Elizabeth stood on the sidewalk, pondering her next move. She stared up at the large stone building before her. A single yellow turret stood tall on one corner, rising at least three floors above the rest of the already massive place. Standing nearly five stories, the opulent manor like Langham Hotel was a bastion of beauty and modern design.
A light rain had begun to drip from the gray evening sky causing the young woman’s silky blonde hair to get wet. Thunder rolled overhead, threatening to let loose a downpour at any moment.
“I hate this country.” She said. “Always raining.”
Looking down at the envelope in her hand, Elizabeth questioned her motives one last time. She’d never been harassed by a fan before, but she was no stranger to the horrors and oddities of such tales. Her friends back home and abroad had told her more than enough stories to worry her. It would be no stretch of the imagination to fear the invitation she held in her hand to come from someone, a man, who had found in her fame, her beautiful features, her sweet and soft voice, an obsession which bordered on madness.
By walking across the cobbled street and entering the hotel, Elizabeth knew she could most certainly be entering a trap for which she would not be able to escape. She was too small in frame, too weak of constitution to fight against the will of a man lusting for her. Why, he would be too strong for her to fight back. His demented mental state, driven by madness and obsession would be no match for her ability to reason. She knew this and the more she thought about it the more she feared her chances.
What if there were a man, in there, waiting for her? He would play out his part, so proud of himself for playing the role of a gentleman. Proud to have acted alongside the famous Elizabeth Wilder, actress extraordinaire! He would lull her into a false sense of security, perhaps attempting to intoxicate her with drink, biding his time before striking. Having his way with her and doing the most inexplicable things.
Elizabeth stepped back, turning away from the hotel.
She could walk. Walk away and forget all about it. Return to the theatre, and act as though none of this ever occurred. No one would know where she had gone. She’d lied about that. Which, as the thought crossed the young woman’s mind, seemed more of a reason not to cross the street. True she feared anyone knowing where she had gone or why, but as the thought danced atop her head like a devil, the more she feared the prospect. Were something bad to happen to her, no one would know where to look. Were she to be taken, it would be for forever. She would vanish without so much as a clue.
But she couldn’t just walk away, could she? Pausing, her hands beginning to tremble, Elizabeth reread the letter. Her eyes darted across the fine penmanship, reading each and every word carefully. Whoever had written this note, they knew her secret. They knew something which no one had ever known. Worse, they threatened to expose her secret to the world. She could not have that. It would ruin her career. It would ruin her life. No, Elizabeth thought, she would rather die than let such a ruinous secret escape and live with the consequences.
Holding back the hot tears welling up in her eyes, Elizabeth turned back to face the grand building and crossed the street. Come Hell or high water, she thought, I will pull through this night. I will survive because I must.
The front lobby was large and exquisitely decorated. Modern in every aspect. Large white pillars made from marble swirled with thick black lines. The floor, made from the same marble mirrored the pillars and added for a brilliant effect as the large golden chandeliers glowed a bright white light. Everything was clean and elegant. Even on an actresses wages, wages which seemed to increase every year in tandem with her fame, Miss Wilder would be hard pressed to afford such a fancy upscale hotel. Only Lords and Ladies, dwindling remnants of the old kingdom which lingered long before America had won her independence, could afford to stay at such a palatial hotel.
Elizabeth, still nervous and uncertain what the evening would bring her, made her way slowly to the front desk. A man dressed in a fine pressed black tuxedo and white bow tie greeted her with a jovial but professional smile. He had a narrow face, smooth and clean shaven. His short brown hair was slicked back and well combed.
“Miss Wilder,” The man said as she approached.
Elizabeth was stunned. Although her fame had made her face recognizable among the theatre crowds of New York and thereabouts, she was shocked a hotel clerk in London would have any idea who she was. She smiled and nodded, still unsure what to think.
“You’ve been expected. Please, if you’ll follow me, the party awaits.” The man stepped out from behind the desk and began walking, leading Elizabeth down a hallway, away from the lobby.
“Party?” Elizabeth asked, her soft American accent betraying her awkwardness.
“Yes, Ma’am.” The clerk replied. “A party of five. You are the last, beside your host, to arrive.”
Host? Elizabeth wondered. A party of five? What was she getting into?
“I’m sorry.” She said. “I don’t understand. Who is our host?”
“Confusion seems to be the game of the evening, Miss. Your host said not to speak of the matter, as everything would be explained in due time. I was asked to refer to the invitation and its contents as a reference.”
Elizabeth’s heart sank into her stomach and a sudden feeling of nausea overtook her.
