Chapter 1Sitting in his robe on his balcony, looking out over the lake and the city while drinking his morning coffee, Elliott allowed himself a rare moment of reflection. He was, he realized, a lucky man. Young(ish...just turned 39), relatively intelligent, not unattractive, happy in his work of buying and renovating small apartment buildings, and pleasantly engaged in establishing the foundations of a relationship that actually seemed like it might be around for awhile. He had a number of people who were close to him: his sister Cessy and her family, his parents, and a circle of friends. He was also unobtrusively family-money rich, though he never dwelt on it. The only thing he felt really set him apart from everyone else, and something no one else knew, was that one of his friends, whose occasional but sporadic visits he enjoyed, was no longer physically alive. His name was John, and how the friendship came about was a very long and involved story best detailed elsewhere.
Though it was late fall, Mother Nature had apparently been distracted and had not noticed that she’d not yet begun turning down the thermostat. Elliott, the trees, and most of the citizens of Chicago were duly if only subconsciously appreciative. Coffee on the balcony was a ritual he enjoyed, so he looked on every extra day he could do so as a bonus. The unobstructed south view of the city and the Loop from his 35th floor condo, sandwiched between Sheridan Road and the lake, was one of which he never tired.
Normally, on a Saturday morning, he’d be joined on the balcony by Steve Gutierrez, the painter he’d been seeing for the past several months, but a business affair the night before had prevented Steve from coming over. They’d arranged to meet for dinner Saturday. Elliott was very pleased with the way the relationship was evolving. Though they’d never spoken about it, each seemed comfortable with letting things develop at their own pace, and neither felt the necessity to push it.
The phone broke his reverie, and setting his coffee down on the small metal table beside his chair, he hurried to answer it.
“Hi, Ell.” Even if he hadn’t instantly recognized Steve’s voice, he’d have known who it was. Steve was one of the few people Elliott had ever allowed to call him by anything but “Elliott”. Even then, Steve instinctively knew it was only to be used between the two of them. Just as Elliott had “private” names for his nephew and nieces he used only with them, Steve never used it in the presence of other people, and it had become something of a cornerstone in the foundation of their evolving relationship.
They talked casually for a few minutes, making plans for the evening, until Steve said: “I meant to ask you: when do you think you’ll be starting to look for your next project?”
“Pretty soon,” Elliott replied. “We’re just wrapping this one up. Why?”
“You know how I like to just get out and look around for possible subjects to paint? Well, the other day, while I was out for a walk, I found a building I think you might really like.”
“Yeah?” Elliott asked, always responsive to a potential property. “ Where? Who’s got the listing?”
“That’s the interesting part,” Steve said. “It’s just north of Diversey, off Southport. I don’t know why I’d never gone down that street before, but I came across this beautiful old place that really caught my eye. The minute I saw it I knew I had to paint it. There was a ‘For Rent’ sign in front, and as I was standing there, just staring at the place, a woman working in the yard saw me looking, and wanted to know if I was looking for a rental. I told her no, but we got to talking. It’s a six unit; she wasn’t sure how old it is, but probably early 20s. It obviously could stand some work, but…, well, that’s what you do. I commented on what a beautiful place it was, and mentioned I had a friend…you… who bought and restored old buildings. She sounded really interested and said she was thinking of selling.”
“That is interesting,” Elliott said. “Maybe you can show it to me sometime.”
“I was thinking maybe we can drive by tonight on the way to dinner? I don’t know what there is about the place, but I can’t remember when I’ve been more attracted by a building. I really want you to see it. If it’s nice tomorrow, I might take my camera over there and get a few shots for some preliminary sketches.”
A fascination for old buildings was one both men shared. The first paintings of Steve’s that Elliott had seen had been of ghost towns in Steve’s native California deserts. Thinking back on it, Elliott realized that, like Edward Hopper, whose work Steve’s resembled, very few of Steve’s paintings included people. Those that did …he had himself purchased a portrait of Steve’s brother Manny at Steve’s first gallery showing not too long after they’d met…were, in Elliott’s eyes, wonderful, and he wasn’t quite sure why Steve didn’t do more.
