When Detective Cadence Riley awoke, she had no idea where she was or how she had gotten there.
She found herself in some kind of waiting room. Disoriented and a mildly panicked, she realized she didn’t recognize the room and could not recall how or why she was there. Her eyes darted around the room, trying to find something familiar to lock on to. Neither the décor nor the people in the waiting room with her were familiar. Subconsciously, she reached for her belt, for her badge. Her unease grew when she discovered it was not there, and as she moved she couldn’t feel the weight of her gun or its shoulder holster.
The chair she had been in wobbled backward, threatening to topple over as Cadence leaped to her feet. She looked around again, trying to calm herself, and took in more details of those around her, attempting to find a common thread. The others in the room were all different shapes and sizes, all different ages and ethnicities. There was a middle aged black man clad in a utility worker’s uniform. Beside him sat a young woman in a grocery store uniform. An older man sat off in a corner wearing a hunting outfit, humming some random tune. They all seemed to have the same expression on their face, their eyes glassy and their muscles relaxed as if they weren’t really there. None of them were reacting to her, or even looking at her.
She was a cop, she reminded herself. She was not going to let panic rule her. Someone had to know where they were right? She moved a couple of chairs down and took a seat next to the utility worker. Getting a solid grip on emotions, she tried for congeniality as she greeted him.
“Hey, how’s it going?” she asked. He didn’t respond. He didn’t even twitch. The man gave no sign that he had heard her.
“Hello?” she asked, trying again and waving her hand in front of his face.
She looked around to see if anyone looked as if they heard her. She waved her hands at them. No one looked her way. They all just kept staring straight ahead, their eyes glazed over and vacant. The older man in the corner just kept humming his tune.
She got up and crossed the room to the wall, running her hands through her dark blonde hair as she went. This had to be a dream, right? A place she didn’t recognize, no memory of how she got there, and nothing with her other than the clothes she wore. It absolutely had to be a dream.
She leaned against the wall, refusing to sit back down with the vacant people; they gave her the creeps. This had to be the most ridiculous, pointless dream she had ever had; nothing was happening in it. She crossed her arms over her chest and sighed, leaning her head back against the wall. She broke that pose only once to see if she had her cell phone with her. Stranger things had happened in dreams before. Alas, she did not have her phone, and so she went back to fuming at her subconscious for keeping her here.
A door suddenly opened in the wall, which was remarkable because there hadn’t been a door in the room at all. Cadence stood straighter, eager to see what would happen. A somewhat harried looking man emerged. He was one of those people who seemed ageless; he looked like he could be anywhere from his late thirties to his early fifties. He had silvering hair and some lines to his face but not many, and his blue-gray eyes seemed to exude both youthful energy and wisdom. A file folder was open in his hands.
Osmund Snow spent a moment intently reading the description of the person he was there to retrieve. A young woman of thirty years, average height. The athletic build made sense given she had been an officer. Blonde hair and green eyes completed the list of things he needed to search out. He closed the file and looked at those waiting then spotted her standing by the wall.
“You wouldn’t happen to be Detective Cadence Riley by any chance, would you?” he asked, his accent marking him as an Englishman.
At last her subconscious had decided to do something. She pushed off from the wall and took a step forward. “I am.”
“Oh good.” He sighed and visibly relaxed. “You woke up earlier than expected. I was afraid I’d lost you. That wouldn’t do now would it?”
“Um, I guess not,” she said and shrugged. He waved a hand, beckoning her to follow him and she did. Once the door closed behind them, it once again disappeared into the wall. She looked him over, trying to figure out his age, or anything else about him other than his obvious heritage. While not as physically imposing as some, he seemed to be someone who kept fit. “Who are you? How do you know my name?”
“Oh, I’m Osmond Snow. Pleasure to meet you,” he replied, offering his hand to shake.
She took the offered hand and shook it. “Nice to meet you, but you didn’t answer my second question. And where are we?”
“Ah, yes. Well why don’t you come with me? I’ll answer all your questions in my office.”
Cadence arched a skeptical eyebrow but followed. Through rows of desks they went, passing by people who sat with headphones on and computer screens in front of them. She could see different things on the screens, but couldn’t really make out what was being done on them. She held her questions though, following Osmond Snow through the area to one of the many doors on the far side of the room. He opened the door, letting them into a room that, though it lacked windows, felt oddly familiar.
The walls were a kind of pale cream or beige, the usual color office designers choose when trying to stay neutral, but not go with white. There were two desks, facing each other. One was obviously his, with files and papers on it. The other was clear and didn’t seem to belong to anyone.
He gestured toward the empty desk as he closed the door. “Have a seat.” As he settled into his, he looked up at her. “Has anyone ever told you your eyes are the most beautiful shade of jade?”
