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Mystery Historical Fiction

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December 16, 1832 

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It would be a poetic thing, to die under the stars, gazing up at the infinite abyss as I faded away into eternal darkness. The gentle snowflakes caressed my cheeks, cold and soothing, a welcome antidote to the incessant burning of my broken body, all my pain receptors screaming in protest. 

I idly wondered how long it would take someone to find my body, or if the wolves would get to me before anyone realized something had gone terribly wrong.

I sat up, cautiously, avoiding putting pressure on my wrist, trying not to look at the bloody gashes across my body.

A change in the wind led the lingering smell of smoke towards me. I crinkled my nose, the scent unwelcome in my lungs.

There had been, for a moment, nothing but fire in the air, clawing at the insides of my throat as I frantically clawed at the latches, trying to open the window and get out of the train. It turns out opening the window wasn’t an issue, as the sudden lurching off the tracks threw me facefirst through the glass with little effort.

I shook my head, chuckling gently to myself while fighting back tears. 

How ironic, that the aspiring murder mystery author would be the sole survivor of a tragic accident. Or, more likely, a wolf howl in the distance reminded me, how ironic that hers was the only body that was never found in the wreckage…...

I felt, in some way, it was my obligation that I should at least try and make it more dramatic for them. Who knew, perhaps my mother would receive a portion of the proceeds from numerous speculation articles they would no doubt write about me.

Absolutely ridiculous, that the mystery of my own death would bring us more money than my writing about fictitious deaths. Just because, as a lady, I was expected to write a proper romance and leave the murders to the men…...

I fought back the twinge of annoyance. Yes, this was an important issue, but I could overthrow the patriarchy later. Right now I needed to focus on how to properly set the stage.

On a whim, I decided that my scarf would be the only physical reminder left of my existence. There was a sturdy tree, not too tall, easy enough to climb. I shuffled over, my tracks quickly covered by the snow, now falling faster and harder than before. 

Upon first attempt to climb it quickly became apparent that I had indeed broken my wrist, and I bit back an agonized and very unladylike scream. 

Left handed it would have to be.

I rested about half way up, surveying my work. There was the mangled train, the shattered glass, the trail of blood, and now, my scarf. Pure white, pleading in vain for help, invisible amid the icy background of this winter wonderland.

I nodded, pleased with myself, knowing full well that this was absolutely absurd, beautifying my death and destruction, but not caring one bit regardless.

Catching my breath, getting quite light headed from the climb and the slow but steady loss of blood, I noticed in the distance…. a castle.

Hallucination was a common side effect of shock and exposure to extreme temperatures, so I brushed it off as nothing for as long as I could, before my curiosity got the best of me, as it always does, reasoning that if this truly was an abandoned castle in the middle of nowhere, it would be a beautiful unresolved ending to my demise.

The author on the train, blood and fire, smoke and snow, skeletons and scarves.

Perfect.

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April 11, 2017

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I gazed up at the snow glazed parapets, closing my eyes and letting the memory wash over me once again.

The funny thing was, it wasn’t even my memory and yet……  it had been so beautifully and vividly preserved and passed on that it almost seemed like it could be a memory of my very own.

I took in a deep breath, the air cold and crisp, and hurried ahead to catch up to the tour guide and the rest of my group, where they were standing in front of the memorial. 

“24 hours after the expected arrival of the train at Berkley Station, 46 passengers were confirmed dead, and 1,” he paused for dramatic effect, “Missing.”

I shivered, giddy with anticipation, as my fellow travelers' excitement quickly became laced with anxiety. Apparently some of them weren’t sure what exactly they were getting themselves into when they signed up for the “Charlotte Lawson Castle” guided tour, and were now rethinking some of their life choices.

This was a place people came to die. To disappear.

Whimpers, whispers and “I told you we should have gone to the art gallery instead” filled the air. Our tour guide grinned. This wasn’t the first time, and probably wouldn’t be the last.

“Hold onto your hats folks, don’t be getting scared quite yet. We haven’t even gotten to the spooky stuff.”

I laughed. He eagerly searched the crowd, locking eyes with mine for the briefest moment. He gave me a quick once over, taking in the notebook and camera, giving me a respectful nod when he realized I was actually invested in the history, and had come because I was legitimately interested in learning more.

