TW: paranoia, unreality, manipulation
Whoever was standing in front of me, it wasn’t Mrs. Chaudhury. But as I looked at her, my mind struggling to erase the paradox and reassert some sort of reality, I couldn’t place exactly why I was so certain. Perhaps she had an earpiece in. Perhaps I’d hallucinated the phone call. Perhaps I’d just lost some time in there.
Or perhaps I just needed to accept what Will and Avery had been trying to tell me yesterday—that the world was darker and stranger and more uncertain than I knew. Not that it’d been particularly bright to begin with.
“Mrs. Chaudhury,” I said after a while, trying to sound normal.
“Miss Kaye,” she replied. I made a mental note of that. In the phone call, she’d called me Jamal. Even if I’d made up the phone call, I didn’t trust anybody who called me Miss. “I just wanted to stop by and thank you.” She was too calm—too put together. Even the sadness in her voice had a fake undertone to it.
On the other hand, I’ve been accused of being paranoid before. I tried to push my discomfort aside. “Don’t worry about it. A job’s a job.” The fact that it was my first actual PI gig didn’t matter, not when my heart was trying to crawl its way out of my throat.
“May I speak to you inside?”
Oh hell no. I didn’t know who—or what—was standing in front of me, but I didn’t want them in my space. I’d finally gotten a place of my own. I didn’t want them—her?—tainting it. I shrugged. “It’s nice out. Also it’s still a disaster in there.”
Was I imagining the flash of uncertainty crossing Mrs. Chaudhury’s face? I couldn’t shake the feeling that the person in front of me had never been inside my apartment before. But—I couldn’t trust my own mind. I couldn’t trust the impulses that told me that everybody was a danger, everybody was a threat, everybody was trying to hurt me. What I’d done to Avery still lingered on my conscience, even if they’d brushed it off as doing no lasting damage.
“Well, I suppose.” She sat down next to me on the steps, a little too close. “The police came and talked to me this morning.”
This morning? I checked my phone. It was nearly seven—so it probably wasn’t too early for the police to have visited this morning instead of last night, but I had my doubts. Besides—where were her kids? They couldn’t be at school yet.
And this was all assuming that I’d made up the phone call out of thin air.
Anyway—”I figured they had.” I tried to keep it as vague as possible, fishing for information. “What’d they say?”
She shrugged. It was an oddly young gesture on her—she wasn’t old by any means, but old enough not to have the body language of a gangly teenager. I briefly wondered if Willow was behind this, but my own feelings aside, from what I understood, Will’s power couldn’t let her do something like this.
You don’t know anything about it. Perhaps this is Mrs. Chaudhury, with Willow at the wheel. Perhaps it’s Willow sitting there next to you, and it’s only your mind that’s being controlled. You see what she wants you to see—
I dragged myself out of it, my heart racing. It was too easy to find possibilities branching off of possibilities. It never ended, unless you forced yourself to look away.
She was talking. “It looks like he was murdered,” she said with a sigh, and this time, the tear that fell down her cheek felt real. I wondered what the impostor next to me was really crying over—
—Jamal stop it she’s mourning her husband everybody mourns differently—-
—blue scrubs stained with red you bit them don’t you remember that—
“I—they told me there’s no way to know. That it could have been a random mugging—it could have been anything. There’s so few murders in Ottawa you think they would spare the time, but…” She shrugged. “Nobody cares about us.”
Nobody cares about us.
That part was real.
I was so sure, so sure she was a fake. Too many pieces didn’t add up. But—but—ugh, I couldn’t make myself be certain of anything. Every time I tried, scattered images from my dream flashed across the back of my mind—the weight of Johara in my arms, the sound of the black windbreaker fluttering in the breeze, wrapped tightly around somebody walking away.
Nobody cares about us.
I had the distinct sense that I was being manipulated. But I pulled out one of my three cigarettes and my lighter anyway. “What are you saying, then?” I asked, even though I knew exactly what she was asking of me.
“I want you to find his murderer.”
I flicked my lighter on and held it to the end of my cigarette, steadfastly refusing to look at her. “That all?” I couldn’t help the sarcasm. “I’m a teenager with computer skills and too much time on her hands.”
“You’re talented. And I don’t know how, but you found him. I trust you.”
“I’m still charging you even if you butter me up.”
She laughed at that. There was an edge to it, and it was both familiar and more than a little uncomfortable. “I brought plenty of money. Don’t worry.”
“I didn’t say yes, yet.”
“You’re going to. I can see it in your eyes.”
I gave in, and looked up at her, the smoke from my cigarette drifting uselessly into the air. Her eyes were a vivid green against her dark skin, and I couldn’t figure out why I was noticing. “Yeah, what the hell. I’ll give it a shot. But if I get stabbed, it’s officially your fault.”
She snorted at that, and smirked. Again, it looked out of place on Mrs. Chaudhury’s face, below the black headscarf. “Try not getting stabbed, then.” She pushed the canvas bag from her shoulder, then over to me. “That should be enough, if I remember your rates correctly.”
Shit. If she wasn’t Mrs. Chaudhury then how—Well, okay. I had a Facebook page. That one wasn’t exactly a challenge to figure out. I peered into the bag and tried not to choke. Okay. So that was rent taken care of, and money to actually buy food. The littlest things make you happy when you’re dirt poor.
“I should head off.” She got to her feet, again with that long-limbed gracefulness—
“Yes?” She turned to look at me.
I took a long drag on my cigarette, then tapped the ash off on the banister. “What’s your name?” I asked.
I didn’t bother looking at her. “Out with it.”
“I hired you. That’s all you need to know.”
“Mmhm. Any chance you’ll tell me why?”
She just gave me another enigmatic smile, then walked off into the misty horizon, turning the corner on Wellington Street and vanishing from sight. I kept my eyes on her until she was out of view. Perhaps it was my stubbornness.
But the moment I could be sure she was gone, I dove back into the house, trying not to let the sudden panic in my chest speed up my pace. I locked the door behind me with an exaggerated slowness, and I couldn’t stop my hands from shaking.
Johara met me at the top of the stairs. “Gurjas came back! He wanted to—”
“Give me a moment,” I mumbled, ducking into the bathroom. I felt so nauseous, but as much as my stomach roiled, I managed to keep it together. Instead, I turned on the tap and stuck my head underneath it, cold water rushing over me and clearing my head. Mostly. Not really. I was here, and somewhere else, and deep in the past, a thousand places at once.
I took my time responding, wiping the water from my face. “Jo. Yeah. I’m—” How did I even begin to explain what had just happened? “I have a new case,” I settled on, with a breathlessness I couldn’t make go away. “Give me a minute.”
I ducked into my office, ignoring Gurjas’s ghost and mentally filing him away in ‘deal with later.’ Then I picked up my phone, sorting through the papers I’d left, then giving up and just staring at the faded numbers on my arm. It rang, and rang, and rang, until I was ready to throw it against the wall.
“…Willow Moray, who’s this?”
I took a deep breath. “…Will. I think I need your help.” I raised my eyes to Gurjas. He stared back at me in silence, and while I’d been pretty certain that I wasn’t making things up, the look in his eyes—the sad confusion hiding behind the cold mask he kept putting up—was what sold it for me.
Whoever had come to see me today, it had not been Chandra Chaudhury, because Chandra Chaudhury’s husband was dead, and her impostor didn’t know what grief looked like.