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Adventure American Mystery

"Press the red circle at the bottom of the screen and begin speaking clearly into… oh it’s on, uhm, alright, I guess this is my first log entry in service of Vicari… Vicariant #75139, dated Monday October 9th at 6:15 PM. I acknowledge that I am under no circumstances to contact Vicariant #75139 and furthermore I am to remain inconspicuous yet observant throughout the duration of my conscripted service. I further pledge to follow all instructions provided and complete all assigned tasks in support of Vicariant #75139’s success. Thus concludes the weirdest statement I have ever made.” Chester paused for a moment, thinking to himself while wearing his considerable nerves just below the surface.

Fifteen Minutes Earlier:

Chester Lakewood had just finished another predictable day at the office. He was waiting patiently for the elevator to make its achingly slow journey up to the 6th floor of the nondescript office building where he had spent each week plying his trade as a systems safety engineer.

For five years of workweeks, and sadly most weekends, Chester has taken position at his desk at 7:30AM each morning, repeating the same ritual in reverse later that evening, never earlier than 6:00PM. It has been five years of hard work, yes, and promotions too, but lots of banked vacation time and no life sums up Chester Lakewood very well.

Meanwhile, across the street in an empty parking garage, the driver’s side door of Chester’s no frills, white, four door sedan was quickly opened and closed. No alarms sounded. The only evidence of this brief intrusion was a plain manila envelope placed on the driver’s seat and the hushed beep accompanied by a short blink of lights signaling the unlocking and locking of a vehicle. Written on the envelope was "Chester Lakewood, Open Immediately". 

Moments later, Chester pressed the unlock button on his key fob as he drew close to his lonely sedan. In the distance, it beeped softly and blinked its lights for the third time in as many minutes. In one, well-practiced motion Chester swung the driver’s side door open, threw his messenger bag into the passenger seat, and descended into the vehicle.

In that instant, he caught sight of an unexpected object on the cloth seat beneath him. Worn ragged from a long day staring at a computer screen, Chester’s delayed reaction and failed attempt at an aborted landing resulted in a direct hit on the envelope. He quickly shifted his weight off the mystery package and pulled it out for inspection.

In moments like these, the brain has a funny way of connecting dots that aren’t there, all in a well-intentioned attempt to make sense out of a given situation. Accordingly, Chester’s first thought was that he left the item on the seat; he must have. But that thought quickly evaporated the second his eyes caught his printed name and the ominous note “Open Immediately”.    

Chester quickly upended the contents of the manila envelope onto the passenger seat revealing four items: a smart phone, bound daily planner, a document titled “Read me: Instructions for Proceeding”, and a pen with the name “Vicari-ers” laser-etched on the barrel.

“Okay, someone is playing a prank on me, right?” Chester asked himself. “They must be.” 

If this was a prank, he was intrigued and willing to play along with the mystery of it all, for now at least. Then a second thought crossed Chester’s mind, and he nervously scanned the back seat of the car and each of the windows.

 Alone, no signs of entry. Deep down, Chester didn’t actually believe this was a prank.

Eyes surveying the strange items now resting where no passenger had ridden for at least a year, Chester was immediately drawn to the smart phone whose screen was illuminated; the internal gyro had done its job. With a swipe of his finger, he found that the phone was not secured, gaining access to the home screen immediately. Only three applications were visible: Messaging, Phone, Voice Memo.

Navigating first to the contacts menu of the phone app, he found only a single entry; someone with the alias "Concierge”. This eerily vague name saved in the phone made Chester increasingly uneasy. He dug into the contact details and found only a phone number and an email address composed of the same alias.

At that instant, the phone vibrated in Chester’s palm and a notification appeared at the top of the display. A text message had been received from Concierge. As soon as Chester remembered how to breathe again, he accessed the message.

Concierge: “Please stop what you are doing review the provided instructions immediately.”

Chester nearly dropped the phone as he snapped his head around looking for signs of a sender. Seeing no one in the well-lit garage, Chester locked the doors, jammed his key into the ignition, and started the engine.

Another text.

Concierge: “Please stop. Read your instructions.”

Chester’s unease shifted to a fight or flight response; play along and read the instructions or make a run for it. His analytical mind said run, but the mystery of it all got the better of him.

“Alright, let’s play.”

Chester gave one more nervous glance around, then picked up the paper titled “Read Me: Instructions for Proceeding” and started reading.

Dear Mr. Lakewood,

Apologies, but I am afraid brevity is a necessity.

Be assured you are in no danger and are free of bodily threat. That said, your service is required. No choice is given; you must comply.

7-10-2010. Houston. 20342.

Text your Concierge if further motivation is required.

Your tasks are itemized in the provided planner. You will find specific dates, times, and locations of interest. Do not misplace the planner. Do not disclose its contents to anyone.

Notice of your absence for the remainder of the week was sent to your manager shortly after you left for the evening. “Your” request will be granted. Do not expect to return to work this week.

