The Astral: Till the Day I Die
Click on image to enlarge.
by V.J. Banis
Category: Suspense/Thriller/Dark Fantasy
Description: Shot while trying to prevent the kidnapping, murder, and brutal despoilment of her thirteen-year-old daughter, Southern California book editor Catherine Desmond has a "tunnel-of-light" experience. "There is something only you can do," the spirits tell her, and she is returned intact to her former life--or is she? When she recovers, Catherine finds herself gifted--or cursed--with astral projection, and to her dismay finds herself linked psychically with her daughter's murderer. But he too can project himself, and while she searches for a way to bring the brutal killer to justice, he begins stalking her as well, setting in motion an ethereal cat-and-mouse game, with life--and death--hanging in the balance!
eBook Publisher: Wildside Press, 2007 USA
eBookwise Release Date: October 2007
4 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [382 KB]
Reading time: 251-351 min.
It was everything just as she had always heard it described: the tunnel, the light, blinding white light, and there was everyone waiting to greet her, gosh, that was her father, wasn't it, and there was Aunt Fanny, and....
"Catherine." She heard her name distinctly, from somewhere behind. She looked back, and saw Jack in the distance. Jack? That wasn't possible, surely, not after all these years?
"Catherine," he called again, "Come back. You can't go yet."
Ahead, her loved ones waited for her, willing her to come to them. When she tried to look at them, however, actually to see them, there were no images. It was more as if she felt them. She simply knew they were there, and she wanted to join them, truly she did. She couldn't go back. She wouldn't.
And yet ... she glanced back once more at Jack and all the years fell away, and in an instant, she remembered the feel of his arms about her, his lean, hard body against hers. How could she remember anything so physical, here, now?
Someone--some thing--separated itself from the light, something of light itself, but so bright, so intense, that she could not bear to look directly at it, and shielded her eyes.
"You must go back." It was like a voice inside her head; she could hear it and yet she knew that no sound had been made. "He is there. You must find him. There is something that you must do, that only you can do."
"I can't go back. Please, spare me. The pain--I know what happens. It's more than I could bear."
"He is there."
But it was too late, already she could feel herself returning, the voices were fading, the light retreating, further and further until....
Until she was back, in a bed, and the pain was crashing through her, seeming to crush her in its horrible embrace, and somewhere a triumphant voice was saying, "We've got her. She's alive." * * * * Chapter One
"Can you hear me?"
Catherine forced her eyes open. A white-jacketed man leaned over her. She was in bed. A hospital bed. She tried to move her hand, to wipe away the fog that misted her vision, but the hand wouldn't move. Neither would her head. It felt as if it were in a vise. Her legs ... it dawned on her that she was strapped to the bed like a victim in one of those corny horror movies, only this horror wasn't make believe.
"What...?" Her voice was weak, rasping.
"Don't try to talk, not yet," the doctor said. "You're going to be all right. You've had a narrow escape."
"We need to talk to her," someone said. "We have to ask her some questions."
"Not now," the doctor said, his voice firm.
There were two strangers behind the doctor, a dark suited man and a woman with frizzy orange hair. Beyond them, Walter, her husband, watched her with anxious, red-rimmed eyes. Seeing him, she remembered all of a sudden: the parking lot, her daughter, the yellow bearded man. Somehow she was sure she knew, knew already what she was going to hear, but she had to have it confirmed. Despite the doctor's order not to talk, she managed to croak one word at Walter: "Becky?"
Walter bit his lip. He began to cry, tears spilling from his eyes and streaming down his cheeks. He shook his head and sobbed aloud, "She's dead, Cathy. Becky's dead."
I should have died instead, she thought, it would have hurt far less. * * * *
The scene kept playing over and over, like a tape loop, on the screen of her mind. She saw herself come out of the market. It was a warm Friday, late spring in Los Angeles. She had been shopping for a special dinner to celebrate Becky's last day of school, and she saw, puzzled, the empty Buick where Walter and Becky should have been waiting, the wide open door setting off alarm bells inside her head.
Her eyes raked the crowded parking lot and as if by magic her gaze went directly to them, to Becky and the two men trying to force her into a rusty black pick up. She saw Becky fighting and kicking, heard her cry: "Mommy, Mommy, help me!"
"Becky! Stop, let her go," Catherine shouted. She dropped the bags of groceries and ran toward the truck. Startled people turned to look but she had eyes for nothing but the little girl struggling in the arms of two men.
One of them clambered into the truck, dragging Becky with him. The other, tall, skinny, shoved her toward the middle of the seat and tried to get in after her.
Catherine caught the door as he started to swing it shut. "No," she screamed, "I won't let you."
The skinny man, green-eyed, with an artificially bright yellow beard, swore at her and tried to kick her away with one foot that caught her in the belly. She gagged with the pain, but her hands still held on to the door.
