Updated: Oct 12, 2020
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The only other place I could think to look for Jerry was our room. I kept my eyes down as I cut through the parlor and great hall. As far as I was concerned, there was no reason to talk to any of these people ever again. I’d socialized enough for one year.
Before I reached the base of the grand staircase, I noticed that the air smelled like sweet tobacco smoke. I soon realized that the smell was coming from the front door. Now that I didn’t have a blade against my face, I could see the situation in front of me with much more clarity. It was obvious where Jerry had disappeared to. All I had to do was follow the smell of smoke. I pushed open the front door right as another crack of lightning filled the night sky.
The thunder ended, followed by a guilty-sounding “Heyyy, buddy.” It was Jerry. He and Tobias looked back at me from the porch railing, both equipped with lit cigars and half-empty glasses. Jerry held up his Montecristo Number Three and said, “It’s not what it looks like.”
“I don’t care.”
“Really?” he said, raising an eyebrow. "I think you do."
"Well, I don't."
"You do a little."
"Okay, agree to disagree then."
“You said you weren’t going to leave me alone.”
“I did say that. But then T-Bone here dropped his wallet. I had to come and give it back to him.”
“Oh, ‘T-Bone’ ‘dropped’ his wallet, did he?”
Tobias flicked his ash over the railing and said, “It must have fallen out of my jacket pocket.”
I was already over this conversation. “Tobias, I’m sorry to interrupt, but I need a moment alone with Jerry.”
“Sure. Go ahead. I’ll stay out here.”
“Actually, we’re going to need the patio to ourselves.”
He sipped his drink, darted his eyes back and forth between Jerry and me, then said, “Is this something time-sensitive? I’m only asking because I just lit this, and--”
I switched tactics. “Your wife was looking for you, Tobias.”
“Bridget’s looking for me? Why?”
“She spilt jam on her dress.”
“Jam?” Tobias asked incredulously.
“Yep,” I confirmed. “Jam. All over her dress. Just….all over it.”
“I didn’t even know they had jam in there.”
“Well, they don’t anymore.”
“So you’re saying--just so I understand the situation--not only did Bridget spill jam on her dress, but she somehow managed to spill the entire party’s supply of jam… on her dress?”
Jeez, what is this guy? The jam police? Jerry cleared his throat abruptly. It sounded an awful lot like a snicker he couldn’t hold back.
“Look, dude. I don’t know what to tell you. But I promise I would never lie about something like this. Your wife was devastated. She was crying and everything. Asked me to go find you.”
He cocked his head slightly and gave me a long, uncomfortable glare until Jerry stepped in. “Don’t worry T-Bone,” he said. “I’ll keep your cigar warm for you.”
Tobias finally surrendered. “Okay. I guess I’d better go make sure everything’s alright.” With that, he handed Jerry his cigar and walked past me.
The moment the door closed, Jerry asked, “Do you think I’d look good with a mullet?”
“No, of course not. Now shut up for a second and listen. I have a very serious question. Is there any chance you somehow orchestrated all of this as an extremely elaborate hoax just to give me a perverted sense of misadventure? Because if that’s the case, I really appreciate the impressive effort but would like to opt out now.”
“No, but damn that would have been a good idea! I’ll have to remember it for your birthday.”
“Please don’t. We need to leave. Pronto.”
He carefully placed Tobias’s cigar next to his own in the ashtray on the table by the railing. He didn’t have nearly the appropriate sense of urgency. With a smirk, he asked, “Did something ominous just happen?”
“The lady with the kleptomaniacal tween son knows my name. She said my luggage showed up in her room.”
“Well that’s convenient. And also quite alarming. Thank you for confiding in me.”
“Jerry, listen! While we were getting ready, somebody went out in the rain, found our car, broke in, packed a mother-flippin bag, and brought it back to the manor. Why would anyone do something like that?”
He leaned against the railing, put on his thinking face, and mulled it over for a few seconds before responding. “It must be because you said you needed your medicine in order to stay the night. So… That means two things. First, someone must not want us to have any reason to leave here tonight. And second… someone was watching us.”
