Sleight of Hand
Thaddeus was missing. The only certain thing Benjamin could put a finger on. Everything else was a web of confusion left for him to untangle as best he could.
He opened the front door of the family mansion to find swirling darkness. Squinting, he adjusted his eyes to the room lit only by vague moonlight that shifted through the cloud-filled sky. His breathing and the steady drip, drip, drip from his raincoat hem were the only sounds that filled the otherwise empty silence that pressed against him while the musty scent of death sifted down with the dust particles that floated on the air. He was not surprised still it bothered him that there was no sign of a servant, not even the vermin that most definitely had taken up residence since the humans vacated the premises.
Fists clenched, determined that nothing would deter him, he forced away the willy-nilly shiver that raced up his spine. He covered his nose with a monogrammed handkerchief and pushed past cobwebs hanging from the ornate door frame. As he did so, soft webbing brushed against his face giving the sensation that spiders crawled through his hair and over his clothes.
Frantic, he yanked the rain-filled bowler from his head, slapping it against his exposed head, drenched-wet coat and gray flannel trousers. His startled gaze darted here and there, unable to see anything distinctly in the darkness. A flash of light, perhaps it was a will-o-the-wisp, snapped his brain. Still, he found nothing but air and an overactive imagination crawling through the crevices of his clothes and hair, though his scalp continued to tingle with the phantom touch of a thousand tiny arachnids.
Holding his breath, like a child afraid of the darkness, he stepped farther inside the octagon-shaped foyer, his back toward the rain outside. A slug of revulsion shivered through him as he pulled off his raincoat. He felt exposed as he draped the dripping coat and water-filled hat on to a brass stand that stood near the front door. Tarnished from lack of good housekeeping, the stand reminded him of a wooden skeleton with too many arms and no head.
The steady drip from the coat’s hem echoed dully against the dusty wood floor matching the rhythm of the wind that whistled against the windows and roof making an eerie tick, tick that resounded throughout the murky space beyond. A wet dog, Benjamin shook water droplets from his hair splattering them in every direction. This place, this house, no longer felt like his childhood home. It reminded him instead of a mausoleum that only dead things or the insane would skulk through. Not eager to have prying eyes peer into his private business, he closed the double front doors, shutting out the beam of moonlight that had shown the way. As the latch clicked into place darkness enveloped the room so thick it seemed to twist and coil around him. He yanked the door back open. Damn the rain, damn the floor, he needed the light.
“Thaddeus-s-s,” Benjamin hissed.
It had been months since he received the message that no one in Breton had seen or heard the whereabouts of his younger brother and new bride. Angrier than he had ever been at Thaddeus, and that was saying a lot, his gaze shot toward the three-story cathedral ceiling that lifted away into darkness.
“Where in hell are you, Thaddeus?”
The answer came like mice skittering from buried corners of the mansion. Benjamin pivoted toward the sound. His boot heels clicked on the parquet floor echoing eerily against the unseen walls of the hidden rooms beyond.
At the threshold of the library, he would swear he felt warm breath blew against his ear as if someone stood just above his right shoulder, whispering words he could not understand. He twisted around to face demons cavorting in the murky shadows. For one terrible moment, his senses blurred, his throat constricted. He could not breathe. Oh, God, he could not breathe.
“Who’s there?” He gasped the words, hating the way his voice trembled with dread, while forcing puffs of air out of his closed throat incapable of drawing in a fresh breath.
Everything, what little that he could see of the room, began to blur. He was going to pass out. Oh, God there was no one here to help him and he was going to choke. He was going to die—
He forced the knot out, once, twice from his throat clenched in a spasm before he gasped in the saving air he needed. Breathing in and out, he waited. His face hot from exertion, fists clenched at his side. Yet, only silence and gloom answered back adding to the creeping terror that had almost taken over his mind.
Drawing his courage, he turned back toward the book-lined room and pushed through the encroaching shadows. A tree limb scrapped and tapped at the library’s bay window sending a shiver of dread through him. Bustling about to keep the cold and fear at bay, he knelt before the hearth. Sweeping aside scattered ashes on the stone bed, he pulled wood, kindling and matches from the tarnished, copper magazine. Soon a blazing fire lit and warmed one section of the room. Eagerly, he stretched his hands toward the soothing heat and flickering flame.
He glanced toward the gaslights hanging unlit from the wood-paneled library walls, but thought better of turning them up, wishing to conduct his search in as much secrecy as possible. Instead, he retrieved a tallow candle from a desk drawer.
The wick blazed to life casting meager light and flickering shadows. Benjamin walked toward a mahogany desk where stacks of books and wads of paper covered thick dust. He picked up a crumpled note that lay among the books and smoothed it out. Uneven handwriting lay scrawled across the sheet. It read:
My Dearest Mary, I find myself in dire straits with only you as a possible savior…
The last word ended in a streaked blob of ink that trailed off the edge of the onion skin paper.
Benjamin bit back a curse. He scrunched the stationery into a ball and tossed it into a trash hamper that sat at the base of the desk. One by one, he flattened out the other sheets. Much to his frustration, none of the other sheets of crumpled paper revealed any more than the first had. Benjamin whisked the palm of his hand toward the desktop, scattering the paper wad on to the floor. He then brushed the grime from the palms of his hands, drew in a deep, calming breath and turned away from the desk with its piles of filth-encrusted clutter.
Why was he forever cleaning up Thaddeus’ messes? His anger welled up overpowering the creeping terror he fought at every turn since entering the house. Taking the candle with him, he strode toward to the entrance hall where the peculiar sounds now seemed to emanate.
Since his sojourn in the library, moonlight had broken free of the gathering clouds sending a kaleidoscopic beam of pink, blue and green light cascading down through stained glass cut into the third-floor ceiling. It shimmered like fairy dust against twin staircases that seemed to float as they curved toward opposite sides of the second story.
Near the bottom, right step of the east wing stairs there stood an upright “Saratoga” traveling chest. The bigger case hovered over a prone steamer trunk where a padlock bolted the lid shut.
Benjamin set down the candle and threw open the Saratoga. He searched, rummaging through frilly women’s clothing and shoes hastily thrown into the case, but he found nothing save inconsequential rubbish! He wanted to shout as he flung fists full of the feminine dainties on to the dusty floor. The only thing that prevented him was again, not wanting to draw attention this way.
His mind whirled with speculation. Why the hurriedly packed clothes, stuffed into travel cases left to gather dust in the foyer? Benjamin jumped to his feet and hurried toward the back of the mansion. In moments, he returned carrying a small pix axe and a blunt-nosed hammer. Using the ax tip as a wedge, he slammed the butt of the hammer against the ax’s blunt metal edge. One well-placed blow and the lock shattered. He tossed the tools aside and shoved open the steamer’s lid.
Silk shirts, hand-tailored woolen slacks and broad, colorful cravats, he scooped into a heap on the floor. At the bottom of the trunk, next to a half full bottle of rye whiskey, lay a slim, leather-bound, black book. When he held it up to the candlelight, a shudder of horror tracked down his spine. Pressed into the binding and along the front and back covers of the bleak volume were reddish-brownish stains.
Whose blood is this? His stomach churned.
He could feel the bile rise in his throat. His hands shook, His mind was unable to shut out all the gruesome possibilities. Dreading what new revulsion would present its self, he opened the front cover of the slender tome to find a penned signature occupying the upper left corner. It read, Personal Journal of Thaddeus Ulysses Theibes, Esq…