“Do you have any missing art supplies?”
The woman standing in the open doorway, still blocking my entrance, blinked at me and said, “What?”
“Art supplies. Especially high-end supplies. Maybe some fancy imported ink. That kind of thing.”
Her gaze dropped briefly—to take in my apparel, I’m guessing—and then she smiled at me, or at least, her mouth smiled at me.
“I’m sorry, Miss, uh—“
“Diamond.” My mouth also smiled at her.
“Miss Diamond, I don’t have any vintage art or art supplies. Maybe you can try the thrift store down at East and Crowe, beside the laundromat.”
“I’m not trying to buy anything, ma’am. And I’m not an artist, or student. As I mentioned earlier, I’m a private investigator. I’m on a case and I’m just asking questions to gather more information.”
“I’m not involved in anything like that.” She began to swing the door closed.
“Anything like what, ma’am?” I figured I knew the answer. She probably thought I took compromising pictures on behalf of cuckolded clients.
“Have you found any broken mirrors lately, maybe in the bathroom?” I asked just as the door shut.
I stood there for a few blinks, and in that time, the door re-opened. The woman held the door open just a few inches. She was frowning at me. The kind of frown that said, “How did you know that?”
My brow twitched up. “You haven’t cleaned it up yet, have you?”
She didn’t let me into her house, but she did give me the trash bag with the broken shards of the mirror. And she did agree to take a picture of the mirror’s remnants with my camera. (She frowned when I teased her not to steal it.) My phone had a better lens than that old camera, but this wasn’t the first time someone didn’t let me in somewhere, but did agree to take pictures for me.
I nodded to myself as I reviewed the pictures. I would be able to put the shards back together again. And compare them to the other mirrors I’d reassembled. I could already guess what I would find.
This thief that I was chasing. This thief was not trying to get into these houses. This thief or thieves weren’t targeting these particular houses or the people inside them. They were stumbling upon the houses, and when no one was home, they would take the opportunity to look for something of value. Not appliances or computer equipment or jewels or cash. No, something of value to them and their true purpose.
Ink. Or a brush. Or, the most extravagant item stolen thus far, a fancy bottle of perfume (or “essence,” as the victim of the theft put it).
So far, no one had gotten hurt, and nothing of great value had been stolen. And no one had seen the thief (or thieves, I still couldn’t tell). The law in this city had no reason to be overly concerned.
But I was concerned.
Because a picture was beginning to emerge from the pieces of the puzzle I’d gathered so far. Only, I wasn’t sure if I was seeing the real picture, or a false vision twisted through the filter of a vanished past.
I was like someone who knew that unicorns once existed because she’d seen one, so when she saw something that looked like a unicorn, she would think “that’s a unicorn.” But everyone else, everyone who thought unicorns were just make-believe, would know that it was a horse with a fake horn glued to its forehead.
I’d been at it for seven days. I needed fresh eyes, but if what I suspected was true, I couldn’t afford to go to my usual sets of fresh eyes.
I had to be my own set of fresh eyes.
That night, I turned on my voice recorder and reviewed what I knew while I assembled the shards of Ms. Martique’s broken mirror.
The next morning, one of those “sets of fresh eyes” that I had avoided calling called me instead.
Officer Brule met me outside the apartment building.
“Breaking and entering,” he said. “They’re done processing the scene, and I’ve already talked to the owner about letting you take a look around.” He took a deep breath in.
He had obviously called me because he thought this crime was related to my current case. I’d asked him to keep an eye out for me, and promised I’d do the same.
“Someone get hurt this time?” I asked as he walked me to the elevator.
“The owners and other residents are fine,” he said. “You’d better a look for yourself.”
I paced through the apartment. It took a while. It was a penthouse. I tried to watch my step, but I couldn’t avoid all the glass.
“You going to try to put these back together again?” Brule asked.
“The windows are intact. Glass vases, drinking glasses.”
Brule nodded. “Just the mirrors.”
Just the mirrors were broken.
“They had a lot of mirrors.” It seemed like an average of one per room. And someone, my thief, had smashed them all.
