MOMENTS TO REMEMBER
By J. T. Seate
I found the small ad in the back pages of a local artsy magazine.
Get away from it all. Mystery Escapes will take you somewhere you’ve never been before – that’s our guaranty.
I felt the restless feeling which stirs inside at the beginning of an adventure.
Combine mystery with the unknown, the rectangle of copy further proclaimed. Sounded like a come-on for TV’s Survivor, but isn’t this what most of us want—to find adventure in our too predictable lives?
I have a job I detest, few friends, the memory of a lost romance, an apartment that looks like a thousand others. I’m tired of TV, eating alone, and looking for love in the same old hangouts. With that assessment of my current state of affairs, I called the ad’s number.
“Mystery Escapes,” a pert female said. “Are you ready for adventure?”
“What do you offer?”
“We offer mystery trips for small groups. Our destinations are secret. We even shoot a film you can keep as a memento.”
“So you playact for a few days, like one of those groups that tries to solve a murder.”
“Kind of, but you get to be part of an imaginative endeavor in which people express their personal creativity within a living story.”
Was it some kind of Community Theater I really wanted? “How much?”
“Very reasonable. A four-day, three-night package for only three hundred dollars single, four double; transportation, rooms and meals included. We guarantee a provocative, enlightening experience. May we sign you up, mister…?”
“Albright. Maybe a brochure…”
“No brochures, Mr. Albright. We like to keep the adventure limited to the people who participate directly. Will you be signing up alone or will you have a traveling companion?”
* * *
The van stopped in front of my apartment. Its side panel slid open and out popped a thirty-something, muscled specimen with a shaved head.
“Service with a smile,” he said and took my bag. “Step inside, Mr. Albright.”
A woman sat in the back wearing a pink blindfold.
“I’m Bill,” the man continued. “Have a seat next to Patty.”
Patty turned her head and smiled a tiny, cautious smile.
“We have a black blindfold for you,” Bill told me.
“The adventure starts right now, huh?”
“Absolutely. Secrecy is part of the fun. One more pick-up, then we’re on our way.”
“Patty. My name is Jason,” I said as we bumped along through city streets.
“Hello,” she said timidly.
“What’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?”
“Right now, I’m not at all sure.”
At the next stop, Bill helped a second woman into the van. She giggled at the sight of us hostages.
“What the hell? Blind man’s bluff?”
The blindfold was a hard sell to Sam, short for Samantha, but Bill convinced her secrecy was paramount. Were we daring or just foolhardy, I wondered, but as the three of us talked, we all grasped a sense of promised adventure, feeding off each other’s desire for something mysterious and diverse.
With the city sounds far behind, it seemed an eternity before the van lurched to a stop.
“You can remove your blindfolds,” Bill prompted.
The three of us stared at one another then turned our attention to our surroundings. Through the van window, I saw a two-story farmhouse and shivered. It reminded me of the infamous Clutter house from In Cold Blood.
The van’s robust driver could have been Bill’s bookend. He helped the women from the van. “My name is John. Follow me to the house. Bill will manage with your luggage.” John and Bill, two more ordinary names I couldn’t imagine, but there was a sense of something extraordinary about them. We three thrill-seekers were scrawny in comparison to these two behemoths.
The place was furnished quite nicely, not farmhouse rustic, as I would have expected. A man and woman a bit older than my group reclined comfortably in padded chairs.
“Duff and Inez Browning?” John asked the couple.
They nodded in affirmation.
“Welcome. This is Patty, Samantha, and Jason.”
Everyone smiled and shook hands.
“Relax and get to know each other,” John said with the standard tour guide grin.
Bill returned with a portable bar. “Welcome to Mystery Escapes,” he said. “This property is owned by Mystery Tours, folks. No phones, TV, or computers. We’d also like to hold on to your cell phones while you’re here. Each day will have surprises. During the day, you can take walks, there’s a pond with boats, a stable with horses, or just crash if you like. By the time your stay is over, I think you’ll agree you’ve had the most unusual vacation ever.”
We smiled uncertainly.
“We’ll have dinner around seven. You’ll find your rooms upstairs. Our accommodations are in the basement. You’ll see John recording now and then. It’s part of the film we’ll make. Moments to remember. So just be yourselves like on the reality shows.”
