T ori hastily threaded her car through the narrow streets of Old Louisville. She turned hard at a corner and cringed as she heard the wheels squeal on the
pavement. She had to slow down for every maddeningly frequent turn, and as she turned onto another street, she mashed her foot impatiently down on the accelerator.
Scott Mallory, her renter, had gone missing inside the house Tori owned on Belgravia Court. He had rented the first floor of the three-story mansion six months earlier. An hour ago, the police called to inform her of his disappearance, and she found herself hurrying there to talk to them.
She gritted her teeth as she navigated the slow, one-way streets and zigzagged through the neighborhoods. Maneuver- ing through the old quarters of the town always felt like a dance to Tori. But not today. As she drove the older streets, they narrowed and darkened beneath the old, venerable trees. As her car carried her into the older blocks, the enormous stone mansions leaned in closer. The houses lined the streets like careworn sentinels of former, more elegant times. Any other day, she would have delighted in their timeworn facades.
Today she did not even pay them a glance. Her eyes were riveted to the next turn she needed to make. The trees parted on Third Street to reveal the towers of the Baptist church. The gargoyles reared on the towers. Their mouths gaped in frozen roars of silence, and their black, prickly outlines stood against the blue August sky.
With a distasteful twist of anticipation in her stomach, Tori turned onto St. James Court. She hastily parked at the end of the curved street right in front of an enormous pink house with neon green trim. It had tall, slender turrets like a castle, and Tori had always admired it for its fairy-tale-like quality.
She slid out of her seat and began her walk down Belgravia Court. The houses in the court were built very close together, but today they felt oppressive in that late summer afternoon. She walked the garden pathway between the houses as if in a dream. The houses, dark and watchful, loomed over her and seemed to draw in closer.
At last she came to her own gray stone house near the end of the terrace. She shaded her eyes with her hand and looked up at it leering down at her. The sun reflected off the abundant, ornate windows like the sheen of sunglasses, dark, expressionless, and cold. Tori took quick steps to the porch and was instantly enveloped in the shadow of the three-story house.
She crossed the porch and turned the heavy brass knob of the front door. Her eyes took a second to adjust to the dark interior. She was a little blinded after the bright, glaring sunlight. She stopped, startled, and thought she had stepped into the wrong house.
In her mind’s eye she remembered the layout of the ground floor. There was a long, high hallway that went from the front door all the way through the full depth of the house and ended at the back. A small, intimate foyer was on the right, with a fireplace and tall windows set in deep windowsills. The main stairway went up to the second floor from that room. On her right was a set of rooms that were once used as a parlor, sitting room, and dining room.
Tori made her way uncertainly down the hall. Every door was shut along the high, shadowy hallway, but that was not the cause of her misgivings. Every inch of wall space was covered with mirrors of every kind, shape, and size. Some were oval, set in ornate gold frames. Some were plain and square. Some gleamed with the flawless clarity of modernity, while others were clouded and spotted with age. There were small, round mirrors and octagonal mirrors. There was even one huge mirror sitting on the floor, leaning up against the wall. Tori estimated it must easily clear twelve feet and was six feet wide.
She continued down the hallway, accompanied by a hundred reflections of herself. She thought about the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, but she realized the only real similarity was the amount of glass everywhere. There was nothing gorgeous or impressive about the hallway. On the contrary, she felt like she had been shrunk then trapped inside a shadow box. A shadow box with a thousand eyes looking back at her.
Her breathing was tight and shallow as she made her way down the hallway. She tried not to look from side to side too much. It was dizzying. She also had a cold, unwelcome impres- sion that something was watching her. She tried to reason with herself that it was from the crazy array of reflections.
She finally got to the end of the hall and heard soft, authori- tative voices coming from a room at the back of the house. She blew air out of her pursed lips with relief and walked into a bedroom, where she found the police working. At first glance she assumed they were working, but as she took a closer look, it appeared more like they were grouped uncomfortably close together, as if they sensed some unconscious menace in the air. As if they were taking precautions with safety in numbers.
