The following chapters have been edited from their originally posted versions. They were edited by RoAnna Sylver for the print edition. Changes include extra character description, minor plot clarifications and grammatical errors. This extends to chapter 1.20.
TW: death, child abuse, racism
Mrs. Chaudhury walked up the narrow steps into my office at six in the afternoon, and the ghost of her dead husband followed behind.
It wasn’t much of an office yet, really. It felt more like a closet, especially with all the boxes still scattered around, labelled variously with ‘books,’ ‘random crap,’ ‘personal shit,’ so on, so forth— and I had my head too deep in one of said boxes to hear her arrival through my muttered curses.
“Is this the Private Investigations office?”
I started upwards at the voice, nearly banging my head on the cardboard. I managed to get myself free and then cleared my throat.
I tried not to look too obviously at the clearly-dead man standing to the left of her shoulder. I saw plenty of ghosts. Usually, they minded their own business. Instead of staring, I brushed some lint off my shoulder and offered what I hoped was a comforting smile. “Yes, that’s me. I’m just—setting up.”
“Oh.” The woman twisted her fingers into the loose tassels of her headscarf, eyes downcast. They were red and raw , lined with a dark green pencil that did nothing to hide the shadows of sleeplessness at the edges of her lids, and I dared a quick glance at the broad-shouldered ghost at her shoulder. He stared back at me and said nothing.
“Are you open for business, then?”
I hesitated. Technically, no—but I had a horrible, sinking feeling in my stomach that I already knew what she was going to ask. I didn’t trust my voice, so I just nodded. Might as well get it over with.
The woman nodded back, a small smile lighting up her face with hope. “My name is Chandra Chaudhury, and my—my husband is missing. The police say they’ve tried everything, but—I’m—I’m scared he—” She swallowed, closed her eyes, and tears poured down her face, pooling in the dimples of her cheeks and then overflowing. Nobody liked to fear the worst. Nobody could avoid it forever, either.
I took a deep breath. “Sit down, Mrs. Chaudhury. I’ll see what I can do.” I avoided the ghost’s silent glare. I already knew what I was going to find.
The first time I spoke to a dead person, I was five years old and so was he. The attic of the house was the one place where the foster kids weren’t allowed, even to clean, but I could hear his voice. I let Johara sleep—she was only two—and I followed his crying, up the stairs and into the creaking, dusty quiet.
His name was Alan. I don’t think I understood that he was already dead—only that when I tried to touch him, he flinched away before I could realize that he was nothing but an illusion. But I understood the burns on his neck and arms, and I understood the jagged angle of his neck.
There’s little more embarrassing than taking someone into a room that you know isn’t ready, but I tried my best to keep my face up. There was a desk, at least—a heavy, wooden, ancient thing sitting at the far end, a gift from the previous tenant—but I hadn’t gone anywhere near the horrendous yellow floral wallpaper yet, and the holes in the back wall didn’t have more than a halfhearted coat of plaster over them. It wasn’t much of an office, but it was what I had.
“Have a seat,” I said without thinking about it—and then leapt forward to pull a box off the one chair I’d managed to salvage from somebody’s porch last garbage day. “Uh. There we go.” I sat on the other side of the desk, hoping she couldn’t tell I was just sitting on a box of books.
“You look ridiculous,” came a voice at my shoulder. I ignored it as well as I could. Jo didn’t know when to shut up.
“So, what’s going on? Tell me as much as you can.”
Mrs. Chaudhury’s fingers left her headscarf’s tassels, and instead started playing with the silver bangle on her wrist. She couldn’t have been more than thirty or so, and I wondered when she’d gotten married.
“My husband’s name is Gurjas, Gurjas Singh Chaudhury—I, I have copies of his ID—” She pulled them out, and I blinked a little at the pieces of paper she’d extricated from her purse. I supposed especially with all the nonsense going on south of the border, it couldn’t hurt to be extra careful with documentation. “There, that’s a copy of his driver’s license, his birth certificate, his passport—”
“Wait, a copy of his passport? Did he take it with him?”
She shook her head and laughed a little. “I’m—I’m getting all mixed up. I’m sorry. He didn’t take anything unusual with him. He just went to work and didn’t come back.” She pulled out another piece of paper. “I called his manager and he said there wasn’t anything unusual, but this is his phone number, and the phone number of some of his colleagues—I don’t think they did anything, but maybe they’ll say something to you that they wouldn’t to me—”
I reached forward and took a gentle hold of her wrist. “Mrs. Chaudhury. Take a deep breath.”