“Here.” Brule paced ahead of me and directed me to the bathroom.
Before he even opened the door, I saw it.
It was smeared along the edge of the bathroom door and around the knob. He pushed the door opened and I gaped.
The bathroom mirror was obliterated. There were no shards of glass. Only pebbles and grains. And all of it was swimming in a sticky pool of dark maroon blood. Blood was spattered along the walls. I wasn’t an expert, but I would have been willing to bet that the spatter pattern indicated that the blood had exploded out from the mirror.
I turned to Brule. “Did you find—?”
“No bodies,” he said. “If someone was this badly hurt, and still managed to get away, they must have had help getting out of here, and they must be trying to get medical treatment somewhere. Somewhere close by.”
“But there’s no blood on any of the other broken mirrors.”
So, there were at least two of them inside. One of them was badly hurt, hurt by the mirror. The other must have been enraged. But to stop and break all the mirrors instead of trying to get help for the injured one…maybe that one didn’t survive.
“No footsteps,” I said, glancing behind me at the rest of the apartment. I looked up at the bathroom ceiling.
“Exactly,” Brule said, “so I’m thinking one of them came in another way and maybe by the time they saw this one was hurt, it was too late. Maybe one of them bled out here, and the other one, or ones, broke all the mirrors, and got away with the body. What are you looking for?”
“Nothing,” I thought. This was where my biases might fail me. Officer Brule’s explanation was much simpler and more likely than mine. I’d been thinking that that the reason for there being no footprints is that these thieves could fly, or at least float. But if he was right…and if the thieves hadn’t left by any door, window, vent, or other opening…
“Are you sure there aren’t any unbroken mirrors?” I asked.
“Yes, we’re sure. Why?”
How did they get out if all the mirrors are broken? I wondered.
“Do you know if the owners are into the occult or mysticism, anything like that?”
Brule looked around the apartment, as if he were looking for crystal balls and goblets full of goat’s blood.
“It’s not always that obvious, Bru.”
Brule crossed his arms. “You have a working theory, don’t you? Let’s hear it. Especially if you’re about to tell me this is a prank. And that’s cow’s blood or something.” He tipped his head toward the puddle.
A prank. Yes, that was how this world’s authorities on such matters as these would explain this. Pranksters, who started off harmless, and then maybe went too far.
I asked Brule to give me a moment, by promising only that I would tell him what puzzle pieces I’d gathered thus far, and let him come to his own conclusions. It turned out I would be using his fresh eyes after all.
He stepped away to talk to the cleaning crew that the owners had already sent up. They’d been waiting for the police to finish and were eager to get in.
I pulled out my little book of forensic alchemy. It was fairly basic compared to the resources I once had when I was younger and too inexperienced to know how to use them properly, much less appreciate them.
I flipped to the reference page. I could tell just by looking that the blood on the floor was not human blood. For one thing, it had a tinge of blue. That Brule didn’t mention this meant that the tinge had developed since or after the police left. If it wasn’t cleaned up, the blood would probably start to turn completely blue. So, not human. But maybe humanoid. That helped me to narrow down the tests I’d need to run to identify the race.
I pulled another sheet from the book. This one I touched to the puddle of blood and let soak for about ten seconds. The paper turned completely blue. I placed it back in the book as Brule returned.
“You on lunch yet?” I asked.
“Meet you at the usual. I’ll tell you what I know.”
“I took the case thinking that it would be low pressure,” I said, as Brule and I sat at a bench under a tree waiting for our burritos. “I could have used a break after my last one.”
“Then I have a suggestion for the next time you decide to take a break…try not taking on any cases.”
I sighed. “I’m not sure I understand. You stopped speaking English there for a second.”