That brought a chuckle from Duff. “You’re not going to videotape us on the can, are you?”
Bill laughed in return without words. “Okay, dinner in about an hour.” Bill followed John into the back of the house.
I decided to be bold. “A short boat ride around the pond sounds invigorating. Would someone like to come along?”
“I’m handing over my cell phone and going upstairs for a quick nap,” Sam declared. “Why don’t you go with Jason, Patty?”
“C’mon,” I offered. “We won’t paddle far. Duff, would you and Inez care to come along?”
“You kids go ahead. Inez and me are just enjoying the sounds of silence, huh sweetie?”
Inez painted another smile.
The pond wasn’t far from the house. I climbed in one of the rowboats and offered Patty my hand.
“Thanks for inviting me,” she finally said after we shoved off. “Tell me about yourself, Jason.”
I made my life sound as interesting as possible while we drifted about, but I’m sure it came through that I was a ship without a current anchor. She had nothing the movies were looking for, but there was a beauty to her sweetness. “Today’s the first day of the rest…and so on,” I said. “If we choose up teams, I’d like to be on yours.”
“I’d think Samantha was more your type. She’s so… vivacious.”
“The tattoo on her ankle makes me think she might go for one of our guides.”
“That’s not her only tattoo I’ll wager, but she seems quite nice.”
“I’ll paddle back so we have a little time before dinner.”
We seemed to be forming a bond, so I didn’t want to be a smart-ass at the get-go. “You look like you don’t eat a thing. I mean you have such a nice figure.” Okay, I couldn’t resist testing Patty’s water just a bit.
“I bet you say that to all the girls you take rowing.”
The boat slid cockeyed into the other rowboats. Patty removed her sandals and stood in ankle-deep water. Minnows nibbled at her toes. I fought the urge to hold her hand as we walked toward the old house.
John was waiting for us with his camera. He filmed while we approached. Patty and I obligingly smiled.
“C’mon you two. Get up close and personal. Let’s make your friends want to take their own mystery trip.”
“How’s this?” Patty kissed my cheek.
“Perfect,” John said.
“Sure we don’t need a retake?” I asked.
“Sorry, I got it the first time, partner.”
Patty laughed. “Thanks for the company, Jason. See you later.”
It seemed Patty had already let her everyday life melt away and was enjoying a simple pleasure we city-dwellers often forget.
* * *
I pondered the differences between Patty and Samantha while I showered and changed for dinner. Sam was intriguing, flashy and full of mischief. If there was any flame there, it would be no more than a lark, a distraction from her real life. Patty was reserved, quiet, with a sincerity that appealed to me. As we gathered around a nicely appointed dining table, John and Bill lit candles. Patty had dressed in a prim spaghetti-strapped shift. I was about to tell her how nice she looked, but Sam beat me to a compliment.
“You look delicious, Patty. We’ll have to exchange addresses so I can borrow your dress.”
Sam sported a plunging neckline that showed off her décolletage. Bill seated us and John appeared with his ever-present camera.
“You all look wonderful,” John said. “Even you, Jason.”
“I know. The thorn amongst the roses. That’s my fashion statement.”
“Where are the Brownings?” Patty asked.
Bill answered. “Mrs. Browning isn’t feeling well. I took something up to their room.”
“That’s a shame,” Sam offered.
“He thinks she’ll be fine tomorrow, just too much traveling and excitement today.”
“The absence of the Browning’s makes for an awfully cozy dinner party,” Sam said, “but more booze for the rest of us, I suppose.”
“There’s more liquor here than you could possibly drink,” Bill said. “I won’t let your glass go dry, Sam. However, you all must save room for our after dinner special.”
Bill and John joined us for the four-course meal, but were quick to see to our needs. I’m not much of a boozer so I nursed a couple of gin and tonics over the course of our two hours at the dinner table. Patty was a red wine drinker. Samantha mixed and matched. Not to my surprise, she flirted with Bill while John frequently pulled out his camera to catch our candid moments.
Something passed between Bill and John I found bothersome. Patty glanced at me several times during dinner conversation, always wearing a warm smile. I took this as a good omen, that we had in fact formed some sort of bond.
