The mansion was immense, a construct of towers, turrets, and gables linked by mansard roofing, crowned by a railing of black iron. The walls were dotted with windows, a hodgepodge of arch, lattice, and porthole, from small circles to long, narrow rectangles. The exterior was liberally decorated with ornate scrollwork, trimming every edge and border. A sweep of broad steps led up to a large porch, its roof supported by tall columns. The whole place was a masterful study in Victorian architecture, something out a Jane Austin novel adaptation, like it belonged to a different time entirely.
Tonight, however, it was clearly very much in the present. Light spilled out of every window, and the faint sounds of music and conversation drifted through the still night air.
Brent let his gaze wander over the façade for a moment longer, wondering what he was doing there. He glanced down at the invitation in his hand. There was his name, spelled out in elegant script, inviting him to an All Hallows Eve party at the Token House Historic Inn. Guests were advised to dress in black tie or gown; instructions for the party game would be provided.
Heaving a sigh, Brent mounted the steps, crossed the porch, and raised a hand to knock.
The door swung open, revealing a tall man in a somber suit. At the sight of Brent, his long face broke into a smile. “We’ve been expecting you. Please, come in. Let me take your coat.” His voice was low and gravelly.
Brent let himself be ushered inside, and allowed the man—the butler, he guessed—to take his coat. The entrance hall of the mansion was bigger than any house Brent had ever been in. Wall sconces set into dark wood paneling provided a soft, warm light, illuminating paintings and carved molding, reaching up at least fifty feet to a copperplated ceiling. An immense staircase swept up to a second story, where it branched off into a landing leading to separate halls.
Brent shifted in place, twitched his shoulders, trying to get comfortable in the unfamiliar suit he wore. He felt out of place, a little frustrated, though he couldn’t have said exactly what was bothering him.
“If you’ll follow me, sir,” the butler said. “I’ll show you to the party.”
He led the way across the hall, to heavy door of real oak, varnished to a dark finish, which opened to reveal a short hallway. At the end of this passage, the butler halted before a set of double doors.
“Before we go farther, sir, I must acquaint you with the rules of the evening,” he said, fixing Brent with his mild gaze. “First, here is your mask.” He produced a simple mask of stiffened felt, just large enough to cover the upper face, with a silk ribbon to hold it in place. “All guests wear them. As your invitation implied, this is a game party. Each guest has been given a role, a history of sorts. Here is yours.” He held out a card of soft, thick paper, neatly folded in half.
Brent took the mask and card. “How do you win the game?” he asked.
The butler smiled. “This is not a competitive game, sir. Its goal is something else entirely. Each guest will be evaluated on how well they follow their script, and rewarded according to their performance.”
“Got it,” Brent said, though he wasn’t sure he did. He slipped the mask on, drawing the ribbon tight, feeling the fabric press against his cheekbones, already disliking the way it felt. “How long will this last?”
The butler arched an eyebrow. “Do you have somewhere you need to be, sir?”
Brent gave a quick shake of his head. “No. Nothing like that. Just wondering.”
“It will take as long as it needs to, sir. Besides, you just might enjoy yourself. One never knows.”
With that, he opened the doors, stepping through and to one side, allowing Brent an unimpeded view of the room beyond.
It was an impressive sight. Brent stood at the entrance of a huge ballroom, floored in parquet with walls covered in white marble façade. Mirrored panels covered the ceiling, from which hung a huge chandelier, bathing the room in brilliant light. Along the walls sat tables groaning under a wide assortment of drinks and finger foods. Large floral arrangements sat at the ends of each table, the bone white blossoms of a flower Brent didn’t recognize suffusing the air their sweet fragrance. A bandstand in one corner was occupied by a small orchestra, playing soft chamber music.
There had to be at least a hundred people in the room, men in dark suits, women in black dresses. They clustered in groups or wandered alone around the room, chatting and laughing or grazing on the buffet and sipping drinks. Some of them had paired up in the center of the room, where a space had been cleared for dancing, their bodies swaying and turning to the music.
The doors closed behind Brent with a soft click, and he found himself standing there with his card in hand and no real idea of what to do next.
“Well, look here, a new arrival.” The voice boomed at Brent’s shoulder, surprising him, and he turned to see a tall, beefy man standing there. He wore his suit like he’d been born in it, and his dark, graying hair was professionally styled. A wide mouth was stretched in a smile, revealing perfect teeth. “Just go here, did you?”
“Yeah,” Brent said. “You?”
“Been here a while,” the man said, as if it didn’t matter to him. “People come, people leave, but the party goes on.” He chuckled. “Say, quite a spread they’ve got. Care for a drink?” Held up a tumbler of thick crystal, containing at least three fingers of amber liquid.
Brent hesitated. For some reason he didn’t like the guy standing beside him. Something about him seemed… aggressive, overly self-assured. Like he was so used to pushing people around that he did it on instinct. But he couldn’t think of a polite way to avoid him. “Sure, I could use a beer.”