“I’d love to see it,” he said, pulling himself back to a response to Steve’s suggestion. “I’ll pick you up a little early so we’ll have plenty of time.”
“Okay. How about six? We can have a drink here first. I just finished a painting I’ve been working on for some time, and I’d like you to see it.”
“Great!” Elliott replied. He was flattered that Steve wanted to show it to him and was anxious to see it. Steve was always reluctant to let anyone, including Elliott, see his work until it was finished, and though Elliott was always curious about whatever Steve was working on, he never pressed to see it before Steve was ready.
They talked for a few more minutes, then hung up, with mutual lookings-forward to the evening.
Elliott had always been a strong believer in serendipity, and mused on the possibility that perhaps Steve’s discovery might be another example of it. Elliott and his crew had, in fact, nearly finished work on their current project, a classic old Chicago-style three-flat on Roscoe. And as was his habit…he often likened it to Tarzan swinging from tree to tree, grabbing onto the next vine just before releasing the first…he recognized that his current project was just close enough to completion that he needed to reach out for the next one. That way, there was an absolute minimum of time lost between ending one job and beginning the next.
* * *
Parking on Diversey was always a problem, but with his usual good luck he found a side-street spot just around the corner from Steve’s building, and was ringing Steve’s bell at exactly six o’clock. Punctuality was one of the small things in which Elliott allowed himself to take pride.
Steve greeted him at the door with a bear hug, then pointed him to a chair, saying: “Have a seat—I’ll be right with you.”
Elliott sat, while Steve disappeared into the kitchen. “Wine okay?” he called.
“Sure,” Elliott replied, loudly enough to be heard in the other room.
A moment later Steve appeared with a tray with two stemmed glasses, a bottle of wine, and a small plate of hors d’oeuvres, which he placed on the coffee table in front of Elliott, taking the chair across from him.
After a glass-click toast and a sip of the wine…excellent as always, Elliott noted…they sat back in their chairs.
“Thought about where you want to go for dinner?” Elliott asked.
Steve pursed his lips in thought. “Actually, I’m in the mood for a good steak. Any suggestions?”
Elliott grinned. “As a matter of fact, yes. There’s a nice one on Halsted just off Diversey. I think you’d like, but I probably should call for reservations. If I can use your phone book…”
Steve set his wine down to get up and go for the phone book as Elliott took out his cell phone. When Steve returned with the book, Elliott looked up the number and called.
“7:45 okay?” Elliott asked, hand over the mouthpiece, and Steve nodded.
* * *
They had another glass of wine and the hors d’oeuvres while they talked. The fact that they never seemed to run out of things to talk about, and the comfortable feeling at just being together, was a constant, if mild, reminder to Elliott of just how lucky he was to have found Steve.
“So what about the painting?” he asked.
“Thought you’d never ask,” Steve said with a grin. “It’s in the study. We’ll go in when you’re ready.”
“I’m ready,” Elliott replied.
Draining their wine, they got up and walked down the hall to the apartment’s second bedroom, which Steve used as his studio. On an easel by the large window, facing away from them, was a 24"x24" unframed canvas. Walking around it, Elliott saw it was a street scene, looking down a pleasant tree-lined older residential street framed by an el-train overpass. The rusty metal and cracked concrete of the overpass both framed the scene and clearly contrasted the technological and human elements of the city.
As always, Elliott marveled at the subtlety of detail. It took him a full minute to realize that the shadow across the roof and on the ground in front of the closest house was a passing el train. While there were no people in the picture, their presence was clearly felt. The style, color, contrasts, and lighting again reminded him of Edward Hopper.
Elliott shook his head. “Wow! You’ve done it again! This is beautiful, Steve!”
Obviously pleased, Steve merely smiled and said: “Glad you like it.”
* * *
Steve gave directions as they headed off to check out the building he wanted Elliott to see. It was located on a short side street he’d never paid any attention to in all the times he’d passed it. Turning left off Southport, Elliott spotted it immediately, set unusually far back from the street. His first impression reminded him of an elegant old lady fallen on hard times. White paint greying with age hid the underlying brick, but he was immediately attracted to the architectural details: the high, narrow windows with elaborate fretwork and a peaked roof with more fretwork around the edges, a long flight of steps leading up to the “first” floor, with entrances to the ground floor apartments beneath them. Elliott had never seen anything quite like it, and he felt the quick rush of excitement that always accompanied finding a potential new project.
