We followed a blue Jaguar off the highway and up a winding driveway lined with cypress trees. Brandon, decked out in a new Italian wool suit, yanked on the emergency brake when we reached the gray stone mansion at the top of the driveway. “Why did you talk me into taking your stupid Prius? Everyone will think it’s mine,” he said, his voice approaching a whine as a red- jacketed valet rushed over to take the keys.
“If you’d let me drive your BMW we could have come in style,” I said. “Anyways, you should be glad you have a designated driver. You won’t have to worry about a ticket.”
“Don’t remind me.” Brandon had gotten a DUI last year, and he couldn’t afford another.
He jumped out of the car, leaving me to follow him around the driveway. I looked up at Addison Starling’s pseudo-castle and wished I’d never agreed to attend the party. “Maybe I should just come back for you later,” I said. “They probably won’t have anything vegetarian, and I wasn’t even invited.”
“Don’t worry, Charice. You have Alisson’s invitation. It’ll be fine.”
“I hope you’re right.” The party, a re-creation of a fifteenth century feast, with boars on spits and a roast swan, had sounded fairly hideous to me when Brandon first told me about it, but somehow I’d let him talk me into accompanying him.
“With live birds,” Brandon had said as he described the piece de resistance, a blackbird pie. His eyes shone with whatever it is that made them shine when he got to look cool, rich, or important.
This was all three, a special invitation from Addison Starling, the reclusive new owner of the company where we both worked. As an illustrator in the marketing department I wasn’t invited, but at the last minute Alisson Demming, the other invitee from Brandon’s department, came down with the flu.
I held her invitation in my hand as we walked up marble steps to the massive wood-carved front door. Brandon pulled the cord hanging down from the portal, and the clanging of bells was followed by a hollow silence.
“I half expect Riff Raff to open the door,” I said.
Brandon looked at me blankly. “What?”
After a few minutes a man wearing a green velvet doublet opened the door and took our invitations, then insisted we give up our cell phones. Brandon surrendered his beloved phone without a whimper, telling me it made sense because Starling was an obsessively private man. I turned mine over, then we followed the velvet-clad man down a long hall with a high curved ceiling. Flaming torches, which sputtered along the wood paneled walls, provided the only illumination. At the end of the hall we were ushered into a tapestry-lined ballroom with an elaborately carved wooden bar at one end.
A small crowd of people milled around with drinks, talking in loud voices. Brandon’s supervisor, Richard Jessup, was already there, talking to a woman with long blonde hair. Brandon pulled me along to meet them. His boss looked me up and down as Brandon explained that I worked in the design department, instead of marketing, which was not nearly as prestigious. I could tell Jessup wasn’t paying any attention anyway. I felt a little bad for Brandon, who was so obviously trying to impress him, but everything I’d heard about Richard Jessup made him sound like an unethical scumbag. Under his tutelage Brandon had gone from being a sweet, mildly ambitious guy to an aggressive sales associate, someone I was starting to feel I didn’t really know at all.
A woman wearing a tight green-velvet dress brought us drinks. I took a tiny sip of the yeasty mead, and it screamed next day hangover. I kept my silver goblet and pretended to drink, not wanting Brandon to accuse me of being a wet blanket.
Brandon followed Richard to the bar, and I found myself talking to the blonde woman, Diane Littleton.
“I make the company a lot of money,” she said, when I asked what she did. She curled a long strand of hair around her finger and leaned towards me. Her fingernails were painted such a dark red they looked like they were dipped in blood. “Your boyfriend seems to be a real go-getter. He has a lot of potential, but he has to play his cards right.” She smiled at me, showing gleaming white teeth flecked with lipstick. “I guess in the design department you can be a lot more casual, but you know, if you want to get ahead in business, and if you want to be an asset to Brandon, you really should do
something about your hair. You don’t want people deciding about you based on, you know, how you….”
I stared at her. Was she trying to say my dark, curly hair was too ethnic?
“Well, I’m sure you’re good at what you do,” I said. I meant it as a kind of insult, but she didn’t get it. I wondered if she was the manager over at Hawthorne Franklin who was in some kind of discrimination lawsuit.
She smiled again, like she had bestowed some great wisdom upon me, and walked away, wobbling on her red stiletto heels. I ended up talking to an insurance analyst from another Starling-owned company, a local HMO, who told me how he served the company by doing the ultimate cost-benefit analysis.
Sometimes it made better economic sense, he explained, to deny coverage for a treatment which could be lifesaving. Sometimes it was cheaper to pay the heirs if the person died.
