It is a long and winding road that your driver takes you upon. He talks animatedly about local sports and the weather, but studiously avoids discussing anything regarding your Host, and the constant shifting of his eyes indicates an extreme agitation – all the more visible when, as he drops you off at your destination, he bids you a quick farewell and roars off into the distance, automobile shooting smog and dust as it disappears beyond the leaf-shorn trees.
As for the house in front of you, it is not as large as you'd imagined; the paint is peeling and dry. Grim-faced gargoyles stare down at you from the roof in silent judgement, and the dried leaves on the ground have not been raked for days.
Making your way to the door, you knock twice before the door swings open. Holding it is a broad man, of ruddy complexion, his white-blonde hair and moustache wild and carefree as his smile.
“Ah, good, good! With you, everyone is here. Please, come in!”
You step inside, glad you made it into the house before the rain became more then a light shower. The man takes your coat with an almost automatic directness, placing at several others to your side.
“It is a pleasure to meet you – my name - “
He begins, but a murmur from the long couch in the centre hall stops him flat, slight embarrasment sliding across his face.
“Ah, yes. Right. I am the Major; It has been the agreement of our little group that we should all take turns welcoming each other; and you are the last. Please! Come sit with us, while we wait for our illustrious Host to join us! I am sure he will be along shortly – I have not known the man to waste time.”
You follow through the foyer to the centre hall, where three others have gathered at a table, playing a hand of cards. The first to acknowledge you is a tall, thin man of angular build and eastern descent whom you recognize as the Financier. His beige suit is impeccable as he offers you a brief smile, but is clearly focused on his hand – which you catch sight of as being decent, though by no means certain of victory.
To his right is a young woman dressed in the sort of clothes that instantly give her away as a member of the press in their decrepitude. The Reporter seems to care very little for the game, her inquistive eyes darting to each of you in turn. She doesn't smile with her lips, but does murmur a polite greeting all the same, her foot tapping impatiently – and you wonder how long the group has been waiting.
And to the right of the Reporter, a woman with dark black skin, in the twilight of her years yet still mesmerizing, is attempting to seem interested in the game. Her dress is not especially glamorous; but the diamond earings she wears are a callback to the fame and fortune the Singer once enjoyed. She offers you a slight, faltering smile that doesn't hide her exhaustion in the slightest.
“So!” The Major booms, sitting back at the table and pulling you a chair. “That's all of us assembled, and with that, I am certain our Host won't be long in joining us? Hmn?”
“Hmn, indeed.” A voice murmurs languidly from the long sofa. A constant cloud of acrid smoke hangs over the prone Aristocrat as she chews the ruins of a cigar betwixt her teeth. She seems to share the impatience of the rest of the little group – but disinterested and detached as she is, makes no real effort to greet you beside a cursorary nod of her head.
As you pull up a chair, the Financier folds his hand, and folds back into his seat.
“Perhaps we've all been had. Wouldn't it be some prank to pay for all our trips here, then not appear? What a guy, our Host – bringing such minds to one room and then refusing to show himself. He has refused to meet with any of you, right?”
Murmurs of assent drift from around the table (and maybe from the couch, it's rather hard to say).
The Reporter, having given up any indication of interest in cards, folds her hands against one another.
“I've given it a few thoughts, and think it's more likely this is some sort of scam. I did a little digging, and we've all got it in with this guy, one way or another. I don't like to think about it, but... You hear things in my line of work. Maybe what we've been called here for, is to hear what he wants us to hear.”
“Baldurdash!” The Major cries with great force, slamming his fist into the table with enough strength to send a few of the cards flying – much to the displeasure of the Financier. “This is a party, not some kind of extortion – and if it is, there are six of us to his one.” Calming somewhat, he continues. “Let us not make accusations without proof.”
“I think...” The Singer begins, then stops to catch her thoughts.
“I think that if the Host wanted us to feel some sort of pressure, play some kind of game with us, he's doing a great job.” Turning to you with greying hair that obscures the seriousness in her gaze, she adds -
“We've been waiting here for perhaps two hours, mostly. She was already present, and in fact had to let me in when I first arrived.”
The Singer motions to the Aristocrat, who has finally managed to roust herself from her exhaustment and risen to a sitting position, her gloved hands against her knees. Tobacco-stained teeth grin at you as she speaks.
“Quite. I actually arrived before any of you, only to find the door unlocked. Given my situation and natural curiousity, I let myself in. The study is locked, as is the cellar; but other then that, the entirety of the place is open enough that any brigand could come in and take it over.”
Looking mildly disgusted, the Financier shakes his head.
“Dear god, woman! Have you no shame, taking advantage of our Host's generosity like that?” Despite his tone however, he looks more amused then enraged.
Shrugging enigmatically in response, the Aristocrat returns to puffing smoke into the air – so much so that without a further word, the Reporter rises to her feet and opens a window to the quiet thanks of the Major and the Singer.
But then, suddenly – a sound distracts you. A sudden sound, causing everyone to turn to the right and towards the dining room;
The sound of a solitary, ringing bell.