Grayson and Marion stepped through the kitchen doorway arm in arm as the last rays of the sun faded below the horizon.
“Would you two mind joining Henri and I in the wine cellar?” Asked Juliette.
Henri opened an expensive bottle of wine and poured it into four glasses.
“This is a célébration! I received word today that Grayson will be joining us as the fourth Gatekeeper of Montenero,” said Henri. “We are very pleased to have you with us, Grayson.”
“Will this be acceptable to you Grayson?” Marion asked, quietly.
Grayson’s smile said it all. Inside he wasn’t sure if he deserved to stay with the Gatekeepers. After all, he had not led a perfect life. However, he held Marion in such high esteem he felt that he must try to set those doubts aside.
Marion hugged Juliette.
The story began with Henri and Juliette Girard sitting on a bench in the kitchen garden, watching the fading light of day. The gardens at Montenero were beautiful this year. Of course time meant nothing to the two of them. Whenever they were together, it felt as though time stopped, and then it did.
Henri took a deep breath of fresh air taking in the smell of the herbs and edible flowers. Juliette stroked the fur of her dog Léon.
“It is a marvelous night, is it not, Henri?” Juliette asked with a smile.
“Oui, it is my love. Isn’t it wonderful that the cure for living is death?” replied Henri.
“That is one way to put it, Henri my dear! Though I do not think it will make our new guests feel any more comfortable in these surroundings,” answered Juliette
Henri and his wife were dead, and had been for many years. Henri died of anaphylactic shock in 1938 after a most unfortunate incident involving cucumbers and ratatouille. Juliette died of old age, quietly in her sleep in 1983. Juliette’s best friend, Marion Du Monde, had also passed away several months before Juliette.
In the afterlife, Henri became a Gatekeeper; a concierge to life after death, if you will. The choice Juliette and Marion made after death was to stay at Montenero with Henri to assist those who entered the Gate of the Dead.
Although no one is truly prepared for death when it occurs, there are those who know with confidence that they will die from sickness or because of advanced age, while others die unexpectedly. Some people feel at peace with the prospect of arriving in the next life; others have a very difficult time with the shock of death. The Gatekeepers are there to gently teach the Entrants the way of life after death.
The sun was just dipping behind the horizon as Pete Mulverhill appeared in one of the large gardens at Montenero. Having just come through the Gate, Henri was the first to greet him.
In life, Peter Mulverhill had served in the United States Army in the Judge Advocate General’s office while attending school at night. He was both an exemplary soldier and became an exemplary paralegal, scrupulously honest and to the letter of the law. When he left active duty service, Pete was offered a job as a paralegal for a Magistrate Judge. Years later, he was offered the position as paralegal to one of the two senior judges sitting on the District Court, all while serving in the Army National Guard JAG office. He had a highly respected reputation, was an intuitive legal expert, and had an almost encyclopedic memory for facts.
His current situation seemed so bizarre. Mere moments ago he was standing outside a law library greeting a fellow paralegal. When a man approached them, Pete thought for a moment he recognized the man. He felt this burning pain in his chest, he vaguely remembered seeing a muzzle flash. The next thing he noticed was the garden around him. He was very confused. Henri approached in his usual gregarious manner followed shortly by Marion and Juliette.
Henri greeted him with enthusiasm: “Hello! Welcome to Montenero!”
Pete looked at him a bit surprised.
“I’m-” Henri started to say.
“I know who you are! You are Henri Gerard, the chef… but you’re…” Pete trailed off.
“Dead? Yes, I am,” replied Henri
“But-” Henri began.
“How did I know who you are? There’s a restaurant, a very famous restaurant in Washington DC named ‘Gerard’s’. It’s named after you! The man who opened the restaurant was a great nephew of yours, so I was told. He came over from France for the purpose of buying your Chef’s Book from an estate. However, he ended up staying to open a restaurant with the family name. In fact, the restaurant still uses your original recipes in their kitchen. There are photos of you all over the dining room and on the front of the menus. I am Peter Mulverhill by the way.”
Henri was surprised by this revelation. No one had ever told him that there was a restaurant in America named after him.
“Peter, allow me to introduce my wife, Juliette, and Marion du Monde, our dear friend.”
“How do you do?” He greeted both ladies.
“By the way, not to sound morbid or anything, but am I...?” He really couldn’t bring himself to say the words.
“Dead? Yes.” Replied Marion gently.
“I thought so. Last thing I remember before finding myself in this garden was a sharp, burning pain. The kind they describe from a bullet wound.” Pete replied.
“We are sorry about the way your life ended, but we are glad you are here with us,” said Juliette
“Thank you,” replied Peter.
Henri chimed in: “I know you must have many questions. These will be answered in time… Not really in time you understand… a matter of speech.”
“Figure, dear, figure of speech.” Juliette corrected his English.
