The lift doors opened with a sad mechanical sigh. The light from within, light that was the dirty yellow of a smoker’s handkerchief, fell sickly on the reception floor. It splashed on the white shoes of Elsa and Anya, the night-shift cleaners. The yellow light looked like stains of piss on their otherwise pristine shoes.
Elsa started toward the open door, pushing her cart of cleaning supplies before her. One of the wheels squeaked, a lazy whistling sound that didn’t fare well against the flat acoustics of the reception. The bottles of bleach and the spray-guns of offensively floral-fragranced cleaning fluid wobbled nervously in their basket on the top of the cart.
Anya placed a hand on Elsa’s arm and stopped her.
It was not the first time the woman had hesitated at the lift door. This had been her habit every night that Elsa had worked with her. Anya had nails like talons and, even through the rayon sleeve of her uniform, they scratched sharply at the sensitive flesh of Elsa’s bicep.
“Wait.” Anya’s voice was low and urgent, as though she feared they would be overheard.
Anya peered into the empty lift. Her haggard features, already wrinkled with age, shrivelled with suspicion as she stared at the polished mirrors, the gleaming chrome-work, and the blonde wood glistening beneath the jaundiced lights.
“What are we waiting for?” Elsa pressed.
“Nothing.” Anya let go of the woman’s arm and, grudgingly, urged her younger colleague to go first into the lift.
Elsa took a couple of steps and then paused.
“What was that about?”
Anya shook her head and tried to push past her. Her cheeks flushed with a rouge of embarrassment. Her gaze refused to meet Elsa’s.
“Tell me,” Elsa insisted. She had been working at Tartarus House for less than a fortnight and Anya had been delegated as her supervisor. The woman’s habits weren’t usually irritating but this regular hesitation at the lift doors was becoming a real source of frustration. “What’s wrong with the lift?”
“There’s nothing wrong with the lift.”
“Then what are you looking for?”
Anya frowned. “I’m making sure Mrs White isn’t there.”
“Who the hell is Mrs White?”
“You’ll think I’m crazy.”
Elsa already thought the woman was crazy. She didn’t bother voicing that opinion. She suspected Anya could read as much from her cold expression. “Who is Mrs White?”
Churlishly, Anya said, “Mrs White is the ghost that travels in the lift.”
Elsa crossed herself. She knew it was never done to talk of ghosts. Especially not this late at night. Her fingers went to her throat and she took a moment’s solace from the reassuring presence of her crucifix. It was satisfyingly solid to her touch.
“There’s no ghost in the lift,” Elsa whispered.
Anya glanced guardedly through the doors. “No. Not tonight.”
The doors started to close. They nudged against the obstacle of Elsa’s cart, making the bottles and spray-guns tremble. Apologetically, the doors bounced back to their housings.
“Not tonight,” Anya repeated. With obvious reluctance, she stepped past Elsa whilst pushing her own cart into the lift. “But there are nights when Mrs White is in the lift. And I’ve made a personal vow never to ride with her.”
After a moment’s hesitation, Elsa pushed her cart into the lift and joined Anya.
“Are you serious?”
“Tartarus House is an old building.” Anya pushed the button for the fifteenth floor. “Old buildings collect ghosts.” Sensing her subordinate’s scepticism, she asked, “Have you cleaned apartment four on the thirteenth?”
Elsa blushed. She had been in that apartment. It was one of the empty flats they were meant to maintain in readiness for a prospective tenant. It was as cold as a Warsaw winter. Even though there had been no one in the apartment, she’d felt as though she was being watched by someone who didn’t approve. It was a disquieting sensation that left her eager to escape.
Goosebumps prickled up her arms as she tried to banish the memory. She’d recently suffered unpleasant dreams and had a vague suspicion that those nightmares were set in room four on the thirteenth floor. Now, listening to Anya’s lowered voice, hearing her whisper confidences as they stood in the creaking elevator and it trembled through its ascent, Elsa suppressed a shiver.
“I didn’t like that place,” she admitted.
