He was not a regular. The folks who came in to Bennie’s Diner drove trucks and cabs, worked in small offices or shops, or didn’t work at all. The most up-scale customers Patricia had ever seen were teenagers from a private high school on their way to the prom who had gotten lost and then broken down. They had sat in the back booth in their tuxes and sparkly dresses, wide-eyed, waiting for their parents while she served them hot chocolate.
This guy was in another league all together. Really, really nice suit. Pressed white shirt with a collar. Shiny shoes. Neat tie with a green stone embedded in the clip. Fancy watch. Long, dark jacket that reached nearly to his ankles; heavy, too, judging by the way it hung on him. Dark, combed hair and hazel eyes.
Lawyer? Mortician? Police?
His ethnicity was hard to figure out, too. Maybe something Native American? Or Hawaiian?
His eyes swept the diner, passing over the front counter and register and the booths and the handful of tables. They passed right over her, but Patricia had no doubt that he had seen everything with that quick, impersonal glance.
His gaze finally came to rest on Bennie, as the latter peered through the opening to the kitchen. Bennie’s eyes narrowed and his mouth tightened. Tossing down his spatula, he came around the corner, stopping just on the near side of the counter.
“Benedict,” the man drawled slowly.
“K,” Bennie returned the greeting, wiping his hands on his apron. He jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “Have a word?”
The man named K gave a brief nod, then followed Bennie into the break room.
It was a good twenty minutes before Bennie returned to fetch her. Orders piled up on the spinner. He waved, motioning for her to follow him.
“I told him what you told me. He’s got a few more questions. Just tell him the truth and everythin’ll be fine.”
“So you’ve said,” she muttered under her breath.
She found K standing beside the break room table, one hand casually tucked into a front pocket. The other rested on the back of a chair. Where his sleeves pulled up, she could just make out the beginnings of tattoos on each arm; weird, swirly, geometric things.
“You are Patricia Patrick.” A statement, not a question.
She crossed her arms, trying to place his accent. Not quite British. Australian? “Yeah. Yes.”
“I am Kahurangi Smith.”
The corner of his mouth twitched. “You may address me as K, if you wish.”
She shrugged. “Don’t know you. So, Mr. Smith is good.”
“Very well.” He pulled out the chair and dropped into the seat, flicking his long coat out of the way. The embroidery caught the light; black thread on black; more weird swirls and geometric patterns. “Did you hear anything?”
“When this white thing pursued you, did it make any sounds? Moans? Whispers? Screams?”
“No, not really. It ….” She rubbed her arms, voice trailing off.
Bennie stomped into the break room and dropped a platter of deep-fried mushrooms onto the table. “Eat,” he said, and stomped out again.
Mr. Smith leaned forward, sniffed, then pushed the platter away with a curl of his nose. “I see that Benedict’s culinary skills have not improved since his days in the service. Please. Indulge.”
Patricia scowled at him. “Bennie’s deep-fried mushrooms are the best in the city. So’s his grilled cheese.” She plopped into the seat across from him and jabbed at one of the mushrooms with a fork. “It made a sound. Sort of. My Mom and Granma, they used to make dresses for girls in the neighborhood; bring in extra money. Fabric everywhere. That’s what it sounded like. The thing. Like satin sliding across the floor.”
Mr. Smith braced his elbows on the table and knit his fingers together, hazel eyes studying her. This close, she could see odd flecks of green and black in his irises. “Smells?”
“No. But it got cold.”
“You felt cold?”
She frowned, hesitated. “… No. There was ice on the door. But, no, I didn’t feel cold. Anymore than normal, anyway.”
She shook her head.
He said nothing for long minutes as she worked her way through the platter.
Finally, “You found the first corpse, a Mrs. McDougall.”
Patricia tried to swallow one of the mushrooms, failed, chewed for a moment longer, and finally succeeded. “Yeah. Yes. Lying in the middle of the hallway. I figured, you know, heart attack or stroke or something.”
“No obvious injuries?”
She shook her head. “No. No blood.’
“And the others?”
“Didn’t see them.”
“So, if I understand correctly, there have been three deaths in as many weeks in your building, which had seemingly natural causes. Is that an unusual number?”
“I don’t know. I don’t really know the other tenants very well. Um, Mrs. King might know. She’s lived there, I don’t know, forever.”
“And the manager, this Mr. Rossi?”
She forced down the last deep-friend mushroom, mouth dry. “You can talk to him — if you want.”
