Dinner Party

Dinner Party

By D.L. Brown

Copyright © by D. L. Brown, all rights reserved. No part of this story may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission from the author.

Presented by D. L. Brown and Phantom Canyon Entertainment.

This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are of the author’s imagination or are used factiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead is entirely coincidental.

A small group of compatriots from the same neighborhood of that relentless ticking beast named time gathered each year. Not at the first whistle of spring, or heart of summer, nor lonesome fall, but in the hope of winter; the location dependent upon the host. This year, as Francis was host, they gathered at his humble home in France, north of Nancy. A thin layer of snow covered the high wall, lawn, flower beds and green house. The wind driven sleet peppered the windows with icy crystals. Inside, a small dining room radiated warmth by way of conversation between the companions and a huge stone fireplace. Yellow-orange flames chewed through a large cord of oak and ash; the sporadic pops rang out like rifle reports.

            Paintings and tapestries littered every inch of wall space, from old masters to modern day works, including an original Warhol of the host. A heavy wooden hutch held a variety of intricate wine goblets and paper-thin bone china. The room’s only table, a large pentagonal affair, held five place settings, filled with food and drink specific to each guest’s tastes, now mostly consumed. The various and interwoven conversations had moved on from personal updates to more pointed if not rehashed interactions. Francis wrapped up his assessment of last Spring’s Garden output when he noticed Chep glancing at the other exchanges. Bebe filled the void and told Francis she enjoyed his tome on the writings of Shakespeare.

            “I very much agree with your concluding suggestion that too much time is wasted debating the authorship. How did you word it?”

            “His coil has unbound; a name does nothing to diminish or elevate enjoyment of these works. Any appreciation felt by the reader is more for the reader’s ego than the litterateur.” Francis said, “It seems to have stirred up feelings a tad.”

            “Speaking of which, why not cease using pseudonyms. Claim your efforts and rewards.”

            “We abide hidden lives for good reason,” Francis replied, “Besides, you know how I feel about boisterous throngs at the gate.”

“Just so,” she smiled and returned to her meal.           

            Francis leaned back in his massive chair which creaked in protest. A large bowl of soup long since emptied sat in front of him. He held a glass of Claret in one hand and in the other a large cigar made small by his immense yellowish fingers with gleaming well-manicured nails.

Henry watched Milla methodically stabbing her fork into the salad before dipping it in bowl of dressing and into her mouth. After a few minutes he shook his head.

“Still insisting you’re a vegetarian I see.”

Milla only grunted in response.

“So, how long has it been?”

“Long enough to sense fear in my vegetable garden when I pass,” she replied then speared a large tomato slice.

“You have no respect for tradition,” Henry said.

“You’re one to talk, Henry. I can smell the garlic from here,” Chep countered, “I’ll bet you a thousand euros that chain around your neck has a cross attached.”

Henry involuntarily clutched his chest.

“Tell me, Chep. Why are your ecological works limited to places of lush vegetation? Tired of the dry and barren?” He retorted.

Chep returned a dark stare.

“Said the one with a summer place in Saint Tropez,” Milla grumbled, “Tired of dank castles, are we?”

“Cast not your dispersion, Hippocrates. Night happens everywhere unlike your pacifism. Careful, you’ll be biting in no time.”

Milla’s eyes momentarily flashed a bright crimson. She gave Henry a smile then returned to her meal.

“Always a rejoinder at the ready. Why must you take everything personal, Henry?” Bebe finally entered the current verbal fray. Despite her diminutive stature, there was a rich and deep quality to her voice. Although quite pleasant to hear, it seemed strained as if forced rather than natural.

“Oh, Ho! Look everyone, Bebe thinks I should turn the other cheek…or is that mandible?”

“Everyone comes here for pleasant conversation and an excellent meal,” Milla gave a nod to Francis, “It’s not our fault you’re bored.”  

            Before Henry could deliver another stinging riposte, Francis tapped a fingernail against a large metal goblet, which issued forth a pleasing polyphonic tone lasting well past the cessation of conversation. When the tone tapered to silence, Francis rose. His voice was of a medium pitch and his manner deliberate.   

“Now that dinner has concluded, shall we retire to the library to conduct our official business?” Francis suggested.

Each carried a drink of choice through the foyer and past the double doors of the library.  The large room held a metal spiral staircase ending at a wrap-around balcony. Most of the walls near the doors were covered in wooden bookcases. The opposite end of the room was u-shaped and filled with ceiling to floor windows, now covered in heavy green curtains. A large metal and wood ladder allowed access to the upper reaches of the ground floor shelves. The mounted wheels rolled along a perimeter of tile. The remainder of the room was carpeted in a lush green carpet. Another five-sided table sat near the windows.

They sat at their assigned spot at the table. A dark leather portfolio emblazoned with ‘540 Foundation’ sat before each member. Francis set his metal goblet on the large table then eased himself into an equally large wooden chair. From on his left sat Chep, Milla, Henry, and finally Bebe on his right. He waited until everyone appeared comfortable then tapped the goblet again. Another pleasant tone echoed around the room. If listened to closely it appeared to travel around the goblet up and down the scales until is tapered off. His four table companions gave him their attention.

