THE ELEVENTH HOUR
BENJAMIN E. FAKTOR'S MANSION, 12/31/11, 5:00 PM
A New Year's Eve Mystery, At the Close of the Year 1911
Cold. Selene "Shakhmaty" Killian had always loved living in Maine, but the winters...They could take a toll on her, and that was why she had dressed extra-warmly tonight. Under the light of a full moon, with a thousand stars gleaming overhead in their merciless fire, she had made her way to the only mansion standing in the steel-milling town of Icecliff, population 10,000.
Tonight was a New Year's Eve party hosted by the owner of the Icecliff Steel Foundry, Ben E. Faktor. Yes, God's honest truth, that was his name, formally Benjamin Edward. He had invited several guests, herself included, for a night of fine dining and revelry. Her invitation had also come with a strange and wondrous proposition: During the course of the evening, she and her fellow partygoers would be playing a game. The winner? He or she would inherit the vast sum of ten million dollars--Faktor's entire fortune! It seemed almost too good to be true. Then again, Shakhmaty was not one to pass up a chance, either on the chessboard or off. Ever since that match with Mrs. Claiborne...
No. She would not think about that now. She'd only focus on the party.
Cars were few and far between these days, even in a town like Icecliff, and so that was why Shakhmaty had rented a traditional carriage. Clad in a five-year-old mink stole and hat with only ten feathers instead of twenty, the young chess player let the footman escort her up the stairs to Faktor's door.
Knocking three times, Shakhmaty was relieved to see a maid emerge at last.
"Are you here for tonight?" asked the servant sternly. Shakhmaty nodded.
"This way." The maid led her inside the dim foyer of the house. "You'll be in the Plum Room. I'll lead you upstairs so you can put your valise away, miss."
Letting her blue eyes adjust to the funereal dimness of Faktor's cavernous mansion, Shakhmaty followed the middle-aged woman with iron-gray hair up a long spiral staircase, upholstered in dusty red velvet. How long had it been since the housemaid had done any actual work? Shakhmaty noticed the thin cobwebs on the gaslit chandelier and the hazy shadows it cast on the floor. This place was a legend in Icecliff--nay, all of Maine--and yet its newest guest somehow had the feeling its reputation was not all that well-deserved.
"Where is our host?" inquired Shakhmaty humbly of the housekeeper.
"He isn't feeling well. He will be down for dinner. He asked me to greet you."
Not very chatty, is she?
The two women had reached the Plum Room. Its walls explained its name, painted in a soft, romantic purple. The decor was all fresh white roses, even in the dead of winter, and French lace. A room fit for a lady, and a very wealthy one. An antique crystal nightlamp illuminated all. There was a bathroom as well, with a porcelain clawfoot tub.
"This is beautiful!" cried the elated houseguest. "Thank you for all of this!"
"It's Mister Faktor's pleasure," replied the maid, not taking her eyes off of Shakhmaty. "As soon as you're ready, come downstairs. Dinner will be served promptly at six o'clock. I am the only servant here, so I'll need to get the dishes ready. You may do as you like, including meet the other guests when they arrive. As for me--oh, dear. I must assure that everything is in place."
She retreated, the folds of her long, gray dress uniform trailing behind her.
"Oh, by the way. My name is Henrietta. Dispense with trivial formalities."
Shakhmaty got the shivers. Her voice had sounded austere and unwelcoming.
And, what was that phonograph on the cherrywood dresser across from her bed? Shakhmaty went over to it. Strange--it didn't have a record upon it...
A ghostly sound crept through its golden bell, and she jumped back. Who'd made that noise? She could have sworn the phonograph said--
Never mind. Shakhmaty went downstairs, awaiting the other guests' arrival.