Cassandra’s case came to me in a discreet, padded envelope delivered right to my door. I’d been expecting it for days after I got a call from Detective Smitty requesting my transcription services. A brief note had been included, telling me that Smitty, a ten year old girl, and her court appointed caregiver were present, that it was a child abuse case, and that they needed a copy of my transcription by the end of the week.
Nothing really out of the ordinary when it came to my police files. I’d been freelancing for the local PD and state agencies for so long that they didn’t feel it necessary to give me any more guidance or instruction than that.
I plugged in the USB stick containing the interview’s audio recording and opened up my software. It was a little over forty five minutes, fairly short, but unsurprising when a kid was involved, and I positioned my hands over my keyboard and my foot over the pedal that allowed me to start, pause, and rewind the software. I allowed myself a moment, just one, to brace for whatever I was about to hear. Child abuse cases, especially when told directly by the victims, were always the hardest.
It started out the same all the others, with the detective introducing himself, the case number, the date and time, and those present. Smitty had a rock-steady, precise way of speaking that I greatly appreciated while I typed up his words. He asked the caregiver, Matilda Sanchez, to recite her agency’s case number and to state her full name and position for the record. After she had done so, his attention turned to the little girl.
“Can you say your name nice and loud, sweetheart?” He asked. I was always impressed with how quickly he could switch between cop and fatherly figure.
The response that followed was mumbled and intelligible and Smitty asked her to repeat it.
“Cassandra Vitorski,” she said. Her voice was tiny and afraid and I imagined her to look very much like she sounded; nervous and tense and small.
“Did Ms. Matilda tell you why you’re here? Ok, you’re nodding, that’s good, but can you say your answer out loud?”
“Yes,” Cassandra answered just loud enough for the recording to pick up.
It was just about the last thing she said during the entire interview.
Detective Smitty asked her about her daddy and mommy, about her home life, about the bruises that the teachers had noticed, but every one was followed by a long silence. After the first twenty minutes or so, I just started to relax my hands and give my fingers a break during those stretches, but I still listened carefully in case she decided to say anything.
Throughout the recording, I had noticed and tried to ignore an incessant little background hum in those silences, assuming it was just the microphone picking up a fan or something. As the interview went on, however, I was finding it harder to brush it off. It wasn’t that it was becoming louder, it was something else, something that it took me a few rewinds to realize.
“Can you tell us about the black eye you had last week? How’d you get that?” Smitty asked for the fifth time.
I cranked up the volume during Cassandra’s silence and pressed my headset down firmly over my ears, straining to listen. That background noise continued, but turned up so high, I could finally begin to make it out.
It wasn’t a hum I was hearing. It was someone breathing.
It could have been Cassandra, I guessed, but there was a subtle guttural quality that didn’t seem to match up with the rabbit-like voice I’d heard before. This type of breathing didn’t sound scared; it sounded riled.
Matilda, then, I told myself, or even Smitty! No doubt they’d be getting frustrated with the lack of answers. But it continued even when either of them were speaking.
It was just a single word, whispered quickly between breaths and then lost beneath Smitty’s voice, but I jumped when I heard it.
I paused the recording and gave myself a good shake. I was being ridiculous. That wasn’t breathing, and if it was, it had to belong to one of the three people in the room. Hell, little Cassandra had bad asthma and always sounded like a chain smoker for all I knew. And “Tell”? I seriously doubted I’d heard that at all. It was just my subconscious urging the poor child to open up.
I rewound the recording a bit, just after the “Tell” would have been, stomped on the play button on my foot pedal, and started typing again. I only had about fifteen minutes left to transcribe and then I could forget about it.
Detective Smitty was as patient as ever, asking his questions and giving Cassandra some time to answer even when it was clear she wouldn’t. Matilda tried to help to coax the little girl to talk every so often, but it never worked. All the while, that sound continued in the background, unacknowledged by anyone in the room.
“Is there anything you want to tell us about your parents, Cassandra?” Smitty asked about forty minutes in.