“That’s because it’s haunted,” Anya assured her. “Apartment four on the thirteenth. The penthouse suite on fifteen. And this elevator. This elevator is haunted by Mrs White.”
Elsa could feel a glut of questions running through her thoughts. She wanted to know who the ghost was, where she’d come from and why she haunted the elevator. The question she eventually asked was, “Have you seen her?”
Anya met Elsa’s gaze and nodded slowly. “I think so.” Her tone was sharpened by a sliver of defensiveness. “It’s an elevator. The doors open and sometimes there’s someone standing there. You get in but you don’t talk. You rarely make eye contact. I may have shared the lift with Mrs White. Or maybe I just shared the lift with a miserable bitch with soulless eyes, who smelled like death, and didn’t talk.”
A ghost that smelled of death?
Goosebumps prickled Elsa’s forearms with enough severity to make her tremble. She studied Anya with renewed awe and asked, “What does Mrs White do?”
Anya stared into one of the lift’s mirrored walls, her gaze fixed on Elsa, as though it was only safe to communicate through the secrecy of their reflections. Standing side by side, both wearing the hotel’s uniform of white tabard over pale jeans and shirt, they looked like before and after photographs demonstrating the negative effects of alcohol, drugs or age. They shared a similar height. They looked to have used the same shade of dirty-blonde to colour their mid-length bobs. They even shared the same ice-blue eyes, as though there was shared heritage in their Eastern European ancestry.
Elsa hated looking at Anya’s wrinkled features. Unless she found some way to escape her job at Tartarus House, she feared she would end up living the same life that had crushed this woman.
“What does this ghost do?” Elsa repeated.
“Most times she just stands there,” Anya admitted. “She stands in silence and does nothing. Then there are times when she’s disappeared between floors. Some staff have left because of that. They’ve been in the elevator standing next to an elderly woman. They’re thinking they should smile nicely, otherwise the management will learn they weren’t arse-kissing to the residents and they’ll get their bonus docked. They glance away for a moment, maybe to wipe down one of the hand rails. And, when they look back, the old woman has disappeared.”
Elsa swallowed. Her hand moved unconsciously through the motion of genuflecting. “I’d leave if that happened to me.”
“It’s not the worst thing Mrs White has done.”
The lift was travelling slowly upwards. The mechanisms above groaned with age and weariness. Metallic coils from an unseen cable slithered against the thin panels of the walls. Elsa wanted to know what else Mrs White had done but she wasn’t sure she should hear about it whilst using the lift. Drawing a deep breath, steeling herself for the revelation, she said, “Go on.”
Anya licked her lips. “Sometimes she talks to people.”
Elsa shook her head. Her heartbeat raced. She had never heard anything more disturbing in her life. Nevertheless, trying to defy her fears, trying to prove she wasn’t another witless migrant bringing her country’s backward superstitions into her new homeland, she asked, “What’s wrong with that? Talking is only talking, isn’t it?”
“Everyone she talks to comes to an unpleasant end.”
The lift lurched to a stop and the doors slid open.
There was a figure standing at the door. Elsa almost screamed in terror. She had one hand over her heart. The fingers of the other clutched at her crucifix as she scrabbled to move backwards. It was only when the man backed away, smiling apologetically, that she realized he was not a ghost.
“Przepraszam pana,” Anya muttered, pushing her cart past him. “’Scuse us, sir.”
Elsa drew a deep breath and forced herself to walk past the man. She smiled a servile apology and pushed her trolley out of the lift. She guessed the man was an associate of Mr Knight, the current resident of the penthouse suite. She wondered if it might even be the mysterious Mr Knight himself and she turned back to glance at him, wondering what a person looked like when they could afford to live in the penthouse suite of the prestigious Tartarus House.
He stood in the lift with a finger pressed on the button marked G.
Behind him stood a pale elderly woman.
Worse, the elderly woman was reaching out to tap the young man on the shoulder.
Considering the expression on her face, it looked like she had something to say.