Cadence looked off, slightly embarrassed at his random compliment. “Yeah, uh…thanks. So…where is this place?” Cadence was aware that she was dreaming, but hey, she might as well find out what her subconscious had cooked up for her this time.
“I suppose limbo might be the most proper term,” he said and shrugged, looking slightly embarrassed.
“Limbo? So I’m what? Waiting to come out of a coma or something?” That made sense as to why she was dreaming at any rate though she didn’t recall being injured. Her brows furrowed as she realized that the more she thought about it, the harder it seemed for her to recall anything specific about the recent days.
“Not quite,” he said and leaned forward, his icy eyes searched her jade green ones. “Detective Riley, I’m sorry to have to be the one to tell you, but you’re dead.”
Cadence sat there for a moment in stunned silence, then shook her head and laughed. “Nice joke, is this some kind of trick the guys put together?” She momentarily forgot that this was supposed to be a dream and began looking around for cameras or people peeking in getting their laugh out of it. She was a bit discomfited to find no evidence of any of that.
“No, no joke I’m afraid,” Snow said, “you’ve died. This is a place for processing, of sorts.”
“Processing? For what? Heaven? Hell?”
“Well, neither to be honest. I don’t want to get into theological discussions about the existence of Heaven or Hell or what they are. All I can do is present you with the choice you now have. You can end; go into whatever kind of heaven or hell your own personal ideology and conscience creates for you. Or you can stay here and help out.”
Once again she tried looking for cameras or snickering cops. This had to be a joke. She started opening drawers, in the vain hopes of finding some kind of recording device. The closing of the drawers became successively harder until she was yanking them open and slamming them shut.
“This is a dream. This is a joke,” she kept muttering to herself, over and over again.
“Detective Riley, I can understand you’re upset, but really —”
“You can understand?” she yelled, jumping up to loom over him as he sat in his chair. “Well, I’m so happy that you can understand. That makes me feel so much better.”
“Neither sarcasm nor temper tantrums will help or change the situation.”
“I don’t care. I’m not dead.” She crossed her arms over her chest and glared down at him as she remained standing, her expression daring him to gainsay her.
Snow opened the top file on his desk. “You were kicked —” he began.
“I am not dead! I don’t care what that damned file says!” she protested, interrupting him.
“… And the impact of the kick threw you over the rail of the fire escape. You plunged seven stories to your death.”
“I didn’t die!” she yelled. “This is just a dream, some stupid dream I’m having while I wait to wake up in the hospital with probably a few broken bones and a wicked headache.”
Snow was on his feet in an instant, his icy eyes hardening, going arctic. His voice, when he spoke, lost all of the softness and compassion that had given her the first impression of an English librarian. “Do you want me to tell you that your head hit the pavement first? That it cracked open like a melon under that fellow Gallagher’s mallet? That your legs broke in so many places that they made a half circle out and away from your body? That between the force of the kick and the impact of your landing your ribs simply became bits of bone matter that lodged in your lungs like pebbles on the bottom of a stream? Because I could tell you all of that and more, but I really don’t see how it is going to help the situation. I know it is difficult to come to grips with, but come to grips with it you must, to make the decision that is now before you.”
Snow caught himself and straightened up, taking a deep breath. After a moment he sat back down, leaving a stunned Cadence to slump back into her seat as well. “I’m sorry,” he said after a moment, his voice softening once again.
She nodded in silence, her mind spinning as she tried to get a handle on her thoughts and emotions. “Okay… assuming you’re telling the truth, why am I dressed in my normal clothes? Aren’t dead people supposed to wear robes or something?”
Snow relaxed back into himself and shook his head with a bit of a smile. “No, you appear as you would normally.” He gestured to her clothing. “Your clothes are a mental image projection of your former physical self.”
“Well, I’m glad that I can, at least, remember enough to project. Why am I having such a hard time remembering things?” she asked.
“That’s a common side effect of dying. You’ll get your memories back in time, I promise. Though some you may wish had stayed lost.”
“What was with the people out in that waiting room? And what was with that waiting room anyway?” she asked.
“The waiting room is a place we put souls who are waiting to be processed. Most of the time we have enough people here that not many end up in there, but if everyone is occupied, then the excess souls will wait there.”
“So you are one of these processors?”
“Not exactly,” Snow said with a vague smile.
“What are you then?” Cadence asked.
“I am what you have been given the option to be; a police officer of sorts.”
“So… you’re telling me there are cops in the afterlife?” she asked, looking at him in disbelief.
“Yes,” he said. Nodding and closing the file, now that she was talking a bit more sensibly.
“For what? Ghosts stealing other ghost’s chains and sheets?”
Snow gave Cadence a sour look, obviously not amused with her sarcasm. “No. We more or less police the interaction between haunting spirits and what your generation terms ghost hunters.”
“Why?” That was all Cadence could think to ask.