She stared at my hand, then let her shoulders fall. “Sorry. I’m—sorry.” The reaction of somebody who’d been told she was overreacting and hysterical a couple too many times lately. Ugh. I hated that I knew what that looked like.
I wasn’t sure what to say. She was frantic, but her panicking had been productive. I did need all this stuff. I just needed a story first. “When did you last see your husband?” I sat back and grabbed a notepad from the half-empty box next to me, patting my pockets for a pen.
“He works nights as a nurse at the Civic. I last saw him three nights ago—October, um… October third. His shifts start at eleven so it must have been about ten o’clock or so. I’d just put the kids to bed.”
I wrote that down. “Kids?”
“We have two—Ruben’s six, and Sulha is turning three.” A small smile appeared on her face, even though her eyes still shone with tears. “Sulha doesn’t really understand what’s happening. I’m not sure what to tell her. She loves her father, you know?”
I returned the smile the best that I could.
“Are you going to tell her?” came the voice at my shoulder again. I didn’t turn to look at Johara , but I knew what expression she’d have on her face—sad and pleading, trying to get me to do something. It was a good thing Mrs. Chaudhury couldn’t see her.
Instead, I ducked my head back towards the pad. “When did you contact the police?”
“When I woke up in the morning and he wasn’t back yet.”
“Really? That fast?” I tapped the pen against my cheek. “Why’d you think there was something wrong?”
She shook her head, lips pursing in confusion. “I woke up and—he wasn’t there. He’s always home by seven-thirty, always. I waited until eight, then I called his manager, and then the police.” She gave me a hard look, as if daring me to challenge her. I wasn’t going to bother. I had enough self-preservation not to fight a scared mother on her decisions. “They asked me if I had reason to be worried for his life.”
“He’s received death threats from patients and coworkers before. Not many, but enough. So, yes.”
“What kind of death threats? Like, specific ones or just generally aggressive?”
She shrugged, suddenly looking a little lost again. “Mostly general, I think. He brushed them off—kept telling me not to worry.”
“Wait, so—he’s been missing for three days, he’s gotten death threats before, and the cops have already given up?” That was just wrong. Unfortunately, it all sounded par for the course too. Freakin’ typical. I’d seen firsthand how little they cared when it was brown or Black people in trouble.
Her lips went thin and white, and she gave another brisk nod. Behind her, Gurjas’s ghost reached out. I wanted to tell him that he couldn’t touch her, that he should look away, but I couldn’t say that while Mrs. Chaudhury still had hope.
“Can I talk to him?” Johara asked. I gave an almost-imperceptible nod, focusing on the pad of paper that was rapidly filling up. Jo moved over to the half-faded man, and I caught only a few words of their conversation before Mrs. Chaudhury began to speak again, the tension in her voice carefully controlled.
“They told me to prepare for the possibility that he might have—that—” She swallowed, breathed out, and tried again. “That Gurjas might have just left me. But I know him. He wouldn’t do that, and I don’t care how hopeless or romantic or innocent that sounds, he wouldn’t do this to me or our children.” She reached for her purse again. “I’ll pay, anything you want. I just need him home.”
I can’t accept your money. It stuck in my throat. It would have been so easy—so easy—to tell her the truth. That her husband was dead, and that his spirit was behind her, trying desperately to tell her that he was here, he’d come back, he’d come home—and then what? She’d leave, heartbroken and disbelieving, Gurjas wouldn’t be any closer to reaching his rest, and… Despite myself, I glanced around the almost-office. I thought about the bills that needed paying, the grocery money that didn’t exist. My last family had given me a bit of food, a bit of money, enough to get me situated, but—
“You understand that I can’t guarantee anything.”
“Of course.” Her eyes shone—with tears, for sure, but determination as well. She wasn’t planning on taking no for an answer. “I need to know.”
I became aware of a sharp glare from the corner, where Jo was still speaking to Gurjas in low, soft tones. I knew what that meant. It meant a lot of inconvenient hauntings if I didn’t do it.
“Alright. We have a deal.”
I tried not to feel a little nauseous at the happy, hopeful look on her face—or the dawning realization that maybe I was kind of an asshole.