A tall woman wearing a uniform noticed Tori and came briskly forward. She had straight, brown hair cut very attractively.
“I’m Torianna, but everyone calls me Tori.”
The woman nodded. She had bright, keen eyes deeply set
in a sympathetic countenance. Tori could not help but notice they were a striking green. She looked like a no-nonsense person who could grab any situation by the tail and tackle it with ease. Tori insightfully sized her up on the spot, taking her to be trustworthy and approachable.
Although, Tori admitted silently to herself, I wouldn’t want to be on the wrong side of an argument with her.
“You rented this house to Scott Mallory?”
“Yes,” Tori answered. “Actually, the whole house is available to rent, but Scott only took the ground floor. The other two floors are still vacant.”
“I see. Oh, I’m sorry.” The woman held out a hand. “I forgot to introduce myself. I jump right in and forget the niceties. My name is Sergeant Amelia Nichols. I’m in charge of the case. Such as it is. I need to ask you a few questions.”
“Of course,” Tori agreed eagerly.
“Scott’s been missing, but we don’t know how long he’s actually been gone. We checked with his employer, and they told us he sent them an email about a month ago saying he was taking a sabbatical for several weeks. He gave them no definite time of return. After several more weeks, his mother, Mrs. Susan Mallory, reported him missing. She hadn’t heard from him in some time. Normally he kept in touch with her pretty regularly, so she figured something was wrong. She contacted us and gave us the key to the back door. She had a superstitious idea that Scott was trying to summon a ghost, which might have led to his disappearance.
“The really strange thing about this is that all of his personal belongings are still here. His car is parked out back, and his car keys are still hanging on a hook in the kitchen. His wallet is here as well, complete with cash, credit cards, and driver’s license. His computer is also here and appears untouched. He has a closet and dresser full of clothes. When did you first miss him?”
Tori tensed. “I don’t really know. He was a few weeks late on his rent, and I emailed him a few times about it but never got a response.”
“When was his rent due?”
“Four weeks ago.”
“Four weeks, and you didn’t try to contact someone? Surely
you had emergency numbers for him.”
“I wanted to give him time in case he was having trouble
getting the money this month.”
Tori squirmed like a bug pressed under a thumb. She wasn’t
going to admit to this competent cop that she would rather have missed months of rent than have to deal with Scott head-on. She kept putting off the inevitable, ardently hoping the problem would magically resolve itself or just go away.
Nichols nodded. “Okay. Can you tell me anything about him personally?”
“I didn’t know him very well.” Tori breathed a little easier, relieved to be on safer ground. “He has rented from me for about six months. Word got around to me recently that the house was supposedly haunted, and he was trying to contact the ghost. The neighbors around here are friendly, and everyone looks out for one another. I’m not surprised that people knew what he was up to. I don’t think he made any secret of what he was doing. I heard he posted his experiments on a blog.”
Tori was thinking specifically of Betty Maple, the elderly widow who owned the house next to Tori’s. She sat at her second-story window and watched the comings and goings of the neighborhood with a pair of binoculars.
I’m sure she knows I’m here with the police right now, Tori thought wryly. She is probably smacking her lips with ghoulish relish.
“We’ll check out that blog.” Nichols noted it down. “Thanks for letting me know. We’ll also check with all of the neighbors and their security cameras. Hopefully we’ll have caught something. If we’re lucky.”
The tingly spot on the back of Tori’s neck was starting to prickle and itch. She had learned to pay attention to that feeling, because it was usually a warning that something was not as it should be. The temperature in the house seemed to be unseasonably cold, and a shiver snaked down Tori’s back.
She noticed again the other three policemen in the room. They stood uneasily, which seemed unusual for men used to these types of situations. Tori shot a quick glance at Sergeant Nichols, but she looked unperturbed. Tori got the impression that the other policemen were doing their job as quickly as possible to get out of there as fast as they could.