“You know of the invitation?” She asked, placing a hand on the wall for support as she walked. This man knew her secret? Was this a trap? Was she to be arrested?
“Only that they have instructions which you should follow, Ma’am. I know nothing of their physical content.” The man stepped up to a closed door. “Here we are.”
Opening the door, the clerk motioned for Elizabeth to enter and stepped aside. She entered, hesitation and fear trembling just beneath the surface of her calm and pleasant demeanor. If ever there were a moment Elizabeth was acting, it was now.
“Now that you’ve all arrived, I’m certain your host will be joining you shortly.” The clerk said leaving the room and closing the door behind him.
Elizabeth looked at her surroundings. The room was large, most likely a ballroom, though now it was barren save for a few chairs in the center, a small rollaway bar, and four other people. The walls were lined with pillars which reached up toward a tall paneled ceiling. They were spaced evenly and separated by tall windows covered with light golden-white curtains. Grand chandeliers, of which there were two, hung from the ceiling, cut from a clear, hazy-white crystal. It was a beautiful room, and was brilliantly designed for what Elizabeth could only assume were the finest balls and gatherings in London. However, standing alone in a room with four stranger, the young actress felt a strange sensation of trepidation and nervousness she’d never before felt.
Glancing at the strangers in the room, who had all stopped to look at Elizabeth as she entered, she saw only one other woman. This did nothing to allay her fears, as the woman was thin, frail, and sickly looking. She had long black hair which hung in a loose bun behind her head, giving her a slightly disheveled appearance. Her manner was twitchy and equally nervous as to what Elizabeth felt now. Were this woman under similar circumstances to her own, invited by blackmail, to attend what could only be a most terrible and unscrupulous event, it would only spell disaster.
The men, of whom there were three, were each different in their appearance. One man, leaning casually against a pillar holding a brandy, was tall, thin and had the most penetrating eyes of them all. His expression was calm, but curious as he watched Elizabeth slowly make her way toward one of the five chairs arranged in the center of the room.
Another man, much shorter than the first was dressed in a tweed suit. He was stocky and well groomed. From his excellently kept mustache and sturdy cane, he seemed respectable. But he sat in one of the chairs, watching everyone cautiously and this did nothing for the young actress as she sat down, choosing a seat as far from the man as she could.
Lastly, standing at the bar pouring himself what seemed to be a fourth or fifth glass of wine, was a young, handsome man in his late twenties. He was tall, but not as tall as the man who sipped at his brandy. He toned, but not nearly as stocky as the man with the mustache. If it weren’t for the stupid, half grin spread on his face or the suspiciously inappropriate glances he’d snuck in her direction, Elizabeth might have found him attractive. But there was something else about him, something, in fact, Elizabeth had noticed about all the people in the room, which she found unsettling.
Everyone was watching one another with a slightly secretive and untrusting stare. Who these people were and what their intentions were, was beyond Elizabeth. Whatever secrets she kept, whatever truths were to be learned, she resolved at that moment, to ensure she remained honest to herself. Despite the pain and hurt, she was certain to endure, she would not let it beat her. She would allow these people or the mysterious host who had yet to arrive, to make of her something she was not.
This feeling, this sure and certain stubbornness to remain, at heart, true to herself, began to burn like a fire within her bosom. Her career might end, her life might be in ruins, but she would not let it ruin her.
“Well,” the handsome young man said. His accent was French. Which to Elizabeth explained the clarity of his voice. For a man who had finished two glasses of wine since her entering, seemed rather sober.
“This is all of us, no?” he continued. “The hotel clerk had mentioned there would be five of us. Now we must wait for this mysterious host. Whoever they should be.”
“Yes.” Said the mustached man. “I would like to know who this host of our is. Have any of you a clue about what is going on?”
“Does it matter?” The black haired woman replied. Her voice was weak, brittle, and cracked slightly.
“I for one would like to know,” Elizabeth said. “Why have I been called here?”
The hawkish man across the room stood straight and made his way toward the center of the room beside the chairs. He looked from one person to another, his inquisitive eyes, dark and curious.
“It seems,” The man said. “We have all been invited here because we are unable to refuse.”
Elizabeth looked up at the man. He slowly paced the floor, a subtle smirk spread across his face. “What do you mean?” She asked.
“You said you had been called here, as though someone has summoned you. However, I see in your hands the very same invitation which I myself received, and which I assume everyone present also received. By claiming you have been called here, it would stand to reason you did not wish to be here despite being invited. It also stands to reason none of you would rather be here, besides perhaps the writer sitting by herself. If that is the case, which I am positive it is, then it also stands that you are all being blackmailed.”
