Chapter Sixteen

Driving by 14 Crimson Lane would have proven a waste of time. By lake, the four-level Castle was noticed and admired by boaters young and old, rich and poor, drunk and sober, as they sailed by in their respective personal watercrafts. It sat just off the shore of a small inlet on one of the larger lakes of the area, its own private beach loosely roped off preventing curious or photo happy boaters from docking on the beach for a closer look. Where the water met the land on the north side of the beach, a less yielding, eight-foot, white boulder wall, made from the same stock of stone the castle had been made from, rose out of the water and continued into the woods, ultimately encircling the entire four acres of kinship to the castle and reentering the water at the border on the beach's south side where the ropes and buoys took over to complete the rough circle. In addition, for those that failed to observe these obvious efforts for privacy, there were a few dozen discreetly posted notices, both on land and on lake, informing that the law would enforce to its fullest legal potential the penalties for trespassing on private property.

By land, as would be the case with myself and my trusted steed who went by the name of Shadow, the view would have been of a gravel path leading off into the woods. A simple chain spanning the width of the driveway/path connected two 3-foot wooden posts. The ditches on the outer sides of the posts and the forest waiting immediately beyond prevented one from driving around the rustic entrance, but the chain itself was not locked. It was just a polite deterrent. If one were to be criminal enough to ignore the "No Trespassing" signs and lift away the chain and drive down the path into the woods, they would soon encounter a more stern request for privacy in the stone wall and an iron gate with an intercom system and an unhidden camera mounted upon the wall.

By the time Shadow and I crossed the barrier of the initial outer chain link deterrent, the chain had already been laid aside in anticipation of its arriving dinner guests. It was ten after six. I was running a little late. Not because I had had too much to do or got started late or had forgotten or gotten lost or anything. I had in fact been early. It was in fact my third time by the driveway when I finally entered the darker pathway of shadows. It was still bright out, the summer sun willing to stave off the darkness for another three hours yet in a Minnesota August, but the path itself was totally engulfed in the shadows of the forest which was as thick as any jungle as far as I was concerned. I felt vulnerable on my motorcycle as I slowly wound through the trees following the path that had only been marked by a faded "14" painted on each post that held the chain out on Crimson Lane.

My first trip by had been a half an hour earlier. The chain had even then already been removed and there were also already fresh tire tracks in the gravel serving as the driveway for the half-mile path leading to the inner stone and iron gate and ultimately, the castle itself.

It wasn't actually a castle, at least not in the Scottish sense or even the Hearst sense, but certainly qualified in the local sense. Yesterday afternoon, after getting the dessert put together so quickly and leaving myself with twenty-nine long hours to kill, I had gone to the Internet and entered the address to see if I could learn anything.

The "castle," though possessing the look of a structure that had to be centuries old, had in fact been built in 1989 by a slightly eccentric local weatherman who worked for a local news station. A couple of years earlier, he had patented a major improvement to the now standard and universally used Doppler Weather Radar System which had instantly propelled him into the world of the wealthy and he had chosen the more eccentric side of that class to be kin to.

The "castle," which featured five bedrooms and four and half baths, three entertaining parlors, a large library, two dining rooms, an industrial size kitchen, a viewing room with a 90" projection TV and a sound system built into the walls and ceiling, and a wine cellar in the basement, had no secret passageways hidden in the closets. There were no grand hallways with tapestries portraying the ancestors making all this living in luxury possible. Not even a giant portrait of an evil looking grandmother. It was perfectly modern on the inside. The complete antithesis of its outer appearance. The kitchen was outfitted with every modern appliance necessary to please the pickiest of chefs in preparation for a festive feast despite how natural it would appear from outside the castle to see a servant woman walking from the giant arched, wooden front doorway with a large vase in her arms to fetch some water for the Master's bath.

