TW: referenced sexual harassment
I closed the door behind Mrs. Chaudhury with a cheery wave goodbye—then pressed my head against the wood with a deep, long-suffering sigh. I could feel a migraine coming on already.
“What?” Johara asked peevishly, like she had any right to be cranky. I glared at her – in response, she flickered a little in the light and had the decency to look a little embarrassed. She was having a fairly solid day today, her few flickers aside; most of the time, she was monochrome, with the slightly out-of-focus look of an old Polaroid. If I focused my eyes, she’d be a little clearer, but that took effort. Right now, though, she looked more like a normal bratty twelve-year-old who’d taken a bath in grey paint… well, and replaced her feet with trails of white smoke. Those only showed up every now and again.
Ghosts, in short, made no sense to me. Old ones were like bad photocopies, new ones felt like excellent CGI, and even my sister – aside from the basic tenets of ‘never aging’ and ‘vaguely greyish-white’ – didn’t seem to follow much in the way of rules.
“So I’m solving a murder now?” I asked finally, unable to keep the exhaustion out of my voice. I had literally just moved. My nerves had all the strength of the chewed-up couch springs I’d slept on last night.
She shrugged it off. “I mean, you can talk to ghosts. You kind of have the upper hand on the police—”
“Jo, I’m seventeen.” I blew a strand of red hair out of my face—when it stubbornly refused to move, I yanked it back behind my ear instead, and glanced over my shoulder. The stairs up to our landing seemed imbued with a certain foreboding air, but that was probably just my anxiety. Just because I could talk to dead people didn’t mean it was…comfortable. Jo was fine. Jo was different. I’d known her before she died, and trust me, that makes a pretty big difference. “How am I supposed to solve a murder? I don’t know how to solve a tax form.”
“I dunno. Ask him?” she asked, with a tone that clearly meant she thought I was stupid. She probably wasn’t far off.
“Why didn’t you?” I shot back. Mostly to avoid the question.
“I was explaining the whole ghost thing.” She crossed her arms and gave me an unimpressed look. “Since you didn’t.”
“Oh, would you—Argh.” I opened the door again and slipped outside, closing the door in Jo’s face. She drifted through the wood, still wearing the same unimpressed face. So, pointless, but gratifying anyway. I checked the For Rent sign still wired to the banister. The phone number seemed right. It was big and clear. I debated putting sparkles on it. Maybe some neon lights.
“Staring at it isn’t going to get you a roommate.”
I—barely—managed to suppress the urge to roll my eyes. “What, am I going to get another lecture on how I should be a medium for hire or… seancer or whatever you call it? It’s bad enough you roped me into this nonsense.”
“How is it a bad thing? Besides, you said yes.”
I gave the banister a sullen kick. She wasn’t wrong. I just didn’t want to talk to the guy. But rent was rent, and I’d already taken her money, and her deposit wasn’t enough to skip town with. So I was stuck. Besides, I’d wanted to be a private investigator. I just thought it would mean using Google for old ladies and catching cheating bastards in the act.
I opened the door again, letting Jo through this time. It was only polite, even if I wanted to kick her teeth in. God help her if I ever figured out how.
I don’t really remember how Jo died. I mean, I know how she died. Two idiot white boys stole their parent’s car and went for a cruise at night with a bottle of whiskey in the front seat. She and one of the foster kids were fooling around—or at least that’s how he’d put it, which means he’d locked her out and told her she could only come back in if she took off her shirt. Evil little shit. She’d decided not to play and crossed the road at the wrong time.
I know all that. I just don’t remember it. My memory just sort of—skips from having a sister who breathed and blushed and tired to living with a girl who nobody else could see and who followed me with a distracted patience. It took her a few months to wake up properly, and by then we’d both gotten used to it again. There were other things to worry about, and it’s not like I ever talked to anybody else anyway. Jamal and Johara. Two peas in a pod. Same as always.
Gurjas Chaudhury was waiting very patiently for me—for us—once I got back up the stairs. It was unnerving. Rather, he was unnerving—just short of six feet tall, floating pearly-grey about an inch above my hardwood floor. It was the kind of floating that didn’t look like floating—his feet were firmly planted, just on a ground I couldn’t see. Every now and again, the textured fog that made up his body shimmered and faded, reacting to unseen wind or strong emotion, leaving trails of essence tapering off of his turban or from the edges of his heels.
“You lied to my wife.”
Ah. “Yes.” I hesitated. “You’re blunt. That’s useful.”
“How old are you?”
This wasn’t going my way at all. If Jo wasn’t already dead, I would have killed her. “Does it matter?” I replied smoothly. “I can see you. I’d say that’s a mark in my favour.” I saved any commentary on Johara’s sudden, gleaming smile for later. I did listen, sometimes. When I felt like it.
“I suppose,” he said, with the restrained kind of annoyance that I was used to seeing in adults. “What do you want to know?”
Well, he was being shockingly unhelpful. “What happened. Obviously.” I bit my tongue to stop myself from being more sarcastic.
Another measured look. How frustrating. I felt so measured he probably could have told me my weight in milligrams. “I was murdered.”
“Yeah, I figured as much. Who did it?” Okay, I lost the battle against the sarcasm, but he was earning it and then some.
