didn’t laugh. I sighed. Poor, poor put-upon me.

“There are cops, there’s some teenagers over there, there’s-” Actually, there were a lot of cops, now that I was looking. Picked out in dull blue under the gray sky, they worked their way around the baseball diamond and stumped their way through the outfield. “There’s, um.” I frowned. “I don’t hear anything, either. There aren’t any people around. Dead trees….”

“No,” Morrison growled, full of so much tension that I looked over my shoulder at him, feeling my frown turning worried. “What do you see,” he repeated, and suddenly I got it. A drop of ice formed inside my throat and spilled down into my stomach, like drinking cold water on an empty belly. I folded my arms around myself defensively, shaking my head.

“Shit, Morrison, it doesn’t-it doesn’t work like that. I mean, I’m not, like, good enough to make it work, I don’t know how, I don’t want to-”

“God damn it, Walker, what do you see!”

I turned back to the field, stiff as an automaton, my lower lip sucked between my teeth. One of my arms unfolded from around me completely of its own will, hand drifting to rub my sternum through my winter jacket.

There was no hole in my breastbone, no scar to suggest there’d ever been one. But I found myself pulling in a very deep breath, trying to rid myself of the memory of a silver blade shoved through my lung and the bubbling, coppery taste of blood at the back of my throat. I’d nearly died eleven weeks ago, and instead found that buried within me was the power to heal myself, and maybe a great deal more. More than one person had called me a shaman since then. I didn’t like it at all.

“I’m not any good at this, Morrison. I don’t know if I can do it on purpose.” My voice was strained and thin, full of reluctance. Morrison didn’t say anything. Once upon a time-not that long ago-the only thing he and I had had in common was a complete disdain for the paranormal and people who believed there were things that went bump in the night. I’d been struggling for the last three months to get back to that place. Back to a world that made sense, where I didn’t feel a coil of bright power burbling in the core of me, waiting to be used. I desperately wanted to believe it had been some kind of peculiar dream. Most days I was able to cling to that.

Morrison was not helping me cling. I could feel the tension in him, not with any extrasensory perceptions, but with how still he was holding himself, and the deliberate steadiness of his breathing. He wasn’t any happier than I was about asking, which perversely made me willing to play ball. I put my teeth together, muttering, “Only you could get me to do this.”
That struck me as being alarmingly accurate. I found myself abruptly eager to do it, so I didn’t have to think about what I’d just said.

Unfortunately, I was at a complete loss as to how to proceed. I’d pulled denial over my head like a blanket the last several weeks. Now that someone was asking me to use my impossible new gifts, I didn’t know where to start.

Just thinking about it made the power inside me flutter like a new life, full of hope and possibility. I swallowed against nausea that was as unpleasantly familiar as the idea of life inside me, and tentatively reached for the flutter of power.
A spirit guide called Coyote had suggested to me I work through the medium I knew best: cars. In reaching for that bubble of energy, I tried to do that. Morrison wanted me to see. Well, if I wasn’t seeing clearly, then the windshields needed washing.

Power spurted up through me, a sudden warm wash that felt startling against the cold winter afternoon. A silver-blue spray swished over my vision, just like wiper fluid. I closed my eyes against the brightness and a perceived sting, and without really meaning to envisioned windshield wipers swooping the liquid away, leaving my vision clear. The sting faded and I opened my eyes again.

The world was beautiful. Even the gray sky glimmered with light, sparks of water iridescing above me. As I brought my gaze down, trees whose branches were weighted with snow flickered with the greenness of waiting life, only cold and dead to the mundane eye. Sap waited to rise, leaves prepared to bud, all a promise of explosive activity the moment winter let go its hold on the world. The chain link fences that surrounded the ball field had their own resolute purpose, created and placed to do a specific thing. A distinct sensation of pride in doing the job emanated from them.

The people on the field radiated different energy, swirling colors that bespoke of worry or fear or determination, the rough shapes of their personalities hammering into me and leaving nothing taken for granted. I wanted to turn and look at Morrison, to get a sense of him with this other sight I’d called up, but I was afraid if I moved, I’d lose it again. I dropped my gaze to the field itself, still not knowing what I was looking for-

-and a wave of maliciousness slammed into me like a tornado. It whipped around the core of power inside me and dug claws in, sharp knife-edges of pain cramping my belly. It sucked the heat out of me, draining the coil of energy in sudden throbs, faster than a heartbeat. My knees crumpled, light-headedness sweeping over me.

Morrison caught me under the arms so easily he might have been waiting for me to fall. I twisted toward him, grabbing his coat as he slid an arm around me more firmly.

“You’re all right.” His voice sounded like it was coming from unreasonably far away, given that I knew he was right behind my ear. “I’ve got you.”

I didn’t want to move, desperately glad for the support he offered, both physical and other. His presence was solid and comforting, a wall of commitment and strength in deep, reassuring purples and blues. I doubted he knew he was projecting his own personal energy in a way that let me borrow some, but I was incredibly grateful for it.

I managed a shaky nod, hanging on to the flow of strength he offered, using it to shore my own depleted silvers and blues up again. After a few moments I was able to get my legs under me again, though Morrison didn’t quite let me go. I locked my knees and made myself turn to look at the field again.

Crimson lines, bleeding with pain and rage, flowed up from the field, following the lines of the baseball diamond. Points of vicious black stabbed behind my eyes, making marks that seemed to shoot up into the sky and fade somewhere beyond the stars. Looking at the field felt like someone was digging claws into my innards, trying to pull them out and bind me to the death that had already been wrought there.

Gary was wrong. There wasn’t a body.

There were three.

From “Banshee Cries” in the WINTER MOON anthology

Winter Moon

CE Murphy