Chapter Five – New Friends

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Bruce took a sip of the whiskey he had originally poured for Alice before answering. “Janice was Esther’s apprentice. She was one of her aspirants, and Esther saw something there. I never saw what she liked about her.” He set the whiskey down on the table and leaned forward, pausing.
Alice sat still. Sometimes silence was just the thing to encouraging someone needed to share information they otherwise wouldn’t. She looked Bruce in the eyes, noting they were darker than she had thought at first. She had seen them as brown when he answered the door, but now that she was looking at them closely, she realized there was no flecking of other colors, no patterning in the iris. She couldn’t see the pupils. She sat back with a shiver.

Alice realized she had been quiet for a long time. She didn’t know how long. Bruce was watching her. “Anyway, Janice was Esther’s apprentice. They’d been seen together many times. The murder happened down the street, and Esther is the obvious person to talk to when something occultish like this happens.” He picked up Alice’s whiskey again and took a long draw from it.
“Right,” Alice said, mostly to show she was listening.

“The cops came, showed her a picture of Janice. Told her it happened at the pond. Esther got pissed. The detective asked her if she did it and she slugged him. It took ’em about a minute to pull her off him and get her under control.” He shook his head. “You don’t want to deal with her when she’s like that. She gets- anyway, they arrested her. I called her lawyer, so they’re all down there, working it out I guess. I don’t know if they’ll keep her. If they try pressing charges, guess I’ll do something about it.”

That piqued Alice’s interest. She looked at him sharply. “What would you do about it?”

Bruce laughed. It came out like a bark and echoed strangely through the empty house, coming back to them slowly from what seemed to be far off. “Yeah, it’s going to take more’n a couple scotches for that. I think I’ve told you mostly enough. I’m gonna read in the back. Your room’s the third on the right at the top of the stairs.” He stood, downed the rest of Alice’s drink and set the glass down on the table, then said “Look at the photos. This was an attack. On Janice. In Esther’s territory. That’s an attack on Esther. And if you’re here, it means it’s an attack on you too. Unless you go, I guess.” He stooped down, picked up the fallen photograph, then dropped it in Alice’s lap, turning it face up in the process.

Alice stared down at the picture. She didn’t pay any attention as Bruce left the room. The photo was a close up of Janice’s face. She had brown eyes, vaguely Hispanic features, and brown curly hair that she had kept cut fairly short. Her cheekbones were pronounced, more than they would have been in life. She looked gaunt, dried out. The tightness of her skin had drawn her mouth open into a grim smile with too much teeth. Alice had seen the look on other victims before. Bodies took on that drawn, emaciated look when they had been drained of blood.

Alice rubbed the bridge of her nose again. Things were getting out of hand already and she hadn’t been in the city for more than a few hours. She needed to meet Esther. But first she was going to finish looking through these pictures to see what she was going to be up against.

Alice sighed and rubbed the bridge of her nose again before turning to the next picture. This was a close-up of the chest cavity. She shut her eyes. Whoever had organized these had made no effort to ease her in. It was all the gruesome details up front. She supposed that would make it easier once she was past this. She took a deep breath and opened her eyes again.

The ribs stood, severed neatly at the sternum, and spread until they left a wide opening. Whoever had done this had taken extreme care to ensure that it was done perfectly. There was no mess, not a drop of blood, no errant cuts on the skin. The white bone gleamed in the light. Bloodless, the interior of the poor woman’s chest looked more or less hollowed out. The obvious absences were her heart and lungs. her intestines were still there, pooled in a mass in her gut, dry and brittle. Alice did not know enough to tell if there were other organs missing.

The next series of close-ups were of the woman’s hands, arms, legs, and feet. There was no binding on any of them, and no signs of force. There was no indication Janice had fought back, nothing under her fingernails, Alice shifted back and forth between the photos, examining them for visible bruising on her wrists, forearms, biceps, ankles, knuckles, but did not see anything. The lack of blood would make bruising hard to see, but she looked anyway. Regardless, she didn’t see any scrapes on the woman’s palms or knuckles either.

Continuing through the pictures showed that the white ring around the body was salt, and that whoever had done this had carved a circle into the floorboards and poured the salt into the groove. The five smudges around the edge were each puddles of wax from candles that had been allowed to burn all the way down to the floor. Maybe whoever had done this had hoped they would burn the place down. Maybe it had just been designed to direct attention at Esther.

Alice didn’t expect there would be enough there that the police would be able to locate the killer. What she was seeing was important, though. It told her something about the monster who had killed this woman. There was something supernatural about this. There was no way someone could take out every last drop of blood from a person. Not in one night, and not without a mess.

Alice’s mind went to the obvious place, and she could practically hear Travis telling her to shut up and face reality. But she was. She had seen what these things could do firsthand. So had he, even if he pretended he hadn’t now. What Alice had seen personally was nothing like this. The one she had experience with… it had so many victims, and it’s method of killing was by steadily draining them of life over weeks or months, letting them recover, and coming back for more. By the time they finally died, the victims would be listless, depressed, any desires or passions extinguished long before their bodies finally gave in. Ed would have said she was right, to trust her instincts. He had been right about that before, but then it still hadn’t been like she had expected.

One of the problems she had with dealing with these things was that she didn’t know what sort of hard rules applied to them. Ed had told her that garlic didn’t work on them, and they had reflections. Running water wasn’t an issue. He had been a little short on information about what their weaknesses were. Sunlight. Alice shook her head. She needed to get back to work. Not knowing what the thing she was facing might be able to do made it difficult to plan, and it meant that Alice had to prepare for every possibility.

The lack of any indication of struggle was troubling. Alice suspected that Janice had taken her clothes off and laid down seemingly willingly for the killer. She shivered. It was sobering to think of the possibility of someone taking control of her thoughts. If she encountered it, she would need to do so on her own terms, and she wouldn’t give it a chance to talk.

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