His name is J DeMarcus, and he's a detective. I've known him since I was a little girl, and he may be young but his mind can do amazing things. He asked me to be his assistant and since then we've tackled all kinds of mysteries together, and this story is one of many... I paced back and forth outside the cafe, as I had been doing for the past ten or fifteen minutes, careful that my nervous episode was out of view to anyone in the building. In my backpack was my laptop, its charger, my tablet, and a voice recorder, the standard devices I brought along to assist J DeMarcus in solving a case. I was tensely walking alongside the building where today's two clients were sitting, probably sipping low fat lattes wondering where the private investigators they had arranged to meet were. I would go in and make my presence known, if it weren't for the fact that J, the detective himself, wasn't there with me.
It was nearing twenty minutes past noon, the time we had agreed to meet our clients. J was nowhere to be found. Even after I had sent him a reminder text message that morning, followed by three more texts requesting some kind of update, each one to no reply. On the business side of things, J was never the most collected or responsible (It seemed like at least 75% of role as his assistant was just reminding him when we had cases) but completely ghosting on the day of a job was completely new. I hate keeping people waiting, and thus standing outside the cafe like an idiot while the clients presumably wondered why they trusted a couple of kids to handle their problem was driving me off the rails. Now, even the pacing I was doing wasn't enough. Screw texting! I thought, reaching into my jacket pocket and pulling out my cell phone. I scrolled through my contacts until I found the one labeled 'The Knowitall' and furiously slammed my finger against it.
Holding the phone to my ear, I heard the standard dial tone then my nerves spiked again as my call was transferred straight to voicemail. I heard J's voice for the first time all day,
"What up!? You've reached the J-J-Jam Master J! If there's a case then yo I'll solve it, leave your name and number while me DJ revolves it!"
I slammed my eyes shut and took a deep sigh.
"First of all," I snapped. "Change that stupid ass answering machine! Second, I don't know if you're sleeping in after a late night of television or just too irresponsible to keep track of your own schedule, but last time I checked we were running a detective agency or something like that, so the next time you agree to take a case could you try maybe showing up!?"
I ended my message there, figuring I needed to come up with a course of action, and focusing my mind on that was more productive than cursing out my idiot partner. I could've told the clients that something came up and we can't take their case today, but calling out twenty minutes after they showed up would be crazily unprofessional and being already disadvantaged as kids in an adult field of work, we couldn't afford that big a blow to our reputation. I could've went in there and tried to solve the case by myself, but it seemed no matter how many cases I'd watched J solve I always felt dumb and out of the loop by the end of it; after all my skills lie in computer hacking and information gathering and not so much deductive reasoning.
Of all the options running through my head, I knew the only one I definitely could not go with would be continuing to stand there and wait for J to get back to me. So, without any sort of plan or course of action, I swallowed my pride and walked in through the glass double doors of the fancy cafe.
Today's clients, a married couple, sat in the back, near the window. They weren't exactly a young couple anymore, but they weren't what I'd call 'old' either, especially since they didn't have kids or anything yet. They looked like the type of trendy, hipster couple that went on dates to abstract art museums and made a living writing for some current events blog or something. The man was wearing a fashionable leather coat and had his equally dark hair slicked back, his facial hair trimmed down to a five o'clock shadow. His wife wore a black leather jacket over a plaid button-up shirt, had her brown hair in a bun and had on very little makeup, seeming to wear her crow's feet with pride.
"Hi," I awkwardly greeted. "Mr. and Mrs. Feldman, right?"
The man raised a brow at me. "Yes?"
"You two are here for the appointment with the private eye, right?"
The couple exchanged glances. "Um, we are. But…?"
"I'm his assistant. First off, apologies for the lateness, we were on another case and it's turning out to be more complicated than we thought it would. J's still there working on it, but he sent me here to start building the file on yours."
"Oh," the woman said disappointedly. "Well we're sorry to add onto your heavy workload-"
Her husband finished. "But we were hoping we'd get to talk to this detective directly."