“What do you think?” Steve asked.
“Now that’s a building!” he said. “The woman said she was thinking of selling, really?”
“That’s what she said,” Steve replied.
Elliott’s mind was already seeing the building as it must have looked when new, and could look again, albeit with how much work he couldn’t be sure at this point. A lot, undoubtedly, but though it looked shabby, he knew he’d be able to bring it back if it were structurally sound. Though it had been painted white, he suspected it was Chicago brick under the paint. He couldn’t see any major cracks.
“Well,” he said, forcing himself back to reality and the moment and patting Steve’s thigh, “Ya’ done good to find it! Thank you!”
Steve reached over and laid his hand on Elliott’s leg, squeezing it slightly. “You’re more than welcome.”
Noticing a car approaching behind them, Elliott shifted into “drive” and moved off slowly.
“You said you were thinking of coming over to get some pictures tomorrow?” he asked.
“Yeah, I’d really like to. Would you like for me to try to talk to the lady again?”
“I think so, yes. If you wouldn’t mind. If you could just get her number and give her my card.”
“Be glad to,” Steve said as they made their way back to Diversey and turned east toward the restaurant.
* * *
They spent the night at Elliott’s and finally got to sleep, exhausted but happy, around two a.m.
—I’m glad you’re still seeing Steve.
The surprise of recognition nearly caused him to wake up, but he fought it.
—John! It’s been a while.
—Yes, I’m sorry I haven’t come by more often, but there’s just so much to do.
—I’d imagine. So to what do I owe the honor of this visit?
—Odd. I’m not sure, really. Maybe just to see how you’re doing?
And then it was morning.
As he and Steve had their coffee, Elliott tried to remember the last time John had visited him. He recalled having been vaguely aware of his presence a couple of times while awake, but they hadn’t…spoken?…in several weeks. And once again he was conscious of just how strange this whole John thing was, or would seem to other people. He had never mentioned John to anyone, not even to Steve, who had several times referred to his own belief in ghosts. John wasn’t a ghost, at least not to Elliott, who had never had any special interest in the paranormal. He occasionally watched the popular TV shows that dealt with the subject, but they were just TV shows and he didn’t relate directly to them in any way. As an agnostic, he’d given almost no thought to an afterlife, and he had nothing he would even remotely consider to be “special powers.” He was just an ordinary guy who happened to have a friend who was both very real and very dead.
“I said, would you like more coffee?” Steve’s voice jolted him back to reality, and he felt a small wave of embarrassment.
He grinned a bit sheepishly, then said: “Sorry. Yeah, I’ll have another cup if you’re having one.”
“Thinking about the building?” Steve asked.
“Yeah,” Elliott lied. “I’ll really be curious to see what happens with it.”
* * *
On the way back to Steve’s apartment they stopped for brunch, and Elliott dropped Steve off with Steve’s promise that he’d try to see the woman he’d spoken to at the building and would call him later.
He spent the afternoon doing business paperwork, catching up on his e-mail, and talking with his sister, Cessy, on the phone. Though he and Cessy spoke several times a week, it was next to impossible to have a conversation lasting less than twenty minutes. In addition to filling him in on everything that was going on in the family, she always expected a detailed report on his own activities, particularly as they related to Steve. She had insisted that Elliott bring him to dinner to celebrate Elliott’s 39th birthday. Considering that Steve had met Cessy and her family a couple of times before and knew what to expect, he did. It had turned out very well, and everyone treated Steve like one of the family. Elliott’s parents had been off on another junket and missed it, which was just as well with Elliott, who didn’t look forward to exposing Steve to his parents just yet. But with Cessy, it had reached the point where he considered introducing her to people as “my sister, the yenta”. He knew she meant well, of course, and Steve took her sisterly prying into the status of their relationship with good humor.
Steve called just before six Sunday evening.
“Hi, Ell,” he began. “How was your afternoon?”
“Quiet,” Elliott replied. “How about yours?”
