You’re in an office. It must be a nice office because it’s got a big desk and a door and a picture-window view out onto a floor bustling full of people. Cops, specifically, which you can tell because of the sleek dark uniforms they’re wearing and also the embroidered insignia that say L.A.P.D., except you can’t actually see the insignia because your eyesight’s not that good; too much reading when you were little, your mama told you.
Shoulda been out playing softball or window-shopping at the mall with other girls, she said, doing those things kids do which no parent in their right mind would actually encourage their child to do if they had any idea what kind of ideas get passed around that way like STDs and what kind of schemes get schemed by groups of prepubescent girls with just a bit more time on their hands than their usual plans can fill.
But you never did get into that kind of trouble - your mama’s certain. You wouldn’t, she says, over and over. There are tears. She hasn’t any idea how something like this could have happened to you, and neither does anyone else.
That’s why you’re in this office. That, and the man who’s just walked in.
“It’s the mother’s boyfriend,” he says. “The blood, the weapon. He was stoned out of his mind last night.” Mostly you notice he’s tall – freakishly tall, a person might say. Also Jewish as Moses and Woody Allen, not that you know who that is. “It’s open and shut. It’s done.” He glances over and sees you then. He doesn’t so much as nod, but you don’t really mind; you’re used to people’s gazes sliding right over you. Besides, he may be looking at the man behind the desk now but you know you’ve got his full attention. You’re a figment of his imagination, after all.
“Dan,” he says, sneaking another glance at you, “Is Levinsky having any trouble with that Lafayette case?” That’s you – Cherish Lafayette. You’re a case now. That’s more important than you’ve been in a long while, except to whoever murdered you.
“If by ‘any trouble’ you mean we have no idea, then yes,” says the desk man – Captain Dan Lewis, it says on his door. He’s balding on top and his hair puffs out a bit at the sides, like he wanted to be a clown when he grew up and he never quite gave up the dream. In his eyes, too, there’s a clarity that sees the world as it is, and grieves over it: all that pain and suffering that a good clown sees.
“You want me to, you know, take a look at it?” says tall man. “I don’t want to go stepping on any toes.”
“Especially not Levinsky’s,” says Dan. “I know all the tender memories you have of the guy.”
“Hey, just because his charm’s all on his bracelet and he’s duller than his mother’s knitting needles doesn’t mean I want to hurt his feelings.” He glances at you again, and you grin. This is the guy to solve your case, you tell yourself. He’s smart, and better yet, he’s clearly a sucker for a dead girl with a problem.
“Michael, you solved your last case two minutes ago.” Dan says. “Did you sleep last night at all?”
“I slept,” Michael says. “Like a baby, I slept. It’s just I glanced at the statement from the girl’s mother, and, I dunno, something about it’s got me interested.” You, he means, you in the corner in sweater and tights and a corduroy skirt, and your black hair twisted up into braids. You’re what’s got him interested, just by standing there.
Dan sighs. “Fine. Have a look, follow the hunch. But it’s Levinsky’s case. You let him take care of the details.”
“Sure. Sure.” Michael shrugs, like he never thought anything different.
You follow him out. “So, how we gonna solve this case?” you ask. He doesn’t answer. Instead he gets your file from Carolyn, borrows an empty office – the kind of borrowing where you don’t ask – and spreads the file out on the desk.
“So who are you, and why are you in my head?” he says without ever looking at you.
“My name’s Cherish Lafayette, and I’m in your head because you’re gonna find out who killed me.”
“Well, I hope I will, Cherish, I hope so. So, you’re in your mom’s apartment, you’re alone with the baby, someone breaks in, clubs you with a... a tire iron? A prybar?”
You shrug, feeling at the sticky wet spot at the back of your head. He glances up and sees you.
“Now stop that,” he says. “Please, you don’t need to do that.”
You drop your hand, which is clean and sticky-free.
“And they open some drawers in the kitchen, throw some things around but they don’t take anything – what were they looking for, Cherish?”