"Sorry for the inconvenience," I go on, trying to maintain sounding professional as possible. "But I'll record this whole interview, he'll listen to it and contact you as soon as possible."
"We understand," the woman sighed. "Whenever you're ready to start I guess."
Unbelievable, I thought angrily. For the first time ever adults are taking our detective agency seriously from the start and this is the time J picks to go AWOL.
I reached into my backpack and grabbed the recorder, hitting the red button and placing it in the center of the table.
"So from the beginning," I instruct. "What's your situation?"
"We've just moved into a new house," the man explained. "We've been living in the area for two months now, something weird keeps happening."
"It's the backyard," his wife continued. "It's pretty big and we've set up a bunch of things there since we've moved. A picnic table, a grill, some lawn chairs, and we were thinking about building a gazebo. But two months ago, someone broke into our backyard in the middle of the and wreaked havoc."
"What do you mean by 'havoc'?" I asked.
"Well," Mark answered. "The grill was knocked over and destroyed, all the lawn chairs and tables were knocked over too. We figured it was just some bad neighborhood kids, but the next week it happened again. And then again. I wake up, go outside and see the mess. The cops don't know what to make of it, but since no one's broken into the actual house they aren't too concerned. They just tell us not to worry."
"Wait," I interjected. "People break in and destroy your backyard while you're sleeping and the noise doesn't wake you up?"
The two exchanged an embarrassed glance.
"Mark's a heavy sleeper." Mrs. Feldman explains.
"Yeah," Mark clarified. "And Linda works nights sometimes. This only seems to happen on the nights she's out."
I tried to think about what J would take from this information. What would he say?
"Is that why you're worried?" I ask them. "Because whoever's doing this seems to know you guys' schedules? You're worried this whoever is watching you?"
The couple's eyes widened in recognition, the two of them seeming pleasantly surprised by my reasoning skills.
"It gets worse than that," Mark said. "A few nights Linda was out, I stayed up all night and waited by the window to catch them in the act."
"And you couldn't hear or see them?" I asked.
"They never came. They somehow knew I was up waiting for them."
"So now you think it's definitely true you're being spied on?"
"Even worse. We decided to clear out the backyard, leave nothing for them to wreck, you know. Well, the other morning I checked the empty yard and found this."
He pulled out a pearl necklace.
"What's that?" I asked.
"It's mine," Linda answered. "I keep it in my jewelry case under the mirror in our bedroom."
"That clinches it," Mark cut in, the tension and stress in his voice really showing. "Someone got into our house and stole this necklace. They put it in the backyard for us to find. I don't why, it must be some crazy game to them, and I'm done letting them play it."
"Were there any signs of forced entry? Broken windows or a lock that seemed picked?"
"No. Nothing like that," Linda replied. "And we went back to the police. They've been on the case for a few days but can't come up with anything."
"So now we're at the end of our wits," Mark sighed. "We didn't know who else to turn to, so we looked online for a private eye and your boss, J DeMarcus, is the best reviewed in the city."
He is? We're the best reviewed? Awesome!
I did a mental double take when it processed that he just referred to J as my "boss".
"Are there any other details you'd like to mention?" I asked, reaching for the recorder.
Mark Feldman thought for a moment. "Well there is one thing..."
"We don't have to mention that," his wife interjected. "You know it's probably nothing."
The man looked over to me, as if for confirmation. I shrugged.
"Any information might be helpful." I assured. Mrs. Feldman sighed.
Her husband went on. "A few weeks ago, the neighbors' kid said he saw a man in black walking around in the middle of the night looking at people's houses. I don't know if that has to do with any of this or even if it's not just a child's imagination, but it's always been in the back of my mind."
An unknown creepy guy in black, why does that sound familiar?
"Okay," I said, hitting the stop button on the recorder. "J and I will review the information later, then we'll set up a visit to your house. He may want to try staying up and waiting for the criminals again, but I'll let you discuss the plans with him personally."
The two looked at least a little relieved.
"Thank you so much for your time." Linda Feldman said warmly.
"Our pleasure," I returned with a smile. "I just hope we'll get an answer to this soon."