“Great. Our room is bugged. I guess I can assume they have videos of me in the shower.”
“Oh.” Jerry’s eyes got alarmingly wide.
“I think I know what’s going on here.”
“Yeah, that’s definitely it.”
“You’re not going to like it.”
He cleared his throat, looked me dead in the eyes, and said, “I think we just stumbled into a sex cult.”
I waited for just a moment, as to not sound like a broken record. Then, “What?!”
“Think about it.”
“I will do no such thing, and you can’t make me!”
He lifted the glass to his mouth, but I slapped it out of his hand before he could take another drink. It shattered against the porch. “Hey!” he snapped.
“That could be poison for all we know!”
“Oh yeah,” he laughed. “Now that you mention it, it probably is.”
“Well? What are we waiting for? Let’s go!”
“Okay, yes, but, no.”
“Jerry, I’m not playing around. I’ve seen this movie. I know how it ends. If we go back inside--”
“I hear ya, but let’s think this through.” His voice was annoyingly calm and level. “First of all, we can’t leave without your medicine, and I think they know that. Oh, they probably want to use you as some kind of virgin sacrifice to a Norse fertility god.”
“Why would they--”
“Additionally, you and I probably aren’t the only strangers in a strange land, if you know what I mean. What about the other guests? Either they’re all complicit in the grand strategy to keep us here...”
He was making a lot of sense, and I hated it. I let out a frustrated sigh, then finished his thought, “...or there are other victims we’d be abandoning if we left right now.”
“We just need a plan. Here’s what I think we should do: One of us goes and causes a distraction in the parlor, preferably fire-related, while the other sneaks downstairs to the basement and uses the phone to call for help.”
“That’s the plan?!” I couldn’t hide my apprehension, nor did I feel the need to try. “We’re going to ‘split up, gang’?! How many times--”
The front door opened. A second later, Bridget’s head peered out. She looked around, then said, “Oh. I thought Tobias was out here. Have either of you seen him?”
I searched for a good lie, but all I could come up with was, “Tobias spilt jam all over his trousers. Just... all over them. He went to your room to change.”
She narrowed her eyes at me, slowly backed into the house, and closed the door.
That was a close one.
As usual, the least-bad plan we could come up with was still pretty darn bad. Dividing up tasks was easy. While I’m rarely the sneakiest person in the room, distractions were undeniably Jerry’s bread and butter.
I never count on everything going according to plan, but I was still surprised by just how quickly things went off the rails. As soon as we shut the front door behind us, Maggie popped up out of nowhere to say that dinner was ready and our presence was required. She then herded us into the dining room, where the rest of the guests were gathered around a long wooden table, chatting, laughing, and enjoying their drinks. The immediate silence that occurred when we entered may as well have been accompanied by a record scratching to a stop.
Jerry whispered, “Is it just me, or do things feel a little hostile right now?”
Tobias and Bridget had that oh-so-unique look of “why’d you lie to me about jam?” on their faces. Just… all over their faces. Hope shook her head and folded her arms at the annoying guy who rudely walked away from her mid-sentence. Loren made a subtle but threatening gesture of running her thumb across her neck. Even Old Man Nathaniel Whatshisname the Third had turned to face us, making a toasting gesture with the glass of brandy that someone else must have gotten him after I said I would and bailed. That’s when it occurred to me that I’d already managed to piss off every other group here.
Maggie stood in the doorway as we took our spots at the dinner table. Jerry sat to my right (protecting me from the blind man). Loren sat to my left (protecting Claire from me). The rest of the group took the other side, with Wolfgang my direct opposite. Nobody took the empty seat at the head of the table.
I was still trying to work out how we were going to cause a distraction when Jerry made things weird. “Before we begin,” he announced, pushing back his seat and standing up, “I believe it would be a good idea to say a few words of grace to our lord and savior.”
“I beg your pardon?” said Maggie.
“My pardon I grant thee,” he replied with a wave of his hand. “And now, if you would all be so kind as to close your eyes and bow your heads, I will deliver the most amazing prayer of thanks this side of the BC/AD conversion.” After a few uncomfortable seconds had passed, he repeated himself, a little louder and a little more forcefully. “Please close your eyes and bow your heads.” Everyone else reluctantly followed his command. Everyone but me.