“Fine. I went over to the building shortly after you dropped me off. I took both my camera and a sketch pad. The first thing I did when I got there was to go up to the door, but I realized it’s a six-unit and I didn’t have any idea which one the owners lived in, or what their name was. So I went back out to the street and took some pictures and did a couple rough sketches. As soon as I get the photos back, I’ll scan them to my computer and e-mail them if you’d like to see them.”
“I would, thanks,” Elliott said. “So you didn’t see the woman?”
“Yeah, I did, luckily,” Steve replied. “I was just thinking of going back to knock on one of the ground level doors to ask which apartment the owner lived in when she came out. I noticed, by the way, that most of the apartments seem to be empty. That might not be a good sign.
“Anyway, she came out—said she’d just happened to glance out the window and saw me—and we talked some more. She and her husband have only had the building for about three years, and her husband recently became ill right after having lost his job. With no health insurance, they feel they have to sell to cover their medical bills. I gave her your card and she said she would definitely give you a call.”
“I really appreciate your doing all this,” Elliott said. “I owe you. If there’s anything I can do to repay you…”
“Oh, there is!” Steve said, laughing. “But not over the phone.”
They talked for a few more minutes, until Steve said: “Well, I’d better let you go in case Mrs. Winters—that’s her name, by the way: Eleanor Winters—is trying to call you.”
“She’ll call back,” Elliott said. “But I suppose we should go. I imagine you want to get to your sketches.”
“Yeah, I do. I’m really excited about it. We’ll talk during the week, then?”
“You know it,” Elliott said. “Thanks again, and have a good one.”
He had no sooner replaced the phone on the cradle when it rang.
“Mr. Smith, my name is Eleanor Winters. Your friend gave me your card and says you might be interested in buying our building.”
“I’m always interested in potential properties,” Elliott replied a bit noncommittally. Steve’s observation that most of the building appeared to be vacant had sounded a small alarm bell in his mind. “You don’t have it listed currently, I gather?”
“No. My husband was a Realtor up until the time of his illness, and we’ll be handling most of the details of the sale ourselves. We’d just been talking about selling last week, so having your friend suddenly appear was a very nice surprise. Would you like to come take a look at the place?”
He would, of course, but he found her eagerness a bit disconcerting. Still, it couldn’t hurt to look. “Yes, I think I would like at least to take a look. When would be convenient for you?”
“Any time at all!” she said. “Would you like to come by this evening?”
Again, the alarm bell.
“Well, it’ll be getting dark soon, and I prefer to see it in daylight. Would four o’clock tomorrow afternoon be all right?”
“Of course,” she said.
“Fine. I’ll look forward to seeing you then.”
* * *
Leaving his current job site at three-thirty, Elliott found the alley behind the Winters’ building and drove down it to see if there were a garage. He had noted earlier that it was a restricted parking street, which meant that a permit sticker had to be displayed on any car parking there after six p.m. He considered that to be a mixed blessing: good for the residents, but lousy for evening visitors looking for a parking place. There was, he found, no garage behind the building, though there was an in-bad-shape concrete pad which could accommodate three cars. Just one more detail to factor into the equation.
He found a parking spot near the end of the street, and walked back to the building, studying the houses he passed on the way. All appeared to be well cared for and about the same age, with the exception of an obviously new three-story. The small iron-fenced front yard was in obvious need of mowing, though the two flower beds were well-kept. He assumed the owner husband’s illness was responsible for the lack of mowing. He took a few minutes to study the structure carefully, looking for obvious flaws, and found none. The aging white paint which covered the original brick showed a few chips, but was not badly flaked. Opening the gate, he walked to the building, spotting one sizable chip of paint which had peeled off the brick; he got close enough to confirm that the brick beneath was as he had suspected, Chicago brick, which had been the city’s main building material for generations. It differed, he knew, from the brick used in most current construction by the fact that it was solid, as opposed to emulating concrete blocks in being partially hollow. They were in fact considered so valuable that several companies in the city specialized in salvaging and recycling them.
Scalloped wooden “gingerbread” ran under the eaves, but because they were also painted white, he had to look closely to see its detail, which pleased him. He envisioned wooden shutters to accent the windows and noted that there had apparently been shutters at one time, but that they had been removed. Non-working shutters, he knew, were impractical, but they added a great deal to the appearance of a building.