All this I already knew as I rode my motorcycle right on past the welcome sign of the laid down chain the first time by. For the life of me, I couldn't imagine why Harry had invited me out here, and discovering who actually owned the place rendered the poser even more ridiculously unanswerable. Maybe Harry wanted me to perform for some party here, introduce me as his discovery, stealing the glory from his helpless friend in Benny while he lays dying in the hospital. Maybe he is doing it for Benny, because Benny can't. Maybe Harry was responsible for the dessert and couldn't afford it so he got me to bring it. Once in the door, my cookies will be confiscated and I will be quickly escorted back to my bike and out the gate. I figured whatever the real reason would end up being, it would probably seem no less ridiculous.

Once around the lake wasn't enough, but twice would have made me far too late. After passing the drive the second time, I was no closer to figuring out if I should accept the invitation or just go home and eat the other thirty cookies. Ten had already not survived long enough to make this trip. The survivors were in a plastic airtight Tupperware container strapped to my seat behind me by a couple of bungee cords. The aluminum foil had not proven to be strong enough to fend off bored fingers. I got a couple of blocks past, realized the time, decided if I was going it better be now and made a U-turn on the narrow blacktop heading back to the driveway.

From the tracks beneath my feet as I turned onto the gravel, it appeared that quite a few cars had already arrived. At the main entrance, the iron gate was already slowly opening in anticipation of my arrival as I rounded the final dim corner and saw the Castle standing tall in a sunlit, John Deere made clearing. Beyond the gate, the drive became paved and arched into a smooth landing, passing by the front doors before reaching the five-car garage that more closely resembled a peasant's stable off to the left of the miniature castle replica. The drive then swooped past the garage and rejoined its beginning shortly before reaching the same gate in order to exit. Two vehicles traveling in opposite directions down the half-mile driveway outside the gate would result in one backing out the way it came. There was not enough room for two cars to pass, though I would have had no problem leaving in a hurry on a motorcycle if I had to.

Each stall in front of the closed garage doors had a car occupying it. Half a dozen more cars were parked along the side of the drive, past the stable/garage, one pair of tires each in the well-manicured and maintained grassy lawn, probably with the disapproval and a blind eye for one night by the lawn's caretaker. Half of the cars were just as one would expect to find parked in front of a money pit like this, black, fast, expensive looking. I've never been much of a car buff, if it gets you from point A to point B, that's always been good enough for me. But I know an expensive car when I see one. The rest of the cars looked no more distinguishing than those parked outside Bob's place down the street for the big game. A couple of old blue Chevy's, a mini van, a pick-up truck and two SUV's mingled with the Jaguars and Porches and a Lexus. Assuming the weatherman's cars were inside the garage, and that at least half the cars had contained more than one person in them, I estimated that there would be about twenty people here and I felt a knot begin to form in my reclusive stomach.

A man stepped out of nowhere surprising me as I coasted slowly by the front door looking the opposite direction at the strange mélange of cars. He was dressed in a plain black suit with a black bow tie and white shirt. He appeared to be somewhere between 70 and 90 years old and was apparently the valet. I jerked the handlebars instinctively away from him when I become suddenly aware of his close presence and then noticed he was pointing to the far right hand side of the garage, away from the line of grass-smashing cars, where two more motorcycles I hadn’t yet noticed were parked. Again, like the cars, one was a big 1200cc Honda GoldWing loaded to the teeth, the other was a naked Kawasaki 250 dirt bike. I heard both engines still ticking as they cooled, signifying that they were not just more play things belonging to the eccentric weatherman, but rather, they too belonged to a pair of guests at this mysterious dinner party which appeared to be catering to samples of all walks of life, at least according to the tale of the vehicles out front.

I parked the motorcycle next to the other two, pulled the cookies out from under their cords and returned towards the front doors. Mr. Valet had disappeared just as arcanely as he had appeared. I walked up to the massive twin wooden doors alone and rang the bell. I half expected Lurch from the Addams Family, or maybe Vincent Price himself to answer the door but I wasn’t disappointed when instead a younger version of Mr. Valet opened the door and a familiar looking excited grin, while prancing from foot to foot, impatiently towered over him from behind.

* * * * *

"Mr. John, I presume?" Mr. Doorman said a bit sarcastically, as he stepped in front of the doorway blocking entry without first properly identifying myself.

"John Johnson," I said. "That would be me."

