I'm behind on posting, and I've already skipped day five and am about to skip day six. It's easier during the week, there's more structure to my days - I can come home, and eat dinner, then write. Weekends are little whirlwinds of chaos with things not happening "on schedule" and leave me feeling burned out and unmotivated. Bah! (Also, 13 years until retirement...)
It was obvious they didn't expect to find anything of interest, and they wouldn't. They would close the case as a garden-variety street crime, and it would sit as an unsolved homicide until the end of time. On one hand, it was a sad statement on society that and murder would be called "garden-variety", but such was life. On the other hand, the more quietly and quickly this slipped away, the better. I picked up the headphones and slipped them on.
"Did you get a positive ID on the body from the super?" The tallest cop asked. I decided to call him Steve in my mind, just to make things easier. His partner would be Groucho, because of the mustache.
"He said it probably was her, he couldn't be sure," Groucho said.
Wow. My own super didn't recognize me. This was a low point, even for a dead girl. I couldn't even get anyone to ID my dead body. Or not ID it. If it weren't so sad, I would be ecstatic. If I hadn't chosen to steal the life of a girl who obviously had more problems than I did, this would be perfect. Still, it was a bit deflating to think the only people that really knew you were some seriously bad folks intent on inflicting harm on you. If they'd asked them, they'd have known it wasn't me.
"But there's more," Groucho said. "You know that girl, the neighbor, who identified her on the street?"
"Yeah," Steve said. He opened up a kitchen cabinet and riffled through my mugs. Probably looking for something stashed, but unless dust had recently been outlawed, I was safe. I shuddered to think what might be lurking in the bottoms of the coffee cups in the back. When was the last time I'd used anything but my one blue mug? When had I last cleaned out that cabinet?
"It gets weird. We went up to her apartment, and the door was open. Didn't look like anything was taken, but she was gone. Her neighbors don't know anything about her, either. So now we have two girls, living in the same building, who know one another, one dead, the other missing." Groucho hitched up his pants. Probably trying to look important.
"Or she went out to get coffee, and will be back," Steve said dryly.
"And didn't even completely close her door?" Groucho scoffed. "And yes, she could be in shock that she just found a dead body - a body she knows, even - but you'd think that might make her a little more security conscious, not less."
"True," Steve said. "What do we know about this girl? Lydia Summers? Was that her name?"
"Yeah, and that's a whole other story. She has only existed for six months. Before that, there's no trace of her." Groucho flipped open a notebook and thumbed through the pages. "I checked everywhere, and there's truly nothing."
"Oh," Steve said. I actually thought I saw a light bulb blink on over his head, his whole face lit up with comprehension. I was glad someone understood what was going on, because it sure as hell wasn't me.
"Oh?" Groucho asked, obviously as in the dark as I was.
"There's only one group that could make that happen, and it also explains the disappearance," Steve said. "They probably got antsy, after all, a girl the same age and relative build gets killed from her apartment, they might worry it had been meant for her. And better safe than sorry."
"What are you talking about?"
"Witness Protection. She's obviously in the program, it's the only thing that explains her popping into existence so thoroughly like that. And they would get nervous about the murder, especially if it's pre-testifying. So she's probably gone on to a new life." Steve nodded, the case closed in his mind. I breathed a sigh of relief. At least from their end, there might not be any trouble. Even Groucho started to look convinced. And it did make sense, at least from what they knew.
Based on what I knew, though... not so much. No one in Witness Protection would be spying on me. It was true that it was almost certainly the government that had given her the identity, but not to protect her. So what did the government think I knew? Yes, I had tangential dealing with the Caligari gang, but it wasn't as if I was an insider, privy to any sort of high-level intel. I was a schmuck who'd gotten in over her head, and they pretty much just wanted to kill me. It didn't make any sense. I tuned back into the discussion in my apartment, which had moved on to what they all planned to do with my apartment now.
"I couldn't find any next of kin listed for her," Groucho said. "So what do we do with this?" He waved his hand around the apartment, indicating my meager and pathetic belongings.
"Nothing, not our concern. The super will probably just dispose of it before he rents the apartment out again," Steve said. "Sad, but that's the way of it."
"Wow, that's depressing," Groucho said.