You shrug. Hell if you know. “Money?”
He shakes his head. “If it was money, they’d have looked harder.”
“Maybe they heard something, and they ran away.” Over the balcony rail and down a story to the ground. There were footprints in the lawn.
“But why break in at all if they didn’t know what they were looking for?”
“Maybe they were looking for me,” you say. It doesn’t seem too likely to you, but hey, maybe. You’re the good kid, the daughter that read books and watched the baby. Not like Jerome, out with his buddies all the time, flipping you gang signs when he thought Mama couldn’t see. Probably he did, anyway. Not like you remember.
Anyway, you were the boring one. There was never any reason for anyone to go looking for you. “Naw,” you say finally. Too bad; you sort of liked the idea. “Probably they were looking for Jerome.”
Michael looks down at the file and up at you again. “Huh,” he says. “Then we’d better go talk to Jerome.”
You feel sorry for Jerome right away. He’s sitting there on the broken-down old sofa Mama got from Aunt Lois – which Mama mentions to Detective Michael as she leads him in – and his eyes are all puffy and he needs a Cherish-hug bad but you sure ain’t going to give him one now, seeing as he’s probably the reason you’re dead. Also, you being dead makes hugs a little difficult.
“Jerome,” Michael says, sitting across from him. “Jerome, I’d like to ask you some questions, if you don’t mind.”
“That detective, he already asked me,” Jerome said.
“And I’m afraid I have to ask you a few more. Just so we can find out what happened to your sister. That’s all.”
Jerome nods. He’s going to start crying again any minute; you can see it in his eyes. You kind of hope Michael’s gentle with Jerome, and you kind of hope he isn’t.
“Now, Jerome, what can you tell me about these buddies of yours? Your mom said you hang with them a lot, don’t get home some nights, maybe tag some walls and sling a few ounces here and there?”
“No drugs!” Jerome says, and something inside you starts breathing again in relief. “We never did drugs.”
“You sure about that? You sure one of your friends didn’t break in looking for something? And when they didn’t find it...”
“No drugs,” Jeromes repeats. “They wouldn’t... They didn’t... I didn’t get her killed, Mister. I didn’t.” Now he’s crying, the tears sliding down the sides of his nose and into the corners of his mouth.
“He says he didn’t,” you say, because you don’t want to see him hurting anymore. For a moment Michael looks at you, and you cross your arms, waiting. You’d tap your foot, but that seems a bit cliché to you, not that ‘cliché’ is a word in your regular vocabulary. Then again, you read a lot; it’s about all anyone says about you. Maybe it was your word, after all.
“All right, all right,” Michael says, turning back to Jerome. “Listen, what can you tell me about your sister?”
It’s all the same things: you read yourself blind, you were the good one, you didn’t do nothing to earn this. You’d been telling yourself stories since you could talk, or maybe before, and you told them about everything, sooner or later: your Barbies and baby Wallace and the neighbor’s dog and Mrs. Ziegler who lived next door. Used to be you’d hide behind the sofa or bottom of the stairwell, listening for things to add in.
That’s when Michael’s eyes narrow.
Mama cuts in. “It’s been a long time since she did that. She grew out of it, after I hided her enough times. No child of mine’s an eavesdropper.”
“Anything you want to add, Jerome?” asks Michael.
Jerome shifts a bit in his seat; funny how needing to pee and lying look kind of the same. “Caught her down the stairwell a few weeks ago. She had a book, but I knew she wasn’t reading it. She was listening.”
Michael’s writing in his notebook. “Anything she shouldn’t have been hearing?”
Jerome shrugs, looking almost honest even if he isn’t meeting Mama’s eyes. “Just me and the guys, just talking. Girls and stuff. You know.”
You’re old enough to guess it was sex they were talking about, and probably using plenty of words worth a smack or two from Mama. From the way Michael’s nodding, he knows it, too. But he doesn’t comment; some kind of guy solidarity thing, maybe.
