Detective Julie MacDonald was happy to pay for her coffee and breakfast tart. One of the advantages of being plain-clothes was no one gave you preferential treatment. She sat on the hood of her car. When she held her pastry to her mouth she could smell the powder from inside her latex glove. She’d forgotten to wash her hands. The girl’s body returned to her then, naked from the waist down, half in the stream, half out. She hadn’t closed the girl’s eyelids right away because she wanted to remember her expression. There was fear mixed in there somewhere, but it had been overlaid, through an obvious feat of will, with a fierce anger and hurt. Julie had never seen anything like it.
Skye Ryan. She wasn’t “the girl.” She was Skye Ryan. And she had lived above a shop in Parkdale, which was where Julie was heading.
“Where’s your washroom?” she asked the tall, gentle man behind the counter. Wait, she’d been here before. She pointed towards the back hallway.
He smiled. “Yeah,” he laughed. “You got it.”
Merritt, she remembered. She’d been here with Merritt Toogood. He would be over at the scene as soon as the Police tape was gone, maybe sooner. He made most of the boys nervous. It was ridiculous, but most cops she knew were suspicious of everyone—more suspicious of people who looked unusual, and Merritt certainly looked that. Even after she’d been to Merritt’s house, Julie still found herself thinking he was homeless.
As she was walking back to the car, Julie realized that she’d left her food and drink on the hood. A squirrel was hauling her breakfast tart across the sidewalk and trying to be quick about it. “Enjoy,” she said. The coffee was the thing she needed most. She wasn’t sure she was even hungry.
There was a cardboard package leaning outside the entrance to Skye Ryan’s building. It was just over a foot square and just under an inch thick and Julie was sure that it was records. They were addressed to Skye. The door to the building stuck in the frame, but it wasn’t locked.
The stairs up to the apartment were narrow and steep and emanating stale smoke and cat piss, in that order. When she knocked on the door, it felt like it was made of aluminum cans and paint, like plywood would have been greater protection from the outside world. She knocked again when she was sure she hadn’t dented the door the first time. “Police,” she said. There was a cluster of fly bodies pooled at the bottom of the light fixture above her. Julie shook her head, then spent some time trying to figure out why she had. Coming up with nothing, she decided to knock again. “Police,” she said.
Through the door, she could hear footsteps for sure, but she thought she could hear the faint swish of pants rubbing against quick scissoring legs. A girl opened the door as wide as the chain would let her and squeezed her head between the door and the wall like she’d done it many times before.
“Police,” Julie said again.
“Yeah, I heard you.”
“Are you Skye Ryan’s roommate?”
“What’s your name?”
“Becca Brown. Rebecca.”
“These were outside, Rebecca.” She handed Becca the box of records.
“Oh, awesome. Skye was waiting for these.”
“Can I come in?”
“Can I see your badge?”
“I mean, police normally have uniforms.”
“It’s no problem.”
“I’ve been thinking about doing the police foundations program at Humber.”
“I just need one more math at school.”
Julie held her badge up. “You’re still in high school?”
The girl managed to nod, despite her head being wedged into such a tiny space.
“Can I come in now?”
“Do you need, like, a warrant?”
“I need to talk to you about something.”
There was a long hallway, maybe thirty feet, littered with shoes—sneakers, high heels, flip flops, flats, boots—before the apartment really started.
“What do you need to tell me?”
“Can we sit down, Becca?”
The place smelled like macaroni and cheese and feet. Julie could feel the air wet against her skin. Becca sat on the couch, her feet tucked under her, her knees casually off to the side. Her mouth and eyebrows started to move around as her brain worked on wondering what Julie wanted to say about Skye. “It’s not good, is it?” Becca asked.
Julie shook her head. “I’m sorry,” Julie said. “Skye is dead.”
Becca’s face twisted and broke and reformed all to take some tortured form again. Julie’d seen faces troubled by bad news too many times.
She looked down. On the coffee table, beneath a food-streaked bowl, a TV remote and a PS3 controller, there was a black and white computer-printed VIA Rail ticket. To fight the urge to move something so she could see the name, date and destination on the ticket, Julie looked up.
