Isabella stood gazing up at the Grade II listed building in front of her and inhaled deeply before letting out a long, slow breath, which escaped her lips in a thick cloud of mist. The enormous arched antique wooden door looked less than inviting. Its decorative ironwork adornment had seen far better days and, whilst beautiful in its own way, had an air of eeriness about it. She shuddered. The temperature seemed to drop rapidly and she drew her thick woollen coat around her tightly.
A lion’s head held a heavy circular knocker in its mouth, beckoning her to rat-a-tat-tat an announcement of her arrival. She reached out a hand, before pulling back. She was early. She certainly didn’t want them to think her too keen. She looked around to see if there was a coffee shop where she could wait and shelter from the cold, but the street was devoid of any signs of life. She chuckled to herself; nervous laughter as she envisaged tumbleweed rolling down the centre of the narrow, pot-holed road. Then, fearing that she’d look a little crazy to any hidden onlookers, she took another deep breath and hammered on the door. She took great care to stick to the ‘code’ she’d received; a mystical beat of three slow knocks, five quick raps, followed by four slower knocks.
She heard footsteps within; quiet at first, getting louder. The door creaked open a little and she sensed, rather than saw, eyes upon her. She felt a little self-conscious, that this were a great intrusion on her personal dignity. She shuddered once more and wished they would hurry up and let her in so that she could get out of the cold. The door opened wider and a hand finally gestured for her to enter. She stepped inside. The owner of the hand was nowhere to be seen. She had heard no footsteps retreating.
She stared up at the high ceilings in awe. The reception hall was the height of the entire building. The room was dark compared to the crisp winter sunshine, with only thin shards of colour that flooded in from a great, domed, decorative stained window above, providing any light. She waited a few moments for someone to greet her. Glancing around, she saw there was no seating. She stood awkwardly, suddenly wishing she hadn’t come at all.
Isabella had no idea why she was there or who had invited her. A cryptic note had dropped through her letterbox the previous day – a gold envelope, inside which was a simple black card with the message in bold, black olde English text,
“Isabella, how good of you to come. I wasn’t sure if you’d understand the missive. Exceptional talent. Yes, truly exceptional.” The sentence, whilst booming and succinct in the main, tailed off to an unintelligible murmur, as if the speaker had become ensnared in his own thoughts. Still, Isabella could see no-one and it was a struggle to hear where the voice was coming from within the echo of the hall.
Without warning, there was a snap of fingers and a large fireplace sprung into life near to where she was standing. She jumped away, fearful not only of the flames, but of the man behind the trickery, who suddenly appeared from the minor conflagration.
“Ha! Ha! Ha! Marvellous! Marvellous! Still got it!” The voice reverberated and hung in the air. “Priest hole,” he laughed, raucously, pointing to the enormous walk-in fireplace which, now well lit, she could see took up a considerable expanse of the wall it sat in.
“Isabella. Isabella.” He looked her up and down, holding his arms out towards her. “Look at you. Quite the lady. Smart. Very smart.” He tailed off, again, whilst still holding her gaze, which was, by now, numb with a mixture of fear and confusion. When he moved towards her, arms still outstretched, she took a step back.
“Do you not recognise me, Isabella?” He took another step forward. There was nowhere for her to go now; she had backed herself into a corner. She tensed as he took her hand in his, yet surprised at his tenderness. Looking down at the gnarly digits grasping hers, Isabella froze as she caught the glint of the gold signet ring.