“Seeing that a quorum is present I would like to call the board meeting of the 540 Foundation to order. On this our Vigencentennial gathering, I wish to thank my honored guests for making the trek to my modest domicile. The fare, I hope, was to your liking. The conversations were spirited and rhythmic as ever. I for one am glad for the company. The next order of business is to approve the agenda, which you will find in your portfolio’s.”

            There followed a muffled creak of leather then a rustling of papers. The agenda was immediately approved without comment and the reading prior meeting’s minutes were waived by unanimous consent.

“The next item on the agenda is reports. Before I recognize Henry with the Finance Committee’s treasury report, I would like to remind everyone to please maintain decorum and a modicum of mercy for Milla, and to use our agreed upon method to indicate a wish to speak,” Francis said and glanced at Milla whose eyes were locked on the treasury report in her left hand while she furiously scribed verbatim meeting notes with her right. Something only someone with preternatural hearing and dexterity could attempt.

Henry quickly rattled through the various summations of accounts from Balance Sheets to Profit and Loss. For all his verbal strife, Henry managed two vital foundation functions, Legal and Finance. Few were better at parsing words and counting beans. As there were no questions or comments, Francis recognized Bebe with the Threat Assessment Committee’s report. She took a sip of hot tea and cleared her voice. She began with a detailed evaluation of known targets, categorized by physical form and skills conducted by herself and Milla with oversight by Chep.

“The old ones continue their abstention, as one might expect when given omnipotence and omniscience, leaving only rotting corruption behind. The continued development and proliferation of electronic presentations has dampened and divided any cohesive belief in those peculiar constructs. It seems in this modern age, the flashing of lights and clashing of thunders will always eclipse the scribe’s scratchings. The resurgence of the xenophobe’s constructs came to nothing. The lingering stigma of his personal philosophies remains as strong as when we set events in motion those many decades ago. As for his constructs, Chep surmised, in isolation, non-humanoid creature constructs will flee to the forgotten paths, never to return. All that remains are the others of our time of which only one is confirmed and active. Our recommendation to the Foundation is for continued support of world-wide electronic story-telling mediums, and the continued monitoring and anonymous support of the Doctor’s projects.”

She replaced the single sheet of paper in her portfolio, took another sip of tea and sat back. There immediately followed a wooden thunk, a high-pitched ping, a ceramic clunk, and the melodic tone of Francis’ large metal goblet. There was a pause.

“Chep, Henry, me, then Francis,” Milla said.

“Has anyone placed eyes on the Doctor or engaged him recently?” Chep asked.

The members referred to him as the Doctor as he and Henry shared first names. If he were to join them, Francis liked to think he might choose a concatenated name such as Henward or Hendard to acknowledge both sides of his coin of personality.

“He is under constant passive observation, and there have been no engagements in twenty-two years when he suggested Chep masticate fractured non-crystalline transparent amorphous solids.”

There were smiles all around, even from Chep.

“At least he has a since of style,” Henry said before asking his question, “We’re certain he knows how his book functions?”

The mention of the book immediately took Francis’ thoughts back in time. Over two hundred years ago, he discovered the ability to fade-port to any location holding a first edition of his construct’s book. The mechanic was simple. There was no requirement to read from it, he merely must make contact, at which time, images of various locations flashed into his head. He settled on fade-port after a happenstance test in front of a mirror. Francis watch himself dematerializing at the departure point. He assumed the rematerializing at the target location looked similar but in reverse.

Once he had mastered the skill, he set about obtaining every first edition he could locate. Obviously, locating them was not the issue. His first few acquisitions, in today’s terms, were no less than smash and grab ventures. Well, port and grab, to be precise, he thought. Afterwards, he tracked certain issuances and purchased several on the off chance his situation was not unique.

Several years later, it paid off with a certain book released in 1827. When they finally met, Chep said he had anticipated their first encounter. Nearly five decades later, Milla arrived, equally aware there were others like herself. Finally, several years after the Doctor rebuffed their invitation, the trio of Griffin, Henry and Bebe, manifested. Despite the failure to bring the Doctor into the fold and the sad but inevitable demise of Griffin, Francis felt a kinship each of them analogous to siblings. Enough of this, back to the matter at hand, he thought.

“That, I have confirmed on more than one occasion,” Bebe replied.

There was no reason to question Bebe’s certainty due to her unique shape-changing abilities. In fact, all the arrivals since Chep maintained the capacity to alter their appearance. Something supremely useful when trying to avoid notice. Both Francis and Chep, envied this gift given their own equally unique but unalterable appearances.

“Is it time to attempt contact again?” Milla asked.

“Milla knows my opinion on this; therefore, I lay this query before the table.”

Ping. Thunk.

“Henry then Chep,” Milla said.