“Well, back before science got interested in hauntings there really wasn’t much for us to do, except to police interactions with non-human spirits. However, given the influx of interest in the so-called “paranormal” in the last century or so, we have all sorts of work to do now.”
“And again I ask, why?” She reiterated.
“Well, we can’t let on too much now can we? The afterlife is supposed to be this great mystery, and it needs to remain so. So our job is to make sure that the haunting spirits don’t sit down to a cup of tea with the psychics and ghost hunters to spill the beans so to speak.”
“So, you have a force that polices hauntings?”
“Yes,” Snow replied with a shrug.
“Well why let any communications happen at all then? If you want to keep things so secretive why not just disallow it completely?”
“It’s not so simple,” he said. Sighing and leaning forward on his desk and folding his hands together. “There have always been interactions between the living and the dead. The veil between the two planes of existence is too thin to stop communication. Think about it; stories of ghosts and demons and hauntings have been around for centuries. Millennia, perhaps. Back before such things were even written down. Given the scientific developments of the last few decades and human nature’s drive to explain the unexplained, we’ve had to become a bit more proactive in making sure not too much proof gets out there. It still has to be a question of belief among people. It still needs to be something of a mystery.”
Cadence nodded, taking in that information. She pressed her lips together in a thin line as she tried to figure out what to ask next. She took a deep breath, trying to wrap her mind around it all. A million things were going through her head. Ways to protest that this was actually happening, ways to accept it, attempting to recall her life and what had happened or what she had left undone.
“Oh, God,” she blurted out suddenly. “My cat… he’ll starve.” In trying to remember, she had managed to get a glimpse of something. She had seen her cat, a riot of black fur. He was rubbing himself up against her legs as she got home from work, meowing at her.
Snow shook his head. “Your partner has claimed him; he’s well looked after.”
“How do you know?”
“We tend to know a lot around here, especially when processing the new arrivals. Now look, I can give you a night to say goodbye to loved ones or see special places once more, but that’s all. I’ll need a decision by morning.”
“A decision on what?” Cadence asked.
“On whether or not you want to continue making a difference, being an officer of the law. A different kind of law. Or whether you would simply prefer to go on to whatever personal heaven or hell awaits you.”
“Well that’s a hell of a choice,” she said as she grumbled. “No pun intended.”
“It is, yes,” he agreed, “but a necessary one. I know thrusting this decision on you is asking a lot, but you have to move on, in one capacity or another.”
“So if it is all so important that I move on, and I can barely remember my past, why do I need a night to say goodbye?”
“Because as your memories come back it will be important that you know you had one last chance to go home, to say goodbye to a friend. It helps ease your soul.”
“Who or what do I get to say goodbye to?”
“Well you can say goodbye to your partner, your cat, the precinct; anyplace or anyone you wish to, but be careful, time is limited.”
Cadence nodded and took a moment to think. Where should she have Snow take her? To her home? Maybe, that might jog some memories loose at least. To her precinct? Yes, it would be nice to say goodbye to her fellow detectives. She couldn’t recall many specifics of her partner other than the knowledge that they had been good friends and his name, but she definitely wanted to say goodbye to him. What about family? She searched for a moment and then came up with at least one piece of knowledge, if not a memory, per se. Her family was no more. They were all dead.
She paused, brow furrowed. “Are any of my family ghosts? Haunting spirits?”
“I…” he faltered, “I don’t have their files, I’m sorry.” He looked down to the desk for a moment, moving her file aside.
Cadence lifted a brow as Snow’s body language and tone suggested he was lying, but she let it go for now. “It sucks to say goodbye to people. Especially, if they can’t hear me or answer me.”
“I can help with that, at least for some of the living. The cat will be able to see and hear you.”
“He will?” she asked, clearly surprised.
“Yes. You didn’t really think that they looked so steadily at nothing, did you?”
“No shit. He was looking at ghosts?”
“Very likely,” Snow said.
“Huh, go figure. So how can you help with the people?”
“I can let you talk to them through a dream.”
“Really? How?” Cadence asked, surprised.
“I’ll show you when the time comes. I’m assuming you’ll want to speak with your partner. Anyone else?”
“No, no one else,” she said and shook her head. “At least, I don’t think so. I can’t remember anyone else. But I’d like to stop by my home and the precinct.”
“That won’t be a problem at all.” He watched her as she thought, and knew that she was trying to stretch her mind, to force herself to remember. Part of him wanted to help her, to open her file and let her go over it, let the memories come rushing back. But he knew that it was better to let her deal with this incrementally. It was an organic process, and rushing things often resulted in damage to the spirit.
“Well, I guess we should get a move on then right?” she asked, cutting into his thoughts. She had given up on trying to remember; trying to force her mind to recall what it could not.
He saw the change in her face and recognized it for what it was. It was resolution to get on with things, no matter what. It was something he was guilty of at times. He nodded. “Right,” he said as he rose. “Let’s go.”