Paul Lyman was halfway out the door when the phone rang.
He hesitated, hand on the doorknob, and seriously debated letting it ring itself out – his ads had been attracting more crazies than genuine clients lately – but relented and headed back to his office.
“Paul Lyman Investigations., what can I do ya for?”
“Paul?” The woman on the other end had been crying recently. “It’s Mary, Mary Lambsky. I was wondering if…” she trailed off as she tried to compose herself, “…if you have any news.”
Paul sighed. “Let me just pull up your file. I’ll put you on hold for a second.”
Mary’s folder was of course buried under piles of ripped envelopes, McDonald’s wrappers, obscure books on the occult, and the files of half a dozen other clients. He tore through his desk several times while Mary waited on hold, before yanking open his drawer as a last resort. Sure enough, there it was, underneath a nearly-empty bottle of Jim Beam.
Putting the whiskey aside for later, Paul started to flip through the paper-clipped stack of documents.
Mary Lambsky, widow of MindTech co-founder Jim Lambsky, who had been found floating face-down in the lake a month previous. All that had been taken from the corpse was a few hundred dollars from his wallet and a USB drive containing sensitive company information, which Jim carried with him at all times. Cops had ruled it a robbery gone bad, but Mary had her doubts, as all wives of murdered businessmen do. The business itself warranted investigation, a vortex of backstabbing, conflicts of interest and environmental issues, with Jim’s partner blazing new trails of sleaze. Of course Mary knew none of this; Jim would go silent on that topic the second he stepped through his own front door. And since nobody in the company was talking, Paul’s only hope of solving the murder hinged on recovering the USB.
He picked up the phone again and put it to his ear. “Mary. No news yet, I’m following up on some leads this afternoon. I should have something for you tomorrow.”
As he hung up, Paul found his eyes drawn to the grainy crime scene photo of Mary Lambsky’s husband, washed up on the shore.
“More tea, Princess Lavender?”
Jessie Henderson’s shrill seven-year-old voice was insufficiently muffled by the hordes of plush toys and pink throw pillows that had been scattered around the living room, and reverberated painfully in Lily’s eardrums. The other girl cringed visibly, before remembering herself and forcing a grin. Smiling sweetly, Jessie angled the empty teapot over the pink plastic cup that had been set for Lavender, who was invisible to everyone else in the room.
“Would you like some more tea, Lily?”
“I guess so.” Before the reply was fully articulated, a stream of air was poured into Lily’s cup. Obediently, Lily bent to pick it up.
“You have to let it cool first. It’s hot.” To demonstrate, Jessie blew on her own tea.
Lily was tempted to remind her friend that the tea was imaginary and could not, in fact, emit any temperature other than what the drinker envisioned, but thought better of it.
“What about Mr. Paul? Does he want any more?” Jessie glanced towards the empty seat beside Lily.
Lily glanced up at her imaginary friend, squatting awkwardly over one of the four miniature plastic chairs that Jessie had set up for the occasion, an unlit cigarette hanging between his index and middle finger.
“I think he’s fine.”
“Aren’t they just the sweetest things?” Helen Jenkins gushed.
Darla Henderson restrained an eye roll. She despised these playdates, not so much for the unruly children but the obligation to entertain helicopter parents who insisted on constant supervision. What did these mothers think went on at her house? They had their skeletons, as everyone did, but none that would jump out of Jessie’s closet and devour the girls.
If anything, your daughter’s the one apt to cause trouble, Darla seethed. Comes over to our house and the first thing she does is flush a whole roll of toilet paper.
Seeing that the girls were preoccupied with Jessie’s inane chatter, Lily’s mother enquired in a low voice, “So how’s the business going?”
Mrs. Henderson sighed exaggeratedly as she tried to come up with a socially proper response. “About as well as can be expected. I think it’s been hard for Ray to go back to normal since Jim…passed.”
“Tragic. Do they have any leads yet?”
Darla tensed up. “I don’t think we should be talking about this around the girls, Helen.”