“The client said that someone had broken in and stolen a very special and rare brush,” I started. “She had saved up for it, had it imported, et cetera. The only sign of any disturbance was the broken bathroom mirror. That’s what prompted her to check her apartment and discover the missing brush. There were no signs anyone had broken in. Only her mother and her landlord had a copy of her key. Neither of them claimed to be responsible, and she believed them. There was no other evidence that anyone had been in her place. When I asked around the neighborhood, I found out that this had happened about half a dozen times before. People came home. There was a broken mirror—usually in the bathroom. But nothing else was off. No signs of anyone breaking in. Nothing stolen in most cases. But the few times where something was stolen, it seemed to be some kind of art supply—ink, paints, brushes, fixatives. I found one lady who said that an expensive bottle of fragrance was stolen from her.”
“Nothing seemed to be stolen from this morning’s victims either.”
“I collected the glass shards from my first client, and she had done me the favor of taking pictures before she swept up and threw away the glass. That made it easier for me to reconstruct the broken mirror.”
Brule shook his head. “That would drive me nuts. I mean, I don’t even have the patience to put together a hundred-piece with all different edges.”
“I managed to get broken mirror parts from two other people. I noticed some things about the mirrors.” I hesitated and gulped. “The way they were broken, it was as if they’d been struck from behind.”
Brule nodded, his brow furrowed. “Okay, so it looked as if the glass was blown out.”
“Yes, but there was no damage to the wall behind the mirrors.”
“When I examined the reconstructed mirrors, I found something else they all had in common, and I’d be willing to bet that the other broken mirrors had the same.” I took a breath and exhaled, still not knowing how much I would decide to tell this rookie officer, whom I now considered a friend.
“In at least one corner” I continued, “there was kind of a faded image of symbols painted on the mirror.” I felt my heart beginning to beat faster.
“Some people were nice enough to allow me to take a look around. When I did, I would find another mirror in their place, still intact, with similar symbols, also faded, as if someone had painted a watermark on the mirror.”
“Okay, so is that why you were asking about occult stuff? Is it some ritual?”
“With that first client, I assumed the thief broke the mirror on accident or even on purpose on their way out. But in that case, in every case, there hasn’t been any evidence of breaking and entering. No tampering. And in two cases, the residents were still at home when it happened. It was late at night. Doors and windows weren’t just locked but bolted. When they heard the sounds of the mirror breaking and went to check, all the windows and doors were undisturbed, still locked, still bolted.”
“Why hasn’t there been any trace of these thieves? No fingerprints, no hairs, no footprints, no threads from clothing. And then all of a sudden there’s a bloodbath?”
You can’t leave fingerprints if you don’t have fingers, I thought.
“Maybe they don’t have fingerprints.”
“Burned them off, you mean? But then, what about skin cells, saliva, nasal mucous, something?”
“You’re saying, whoever did this is doesn’t have skin cells?”
“I’m saying, I want to know what you think.”
“You haven’t given me much to go on.”
“Well, for one thing, what do you know about these symbols?”
My heart skipped a beat. “They are symbols used by travelers. They represent concepts like doorways and pathways. And the concept of asking permission to enter or step into, like the way we knock on doors or ring on doorbells. Or the way we stop in front of a gate that is guarding a special path, like the path leading up to a large estate. That kind of thing.”
Brule nodded. We were silent for a few minutes as our order came and we both ate.
“The mirrors…” Brule frowned. “If I didn’t know any better…”
I leaned in, waiting for him to say what I thought he was going to say, what I hoped he would say.
What I feared he would say.
“…I’d said there was a connection between all of these people.” He looked up at me and grinned. “Maybe they’re all part of some group that does some rituals. Or one person in the household is, and the others—roommates or other family members—don’t know. That’s why that first person called you in.”
“She lives alone.”
“It could have been a friend who broke her mirror. Have you asked any of them about these symbols, and if they’re in any clubs or groups that do rituals with mirrors?”
“I haven’t actually.”
That strange feeling of mingled anxiety and excitement and hope began to fade. Brule wasn’t moving in the direction I’d expected, and hoped, and feared he would. He wasn’t coming to the same conclusion I’d come to. The obvious conclusion. Obvious to me anyway.
We finished our lunch and he expounded on his theory in more detail. It was almost convincing. But I had held back one piece of information. And now that he was moving away from the path I was currently walking, I decided I would continue holding back.