After dinner, we moved into the living room. I sat next to Patty on the sofa. Sam dropped into one of the stuffed chairs and kicked off her shoes while a renegade breast threatened to pop out of her V-cut.
Enter John with three brandy snifters filled with dark brown liquid. “This is Mystery’s little splurge for all of you taking a chance on the unknown. I propose a toast. Here’s to a magic moment and risk-takers who live each day as though it were their last. Cheers, everyone.”
Sam and Patty drank with relish. I hated brandy, so I faked it, only moistening my lips.
“I want you all to drink up before retiring.”
“It’s early yet,” Sam protested.
“That’s true, but some of us have had a lot to drink. It’ll make a better movie if you’re clear-headed and rested tomorrow.”
“Oh, that’s right,” Sam said. “We’re having the time of our lives and making a movie to boot. So pour me another and I’ll trip off to bed like a good girl.”
“Don’t you like the brandy, Jason?” John asked.
“It’s good, but I’m going to take it to my room where I can sip and savor.”
“Suit yourself. I’ll say goodnight then and plan to see all of you for breakfast.”
“Goodnight,” we three voyagers answered.
“I guess he’s right,” Sam said. “If we can’t have fun tonight, we’ll make up for it tomorrow, huh guys?”
“You bet,” I said.
Sam rose to her feet too quickly and staggered a step. I jumped up to steady her and in doing so, garnered a clear view of her well-proportioned, pendulous breasts, nipple and all.
She fastened on to me for a moment. “Thanks, Jason. A little too much sauce, I guess.”
Patty was on her feet also. “Do you need help upstairs, Sam?”
“I’m fine, really. I’ll see you in the morning.”
Patty and I watched Sam climb the stairs.
“Do you think she’s all right?” I asked.
“Do you believe in making the most of the moment? You know, carpe diem?”
“What I think is we have two nights more,” Patty offered. “If you’ll be patient, who knows.”
I picked up my brandy and followed Patty up the stairs to her door.
“Till tomorrow then. Rest well,” she said.
I lifted my glass. “Here’s to you, kid.”
She kissed me tenderly on the lips then disappeared behind her door. I was tingling. Once in my room, I took my glass to the washbasin and poured the brandy down the drain. It had been a busy day bumping along for two or more hours blindfolded, followed by a fulfilling dinner, a flash of nipple, and finishing with the sweet suggestion of better things to come. As far as I was concerned, magic moments had already made the mystery trip a success.
* * *
I don’t know how long I lay across the bed in my clothes before I heard noises. My bedroom door suddenly creaked open. I listened, faking sleep. Someone stood in the doorway. I opened my eyes just enough to see a silhouette lit by the hallway light. It was a man who stood there.
“He’s out. Let’s get back down.”
The door closed. I heard the knob creak as something was forced against it. I got up slowly and felt my way through the dark. I twisted the knob. The door wouldn’t budge. A chair or some other object braced it, imprisoning me.
“The fun and games must be starting already.” Still, I didn’t like captivity. What did John mean by “getting back down?” Could he and Bill possibly be partying with the girls, shutting me in? I trembled with jealousy.
I, too, could play games. I crossed the room, raised the window, evaluated my chance of climbing to the ground without falling, and decided it worth the attempt. I slipped into my shoes, threw one leg over the windowsill, and then the other. An eight-foot drop awaited. I breathed a prayer to Lady Luck, twisted around enough to drop safely into the farmhouse’s yard.
Now that I was outside, I wondered why I’d risked breaking something. John checking on me was not particularly sinister, but the knowing looks the two men had shared at dinner tickled the funny monkey in my brain. It shouldn’t have bothered me considering mystery was the whole point of this excursion, but it did.
I followed the foundation of the house to the corner. A light shined from a basement window, the staff quarters I presumed. I heard voices. Crouching next to the window, I peered inside. A drape partially blocked my view but not so much that I couldn’t see.