“Now, let’s take a look at the facts, shall we? She was a young, female, murder mystery author; these 3 things were determined to make Charlotte Lawson’s career choice an unsuccessful one, especially in the late 1820’s, early 1830’s of England. After a particularly rough publication rejection Charlotte’s left her small one-bedroom apartment and hopped a train to go visit her sick mother, who was at the time staying with Charlotte’s sister Edeline.”

Edeline.

I sighed.

Such a beautiful name, innocent and haunting.

Pity, what had happened to the poor girl.

“46 passengers dead. 1, missing.” He repeated his earlier statement, savoring the confusion rippling through the crowd. He turned to me, nodding, inviting me to participate in the retelling.

“Do you know the significance of those numbers?”

“As of the day of the train crash on December 16th, 1832 Charlotte Lawson had published 46 different stories, mostly just snippets in newspapers, plus a few novels under the pen name Charles Larson. She decided to try and publish her first novel under her own name, but she was rejected, again and again and again.”

I paused to catch my breath, too excited for my own good.

“Then came the big rejection. It broke her, her heartbreak turning to a frenzied unfocused anger, and she quickly wrote her sister, explaining what had happened, telling them to expect her on the 17th. But she never showed up.”

The tour guide nodded, taking over.

“46 stories. 1 missing. Coincidence?”

The whispers had stopped, the silence suffocating.

“5 years after Charlotte's disappearance, and 3 months after their mother’s death, Edeline received a package in the mail. Something that had been found in the files of the publishing company that had rejected Charlotte before she disappeared. The missing story.”

He shook his head, still unable to believe it. But, then again, who could? He’d said it a million times, I’d read it half a million more, and even so, we’d never fully understand.

What had happened was unimaginable, impossible!! And yet…... 

“Edeline opened the package and began reading the final story her sister had written. As she neared the end she noticed that the events began to be eerily similar to what had happened that night long ago. A story of smoke and snow, skeletons and scarves. The story of a girl, the lone survivor of a horrendous train wreck, leaving behind clues in the hopes that she wouldn’t be forgotten.”

The crowd was fully invested at this point, clinging to every word, every detail. But this, this was only a taste of the intricacies intertwined with Charlotte Lawson's life and legacy.

“The story ended, right at the climax, ending at the very spot Charlotte’s final footprints had disappeared, on the steps of the abandoned castle.”

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Our guide waved to the final couple getting on the bus, turning in surprise when he saw me still standing there.

“You’re not heading back to the city?”

I shook my head, smiling a little sheepishly. “I signed up for every time slot today. I figured if I was coming all the way to Europe to continue my research I’d need more than the standard 45 minute tour.”

He grinned, eyes lighting up. He’d barely been able to touch the surface with the other guests and here I was, fully intending to jump off the deep end and drown if that meant I would finally get the answers I was searching for.

“Did you bring a lunch?”

I held up my paper sack in response.

“Care if I join you?”

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“But it doesn’t make sense,” I whispered, brow furrowed deep in concentration and confusion.

He laughed, laying back on the grass and closing his eyes. “Who ever said it had to?”

“I don’t know. It’s too big to be a coincidence but it’s way too big to have been purposefully planned out. The whole train crash, every detail, as if she’d orchestrated it perfectly, as if it had been planned?

“Coincidence, conspiracy,” he shrugged. “I’m guessing it was a little bit of everything. Obviously she had written that story months before the crash happened so maybe life just gave her the chance and she took it.”

I traced the cover of my book, trying to look at it from every angle, seeing if I could find what it was that I was missing.

“Look, don’t let it drive you insane, ok? That’s what happened to Edeline, remember?”

I shuddered and he continued.

“Some mysteries just aren’t meant to be solved…..”

I shook my head adamantly. “This one is. I know it is. We just haven’t found all her clues yet, haven’t figured out the ones that we do have. There was something else, something more, something bigger.”

He sat up, admiring my stubbornness, choosing his next words very carefully.

“It would be a shame if you came all the way to Europe without getting a chance to find at least a few more of those clues. If only there were a handsome tour guide willing to possibly, at the risk of not only his life but his summer internship, bend the rules until they broke just a little.”

My eyes widened in disbelief. “Really?” I whispered, hardly daring to breathe.

“Really,” he whispered back.

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There I stood on the steps of the castle.

He turned around, giving me one final glance, one more chance to back out.

I took a deep breath and gave him a reassuring nod.

Her story may have ended, but the mystery was just beginning.

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March 19, 2021 23:20

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