Steve just shrugged, and they left the apartment, closing the door behind them. The video ran for a minute or so longer, then shut off. It was apparently motion sensitive, very high quality stuff. The laptop was way better than mine, that was for sure. I was definitely transferring my stuff to this laptop and pawning mine with the camera equipment, I thought. Sure, the money in the toilet tank seemed like a lot, but how long could I really live off of it? Much longer if I left the city and headed out to a small town. Maybe get a job in a diner, end up buying my own trailer and a beater car. Living a quiet, uncomplicated life. That sounded nice. Of course, I couldn't go on being Lydia Summer, not if she was an agent. I'd have to get a new identity, something I'd never had to do before. I knew people who knew people, but I didn't want to go that route. Best for me if everyone continued to think I was dead. As the saying goes, the only way two people can keep a secret is if one of them is dead.
I'd visit a seedy pawn shop on the other side of town, one I'd only been to once, long ago, with a friend. They wouldn't know me, wouldn't ask too many questions. I'd get a bus ticket in Lydia's name, head out West, get off before the end of the trip. They wouldn't know where I left the bus. Then... then find a place to settle down. It seemed like an easy enough plan, though I had little hope of it working out in the end.
First up, more cleaning up. Packing up all the surveillance equipment, spackling the holes in the walls, making it look like a normal apartment. Then stuffing all the equipment I wanted to pawn into one bag, and heading out across town. No sign in the building of the two guys who had entered Lydia's apartment, which was good. I did not want to cross paths with them again, even if they were good guys. Which I doubted. As much as I wanted to believe her killing was a random crime, I knew better. Something was going on here, and I did not want to find out what it was.
Everything went according to plan until I tried to buy the bus ticket. Of course whoever it was that broke into her apartment had flagged her identity. They obviously had a freakishly unlimited set of resources, and I just couldn't get away with being her any longer. Why had I been so stupid? I would have been safer to buy the bus ticket as myself. No one was looking for a dead girl, and no one would notice a dead girl's name on some random bus ride. I would make a horrible spy. I was also making a horrible girl on the run.
I made a very ungraceful dash out of the bus station, for once glad of the busy streets. Get lost in the crowd, I told myself, and ran down one alley and then the next, until I suddenly realized I was a little bit lost. I had no plan, no idea what I was going to do next, and ... was that a door? On the side of the alley, a weird metal door appeared to be slightly propped open. Normally, I wouldn't have even thought about ducking through a strange door, not in this city, but my life was already a complete and utter cluster-fuck, I wasn't sure it could really get any worse. Sure, it could be the hide-out of a serial killer, or a crack den, but it could also be an artist's studio or an empty room. As if to prompt me, a light rain began to fall, so I pulled the door the rest of the way open and stepped in.
It didn't appear to be a serial killer's den, at least there was no blood splattered on the walls or body parts hanging from hooks in the ceilings. Human body parts, anyway. Those twisted things might be chicken entrails? I felt like I should be repulsed, but let's be honest, I ate chicken, so it'd be a little hypocritical for me to cast aspersions on someone who wanted to use the other bits of the chicken for... whatever it was being used for here. My eyes slowly adjusted to the dim lighting, taking in the floor to ceiling shelves along the walls that held all manner of ancient looking jars. Odd talismans were propped up here and there, along with Tarot card decks, Ouija boards, and other occult paraphernalia. It was a cross between a medieval apothecary and a new age shop, and it was glorious.
"May I help you?" A voice from behind a curtain drifted out, soft and melodious.
"I'm not entirely sure," I replied. I didn't think she could, but maybe. Maybe I was wrong to doubt the occult. Maybe this would be my way out. Maybe I'd trade my future of being a trailer-dwelling diner waitress to be a Renfest palm reader. That could be fun. I'd at least get to dress up all the time, and travel from faire to faire. I was just starting to warm to the idea when a small, nondescript woman stepped out from behind the counter, took one look at me, and shrieked. I was so startled, I jumped back, knocking into a table, which caused a crystal ball to roll off the table, hit the floor without breaking, and roll to a stop at the bottom of one of the shelves.
"I'm so sorry, but you startled me," I said, scurrying over to pick up the crystal ball. I gingerly set it back on its stand. She was still staring at me, eyes wide and mouth agape. "Hello? Excuse me?"
She shook her head slightly, as if to clear it. Then she opened her mouth to speak, thought better of it, and closed it again. We stood there, staring at each other for a long moment before she cleared her throat.
"I'm sorry," she said slowly. "I was just... startled."
"Was I not supposed to come in?" I asked. "The door was open, I just..." I trailed off. This was obviously a store, why wouldn't I supposed to be here? Unless it was one of those odd, by appointment only stores. I was never brave enough to visit those. You never knew how expensive things would be, and then once you've made them open just for you, you end up with a three thousand dollar ashtray because it's the cheapest thing and really, you have to buy something. Easier to just avoid the whole awkward situation. And it wasn't as if I'd had any money to spend lately, my only shopping trips had been to the grocery store for ramen noodles.