Chep sipped from his bowl of warmed herbs and spices while Henry spoke.

“Has he never justified his admonitions?”

“That is best answered by those who attempted,” Bebe said.

Francis looked at Milla who shrugged then at Chep who nodded to him.

“As with Griffin, I suspect he felt unable to distinguish himself from his penned duality and accompanying obsession,” Francis said, “Given the time lapsed, I dread it may be interminable. However, I hold out hope.”

“Might he become a danger to himself or draw unwanted scrutiny?” Chep asked.

“From my brief interactions, and Milla and I agree on this, I do not. He understands the uniqueness of his being, and controls undue notice,” Bebe replied.

No one spoke for a moment. Milla suggested they return to Francis’ initial query. There was no opposition.

“Before the next gathering, should we reassess the other continental constructs? Despite the end result, the Xenophobes’ resurgence might give rise to others.”

Thunk. Tink. Ping. Clunk.  

“Chep, Bebe, Henry, then me,” Milla said.

“I agree and if there are no objections, I will put forward that recommendation.”

“I do not disagree, however our resources in some of those areas remain sparse, and if no objections, I will add a motion to temporarily utilize Henry in the Threat Assessment committee,” Bebe suggested.

“I am willing on all counts,” Henry said.

“I am in agreement,” Milla offered.

Both motions passed unanimously. Francis stated there was no unfinished business from the last gathering and moved onto new business.

“Other than the recommendations already approved, is there any other new business?” Francis asked. Silence followed. He in fact was working on an item of new business, but it wasn’t quite ready to be discussed beyond the preliminary conversations he had with Chep. “Very well. There being no further business, this meeting stands adjourned.”

The members sipped their drinks and returned the documents to the binders. The general expectation was the group would depart from the library, so no one left the table immediately. Before anyone rose from their chairs, there was another tap followed by the melodic tone. Francis rose slowly and looked at each of them with a warm and utterly disarming smile. Seeing he had their attention, he began.

“We formed this organization many decades ago, not out of exclusivity, but of a commonality of our uniqueness. We chose to strive towards stability over fluidity, harmony over anarchy. The doorway of acceptance is not bound shut so long as our underlying endeavors are maintained. That is not to say we refute adaptation. The world around us shifts, as have we from our points of origin. I often remind myself the past is for remembrance, not dwelling. However, I suggest we each recall our moments of first being and the contrast to the here and now.”

Francis paused to retrieve something from the inner folds of his dark green dinner jacket. Without flourish, he held aloft a long green flower stem with intermittent thorns ending with a deep red rosehip; its five sepals intact. He stared at it as he spoke.

“We were conceived by the manic firings and mis-firings of the grey mists, forged into two dimensional constructs, then brought live by a shared belief in those idle scratching’s. Once freed from that founding cloth and our iron gall doppelgangers we sought ourselves. We perceive, dream, desire, and most of all we hope for that eternal spring. Though unleashed from the wing beats of time we observe the light and dark bands cycling from an unremembered past to the unnamed future. The ash of renewal misses not the life afore. It flies onward towards the next incarnation. You see, the truest love of life is the beauty not in a many petaled epitome, but rather in a bulb of corruption knowing its decay gives rise to a rose by any name.”

Henry furtively dabbed a trickle of blood from the corner of his eye. Sentimentality buoys some and overwhelms others, as it should.

“To growth and renewal.” Francis nodded his head to his guests then raised his small glass in toast followed by the others. “Growth and renewal!” They repeated.

Francis left the table and slid open a wooden panel revealing a large safe. Unlocked, he reached in and removed four books, old but well cared for. His guest rose as one and dispensed farewells as they approached. He received a warm handshake from Chep who touched a particular book and faded. Henry offered a curt nod before laying his hand upon his book. Milla and Bebe stepped forward together. Milla gave him a firm embrace and step aside. Bebe stepped forward, stood on her toes and gave Francis a brief kiss on his cheek. His face blushed a pale orange.

“That was beautiful, Francis,” Bebe whispered., “Milla and I are leaving together.”

Francis returned a smile and nod. He was aware of their relationship of course, but a small part of him felt the pang of biting loneliness in the presence of their happiness. It was a selfish thought, but unavoidable. He held out both books and watched as they held hands then touch each other’s book.

As they fade away simultaneously, Francis whispered to himself, “Interesting.”

As Francis replaced the books, he wondered how long ago had Bebe and Milla discovered that little trick of using one another’s book to travel. He locked the safe and restored the panel then returned to the dining room. With one hand, Francis slid his heavy chair close to the fire. Feet near the flames, he smoked a cigar and mulled over the night’s activities. The portraits upon the walls appeared to watch him while the wind-blown sleet tapped at the windows. Outside, a shadow detached from the perimeter wall and sprung the twelve feet to the top. It paused a moment to look at the large figure within the house, then casually stepped over the side and out of sight. 

Francis’ head cocked slightly at the nearly imperceptible thud from outside, “Growth and renewal,” he said softly to the empty room and smiled.

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