There was a snake pressed against the flat glass of an aquarium, its head hidden somewhere in its coiled bulk. The tank looked too small. A white mouse slept in the far corner, its body still, but its posture belying the fear it felt before it had, presumably, fallen asleep. Knowing that you are food had to be exhausting. Julie could guess at the logic that led to that mouse being there, rather than awaiting its fate away from the predator that would kill and eat it—the surfaces of this apartment were too well covered to justify a tiny cage for feeder mice, though what were they covered in other than crap like dusty notebooks, dusty textbooks, sweaters just thrown there, more shoes, planters with dead plants? Julie had to remind herself that she didn’t know, she couldn’t know, she didn’t need to know, but she felt bad for the mouse.
Julie realized that Becca was asking something, said, “I’m sorry, what’s that?”
“What happened to her?” Becca asked again.
Julie nodded. “That’s what I’m trying to figure out.”
Becca looked away. Her mouth was forming thoughts that her body wasn’t ready to give voice to.
The record player was over by the window. Becca had placed the package against the stand it was resting on.
“Aren’t—” Becca’s mouth moved silently again. “Aren’t you going to ask me some questions?”
“What kind of questions would you like me to ask, Rebecca?”
“Like who do I think did it, for one. But I don’t know. It isn’t my job, is it?”
“Who do you think did it, Becca?”
“I can’t say that. Snitches get stitches, right? I bet you’ve heard that before.”
“I’ve seen T-shirts.” Becca was scared now, her mouth moving in less obviously word-like ways. “That doesn’t mean that people don’t talk to me.”
“How did she die?”
“We don’t know for sure.” Julie pictured the bruises around Skye’s neck, such a horrible colour against her skin.
“She had this ex-boyfriend. He was always pretending to choke her. I don’t know. He gave me the creeps.”
Julie nodded, waiting for Becca to go on.
“God, she was so tough, though.” Becca shook her head. “She was sweet and great and all that, too, but she was so strong, like, most of the time.”
“I believe it,” Julie said. “What was the name of that ex-boyfriend?”
“How’d she know him?”
“School. They had biology or something together so they’d skip and go to the park to smoke up and, well, you know.”
“I guess. It was just making out, sometimes, but.” Julie guessed that Becca was worried about having mentioned weed; her mouth started moving again. “We—me and some of my colleagues—are going to have to have a pretty thorough look around here.”
Becca’s mouth was really moving.
“We aren’t narcotics cops. We want a full picture of who Skye was, as full as we can get, to help us figure out who did this.”
It was Becca’s turn to nod.
“I’m going to stay here and we are going to wait for some of my team, OK?”
“You’ve got nothing to worry about, Rebecca,” Julie said and she meant it.
Becca looked down. There were clearly lots of things that Becca already worried about and now she could add getting murdered to that list.
“You planning any trips, Rebecca?”
Julie gently pulled the VIA Rail ticket from under the bowl, controller and remote and held it up for Becca.
Julie flipped it over. Toronto to Montreal. 15:15. Today.
“She was going with some new friend of hers,” Becca said.
“You know the new friend’s name?”
Becca tried to remember, but shook her head.
Julie pulled out her cell phone and pointed to it. “Is there somewhere I can make a call?”
“Um, maybe the bedroom?”
The girls had clearly shared a room—there was a bunk bed in dented, blond IKEA pine with a double mattress on the bottom and a single on the top. Clothes and shoes were scattered around this room, too, only here there were cheap, lace under-things.
She called David and asked him to go to Union Station at two-thirty and watch “For anyone who looks like they are meeting someone.” It was during her phone call to Kwame, who told her that Merritt, “with some friend covered in ink,” was back hanging around the crime scene and “Freaking these guys out,” that Julie smelled boy. Semen. Recent and not so recent. She remembered gagging on gusts coming from her brother’s bedroom when he was a teenager. Suddenly she saw three sizes of shoes on the floor, jeans too large for Skye or Becca, a giant jean vest with a patch on the back.
Sherlock Holmes she was not.
She only started feeling suspicious of this boy when she walked back into the living room and Becca flushed red, said, “K, gotta go,” and threw her cell phone onto the couch like it had been burning her hand.
“Who was that?”
Becca shook her head once, like she was trying to knock an answer clean.
“Does someone else live here?”
She nodded reluctantly.
Toronto, June 2015
Emoji sequence: Jenny Gilbert
Story: Lee Sheppard