Debra Goldstein



Judge Debra H. Goldstein is the author of the recently released One Taste Too Many, the first book in Kensington’s new Sarah Blair cozy mystery series. Her prior novels include Should Have Played Poker and the 2012 IPPY Award winning Maze in Blue. Debra’s short stories, which have been nominated for Anthony and Agatha awards, have appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Black Cat, Mystery Weekly, Bethlehem Writer’s Roundtable and numerous anthologies. She is president of Sisters in Crime’s largest chapter, the Guppies, serves on the SinC national board, and is vice-president of the Southeast Region of Mystery Writers of America.

Find out more about her writings at her website: www.DebraHGoldstein.com or like her facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/DebraHGoldsteinAuthor/ . One thing about Debra and her writings, "It's Not Always a Mystery."



The Dinner Gift

Debra H. Goldstein


 

Kara clutched the gold ticket and stared at the castle etched on it. With her love of history and architecture, she couldn’t believe she hadn’t known such a magnificent structure existed so near her home. Leave it to David, her husband of thirty-five years, to have found the perfect gift for her.

“Hand that ticket to the doorkeeper. He’s expecting you.”

“Aren’t you coming with me?”

“I’ll be there for dinner, but exploring castles is your kind of adventure.” His lips brushed against her forehead and he was gone.

Frozen in the middle of their apartment, she stared at the ticket and pre-packed suitcase David had left her with. She glanced at her watch and realized she only had twenty more minutes to freshen up before the car he’d ordered arrived. It was just like David to surprise her, without checking whether she had other plans. Kara smiled. Life with David was never boring. She stuffed lipstick and a brush into her purse, checked for her wallet and was ready when the driver honked.

She barely remembered the drive - she must have dozed - but it wasn’t long until she opened her eyes as the car approached the castle’s entry. While the driver retrieved her bag, Kara stepped back to take in the massive size of the building. At least the equivalent of four stories of her apartment house, the solidity of its over-sized wooden double doors and gray stone walls was broken up only by a random assortment of miniature peepholes she realized must have been used to fire weapons through when the castle was defended. She craned her neck, but barely glimpsed multi-colored flags fluttering above the castle’s turrets.

Eager to inspect the interior, Kyla reached for one of the lion-headed knockers. The door swung open before her hand connected with its iron ring. Off balance, Kyla stumbled. The doorman caught her arm.

“I’m sorry. Are you okay?”

Kyla nodded at the tall man clad in medieval garb. She knew everyone supposedly had a doppelganger, but he couldn’t have been closer to the spitting image of her late Uncle Charlie had he tried. Of course, Uncle Charlie would never have been caught dead in red and green crushed velvet with a white plume sticking out of his hat.

“I really am sorry. I keep forgetting to give people the opportunity to knock. Oh well, let’s see, do you have your gold ticket?”

She handed her ticket to him and he stepped aside, allowing her to enter a great hall. Always cognizant of her diminutive stature compared to David’s lanky six feet, she wished he was here to share the sensation of being dwarfed by the hall’s wood-beamed ceiling.

Kyla shuddered. Perhaps it was the lack of heat or the hall’s sparse décor. Other than a check-in desk, marble stairwell, and an equally massive door opposite the one she’d been dropped off at, nothing softened the interior of the gray rock walls. “When did this castle open to the public?”

“Oh, it’s been around forever, but your questions will need to wait.” He pointed at the wooden entrance on the far side of the room. “Dinner has started.”

“But I need to check in.”

“Mr. David and your gold ticket already took care of that.” He took her suitcase from her. “I’ll make sure your bag gets to your room.”

“Thank you.” She opened her purse for money to tip him, but he waved her off.

“No tipping. Everything’s been taken care of. Come along now, luv.” He ushered her across the hall, past a line of people waiting to check-in. She followed him, her eyes glued on the white feather bobbing on his hat. When they reached the wooden door, he pushed the iron bar running across it. As the door opened, he held his arm out in the universal “after you” gesture.

She crossed the threshold in front of him. When she turned back seeking guidance where to go in the banquet hall, she realized he was gone. Uncertain, she moved forward. The room was filled with long tables and people wearing clothing from all centuries and walks of life. She looked down at her own outfit. It hadn’t changed since she left the apartment. That was almost as much of a relief as hearing David’s voice. “You made it.” He took her hand. “Our seats are on the other side of the room.”

He finally stopped in front of two empty chairs at an otherwise filled table. He pulled one out. After she sat, he pushed the chair in for her. “Give me a minute to get our drinks.” David kissed the top of her head. “I’m glad you’re here. I’ve missed you.”

“Silly, I just saw you an hour ago.”

His hand lingered on her shoulder. “Whether an hour or an eternity, I miss you.”

She looked up and met his gaze. It had been too long since she stared into his soft brown eyes. As he went to get their drinks, she shivered. The words “I missed you, too” tumbled from her mouth in the direction of his disappearing back.

