No Reservations Required (new short story)


“Now, I know what hell sounds like.” Christopher muttered.

“What?” Ingrid, Christopher’s wife of ten years, demanded in a shrewish tone.

After ten years, Christopher thought, he might be used to her. However, after a decade of marriage Ingrid could still use a tone that had the effect of a fork scraping a cast-iron frying pan.

“My coffee, I let it get cold,” Christopher said, “That’s what I said.”

“No you didn’t!” Ingrid came into the room, her cigarette in hand, her mouth curved in a predator-like expression.

“You said something about hell.” Ingrid insisted. “I heard you.”

Why did I marry her? Christopher asked himself. I must have been drunk. That had to be it. Christopher thought glumly. She had been less gray, less shrewish, less of a chain-smoker. The house, once his only, shared with his beloved cat, Daffodil, seemed to wear within its walls a general hopelessness. As if it too had absorbed all the nagging, heckling, bullying, and unwarranted criticism it could stand.

“Okay, you’ve got me.” Christopher sighed. “Hell it is….or was.”

Ingrid plopped down in the sickening yellow-green chairs that she’d found at some yard sale, banishing the ones Christopher’s first wife, Flora, had sewn red and blue flowered cushions for. Banished everything that Flora had contributed. “It’s my house, now.” Ingrid had demanded.

Christopher had given in.

“What about hell?” She said, letting loose a cloud of exhaled smoke Christopher’s’ way as if aiming it. She knew that Christopher had asthma, and that cigarette smoke aggravated it. She didn’t seem to care.

“Oh, I was wondering what hell might be like.” Christopher said.

The light of battle lit her blue eyes. Christopher had thought those eyes attractive once…during their whirlwind courtship. Back when she was kind, flirtatious, even gentle. Back when those eyes seemed to have a trace of compassion in them.

Now, they reminded him of nothing so much as the eyes of a bird of prey. With Christopher as her intended victim.

Christopher sighed and started to get up.

“Where are you going?” She demanded. Ingrid never asked anything. Everything felt like an inquisition. She took another deep drag of her cigarette. Her silver-white short shag only accentuated the predator look. This wife of his–human?

“I was thinking of Anne’s place…..looking around. She had some new travel folders in. Just looking, mind you. I know we can’t go….”

Ingrid gave a derisive hoot. “I bet that’s what you want to go look at. She’s what? 62? Well-preserved, to be sure, but still. Another few years she’ll look like a dried up prune.”

Speak for yourself, Christopher thought.

“Well, yes, you go see her. But bring something back. More than a good memory, you hear? Go find something extraordinary. I want a vacation. Don’t come back till you find something incredible!” Ingrid snapped, lighting a fresh cigarette. “And go feed your miserable cat before you go. The thing’s been at the door begging to come in. Have you been sneaking him in again when I’m not here?”

“Ingrid, he was born in this house. He lived inside for years….”

“I don’t want him in here! I hate him! I hate cats. They’re sneaky and nasty.”

Christopher had once heard that people described animals in the way they viewed themselves. Daffodil, a large, 11-year-old Tom with a forgiving nature and loving heart, wasn’t anything close to Ingrid’s description.

“I’m going, okay?” Christopher went towards the pantry for Daffodil’s food, and left out the door.

Daffodil trilled and purred loudly, circling Christopher’s ankles while he poured the cat food into a dish. Christopher brightened as he petted the feline. “Be glad you’re neutered, fella.” He said, and headed out toward’s Anne’s travel gallery, a small shop about two blocks distant.

Christopher kept his walk to a stroll, a dawdle until he got out of Ingrid’s line of vision. Then, he kicked up his heels, like a boy. His wife so rarely allowed him to go anywhere without her.

He crossed the little, ancient drawbridge that divided their Ohio subdivision from the city of Owensboro, where they lived. Where Christopher had been born. Where Ingrid moved from San Francisco, to take a job teaching. At 58, she could have retired several times, but refused. At 72, Christopher had retired, had been that way when they met. He had enjoyed his quiet life and had hoped it would continue.