"Get away, bitch." He bared his teeth in an angry snarl and yanked the glove box open, pulled out a gun and waved it wildly. "Let go of the damned door."
"Mommy," Becky sobbed loudly. The truck's engine roared to life.
Somewhere behind her, Catherine heard Walter cry, "Catherine! Becky!" but she couldn't, wouldn't take her eyes from the man with the yellow beard. His face was so close she could smell his beer-laced breath and the scent of his sweat.
"Give me back my daughter!" This couldn't be happening, not to her, not to Becky, it must be a nightmare. She sobbed with terror. The truck began to move, but still she would not let go of the door. "Give her back."
He aimed the gun in her direction, held it practically in her face, and fired. It felt as if she had been struck alongside the head by a rock. She seemed to be falling upward. Her fingers slipped from the flailing truck door. Gears ground, tires squealed. Her head hit the pavement and blackness fell over her like a thick, dark blanket. * * * *
"It's my fault, totally," Walter said, his voice breaking. He waited for her to say something, waited for expiation. When none came, he went on: "It was only a couple of minutes, I swear it. We walked over to look in the window, at the toy store, you know, and then we came back, and I had just put Becky in the car when this man came up and said I had dropped my wallet. I felt my pocket and, sure enough, it was gone.
"'Back there,' he said, 'back by the toy store,' so I walked back to look for it, but I couldn't find it, I was just looking around when I heard you scream, and I saw.... "He choked back a sob.
Still Catherine said nothing. She would have to forgive him. Someday. She understood what guilt he was suffering. It would kill him to remain unpardoned. She couldn't do that to him.
For now, though, her grief was all but killing her, it was all she could manage. She couldn't even look at him, let alone give him the forgiveness he needed.
"They found her at the beach. They had...."
She found her voice then, an icy, a toneless voice. "I don't want to hear it. Don't mention that to me, ever."
He shrank down in his chair and sobbed helplessly. * * * *
She had hardly any more to say to the investigators who came the next day to see her: L.A.P.D. Sergeant Jess Conners, and the woman with the frizzy orange hair, who introduced herself as Agent Chang with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. "Child Abduction and Serial Killers Unit," she added. "CASKU."
"Agent Chang," Catherine acknowledged.
"Most of the guys just call me Chang." She hesitated briefly. "We're sorry to trouble you now. I know how difficult this is for you, but in these cases the sooner we can gather information the better our chances are of resolving them."
"Cases?" Catherine felt as if her tragedy ought to be, must be, unique. Hers was a pain she did not choose to share. She didn't want to be a "case."
Agent Chang seemed to understand. "We think these men have done this before," she said, gravely sympathetic.
Catherine wanted to help, truly. She gave them what she could, though it seemed little enough.
"It was an old truck, black, rusty. A GMC, I think."
"And you didn't see the license plate? No, of course not," she answered herself. "Can you describe the men for me? There were two of them?"
"Yes, two men, one burly, I barely got a glimpse of his face; he was big, that's all I know, like a bear. Short hair. Dirty. The other one, the one who ... the one nearest me, his hair was longer, almost to his shoulders. He was tall. Six foot, at least, and skinny. A hard face, savage, high cheek boned, a mole on his chin. Large nose, crooked."
"Like it had been broken?"
"Yes, it might have been. It bent to the right, here." She indicated with her finger. "Green eyes. Yellow beard, unkempt, scraggly. No, not blond, yellow. Like it had been dyed."
"Voice?" the man asked; a policeman, she remembered, though not his name.
She had to think. "A drawl. Southern, maybe."
Later, she worked with the police artist, over and over as he worked at a laptop, plastic transparencies appearing one atop the other, going through the process repeatedly, refining the image he was creating of the man with the yellow beard.
"Yes," she said to the face he finally offered her, "that looks like him." As nearly as she could remember. Remembering was painful, doubly so--the pain in her head and the pain in her heart. She had mostly been trying not to remember.
She was less helpful with the sketch of the other man. Despite more than an hour of work with the artist, she couldn't really say if the result looked much like him or not.
"I barely looked at him," she said with a weary sigh. "Not more than a second or two. I might recognize him if I saw him again, but.... "She shrugged.
"Anyway, we've got one of them." Chang said emphatically, "Don't worry, Mrs. Desmond, we'll find them. We'll get these monsters, I promise you."
"You've got to go now," the little Filipina nurse, Millie, told the federal agent. "She has to rest."
Catherine was grateful for Millie, as grateful as she could be now for anything. Millie understood, she asked no questions, offered no well-meaning condolences. She simply did everything she could to ease Catherine's discomfort.
Agent Chang got up obediently to go. Catherine looked at her, into her eyes. She was well intentioned. Catherine knew she was. She meant her words to be comforting. What comfort could they give her, though? Becky was gone. * * * *
"That's got to be the worst thing that can happen to a mother, losing a child," Conners said outside the hospital room. "Has to be a special kind of hell, doesn't it?"