Without David distracting her, she glanced around her table. A white linen cloth covered as far as she could see. At least four times in that distance, the table was set in a repeating pattern of a platter of food, a six-armed candelabra. Each platter appeared to be piled high with chicken breasts, cooked carrots, and fingerling potatoes. She couldn’t believe the quantity of food being served. Surely, the castle had a high amount of waste.

In front of her, and every other guest, gold-rimmed china dinner plates sat on gold chargers. On either side of the charger were three carefully placed forks, two knives, a teaspoon and a soup spoon. She picked up a knife. Heavy. Real silver. She imagined the shiny silver water goblets also were made of the precious metal.

Kyla laughed at herself. True to her nature as an accountant, she not only was worried about whether the castle was keeping its food costs in line, but she wondered if silver walked resulting in more losses after each meal. If there was as much shrinkage as she feared, she questioned how they could stay in business. Then again, she didn’t know how much David had paid for their package. Maybe their losses were incidental.

The noise level wasn’t. A charged buzz from the various conversations reverberated off the walls. With the decibel level drowning out individual words, she focused on the people sitting near her and their costumes. The detailed outfits were true to all time periods and geographic locations. At her table alone, a few seats to her right, was a dead ringer for Eleanor Roosevelt. A Mother Teresa clone sat the same distance to Kyla’s left. Both were engaged in what appeared to be lively give and take with the people near them. Judging by the food on their plates and the forks waving in the air, these clusters were taking full advantage of the banquet.

The same couldn’t be said about the two men seated across from her. Neither appeared to be enjoying themselves or to be eating. The one who wore an awful Attila the Hun costume met her gaze with such a glare, she averted her eyes and glanced at the man beside him. She decided his swashbuckler costume was more believable than Attila’s, but he, too, sat stiffly. His hands were at his side, his gaze focused on the food platter in front of him.

Rather than engaging either in conversation while she waited for David, Kyla checked out the rest of the room. She was surprised at how well folks had succeeded in using make-up and costumes to create realistic characters from the past.

One table, which she dubbed “the presidents,” had a recognizable Kennedy, Lincoln, Reagan, and John Adams, as well as a few she remembered as having had more dubious careers. She couldn’t hear what “the presidents” were saying, but she took their laughter and the dent they’d made in the family-styled portions as a sign they were enjoying themselves. As she watched, she noticed only a few were serving all the others. It took her a moment to realize the the presidents she’d been taught to respect in school were hosting the ones, like Grant and Harding, whose terms in office were tainted with scandal.

Curious, Kyla focused on her own table. Although she’d noticed how engaged everyone was, she hadn’t looked at each guest carefully. She’d only zeroed in on the Eleanor Roosevelt and Mother Teresa look-a-likes. Now, she watched Mother Teresa serve a person dressed as a leper and another made up as a dirty beggar before taking food for herself. Kyla turned toward the part of the table presided over by Mrs. Roosevelt. Like Mother Teresa, Mrs. Roosevelt offered food to a potpourri of people dressed as prison inmates, protesters, and politicians before serving herself.

The more Kyla looked around, she realized that except for where she sat, everyone was engaged in conversation and eating. She glanced across the table. Why weren’t her dinner companions eating? Were they waiting for David and her? Could it be that she was the one who needed to offer these men food? She didn’t want to. After all, what kindness did Attila the Hun deserve? His crimes were heinous. And what if the pirate was Blackbeard? She couldn’t remember the details of his story, but knew he was notorious. Still, it wasn’t in her nature to let anyone go hungry. She made a judgment call and reached for the serving utensils. “Gentlemen, would you like something to eat?”

They nodded their acquiescence.

Using two forks, Kyla picked up a chicken breast. As she placed it on Attila’s plate, there was a flash of yellow light. The serving utensils clattered to the floor as she dropped them and grabbed for her chair while the room spun around her. She missed and landed not far from where the utensils had fallen. And then it was over.

Kyla struggled to stand, but couldn’t. She didn’t know what had happened. If this was her end, she wished she could at least have said good-bye to David. Too late to say a prayer, she squeezed her eyes shut. When she opened them, David knelt by her side. Her good, sweet, but as she now remembered, dead David.

She stared at him. It couldn’t be, but it was. He took her hand and helped her to her feet. “It’s over. You’ll forever be here with those you loved.”

Kyla shook her head trying to clear the voices she heard – her mother, her father, and other voices of family and friends long gone. “Where are we? Where was I? How did you come for me?”

David stroked her hair and held her to him. “I was your guide to the middle, but only you could choose your destination. Your fate was sealed when you gave to others, even though their behaviors repulsed you.”

She backed away. “And Eleanor Roosevelt and Mother Teresa? They were real?”

“As real as you and me. Though the castle was only temporary. A setting for you. It’s gone now.”

This time she clung to him. “But you’re not.”

“No. Never again.”

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