I held out my hands and mouthed the words “What the fuck?” He began speaking… praying while gesturing wildly at the door.
“Dearest lord: Hi! It’s me, Jerry. We met at Vassar College that one time I did too many psychedelics and you told me birds weren’t real… Anyway, I know it’s been a while since we last spake... Sorry about that. Things have been wild. We come to you today to thank you for this presumably delicious meal we’re about to chow up, but first… I’d like to spend a moment catching up...”
It finally hit me. Nobody was looking. This was the distraction.
I carefully scooted my chair back and pushed myself to my feet. I’d have to sneak around a few people, but barring a stumble or surprise sneeze, this was totally doable. Knowing Jerry, he’d have everyone singing along to “Amazing Grace” by the time I made my call to the local police and got back to the table.
I tried to tune him out while focusing on my escape, but some of his words still broke through.
“...because when you think about it, that’s what tattoos are for. But I digress, we come to you today to thank you for the food. And drink (heyo!). And also to thank you for this wonderful lodging. And the company we have here today. And, um, the chairs. And table. And the rest of the furniture. And…”
I held my breath as I stepped past Loren. She was the one I was most afraid of, but her head was down and eyes closed just like all of the others. As soon as I thought I was out of the woods, a hand popped out, blocking my path. It was Claire’s. And it was holding a folded note. The side facing me read, “JACK.”
“...and when we think of the food we’re about to put inside of us, we are all reminded of the struggles that Jesus went through when he gave up sex for forty days. I once tried to go forty days without cupcakes. I didn’t even make it a week. Which is weird because I actually despise cupcakes…”
Claire flicked the note twice. Her eyes were closed, but I knew she knew I was here. There was no point pretending. I reached down and took the paper from her fingers. She quickly retracted her hand, putting it against her other into the sign of prayer in front of her face.
This was no time to stop and read. I kept on walking. The doorway was right there. Maggie stood in front of it, face aimed down at her feet. Eyes pressed shut. I could sneak around her, but I couldn’t rush it if I didn’t want to be noticed. I had to focus on not making a sound.
“...and the plesiosaurs. And the helicoprion. And let us not forget the gigantoraptor. Anyway, in conclusion, thanks again for wiping out so many of the other apex predators before we got here…”
The building reverberated like the inside of a bass drum after it gets hit by a comet. The lights went out, plunging us into total darkness and prematurely ending Jerry’s prayer. There were a few gasps. A nervous laugh. A chair scraping against the floor as someone hurried to their feet. I turned around, facing the direction of the table just in time for one of the other guests to slam into my shoulder as they rushed past.
“Can someone tell me what just happened?” Nathaniel called out. “That sounded like thunder.”
Jerry responded, “Lights went out.”
Nathaniel raised his voice into a command. “Everyone stay calm! Stay put! I’m sure our host has some candles or a torch.”
A short, silent moment passed, and then we heard the scream. A horrifying, blood-curdling, high-pitched squeal from the great hall, less than five steps away from me.
Jerry chuckled and made a faux-orchestral “Dun, dun, duuunnn!”
The plan had gone off the rails again. I tried sneaking back to my seat through the darkness, but a tiny spotlight lit up the room, stopping me in my tracks. It was coming from Loren’s phone, and pointed right at my eyes.
“Where are you going?” she asked loud enough for everyone to hear.
I covered my eyes and stammered my way through a terribly unconvincing lie. “I wanted to go investigate that scream.”
“Oh? Were you moonwalking in there?” she asked. “Looks like you’re facing the wrong direction to be going towards the scream.”
For some reason, Jerry took her side. “Yeah, Jack. Why are you acting so suspiciously?!”
“Look,” I said. “It was dark. Okay? I must have gotten turned around.
The house lights flickered back to life. Tobias and Bridget clapped, but only Jerry joined them. Everybody seemed confused on multiple levels.
“I assume the lights are back,” Nathaniel stated.