How she must terrify the kids at her school! Christopher thought, as he walked, his pace quickening. Watching him, one might even say he was running….away?

Christopher, lost in his thoughts, finally looked up, and noticed that he’d somehow gotten into a part of town he didn’t recognize. At first, he felt some alarm. He wondered how he could cover the distance so quickly. Why he didn’t recognize the place, when he thought he knew all of Owensboro.

The streets were shabby–littered with bits of broken bottles, newsprint, rotting fish. He wondered if he’d gotten near to the Ohio river, and if a fisherman was selling just caught wares. If so, he’d covered about two miles in a very short time.

But where was he? And how might he get back?

Then, he was right in front of an old and battered shop. A florescent sign advertised ‘travel.’ The windows had old, yellowed pictures of Paris, Rome, India and places in America.

Christopher stood, and wondered. The place didn’t look busy, or even open. Should he try the door? She had told him to come back with something…..

The old man who staffed the dusty, moldy smelling office gave Christopher a great, cheerful grin with big, yellow teeth. He wore a ratty looking blue sweater, a stained white shirt underneath, and pale gray pants hitched up high on his waist. He could have been Christopher’s age, or a thousand years older.

But he seemed harmless…..

“I see you found my shop, Christopher.” The man said.

“How?” Christopher gaped.

“Never mind,” the man said kindly, “It’s my business to know all about my clients. Been expecting you.”

“You have?”

“Of course. Could be senility. I swore it would be sooner than this. You’ve got a strong constitution, don’t you? Well, let’s get down to business. My name is Bernhart Beckmann. I…specialize in extraordinary vacations.”

Exactly her words, Christopher thought. “Did my wife call you?”

Bernhart chuckled and pulled out a folder. Enough dust flew off the manilla folder to be cremains of a dead person. Christopher felt his eyes starting to water.

“Sorry, old fellow.” Bernhart said, still kindly. “Forgot all about your allergies.”

He looked around at the dust, clapped his hands and spoke to nothing. “Now, stop that! Enough! Go back to your own!”

Just as quickly as that, the room was free of dust, free of the musty smell. The air was clear and easy to breathe. Christopher took a deep breath and felt his symptoms dissipating within seconds. He was amazed, and was beginning to be a bit frightened.

“If not Ingrid, then…ah…”

Bernhart pulled some rimless glasses from the nether regions of his desk. He placed them on his nose, wiggled it and sneezed. The glasses fell off. He patiently replaced them.

“Here is the file……Yes, we’ve been aware of Ingrid for some time. Those poor devils she married…..oh, sorry.” He looked up and there was an impish look on his face that told Christopher that he was not a bit sorry.

“Did you know that she caused a rector to hang himself?” Bernhart continued to go through the file. “She was on the altar guild at his parish. Sang in his choir.”

“Ingrid is tone-deaf.” Christopher said.

“Precisely.” Bernhart took off his glasses.

“So, an extraordinary vacation. She wants it–and we have just the thing. Well, not quite a vacation, more of an outing….a sort of dinner theater if you will.”

“I don’t think Ingrid had that in mind.” Christopher said nervously, eying the door.

“Steady there. Good lad. You don’t want to be on the wrong side of that waspish tongue. Don’t blame you. Here. Take this to her. See if it appeals. She might just like it very much.”

Without understanding how he again got outside the door, Christopher saw that the area around him was now familiar. He was less than a block from home. He looked down at the folder with the bright red stamp of “Incredible Adventures” on it. He hadn’t seen that on the folder before. This one looked professional. The other one was yellowed manilla, with coffee stains on it.

He trudged up to the doorstep, fearing what Ingrid would say. She was, true to his fears, waiting where he’d left her, a fresh smoke in her wrinkled hands. She snorted derisively when she saw him. “What’s that? A marriage proposal from your new girlfriend? Did you tell her you’re taken?”

She stopped speaking and stared at the folder in his hands.

It was smoking.