“Beer, eh? Lightweight.” The man chuckled, then started off toward the nearest table. “This way. Name’s Tom, by the way. Say, you read your script yet? Better do that; don’t want to break the rules, now do we?” He gave a sly smile, tapped a finger against the side of his nose.
“Right.” Brent unfolded his card as he followed Tom. The creamy paper was scrawled with several lines, written in a curling script with dark red ink. Rules of the evening: Guests are on a first name basis only. Conversation is encouraged. For the purposes of this gathering, you will play a recently deceased individual of your name. Only two topics may be discussed: what you did in life, and how you died. The goal of the game is left for each player to decide. Once you feel you are ready, you will be scored and rewarded. Please refer to your script, and adhere to it.
Brent looked up to see Tom holding out a frosty bottle of beer, eyebrows raised in a questioning look. “So?”
His gaze went back to the card, and the script written there. “I’m Brent. I was a soldier, fighting against insurgents in the Middle East. I… I died,” his voice caught a little, and he coughed. “I died while on combat patrol, when we were ambushed.” He shrugged, took the beer and tilted it back for a long pull. Something about those words felt… weirdly familiar, like he’d read them or heard them somewhere before. “Not really imaginative, is it?”
“Oh, it’s fine, really,” Tom said with a snort. “Mine’s just plain boring.” He fished a card out of his jacket. “Let’s see. I was an investment banker and lobbyist, involved in multiple financial and political improprieties. I died by suicide after being indicted.” He gave a booming laugh. “Now is that pathetic or what?”
Despite the dismissive attitude, Brent thought the laugh had an edge to it that made it sound forced and desperate. “Yeah, pathetic.”
“Well,” Tom said with a loud sigh. He lifted his glass and drained it in two swallows. “What can you do. Rules are rules, am I right?” He reached out and grabbed Brent’s hand in a firm grip, gave it a shake. “Great meeting you, Brent. Don’t be a stranger.” With that, he was off, disappearing into the crowd like a drop of water into a bucket.
Brent shook his head. This night just got weirder and weirder.
For a while, he drifted around the edges of the crowd, nursing his beer. He hadn’t felt much like talking when he arrived, and his encounter with Tom hadn’t changed his attitude. There seemed to be more than a few people of like mind, looking uncomfortable and out of sorts. Of course, there were others who worked their way through the crowd, stopping and talking to as many people as they could, acting with almost manic energy, as if to show how happy they were to be there.
He had finished his beer and was trying to decide if he wanted another when a hand touched his arm.
“Hey there, good looking.” He turned to see a woman smiling at him from under her mask, her eyes regarding him with a mixture of interest and amusement. “Care to dance?”
Brent shook his head. “No, thanks. Not much of a dancer.”
“Oh, come on.” She tightened her grip. “Who’s gonna care with a floor this crowded. Besides, I’ve danced with just about everybody else, and I can tell you there’s no shortage of bad dancers out there.”
Before Brent could say another word, the woman plucked the empty bottle from his hand and dragged him to the middle of the room. With another smile, she adjusted his hands to her satisfaction, sidled close, and set off. For a few minutes, they focused on their steps and sway, getting a feel for each other’s movements. Brent had never spent much time dancing, but he soon found a rhythm, and was dancing easily.
“Feeling better?” the woman asked, her gaze fixed on his.
Brent gave a shrug. “You’re a good partner.”
“You think so?” A gleam of something passed through her eyes, there and gone again, like a shark emerging from the depths as it circled its prey.
Brent cleared his throat. “My name’s Brent.”
“Oh, right, the game,” she said. “I’m Crystal. I was married to this very rich doctor. Kind of an older man. I was just after his money. Naturally, I was a serial adulterer.” Her shoulders lifted in a shrug of her own. “I mean, what could I do? He was always working, always with his patients. Never paid me enough attention.”
Brent suddenly felt very uncomfortable. “Really?”
“Really, really.” Laura looked away from his face, her expression darkening. “I was gonna take him to the cleaners. I got his lawyer to destroy the prenup. I always had a talent for manipulating people. Especially men.”
“Yeah.” Her face took on an even gloomier aspect, and she leaned her head against Brent’s shoulder. “Then one day, I took my Jag out for a ride. To clear my head. I loved that car. But I’d had a few drinks first. I was under so much stress.” Brent felt her draw a shuddering breath. “Didn’t see the light change, didn’t see the other car.” Her breath caught in a soft sob. “I guess it was a pretty sad life, huh? Certainly not a happy one…”
“Then why live that way?” Brent asked, the words out before he could stop them.
“Why indeed?” Laura whispered. Suddenly, she straightened. One hand lifted to wipe at the corners of her masked eyes. “Oh, well, so much for regrets, right?” She gave a shaky laugh. Then she stepped back from Brent. “It was great meeting you, Brent. You’re a good dancer, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. See you around.”