Instead he says, “Can you tell me where to find your friends?”
You and Michael are halfway to the car when his phone rings. “Yeah? Dan, yeah. Got an idea, don’t know if it’ll pan out, but... No, I need to... Dan, no, don’t give it to Levinsky. He’ll fumble it. I’m telling you he will.” He sighs. “Fine. Yeah, I’ll come in. Yeah.”
He shoves the phone in his pocket and strides towards the car. You’re waiting in the passenger seat when he gets there.
“It’s not my case,” Michael says later, hands on the wheel. “I’ll tell Dan what I think, but I can’t go all, you know, Detective Run Amok. You understand?”
“Okay.” You reach for a button near the radio, wondering if it’s the one that turns on the lights.
“No touching,” Michael says, wagging a finger at you just like a parent on some sitcom. “No.”
“You know nobody’d see it but you,” you say. “Like me.”
“Actually, I’d be greatly relieved if someone saw you besides me. Insanity loves company, and all that.”
“I don’t mean that. And you’re not insane.” You grope for that word the school counselors use. “You’re disturbed.”
He chuckles, but it isn’t a happy chuckle. “That’s because you people are very disturbing, popping up all the time on cases that aren’t even mine.” He turns his deep-set, staring eyes at you. “Is this, what, a trend? Am I going to start seeing all the murder victims in Los Angeles? In the western hemisphere?”
“You can’t see the ones you don’t know about, right?”
“So, no more five o’clock news for me,” he says. “No eavesdropping in the office, no shop talk in the break room...” He sounds sarcastic, but he looks so tired you can’t take it seriously.
“What I meant,” you say, “was I see and hear a lot of things other people don’t, and so do you.”
“The difference being, what you saw and heard was actually there. I know it’s a fine distinction, but some people would call it significant.”
“They told my mama I spent too much time in my head, instead of the real world.” You huddle in on yourself. It’s to make yourself a smaller target, too defenseless to pick on, not that it ever worked that you know of.
“And what do you say to that?”
You shrug. “Whatever you say.”
“Oh, no,” he says. “You’re not clamming up now. Tell me.”
You jut your chin out towards the sidewalk, where a worn old woman is fiddling with the garbage bags in her shopping cart. “It’s better in my head than it is out there.”
“So I like having you around? Is that what you’re saying?”
“I’m not talking about you,” you say, although really, most everything you say is about him. That’s the glorious paradox of it, this being the figment of someone else’s imagination. You’re pretty sure ‘glorious paradox’ is his phrase, not yours – another bonus, you guess. “I’m just saying, the people in my stories keep me company. They listen to me, and they say interesting things. The things that happen to them make sense. Not like in school, or with my mama or Jerome.”
“So I’m lonely,” he says, flat, disbelieving. “You think I’m, what, a wallflower at the spring fling?”
“You got anybody to talk to, besides me?”
“I... yes, I do. I have people. Dan.”
“Who’s your boss.”
“Well, and Charlie.”
You roll your eyes; you know this one. “He’s dead.”
“And my therapist.”
“She’s getting paid.” You stare at him staring sideways at you until he sighs and looks at the road again. “So you got nobody to talk to but the people in your head. Just like me.”
“Maybe you’re my therapist,” he mutters. “You ask as many annoying questions as she does.”
You snort. “I’m twelve years old, and I’m not really real. That what you want in a shrink?”
“Only if I were insane,” he says. “Oh, wait.”
In Dan’s office again, Michael explains. “She liked listening to people,” he says. “You know my line: Know the victim. Like that. She always had her ears out...”
“And you think she heard something she shouldn’t,” Dan says.
Michael nods. “Probably her brother’s friends. Maybe they were getting into something, maybe the brother didn’t know. Or a neighbor. The guy downstairs with the little bags of salt. Who knows? The stuff strewn around the kitchen was just camouflage.