Ingrid snatched the folder from Christopher. Opened it. Was it an optical illusion? If so, it was a damned good one. And that smell, subtle at first, but growing stronger. What was it?

“What sort of joke is this?” The vulture-like look on her face reminded Christopher of a hawk ready to snatch a small animal.

“No j..joke,” He stammered. “Not from me, at least. It’s what the guy gave me. It was a weird place. Not even sure how I got there.”

She cocked an eyebrow at him. “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” She said dismissively. “Okay, you’re done your job. Go away, watch tv or something. I want to read this.”

She was still reading the folder two hours later. Christopher came back, overjoyed at being able to watch two nag-free hours of public television, something Ingrid hated.

He nearly choked on the smell in the room. It was the smell of the folder, only much stronger.

Sulfur.

Ingrid turned to him. “This is it! This is where we’re going!”

“Where?” Christopher asked.

“To hell.” She had such a hungry look on her face that for a moment, Christopher feared for her sanity.

“Oh, don’t look at me that way, you clod. Not ‘real’ hell..though they make it sound that way. Very convincing. It’s a dinner and theater in one. You get to dine with the most evil characters of history and hear their stories!!”

Christopher came over timidly and looked at the open folder. In it, were two crimson tickets with gilded edges. Blinking his eyes, he reached for them, only to have Ingrid slap his hands away.

“Get your mitts off them. I’ll be handling this.” Ingrid grasped the tickets to her meager breasts as if they were a cherished lover. A wizened smile spread on her wrinkled face making her look more hideous to Christopher than usual. When had he grown to hate her so?

“Go get shaved and dressed. Black tie is what it says. It’s tonight. We’re expected within the hour.”

Thirty minutes later, Christopher, nervous, unhappy, and stiff in the only suit he owned, walked outside with Ingrid, to the waiting black, stretch limousine. For once, Ingrid was silent. She settled into the lush leather seats of the vehicle, noting that it was top of the line. She wore an off the shoulder, red-sequinned gown that Christopher had not seen before. She had slicked her hair back into an almost masculine style, and applied make-up skillfully.

The driver, a silent, hulking man in a tuxedo had a emotion-less face. He handled his job perfectly, operating his vehicle masterfully. The night seemed darker than usual, and, while the scenery outside seemed to pass at a normal speed, Christopher felt the sense of increasing speed.

Soon, there were no landmarks, just trees, which seemed to grow thicker. Were they going into some sort of park? Christopher didn’t know. He couldn’t still the feeling of disquiet and foreboding as the car left the forest, and came to rest in front of what first looked like a mausoleum. Shuttered windows, not compartments soon disposed of that notion.

Again, Christopher pondered the location. He thought he knew the area intimately. Where were they?

The driver opened the door and handed Ingrid out. He then went, and strangely sat back in the car, as if waiting. But, for what?

Ingrid seemed to forget Christopher. Then, as an afterthought, she motioned disgustedly for her to follow him.

The room had white, satin walls, tall ceilings, and plush red carpet. Everything spoke fabulous expense. It reminded Christopher of the inside of a palace. It was brilliantly lighted and the chandeliers seemed to greedily drink the light and bounce it back.

A butler, also silent, led them to an elevator. They stepped in.

Christopher, of the three of them, wondered if he was the only one who noticed that they started on the top floor. There was only one other button and the feeling of sinking as the elevator took them with rapid speed to their destination.

The doors opened to reveal a long, elegantly set dining room. At first, Christopher feared they were late. The meal appeared to be in progress.

The host, a genial-looking man in full tuxedo with a closely shaved head and neatly trimmed black beard approached them. He gave them a wide, toothy grin. His large dark eyes appeared to be kind, yet amused at the same time.

“Ingrid!!! So good to see you! And, Christopher, is it? Please sit down. You have the seats to my left and right. The seats of honor!” Conversation hushed as this statement was made. The assembled guests gaped at them openly.