Nichols looked at the other men and asked, “Where is that cold coming from?”
“It can’t be from an open window,” one very young man said. “It’s eighty-five degrees out there today.”
“The house does not have central air conditioning,” Tori added. “Scott put in some window units in some of these rooms. Maybe one of them has been left on.”
“We’ll check the house out thoroughly before we leave and make sure everything is turned off and locked up tight.”
The men did not look enthusiastic about that idea. Nichols directed her attention back to Tori and asked very directly, “Do you know what he was doing with the mirrors?”
“I don’t know. I’m really at a loss about that.”
Nichols thought silently for a minute. Then she said quietly, “Whatever he was doing here, he managed to disappear without
any trace of where or why. He completely vanished.” ***
As Tori drove home, her thoughts kept wandering back to many years ago and an uncomfortable memory. Scott’s disappearance and the uncertainty of his whereabouts and his safety troubled her deeply. The recent occurrences brought those events back to the forefront of her mind with distracting clarity.
Years before, when she was a little girl, her mother took her on the usual shopping errands of a Saturday morning. It was a gray, overcast day in southwest Michigan where they lived. The heavy clouds rolled in off the lake like a damp blanket, and snow began to fall in fat flakes. It was January and bitterly cold.
Her mother went about her shopping, and Tori wandered around, listless and bored. She walked over to the large plate glass windows at the front of the store and looked out across the street. Her eyes traveled across the sidewalk to the charming turn-of-the-century buildings lining the street. She studied the tall, old-fashioned windows of the second stories, wondering what went on behind them. She liked to play a little game with herself by making up tales about who might have lived there and what they did. There might be a lonely old bachelor writing romantic poetry, or maybe a lost Russian princess was hiding there, keeping her true identity a secret. Or there could be ghost. A pale, withered sylph of mist that walked the deserted second floor, moaning weakly to the startled occupants below.
She was trying to decide what other horrors the little ghost could do when she noticed a worn old lady struggling slowly along the sidewalk. She clutched her large, black purse to her side with her small white hand and took short, furtive steps. Tori wondered what urgency had brought such a frail person outside on this kind of day.
Before Tori knew what happened, the woman slipped on a patch of ice and fell. Tori sucked in her breath and clenched her fists as she watched the lady just lying there. She waited for the woman to get up, but she didn’t move, or couldn’t move. Tori froze with indecision and stood as if her feet were nailed to the floor. All she could do was watch. The poor woman lay there on the sidewalk with no help in sight. Tori desperately scanned the snowy street for any help, but there was no one.
Not knowing what to do, Tori turned from the window and simply walked away.
She regretted that act for the rest of her life. All the bitter reproaches she showered on herself could not alter what she had done or not done. She tried telling herself over and over, ‘I was only ten years old,’ but the answer always came back, ‘You could have done something. You could have found a person and helped.’ She knew she had turned a blind eye to another human being in need, and she could not undo it or make it right.
She often wondered what had happened to the poor woman.
Whatever had she done to deserve such a cold-hearted response on Tori’s part? No one deserved that. Tori knew deep in her heart how cruel and unjust and selfish she had been. The memory was a revenant that would not rest.
Tori arrived home to her little cottage on Floral Terrace. She parked in the alley behind the house and walked up the back lot to her kitchen door. She bounded up the flagstone steps, and the house came around her like the arms of a lover. With a sigh of relief, she stepped into her own comforting home.
It was an Arts and Crafts-style bungalow built in the early 1920s, a practical house, easy to manage, and small enough for Tori to feel cozy but not stifled. Its character was intimate and charming, and Tori loved every square foot of it. The original hardwood floors throughout glowed with the lustrous patina of a hundred years. The well-worn planks had dents like chubby dimples, and Tori knew them like the distinguishing marks of her oldest, dearest friends.