He was tempted to walk around the entire building, but thought it best to talk with the owners first.
Climbing the front steps, again checking for and making mental notes of existing or potential problems, he reached the beveled-glass front door, beside which was a mail slot and, above the slot, a small panel of four buttons, only two of which had names beside them. The two ground-level apartments, he’d noted, had their own individual doors and buzzers. Looking through the window he saw a small, shallow foyer with half-glass doors leading into the building proper. Through the glass he could see a center stairway going up, flanked by one door on either side.
He pressed the button beside the name “Winters” and a moment later the door on the right opened and a woman in her early 60s, whom he assumed to be Mrs. Winters, moved through it toward him. Opening the door with a warm smile she extended her hand.
“Mr. Smith, I presume?”
Taking it and returning the smile, he said “It’s nice to meet you, Mrs. Winters.”
Introductions over, she showed him into her apartment.
He had noticed, though the open door, a heavyset man seated in a chair against the far wall. As he entered, the man nodded and gave him a tired half smile. “Excuse me for not getting up,” he said, “but the doctor doesn’t want me doing much moving around.”
Elliott walked over to him to shake hands. “No problem,” he said.
“Please have a seat,” Mrs. Winters said, and he moved to the sofa and sat down.
“Would you like some coffee?” Mrs. Winters asked. “Tea?”
“I’m fine, thank you,” he said pleasantly and she sat down on the other end of the sofa.
Elliott had just started to look around the room as subtly as possible when he became aware that someone else was in the room. He knew it was John, but had absolutely no idea as to what he was doing there.
Not feeling there was any need to ask why the Winters were selling, Elliot said: “So tell me a bit about the building.”
The couple exchanged a glance and Mrs. Winters said “We bought it about three years ago, while Earl was still working as a real estate agent. The minute he saw it, he brought me over and we both fell in love with it. Our last son had just graduated from college and taken a job in New York, and our other two children are scattered around the country. So we sold our home and bought this. We still love it,” she hastened to add, “but with Earl’s health, it’s just too much for us.”
“I understand,” Elliott said. “I see that only three of the apartments seem to be occupied. Is there any particular reason?”
Again, an exchange of glances between husband and wife and an unexpectedly strong surge in the awareness of John’s presence.
“No,” Mrs. Winters replied, though it was obvious to Elliott she wasn’t being truthful. While he could understand an owner’s reluctance to reveal problems with their property to a potential buyer, disclosure was mandatory by law. “We’d never owned rental property before,” Mrs. Winters went on; “and I’m afraid we didn’t—and still don’t—fully understand all the ins and outs of it. We really have no idea why our turnover rate was so high.”
“You do have your tenants sign a lease, don’t you?” he asked.
“Of course, but it appears they are about as watertight as a sieve.”
“So there is nothing physically wrong with the property?”
“No! Nothing serious. It needs a lot of cosmetic work, of course…what building this old doesn’t? But there is nothing physically wrong with it: plumbing, heating, electrical, all are old but have never given us any problem at all. Would you like me to show you around?”
Elliott decided to hold off further comments until he’d had a closer look at the place. “If you would, please.”
He and Mrs. Winters got up. “We’ll be right back, Earl,” she said as she picked up a set of keys off the lamp table beside her. “Is there anything you need before we go?”
Mr. Winters raised one hand off the arm of his chair to give a small wave. “No, I’m fine, thanks.”
Elliott followed Mrs. Winters out of the apartment. “We’ll start with the ground apartment, if that’s all right. One’s occupied, but…”
“I understand,” Elliott said. “No problem.”
She kept talking as they descended the outer stairs and turned left to the door under the stairway and directly below the Winters’. “All the apartments are two-bedroom except for this one. The space that would be the second bedroom is the utility room; we’ll have to go around back to get in there.”
He followed her into the apartment and was favorably impressed. A large living room with hardwood floors, nine-foot ceilings as opposed to the twelve-footers in the Winters’ apartment. The place needed painting, but there were no cracks or chips in the walls or ceilings. The kitchen appliances were old but clean: even the oven had apparently been cleaned either before or after the last tenant left. The bathroom, too, was good-sized, and while the fixtures were obviously old, they seemed in good order. There was no sign of plumbing problems or water damage. The bedroom was spacious with a big closet and a large barred window.