The host continued, concentrating on Christopher. “We are all so glad to have you…been waiting some time to entertain your wife, you see…..ah, my manners. You may call me M. Easier than pronouncing the actual name. Just M.”

Christopher was freshly astonished as he looked down at the table. Whoever prepared the event spared no expense. The people were obviously dead-ringers for who they were supposed to represent. He was a student of history, and a former professor of the subject for years. Next to him sat a man who could have been the twin of Hitler. Down further, there was a Stalin. And could that be….a woman looked amazingly like Lucretia Borgia.

He didn’t recognize many of the others…he could only make half guesses. Perhaps Napoleon and was that Lizzie Borden? A late comer arrived, struggling with girth and mobility issues made his way to the last available seat, one that was wide, and seemed made especially for a larger person. Incredible, Christopher thought.

“Ah, your Highness, we were about to despair,” M said, his grin seeming almost carnivorous. The king sat heavily and without comment. He slurped from his wine glass, didn’t bother to wipe his face, and then looked at Ingrid. “Mayhap I inquire about this guest of honor?” He stated these things as if he doubted the justification for her to be accorded the designation.

“She surpasses even yourself, Sire.” M. said.

“We shall see.” The sovereign stated.

Ingrid leaned across the table and snapped her fingers in Christopher’s face. “Who the hell does he think he is?” She snarled. Christopher looked at his wife, weary and itching in his suit, and shrugged. “By all appearances, he appears to think he’s Henry VIII, later years of course.”

“Right!” Ingrid snapped.

“He is right.” M. Said, “But enough of this chatter. Our guests are eager to dine. I think it would be a good start for them to introduce themselves to you one by one.”

Christopher had been right with his guesses. The men and women introduced themselves. Hitler, Napoleon, Lizzie Borden. Henry VIII. Others spoke.

“I am Joseph Stalin. Over 20 million of my people starved to death during my rule. I did nothing.”

“I am Bella Stanford. I poisoned 30 children in my classroom after my lover jilted me. Rather than be caught, I drank some of the poison myself.”

“I am Ted Bundy. I murdered 314 women. I confessed to only a small portion before I was electrocuted.”

“John Wilkes Booth”
“Al Capone”
“Joseph Mengele”

The names went on, until there were only two left. One was a kindly looking white-haired man who looked like everyone’s idea of a beloved uncle. He straightened up in his chair, and introduced himself. “George Parker. I pretended to be a godly man but bribed and bullied people. I lied about my wealth and cheated the poor. I destroyed anyone who found out about me.”

There was a silence. M. knocked sharply on the table. “Gerald, must you always do this? I’m sure Ingrid would like to know how you rated a seat at her table.”

“I’m bored with this, M.” Gerald protested. “I didn’t do my deeds to be put on perpetual….display.”

“Yet–on display you are.” M said, his voice something terrible. Even Ingrid seemed to tremble at the hearing of it. “On display…at my whim…for eternity.”

Gerald balked, nervous in his seat. “Very well, then. I killed five women. Whores. Worthless parasites that did not deserve life.”

M smiled. “Good, good. Now tell them…you weren’t known as Gerald, were you?”

Gerald shook his head.

“Your name….for our honored guests pleasure.”

Gerald sighed deeply, desperation and resignation in the sound.

“I was known as……..Jack…the Ripper.”

Suddenly, Gerald’s dull eyes lit up. “Hey! We go through this every time, Guvna! But you never tell the folks why you are here. How about it?”

M. bowed his head gallantly. “Of course. Pride. I’m here….because of pride.”

Before Ingrid could comment, wait staff came in, exquisitely dressed to serve their first course. It was a chilled consume, very tasty and just enough to whet the appetite.

Ingrid was not happy, however.

“Is this it?” She whispered loudly at Christopher. “Just dinner with a bunch of actors? How much did you pay them for it?”

M smiled at her genially. “Your husband has not yet paid. The price has not yet been decided upon. He can decide how much it was worth to him at the end of the evening.”

“No more than one hundred.” Ingrid hissed. Christopher dropped his head meekly.