She turned and walked away, leaving Brent staring after her. Before she had gone more than a few steps, the butler appeared, emerging from the crowd. He put a hand on Laura’s shoulder, bent close to whisper to her. She didn’t meet his gaze, but she gave a little nod. The butler took her arm and led her off, the two of them vanishing into the press of bodies around them.
Brent was left standing alone, more confused and uncomfortable than ever. He decided that what he needed was another drink.
At the table, he paused, considering whether he wanted another beer, or something stronger. Then he noticed a young woman standing nearby, leaning against the wall, an empty glass held absently in her hand. She had a look on her face that said she wasn’t seeing the people milling around her, and that she didn’t care if her glass was empty or full.
Maybe it was that he sensed a kindred spirit, someone else who just as well wouldn’t be there, but Brent grabbed a couple of glasses, poured wine into each, and headed over.
“Enjoying the party?” he asked the woman.
For a second, it seemed she hadn’t heard him, but as he trying to decide whether to repeat the question or give up, she answered.
“No. Not really.” She sounded sad and confused, as if bothered by a hurt she didn’t remember receiving.
“Someplace else you’d rather be?” Brent asked.
The woman frowned, her mouth tightening. “I’m not sure. It’s more like… I’m supposed to be with someone, but they’re not here.” She finally looked at Brent, her gaze sharp and curious. “Do you feel that way?”
Brent thought for a second, then shook his head. “No. No, it’s more like there’s something I didn’t do that I really wish I had.” He shrugged. “Anyway, it’s been a weird night.”
“I’ll say,” the woman agreed. Then her lips curled in a small, tremulous smile. “I’m Carol.”
“They give you one of those scripts?”
“Yeah,” he said. “I was a soldier, died fighting insurgents. It was right outside this little town. My unit was on combat patrol; we were ambushed, scattered for cover. LT yelled for me to take the mounted gun on our Humvee. But I didn’t want to break cover. Guys were going down all over the place. We couldn’t see the shooter. Manning that gun could have turned the tide, saved lives.” Brent sighed. It was all so clear, like it had happened just hours ago. “Finally, LT says to me ‘Get on that gun, soldier, or we all die.’ So I broke cover, went for the vehicle.” He paused, feeling a sudden jolt of confusion and disappointment, like the feeling you get when your favorite character in a TV series suddenly dies. “But… I didn’t make it. I tried. I wanted to do it. But… I was shot. Bleeding out.” He drew a deep breath, remembering the pain. “And I died.”
He looked up to see Carol gazing at him, her eyes full of sympathy. “I’m sorry. But at least you tried.”
“Yeah, I did try. I guess that’s what counts.” Brent felt as though a weight was slowly lifting from his chest, as if telling his story had somehow relieved him of its burden of guilt. He took a deep breath. “What about you?”
“Plane crash,” she said. “First anniversary. My husband and I were on our way to the Caribbean.” She paused, shaking her head slowly. “I wanted to go on that trip so much. But as the plane was going down, I kept thinking about all the things we weren’t going to live to see. Our friends and family. The house of our dreams.” Her voice grew faint, hoarse. “Our children.” She swallowed, drew a shaky breath. “Everything that would have happened in our lives, gone.”
Silently, Brent handed Carol one of the glasses he held. They touched rims, took a drink.
Then Brent sighed. “We really are dead, aren’t we?”
“I think so.”
“And this,” he waved at the room around them, “is some sort of… afterparty, for people who aren’t ready to… go on?”
“I think it’s something like that.”
“Then when can we leave?”
“Whenever you’re ready, sir.”
Brent looked over his shoulder. The butler stood there, a smile on his face. “Whenever I want?”
The butler shook his head. “No, sir. When you are ready.”
Brent frowned, confused. “But I am ready,” he said, then he hesitated, as a sudden stab of fear shot through him, fear of leaving everything behind, fear of going into the unknown. “At least, I think I am.” He looked at Carol. “Are you?”
“I think so.” There was a slight quaver in her voice. “I want to be. I… want to see him again. I really do.” She glanced around the room, and she smiled. “There’s nothing here for me. Yes, I’m ready.”
“Very good, miss,” the butler said. “If you’ll just come with me.”
She looked at him, then back to Brent. “Will you come with me? Can we go together?”
Brent glanced at the butler, who nodded.
“There’s no need to take the trip alone. As long as you’re ready.”
Brent took one last look around the beautiful, elegant ballroom, with its lovely decorations and distractions, at all the people there, unwilling to leave, sentenced to wait there for as long as it took. But for him, it was like the mansion itself, a place from a different time, that no longer mattered to him. As a limbo, it wasn’t so bad, unless what you brought with you turned it into purgatory.
“Yes, I’m ready,” he said.
“Excellent, sir,” the butler said approvingly. “If you’ll just follow me…”
Brent felt Carol slip her arm through his. Together, they followed the butler, and left the party.