My house was empty when I got home, my father was at the police station and my mother was probably out shopping or something. My head spinning with stress and confusion, I sped up to my room, gently set my backpack on my desk chair, threw my coat to the floor, and collapsed face first onto my bed. After a second of letting the angst do its thing, I took walked back over to my desk. Setting my laptop on it, I removed the SD card from the audio recorder and stuck it into my computer's slot. At the very least, I figured I could email J the recording, and he would listen to it then get back to me. So I did, but he didn't. I figured it might take some time, so I relaxed for a bit.
I did some of my weekend homework, I made myself lunch for the day, I checked the mail for my monthly tech catalogue and upon finding it I flipped through it, then I re-organized my scarf collection. And still J hadn't gotten back to me.
By now, almost two hours had passed of me absently waiting. It settled into my mind that even though J was sometimes irresponsible, he would never go this long ignoring his phone calls. And if he lost his phone or something, he would likely have tried to contact me some other way, especially after I emailed him that file. I pulled out my phone and hit The Knowitall again. Answering machine.
"J…" I softly spoke without thinking. "Are you… Is everything okay?"
I apparently filled a lot of that sentence with awkward silence, because while I was thinking of what to say next I heard the beep indicating my message was done recording. I sighed and slid my phone back into my pocket.
I stared up at my ceiling for a second pondering my next move. On one hand, I could wait forever for a response of some kind, on the other hand I do know where he lives. But am I really gonna get on a bus across town to knock on his door? I looked over to the inactive voice recorder on the desk beside my laptop, and thought of the Feldman couple and their neglected case. Well, screw it.
I drew my scarf tighter as the fall air slowly became more of a winter breeze. I looked up at the first building of the massive apartment complex for a second; I always had to remind myself which one was his. I walked up into the little alleyway, climbed the metal stairs and stood before his door. Taking a deep breath, I knocked. Silence. I knocked again. Nothing. So I kept knocking, simultaneously ringing the doorbell until my knuckles were a little sore.
"Hey, J," I called. "Are you in there?"
I pressed my ear against the door to listen for movement or something, but still the silence was all I heard. I leaned my forehead against the door and sighed, wondering if I had come all this way for nothing. I pulled my keychain out of my jacket pocket, and looked at the spare key J had given me in case of emergencies. He was never exactly clear what these 'emergencies' would be, and I wondered if this constituted one. Then, a thought flashed across my mind, pertaining to all the dangerous criminals J had helped send to jail, and how they or the other dangerous criminals in their circles might have wanted revenge or something. I told myself not to leap to conclusions, but before I knew it my heart was throbbing, and my trembling hand was slamming the key into the lock.
I thrusted his door open, and what I saw was so much of a shock that it somehow calmed my nerves back down. The place was a wreck; furniture was knocked over, appliances lay on the floor, the floor itself was barely visible under all the stuff. It looked like a tornado hit. I slowly entered the apartment, stepping over a toppled chair and feeling my shoe crush shattered pieces of glass or something.
"J?" I called out, as loudly as I could. I got no response. So I kept walking. I traversed until I had combed the whole apartment, every chaotically destroyed inch of it. I found myself standing over his beloved electric piano, the one he played while thinking or relaxing, which was now laying on the floor beneath its own stand, a big, scratchy dent where it had landed.
My heart sank, and my nerves shot up again. All those thoughts of criminals out for revenge flooded my head once more, and I felt myself beginning to shake. I thought of Mr. and Mrs. Feldman and the man in black terrorizing their backyard, and it seemed like he had found out about their plan to hire J and made his move to stop it. My mind was racing at lightspeed as I tried to think of what to do; I could go to the police but I didn't have much helpful information and my father probably wouldn't rush to investigate this one. Still, it seemed to be my only choice, but before I did that I had to consult the only other person I knew who would understand this situation. I took out my cell phone and scrolled through my contacts until I found B.
After only a few rings, I heard her voice.
"Who cares," she exclaimed angrily, mid-conversation. "Tell him to man up and get the surgery. His family coming here and praying to a non-existent God isn't gonna make him walk."