At the end of the table came a mocking laugh. Henry VIII stood up, making the table rock. “Are ye a man? She would have gone to the tower for less if she were my wife!” He roared.

Ingrid was on her feet in an instant. “But I’m not your wife. Nor would I marry a fat, syphilitic, pathetic old man!”

Something in her tone quenched the fire in the monarch. He sank into his chair. Christopher wondered how good an actor he was after all. Would the real Henry have tolerated such insolence?

Ingrid looked around, and then daintily sat down, as if nothing had been said. The meal continued…each course more delicious than the last. Ingrid found fault with all of it. Most of this was directed at Napoleon, her unfortunate dinner partner to her left. The rest at M. who enjoyed his food and never lost his amused, slightly mocking satyr-like expression.

Christopher shut Ingrid out as best as possible and engaged Hitler in conversation. He found, to his surprise that the man was quite intelligent for an actor. He was very well read, able to intelligently discuss Mein Kampf with authority. He also was most knowledgeable about Austria.

Towards desert, he realized that M. was looking at him in a benign way. He noted the host’s eyes again. They were dark pools of magnetism, seeming to draw you into them, yet giving nothing back. Was it kindness in them, or a predator’s cunning?

“You are so out-of-place here.” M. said gently. Again, Christopher was perplexed. M. seemed a complex individual, kind, yet harsh, manipulative, yet reasonable. Certainly he was an excellent host, but his cryptic answer about why he was at the dinner did nothing to explain who he was.

“Don’t talk to him!” Ingrid snapped, “Talk to me! It’s my evening, not his!” She gave Christopher a withering look. “He is…nothing.”

“By all means, my dear.” M. said. “I see that we are all finished. Let’s retire to the screening room. The highlight of the evening awaits us.”

Ingrid tried to badger M. for information all the way to the screening room. M. remained absolutely silent, charmingly offering her his arm. Ingrid smirked at Christopher. “This is what a real man is like! Not like you.”

The room was set up like a small theater, except the seats were gray velvet in a semi-circle. Again that feeling of elegance, no expense spared.

The lights went down.

It was a film that seemed to be all around them. Like 3D.

All about Ingrid.

There was hushed silence as it unfolded.

Ingrid, who at five had stabbed her Nanny in her sleep because the Nanny had spanked her. She stood by the woman’s bed and watched her die. Wept and looked convincingly innocent when the crime was discovered.

Ingrid at 12. She pushed a rival for top class honors to her death from the top of a 3 story church balcony. No one ever questioned her.

Ingrid at 24. Beautiful. Lush. Evil.

Ingrid who poisoned the wife of a man with whom she had an affair. The woman died. The lover asked Ingrid to marry him. Ingrid sadistically refused. The man shot himself.

Ingrid at 36. The priest at her church. Ingrid hated him. No reason why, except his innate goodness. She mocked and hounded him. Took pains to embarrass him. Sang badly in his choir to humiliate him when the bishop visited. Purposely put things in wrong places on the altar guild and gave it no time to be corrected so that he appeared to be incompetent in the service. He was found in his home, strung up by a noose of his own making.

At his funeral, Ingrid was seen to smile.

The film went on, each new event, each new horror. Christopher looked at his wife. For the first time ever, she seemed frightened, uncharacteristically meek.

The story went on to his marriage to her. The years of humiliation. Then, to the present day. Still it did not stop. It showed them coming home from the dinner. Her getting out, and patting Daffodil. Christopher going to bed. Ingrid feeding Daffodil something….the trusting cat going into seizures, dying.

“No!” Christopher shouted, standing up. Ingrid looked at him defensively. “Shut up, I haven’t even done it, yet!”

Yet.

One last scene. Ingrid bringing a limp Daffodil to Christopher’s bed. Laying the cat next to him. Ingrid, standing over Christopher, a tenderizing mallet in her hands, bringing it down, down, down…..

The lights went on.

M was standing in the center of the room. He was no longer smiling. The feral look that Christopher had seen in a smaller measure on Ingrid’s face seemed to cover his features now. There was no kindness in the face anymore.

