Erica Woods was more than a little bit flustered. She clattered down the bustling street on heels that were both far too high and far too pink, her neatly styled hair just beginning to claw its way out of its scraped-back bun. A car horn honked loudly as she staggered through the middle of the road, pressing her neon-orange bag to her chest like the end of the world was coming and the one hope for salvation was tucked inside the tote. Stepping neatly onto the safety of the pavement, she paused to show her middle finger to the driver. Her finger was adorned with far too many rings and garish decorations, but that probably wasn’t why the driver started muttering to himself in disgust.
She allowed herself a brief smile before checking the time on her phone.
The smile slid from Erica’s face, her lips once more set in a determined concentration. Speeding up, she half ran down the busy London streets, barely registering the cold enough to wish she’d brought a coat. The problem was, being fashionably late just wasn’t fashionable if you were the one who was organising the party.
She dodged a tramp, refused to look at a beggar, and hurtled into the reception of the most recognised hotel of the year. It had high glass walls partly hidden by purple curtains, and the decorative glass lamp shades swayed slightly as a gust of cold wind blew in alongside Erica. She shivered. The receptionist looked nowhere near as perky as receptionists are supposed to, and it did nothing to lighten the mood.
“Can I help you?” drawled the un-perky receptionist, glaring at Erica.
“Um, yes, actually. I’m here for a meeting about the Alexander Rhys concert after-party.” She smirked, running her fingers through her hair. “I’m actually helping organise it.”
“Wonderful,” said the receptionist dryly, and Erica wondered absentmindedly if the woman had been cursed as a child to permanently look like she’d rather be somewhere else. “Do you have an appointment?”
Erica blinked, leaning forwards to stare at the bottom of her bag. “Yes, didn’t you hear me say so? I’ve got a meeting. At four thirty. To discuss the Alexander Rhys concert after-party event. I got a call about some last minute arrangements.”
The receptionist shuffled through a pile of papers, twisting slightly so Erica could see her name-tag – it read ‘Mindy’ in large, cheery letters that completely contradicted her sullen expression. “No,” said Mindy, pursing her lips. “You don’t appear to have an appointment. Can I help you?” God. She was like a school child reading lines in a tacky Nativity tableau she didn’t much care about.
“Can’t you call someone?” said Erica, trying to keep the whine from her voice. She tapped her fingers on the counter nervously, ignoring Mindy’s disapproving look. “I’m already late. The meeting sounded kind-of urgent…” She smiled in what she hoped was an apology.
“Can you assure me that you’re not wasting my time?” parried the receptionist, smiling tightly. “This is a highly respected hotel chain, and I promise you that no one here takes time-wasters lightly.”
Resolve flailing, Erica rubbed her forehead with her hand, shaking her head slowly.
“Look,” she pleaded, wondering if it would be business-like enough to get on knees and beg. “Look, I have an appointment, and you’re obviously mistaken, and I’m much too late already – surely you can understand?” She was unsure how Mindy – as unsavoury as she was - had actually secured a job at one of the world’s most prestigious hotels, but wouldn’t be surprised if nefarious deeds of the dastardly sort came into it somewhere. That, or Mindy had remarkably good connections, the hotel had a shortage of staff, and they were so desperate they were willing to overlook her ugly disposition.
The receptionist – however she’d come to be the receptionist - shrugged stiffly. She gave a little mirthless laugh, her wrinkles creasing and contorting and dividing up her face into something a geometry student would delight in. It was an action she obviously wasn’t used to, and it didn’t suit her. “I could call security to chase you out of here, if you like? You might get to take a little detour to the police station. Unless you decide to stop bothering me and remove yourself from the premises, of course.” She smiled, her lipstick cracking over her lips.
It was like Mindy delighted in other people’s pain. Erica felt fully justified to do something as gloriously drastic as scream, or cry, or hit the receptionist exactly where it hurt. In fact, doing so was incredibly enticing. Had the phone not begun to screech shrilly at that precise second, she probably would have given up and stomped out the building, bawling like the toddler inside her yearned to.
However, the phone did indeed begin an ostentatious rendition of some tasteless song or another.
Mindy the un-perky receptionist tutted loudly, shooing at Erica with her hands before answering. “This is Elegancia Hotel and Spa, London. How can I help you?” She grew silent, making a few non-committal grunts and sighs. “Uh-huh. Right. On my way,” she said sourly, before dropping the phone down into its holder with a clatter.
She turned to look at Erica, not caring enough to disguise the revulsion on her face. “You can see yourself out,” said Mindy gesturing quickly to the door, “I have to deal with another guest.” Scraping her chair back, the woman creaked across the room and down a corridor of some kind in what Erica supposed was her version of a hurry. The receptionist paused only once, calling back over her shoulder sweetly, “Do come again soon.”
That was not the last time Erica saw Mindy, but it was certainly by far the most pleasant.
Erica waited until the receptionist had gone, straightened her skirt, adjusted the lapel of her coat, and strutted towards the lift.
Her appointment was at four thirty. It was now nearly five o’clock.
The lift pinged on floor seven, and she stepped out carefully. She shuddered – lifts had always scared her. From a young age, she had latched onto the irrational idea that the lift doors might close against her body if she tried to get out too late. With a sharp intake of breath she dismissed this anxiety and concentrated on another far more important one.
Erica Woods was much too late for her meeting.
Lightly, she paced down the corridor until she came to a door; a large sign was blu-tacked to the wall beside it. It read: ‘Reserved for the Alexander Rhys concert after-party event committee. Head – Donald J. Urwent’. She exhaled, tried to stuff her hair back into its bun, failed miserably, then pushed on the door. It was unlocked, which surprised her, and it swung open easily.
In the centre of the room she stepped into, there was a long rectangular table. There were twelve seats around the table and seven of them were full. Five of them were empty. One chair was for her, but she didn’t take it. At the head of the table, there was a fat, balding man Erica recognised from previous meetings as Donald Urwent. His head lolled slightly to one side, facing a blank sheet of paper in front of him that he’d most likely intended to make notes on. He’d always been fond of taking notes, something Erica personally despised. There was a bullet wound on the side of his head, dripping blood in the same way that leaves in Autumn fall from trees, and it meant that she didn’t need to inspect Donald any further to realise he was dead.
In fact, every single member of the committee still seated at the table was dead.
Erica screamed, stifling the sound with her hand. If she was caught up here with all these dead people, she’d be first on the suspect list. She blanched, like she’d just taken a spontaneous bath in a pool of flour and chalk, and then she forgot about staying calm and shrieked again, swaying slightly.
Thank God she’d been held up and arrived late. Erica didn’t dare to think what had happened to the four other people with vacant seats. Maybe they’d escaped. Maybe they were killers. She shook her head, forcing herself to grasp at self-control, think rational thoughts.
Maybe they’d just been held up, like her.
She doubted it.