Tori considered herself blessed to have been lucky enough to buy the little house on Floral Terrace, one of Old Louisville’s secluded walking courts. The Terraces, as they were called, had been created by the city builders during a happy, timely moment of urbanity in city planning. They created green parks and walkways in front of the houses instead of roads. The builders planned and planted lovely walking courts and filled them with trees and shrubs and flowers. There were several of the enchanted bowers situated throughout Old Louisville. They went by the names of Belgravia Court, Saint James Court, and Fountain Court. Floral Terrace was one of the quietest of these hidden, unique places. Belgravia Court, where her unfortunate rental house stood, boasted houses that were larger and grander, but not more inviting than her dear, darling Floral Terrace.
Two sidewalks ran parallel in front of the rows of houses where Tori lived. Between the sidewalk was a miniature park with hundred-year-old trees and late-blooming roses. There was an inviting stone bench that encircled a stone fountain. The whole place was like a secret treehouse hidden away in the heart of the city. It reminded her of the enchantment put on Sleeping Beauty’s castle. The quiet rows of homes, like the dreaming princess, had slumbered away the past century with little to no change.
Tori walked into her living room accompanied by the creaks of the knotted wooden planks beneath her bare feet. She had kicked her sandals off as soon as she got in the door and tossed them across the kitchen. She threw herself onto the couch with a sigh.
Tori’s eyes rested on the bright, cheery room with white walls and large, old windows. She was especially proud of the fireplace in the living room. It was framed in robin’s-egg-blue tiles. On the tiles were pictures of birds in flight holding berries and twigs in their beaks. A flowering vine entwined all around the fluttering wings. Deep, inset bookshelves surrounded it in a tight embrace, and every inch of shelf space was filled with books.
All of the furniture in the room was antique, except for the couch and chairs. In Tori’s mind nothing old could compare with the comfort and ease of modern cushions and fabrics. The respective ages of the antiques lent a peaceful harmony to the room without any one piece vying for attention. This happy companionship filled Tori with a sense of accomplishment for choosing so well and with taste.
She also knew the stories behind the vases and table, lamps,
and china. She found out their history whenever she could and never forgot a detail. They were like old friends. Every day when she came home, they seemed to welcome her as such.
She rubbed her temples and pushed back her long, auburn hair. Her alabaster face shone among her locks of hair like the soft features in a Victorian cameo. She was thirty-eight years old, but it mattered little to her. She counted her age by experiences and delights, not by years. She was small of bone and stature, and people occasionally commented that she looked French. Her looks never bothered her one way or another, so she never gave it much thought.
Her hand moved to the back of her neck to rub the dull ache. She could feel a headache coming on, and she suddenly realized how hungry she was. She walked back into the kitchen and peered into the refrigerator, but nothing looked especially appealing.
She thought of her friend Emma Vandermassen, who owned the Bellefonte Bed and Breakfast on St. James just a few blocks over. Her cook, Jamayla, was a culinary master of the old Southern school of cooking. Her fried chicken alone could have tempted Tori to board a plane (she hated flying) to fly across the country for a bite. Fortunately, Tori lived only half a mile away. Emma hired Jamayla to come cook breakfast for her guests in the morning, and then she went to work as the head chef of one of the top restaurants in Louisville, the Derby Rose. Emma boasted that she had found the best cook in Louisville, and Tori heartily agreed.
The thought of Jamayla’s chicken clinched the idea, and Tori decided to run over to Emma’s to see if Jamayla had left any scrumptious leftovers in her icebox. The day was waning quickly, and the late afternoon sun streamed in through the stained glass on her front window, bathing the room in brilliant splendor. She looked at the clock on the mantel and saw it was already 6:15. She shot off a quick text to Emma to ask if she could come over. Tori did not want to be underfoot if Emma had guests checking in.
Emma responded immediately. Come over. No one here tonight.
