When Mr. Smith Came to Tea — Part One

Photo courtesy of Adina Voicu on Unsplash

Mrs. McDougall was the first to die. It looked like natural causes. Just lying on the hallway floor in her robe and slippers, like she had fallen on her way to the bathroom. Patricia found her in the morning as she stepped out of her room, bag over one shoulder, wad of keys in the other. She set the three locks and made for the stairs around the corner; not the elevator; it stalled randomly and she never, ever wanted to be late for work. She was lucky that Bennie had hired her, at all; she never, ever wanted to give him an excuse to fire her.

She was late that morning.

The police came. An ambulance came. Neighbors gathered in their doorways or peered through peepholes. Mr. Rossi lounged in the door to the stairwell, trying to look bored while he watched the whole thing with gleaming eyes. She stayed on the far end of the hallway from him, keeping poor dead Mrs. McDougall and the EMTs and the police between them.

With a loud clack, the EMTs lifted the gurney and the wheels locked into place. The police officer who had been taking her statement nodded vaguely, shoved his notebook back into his pocket, and walked away without a word.

Mr. Rossi continued to lounge in the doorway, eyes on her.

She swallowed and followed the officers, cramming herself into the elevator along with poor dead Mrs. McDougall and the EMTs. They gave her an odd look as she pressed between the gurney and the wall of the elevator. She ignored them.

The elevator creaked to a stop between the first and second floors. They were stuck for twenty minutes. One EMT played something on his phone, while the other guy and the police officers talked football, and Patricia tried not to stare at the black bag on the gurney.

A week later, a man from the second floor was found dead in the laundry room.

Mrs. King stopped her on the stairs to tell her all about it.

“Poor Ed.” She shook her head, thin, staticky hair standing out like a white halo. “He was coming over for tea, too. I made ham sandwiches.”

Patricia bobbed her head in sympathy and edged down the stairs. She had no idea what he had been doing down in the basement. No one used the laundry room. No one.

The third week, Patricia was stuck late at the diner. Meghan was out sick, leaving only her and Gwen and Bennie to clean up the place. It was well after one in the morning by the time she trudged through the front door of the Haverstock, keys jangling in her hand, saffron-colored key chain swinging. Behind its rusting grille, the check-in desk — thank God — was empty. Mr. Rossi had already turned in for the night; she could hear him snoring from the tiny room he kept behind the desk.

She shivered as she padded across the cracked tile floor, keeping her steps as soft as possible, fisting the keys to keep them quiet.

She never wanted to go back to that room ever again.

The door to the stairwell groaned as she pushed it open and started up towards the fourth floor. On the landing to the second floor, she heard the creak of the door below her. She stopped, holding her breath.

Nothing.

Confused, she peered over the railing. There wasn’t much light, just a few dim bulbs at each landing.

Something moved, down there. Something … whitish. Something ….

Without taking her eyes off the landing below, she reached into her bag with her free hand, feeling for her flashlight. The big, heavy kind that could break a skull.

She pulled it out, clicked it on, and aimed it at the landing.

Nothing.

A soft shooshing sound.

She waved the flashlight around the landing below, but the door and the corners were out of sight.

Another swish of sound, like fabric sliding across a floor. A shimmer of white, disappearing into the shadows beneath the stairs.

Patricia was not stupid.

She ran, bolting up the stairs. She shoved through the door of the fourth floor, the hinges squealing.

The sound followed her, the shooshing and the swishing and the slithering.

She ran, pounding around the corner. Her keys bounced and jangled.

Panting, chest tight, she stumbled to a halt in front of her door, fingers fumbling. The key missed the lock. Again. Click. The stairwell door squeaked. Next lock. Click. She threw a glance over her shoulder. Something white was sliding across the floor, around the corner. Third lock. She missed. The key skidded, gouging the wood of the door. She tried again. Click. She shoved the door open wide, spun, slammed it shut behind her. Lock, deadbolt, lock, lock, deadbolt, chain.

She stumbled backwards, eyes fixed on the door.

It shivered.

Ice crept through the seam, crawling across the door and frame.

“Go away!” Patricia screamed. “Go away!” She kicked the door, crying and shaking. “Leave me alone!”

The door stilled.

The ice stopped. It popped and crackled, slowly evaporating.

Swishing, slithering.

Silence.

***

“Patricia! What the hell is the matter with you?”

She jumped, spilling most of a pot of coffee on the counter and splashing droplets across her apron. “Sorry, Bennie — ”

“You on somethin’? Drunk?”