In front of a glaring spotlight was a bed covered with a plastic sheet. On top lay a woman, Patty, naked save for a device made of black leather straps placed around her head. A ball in her mouth prevented her from screaming. Bill sat on the edge of the bed. He was outfitted in black leather. On the other side of the bed next to Patty was Saman—
Wait. I looked closer at the naked, defenseless woman. She had a small tattoo on her ankle. I looked at the woman sitting next to her. My mind tried to process. It wasn’t Patty’s body spread-eagle and drugged. It was Samantha. Patty, also dressed in black, was the woman setting across from Bill.
I heard Bill say, “You’re not going to be in a porn flick, Samantha. That would be easy to do with any junkie on the street. You’re going to star in something much more daring and you’ll be seen by a select group of patrons around the world. Just think, an international celebrity. That suits your personality.” Bill looked away from Sam, beyond the bright light to what was undoubtedly a video camera. Then he looked at Patty. They shared a knowing look before his gaze returned to Sam. “When I was a kid, I tortured worms with a stick. It’s not so different now. The moment has come, my sweet.” His laughter was a dark thing. “It’s Showtime.”
She struggled beneath his face, drugged in all likelihood by the brandy, but not to the extent that she wasn’t aware. Bill produced a serrated butcher knife. He held it in front of Sam and then toward the camera I imagined whirring away beyond the light. I had stumbled into a world of diabolical corruption of the body and spirit. Stone cold fear gripped me. “A snuff film,” I breathed. “God in heaven, they brought us here to be slaughtered…for entertainment.”
My instinct was to run as fast and far as I could, but my eyes were riveted to the revolting scene playing out before me. I had sensed something about this place and now I knew. This was a house where death lived. It hung in the air like a palpable thing, perceptible to a threatened creature such as me.
Now I knew what lay behind all the sardonic sneers of the so-called staff. “There are a lot of possibilities,” words Patty had said ran through me like melting butter. A daytime choreography had played out before the camera. Then came the night, and betrayal. If it had been Patty on display, I think I could, in some macabre way, have dealt with what was happening. Patty, apparently, was the actress supreme. Everything had been done and said for camera shots. The climax of my starring role would play better if my killer were someone I’d come to like—to trust. I knew if I were stretched across the plastic sheet, it would be Patty instead of Bill toying with the knife.
Where were the Browning’s? Were they part of this or were they lying in their room, drugged, waiting to be led to the slaughter like I would be if caught?
Then something startling occurred to me. What if it’s all a setup? Wasn’t that more likely than a group of people jumping through all these elaborate hoops to film murders? “Please,” I whispered. “Let it all be a horrible joke.” Maybe Sam is in on it also…they somehow know I’m watching. Was the joke on me alone? There was no doubt Sam would agree to get naked for a joke. I didn’t know whether to be furious or frightened. How would they know I poured my drink down the sink unless there were cameras in the room, or maybe the brandy had nothing to do with it?
My legs cramped as I watched Bill twist toward Samantha. His weapon shimmered in the reflective light as he put his knee on Sam’s arm and plunged the knife into her stomach. I crammed my fist into my mouth to throttle a scream. Sam’s eyes bugged out grotesquely, her screams swallowed within the device on her head allowing only a high-pitched screech to escape. Patty pinned Sam’s other arm as Bill removed the blade. Blood spurted savagely from the wound as Sam’s legs thrashed in agony. Next, he put the knife next to Sam’s breast.
I’d seen enough…too much. I galloped from the house to the parked van, praying it would be unlocked and the keys would be conveniently waiting in the ignition. No such luck. I heard a noise from the house. It was John’s voice shouting to the others.
I ran to the pond illuminated by yellow streaks of light streaming from the farmhouse’s windows. The rowboats slopped against each other at the edge of the dark water. I scrambled into the belly of one just as a beam from a flashlight raked overhead. I could only hope they wouldn’t expect me to seek refuge this near the house.
“Did you check every goddamn room?” Bill yelled at John.
“Of course, but he can’t be far.”
I hugged the dank boards of the hull praying I wouldn’t be found. The drumbeat in my chest seemed deafening as I became horrifyingly aware I wasn’t the only thing hiding there.
“He could be over a hill or into a gully by now.”
“We’ve got to look,” John said.
“He won’t go to the cops. He knows they can’t protect him. We’ll finish our work, then clean up and clear out.”