"Very good," Mr. Doorman replied with a slight bow as he stepped aside allowing me room to enter. Glancing up as I passed by him in the doorway, Mr. Doorman asked in the same slightly sarcastic tone, "May I take your gloves, Mr. John Johnson?"

"No thank you, sir. I will be wearing them, thanks."

Mr. Doorman closed the door behind me without a second glance my way, accepting the fact that I wanted to wear my gloves indoors in late August. It probably hadn’t even been all that high on the eccentric meter compared to the things he’d seen in his career as a servant to those that can afford to be lazy.

Meanwhile, Harry, the giant, bald, black Cheshire Cat, was holding out his massive bear paw and smiling down at me broadly enough to leave no doubt that he was, even still at the age of 72, the proud owner of a complete set of pearly white originals. His teeth also matched his white jacket, white shirt, white slacks and white bow tie. In fact, the only color on Harry this evening besides his skin was a red hanky sticking artistically out of his left breast pocket serving as a backdrop for the white rose pinned to his jacket in front of it. I suddenly felt severely underdressed in my red and blue plaid lumberjack shirt, blue jeans and black motorcycle gloves with a red stripe down the side. At least I’d worn the only pair of jeans I had that didn’t have a hole in the left knee due to using said knee to drive when I had been a courier.

"Welcome! Welcome, Mr. John!" Harry said, as I took his hand and allowed him to vigorously pump it up and down a few times. He didn’t ask about the gloves. "Let me take that for you," he said, releasing my hand and reaching towards the container of cookies which I readily conceded. "Chancey, take these on over to Katharine and have her put ‘em on a platter fer us, if ya would, please. Have her make ‘em pertty," he added with a wink to me as he handed the Tupperware over to Chancey Doorman.

Chancey disappeared through an open doorway to our right in search of Katharine while Harry and I took the left option out of the castle’s entry room towards the sound of the live piano music overlaying a wordless buzz easily distinguishable as numerous people chatting with drinks in their hands.

"I was to answer the door fer ya," Harry was saying, "but Chancey says, ‘Oh goodie. Then I can come do your job for you tomorrow.’ But I’m r’tired so I let ‘em do it. So ya ready to meet the gang?"

"Why am I here?" I blatantly asked. I’m not sure I intended to state that out loud, but there it was. Harry just laughed in response as if I had just told him the funniest joke he had ever heard in his life.

Before I had a chance to repeat the question or rephrase it, the noise level doubled and we were standing in a brightly lit, large ballroom. A few chairs were spread out along the walls, none in use. Mr. Piano Player was sitting behind a black Grand Piano in the same black castle-issued suit that Mr. Valet and Mr. Doorman wore, playing happy and bouncy tunes without the aid of a tip jar on the piano’s edge. The room itself was large enough to only appear about two thirds full, even with the piano player and his instrument, four servants walking around with trays of snack foods or drinks and wearing the female version of the castle-issue uniform, black dress cut at the knees, white lace apron and bib, no imagination at all in either version, and as predicted, the twenty or so guests.

I was relieved to see more jeans among the crowd than not. Harry was not the only one dressed in his Sunday Best though his attire certainly stole the spotlight when he entered a room. Despite the relief in seeing that I wasn’t inappropriately dressed for this seemingly unconventional gathering of mutts, half-breeds and thoroughbreds, I felt an instant surety that I had made the wrong decision in coming here. I felt a fine sweat break out on the apex of my bald held and felt self-conscious of not having the hair to hide it anymore and quickly checked the zipper of my jeans with the pinky of my right hand while pretending to adjust the belt I wasn't wearing to make sure it was up. Too many people. I hadn’t been around this many people in the same room since the reception after my parents’ funeral. And to make things worse, they were all now looking at us. No, not at us. At me. Harry was doing the talking but they were all looking at me. I wanted to run. Harry was still talking and I didn’t have a clue what he was saying. The clusters of faces that had ceased talking and turned to look at me all seemed to lose their individual features and began to meld together as one large, threatening face. The piano had either stopped or strayed from music to join the growing buzz inside my head that was preventing me from being able to hear words with any clarity. I closed my eyes. Harry was still speaking. The people still stared. My knees felt weak.

relax john. you are with friends. relax john. be yourself.

