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 the pictures. 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 swarming with 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 the obvious question. “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?”
“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 worked for Esther?” Bruce nodded, so Alice continued.
“So, tell me, Bruce. Why was Esther arrested?”
Bruce took a sip of the whiskey he had originally poured for Alice before answering. “Janice was Esther’s aspirant.” He shrugged. “I never saw what she liked about her.” He set the whiskey down on the table and leaned forward, pausing, then he sat back again, shifting in his seat and shaking his head slightly.
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.
Bruce looked back and sipped Alice’s whiskey. The silence stretched between them and then settled, stifling, like a heavy fog. Alice realized she had been quiet for a long time. She didn’t know how long. She shivered, and the moment passed.
A hint of amusement touched the corner of Bruce’s mouth as he spoke. “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 finished the second whiskey but didn’t put it down, glancing over at the bottle.
“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 set the glass down on the table as he stood, 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. You don’t want to wind up like Janice.” 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 had been about to ask Bruce why he thought the killer had targeted Janice. Why did he think she might be in danger? What did he know that she needed to? But when the picture settled in her lap, the questions fled her mind. She stared down as the a close-up portrait of Janice Stiles’s corpse stared up at her. Brown eyes framed in short curly hair, that might have once asked her to please help, but now were just empty, far away, to wherever she had gone. She looked gaunt, dried out. The tightness of her skin had drawn her mouth open into a grim smile with too much teeth.
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 up against. Alice sighed and rubbed the bridge of her nose 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 all these years later, she could still 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. 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.
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.