"It is," Chang said.
"My mom always says she hopes she goes before I do."
"Every mom says that," Chang said.
He started to say something more, but when he glanced sideways at her, her grim expression discouraged him from pursuing what was obviously an unwelcome topic. "At least this time we can eliminate the parents," he said instead. Incidents like this made headlines but it was rare for a child to be snatched off the street. Most cases involved family or close friends.
"It was ballsy," Chang said. "Grabbing her in broad daylight, and in such a public place."
"Super ballsy. Weird ballsy, actually," Conners agreed. "But maybe it means we have a better chance of catching them. Easy to trip up when you're that bold."
"Let's hope so." She wanted that. Wanted it very much. "Those bastards."
Though at five foot four inches she had barely qualified for the Bureau, her success rate in nabbing the perpetrators of child kidnappings and abuse was the best in the agency. Not, she insisted often, that she had any special skills or was any smarter than anybody else. Simply, she wouldn't quit. She pursued her quarry with relentless determination until, most times, she finally tracked them down.
To her way of thinking, the men she pursued were the worst of the worst. It was trendy today to regard even these criminals as victims themselves: of their own childhood, or abuse, or some other circumstances beyond their control. She had no such compassion for them. She thought the earth would be a better place if they were removed from it, and she had made it her job to accomplish that as often as possible.
Her doggedness was legend among her fellow agents. It had earned her, as well as a modicum of envy, a respect that few of the Bureau's women agents enjoyed. They called her "The Bulldog," and thought she didn't know.
Conners was silent, not wanting to intrude on her thoughts. Crime in Los Angeles was the province of the Los Angeles Police Department, but a child kidnapping was one of those special circumstances that brought the F.B.I. into the picture. Some L.A.P.D. officers resented working with the Bureau. In particular, he had been razzed for having to work with a female agent. He didn't mind, though. He had worked with Chang before, knew her nickname. Everyone agreed she was the best. "The Bulldog always nails them."
There had been some snickering suggestions, too, that she was a dike. He doubted that. He had yet to catch any particular sexual signals from her, though his instincts told him that if anyone were ever able to melt that glacier of ice that she wore so blatantly, they would probably discover a volcano waiting underneath. Truth was, he thought she was cute. Small breasted, hard bodied; even the kinky red hair turned him on.
He had been careful not to act on that feeling, however, though he had been plenty tempted. There was also a story told that she had torn the balls right off of some guy who had tried to jump her. He was ninety-nine percent sure it was another piece of malicious dirt, but he was careful, both literally and figuratively, to keep his dick out of their relations. Much as he would truly like to be the one who melted that iceberg, he also truly wanted to hang on to the family jewels.
On the other hand, you couldn't always keep those naughty pictures from slipping into your mind.
As for Chang, if she could have her druthers, she would work all her cases alone, but it didn't happen that way. Protocol demanded that she liaise with the L.A.P.D. That being the case, she much preferred Conners to the other officers she had worked with in the past. He was the only one who hadn't treated her with sometimes barely concealed resentment, even disdain.
He was also the only one who had not hit on her at the first opportunity. She was mostly grateful for that fact. She had no--absolute zero--interest in getting involved with anyone, had neither the time nor the energy nor the inclination. Her job was her life.
She had enough womanly vanity, though, to be a tad disappointed at his total lack of interest. He was good-looking: nothing flashy, but nice. Only a few inches taller than her, short for a cop. That, combined with a boyish and astonishingly innocent face--he must get carded every time he walked into a bar--made him look more like a college kid than the experienced police officer she knew he was. He was stocky, with firm muscles and enormous hands that suggested real strength, and the way he held himself, the way he moved and walked, told her that he was most likely dynamite in the sack--and damned well knew it.
She'd had a thing with a guy just like him in college, the last real thing she'd had with any guy. She had broken if off cold after two breathless weeks. He was just too good. She couldn't afford the distraction. Not then, not now.
As if he had read her thoughts, he glanced at her and flashed a grin. Nice teeth, she thought, and then, Jeez, Roby, like you're buying a horse. Why don't you check out his rump while you're at it?
Which she did when he walked ahead of her to unlock the car. Of their own volition, her eyes dropped to his buns, nicely rounded, looking like they were carved out of granite.
She snapped her eyes away from them. Buns were not a part of her business plan. She had bad guys to catch. Totally disgusted with herself, she slid into the car seat beside him.
"Crapola," she said aloud. She hated shit like this. * * * *
Mommy, Mommy, help me!
Catherine fought against the restraints that held her to the bed, the tubes that connected her to monitoring equipment.
Even when the nurses came running, even when the sedative had relaxed her body and her struggles had ceased, the cries still rang in her mind: