Updated: Oct 12, 2020
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By six o‘clock, the storm had barely waned. If this went on for much longer, my Nissan would be underwater before we got back to it.
On the hour, jazzy instrumental music began wafting up from the first floor--an old-timey phonograph drawing us all together to the great hall for the night’s mandatory socializing. An older man with a walrus moustache and gold-rimmed steampunk sunglasses sat in a leather armchair by the roaring fireplace with a tumbler of amber liquid in one hand. He paid us no mind as we reached the bottom of the stairs.
A bevy of voices drew my attention to where a pair of wall-sized pocket doors had been opened, expanding the great hall into an adjacent room--a parlor big enough to dance in, were one so inclined.
I whispered to Jerry, “Alright, before we get started, I want to make sure we’re on the same page. We don’t know what to expect, and we’re not supposed to be here. I think we need to tread lightly.”
“Like a slug in a salt mine. Got it.” I almost believed him, until he smacked me in the chest and exclaimed, “Hey they got booze! My favorite liquid!” With that, he went straight for the pocket doors. I tailed as best as I could.
Leaving the great hall for the parlor felt like stepping into a different world. Judging by the decor, this was either a ladies’ parlor or the room where they put children when they got too excited. The furniture, standing in stark contrast to the deep mahogany of the previous room, was pink and pastel. The ceiling was painted with a mural of clouds and terrifying cherubs. Every flat surface contained arrangements of dead or dying flower bouquets. It looked like it had been decorated by an alien with no concept of humanity who researched “women” on Wikipedia for ten minutes before getting to work.
As Jerry crossed the parlor to the spirits table below the life-size painting of a nude Venus, I took note of the other visitors. Everyone here was dressed to fit the time period (whatever that was supposed to be). The women had their hair in updos and wore voluminous skirts to exaggerate their proportions. The men were all in bespoke tuxedo suits. (Honestly, male fashion hasn’t changed that much in the last few centuries.)
A dark-haired boy of about thirteen or fourteen surveyed the bar from a safe distance while a middle-aged woman with short, gray hair kept a watchful eye on him. A couple--man and woman--stood in the corner of the parlor, making silly faces and taking selfies with the table statue of a baby with wings and horns. I made a mental note to avoid them for as long as possible, lest I be recruited to take photos.
The girl was also there. The one with the black ringlets and piercing blue eyes. She briefly looked our way when we first entered, then quickly pretended she hadn’t. At her side was another woman, taller, probably a year or two older than me. They looked remarkably similar, though the older one’s hair wasn’t quite as dark, her eyes not as blue, her skin not as pale--like they were made from the same ingredients but different recipes. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume they were siblings. The older sister was the most anachronistic part of the evening, with black lipstick, a butterfly tattoo on her exposed collarbone, and a smartwatch cuffed around her wrist. When she noticed us, she immediately gave me the universal “What the fuck are you looking at?” glare.
Without asking, Jerry put a glass in my hand then set to work pouring and mixing another. I brought the cup to my nose and took a whiff of something that smelled like jet fuel.
“So, what’s our cover story?” he asked. “How about this? I’ll be a fireman scientist, and you can be an astronaut detective. Oh, or you can be a sexy fireman detective, and I’ll be the guy who invented jeggings.”
“I assumed we’d just tell the truth, more or less. Leave out certain details, of course.”
“Aw man, honesty is so boring though. Haven’t you ever wanted to be someone else for a night?”
I wasn’t sure exactly how to answer, but I didn’t get the chance.
“Good evening, gentlemen.”
We both jumped. Somehow, Maggie was there, standing directly behind us. Unless she teleported into place, I have no idea how she managed to sneak up on us yet again.
“Cheesy crust, lady!” Jerry exclaimed, clutching his chest. “Someone should put a bell around your neck.”
She showed no reaction other than launching into another deadpan monologue. “I trust you are paying close attention. The social hour is the most important part of the evening’s experience. This is your best chance for first impressions. Clues essential to solving the mystery of Bedside Manor may only appear once. You would both be wise to cooperate with your fellow investigators. Furthermore, I have it on good authority that not everyone here tonight is exactly who they claim to be.” She cracked an unnatural smile. “Besides yourselves, of course.”
Just as suddenly as she appeared, she slinked silently away, presumably to share the same message with the other participants. Once we were alone again, I asked, “What do you make of that?”
“I dunno,” Jerry said. “But then again, I haven’t really been following the narrative here. What exactly is the ‘mystery of Bedside Manor’?”
“I think maybe that’s what we’re supposed to find out? Like, maybe the mystery is ‘what is the mystery?’”
“A little too meta for my taste.” Jerry slammed his entire drink in one go, handed me the empty glass, burped, and took the full one out of my other hand. “Maybe the ‘murder’ is supposed to happen before dinner. That’s why she wanted us here, so that we’re all suspects.”
“Well, that’s silly. How are we expected to be investigating the murder before it happens? The call to action isn’t supposed to precede the inciting incident. This story frame is all out of whack. Or... maybe not. Maybe I just haven’t been paying attention. Honestly, real life has gotten so strange lately that it’s made fiction obsolete.”
Jerry sipped this drink, smacked his lips, and said, “I stand corrected. That’s a little too meta for my taste.”
I waved at the room with my empty glass. “You don’t find any of this weird or suspicious?”
“Everything is weird and suspicious. That’s what makes it fun. Look, I know you’re nervous. I know you’re used to situations getting out of hand real fast, but we’re on vacation. All of that is behind us. Let’s just go mingle with the nerds who actually paid for the murder mystery package, pretend we’re normal 1800’s aristocracy or whatever, eat the rich people food and drink the rich people booze and have a good time. If shit hits the fan, we take our free suits and duck out.”
Damn. He didn’t realize it, but Jerry just slipped up and showed his hand.
This trip may have ostensibly been about my own mental health, but he was right; “we” were on vacation here. I spent so much time on high-alert, waiting for the next shoe to drop, that I completely overlooked the fact that Jerry had experienced his own fair share of tragedy. When our friends died, when nobody would believe what really happened, when we had to swallow the official cover-up, he was right there with me every step of the way. Maybe I was being a little selfish, overreacting to a few ominous coincidences. Maybe Jerry had the right idea. After all, what good would panicking do, all the way out here, where nobody could help us or even hear us scream?
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll try and dial back the paranoia a couple notches. But can you please promise me one thing?”
“Sure. Anything. What is it?”
“Don’t leave me alone tonight. Okay?”
“Okay. I promise.”
“Hello, gentlemen,” greeted the man as he approached. He was one half of the selfie-couple, tall and well-built, with some light scruff around his smile. His blonde hair was combed back into a sort of mullet style that, surprisingly, didn’t not work for him. He offered his hand--the one that wasn’t holding an empty glass--and introduced himself, “Tobias Kincaid.”
I shook his hand. “Jack. But that’s my real name. I don’t know if we’re supposed to be in character for this part, or…”
“Tobias is my real name. Blame my parents.”
Jerry took his hand next and curtsied. “Jeremiah Cumberbatch, oil prospector and saloon salesman, at your service.”
Tobias gave him a friendly laugh. “You know, I’ve never actually done one of these things before. I’m not exactly sure of the etiquette. All I know is that I’m glad there’s an open bar.” He spoke with the air and confidence of a politician at a fundraiser, the kind of cool-guy sangfroid that I could only dream about.
His other half, a slim woman with long red hair and green eyes, came up behind Tobias, put an arm around his waist, and planted a kiss on his cheek. “Who are your new friends?” she asked in a voice that contained a faint accent I couldn’t place.
“Gentlemen, this is my wife, Bridget.”
She flashed us a perfect supermodel smile and a canned “How do you do?”
“Bridget, meet Jack and Jeremiah.”
Jerry launched into a greeting with a strange accent of his own, “Well met, m’lady. If it doth pleaseth the court, call me ‘Jerry.’ By jove, ‘tis a lovely party, ‘tisn’t’it?”
I attempted to nip this in the bud before he gave everyone a tension headache. “Jerry, you don’t have to do the old-timey voice. Nobody else is doing it.”
“Dothn’t I? Egads, guv’nuh!”
“Now you’re just doing Cockney.”
Bridget laughed politely and said to her husband, “It looks like you may have finally found someone to indulge in your vice alongside you?”
Jerry was quick to respond, “I don’t know what you guys are talking about, but consider me very interested.”