Missed Connections
You die on a bright and sunny Tuesday near the start of November. The crisp autumn air has a sweet taste to it, and it rattles out in warm puffs until you breathe no more. (It looks like you’re really trying, but air is for the living, after all, and ghosts have no lungs with which to pull it in.)

And then you’re getting up, looking at the body that’s turning pale and waxy at your feet, and you must be wondering: what now? Everyone wonders what now before long. Fortunately for you, you’ve been murdered (imagine that– fortunately! Oh, I do crack me up) and so you have a natural first step: figure out whodunit, and then find a way to communicate that to those of us with bodies and larynxes.

You don’t seem to notice me as you sprint out of the café patio and down the street. The other customers are starting to form a crowd around your cadaver. The waitress shrieks and spills your coffee all over the floor–which is fine, you’re not exactly in any position to drink it, but the mug makes a pretty awful sound as it shatters.

     Well, off I go, then. I know what street we’re on, so I text the sergeant to call preemptive dibs on the case that’ll be coming in shortly under that name.

     Yes, it’s quite crass of me, but murder investigations are kind of my scene and you know that–and besides, this is your murder, so it feels pretty important to me. We’ve crossed paths at this café just about a thousand times, you and me, always at quarter-past-seven on Monday morning and quarter-to for the rest of the week, and we’ve exchanged words, we’ve exchanged texts, we’ve exchanged jokes at midnight half-mad from exhaustion on a dumb online chatroom. It’s not much, but it’s been enough to make me think that I’ll miss you. You might’ve been a friend to tether me to the world of the living, and you might yet be a friend to tether me to the world of the dead–either way, I feel the seeds of something there.

      (Please, please, please let this turn into a connection, whatever that means. People tell me that I need something by that name, that I gotta get out more and “make some connections” outside of work, and I don’t understand it but I hope it’ll be one of those things that will just happen if we let it.)

     Within minutes, uniformed officers flood in to put up police tape and begin the search for clues. Before I join them, there’s someone I want to interview–someone none of the other officers can.

     You wouldn’t know her, but she’s another member of our little circle of morning café regulars. She died in the park around the corner in 1971 from a heart attack, and has been haunting the neighbourhood ever since.

     Sure enough, I find her as soon as I manage to get out of the crime scene and look. Most of the time she sits on a park bench next to other old ladies and watches as they feed the birds. Oddly, not one of them has ever shown up to join her upon getting to the other side. Perhaps she’s got connection issues, too.

     “Oh! Why, if it isn’t Billie,” she says when she sees me. (It isn’t, but that’s not important right now.)

     It takes some doing to communicate without making the living passers-by suspicious, but once I actually get to ask her my questions, I’ve got some good leads. They’re not as good as I might like–I think you’ll have better ones, if and when I find you–but they’re a starting point. 

I remember when we started to go beyond our little ships-passing-in-the-night moments in the café. You came over and handed me a Post-It with your web handle on it and told me to shoot you a message whenever I had a moment (told me on paper, that is, because I was too caught up in my case notes to have a clue about what you were saying out loud). I think you told me your name then–you must’ve, because I’m pretty sure I told you mine and I never remember to do that unprompted, and I do distinctly recall being too embarrassed to ask your name later. To me, you were always your username, and to you, I was a series of detective-based nicknames that never seem to stick for more than a week.

     My pride and my mysteries kept me from learning your name, but it’s a part of my job that finally gives it to me: it’s written on the autopsy report. It feels wrong to use it in your absence.

     I send you messages until it’s three o’clock Wednesday morning, and it’s probably just wishful thinking, but I imagine you’re out there somewhere wanting to reply.

     (Ghosts sleep but once, so you’re either laying awake in one of your familiar haunts or gone forever. The latter option is not a thought I’m willing to entertain.

     Something tells me you’ve gone back to your apartment– you seem like the type who’d keep a desktop computer on at all times, so maybe you can even see my silly little stories and musings about work. Just in case, I send you a quick “goodnight” before I close my laptop and go to sleep.)

By Wednesday afternoon, it becomes abundantly clear that not one of the leads that I got from the old lady is going to pan out. I hope you’re having better luck than I am.

On Thursday, the other detectives start to get curious.

     “Well, someone seems a little obsessed,” says Alvarez, eyelids drooping despite the fact that she’s on her third cup of coffee already. (It takes a moment, but I realize that she means me. I’m someone.)

     “Why’d you take the case?” Dilman asks. Dilman is one of the oldest detectives on the squad and I’ve learned a lot from him, but sometimes I feel the need to check that he’s actually breathing and not a ghost. (For the record, he is breathing, and it doesn’t take long to confirm that since the elevator’s broken and Dilman is really not a fan of stairs.)

     I tell him that it’s a murder, which is true, and remind him that I work most of our murders because I see dead people, which is also true. I don’t tell him that I haven’t encountered any ghosts with useful information on this case, because letting everyone else make their own assumptions isn’t the same thing as lying and therefore I can’t get in trouble for it. (It’s not actually a violation of any official rules to lie about something like that, but Dilman can tell when I lie and he always gives me a look that makes me feel weird and squirmy inside.) 