That word again, whispered and low. And then the sound that I was so sure wasn’t breathing became a deep throated growl that almost made me knock my headset off.
“We want to help you,” Matilda said gently over the snarling.
“Bad girl,” a man’s voice shouted suddenly into my ears. “Why are you so stupid?”
“You little bitch!” It was a woman now, screeching angrily.
The voices rose in a whirlwind, back and forth, screaming obscenities and insults so loudly that the interview was almost drowned out completely. Still, the detective carried on with his questions like nothing out of the ordinary was happening.
And then Cassandra started to cry.
“No, no, no!” She shouted.
Immediately, the voices and the growling and the breathing stopped, until the only thing on the recording was the sounds of the detective and the caregiver trying to comfort the little girl. The interview came to a very quick end.
I took my headset off and tossed it on to my keyboard, trying to shake off the chill that had worked its way up my body like a constricting snake. I tried to reason away everything that I’d heard, the microphone could have picked up a fight from another room, the growling was, somehow, from a nearby K9 unit, the breathing really was just one of the three people present, but they all fell flat.
I called the station and asked for Smitty.
“Did you listen to the recording before you sent it?” I asked as casually as I could.
“Our clerk did, he signed off on it, why?”
“He said it was fine?”
“S’far as I know. Everything ok, Elle?”
“Yeah. There was just some…background noise. Hey, do you think I could check out the video of the interview? I want to match up some audio I wasn’t sure on.”
“When do you want to come by?”
“Is now ok?”
“I’ll let the guys know to expect you.”
I wasn’t sure what I was looking for even as I was sitting down in the cramped audiovisual office at the precinct. A confirmation that I wasn’t going crazy, perhaps. The video did little to calm that concern. It featured exactly zero weird breathing or inexplicable voices. In it, Cassandra sat at a table between Smitty and Matilda while they questioned her. Her attention, though, was on the small stuffed monkey in her lap.
She was petting it with increasing agitation, her eyes cast downwards and fixed on the monkey. As the interview wore on, I noticed she kept putting a hand over the monkey’s mouth and shaking her head slightly, subtle movements that seemed in line with the rest of her fidgety behavior. The word “Tell” echoed in the back of my mind as I watched her pinch its mouth between her thumb and forefinger.
“That’s just confirmation bias or something,” I said aloud in my car on my way home. “I thought I heard stuff on the recording, so I was looking for weird stuff in the video. It was just a kid playing with her stuffed animal. That was it. I’m letting these cases get to me, I just need a fucking vacation.”
I wasn’t about to start believing in talking stuffed monkeys and I definitely wasn’t going to tell anyone about it.
When I got home, I saved my transcription to the USB stick and immediately mailed it back to Smitty. It was supposed to be the last I heard of Cassandra and her case.
And then I received the request to act as court reporter for the trial of Mr. and Mrs. Stan Vitorski. I would have refused, I wanted to, but freelance work is a fickle mistress and turning down a job when you had availability was unwise at best. My need for a steady income outweighed my desire to avoid a child’s toy.
Cassandra and her monkey were present for the trial, sitting just behind the prosecutors’ table in the gallery. She was waxy and pale and miserable. I did my best to not look at her while I set up my equipment, a little steno machine and earphones that were fed by the microphones placed around the courtroom.
The trial got underway and I was so focused on my work that any trepidation I’d had melted away. The prosecutors, never able to get Cassandra to tell her side, presented a case built entirely on physical evidence. They had photos and medical reports and testimonials from those close to the family. The Vitorskis were painted as short tempered and cold towards their daughters, witnesses said they’d seem Stan drag his daughter roughly around the yard, that they’d frequently heard yelling and that Cassandra always seemed to have fresh bruises that she tried to cover up.
One neighbor even said they’d heard Camila, Cassandra’s mom, threaten to kill her.