“This is our purpose here at the Montenero Gate of the Dead. The three of us are Gatekeepers, think of us as a tour guide or a concierge to those who pass through. For now, Marion will give you a tour of the grounds”
“Actually at present I just have one question,” said Peter “Have you seen another man pass through today, tall, very fussy, immaculate clothes, little round glasses, salt and pepper hair, wooden briefcase, looks like Boris Karloff? His name is Faulkner Grayson.”
“Let me check the list.” said Marion as she pulled a little parchment paper from the pocket of her riding jacket. “He is due to arrive today but we aren’t given specific times. Let’s take a look around, maybe we can find him,” she continued.
Peter Mulverhill, a man of medium height with a military bearing, was usually dressed with military perfection, not terribly worried about style, he usually stuck to pinstripe suits and plain bow ties. As he and Marion walked along the path Pete noticed he wasn’t exactly ‘dress right, dress’, as they say in the Army. His tie, shirt and suit jacket had a hole in it, his tie was loose and pulled off to the side, though the wallet in his upper left inside pocket did seem to be intact, and his very expensive snake skin boots, purchased while on deployment in Turkey, were undamaged.
“Excuse me Miss du Monde,” said Pete quietly “I’m in a bit of a state here, don’t you think I should clean up before we look over the grounds? I don’t want to shock anyone. Is that possible… does one become shocked here?”
“It’s Marion. Shock is an emotion we no longer experience.” Said Marion in reply. “That, she pointed to his shirt and jacket, will eventually fade. Would it make you feel better if I fixed your tie?” She continued
“No, I don’t think less awkward is possible right now,” He said, taking off his tie and sticking it into his pocket.
“I understand sometimes people who die suddenly find this very disorientating at first. You’ll be okay.” Marion smiled at him.
Henri and Juliette entered the kitchen garden. Suddenly they heard a little cough behind them. There stood a tall man as described by Pete. White hair, an immaculate, three piece black suit, wooden briefcase, and with the exception of a perfectly trimmed pencil mustache and a perfect black fedora, he looked like a twin of the famed Boris Karloff.
Neither Juliette nor Henri had ever heard anyone speak with such perfect diction.
“How do you do…(he said more as a statement of fact rather than a question), I am Faulkner Grayson, everyone calls me Grayson, perhaps you were expecting me?”
“Of course, we are happy to have you,” said Juliette
Henri stepped up to shake the man's hand, “How do you do? I'm Henri Gerard and this is my wife Juliette. Welcome to Montenero. We met a friend of yours today, Peter Mulverhill.”
“Yes, Peter, most unfortunate…” he said in a grave but abstracted manner.
“Indeed, yes,” replied Juliette.
“I am not surprised to be here on the other side. I presume that is where we are?” Grayson inquired.
“You came through the Montenero Gate of the Dead. Marion du Monde, Juliette, a friend and former owner of these grounds, and I are the Gatekeepers here.” Henri answered.
“du Monde; I know that name,” Said Grayson, “Yes, Marion du Monde, her legacy is the world renowned Equine Medical Center. She was quite a horsewoman was she not?”
"Mr. Grayson, she's still a fine horsewoman," replied Juliette
“I’m not sure of the etiquette here, '' said Grayson tentatively, '' what is proper to ask…”
“Please think of us as a sort of concierge. We're here to answer questions, if we are able, and to show you life after death.”
“I see. I’ve been expecting to die for some time now. I had a heart condition so when Peter…” Grayson’s voice became a whisper.
“Was shot in front of you?” Said Juliette
“The shock of it caused your heart condition to become fatal,” said Henri
“Yes, that is it exactly” Replied Grayson “Is there some place I can put this briefcase? I will not have any need for it now.”
“Of course I’ll take it for you,” Juliette said with a smile.
“Do you think we could find Peter?” inquired Grayson. “I’d like to at least explain what happened to him. The scoundrel that shot him was well known to me. He was the son of a man my firm represented in a property dispute. His father lost the claim and after some fancy bookkeeping was discovered, ended up in prison. He blamed the firm as did his son. My name appeared on the paperwork for the property transaction because I was a paralegal. I had never met the boy. I realized that he must have confused Peter for myself.”
“We will take a walk,” Henri said with a smile, “It will feel good to finally take a long walk without difficulties, yes?”
“Yes, quite a relief,” Replied Grayson “You’ve no idea how long I’ve wondered when the big event would happen. It is good to have that behind me, so-to-speak.”
As Henri and Grayson entered the large rose garden, Marion and Peter rounded the ornamental fountain at the garden’s center.
“Ah there you are Marion,” said Henri with a wave of his hand. “I see Peter has had the full tour. Marion du Monde I’d like you to meet Faulkner Grayson, the friend Peter was expecting.”
“How do you do Miss du Monde,” Grayson handed Marion a perfect yellow rose.