Just hunger.

“Now, let the voting commence. Who best deserves to remain here, as one of your own, to greet other new arrivals? Ingrid or Christopher?”

“Now wait just one damn minute!” Ingrid shrilled. “You’ll never be able to prove any of it. This sheep, this impotent little liar,” She said, pointing to Christopher, “He made it up! He’s framing me!”

“Silence, foul creature.” M. said, the hungry look growing more pronounced. “Which one, guests? Christopher? I see no hands. Ingrid? Ah….it is unanimous.” He turned his dark, burning eyes to her. “You will stay.”

“You can’t keep me here!!” She cried out.

“Can’t I?” M asked smoothly. “Look at me closely. You know me, don’t you? Look closely.”

Christopher looked at his wife, who was unable to look away from M. The Host’s face began to change, to melt, to re-shape, to become animalistic, voyeuristic……

Demonic.

Ingrid began to scream.

“What say you, room?” M asked.

“She belongs with us.”

M. turned to Christopher. “You may leave.”

Ingrid tried to move, but found she could not, except to look towards her husband. “Don’t leave me here!” She screeched, her eyes wide with terror. Christopher gave her the first happy smile of his marriage.

“You can’t do it, Christopher!” She begged.

“Actually, I can, Ingrid.” Christopher said and walked into the waiting elevator.

Christopher woke up in his bed. It was the next day. He felt rested and comfortable. He saw that Daffodil had somehow gotten indoors during the night, and was curled up, purring on Ingrid’s pillow.

“Okay, old man, out with you. If Ingrid sees you….”

The Tom gave him a look of what could only be called feline satisfaction and didn’t budge.

A search around the house revealed no Ingrid. No evidence of what should be half a pack of smoked cigarettes by now. No trace. No red evening gown. She had not returned with him. But how had he returned?

As the morning went on, Christopher was curious, but marveled at the peace. The house had been his before the marriage, and in a strange way, he felt like it was his once again. On a whim, he put the kitchen chairs he had so hated by the garbage cans. Got the chairs that Flora had lovingly restored out of the garage. Put them back in the kitchen. Sat in one.

At noon he went out to collect the mail. He looked back at Ingrid’s car. He guessed he should report her missing. It would be the right thing to do. At the mail box, he saw only one thing in it. A large, over-sized envelope, warm to the touch. Smelling faintly of a bitter smell.

It was a letter, on finest stationary, done with quill pen.

Dear Christopher,

I trust you enjoyed last evening’s entertainment.

You need not concern yourself with Ingrid. She is settling in and I think will be a splendid addition to my group.

There is however, the matter of payment. We generally ask that you give us the thing most valuable to you. I suppose in your case, that would be your cat. However, I personally do not like cats. Most of the people here share my opinion.

The acquisition of your Ingrid was so valuable to me that I’ve decided not to charge you. That’s right. No payment is necessary.

However, if you find yourself at loose ends without your charming bride, please use the enclosed invitation to return to my realm and claim her. At that time, we will consider alternate payment arrangements.

Yours,
Mephistopheles

Daffodil, fresh from a snooze on Ingrid’s pillow had come out on the porch. He was just in time to see Christopher throwing something up in the air. It rained down like tiny pieces of confetti. The cat walked over, smelled a piece and recoiled from the sulphuric smell. He then watched as his master did a brief dance of joy on the lawn.

Thinking how strange humans were, the cat stretched in the sunshine, and sat down to start its midday bath.

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Choose (poem)


My love, choose I
To go this way
Far, far away from you.
And though I am reminded
Every day
I know my choice is sure.
My love, choose I
To make you a stranger
A person of no reknown
Though really, you give me no choice
Just another face in a
Same-such crowd.
No more may I see thee
As friend, love, or foe
But simply as one unknown
Until our lives are done
No more the bitterness, the gall
Of everything and nothing to lose
My love, this day, I give thee up
For this is what I choose