I looked around for someone else to talk to, trying to avoid the servers, who seemed hell-bent on making me finish my drink so I could have a new one. Addison Starling stood near the bar, surrounded by a crowd of people. He wore a black tailcoat and a sash that looked like it was from some secretive military order. His bluish-black hair, combed straight back from his high forehead, came to a distinct widow’s peak. He turned slightly and for a second his gaze met mine. He frowned slightly, then turned away, like he knew I didn’t belong here.
The only other person I recognized was Dylan Carlton from acquisitions, who had left his wife right after she was diagnosed with breast cancer. He moved in with his new girlfriend before his wife even finished chemo. I knew, because I saw his ex at the dog park when she was feeling up to it. I was starting to think all the people invited to this party shared a bit of nastiness, and I suddenly remembered that Alisson Demming was a defendant in a wrongful termination lawsuit for firing her pregnant assistant. Maybe this Addison Starling was as ruthless as his reputation, and these were the kind of people he valued.
“Brandon,” I said, squeezing through the crowd around the bar. “People are getting really drunk. And there’s kind of, I don’t know, a weird vibe.”
“It’s okay, babe,” he said in the careful, slow way he used when he didn’t want to slur his speech.
“Can you just cool it a bit? I don’t think I can carry you down those steps.”
Brandon turned to the server who had just taken his goblet and given him a new one. “She thinks she’ll have to carry me down the steps,” he said, giving her one of his crooked tooth smiles while he stared at her chest.
“That is not going to be a problem,” the young woman said, giving me a somewhat puzzled look. “You are still on your first drink?”
She held a pewter tray of goblets with different stems, and I realized the drink she gave Brandon had a twisted stem, unlike mine. A clever way to keep track of how many drinks your guests have, but in this case it seemed to be a way to make sure they drank a lot.
“I’m driving,” I said, wondering why I had to defend my lack of insobriety.
“Don’t be a party pooper, Char,” Brandon said.
“Could I please have a fresh one?” I asked. Maybe the servers would leave me alone now, I thought, feeling clever.
“Of course,” the server said, not looking happy about it as she took my drink and replaced it with a goblet with a double stem. “Mr. Starling would not be happy if I let his guests go thirsty.”
A bell rang from somewhere behind a door and four men threw open a set of carved double doors at the other end of the room. Brandon’s head swiveled around as we entered the dining hall, ablaze with chandeliers lit by thousands of candles. Panels of mirrored glass on the ceiling reflected the flickering lights. The promised pig turned above glowing embers in a stone fireplace the size of my bedroom.
When everyone was inside the men closed the doors with a loud and final sounding thump. A tuxedoed maître de showed me to my place, or rather, Alisson’s place, at the table, a large square with eight seats down each side. I sat between Brandon and a man from our company’s legal department. Rumors had swirled around him after his girlfriend drowned on a snorkeling trip, but they were only rumors.
Addison Starling did not sit with us. He stood in front of the fireplace, and the maître de rang a wineglass until he had everyone’s attention.
“Thank you all for honoring me with your presence,” Starling said, his voice unexpectedly high. “I will make this brief; I know how anxious you all are to carry on with the festivities. I would especially like to thank Richard Jessup and Dylan Carlton at Hawthorne Franklin, and Diane Littleton, at Independence Holding International, for making my recent acquisitions of these companies so profitable.”
I looked around at the people at the table, who gazed at him with glistening eyes. The takeover of the two companies had been controversial, accompanied by rumors of stock fraud and corporate malfeasance.
Both companies had fired dozens of employees.
He went on. “I invited you all here tonight because of your enthusiastic pursuit of the good things in life and for that which you all share: a desire for more. More for yourselves, and hopefully, more for my companies. And to reward this passion you all share, this dinner will hopefully satisfy even the most avaricious appetites.”
It sounded condescending, but everyone clapped when he stepped down, and took a small bow. He left the room as the waiters brought our first course, a consommé with bits of squid and shrimp.
I made small talk and played with my food, occasionally slipping a few bits onto Brandon’s plate as the servers brought course after course of sweetmeats, blood sausage, pickled tongue, along with heaping trays of grilled meats and sausages.
I gave up hoping there would be some bread or salad, my usual fallback in carnivorous social situations, and under the baleful eye of one of the servers, I took a few bites of the lobster bisque.
It was creamy and delicious. I rolled the roast beef into tight little rolls and ate the potatoes, hiding the beef rolls in my napkin.
“The lady does not care for the aspic?” the server asked as I pushed a bowl of wobbling stuff to the side.
“I’m sorry, I happen to be…”
Brandon nudged me and reached over my plate, “No, we’ve just been so busy talking. Come on, babe, eat up.”
I glared at him, then bent my head over my plate, not sure why I was succumbing to this combination of peer pressure and boyfriend asininity. I slid my fork through the wobbly brown gel, a bit nauseated by the pale shape of the tongue visible inside.