"No, oh, no, it's not that, it was just your aura, dear," she said soothingly. "It's... a bit unusual."
"That doesn't sound good," I said, humoring her. I didn't believe in auras, but wasn't about to bring that up while hiding out in her shop. I could pretend to believe for a minute. What would it hurt?
"It's not bad, quite," she hedged. "I've just never seen anything like it. It's more like it's not your aura. Like you're wearing someone else's. But that can't happen."
"Why not?" I asked. I refused to acknowledge that she had hit a little too close to the truth of my situation. I wasn't wearing someone else's aura, but I was pretending to be someone else. That was almost the same thing, wasn't it?
"Because your aura is part of your soul. Your soul is you. If it wasn't your aura, it would mean you weren't you," she said.
"What about possession?"
She looked startled. "Do you think you're possessed?"
"Well, no, but then, would I? It just seemed like a possible explanation, that's all."
"But in the case of possession, another entity is sharing your body with you. Suppressing you, but not eliminating you. In those cases, we would see two auras, struggling against each other. Yours would be dimmed, yes, but still visible. Unless..." she trailed off and looked distinctly uncomfortable.
"Unless what?" This did not sound good. Not good at all.
"Unless you didn't have a soul to begin with," she said softly. "It's... rare, but it does happen. Oddly, soulless people are rarely possessed. There's no reason for evil forces to possess someone without a soul. They might as well just animate a dead body. No offense, if you are soulless," she added hastily.
"Um, none taken, if I am, I suppose. I've never been told I didn't have a soul," I said. This was true, though I'd also never asked. I'd had people read my fortune at fairs and I think there was a case of aura attunement once in college, but since I was convinced it was all crap, anyway, I never paid it any mind. At least I was pretty sure I had. My memory was fuzzy in general, the more specifically I tried to pin down old memories, the more they slithered away like greased snake. I'd blame drinking too much in college, but that didn't feel quite right. Maybe I'd been dropped on my head as a baby.
"Well, most people wouldn't be so impolite as to bring it up," she said. "It's a touchy subject, but something is very obviously wrong with you. I've never seen the like, and most of the possibilities are not good."
"Is this like when you look up a symptom on the internet and they list twenty things that could be fatally wrong with you, and then end with 'but then, it could just be something so minor it's not even worth thinking about'?" I grinned at her, trying to lighten the mood.
"Sort of, though the best case is that you are in an extreme state of turmoil, which isn't good, but it's not the worst thing. It's certainly fixable, not fatal." She smiled back at me.
"I am in a great deal of turmoil," I admitted. "My life has gotten a little - okay, a lot - crazy lately. And I can't say I really feel myself."
"Oh, well, maybe I can help you, then. I would have to have a little more detail, though, Nothing too specific if it makes you uncomfortable, but just something to point me in the right direction."
"Out of curiosity, what is the worst case scenario?" I asked suddenly.
"You said this was the best case scenario, and while I'm sure, base don what's going on in my life, that's what it is, what is the worst case? I'm just curious."
"Oh, well," she said, and paused. She took a deep breath before continuing. "The worst case is you're a construct. Not a real person. Like a gollum, only more human. Now, this isn't necessarily bad, if you're an angel construct, but that's relatively rare. Most constructs are controlled by demons, for very obvious reasons. "
"Wouldn't I know I was an angel or a demon, though? Wouldn't that kind of be the point of it?" I couldn't help myself, as staunchly as I didn't believe, I was getting very interested in this discussion. On a purely theoretical level, of course. I wasn't starting the buy it, at all. And here you say, methinks the lady doth protest too much, and you may be right. I was trying to tell myself that there were lots of ways she could tell I was in turmoil, that my life was a mess. I had to look a fright and I was carrying all of my belongings. If that didn't scream someone that needed help, what did?
"You would think that, but there are rules, even on the celestial plane. Rules that even angels and demons can't break, though they try. Mankind has to have a little bit of a fighting chance, after all, what would be the fun, otherwise? So no, they can't know who they are, or everything they know, but their intention remains." She beckoned me over to a small table in the corner. Thankfully, there was no crystal ball in the center, or I might have laughed. Instead, she motioned me to sit down, then sat opposite me, just staring. I remained quiet and tried not to fidget.
"Okay, tell me, in broad strokes, what this turmoil is," she finally said.
"Well, I faked my own death to get out of some trouble," I summarized. That seemed the best way to put it, without giving any details.