I reopened my eyes and they were instantly drawn to a woman who looked to be in her mid to late fifties, well dressed in a smart looking, dark blue pant suit. Her shoulder length hair was in transition to gray, still holding stubbornly to a few brunette tresses here and there, her face emitting a caring look of motherly concern.

relax john. you are with friends. in time you will have your answers. relax.

I don’t know why I knew it was her. There were more than twenty pairs of eyes looking right at me but I knew she was the one that was trying to calm me down inside my head.

take a deep breath john
I took a deep breath.
let it out nice and slow
I let it out nice and slow.
you’re going to be just fine john
I started to feel a little better.
my name is ronnie
The loud buzz started to subside.
good john good
Harry’s words began to become distinguishable again.
now relax john. you are with friends.

"So I think it would be a good time to move into the dining room," Harry was saying to the room, "and commence with the feasting. After dinner and dessert, after John has had a chance to get comfortable with at least the sight of all yer ugly mugs, you can all start slowly introducing yourselves one at a time so as not to overwhelm the poor young man. Mr. Northrop?"

I recognized the man responding to the name of Northrop as the weatherman on the channel seven local nightly news at six and ten. I briefly wondered who was covering for him at the station. He was at the back of the crowd that had pretty much reacquired their individual personal traits since obtaining Ronnie’s help to stave off the panic attack. He waved a friendly welcome to the crowd that had finally taken their eyes off me at the mention of food and were now noisily turning towards the weatherman and his fine dining room through the door at the rear of the ballroom.

Harry laid a gentle hand on my back, reminding me that I had to move my feet in order to walk, and the two of us brought up the rear as we entered the dining room for a feast in obvious celebration of something that I had as yet still been left in the dark about.

* * * * *

The banquet table was huge. It took five servers, filing out of the kitchen and splitting up around the table as if choreographed and well rehearsed, to get everyone’s opening appetizers of something that smelled like fish and looked like seaweed which I couldn't readily identify, distributed to all with only a few seconds of time between the first and last to receive. I just rearranged the stuff resembling food on my plate for a while until the second wave of synchronized service delivered the next course, a much more appetizing assortment of breads and cheeses and fruits.

I remained silent, concentrating on my food, wondering how long I was going to have to endure this before I could grab a few more cookies and sneak out the door. As though everyone present could sense my trepidation, no one directed any questions towards me or even made comments in my direction. I had tensed myself from the moment we took our seats. I had expected to be drilled, questioned, probed or something. I had taken the last available seat being the last one into the dining room. The table had been preset with precisely the number of settings needed. To my left was Harry, to my right was Ronnie. I had at least expected her to try to start up some sort of conversation. I sat in the center of one of the long sides of the table. Mr. Northrop was at one head of the table on my left and a girl of no more than 17 with a punk-looking, pink and green highlighted, jet black mane of hair that looked totally out of control, long down the back, straight up on the top, flowing towards all points of the compass in between, sat at the other head to my right. There were ten more guests dining down the far side and nine more besides myself on my side of the beautifully prepared banquet table.

Noticing that Harry, Ronnie, and the other nineteen guests had all managed to keep themselves entertained through the first course and into the second without including me, I was able to relax a bit and gain a little comfort in my new crowded environment. I began to make a game out of placing the guests with the vehicles I had seen outside. I only knew the names of Harry, Mr. Northrop and the woman I presumed was Ronnie, so this was the only way I had at the time to define them.

I had already thought Ronnie looked like the Lexus type. More from a process of elimination than anything else. She had the air of enough money to not be driving the old Chevy's and she would have traded in the mini-van when the kids went off to college. The SUV's wouldn't be practical enough for daily use. The two Jaguars and two Porches didn't look like her speed and the image of her on either bike was almost laughable. That left the Lexus.

After our initial meeting of a few days ago, I would have placed Harry in the pick-up truck, but after seeing him in his fancy duds tonight, I decided to get a few more of the obvious ones before coming back to him with what was left.