Maintain an audio log of your progress via the notes app on the phone provided. Create your first log entry now by reading from the preprepared statement provided below.

Kind Regards,

The Vicari-ers

Open the app, press the red circle at the bottom of the screen and begin speaking clearly into the microphone: ... ...

Present time:

In the morning he would text his manager to “confirm” that his leave request was real and was approved. He suspected both would be true.

The cryptic date and single word awkwardly placed in the instructions refer to a core memory he shared with his family while on vacation years ago. That memory would eventually inspire Chester to become an engineer.

The seemingly random number precisely matches the amount of money currently sitting in one of Chester’s savings accounts that he uses to set aside money for the express intent of taking chances and experiencing new things. He jokingly calls it his “If Only Fund” because he never takes chances and he never has new experiences. He goes to work. He goes home. He orders food. He eats alone. Wash, rinse, repeat. 

Chester required no further motivation. He would comply.

“Alright, let’s see what we’ve got here.” Chester said to himself, resigned to at least seeing where this was going. He opened the small, leather-bound planner. It was a daily planner with the first page corresponding to today’s date. There is a single entry made by what appears to be skilled calligraphers’ hand.

It reads:

7:00PM: Navigate to the Montclair restaurant at Fredricks Hotel downtown. Go to the front lobby outside of the restaurant and wait at the bar. At 7:15PM precisely, call the restaurant to cancel reservations found under the name Frederick Wilkens for tomorrow (Tuesday) night at 8:00PM. Stay in the lobby until 7:30PM. Report to your Concierge if you see anything unusual.

Chester knew the location and set off immediately; 7:00PM would arrive very soon. During the drive Chester had ample time to think about the oddity of his current predicament. Not having time yet to look ahead in the planner, he could only guess that odd would be his new normal.

But also, Chester couldn’t help wondering who Frederick Wilkens was and why he would choose to miss out on the inventive foods and five-star experience that he had heard so much about around the proverbial water cooler.

“Probably some rich executive who can get a reservation at any time.” went Chester’s inner monologue. At least this Wilkens person made a reservation at some point. What was Chester’s excuse?

He pulled up to the luxury hotel at 6:58, valeted his car, and took up position at a table in the hotel lobby bar outside of the restaurant. He watched all the lovely, happy people going about their evenings and their lives, laughing and talking. At 7:15PM, Chester dialed the restaurant.

“Montclair, how may I help you this evening?” said a confident hostess. Affecting his most professional voice, Chester responded “Good evening. This is Fredrick Wilkens. I have a reservation for tomorrow evening at 8:00PM, but I’m afraid I have to cancel.”

“Mr. Wilkens, I’m very sorry. I didn’t realize it was you.” the hostess said sincerely. “We were looking forward to finally having you as our guest. Do you have another night in mind? We’ll make it work.”

Chester, feeling the strong desire to bogart this reservation instead held true to his instructions. “No, please cancel the reservation. Another time perhaps.”

Sounding slightly saddened, the hostess obliged and wished him good night. 

Step one complete. Next the instructions said to wait and watch the hostess stand until 7:30PM.

“Wait for what? And how will I know if anything 'unusual' happens?” he murmured under his breath. "Let the people watching recommence, I guess.”

Chester moved from the bar, closer to the restaurant. For the next five minutes nothing of note took place. People came and went. Then at 7:20PM, a woman with brown hair wearing a suit dress walked briskly from the hotel entrance directly to the hostess stand, likely coming straight from her office.

From what Chester could hear of her conversation, the woman had decided on a whim to just see if there was a reservation available. She’d always wanted to go but had never made the time.

“Sounds familiar.” muttered Chester.

What would have been impossible just five minutes prior was now her lucky day thanks to Fredrick Wilkens.  

“Was that it? Was all of this seriously just so this woman could walk off the street and win the dining lottery?” he thought and as if in answer, the other cell received a text.

Concierge: “Task complete. Good night.”

Chester slid the phone back into his pocket without sending a reply.

Tired but also oddly energized knowing he was done with Concierge for the night, Chester stood up and headed for the lobby exit in the direction of the valet stand. When he stepped outside, the sun was setting, and it was like he was seeing downtown for the first time. So many people were moving in and out of restaurants, bars, and shops. Chester was starting to feel a little anxious. You wouldn’t call him outgoing, but he is not an incurable introvert either. Given the scare he had in the garage earlier and the ongoing strangeness of the evening, he only just realized how hungry he was and found himself staring at the restaurants across the street.

“You can’t go wrong with that one.” a voice said jump-scaring Chester from his daze. The valet attendant was standing right next to him, pointing at an Asian-Fusion restaurant across the street. "I love their seared tuna.” and then he mimed a chef’s kiss. “They’re busy tonight because a conference nearby, but if you’re lucky you might get a seat at the bar.”

