For him, it was a cycle as simple as that by now.
Herman stared down at his work in silence when he was done. She’d put up a good fight. All her screaming and crying for mercy might have even been heard outside if he hadn’t had these walls built to be soundproof. Breathing only through his mouth to avoid having to smell the putrid fumes, he stepped inside the iron-plated room until he was only inches away from the charred and crumpled figure on the floor. Any life that may have inhabited those once-lively green eyes was long gone.
“Now you know how the food feels when you overcook it, Helen.”
Herman reached out with a gloved hand and tried to move her head, but her skin crumbled from his touch.
“I trust that won’t be a problem anymore.”
He silently stood back up and walked out, shutting the door. It wouldn’t do to leave any identifiable remains. He’d have to turn on the blowtorches again. More gas down the drain. Leave it to Helen to waste his resources, again. Herman switched on the gas, then watched through the small glass window on the door as the flames blustered, latching onto what was left of Helen’s coal-black body. He hoped this wouldn’t take too long. He had a World’s Fair and a family reunion to prepare for.
Minnie R. Holmes never knew a World’s Fair to have a disappointing turnout, and this one was no exception. The amount of people pouring out of the slowing train was something akin to watching waves roll in the ocean. The sea of people was bustling with excitement and activity. Family were meeting again after long periods of separation. Groups of friends were beginning to form among both men and women, although they did tend to stick to their own.
Minnie scanned the massive crowd, hoping to get lucky and find the one particular face she was looking for—her sister, Anna. She had written to her a few months back, urging her to come to Chicago for the 1893 World’s Fair so that she might meet her new husband. Anna had been reluctant to take such a long vacation from her teaching job in Texas, but Minnie ultimately convinced her to come with copious amounts of begging. That, and Anna was dreadfully curious about her sister’s ‘mystery husband’.
After what seemed like an eternity for the ever impatient Minnie, she finally spotted Anna a ways away, stepping down from one of the trains. The sisters met halfway and the elder pulled Anna into a tight embrace.
“Anna, my darling! I haven’t seen you in…how long has it been, now? Two years?”
Minnie was a stout, small woman. She was a bit plump, with short, curly, auburn hair that rested neatly atop her head. Anna, on the other hand, was quite the opposite. She was tall and thin, so much so that Minnie often nagged her to eat more whenever she saw her, and in their letters. The sisters shared the same hair color, although Anna kept hers long and pulled back.
“It must have been at least that long,” Anna remarked, smiling calmly at her sister and returning the hug.
They stood like that until the crowd became too rowdy and they had to move. Minnie linked arms with Anna and led her through the crowd until they were back on the sidewalk. All the way to the house she went on and on about her husband Henry and how successful he was. Every time someone passing by mentioned that they were staying at The Castle during the World’s Fair, Minnie’s whole face lit up like a lantern. Anna, on the other hand, was skeptical. Minnie only spoke positively of him in her letters, but she had to wonder what kind of rich, handsome, and successful husband would have wanted to have such a small wedding without any family. But Anna knew better than to voice her concerns because she knew how much her sister would sulk if she heard anything negative about Henry. She was always like that.
When Minnie mentioned The Castle in one of their recent letters, Anna figured it would be big. But she never could have imagined the intricacies. Already, the lobby was filled with tourists from all over America, and in some cases, the world. The mostly-female staff was working tirelessly, bringing guests to their rooms and loading up luggage on a cart so that the elevator could carry it all up.
Herman, or as Minnie knew him, Henry, met the two sisters as soon as they entered the hotel. With a broad grin across his face, he spread his arms to his happy wife and pulled her into a hug.
“Minnie, welcome back. How have you been, my sweet?”
“I’ve been fine, Henry,” she giggled, putting a hand on his chest. “Really, you fret too much.”
“You know how I worry. My work has been taking all my time away from you.”
A while ago, Herman had convinced his wife that it would be good to move into a flat in the North Side. Her staying in The Castle with him had brought along too many close calls for his liking. He still went up to the flat to visit her and spend a few nights, just so she wouldn’t get antsy and make a surprise visit to The Castle before he had gotten it ready for her.
Herman’s eyes flickered over to Anna, a predatory look crossing over them before they cleared, and he put back on a smile.
“And I don’t suppose this lovely woman here is the sister you’ve told me so much about?”
Anna forced a pleasant smile as he took her hand and softly kissed the top of it. There was something very unsettling about him.