After leaving the apartment, they walked around the building to a door at the rear which led to the utility room containing the furnace, fuse boxes, and various shut-off valves. His practiced eye missed nothing, and he was pleased to have found nothing thus far that signaled a serious concern nine-foot ceilings as opposed to the twelve-footers in the Winters’. So why, he wondered, the lack of tenants? Even though it was somewhat off the beaten track, he’d have thought people would be lined up to live in such a beautiful building.
As they climbed the front steps and reentered the building, the door opposite the Winters’ opened and a grandmotherly type came out, purse in hand. She smiled and nodded when she saw them, exchanging greetings with Mrs. Winters. Elliott held the door open for her as she left.
“That’s Mrs. Reinerio,” Mrs. Winters explained. “She’s lived here for over twenty years. A really sweet woman. If we’d had four more tenants like her, we’d never consider selling.”
He found that statement a bit puzzling, but said nothing.
They proceeded up the stairs and the instant they reached the top stair, Elliott was again strongly aware of John’s presence. Though the doors leading to the two apartments were directly across the hall from one another, Elliott sensed him most strongly by the door to the left.
Mrs. Winters unlocked the door to the apartment on the right.
Though he had not seen all of the Winters’ apartment, he assumed the one they had just entered was most likely an identical layout of it and the ground-floor apartment, but with the second bedroom. Again, well-kept hardwood floors showing a slight discoloration indicating the location of a one-time rug; a small dining room adjacent to the kitchen, bathroom across from the kitchen, and two good-sized bedrooms beyond. Crown moldings and door frames obviously bearing several layers of paint but otherwise apparently unbroken or gouged. Slightly different appliances and fixtures indicating a renovation at some point in the past.
As they left the apartment, Mrs. Winters started toward the stairs.
“Is this one occupied?” Elliott asked, indicating the door on the left. He knew it wasn’t, since he’d been told only three of the apartments were occupied: the Winters’, Mrs. Reinerio’s, and the right-side ground level apartment.
Mrs. Winters appeared startled. “Oh. No, I’m sorry. It’s the same floor plan as ours and the ground-floor, only reversed. But if you’d like to see it…”
Elliot smiled. “If you wouldn’t mind,” he said.
It was, indeed, identical to the others, and in the same generally good condition. Everything seemed in working order; he tried the stove, ran water in the kitchen sink, tested all the ceiling lights, and flushed the toilet and tested the bathroom water faucets. All fine.
Then why did he sense John following him around closely?
* * *
They returned to the Winters’ apartment.
“What did you think?” Mr. Winters asked.
“Very nice,” Elliott replied, taking, at Mrs. Winters’ invitation, his same position on the sofa. “But I’m really curious about your tenant turnover rate. There has to be a reason for it.”
Again, husband and wife exchanged glances before Mrs. Winters spoke.
“Two of them had job transfers out of town…” which struck Elliott as a bit unlikely “…one claimed his car had been broken into and he was concerned about neighborhood crime, though there really isn’t any that we’ve noticed. And the others had various reasons. We probably could have tried harder to hold them to their leases, but it didn’t seem right; if they wanted to move, it wouldn’t be fair of us to try to force them to stay.”
“But no problems with, in, or around the building itself?” Elliott persisted.
Mr. Winters sighed and nodded in response to his wife’s looking at him.
“Well, there might be a reason, though it’s really a very silly one,” she said.
“And that being…?”
“I’m not sure exactly why or how, but apparently someone has been getting into the building; we have no idea how, and we’ve changed all the exterior door locks at least three times.”
“So you’ve had break-ins, then?” Elliott asked.
Both the Winters shook their heads, but as usual it was Mrs. Winters who replied: “No! Not at all!”
“Then how do you know someone’s getting into the building?”
Sighing, Mrs. Winters said: “It has to be some neighborhood prankster; that’s the only thing we can think of.”
“So what do they do?” Elliott asked.
“Nothing, really. They just knock on the door. And whoever answers it, finds there’s no one there.”