Their footsteps marched back toward the house. The voices faded, and the farmhouse door swung closed. The only sounds remaining were the pounding of my heart and the lapping water against the hulls. I peeked over the boat’s bow and saw shadows flicker across the basement window. I stood up quickly and tried to see who or what was sharing my boat. Moonlight revealed Duff Browning, face down, stone cold dead.
I willed myself not to be sick and tried to hold the boat steady as I climbed out but it pitched just enough to throw my balance off. I grabbed for the side of the second boat and my hand landed in a puddle of goo that used to be Inez Browning’s chest. She lay face up, stripped of her clothes and the skin meant to cover her torso.
It was too dark to see her eyes, but I knew they were open, staring at me accusingly as if it were my fault. I wondered hysterically if part of the Browning’s may have been my steak dinner. No more thoughts about an elaborate game. Bill, John, and apparently Patty would snuff as many as they could entice out to the boonies. The mystery tour required its employees to exhibit their theatrical talents for only a short time and they had played their parts perfectly. But the players had stumbled by allowing a sacrifice to slip from their grasp.
I washed my bloody hand in the water, then jumped from the boat and broke into a sprint toward a stand of trees beyond the lake. I heard distant words but they weren’t coming closer, thank Christ. Half-sobbing with relief, I jogged through a field, determined to keep going until I ran into civilization.
It didn’t take long, actually. Reaching a highway, I avoided hitching a ride. I wasn’t yet prepared to tell my story. When I reached a gas station, I found a payphone, called a co-worker, and said I would reward him handsomely if he would come get me. I didn’t tell him the truth about my day in the country. I was busy forming a plan of my own.
* * *
I sit alone most nights in my cavern of emptiness called an apartment. Not the one I had before. That would be suicide. I thought about trying to lead the police to the farmhouse, but I knew Mystery’s operation had moved elsewhere. I’ve puzzled over unanswered questions. I’ve wondered if the Browning’s were murdered while the rest of us awaited dinner. I’m guessing Patty is Bill’s bitch and the cute voice on the receptionist’s phone was either she or whoever brought the Browning’s to the farmhouse. I’ve wondered a thousand times about each person’s words and behavior, and what clues resided in them.
There’s one thing I’m sure of, however. Sooner or later, I will see another ad in some small, non-mainstream magazine. I’ll recognize it even if it’s no longer called Mystery Escapes and when I do, I’ll use a fake name and sign up for another vacation like others waiting to be wined, dined, and carved.
“I’ll get them, Sam,” I say to the walls. “I swear I’ll make them pay.”
When they come, I’ll have a disguise. And when they open the van, I’ll kill them all. Most of all, I want to punish Patty for fooling me so badly. I hope she’ll be sitting there with her little pink blindfold. I’ll shoot her last so she’ll know who’s dealing out punishment for her deception.
When the cops come, I’ll tell them I was performing a public service. If I go to prison, it can’t be much worse than my present existence, and I will have done something meaningful. I will have created my own adventure where someone else gets a surprise.
A pitiful lonely guy, that’s me, but at least I now have a mission in life.
J. T. Seate is author of eight stories in the popular Inspector Basham series. “Turn About” (November, 2012), “Letting Off Some Steam” (July, 2013), “The Case of the Open Grave” (October, 2013), “Basham's Theory” (April, 2014), “St. Andrew’s Cross” (August, 2014), “Cat and Mouse” (December, 2014), “Winds of Change” (March, 2015) and Chopper (April, 2015).
Six non-series stories have also been previously published here on omdb! — “Light My Fire” (March, 2015), “The Thompson Kid” (December, 2014), “The Songbird” (August, 2014), “The Constant Reader” (April, 2013), “Mask” (March, 2013), “Montezuma's Revenge” (January, 2013).
The author’s other publishing credits include six novels/novellas, a dozen one-author anthologies, and more than two hundred short stories and memoirs.
Recent publications can be found at www.melange-books.com and www.museituppublishing.com for those who like their tales intertwined with the paranormal. See it all at www.troyseateauthor.webs.com and on amazon.com. You may also wish to visit the author's blog.
Copyright © 2015 J. T. Seate. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!