When the Clock Struck Midnight

Prologue

March, 1912

It was a chilly night to be walking around, and the young woman pulled her fur wrap closer around her covered shoulders. Any person of the rich variety would recognize the elegant couture of Madame Jeanne Paquin, one of her newest and most coveted evening gowns for the start of 1912. It was an off-white layered dress embedded in lace; it hid the bare skin of the neck and shoulders, a smooth, delicate cream color; the sleeves were thin, but there was a pink sash that nipped around the waist and kept the female body cozy and sought-after. To top it all off: a magnificent pink flower sewn on the sash, and a fur mink wrap to warm up the loose sleeves.

But it wasn't her attire or lustful shape that caught the eye's attention first: It was her face. It was delicately heart-shaped, a fair tone; her eyes were round and green, topped off with long, curled lashes; her nose was small but equivalent to her features; and her lips, which took the form of a well-shaped bow, were plump and pink. With her eyelids heavily made up and her skin a silky porcelain, the men's eyes widened and stared as she strolled on by, her new pair of heels clicking on the concrete sidewalk.

She declined traveling by automobile because the scandal-seeking photographers and journalists always recognized her by the sleek, stylish Renault she always couldn't resist. And her face, so delicate and familiar to the European world, was always seen through the clear glass panes. Once they caught sight of her, it became hectic; so she decided to casually walk back to the London Ritz, a classy hotel that was built more than five years ago.

"Hey, darling, you want to come over here for a second?" teased a crude man, and the woman shuddered. She didn't respond, but hurriedly continued walking, pulling her mink wrap even tighter around her. It almost made her sick how some men acted; and it reminded her a little bit of home, and the man she fell in love with.

She hadn't seen him since she left in December. The Russian winters were brutal, and she couldn't take another one of them—so she packed up and left her home behind, St. Petersburg becoming a tiny speck in the snow-filled distance. By the time she was a few miles away, it was only a blurry streetlamp from the blizzard that had decided to show up, as though it was displaying how much her heart ached and tore whenever she thought of his face.

What she hated to mention was that he was there, waiting for her to say good-bye. Never had his features been so glum and strangely angry, and she had spat, "Now you see why I didn't want you coming with me, you lovesick fool." She would regret those words for the rest of her life—and she was only a woman of eighteen years. After she said those fourteen disdainful words—she counted them, just to remember that they were real—she had climbed aboard the waiting train, training her eyes on the seat in front of her instead of the person knocking on the window beside her. "Elena!" he cried desperately. She dared herself to peek; his face was so heartbroken. Only she knew of the lies he had shared. "I'm sorry."

Yet she didn't said anything back, just kept staring at him as she debated what to do. Eventually she gave up on him when the train had pulled away, and he had slumped away from the window, defeated, and became a tiny speck in the distance.

He wasn't the only one to blame. What he didn't know wouldn't kill him—the winters were just her excuse for a much larger plan.

But that was the past. For Elena Novikov, life was all about looking towards the future.

The hotel was only one block away, and she was glad to be back in the safer part of London where men in top hats and tuxedos escorted their finely dressed ladies back home. Not like the alleyways she just had to take, shrouded in creepy shadows and drunken, penniless men looking for a steal. Sighing gratefully, she chattered her teeth and opened the glass door with her gloved hands, the panes placed in an elegantly carved frame, barking out a laugh when the doorman came running.

"Charles, it's quite all right. I don't need someone attending to my every need," she said as he took the handle firmly in his leather hand and opened it the rest of the way.

"I live to serve, Miss Elena," he responded stoutly, but even he couldn't hold in a smile as she slapped him playfully on the arm.

"Is my room ready yet?" she asked as she handed him her purse and adjusted her wrap, shaking out the fresh snow that had started to fall earlier, which was strange for the start of spring; but it had stopped after a few minutes, making Elena question the sky with curiosity. If only she had continued her education back home.

Back on to the task at hand, she wasn't the most organized of people, and she had made quite a mess of her room that morning as she prepared for a show she was invited to by an honest gentleman by the name of Edgar. But she had declined of his services to escort her back home, and continued on her way.

"Of course. The maids had been working hard to make it spotless." The lift opened, and she was welcomed graciously in by the bellboy and lift attendant, Billy.

"Thank you, Charles," she chirped as she reclaimed her handbag and stepped inside the plush area. He smiled and bowed his head before returning to his duties.

"What floor, Miss Elena?" Billy asked as she removed her gloves from her numb fingers.

"The fourth floor, Billy, please." She stuffed them in her purse. "And how many times do I have to tell you? You can just call me Elena."