“Very well. Gather your things.” He stood smoothly and pushed his chair back under the table. “If it maintains its perceived schedule, then we have a few nights to prepare.”
Mr. Smith walked around the Haverstock twice. Patricia trailed along, watching warily as he examined every window and door with a bright penlight, dug through the overflowing dumpster, kicked open one of the drainage grates, even licked a couple of the bricks near the back door. She gagged at that.
“Mr. Smith? It’s getting late. Mr. Rossi, he’ll … he usually closes up about nine.”
He was crouched in the back alley, odd silver stick in his hand, poking at a shallow pool of glistening water. “Mmm. Yes.” He stood, sliding the stick back inside his jacket. Patricia got only a quick glimpse of it; maybe the length and width of a dinner knife, with strange etchings and a concave, reflective end, like a funhouse mirror.
On their way back around, he stopped to study the front door again. They had been nice, double glass doors once upon a time. Now, both panes were gone, replaced by plywood, and one door was permanently locked. Haverstock Building was written in a curve over the entrance, faded and covered in grime.
He held the door open and ushered her through, his eyes sweeping the entryway. She found her keys in her hand, not even realizing that she had reached into her purse for them; one stuck out between her clenched fingers. His hand settled on the small of her back, making her jump. He gently steered her to the side, stepping around her, putting himself between her and the front desk.
She dared a quick peek over his shoulder, and found Mr. Rossi glaring at them through the grille.
“No unregistered guests,” he snapped. Then his lip curled up. “Pay up, or skedaddle.” Ski-did-lee.
Without a moment’s hesitation, Mr. Smith reached into his jacket, pulled out a wad of bills, and slapped them down on the counter. Mr. Rossi’s eyes bugged out and his mouth fell open.
Silently, Mr. Smith turned and held out his hand to Patricia.
She twitched her head in a negative and gestured towards the stairs. “This way.” She could feel Mr. Rossi’s eyes boring into her back as she led Mr. Smith across the cracked tile floor and pushed through the groaning doorway. Her voice dropped. “This is where I saw it.”
More long minutes as he sniffed and poked and prodded, delving into every corner of the landing, crawling and scooting and even laying down on his belly, the penlight in one hand. Deep in one corner he found another puddle of glimmering water, barely the size of her palm. The odd silver stick was a reflected smear in the bright light.
“What is that?”
“A remnant, left by the creature which attacked you.”
“I meant the stick thing.”
“Ah.” He lifted it, eyes narrowed to study the etchings. “I suppose you would call it a magic wand, though that is an imprecise term.”
She licked her lips. “So, what’s the precise term?”
He swiveled on the toes of his fancy shoes, one eyebrow quirked. “Argentulo sibi exilii. Literally, ‘silver mirror self-exile.’ Many of the creatures and other things who hunt us have an aversion to silver and/or their own reflection.” He waved the tip of the wand in her direction and she got a quick glimpse of her distorted, upside down reflection. “They force themselves away, either back to wherever they came from, or further. Completely away, forever. That saves people like me a lot of time and effort.”
“So, you’re checking to see if that remnant reacts to the silver. Is it?”
Mr. Smith shook his head and slid the wand back inside his jacket. “No.” He stood and gestured towards the stairs with the penlight. “Shall we?”
Patricia tightened her grip on her keys, and found herself reaching for her own flashlight in her purse while she followed him up to the fourth floor.
It took nearly an hour. He examined every step, every landing, every wall and corner and spindle on the railing and even the ceiling. There was a patch of damp on the stairs to the second floor that might have been a handprint; or maybe not. And a wet smudge on the steps to the third floor that might have been the remains of a glimmering puddle of water; or not.
At the landing to the fourth floor, he reached into another pocket and pulled out a small baggy of … something. It looked like salt to Patricia, but it was pink and chunkier than table salt. He scattered that around, waited, cocked his head to one side, and then spent another five minutes examining the door and frame to the hallway.
Patricia danced from foot to foot. Already sore from a long shift serving coffee and pie, they were beginning to truly ache now —
“Ah,” he breathed.
“You found something?”
He was crouched in front of the door, the penlight now emitting a low reddish light. She scooted around him, and saw it. A blackened handprint wrapped around the door knob, the fingers so narrow they were almost skeletal.
She exhaled through her nose, trying to get her heart under control.
“Fascinating,” he murmured.
“If you say so.”