“Greeneyes.” The answer—cryptic and short as it was—burst from his mouth and came so quickly on the heels of my question that I couldn’t help starting a little in surprise. I wasn’t the only one. From the shocked look on his face, that clearly hadn’t been what he meant to say.
I crossed the room slowly, and sat down at my desk, not taking my eyes off of him and wishing for all the world that I had a properly-intimidating swivel chair. “So, Jo, when you said you filled him in on ‘the ghost stuff,’ you didn’t include—”
“—The part where we can’t lie?” she finished sweetly. “I hadn’t gotten there yet.”
Have I mentioned I love my baby sister?
I love my baby sister.
Gurjas shot her a deathly—haha—look, and she made a doe-eyed look of innocence back at him.
“Oh, don’t get mad at her,” I said, trying to conceal my annoyance. Not very successfully, I should add. I’m not great with subtlety. “You’re the one giving us the run-around on what should be a pretty open and shut question. So what were you going to say?’
“Ghosts can’t lie?” he said instead, with a look of dawning horror.
“Nope. That trick only worked because you weren’t expecting it, though.” I twirled my pen over my fingers. “Now that you know you can’t lie directly, you’re free to misdirect, conceal, or otherwise keep your trap shut as much as you want to.” Then I chewed on the end of the pen, staring at Gurjas. This really wasn’t adding up. “So let’s get back to the part where you were trying to. You’re haunting your wife, you glared me into taking the job, got my sister into intimidate me into it—”
“Oh, no, I did that all on my own,” Jo added. I ignored her, struggling not to smile.
“The point is—the point is, you could just tell me what happened. I mean, if you just said that you didn’t see who killed you, I’d get it. But I’m guessing that’s not the case.”
He was silent, an unreadable expression flickering over his features. I didn’t know what to think. Maybe if I’d been a real private investigator—or a real medium, at that—the whole thing would have been less overwhelmingly weird.
“I want you to bring my body home,” he said finally. “Give my kids some closure. I don’t want Chandra thinking I left her, or ran away. But I don’t want you trying to solve this.”
“Even though you just told me who did it.”
Kudos to Gurjas. He just nodded, and didn’t throw anything at me. I would have.
I frowned, then glanced over at Johara. She looked just as confused as I did, and I wondered—not for the first time in the last few minutes—what their conversation had actually entailed.
“You’re a child. Let my wife bury me. The rest you should leave to adults.”
I felt Johara’s eyes on me, and I kept my curled fist under the desk and my face in as much of a mask as I could manage it. “Sure. Yeah. I can do that.” Who the fuck is Greeneyes? I could ask him straight up, but now he knew he couldn’t lie, so he’d just purse his lips and I wouldn’t get anywhere. “Where am I going?”
“Great. The part of Ottawa that fun forgot.”
Gurjas didn’t laugh. I didn’t like him much—but I guess judging the recently murdered on their sense of humour wasn’t particularly fair, either. And Mrs. Chaudhury…
I need to know.
“Fine. You stay here. Or wander off and haunt somewhere else, I don’t care. Just give me a little space.” Okay, I could probably be nicer to him, but something about him was rubbing me the wrong way. Hah. Like I didn’t know. Pretentious, arrogant, condescending…
I stood up and headed for the stairs, taking a second to glance outside. It didn’t look too cold, and the leaves were only starting to tinge orange at the corners, but the wind was whistling through them in fits and starts. I was struck with the sense that I was missing something again; not about the case in particular, just that there was another hole that needed filling, something else I’d forgotten to do, somebody else I’d let down. It was autumn. It was late in the year already. It was autumn. It was autumn—
—And the doorbell rang and brought me hurtling down to earth. Ow. “Uh…” I stared down the stairs. What?
Johara sighed behind me. “Jamal. The sign.”
“The—Oh!” I hurtled down the stairs and ripped open the door—”Hi!” I exclaimed, a little more cheerily than necessary. Then I straightened up, glancing up and down and finally taking him in—blond mop of neat hair, glasses, dweeby grin… and plaid. God, why did it have to be plaid? “Um, are you here about the sign?”
The person who’d rung my doorbell blinked at me like a rabbit in the middle of a snowy highway. “Hm? Oh. Yeah! Er, you’re looking for a roommate—I—” He waffled around for a bit.
I stared over at the sign. For Rent. Then I looked back up at him. “…Wanna start with your name?”
“Nathan. Nathan Beaufort. Er—sorry, I was expecting a man.”
Christ. This is what I got for having the name Jamal. “Learn to live with disappointment. You wanna see the room or not?”
“I suppose so. Er, is it alright? That I’m—”
I cast a despairing glance back at Johara, who was sitting about an inch above the stairs. “Be nice to him!” She indicated a smile with her hands. Oh great, she liked him. She always did like the dweeby ones.
I looked back at him. “I’m gay. So it’s all good. Come on in.”
“Oh. Um, yes! Yeah! Sure!”
I held the door open and couldn’t help a smirk. It only got wider as I saw Johara’s horrified look, and I let him go up the stairs in front of me, stifling a snort of laughter in my sleeve. He’d do. Especially if he could pay the rent on time. All the same, solving a murder was going to be a little harder with a roommate that twitchy.
Well, there was no point in getting ahead of myself. That would only matter if he took the room.