Jerry turned to him and asked, “How’d you know that?”
“I gathered as much from your applause.”
“Oh, was that why we were clapping? I was wondering.”
Loren cleared her throat and said, “Well, what are we supposed to do now?”
Hope’s soft voice crept into the group conversation. “Hey, guys... Where did Ms. Maggie go?”
I looked around and discovered that the old woman had pulled her surprise sneak-up-on-you act again, only in reverse this time.
Jerry made eye-contact with me, pushed back his chair, and announced, “We’ll go check it out. Right, Jack?”
“Why don’t we all go?” Loren asked. There was something unnerving about her accusing eyes and sarcastic tone. “After all, there’s safety in numbers. Right, Jack?”
“Yeah,” Tobias agreed as he and Bridget pushed out their chairs. “Let’s all go and see what that the commotion was. Then maybe we can finally eat. I’m starving!”
The commotion, it seemed, was the foretold murder. The victim was lying face-down in the great hall. Poor Old Maggie had been done in during the brief blackout. It wouldn’t take a master detective to conclude that her untimely demise had something to do with the large kitchen knife protruding from the center of her back, but the perpetrator of the crime was anyone’s guess.
Jerry put his hands on his cheeks and wailed in pretend distress, “Oh nooo! Not Maggie!”
Nathaniel was the last to enter the room, tapping the floor in front of him as he walked. “Did something happen?” he asked.
Loren answered casually, “Our hostess was murdered, and I’m pretty sure Jack did it.”
“What?” I tried not to sound too defensive. “Why me?”
Bridget laughed and added, “I’m sorry, Jack. No offense, but it really looks like you’re busted.”
Tobias raised his hand and said, “I would also like to cast my vote for Jack.”
“Now hang on--”
Nathaniel interrupted, “Let’s not jump to conclusions. Surely, if a murder occured, there will be clues here to prove the killer’s guilt. We all just need to take a moment and investigate our surroundings.”
The others reluctantly began searching the area, giving me an opportunity to finally sneak away. Tobias and Bridget were hand-in-hand, looking at paintings as I passed. Loren and Claire inspected the suit of armor. Hope was talking to Nathaniel while Wolfgang played with a fire poker. Before I could reach the door to the basement, Jerry called out my name. I turned to see him waving me over, crouched next to the “body” of our fallen hostess. (I had to admit, she was doing a terrific job of playing dead. I couldn’t even see her breathing.)
I crossed the room and knelt down next to him. “Yeah?”
His voice was low. His eyes fixed on the hilt of the dagger. “First of all, I want to apologize.”
I didn’t like the suddenly serious timber of his voice. “Okay. For what?”
“I guess a lot of things. Sorry I didn’t listen. Sorry we didn’t get out of here when you said we should. Sorry I dragged you along on this road trip.”
I was surprised he was saying all of this right in front of old Maggie. I knew she was hard of hearing, but still.
Hope called out to us from the other side of the room, “Remember! If you find any clues! You’re supposed to share with the group!”
Bridget called back, “We found something! There’s a series of numbers in the frames on each of the paintings!”
The crowd flowed over to join them. Jerry yelled out, “We’ll be right there!” Then he dropped his volume to a whisper and said, “You were right.”
I really did not like the sound of that. “What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Maggie is dead.”
“Yeah, I know. I have eyes and ears. She was probably killed--”
“No, no, no. You don’t understand. Maggie… her body is… how do I put this delicately? She’s… leaking...”
I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and made a point to cherish this moment. The moment before things went bad. The moment before all hell broke loose. It was nice, but it was just that. A moment. And it was over all too soon. When I opened my eyes again, Jerry had a pained expression on his face. “Are you mad at me?” he asked.
I looked down and noticed all the blood pooling around the body. Some coming from the wound. Some from her open mouth. Her eyes, magnified by the broken glasses, were enormous, focused on nothing. “That depends.” I said. “Did you kill her?”
“No. Did you?”
“No. Are we certain that she’s not just a world class actress?”
“Hang on, let me check.”