She shook her head and frowned, squinting a little as she stared at a point just above my head.
"That... doesn't seem like quite it. What's your name - just your first name," she added quickly.
"Lydia," I said without thinking. Only it wasn't. I couldn't be Lydia, because people were looking for Lydia. I had to be... my brain froze, and I panicked. What was my name? How could I forget my own name?
"Calm down," she said sharply. "It's okay, it's okay."
No, I wanted to scream, it was not okay, because I wasn't Lydia. I was me. I was... But the harder I pressed for the memory, the further away it drifted. We've all had those moments, when trying to remember an actor, or a book title, and you know the minute you stop trying to think about it, you'll come up with it. But imagine that feeling when you try to think of your own name? Not a pleasant thought, is it?
"I think this is the problem. You have assumed another identity, at least partially. And your aura is trying to shift, but something is wrong. You're not accepting your new identity, and you can't go back to your old one. Your own mind is working against you." She stood up abruptly and held out her hand. "I know what you need, a good cleanse and some meditation."
"Just that, huh?" I joked weakly. I was trying to shut off my brain, and resisting reaching for my wallet. My driver's license would tell my stupid brain my name.
"Oh, there's nothing 'just' about it, believe me. It'll be hard work, but you can do it. Let's start with some tea, shall we?"
And then I was sitting in a dark room, an empty teacup in my hand, my head buzzing like the sound of a million bees. Disoriented, I stood up on wobbly legs and headed toward a curtain wall with some light peaking out from under it. I froze when I heard some voices on the other side.
"The signal was coming from this block," a gruff male voice said. "And there's not much here. Are you sure you haven't seen anyone?"
"No one I didn't know today," the shopkeeper's soft, low voice replied. "Earlier this morning I had some of my regular customers, but it's been slow since then. Can I interest either of you gentlemen in a reading while you're here?"
Two male voices replied in the negative, with some choice expletives about both the lack of what they were looking for and disparaging her beliefs and profession. And while I generally agreed with them on the occult, it was really rude and uncalled for. I felt sorry for the woman, though she seemed to take it in stride. I suppose when you have views that a good percentage of the population finds odd, you have to have a rather thick skin.
"They're gone," she said loudly. "I assume they were looking for you, though the description was a bit off."
Of course it was, I thought, pushing my way out past the curtain. Because they had been describing Lydia, the real Lydia. The dead Lydia. I wondered if they'd ever get suspicious and check the morgue? Maybe they wouldn't buy that it was a coincidence that another girl in Lydia's building died. Then it hit me. They'd said signal. Something of hers was giving off a signal they could follow. The laptop? Probably not, or they'd have found that other apartment. Something told me that apartment was Lydia's little secret. That whatever she was looking for there, it wasn't anything the other people knew about. But her phone... why hadn't I already gotten rid of her phone? I'd turned it off, sure, but if it was an actual tracking device, that wouldn't matter. I had to dump it, and someplace close by.
"Hold on a minute," I said, pulling the phone out of my bag. I went to the door and peeked out carefully. The two men were standing at the end of the alley, arguing. I crouched down, stuck my hand out, and dropped the phone into a drainage grate just outside the door. It hit the bottom with a 'crack', but the traffic on the road was loud enough to cover the sound. I quickly closed the door.
"Okay, that's better, sorry about that. They were sort of looking for me, but not really," I said.
"They were looking for the person you became, then? That's odd, most people invent a new personality or steal the identity of a dead person. That's a dangerous game, both legally and on a astral footing. No wonder you're in flux." She nodded to herself, the creases in her forehead easing.
"Except she is dead," I blurted. I almost slapped my hand over my mouth after it came out. I hadn't meant to share that part.
"How long?" She asked.
"Uh, a day?" I squeaked.
She stared at me, hard, and before I knew it, I was telling her the whole story. The complete story. Nothing left out. Okay, the porn watching and worrying about that being recorded, but everything else. Everything that might be important. And it felt good to talk to someone. I even admitted to not knowing my name, and her eyes darkened.
"This is not the best case scenario," she said calmly. "I still don't think it's the worst case, either, but it is something very rare. You are something very rare. I can tell you what it is, and you may remember for awhile, but it will fade. You might hold onto it until you finish this, but maybe not. And I don't know if it will help you or hurt you."
"What do you mean? What do you think I am?"
"There are many names for it, in many cultures. Most are spirits, or ghost, but there are some cases of actual corporeal beings. You're vengeance. You seek justice for those murdered. You become them, punish the guilty, and move on."