Chapter Five – Welcoming

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The landing was exposed, and the wind was still whipping loose snow at her, so Alice huddled, scrunching her head low and stuffing her hands in her pockets. As she shivered there on the concrete landing wondering if she was being foolish. She had just been told that her new employer, who she was supposed to be meeting here, right now, had been arrested that morning. She had just figured that someone with the kind of money that Esther Lucas had would have servants or something. But now that she was looking at the house itself, she felt like she was maybe wasting her time.

It was run down, clearly in need of maintenance years, maybe decades, overdue. She had looked for a bell to ring, but there was only the simple brass ring knocker she had already used. Alice lifted it again, then let it thud against the heavy wooden door. The sound died out fairly quickly, but she could feel the strike reverberating through the house and the concrete under her feet for a while longer. She considered knocking a third time, but if there was anyone here, and the first two knocks hadn’t gotten their attention, she wasn’t sure a third would.

Alice could feel the cold seeping into her bones. She had made a mistake coming here. She had made a mistake not bringing warmer clothes. And not eating before she made the jog here. Alice began thinking about her other options. She could go back the way she came, either stop in at the coffee place, or she had seen a restaurant a bit further down. There was probably somewhere near there where she could buy a heavier coat. On the other hand, before flying out here, she had mailed herself a care package of equipment that she couldn’t bring on the plane. She expected it was sitting inside this house right now, and some of it was the sort of stuff that would attract interest if the police wound up doing a search of the house.

While Alice was considering her situation, the door clicked open and swung wide. A balding man in his late 50s held the handle. What hair he had was white and gray, forming half of a halo around the back part of his head, and 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, eying Alice. “You’re late.” He stood in the door 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 his 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.

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 the set of a haunted house. It was massive, a sitting room dotted with leather and wood chairs, coffee and end tables. The wooden floor was pocked and scratched. The walls of the room were covered in built-in, but empty, bookshelves. Like what the rest of what she had seen of the house, this room looked like no one had done any maintenance in years. There was dust covering everything but two of the chairs and half of an 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 brutal scene, made all the more horrific and isolating by the silence of the photo. 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?”

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