Jerry licked a finger, stuck it under the woman’s glasses, and poked her exposed eyeball. When she didn’t blink, he wiped his finger off on my jacket, then said, “Yep. We’re sure.”
“What are we supposed to do now?”
“I don’t know, but the longer we go without saying anything, the weirder it’s going to be when the rest of the group figures out we were just chilling next to a dead woman this whole time.”
“Maybe they won’t have to find out.”
“Ahhh,” Jerry nodded. “I see.” A second passed, then, “Actually, I don’t see.”
“We just need to get everyone out of here so we can move her to the basement and call the police. We’ll let the authorities figure out the sex cult murder mystery for once.”
Jerry stood up, cleared his throat, and announced, “Jack and I just found a clue--no, don’t come over here. The clue says we should all go to our rooms and await further instructions.”
The others stared back. Tobias stepped forward, saying, “Can I see this clue?”
“No,” Jerry stated. “It’s… you’re just gonna have to believe me on this one.”
“Why?” Loren asked.
Jerry waved his hands in the air like he was conducting music. “All will be revealed in due time. I promise. But for now, we must go to our rooms.”
Nathaniel responded, “I feel as if we haven’t yet found all the clues necessary to solving the mystery of Bedside Manor.”
Jerry needed some help. Unfortunately, I was the only one able to give it. I stood up, nearly lost my balance, but found it at the last possible second. I turned to the others, took a step forward, and said the first thing to come to mind, “Look everyone. I know you’re probably--”
But then my foot didn’t stop like it was supposed to. Instead, it whipped out from under me, slipping in the puddle of blood. Before I knew it, I’d hit the ground. Except that wasn’t quite it. No, It was much worse.
The others all screamed at once, “Oh my GOD!” “Are you okay!” “Shit!” “WHOA!”
I tried to play it off, get back to my feet, tell them I was fine. This soft bag of garbage had broken my fall…
Then I realized that I’d actually slipped and fallen right on top of the dead body.
The others surrounded us. Jerry pulled me to my feet and tried to calm everyone down. “Not to worry. This was all part of the act. Please go back to your rooms. Nothing to see here!”
Loren shoved me out of the way as she and Bridget dropped to either side of Maggie, asking a lot of questions they weren’t going to get answers for. “Are you okay?” “Are you hurt?” “Can you hear me?” “Maggie?!”
Tobias put a hand on my shoulder and spun me around to face him. “Is that blood on your shirt? Are you bleeding?”
“Yes.” I said. “I mean, no! It’s jam. I mean…”
Bridget gasped and covered her mouth. It didn’t take them very long to figure it out. This was a pretty smart crowd and we’d just lost control of the narrative. I had to try something, no matter how desperate.
“...how much does a polar bear weigh?!”
Unsurprisingly, it didn’t work. Loren jumped to her feet, grabbed Claire by the hand, and backed away a couple steps before saying it. “She’s dead. She’s really, actually, dead!”
“Whaaat?” Jerry tried. “Nah. She’s not really… she just… See, what had happened was…” He exhaled loudly and lowered his head. “Okay, yes. She is really dead. I know this looks bad, but--”
Hope screamed. The room erupted into chaos. People shouted over one another. Somehow, I got knocked down again. I crab-crawled away until my back was against the bookshelf. Everybody was arguing. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but Loren and Tobias were both pointing at me, and I knew that wasn’t a good sign.
A loud, shrill whistle finally managed to shut everyone up. Nathaniel had everyone’s undivided attention. “Everybody please calm down!” (Nobody was calm. But at least they were all silent now, which is close enough.) “It seems that things have gotten quite out of hand. Before we bite out each other’s throats, I’d appreciate some level-headed fact finding. Bridget, are we sure Maggie is…?”
Bridget grabbed her husband and said, “Yes. She isn’t breathing. She has no pulse. And that knife… Someone really stabbed her.”
Hope had her arms around her son. “We know who it was!” she shouted. “It was that man! Jack Townsend!”
“Me?” I asked.
“He has a whole pharmacy stockpile worth of antipsychotics in his backpack! Clearly, he forgot to take his meds.”