“I can’t eat this,” I said when the server slunk away. “Do you really give a damn what some serving person thinks of me?”
“Just try, okay? It’ll be over soon.”
I slid the bowl over to him. “No,” I said. “I’m finished.”
He gave me a baleful look, then quickly slurped down the aspic and pushed the bowl back to my side in time for the server to return to clear the table.
“Please rise for the finale,” instructed the maître de. The waiters pulled out the chairs for the women, and when I saw them make a point of taking their napkins and refolding them I flicked my accumulated bits of roast beef and sausage onto the floor. They would know tomorrow, but by then I probably would have broken up with Brandon, and I was beginning to think I’d be quitting my job as well.
We stood in the flickering candlelight around the table. The double doors flew open as the servers carried in a pie the size of a dining room table. They set it carefully on the table.
It didn’t look like much, just an enormous two crust pie, but when I looked closely I could see it moving, little bulges rolling under the crust.
“Oh my god,” I said, my knees feeling weak.
“Just pretend,” hissed Brandon.
“Eat from the pie when the clock strikes twelve. Use your fork and dig in,” said the maître de. “The last one gets a surprise.”
The guests jostled together, their forks poised above the giant pie, waiting for the chime. I couldn’t believe they were going to eat live birds, and I turned my head away. Suddenly, I remembered the old rhyme. Four and twenty blackbirds, baked in a pie. The birds fly away, I remembered. And someone gets bitten on the nose.
The maître de saw me standing back. “You must eat,” he said, sounding more like a prison warden than a dining room employee.
“I’m sorry. I’m a vegetarian. I had some bisque, thank you.”
“No. you have to eat.” He was much taller than me, and he leaned over and said in a low voice. “We wouldn’t have let you in if we’d known you were vegetarian.”
“Why, is it some kind of crime?” I always brushed it off when people quizzed me about protein or tried to convert me to their Paleolithic diet, but I’d never been told I wasn’t welcome somewhere.
Another server came alongside me, and the two herded me towards the table.
“Really? This is ridiculous,” I said, but I stood at the table trying to look like part of the proceedings. I glanced over at Richard Jessup, who gave me a scathing look then turned away. As the avid faces poised above the pie, Brandon pushed past the others. He’d get the first bite, and the thought of seeing him close his mouth around a live bird made me feel so queasy I thought I’d actually be sick. I turned to leave, but my keepers still stood behind me, their attention, like everyone else’s, riveted to the clock above the fireplace.
I slipped down onto my knees and crawled under the table near Brandon. Peeking out past his leg I could see the mirrored ceiling, which reflected the action around the table. The clock chimed loudly, and some of the women gave little shrieks when the first person lifted a piece of pie to his mouth. It was Brandon. Of course it was Brandon.
Voices exclaimed at the delicious taste of the filling.
“But the birds, where are the birds?” asked a woman in a mink jacket, her face smeared with purple filling, waving her fork at the pie.
“They’re at the bottom,” said Brandon, sounding proud of himself.
I leaned out from my hiding place to get a better view. Brandon looked down at me, then shook his head and returned his attention to the pie.
The top of the pie disappeared as the guests devoured it along with the brightly colored filling.
Another person shrieked, and I saw that the bottom of the pie was lined with beaks, shiny blue-black beaks.
“What the hell?” Brandon asked, his fork in midair. It didn’t make sense the birds could be deeper than the dish itself. Some kind of illusion I decided, wondering if Brandon really planned to lift one of the birds into his mouth and eat it.
A giggle. Another high pitched shriek from the awful woman in the mink jacket. All the guests seemed to lean in over the table at once, and then they were pulled into the pie. Their heads disappeared so fast there was only a second of surprised yelling and screaming, then seconds all I could see were the bottoms of their feet, kicking above the table. With a loud whoosh they were gone. I briefly saw the beaks, chewing like crazy, then they too disappeared.
Shaking so hard I thought it must be audible, I ducked back under the table as the four servers returned, followed by Addison Starling.
“A good feast,” he said with a small smile. “The birds will be satisfied.” He turned and left quietly.
I was sure the servers could hear my heart thumping, but the servers were talking amongst themselves about whether the Dodgers would make it to the World Series. Still chattering, they picked up the empty pie dish and disappeared through the double doors.
I waited a few minutes, then crawled out from under the table. A red shoe lay sideways in a small puddle of purple filling. I picked it up. One of Diane Littleton’s high heels. I set it down, and raced through the empty hallways where the torches now sputtered and smoked. Without knowing why, I knew my Prius would be waiting, keys in the ignition, in the driveway. I also knew that I would never say a word about the employees who vanished. No one would miss them, and no one would believe me anyway.