“What’s your plan, Alice?” Chip repeated himself.
Alice stood up and started picking up the things she had swept to the floor. “Well, for one, I need to see what’s on this roll of film,” she said, setting it back on the counter.
“Why?” Chip crossed his arms.
There was a knock on the door, three raps, knock knock knock, and both Alice and Chip looked up. Alice looked at Chip, then at the array of her gear scattered across the counter and floor. She turned and looked out the window, but the snow was still coming down, leaving the world outside a blur of white. Chip put a finger to his lips and walked slowly and quietly to his desk.
The knocking came again, as Chip flipped on the monitor. On the screen were four security camera images. On the top left was the building lobby, shot from high above, still and empty. Next to it on the right was a shot angled from what had to be Chip’s door. Chip clicked, and it expanded to fill the screen before Alice could see what the other two images were.
Standing directly in front of Chip’s door was a woman with severe features staring intently ahead. Her dark hair was pulled back into a bun, and she wore an assortment of jewelry, including rings on nearly every finger. She raised her bejeweled hand and rapped against the door again. Alice recognized her immediately.
Chip looked over to her, and Alice nodded. Chip shrugged and got the door, and Esther Lucas stood outside, wearing a loose fitting dark brown blouse and what looked like black yoga pants. She had a long dark coat folded over one of her bare arms. Her other arm displayed a sleeve of tattoos underneath bangles and bracelets. Each finger of her hand sported at least one ring, and she wore a torc around her neck with a yellow gem set into it, held against the base of her throat.
Esther looked at Chip expectantly for a moment as he stared at her. Esther couldn’t have been a hair taller than five feet, but her presence towered over him. After a silence that stretched far too long, he finally got his mouth under control and said, “Yes. Welcome, welcome. Come in, please.”
Esther stepped through the door and Alice felt the pressure of her presence fill the space. Alice’s back tensed and she clenched her teeth. It felt the same way Alice imagined a cat would feel when seized by the scruff of its neck. She put her hand against the stool to steady herself.
Now having been invited in, Esther ignored Chip and addressed Alice, walking to her and extending her ring encrusted hand. “I believe you must be Alice.” I would apologize for missing our appointment yesterday, but it was hardly within my control. How is…” she looked Alice up and down. “Boston treating you? Hmm.”
Alice took Esther’s hand and shook it. Esther’s grip was uncomfortably light, somehow avoiding being gentle. Before Alice could say anything, Esther continued. “I would have let you stay here to finish whatever it is you are doing until the snow stops falling, but I hired you for a purpose and need you to return with me.”
Alice seized the opportunity to speak. “Nice to meet you, Ms. Lucas. I-”
Esther cut her off. “You’re hurt. I need you in good condition.”
Alice dropped her hand and reminded herself that she was a head taller than the woman in front of her. She stood up taller. “I’m fine. I’ll be fine.”
“Good. Good. We need to leave promptly. Is there business you need to finish here? I can give you a few minutes.” She went and looked out the window at the storm while they spoke.
Alice looked over to Chip, and he nodded, saying, “I’ll develop your film, but you need to give me a number where I can reach you when it’s done. You can give me back my sweatpants when you pick it up.”Alice gave him her message service line, and he helped her get her things packed. Chip looked over at Esther and spoke, “Ma’am, I’m not sure how you got here, but the snow has the city shut down. How are you planning to get out of here?”
Esther turned back to them. “With difficulty. We’re short on time, so I will just say this. You know who I am, Mr. Ellison. You have provided assistance to my…” she glanced at Alice, “colleague. That is as good as providing assistance to me. Should you ever need the favor returned, you may call on me. Now. How do I get to your roof?”
Chip blinked. “Uh… It’s up the stairwell. I wouldn’t go up there in-”
Esther cut him off. “Then don’t. I advise you stay here, or go develop the film as you promised. I am not bringing you with me. Alice.” And she gestured to the door.
Alice led the way, struggling to keep from limping. She felt better back wearing her gear, but it was damn heavy. She wasn’t dressed to go out in the storm by any means, but at least it was keeping her warm for the moment. When they reached the stairwell, Alice held the door for Esther, and said, “Look, I want to come back with you, but I’m not dressed for this. And… what are we doing on the roof?”
Esther stepped into the stairwell and pulled the door closed behind her. “Alice.” She waited a moment, thinking, then said, “I need you to understand something before we get up there. I know you have seen things that are beyond what you can explain or you would never have agreed to work for me. What is about to happen will be another of these things.
“You will not need to be dressed for the cold, but you will need to be dressed for battle. The crossing is not safe, and you have never crossed before, so I do not know how it will affect you. I will try to shield you as much as I am able. We’re doing this on the roof because the less man-made detritus between you and the sky, the easier the passing. Do you understand?”
Alice opened her mouth to respond, but found herself at a loss for words. Listening to Esther speak, she had the sense of a woman spouting madness with absolute certainty. She didn’t know how to tell her that she was crazy. While she believed in blood sucking monsters that lived in the dark and preyed on humanity, the idea that this woman next to her was going to ‘cross over’ to something else was too much. She had a small concern that Esther might try to push her off the edge of the building, but decided that even in her current state, a fight between the two of them wouldn’t be a contest of any kind. In the end, she shrugged, started up the stairs, and said, “Sure.”
Esther nodded and followed her to the door leading to the roof. “Good. Now, can you open that lock?” Alice looked at the small padlock keeping the door closed and nodded. She pulled out her tools and unlocked the padlock in a few moments while Esther waited. “Okay, good,” Esther said, “Now get out of my way.”
Alice stepped out of Esther’s way, difficult in the cramped stairwell. Esther put on her coat and reached into a pocket, pulling out a small leather bag. “I prepared this before I came. Crossing is always harder away from home and I didn’t know what I was going to find when I came to get you.” Esther dipped her fingers into the bag, and they came out tipped in red. She drew several odd shapes on the door, and then dabbed a bit of the red paste onto Alice’s forehead and her own before putting her hand on the doorknob and looked to Alice. “Ready?”