It seemed like an easy case right up until the defense team took over. The Vitorskis were a wealthy couple and they’d spared no expense in hiring some of the slimiest attorneys I’d ever seen. They were tenacious bulldogs, tearing apart witnesses and attacking credibility. Cassandra wasn’t a victim; she was a strong willed child who refused to listen and was constantly getting into trouble. She loved nothing more than pushing her parents’ buttons and would go so far as to hurt herself to garner outside sympathy.
My skin actually started to crawl when her dad to the stand in his own defense and dabbed dramatically at the corner of his eye with a tissue. Just looking at him, I doubted he even knew how to cry.
“She’s my little girl, of course I love her,” his voice filled my earphones and my fingers stopped working for a second. I knew that voice, I recognized it! It was the man’s voice I’d heard shouting over the recording.
I knew that voice too, whispered and quiet as it was. No one else seemed to have heard it. No one except for the little girl in the front row, who was shaking her head and looking down at the stuffed monkey in her lap.
He continued on about Cassandra’s misdeeds that led to them having to discipline her, and after each new excuse, I’d hear it again.
Unlike on the recording, where it had sounded urgent and agitated, the voice now sounded angry, and it was only getting louder.
I tried to keep up with Mr. Vitorski, I tried not to let that inexplicable growl distract me, but it was getting harder every moment. Mr. Vitorski would speak, and it would scream, “Liar!”, but nobody other than me or Cassandra reacted, nobody heard it!
“I don’t know why she does these things to herself,” Mr. Vitorski was saying, but be was drowned out until my earphones crackled with sharp feedback.
“Liar Liar LIAR!”
I gasped despite myself and tore them off. The court had gone quiet around me and it felt as if every pair of eyes were on me. The judge was looking down from the bench, one brow raised, and I smiled weakly in apology.
“Sorry, your honor,” I said, “technical difficulties.”
In the brief recess that followed, I saw Cassandra slip out of the courtroom with Matilda. She’d left the monkey sitting in her place.
I left one of my ears uncovered when the trial resumed. Mr. Vitorski finished up his testimony rather quickly and it was obvious that serious doubt had been sewn in the jury, putting Cassandra’s case at risk of being thrown out.
The whole time that accusing, vicious voice was silent. Maybe it hadn’t been the monkey at all, I thought while the defense prepared for their next witness, maybe it had been Cassandra herself. Both options seemed equally ludicrous and I wondered how could I be sitting in a courtroom, thinking about such fanciful nonsense.
Children and stuffed animals didn’t project phantom voices. I was a rational, logical adult; I knew better than that.
Then why was I hearing the word “Die” being whispered, over and over, into the ear covered by my earphone?
The defense attorney had stopped talking mid sentence.
“Die, die, die,” the voice continued to whisper, low and steady.
The defense attorney turned and walked back to the table where the Vitorskis and the rest of the defense team were seated. The judge asked what he was doing.
“Just a moment, your honor,” the attorney said.
“Die, die, die,” the voice in my earphone didn’t rise in volume, didn’t sound gleeful or angry. It only sounded determined.
The defense attorney plucked a pen from the breast pocket of his suit jacket. He uncapped the tip and let the cap fall to the floor.
“Die, die, die!”
Before anyone realized what he was doing, the attorney had leapt upon Mr. Vitorski, knocking both of them to the floor. His arm rose and fell, plunging the pen into his client’s throat over and over again until his hand was dripping red. Security were charging across the room, trying to get to him, Mrs. Vitorski was screaming and flailing, every one was out of their seats and running for the door.
“Die, die, die!”
The second defense attorney seated beside Mrs. Vitorski took her by the arm and she turned to him. She was still screaming when he drove his own pen into her eye.
Chaos had broken out all around me. The judge was trying and failing to restore some semblance of order while the bailiffs pinned the two, very confused looking attorneys to the ground. Blood was pooling beneath them.
The Vitorskis were silent now, both very still except for the occasional twitch of a limb.
Through it all, my gaze was drawn back to the little stuffed monkey sitting alone and upright in a chair and I would swear that his black button eyes were fixed on me.
“Safe now,” the voice whispered through my earphone.
I doubt I’ll hear such a note of satisfaction ever again.