Because that one piece of information was going to help me catch this thief, and get some answers that I maybe didn’t want.
These thieves—maybe just one thief now, was trying to get home. That had to be what they were trying to do. But there wasn’t a home for them to get back to. That’s why they kept ending up back here, crashing through a mirror into an unfamiliar home, and having to quickly paint the doorway symbols on another mirror—a mirror large enough to step through.
The bias I had, the one that led to me such an obvious and easy conclusion, while Brule came up with a far more complex scenario, was this.
I happen to know that there are other dimensions than this one. Other worlds lying right beside one. Other worlds layered on top of it. And mirrors properly painted with alchemy could open the way to and from those worlds.
I was born in one of those worlds. And I would have loved to go home too. But I couldn’t. I can’t.
And being reminded of that was…difficult. I tried to swallow the knot in my throat, wincing as it passed down into my chest.
That was the whole reason I left Los Angeles. That city was too close to a home that I was afraid didn’t exist anymore. And it was full of reminders, living, breathing, walking reminders.
If I thought my home did still exist, I would have been doing what this thief was doing. I would have been marking every mirror I could find, painting it with alchemy, chanting the chants that made the glass vibrate to the same pitch as that other world, my world, and then I would have stepped through that mirror.
And I would have gone home.
I wondered. Was this thief from my home, or from some other dimension?
That’s what I was afraid to find out. Because if they were from my home, than what I only feared before would be confirmed for certain. That my home didn’t exist anymore.
When a mirror-door was opened to a dimension that didn’t exist, and if a traveler stepped through, that traveler would rebound back through the doorway. Normally that meant the exact same doorway. But if someone didn’t know what they’re doing, they could rebound back through another open doorway.
Painting a mirror-door from scratch was tricky. It takes almost a decade of focused study to master. Those, like me, who knew about mirror-doors only used the ones that had already been made and marked. If someone who was inexperienced was desperate enough to try and paint a new mirror-door by stealing the proper brushes, inks, and alchemicals, then that someone had not found an existing mirror-door that led to where they wished to go. And if they couldn’t find an existing mirror-door, then that meant they were all broken. And if they were all broken, then they were either broken on purpose to sever the connection between the linked dimensions, or they broke on their own, because some calamity happened on the other side of the door, in the other dimension. Some calamity that traveled down the umbilical connecting the mirrors of two worlds and shattering them all.
I’d been searching for two years for a mirror-door leading to my world. I wasn’t the only one stranded here in this world. I wasn’t the only one searching. But if anyone had found such a doorway, no one had told me about it.
The thief or thieves, they were rebounding back to this world when they went through the mirrors. They were ending up in some random person’s house. There were some mirror-doors that were left open, but if the mirror was forgotten or better yet moved, then it was highly unlikely anyone would ever pass through it again. The door might as well have been locked.
But as the thieves rebounded, they somehow came upon these lost mirror-doors and passed through, breaking the mirror in their passing. To escape, they painted another mirror in the house they found themselves in, this one leading back to their anchor mirror. The mirror they were using in this world.
Then there are the mirror-doors that are actually locked, on purpose.
The mirror from that morning’s scene. It was in too many bits and pieces for me to have ever put it back together to check for a lock. But I didn’t have to check.
If anyone tried to go through a locked mirror-door…something like what happened to that thief would happen. Brutal injuries. Death.
That one piece of information I’d kept from Brule, the one that would have led me to inviting him on my stakeout, was that I had found a pattern in these rebounds. A pattern in time and geography. And using that pattern, I had reverse engineered the symbol for that anchor mirror. In effect, I’d cracked the door’s security code.
And I planned on paying my thieves a surprise visit.
It would have been nice to have a partner going into a situation where I didn’t know what to expect. I’d had a partner once, but, well, betrayal is hard to forgive, isn’t it?
I shook the thought away.
There were at least two thieves. Maybe more than two. Maybe the one that lost all that blood didn’t die. Maybe they were all alive, and all angry. Angry that they couldn’t get home. That they kept bouncing back to this world, this world where they desperately didn’t want to be.