“It’s gonna be door-knocking time again. I can go back with Lance-”
“No,” Dan says, “Levinsky will go back with Lance and work on his own case, and you’ll go home, because you are done for the day.” He narrows his eyes at Michael. “You having trouble sleeping? They say there’s pills for that.”
“I’m fine,” Michael says.
“You know I’m not stupid enough to believe that,” Dan says.
“I’m not... I’m fine.” Dan keeps on staring, eyebrows lifted just a little, until Michael sags. “Just, yeah, you’re right. Trouble sleeping.” Which is just the glistening sunshiny tip of his iceberg, but it's an admission, and it looks like that's as much as Dan'll push for, for now.
“I’ll call you,” Dan says. “If we find something out.”
“Thanks. I’ll just go home, then.”
“You do that.” So he’s Michael’s boss; still, he’s not so bad, you think.
Back in the car, you ask, “You got books in your house?”
Michael thinks a minute, nods. “I’ve got Betty & Veronica. Charlie’s boy left it. Do you like comics?”
“Comics are for little kids,” you say. “Anyway, I like Jughead better.”
“Everybody’s a critic,” he says. “Um, I’ve got a few other things, but not really right for twelve-year-olds.” He frowns. “I mean, I don’t know what twelve-year-olds read these days, but I don’t think they are.”
“Remember the part where I’m not really real? It’s not like you’re gonna corrupt me.”
“Oh, and there are procedure manuals. High excitement there, let me tell you. Plots are a bit scattered and the prose is kind of thick, but...”
You grin. “If I read ‘em, maybe you won’t have to.”
“Now there’s an idea,” he says. “Further evidence of deep psychosis, but potentially useful. Now if you could write my reports for me...”
“My teacher says my handwriting’s like a spider that walked through an inkpot.”
“That’s great. Nobody’ll know the difference.” He grins at you, and you grin back. The grins smooths out some of the tired lines and disguises, for a moment, the despair way deeper than weariness that sits just under his eyes. He looks better this way. Maybe it won’t occur to him that when he laughs with you, he’s just laughing at his own joke twice; you’re pretty sure it hasn’t so far.
You’re sitting on Michael’s kitchen counter with some old book called The Big Sleep spread across your knees when the call comes. Michael gets up from the piano bench and paces the kitchen, hand to his ear, muttering “Uh huh” and “Mm hm.” Finally he says, “Yeah, thanks. Thanks for letting me know. Glad it worked out.” When the phone slaps shut, he looks at you. “They found the guy. His kid brother – Jerome’s buddy – told us everything we needed to know.”
“Thanks, Detective,” you say, setting the book aside. It was kind of interesting; you’re sorry you won’t get to finish. “For solving my case and all.” You never had any doubts.
You wriggle on the countertop. “But what?”
His eyebrows lift. “But there’s got to be something or you wouldn’t still be here.”
You suppose there’s some big lesson you should be learning in here somewhere about the dangers of eavesdropping, but you’re dead or imaginary or maybe both, and you can’t see the point. “I’ll miss you,” you say instead, because apparently he likes his figments ornery. Good thing you don't mind being his manifest psychosis, incarnate.
He rolls his eyes. “No you won’t.” Jerk.
“Will you miss me?”
He pauses. “You’re marginally less annoying than some of them,” he says finally.
That’s as good as you’ll get, you figure. Still, “You sure I can’t stay? Aren’t many people that listen to me like you do.” Or vice versa, but you don't say that.
“No. No! No staying! They found the guy, now you go. That’s the deal.”
So you ask the question that feels like it’s been sitting at the tip of your brain – his brain – for a really long time now. You ask, “What happens when you get a murder you can’t solve?”
He closes his eyes, shoulders slumping like he’s been dragging elephants up Everest. “I don’t know, Cherish. I don’t know.”
But he’s just a sleep-deprived and thoroughly screwed homicide detective talking to an empty room, and you were never there at all.