“Oh, of course, I was just –”
She glanced back towards the girls as Lily’s expression suddenly became clouded with concern. “Paulie,” she murmured. “You promised.” A few seconds passed, and anger flashed across her face. “Don’t be rude! You promised me you’d stop. Put the flask away.”
Helen’s face turned crimson. Sensing the woman’s embarrassment, Darla Henderson felt it appropriate to call attention to the situation. “Did she just say, ‘Put the flask away? ’”
“I’m not sure where that came from,” Helen blustered. “She must not know what the word means.”
“Hair of the dog my ass!” Lily shouted.
Helen jumped up from her chair. “Lily, Jessie and Mrs. Henderson were very nice to have us over, but it’s time for us to leave now.”
Lily glanced at her mother, suddenly remembering where she was. “I have to pee.”
“I’m sure it can wait.”
“It’s an emergency.”
Helen looked imploringly at Darla, who glanced towards the bathroom door. “The toilet’s still plugged. She can use the upstairs one.” Then, to Lily, “I can show you where it is if you want.”
“No thanks, I can find it.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes,” Lily insisted.
“Alright. It’s the second door on the right-” she raised her right hand for emphasis, “after Ray’s office.”
With that, the girl darted up the stairs.
As soon as she was out of earshot, Helen whispered, “I’m so sorry, Darla. I don’t know where all that came from – I assure you this doesn’t reflect on our home.”
Counting the seconds until socially inept mother and possibly disturbed daughter could leave, Darla assured Helen that there was nothing to apologize for. “I think we all had weird imaginations as kids.”
The bathroom was, as Lily had predicted, easy enough to find, as was Ray Henderson’s office. After Lily turned on both taps, as per Paul’s instructions, the pair doubled back into the office and Paul began directing their search.
“Make sure to put everything back in its exact spot,” he warned as Lily checked underneath mountainous stacks of paper that put Paul’s own pile to shame. “Remember, it’s a black data-stick. Probably not out in the open, so you’ll have to dig.”
“This is impossible,” she whined. “There’s so much stuff.”
“One shot, kiddo. After that little outburst I don’t suspect you’ll be invited back.”
From downstairs, Lily’s mother had started to call for her. “What’s taking you so long?”
“I’m washing my hands, Mom!” she hollered down, still rooting through sheets.
Paul was starting to get nervous. The girl would only be able to stall for so long before someone came to fetch her, and the chance of finding what they were looking for within the next few minutes was slim.
The punk probably has it in a bank vault or something. No one would keep something this incriminating in a home office.
The girl nearly jumped out of her skin. “We have to leave soon, Paul,” she whispered, panic creeping into her voice.
“Soon. Check that drawer, will ya?”
“What’s going on up there?!”
The desk drawer stuck so badly it might have been sealed shut, but with some effort Lily was able to force it open. The wood shrieked as the drawer gave way, so loudly that even the running water couldn’t drown it out.
“Lily, if you’re not down here in five seconds I’m coming up and dragging you home!”
Paul walked over and inspected the drawer. In the corner lay a USB drive, wrapped in a piece of masking tape on which someone had written, in nearly illegible Sharpie, “Mindtech – Confidential.”
You never fully appreciate simple physicality until you discorporate for any stretch of time, Paul mused, digging through a garbage can at the corner of Lily’s street. Even dragging yourself out of the house before dawn to root through trash was preferable to being a figment of a seven-year-old’s imagination.
That said, moonlighting as an imaginary friend had its benefits. As his fingers clamped around the USB, Paul couldn’t deny that the Jenkins girl had once again done solid work.
He waited to call Mary until he was safely parked in a cul-de-sac several blocks away. As he’d hoped, it went straight to voicemail. “Mary, it’s Paul. Come by my office tomorrow. I think I’ve found something for ya.”
Fulcrum Fiction Contest 1st-place short story; originally published in The Fulcrum Fiction Issue, April 9th, 2015