I heard footsteps, then a door slam, then her voice again, this time directed toward me.
"Hello? Terra?" she stressfully sighed.
"B!" I called out, relieved to finally get through to someone.
"I'm at the hospital," she explained, sounding busy but noting the concern in my tone. "I have to go question a patient soon, but is everything okay?"
"No," I replied, my voice trembling. "It's J."
"He's missing. I-I've been calling him all day and he wasn't answering or even texting so I went to his house and everything here's wrecked and broken."
I was trying to stay calm, but my voice was now a shaky, frantic mess and at this point I was just trying to talk slow enough for B to understand me.
"I'm here now," I continued. "And everything's a mess, it looks like someone broke in, I don't know what happened and I have no clue where he is and-"
"Terra," B spoke sternly to cut through my rambling. "Relax."
I realized how heavily I was breathing and tried to calm myself down.
"J's fine," she said. "Nothing happened to him."
"You know where he is?" I asked.
"I have a pretty good idea. Like I said, he's fine, but he does probably need you right now."
"What are you talking about?"
"Check the date, Terra. Notice what day it is?"
A moment of silence passed over.
"Oh," I said in melancholy realization. "Thanks."
The sky was turning gray as the day began its slow descent into night. When I got to the big, rusted iron gate, I stopped and stood there for a second. A chill blew past as I glanced up at the trees on the other side. Without any leaves, those long, crooked branches looked menacing, not helped by the fact that below them sat a field full of tombstones. I sighed and walked through the entrance, onto the cobblestone path that split into many down the line.
As I walked through the cemetery, the only sound to be heard was the occasional hum of wind, or the light crunches of fallen leaves being gently blown across the grass. I passed countless headstones, big granite crosses, and statues of angels, trying not to think about the people they had been set up to remember.
I got a little lost, I admit; graveyards are surprisingly spacious and full of headstones and monuments that all look the same. But eventually, I saw a figure in the distance. The only semblance of life I'd seen this whole time, they were sitting down before one of the graves. I swallowed and started walking over.
Soon, I approached him. J sat there, in a dress shirt, leather jacket and lightly tattered jeans, sitting in front of that elegant headstone, his eyes locked on the name engraved in it. He just sat there, frozen. I couldn't even tell if he noticed me at first. I mean, between my figure looming over him and the sounds of dried leaves and twigs crunching beneath my boots with each step, I imagine he had to. But he didn't show any signs of recognition, he just sat silently and kept on staring. I looked over to the stone and read the engraving: Liza Antoinette DeMarcus.
"Hey." I spoke softly. He still had no reaction to my presence. His curly hair blew in the breeze as his head remained locked in place, fixed on the tombstone. I tried again.
"You had a case today. I don't know if you remember, but I sent you the recording of the interview with the clients."
Showing the first sign of life so far, J sighed.
"I listened to it." he said, his eyes still fixed, not bothering to look up at me.
"You didn't get back to me," I replied. "I texted and called. Tons of times."
He turned his head for the first time and looked up at me, his tired eyes full of anger and hurt. "I didn't feel like talking."
"Well," I went on. "Do you feel like talking now?"
He turned his head back to the tombstone and said sternly, "No."
I sighed, and suddenly my voice had gotten stern too. "Too bad."
I crouched down and took a seat on the grass beside him. I could feel the stiff blades poking and scratching through my leggings, a discomfort I was sure he had managed to ignore.
"I was worried about you, J," I sighed. "I still am. So will you please talk to me?"
"Six years, today." he said.
"What?" I blurted out, caught off guard.
"It's been six years since she was killed."
"I'm sorry, J. I don't know what it's like to lose your mother, so I can't pretend to know how you feel."
"It doesn't ever get any better," he answered. "Sometimes it seems like it's okay. Sometimes it feels like it goes away and I can live my life normally. But then I remember how long it's been. I remember I'm all alone. I remember that whoever killed her is still out there and there's nothing I can do about it. And now all I can think about is how much I failed her."
"Failed her? J, what happened to her had nothing to do with you."