“It’s just nice to finally meet my elder sister’s husband, Mr. Holmes.”
Usually, Herman was in complete control of showing his emotions. If he always acted so sloppy, he would never get anything done. But this time, he decided to make it a little more interesting for himself. Anna was a lot brighter than her sister, that much was certain. He wanted to know; could she figure him out? Giving Anna a chilling grin when he knew Minnie wouldn’t notice, he stepped back towards the elevator.
“Come, let’s get out of this crowd. I’ll show you to your room.”
Mr. Holmes was nothing if not a wonderful actor. Anna came to realize in the span of just a few days that he had completely fooled her sister, which, admittedly, was not a very challenging feat, and he had also fooled his entire hotel staff. Not one person she talked to had anything negative to say about him.
Oh, that Mr. Holmes? He’s the nicest boss I’ve ever had!
Mr. Holmes? Why are you asking? I’m just the janitor, nothing else to do with him! …But, how does my hair look? Is he looking this way?
Mr. Holmes is an angel, I’ll tell you. Did you know he gave me paid vacation time when I had my first child? Can you think of any other place that does that?
It was frustrating, to say the least. No human being could be that perfect. Not to mention, the certain looks he would give her every now and then chilled her. But Minnie was the blindest out of everyone. She was the closest person to Holmes, but showed no interest in what he was tirelessly working on in The Castle.
“Probably official legal business,” she’d say. “Nothing I’d understand anyway.”
Anna ran a hand over her face with a sigh, trying to tune out the buzz of gossip and excitement in the lobby. She had come down not long after she awoke. Something about her hotel room made her anxious. Not to mention, she noticed strange, open pipes on her ceiling; perhaps a construction mishap. She couldn’t think of any actual purpose they might serve. Minnie was still asleep in her own room, as far as Anna knew, which was strange. Out of the two of them, Minnie was more of the early bird type than her sister. Henry must have changed her more than she thought.
Anna frowned, trying to push those thoughts out of her head. Maybe she was just imagining things. If her sister was happy, that should have been all that mattered. Anna couldn’t remember if she had ever even congratulated her older sister once for marrying such a successful man.
A rough hand grasping her shoulder brought her out of her thoughts and made her jump in her seat. Henry stood behind her, smiling that unnerving smile he’d been greeting her with since she arrived. Briefly, Anna glanced around for Minnie, but she was nowhere to be seen. This was the first time it was just her and Henry.
“Dearest Anna, I believe I heard my wife asking for you in your room. I thought I’d come down and fetch you for her.”
“Oh…thank you,” she managed, forcing a tight smile and getting up from the chair.
She spared a final backwards glance at Holmes before getting into the elevator and pushing the button to go up to her floor. As she stepped into the hallway, the first thing she noticed was that it was eerily quiet. Everyone was either downstairs in the lobby, or out having fun with their families at The World’s Fair. She was starting to wish she was there with them.
“Minnie?” she tentatively called, looking down the hall to her room.
The door was cracked open from what she could see, but no answer came back to her.
“Minnie, Henry said that you needed me for something. Are you all right?”
Anna jumped again, surprised to have actually been answered, and in such an abrupt way. She let out a frustrated sigh and tried to catch her breath. She had to get ahold of herself. It was just Minnie. Cautiously, she took slow steps down the hallway towards her room. For a few moments, there was only silence. Then her sister’s voice called out again.
Cursing under her breath and letting out a shaky exhale, Anna pushed open the door and stepped inside. It was dark, but she could vaguely make out a figure on the other side of the room. Her heart pounded in her ears. The figure was a lone phonograph, the record spinning while the needle steadily made its way towards the middle.
Panic and fear quickly began taking over. This didn’t make sense, and she just had to wonder why there was a phonograph that had her sister’s voice recorded on a record. It definitely wasn’t in the room when she left this morning. She was sure she would have noticed it. The floorboards behind her suddenly creaked, and she spun around just in time to see Henry standing at the doorway, grasping the handle. It was the first time since coming to Chicago that she was seeing him frown at her.
“I was hoping that you’d be a bit more fun. But you’re just as much of a disappointment as your sister.”
He shut the door when Anna ran at it in desperation. He could vaguely hear the banging of her fists against the wood and the hissing noise of gas leaving the pipes in her room.
Lather. Rinse. Repeat.