Tori hopped out the back door with the thought of food at the top of her mind. She made her way down the tree-shaded sidewalks in front of the rows of huge houses growing dark in the settling twilight. Lights began to spring up in the windows like so many twinkling stars. There was just a hint of coolness in the air, and for a bare second Tori wondered if she should have grabbed a jacket, but she was too hungry to go back for it.
Emma’s bed and breakfast was in a white stucco house styled after a French chateau. The front of the building had high French windows on each side of the front door, and all of the windows opened onto the stone terrace. The terrace itself ran along the full front of the house, and its balustrades were punctuated by stone urns. Emma filled the classically shaped urns with ferns and bright red, flowering plants.
The windows on the second floor were set in dormers. The roof pitched steeply, and chimneys flanked each end of the house. The whole house was a picture of harmony and balance and a place a duchess would not be ashamed of.
Tori had her own key to the front door. Emma had given her one because she didn’t want to be bothered with having to cross the twelve-thousand-square-foot house to open the front door, especially if she happened to be up at the farthest end of the third floor making up beds. Nor did she want her busy help being interrupted from their tasks.
Tori opened the door and went in, and the door swung shut
and locked behind her. Coming into the grand entrance made her feel like she had fallen into a plush, lined jewel box. The white-painted woodwork glowed against the rich red walls, and her feet sank into the plush oriental rugs carpeting the floor. The floor itself was white marble tiles with a lustrous sheen. Emma had put the carpets down after a lady guest had come in from the rain and slipped on the floor and sprained her wrist. The carpets went down the next day while Emma crossed her fingers that she wouldn’t be sued.
An enormous Murano glass chandelier hung from the ceiling, sparkling and flashing like a tiara set with diamonds. There were huge, red, bulbous teardrops hanging down from it like luscious berries.
“Tori?” She heard a distant voice call from somewhere back of the cavernous house.
“It’s just me.”
“Come on back. I’m in the kitchen.”
Tori followed the voice to the back of the house and entered a
sleek, modern kitchen. She headed straight for the refrigerator. “Hey, Emma,” she said, peering in, “I’m starving. Did Jamayla
leave anything in here?”
“I think she left some fried chicken and waffles in there.
And thank you, I’m doing just fine,” Emma added with mock displeasure, her hands on her slim, pretty hips.
“Oh, Emma. I’m sorry. I’m so upset and so hungry. I’m not thinking clearly.”
Emma gave her a tight hug. “Dearheart, I’m just teasing you. I’ll heat up some of Jamayla’s chicken and waffles, and you go sit down. We’ll have a nice, long chat. You look like your legs are ready to buckle under you.”
Tori had not realized how tired she really was until that
moment, and fatigue washed over her in waves. She made her way to the long, cherry dining table and sat down with a rush of relief. Emma clattered around in the kitchen, chatting as she heated up the food.
“I’ve had a typical week,” she said. “One of my guests this week had a restrictive diet, but she didn’t tell me until she and her husband arrived that afternoon. I had to go out and buy all new food for breakfast just for her. Jamayla had to make special dishes for her. Not that it’s a problem for Jamayla. She can take a list of five ingredients and make it into a masterpiece in twenty minutes. I finally just had to ask the poor woman, ‘What can you eat?’
“The next day, one of the bathtub knobs came off in a guest’s hands, and yesterday one of the toilets overflowed because there was too much paper in it.”
Tori felt a smile breaking over her face. She was still smiling when Emma came in carrying the food and placed it in front of Tori.
“Here you are.”
“You are so good to me.” Tori eyed the food with anticipation as the sweet aroma of syrup and waffles wafted into her nose.
Emma was tall, dark-haired, and very attractive. She was in her fifties and had married late in life, so she didn’t have any children. She lost her husband to cancer a few years before Tori moved to Louisville. Emma said running a bed and breakfast was like raising a brood of ten, but without the noise.
“Okay, Tori. Let’s have it.”