They’ll have some kind of alarm, I thought, as I stood before the floor-length mirror in my bedroom. Funny, I’d been thinking about buying one of those for ages, so I wouldn’t have to stand on my toilet to check the bottom half of my outfits in the medicine cabinet mirror.
It was also funny that I felt so calm. I painted the last curl, checked every circumflex. I stepped back and watched the alchemical ink fade into the mirror.
I spoke the words, entreating the door to open. It wasn’t the words that did it. It was the tones and vibrations made by the words that flexed and softened the surface of the ink-infused mirror.
I had no weapons. And I had no defenses, save my words. But so far, these thieves had only hurt a bunch of mirrors, and themselves.
I did not think they would hurt me, not despite my appearance through their mirror, but because of it.
I held out my hands and stepped through.
The sensation was instantly familiar. But I hadn’t felt it in so long that it was also strange. I was sensitive to the sensations in ways I had not been as someone who grew up stepping through mirror-doors on the regular. I felt as if light coatings of oil were rippling over my skin, and there was a high-pitched whine sounding in my ear, a rusty taste in my mouth. I was blind though, as I had, of course, closed my eyes. I opened them as soon as the sensations of travel stopped. And I felt the naked air.
She was standing before the mirror, before me too now, holding up something long and metal in one of her six hands. A pipe or crowbar. I couldn’t quite tell in the dimness of the room.
I held up my hands to show they were empty.
“May I enter?” I said, asking the question in English. I knew for certain now what people she was, but I didn’t know how to speak her language.
She answered me in English with her multi-vibrate voice. “You may.”
She did not say, “and you are welcome.” That meant she was still wary of me. But I had expected that. What I didn’t expect is what she said next.
“My mate is dead.”
I nodded. “I know. I’m sorry. You have performed the death rites?”
“If I can help, I offer help.”
She nodded. “I accept, and offer thanks.”
She stepped away from me, closer to a lit desk lamp. Her delicate skin glistened in a shade of deep gray speckled with black. And I knew why they had left no trace evidence. Their physical forms were resilient but any output of their bodies—dead skin, blood, oils—was fragile and fleeting. It was only the sheer volume of blood from the thief’s death that kept it from evaporating before the police and I could see it.
I glanced around and found I was in the living room of an apartment.
I wanted to ask the thief—my host—where she was from. Many of her people lived on my world, in my own city. But I was afraid to ask. As long as I didn’t know, I could dream of returning someday. Rebuilding the pathways from this world to mine.
As long as I didn’t know.
I didn’t have to tell her about her world. She knew. She’d tried to tell her mate that they should stop. That they should settle in this world. It was a nice world. Parts of it. But her mate wanted to try just one more time.
And that one more time became two more times.
And then it was too late.
They were two, but they could become one. They took turns swallowing each other, so that wherever they ended up, they went together. It was her mate’s turn to swallow her. That was how she had survived passing through a locked mirror-door.
She had broken every mirror in that last apartment out of rage and grief. And then she had swallowed her mate’s body into herself, painted one last mirror to return to their anchor, and shattered that mirror from the other side.
For three days, I helped her complete the death rites. And by the time we finished, I still had not worked up the courage to ask her where she was from. And she—maybe sensing I didn’t want to know—hadn’t told me.
I found I didn’t want to know.
I asked if there was any more I could do to help her. She said there were more of her people farther south. That’s where she would go.
I hadn’t just decided not to ask the question I’d been afraid to ask. I had also decided on something else.
I offered her a ride. I told her was going south too.
“For how long?”
I shook my head. “I don’t know.”
Officer Brule peered at me. “You don’t look like you want to go, if you don’t mind my saying.”
“I don’t mind.” I twisted one side of my mouth up. Half a smile.
He handed me my breakfast burrito. “And if you don’t mind my asking, where are you headed?”
Los Angeles, I thought. But that’s not what I said.
I took a slow, deep breath. I exhaled.
Copyright © 2023 Nila L. Patel