Bitter chills swept over Laina’s skin. She tightened her scarf for the fourth time as she strolled down the deserted sidewalk. Gusts howled through the alleys and rippled across inky street puddles. She snapped her attention to scuffling behind her. Litter tumbled and skidded across the concrete. She quickened her pace for a few yards, but drowsiness slowed her back to a trudge.
The whirr and growl of the urban night pressed in against her raw nerves. She cast furtive glances at the streetlights overhead. Hollow-eyed skulls flapped at her from Dia de los Muertos banners. Sirens rose and fell in the distance. She tuned in with halting breaths, but the wailing faded.
Rounding the corner, her apartment building came into view. Aging sedans and compact cars lined the gutters of her block. A pile of dingy blankets hemmed a bicycle against the dumpster. The pallet stirred, and a knitted cap poked out with a silver frizz of hair escaping its brim. The old woman rose to her feet and turned to face the street.
She pointed a crooked finger at Laina and spoke with a Mandarin twang. “Kong.”
Laina continued walking, but squinted at the vagrant as she neared the building. “Kong?”
The bag lady extended both of her gnarled hands, shaking them. “Kongpu UrMore.”
Laina surveyed the empty road and sidewalks, then glanced back at the building’s corner to find it empty. No woman. No bicycle. She steadied herself on the banister as she ascended the front steps and scanned the area. Not a single blanket lay on the concrete. Nothing but the breeze hissing against the stoop.
Fingers trembling despite her gloves, she entered the code on the security pad and hustled inside. The gusts hushed as the heavy door latched behind her. She dashed to the elevator and punched the button three times. A fourth time, glancing up to see its location. Sixth floor. Not even moving.
She huffed and turned to the central staircase. Keeping her hand on the peeling iron rail, she clomped up the antique oak planks. She rounded the first landing and pressed her temples. Rory’s unnatural voice flashed through her mind. As she continued toward the next floor, the slam of the building’s entry door echoed up the stairwell. Laina climbed the next flight two steps at a time.
An eerie whistling floated up behind her. With the slow, steady cadence of an unhindered breeze, the nursery tune gained on her. The steps creaked one flight below her. She yanked at the railing to heave herself forward. But as she raced up, the whistling continued to draw nearer.
Laina ran to the nearest apartment on her floor. She pounded five or six rapid-fire knocks and rasped into the door frame. “Ms. Hagglin? Please let me in.”
Creaks resounded from the landing below, followed by a few whistled notes.
The door cracked ajar, revealing a single crease-lined eye. “Oh, it’s you, dear.” Ms. Hagglin unlatched the chain and beckoned her inside. Patting her curlers, she took a step back. “I wasn’t expecting company. I must look a fright.”
Laina whisked inside and relocked the deadbolt. She leaned against the door and exhaled. “Thanks.”
The widow furrowed an extra wrinkle into her forehead. “What’s wrong?”
“Someone was on the stairs behind me. I don’t think they live here.” She pressed her ear against the door. “Did you hear that whistling? Like a children’s song.”
“Are you feeling all right, young lady?” Ms Hagglin laid an age-spotted hand on her trembling arm. “You don’t seem the type to mess around with drugs, but this is how my grandson acted when–”
“No, nothing like that. But, there was someone . . . ” She took a step to the side of the door. “I felt them following me. With four murders . . .”
“So very sad. Albert was a close friend, you know.” She gazed into Laina’s eyes. “Poor thing, you seem overwrought.”
“I tend to worry a bit more than most, I suppose.” A prickle stung her collar bone. She itched under the chain. “Doesn’t all this bother you, though? You live alone, just like I do.”
“I’ve had trouble sleeping for months.” She took her hand. “Would you consider staying here tonight? Maybe the company will help us both get some rest.”
“Normally, I wouldn’t impose.” Laina glanced back at the door. “But right now, I’ll take anything that might give me a little peace. Even for one night.”
“Well, let me make us some tea.” She pointed to a large bookcase near the window. “Have a seat in my nook back there. It’s my favorite spot in the apartment.”
As her hostess waddled to the kitchen, Laina walked behind the shelves. A pair of overstuffed chairs occupied the hidden spot. Doilies protected the blue floral print on the rolled arms. Laina sank into deep cushion. Orange blossom and rose fragrances wafted from the padding as she settled her head against the high back. A chill radiated from the panes and fought with the weak draft of heat rising from the grate near her toes. She watched a crimson leaf tumbling across the fire escape outside. Her lashes fluttered to a close.
Orange rays pried through her lashes. She rubbed the blear from her eyes and rose to her feet.
Pounding resumed at the front door.
Laina emerged from the nook. Yawning, she glanced into the empty kitchen. “Ms. Hagglin? Are you awake?”
Knock. Knock. An age-crackled voice penetrated the door. “It’s Margaret. We’re gonna be late to bridge club again.”
“I’m the neighbor, Laina. I can go wake her, if you want.” She peered through the peephole at scowling lady in a purple wool coat and matching hat.
Margaret rattled the knob. “Just let me in. I’ll wake her.”
Laina hesitated. “I dunno.”
“She’s expecting me. We go to bridge club every week.”
After she unlocked the door, Laina had just enough time to take a step back before Margaret charged into the apartment. She brushed past Laina.
“What are you still doing in–” Margaret screamed.
Laina ran to the bedroom. She took Ms. Hagglin’s frigid hand and dropped it with a gasp. The body lay with her neck twisted at an unnatural angle, ashen face frozen into a gaping expression. Eyelids stretched in a wide, unblinking stare, as if some horror remained fixed in view forever.
Laina’s heart throbbed into her ears. She felt bile rising into her throat.
Margaret grabbed Laina’s arm as if she meant to pinch it in half. “What have you done?”
“I didn’t do this!” A burning sensation grew from an irregular thumping in the center of her chest. She dropped to the floor.
“I’m calling the police.” Margaret pulled a phone from her handbag. “Don’t you dare move.”
Laina lifted the chain from her neck and loosened her top shirt buttons. As she heaved to catch her breath, a pulsing sensation drew her attention to her fist. She opened her hand. The amulet pulsed against her palm. A flicker danced in the center stone.
“Whatcha got there, young lady?” A broad shouldered police officer filled the doorway, several others shadowing him.
Laina glanced back at the medallion’s dark green stone, now laying still in her hand. She met the officer’s gaze. “I’m not sure, but I don’t think the shop sold me what I expected.”
“What I feared has come upon me;
what I dreaded has happened to me” (Job 3:25).