“Peter, my good man, I fear your situation was brought on by a case upon which my firm worked. A disgruntled client. While I know I am not responsible for this man’s actions… I cannot help but offer some explanation.”
“Gray, I appreciate the thought but we both know that working in law, on the other side, comes with risks. Risks we were prepared to take.” Peter shook Grayson’s hand. Obviously the guy who shot me can’t have been introduced to you in person or he’d never have mistaken me for you. You are much more distinguished! We can honestly say, it was a shot in the dark as it were,” said Peter.
“I see you have been introduced to Henri Gerard, the face of Gerard’s restaurant in Washington DC, and his wife?” He continued.
“Yes, that's where I’ve seen the name and the face before! In the lifestyle section of the Times. I didn’t realize,” said Grayson with a chuckle “By the way Miss du Monde, would you mind showing me around these magnificent grounds? I understand you were once the sole owner of this property.”
“Please call me Marion, and I would very much like to show you around the grounds,” Marion replied.
As Marion and Grayson walked off toward the edge of the garden path Peter turned to Henri and said: “You know he was never married. He came close once but she left him at the altar.”
“We were blessed my friend,” replied Henri “You will see your Lydia once again, minus that hole in your jacket and shirt.”
The two men laughed.
“Henri, maybe I shouldn’t ask, I’m not sure what the protocol is but I do know Gray has been alone most of his adult life. He grew up an only child. His parents passed on when he was a young man. They were very cold and aloof. I mean obviously things are different when you…” Pete said, still struggling with the words.
“Are dead?” said Henri
“Yes. Gray obviously feels a connection to Marion. Is there any way they could become companions? Not married of course, I understand that, but just so he wouldn’t have to spend eternity without the kind of love we’ve known, Henri.” Pete said with a hint of hope in his voice.
“You are a good friend, Peter Mulverhill!” Henri replied. “I will have to ask for special permission but I think this could be a good thing. You know that even in the afterlife we all have our jobs to do so this appeal must be made.”
“Juliette my dear!” Henri called out. “We must have a discuter.”
Juliette entered the kitchen.
“Peter has asked me to make an appeal to allow Grayson to stay here with Marion,” said Henri. “He tells me that Grayson has been alone most of his adult life. He never married, had few friends. Marion has warmed to him in a way that I have not seen with other Entrants who have come through Montenero. Obviously I will have to return to the wine cellar soon. If you would not mind helping with the appeal?”
“Of course!” Juliette replied. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Marion could have a companion here at Montenero. I know my dear friend, she would not leave here. She enjoys being a Gatekeeper too much.”
“I agree,” said Henri.
Juliette took out a piece of papyrus parchment on which to write the appeal and fashioned a request from Peter via Henri and herself.
Peter came into the kitchen from outdoors. Juliette and Henri were both there making the meal that they were to share with their new friends. Now that they were on the other side, they ate because they wanted to, not because they had to take in nourishment.
“Food smells so amazing when you aren’t eating for survival,” said Pete.
Marion came in from the outdoors holding Grayson’s arm. “It’s marvelous isn’t it?” she said. “Especially when Henri makes one of his delicious salads.”
“I can finally have wine!” announced Grayson.
“Our cellar has some spectacular wines,” Said Henri. “I should know, I spend from sun up until dusk begins in this cellar. I passed away there in the cellar from an allergic reaction. There I must stay until the sun starts to set. Would you like me to choose a wine for you?”
“Yes, please!” replied Grayson
“Peter, will you come and assist me?” Henri said, giving Peter a knowing glance
“Of course!” Peter responded
Peter and Henri disappeared into the cellar.
“I have received word that it is part of the plan for Grayson to stay at Montenero,” Henry said. “He was sent to help us here and you are to go on to another Gate where you might be better placed to help bring your killer to justice. I have no idea of the details and even if I did I could not tell you. This is not my role. Please do know that your esteem for your friend has been noted. Now you must go back to the kitchen.”
Henri selected a wine, bid au revoir pour le moment (goodbye for now) to his new friend, and waited for Juliette to join him in the cellar.
Marion and Grayson went back out into the garden to walk in the deepening sunset until it came time to see Peter off to his new assignment. Already the marks of his murder, the holes in his clothes and in his skin were beginning to heal. He felt a deep sense of satisfaction seeing his friend Gray find companionship after spending most of his life alone.
“I told you those marks from the shot would fade,” said Marion.
“Yeah you did, and it’s a good thing too. This suit was expensive,” said Pete with a hearty laugh.
Grayson shook Peter’s hand and he walked off toward the garden fountain.
Marion and Grayson watched until they could no longer see him.
As they turned to walk to the house, Marion smiled a little, taking Grayson’s arm. His presence gave her the feeling of deeper contentment and joy. With his gentle demeanor and calm presence, he would make an excellent Gatekeeper. Marion wondered if this is why he was sent to Montenero.