Elsinore Manor was a foreboding building at the best of times, but tonight, as we grew closer to where it loomed in the gloom of gathering clouds, while the dark ivy writhed in the wind and tapped at the tall gothic windows from which a faint glow of sickly light was peering into the dim valley, I felt a sense of growing dread. My school friend, Hamlet, had sent me an unexpected telegram and asked that I come as soon as possible. I had not spoken to Hamlet in some time, so I felt certain that this summons was more a matter of business than of catching up between friends. Hamlet knew of my thriving practice as a private consulting detective. Now, as the hired trap pulled up to the manor and the butler swung open the massive wooden doors with an ominous creak, I found myself wishing I had requested more information before coming.
“Good evening, Mr. Choric,” the butler intoned disinterestedly. “Young Mr. DeMarco is waiting in the drawing room.”
Hamlet DeMarco had his back to me when I entered. He was leaning on the ornate mantel with one lean arm and staring down into the flickering fire. His shoulders were tense and he was deathly still. I cleared my throat, and he started and turned in one motion, pale as if he had seen a ghost. Then his face cleared with relief upon seeing me. “Horatio!” he exclaimed, “My old friend. I’m so pleased you could make it.” As he said this he moved past me and peered out into the hall. Evidently satisfied, he shut the drawing room door firmly and turned the lock.
“Come,” he said, “sit near the fire. The weather is beginning to turn nasty.” It was not until we were seated that I noticed his appearance. He fell into staring at the fire again when we sat down, and his long thin fingers tapped against the side of the chair nervously. He was pale, with ghastly dark circles under his eyes as though he hadn’t slept for days. His suit was wrinkled, and all black, down to the shirt, which made his face look even paler. His hair was unkempt and hastily swept to one side, and he had patches of stubble on his chin from a careless shave.
“Hamlet,” I said with great concern, “what has happened? Why have you called me to Elsinore?”
“Something is rotten, Horatio,” he said in a low voice, “Something is rotten in the estate of DeMarco.” He looked up from the fire with a strange gleam in his eye. “My father is dead.”
I had not known. I immediately expressed my deepest regrets, which he acknowledged impatiently. When we fell again into silence, he pulled from his jacket pocket a folded piece of paper, which he handed to me. I looked it over curiously. It was covered on one side in writing and appeared to be addressed to the local police. “What’s this?” I asked.
“This,” he leaned toward me and lowered his voice even further, “is a letter written by my father just before his death. It expresses his deep suspicions of a plot against him by my uncle, his brother. A plot to murder him.” Hamlet’s jaw clenched and he gripped the arm of the chair, knuckles white. “He died before he could post the letter.” He released the arm of the chair and ran both hands through his hair, making him look quite wild with it sticking up in odd directions. “Mother inherited everything, of course. And now, just a few months after father’s death, Claudius has asked her to marry him. Is that not suspicious? I know now that they must have been having an affair while father was alive. I never suspected…” He trailed off and rubbed his eyes wearily.
“Have you gone to the police yet, Hamlet?” I asked.
“No, no, and that is where you come in,” he said. “I don’t want Claudius to know that I suspect that my father was murdered. If I go to the police, Claudius is warned; he has time to get rid of evidence and construct an alibi before any kind of investigation can be made. To find this letter was to know my father’s will for me from beyond the grave, and I must obey. I want to be sure of his guilt, Horatio. I need to be able to prove it. Then we can take all the evidence we have to the police, and he—and my mother—will get what they deserve.”
His tone of voice as he pronounced this judgment against his mother frightened me. All the time I had known him, Hamlet had always been unwilling to condemn people; or, at least, unwilling to say his opinion of them. But I could see where he was coming from, and I knew he had a valid point about the benefits of a secret investigation, so I decided to give it a day or two and see if I could help him. I told him as much and he nodded at me gratefully. I stood. “But, Hamlet,” I said, “Realize that this is a dangerous game we are playing. If your uncle Claudius is a murderer, he may be a danger to you as well.”
He looked up at me, head tilted, that curious gleam in his eyes. He smiled a slow, dangerous smile. “I’ve always been good at games,” he said.
I did not sleep well that night. A dream chased me; Hamlet was rushing toward a terrible danger, and turned on me when I tried to stop him.
I was up early, and headed down for breakfast. I was not the first; someone was piling a plate high with breakfast meats when I slid open the door. He turned and raised his eyebrows. The surprise was mutual. It was Hamlet’s school roommate, Reggie Stern. Reggie was a thin, hunched man with an oily slick of thin hair. He was the type to participate in poker night, then go to the dean the next morning and rat out his schoolmates.
“Horatio,” he said in false cheer. “Good to see you.”
“Likewise,” I lied. “What brings you to Elsinore?”
He took a huge bite of food and chewed slowly, rolling it around in his mouth as he rolled around possible answers in his mind. He swallowed. “I was invited.”
“Oh, by Hamlet?”
Another long pause. “No,” he said finally, “by Uncle Claudius.” Reggie lowered his voice then and leaned in, dramatically cupping a hand around his mouth to tell me a secret. “Hamlet is not well, y’know?” He pointed circles around his ear and bugged his eyes out for a moment. “Claudius thought it’d be good for him to see his best schoolmate.” He gestured to himself and tucked into his plate of food, quite self-satisfied.
I managed to keep the disdain from my face until I was at the buffet table and my back was to him. A few minutes later, the doors opened again and a family of three joined me at the buffet table. There was a ponderous old man in an old fashioned three piece suit, pontificating on the value of breakfast to a lithe young man in a sweater. The young man nodded in the right places and ignored everything except his breakfast plate. A young lady followed the pair silently. She was tall and graceful, with short dark hair in a modern style. Her dress was modest without being dowdy, and her face was lively. She acknowledged Reggie and me with a condescending nod and a smile, respectively.
When I sat down at the opposite end of the table from Reggie, she followed and sat across from me. “You must be Horatio,” she said, holding out her hand. I shook it and acknowledged that I was. “When Hamlet let it drop at dinner last night that you were coming, I thought Reggie was going to have a conniption. So I knew I would like you. Are you any good at charades? Hamlet has got a plan for this evening involving charades.” She smiled at me. I began to reply, but then the door slid open once again and Hamlet wafted in like a ghost, wearing the same black suit as the night before. He passed by the buffet table and came immediately to my side at the table.
“Good morning, Mr. DeMarco,” the girl beamed at him.
“Ophelia,” he nodded vaguely in her direction. His eyes wandered the room.
When the doors slid open the final time, Hamlet turned in his chair and stared as Gertrude and Claudius entered the room together. A thick silence fell over the room. The pair took their places at the table as quickly as they could.
Claudius cleared his throat. “Laertes, tell me about your plans to go back to school.”
Laertes sighed, put down his fork and began telling everyone about his school. Ophelia tried to catch Hamlet’s attention and whisper something conspiratorially; he caught her eye and deliberately looked away. She seemed surprised.
“And now Hamlet, my favorite nephew,” Claudius said with a raised eyebrow and an ambiguous level of sincerity. “You are not looking well, son. Black does not do you any favors. Gertrude,” He rubbed his hand on her back possessively, “you agree with me, don’t you?” Gertrude nodded, her brow furrowed with concern. Hamlet’s glare darkened and his hand curled into a fist at his side.
Yet he held his tongue.