“My God man!” ejaculated the mustached man. “How do you come to such a damning conclusion? You say that we are being blackmailed, what evidence do you have of such an accusation? Are you in on this whole thing?”
“Might I note, good doctor, that your rebuttal of my comment alone confirms my statement.” The thin man replied. “It is clear to anyone looking, that the only reason a sane man or woman would accept an invitation to a mysterious meeting with no prior knowledge of their host’s identity is to keep secret that which the unknown host knows and threatens to disclose publicly. Might I also mention this is confirmed by the mere fact that I too have received such an invitation.”
“Well, I say,” The mustached man replied dumbfounded and amazed. “How did you know I am a doctor? Have we met sir?”
“No, we have not. Your accent betrays the fact that you schooled here in London before joining the military and deploying abroad. India and the middle-east if I am correct. You are of healthy stock but not of a fighting man, nor do you express the characteristics one might see from an officer. That coupled with the way you hold your cane, I would assume you are a doctor, as only doctors or those in the field of medicine are accustomed to the proper ways of holding a device so commonly held incorrectly.”
The mustached man stood, his mouth agape. “Indeed sir, indeed! And who, might I ask are you?”
“I am Sherlock Holmes.”
“Dr. John Watson. It is a pleasure, Mr. Holmes! Pure genius, magic!”
A slow clap came from the back of the group. Elizabeth turned to see the young Frenchman applauding in a steady, sarcastic rhythm.
“Congratulations.” He said, his thick accent only now beginning to slur with his level of drinking. “It is a con. I am no stranger to such things, Mr. Holmes. He is no magician. He must have searched your person while you were not looking. Check your wallet, if it is still there. Anyone with any skill could have made such a lift.”
“Yes,” Holmes said. “If I were a pickpocket like our French friend here, perhaps I could have gleaned some information about you. But I did not. I am a detective. And to detect you must be able to see the clues. Clues tell us everything about the world if you only know how to see them.”
The woman with black hair responded, again her weak voice cracking as she spoke. “You said I was a writer. How do you know this?”
Holmes moved toward the woman, his smirk still present on his face. He looked the woman up and down, his eyes betraying nothing of his emotions.
“Your hands, I saw them as you entered, display the unique feature of someone who spends a great deal of their time writing. Indentations on your right middle and index fingers along with an indentation on the pad of your right thumb. They tell me you must use a pen or pencil often.”
“I could be a clerk or secretary, someone who dictates for a living. Not a writer.” The woman replied.
“True, but your hair is pulled up into a bun, sloppily and unkempt. For a secretary or clerk, you would require a level of the dress fitting such a position. Your boss would have you sent home or fired were you not dressed appropriately. Such a habit would never be formed. Today is a Saturday. You would presumably not be at work today, but a working girl would have money to spend, to socialize. Would you not have done your hair before going out, on a holiday no less? Your hair is done out of haste and convenience, not fashion. A writer who spends their time writing would have learned such a habit.”
“This might be true,” The woman said, “But you could also be wrong.”
“I am not wrong, Ma’am,” Holmes replied. “Though your voice is weak, I am still able to detect your accent, which though English, betrays a Scottish lilt. You are thin, past the point of fashionable. Which means you have been malnourished. I am certain the doctor here can provide certainty that this is true.
“Your clothing is new, and though it is fine, it is more expensive than what most writers could afford. This means that someone has purchased them for you. The mere fact that you remarked on whether or not it mattered if we’d been blackmailed into coming here tonight tells me that our host was the person who purchased your clothing. A fact you are aware of. However, as it is ill-fitting, I doubt you’ve met our host or they would ensure they be tailored to your small frame. The design of your clothes is current with trends in Austria, which tells me you were recently there.
“An English writer with a slight Scottish accent, thin with malnutrition because she had been institutionalized and underfed, wearing Austrian clothing which was purchased for her because she hadn’t any of her own, can mean only one thing. You are Miss Mary Shelley. The writer, who after losing her husband during a holiday in Austria went, as the papers put, insane.”
“Bravo!” A sweet delicate voice said from across the room.
Everyone turned. Standing in the open doorway, wearing a bright red gown, long and exquisite, fitting her perfect curvaceous body like a lambs skin glove, was the very image of beauty. She was tall and slender. Her yellow hair fell in large golden curls which hung above her shoulders and shined like silk in the light of the chandeliers. Her lips were red like blood and her eyes were as bright and green as emeralds. She smiled a perfectly warm and genuine grin. Her white teeth gleamed.
“Bravo, detective!” She said. “Welcome, everyone. I am your host, Lucy Hyde.”