Mr. Winthrop, the only other one in the room I felt I had any connection to prior to or since my arrival 25 minutes earlier, and even then only because I recognized him from the TV, would have his cars in his garage/stable so I disqualified him from my game.

The next person that quite obviously grabbed my attention was at the opposite head of the table. This girl fell into the previously mentioned category of half-breed. If the stereotypes were to hold true, she had been born of, and subsequently at some point bored of, money and its accompanied codes of conduct. She had rebelled, embarrassed her wealthy, well-to-do-but-haven't-a-clue parents in any way she could think to do so. I put her in one of the old Chevy's. Not because I thought she couldn't afford better, but so as not to be accused of having any thing to do with her unappreciated, unwanted and unearned wealth. If not for the pastel flashes of color in her long, raven hair, along with the black jeans and the three or four black shirts and tanks she was wearing, hiding any evidence of her womanly development, I would have guessed her to be Goth. She wore half a dozen earrings in each ear, like snowflakes only in the sense that no two were alike. Several were crosses but I doubted they were due to a devout faith in Christianity. Several appeared to be small cannabis sativa leaves and related miniature paraphernalia that probably more closely represented any version of religion she had ever embraced. She wore rings on each and every finger, including both thumbs. I was sure there was a tattoo or two somewhere, probably around the ankles or on the back and possibly a stud of some kind piercing what had once probably been a cute bellybutton. Her eyes...

...were watching me study her. Lost in my own thoughts and assessments, taking in her entire visage as I put together my own unauthorized version of her history and psyche, her dark eyes stared back boldly, challengingly, not the least bit intimidated by my obvious attempt to undress her being. Caught, embarrassed, losing a little ground that I had recently gained in my cope-ability, I looked at the slice of bread that had been suspended in front of my lips for who knows how long, another telltale sign, her eyes accusing, mine responding with ‘guilty as charged.‘

take a picture next time. they last longer

I glanced quickly back at the younger, updated version of Elvira. She was already talking to the guy on her right as though our eyes had never met, a younger looking version of Roger Moore in his James Bond days, definitely a Jaguar man. I couldn’t hear her voice from where I sat over the steady dinner chatter that twenty-one people inevitably cause, but I knew that last thought had not originated from my own archive of slams and snide remarks. I suddenly had a hunch that my gloves, which I had removed in order to eat and were now sitting on my lap in place of the napkin, would probably not be of much further use on this particular gathering.

For the rest of the excruciatingly long, five course meal that ended in an array of exquisite looking, artery-blocking desserts, my cookies with a fresh layer of mouth watering cinnamon frosting spread sparsely on top and distributed on a large silver platter among dark and light truffles not excluded, I abandoned my match-the-car-to-the-guest game and made a point of avoiding eye contact with anyone else. Although I had already realized that in neither of these last two "connections" had physical contact been necessary, it hadn’t yet occurred to me that nor had I been looking into their eyes when their messages had entered my thoughts. Even so, it wasn’t much beyond dinner when this latter realization also came to light. As it was, that turned out to be one of the easier revelations of the evening to accept.

* * * * *

Chapter Seventeen


Front Desk

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The Master Plan

Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four
Chapter Five
Chapter Six
Chapter Seven
Chapter Eight
Chapter Nine
Chapter Ten
Chapter Eleven
Chapter Twelve
Chapter Thirteen
Chapter Fourteen
Chapter Fifteen
Chapter Sixteen
Chapter Seventeen
Chapter Eighteen
Chapter Nineteen
Chapter Twenty
Chapter Twenty-One
Chapter Twenty-Two
Chapter Twenty-Three
Chapter Tweny-Four
Chapter Twenty-Five
Chapter Twenty-Six
Chapter Twenty-Seven
Chapter Twenty-Eight
Chapter Twenty-Nine
Chapter Thirty
Chapter Thirty-One
Chapter Thirty-Two
Chapter Thirty-Three
Chapter Thirty-Four
Chapter Thirty-Five
Chapter Thirty-Six
Chapter Thirty-Seven
Chapter Thirty-Eight
Chapter Thirty-Nine