     Anyway, I’ve been told that “obsessed” is my default state when it comes to cases, and they must know that full well considering they’re the ones who tell me so.

     When I try to bring that up, Alvarez arches her left eyebrow and makes an odd little sound from the back of her throat. “Yeah, ‘cases’ plural. You’re never working less than three. What’s got you so hung up on this one?”

     I don’t know why they’re focusing on this, honestly. After all, it’s not uncommon for people to gravitate towards cases that make use of their particular talents, mundane or otherwise–Lang, charming and markedly fey, handles the vast majority of our organized crime cases, but he’s out sick and so I can’t count on him to back me up.

     “You guys have been telling me to lighten my load a bit,” I say, shrugging because that’s what people do when they want an end to casual questions.

     It works, more or less. Alvarez makes another little puffing sound before returning to her desk to work on her own cases. Dilman lingers for a moment, but the sergeant calls him over, and then we’re back into the normal rhythm of life at the precinct.

Later that day, Alvarez sends a source my way with info on the murder weapon. It doesn’t explain much, but it’s better than the nothing I had before, and almost as soon as I put out feelers, I get a bite from another informant. He wants to meet up at the Starbucks by the precinct and have a talk, anonymous, so I can see what he has to offer before offering him anything in return; if you know anything about how this dance usually works, you’ll understand that it’s a very good deal for me. I appreciate it, and so I go and I get there half an hour early so I can set up a recorder and make sure it’s the only one at the table.

      Ten minutes in, I notice the barista is glaring at me, so I buy one of those big, expensive milkshake things and go back to my waiting.

      “I might be able to help,” says an odd, ringing voice, and it takes me a moment to realize that it’s not a voice, properly, but the ethereal word-projection of a ghost.

     He’s tall and well dressed, the ghost, with a crisp grey pinstripe suit and a matching fedora on his head. He’d not be out of place in a movie about old-timey mobsters and private eyes, I think, and it takes a concerted effort for me to keep myself from giggling as my mind goes off down that path for a moment. Sure, I’m a detective, but if the world were film noir, my internal monologues would emphatically not be up to snuff.

     The ghost hovers nearby, both literally and figuratively. When the informant arrives, the ghost guides me through what questions to ask, and I think they’re the questions I should have been asking all along. Even if this guy’s info goes nowhere, I’ve got some idea where to start with the next leg of the investigation.

 Before I go back to the precinct, I make sure to thank the ghost, and give him a carefully worded offer of help in return. He gets an odd look on his face, and he asks me to come back and visit sometime. It seems that he, too, is longing for some sort of tether.

Adding in the new clues and persons/groups of interest to my fun little investigation board takes time and several metres of yarn, but they all fit together neatly, concise descriptors tying them together as much as the yarn itself. Later that night, I make a different board, one with my coworkers and my ghosts and the people I meet every morning on my way to work. Try as I might, I can’t label a single strand of yarn that connects to my peg.

     It’s all about connections, in the end.

I see you again on Sunday, and by now I have a face, a name, and a theory. (I’m not supposed to be working, but how can I stop, when I might see you anywhere, anytime, and desperately want to promise you peace, promise you justice?) You’re walking into an alley that I know is a dead end, but I sprint after you anyway because without a body weighing you down, fire escapes are nothing and you could be gone in half a minute.

     “Hey,” I say, which isn’t a bad way to start things off but isn’t a good one either.

     You don’t turn around, so I try again–louder, this time, and for good measure I call your name and then your username.

     Sure enough, you whip around at that, though perhaps “whip” isn’t the right way to describe it as your hair and clothes and all no longer react to the wind.

     You wonder what I’m doing here; I say I was following you, which in hindsight is one of the worst possible ways to phrase it. To clarify, I take off my backpack and withdraw my case notes, and ask you if you’ve found your killer.

     Naturally, I think that I have, but I’d like it if you’d verify for me.

     You do, and you must be elated that somebody who can do something about it has finally figured out what you must’ve known for some time. I’m sorry it took so long.

     “You can come with me for the arrest?” I offer, and it is an offer, but it feels like something else, something more.

     When you take my hand, I realize something: this feeling between us is a familiar one, one I get from the old lady’s smile and Dilman’s stern gaze and even Alvarez’s scoffs. I still don’t know how to name it, but what does that matter when I know that it feels warm and safe and good?

      We go to arrest your murderer together, as promised, but rather than just the two of us, it’s something of a crowd. Alvarez and Lang cover the windows and Dilman stands behind me, and the old lady and the man in the fedora hover on either side of him. The arrest itself goes smoothly, and as I fasten the handcuffs, you give me a smile.

     Surrounded by ghosts and humans and all the love and light I’d never noticed before, it doesn’t feel like I’m stuck between two worlds anymore. It just feels right.

A.J. Goh-McMillen

Aj. Goh-McMillen is a student in her second year of the History Specialist program at the University of Toronto, with a passion for folklore, languages, and traditional music. She has had work published in Short Fiction Break and is currently looking into publication options for a novel in the horror-comedy genre. When not writing or studying, A.J. enjoys playing quizbowl and taking care of her surprisingly cuddly pet cactus.

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