"It does now. The whole reason I started doing this detective stuff in the first place was to find out who killed her, and I didn't. I can't. It's been six whole years and I haven't gotten any closer at all."
His face, usually displaying his cocky grin, was now frozen and lifeless. The pain in his eyes made itself clearer, as if never intending to leave. It was then I realized these emotions weren't new to him; he had been carrying them around with him this whole time and I had never stopped to notice.
"J…" I breathed, feeling my voice break and my eyes begin to swell. I meant to say something, but my silence just hung there.
He spoke instead, his voice now in a defeated monotone. "Sometimes I wonder what the point of this all is. Sometimes I wonder if it even-"
"Solved." I said, loudly and sternly. He was quiet for a second, then looked at me in confusion.
"What?" he replied, his voice and demeanor finally showing a sign of life.
I didn't know where my sudden confidence was coming from, but I grinned at him, shifting over in the grass to a more casual position.
"It was Mrs. Feldman," I explained. "The weird stuff in their backyard only happens when she's out of the house for the night. And whenever he plans to stay up and catch whoever's doing it, it doesn't happen. That must be because she calls it off when he tells her. She's working with that guy in black, they're doing something she doesn't want her husband to know about; maybe there's a lot of money or some valuable missing item hidden in on the property and they're looking for it, and she wants to keep it all to herself so she didn't tell him. I knew it was her as soon as they told me they found her necklace in the backyard. That's what's happening, right?"
He just looked at me for a moment, still completely puzzled. Then, his eyes closed as if to process everything I said. He opened his eyes and craned his head upward, looking to the clouds in the sky that was now turning black.
"No," he answered, still looking up into nothing. "If they were looking for something they would be digging or breaking in, but there was no sign of either from what we can tell, just things randomly being moved around. Not to mention if it were money, she would still have to split it with whoever was helping her."
"Then what's going on?" I asked. "Did you figure it out?"
"The husband is doing it."
"What? He was the one who called us, he wanted to find out what was going on the most."
"That doesn't mean anything."
"But what's his motivation then?"
"He doesn't have one. He doesn't even know he's doing it."
Now I was completely lost.
He took a deep breath, then explained.
"The guy most likely has a serious sleepwalking condition. People who have them go to familiar locations and do things completely at random, like moving furniture around. When he stays up all night to try to catch the person in the act, obviously he can't sleepwalk into his own backyard if he's awake so nothing happens."
"Wait," I protested. "Why does it only happen when the wife is out? What about her necklace?"
"She's the cause of it," he explained. "Sleepwalkers are sometimes triggered by certain things. For him it must be sleeping alone after getting used to her for all these years. He must've had some kind of traumatic experience, maybe she almost died recently or something. So when she's spending the night out instead of in the bed with him he gets up and goes looking for her. That's why her necklace was out there, he went through her stuff and found something he bought her, and carried it around with him while he did his thing in the yard. Then he dropped it in the process."
I took a moment to lay it all out in my mind.
"Wow," I thought aloud. "That all makes sense, but it's crazy."
"Call them back," he instructed. "Ask if they had something like a near death experience happen before they moved. If so, tell them what I just told you. Case closed."
"Listen to yourself," I said, joining him in looking up at the darkening sky. "You solved this case without even really thinking about it. These people came to you with a problem and you helped them, just like you always do. And you think what you do is for nothing? Mr. Feldman was the most worried but it turns out he was creating the problem without knowing it; his mind basically tricked him into stressing for nothing. Maybe you can learn something from him."
He looked down from the sky, now to the grass beneath him. "It's just-"
"J," I cut him off before he could return to that train of thought. "I've never met your mother, so I don't know what she's like. But I do know if she saw what you do, she'd probably be really proud. And just because she's gone it doesn't mean you're alone, you have-"
I stopped myself immediately once I realized what I was saying. He looked over to me again and we met eyes. He smiled for what I assume was the first time all day.
"I'm glad I do, Tee," he said. "I don't know what I'd do without you."
I smiled back, feeling my cheeks get warm and start to blush. For a little while longer, we just sat there.