Tori knew her friend so well, she knew exactly what Emma was asking. Tori poured the warm syrup all over the chicken and waffles and took a bite of the savory dish, feeling its warmth slide down to her stomach. She never ceased to be amazed at all the densely woven textures and tastes Jamayla put into her dishes. With her chicken and waffles, for example, the sweetness came first, then the savory, and then at last came the delights of the subtle, secret spices that finished off the mouthful.
“Jamayla’s incredible,” Tori said.
“I know that. Now tell me what I want to know. What is going on?”
Tori tucked in another mouthful before she said, “My renter, Scott, disappeared.”
Emma set the mug down she was holding so hard, the tea sloshed out over the sides and onto the table. “Oh no.”
“I just got done talking to the police.”
“Do they have any clues as to why he disappeared, or where he could have gone?” Emma asked.
“The lead on the case, Sergeant Nichols, made it sound like they have no leads at this point.”
“Do you know what his financial situation was like? I mean, how well did you really know him? Was he having trouble of some kind?”
“The house is sparse, but that doesn’t mean much. Some people don’t like having a lot of stuff around.”
“Could he have just walked off?” Emma asked.
“Without taking anything? He left his wallet, keys, car, and clothes. The police didn’t find anything missing.”
“What about kidnapping?”
“For what purpose? There’s been no word from anyone for a ransom or anything like that.”
“People do disappear without any reason,” Emma added. She sat back in her chair, her dark eyes staring thoughtfully at the polished table. Tori let her eyes wander around the room, and they came to rest on the pretty floral wallpaper. It was a soft, yellow background with ribbon strings dangling down the wall connected to posy wreaths of roses and violets. Then her eyes wandered to the china cabinets full of delicately painted Limoges serving plates and tea sets. The gold rims gleamed in the lamplight.
“How are you feeling about all of this?” Emma asked.
Tori snapped back, “I’ve lost income and my renter. How would you feel?”
Emma was unfazed. She looked hard at her friend for a minute and then said, “You could try asking around. It’s your property, your investment, your house. If I were in your shoes, I would be doing everything I could to get this resolved so I could get on with my life.”
Tori cringed. “That’s the last thing I want to do. You’re right, you know.”
She had a deep, unsettled premonition that the problem was tangled and complex. It was not going to go away easily. The shadows of a battle loomed near, and she felt herself being inexorably drawn in. She knew she had to act.
“You don’t think I should just let the police handle this?” she asked, with one hopeful plunge toward escape.
Emma rubbed her thumb on a scratch in the wood. “They can up to a certain point. I know their time and resources only stretch so far. I also know sometimes people will tell an ordinary person information they wouldn’t tell a cop.”
“What do you mean?”
“For example, does Scott have any family around here you could talk to?”
Tori chewed thoughtfully and nodded. “Yes, his mother. I
met her the day he moved in.”
She remembered Mrs. Mallory from that day six months
before. She struck Tori as being possessive and domineering. She remembered her helping Scott move in that sunny, mild February afternoon, presiding over the entire move, ordering the moving men about and organizing the boxes. She got things done quickly.
“Call her tomorrow,” Emma advised. “Take her a meal, then you will have a good excuse for visiting her.”
Tori smiled warmly at Emma’s practicality. She was thankful for a friend whose feet were firmly planted on the ground. “I’ll call her tomorrow. I have her phone number. She was one of Scott’s contacts.”
The unwelcome notion barged in on her thoughts once more that she should have called Mrs. Mallory sooner. She should have done something, anything, instead of waiting. Now the problem was deeper than she dared to contemplate.
“There’s another thing.”
“Scott filled the main entrance hall with mirrors. And I’m not
talking three or four. There are probably a hundred mirrors.” “Good heavens.”
Even as she spoke, she determined to go see Susan Mallory
as soon as possible. Maybe Scott’s mom would have a different perspective on the situation. Perhaps she would know what Scott was really doing in the house with his mirrors.