It was true that Elena had taken an interest in Billy from the moment she set foot in the Ritz. On the other hand, she was a famous actress, and he was just a hotel worker, so it would never work out. But that didn't mean she couldn't play with him.

Reaching over, she put a hand on his shoulder as he closed the gates and pulled the lever. A blush, close to invisible, appeared on his cheeks. Her well-manicured fingers pushed a strand of black hair back from his face. "I didn't notice you had freckles," she commented slyly as the lift came to a stop. The whole ride up four floors and he hadn't given her a glance, making Elena pout slightly.

"Have a nice night, Miss Elena," Billy choked out as she pranced out of the lift. She gave him a seductive wink as he hastily closed the doors and sent it back down.

Sighing contently, she found her room and unlocked it, the key jangling in her purse as she slid it back in after the handle made a relieving click. The room was, indeed, prim and perfect. While she turned on the lights, she pressed the buzzing button on the wall and called for an employee to send up any letters or notes she might have received for the day.

"Your correspondence, Miss," he had said when someone had finally showed. She was in the process of removing her light brown hair from its stubborn bun shape.

Taking it in her warmed hand, she scanned it for a name. "There's no name on this card," she snapped, flipping it over and handing it back. "Who sent it?"

The man in the hotel suit gulped nervously. "I don't know, Miss Elena. It just appeared in your box." He decided to force a laugh. "Quite mysterious, Miss. Maybe you have a secret admirer."

Elena shook her head disappointingly—she was getting quite tired of secret love notes— and pulled it out of his tight, anxious grasp. Her face blanched when she read it, her whole body turning cold. "You may go," she excused the perspiring man, and she was cautious as the door closed. Taking conscious steps in her newly bought slippers, she skimmed the living room, her eyes focusing on the dark bedroom.

"Is anyone in here?" she said, trying to hide the obvious shaking in her voice. But there was no response; it was just her. Reading the note over again, she scoffed and tore it in half. "I'm just being silly. People send threats all the time." She sighed and made her way to the bedroom, changing into a robe so she could take a well-needed bath to soothe her clanking nerves. The time on the clock read 11:56 PM.

I'm back, and I'm here to find you.

Starting up the bath, she played with her hair as she looked into the mirror. The only sound was that of the bath water running. She exhaled deeply and stared into her green eyes. "I should know about threats out of all people."

She was just about to remove her makeup when a reflection in the mirror caught her eye. Her heart stopped in her throat, and her eyes widened in fear; but she couldn't scream, for that person, shrouded in darkness, had a hold on her already. "You scream," the anonymous person croaked, "I'll pull out the knife. And you don't want that."

Elena gasped silently in terror as the person took out a glistening knife and slid it across his or her fingers, watching a drop of dark red blood fall to the tiled floor. "Now we could do this the gory way," he or she rasped, Elena couldn't tell, "or the silent way."

There was a chime of the clock, and with one last yelp from Elena, the anonymous person shoved her towards the overfilling tub.

She fell with a foreboding splash.

"Are you sure you hadn't heard from her?" the exasperated hotel manager, Mr. Callahan, asked. There had been many drunk cases when people had come back to the Ritz in a total daze, only to collapse on the bed and sleep for hours on end.

"The maid said she saw a lot of water on the floor in Miss Elena's room, but she was too afraid to look and see," Fredrick, the man running the front desk, explained. A cold perspire formed a thin shine on his forehead. "She called for her name, and there was no answer. We were thinking of sending up an investigator."

"No, no, no," Mr. Callahan sighed. "I'll do it. This is my hotel, after all."

After reaching Elena's floor, Billy anxiously watched Mr. Callahan and Fredrick muttering about a strange case before disappearing from his sight.

The two opened the door, politely called out her name. The only light that was on was the one in the bathroom, illuminating the shiny water on the floor.

Fredrick, however, noticing something the maid had failed to mention: the red stain in the pure, clear liquid. "Mr. Callahan, I have a bad feeling—"

Before he could finish, though, Mr. Callahan had already seen the murder. "Dear God!" he cried, horrified. Fredrick was too nervous and petrified to look. Mr. Callahan's face, a sickly pale, slowly turned to confront his. "You were right," he gasped out, looking like he was going to be sick. "Call the police."

Later, when Billy asked Fredrick how Elena was, barely noticing the sweat stains that had spread all over his body or his sickly complexion, he was met with the simple response of "Dead."

Billy's hopeful smile faltered, and he turned away from everyone—Charles the doorman, Fredrick at the front desk—and thought about Elena. It was what the whole world would do until her questionable murder was put to rest.