Alice stood, pocketing the small cylinder. She could feel the chill of moments before slowly fading from her. The cold of mundane winter was welcome in contrast to the chill of death that had soaked into her.
Esther shook her head, finally answering the question. “No, but I’m sure we can find someone.” She glanced at the window. “We should get out of here.”
Alice nodded and looked where Esther had just directed her attention. The black bird wasn’t there anymore, but she felt like she could still hear the clack clacking of its beak against the glass. She walked to the window and looked out. She couldn’t see the police parked outside. “We’re going to just have to go and hope they aren’t looking.”
Esther nodded her understanding, and Alice slid the window up. Getting out and past the cops was uneventful; they were still sitting in their car with the dome light on, talking. Alice felt the residue of her experience inside the building and had a flash of that antsy boredom that had overtaken her when she had looked at them before. She shivered and thought of Travis.
Esther had walked ahead of her and looked back at her now. “It’s a short trip back.”
Alice nodded and caught up to her. They trudged silently through the light dusting of snow that had settled since the plow had come by for a few minutes before Alice finally spoke. “Well?”
Esther glanced sideways at her. Even through the bundled coat and hood, even just a glance at Esther’s eyes showed that the wheels were turning. The calculation going on in Esther’s head. Would she try to divert Alice’s attention, avoid answering the question? Would she keep whatever she had learned in there to herself?
Esther finally spoke. “I think you are smart enough to put this together for yourself. What I did to you was to open a connection between you and the other side of the veil between life and death. But, as you could tell, no connection is merely one way. The living are not meant to experience the land of the dead. It is a place that embraces visitors, though. So your stay needs to be short if you plan to ever leave. Stay too long and you will find yourself a resident.”
Alice had a few things she might have said, but she bit her tongue. She didn’t like being thrust into danger like that without warning. She didn’t like not knowing what was happening. But at the same time, it was exciting. This was real. This was actual magic. There wasn’t any denying it. Anyone who had experienced what she had just experienced would never be able to say it had been anything mundane.
Alice ultimately settled on something noncommittal. “Okay,” she said. “Why wasn’t Janice there, then? She was killed there, right? She could tell us who did it.”
“It may surprise you to learn that the dead have priorities other than helping to find their killers. And that is assuming that she made it across the veil intact, wasn’t trapped by anyone or anything on the other side, and wasn’t driven insane in the process. The underworld is a large place, and there are any number of things that could have happened to her.”
“You knew she wouldn’t be there,” Alice said.
“Because she was your apprentice, and if she wasn’t trapped or something, she would have come to you. Because you’re the obvious choice to help her do whatever she might need to do on the other side.”
Esther’s hood nodded in agreement. “You’re learning.”
“Okay,” Alice said again. “So what did you learn there? Do you know who did this?”
“I already knew who did this. What I learned was why Janice didn’t come to me after she was killed.”
Alice and Esther walked for a minute before Alice broke the silence again. “Really? You’re just going to drop that and not tell me why?”
“Do you want to know?”
“Yes. Of course I want to know!”
“Very well.” Esther stopped before they crossed the street and turned to Alice. “There were several possibilities, as I have already told you. She could have been trapped, or taken by one of the gods that roam the underworld. She could have been set upon and devoured or driven insane by the wraiths that live on the other side. Though I have done what I can to keep the city relatively free of that hazard. I had come prepared for any of those possibilities. I had planned to address whichever of these had occurred, but it was none of the above. I had not realized just what this creature had done to her.” Alice could hear the venom creeping into Esther’s voice.
They were no more than a block from the Lucas house, and as Esther was talking, Alice watched as a sedan pulled up in front of the house, parked conspicuously in the middle of the street and shut its lights off but kept the engine running.
She put her hand on Esther’s shoulder and said, “Esther, I don’t want to interrupt you, but is there another way into your house than the front door?”
Esther took note of the car. “It’s hard to blend in in this weather, I suppose. We could go around to the back.”
As she spoke, the driver side door opened and the car rocked side to side as a massive frame shouldered itself out onto the street. Alice wasn’t going to make the same mistake as she had earlier, and when he turned toward him, his face illuminated by the street lamps, she could see clearly that it was her brother.
Alice sighed and relaxed. “It’s okay. I know him.” She started walking again.
Esther followed behind her. “I thought you weren’t from here.”
“I’ll explain after he’s gone. Are you okay for a few minutes? I’ll come inside in a few.”
Esther stiffened. “Of course. Take however long you need.” She turned to go up the steps, and then turned back to Alice. “Before I go, take this. If you are going to work for me, you need to have this on you.” She held out her hand, and Alice accepted the small pebble she held in her palm. “Tell it a secret no one else knows, and I will be able to find you.”
“Uh… okay. Thanks.” Alice pocketed the tiny stone.
Esther shrugged and turned up the stairs. “I’ll see you when you come in. You know how to reach me.”