“What?” She spun on her heel to glare at him. He loomed over her, frowning, arms crossed; the tattoos on his deltoids flexed and stretched. “I am not — Look, I’m sorry. I had a bad night.”

“That manager bothering you again?”

“No. Not — no.” She shook her head and turned away to start wiping up the mess before Gwen came in and started yelling at her, too.

“What, then? You messed up three orders already. I can’t have you pissin’ off the customers. You can’t do your job today, you just go home.”

“What? No. Nono. Don’t. Please. I’ll do better. Promise.”

Bennie humphed and disappeared back into the kitchen. The bell rang and another group of customers came in. Tossing the wet rags aside, Patricia put on her best smile and went to meet them. “Hey, welcome to Bennie’s Diner. How many tonight?”

***

She had her flashlight and her keys ready before she set foot inside the Haverstock. Mr. Rossi was still at his desk, a single light illuminating his thinning hair as he bent over a crossword. His head came up as she entered, and he smiled at her.

Eyes averted, she made her way quickly across the lobby.

“Aphrodisiac,” he said slowly. But it came out af-roo-diz-ak.

Patricia tried not to flinch as she half-turned, keeping a good grip on her flashlight.

“Bet you don’t know what that means.” He leaned forward, nose almost touching the metal grille.

“No, sorry. Good night, Mr. Rossi.” She turned quickly and made for the stairs.

“5D is available. You know, if you’re interested.”

“No, thank you.”

“I’m cleaning out the old coot’s junk tomorrow. Bigger than your place. You can have it. Same price — ”

The squeal and bang of the stairwell door cut him off. Heart pounding, Patricia ran up the stairs. First floor. Second.

She froze, stopping so suddenly that she nearly tripped and had to grab the railing to steady herself. Rust flaked away beneath her hand, the keys digging into her palm.

She stood there for long moments, breath harsh in her ears. The inarticulate sounds of various televisions echoed down around her. Pipes gurgled. The heater in the basement whoomped.

Biting her lower lip, she wiped the rust on her apron and made her way back down the stairs. Mr. Rossi looked up in surprise and then interest when she reappeared, stopping a good ten feet back from the grille. Sweat dotted his scalp and there was a smear of ink on his lip where he had bitten his pen.

Her stomach lurched. The feel of his teeth on her breasts …. She shoved the memory away, burying it deep.

“The tenant in 5D is d-dead?”

“Yep.” He grinned again and rose to his feet, leaning on his forearms as he studied her. “Interested? Full kitchenette. Even got a washer and dryer. No more hauling your clothes to the place around the corner. You should really buy nicer lingerie.” Except it came out lin-ga-ree.

“When?”

“Tomorrow.” He licked his lips and she shuddered.

“No. When did the tenant die?”

“I don’t know. Last night sometime. That old gossip up on five found him when she was going out for her morning constitutional.” Another word he couldn’t pronounce. He waved his hand dismissively and dropped back into his chair. “You want it or not?”

“No. No, I don’t.” She turned and made her way quickly back to her room. Lock, deadbolt, lock, lock, deadbolt, chain. She shoved a chair against the door and slept with her flashlight clutched tight against her chest.

***

“All right. Talk to me.” Bennie dropped a plate with a double grilled cheese and left-over fries onto the table. He grabbed the chair opposite and straddled it. She hunched her shoulders, picking at the fries. She could hear Meghan and Gwen out front, taking care of the few late night regulars who had come in for coffee and pie.

“You won’t believe me.” She nibbled at a couple of the fries.

“Try me.”

She took a bite of the grilled cheese, chewing slowly, eying him. He stared back.

She told him. Old Mrs. McDougall, Ed down on two, the white thing, the ice, the tenant in 5D, even Mr. Rossi.

He listened. His eyes narrowed and an angry flush spread across his cheeks. His tattoos jumped as he gripped the back of the chair.

“You’re staying here tonight,” he announced when she had finished. “Got my old Army sleeping bag and stuff. You can clean up in the morning at Buddy’s gym. I’ll talk to him. No arguing. Got someone else I can talk to, too.” He scratched his chin. “He knows about this weird shit.” He stood and awkwardly patted her shoulder. “Don’t worry. Everythin’ll be okay.”

[End Part One. Continue to Part Two.]

[Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of the Pagan literary ezine, Eternal Haunted Summer. A complete list of her poems and stories can be found there.]