Taking a beat to recover from the start, Chester said “Thanks, I think I’ll give that a try.”

As Chester neared the busy little restaurant, he realized the name sounded very familiar. Searching his memory, it came to him. This place had been featured on the local news shortly after opening its doors a year or so ago. At that time Chester had really wanted to go, but in typical Chester fashion, he never did. Also in typical fashion, he heard fantastic things about the new place from his apartment neighbors and coworkers.

Stepping inside, he already knew what the hostess was going to say… no room at the inn.

“Do you have any tables available?” Chester’s introverted side asked hopefully knowing a spot at the bar would likely mean he’d have to talk.

“No and bar side seating is full up too.” the frazzled hostess said.

Just then a couple walked by with to-go boxes in hand. One of them talking excitedly into their cell phone, “No, we are on our way right now. Stall for 15 minutes. Do whatever you need to, just don’t let them leave before…”.

The rest of the conversation was cut off as the restaurant doors closed behind the hurried and harried former customers. The hostess looked at the seating map on the computer screen one more time and said with a smile "Well, I guess it’s your lucky night. If you give us a minute, we’ll have your table ready.”

The next morning:

Chester woke at his usual time and found two texts waiting for him: one on his phone and one on the other phone. One from his manager and one from Concierge.

The text from his manager was a bit of a surprise because Chester hadn’t had a chance to check in with him yet. He couldn’t figure out how to casually confirm that he had asked for time off without looking either crazy or suspicious.

Thankfully, there was no need. His manager’s text was short and understanding. A quick confirmation that Chester should take the time he needs to feel better and that the flu is nothing to mess around with. 

"Well, that’s that. I guess I’ll be using sick time for this.” Chester thought.

Next, turning to the other phone, Chester read the text from Concierge.

Concierge: Review the planner. The mornings are yours, but your service is needed each afternoon until Sunday. Be on time. Follow all instructions.

Chester already knew the specifics of the planner backwards and forwards. He had acquainted himself with its details the night before while eating the best surf and turf of his life. It was better even than the News 5 morning show said it was. 

He also had time to reflect on the events of the past day. Vicariant #75139 must have been the woman at Montclair. What vicariant meant he had no idea but given that the unexpectedly nice pen and his instructions from the manila envelope both referenced something called "Vicari-ers”. A play on the same word for sure, but Chester’s mind was blanking. Regardless he was going to see this through. It now felt like an adventure and if it somehow helped that woman, all the better.

Over the course of the next few days, Chester found things playing out just like Monday night had. A combination of random tasks performed for Vicariant #75139 and unexpected new experiences for him. For once he was not living vicariously through others. He was stumbling into his own experiences. Each day his audio log to the Concierge became more and more about his own experiences from the day. A bit of self-therapy maybe?

Here are some examples.

Tuesday afternoon Chester finally took the time to visit the art museum. Then he jogged three blocks north to the street corner specified in the planner, hailed a cab at 7:20PM, made an excuse not to take it, then walked away. Immediately a somewhat familiar looking woman ran for the taxicab and jumped in looking relieved.

“Montclair restaurant, please” is all Chester could hear before the door shut.

Friday morning while at nice coffee shop, Chester overheard someone talking about how much of a mental reset an afternoon at the park was for them. Later, Chester walked through a beautiful park, getting some much-needed vitamin D, and reading a great book underneath a shade tree. That evening he picked up two tickets from will call at the downtown theater for opening night of a new production. Per his instructions Chester was to stand on the front steps and give the tickets away at 6:45PM exactly.

He stood in position, holding the tickets aloft, when as if on que he saw a very recognizable woman walking down from the box office with a friend. Both looked dejected. Vicariant #75139 immediately locked her eyes on the tickets.

“Free tickets. Anyone interested?” he said. Seconds later, task complete.

By Sunday evening Chester had facilitated the woman’s experiences across ten random scenarios, staying unrecognized throughout. Also by Sunday evening Chester felt as though he had been helped through helping her. He had branched out, had new adventures, and had multiple chance opportunities just popped up. This was unprecedented in his life. He liked the new Chester. He liked that the "If Only Fund” was down to $19,500. He was now committed to making a change and further committed to keep it once it arrives.

“This is my last log entry in service of Vicariant #75139, dated Sunday October 14th at 9:00PM. All tasks completed; you’re welcome. Oh, and I finally figured out the cute little word play there… Vicari-ers, Vicariant… it’s a play on vicarious, right…. (Long pause, no audio)… the Concierge needs better branding. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go. I have a reservation to make.”

Chester stopped the recording, switched over to the phone app and dialed Montclair restaurant.

“Hello this is Fredrick Wilkens…”

Somewhere else in the city, around the same time that Chester finished his last duties as a conscripted Vicari-er, another "volunteer” was just finishing their final audio log in support of successfully closing out Vicariant #75140.

July 29, 2023 03:39

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