Alice stepped up to the door at the top of the stairs, standing on the concrete landing. She looked for a bell, but only saw the simple brass ring knocker she had already used. She lifted it again, then let it thud against the heavy wooden door. The sound died out fairly quickly, but she could feel the strike vibrating through the house, and reverberating through the concrete of the landing. She considered knocking a third time, but if the first two hadn’t gotten the residents’ attention, she wasn’t sure anything would.
After a few moments of no discernible response from within the house, the door clicked open. A balding man in his late 50s was holding the handle. The hair he had was white and gray, forming half of a halo around the back part of his head. He had dark eyes set deep in his face and a sallow complexion. He carried himself like someone who had accepted that life just wasn’t going to turn out the way he had planned. Looking him over, he wasn’t a big man, maybe just an inch or two taller than Alice, and he had a bit of a pot belly that he was hiding underneath a baggy gray sweatshirt.
“You must be the new girl,” he said, looking at Alice. “You’re late.” He stood in the door, gauging her reaction, like he hadn’t decided if he was going to let her in.
Alice stood motionless, trying to keep her face from showing any sign of irritation or weakness. She was annoyed at this man’s assumption of authority. She didn’t know who he was, but she didn’t like the idea of having multiple people who thought they were her boss. It’s not how she operated. She was also cold. The run to the house had kept her somewhat warm on the way there, but her ears and fingers were aching, and she was kicking herself for not having brought warmer clothes.
After another moment’s scrutiny, the man evidently made up his mind and stood aside. “Well, I suppose you should come in. we’re letting the heat out.”
Alice stepped across the threshold into a very sparsely appointed, but tasteful, entry way. The walls were wood paneled, making her feel as though she had stepped back in time to an era of cabins and wood stoves. The man shut the door behind her as she stepped in.
“Coatroom’s there,” he said, gesturing to a door set into the wall. “Room for your bags too. If you got any.”
Now that Alice was closer to him, she could smell the alcohol on his breath. “No, just the one. I’m Alice. Who are you?” She asked.
“Bruce.” He nodded. “I’m Bruce. Esther’s out. Probably gonna be a while. Your room’s upstairs if you want to get settled in.”
Alice turned to look at the staircase off the central hallway they were standing in. “Maybe in a bit. What happened? I heard she was arrested.”
Bruce gave a half snort, a short huff out his nose. “C’mon. I’ll show you.” he turned and gave a half wave for Alice to follow.
She stood in the hallway as Bruce left the room, closed her eyes for a moment and rubbed the bridge of her nose. It was only noon, and this was already a long day. She followed the sound of Bruce’s retreating footsteps.
The room he walked into looked like a haunted house set. It was a massive sitting room, dotted with leather and wood chairs, situated around coffee and end tables. The wooden floor was pocked and scratched. The walls of the room were covered in built-in bookshelves, with some sections being nearly completely emptied, while others were packed full. Most of the room looked like no one had done any maintenance or cleaning in years. There was dust covering everything but two of the chairs and half of and end table, where it looked like someone had haphazardly brushed it off. A manila folder sat unopened on the table.
There was a liquor tray, and Bruce was standing next to it, pouring a tall glass of a deep amber liquid, which he set down on top of the manila folder. “That’s you,” he said, and started pouring a second glass. “Sit.”
Alice could smell it from the doorway, a powerful and smoky liquor. She made her way over to the chair, but remained standing. She gingerly picked up the glass between two fingers and slid the folder out from underneath it. Picking the folder up, she raised an eyebrow at Bruce. He nodded. Staying standing, she opened the folder.
Inside was a series of high definition photographs. The one on top depicted a scene both brutal and silent. Light was cast from the left side of the photo, down across the corpse. Alice felt her throat closing and her face flushing. She forced herself to swallow and take a deep breath. She was not going to allow herself to be thrown by this guy, not even by ambushing her with pictures of a murder. She closed her eyes a moment. Breathe in. Breathe out. She opened her eyes again, and focused on the edges of the picture.
First, there were the ends of plastic boats in the picture, kayaks maybe. The floor was wooden, swept clean, and there were scratch marks leading up to a large wooden desk, the sort you see in museums when they recreate some historical figure’s office. It had been pushed to the center of the room. There was a thick white ring surrounding the entire scene, maybe seven or eight feet in diameter, and there were dark smudges that looked like they might be candles at five points around the circle. The desk looked like it was made of real wood, so whoever moved it had to be fairly strong, or there was more than one killer.
Alice looked to the center of the photo to examine the corpse. She couldn’t get much detail from this picture, but she assumed that the remainder were close-ups for that reason. The young woman’s body was draped across the desk, her arms and feet hung off the edges. Her head was staring straight up, eyes open, staring blankly upward and away from the photographer. Alice had little sense of how old she was. At least 20. Probably not older than 40. She looked vaguely familiar, but Alice couldn’t place it.
It took Alice a moment to process what she was looking at as she moved downward from the woman’s face because the woman’s torso had been opened. From below her belly button, all the way up to her throat, she was slit open, and her ribs stood straight up. The woman had been slight, and the flesh of her breasts clung tight to her ribs, casting a shadow into her open chest. Alice shut the folder quickly and she put it down roughly on the table again. One of the photos slid out and flipped in the air before settling on the floor face down.
Bruce watched the photo fall. “You change your mind about that drink?”
Alice glared at him. Her words were failing her, and she could feel her nails digging into the palms of her hands. She wanted to ask him where he got these. They were either police photos, or were taken before the police arrived, which didn’t inspire her to trust Bruce. She didn’t know who this guy was. She hadn’t been told about him before she arrived, and she had been assuming that he was one of Esther’s people. For all she knew, he could be the killer, and he was just gloating before he tried to do the same thing to her. Though for all she knew, Esther could have been the killer and that’s why she was arrested. But then the house would be being searched by the cops right now. So it wasn’t that.
She settled on her question. “Is this why they took Esther?”
The look of surprise showed on Bruce’s face for only a moment before he masked it. “Sort of,” He replied cautiously. “That’s why the cops came here.”
Alice wanted to keep it neutral. She could press him with the intrusive questions once she had gotten as much out of him being cooperative as she could. “What made them think it was her?”
Bruce took a long slow sip of his whiskey, and swirled his glass before putting it down. “They didn’t think it was her. Well, they think it might be her, but she’s been in the news about ritualistic things, and she’s run up against the detectives before, so she’s one of their first stops when something looks occultish.” He paused for another sip. “Plus, it didn’t help that this was just down the street.”
Alice listened, letting him finish, then she asked, “where did it happen?”
“Down at the pond. There’s a rental office, and it looks like it happened in there last night. The clerk found her this morning.” Bruce finished his drink and set the glass down. “Esther knew her.” He looked at the folder, then reached over and took the glass he set out for Alice. “You’re sure you’re not going to drink that?”
“No, thanks. It’s all yours.” Alice sat down in the chair across from Bruce. It was coming back to her now. She’d seen the woman’s face in one of the articles about Esther. “Her name was Janice, right? Janice Stiles? She was Esther’s apprentice?” Bruce nodded, so Alice continued. “So, tell me, Bruce. Why was Esther arrested?”