While he made it a policy to have as little contact as possible with a building's tenants during the escrow period, he felt for some reason compelled to talk with Mrs. Reinerio regarding her options. He didn't have her phone number, so he called the Wolinskis to ask for it, and to let them know of his intentions so they'd not think it strange for him to showing up. As he expected, they had no objections.
Mrs. Wolinski reported they had found a small condo in a new retirement complex and would be moving within a month of the closing of escrow. He then called Mrs. Reinerio, who said she would be happy to talk with him, and would be home all day.
He drove over after lunch, noting that the weather was definitely turning cooler. Escrow was to close on a Tuesday; but badly as he wanted to get to work immediately, he knew that last-minute glitches often pushed the close back a day or so. To be on the safe side, he'd made arrangements for the sandblasters to come on the Monday following the official close date. He was fairly sure they could easily complete the work before the weather got too bad, but this was Chicago, and he didn't want to take any chances.
He was curious, too, about street parking around the new property during the day, and was relieved to see it wasn't too difficult to find a space. He took his time walking up to the building, pausing again to look at its neighbors. He was pleased to confirm his earlier observation that the entire block appeared to be relatively well maintained.
Climbing the steps to the front door, he rang Mrs. Reinerio's buzzer. She had opened her door by the time he entered the hall.
"Come in, Mr. Smith," she said, warmly.
"Elliott, please." He followed her inside, waiting as she closed the door behind him.
"Please, sit," she said. "May I get you some coffee?"
"If you have some made," he replied, taking the indicated chair.
"Of course. I'll only be a moment."
While she was gone, Elliott looked around. He'd seen the apartment during the inspection tour, but now had a chance to concentrate on some of the individual elements in the room. It was, he decided, definitely a grandmother's apartment--comfortable, neat, clean, and heavy with an indefinable air of the past.
Mrs. Reinerio returned a few minutes later with a tray on which were two coffee mugs ("I don't hold much on ceremony," she said), a creamer, sugar bowl, and a small plate with several pieces of coffee cake. She put it on the coffee table in front of him.
Waiting until she had taken a seat across from him, Elliott got right to the point of his visit. He outlined what he perceived to be her options, emphasizing that he was renovating the building for resale, and that a rent increase under the new owners was almost inevitable.
She sighed. "I was afraid of that," she said, looking into her coffee, then hastily added, "I know it's not your fault, and that nothing is forever, but I've lived here for twenty-five years now, and..."
"I understand," Elliott said, and he felt he truly did. He then went on to tell her about one of his own rental properties that had a vacancy at a comparable rent, and that he would be pleased to have her as a tenant. He assured her he would be happy to assist if she needed help with the move itself.
"That's very kind of you, Elliott," she said. "Can I have a little time to think it over?"
"Certainly. I just wanted--"
There was a knock at the door, which Mrs. Reinerio apparently did not hear, since she showed no reaction to it.
"I think there's someone at the door," he said after a moment.
She looked at him and smiled. "Oh, it's nothing," she said. "It's just Aaron. I recognize the knock."
A shiver ran from the top of his head to his toes.
"Aaron?" John had already told him, of course, but confirmation from someone with a pulse still startled him.
Her smile never faded, and there was no change in the casual tone of her voice as she said, "Aaron Stiles. He lives ... lived ... upstairs. He died four years ago, poor dear."
"So you're saying..." Elliott finally managed to say.
She put her cup down and looked at him. "Yes," she said pleasantly, "I'm afraid you've bought yourself a slightly haunted house."
Elliott took a long sip of his coffee before saying, as conversationally as he could, "Well, that is interesting. Tell me a little about Aaron."
She sat back, laying her arms casually on the arms of her chair. "It's an incredibly sad story, I'm afraid. He was such a sweet young man. He moved in about six years ago. He was very quiet and rather lonely, I suspect. But he was always pleasant and helpful whenever anyone needed anything, and everyone loved him.
"Aaron never talked much about his past, but from what I was able to gather, he must have had a very sad life. He mentioned once that his parents died when he was quite young and left him with the responsibility of raising a younger brother, about whom he never spoke.
"Then, about a year before he died, he found a ... friend ... who subsequently moved in with him. I'd never seen Aaron happier! They seemed truly devoted to one another. I think they were even planning to buy a house together. And then, one day, his friend just disappeared and never came back. Poor Aaron was devastated. Two weeks later, he died. I gather he had a congenital heart condition that had plagued him all his life. But if you ask me, I think he died, quite literally, of a broken heart."
Elliott shook his head slowly but said nothing. He felt there was nothing he could say.
"But why the knocking?" he asked finally.
She sighed again, softly. "The day after Bill--that was the friend's name, Bill Somers--disappeared, Aaron went around to all the apartments to ask if any of us might have heard from him. None of us had, of course. But every few days he would come around again. I think he is still looking."
Just as Elliott opened his mouth to ask another question, Mrs. Reinerio's phone rang, and she rose to answer it.
"Ellen, dear! It's so good to hear from you!" She paused to look at Elliott, covering the mouthpiece with one hand. "It's my daughter from Los Angeles," she said. "We've not talked in some time."
Taking the hint, he got out of his chair. "I won't keep you, then," he said, outwardly casual but inwardly cursing the interruption. "Perhaps we can talk more later."
"I'd like that, Elliott. Thank you for stopping by." Removing her hand from the mouthpiece, she resumed her conversation with her daughter as he let himself out.
He was frustrated by the sense he had merely scratched the surface of Aaron's story, and wanted to know more. What about this Bill--the one Aaron was still waiting for? What happened between them? Why had Bill left?
He had the sudden urge to track him down and ask him for the full story, but he dismissed the idea for several reasons, telling himself he was not a detective, that he wouldn't know where to start looking, and that the whole thing was really none of his business. He rethought that last objection, however, and decided that having purchased a "haunted" building made it very much his business.
He did, however, fully understand now what John had said about Aaron's sadness, and he empathized.
He considered hanging around and returning to talk to Mrs. Reinerio but realized that was hardly practical and would undoubtedly cause her to question his reasons for the intense interest in a dead man.
As he left the building and was returning to his car, he couldn't resist the urge to turn around and seek out the top-floor apartment window in which Steve had painted the figure Elliott had no doubt whatsoever was Aaron. He didn't expect to see anyone, and he didn't. It was just a window of an empty apartment.
There was no possible way Steve could have known about Aaron, yet somehow, on some level, he obviously did. John had said Steve was "perceptive," and Elliott recalled at least two occasions while he was trying to find John's identity that he and Steve had identical dreams, and at the same time. He hadn't known what to make of it then, and he still didn't.
He had never told Steve--or anyone else--about John, and didn't know how or whether to bring up the subject of Aaron. It wasn't for fear Steve would think he was insane--Steve had clearly stated his own belief in ghosts. Part of it was that Elliott still wasn't completely sure he believed in ghosts--and most definitely not as most people thought of them. The vast majority of ghosts he had ever heard of seemed to be some sort of time/space anomaly, like a spectral movie clip, endlessly doing the same thing over and over and totally unaware of the living. Clearly, that wasn't John. Ghosts, to his knowledge, did not interact with the living, let alone talk to them. On the other hand, John had never appeared to him, and their conversations were limited to when Elliott was asleep.
And now there was Aaron, of whom Elliott had no direct personal awareness other than the knocking, which still could have some natural explanation. The only evidence he had that there even was still an Aaron was through John.
And Steve's painting.
And Mrs. Reinerio's interesting but unproven theory.
So, with John in the car with him as he drove home, he remained determined he would continue to keep John's existence to himself.