He grinned up at her, expression almost boyish with glee. “Fear not, Patricia. I now have a fairly good idea as to what hunts the Haverstock. Do you think Mrs. King would be amenable to guests at this hour?”
“Earl grey or mint, dear?”
“Mint, thank you, Mrs. King.”
“Oh, you are very welcome, Mr. Smith. I get so few opportunities to entertain these days. Patricia, dear, what about you?”
“Hmm?” She dragged her attention from her surroundings to Mrs. King. The apartment was, well, it wasn’t huge but it was a hell of a lot bigger than her tiny studio. Five rooms, easily, including a bathroom and a living room with a big bay window and built-in floor to ceiling bookcases. The furniture was old, too; a bit threadbare, but still in good condition. Dark wood, curving lines, patterned wallpaper, velvet cushions. The whole place looked like something out of a Victorian novel. “Oh, um, earl grey, I guess.”
Mrs. King smiled, poured the tea into a fragile looking cup, and held it out, hand trembling slightly. Patricia took it, the porcelain warm beneath her fingers.
“Yes, thank you,” Mr. Smith answered, accepting a plate. They were tiny, not even two bites each, and lopsided.
“I’m so glad you could finally join me for tea, dear.” Mrs. King leaned forward and whispered to Mr. Smith, “I have been trying to get her over here since she moved in four years ago. Always turns me down. Poor thing works too hard.”
“Indeed,” Mr. Smith agreed, and sipped delicately. “Patricia tells me that you have lived in the Haverstock longer than anyone.”
“Oh, yes.” Mrs. King beamed. “I grew up here. We moved in a week after I was born. My parents and I, I mean. I stayed on after they passed, and then Mr. King and I lived here together for many years. And the children. It’s just me now, I’m afraid.” She looked down, gaze not quite focused on the cup in her hands. “This used to be such a nice place ….” Her voice trailed off.
“When did it stop being nice?” Mr. Smith asked softly.
Mrs. King’s eyes came up, her gaze gradually focusing on him. She grimaced. “When Mr. Haverstock died, oh, a good twenty years ago now. One of those soulless corporations bought the building and it’s been falling to pieces ever since. Apartments cut up, leaky pipes, bad heater, families forced out. And that awful Rossi as the manager.” She waggled a finger at Patricia, voice heavy with anger. “Don’t you think I don’t know what he’s about, dear. I’ve seen his kind before.”
Patricia paled. She felt cold sweat bead on her forehead and roll down her back. Hands shaking, she hastily set down the tea cup. She crossed her arms over her chest and forced the memories away, burying them deep.
A short silence, finally broken when Mr. Smith asked quietly, “And the deaths?”
“Deaths?” Mrs. King blinked. “People have — oh, you mean recently. All this last month. Yes, very strange. And none of them were in their rooms, either.”
“Mmm,” Mr. Smith said and took another sip. “You knew them?”
“Oh, yes. Jonathan Miller, Alice McDougall, Ed Holiday, and Maurice Tennant.”
“There have been four deaths in the last month?”
“Yes, that’s right. Jonathan was up on the roof stargazing, as he was wont to do. Not a sociable man, at all. Heart attack, I think. Alice, well, she was found in the hallway on the fourth floor. Ed was found down in the basement laundry room, and I have no idea why he was down there. Rats.” She shuddered. “And then Maurice up on five. He was found in the bathroom.”
“There is a single lavatory on each floor?”
“Yes. Well, except for a few apartments here on the fifth floor and, of course, six. There were only ever two units up there. We called them the penthouse suites.” She grinned impishly. “When I was a little girl, I used to imagine that a princess lived up there and that someday she would invite me up for tea. But, of course, it was just the Millers and the Cheneys, and then when the Cheneys passed, Mr. Miller bought their unit so he could have the whole place to himself. That was before Mr. Haverstock died, so when the building was eventually sold to that soulless corporation and they started cutting up the units, they had to leave the sixth floor alone. Mr. Miller kept them out. Good for him.”
Mr. Smith set down his cup of tea. “You said Millers, plural.”
“Oh, yes. So sad.” Mrs. King bit her lip. “Diana Miller. One day, she just up and disappeared. Right before Thanksgiving, as I recall. Poor Mr. Miller was out of his head with worry. Looked for her everywhere. Oh. Do you know, I do believe it was their anniversary, too.” She shook her head. “So sad.”
[End Part Two. Continue to the conclusion in Part Three.]
[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.]