“Whoa!” I yelled. “Not that it’s any of anyone’s business, but I didn’t forget to take my meds. I have an alarm set on my phone that always reminds me to take my meds because if I don’t… Yeah, this isn’t helping.” I shut up a little too late.
Tobias attempted to keep the peace. “Alright, let’s all just stay cool. Maybe it was Jack. Maybe it wasn’t. Either way, we need to call 911.”
Loren was the first to say, “My cell isn’t getting any service.”
Next, it was Bridget. Then Hope. Then finally, Tobias.
“There is another phone,” I said. “It’s in the basement. Landline. Should be able to reach the outside.”
“We’ll go check it out,” Tobias said. “But first, we need to get everyone else together. If there’s a killer on the loose, we can’t let him pick us off one at a time.”
“We’ll go tell the workers,” Loren said, taking Claire and leaving before anyone could argue.
As soon as they were gone, Jerry walked over to my side. “Well this has been fun,” he said, helping me back up again. “Sounds like you guys have this thing totally under control now. No reason for us to stick around. Ready to go, Jack?”
Tobias stepped closer to us, “And where exactly do you think you’re going?”
“Anywhere but here. I mean, Jack’s got this thing about murders. He hates when this happens.”
Bridget crossed her arms. “I’m sorry. ‘When this happens’? Has this sort of thing happened to you before?”
Jerry laughed. “Yeah, once or twice.”
Tobias narrowed his eyes. “That’s awfully suspicious.”
“I know! Right? Which is exactly why we’re gonna go before the police arrive. Otherwise, they’re gonna think we had something to do with it.”
“I didn’t want it to come to this, but if you insist.” Tobias bent over, pulled up his pants leg, and retrieved a small handgun from the holster above his ankle. He kept it aimed at the ground for now, but the presence of the deadly weapon was all it took for his commands to gain a lot more authority. “You’re both going to stay right where you are until we figure this out.”
“A gun?” Jerry asked. “Really, T-Bone? After all we’ve been through? That’s not very cash money of you. ”
“I don’t want to use this, but I can’t just let a killer go free.”
“Shoot them in the legs!” Hope screamed. “Just to be safe!”
Loren ran back into the room, shouting, “Guys!” She froze at the sight of the weapon. “Whoa! What’s happening?”
“It’s okay,” Tobias said. “I have a concealed carry permit for this.”
“Well that’s a relief,” Loren responded disingenuously. “But before we start blasting away, we need to tell you something.”
“What is it?” asked Hope.
Claire wandered into the room behind her sister and announced, “There’s nobody else here.”
“What do you mean?” Tobias asked.
Loren elaborated, “There’s no one in the kitchen. No workers. No actors. No staff. There isn’t even any food back there. We’re all alone in this house.”
Hope, Bridget, and Tobias said it at the same time: “What?!”
“That’s not all,” Loren continued. “There’s something else you should know. Claire and I aren’t even supposed to be here.”
Jerry and I shared a look. He asked, “What do you mean?”
“I mean, we’re not really guests. Our car broke down this morning while we were passing by.”
The hairs on the back of my neck stood straight up.
“Oh my God!” Hope exclaimed, clutching her chest. “You’re not going to believe this, but we’re not supposed to be here either! We were on our way home when our car died right up the road. We had to walk here. Maggie said we could stay but we had to pretend to be guests.”
This was one twist I did not see coming.
Bridget grabbed her husband’s arm and gave him a serious look. He nodded, then said, “Yeah. That’s exactly what happened to us. My truck has less than ten thousand miles on it. There’s no reason it should have stalled. We had to hike a couple miles up the hill. The lady told us to mingle and fake like we belonged here.”
Jerry tsk-tsked and said, “Well I for one am shocked. Here we are paying full price and they’re just giving away rooms for free. I’ll be telling Yelp all about this.”
I punched him in the shoulder and set the record straight, “We’re all in the same boat.”
“Wait,” said Hope. “If none of us are really guests, then how did Nathaniel…” We looked around and realized at the same time that the blind man had, evidently, disappeared into thin air.
Tobias was the one to say what we were all thinking, “What the hell is going on here?”